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Pilgrimage of Reason: Proofs for God’s Existence [2/2]

6455578409_9bd1e50d22_zIn the first part of the blog (here), I discussed a ‘proof’ for the existence of God vis-a-via the kalam cosmological argument. We saw how, as a rational argument, it is well reasoned, cogent and logical; hence giving a lie to New Atheism’s allegation that belief in God is irrational. But since the proof is highly abstract and theoretical, I suggested that a more accessible proof for God’s existence comes via the teleological argument and the Quran’s insistance to reflect on the signs of God. In the second and final part of the blog, I shall endeavour to explain and explore the above argument. Finally, as I mentioned in the first part of the blog, I’ll end this discussion by briefly sketching the ontological and moral proofs for the existence of God.

In the Qur’an, in contrast to the kalam cosmological argument, the existence of God is firmly rooted in the creation of visible entities; in everyday experience. A far more potent proof, therefore, comes from the teleological argument (teleos, from the Greek word for “purpose” or “end”). It is also known as the Argument from Design.

This is the argument which stresses that the complex and purposeful design we see in the natural world round us, as well as in the cosmos at large, suggests the universe has an intelligent designer. The 18th-century essayist and poet, Joseph Addison, captures the spirit of the argument in these verses:

The spacious firmament on high
With all the blue ethereal sky
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great original proclaim …
In reason’s ear they all rejoice
And utter forth a glorious voice
Forever singing as they shine:
“The hand that made us is Divine!”

The Qur’an says that the cosmos isn’t its own explanation. Rather it’s a sign pointing to something greater. We shall show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves, till it becomes manifest to them that this [Revelation] is the Truth, is how the Qur’an puts it [41:53]

‘For Islam,’ wrote Gai Eaton, ‘the natural world in its totality is a vast fabric into which the “signs” of the Creator are woven. It is significant that the word meaning “signs” or “symbols,” ayah, is the same word that’s used for the “verses” of the Qur’an. Earth and sky, mountains and stars, oceans and forests and the creatures they contain are, as it were, “verses” of a sacred book.’1 For a believer, therefore, creation is holistic. For He who revealed the Qur’an is also He who created the observable phenomena of nature. Both are communications from God to man; both are signs pointing to Him. In fact, Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘In the Qur’an, God invites His servants to know Him via two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other by meditating on the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’2

Now these signs not only serve as evidence for the existence of God as such, but they act as evidence for various attributes of His too – attributes that become a pious focus for the contemplative life of a believer. These remarkable signs (often referred to by Muslims scholars and pietists as aja’ib, “marvels”, or bada’i‘, “wonders”) point to God’s knowledge, power, wisdom, majesty and unity; and to His beneficence, kindness and care for humankind. The Qur’an says: In the creation of the heavens and the earth; in the alternation of the night and day; in the sailing of ships through the ocean for the benefit of humankind; in the water with which He revives the earth after its death; in the animals of all kinds He has scattered therein; in the ordering of the winds and clouds that are driven between heaven and earth, are signs for those who have intelligence. [2:164]

Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires gratitude, reverence, love and awe of God. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of God. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; and if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things truly be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.

Consider also these verses from the Qur’an: It is He who spread out the earth and placed upon it firm mountains and rivers, and fruit of every kind in pairs. He draws the night [as a veil] over the day. In these are signs for those who reflect. And on earth are neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands, and palms in pairs and palms single; watered by one water; some of them We make better than others to eat. In that are signs for those who understand. [13:3-4]

To reflect and meditate upon the astounding nature of the creation is to experience awe and enchantment of how such beauty, harmony and complexity originated, and how it is sustained. Pondering over these “signs” should lead the reflecting intellect to acknowledge and accept that there is an Absolute underlying all relative phenomena, an Omnipotence underlying all relative power, and a Wisdom underlying the laws of nature. This is pointed out in the verses by utilising the symbolism of water: A single kind of water nourishes neighbouring tracts, vineyards and ploughed lands and gives them life. That same water further produces palm-trees; some single, others paired, and some better tasting than others. Those who understand are those who can grasp the Unity that underpins creational diversity. A Muslim poet of old versified:

O wonder! How can the Deity be disobeyed;
Or by the denier be denied.
While in everything there is a sign
By which His Oneness stands testified.

The tafsir genre relates this unadorned story. A bedouin was once asked how he knew that God exists. He answered: ‘Glory be to God! Camel’s dung proves the existence of a camel and footprints prove that someone has walked by. So a sky with its towering constellations, and an earth with all its mountain passes, and a deep sea covered by waves upon waves – doesn’t all this testify that [God] the Subtle, the Aware exists?’3

In a similar vein, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote about a watermill by a river, faultlessly made, with perfect parts: no flaw can be observed in its construction. It efficiently irrigates a large garden containing various kinds of plants and fruits. The garden is well tended, pruned, weeded, and maintained in every way so that nothing is amiss or overlooked; and nor is any fruit left to rot. Then its produce is harvested and the money gained is distributed to various people according to their needs, each getting what is right for them. All of this happens each time, over and over again, without fail. Would you say that all of this happens by chance, asks Ibn al-Qayyim, without someone behind it who has intentionality (iradah), a will to choose to do or not to do (ikhtiyar), and the ability to plan and manage (tadbir)? Would you believe that the wheel or the garden got there by mere chance, or that all that goes on there does so without an actor who has intentionality, will or management? What would your intellect say to that? What would that indicate to you?4

The bedouin logic, or Ibn al-Qayyim’s watermill, has a modern twin in Paley’s famous watchmaker analogy. Paley argued that, were we to find a watch lying on a heath, we would naturally assume it had a maker due to the fact that it is a complex mechanism which seems designed for a specific purpose. In a similar manner, he goes on to argue, the complexity, order and purpose of the universe implies an intelligent designer.

As appealing as it seems, critics of Paley’s argument point out a logical flaw in it. The fact that two objects share a common characteristic (in this case, complexity), doesn’t always imply they will share all characteristics. Paley’s argument can be stated, thus: (i) A watch is complex. (ii) A watch has an intelligent designer. (iii) Life is complex. (iv) Therefore life must also have an intelligent designer.

Consider a similar line of reason: (i) Electric current in my house consists of a flow of electrons. (ii) Electric current comes from the power company. (iii) Lightning consists of a flow of electrons. (iv) Therefore, lightning comes from the power company. This last statement is plainly not true. So Paleyan logic holds true in some cases, but not in all cases.

Inferring that something is true of the whole from the fact that it is true of some part of the whole is referred to as a “fallacy of composition”. In certain cases, this mode of inference looks better than in others. Thus, if every gem in a necklace is valuable, the necklace will be valuable too. But if every player on a football team is outstanding, it is likely, but not guaranteed, that the team will be outstanding too. Yet if every track on a CD is less than five minutes long, it doesn’t follow that the whole CD is less than five minutes long.

Attempts to weaken the argument are predicated on thinking that Paley is reasoning by way of analogy. Some, however, think that the argument is better understood as an inference to the best explanation. What Paley is saying is that whenever you see these kinds of deliberate and purposeful contrivances, then what is the best explanation? The best explanation is surely design.

Whatever the case, Paley’s argument is still highly persuasive. Revealed theology (that is, theology based upon religious scripture) informs that the universe has a Creator-God. While natural theology (theology based on reason and ordinary experience) says it is perfectly reasonable to believe that the complex design of our observable universe has an intelligent designer behind it. Paley’s analogy (and, by extension, the argument from design), despite its criticism, is not just rationally appealing; it accords with our everyday experience too.

The ontological argument (ontos, Greek for “reality”) is a highly curious one. It states, in effect, that if one understands what the word “God” means, it is perfectly logical to believe He exists. This philosophical argument was set out by Anslem, the eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury, and is based upon an understanding that God is “that than which no greater can exist.” This type of argument reasons that if God is that than which no greater can be conceived to exist, then God cannot exist only as a concept. If God exists just as a concept, then there’s something greater – namely, God who exists as a concept in the mind as well as in reality. But since God is that than which no greater can exist, this must logically include existence. Thus God exists. (To this, Muslims would simply exclaim: Allahu akbar – “God is greater!”)

The moral argument starts from the moral order – that some things are right, and some things are wrong – recognized by people throughout the world, to the existence of God as the source of this morality. Even the remotest tribes that have been cut-off from civilization, the argument posits, observe a moral code similar to everyone else’s. No doubt, differences in moral perspectives do exist. Yet virtues like bravery, truth and loyalty; and vices such as greed and cowardice are universal. So where does this “law of right behaviour” originate?

