Teaching & Purification: the Two Prophetic Tasks
The Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘I am the prayer of my father Abraham and the glad tidings [proclaimed by] Jesus to his people, and the vision of my mother who, while pregnant with me, saw a light issue forth from her which lit up the castles of Syria.’1
The good news of Jesus, referred to above, is mentioned in the following verse of the Qur’an: And [recall] Jesus, son of Mary, who said: ‘O Children of Israel, I am the Messenger of Allah to you, confirming that which was before me in the Torah and bringing good news of a Messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad.’ [Q.61:6]
As for Abraham’s prayer, peace be upon him, the Qur’an says: ‘Our Lord! Raise among them a Messenger from them who shall recite Your signs to them and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [Q.2:129]
Allah’s response to His khalil’s prayer is: He it is who has sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite to them His signs and to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the wisdom, though before they were in manifest error. [Q.62:2]
The above highlight weighty considerations for our faith and spiritual growth; which include the following:
1. That our Prophet ﷺ was commissioned with two primary tasks: teaching (ta‘lim) and purification (tazkiyah): teaching us revealed knowledge about God, divinity and afterlife; and purifying souls from the vices of idolatry (shirk), disbelief (kufr) and heedlessness (ghaflah) of the revealed commands and the Divine Presence.
2. Although Abraham put ta‘lim before tazkiyah in his supplication, Allah responded with tazkiyah first, then ta‘lim. Again in the Qur’an, Allah puts tazkiyah first: We have sent to you a Messenger from among you, to recite to you Our signs and purify you, teach you the Book and the wisdom, and teach you that which you knew not. [Q.2:151] This tells us that purification has a distinction over teaching, and that the former is the goal while the latter is the necessary means.
3. That knowledge must be coupled with action – which is a sign that the purification process is underway – is borne out by the following salaf-reports: From Ibn Mas‘ud, may Allah be pleased with him, who repeatedly insisted: ‘O people, learn! Whosoever learns, then let them act.’2 The venerable sage, Sahl al-Tustari remarked: ‘Knowledge, all of it is of the world; that [part] of it that is of the Hereafter, is action upon it.’3 And Abu Qilabah, another pietist of early Islam, had this to say: ‘When Allah grants you knowledge, give to Him worship; and let not your desire be to merely narrate it to the people.’4
4. In the context of knowledge and purification, the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Two qualities shall never coexist in a hypocrite: good character and understanding of the religion.’5 In other words, a hypocrite may acquire a sound, theoretical knowledge of Islam, but it won’t be reflected in piety, character or demeanour. Or it could be that a hypocrite might have a graceful character, but will lack a sound understanding of faith. It is only with the true believer that a sound understanding (fiqh) of the religion is united with righteous action and inward illumination of the soul. So knowledge in itself does not save: unless it is translated into piety, concern for beautiful character, compassion for creation and, ultimately, seeking Allah and the afterlife.
5. As the monoculture puts Muslim distinctness under greater siege, we must ensure that the Quranic purification always remains at the heart or centre of the Islamic story and its engagement with modernity. That any meaningful diversity is now seen as potentially destabilising to social cohesion simply serves to prove liberalism’s intolerance, as well as its growing totalitarian nature. Tawhid is told to not be so judgemental upon shirk. The Abrahamic odyssey is required to make way for modernity’s new Nimrods: the new lords of misrule. And Abrahamic monotheism, tawhid, is put on notice and told to bow down to Babylon. Pressures such as these will, regrettably, produce victims – save if my Lord has mercy. [Q.12:53] For conformity is part of human nature. But a browbeaten Muslim who reluctantly capitulates isn’t the same as the ever growing cadre of Muslims who are anxious to please and who play fast and loose with revealed principles. Where we cannot live up to the social demands of faith, let us admit our own weaknesses and implore Allah for forgiveness, courage and strength. We cannot twist revealed truths, or water them down, or adulterate them just to fit in, gain acceptance, or curry favour. For as far as faith and hope are concerned, better a sinner than a sell-out.
