This Qur’an reflection tackles, in an uncomplicated way, life’s big question: how did everything come to be? When damaged hearts are invited to confront the question of why there is something rather than nothing; when they are urged to consider that the overwhelming impressions of design in us, around us, and also above us in the starry heavens is actually a pointer to an Ultimate, Eternal, Cosmic Designer; and when softened by the evidence of Muslim good manners, integrity and forgiveness, many antagonists of faith will heed the signs, make the right choices, and will restore the memory of God to their hearts.
In Dan Brown’s novel, The Lost Symbol, the book’s central character, Professor Robert Langdon, is told that the Biblical ‘manna from heaven’ – the food God sent down to the Israelites during their long desert travels – is actually a code word for a profounder scientific truth understood only by those initiated. As part of his own initiation into the “Ancient Mysteries,” he is told: ‘When you see these code words in Scripture, pay attention. They are often markers for a more profound meaning concealed beneath the surface.’
We see the same idea of profound meanings concealed beneath the surface in the words of St. Paul too (although his is a reference to profounder spiritual, not scientific, truths). So in his letter to the Corinthian Church (Bible, I Corinthians), Paul says: ‘I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for till now you were not able to bear it; and even now you are not able.’ Being fed with milk refers to being instructed in the basic, elementary doctrines of Christianity, while meat denotes the more sublime and mysterious doctrines of the faith. He is telling them, in other words, that they weren’t as yet sufficiently schooled in Christian knowledge to grasp its higher mysteries.
When it comes to Islam, and in particular the Qur’an, there has long been a recognition by our ‘ulema that the Qur’an is a vast and deep ocean of meanings and wisdoms.
Over the course of time, three modes of tafsir (“interpretation,” “commentary,” “exegesis”) of the Qur’an have met with scholarly approval in order to help deep dive for these revelatory gems – although with varying degrees of authority and validity: [i]tafsir bi’l-ma’thur or “interpretation based upon textual reports;” [ii]tafsir bi’l-ra‘y, “interpretation rooted in [reasoned] opinion and; [iii]tafsir bi’l-isharah, “allegorical [spiritual] interpretation”.
Of the three kinds, only tafsir bi’l-ma’thur has unconditional approval in the scholarly or exegetical community. This mode of tafsir consists of interpreting the Qur’an by [other parts of] the Qur’an, by the words and deeds of the Prophet ﷺ, and the interpretations of the earliest Muslim authorities (salaf). The basic assumption here is that those closest in time to the prophetic age (and thus to the revelation itself) can best explain and contextualise the text authoritatively. Later generation of Muslims, it is believed, ought to accept this and ensure that their Quranic interpretation is guided and molded by those left by the salaf. The tafsirs of al-Tabari, al-Baghawi, Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Kathir and al-Suyuti are pretty much typical of tafsir bi’l-ma‘thur.
Tafsir bi’l-ra‘y has occupied more of an uncomfortable place in the discipline of tafsir. One hadith emphatically states: ‘He who interprets the Qur’an based on his own opinion (ra‘y), then let him take his place in the Hellfire.’1 The scholars concur that interpretations of the Qur’an that violate the agreed upon premises or conclusions of tafsir bi’l-ma’thur, or that are based on personal opinions not rooted in the attendant sciences related to Quranic exegesis, are unacceptable. On the other hand, ra‘y which is led by linguistic, legal, theological, contextual and historical considerations, not contradicting anything catagorical (qat‘i) or for which there is scholarly consensus (ijma‘), has met with approval by most Muslim scholars. This genre of tafsir includes that of Ibn Juzayy, al-Qurtubi, al-Razi, al-Baydawi, al-Alusi and Ibn Ashur; among others. Not that such works are void of any tafsir bi’l-ma’thur, it’s just that their main aim is interpretation via scholarly reasoning or ijtihad.
