The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

As the Hour Closes In, the World Gets Topsy-Turvier [1/2]

Bill-Garvin-TTWThe Hour is drawing near and the moon has been cleft in two, declares the Qur’an [54:1] In another of its many eschatological verses, it says: They ask you about the Hour. Say: ‘Knowledge of it is but with Allah. What will make you aware of it? It maybe that the Hour is near.’ [33:63] The Prophet, peace be upon him, stated: ‘My coming, and the Hour, are like this’ – holding up his index and middle finger to demonstrate their closeness.1 In another hadith, it mentions: ‘Count six things before the Hour comes,’ and the first of them he mentioned was: ‘my death.’These two events are considered to be the first two “signs” of the End Days; the first of the ashrat al-sa‘ah – “signs before the coming of the Hour.”

Going back to the Qur’an again, it alerts about the Hour and the mighty reckoning it will bring: Closer draws to mankind their reckoning, yet they heed it not and disregard it. [21:1] And: They think it is far off; while We see it as near. [70:6-7]

Our ‘ulema have divided these End of Day signs into two groups: major and minor (or greater and lesser). Most of the minor signs (ashrat sughra) will be, in a way, a prelude to the Final Hour and take place a considerable time before it; some shall immediately precede the major signs (ashrat kubra) or will accompany them; whilst a few will occur after the major signs have unfolded.

Another way the minor signs have been classified is: (i) those that have occurred and have ended; (ii) those which have occurred and continue to proliferate; and (iii) those signs which have yet to occur.3

An example of the first would be the coming and departing of the Prophet, peace be upon him, to and from this earthly realm. Another would be the Plague of Amwas, as per the hadith: ‘Count six things before the Hour comes: my death, then the conquest of Jerusalem, then a plague that will afflict you like the disease of cattle …’4 Ibn Hajr said: ‘This sign was manifested in the Plague of Amwas during ‘Umar’s caliphate, and this occurred after the conquest of Jerusalem.’5 This plague struck in 18H and claimed the lives of 25,000 people; including that of the famous Companion, Abu ‘Ubaydah b. al-Jarrah.

Signs that have already occurred and which continue their onward trajectory include: the uncritical imitation of non-Muslim culture, values and lifestyles. There occurs in one hadith: ‘The Hour will not be established until my ummah takes to what previous nations took to.’6 And in another hadith: ‘You will soon follow the ways of those who came before you, inch by inch, handspan by handspan, so much so that if they were to enter a lizard’s hole, you would do likewise.’ They asked: O Allah’s Messenger, do you mean the Jews and Christians? He replied: ‘Who else?’7 As long as we keep deferring to the monoculture and its masters, things shall not bode well for this ummah of great mercies. Inculturation must be guided by the rulings and objectives of our shari‘ah, as well as kept wise by the profound insights of our tasawwuf/tazkiyah tradition.

Some more signs in this genre include: ‘From the signs of the Hour is that knowledge will be lifted and ignorance established.’8 The knowledge (‘ilm) being referred to here is sacred knowledge; knowledge of Islam: its rulings, ethics and spiritual demands. As for secular knowledge, that continues to proliferate. Another sign is: ‘Before the Hour comes, usury (riba) will be widespread.’9 In another: ‘The Hour will not be established until Allah takes His virtuous servants from the earth, so that only the riffraff remain: they will neither recognise virtue nor reject vice.’1o Another hadith worth citing here: ‘The Hour will not be established until people compete in building lofty buildings.’11 This is akin to the famous hadith: ‘You will see the barefooted, scantly-clad, destitute herdsmen competing to construct lofty buildings.’12 The project of scraping the skies by former herdsmen and their descendants is already well underway, even disfiguring the skyline of Islam’s most holy of holies.

Other signs in this category include: ‘The Hour will not be established until trials and civil commotions become widespread, lying proliferates and markets become closer.’13 And: ‘The Hour will not be established till time passes rapidly.’14 Markets being close together is said to refer to how modern travel and communications have made them and their goods instantly knowable, accessible and purchasable: whilst the quickening of time refers to the lack of blessing (barakah) in it, such that what could be done in the past is more than can be done now, in the same span of time. This quickening of time (taqarab al-zaman) has also been interpreted literally, as in the hadith: ‘The Hour will not come until time quickens and a year is like a month.’15

Another hadith reads: ‘The Hour will not be established until mountains are moved from their places and you shall see great calamities that you have never seen before.’16 The Prophet, peace be upon him, also said: ‘The Hour will not be established till the land of the Arabs return to being meadows and rivers.’17 We’re currently seeing the birth of significant tracts of green pastures in the larger Arabian peninsular, albeit via manmade feats of engineering (as with the case of mountains being moved).

Another sign, this time less positive, speaks of the Khawarij: ‘Towards the end of time there shall come a people young in age (hudatha’u’l-asnan) and also lacking in intellect (sufaha’u’l-ahlam). They will speak with the best speech of people, yet they shall pass through Islam as an arrow passes through its game. Their faith won’t go beyond their throats. Wherever you encounter them, slay them; for in slaying them entails a huge reward on the Day of Judgement.’18 Another hadith about them says: ‘There will arise a people who will recite the Qur’an but it won’t go beyond their collarbone. Each time a new generation arises, they will be cut-off [Ibn ‘Umar said the Prophet, peace be on him, repeated the words: 'each time a new generation arises they will be cut-off' more than twenty times], until the Dajjal appears at their tale end.’19 Thus this misguided sect will keep rearing its violent and ugly head among the ummah, but each time they do so they will be known by the People of Knowledge and will be duly repudiated. Wa li’Llahi’l-hamd.

And finally in this category are the usual suspects: ‘From the signs of the Hour is that knowledge will diminish, ignorance will proliferate, fornication/adultery (zina) will be prevalent, and the numbers of women shall increase whilst that of men decrease; so much so that one man will care for fifty women.’20 ‘The Hour will not be established until earthquakes increase.’21 And finally: ‘Towards the end of my ummah there will be men who will ride on something like comfortable saddles, and will dismount at the doors of mosques; and their women will be clothed yet naked.’22 Women immodestly dressed is understood: as for “comfortable saddles,” could that be referring to modern cars – as suggested by some scholars?

Examples of signs which have yet to reveal themselves would include: ‘The Hour will not be established until the Euphrates reveals a mountain of gold, over which people would fight. Ninety-nine out of each hundred people will be slain, though every man among them will think that perhaps he will be the one to be saved [and hence get the gold].’23 It says in another hadith: ‘The Euphrates will soon uncover a treasure of gold, he who is present there should not take anything of it.’24

Three end days persons are significant in this genre of hadith. The first is mentioned in the Prophet’s words, peace be upon him: ‘The Hour will not be established until a man from Qahtan will emerge, who will drive the people with his whip,’25 which is a metaphor for people accepting his leadership and authority over them.26 The second person: ‘The Ka’bah will be demolished by Dhu’l-Suwayqatayn from Abyssinia.’27 The last personality: ‘Night and day will not cease until a man called Jahjah would come to power.’28 Put aside what the Rastas may (or may not) think of this hadith, there isn’t much discussion on these three personalities in the hadith commentaries. Some have suggested that Jahjah is the man from the distinguished Arab tribe of Qahtan; others disagree and say that this is unlikely, since another hadith makes it clear that Jahjah is a freed slave; others believe that he and Dhul-Suwayqatayn are one and the same. And Allah knows best.29

Another sign yet to occur is the unarmed conquest of Constantinople: ‘The Hour will not be established until seventy-thousand of the Banu Ishaq march against it. When they reach it and descend upon it they shall neither fight with weapons, nor fire any arrows, but will say: la ilaha illa’Llahu wa’Llahu akbar, upon which the side facing the sea will fall. They will say la ilaha illa’Llahu wa’Llahu akbar a second time, whereby the other side shall fall. They will again say la ilaha illa’Llahu wa’Llahu akbar whereupon it will be opened to them and they shall enter it and claim the booty …’30

Finally in this genre are the various prophecies concerning the coming of the Mahdi, about whom the Prophet, peace be upon him, declared: ‘I give you glad tidings of the Mahdi, who will be sent when people are divided and earthquakes occur. He shall fill the world with justice and fairness as it was filled with injustice and oppression. The inhabitants of the heavens and the earth will be pleased with him, and he shall divide wealth justly.’31 In another hadith: ‘There will appear in the last part of my ummah the Mahdi. Allah shall grant him rain and the earth shall bring forth its vegetation. Wealth would be distributed fairly, livestock and livelihood will be abundant and the ummah shall become great. He will live for seven or eight [years].’32 And this: ‘If there remained only one day left in this world, Allah would prolong it and send to it a man from me, or from my family, whose name will be the same as mine and whose father’s name would be the same as my father’s. He will fill the earth with justice and fairness just as it had been filled with injustice and oppression.’33

Of course, there are hadiths in each of the three categories whose meanings aren’t so obvious or clear. Scholars differ over their interpretations and meanings; and thus the signs they contain may have occurred or are yet to occur. In other words, it may not be easy to determine which of the above three categories the hadith should be put in. An example of one such obfuscation is the aforementioned hadith about “comfortable saddles”. Does this refer to modern cars, or to something that is yet to make its debut in the world? The wording is unarguably highly suggestive of modern transport, but one couldn’t state this with absolute certainty.

Another example is the hadith: ‘As the Hour approaches crescent moons will swell; and that people will observe a first night crescent moon and declare: “it is two nights old!”‘34 Now is this phenomenon referring to something that has yet to take place? Or does it bespeak of our current hilal dilemma wherein some Muslims have chalked up a record of allegedly spotting the new moon one day before everyone else? Does the “swelling” of the moon refer to seeing it with the aid of telescopes and binoculars, or to the phenomenon known as size constancy, or to something entirely different?

Then there is that rather intriguing hadith which says: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life! The Hour will not be established until wild beasts speak to people, until the end of a man’s whip and his shoelace speak to him, and his thigh informs him about what his family is doing in his absence.’35 Is this speaking hinting at mobile phones (which were not so long ago fashionably worn on the hip) and items of clothing they are now being sown into? Or to some future piece of tech? Or should this be taken literally, i.e. that animals and inanimate objects shall actually speak. We know of a few reports in the prophetic age where animals did speak to people; hence inanimate things actually speaking wouldn’t be so far fetched.

Another engaging End-Day event is given in the following Companion-report (athar), which finds ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amr saying (presumably on prophetic authority, since it is speaking of an unseen, future event which cannot be known except through Revealed authority): ‘When you see the belly of Makkah with passages dug out and you see the buildings taller than the mountain tops, then know that the affair has cast its shadow (fa‘lam anna’l-amr qad azallak).’36 Many are convinced that this report, if authentic, is describing the tunnels that bore through Makkah’s mountains, allowing pedestrians and traffic to flow in and out of Masjid al-Haram. As for its buildings being taller than mountains, this is a recent happening of the last two decades or so. Things have taken a turn in Makkah during our very lifetime. While there is much change that pilgrims and visitors can and should be thankful for, the city is also awash with garish hotels, gaudy shopping malls and a lurid clock-tower; many of which dwarf the surrounding mountain tops.

