The Humble "I"

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Revisiting the Sensitive Question of Islamic Orthodoxy

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. One view holds that it is only the Atharis [Salafis] that are orthodox, with the Ash‘aris and Maturidis being the closest of the heterodox Muslim sects to ahl al-sunnah. Another view is that it is only the Ash‘aris and Maturidis who represent Islamic orthodoxy. Some, like the Hanbali jurist Imam al-Safarini, extended the net as follows:

أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ ثَلَاثُ فِرَقٍ الْأَثَرِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَحْمَدُ بْنُ حَنْبَلٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ وَالْأَشْعَرِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَبُو الْحَسَنِ الْأَشْعَرِيُّ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ وَالْمَاتُرِيدِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَبُو مَنْصُورٍ الْمَاتُرِيدِيُّ.

Ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah is 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 on him; and Maturidis, whose leader is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi.’1

Yet how can it be three sects, when the hadith clearly speaks of one saved-sect? Well, 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 that of 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, there is a valid argument to be made by those who say that it should be preferred when there is a disparity between the three schools. For who besides the Atharis were ahl al-sunnah before the conversion of al-Ash‘ari to Sunni orthodoxy or the birth of al-Maturidi?

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 or grammarian who was not a follower of one of these two schools. Historically, and in short: 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.

And Allah knows best.

1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:73.

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Al-Hajjawi: Protecting the Fortress of Faith

Imam al-Hajjawi (d.968H/1561CE) – author of a celebrated Hanbali fiqh text, al-Iqna‘, and its abridgement, Zad a-Mustaqni‘ – wrote the following as part of his commentary to a famous Hanbali adab-poem:

يُقَالُ مَثَلُ الْإِيمَانِ كَمَثَلِ بَلْدَةٍ لَهَا خَمْسُ حُصُونٍ، الْأَوَّلُ مِنْ ذَهَبٍ، وَالثَّانِي مِنْ فِضَّةٍ، وَالثَّالِثُ مِنْ حَدِيدٍ، وَالرَّابِعُ مِنْ آجُرٍّ، وَالْخَامِسُ مِنْ لَبِنٍ، فَمَا زَالَ أَهْلُ الْحِصْنِ مُتَعَاهِدِينَ حِصْنَ اللَّبِنِ لَا يَطْمَعُ الْعَدُوُّ فِي الثَّانِي، فَإِذَا أَهْمَلُوا ذَلِكَ طَمِعُوا فِي الْحِصْنِ الثَّانِي ثُمَّ الثَّالِثِ حَتَّى تَخْرَبَ الْحُصُونُ كُلُّهَا

فَكَذَلِكَ الْإِيمَانُ فِي خَمْسِ حُصُونٍ الْيَقِينُ، ثُمَّ الْإِخْلَاصُ، ثُمَّ أَدَاءُ الْفَرَائِضِ، ثُمَّ السُّنَنُ، ثُمَّ حِفْظُ الْآدَابِ، فَمَا دَامَ يَحْفَظُ الْآدَابَ وَيَتَعَاهَدُهَا فَالشَّيْطَانُ لَا يَطْمَعُ فِيهِ،

وَإِذَا تَرَكَ الْآدَابَ طَمِعَ الشَّيْطَانُ فِي السُّنَنِ، ثُمَّ فِي الْفَرَائِضِ، ثُمَّ فِي الْإِخْلَاصِ، ثُمَّ فِي الْيَقِينِ ‏.‏

‘It has been said: The allegory of faith (iman) is as a fortress having five walls. The first [innermost] is made of gold; the second of silver; the third of iron; the fourth, baked bricks; and the fifth [outermost wall] from mud bricks. As long as the inhabitants of the fortress are diligent in guarding the clay wall, the enemy will not set its sights on [attacking] the next wall. But if they become negligent, they will attack the next wall, then the next, till the entire fortress lays in ruins.

‘In a similar way, faith is defended by five walls: certainty (yaqin), then comes sincerity (ikhlas), next up is performance of the obligations (ada’ al-fara’id), after which are the recommended acts (sunan), and lastly guarding beautiful behaviour (adab). So long as adab is guarded and defended, the Devil will not find a way in.

‘If, however, adab is neglected, Satan makes inroads into the sunan, then the fara’id, then ikhlas, and finally yaqin itself.’1

Given that ours is an age in which the distinction between halal and haram are being ever more blurred; and given our age also challenges religious conviction and seeks to undermine the foundations of revealed faith, believers must always be on their guard against this encroaching onslaught. Crucial to all this is to ensure we are well-rooted in: knowledge of God, knowledge of Self, and knowledge of Sin.

1. Sharh Manzumat al-Adab (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2011), 36.

Lessons from Imam Malik’s Letter to al-‘Umari, the Renuncient

Imam Malik was once urged by ‘Abd Allah al-‘Umari – who was given to much worldly detachment (zuhd) – that he ought to devote far more time to spiritual seclusion and to other personal acts of piety. Imam Malik wrote a letter of courtesy to him, offering this piece of wisdom:

إِنَّ الـلَّـهَ تـعـالَـى قَـسَّـمَ الأَعْـمَـالَ كَـمَـا قَـسَّـمَ الأَرْزَاقَ ، فَـرُبَّ رَجُـلٍ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الـصَّـلاةِ وَلَـمْ يُـفْـتَـحْ لَـهُ في الـصَّـوْمِ ، وَآخَـرَ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الـصَّـدَقَـةِ وَلَـمْ يُـفْـتَـحْ لَـهُ في الـصَّـوْمِ ، وَآخَـرَ فُـتِـحَ لَـهُ في الْـجِـهَـادِ , وَنَـشْـرُ الْـعِـلْـمِ مِـنْ أَفْـضَـلِ الأَعْـمَـالِ ، وَقَـدْ رَضِـيـتُ مَـا فُـتِـحَ لِـي فِـيـهِ ، وَمَـا أَظُـنُّ مَـا أَنَـا فِـيـهِ بِـدُونِ مَـا أَنْـتَ فِـيـهِ ، وَأَرْجُـو أَنْ يَـكُـونَ كِـلانَـا عَـلَـى خَـيْـرٍ وَبِـرٍّ.

‘Allah, exalted is He, apportions people’s actions as He apportions their sustenance. So sometimes He grants a spiritual opening to a person in terms of [optional] prayers, but not [optional] fasting. Or He grants an opening in giving charity, but not in fasting. To another, He may grants them an opening for jihad. As for spreading sacred knowledge, that is from the best of deeds, and I am pleased with what Allah has opened to me. Nor do I imagine that what I am engaged in is any less than what you are engaged in; and I hope that both of us are upon goodness and righteousness.’1

Its adab and humility aside, the core lesson from the letter is: When Allah opens a door to being consistent in doing a certain righteous deed, and makes that your main focus, then cling to it and do not give it up for anything else. We should, undoubtedly, have a share of other good deeds too; without them necessarily being our main preoccupation or focus.

Something similar is suggested in a report concerning Ibn Mas‘ud, when he was asked as to why he did not fast optional fasts more frequently. His reply:

.إِنِّـي إِذَا صُـمْـتُ ضَـعُـفْـتُ عَـنْ قِـرَاءَةِ الـقُـرْآنِ , وَقِـرَاءَةُ الـقُـرْآنِ أَحَـبُّ إِلَـيَّ مِـنَ الـصَّـوْمِ

‘When I fast, it weakens my ability to recite the Qur’an; and reciting the Qur’an is more beloved to me than [optional] fasting.’2

We ask Allah for taysir and tawfiq.

1. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:114.

2. Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, no.8909; al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8868.

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