Even more precarious than the above is tafsir bi’l-isharah. This genre of tafsir devotes itself mainly to allegorical, figurative and symbolic interpretations of the Qur’an: to profound meanings concealed beneath the surface. The nature of tafsir by way of isharah (lit. “sign”, “allusion”) is that it is very conjectural and speculative, void of a clear exegetical methodology. So to many of the ‘ulema, it is nothing more than fanciful ra‘y. Nonetheless, most leading imams do accept this mode of exegesis, provided certain conditions are met: (i) That no legal or theological position be derived by it. (ii) It must not contradict the zahir (“clear,” “apparent,” “obvious”) meaning of the verse. (iii) It not contradict other Qur’an or Hadith texts, nor an ijma‘.(iv) It should not claim to be the main or primary interpretation, let alone demand belief in it.
Examples in this category wherein its authors have attempted this esoteric and sublimely meditative interpolations are: the tafsirs of al-Tustari, al-Qushayri, al-Sulami, Ibn ‘Ajibah and al-Alusi’s Ruh al-Ma‘ani (a work that contours tafsir bi’l-ma’thur; indulges in the scholarly tafsir bi’l-ra‘y; and generally concludes with an ishari interpretation – making it one of the most comprehensive and satisfying of all tafsir works).
As an example of tafsir bi’l-isharah, consider the Quranic verse: And when Saul marched out with his army, he said: ‘God will put you to test by means of a river: whoever drinks therefrom shall not be of me, but whoever does not drink shall be of me, save he who takes a sip out of the hollow of his hand.’ But they all drank from it, except for a few. [Q.2:249] While affirming the apparent meaning and historical event, the following is the ishari meaning some have been inspired to give it: The river symbolises the world with which God tests His servants. Those who remain detached and don’t drink, only seeking God’s face, are the elect. As for those who take from it only as much as is needed, they are successful. But those who drink to their fill will be in loss.
Al-Qurtubi, having cited this ishari interpretation, said: ‘This would be excellent were it not for the fact that it involves distorted interpretation and a departure from the apparent sense. Its meaning, nonetheless, is sound from other than this [interpretation].’2 Which is to say, since it opposes the obvious meaning of the verse, it is unacceptable. If, though, the apparent meaning is affirmed, and the isharah is offered as a spiritual insight which attempts to uncover profound meanings concealed beneath the surface, then this would be valid.
Let’s look at one more example: Therefore, be patient with what they say. Praise your Lord’s glory before sunrise and before sunset, and glorify Him some hours of the night and the two ends of the day, that you may be content. [Q.20:130] The apparent meaning is in context of Allah consoling His Prophet ﷺ, telling him not to be grieved or distresses at what the unbelievers utter by way of taunts, ridicule or rejection. Instead, he in instructed to bear their scorn with patience, and to glorify his Lord throughout the day. Only when one’s heart is immersed in its Lord’s glory, the Prophet ﷺ is being told, and less concerned about what others say, will the heart be reassured of sacred truths and be made content. Most exegists also see in this ayah a reference to the five daily prayers: Praise your Lord’s glory before sunrise and before sunset is a pointer to the fajr and ‘asr prayer; some hours of the night, to the ‘isha prayer; and the two ends of the day, the zuhr and maghrib prayers.
As for the isharah; the spiritual allusion, Ibn ‘Ajibah had this to say: ‘Be patient, O you who are totally devoted to Allah and singularly obedient to their Master, with what others say in terms of what disturbs the heart. Instead, be engrossed with your Lord’s remembrance (dhikr) and [extolling] His transcendence at the rising and the setting of the sun and at the two ends of the day, until you lose yourself in the presence of the Knower of the Unseen. Perhaps then you will be given to spiritually witness the Beloved.’3
Of course, such ishari interpretations will not be to everybody’s taste, since not every person has a taste!
Wa bi’Llahi al-tawfiq.
1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2950, saying: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’
2. Al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:164.
3. Al-Bahr al-Madid (Cairo: Dar al-Tawfiqiyyah, n.d.), 4:327.
‘Yes, by God! Yet it is odd how, in our ignorance, we ignore the cure and race to the disease. For God, exalted is He, says: Remember Me and I will remember you. [Q.2:152] And also: But the remembrance of God is greater. [Q.29:45] And: Those who have faith and whose hearts find tranquility in the remembrance of God. For in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28] But this will not be attainable, except with God’s enabling grace (tawfiq). So whoever persists in supplication and on knocking at the door, it shall be opened for him.’1
Most of what people say today can probably be put into the malady category, as opposed to the remedy one. So much of what passes as conversation nowadays is either words of dislike, spite or contempt of others, in the form of backbiting, slander or tale-carrying; or it is expressions of greed, vice, self-infatuation and self-love; or words that are pointless or meaningless, which are said simply for the sake of saying something.
