The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Teaching & Purification: the Two Prophetic Tasks

Illuminating Turkish BeautyThe Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘I am the prayer of my father Abraham and the glad tidings [proclaimed by] Jesus to his people, and the vision of my mother who, while pregnant with me, saw a light issue forth from her which lit up the castles of Syria.’1

The good news of Jesus, referred to above, is mentioned in the following verse of the Qur’an: And [recall] Jesus, son of Mary, who said: ‘O Children of Israel, I am the Messenger of Allah to you, confirming that which was before me in the Torah and bringing good news of a Messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad.’ [61:6]

As for Abraham’s prayer, peace be upon him, the Qur’an says: ‘Our Lord! Raise among them a Messenger from them who shall recite Your signs to them and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

Allah’s response to His khalil’s prayer is: He it is who has sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite to them His signs and to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the wisdom, though before they were in manifest error. [62:2]

The above hadith and verses highlight some weighty considerations for our faith and spiritual growth; these include:

1. That our Prophet ﷺ was commissioned with two principle tasks: teaching (ta‘lim) and purification (tazkiyah): teaching us revealed knowledge about God, divinity and the afterlife; and purifying souls from the vices of idolatry (shirk), disbelief (kufr) and heedlessness (ghaflah) of the revealed commands and the Divine Presence.

2. Although Abraham put ta‘lim before tazkiyah in his supplication, Allah responded with tazkiyah first, then ta‘lim. Again in the Qur’an, Allah puts tazkiyah first: We have sent to you a Messenger from among you, to recite to you Our signs and purify you, teach you the Book and the wisdom, and teach you that which you knew not. [2:151] This tells us that purification has a distinction over teaching, and that the former is the goal while the latter is the necessary means.

3. That knowledge must be coupled with action – which is a sign that the purification process is underway – is borne out by the following salaf-reports: From Ibn Mas‘ud, may Allah be pleased with him, who repeatedly insisted: ‘O people, learn! Whosoever learns, then let them act.’2 The venerable sage, Sahl al-Tustari remarked: ‘Knowledge, all of it is of the world; that of it which is of the Hereafter, is action upon it.’3 And Abu Qilabah, a traditionist and pietist of Islam’s second century, stated: ‘When Allah gives you knowledge, give to Him worship; and let not your desire be to merely narrate it to the people.’4

4. In the context of knowledge and purification, the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Two qualities shall never coexist in a hypocrite: good character and understanding of the religion.’5 In other words, a hypocrite may acquire a sound, theoretical knowledge of Islam, but it won’t be reflected in piety, character or demeanour. Or it could be that a hypocrite might have a graceful character, but will lack a sound understanding of faith. It is only with the true believer that a sound understanding (fiqh) of the religion is united with righteous action and inward illumination of the soul. So knowledge in itself does not save: unless it is translated into piety, concern for beautiful character, compassion for creation and, ultimately, seeking Allah and the afterlife.

5.  As the monoculture puts Muslim distinctness under greater siege, we must ensure that the Quranic purification always remains at the heart of the Islamic story and its engagement with modernity. That any meaningful diversity is now seen as potentially destabilising to social cohesion simply serves to prove liberalism’s intolerance, as well as its growing totalitarian nature. Tawhid is told to not be so judgemental upon shirk. The Abrahamic odyssey is required to make way for the new Nimrods: the new lords of misrule. Monotheism is put on notice and told to bow down to Babylon. Pressures such as these will, regrettably, produce victims – except if my Lord has mercy. [12:53] For conformity is part of human nature. But a browbeaten Muslim who reluctantly gives in or capitulates isn’t the same as the ever growing cadre of Muslims who are anxious to please and who play fast and loose with revealed principles. Where we cannot live up to the social demands of faith, let us admit our own weaknesses and implore Allah for forgiveness, courage and strength. We cannot twist revealed truths, or water them down, or adulterate them just to fit in, gain acceptance, or curry favour. For as far as faith and hope are concerned, better a sinner than a sell-out.

6. Keeping the two core prophetic tasks firmly in mind, we need to be mindful about any activism or call to action which seeks to eclipse them or deflect the ummah away from them. In fact, all socio-political activism must be subordinate to these two tasks. Those who have lost sight of these core concerns should be gently and wisely guided back to them. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Salvation for the first part of this nation is with certainty (yaqin) and worldly renunciation (zuhd); destruction of the last part of this nation is by miserliness (bukhl) and [lengthy] hopes (amal).’6 Munawi said: ‘Meaning that the earlier ones adorned themselves with certainty and worldly detachment and purged themselves of miserliness and hopes. This was a cause for their salvation from perdition. In the latter times, the opposite will be the case.’7 He also wrote: ‘In it is a censure of miserliness and hopes (amal). But what is blameworthy is lengthy hopes, as has been said. As for hopes in themselves, they are necessary for the establishment of this worldly life.’8 Yaqin, certainty of faith, is the fruit of sound teachings, while zuhd is the outcome of the soul’s restraint; itself a fruit of purification.

7. As to the levels of faith and certainty, they are: (i) Faith via taqlid: where faith comes from taking it from an authority one trusts, without knowing the formal proofs for it. This is the faith of the lay people, and is easily susceptible to doubts. (ii) Faith through evidence (burhan): this is the fruit of learning formal proofs and discursive arguments. This is the faith of scholars and theologians. (iii) Faith via spiritual sight (‘ayan): this is where faith is the result of the heart having an abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of Allah. It’s the faith of those having reached the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). (iv) Faith via spiritual witnessing (mushahadah): it is where the heart witnesses Allah, as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). The first level of faith can be fragile: the next three beget ascending degrees of conviction and certainty.9

8. Beware reformist Muslims aching to align Islam with current western sensibilities, desperate to erase any distinctness that may make the monoculture feel unsettled. Be mindful of Muslim preachers unhinged from the sanad tradition, unschooled in adab and spiritual wisdom, who conflate harshness and severity with piety, thereby helping to drive many a servant of God into the icy realms of Riddastan. Beware, also, of the Muslim activist adopting the Sunnah out of reaction, protest, desperation, insecurity, identity politics, or because he cannot discover what else he wishes to be. Experience repeatedly demonstrates that such a person is likely to be ‘an engine of tanfir, driving humanity away from Islam by turning it into a language for proclaiming his inward traumas.’10

9. Before finishing, this concern about ta‘lim and tazkiyah; teaching and purification: Be not like those who became fixated on demonstrating the correctness of Islam, but came to practice nothing of Islam itself. Be not like those who were busy proving the existence of God, but came to care nothing for God Himself.

10. Lastly, ta‘lim reveals that our age is frought with so much confusion. Tazkiyah tells us that souls have never been so prone to egotism or spiritual lethargy. Together they help us realise that the times call on us that we too, like Allah’s wali, be infused with a spirit of love. For loving Allah, the wali loves His purposes; and looking at creation with love, laments that the Lord is forgotten, His commands disobeyed, and His signs unheeded.

Allahumma habbib ilayna’l-iman wa zayyinhu fi qulubina,
wa karrih ilayna’l-kufra wa’l-fusuqa wa’l-‘isyan,
waj‘alna min al-rashidin.
Amin.

1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.4175. It being a sahih hadith is shown in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1545.

2. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.11.

3. ibid., no.20.

4. ibid., no.37.

5. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2684, and it is sahih due to its collective routes of transmission. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.278.

6. Ibn Abi Dunya, Qasr al-Amal, no.20. Al-Albani graded the hadith hasan li ghayrihi in Sahih al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2006), no.3340.

7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:282; no.9256.

8. ibid., 6:282.

9. For a further discussion on these levels of faith, see: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.

10. A.H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: Quilliam Press, 2012), 66.

Footprints on the Sands of Time 4

sand-desert-alone-people-sand-dunes-footprint-1920x1200-wallpaper_www.wallmay.net_14Ours is an age of unparalleled spiritual pollution and deeply instilled ignorance about the human purpose. It’s an age in which religious practitioners of all faiths are feeling more and more claustrophobic, as society accords them less and less breathing space and loses interest in their concerns. The pressures now brought to bear on Religion to keep chipping away at the Sacred to concede ever more to the profane, are immense. This series of reflections and musings are offered as part of an ongoing conversation about how we Muslims can best engage these turbulent times, in a way that allows us to cultivate an Islam that is true to its time-honoured tradition, relevant to its current context, and of benefit to the deepest needs of humanity. (Earlier meditations in this series of “Footprints” may be read here, here and here).

On appealing to hardened hearts: The councels of Revelation and the warnings of the wise are often, in and of themselves, insufficient for those whose hearts are encrusted in sins and worldliness. Allah then makes them taste the turmoils of worldliness and the anguish of sins, that they may become disillusioned by them. Avoiding them then becomes easier.

On the ego’s infamies: From the vulgarities of the ego (nafs) is that whenever a person loves attention or prominence, he actively seeks out the faults of others.

On being lulled into a sense of comfort, then carelessness, then kufr: The whole point of the monoculture is to make us as comfortable – and thus as forgetful – as possible; to live as cattle concerned only about the patch of grass under our noses. Abrahamic monotheism, however, teaches us that it’s not that this present life is worthless, but that there is something beyond worth infinitely more. It asks us to stop looking down on our small chewing patch and lift our eyes towards the far horizons.

On being driven mad through turbo consumption: “Insan with the e-culture becomes insane.” – Abdal Hakim Murad

On how to select a spouse and have a blessed marriage: Religiousness, piety and good character must be the touchstone for spouse selection. Much good can come from a God-fearing heart, and a pious disposition is essential for attracting divine grace and blessings from heaven. But being on good terms with God does not always translate itself into good behaviour with others. Hence the prophetic advice to select someone whose “religion and character pleases you.” [Al-Tirmidhi, no.1088]

On the essence of Islam: Taqwa can be rendered into English as piety, mindfulness of God, guarding against evil and fearing God. Its essence lies in being profoundly aware of God and moulding one’s life in the light of this awareness. In other words, taqwa is God-consciousness.

On the prophetic way of engaging the monoculture: In engaging the monoculture, let us have a heart of ‘izzah, the eye of rahmah and the hand of khidmah.

On the question of Muslims ditching science and being Creationists: Muslims are, by definition, “creationists” – in the sense that they believe in a Creator-God; not in the sense that they are tied to a belief that the earth is a mere five thousand or so years old. Since there is nothing definitive in Islam’s Revelation about the age of the earth, it’s age is thus a question for emperical data and science to answer.

On the voice and valour of the Abrahamic Call: Where the Makkan Quraysh failed to see the disconnect between them and the true Abrahamic legacy; and failed to heed the discontent and suffering of the many at the hands of the elite few, the Prophet ﷺ saw it, understood it and gave voice to it.

On jihad in Islam: In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’ Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following proclamation of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. But if you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172] That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.

Let’s not forget this martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the leader carefully evaluate the potential benefits and harms of armed struggle; ensure civilians and non-combatants are not killed or wilfully attacked; abide by the other sanctities upheld in Islam; and keep in mind receptivity to the call (da‘wah) to Islam.

On working towards realities, not just claims: Scholars say: al-‘ibrah bi’l-haqa’iq wa’l-ma‘ani la bi’l-alfaz wa’l-mabani – “What counts are realities and meanings, not merely wordings or labels.” Consider the following limerick:

There once was a sufi with beads,
Who was terribly impressed with his deeds,
The salafi, he scorned
“You’ve no purity” he warned,
With his self he was O so well-pleased.

