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 UmmShibrs) 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.
THE GREAT SAGE AND scholar of early Islam, al-Hasan al-Basri, once remarked: هِمَّةُ الْعُلَمَاءِ الرِّعَايَةُ وَهِمَّةُ السُّفَهَاءِ الرِّوَايَةُ – ‘The concern of the scholar is to cultivate, the concern of the foolish is to [merely] narrate.’1
One hadith foretells: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted and the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet ﷺ replied: الرَّجلُالتَّافِهُ يتَكَلَّمُفيأمرِ العامَّةِ – ‘The lowly, contemptible one who shall speak out about public affairs.’2
In the topsy-turviness that characterises social deterioration in the end of days, we have been cautioned about the Ruwaybidah. Scholarly commentaries do not specify exactly who the Ruwaybidah are, but do point out their traits. Lexically, being the diminutive of the word rabidah (‘lowly’, ‘despicable’, ‘worthless’), the Ruwaybidah are even lower than worthless: they are utterly worthless. These are people who are incapable of rising up to nobility, lack integrity and, above all, possess little more than a glimmer of religious knowledge.3 In spite of this, they feel to speak out about socio-political affairs beyond their pay grade. They eagerly give fatwas and act as social commentators, despite a lack of learning. And they promote themselves as sincere advisors to the ummah, while having no spiritual grounding and still being wet behind the ears.
Our social media age is one wherein controversies garner huge followings and where, like never before, even the talentless, worthless ruwaybidah may shine. From the embarrassing ignorance of self-proclaimed da’wah-men, through to the tragic rise of maverick pseudo-scholars and muftis, social media is awash with those who thrive on fitnah and controversy.
It might even be said to have birthed the Muslim “controversialist” – one who craves attention through stirring up quarrelsome egos against the ‘ulema, or by courting highly contentious or dubious positions on theology or law – especially ones that ignore or contravene a well-established scholarly consensus (ijma’). The Golden Rule was expressed by Ibn Taymiyyah, when describing the tell tale signs of the heterodox innovators: وَشِعَارُ هَذِهِ الْفِرَقِ مُفَارَقَةُ الْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ ، فَمَنْ قَالَ بِالْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ – ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘. But whoever speaks with the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘ is from Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama‘ah.’4
Turning Facebook into Disgracebook, or turning Instagram into Fitnahgram, may help gain us a larger following or more likes. It may be a winning formula in terms of our murky desires for self-promotion. It might even assuage an ego desperate for attention and self-glory. But such insincerity will corrupt hearts and damage whatever little relationship we have with our Lord. Such dark and devious schism-mongering is wicked enough in itself. But when one adds to it the corrupting nature of certain social media algorithms, like that of Facebook’s which exploit the brain’s attraction to divisiveness; and how these algorithms are designed to create bubbles around us that keep us insulated from different viewpoints, thereby notching up intolerance levels, then it is an alarming case of darkness upon darkness! Worse still is that such controversialists know that they have a hungry audience waiting for them out there on social media: eager to devour their malignant content, revel in the latest schism, or gloat over how they and their clique are discovering ‘truths’ which have been veiled from even the scholarly consensus! The dal mudill, the misguided and misguiding, all too often make appropriate bedfellows.
As for using the religion to get noticed, or become a controversialist, or for other types of egotistical self-promotion, then those in whose hearts godliness still flickers, and whose fitrah still flinches at the thought of hypocrisy, will surely profit from the following exhortation:
Imam Muslim has recorded an incident which took place during one of the early Muslim fitnahs, or political controversies: Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas was tending his sheep and camels when his son, ‘Umar, came to him. When Sa’d saw him, he remarked: “I seek refuge in Allah from the evil of this rider.” When the son dismounted, he said to him: “You tend your sheep and camels while people are arguing over who is to rule?” Sa’d struck ‘Umar on the chest and then said: “Be quiet! For I heard Allah’s Messenger ﷺ say: إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْعَبْدَ التَّقِيَّ الْغَنِيَّ الْخَفِيَّ – ‘Allah loves the servant who is God-fearing, content and hidden [not known].’”5
I began with the saying of al-Hasan al-Basri, so let me end with another one of his wisdoms. He once entered upon a group of people who were disputing, to which he said:مَا هَؤُلاءِ إِلَّا قَوْمٌ مَلُّوا الْعِبَادَةَ ، وَوَجَدُوا الْكَلامَ أَهْوَنَ عَلَيْهِمْ ، وَقَلَّ وَرَعُهُمْ ، فَتَكَلَّمُوا – ‘Such are ones who’ve grown bored of worship; speaking has become easy for them, their piety has diminished, hence they talk.’6
I think that probably sums-up the psychology behind so much of our religious controversies on social media. And Allah knows best.