Some sociobiologists have tried to argue, though not very succesfully, that our moral impulses like altruism (the selfless giving to others even if nothing is received in return) are evolutionary bi-products left over from Darwinian natural selection. This line of reasoning, however, has been sufficiently debunked.5

Post-modern philosophy insists moral truths are relative: there are no absolute rights or wrongs. If that’s the case, how can post-modernism itself be absolutely right in its claim? Moreover, as C.S Lewis wrote, if one considers the various human cultures and civilizations from ancient times till now, one will encounter ‘the same triumphantly monotonous denunciations of oppression, murder, treachery and falsehood; the same injunctions of kindness to the aged, the young, the weak, of almsgiving, impartiality and honesty.’6

Elsewhere he says: ‘If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command getting us to behave in a certain type of way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions.’7

Thus, it is reasonable to suggest it is God who is the author of this Moral Law and it is He who allows its bright light to shine into the recesses of our beings and nature. We will show them Our signs in the creation around them, as well as in their ownselves. [41:53] The Qur’an is, in point of fact, categorical about the Moral Law eminating from God. It says: By the soul and He who fashioned it, then inspired it to discern its vices and piety. Successful is he who purifies it, and ruined is he who corrupts it. [91:7-10]

That the moral law is firmly embedded in human nature melds into another Quranic concept, that of fitrah – man’s “innate nature” or “natural disposition.” One verse of the Qur’an states: So set your purpose for the upright religion, the innate nature in which God created mankind. [30:30] There occurs in one hadith: ‘All children are born upon the natural disposition’ – kullu mawludin yuladu ‘ala’l-fitrah.8 A number of scholars, including al-Ghazali and Ibn Taymiyyah, argue that our knowledge of God’s existence is implanted in our fitrah and it is a knowledge which makes the theologians’ proofs obsolete. Man knows God intstinctively by virtue of his fitrah. Resorting to rational proofs or reflection, they say, is necessary only when the fitrah has been corrupted by unhealthy environments, or if someone is plagued by doubts.9

Having rehearsed at some length the main rational or discursive arguments for the existence of God, let me summarise them:

The kalam-cosmological argument, simply put, says that the cause and effect chain of changing physical existence cannot go back indefinitely in time, and thus must have a beginning found only through divine creation.

The teleological argument, at its simplest, asserts that the nature of the world is such that it must have been created by an intelligent designer.

The ontological argument, stripped to its bare bones, argues from the concept of God to the existence of God.

As for the moral argument, it appeals to the existence of moral laws as proof of God’s existence.

Although these discursive arguments do yield coherent reasons for belief in God (as well as lay to rest the lingering fallacy that belief in God is irrational), they are open to some criticisms. Perhaps no single one clinches the deal. Nevertheless, each argument reinforces the other; that is, they are accumulative in strength. Such proofs, though, tend not to convince hardened skeptics, nor those who are determined not to believe. However, these rational proofs, in concert with the miraculous nature of the Qur’an and the pious and selfless life of the Prophet ﷺ, are powerful reasons to believe and to submit.

1. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 101.

2. Ibn al-Qayyim, al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

3. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1986), 1:61-62 – citing al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb, 2:91.

4. See: Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, Miftah Dar al-Sa‘adah (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1996), 2:69-70.

5. See: Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 24-8.

6. ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’, in C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflection, 77 – cited in Collins, The Language of God, 24.

7. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 24.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.1385; Muslim, no.2657.

9. See: A. Shihadeh, ‘The Existence of God’, in The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 198; Ozervali, ‘The Qur’anic Rational Theology of Ibn Taymiyya and his Criticism of the Mutakallimun’, in Ibn Taymiyya and His Times (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 90-91; Abdur-Rahman ibn Yusuf, Imam Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-Akbar Explained (California: White Thread Press, 2007), 64-66. In Arabic, cf. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 16:328; al-Ghazali, Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 2004), 1:854; al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1988), 13:361-63; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 78-79

A Perennial Problem: Is Islam the Only Valid Path to God?

umbrella_spokesIs Islam (the religion and way of life the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ came with) the only path to God? Does the Qur’an extend the validity of religions beyond Islam; to any who believe in God and act rightly? Or does the Qur’an insist that Islam is the exclusive and only path to God? And what of the idea that some have culled from their personal reading of the Qur’an that at the heart of the world’s major religions and faiths, there is an essential unity of truth? This, Islam and the idea of salvic exclusivity, is our topic for discussion.

Our discussion concerning the above delicate and, in our current time, controversial questions are addressed through the following points:

1. The Qur’an is categorical when it says: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he shall be among the losers. [3:85] Elsewhere it states: The [true] religion in Allah’s sight is Islam. [3:19] Whatever other verses may be marshalled in this issue, these two must surely lie at its heart.

2. Turning to the words of the Prophet ﷺ, we find him informing: “By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, shall be among the inhabitants of Hell.”1 Fleshing out the hadith’s theological implications, Imam al-Nawawi said: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions have now been 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.’2

3. Not only has the religion of Islam that the Prophet ﷺ was sent with superseded all previously revealed heavenly teachings, this last dispensation or “version” of Islam is a universal one too. The Qur’an says: Say: ‘O Mankind! Truly I am the Messenger of Allah to you all.’ [7:158]  Al-Ghazali said in his magesterial Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din – “Revival of the Religious Sciences”: ‘Allah sent the Qurayshi unlettered Prophet Muhammad ﷺ with His divinely-inspired Message to the entire world: to Arabs and non-Arabs, jinn and mankind. The Prophet’s Sacred Law has abrogated and superceded all earlier revealed laws, except those provisions in them that the [new] Sacred Law has reconfirmed.’3

4. Over the past eight decades or so a view has arisen which alleges that Islam affirms the validity of other religions, denying or failing to mention that they have long since been abrogated. Recourse has been taken to the following passage to justify the claim: Those who believe [in the Qur’an], the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabaeans; whosoever believes in Allah and the Last Day and does what is right, shall be rewarded by their Lord; no fear will come upon them, nor shall they grieve. [2:62] This verse, it’s claimed, extends the validity of religions beyond just Islam, and the possibility of salvation beyond just Muslims, to whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day. The error of such a claim can be gauged from the next three points:

5. Apart from ignoring the above proof-texts to the contrary, this view stands against Islamic orthodoxy which states, as per Imam al-Nawawi: ‘One who does not consider a person who follows a religion besides Islam – like a Christian – to be a disbeliever, or doubts that such a person is a disbeliever, or deems their religion to still be valid, is himself a disbeliever – even if, along with this, he manifests Islam and believes in it.’4 Such, then, is the enormity of the error and the magnitude of its misguidance. Qadi ‘Iyad affirmed a consensus about this, saying that: ‘there is a consensus (ijma‘) about the disbelief of one who does not consider as disbelievers the Christians, Jews and all those who part from the religion of the Muslims; or hesitates about their disbelief, or doubts it.’5

6. How then should the above verse [2:62] be read? Scholars of tafsir, along with their belief that the Qur’an’s message now supersedes all previous heavenly teachings, offer these interpretations for the above verse: [i] It is said to refer to those seekers of truth who believed in the imminent arrival of the final Prophet – like Habib al-Najjar, Qays b. Sa‘adah, Waraqah b. Nawfal, Zayd b. ‘Amr b. Nufayl, Bahirah the Monk, Salman al-Farsi and Abu Dharr al-Ghiffari. Some of them reached the Prophet ﷺ and accepted Islam at his hand. Others didn’t reach him, but are nonetheless included among those who believe in Allah and the Last Day. [ii] It refers to the believers of previous nations, following the prophets of their respective times. [iii] It’s claimed to refer to those Jews and Christians who, prior to accepting Islam in the time of the Prophet ﷺ, followed the unaltered teachings of Moses and Jesus; peace be upon them both. [iv] A few say it refers to the hypocrites; which is somewhat odd.6 Whatever the correct intent of this passage is, the view which extends salvation unrestrictedly, to include even those who deny the Prophet Muhammad’s prophethood ﷺ, is conspicuous by its absence in the classical tafsir literature.

7. Ibn Kathir helps put the above verse into context with his customary hermeneutics; he explains: ‘The faith of the Jews was that of those who adhered to the Torah and the way of Moses, peace be upon him, until the arrival of Jesus. With the advent of Jesus, those who followed the Torah and the Mosaic Laws, not leaving them to follow Jesus, were doomed. The faith of the Christians was that of whoever adhered to the Gospel and to the teaching of Jesus. They were believers and their faith valid till the advent of Muhammad ﷺ. Those who rejected Muhammad ﷺ, by not leaving the Gospel and Jesus’ way are doomed … This doesn’t conflict with what ‘Ali b. Abi Talha relates from Ibn ‘Abbas that: Those who believe [in the Qur’an], the Jews, the Christians, and Sabaeans; whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day was followed by Allah revealing: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted from him, and in the Afterlife he will be among the losers. For what Ibn ‘Abbas is simply informing is that no path is acceptable from anyone, nor any deed, unless it conforms to the shari‘ah of Muhammad ﷺ now that he has been sent. Prior to this, anyone who followed the particular prophet of his time was upon right guidance and the path of salvation.’7

8. In the above light, philosophies that speak of the “Essential Unity of Religions”, or “Perennialism”, are disbelief (kufr). The metaphysics of these philosophies is such that they insist the world’s major faiths: Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, like Islam, all contain at their heart a core set of esoteric truths, despite them differing immensely in their external appearance, forms and practices – and even in many of their beliefs. They also believe that these major religions, again like Islam, still retain their validity even today. The metaphor used to describe the Unity of Religions is that of a bicycle wheel. The spokes represent the different religions; the hub symbolises God, the Supreme Being, the Transcendent Reality. Just as the spokes come closer to each other as they near the hub, so too, as each path comes closer to the One Reality, it comes closer to all other paths. Now as appealing as it sounds to some, it can never pass for authoritative, orthodox Quranic teachings – as has been shown.

