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Islam’s Evolution Question

imageIs Islam’s account of Man’s origin true, or has the Theory of Evolution shown it to be false? This article takes Evolution’s core mainstream claims and inspects them in the light of orthodox Muslim theology. In doing so, we will come to see that the Islamic view on Evolution isn’t one of wholesale rejection (as is often assumed), nor of outright, uncritical acceptance. Rather Islam’s theology should lead Muslims to take something of a middle ground, as I’ll hopefully show and demonstrate.

Along the way, we’ll address some common mistaken views people hold about the theory of evolution (like saying that it’s just a theory), and some alarmingly erroneous ideas some hold about God and Muslim theology.

What makes this discussion more charged than usual is that, while in the field of physics and cosmology arguments for God are given a ready hearing by most scientists, this is not so in the field of biology where the mainstream outlook is that the theory of evolution has buried God. To suggest that the Big Bang or that the fine tuning of the universe points to God instead of atheism, given that the impressions of design are so overwhelming, are claims deemed as scientifically plausible by most physicists; especially since they don’t challenge mainstream views of science, but rather are grounded in them. When it comes to evolution and biology, the situation is very different. Here, the mere mention of God or of a designing intelligence is considered pseudoscience. This is so, even though, as with cosmology, the natural world also gives us an overwhelming impression of design. Richard Dawkins even defined biology to be ‘the study of complicated things which give the impression of having been designed for a purpose.’1

An overview of what will be covered runs as follows: [i] What is evolution and what does it claim? [ii] Isn’t evolution just a theory? [iii] Where are the missing fossils? [iv] Criticisms of the theory. [v] Story of evolution overall. [vi] Story of mainstream human evolution. [vii] Islam and the theory of evolution, overall. [viii] Islam and human evolution. [ix] Theistic evolution, is that the answer? [x] How do we account for the hominid fossils? I’ll then conclude with some final remarks.

I. WHAT IS EVOLUTION AND WHAT DOES IT CLAIM?

1. Let’s start by asking what’s meant by the theory of evolution? Scientists tell us it refers to a carefully thought-out set of testable ideas and observations which explain how life on earth evolved and how biological organisms (living things) are related to each other.

Francois Ayala, Professor of Evolutionary Biology, explains to us that the theory of evolution makes three core claims: [i] All organisms are related by common ancestry; [ii] the details of when different species split from one another, and the changes that took place in each species; [iii] the way by which evolutionary change actually occurs.2

The first issue, he insists, is the one most vigorously supported by a large body of evidence and is agreed to by virtually every credible biologist. That organisms are related by common evolutionary descent is, we are told, beyond any doubt. As for the second and third issues, some aspects of them are firmly validated, while others are less so; and some are untested or highly speculative. On the whole, says Ayala, ‘uncertainty about these issues does not cast doubt on the fact of evolution.’3 By that Ayala means, the overall fact of evolution.

2. Why is it important to know the above? Well in order to honestly assess the evolution question, we must first know and understand the issue. Only then can its claims be weighed against well-established tenets of Islam to see how compatible or not they are. Muslim scholars works on the rule: hukm ‘ala shay’ far‘un ‘an tasawurihi – ‘Judgement about a thing comes after conceptualising it properly.’ In other words, how can you judge the validity of something if you do not know what it actually is?

3. The theory of evolution offers an explanation for how living things adapt to their environment or even how they evolve into other species: Natural selection (i.e. certain traits ‘selected’ by ‘nature’ which allows the organism to survive). It is via this mechanism that living organisms, over long periods of time, evolve certain traits which allow them to survive or adapt to their environment. These traits (or ‘selfish’ genes) are then passed to the next generation, thus increasing their chances of survival. Those not having such advantages or that do not pass on the advantage, die out over the long run. Sometimes, through nothing more than random chance, a gene mutates in an organism by which it acquires an advantage trait. Through ‘natural selection’ and ‘random mutation’ organisms adapt or can evolve into different species. This is what Darwin first proposed in his Origin of Species, and is what the theory of evolution says fits all the fossil records, observations and genetic data: not just of insects or animals, but of us human beings too.

II. ISN’T EVOLUTION JUST A THEORY?

4. A common objection against evolution is that “it’s only a theory!” That is, it’s just all guesswork or hunches; it’s not factual or true. But when scientists speak of a theory, they use the word in a different way than how it’s used in ordinary, everyday speech. Ordinarily, we speak of theory in the sense of a ‘speculation,’ ‘guess’ or ‘hunch.’ The detective has a theory, a hunch, as to how the crime at hand was committed; for example. In science, though, theory is used to mean: a set of ideas which explain a phenomena or group of facts that have been tested and confirmed by observation or experiment. In other words, a scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world based on facts, proofs and rigorous testing. Science uses the word hypothesis for any theory that has not been fully or adequately tested.4

5. Science has many theories which are not guesstimates, but are painstakingly constructed on accurate experimental observation and logical inferences. The atomic theory is one of them, which states as a matter of fact that all matter is made up of atoms and of subatomic particles. The theory of thermodynamics is another. It forms the grounds for how refrigerators and central heating in our houses work, to how engines move our cars, to how biological process in our bodies keep us alive. The knowledge behind this is all factual. And yet it is still called a theory. Then there’s quantum field theory and the theory of relativity. Both of these theories yield certain knowledge about how the subatomic world and gravity work, respectively. So much of what these theories state have been proven to be experimentally and observationally true, even if some aspects of them are still speculative and short on empirical evidence. And on the whole, the same goes for the theory of evolution.

III. WHERE ARE ALL THE MISSING FOSSILS?

6. Another bone some commonly pick with the theory of evolution concerns the poor state of the fossil record; of how few fossils there actually are. Biologists and palaeontologists (scientists who specialise in the study of fossils) are eager to get us to appreciate just how fortunate we are to have unearthed whatever fossils we thus far have. This is because the fossilisation of creatures, they say, is actually a rare occurrence. Francis Collins, who headed the Human Genome Project, explained: ‘The vast majority of organisms that have ever lived on Earth have left absolutely no trace of their existence, since fossils arise in only highly unusual circumstances. (For example, a creature has to be caught in a certain type of mud or rock, without being picked apart by predators. Most bones rot and crumble. Most creatures decay.) Given that reality, it is rather actually amazing that we have such a wealth of information about organisms that have lived on this planet.’5 This is why, argues Collins, the fossil records, although woefully incomplete, are still very useful.

7. Despite potholes in current fossil records, many paelo-evolutionists have, so it seems, unearthed transitional fossil forms that show a gradual change from reptile to bird, and from reptile to mammal. Archaeopteryx, an intermediate form between reptile and bird, is one such example of a transition. Another is Hyracotherium, an animal the size of a dog that has several toes on each foot, evolving into Equus, the much larger one-toed, modern horse. We are assured the gradual transition of the fossil record has been constructed in considerable detail.6 This claim is something one can research and decide for themselves; with a degree of patience, open-mindedness and objectivity. But without first putting in the required research, on what grounds can we dismiss the claim as false or erroneous? The protagonists of evolution have constructed at least two proofs for a visible transition from one species to another (called speciation), it is for the antagonist to intelligently deconstruct them, if they are able.

8. As for the human ‘missing link,’ then most evolutionary biologists feel pretty certain the missing links have been found. Paelo-evolutionists will point to the fossil record of various hominids – erect bipeds (walking upright, on two legs) that have varying resemblance to modern man, starting with Australopithecus, then Homo habilus, then Homo erectus, and finally us Homo sapiens. More will be said about this in Section VI. But for now, these telling fossils are held up as a missing link of sorts (or to be more precise, common ancestors) to humans. If we add to the fossil records, evidence from the science of genetics; especially DNA sequencing and genetic drifting, then the case for evolution – at least in its broad strokes – is considered by most scientists to be pretty watertight.

I say ‘common ancestor’ rather than ‘missing link’ because of a vital point that is grossly misunderstood today. From museum displays to editorial cartoons, the popular image of human evolution is depicted as a linear progression from primitive to advanced; from an ape on all fours that gradually straightens up, evolving into a stone age man with a club then a spear, to a modern human. We’re told by evolutionary scientists that the phrase, ‘man was descended from apes,’ is both unhelpful and a gross oversimplification, as is the popular notion that a certain extinct hominid is the ‘missing link’. This public misconception misrepresents how evolution really works. Rather the better image of evolution would be a tree, with a long trunk and a myriad of branches, sub-branches and shoots. It is this gradual branching process that best depicts the diversity of life, all having a common ancestor at the very base of the trunk. Some scientists are keen to get rid of those T-shirts and bumper stickers that depict evolution in a step-by-step straight line and replace them with a branching diagram, so as to make a more nuanced and correct point about evolution.

9. Evolution through natural selection is viewed by atheists as a knock-out blow to Religion. Through it, they say, one can explain the emergence of complex life (including human life) that were previously thought to require a Creator-God. In the words of Dawkins: ‘Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.’7

Today, many people believe it can’t be God and evolution via natural selection; they are mutually exclusive. It’s one or the other. And since we have evidence for evolution, then there is no God. Just how correct this line of thinking is will be tackled later, as will the mistaken belief that natural selection is an agent, rather than a mechanism.

IV. STORY OF EVOLUTION OVERALL

10. According to mainstream evolutionary claims, the Darwinian Genesis story, up until the arrival of Man, goes something like this:

Life on earth emerged about three billion years ago when a cocktail of simple chemicals combined to form more complex ones. This mixing took place in the seas of the early Earth; the ‘primordial soup’. Injection of energy was needed to spark-off a reaction between molecules, which may have come from lightning storms or from hot underwater springs. The molecules then joined together to form more complex ones, called amino acids which, in turn, went on to form proteins; the building blocks of all living creatures. Another complex molecule formed in these reactions was DNA, which has two traits that make it essential for life to exist. It carries all the information to make a living creature, and it can also replicate itself. Over millions of years the cocktail of molecules evolved into bacteria; thought to be the earliest ancestors of all life on our planet today.

This is where, we’re told, natural selection kicked in. Through this mechanism living organisms, over long periods of time, evolve certain traits which allow them to adapt to their environment. Via natural selection and random genetic mutation, organisms can both adapt as a species and even evolve into different species. Single-cell life in Earth’s ancient waters evolved into worms and jelly fish via this process about 700 million years ago; dinosaurs arrived around 225 million years ago and died out suddenly 65 million years ago. The fossil records suggest our early human like ancestors only branched-off from the great apes a mere 5 million years ago and that Homo sapiens (us humans) are a fairly recent appearance: anywhere from around 200,000 to 40,000 years ago.

V. STORY OF MAINSTREAM HUMAN EVOLUTION

11. As for how human beings came to be, then the theory of evolution says that: Around 4 million years ago, apelike hominids known as Australopithicus first appeared in Africa. Australopithicus was a biped and had a brain capacity about one-third that of modern humans. It is said that they eventually gave way to the Homo genus about 2.5 million years ago.

Homo habilis (“handy man” – so called because it was the first hominid to use tools) lived in tropical Africa around 2.5 to 1.5 million years ago. It had a brain size around half that of modern humans and it was also a biped. It was more chimpanzee than human though.

Homo erectus (“upright man”) is regarded as the dividing line: everything that came before it was apelike in character; everything that came after was human like. Homo erectus appeared 1.8 million years ago and persisted until perhaps 250,000 years ago. It had a vastly more sophisticated brain and was physically much stronger than modern humans. It appears that it was the first to hunt, the first to use fire, the first to fashion complex tools, the first to look after the weak and frail.

Humans, classified as Homo sapien (“knowing man” or “wise man”), originated in Africa around about 200,000 years ago and eventually colonised the rest of the world, replacing all other hominids. It was as recently as 40,000 years ago, say scientists, that Homo sapiens reached “behavioural modernity” when traits which define modern humans started to emerge: complex language, figurative art, abstract thought, jewelary for adornment, game playing, finely made tools and burials (referred to as the Behavioral B’s: blades, beads, burials, beauty and bone toolmaking). Homo sapiens living before 50,000 years were behaviourally primitive and almost indistinguishable from other extinct hominids.

There are a few other hominids, but this is just a simplified sketch of the story. Did each hominid evolve directly from the previous one in a linear fashion? Or is it that they each have common ancestors with those preceding them (and so are indirectly related)? Scientists today tend to talk of common ancestors and family branches more than they do linear evolution.

12. One last aspect of the evolution story that should be known. It has to do with the two type of evolution: microevolution and macroevolution. Microevolution is completely uncontroversial. It refers to small evolutionary changes in a species over short spans of time. Such changes are frequently observed and constantly being documented. Bacteria evolving to develop resistance to antibiotics is one well-known example of microevolution. Viruses mutating to develop resistance to antiviral drugs is sadly another.

Macroevolution, by contrast, refers to major evolutionary change of one species into a different one (also called “speciation”), over long periods of time. It seems most evolutionary biologists are advocates of gradualism: that macroevolution happens gradually over time. There’s a school of thought that proposes the idea of punctuated equilibrium; that speciation happens in isolated pockets of rapid macroevolution between long periods of little or no change.