Both the Qur’an and the Sunnah teach us to be economical with our tongue and to think twice before we utter anything. Among the many verses which urge us with respect to hifz al-lisan, or ‘guarding the tongue’, are the following: And the Book [of deeds] will be placed and you shall see the sinners fearful of that which is [inscribed] in it. They shall say: ‘Woe to us! What kind of book is this that omits nothing small or great, but all is noted down?’ They will find all that they did put before them, and your Lord wrongs no one. [Q.18:49] And more specifically: Not a word does he utter except it is noted down by a vigilant scribe. [Q.50:18] And while estimates vary a lot, there are credible claims to suggest we utter 7,000 words a day! That’s a lot of words, bearing in mind: Two scribes, sitting on his right and his left, are recording [everything]. [Q.50:17]
One hadith informs: ‘Let he who believes in Allah and the Last Day either speak good or keep silent.’2 Another cautions: ‘Is there anything that topples people on their faces (or their noses) into Hell, other than the harvests of their tongues?’3 Given such a dire upshot, it won’t come as a surprise, then, that the Prophet ﷺ also instructed: ‘Speak good and be enriched, or else refrain from speaking evil, and be safe.’4
We live in a noisy, chatty, cacophonic world, made even chattier by the arrival of the Internet and of mobile phones. We need to cultivate a degree of discipline so as to resist the urge to join in any and every chat. Islam wants us to cultivate a habit of retreating from conversations that are pointless, untruthful, ungodly and not beneficial. It teaches us to be, for the most part, silent and not to speak except when there is a benefit in doing so. And whilst we might be excused for some light chat or a little idle chatter, gossiping about people is usually wholly unbecoming of a believer; and doing so by way of bad mouthing others, or out of a devilish desire to cause schisms or tension between people, is ugly, ungodly and outright sinful.
However we retreat from too much talking, especially negative or meaningless remembrance of others (celebrities, work colleagues, family, neighbours, etc.), and however we begin to turn the volume down around us as well as in us, we can start to heal and become whole. The Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘The loners have taken the lead.’ On being asked who these loners (mufarridun) were, he replied: ‘Those men and women who remember God abundantly.’5 He ﷺ also said: ‘Let not your tongue cease to be moist with the remembrance of God.’6 Thus as ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Awn stated, as we wrestle ourselves away from the grip of gossip, idle chatter, and sinful speech; as we retreat from the malady, we are able to make space in our souls for God’s remembrance and thus be bathed in tranquility and the beautiful remedy.
These reflections are offered as part of a continued conversation about how we as Muslims can best retain meaning in modernity, and nurture an Islam that is true to its time-honoured tradition; relevant to our current context; and of benefit to man’s deepest needs. Previous ‘Footprints’ can be read here:
On the boundaries of Islamic inculturation: In order to offer us some principled accommodation with the global, liberal reality, we Muslims may lick the lolly, but we must never bite the stick.
On the marks of our self-obsessive, online age: Social media is the opium of the narcissists.
Keep the end in mind: Shaykhs of spiritual wayfaring (suluk) tell us to engage in spiritual striving (mujahadah) right up till our death. After that, they say, it is spiritual witnessing (mushahadah) all the way: ‘O Allah, grant me the delight of gazing at Your face and the yearning to meet You.’ – Prophetic du‘a.
Being more critical: We Muslims stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms and vocabulary of the social sciences to a critical Islamic theological scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without this critical evaluation, feminist and gender theories, for instance, or critical race theory, are in danger of leaving the soul in critical condition, requiring critical care.
On rewriting the past to reinvent the present: ‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.’ – Orwell, 1984.