9. Asserting that such Perennialist philosophy is clear disbelief (kufr) does not amount to an accusation that each specific individual who holds such a belief is necessarily an unbeliever (kafir) – as is well attested to in mainstream Sunni theology. The maxim in this matter runs as follows: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief, becomes a disbeliever.’ The shari‘ah upholds the distinction between a general charge of disbelief (takfir ‘amm), and the charge of disbelief upon a specific individual (takfir mu‘ayyan). Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘They have not given proper consideration that making takfir has conditions (shurut) and impediments (mawani‘) that must be actualised if it is to be applied to a specific individual. Because a general declaration of takfir doesn’t imply takfir on a specific individual – until conditions are fulfilled and impediments lifted.’8

10. The Perennialist Philosophy (religio perennis) was first propagated in the late 1930s. It was Frithjof Schuon who would bring this idea to its fruition. Among those who came under Schuon’s influence were those like Martin Lings, Gai Eaton and Seyyed Hossein Nasr (the first two also being converts to Islam). Such Muslims who, through a hugely errant ta’wil or interpretation that misled them into perennialism, are part of a highly learned body of authors and academics who offer some of the finest critiques of modernity from a traditional perspective, and profoundest spiritual expositions of Islam to modern beleaguered hearts and minds. That their writings have, by Allah’s grace, brought so many Westerners into the fold of Islam is beyond doubt. Perennial beliefs aside, their writings are a reminder that to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual and spiritual content is no longer possible in our modern world. For the spirit of our times asks questions, questions for the most part hostile to faith, which demands answers. And those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith; from adequate familiarity with modernity’s philosophical underpinnings; and from reflective study, introspection and meditation.

11. Interestingly, the late Martin Lings wrote in The Eleventh Hour about the theory of man’s evolution that if it is indeed true, why didn’t God tell believers about it to begin with, or at least gradually bring them into it? Why did He allow religion after religion to repeat the same old ways of thinking, and prevent prophet after prophet from ever divulging its true nature? Yet He allowed a mere non-prophet to discern its reality and propogate it in defiance of all spiritual authorities of the time.9 And yet a similar line of argument can equally apply to the belief in perennialism. For using the same rhyme and reason one could ask: Why didn’t Allah tell believers about this to begin with, or wean them steadily onto it? Why did Allah allow prophet after prophet to repeat the same ways of thinking, or prevent them from disclosing its true nature? And yet, we are to believe, He allowed a mere non-prophet to arrive at this great existential truth, propagating it in disregard to a scholarly consensus of the past sages and present-day spiritual authorities. The point being is that if Islam’s religious authorities all deemed the belief to be kufr, on what basis should Perennialism be accepted?

12. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not been conveyed, or they have heard about Islam and the Prophet, but in a distorted form? Here the Qur’an presents a far wider, ecumenical scope: Nor do We punish until We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] Also: 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 idea of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, is vital in this issue; typified by the words of Imam al-Nawawi (which have already preceded in point 2) that ‘those to whom the call of Islam does not reach are excused.’

13. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of wilful rejection (juhud) of it or because of belying (takdhib) it. Others, however, choose not to hear the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) out of arrogance or prejudice against it, or hostility towards it – in some cases doing so knowing it is the truth: And they rejected them [Allah’s signs], although they inwardly recognised them, through injustice and arrogance. [27:14] Now it’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of discerning the revealed truths of Islam. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or losing their standing among people; having contempt for Muslims; arrogant prejudice against them; or just out of sheer folly and misguidance, many turn away from even considering the Qur’an. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.10

14. As for those who have heard about Islam, but in a distorted form, I’ll suffice with what Imam al-Ghazali wrote about the matter: ‘In fact, I would say that, Allah willing, most of the Byzantine Christians and the Turks of this age will be included in Allah’s mercy. I’m referring here to those who live in the farthest regions of Byzantium and Anatolia who have not come into contact with the message. These people are of three groups: [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].’11

15. 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 non-Muslims; disbelievers. 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 rule of thumb: ‘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.’12

16. As for the honourific distinctions given to the Jews and Christans in the Qur’an, in that they are referred to as People of the Book (ahl al-kitab), their chaste womenfolk are lawful to marry, and their ritually-slaughtered meat may be eaten, then this in no way excludes them from being a category of disbelievers. Fakhr al-Din al-Razi wrote, citing al-Qaffal, that ‘although the ahl al-kitab have acquired the virtue in this world of [us] being able to marry their women and eat their slaughtered meat. Yet this does not set them apart from the idolators in matters of the Afterlife, in terms of rewards and chastisements.’13

To wrap up the discussion: The Qur’an insists that every prophet came with a core set of universal truths centred around Allah’s Oneness (tawhid). The Qur’an says: We have sent to every nation a Messenger [proclaiming]: ‘Worship Allah and shun false gods.’ [16:36] It is possible, therefore, for Buddhism and Hinduism to have been, in the ancient past, divinely-revealed. Yet it is equally true that the Qur’an insists of previously-revealed religions and their scriptures that they have long suffered alteration and corruption at the hands of men, and that whatever revealed truths were once present in them have long since been forgotten, changed, compromised or overshadowed by corrupted and idolatrous beliefs and practices. So while the world’s major faiths do show similarities with Islam, this does not prove their essential unity with it as they currently exist. For they haven’t only been altered, but have also been abrogated and superceded by what was revealed to the final Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is why: He who seeks a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers. Now whether such an explanation is passionate or dispassionate, narrow and unecumenical, or born of a “madrasah mentality,” it is the unanimous belief of Islam’s eminent sages, jurists and theologians. It is, in other words, the Quranic truth.

That said, I think it befitting to close with these words from Shaykh Bin Bayyah, one of contemporary Islam’s most revered and learned jurists: ‘Of course, a devotional life in this world should be lived in peaceful co-existence with others.’14 O Allah! Bless us with iman and aman – with faith and security; and make us of benefit to Islam and to humanity, and not a harm or a hindrance to them. Amin.

1. Muslim, no.240.

2. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.

3. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 2004), 1:120.

4. Rawdat al-Talibin (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), 7:290. Its like is seen in  al-Buhuti, Kashshaf al-Qina‘ (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1983), 6:170.

5. Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2002), 450.

6. Cf. al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 1:57; Ibn al-Jawzi, Zad al-Masir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 2002), 65.

7. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1986), 1:107.

8.  Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 12:487-8. Also see the article on this blog: Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules.

9. Lings, The Eleventh Hour (Cambridge: Archetype, 2002), 28.

10. See: Bin Bayyah, What of Those to Whom Islam Does Not Reach?

11. Al-Ghazali, Faysal al-Tafriqah (Damascus: 1993), 84.

12. ibid., 25.

13. Al-Razi, Mafatih al-Ghayb (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981), 11:151, on Qur’an 5:5.

14. Bin Bayyah, What of Those to Whom Islam Does Not Reach?

Turning to God After All Else Has Failed Us

image-by-Robert-GoldsteinIsn’t it the height of bad faith if we turn to God only after everyone else, or everything else, has failed us? Isn’t that trivialising God’s greatness that we’ve put Him last on our list? If so, will He still listen to my plea for help? Should I still turn to Him? Or will it be a case of: ‘The cheek of it!’?