What these hadiths show is that some End Day hadiths aren’t so easy to decipher. So scholars have always insisted on interpretative restraint and to not make quick calls about who or what these hadiths do or do not apply to – especially those with greater socio-political ramifications. Rushing into passing fatwas in such matters can and has led to great civil unrest and fitnah in our history; the usual culprits of commotion are, in the main, when the unlearned or hasty insist on pining the titles of Dajjal or Mahdi onto specific individuals whom the ‘ulema have said don’t fit the bill.

As for the major signs, they are summed up in following hadith: ‘The final Hour will not occur until ten signs come to pass: a landslide in the East; a landslide in the West; and a landslide in the Arabian peninsular; the Smoke; the Anti-Christ (al-dajjal); the Beasts of the Earth; Gog and Magog; the sun rising from the West; a fire from Yemen that will drive the people to the place of the Gathering; and the descent of Jesus, son of Mary.’37

Doubtlessly, things have been set in motion that are now unstoppable. We Muslims of today are living through monumental times and changes, where the lesser signs of the Hour; these ashrat al-sa‘ah, are unfolding rapidly and vividly before our very eyes. The midnight hour is soon to strike, the cosmic order is reaching a crescendo, and Islam’s End of Day auguries continue to be proved true.

The second and final part of this blog will focus on those hadiths, companion-reports and signs that speak about the actual topsy-turviness of the end times; and how social confusion and spiritual pollution begin to invert sacred norms and traditional human paradigms. Yet with all of these trials, tribulations, battles and struggles the followers of Abrahamic monotheism must of necessity face and endure, they cannot forget the promise of Allah, exalted is He: And the end is for those who fear Allah. [7:128] In one hadith we discover these words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Give glad-tidings to this ummah of ease, honour and glory, supremacy of religion, establishment upon earth, and victory. Whoever among them does an act of the Hereafter for the sake of the world, shall have no share in the Hereafter.’38

That being said, we mustn’t allow such triumphalism to feather the nests of our egos. Rather, we must temper our End of Day triumphalism with a more modest, sobering question – one which is the subject of our final hadith: A man asked, O Messenger of Allah, when is the Hour? The Prophet, peace be upon him, simply replied: ‘What have you prepared for it?’39

What indeed!

1. Al-Bukhari, no.6503.

2. ibid., no.3176.

3. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 13:104.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.3176.

5. Fath al-Bari, 6:342.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.7319.

7. Al-Bukhari, no.7320; Muslim, no.2669.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.80; Muslim, no.2681.

9. Al-Mundhari, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib, no.2721, after which he said that it was related by al-Tabarani and its chain of narrators are those of the Sahih.

10. Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 4:435, after which he said: ‘This hadith is sahih as per the criteria of the Two Shaykhs.’

11. Al-Bukhari, no.7121.

12. Muslim, no.80.

13. Ahmad, Musnad, no.11009. Al-Haythami stated its narrators are those of the Sahih, except for Sa‘id b. Sam‘an who is trustworthy. See: Majma‘ al-Zawa’id (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 7:446; no.12450.

14. Ahmad, Musnad, no.10560; it was graded sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.7422. Its like is also in al-Bukhari, no.1036.

15. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2332. A fuller discussion of the matter is given in Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, 13:20-21.

16. Al-Tabarani. Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.6857. It was graded sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.3061.

17. Muslim, no.1012.

18. Al-Bukhari, no.5057.

19. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.174. It was declared to be sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir, no.8027.

20. Al-Bukhari, no.81; Muslim, no.2681.

21. Al-Bukhari, no.1036.

22. Ahmad, no.7073. The hadith is hasan, as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), no.2683.

23. Muslim, no.2894.

24. Al-Bukhari, no.7119.

25. Al-Bukhari, no.3517; Muslim, no.2910.

26. As explained in Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, 6:677.

27. Muslim, no.2909.

28. Muslim, no.2911.

29. See: Yusuf al-Wabil, Ashrat al-Sa‘ah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2009), 189-91.

30. Muslim, no.2920.

31. Ahmad, Musnad, 3:37. Its chain of narrators are all reliable (thiqat), as stated by al-Haythami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, 7:431-2; no.12393.

32. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:557-8, where he said: ‘The isnad of this hadith is sahih.’ For a similar verdict consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.711.

33. Abu Dawud, no.4282; al-Tirmidhi, no.2331, where he declared: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

34. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Awsat, no.9376. Al-Haythami said, Majma‘ al-Zawa’d, 3:263; no.4808: its chain contains ‘Abd al-Rahman b. al-Arzaq al-Antaqi, whose biography couldn’t be ascertained.

35. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2181, where he states: ‘This hadith is hasan gharib sahih.

36. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2008), 13:260; no.38248. Its chain (isnad) includes ‘Ata al-‘Amiri, who has been called into question by certain hadith authorities.

37. Muslim, no.2901.

38. Al-Bayhaqi, Shu‘ab al-Iman, no.6835, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir, no.2825; and his Sahih al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib, no.23. It also occurs without the wording: “ease” in Ahmad, 5:134; Ibn Hibban, no.405; al-Hakim, no.7862.

39. Al-Bukhari, no.3688.

Political Violence & the End Days

10384205_621852931263051_1834185789852880556_nOne of the enormous achievements of our Prophet, peace be upon him, is that in less than twenty years he managed to bring law and order to a land that had hitherto been plagued with lawlessness and the absence of any political organisation whatsoever. In the event of a crime or injustice being committed, the norm was for the injured party to take the law into its own hands and dispense “justice” to the aggressor. Usually, this would lead to acts of great barbarity and would normally provoke reprisals, vendettas and tribal feuds which could often drag on for generation after generation. War was a permanent feature of pre-Islamic Arabian society. Rule of law didn’t enter the picture; ‘asabiyyah (“tribalism”, “clan zealotry” or “partisanship”) did.

By the time the final verse of the Qur’an had been revealed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, the Arabian Peninsular had undergone a profound transformation. For the Prophet had taken the fierce loyalties and strong sense of solidarity, which hitherto had been centred around tribe and clan, and extended it to embrace the whole society of believers; the ummah. Blood feuds and tribal vendettas were chiselled away to be replaced by a community which collectively worked for social welfare and service to others. The old traditions of tribal raiding were directed away from personal ambition or clan bravado towards the idea of jihad, fought for the sake of Allah, against tyranny and injustice and in order to make the word of Allah triumphant. Islam quarried the traits of the Arabs; elevating and refining their virtues like hospitality, generosity and chivalry, but rejecting their intemperance, zealotry and casual cruelty. The result was that a more egalitarian society arose, which valued the culture of law and order that the new religion brought, in the form of Islam’s Sacred Law or shari’ah (and the highly sophisticated fiqh, or jurisprudence, which would develop shortly after).

Given the above, it will come as no surprise how disdainfully Islam looks upon things like vigilante “justice”, taking the law into one’s own hands, anarchy, civil war, rabble-rousing that endangers collective security, or whatever gives rise to a mob mentality that seeks to jeopardise public order. The shari’ah, though it makes provisions for the public to air political grievances, strongly condemns the use of violence, or an assault against law and order, for such ends. As Islam sees it, such things would be a return to jahiliyyah – the pre-Islamic days of ignorance, lawlessness, arbitrary justice, vendettas and blind tribal zealotry! The laws regarding rebel insurgents, rebellion and political violence to or from the state are outlined in the smaller manuals of fiqh, and fleshed out in the larger ones, under the section: qital al-bughat/ahl al-baghi – “fighting rebel insurgents.”

Currently, much of what is called the Muslim world is haunted by great violence and political turmoil. Whether due to armed rebellion, civil war, sectarian schism, military occupation, state tyranny, Western interference, or petrodollar meddling, carnage and conflicts rage on. What follows are some hadiths that speak about such End of Days violence and how we are to act during such chaotic and confusing times. Indeed the believer puts more stock in the prophetic counsels and warnings about the end times, than he does his own ego-driven rationalisations.

1. Abu Musa relates that Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘Before the Hour comes there will be harj!’ I said: O Messenger of Allah, what is harj? He said: ‘Killing.’ Some of the Muslims inquired: O Messenger of Allah, now we slay [in battle] such and such number of idolaters in a single year. Allah’s Messenger said: ‘This will not be like slaying the idolaters. Instead, you will kill one another, to the extent that a person will kill his neighbour, his nephew and relatives!’ Some people said: O Messenger of Allah, will we be in our right minds that day? He replied: ‘No! For reason will have departed from most people at that time, and there shall remain only the dregs of people who will be devoid of reason. Most of them will assume they are upon something, but they won’t be upon any thing.’1

Thus we are assured in this hadith that madness shall descend upon the mob, giving rise to bloodshed and violence; giving rise to the marauding reckless herd. The story’s all too familiar. Whether due to civil war, or mob hysteria, or for reasons completely unclear, the frenzied herd throw reason and pious caution to the wind and goes on a rampage (a case of the mob having many heads but no brains). This itself is nothing new. What will be different about the End of Days drama is the frequency with which slaughter and bloodshed occur, and the intensity. No doubt, the carnage that modern, mechanised weapons of violence can inflict is unlike anything else that has ever come before. In certain instances, these “dregs of people devoid of reason” won’t even know what they are actually fighting for. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life, a time is coming upon the people when the killer will not know why he killed and the victim will not know why he was killed.’2 Such are times when people are blinded to the truth by their desires, anger or political grievances (real or perceived), as in the hadith: ‘There will be civil strife which will render people deaf, dumb and blind. Those who give it consideration will be drawn by it, and giving reign to the tongue during it will be like striking with the sword.’3

In some instances, there will be legitimate grievances and reasons to be angry. But the means won’t justify the ends. Seeking redress of wrongs is certainly mandated in the religion. But not through violence and bloodshed; nor by pitting one Muslim against another, as in a civil war. All of this is expressly haram. In fact, seldom does righting such socio-political wrongs ever warrant the chaos, killing and intense social unrest which normally ensues in these affairs. Righting a wrong must never lead to a greater harm, or wrong, prevailing. That, too, would be haram. The Arabs say: al-‘aqil la yubni qasr wa yahdamu misr - ‘The intelligent one doesn’t build a palace by laying waste to the city.’4 How much more absurd if the grievance, for which swords are drawn, does not amount to a palace, but only a garden shed or a tin hut!

