The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Zakat: Helping the Needy at Home & Abroad

file-186#4814a48170cc5fead838096208a6f890Thoughts that first cross the mind when it is suggested that zakat should be given at home in the UK, as well as abroad, is: foolish; nonsensical; totally irresponsible; utter ignorance; unIslamic, even! After all, who in Britain is truly poor or needy compared to, say, the millions of people in Malawi, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and other parts of the poverty-stricken or war-torn world?

So let me try to present the case for it, both from a textual, fiqhi perspective and from the perspective of our current reality in the UK. After that, I’ll leave it to the readers to decide whether the case has any merit or not, and whether or not the idea actual is absurd and irresponsible. Let me build the case, starting with the following:

I

In describing the essential traits of the God-conscious; the muttaqun, the Qur’an tells us that they are those who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have given them. [2:3] Expounding on this verse, Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘God frequently pairs together prayer and spending in charity. Prayer is a right of God and an act of devotion to Him. This [right] involves singling Him out for worship, praising Him, extolling His glory, earnestly invoking Him, petitioning Him and depending on Him. Spending, by contrast, is part of benevolence towards creation through extending to them a helping hand.’1

This pairing is so intrinsic to our faith that religious observance, in its entirety, can be said to revolve around huququ’Llah, “rights of God,” and huquq al-’ibad, “rights of the creation.” Ibn Rajab, however, makes a timely observation in this respect, which we would do well to pay heed to. He says: ‘Many in whom attentiveness in fulfilling the rights of God predominate, and who are devoted to God’s love, fear and obedience, either totally neglect the rights of creation, or fall short with respect to them.’2

II

The “spending (infaq) out of what God has given” in the above verse comprises two forms of giving. One is sadaqah – voluntary spending; the other, zakat – the spending of which is mandatory. The term sadaqah (usually translated as “alms” or as “charity”) covers, not just the giving of money to the deserving poor, but also the giving of one’s self, talents, learning, or simply one’s time. The act is seen as meritorious in and of itself, purely on altruistic grounds. Yet the spiritual significance of sadaqah can’t be overlooked too. Giving regular sadaqah attracts madad – the flow of divine assistance, as well as helps repel misfortune.

Zakat, a word which signifies growth, blessings and also purification,3 is that type of spending which the Qur’an deems mandatory on all Muslims who possess surplus financial means at their disposal. The payment of zakat is, therefore, a way by which a Muslim’s wealth may be made pure and sacred – so long as, of course, one seeks the divine pleasure through it: He who gives his wealth to purify himself, not in return for any favour done unto him, seeking only the Face of his Lord, Most High. He shall be well-pleased. [92:18-21]

III

It is not just one’s wealth that is purified through the act of paying the zakat, but also one’s self. For the nafs; the ego, is purified from the blemish of greed and selfishness when giving freely of one’s wealth: And whoever is saved from his own avarice will surely succeed. [59:9]

With its spiritual significance confirmed, one must not overlook zakat’s all important social function. Islam’s vision of society is rooted in the idea of compassion, service and responsibility; and no where is this better seen than in the giving and dispensing of zakat. For zakat is to be utilised, first and foremost, for the poor and the needy, so as to alleviate the problem of poverty. In other words, the “haves”of the society are to help lift the burden of the “have nots” in the spirit of service and brotherhood. In summing-up the spiritual and social virtues of zakat, Shah Wali Allah wrote: ‘Know that there are two purposes behind zakat: a purpose linked to disciplining the soul; this due to the presence of avarice in it … And a purpose associated with the city, for it will certainly include those who are poor and needy.’4

IV

Zakat is, strictures the Qur’an, only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect it, and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the ransom of captives, and the debtors, and in the path of God, and the wayfarers. This is an obligation from God, and God is All-Knowing, All-Wise. [9:60]

Juristic details aside, the main forms of wealth on which zakat is levied includes gold and silver, livestock, agricultural produce, minerals, stocks and shares, currency and other liquid assets. A percentage of this wealth (two and a half percent in the case of gold, silver, stocks and share, and all wealth held in monetary form) is to be disbursed to the eight sectors, or categories, mentioned in the above verse.5

In a foundational hadith on the subject we read that the Prophet ﷺ, when sending Mu‘adh to Yemen, instructed him: ‘O Mu‘adh, you are going to a people who are of the People of the Book, so first invite them to bear witness that none deserves to be worshiped except God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. If they accept this, then inform them that God enjoins on them five prayers in a day and a night. If they accept this, then inform them that God obligates charity [i.e. zakat] upon them; to be taken from their rich and given to their poor.’6

V

Based on the words: “to be taken from their rich and given to their poor,” jurists from the four Sunni schools of law, or madhhabs, say that zakat, as a rule of thumb, is to be distributed locally where possible.

The Hanbali school stipulates: ‘It is preferred to disburse all of the zakat to the poor of his locality. It is not permissible to transfer it to [a location] where prayer is to be shortened [if one traveled to it]; though if one does so it suffices – unless there are no poor persons in the land, in which case he is to distribute it in the land closest to him.’7

The Shafi’i madhhab lays down: ‘If the [eight] categories are found in the place where zakat is collected, it is prohibitted and invalid to transfer the zakat elsewhere – save if it is being distributed by the head of state, in which case he may transfer it to another place.’8

The Malikis hold that transfering zakat is impermissible, except if there is a pressing need to do so.9

The Hanafi school is more conciliatory on the subject, stipulating, ‘It is disapproved to transfer zakat of one land to another; unless he transfers it to his poor relatives, or to a people needier than his own.’10

In short: what this tells us is that the poor and needy of a city have greater claim over local zakat than the poor or needy elsewhere – accepting that scholars permit sending it abroad for pressing reasons.

VI

“There are no poor Muslims in Britain,” is a common response to the suggestion that zakat could be disbursed here, within the country. But is this true? No poor Muslims? Even if it were, what of the other categories of zakat recipients? Are they absent from Britain too?

The reality is markedly different from the popular Muslim perception. For there are a growing number of poor and needy Muslim households in the UK who would qualify for zakat. It is true that their need is likely to not be as acute as those in certain other poverty-ravished places in the world. Nevertheless, their relative poverty, in terms of not having enough money for certain basic necessities – like food, heating, medicines, or paying rent – would entitle them to zakat. Of course, if government benefits meet such needs, well that is different. But if they did not, and sometimes they don’t, then scholars have ruled that they would indeed qualify for zakat. Those who could enter into the category of the poor (fuqara) and the needy (masakin) are: struggling single parent families, asylum seekers, refugees, and anyone else whose net assets (after one excludes assets for basic essentials like a house, car, furniture, etc; and after deducting basic living expenses and debts owed) are less than the nisab value.11 This could also include prisoners; and even more so, families of prisoners, who often have very little or no financial support.