In his celebrated volume of spiritual discourses, called Futuh al-Ghayb, the venerable Shaykh and sayyid, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d.561H/1166CE) – the leading Hanbali jurist of Baghdad in his time and a spiritual master par excellence of his age – commences the third of his orations with these words:

‘When the servant is tried with some difficulty, his first impulse is to try and cope with it by himself. If he is unable to extract himself from it, he looks to others for help, such as those in power, important officials, people of means and influence, or medical experts; if disease or physical ailment is involved. If he still finds no relief, he then turns to his Lord with prayers of petition, humble entreatment and offerings of praise. As long as he feels he can cope on his own, he will not turn to others; and so long as he can count on others, he will not turn to the Creator.’1

It seems a poor thing to turn to God as a last resort; to remember Him when all else fails us; to lift our hands to Him only when the ship is going down. If God were proud He would never accept us on such terms. But God is not proud. Instead, Kind, Caring and, Merciful – God will have us even if we have shown that we have preferred others over Him and that we come to Him only because we are now at a dead end. Indeed, it does not really proclaim the glory of God if we chose Him only as an alternative to Hell; and yet even this He accepts. Such is God’s mercy and kindness; such is how He forgives and overlooks His glory’s diminution. In fact, God says in the Qur’an: When My servants ask you concerning Me [tell them] I am indeed close, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [2:186] God further states: Say: ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their own souls! Despair not of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins; for He is the All-Forgiving, All-Merciful. [39:53]

Further on in the very same discourse, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir speaks about how, when the person’s illusions of self-sufficiency are shattered – and for the person’s sake they must be shattered – and as he is made to realise that none can help him or grant him relief except God, God responds to his servant’s humility and brokenness and shades him from distress. For God accepts His servants however they may come to Him – if not in loving submission, then by trials and troubles, or by simple fear of the eternal flames; unmindful, even, of His glory’s diminution.

1. Futuh al-Ghayb (Cairo: Dar al-Maqtam, 2007), 22. My translation of the passage was based on M. Holland, Revelations of the Unseen (Florida: Al-Baz Publishing, 2007), 11.

Zakat: Helping the Needy at Home & Abroad

file-186#4814a48170cc5fead838096208a6f890Thoughts that first cross the mind when it is suggested that zakat should be given at home in the UK, as well as abroad, is: foolish; nonsensical; totally irresponsible; utter ignorance; unIslamic, even! After all, who in Britain is truly poor or needy compared to, say, the millions of people in Malawi, Liberia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and other parts of the poverty-stricken or war-torn world?

So let me try to present the case for it, both from a textual, fiqhi perspective and from the perspective of our current reality in the UK. After that, I’ll leave it to the readers to decide whether the case has any merit or not, and whether or not the actual idea is absurd and irresponsible. Let me build the case, starting with the following:


In describing the essential traits of the God-conscious; the muttaqun, the Qur’an tells us that they are those who believe in the unseen, establish prayer, and spend out of what We have given them. [2:3] Expounding on this verse, Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘God frequently pairs together prayer and spending in charity. Prayer is a right of God and an act of devotion to Him. This [right] involves singling Him out for worship, praising Him, extolling His glory, earnestly invoking Him, petitioning Him and depending on Him. Spending, by contrast, is part of benevolence towards creation through extending to them a helping hand.’1

This pairing is so intrinsic to our faith that religious observance, in its entirety, can be said to revolve around huququ’Llah, “rights of God,” and huquq al-’ibad, “rights of the creation.” Ibn Rajab, however, makes a timely observation in this respect, which we would do well to pay heed to. He says: ‘Many in whom attentiveness in fulfilling the rights of God predominate, and who are devoted to God’s love, fear and obedience, either totally neglect the rights of creation, or fall short with respect to them.’2


The “spending (infaq) out of what God has given” in the above verse comprises two forms of giving. One is sadaqah – voluntary spending; the other, zakat – the spending of which is mandatory. The term sadaqah (usually translated as “alms” or as “charity”) covers, not just the giving of money to the deserving poor, but also the giving of one’s self, talents, learning, or simply one’s time. The act is seen as meritorious in and of itself, purely on altruistic grounds. Yet the spiritual significance of sadaqah can’t be overlooked too. Giving regular sadaqah attracts madad – the flow of divine assistance, as well as helps repel misfortune.

Zakat, a word which signifies growth, blessings and also purification,3 is that type of spending which the Qur’an deems mandatory on all Muslims who possess surplus financial means at their disposal. The payment of zakat is, therefore, a way by which a Muslim’s wealth may be made pure and sacred – so long as, of course, one seeks the divine pleasure through it: He who gives his wealth to purify himself, not in return for any favour done unto him, seeking only the Face of his Lord, Most High. He shall be well-pleased. [92:18-21]


It is not just one’s wealth that is purified through the act of paying the zakat, but also one’s self. For the nafs; the ego, is purified from the blemish of greed and selfishness when giving freely of one’s wealth: And whoever is saved from his own avarice will surely succeed. [59:9]

With its spiritual significance confirmed, one must not overlook zakat’s all important social function. Islam’s vision of society is rooted in the idea of compassion, service and responsibility; and no where is this better seen than in the giving and dispensing of zakat. For zakat is to be utilised, first and foremost, for the poor and the needy, so as to alleviate the problem of poverty. In other words, the “haves”of the society are to help lift the burden of the “have nots” in the spirit of service and brotherhood. In summing-up the spiritual and social virtues of zakat, Shah Wali Allah wrote: ‘Know that there are two purposes behind zakat: a purpose linked to disciplining the soul; this due to the presence of avarice in it … And a purpose associated with the city, for it will certainly include those who are poor and needy.’4


Zakat is, strictures the Qur’an, only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect it, and for those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and for the ransom of captives, and the debtors, and in the path of God, and the wayfarers. This is an obligation from God, and God is All-Knowing, All-Wise. [9:60]

Juristic details aside, the main forms of wealth on which zakat is levied includes gold and silver, livestock, agricultural produce, minerals, stocks and shares, currency and other liquid assets. A percentage of this wealth (two and a half percent in the case of gold, silver, stocks and share, and all wealth held in monetary form) is to be disbursed to the eight sectors, or categories, mentioned in the above verse.5

In a foundational hadith on the subject we read that the Prophet ﷺ, when sending Mu‘adh to Yemen, instructed him: ‘O Mu‘adh, you are going to a people who are of the People of the Book, so first invite them to bear witness that none deserves to be worshiped except God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God. If they accept this, then inform them that God enjoins on them five prayers in a day and a night. If they accept this, then inform them that God obligates charity [i.e. zakat] upon them; to be taken from their rich and given to their poor.’6


Based on the words: “to be taken from their rich and given to their poor,” jurists from the four Sunni schools of law, or madhhabs, say that zakat, as a rule of thumb, is to be distributed locally where possible.

The Hanbali school stipulates: ‘It is preferred to disburse all of the zakat to the poor of his locality. It is not permissible to transfer it to [a location] where prayer is to be shortened [if one traveled to it]; though if one does so it suffices – unless there are no poor persons in the land, in which case he is to distribute it in the land closest to him.’7

The Shafi’i madhhab lays down: ‘If the [eight] categories are found in the place where zakat is collected, it is prohibitted and invalid to transfer the zakat elsewhere – save if it is being distributed by the head of state, in which case he may transfer it to another place.’8

The Malikis hold that transfering zakat is impermissible, except if there is a pressing need to do so.9

The Hanafi school is more conciliatory on the subject, stipulating, ‘It is disapproved to transfer zakat of one land to another; unless he transfers it to his poor relatives, or to a people needier than his own.’10

In short: what this tells us is that the poor and needy of a city have greater claim over local zakat than the poor or needy elsewhere – accepting that scholars permit sending it abroad for pressing reasons.


“There are no poor Muslims in Britain,” is a common response to the suggestion that zakat could be disbursed here, within the country. But is this true? No poor Muslims? Even if it were, what of the other categories of zakat recipients? Are they absent from Britain too?

The reality is markedly different from the popular Muslim perception. For there are a growing number of poor and needy Muslim households in the UK who would qualify for zakat. It is true that their need is likely to not be as acute as those in certain other poverty-ravished places in the world. Nevertheless, their relative poverty, in terms of not having enough money for certain basic necessities – like food, heating, medicines, or paying rent – would entitle them to zakat. Of course, if government benefits meet such needs, well that is different. But if they did not, and sometimes they don’t, then scholars have ruled that they would indeed qualify for zakat. Those who could enter into the category of the poor (fuqara) and the needy (masakin) are: struggling single parent families, asylum seekers, refugees, and anyone else whose net assets (after one excludes assets for basic essentials like a house, car, furniture, etc; and after deducting basic living expenses and debts owed) are less than the nisab value.11 This could also include prisoners; and even more so, families of prisoners, who often have very little or no financial support.

Then there are the mu’allafat al-qulub – “those whose hearts need reconciling.” These recipients can include: recent converts to Islam who are alienated from their families, or whose faith needs strengthening; or recently released prisoners struggling to make ends meet and about whom it is feared will reoffend.

There is also the category of the gharimun: “those burdened with debts” contracted in good faith, which they subsequently cannot repay. Of course, we’re not talking about those who’ve racked up debts due to conspicuous consumption, spending and living beyond their means, or through gambling and other haram indulgences. Instead, we are talking about people who, for instance, and through no fault or irresponsibility of their own, have fallen into rents arrears and are on the verge of eviction. Or, where a family whose bread winner has been made redundant, and find themselves in arrears with domestic utility bills, to the extent where the gas or electricity supply is going to be cut-off.

