The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Man, Meaning & Modernity

This is a short five minute video, done in conjunction with Ustadhah Uzma Jung, about how human beings are meaning-seeking creatures who have an inner urge to want to find purpose and meaning. No matter how much our needs are catered for, we humans have a hunger to find meaning and to ask: Why are we here? And to what story do we belong?

As basic as the message will be to most Muslims, it’s still worth investing in watching the video for the following reasons: (i) to remind ourselves of these basics, and even fill in any holes we have in the matter; (ii) help us articulate the message to others; and (iii) to know the content of the video to perhaps even share it with others. Given that we now live in a post-monotheistic Britain, we simply can’t afford to be indifferent or unconcerned about doing whatever we can to help our fellow non-Muslim citizens make the right choices and restore the memory of God back to their hearts. The Qur’an and the Prophet’s example ﷺ require of us nothing less.

The video, along with other talks and reflections, is on my YouTube channel (Surkheel Abu Aaliyah), and can be viewed here. Please do share and subscribe if you find any of the videos beneficial.

Rethinking Our Da‘wah in Post-Monotheistic Britain

Given that the knowledge the ‘ulema and du‘at teach and convey is sacred, majestic and noble: That this is indeed a noble Qur’an [Q.57:77], then they too are expected to exemplify nobility and dignity in terms of character and how they carry themselves. The message is noble, its carriers must be noble too. It’s as short and simple as that!

No doubt, the loftier reason for scholars and callers to have beautiful character and noble conduct is for the love of Allah, and for the love of virtue itself because Allah loves and is pleased with it. Other reasons to embody virtue are significant, although lesser in degree. One reason has to do with status. If ‘ulema or du‘at behave in an unbecoming manner, it’s less about their status dropping in the public’s eyes, and more that it reflects badly on the actual knowledge itself. Sacred knowledge loses its gravitas; its haybah, when its carriers lose theirs. The nafs, egged on by shaytan’s whispers, will grab at any excuse to evade the authority of sacred knowledge; let alone demean or discredit it.

It ought to be said that while the post specifically addresses scholars and du‘at, the fact is that all Muslims here in the West have a duty of da‘wah. In Islam, people belong to either the ummat al-ijabah or ummat al-da‘wah. Which is to say, they are people who have either responded to the call; and are thus Muslims, or they are people to whom the call must be conveyed; and hence are currently non-Muslims. The Qur’an says: And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God and does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims.’ [Q.41:33] There’s no doubt that da‘wah entails conveying, clarifying, discussing, and sometimes even debating. But doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk definitely has its place. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and patience tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects. Scholars insist: lisan al-hal abyan min lisan al-maqal – which, when rendered into common English idiom, might mean: ‘Actions speak louder than words.’ So da‘wah for most people should be guided by the following contention: ‘Use words in your preaching only if absolutely necessary.’1 In all of this, we should always keep in mind that it is in the nature of tawhid, of Abrahamic monotheism, to call upon its adherents to be healers and therapists; and this is even more so the case in this post-modern age deeply traumatised by its existential aimlessness and so desperately calling out to be healed. In Nietzsche’s words: ‘He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.’

In what follows, I’ll discuss some causes which lend themselves to the dignity and noble conduct that da‘wah ila’Llah – or ‘calling to God’ – demands. I’ll also address some of the mistaken attitudes and misconduct that currently taint the integrity of the da‘wah. And by da‘wah, I don’t mean just the kind we do as individuals to neighbours, work colleagues or friends. But also the numerous street da‘wah enterprises throughout the country; da‘wah in the park; and da‘wah in a lecture, dialogue, or debate setting: may Allah increase them all in goodness and tawfiq.

1 – Intrinsic to scholars, teachers and callers to Islam being noble and beautiful souls is the question of sincerity. We read this verse in the Holy Qur’an: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to Allah upon sure knowledge …’ [Q.12:108] Hence the scholar or caller calls to God, not to themselves; their social media profiles; their organisation; nor to making earning money their primary goal. All of this contradicts sincerity in calling to Allah. Al-Qushayri wrote: ‘Sincerity is to single-out the Real [God] as the sole object of devotion. Meaning that one desires by their obedience to draw closer to God, exalted is He, to the exclusion of all else, such as making a show [of one’s piety] for people; seeking their praise; taking pleasure in their compliments; or other such things besides drawing closer to God, exalted is He. It is right to say that sincerity is: Purifying the act from creation having any share in it.’2

2 That being sincere is something easier said than done may be seen from these words of Sufyan al-Thawri – an early and notable scholar and renunciant of Islam: ‘Nothing was harder for me to ever remedy than my own nafs.’3 To claim the maqam al-da‘wah is, to say the least, problematic. To lay claim to the maqam al-sidq, of acting truly and sincerely for God alone, ought to, in the case of most of us, beggar some belief. For it would mean that we’ve eliminated our ego; that there is no more nafs. And that is quite a claim. If the nafs were to be truly absent, our own world would witness wonders. For human happiness will only flourish when the soul is free from ego and at rest in God.

3 – One verse of the Qur’an says: We did not send any Messenger, except with the language of his people, that he might make [the message] clear to them. [Q.14:4] To deliver the call or summons to God in a language people understand should go without saying. For how can the message help steer people out of the darkness and into the light, [Q.14:5] if it cannot be understood? But being understood, and thus relatable at some basic, yet meaningful level isn’t just about speaking the indigenous language. We could speak the right lingo, yet still come across as unrelatable due to adopting foreign dress codes and cultural outlooks that Islam does not insist upon, unnecessarily alienating us from the wider public. Geographic ignorance of a people’s ‘urf or ‘adah; their customs, norms or conventions, isn’t expected of believers who claim to be steered by the prophetic Sunnah.

