Like the words “diversity,” “freedom,” or “moderate,” “critical thinking” is one of those unexamined buzz-words of our age that is banded around without much errr … critical thinking!
For what differentiates critical thinking from ordinary thinking? Or what level or depth is needed for thinking to be deemed “critical”? Can the critical thinking of two people on the same issue allow two completely opposite conclusions? And who decides what is or is not “critical thinking”?
We tend to refer to critical thinking as a way of approaching a given question that allows us to thoughtfully analyse and dissect the issue; highlight any nuances; and uncover any bias or faulty assumptions, in order to form a judgement or arrive at the best answer. And whilst everyone thinks; not everybody thinks critically, unbiasedly, calmly or rationally. A lot of our thinking is done haphazardly, emotionally, as a reaction and often by being only partially informed.
Critical thinking isn’t just required in academia, the sciences or the executive workplace. We use levels of critical thinking in our everyday life too. Deciding what are healthy food options that falls within our budget, for instance, requires some scrutiny, skepticism and critical thinking. So does (or should) the act of voting in elections or referendums. It goes without saying that correct facts and sound knowledge are crucial to critical thinking. If the information that the intellect is critically working upon is itself faulty, then even with the best intellect in the world, the conclusion will always be faulty. You simply can’t nail jelly to a wall!
It should also go without saying that not everyone is capable of critical thinking when it comes to the more academic or analytical level. That is not an insult; and nor is it a stain on their character or humanity or – if religion is involved – their piety. People are blessed with varying abilities and talents: If someone is an academic; another is a craftsmen or an artist. If one is a mathematician; the other a poet or author. If one is a doctor or a surgeon; the other is a sportsperson or a designer. If one is an accomplished politician; another is a loving and caring spouse, with a happy and successful marriage. Or if one is intellectually gifted; another is spiritually or emotionally gifted. Human beings are diverse, as are their talents and strengths. Furthermore, while critical thinking has a lot going for it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that such a talent will make one a good person (or – again, if religion of the monotheistic type is involved – a sincere or devout worshipper of God). It would very much depend on how one puts such talent to use.
For the remainder of this post I shall focus on critical thinking as it pertains to religious knowledge and scholarship in Islam, at both the spiritual and intellectual levels. I’ll also touch upon some principles that must be acknowledged – or at least not ignored – whilst discussing the type of critical thought that is reflective of the Islamic textual tradition:
Often, but not always, those who think they are cutting-edge critical thinkers suffer from large bouts of ‘ujb – vanity; conceit; being egotistically impressed, smug and self-satisfied with one’s own opinions or accomplishments. The Prophet ﷺ said: ثَلاثٌمُهْلِكَاتٌشُحٌّمُطَاعٌ،وَهَوًىمُتَّبَعٌ،وَإِعْجَابُالْمَرْءِبِنَفْسِهِ – ‘Three are [causes of] destruction: greed that is obeyed, whims that are followed, and a person vainly impressed with his ownself.’1 It’s not just a matter of being smug or egotistically impressed with oneself. ‘Ujb is usually accompanied by a failure to be appreciative and respectful of other peoples’ views or accomplishments, or by a need to put others down and deride them. That is, ‘ujb and kibr (pride, arrogance), are very often bedfellows.
When it comes to Islam and Muslim matters in our contemporary age, the need to re-visit our scholarly corpus and textual legacies so that, along with ensuring the Islamic rulings for new issues and circumstances are sound and contextual, we need to evaluate if earlier rulings require any modification or reappraising, in light of the juristic maxim: تَغَيَّرُالأَحْكامِبِتَغَيُّرِالأَزْمَانِ – ‘Rulings change with the changing of time.’ And while this legal maxim isn’t a free for all, certain rulings – the changeable: mutaghayyarat (in contrast to rulings that remain fixed or unchanging: the thawabit) – can or do legally change due to:  Changes in social norms (‘urf, ‘adah);  dire necessity (darurah);  public benefit (maslahah);  deterioration or corruption of the times (fasad al-zaman); and  when afflictions or problems become endemic in society (ma ta‘ummu bihi al-balwah).2 In other words, while the shari‘ah is a firmly-planted rock that can weather the ages, it isn’t entirely immutable or unchangeable. It has built into it the capacity to adapt and to expand, especially in the area of social civil transactions (mu‘amalat).
However, the principle that some fatwas can and must be revisited, due to change in time, place or cultural norms, was sure to be a magnet for the cardinal sin of ‘ujb – given our spiritually crippling, egotistical age. And that’s precisely what we now see!
For it is becoming more and more fashionable (and has been for quite some time now) to flippantly challenge, or readily dismiss, classical juristic formulations of shari‘ah. There is indeed often a fine line between reprehensible innovation and thinking outside the box: but the latter does not always imply the former. Yet whilst the Muslim jurists and legalists have their work cut out for them, the re-evaluation task has unsurprisingly teased out the charlatans, the sellouts and those whose minds have been colonised by the values of the dominant culture. For even when we humans do think or act rationally, our rationality or logic are so often coloured by our assumptions (or what psychologists refer to as ‘confirmation bias’).
Creative or critical Muslim thinking cannot overlook these all-important principles, if it is to truly pass as being Islamically ‘authentic’:
1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational or inductive methods, for these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Only the guidance in God’s final Revelation can offer an intellectually rigorous escape from post-modernity’s many traumas.
2 – That we as believers can’t be mere armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or forever be angry; always raging against the monoculture. True religion is about being healers. It’s about seeing the best in all things, and the Adamic potential in all people; while seeking to heal the world a day at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of being in a state of tumaninah; of being calm (yet also concerned), then in all likelihood we are animated by ego, not God. True religion begets tranquility, even in the midst of turmoil: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28]
3 – As we begin to see the goodness and potential in people, as opposed to always fault-finding and criticising, then we should know that what counts in these labours of healing and renewal (tajdid) is method, more than end rulings. One hadith informs us: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, then even if he is right, let him take his seat in the Hellfire.’3 So it’s not just about getting the interpretation right, as critical as it is. But about using the right method of interpretation, rather than a layman’s guess or an unqualified opinion. The same is true in Islamic law or theology, as it is for Quranic exegesis or tafsir. So we needn’t take issue with whether a shaykh’s opinion has a liberal slant or conservative one; but issue we must take if the shaykh isn’t qualified to espouse this ruling, yet arrogates to himself the right to speak on behalf of Allah in the matter! If unqualified, the above hadith speaks to that scenario. As for the qualified, they get two rewards if they are correct in what they rule, or one if they err; but never are they sinful because of it. Of course, when determining what the divine intent is likely to be in any given situation (rather than conforming to the zeitgeists of the age), ikhlas is key.
