The Humble "I"

Muslims, Musings, Modernity

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.

Revering the Symbols of God

Kaaba-7The Qur’an says: Whoever reveres the symbols of God, that is from piety of hearts. [22:32] Symbols (sha‘a’ir) refers to signs, marks or emblems by which something is known to belong to some particular body or group of people. Flags, for instance, are sha‘a’ir; as are those religious rites and practices which are emblematic of, or specific to, certain religious communities.

Here, the symbols of God being spoken of in the above verse refer to those well-known, external commands and prohibitions emblematic of Islam: the prayer, adhan, fasting, pilgrimage rites, the prohibition of pork or of drinking intoxicants, etc. Revering and venerating God’s symbols shows veneration for the One who sent them; which is from piety of hearts.

The signs that one reveres God’s sha‘a’ir are: fulfilling their demands; keeping to their limits; being attentive to accomplishing them correctly; hastening to them when they are due; and to be sad, disappointed or contrite if having missed any of their benefits. Another sign of veneration is to feel anger when God’s symbols are mocked or reviled, and sadness when they are disobeyed.1 Such anger, I must add, isn’t the uncontrolled, egotistical kind that causes faces to be twisted or contorted beyond recognition, and mouths to froth with frenzied rage and pathetic political imbecility. God forbid that the dignity of a believer should be so degradingly compromised.

Revering the symbols of God, and the Sacred Law of God, becomes ever more difficult when one lives in an Age of Irreverence, as we do. For treating someone or something, not just with courtesy, but with deep respect – for that’s what reverence calls for – can be an uphill task. The ego is ever eager to demean the sacred and drag things down to the lowest common doleful denominator. The pursuit of its own diktats, cravings and impulsive desires is what the ego is about; not the pursuit of virtues, or the growth of the Spirit. Whatever good is inherent in any liberal democracy, is being demonstrably erased by the unstoppable entrenchment of an ego culture. Affluenza is what British psychologist Oliver James has named it. For embedded in the philosophy of political liberalism, and consumerism, is the principle of pandering to the ego, and a reverence for irreverence.

As today’s liberal prescriptions become ever more intolerant; and ever more eager to suppress, stigmatise and demonise any significant dissenting voices, honouring God’s symbols (especially in respect to morality and gender relations) becomes much more difficult. Even so, we mustn’t be bullied into failing to state the correct Islamic rulings in such matters, nor be browbeaten into silence: And whoever reveres the sacraments of God, that is better for him with his Lord. [22:30].

1. Cf. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 32, 39.

Happy Muslims: Should We Have Made a Song and Dance of It?

happy_feet-wideQuestion. Unfortunately I was unable to attend your talk last week about whether we should be making a song and dance about the Happy British Muslims video? I would be interested to hear what questions you raised during the talk and what your feelings are about the video?

Response: Bismi’Llah, alhamduli’Llah wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. Thank you for your query. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, and for what it’s worth, the following points more or less capture my take on the issue:

1. Issues of this nature shouldn’t be blown out of proportion or become the basis for a campaign of incrimination; nor must it become a source of division or discord among Muslims. Healthy debate and courteous engagements are one thing: acrimonious and mean-spirited disputation is another thing altogether. We would do well to recall the Quranic injunction: Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [16:125] Unfortunately, some of the voices on both sides of the debate have neither been helpful, nor respectful.

2. One discusses these matters in the spirit of sincerity and brotherliness/sisterliness. One states their case (and position, if need be), and then moves on. Whoever accepts the view, all well and good; if not, one has done their ‘duty’ so to speak. The received scholarly wisdom in this regard is simply: qul kalimataka w’amshi – ‘say your piece and move on.’

3. That the video had a well-intended goal behind it shouldn’t be called into question. For aren’t we required to: Avoid much suspicion? [49:12] Having said that, we must also keep in mind that good intentions aren’t always enough to meet with Divine pleasure and acceptance (ridwan). Ibn Mas’ud, may Allah be pleased with him, once put it like this: wa kam min muridin li’l-khayr lan yusibahu – ‘How many people intend good, but never reach the good.’ The Islamic validity of any act – that is, the act having its basis in either the Qur’an, the Sunnah, analogy (qiyas) or scholarly consensus (ijma‘) – is also paramount.

4. While various feelings for and against the video have been voiced, and praise and censure have been meted out to it in differing degrees, the main controversy concerns the question of singing, music and dancing. In the likes of such an issue, people are of two factions. Those versed in the ways of juristic inference and of weighing-up proof-texts, and those who aren’t. Those learned in fiqh and shari‘ah are, after a painstaking and thorough examination of all the relevant evidences, obliged to follow the result of their research. Those unqualified – well what can they really do? They could ask for a fatwa. They could try and gain an awareness of the issue via the internet. They could read and digest a book on the subject. But unless a person hasn’t examined both sides of the debate rigorously, from top to bottom, they are in no position to take a firm or principled stance. What they can of course do is follow the view of a scholar they trust or who is more practically accessible to them. They can also make others aware of the mufti’s view or fatwa, but without believing that it is irrefutably right: for without the required research, how would they know? Ibn Taymiyyah wrote about such muqallids; those not versed in fiqh and who are thus required to follow the fatwas or rulings of qualified scholars: ‘As for someone who knows the view of one scholar and his proofs, but not the other scholar or his proofs, then he is from the generality of the muqallids. He is not of those scholars able to evaluate or weigh-up [proofs].’1 The rule to follow here is: ‘The Muslims are unanimous that it isn’t allowed for a muqallid to declare that this is halal or that is haram, in those ijtihadi issues wherein he is a muqallid. However, what he can say is that this is the ruling in the school of the Imam he follows; or that having sought a fatwa, this is the fatwa he was given.’2