One of the main reasons that will give rise to so much unprecedented slaughter is the fitnah of civil wars, which is the subject of the next hadith:

2. Abu Dharr narrates that Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘How will you be when killing will afflict the people such that Ahjar al-Zayt will be blood drenched?’ I said: Whatever Allah and His Prophet want of me. He said: ‘Be with those who are like-minded as you are.’ I said: ‘O Messenger of Allah, should I not take my sword and strike those who do that? He said: ‘Then you shall be just like them. Instead, stay in your house.’ I said: O Messenger of Allah, what if they enter my house? He said: ‘If you are afraid that the glimmer of the sword will dazzle you, lift the edge of your garment over your face and let him bear his own sin as well as yours; and he will be one of the denizens of Hell.’5

Another hadith runs as follows: ‘Before the Hour there will be civil strife like pieces of dark night, in which a man will be a believer in the morning and an unbeliever by the evening; or a believer in the evening and an unbeliever by the morning. He who sits during it is better than he who stands; and he who stands is better than he who walks; and he who walks is better than the he who runs. So during such times, break your bows, cut your bow-strings and blunt your swords upon stones. If one of them should enter upon you, then be like the better of the two sons of Adam.’6

Civil war, referred to in Arabic as fitnah (“sedition” or “civil unrest”) is where Muslim is pitted against Muslim. Islamic history has seen, and continues to see, its fare share of civil wars. But as the above hadith (and others like it) shows, a believer is required to do his or her utmost not to fan the flames of civil war, let alone shed blood for any particular faction – even if it means resigning oneself to being killed. And though it is easier said than done in the heat of the moment, the prophetic counsel here is: better to be killed than to kill. Those with the blood of Muslims on their hands, for whatever political goal or agenda, may have, in all likelihood, damned themselves. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned in no uncertain terms: ‘Whoever fights under the banner of blind zeal, becoming angry for partisanship, calling to partisanship or aiding it, and is killed, dies upon jahiliyyah. And whosoever attacks my ummah, slaying its righteous and wicked alike, not sparing any believer, nor upholding his pledge [of allegiance], he is not of me, nor I of him.’7

In times of great public upheaval one definitely needs a level head and avoid the hot-heads; for they are about as much use as walnuts are to the toothless. One must also cling to the prophetic advice about keeping out of the fitnah, by staying at home and shunning the political agitators, seditionists and strife-mongers; avoiding them like one would do the plague. It is imperative also that one seeks to be guided by the wise counsel of seasoned ‘ulema in such tricky affairs; for they best comprehend the fiqh, theology and purposes of the religion. Above all, we should pray to Allah for wellbeing (‘afiyah) and security (aman); for there’s nothing like asking Him for ‘afiyah. Sayyiduna Abu Bakr once stood on the pulpit and wept, saying; Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, once stood in our midst on the pulpit while shedding tears and saying: ‘Ask Allah for forgiveness and wellbeing; for after certainty (yaqin) none has been given anything better than wellbeing.’8

Unjustified accusations of takfir – “excommunication”; declaring other Muslims to be unbelievers and apostates – is a vile scourge that underpins much of the slaughter and carnage that is currently visited upon Muslims and their lands; which is what the next hadith addresses:

3. Hudhayfah narrated that the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Truly what I most fear for you is a man who will recite the Qur’an until its radiance appears on him and he becomes a support to Islam, changing it to whatever Allah wills. He then separates from it, casts it behind his back and raises the sword against his neighbour, accusing him of idolatry (shirk).’ I asked: O Prophet of Allah, who most deserves to be imputed with shirk; the accused or the accuser? He replied: ‘The accuser.’

This depicts to a tee the trajectory of many a takfiri. Enthused with a commitment to Islam, taking steps to improve their religious practice (usually just external practices), reading a few booklets, surfing a few websites, yet ignorant of how ignorant they truly are, they take to the takfiri narrative. In their ideology, they and those who agree with them are Muslims, while all other Muslims are apostates, idolators or Allah’s enemies whose blood is lawful. If circumstances are right, murder and mayhem usually follow. Ego, false piety and their own pathetic pathologies are often the driving forces behind such takfiri zealotry. And although a few trajectories are more complex and nuanced than this, most are probably not.

Let’s be clear here. What the above hadith is censuring isn’t takfir, per se, but wanton and unjustified takfir. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said - as reported in another hadith: ‘Whoever accuses someone of disbelief, or of being an enemy of Allah, whilst he is not like that, it will return back to him.’10 The issue of takfir has been previously discussed on this blog, in a piece entitled, Takfir: Its Dangers & Its Rules (which may be read here).

Imam al-Ghazali stated: ‘One ought to guard against imputing takfir as much as one can. For to render lawful the lives and property of those who pray towards the qiblah and clearly state that there is no deity [worthy of worship] but Allah and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger (la ilaha illa’Llah muhammadur-rasulu’Llah) is a serious matter. To err in leaving a thousand unbelievers alive is preferable than to err in shedding a drop of Muslim blood.’11

Ever since its origins in the mid-eighteenth century in the oasis settlements of Najd; central Arabia, most of its critics, opponents and foes have insisted that Wahhabism is an extremist, takfiri ideology. Without wading into that debate; and without arguing that Wahhabism in and of itself is responsible for takfir and terrorism - which have a whole host of social, economic, doctrinal and political causes - it does seem to supply the ideological conditions for takfir and religious violence on account of its intolerant and absolutist claims. This isn’t to say that all Wahhabis [Salafis] are takfiris or violent extremists. Absolutely not. Many are quietist and apolitical. Others are political, but eschew violence as a method for change. It is only a relatively tiny minority that seeks as much militant mileage out of Wahhabi-Salafi teachings as possible.12

The scourge of takfir is now a global epidemic. Indiscriminate violence, destruction of lives and property, decimation of public security and bloody sectarian violence are its fruits. The image of Islam has never been so tarnished or been made to appear so vile. Those who, for reasons of wanting to revive the Sunnah, opened the door for ordinary Muslims to ‘weigh-up’ and follow the ‘strongest’ proof in issues of taharah, salat and personal piety, but somehow imagined that they could keep the door closed when it came to the more delicate matter of politics and public affairs – well that logic doesn’t seem to have faired too good. Those ‘ulema who opened that door now see droves of ignorant and unqualified people rushing through it and making wild and not so wild fatwas on Islam – undermining qualified juristic authority, creating religious anarchy, and tearing apart whatever remains of Muslim unity - and they don’t know what to do or how to stem this tide. And, of course, out of this collapse of traditional scholarly authority have come the takfiris, with their terror and tribulations.

Islam is too good for wild egos to eclipse its light; for ignorance, anarchy and political violence to block out its beauty. The door to such takfir must be closed; as must those to religious anarchy. The narrative of groups like al-Qaeda, Boko Haram or ISIS seek to cheapen the sanctity of human life, in general; and of the people of la ilaha illa’Llah muhammadur-rasulu’Llah, in particular. Their takfiri ideology must be repudiated and rejected: wisely, firmly and courageously. We must also reaffirm amongst ourselves as Muslims – in spite of our sectarian divisions, and despite the orthodox and heterodox amidst us – that Muslim life and blood is sacrosanct. One hadith tells us that during one of the battles, one of the Muslims subdued one of the enemy combatants and was about to slay him, when unexpectedly the man uttered the shahadah – the Testimony of Faith, and declared that he was a Muslim. Believing that he only became a Muslim to avoid being slain in battle, the Muslim plunged his sword into him and killed him. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, was informed about this he rebuked the man, telling him that he should never have tried to second guess that person’s intentions. A short while later the man died. They buried him, only to find the following morning that the earth had cast him out and he was lying on the ground. So they buried him again, only to find the earth had cast him out yet again. On informing him about this unusual incident, the Prophet, peace be upon him, declared: ‘Truly the earth accepts those who are worse than him. But Allah wanted you to see how great is the sanctity of la ilaha illa’Llah.13

1. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3959, Ahmad, Musnad, no.19509. It was graded as sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1682.

2. Muslim, no.2908.

3. Abu Dawud, no.4264. Its chain contains some weakness, as was detailed by Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Hidayat al-Ruwat ila Takhrij al-Ahadith Masabih wa’l-Mishkat (Cairo: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 2001), 5:97, no.5329.

4. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 17:420.

5. Ibn Majah, no.3958. It is sahih, as per Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, Ibn Majah al-Qazwini, al-Sunan (Damascus: Dar Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2009), 5:105-6.

6. Ibn Majah, no.3961; al-Tirmidhi, no.2204, who said that it is hasan. As for being the better of the two sons of Adam, this is a reference to Abel who was killed by his older brother Cain.

7. Muslim, no.1848.

8. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3558, saying: the hadith is hasan gharib. Al-Albani, however, graded it hasan sahih in his critical edition of al-Mundhari, al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh, Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2004), no.4869.

9. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.282. Ibn Kathir said: ‘Its chain is excellent (jayyid).’ See: Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim  (Beirut: Dar a-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:276.

10. Muslim, no.61.

11. Al-Ghazali, al-Iqtisad fi’l-I‘tiqad (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2012), 305.

12. Of course, this three-fold classification doesn’t take into account the fierce intra-Wahhabi/Salafi polemic where one group denounces the other of not being Salafi, or part of the Saved-Sect. Instead, I use such labels and classifications reluctantly, and in very broad terms. I have also equated Salafism with Wahhabism, again reluctantly and for the sake of brevity; though others may feel to make nuanced distinctions between the two. It is also worth noting that many quietist Salafis have been at the forefront of countering the takfiri narrative; not just post 9/11, but since the early 1990s.

13. Ibn Majah, no.3930. The hadith was declared hasan in al-Albani, Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, n.d.), 648-9.

* This piece was originally written for www.islamicate.co.uk and is posted here with kind permission.

Time Waits for None: Reflections on Surat al-’Asr

ClassicClockFace-long goodbyeIn one of the shortest chapters or surahs of the Qur’an, we read: By Time! Verily man is in [a state of] loss; except those who believe and perform righteous deeds, and enjoin one another to [follow] the truth, and enjoin one another to patience. [103:1-3] This chapter, or surah, is known as Surat al-‘Asr.

I hope to keep my reflections fairly brief, and also hope to look at the surah from three perspectives. The first of these perspectives will be exegetical – that is, to look at what our classical commentators (mufassirun) have said concerning it, so as to get a general sweep of its meaning and message from those qualified in textual interpretation. The second will be theological; so as to flesh out any important points of belief or doctrine embedded in the surah. Lastly there’s the homiletical perspective, the one that focuses on the spiritual and moral counsels of the surah and the lessons it wishes to impart to us about how best to live the religious life.

Exegetical Perspective: Classical interpreters of the Qur’an (tracing their views back to the early religious authorities; the salaf) differ over the meaning of the opening oath: wa’l-‘asr. Some say ‘asr refers to the period from the declining of the sun until sunset; others, that it refers to the actual ‘Asr prayer; yet others say that there is no reason to limit it to a specific period of time, or act in time. Instead, ‘asr should be taken to refer to time (dahr) in general – this being the opinion of Ibn ‘Abbas.1 In this reading, Allah swears an oath by Time, this enigmatic creation of His which we all know something about, but about which no one knows its true nature or exact significance. An appeal is made to time, for it is in its never-resting grasp that our destinies unfold, the events of our lives are played out, and where we encounter Allah’s signs in the world and are asked to contemplate their meanings.