4 – The correct method for an interpretation or view to be valid in Islam entails: [i] The opinion must stem from a jurist qualified to undertake ijtihad in the matter. [ii] That the view must not oppose a text that is qat‘i al-thubut and qat‘i al-dalalah – “unquestionably established in its authenticity” and “unambiguous in its meaning”. [iii] It not contradict an established ijma‘ or scholarly “consensus”. [iv] That it not oppose a sound analogy; or qiyas jali. [v] It must not violate a confirmed principle of the religion; and [vi] That it not be shadhdh, or “aberrant,” as per the canons of Islamic law.4 All this requires serious fiqh schooling: the more complex the issue (the issues modernity throws up are usually highly complex), the deeper or profounder the fiqh skills need to be.
5 – That a more thoughtful and spiritually-infused fiqh is required for our times, one that rejects a puritanical mentality and the tunnelled-vision fiqh that it has given birth to. This blinkered vision is unable to see Islam as anything but a purely legalistic religion, fixated on outward religiosity, devoid of deeply nuanced spiritual or literary possibilities.
6 – That said, our discourse can’t all (or even primarily) be about fiqh issues, despite their centrality to orthopraxy. We certainly do need sound fiqh solutions to raging issues like modern finance, bit coint currencies, environmental crisis, genetic engineering, modern weapons of mass destruction, and other pressing concerns which the modern mufti must grapple with today. But an over focus on the fiqh level, on micro management, instead of engaging the macro issues, will only delay Muslims from meaningfully coming to grips with modernity on our own indigenous religious terms.
7 – That we stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms, taxonomies and vocabulary of the humanities and the social sciences to a detailed and thorough Islamic theological and spiritual scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without doing so, we’re in danger of turning these taxonomies and concepts into overarching sources of guidance, to which even Revelation is now expected to pay homage. Currently, American Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without much critical assessment. The Anglo-Saxon Muslim narrative isn’t that far behind. So we now talk of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; or “feminist” and “gender” theories – all with their highly rarefied, secular jargon, but without the rigorous critical discrimination to Islamically sort out the wheat from the chaff
Perhaps we need less critical thinking and more criticism of our own thinking. So much of what’s currently alleged to be critical thinking is little more than a pale shadow of the real McCoy. Instead, it seems to be more the voice of the ego, self-promotion, half-truths, shoddy scholarship, or poor intellectualisation, than it does religious truth, intellectual beauty, or sincerely seeking the welfare of Allah’s servants.
Some of this ‘critical thinking’ is merely a veneer to mask the promotion of reprehensible innovations or religious heresies. Undermining ijma‘-theology, the well-attested hallmark of mainstream Sunni orthodoxy, is now the in-thing. While much of this opposition stems from egotism and from false desires, some comes from hastiness with sacred knowledge; youngness; inexperience; not allowing ideas to mature enough before letting them loose in the public domain; or not being spiritually rooted. Indeed, sin, committing haram and following false and forbidden desires, can seriously compromise the heart’s intellect and blur its vision! Ibn al-Qayyim reminds us:
‘Following false desire can blind the heart’s [in]sight, so that it can no longer distinguish Sunnah from bid‘ah; or it can invert it, so that it sees bid‘ah as the Sunnah and Sunnah as bid‘ah.’5
Thus while the rational or intellectual faculty of a person is still under the domination of its desires, and while one hasn’t taken any serious steps to tame or train the nafs through the heart’s purification, one cannot be sure if the intellect is primarily or significantly being driven by baser motives, or the ego’s deceptions and cunning. And when that is so, in what measure can that ever be called intellectualism, let alone critical thinking? And yet, as the prophetic warning states: ‘If you have no shame, then do as you wish.’6
We ask Allah for safety from the heart’s blindness or inversion; and we beseech Him for well-being in terms of faith, practice and right attitude.
1. Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.80. After analysis of its various chains, it was graded hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1802.
THE MODERN WORLD IS RADICALLY different to anything and everything that has gone before it. Defining what modernity actually is tends to be elusive, even to philosophers and to those in the social sciences. But it does have certain traits.
Modernity – this ‘brilliant series of distractions,’ as it’s been called – is the great leveller: Where once there was meaning, there is now anomie and meaninglessness. Where once there was optimism, there is now discontent and despair. Where there was religion and spiritual ambition, there is now a yawning gulf. And where there was direction, there is now a maelstrom of confusion and a lack of inner purpose.
To mask this bleak reality; to anaesthetise us, modernity offers us a plethora of gadgets and technology so as to distract us like kids with their new toys. A basic religious insight Islam offers us is that sa‘adah – human ‘happiness’ is to do with the soul. It’s to do with hope, optimism, security, and of having a sense of direction, purpose and meaning. And this is something modernity simply cannot supply.
Another religious insight concerns the fitrah, this primordial nature of man, in that it views some things as immutable. For modernity, though, all is up for grabs. Nothing is constant or unchanging. ‘Forms of modern life may,’ Zygmunt Bauman writes, ‘differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change.’ He explains that to be modern means to obsessively modernise; not ‘just to be’, but forever ‘becoming.’ He goes on to contend that what was not too long ago dubbed post-modernity, which he terms ‘liquid modernity,’ is the growing belief that ‘change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.’1
All this stands in contrast to what Islam teaches about the fitrah. The Qur’an states: So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man. [Q.30:30] So as the assault on the fitrah – the Adamic norm that God created us upon – intensifies; and as we see war waged against traditional Abrahamic ethics grow ever more robust, where inversion of values seems to be the name of the game, the believers must ask God for the grace to remain firm on the upright religion. To not see that the monoculture is set on course to further corrupt the fitrah, is to be blind to the nature of the age, or to the way of living God’s purpose for us. As the Qur’an puts it: It is not the eyes that grow blind, but the hearts in the chests that become blind. [Q.22:46]
IN SPEAKING OF JUSTICE, many well-intended Muslims are unconsciously secularised. For their discourse about justice (Ar. ‘adl, qist) is so often scarred by failing to grasp its Quranic essence: ‘To put a thing in its rightful place.’1 Which is to say, justice is to give things their proper due – at the due time, the due place, and in due measure.