On intelligent husbands: An intelligent husband never withholds one person’s right at the expense of another. This is especially the case vis-a-via his wife and his mother: O people! Give just measure and weight, nor diminish anything that is due to people. [Q.11:85]
On truth-seeking and comfort zones: In calling our post-monotheistic milieu to Islam, we must first help people reawaken their fitrah, so that they may leave their comfort zones, question the assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers.
On the deeper wisdom behind following the divine commands: Masters of the heart tell us that the secret behind ittiba‘ or ‘following [the revealed teachings]’ is: yakhruj al-insan min muradi nafsihi ila muradi rabbihi – ‘A person leaving his own wants and loves for what his Lord wants and loves.’
On understanding our times and our people: 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, therefore life is pointless. Knowing the psychology and philosophies that have created such a profane age, and have so damaged the human perception, is of paramount importance. Abdal Hakim Murad noted: ‘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.’
On the devil’s goto weapon of choice: The first ruse of shaytan is to distract and divert a person away from their work of worship and obedience to God.
On breathing in spiritual pollution: Rida ‘an al-nafs, to be ‘self-satisfied’ – i.e. to feel smug about oneself, about 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.
Making beginnings good, so endings will be good: When one resolves to make Allah their aim and ambition, or when one wishes to turn away from a former life of heedlessness or dereliction of duty, then one begins with sincere tawbah, repentance: Truly Allah loves those that turn to Him in repentance, and strive to cleanse themselves. [Q.2:222]
On divine calling and destiny: Islam, more than ever before, seems to be called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its message of hope and healing will only illuminate these bewildering times if its theological concerns are firmly-grounded, yet are in tune with the needs of the time; if it can offer a worldview that helps make sense of these soul-numbing times; and if it can deliver practical, liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of these times. This all needs cool heads and macro thinking. Macro thinking, in turn, requires that we not get caught up in the moment, but rather take a step back to get a clearer view of the trends and trajectories that are unfolding.
On not living excessively: Partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we may; but to partake of them excessively and irresponsibly we may not: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For Allah loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31]
On marital bliss: The entire issue of marriage in Islam revolves around mutual love, kindness, compromise and companionship. Whenever spouses enter the marital home, let them each hang their egos up on the coat peg. For marital becomes martial when the “i” is pushed foreword!
On prophetic uprisings, not leftist revolutions: The Muslim scholarly tradition is built on conserving whatever is best in any given political system, collective or society; and advocates addressing and rectifying imbalances and injustices, rather than toppling or tearing down the whole structure in the forlorn hope that something better will arise out of the ashes. And Muslim activism – be it here as minorities in the West, or in Muslim majority lands – would do well to reflect this.
On the centre-piece of a godly life: At the heart of such a life must be a desire to deepen our connection to God, and heighten our gratitude and loving obedience to Him.
Revealed truths and being unpopular: ‘It really is the responsibility of religious communities to risk unpopularity, and to speak prophetically and clearly what they take to be truth. Being apologetic or too strategic is not really the prophetic way. One has to risk unpopularity … This has to be done with considerable wisdom and discretion.’ – Abdal Hakim Murad
On the Adamic Man: it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; nor even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. But this must never lead us to think that Adam had biological parents; that he was the child of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.
On clinging to muraqabah and mindfulness: Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon once said the following about spiritual excellence, or ihsan, that it is when: ‘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 each day meditate over the verse: أَلَمْ يَعْلَمْ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يَرَى – Is he not aware that Allah sees? [Q.96:14] This is every Muslim’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.’
