The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

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Times Will Get Worse Before They Get Better: But How?

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 and deterioration?

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:

إِصْبِرُوا فَإِنَّهُ لَا يَأْتِي عَلَيْكُمْ زَمَانٌ إِلَّا الَّذِي بَعْدَهُ شَرٌّ مِنْهُ حَتَّى تَلْقَوْا رَبَّكُمْ.

‘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.’The Qur’an says: وَلَقَدْ أَخَذْنَاهُمْ بِالْعَذَابِ فَمَا اسْتَكَانُوا لِرَبِّهِمْ وَمَا يَتَضَرَّعُونَWe 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

And God alone is Granter of success.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.7068.

2. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 4:343.

3. Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khanji, 2001), 9:165; no.3883.

4. Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 381.

5. Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir, 9:164.

6. ibid., 9:165.

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.

Rules on Rukhsah: On Following Shari‘ah Concessions

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.

3. Consult: Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2006), 436-38.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, no.5866. It was graded sahih in al-Albani, Irwa al-Ghalil fi Takhrij Ahadith Manar al-Sabil (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1979), 3:13, no.564.

5. See: al-Bassam, Tawdih al-Ahkam (Riyadh: Dar al-Mayman, 1430H), 2:571-72.

6. Contentions, 14/9 at: http://masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/contentions14.htm

7. Cited in al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.

A Word on Salafis & Ash‘aris, and Fossilised Theologies

Speaking about his personal hopes and endeavours, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah once shared these following remarks:

‎وَالنَّاسُ يَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ كَانَ بَيْنَ الْحَنْبَلِيَّةِ وَالْأَشْعَرِيَّةِ وَحْشَةٌ وَمُنَافَرَةٌ. وَأَنَا كُنْت مِنْ أَعْظَمِ النَّاسِ تَأْلِيفًا لِقُلُوبِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَطَلَبًا لِاتِّفَاقِ كَلِمَتِهِمْ وَاتِّبَاعًا لِمَا أُمِرْنَا بِهِ مِنْ الِاعْتِصَامِ بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ وَأَزَلْت عَامَّةَ مَا كَانَ فِي النُّفُوسِ مِنْ الْوَحْشَةِ، وَبَيَّنْت لَهُمْ أَنَّ الْأَشْعَرِيَّ كَانَ مِنْ أَجَلِّ الْمُتَكَلِّمِينَ الْمُنْتَسِبِينَ إلَى الْإِمَامِ أَحْمَدَ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ وَنَحْوِهِ الْمُنْتَصِرِينَ لِطَرِيقِهِ كَمَا يَذْكُرُ الْأَشْعَرِيُّ ذَلِكَ فِي كُتُبِه

‘People know that there has been, between the Hanbalis and Ash‘aris, much alienation and animosity. I was of those who strove my utmost to reconcile the hearts of the Muslims and sought to unify their ranks, in emulation of the [divine] command to hold fast to the Rope of Allah. I removed much of the alienation which existed in the hearts and clarified that al-Ash‘ari was one of the noblest of the discursive theologians (mutakallimun) to have ascribed themselves to Imam Ahmad, may Allah have mercy on him, as well as those like him who supported his way – as al-Ash‘ari himself mentioned in his works.’1

Those who know something of the historical context in which Ibn Taymiyyah was writing the above sentiment will not fail to see something of an irony in this. For although, for a variety of reasons (including his scathing rebuttals against some of his Ash’ari opponents) Ibn Taymiyyah didn’t bring about the outcome he perhaps hoped for, the spirit of uniting hearts and lessening the schisms between Muslims must be the concern of us all.

Those who are qualified and versed to thoroughly and meticulously investigate the Athari-Ash‘ari [Salafi-Ash’ari] theological controversies should follow whatever conclusions their research necessitates – regardless of whether that makes them uncompromising or not. What is also required of such people is that they be wise about how and how much they push such abstruse, theoretical controversies into the public domain, thus sowing further divisions, discord or enmity among this already vulnerable yet blessed ummah. It should also be expected of such seasoned theologians that although they may be fiercely critical of theological positions which contravene their own; and even take it upon themselves to write scathing rebuttals of beliefs they see to be unorthodox, yet let them be respectful as possible to their Salafi or Ash‘ari opponents and not attack or insult actual personalities; many of whom might well be known for their great piety, sincerity, devotional worship, worldly detachment, long service to knowledge, and love for the prophetic Sunnah and the sahabah – regardless of theological mistakes or blunders.

As for those who simply do not have the necessary theological grounding or intellectual prowess to justly and thoroughly evaluate both sides of the highly complex polemics, with what right – and with what knowledge – do they feel they can be unyielding or dogmatic about such matters? For they have no real grasp of these issues. They are just followers of their scholars; many of them bigoted, blind followers at that.

So let repentance be made and schism-mongering be stayed; and perhaps the Generous Lord will look kindly upon us so that we may all be saved.

Of course, one needs to ask how relevant many of these classical theological conundrums are to the current Muslim predicament? How useful are these matters in respect of helping Muslims grapple with perhaps more pressing contemporary theological concerns? While it would be a fool’s errand to imagine we could formulate robust critiques or responses to such challenges by ignoring the principles and insights classical Muslim theology has to offer, there is a growing sense that we are stuck in a phase of fossilised theology. These classical insights haven’t significantly engaged the theological, philosophical and ethical challenges of our time; they have yet to meaningfully deconstruct modernity’s wholesale reinvention of the human story. And whilst some headway is being made by a few Muslim theologians and public intellectuals, we are far from offering any robust responsa to the theological challenges of modernity or the post-modern world.