In one hadith that is so incredibly relevant to our times and our plight – which pinpoints the causes for why Muslims shall suffer collective humiliation and weakness, and what the cure for such socio-political degradation is – we read: ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, narrates; that he heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ saying:
‘When you deal in ‘inah transactions, hold on to the tails of cows, are content with farming, and abandon jihad, Allah shall permit your humiliation and He will not lift it from you, until you return back to your religion.’1
Let’s unpack the hadith and break it down into bite size chunks, so to speak, in order to better deliberate over the lessons and implications embedded in it:
إِذَا تَبَايَعْتُمْ بِالْعِينَةِ – ‘WHEN YOU DEAL IN ‘INAH TRANSACTIONS’:
‘Inah is a form of a sale which, on the face of it seems completely legitimate as far as Islamic law is concerned, but in reality it is merely a cunning legal ‘trick’ (hiylah) to make money through usury/interest (riba). It is to sell something at a price to be paid at a later date (i.e. deferred payment), but to then buy it back at a lower price for cash on the spot. The upshot is that the initial buyer walks away with cash, but must pay back a higher amount at a later date.
So, as an example, Bilal needs to borrow £500 for one year from Zayd, but Zayd wants £600 back; which, of course, Bilal cannot agree to because that would be riba – interest! So Zayd suggests the following: Zayd sells Bilal a laptop for £600 to be paid for at the end of twelve months. That done, Zayd then buys the laptop back from Bilal, there and then, for £500 cash on the spot. The end result is that Bilal walks away with £500 cash; however, at the end of one year, he owes Zayd £600. Whilst the two transactions, taken separately, are each lawful and sound, combined together, they amount to Zayd lending Bilal £500, but Bilal having to pay Zayd back £600 a year later – the extra £100 being riba. Such a legal ‘trick’, with the aim of skirting around the Islamic rules concerning the prohibition of interest, is considered forbidden (haram) by most jurists.
Although the person may consider themselves shrewd or clever at having found a loophole in the law, or at having evaded the shari‘ah ban on riba; in reality, all they have achieved is combining a sinful act with trying to cheat or deceive God! How clever is that?! The attitude is worse than the actual deed. When such an action; or indeed, such an attitude, becomes widespread in society, it doesn’t take the religious imagination much to realise the possible consequences.
As a side point: Classical Muslim jurists recognised two types of hiylah – legal ‘tricks’ or ‘stratagems’. One used to circumvent a divine order or divine aim, the other for ta‘lim al-makhraj: providing an exit for one in difficulty, all the while keeping Allah’s commands and the purpose of the law uppermost in mind. For most legalists, the first is the forbidden type of hiylah; the second, the lawful type. Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘If the aim is good then the hiylah is also good, if it is bad then the hiylah is also bad. If the aim is obedience and worship then the hiylah is likewise: if the aim is disobedience or iniquity so is the hiylah.‘2 In other words, the legality of a hiylah is tied to the individual purpose it serves.
وَأَخَذْتُمْ أَذْنَابَ الْبَقَرِ – ‘HOLD ON TO THE TAILS OF COWS’
This is a figurative expression, referring to how – in pre-modern societies – a farmer who ploughed the land would walk behind the cow or ox, driving it on. Hence it is like holding on to the tail of a cow. And as we shall soon see below, this isn’t a censure or blame of farming or ploughing the land, per se. But it is a censure of becoming so preoccupied with one’s job or vocation, that it becomes of greater concern than works of faith and preparing for the afterlife.
وَرَضِيتُمْ بِالزَّرْعِ – ‘CONTENT WITH FARMING’
This is similar to the above, in that it is a rebuke of becoming so engrossed with farming and tilling the land, to the extent that this worldly matter is of greater concern, or greater priority, than Allah and the afterlife. This is particularly so when we prefer devoting our time and energy to our jobs or other worldly goals, over and above jihad – striving and sacrificing – for the sake of Allah. We read in the Qur’an: يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَا لَكُمْ إِذَا قِيلَ لَكُمْ انفِرُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ اثَّاقَلْتُمْ إِلَى الْأَرْضِ – O you who believe! What is it with you that when you are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah you cling heavily to the earth [Q.9:38]; that is, you show a reluctance; an aversion, even, clutching instead to a life of ease, comfort and materialism. The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Whoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’3
The verse continues by asking: أَرَضِيتُمْ بِالْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا مِنْ الْآخِرَةِ – Do you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? [Q.9:38]; i.e., as one scholar wrote in explanation to this part of the verse: ‘The reaction is like that of someone who is pleased with the world and strives his utmost in it, having no care for the Afterlife. It is like he doesn’t really believe in it.’4
The verse concludes: فَمَا مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا فِي الْآخِرَةِ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌ – But little is the comfort of this life as compared with the Hereafter. [Q.9:38] Unto that, the believer holds.
