The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Warn A Brother: Don’t Forget the Bigger Picture

wbWhat follows are five cornerstones that lie at the heart of Islam’s bigger picture of life. They concern: (i) What is life’s higher purpose? (ii) Who has the right to our ultimate love and loyalty? (iii) The obligation of faithfully keeping covenants and contracts, (iv) Loving the sacred law and thanking the Lawgiver, (iv) Fatwas: between ease, strictness and compromise. These cornerstones, if watered down; left; or misunderstood, could steer us on a course to confusion, chaos, or even kufr! That is to say, they are concerns we cannot afford to ever forget.

1. Don’t forget that the primary reason and higher purpose for why Allah created us is: li na’lam wa li na’bud – “to know Him and to worship Him.” Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali says: ‘Allah, exalted is He, created creation and brought them into existence that they may worship Him with reverent fear, hope and love of Him. Allah, exalted is He, declares: I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me. [51:56] However, Allah can only be worshiped after knowing Him and becoming familiar with Him. For this He created the heavens, the earth and whatever lies in between, so that by them His oneness and glory can be inferred. Allah said: Allah it is who created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends amidst them, that you may know Allah has power over all things and that He encompasses everything in knowledge. [65:12]’1

So amidst the dramas of life; amidst the ever-growing temptations which defile souls, the Qur’an asks us to know our Maker and live out our lives in mindfulness of Him. Those who worship Allah with such an awareness, according to His revealed ways, are led by it to an even deeper awareness and to endless bliss. Those who don’t, choosing instead to ignore Allah’s signs; follow their whim and inner pathologies; and be led by their ego-driven intellects, then: Those who are too arrogant to worship Me shall enter Hell, disgraced. [40:60]

2. Let us not forget that whenever the love, longing, loyalty and submission which are due to Allah, are focused upon other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is shirk – idolatry; setting-up partners with Allah. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes; fears; love and loyalty around it, submitting to it independently of Allah, then this, for them, becomes a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth. Others make gods of celebrities. Still others make a god of their own egos or desires. Asks the Qur’an: Have you seen him who takes his whims for his god? [25:43] We have indeed! On this very note, Ibn Rajab explains: ‘Whoever loves something and obeys it, loving and hating for its sake, then that is his god (ilah) … Whoever’s loving or loathing revolves around his whims, forming allegiance or enmity upon its basis, then these desires are his god that he worships.’2

Today’s Monoculture, for all its talk of tolerance, demands that we bow to its beliefs, values and worldview – even if it has to drag us there kicking and screaming. Wisdom enjoins that we engage with it; even partake in its political processes (for the Muslim collective benefit or a national interest). But let’s not forget the Monoculture exists, not for God, but in spite of Him; and even in brazen defiance of Him. That being the case, one engages with it from a position of dislike, not admiration.3 Belief in Allah’s all-embracing knowledge, wisdom and care for creation, and loyalty to His lordship, require nothing less: Who is better in judgement than Allah for those who have certainty of belief? [5:50] In a world that insists we render our ultimate loyalty to liberal ideals, let’s recall that shirk isn’t only bowing to idols of wood or stone. Egos, desires, people and even political systems can be deified too!

3. Lest it be misconstrued, we should never forget that being faithful to our promises, contracts and covenants is a cardinal Islamic virtue and moral obligation. This is the case be it to Muslims or non-Muslims, government or the governed. The Qur’an says: Keep your covenants, for you will be held to account for your covenants. [17:34] O you who believe, fulfil your undertakings! [5:1] Indeed, every pact, promise or contract made is a pact before Allah, to be faithfully kept: And fulfil the pact of Allah after you have entered into it. [16:91]

Although Muslims should be prepared to swim against the current of an increasingly profane Monoculture and assert their conviction in revealed truths, that’s not to say they can play fast and loose with pacts and promises made with others: whether that be with employers, businesses, the state, or domestically. Instead, Muslim faithfulness to his or her promises must be beyond question. The Sunnah, the prophetic guidance, expects nothing less. To do otherwise would be to act treacherously; and Islam abhors treachery. One hadith informs: ‘The signs of a hypocrite are three: when he speaks, he lies; when he makes a promise, he breaks it; and when he is trusted [with something], he betrays that trust.’4 Another states: ‘Every treacherous person will have a flag at his backside on the Day of Resurrection, which will be raised according to the level of his treachery.’5 To be clear, dissenting against secular profanities is one thing; treachery is another matter altogether.

Our voice of dissent against the idolatries or inequities permeating the Monoculture must be conditioned by recognising the good to be found in it. Our voices of protest cannot be as outside observers of society, but as sincere participants in it. Moreover, our language of protest must be employed carefully: for it mustn’t involve incitement to violence, betraying pacts, endangering public security, or causing further injury to the call to tawhid and the image of Islam.

To live or be born in Britain (or any other country, for that matter) is to be born into, or reside under, a ‘social contract’: a covenant between citizens of a society to behave with reciprocal responsibility in their mutual relationships, under state authority. Ibn Qudamah wrote about Muslims entering non-Muslim lands with a pledge of security, saying: ‘As for behaving treacherously towards them, this is expressly forbidden. For they only granted him security on condition that he not betray them and that they be safe from his harm: if this is not stipulated explicitly, it is implicitly set forth … This being so, it is unlawful for us to be treacherous to them: for this is betrayal and our religion has no place for betrayal. The Prophet ﷺ said: “Muslims fulfil their contracts (al-muslimun ‘inda shrutihim).”67 If this is the case for those entering the country, it’s even more so the case for those who are born or reside here. As for those who twist the texts to justify their political treachery and terrorism, putting the lives of others and the integrity of Islam in harms way, then we ask that Allah guide them aright and rectify their affairs, or else break their backs.

4. Let’s not forget that the Sacred Law (shari‘ah), in terms of the halal and haram, is a necessary measure in order to guide people, regulate their affairs, prevent them from straying, and dissuade them from harming themselves or others. By recognising the shari‘ah boundaries exist to protect us, to safeguard us from dangerous and unhealthy pastures, we can attain to a reasonable balance in this life, and joy in the next. Those Muslims who choose to remain ignorant and insensitive to Allah’s care for us all often see the shari‘ah as an irritant, an impediment, an imposition of sorts. For such people, very little is clearly halal or haram. Their preferred lifestyle choice is to sweep as many things as possible under the “grey area” carpet, allowing freer rein to the ego’s caprice. However, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The lawful (halal) is clear and the unlawful (haram) is clear and between the two are doubtful matters about which not many people know. Thus he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself in terms of his religion and his honour. But he who falls into doubtful matters falls into that which is unlawful, like a shepherd who pastures around a sanctuary all but grazing therein. Truly, every king has a sanctuary, and truly Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions.’8

Those gifted with knowledge of Allah’s law view the shari‘ah with joy and gratitude: a gratitude which turns into loving praise of Allah as the journey to Him deepens. For such believers bathed in the lights of divine obedience, knowledge of the Sacred Law reveals the love and solicitous care Allah has for His servants; it ‘reveals the generosity of the Lawgiver, Who has placed us in broad pastures, and established boundaries to protect us from the wolves.’9 Yet their firm commitment to the outward dimension of the religion in no way equals an obsession with it. As for their inward lives, they hover around the prophetic supplication and yearning: Allahumma inni as’aluka hubbaka wa hubba man yuhubbuka wa hubba ‘amalin yuqarribuni ila hubbik – ‘O Allah, grant me Your love and the love of those whom You love, and the love of those deeds which will draw me closer to Your love.’10 It is this love for Him, and this love in Him, that forms the basis for loving goodness for others, loving to bring ease to them, and loving what they each have the God-given potential to become.

In his advice to those seeking to live the devotional life, the venerable Hanbali scholar and spiritual master, Ahmad ibn Ibrahim al-Wasiti wrote:

‘If, O my brother, you desire to be saved from the terrors of that Day, then prepare for it with piety (taqwa). This is done by avoiding what Allah has forbidden and fulfilling whatever He has enjoined in terms of those duties that have been codified in the fiqh manuals where the lawful and prohibited, prescribed punishments, and other rulings are stipulated. This, so that nothing the Sacred Law demands from you remains due from you. For there should be no obligation that remains unfulfilled by you: neither a missed prayer, fast, zakat, or backbiting a Muslim without a valid reason, or any feud, grudge or enmity without lawful justification. Discharge the responsibilities that fall within your sphere concerning those rights (huquq) between you and Allah, as well as between you and others. In doing so, you will be joined, Allah willing, to the company of the righteous.’11

5. Don’t forget that while the principle of ease (taysir) is rooted in revealed texts – the Qur’an informs us: Allah desires for you ease; He does not desire for you hardship. [2:185] and we read in one hadith: ‘Make things easy for the people and do not make things difficult. Give them glad tidings, do not drive them away.’12 And: ‘Indeed this religion is [one of] ease.’13 – we must ensure that the principle of ease does not become one of adulteration; especially in today’s desacralised world.

From the earliest days of Islam, a core aspect of a mufti’s remit was not only to inform the unqualified masses of the Islamic ruling on any given issue, helping them to keep their feet firmly upon the path of piety and mindfulness of God. It was also to extend a lifeline in extenuating circumstances; especially to those weak in faith cast adrift in the stormy seas of divine disobedience. Imam Sufyan al-Thawri stated: ‘In our view, knowledge entails [granting] legal concessions (al-rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’ 14 Indeed, part of the mufti’s arsenal are legal tools like rukhsah, ‘azimah and hiylah. Each must be deployed wisely so as to steer people away from heedlessness and towards the Divine Presence. ‘Azimah refers to a “strict” ruling – a ruling as it is in its original form, without any attendant circumstances that could soften its original force. By contrast, rukhsah is a “concession” in the law; an exception to the rule. It is a concessionary ruling brought about by mitigating circumstances so as to bring about ease in difficult situations.15 The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Allah loves that His rukhsahs are taken, just as He loves His ‘azimahs are obeyed.’16 Azimahs, then, are norms. Rukhsahs are exceptions whenever there are justified needs to warrant them.