Then there are the mu’allafat al-qulub - “those whose hearts need reconciling.” These recipients can include: recent converts to Islam who are alienated from their families, or whose faith needs strengthening; or recently released prisoners struggling to make ends meet and about whom it is feared will reoffend.

There is also the category of the gharimun: “those burdened with debts” contracted in good faith, which they subsequently cannot repay. Of course, we’re not talking about those who’ve racked up debts due to conspicuous consumption, spending and living beyond their means, or through gambling and other haram indulgences. Instead, we are talking about people who, for instance, and through no fault or irresponsibility of their own, have fallen into rents arrears and are on the verge of eviction. Or, where a family whose bread winner has been made redundant, and find themselves in arrears with domestic utility bills, to the extent where the gas or electricity supply is going to be cut-off.

As for the category of fi sabili’Llah - “for the path of God” – here in Britain this would include financial assistance to students fully occupied in formally studying the sacred shari‘ah sciences. Classically, of course, the fiqh manuals depict this category as being primarily voluntary fighters (mujahidun), not paid by the state treasury, who require financial support so as to partake in a bonafide state-sanctioned war against a hostile and belligerent enemy.

VII

In the above, I’ve tried to spotlight people who could very well be entitled to receive zakat in Britain, but who often get ignored, or go unnoticed and unserved. As for the more higher profile categories: orphans; widows; the starving, hungry and homeless; Muslims incarcerated in prisons such as Guantanamo, with no sure evidence against them and no access to justice or the due process of the law; and the countless victims of natural disasters across the globe – we must indeed continue to reach out to them with our zakat (and our sadaqah and du‘as). Subhana’Llah! Their plight often beggars belief and the sheer scales of the tragedies are so grotesque; and living for the poor is the undeniable Sunnah, often forgotten by us Muslims today.

Having a social conscience with respect to Britain’s needy and vulnerable Muslims is in no way to ignore the poverty, starvation and persecution which afflicts millions of Muslims in other parts of the globe. British Muslims will have to learn to discharge their duties to both, in light of the priorities set by Islam’s Sacred Law. It’s even been argued that, if we were to get our own house in a little more order, it would help us to better help others in the long run. Whatever the case, we need to think the issue of how best to deploy our zakat; of how best to help restore dignity to the needy and the impoverished.

This, then, is the case for not neglecting to give zakat to the growing number of poor and needy Muslims in Britain today.

And Allah knows best.

1. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Adhim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 1:45.

2. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:454.

3. As per al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 380-81.

4. Hujjatu’Llah al-Balighah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 2:69-70.

5. The fiqh details that make a person liable for paying zakat, and to whom and how such monies should be disbursed, are issues for which the lay people must consult a qualified scholar.

6. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, no.1496.

7. Al-Hajjawi, Zad al-Mustaqni‘ (Riyadh: Madar al-Watn li’l-Nashr, 2004), 78.

8. Ibn Naqib, ‘Umdat al-Salik (Qatar:Nafaqah al-Sh’un al-Diniyyah, 1982), 111.

9. Cited in al-Bassam, Tawdih al-Ahkam min Bulugh al-Maram (Makkah: Maktabah al-Nahdah al-Hadithah, 1994), 3:27.

10. Al-Zayla‘i, Nasab al-Rayah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), 2:423.

11. Nisab: This is the minimum amount of wealth upon which zakat becomes payable. If one only has gold assets, the nisab is 87.48 grams of gold. If the assets are a mixture of gold and silver, the nisab for silver is utilised, which is 612.36 grams. In monetary terms, one converts these nisab levels to the current market prices for gold or silver. Thus, at today’s price (8/2/2015), the market value for gold, per gram, was £26.02; and for silver, £0.35. So whoever has £2,276.23 or more of net gold assets, will have to pay zakat, or £214.32 of mixed net assets must pay zakat. Those possessing less than the nisab are not liable for zakat and are usually considered poor or needy. One, however, consults a qualified scholars if unsure about how to calculate zakat.

Finding Happiness & Inner Peace

668-63908_a_tranquil_place_2This short video reminds us of what is essential when we seek the good life: a life of inner contentment, happiness and peace of mind. The reminder bases itself upon the words of the Qur’an: Whoever does good, be they male or female, and has faith, We shall cause them to live a goodly life. [16:97]

Given the angst and anxieties that plague us moderns, and the huge discontent which engulfs the lives of so many people today, Finding Happiness & Inner Peace is a simple, timely reminder about what really counts in life.

The link to the video is here: http://youtu.be/W5b3FnnCKjA

Divorcing the Wife at the Behest of Parents

divorce-cake (3)[2]Q. Is there any religious requirement in Islam for a husband to divorce his wife merely because his parents are displeased with the marriage, or continue to disapprove of it? Didn’t the Prophet ﷺ endorse the decision of ‘Umar who ordered his son to divorce his wife? Is the son being disobedient if he refuses to do so?

A. The incident in question refers to the case of Ibn ‘Umar who relates: I was married to a woman that I loved, but my father disliked her. So he ordered me to divorce her, but I refused. I then mentioned this to the Prophet ﷺ who said to me: ‘O ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Umar! Divorce your wife.’1

The leading Hanbali jurist of his age, Ibn Muflih, writes in his al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah: ‘If his father demands that he divorce his wife, he isn’t required to do so. This was stated by most of the senior students [of Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal]. Al-Sanadi states: A man said to Abu ‘Abd Allah [i.e. Imam Ahmad]: My father orders me to divorce my wife. He responded: “Do not divorce her.” The man said: But didn’t ‘Umar order his son ‘Abd Allah to divorce his wife? So he replied: “Only if your father is like ‘Umar, may God be pleased with him.”’2

Shaykh Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut explains in a footnote to this point: ‘Meaning, he shouldn’t divorce her on account of his father ordering it; unless the father is like ‘Umar, in the sense of doing what is true and just, and not merely following his personal whims in the matter.’3

Ibn Taymiyyah stated something similar about a mother ordering her son to divorce his wife: ‘It is not required to obey her. Though one [continues to] remain dutiful and kind to her. Divorcing one’s wife is not part of kindness due to mothers.’4

So if the parents’ decision in this delicate issue springs from profound piety and depth of religious insight, and not from from their whims or egos, then one considers their judgement and looks to obeying them; if not, then not.

