The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Fitnah: Coming to a Sin-e-World Near You! (Part 2)

red-apple-temptation-sanjay-nayarThe first part of this blog (here) discussed the fitnah or tribulation of wealth, civil war and men’s weakness for women. The second and final part of the blog discusses three more fitnahs – that of callers to misguidance, spreading of inverted understandings of Islam, and the question of governments seeking to domesticate Islam and its scholars. And Allah’s help is sought.

4Fitnah of Callers to Misguidance: Hudhayfah b. al-Yaman narrates: People would ask Allah’s Messenger ﷺ about the good, but I used to ask about the evil, for fear of it reaching me. I said: O Messenger of Allah! We used to be in a state of ignorance and evil, but then Allah sent you with this good. Will there be any evil after this good? He said: ‘Yes.’ I said: Will there be any good after this evil? He answered: ‘Yes, but it will be tainted.’ I asked: What shall taint it? He said: ‘A people who will guide with other than my guidance. You shall approve of them and disapprove.’ I said: Will there be any evil after this good? He replied: ‘Yes! Callers to the gates of Hellfire, whoever responds to them will be thrown into it.’ I inquired: O Allah’s Messenger, describe them for us. He said: ‘They will be of your skin and speak your language.’ I said: What do you order me if I should reach this? He said: ‘Cling to the united body (jama‘ah) of the Muslims and their leader.’ What if there is no united body or leader, I asked? He said: ‘Then remove yourself from all these sects, even if you have to cling to the trunk of a tree until death comes to you and you are in that state.’1

In this hadith the Prophet ﷺ spoke about: du‘at ‘ala abwabi jahannam – ‘callers to the gates of Hellfire.’ Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani commented on the hadith, saying: ‘[Qadi] ‘Iyad stated: “What is intended by the first evil is the tribulation (fitnah) that occurred after the murder of ‘Uthman. The intent of the good that comes after is what happened in the caliphate of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. What is intended by those you will approve of and disapprove of are: the rulers who come after; among whom are those who adhere to the Sunnah and to justice, and among whom are those who call to innovations and to acting oppressively.”‘2 Ibn Hajr then says that these callers to the gates of Hell refer to: ‘Those who rise up seeking power and authority, from the Khawarij and their ilk.’3

A few centuries earlier, Imam al-Nawawi put slightly more flesh on the issue when he said about them: ‘Scholars say: They are those rulers who call to innovations or other deviations, like the Khawarij, Qaramitah, or the agents of the Inquisition (mihnah).’4

If the above hadith refers to rulers or regimes that were propagandists for innovation or heresy – endorsing it, sponsoring it and spreading it – this next hadith refers to the fitnah of innovators and persons of misguidance. Ibn Mas‘ud said: Allah’s Messenger ﷺ drew a line on the ground for us, saying: ‘This is Allah’s path.’ He then drew lines to its right and left, then said: ‘These are other paths; upon each path there is a devil calling to it.’ He then recited [6:153]: This is My straight path, so follow it; and follow not others paths, lest you be parted from His path.5

It shouldn’t need stating, but let’s do so anyway, that one of the foundational duties of every Muslim is to spurn religious innovation (bid‘ah). Our Prophet ﷺ warned in no uncertain terms: ‘Beware of newly-invented matters; for every newly-invented matter is an innovation, and every innovation is misguidance.’6 Also: ‘Whosoever introduces into this affair of ours what is not of it will have it rejected.’7 What is meant by bid‘ah is: ma uhditha mimma la asl lahu fi’l-shari‘ah yadullu ‘alayhi – ‘That which is newly-introduced, having no basis in the Sacred Law to substantiate [prove] it.’8 If what is newly-introduced does have a basis in the shari‘ah, then some scholars consider that a bid‘ah in the lexical sense; not the technical one. Others simply call it a ‘praiseworthy’ bid‘ah.9 Regardless of what one categorises it as, there’s absolute scholarly agreement that certain matters related to religion that came after the Prophet’s time, which have a basis in the din to prove their validity – either from the Qur’an, Sunnah, scholarly consensus (ijma‘), or analogy (qiyas) – can be brought under the umbrella of Islam and Islamic legislation. For in light of the second hadith quoted above in this paragraph: whoever introduces into this affair of ours what is of it will be accepted. It is just those matters that are newly-introduced as religious acts, but: la asl lahu fi’l-shari‘ah – ‘have no basis in the shari‘ah – which must be rejected and blacklisted.

All of this is to say that the primary obligation upon each Muslim is ittiba‘ – following what has been legislated and laid down in the Sacred Law; not ibtida‘ – innovating or introducing into the religion that which has no basis in the Sacred Sources. Moreover, the fact that some in our age have nosedived into extremes in this regard – so quickly and casually labelling any view opposing theirs as being a deviant innovation (and all too often accusing those holding such differing views as deviant innovators) – doesn’t excuse the rest of us from being lax in this fundamental area of faith, or shuffling into the opposite extreme.

The best way to steer well clear of these extremes is to ensure that in our learning and practice of Islam we be people of isnad; those who are linked to an unbroken ‘chain’ of scholarship which extends all the way back to the prophetic age. On this, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation. They will rid from it the distortions of the extremists; the false claims of the liars; and the flawed interpretations of the ignorant.’10 This hadith should help bury the myth that ‘authentic’ or ‘sahih’ Islam, after its golden first two centuries or so, was lost and unknown even to the scholars for most of Islam’s history (barring a brief come back in the 7th century), only to be rediscovered by a clique of Muslims in more recent times. For those interested, I have shown how this allegation is so way off the mark in: Being People of Isnad: Legitimate Islamic Learning.

5 – Fitnah of Inverted Understandings: The Prophet ﷺ foretold the following: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar shall be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous trusted, the trustworthy considered treacherous, and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? He ﷺ said: ‘The lowly, contemptible ones who will speak out about public affairs.’11

This inversion of understanding (inqilab al-fahm); such topsy-turvy ways of looking at things whereby good seems bad and bad good, or truth is seen as false and falsehood the truth, is foretold in other hadiths too. ‘When the affair is given to other than its rightful people, then await the Final Hour,’12 said the Prophet ﷺ. And: ‘Indeed from the signs of the Hour is that the virtuous will be demeaned and the wicked elevated.’13 Just how deeply this state of inversion has oozed into the soil of our ‘post-truth’ world and this age of ‘alternative facts’, is anyone’s guess. Much of this, it has got to be said, is a prelude; a trailer, for the drama of the Dajjal which will soon be showing in a sin-e-world near us all – and we seek refuge in Allah from Dajjal’s fitnah.

Our Prophet went out of his way to shield us all from this inqilab al-fahm. He ﷺ once averred: The stars are the custodians of the sky; when the stars depart, what has been decreed for the sky shall come to it. I am the custodian of my Companions; when I depart, what is decreed for my Companions will come to them. And my Companions are the custodians of my ummah; when my Companions depart, what is decreed for my ummah shall come to it.’14

So what has been decreed for this ummah after the Companions (sahabah) – who are its keepers, guardians and custodians – depart? Al-Nawawi tells us it is: ‘The spread of innovations and newly-invented matters in the religion, fitnahs in it …’15 Al-Munawi says, writing almost four-hundred years ago: ‘It is the proliferation of innovations, the dominance of [false] desires, schisms in creedal matters, the appearance of the Horns of Satan, the ascendency of the Romans [Christians], and the desecration of the Two Holy Places (haramayn). All of these miraculous predictions have occurred.’16

So how do we stop the rot? How do we halt the descent into deviation? The answer is straightforward, though getting our desires and egos to act upon it may not be quite so: Follow the revealed teachings, and shun innovations in religion. Let’s look at what else our Prophet ﷺ urged in this respect:

In one famous hadith, the Prophet ﷺ lays down this cure for the rot: ‘Those among you who live [long] will see many schisms. So cling to my Sunnah and to the Sunnah of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs after me; cling to it unyieldingly.’17

And the Prophet ﷺ said to his Companions one day: ‘Verily there will soon be fitnah.‘ They asked: How shall we be, O Allah’s Messenger, and what shall we do? He ﷺ said: tarji‘una ila amrikum al-awwal – ‘Return to your original affair.’18

The intent of the above two hadiths is made even more clear in these definitive words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘My ummah will split-up into seventy-three sects; seventy-two are in the Fire, one in Paradise.’ They asked: Who is that one, O Allah’s Messenger? He ﷺ said: ‘That which I and my Companions are upon.’19 Historically, this one saved-sect became known as ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah; or Sunnis, for short.

What all this points to is that any method or call which outrightly rejects the Sunnah, or the integrity and authority of the Prophet’s Companions, or denies an established scholarly consensus (ijma‘), is utterly false – regardless of how appealing or academic the falsehood is made to seem. For it is the hermeneutics of reprehensible innovation; if not outright heresy. No weight must be given to it in matters of religion. Al-Bayhaqi said about such schisms from Islamic orthodoxy: ‘We have already stated in the book al-Madkhal, and elsewhere, that the blameworthy differing (al-khilaf al-madhmum) is whatever differs from the Book, the authentic Sunnah or a scholarly consensus.’20 Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘The hallmark of these [innovated] sects is them splitting from the Book, the Sunnah, or scholarly consensus. Whoever speaks with the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.21

For much of Islamic history, the question of who embodies the majoritarian orthodox path of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah has been rather contentious. Scholars like Imam al-Safarini and others, however, extend the net as follows: ‘Ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah is of three groups: Atharis, whose leader is Ahmad b. Hanbal, may Allah be pleased with him; Ash‘aris, whose leader is Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, may Allah have mercy upon him; and Maturidis, whose leader is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi.’22

Yet how can it be three sects, when the hadith clearly speaks of one saved-sect? In this broader view of ahl al-sunnah, the Atharis, Ash‘aris and Maturidis aren’t looked upon as different sects, but different ‘orientations’ or ‘schools’ with the same core tenets. And since all three ‘orientations’ consent to the integrity and authority of the Sunnah and the Companions, and to ijma‘ – contrary to the seventy-two other sects – they are all included under the banner of ahl al-sunnah. Differences between them may either be put down to semantics, variations in the branches of the beliefs (furu‘ al-i‘tiqad), or to bonafide errors of ijtihad. Given that the Athari creed represents the earliest, purest form of the beliefs of ahl al-sunnah; in the view of this writer, it should be preferred wherever there is a disparity between the three schools. Having said that, the fact is that after the rise and establishment of the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools, one would be hard pressed to find a jurist, hadith master, exegist, grammarian or historian who wasn’t a follower of one of these two schools. Historically, and in short: the Hanafis have been Maturidis, all except a few; Malikis and Shafi‘is have been Ash‘aris, all save a few; and Hanbalis have been Atharis, all but a few.

One final point: Describing people as innovators from the seventy-two sects (in other words, outside the fold of ahl al-sunnah), isn’t saying they’re apostates outside the fold of Islam – as is spelled out in: The Seventy-Three Sects: Is Most of the Ummah Deviant? One can have innovated beliefs or practices and still be a Muslim; albeit a misguided one. As for what groupings come under the umbrella of Islam, The Amman Message of 2004, and its three-point declaration, directly addresses that. The Message doesn’t concern itself with who is a ‘true’, orthodox Muslim; but simply who is a Muslim. For its aim is to help halt the widespread evil of takfir on Muslims, and to wrest the giving of fatwas from those who do not have the prerequisite learning or qualification.

6 – The Fitnah of Governments Seeking to Domesticate Scholars: Our starting point is this advice from the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Whoever comes to the doors of the ruler is put to trial.’23 Discussion about this, I must admit, is a difficult and delicate one; so I’ll try to be as nuanced and even handed as possible. And Allah’s help is sought.

This concern, first off, is not new. Scholars down the ages of Islam have cautioned the scholarly community about the trial (fitnah) entailed in rubbing shoulders with rulers or governments. Ibn al-Jawzi sketches the usual pious concerns, thus:

‘From the Devil’s deception on the jurists is them mixing with the rulers and sultans, flattering them and leaving-off censuring them when able to do so. And perhaps they find allowances for them when there really isn’t one, in order to attain some worldly thing … In summary: entering upon rulers entails great danger. For the intention may be good at first, but then may change by them honouring you or bestowing [gifts] on you; or by [you] harbouring worldly ambitions; or by not being able to avoid flattering them; or leaving-off censuring them. Sufyan al-Thawri used to say: “I don’t fear them debasing or disgracing me. Rather, I fear them being generous towards me so that my heart inclines towards them.”‘24

Again, teasing out the soul’s psychology in this matter, and the subtle cravings of the ego, Ibn Rajab said: ‘Also, many of the salaf used to forbid those who desired to order the kings with good or prohibit them from evil, from entering upon them … And this was from fear of the fitnah of entering upon them. For when he is at a distance from them, the ego deceives the person into believing he will order and forbid them, and be stern with them. However, when he comes face to face with them, his soul is swayed towards them. For love of being honoured is concealed in his ego. Hence, he starts to flatter them, is over lenient with them, and perhaps he grows fond of them and loves them – especially if they treat him well and hold him in high regard, and he accepts this from them.’25

Of course; and this is the second point, this avoidance is by no means categorical, nor absolute. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr rounds-up the chapter in which he relates the salaf’s dislike of entering upon rulers and kings, stating: ‘The meaning of this entire chapter is with regard to the wicked, oppressive ruler (al-sultan al-ja’ir al-fasiq). As for the just among them, and the virtuous, then entering upon them; meeting them; and assisting them to rectify affairs is from the best deeds of righteousness … Thus when a scholar enters upon the ruler now and again, and whenever there is a need; and he says what is good and speaks with knowledge, then that is good and is a means of Allah’s pleasure until the Day he meets Him. Such meetings, however, are usually a fitnah; and safety lies in abandoning what is in them.’26

One will not find a ‘one-hat-fits-all-sizes’ rule in this area. For the needs and variables of each country or polity are different. The whole affair hinges on benefits and harms and final outcomes; and rests on the individual scholar’s intention and ability to cope with the fitnah, and the openness or otherwise of the ruler or regime. If a scholar feels strong enough in faith or feels obligated to to do so, or/and the ruler is open to advise, then one enters and does ones duty wisely, courageously and respectfully (respectful, if not of the actual ruler, then of the office they hold). Scholars should also keep this juristic maxim in play: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak ba‘duhu – ‘If one cannot achieve the whole, one does not give-up [achieving] the part.’ What a scholar must not be is a sheepish partisan voice piece for the outrages and injustices of power, or an apologist for it. The scholar’s burden is neither to pander to the palace, and nor to the public. It is simply to be principled according to the dictates of piety.

My third and final point bears upon Muslim scholars in Britain (and North America, for that matter); especially in respect of helping their governments in the fight against extremism and the promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam. The aim in what follows is not to preclude any collaboration or cooperation between Muslim scholars (or activists) and governments. Instead, I wish only to point out that there are different fitnahs at work in any such union, which cannot be ignored.

One issue that tends to haunt the air of any genuine cooperation for many a scholar is the RAND report of 2007: Building Moderate Muslim Networks. The report strategised how the United States government could nurture what they accepted to be ‘moderate’ Muslims: those committed to the liberal values of democracy, human rights, equality, and who oppose terrorism or other illegitimate forms of violence. As for conservative shari‘ah expressions, they are seen as incompatible with this world view, needing to be either jettisoned or interpreted away. It suggested partners in this effort would best be found in secularists, liberal Muslims, and moderate traditionalists; including Sufis: but not Salafis or Islamists. It urged aiding liberals, moderate young scholars, activists and women’s groups; helping moderateness with an online presence too.27 A decade on, and much of that strategy is well under way – both in the US and in Britain. With this being so, it makes even well-intended cooperation with government, in the fight against extremism, more than a little murky and problematic.

Not only have terms like ‘moderate’ Islam; ‘good’ Muslims; ‘Islamists’ and ‘terrorists’; or equating being too ‘conservative’ with an inclination for violence, been predefined and then institutionalised for all to fall in line with. But even spaces to air legitimate political dissent and social frustration are rapidly diminishing or being highly policed when it comes to Muslims. The irony may be that in the effort to root out extremism from Muslim communities and establish a government engineered ‘moderate Islam’, favourable conditions for driving disenfranchised individuals into the arms of violent extremism are being created.

In a climate where organisations and individuals are in a panic to establish themselves as bastions of moderate Islam, it is vital that Muslim scholars not get caught up in all the political posturing and money grabbing. They must also avoid succumbing to the pressures of employing religious vocabulary or definitions imported from outside the scholastic tradition. In fact, the onus is on them to inject some much needed nuance or tafsil into the discourse. One example concerns the driving factor behind terrorism of the ISIS type. Some insist it is driven solely by oppression, foreign policy, or other similar rational grievances: religion has no hand in it whatsoever. Others dismiss such naiveté and aver it is inspired purely by the vile, totalitarian ideology of Islamism (and for some, just Islam): they brook no further discussion about it.

The reality is that religion plays a role, less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage. To deny the role of foreign policy in nurturing violent extremism is as naive or coloured by self interest as denying the role of a twisted fiqh-cum-theology in fostering it. Until we acknowledge and tackle both gremlins, we fail public security and give kudos to a false political narrative. This has been my experience, since the early 1990s, while engaging some of the key voices and ideologues of such extremism. As for the twisted theology bit, I’ve attempted to discuss this in: Khawarij Ideology: ISIS Savagery.

Another fitnah scholars must be circumspect about is: giving fatwas under siege. Ibn Hamdan, a highly accomplished legalist in the Hanbali school, explains: ‘Fatwa 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.’28

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.’29

For the above reasons and more, scholars, perhaps more than ever before, need to be spiritually rooted. The temptations that are touted before them, or the convincers to compromise aspects of the faith and its scholastic teachings, are perhaps greater now than they’ve ever been. Fitnahs so easily throw intellects off balance, and sullying the intentions of a single scholar is more beloved to Iblis than causing a thousand feet of the general Muslim public to stumble. For such reasons our fiqh needs to be deepened and made much wiser; reading and intellectualisation need to be both broadened and sharpened; an atmosphere needs to be cultivated of being less judgemental and more judicious; hostility to sins needn’t be carried over to sinners; and the ego’s pretensions need to be reigned in and conditioned by humility and spiritual poverty (faqr). If we’re not spiritually-anchored, there’s a huge danger of being cast adrift in the tumultuous socio-political storms of the age.