وَتَرَكْتُمْ الْجِهَادَ – ‘ABANDON JIHAD’
That is, forsaking the duty of jihad wherein lies the strength, honour and glory of the religion. Thus one does not wage jihad (or even desire to do so) for Allah’s sake: neither with one’s wealth, one’s physical self, or one’s tongue in defence of revealed truths – not a military jihad against the enemies of Al-Rahman, nor a spiritual jihad against one’s hawa, nafs or shaytan.5
سَلَّطَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكُمْ ذُلًّ – ‘ALLAH SHALL PERMIT YOUR HUMILIATION.’
Which is to say that when people engage in acts of disobedience and ignominy, Allah will afflict them with humiliation, dishonour and disgrace, since: al-jaza’ min jins al-‘aml – ‘The recompense is proportional to the deed.’ Indeed, every time we disobey the command of the Prophet ﷺ, we expose ourselves to some share of humiliation. The Prophet ﷺ cautioned: ‘Humiliation and ignominy is for one who opposes my command.’6 This echoes the Holy Qur’an, which warns us in no uncertain terms: Let those who oppose his order beware lest an affliction befall them or lest there visits them a painful punishment. [Q.24:63]
So when people try to evade the prohibition of riba through legal trickery and, by extension, evade other commands or prohibitions of the religion; and when they are so absorbed in worldly pursuits, giving them precedence over religious obligations or working for the afterlife; and when they give up jihad for Allah’s sake, then Allah will allow lowliness and humiliation to be inflicted upon them at the hands of other nations – a sad reality that has already occurred.
In fact, whenever a believing community or nation begin to change themselves from putting their religious duties above all else, to making them play second fiddle to worldly goals and consumerist ambitions, then this is only unleashing the genie from the bottle, and a change in fortunes from good to bad is the only inevitable outcome. The Qur’an speaks to this reality, declaring: That is because Allah never changes the blessings He has bestowed on a people until they change that which is in themselves. [Q.8:53]
Likewise, whenever wrongdoing and disobedience to Allah become endemic in society, despite the presence of some saintly souls and godly worshippers in it, the Holy Qur’an tells us that this is inviting tyrants and wrongdoers to be given the reigns of political authority, as a consequence of the sinful behaviour of the masses: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [Q.6:129]
In 28H (649CE), the first Muslim naval expedition was launched against Cyprus, which was under the Byzantine empire’s rule; now in the twilight of its years. The Muslim army quickly overran the small Byzantine garrison and its people were soon paying tribute to the Muslim victors. On seeing the ease with which this once powerful empire lay defeated, Abu’l-Darda began to cry. When asked why he wept on the day Allah had given victory to Islam and the Muslims, he said: ‘Woe to you, O Jubayr! How insignificant a people become to Allah when they neglect His commands. Here is a nation which was once mighty, powerful and had dominion. Then they neglected Allah’s commands, now look what has become of them.’7
And this ummah will never escape its humiliation or its fall from grace … hatta tarji‘u ila dinikum: until you return back to your religion.
حَتَّى تَرْجِعُوا إِلَى دِينِكُمْ – ‘UNTIL YOU RETURN BACK TO YOUR RELIGION.’
Lessons of history may, in many cases, require interpretation. In this case the lesson here is spelt out in simple words, for all to read: That this humiliation will continue to plague us until we return back to establishing our religion and fulfilling our religious duties – as Allah intended, in the way He intended. And no amount of secularising, liberalising or compromising on Islamic norms will change this servile reality. In fact, it will only make it worse.