Here, it is appropriate to mention the honour, kindness and service that Islam expects children to show to parents. The Qur’an states: Your Lord has decreed that you worship none but Him, and that you show kindness to your two parents. If either or both of them attain old age [show no sign of impatience, and] do not even say “fie!” to them nor rebuke them, but speak to them kindly. [17:23]

Allah also said: Be grateful to Me and your two parents. [31:14] And: We have enjoined on mankind kindness to parents; but if they try to force you to ascribe to Me that of which you have no knowledge, then obey them not. [29:8]

The hadith compendiums record that the Prophet ﷺ was asked: What deed is best? He said: ‘Prayer at its earliest time, and then kindness to parents.’5 ‘A parent,’ declared the Prophet ﷺ, ‘is the best of the gates of Paradise; so if you wish, protect the gate or lose it.’6 Then there is the hadith: ‘The pleasure of your Lord lies in pleasing parents, and the anger of your Lord lies in displeasing parents.’7

Yet despite the tremendous status Islam accord parents, a son is under no obligation to fulfil the demands of his parents to divorce his wife, if there is no valid reason for doing so. Moreover, the above texts in no way sanction the tyranny that some parents inflict on their sons and daughters: physical abuse, forced marriages, indifference to religious education and upbringing, forceful imposition of ‘back home’ cultural values and, in a few hideously haram cases, honour killings! Such issues must be challenged, stood-up to and be rooted out of our communities.

In summary: If parents ask the son to annul his marriage because of some reason held to be valid in the Sacred Law (shari‘ah) – like shielding him from an overriding worldly harm; or to safeguard his moral, spiritual and religious wellbeing – one considers the parents wishes and defers to their judgement. To use the hadith unrestrictedly would be highly tragic and, given the moral degeneration of people today (parents includes), it would be highly reckless too. If parents have no legitimate grounds for their dislike, then no such obedience is due. If one is in any doubt about the matter, one consults a well-seasoned scholar of the Sacred Law.

Lastly, we must remember that when a man takes a women in marriage, this nikah, or marriage, is described in Allah’s Book [4:21] as a mithaq ghalizah – “solemn covenant.” Such a solemn marital bond must be honoured and nurtured and its rights fulfilled: it isn’t a trivial thing that should be subjected to the egotistical whims of selfish parents. Let men be loving, affectionate, relaxed, easy-natured and honourable companions to their wives – soul mates, even; reverently upholding the sanctity of marital ties. After all: They are a garment for you and you are a garment for them. [2:187] And after all, the Prophet ﷺ did tell us: ‘The best of you are those who are best to their wives.’8 Thus, in Islam, being a good husband is an essential part of being a man. So be a man!

1. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1200, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

2. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:475.

3. ibid, 1:475.

4. Cited in al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah, 1:475.

5. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, no.527.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.1961, who said: ‘This hadith is sahih.’

7. Al-Tirmidhi, no.1962, and it is authentic (sahih). Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.516.

8. Al-Tirmidhi, no.1162, who said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’

O Ummah! Be Good, Be Better, Be the Best

worldcuptrophyIf, as it is said, ‘conduct is the best proof of character,’ then it behooves every Muslim to adorn their conduct with sincerity, honesty, integrity and piety. In other words, we should each aspire to be people of beauty: inwardly and outwardly; in both character and conduct. Collectively, the ummah may be excused, in some part, for its lack of political and economic progress. It may even be forgiven for its lack of contribution to modern scientific and technological advancements. But there can be no excuse for us Muslims to have anything but noble character and honourable conduct. As part of his discussion concerning the duties attached to the Islamic month of Rabi‘ al-Awwal, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali has a section wherein he offered this rejoinder to this fragile, yet blessed Muslim ummah:

‘My brothers! Whosoever is from this ummah, is from the best of all nations in Allah’s sight. For Allah, exalted is He, stated: You are the best nation that has been raised up for mankind. [3:110] The Prophet ﷺ said: “You are equivalent to seventy nations; you are the best and most honoured of them with Allah.”1

Now, as this Messenger, the unlettered Prophet ﷺ, is the best of creation and the noblest of them in Allah’s esteem, his ummah is thus the best of nations and the noblest. It is not fitting, therefore, to be from the best of nations and be ascribed to following the best of creation (particularly those who live in [Damascus] the best of places for the Muslims, toward the End of Days), except that he adorn himself with good traits and shun evil ones. Odious it is to be content with being from the worst of people, whilst being ascribed to the best of nations and being a follower of the best of prophets.

Allah, blessed and exalted is He, said: Those who believe and do good works, they are the best of created beings. [98:7] Thus the best of people are those who profess faith and act righteously. Allah said: You are the best nation that has been raised up for mankind. You enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil, and you believe in Allah. [3:110]

It was narrated that the Prophet ﷺ said: “The best of people are those who possess understanding of Allah’s religion, maintain ties of kinship, and enjoin good and forbid evil.”2

In another narration: “The best of people are those who have most fear of their Lord, maintain ties of kinship, enjoin good and forbid evil.”3

He also said ﷺ: “People are like mines; the best of them in the pre-Islamic days are the best in Islam, providing they gain understanding of it.”4

And he ﷺ stated: “The best of people is he who lives long and whose deeds are good, while the worst of people is he who lives long but whose deeds are bad.”5

He [also] said: “The best of you are those from whom good is hoped and from whose harm others are safe. The worst of you are those from whom no good is expected, and from whose harm others are not safe.”6

And: “Shall I not inform you of the best of you?” They said: Indeed, do so. He replied: “Those who, when you look at them, remind you of Allah.” He then said: “Shall I not inform you of the worst of you?” They said: Yes! He said: “Those who spread gossip and cause schisms between close friends and spread mischief between the innocent.”7

“The worst person in Allah’s estimation is someone who others avoid for fear of his ill conduct.”8

“From the worst people in Allah’s sight is someone who is two-faced: he comes to one group with one face, and to another with a different face.”9 …

The deeds of the ummah are presented to the Prophet ﷺ in the Intermediate Realm (barzakh),10 Hence a person should feel shy of presenting to his Prophet those deeds he has made forbidden. It is for this reason when he, peace be upon him, addressed the masses during the Farewell Pilgrimage, he said: “I shall precede you to the Pool (hawd) and will have the largest number of followers of any nation. So do not disgrace me.”11 This is an indication that he shall feel shy at the sinful actions of his ummah when they are presented to him.’12

1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3001.