As scholars try to remain alert against the fitnah of governments domesticating them; as they train themselves to deliberate not just on quick-fix fatwas or short term goals, but the longer-term vision too; and as they deepen the virtue of zuhd in their personal lives (the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘What is little but suffices is better than what is plentiful but distracts’30), let them not loose sight of the following:

Where the Makkan Quraysh failed to see the disconnect between them and the pure message of Abrahamic monotheism and ethics; and failed to heed the discontent and exploitation of the masses by a powerful, wealthy elite, the Prophet ﷺ saw it, felt it, and Allah caused him to give voice to it. The fact that: ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets,’31 as one hadith says, should cause them to follow suite in seeking to heal the disconnect and the discontent; in whatever community, and in whatever age or place.

To wrap-up: The Prophet ﷺ cautioned: ‘Fitnahs will be presented to hearts, just as a reed mat is woven stick by stick; and any heart that absorbs it, will have a black mark in it.’32 In order to guard our hearts from soaking up the poison of these fitnahs, the following should go some way, bi’idhni’Llah, in being inoculated against them: [1] gain sound Islamic knowledge of what shape or form fitnah can assail us; [2] shore-up our conviction in Islam’s revealed truths; [3] solicit abundant forgiveness for our sins and; [4] make copious du‘a that Allah shields us from fitnah, or grants us the patience and fortitude to bear it.

Of course, fitnahs are never sought after, or welcomed. Yet when they do come, even if they be in the form of political shake-ups, they can actually be blessings in disguise. For they can jolt us out of a false sense of security; reawaken in us a believer’s sense of sacred destiny; and bring home to us our need of Allah’s help and mercy, for both our worldly and spiritual prosperity.

Do people imagine that they will be left alone because they say: ‘We believe,’
and [that they] will not be tried? We tried those who came
before them. Allah shall know those who
are sincere, and He shall
know the liars.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.3606; Muslim, no.1847.

2. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: al-Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), 15:634.

3. ibid., 15:634.

4. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 12:199.

5. Al-Nasa’i, Sunan al-Kubra, no.11109; al-Darimi, no.202. The hadith was graded hasan by al-Albani, Takhrij Mishkat al-Masabih (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no,27.

6. Abu Dawud, no.4607, whose wording it is; al-Tirmidhi, no.2676, stating the hadith is hasan sahih.’

7. Al-Bukhari, no.2697; Muslim, no.1718.

8. Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:127.

9. ibid., 2:127. I hope to post a more detailed discussion about bid‘ah, and whether it can be split into a good-bad/praiseworthy-blameworthy taxonomy, in the near future; Allah willing.

10. Al-Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209, and it is hasan. Cf. al-Albani, Takhrij Mishkat al-Masabih (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.248; Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 1:500.

11. Ibn Majah, no.4036; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:465, who said: ‘Its chain is sahih.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.59.

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

14. Muslim, no.2531.

15. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 16:68.

16. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:297.

17. Abu Dawud, no.4607; al-Tirmidhi, no.2676, who said: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

18. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.3307. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.3165.

19. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2641, who graded it hasan.

20. Al-I‘tiqad wa’l-Hidayatu ila Sabil al-Rashad (Damascus: al-Yamamah, 2002), 354.

21. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:345.

22. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:73. Other Hanbali scholars who share a similar outlook are: ‘Abd al-Baqi al-Mawhabi, Ibn al-Shatti, al-Qudumi and Ahmad al-Mardawi. See: al-Yafi, al-Manhajiyyah al-‘Ammah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2009), 35-8. It is also the position of Qadi Abu Ya‘la, as per Tabaqat al-Hanabilah (Cairo: al-Sunnah al-Muhamadiyyah, n.d.), 2:210, despite his vehement criticisms of the Ash‘aris.

23. Abu Dawud, no.2869; al-Tirmidhi, no.2256., who said: ‘This hadith is hasan gharib.’

24. Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 175-6.

25. ‘Ma Dhi’ban Ja’i‘an’ in Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Hadithah, 2003), 1:86.

26. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 644.

27. See: RAND report, 2007: Building Moderate Muslim Networks, pp.65-74.

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

29. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 42.

30. Al-Shihab, Musnad, no.1262. It was judged sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.947.

31. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. The hadith is hasan, due to its various chains that strengthen one another. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari, 1:245.

32. Muslim, no.231.

Fitnah: Coming to a Sin-e-World Near You! (Part 1)

temptation-apple-and-snakeThe Arabic word fitnah bears the meaning of trial, discord, affliction, temptation and civil war, and any other strife ‘that ruptures the community’s unity and pits Muslim against fellow Muslim.’1 As well as discussing the ageless and abiding fitnah of wealth, women and civil war, this blog piece will also reflect upon the fitnahs related to callers to misguidance, governments seeking to domesticate Islam and Muslim scholars, the active promotion and funding of warped understandings of our faith, and the fitnahs of sectarian violence and takfir. Our Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Before the coming of the Hour there will be fitnahs like patches of dark night. A person shall awaken in the morning a believer but by the evening become a disbeliever, or in the evening be a believer but by morning become a disbeliever; and people will sell their religion in order to acquire some portion of the world.’2

1Fitnah of Wealth: We are reminded in the Qur’an: Your wealth and your children are but a trial, and with Allah is an immense reward. [64:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Truly, for every nation there is a trial, and the trial for my nation is wealth.’3 The trial, or fitnah, of wealth is when one either acquires anything of it in a forbidden way, or it distracts one from fulfilling religious obligations and duties, or one becomes overly attached to it; especially when becoming enslaved by it. It says in a hadith: ‘Wretched be the slave of the dinar; wretched be the slave of the dirham; wretched be the slave of fine cloth; wretched be the slave of embroidered cloth. May he be wretched and degraded, and if such a one is pierced by a thorn, let it not be extracted. When he is granted his desires he is pleased and when he is denied them he is angered.’4 Such is the state of the one whose heart is a slave to wealth or to worldliness: wretched and depraved! The heart, when its contentment or anger is for other than Allah, it is a worshipper of whatever desire or caprice animates it; and much of its moods, feelings and emotions become servile and captive to it.

In the consumer-driven lives of our e-world (with its emails, eBay, e-commerce and e-credit), protecting ourselves from this particular fitnah is not easy. To be clear, wealth, in and of itself, isn’t bad. But the worship, enslavement or overly preoccupation with it is. A sound and correct attitude towards wealth is always a useful reminder. Wealth must be seen as a means, not an end – as Ibn Taymiyyah said, when asked about how seekers of Allah and the Afterlife should view it. ‘We must view wealth much as we do the toilet,’ he replied, ‘in that we resort to it whenever needed, but it has no place in our hearts.’5

Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon, a present-day shaykh of spiritual wayfaring (suluk), said about fostering a sense of detachment from wealth and the wordly (dunya), that:

As one begins to fill the heart with love of Allah, and seeking His acceptance and good pleasure, love of dunya is gradually cast out. Imagine it to be a plane journey, he said. If, while the plane is still on the tarmac one peers out of the window, other planes and the airport terminals look large and imposing. But when the plane takes off and starts its upward ascent, those very same objects appear to look smaller and smaller, until they seem insignificant and just disappear. Likewise, as we make a serious effort to fill our heart with love of Allah, and as the heart soars higher and higher in its journey to Him, dunya becomes more and more insignificant in its estimation, till it diminishes, dwindles, then finally disappears.

2Fitnah of Civil War: A hadith says: ‘Before the Hour there will be fitnahs like pieces of dark night, wherein a man will be a believer in the morning and a disbeliever by the evening; or a believer in the evening and a disbeliever by morning. He who sits during it is better than he who stands; he who stands is better than he who walks; he who walks is better than the he who runs. So during such times, break your bows, cut your bow-strings and blunt your swords upon stones. If one of them enters upon you, then be like the better of the two sons of Adam.’6 Which is to say, in times of the fitnah of a civil war, where Muslims are pitted against fellow Muslims, people are duty bound to not fan the flames of political violence in any and every way possible. Killing another Muslim simply isn’t an option. The Prophet ﷺ said: sibab al-muslim fusuq wa qitaluhu kufr – ‘Reviling a Muslim is sinful and killing him is disbelief.’7

Muslims doing their utmost not to take the life of a fellow Muslim – even to the point of laying down their own life – is one thing. But as for being intent on taking the life of your political Muslim opponent, the next narration speaks to such foulness: ‘If two Muslims meet each other with swords drawn, both the killer and the one killed are in the Fire.’ The Prophet ﷺ was asked: The killer, yes! But also the one killed? So he ﷺ replied: ‘He was just as intent on killing his opponent.’8

If we add to the evils of civil war, the even greater scourge of religious extremism and takfir, the situation becomes darker and even more dire. And this is precisely what we have today. The Prophet ﷺ forewarned: ‘Truly what I most fear for you is a man who will recite the Qur’an until its radiance appears on him and he becomes a support to Islam, changing it to whatever Allah wills. He then separates from it, casts it behind his back and raises the sword against his neighbour, accusing him of idolatry (shirk).’ I asked: O Prophet of Allah, who most deserves to be imputed with shirk; the accused or the accuser? He replied: ‘The accuser.’9

If civil war does not strip away faith or salvation from the Hellfire, at the very least it snatches away intellects and peoples’ sanity – as both reality and the next hadith bear out: Abu Musa relates that Allah’s Messenger ﷺ said: ‘Before the Hour comes there will be harj!’ I asked: O Allah’s Messenger, what is harj? He said: ‘Killing.’ Some people said: O Allah’s Messenger, now we slay [in battle] such and such number of idolaters in a single year. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘This won’t be like slaying the idolaters. Instead, you will kill one another, to the extent that a person will kill his neighbour, nephew and relatives!’ Some people said: O Messenger of Allah, will we be in our right minds that day? He said: ‘No! For reason will have departed from most people at that time, and there shall remain only the dregs of people who will be devoid of reason. Most of them will assume they are upon something, but they won’t be upon any thing.’10 I’ve discussed political violence here, and the thorny question of rebellion against Muslim rulers here. In all these affairs, piety (taqwa), knowledge (ilm) and patience (sabr) are crucial. To this end, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:

‘The Prophet ﷺ legislated for his nation the duty of forbidding the evil so that, by it, the goodness that Allah and His Messenger love could be procured. But if eliminating evil leads to an evil worse than it, and more hateful to Allah and His Messenger, then it is not permissible to censure it – even if Allah detests that evil and its doers. This is like censuring kings and others in authority, by rebelling against them. Indeed, this is the root of every evil and tribulation till the end of time … Whoever ponders the tribulations that have befallen Islam, the great or the small, will see that they are due to neglecting this principle and not bearing patience with the evil, but instead seeking to remove it by giving rise to an evil far worse than it.’11

Whether in terms of actively participating in fighting and killing, or rallying people to party zeal and frenzy, or spreading news and propaganda via social media, the shari‘ah insists that we withdraw from all such activities and rid ourselves of any means which could add fuel to the fire. In fact, during a civil war the best form of political activism is actually quietism. While there is great honour in waging a bonafide jihad against a hostile unbelieving army, no such honour or glory exists in a civil war.

3Fitnah of Women and the Desires of Men: Allah ﷻ says in the Holy Qur’an: Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations. [3:14] Although such things are elsewhere spoken of positively in the Qur’an, as blessings for which people should be thankful, here they are spoken of seductively in terms of objects which men lust over, crave and covet. Unsurprisingly, women top the list. This fact rings loudly in a hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ informed: ‘I have not left after me a fitnah more harmful for men than women.’12 It’s a warning only a fool or a fasiq would be keen to overlook or take lightly. Another hadith states: ‘The world is green and sweet and Allah has placed you in it as custodians to see how you behave. So be mindful of the world and be wary of women; for the first fitnah of the Children of Israel was regarding women.’13

If alcohol breaks inhibitions such that people will sexually behave in ways they usually wouldn’t when they are sober, then the devil is even more powerful in removing such modesty and inhibitions between the sexes. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘A woman is ‘awrah; whenever she goes out, the devil beautifies her.’14 The word ‘awrah, usually translated into English as ‘nakedness’, can also mean weakness, vulnerability and something that is unseemly or indecent.15 Women are considered ‘awrah because of their desirability; because their exposure to being seen is like leaving one’s home unguarded and hence vulnerable to attack. In Islam, the feminine form – desirable, alluring and sensuous in the privacy of the marital home – shouldn’t be made to appear so in the public sphere. It’s not just the objectifying male gaze that demeans or threatens women; sometimes some women need saving from their own intemperate selves.

Of course, in our e-world awash with sin, porn and the sexualisation of even children, such revealed wisdom is unlikely to be received with the openness it would have done in a not so long ago age. Notions of modesty, decency or respectability with regard to how the sexes should interact are utterly alien to our consumer-driven, selfie-taking, sexually-charged culture. To even suggest, as Islam does, that there could be a modest and dignified way of being a ‘lady’ (and, of course, a ‘gentleman’) is to court ridicule or scorn from an often uncritical public. Some may even shout misogyny. I’ve previously written in some depth on contemporary gender interactions in Beards, Hijabs & Body Language: Gender Relations, so I’ll confine myself to these few remarks:

The principles of modesty, restraint and respectability have long been written out of our social norms and mores, and this was bound to impact Muslim attitudes too. One hadith says: ‘Modesty and faith are two close companions; if one of them is removed, the other follows.’16 Indeed, as Muslims themselves begin to relax these principles, or compromise them in the hope of being welcomed to the table of liberal sensibilities, can we see in where it has led others, where we too could be heading?

It’s not just the hijab or niqab we’re talking about. It runs deeper than that. It’s about much more than just the externals. It’s about how one behaves; about how one carries themselves; how one disposes their soul towards the opposite gender. Ultimately, it’s about the heart’s purity and its attachment to its Lord.

Allah ﷻ commands: Tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. For Allah is aware of what they do. [24:30]. Upon citing this verse, Ibn al-Qayyim noted:

‘Allah put purification after lowering one’s gaze and guarding the private parts. This is why retraining the gaze from the forbidden necessitates three benefits of great worth and tremendous significance. Firstly, [experiencing] the sweetness and delight of faith that is far sweeter, pleasant or delightful than that which the gaze was left, or averted from, for Allah’s sake. Indeed, whoever leaves a thing for Allah’s sake, He shall replace it with what is better than it.17 The soul is deeply enamoured with gazing at beautiful forms. The eye is the scout for the heart, and it sends its scout out to see what’s there. If the eye informs it of something it finds visually attractive and beautiful, it is moved to desire it … Whoever allows their gaze to roam free will constantly be in regret. For the gaze gives rise to love, which begins with the heart having an attachment (‘alaqah) to what it is beholden too. As it strengthens, it becomes ardent longing (sababah); the heart now totally besotted with it. Growing more, it becomes an infatuation (gharam); it sticks to the heart as a creditor (gharim) sticks to his debtor (gharimah) from whom he doesn’t part. Growing stronger, still, it becomes passionate love (ishq); an excessive love. Then it is a burning love (shaghaf); a love which reaches to the very lining of the heart and enters it. Intensifying further, it becomes worshipful love (tatayyum) … the heart becoming a slave [worshipper] of that which it isn’t worthy of being enslaved to. And all of this is because of the harmful gaze.’18

Leave aside the debate on whether the greater onus is on women dressing modestly, or men lowering their gaze. There’s no doubt that in today’s ambiance it falls on men to lower their gaze and refrain from the lustful, illicit or harmful glance. Shaykh Jaleel Akhoon recently remarked that sins usually leave a black stain on the heart, that can be cleansed through the act of contrition and repentance. But if the heart is captive to the object of its love; enslaved to it by its ‘ishq, then this is worse than the ‘usual’ sin. For the heart isn’t just stained or darkened, he stressed; it is inverted. This has certain echoes of Ibn al-Qayyim when he said: ‘Many a passionate lover will admit they have no place at all in their heart for other than their passionate love. Instead, they let their passionate love completely conquer their heart, thereby becoming an avid worshipper of it … There is no comparison between the harm of this dire matter and the harm of sexual misconduct (fahishah). For this sin is a major one for the one who commits it, but the evil of this ‘ishq is that of idolatry (shirk). A shaykh from the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) said: “That I be tested with sexual misconduct by this beautiful form is more preffered to me than to be tested with it through ‘ishq, by which my heart worships it and is diverted from Allah by it.”‘19

The cure, Shaykh Jaleel says, is that as soon as the heart is tempted by what it mustn’t gaze at, one reins in the gaze or diverts it from the haram or harmful. No effort can be spared to do so, lest the forbidden glance secretes its poison into the heart, causing it irreparable injury, anguish and torment.

In the second and final part of the blog, I hope to discuss the three remaining fitnahs of: callers to misguidance; the promotion of deviant understandings of Islam; and the attempt by governments to domesticate Muslim scholars and Islam.

1. Bowering (ed.), The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Islamic Political Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 100. Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalm, 2002), 623, said: asl al-fitan idkhal al-dhahab an-nar li tazhara jawdatuhu min rada’atihi. He goes on to demonstrate that the word may take on the meaning of punishment, trial, tribulation, discord and hardship. Also consult: Ibn al-Qayyim, Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:151-2.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2197. The hadith was graded hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.810.

3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2336, where he states: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih gharib.’

4. Al-Bukhari, no.2887.

5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:663.

6. Ibn Majah, no.3961; al-Tirmidhi, no.2204, who said that it is hasan. As for being the better of the two sons of Adam, this is a reference to Abel who was killed by his older brother Cain.

7. Al-Bukhari, no.48; Muslim, no.64.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.31; Muslim, no.2888.

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

10. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3959, Ahmad, Musnad, no.19509. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1682.

11. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in ‘an Rabb al-‘Alamin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2003), 4:338-9.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.5096; Muslim, nos.3740-41.

13. Muslim, no.2742.

14. Al-Bazzar, no.2061; at-Tirmidhi, no.1173, who said it is hasan gharib.

15. Cf. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 2:2193-4.

16. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.1313; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:22, who asserts: ‘It is sahih as per the conditions of the two shaykhs.’