This requires possessing knowledge about the value and measure of things, as Islam assigns to them, so as to give them their due. ‘Hence,’ Ibn al-Qayyim wrote, ‘knowledge and justice are the root of every good, while injustice and ignorance are the root of every evil.’2
The Quranic insistence on justice can be found in many verses, like: God commands you to render back things held in trust to their rightful owners, and if you judge between people, that you judge justly. [Q.4:58] And also: O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to God, even if it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and wether it be against rich or poor. [Q.4:135]
But talking more from a marketable take on Islam than a textual, well-studied one, they mistakenly equate justice (‘adl) with equality (musawa). This though isn’t really Islam’s story. No doubt, there are areas of overlap between the two. But the Qur’an is couched in the language of justice, not equality. To describe Islam as ‘egalitarian’, or to claim it advocates equality isn’t just reductionist, the concepts are also not very meaningful. While some verses of the Qur’an do have an egalitarian temper to them, many others insist on difference, distinction and divine disparity.
While speaking about the disbelievers who harm and transgress against their own souls due to their disbelief, the Qur’an asks: Is he who is a believer like he who transgresses? They are not equal. [Q.32:18]
We also read: Not equal are the people of the Fire and the people of the Garden. It is the people of the Garden that are the [true] winners. [Q.59:20]
Then there are verses which speak to gender roles, functions and natures: And the male is not like the female. [Q.3:36]
Or as Islam legally requires men to financially maintain family and households, while women do not have any such duty, there’s this verse: God thus commands you concerning [the division of inheritance for] your children: to the male a share equal to that of two females. [Q.4:11]
All this is to say that the Qur’an speaks of justice, not the nebulous social construct of equality. It’s when we veer away from using the vocabulary of the Qur’an, using instead ill-informed substitutes, that distortions or deviations creep in to corrupt the Quranic message. Of all the modern voices guilty of conflating justice with equality, feminism takes first prize.
To conclude: highlighting the core nature of the shari‘ah, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim says that justice is its essential feature. He wrote: ‘Indeed, [God] transcendent is He, has clarified in the paths He legislates that its purpose is: to establish justice among His servants and equity between people. Thus any path by which justice and equity are drawn out is part of the religion, and can never be in opposition to it.’3
Elsewhere he says: ‘The shari‘ah is based on and built on wisdom and [achieving] public welfare, in this life and in the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue which departs from justice to injustice, or mercy to its opposite, or public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly can’t be part of the shari‘ah, even if it is claimed to be so due to some interpretation.’4
1. Al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 537.
2. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 4:556.
3. Al-Turuq al-Hukmiyyah (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2007), 31.
4. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:337.
Q. Do times get worse throughout the ages, after the Prophet’s era ﷺ? And is there a basis for believing this in the textual sources of Islam? Can you also say something about the return of Jesus, peace be upon him, and the coming of the Dajjal, and how they fit into the overall pattern of decay, deterioration and then revival?
A. In the Name of God, Most Gracious, All-Merciful. As a general rule, what you’ve said is true. We are taught in Islam that times do indeed deteriorate: that each age is followed by an age worse than it. However, this is not without its exceptions. The following is usually cited to support the downward spiral of history:
From al-Zubayr b. ‘Adi, who said: We came to Anas b. Malik and complained to him about what was happening from al-Hajjaj. So he said:
‘Be patient! For there will not come a time upon you except that after it will be worse than it, until you meet your Lord.’ I heard this from your Prophet, peace be upon him.1
Taking the above words of our Prophet ﷺ as our starting point, let’s explore some of their context, meanings and implications:
1. As for the context, it is the reign of ‘Abd al-Malik b. Marwan (r.65-86H/685-705CE ), fifth Umayyad ruler. He became caliph after a number of tragic intra-Muslim schisms and civil wars had blighted the ummah over the past five years: the death of al-Husayn at Karbala; the battle at Harrah and the subsequent looting of Madinah; and the siege of ‘Abd Allah b. al-Zubair at the Ka‘bah. Given all these woeful tribulations, ‘Abd al-Malik set about trying to consolidate his rule and to restore some order to the expanding Muslim empire. History credits him with much good and success. But part of this consolidation of power required that he end Ibn al-Zubayr’s nine year claim to the caliphate based in Makkah. This he did by unleashing against him his ruthless lieutenant, al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf. After laying siege to Makkah, and shelling the Sacred Precinct using catapults, Ibn al-Zubayr was killed then crucified, in 73H/692CE.
2. As for al-Hajjaj b. Yusuf (the one people were complaining to Anas about), a glimpse of his cruel and unsparing character can be seen in al-Dhahabi’s brief biographical remarks on him: وَكَانَ ظَلُوْماً ، جَبَّاراً ، نَاصِبِيّاً ، خَبِيْثاً ، سَفَّاكاً لِلدِّمَاءِ ، وَكَانَ ذَا شَجَاعَةٍ ، وَإِقْدَامٍ ، وَمَكْرٍ ، وَدَهَاءٍ ، وَفَصَاحَةٍ ، وَبَلاَغَةٍ ، وَتعَظِيْمٍ لِلْقُرَآنِ … وَلَهُ حَسَنَاتٌ مَغْمُوْرَةٌ فِي بَحْرِ ذُنُوْبِهِ ، وَأَمْرُهُ إِلَى اللهِ ، وَلَهُ تَوْحِيْدٌ فِي الجُمْلَةِ ، وَنُظَرَاءُ مِنْ ظَلَمَةِ الجَبَابِرَةِ وَالأُمَرَاءِ – ‘He was a tyrant, a despot, hater of ‘Ali and the Prophet’s family, wicked, and a shedder of blood. He was [also] fearless, audacious, shrewd and cunning; as well as being an eloquent and persuasive speaker who venerated the Qur’an … He has some good deeds amidst an ocean of sins; his affair is left to God. He had faith, in general, and wasn’t alone among the oppressive tyrants and leaders.’2 He perished in 95H/714CE.
Maybe it was during al-Hajjaj’s onslaught against Ibn al-Zubayr; or when, between 700H-703H, he put down the full scale uprising of Ibn al-Ash‘ath and his followers; or when he brought his brutal governorship to Iraq and to the eastern Islamic lands, that Anas related this hadith. Certainly the people, including Anas himself, had much cause for grievance against al-Hajjaj. But Anas reminds them of something decidedly prophetic: in the face of tyranny from those in power, patience – not to be confused with complacency – is what brings about relief and divine help.