2. Ahmad, Musnad, no.27434. Its chain is weak (da‘if).

3. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, no.25388.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.3382; Muslim, no.2526.

5. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3375.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2263.

7. Ibn Majah, no.4119; al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.323.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.6053; Muslim, no.2591.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.6057; Muslim, no.2526.

10. A reference to the hadith: ‘My life is a great good for you, you will relate about me and it will be related to you. And my death is a great good for you, your actions will be presented to me: if I see good I will praise Allah and if I see evil I will seek forgiveness of Him for you.’ Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.845. Its chain was graded as sound (hasan) by al-‘Iraqi, Tar’ al-Tathrib (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 3:297 – his last book; as opposed to his Takhrij al-Ihya, no.3810, where he questioned the reliability of one of the narrators, ‘Abd al-Majid b. Abi Rawwad, It is on such grounds that led al-Albani to grade the hadith da‘if. See: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.975.

11. Ibn Majah, no.3057.

12. Lata’if wa’l-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 220-25.

While We Question Charlie, Let’s Question Ourselves Too!

461127728While righteous anger when the Prophet ﷺ is mocked or insulted is integral to faith, we Muslims need to invest greater efforts into adhering to the actual obligations and duties instated by faith – be it in our acts or worship; our ethics and behaviour; our relationships; or our social contracts and transactions. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘All my followers will enter Paradise except those who refuse.’ On being asked who refuses, he said: ‘Those who obey me will enter Paradise, while those who disobey me have infact refused.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7280]

While debating whether one should have the right to gratuitous offence or not, or the limits to freedom of speech (for it does indeed have limits and restrictions), this is as good a time as any to take stock of our own commitment to the life and teachings of the Prophet ﷺ and how much we exemplify it or not in our daily lives and conduct: So let those who contravene his command beware lest an affliction befall them or a painful punishment smite them. [24:63] In contrast: Whoever obeys God and His Messenger, they are with those whom God has blessed, of the prophet and the truthful [highest] saints, and the martyrs, and the righteous. What fine company they are! [4:69]

While pointing out the inconsistencies, double standards or blatant Islamophobia in and among the Je suis Charlie voices (both in France as well as elsewhere), we need the voices of our scholars to give us clearer guidance on how and why we cannot take the law into our own hands in the democracies in which we live and consider home, even when Islam’s sacred symbols have become open game: You will surely hear much that is offensive from those who were given scripture before you, and from idolaters. But if you persevere patiently and fear God, such are weighty factors in all affairs. [3:186]

While we call into question the commitment to freedom of speech of many heads of state who marched so sanctimoniously against the disgraceful Paris killings, it is time we questioned how committed we are to the revealed truths of our din – individually and collectively – and how deep our convictions in them really run: Lose not heart, nor grieve. For you shall prevail, if you are truly believers. [3:139] That we prevail not, but are prevailed over, says something very troubling about our collective commitment to religion and revealed truths.

While we still feel the reverberations of the Paris murders and sense more than a little hypocrisy in how the French Republic selectively enacts its freedom of expression, it’s important to also hold ourselves to account and weed out hypocrisy from our actions and persona: ‘The signs of a hypocrite are three, even if he prays and fasts and claims that he is a Muslim: when he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he reneges on it; and when he is entrusted, he betrays his trust.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.33; Muslim, no.107] A far more serious form of hypocrisy is highlighted in the following verse: And when it is said to them: ‘Come to that which God has sent down and to the Messenger,’ you see the hypocrites turn away from you in aversion. [4:61]

While mainstream Muslims denounce such crimes, dismissing them as acts of fringe extremist with troubled pasts, political grievances and little religious learning, we also admit that such acts of lawlessness are now a growing concern within and outside the House of Islam. And yet, as angry and enraged young souls trample over traditional Islamic teachings and ignore established leaders and scholarship, we Muslims need to each play our part in quelling this rising tide of religious anarchy that was foretold to us in this next hadith: ‘God does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’ [Bukhari, no.100; Muslim, no.2673]

While freedom of expression currently forbids insulting race and ethnicity, it has no such qualm when it comes to pouring scorn upon beliefs and ideologies – religious or otherwise. Free speech is deemed to be the core value of democracy: a precondition to progress and the guarantor of liberty. The only constraints on it are things like libel, slander, hate speech, obscenity, incitement to violence, and severe and specific threats to public safety. All else is taken to be fair game. And yet Charlie Hebdo didn’t occur in a vacuum. The cartoons come at a time when scorn, bigotry, discrimination, physical violence, mosque burnings as well as a growing host of legal handicaps are day-to-day realities for European Muslims. In what way do such cartoons not serve to further the xenophobic contempt for a community already ill-protected, maligned and under significant social siege?

While much of the West has shown its outrage for the attack on the cherished value of free speech, Muslims will do well to recall that denigrating the Prophet ﷺ – whom they cherish more than any other, for they believe him to be a prophet of God and the epitome of piety, purity and goodness – is a capital offence under classical Islamic law. In a Muslim land where such law is sovereign and applicable, and after investigation, trial and the due process of law, it is the state’s prerogative to carry out the sentence of blasphemy: a crime punishable by death. Just how outraged the Western world may feel about this should be neither here nor there. As for vigilante killing in non-Muslim polities, where neither Islamic law nor its jurisdiction applies, we should recognise it for what it is: criminality and murder. It neither has the validation of classical Islamic law, nor the endorsement of any established, living scholarly authority.

While many see in the Charlie Hebdo tragedy the symbols of the moral superiority of Western values and civilisation, others may ask: How can there be civilisation without civility? And how can there be civility when gratuitous offence is allowed for nothing more than its own sake? Of course, Muslims should understand that those outside of their faith are free, and should be free, to criticise Islam; question its teachings; and challenge its beliefs, laws and ethics; and even reject it out of hand, if they so choose. If some Muslims feel slightly queasy about that, they simply need to get thicker skins: There is no compulsion in religion, is what the Qur’an says. [2:256] What most Muslims, I suspect, are trying to say is this: If for nothing more than community cohesion and peaceful coexistence, let’s avoid senseless provocation and gratuitous offence merely for its own sake. Let’s learn to be a tad more civil.