17. Possibly paraphrasing the hadith: ‘Indeed, you will not leave anything for the sake of Allah, except that Allah will replace it with something better.’ Ahmad, no.22565, and its chain is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), 1:62; no.5

18. Ighathat al-Lahfan fi Masayid al-Shaytan (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2011), 75. The other two benefits discussed are: Secondly, the heart being illumined and given to see with spiritual clarity and insight; and thirdly, the heart is given strength, courage, firmness and honour.

19. Al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Saudi Arabia: Imam Dar al-Hijrah, 2014), 514-5.


Syria: Righteous Outrage, Rulers & Rethinking Revolutions

3628447774_c90403bddb_b_92865322_mosque_beforeandafterInitially, Aleppo never witnessed the large scale anti-government protests that kicked-off in other parts of Syria, in March 2011. A year later, though, and Aleppo too became a bloody battleground when rebel fighters tried to drive government forces from the city. The offensive was not decisive and Aleppo ended up divided: government forces controlling the west, rebel fighters the east. For four years now, the battle for Aleppo has become a microcosm of the wider carnage engulfing Syria. The greater tragedy in this ongoing civil war has been to the civilian population. Over 13 million people need humanitarian aid in Syria. Just under 5 million Syrians are now refugees, one million of whom have fled to Europe. And in the past few days the world has seen an exodus of more than 100,000 people from Aleppo.

In the month-long siege which has seen pro-government forces oust the rebel fighters from Aleppo, thousands have been caught in the crossfire and have died, many have been seriously injured, families and children have being viciously massacred, and the city lacks basic food, water, sanitation and medicines. And while we must not lose our capacity to feel outrage when civilians have been so callously massacred, the question remains: how can we turn this righteous outrage into useful action?

What follows is far from being a decisive action plan. It is simply a few thoughts of a beleaguered student of Islam’s sacred sciences who, like so many others, is desperately trying not to be numbed by the sheer scale of the horrors that are now unfolding.

Three matters need urgently doing: one immediate, the other more long term, while the third is more mid-term. All three are crucial, but some things have an immediacy over others.

Finally, some (or even, much) of what I’ll advocate can and does apply to the people of Yemen, Iraq, Mali, Kashmir, Tunisia, Palestine and anywhere else where wars rage and civilians become fodder in the crossfire.

Immediate Action: This has surely got to be humanitarian aid to victims and refugees. Money, medical supplies, doctors and other skilled personnel are the types of services and aid the people of Aleppo need right now. As well as contributing to relief agencies and humanitarian convoys, volunteer rescue workers operating in war zones, such as the White Helmets, should be supported too. Undeniably, what is even more pressing than this is to broker a temporary truce that all sides are compelled to honour, so that the remaining civilians in Syria have time to move into safe zones or be evacuated.

Given that a million Syrian refugees have crossed into Europe, this raises the issues of asylum and the socio-economic difficulties, unrest, xenophobia or Islamophobia that can come along in the wake. Resettlement of refugees and taking in orphans becomes our collective responsibility: Have you seen him who denies the Religion? Such is he who repels the orphan, and who does not urge the feeding of the poor. [107:1-3] Islam does not just ask us to feed the poor; it requires of us to “urge others” to do so too.

A recent report by Oxfam highlights that the UK has taken just 18 per cent of its ‘fair share’ of Syrian refugees. Canada, in contrast, tops the league table of wealthy nations by welcoming 248 per cent of its share. While the United States has taken in a meagre ten per cent. To achieve what Oxfam reckons to be its fair share, the UK should have offered sanctuary to around 25,000 people since the crisis began, rather than just the 4414 it has thus far resettled. We the citizens of such under performing states should lobby our politicians and parliamentarians to get them to commit to resettling more refugees, as well as insist that they speak out against the xenophobia, distortions and myths which surround these refugees and other people who are in need of shelter and protection.

Along with aiding relief efforts, sponsoring orphans, fundraising, creating awareness, combating media stereotypes and public xenophobia, and lobbying government to do more to resettle refugees, we musn’t forget the power of petitioning Allah in du‘a. For du‘a is a powerful weapon for the oppressed, needy and helpless: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors! And give us from Your presence a protecting friend; oh, give us from Your presence a defender!’ [4:75]

Mid-Term Action: The key task here must surely be to bring this grinding conflict to an end, so that some semblance of peace, safety and security is returned to whatever remains of Syria and its people. By ‘mid-term’ I do not mean that one works for it only after the humanitarian crises is concluded. Of course not! Peace must be brokered as soon as possible. But given the diverse mix of factions, forces and fears entailed, and the geo-political interests involved, calling for peace is easier said than done. So while the politics of it all is playing out, the humanitarian relief work must push on with as much urgency as the world can muster. That’s what I mean by brokering a peace deal being a ‘mid-term’ action.

A simplified sketch of the key actors in the Syrian conflict should serve as a reminder about the obstacles standing in the way of any peace accord. At the eye of the storm there is President Bashar al-Assad who, in March 2011, used brutal force to crush pro-democracy demonstrations concerned about the country’s high unemployment; state repression; and wide scale corruption. This triggered nationwide protests demanding that the president resign. As the unrest spread, the state crack down intensified. Very soon, opposition supporters were taking up arms to defend themselves and then later to fight government forces in their areas. The president vowed to crush the uprising and restore state control. The opposition formed into a myriad of rebel brigades and resolved to fight government forces; oust the president from power; and seize control of the country.

The president’s Shi‘ah Alawite sect and regime has the financial, political and military backing of Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah. The rebel factions, having no central authority and no single political ideology, represent a cross-section of Syria’s diversely religious society; although driven largely by an overall Sunni majority. Added to this already volatile cocktail are factions of foreign fighters and rebel groups who are al-Qaeda sympathisers. ISIS, who control large tracts of Syria, are also fighting: fighting both government forces and rebels. Saudi, Turkey and Qatar have been assisting some of the rebel factions, including both ‘moderates’ and ‘hardliners’, with military aid and financial support. The United States, too, has offered limited military assistance, but has thus far not given weapons to any of the rebel factions in Syria from fear of them falling into extremist hands. All in all, then, there is a Syrian civil war; a Sunni-Shi‘ah proxy-war being fought by Saudi and Iran; and a geo-strategic war being fought for regional hegemony. To top it all, various international peace initiatives have thus far failed, and the monster that is President al-Assad seems to be slowly garnering greater sympathy for apparently being the only capable actor that can stand in the way of an ‘Islamist’ or ISIS take over of Syria. Those, at least, are the cards being openly shown on the table: the cards beneath are anyone’s guess!

Of course, certain politician, on whatever side of the divide, will be busy sharpening their knives ready to carve out a slice of whatever they can for their own greedy souls. Other politicians, with a genuine concern for human welfare and world stability, will continue doing their utmost to bring about a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has already claimed the lives of millions. As for our scholars, given the hurdles, all we may hope for from those few that have any serious public or government clout is that they wisely, gently [though not sheepishly] and courageously speak truth to power, speak up for the voiceless, and help restore a sense of stability into the narrative. What we don’t want is for them to be domesticated by the powers that be, serving as little more than their voice pieces.

Longer Term Action: This action demands a deep and honest collective introspection in terms of our hitherto strategies for soci0-political reform. It requires of us to put aside strategies that are born of rage or revenge, knee-jerk reactions, pursuit of short-term goals, and not giving enough consideration to the consequences of our political action. If we’re to have any hope of climbing out of the political quagmire the Muslim world has wallowed in for the best part of a century, our politics needs to be infused with a deeper commitment to piety (taqwa), be guided by sound religious instruction and, in the light of such instruction and realpolitik, wisely weigh-up the benefits and harms (al-mawazanah bayn al-masalih wa’l-mafasid) of any and all subsequent political activism.

The violence and mayhem, or the chaos and carnage, that much of the Muslim world is now beholden to must surely give us all pause for serious political rethinking. If we are being unbiased and just, the tides of change for a brighter future the Arab Spring was supposed to usher in not only failed to materialise, in most cases it left in its wake a far greater scale of dissension, discontent, tyranny, and political abuses; arrests; and repression, than it sought to reform or replace. For in its wake came civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of ISIS, repressive rule in Egypt, collapse of stable government in Libya, and waves upon waves of migrants risking all to flee such horrors. Tunisia, not without its huge share of problems, is the only Arab Spring country to have achieved most political change at the lowest human cost.

In terms of weighing the benefits and harms in our political activism, the Arab Spring furnishes us with a few invaluable lessons:

Firstly, wherever civil resistance is used against a regime, there must be a credible plan for governing the country. Without such a plan, civil resistance is part of the problem, not the solution. Many of the spontaneous leaderless uprisings of 2011 were unsuited to take on the complex roles of governance.

Secondly, there’s a strong case for mass movements to make more modest demands of the government, rather than call for the fall of the regime or demand sweeping social changes all at once.

Thirdly, getting rid of murderous tyrants and corrupt rulers isn’t enough. Building the many essential institutions of governance, and restoring confidence in a flawed state, are much harder tasks.

Fourthly, civil resistance does indeed have political power, but sometimes too much. It is often reckless, and can undermine the pillars upon which orderly governance rests. And if it does bring the pillars of governance down, its needs to recognise the serious consequences of creating political power vacuums.

Fifthly, which brings me to my final point: just how in keeping with Islam is the call to rebel against an oppressive ruler? Unbeknown to so many Muslim activist in our time, our Prophet ﷺ had quite a lot to say about this very question. And it is because there is so much to learn, and so much more to be done, and so much doubt and confusion to overcome that I’ll end this piece with what revealed wisdom has to say on this vital matter:

1 – In context of a Muslim ruler, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It is upon a Muslim to hear and obey in what he likes or detests, so long as he is not ordered to sin. If he is ordered to sin, then there is no hearing or obeying [in that matter].’1

2 – In the case of a subject or a citizen seeing something objectionable from the ruler that cannot be remedied via any lawfully established political protocol through which one airs objections or dissent, then the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Whoever sees something from his leader which he dislikes, let him be patience. For whoever separates from the ruler by even a handspan, and dies, dies a death of [pre-Islamic] ignorance.’2

3 – This is the case, even if the ruler is a brutal despot or an autocrat. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘There shall come rulers after me who will not guide by my guidance, nor will they follow my Sunnah. Among them will be men whose hearts are the hearts of devils in the bodies of men.’ He was asked: O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I reach that time? He replied: ‘Hear and obey the leader. Even if he flogs your back and seizes your wealth, still hear and obey.’3 In another hadith, it relates: ‘Hear and obey, in what you find easy or difficult, whether you are in high spirits or find it troublesome, even if others are preferred over you; and even if your wealth is devoured and your back is beaten – except if it entails sin.’4

4 – One’s duty is to exercise patience, but not to acquiesce to the evil: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you’ll approve of and object to. Whoever recognises [abhors their evil] is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’5 In other words, as al-Nawawi explained, ‘whoever is unable to remove the evil isn’t considered sinful merely by keeping silent. Rather, the sin is in approving of it, or in not [even] denouncing it in one’s heart.’6

5 – As for rising up in rebellion against a tyrannical Muslim ruler so as to remove him by force, we have this from our Prophet ﷺ: ‘The best of your rulers are those whom you love and they love you, and whom you pray for and who pray for you. The worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and who hate you, and whom you curse and they curse you.’ It was said: Shall we not raise the sword against them, O Messenger of Allah? He said: ‘No, not as long as they establish the prayer among you. If anyone sees from their leader something objectionable, let them hate his action and not withdraw the hand from obedience.’7 And in the above hadith about not consenting to a ruler’s evil, the Prophet ﷺ was asked at the end of it: Shall we not fight them? To which he replied: ‘No, not as long as they pray.’8 The rational for not attempting to topple such ruthless dictators is given by Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, when he wrote:

‘As for maintaining obedience to them [those in authority], even if they are tyrannical, then that is because the harms that would result from rebelling against them would be many times worse than that which results from their tyranny. Instead, by patiently bearing their injustices lies an expiation for our sins and an increase in rewards [from Allah]. For Allah only inflicted them upon us on account of our corrupt actions – and rewards are proportional to their deeds. Thus it is upon us to diligently strive to seek forgiveness, repent, and rectify our deeds. Allah, exalted is He, said: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And the Exalted said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] And the Exalted said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] Also: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] So if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from unjust acts.’9

6 – In fact, there’s even a specific piece of prophetic guidance on how to advise those in authority: ‘Whoever intends to advise the ruler, let him not do so publicly. Rather, let him take him by the hand [and do so] privately. If he accepts, well and good; if not, then he has discharged his duty to him.’10

7 – Rising-up against an iron-fisted, pitiless Muslim ruler, to forcefully remove him, is only lawful if he openly and unambiguously demonstrates disbelief (kufr). A number of jurists have reported a consensus (ijma‘) about it. To this, the sahabi, ‘Ubadah b. al-Samit said: ‘The Prophet ﷺ called on us to pledge allegiance to him. Among what we pledged was to hear and obey in what we like and dislike, in ease and hardship, to give the rights due on us, and that we not remove the affair from its people unless we see clear-cut disbelief for which there is a proof from Allah.’11

Rebellion or armed revolt, then, is only lawful under strict conditions. That it doesn’t lead to greater evil or instability is the first. That the ruler or regime be replaced with a better one is the second. The question of the Muslim ruler’s apostasy or not is the third. Although a few theologians allowed rebellion against a ruler whose tyranny had become entrenched and widespread (provided the first two conditions could be met), most did not allow it unless there appeared from such a ruler unambiguous, clear-cut disbelief (kufr bawah). Imam al-Nawawi and the best part of Sunni orthodox record a consensus on this latter point. He states:

‘As for rebellion (khuruj) against them, and fighting them, it is forbidden by consensus of the Muslims; even if they are sinful or oppressive … Ahl al-Sunnah are unanimously agreed that the ruler is not to be removed due to sin. As for the view mentioned in the books of fiqh from some of our colleagues, that he should be removed – which is also the stance of the Mu‘tazilah – then this is an error from those who espoused it and is in opposition to the consensus. Scholars have said that the reason why he is not to be removed, and why rebellion against him is forbidden, is because of what it entails of sedition, bloodshed, and causing corruption between people. For the harm in seeking to remove the ruler is far worse than permitting him to remain.’12

Of course, it can and has been argued that all these hadiths are only applicable in the context of the state affirming Islam as the basis of its law, legislation or constitution. This stance also argues that most, if not all, present-day Muslim states are illegitimate from the above said angle. Now is not the place to discuss the rights or wrongs of this outlook, save to ask: If, for argument’s sake we accept this, does it imply that all state institutions, administrations, statutes, treatises, enactments and laws are illegitimate too? If the regime has no Islamic validity, are the judgement of its court, or its traffic laws, its granting of visas or asylum, its law-enforcing agencies, its monetary policies, its edicts concerning the protection of private wealth or property, etc., null and void too? If the response is yes, then that is agreeing to total anarchy and lawlessness – and both Islam and sound reason utterly abhor such a state of affairs. If one responds by saying that the state’s laws remain valid, but there’s a duty to replace the regime with an Islamic one, then the above hadiths retain their relevance in terms of the actual conditions required for rebelling against the existing political order and not creating a situation of greater evil, social unrest, civil war, anarchy, bloodbath, or power vacuum. Either there is a realistic confidence that the rebellion will, in all likelihood, succeed. If not, it is haram; and patience, working to deepen public piety, and refraining from political agitation become the duty and order of the day.

The Sunni position which stresses the duty of obeying the ruler, and which prioritises stability over other social considerations, grew out of the above hadiths and was also significantly informed by well-known turbulent, historical realities. Muslims, even as late as the twentieth century, could justify their readiness to tolerate a ruthless ruler so long as the government had a short arm and interfered very little in the lives of the people. But the modern nation-state, with its modern political theorising, techniques and technologies, has extended the role of government into every street, every school and every household. As such, some argue that pre-modern Muslim political theories cannot give us a satisfactory insight into the socio-political culture that Muslims live under today.13 This line of reasoning makes the case that given the hegemonic nature of the modern nation-state – how it controls the economic life chances of its citizens; defines the parameters of political participation; controls the nature and framework of education; can intrude almost at will into the private lives of its citizens; and if it chooses, can tyrannise its citizens with impunity, for it alone has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in society – how realistic is it to patiently plod along with day-to-day life when the state does decide to inflict widespread violence or tyranny on its citizens? So if what motivates Muslims to challenge the legitimacy or efficacy of the state are matters related to economic security, political participation, or basic human dignities, then the scholars must carefully consider such matters before assessing the validity or not of the uprising, act of civil disobedience, or rebellion.

There is little doubt that the modern nation-state (with its concepts of Westphalian sovereignty, legitimacy, allegiance, citizenship, political participation, social contract and monopolisation of legitimate violence over a given territory) exerts a control over the lives of its citizens in ways that were unimaginable in pre-modern times. Hence, any Muslim political theorising that hasn’t grasped the concrete differences between modern and pre-modern governance, or fails to clarify if such theorising is working within the framework of a modern state with its citizens, or a traditional sovereignty with its subjects, is going to be highly deficient, defective and damaging to Islam and Muslims. What we require from our scholars is serious analysis and advice about such issues, so our politics can be rooted in revealed teachings and resonate with the actual times. And yet with that said, there’s still a strong case to be made about the relevance of the “rebellion” hadiths for our times. For it is precisely because the modern state is so overbearing; and that it is highly weaponised; and that its surveillance and its state security is so very intrusive, that the rebellion/revolution option is so very unwise and unhelpful. That divine help is tied to piety and patience can never be underestimated, nor undermined.

Al-Hasan al-Basri once lamented: ‘If only the people had patience when being tried by their leader, it would not be long before Allah gives them a way out. But they rush for their swords, so they are left to their swords. By Allah! Not for even a single day did they bring about any good.’14

More than a few days have passed since I first started writing this blog piece. But as I put the finishing touches to it, a social media alert on my phone has just informed me that a nationwide ceasefire has been brokered in Syria. Here’s praying.