VI. CRITICISMS OF EVOLUTION

Before moving on, let’s briefly consider some scientific critiques of the standard evolution story. Those wanting to dive deeper into these criticisms can chase up the threads discussed here under their own steam:

13. The first criticism, unsurprisingly, has to do with the transitional fossils. We might call it the criticism of imaginative palaeontology. Transitional fossils are fossils of animals or plants that are in the middle of evolving, over thousands or millions of years, from one type of species to another. Critics argue that even though some fossils may appear as if they are intermediate forms, there’s just no solid evidence to connect the separate lines of descent into a single common ancestor. To believe that there is, the critics say, is more wishful thinking than it is cut and dry, conclusive science. Detailed critiques of specific transitional fossils are also offered. The counter argument is confident that such fossils do represent evolutionary transitions between one kind of life and another. They insist that such fossil evidence linking them to the past, along with genetic and embryonic similarities, all imply a common descent from early forms. Counter arguments against specific transitional records, like the Archaeopteryx, are also robustly presented.

Another criticism concerns the issue of scientific repeatability. For any scientific principle or knowledge to be considered true or bonafide, any results obtained by an experiment or observational study must be reproducible to a high degree of accuracy, when it is repeated again using the same methodology by different researchers. Only after several successful replications can the results be taken as scientific knowledge. Evolutionists say that although we cannot replicate the macroevolution of humans, or a fish evolving into a horse (since it would take millions of years), we can replicate thousands of generations of certain species in a fairly short interval of time. Thus, since 1988, twelve populations of E.coli bacteria have been carefully grown in a lab to detect evolutionary changes. In 2020, 73,500 generations later, scientists observed certain staggering adaptions in terms of microevolution. Macroevolution, or speciation, however, has yet to be observed. Evolution’s detractors see this as a clear vindication. Its supporters say that while the bacteria should have reached peak adaption by now, maybe some mutations have altered the environment, causing it to remain in a state of adaption, instead of the adaptions being allowed to cumulatively add up to a new species.

There’s also the issue of genetic entropy: how can chaotic, lifeless, random stuff give rise to highly defined ordered and consciousness? Douglas Adams, the self-professed ‘radical atheist’ of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, remarked in his book: ‘Isn’t it enough to see the garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?’8 This, I feel, gets to the crux of the issue of chaos and lifeless stuff giving rise to order and beauty. To appreciate this splendid garden, we don’t have to believe in fairies. But it would be wholly reasonable, certainly not irrational, to believe in a gardener. A beautiful garden would cause us to believe that someone with skill, craft, ability and intelligence took time out to cultivate the garden. If, however, the garden was a huge sprawl of uncultivated chaos, weeds and mess, we’d be right in thinking there was no gardener. If we found that this huge sprawl had become an orderly picture of beautifully arranged flowers, cut grass and trimmed hedges, how could it not be the work of a gardener? Such is also the case with chaotic, lifeless matter in Earth’s primordial soup becoming highly ordered, intelligent and sentient. And, of course, this applies not just to life on earth, but also the universe as a whole; from the seismic, volatile chaos after the Big Bang to the order, beauty, majesty and intelligibility that the cosmic garden contains. Might not such compelling impressions of design on earth or in the starry heavens be because of an actual designer? Surely such design calls out for a transcendent explanation?

Then there is the matter of irreducible complexity. It would seem that there are certain ‘all-or-nothing’ vital organs that makes evolution impossible. Advocates of irreducible complexity argue that some biological functions, like the human eye, could not have evolved through slight incremental modifications. It needs all the parts to be there all at once, or else it doesn’t function. So the eye, such advocates say, could not have come about gradually through natural selection; thus falsifying evolution. Mainstream evolution, however, offers a model that shows how certain organisms evolved rudimentary aspects of an eye gradually, without being totally dysfunctional. Over millions of years, this ‘ancestral eye’ has evolved to be more and more complex, ultimately forming the human eye. Likewise, other examples of irreducible complexity, the mainstream says, turn out not to be irreducible; but like the human eye, reducible and gradual.

A final thing worth pointing out is that just because we are genetically related to chimps isn’t proof in itself of common descent. Otherwise fifty percent of our human genes (though not human DNA) are identical to banana genes, so what does that imply? We’ll leave that one for the party conversation. But on a more serious note, DNA is the reason for a final criticism. Let’s call this the criticism of cellular machinery. Put ever so simply, mainstream evolution states it is DNA that makes protein, and that protein is the building block of all life. However, it turns out that DNA itself requires protein for it to form. So which came first, the chicken or the egg; DNA or protein? Creationist critics of evolution respond with a God of the gaps argument: since science does not know the mechanism for it, it must therefore be God. Scientists do, however, offer the RNA world hypothesis as a possible answer. This suggests that RNA – which is like its sister molecule, DNA, and is present in all biological cells; can synthesise proteins; and carries the DNA instruction code – may have been the first thing to replicate and evolve in the primordial soup (and if not such chains of RNA, then something similar), eventually taking a back seat once DNA came on the scene. But as promising as it seems, such an idea still has obstacles to over come and is still very much a work in progress.

14. Yet with all this astounding science of molecular biology, does it not still beg the question: how do such extraordinary molecular machines perform the task of replication; regulation; transmission of genetic code; and all the other mind boggling functions they perform, through the product of mindless, motiveless mechanicity? To claim that blind, unguided processes produced highly complex biological information, the sort encoded in DNA, is more a leap of faith than it is hard science. To claim that blind chance assembled protein bricks into highly precise blocks of patterns without an ordering principle to guide it, requires far more of a leap of faith than does believing in a theistic account for the origins of life.

The same can be said for ‘natural selection’. The way the Darwinian mystery of natural selection is spoken of today, as being the end explanation for both the existence of life and all its variations, is misleading and false. At best, natural selection selects from already existing stuff. It doesn’t invent the stuff. So while it may be an explanation for the diversity we see in organisms and biological life, it certainly isn’t the ultimate explanation it is often made out to be. It’s the same for ‘random genetic mutations’. Such randomness can only act upon pre-existing stuff to mutate what is already there. Like natural selection, it doesn’t explain the origins of life; nor does it do away with the need for any underlying ordering principle. Theists have every right to be skeptical about blind chance, even if atheists have taken a leap of faith. An old Arabic proverb tells us: al-sarj al-mudhahhab la yaj‘alu’l-himar hisan – ‘The guilded gold saddle doesn’t make a donkey a horse.’

15. Let’s park such criticisms and take the theory in its standard form, as taught in colleges and universities, and as found in standard text books on the subject. Let’s not get into trying to debunk the science. Rather, let’s take the mainstream claims at face value: given that the knowledge needed to argue, counter argue, or even counter the counter argument, requires immense expertise that most of us simply don’t possess. At best, we might know the overall arguments for one view, but not the counter arguments. In Islam, such people might be considered educated followers of the experts, but they are not experts themselves who can evaluate evidences, claims or counter claims with the right systemised method. Until a person can do that, in Islam, such a person is not usually considered an expert in the matter who can make their own informed evaluations. So instead, let’s just take the mainstream claims and postulates of evolutionary theory and ask: What does Islamic theology have to say about it all?

VII. ISLAM AND THE OVERALL THEORY OF EVOLUTION

Having spent some time mapping out what evolution is and how it works, it is time to subject the theory – with all of its facts, claims and speculations – to an Islamic theological critique.

16. So as Muslims (whose beliefs, values and ideals are rooted in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), does Islam allow us to believe in the theory of evolution? Justice and scholastic integrity demand that we not generalise, but rather take to what our scholars term tafsil – detail, nuance or distinction. So let’s break the question down. If we are talking about microevolution: life forms adapting to their surrounding via genetic changes in order to better survive, but remaining the same species, then Islamic theology has no problem with this at all. This is provided such microevolution has sound evidence to support it (which it does), and is tied to the following three beliefs: [i] That God alone is the creator of all things and all changes. [ii] That nothing happens without God willing it to happen. [iii] Causes and effects are created by God and have no autonomy from Him (this includes the mechanism of ‘natural selection’ and ‘random genetic mutation’). So with such conditions, to deny this type of evolution is Islamically unjustified and empirically uncalled for.

17. As for macroevolution, one species slowly evolving into another species over long periods of time (not necessarily in a linear fashion, but through branches and sub-branches), then this is something we as Muslim can believe in and is theologically possible from an Islamic viewpoint: provided the science is sound; the above three conditions are believed; and that we not include human beings in this. Macroevolution might be rejected in terms of the science, either out of ignorance (willfull or otherwise); confirmation bias; or different interpretations of the actual evidences. But it cannot be rejected in terms of Islamic theology and what is rationally possible for God to do. This is especially so when Islam’s Revelation says nothing for or against the notion of non-human evolution, thus leaving it up to worldly evidence.

The long and the short of it all is that one who believes that it is impossible for God, through His divine will and creative act, to cause one species to evolve into another, through whatever mechanism or timescale He choses, has a defect in their grasp of Islamic theology and of what is rationally possible (mumkin) and impossible (mustahil) for God.9 To outrightly deny non-human macroevolution is theologically erroneous and incorrect, and possibly at odds with a large body of empirical evidence. And Allah knows best. But since we are taking evolution’s claims at face value, then for Muslims there would be no theological obstacle in believing in macroevolution, as long as we exclude humans from this process. For the Qur’an has something very specific to say about that.

18. A similar answer to the above applies to questions such as: What does Islam say about dinosaurs or about life on other planets? Since neither the Qur’an nor the Holy Prophet have pronounced on such issues, not by way of affirmation or negation, then it is less a religious question and more one which depends upon secular or scientific evidence. If the evidence for it is sound; i.e. if it constitutes sound knowledge, one can believe in these things; if not, then not (or at least suspend judgement). In Islam’s epistemology (madarik al-‘ulum), knowledge is defined as true, justified belief and is arrived at by one of three sources: truthful reports (khabari), empirical proof (hissi) or rational inquiry (‘aqli).10

VIII. ISLAM AND HUMAN EVOLUTION

19 – The Qur’an has quite explicit things to proclaim about Man’s origins. In one verse, it states: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am creating man from clay, from formed mud. When I have shaped him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall prostrate before him.’ [Q.15:28-29] This creation, along with this spirit or ruh being infused into him, was fashioned in a unique manner, unlike other humans: ‘O Satan! What prevents you from prostrating to that which I created with My hands?’ [Q.38:75] The Qur’an also says that Adam was intelligent and articulate: He taught Adam the names of all things … then He said: ‘O Adam, tell them their names.’ [Q.2:31-33] We also have the verse rebutting the false belief in Jesus’ alleged divinity: for if his virgin, fatherless birth is a miracle pointing to his divine status, then Adam was born without any parents; by the same logic, he should be more divine! The likeness of Jesus with God is like that of Adam. He created him from dust, then said to him, ‘Be’, and he was. [Q.3:59]

20. The voice of Islamic theology is best captured in an authentic hadith which says that on the Day of Judgement humanity, in their state of trepedation, will seek intercession with God’s prophets for judgement to commence. They shall start by first coming to Adam, where they begin their plea to him, saying: ‘You are Adam, father of humanity. God created you with His own hand, caused you to dwell in His garden, ordered the angels to prostrate to you and taught you the names of all things …’11 So from the above perspectives, to believe the first human being was born via the evolutionary process, eventually birthed by two proto-human parents, is to be at complete odds with what the Qur’an explicitly reveals about Adam, upon whom be peace.

21. Some, in recent times, have claimed that the Quranic story of Adam is only a metaphor or allegorical, and that the apparent meaning is not intended. That the account contains profound symbolism and metaphors of a deeply spiritual and existential nature isn’t in question. What is objected to, though, is to deny the apparent (zahir) meaning. Scholars agree that the basic rule in interpreting the Qur’an is to understand it according to the zahir – its obvious and apparent meanings, without recourse to a figurative or metaphorical one (ta’wil), unless there is proof to warrant it. That is, the apparent meaning – ‘the meaning that strikes the listener in the manner of a spontaneous understanding’12 – is taken to be the correct one, provided there is no external indicator (qarinah) to state otherwise. The rationale is that since the Qur’an was revealed in clear Arabic, the apparent meaning that Arabs of the prophetic age would have immediately grasped from the text, cannot be ignored without firm proof. Even then, verses with apparent meanings are open to grades of clarity and textual explicitness. Here qualified legalists will speak of explicit meanings (‘ibarat al- nass), implict meanings (isharat al-nass), inferred meanings (dalalat al-nass) and required meanings (iqtida al-nass).

