The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

The Goal of the Shari‘ah is Justice, Not Equality

IN SPEAKING OF JUSTICE, many well-intended Muslims are unconsciously secularised. For their discourse about justice (Ar. ‘adl, qist) is so often scarred by failing to grasp its Quranic essence: ‘To put a thing in its rightful place.’1 Which is to say, justice is to give things their proper due – at the due time, the due place, and in due measure.

This requires possessing knowledge about the value and measure of things, as Islam assigns to them, so as to give them their due. ‘Hence,’ Ibn al-Qayyim wrote, ‘knowledge and justice are the root of every good, while injustice and ignorance are the root of every evil.’2

The Quranic insistence on justice can be found in many verses, like: God commands you to render back things held in trust to their rightful owners, and if you judge between people, that you judge justly. [Q.4:58] And also: O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to God, even if it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and wether it be against rich or poor. [Q.4:135]

But talking more from a marketable take on Islam than a textual, well-studied one, they mistakenly equate justice (‘adl) with equality (musawa). This though isn’t really Islam’s story. No doubt, 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 isn’t just reductionist, the concepts are also not very meaningful. While some verses of the Qur’an do have an egalitarian temper to them, many others insist on difference, distinction and divine disparity.

While speaking about the disbelievers who harm and transgress against their own souls due to their disbelief, the Qur’an asks: Is he who is a believer like he who transgresses? They are not equal. [Q.32:18]

We also read: Not equal are the people of the Fire and the people of the Garden. It is the people of the Garden that are the [true] winners. [Q.59:20]

Then there are verses which speak to gender roles, functions and natures: And the male is not like the female. [Q.3:36]

Or as Islam legally requires men to financially maintain family and households, while women do not have any such duty, there’s this verse: God thus commands you concerning [the division of inheritance for] your children: to the male a share equal to that of two females. [Q.4:11]

All this is to say that the Qur’an speaks of justice, not the nebulous social construct of equality. It’s when we veer away from using the vocabulary of the Qur’an, using instead ill-informed substitutes, that distortions or deviations creep in to corrupt the Quranic message. Of all the modern voices guilty of conflating justice with equality, feminism takes first prize.

To conclude: highlighting the core nature of the shari‘ah, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim says that justice is its essential feature. He wrote: ‘Indeed, [God] transcendent is He, has clarified in the paths He legislates that its purpose is: to establish justice among His servants and equity between people. Thus any path by which justice and equity are drawn out is part of the religion, and can never be in opposition to it.’3

Elsewhere he says: ‘The shari‘ah is based on and built on wisdom and [achieving] public welfare, in this life and in the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue which departs from justice to injustice, or mercy to its opposite, or public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly can’t be part of the shari‘ah, even if it is claimed to be so due to some interpretation.’4

1. Al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 537.

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

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

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

Qur’an Contemplations: Openings of Timeless Truths

FROM THE OUTSET, the Qur’an establishes a link between worshiping Allah and knowing Him. The first half of the ‘Opening Chapter’ of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, states:

.‎الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ. الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ. مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ. إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ

All praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds. The All-Merciful, the Compassionate. Master of the Day of Judgement. You alone we worship, and Your help alone do we seek. [Q.1:1-4]

The first three verses teach us who Allah is, so that hearts may love, hope, fear and be in awe of Him. Only then does Allah ask us to declare our singular devotion and worship of Him. It is as if the Qur’an is saying: ‘You can’t worship or adore whom you don’t know.’

Thus in the first verse, Allah describes Himself as rabb – ‘Lord’. In the Quranic language, rabb is Master, Protector, Caretaker, Provider. And just as water descends from above as blessings and rises again to the skies as steam or vapour, so to the sending down of divine blessings and gifts; they are transformed into declarations of loving thanks and praise that ascend to the Lord of the Worlds. Reflecting on Allah’s care and kindness to us, as rabb; as Lord, then, nurtures an abiding sense of love for Allah in our hearts.