Revolutions are messy and bloody. And although you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, Islam insists that there can be other things on the menu besides eggs. Revolutions are not events, they are processes – often, long, drawn-out ones – whose intended aim and objective is seldom guaranteed. In fact, given our globalised world, wealthy and powerful outside interests, as well as regional geo-politics, are far more likely to shape final outcomes than are the well-conceived intentions of the masses. Mainstream Sunni Islam has long been suspicious about revolutions; and with plenty of reason to be so. Whatever else the Arab spring of 2011 has taught us; in general, and the Syrian uprising; in particular, one thing is clear: Revolutions often travel fast, but they seldom travel well.

O Allah! Heal the blessed land that now lies all shattered.
O Allah, defend and protect its people and
by Thy wrath let enemies
be scattered.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.7144; Muslim, no.1839.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.7053; Muslim, no.1849.

3. Muslim, no.1837.

4. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.4562. The isnad is hasan, as per Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, al-Ihsan fi Taqrib Sahih Ibn Hibban (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1991), 10:426.

5. Muslim, no.1854.

6. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1995), 12:204.

7. Muslim, no.1855.

8. Muslim, no.1854.

9. Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 381.

10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.14909. The hadith is sahih due to its collective chains. See: al-Albani, Takhrij Kitab al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Islami, 1980), nos.1096-98.

11. Al-Bukhari, no.7056.

12. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 12:189.

13. This train of thought is teased out in Imam Zaid Shakir, The Islamic Legitimacy of the Uprisings in Muslim Countries.

14. Cited in Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khanji, 2001), 9:165; entry no.3883.

Quranic Meditations: On Justice, Equality & Feminism

Justice.001In this tafakkur or ‘meditation’ upon the Qur’an, we explore the Islamic teachings on justice – what it means, its place in our religion, how it permeates the entire shari‘ah, and the dire consequences to nations and societies when justice is ignored or thrown to the wind. In fact, as we’ll see, the current state of the Muslim world owes much to a lack of justice. For as far as worldly affairs go, Allah’s help is with societies wherein justice prevails, even if it is a non-Muslim one, more than it is with societies wherein justice is lax, even if they be Muslim ones. The meditation will also contrast notions of justice with that of equality, and touch upon the view of ‘Islamic Feminism’. Below, then, is the verse around which the meditations will revolve:


O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. [5:8]

Meditations upon the above verse about justice (adl), fairness (insaf) and equity (qist) include:

1 – This verse comes a few verses after Allah commanded the Muslims: Let not hatred of a people that barred you from the Sacred Mosque cause you to commit aggression. [5:2] Here, believers are told to restrain themselves and not to retaliate, even against those who had barred them from visiting the Ka‘bah in Makkah; especially during the year known as the Year of al-Hudaybiyyah. This, undeniably, is a high standard of restraint and tolerance that Revelation elevated them to. But the verse we are meditating upon demands an even higher standard. For the first verse [5:2] required reigning in feelings of revenge and retaliation; the second [5:8] requires maintaining justice towards one and all, even when there is enmity or animosity. The first verse demands passive self-restraint; the second, a proactive establishment of justice towards even those who are hostile and belligerent to believers. Such is Islam’s bidding to justice.

2 – The Quranic insistence on justice can be found in many verses, like the following: Allah commands you to render back things held in trust to their rightful owners, and if you judge between people, that you judge justly. [4:58] In the next verse we are warned not to swerve from the demands of justice, whether for family, financial, social or personal gain or desire: O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to Allah, even though it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and weather it be against rich or poor. [4:135] And: Then, if it returns, make peace between them fairly, and act justly. Surely Allah loves those who act justly. [49:9] Such is its virtue, that those who stand up for justice or act justly are admitted into al-maqam al-mahbubiyyah – “the Station of Being Beloved to Allah” and, in the Hereafter, ‘will be with Allah, seated on thrones of light at the right hand of the All-Merciful.’1

3 – Before moving on, let us pause for a minute in order to consider what we mean by the word ‘justice’. The Arabic term for justice, ‘adl, pretty much conveys the sense of what it does in English. ‘Adl can mean: justice, fairness, rectitude, equivalence, equity, or balance.2 Another way of understanding justice is to contrast it with its opposite: injustice. Arabs say: bi didiha tatabayyan al-ashya’ – ‘By their opposite are things best clarified.’ The Arabic word for injustice is: zulm, which Arab lexicalists define as: wad‘ al-shay’ fi ghayri mawdi‘ihi – ‘Putting something in other than its proper place.’3 Thus justice is to put a thing in its proper place. Which is to say, justice is to give each thing its due – at its due time, its due place, and in its due measure. Preliminaries over, let’s ponder the verse in a bit more detail:

4 – Addressing people of faith (iman), the verse states: O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. Which is almost identical to another verse: O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to Allah. [4:135] The only difference between the two is a slight shift in word order. In 4:135, the word qist (justice, equity) is placed towards the beginning of the verse; in 5:8, it is placed towards the end. The subtle distinction was explained by some scholars as follows: There are two causes why someone will swerve from the dictates of justice and equity and fall into injustice and oppression. The first is a bias towards one’s self, one’s family, or one’s friends. The other is enmity towards someone. Verse 4:135 addresses the former; 5:8 tackles the latter. Thus, after the order to be just, 4:135 specifies: even though it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and weather it be against rich or poor. While 5:8 insists: And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just. The gist of 4:135 is that one never sides with one’s self, family, relatives of friends if it means being unjust. In other words, if they oppose justice, side with justice and oppose them. The gist of 5:8 is that one must never allow animosity or ill will against people to be a cause for behaving unjustly or violating their rights. In 4:135, Be upright for justice comes first so no one is led to think that by siding with self-interests, family or relatives, over justice, one is maintaining family ties and hence is being obedient to Allah: they certainly are not! In contrast, 5:8 begins with Be upright for Allah so that feelings of revenge and retaliation are guided and regulated by Allah’s command, so that no injustice is perpetrated; not even against an enemy.4

5 – Some of the ramifications of the above Quranic call for justice may be seen in the following hadiths: Al-Numan b. Bashir reported how he once gave a gift to just one of his children, but the wife said she would not accept this unless the Prophet ﷺ was a witness to it. So he went to the Prophet ﷺ to request him to witness it. The Prophet ﷺ asked him: ‘Have you given gifts to all your children?’ He replied that he hadn’t. So the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Fear Allah, and be just between your children.’ He ﷺ then said: ‘I do not bear witness to injustice.’5 So parents displaying outward favouritism to one child over another is considered an injustice (zulm) and is thus detested in Islam, due to the psychological harms, resentment or ill feelings it often breeds. The Prophet ﷺ said that Allah ﷻ said: ‘O My servants, I have forbidden injustice for Myself and have made if forbidden amongst you, so do no injustice to one another.’6 Also the hadith: ‘Beware the supplication of the oppressed one, even if he is an unbeliever; for there is no veil between it and Allah.’7

6 – Justice, as the saying goes, must be blind. There can’t be any favouritism, tribalism or partisanship, except to the truth. Justice, as we have seen, must be sided with; be it to friend or foe. And just as the Qur’an forbids injustice towards hostile non-Muslims, then more so the case with Muslim brethren who may be open sinners or innovators. Ibn Taymiyyah has written: ‘The leading scholars of [ahl] al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah, and the people of knowledge and faith, have in them knowledge, justice and compassion. They know the truth that accords with the prophetic guidance and that is free of any innovation. They act justly toward those who depart from it [orthodoxy], even if they have been wronged; just as Allah, exalted is He, says: O you who believe! Be upright for Allah, witnesses to equity. And let not hatred of a people cause you to be unjust; be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. They show mercy to others; desiring for them goodness, guidance and knowledge. They do not intend harm for them at the outset. But if they do have to bring them to book, it is only to clarify their error, ignorance or wrong doing. Their intent in this is to clarify truth, show mercy to others, enjoin good and forbid evil, so that religion is purely for Allah and the Divine Word is made supreme.’8 So our da‘wah must be corrective – in other words, our teaching and outreach must entail clarifying and defending revealed truths from doubts, distortions, fabrications and baseless interpretations. This must only be undertaken with righteous intentions; seasoned knowledge; justice, balance and proportionality; courage, compassion and mercy; and seeking the good of people. Anything else will entail ignorance, injustice and the following of false desires.

7 – Expounding on the essence and inherent nature of Islam’s Sacred law or shari‘ah, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim reveals that justice is its essential feature. He explains: ‘Indeed, [Allah] transcendent is He, has clarified in the paths He has legislated that its purpose is: to establish justice between His servants and equity between people. So any path by which justice and equity are drawn out is part of the religion, and can never be in opposition to it.’9 Elsewhere he writes: ‘The shari‘ah is based and built upon wisdom and [achieving] public welfare, in both this life and the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue that departs from justice to injustice, mercy to its opposite, public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly cannot be part of the shari‘ah, even if it is claimed to be so due to some interpretation.’10

8 – In speaking of justice, many well-intended Muslims are unconsciously secualrised. Their discourse is often scarred by failing to grasp its Quranic essence – to put a thing in its rightful place; to give things their due. This requires knowledge about the value and measure of things, as Islam assigns to them, so as to give them their due. ‘Hence,’ Ibn al-Qayyim says, ‘knowledge and justice are the root of every good, while injustice and ignorance are the root of every evil.’11 But talking more from a marketable take on Islam than a textually-versed or well-studied one, they mistakenly equate justice (‘adl) with equality (musawa). This, though, isn’t quite Islam’s story. For sure, there are areas of overlap between the two. But the Qur’an is couched in the language of justice, not equality. To describe Islam as ‘egalitarian’, or to claim it advocates ‘equality’, is not just highly reductionist, the concepts are also not very meaningful. For while some verses of the Qur’an have an egalitarian temper to them,12 others verses insist on difference, distinction and divine disparity. In speaking of the disbelievers who have transgressed against their own souls due to their disbelief, the Qur’an asks this rhetorical question: Is he who is a believer like he who transgresses? They are not equal. [32:18] And: Not equal are the people of the Fire and the people of the Garden. It is the people of the Garden that are the winners. [59:20] Emphasising quality rather than quantity and that excess does not equal worth, the Qur’an states: Say: ‘Evil things and good things are not equal, even though the abundance of the evil may please you.’ [5:100] And: Say: ‘Are they equal, those who know and those who do not?’ [39:9] Then there are verses to do with gender roles, functions and natures: And the male is not like the female, is what the Qur’an says [3:36] And: Men are protectors of women because of what Allah has given the one more than the other, and because of what they expend of their wealth. So virtuous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [their husband’s] absence what Allah has guarded. [4:34] And lastly, because men are legally obligated in Islam to spend of their wealth to maintain family and household, while women have no such financial burden, there is this verse: Allah thus commands you concerning [the division of inheritance for] your children: to the male, a portion equal to that of two females. [4:11] All this is just to say that the Qur’an speaks of justice and equity, not the nebulous social construct of equality.

9 – Of all the modern voices calling for equality, few are as muscular or more strident than feminism. Despite a mixed bag of views and approaches within today’s feminist movement, it does coalesce around certain core tenets and assumptions. All forms of feminism agree women have to be liberated from the tyranny of organised patriarchy that still shapes the world today, causing men and women to often live very different realities. They see patriarchy as being wholly unjust and indefensible, being nothing more than a social construct rather than an inescapable fact of nature. Feminists of all persuasions are, therefore, committed to dismantling patriarchy so as to construct an equal gender society. Beyond these shared beliefs, there are disparate feminist voices about how patriarchy has arisen and how it must be tackled and torn down. Secular feminists reject God, Revelation, and Religion in the narrative of feminism. They view religion and religious scripture as root sources of chauvinist ideas; baleful relics of an oppressive past that have no relevance to the debate about gender equality in modern society. Those who, in more recent times, come under the rubric of Islamic feminists are people who believe in the truth claims of Islam; believing that the Qur’an, when it is rightly understood, supports feminist claims about gender equality and abolishing patriarchy. They are convinced that the ‘ulema, starting from the time of the Prophet’s Companions (sahabah), throughout all the ages of Islam, have strayed from a correct understanding of God’s will for women, as espoused in the Qur’an. The strategy these feminists use to prop up their claims is the reinterpretation of the Qur’an, in order to bring it in line with their privileged, and arguably hubristic, insights regarding gender functions and equality.

10 – That violence, abuse and bigotry against women happen in every society globally, including Muslim ones, is tragic as it is shameful and abysmal. Feminists of all stripes have been at the helm of bringing gender inequities (both real and perceived) to the fore, and key in oiling the wheels of social change too. Islamic feminists, for their part, have set out to retrieve what they feel to be the original egalitarian message of Islam, one unencumbered by patriarchy and hierarchy. Their courageous efforts must surely be welcomed when they focus their energies on asserting the inarguable rights given to women within the established rulings of Islam, but that may have become obscure due to people’s ignorance, men’s egos, or cultural norms. Again, they must be thanked when they stress that marriage (nikah) in Islam is a contract between two consenting parties, neither can be forced, with both sides entitled to stipulate certain conditions (whether about polygamy; custody of children in the event of divorce; moving away from the parents’ city or country; or whatever other lawful condition that can secure their welfare) which, after mutual agreement, become binding on the two sides.13 The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The conditions most deserving to be fulfilled are those by which the private parts become lawful to you.’14 Indeed, only the weak or the wretched will fail to appreciate respectful reminders about men having a Quranic commitment to treat their wives warmly and amiably: And give women their dowries graciously [4:4]; And live with them in kindness [4:19]; Lodge them in your own homes, according to your means. Do not harass them so as to make life intolerable for them [65:6]; and also: Either retain them in kindness or release them in kindness [2:231]. In fact, after their response to Allah and His Prophet ﷺ, our Prophet made how men treat their wives to be the true measure of manliness, status and excellence. He ﷺ said: khayrukum khayrukum li ahlihi – ‘The best of you are those who treat their wives the best.’15 And of course, we must accept the shari‘ah reality, whether pointed out by Islamic feminists or other than them, that a woman is not duty bound at all to remain in a violent or abusive marriage – despite entrenched cultural pressures that may insist otherwise. If their motives are truly for seeking Allah’s pleasure and acceptance, the work of Islamic feminists to help women acquire their existing rights in Islam must be seen as nothing short of deeds of valour, service and jihad in the path of Allah.

11 – Giving a robust nod to the above, some questions still need asking. How Islamic, for instance, is Islamic feminism? And how valid are feminist reinterpretations of the Qur’an? And does the Qur’an really endorse feminism’s dual core beliefs: doing away with patriarchy and dethroning hierarchy to create an egalitarian social order, so that women may be put on equal footing with men – socially, politically and economically? Here I wish only to draw attention to a few incongruities between loyalty to feminist principles and certain passages of the holy Qur’an.16 For example, how can one claim every form of patriarchy to be wrong, given that the Qur’an is pretty specific when it says in the context of marriage and family life that: Men are protectors of women [4:34] and that: Men have a degree over them [2:228]? Of course, such verses aren’t saying that every man is intellectually, morally and spiritually superior to every woman. But they are sanctioning patriarchy, at least in the marital and family context. Our Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, each of you is a shepherd, and each of you is responsible for their flock. The ruler is a shepherd over the people, and is responsible for his subjects. A man is a shepherd over his family, and is responsible for them. A woman is a shepherd over the husband’s home and children, and is responsible for them.’17 Surely this hadith is not just speaking about patriarchy, but to a sense of hierarchy too? Hierarchy makes more than a guest appearance in the Qur’anic command: O you who believe! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger, and those charged with authority among you. [4:59] We see hierarchy again in the verse which tells us who does and does not have the right to speak about matters of wider public welfare: If any matter comes to them concerning security or fear, they spread it around. But if they had only referred it to the Messenger or to those charged with authority, those amongst them who are able to investigate and reason out the matter would then know [what to do with] it. [4:83] At some point – be it the hierarchy present in a head of state’s authority over the subjects or citizens; or a wife’s obedience to her husband and her yielding to some level of patriarchy; or the non-egalitarian, unequal right of parents to receive kind and dutiful treatment from their children – feminists will encounter an epistemic impasse. Do they honour the clear-cut injunctions of the Qur’an, or do they remain glued to the key feminist principles and say ‘No’ to the holy Text? Do they acquiesce to some degree of Quranic patriarchy and hierarchy, or put the feminist quest to abolish these two ‘evils’ ahead of Revelation? Professor Jonathan A.C. Brown deftly notes: ‘The move to assuming that scripture contains the truth but need only be understood properly to saying ‘no’ to scripture because it says something unacceptable or impossible is a blow that shatters the vessel of scriptural reverence. It means that some extra-scriptural source of truth has been openly acknowledged as more powerful and compelling than the words of God in scripture.’18 So how ‘Islamic’ is Islamic feminism? Any creed, philosophy, ideology, value-system or ism – including Islamic feminism – that is given final authority to decide what is or isn’t good or bad, relegating Islam’s Revelation to a secondary place, forfeits any claim to be considered ‘Islamic’. For loyalty to feminism’s core doctrines and loyalty to Islam’s revealed truths are at odds with each other. Loyalty to one will undeniably necessitate disloyalty and disbelief in the other. This much is clear.

12 – ‘Certainly a scriptural tradition still has its uses even for those who have moved on to believe that truth comes from secular sources. It can be drawn on and quoted to move an audience or bolster ideas rooted elsewhere. But sooner or later, it will clash with secular truths and become a burden. In such cases scriptural tradition can be reread and picked from selectively to reconcile it with the recognized sources of truth. But it must be substantially reconfigured, as the Qur’an Only movement has done with Islam’s scriptures, or else at some point one must say ‘no’ to the text.’19 Islamic feminism (and we must now utilise the adjective ‘Islamic’ with great reservation), like other variants in feminism, is coloured more by secular philosophies and more awash with modern epistemologies than it is one rooted in Islam’s Revelation. The idea that one can simply reread the Qur’an, twisting the texts so as to sync them with certain secular dogmas of our age, is closer to the Nietzschean claim that there are no truths [facts]; just interpretations, than it is the Quranic starting point: It is He Who has sent down to you the Qur’an. Some of its verses are clear-cut; they are the Mother of the Book; whilst others are open to interpretation. [3:7]. Again, feminist talk about the dynamics of domination related to gender is more in line with Foucault’s notion of a power nexus that constructs and sustains social control over women’s bodies and minds, than it is the Quranic view that expects both sexes to rise above their petty egos; submit to the divine demands sincerely and wholeheartedly; honouring and celebrating the virtues, rights, relative merits and intrinsic inclinations of one another. Having explained the pro-feminist claims and arguments, Scruton wrapped-up his entry on ‘feminism’ with this note: ‘Anti-feminist arguments usually rely on the thought that it is no accident that the relations between men and women are as they are, and that there’s a ‘natural’ order in which both sexes are fulfilled by mutual dependence. They may add that the appearance of male dominance is only an appearance, and perhaps it is part of the bourgeois nature of feminism so easily to mistake appearance for essence.’20 Now this is a secular blasphemy worth giving some thought to!