What are some of these challenges? Well they include, amongst other questions, issues of theology as they relate to science: Does science point towards atheism or theism, is one such question? Another is whether science is intrinsically naturalistic, or is naturalism a philosophy imposed upon the scientific method? Then there is the question of Quantum physics with its principle of indeterminacy and how that bears upon the understanding of causality or occasionalism. Quantum theory also makes itself felt in the question on the actual nature of time, and even the ideas of the soul and [Quantum] consciousness. And then, of course, there is Islam’s evolution question: less about fossils and palaeontology, and more about genetics and genomes. Does, for instance, the idea of ‘Theistic Evolution’ actually square with the Adamic saga or God’s omnipotence, as taught in the Qur’an? And how do we square the evolving fossil records of bipeds over two hundred-thousand years old that, for all intents and purposes, look very similar to us in terms of skeletal structure and cranium capacity, and who seem to be the very first hominids to hunt; use fire; make complex tools; look after their weak and frail; as well as ritually bury their dead, with the explicit Quranic passages speaking about Adam as being the very first Man, and not born of any creature or parent?

As for theology when it is compelled to rub-up against philosophy, there is the question of epistemology: What is knowledge and its nature, and how do they relate to concepts like religious [or revealed] truths, beliefs and justifications? Or to put it in simpler terms: How do we know Islam is the truth? Theodicy; the question of evil, desperately needs stating in a more coherent and convincing manner for modern minds, as does the status of reason or rationality in religious doctrine. Also, secularism’s alleged neutrality towards religious freedom needs to be interrogated, not only in light of its own claims, but also in regards to whether it helps religious practitioners deepen their awareness of the Divine Presence or weaken their sense of it?

Theology as it engages the question of ethics and ultimate values raises all sorts of issues (some which may be better dealt with by our fiqh tradition than our theology one). There are issues starting to grow around AI: Artificial Intelligence, and its benefits to mankind. Theological ethics in this regard will have to focus on matters such as robot rights (which is not an issue if robots are little more than advanced washing machines or dish-washers; but not so clear if they are able to have, or to mimic, emotions and feelings). It will have to work hard to avoid discrimination and bias when developing algorithms for AI. It needs to address the concerns of AI as military robots, or as autonomous weapons without human intervention, in order to avoid the spectre of an AI global arms race or war. It must also confront the existential dilemma posed by AI as superintelligence: where robots begin to recursively self-improve themselves, to the point where they surpass human intelligence by leaps and bounds. We may also discern the growing relevancy of such inquiries if we recall that in 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first ever country to grant actual citizenship to a robot! The robot, called Sophia, now has more rights and entitlements – or at least, on paper – than many foreign workers or expats working in the oil-rich kingdom?

Muslim theological ethics also has more immediate concerns: the issue of gender fluidity, currently being championed by liquid modernity, and how it tallies with Quranic norms of celebrating gender in a gendered created cosmos? Then there are the strident demands of feminism (perhaps one of the greatest challenges to normative scriptural reading in our time). Not in the sense of whether women should be empowered, or accorded their rights and entitlements. Rather, in terms of comparing feminism’s narrative of equality and of its central belief of dismantling all forms of patriarchy, with the Qur‘an’s language of justice (and not equality) and honouring gender distinctions (prescriptively, not descriptively). In fact, ethics must ask an even more fundamental question: By what ethical standard does Western feminism; in particular, or Western liberalism; in general, have a unilateral right to impose its values on other peoples and societies? The crux of such an imposition is the belief in a secular modern trinity: autonomy, equality and rights. To claim, as Islam does, that there are obligations which could constrain our choices, or duties that puts a limit on our desires, is to utter nothing less than a monsterous modern blasphemy!

Theology as it refracts the concept of shari‘ah governance is an area inadequately handled over the past century or more. Here we must ask if the modern nation state, in its secular-liberal matrix, can accept religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould? Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right, indeed the duty, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life: from the personal to the political – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated and made into toothless tigers, or swiftly branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order?

A more foundational question is: Can shari‘ah governance and the modern nation-state actually go hand in hand? For a modern ‘Islamic’ ‘state’ is something of a contradiction in terms. For while an all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, a classical Muslim state doesn’t legislate at all. Traditionally, legislation belongs to Allah; as understood and deciphered by the ‘ulema. How that may be squared with the modern state – in which to practice law making; to be part of the legislature, is to be an agent of the state – has not been adequately tackled by Muslim theologians or Islamists. For there is no modern state sovereignty without state-manufactured law, which the state alone then wields so as to reengineer the social order. To make the state ‘Islamic’, then, we need to search for ways where law is not contaminated by state involvement. Yet ever since the Ottoman reforms of 1856, when the modern Muslim ‘state’ began to become sole master and legitimiser of legislation, the shari‘ah and its fiqh became subjected to a great deal of aberration and to a huge process of politicisation. The question then is, can Islamic governance – whose moral, legal, social, political and metaphysical foundations are radically different to that of the modern state; and whose law is primarily a set of theological principles and moral precepts underscored by legal principles – function independently of the state? Can there be a model of a modern state which divests itself of legislation? Is such an arrangement even possible as an integral facet in the modern patchwork of nation states? Such are the questions that need serious depth of thought – beyond the usual clichés; and beyond our current Western-inspired Islamist or state totalitarianism solutions.