On shared morals as social glue: For all our urbanised airs and graces, in the absence of laws obeyed and a strong sense of a shared moral code, community and society will undoubtedly begin to fray at the seams.

On visiting the ahlu’Llah – the “people of Allah”: One sits in their presence to listen, observe, learn, practice service (khidmah) and gain self-knowledge; not pursue worldly ambitions, promote one’s ego, or encounter “exciting” spiritual experiences.

 

On the monoculture’s manufacturing of consent: How many cherished convictions of the masses in today’s “advanced” democracies are actually well-informed, fact-based certainties? And how many of them are mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of media soundbites, entertainment education and the passing trends of the time?

On the different kinds of drunkenness: It was once said to the distinguished sufi and venerable Imam of Ahl al-Sunnah, Sahl al-Tustari, that intoxications are of four kinds. So he asked: “Tell me what they are.” The man replied: “The intoxication of drink, the intoxication of youth, the intoxication of wealth and the intoxication of authority.” Sahl replied: “There are two more kinds: the intoxication of the scholar who loves this world, and the intoxication of the worshipper who loves to be noticed.”

Revolutions are just a tweet or a T-shirt away: Revolutions are messy and bloody. And although you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, Islam insists that there can be other things on the breakfast menu besides eggs. Revolutions are not events, they are processes – often, long, drawn-out ones – whose sought-after outcomes are seldom guaranteed. In fact, given our globalised world; wealthy and powerful outside interests, as well as regional geo-politics, are far more likely to shape final outcomes than are the well-conceived intentions of the masses. Mainstream Sunni Islam has long been suspicious about revolutions; and with plenty of reason to be so.

On seeking a murshid; a “guide” to God: The murshid instructs, advises, trains, arouses sleepy souls, revives decaying hearts and, above all, leads by example.

On a believer’s love of martyrdom: In one hadith, we hear the Prophet ﷺ declare the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way, then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; and then be killed.’ [Muslim, no.1910] Indeed the Prophet relished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; neither for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest act of service and ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to God one’s life, for a cause God loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving God. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whosoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6830] Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a saintly life. For how can one sincerely desire to die for God, if one doesn’t truly try to live for God?

On where to find one’s heart: “Seek your heart in three places: where the Qur’an is recited; in the gatherings of dhikr; and in times of seclusion. If you do not find it in these places, then ask God to bless you with a heart. For you have no heart!” – Ibn al-Qayyim

On the changing tides of our times: The first chords of the monoculture’s swan song began a few centuries back. We are perhaps now on the final encore.

On luminous souls: Be kind, be courageous; seek the good in everything, harm none, show courtesy to all living creatures; be enchanted with creation, take responsibility; and be learned in the ways of God and godliness – or at least sincerely try.

A Perennial Problem: Is Islam the Only Valid Path to God?

umbrella_spokesIs Islam (the religion and way of life the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ came with) the only path to God? Does the Qur’an extend the validity of religions beyond Islam; to any who believe in God and act rightly? Or does the Qur’an insist that Islam is the exclusive and only path to God? And what of the idea that some have culled from their personal reading of the Qur’an that at the heart of the world’s major religions and faiths, there is an essential unity of truth? This, Islam and the idea of salvic exclusivity, is our topic for discussion.

Our discussion concerning the above delicate and, in our current time, controversial questions are addressed through the following points:

1. The Qur’an is categorical when it says: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the losers. [3:85] Elsewhere it states: The [true] religion in Allah’s sight is Islam. [3:19] Whatever other verses may be marshalled in this issue, these two must surely lie at its heart.

2. Turning to the words of the Prophet ﷺ, we find him informing: “By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, shall be among the inhabitants of Hell.”1 Fleshing out the hadith’s theological implications, Imam al-Nawawi said: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions have now been abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’2

3. Not only has the religion of Islam that the Prophet ﷺ was sent with superseded all previously revealed heavenly teachings, this last dispensation or “version” of Islam is a universal one too. The Qur’an says: Say: ‘O Mankind! Truly I am the Messenger of Allah to you all.’ [7:158]  Al-Ghazali said in his magesterial Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din – “Revival of the Religious Sciences”: ‘Allah sent the Qurayshi unlettered Prophet Muhammad ﷺ with His divinely-inspired Message to the entire world: to Arabs and non-Arabs, jinn and mankind. The Prophet’s Sacred Law has abrogated and superceded all earlier revealed laws, except those provisions in them that the [new] Sacred Law has reconfirmed.’3

4. Over the past eight decades or so a view has arisen which alleges that Islam affirms the validity of other religions, denying or failing to mention that they have long since been abrogated. Recourse has been taken to the following passage to justify the claim: Those who believe [in the Qur’an], the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans; whosoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right, shall be rewarded by their Lord; no fear will come upon them, nor shall they grieve. [2:62] This verse, it’s claimed, extends the validity of religions beyond just Islam, and the possibility of salvation beyond just Muslims, to whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day. The error of such a claim can be gauged from the next three points:

5. Apart from ignoring the above proof-texts to the contrary, this view stands against Islamic orthodoxy which states, as per Imam al-Nawawi: ‘One who does not consider a person who follows a religion besides Islam – like a Christian – to be a disbeliever, or doubts that such a person is a disbeliever, or deems their religion to still be valid, is himself a disbeliever – even if, along with this, he manifests Islam and believes in it.’4 Such, then, is the enormity of the error and the magnitude of its misguidance. Qadi ‘Iyad affirmed a consensus about this, saying that: ‘there is a consensus (ijma‘) about the disbelief of one who does not consider as disbelievers the Christians, Jews and all those who part from the religion of the Muslims; or hesitates about their disbelief, or doubts it.’5

6. How then should the above verse [2:62] be read? Scholars of tafsir, along with their belief that the Qur’an’s message now supersedes all previous heavenly teachings, offer these interpretations for the above verse: [i] It is said to refer to those seekers of truth who believed in the imminent arrival of the final Prophet – like Habib al-Najjar, Qays b. Sa‘adah, Waraqah b. Nawfal, Zayd b. ‘Amr b. Nufayl, Bahirah the Monk, Salman al-Farsi and Abu Dharr al-Ghiffari. Some of them reached the Prophet ﷺ and accepted Islam at his hand. Others didn’t reach him, but are nonetheless included among those who believe in Allah and the Last Day. [ii] It refers to the believers of previous nations, following the prophets of their respective times. [iii] It’s claimed to refer to those Jews and Christians who, prior to accepting Islam in the time of the Prophet ﷺ, followed the unaltered teachings of Moses and Jesus; peace be upon them both. [iv] A few say it refers to the hypocrites; which is somewhat odd.6 Whatever the correct intent of this passage is, the view which extends salvation unrestrictedly, to include even those who deny the Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood ﷺ, is conspicuous by its absence in the classical tafsir literature.

7. Ibn Kathir helps put the above verse into context with his customary hermeneutics; he explains: ‘The faith of the Jews was that of those who adhered to the Torah and the way of Moses, peace be upon him, until the arrival of Jesus. With the advent of Jesus, those who followed the Torah and the Mosaic Laws, not leaving them to follow Jesus, were doomed. The faith of the Christians was that of whoever adhered to the Gospel and to the teaching of Jesus. They were believers and their faith valid till the advent of Muhammad ﷺ. Those who rejected Muhammad ﷺ, by not leaving the Gospel and Jesus’ way are doomed … This doesn’t conflict with what ‘Ali b. Abi Talha relates from Ibn ‘Abbas that: Those who believe [in the Qur’an], the Jews, the Christians, and Sabaeans; whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day was followed by Allah revealing: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Afterlife he will be among the losers. For what Ibn ‘Abbas is simply informing is that no path is acceptable from anyone, nor any deed, unless it conforms to the shari‘ah of Muhammad ﷺ now that he has been sent. Prior to this, anyone who followed the particular prophet of his time was upon right guidance and the path of salvation.’7

8. In the above light, philosophies that speak of the “Essential Unity of Religions”, or “Perennialism”, are disbelief (kufr). The metaphysics of these philosophies is such that they insist the world’s major faiths: Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, like Islam, all contain at their heart a core set of esoteric truths, despite them differing immensely in their external appearance, forms and practices – and even in many of their beliefs. They also believe that these major religions, again like Islam, still retain their validity even today. The metaphor used to describe the Unity of Religions is that of a bicycle wheel. The spokes represent the different religions; the hub symbolises God, the Supreme Being, the Transcendent Reality. Just as the spokes come closer to each other as they near the hub, so too, as each path comes closer to the One Reality, it comes closer to all other paths. Now as appealing as it sounds to some, it can never pass for authoritative, orthodox Quranic teachings – as has been shown.

9. Asserting that such Perennialist philosophy is clear disbelief (kufr) does not amount to an accusation that each specific individual who holds such a belief is necessarily an unbeliever (kafir) – as is well attested to in mainstream Sunni theology. The maxim in this matter runs as follows: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief, becomes a disbeliever.’ The shari‘ah upholds the distinction between a general charge of disbelief (takfir ‘amm), and the charge of disbelief upon a specific individual (takfir mu‘ayyan). Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘They have not given proper consideration that making takfir has conditions (shurut) and impediments (mawani‘) that must be actualised if it is to be applied to a specific individual. Because a general declaration of takfir doesn’t imply takfir on a specific individual – until conditions are fulfilled and impediments lifted.’8

10. The Perennialist Philosophy (religio perennis) was first propagated in the late 1930s. It was Frithjof Schuon who would bring this idea to its fruition. Among those who came under Schuon’s influence were those like Martin Lings, Gai Eaton and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (the first two also being converts to Islam). Such Muslims who, through a hugely errant ta’wil or interpretation that misled them into perennialism, are part of a highly learned body of authors and academics who offer some of the finest critiques of modernity from a traditional perspective, and profoundest spiritual expositions of Islam to modern beleaguered hearts and minds. That their writings have, by Allah’s grace, brought so many Westerners into the fold of Islam is beyond doubt. Perennial beliefs aside, their writings are a reminder that to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual and spiritual content is no longer possible in our modern world. For the spirit of our times asks questions, questions for the most part hostile to faith, which demands answers. And those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith; from adequate familiarity with modernity’s philosophical underpinnings; and from reflective study, introspection and meditation.

11. Interestingly, the late Martin Lings wrote in The Eleventh Hour about the theory of man’s evolution that if it is indeed true, why didn’t God tell believers about it to begin with, or at least gradually bring them into it? Why did He allow religion after religion to repeat the same old ways of thinking, and prevent prophet after prophet from ever divulging its true nature? Yet He allowed a mere non-prophet to discern its reality and propogate it in defiance of all spiritual authorities of the time.9 And yet a similar line of argument can equally apply to the belief in perennialism. For using the same rhyme and reason one could ask: Why didn’t Allah tell believers about this to begin with, or wean them steadily onto it? Why did Allah allow prophet after prophet to repeat the same ways of thinking, or prevent them from disclosing its true nature? And yet, we are to believe, He allowed a mere non-prophet to arrive at this great existential truth, propagating it in disregard to a scholarly consensus of the past sages and present-day spiritual authorities. The point being is that if Islam’s religious authorities all deemed the belief to be kufr, on what basis should Perennialism be accepted?

12. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not been conveyed, or they have heard about Islam and the Prophet, but in a distorted form? Here the Qur’an presents a far wider, ecumenical scope: Nor do We punish until We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] Also: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The idea of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, is vital in this issue; typified by the words of Imam al-Nawawi (which have already preceded in point 2) that ‘those to whom the call of Islam does not reach are excused.’

13. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of wilful rejection (juhud) of it or because of belying (takdhib) it. Others, however, choose not to hear the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) out of arrogance or prejudice against it, or hostility towards it – in some cases doing so knowing it is the truth: And they rejected them [Allah’s signs], although they inwardly recognised them, through injustice and arrogance. [27:14] Now it’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of discerning the revealed truths of Islam. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or losing their standing among people; having contempt for Muslims; arrogant prejudice against them; or just out of sheer folly and misguidance, many turn away from even considering the Qur’an. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.10

14. As for those who have heard about Islam, but in a distorted form, I’ll suffice with what Imam al-Ghazali wrote about the matter: ‘In fact, I would say that, Allah willing, most of the Byzantine Christians and the Turks of this age will be included in Allah’s mercy. I’m referring here to those who live in the farthest regions of Byzantium and Anatolia who have not come into contact with the message. These people are of three groups: [i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’11

15. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are non-Muslims; disbelievers. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this rule of thumb: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’12

16. As for the honourific distinctions given to the Jews and Christans in the Qur’an, in that they are referred to as People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), their chaste womenfolk are lawful to marry, and their ritually-slaughtered meat may be eaten, then this in no way excludes them from being a category of disbelievers. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi wrote, citing al-Qaffal, that ‘although the ahl al-kitab have acquired the virtue in this world of [us] being able to marry their women and eat their slaughtered meat. Yet this does not set them apart from the idolators in matters of the Afterlife, in terms of rewards and chastisements.’13

To wrap up the discussion: The Qur’an insists that every prophet came with a core set of universal truths centred around Allah’s Oneness (tawhid). The Qur’an says: We have sent to every nation a Messenger [proclaiming]: ‘Worship Allah and shun false gods.’ [16:36] It is possible, therefore, for Buddhism and Hinduism to have been, in the ancient past, divinely-revealed. Yet it is equally true that the Qur’an insists of previously-revealed religions and their scriptures that they have long suffered alteration and corruption at the hands of men, and that whatever revealed truths were once present in them have long since been forgotten, changed, compromised or overshadowed by corrupted and idolatrous beliefs and practices. So while the world’s major faiths do show similarities with Islam, this does not prove their essential unity with it as they currently exist. For they haven’t only been altered, but have also been abrogated and superceded by what was revealed to the final Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is why: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers. Now whether such an explanation is passionate or dispassionate, narrow and unecumenical, or born of a “madrasah mentality,” it is the unanimous belief of Islam’s eminent sages, jurists and theologians. It is, in other words, the Quranic truth.

That said, I think it befitting to close with these words from Shaykh Bin Bayyah, one of contemporary Islam’s most revered and learned jurists: ‘Of course, a devotional life in this world should be lived in peaceful co-existence with others.’14 O Allah! Bless us with iman and aman – with faith and security; and make us of benefit to Islam and to humanity, and not a harm or a hindrance to them. Amin.

1. Muslim, no.240.

2. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.

3. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 2004), 1:120.

4. Rawdat al-Talibin (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), 7:290. Its like is seen in  al-Buhuti, Kashshaf al-Qina‘ (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1983), 6:170.

5. Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2002), 450.

6. Cf. al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 1:57; Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 65.

7. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1986), 1:107.

8.  Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 12:487-8. Also see the article on this blog: Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules.

9. Lings, The Eleventh Hour (Cambridge: Archetype, 2002), 28.

10. See: Bin Bayyah, What of Those to Whom Islam Does Not Reach?

11. Al-Ghazali, Faysal al-Tafriqah (Damascus: 1993), 84.

12. ibid., 25.

13. Al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981), 11:151, on Qur’an 5:5.

14. Bin Bayyah, What of Those to Whom Islam Does Not Reach?

Law & Morality: Swinging Sixties to Artificial Intelligence

robots_8Ever since Kubric’s 1968 sci-fi epic 2001: A Space Odyssey, or the 1983 film War Games, or the desperate attempts to stop Skynet going live in the Terminator franchise, we’ve grown more and more accustomed to machines having the commanding edge when it comes to making logical decisions about space flight or warfare. But for the past few years, scientists in the United States, upping the anti in this steadily evolving field, are working on teaching artificial intelligence how to make moral and ethical decisions too. That is immensely mind-blowing as it is scary.

But what does it mean to make ethical decisions or reason morally? Moral reasoning can be thought of as the ability to learn, reason with, and act on the laws and societal norms on which humans tend to agree. What these programers and scientists hope to do is to get machines; artificial intelligence, to emulate these abilities. Not everyone is keen to create machines to match or surpass human abilities. Stephen Hawking, for instance, warns that doing so could spell the end of humanity. He fears that at some point of complexity, artificial intelligence would take off on its own, redesigning itself at an ever-inreasing rate. In contrast, humans, who are constrained by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would swiftly be superseded.

While we may be a long way from teaching robots to process Kant’s moral imperative, or to feel compassion, let’s turn to a moral issue closer to home; the question of law & morality and the changing tides of time:

The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ told us about the following: ‘From the signs of the Hour is that the virtuous shall be demeaned and the wicked elevated.’1

The above prophecy alerts us to a highly disturbing phenomenon. It is difficult to see how virtuous people could be devalued, unless you first demote and demean morality and virtue itself. And yet this is precisely what has happened. For ours is an age (and it has been so for quite some time now) where the old certainties, and the morality that flowed from them, have been dealt a crushing blow. Although long in the making, the liberal revolution of the 1960s was the beginning of the end of England as a Christian country in terms of Christian ethics being reflected in law and Christian morals being the glue that bound society. Against the backdrop of the swinging sixties, the country witnessed a series of liberalising laws that would usher in the start of a Post-Christian milieu: suicide ceased to be a crime in 1961; and in 1967, abortion was legalised, as was homosexuality.

Hereinafter, within Britain, there would be a parting of the ways for law and morality: the law would now intervene only to prevent individuals from harming each other. As for morality, it could no longer be thought of as the code for society. Instead, it would be relegated to an individual choice, and people would be free to indulge in whatever experiments in living they desired. Rights would soon replace responsibilities, desires would eventually trump duties and, by the 1990s, society would begin to significantly fray at the seams. There is no other choice for believers, driven as they must be by the healing lights of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism, than to seek society’s redemption and moral restoration.

How much morality should be translated into law, and how much is to be left to the individual conscience, is a question which all civilised societies must grapple with. In Islam’s Sacred Law, ‘sins which involve injustice to others and injury to them, be it in the religious or worldly sense, are more severely punished in this world than those not entailing harm to others; despite the fact that the punishment for the latter may be greater in the Hereafter.’2 This is why, despite disobedience to parents being more morally wrong than, for instance, fornication, the shari‘ah has no fixed penalty for the former, but it does for the latter. Again, arrogance is a far greater sin than consuming alcohol; and yet there is no prescribed worldly punishment for the first, but there is for the second. ‘The reason is clear: such punishments are there to safeguard religious and worldly interests from the wrongdoing of wrongdoers, whereas the punishment of those who wrong only themselves is left to their Lord.’3

As the assault on traditional morality and virtue continues to intensify from, among other quarters, the media, movies and trash TV; and as more and more of the world is exposed to the mediocrity and moral bankruptcy of the monoculture and is gradually ‘normalised’ into it; we Muslims should be clear that ours is a religion of meritocracy. That is to say, in Islam people are valued, respected and held in high esteem according to their piety, virtue and merits. People of corrupt morals, or who lack basic adab and decency, or who wallow in self-inflicted ignorance of even the basic teachings of the faith – they may be looked upon with the eye of pity, tolerance and charity; but never with honour, distinction or approbation.

Those who have even a slight insight into the gravity of the Quranic message, or who recognise that the Sunnah came to elevate humankind and restore us to our Adamic dignity will, in all likelihood, find today’s crass (and oftentimes, vulgar and irreverent) celebrity culture more than a trifle troublesome. Surely ones ease with, or acceptance of, it simply reflects how much souls have become desensitised to virtue or how much hearts have cozied up to vice; doesn’t it?

This is why Islam puts great weight on al-amr bi’l-ma‘ruf wa’l-nahi ‘ani’l-munkar – the duty of “commanding good and forbiding wrong.” Allah, exalted is He, declares in the Qur’an: The believers, men and women, are allies one to another; they enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil. [9:71] If we are to continue to recognise and honour people of virtue and piety, so as to be inspired by their conduct and be guided by their example, then we must collectively ensure that the lines between halal and haram, virtue and vice, and morality and immorality, are not blurred or made fuzzy. For if knowledge of what constitutes virtue and vice is lost to us; if Islamic morality is made subjective to the tastes and fashions of the times, and is no longer a rock firmly planted, we shall have brought about our rack and ruin in both worlds. Immense pressure is now being brought to bear upon Muslims to do precisely this. Ibn Mas‘ud, one of Islam’s earliest converts and one of its most illustrious scholars, once heard a person say: ‘Whoever doesn’t enjoin the good or forbid evil has perished.’ To which Ibn Mas‘ud responded: ‘Rather, one whose heart doesn’t recognises good from evil has perished.’4

These words become even more significant or consequential if we recall the following hadith: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; if he is unable to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’5 If the heart no longer recognise evil, let alone detests it or seeks to change it, then what type of faith is there? For let us not forget, in all this it is faith that is at stake.

As highly complex algorithms are currently being formulated, written and tested so as to give machines the gift of moral reasoning; if successful, it’s hoped that this robotic morality won’t be as open to abuse as it was in I, Robot.

Here’s hoping.

1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:554. Its narrators are all those of the Sahih, as stated by al-Haythami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 7:326.

2. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:181.

3. ibid., 28:182.

4. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8564. Its chain is sahih, as Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut said in his crititical edition of Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:245.

5. Muslim, no.49.

Turning to God After All Else Has Failed Us

image-by-Robert-GoldsteinIsn’t it the height of bad faith if we turn to God only after everyone else, or everything else, has failed us? Isn’t that trivialising God’s greatness that we’ve put Him last on our list? If so, will He still listen to my plea for help? Should I still turn to Him? Or will it be a case of: ‘The cheek of it!’?