5. The issue of music is problematic in Islam, for it can seriously distract from prayer and remembering Allah; suggestively arouse emotions and passions; and significantly interfere with morality. A small minority of scholars have, nonetheless, argued for the allowance of listening to music; provided the above dangers are ensured against. For them, there is nothing definitive in Islam to prohibit music. If anything, they argue, there are hadiths where the Prophet, upon whom be peace, allows (encourages, even) singing and playing musical instruments. One of the main hadiths cited in this regard states that: The Lady ‘A’ishah said, Abu Bakr visited me while I had two young Ansari girls who were singing the tales of the battle of Bu‘ath; and they were not professional singers. Abu Bakr said: Musical instruments of Satan in the house of Allah’s Prophet! It was Eid day, so Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘O Abu Bakr, there is an Eid for every people, and this is our Eid.’3 This hadith, some advocates of music state, shows how the Prophet, peace be upon him, did not interfere with singing and music, letting the performers and the audience enjoy themselves. Reports from a few notable Companions and some of the Followers (tabi’un) are also used to show the lawfulness of singing and music. Although how authentic these are, or how applicable they are to the issue of music (as opposed to songs or poetry recitals), is questionable.

6. The majority of jurists throughout the ages insist music is haram. To them, music is objectionable, frivolous, more likely than not to lead to immorality, and an unworthy activity for believers. People are often incited to think illicit thoughts and driven to do illicit things by music. Such is its undeniable power. The majority voice forbids music based upon the following chorus of hadiths – the most famous of them being: ‘There shall come groups of people from my ummah who will declare fornication, adultery, silk, wine and musical instrument to be lawful.’4 This prophecy informs us that some people will soon appear who will philosophise away the above prohibitions, declaring the haram to be halal! Another hadith says: ‘Verily Allah has forbidden wine, gambling and drums.’5 In another authentic hadith, it says: ‘Indeed, I did not prohibit weeping, but I did prohibit two foolish and sinful sounds: the sound of merriment with Satan’s wind instruments, in times of blessing and joy; and the sound of wailing while tearing one’s clothes and slapping one’s face, in times of grief.’6 Other hadiths, along with a volley of Companion and salaf-reports, all act in concert to establish the prohibition of lewd, enticing or immoral songs and singing, and of musical instruments generally. The majority view has exceptions, such as a small one-sided drum (duff) at weddings and on Eid days: some scholars extend this to other occasions too. Likewise, innocent and decent singing, humming or chanting during weddings, Eid celebrations, or while travelling, during hard or monotonous labour, or to fight off boredom, have also been permitted by jurists. Finally, although some jurists cite a consensus (ijma‘) on musical instruments being unlawful (exceptions aside), a few have challenged this conclusion. In other words, the truth about the forbiddance of musical instruments, or ma‘azif, is that: either there is unanimity concerning it, or at the very least it is the view taken by the great majority.7 And Allah knows best.

7. In view of the above, if we cast a glance back at the hadith usually used to prove the lawfulness of music (the hadith of the Lady ‘A’ishah in point five), can it really be used to justify its permissibility? For these were young girls singing without the use of any forbidden instruments. The song itself was about heroics in war, and hence perfectly lawful. And the young girls were not professional songstresses, as the wording of the hadith indicates. Moreover, even if music were halal or allowable, the restrictions it is hemmed in by would most certainly put the music which is today so intrinsically part of popular culture, off limits. Given all this, the stiff opposition to, and strong censure of, the Happy Muslim music video should come as no great surprise. A certain display of righteous indignation for Allah’s sake, by those who believed that an act was being committed in opposition to a consensus or to the verdict of the Four Imams, is surely a sign of faith; isn’t it?

8. There was something else about the content of the video which caused eyebrows to be raised: the dancing. In the shari’ah, the ruling about dancing (raqs) – ‘movements of bending, swaying and straightening’ – is differed over by jurists. One group (Shafi‘is) deems it to be permissible (mubah); the other (Hanafis, Malikis and Hanbalis) says it is disliked (makruh).8 All scholars concur that dancing is expressly forbidden (haram) if women dance in view of men; if it excites passions; or if it is suggestive, seductive or sexually provocative – be it women dancing in front of other women, or men in front of men. Given that the Quran instructs women do not be soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspires to you, but speak honourably, [33:32] given also that they not stamp their feet in order to reveal their hidden ornaments, [24:31], the believing woman’s reticence and unassuming modesty would surely be compromised by dancing (even if casually, innocently and unsuggestively) where they may be seen by men? While some in the video were just jumping for joy, it could reasonably be argued that others were not. That the raqs caused a ruckus is again not surprising.