The above, then, are some of the pressing issues Islam’s orthodox theological tradition[s] needs to engage if it is to reflect its truth-claims of being God’s final revelation, and if it wishes to retain its relevancy and vocation as being guide and healer to humanity. For a while now, our post-modern world has been in a crisis. Whatever good the Enlightenment birthed continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism, eating away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; and its Christian heritage seems long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. Islam, more than ever, seems called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its monotheistic message of hope, healing and happiness through God’s oneness can only truly illuminate times if its theological concerns are in tune with the needs of the time; when it is able to offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and is successful in delivering liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. Between now and then there is much to deliberate over, and much work to be done. Here’s to rolling up our spiritual and intellectual sleeves.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:227-8.

New Q&A Listing on the Blog

Over the years, I’ve had a number of requests and suggestions about making a list of the Q&A content on the blog, so as to make it more user friendly. Finally, here is that list of Questions & Answers that have been directly or indirectly responded to on this site. And whilst, over the years, I have answered a number of queries sent to me, the blog is by no means meant to be a fatwa site, and I am far from being a qualified mufti. That said, when I do respond to a question or issue of concern, it tends to be a fairly thorough response, as opposed to a short, sharp reply.

The Q&A’s listing now has its separate page on the blog, and can be accessed at the top of the home page in between the “About” and “Videos” link.

I do hope the listing helps readers better navigate through the blog, and that it highlights questions and concerns that are of specific interest to them.

The Male Lust, the Female Form & the Forbidden Gaze

Allah ﷻ informs in the Holy Qur’an: Made beautiful for mankind is the love of desires for women and offspring, of hoarded heaps of gold and silver, of branded horses, cattle and plantations. [3:14] Although such things are elsewhere spoken of positively in the Qur’an, as blessings for which people should be thankful, here they are spoken of seductively in terms of objects which men lust over, crave and covet. Unsurprisingly, women top the list. This fact rings loudly in a hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ informed: ‘I have not left after me a fitnah more harmful for men than women.’1 It’s a warning that only a fool or a fasiq would be keen to overlook or take lightly. Another hadith states: ‘The world is green and sweet and Allah has placed you in it as custodians to see how you behave. So be mindful of the world and be wary of women; the first fitnah of the Children of Israel was to do with women.’2

If alcohol breaks inhibitions such that people will sexually behave in ways they usually wouldn’t when they are sober, then the devil is even more potent in removing modesty, boundaries and inhibitions between the sexes. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘A woman is ‘awrah; whenever she goes out, the devil beautifies her.’3

The word ‘awrah, often translated into English as ‘nakedness’, can also mean weakness, vulnerability or something that is unseemly and indecent.4 Women are considered to be ‘awrah because of their desirability. In Islam, the feminine form – desirable, alluring and sensuous in the privacy of the marital home – should not be made to appear so in the public sphere. It’s not just the objectifying male gaze that demeans or threatens women; sometimes some women need saving from their own intemperate selves.

Of course, in our e-world awash with sin, porn and the sexualisation of even children, such revealed wisdom is unlikely to be received with the openness it would have done in a not so long ago age. Notions of modesty, decency or respectability with regard to how the sexes should interact are utterly alien to our consumer-driven, sexually-charged culture. To even suggest, as Islam does, that there could be a modest or dignified way of being a ‘lady’ (and, of course, a ‘gentleman’) is to court ridicule or scorn from an often uncritical public: some may even shout misogyny. I’ve previously written on contemporary gender interactions in Beards, Hijabs & Body Language: Gender Relations, so I’ll confine myself to these few remarks:

The principles of modesty, restraint and respectability have long been written out of our social norms and mores, and this was bound to impact Muslim attitudes too. One hadith says: ‘Modesty and faith are two close companions; if one of them is removed, the other follows.’5 Indeed, as Muslims themselves begin to relax these principles, or compromise them in the hope of being welcomed to the table of liberal sensibilities, can we perhaps see in where it has led others, where we too could be heading?

It’s not just the hijab or niqab we’re talking about. It runs far deeper than that. It’s about much more than just the externals. It’s about how one behaves; it’s about how one carries themselves; of how one disposes their soul towards the opposite gender. Ultimately, it’s about the heart’s purity and its attachment to its Lord.