6. Keeping the two core prophetic tasks firmly in mind, we need to be mindful about any activism or call to action which seeks to eclipse them or deflect the ummah away from them. In fact, all socio-political activism must be subordinate to these two tasks. Those who have lost sight of these core concerns should be gently and wisely guided back to them. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Salvation for the first part of this nation is with certainty (yaqin) and worldly renunciation (zuhd); destruction of the last part of this nation is by miserliness (bukhl) and [lengthy] hopes (amal).’6 Imam al-Munawi said: ‘Meaning that the earlier ones adorned themselves with certainty and worldly detachment, and purged themselves of miserliness and hopes. This was a cause for their salvation from perdition. In the latter times, the opposite will be the case.’7 He also wrote: ‘In it is a censure of miserliness and hopes (amal). But what is blameworthy is lengthy hopes, as has been said. As for hopes in themselves, they are necessary for the establishment of this worldly life.’8 Yaqin, certainty of faith, is the fruit of sound teachings, while zuhd is the outcome of the soul’s restraint; itself a fruit of purification.
7. As to the levels of faith and certainty, they are: [i] Faith via taqlid: where faith comes from taking it from an authority one trusts, without knowing the formal proofs for it. This is the faith (iman) of the lay people, and is easily susceptible to doubts. [ii] Faith through evidence (burhan): this is the fruit of learning formal proofs and discursive arguments. This is the faith of scholars and theologians. [iii] Faith via spiritual sight (‘ayan): this is where faith is the result of the heart having an abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of Allah. It’s the faith of those having reached the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). [iv] Faith via spiritual witnessing (mushahadah): it is where the heart witnesses Allah, as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). The first level of faith can be very fragile: the next three beget ascending degrees of conviction and certainty.9
8. Beware reformist Muslims aching to align Islam with current western sensibilities, desperate to erase any distinctness that could make the monoculture feel unsettled. Be mindful of Muslim preachers unhinged from the sanad tradition, unschooled in adab and spiritual wisdom, who conflate harshness and severity with piety, thus helping to drive many a servant of God into the icy realms of Riddastan. Beware, also, of the Muslim activist adopting the Sunnah out of reaction, protest, desperation, insecurity, identity politics, or because he cannot discover what else he wishes to be. Experience repeatedly demonstrates that such a person is likely to be ‘an engine of tanfir, driving humanity away from Islam by turning it into a language for proclaiming his inward traumas.’10
9. Before finishing, this concern about ta‘lim and tazkiyah; teaching and purification: Be not like those who became fixated on demonstrating the correctness of Islam, but came to practice nothing of Islam itself. Be not like those who were busy proving the existence of God, but came to care nothing for God Himself.
10. Lastly, ta‘lim reveals that our age is frought with so much confusion. Tazkiyah tells us that souls have never been so prone to egotism or spiritual lethargy. Together they help us realise that the times call on us that we too, like Allah’s wali, be infused with a spirit of love. For loving Allah, the wali loves His purposes; and looking at creation with love, laments that the Lord is forgotten, His commands disobeyed, His signs unheeded.
Allahumma habbib ilayna’l-iman wa zayyinhu fi qulubina,
wa karrih ilayna’l-kufra wa’l-fusuqa wa’l-‘isyan,
waj‘alna min al-rashidin.
1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.4175. It being a sahih hadith is shown in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1545.
2. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.11.
3. ibid., no.20.
4. ibid., no.37.
5. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2684, and it is sahih due to its collective routes of transmission. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.278.
6. Ibn Abi Dunya, Qasr al-Amal, no.20. Al-Albani graded the hadith hasan li ghayrihi in Sahih al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2006), no.3340.
7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:282; no.9256.
8. ibid., 6:282.
9. For a further discussion on these levels of faith, see: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.
10. A.H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: Quilliam Press, 2012), 66.