13 – The Qur’an says: So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man. [30:30] Islam’s insistence on the fitrah; this innate, primordial nature that defines and sculpts our authentic belongingness to the natural order, lies at the root of much of Islam’s gender ethics. Talk of gender equality is too simplistic a take on things. Islam’s language isn’t about equality; it’s about complementarity. Men and women are neither equal nor unequal: rather they complement each other. So on the one hand we have the Qur’an celebrating gender differences: And the male is not like the female [3:36], while on the other, the Prophet ﷺ spoke of ethical similarities: ‘Indeed, women are the twin halves of men.’21 Alien calls for equality, therefore, are less helpful than indigenous calls for justice, respect and opportunity. Equality, where it does actually count in terms of justice, is equality in becoming recipients of Allah’s salvation, forgiveness, mercy and grace. This, above all else, is what ultimately counts and what Islam ultimately offers both men and women – equality of opportunity and agency in terms of salvation: And their Lord answered [their prayers, saying that]: ‘Never will I suffer to be lost the work of any of you, whether male or female, the one of you is as the other.’ [3:195]

14 – Cruel and unjust treatment of women continues to be a problem the world over, including Muslim societies and communities. Despite the Qur’an insisting otherwise, mens’ egos can all too often turn a deaf ear to the divine commands in this regard. If we Muslim men wish to fare well in the Divine Court, we’d do well to scrub ourselves clean from the stench of male chauvinism and learn the virtue of chivalry (futuwwah). If we Muslims wish to draw down Allah’s favours on our societies or states and climb out of this pitiful state that is currently ‘the Muslim world’, we must put working for social justice at the heart of our concerns: Be just, that is closer to piety. And be mindful of Allah; surely Allah is aware of what you do. But it’s not just about fairer treatment of women. It’s about justice and fairness for the other voiceless and vulnerable members of society too. In fact, scholars like Imam Ibn Taymiyyah hold that it is the absence of justice that is the main reason for Allah’s help and support to be withdrawn from any Muslim polity, thereby causing it to descend into tyranny, weakness, or rack and ruin. Ibn Taymiyyah puts it thus: ‘The affairs of people in this world are kept in order with justice and a certain measure of sin, more than with infringing peoples’ rights even when no other sin is involved. This is why it has been said that Allah upholds the just state even if it is disbelieving, but does not uphold the unjust one even if it is Muslim. It is also said that the world can endure with justice and disbelief, but cannot endure with injustice and Islam.’22

15 – Our final meditation follows on from the above. Ibn Taymiyyah presses on with the theme of justice and social stability when he writes: ‘The reason for all this is that justice is the universal order of things. So when worldly administration is established upon justice, it works; even if the person in charge has no share in the Hereafter. But if it is not based on justice, it doesn’t work; even if the one in charge is a believer who will be rewarded in the Hereafter.’23 Of course, corruption and injustices perpetrated by a government or ruling elite will certainly have its negative impact upon the social order. But it’s when injustice becomes endemic; when not only the regime, but public servants or the general public play fast and loose with the shari‘ah and with matters of justice, that things really fall apart. When corruption becomes normalised in society; when bribery becomes firmly rooted among public servants; when parents internalise oppressive control mechanisms in the way they raise their children; when patriarchy of husbands crosses a line from being benign and compassionate to being unjust and tyrannical; and when boys are taught to objectify women or to be chauvinistic rather than to respect them and learn to be the gentleman that the Sunnah demands, then it matters little how corrupt or not the actual government is. For by then, the victims of corruption learn to live with it, the perpetrators continue out of habit or because they can, and everyone rationalises their guilt away by blaming the system, saying: “Well everyone does it!” If we add to this list of injustices the crimes of neglecting salat or zakat; lying, cheating and slandering; and sexual misconduct and immoral behaviour, then to blame only the regime for the country’s failings and miseries is nothing short of delusional and a grand lie! Consider wisely and dispassionately the following words of Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz when speaking about tyrannical rulers that are Muslim:

‘As for maintaining obedience to them [those in authority], even if they are tyrannical, then that is because the harms that would result from rebelling against them would be many times worse than that which results from their tyranny. Instead, by patiently bearing their injustices lies an expiation for our sins and an increase in rewards [from Allah]. For Allah only inflicted them upon us on account of our corrupt actions – and rewards are proportional to their deeds. Thus it is upon us to diligently strive to seek forgiveness, repent, and rectify our deeds. Allah, exalted is He, said: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And the Exalted said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] And the Exalted said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] Also: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] So if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from injustice and doing wrong.’24

1. Muslim, no.4493.

2. Cf. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 2:1972-75.

3. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 537; under the entry, z-l-m.

4. See: Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Karachi: Idarat al-Ma‘arif, 2008), 3:68-9, including as part of his commentary the treatment of Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, Tafsir al-Bahr al-Muhit (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1993), 3:454-55.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.2587; Muslim, no.1623.

6. Muslim, no.2577.

7. Ahmad, Musnad, no.12510. It was judged to be hasan by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.767.

8. Al-Istighathah fi’l-Radd ‘ala’l-Bakri (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 2005), 251.

9. Al-Turuq al-Hukmiyyah (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2007), 31.

10. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:337.

11. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 4:556.

12. See: Qur’an 4:1 on the origin of humankind from a single soul; 3:195, 16:97, 33:35 on the spiritual and moral equality of both sexes; 4:32 on men not having a right to take the money women earn; and 17:70 on each human being’s intrinsic dignity, regardless of creed or colour.

13. Cf. Ibn Qudamah, al-Mughni (Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1997), 9:483-89.

14. Al-Bukhari, no.2721; Muslim, no.1418.

15. At-Tirmidhi, no.3895, where he stated: ‘This hadith is hasan.

16. Shaykh Abdullah bin Hamid Ali has briefly toured Islamic feminism’s methods of reinterpretation in his article: Feminism & Recalibrating Faith According to an Islamic Epistemic. I’ve drawn a few pointers from his article in the discussion which follows. A more loquacious and metaphysical exploration of the subject is given in Abdal Hakim Murad, Islam, Irigaray, and the Retrieval of Gender.

17. Al-Bukhari. no.6719; Muslim, no.1829.

18. Brown, Misquoting Muhammad (London: Oneworld Publications, 2014), 288.

19. ibid., 289.

20. R. Scruton, Dictionary of Political Thought (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 248.

21. Al-Tirmidhi, no.113. Al-Albani graded is sahih in Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1983.

22. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:146.

23. ibid., 28:146.

24. Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 381.

Scholars, Speakers & the Culture of “Edu-Tainment” [2/2]

little-baby-with-big-adult-shoes-and-baseball-cap-beautiful-baby-wallpapersThe first part of the blog (here) discussed certain basics about what qualifications are required to be a scholar capable of giving fatwas, and how it is a vile and major sin to speak about the religion of Islam without proper knowledge. We observed how Imam Malik, rahimahullah, was fearful and reluctant to give religious rulings, because of the huge responsibility and consequence this entailed. ‘Before replying he should imagine Heaven and Hell infront of him, and consider his outcome in the Hereafter; only then should he respond,’ cautioned Imam Malik.1 And he was speaking to those who were qualified for the task, those fit for purpose; not those unschooled and ignorant in the science of fiqh!

In an age where craving for fame, recognition and celebrity-like status has found new outlets, “practicing” Muslims have found that they are not immune to such egotistical impulses. In fact, society and social media are currently awash with wannabe shaykhs, speakers and religious spokespersons – many (maybe even most) who are simply unfit for purpose. The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Today, you are in an age in which its scholars are many and its speakers few: whoever leaves a tenth of what he knows has followed his desires. Later there shall come an age in which its speakers are many and its scholars few: whoever clings to a tenth of what he knows will be saved.’2

Ours has become an age wherein an ever increasing number of speakers and da‘is sell themselves to the public as if they are seasoned scholars or well-grounded students of the sacred sciences; when most of them are clearly not. Such speakers and da‘is tend not to have the dignity, gravitas nor decorum of the scholars, let alone their learning or wisdom. And like toddlers trying to wear daddy’s or mummy’s shoes which are way too big for them, any attempt to take more than a few steps or walk at an adult pace is likely to result in a stumble or fall. But unlike the kid in daddy’s shoes or trainers, who is likely to elicit a smile or a sentiment of affection and cuteness from us, the wise are wary of such self-styled scholars and Allah’s awliya appalled at their false pretensions. We should be too.

As certain controversial inclinations wiggle their way into the da’wah – e.g. corporate attitudes, the conscious use of comedy and joking around, edutainment, the huge fees or honorariums that some da‘is now charge for their da‘wah, and the celebrity culture now surrounding some speakers – the final part of this blog tries to assess the validity or illegality, and the benefits and harms, of these matters in light of Islam’s revealed texts and scholarly teachings. Wa bi’Llahi’l-tawfiq.

Intending it as a nasihah and an opportunity for collective introspection, no specific individual or organisation is intended by any of the following points. But before the actual nitty gritty stuff, let’s start with some vital pointers about the layman:

1. The Prophet ﷺ exhorted: ballighu ‘anni wa law ayah – ‘Convey from me, even if it be [just] a verse.’3 Thus regardless of whether or not one is a scholar, this hadith urges every Muslim to pass on to others whatever little teachings of Islam they know, even if it is just a single verse from the holy Qur’an. Commenting on the phrase, ‘even if it be [just] a verse,’ hafiz Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote: ‘So that everyone who heard him would hasten to convey whatever he heard of the verses, even if it was only a little. In this way, everything which he ﷺ came with would be relayed.’4 Of course, the caveat here is that they must be sure that such a piece of knowledge is actually part of Islam, and that there is no distorting it or relating it out of context.

2. Having established that conveying the teachings of Islam is not just the province of the ‘ulema, the non-scholar must observe the following rule: When a layman conveys something of Islam, if it is a well-known and agreed upon matter – like the obligation to pray and fast, or the prohibition of consuming wine or swine – then he may do so unconditionally. But if it is a detailed issue of fiqh, or one in which there is a bonafide juristic difference or controversy, the layman can only relate what he knows by citing the religious authority he is following in the matter. Using juristic vernacular, the rule runs like this: ‘Muslims have a consensus that it is impermissible for a muqallid to say that something is lawful or unlawful in matters of ijtihad where he is making taqlid of someone else. What he may say, however, is that: “This is the ruling in the madhhab I follow,” or: “I sought a fatwa and this was the reply.”‘5

3. Non-scholars spreading even the detailed teachings of Islam to others – accurately, wisely, responsibly and contextually – is something Islam promotes. But this must not be an excuse to forget our own levels of learning, invent fatwas and fictions about the religion, be careless in relating the words of the scholars, use da‘wah to vent the ego’s anger and frustrations, or imagine that one can weigh-up the evidences of the jurists and come to one’s own unlearned or delusional conclusion. About this latter practice, Ibn Taymiyyah had this to say: ‘As for someone who only knows the opinion of one scholar and his proofs, but doesn’t know the other scholar’s view or proofs, he is from the generality of the muqallids. He is not of the scholars who are capable of evaluating and weighing-up [the proofs].’6 In fact, even if the layman was aware of both scholarly opinions, unless he is a trained jurist, or a highly competent student-jurist, he would not have the expertise or skill to weigh-up proof-texts. To imagine otherwise is to be thoroughly deluded or thick-headed. In both instances, it would be a case of following the falsehood Satan has secreted into the soul.

4. As for how a layman determines who is a scholar, this is usually dealt with in works on Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh). Some ways of identifying a scholar are surer and far more certain than others. In decreasing levels of certainty, they are: [i] Established scholars testifying to the scholarly credentials of the person, or accrediting him with a scholarly authorisation (‘ijazah). [ii] A person holding a teaching post at a recognised institution of scholarly learning. [iii] Scholarly respect accorded to a person by other people of knowledge. [iv] A layman being informed by someone he deems trustworthy in religious issues that a particular person is indeed a scholar. [v] His general scholarly reputation in the Muslim community at large. In brief, the layman does his best to act on sure certainty (yaqin), or preponderant certainty (aghlab al-zann), as to whom he deems to be a qualified scholar.7

As for speakers feeling the urge to season their call to Islam and their exhortations to taqwa, tawbah and recollection of the akhirah, with comedy, jokes, or humour, then it is best if the following is kept in mind:

5. Sacred knowledge is to be conveyed with seriousness and dignity, given the sources it is being conveyed from and the realities it reveals. The Qur’an speaks about itself in these terms: We shall soon cast upon you a weighty word. [73:6] And: Do you then marvel at this discourse and laugh, but not weep. [53:59-60]

6. Even if we are not scholars, it behoves speakers and seekers of sacred knowledge to adopt the demeanour and comportment of the scholars. Imam Malik counselled: ‘It is a right upon a seeker of [sacred] knowledge to be solemn, dignified and have reverent fear [of Allah], and to follow in the footsteps of those who preceded him.’8 This must be done out of a love of virtue, beauty of adab, and saving others from the unsavoury aspects of our character; not from showing-off or pretending to be what we aren’t. Of course, actions are judged by their intentions.

7. Those giving religious instruction are supposed to help raise our levels of piety and make us serious people. They cannot pander to the mediocrity or frivolity that people steep themselves in, or surround themselves with, today. ‘Ali, radia’Llahu ‘anhu, said: ‘When you have learnt knowledge, retain it; and do not mix it with laughter or futility so that hearts spit it out.’9 Ibn al-Jawzi makes a similar point concerning the wa‘iz, or preacher, not laughing and joking nor behaving as common folk do, ‘so that they hold him in high esteem and thus benefit from his admonition.’10

8. The occasional dignified humour or light hearted remark is permitted, providing it does not undermine the seriousness of the message, nor makes light of it in peoples’ hearts. While advising the students of Hadith, advice that can also be applied to other scholars, teachers and preachers of Islam, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi wrote: ‘The seeker of Hadith is required to shun levity, frivolity, or lowering oneself in gatherings by being silly and idiotic, roaring with fits of laughter, excessive joking, or being too humorous and frivolous. However, a little humour is permitted occasionally, as long as it doesn’t transgress the bounds of refined manners or the way of knowledge. But as for foolish, immodest, or immoderate behaviour, or whatever else gives rise to it in peoples’ souls or creates harm, it is repugnant. Too much joking or laughter demeans one’s standing and diminishes one’s gentlemanliness (muru’ah).’11

With respect to corporate attitudes in da‘wah, this comprises a few issues. First there’s the ruling on taking money for da‘wah. Then there’s the matter of classes and courses designed as products to be purchased, and the need for such organisations to put out more and more products just to keep the revenue flowing in. Finally, there is the issue of these organisations not being able to defer to those more knowledgeable in other organisations, or point people to their events: that would simply be bad business! The bottom line underscoring much of what follows is the question of the soul’s sincerity, or ikhlas, to Allah ﷻ:

9. The Qur’an relates these words from one of Allah’s earlier prophets: ‘I am to you a trustworthy messenger. So fear Allah and obey me! I ask of you no wage for this; my wage is but from the Lord of the Worlds.’ [26:107-9] Again: ‘O my people! I ask of you no money for this. My reward comes only from Allah.’ [11:29] And the Qur’an says about one of the God-fearing people: And there came from the farthest part of the city a man running. He cried: ‘O my people! Follow those who have been sent. Follow those who ask of you no fee, and who are rightly guided.’ [36:20-1] This is a common theme running throughout the Qur’an, that Allah’s prophets, ‘alayhim al-salam, are trustworthy, sincere and selfless, and do not seek payment, wealth or fame for being the earthly means of bringing the message of Islam to their people.

10. When the above verses are read along with certain hadiths, the actual ruling about taking money or a salary for teaching Islam or giving da‘wah isn’t so obvious. A few of those hadiths include: The hadith of Ibn ‘Abbas where the Prophet ﷺ said to a group of Muslims who had stipulated a fixed payment in lieu of performing ruqyah, reciting passages of the Qur’an as incantation, over someone afflicted with an illness: ‘Indeed, the payment you are most deserving of taking is for the Book of Allah.’12 There’s also the hadith of Sahl in which the Prophet ﷺ married a man to a woman on condition he teach her what he knew of the Qur’an, as a dowry payment.’13 Then there are the Prophet’s words to ‘Umar: ‘When wealth comes to you which you neither craved nor asked for, then take it. Otherwise, do not covet it.’14 By contrast are hadiths that seem to imply the opposite: The Prophet ﷺ warned ‘Ubadah b. al-Samit, who had taught some Muslims the Quran and writing, and received a gift of a bow in return: ‘If you desire to have a bridle of fire around you, then accept it.’15 ‘Imran b. al-Husayn once heard a person reciting the Qur’an and then asking to be recompensed. So he related the hadith of the Prophet ﷺ to him: ‘Whosoever recites the Qur’an, let him ask Allah [for reward] for it. For a people will soon come who will recite the Qur’an and ask [for reward] for it from people.’16 Lastly, let’s bring the hadith of ‘Uthman b. Abi’l-‘As into the mix, who narrated the following: ‘The final undertaking of the Prophet ﷺ to me was that I should pick a muezzin (mu’adhdhin) who wouldn’t ask for a wage for giving the call to prayer (adhan).’17

11. Scholars have exerted much juristic energy and activity to try and make sense of the above assortment of proof-texts. In brief, I’ll quote what Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani said about the first hadith, ‘Indeed, the payment you are most deserving of taking is for the Book of Allah,’ so as to get a gist of the issue. He wrote: ‘The majority infer from it the permissibility of taking a wage for teaching the Qur’an; as opposed to the Hanafis who don’t permit it, but allow it for ruqyah …’18 Likewise, al-Shawkani, critiquing the chain of each hadith rigorously, along with the juristic reasons offered for and against taking a wage for the Qur’an, concludes by siding with the majority.19 For the sake of completion, a mention must be made of the stance of later Hanafi jurists. As the need for Qur’an teachers grew, and state support for such teachers significantly dwindled, Hanafi jurists felt the public interest would best be served by allowing teachers of the Qur’an to take a wage to help them in their profession of teaching.20 What applies to teaching the Qur’an, applies to the other sacred sciences of Islam too.21

12. Although scholars differ as to how this permissibility ought to best manifest itself, many urge that if one can have an income from another source other than teaching the din, that would be far better and safer. This way, when teaching the Qur’an, or any other sacred knowledge, ikhlas is less likely to be tainted by monetary considerations, and one can dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to seeking the pleasure of Allah ﷻ. Many also advise that money shouldn’t be given as a remuneration for teaching: that must be done only for Allah’s sake. Instead, it should be given as an aid for scholars to continue teaching and serving the general interests of the ummah.