3. Along with the two sahabah, Anas and Ibn al-Zubayr, another leading Muslim sage who lived through the brutal governorship of al-Hajjaj was al-Hasan al-Basri. He counselled us how, as believers, we are not meant to see politics as merely the playing-out of the various interests of people vis-a-via one another. Rather, we must see it more so as the playing out of the af‘al al-rabb – the divine acts – within human society. Without trying to understand what God is saying to us through how He causes the political fortunes of people to unfold, we fail to engage in the kind of politics the Qur’an wishes us to engage in. It is from such Quranic “seeing” that al-Hasan al-Basri once said of al-Hajjaj: إِنَّ الْحَجَّاجَ عَذَابُ اللَّهِ فَلَا تَدْفَعُوا عَذَابَ اللَّهِ بِأَيْدِيكُمْ وَلَكِنْ عَلَيْكُمْ بِالِاسْتِكَانَةِ وَالتَّضَرُّعِ – ‘Indeed, al-Hajjaj is a punishment from God, so do not repel it by your hands. Instead, take to humility and imploring God.’3 The Qur’an says: وَلَقَدْ أَخَذْنَاهُمْ بِالْعَذَابِ فَمَا اسْتَكَانُوا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَمَا يَتَضَرَّعُونَ – We seized them with punishment, yet they humbled not themselves to their Lord, nor did they implore Him. [23:76]. Also: وَكَذَلِكَ نُوَلِّي بَعْضَ الظَّالِمِينَ بَعْضًا بِمَا كَانُوا يَكْسِبُونَ – Thus do We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] ‘Hence if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from unjust [sinful] acts.’4 Listening to what the af‘al al-rabb are telling us is key to the political well-being of Muslims.
4. One last word related to our context. Al-Hasan al-Basri was once asked by some young activists to endorse Ibn Ash‘ath’s uprising against al-Hajjaj, to which he replied: أَرَى أَنْ لا تُقَاتِلُوْهُ؛ فَإنَّهَا إِنْ تكُ عُقُوْبَةً مِنْ اللهِ فَمَا أَنْتُمْ بِرَادِّي عُقُوبَةَ اللهِ بِأَسْيَافِكُم، وَإِنْ يَكُنْ بَلاءً، فَاصْبِرُوا حَتّٰى يَحْكُمَ الله وَهُوَ خَيْرُ الْحَاكِمِيْن – ‘I hold that you should not fight him. For if this is a punishment from God, you shall not repel God’s punishment by your swords. But if this be a trial, then be patient, till God judgement comes; and He is the best of Judges.’5 Ticked-off by his reply, and riled up by zeal and more than a hint of recklessness, they fought against al-Hajjaj, and he slew all of them. On hearing about the ill-fated uprising, al-Hasan al-Basri went on to remark: لَوْ أَنَّ النَّاسَ إِذَا ابْتُلُوا مِنْ قِبَلِ سُلْطَانِهِمْ صَبَرُوا مَا لَبِثُوا أَنْ يُفْرَجَ عَنْهُمْ ، وَلَكِنَّهُمْ يَجْزَعُونَ إِلَى السَّيْفِ فَيُوَكَّلُونَ إِلَيْهِ ، فَوَاللَّهِ مَا جَاءُوا بِيَوْمِ خَيْرٍ قَطُّ – ‘If the people only showed patience when they are being tried by their rulers, it would not be long before they would be given relief from it. But they always rush for the swords, so they are left to their swords. By God, not even for a single day did they bring about any good!’6
If this last sentence of al-Hasan al-Basri seems somewhat sharp, see it – not as some kind of endorsement of the tyrannical status quo; as those with shallow intellects claim – but as a reprimand to all those who failed to heed the af‘al al-rabb; who turned their backs on the duty to be patient; who probably convinced other impressionable souls to do likewise and follow them to their deaths through an ill-judged activism; and who indirectly helped rationalise and entrench further tyranny of shabby tyrants. So what good did such rabble-rousing and rebellion actually bring about to society or to the common person? And what about activism being accountable to the well-established Islamic “Law of Consequences”? As for the few who may have misread the af‘al al-rabb, or erred in their qualified scholarly ijtihad, theirs is a different case.
The above depicted something of the turbulent context. As for what it means for the times to grow steadily worse, then that’s what we’ll discuss now:
5. One of the objections raised against the meaning of the hadith is that within four years of al-Hajjaj’s demise, it was the rule of the eighth Umayyad caliph, the righteous ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz (r.99-101H/717-720CE). A paragon of godliness and learning, he reversed the preceding tyranny and returned the Muslims to a culture of justice, learning and piety. So this apparently shows that not every age is followed by an age worse than it. Or does it? In answering this dilemma, scholars have offered the following explanations:7 [i] the hadith is to be understood as describing what is usually the case: [ii] that the hadith speaks of an overall comparison between each successive age; and [iii] the deterioration is referring to the demise of the scholars and the loss of religious knowledge and guidance. Let’s look at each opinion in more detail:
6. For the first opinion, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote: ‘This generalisation is problematic in that some ages have [apparently] not been worse than the ones before them. Such is the case with the times of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, which was shortly after the time of al-Hajjaj; and information concerning ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz’s time is well-known.’8 He then states that this worsening is what is predominantly the case, but not always the case. This view was held by al-Hasan al-Basri who, when asked about ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz coming after al-Hajjaj, said: لَابُدَّ لِلناَّسِ مِنْ تَنْفِيْس – ‘People need some breathing space!’9
