WHEN IT COMES to gender interactions, Islam insists on decent and appropriate behaviour and dignified conduct between the sexes. In other words, gender relations must be built upon the virtues of modesty (haya’), dignity (waqar) and respectability (haybah).
In fact, it’s probably not an exaggeration to say that men simply can’t be men, or rijal, in Islam, without modesty. Rajuliyyah – ‘manliness’ or ‘masculinity’ in Islam is predicated on it (one just needs to look at the life of the Prophet ﷺ, and also the best ever of non-prophet men, sayyiduna Abu Bakr). In that sense, the only pill Muslim men need to take is the green pill of Islam. Any other pill, red or otherwise, is likely to be a sign of mental confusion, bigging-up the ego, or some other dark and unhealthy pathology. It will also be a perversion of the prophetic norms of how men ought to be rijal. Masculinity in Islam comes from a place of taqwa, dignity and modesty; not ego, anger or insecurity. Likewise, women cannot be said to have the type offemininity Islam celebrates without rooting in themselves the beauty of haya’.
Islam very much sees itself as the religion about haya’ – modesty, shyness and a sense of reserve. The Prophet ﷺ said: “Every religion has a distinctive quality, and the distinctive quality of Islam is haya’.”1
We are reminded in the next hadith that: ‘Modesty is a branch of faith.’2
There are also these words from the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never is haya’ present in a matter except that it beautifies it.’3
To be clear, although haya’ translates itself into words like modesty, shyness and of being unassuming in the estimation of one’s abilities; in Islam, it does not translate into being sheepish, timid or socially anxious or insecure. Rather, haya’ is, as scholars say: ‘a quality which induces one to shun whatever is ugly or reprehensible (khuluqun yab‘athu ‘ala ijtinabi’l-qabih).’4
Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali said: ‘What restrains acting in a shameful or deplorable manner is [the quality of] haya’. Therefore, one who has no haya’ will abandon themselves to any indecent or loathsome behaviour.’5
It is why the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘From the words still in currency from earlier prophets are: If you have no haya’, then do as you wish.’6
Ibn Rajab goes on to write that the sense of modesty and shame are of two kinds. The first is an innate character trait that one is naturally disposed towards. The second is a modesty that is acquired through the fear of God, and through the voice of religious conscience which the teachings of faith nurture. He explains:
‘Realise that haya’ is of two types: Firstly, that which is an innate character trait which is not acquired. This is one of the noblest of qualities that Allah bestows on someone and fashions him upon. For this reason, he ﷺ said: “Modesty produces nothing except good”7 for it restrains him from committing foul deeds or displaying depraved morals, and spurs him onto honourable and virtuous character … Secondly, that which is acquired via knowledge of Allah, knowledge of His greatness and nearness to His servants; His awareness and complete familiarity of them; and [His knowledge] of the deceptions of the eyes and what hearts conceal. This is one of the most exalted traits of faith (iman). In fact, it is one of the loftiest degrees of spiritual excellence (ihsan).’8
So in the interaction between the sexes, a sense of modesty, haya’, is key. If innate modest is in short supply, modesty born of faith must prevail. If fear of God will not make people think twice before acting indecently or immodestly, the question for a believer is: What will?
And while there does need to be more discussion and better guidance on how Muslim men ought to be, in a growing demasculinised world, the irony seems to be that the Muslim Red Pill posse comes from exactly the same toxic place as Muslim feminists: They both share gender-biased worldviews and they seek solutions to their grievances from outside the healing light of Islam’s revealed guidance.
1. Ibn Majah, no.4181. The hadith was graded sahih, due to its multiple paths of transmission. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.940.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.9; Muslim, no.35.
3. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.601. It was graded sahih, al-Albani, Sahih al-Adab al-Mufrad (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Siddiq, 1994), no.469.
4. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 1:80.
SOME MUSLIMS LABOUR under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in Allah’s final Prophet ﷺ and Revelation, one must not speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) when they pass away on disbelief. Islamic teachings do not, however, require or insist upon such an uncharitable approach.
Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some he ﷺ spoke more about their virtues than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi, a respected Makkan idolater, was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im offered him during the trying years of early Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said about his non-Muslim father: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’1
The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of iman and tawhid, or Abrahamic monotheism – would perish in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet ﷺ about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’2
Of course, no one receive Revelation today to know with certainty what specific individual does or does not perish; other than the general Islamic maxim stated in the rigorously authentic hadith: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’3 Who is blessed to be included among the saved and the sanctified, or what truth-seekers will be given an amnesty for not uttering the shahadah in this world, must be left to the Highest and Most Just Judgement.