In his celebrated volume of spiritual discourses, called Futuh al-Ghayb, the venerable Shaykh and sayyid, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d.561H/1166CE) – the leading Hanbali jurist of Baghdad in his time and a spiritual master par excellence of his age – commences the third of his orations with these words:

‘When the servant is tried with some difficulty, his first impulse is to try and cope with it by himself. If he is unable to extract himself from it, he looks to others for help, such as those in power, important officials, people of means and influence, or medical experts; if disease or physical ailment is involved. If he still finds no relief, he then turns to his Lord with prayers of petition, humble entreatment and offerings of praise. As long as he feels he can cope on his own, he will not turn to others; and so long as he can count on others, he will not turn to the Creator.’1

It seems a poor thing to turn to God as a last resort; to remember Him when all else fails us; to lift our hands to Him only when the ship is going down. If God were proud He would never accept us on such terms. But God is not proud. Instead, Kind, Caring and, Merciful – God will have us even if we have shown that we have preferred others over Him and that we come to Him only because we are now at a dead end. Indeed, it does not really proclaim the glory of God if we chose Him only as an alternative to Hell; and yet even this He accepts. Such is God’s mercy and kindness; such is how He forgives and overlooks His glory’s diminution. In fact, God says in the Qur’an: When My servants ask you concerning Me [tell them] I am indeed close, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [2:186] God further states: Say: ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their own souls! Despair not of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins; for He is the All-Forgiving, All-Merciful. [39:53]

Further on in the very same discourse, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir speaks about how, when the person’s illusions of self-sufficiency are shattered – and for the person’s sake they must be shattered – and as he is made to realise that none can help him or grant him relief except God, God responds to his servant’s humility and brokenness and shades him from distress. For God accepts His servants however they may come to Him – if not in loving submission, then by trials and troubles, or by simple fear of the eternal flames; unmindful, even, of His glory’s diminution.

1. Futuh al-Ghayb (Cairo: Dar al-Maqtam, 2007), 22. My translation of the passage was based on M. Holland, Revelations of the Unseen (Florida: Al-Baz Publishing, 2007), 11.

Knowing, Doing & Becoming

islamic-tourism-018Q. I’ve been following your talks and writings, on and off for about sixteen years now. You often mention the Islamic concept of knowing, doing & becoming, describing it as the “methodology of a Muslim” and a “blueprint for a believer.” It’s even the motto of your blog and the Jawziyyah Institute. I know you’ve explained what it means many a time in your talks, but I was hoping you could put something in writing about it.

A. Bismi’Llah. Alhamduli’Llah. Wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. The first thing I’d like to point out is that the idea of knowing, doing & becoming is not mine. Rather, it is something which the scholars are generally united upon, even if they may sometimes express it in different ways. Knowing, doing & becoming refers to: knowing faith, doing works of faith, then becoming transformed by faith. Having laid out the bare bones of the matter, allow me to put some flesh on those bones:

1. The concept of knowing, doing and becoming has its starting point in the celebrated Hadith of Gabriel (jibril). This is the hadith which tells how the Angel Gabriel came to a public gathering of the Prophet ﷺ, in the guise of a man, and put three elemental questions to him: what is faith (iman); what is [outward] submission (islam); and what is [spiritual] excellence (ihsan)? The Prophet ﷺ replied to the first question by saying that faith is firm and unwavering belief in Allah, the angels, the prophets, the revealed scriptures, the Last Day, and divine decree (qadr). To the next, he ﷺ responded that submission entailed uttering the two testimonies of faith (shahadah), performing the five daily prayers, paying the annual zakat, fasting during the month of Ramadan and undertaking pilgrimage to the Ka‘bah in Makkah. To the last: ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him; and while you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ Later, the Prophet ﷺ disclosed: ‘That was Gabriel; he came to teach you your religion.’1

2. The significance in the above hadith is that the entire religion was encapsulated in three spheres: iman, islam and ihsan. The first is about knowing what to believe in; the second, doing those deeds which give concrete expression to one’s beliefs; the third is becoming transformed by those beliefs and deeds. This, then, is the basis for: knowing, doing & becoming. On the merits of this hadith, Qadi ‘Iyad said: ‘This hadith entails an explanation of all the duties of worship, inward and outward, from those [related to] the bonds of faith, actions of the limbs, inward sincerity and protecting actions from the dangers [of non-acceptance] – to the extent that all of the shari‘ah sciences return back to it and branch off from it.’2

3. Knowing (‘ilm), doing (‘aml) & becoming (hal) equate to iman, islam and ihsan. These three, in turn, equate to the Islamic sciences of beliefs (‘aqidah), positive law (fiqh) and spirituality (suluk, tazkiyah, or tasawwuf). Now spirituality is somewhat of a blurry and nebulous word. Today, spirituality can mean anything from lighting an incense stick, hugging a tree, feeling elated by the natural world; art; or a piece of classical music, to long walks, quiet reflection, yoga, meditation, or organised religion. As far as Islam is concerned, spirituality relates to the Spirit; the ruh. Or to the soul (nafs). Spirituality, in Islam, is about traversing the path to Allah by acts of sincere, loving submission. It’s about, as some spiritual masters have put it, how to journey into the presence of the King of kings (kayfiyat al-suluk ila hadrati malik al-muluk). It entails inwardly purifying the soul from its vices (radha’il) and adorning it with virtues (fada’il) so that, with its labours of love, it is gradually weaned away from its distractions and its opposition to the divine will. This is when such a soul has been made worthy of divine acceptance and is given to enter the divine presence: But those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s passions, the Garden is their abode. [79:40-41]

4. Knowing, doing & becoming has levels. There are some matters a Muslim is obligated to know, do and become; while other things are preferred to know, do and become. This is seen in the next hadith: ‘Allah, exalted is He, said: “Whoever shows enmity to a friend (wali) of Mine, I shall be at war with him. My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined on him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works so that I shall love him.”‘3 What this make clear is that there is no way to Allah’s walayah – love, sanctity and closeness – except by fulfilling the obligations (fara’id) then performing optional works of faith (nawafil). The first encircles us in Allah’s love; the second endears us to Allah even more so. One keeps in mind however: man shaghalahu’l-fard ‘an al-nafl fa huwa ma‘dhur, wa man shaghalahu’l-nafl ‘an al-fard fa huwa maghrur – ‘One busied by obligatory acts, away from optional ones, is excused. One busy in optional acts, away from obligatory ones, is deluded.’4

5. About the obligations in ‘aqidah, fiqh and suluk, Shaykh Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi said: ‘The Prophet ﷺ said: “The seeking of knowledge is compulsory on every Muslim.’5 This includes understanding tawhid and to know about [the uniqueness of] Allah’s Essence (dhat) and Attributes (sifat). It entails knowing the acts of worship (‘ibadat), the lawful and prohibited, and what is permissible and forbidden in terms of social transactions (mu‘amalat). It further includes learning the praiseworthy spiritual states of the heart; like patience, gratitude, generosity, good character and companionship, truthfulness and sincerity; as well as the blameworthy ones, such as rancour, envy, treachery, pride, ostentation, anger, enmity, malice and miserliness. Learning how to acquire the first [set of traits] and to remove the second is as much a personal duty as ensuring the validity of one’s beliefs, acts of worship and social transactions.’6

6. Every Islamic curriculum, methodology (manhaj), or claim to orthodoxy not having the Hadith of Jibril and the Hadith of Allah’s Wali – i.e. the concept of knowing, doing & becoming (iman, islam & ihsan) – at its core, is incomplete, imbalanced and unsound. Hadith Jibril is generally felt to be the most succinct summary of the entire din, which touches on every aspect of belief, practice and spiritual growth (‘he came to teach you your religion’). Indeed, al-Haytami says of the hadith that ‘it is dubbed ‘the Mother of the Sunnah (umm al-sunnah) like al-Fatihah is called ‘the Mother of the Qur’an (umm al-qur’an)’, since it encapsulates the Sunnah’s entire message.’7 For faith to be correct and come to true fruition, iman, islam and ihsan must be brought into an equilibrium; that is, ‘aqidah, fiqh and suluk must be in balance and harmony. Problems occur in the Muslim personality and collectivity whenever they are out of kilter. So, for instance, if fiqh isn’t accompanied by serious commitment to suluk, it often results in dry legalism and puritanical behaviour. Without fiqh and adherence to the law, suluk is merely self-deception and wishy-washy spirituality. Without fiqh, ‘aqidah is no more than empty slogans. In the absence of suluk, ‘aqidah becomes blind ideology. Yet without ‘aqidah, both fiqh and suluk are sterile or futile. Thus all three are indispensable. In summary: without ‘aqidah, there is just idolatry and heresy; without fiqh, vanity and futility; and without suluk, hypocrisy and pretentious piety.

7. While it is categorically true that the Qur’an says (51:56) we were created to worship Allah, the Hadith of Jibril informs us how this worship should be: ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him; and while you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ It is, I think, an indicment of sorts on an individual’s source of learning if, after some time, he or she hasn’t been led to or taught this all-inclusive understanding of Islam. If that be so, one needs to seriously question one’s source of knowledge and learning, since it smacks of treachery to the trust of teaching. The area that is usually ignored, treated lightly, undermined, or even scoffed at, is that of ihsan – the becoming dimension. As this is all too often the case, let me say this much about it:

8. Masters of the inward life say that ihsan during acts of worship has three degrees:8 (i) Performing the act excellently and with proper decorum (adab), by at least fulfilling its conditions (shurut), pillars (arkan) and obligations (wajibat). (ii) Performing the act with an awareness of Allah’s presence and watchful gaze – known as muraqabah. The shaykhs of ihsan teach us that if, when recalling the fact that Allah sees you, a shyness emerges in your heart that drives you to exert yourself in Allah’s obedience or deters you from disobedience, then you possess something of the realities of muraqabah or vigilance. (iii) Beyond this lofty degree lies that of mushahadah – spiritually witnessing Allah; or “seeing” Him with the eye of the heart (bi ‘ayn al-basirah). This is where faith has flooded the heart and filled it to the brim, due to being immersed in Allah; lost in contemplation of Him; and witnessing His hand in all things and behind all things. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali said that it is the degree where: ‘the heart is illumined with faith, and the inner sight arrives at experiential knowledge such that the Unseen becomes, at it were, seen (huwa an yutanawwara’l-qalb bi’l-iman wa tanfudha’l-basirah fi’l-irfan hatta yasira’l-ghaybu ka’l-ayan).’9 Attaining muraqabah is, we are told, rare. Arriving at mushahadah is rarer still. It can’t be gained by any effort on our part; rather it is sheer gift and grace from Allah to His sincere devotees, lovers and saints.

9. It is the transformation, the becoming, which is the goal. That is, it’s not only about praying, fasting or doing other acts of piety (taqwa); it’s about cultivating one’s soul, so as to make piety an ingrained habit. In other words, it’s about becoming one of the pious (muttaqun). It is not just about giving zakat or some charity (sadaqah), but about becoming, by nature, of the charitable (mutasaddiqun). Nor is it only about patience, speaking truth, making dhikr, or doing a deed or two of rectification. It’s about being rooted in these traits, to become of those who are patient (sabirun), truthful (sadiqun), constantly remember Allah (dhakirun), and are healers and rectifiers (muslihun). It’s all about the becoming. Above all, it’s about becoming mukhlisun – those who purify their worship making it sincerely and exclusively for Allah; muhsinun – those who worship Allah upon spiritual excellence; and muhibbun – true lovers of Him. In the religion of Islam, it’s very much about the becoming.

Allahumma inna nas’aluka hubbaka, wa
hubba man yuhibbuka, wa hubba
‘amalin yuqarribuna
ila hubbika.
Amin.

1. Muslim, no.8.

2. Cited in Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 1:142-43.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.6502.

4. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), 14:338.

5. Ibn Majah, no.224. It is is hasan due to its multiple chains of transmission. See: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 4:268; no.5264.

6. Maw‘izat al-Mu’minin (Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2001), 45.

7. Al-Fath al-Mubin bi Sharh al-Arba‘in (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 187.

8. See: al-Jurdani, Jawahir al-Lu’lu’iyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2013), 121, who goes on to says: ‘Each of these three stations are [part of] ihsan. Except that the ihsan which is a prerequisite for the validity of worship is the first one. As for the other two levels of ihsan, they are the traits of the elite (khawwas), for which most are excused.’

9. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:129.

Khawarij Ideology, ISIS Savagery: Part 2 of 3

IsisThe first instalment of this blog (here) charted the rise of Islam’s first heterodox sect, the Khawarij, who were described by the Prophet ﷺ as being: ‘the worst of mankind and beasts’1 and ‘dogs of Hellfire.’2 We saw how their defining traits were: (i) rebellion (khuruj) against legitimate state rule; (ii) declaring Muslims to be apostates (takfir) for sins or opinions that do not warrant apostasy and; (iii) shedding peoples’ blood and causing chaos and terror throughout the land (fasad fi’l-ard). Such have tended to be this heinous group’s timeless traits.

Whatever other motives or pathology are at work in the Khariji mind, the underlying cause of their deviation was clearly stated by Ibn ‘Abbas when he said to them, in his encounter with them: ‘I come to you from the Emigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar) and the son-in-law of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ. To them the Qur’an was revealed. They are more learned about its meanings than you are; and there is not a single one of them among you.’3 In other words, Ibn ‘Abbas is insisting that he has come from a people educated and nurtured by the Prophet ﷺ himself; a people whose knowledge of the meanings, context and intent of the Quranic teachings is second to none. It’s as if he was saying: ‘Pray tell, with what authority do you presume to know better than the sahabah – the actual people of knowledge, understanding and excellence?’

With that short recap, let’s now turn our focus to ISIS. At the outset, it is important to note that no single writing of this size can hit every relevant nail on the head in this affair. There are far too many questions and concerns to tackle for that to realistically happen. Nor is this piece meant to be academically exhaustive or politically thorough. Instead, the purpose is to compare the claims and modus operandi of ISIS with that of Islam’s well-established juristic norms, and to show how they are the most recent face of Kharijite misguidance, barbarity, indiscriminate killings and takfirism.

I’d also like to stress here that not all those waging jihad in Syria are the ISIS/al-Qaeda types. Many groups and individuals are; but not all. Likewise, not all who are fighting under, or migrating to, the ISIS banner deserve the same ruling or description. While it is true that many (or even most) ISIS-affiliates are no more than thugs, deviants and followers of false desires; others are sincere, but betaken with idealism and naivety; or are ensnared by claims of an alleged caliphate (khilafah) and misled into believing the grass is greener on the other side.

Yet since ISIS has a clear-cut command structure, and its ideology and decrees come from top down, there is sufficient enough shari‘ah justification to be able to describe the group in collective, generic terms – even if not every individual affiliated with the group fits the description. This shall be the stance I take when writing this blog. So to continue on from Section III of the first part of the blog, let’s start with a declaration from the leader of ISIS:

IV

On May 14th, 2015 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the alleged khalifah of all Muslims, said in a 34 minute audio address: ‘O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation.’4 The issue of jihad and Islam’s attitude to war is as good a place as any to start our examination of ISIS.

Without a doubt, jihad in the sense of qital (“fighting”, “military war”) is enjoined on the faithful at numerous places in the Qur’an and is seen as a highly meritorious form of duty and sacrifice in Islam. Al-Raghib wrote about the schematics of jihad in these terms: ‘Jihad is of three types: jihad against the apparent enemy; against the devil; and against the ego (nafs). All three types are included in Allah’s words, exalted is He: And wage jihad in Allah’s path with all the striving that is due to Him. [22:78] And wage jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. [9:41] … Jihad is to be waged with the hand and the tongue, as he [the Prophet] ﷺ said: “Wage jihad against the unbelievers with your hands and your tongues.”56

Undeniably, then, military or armed jihad is well-attested to in the revealed texts.7 Yet to equate this one virtuous act of the faith with the totality of Islam is nothing short of being perverse or pathological.

The self-proclaimed Caliph and so-called caretaker of the ummah has nothing to say about prayer, fasting or pilgrimage. No significant exhortation to piety or to purifying the heart. No word about cultivating good morals and ethics, or kindness to parents, fulfilling contracts or guarding the tongue. There’s just a call to fighting, violence and shedding blood. The slick ISIS media output is filled with images of blood and gore; of victims in the process of being executed, burnt or beheaded; and children playing amidst decapitated heads. ISIS wants us to believe this is the real Islam; that this is the spirit of a true Muslim: and that anyone who recoils from such imagery is but a pale reflection of the real deal. In the ISIS reading of Islam, this is how the Prophet ﷺ was. This is what al-Baghdadi is hell bent on making us believe. In fact, this is what so many in the world have come to believe; and it utterly repulses them.

So what was the Prophet’s attitude ﷺ to war? And how does the shari‘ah, the Sacred Law of Islam, countenance war?

In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’8 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following declaration of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. If you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’9 That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently. The following hadith might also be used as a support: ‘After me there will be conflicts and affairs. If you are able, resolve them peacefully.’10 Also revealing are these words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘The most detested of names to Allah are War (harb) and Bitterness (murrah).’11

All this is a far cry from the ISIS reinvention of the Muslim personality and from their irreverent portrayal of the Prophet ﷺ. If anything, their portrayal is more a betrayal. Jihad of the military kind, as we have seen, is not a goal in itself; it’s a means to a goal: the free and unhindered invitation to Islam and the summons to worship Allah alone. Let’s not forget this martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the leader carefully evaluate the potential benefits and harms of armed struggle; ensure civilians and non-combatants are not killed or wilfully attacked; abide by the other sanctities upheld in Islam; and keep in mind receptivity to the call (da‘wah) to Islam.

ISIS, however, seems not to give much thought about receptivity to Islam, nor about sanctity of life – including Muslim life. Despite their claims to uphold the shari‘ah, the list of their atrocities and violations reads like an Argos catalogue. These involve: the indiscriminate killing of Muslims; kidnapping and killing of non-Muslims who have entered Muslims countries as aid workers, journalists or under a covenant of security; torturing and killing prisoners as well as mutilating their bodies; exacting revenge and retribution upon the public if they disagrees with ISIS; illegally seizing the wealth and property of Muslims; and, of course, their rampant takfir of a large numbers of Muslims – scholars and mujahids included. It seems the only difference between ISIS and the Khawarij of earlier times is in the sheer scale of ISIS’s takfir, bloodshed and savagery. In this sense, ISIS are not Khawarij, they are ubër-Khawarij! And nor should one be taken in by their apparent Islamic rhetoric. For the Prophet ﷺ warned about the Khawarij thugs that: ‘There shall appear in my ummah schisms and divisions, and a people who will beautify their speech, but their actions will be evil. They shall recite the Qur’an, but it will not pass beyond their throats …’12 Also: ‘They shall recite the Qur’an thinking it is for them, but it is against them.’13 And that: ‘They would call to the Book of Allah, but would not be from it at all.’14

V

In the same audio speech, al-Baghdadi goes to great lengths to rally every able-bodied believer to his cause: ‘Muslims! Do not think the war that we are waging is the Islamic State’s war alone. Rather it’s the Muslims’ war altogether. It’s the war of every Muslim in every place, and the Islamic State is merely the spearhead in this war. It is but the war of the people of faith against the people of disbelief, so march forth to your war O Muslims.’15

This brings us to another crucial aspect about jihad in Islam: who may be fought? Are Muslims required to wage jihad against disbelievers due to their disbelief (kufr)? Imam Ibn Taymiyyah takes up the issue, stating: ‘The disbelievers, they are only to be fought on condition of them waging war first – as is the view of the majority of scholars; and as is proven by the Book and the Sunnah.16 Which is to say, Islam permits fighting disbelievers, not because of their disbelief, but only if they initiate war against Muslim societies, or manifest belligerence towards them. The Qur’an says: Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not transgress the limits. [2:190]

Ibn al-Qayyim, another medieval maestro of Islamic jurisprudence, wrote: ‘Fighting is only a duty in response to being fought against, not in response to disbelief. Which is why women, children, the elderly and infirm, the blind, or monks who stay out of the fighting are not fought. Instead, we only fight those who wage war against us.’17

Ibn al-Qayyim also stated about the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never did he force the religion upon anyone, and he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who entered into a peace treaty with him, or concluded a truce, he never fought them, nor ever coerced them to enter his religion, abiding by his Lord’s order: There is no compulsion in religion. True guidance has become distinct from error. [2:256] … It will be clear to whoever ponders the life of the Prophet ﷺ, that he never coerced anyone to enter his religion and that he only fought those who fought against him first. As for those who ratified a peace treaty with him, he never fought them, provided they kept to their covenant and did not violate its terms.’18

Again, the issue of jihad isn’t quite as ISIS makes it out to be: ‘It is but the war of the people of faith against the people of disbelief.’ Rather, as per the above, and as most of the qualified jurists and recognised fatwa bodies of our time hold – and their word in shari‘ah affairs is authoritative and represents orthodoxy – that a state of war shall not exist between Muslims and others except if hostility against a Muslim land is initiated or barriers to da‘wah erected.19

As for when the Muslim army is in the thick of a religiously-sanctioned war, then this is where the following verses of the Qur’an (and their like) come into play: Slay them wherever you find them; drive them out of the places from which they drove you. [2:190-91] Also: Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them [captive] and besiege them, and lie in ambush for them everywhere. [9:5] And then, of course, there is this: But if they incline towards peace, incline to it too. [8:61]

Lastly, let’s touch upon the following: the believer’s love of martyrdom. In one hadith, we see the Prophet ﷺ relish the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way and then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed.’20 The Prophet ﷺ cherished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; nor for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest service and the ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to Allah one’s actual life, for a cause Allah loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving Allah. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whosoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’21 Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a saintly life. For how can one truly desire to die for God, if one doesn’t sincerely try to live for God?

VI

ISIS has no qualms in shamelessly flaunting its cruelty and deviancy. Although the so-called khalifah hides away from the public’s gaze, the khariji ideology and attitudes he propagates and presides over are on display for all to see. But ideology isn’t always the core appeal. Some are drawn to ISIS, not because of its ruthless ideology, but because for them it represents a rallying force against taghut rulers, establishments that have failed them, and western foreign policies. The claim to have reestablished the khilafah is the ultimate rallying force to galvanise the disaffected and disempowered. But has ISIS really reestablished the Caliphate? Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi truly the khalifah, the amir al-mu’minin, of all Muslims? Is there an Islamic duty upon each of us to give him the oath of allegiance, or bay‘ah? The short answer to all these questions is: Of course not! And here are a few reasons why:

1. The khalifah must be appointed by consultation (shura) of the ummah’s movers and shakers: its senior scholars, political leaders, wealthy ones, and any others who exert influence on large factions of the ummah and whose agreement is vital to bring about a unified stance. Without their approval, any claims of a khilafah is both unachievable and illegitimate. If anything, it will have the exact opposite effect. It will be the cause for schisms, divisions and civil unrest to erupt. ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said: ‘Whoever gives the oath of allegiance to a man, without consulting the Muslims, is not to be sworn allegiance to, nor is the one whom he swore allegiance to, for fear they both may be killed.’22 From this angle alone, there simply is no shari‘ah legality to al-Baghdadi’s claim to be khalifah. For consultation with a few unknowns and misfits doesn’t count as shura in such a key public affair.

2. Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The Prophet ﷺ ordered us to obey leaders who were both present and well-known (al-a’immah al-mawjudin al-ma‘lumin); those who wield executive political authority and have the capability to address the political needs of the people. He did not [order us with] obedience to leaders who are absent or unknown; or to those who lack executive authority and have no real governing power over anything.’23 So these are a few more reasons which make al-Baghdadi’s claim of being caliph bogus. He’s an unknown (as are the many former high-ranking Ba’athists he’s chosen to fill top organisational positions in ISIS). Moreover, his political clout is confined; it doesn’t extend globally, nor reach into Muslim majority countries.

3.  Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote of one of the pragmatic rulings that have shaped Sunni political theory and its rules of governance (ahkam al-sultaniyyah): ‘The scholars have united upon the obligation to obey the ruler who gains ascendency by force … For in it lies preservation of blood and public order.’24 The rationale here is quite simple: al-bay’ah khayrun min al-furqah – ‘Oath of allegiance is better than dissension.’25 Now it has been argued that since al-Baghdadi and ISIS have conquered territory and gained sovereignty by force, this somehow makes him khalifah. This is nonsense; as shown by the previous point. At best, ISIS is an emirate and al-Baghdadi is its amir, or leader. At worst, it temporarily controls conquered territories in an ongoing war zone, and al-Baghdadi a calculated fitnah-maker falsely claiming the title of Caliph; splitting the ranks of those who are fighting Syria’s tyrant; and turning his guns on mujahidun and anyone else who disagrees with his caliphal claim. Either way, ISIS most certainly isn’t a khilafah by any stretch of the imagination. Those that aid and abet ISIS, only aid and abet murder, mayhem and misguidance.

Then there’s the matter of whether multiple rulers (ta‘addud al-a’immah) are lawful or not in Islam, or are Muslims always required to be politically unified under one single ruler or caliph? Here’s an outline of the issue:

4. After citing the hadith, ‘Whoever comes to you whilst your affairs are unified under a single person, seeking to undermine your unity or divide your ranks, execute him,’26 al-Qurtubi remarked: ‘This is the strongest evidence prohibiting the establishment of two leaders [simaltaneously]. For this will lead to hypocrisy, dissension, schisms, civil strife and the removal of blessings. But if the lands are far apart and independent, like Anadulsia and Khurasan, it becomes permissible.’27

5. First stating the ideal, then supplying this dispensation on the topic, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The Sunnah is for the Muslims to have a single ruler (imam), with others being his deputies. But if it happened that the ummah left this, due to sin from some and inability from others, so that it had multiple rulers, it would them be incumbent upon each ruler to establish the prescribed punishments and preserve peoples’ rights.’28

6. Adapting to the changing realities and seismic political shifts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Muslim world, the jurist and murajjih, Imam al-Shawkani, stated: ‘However, as for after Islam became widespread and had reached many far away lands, then as is known, there arose in each province or territory a state with its own leader or ruler. This happened in all regions. The authority of each of them does not extend to the area of others, hence there is no harm in there being a number of leaders and rulers. Obedience to each of them, after the oath of allegiance, is obligatory upon the people of that area where his orders and prohibitions are operative. The same goes for the ruler of each area … So realise this. For it is in full accord with the principles of the shari‘ah and agrees with what the texts indicate. Ignore what is said contrary to this, since the difference in the condition of the rule of Islam in the beginning and the condition today is clearer than the daytime sun.’29

7. Although Muslims being split into countries, states and kingdoms is nowhere near ideal – given that sectarian strife and political discord exists in and among them; and many of their rulers are shabby tyrants, unfit for purpose, or have betrayed their trust as political caretakers – there is no shari‘ah duty to establish the khilalfah via terror or savagery or the destruction of peoples’ lives, property and honour. As the saying goes: al-‘aqil la yubni qasr wa yuhaddimu misr – ‘The intelligent one doesn’t build a palace by laying waste to the city.’ Rather, each subject or citizen lends their hand to obedience and law-abidingness, in that which does not entail disobedience. Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab said: ‘For a very long time, since before the time of Imam Ahmad, till nowadays, the people have not united under one single ruler. Nor is it known that any of the scholars have said that there is any ruling which is not correct except with the greater imam (al-imam al-a‘zam).’30

In Part 2, we’ve seen reasons why ISIS’s claim of a caliphate is fraudulent and invalid, and how some of its key views on warfare and jihad do not reflect normative readings or attitudes at all. ISIS, rather than being a true defender and carer of Muslim sanctity and lives, has gone out of its way to murder Muslims and perpetrate violence against them on a horrific scale. That their glossy media machine is now pushing the-idyllic-life-in-the-Islamic-State image, more than their usual blood and gore one, should not hoodwink anyone. If ISIS had done what they’ve done, under the name of politics and power grabbing, that would have been one thing. But it has done so under the name of Islam; using Islamic rhetoric; trying to justify its deeds with gross misreadings and misapplications of shari‘ah texts. This is what makes ISIS so utterly shameless. This is what makes ISIS so Khawarij-like in its self-righteous obstinacy. We ask Allah that He guide us and them and forgive us our sins. We also ask Him that He steer them aright or break their backs.

As for my brothers and sisters whose hearts have not been dulled by the dunya; whose souls yearn to strive in Allah’s cause; whose blood flows with the love of tawhid, piety and justice; but who may have become persuaded by the ISIS narrative or feel inclined to its call – please think! Think about the proofs and arguments laid out here, as well as the words of the people of knowledge cited here. Do not dismiss them out of hand merely because the heart of the one writing this has long ago been numbed by dunya and courage no longer courses through his veins. Instead, think about what is written here on its own merits. Consider it carefully. Consider also the many hadiths which warn against the Khawarij, and how they shall appear throughout time – even until close to the End of Days. Then ask yourselves: Who do these numerous hadiths refer to in our present day and age? Who best fits their description in these recent times? And then, with anger and emotion aside, be led by knowledge, piety and the courage of your conviction; and see ISIS for what it truly is. As for those preparing to secretly sneak away from home and join the so-called caliphal caravan, let me leave you with the following:

Describing how the Khawarij sent a call out to recruit people, urging them to secretly leave their homes and join their ranks, al-hafiz Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘How superb is what one of the salaf said about the Khawarij, in that they are the ones mentioned in Allah’s words, exalted is He: Say: ‘Shall We tell you those whose works will bring the greatest loss.’ Those whose efforts have been wasted in the life of this world while they thought they were doing good. Those are they who disbelieve in the signs of their Lord and the encounter with Him. Therefore their works are in vain, and on the Day of Resurrection We give no wait to them. [18:103-5] The point is that such ignorant and misguided ones, wretched in both words and deeds, agreed upon rebelling against the Muslims …’31

After stressing how their self-righteousness is so entrenched, that they go through life working mischief and misguidance, thinking that they are acquiring virtue, Ibn Kathir then said:

‘They then wrote an open letter to whoever was upon their way and path in Basra and elsewhere, sending word to tell them to meet them by the river so they could form a single hand against the people. They then began to leave, sneaking out one by one, lest it was realised and they were then prevented. They left from amidst their fathers and mothers, and uncles and aunts; leaving all their near ones. They did this thinking, in their ignorance and in their lack of knowledge and understanding, that this matter would please the Lord of the heavens and the earth. What they didn’t realise was that this was one of the worst of the major sins and destructive deeds, and one of the most contemptible of wrongdoings; and that it was made to look appealing to them by Iblis and by their egos which constantly incited towards evil. A group realized what some of their children, cousins and brothers were up to, so they stopped them, restrained them and censured them. Thereafter, some turned back and continued to be upright, while others fled and joined the Khawarij and thus were made wretched until the Day of Resurrection.’32

1. Muslim, no.750.

2. Ibn Majah, no.176. Al-Albani graded it as sahih in Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1987), no.3347.

3. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1982), 89-90.

4. Dabiq (issue #9: Sha’ban, 1436), 52; the official online magazine of ISIS. The quote starts 13 minutes, 12 seconds into the audio.

5. Abu Dawud, no.2504. Its chain is sahih, as per al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1357, but with the wording: ‘ … with your wealth, lives and tongues.’

6. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 208; under the entry, j-h-d.

7. For the merits and shari‘ah status of the inner jihad against the unruly ego, refer to my article: The Greater Jihad.

8. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172..

10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.695. Its chain was graded sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 2:84-5, despite the presence of two questionable narrators in the chain: Faysal b. Sulayman and Iyas b. ‘Amr.

11. Abu Dawud, no.4950. The hadith, with its various chains, strengthen each other to yield a final grading of sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1987), no.1040.

12. Abu Dawud, no.4765. The hadith was graded sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.

13. Muslim, no.1066.

14. Ahmad, no.1338, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.

15. Dabiq (issue #9: Sha’ban, 1436), 54.

16. Kitab al-Nubawwat (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 140.

17. Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Dammam: Ramadi li’l-Nashr, 1997), 1:110.

18. Hidayat al-Hiyara (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 29-30.

19. Consult: al-Khallaf, al-Siyasat al-Shar‘iyyah (Cairo: Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, 1931), 75. In an age of the Internet and social media, it’s almost nigh on impossible for countries to erect barriers to prevent the da‘wah to Islam.

20. Al-Bukhari, no.2797; Muslim, no.1497.

21. Muslim, no.1910.

22. Al-Bukhari, no.6830.

23. Minhaj al-Sunnah (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud, 1986), 1:115.

24. Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: al-Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 15:593.

25. See: al-Shatibi, al-I‘tisam (Amman: al-Dar al-Athariyyah, 2007), 3:46.

26. Muslim, no.1852.

27. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:30.

28. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:175-76.

29. Al-Sayl al-Jarrar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 4:512.

30. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi’l-Ajwibat al-Najdiyyah (n.p., 1995), 9:5.

31. Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Dar al-Hijr, 1998), 10:580.

32. ibid., 10:581.

Khawarij Ideology, ISIS Savagery: Part 1 of 3

guns-wallpaper-ak47-2As ISIS continues its murder and violence across the provinces it controls and seeks to control, and as it continues to plague the conscience of the great majority of Muslims around the world, what’s worth recalling is that we’ve seen this before in history with the sect called the Khawarij (anglicised to Kharijites). So before tackling ISIS, let’s look at their forerunners; the Kharajites, to whom their pedigree can be traced.