The next verse hits us like a thunderbolt: Verily man is in [a state of] loss. This no holds barred declaration, although it uses the word man (al-insan) in it singular form, refers to mankind generically (a case of wahid bi ma‘na al-jami‘ – “employing the singular to mean the collective.”).2 A few commentators, however, suggest that the man referred to here as being in loss is one of the chief disbelievers of Makkah: Abu Jahl, Walid b. al-Mughirah, or Ubayy b. Khalf.3 Most deemed it best to keep the term generic, given that there is nothing textually explicit to particularise it. So Allah swears By Time that all mankind are in loss.

The Qur’an, in voicing this loss, could have simply said: al-insanu fi khusr – ‘Mankind is in [a state of] loss.’ But instead it added the particle of emphasis, inna, as well as the world la: two separate words of emphasis and forcibleness. Its literal translation could then read: Verily man is truly in [a state of] loss - the double emphasis being there so as to drive home, in no uncertain terms, the gravity of the matter.

As to what such loss is, al-Suyuti glosses it as: fi tijaratihi - “in his [life] transactions.”4 That is, time is man’s capital which he can invest wisely and piously, or else squander. But Man misuses his capital, and fritters it away, by turning his back on Allah and the Afterlife and plunging himself head on into worldly distractions. The Qur’an depicts life as a being like a commerce or business transaction (tijarah) in the following verse: O believers! Shall I show you a commerce that will save you from a painful torment? That you believe in Allah and His Messenger, and strive for the cause of Allah with your wealth and your lives. That is better for you, if you but knew. [61:11] If life’s metaphor is a series of business transactions, man, by attending solely to his material gains, shall lose. For when he comes to tally up his account at day’s end, it will not show a profit; but only a spiritual loss – not so those possessed of the following four qualities:

Except those who believe with true and sincere conviction in Allah’s Divinity (ilahiyyah) and Oneness (wahdaniyyah), and in what was revealed to His Final Prophet, peace be upon him; and perform righteous deeds, those conforming to the Sacred Law (shari‘ah) and sincerely done seeking His good pleasure and acceptance; be they obligatory acts (fara’id) or recommended ones (mustahabbat); or be they rights related to Allah (huquq Allah) or those connected with others (huquq al-‘ibad). Some exegetists point out that these two qualities relate to an individual’s piety and perfection.5

The other two of the four qualities that exempt one from loss: and enjoin one another to [follow] the truth in terms of Allah’s tawhid and all other revealed realities, as well as any other firmly established matter, the truth of which cannot be denied; and enjoin one another to patience, in terms of Allah’s worship and obedience and, given that the majority of the commentators hold that this surah was revealed in Makkah, patience in terms of the insults, abuse and harms Muslim minorities will have to endure from hostile, offensive or unsympathetic non-Muslims.6 If the first two qualities speak of bettering the individual, these last two bespeak of the duty to help better others.7 So this surah insists we partake in the necessary salvation of our own soul, as well as the much needed healing of society’s soul.

Given this surah’s comprehensive message and mandate, it is no wonder that Imam al-Shafi‘i said about it: law tadabbur al-nas hadhihi’l-surah la was‘athum - ‘If people were to ponder over just this surah, it would suffice them.’8

Moreover, the surah’s invitation to faith; action; spreading and standing up for truth; and being patient and steadfast in this, became a motto of sorts among the Prophet’s Companions. One report states: ‘Whenever two of the Prophet’s Companions would meet, they’d not part company until one had recited to the other: By Time! Verily man is in [a state of] loss. Then they would give salams to each other [and part].’9

Theological Perspective: ‘Time and tide wait for no man,’ said Chaucer. Shakespeare wrote in one of his Sonnets about how ‘Time’s fell hand’ eventually brings to ruin even the hugest of buildings and boastful of monuments. We speak about taking time out, wasting time, loosing track of time, time whizzing past, time being of the essence, or of experiencing time; and so on. We all have an idea about time. But ask someone to explain what time actually is … well that’s another matter.

We experience time as a long string of moments that flows from the past, through the present and into the future. Or wanting to be on a more secure footing, time is simply the measure of the duration for processes or events to occur, and the interval between them (measured in seconds, or any other suitable units). By the time Newton gave us the laws of gravity and motion, time was understood to be something absolute, true, universal and flowed at a constant rate, independent of all else. For a while, his laws and notion of time formed the basis for our whole understanding of the universe. But by the beginning of the 20th century, and because Newton’s laws couldn’t account for the peculiar nature and motion of light, a new and deeper understanding of light and time was needed. Enter Albert Einstein.

Essentially, what Einstein showed in his Theory of Relativity was that objects travelling at high speeds experience time slower than objects at rest. This is called time dilation; and it has been conclusively proven experimentally. In particle accelerators, certain subatomic particles have a longer lifespan when travelling at speeds close to the speed of light than they do when they’re travelling much slower or are at rest; atomic clocks in planes run slower than their counterparts down on the ground; and GPS satellites have to be constantly recalibrated for time dilation. Time, according to the insights of Einstein, isn’t constant or uniform; instead it depends on where you are and how you move relative to others.

Now when Allah swears By Time, He doesn’t expect for us to have a scientist’s take on time, or that of a philosopher’s. Rather, the oath is taken to impress on us to see time unfold through the eyes of faith. In other words, to infer from the events of our lives; and from life’s lessons; and from the world in which this all takes place, Allah’s power, knowledge, beauty and wisdom. Our lives, and our world, point to something beyond themselves; to the divine glory and greatness: that you may know He has power over all things and that He encompasses everything in knowledge. [65:12]

In a rather intriguing hadith, the Prophet, peace be upon him, was once occasioned to say: la tasubbu’l-dahr fa inna’Llaha huwa’l-dahr – ‘Do not curse time, for indeed Allah is time.’10 According to al-Munawi, some Arabs had a habit of cursing time whenever something disagreeable occurred or would unexpectedly go wrong. To put and end to such reviling is what occasioned the above warning.11 For to revile time; to implore blessings or barakah be removed from it, would be tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot … repeatedly!

Imam al-Nawawi filled in further detail for us in his commentary to the hadith which says that Allah is time. He wrote: ‘The scholars say that this is a metaphor. The reason being is that it was the custom of the Arabs to revile time whenever some misfortune occurred; such as death, senility, or loss of wealth, etc. They would say: ‘woe to time!’ or other phrases that cursed or inveighed against time. So the Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Do not curse time, for indeed Allah is time.’ Meaning, do not revile He who makes these things happen. For your inveighing against time is actually cursing Allah, since He it is that brings about these misfortunes and sends them down. As for time, it is only a period of duration (zaman) that cannot do anything in or of itself. Rather, it is just one of so many things created by Allah, exalted is He.’12

Muslim theologians are at pains to remind us that whatever else time may or may not be, it is something created by Allah and has no intrinsic power of existence: time only exists and endures (thubut, baqa) by Allah’s will and power. Likewise, time can neither heal nor harm (in the literal sense of the term); that quality is solely Allah’s. Time, this unembodied reality, ‘flows’ only because of Allah’s act of perpetual creativity. Time, in other words, is the unfolding of moment after moment after moment. (Interestingly, such a theology of time has resonance with certain ideas and models of time currently being discussed in quantum physics.)

Homiletical Perspective: This surah is a summons to the worshippers to not fall into heedlessness (ghaflah), squander their time and thus jeopardise their salvation (najat). For the seekers, it is an invitation to sanctity (wilayah) by being continuous in Allah’s remembrance (dhikr), internalising works of faith, practising beautiful patience (sabr) and cultivating comportment (adab) with time. As for the people of Allah (ahlu’Llah), what it means for them is between them and Allah. For theirs are hearts that behold the contemplative vision of Allah (mushahadah) in this earthly life, whilst anticipating the Beatific Vision of Him (ru’yatu’Llah) in the eternal life to come.

Our all too fragile relationship with time comes to the fore in these following lines of poetry: ‘Your life is but a few countable breaths; whenever you exhale, part of your life diminishes (hayatuka anfasun tu‘addu fa kullama / mada nafasun minha intaqasta bihi juz’an).’

One of the early sages said that he truly understood the message of Surat al-‘Asr when he saw a person selling ice in the market, saying to passers-by in a raised voice: ‘Have mercy on those whose wealth is melting away. Have mercy on those whose capital is vanishing.’ It dawned on the sage that this ice-seller must be incredibly careful about his capital (ice), or else it will literally melt away; and he’ll be at loss. Similarly, man’s time on earth is rapidly melting away with each priceless breath; with every passing second. If he spends his time doing futile, forbidden or faithless things, then this is man’s true loss. Man’s life, therefore, must never be bereft of faith, acts of obedience to Allah, sincerely helping others and tending to peoples’ welfare, and persevering in these things throughout his life. Only then will he have spent his time in a productive manner pleasing to his Lord.13

In terms of making us vigilant with whatever time we have allocated to us in our lives, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Everyone starts his day and is a vendor of his own soul, either freeing it or bringing about its ruin.’14

Indeed, what we do with our time here on earth is, when all is said and done, what it’s about; as per the next hadith: ‘The feet of the son of Adam will not move on the Day of Resurrection till he is questioned about five things: about his life and what he did in it; about his youth and how he passed it; about his wealth, from where he acquired it and on what he spent it; and about his knowledge, did he act on it.’15

Another hadith states that a person once asked the Prophet, peace be upon him, who the best people were, to which he replied: ‘Those who live long and whose deeds are good.’ He was then asked who the worst people were, so he said: ‘Those who live long but whose deeds are bad.’16 The longevity of life that science and modern medicine accords us seems, unquestionably, a goodly thing. But as with so many of modernity’s offerings, the believer examines such things with the eye of faith. What would be the use of an increase in life expectancy if the additional years don’t lead to an increasing awareness of Allah’s presence? Of what worth would longevity of years be if it deflects us from our purpose of creation and our ultimate return? There is nothing inherently wrong about wanting to live a long life, provided it promotes piety and not diminish it; provided the extra time leads us to the gates of Paradise and not encourage us to stray from it. Such must be the considerations with the days of our time.

Now before lowering the curtain on my reflections, let me say a few words about our adab (comportment, propriety) with time. Our life at the present moment in time lies between two other time periods: past and future. Whatever wrongs we committed in the past can be rectified by remorse and sincere tawbah. This doesn’t require physical exertion; rather it’s simply an action of the heart. This is the adab with time that has passed in other than Allah’s obedience. In respect to the future, it can be made sound by resolving not to commit sins. This too isn’t a physical action, it is a firm intention in the heart. Thus the past can be rectified by repentance: the future, by a determined resolve to abstain from disobedience.