13. The above refers to qualified scholars teaching the sacred sciences to unqualified people. As for the da‘i, the “caller” to Islam, this is a more problematic area. For until quite recently, this category didn’t exist in the way that it does now. And while there is a long-established norm of how and when someone becomes qualified in the sacred sciences, that isn’t the case with da‘wah. What counts as being qualified in da‘wah and who authorises its? A healthy share of Islamic knowledge, wisdom, gentleness, the art of persuasion, prioritising the message, and a familiarity with audience type are core qualities a da‘i must possess, as per the Book and the Sunnah. As such, all Muslims are expected to be da‘is/du‘at – less with words, more with character and conduct. Da‘is getting paid for da‘wah, then, is far more thorny and controversial.

14. That said, some contemporary scholars have allowed individuals or organisations engaged in da‘wah to non-Muslims to receive financial support – again, to fill a need and establish a public interest. But they advise that if such da’is aren’t suited or fit to give da’wah – e.g. they aren’t scholars or under the direct guidance of scholars; or they corrupt more than they rectify; speak about issues hastily, recklessly and beyond their level of learning; drive people away from the scholars and demean their status; or are immature, ignorant and lack serious concern for peoples’ welfare; or have desires and goals that they call to at the expense of calling sincerely to Allah – then such so-called da‘is should be advised but not financially assisted. And since ours is an age in which many such da‘is and speakers shamelessly peddle themselves and sell themselves, we’d do well to be aware.

15. As to the question of charging extortionate fees and exorbitant honorariums for teaching or da‘wah – a serpent that is now in the garden – with what good faith can that be justified? Of course, what is or isn’t exorbitant is up for discussion. Of course, large organisations will have greater overheads. Of course, quality produced books, translations and media productions are more costlier. Of course, we have a collective duty to assist the ulema‘. And of course, we must thank those organisations that have helped up the ante in terms of the ethos of excellence and professionalism they have brought to the teaching and da‘wah. All such matters are, hopefully, not in question. It’s simply that while many have sacrificed well-paid jobs in secular arenas for a lesser (or even no) salary in the Islamic field, some teachers and preachers are acting rather unbecomingly when it comes to the question of financial remuneration. And that’s a shame; if not shameful. Is it even lawful for event organisers funded by the public to misuse monies given to them on trust by forking out such sums on such speakers? Or to do so without public knowledge of how their money is being misspent?

16. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah mentioned a golden rule concerning taking payment for acts of worship. As part of his reply about whether or not it is permitted to charge a fee for performing pilgrimage on someone else’s behalf (hajj al-badal), he wrote: ‘He may take [payment] to [help him] perform the pilgrimage; he may not perform the pilgrimage just to take [payment] (an ya’khudh li yahujj la an yahujj li ya’khudh). This applies to all wealth one takes so as to undertake a righteous action.’22 Then he states: ‘There is a difference between one who makes religion his goal and the world his means, and one who makes the world his goal and religion his means – the likes of this [latter person] will have no share in the Hereafter.’23

17. Ibn Taymiyyah’s words apply to taking money for teaching or da‘wah too. There’s a big difference between someone who puts receiving money at the heart of his da‘wah affairs, and one who, although in financial need, puts it at the periphery. Again, what a difference between one who says: “I won’t do a talk unless I’m given such and such a sum of money,” and one who says: “I can’t do a talk unless I’m given some money.” If the intention is corrupted by money matters, if the niyyah isn’t solely for Allah, the act is invalid and sinful – and every person is a vendor of their own soul. Indeed: ‘Two ravenous wolves let loose amongst some sheep do less harm than craving after wealth or status does to a person’s religion,’24 said the Prophet ﷺ.

A few more concerns related to the seemingly apparent corporatisation of the da‘wah need to be queried, beyond the insatiable drive to maximise personal profits:

18.  With a corporate model of da‘wah, there’s a danger of seminars and courses being designed as consumer products, and the need to put out more and more products just to keep revenue flowing in. At what point is the role of money to help deliver courses, and courses to help deliver money? Now this doesn’t apply to organisations offering a clearly structured curriculum or syllabus, but to those that are mainly in the business of delivering courses or seminars. Al-Hasan al-Basri, rahimahu’Llah, said: ‘The penalty meted out to the scholar is death of the heart, and death of the heart causes a person to seek this world by means of actions intended for the hereafter.’25 As for how one inoculates the heart from corrupting its sincerity, Imam al-Ghazali said: ‘The remedy for sincerity consists in breaking the gratifications of the soul, ending the craving for this world, and being singularly devoted to the Hereafter such that it dominates the heart. By this, sincerity becomes possible.’26

19. Scholars and preachers who fuss over their first class travel arrangements, or their five star food and accommodation; or who design and sell courses with a desire other than the rida of Allah; or who are in the habit of turning certain topics whose essence could be explained in an hour and should be done so for free, into lucrative weekend courses – may give out the “wow” factor to their young audiences, but are unlikely to illumine hearts; unless their hearts are illumined with ikhlas to Allah, mindfulness of His scrutiny, taking significant steps in the direction of zuhd, and being sincere to the public with regards to extracting money from them. As for those who invite such DIY da‘is or celebrity speakers, they too may be answerable in the divine court for bending to the hype and not being truly concerned about the wealth or spiritual welfare of the seekers and servants of Allah.

20. Possibly of greater concern is the culture of self promotion, and not being able to point others to more learned and spiritually rooted shaykhs. Groups will do this due to hizbiyyah, or the revenue loss it entails if their own speakers aren’t the public’s port of call. Individual souls will usually do it out of vanity (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’), craving fame and status (hubb al-ri’asah), or some other inglorious nafsi reasons. Consider this Ghazalian wisdom: ‘How many an act has man troubled himself with, thinking it to be sincerely seeking the Face of Allah. Yet it contains deception, the harm of which he cannot see … Those subjected most severely to this trial (fitnah) are the scholars. Most of them are motivated to profess knowledge for the [mere] pleasure of [their] mastery, the joy of [gaining] a following, or of being lauded and eulogised.’27 He then gives this example: ‘So you see a preacher who advices people about Allah and counsels rulers. He is overjoyed at people’s acceptance of him and his utterances. He claims to rejoice in having been chosen to help the religion. But should one of his peers who preaches better than he appear, and people turn away from him, accepting the other, it would displease and distress him. Had religion been his true motive, he would have thanked Allah for having spared him this weighty [duty] through another.’28

21. Compare today’s self-promotion with the attitudes of our venerable salaf. Of how those of them who were less travelled in knowledge and spiritual realisation deferred to those who were more rooted or well-travelled. Indeed, even the well-travelled ones would desperately avoid giving fatwas whenever possible, especially if they could pass the buck on to someone else. Ibn Abi Layla, a famous successor (tabi‘i), narrates: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved that his brother would suffice him [by answering].’29 In another narration: ‘… Whenever one of them was asked about an issue, he would refer it on to another, and this other would refer it on to yet another; until it would return back to the first person.’30 Al-Bara’ said: ‘I met three hundred of the people of Badr. There wasn’t any among them, except that he wished that his companion would suffice him by [giving] the fatwa.’31 And Bishr al-Hafi said: an ahabba an yus’ala fa laysa bi ahli an yus’al – ‘Whoever loves to be asked isn’t from those who should be asked.’32 So let no vacuum be left, and no ego promoted.

Our final issue concerns an alleged celebrity culture of sorts which surrounds certain speakers and preachers. Here, let us remember these few points:

22. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘He is not of us who does not honour our elders, have mercy on our young, or know the rights of our scholars.’33 In Islam, the scholars have always been held in great esteem and affection by the masses. Be it as guardians and teachers of sacred knowledge, or as mediators between the wider public and the ruling elite, or as wise, pious sages of the ummah, the masses have often thronged around individual ‘ulema and showered them with huge amounts of love, honour and esteem. That type of celebrity culture encircling the ‘ulema has not been absent from Muslim history or its societies. One hadith states: ‘Indeed, when Allah, blessed and exalted is He, loves a person, he calls to Gabriel saying: “Allah loves so-and-so, love him too.” Gabriel then loves him. Gabriel then proclaims in Heaven: “Allah loves so-and-so, so love him too.” The angels in Heaven then love him. Thereafter, acceptance of him is placed into [the hearts of] those on earth.’34 So whilst fame, for many, comes about by them actively craving attention, for others it is brought about because of Divine love and Heaven’s grace – especially in the case of the ‘ulema and awliya. Just because some scholars and preachers are famous doesn’t mean they’ve craved or fuelled such fame.

23. While fame has always been around, our current celebrity culture is pretty much a modern phenomenon. It is said that fame is when people know who you are; celebrity is when people know what you’re doing. Social media has given fans the opportunity to connect with their interests, crushes and idols in an unprecedented way. Fans and followers become ever more absorbed in the lives of their favourite celebrities, to the extent it becomes increasingly hard to draw a line between what is appreciation and what is obsession. The flip side of the fandom frenzy is that celebrities carefully craft public profiles on social media in order to garner fans and following, so as to sell their particular brand to people. And if not that, then it is to seek validation and adulation and assuaging the ego by publicising their lives, careers, views and talents. In fact, it can reasonably be argued that the egotistical promotion of the self is not a byproduct of social media, it is inherent to the institution itself!

24. For Muslim scholarly engagement on social media, ikhlas must be key. As scholars or da‘is maintain profiles on platforms like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter – posting fatwas, advice, anecdotes, smidgens of religious wisdom, glimpses into their personal lives, or even the occasional scholarly selfie! – they must guard against being taken on an ego trip, and against acts of narcissism. Online followership can lead to toxic levels of self-conceit (‘ujb), given the tsunami of unrelenting flattery showered on the posts. pictures or preaching of popular scholars and da‘is. A man was once praised infront of the Prophet ﷺ, to which he repeatedly exclaimed: ‘Woe be to you! You have slit the neck of your companion.’35 In another hadith, he ﷺ stated: ‘If you see people lavishly praising others, throw dust in their faces.’36 The logic why ‘you have slaughtered him, due to your praise of him’37 is fairly straightforward. For such flattery, lionisation or adulation, writes al-Munawi, all too often ‘gives rise to delusion and arrogance,’38 and can become an addiction and lead to one’s spiritual downfall.

25. Contextualising the above hadiths, Imam al-Nawawi said: ‘As for praising a person to their face, there are some hadiths which judge it permissible or recommended, and others that judge it prohibited. Scholars hold that the best way to reconcile between them is to say: If the one praised has perfect faith (kamal iman), firm conviction (husn yaqin), spiritual discipline (riyadat nafs) and complete gnosis (ma‘rifah tammah), such that he will not be subjected to temptations, nor become conceited because of it; and neither will he be played by his ego, then it’s neither forbidden nor disliked. But if any of these things are feared, then praising him [to his face] is severely detested.’39 Al-Baghawi seems to have hit the nail bang on the head as far as the condition of most of us are concerned. He said: ‘In general, praise and compliments of a person [directly to him] is disliked (makruh). Seldom is the one who praises safe from lying in his praise, and seldom is the one praised safe from conceit (‘ujb) which seeps into him.’40 Hence we should all try to balance between words of appreciation and encouragement, and those that are praise, flattery or likely to be spiritually ruinous.

26. Some insist that, ‘The knowledge should be what inspires us, not who the speaker is or isn’t.’ As true and as ideal as this is; in reality, it’s also a failure to appreciate what it takes to motivate people. Revelation teaches that familiarity, eloquence, charisma and the art of persuasion do have their place in the da‘wah and do make a difference to the receptivity of hearts and souls; as do sincerity, humility and the realisation that it is Allah who ultimately guides, not us. Indeed, Allah has gifted some people a fuller share of such qualities than others, and has made souls attentive to the words of some more than others: That is the favour of Allah; which He gives to whom He wills. [62:4] Of course, with Allah’s favour comes the eye of envy (hasad) – and many of the criticisms levelled against scholars or da‘is is nothing but envy. And of course, with the favour of sacred knowledge comes immense responsibility and trials.

27. Having a large following is a trial (fitnah) for the one being followed more than the followers. If audiences are regularly coming away from talks of particular scholars or da‘is feeling merrily entertained, or overwhelmingly wowed; but are not coming away with feelings or remorse for wrongdoings, a desire to repent and reform, or a yearning for Allah and the afterlife, there’s something truly amiss with the speaker’s intention, learning, or ability as a guide – however popular they may be and however large their following. An Arab poet has said: awradaha sa‘d wa sa‘d mushtamil/ma hakadha ya sa‘d tuwradu’l-ibil – ‘Sa‘d came in while leading them. O Sa‘d! That’s not the way you bring in camels.’ Let not scholars or callers fill hearts with frivolity, but with fear of Allah. Let them not inspire audiences to roll over in fits of laughter, but to repentance and hope. Let them not plunge Allah’s servants deeper into the dunya, but help raise their gaze to Allah and the akhirah. To do otherwise is just not da‘wah – it is not calling to Allah in any meaningful sense of the word.

28. Thus far in the blog, I’ve cited wisdoms and rulings from some of Islam’s classical and contemporary legalists and pietists. Let me end, however, by quoting, not from a scholar, but from Shelina Janmohamed – author and commentator on Muslim social and religious trends. Speaking of Generation M – young, urban, middle-class Muslims, committed to practicing Islam and being fully immersed in the modern consumerist culture – she remarks: ‘Since Islam is supposed to be about self-effacement, and our Generation M individuals aspire towards modesty and humility, the almost cultish popularity of religious scholars can be confusing.’ She then cites from Safia Latif who observes: ‘We love our Muslim scholars so much so that we jump at the first chance to follow their lives and they indubitably mean well in their efforts to reach and relate to a tech-savy generation,’ concludes Safia. ‘But we must question the psychological and sociological impact of this culture on our collective Muslim ethos.’41 I think that more or less sums things up.

29. Finally, we ask Allah to protect all our scholars, shaykhs and da‘is; increase them in sincerity, understanding and goodness; continue benefitting our ummah with them; and help them be exemplars of learning, depth and piety, as well as courage, character and compassion. We ask Allah, too, that He help the wider public sort out the wheat from the chaff with regards to scholarship; steer them away from worldly scholars to scholars of the hereafter; inspire them to yearn for the company of the truly learned lovers of Allah; and shield them from callers to frivolity and amusement, who crave for fame and seek only to buttress their own egos.

Allahumma jammilna bawatinina bi’l-ikhlasi laka wa hassin a‘malana
bi ittiba‘i rasulika. As’alu’Llaha’l-‘azim rabba’l-arsha’l-‘azim
an yaj‘alana wa iyyakum mimman yastami‘una’l-qawla
fa yattabi‘una ahsanahu. Wa akhiri’l-
da‘wana ani’l-hamduli’Llahi

1.  Cited in Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartib al-Mudarik (Saudi Arabia: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un al–Islamiyyah, 1983), 1:144.

2. Al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam, 1:14-15. Al-Albani declared its isnad as sahih, despite it containing Muhammad b. Tafar b. Mansur. For a discussion about how such a verdict was reached, cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 6:1:40-42; no.2510. I extend my thanks to Dr Abdul Haqq Baker, an old and dear friend, for alerting me to this hadith.

3. Al-Bukhari, n0.3461.

4. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alimiyyah, 2013), 8:77.

5. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 1:73. Ibn al-Salah and Ibn al-Qayyim have said something similar. See: I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2003), 6:99-101.

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

7. As explained by al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar al-Rawdah (Beirut: Mu‘assasah al-Risalah, 1988), 3:663-64.

8. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi wa Adab al-Sami‘ (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), no.212.

9. ibid., no.213.

10. As in his advice to one of his sons, Laftat al-Kabad ila Nasihat al-Walad (Beirut: Dar al-Muqtabas, 2013), 60.

11. Al-Khatib, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi, 1:232-33.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.5737.

13. ibid., no.5149.

14. Al-Bukhari, no.1473; Muslim, no.1045.

15. Ahmad, no.23357; Abu Dawud, no.3416. The chain contains Mughirah b. Ziyad and al-Aswad b. Tha‘labah who have been disparaged by hadith critics such as al-Bayhaqi and Ibn Hajr. Despite that, al-Albani graded the hadith, with its supporting chains, to be sahih. The details are given in: Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), 1:1:513-17; no.256.

16. At-Tirmidhi, no.2917, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan.’

17. Ibn Majah, no.714; al-Tirmidhi, no.209, where he said: ‘A hasan sahih hadith. The people of knowledge have acted by this hadith and disapprove that a mu’adhdhin take a wage for giving the adhan.’

18. See: Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alimiyyah, 2013), 6:42. Ibn Hajr notes the basic objection against the allowance of taking a fee – namely, that the allowance has been abrogated by the prohibition, and that the word ajr, “wage” in the first hadith means thawab, a spiritual reward – and argues the majority case, thus: [1]: While the “allowance” hadiths are undoubtedly authentic, the same cannot be said for the “prohibiting” ones; for they are not free of defects in their chains. [2]: Even if they are sound, the prohibitions in them are not categorical. [3]: The claim of abrogation is highly speculative and therefore invalid. [4]: To interpret the word ajr as thawab, given the context of the hadith, is far-fetched and therefore invalid.