22. The Qur’an seems to have gone out of its way to inform us about the various states the clay underwent in Adam’s formation, tallying with the various stages in his creation. We read: He created him from dust [Q.3:59], from clay of moulded mud [Q.15:26, 28], of potter’s clay [Q.55:14], of sticky clay [Q.37:11], from a product of mud [Q.23:12]. It is hard to see how all this could be a metaphor or allegory. The language, for one, is far too vivid; the detail far too explicit. Instead, what the Qur’an is trying to bring home to the reader is the factualness of the event: that it isn’t pious fiction; that there was a human being called Adam; and that he was created uniquely.

23. One more reason why the story of Adam is not a symbolic metaphor. When the Qur’an says: God chose Adam, Noah, the Family of Abraham, and the Family of ‘Imran over all other people. [Q.3:33], are we to believe that since Adam wasn’t a real person, but rather a fictional one representing deep religious symbolism, that the same is true for Noah, Abraham, ‘Imran and their families; given they are all mentioned together in the above verse? Again, when the Qur’an states that: The likeness of Jesus with God is like that of Adam.[Q.3:59], so is Jesus also meant to be read as a non-literal, allegorical story? Certainly not! The Quranic references to Adam are too specific and too numerous to be read as a metaphor! Rather, they are what they are: portraits of actual events that occurred in Man’s pre-history; reminding us we are creatures of flesh and blood, fashioned from the earth, condemned, ultimately, to fall back into it; filled with unappeasable desires we are constantly tempted to satisfy at the lowest level; compelled to live beneath ourselves, save for the Grace of God.

In short: I hope this has demonstrated that reading the story of Adam’s creation as pure metaphor is a serious error, and that for those who insist on doing so, the evidences showing the fallacy of this notion have the misfortune of being pretty overwhelming. The starting point of any sound interpretation of the Holy Qur’an is the original language in which it was revealed: lucid, perspicuous and clearly expressed Arabic. If there is to be any departure from the default, zahir reading of the text to an allegorical one, there should be an evidence to warrant doing so in terms of the grammatical, semantic or stylistic complexities of the Arabic; or due to sound corroborative indicators. Otherwise allegorical readings, without a systematic, well-defined hermeneutic, are likely to be nothing more than whimsical misguidance.

IX. THEISTIC EVOLUTION, IS THAT THE ANSWER?

24. A number of eminent scientists who are also theists or believer in God, have sought to square their religious beliefs with their scientific worldview through “Theistic Evolution.” This, as Francis Collins says, ‘is the dominant position of serious biologists who are also serious believers … It is the view espoused by many Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians, including Pope John Paul II.’13

A typical account of theistic evolution says that while the precise mechanism of how life on earth originated remains unknown, once life did emerge and once the process of evolution did get underway, no divine intervention was required. It is as if God made the evolution “clock,” initially wound it up, and then just left it to unwind by itself without any involvement. So God sparked-off life on earth, choosing the elegant mechanism of evolution to do the main work and bring about earth’s biological diversity and complexity. Collins, says: ‘This view is entirely compatible with everything that science teaches us about the natural world. It is also entirely compatible with the great monotheistic religions of the world.’14

25. Unfortunately, this isn’t how Islam’s mainstream theology sees it. The core objection to theistic evolution lies in its premise that once evolution got going, the divine hand withdrew. But such causal autonomy from God flies in the face of certain core beliefs in the Qur’an. Firstly, it goes against verses which tell us: Say: ‘God is the creator of everything.’ [Q.13:16] This includes our actions as well as our moments of stillness: God created you, and all that you do. [Q.37:96] That is, no time elapses except that God, as the Creator (al-Khaliq), is creating; as the Bestower (al-Wahhab) is bestowing; as the All-Merciful (al-Rahman) is sending down His mercy; etc. Secondly, that nothing can happen independently of God’s will. Everything happens by His decree and will, and His will is accomplished; what He wills for them happens and what He does not will, does not happen. For believers, nothing is random or fortuitous. Nothing occurs by ‘chance.’ Nor do causes and effects have an autonomous independence from the divine will. Thirdly, along with giving cause and effect autonomy to evolutionary processes, theistic evolution assigns to Adam proto-human parents; it doesn’t account for his unique creation; it fails to account for his knowledge and articulate speech; and it plays fast and loose with the Quranic language in terms of what is or is not allegorical.

26. This is not to say that Islamic theology denies causes and effects, rather it denies that causes have effects in and of themselves; for God is the creator of all things. For someone to literally believe that ‘random’ mutation or ‘natural’ selection have a causal independence from the will of God, as most scientists do, would be disbelief (kufr). Islamic theology, however, grants a dispensation to use certain phrases figuratively; like when someone says, ‘the food filled me up’ or ‘the fire burnt me’, providing one does not believe such things to have causal autonomy from the will of God. Expressions such as ‘nature does such and such’ are also, in all likelihood, included in the above dispensation. But to believe in the literalness of such expressions would be to set-up a ‘partner’ with God in His lordship. Or to employ Islam’s theological vocabulary, it is shirk fi’l-rububiyyah, or shirk fi’l-asbab.

As for the rule in respect to worldly causes (asbab), it runs as follows: ‘To rely on worldly causes is shirk in God’s oneness (tawhid), to deny their efficacy is deficiency in intellect; to shun their use is mockery of the shari‘ah.15

X. HOW DO WE ACCOUNT FOR THE HOMINID FOSSILS?

If Adam was the first man, and wasn’t birthed through the usual evolutionary method, how can we explain the hominid fossil records going back hundreds of thousands of years? In trying to square the evolutionary circle, a few responses have been advanced by contemporary Muslims:

27. The first has been called the bashr-insan dichotomy. In a nutshell, it says that when bashr is used in the Qur’an, it refers to the evolutionary hominids that in their physical form resemble humans. Insan, on the other hand, is used when this bashr has evolved intelligence and metaphysical capacity. Those who advocate this view suggest that at some point God selected one of these bashr-hominids and endowed it with a ruh, thus creating the first insan who went on to populate the earth, replacing all other bashr-hominids.

This thesis, however, is problematic. For one thing, it attributes parental agency to Adam and so belies the Qur’an. Another is that the bashr-insan distinction is a flawed one. There are some verses of the Qur’an where this peculiar notion runs aground. For example, we read in the Holy Qur’an: That was because their Messengers kept coming to them with clear proofs, but they retorted: ‘Shall mere mortals guide us?’ [Q.64:6] Those who rejected God’s prophets complained that they were mortal, bashr. So how can prophets be described as bashr, which in the above dichotomy refers to hominids who have yet to develop intelligence and cognition? Also, the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is told to say to the faith deniers: ‘Glory be to my Lord! Am I but a mortal messenger?’ [Q.17:93] Again the word bashr, mortal, is used. And just to show that bashr and insan are synonymous and equivalent, as per classical mainstream scholarship, we read about Mary, mother of Jesus: ‘So eat and drink, and be consoled; and if you meet any person say: “I have vowed a fast [of silence] to the All-Merciful, and will not speak to any human being this day.”’ [Q.19:26] So bashr; person, and insan; human being, have been used interchangeably.

28. So if the Adamic story is not a metaphor, and if the bashr-insan dichotomy doesn’t quite do the trick, then what does? What can affirm Adam’s miraculous nature and also affirm the hominid lifeforms that roamed the earth hundreds of thousands of years before us? What asserts the truth of the Qur’an as well as the hard to ignore facts of the hominid fossil records? Well one plausible way to do it, that does not involve contorting the classical Arabic language to force it to fit scientific sensibilities nor inventing far-fetched explanations at odds with clear-cut Quranic verses and Muslim scholarly consensus (ijma‘), is to propose: Human exceptionalism. In other words, at some point when God had caused the earth to be polluted by pockets of hominids, creating them and everything else through the mechanism of evolution, God, in His wisdom then created human kind; starting with the direct, miraculous creation of Adam. Having put him on earth; and having taught him speech and suffused into him a ruh – endowing him with worldly and metaphysical intelligence – He caused Adam along with his wife and offspring to populate the earth, either causing other hominids of the Homo genus to become extinct before their arrival on earth or after. This is something God informed humanity about through the agency of scripture and prophethood, even if it might not be determinable by science.

If we recall in point no.11 that Homo sapiens are said to have become modern and reached behavioural modernity about 40,000 years ago, we might further speculate that Adam was the leap from primitive Homo sapiens – who, though physically and biologically resembling us, were devoid of a ruh and so almost indistinguishable from other hominids – to us modern Sapiens. Being endowed with a ruh became the game changer: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am creating man from clay, from formed mud. So when I have shaped him and breathed into him of My spirit, fall prostrate before him.’ [Q.15:28-29]

29.  That God could have introduced Adam, this modern Homo sapien, into the mix at the right time; with the correct genetic make-up; and as the significant branch of the various Homo branches (that evolved from much earlier common ancestors, rewinding the branching tree metaphor) is a theological possibility and something which science does not disprove. As for why God would chose to do so in this manner, it isn’t in the realms of science to ask or answer. As for a theological response, it would be to say: He cannot be questioned about what He does, but they shall be questioned. [Q.21:23] Or to offer a balder reply: Why not?!

30. That there were beings who in some way resembled Adam, and who dwelt on earth before his arrival, can be inferred from this passage of the Qur’an: And when your Lord said to the angels: ‘I am setting on the Earth a vicegerent.’ They inquired: ‘Will you place therein one that shall work corruption and shed blood, while we praise You and sanctify Your name?’ He said: ‘Surely I know what you know not,’ [Q.2:30] Now how did the angels know what man’s nature would be like (working corruption, shedding blood)? One widespread opinion in the tafsir literature is that there were beings resembling Adam who inhabited the earth prior to him. Ibn Juzayy wrote about the verse: ‘It is said that there were jinns inhabiting the earth and causing corruption, so God sent against them an army of angels to slay them. The angels thus made an analogy between them and humans.’16

On the other hand, as it has not been confirmed by any explicit verse, prophetic hadith or scholarly consensus – as far as I’m aware – that these creatures were in fact jinn, there’s room, perhaps, to suggest they were hominids or primitive (pre-ruhHomo sapiens. And that what the Qur’an calls insan, bashr and Adam is modern Homo sapiens endowed with a special quality called Spirit. For once infused with this ruh, this conscious-giving Spirit, it was no longer only an animal whose physical and psychological processes were all directed towards purely material and earthly ends. For once Man was ensouled with this ruh, it caused to descend upon him, both on his psychology and his physiology, a new kind of consciousness which could say ‘I’ and ‘me’; which could look upon itself as an object that knew God; and which could make judgements of truth, beauty and goodness. That is, it had the ability to be self-conscious, God-conscious and value-conscious. Whatever the truth, what I propose is only food for thought. It isn’t intended to be an iron-clad assertion. And in keeping with Islamic pietistic norms, I will remark at this point: wa’Llahu a‘lam – ‘And God knows best’.

CONCLUSION

Of course, we don’t need religious faith to do science. The religious faith (or lack of it) of a scientist who makes a discovery isn’t proven by the discovery. Kepler’s laws of planetary motion, or Newton’s law of gravity, no more validate theism than does Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA double-helix prove atheism. What science does repeatedly demonstrate is that discoveries are made without having to necessarily assume there is a God, even if some people are inspired to do science by their religious faith. No doubt, both theists and atheist do bring their own philosophical assumptions to science. Naturalism or materialism are the preferred atheistic assumptions. That there’s an ordering principle behind the universe; behind how conscious life arose from lifeless matter; and behind why there is something rather than nothing is the theistic one. The question of whether science points to theism or atheism, that’s still being passionately and vigorously debated. What scientists must avoid doing is to assume that because science demonstrates a mechanism for a particular natural phenomenon, that there is therefore no agent behind the mechanism. For mechanism and agency aren’t of the same category. Such a reductionist outlook is unbefitting, although Albert Einstein had a point when he wrote: ‘It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher.’

1. Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (London: Longmans, 1986), 1.

2. Am I a Monkey? (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 20.

3. ibid., 20-21.

4. Dawkins, The Greatest Show on Earth (Great Britain: Black Swan, 2010), 9-10; Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 141-2.

5. The Language of God, 94.

6. As stated in Ayala, Am I A Monkey?, 50-51.

7. The Blind Watchmaker, 14.

8. See: J.C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker (Oxford: Lion Books, 2009), 40; A. Wilson, If God, Then What? (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2012), 66-9.

9. In respect to what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin, ja’iz) and impossible (mustahil) for God, in Islamic theology, consult: al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 2016), 1:263; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 68-75.

10. See: al-Saffarini,  Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah, 3:736-46.

11. Al-Bukhari, no.7516.

12. Consult: Ramic, Language and the Interpretation of Islamic Law (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 198.

13. The Language of God, 199.

14. ibid., 201.

15. Cited in: Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:696. Also cf. Keller, Evolution Theory & Islam (Cambridge: The Muslim Academic Trust, 1999), 8-9.

16. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Makkah: Dar Taybah, 2018), 1:299.