As for the category of fi sabili’Llah – “for the path of God” – here in Britain this would include financial assistance to students fully occupied in formally studying the sacred shari‘ah sciences. Classically, of course, the fiqh manuals depict this category as being primarily voluntary fighters (mujahidun), not paid by the state treasury, who require financial support so as to partake in a bonafide state-sanctioned war against a hostile and belligerent enemy.


In the above, I’ve tried to spotlight people who could very well be entitled to receive zakat in Britain, but who often get ignored, or go unnoticed and unserved. As for the more higher profile categories: orphans; widows; the starving, hungry and homeless; Muslims incarcerated in prisons such as Guantanamo, with no sure evidence against them and no access to justice or the due process of the law; and the countless victims of natural disasters across the globe – we must indeed continue to reach out to them with our zakat (and our sadaqah and du‘as). Subhana’Llah! Their plight often beggars belief and the sheer scales of the tragedies are so grotesque; and living for the poor is the undeniable Sunnah, often forgotten by us Muslims today.

Having a social conscience with respect to Britain’s needy and vulnerable Muslims is in no way to ignore the poverty, starvation and persecution which afflicts millions of Muslims in other parts of the globe. British Muslims will have to learn to discharge their duties to both, in light of the priorities set by Islam’s Sacred Law. It’s even been argued that, if we were to get our own house in a little more order, it would help us to better help others in the long run. Whatever the case, we need to think the issue of how best to deploy our zakat; of how best to help restore dignity to the needy and the impoverished.

This, then, is the case for not neglecting to give zakat to the growing number of poor and needy Muslims in Britain today.

And Allah knows best.

1. Ibn Kathir, Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Adhim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 1:45.

2. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:454.

3. As per al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 380-81.

4. Hujjatu’Llah al-Balighah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 2:69-70.

5. The fiqh details that make a person liable for paying zakat, and to whom and how such monies should be disbursed, are issues for which the lay people must consult a qualified scholar.

6. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, no.1496.

7. Al-Hajjawi, Zad al-Mustaqni‘ (Riyadh: Madar al-Watn li’l-Nashr, 2004), 78.

8. Ibn Naqib, ‘Umdat al-Salik (Qatar:Nafaqah al-Sh’un al-Diniyyah, 1982), 111.

9. Cited in al-Bassam, Tawdih al-Ahkam min Bulugh al-Maram (Makkah: Maktabah al-Nahdah al-Hadithah, 1994), 3:27.

10. Al-Zayla‘i, Nasab al-Rayah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2002), 2:423.

11. Nisab: This is the minimum amount of wealth upon which zakat becomes payable. If one only has gold assets, the nisab is 87.48 grams of gold. If the assets are a mixture of gold and silver, the nisab for silver is utilised, which is 612.36 grams. In monetary terms, one converts these nisab levels to the current market prices for gold or silver. Thus, at today’s price (8/2/2015), the market value for gold, per gram, was £26.02; and for silver, £0.35. So whoever has £2,276.23 or more of net gold assets, will have to pay zakat, or £214.32 of mixed net assets must pay zakat. Those possessing less than the nisab are not liable for zakat and are usually considered poor or needy. One, however, consults a qualified scholars if unsure about how to calculate zakat.

Footprints on the Sands of Time 2

6a00e554e88723883301a511ad66d6970c‘Modernity is simply our context,’ wrote Dr Sherman Jackson, ‘We must never allow it to become our excuse.’ As various global forces currently conspire against the call to Abrahamic monotheism, here are a few more Footprints exploring the nature of Islam, Muslims and modernity (the first set of Footprints can be read here):

On humility: The mark of those who have truly internalised the Sunnah’s beauty is: if praised, they take it embarrassingly or with a pinch of salt, for they see themselves as being unworthy; if censured, they make no defence.

On learning to see with the heart’s eye: If we deepen in our acknowledging the divine acts, the af’al al-rabb, we shall be led more and more to a sense of loving gratitude for He who manifests all blessings.

On the yardstick to assess change: Faith instructs us to measure progress and change, not in terms of material advancement, nor even in terms of the presence or absence of political freedom, but rather in terms of an increasing awareness of God’s presence, worship of Him, and fulfilling the prescriptions instated by faith. If change through political activism facilitates the former, but does harm to the latter, how can believers truly rejoice?

On the station of being loved: One of the surest ways of becoming beloved to Allah is through an unrelenting love of the Prophet ﷺ and manifesting such love through invoking abundant and constant salutations (salawat) upon him: Allahumma salli ‘ala sayyidina muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi wa sallim.

Beware trigger-happy texting: Received wisdom informs us that: Not everything that is good should be said, and not everything that is said should be spread. Today, such caution has been thrown to the wind, to be replaced by impulsive and ill-considered trigger-happy texting and tweeting.

On the hijab and Islam’s shieldmaidens: Since hijab signifies the higher statement of gendered humanity, the woman in hijab finds herself on the frontline in a war against the monoculture. So, as traditional modesty is made to buckle under the pressures of modernity, the woman in hijab stands out either as a witness to revealed difference, or to her own charms. She stands out either as a witness to her life lived for God, or to identity politics or egotistical fashion statements. And while inappropriateness for a lady in hijab isn’t always clear; and while she strives to guard and nurture her sense of modesty against modernity’s intrusions of immodesty, she remains the great global sign of dissent. In such a battle she must be supported, counselled and defended; but never dictated to. For a woman in hijab is a shieldmaiden of Islam.

On taking to the carpet of silence: It is in a state of solitude that the heart’s gaze can best be diverted away from creation and be focused solely on the Creator.

On spirituality & shopping malls: While it is beyond doubt that markets (in our time, shopping malls) and trade have played a pivotal role in Muslim life and society; and that in many traditional Muslim cities, markets were located around the main jami‘ah or Congregational mosque; there are, nevertheless, a few hadiths that speak of their unsavoury nature. One hadith says: ‘The most beloved of places to God, on earth, are the mosques, while the most deplorable are the markets.’ [Muslim, no.671]

Of course, markets being despised has nothing to do with trade or commerce, per se. It does have to do with the fraud and deception common in such places, as well as the greed, avarice, bickering and yelling found therein. There, false oaths are frequently sworn, and honest remembrance of God usually conspicuous by its absence. But more than that, the market is where even a renunciant’s heart can easily be entangled in the tentacles of dunya, and be ensnared by its false glitz and glitter. Enter it for needs, we must; enter it for wants, we may. But enter it bewitched or besotted, we must not!

Islam’s invitation to humankind: The Call of Islam is, without doubt, a call to prayer, charity, building character, remembrance of God and spiritual struggle. It is also a call to ease, for it takes into account public interest and peoples’ frailties, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The Qur’an states: God wishes to lighten the burden for you, for man was created weak. [4:28]

On a believer’s compassion and easy-going nature: Shut not the door of Allah in the faces of Allah’s servants; but: ‘Make things easy for the people and do not make things difficult. Give them glad tidings, do not drive them away.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.69; Muslim, no.1734]

When the principle of ease becomes one of adulteration: The desire to bring religion to people and make it easy for them is, surely, a noble one; and revelation commends it. But this is hardly a case where the means justify the ends. Diluting the truth for the sake of meeting misguidance halfway is self-defeating; isn’t it? If people have drifted away from the centre to the fringes of heedlessness, then charity requires that they be shown the way back. To imagine that one can take the centre out to them, while they stay exactly where they are, is sheer folly.

On harnessing harmony in marriage: Only when egos are hung up on coat pegs, and the Revealed Law (shari’ah) honoured and observed, can husband and wife find sacred peace (sakinah): And from His signs is that He created for you wives from yourselves that you might find peace in them. [30:21]

On one rule for us, another for others: Why do we always find an excuse for our own wrong behaviour, but never an excuse for others? Why do we always look at ourselves through rose-tinted glasses, yet look at others through a magnifying glass?

On an inquisition against traditional morality: While the unfailing light of Revelation tells us that the act of homosexuality is sinful and immoral, “Will you commit foulness such as no creature ever did before you? For you come with lust to men instead of women; you are indeed a transgressing people” [7:80-1], we needn’t voice our opposition to it in hostile rage or violence; but rather peacefully, calmly, without calling for persecution. Mercy is better than malice; understanding better than recrimination.

As for the inquisition or Islamophobia being dolled out by the liberal stalwarts against those who oppose certain sexual practices, let us respond with restraint, dignity and tolerance. And nor should their intimidation and bullying cause us to cower, or fail to state the correct ruling on the matter.

On the inner serenity that comes by recalling that all is unfolding as per His plan: The believer is to withstand the tragedies and outrages of time, not with indifference, nor apathy, but with self-restraint, dignified response and righteous indignation that does not burst at the seams or explode into uncontrolled rage.