7. The second opinion, that each age contains more overall excellence than the age which follows, is explained by Ibn Hajr, thus: ‘Others have replied [saying] that what is meant by the excellence [of the preceding age compared to what comes after] is overall excellence of one age in comparison to the overall excellence of another. For in the age of al-Hajjaj, many sahabah were alive, whilst in the age of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz [many] had died. And an age wherein the sahabah are present is better than one that comes after, as the Prophet ﷺ stated: “The best of mankind is my generation,” recorded in the Two Sahihs; and in his saying: “My sahabah are the custodians for my ummah, when they depart what has been decreed for my ummah will come to it.” Related by Muslim.’10
8. As for the third opinion, Ibn Hajr quotes these words of Ibn Mas‘ud: ﻻ ﻳَﺄْﺗِﻲ ﻋَﻠَﻴْﻜُﻢْ ﺯَﻣَﺎﻥٌ ﺇِﻻ ﻭَﻫُﻮَ ﺷَﺮٌّ ﻣِﻤَّﺎ ﻛَﺎﻥَ ﻗَﺒْﻠَﻪ ، ﺃَﻣَﺎ ﺇِﻧِّﻲ ﻻ ﺃَﻋْﻨِﻲ ﺃَﻣِﻴﺮًﺍ ﺧَﻴْﺮًﺍ ﻣِﻦْ ﺃَﻣِﻴﺮٍ، ﻭَﻟَﺎ ﻋَﺎﻣًﺎ ﺧَﻴْﺮًﺍ ﻣِﻦْ ﻋَﺎﻡٍ، ﻭَﻟَﻜِﻦْ ﻋُﻠَﻤَﺎﺅُﻛُﻢْ ﻭَﻓُﻘَﻬَﺎﺅُﻛُﻢْ ﻳَﺬْﻫَﺒُﻮﻥَ، ﺛُﻢَّ ﻻ ﺗَﺠِﺪُﻭﻥَ ﻣِﻨْﻬُﻢْ ﺧُﻠَﻔَﺎﺀَ، ﻭَﻳَﺠِﻲﺀُ ﻗَﻮْﻡٌ ﻳُﻔْﺘُﻮﻥَ ﺑِﺮَﺃْﻳِﻬِﻢ – ‘There will not come upon you a time, except that it is worse than the time before it. I do not mean a leader better than another leader, nor a year better than another year. But your scholars and learned ones shall depart, and you will not find anyone to succeed them. Then there will come a people who will give fatwas according to their mere opinion.’11 In another wording: ﻭَﻣَﺎ ﺫَﺍﻙَ ﺑِﻜَﺜْﺮَﺓِ ﺍْﻷﻣْﻄَﺎﺭِ ﻭَﻗِﻠَّﺘِﻬَﺎ ﻭَﻟَﻜِﻦْ ﺑِﺬَﻫَﺎﺏِ ﺍﻟْﻌُﻠَﻤَﺎﺀِ ﺛُﻢَّ ﻳُﺤْﺪِﺙُ ﻗَﻮْﻡٌ ﻳُﻔْﺘُﻮﻥَ ﻓِﻲ ﺍﻷﻣُﻮﺭِ ﺑِﺮَﺃْﻳِﻬِﻢْ ﻓَﻴَﺜْﻠِﻤُﻮﻥَ ﺍﻹﺱﻻَﻡَ ﻭَﻳَﻬْﺪِﻣُﻮﻧَﻪ – ‘It is not due to an abundance of rain or its scarcity. Rather, it is because of the disappearance of the scholars. Then there’ll come a people who will give fatwas on matters based on mere opinion, thereby disgracing and destroying Islam.’12 So this view demonstrates that the worsening has less to do with political leaders or economic fortunes – ‘I do not mean a leader better than another leader, nor a year better than another year’ – and has far more to do with the absence of scholars and scholarly guidance. Indeed, Ibn Hajr deems this to be the best explanation.13
9. As for the apex of these worsening times, when religious guidance will be eclipsed by deceptions and distraction, that will happen during the times of the Dajjal; as one hadith puts it: مَا بَيْنَ خَلْقِ آدَمَ إِلَى قِيَامِ السَّاعَةِ خَلْقٌ أَكْبَرُ مِنَ الدَّجَّالِ – ‘Nothing between the creation of Adam until the establishment of the Hour is graver than [the matter of] the Dajjal.’14 In another hadith, we learn this disturbing news: فَيَأْتِي عَلَى الْقَوْمِ فَيَدْعُوهُمْ، فَيُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ وَيَسْتَجِيبُونَ لَهُ، فَيَأْمُرُ السَّمَاءَ فَتُمْطِرُ، وَالْأَرْضَ فَتُنْبِتُ، فَتَرُوحُ عَلَيْهِمْ سَارِحَتُهُمْ، أَطْوَلَ مَا كَانَتْ ذُرًا، وَأَسْبَغَهُ ضُرُوعًا، وَأَمَدَّهُ خَوَاصِرَ، ثُمَّ يَأْتِي الْقَوْمَ، فَيَدْعُوهُمْ فَيَرُدُّونَ عَلَيْهِ قَوْلَهُ، فَيَنْصَرِفُ عَنْهُمْ، فَيُصْبِحُونَ مُمْحِلِينَ لَيْسَ بِأَيْدِيهِمْ شَيْءٌ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ، وَيَمُرُّ بِالْخَرِبَةِ، فَيَقُولُ لَهَا: أَخْرِجِي كُنُوزَكِ، فَتَتْبَعُهُ كُنُوزُهَا كَيَعَاسِيبِ النَّحْلِ – ‘Then he [the Dajjal] shall come to a people and call them; and they will believe in him and respond to him. At which he will instruct the sky, and it will send down its rain; and the earth, and it will grow its vegetation. Then in the evening the grazing animals will come back to them: their humps high; their udders full; their flanks bulging. He will then come to another people and summon them. But they will reject what he has to say. So he will leave them. By daybreak, they will be utterly impoverished, possessing nothing. He will pass through the wasteland and tell it to bring forth its treasures; and these treasure will follow him like swarms of bees.’15 So economic prosperity awaits those who accept the Dajjal; the Anti-Christ – this arch-deceiving, one-eyed imposter – even though such people will have sold their souls to the devil in order to gain it! As for the faithful who deny him, they must fortify their faith and patiently endure like never before.
And then there’s this disconcerting hadith: يَنْزِلُ الدَّجَّالُ فِي هَذِهِ السَّبَخَةِ بِمَرِّقَنَاةَ – وادٍ بالمدينة – فَيَكُونُ أَكْثَرَ مَنْ يَخْرُجُ إِلَيْهِ النِّسَاءُ ، حَتَّى إِنَّ الرَّجُلَ لَيَرْجِعُ إِلَى حَمِيمِهِ وَإِلَى أُمِّهِ وَابْنَتِهِ وَأُخْتِهِ وَعَمَّتِهِ فَيُوثِقُهَا رِبَاطًا مَخَافَةَ أَنْ تَخْرُجَ إِلَيْهِ – ‘The Dajjaal will come to this marsh in Marriqanat – a valley in Madinah – and most of those who go out to him will be women. To the extent that a man will come to his mother-in-law, mother, daughter, sister, and aunt, and will have to constrain them firmly for fear that they will go out to him.’16 Precisely what makes Dajjal a magnet for women, and what will he offer that causes this mass feminine allegiance to him, is a question that must be explored at another time. Although given the essence of Dajjal’s fitnah is to make truth appear as falsehood; and falsehood as truth, whatever he peddles, it will be nothing short of putting them (and others) to trial in their very faith and salvation. We seek refuge in God from the trials of the Anti-Christ.