What is required is nothing less than courage and a prophetic uprising in order toreturn back to the religion. This entails that we first and foremost honour Allah by revering His orders and prohibitions; work for the Hereafter and give it priority over earthly aims or acquisitions; and wisely and courageously engage the various types of jihad that Allah has obligated us with. In fact, the matter is more dire than most people realise. For the upshot of doing those things spoken of in the above hadith is so grave that the Prophet ﷺ: ‘likened it to apostatising and leaving the religion.’8 The Holy Qur’an says: Say: If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your tribe, the wealth you have gained, the trade you fear may slacken, and the homes you love – if they are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger and jihad in His cause, then wait until Allah brings about His command. Allah guides not the corrupt. [Q.9:24]
The truth of the matter is that when we become too comfy in the consumerist world; when we allow the dunya to distract us from our religious obligations, which includes the duty of jihad; and as we get more and more entangled in the monoculture’s deceptive mind control in a way that makes us servile and numbs our soul, then this is the destruction that is meant in the verse: And do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. [Q.2:195] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, may Allah be pleased with him, said: ‘This verse was revealed about us, a group of the Ansar. When Allah gave victory to His Prophet and made Islam dominant, we said: “Come, let us stay with our wealth and properties in order to improve it.” It was then that Allah, mighty and majestic is He, sent down the verse: Spend in the cause of Allah, and do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. [Q. 2:195] To cast ourselves into destruction by our own hands meant we stayed with our wealth and properties, and neglected jihad.’9
Let’s close with this thought. Given the confusion and intra-Muslim squabbling over the best way out of our subjugation and socio-political malaise, it could be that there are only two questions which really need asking. Despite us Muslims having tried the various isms and ideologies which others have demanded we follow – nationalism, Marxism, capitalism, and now liberalism – are we as an ummah still humiliated? And does the above hadith offer us a clear-cut answer and method of how to reverse our fortunes? The answer to both questions is in the affirmative. That being so, isn’t it high time we buck the trend, put all of the political philosophising to bed, and earnestly pursue the ways of the Lord?
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ahmad, no.4987; Abu Dawud, no.3462. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chains to be excellent (jayyid) in Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 29:30; al-Albani analysed the hadith and its many chains, giving it a grading of sahih, in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), 1:1:42; no.11.
2. Ighathat al-Lahfan (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1999), 659.
3. Muslim, no.1910.
4. Al-Sa‘di, Taysir Karim al-Rahman (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2012), 374.
In her Christmas Day speech, some were half expecting the Queen to describe this year as annus horribilis, a horrible year, as she described 1992. Her speech, as it turned out, was a rather upbeat, religiously peppered message of thanks and hope (unless, that is, you were watching Channel 4’s ‘deepfake’ irreverent send up of it).
For me, 2020 started off on a note of sadness. In June of the previous year, my father passed away from cancer, rahimahullah, and my mother – having just completed her ‘iddah, or ‘mourning period’ – was struggling. The light of love and laughter that could always be seen in her was fading, and life without my father – her soul mate for almost sixty years – was starting to truly sink in. By January 2020, her sorrow precipitated the onset of acute kidney failure and on March 8th of this year, she too returned to Allah. From my earliest memories, till the end, the atmosphere in my parents’ home was, by God’s grace, always one of love, laughter, ease and adab. And all whom Allah allowed to bring into their orbit – family, friend or stranger – would find themselves being bathed in such love and kindness. Ours was a small family: two parents, two children. My older sister, a person who was known never to harbour a grudge or enmity against any soul, died in 2008; cancer was the culprit there as well. May Allah have mercy upon them, and unite them together in His paradise and presence. Amin!
By the end of January, while caring for my late mother, the Covid-19 virus had made its way from China to our shores. By March 8th, the day my mother died, there were almost three hundred cases of Coronavirus in the UK. On the third day after my mother’s funeral, following three busy days of relatives, friends and neighbours coming to offer their comfort and condolences, my family and I made a collective decision to voluntarily self isolate. By 23 March, the whole country was in lockdown. The humbling pandemic made face masks and social distancing the new normal, and has upended almost every aspect of the world in which we live. On plagues and pandemics, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘If you hear of an outbreak of plague in a land, do not enter it; and if plague breaks out in a land where you are, do not leave it.’1 Of the many Muslim voices that tried to help ease any of the anxieties or agitations we believers may have harboured, Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s Perspective on the Pandemic was by far the most socially insightful and spiritually intelligent. When it came to persuasive and practical fiqhi advice on Covid related issues, the commendable, yet relatively unknown British Board of Scholars and Imams offered UK Muslims the sane and much sought-after guidance (including qualified fiqh responses to common concerns about taking Covid vaccines: read here).
A month after lockdown was announced here in Britain, Ramadan began for us Muslims across the world. And how different it was! With lockdown putting a halt to gatherings in mosques for the five daily prayers and the tarawih prayer in the Ramadan nights, as well as large iftar dinners with family and friends, these were unscripted times. Without the communal energy Ramadan supplies individual believers with, this was going to be a bit of a go-it-alone Ramadan. With Allah’s grace, most Muslims rose to the occasion and, with good counsel from our scholars reminding us of the immense virtues and religious benefits of ‘uzlah – spiritual ‘isolation’ or ‘solitude’ – many dug in deep to muster the spiritual concentration needed to be present with the Qur’an and be alone with the One. About solitude (not to be confused with loneliness), sayyiduna ‘Umar advised: ‘Take your share of ‘uzlah.’2 And when asked in what salvation could be found, the Prophet ﷺ replied by saying: ‘Control your tongue, stay in your home and weep over your sins.’3 Ramadan was also the time the Cambridge Muslim College began to garner the appreciation it deserves. Its Ramadan Live programme offered a veritable feast of spiritual instruction and inspiration on how best to live the religious life, deepen our degrees of fasting, and cultivate Divine love (you can watch their programme and talks here).