W’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

Footprints on the Sands of Time 2

6a00e554e88723883301a511ad66d6970c‘Modernity is simply our context,’ wrote Dr Sherman Jackson, ‘We must never allow it to become our excuse.’ As various global forces currently conspire against the call to Abrahamic monotheism, here are a few more Footprints exploring the nature of Islam, Muslims and modernity (the first set of Footprints can be read here):

On humility: The mark of those who have truly internalised the Sunnah’s beauty is: if praised, they take it embarrassingly or with a pinch of salt, for they see themselves as being unworthy; if censured, they make no defence.

On learning to see with the heart’s eye: If we deepen in our acknowledging the divine acts, the af’al al-rabb, we shall be led more and more to a sense of loving gratitude for He who manifests all blessings.

On the yardstick to assess change: Faith instructs us to measure progress and change, not in terms of material advancement, nor even in terms of the presence or absence of political freedom, but rather in terms of an increasing awareness of God’s presence, worship of Him, and fulfilling the prescriptions instated by faith. If change through political activism facilitates the former, but does harm to the latter, how can believers truly rejoice?

On the station of being loved: One of the surest ways of becoming beloved to Allah is through an unrelenting love of the Prophet ﷺ and manifesting such love through invoking abundant and constant salutations (salawat) upon him: Allahumma salli ‘ala sayyidina muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi wa sallim.

Beware trigger-happy texting: Received wisdom informs us that: Not everything that is good should be said, and not everything that is said should be spread. Today, such caution has been thrown to the wind, to be replaced by impulsive and ill-considered trigger-happy texting and tweeting.

On the hijab and Islam’s shieldmaidens: Since hijab signifies the higher statement of gendered humanity, the woman in hijab finds herself on the frontline in a war against the monoculture. So, as traditional modesty is made to buckle under the pressures of modernity, the woman in hijab stands out either as a witness to revealed difference, or to her own charms. She stands out either as a witness to her life lived for God, or to identity politics or egotistical fashion statements. And while inappropriateness for a lady in hijab isn’t always clear; and while she strives to guard and nurture her sense of modesty against modernity’s intrusions of immodesty, she remains the great global sign of dissent. In such a battle she must be supported, counselled and defended; but never dictated to. For a woman in hijab is a shieldmaiden of Islam.

On taking to the carpet of silence: It is in a state of solitude that the heart’s gaze can best be diverted away from creation and be focused solely on the Creator.

On spirituality & shopping malls: While it is beyond doubt that markets (in our time, shopping malls) and trade have played a pivotal role in Muslim life and society; and that in many traditional Muslim cities, markets were located around the main jami‘ah or Congregational mosque; there are, nevertheless, a few hadiths that speak of their unsavoury nature. One hadith says: ‘The most beloved of places to God, on earth, are the mosques, while the most deplorable are the markets.’ [Muslim, no.671]

Of course, markets being despised has nothing to do with trade or commerce, per se. It does have to do with the fraud and deception common in such places, as well as the greed, avarice, bickering and yelling found therein. There, false oaths are frequently sworn, and honest remembrance of God usually conspicuous by its absence. But more than that, the market is where even a renunciant’s heart can easily be entangled in the tentacles of dunya, and be ensnared by its false glitz and glitter. Enter it for needs, we must; enter it for wants, we may. But enter it bewitched or besotted, we must not!

Islam’s invitation to humankind: The Call of Islam is, without doubt, a call to prayer, charity, building character, remembrance of God and spiritual struggle. It is also a call to ease, for it takes into account public interest and peoples’ frailties, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The Qur’an states: God wishes to lighten the burden for you, for man was created weak. [4:28]

On a believer’s compassion and easy-going nature: Shut not the door of Allah in the faces of Allah’s servants; but: ‘Make things easy for the people and do not make things difficult. Give them glad tidings, do not drive them away.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.69; Muslim, no.1734]

When the principle of ease becomes one of adulteration: The desire to bring religion to people and make it easy for them is, surely, a noble one; and revelation commends it. But this is hardly a case where the means justify the ends. Diluting the truth for the sake of meeting misguidance halfway is self-defeating; isn’t it? If people have drifted away from the centre to the fringes of heedlessness, then charity requires that they be shown the way back. To imagine that one can take the centre out to them, while they stay exactly where they are, is sheer folly.

On harnessing harmony in marriage: Only when egos are hung up on coat pegs, and the Revealed Law (shari’ah) honoured and observed, can husband and wife find sacred peace (sakinah): And from His signs is that He created for you wives from yourselves that you might find peace in them. [30:21]

On one rule for us, another for others: Why do we always find an excuse for our own wrong behaviour, but never an excuse for others? Why do we always look at ourselves through rose-tinted glasses, yet look at others through a magnifying glass?

On an inquisition against traditional morality: While the unfailing light of Revelation tells us that the act of homosexuality is sinful and immoral, “Will you commit foulness such as no creature ever did before you? For you come with lust to men instead of women; you are indeed a transgressing people” [7:80-1], we needn’t voice our opposition to it in hostile rage or violence; but rather peacefully, calmly, without calling for persecution. Mercy is better than malice; understanding better than recrimination.

As for the inquisition or Islamophobia being dolled out by the liberal stalwarts against those who oppose certain sexual practices, let us respond with restraint, dignity and tolerance. And nor should their intimidation and bullying cause us to cower, or fail to state the correct ruling on the matter.

On the inner serenity that comes by recalling that all is unfolding as per His plan: The believer is to withstand the tragedies and outrages of time, not with indifference, nor apathy, but with self-restraint, dignified response and righteous indignation that does not burst at the seams or explode into uncontrolled rage.

When putting on an act is not hypocritical: Some feel that the attempt to put on good character so as to present one’s best face to people is disingenuous; hypocritical even. That may be so if the intention is merely to impress people or to win brownie points in da‘wah. But if one does so from a love of dignified behaviour and good character; or out of a desire to shield others from one’s misdeeds and shortcomings; or from the hope of being more worthy of Allah, despite our inadequacies, then this is deemed as something virtuous. Indeed, cultivating good character and dignity of behaviour have always been highly regarded in Islam.

On the three classes of scholars: Religious scholars, long ago, have been divided into three types: [i] government scholars (‘ulema al-dawlah), [ii] populist scholars (‘ulema al-‘ammah) and [iii] righteous religious scholars (‘ulema al-millah).