4 In a Britain where one in three people now believe there are Muslim-run ‘no-go areas’ across the country; where two-thirds of the public claim they know little or nothing about Islam (most saying that whatever little they do know is learnt via the media); where one in four people don’t believe in God (compared to one in ten, in 1998); and where over fifty percent of the nation say that they have no religious affiliation, being unrelatable isn’t an option. Our greatest vocation as Muslims, then, is to heal our country’s growing enmity towards Abrahamic monotheism, not exacerbate it. How is it there’s a sizeable presence of Muslims in Britain (about 5% of the population), yet atheism is relentlessly on the rise? It suggests that, current hostilities to religiousness aside, we Muslims need to be better fit for purpose. As Tennyson wrote: ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.’

5 – I cite the above statistics not to incite fear or panic, or some sense of defeatism, but as a sense of urgency in revisiting current trends of inviting to Abrahamic monotheism. As such, strategies that undermine wise and shari‘ah guided inculturation (not assimilation), or that erect religiously unwarranted alienation between the ummat al-ijabah and ummat al-da‘wah, must be swiftly remedied. This, as Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad says, ‘imposes the duty, painful for some, of shedding the ‘urf and ‘ada decorations of foreign lands.’4 A British Muslim who insists on wearing Arab or Asian garb, and cling to an Arab or Asian cultural outlook, is unlikely to endear monotheism to the wider public, who will see them as alien; unrelatable; unable to envisage how Islam might be for British people.

6 If da‘wah is the prime reason to legitimise our presence here, then we’re duty-bound to urgently dispense with these unnecessary overseas ‘urf embellishments, in order not to be responsible for tanfir, for alienation or repelling others. The Prophet ﷺ said: bashshiru wa la tunaffiru, yassiru wa la tu‘assiru – ‘Give glad tidings and do not repel [people], make things easy and do not make things difficult.’5 So, except with the language of his people isn’t limited to speech. It also involves a certain degree of cultural affinity and familiarity with what makes the people what they are. Which is to say, the da‘i should know and be relatable to the mad‘u – to those whom the call is being made.

7 While da’wah is a constant duty and concern upon every Muslim, it is currently the privilege of a growing minority who realise we are not here primarily to be consumers, to improve our material welfare, or to live cozy lives. For that reason we could even say that the history of Islam in Britain is much younger than the history of Muslims in Britain. For only with da’wah, with the deliberate adoption of summoning others to the All-Merciful Lord as the central principle, could we claim in any meaningful way that Islam arrived on these shores; to this royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle. Those who emigrated here with other intentions are urged to redress this matter within themselves. 

8 – The Holy Qur’an says: Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [Q.16:125] Also: Had you been stern or harsh-hearted, they would have surely dispersed from around you. [Q.3:159] And about the prophets Moses and Aaron, peace be upon them, we read: ‘Go, both of you, to Pharaoh, for he had indeed transgressed all bounds. Speak to him gently, that perhaps he may take heed or fear [God].’ [Q.20:43-4] Overall, then, our da‘wah must be one of tabshir and taysir, of giving glad-tidings and making things easy. The ‘alim or da‘i, when they exhort anyone, it must be with wisdom and kindness. When they enjoin good, it must be with mildness and facilitating ease. And when they forbid wrong, it must be done with gentleness, clemency and compassion. Indeed, even when the scholar or da‘i strive to do justice, they must try, where appropriate, to do justice with a light touch. One famous hadith says: ‘Indeed God is gentle and loves gentleness. He gives to gentleness what He doesn’t give to harshness, and what He doesn’t give to other than it.’6

9 –  It seems there’s a rising trend to skip over the stricter passages of the Qur’an, in terms of it being a warning, admonition and an ultimatum to not take the ungodly path to Hell. But how is such strict stuff tabshir? The answer is that it isn’t. It’s tahdhir – ‘warning!’ This Qur’an has been revealed to me that I may warn you with it and whomsoever it may reach. [Q.6:19] We must remember that along with describing our Prophet ﷺ as: a mercy to the worlds, [Q.21:107] the Qur’an says: O Prophet! We have indeed sent you as a witness and as a bearer of good news and a warner, and as a summoner to God by His permission, and as a light-giving lamp. [Q.33:45-6] The da‘i – along with wisdom, patience, mildness, familiarity and genuine concern – should follow in the prophetic footsteps, by being both bashir and nadhir: sometimes inviting, while at other times summoning; knowing just what medicine to best administer, and when.

10 Having said the above, those with wiser heads, deeper spiritual insights, and greater experience teach us that the nature of post-religious Britain is such that its people do not normally respond well to tahdhir. Therefore, there must be a greater emphasis on tabshir, though not a total omission of tahdhir. Tahdhir must be used sparingly, like a pinch of salt sprinkled over food: too little and the tongue finds it unpalatable; too much and it’s likely to elicit an aversion. Some see in the next verse a validation for not frightening people in such times with divine threats, out of concern for not driving them away: Lurk not on every road to threaten and bar [people] who believe in Him from the path of God. [Q.7:86] This, while recalling the rule: al-‘ibrah bi ‘umum al-lafz la bi khusus al-sabab – ‘Consideration is given to the generality of the wording, not the specific cause for its revelation.’ Hence they say, that in general: al-waqt waqtu tabshir la waqtu tahdhir – ‘The times are times of glad-tidings, not times of warnings.’7

11 The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Never did Allah send a prophet except that he was a shepherd.’ His Companions asked: ‘Even you?’ He replied: ‘Yes, I was a shepherd for a modest wage for [some of] the people of Makkah.’8 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani commented: ‘The scholars say: The wisdom behind inspiring the prophets to be shepherds before prophethood is so that they would acquire the skills to humbly tend and care for the affairs of their [respective] nations. Since by mingling with the flock, it makes them acquire mildness and gentleness. For in patiently tending to them; herding them together after being scattered in [various] grazing fields; moving them from pasture to pasture; or guarding them from dangers, like from predatory beasts or thieves; and growing familiar with their different natures … By this, they learn how to bear patience with their ummah, recognise their differing natures and varying attitudes, heal their wounds, and comfort their weak.’9 The mild and patient qualities of shepherding must therefore be absolutely integral to the nature and character of the da‘i, if he or she wishes to mirror the work and ways of God’s prophets.

