The Humble "I"

Muslims, Musings, Modernity

Think Before You Text, Tweet or Speak!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laylat al-Qadr: Standing at the Surge of Serenity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ma‘rifah: Getting to Know God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns, 60.

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

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

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

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

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

Footprints on the Sands of Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality Check with Ramadan

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

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

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

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

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

Allahumma taqabbal minna siyamana
wa qiyamana wa

Moon Sighting: Unity or Lunacy?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

And Allah knows best.

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

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

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

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

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

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.697.

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

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

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

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

* This piece was originally written for and is posted here with kind permission.

Revering the Symbols of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Al-Bukhari, no.960.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.5649.

5. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.3698.

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

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

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

9. Al-Bukhari, no.3518.

10. Ibn Hanbal, Musnad, 3:199.

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

How to Nurture Presence of Heart with God

CEY_13434008691Without doubt, the greatest trait to nurture in our worship of God and in our journey to Him is hudur al-qalb – “presence of heart”. It says in one hadith: ‘Ask God [in a state where] you are certain of being responded to; and realise that God does not respond to a supplication from a heedless and inattentive heart.’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.3479] Thus, a mindless heart elicits little or no response from Heaven; whereas an attentive heart, present with its Lord, does. What is meant by presence of heart (for the heart to feel the presence of the One being invoked or remembered) is that the heart be liberated from distractions and be focused and attentive to its Lord. Such is the courtesy (adab) sought from the servant in his or her worship of the Generous Lord.

As we seek to break out of the prisons of our pleasures and distractions, and allow our lives to be illumined by faith and loving submission, the focus must be to educate our heart. The above hadith tells us that works of faith, presented to God from a heedless heart, count for very little; if anything at all. Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Whoever purposes the shari‘ah, its sources and wellspring, will know how actions of the limbs are tied to works of the heart and how they are of no benefit without them, and how works of the heart are more obligatory than those of the limbs. Acts of devotion (‘ubudiyyah) of the heart are far greater, more numerous and more continuous than devotion of the limbs. For they are obligatory at each and every moment.’1

He also wrote: ‘Acts of the limbs, without works of the heart, either lack any benefit, or else contain very little benefit.’2

Presence of heart with God is not only required in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during each moment of our life. One way to nurture presence is by kathrat al-dhikr – “remembering God frequently,” wherever and whenever possible. At first, says al-Ghazali, dhikr is just with the tongue; the heart having very little share in it. Then the heart, with considerable effort, is made to be present in dhikr – although if left to itself, ‘it would drift into the valleys of idle thought.’ It then begins taking root in the heart and dominates it, such that it now takes effort to not make dhikr. Finally comes “extinction” and being “lost” in the One being remembered. Thus, he writes: ‘It starts with dhikr of the tongue; then by the heart being pressed into remembering; then the heart remembering spontaneously, thereby leading to it being dominated by the One being remembered and to the effacement of the one remembering.’3

In other words, explains Ibn al-Qayyim, ‘the power of dhikr takes hold of the servant, causing him to lose consciousness of himself and his remembrance, in the One he is remembering.’ He goes on to explain that as this occurs, ‘the servant is bound to drift through the doors of indwelling (hulul) and unionism (ittihad) – unless he has a sound theology (‘aqidah sahihah).’4 Whatever else such extinction or fana’ connotes, it does not mean that one has “merged” or “become one” with Allah. Such unionism or belief of indwelling is utterly false and is, at best, merely a perception. The reality is that the servant always remains distinctly the servant and the Lord distinctly the Lord. In fact, to believe otherwise would be blasphemous or kufr.

Scholars depict this level of faith as maqam al-mushahadah – “the Station of Spiritual Witnessing” – basing it on the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, in which he explained spiritual excellence (ihsan) to be: ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him, and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.80] This witnessing Allah with the heart is where, writes Ibn Rajab, ‘the heart is illumined with faith, and the inner sight arrives at gnosis, so much so that the Unseen becomes, as it were, seen (wa huwa an yutanawwara’l-qalbu bi’l-iman wa tanfudha’l-basiratu fi’l-irfan hatta yasira’l-ghaybu ka’l-ayan).’5

Another hadith that bespeaks of the same spiritual state is the following: ‘My servant does not draw close to Me with anything more loved by Me than the obligatory duties I have enjoined on him. My servant continues to draw closer to me with the optional deeds till I love him. When I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he grasps and his foot with which he walks.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6502] Returning again to Ibn Rajab, who explains:

‘What these words mean is that whoever strives to draw near to Allah by [performing] the obligatory deeds, then the optional ones, He shall draw him closer to Himself and will raise him from the degree of iman to that of ihsan. He will now come to worship Allah with presence (hudur) and vigilance (muraqabah), as if seeing Him. His heart will be filled with gnosis of Allah, exalted is He; along with love, veneration, fear, awe, and magnification of Him; intimacy with Him; and longing for Him, until this gnosis that resides in the heart begets spiritual witnessing of Him by the inner sight … What is in the hearts of such lovers [of God] who are drawn near to Him continues to grow and grow, until their hearts are filled by it; nothing remains in their hearts save it; and nor can their limbs move except in compliance with what is in their hearts. Whosoever’s state is like this, then it is said of him: “Nothing remains in his heart but Allah.” That is, [nothing remains but] gnosis, love and remembrance of Him. In this sense, there is a well-known Israelite report, “Allah said: My heavens cannot contain Me, nor can My earth. But the heart of My believing slave contains Me.”67

He further says: ‘When the heart is filled with Allah’s greatness, exalted is He, it wipes out traces of everything other than Him from the heart. Now nothing of the person’s ego remains, nor any [false] desires, nor any will; save what the Master wills for him. It is at this point that the servant does not utter, except His remembrance and does not move, except by His command. Whenever he speaks, he speaks by Allah; when he hears, he hears by Him; when he sees, he sees by Him; and when he grasps, he grasps by Him. This is what is meant by His words: “I am his hearing by which he hears, his sight by which he sees …” Whoever indicates other than this, is only intimating at the deviation of Indwelling or Unionism; and Allah and His Messenger are free of him.’8

So how is presence of heart nurtured? It starts by cultivating vigilance, or mindfulness of God within our hearts – as per the second part of the hadith about ihsan: ‘… though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’

Vigilance (muraqabah), as masters of the inward life tell us, is to be mindful of Allah in all our states, particularly in the state of worship, realising that He is with you wherever you are; [57:4] to feel His presence, being aware that He is closer to him than his jugular vein; [50:16] to know that nothing is ever concealed from Him, thereby feeling shy and modest before Him, for He knows what is secret, and what is yet more hidden; [20:7] and to know that His care and help are ever near at hand: When My servants ask you about Me, tell them I am near; answering the prayer of the suppliant when he prays to Me. [2:186] The more we can envisage such realities about Allah in our heart, the profounder will be our vigilance of Him and our presence of heart in our worship of Him. For a heart in which vigilance of Allah profoundly resides, is a heart that becomes occupied with Him to the exclusion of all else.

We’re told that vigilance is one of the sublimest of all spiritual stations. We’re told too that habituating our heart to such vigilance requires training the heart: gradually and step-by-step. Shaykh Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Wasiti asks to accustom ourselves to being mindful and shy of Allah; even if it be for short periods at a time – persevering in this in our mundane day-to-day affairs, when at university or work, and when engaged in acts of worship – until such mindfulness and vigilance becomes part and parcel of our nature.9

That vigilance of Allah be ingrained and be made a habit of the heart is paramount, so that its fruits appear upon us. The least of these fruits is that one does nothing, when alone with Allah, that he would be ashamed of doing should a man of virtue and rank be watching him. If, say the shaykhs of the path, when you call to mind the fact that Allah sees you, you find a shyness in your heart which prevents you from disobeying Him or spurs you on to obey Him, then something of the lights of vigilance (anwar al-muraqabah) have dawned on your heart. Eventually, as the heart becomes accustomed to vigilance, and as the awareness of Allah’s nearness deepens within, the heart begins to be totally immersed in Allah and extinct in Him; being now raised to the degrees of mushahadah – worshiping Allah as though seeing Him.

The Qur’an says: Is the reward of ihsan anything but ihsan? [55:60] The believer, having lived his life in the pursuit of Allah’s good pleasure, and having striven in this world to worship Him as though seeing Him, is rewarded in the Afterlife with its supreme and sublimest delight: the beatific vision of Allah (ru’yatu’Llah). A celebrated hadith speaks about this rapturous joy in the following words:

‘When the people of Heaven enter Heaven and those of Hell enter Hell, a herald shall call out, saying: “O people of Paradise! There is a tryst for you with your Lord, which He wishes to bring about for you.” “What might that tryst be?” they enquire. “Did He not make heavy our scales, whiten our faces, and bring us into Heaven and deliver us from Hell?” Then the veil will be lifted and they shall gaze upon the Face of Allah. By Allah, never will the believers be given anything more beloved to them than of gazing upon His Face.’ [Muslim, no.181]

Allahumma inna nas’aluka ladhdhatan-nazr
ila wajhika wa shawqa
ila liqa’iq.

1. Bada’i‘ al-Fawa’id (Cairo: Maktabah al-Qahirah, 1972), 3:230.

2. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 1:206.

3. Al-Ghazali, Kitab al-Arba‘in fi Usul al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2006), 85-7.

4. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 134.

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

6. Similar views on this report can be seen in: Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 18:122; and al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), no.988 – where they categorically reject its ascription to the Prophet, peace be upon him. Rather it is, as stated, from the isra’iliyyat reports.

7. Jami al-Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 2:345-6.

8. ibid., 2:347.

9. Miftah Tariq al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Bashshar al-Islamiyyah, 1999), 34-5.

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