As for hiylah, it is a “legal stratagem” used to circumvent a divine order or divine aim, or for ta‘lim al-makhraj – providing an exit for one in difficulty, while keeping Allah’s order and intent uppermost in mind. For most legalists, the first is the forbidden type of hiylah; the second, the lawful type. Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘If the aim is good then the hiylah is also good, if it is bad then the hiylah is also bad. If the aim is obedience and worship then the hiylah is likewise, while if the aim is disobedience and iniquity so is the hiylah.17 In other words, the legality of hiylahs, both as a genre and as a legal technique, are tied to the individual purposes they serve. Of course, there’s often been a very fine line between the two types of hiylahs, with accusations and clear instances of abuse abounding throughout the legal history of Islam.

I’ve purposely omitted to give examples of these legal devices, so as to not prolong the discussion more than needed. For I merely wished to highlight the legal tools a mufti has at his or her disposal in order to facilitate ease and alleviate hardship. That muftis have such legal devices at their disposal begs for the mufti to be a person of integrity and piety, scrupulously avoiding ambiguities. Dubious rukhsas or over-lenient fatwas must be avoided at all costs. For a mufti is, as it were, a spokesperson; a signatory, on behalf of Allah. Having discussed rukhsahs, and the lawful and unlawful hiylahs, Ibn Hamdan, a highly-acclaimed Hanbali jurist, writes that a mufti must not give a fatwa if ‘his heart is occupied or deflected from a state of balance.’18 ‘Fatwa,’ he says: ‘is not to be given in a state where the heart is preoccupied or inhibited from examination or careful deliberation; because of anger, hunger, thirst, sadness, grief, fear, melancholy, overwhelming joy, sleepiness, fatigue, illness, irritating heat, intense cold, or needing to answer the call of nature.’19

If, as can be seen from above, pretty much any debilitating emotional or physical state renders giving a fatwa a no no, what about the state where a mufti is under relentless socio-political and psychological pressures to get Islam to conform to the essentially atheistic, liberal landscape? Or the case where a mufti’s mind and moods of the heart have already been significantly colonised by the attitudes of the dominant [Western] monoculture? How will that affect the quality, integrity and correctness of the fatwa? To think this does not already happen is to live in a cocooned or naive state. How else can one explain why proposed maqasid-based reforms to the shari‘ah so often seem to be of Western inspiration. ‘The public interest (maslahah, maqsad),’ says Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, ‘always turns out to take the form of what is intelligible and desirable to those outside Islam.’20

Undeniably, muftis must be well acquainted with the conventions, customs and needs of the society in which they live and operate. Undoubtedly, they must have an overall awareness of society’s levels of faith and its struggles with piety. Unquestionably, they must be qualified and schooled in the sacred art of ifta – of giving fatwas. Along with this, we ask that today’s muftis be spiritually rooted too, not just legally well-versed. For the ego’s tricks are never as damaging as they are in matters of sacred knowledge and fatwas.21

As for whether stricter fatwas are a truer reflection of religiousness, or whether such a distinction belongs to fatwas of a more lenient and flexible nature, it’s an unhelpful bone of contention; a red herring. It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again regardless: Does the fatwa (be it strict or lenient) deepen one’s connection to the Divine Reality, or diminish it? Does it clarify halal from haram, or blur the line between them? Does it promote piety, or weaken it? That’s probably how the appropriateness of any fatwa should be assessed. After all, piety and seeking the Divine Presence is what ultimately counts. All other considerations must take a lower priority.

Wrapping-up then. The desire to bring religion to people and make it easy for them is truly noble. But the means cannot justify the ends. It cannot justify diluting the truth for the sake of meeting sin or misguidance halfway. If people have drifted away from the shores of safety, into the raging seas of heedlessness, then charity requires they be extended a helping hand and be pulled back to shore. To expect people to swim out to them, however, while they stay exactly where they are, is foolhardy and more than a little destructive. This much we’d do well not to forget.

1. ‘Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns min Nafahat Riyad al-Quds,’ in Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 3:292.

2. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:524.

3. ‘It is better to engage fully with the Monoculture from a position of dislike than to engage partly with it from a position of admiration.’ Cf. A.H Murad, Contentions, 13/6, at: masud.co.uk

4. Al-Bukhari, no.33; Muslim, no.59.

5. Muslim, no.1738.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.1352.

7. Al-Mughni (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-‘Alam al-Kutub, 1999), 13:152.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.52; Muslim, no.1599.

9. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 26.

10. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.3490, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan gharib.

11. Miftah Tariq al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 1999), 30-31.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.69; Muslim, no.1734.

13. Al-Bukhari, no.39.

14. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.

15. See: Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2006), 436-38.

16. Ahmad, Musnad, no.5866; Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.354; Tabarani, al-Kabir, no.10030. It was graded sahih, due to its collective chains, by al-Albani, in Irwa al-Ghalil fi Takhrij Ahadith Manar al-Sabil (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), 3:13, no.564.

17. Ighathat al-Lahfan (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1999), 659.

18. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 195.

19. ibid., 195.

20. Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions, 42.

21. Also cf. the discussion on western muftis in M. Nizami, ‘Thoughts on the Modern Mufti’ at: http://nizami.co.uk/thoughts-on-the-modern-mufti/

Footprints on the Sands of Time 5

sands_of_time_hourglass_sunset_abstract_hd-wallpaper-1718051None of us are immune from the intensifying pressures of a world that has little or no care for God. The idolatry, immorality and ignorance of God’s purpose that defile the world are the core dangers which Revelation warns against. Today, that which defiles souls is closer than ever. In our internet age, it’s often just a click away. In one of the earliest chapters of the Qur’an to be revealed, it says: O you enveloped in your mantle, arise and warnmagnify your Lord, purify your garment, and shun [all] defilement. [74:1-5] These “Footprints” are about how we as Muslims may best magnify God; to keep His holiness in our hearts and mould our lives around this holiness. It’s about how we, in this age of aggressive liberalism, can best be conscientious believers and responsible citizens while courageously, yet wisely, avoiding defilement. (Earlier “Footprints” may be read here, herehere and here).

On loyalty to la ilaha illa’Llah: In today’s world, behaviour inconsistent with the moral teachings of Islam, by those who claim to follow Islam, is a significant cause for Islam to be devalued and mocked.

On staying focused: The believer lives in this world; he doesn’t live for this world: And the Hereafter is better for those who are mindful of God. Have you no sense? [Qur’an 6:32]

On trying to nurture 20/20 vision: Religion is about learning to see. It’s about human vision – the heart’s vision – as it learns to see past surface appearances to witness the Real. For as the Qur’an puts it: It isn’t the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts in the chests that become blind. [22:46]

Addictions wreak marriages: Along with the obvious types of prospective husbands to avoid – those that are irreligious, immoral, arrogant, ill-tempered, miserly, immature, impatient, and lack compassion and understanding – one must also beware of those who are in the grip of serious addictions. Alcohol, drugs and pornography are obvious ones. But two subtler addictions should also be steered clear of: The first is a man’s addiction to his mother. In other words, a “mummy’s boy”. This must not be confused with our love, honour, duty, or kindness to our mothers. For there’s a huge difference between that and between sheepish subservience to them. A husband who allows his mother to rule the roost, permitting her to marginalise the role and rights of his wife, is failing to offer his wife the protective care she has a right to. The other addiction is to video games. An increasing number of marriages are now failing because of it. In short, addictions wreck marriages.

On science, religion and meaning:  It is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work; while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

On Ramadan’s reality: The whole purpose of fasting in Ramadan is to foster a state of detachment from the world, and from our ego and desires. This creates, as it were, a space in our souls 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. [2:183]

On bowing to the monoculture: One of the signs of the End Days, and whose onward trajectory has been underway for a century or so, is: the uncritical imitation of non-Muslim lifestyles and values. One hadith says: ‘The Hour will not be established until my ummah takes to what previous nations took to.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7319] In another: ‘You shall soon follow the ways of those who came before you, inch by inch, handspan by handspan, so much so that if they were to enter a lizard’s hole, you’d do likewise.’ They asked: O Allah’s Messenger, do you mean the Jews and Christians? He replied: ‘Who else?’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7320; Muslim, no.2669]

Thus, as long as we keep deferring to the dominant monoculture and its ideals, things shall not bode well for this ummah of great mercies. Inculturation – i.e. one group or culture gradually acquiring the traits, values and norms of another culture – must be guided by the rulings and objectives of our fiqh teachings, as well as kept wise by the profound insights of our tasawwuf/tazkiyah tradition.

On lovers at love’s ocean: The conceited intellectual is always showing-off. The lover, through the shari’ah, is always getting lost. The self-absorbed intellectual is afraid of diving. The whole business of love is in the drowning.

On seeking to be present: Presence of heart with God (hudur al-qalb) isn’t only due in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during each moment of our life. One of the greatest paths to nurturing such presence is by kathrat al-dhikr – “remembering God abundantly.”

On remembering our destination: Only fools wander, only the wise travel, and only a ship that knows where it’s heading benefits from favourable winds.

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

On our God-given intelligence: What’s the point of the shari‘ah aiming to protect the intellet (‘aql) – the ability to reason, reflect, discern benefit from harm, and to reign in the soul from wrongdoing – if we aren’t going to adequately utilise it?

On obsession with conspiracy theories: Are the various conspiracy theories that have etched their way into popular culture true? Maybe. Have the powerful elites of every age sought to band together to control, manipulate and subdue the masses? Possibly. Is God in full control of history and of human destiny? Absolutely! Yet many Muslims forget this last fact and instead are obsessed with chasing shadows.

On lowering the ceiling of learning: Those Muslims who think that they have enough religious learning and wish not to learn more, are not just unwise; they could even be outright fools.

On the modern Muslim challenge: Monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. It insists we heal and we dissent too. A paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles. Abdal Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, believers can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’

On the devil inspiring religiousness: A large number of Muslims involved in terrorism tend to lack even basic religious literacy. All too often their lack of religious learning is woefully infantile. Religion, it seems, plays a role less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage:

A bro who once lived with his mummy;
Wanted street cred more than some money.
“Shall I be a mufti,
Or takfiri jihadi?”
So he went and brought ‘Islam for a Dummy’.

On political order and disorder: Left to our egos or selfish impulses, man’s corrupted nature (fitrah) would render man’s life – to cite Hobbes – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Hence, according to classical Muslim scholarship, we have the blessings of God sending Revelation and Prophets, for the guidance and welfare of individuals and society. Hence, also, Islam’s insistence on yielding to political authority over anarchy, and guarding public security – wary of any actors who seek to erode or to undermine them. Needless to say, Islam envisages government to pursue the objectives of justice (‘adl), the promotion of benefit (maslahah), and the prevention of harm (mafsadah). To be specific, Islamic governance is committed to protect man’s five essential interests (al-dururiyyat al-khamsah); namely: faith, life, intellect, lineage and property. This, at least, is the theory.