As for the present, the time between two times, Ibn al-Qayyim explains that the adab here is to realise that we are always going to be in one of three states: we will either be in a state of receiving divine blessings, or be afflicted with trials and misfortunes, or be in a state of sinfulness. Ibn al-Qayyim writes that the adab with these states is to be ‘among those who, when blessed, give thanks; when tried, display patience; and when sinful, seek forgiveness. For these three conditions are a token of a person’s happiness and the sign of his success in this world and the next. No person is without them, but is always shifting from one state to the other.’17

Let’s leave the last word about time, and the adab we should be cultivating with time, to Imam al-Ghazali:

‘You should not waste your time, doing at any moment whatever chances to present itself when it presents itself. Instead, you should take stock of yourself and structure your acts of devotion during each day or night, assigning to each period of time some specific function that is kept to and is not left for something else in that time. In this way the barakah of your time will become evident. But if you leave yourself to drift, aimlessly wandering as cattle do, not knowing what to occupy yourself with at each moment, you will squander most of your time. Your time is your life; your life is your capital through which you transact [with God] and through which you reach endless bliss in the proximity of God. Every breath you take is a priceless jewel that cannot be replaced. Once it passes, it can never be retrieved.’18

With this, these reflections on Surat al-‘Asr come to a conclusion. Wa akhiru’l-da‘wana ‘ani’l-hamduli’Llahi’l-rabbi’l-‘alamin.

1. Cf. al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 20:122; al-Suyuti, Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Salam, 2002), 612.

2. As stated in al-Sam‘ani, Tafsir al-Qur’an (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1997), 6:278.

3. ibid., 6:278.

4. Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 612.

5. Cf. al-Sa‘di, Taysir al-Karim al-Rahman fi Tafsir Kalam al-Mannan (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2011), 1102.

6. Consult: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 4:417; al-Nasafi, Madarik al-Tanzil wa Haqa’iq al-Ta’wil (Beirut: Dar al-Kalim al-Tayyib, 1998), 3:277; Muhammad Na‘im, Tafsir Kamalayn Sharh Urdu Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Pakistan: Dar al-Isha‘at, 2008), 6:778.

7. Al-Sa‘di, Taysir al-Karim al-Rahman, 1102.

8. Cited in Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 4:585.

9. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Awsat, no.5256. Its chain was judged to be sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), no.6348.

10. Muslim, no.2246.

11. Consult: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:399; no. 9785.

12. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 15:3-4. Also see: Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim, 4:163, in explanation of the verse: And they say: ‘It is only this worldly life of ours. We die and live and nothing but time destroys us.’ [45:24]

13. See: Tafsir Kamalayn, 6:776-77.

14. Muslim, no.223.

15. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2416. The hadith was declared sahih due to corroborating chains in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.946.

16. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2330, where he declared: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

17. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Beirut & Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 25.

18. Bidayat al-Hidayah (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2004), 120.

Think Before You Text, Tweet or Speak!

twitter_keyboard-d1e079745afd757a6b2597e5e169973ae837a5cb-s6-c30‘A still tongue makes a wise head’, says one proverb. And in other one: ‘The wounds of a sword may heal one day; the wounds of the tongue, they never may.’ And then there is this note of caution: ‘Speak when you’re angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’

While it is certainly true that great good can come from the tongue, it is also true that it can stir up immense enmity and strife. The tongue, despite it being a small organ of the body, has an influence wholly disproportionate to its size. How many conflicts, divisions, divorces and distresses have been triggered by angry words and unbridled tongues! Regretably, the tongue as a source of evil is something our communicative and social-networking culture seldom considers. In contrast to the modern urge to endlessly yap, yell and yodel (or rather I should say, text, tweet and tag), our ancients recognised that when a carpet of silence is laid, wisdom begins to settle.

As part of his celebrated and encyclopedic anthology of transmitted prayers from the Prophet, peace be upon him, al-Adhkar, Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE) devotes a separate chapter on the obligation to guard the tongue and the merits of silence. The following is a translation of the opening segments of that discussion:

‘Know that it is required of every legally responsible person (mukallaf) that they guard their tongue from all types of speech, save that which contains an overriding benefit. Whenever speaking or keeping silent are equal in their benefits, then the Sunnah is to refrain from speaking. For speech which begins as permissible can quickly degenerate into what is forbidden or disliked. In fact, this occurs a lot, or is more often the habit; and there is no substitute for safety.

It is related in the Sahihs of al-Bukhari [no.2018] and Muslim [no.47]; on the authority of Abu Hurayrah, may God be pleased with him; who relates that the Prophet, peace be upon him, declared: ‘Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak well or keep quiet.’

I say: The soundness of this hadith is agreed upon and contains an explicit stipulation that one must not speak unless one’s words are good and that the benefit in doing so is clear and preponderant. Whenever there is uncertainty about the benefit being preponderant or not, one remains silent. Imam al-Shafi’i, may God have mercy upon him, has said: “When one intends to speak, let him think before he does so. If there is an overriding benefit, let him speak; if in doubt, let him desist from speaking until the benefit is clear.”‘1

Of course, nowadays, it’s not just our speech that we need to be concerned about. We need to guard what we text or tweet about too; for that too is part of our speech. The above words of Imam al-Nawawi, and the numerous hadiths that caution against the sins of the tongue, equally apply to our texts and tweets on social media. If talk can rapidly degenerate into what is haram, our texting or tweeting can do so too. Indeed, received wisdom informs us that: Not everything that is good should be said, and not everything that is said should be spread. After all, as the saying goes, ‘The fool’s mind dances on the tip of his tongue’ – I suppose we could add, ‘… and his twitter thumbs and fingers!’ Today, such wisdom has been largely thrown to the wind, to be replaced by hasty, trigger-happy texting and tweeting (the upshot of which can be damaging and damning, in both this world and the life to come). Let’s not let our tongues, or our activities on social media, become the nail in the coffin of our spirituality. As the Prophet, peace be upon him, once said whilst pointing to his tongue: ‘Restrain this. Is there anything that topples people on their faces into Hellfire other than the harvests of their tongues?’2

1. Al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 535.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2616, who said: the hadith is hasan sahih.

*This blog first appeared on The Humble I on 16th August, 2012, with the title: ‘Think Before You Speak.’ Here it has been revised, updated and reposted.

Laylat al-Qadr: Standing at the Surge of Serenity

Serenity - (HDR Levanto, Italy)As the last ten days of Ramadan greet us, Muslims the world over shift into a higher gear of spiritual ambition and striving. What is the reason behind this intensification? In one of the odd nights of these last ten days (21st, 23rd, 25th, 27th or 29th) lies laylat al-qadr - the illustrious Night of Power, Influence and Decree – which, as the Qur’an tells us, is the greatest night of the year: We have sent it [the Qur'an] down on the Night of Power. And how will you know what the Night of Power is? The Night of Power is better than a thousand months. In it the angels and the Spirit descend by their Lord’s leave, with all His decrees. Peace it is, until the rising of the dawn. [97:1-5]

This is the Night, over 1400 years ago in the Cave of Hira, the Prophet, peace be upon him, encountered his destiny and stepped into history. It was the Night in which the descent of the Qur’an took place, from the Preserved Tablet (al-lawh al-mahfuz) to the lowest of the seven heavens, from whence it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him: and it continued to be revealed to him, piecemeal, over the next twenty-three years, as occasion demanded. This was the night in which the divine will unfolded itself. It is a Night hallowed by the angels in heaven and believers on earth.

It is a Night about which authentic hadiths inform us: altamisuha fi’l-ashr al-awakhir fi ramadan – ‘Seek it out in the last ten [nights] of Ramadan.’ So that’s what believers do; and hence the intensification.

It is a Night where the Muslim marvels, the believer beseeches and the seeker seeks. This is the Night in which any righteous deed performed during it, is better than one performed for a thousand months outside of it. This is the Night in which the angelic presence floods this earthly realm, sending greeting and prayers of peace upon all the believing men and women they come across: Peace it is, until the rising of the dawn. It is the Night wherein the cosmos is ablaze with Allah’s munificence; repentant sinners cleansed by Allah’s mercy; devout worshippers honoured with Allah’s gifts and graces; and ardent lovers brought into Allah’s Majestic Presence.

It is a Night which, for believers, is the gift of gifts from the Lord of lords, the King of kings, the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, the Most generous of those who show generosity.

For those wanting to know a little more about this auspicious and blessed of nights, and how to make the best of it, I’ve attached a link to a short presentation I gave a few years back on the subject. It can be downloaded here: Laylat al-Qadr

O Allah! Grant us the grace to seek this Night, make us not
bereft of its blessings and make us of the fortunate
and favoured. Indeed, You are the
One to hear, the One
to respond.
Amin.

Ma‘rifah: Getting to Know God

allah-calligraphy-1When we compare our lifespans, wherein our lives unfold, to the age of the earth or to the visible universe of nearly fourteen billion years, it seems less significant than a drop of water in an endless ocean. To today’s materialists, life holds little significance beyond that of selfish genes and chance mutations (or of exploitation and unfettered consumption). To believers in Allah and His Oneness (tawhid), however, life is seen as a rich tapestry of signs and an arena of tests that grant us the opportunity of knowing Allah and of worshiping Him. I only created jinn and men, stresses Allah in the Qur’an, that they may worship Me. [51:56]

The famous Quranic exegesis (mufassir), Mujahid, explained Allah’s words: “that they may worship Me (illa li ya‘budun)” to mean: “that they may know Me (illa li ya‘rifuni).”1 The rationale here being pretty straightforward, which is that we can’t worship Allah without first knowing something about Him.

In his essay about divine love, Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns - “Inhaling the Breeze of Divine Intimacy” – Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote: ‘Allah created creation in order that they may worship Him, with love, fear and hope in Him. Allah, exalted is He, declares: I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me. However, Allah, transcendent is He, can only be worshiped after knowing Him. This is why He created the heavens, the earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness and majesty. Allah informs: Allah it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [65:12]‘2

So here we are told that the whole of creation was created li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah, and know that His Command courses throughout creation and that His omnipotence and omniscience envelop all things. This, then, forms the deep wisdom behind why creation was created: to know Allah; know He is One, utterly unique, the sole Lord, Creator and Controller of creation, and that none deserves to be worshiped except Him.

As for the hadith frequently cited in sufi literature: “I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation and made Myself known; they then knew Me,” hadith masters declare this report to be a chainless forgery.

In his encyclopaedia of hadith forgeries and fabrications, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari said about it: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah stated: “These aren’t the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and nor does it have any chain; be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani said the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’3

That its meaning is sound is confirmed by the Qur’an and by a whole host of classical scholars. So here is a case where we needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

When speaking about Islam’s religious ultimate: Allah, the language of Islam and of its learned ones often make reference to the term, ma‘rifatu’Llah - having ma‘rifah of God. Ma‘rifah (which is derived from the word ‘arafa: “to know”, “to be acquainted”) may be translated as: knowledge of God. It is of varying degrees and tends to refer to knowledge which has been arrived at through reflection and contemplation, and then internalised and experienced by the heart and the senses. In other words, ma‘rifah is experiential knowledge (sometimes translated as “gnosis”). The deeper the reflection, the profounder the ma‘rifah.