Allah ﷻ commands: Tell believing men to lower their gaze and guard their modesty. That will be purer for them. For Allah is aware of what they do.[24:30]. On citing this verse, Ibn al-Qayyim noted:

‘Allah put purification after lowering one’s gaze and guarding the private parts. This is why restraining the gaze from the forbidden necessitates three benefits of great worth and tremendous significance. Firstly, [experiencing] the sweetness and delight of faith that is far sweeter, pleasant or delightful than that which the gaze was left, or averted from, for Allah’s sake. Indeed, whoever leaves a thing for Allah’s sake, He shall replace it with what is better than it.6 The soul is deeply enamoured with gazing at beautiful forms. The eye is the scout for the heart, and it sends its scout out to see what’s there. If the eye informs it of something it finds visually attractive and beautiful, it is moved to desire it … Whoever allows their gaze to roam free will constantly be in regret. For the gaze gives rise to love, which begins with the heart having an attachment (‘alaqah) to what it is beholden too. As it strengthens, it becomes an ardent longing (sababah); the heart now hopelessly besotted with it. Growing more, it becomes an infatuation (gharam); it sticks to the heart as a creditor (gharim) sticks to his debtor (gharimah) from whom he doesn’t part. Growing stronger, still, it becomes passionate love (ishq); an excessive love. Then it becomes a burning love (shaghaf); a love which reaches to the very lining of the heart and enters it. Intensifying further, it becomes worshipful love (tatayyum) … the heart becoming a slave [worshipper] of that which it isn’t worthy of being enslaved to. And all of this is because of the harmful gaze.’7

Leave aside the debate on whether the greater onus is on women dressing modestly, or men lowering their gaze. There’s no doubt that in today’s ambiance it falls upon men to lower their gaze and to refrain from the lustful, illicit and harmful glance. Shaykh Jaleel Akhoon recently remarked that sins usually leave a black stain on the heart, that can be cleansed through the act of contrition and repentance. But if the heart is captive to the object of its love; enslaved to it by its ‘ishq, then this is worse than the ‘usual’ sin. For the heart isn’t just stained or darkened, he stressed; it is inverted. This has certain echoes of Ibn al-Qayyim when he said: ‘Many a passionate lover will admit they have no place at all in their heart for other than their passionate love. Instead, they let their passionate love completely conquer their heart, thereby becoming an avid worshipper of it … There is no comparison between the harm of this dire matter and the harm wrought by sexual misconduct (fahishah). For this sin is a major one for the one who commits it, but the evil of this ‘ishq is that of idolatry (shirk). A shaykh from the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) said: “That I be tested with sexual misconduct by this beautiful form is more preffered to me than to be tested with it through ‘ishq, by which my heart worships it and is diverted from Allah by it.”‘8

The cure, Shaykh Jaleel says, is that as soon as the heart is tempted by what it must not gaze at, one reins in the gaze and diverts it from the haram or harmful. No effort can be spared in doing so, lest the forbidden glance secretes its poison into the heart, causing it irreparable injury, anguish and torment.

We Ask Allah for safety, sensibility and success.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.5096; Muslim, nos.3740-41.

2. Muslim, no.2742.

3. Al-Bazzar, no.2061; at-Tirmidhi, no.1173, who said it is hasan gharib.

4. Cf. Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 2:2193-4.

5. Al-Bukhari, al-Adab al-Mufrad, no.1313; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 1:22, who declared: ‘It is sahih as per the conditions of the two shaykhs.’

6. Possibly paraphrasing the hadith: ‘Indeed, you will not leave anything for the sake of Allah, except that Allah will replace it with something better.’ Ahmad, no.22565, and its chain is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), 1:62; no.5

7. Ighathat al-Lahfan fi Masayid al-Shaytan (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2011), 75. The other two benefits he discusses are: Secondly, the heart being illumined and given to see with spiritual clarity and insight; thirdly, the heart is given strength, courage, firmness and honour.

8. Al-Da’ wa’l-Dawa’ (Saudi Arabia: Imam Dar al-Hijrah, 2014), 514-5.

Black Holes, Stephen Hawking, Heaven & Hell

In 1985, I started my degree in Astrophysics up in the north of England, at one of the only two places in the country which offered this course. It was more or less what I had set my heart on studying ever since reading Isaac Asimov’s, The Collapsing Universe: The Story of the Black Holes (1977) and Carl Sagan’s breath-taking book (and TV series), Cosmos (1980). Soul stirred, and heart and mind thoroughly infused with enchantment, I was determined to make engaging the wondrous mysteries of the cosmos my calling.

It was also in 1985 that a rumour went round among some of the students on the course that Stephen Hawking – his body now ravaged by motor neurone disease, his speech now slurred so as to barely be intelligible, but who had already outlived the predictions of his doctors by more than fifteen years – had recently been hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The doctors had even considered pulling the plug on his life-support machine. It was then that a discussion began about the theoretical brilliance of Hawking. In fact, it wasn’t a discussion as much as it was one student’s passionate recollection of what he had thus far accomplished: his attempts to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics; his idea that the Big-Bang may have begun with a singularity1 – the same sort of singularities that supposedly lie at the centre of black holes; his thesis that black holes may not devour everything that falls into them, but they could leak radiation (later called “Hawking radiation”) by which they would “shine”. She was, I think, a third year student, and some of what she said flew over my head at the time. I remember this because of what she said at the end of all this. Apparently, she said, in a tone that was now quite subdued, Hawking was working on publishing a book that would explain all this incredible physics. What’s more, she said, the book is being aimed, not at scientists, but at a mass market. To be sure, I was beyond euphoric!

A Brief History of Time came out in 1988. Using minimal technical jargon, it was a thrilling book and an instant international bestseller. It swiftly became a modern classic, turning Hawking into an iconic celebrity, a household name as well as the most famous scientist in modern history. In spite of being wheelchair-bound or not being able to speak save by means of a speech synthesiser, Hawking continued to push the boundaries of cosmology and theoretical physics up till his death two weeks ago. His wit, grit, charisma, and good writing in which he unravelled for us the universe’s cutting-edge mysteries, will continue to enthral generations of readers; while his intuitive leaps and research will continue to keep scientists busy for decades to come. If people now talk about the Big-Bang and black holes over dinner, then the late Stephen Hawking has had a large part to play in this. Such is his inspirational and intellectual legacy.