When putting on an act is not hypocritical: Some feel that the attempt to put on good character so as to present one’s best face to people is disingenuous; hypocritical even. That may be so if the intention is merely to impress people or to win brownie points in da‘wah. But if one does so from a love of dignified behaviour and good character; or out of a desire to shield others from one’s misdeeds and shortcomings; or from the hope of being more worthy of Allah, despite our inadequacies, then this is deemed as something virtuous. Indeed, cultivating good character and dignity of behaviour have always been highly regarded in Islam.

On the three classes of scholars: Religious scholars, long ago, have been divided into three types: [i] government scholars (‘ulema al-dawlah), [ii] populist scholars (‘ulema al-‘ammah) and [iii] righteous religious scholars (‘ulema al-millah).

Government scholars needn’t be salaried employees of the state. Rather, the label will apply to any scholar whose intended aim is to be royalist and to defend official state policies – regardless of truth, justice and the shari‘ah. Their goal is not God, as much as it is to placate the palace. These sell-outs are different from those state appointed scholars whose lives are a testimony to their God-fearingness and piety, but whose perceptions and outlook, when it comes to fatwas on larger political matters, could be skewered by false government briefings, misinformation and palace propaganda. While the personal integrity of such scholars is unquestionable; their political fatwas are less so.

Populist scholars are at the other end of the spectrum. They are scholars whose chief purpose is to be popular among the masses. Their fatwas are always anti-government, merely for the sake of gaining acceptance among the masses. Again, God, justice, and truth isn’t their main goal, as much as it is keeping the hysteria of the masses happy, courting the crowds, and pandering to the public’s praises. These people, as with the above, have also betrayed their scholarly credentials.

As for those righteous religious scholars, their intent is God’s good pleasure. They issue fatwas out of piety, in light of the shari‘ah and with trying to conceptualise the actual situation. Their fatwas are based on knowledge, justice and on scrupulousness. God’s pleasure is their aim: whether the fatwa agrees with the monarchy or the masses, the president or the public. These are the true inheritors of the Prophets.

On steering emotions and actions with sound knowledge: Firmness without learning leads to extremism. Frankness without learning leads to insolence. Boldness without learning leads to disputation.

On the Monoculture’s failure to offer fulfilment: Muslims are called to witness that each day of our life brings a host of difficulties, discomforts and disappointments: We have indeed created man in toil and hardship [90:4]; Believers must bear witness too that while the monoculture teaches us to drown out these struggles and troubles with drink, drugs and distractions; monotheism insists that our happiness is greatest when we face such trials patiently, stoically and responsibly: Those who endure with patience will be rewarded without measure. [39:10] ‘We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who show patience.’ [2:155] Adversity, then, is the non-negotiable fee that each of us must pay for the privilege of being born.

On living for the long run: Be not honoured in this world, but disgraced in the next; remembered on earth, but forgotten in Heaven; loved today, but ignored tomorrow.

On the importance of keeping spiritual company: Keeping company with those who can instruct us in our shariah duties and, more importantly, whose presence can help reform our inward state, is a crucial teaching of our religion – and one that is all too often forgotten, neglected or overlooked. O you who believe! Fear God, and be with the truthful ones, says the Qur’an [9:119].

On the heart’s solace: In the midst of this burdened world we make our supplications, knowing that when all else fails us, He is ever with us; listening and ready to respond: And your Lord has said: ‘Call on Me, and I will answer you.’ [Qur’an 40:60]

Tawhid: Worshippers Immersed in Witnessing God

700-521089Explaining the essence of Islam and its main pillars, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: testifying that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, performing the prayers, paying the zakat; pilgrimage to the House; and fasting in Ramadan.’ [Muslim, no.21]

It is also related in these words: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: worshiping God and rejecting whatever else is beside Him, performing the prayers, paying the zakat …’ [Muslim, no.20]

In another wording: “Islam is built on five [pillars]: an yuwahhadu’Llah – to single out God …” [Muslim, no.19]

Scholars have noted that the above three hadiths, despite their variant wordings, are synonomous with one another. That is to say, they each convey the same meaning. Thus, to testify or bear witness that there is no deity but God is the same as worshiping God and none other than Him, which, in turn, is the same as singling-out God. It is this convicion of singling-out God for worship which, above all else, lies at the heart of the Islamic faith.

The Qur’an proclaims: Worship God and ascribe not any partner to Him. [4:36] Another verse has it: We raised in every nation a messenger [saying]: ‘Worship God and shun false gods!’ [16:36] Yet another of its passages insists: We sent no messenger before you except that We revealed to him: ‘There is no god but I, so worship Me.’ [21:25]

This, then, is the doctrine to which every Muslim submits, and around which the life of the community of believers revolves; captured in Islam’s Declaration of Faith: la ilaha illa’Llah – “There is no deity [worthy of worship] save the One true God: Allah.” This declaration, which in Islam’s view is the central assertion of all the divinely-sent prophets, is a summons, as it were, to live an attentive and pious life.

La ilaha illa’Llah is also called the statement of tawhid – a word which can be rendered as “divine unity” or “monotheism”; although a more accurate translation would be: “to assert God’s oneness.” This idea of tawhid – that God is inevitably and utterly one, perfect, indivisible and unique – is the cardinal tenet of a Muslim’s belief. Now since it is the nature of theologians to try and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, precise theological definitions of the term have been offered down the ages. Among them all, the following has received widespread acceptance. Tawhid is:

‘To single-out God for worship (ifrad al-ma‘bud bi’l-‘ibadah), accompanied by believing in His unity and affirming this for His Essence, Attributes and Acts.’1

Definitions like the above reflect the dual concern of Muslim theologians: to assert the absolute transcendence or “otherness” of God, and to affirm that God alone must be singled-out for worship. Lord of the heavens and earth and all that is between them. Therefore worship Him and be steadfast in His worship. Do you know anyone similar to Him? [19:65]

But Islam’s goal is God, not some theological abstraction written down on a piece of paper. To this end the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins upon us all a constant awareness of God, even in the midst of our worldly activities. This awareness is expressed by two words which the Qur’an frequently employs. The first is taqwa: often glossed as “fear of God” or “piety”. To have taqwa of God is to obey Him wholeheartedly, while being conscious of His gaze and scrutiny of us. In other words, it is to be profoundly aware of God, and to mould our lives around such an awareness.

Ihsan is the second word, and is commonly translated as “goodness” and “excellence”. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained ihsan as: ‘To worship God as though you see Him; and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.8]

Revelation’s insistance on taqwa and on ihsan is precisely so that tawhid may be made into a living, experiential reality and for faith to be deepened and be made profound. In explaining the verse, Your God is One God; there is no God but He. [2:163], Ibn Juzayy outlines the three ascending degrees of tawhid: the sublimest degree being to witness God with the eye of the heart; witnessing everything is from God, not that everything is God. He writes:

‘Know that peoples’ tawhid of God is of three degrees: First, that which the generality of Muslims affirm, by which their lives are protected in this world and by which they are delivered from residing in Hell eternally in the world to come: which is to reject partners, rivals, spouses, children, likenesses or equals with God.

The second degree is the tawhid of the elite. It is to perceive that all acts emanate from God alone, and to witness this through spiritual unveiling (mukashafah), not by way of formal dialectical proofs that are accessible to every Muslim. This station of tawhid of the elect enriches the heart with imperative knowledge (‘ilm daruri) and hence has no need for formal proofs. The fruits of such knowledge are a wholehearted devotion to God, putting one’s trust in Him alone, and a turning away from all creation; so that he does not hope in anyone save God, nor fear anyone but Him. For he sees no Doer save Him and that all people are in His overwhelming grasp; none of the matter is in their hand. Thus he dispenses with [depending upon] all secondary causes and earthly lords.

[The person at] the third degree does not see anything in existence except God alone. He is absent from looking at people; until, for him, it is as if they did not exist. This is what sufis term the Station of Annihilation (maqam al-fana); which means becoming “absent” from people until one is lost from oneself and from one’s tawhid – that is to say, being absent due to being immersed in witnessing God.’2

1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:57; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 38.

2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:164.

Ma‘rifah: Getting to Know God

allah-calligraphy-1When we compare our lifespans, wherein our lives unfold, to the age of the earth or to the visible universe of nearly fourteen billion years, it seems less significant than a drop of water in an endless ocean. To today’s materialists, life holds little significance beyond that of selfish genes and chance mutations (or of exploitation and unfettered consumption). To believers in Allah and His Oneness (tawhid), however, life is seen as a rich tapestry of signs and an arena of tests that grant us the opportunity of knowing Allah and of worshiping Him. I only created jinn and men, stresses Allah in the Qur’an, that they may worship Me. [51:56]

The famous Quranic exegesis (mufassir), Mujahid, explained Allah’s words: “that they may worship Me (illa li ya‘budun)” to mean: “that they may know Me (illa li ya‘rifuni).”1 The rationale here being pretty straightforward, which is that we can’t worship Allah without first knowing something about Him.