A day or two after Ramadan, George Floyd, an unarmed black American, was unjustly killed by a policeman using lethal force while arresting him – a tragic event that’s becoming a tale as old as time. This triggered protests and riots in America, and here in Britain too; and it again brought to the fore the question of whether our society is institutionally racist: whether discrimination on the basis of race or colour is systemically embedded in the criminal justice system, political power, education, housing, healthcare, and other such institutions or organisations in society. I wrote about this in On British Muslims & Racism: Do Black Lives Matter? There I concluded by saying that we ought to support Black Lives Matter as a cause, rather than a movement; striving to tackle racism and to improve racial equality in Britain. And that we Muslims should support any grassroots programme that is working for a more just and fairer Britain for all people, not just for our particular tribe, as per the teaching of the Holy Qur’an: Help one another in righteousness and piety, but do not help one another in sin and transgression. [Q.5:2]
As Muslims, it must be the Revelation which shapes our social outlook; and it must be the universal Quranic archetypes of good and bad, right and wrong, which animate our social justice activism. In fact, any Muslim activism which ignores how seeking Allah’s approval and assistance in social change is tied to certain moral imperatives, forfeits the right to be labelled ‘Muslims activism’, and is simply activism undertaken by Muslims. The Qur’an must be our prime driver. But BLM as a movement and the Critical Race Theory it is embedded in is, I submit, out of step with even the basic Quranic vision of society and its strategy of righting social wrongs (a statement I hope to explore and justify in a future post, God willing). That the BLM founders are self-professed ‘trained marxists’; that it seeks to tear down the family structure; or that it currently divides more than it unites; that criticism of it invokes the most vicious cancel culture or accusations of being a racist; that white people are now all deemed to be in the grip of ‘white privilege‘, which itself is just the tip of the iceberg of them being intrinsically and incurably racist – all of this should at least cause an eyebrow to be raised and the religious mind to be very concerned. Where is the righteousness or piety in any of this, such that it could be supported as a movement? And yet Black people in the UK are, according to the statistics and data, disproportionately aggrieved against because of their colour. What is the solution? What are the underlying drivers? What policies need to thoughtfully and wisely be rolled out by government or local authorities? I don’t know the answer to any of these. But I do know that one extremism cannot be corrected with another extreme; that’s for sure.
Of course there can be, and often is, a vast difference between a movement’s founders and ideologues, and the rank and file who function as foot soldiers. Many of your day-to-day BLM activists may not share, let alone even know, the core philosophy underpinning the movement. They may simply be angry, disillusioned people who feel that they must raise their voices in civic protest against the social injustices and racial inequalities that they see or witness, or feel are systemic in society. And only a fool or an out and out bigot would deny there aren’t any such injustices or inequalities. The Muslim scholarly tradition is, however, predicated upon conserving whatever is best in any given system, collective or society, and advocates addressing and rectifying imbalances and injustices, rather than desiring to topple and tear the whole structure down in the childish and forlorn hope that something better will arise out of the ashes! And Muslim activism – whether here as minorities in the West, or in Muslim majority countries – would do well to reflect this.
On the topic of racism or ethnic aggression, by September 2020, we had more proof of China’s racism and repression against its Uighur Muslim population. Satellite images revealed nearly four-hundred detention centres and political indoctrination camps in which over a million Uighurs have been detained, as part of a bid to ethnically cleanse Uighur social, cultural and religious identity from China. Little has been said by political leaders, Muslim or otherwise, one assumes, in large part, because China economically ingratiates itself to an ever growing number of countries and organisations; and one customarily doesn’t bite the hand that feeds it – nor, it seems, make any significant statement of political outrage, not even if it be just a little whimper.
Five years on, and Yemen 2020 is still the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. While charities have been working relentlessly to supply food, medicine and other essentials – a small, but highly effective charity called Forgotten Women being one of them; with aid workers on the ground – Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been bombing Yemen ceaselessly, creating and worsening this grotesque carnage of death, destruction, famine and human suffering; all in the name of their geo-political aims. British-made arms lucratively sold to the Saudis have played a major role in the carnage, famine and the quarter of a million people killed due to the fighting, famine or humanitarian crisis.