On True Salafism, False Salafism & Ijma‘ Theology (2/2)

Keen readers of the blog might realise that the last time I addressed the issue of Salafism and orthodoxy was when this blog first started, back in 2012. I haven’t returned to the subject till now. The reason for that is straightforward. This is a day and age, and it’s probably been like this for a considerably long time, that doesn’t respond well to correction. In this age of religious uproar, where souls are weak and arguments are more charged with ego or partisanship (tahazzub, hizbiyyah) than ever before, correctives seldom work. It’s an age when we find it incredibly difficult or agonising to really be open-minded to ideas outside of our own group-think or bubble. Trying to uproot erroneous notions all too often makes things worse nowadays. Egos get riled up, people take it personally, and positions usually become further entrenched. One hadith informs us that: ‘You must command good and forbid evil, until you see greed being obeyed, desires being followed, worldliness being preferred and every person being impressed with his own opinion.’28 So it’s a road we should seldom walk down; and when we do, we should do so reluctantly, wisely and warily.

Those who have yet to read Part One of the discussion are urged to do so first (it may be read here). It sets the context for this final part. The centrepiece of that first discussion were these words of Ibn Taymiyyah, when speaking about the heterodox, innovated sects: ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus (ijma‘). But whoever speaks according to the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.29

These words of his were also central to the overall discussion: ‘Ijma‘ is the third fundamental which is relied upon in affairs of knowledge and faith. With these three fundamentals they weigh-up all that people say or do in terms of religion, be it inwardly or outwardly.’30

Lastly, this Taymiyyan statement is worth reiterating: ‘This is why the scholars of Islam concur upon declaring as an innovator one who contravenes the likes of these usul, contrary to someone who differs in issues of ijtihad.’31

Having covered three sections in the first part of the blog, and mostly speaking of Salafism in the abstract rather than discussing specific salafi individuals or groups, here are the concluding four sections:

IV

26 – So what is true Salafism? By as early as the fourth Islamic century, we find some scholars using the salafi label to describe certain scholars. So we see the historian Ibn Hayyan say about Isma‘il b. Hammad, the grandson of Imam Abu Hanifah: ‘They said that Isma‘il b. Hammad b. Abu Hanifah was a true salafi.’32 Or we see al-Dhahabi write in his biographical notice on Ibn Hubayrah: ‘He was versed in the [Hanbali] madhhab, Arabic, prosody, was salafi, athari.33 Of al-Akhna’i, al-Safadi said: ‘He was a lover of reports, salafi in approach.’34 Anyone prepared to do the academic spadework will discover that while such usage of the label ‘salafi’, both pre and post Ibn Taymiyyah, does make appearances in the medieval tabaqat-biographical literature, it does so infrequently.

27 – Another ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ point about the salafi tag is that historically, prior to about the mid-1970s, its use was very specific. Dipping into the tabaqat works again, and we come across al-Dhahabi saying about Imam Ibn al-Salah: ‘He possessed remarkable majesty, solemnity, gravity, eloquence and beneficial knowledge. He was firm in faith, wholly salafi, of correct creed … He believed in Allah and what came from Allah, in terms of His names and attributes.’35 And of Abu’l-Bayan Naba b. Muhammad b. Mahfuz, al-Dhahabi says: ‘Shaykh Abu’l-Bayan, may Allah be pleased with him; shaykh of the Bayaniyyah [sufi] tariqah. He was of eminent status, a scholar who acted on his knowledge, a renunciant (zahid), devout, an expert of the [Arabic] language, a jurist of the Shafi‘i school, salafi in creed, and a caller to the Sunnah.’36 And in al-Safadi’s description of Abu Ishaq al-Kinani: ‘He was righteous, benevolent, abundant in the dhikr of Allah, salafi in creed (salafi al-mu‘taqad).’37 And Ibn Hajr on Muhammad b al-Qasim al-Misri: ‘He was the chief of the Malikis in Egypt, and one who had best memorised the madhhab among them. Versed in history, highly cultured, very religious, deeply devout … He was salafi in creed.’38

28 – The above quotes show how the salafi epithet was applied to scholars who, after the rise of the Ash‘ari and Maturidi theological schools, continued to stick to what they believed was the ijma‘ of the salaf in terms of creed (‘aqidah). Thus the designation, salafi mu‘taqad – ‘salafi in creed.’ Such purist scholars (and it was scholars given this tag, not laymen) were marked by two traits: [i] rejecting the rationalising methods (or most of it) of kalam theologians and, [ii] rejecting figurative interpretation (ta’wil) with regards to the divine attributes (sifat). For such salafi scholars, both these matters were fiercely repudiated by the ijma‘ of the salaf, as per reports related from them.39 Being salafi didn’t mean rejection of following a fiqh school, or being anti-madhhab or anti-taqlid, or kicking the whole of sufism (tasawwuf) into the long grass; as the above quotations clearly demonstrate. This was never the stamp of authenticity of true Salafism, but it would become the stock in trade of the false one.

29 – The past Sunni imams who did allow figurative interpretations (ta’wil) in the divine attributes did so, not because they believed it was lawful to reject an ijma‘, especially of the salaf, but because they didn’t believe there was an ijma‘. Typifying this stance is Imam al-Nawawi, who wrote: ‘They disagreed about the verses and reports to do with the divine attributes, should they be discussed by way of figurative interpretation or not? Some said that they should be, as befits them. This is the more well-known of the two views of the kalam theologians. Others said they should not be figuratively interpreted. Instead, one withholds from speaking about their meanings and entrusts knowledge of them to Allah, exalted is He, along with believing in Allah’s transcendence; exalted is He … And this was the path of the salaf, or [rather] the majority of them …’40 A similar reason is given for using kalam, as I’ve discussed in my article about Hanbalis & kalam.

30 – Given the above, we may say that all religious issues can fit into one of three categories:. Either it is one about which there is an undisputed ijma‘ (be it explicitly or tacitly stated); or it is an ijtihadi one where scholars agree to differ; or it’s one where consensus is claimed by one group of scholars, but disputed by another group: that is, there is no ijma‘ about the ijma‘. In the latter case, one does their best to do what is right, as per Allah’s statement: Fear Allah as best as you can. [Q.64:16] The agreed upon (mujma‘ ‘alayhi) issues, be they beliefs or actions, form the usul; and differing from them is forbidden and is considered sectarian splitting; the divider between ahl al-sunnah and ahl al-bid‘ah. Those differed over (mukhtalif fihi) issues form the furu‘ wherein the differences are valid and celebrated, and cannot be censured.

31 – So why does this all matter? Without being crystal clear in terms of what true Salafism was in the past, one is in real jeopardy of unwittingly following the false Salafism of the present. The stakes are that high! If, under the name of Salafism, or while claiming to be salafi, divisions are occurring over ijtihadi issues, or all of sufism – lock, stock and barrel – is being rejected as deviant, or following a madhhab is being seen as a sign of misguidance, these are perhaps tell tale signs that false Salafism is what is being followed. The way to make the necessary u-turn, after making tawbah, is by making ijma‘ the cornerstone, and by giving the mujma‘ ‘alayhi and mukhtalif fihi issues their due roles and rights. As for expanding the salafi tag beyond issues of ijma‘ (which are usually, but not exclusively, creedal), then this novel departure from what had been the norm for close to a millennium is what is discuss in the next section.

V

32 – Ibn Kathir stated of the great Shafi‘i scholar, Ibn Surayj, that ‘he was upon the school of the salaf (wa kana ‘ala madhhab al-salaf).’41 And al-Dhahabi said about al-Zabidi: kana hanafiyyan salafiyyan – ‘He was a salafi Hanafi.’42 To be clear and to press home this vital point: Being salafi in the classical sense of the label had nothing at all to do with fiqh or suluk/tasawwuf. Instead, it had everything to do with a purist, more fideist creed: one which early Hanbalis are usually associated with. This is how true Salafism was always understood until its radical reconstruction around the mid-twentieth century.

33 – In the early twentieth century, the salafi concept made an innovative leap from being the madhhab of the salaf in creed; that is, the ‘aqidah that the salaf had a general consensus upon, to becoming something much broader: Salafism (salafiyyah). Salafism, in the 1920s, was still work in progress. Its ideologisation was still growing. By the 1970s; and if not, the early 80s, Salafism would settle on being the all-encompassing thing that it is today. Today’s Salafism isn’t just about creed. It now encompasses fiqh issues, political stances and outlooks, and even the way you dress or pray. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that as contemporary Salafism became more and more encompassing, it became more and more intolerant too. It is now the norm to be divested of one’s salafi-ness, oftentimes at the drop of a hat. And one doesn’t have to have violated an ijma‘ for one’s salafi-ness to be questioned. It nearly always happens on matters of bonafide ijtihad. This isn’t a straw man depiction of today’s Salafism. It’s how it actually is.

34 – This jump from employing the word salafi as an adjective (salafi mu‘taqad) to using it as a substantive or as an abstract noun (salafiyyah/Salafism) seems to have been driven, in significant part, with Muslim reformers pushing back, not just against Western colonialism in the latter part of the nineteenth or the first half of the twentieth century, but against the perceived fossilisation of the ‘late Sunni tradition’ too.43 By the 1980s, the idea of Salafism was well enough constructed for one of the most celebrated scholars and advocates of the late Sunni tradition (‘Traditional Islam’), Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti, to write his widely read anti-salafi tract, Salafiyyah – ‘Salafism’ (1988).

35 – While al-Albani is credited as the scholar who most popularised this new, all-inclusive idea of Salafism, he was not the first to invent it. That distinction, as the historical evidence seems to suggest, goes to the Egyptian scholar-cum-activist and professor of philosophy, Mustafa Hilmi. Against the backdrop of the spread of Western secular thought throughout the Islamic world, and the rise of Islamic modernism as well as a more politicised reading of Islam as the two counters to it, Hilmi took the identifiable madhhab of the salaf and invested it with a broader, more roomy scope to arrive at Salafism. Trained in the secular humanities, and fully devoted to the creed of the salaf, Hilmi co-opted some of the jargon of the humanities to express this totalising vision of Salafism in his book, Qawa‘id al-Manhaj al-Salafi – ‘Rules of the Salafi Methodology.’ (1976) and his next outing, al-Salafiyyah Bayna al-‘Aqidah al-Islamiyyah wa’l-Falsafah al-Gharbiyyah – ‘Salafism: Between Islamic Creed and Western Philosophy’ (1983).

36 – The designation manhaj (method, methodology) was already something of a buzzword in Western academic circles in 1960s Egypt. To speak of method was to speak of intellectual rigour and scholarly exactitude in a scientific idiom. The popularity of the term manhaj would soon extend beyond academic circles to include activists in the field of political Islam (Islamism, as it is now known); largely through the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Hilmi, inspired by Qutb’s usage of the term, constructed Salafism to represent an all-encompassing religious idea, or rather ideology. The jewel in the crown of his reframing of Salafism was the idea of manhaj al-salaf. Hilmi himself said in defining it: ‘Salafism became an all-inclusive technical term in designating the way of the salaf in grasping and applying Islam.’44

37 – Although the phrase ‘manhaj of the salaf’ was used before Hilmi (al-Albani used it occasionally around the 1950s, and Hamid al-Fiqi utilised it earlier still, in the late 1920s), it appears that there is no concrete evidence to suggest it was used as an all-inclusive concept till Hilmi employed it as such. Once he did, and once his Qawa‘id al-Manhaj gained wider reception (it earned him the King Faysal International Prize in Islamic studies, in 1985), the concept of being salafi would never be quite the same again. If salafi ‘aqidah is what divided salafis from other Muslims, then salafi manhaj would be significantly responsible for setting apart salafis from other salafis. Intra-salafi bickering and splitting and bigotry would soon become proverbial, and a perpetual air of enmity, mistrust and wariness between rival salafi factions would gradually be seen as business as usual.

VI

38 – For twentieth century salafi reformers, salafi manhaj would have an edge over the original notion of madhhab al-salaf or salafi mu‘taqad. Talk of manhaj allowed a level of flexibility (and some would argue innovation) that madhhab or ‘aqidah did not. One could now talk about an alleged salafi manhaj in fiqh, but not really a salafi madhhab. This permitted such reformers to defend their anti-madhhab and non-madhhab approach to Islamic jurisprudence – with all the religious anarchy, DIY fatwas and fitnah this would unleash. When placed in the deftly critical hands of someone like al-Albani, manhaj could be wielded to maximum effect. Other senior salafi scholars, like Ibn Baz, said there was no distinction between manhaj and ‘aqidah; that they are, in fact, synonymous.45

39 – Al-Albani would use manhaj to distinguish ‘purist’ salafis from half-baked or dubious ones. He categorised scholars and activists who believed in the salafi creed, but who were not ‘pure’ across the board, as being salafi in ‘aqidah, but not in manhaj. What did that actually mean? Were such people now outside of the saved-sect? Had such people violated an established ijma‘? Had their salafi-ness now been nullified? This wasn’t clear then, and is still unclear even today. What is quite clear is that as soon as someone like al-Albani doubted someone’s manhaj, such people were almost invariable treated by the salafi community as if they were deviant innovators. Weighing affairs with ijma‘ theology now took a back seat to weighing issues according to this newly invented manhaj. If not ijma‘, then by what golden standard was it decided whether someone was ‘off the manhaj’ or not? If no recorded ijma‘ had been contravened, was rebuking, censuring or questioning peoples’ orthodoxy in matters of ijtihad the way of the salaf? Can this be true Salafism? Among salafis, anarchy and ambiguity reign in this quarter too.