As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [Q.2:141]
So given that prophetic silence was the usual precedence in such matters, surely it befits us to do the same if we have nothing good to say. There is no need to cuss or curse, as there is no need for false flattery. And there is no need to imagine that such a life lived in kufr was anywhere as significant in Allah’s sight than the passing away of his awliya and ‘ulama. (Regrettably, most of us Muslims have chosen to live our lives uninterested in who the awliya or ‘ulama of Allah are and how we might be inspired by them, let alone care about when or how they passed away.)
Islam recognises hubb tib’i – ‘natural love’ or ‘instinctive affection’ – so whoever feels a loss at the passing away of a non-Muslim (famous or otherwise) feels it; whoever doesn’t, doesn’t.
Moreover, the lives of non-Muslims, just like Muslims, are not all alike. Some have lived a principled and moral life, others have not. Some have been sympathetic to Muslims and to Islam as a whole, others have not. Some have worked for bringing justice to Muslim causes, others have done the opposite. Some have brought benefit to wider society in ways they thought best, others have not.
The shari’ah of course sees that condolences can be in order, and that true and consoling words may indeed be offered to friends and family of the non-Muslim deceased, wherever or whenever occasioned.
Beyond that, it is unbefitting for a believer to get caught up in any collective hysteria, or media manipulation of emotions – especially if the non-Muslim was a person of social or cultural prominence; for: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. [Q.2:141]
If anything, we might wish to invest more energy in praying for right guidance, sound judgement and wise counsel for the living among the non-Muslims, especially if they have an influential role in society. Seeking to invite, or hoping for allies, is surely better than making enemies.
LET ME START with this statistic: By 2050, it’s predicted Muslims will be as high as 18% of Britain’s total population, rather than the 4.5% that they currently are. With such numbers, this alone imposes on us the urgent task of evolving a socially and politically relevant, and theologically-authentic, set of leadership challenges that are only now beginning to be thought of and fleshed out by us. Given liquid modernity’s many boundless hurdles, given also the growing tide of Islamophobia, whatever that might precisely mean, and given the uphill nature of reconnecting an angst-filled and stressed humanity to the All-Compassionate Source of Peace, any Muslim leadership role — for the love of God, and for the love of what people each have the potential to become — has a mammoth task before it.
Despite there not being a clergy, Muslims do generate religious leaders and leadership. These tend to be scholars who head the growing religious seminaries and institutions, less by appointment from above and more via earning the trust and confidence of the community in which they operate. In this way, some achieve significant levels of influence and eminence in a community that still holds great stock in the message and directives that come from mosque pulpits and fatwa committees. (As for the social media da’i or influencer, all too often unknown to their real-time communities or absent from the service to such local communities, it’s not yet clear how much leadership traction they have beyond sensationalist rhetoric, stoking up controversy, or being passing fads.)
But the whole enterprise isn’t without its problems or downsides, of which I’d like to touch upon a few. My remarks are more descriptive than they are prescriptive. They are also offered in a spirit of concern about the crisis of confidence we’re seeing towards Muslim scholars and their leadership.
CAUSES FOR MISTRUST
Some of these causes have to do with Muslims scholars themselves, some with the changing reality of lay people and learning. On the whole, though, the creeping mistrust is due to a mixture of both.
The trust and confidence ordinary Muslims have always shown the ‘ulama class has to do with the fact that the scholars were expected to be faithful guardians of sacred knowledge and faithful teachers of the prophetic legacy. ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets,’ one celebrated hadith states.1 If a scholar were to betray this legacy by introducing new forms of worship or liturgy into the ritual prayer, pilgrimage or fasting, for instance, such a scholar will meet the ire of the lay people who will mistrust him and shun his sermons. The scholar is trusted not to pervert time-honoured acts of worship underscored by a scholarly consensus.
As intellectual attacks on Islam increase, as universal literacy gets closer to the horizon, and as today’s educated, professional lay people are not as uninformed as lay people of pre-modern times, there’s a need for intelligent, articulate, Islamically-rooted teachings — particularly in terms of rational coherence, scientific literacy or liveable relevancy. When ‘ulama are unable to meet such a need, this continues to be one of the primary reasons for a crisis in confidence in Muslim scholarship — a crisis that has plagued this ummah for a century, and one that has turned many a young intelligent Muslim mind from the religion or religious observance.