While we are on the subject of the UAE, it seems its hands can be drenched in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemenis; or it can have hostility towards its Muslim neighbours, but it is okay as of mid-September, 2020 for it to make peace with Israel? Politics, trade, arms deals and suspicion of the Iranians can, it seems, make strange bed fellows. That said, our du‘as are for the guidance, welfare and rectification of all the Muslim rulers and heads of state; and that, in these politically difficult times, we pray that they not be so spineless when it comes to the message of tawhid and the glory of God.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.5728.
2. Cited in al-Khattabi, al-‘Uzlah (Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 1990), 70.
3. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2408, saying that the hadith is hasan sahih.
Q. Is it true that Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and classical Hanbali scholars allowed Muslims to offer Christmas greeting to Christians? Based on this, a few fatwas today now allow us to wish our Christian friends, family or colleagues a Merry Christmas. Is this correct?
A. I’ll address the issue of whether Hanbali jurists allowed offering Christmas greetings to Christians (and by extension, congratulating other non-Muslims on their religious festivals) in these following points:
Firstly: Whatever the religious response, it mustn’t undermine the importance of fostering good relationships with non-Muslims, nor the desire to nurture a collective culture of tolerance, conviviality and courtesy: God doesn’t forbid you in terms of those who neither wage war against you on account of your religion, nor drive you from your homes, from being kind to them and treating them justly. God loves the just. God only forbids you from befriending those who fight against you on account of your religion, or drive you from your homes, or aid others in your expulsion. Whoever befriends them, those are the unjust. [Q.60:8-9]
Secondly: We must thank our scholars for their concern to facilitate ease for us, as per our Prophet’s repeated orders ﷺ: bashshiru wa la tunaffiru wa yassiru wa la tu‘assiru – ‘Give glad tidings, do not repel people; make things easy, do not make things difficult.’1 To offer the Muslim masses a more doable, easier fiqh ruling, provided it is a valid one according to the canons of Islamic law, is a sure sign of wise, sagacious scholarship. Imam Sufyan al-Thawri asserted: ‘In our view, knowledge entails issuing a legal concession (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’2 Another more contemporary way of looking at it is expressed in this Muradian Contention: ‘Preaching: this is an age for rukhas, not for ‘aza’im, and for conservatism, not for liberalism.’3
Thirdly: Of course, this method of tabshir and taysir – of facilitating good news and ease must be rooted in solid shari‘ah legal principles. It cannot be a case of bypassing or blurring well-established fiqh rulings. Nor can it be a case of the means justifying the ends. So while: inna’l-dina yusr – ‘Indeed this religion is [one of] ease,’4 we must ensure that the principle of ease does not become one of adulteration. Given the highly complex time we live in, there is bound to be well-intentioned errors from some of the scholars, for which other jurists and theologians must offer them sincere corrective advice. The balance comes to us in this saying of sayyiduna ‘Ali: ‘The scholar is not the one to cause people to despair of God’s mercy, nor to give them licence to sin.’5
Fourthly: As for the actual issue, then over the past decade or so, certain fatwas have been issued allowing Muslims to offer and exchange Christmas greetings with non-Muslims. Some are general in nature, arguing for the permissibility of giving Christmas greeting based on the fact that the Prophet ﷺ exchanged gifts with non-Muslims and encouraged good behaviour towards them. Others add that a Muslim wishing someone a Merry Christmas is done as a matter of custom and cultural goodwill, with no religious overtones intended. It entails no approval (rida) nor acceptance (iqrar) of the correctness of Christianity, for that would undoubtedly be clear disbelief (kufr): They have disbelieved who say: ‘God is Christ, son of Mary.’ [Q.5:72] And: They have disbelieved who say: ‘God is one of three [in a trinity].’ [Q.5:73] Some of these fatwas do make it clear that partaking in actual Christmas celebrations, or getting into the festive mood by having decorations or a Christmas tree, is forbidden.6 Such fatwas that allow Christmas greetings, it should be stressed, have not been without their juristic criticisms, legal deconstructions and fierce scholarly objections.
Fifthly: While such fatwas insist that their scope is limited to giving Christmas greetings, and in no way permit joining in actual celebrations, they also insist that the entire matter of whether to greet, or not to greet, revolves around its legal causation (‘illah): iqrar and rida – in this case, of accepting or approving the validity of the core Christian claim about Jesus’ [alledged] divinity. We are led to believe that classical Muslim jurists, right up until the 9-11 era, when they prohibited offering religious greetings to non-Muslims on their religious holy days and holidays, they did so because these Muslims were doing so out of rida or iqrar, approving the correctness of Christianity, or agreeing to some of its misbeliefs! They say: ‘The All-Merciful has begotten a son!’ You have uttered a monstrous lie at which the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in ruins, that they ascribe unto the All-Merciful a son! [Q.19:88-91] Of course, they insist, this is not the intent with which a Muslim offers Christmas greetings today.