THE GREAT SAGE AND scholar of early Islam, al-Hasan al-Basri, once remarked: هِمَّةُ الْعُلَمَاءِ الرِّعَايَةُ وَهِمَّةُ السُّفَهَاءِ الرِّوَايَةُ – ‘The concern of the scholar is to cultivate, the concern of the foolish is to [merely] narrate.’1
One hadith foretells: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted and the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet ﷺ replied: الرَّجلُالتَّافِهُ يتَكَلَّمُفيأمرِ العامَّةِ – ‘The lowly, contemptible one who shall speak out about public affairs.’2
In the topsy-turviness that characterises social deterioration in the end of days, we have been cautioned about the Ruwaybidah. Scholarly commentaries do not specify exactly who the Ruwaybidah are, but do point out their traits. Lexically, being the diminutive of the word rabidah (‘lowly’, ‘despicable’, ‘worthless’), the Ruwaybidah are even lower than worthless: they are utterly worthless. These are people who are incapable of rising up to nobility, lack integrity and, above all, possess little more than a glimmer of religious knowledge.3 In spite of this, they feel to speak out about socio-political affairs beyond their pay grade. They eagerly give fatwas and act as social commentators, despite a lack of learning. And they promote themselves as sincere advisors to the ummah, while having no spiritual grounding and still being wet behind the ears.
Our social media age is one wherein controversies garner huge followings and where, like never before, even the talentless, worthless ruwaybidah may shine. From the embarrassing ignorance of self-proclaimed da’wah-men, through to the tragic rise of maverick pseudo-scholars and muftis, social media is awash with those who thrive on fitnah and controversy.
It might even be said to have birthed the Muslim “controversialist” – one who craves attention through stirring up quarrelsome egos against the ‘ulema, or by courting highly contentious or dubious positions on theology or law – especially ones that ignore or contravene a well-established scholarly consensus (ijma’). The Golden Rule was expressed by Ibn Taymiyyah, when describing the tell tale signs of the heterodox innovators: وَشِعَارُ هَذِهِ الْفِرَقِ مُفَارَقَةُ الْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ ، فَمَنْ قَالَ بِالْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ – ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘. But whoever speaks with the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘ is from Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama‘ah.’4
Turning Facebook into Disgracebook, or turning Instagram into Fitnahgram, may help gain us a larger following or more likes. It may be a winning formula in terms of our murky desires for self-promotion. It might even assuage an ego desperate for attention and self-glory. But such insincerity will corrupt hearts and damage whatever little relationship we have with our Lord. Such dark and devious schism-mongering is wicked enough in itself. But when one adds to it the corrupting nature of certain social media algorithms, like that of Facebook’s which exploit the brain’s attraction to divisiveness; and how these algorithms are designed to create bubbles around us that keep us insulated from different viewpoints, thereby notching up intolerance levels, then it is an alarming case of darkness upon darkness! Worse still is that such controversialists know that they have a hungry audience waiting for them out there on social media: eager to devour their malignant content, revel in the latest schism, or gloat over how they and their clique are discovering ‘truths’ which have been veiled from even the scholarly consensus! The dal mudill, the misguided and misguiding, all too often make appropriate bedfellows.
As for using the religion to get noticed, or become a controversialist, or for other types of egotistical self-promotion, then those in whose hearts godliness still flickers, and whose fitrah still flinches at the thought of hypocrisy, will surely profit from the following exhortation:
Imam Muslim has recorded an incident which took place during one of the early Muslim fitnahs, or political controversies: Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas was tending his sheep and camels when his son, ‘Umar, came to him. When Sa’d saw him, he remarked: “I seek refuge in Allah from the evil of this rider.” When the son dismounted, he said to him: “You tend your sheep and camels while people are arguing over who is to rule?” Sa’d struck ‘Umar on the chest and then said: “Be quiet! For I heard Allah’s Messenger ﷺ say: إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْعَبْدَ التَّقِيَّ الْغَنِيَّ الْخَفِيَّ – ‘Allah loves the servant who is God-fearing, content and hidden [not known].’”5
I began with the saying of al-Hasan al-Basri, so let me end with another one of his wisdoms. He once entered upon a group of people who were disputing, to which he said:مَا هَؤُلاءِ إِلَّا قَوْمٌ مَلُّوا الْعِبَادَةَ ، وَوَجَدُوا الْكَلامَ أَهْوَنَ عَلَيْهِمْ ، وَقَلَّ وَرَعُهُمْ ، فَتَكَلَّمُوا – ‘Such are ones who’ve grown bored of worship; speaking has become easy for them, their piety has diminished, hence they talk.’6
I think that probably sums-up the psychology behind so much of our religious controversies on social media. And Allah knows best.