I

The hadith canons relate that shortly after the battle of Hunayn while the Prophet ﷺ was distributing charity to a few people whose hearts needed to be reconciled, there came a man with a thick beard, prominent cheek bones, deep sunken eyes, protruding forehead and shaven head. He exclaimed: Fear Allah, O Muhammad! The Prophet ﷺ responded: ‘Who will obey Allah if I were to disobey him? Am I not [sent as the] most trustworthy person on earth; and yet you trust me not?’ The man then turned back, whereupon one of those present asked for permission to kill him. But the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Verily, from the progeny (di’di) of this [man] shall come a people who will recite the Qur’an but it won’t pass beyond their throats. They will slay the followers of Islam and would spare the people of idolatry. They will pierce through the religion just like an arrow which goes clean through a prey.’1

Another hadith records that this man’s name was Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah, from the tribe of Tamim, about whom the Prophet ﷺ alerted: ‘Leave him; he has comrades whose prayer and fasting will make your prayer and fasting seem insignificant. They recite the Qur’an but it doesn’t go beyond their throats. They shall pass through the religion as an arrow that pierces clean through its prey such that, on inspecting the head; then the shaft; then the fletching; then the nock, would see no traces of blood or viscera on it whatsoever.’2 Ibn al-Jawzi said: ‘The first of the Khawarij, and the most wretched of them, was Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah … His problem was that he was too puffed up with his own opinion. Had he been granted grace, he would have realised that no opinion was above that of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ. The followers of this man were those who fought against ‘Ali b. Abi Talib, may Allah ennoble his face.’3

A few decades after this post-Hunayn happening, and as had been prophesied, Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah’s ideological comrades and offspring took on the shape of the very first sect (firqah) to deviate from the main body of the Muslims: the Khawarij (culled from the Arabic word kharaja – “to go out” or “to leave” the main body of Muslims). Indeed, their very name was mentioned by the Prophet ﷺ himself, who said: al-khawarij hum kilab al-nar – “The Khawarij are the dogs of Hellfire!’4 The emergence of the Khawarij as a sect occurred during the caliphate (khilafah) of ‘Ali, in the immediate aftermath of a civil war and its arbitration at Siffin. Ibn al-Jawzi tells us: ‘‘Ali returned from Siffin and entered Kufah: the Khawarij did not follow. Instead, they settled in Harura. There were twelve thousand of them, and they were declaring: la hukma illa li’Llah – “There is no judgement, except Allah’s.” This is how they initially started.’5

Imam Muslim narrates from ‘Ubayd Allah b. Abi Rafi‘, a freed salve of the Prophet ﷺ, that the Khawarij came out against ‘Ali, and declared: ‘There is no judgement, except Allah’s.’ So ‘Ali replied: ‘A word of truth, intended for something false (kalimatu haqq urida biha batil).’6

Imam al-Nawawi explains: ‘Meaning, the basis of their statement was true. Allah says: The judgement is for none but Allah. [12:40] What they intended by it, however, was to reject ‘Ali’s [acceptance of] arbitration, may Allah be pleased with him.’7

As with Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah who, blinded by his warped piety and self-righteousness, thought he had a keener sense of justice than the Prophet ﷺ, the Khawarij were also possessed of holier-than-thou pretensions and smug convictions. It is this puritanical, embittered self-righteousness – devoid of any true glimmer of knowledge or spiritual wisdom – that is the hallmark of the Khawarij and their ideological cousins who drink from the same murky theological waters today. Of course, along with such fanatical zeal, their other great infamy was takfir – declaring other Muslims to be disbelievers, and spilling their blood because of it.

II

The historians al-Tabari and Ibn Kathir chronicle alarmingly precise accounts of their intimidation, violence and terror. Under the events of 37H/657CE they detail how the Khawarij began terrorising the countryside around Nahrawan, Iraq, subjecting those whom they caught to an imtihan or “inquisition”. If the answers failed to satisfy their zeal for purity, or agree with their understanding of things, then the punishment was death. Things came to a head when they chose ‘Abd Allah, son of an early companion, Khabbab b al-Aratt, as their victim. A number of the Khawarij rode into his village for supplies and thought to make an example of him. They fired their loaded questions at him. They first asked him about the caliphates of Abu Bakr, ‘Umar and ‘Uthman. ‘Abd Allah extolled them all and praised their successive caliphates. So far, so good. They then asked him about ‘Ali, and his state before and after the arbitration or tahkim. ‘He has far greater knowledge about Allah than you do,’ replied ‘Abd Allah, ‘and has much more piety in terms of his religion and possesses greater insight.’ With that, his fate was sealed. They bound and dragged him and his pregnant wife to an orchard ladened with date palms, next to a river. As they were proceeding to kill him, a date fell to the ground, so one of the Khawarij picked it up and put it in his mouth. ‘Do you do that without the owner’s permission and without paying for it?’ said one of his Kharajite comrades. He spat it out instantly. Another Khariji, wielding his sword in threatening circles, accidentally killed a cow that had been wandering behind him. His comrades insisted he should go and find the owner and pay him the full price of the animal. They waited whilst he did so. Thus, having acted most righteously in the matter of the date and the cow, they slit ‘Abd Allah’s throat and then disemboweled his wife. Date spat out, cow paid for, husband, wife and unborn child butchered; and with the clearest of consciences, they purchased their supplies and went on their way.8

Theologians have differed as to the precise meaning of the Prophet’s words ﷺ: ‘They will pierce through the religion (yamruquna min al-din) as an arrow which goes clean through a prey.’ The idea of maraqa – an an arrow ‘piercing’ or going ‘clean through’ its prey with such force and velocity that it exists its prey without any trace of blood or flesh sticking to its tip or shaft, describes emphatically how the Khawarij immerse themselves in religion, but exit straight through it. The question, however, is do they exit the fold of orthodoxy (and become heterodox, deviant Muslims), or do they leave the actual fold of Islam? A minority of scholars went with the latter view; most went with the former.9 The majority view takes its cue from ‘Ali, may Allah be pleased with him, who was asked: Are the Khawarij mushrikun? He said: ‘They flee from shirk.‘ Are they munafiqun? He said: ‘The hypocrites remember Allah only a little.’ Then what are they? He said: ‘They are our brothers who transgressed against us (ikhwanuna baghaw ‘alayna), so we fought them for their transgression.’10

III

We may be forgiven for thinking that the Khawarij are an anachronism; a thing of the past, that have no bearing upon Muslims and today’s world. But we would be terribly wrong! The Khawarij, as we shall soon see, were prophesied as raising their ugly heads throughout time, until the Dajjal appears at their tale end. It is crucial, therefore, that we acquaint ourselves with their traits, attitudes and bent of mind:

1. Their first trait, as was mentioned, is that they will keep on rising throughout time. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘A group of young men will rise up reciting the Qur’an, but it won’t pass beyond their throats. Whenever a group appears, it is to be cut off; until the Dajjal arises at their tale end.’ Ibn ‘Umar said: I heard the Prophet ﷺ saying: ‘Each time a group appears, it is to be cut off’ more than twenty times.11 Thus the Khawarij will continue to plague Islam and the Muslims, till the Dajjal arises in what remains of them.

2. Another typical trait is their ignorant, over-simplistic understanding of religion. To this reality, there are these following words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘There will arise at the end of time a people young in age and weak in intellect (hudatha’ al-asnan wa sufaha’ al-ahlam). Their speech will be that of the best of creation. They will recite the Qur’an but it shan’t go beyond their throats. They will shoot through the religion just like an arrow goes through the game. When you meet them, kill them; for in their killing you will receive a great reward from Allah on the Day of Judgement.’12

Ibn Hajr wrote: ‘The Khawarij, what led them to judge those who opposed them to be disbelievers, making their blood lawful … and engage in fighting and killing Muslims? All this is from the vestiges of those who worship upon ignorance; those whose hearts haven’t been expanded by the light of knowledge. nor do they hold tightly to the firm rope of knowledge.’13 Indeed, more than any other fitnah today, the ummah is beset with takfiri violence, murder and mayhem, wreaked upon it mostly by those ‘young in age and weak in intellect.’

3. Extremism and fanaticism is another quintessential character. The Prophet ﷺ said about them: ‘There will arise among you a people whose prayer will make your prayer look insignificant, whose fasting will make your fasting look insignificant, and whose deeds will make your deeds look insignificant. They will recite the Qur’an but it won’t pass beyond their throats …’14 Ibn ‘Abbas said about the Khawarij, when he went to debate them: ‘I came to them at midday and entered upon a people, the likes of whom I hadn’t seen in terms of their exertion in worship. Their foreheads were grazed from [constant] prostration. Their hands were rough, like [the knees of] camels. They wore recently washed, girded up tunics. And their faces were pale from staying up at night [in prayer].’15

Despite their ostensibly impressive religiosity, which has ensnared many a youth into their misguided, brutal embrace, Ibn Hajr puts things into perspective for us: ‘It was said of them [that they are] “Reciters,” because of their tireless exertion in reciting the Qur’an and [devotion in] worship. Except that they would interpret the Qur’an upon other than its intended meanings, were obstinate, and went to extremes in regards to worldly detachment (zuhd), humility in prayer (khushu‘) and other [such] things.’16

4. Their speech is impressive, but their actions are abhorrent and wicked. One hadith states: ‘There shall appear in my ummah schisms and divisions, and a people who will beautify their speech, but their actions will be evil. They shall recite the Qur’an, but it will not pass beyond their throats …’17 A clear case that the Khawarij can talk the talk, but not walk the walk – and how yesterday resembles today.

5. They demean the seasoned scholars well-known for their depth of knowledge, fiqh and piety, and cut-off from them. The Prophet ﷺ described the Khawarij as: ‘young in age, weak in intellect,’18 Ibn ‘Abbas, in his parley with them, told them this home truth: ‘I come to you from the Emigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar), and the son-in-law of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ. To them the Qur’an was revealed. They are more learned about its meanings than you are; and there is not a single one of them among you.’19

Fewer things are as repugnant as the blind, holier-than-thou absolutism of the newly reformed sinner (as the Khawarij saw themselves to be). In their purer than the pure self-righteousness they declared ‘Ali, Mu‘awiyah, and other sahabah to be unbelievers or kuffar. For they had failed to cross over to their puritanical way of seeing things. In fact, Khariji bigotry has always treated with contempt the true people of knowledge. The mediating voices of the scholars become, for the Khawarij, religious compromise or betrayal. Juristic nuances are seen by them as pharisaic, there to hide the simplicity of passing judgement on others. The Prophet ﷺ said about such murderous misfits: ‘They shall recite the Qur’an thinking it is for them, but it is against them.’20 And that: ‘They would call to the Book of Allah, but would not be from it at all.’21 Such can be the tragedy of those who, not withstanding their religious zeal, are wet behind the ears in terms of age, experience and knowledge.

In contrast to those ‘young in age, weak in intellect,’ the Prophet ﷺ said: al-barakah fi akabirikum – ‘The blessings are with your senior ones.’22 Indeed, cutting-off from the senior scholars in particular, and the people of knowledge and spirituality (ahl al-‘ilmi wa’l-ihsan) in general, is the root causes of how zeal for religious purity is taken over the brink into all-out fanaticism.

6. Along with the murder and violence, their most infamous trait is making takfir of a person for a major sin, or something for which takfir cannot be made. I have written at length about Takfir: Its Dangers & Its Rules elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll limit myself to this one hadith. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Truly what I most fear for you is a man who will recite the Qur’an until its radiance appears on him. So 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 Allah’s Messenger who most deserves to be imputed with shirk; the accused or the accuser? He replied: ‘The accuser.”‘23 

Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘The Khawarij were the first to declare Muslims to be unbelievers due to committing sins. They declared as disbelievers whoever opposed them in their innovation, and made lawful the shedding of blood and the seizing of wealth.’24

7. One final trait. They do not venerate the Prophet ﷺ, even if they zealously observe some of the outward sunnahs. We should recall that the precursor to these Khawarij, Dhul-Khuwaysirah, rebuked the Prophet ﷺ, telling him to ‘fear Allah’ and ‘be just!’25 Such disrespect towards the Prophet ﷺ, and towards his compassion and his concern to reconcile hearts (for that was the context in which he spoke these insolent words), still courses through Kharijite veins today.26

More than any other attribute, rahmah – compassion, mercy and clemency – was the defining quality of the Prophet ﷺ. Allah says about His Prophet: We have not sent you but as a mercy to the worlds. [21:107] The Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘I am indeed a merciful gift.’27 That being so, seldom will you find this profound prophetic attribute manifest upon them, save in some limited way. Anger, hostility, resentment and vengeance are more what animate them than mercy, humanity and tolerance. For theirs is the way of political agitation, not reconciliation; of demolishing, not building; of insulting the people of knowledge, not honouring or being guided by them; of “learning” via books, not at the feet of seasoned ‘ulema.