40 – From the 1980s, being a ‘pure’ salafi was becoming an uphill task. Not only did creed have to be correct, but fiqh ideas, epistemology, political outlooks and, over time, dress code too, had to pass the manhaj check list. All this can be seen in the multi-volume compilation (covering over five and a half thousand pages) of Shaykh al-Albani’s manhaj question and answers: Jami‘ Turath al-‘Allamah al-Albani fi’l-Manhaj wa’l-Ahdath al-Kubra (2011). It is one of Salafism’s biggest ironies, then, that Hilmi’s own salafi-ness was decided on the issue of manhaj. In the Jami‘, we see al-Albani querying about Hilmi in one such Q&A session: ‘Is he salafi? … Mustafa Hilmi a salafi? … What is the proof of his Salafism?’46 For most purist salafis in the know, that pretty much sealed Hilmi’s fate. Even if Hilmi did ascribe to the salafi ‘aqidah, his commitment to philosophical ideas and concepts would have excluded him from being a purist salafi in manhaj; as per the growing checklist.

41 – Let’s visit a few more examples of manhaj’s ability to include and exclude, as deployed by al-Albani. In the Jami‘, we find one reason to suspect a person’s salafi-ness is being loyal to an Islamic party, like the Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimun): this constituted hizbiyyah, ‘factional partisanship’. Such a person might be salafi in some matters, while ikhwani in other matters; and hence their Salafism was seriously tainted at best.47 Being too political; that is, putting political activism over gaining sound knowledge and nurturing oneself and others on such knowledge (something that al-Albani called the manhaj of tasfiyah and tarbiyah) was deviation from the manhaj too.48 It was, however, allowed to cooperate with such groups and parties, with the condition that it be on the basis of the Book, Sunnah and manhaj of the salaf.49

42 – These manhaj markers aren’t without their merits or their scriptural basis. In truth, they had good scriptural support. The problem was that they were too generic, lacking shari‘ah nuances. For what could be said, in the case of Islamic parties, of some learned person with salafi ‘aqidah, who felt it was their duty to focus on political activism, with a view to steering it aright so as not to leave a vacuum for unfettered emotions or egotistical rage to run wild; wisely injecting into the activism sound shari‘ah guidance? When has the red line of too much politics been crossed? Is it hizbiyyah? Has salafi-ness or orthodoxy been soiled, contaminated or rendered void because of it?  If so, again, where are the scales with which all this is weighed? Where is the ijma‘? Moreover, would activism of Muslim minorities living in Western democracies have the same, or slightly different guidelines than activism in Muslim majority countries? Is there only one absolutist answer to each one of these questions, or is it likely to be a case of varying ijtihads in such highly complicated areas of human life?

43 – Once the manhaj had been questioned at this top level, it would filter down to the salafi foot soldiers in its usual reductive, simplistic fashion. The familiar psychology will then play out: backbiting; name-calling; slandering; disabusing this fellow Muslim of their sanctity and orthodoxy; bullying the faithful, where needed, so they fall in line with the latest manhaj fatwa, correction or u-turn; ideological intimidation of those who may have lingering doubts about the new manhaj stance they must adopt in terms of who’s now on or off; and, of course, the panic, excitement and PDFs generated in the process. It’s all part of the bog standard expressions of ungodliness that inevitably ensue. And no one asks the godly question: What clear sin has been committed by this person to warrant all this kerfuffle against him in the first place?

44 – Imam Ibn Taymiyyah once wrote: ‘If an instructor or a teacher insists that a person be boycotted, discredited, their reputation be damaged, or that they be expelled, it must be seen: If he has committed a sin in the eyes of the shari‘ah, he is punished according to the degree of the sin; but no more. But if he hasn’t, then it is not permissible to punish him in any way, just because the teacher or others wish it. It is not for teachers to disunite the people or to do that which will sow enmity or rancour between them. Instead, they should be like brothers co-operating on goodness and godliness; as Allah, Exalted is He, says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2]’50

45 – Back to the Jami‘, where we find al-Albani offering the following sartorial criticism (in the context of Muslims living in majority Muslim countries, in the 1970s or 80s): That most leading Muslim activists and Islamists would imitate a western dress code, and oftentimes have no beards or barely a beard. For al-Albani, as for other salafis, this moved from being a fiqhi matter into a problem of manhaj.51 And then there was the dilemma of so-called salafi fiqh. Al-Albani insisted that, while following a madhhab or Sunni law-school was permissible and was better than following cowboy muftis with zero or half-baked learning in fiqh and fatwa, the true salafi way was not to be confined to one fiqh school. It was for this reason he declared Shaykh Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab to be salafi in ‘aqidah, but not in fiqh; since he limited himself to the Hanbali school (and a few tarjihat of Ibn Taymiyyah), not being an independent researcher in fiqh matters.52 This, of course, earned him the anger of certain other salafis, in certain quarters of the salafi world. It also proclaimed that Salafism demands the act of tarjih or ijtihad in fiqh: a volatile ingredient in the recipe of religious anarchy. It suggested, too, that the classically accepted view of someone being a salafi-Hanbali or salafi-Hanafi, as per the previous scholarly biographies, was somehow false, off-key, or at best, semi-Salafism. It would appear that classical notions of Salafism are open to criticism, but newer, contemporary notions of Salafism are not.

46 – Why should this all matter? The value we ascribe to words has a powerful way of moulding the way we think, construct ideas, view the world, or interact and govern others. Because contemporary Salafism – i.e. today’s idea of being salafi – is generally seen as a total orientation that embraces the entire gamut of the religious personality, we must be careful not to project this inclusiveness back in time, imaging Salafism has always been like this. It most certainly has not! Instead, it is part product of the many forces that gave rise to various other twentieth century isms. This is particularly so with the idea of salafi manhaj. With its arrival, no person’s salafi-ness, sanctity or honour was any longer safe from ijma‘-less accusations. Furthermore, once a religious issue is linked with manhaj, in the salafi mind, the issue then becomes one of orthodoxy (instead of seeing if the issue is actually one of usul or furu‘). And when conflating usul with furu‘, or the mujma‘ ‘alayhi with the mukhtalif fihi, or issues of ijma‘ with valid ijtihad – once blurring the distinction between such issues itself becomes a consistent, well-entrenched manhaj, or methodology, then how can that not be false Salafism?

VII

47 – Around the last decade, or perhaps even less, before Shaykh al-Albani died (in 1999), he was asked about the state of Salafism, in general; and specifically in Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi. His reply: ‘I say: regrettably the salafi da‘wah, right now, is in turmoil (inna al-da‘wah al-salafiyyah al-an, ma‘a’l-asaf, fi idtirab). I attribute this cause to the hastiness of many of the Muslim youths in claiming knowledge. He has the audacity to give fatwas, or [declare things to be] haram or halal, before he has knowledge. Some of them, as I have heard many a time, cannot [even] recite a verse from the Qur’an properly, even if the noble mushaf is open in front of him … Many of these people become headstrong and hasty in claiming knowledge or writing [pseudo-scholarly] works; and so this is what makes those who, after not having traversed even half the path of knowledge, but now subscribe to the salafi da‘wah, unfortunately splinter into factions and parties.’53

48 – Further on in the same conversation, the Shaykh mentions the following well-known salaf-report from ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Layla: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved for his brother to suffice him [by responding].’54 He then said: ‘The reason for this is that they feared making a mistake, which others would then fall into. Thus each of them wished they didn’t have to carry such a burden and that another would shoulder this responsibility for him. As for now, the situation is – with immense regret – the total opposite. And the cause of this goes back to a clear reason that I’ve mentioned time and again: That this blossoming which we are now experiencing of the Book, Sunnah and the salafi da‘wah, is in its infancy. So very little time has elapsed for people to reap the fruits of this da‘wah, that some call a blossoming or an awakening, within themselves; namely, by being nurtured on the foundations of the Book and the Sunnah. Then they can benefit from this sound nurturing (tarbiyah), founded upon the Book and the Sunnah, as well as benefit those around them: starting with those closest, then the next closest.’55

49 – The Shaykh then lamented: ‘So the reason why the fruits of this da‘wah have not become apparent is that it is new to the age in which we live. This is why we find the situation to be contrary to what ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Layla narrates about those Companions who were wary of being asked, hoping that someone else would be asked instead … But as for now, we find in many salafi communities, let alone others, that a person who is considered to be the most learned in the gathering is asked a question, only to find so-and-so person has started to speak without being asked, or such-and-such person has begun to answer, without him being asked! What makes them do this? It is love of fame. It’s the “I” syndrome; “I’m here;” that is, “I have knowledge, masha’Llah to me.” This proves that we have not yet been nurtured upon salafi tarbiyah. We have been raised on salafi knowledge, each according to their efforts and striving to acquire it. But as for tarbiyah, we have not yet acquired it as an Islamic, salafi community.’56

50 – Why should this all matter: Perhaps this idtirab; this disarray or turmoil Shaykh al-Albani spoke of has to do with certain aspects of knowledge too; and not only a lack of tarbiyah? Perhaps what is really needed is to return to a pre-manhaj Salafism; one firmly rooted in the distinction between not crossing the boundaries of ijma‘ and being within the bounds of valid ijtihad? For it is not that scholars cannot criticise or disagree with the ijtihad of other scholars. It’s that the one who performed the ijtihad (and the laymen who follow it) cannot be censured, disparaged or declared to have left the Sunni fold; to have violated their orthodox, salafi-ness, unless an ijma’ has actually been contravened.

To conclude: Whilst respect for the salaf is wholly warranted among Muslims, respecting today’s Salafism is a different matter. For much of Salafism today, it would seem, has seeds sown into it to create perpetual schisms. Trading insults with great gusto is what salafis are best known for. Routinely haemorrhaging their own unity, splintering into tinier and tinier cliquey factions, is another. Any veneer of credibility contemporary Salafism might have is largely based on associating it with the fundamental Islamic principle: the obligation upon all Muslims to follow the [ijma‘ of the] salaf.

That Salafism today has totally blurred the distinction between mujma‘ ‘alayhi or “agreed upon” issues and between mukhtalif fihi or the legitimately “differed over” issues, has proven incredibly lethal. Maverick preachers, possessing only a faint grasp of legal or theological doctrines, are now unleashed on the public. Zealous shaykhs, ustadhs or da‘is, ill-equipped to navigate the complex nuances embedded in classical Muslim scholarship, continue to erode and devalue ijma‘ theology. And Salafism, today, for maybe the most part, is fixated on externals; lacking the spiritual or intellectual depth which historically typified orthodoxy. How such a state of affairs came to characterise today’s Salafism is a question that I’ve touched upon, but the finer details must be passed over here.

Three things, then, need attending to urgently by today’s salafis: [i] Being clear about the difference between the usul and furu‘. [ii] Expending far greater effort to know what issues have classically been areas of legitimate difference, and to then train the soul to be tolerant and at ease in such areas of ijtihad and valid differing. [iii] Not filtering the entire scholastic legacy of Islam through the lens of a small band of past scholars, and an even tinier clique of current ones. This task calls for sincerity, sound traditional learning and, above all, reining in the ego. Without these, base metal will never turn into gold; and the lines between false and true Salafism will continue to be blurred or compromised.

Finally, while being acutely aware of the dangers of self-promotion, I hesitantly add that ‘salafism reconsidered’, in the categories section of this blog, might be a good place to find relevant articles for this corrective process.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

28. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3058, saying that the hadith is hasan gharib.

29. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:345-6.

30. ibid., 3:157.

31. ibid., 4:425.

32. Akhbar al-Qudat (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, n.d.), 342.

33. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 20:426.

34. Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turtath al-‘Arabi, 2000), 2:194.

35. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 23:142.

36. Tarikh al-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 1995), 38:68.

37. Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat, 5:231.

38. Lisan al-Mizan (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 2002), 7:452, no.7322.

39. See my article: Doctrine of the Divine Attributes.

40. Al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2011), 1:439.

41. Tabaqat al-Fuqaha’ al-Shafi‘iyyin, (al-Mansura: Dar al-Wafa’, 2004), 1:185.

42. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 20:317.

43. For the construction of contemporary Salafism, cf. Lauziere, The Making of Salafism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 95-129.

44. Qawa‘id al-Manhaj al-Salafi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2005), 176.

45. Consult: Fatawa al-Lajnat al-Da’imah (then presided over by Shaykh Ibn Baz), fatwa no.18870.

46. Jami‘ Turath al-‘Allamah al-Albani fi’l-Manhaj wa’l-Ahdath al-Kubra (Sana: Markaz al-Nu‘man, 2011), 12:163.

47. ibid., 3:22, 41, 123-24.