Whilst elaborating on the following hadith: “Know Allah in times of prosperity and He will know you in times of adversity,”4 Ibn Rajab said:

A person’s ma‘rifah of his Lord is of two degrees: Firstly, a general ma‘rifah that entails acknowledging, affirming and believing in Him. This degree of ma‘rifah is common to every Muslim. Secondly, a more specific type of ma‘rifah which causes hearts to incline completely to Allah, be devoted to Him, seek intimacy in Him, be at peace whenever remembering Him, feel shy before Him and be in awe of Him. This level of ma‘rifah is the type around which the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) revolve. One of them said: “The paupers of this world have departed from it without having tasted the sweetest thing in it.” Someone inquired: What is the sweetest thing in it? He said: “Ma‘rifah of Allah; mighty and majestic is He.” Ahmad b. ‘Asim al-Antaqi said: “I wish not to die until I attain to ma’rifah of my Lord. I don’t mean a ma‘rifah in terms of merely believing in Him. But a ma‘rifah such that, when I know Him, I feel shy before Him.”’5

Now these levels of ma‘rifah may be likened to that of a man and his neighbour who’s just recently moved in next door.6 Initially the man becomes acquainted with his new neighbour in a general sense. He may learn of his name; his vocation; whether he is married or not. He will also learn of his general appearance and be able to recognise him when meeting him on the street. He may even, by asking around, be able to glean other facts about his new neighbour. Yet whatever facts he does learn about him will be at an indirect, impersonal level, unlikely to stir the heart into having any deep or abiding sense of respect and admiration for him. In fact, beyond acknowledging the neighbour’s existence or presence in the locality, his outlook towards him will likely be one of polite indifference. This is akin to the first degree of ma‘rifah spoken of by Ibn Rajab.

Let us now imagine the man decides to know his neighbour directly and introduce himself to him; frequently visit him; socialise with him; and, over time, form a sincere and faithful friendship with him. He is now able to see and experience, at first hand, his neighbour’s fine character, kindness, generosity, knowledge, wisdom, compassion and other virtues which can only be known through direct contact. Such an intimate awareness of his neighbour will eventually evoke in the man a profound respect and admiration for him, and a deep, abiding love for him. It is probable; guaranteed, even, that his neighbour will now begin to disclose to him many of his most private and cherished thoughts, and share with him many of his most intimate feelings, which could never have been known even with a lifetime’s worth of indirect observation or investigation. Rather, this knowledge is only granted to him out of the neighbour’s own desire to be more intimately known, and from the man abiding by the rules of courteous conduct (adab) in seeking to know and draw closer to his neighbour. This reflects the higher degree of ma‘rifah.

As for how ma‘rifah of Allah can be inspired and instilled in our hearts, Ibn al-Qayyim (Ibn Rajab’s most cherished teacher) tells us: ‘In the Qur’an, Allah invites His servants to attain ma‘rifah in two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other, by meditating upon the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’7

Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires reverence and love of Allah in human hearts. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of Allah. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.

As for the Qur’an, in demonstrating Allah’s tawhid, it depicts a vivid portrayal of Allah. This is so we may attain a more immediate awareness of Him, through pondering over His acts and attributes of perfection, by which He makes Himself known. When the Qur’an depicts such attributes – like when it says that Allah is wise, just, majestic, omnipotent, generous, compassionate, loving and forgiving – it insists Allah possesses such qualities in utter perfection. This ‘divine disclosure’ is, again, aimed at inspiring hearts to incline to Allah in reverence, awe and loving submission.

Therefore, amidst the dramas of the world, and amidst its songs of joy and sorrow, the Qur’an asks each of us to know their Maker and to live out our lives in conscious awareness of Him. Those who worship Allah with such awareness, and in accordance with Islam’s Sacred Law or shari‘ah, are led by it to an even deeper awareness. So it is that Allah, in His overwhelming generosity and perfect grace, elevates those who are imperfect, weak and ignorant, yet strive to subdue their lower souls, open their hearts to His light and seek to know and draw closer to Him.

We ask you, O Allah, to deepen our ma‘rifah of You, fill our hearts
with love and awe of You, grant us sincerity in our
worship of You, and not to be deprived
of Your shade; on the Day there
shall be no shade
but Yours.
Amin.

1. Cited in al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 4:235.

2. Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns, 60.

3. Al-Qari, al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353. Almost identicle words have been reproduced in al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al–‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.836.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, 1:307; al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11560.

5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:473.

6. The simile is culled from Sayyid Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1998), 80-81. My thanks goes to Shaykh al-Afifi, of Oxford, for pointing this valuable book out to me.

7. Al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

Footprints on the Sands of Time

578130_339016602866746_654870614_nHere is a collection of musings, reminders and recollections I penned over the course of the last two years. Most can be found on my Facebook page (here), where they were first written. They cover a variety of themes and areas, with no particular structure or arrangement. As for the title of the post, I culled it from a line in a poem written by the American poet and educator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (d.1882) – widely held to be the best-loved American poet of his age – called A Psalm of Life:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

On true worship: It has been said that the worship of the eye is weeping, the worship of the ear is listening, the worship of the tongue is voicing thanks and praise, the worship of the hand is giving, the worship of the body is striving, the worship of the heart is love, fear and hope, and the worship of the spirit is surrender and satisfaction in God.

On true knowledge: Beneficial knowledge is that which increases us in knowledge of God; acquaints us with the divine commands and prohibitions; leads us to detaching ourselves from the world and becoming desirous of the Hereafter; and brings home to us the flaws and defects in our own actions.

The pains of separation: Every joy has its cost in the loss that must inevitably follow, for nothing survives its hour. Such is the affliction common to man. So, as one hadith says, ‘Live as long as you want, but you will die; love whoever you wish, but you will taste [the pain of] separation; and do whatever you want, for you will be recompensed accordingly.’ [Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.746]

On our addiction to the lower, material world: “Crack-consumerism” is the substance abuse that we as a nation now collectively partake in.

On a successful marriage: If religion is internalised and becomes a matter of the heart (and not just externally observed), then we become possessed of those qualities which are going to make a successful marriage and will transform someone into a loving and delightful spouse. For marriage requires spiritual virtues like patience, contentment, preferring others over oneself, and forbearance. Such virtues are likely to be far more natural, and hence be present in times of hardships rather than at times of ease or convenience, if one has made some progress in the path of inward purification. Thus one looks for a spouse with some depth of spiritual character.

Seeking beauty in balance: Be well-mannered without ceremony, easy-going without negligence, valiant without conceit, serious-minded without pretension and cheerful without fuss.

On a believer’s core convictions: There are, according to Islam, six “articles of faith” which make-up the core convictions of the faith, and which every believer is required to affirm and maintain belief in: God; angels; revealed books; prophets; afterlife; and divine decree.

When theologians began the enterprise of systemising beliefs and doctrine, these six articles, or “pillars of belief”, were divided into three broad areas: tawhid (affirming the oneness of God), nabuwwah (prophethood) and ma‘ad (belief in resurrection and the afterlife).

Tawhid concerns itself with the nature of God and divinity, and how creation relates to God.

Nabuwwah, or prophethood, explains who the prophets were, their function, and the significance of the divinely-revealed messages they were given.

Ma‘ad, which literally means “return”, deals with the End of Days and what awaits each human being after death.

On the Monoculture’s manufacturing of mass anxiety: Because today’s Monoculture offers Man everything save the essential, it leaves him feeling distracted, bored, empty and lost. Man, amidst all the extraordinary achievements of science and technology, still fails to find the happiness and contentment he so desperately seeks. Those who are gifted with some degree of reflectiveness are growing more and more conscious that human fulfilment will not be found on the material plane alone; that man’s angst and ennui cannot be healed by anything worldly. The Spirit must be nourished and be made to recall and reconnect with the Source of all life and goodness: God. Only then can meaninglessness and despair be driven away. The Qur’an informs us: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquillity. [Qur'an 13:28]

On true intelligence: The first sign of intelligence is to affirm the Oneness (tawhid) of God. The next sign of intelligence is to fulfil its demands. The next is to be lenient with people in those matters which are not clear-cut sins.

Let lovers invoke: The true lover never forgets to invoke salawat, or blessings of peace (or praise) upon the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Among the many fruits of invoking abundant salawat on him is that it nurtures a loving and a longing for him, and is a connection via which lordly assistance flows profoundly and profusely to the invoker: Allahumma salli ‘ala sayyidina muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi wa sallim.

Aim well then entrust the outcomes to God: We are each responsible for controlling our efforts, but not their outcomes. Upon us is to aim well and intend to get as close as possible to the mark. But once the arrow has left the bow, the matter is no longer in our hands.

On living a dignified life: True nobility is to live wisely with oneself, to live patiently with others, and to live in the love of God.

On choosing friends: Not everyone understands the importance of choosing friends wisely. Many people tend to get involved with whosoever is in their space, and quite often those choices can become a huge source of difficulties for them. Many people could significantly improve the quality of their life just by changing who they spend time with. One hadith teaches us: ‘A person follows the way of life of his friend, so be careful who you choose as a friend.’ [Abu Dawud, no.4833]

On degrees and distinctions: Men and women are equal in Islam in terms of all their works of faith to God: Whoever does good works, be they male or female, and is a believer, such will enter the Garden. [Qur'an 4:124] But men have a degree above women because they are bread-winners and spend on women: And women have rights like those of men, in kindness; and men are a degree above them. [Qur'an: 2:228] And: Men are maintainers and protectors of women, because of what [strength] God has given the one more than the other. [Qur'an 4:34]

Husbands and wives are equal in Islam in respect to their spiritual paths to God. But mothers have degrees above fathers because of the burdens of labour they bear: And We have commended man to [be dutiful to] his parents; his mother bore him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning was in two years. Give thanks to Me and to your parents. To Me is the journey’s end. [Qur'an 31:14] And: O Messenger of God, of all people, who deserves my kindest treatment? He replied: ‘Your mother.’ Who next? ‘Your mother.’ Who next? ‘Your mother’ Who next? ‘Your father.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5971]

On not misreading the signs: The beauty of the night sky, or of the starry heavens, are important signs to the origins and ultimate fulfilment of our soul’s deepest yearning. But if we mistake the signs for what they actually point to – if we mistake the signpost for what is signposted – we shall end up attaching our hopes and longings to lesser things which cannot quench our thirst for meaning.

On Monotheism’s demand for courage and critical thought: Monotheism, no doubt, urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It isn’t for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it insists that we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is just an elaborate veneer for a new type of totalitarianism which is unable to accept any true or meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.

On distorting the prophetic guidance: If the Sunnah does not heal us or help us come to terms with life’s ordeals; if it doesn’t bathe us in sakinah, tranquility; if it makes us cold, harsh, hostile, intolerant and vengeful, then we are undoubtedly reading it with the wrong dictionary.

On training the inner eye to see the cup half-full: The affliction that turns you to God is better than the blessing that distracts you from Him. The enemy that brings you to God is better than the friend who cuts you off from Him.

On discarding lopsided methodologies: ‘Aqidah by itself will tie your heart in knots. Fiqh by itself will veil you from understanding. Tasawwuf by itself will pull the wool over your eyes. Combining all three … that is the only sound Islam.