Before saying a few words about the hadith’s implications for us today, let us look at the ‘exceptions’ to the rule. Let’s say something about the good that is still to come; and about how the future is for Abrahamic monotheism. So believing hearts need not despair.
10. One of these exceptions is that the political fortunes of the Muslims will take a turn for the better with the return of the caliphate or khilafah. So we read at the start of one hadith (whose soundness is open to some question), that: يَكُونُ اخْتِلاَفٌ عِنْدَ مَوْتِ خَلِيفَةٍ فَيَخْرُجُ رَجُلٌ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْمَدِينَةِ هَارِبًا إِلَى مَكَّةَ فَيَأْتِيهِ نَاسٌ مِنْ أَهْلِ مَكَّةَ فَيُخْرِجُونَهُ وَهُوَ كَارِهٌ فَيُبَايِعُونَهُ بَيْنَ الرُّكْنِ وَالْمَقَامِ – ‘Disagreement will occur at the death of a caliph; and a man from Madinah will flee to Makkah. Some of the Makkans will go to him, bring him out against his will, and pledge allegiance (bay‘ah) to him between the Corner [of the Ka‘bah] and the Station [of Abraham] …’17 In another hadith: يَقْتَتِلُ عِنْدَ كَنْزِكُمْ ثَلَاثَةٌ ، كُلُّهُمْ ابْنُ خَلِيفَةٍ ، ثُمَّ لَا يَصِيرُ إِلَى وَاحِدٍ مِنْهُمْ – ‘Three men, all of whom are sons of a caliph, will fight over your treasure, but none of them shall get to it …’18 Then there is this good news:تَكُونُ النُّبُوَّةُ فِيكُمْ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ خِلَافَةٌ عَلَى مِنْهَاجِ النُّبُوَّةِ فَتَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ مُلْكًا عَاضًّا فَيَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ يَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ مُلْكًا جَبْرِيَّةً فَتَكُونُ مَا شَاءَ اللَّهُ أَنْ تَكُونَ ثُمَّ يَرْفَعُهَا إِذَا شَاءَ أَنْ يَرْفَعَهَا ثُمَّ تَكُونُ خِلَافَةً عَلَى مِنْهَاجِ النُّبُوَّةِ ثُمَّ سَكَتَ – ‘Prophethood will remain among you for as long as God wishes it to, then God will raise it up when He wishes to. Then there will be khilafah upon the way of Prophethood, and it shall remain among you for as long as God wishes it to; then God will raise up whenever He wishes to. Then there will be harsh kingship which will remain among you for as long as God wishes it to, then God shall raise it up when He wishes to. Then there will be tyrannical kingship and it shall remain among you for as long as God wishes it to, then He will raise it up whenever He wishes to. Then there will be khilafah upon the way of Prophethood.’ Then he was silent.19
Of course, we can question if a medieval-styled khilafah could or should ever be revived in the modern era. Or have deep reservations about whether a khilafah could ever simply be transplanted onto the structures of a modern state – especially given that the all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, whilst a classical Muslim state doesn’t legislate at all: traditionally, legislation belongs to God, as understood and deciphered by the ‘ulema. But that is not a reason to negate the return of the khilafah or speak in a way to undermine its prophesied return. As for what shape or form the khilafah will take, well that’s an open ended question; and there’s likely to be more than one viable political arrangement. But what’s clear, though, is that liberal, secular democracy isn’t quite the believers’ story, nor really their desired end.
11. Another exceptional good is the time and rule of the charismatic al-Mahdi. Although there are many spurious hadiths about the Mahdi, there are also a number that are sound. Among them: الْمَهْدِيُّ مِنِّي أَجْلَى الْجَبْهَةِ أَقْنَى الأَنْفِ يَمْلأُ الأَرْضَ قِسْطًا وَعَدْلاً كَمَا مُلِئَتْ جَوْرًا وَظُلْمًا يَمْلِكُ سَبْعَ سِنِينَ – ‘The Mahdi is from me; he will have a broad forehead and an aquiline nose. He will fill the Earth with fairness and justice, as it was filled with oppression and tyranny; and he shall rule for seven years.’20 Also: الْمَهْدِيُّ مِنَّا أَهْلَ الْبَيْتِ يُصْلِحُهُ اللَّهُ فِي لَيْلَةٍ – ‘The Mahdi is from us, the People of the Household; and Allah will ready him in a single night.’21 That night is indeed fast approaching.