Again, seldom will you find one of them having a daily wird, or set portion, of sending salutations (salawat) upon the Prophet ﷺ, by which the bonds of profound love and attachment to him are cultivated. In fact, veneration (ta‘zim) of the Prophet ﷺ, and that ambition to emulate something of his inward states, are generally conspicuous in them by their absence.

Yet without this deep prophetic attachment, dehumanising the Quranic message and making faith appear utterly repugnant becomes more than a possibility; it becomes a hideous, living reality. What is clear is that those unschooled in ihsan – in the beauty of shari‘ah-rooted spirituality – will only bring ugliness into the world.

To conclude: Part 1 of this blog mapped the origins, significance and extremist nature of the first heterodox sect in Islam: the Khawarij. Section one recounted the genesis of the Khawarij, personified in the hubris of Dhu’l-Khuwaysirah – the ‘father’ of this violent, brutish, self-righteous sect. We saw how they made la hukma illa li’Llah – “No judgement except Allah’s” – their clarion call, dressing it up in their false meaning and misapplication. The second section gave us a window into their lopsided piety: acting most justly when it came to the price of a date, but having no conscience whatsoever when it came to butchering and killing those who did not share their political views. Such superficial piety is what the prophetic warnings about them allude to: ‘a people who will recite the Qur’an, but it won’t pass beyond their throats.’

Section three discussed some of their defining traits and attitudes: a black and white grasp of religious realities because of being ‘weak in intellect’; extremely puritanical; that Muslims would be the main victims of their violence and murder; they will keep appearing throughout time, but will be identified by the learned for what they truly are; their political rabble-rousing and denigration of the scholars; and, of course, their wanton takfir of Muslims for matters wherein takfir is not permitted.

In the second part of this blog, we’ll look at how Kharijite beliefs, ideas and methods have surfaced in modern times; especially in the form of the outfit known as ISIS or ISIL The claim of ISIS as being the legitimate Caliphate will be examined, as will core aspects of their ideology and their ‘Management of Savagery.’

And Allah’s help is sought.

1. Muslim, no.1064.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.3610.

3. Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1982), 88; also see: al-Shahrastani, al-Milal wa’l-Nihal (Cairo: Dar al-Halabi, 1967), 1:118.

4. Ibn Majah, no.176. Al-Albani graded it as sahih in Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1987), no.3347.

5. Talbis Iblis, 89.

6. Muslim, no.1066/157.

7. Al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 7:152.

8. Consult: al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1964); 5:81-2; Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Dar al-Hijr, 1998), 10:584.

9. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 8:225, 15:392-94, where he says that those who considered the Khawarij to be outside the fold of Islam include: Ibn al-‘Arabi in his Sharh al-Tirmidhi, al-Subki in his Fatawa, and al-Qurtubi in al-Mufhim.

10. Al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah, 10:591.

11. Ibn Majah, no.174. The hadith was graded hasan by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2455.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.5057; Muslim, no.1066. ‘There will arise at the end of time’ has been explained to mean: the end period of the rightly-guided khalifahs. See: Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, 15:376.

13. Fath al-Bari, 15:394.

14. Al-Bukhari, no.5058; Muslim, no.1063.

15. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis, 89.

16. Fath al-Bari, 15:371. Point to note: No doubt, the early Khawarij exerted themselves in worship. But this is not necessarily a trait of theirs in later times; nor even today. In fact, many of today’s Khawarij often have, despite their political zeal, rhetoric and commitment to carnage, little attachment to sustained religious practice (although in these religiously lax times, just praying a few prayers a day or growing a full beard can seem religiously impressive to some).

17. Abu Dawud, no.4765. It was classified as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.

18. Al-Bukhari, no.3611; Muslim, no.1066.

19. Talbis Iblis, 89-90.

20. Muslim, no.1066.

21. Ahmad, no.1338, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.

22. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.559; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.210, where he said: ‘It is sahih according to the conditions of al-Bukhari.’

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

24. Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:279.

25. Al-Bukhari, no.6933; Muslim, no.1064.

26. In fact, similar resistance to reconciling hearts can be seen in Kharijite hostility to the tahkim or arbitration at Siffin. Moreover, the same disrespect towards the Prophet ﷺ can be seen in their insults against, and takfir of, ‘Ali – the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law; and thus a member of the Ahl al-Bayt.

27. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.100; and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.490.

How Long Will You Keep Ignoring the Sunnah’s Inner Beauty?

zillij7The Qur’an says: To Allah belong the most beautiful names. [7:180] In a sahih hadith we read: ‘Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.’1 Now these aren’t statements about feelings, impressions or sentimentality, they’re statements about the very nature of the Divine Reality! Imam al-Munawi comments upon Allah’s beauty (jamal): ‘He is the possessor of absolute and perfect Beauty. From this Beauty, every manifestation of beauty that exists in creation emanates. His Essence (dhat) is beautiful; His Attributes (sifat) are beautiful; and His Acts (af‘al) are beautiful. If His Face were not veiled by light (nur), the majestic splendour of His Face would annihilate creation as far as it extends.’2

A more recent commentator had this to say about the above hadith: ‘Allah, exalted is He, is beautiful in regards His Essence, Names, Attributes and Acts; and He loves both outer and inner beauty. [He loves] outer beauty, like cleanliness of one’s body, clothes and home; and their like. As for inward beauty, it is beautification of character with excellence. This is why one of the prayers of the Prophet ﷺ would be: “O Allah, guide me to having beautiful conduct and character; for none can guide me to beautifying them except You. And avert from me bad conduct and character; none can avert them from me save You.”3 And Allah knows best.’4

Religion, then, is the recognition of such beauty, as well as the quest to actualise it in our lives and society at large.

For believers, to imitate the Prophet ﷺ is to imitate beauty. Emulating the example of the Prophet ﷺ – known in religious parlance as his Sunnah (lit. “way”) – must be at the core of every believer’s life. The Qur’an states: You have in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example. [33:21]

The love, respect, attachment and admiration Muslims have for the Prophet ﷺ (from which imitation of him is arises) is not just an impressive fact of history, it is a central part of faith itself. He was a man who experienced life in an exceptional range. Not only was he a shepherd, merchant, orphan and exile, he was also a leader, law-giver, statesman and soldier. He was also a husband, a father who was bereaved many times over, a friend, a companion, and a widower. And in all these roles he was an exemplar. His wife, the lady Aishah, was once asked as to what he was like. She responded with these words: kana khuluquhu’l-qur’an – ‘His character was that of the Qur’an.’5 So her intimate knowledge of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ led her to conclude he was the living embodiment of the Revelation – he was, figuratively speaking, the ‘walking’ Qur’an.

For Muslims, therefore, the Prophet’s Sunnah represents the very perfection of human conduct and being. It is to such beauty – and not to the mediocrity or ugliness offered by the norms of today’s dominant culture – that believers must fix their gaze.

In the botanical world there are certain plants which need to be grown on a trellis or a support of some kind, if they are to grow to their full potential. Otherwise they tend to sprawl across the ground, without direction, their leaves devoured by snails and slugs, their purpose unfulfilled.

In a similar way, man is a ‘climber’ too, and we need not look very far for examples of the human inability to grow or to flower without a firm support or framework. In this sense the Prophet’s Sunnah, Gai Eaton wrote, ‘provides not only a framework but also, as it were, a network of channels into which a believer’s will enters and through which it flows smoothly, both guided and guarded. It is not his way, the Muslim’s way, to cut new channels for his volatile life through the recalcitrant materials of the world against the grain of things. At first sight one might expect this to produce a tedious uniformity. All the evidence suggests that it does nothing of the kind; anyone who has had contact with good and pious Muslims will know that though they live within a shared pattern of belief and behaviour, they are often more sharply differentiated one from another than are profane people, their characters stronger, their individu-alities more clearly delineated. They have modeled themselves upon a transcendent norm of inexhaustible richness, whereas profane people take as their model the fashions of the time. To put it another way: the great virtues – and it is the Prophet’s virtues that the believer strives to imitate – can it seems be expressed through human nature in countless different ways, whereas worldly fashion induces uniformity.’6

The Sunnah, however, insists that a certain sense of haybah, or “dignity” of character, is essential to make even the most valuable manners respected and respectable. The belief that the Sunnah can be practiced without the least change in how we do things “on the streets” or “in de hood” is more ego than Islam. The Sunnah comes to elevate and dignify. Indeed, the greatest achievement of the ego is to make the practice of the Sunnah look ugly or undignified. For nothing is more troublesome than when the ego seeks to wear the robe of the Sunnah.

At the end of the day, those who drag the Sunnah down to their own crass, unrefined levels need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner beauty?

By the same token, to follow the Sunnah out of anger, protest, resentment or identity politics, darkens and deforms it and causes people to flee from Islam. Following it out of love for Allah’s Beloved ﷺ, intuiting its beauty and wisdom, is a radiant light and conclusive proof.

At the end of the day, those for whom the Sunnah is little more than a tool with which to vent their political angst and frustrations need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner beauty?

Likewise, to limit the Sunnah to no more than a few outward expressions of piety and external modes of behaviour makes it look superficial, unworthy and uninviting. The consequence of such shallow piety and religious reductionism: the Prophet’s beauty is veiled behind his Sunnah. Just to be clear. Emulating and imitating the Prophet ﷺ in his comings and goings, and in his manners and modes of behaving, is the hallmark of a true believer; of a lover, even. But outward emulation is of little worth unless it both reflects and engenders a profound inward conformity.

At day’s end, those fixated upon just the external aspects of the Sunnah need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner wisdoms and beauty?

The Sunnah, let’s not forget, is the middle way; and strict compliance with the Sunnah is what faith enjoins so as to avoid the fringes of deviancy. But strictness driven by the ego’s diktats is extremism; strictness that is born of the Spirit is pure submission. In fact, one of the great virtues of the Prophet ﷺ was his perfect sense of balance and proportion; of being able to put things in their right priority, correct order and proper perspective. The closer we contour the Sunnah, the closer we are to such balance.

At the end of the day, those who obscure the lines between the Spirit’s rigour and the ego’s; making them cold, harsh and hostile, need only ask this: How long will I ignore the Sunnah’s inner beauty.

As for those who consider the details of the Sunnah to be trivial and insignificant, for which we need to apologise or to exorcise from Islam; and if not, then from the public sphere, they either have a poor grasp of the realities of faith, or else are uninterested in the prophetic light. For his beauty ﷺ is in the detail, not just the broad strokes. We seek refuge in Allah from ugliness; and ask that He make us people of beauty.

1. Muslim, no.147.

2. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:224.

3. Muslim, no.771.

4. Al-Sa‘di, Bahjat al-Qulub al-Abrar (Cairo: Dar al-Furqan, 2004), 203

5. Muslim, no.746.

6. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 201.

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