On praying not to be too clingy: Pray not for a life of ease or comfort. Pray instead to be a stronger person: stronger in conviction, perseverance and worldly detachment: O you who believe! What is it with you that when you are asked to go forth in the cause of God you cling heavily to the earth? Do you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life as compared with the Hereafter. [Qur'an 9:38]

On being enveloped in God’s special love: The affair is not just that we love, but that we be loved: ‘My servant does not draw closer to Me with anything more loved by Me than the obligatory duties I have enjoined on him; and My servant continues to draw closer to Me through the optional deeds until I love him.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6502]

Reality Check with Ramadan

480429_327412390693834_763234927_nBelow are three short blog pieces I wrote last year on the theme of Ramadan and the spiritual technology called siyam/sawm, or fasting. Indeed, the very point of fasting in Ramadan, the fourth pillar of Islam, is to foster a state of detachment from the world, as also from our ego and desires. This creates, as it were, a space in our selves for the remembrance of God and for awareness of His presence: O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may become mindful of God. [Qur'an 2:183]

The first is called: Ramadan: Time to Slide Out of the Rat Race. It was written to be a wake-up call; a reminder of how we should be easing-off the accelerator of dunya and consumerism in this blessed month, and try and responsibly step out of the frenzy of things.

Ramadan: Becoming What We Were Born to Be is the second piece. It speaks about how the month of fasting helps sharpen our awareness of Allah, calling on each of us to be what we were created to be.

Written for the latter part of Ramadan; and to spur us on to the finishing line, so to speak, is: Believing in the Ramadan Hope & Healing. For Ramadan is about hope, and about anticipating healing and an immense reward from a Generous Lord.

If you find these articles to be of benefit, please do share; and please do also follow the blog (top right hand corner of the page). Ramadan greetings and blessings to you all.

Allahumma taqabbal minna siyamana
wa qiyamana wa
tilawatana.
Amin.

Moon Sighting: Unity or Lunacy?

WEREWOLVES IN BLUEDown the centuries, people have associated full moon nights with weird happenings and strange behaviour. An increase in crime, in mayhem and madness, lunatics on the loose – werewolves, even, have all been linked to the eerie effects of the full moon. ‘It is the very error of the moon. She comes more near the earth than she was wont. And makes men mad,’ wrote Shakespeare in Othello. In fact, the very notion of lunacy and of calling someone a lunatic; a madman or insane person, comes from luna, the Latin word for “moon” (lunaticus, “moon-struck”).

Full moon phases aside, bouts of lunacy and madness may be seen during another of its phases: the new [crescent] moon. For it is here you’ll see that even the otherwise mild-mannered Muslim, usually not one to argue or to get involved in the “politics” of things, become “moon-struck” with madness and frenzy. Yes, determining when the new moon for Ramadan has been observed or not brings out the werewolf in many of us!

The story’s familiar. Muslims wait in pious anticipation for Ramadan, wondering who will sight the moon and where? News comes that it’s been spotted. Where? In Ye Olde Middle-East (usually, it seems, in Saudi Arabia). Voices dissent. Objectors insist that astronomical calculations make the so-called sighting impossible. But we are assured that just and reliable witnesses have sworn to seeing the crescent moon. Who now to believe? What now to do? Meanwhile: Egos warm up. Confusion kicks off. The game begins. Some scholars try to keep the peace; trying desperately to referee the match. Other scholars take entrenched positions, yelling from the sidelines. The lay folk feel to wade in and egg on their team. Shouting starts. Arguments intensify. Unity wavers. Lunacy attacks. Lunacy slyfully dribbles the ball past Unity’s fragile defence, whacking the ball straight into the back of the net. Final whistle goes. Game over. Lunacy wins. Unity looses … yet again!

Bickering on the terraces, rivalry in the hearts, and bitter words on the tongues linger long after the whistle is blown. As the unsettled and frustrated crowds make their way home, murmurs are mumbled beneath edgy breaths: Will Unity ever have its day?

I

I’m not the first person to suggest the following, and I’ll certainly not be the last: But good intentions are not going to be enough to resolve the problem. What is needed is to understand why there is such a difference in the first place, and what is the Islamic ruling on moon sighting. Only then can we begin to know what collective options are lawfully open to us and what, if anything, can we do to unify our ranks. As it happens, the fiqh aspect of it (if we omit the practical details and focus on the basic theory) isn’t that difficult to grasp.

No doubt, the arrival of Ramadan is confirmed by sighting the new crescent moon, or by the passing of thirty days in the month immediately before Ramadan; the month of Sha‘ban. The Prophet, peace be upon him, decreed: ‘Fast when you see it [the new moon] and end the fast when you see it. If it is hidden from you, then wait until thirty days of Sha‘ban have passed.’1

Based upon the above hadith, most jurists hold that if there is a confirmed sighting of the new moon in any given country or region, fasting becomes obligatory for all those living there and for those living in other countries and regions too – whether they are nearby or distant. This is provided news of the sighting reaches them in a reliable and binding manner. Distance is not an issue: reliable sighting and reliable conveyance of the sighting is. This is the opinion of the Hanafis, Maliks and Hanbalis. According to these jurists, ‘Fast when you see it (sumu li ru’yatihi),’ refers to all Muslims being bound to wherever a sighting of the new moon takes place globally.2

In contrast, another group of jurists (mainly the Shafi‘is) believes that the you refers to the sighting of the moon for a particular region. People resident in that region and in “nearby” regions of the confirmed sighting must fast. Those in “distant” regions aren’t required to follow the sighting. Rather, they are to follow their own regional sighting. The terms “nearby” is, however, disputed. Some judge it in terms of a specific number of miles, some in terms of same sighting-zone (ittihad al-matla‘), while others in terms of nearby countries.3

Those who advocate that each region should take its own sighting into consideration, and need not follow the sighting of others, base their view on the following narration: Kurayb who, having been sent by Umm al-Fadl to Syria on an errand, recollects: ‘I reached Syria and completed the errand. Whilst in Syria, the new moon for Ramadan appeared. I saw the new moon on Thursday night. I then returned to Madinah at the end of the month where ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abbas inquired about the new moon, asking me: “When did you observe the new moon?” I replied: I saw it on Thursday night. He said: ‘Did you actually see it?” I replied: Yes, as did the people; so they fasted and so did Mu‘awiyah. He said: ‘We spotted it on Friday night, so we shall not stop fasting till we complete thirty days or we sight it [the new moon].” I said: Doesn’t Mu‘awiyah’s sighting and fasting suffice? He said: “No! This is how we were instructed by Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him.”‘4

Thus the classical manuals of fiqh, or Islamic law, essentially convey to us two views concerning how the month of Ramadan should commence: which is, either by global sighting or by local sighting. In order to unify our ranks in Ramadan, we will have to first unify our word by agreeing to one of the two valid ways of moonlighting. Here, opinionated egos will need to be reigned in (as will sectarianism, braderi-clan bigotry, party politics and geo-political agendas), in order to reach a common accord. Saudi-sponsered mosques will have to learn to ignore their paymasters and put the welfare of the Muslims of this country first – considering the issue on its own merits and not driven by external motives. There simply isn’t a view in the shari‘ah that states we are duty bound or exhorted to follow the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in its moonsighting, even more so given its highly-controversial track record. Ironically, the kingdom’s two most respected religious authorities, the late Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Baz and the late Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymin, were both committed advocates of local sighting – repeatedly giving fatwas that people should follow their own country’s sighting.5

Unquestionably, each view has its textual support and historical validity, as well as its practicality and its pros and cons. Perhaps we should stick with the majority view and opt for global sighting, trying to keep in line with the ummah at large? Or perhaps we should opt for local sighting, and so shield ourselves from the divisive hullabaloo that usually accompanies global moonlighting?

British Muslims need to see a growing voice of unity emerge from their scholars and religious leaders on this issue. We need to see some sort of consensus forming, even if slowly. Although some scholars have been trying to bring the relevant players around the table for this very purpose - but given that Britain, this sceptred isle, this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea, is but a small island – it seems they’ve not quite done enough.

II

If for some bizarre reason we cannot manage to unite on one of the above two ways of commencing Ramadan, then all is not lost. For it seems that the shari‘ah has given us another lifeline. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘Fast when they fast and stop fasting when they stop, and sacrifice they day they sacrifice.’6 Imam al-Tirmidhi says after relating this hadith: ‘Some of the scholars explain that this hadith means: to fast and break fast along with the congregation and the majority of people (anna’l-sawma wa’l-fitra ma‘a’l-jama‘ah wa ‘izam al-nas).’7

The London-based jurist and legalist, Sh. Haitham al-Haddad, argued, unsuccessfully, for adopting the majoritarian view several years back in a live TV debate (see here and also here). Some of his fellow panelists, as well as some in the audience, seemed to thoroughly miss his point. They were under the impression that he was insisting we should all follow Makkah – when in fact he was insisting we should all follow Makkah only if that is what the majority are already doing. If the majority are doing something else, then that is what should be followed; he kept on stressing. It seems that all some people were hearing was a Saudi-schooled scholar telling British Muslims to follow Saudi moon sightings. Yet that wasn’t the case at all. The shaykh was simply insisting on applying the fiqh understanding from the above hadith. Regrettably, the TV debate was a serious lost opportunity.

So how could this hadith be practically employed? Well, it could be used only if one of the other two moonsighting methods cannot be decidedly agreed to. So whether the country follows the Hanafi view on moonsighting – as they constitute the majority of Muslims in the UK; or follows the majority of mosques – which seem to be Deobandi in persuasion; or follows Makkah – not because of Saudi, but because that’s what the masses are perhaps now doing: regardless of whether they do it through convenience, confusion or ignorance. If a majoritarian practice by British Muslims can be discerned and accepted, then perhaps our collective hand has been forced and the decision been made. Whatever be the case, and in the absence of a national unified British Muslim moonsighting body, this majoritarian option should not be so easily dismissed. ‘Ulema and mosque committees could have their work cut out for them.

Where can we go from here? We do urgently need to ignite a more fruitful national scholarly discussion concerning the fiqh of moonsighting; the sooner, the better. And if not national, then we should certainly think of how we can unite our word in more and more cities and regions of Britain? What we ask is for our ‘ulema and our religious leaders to step up to the mark and steer this ship, as only they can. This is a religious burden far too great for anyone but them to bear. The rest of us – we can certainly make suggestions; but beyond that we need to reign in our individualistic tendencies and align ourselves with the larger collective and the greater good.

III

Of course, there are other problems related to moon sighting which need to be ironed out. The main one, it seems, concerns the use of astronomical (falaki) calculations to determine the new moon and its sighting. I’ll suffice here by saying that the majority of jurists have, and still continue to rule out the use of calculations. The hadiths, they protest, stipulate actual “eye-witnessing” or “seeing” the crescent after sunset on the 29th day. If it is seen, the new month begins; if not, the month has thirty days and the next month automatically starts after the sunset of the 30th day. What could be more simpler, they argue, for any society in any time or place! For them, using calculation is conjectural (zanni) in the knowledge it yields. Moreover, astronomical calculation and computational algorithms are beyond the grasp of the general masses to master: and the Lawgiver only obligates people with what their masses can reasonably know.