12. At some point around the time of the Mahdi, Jesus Christ, peace be upon him, shall be returned to Earth: وَالَّذِي نَفْسِي بِيَدِهِ لَيُوشِكَنَّ أَنْ يَنْزِلَ فِيكُمُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ حَكَمًا مُقْسِطًا فَيَكْسِرَ الصَّلِيبَ، وَيَقْتُلَ الْخِنْزِيرَ، وَيَضَعَ الْجِزْيَةَ، وَيَفِيضَ الْمَالُ حَتَّى لاَ يَقْبَلَهُ أَحَدٌ – ‘By Him in whose hand is my soul! The son of Mary will soon descend among you as a just judge. He will break the cross, slay the swine and abolish the jizyah-tax. Wealth shall flow abundantly so much so that none shall take it.’22 And that: يَقْتُلُ ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ الدَّجَّالَ بِبَابِ لُدٍّ – ‘The son of Mary shall slay the Dajjal at the gates of Lod.’23 A time where: لَتَذْهَبَنَّ الشَّحْنَاءُ وَالتَّبَاغُضُ وَالتَّحَاسُدُ – ‘Mutual spite, hatred and jealousy shall depart.’24 And: فَيَكُونُ عِيسَى ابْنُ مَرْيَمَ عَلَيْهِ السَّلاَمُ فِي أُمَّتِي حَكَمًا عَدْلاً وَإِمَامًا مُقْسِطًا يَدُقُّ الصَّلِيبَ وَيَذْبَحُ الْخِنْزِيرَ وَيَضَعُ الْجِزْيَةَ وَيَتْرُكُ الصَّدَقَةَ فَلاَ يُسْعَى عَلَى شَاةٍ وَلاَ بَعِيرٍ وَتُرْفَعُ الشَّحْنَاءُ وَالتَّبَاغُضُ وَتُنْزَعُ حُمَةُ كُلِّ ذَاتِ حُمَةٍ حَتَّى يُدْخِلَ الْوَلِيدُ يَدَهُ فِي فِي الْحَيَّةِ فَلاَ تَضُرَّهُ وَتُفِرُّ الْوَلِيدَةُ الأَسَدَ فَلاَ يَضُرُّهَا وَيَكُونُ الذِّئْبُ فِي الْغَنَمِ كَأَنَّهُ كَلْبُهَا وَتُمْلأُ الأَرْضُ مِنَ السِّلْمِ كَمَا يُمْلأُ الإِنَاءُ مِنَ الْمَاءِ وَتَكُونُ الْكَلِمَةُ وَاحِدَةً فَلاَ يُعْبَدُ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ وَتَضَعُ الْحَرْبُ أَوْزَارَهَا – ‘Jesus, son of Mary, peace be upon him, will be a just judge and a just ruler among my nation. He will break the cross, slay the swine, abolish the jizyah, and charity will be left untouched. None will be appointed [to collect zakat] on sheep or camels. Rancour and mutual hatred will disappear. The harm of every harmful creature will be removed, such that a baby boy will put his hand in a snake without him being harmed; a baby girl will chase a lion and not be harmed; and a wolf will roam among sheep like their sheepdog. The Earth shall be filled with peace, just as a vessel is filled with water. The people will be united, and none shall be worshipped except God; and war will lay down its burdens …’25
Thus the End of Days will see an earthly bliss, with the hypocrites perishing; non-Muslims converting to Islam en mass; and Islam and Abrahamic monotheism ultimately becoming triumphant: لَيَبْلُغَنَّ هَذَا الْأَمْرُ مَا بَلَغَ اللَّيْلُ وَالنَّهَارُ وَلَا يَتْرُكُ اللَّهُ بَيْتَ مَدَرٍ وَلَا وَبَرٍ إِلَّا أَدْخَلَهُ اللَّهُ هَذَا الدِّينَ بِعِزِّ عَزِيزٍ أَوْ بِذُلِّ ذَلِيلٍ عِزًّا يُعِزُّ اللَّهُ بِهِ الْإِسْلَامَ وَذُلًّا يُذِلُّ اللَّهُ بِهِ الْكُفْرَ – ‘This affair shall reach wherever night and day reach. And God will not leave a dwelling of brick, nor of fur, except that He will cause this religion to enter it; bringing honour or humiliation: honour which God brings with Islam, or humiliation which He gives to disbelief.’26
But between now and then there’s plenty of work to be done, much du‘a to be made, and a great deal of inward purification to engage in. But this triumph of Islam must be seen in terms of the af‘al al-rabb, not the egotistical nafs. For we won’t be given to glory in a glory that never vanishes, if we seek to glory in a glory that does.
We must also be clear that, at root, there’s a parting of ways between Islam and the liberal monoculture when it comes to what human beings fundamentally are, what it is possible for them to be or become, and what it means to be liberated or free. Islam teaches that the human person is imbued with a ruh, a “spirit,” that yearns to know God, truth and beauty. For the monoculture, there is no spirit or soul, merely a “self.” And this self is made up of our whims, wants and desires. Islam teaches that the intellect or reason’s role, in light of Revelation, is to enable us know the good and what’s morally right, and direct our desires towards it. Reason is a restraint on desires, it is master of desires; and so the importance of self-mastery or mastery of self in Islam. In stark contrast, the monoculture would have us believe that reason is not, and cannot be, master of desire but only its servant. Reason can tell us not what to desire or want, but only how to get whatever it is we desire or want. For the monoculture, it’s not about restraining our desires or mastering the self; it’s about slavery to self. The monoculture’s freedom is freedom of the self; freedom to be servile to the self. Islam’s freedom is freedom from the dictates of the self; freedom from self-slavery. That being the case, any fiqh that isn’t rooted in this reality; any taysir or ease which fails to factor this into its fatwas, is sloppy and short-sighted and, in the long run, part of the actual problem.
True, meaningful peace, then, can only come with tawhid; with Abrahamic monotheism. It’s clear that the monoculture is heading the wrong way. It’s leading us like lemmings to a cliff-edge. It’s driving the bus of humanity over the edge; and Muslims must be the ones to apply the brake. Monotheism’s message of hope; of healing, must restore direction and meaning back into peoples’ lives. It must help steer them towards God and the good. Key to much of this is sabr – patience, perseverance, and deepening our commitment to God. The Prophet ﷺ foretold: يَأْتِي عَلَى النَّاسِ زَمَانٌ الصَّابِرُ فِيهِمْ عَلَى دِينِهِ كَالْقَابِضِ عَلَى الْجَمْرِ – ‘There will come upon the people a time where a person patiently practicing his religion will be like holding on to hot coal.’27 And finally there’s this hadith: وَاعْلَمْ أَنَّ النَّصْرَ مَعَ الصَّبْرِ وَأَنَّ الْفَرَجَ مَعَ الْكَرْبِ وَأَنَّ مَعَ الْعُسْرِ يُسْرًا – ‘And know that victory comes with patience, relief with affliction, and ease with hardship.’28
7. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Egypt: al-Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), Kitab al-Fitan; Ch.6; 15:610-13.
8. ibid., 15:612.
9. ibid., 15:612.
10. ibid., 15:612.
11. Al-Darimi, Sunan, no.188; al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8551. Al-Darimi records the narration with the words: ‘I do not mean a year more fruitful than another year’ and also with, ‘your best’ occurring between the words, ‘your scholars and learned ones’. Ibn Hajr states, Fath al-Bari, 15:613, that the chain of the report is hasan.
12. Fath al-Bari, 15:613.
13. ibid., 15:612.
14. Muslim, no.2946.
15. Muslim, no.2937.
16. Ahmad, no.5353. Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut analysed the separate chains of this hadith in his critical edition to Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 9:255-56, declaring them to all be weak. The hadith does, however, have support from the narration of Samurah b. Jundub, as per Ahmad, no.20027; and Abu Umamah; Ibn Majah, no.4077, to yield a final, collective grading of sahih. Cf. al-‘Adawi, al-Sahih al-Musnad min Ahadith al-Fitan wa’l-Malahim wa’l-Ashra’at al-Sa‘ah (Riyadh: Dar al-Hijrah, 1991), 497.