Not to ignore the elephant in the room, one of the biggest drivers of this crisis is scholars who are, or who are perceived to be, under the thumbs of governments and tyrant regimes. How on earth are the lay people expected to trust scholars whose integrity is compromised, at best; and corrupted, at worst? In fact, there’s no swifter way for the scholars to bring discredit upon themselves than to biasedly declare – especially if no declaration is called for – that such and such political ruler or regime is pious or wicked, Islamic or un-Islamic. For a scholar to enter upon a ruler and flatter him, or heap upon him exaggerated platitudes, isn’t really the conduct of a godly Muslim; let alone a scholar. Ibn ‘Umar relates that he was once told: ‘We enter upon our rulers and say to them things contrary to what we say when we leave their presence.’ To this, Ibn ‘Umar replied: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, we would consider this to be hypocrisy.’2 Such platitudes only serve to obscure the true state of affairs to the ruler, in respect to his duty to God and his responsibilities to the people.
Regime-written or state-sanctioned khutbahs is a similar concern. And while it doesn’t lead to the same level of crisis as the above, such a state-driven Islam further impresses upon the public the notion that scholars aren’t fit for purpose and that they ought to look elsewhere for untainted religious guidance. In this, as with the above, such government-tainted scholarship only drives people to the murky realm of internet-Islam and social-media savy extremism, fake-scholarship or DIY preachers. The religious anarchy unleashed because of this is probably the gravest crisis the ummah is now threatend by. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘God does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; but He takes away knowledge by taking away the scholars. Thus when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked give fatwas without knowledge; they are misguided and misguiding.’3
THE PARADOX OF A PERSON’S OWN IGNORANCE
Another huge cause for the loss of trust in Muslims scholars boils down to what’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect — being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. Today, especially on social media, we see droves and droves of people who are observant, practising Muslims who believe they know what they’re talking about, when they actually do not. Such people might know a thing or two on an issue, but are ignorant of ten others; yet due to being too full of themselves, they are blind to this fact. Overestimating their own infantile Islamic learning, such people who have not formally studied the Islamic sciences, and have no Islamic qualification, take serious issue with scholars where no issue need be taken. They hear scholarly views that are different from what they think they know, and this becomes a justification to accuse the scholars of deviation or falsehood. Their lack of any serious learning blinds them to the rich diversity of views in Islamic scholarship, and the juristic or theological nuances at work.
The early nineteenth-century Yemeni scholar Imam al-Shawkani spoke of this fitnah when he described the three categories of people in regards to religious learning: There are the seasoned scholars who know their stuff pretty much inside out; then there are ordinary lay Muslims who just get on with life. Between the aforementioned are those in the middle, many who think they know, but they do not. He writes of the third case:
‘The middle category is the source of evil and is the root cause of fitnahs arising in the religion. They are those who aren’t seasoned in knowledge, such that they rise to the level of the first category. Nor do they forsake it [i.e. sacred knowledge] so as to be of the lowest category. They are those who, when they see one of those from the highest level say something which they are not acquainted with, and which contradicts their belief in which they fell short, they fire arrows of accusation at him and hurl all sorts of insults at him. They also corrupt the fitrah of the lowest level [the masses] from no longer accepting the truth, by veiling falsehood. By this, they establish religious fitnahs on a firm footing.’4
And this source of evil is very much what we see amplified thousands of times over today, on social media. The upshot of this fitnah, and the other reasons which feed into this crisis of confidence, surely bodes ill for our ummah, unless tawbah is made and serious steps are taken to mitigate or mend the widening rift. And Allah’s help is sought.
1. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. It has supporting chains that strengthen it, as stated by Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, to yield a final grading of hasan. See: Fath al-Bari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 1434H), 1:245.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.7178. The words: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ’ is recorded in al-Tayalasi, Musnad, no.1900.
3. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.
4. Al-Shawkani, al-Badr al-Tali‘ (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Islami, n.d.), 1:473, citing the words of ‘Ali b. Qasim with much approval, saying: ‘This is the meaning of his words which I heard from him; and he has spoken the truth. For whoever ponders them will find it to be so.’