On sifting the wheat from the chaff: ‘Ijazah (“authorisation” to teach) doesn’t always equate to having gained mastery in the particular subject of sacred learning. But it does represent an adab of learning and of heading in the right direction. It also helps to sift out DIY Islam from the real deal; the wheat from the chaff.

On the dumbing down of society: Here in the West, over the past four of five decades, much has been said and debated about the dumbing down of society. Dumbing down refers to the oversimplification of critical thought as well as the diminishment of the intellectual content in education, art, culture and politics. Even though we have more information at our disposal, we are seen to be far less capable of critical thinking than the generations of people before us. The argument is that media and entertainment, the over reliance on technology, and capitulating to turbo consumerism, has all led to this numbing and dumbing down. A more sinister narrative insists that the dumbing down has been socially engineered, so that “the powers that be” may keep the masses in check  – less the Orwellian, and more the Huxleyan engineering!

On a state worse than sin: Committing sin is undeniably wrong. But it’s when sins no longer strike a discordant note in the soul that one really needs to worry.

On the art of living beautifully: Adab is the art of being trained in decency. Such must be the hallmark of each believer.

The Prophet ﷺ & Salafi Love

Burdah1No doubt, there can be a fine line between veneration and idolisation; reverence and idolatry. The Qur’an is at pains to stress the mortalness of the Prophet ﷺ and that he possesses no aspect of divinity: Say: ‘I say not to you I possess the treasures of Allah, nor that I know the Unseen; and I say not to you: ‘I am an angel.’ I follow only that which is revealed to me.’ [6:50] Another verse explains: Say: ‘I am but a man like yourselves, but to whom it has been revealed that your Lord is only One God.’ [18:110] In fact, in the greatest defining moments of the prophetic career, the Qur’an addresses him simply with the honourable term, abd – “slave”.

So, referring to his Night Journey and Heavenly Ascension (isra wa’l-mi‘raj), Allah said: Glory be to Him Who carried His slave from the Sacred Mosque to the Farthest Mosque the environs of which We have blessed. [17:1] While receiving revelation, Allah says: And He revealed to his slave that which He revealed. [53:10] Speaking of the Qur’an’s timeless challenge (tahaddi), there is this verse: And if you are in doubt concerning that which We sent down to Our slave, then produce a chapter the like thereof, and call your witnesses other than Allah, if you are truthful. [2:23]

The Qur’an depicts the Prophet ﷺ as Allah’s perfect “slave” and Muslim conciousness pays this title the highest respect. Yet this can in no way justify decrying veneration (ta‘dhim, tawqir) of the Prophet in the name of a narrow reading of tawhid. This would be to turn our backs on the immense distinctions Revelation has showered him with, as well as belittle the esteem the salaf accorded him – glimpses of which are offered by Qadi ‘Iyad. So in the section: ‘The Companions’ Reverence, Esteem and Veneration of the Prophet ﷺ’, in his hugely celebrated work, al-Shifa’, he relates the following:1

‘Said ‘Amr b. al-‘As: “There was none more beloved to me than Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, nor anyone more honourable in my sight than him. I could never get my fill of gazing at him due to my reverent awe of him. If I was asked to describe him I could never do so, for I was unable to gaze upon him enough.”2

‘Al-Tirmidhi records that Anas said: ‘The Messenger of Allah ﷺ would go out to his Companions from among the Emigrants and Helpers (muhajirun wa’l-ansar) and they would be sitting; in their midst would be Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. None would raise their gaze towards him save Abu Bakr and ‘Umar; they would look at him and him at them, they would smile at him and him at them.’3

‘It is reported that Usamah b. Sharik said: ‘I once came to the Prophet ﷺ and found his Companions sitting around him [absolutely still] as if birds were perched on top of their heads.’4 In another hadith describing him [it says]: ‘Whenever he spoke, those around him lowered their heads as if birds were perched on them.’

‘When the Quraysh sent ‘Urwah b. Mas‘ud to the Messenger of Allah ﷺ in the year of Hudaybiyah, he saw what he saw of the unparalleled reverence that the Companions accorded him: of how whenever he performed ablution (wudu) they would race to get the leftover water of his ablution,5 almost fighting for it; if he spat, they took it in their hands and wiped it over their faces and bodies; if a hair of his fell, they ran to get it; if he ordered them with something, they hastened to carry it out; and when he spoke, they would lower their voices in his presence, and none of them could look at him out of awe of him. When he returned to the Quraysh, he told them: “O assembly of Quraysh, I’ve been to Chosroes in his kingdom; Ceaser in his kingdom; and Negus in his kingdom. But, by Allah, I have never seen a king among his people treated like how Muhammad is treated by his Companions.”6

‘In another version, it says: “I have never seen a king whose companions revere him as Muhammad is revered by his Companions. I saw a people who could never be disloyal to him.”

‘Anas narrates: “I saw the Prophet ﷺ as his head was being shaved. His Companions would gather around him and no lock of [his] hair would fall, save that it fell into the hand of one of them.”7

‘Another example is when the Quraysh permitted ‘Uthman to perform tawaf of the Ka‘bah when the Prophet ﷺ sent him as an envoy during the Treaty [of Hudaybiyah]. But he refused to do so, saying: “I shall not do so until Allah’s Messenger does so.”8

‘In the hadith of Talhah: The Companions of the Messenger of Allah ﷺ requested an ignorant bedouin to ask the Prophet about those that fulfill their vow – for they were too in awe of him and revered him too much [to do so themselves] – but the Prophet turned away from him. When Talhah came, the Prophet ﷺ said: “He is among those who fulfill their vows.”9

‘It states in the hadith of Qaylah: “When I saw the Messenger of Allah ﷺ seated in a squatting position, I would shudder in fear.”10 This was out of her awe (haybah) and reverence (ta‘zim) of him.

‘In the hadith of al-Mughirah: “The Prophet’s Companions would knock on his door with their fingernails.”11

‘And al-Bara’ b. ‘Azib said: “I wanted to ask the Messenger of Allah ﷺ about a matter, but delayed doing so for years from being in awe of him.”12

Having related such wondrous glimpses into how the Companions manifested ta‘zim al-nabi – prophetic veneration and reverence, Qadi ‘Iyad then offers us a section on: ‘Venerating the Prophet ﷺ after his death.’ He writes:

‘Know that it is just as necessary to honour and revere the Prophet ﷺ after his death as it was during his lifetime. This, whenever he is mentioned ﷺ; when mentioning his hadith and Sunnah; on hearing his name and sirah; when dealing with his family and relatives. [It further includes] honouring his Family (ahl al-bayt) and Companions. Abu Ibrahim Ishaq al-Tujibi said: “It is obligatory upon every believer that whenever they mention the Prophet, or whenever he is mentioned in their presence, they must exhibit reverence and humility, being composed and not fidgeting. They must display the utmost reverence – as they would have done had they been standing before him, manifesting the courtesy (adab) toward him that Allah has taught us.” Qadi Abu’l-Fadl states: “Such was the way of our Pious Predecessors (salaf) and past Imams, may Allah be pleased with them all.”’13

Having set the parameters, as it were, Qadi Iyad then records this about Imam Malik and about some of his venerable teachers:

‘Malik said: “I was once asked about what I said of Ayyub al-Sakhtiyani that, “I haven’t narrated from anyone better than him.” I went on Pilgrimage twice and I never heard the Prophet ﷺ being mentioned without him weeping, until we took pitty on him. When I saw from him what I saw of his reverence for the Prophet ﷺ, I then began to write [hadiths] from him.”

‘Mus‘ab b. ‘Abd Allah relates: “Whenever the Prophet ﷺ was mentioned, Malik would grow pale, so much so that it disturbed those sitting around him. He was once asked about it, to which he replied: “Had you seen what I have seen, you would not object to what you see happen to me.”

“I used to see Muhammad b. al-Munkadir, who was the master of the Qur’an reciters. Never was he asked about a hadith, except that he wept to such an extent that we felt pity for him.”

“I used to see Ja‘far b. Muhammad al-Sadiq. He was jovial and would smile a lot. But whenever the Prophet ﷺ was mentioned in his presence, he would start to turn pale. I never observed him narrating a hadith of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, except in a state of ritual purity (taharah). I visited him for a time and never observed him save in one of three states: he was either praying, observing silence, or else reciting the Qur’an. He never spoke of affairs which did not concern him. He was one of the deeply devout scholar who had true reverent awe of Allah.”

“Whenever ‘Abd al-Rahman b. al-Qasim mention the Prophet ﷺ, his face seemed as if the blood had drained from it. His tongue would become dumb-struck, out of awe of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ.”

“I visited ‘Amir b. ‘Abd Allah b. al-Zubayr. Whenever the Prophet ﷺ was mentioned to him, he would weep so incessantly, till he had no more tears to weep.”

“I would see al-Zuhri: he was one of the friendliest and most approachable of people. Yet whenever the Prophet ﷺ was mentioned in his presence, it was as if he did not recognise you, nor you him.”

“And I would frequent Safwan b. Sulaym. He was an exceptionally devout and diligent worshipper. Whenever the Prophet ﷺ was mentioned to him, he wept so profusely that he wouldn’t be able to stop himself. At this point, people would have to get up and let him be.”’14

Subhana’Llah!

Given all the above, it should be crystal-clear that the path of our salaf – the true salafi path – not only demands that we love the Prophet ﷺ, but that we honour and revere him too. Anything short of that just isn’t salafi love or reverence. Allah insists: Those who believe in him, revere him, support him, and follow the light that was sent down with him: those are the successful. [7:157] Imam al-Qazwini contrasts honour, reverence and veneration (described by terms such as tabjil, tawqir and ta‘zim) with that of love, and cites al-Bayhaqi saying: ‘This is a higher degree than that of love; for not all who love revere. A father loves his child, or a master his slave, but doesn’t revere him. Whereas all who revere also love.’15

Indeed, what else other than ta‘zim al-nabi animated our salaf to such deeds of loving awe and veneration? What other than ta‘zim drove Imam Malik to relate hadiths only after taking a full bath or performing ablution, wearing his best clothes and turban, applying kohl and perfuming himself?16 And what else other than ta‘zim spurred Abu Ayyub al-Ansari to refrain from walking across a room simply because the Prophet ﷺ was in the room below?17

1. Al-Shifa’ (Damascus: Maktabah al-Ghazali, 2000), 516-19. The chapter title in Arabic being: fi ‘adati al-sahabah fi ta‘zimihi ‘alayhi’l-salam wa ijlalihi wa tawqirihi.