Government scholars needn’t be salaried employees of the state. Rather, the label will apply to any scholar whose intended aim is to be royalist and to defend official state policies – regardless of truth, justice and the shari‘ah. Their goal is not God, as much as it is to placate the palace. These sell-outs are different from those state appointed scholars whose lives are a testimony to their God-fearingness and piety, but whose perceptions and outlook, when it comes to fatwas on larger political matters, could be skewered by false government briefings, misinformation and palace propaganda. While the personal integrity of such scholars is unquestionable; their political fatwas are less so.

Populist scholars are at the other end of the spectrum. They are scholars whose chief purpose is to be popular among the masses. Their fatwas are always anti-government, merely for the sake of gaining acceptance among the masses. Again, God, justice, and truth isn’t their main goal, as much as it is keeping the hysteria of the masses happy, courting the crowds, and pandering to the public’s praises. These people, as with the above, have also betrayed their scholarly credentials.

As for those righteous religious scholars, their intent is God’s good pleasure. They issue fatwas out of piety, in light of the shari‘ah and with trying to conceptualise the actual situation. Their fatwas are based on knowledge, justice and on scrupulousness. God’s pleasure is their aim: whether the fatwa agrees with the monarchy or the masses, the president or the public. These are the true inheritors of the Prophets.

On steering emotions and actions with sound knowledge: Firmness without learning leads to extremism. Frankness without learning leads to insolence. Boldness without learning leads to disputation.

On the Monoculture’s failure to offer fulfilment: Muslims are called to witness that each day of our life brings a host of difficulties, discomforts and disappointments: We have indeed created man in toil and hardship [90:4]; Believers must bear witness too that while the monoculture teaches us to drown out these struggles and troubles with drink, drugs and distractions; monotheism insists that our happiness is greatest when we face such trials patiently, stoically and responsibly: Those who endure with patience will be rewarded without measure. [39:10] ‘We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who show patience.’ [2:155] Adversity, then, is the non-negotiable fee that each of us must pay for the privilege of being born.

On living for the long run: Be not honoured in this world, but disgraced in the next; remembered on earth, but forgotten in Heaven; loved today, but ignored tomorrow.

On the importance of keeping spiritual company: Keeping company with those who can instruct us in our shariah duties and, more importantly, whose presence can help reform our inward state, is a crucial teaching of our religion – and one that is all too often forgotten, neglected or overlooked. O you who believe! Fear God, and be with the truthful ones, says the Qur’an [9:119].

On the heart’s solace: In the midst of this burdened world we make our supplications, knowing that when all else fails us, He is ever with us; listening and ready to respond: And your Lord has said: ‘Call on Me, and I will answer you.’ [Qur’an 40:60]

Forming Spiritual Habits Through Forty Day Retreats

cave&lightIn Islam, is there any significance to the period of forty days? Why do certain people insist on going into spiritual retreats for this length of time? Some allude to the verse: And when We appointed for Moses forty nights [Qur’an 2:51], saying that it points to the importance and justification of a forty day spiritual retreat. What, then, is the reality of this claim; and what is the ruling (hukm) of such retreats of solitude and seclusion in Islam?

Undeniably, this forty day retreat of seclusion (khalwah, ‘uzlah) prepared Moses, peace be upon him, for the august meeting with his Lord and the lordly gift he was about to receive.1 Moreover, the Bible has it that Jesus, peace be upon him, also retreated into the wilderness, fasting for forty day. It was after this that his ministry began.

As for in Islam, a forty day retreat (khalwah) seems to have no specific mention in our Sacred Law. Besides his retreats to the cave of Hira before prophethood, there is no hadith to show that the Prophet ﷺ ever entered into this type of retreat after he was commissioned as a prophet; nor did he legislate it for others. Ibn Taymiyyah insists that forty day retreats are not part of the Prophet’s Sacred Law ﷺ, but rather the Law of Moses – which is now abrogated by the Muhammadan shari‘ah.2

There is a hadith which says: ‘Whoever dedicates to God forty days, the wellspring of wisdom shall manifest itself from his heart to his tongue.’3 This hadith, however, is weak (da‘if); though not fabricated.4 Something resembling this was echoed by Imam Malik who said: ‘It has reached me that none renounces the world and is God-fearing, except that he shall speak wisdom.’5

The famous pietist, Sahl al-Tustari, also has similar words: ‘Whoever renounces the world for forty days with sincere devotion, miracles shall emanate from him. If they do not, there is an absence of truthfulness in his renunciation.’6

All in all, then, nothing sound and concrete seems to be legislated in the Sunnah with regards to retreating from the world specifically for forty days. Certain words have been recorded from some of the early pietists based on their experience (tajribah) in this matter, and rooted in the generally accepted wisdom that habits can be forged in forty days. Imam al-Munawi has said that, ‘The wisdom in specifying forty days is that this is the time needed to persist in changing or forming basic habits; as is known by experience.’7

As for seeking seclusion so as to worship Allah through personal acts of devotion – in other words, taking some spiritual ‘time-out’ – Ibn Taymiyyah remarks: ‘It is vital for a person to set aside some time for themselves so as to engage in earnest supplication, remembrance, prayer, contemplation, introspection, setting the heart right and other spiritual practices that require solitude and seclusion.’8 For it is in a state of solitude that the heart’s gaze can best be diverted away from creation and be focused solely on the Creator. Ibn ‘Ata’illah offered us this piece of spiritual wisdom: ‘Nothing benefits the heart more than a spiritual retreat wherein it enters the domains of meditation.’9

If someone specifies forty days (or, for that matter, any length of time) for a personal retreat, or to try and nurture spiritual habits – then provided the specific period is not believed to be an established Sunnah, and provided that one’s other religious duties or worldly responsibilities are not neglected – this would be in keeping with the overall spirit of the faith and the received wisdoms of some of our predecessors. Of course, intending to engage in any lengthy period of seclusion and solitude must be done so under the guidance of those learned in shari’ah; the sacred law, and versed in tariqah; the method or path of inward purification. Indeed, going it alone in such a prolonged spiritual practice can be fraught with great danger to mind, body and soul.

And Allah knows best.

1. As per: al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 1:257; Ibn ‘Ashur, al-Tahrir wa’l-Tanwir (Tunis: Dar al-Tunisiyyah, 1984), 1:497.

