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.
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.
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.
In principle, there’s good cause to counter the allegation that, historically, Islam impeded the development of modern science in the medieval Muslim world. In practice, this must not translate into the belief that scientific progress is an absolute value upon which the credibility of Islam must actually rest.
In principle, a Muslim scholar possessed of sound theological learning has every right to declare a particular act or utterance to be disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs necessitate this. In practice, this is very different from declaring a specific individual who may have ignorantly, mistakenly or coercively committed such an act, or uttered such a profanity, as being a kafir; a disbeliever. The rule of thumb here is: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief [necessarily] becomes a disbeliever.’1
In principle, the believer ought to have a calm loathing for liberalism and its attempts to dismantle an engendered world. In practice, one must have pity for the shrunken victims of this insane, ungodly monoculture and help them back to the path of sanity and Adamic humanity: But God has endeared faith to you and beautified it in your hearts, and has made unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are the rightly guided. [Q.49:7]
In principle, anyone who does not declare the shahadah in this world is considered to be a non-Muslim in this world. In practice, some non-Muslims (kuffar) shall have an excuse or an amnesty in the Hereafter for only having heard a distorted message of Islam while in this world. The Qur’an says: Nor do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [Q.17:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with, will be among the denizens of Hell.’2 An-Nawawi explains: ‘In its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’3 Imam al-Ghazali ecumenically wrote about those who only heard a distorted message of Islam; filled with lies, half-truths and propaganda: ‘These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and an imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet … This party, in my view, is like the first party [which is excused]. For though they’ve heard of him, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this doesn’t provide enough incentive for them to look into [his true status].’4
In principle, an atheist may feel smug by countering the supposed theistic assertion that: ‘Everything must have a cause for its existence’, with: ‘So what caused God?!’ In practice, no Muslim theologian (nor any Jewish or Christian one) has ever asserted this. Rather the theistic belief is: ‘Everything that comes into existence, from non-existence, must have a cause for its existence.’ God, however, did not ‘come into existence’. He necessarily exists. God’s eternal attribute of life is intrinsic to, and inseparable from, His holy Essence.
In principle, it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; or even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. In practice, this must never lead us to believe that Adam had biological parents, or to somehow imagine that he was the offspring of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.
In principle, the sirah teaches us the socio-political importance of forming an “Alliance of Virtue” with non-Muslim seekers of social justice, as per the hilf al-fudul saga. In practice, the sirah also tells us that alliances of this sort must not come at the cost of compromising Islam’s core tenets or blurring the unchangeables. Thus, even as Quraysh’s big whigs put Abu Talib, the Prophet’s dear uncle, between a rock and a hard place, to get his nephew to tone down his message before they forcefully made him do so; and even as the Prophet ﷺ may have been torn between seeing his uncle under such pressure, on the one hand; and his duty not to compromise the message, on the other, we hear this from the nephew to his beloved uncle: ‘I am no more able to stop this [message] as you are to snatch a piece of flame from the sun.’5 And in a popular wording: ‘O uncle, if the sun were placed in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not give up this affair until either God grants me success in it, or I perish in its pursuit.’ The Prophet ﷺ then broke down in tears.6
In principle, Allah’s earth has been made for the whole of humanity’s use and enjoyment, not just for the privileged few: God created for you all that is on the earth. [Q.2:29] And: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For God loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31] In practice, partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we surely may; but partake of them excessively and irresponsibly, or in a way that upsets the balance, we may not: And He has raised the heavens and has set a balance, that you may not upset the balance, but observe the balance and not fall short therein. [Q.55:7-9] Currently we are not doing so well on this score; heading, as we are, to the brink of ecological disaster.
In principle, we are proud to be Muslims; pride born, not of the ego’s arrogance (kibr), but of joyous gratitude for God’s gift of guidance: We would not have been guided had God not guided us. [Q.7:43] For we can rightfully be proud if it’s without the ego; if it is godly and not worldly. In practice, it is rare for such pride to be without ego – even when it relates to pride in Islam’s revealed truths. Al-Ghazali once said: ‘How much blood has been spilt to promote the causes of the masters of the law schools!’7 So whilst truth and the details of ritual correctness are indeed important, it must not be driven by sectarian pride, nor come at the cost of one’s own salvation: ‘Whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise’8 Hence if you know someone has opposed the Book, Sunnah, or ijma‘, ensure that your state is one of gratitude to Allah for your guidance.9 Or better still, let us pray as Imam Ahmad would pray: اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَهُوَ يَظُنُّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ فَرُدَّهُ إِلَى الْحَقِّ لِيَكُونَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْحَقِّ – ‘O Allah, whosoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’10
In principle, we may incline to measured political activism, or to a principled apoliticism; there is leeway in the prophetic Sunnah for either. In practice, if we wish to thrive and not just survive, we must each grow in inward and outward godliness and in practical degrees of worldly detachment (zuhd), in humility, in respecting neighbours and serving the poor; whilst also choosing our battles wisely and fussing less about Islamophobes, not being so antagonistic, seeking to win peoples’ hearts while sincerely working for their welfare.
5. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.6526, with a hasan chain. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.92.
6. Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 1:303. The chain is missing two successive links between the Prophet and the narrator, Ya‘qub b. ‘Utbah. Hence the chain is da‘if mu‘dal. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.909.
7. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 8:382.
8. Muslim, no.147.
9. See: Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 174.
10. The du‘a is cited in Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1990), 10:329.
In 1985, I started my degree in Astrophysics up in the north of England, at one of the only two places in the country which offered this course. It was more or less what I had set my heart on studying ever since reading Isaac Asimov’s, The Collapsing Universe: The Story of the Black Holes (1977) and Carl Sagan’s breath-taking book (and TV series), Cosmos (1980). Soul stirred, and heart and mind thoroughly infused with enchantment, I was determined to make engaging the wondrous mysteries of the cosmos my calling.
It was also in 1985 that a rumour went round among some of the students on the course that Stephen Hawking – his body now ravaged by motor neurone disease, his speech now slurred so as to barely be intelligible, but who had already outlived the predictions of his doctors by more than fifteen years – had recently been hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The doctors had even considered pulling the plug on his life-support machine. It was then that a discussion began about the theoretical brilliance of Hawking. In fact, it wasn’t a discussion as much as it was one student’s passionate recollection of what he had thus far accomplished: his attempts to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics; his idea that the Big-Bang may have begun with a singularity1 – the same sort of singularities that supposedly lie at the centre of black holes; his thesis that black holes may not devour everything that falls into them, but they could leak radiation (later called “Hawking radiation”) by which they would “shine”. She was, I think, a third year student, and some of what she said flew over my head at the time. I remember this because of what she said at the end of all this. Apparently, she said, in a tone that was now quite subdued, Hawking was working on publishing a book that would explain all this incredible physics. What’s more, she said, the book is being aimed, not at scientists, but at a mass market. To be sure, I was beyond euphoric!
A Brief History of Time came out in 1988. Using minimal technical jargon, it was a thrilling book and an instant international bestseller. It swiftly became a modern classic, turning Hawking into an iconic celebrity, a household name as well as the most famous scientist in modern history. In spite of being wheelchair-bound or not being able to speak save by means of a speech synthesiser, Hawking continued to push the boundaries of cosmology and theoretical physics up till his death two weeks ago. His wit, grit, charisma, and good writing in which he unravelled for us the universe’s cutting-edge mysteries, will continue to enthral generations of readers; while his intuitive leaps and research will continue to keep scientists busy for decades to come. If people now talk about the Big-Bang and black holes over dinner, then the late Stephen Hawking has had a large part to play in this. Such is his inspirational and intellectual legacy.
Oftentimes, whenever a non-Muslim personality who has ostensibly brought about much good to the human situation passes away, many Muslims raise the age-old question: what is the ultimate fate of “good” non-Muslims in the afterlife? The news of Hawking’s death seems to have aggravated the matter. So let me recount some staple Islamic theology – in abstract, at least – to address the question:
1. Let’s start with how a Muslim ought to align or centre themselves. The Qur’an says: But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified your hearts with it, and has made hateful to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. Such are the rightly-guided. [49:7] Disbelief (kufr), then, is to be loathed; and the victims of kufr pittied and be given a charitable hand towards faith and right-guidance.
2. Some Muslims labour under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in God’s sight, one cannot speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) who dies in a state of disbelief. The prophetic teachings, however, do not require or insist upon such an approach. Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some, he ﷺ spoke more about their virtue than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im gave him during the trying years of Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’2 As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
3. The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism – were damned in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’3 Of course, these words echo the Qur’an at numerous places when it says, for instance: And certainly it has been revealed to you, and to those before you, that: ‘If you ascribe a partner to Allah, all your works will be in vain and you will be among the losers.’ [39:65] Also: As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert which the thirsty one thinks is water, till when he reaches it he finds it to be nothing. [24:39]
4. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not reached? Here the Qur’an offers a far more ecumenical scope: Never do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] And: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The requirement of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, lies at the heart of the issue. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, will be among the inhabitants of the Fire.’4 Fleshing out the theological implications of the hadith, Imam al-Nawawi stated: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions are now abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’5 The details of this excuse or amnesty, and the scholarly differences about how this amnesty plays itself out in the Hereafter, can be read in the relevant works of Muslim theology.