Sixthly: A well-known legal maxim says: al-hukm yuduru ma‘a ‘illatihi wujudan wa ‘adaman – ‘The ruling revolves around the presence or absence of its legal causation.’ In other words, if the factor which gives rise to the ruling no longer exists, the ruling no longer stands. A simpler version states: intifa’ al-hukm li intifa’ ‘illatihi– ‘The ruling ends with the absence of its legal causation.’ When applied to the issue of giving Christmas greetings, it has been argued – and for the most part, rightly so – that when Muslims today wish their co-workers or non-Muslim friends or family a Merry Christmas, there is no rida and no iqrar inherent in their greeting; which is something that even a Christian recipient of such a greeting is clear about too. Therefore, it now becomes permissible. The issue thus seems to be done and dusted. But the question which requires asking is: Is rida or iqrar the actual ‘illah to which classical juristic attitudes on the matter were tied?
Seventhly: Let’s begin to tie the issue of ‘illah to whether or not Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and the classical Hanbali school permitted Christmas greetings? The acclaimed legal theorist (usuli), Shaykh Bin Bayyah, said as part of his reply to the issue of greeting non-Muslims on their celebrations: ‘So there is nothing to prevent an individual Muslim, or an Islamic centre, to congratulate them on this occasion; verbally, or by a card, that doesn’t contain any religious emblem or expression that conflicts with any principle of Islam, such as a cross … Such customary words of congratulations on such occasions don’t entail a consent (iqrar) to their religion, nor any approval (rida) of it. Instead they are words of courtesy that people are [culturally] familiar with.’7
Eighthly: Having said that the basis for its lawfulness is the absence of rida and iqrar, he went on to say: ‘But let’s not forget to mention here that some of the jurists, like Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah and his student, the very learned Ibn al-Qayyim, were staunch in the matter of [Muslims] participating in the festivals of the idolators and the People of the Book. And we are with them in opposing [Muslims] partaking in the religious festivals of the idolators or the People of the Book – just as we observe some heedless Muslims doing in their celebrating Christmas as they celebrate the two Eids; or even more! This is not permitted. We have our celebrations; and they, theirs. But we see no problem in congratulating the people on their religious festivals.’8
Ninthly: The Shaykh brings the Hanbali school into the mix when he states in a postscript to his fatwa: ‘It may be appropriate to add here that greeting non-Muslims is differed upon by the scholars. In the school of Imam Ahmad, there are three reports: prevention, detestability and permissibility. This last stance is the one preferred by Shaykh Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah; for in it there lies a benefit. And this is what we prefer too.’9 Although not explicitly stated, this suggests that Imam Ahmad allows – in one report from him – congratulating non-Muslims on their religious festivities; and that Ibn Taymiyyah, and other jurists in the school, agree with this. And though some contemporary scholars and shaykhs have uncritically accepted this erroneous claim, propagating it as well, it’s far from being the actual case.
Tenthly: That Imam Ahmad and the Hanbalis differ about congratulating non-Muslims is only in the context of non-religious occasions, such as marriage; the birth of a child; moving into a new house; recovering from illness; etc. As for congratulating them on their religious festivals, they categorically state it is forbidden (haram). Let’s cite from some authoritative Hanbali fiqh manuals on the matter, starting with Ibn Muflih’s al-Mubdi‘ which states the different views: ‘On the legality to greet them, offer condolences to them, or visit them, there are two reports … [First:] it is forbidden … Second: permissibility … Third: allowance for an overriding benefit, like hoping for him to accept Islam; which was chosen by Shaykh Taqi al-Din [Ibn Taymiyyah].’10 So while Imam Ahmad had two views on the matter, the school itself has three.
But when shahadatu a‘yadihim, ‘partaking in their religious festivals,’ is listed, either by itself or in conjunction with what was mentioned above of visiting, sending condolences, and other non-religious activities, it is alway stipulated as forbidden. Mar‘i b. Yusuf’s Ghayat al-Muntaha typifies the point: wa haruma tahni’atuhum wa ta‘ziyatuhum wa ‘iyadatuhum wa shahadatu a‘yadihim – ‘And it is prohibited to greet them, give condolences to them, visit them, or partake in their religious celebrations.’11 Thus whilst worldly interactions are differed upon in the law school (madhhab), the issue of religious celebrations are not.