2. Muslim, no.121

3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3668; al-Tayalisi, no.2518.

4. Abu Dawud, no.3855.

5. i.e. they would race to collect the water that dripped from him during his ablution because of the blessings, or barakah, it contained. Such is also the case with respect to his hair, nails, sweat and saliva. In fact, his entire body is barakah. The act of seeking barakah from his blessed body, and whatever it came into direct physical contact with, is called tabarruk. Seeking tabarruk from him ﷺ is an agreed upon matter according to Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama‘ah. Consult: al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 14:38.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.2731.

7. Muslim, no.2325.

8. Ahmad, Musnad, no.18910.

9. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3742, saying: ‘The hadith is hasan gharib.’

10. Abu Dawud, no.4847.

11. Al-Hakim, Ma‘rifat ‘Ulum al-Hadith, 19.

12. Cited in al-Suyuti, al-Manahil, no.999.

13. Al-Shifa’, 519-20.

14. ibid., 520-22.

15. Al-Qazwini, Mukhtasar Shu‘ab al-Iman (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2003.), 20.

16. Cited in Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartib al-Mudarik (Saudi Arabia: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un  al–Islamiyyah, 1983), 2:14-16.

17. Muslim, no.2053.

Pilgrimage of Reason: Proofs for God’s Existence [2/2]

6455578409_9bd1e50d22_zIn the first part of the blog (here), I discussed a ‘proof’ for the existence of God vis-a-via the kalam cosmological argument. We saw how, as a rational argument, it is well reasoned, cogent and logical; hence giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational. But since the proof is highly abstract and theoretical, I suggested that a more accessible proof for God’s existence comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s insistance to reflect on the signs of God. In the second and final part of the blog, I shall endeavour to explain and explore the above argument. Finally, as I mentioned in the first part of the blog, I’ll end this discussion by briefly sketching the ontological and moral proofs for the existence of God.

In the Qur’an, in contrast to the kalam cosmological argument, the existence of God is firmly rooted in the creation of visible entities; in everyday experience. A far more potent proof, therefore, comes from the teleological argument (teleos, from the Greek word for “purpose” or “end”). It is also known as the Argument from Design.

This is the argument which stresses that the complex and purposeful design we see in the natural world round us, as well as in the cosmos at large, suggests the universe has an intelligent designer. The 18th-century essayist and poet, Joseph Addison, captures the spirit of the argument in these verses:

The spacious firmament on high
With all the blue ethereal sky
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great original proclaim …
In reason’s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice
Forever singing as they shine:
“The hand that made us is Divine!”

The Qur’an says that the cosmos isn’t its own explanation. Rather it’s a sign pointing to something greater. We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, is how the Qur’an puts it [41:53]

‘For Islam,’ wrote Gai Eaton, ‘the natural world in its totality is a vast fabric into which the “signs” of the Creator are woven. It is significant that the word meaning “signs” or “symbols,” ayah, is the same word that’s used for the “verses” of the Qur’an. Earth and sky, mountains and stars, oceans and forests and the creatures they contain are, as it were, “verses” of a sacred book.’1 For a believer, therefore, creation is holistic. For He who revealed the Qur’an is also He who created the observable phenomena of nature. Both are communications from God to man; both are signs pointing to Him. In fact, Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘In the Qur’an, God invites His servants to know Him via two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other by meditating on 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.’2

Now these signs not only serve as evidence for the existence of God as such, but they act as evidence for various attributes of His too – attributes that become a pious focus for the contemplative life of a believer. These remarkable signs (often referred to by Muslims scholars and pietists as aja’ib, “marvels”, or bada’i‘, “wonders”) point to God’s knowledge, power, wisdom, majesty and unity; and to His beneficence, kindness and care for humankind. The Qur’an says: In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and day; in the sailing of ships through the ocean for the benefit of humankind; in the water with which He revives the earth after its death; in the animals of all kinds He has scattered therein; in the ordering of the winds and clouds that are driven between heaven and earth, are signs for those who have intelligence. [2:164]

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 gratitude, reverence, love and awe of God. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of God. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; and 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 truly 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.

Consider also these verses from the Qur’an: It is He who spread out the earth and placed upon it firm mountains and rivers, and fruit of every kind in pairs. He draws the night [as a veil] over the day. In these are signs for those who reflect. And on earth are neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands, and palms in pairs and palms single; watered by one water; some of them We make better than others to eat. In that are signs for those who understand. [13:3-4]

To reflect and meditate upon the astounding nature of the creation is to experience awe and enchantment of how such beauty, harmony and complexity originated, and how it is sustained. Pondering over these “signs” should lead the reflecting intellect to acknowledge and accept that there is an Absolute underlying all relative phenomena, an Omnipotence underlying all relative power, and a Wisdom underlying the laws of nature. This is pointed out in the verses by utilising the symbolism of water: A single kind of water nourishes neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands and gives them life. That same water further produces palm-trees; some single, others paired, and some better tasting than others. Those who understand are those who can grasp the Unity that underpins creational diversity. A Muslim poet of old versified:

O wonder! How can the Deity be disobeyed;
Or by the denier be denied.
While in everything there is a sign
By which His Oneness stands testified.

The tafsir genre relates this unadorned story. A bedouin was once asked how he knew that God exists. He answered: ‘Glory be to God! Camel’s dung proves the existence of a camel and footprints prove that someone has walked by. So a sky with its towering constellations, and an earth with all its mountain passes, and a deep sea covered by waves upon waves – doesn’t all this testify that [God] the Subtle, the Aware exists?’3

In a similar vein, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote about a watermill by a river, faultlessly made, with perfect parts: no flaw can be observed in its construction. It efficiently irrigates a large garden containing various kinds of plants and fruits. The garden is well tended, pruned, weeded, and maintained in every way so that nothing is amiss or overlooked; and nor is any fruit left to rot. Then its produce is harvested and the money gained is distributed to various people according to their needs, each getting what is right for them. All of this happens each time, over and over again, without fail. Would you say that all of this happens by chance, asks Ibn al-Qayyim, without someone behind it who has intentionality (iradah), a will to choose to do or not to do (ikhtiyar), and the ability to plan and manage (tadbir)? Would you believe that the wheel or the garden got there by mere chance, or that all that goes on there does so without an actor who has intentionality, will or management? What would your intellect say to that? What would that indicate to you?4

The bedouin logic, or Ibn al-Qayyim’s watermill, has a modern twin in Paley’s famous watchmaker analogy. Paley argued that, were we to find a watch lying on a heath, we would naturally assume it had a maker due to the fact that it is a complex mechanism which seems designed for a specific purpose. In a similar manner, he goes on to argue, the complexity, order and purpose of the universe implies an intelligent designer.

As appealing as it seems, critics of Paley’s argument point out a logical flaw in it. The fact that two objects share a common characteristic (in this case, complexity), doesn’t always imply they will share all characteristics. Paley’s argument can be stated, thus: (i) A watch is complex. (ii) A watch has an intelligent designer. (iii) Life is complex. (iv) Therefore life must also have an intelligent designer.

Consider a similar line of reason: (i) Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons. (ii) Electric current comes from the power company. (iii) Lightning consists of a flow of electrons. (iv) Therefore, lightning comes from the power company. This last statement is plainly not true. So Paleyan logic holds true in some cases, but not in all cases.

Inferring that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole is referred to as a “fallacy of composition”. In certain cases, this mode of inference looks better than in others. Thus, if every gem in a necklace is valuable, the necklace will be valuable too. But if every player on a football team is outstanding, it is likely, but not guaranteed, that the team will be outstanding too. Yet if every track on a CD is less than five minutes long, it doesn’t follow that the whole CD is less than five minutes long.

Attempts to weaken the argument are predicated on thinking that Paley is reasoning by way of analogy. Some, however, think that the argument is better understood as an inference to the best explanation. What Paley is saying is that whenever you see these kinds of deliberate and purposeful contrivances, then what is the best explanation? The best explanation is surely design.

Whatever the case, Paley’s argument is still highly persuasive. Revealed theology (that is, theology based upon religious scripture) informs that the universe has a Creator-God. While natural theology (theology based on reason and ordinary experience) says it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the complex design of our observable universe has an intelligent designer behind it. Paley’s analogy (and, by extension, the argument from design), despite its criticism, is not just rationally appealing; it accords with our everyday experience too.

The ontological argument (ontos, Greek for “reality”) is a highly curious one. It states, in effect, that if one understands what the word “God” means, it is perfectly logical to believe He exists. This philosophical argument was set out by Anslem, the eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, and is based upon an understanding that God is “that than which no greater can exist.” This type of argument reasons that if God is that than which no greater can be conceived to exist, then God cannot exist only as a concept. If God exists just as a concept, then there’s something greater – namely, God who exists as a concept in the mind as well as in reality. But since God is that than which no greater can exist, this must logically include existence. Thus God exists. (To this, Muslims would simply exclaim: Allahu akbar – “God is greater!”)

The moral argument starts from the moral order – that some things are right, and some things are wrong – recognized by people throughout the world, to the existence of God as the source of this morality. Even the remotest tribes that have been cut-off from civilization, the argument posits, observe a moral code similar to everyone else’s. No doubt, differences in moral perspectives do exist. Yet virtues like bravery, truth and loyalty; and vices such as greed and cowardice are universal. So where does this “law of right behaviour” originate?