5. As for the question of those who have heard about Islam, but in a garbled or distorted form, Imam al-Ghazali seems to have given us the definitive word on the issue. He wrote that in terms of people coming into contact with the message of Islam, they are of three types: ‘[i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’6
6. As much as peoples’ waywardness from God should both grieve and sadden believers, because of nurturing in their hearts something of the prophetic concern for humanity, the discriminating sword of truth must do what it must. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of juhud or wilful “rejection” of it, or takdhib, “belying” it. Others choose not to seriously entertain the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) whether out of arrogance, hostility, prejudice, or sheer indifference towards it (in some cases, doing so knowing it is the truth). Such are not considered to be truth-seekers. It’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of investigating the truths of Islam and discerning their correctness. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or for fear of losing their standing among people; or out of contempt for Muslims; or not wanting to give up following their own whims and desires for a revealed code of morality, many turn away from even looking into the Qur’an unbiasedly. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.7
7. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are judged as non-Muslims in this worldly life. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this guiding principle: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’8
8. Is it lawful to declare a specific person who dies as a non-Muslim, that he or she will be in Hell? The answer is that while some scholars hold it to be lawful, it seems the majority of Muslim theologians do not allow it. They say that not only will some non-Muslims have an amnesty in the Afterlife; not only do we not always know in what state a non-Muslim may have taken their last breath, but also those specific non-Muslims whom the Prophet ﷺ described as being in the Fire, was not from his personal judgement; but one that was revealed to him by God. Thus the correct position in this is: While one can make general declarations that Muslims go to Paradise and non-Muslims go to Hell, one cannot declare a specific Muslim to be in Paradise or a specific non-Muslim to be in Hell, unless there is textual evidence to say so. That textual evidence being either from the Qur’an, the Sunnah or a scholarly consensus (ijma‘).
9. Since we Muslims are a textual community; since our theology, law and spirituality are derived from revealed texts – as opposed to fluffy sentiments; emotions; personal whims; or what one’s own intellect, decoupled from Revelation, thinks to be good – let’s engage with a few such texts from which the above rule is culled. So as a general rule, the Qur’an says: Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the fire of Hell forever. They are the worst of people. [98:6] In contrast, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’9 As for the rule that applies to individuals specifically, Imam al-Tahawi wrote in his famous creedal tract about Muslims: ‘We do not specify anyone among them to be in either Paradise or the Fire … We resign their inner states to God, exalted is He.’10 Meaning, unless there is a textual proof, we cannot declare a specific Muslim to be damned or saved. The same goes for specific non-Muslims.
10. Finally, as I said earlier, our Prophet ﷺ usually kept quiet about the end state of most non-Muslims who died during his lifetime. Surely it would be best if we too did the same. Let us learn to be content, knowing that such end matters are in Allah’s hands in terms of whether those who die as non-Muslims receive divine amnesty, clemency and salvation; or encounter divine rigour, justice and chastisement. In fact, it’s possible that if we spent less time being concerned with such specific end matters, and invested more time trying to deepen our own faith and reach out to non-Muslims with that faith, the world may yet be a better place.
There’s one last point I’d like to discuss. I left my degree course for personal reasons and a religious calling in early 1986. And although I had intended to come back to complete it, perhaps after a year or two, it didn’t quite happen. My passion for the subject, however, has never abated; and I try to keep up with the latest theories and findings in the field via books, papers and science magazines. Yet I recall when I read the opening words of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos -: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’11 – I felt something was amiss. My religious convictions aside, even then I questioned whether such a materialistic assertion was actually science or merely what individual scientists brought to the table as their personal beliefs and biases? In fact, Naturalism – the belief that the natural order is all that there is, and that there is no transcendent or divine realm – is a philosophy which is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order, or the cosmos, is all that there is? Science can, of course, say that the cosmos is all that it can observe and know. But that is not the same as saying that the cosmos is all that there was, is or ever will be!
In the last book he co-authored, The Grand Design (2010), Hawking tackles the question of our universe’s apparent “grand design”: is it evidence for God, or does science offer up an alternative explanation? As per form, Hawking dismisses God as the ultimate explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers – not just the usual the “it just happened” riposte, or the “multiverse”, or even the “fluctuations in a quantum vacuum” answer. Instead, he says: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’12
His theoretical genius aside, Hawking seems to suffer from the same faulty theology that many other atheists of today are struck with. For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation. We don’t believe that it’s a case of either God created the universe or that x, y, or z scientific paradigm created it. Instead, Revelation permits us to believe that God is the agent who created the universe, and that x, y, or z is the mechanism by which He did so. Thus, just because science may have revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos kicked-off, it doesn’t deny God’s agency in the matter. Allow me to illustrate the point with this example:
Take the iPhone, for instance. Just because one may have deciphered the inner workings of an iPhone, it does not logically follow that we can now deny the existence of Steve Jobs as the originator of this tech. That would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Since we know the mechanism behind a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy. In philosophy, it’s a fundamental category mistake.
As for Hawking’s optimism that the laws of gravity created the universe, this is false. Laws of physics themselves don’t create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls. It is not laws that create or move a thing; it is an agent, a person, that does that. The laws of physics are merely mathematical equations that describe what happens under certain conditions.
Despite these failures and foibles, The Grand Design is still a tour de force of cutting-edge cosmology. There’s still so much to be held in awe at in terms of the way the late Professor Hawking illustrated the latest scientific mysteries about our universe. It’s understandable why his death has felt like such a huge loss to so many. One or two of my co-religionists have said to me, however, that should we really marvel at someone whose writings have been instrumental in trying to diminish the glory of God by driving souls to atheism? And I understand that too. So perhaps the best thing is to stick to the Quranic rejoinder: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
1. A dot or point of infinite density, far far smaller than this full stop.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.4024.
3. Muslim, no.365.
4. Muslim, no.240.
5. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.