Oftentimes, whenever a non-Muslim personality who has ostensibly brought about much good to the human situation passes away, many Muslims raise the age-old question: what is the ultimate fate of “good” non-Muslims in the afterlife? The news of Hawking’s death seems to have aggravated the matter. So let me recount some staple Islamic theology – in abstract, at least – to address the question:

1. Let’s start with how a Muslim ought to align or centre themselves. The Qur’an says: But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified your hearts with it, and has made hateful to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. Such are the rightly-guided. [49:7] Disbelief (kufr), then, is to be loathed; and the victims of kufr pittied and be given a charitable hand towards faith and right-guidance.

2. Some Muslims labour under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in God’s sight, one cannot speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) who dies in a state of disbelief. The prophetic teachings, however, do not require or insist upon such an approach. Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some, he ﷺ spoke more about their virtue than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im gave him during the trying years of Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’2 As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]

3. The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism – were damned in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’3 Of course, these words echo the Qur’an at numerous places when it says, for instance: And certainly it has been revealed to you, and to those before you, that: ‘If you ascribe a partner to Allah, all your works will be in vain and you will be among the losers.’ [39:65] Also: As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert which the thirsty one thinks is water, till when he reaches it he finds it to be nothing. [24:39]

4. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not reached? Here the Qur’an offers a far more ecumenical scope: Never do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] And: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The requirement of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, lies at the heart of the issue. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, will be among the inhabitants of the Fire.’4 Fleshing out the theological implications of the hadith, Imam al-Nawawi stated: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions are now abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’5 The details of this excuse or amnesty, and the scholarly differences about how this amnesty plays itself out in the Hereafter, can be read in the relevant works of Muslim theology.

5. As for the question of those who have heard about Islam, but in a garbled or distorted form, Imam al-Ghazali seems to have given us the definitive word on the issue. He wrote that in terms of people coming into contact with the message of Islam, they are of three types: ‘[i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’6

6. As much as peoples’ waywardness from God should both grieve and sadden believers, because of nurturing in their hearts something of the prophetic concern for humanity, the discriminating sword of truth must do what it must. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of juhud or wilful “rejection” of it, or takdhib, “belying” it. Others choose not to seriously entertain the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) whether out of arrogance, hostility, prejudice, or sheer indifference towards it (in some cases, doing so knowing it is the truth). Such are not considered to be truth-seekers. It’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of investigating the truths of Islam and discerning their correctness. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or for fear of losing their standing among people; or out of contempt for Muslims; or not wanting to give up following their own whims and desires for a revealed code of morality, many turn away from even looking into the Qur’an unbiasedly. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.7

7. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are judged as non-Muslims in this worldly life. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this guiding principle: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’8

8. Is it lawful to declare a specific person who dies as a non-Muslim, that he or she will be in Hell? The answer is that while some scholars hold it to be lawful, it seems the majority of Muslim theologians do not allow it. They say that not only will some non-Muslims have an amnesty in the Afterlife; not only do we not always know in what state a non-Muslim may have taken their last breath, but also those specific non-Muslims whom the Prophet ﷺ described as being in the Fire, was not from his personal judgement; but one that was revealed to him by God. Thus the correct position in this is: While one can make general declarations that Muslims go to Paradise and non-Muslims go to Hell, one cannot declare a specific Muslim to be in Paradise or a specific non-Muslim to be in Hell, unless there is textual evidence to say so. That textual evidence being either from the Qur’an, the Sunnah or a scholarly consensus (ijma‘).

9. Since we Muslims are a textual community; since our theology, law and spirituality are derived from revealed texts – as opposed to fluffy sentiments; emotions; personal whims; or what one’s own intellect, decoupled from Revelation, thinks to be good – let’s engage with a few such texts from which the above rule is culled. So as a general rule, the Qur’an says: Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the fire of Hell forever. They are the worst of people. [98:6] In contrast, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’9 As for the rule that applies to individuals specifically, Imam al-Tahawi wrote in his famous creedal tract about Muslims: ‘We do not specify anyone among them to be in either Paradise or the Fire … We resign their inner states to God, exalted is He.’10 Meaning, unless there is a textual proof, we cannot declare a specific Muslim to be damned or saved. The same goes for specific non-Muslims.

10. Finally, as I said earlier, our Prophet ﷺ usually kept quiet about the end state of most non-Muslims who died during his lifetime. Surely it would be best if we too did the same. Let us learn to be content, knowing that such end matters are in Allah’s hands in terms of whether those who die as non-Muslims receive divine amnesty, clemency and salvation; or encounter divine rigour, justice and chastisement. In fact, it’s possible that if we spent less time being concerned with such specific end matters, and invested more time trying to deepen our own faith and reach out to non-Muslims with that faith, the world may yet be a better place.