Some sociobiologists have tried to argue, though not very succesfully, that our moral impulses like altruism (the selfless giving to others even if nothing is received in return) are evolutionary bi-products left over from Darwinian natural selection. This line of reasoning, however, has been sufficiently debunked.5

Post-modern philosophy insists moral truths are relative: there are no absolute rights or wrongs. If that’s the case, how can post-modernism itself be absolutely right in its claim? Moreover, as C.S Lewis wrote, if one considers the various human cultures and civilizations from ancient times till now, one will encounter ‘the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, the weak, of almsgiving, impartiality and honesty.’6

Elsewhere he says: ‘If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command getting us to behave in a certain type of way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions.’7

Thus, it is reasonable to suggest it is God who is the author of this Moral Law and it is He who allows its bright light to shine into the recesses of our beings and nature. We will show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves. [41:53] The Qur’an is, in point of fact, categorical about the Moral Law eminating from God. It says: By the soul and He who fashioned it, then inspired it to discern its vices and piety. Successful is he who purifies it, and ruined is he who corrupts it. [91:7-10]

That the moral law is firmly embedded in human nature melds into another Quranic concept, that of fitrah – man’s “innate nature” or “natural disposition.” One verse of the Qur’an states: So set your purpose for the upright religion, the innate nature in which God created mankind. [30:30] There occurs in one hadith: ‘All children are born upon the natural disposition’ – kullu mawludin yuladu ‘ala’l-fitrah.8 A number of scholars, including al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah, argue that our knowledge of God’s existence is implanted in our fitrah and it is a knowledge which makes the theologians’ proofs obsolete. Man knows God intstinctively by virtue of his fitrah. Resorting to rational proofs or reflection, they say, is necessary only when the fitrah has been corrupted by unhealthy environments, or if someone is plagued by doubts.9

Having rehearsed at some length the main rational or discursive arguments for the existence of God, let me summarise them:

The kalam-cosmological argument, simply put, says that the cause and effect chain of changing physical existence cannot go back indefinitely in time, and thus must have a beginning found only through divine creation.

The teleological argument, at its simplest, asserts that the nature of the world is such that it must have been created by an intelligent designer.

The ontological argument, stripped to its bare bones, argues from the concept of God to the existence of God.

As for the moral argument, it appeals to the existence of moral laws as proof of God’s existence.

Although these discursive arguments do yield coherent reasons for belief in God (as well as lay to rest the lingering fallacy that belief in God is irrational), they are open to some criticisms. Perhaps no single one clinches the deal. Nevertheless, each argument reinforces the other; that is, they are accumulative in strength. Such proofs, though, tend not to convince hardened skeptics, nor those who are determined not to believe. However, these rational proofs, in concert with the miraculous nature of the Qur’an and the pious and selfless life of the Prophet ﷺ, are powerful reasons to believe and to submit.

1. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 101.

2. Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

3. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1986), 1:61-62 – citing al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, 2:91.

4. See: Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 2:69-70.

5. See: Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 24-8.

6. ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’, in C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflection, 77 – cited in Collins, The Language of God, 24.

7. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 24.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.1385; Muslim, no.2657.

9. See: A. Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’, in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 198; Ozervali, ‘The Qur’anic Rational Theology of Ibn Taymiyya and his Criticism of the Mutakallimun’, in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90-91; Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf, Imam Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained (California: White Thread Press, 2007), 64-66. In Arabic, cf. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 16:328; al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 2004), 1:854; al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1988), 13:361-63; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 78-79

Pilgrimage of Reason: Proofs for God’s Existence [1/2]

dsc_0014As anyone familiar with anti-religious polemics knows, the core criticism by today’s New Atheists is that, allegedly, belief in God is both infantile and irrational. It is, they say, a childish delusion that ought to have died out as humanity reached its maturity. In the New Atheism’s canon, belief in God is likened to believing in the Tooth Fairy or Santa Claus: as you grow up, you’ll grow out of it. But is belief in God really irrational? Is it so at odds with what Antony Flew (who until quite recently was ‘the world’s most notorious atheist’) calls: the ‘pilgrimage of reason’?1

Traditionally, Muslims have agreed that there are indeed good rational arguments to support the belief in the existence of God. Religion, as Islam teaches, does not require abandoning reason, nor does it instil evading the evidence. Classical Islamic theology demonstrated the “proofs” for God’s existence in two ways. One of these ways is very abstract, demanding a fair degree of intellectual theorising. The other, by comparison, is far more straight forward and intuitive, and is rooted in the simplicity of everyday experience. Moreover, it mirrors the Qur’an’s style of reasoning on the matter.

The first has come to be known as the “argument from contingency – dalil al-huduth.” In Christian natural theology, this proof is called the kalam-cosmological argument. The second proof is akin to the teleological argument (also called the argument from design) in Christian natural theology. Natural theology also offers the ontological and moral arguments; the gists of which are given in the second part of this post. But here in the first of two parts, let’s engage the more abstract proof: the kalam-cosmological argument.

I’ve divided the post into four sections. The first two tackle the issue of what is meant by kalam and its place in Muslim theological discourse. The third explains the actual kalam cosmological argument. The fourth is where some contemporary objections to the argument are addressed:

I

1. The kalam-cosmological argument is so called because its origins lie in the Muslim kalam tradition. Kalam (‘speech’ or ‘discourse’ about God using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments – in other words, discursive theology) found its way into early Muslim thought via the philosophical legacy of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring reason to bear upon certain theological issues were the heterodox Mu‘tazilahs. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, on certain theological conundrums to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. Such enemies of the Sunnah were known to dismiss, distort and play fast and loose with Revelation; if it didn’t fit in with their conjectures, delusions or ego-driven rationalisations.

2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from kalam with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous, or almost unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i averred: ‘We are not people of kalam.2 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; indeed the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’3 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’4 As for Imam Ahmad, his assertions on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; and nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’5 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’6

3. In contrast to the large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them that seem to imply kalam could be allowed, provided it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and the consensus of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify or twist them. From them are these words of al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and the Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’7 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’8 He also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam – for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; as we have mentioned.’9

4. The distinction between the blameworthy and praiseworthy type of kalam began to gain traction among scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent from many of the more purist Salafis/Atharis. This purist approach itself ranged from a total rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.10 In asserting the middle ground on the matter, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about employing kalam: ‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11

5. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the entire story. Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’12 Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih cites Ibn Abi Ya‘la saying that ‘the correct view in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the view of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote, al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah, ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘13 Even then, the Hanbali use of kalam tended to be much more guarded than that of others.

6. Those who employed kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun says about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by utilising rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’14

II

7. Kalam theology has as its cornerstone the concept of “atomism” – that the cosmos is made up of atoms (jawahir, sing. jawhar), bodies (ajsam, sing. jism) and accidents (a‘rad, sing. arad), all of which are contingent (hawadith, sing, hadith) – that is to say, they originate in time. More importantly, the atom – in kalam lingo – is an indivisible particle that occupies space (tatahayyaz); is subject to change (taghayyur); and has no innate power of duration (thubut, baqa’), but endures directly because of God through each moment of its existence. Futhermore, it is not just the atom which is indivisible. Time itself, in kalam atomism, only comes in finite units: it also having no intrinsic ability to endure. Again, it is God’s continuous act of creating these discrete units of time that allows it to actually “flow.”

8. It’s important not to confuse the kalam “atom” with the concept of atom in modern science. What kalam is stressing is that nothing in the cosmos is eternal or infinite. Every thing is contingent and is finite. The smallest, indivisible unit of matter being termed as the “atom” or jawhar. As for modern science, it has shown the tiny atom is divisible; that at its core are even tinier particles called protons and neutrons. These particles, in turn, are made of smaller particles still: quarks. So the kalam atom would, according to the Standard Model of particle physics, be equivalent to quarks (or, if we are to believe the disputed String Theory, to tiny one dimensional entities, “strings”, vibrating in eleven dimensional spacetime). The point is that the kalam atom refers to the smallest, indivisible substance possible; whatever science may call it.

9. Kalam atomism has one chief goal: God’s omnipotence. ‘For it denies, at each point in the duration of anything non-divine, that it has any intrinsic power of existence. God alone has such a power.’15 In other words, nothing endures without God. For the mutakallimun, for that’s what practitioners of kalam were called, the basis of atomism was rooted in both reason and revelation.

10. Reason, and a fair amount of mental theorising, show that the universe has to be finite. The argument runs like this: If you have a sequence of events, each one caused by the event preceding it, stretching way way back in time – can such a sequence be infinite; can it go on forever? An infinity may seem straightforward, but it throws up all sorts of problems. For instance, infinity plus one is still infinity, even though you have added to it. Or, for example, when you take today’s events and combine it with past events, these will increase; without today’s events, they’ll decrease. But increase or decrease in what is infinity is incoherent; irrational, even. So this would seem to suggest that infinities do not exist and that the series of events are finite, temporal, having a beginning. Undoubtedly, mathematical (some call them ‘potential’) infinities do indeed exist. However, physical (or ‘actual’) infinities do not.

11. Revelation, as per the mutakallimun, states this too. And He knows the number of all things, says the Qur’an [72:28] And He created all things and ordained for them a precise measure. [25:2] Thus all things have a finite number and measure. These verses, and others like them, affirm the temporal existence of all things and their finite number. This implies that neither matter nor time are infinitely divisible: they too are of finite sizes.

12. Interestingly, quantum physics posits the quantum of time, or Planck time. This is the smallest measurement of time to have any meaning. It is equal to 10-43 seconds (in other words, that is a number with forty-three zeros after the decimal point). No smaller division of time has any possibility or reality in the physical world, within the framework of physics as understood today. Time less than one Planck time apart can neither be measured and nor can any change be detected.16 The implication here for atomism is certainly worth exploring, although to pursue it here is beyond the paper’s remit and the author’s ability.

13. One final matter. In kalam theology, a thing is either qadim – eternal, timeless; or it is hadith – contingent, coming into existence (wujud) after non-existence (‘adm). All that comes into existence, after not existing, must have a cause for its existence. To put it another way: Every entity that exists, either exists by itself; by its own essence and nature, or it does not exist by itself. If it exists by its own essence, then it exists necessarily and eternally, and explains itself. It cannot not exist. But if an entity exists, but not by its own essence, then it needs a cause outside of itself for its existence. The kalam theologians state that God alone necessarily exists, while all contingent things owe their existence to Him.

III

14. So how does all of this tie in with the cosmological argument for God’s existence? Well, the preamble to the kalam argument may be presented as follows: [i] An actual infinite number does not exist; [ii] therefore the series of causes for the cosmos to be as it is now cannot be infinite in sequence: that is, it must be finite; [iii] therefore the cosmos was brought into existence at some point in the past.

15. The final conclusion in the above argument (that the universe came into existence at some point in the past) not only follows logically from the initial two premises, it also finds support in science. Cosmologists are now certain that the universe actually did have a beginning: the Big Bang. But to be clear, the logical conclusion of the above argument is still valid and true, regardless of the empirical proofs for the Big Bang.