2. See: Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:393-95.

3. Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya, 5:189; Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, 13:231; Hannad, al-Zuhd, no.678.

4. Al-Qari says that Ibn al-Jawzi cites it in his anthology of fabricated reports, Kitab al-Mawdu‘at, but believes it to be an error in judgement. For the chain is merely weak, not fabricated. Cf. al-Israr al-Marfu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), 315; no.454. Its chain being weak is also the grading given it by al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.1052. Al-Albani declared it weak in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma’arif, 1992), no.38.

5. As was recorded in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A’lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:109.

6. Recorded in al-Qushayri, al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah (no info., n.d.), 190. Also refer to its English translation by A. Kynsh, al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism (Reading: Garnet Publishing, 2007), 367.

7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:44.

8. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 10:426.

9. Al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyah (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), no.12.

Copycats: Imitating Non-Muslims & their Festivals

music-catsQ. Is the imitation of non-Muslims categorically prohibited in Islam? If so, wouldn’t that make the wearing of suites, trousers, shirts and ties impermissible? And given the current political climate, can or should Muslims partake in their religious festivities and celebrations?

A. The basis for such a viewpoint is taken from the Prophet’s statement ﷺ: ‘Whoever imitates a people is from them (man tashabbahu bi qawmin fa huwa minhum).’1 And yet not all forms of imitation, or tashabbuh, are forbidden in Islam. So in order to get to the nub of the matter, let us work through the issue piecemeal:

Firstly, the imitation that is forbidden is one that involves the intent to resemble non-Muslims, for no other reason than they are non-Muslims and that that is part of their lifestyle. Ibn Taymiyyah explained that, ‘Imitation is whenever an act is done merely because others have done so.’2 Also, it says in the Mawsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah: ‘Imitation in what isn’t blameworthy or what does not involve intent, isn’t a problem.’3 If anything, imitation accompanied by intent falls under the Quranic stricture: He among you who turns to them, is of them. [Qur’an 5:51]

Secondly, imitating non-Muslims in sartorial matters that are specific to their religion or religious traditions, like wearing a cross or a jewish skull cap, is also categorically forbidden (haram). Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani cites in his magisterial commentary to Sahih al-Bukhari about Anas seeing some people wearing a shawl-like garment; he censured them, saying: ‘They look just like the Jews of Khaybar.’ Ibn Hajr goes on to explain: ‘It would be correct to infer from this incident that such a shawl, during those times, was emblematic of the Jews. In our time, this is no longer the case and thus wearing it becomes part of what is generally permissible.’4

Thirdly, and what stems directly from the above: clothing which cease to be specific to the religious codes of non-Muslims become permissible. To again quote Ibn Hajr: ‘If we say that it [a red saddlecloth] is forbidden because of it being imitation of the non-Arabs, then this is a religious reason. But that was their distinguishing symbol at that time when they were disbelievers. Now that it has ceased to be particular to them, the notion no longer applies and hence it no longer remains disliked (makruh). And God knows best.’5

Fourthly, the rules with respect to being distinct from the non-Muslims are very much contextual, and are bound with time and place. Ibn Taymiyyah explained the point, thus: ‘The same holds true even for today. Were a Muslim to find himself in the Land of War (dar al-harb), or the Land of Unbelief (dar al-kufr) without there being actual war, he is no longer under the injunction to differ from them in their external modes of life, lest it should prove harmful. In fact, it might be recommended – incumbent, even – for a man to at times participate in their external modes of conduct if, in doing so, it will be in the interest of the faith: either to invite them to the religion, to learn about their internal matters so as to apprise the Muslims of them, to ward-off any harm they may be considering against Muslims, or other such goals … So conforming with, or differing from, them varies according to time and place.’6

Fifthly, if the above is grasped, then the matter of imitation or resemblance becomes clear. Sometimes it is forbidden; sometimes disliked; at other times simply permitted: indeed, in some pressing situations it may even be required. The wearing of jackets, trousers, shirts or ties, as well as other items of dress now common to Muslims and non-Muslims alike is, at the least, permitted. For they are neither specific to the non-Muslims, nor do they [any longer] hold any religious significance.

Sixthly, a brief word about Muslim men’s dress code. The Qur’an informs: O Children of Adam! We have sent down to you clothing to conceal your shame, and for adornment; but the clothing of piety, that is the best. [7:26] Woefully, the once dignified and modest dress sense of the Muslim male has taken quite a nose dive in recent times. Not too long ago, a Muslim man’s dress sense reflected the viceregal function of Man: modest, dignified, and devoid of ostentation, arrogance and extravagant self-indulgence. Our fiqh requires that a man cover, not just his awrah or “nakedness” (all that is between the navel and the knees), but his clothes must be loose enough so as not to reveal the contours or shape of his awrah too. But, says Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, loose fitting and modest clothing are now replaced ‘by jeans and t-shirts, clothes that reek of infidelity and shamelessness,’ causing Muslims to appear, not as khalifahs of the Earth, but as ‘wage-slaves’ of Western factories and fashions.8 For sure, our clothes needn’t be Arab or Pakistani garb; for the Sunnah inclines to some degree of acculturation. But if one is going to wear trousers that aren’t loose but tight, one wears a long jacket or shirt which permits the male awrah and its contours to be dutifully covered and concealed. We are to let the Sunnah help beautify our conduct, behaviour and appearance. Let the Sunnah raise us; let us not drag the Sunnah down to our own levels of mediocrity. Islamic dress may not be one monolithic phenomenon, but it does lay down clear-cut sartorial guidelines for both the genders.

Seventhly, the rationale behind the avoidance of imitation and of being distinct from non-Muslim is to avoid the dangers of assimilation whereby a Muslim’s faith, practice and moral probity could be compromised or impaired. Secular societies tend to have a marked proclivity for mediocrity; for dragging things down to their lowest common denominator. Believers, by contrast, are urged to live their lives by the benchmark of excellence: ‘Verily Allah prescribes excellence in all that you do,’ exhorts one famous hadith.7 Those Muslims born or raised in the West, well their challenge is to square maintaining their faith and identity as Muslims, while affirming the cultural norms that they have been socialised into. They are also duty bound not to portray Islam as something Arab or Asian, for example, and thus obscure its universal nature. Hence sometimes we need the courage to be distinct; at other times the courage to conform!