17. Ibn Majah, no.4286. After analysing its various chains, it was graded da‘if in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1965.
18. Ibn Majah, no.4084. Ibn Kathir said its chain is qawi sahih in al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut & Damascus: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2010), 17:43. Al-Albani, having criticised its chain as well as a part of its wording, said: ‘However, its meaning is sound.’ Cf. Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.85.
19. Ahmad, Musnad, no.18406; Ibn Hibban, no.1631. It was declared as sahih by al-‘Iraqi, Mahajjat al-Qarab fi Mahabbat al-‘Arab (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 2012), 176; as well as by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.5.
20. Abu Dawud, no.4585, with a hasan chain. Cf. al-Albani’s critical edition of al-Mishkat al-Masabih (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), no.5454.
21. Ibn Majah, no.4075, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2371.
22. Al-Bukhari, no.2222; Muslim, no.242.
23. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2244, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’
24. Muslim, no.244.
25. Ibn Majah, no.4077. Al-Albani has a separate tract on this entire lengthy hadith, only a tiny part of which I cited. He breaks-up the hadith into forty-nine segments, then goes on to show what segments are supported and strengthened by other hadiths, and what have no support or corroboration. In this tract, entitled: Qissatu’l-Masih al-Dajjal wa Nuzuli ‘Isa ‘alayhi al-salatu wa’l-salam (Amman: al-Maktabah al-Islamiyyah, 1421H), 47, he begins by analysing the chain in detail, grading it weak (da‘if). He then starts a detailed analysis of each of the 49 segments of the hadith, declaring on p.49: ‘However, the hadith is, overall, sahih. Most of its segments are found in other hadiths, except a few parts which I couldn’t find any support of corroboration for.’ The parts of the hadith quoted above correspond to segment nos.43-45; pp.113-115, in the tract. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.1904, supports the first part; and a sahih mursal and a sahih mawquf in ‘Abd al-Razzaq, Musannaf, nos.20843-44, corroborate the second and third parts.
26. Ahmad, no.16509, and it is sahih. Cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.3.
27. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2260. It was given a grading of sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.957.
28. Al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11243; al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.745. Ibn Badran says, Sharh Kitab al-Shihab (Beirut & Damascus: Dar al-Nawadir, 2007), no.136, that the hadith, with its collective chains, is hasan.
Q. Is it true that part of Islam’s legal culture is the idea that a normative religious ruling (‘azimah) can be temporarily replaced by a concessionary ruling (rukhsah), in order to lift hardship?
A. Yes it’s true, but with conditions and caveats. Let me explain:
The Holy Qur’an says: يُرِيدُ اللَّهُ بِكُمْ الْيُسْرَ وَلاَ يُرِيدُ بِكُمْ الْعُسْرَ – ‘Allah desires ease for you; He does not desire for you hardship.’ [2:185]
One celebrated hadith says: يَسِّروا وَلا تُعَسِّرُوا وَبَشِّروا وَلا تُنَفِّروا – ‘Make things easy for people and do not make things difficult; give them glad tidings, do not drive them away.’1
Thus while the principle of ease (taysir) is rooted in revealed texts, we must ensure it does not turn into one of adulteration; especially in today’s egotistical and desacralised world.
From the earliest days of Islam, a core aspect of a mufti’s remit was not only to inform the unqualified masses of the Islamic ruling on any given issue, so as to help them keep their feet firmly upon the path of piety and worship of God. It was also to extend a lifeline in extenuating circumstances; especially to those weak in faith cast adrift in the stormy seas of sin and disobedience. Sufyan al-Thawri said: ‘In our view, knowledge entails [issuing] legal concessions (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’2
‘Azimah refers to a “strict” religious ruling – a ruling in its original form, without any attendant reason or circumstance that could soften its original force. By contrast, rukhsah is a “concession” in the law; an exception to the rule. It is a concessionary ruling brought about by mitigating circumstances, so as to bring about ease in difficult situations.3
The Prophet ﷺ said: إِنَّ اللهَ يُحِبُّ أَنْ تُؤْتَى رُخَصُهُ كَمَا يُحِبُّ أَنْ تُؤْتَى عَزَائِمُهُ – ‘Allah loves that His concessions are taken, just as He loves His stringent rulings are obeyed.’4
Thus ‘azimahs are norms: rukhsahs are exceptions when there are justifiable needs to warrant them. Moreover, a shari‘ah-legislated rukhsah, or relaxation of the law, is based on strictly following certain obligatory guidelines; which include:5
[i] The opinion that brings about the ease must be a valid fiqh opinion; not an anamolous (shadhdh) one.
[ii] The rukhsah should ward of a genuine hardship, be it to the individual or society.
[iii] Deciding if a rukhsah needs taking must be determined by one known to be juristically qualified as well as known for their religious piety, integrity and adherence to revealed truths.
[iv] Following rukhsahs must not become a habitual practice; a device to skirt around the usually legislated ‘azimah or more ‘stringent’ normative ruling.
[v] Such a rukhsah must never lead to the forbidden type of talfiq (lit. ‘piecing together’), where the picking and choosing; the mixing and matching, of madhhabs contravenes an established ijma‘, or leads to innovating a totally new ruling that is neither confirmed by any madhhab or mujtahid.
Legalistic aspects aside, there is also the spirit of the law to consider when dealing with rukhsahs. For a rukhsah is there to facilitate ease and allow obedience to flourish under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Its goal is to make things easier in order for faith to still thrive; not for piety to spiral downwards or slackness towards sins normalised. An individual must, therefore, balance between their spiritual growth, which arises as a result of battling against one’s ego or desires in order to obey Allah; and between being overwhelmed with hardship due to not taking a shari‘ah-sanctioned concession. As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has contended: ‘The truly-taken rukhsa makes you grow a little; the falsely-taken rukhsa makes you shrink rapidly.’6
Let’s conclude with these words of sayyiduna ‘Ali, radia’Llahu ‘anhu: الْفَقِيهُ مَنْ لَمْ يُقَنِّطِ النَّاسَ مِنْ رَحْمَةِ اللهِ وَلَمْ يُرَخِّصْ لَهُمْ فِي مَعَاصِي اللهِ – ‘The faqih is not the one to cause people to despair of Allah’s mercy, nor the one to give them licence to sin.’7
1. Al-Bukhari, no.69; Muslim, no.1734.
2. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.