16. From here it’s a short step to teasing out the kalam-cosmological argument (dalil al-huduth), which can be set out thus: [i] Everything that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence; [ii] the universe began to exist; [iii] therefore the universe has a cause for its existence.17 There is an implicit fourth premise, namely: [iv] The cause for the existence of the universe is God.

IV

17. The above argument, as rational as it is, has been critiqued on a few grounds. One objection states that the argument’s premise [i] – everything that begins to exist must have a cause – although intuitively obvious, seems to be false. For quantum physics appears to show that electrons can pass out of existence at one place and re-appear elsewhere. This, as physicist Paul Davies has argued, violates premise [i] and hence the entire argument collapses.18 One reply to this states that although electrons do just that, they can only do so because of what is called a “quantum vacuum.” A vacuum, in quantum physics, isn’t “nothing at all”. It is a state of minimal energy, seething with “virtual particles.”19 It is this vacuum which gives rise to electron fluctuations, says the laws of quantum physics. Which is to say, the vacuum’s existence is the cause for electrons to exist, disappear and re-appear. Premise [i], therefore, still holds.

18. If everything has a cause, runs another objection, then what caused God? To this age old demur, Muslim theologians have repeatedly stressed that God is musabib al-asbab – “the [Uncaused] Causer of all things.” Conventional notions of time and space simply do not apply to God, for: There is nothing like unto Him, says the Qur’an [42:11]. ‘He is preexistent without beginning, eternal without ending,’20 is orthodoxy’s voice. God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud). Though God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. To quote the formulations of Islamic orthodoxy again: ‘The six directions do not contain Him as they do created things.’21 Hence, since the universe is contingent and brought into existence, and contingent things are not capable of generating themselves, theologians inferred that ‘they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha), namely, a deity who is eternal.’22 Moreover, the kalam-cosmological argument states: Everything that begins to exist must have a cause. God, however, is beginningless; and so has no cause. ‘As He was in pre-existence possessed of His attributes, so shall He remain throughout all eternity.’23

19. Yet another criticism runs: why does the Uncaused Cause of all things have to be a single Deity? Why not many deities? Here the kalam theologians respond by drawing directly from the Qur’an, to infer from some of its verses “the argument from mutual interference” – dalil al-tamanu‘. Two such Quranic verses are: If there were gods in the heavens and earth, besides God, there would be chaos and disorder. [21:22] And: God has not chosen a son, nor is there a god with Him. For then each god would go away with his own creation, and some would overcome others. [23:91] What these verses tell us is that the existence of multiple gods is a self-evident logical absurdity. The actual argument from mutual hindrance, or interference, goes like this: If there were two deities and they disagreed over a matter, such as one wanting to bring a thing into existence and the other did not want to, then logically, there are only three possibilities: Either the will of both are carried out; or the two wills cancel each other out; or the will of one trumps the will of the other. The first case is an impossibility, as this would imply the existence of two mutual opposites; the second is also ruled out since that implies the thing neither exists nor doesn’t exist. It would also imply deficiencies in their wills and creative acts, and thus disqualify them as being the true Deity. Lastly, if the will of one is victorious, but not that of the other, then only this deity deserves to be God.24 Now whether such logic constitutes a highly persuasive proof that is open to a few fragilities (dalil iqna‘iyyah), or one that is definite and watertight (dalil qat‘iyyah), is the subject of some debate among classical Muslim theologians.25

20. Other concerns have been voiced about the kalam-cosmological argument, which may seem to some like a desperate attempt to clutch at straws. One contention states that since we’ve no experience of the origins of universes, we therefore have nothing to tell us that universes don’t come into existence without a cause. In response to this piece of conjecture it could more reasonably be argued that in our entire experience of the world, and of the cosmos at large, we’ve yet to find anything that exists without a cause. And there is no solid or empirical ground to conclude that the universe is an exception. I’ll wrap up with a more recent criticism of the first premise, from Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow who insist that: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’26 But this is a very lacklustre and unsatisfactory answer. For physical laws, by themselves, cannot create anything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which describe what usually happens under any given set of conditions. Furthermore, leave aside the fact that such laws of physics are inferred from real material events, and therefore such laws would be meaningless if they had nothing real to describe, there’s an even more fundamental question to ask here: Who created the law of gravity? Who indeed!

Just how far the kalam cosmological argument ‘proves’ the existence of God is open to discussion. The argument is certainly coherent, logical and decisive as a theological doctrine (thus giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational). Although it rarely seems to be effective at convincing those who do not believe in God that He in fact exists. This is especially so when its premises are highly abstract and theoretical, relying upon only logic and syllogism. A more appealing proof, therefore, comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s instance to reflect on the ‘signs’ of God. These will, God-willing, be taken up in the final part of the blog.

1. Flew, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind (New York: Harper One, 2007), 85.

2. Cited in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.

3. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.

4. As per Ibn Qutaybah, Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.

5. See: Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.

6. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.

7. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.

8. ibid., 1:470.

9. ibid., 1:468.

10. The pro-kalam argument is offered in Ghazali, Iljam al-‘Awwam ‘an ‘Ilm al-Kalam, translated as: A Return To Purity In Creed (Philadelphia: Lampost Productions, 2008). The anti-kalam view is robustly expressed in Ibn Qudamah, Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam, translated as: Ibn Qudamah’s Censure of Speculative Theology (England: Gibb Memorial Trust, 1985); and despite his kalam leanings, Ibn al-Jawzi critiques it in Kitab Akhbar al-Sifat, translated as: A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 104-20.

11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.

12. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6. Due to reason having the final say over Revelation, this blameworthy kalam may be rendered into English as: “speculative theology”. As for the kalam where reason is anchored to revealed proof, and so contours and supports it, this may be translated as: “discursive theology”.

13. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29. As for the pro-kalam arguments, they commence on p.226.

14. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.

15. T. Mayer, ‘Theology and Sufism’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273.

16. J. Gribbin, Q is for Quantum: Particle Physics from A to Z (London: Phoenix Giant, 1998), 350.

17. For a fuller treatment of the argument, consult: Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2002), 82-85; Juwayni, A Guide to Conclusive Proofs for the Principles of Belief (Reading: Garnet, 2000), 19-28; Ayman Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’ in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, 204-214; W. L. Craig, The Kalam Cosmological Argument (London: Macmillan, 1979).

18. P. Davies, Superforce (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984), 200.

19. See: Gribbins, Q is for Quantum, 511.

20. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.5.

21. ibid., §.47.

22. Ibn al-Jawzi, A Medieval Critique of Anthropomorphism, 92.

23. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi, §.14. I have modified the translation here somewhat.

24. Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 3:47.

25. As to just how conclusive or not the argument is, see: al-Maydani, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Dar al-Bayruti, 2005), 32-34.

26. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 227.

Ibn al-Qayyim: On Being Emptied of Benefit

5421944290_8dacb6fe85_oHere are some brief words from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim about missed opportunities and squandering benefits. The Qur’an says: Say: ‘Shall We tell you whose works will bring the greatest loss?’ Those who efforts have been wasted in the life of this world whilst thinking they were doing good. [18:103-4] There are people whose smug self-righteousness is so ingrained that they go through life spreading corruption; campaigning to alter clear-cut religious precepts; or making a show of their piety – imagining all the while that they are acquiring virtue. Ultimately, such people shall suffer the worst of regrets. For their labours yield no real benefits and are emptied of God’s purpose for them. ‘Of all the words of mice and men,’ wrote an American novelist and satirist, ‘the saddest are, “It might have been.”’

Ibn al-Qayyim lists ten matters that he wishes us to meditate over, so as not to be of those who are ridden with regrets in the Afterlife, forever mumbling to ourselves: ‘It might have been!’ He writes:

‘Ten things which, if lossed, have no benefit:

[1] Knowledge that isn’t acted upon.

[2] Works of faith that are bereft of sincerity [to God] or conformity [to the shari‘ah].

[3] Wealth from which nothing is spent; so neither is joy gained by hoarding it, nor is it sent on ahead to the Afterlife.

[4] A heart empty of God’s love, yearning for Him, and intimacy with Him.

[5] A body devoid of obedience and service to Him.

[6] A love that doesn’t confine itself to the Beloved’s pleasure, nor does it comply with His commands.

[7] A moment of time not used to rectify one’s remissness, or seized to do good works and draw closer to God.

[8] A thought that dwells on what isn’t beneficial.

[9] Serving someone whose service doesn’t bring you closer to God nor does it rectify your worldly affairs.

[10] Your fear of, or hope in, someone whose forelock is in God’s hand, and is himself a captive in the divine grasp: possessing no power to bring about harm, benefit, death, life or resurrection.

The greatest of these losses, and it is the real root of all losses, are two things: wasting the heart, and squandering time. The heart is wasted when the world is given priority over the Afterlife; time is squandered by procrastination. Corruption stems entirely from following caprice and procrastination: rectification stems from following right guidance and preparing for the Encounter.’1

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 162.

Joining Feet to Straighten Prayer-Rows: Is it a Sunnah?

taraweeh_universality1Q. As part of straightening the rows for congregational prayer (salat al-jama‘ah), is it required or recommended that each person join their feet with those standing either side of them?

A. Two issues need addressing here. Firstly, the importance of straightening the rows and the care and attention our Prophet ﷺ gave to it. Secondly, the manner in which prayer-rows are to be straightened.

I

As for those hadiths which insist prayer-rows must be straightened, the following is a representative selection:

1. Anas relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Straighten your rows and keep close together, for indeed I see you from behind my back.’1

2. Abu Mas‘ud al-Ansari related that the Prophet ﷺ would touch our shoulders at the prayer, saying: ‘Straighten [your rows] and do not differ, lest your hearts differ.’2

3. Abu Umamah relates the Prophet ﷺ saying: ‘Straighten your rows, stand shoulder to shoulder, be soft upon your brother and fill the gaps, for the devil enters through the gaps like the small lambs.’3

4. Ibn ‘Abbas relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The best of you are those whose shoulders are the gentlest in the prayer.’4

5. Anas also relates that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Stand close together in your rows, keep them near each other and stand neck to neck. By Him in whose hand is my life, I see the devil entering between the gaps as do the small lambs.’5

6. Al-Nu‘man b. Bashir related that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Straighten your rows. For by Allah, if you do not straighten your rows, Allah will separate your hearts.’6

The above hadiths demonstrate that straightening the rows for prayer, and filling the gaps between people standing in prayer, is highly emphasised; a few jurists holding it to be obligatory.7 We further see that being neglectful about doing so could result in hearts being at odds with one another (as per the 2nd and 6th hadith): the shari’ah of Islam loathing even the slightest cause of disunity.