As for celebrating non-Muslim religious festivals, like Christmas, Easter or Diwali, Ibn Taymiyyah was asked about a Muslim who makes the food of Christians on Nayruz (Persian New Year) and on all their occasions such as Epiphany and other feast days, and who sells them things to help them celebrate their festivals. Is it permissible for the Muslims to do any of these things or not? His response:

‘Praise be to Allah. It is not permissible for Muslims to imitate them in any way that is distinct to their festivals, in terms of food, clothing, bathing, lighting fires, refraining from usual work or worship; and so on. Nor is it permissible to give a feast, exchange gifts, or sell things that help them to celebrate their festivals, or to let children and others play the games that are played on their festivals, or to adorn oneself or put up decorations. In general, [Muslims] are not permitted to single out the festivals of the non-Muslims for any of these rituals and customs. Rather, the day of their festivals is just an ordinary day for the Muslims, and they should not single it out for any activity that is part of what they do on these days.’9

1. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4031. Ibn Taymiyyah said, Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2003), 163: ‘Its chain is excellent (jayyid).

2. Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, 164. A point worth noting: ‘Resemblance devoid of any intent isn’t called ‘imitation’ as there is no actual resolve. But if there arises outward conformity with that of non-Muslims in some actions or appearance, then it becomes disliked (makruh), and being distinct becomes what is sought after. It doesn’t, though, reach the level of being forbidden.’ Al-Juday‘, al-Lihyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Rayyan, 2005), 196.

3. Mawsu‘ah al-Fiqhiyyah (Kuwait: Dhat al-Salasil, 1988), 12:7.

4. Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989, 10:337.

5. ibid., 10:376.

6. Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim, 282.

7. Muslim, no.1955.

8. Agenda to Change Our Condition (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2001), vii.

9. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 25:329

Tawhid: Worshippers Immersed in Witnessing God

700-521089Explaining the essence of Islam and its main pillars, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: testifying that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, performing the prayers, paying the zakat; pilgrimage to the House; and fasting in Ramadan.’ [Muslim, no.21]

It is also related in these words: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: worshiping God and rejecting whatever else is beside Him, performing the prayers, paying the zakat …’ [Muslim, no.20]

In another wording: “Islam is built on five [pillars]: an yuwahhadu’Llah – to single out God …” [Muslim, no.19]

Scholars have noted that the above three hadiths, despite their variant wordings, are synonomous with one another. That is to say, they each convey the same meaning. Thus, to testify or bear witness that there is no deity but God is the same as worshiping God and none other than Him, which, in turn, is the same as singling-out God. It is this convicion of singling-out God for worship which, above all else, lies at the heart of the Islamic faith.

The Qur’an proclaims: Worship God and ascribe not any partner to Him. [4:36] Another verse has it: We raised in every nation a messenger [saying]: ‘Worship God and shun false gods!’ [16:36] Yet another of its passages insists: We sent no messenger before you except that We revealed to him: ‘There is no god but I, so worship Me.’ [21:25]

This, then, is the doctrine to which every Muslim submits, and around which the life of the community of believers revolves; captured in Islam’s Declaration of Faith: la ilaha illa’Llah – “There is no deity [worthy of worship] save the One true God: Allah.” This declaration, which in Islam’s view is the central assertion of all the divinely-sent prophets, is a summons, as it were, to live an attentive and pious life.

La ilaha illa’Llah is also called the statement of tawhid – a word which can be rendered as “divine unity” or “monotheism”; although a more accurate translation would be: “to assert God’s oneness.” This idea of tawhid – that God is inevitably and utterly one, perfect, indivisible and unique – is the cardinal tenet of a Muslim’s belief. Now since it is the nature of theologians to try and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, precise theological definitions of the term have been offered down the ages. Among them all, the following has received widespread acceptance. Tawhid is:

‘To single-out God for worship (ifrad al-ma‘bud bi’l-‘ibadah), accompanied by believing in His unity and affirming this for His Essence, Attributes and Acts.’1

Definitions like the above reflect the dual concern of Muslim theologians: to assert the absolute transcendence or “otherness” of God, and to affirm that God alone must be singled-out for worship. Lord of the heavens and earth and all that is between them. Therefore worship Him and be steadfast in His worship. Do you know anyone similar to Him? [19:65]

But Islam’s goal is God, not some theological abstraction written down on a piece of paper. To this end the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins upon us all a constant awareness of God, even in the midst of our worldly activities. This awareness is expressed by two words which the Qur’an frequently employs. The first is taqwa: often glossed as “fear of God” or “piety”. To have taqwa of God is to obey Him wholeheartedly, while being conscious of His gaze and scrutiny of us. In other words, it is to be profoundly aware of God, and to mould our lives around such an awareness.

Ihsan is the second word, and is commonly translated as “goodness” and “excellence”. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained ihsan as: ‘To worship God as though you see Him; and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.8]

Revelation’s insistance on taqwa and on ihsan is precisely so that tawhid may be made into a living, experiential reality and for faith to be deepened and be made profound. In explaining the verse, Your God is One God; there is no God but He. [2:163], Ibn Juzayy outlines the three ascending degrees of tawhid: the sublimest degree being to witness God with the eye of the heart; witnessing everything is from God, not that everything is God. He writes:

‘Know that peoples’ tawhid of God is of three degrees: First, that which the generality of Muslims affirm, by which their lives are protected in this world and by which they are delivered from residing in Hell eternally in the world to come: which is to reject partners, rivals, spouses, children, likenesses or equals with God.

The second degree is the tawhid of the elite. It is to perceive that all acts emanate from God alone, and to witness this through spiritual unveiling (mukashafah), not by way of formal dialectical proofs that are accessible to every Muslim. This station of tawhid of the elect enriches the heart with imperative knowledge (‘ilm daruri) and hence has no need for formal proofs. The fruits of such knowledge are a wholehearted devotion to God, putting one’s trust in Him alone, and a turning away from all creation; so that he does not hope in anyone save God, nor fear anyone but Him. For he sees no Doer save Him and that all people are in His overwhelming grasp; none of the matter is in their hand. Thus he dispenses with [depending upon] all secondary causes and earthly lords.

[The person at] the third degree does not see anything in existence except God alone. He is absent from looking at people; until, for him, it is as if they did not exist. This is what sufis term the Station of Annihilation (maqam al-fana); which means becoming “absent” from people until one is lost from oneself and from one’s tawhid – that is to say, being absent due to being immersed in witnessing God.’2

1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:57; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 38.

2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:164.

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