By the late eighties, or maybe the early nineties, ‘‘Aqidah comes first’ started to become something of a slogan in certain Muslim quarters here in Britain. It can’t be dismissed that ‘aqidah, ‘creed’ or ‘belief’ (from ‘aqada: to tie, bind, fasten securely – out of which comes the idea of tying certain beliefs to the heart in utter conviction of them), is the single most important aspect of the religion. One is not a Muslim until a small, core set of beliefs, or ‘aqidah, is tied to the heart. It’s as simple as that. In Islam, acts of piety follow on from sound intentions, which stem from a core set of sound beliefs.
Again, there’s no doubt that ‘aqidah transforms and defines the believer’s outlook on life. In the Quranic estimation of matters, if someone’s beliefs are sound and the conviction (yaqin) firm, deeds will be morally good and virtuous. Which is why ‘aqidah comes first; so that we may know ultimate truths, and that outlooks and actions can then give concrete expression to these truths.
As for the basis of the Muslim creed or ‘aqidah, it comes in the following hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ said, when asked about what faith, or iman, entailed: ‘That you believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and to believe in divine destiny, both the good and the evil thereof.’1
LEARNING IMAN BEFORE THE QUR’AN
The hadith corpus details an interesting encounter. Yusuf b. Mahak relates that he was once in the presence of the lady ‘A’ishah, when a person came and asked that she show him her copy of the Qur’an, so that he may learn its chapter arrangements. But before doing so, she explained to him that: ‘The first of what was revealed were the shorter chapters (al-mufassal) that mentioned Paradise and Hell. When the people had turned and settled in Islam, the verses about the lawful and prohibited were revealed. Had the first thing to be revealed been: “Don’t drink alcohol,” they would have said: “We will never quit drinking alcohol!” Or if at the very outset adultery was forbidden, they would have said: “We will not stop having illicit sex!” There was revealed at Makkah to Muhammad ﷺ whilst I was still a young girl of playing age: No, but the Hour is their appointed time, and the Hour shall be more calamitous and bitter. [Q. 54:46] The chapters of Baqarah and Nisa’ were not revealed until I was with him [as wife].’ She then brought out her copy and dictated to him the order of the chapters.2
Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani makes the following observation, having quoted this report: ‘This points to the divine wisdom in the gradualness of Revelation and that the first thing the Qur’an calls to is to tawhid, to glad-tidings for believers, the delights of Paradise [for them], and to dire news of Hell for sinners and unbelievers. When souls had firmly settled upon this, religious laws were then sent down.’3
The same point – that only when people had begun to warm to the Quranic ‘aqidah regarding God, Prophethood and the Afterlife, and the hope, fear, trust, love and yearning it nurtures in hearts, were Islam’s laws and rulings sent down – was made by the Companion, Jundub b. ‘Abd Allah. He said of the method of education in the prophetic age: ‘We learnt iman before we learnt the Qur’an, then we learnt the Qur’an and it increased us in iman.’4 Here, iman in this context refers to the cardinal beliefs of Islam and to the spiritual states of the heart that such beliefs inspire or necessitate, while Qur’an refers to the religious laws and injunctions.
About this, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said, in discussing the spiritual virtues hearts should be adorned with, and the vices they must eschew or be emptied of:‘However, the emptying and adorning that the Messenger came with is for the heart to be emptied of whatever Allah doesn’t love and filled with what Allah does love, emptied of worshipping other than Allah and filled with worshipping Allah, emptied of loving for other than Allah and filled with loving for Allah, and likewise expelling from it fear of other than Allah and putting in it fear of Allah; exalted is He, and ridding from it reliance upon other than Allah and rooting in it reliance on Allah. This is the Islam that incorporates the iman which aids and strengthens the Qur’an and doesn’t contradict or contravene it; as Jundub and Ibn ‘Umar have said: “We learnt iman before the Qur’an, then we learnt the Qur’an and it increased us in iman.”’5
Yet to infer from this that no outward injunction was instated in the early Makkan years, or that Revelation was occupied solely with ‘aqidah, would be to misread Islam’s sacred history. Yes, the sha‘a’ir of Islam – those acts emblematic of the religion; like prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, or zakat – were made obligatory at a much later date. Nonetheless, there were some duties the Makkan Revelations constantly exhorted believers to; and these were what might be termed societal duties and ethical imperatives.