19. Nayl al-Awtar (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1993), 5:344-45.

20. See: Mufti Muhammad Shafi‘, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Karachi: Idarat al-Ma‘arif, 2008), 1:207-8; in his discussion of Qur’an 2:41.

21. ibid., 1:208.

22. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 26:19.

23. ibid., 26:20.

24. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2376, who said: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

25. Quoted in al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:221; and its like is in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1165.

26. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din, 9:70.

27. ibid., 9:70-71.

28. ibid., 9:71. I based my translation of these passages on A. Shaker (trans.), al-Ghazali, Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2013), 62.

29. Abu Khaythamah, al-‘Ilm, no.21; Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2201.

30. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2199.

31. Al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), no.1076.

32. ibid., no.1084.

33. Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, no.421. It was graded hasan in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.5443.

34. Al-Bukhari, no.7485; Muslim, no.2637.

35. Al-Bukhari, no.6061; Muslim, no.3000.

36. Muslim, no.3002.

37. As said by Ibn ‘Uthaymin, Sharh Riyadh al-Salihin (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2015), 1476.

38. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 1:362.

39. Al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 448.

40. Sharh al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1983), 13:151.

41. Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World (London & New York: I.B.Tauris, 2016), 200.

Scholars, Speakers & the Culture of “Edu-Tainment” [1/2]

Conference.001How do we distinguish a scholar from a da‘i, motivational speaker or ‘knowledgeable brother’? What are the proper qualifications for true scholarship? How serious a sin is giving fatwas and religious rulings without appropriate knowledge? What dangers are there in the Islamic ‘edu-tainment’ and ‘celebrity’ culture we are now in, especially where poorly qualified (or even unqualified) speakers take to social media to promote themselves and attempt to impart religious instruction? Given how the line has been blurred between qualified scholars and charismatic speakers; and given the confusion that currently surround these matters, I hope the following post will shed some much needed light on the topic.1

A good a place as any to start is a reminder about the seriousness of the matter, which can be gleaned from the following verse, hadiths and salaf-reports:

The Qur’an insists: 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]

The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Allah does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’2

The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, let him take his seat in the Fire of Hell.’3

Similar to it is his ﷺ warning: ‘Whoever gives a fatwa without knowledge, shall bear the sin of those he gave it to.’4

Ibn Ma‘sud, one of the top-tier scholars among the sahabah, said: ‘You are in a time in which its scholars (‘ulema) are many and its speakers (khutaba) are few. But after you will come a time in which its scholars are few and its speakers many.’5

Imam Malik remarked: ‘Whoever is asked about a religious matter, before responding he should imagine both Heaven and Hell before him and consider his outcome in the Hereafter. Only then should he respond.’6

Imam Malik was once asked a religious question, to which he replied: ‘I do not know.’ It was then said to him: ‘But the issue is a light and easy one.’ At this he became angry, then said: ‘There is nothing about knowledge that is light. Haven’t you heard Allah’s words: We will soon cast upon you a weighty word. [73:6] Knowledge, all of it is weighty; especially what one will be questioned about on the Day of Judgement.’7

The above examples should suffice as a rejoinder for those in whose hearts faith and the fear of God still flicker.

Since the idea of “being qualified” or “proper qualification” lies at the very heart of the matter, let’s look at the levels of the scholars/muftis, along with their qualifications, as per a classical, authoritative categorisation:

The genre of literature referred to as Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti – “Conduct of Muftis and of Fatwa-Seekers” – lists the required credentials in terms of being ‘alim bi ahkam al-shar‘iyyah, “highly versed in the rulings of the Sacred Law.”8 This requires muftis to possess thorough knowledge of: [i] The five-hundred or so legal verses in the Qur’an. [ii] Those hadiths that relate to legal issues, along with knowing how to evaluate their soundness; or to at least rely upon the experts in this field. [iii] Those cases and issues which have become subject to a scholarly consensus (ijmå‘), so as not to contradict it. [iv] Rules and principles of abrogation, so as not to rule on the basis of an abrogated verse or hadith. [v] Classical Quranic Arabic language, in order to understand literal and metaphorical usage; general and particular discourse; idioms; and also equivocal and unequivocal speech. [vi] Methods of analogical deduction (qiyas) and procedures of inferential reasoning (istinbat).

The legal literature also states that the term mufti is synonymous with mujtahid – one capable of ijtihad: i.e. of extracting and inferring rulings directly from the texts of the Qur’an or the Sunnah. A mufti who has gained complete mastery in the above-listed qualifications is called an absolute mujtahid (mujtahid mutlaq). The mufti who gains expertise, but not complete mastery, in these ijtihad credentials is a mujtahid bound by the legal framework of a law-school (mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). In both cases, these two mujtahids work with the foundational texts: the first does so unrestrictedly and directly; the second  one, according to the methodological principles of his law-school or madhhab.

Below these two are muftis who are “non-mujtahids.” They too are of varying ranks. There is the mufti who, although not capable of ijtihad, is highly versed in his school’s modes of legal reasoning and analogy; has committed to memory its rulings; and is able to defend, refine and resolve ambiguous cases – tilting the scales in favour of one of two or more opinions on the matter. He can even infer rulings for new cases based on established precedents of the school. Then there are muftis who are trained jurists, but their skills are limited to distinguishing between the authoritative (mu‘tamad) and less authoritative positions of their school, as well as memorising its issues (masa’il), or positive law.

Finally comes the mufti who is a simply trained jurist and is unable to grasp complex legal talk. What he does have going for him, though, is a competency to transmit the authoritative rulings of the school on any or most given issues, with reliable accuracy. His level is ifta’ bi’l-hifz – “issuing fatwa by having carefully and diligently memorised the school’s legal rulings.” In the absence of other types of muftis, lay people and other non-muftis are obliged to ask such trained transmitters of law and legal rulings.9

Before soldiering on, a few remarks are in order:

Firstly, barring the last type of mufti, all the others engage in highly complex modes of legal reasoning and juristic activity.

Secondly, in our times, when we say that so-and-so is a mufti, we don’t mean that he is a mujtahid, but rather that he gives fatwas based on the books and rulings of his law school, or upon the ijtihad of a mujtahid he is following in the issue. That is, muftis of today do not infer legal rulings directly from the root sources.

Thirdly, although in Islam’s earlier period muftis were invariably mujtahids, the term was widened at some point to include non-mujtahid jurists too, out of a pressing need or hajah.10

Fourthly, even muftis at the bottom of the legal pecking order are thoroughly trained in religious rulings. Taking religious instruction from such muftis is to access reliable, orthodox knowledge. No such guarantee exists with a charismatic speaker or da‘i. In fact, it may very well be the case, as per the first hadith, of people taking ‘the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’ Sometimes, due to defective intentions or playing fast and loose with the religion, the “misguided and misguiding” – the dall mudill – are actually deserving of one another! And we seek refuge in Allah from this.

Fifthly, this categorisation helped people to recognise their own levels and boundaries, unlike today’s ego-driven, level-less learning, where anyone who acquires even a few crumbs of knowledge feels emboldened to give fatwas and religious instruction.

Finally, in terms of the levels of muftiship today, most muftis fall into the last category; some in the two levels above; fewer in the mujtahid level (either mujtahid in specific areas of the law, like marriage, divorce, inheritance, or finance; or the rarer mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). As for the absolute mujtahid, this cadre of muftis has been absent from the ummah for a very long time now.

Even with just a casual grasp of the above levels, the distinction between the qualified scholar or mufti, and between a motivational speaker/da’i will be clear. The former are qualified; the latter more often than not lack legal qualifications and fiqh schooling. Fatwa and religious instruction is sought from the former, not the latter. In fact, the latter are themselves in need of the former. As for the vague, new-fangled category of the “knowledgeable brother,” it would be best if we stopped using such a meaningless classification. For one’s knowledge either qualifies her or him to give religious rulings and fatwas, or it doesn’t. One is either followed in knowledge, or else one follows and imitates qualified scholarship; and in both there is goodness. Moreover, even if one has studied aspects of Islam with qualified teachers – Arabic grammar, tajwid, general Islamic studies, etc. – this does not mean that one is capable of giving fatwas or legal rulings: not unless one has been schooled in fiqh and authorised in it. Yet this simple piece of common sense is lost on so many in our time; including some graduates and drop-outs of Islamic universities.

On the topic of the ‘wannabe’ shaykh, the great polymath, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi said: ‘There is nothing more harmful to knowledge and its people than those who enter into it, yet are not from it. They are ignorant, but think they are knowledgeable; they cause corruption while they think they are rectifying matters.’11

In the first part of this article we trekked through some basic foundations concerning what depth of learning is required for true Islamic scholarship, as well as the levels of scholarship. We encountered some proof-texts that showed how odious and sinful it is to speak about the religion without due knowledge. In fact, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah went so far as to declare: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’12 We then began to broach the topic about the difference between the qualified, seasoned scholar and between the charismatic, yet unqualified speakers either doing the rounds on the conventional speakers’ circuit, or flaunting their stuff on social media. But it’s a topic we’ll explore further in Part Two, when we look at the current Islamic “edu-tainment” culture, in light of the teachings from our scholars, sages and salaf.

Islam encourages, even obliges Muslims to grow in Islamic knowledge – knowledge of Allah; His religion; and its rulings. ‘Whoever traverses a path in search of knowledge, Allah will make easy for him a path to Paradise,’ is what our Prophet ﷺ said.13 There is also this hadith: ‘Whoever sets out to seek knowledge, is in the path of Allah until he returns.’14 That being the case, we ought to keep in mind the Arabic proverb: raha ‘ala hisan raja‘a ‘ala baghl – ‘He set out on a steed and returned on a mule.’ Setting out to seek sacred knowledge so as to grow in divine obedience is one of the noblest acts of the din. But we should always remember our level and never pretend to be at a level we are not at. To do so would be to return from seeking knowledge dishonoured and disgraced in Allah’s sight.

1. I’d like to thank Ustadha Zaynab Ansari for her: Blurred Lines, and Mobeen Vaid’s Mass Marketing Islam and “Edu-tainment” for helping to kick-start the much needed conversation. Vaid’s piece was the first time that I happened upon “edu-tainment” (an amalgam of the words education and entertainment) to describe the growing trend of conveying Islamic teachings and instruction. As for the Ustadha’s article, although its focus is different to this article, it nonetheless raises many concerns about the current speakers’ circuit and its impact upon Muslim community growth.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.

3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2950, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan.’

4. Abu Dawud, no.3657; Ibn Majah, no.53. It was graded as hasan by al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6068

5. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8066; Abu Khaythamah, al-‘Ilm, 109. Its chain was graded as sahih in Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: al-Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, n.d.), 10:510.

6.  Cited in Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartib al-Mudarik (Saudi Arabia: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un  al–Islamiyyah, 1983), 1:144.

7. ibid., 1:147-48.

8. Cf. al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar al-Ifta, 1968), 2:330-31; Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ (Beirut: Dar Ihya Turath al-‘Arabi, 1996)1:72-96; Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawziyyah, 2003), 6:40-208.

9. See: Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 6:125-28; Ibn al-Salah, Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Beirut: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1986), 87-102.

10. See: I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 2:86.

11. Ibn Hazm, al-Akhlaq wa’l-Siyar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 24.

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

13. Muslim, no.2699.

14. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2649, who said: A hasan hadith.’

Our Need to Connect, Anxious When We Don’t!

20160828_140005‘The more we’re connected, the more we seem to be disconnected’ pretty much sums up our growing modern dilemma.

Our globalised social media age is one in which selling ourselves, sharing ourselves, expressing ourselves and defending ourselves are now part and parcel of everyday life for millions of people across the world. In such an age, writes Os Guinness, it’s a case of: ‘I post, therefore I am.’

Not to deny the positive aspects of social media, an ever-increasing volume of mental health studies have, nonetheless, begun to show a more damaging and dangerous side to this culture. Cyber-bullying, sleep deprivation, or distraction from more important matters are undoubtedly some of the more apparent downsides. But there are darker, more tragic dimensions to our engagement with social media. There’s what many call the ‘compare & despair’ syndrome. As people compare their own mundane lives to the endless Instagram, Facebook or Twitter pictures of friends on a perfect vacation, with a perfect partner, or part of a perfect family; or as they devour doctored images of the day-to-day glamorised lives of celebrities; or as they notice how many more hits, likes or shares others are getting than they are, instead of inspiring people, is causing them to despair or be unhappy. The timely wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, echoed by more recent findings in neuroscience, of comparing downwards (with those less well to do than ourselves), instead of upwards (with those better off), continues to be ignored by our destructive consume-and-be-consumed culture.

There is also the FOMO (fear of missing-out) phenomenon. More common with the under-30s, it’s the anxiety caused by not being in-the-know about, or missing out on, experiences (parties, gigs, concerts, or other social events and interactions) that others might be having. Once afflicted, one cannot be at ease for the thought that something important might happen whilst one isn’t connected. The result: angst, addiction and an obsessive need to keep checking one’s phone or social media device.

As with compare and despair, the FOMO affliction has also been around long before social media ever made its mark. But there can be little doubt that social media – with its endless status updates and photos of friends sharing their (seemingly) happier and more exciting lives, and that everybody else is (supposedly) having fun and somehow you’re being left out – has made such paranoia, depression and trauma far more acute and widespread in society.

So as can be seen, and unbeknown to many who are part of a more ‘older’ crowd, the problems with our social media culture isn’t just about selfie-taking narcissists. If we are to retain our sanity; our emotional stability, we need to urgently (re)learn the lost art of JOMO (joy of missing-out): learning to take pleasure in being disconnected for a time, by not feeling one has to be everywhere, or with everyone, at once. So let’s just switch off, be calm and have a cuppa.

A final thought. As a Muslim, and as someone part of that ‘older’ crowd, it’s painful to see how so many people, especially young people, are now in the grip of social media anxiety and addiction. Social media addiction is real, and it’s a far larger problem than most of us care to realise. Its harms are real, too. It degrades life, damages careers and even harms relationships. Most major social network sites, as well as content creators, work hard everyday to make their networks as addictive as possible, using algorithmic filters to tweak their content and target our personal desires, needs and tantrums. In the meantime, our social ability to resist this addiction hasn’t quite evolved.

Islam teaches that Man, being a social creature, has a deep need for connectivity. But more than the need for friendship, intimacy or socialising with others, Islam insists that the greatest need for human hearts – their ultimate yearning – is to be connected to God; and in the absence of that connection there is only an unfulfilled restlessness within us. In the Qur’an, one of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Kafi – ‘The Sufficer’ or ‘He who satisfies all needs’. It follows, then, that if we turn our hearts away from the Sufficer, we shall continue to remain unsatisfied, anxious and unfulfilled. For human hearts can only find true peace, fulfilment and meaning in their Creator: Indeed in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Qur’an, 13:28]

As social media sites are tweaked to get more and more addictive, and as social media companies are in a war for survival where only the most addictive sites will survive, most people will be … well, little more than lab rats in a massive, global experiment. If we don’t learn to cultivate inner restraint or a sense of balance, most will continue to be manipulated by social media sites and content creators to waste far too much time in a way that benefits them, not us – unless we remember that we were created for a higher, more exalted Connectivity and a profounder friendship with the Content Creator of all creation. The choice, therefore, is ours; and where there’s a will, there’s always a way.

Quranic Meditations: Preparations for Pilgrimage & Piety

5474572170_0b950a3b02_bThe Qur’an says of itself: [This is] a Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may meditate upon its signs, and that those possessed of understanding may take heed. [38:29] The Quranic insistence on tadabbur (to ‘meditate’, ‘reflect’, ‘ponder’ upon the Qur’an) is one of the three essential states our hearts should be in for them to be enriched, illuminated and guided by Allah’s words. The venerable scholar and pietist, Imam al-Nawawi wrote: ‘It is essential for the reciter [of the Qur’an] to be in [a state of] humility, contemplation and submissiveness. Such is the sought-after goal. For by it will breasts expand and hearts be illumined. The proofs of this are too numerous or well-known to recount. A group of the salaf would spend the entire night, or the best part of it, listening to one of them recite just one single verse while the rest meditated upon it.’1

What follows is hopefully the first of a series of brief meditations upon various verses and passages of the Holy Qur’an. Given that close to three million pilgrims are now beginning to converge upon Makkah, to enact the rites of the hajj in a sea of loving submission, the first verse to merit meditation shall be the one that offers instruction on the ethical and spiritual state of the pilgrim:


The Pilgrimage is [in] the appointed months. Whosoever undertakes the duty of Pilgrimage during them, then there is no lewdness, wickedness or disputation while on the Pilgrimage. And whatever good you do, Allah knows it. And make provisions; but the best provision is piety. Therefore be mindful of Me, O people of understanding. [2:197]

Asking Allah for aid and tawfiq, these meditations are:

1 – This is the second of eight consecutive verses concerning the Pilgrimage or hajj: its rules (ahkam), rites (manasik) and decorum (adab). It tells us that the Pilgrimage takes place in the appointed months – which could just as equally be translated as: ‘the well-known months’. Yet the Qur’an nowhere identifies the names of these months. Why? Because they were so widely known and established among the Arabs; and had been ever since the Prophet Abraham’s time. These appointed months are: Shawwal, Dhu’l-Qa‘dah, and the first ten days of Dhu’l-Hijjah (or the whole of it, according to another valid scholarly opinion).2

2 – That we only know the names of the appointed months through an unbroken chain of practice reaching all the way back to the Abrahamic age, as well as unbroken chains of hadiths via the Prophet ﷺ confirming that he continued giving these months legal sanction, must give us pause for thought. It should caution against the “Qur’an only” interpretation of Islam, or any approach which rejects unbroken chains of practice, or sound hadiths and scholarly insights that clarify the meanings or intent of individual Quranic verses. Without a chain of practice or prophetic report, we can’t know when hajj season actually is.