12 Cultivating sincere and genuine concern for others is the intent of the famous Arabic proverb: لَيْسَت النَائِحَةُ الثَّكْلى كَالْمُسْتأجَرَة – ‘The bereaved weeper is not like the hired [mourner].’ In other words, the mother in whose lap her only child dies, isn’t like the criers for hire in terms of tears and grief. The tears of the former are real and come from a heart torn to bits. As for the latter, their grief or tears are an act, a put on, part of the job they get paid to do. Such must be the case for da‘wah too. We must ask Allah to nurture in our hearts true and genuine prophetic concern for peoples’ guidance and overall welfare. But without sincere inner concern, we’re in danger of turning da‘wah into a job, or an exercise for the ego, or an opportunity to unleash our darker pathologies and frustrations upon others. The idea that we can teach da‘wah tactics and techniques, without also imparting serious spiritual instruction or nurturing a classical ihsan-rooted Islam, is a forlorn blunder that continues to have huge tanfiri ramifications. The crier-for-hire da‘i needs to swiftly be made jurassic: become a thing of the past, extinct like the dinosaur.

13 The da‘wah can have no place for angry, incandescent preachers who have no traits of shepherding, but who instead rant and rave, foam at the mouth, and aggressively talk at their audience, rather than talk to them. Such hysteria is simply not the prophetic voice and concern; it’s the ego’s. On those occasions where something other than mildness or gentleness was called for, then the sirah shows us that it was a measured sternness, or a composed anger, born of the ruh, the Spirit, not of the nafs. To vindicate such unsightly harshness, by pointing to the hadith which says about the Prophet ﷺ that: إِذَا خَطَبَ احْمَرَّتْ عَيْنَاهُ وَعَلاَ صَوْتُهُ وَاشْتَدَّ غَضَبُهُ كَأَنَّهُ مُنْذِرُ جَيْشٍ – ‘When he gave a sermon, his eyes would redden, his voice would grow louder, and he would be intensely passionate, as if he were warning of an [enemy] army,’10 is falsely equating ruh with nafs; beauty with ugliness; composed, yet passionate exhortation with frenzied and self-satisfied pontification. How much more could the prophetic character be so self-servingly distorted or assassinated?! Bottom line is that those whose waspish conduct or childish temper tantrums drive people from Islam are tanfiris; perhaps even accursed, since they undo the very work of the Prophets.

14 If the da‘wah should not tolerate awful adab, then it should be even less tolerant of atrocious ‘aqidah. By this I mean the trend that slights the very idea of warnings of Hell or Divine Wrath; or makes it out that Hellfire is just a myth for Muslim simpletons; or that all good non-Muslims will go to jannah.11 For what now counts for most people, including an increasing number of ill-informed and insecure Muslims isn’t God or holiness. It’s that we simply be good people and agree to the secular decencies of our age. Such adulteration of the din might stave off the dangers of tanfir. But such theological ‘social distancing’ from the more rigorous, jalali aspects of the faith stand in such stark contrast to the message of the Qur’an, that it makes them unquestionably or utterly unIslamic. And while it’s human nature to want to be met with the approval of others, this is not a case where the means might be said to justify the ends. As for the believer, he or she wishes acceptance, not for their own sake, but so that the message of God’s Oneness and abounding mercy may be given heed. This is the true Abrahamic hope for the Ishmaelite nation: ‘So make the hearts of the people incline towards them.’ [Q.14:37]

15 In our post-Christian, post-monotheistic Britain there are plenty of reasons why we should try and make the invitation to God as palatable as possible, without compromises that amount to adulteration. As the demands for Islam to reform along the line of current liberal orthodoxies intensify, so does the temptation to water down faith or gloss over its less palatable bits: Perhaps you may [feel to] leave out some of what is revealed to you, and your heart feels strained because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or an angel not come with him?’ You are nothing except a warner, and God is Guardian over all things. [Q.11:12] So the frightened or anxious-to-please Muslim may ask themselves: ‘What if I omit this religious ruling or alter that part of Islam, wont the truth be more agreeable?’ Yet we are told the truth must be delivered as it was revealed, and to airbrush out a part of what is obligated would be to cave in to the ego’s panic. Instead, what is expected of us is to do what the Holy Qur’an asks, when it states: your duty is only to convey. [Q.3:20] Upon the believer, then, is to convey the message wisely, contextually, without being paralysed by fear, complexes or insecurities, and by prioritising the message of tawhid over all other concerns; and then simply leave the rest to Allah.