Allah then reveals that He, by His very nature, is al-rahman – the All-Merciful, and by dint of His divine act is al-rahim – the Compassionate. It has been said that al-rahman is like the blue sky: serene, vast and full of light; a canopy of protective care over us and over all things. The divine name, al-rahim is like warm rays, so to speak, touching, bathing and invigorating lives, places and events with this life-giving mercy. Those who flee from this joyous warmth, and opt to cover themselves from the light, choose to live in conditions of icy darkness. Knowing Allah is al-rahman, al-rahim, invites optimism; it instils hope (raja’) in Allah’s impulse to forgive, pardon, pity, overlook and, ultimately, to accept what little we offer Him as needy, fragile and imperfect creatures.

The Prophet ﷺ and his Companions once saw a woman frantically searching for a person among the warn-out and wounded. She then found a babe, her baby. She picked it up, huddled it to her chest and gave it to feed. On seeing this, the Prophet asked if such a woman could ever throw her baby into a fire or harms way? They all resoundingly replied, no; she could never do that; her maternal instincts of mercy would never permit it! The Prophet ﷺ went on to tell them:

 لَلَّهُ أَرْحَمُ بِعِبَادِهِ مِنْ هَذِهِ بِوَلَدِهَا – ‘Allah is more merciful to His creation than that mother is to her child.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5653]

The final name of Allah that we encounter in this surah is: Malik – Master, King, Owner of all. It is Allah as Master, as King of Judgement Day, who stands at the end of every path. All things come finally to Him to be judged, recompensed and given their final place for the beliefs that defined who they are, the deeds that defined what they stood for and the sins that stand in their way. To know Allah as Malik, therefore, is to be wary, as well as apprehensive. It is a reason for hearts to be filled with a certain sense of fear (khawf) as well as trepidation concerning the final reckoning and one’s ultimate fate.

The Prophet ﷺ once visited a young boy on his death bed, and asked him how he was. The boy replied: ‘O Messenger of Allah, I am between hoping in Allah and fearing for my sins.’ To which the Prophet ﷺ said:

‎لاَ يَجْتَمِعَانِ فِي قَلْبِ عَبْدٍ فِي مِثْلِ هَذَا الْمَوْطِنِ إِلاَّ أَعْطَاهُ اللَّهُ مَا يَرْجُو وَآمَنَهُ مِمَّا يَخَافُ

‘The like of these two qualities never unite in the heart of a servant except that Allah grants him what he hopes for and protects him from what he fears.” [Al-Tirmidhi, no.983]

Only after being made aware of these four names of Allah which, in turn, instil in hearts a sense of love, fear and hope in Allah, are we led to stating: You alone do we worship, and Your help alone do we seek. In other words, the order to worship comes after the hearts having come to know Allah – the object of their loving worship, reverence and adoration.

The surah concludes by teaching us to give voice to the universal hope, by asking to be guided to the path of Allah’s people and to help steer clear of the paths of misguidance and perdition:

‎اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ. صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ. غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ

Guide us to the Straight Path; the path of those whom You have favoured; not of those who incur wrath, nor of those who are astray. [Q.1:5-7]

Amin!

Imam al-Dhahabi on Sufis, Sufism & Spiritual Wayfaring

Far from being foreign to Islam, sufism – the science of spiritual excellence (‘ilm al-ihsan) and purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs) – is a central aspect of the religion. In fact, it is its very core or heart. This is especially true when such sufism reflects the spirit of the early traditionalists or ahl al-hadith renuncients and pietists; like Ma‘ruf al-Karkhi, Sari al-Saqati, Bishr al-Hafi, Sahl al-Tustari, Junayd al-Baghdadi, Yahya ibn Mu‘adh al-Razi, or other illumined souls mentioned in Qushayri’s Risalah or orthodox “Epistle on Sufism”. This was a sufism tightly-tethered to the Sunnah; severe against bid’ah; averse to the over-rationalising of the kalam practitioners; and devastating towards the metaphysics of the philosophers. It was a sufism ‘ala tariqat al-salaf – “upon the path of the predecessors”; a tasawwuf al-‘amali or “practical sufism”. Al-Dhahabi sketches the contours of this sufism (tasawwuf) and spiritual wayfaring (suluk), thus:

العَالِمُ إِذَا عَرِيَ مِنَ التَّصوف وَالتَألُّه، فَهُوَ فَارغ، كَمَا أَنَّ الصُّوْفِيّ إِذَا عَرِيَ مِنْ عِلْمِ السُّنَّة، زَلَّ عَنْ سوَاءِ السَّبيل

‘The scholar, if devoid of sufism or devotional practice, is empty; just as the sufi, if devoid of knowledge of the Sunnah, will stray from the correct path.’1

إِذِ اَلقَادِحُ فِي مُحقّ اَلصُّوفِيَّةِ دَاخِلٌ فِي حَدِيثِ «مَنْ عَادَى لِي وَلِيًّا فَقَدْ بَارَزَنِي بِالْمُحَارَبَةِ» وَالتّارِكُ لِإِنكَارِ اَلبَاطِلِ مِمَّا سَمِعَهُ مِن بَعضِهِم تَارِكٌ لِلأَمْرِ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَالنَّهْيِ عن اَلْمُنكرِ عاص لله تعالى بذلك

‘The critic of a genuine sufi becomes the target of the hadith: “Whoever shows enmity to a Friend of Mine, I shall be at war with him.”2 While one who forgoes all condemnation for  what is plainly wrong in what he hears from  some of them, abandons the commanding of good and forbidding of evil.’3

فَمَا أَحلَى تَصُوفَ الصَّحَابَة وَالتَّابِعِيْنَ! مَا خَاضُوا فِي هَذِهِ الخَطَرَاتِ وَالوسَاوِسِ، بَلْ عبدُوا اللهَ، وَذَلُّوا لَهُ وَتَوَكَّلُوا عَلَيْهِ، وَهم مِنْ خَشيته مُشفقُوْنَ، وَلأَعدَائِهِ مُجَاهِدُوْنَ، وَفِي الطَّاعَة مُسَارعُوْنَ، وَعَنِ اللَّغو مُعرضون

‘How beautiful was the sufism of the sahabah and tabi‘un! They never probed into such phantasms or whisperings. Instead, they worshipped God, humbled themselves before  Him and relied upon Him. They had immense  awe and fear of Him, waged jihad against His foes, hastened to His obedience and shunned vain talk.’4

بَلَى، السُّلُوْكُ الكَامِلُ هُوَ الوَرَعُ فِي القُوتِ ، وَالوَرَعُ فِي المَنْطِقِ ، وَحِفْظُ اللِّسَانِ، وَمُلاَزَمَةُ الذِّكْرِ ، وَتَرْكُ مُخَالَطَةِ العَامَّةِ ، وَالبُكَاءُ عَلَى الخَطِيئَةِ ، وَالتِّلاَوَةُ بِالتَّرْتِيلِ وَالتَّدَبُّرِ ، وَمَقْتُ النَّفْسِ وَذَمُّهَا فِي ذَاتِ اللهِ ، وَالإِكْثَارُ مِنَ الصَّوْمِ المَشْرُوعِ ، وَدَوَامُ التَّهَجُّدِ ، وَالتَّوَاضُعُ لِلْمُسْلِمِيْنَ ، وَصِلَةُ الرَّحِمِ ، وَالسَّمَاحَةُ وَكَثْرَةُ البِشْرِ ، وَالإِنْفَاقُ مَعَ الخَصَاصَةِ ، وَقَوْلُ الحَقِّ المُرِّ بِرِفْقٍ وَتُؤَدَةٍ ، وَالأَمْرُ بِالعُرْفِ ، وَالأَخْذُ بِالعَفْوِ ، وَالإِعْرَاضُ عَنِ الجَاهِلِينَ ، وَالرِّبَاطُ بِالثَّغْرِ ، وَجِهَادُ العَدُوِّ ، وَحَجُّ البَيْتِ ، وَتَنَاوُلُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ فِي الأَحَايِينِ ، وَكَثْرَةُ الاسْتِغْفَارِ فِي السَّحَرِ ، فَهَذِهِ شَمَائِلُ الأَوْلِيَاءِ، وَصِفَاتُ المُحَمَّدِيِّينَ ، أَمَاتَنَا اللهُ عَلَى مَحَبَّتِهِم