II

As for how the rows must be aligned and straightened, the following two companion-reports seem to lie at the heart of the contention:

Firstly, having related the 1st hadith, Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, went on to say: ‘I saw each one of us join shoulder to shoulder and ankle bone to ankle bone with that of his companion.’8

Secondly, at the end of the 6th hadith, al-Nu‘man b. Bashir, may Allah be pleased with him, remarked: ‘I saw each man join shoulder to shoulder with that of his companion, knee to knee with that of his companion, and ankle bone to ankle bone with that of his [companion].’9

In recent decades, and based upon these two companion-reports, some now hold that one is to literally [physically] join shoulders and feet with the persons praying either side of them. This they believe is the Sunnah that is to be maintained throughout the entire length of time one is standing in the prayer. At first glance, the opinion seems to be quite validated. But shine a little light on this claim and some quirky problems begin to show themselves.

III

Now before spotlighting some of these anomalies, it’s worth getting a grip on what’s at stake here. For this isn’t intended to be a bit of a fiqhi argy-bargy for its own sake. Not at all! Instead, the fact of the matter is that the above claim (that one is required to literally join shoulders and feet) is something of a point of dogma with many of its advocates. To them, this act isn’t only prescribed by the shari‘ah; more than that, it is: ‘an abandoned Sunnah that must be revived.’10 Who has it been abandoned by? Well, apparently not just by the ordinary laymen; those unschooled in the finer points of fiqh. But by the vast majority of the fuqaha and ‘ulema too! And just how long has this alleged Sunnah been abandoned? Apparently for more than a thousand years; in other words, for the majority of Islam’s fourteen hundred year history.

That’s not all: feeling more than a little privileged at being told of a sunnah neglected for the past millennium, the advocates are enjoined ‘to call the people to it, until they unify upon it’.11 Such is the spirit of dogma and missionary zeal which has been bred, that those who differ with this stance – even if they be from the ranks of the qualified scholars – can find themselves accused of ‘denigrating and belittling the status of the Sunnah.12 Lamentably, such can be the stakes.

IV

So what are these anomalies? And how should the above two companion-reports be understood? As it happens, they’re quite straightforward to grasp. They do not require a trained juristic mind.

For instance, the norm among such practitioners is that they will get their shoulders and feet to literally touch the shoulder and foot of those standing either side of them in the prayer row. Yet why limit it to shoulders and feet; to just these two body parts? Where’s the proof? For doesn’t one of the reports mention knees as well?

To stand in the prayer, with not only shoulders and sides of the feet touching those on either side, but the sides of the knees too, makes for a highly awkward and difficult standing. For many, getting the knees to physically touch those praying on either side requires having to stand bandy-legged: standing with one’s legs curved outwards such that one’s knees are pushed wider apart and closer to one’s neighbours’. Is this gawky and ungraceful posture really what’s called for?

Furthermore, the apparent wordings of the reports do not actually mention feet, but rather anklebones (al-kabayn). Again, what’s the proof for not taking this literally? It could well be a case of the fiqh maxim: itlaq al-ba‘d wa iradat al-kul – ‘mentioning the part, but intending the whole.’ But what’s the proof for this being the case?

And if, as some die hards attempt to do, one insists on physically joining anklebone to anklebone, many people will not only be standing bandy-legged, but they’d also have to turn their feet outwards slightly in order for their anklebone to be physically joined to that of their companion. Such a standing goes from being awkward and unseemly, to being a tad gruelling and insufferable. As for how one can maintain the prescribed sakinah and adab – the tranquility, composure and dignified courtesy – in the prayer, in such a standing, it does beggar belief.

And what about the Prophet’s directive ﷺ to align the necks (as per the 5th hadith)? Should they be touching too? Obviously not!

Given the quirks and conundrums a literal reading of these hadith and reports throw up, a better reading of the reports could be what one contemporary scholar wrote: ‘All this – to straighten [the rows]; keep them aligned; and fill in the gaps – doesn’t mean that [the bodily parts] must physically touch. For getting necks to touch is impossible. Keeping shoulders touching throughout the entire standing is clearly taxing. Getting knees to touch is impossible. And ankles touching is, to an extent, unattainable … It is therefore evident that being close is from a single perspective, and it is in four things: necks, shoulders, knees and ankles. What is intended is to urge the establishment of the rows, keep them aligned and consolidate them: without any crookedness or gaps. By this, the aim of the Lawgiver is attained.’13

The above reading is more in keeping with what earlier, classical jurists have stated on the matter – as will follow shortly.

V

If, for a moment, we put aside talk of how right or not the ‘physical-touching’ reading is, yet even the application of it is often so very wrong. For what this opinion devolves down to a lot of the time is: fidgeting in the prayer so as to get feet touching; wedging one’s foot tightly against another’s (its detractors call it ‘foot-jamming’); and standing with feet so far apart that it causes huge gaps between peoples’ shoulders. Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymin once remarked:

‘From the extremism in this issue is what is done by some people, in that one of them will join his ankle with that of his companion, but his feet will be so wide apart that there will be a gap between his shoulder and that of his neighbour’s; thus opposing the Sunnah by doing so. Rather the aim is that shoulders and ankles should be aligned with one another.’14

Blinded by their uncritical convictions, such people fail to see how they contradict the Sunnah of filling the gaps, due to standing with feet so wide apart that it causes large gaps between people’s shoulders.

They fail to see how they breach the duty of limbs being reverent, tranquil and still; or hearts being attentive, mindful and focused (collectively called khushu‘), in the prayer, because of constantly fidgeting and foot-jamming.

And they fail to see how they violate the prescribed gentleness towards those praying next to them (as per the 4th hadith), because of an extreme reading, confusing means with ends, and an unwarranted rigidness in religious practice.

VI

The bulk of jurists down the ages have understood the reports which mention knees and ankles are to be joined, to mean that they could be utilised to help align the rows; not that they should physically touch. Explaining al-Bukhari’s words in his Sahih al-Bukhari: ‘Chapter: Joining Shoulder to Shoulder and Foot to Foot in the Prayer-Row’, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani stated: ‘What is meant by this is to exaggerate [the importance of] straightening the rows and filling the gaps (al-mubalaghah fi ta‘dil al-saff wa saddi khalalihi).’15

After citing the above statement of Ibn Hajr, Shaykh Anwar Shah al-Kashmiri noted: ‘It is [also] the intended meaning in the view of the jurists from the Four Schools (al-fuqaha al-arba‘ah).’16

Al-Shawkani explains the hadith (no.3) which orders to ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ to mean: ‘Aligning the body parts with one another so that the shoulders of each person praying are arranged and in line with the shoulders of others. In this way, shoulders and necks will be aligned.’17

VII

To conclude: One hadith states that: ‘Allah’s Messenger ﷺ would straighten our rows as though he were straightening the shaft of an arrow, until he saw that we had learnt it. One day he came out and was about to commence the prayer, when he noticed a man whose chest was protruding from the row. He said: “O slaves of Allah! Straighten your rows, or else Allah may cause dissension among you.”’18

As to the expression: ‘he would straighten our rows as though he were straightening the shaft of an arrow’, Imam al-Nawawi explains that an arrow’s shaft (qidah) ‘is the long, wooden part of an arrow that is pared and trimmed [until it is as straight as can be] … Meaning that he paid great attention to making the rows straight, as if he were sparing no effort to straighten an arrow and keep it uncurved as possible.’19

This alone should help us realise just how punctilious we each should be to keep the prayer lines straight and to fill in the gaps. There’s an even greater responsibility upon the person who leads the prayer to ensure that this happens. The Sunnah demands we show no slackness in this, as part of our reverent quest to be present with Allah in the actual prayer.

As for how the prayer-rows are to be formed and straightened, we’ve seen that there is no requirement to join feet or knees with those praying on either side, such that they physically touch. Ironically, insisting upon only this view and refusing to accept the validity of any other scholarly view, creates the very schism between Muslims that the hadiths wish us to avoid. Classical jurists chose not to follow such a literal reading of the reports, not out of neglect on their part (as some would have us believe); but out of a keen knowledge of the intent of the reports. Their collective juristic wisdom also came down in favour of worshippers each standing with their feet roughly the width of four fingers apart, or even a handspan, presumably to reflect a sense of humility of posture.20 In this way, each person aligns their shoulders with those on either side of them and ensures that gaps are gently filled. The worshippers may then focus on the Great Encounter that lies immediately ahead of them: Allahu akbar!

And Allah knows best.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.719.

2. Muslim, no.432.

3. Ahmad, Musnad, no.21760. It was confirmed as authentic (sahih) in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1840.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.672. The hadith, with its collective support, is sahih – as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), no.2533.

5. Abu Dawud, no.667; al-Nasa’i, no.814, with a sahih chain. See: al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 2000), 4:227; and Albani, Sahih Sunan Abi Dawud (Kuwait: Dar Ghiras, 2002), no.673; al-Arna’ut, Sunan Abi Dawud (Damascus: Dar al-Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2009), 2:9.

6. Abu Dawud, no.662 and its chain is sahih. Cf. Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.32.

7. Like al-Bukhari, Ibn Hazm and al-Shawkani. See: al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 2:266; al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar (Dar al-Mustaqbal, 2005), 3:211.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.719. Shaykh al-Albani wrote: ‘This addition also occurs in the report of al-Mukhallis and Ibn Abi Shaybah [1/351] with the following wording: Anas said, “I saw each of us joining our shoulders with those of our companions and our feet with those of our companions. If you were to do this today, a person would flee [from you] like a restless mule.” And its chain is also authentic, according to the conditions of the two Shaykhs.’ Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, 1:1:71; no.31.

9. Abu Dawud, no.662.

10. Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, 1:1:70; no.31.

11. ibid., 1:1:73; no.32

12. ibid., 1:1:73.

13. Bakr Abu Zayd, La Jadid fi Ahkam al-Salah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1998), 14.

14. Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Rasa’il (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1992), 13:52; no.428.

15. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), 2:561.