There’s one last point I’d like to discuss. I left my degree course for personal reasons and a religious calling in early 1986. And although I had intended to come back to complete it, perhaps after a year or two, it didn’t quite happen. My passion for the subject, however, has never abated; and I try to keep up with the latest theories and findings in the field via books, papers and science magazines. Yet I recall when I read the opening words of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos -: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’11 – I felt something was amiss. My religious convictions aside, even then I questioned whether such a materialistic assertion was actually science or merely what individual scientists brought to the table as their personal beliefs and biases? In fact, Naturalism – the belief that the natural order is all that there is, and that there is no transcendent or divine realm – is a philosophy which is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order, or the cosmos, is all that there is? Science can, of course, say that the cosmos is all that it can observe and know. But that is not the same as saying that the cosmos is all that there was, is or ever will be!

In the last book he co-authored, The Grand Design (2010), Hawking tackles the question of our universe’s apparent “grand design”: is it evidence for God, or does science offer up an alternative explanation? As per form, Hawking dismisses God as the ultimate explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers – not just the usual the “it just happened” riposte, or the “multiverse”, or even the “fluctuations in a quantum vacuum” answer. Instead, he says: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’12

His theoretical genius aside, Hawking seems to suffer from the same faulty theology that many other atheists of today are struck with. For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation. We don’t believe that it’s a case of either God created the universe or that x, y, or z scientific paradigm created it. Instead, Revelation permits us to believe that God is the agent who created the universe, and that x, y, or z is the mechanism by which He did so. Thus, just because science may have revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos kicked-off, it doesn’t deny God’s agency in the matter. Allow me to illustrate the point with this example:

Take the iPhone, for instance. Just because one may have deciphered the inner workings of an iPhone, it does not logically follow that we can now deny the existence of Steve Jobs as the originator of this tech. That would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Since we know the mechanism behind a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy. In philosophy, it’s a fundamental category mistake.

As for Hawking’s optimism that the laws of gravity created the universe, this is false. Laws of physics themselves don’t create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls. It is not laws that create or move a thing; it is an agent, a person, that does that. The laws of physics are merely mathematical equations that describe what happens under certain conditions.

Despite these failures and foibles, The Grand Design is still a tour de force of cutting-edge cosmology. There’s still so much to be held in awe at in terms of the way the late Professor Hawking illustrated the latest scientific mysteries about our universe. It’s understandable why his death has felt like such a huge loss to so many. One or two of my co-religionists have said to me, however, that should we really marvel at someone whose writings have been instrumental in trying to diminish the glory of God by driving souls to atheism? And I understand that too. So perhaps the best thing is to stick to the Quranic rejoinder: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]

1. A dot or point of infinite density, far far smaller than this full stop.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.4024.

3. Muslim, no.365.

4. Muslim, no.240.

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

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

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

8. Faysal al-Tafriqah, 25.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.4203; Muslim, no.111.

10. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), 68; §.89.

11. Cosmos (New York: Ballentine Books, 2013), 1.

12. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2011), 227.

Politics of Idolatry, Beware!

The Qur‘an teaches that whenever the love, longing, loyalty and submission which are due to Allah, are focused upon other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is shirk – idolatry; setting-up partners with Allah. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes, fears, love and loyalty around it; submitting to it independently of Allah, then this, for them, becomes a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth. Others make gods of celebrities. Still others make gods of their egos and desires. The Qur’an asks: Have you seen him who takes his desires for his god? [25:43] Of course we have! It is in this same vein that Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:

فَمَنْ أَحَبَّ شَيْئًا وَأَطَاعَهُ، وَأَحَبَّ عَلَيْهِ وَأَبْغَضَ عَلَيْهِ، فَهُوَ إِلَهُهُ، فَمَنْ كَانَ لَا يُحِبُّ وَلَا يُبْغِضُ إِلَّا لِلِّهِ، وَلَا يُوَالِي وَلَا يُعَادِي إِلَّا لَهُ، فَاللَّهُ إِلَهُهُ حَقًّا، وَمَنْ أَحَبَّ لِهَوَاهُ، وَأَبْغَضَ لَهُ، وَوَالَى عَلَيْهِ، وَعَادَى عَلَيْهِ، فَإِلَهُهُ هَوَاهُ.

‘Whoever loves something and obeys it, loving and hating for its sake, then that is his god. Whoever loves or hates only for the sake of Allah, or forms allegiances and enmity only for Him, then Allah is his god in truth. But whoever’s loving or loathing revolves around his whims, forming enmity or allegiance on its basis, then these desires are his god that he worships.’1

Today’s Monoculture, for all its talk of tolerance, demands that we bow to its beliefs, values and worldview – even if it has to drag us there kicking and screaming. Wisdom enjoins that we engage with it; even partake in its political processes (for the Muslim collective benefit, or a national interest). But let us not forget the Monoculture exists, not for God, but in spite of Him; and even in brazen defiance of Him. That being the case, a believer participates in it as per the following Contention: ‘It is better to engage fully with the Monoculture from a position of dislike than to engage partly with it from a position of admiration.’2 Belief in Allah’s all-embracing knowledge, wisdom and care for creation, and loyalty to His lordship, require nothing less: Who is better in judgement than Allah for those who have certainty of belief? [5:50] In a world that insists we render our ultimate loyalty to liberal ideals, let’s recall that shirk isn’t only bowing to idols of wood or stone. Egos, desires, people and even philosophical ideals and political systems can be deified too!

1. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:524.

2. Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions, 13/6, at: masud.co.uk

Contemporary Challenges to Islam & Muslims [Part 1]: Atheism

The late Gai Eaton put his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he expressed three or four decades ago:

‘I think it must have been easy enough in earlier ages in the Christian world, and is still easy in those parts of the Muslim world which remain traditional, to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual content. I do not believe this is any longer possible in the modern world, for the spirit of our times asks questions – questions for the most part hostile to faith – which demands answers, and those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith, from study and meditation.’1

He then went on to note:

‘Whatever our religion, we can no longer be sure of holding onto it out of habit or by an act of will. We have to be, if not theologians, then at the very least people who study their religion and who think about it.’2

For a long while now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying modern assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims – and those parts of the globe still known as ‘the Muslim world’ – even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical concerning the philosophical and civilisational propositions modernity insists upon. These assumptions – that Man has now ‘come of age’ and is to be the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material Progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have prised the individual away from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that had been the setting for normative human life down throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of unbelief.

If commitment to religious faith and practice it to survive such a deluge, knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! But while less than half a century ago one could be a good Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of Imam al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who doesn’t have some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the Islamic faith is founded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in an impenetrable simplicity or naivety.

Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or a hell-bent society. They took as their queue the hadiths concerning times of great political discord, social upheaval, or religious and spiritual degeneration, in which: from the best of Muslims would be one ‘who secludes himself in a valley and worships his Lord,’3 or who takes his flock of sheep to a mountain top ‘fleeing with his religion from fitnah.4

If it were feasible for those who see the monoculture for what it is to withdraw from society and go their own way in peace, this would probably be a good course of action (not forgetting the fact that the core of Islam’s call is decisively urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows more and more invasive and totalising: suffocating any meaningful dissent, assimilating any consequential diversity, and bulldozing any significant divergence. Driven into a tight corner, religion has no option but to turn and fight. Hence the need to raise the dust of polemics against the ensnaring myths of modernity.

Thus with intellectual and spiritual inquiry as our starting point, and God as our goal, here are some of the most significant existential challenges (in terms of ideas and isms) to now confront Muslims and their faith; as well as an outline of some basic responses to them. And by far, the most destructive of these issues to faith and to salvation of the soul is atheism:

1. Atheism: Denying the existence of God is called atheism (sometimes it is defined as: lack of belief/conviction that God exists). A growing number of ex-Muslims – not just here in the West, but also in Muslim majority countries – now self-identify as atheists. Of course, atheism doesn’t come in one strain. There is, to lift a phrase from Professor Alister McGrath, ‘apathetic atheism’ or ‘atheism of indifference’, and then there is what he calls ‘committed atheism’.5 The former tends to entail no enmity towards God, nor even actively believe that God does not exist: hence the apathy or indifference. As for the latter, it equips itself with what it sees as certain explicit arguments and concerns against theism or belief in God. ‘Sociological research suggests that there are probably fewer committed atheists than apathetic ones.’6 And contrary to the assertion of such atheists today, belief in God is neither intellectual suicide; and nor has science pushed God out of the equation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The Qur’an asks: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? [52:35] The crux of the matter here is that while Muslims insist that the divine ‘fingerprints’ of God can be detected throughout the universe – how it originated, how it is ordered, how it operates, and how extraordinary the odds are of complex life or human consciousness emerging in it – atheists desperately field their counter-arguments. For despite modern science revealing the universe had a beginning and came into existence at an event we call the Big-Bang; or despite the fundamental physical constants of the universe being so finely tuned down to the minutest nth of a degree, that the chances of it being mere ‘coincidence’ isn’t just staggeringly improbable, had the value of any of these constants been different by a small, infinitesimal degree, there would have been no universe and no life – despite science telling us this and more, atheists want us to believe that such things happened purely by chance; a colossal cosmic fluke.7 In other words, the entire cosmos just happened to create itself; without any purpose, meaning or intentionality whatsoever. ‘Only within the scaffolding of these truths,’ wrote Bertrand Russell on the core conviction of atheism, ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation be safely built.’8

To be fair, not all atheists are satisfied with the ‘lucky-coincidence’ response. The fine-tuning of the universe seems far too precise to have happened merely by chance. So in order to explain the existence of a universe which fits the given physical constants and mathematical improbabilities without acknowledging the existence of a creator, many are now advocating the idea of a ‘multiverse’. Our universe is highly improbable only if it’s the only one there is. But if our universe is just one among an infinite number of universes, at least one would fit the required parameters, and it happens to be ours. Or as John Polkinghorne put it, ‘a kind of winning ticket in a gigantic multiversial lottery.’9 If this highly speculative notion turns out to be true, this just pushes back the question of who created our universe to who created the multiverse? Or one is confronted with even more incredulity than our improbable universe: that of an infinite number of self-creating universes. Either way, atheists do themselves no favour by replacing what they hold to be a single unprovable God for an infinity of unprovable universes! Moreover, can we really say that such replies have truly dispensed with the claim that our universe (or indeed, the multiverse) is far more consistent with theism than with atheism? Little wonder we find the Qur‘an saying: ‘Is there any doubt about God?’ [14:10]

That being said, the popularity of atheism, at least here in the West, is undoubtedly on the rise. As for how much of it is an intellectual phenomenon and how much a cultural one is debatable. Although it’s been said that ‘the convictions of the multitude are not so much true convictions as mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of opinion’.10 While some arrive at atheism via certain rational considerations, others are led to it emotionally, with little or no rational inquiry or intellectual journey. Some are atheist just because of family or upbringing and, being preoccupied with the tiny patch of grass under their nose, haven’t given religion or the ultimate existential question any time or thought. For them, atheism is little more than an emotional ‘habit’.