16 As the Prophet ﷺ was sending the highly learned Mu‘adh b. Jabal to Yemen, as a da‘i to Allah, he reminded him of who his target audience was and what his priorities should be – calling to the Oneness of God: ‘Indeed you are going to a community from the People of the Book, so call them to testify that there is no God [deserving of worship] save Allah, and that I am the Messenger of Allah. If they accept that, then inform them that God has obligated upon them five prayers in a day and night. If they accept that, inform them that God has obligated them with charity [zakat], to be taken from their rich and distributed to their poor …’12 Priority in da‘wah must, therefore, start with what is most important, then then next in importance; and so on. Wisdom in da‘wah should start by being clear about two matters: Firstly, that we are not just Muslims in Britain, but Muslims of Britain. For the vast majority of us, Britain is our home. In fact, if polls are to be believed, seventy-seven percent of Muslims ‘very strongly’ identify with the UK, compared to fifty-one percent of the overall population. Muslims in Britain not only seem to want to belong, they feel that they actually do belong. And secondly

17 That today’s Britain, for all intents and purposes, is both post-monotheistic and post-religious. What then is the wisdom behind raging for the implementation of Islamic law in Britain while anti-Muslim sentiment across Britain and Europe are at alarming levels? Ibn Taymiyyah, while speaking of the Abyssinian Negus who – having secretly converted to Islam wasn’t able to openly declare his faith – said: ‘The Negus was unable to implement the laws of the Qur’an since his people would never have allowed him to do so … Yet the Negus and those like him found their way to Paradise (al-najashi wa amthaluhu sa‘ada fi’l-jannah) even though they were unable to observe the rules of Islam or could only abide by such rules as could be implemented in their given circumstances.’13 Policies that eclipse the call to tawhid, by uncalled for demands of Islamic law, aren’t just at odds with religion and reason, they are damaging and dangerous too.

18 People with even a vague scriptural understanding of the God of Abraham have been easier to relate to (and perhaps even give da‘wah to). But today’s atheist, even though pre-modern Muslim societies or theology engaged them as the dahriyyah, are a different kettle of fish; and the post-modern world which atheists and secular humanists have had a dab hand in shaping is unlike anything that has ever come before. And while we have always had a theology of how we can best live as minorities under an ahl al-kitab polity, we need an empathetic theology for how to best be fit for purpose in an ahl al-kidhab, the People of Denial, atheist polity, and the new type of human it is creating. The basis for this must be the recognition that even atheists have the echo of Alastu suffused into the core of their being. So we read in the Qur’an that God made a covenant with all humans whilst in our pre-bodily, pre-earthly forms, saying: alastu bi rabbikum? – ‘Am I not your Lord?’ To which we all said: bala shahidna – ‘Yes indeed! We do bear witness.’ [Q.7:172] It is to retrieve and rekindle this dormant echo of Alastu that prophets were sent and scriptures revealed. Our task as healers, rooted as it must be in mahabbah: love for what each Adamic soul has the potential to become, must start with the work of retrieval.

19 As strange as this might sound to some, what’s probably more important than calling our post-monotheistic milieu to Islam is to help reawaken their fitrah, so that people can leave their comfort zones, question the liberal assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers. Much like Meursault’s tender indifference in Camus’ Outsider, or Antoine’s mood disorders in Sartre’s Nausea, the post-religious person is beset by existential angst, despair and loneliness born from wrongly believing that life is bereft of meaning; we are all here by a series of huge cosmic flukes; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end, thus life is pointless. Du Pasquier wrote: ‘Proclaimed as absurd, life on earth has effectively lost its meaning. Man is offered a multitude of material possibilities and advantages undreamt of by earlier generations, but since we’re now ignorant of what man is, and of what his deep aspirations might be, not one of these miracles can prevent him from foundering in his own despair.’14 Knowing the psychology and philosophies that have created such a profane age, and have so damaged the human perception, is of paramount importance. For: ‘The greatness of a prophet, as opposed to a mere logician, is that he understands the inner life of his adversaries, and constructs arguments that help them to recognise the nature of their own subjectivity.’15

20 About the truth-seeking aim, Ibn Taymiyyah clarified the following: ‘As for those who lived after the age of Jesus, and only some of his accounts reached them; or Moses, with only certain aspects of his story reaching them, then the proof is established upon them only insofar as what has reached them of their [respective] messages. If they differed in interpretations of the Gospel or Torah, whosoever among them intended to seek the truth and diligently pursued it, isn’t subject to divine punishment; even if he erred in the truth, was ignorant of it, or misguided about it.’16 Thus what counts is qasd al-haqq; intending to seek the truth, even if one unwittingly misses the actual truth. Such is the vastness of the divine plenitude and compassion.

21 As for the British Muslims feeling of belonging, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad noted: ‘Yet the exact temper, and the doctrinal and fiqh framing, of this Muslim wish to integrate in Britain … has not been properly theologised … This empirical Muslim wisdom urgently requires a clearer scriptural and conceptual exposition than the community currently receives from academics, Islamist leaderships, or the race temples. There is a discourse of ‘minority fiqh’, mostly of very feeble intellectual rigour, but we miss its underpinnings in a theology, or, as it were, a ‘minority fikr’, something particularly needed in the context of a post-monotheistic society.’17 By ‘race temples’, he means those UK mosques that function as ‘enclosures for single ethnicities’ whose ‘mono-ethnic and introspective leaderships are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos. Such communities did not come to Europe to converse but to work.’18

22 Let’s begin to wrap-up with what may be obvious: In Britain, how should our da‘wah to God proceed? Of course, every individual and every situation will be different. But the common precepts of the da‘wah should focus on the falaki, cosmic arguments that appeal to the deepest, most shared human intuition which knows that differentiated entities and mutable things must be originated. That is to say, whatever comes into existence, after not existing, must have a cause for its existence. The Qur’an says: Among His [wondrous] signs are the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. Bow not down to the sun or the moon, but bow before God Who created them, if you would worship Him. [Q.41:37] When damaged hearts are invited to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing; when helped to step back from the conditions of modern life so as to see that Man, in his state of nihilism, is distracted, dispersed and unfulfilled, and fails to find true inner peace that comes from fulfilling in this world the higher purpose for which he was created; and when softened by the evidence of Muslim good manners, integrity and forgiveness, such antagonists of faith ‘will give heed to these signs, will make the right choices, and will restore the memory of God to their hearts.’19