Thus the Qur’an enjoined on the fledgling community of believers to feed the poor, look after the orphans, attend to the weak and needy, be just in commercial dealings, shun fraud, offer neighbourly assistance, honour and serve parents, maintain the bonds of kith and kin, and to stop the murder of infant girls for fear of economic hardship or a supposed humiliation they may later bring on their family or clan. It also enjoined speaking truthfully, observing justice, acting compassionately, and tending to matters of the Spirit more than worldly things.
That societal obligations and ethics constitute cornerstones of the religion can also be seen in Ja‘far’s reply to the Negus, when the latter asked about the sum and substance of the new Islamic faith. The response of Ja’far to the Abyssinian Negus essentialises the Quranic message and enshrines its core teachings:
‘O King, we were a people steeped in ignorance, worshipping idols, eating carrion, committing indecencies, cutting-off kinship ties, mistreating our neighbours, and the strong would devour the weak. Thus we were, till God sent us a Messenger from among our own midst, one whose lineage, truth, trustworthiness and clemency we knew. He called us to God’s oneness and worship, and to renounce the stones and the idols that we and our fathers worshipped. He commanded us to speak the truth, to fulfil our promises, respect kinship ties and the rights of neighbours, and refrain from crimes and bloodshed. He forbade us from acting indecently, lying, devouring the wealth of orphans, and slandering chaste women. He ordered us to worship God alone and not ascribe partners to Him. He commanded us to pray, give charity and fast (and he enumerated other acts of Islam). So we confessed his truth, believed in him, and followed him in what he brought … For such reasons have our people turned on us and persecuted us, to make us revert to the worship of idols instead of the worship of God alone.’6
Thus there’s a certain core humanity which may be said to accompany, or even precede, religiosity, which the Qur’an includes in the overall concept of religion and faith.
CAN TAWHID BE LEARNT IN FIVE MINUTES?
So where are we heading with this? Well no doubt ‘aqidah does come first. Without assenting to the core six beliefs listed at the start of the chapter, one cannot said to have ‘submitted’; i.e. one isn’t as yet a Muslim. But those who confine Islam to little more than dogma or ‘aqidah, usually accompanied by an obsessions with a handful of external acts, do themselves and those they imprudently confront with their offbeat view, much disservice. The alleged justification for the focus is that the Prophet ﷺ spent ten years (thirteen, if we include the first three secretive years) in Makkah calling to tawhid – to God’s oneness. But to assume from this that ‘aqidah is all that was called to, or to downplay the spiritual and ethical dimensions of the Makkan Revelations has become quite the badge of a false Salafism in our times. Devoid of its spiritual or social concerns, ‘aqidah comes first tends to foster a cold, puritanical Islam stripped of its compassion, beauty and depth; as has been plain for all to see over these past three or four decades.
In this flawed sense, ‘aqidah comes first – its tone of smug superiority often unmistakable, and its small-minded assumption that it alone possesses the truth of tawhid that all others lack – has become more than a belief. It has become an unquestionable mantra where the act of believing is now more important than the content itself. It’s so dogmatically held that to disagree with it not only undermines the distorted truth, but is seen as an attack on the salaf themselves. This is no mere playground squabble of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’ Instead, it’s a case of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong, and your wrongness threatens my identity and my group affiliation.’ To suggest we need to be nuanced in this, or that there’s a broad way and a more focused way of looking at the issue, is to invite scorn, contempt and rejection.