‘Rather, the perfect suluk entails being circumspect in one’s food and speech; guarding one’s tongue; making dhikr continuously; not socialising with people too much; weeping over one’s sins; reciting the Qur’an calmly, distinctly and by pondering over it; detesting one’s ego  (nafs) and rebuking it for God’s sake; increasing in the prescribed fasts; praying tahajjud regularly; being humble with people; maintaining ties of kinship; being tolerant and largehearted; smiling alot; spending on relatives and dependants; speaking the truth, even if bitter, mildly and without haste or frustration; enjoining good; having a forgiving nature; turning away from the ignorant; guarding the frontiers; waging jihad; performing pilgrimage; only eating what is lawful, at all times; as well as seeking forgiveness of God abundantly in private. Such are the characteristics of the awliya, and the qualities of the Muhammadans (sifat al-muhammadiyyun). May God cause us to die loving them.”5

Pointing to the worldly detachment required to purify the nafs and to wean it away from worldliness; and that it is the doing that counts, not mere book knowledge, Junayd said: ‘We did not take sufism from “he said this” or “he said that”; but from hunger, worldly detachment and abandoning comforts.’ After citing this, al-Dhahabi remarked:

 هَذَا حَسَنٌ، وَمُرَادُهُ: قَطْعُ أَكْثَرِ المَأْلُوْفَاتِ، وَتَرْكُ فُضُوْلِ الدُّنْيَا، وَجُوْعٌ بِلاَ إِفرَاطٍ. أَمَّا مَنْ بَالَغَ فِي الجُوعِ – كَمَا يَفْعَلُهُ الرُّهبَانُ – وَرَفَض سَائِرَ الدُّنْيَا وَمَأْلُوْفَاتِ النَّفْسِ مِنَ الغِذَاءِ وَالنَّومِ وَالأَهْلِ، فَقَدْ عَرَّضَ نَفْسَهُ لِبَلاَءٍ عَرِيْضٍ، وَرُبَّمَا خُولِطَ فِي عَقْلِهِ، وَفَاتَهُ بِذَلِكَ كَثِيْرٌ مِنَ الحَنِيْفِيَّةِ السَّمْحَةِ، وَقَدْ جَعَلَ اللهُ لِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدْراً. وَالسَّعَادَةُ فِي مُتَابَعَةِ السُّنَنِ، فَزِنِ الأُمُورَ بِالعَدْلِ، وَصُمْ وَأَفْطِرْ، وَنَمْ وَقُمْ، وألزم الوَرَعَ فِي القُوْتِ، وَارْضَ بِمَا قَسَمَ اللهُ لَكَ، وَاصْمُتْ إِلاَّ مِنْ خَيْرٍ، فَرَحْمَةُ اللهِ عَلَى الجُنَيْدِ، وَأَيْنَ مِثْلُ الجُنَيْدِ فِي عِلْمِهِ وَحَالِهِ؟

‘This is excellent, and what is meant here is forgoing most comforts, renouncing what is superfluous of the world, and hunger without extreme. As for one who goes beyond limits in hunger, as monks do, or renounces the world and all comforts of the self – like food, sleep or family – he exposes himself to huge tribulation that can even impair his rational mind, and by which he forfeits much of the easy-going monotheistic religion. For every thing God has made a measure; and happiness lies in following the prophetic ways. So weigh matters justly. Fast and break fast, sleep and pray, cling to circumspection with regards to sustenance, be content with what God apportions for you, and keep silent save for good. May God have mercy be upon Junayd. Where is the likes of him in respect to his knowledge and spiritual state?’6