23 So to conclude our excursion across Britain’s da‘wah landscape, and recalling Rumi’s words: ‘While the intellect still seeks a saddle for the hajj, love has already encircled the Ka‘bah,‘ this seems a good place to end: ‘The fiqh may struggle at first to create a complete system of engagement with an atheistic culture, but mahabba is operative already. And mahabba, together with a mature and sociologically-informed adaption of local ‘urf …, and an awareness of the Prophetic indispensability of a da‘wah orientation, must create a juridical culture that moves beyond the simple concession-based logic of ‘minority fiqh’, to generate a fully-authentic Islamic rule-making system which will allow us a style of life faithful to revelation and also viable as a mode of rich conviviality with a sad and stressed culture which enjoys an abundance of everything except the indispensable.’20

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. A. H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contention (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), no.43; p.75.

2. Al-Risalat al-Qushayriyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2017), 476.

3. Cited in Abu Nu‘aym al-Asbahani, Hilyat al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 7:5.

4. Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2020), 61.

5. Muslim, no.1732.

6. Muslim, no.2593.

7. See: Ibn Sumayt al-Husayni, al-Manhaj al-Sawi (Yemen: Dar al-‘Ilm wa’l-Da‘wah, 2005), 312.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.2262.

9. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 6:25.

10. Muslim, no.867.

11. Refer to the article on this blog, Reward for Muslim and non-Muslim Doers of Good in the Afterlife; and the more detailed one: Stephen Hawking and the Fate of Non-Muslims in the Afterlife.

12. Muslim, no.19.

13. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 19:218-19.

14. Roger Du Pasquier, Unveiling Islam (Cambridge; The Islamic Texts Society, 2006), 2.

15. Murad, Travelling Home, 177.

16. Al-Jawab al-Sahih (Riyadh, Dar al-‘Asimah, 1999), 2:301-02.

17. Travelling Home, 189.

18. ibid., 49-50.

19. ibid., 181.

20. ibid., 212-13.

De-Normalise the Culture of Self-Promotion!

Possibly one of the most spiritually damaging traits – particularly for scholars, shaykhs, preachers and teachers – is the culture of self promotion and of not passing matters on to those more learned or spiritually rooted. That such a tendency has now been normalised doesn’t speak to our savviness or sophistication, but to our sickness.  

Islamic groups and organisations will do this due to hizbiyyah – ‘partisanship’, ‘bigotry’ and gaining their share of the limelight, or because of the revenue loss it could entail if their own speakers are not the public’s port of call. Individuals will usually succumb to this out of vanity (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’), craving fame and status (hubb al-ri’asah), or some other inglorious nafsi reasons.

Consider Imam al-Ghazali’s words: ‘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.’1

He then offers this example: ‘Thus you see a preacher who advises 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.’2

It would be unwise of us to feel confident that we are free of such a malady. And yet rida ‘an al-nafs – being ‘self-satisfied’, or feeling smug about oneself; one’s knowledge; or one’s accomplishments, is the spiritual poison many of us seem content to inhale, despite it choking to death our spiritual life. Sincere and genuine repentance is the only healing balm, and serious spiritual introspection about our motives or intentions the only course of action.

Compare today’s culture of self-promotion with the attitudes of our venerable salaf. Of how those of them who were less travelled in the path of knowledge and spiritual realisation deferred to those who were more rooted and well-travelled. Indeed, even well-travelled ones would frantically avoid giving fatwas when possible, if they could pass the buck on to someone else.

Ibn Abi Layla, a famous tabi‘i, said: ‘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].’3

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.’4

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.’5

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.’6

The sirah of the Prophet ﷺ, and the hagiographies of the awliya and leading imams teach us that the believer is one who has deep humility, is unassuming in terms of the good Allah honours them to do, and is self-deprecating – not in some outward Victorian sense, but from sincere inward realisation of what they are not. But such virtues are antithetical to our age, which demands that we sell ourselves, and over magnify our ‘talents’ so as to promote our selves, and not delve too much into the question of intentions. And the truth of the matter is that Muslim organisations and individuals have not been immune to this regrettable self promotion and commodification of the ummah. Nor has enough be done to tackle this spiritual morass.

We ask Allah for safety, sincerity and grace; and we ask, too, that He help us be sincere to Allah’s servants and point them to those better suited to be sacred shepherds.

1. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 9:70-71.

2. 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.

3. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.2201.

4. Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.2199.

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

6. ibid., no.1084.

Spiritual Discourses: Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon [1]

Long time readers of The Humble I may have seen Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon’s name crop up now and again. I first wrote about the Shaykh, hafizahullah, after my first travel, and therefore my first real suhbah or spiritual companionship, with him back in 2013. The piece, a sort of travelogue, was called: You Have Wings to Fly, So Don’t Crawl!

After that, I’ve quoted some of the Shaykh’s malfuzat, or ‘[spiritual] discourses’, and have woven them into three or four blog pieces. I have long intended to translate much more of the Shaykh’s malfuzat (he speaks in Urdu, breaking into Persian mystical poetry – Sa‘di, Rumi, et al – now and again), but haven’t had the window of opportunity. I hope to rectify such a remiss on my part, beginning with this piece which is a translation of some of his shorter gems and discourses. Sometimes I will paraphrase Shaykh Jaleel’s words, at other times I’ll quote him directly, depending on how it helps the flow of the discourse. In other words, sometimes I’ll be faithful to the spiritual meanings the Shaykh intends to impart; at other times I will be faithful to his actual words; bi’idhni’Llah. 