48. Ibid., 2:434-35.

49. ibid., 3:311.

50. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 28:15-16.

51. Jami‘, 3:438.

52. See: ‘Id ‘Abbasi, al-Da‘wah al-Salafiyyah wa Mawqifuha min al-Harakat al-Ukhra (Alexandrai: Dar al-Iman, 2002), 28.

53. Jami‘, 1:184.

54. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.2201.

55. Jami‘, 1:186.

56. ibid., 1:186-87.

On True Salafism, False Salafism & Ijma‘ Theology (1/2)

Much has been written about Salafism (salafiyyah) over the past half a century or so, particularly after 9-11. Among Muslims who ascribe to Sunni Islam, the whole concept of Salafism and what it stands for (and what it has done at the ground level) continues to be a source of great contention. While some see it as the representation of pure, authentic Islam, most view it as cultish and highly sectarian – with varying degrees of heresy, unorthodoxy, extremism and uber-intolerance running throughout it; reflecting the diverse types of salafis as well as salafist claims that exist in reality.

This post isn’t written as an expose of contemporary Salafism. Those hoping for a blustering refutation, or cancel culture content, will be very disappointed and are advised to move on. Instead, the intention of the article is to ask that, while the principle of following the collective religious agreement of the early Muslim scholars (affectionately called the salaf) is an indisputable one in Sunni Islam, is today’s Salafism a true representation of that unanimous, collective path; or is it something quite different to the actual principle?

I have chosen the following passage from the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah to help address the issue. My main reasons for doing so are: it is short; it get’s straight to the point; it is a voice that salafis will respect and, more crucially, it clearly essentialises the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between ahl al-sunnah and ahl al-bid‘ah, between the Straight Path in Islam and between the stray paths in Islam – the paths of the misguided Muslims sects.

Why should all this stuff about sectarianism and Salafism matter? Well, I don’t think it will be lost on most Muslims that each of us have an obligation to be truth-seekers and truth-followers. What this demands in terms of actions and intent is that we align ourselves with the divine will and the divinely-ordained way of life as best we can; starting with those beliefs and precepts which form the basis of right-guidance, or orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

As part of his reply to a query about the Muslims splitting-up into seventy-three sects (with only one of these sects being the orthodox or “saved” one), and who these various sectarian groups are, and what are their distinguishing features, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote:

وَلِهَذَا وَصَفَ الْفِرْقَةَ النَّاجِيَةَ بِأَنَّهَا أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ وَهُمْ الْجُمْهُورُ الْأَكْبَرُ وَالسَّوَادُ الْأَعْظَمُ . وَأَمَّا الْفِرَقُ الْبَاقِيَةُ فَإِنَّهُمْ أَهْلُ الشُّذُوذِ وَالتَّفَرُّقِ وَالْبِدَعِ وَالْأَهْوَاءِ وَلَا تَبْلُغُ الْفِرْقَةُ مِنْ هَؤُلَاءِ قَرِيبًا مِنْ مَبْلَغِ الْفِرْقَةِ النَّاجِيَةِ فَضْلًا عَنْ أَنْ تَكُونَ بِقَدْرِهَا بَلْ قَدْ تَكُونُ الْفِرْقَةُ مِنْهَا فِي غَايَةِ الْقِلَّةِ . 

وَشِعَارُ هَذِهِ الْفِرَقِ مُفَارَقَةُ الْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ . فَمَنْ قَالَ بِالْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ .

‘It is why the saved-sect is described as being ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah. They are the overwhelming multitude and the great majority. As for the other sects, they are followers of aberrant views, schism, innovations and deviant desires. None even comes close to the number of the saved-sect, let alone its calibre. Rather each such sect is extremely small [in number].

‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus (ijma‘). But whoever speaks according to the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.1

I

In the following points, let us try to unpack this compact, yet highly significant Tamiyyan passage:

1 – The first point to pay heed to is how orthodox Islam – technically known as ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah (‘Sunnis’, for short) – is depicted as encompassing the bulk of this blessed ummah: ‘They are the overwhelming multitude and the great majority.’

2 – In stark contrast to this, the standard salafi psyche would have us believe that most Muslims are deviant innovators outside of the Sunni fold – unless, of course, we join them. I’ve addressed this seismic, yet typical salafi mistake in the article: The Seventy-Three Sects: Is Most of the Ummah Deviant? Whenever a person or group misunderstands this one crucial fact, then it’s usually downhill from here.

3 – This error stems from misreading the words of the early scholars in their explanation of who the jama‘ah is. Take, for instance, the statement of Ibn al-Mubarak who, when asked who the jama‘ah was, replied: ‘Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. It was said to him that they have died, so he said: so-and-so and so-and-so. He was told that they too have passed away. So he said: Abu Hamzah al-Sukkari is the jama‘ah.’2 From here, salafis erringly conclude that the path of orthodoxy can even be just one or two individuals; and is always the path of the select few strangers, or ghuraba’.

4 – But the traditional scholarly take on this is that when Ibn al-Mubarak said that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar are the jama‘ah, he wasn’t negating right-guidance from the other sahabah. Likewise, when he pointed to al-Sukkari as being the jama‘ah, he was not denying the orthodox credentials of other scholars of the same era (like al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, Malik, or Abu Hanifah). Rather this salaf-report simply highlights the pivotal role of the scholars in defining orthodoxy. The masses, by virtue of them following the ‘ulema, are also from the jama‘ah. Mentioning a specific scholar as being the jama‘ah is just a way of showcasing that these scholars best exemplified the jama‘ah in their respective times or locales, and were most worthy of emulation. Other scholars also epitomised the jama‘ah, but perhaps not quite to the same degree.

5 – Ibn Taymiyyah says that the heterodox sects (ahl al-bid‘ah), the ‘followers of aberrant views, schism, innovations and deviant desires’ do not ‘even comes close to the number of the saved-sect. Rather each such sect is extremely small [in number].’ In other words, the number of actual innovators in the ummah is relatively tiny compared to the adherents of Sunni orthodoxy, of whom there is a multitude. Again, this is something which salafis generally, as almost a point of creed, have flipped on its head.

6 – The following hadith gives us an idea of what number of multitude we are talking about. ‘Nations were presented to me and I saw a prophet with one or two followers; another prophet who had a few followers; and also another with no followers at all. Then I saw a huge multitude of people filling the horizon, and hoped that this was my nation. But it was said to me that this was Moses and his people. I was then instructed to look, and I saw another great multitude of people filling the horizon. I was told to look here, and here as well, and again I saw huge multitudes who filled the horizon. It was then said to me: These are your nation. Along with them, seventy-thousand shall enter Paradise without reckoning or punishment.’3 An addition to the above states: ‘I asked my Lord for increase, so He increased it. Thus with every thousand there would be another seventy-thousand, plus three measures [lit. scoops] from His measures.’4

7 – Taking the above hadith at face value will yield a figure of 4.9 million people who shall enter Paradise without reckoning or accountability. And that is not factoring in the extra ‘three measures of His measures (thalathu hathayat min hathayatihi).’ Scholars explain that a hathyah; a ‘measure’ refers to scooping up a large or generous amount of something.5 In the above context, it’s a reference to God taking three large ‘scoops’ of people, besides the 4.9 million, and entering them into Paradise without reckoning. And that’s just those who enter without accountability. How many more millions shall enter after their reckoning? And yet it is not uncommon to find salafis who dogmatically believe that only they and their tiny group, and perhaps ten or twenty other small cliques like them around the world, are the privileged few and the saved sect! If the sahabi who thought it could be seven hundred thousand rather than seventy thousand, is correct, then the matter is even more staggering.6

8 – One final point about the numbers issue. Scholars explain that the ummah is divided into three categories: the rightly-guiding scholars; the lay people who are followers of their scholars; and the real innovators who oppose the way of right guidance, who prescribe in religion that which Allah hasn’t legislated, and who oppose the collective agreement of the scholars after the proofs have been established upon them. The first group is always a minority in every age; the second, the great majority; whilst the third (i.e. actual innovators) is minuscule in number. This is not to say that innovations, deviant practices and false ideas aren’t to be found among the Muslim masses. Instead, it is insisting that even though this is indeed the case, unintentionally falling into innovations (while not intending to contradict scholarly teachings) is not the same as being an out and out innovator. Orthodox theology states: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-bid‘ah sara mubtadi‘ – ‘Not everyone who falls into innovation becomes an innovator due to it.’ So if such people aren’t of the seventy-two innovated sects, then they are – and all praise is for Allah – from the saved sect.7

9 – Why does all this matter? There are a few reasons. The obvious one is that it is absolutely haram to label people as innovators when they are not. ‘Whoever accuses a believer of what he is not, Allah will cause him to dwell in the pus of the inhabitants of Hellfire and not leave till he retracts what he said,’ states one hadith.8 Another reason is that once the psyche has been poisoned by the belief that most of the ummah is deviant, such people will always be a menace to the Muslims; always agitated with them and viewing them with various degrees of disdain. Once Satan gets this far, he secretes into such hearts the deadly poison of conceit, given how such people are so self-righteously assured in their saved-sect complex. True religion calls us to become better people: false religion tells us that this has already occurred.9 Perhaps the biggest reason why this should matter, though, is that it causes the soul to harbour bad suspicion about Allah, imagining He has misguided all but a handful of people in the ummah’s life, despite it being the most honoured ummah in His sight.

II

10 – Now to the actual nub of what makes orthodoxy orthodoxy; of what makes someone a genuine follower of the salaf. Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘The hallmark of these [innovated] sects is their splitting from the Book, Sunnah and scholarly consensus (ijma‘). But whoever speaks according to the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.’ Now while Imam Ibn Taymiyyah does have a few isolated and erroneous opinions in matters of theology, this statement of his is not one of them.

11 – Preceding Ibn Taymiyyah by about three centuries, Imam al-Bayhaqi stated towards the end of his work on theology and creed: ‘We have already stated in the book al-Madkhal, and elsewhere, that the blameworthy differing (al-khilaf al-madhmum) is whatever differs from the Book, the authentic Sunnah, or a scholarly consensus.’10 In other words, what counts is the principle of being in conformity with the Qur’an, Sunnah and ijma‘. Those who affirm the principle are of the saved sect; ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah: those who reject it are not. It is, in abstract, as straightforward as that.

12 – So vital to orthodoxy are these three sources, that Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘The religion of the Muslims is built on following the Book of Allah, the Sunnah of His Prophet ﷺ and what the ummah is united upon. These three are infallible fundamentals (usul ma‘sumah).’11 That the Book and the Sunnah are infallible sources is well understood by most Muslims. As for the unanimous agreement of the scholars, or ijma‘, then its infallibility is taken from the hadith: ‘Indeed, Allah will never unite my ummah upon misguidance.’12 Which is to say, when the scholars of the ummah collectively agree on a point of religion, it is always right and right guidance.

13 – Thus more than just a cliché; more than a claim; more than even a name, the saved-sect (al-firqat al-najiyah) is identified with what may be termed as ijma‘ theology: a set of beliefs and practices rooted in the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the consensus (ijma‘) of the Muslims scholars. Issues wherein a consensus exists constitute the fundamentals (usul) of Islamic orthodoxy, from which it is unlawful to differ. In fact, differing from the usul is actually iftiraq, or splitting from orthodoxy. As for those issues which are open to more than one legitimate scholarly reading or interpretation, or wherein no actual consensus exists, they are not part of orthodoxy’s usul. Instead, they constitute the furu‘ – the detailed rulings – where legitimate differing stemming from qualified, scholarly ijtihad aren’t just tolerated, they are positively celebrated.

14 – Two last points about ijma‘. According to Ibn Taymiyyah: ‘The ijma‘ that is [most] accurately ascertainable is what the pious salaf were agreed upon; for after them differences increased and the ummah dispersed.’13 Ibn Taymiyyah isn’t denying the validity of consensus after the age of the salaf, as some think. He’s just saying that ascertaining points of ijma‘ from later scholars is trickier than it is when scholars were less scattered across the world; as was the case during the age of the salaf. A side point: When Ibn Taymiyyah opposes an ijma‘, it’s not an opposition to the principle. It’s because he believes there is no sound ijma‘ on the issue; that the claim of an ijma‘ is mistaken (for which he is either right or wrong in his ijtihad judgement).