In his essay about divine love, Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns – “Inhaling the Breeze of Divine Intimacy” – Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote: ‘Allah created creation in order that they may worship Him, with love, fear and hope in Him. Allah, exalted is He, declares: I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me. However, Allah, transcendent is He, can only be worshiped after knowing Him. This is why He created the heavens, the earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness and majesty. Allah informs: Allah it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [65:12]’2

So here we are told that the whole of creation was created li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah, and know that His Command courses throughout creation and that His omnipotence and omniscience envelop all things. This, then, forms the deep wisdom behind why creation was created: to know Allah; know He is One, utterly unique, the sole Lord, Creator and Controller of creation, and that none deserves to be worshiped except Him.

As for the hadith frequently cited in sufi literature: “I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation and made Myself known; they then knew Me,” hadith masters declare this report to be a chainless forgery.

In his encyclopaedia of hadith forgeries and fabrications, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari said about it: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah stated: “These aren’t the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and nor does it have any chain; be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani said the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’3

That its meaning is sound is confirmed by the Qur’an and by a whole host of classical scholars. So here is a case where we needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

When speaking about Islam’s religious ultimate: Allah, the language of Islam and of its learned ones often make reference to the term, ma‘rifatu’Llah – having ma‘rifah of God. Ma‘rifah (which is derived from the word ‘arafa: “to know”, “to be acquainted”) may be translated as: knowledge of God. It is of varying degrees and tends to refer to knowledge which has been arrived at through reflection and contemplation, and then internalised and experienced by the heart and the senses. In other words, ma‘rifah is experiential knowledge (sometimes translated as “gnosis”). The deeper the reflection, the profounder the ma‘rifah.

Whilst elaborating on the following hadith: “Know Allah in times of prosperity and He will know you in times of adversity,”4 Ibn Rajab said:

A person’s ma‘rifah of his Lord is of two degrees: Firstly, a general ma‘rifah that entails acknowledging, affirming and believing in Him. This degree of ma‘rifah is common to every Muslim. Secondly, a more specific type of ma‘rifah which causes hearts to incline completely to Allah, be devoted to Him, seek intimacy in Him, be at peace whenever remembering Him, feel shy before Him and be in awe of Him. This level of ma‘rifah is the type around which the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) revolve. One of them said: “The paupers of this world have departed from it without having tasted the sweetest thing in it.” Someone inquired: What is the sweetest thing in it? He said: “Ma‘rifah of Allah; mighty and majestic is He.” Ahmad b. ‘Asim al-Antaqi said: “I wish not to die until I attain to ma’rifah of my Lord. I don’t mean a ma‘rifah in terms of merely believing in Him. But a ma‘rifah such that, when I know Him, I feel shy before Him.”’5

Now these levels of ma‘rifah may be likened to that of a man and his neighbour who’s just recently moved in next door.6 Initially the man becomes acquainted with his new neighbour in a general sense. He may learn of his name; his vocation; whether he is married or not. He will also learn of his general appearance and be able to recognise him when meeting him on the street. He may even, by asking around, be able to glean other facts about his new neighbour. Yet whatever facts he does learn about him will be at an indirect, impersonal level, unlikely to stir the heart into having any deep or abiding sense of respect and admiration for him. In fact, beyond acknowledging the neighbour’s existence or presence in the locality, his outlook towards him will likely be one of polite indifference. This is akin to the first degree of ma‘rifah spoken of by Ibn Rajab.

Let us now imagine the man decides to know his neighbour directly and introduce himself to him; frequently visit him; socialise with him; and, over time, form a sincere and faithful friendship with him. He is now able to see and experience, at first hand, his neighbour’s fine character, kindness, generosity, knowledge, wisdom, compassion and other virtues which can only be known through direct contact. Such an intimate awareness of his neighbour will eventually evoke in the man a profound respect and admiration for him, and a deep, abiding love for him. It is probable; guaranteed, even, that his neighbour will now begin to disclose to him many of his most private and cherished thoughts, and share with him many of his most intimate feelings, which could never have been known even with a lifetime’s worth of indirect observation or investigation. Rather, this knowledge is only granted to him out of the neighbour’s own desire to be more intimately known, and from the man abiding by the rules of courteous conduct (adab) in seeking to know and draw closer to his neighbour. This reflects the higher degree of ma‘rifah.

As for how ma‘rifah of Allah can be inspired and instilled in our hearts, Ibn al-Qayyim (Ibn Rajab’s most cherished teacher) tells us: ‘In the Qur’an, Allah invites His servants to attain ma‘rifah in two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other, by meditating upon the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’7

Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires reverence and love of Allah in human hearts. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of Allah. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.

As for the Qur’an, in demonstrating Allah’s tawhid, it depicts a vivid portrayal of Allah. This is so we may attain a more immediate awareness of Him, through pondering over His acts and attributes of perfection, by which He makes Himself known. When the Qur’an depicts such attributes – like when it says that Allah is wise, just, majestic, omnipotent, generous, compassionate, loving and forgiving – it insists Allah possesses such qualities in utter perfection. This ‘divine disclosure’ is, again, aimed at inspiring hearts to incline to Allah in reverence, awe and loving submission.

Therefore, amidst the dramas of the world, and amidst its songs of joy and sorrow, the Qur’an asks each of us to know their Maker and to live out our lives in conscious awareness of Him. Those who worship Allah with such awareness, and in accordance with Islam’s Sacred Law or shari‘ah, are led by it to an even deeper awareness. So it is that Allah, in His overwhelming generosity and perfect grace, elevates those who are imperfect, weak and ignorant, yet strive to subdue their lower souls, open their hearts to His light and seek to know and draw closer to Him.

We ask you, O Allah, to deepen our ma‘rifah of You, fill our hearts
with love and awe of You, grant us sincerity in our
worship of You, and not to be deprived
of Your shade; on the Day there
shall be no shade
but Yours.

1. Cited in al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 4:235.

2. Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns, 60.

3. Al-Qari, al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353. Almost identicle words have been reproduced in al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al–‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.836.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, 1:307; al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11560.

5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:473.

6. The simile is culled from Sayyid Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1998), 80-81. My thanks goes to Shaykh al-Afifi, of Oxford, for pointing this valuable book out to me.

7. Al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

Footprints on the Sands of Time

578130_339016602866746_654870614_nHere is a collection of musings, reminders and recollections I penned over the course of the last two years. Most can be found on my Facebook page (here), where they were first written. They cover a variety of themes and areas, with no particular structure or arrangement. As for the title of the post, I culled it from a line in a poem written by the American poet and educator, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (d.1882) – widely held to be the best-loved American poet of his age – called A Psalm of Life:

Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time.

On true worship: It has been said that the worship of the eye is weeping, the worship of the ear is listening, the worship of the tongue is voicing thanks and praise, the worship of the hand is giving, the worship of the body is striving, the worship of the heart is love, fear and hope, and the worship of the spirit is surrender and satisfaction in God.

On true knowledge: Beneficial knowledge is that which increases us in knowledge of God; acquaints us with the divine commands and prohibitions; leads us to detaching ourselves from the world and becoming desirous of the Hereafter; and brings home to us the flaws and defects in our own actions.

The pains of separation: Every joy has its cost in the loss that must inevitably follow, for nothing survives its hour. Such is the affliction common to man. So, as one hadith says, ‘Live as long as you want, but you will die; love whoever you want, but you will taste [the pain of] separation; and do whatever you want, for you will be recompensed accordingly.’ [Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.746]

On our addiction to the lower, material world: “Crack-consumerism” is the substance abuse that we as a nation now collectively partake in.

On a successful marriage: If religion is internalised and becomes a matter of the heart (and not just externally observed), then we become possessed of those qualities which are going to make a successful marriage and will transform someone into a loving and delightful spouse. For marriage requires spiritual virtues like patience, contentment, preferring others over oneself, and forbearance. Such virtues are likely to be far more natural, and hence be present in times of hardships rather than at times of ease or convenience, if one has made some progress in the path of inward purification. Thus one looks for a spouse with some depth of spiritual character.

Seeking beauty in balance: Be well-mannered without ceremony, easy-going without negligence, valiant without conceit, serious-minded without pretension and cheerful without fuss.

On a believer’s core convictions: There are, according to Islam, six “articles of faith” which make-up the core convictions of the faith, and which every believer is required to affirm and maintain belief in: God; angels; revealed books; prophets; afterlife; and divine decree.

When theologians began the enterprise of systemising beliefs and doctrine, these six articles, or “pillars of belief”, were divided into three broad areas: tawhid (affirming the oneness of God), nabuwwah (prophethood) and ma‘ad (belief in resurrection and the afterlife).

Tawhid concerns itself with the nature of God and divinity, and how creation relates to God.

Nabuwwah, or prophethood, explains who the prophets were, their function, and the significance of the divinely-revealed messages they were given.