9. Away from all the fiqh and fracas, the video did force Muslims to again ask critical questions about their current standing in society and how they are publicly perceived: What of the growing public opinion which sees Islam and Muslims as being no more than embittered, angry and joyless (a ‘threat’ to society, even)? Don’t we Muslims have a duty to try and improve public perceptions? Shouldn’t we be taking positive steps to counter the bias, misrepresentations and smear campaigns against us by elements of the right-wing press? Shouldn’t we be putting serious efforts into tackling the climate of fear being created around British Muslims? Or do we let the deluge of propaganda, prejudice and anti-Muslim sentiments run their course, unchallenged and unabated? That a significant proportion of the British public hold negative views on Islam and, by extension, British Muslim communities, must be cause for concern. And whilst the Sunnah teaches that it is neither here nor there what others think about our religious practices (as long as we are on good terms with God), it does, nonetheless, allow space for taking public opinion into consideration. When the Prophet, peace be upon him, was asked if Ibn Ubayy – whose hypocrisy, political treachery and secret dealings with the enemies were known to him – could be executed, he simply replied: ‘Do not do so, lest people say that Muhammad kills his companions.’9 This is one of a number of instances in the prophetic career where public opinion trumped religious desirability. The video, no doubt, was birthed from the idea to improve the public image of British Muslims. Does the means justify the ends? It would seem not in this case.

10. The ensuing debate over the video raised other key concerns: Does our practice of Islam help recommend it to others? Does our conduct reflect the truths, beauty and balance of Islam? Does our adherence to the faith reflect its universality; its relevance for all people, in all places, at all times? Or are we giving the false impression that the din is an Arab or Asian things, well-suited to bedouin or rural life, but not twenty-first century Britain? These aren’t the times where we can ignorantly, naively or recklessly speak or act as we religiously please, without wider considerations and consequences. That ship has, alhamduli’Llah, long since sailed. Above all, shouldn’t we be reflecting the prophetic concern for peoples’ spiritual and eternal well being – despite growing mistrust and negativity towards us? It was by the mercy of Allah that you [O Prophet] were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would have dispersed from around you. [3:159]

Conclusion: No doubt, the video’s intent wasn’t to pander to the crass pop culture of our time. It was about portraying a more joyful and welcoming image of Islam to the public at large (and to young Muslims who often feel that religion is made to appear overly prescriptive – to the point of not offering them any leeway, breathing space, or joy). The hadith which insists that ‘this is our Eid,’ highlights the need to make things easy for people (without declaring halal haram, or visa-versa), while they’re still trying to make their way to the joys of faith and to the sweetness of submission that comes about when religious practice and obedience are steadily internalised. One hadith lets us know: inna hadha’l-dina matin fa awghilu fihi bi rifq – ‘This religion is strong, so go through it gently.’10 To be connected to our Muslim youth, and to help steer them, is something we all need to be a greater part of. To engage their anger, frustrations and confusions is a right they have upon us and a duty we’re still not doing enough about. To help channel their talents and vibrant energies into lawful expressions of art and culture is something our learned ‘ulema need to give us far better guidance and clarity on. Service, or khidmah, is the key concern here. And in all of this we must remember that good intentions are to be seasoned with shari‘ah wisdoms. ‘To bring religion to the people is a fine and necessary undertaking, but this is not a situation in which the proposed end can be said to justify the means. The further people have drifted from the truth, the greater is the temptation to water down the truth.’11 It is a temptation, I believe, that we must resist.

Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa huwa wali al-tawfiq.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:233.

2. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 1:73.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.960.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.5649.

5. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.3698.

6. Al-Haytami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id, no.4047.

7. The consensus on musical instruments being haram is mentioned in, among other sources: al-Baghawi, Sharh al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983), 12:383, where he said: ‘There is agreement about the prohibition of flutes (mazamir), instruments of diversion (malahi) and musical instruments (ma‘azif);’ and Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali citing Imam al-Ajurri, Nuzhat al-Asma’ fi Mas’alat al-Sama‘, in Majmu‘ Rasa’il (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 2:244. A thorough discussion of both sides of the debate is given in al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Qayyim, 2005), 9:147-168, where he explains (p.167) that this is ‘an area of legitimate differing’, and points the reader to a treatise he wrote on the topic (Ibtal Da’wa al-Ijma‘ ‘ala Tahrim Mutlaq al-Sama‘) which shows that, although the majority prohibited them, there is no clear consensus on the prohibition of musical instruments. He concluded this fair and thorough discussion with the following caution: al-mu’minun waqqafun ‘inda’l-shubuhat – ‘Believers should refrain from doubtful matters.’

8. For the Shafii position, see: al-Shirbini, Mughni al-Muhtaj (Beirut: Dar al-Marifah, 1997), 4:573.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.3518.

10. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 3:199.

11. Gai Eaton, King of the Castle (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 17.

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