15 – Secondly, some have taken the words of Imam Ahmad: man idda‘a’l-ijma‘ fa huwa kadhib – ‘Whoever claims consensus has lied,’14 and thinks this means he rejected the concept of ijma‘. This, however, is false. His words were said in context of certain innovators (al-Marisi and al-Asamm, as the rest of the report clarifies) falsely claiming an ijma‘ where none exists. So Imam Ahmad sternly warned against recklessly citing an ijma‘. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali said: ‘He said it by way of rebuking the Mu‘tazilite jurists who would [falsely] claim an ijma‘ of the people for what they were espousing. Yet they were the people least aware about the opinions of the sahabah and the tabi‘un.’15

16 – If we add to this the fact that Imam Ahmad himself reported an ijma‘ on various issues, this is proof writ large that he held ijma‘ to be authoritative. So, for example, Abu Dawud narrates: Imam Ahmad said to someone that reciting al-Fatihah behind the imam is particularised by the verse: When the Qur’an is recited, listen to it and pay heed. [Q.7:204] The person inquired: Who says this? Imam Ahmad said: Ajma‘a al-nas anna hadhihi’l-ayah fi’l-salat – ‘People have a consensus that this verse is about the Prayer.’16 Also, when he was asked as to where he took the opinion that the takbirs for ‘Id commence from the Day of ‘Arafah till the last day of Tashriq, he said: ‘By the ijma‘ of ‘Umar, ‘Ali, ‘Abd Allah b. Mas‘ud and ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abbas.’17 Further evidence of Imam Ahmad’s use of ijma‘ is presented by Qadi Abu Ya‘la in his book on Hanbali legal theory.18

17 – Why should this matter? Well Ibn Taymiyyah rightly says about these three infallible fundamentals: ‘Ijma‘ is the third fundamental which is relied upon in affairs of knowledge and faith. With these three fundamentals they weigh-up all that people say or do, inwardly and outwardly, in terms of religion.’19 Now whenever an individual or group is unclear about ijma‘ theology, they will have the wrong tools to weigh-up what is an orthodox view from a heterodox one; an Islamic stance from the Islamic stance; legitimate differing from blameworthy splitting; ikhtilaf from iftiraq. Any issue about which there is an ijma‘ becomes part of orthodoxy. It becomes the Islamic view; and differing from it after being reliably informed that it runs counter to a consensus is the unlawful sectarian type of splitting (iftiraq). Where there is no ijma‘, only valid scholarly differing based on qualified ijtihad, then it is haram to split the ummah in such issues. And yet, attacking valid ijtihadi views where no ijma‘ exists (be it on a point of ‘aqidah, fiqh, or judgements on individuals in respect to their orthodoxy or not) and considering people to be dodgy due to them following a different scholarly ijtihad, has become something of a calling card for today’s salafi movement. So to know the role of ijma’ in defining Sunni orthodoxy is crucial. Without it, one is likely to end up being an enemy to the awliya and a plague of untold fitnahs for this blessed ummah.

18 – Given that iftiraq, or splitting from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah, just occurs in the all-important fundamentals (usul): those issues that are underpinned by an ijma‘; and given also that ikhtilaf arising from qualified scholarly ijtihad is from the branches (furu‘) of the religion, then it is not permissible to label any Muslim an innovator, except if he opposes one or more of these great usul. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘This is why the scholars of Islam concur upon declaring as an innovator one who contravenes the likes of these usul, contrary to someone who differs in issues of ijtihad.’20

III

19 – So where does following the salaf, or being salafi, fit into all this? Well we began with Ibn Taymiyyah pin-pointing the core feature of the innovated sects: their splitting from ijma‘ theology. Elsewhere, he says: ‘It should be known that the hallmark of the innovators is their forsaking ascription to the salaf.21 Thus the two traits boil down to the same thing: forsaking ascription to the ijma‘ of the salaf. Thus, whatever the salaf agreed upon constitutes the madhhab (‘path’ or ‘school’) of the salaf and deserves to be called the salafi way – the way that the salaf took as a united body. And this is what scholars like al-Dhahabi meant by their statement: ‘Salafi: one who is upon the way of the salaf (man kana ‘ala madhhab al-salaf).’22

20 – As for what the salaf differed in, then there is no one unified path, there is no salafi way; there is just legitimate differences of opinion. Those qualified in the juristic art of weighing-up proof-texts (i.e. tarji‘) do so, following the stance they believe is soundest. Those who aren’t just follow a scholar who they trust: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [Q.21:7] Since this is a matter for which there is no agreement of the salaf, no ijma‘, so therefore no salafi way. They aren’t matters that defines what is or isn’t the saved-sect. If some people insist on calling such splitting over ijtahidi issues salafiyyah or Salafism, then it is undeniably false Salafism, not true Salafism.

21 – Regrettably, this one simple piece of understanding has been lost on most salafis, with tragic consequences for Muslim social harmony, and bitter fruits for personal spiritual growth. There’s no joy in declaring that the list of ijtihadi issues over which salafis split from other Muslims is painfully long. Aversion to using tasbih beads, making du‘a to Allah through tawassul bi’l-nabi, honouring the 15th night of Sha‘ban with extra worship, dhikr repetitions not specified in the texts, or gifting the rewards of reciting the Qur’an to the deceased have all been turned into fault lines, benchmarks or imtihan-inquisitions, to determine who is or is not a follower of the salaf – despite such issues being the opinion of some, or the majority, of the salaf. And while there are a few salafis who do not split on such issues, the reality is that most do (and as the juristic maxim says: al-hukm ‘ala’l-aghlab – ‘The ruling is upon what is predominant’). And that, as the saying goes, is just the tip of the iceberg.

22 – Writing of how a believer’s loyalty and enmity can only be centred around the usul, or agreed-upon issues, Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘It is not for anyone to set up for the ummah an individual – calling to his way, and forming loyalty or enmity around him – save if it be the Prophet ﷺ. Nor may any speech be set up for them around which loyalty or enmity is formed, except if it be the Speech of Allah and His Messenger, or what the ummah has agreed upon. Rather, this is from the practices of the innovators; those who ascribe themselves to a specific person or opinion, creating divisions in the ummah due to it; and basing their loyalty and enmity around such an opinion or ascription.’23 But isn’t this what false Salafism does? Hasn’t it taken the opinion of a scholar, or a few scholars, despite other qualified scholars differing, and divided the ummah over it? Does it not often label those who disagree with them in legitimate ijtihadi matters as being innovators; if not, then treating them as innovators are treated? Doesn’t it, as a frequent policy, assert, even in issues for which no ijma‘ exists that, ‘You are either with us, or against us?’ Honesty, justice and sincere introspection is what godliness demands here.

23 – Again, speaking about sectarianism and factionalism, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah remarked: ‘How is it permitted for the ummah of Muhammad ﷺ to divide and differ to the extent that a person aligns himself with one faction and is hostile to another, based upon conjecture or caprice, without a decisive proof from Allah. Indeed, Allah and His Prophet ﷺ are free of those who act in this manner. This is the behaviour of the innovators, like the Khawarij, who split the unity of the Muslims and made permissible the blood of those who opposed them.’24 It’s the hallmark of false Salafism too, except that while most salafis today categorically denounce violent extremism or shedding peoples’ blood, so many have made it their mission to attack peoples’ honour. Even the moderate salafis, who may not use the salafi label, can often have a skewed view of ijma‘ theology, and therefore of what is or isn’t a ‘dodgy’ opinion.

24 – Wasn’t this the point Ibn ‘Uthaymin was trying to make, when he said: ‘As for taking Salafism to be a specific method which singles-out particular people, and considers as deviant any Muslim who differs from it, even if the truth is with the latter – making Salafism into a partisan thing – then there is no doubt at all that this is contrary to Salafism … However, some people that have taken the salafi approach in the present time declare anyone who differs with them, even if the truth be with the latter, to be misguided. Some have taken it to be a method of partisanship … Look at the way of the pious salaf and what they did in terms of their methodology, and the openness of their hearts in regards to differing, in that which ijtihad is permitted … So Salafism, with the meaning of a specific party, with specific distinctions, where other than them are seen as deviant, then we say: they are not from Salafism in the least.’?25

25 – Why does all this matter? Well while the intention to follow the salaf is a truly noble one, it’s best to keep in mind these words of Ibn Mas‘ud: wa kam min muridin li’l-khayr lan yusibahu: ‘How many people intend good, yet never reach it.’26 Ibn Taymiyyah has some poignant remarks here too: ‘Many of the later people do not know the reality of the speech of the salaf and the leading scholars. Of them are those who revere the salaf and say that they follow them, but then oppose them in ways they do not realise.’27 To err here and there is one thing. But nose diving into the myths, schisms and authoritarian claims of false Salafism is another thing entirely.

IV

26 – So what is true Salafism? By as early as the fourth …

 … The remainder of this crucial discussion is given in Part 2. In it, I’ll address the following: the distinction between true Salafism and false Salafism; how today’s Salafism differs from the original, classical idea of the madhhab of the salaf, of how it came to be steadily constructed from the 1920’s onwards; how Salafism’s intolerance grew and grew the more and more its scope widened to beyond ‘aqidah and issues of ijma‘; who devised the idea of the salafi manhaj during the mid twentieth century; why the goal posts moved from madhhab of the salaf to salafi manhaj; and how might one stop blurring the lines between true Salafism and the false one.

Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa bihi al-tawfiq.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:345-6.

2. Cited in al-Tirmidhi, no.2167, in his gloss to the hadith: ‘God will never unite my ummah upon misguidance, and the hand of God is over the jama‘ah.’

3. Al-Bukhari, no.5752.

4. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2437, saying that the hadith is hasan gharib.

5. Cf. al-Mubarakpuri, Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi bi Sharh Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1990), 7:129.

6. As per al-Bukhari, no.3247.

7. See: Maqbali, al-‘Alam al-Shamikh fi Ithar al-Haqq ‘ala’l-Aba wa’l-Mashayikh (Egypt: n.p., 1910), 417-18.

8. Ahmad, no.5385. Its chain was graded sahih in al-Arna’ut (ed), Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Ma’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 9:283.

9. Mirroring Murad, Contentions, 2/11. 

10. Al-I‘tiqad wa’l-Hidayatu ila Sabil al-Rashad (Damascus: al-Yamamah, 2002), 354.

11. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.

12. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2167. The hadith, with its collective chains, is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1848.

13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:157.

14. As per: Masa’il al-Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal Riwayat Ibnihi ‘Abd Allah b. Ahmad (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1981), 439; no.1587.

15. Cited in al-Mardawi, al-Tahbir Sharh al-Tahrir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2000), 4:1528-9.

16. Masa’il Imam Ahmad Riwayat Abi Dawud (Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1999), 48; no.223.

17. Quoted in Qadi Abu Ya‘la, al-‘Uddah fi Usul al-Fiqh (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Sa‘ud, 1993), 4:1060-63.

18. ibid., 4:1058-64.

19. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:157.

20. ibid., 4:425.

21. ibid., 4:155.

22. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1993), 5:21.

23. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.

24. ibid., 3:419.

25. Liqa’at al-Bab al-Maftuh (Saudi Arabia: Mu’assasah Shaykh Muhammad b. Salah al-‘Uthaymin, 2016), 3:242; no.1322.

26. Al-Darimi, Sunan (Karachi: Qadami Kutub Khanah, n.d.), 1:79-80, no.204.

27. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 12:87.

Reading Qur’an While Not Knowing the Meaning: Is There Reward?

Q. Is there any reward for reading the Qur’an in Arabic, even if you don’t know or understand the meanings? If so, what would be the point?

A. Alhamduli’Lah, wa’l-salatu wa’l-salam ‘ala rasuli’Llah. This nagging question has been around for a while. But only recently has it begun to be argued about in a more bullish, uncharitable manner. So let’s address this niggling issue via the following points:

1 – As Muslims, we must all be absolutely clear as to the purpose of the Qur’an, about which Allah says in the Holy Book: كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ[This is] a Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may reflect upon its signs. [Q.38:29] To this end, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The purpose of the Qur’an is to understand its meanings and to act upon it.’1

2 – Al-Hasan al-Basri once remarked: ‘The Qur’an was revealed so as to act by it. But people have taken the recitation as the action.’2 The Qur’an speaks to such a discourteous attitude in these words: أَفَلاَ يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَى قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَاWill they not meditate on the Qur’an, or are their locks upon their hearts? [Q.47:24]

3 – The Qur’an says of those given revelation before hand: وَمِنْهُمْ أُمِّيُّونَ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ الْكِتَابَ إِلاَّ أَمَانِيَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلاَّ يَظُنُّونَAmong them are the illiterate, having no knowledge of the Book other than [vague] fancies; they do nothing but conjecture. [Q.2:78] One of the explanations given by Muslim exegists to vague fancies is: reciting the Book without any understanding.3 And while the tafsir literature tells us this verse refers to many Jews of Madinah vis-a-via the Torah, it’s a warning for Muslims not to behave like that with the Qur’an.