3 – What follows is that those unhinged from the chain (sanad) tradition – in terms of initiation,  authorization and transmission – yet insist on joining the scholarly debate on renewal or revival, are wittingly or unwittingly enemies to the Islamic story. ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation: they will expel from it the distortions of the extremists, the fabrications of the liars, and the [flawed] interpretations of the ignorant,’ is what the Prophet ﷺ said.3 Only the sanad can sort out the wheat from the chaff, the qualified from the cowboy.

4 – Once the intention is made and the ihram, the pilgrim’s garb, donned, one enters into a state of inviolability and the duty of Pilgrimage begins in earnest. For putting on the pilgrim’s dress is like ridding oneself, for a while, of whatever links the pilgrims to their usual material life: with its attendant desires, pretensions and distractions. This allows the heart to be in a state where it may be occupied solely with Allah.

5 – Being in a state of ihram, it then says: there is no lewdness, wickedness or disputation while on the Pilgrimage. This is a call to refrain from any behaviour, whether in word or deed, that conflicts with the spirit of wholehearted devotion or obedience to Allah. Scholars explain that lewdness refers to the act of sexual intercourse, and even talk of sexual intimacy, while in the state of ihram. What is meant by wickedness is any sin or act of disobedience. Disputation is any quarrel, row or wrangling which gets the blood boiling, stirs enmity and schism, or breeds hostility and ill will.4 Now that the pilgrim is a “guest of God”, as it were, it behoves him or her to behave with the utmost adab, decency and mindfulness towards God. For it would be the height of impertinence to behave indecently when invited to the House of a generous Host.

6 – Notice the eloquence of the Qur’an in the matter. For it doesn’t just forbid these three acts: lewdness, wickedness or disputation. Instead it wholeheartedly negates them. The Qur’an could have spoken in prohibitive terms; it could have said: ‘there is to be no lewdness …’ Instead, it utilises a complete negation: there is no lewdness … It is as if the Qur’an is saying that to commit any of these indecencies is unimaginable for the one who has donned the pilgrim’s garb and is in the state of Pilgrimage – which is a more forceful way of stating the point; one that appeals to our innate sense of honour and godliness. Such things blind or busy the heart from God, and offend His majesty and holiness; which run contrary to the aim and intent of hajj.

7 – After its prohibitive mood, the verse goes on to encourage the doing of good – any good – linking it to being mindful and vigilant of Allah’s all-encompassing knowledge of things: And whatever good you do, Allah knows it. With Allah’s reassurance that He is always aware of the good we do, the pilgrim increases in doing and spreading good. Along with fulfilling the obligatory rites of hajj, with as much outward conformity to the shari‘ah and inward sincerity, humility and loving submission as can be mustered; the pilgrim seeks to draw closer to Allah by performing optional acts of worship. One cannot and should not neglect goodness and service to fellow pilgrims too.

8 – Pilgrimage requires a certain amount of detachment from the created order so as to nurture attachment to the Creator. It involves detachment from home, homeland and familiar comforts, as well as from everyday preoccupations and distractions. This, however, doesn’t imply tark al-asbab – forsaking lawful means. It is for this reason the verse says: And make provisions. Ibn ‘Abbas narrates: ‘The People of Yemen were in the habit of going to the Pilgrimage without taking any provisions with them. They used to claim: “We are the ones who trust in Allah.” But once in Makkah, they used to beg from people. So Allah, glorious and majestic is He, revealed: And make provisions; but the best provision is piety.5 Thus there are two kinds of provisions that a pilgrim must prepare: physical provisions for the journey to Allah’s House in Makkah, and spiritual provisions for the journey to Allah’s Presence in the Hereafter.

9 – The verse concludes with proclaiming the essence of things: Therefore be mindful of Me, O people of understanding. The Arabic word for being ‘mindful’ is taqwa; which can also mean: being ‘aware’, ‘obedient’, ‘pious’, ‘guarding against sin’. Taqwa, in other words, is to be mindful of Allah’s demands, and to be aware of Allah’s presence; trying to mould one’s life around such mindfulness and awareness. On returning home from the Pilgrimage, after days of physical rigour and spiritual uplift, pilgrims are radically transformed. The overwhelming sense of contrition and repentance they bring back, and their deepened sense of taqwa, become visible in their lives.

10 – The conclusion of this verse is addressed to: people of understanding. The word used for understanding is albab, which is the plural of lubb. In Arabic, lubb refers to the ‘core’, ‘essence’ or ‘best part’ of a thing. The human intellect is described as lubb as it is the best part of a person – especially if it is led by the light of divine guidance, and not by the ego, desires, or baser self-interests. The ulu’l-albab, in terms of Pilgrimage, refers to those who understand that hajj is more than fulfilment of rituals. At its heart is the cultivating of taqwa and loving submission to Allah. They may even see that the entire Pilgrimage is a series of rites that are infused with profound metaphysical and symbolic meaning. The ihram, for instance, symbolises the burial shroud, detachment from the world, and remembrance of death. The tawaf, or circuits around the Ka‘bah, is symbolic of one’s heart and life revolving around the holiness of Allah. The sa‘y, the running between the two hills of Safa and Marwa, suggests that life moves between the two aspects of Divine Compassion and Divine Rigour. The wuquf, the standing at the plain of ‘Arafah, brings to mind the day on which Allah will resurrect us all and the time to repent shall be irrevocably past. Stoning the jamarat, the pillars symbolising Satan, signifies repelling the devil and his whisperings and taking him as an avowed enemy. As for the udhiyah, slaughtering a sacrificial lamb, this recalls how our entire life should be given over to Allah in service and sacrifice for Him.

1. Al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 197.

2. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:183; Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 116-17.

3. Al-Bayhaqi, Sunan, 10:209. The hadith is a candidate for being hasan because of its collective chains of transmission. Cf. al-Albani, Takhrij Mishkat al-Masabih (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.248; ‘Ali al-Halabi (ed.), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 1:500.

4. As per Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Alexandria: Dar al-‘Aqidah, 2008), 1:374-7. As for the detailed rulings related to the ihram and other rites of Pilgrimage, one can find them codified in basic fiqh texts and hajj booklets. Whenever unclear or in doubt about any issue, one refers to qualified scholars on the matter.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.1523.

Science-Religion Debate: Replying to New Atheism

science_and_faith_by_sekishiki-d58nx9v‘Atheism,’ writes John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, ‘is on the march in the Western world. Noisily. A concerted attempt is being made to marshal the atheist faithful, to encourage them not to be ashamed of their atheism but to stand up and fight as a united army. The enemy is God.’1

If New Atheists are to be believed, science has dispensed with [belief in] God. Atheism is, its high priests and sermonisers tell us, the only viable intellectual position for the modern thinking person. Science and religion cannot be reconciled, they say. In fact, the following has become part and parcel of New Atheism’s central dogma: ‘Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.’2

Indeed, the above claim (that science is the only way to the truth and that it can, in principle, explain everything) is the third of three core arguments in New Atheism’s march against God. The first one being: that science explains how things work, so we don’t need to invoke God as an explanation. The second one: that there is nothing but nature. It’s a closed system of cause and effect. There isn’t a realm of the divine or the supernatural. There is no ‘outside’. This, in a nutshell, is the crux of the science versus religion debate.

Richard Dawkins, who continues to lead New Atheism’s assault on theism or belief in God, has a rather appropriate maxim in this regard. He states: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’3 So let’s take each of these three beliefs of New Atheism and explore just how grounded in evidence or proof they really are:

1. Science explains how things work, we don’t need God as an explanation: Undoubtedly, the achievements of science have been remarkable; utterly astounding, even. Science has improved lives and living conditions, eliminated countless diseases and unveiled the mechanics behind how our universe works. It has also helped put to rest a lot of superstitious fears. For example, people need no longer fear that an eclipse is caused by a terrible demon, or is a bad omen of sorts. Interestingly, during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ an eclipse occurred, coinciding with the death of his infant son, Ibrahim. To waylay peoples’ superstitions, the Prophet ﷺ announced: ‘Indeed, the sun and the moon are two of God’s signs. They do not eclipse for the death or birth of anyone. If you see an eclipse, hasten to remember God and to prayer.’4 My overall point being is that we have so much to be grateful to science for and to its wonderful conversations and conclusions.

Unfortunately, the very success of science has led many to believe that merely because we know the mechanisms of how the universe works without needing to bring God into the equation, they can confidently conclude there is no God. Now it’s true theists have often been intellectually lazy and invoked God as an explanation for all sorts of phenomena they couldn’t understand or explain. The upshot of this ‘God of the gaps’ strategy is that, as science uncovered the inner workings of these natural phenomena, it pushed belief in God further into the background. And yet, just because science has revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos or any other natural phenomenon works, it doesn’t rationally disprove or deny God’s agency in those natural phenomena. Let me elaborate with the following example:

Take, for instance, an iPod. Now just because one deciphers the inner workings of an iPod, iPhone or iPad, does not mean that it is impossible to believe in the existence of Steve Jobs as the designer of such culturally altering tech. This would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Because we know the mechanism that explains a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy; in philosophy, an elemental category mistake. Lennox writes that when Newton discovered the laws of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I’ve discovered the mechanism that describes the motion of planetary bodies, therefore there is no agent God who designed it.’ In fact, it was quite the opposite. Precisely because he had fathomed the mechanics behind planetary motion, he was moved to even greater admiration for the God who had designed it that way.5 In fact, what animated many towering figures of science, like Newton and Galileo, was that they expected laws in nature because they believed in God the lawgiver.

For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation – as Dawkins et al. wants people to believe. He is not just a God of the gaps. On the contrary, He is the very ground of all explanation; indeed, of all existence. He is the agent behind every single act, occurrence or phenomena in the universe – the ones we know the mechanics of, and the ones we do not. The Qur’an says: God is the Creator of everything. [39:62] For the faithful who believe God’s hand is behind all things and that all things bear the mark of His handiwork, and who know not to confuse mechanism with agency, explanations and conversations of science are to be welcomed, pondered over and celebrated; not nervously anticipated or narrow-mindedly ignored.

2. There is nothing but nature, there is no realm of the divine; there is no “outside”: All well and good as a claim. Now let us apply the Dawkins litmus test: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’

So what’s the evidence for the claim? As it turns out, there really isn’t any! It might be an atheistic hope. It might be an anti-theistic conviction. But it isn’t grounded in any scientific proof. Naturalism – the view that nature is all that there is, and that there is no transcendence or divine realm – is a philosophy that is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order is all that there is?6

In 1980, in my mid-teens, I was one of millions of viewers utterly enthralled by Carl Sagan’s breathtaking and ground-breaking TV series, Cosmos. The series opened with Sagan saying: ‘The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.’ These words of this charismatic astrophysicist and populariser of science were, undoubtedly, the words of a scientist. But they were not the words of science. Sagan’s naturalistic/materialistic worldview was not derived from his science. It was a priori; an assumption about the cosmos that he presupposed. Whether Sagan in his personal beliefs was an agnostic, atheist, or deist is beside the point. The point is that if scientists commit themselves a priori to a materialistic worldview, then the old proverb is likely to apply: ‘To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’

Of course, there is another reason to keep it all materialistic – as the geneticist and atheist, Richard Lewontin candidly wrote: ‘It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept material explanations of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’7

This frank admission has sort of let the cat out of the bag. What Lewontin is saying is that scientists cannot, must not allow room for anything other than purely natural, materialistic explanations. For to do otherwise would run the risk that God might get a look in. This is the blind faith in materialism that so typifies New Atheism, as well as feeds into the fiction that science is the only tool to understand life and its deepest questions (as opposed to being a tool that works wonders in some places and not so well in others). And this brings us nicely on to the third and final belief:

3. Science is the only way to the truth and can, in principle, explain everything: Evidence? In many ways, this fails the litmus test more pitifully than does the above. Again, this is more a statement of faith and hope than it is hard science. The belief that science is the only path to know the truth objectively and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, is also known (pejoratively) as ‘scientism’. Richard Dawkins claims that: ‘Scientists [are] the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe.’8 While Steven Hawking states that ‘philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.’9 Ironically, the degree of faith now placed in science is uncannily religion-like.

Be that as it may, it’s been pointed out often enough that scientism is actually a self-refuting belief. The assertion that only science can deliver true knowledge hasn’t been arrived at by scientific methods. Instead, it’s a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Thus, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true.10

Between Hawking and Dawkins, not only has today’s philosophy been denigrated, but at a single stroke they’ve disparaged many other disciplines of knowledge too. For the evaluation of philosophy, art, literature, music, or even ethics lies beyond the scope of science. How can science tell us when a piece of music or art is a masterpiece, or just a cacophony of sounds or colours? How can science determine what is morally right or wrong? As the biologist and Noble Laureate, Sir Peter Medawar, has so deftly written: ‘There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or pseudo-questions that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.’ He then states: ‘The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as: “How did everything begin?”; “What are we all here for?”; What is the point of living?”.’11

Francis Collins, geneticist and Head of the Human Genome Project, hits the bullseye when he writes: ‘Science is the only legitimate way to investigate the natural world. Whether probing the structure of the atom, the nature of the cosmos, or the DNA sequence of the human genome, the scientific method is the only reliable way to seek out the truth of natural events … Nevertheless, science alone is not enough to answer all the important questions … The meaning of human existence, the reality of God, the possibility of an afterlife, and many other spiritual questions lie outside the reach of the scientific method.’12

In 1988, Hawking announced to an entire generation in his best-selling A Brief History of Time that our universe was describable and explainable by a single unified theory in physics – a Theory of Everything. It was a dream Einstein had hoped to achieve or see come to fruition in his own lifetime. On the back of this hopefulness, Dawkins wrote: ‘I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein’s dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer.’ He concludes by pushing the triumphant mood even further, declaring: ‘I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.’13 The last fall of Religion, as signalled by a Theory of Everything, would soon became the gospel of New Atheism.

Professor Hawking, meanwhile, pondering over the implications of Gödel’s Theorem in mathematics, wrote a paper in 2002 where he retracted his view about a Theory of Everything, saying it was unattainable: ‘Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory, that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind.’14 In his latest book, The Grand Design (2010), he seems to have gravitated to a grand unified theory once again, this time offering the highly controversial “M-theory” as the most likeliest candidate; as ‘the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find.’15

To conclude: We saw how the three key proofs New Atheism employs to attack belief in God are nowhere near as robust or as categorical as they’re made out to be. Indeed, two of them have no evidence from science whatsoever to support their conclusions: merely aspiration, hope and dogma. So as Dawkins aptly put it: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’

Atheists insist, and New Atheism does so far more pugnaciously, that naturalism and science are joined at the hip. But as we’ve seen, that’s not based on evidence. Instead, it’s a philosophical commitment individual scientists bring to bear upon science. And whilst it’s true naturalistic or materialistic assumptions don’t really figure at all when scientists are studying how things work, they have a more bullish role when studying why things are as they are or how things came to be in the first place. Science, rather than “bury” God, has actually given theists further reasons to deepen confidence and conviction in Him. The universe had a beginning that begs explaining, is one of them. Another is the Fine Tuning of the universe; of just how suited to the emergence of life our cosmos actually is. There’s also the question of why there’s something rather than nothing? Or why the universe is so highly intelligible to us, in terms of mathematical and physical laws? All of these point, not to naturalistic causes, but to a Divine Cause. Yet, due to the bias that shows itself in an entrenched pre-commitment to naturalism, the theistic voice is routinely undermined or muffled in today’s scientific circles.

As Professor Lennox says, it shouldn’t really be a case of science vs. religion. Rather it boils down to this: which assumption does science support – atheism or theism?. Do the findings of science best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, random natural processes working upon the basic materials of the universe? Or does the theistic belief best fit the evidence – that we were put here by an intelligent Creator-God, who created an intelligible universe, finely-tuned, that we might discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and bend our will to His purpose for us? That’s the real issue at stake.

As said before, science on the how questions has done tremendously well. It’s when it attempts to do the why questions that it steps beyond its remit and enters the highly dogmatic zone of scientism. In a delightful illustration to help clarify the distinction, Lennox gives us the example of his Aunt Matilda’s cake. He asks us to imagine that his Aunt Matilda has baked a delicious cake, which the world’s leading scientists wish to analyse. The nutritionists start by telling us about the number of calories in the cake; the biochemists inform us about the structures of proteins and fats in it; the chemists about the elements and compounds used in its formation; the physicists analyse it in terms of its fundamental particles; and the mathematicians offer up an elegant set of equations to describe its composition and the behaviour of the particles in it. Having offered their thorough analysis of his Aunt’s cake, Lennox then asks, ‘[C]an we say the cake is completely explained?’  He says that we have certainly been given knowledge of how the cake was made, but not why it was made. In fact, he insists that no amount of scientific analysis will shed light on the purpose behind the cake; in other words, the why question. The only way we’ll ever know the answer is if Aunt Matilda herself reveals it to us.16 The point, as Francis Collins made earlier, is that science deals with the material aspects of life; religion, the meaning aspects. Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.

Must science and religion arm wrestle each other? Or can they clasp hands as partners in understanding man’s material reality and meaning? There’s no intrinsic reason why the latter shouldn’t be the case.

1. Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), 9.

2. Bertrand Russel, Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 243.

3. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.1041; Muslim, no.911.

5. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 45. Much of the material for this article has been quarried and adapted from the first four chapters of this book.

6. Close to this is the philosophy of Materialism – the view that all existence is matter, that only matter is real, and that all occurrences are reducible to material processes. The difference between the two philosophies is that materialism makes a claim about the ontology of the universe, while naturalism takes that ontological premise to make an argument about how science should function.

7. Lewontin, ‘Billions and Billions of Demons: A Review of Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science is a Candle in the Dark”‘, New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997 – cited in Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 35-6.

8. A Devil’s Chaplain, 242.

9. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 13.

10. A similar, though simpler self-refuting statement is the following: ‘This statement is false.’ So if the statement is true, then it is false. But if the statement is false, if it is untrue, then it is actually true.

11. Medawar, Advice to a Young Scientist (London: Harper and Row, 1979), 31.

12. Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 228.

13. Contribution to the online magazine Edge – as quoted in John Cornwell, Darwin’s Angel (Great Britain: Profile Books, 2007), 63.

14. Stephen Hawking, Gödel and the end of physics, July 20, 2002.

15. The Grand Design, 228.

16. God’s Undertaker, 41.

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