In trying to redress the balance, some have tried to point out that people in the prophetic era learned tawhid in the space of five or ten minutes. This attempt at a corrective has, however, met with fierce backlash. Yet it can’t be denied that people did meet or hear the Prophet ﷺ for a short time, then accepted Islam there and then. There was no one month’s course on tawhid or a ten year diploma after which you graduate and have a right to be seen as a true muwahhid. Conversion to Islam, and to the acceptance of tawhid, often happened on the spot. Such was its blazing simplicity and brilliance, and such was the sheer magnetic power of the Qur’an, and the Prophet ﷺ, to attract hearts. Take the case of the lady Khadijah, for instance. As soon as the Prophet ﷺ had received the first revelation and had descended the slopes of the mountain, still trembling with fear; and no sooner did he tell his wife what had happened, she comforted him, reassured him and then believed in him on Day One. Ibn Hisham wrote:
‘Khadijah b. Khuwaylid believed in him, accepted as true what he brought from Allah and helped him in his affair. She was the first to believe in Allah and His Messenger and the truth of what he came with. Through her, Allah relieved the burdens of his Prophet ﷺ. Nor did he hear anything that hurt him of rejection or charges of falsehood which saddened him, except that Allah consoled him through her when he returned to her – reassuring him, comforting him, affirming his truth and down-playing peoples’ opposition. May Allah, exalted is He, have mercy upon her.’7
Another example is that of a young sayyiduna ‘Ali. The sirah records: The next day ‘Ali b. Abi Talib came as the two of them were praying and asked: ‘What is this, O Muhammad?’ He replied: ‘It is Allah’s religion that he has chosen for Himself and sent His Messengers with. I call you unto Allah, the One without any partner, and to worship Him, and that you reject al-Lat and al-‘Uzza.’ ‘Ali said: ‘This is a matter I have never heard of before today. I cannot decide a matter until I discuss it with Abu Talib.’ The Messenger of Allah ﷺ didn’t want his secret revealed before he announced the matter publicly, so he said: ‘O ‘Ali, if you do not accept Islam, then conceal this matter.’ ‘Ali tarried that night till Allah cast Islam into his heart. Early next morning he went to Allah’s Messenger ﷺ and asked him what he should do. He replied: ‘Bear witness that there is no god but Allah, alone without associate, and reject al-Lat and al-‘Uzza, and disavow any partners.’ ‘Ali did so and became a Muslim.8
TRUE TAWHID, BLINKERED TAWHID & THE REALITIES OF FAITH
The point in the above two accounts is that Islam was accepted without a lengthy discussion on tawhid; and examples like these abound in the sirah. The reason being is that the essence of tawhid is crystal clear: give up all forms of idolatry or ways of setting-up a partner with Allah, and worship God alone. Although the Qur’an uses various terms related to the practice of idolatry (e.g., taghut, jibt, asnam, and awthan), the principal theological term to designate the broader concept of worshipping deities other than God, or alongside God, is shirk (the root sh-r-k: to ‘set-up a partner’ with someone else in a sale or some other matter).
So is tawhid a ten minute thing or a ten year one? Well it is probably only ten minutes if one is calling a person to the bare bones of tawhid and to the six articles or pillars of iman; outlining for them what it essentially entails to become a Muslim. And quite often that’s more than enough for someone to get started on their journey. But ten years or more if we’re talking about actualising a rooted and transformative grasp of tawhid and avoiding, not just overt idolatry, but the subtle idolatry where the human will becomes divided between the Divine and between created things – be they worldly means (asbab), forces of nature, an over-veneration of holy men, or making gods out of our desire or whims. For idolatry, as presented in the Qur’an, is not only about images or stone idols, but with any contamination of God’s oneness, via an unwarranted association of created things as partners with God’s divinity, uniqueness, or sovereignty and lordship. That is, the Qur’an doesn’t employ shirk as a label for one specific act or belief system, but as a broader term representing any and every human folly to deify without just cause; to wrongfully idolise the things around us, or within us, and hence veil a direct encounter with al-Haqq, the Ultimate Reality.
Again, a lifetime or more if by it we mean deepening tawhid from rejecting overt partners, rivals, compares, or equals with Allah, to an intensification of perception that all acts emanate from Him alone, grasping this through spiritual witnessing (mushahadah) – as the Prophet ﷺ clarified when asked concerning spiritual excellence (ihsan): ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him.’9 While the first level of tawhid opens the door of salvation, this degree enriches the heart such that the fruits of this witnessing are a complete and unwavering surrender to Allah, a wholehearted love for and in Him, complete reliance of Him, and a turning away from all creation so that the heart neither hopes in, nor fears, nor seeks ultimate intimacy or reassurance, save in Him. It is for the human will never to be at odds with the Divine Will, but to be in harmony with it. Such is the loving surrender of Islam; such is true tawhid. All this comes under the sought-after rubric of haqa’iq al-iman – cultivating the deeper ‘realities of faith’.
And herein lies the tragedy of a very reductionist, blinkered view of tawhid. To cling to an Islam which offers so very little guidance on how to nurture the heart upon true tawhid, upon the haqa’iq al-iman, due to suffering from delusions of grandeur as already being ‘the vanguards of tawhid’, is to stand with one’s face to the wall.