4 – In fact, the Qur’an goes so far as to say: مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ حُمِّلُوا التَّوْرَاةَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَحْمِلُوهَا كَمَثَلِ الْحِمَارِ يَحْمِلُ أَسْفَارًاThe likeness of those who were entrusted with the Torah, then failed to uphold it, is as the likeness of a donkey carrying books. [Q.62:5] Imam Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Allah strikes an analogy of those who were entrusted with His Book – to believe in it, reflect over it, act upon it and call [others] to it, but they acted contrary to this and only upheld it by rote learning it; thus they read it without meditating upon it, or understanding it, or following it, judging by it, and acting upon what it necessitates – to a donkey on whose back are tomes of books. It has no idea of what’s in them. Its only share of them is to carry them on its back. Likewise, their state with Allah’s Book is as that of a donkey loaded with books. This likeness, although it is in context of Jews, is just as applicable to someone who memorises the Qur’an but doesn’t act on it, give it its right, or uphold its teachings.’4

5 – As for the many hadiths which speak about the ahl al-qur’an – the ‘People of the Qur’an’ or hamil al-qur’an – the ‘Bearers of the Qur’an, or other such lofty distinctions, these too must be understood in the light of not just memorising the Qur’an, but studying it; pondering its meanings, marvels and wisdoms; and acting by it. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Allah has family among mankind (ahlin min al-nas).’ They asked: O Messenger of Allah, who are they? He said: ahl al-qur’an hum ahlu’Llah wa khassatuhu – ‘The People of the Qur’an are the People of Allah and His elite ones.’5 Imam al-Munawi commented: ‘In other words, those who memorise the Qur’an and act according to it are the friends of Allah, who are as close to Him as a person’s family is to them. They are called this as an honour to them, just as [the Ka‘bah] is called ‘the House of Allah’.’6

6 – A more liberal view to the above hadith was presented by Ibn al-Qayyim, who said: ‘That’s why the People of the Qur’an are those who are learned about it and act according to what is in it, even if they haven’t committed it to heart. As for those who have memorised it, but neither understand it nor act upon it, they aren’t from its people.’7 This was said as part of his discussion on whether it is better to read the Qur’an slowly with reflection, or quickly in order to read more – about which the salaf differed.

7 – As for the sahabah and their relationship with the Qur’an, we encounter these words of Ibn ‘Umar: ‘We lived during a period of time in which one of us would be granted faith (iman) before the Qur’an. As chapters were revealed, we learnt what was lawful and unlawful, commanded and forbidden, and what required pausing at from it, just as you all, today, learn the Qur’an. But I have seen men today who are given the Quran before iman. He recites it from start to end without knowing what it commands or forbids, or what must be paused at. He races through it hurriedly.’8 In this context, the terms iman and Qur’an imply one of two things: the first refers to the foundations of faith; the latter, the rulings and injunctions. Or iman can refer to the meanings and wisdoms of the Book, while the Qur’an refers to the mere recitation of its words – which is what is intended here. The same explanations hold for the statement of Jundub b. ‘Abd Allah: ‘We learnt iman before the Qur’an, then we learnt the Qur’an and it increased us in iman.9 And Allah knows best.

8 – Spotlighting the sahabah again, we read the following: Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman relates. ‘They – i.e the sahabah – would learn ten verses from the Prophet ﷺ, and wouldn’t learn ten more till they knew what they contained of knowledge and action. They would say: “We learnt knowledge and action [together].”’10 So the way of the sahabah was iman before the Qur’an, while ours is Qur’an before iman. Their way was understanding (fahm), reflecting (tadabbur), acting (‘aml), while ours is confined to reading (qira’ah), reciting (tilawah), memorising (hifz). And then we wonder why we’re in the state we are in?

9 – But what about the question of reciting the Qur’an without understanding a word of what one is reading? Well it would be a foolish person who insists that there’s no point in reading the Qur’an as a sacrament; i.e. just to gain blessings or grace, unless one understands what is being read – especially in light of the following hadith: ‘Whoever recites a single letter from the Book of Allah will be given the likes of ten good deeds. I do not say alif lam mim is a letter. Rather alif is a letter, lam is a letter, and mim is a letter.’11 So here we see our Prophet ﷺ choosing the words: alif lam mim as an example, knowing full well he had not explained their meanings to the ummah (in fact, when it comes to the tafsir of such cryptic letters, these huruf al-muqatta‘at, the vast majority of our scholars simply assert: wa’Llahu a‘lam bi muradihi – ‘Allah knows best what it means.’). Yet despite that, he described the immense reward one gains for reciting these three cryptic letters that make up the Arabic and Quranic alphabet. Which is to say, there is indeed reward for reading the Qur’an, even if one doesn’t know the meaning. Moreover, one would be hard pushed to find even one single leading Imam who is followed in the ummah who forbids reading the Qur’an, or denies a reward for one’s recitation, unless the meaning is known.

10 – That said, such tilawah without understanding (fahm) must never become one’s usual practice. That would be to defeat the aim in sending the Qur’an and would be a type of disrespect of it. If it is recited to obtain rewards and blessings then – and this is what needs to be paid careful attention to – it is allowed, but it mustn’t be made into a habit such that this is the only engagement one has with the Holy Qur’an. One bears in mind the divine order: فَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْSo fear Allah as best as you can. [Q.64:16]

11 – Lest there be even the slightest trace of confusion, all the above is in no way meant to discourage or belittle the act of reciting or memorising the Qur’an if one is unaware of its meaning. Certainly not! No one has the right to call others to leave off reciting the Qur’an. What the above is an invitation to is to raise our recitation from reciting just its words, to reciting it with tadabbur – meaning, reflection and deliberation; then reciting it so as to internalise its message and act upon its demands and guidance. The same applies to memorisation (hifz) of it. The established principle when it comes to doing good deeds is: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak kulluhu – ‘If you cannot achieve all of it, do not abandon all of it.’ Yet let’s work on making our recitation (tilawah) ascend to higher heights. Only then will we be truly fulfilling Allah’s words: الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمْ الْكِتَابَ يَتْلُونَهُ حَقَّ تِلاَوَتِهِ أُوْلَئِكَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ – Those to whom We have given the Book, and who recite it the way it should be recited, truly believe in it. [Q.2:121]

12 – As for focusing on completing the Qur’an in Ramadan or in any other holy time or place, without taking the time to ponder its meanings, Ibn Rajab wrote: ‘The salaf would recite the entire Qur’an in the month of Ramadan, both inside and outside of prayer. Al-Aswad would finish the Qur’an every second night in Ramadan. Al-Nakha‘i would do likewise in the last ten nights, while in the rest of the month [he would finish it] every third night. Qatadah would consistently complete the Qur’an every seven days, and in Ramadan every third night; and each night during the last ten nights. Al-Shafi‘i would complete the Qur’an sixty times in Ramadan, outside prayer. Abu Hanifah did likewise … What is related about the forbiddance of reciting the Qur’an in less than three days applies to doing so regularly. As for times of great virtue, such as the month of Ramadan, especially the nights in which laylat al-qadr is sought; or in virtuous places like Makkah, for one who enters it not as a resident, it is recommended to increase in recitation of the Qur’an, taking advantage of the time or place. This was the view of Ahmad, Ishaq and others leading scholars. And this is proven from the action of others, whose mention has already preceded.’12

It is not unusual to hear scholars liken reading the Quran without knowing the meaning of what is being recited, to a sick patient for whom a doctor writes a prescription. Yet instead of understanding what the prescription says, or acting on what it requires, the patient simply keeps reading the prescription over and over again; making such recitation an end in itself. In all likelihood, we’d think this person a fool, and maybe even say that he has only himself to blame if his illness persists. So what is the case if we limit ourselves to reciting the Qur’an, without trying to understand its meanings in order to be shaped, even in some small way, by God’s final message to mankind? The Qur’an cajoles us to open it; invites us to read it; and demands that we understand and ponder over it: فَهَلْ مِنْ مُدَّكِرٍ – So is there any who will take heed? [Q.54:17]

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 23:55.

2. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1403H), 109.

3. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Makkah: Dar Taybah al-Khudra’, 2018), 1:329.

4. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 123H), 2:288.

5. Ahmad, no.11870; Ibn Majah, no.215, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), 4:85; no.1582.

6. Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), 3:518.

7. Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:327.

8. Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 1:83.

9. Ibn Majah, no.61. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1997), 37; no.52.

10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.23482. Its chain was graded hasan in Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2001), 38:466.

11. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2912, who said it is hasan.

12. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 399-400.

Feigning Islamic Learning: Are You a Troublesome Abu Shibr?

IN MANUALS WRITTEN TO train Muslim scholars and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). Thus it is said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: whosoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; and whoever enters the third realises they know very little.’

An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of sacred learning; having only drunk small drafts, Abu Shibr gets intoxicated, looses sight of his own infant level, and behaves in a haughty, self-righteous way. For he deludes himself into thinking he’s now something in terms of sacred knowledge and learning: a duckling that thinks it’s a graceful swan, or a kitten that thinks it’s a tiger!

Of course, not everyone who enters this first stretch of learning becomes drunk. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into an Abu Shibr persona, their wise teacher is likely able to treat them with a corrective cure). Instead, it is those whose few crumbs of learning comes by way of a few books or some YouTube videos of non-scholars, or those who are nowhere near being seasoned students of sacred knowledge, that are the usual culprits. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a danger to himself and is a trouble to others. Brash, hostile, argumentative, divisive, self-assured to the point of kibr … we’ve all seen it (and some of us may have even been it!).

As for the second and third spans of learning, as the years pass, the sincere, intelligent and well-trained student appreciates, first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even by way of a single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the complexly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it. 

This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own true level. With further learning and engagement with ‘ilm, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they actually know compared to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition. ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ it has been said, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’

In our scholastic tradition there’s the idea of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: acting as if one is versed in religious issues through little haphazard reading of books or surfing a few websites, rather than any through, serious, systematic learning, studying or dialoguing with trained scholars. One of most dangerous calamities that currently afflicts the ummah is the growing spectacle of all the Abu Shibrs (and a few Umm Shibrs) that are now frantically clambering over each other, like frenzied rugby players on crack, to get attention, social-media ‘likes’, and other ego-driven ways of getting their voices heard. It is shameless, ungodly, and nothing short of stupidity on stilts. Nor is there anything as ugly as when the ego attempts to dress itself in the robes of sacred knowledge.

The lady Asma relates that a woman came to the Prophet ﷺ and asked: I have a co-wife, so is it alright for me to pretend that my husband has given me what he hasn’t given me [in order to tease her]? The Prophet ﷺ responded: ‘The one who pretends to have what he has not been given is like someone who puts on two garments of falsehood.’1 If that is the case in terms of claiming to possess worldly stuff one does not have, then what about giving others the impression that one has seasoned Islamic knowledge when one does not? For we are either qualified to represent Allah’s religion or we are not. The godly thing to do if we are ever asked questions about Islam which are above our proverbial pay grade is to simply say that we cannot give what we do not have.

In one sound hadith, we read an uncanny description of what seems to so aptly describe our times. In it, the Prophet said ﷺ: ‘Today, you are in an age in which its scholars are many and its speakers few: whoever leaves a tenth of what he knows has followed his desires. Later there will come an age where its speakers are many and its scholars few: whoever clings to a tenth of what he knows will be saved.’2

This is an era of fake knowledge, when it’s never been easier to fake what you know. Ours is an age where an increasing number of speakers sell themselves to the public as if they are seasoned shaykhs or mature students of knowledge, when most of them are clearly not. Such speakers tend not to have the dignity, gravitas or adab of the scholars, let alone their learning, wisdom and concern. And while social media and the reckless herd may have made such people into ‘influencers’ or go-to voices, the wise are wary of such self-styled speakers and Allah’s awliya appalled at their false pretensions. We should be too. The remedy for this corrupt behaviour is to make sincere tawbah and to reassess whether one should be publicly preaching or speaking on behalf of Allah; and if doing so is unavoidable, to always recall one’s level and not discourse beyond it, to never play to the crowd, and to ensure one has a healthy dose of answering questions with the godly words: la adri – ‘I do not know.’

Talking of those whose knowledge is half-baked, yet are deluded into thinking they are the real deal, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said:

‘It is said that those who most corrupt the world are: the half baked theologian, the half-baked jurist, the half-baked doctor and the half-baked grammarian. This [first one] corrupts religion; this [second], the country; this [third], physical bodies; and this [fourth], the language.’3

This too, from Ibn Hazm, is worth pondering – for those with corrupt natures and delusions of grandeur, but who earnestly wish to be rectified:

‘Some people who are overcome with ignorance, whose intellects are weak, and whose nature is corrupt think they are from the learned, when they are not. There is no greater harm to knowledge or to the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, but missed a much larger part than what they grasped. Their quest for knowledge, moreover, was not a search for knowledge of God, exalted is He; nor was their intention to escape the darkness of ignorance. Rather it was to be one-up on people through showing-off or self-importance, or attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or unashamedly boasting about being scholars when in reality they are not.’4

The Holy Qur’an counsels us: And seek not corruption in the earth; for Allah loves not the corrupters. [Q.28:77]

We ask Allah that He save us from ourselves.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.5219.

2. Al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam, 1:14-15. Its isnad was graded sahih by al-Albani, despite it containing Muhammad b. Tafar b. Mansur. For how such a verdict was reached, cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 6:1:40-42; no.2510.

3. Majmu’ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 5:118-19.

4. ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.

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