In order not to be, as al-Dhahabi put it, “empty”; hollow; a mere shell without substance, we must each have a serious regime of spiritual practice where prayer, fasting, dhikr and other religious practices are internalised; where true sincerity is cultivated; and where the ego is tamed and trained. And this is what sufism or tasawwuf – the normative scholarly term for this science – is all about. Of course, the rule to follow here is, as Ibn Taymiyyah writes, that there are two extreme tendencies in respect to sufism: ‘One type that affirms all that is true or false from it, and a type that rejects whatever is true or false from it – as certain theologians and scholars of law have done. The correct stance, as with any other thing, is to accept whatever conforms to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and to reject from it whatever opposes them.’7 And, of course, the other scholarly maxim to follow is: al-‘ibrah bi’l-haqa’iq wa’l-ma‘ani la bi’l-alfadh wa’l-mabani – ‘Consideration is given to the realities and meanings, not to the jargon or terminologies.’

Attempts to kick the whole of sufism into the long grass is thus a retreat from normative Islam and a digression from Sunni orthodoxy. A firm commitment to our fiqh, to the outer duties of Islam, is admirable and obligatory. But any following of the outward that is not illumined by a wise and transformative spiritual life, will only breed those who are harsh, hostile, self-righteous, who lash out against the innocent, and who thrive on schisms and controversy. Such has long been the received wisdom in Islam: our present state of affairs being the product of its collective neglect.

1. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998),15:410.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.6502.

3. Al-Muqizah fi ‘Ilm Mustalah al-Hadith (Beirut: Dar al-Bashshar al-Islamiyyah, 1991), 89-90, citing Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id.

4. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 18:510.

5. ibid., 12:90-91.

6. ibid., 14:69-70.

7. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:82.

Task of Tafsir Isn’t to Preach to the Public, It’s to Reveal Quranic Gems and Meanings

I recently met a brother who I’d not seen since the late ’90s. He was eager to remind me of an incident I had more or less forgotten about. I was working in an Islamic bookshop at the time and he came in to buy the ten volume translation of Tafsir Ibn Kathir Abridged. At the time it was selling for just under £100. To his surprise (and I’m guessing also to his disappointment), I dissuaded him from doing so; I put him off. Truth of the matter is he wasn’t the first one I discouraged from buying this multi-volume tafsir; I had done this to a few others before. But why?

But let me be clear. It wasn’t because I’m against people growing in sacred knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, and all praise is for Allah, Allah has allowed me to be involved in learning, teaching and disseminating sacred knowledge of Islam since the mid 1980s. Over three decades on, and it’s still my core passion and vocation.

Nor was it because of what I saw to be the somewhat inelegant way in which the Qur’an, the Word of God, had been rendered into English throughout the translation. And neither was my concern that it wasn’t the actual real deal; it was a tahdhib – an abridgement and a slight reworking of the original.

Instead, my motive was more straightforward. Tafsir works aren’t usually written with the general public in mind. Their whole style, length, format, content, technical vocabulary or discourse is mitigated against a general readership. In fact, the target audience of tafsir works is specifically the scholar or budding scholar.

Knowing the brother fairly well, and knowing he was neither an academic nor a keen lay reader, I explained why I thought he shouldn’t buy the Tafsir and suggested he buy some other books and CDs that would be more relevant and immediate to his needs and thirst for sacred knowledge. He took my advice, and I happily took his money.

Of course, I wasn’t suggesting that only a scholar could or should benefit from the Qur’an. But the reality is that non-specialists will almost certainly find tafsir books overbearing and difficult. Even the modern tafsirs (leaving aside how correct it is to describe some of them as tafsir) are a challenge for the layman: less due to language or style; and more due to just how lengthy any complete tafsir is likely to be! The non-academic or layman simply doesn’t usually have the sheer will to plough through volumes and volumes of pedantic commentary on the Qur’an – or anything else for that matter. Although most will find the sheer will to binge watch episode after episode of Ertugrul or Games of Thrones, or other multi-seasoned box set that takes their fancy. So it’s less a complete lack of will: it’s more a lack of will for some things, but not for others. Just saying.