1 – Flee to Allah: In his Safrnama or ‘Travelogue’ to Zambia in 2013, Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon exhorts: ‘People today say that society’s condition is really bad; what can we do? But look! The venerable Yusuf, ‘alayhis-salam, didn’t just sit there in a sinful environment making tasbih. Instead, he ran [to Allah; i.e. he took serious steps to shun sin]. This is the only way to be safe from sin, to start running. It’s the only way: So flee to Allah. [Q.51:50]’

What Shaykh Jaleel is stressing here is that we must resist the temptation to let our guards down in the face of modernity’s widespread laxity in sinful conduct and promiscuity. The way to do this, as the Shaykh often states, is via mujahadah – ‘spiritual struggle’ against sins and one’s egotistical soul, to bring ourselves in line with Allah’s loving obedience:

2 – Spiritual Struggle and Seeing Allah: Once in a conversation among spiritual aspirants and seekers in Karachi, the Shaykh advised: ‘Try to spiritually strive (mujahadah) right up till death. After that, it’s spiritual witnessing (mushahadah) all the way.’

In other words, as the true seekers strive their utmost to live their lives in loving surrender and sincere worship of Him, they are gifted and lifted to a station of: an ta‘budu’Llaha ka annaka tara – ‘that you worship Allah as though seeing Him’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6502] in this world; in the next: Some faces on that day shall be radiant, gazing at their Lord. [Q.75:22-3] In this life, mushahadah – spiritual witnessing – is to see Allah with the spiritual eye, due to the heart being full to the brim with faith, sincerity, loving obedience and yearning for Allah. Such yearners are then given to actually see Allah in the Eternal Abode of Ultimate Bliss. Thus by divine grace, a life of mujahadah leads to mushahadah, and to an eternal life of the Beatific Vision. So let’s roll up our sleeves and begin the work! But let us beware of:

3 – Having a Poor Grasp of What Counts as Sins: Also in his Zambian Travelogue, Shaykh Jaleel laments: ‘We haven’t grasped what taqwa is. We think that only a few big sins – like theft, robbery, or fornication and adultery – are actual sins, and that not falling into them makes us a muttaqi. But if the reality of taqwa truly dawned on us, we would seek Allah’s forgiveness for even the good we’ve done; in that: O Lord, what worth is there in our good deed? We don’t ask a reward for it; instead, please just forgive us.’

What the Shaykh, hafizahullah, is alerting us to is that without rooting this reality in our soul, that any good we do has its true source in Allah, we’re in danger of falling into ‘ujb: vanity and self-conceit. ‘Ujb is when we fail to realise the good we have done is not of our own doing: it’s a gift from God. Only when blinded to this do we then see good deeds as being of our own achievement. It’s here we begin to become vain or egotistical, basking in our own self-glory.

As for a common sin often overlooked or downplayed by us moderns, and which is highly toxic to the purity of the spiritual heart, it is:

4 – The Eyes Feasting on the Forbidden: ‘Whoever corrupts their eyes in this world, Allah, exalted is He, will not permit him to be drawn close. For how can impure eyes ever see the Pure Being [of Allah]? Those whose eyes have the traces of impurity or filth in them shall not see the lights of Allah’s mushahadah; neither in this world, nor in the next.’ Guarding the gaze from haram forms and images is a frequent theme of the Shaykh’s mudhakarahs and tarbiyah, given our complacency of the inherent spiritual dangers in not doing so.

The pressing question which remains is this: How can we turn our heart’s gaze away from sin and focus it on Allah (or else to at least learn to avert our gaze or to see mindfully)? To this spiritual quandary, these words of the Shaykh, hafizahullah, are key to those who give them pause for spiritual thought:

5 – Kindling the Flame of Divine Love in Your Heart: ‘Mawlana Rumi, rahimahullah, often asked his shaykh Shams Tabrizi, rahimahullah: “Put a few words into my ear by which the flames of Allah’s love can be set ablaze in my heart.” This is because the ear is a funnel, an auditory canal, through which sound travels and then reaches the heart. So the reason why it is made to hear talk about divine love is so that such talk can become, as it were, a capsule of light which may then burst into our heart. By this, the heart is illumined; the flames of Allah’s love are kindled in it; the world diminishes in our sight; big and mighty nations are seen as lowly; and throne and crown appear as trinkets to sell.’

This sense of the dunya’s hold over us weakening as love of Allah more and more fills our heart is beautifully, yet simply, illustrated in the next exhortation:

6 – On the Wings of Love: A few years back, in a small gathering of seekers and students of sacred knowledge in London, Shaykh Jaleel told us that as one steadily fills their heart with sincere love of God, love of dunya is gradually cast out. Imagine it to be an airplane journey, he said. If, while the plane is still on the tarmac, one peers out the window, other planes and the airport terminals look large and imposing. But as the plane takes off and starts its upward climb, those same objects appear smaller and smaller, until they look so tiny and insignificant, and just disappear. Likewise, as we make a serious effort to fill our heart with Allah’s love; and as the heart soars higher and higher in its journey to Him, the dunya appears more and more insignificant in its sight; until it diminishes, dwindles, and finally vanishes.