16. Fayd al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2005), 2:302.

17. Nayl al-Awtar (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2006), 6:113.

18. Al-Bukhari, no.717; Muslim, no.436.

19. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 4:131.

20. See: al-Kashmiri, Fayd al-Bari, 2:302.

Beware Pseudo-Scholars & Half-Baked Knowledge!

tumblr_md1w1eooHu1rvnjwto1_500The best proverbs manage to capture important ideas in just a few words. One well-worn Arab proverb has it that: nisf al-‘ilm akhtaru min al-jahl – ‘Half-baked knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.’ ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ insists Steven Hawking, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’ In the scholastic tradition of Islam there is the concept of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: claiming to be well-versed in religious matters merely by reading books, rather than by learning, studying and dialoguing with seasoned scholars. And so very often, such half-baked knowledge can be more corrupting and dangerous – to both the individual and the society – than simple, plain ignorance. Permit me to elaborate:

The whole notion of how a little knowledge can deceive a person into thinking they are more expert than they actually are has, I think, been wonderfully stated in a poem by the English poet, Alexander Pope. In his An Essay on Criticism (1709), he says:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Some of the lines of his Essay have become part of the popular lexicon, such as: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Then there is the famous first line of the above couplets, often misquoted as: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’

In Greek mythology, it was held that drinking from the Pierian Spring would grant a person great knowledge and inspiration. Pope explains how if a person only learns a little; if they only drink shallow drafts, it’s likely to intoxicate them and make them feel giddy and delusional. It’s apt to make them feel as if they know a great deal. However, a greater share of learning should remove their false pretensions and humble them. For drinking largely sobers, in that one then understands their level and becomes aware of how little they truly know.

Pope’s dangers of a little learning finds an earlier parallel in Muslim heritage. In some of the manuals written to help train Muslim scholars, teachers and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). It’s said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: Whomsoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; while whoever enters the third realises they know nothing.’1 An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of learning; having only drunk shallow drafts, Abu Shibr is intoxicated, looses sight of his fledgling level, and acts as if he is seasoned in sacred knowledge.

Of course, not everyone who enters the first stretch of learning becomes intoxicated. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into the Abu Shibr persona, the experienced shaykh is likely able to treat the disease with an effective cure). Rather, it’s those whose knowledge comes only by way of a few books or surfing the Net that are most at risk. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a problem to himself as well as to others.

As for the second and third spans, or stretches, of knowledge, then as the months and years pass, the one seeking it appreciates, at first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even via one single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the highly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it. This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own level. With further learning and engagement with knoweledge, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they truly know – in comparison to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition.

Nowadays, online forums and chatrooms are awash with pseudo-scholars audaciously speaking about things they have no knowledge of. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’2 Such pretenders might know something about the subject they are discussing, but do not know enough for a God-pleasing, objective discussion. They know a thing or two on the matter, but are ignorant of ten other things about it: and all too often they are ignorant of their own ignorance! This is due to a diseased heart and diminished piety, so the ego pushes them into false pretence, denial, haughtiness, conceit and being too full of themselves – wa’l-‘iyazubi’Llah.

Al-Khalil b. Ahmad remarked: ‘There are four types of people: (1) One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him! (2) One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him! (3) One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him! (4) One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’3

Our ‘ulema explain that there are two types of ignorance (jahl): simple ignorance (jahl basit), and compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab). Simple ignorance is, to a degree, a minor problem, in that it is easily remedied by the simple act of asking. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know, orders the Qur’an [16:43] One hadith states: ‘The cure for ignorance is to ask (innama shifa’u’l-‘iyy al-su’al).4 Simple ignorance is where one is aware that one doesn’t know; in other words, one realises their state of ignorance. As such, there is a sense of humbleness that accompanies simple ignorance.

Not so compounded ignorance which, Islamically speaking, is a far more pernicious problem. For the person wallowing in this ignorance is convinced he knows what he doesn’t know. He thinks he has knowledge of the issue, while in reality he knows next to nothing about it. Much of the Islamic postings on the Internet are characterised by such ignorance upon ignorance, or half-baked knowledge, as they pass themselves off as the real McCoy. But what causes a person to pant like a dog on heat, insisting: ‘I do know, I do know’, while the reality is very different? And what are the telltale signs of being soiled by such ignorance?

As noted earlier, the ego is all too often the culprit in such matters. In his censure of half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, the great Muslim polymath, Ibn Hazm wrote:

‘Some people – who are overcome by ignorance, whose intellects are weak and whose nature is corrupt – think they are from the learned, but they aren’t. There is no harm greater to knowledge or the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah; exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or to shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’5

A telltale sign that one is afflicted with such a disease includes: An eagerness to poke one’s nose into difficult religious issues that are well above one’s proverbial pay grade, so as to offer their tuppence worth on the matter. The Arab proverb likely fits such a person: laysa hadha bi‘ushshik fadruji – ‘This isn’t your nest, so hop along.’

Another telltale sign is: being obnoxiously adamant that one’s own opinion is correct, and that everyone else is off. All too often this leads Abu Shibr to take this differing to the next level. His half-baked knowledge doesn’t allow him to realise that there may be more than one valid take on the issue, and that his mightn’t even be the soundest. But by this time it’s already too late, Abu Shibr has already made a mountain out of a molehill. In his hubris, he thinks that he alone is on haqq and the others are on batil. Such delusions of grandeur lead him to demean, defame and even boycot and warn against those who differ with him. In the bigotry and blind-following of his desires, Abu Shibr unwittingly does the devil’s work, becoming an active agent in destroying unity and brotherhood among the believers – and we seek refuge in Allah from such mischief and misguidance.

Another sign is: hiding behind phrases like, ‘I’ve got a brain to think for myself.’ But I suggest that this is to draw from the phrase more than is warranted. Whilst it’s a fact we’ve each been endowed with some level of intelligence or reason, it’s also a fact that some are more intelligent than others. Moreover, a person who can reason well in one topic or area of life, may be unfit to do so in another. Surely, true intelligence should lead us to acknowledge that some disciplines of life and learning require an immense amount of study and specialisation. Such is the case for the intricacies of Islamic law and theology. Yet some will casually dismiss the verdicts of highly qualified scholars, not upon a detailed evidence-based critique, but upon a vainglorious whim. ‘I’ve got a brain’ demands that we engage the evidences and legal rationals of the experts before dismissing their conclusions, or humbly defer to their authority. Anything else would make intellects look suspect; or even down right stupid! The Qur’an says: Yet among people are those who argue about Allah without knowledge, guidance, or an illuminating Book. [31:20]

Compounded ignorance; this Abu Shibr syndrome, is extremely difficult to cure. For the one afflicted with it doesn’t see the deficiency in himself. As far as he’s concerned, he knows; and that’s that! To reveal to him that he is ignorant of his own ignorance is nigh on impossible. And yet it’s because the Abu Shibrs of this world are least likely to recognise their inadequacies, and because the Abu Shibr syndrome can be contagious, that we need to be alert to the following shari‘ah cautions:

Firstly, that speaking about Allah, His religion, or its rulings, without due knowledge, is a heinous crime and amounts to lying against Allah and the religion of Islam: And utter not lies in what your tongues allege [saying]: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to forge a lie against Allah. Those who forge lies against Allah will never prosper. [16:116] Such a crime against Allah requires an immediate handbrake turn to tawbah.

Secondly, to reign-in our soul from its egotism, exhibitionism and from seeking to be a wannabe. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever does deeds in order to be heard of, Allah will make him heard of; and whoever does deeds to show-off, Allah will make a show of him.’6 That sincerity to Allah and sound intention are key, is vividly demonstrated in the next hadith too: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge so as to vie with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to attract peoples’ attention, then Allah shall enter him into Hell.’7 As can be seen, Islam doesn’t do ego. Those who are eager for it to be otherwise have possibly got the wrong religion and way of life.

Thirdly, that one of the best defences against getting intoxicated on shallow draughts of knowledge is: learning to say, ‘I don’t know’. In fact, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: la adri nisf al-‘ilm – ‘To say: “I don’t know” is half of knowledge.’8 One of the scholars said: ‘Realise, that to reply with, “I don’t know” doesn’t diminish one’s status; as some of the ignoramuses imagine. Instead, it elevates it. For it is a splendid proof of his lofty rank, strength of his religion, his fear of his Lord, and the purity of his heart.’9

Fourthly, ask, inquire, learn, study, discuss, and grow in Islamic knowledge – but let us do so with humility and with being aware of our own levels. In this respect, let’s take our queue from how the Angels extolled Allah: ‘Glory be to You! We have no knowledge save what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are the Knowing, the Wise.’ [2:32]

That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing is only when intentions are corrupt, or if we lose sight of our own levels. We all have half-baked knowledge about many matters. In some of those matters, our half-baked knowledge will mature and become seasoned knowledge. In some, it may improve but never fully ripen. In other cases, it may always remain half-baked. But that needn’t be a problem, so long as we are aware that we don’t know; that we don’t act like Abu Shibr; and that, if required or wanted, we are open to learning. In this regard it’s been wisely said that: ‘A half-baked idea is okay as long as it’s in the oven.’

Hear, hear!

1. Consult: Bakr Abu Zayd, ‘Hilyat Talib al-‘Ilm’, in Majmu‘at al-‘Ilmiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 198.

2. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.

3. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, nos.336-7. The hadith says: During the time of the Prophet ﷺ a man suffered a serious head wound. Later he had a nocturnal emission and inquired from some companions if he was allowed to perform dry ablution (tayammum)? They said that they didn’t think it was permissible. So he took a full bath (ghusl), because of which he died. When the Prophet ﷺ came to learn of this, he said: ‘They have killed him; may Allah kill them! Why didn’t they ask, if they did not know. Indeed the cure for ignorance is to ask.’

5. Ibn  Hazm, ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.6499; Muslim, no.2986. The meaning of: ‘Allah will make him heard of’ is: Allah will publicly expose and humiliate him on the Day of Judgement – as said by al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1990), no.1626.

7. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2654. The hadith is hasan, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6382.

8. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Madkhal, no.713.

9. Ibn Jama‘ah, Tadhkirat al-Sami‘ wa’l-Mutakallim (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir, 2013), 68.

Teaching & Purification: the Two Prophetic Tasks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. ibid., no.20.

4. ibid., no.37.

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

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

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

8. ibid., 6:282.

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

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

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