Some modern voices argue that since pre-modern Muslims just did not have access to the precise moon sighting calculations we have today, we shouldn’t be held hostage to their scientific limitations, upon which their medieval fatwas rested? This, I suggest, is to be wholly ignorant of the facts. While it is true they didn’t have the algorithmic computations we have today, the Muslim world of old was certainly not “backward” or scientifically-stunted in terms of moon calculations. On the contrary, astronomers (and scholars who were learned in astronomy) held public offices throughout Muslim lands, producing highly complex and impressive computations, charts and almanacs for lunar sightings and visibilities. This is attested to by both modern Muslim as well as non-Muslim specialists in the field. Yet despite this, the near totally of jurists still insisted on sighting the moon as a textually-stipulated duty. Why? Because sighting is the actual legal rational, or ‘illah, for commencing the month.8 In fact, the Hanbali scholar Ibn Hubayrah, and another of the school’s masters, Ibn Taymiyyah, as well as the Maliki legalist al-Qarafi, all cite a unanimous agreement of the Salaf and the Four Schools on not using calculations – regardless of how accurate they may be.9

Another mistaken notion embedded in the above voices is the claim that we moderns have now got moon visibility calculations down to a tee; and that is simply not true. It appears that two distinct lunar events are being conflated here: the moon’s birth or conjunction (where the earth, moon and sun, in that order, are in roughly the same line), and the moon’s visibility from the earth. The first can be calculated as a matter of fact; the second, only as a matter of prediction – even if such predictions are highly accurate. That is to say, astronomers can calculate the positions of the sun, moon and earth, relative to one another, down to a dot, and can hence determine with pinpoint accuracy the new moon’s birth. Such unquestionable precision is not the case when it comes to calculating the new moon’s actual visibility from here on earth. To put it in Islamic legal jargon, calculating the new moon’s conjunction is qat‘i, certain, beyond doubt; calculating its visibility from the earth, zanni: [highly] probable. For there is no one specific formula for determining the visibility of the new young moon. Instead, it rests on several factors: the moon’s path across the sky (angle of ecliptic), how much dust or pollution there is in the sky, and even the sharpness of the observer’s eyesight. In cases where the moon’s path doesn’t run parallel to the horizon, but rather at right angels to it, the young moon may be spotted as little as 24 hours after it was new. If it does, then at least 36 hours.

Since new moon [conjunction] calculations are incredibly accurate, some argue that they can and should be used to aid and narrow the scope of visibility forecasts, as well as rule out any negative moon sightings. Which means that any claims of spotting the young [crescent] moon from earth before conjunction occurs, or before it is physically possible to see (such as when the moon sets before the sun does), will be ruled out and considered invalid. Only those sighting will be accepted that fall within the scope of astronomical calculations.

On the face of it, this sounds very reasonable. The conditions for a valid testimony of moon sighting must be physically and rationally possible. Decisive astronomical data can be used to rule out dubious or questionable testimonies or sightings, but not to establish the actual crescent. That has to be done through actual valid sighting. This is the opinion of the jurist-astronomer, and research lecturer at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Sh. Afifi, and other jurists for the last several centuries. (Incidentally, and given his credentials, Shaykh Afifi’s fatwa on moonsighting is possibly the most definitive word on the subject in the English language: it can be read here).

Now while this view combines the best of both worlds, it seems to have one gremlin under its bonnet; one niggling glitch. A growing size of groups and individuals, over the last decade or so, have testified to seeing the young moon before the astronomical data said it was possible! And it’s not just a matter of one or two individual in Saudi Arabia that are doing so. The Indian scholar, Shaykh Yahya Numani informed me last year that he has been an advocate of the above, negative moonsighting view for some time now. Yet recently, some of his seniors, and those whose knowledge, integrity and moonsighting abilities he firmly trusts, have testified to seeing the moon before the astronomically possible times too. He said that it has been seen by groups consisting of many individuals across various parts of India, across the past few years! It’s a bit of a pickle. Then again, maybe they’re events for which one can invoke the legal maxim: al-nadiru ka’l-ma‘dum – ‘the rare occurrence is like something that has not happened’? Or a case of: al-zannu la yu‘aridu’l-qat‘a – ‘the probable cannot override the definite’? But what is definite here, the negative moonsighting or the several/tens of witnesses? Is one shari‘ah bound to accept the calculation, or accept the large body of witnesses? Further juristic clarification is needed here.

IV

Just before concluding, I’d like to throw into the discussion two points to consider: the first concerns the idea of a ‘universal’ start day for Ramadan, or a ‘universal’ ‘Id day. Has there ever been such a thing? Yes, there’s the juristic view that the sighting of one place is binding on all other places that come to reliably know of it. Yet the actual practice of the ummah, for many ages now, has been for every place to follow its own Imam or head of state, or its own regional sighting. This has been the agreed upon practice for long ages now. In fact, historically, we do not see any one of the caliphs or rulers of the Islamic caliphate ever sending out royal decrees or letters to the various provinces to follow their moon sighting. Even in the hadith of Kurayb, we just don’t find Mu‘awiyah (who was the caliph of the time) sending out a state decree or edict to make his moon sighting binding on all other provinces. Hence Ibn ‘Abbas did what he did. The idea of a universal day of fasting, or ‘Id, where Muslims all around the globe unitedly fast and celebrate, is a very touching and sentimental thought; but contrary to the ummah’s historical practice. Indeed, some hold that this newfangled notion of calling for a universal day is actually a bid‘ah: an innovation having no basis in Islam, at odds with the historically agreed upon practice of the ummah.10

The second issue concerns what we Muslims in Britain should do. Given the above, and given also that Shaykh Afifi and others up and down Britain consistently moon sight every month  - and have been religiously doing so for many years, we should all seriously consider following local moon sighting. The benefits of doing so will not be hidden from the readers: Firstly, we have Greenwich observatory to give us excellent visibility predictions for the moon (as do websites like: moonsighting.com). Secondly, local moonsighting has been successfully practiced by Muslims in Britain for decades (along with Morrocco, which falls in our local moon sighting zone). Thirdly, British Muslims can take charge of their own affairs in this highly erratic issue, rather than waiting on global news and the complications, controversies and confusion it so often brings. Fourthly, local moon sighting would also allow for the various religious groups up and down Britain to more easily unite on a common word, God willing. Fifthly, by doing so we could return to a more normative, pragmatic and historically-rooted way of moon sighting, prior to the 1972 Arabian fiasco and prior to the 1986 geo-political jostling in Britain. The Afifian method would be employed: use calculations so as to rule out negative sightings; be guided by data for visibility predictions to aid actual sighting; and then actually go out and try and sight that sought after slither of silver. Wa’Llahu’l-musta‘an.

Conclusion: for now, for this Ramadan, rather than everyone doing their own thing and further fragmenting unity, it is best to delegate authority to our local mosques and follow their desicion. It is important to give up one’s personal opinion in favour of the local mosque, simply for the sake of greater unity. Since we have got no single agreed-upon national hilal committee here in the UK, that could act as our “Imam” as it were, we should devolve responsibility to the next authoritative level: which is that of mosques. The burden is then upon them to get it right. If one feels that their local mosque is out of sync with other mosques in the city or area; if one is convinced that their mosque is truly out of step with the majority, then they should quietly differ from their local mosque – without making a fuss of furore about it. But if the local mosque is in sync with others in the area or city, then even if one disagrees with them personally, one should fast with the majority of people.

Until we don’t have a clear, decided national majority, local or regional majorities are going to have to suffice. As has been written elsewhere, let’s not make this Ramadan an issue of moonsighting vs. moonfighting! Let’s keep our egos, tempers, tongues and personal opinions in check. Or else, what would that be saying or portraying about ourselves as Muslims?

Before the mid-eighties, when we used to all follow Morocco’s moon sighting here in Britain, urban legend has it that the man in Morocco who was tasked with the job of telexing or faxing us the good news that Morocco had just spotted the moon, forgot or fell asleep. We had to collectively (and inconveniently) make up a missed day of Ramadan later. That one unintended foul was a game changer; it was to bring other less benign things into play. Players who’d, up until then, performed pretty well were substituted. Egos, envy and geo-politics jogged on to the pitch. Instead of that magic, unified 4-3-3 formation, came division and disarray. The game’s never been quite the same since. The game’s never been quite that beautiful.

Whether the urban legend is true or not, I’d like it to think it is. I’d like to believe that we British Muslims were, not too long ago, more unified; only so it can give us hope for a more unified future. Hope is incredibly important.

And Allah knows best.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.1776; Muslim, no.1080.

2. The Hanafi position is typified in Ibn Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2003), 3:363-4; the Maliki in Khalil b. Ishaq, al-Tawdih Sharh Mukhtasar Ibn al-Hajib (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2012), 2:203; the Hanbali in al-Bahuti, Sharh Muntaha al-Iradat (Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2000), 2:341.

3. The Shafi‘i positioned is summarised in al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 7:172.

4. Muslim, no.1087; al-Tirmidhi, no.693, where he said: ‘The people of knowledge act by this hadith that every region has its own moonlighting.’ A thorough discussion of both views is presented in al-Kandahlawi, Awjaz al-Masalik (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2003), 5:22-31.

5. Ibn Baz, Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1997), 15:85, 99, 102; Ibn ‘Uthaymin, Sharh al-Mumti‘ (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2005), 6:310-11.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.697.

7. Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1999), 178; n.697.

8. Consult: H. Yusuf, Cesarean Moon Births (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), 52-58. The shaykh also discussed (pp.36-52) the view of the five scholars who apparently allowed calculations to begin the month – based on the hadith: ‘… if it is cloudy, then estimate it (fa in ghumma ‘alaykum faqduru lahu).’ [Al-Bukhari, no.1900; Muslim, no.1080]. He shows how, firstly, they permitted this only if the sky is overcast on the 29th night (as per the hadith); that is, obscurity is a condition for calculation. Secondly, even if one were to argue that obscurity wasn’t essential, there is nothing decisive in their words to suggest they advocated calculations in lieu of moonsighting.

9. See: al-Ijma‘ ‘inda A’immat Ahl al-Sunnah al-Arba‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-‘Ubaykan, 2003), 77; Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 25:207; al-Furuq (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2002), 2:177, resepctively.

10. Al-Tayyar, Wablu’l-Ghamamh fi Sharh ‘Umdat al-Fiqh li Ibn Qudamah (Saudi Arabia, Madar al-Watn, 2012), 2:141; Zawman, Ghayat al-Muqtasidin Sharh Manhaj al-Salikin (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2013), 2:86; and the aforementioned fatwa of Afifi.

* This piece was originally written for www.islamicate.co.uk and is posted here with kind permission.

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