Vital to nurturing love of Allah in the heart, and of shunning sins and hastening to divine obedience, is the spiritual practice of muraqabah – ‘vigilance’ of God. Muraqabah is to be mindful of Allah at all times, trying to feel His nearness and presence, making sure that He never see us in a situation He has forbidden us from – which is the subject of our final discourse from Shaykh Jaleel, hafizahullah:

7 – Cling to Muraqabah and Mindfulness: In this respect, the Shaykh explained: ‘This is the Station of Spiritual Excellence (maqam al-ihsan), that a person brings to mind at every moment that Allah is watching me. Whoever actualises such a state will not commit a sin. This is why our grand shaykh, the venerable ‘arif, Mawlana Shah ‘Abd al-Ghani Puhlpuri, rahmatullah ‘alayhi, would teach this muraqabah practice that for five minutes every day meditate over the verse: أَلَمْ يَعْلَمْ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يَرَى – Is he not aware that Allah sees? [Q.96:14] This is everyone’s belief. We all believe that Allah, exalted is He, sees us. But as a person steadily contemplates over the fact that my Lord sees me, then love of Allah grows and it becomes harder to commit sins.’

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

Is Din ‘Private’ Religion & Is Iman ‘Blind’ Faith?

This article revolves around three questions: (1) Does translating din as ‘religion’ imply that it is only a private matter, having nothing at all to do with the public sphere – which is what people usually associate with the term religion? (2) If iman is translated as ‘faith’, does that not suggest it is ‘blind faith’ – which, again, is what many people think when they hear the word ‘faith’; that it is belief without evidence? (3) And what is the type of nazr -“reasoned reflection” – that the Qur’an constantly urges us with, so that people do not have blind faith in God or in the Qur’an?

Back in 2013, I wrote that the theologically correct term for a non-Muslim who becomes a Muslim is a ‘convert’, not a ‘revert’! After all, the Prophet ﷺ, whilst informing us that all people are born on the fitrah (predisposing them to the message of tawhid and Islam), he never actually said to those who became Muslim that, ‘You have re-entered Islam’, or ‘You have become Muslim again’. In other words, you have reverted. Instead, his call to people was simply: aslim – ‘enter into Islam,’ ‘submit,’ ‘become a Muslim’.1 He never asked them to ‘re-enter’ Islam; to revert! Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him, when he said: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’2 Again, he didn’t say: since the time ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘reverted back to Islam.’

In the end I said that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps there’s room in the language for both words: convert and revert (even if the first is theologically correct, and the other is not; and even if it’s the ‘revert posse’ that usually gets all agitated about it). Perhaps it’s just a case of a storm in a teacup?

Here I’ll interrogate two more Islamic terms which, if translated inaccurately or poorly, can lead to great obfuscation or significantly alter the sense of the word. Of course, there are some words which, no matter how painstakingly a translator attempts to render them into good, appropriate English, much will still be lost in translation:

1 – The first one is din. Often translated as ‘religion’, though many Muslims feel that this is a rather inadequate rendering of the word, and that ‘way of life’ would be more in keeping with the inclusiveness the word implies.

In classical Arabic, din means jaza’ – ‘recompense’ or ‘requital’ for acts done. It can also mean obedience (ta‘ah) and humility (dhillah). Islam as a din, therefore, is to obey Allah and to submit to Him in humility. The origin or etymology of the word din also relates to dayn – ‘debt’. In this reading, din is something we owe God by way of worship and loving submission that is due to Him from us.3 The upshot of this is that Islam as din requires believers to order their affairs so that this submission to God is reflected in every aspect of life; from the personal to the political.

Many say that in its etymology, religion comes from the Latin word religare – ‘to bind.’ In this sense, religion is that relationship which binds us to what is regarded as holy, sacred, divine, or worthy of special reverence. It also relates to the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death.

Given the meaning of din in classical or Quranic Arabic, and the sense that is conveyed by religion in English, religion doesn’t seem such a far-fetched way of rendering the word din into English – if it were not for the following:

Although long in the making, by the twentieth century religion no longer articulated the common social good as it once did. Instead, religion was relegated to the private sphere. This privatisation of faith is now the default assumption when we moderns, at least here in Western Europe, usually speak of religion. Previously, religious expression had been a total one. The Enlightenment’s vision of spheres outside the provenance of religion led to confining religion to a tighter space than it had ever occupied. Some, though, distinguish between ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ conceptions of religion. Jonathan Sacks, quoting Ernst Simon, defined as catholic ‘those religions which seek to sanctify all aspects of the life of the individuals and the community – eating, drinking, work, rest, welfare and legislation, love and war.’ ‘Protestant’ religions arose, he says, when significant areas of public life were wrested from religious guidance or authority. ‘Modernity for Jews,’ he writes, ‘meant the protestentisation of a deeply catholic faith.’4 The same may now be said for Islam and Muslims.

The question of whether liberal modernity can accept Religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould is, despite its commitment to an alleged religious tolerance, one that it has yet to clearly answer. Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right; the duty, even, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated; or reduced to a toothless tigers; or swiftly be branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order? Religion often involves living life on a wing and a prayer.

To conclude: It might not be necessary to go on an all out campaign against ‘religion’ as a translation for din. But we may have to spell out its ‘catholic’ undercurrents whenever we Muslims guardedly choose to employ it.

2 – The other problematic term is ‘faith’ as a translation for iman. Here, whatever else any Muslim theologian (or even a Christian one, for that matter) intends by the word, faith is now deemed by many to be something ill-founded, irrational, against the evidence; even. Spearheading this charge is Richard Dawkins who insists that ‘religious faith … does not depend on rational justification.’5 In fact, ‘Faith’, he states, ‘requires no justification and brooks no argument.’6 The prevalent mood today is that science is about facts and proof, while religion is about mere opinion or faith – by which is meant: credulity; an inclination to believe without sufficient evidence.