Shaykh Ahmad b. Ibrahim al-Wasiti: ‘Many of those who have been veiled from the realities of the science of tawhid, even if they be learned in the Sunnah and its details, are veiled because they only sought to acquire the legal rulings from the Sunnah. Their resolves fell well short in seeking from the Sunnah the haqa’iq al-iman. Had they sought it with sound intent, they would have reached it. But instead they directed themselves to love of this world.’10
O Allah! Grant our hearts openings to know You, the sincerity to draw closer to You, the will to seek only You, and the patience to tread the path to You
1. Muslim, no.8.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.4993.
3. Al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 11:178.
4. Ibn Majah, no.62. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1997), 1:37-38.
5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:401.
6. Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, 1:270-71; Ahmad, no.1740. Its chain was gradedas sahih in al-Albani, Fiqh al-Sirah (Dar al-Hadithah, 1965),121.
7. Ibn Hisham al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Damietta: Dar Ibn Rajab, 2013), 1:198.
8. Ibn Kathir, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1976), 1:428.
9. Muslim, no.8.
10. Al-Wasiti, Madkhal Ahl al-Fiqh wa’l-Lisan ila Maydan al-Mahabbah wa’l-‘Irfan (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islami, 2002), 50.
This is one of the shorter essays in my forthcoming book, God-willing, entitled: Modernity & Muslimness: Sixty Short Essays that Should Matter. As part of the introduction to the book, I wrote: In his travelogue on Islam in late nineteenth century England, Asmay started by saying: ‘Eight years ago, a faint sound began to come from the West to the East. Realising that the sound was significant, the Muslim umma sat up and took notice, cupping their hands to their ears. Giving all their attention to the sound, they could only make out this sentence, “Islam has started to appear in England.”’1 This book and its essays are a continuation of that sound, that faint murmur, which has only grown louder and more significant with the passage of time.
ONE COULD ARGUE that Islam, despite what we are being led to believe, is actually a modern success story. Now this might sound strange to some, perhaps to many. So let me explain:
No doubt, media portrayals are negative, dark and gloomy. And of course, events around the world involving Muslims, or at least the ones we tend to hear about and that get most media exposure, don’t lend themselves to much joy or cheer. So perhaps we as Muslims could be forgiven for feeling somewhat overwhelmed; feeling like little corks bobbing up and down in a raging sea of Western liberal, modernity. Yet despite this, if we look at it more broadly, Islam is actually the unsung success story of modernity.
How is that?
Well let’s ask ourselves what religion is for? That will indicate how well or not Islam is doing. Here, there’s much to give thanks for, much to admire about our current situation; and there’s much more to look forward to in the coming future too – God willing.
Islam, as religion, must be judged in terms of: Does it still offer authentic, practical guidance for salvation? The answer to that is a resounding, Yes! It certainly does.
In fact, Islam continues to be relevant and practical to a growing number of people, and accessible to them too. And one significant reason for this is that Islam is universal. The Prophet ﷺ said: bu’ithtu li’l-nasi kaffah – ‘I have been sent to the whole of humanity.’2 This echoes what we read in the Holy Qur’an: Say [O Muhammad]: ‘O mankind! Truly I am the Messenger of Allah to you all.’ [Q.7:158]
Islam, therefore, has the inbuilt capacity to be native to any soil. And we Muslims must remember this, and not practice Islam in a way which blurs this universality, or makes it appear that it is an Asian or an Arab thing. It ought to be remembered that one of Islam’s great founding stories is of a gentile, Egyptian mother; Hagar, along with her Hebrew Canaanite young child; Ishmael, and their inculturation into the native Arabian landscape, language and cultural life. That’s to say that Islam has the socio-spiritual technology to become native to any soil.
Another reason it’s a success story has to do with numbers. What the data shows is that the number of Muslims is increasing here in Europe, and that by 2030, there will be more Muslims than Christians in Britain.
Related to this is the number of people who continue to convert to Islam, despite media negativity and Islamophobia; and inspite of us born Muslims being asleep to our higher vocation of living and spreading the truths of tawhid. Islam’s message of tawhid, healing and hope, with its universality, still has a powerful appeal to people.
Yet another proof of its success is that its mosques are overflowing. Part of the reason for this, in fact a significant part, is because Islam remains practical and liveable today, even in the modern West, when other religions are capitulating to the juggernaut of modernity, or simply being stamped out by it.
All in all, then – and all praise is for God – Islam as a religion is doing what it says on the tin. It is still offering practical, liveable ways of connecting with God and living godly lives, even amidst today’s turbulence.
1. In Yusuf Samih Asmay: Islam in Victorian Liverpool: An Ottoman Account of Britain’s First Mosque Community (Swansea: Claritas Books, 2021), 49.