Ma‘ad, which literally means “return”, deals with the End of Days and what awaits each human being after death.

On the Monoculture’s manufacturing of mass anxiety: Because today’s Monoculture offers Man everything save the essential, it leaves him feeling distracted, bored, empty and lost. Man, amidst all the extraordinary achievements of science and technology, still fails to find the happiness and contentment he so desperately seeks. Those who are gifted with some degree of reflectiveness are growing more and more conscious that human fulfilment will not be found on the material plane alone; that man’s angst and ennui cannot be healed by anything worldly. The Spirit must be nourished and be made to recall and reconnect with the Source of all life and goodness: God. Only then can meaninglessness and despair be driven away. The Qur’an informs us: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquillity. [Qur’an 13:28]

On true intelligence: The first sign of intelligence is to affirm the Oneness (tawhid) of God. The next sign of intelligence is to fulfil its demands. The next is to be lenient with people in those matters which are not clear-cut sins.

Let lovers invoke: The true lover never forgets to invoke salawat, or blessings of peace (or praise) upon the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam. Among the many fruits of invoking abundant salawat on him is that it nurtures a loving and a longing for him, and is a connection via which lordly assistance flows profoundly and profusely to the invoker: Allahumma salli ‘ala sayyidina muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi wa sallim.

Aim well then entrust the outcomes to God: We are each responsible for controlling our efforts, but not their outcomes. Upon us is to aim well and intend to get as close as possible to the mark. But once the arrow has left the bow, the matter is no longer in our hands.

On living a dignified life: True nobility is to live wisely with oneself, to live patiently with others, and to live in the love of God.

On choosing friends: Not everyone understands the importance of choosing friends wisely. Many people tend to get involved with whosoever is in their space, and quite often those choices can become a huge source of difficulties for them. Many people could significantly improve the quality of their life just by changing who they spend time with. One hadith teaches us: ‘A person follows the way of life of his friend, so be careful who you choose as a friend.’ [Abu Dawud, no.4833]

On degrees and distinctions: Men and women are equal in Islam in terms of all their works of faith to God: Whoever does good works, be they male or female, and is a believer, such will enter the Garden. [Qur’an 4:124] But men have a degree above women because they are bread-winners and spend on women: And women have rights like those of men, in kindness; and men are a degree above them. [Qur’an: 2:228] And: Men are maintainers and protectors of women, because of what [strength] God has given the one more than the other. [Qur’an 4:34]

Husbands and wives are equal in Islam in respect to their spiritual paths to God. But mothers have degrees above fathers because of the burdens of labour they bear: And We have commended man to [be dutiful to] his parents; his mother bore him in weakness upon weakness, and his weaning was in two years. Give thanks to Me and to your parents. To Me is the journey’s end. [Qur’an 31:14] And: O Messenger of God, of all people, who deserves my kindest treatment? He replied: ‘Your mother.’ Who next? ‘Your mother.’ Who next? ‘Your mother’ Who next? ‘Your father.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5971]

On not misreading the signs: The beauty of the night sky, or of the starry heavens, are important signs to the origins and ultimate fulfilment of our soul’s deepest yearning. But if we mistake the signs for what they actually point to – if we mistake the signpost for what is signposted – we shall end up attaching our hopes and longings to lesser things which cannot quench our thirst for meaning.

On Monotheism’s demand for courage and critical thought: Monotheism, no doubt, urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It isn’t for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it insists that we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is just an elaborate veneer for a new type of totalitarianism which is unable to accept any true or meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.

On distorting the prophetic guidance: If the Sunnah does not heal us or help us come to terms with life’s ordeals; if it doesn’t bathe us in sakinah, tranquility; if it makes us cold, harsh, hostile, intolerant and vengeful, then we are undoubtedly reading it with the wrong dictionary.

On training the inner eye to see the cup half-full: The affliction that turns you to God is better than the blessing that distracts you from Him. The enemy that brings you to God is better than the friend who cuts you off from Him.

On discarding lopsided methodologies: ‘Aqidah by itself will tie your heart in knots. Fiqh by itself will veil you from understanding. Tasawwuf by itself will pull the wool over your eyes. Combining all three … that is the only sound Islam.

On praying not to be too clingy: Pray not for a life of ease or comfort. Pray instead to be a stronger person: stronger in conviction, perseverance and worldly detachment: O you who believe! What is it with you that when you are asked to go forth in the cause of God you cling heavily to the earth? Do you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? But little is the comfort of this life as compared with the Hereafter. [Qur’an 9:38]

On being enveloped in God’s special love: The affair is not just that we love, but that we be loved: ‘My servant does not draw closer to Me with anything more loved by Me than the obligatory duties I have enjoined on him; and My servant continues to draw closer to Me through the optional deeds until I love him.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6502]

Beyond Rationality

space-cube-by-dan-luvisiLast year I wrote a series of blogs about Islam, the Qur’an and rationality. Like others who have discussed faith & reason in recent times, I too was motivated by the desire to address a popular fallacy: that religion, or religious belief, is irrational. It wasn’t the only reason why I felt to write about these matters, but it was a significant motivator.

The first of these postings was entitled: Reason, Revelation, Religion. Of its two major assertions is that ‘aql (reason, rationale), far from being at odds with religion [Islam], actually complements it. Classical jurists, like Ibn Taymiyyah, argue: ‘The messengers came with knowledge that reason is incapable of attaining to. They never came with what reason deems impossible.’1 Its second assertion is that contrary to the dogma of the New Atheists, that any belief not grounded in science or rationality is clearly false, is itself false. For in the real world there are many beliefs and values which transcend what science and rationality can prove (like the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.’ Can it justifiably be said that to put stock in such a belief is false or irrational?)

The second, Islam’s Rational Monotheism, sought to show the Qur’an’s use of rational arguments and sound reasoning to justify its core theological truths; presenting five Quranic examples of such a rationalist discourse.

This was followed by a discussion as to how the Qur’an rationalises and vindicates its claim of being God’s Word. How the Qur’an Justifies Itself deployed five arguments as to why this is so. In the blog’s conclusion I insisted that this, and the previous articles on this topic: ‘serve to show the rationality of the Qur’an, and that it is one which is grounded in self-evident matters and everyday experience; accessible to all who care to reflect or pay heed.’ I finished this discussion by stating: ‘Nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of its fundamental theological principles. Rather, it urges, it cajoles; demands even, 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.’

One drawback with rational arguments is that the human creature isn’t just a rational being; and the skeptical mind is, as the Qur’an points out, given to endless argument. Indeed We have displayed for mankind in this Qur’an all kinds of examples. But man, more than anything, is contentious. [18:54]

One way to deal with religious skeptics is to go beyond the rational: to appeal to the entirety of human experience: mind, heart, soul, emotions and lived experience. Thus classical arguments for the existence of God, along with the inimitable nature of the Qur’an; the moral order and fitrah; the fine-tuning of the universe; the life, character and predictions of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be on him; as well as experiential knowledge arrived at through works of faith and spiritual illumination, act in concert to form compelling reasons that Islam offers for belief in the existence of God and of heeding His call. Their messengers said: ‘Is there any doubt about God, the Maker of the heavens and earth? He calls you that He may forgive you your sins and grant you respite till an appointed time.’ [14:10]

Al-Bayjuri, one of the most highly accomplished jurist-theologians of Egypt in his age, spells out the nature of faith (iman) and its related levels or types. He states that faith is of five ascending levels:

1 – Faith via trust-based acceptance (taqlid): which is where faith arises out of taking it from an authority one trusts (as a child trusts a parent or teacher), without knowing the formal proofs for it. This characterises the faith of the lay people, in general.

2 – Faith through knowledge (‘ilm): this is where faith results from learning formal proofs and discursive arguments for one’s belief. This is the faith of the learned, in general; and the theologians, in particular.

3 – Faith vis-a-via inner spiritual sight (‘ayan): it is where faith is the result of the heart having a constant and abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of God. This is the faith of those who have attained to the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). Vigilance refers to a profound “watching over” one’s heart and deeds, and a profounder sense of being watched over by God.

4 – Faith based on spiritually witnessing God (mushahadah); which is where the heart witnesses God as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun (gnostics, knowers of God); those blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). One hadith says that ihsan, the spiritual excellence sought of Muslims, is: ‘To worship God as though you see Him, and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’2

5 – Faith through witnessing only God. This is where faith reaches the level where no existence is seen save God, and the believer is devoid of all feeling of self or and other than God, and is lost in contemplation of Him. This is the Station of Annihilation, or fana’; a state of “passing away” from all but God.

Beyond this level of faith, certainty and illumination, writes al-Bayjuri, is the faith of God’s prophets and messengers. This is the station that is unveiled to none except the prophets of God, and for which no words may describe the reality of.3

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:339.

2. Muslim, no.80.

3. See: Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.

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