So what is the Islamic definition of iman? And how much does it tally up with the idea of faith? And is faith itself something unreasonable, or devoid of reasonable evidence? Let’s briefly go through them one at a time:

Lexically, iman means tasdiq – to ‘affirm’ or ‘attest to’ the truth, reality or correctness of something. Technically, iman is to affirm as true all that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent with, in terms of revelation and religion. Iman, therefore, is a state in which the heart accepts God’s truth and lives by it. Although theologians have differed over the exact link, mainstream Islamic theology, nevertheless, confirms that iman involves an unmistakable correlation between inner beliefs of the heart and outer actions of the limbs.7 Moreover, the deeper and profounder the iman, the greater is the sense of aman – the inner ‘peace’ and ‘security’ gifted by God. Leaving aside its link to actions, it might appear that iman is no different to the current picture of faith as unsubstantiated belief (as per New Atheism’s novel, but reductionist definition), were it not for the following:

The Qur’an says, describing one of the many traumatic laments that those who rejected Islam will have with one another in the Afterlife: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [Q.67:10] Anyone who has read the Qur’an, even in a cursory manner, will not have failed to notice its repetitive instance to think, reflect, consider, and use one’s faculty of reason (‘aql): So, for instance, the Qur’an says: Say: ‘I exhort you to one thing: that you awake for God’s sake, in pairs and individually, and then reflect.’ [Q.34:46] So the Qur’an invites people; cajoles them, even, to employ their sense of reason to deliberate over its message: Thus does God make clear to you His signs that you may reason, [Q.2:242], and that they may understand, [Q.6:65]: or that they may reflect, [Q.7:176] So: Will they not reflect? [Q.6:50].

The Qur’an, therefore, doesn’t demand blind faith. Nor does it ask that we accept without some convincing evidence God’s existence or presence in the cosmos. Instead, it asks that we reflect and consider as evidence the nature of the universe and whether it points to an atheistic understanding of the universe by cosmic fluke, or to the existence of a Designer-God who intended for sentient life to emerge in the universe? Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of the night and day, there are signs for those of intelligence. [Q.3:190] Taking a look at the world or at the larger universe, has led many people to conclude that there must be an intelligent, purposeful creator behind it all. This Creator, sound reasoning can tell us, must be eternal; without cause; but is the uncaused cause of all things. The very existence of our universe rather than an eternal nothingness (i.e. that there is something rather than nothing); the emergence of complex, sentient life; let alone the fine tuning of the universe – these offer proof for the existence of a Creator-God. Many scientists, from Newton to Einstein, or John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins in contemporary times, see these aspects of the universe as evidence of a designer. So to claim, as Dawkins and his ilk do, that theistic Religion isn’t rooted in any rational, reason-based evidence is being disingenuous. It’s just not true! For a believer, the entire cosmos is full of shawahid, witnesses, to the awe and splendour of the Divine Existence.

If using our senses and reason to consider the nature of the universe yields some general understanding about God, it is the Qur’an where the rich details are to be found of an All-Merciful, Beneficent God with whom we can seek closeness and loving intimacy. And just as Islam doesn’t require blind faith in God, the Qur’an itself insists that it be interrogated to see if it is really the Word of God: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from other than God, they would have found therein many contradictions. [Q.4:82] Do they claim: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [Q.52:33-34]

So nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of it or its fundamental theological tenets. Rather, it insists that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a ‘leap of faith’, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too. Indeed, mainstream Sunni theology has honoured this quest for reason-based faith when it says: tajibu ma‘rifatu’Llah ta‘ala shar‘an bi’l-nazr fi’l-wujud wa’l-mawjud ‘ala kulli mukallaf qadir – ‘It is a religious requirement upon ever sane person of legal capacity to know God through reflection upon existents and creation.’8 And while Sunni theology settled on accepting as valid iman that has not come about via nazr, but through taqlid; imitation, the thrust of Islam’s theological project – in order to shake off doubt (shakk) or any skepticism (shubhah) – is towards reflection, reasonable consideration and intelligent inquisitiveness.

The requirement to reflect (nazr) is a casual, general one for those who can only do so in broad outlines, and detailed for those who have the ability to get into the more nitty-gritty stuff. A modern education should allow most people to fall somewhere in the middle. And whilst for some lay Muslims, this theological insistence on nazr is honoured more in the breach than the observance, the principle, nonetheless, remains. If it is not nazr upon the cosmos and the nature of the created order, then the believer is expected to employ such nazr to the Qur’an’s truth claim; or to the profundity, simplicity, honesty and integrity of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ; or for those who lived during or close to the prophetic age, the Muhammadan miracles that have either been witnessed, or mass transmitted, or reliably heard. Whatever the case, faith is to be based on nazr and the conviction (yaqin) it yields. As for recognising God through the fitrah; one’s innate disposition, then given that the modern world has so radically and literally altered our thinking patterns, habits of the heart, and how we intuit and perceive things, it would be unwise to use that as an excuse not to engage in some level of nazr.

To wind-up: The idea that in Islam one is expected to have ‘blind faith’ doesn’t tally with the revealed texts or the mainstream theological teachings. The challenge for Dawkins et al. is to engage the actual arguments from theistic theology; not a strawman of their own creation. As for the word faith (or belief) as a translation for iman, despite its drawbacks or misrepresentations, I’m not sure what else could be used as a suitable replacement?

1. See: Al-Bukhari, no.1356.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.

3. See: al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 321; and al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:120-21.

4. Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (London: Continuum, 2005), 4.

5. The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2008), 31.

6. ibid., 308.

7. Cf. Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidat al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:505-35; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawhar al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90-103.

8. Ibn Balban, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 94, 143.

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