Eleventhly:As for the legal causation, or ‘illah, that gives rise to the ruling and underpins it, for Hanbalis it is not iqrar or rida. Instead, it is ta‘zim – to ‘laud’, ‘venerate’, ‘honour’, ‘esteem’, or ‘respect’ the occasion or festival; even if one doesn’t agree with the religious basis, and is not confused about the falseness of the Christian creed. Al-Bahuti stated: ‘It is prohibited to initiate [greetings of] salams to them … It is forbidden to congratulate them, offer condolences to them, visit them, or partake in their religious celebrations … However it is not forbidden for us to trade with them during it; i.e. their religious festivals, since it entails no respect (ta‘zim) of it.’12 Al-Futuhi stipulated the same about the forbiddance of taking part in such dini festivals, and the allowance of trading with them on such occasions, adding: ‘Because this doesn’t involve any ta‘zim of them.’13
Lastly, Putting things into context, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Section: Regarding congratulating them for marriage, a newborn, return of someone long absent, recovery from an illness, and the like, then the narrations from Imam Ahmad about this differ. He allowed it at one time, but forbade it another time. Speech about this is like that concerning visiting them or offering them condolences; there is no distinction between these two … But as for congratulating them on those specific times and occasions that are symbols of their disbelief, then this is forbidden by agreement (ittifaq); like congratulating them on their religious festivals or their fasts, saying: “Festive greetings to you,” or “Congratulations on this festival,” or the like. This, even if the one saying it were free from any disbelief, it is still from what is prohibited.’14 Which is to say, even if one did not intend iqrar or rida, or even ta‘zim; but instead congratulated them on the occasion, not for the occasion, it is forbidden, though not disbelief. And Allah knows best.
Conclusion: In reply to the question with which we began: Did Imam Ahmad and the Hanbali madhhab permit Muslims to congratulate others during the Christmas festive season? the answer is, it seems, a definite no! And those who have said otherwise have erred in the matter. For the Hanbalis, the prohibition on the issue isn’t because doing so entails an acknowledgement or approval of Christianity’s correctness. But because it involves a form of respect forbidden by the shari‘ah. We may be respectful of Christians (and other non-Muslims) in that we are civil, affable, tolerant, and just towards them. But we cannot, as Muslims, respect any expression, act or symbol of disbelief (kufr): But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified it in your hearts; and has made abhorrent to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. [Q.49:7]
If the legal causation (‘illah) in the other law schools, or in the view of other classical jurists, is also ta‘zim – as it is in the Hanbali school – then it simply will not be possible to offer Christmas greetings; and the matter will be, as Ibn al-Qayyim noted, a point of juristic agreement; a scholarly consensus (ijma‘) of sorts – and thus binding on one and all!
If, however, other madhhabs or jurists hold that the prohibition is tied just to iqrar or rida, then there might be a leeway in offering Christmas greetings. For whenever there is no scholarly consensus (ijma‘) nor juristic agreement on a matter, then the opinion or verdict of any scholar follows this unspoken rule: kalami mu‘lim laysa bi mulzim: ‘My words are instructional, not dictatorial (lit. not binding).’ In other words, a legitimate difference cannot be imposed upon others, or be made into a benchmark issue to determine who is dodgy or not; let alone for cancel culture to be invoked.
Such an investigation into the other madhhabs – on this point – is beyond the scope of this article, and beyond the ability of this author. It’s not just a case of consulting some comparative law manual (fiqh al-muqarin). For such manuals are – as the Shafi‘i faqih and academic, Shaykh al-Afifi once told me – okay on the broad strokes, but often err on the nuances and finer points, or miss them out altogether. No, in order to ascertain what the madhhabs say on such subtle points of law, one must consult highly seasoned jurists of those schools. So I will leave such an inquiry to others, if it hasn’t already been undertaken.
Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa bihi al-tawfiq.
1. Muslim, no.1732.
2. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.
3. Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions 9/73.Rukhas, the plural of rukhsah, while ‘aza’im is plural of ‘azimah – a “strict” religious ruling: a ruling in its original form, without any attendant reason or circumstance that could soften or ease its original force.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.39.
5. As is recorded by al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.
6. Consult: Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta’ fatwa on the issue, which can be read here; and the European Council for Fatwa and Research fatwa (Resolution 3/6), which may be read here.
7. Bin Bayyah, Sina‘at al-Fatwa (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2007), 341.
8. ibid., 341-42.
9. ibid., 342.
10. Al-Mubdi‘ Sharh al-Muqni‘ (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2003), 3:325. Also cf. al-Mardawi’s encyclopaedic al-Insaf fi Ma‘rifat al-Rajihi min al-Khilaf (n.p. 1956), 4:234, where he stated that the second report from Imam Ahmad is that it is not forbidden, but disliked.
11. Mar‘i b. Yusuf al-Karami, Ghayat al-Muntaha Jam‘ al-Iqna‘ wa’l-Muntaha (Kuwait: Mu’assasah Ghuras, 2007), 1:489.