To be fair, there have been a few diligent lay readers who’ve managed to plough through the entire ten volume tafsir! But this should be seen for what it is: rare exceptions to the rule. What should be asked here is that those who have churned their way through the entire tafsir, did they do so having learnt the personally obligatory (fard al-‘ayn) matters Islam obligates each Muslim to know – with regards to core knowledge of creed, acts of worship, social transactions, ethics, and spiritual purification of the heart – or was it at the expense of holistically learning this? Because as counter-intuitive as this may sound, digesting an entire tafsir is unlikely to teach a Muslim the fard al-‘ayn knowledge that he or she is required to know and practice.

I suspect, however, that most people who purchase this ten volume tafsir do so more as a reference work, or as something they can dip into now and again, rather than something to read from cover to cover. And that, no doubt, is a commendable and well-intended aim.

Going back to the brother. I also suggested to him that he find a good English translation of the Qur’an, perhaps one with some helpful footnotes (I suggested Yusuf Ali’s to him at the time), to help nurture a personal, practical, reflective relationship with Allah’s Book. A couple of years later, the heftier (in terms of sheer price, size and weight) and highly elegant The Majestic Qur’an came out, which I duly started recommending to people. Fast forward to 2019, and there are quite a few good translations of the Qur’an, some with useful footnotes to help the non-specialist deepen their understanding of the Holy Book. As for tafsirs, there’s now a wonderful translation, in one manageable slim volume, of the famous, yet simple Tafsir al-Jalalayn – which I certainly encourage the keen lay reader to perhaps consider trying to benefit from.

It has been said that throughout Islamic history, the lay person’s link with the Qur’an was less about trying to glean its gems of meaning and majesty, but was more about it being devotional recital: a sacrament; a ritual. I’m not sure how true that is. Though in a pre-modern age, where mass literacy or formal schooling weren’t widespread, it’s easy to see why that could have been the case.

That said, the modern world has changed the layman in respect to literacy and numeracy. Most people, certainly here in the West, have had at least a half decent education. Mass education and mass media have exposed us all to a whole raft of facts and figures, and ideas and abstractions, like never before. Thus it could reasonably be argued that today’s layman has less of an excuse not to engage a decent translation of the Qur’an (or a one volume tafsir) compared to a layman of earlier times. In other words, what stops today’s layman for reading a good translation of the Qur’an – not in order to dish out fatwas or make up their own rulings and interpretations, but to gain an overall understanding and appreciation of what the Good Lord wants; via the stories, lessons, parables and religious instruction related in the Qur’an?

As for the scholar, budding scholar, or student of sacred learning, their way is to regularly meditate over the Qur’an, and deepen their connection with it. Of course, aid should be taken from the books of tafsir: classical and contemporary; both the textual (ma’thur) and rational (ma‘qul) genres. Let them nurture and imbibe in themselves the adab, character and worldview of the Qur’an, and then help steer others towards this.

Whether in Friday sermons, or in general circles for the laity, let the scholar or student of knowledge – not as mufassir; exegist, but as khatib; preacher, and wa‘iz; exhorter – draw wisely from that rich, profound tafsir heritage and share some of what will awaken and inspire the hearts of the lay people to Allah and the Afterlife. This has been the tried and tested method to help attach people to the Qur’an, and to its invitation and summons to God and godliness.

And we seek Allah’s enabling grace.

Knowing God is Like Knowing Your Neighbour

Many are keen to know about God’s laws. Others are keen to know how best to help God’s servants who have been wronged. But very few of us seem keen to want to know about God Himself, or want our hearts to deepen in knowledge of God. So the latest episode of this podcast seeks to help rectify this.

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