Some stumble into atheism due to an uncritical acceptance of cultural influences. They think that since science has explained the big questions (the Big-Bang explains how the universe got here; evolution explains how we got here) that there is, therefore, no need for God. But a little critical thinking would reveal that just because science explains the workings of how the cosmos came into existence, does not necessitate rejecting God as the creator of the mechanism; any more than knowing about the inner workings of an iPhone should not lead to disbelieving that Steve Jobs was the author of such culturally altering tech. Philosophers call this a category mistake; confusing between mechanism and agent: since we know a mechanism that explains a specific phenomenon, it proves there is no agent that designed the mechanism. Many an atheist, regrettably, even high profile ones, fall into this fallacy. But when, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is not agent God who designed it.’ It was quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.11

Some, repelled by bad experiences with ‘religious’ people, find their way into the arms of an often sympathetic atheism. Here they may find other embittered souls with their own horror stories to tell about religion or its practitioners. Yet people oftentimes have a very curious idea of religion. They think that merely because a person says: ‘I believe in God’ that he or she should at once become morally upright; saintly, even. If this does not happen, and very often it doesn’t, then either the believer must be a hypocrite of sorts, or else it says something dark about the religion itself. Many think that adhering to religion is the end of the path, whereas in fact it is only the beginning of a long and sometimes rough and rocky road. But whether religious, atheist, humanist or agnostic, inconsistencies abound in human souls, even if they ascribe to virtuous ideals. Yet this is not to say righteous religious behaviour should only be honoured in the breach and not in the practice. Islam, despite it not always being evident from the way some of us Muslims behave, calls to the highest moral and ethical ideals. If a believer’s ethics and conduct fail to demonstrate the beauty and attraction of husn khuluq; ‘refined’ or ‘good’ character, let it not be a cause for the crime of tanfir – of repelling people from religion: It was by the mercy of God that you were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around you. [3:159] That said, one suspects that for some people, casting of the constraints of religion is a matter of any pretext or excuse. Which brings me to one final point:

There’s another significant reason why some people choose atheism, and it’s one that is seldom admitted to. Some – and it wouldn’t be surprising if this some turned out to be a great many – are led to atheism, not by the careful hand of reason, but by the desire to follow their baser desires, unencumbered by moral codes. Here’s Aldoux Huxley, the famous English novelist, philosopher and atheist, on the deeper motive that fuels some people’s atheism and their desperate need for there to be no existential meaning to life: ‘For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning … of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.’12 Other atheists who have reflected carefully on their motives have likewise admitted that their atheism is more emotional and self-serving than it is rational and pure following of the evidences. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel is candid when he said: ‘It isn’t just I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’13

Such atheists understand that if God exists, there are certain ramifications, particularly moral ones. They are aware that it wouldn’t be a matter of sending off a few Dawkins’ titles to the charity shop, or apologise on social media for the unintended misguidance they may have uttered. They realise that such belief necessitates a life of commitment, service and loving submission to God, by growing in knowledge of God and seeking to mould one’s life around the spiritual teachings and moral laws which He revealed – ‘in short, the waving of the white flag and the rebel’s complete surrender’.14 Yet the rebel refuses to mould his ways around the awareness of the Divine Reality that surrounds him and everything else, and is unwilling to give up his ‘autonomy’ or his pride. Instead he claims the world is God-free, meaning-free and morality-free, so he can do more or less what he desires. This is what Dostoevsky could have been alluding to when he put these words into the mouth of one of The Brothers Karamazov: ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now’.15 If such self-deceit wants to pass itself off for enlightened, rational thought, then so be it. But it will ultimately prove costly.

Some of the classical works on Muslim theology relate the following account: It is said that a group of atheists came to debate the existence of God with Abu Hanifah – one of the greatest and most famous jurist-theologians of Muslim antiquity. He said to them: ‘Tell me, before we start to discuss the matter, what you say of a boat in the Euphrates that makes its own way to shore, docks by itself, loads itself with food and other goods, makes its own way back to port, anchors and then unloads its cargo, all without anyone steering it or directing it?’ They all cried out that this is impossible; never could such a thing happen. Thereupon Abu Hanifah said to them: ‘If this is impossible with regards to a boat, then what about this whole world and all that it contains?’16

This simple, undemanding type of reasoning has satisfied many a pre-modern skeptic, although one suspects this would not be the case today. To see this argument as over simplistic is to miss the point. Atheism, to be sure, isn’t anything new; and neither are the arguments of today’s New Atheists: even if their anger and aggression are. For what the issue boils down to is this: That against incomprehensible odds this vast universe came into existence, containing sentient life that has consciousness and to whom the universe is comprehensible. And that screams out for an explanation!

Atheism serves up blind chance or a multiverse as a more reasonable explanation than an omniscient, omnipotent God who created creation with intent and wise purpose. In fact, what seems like a desperate attempt to avoid theism at all costs, Stephen Hawking insists: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’17 But physical laws in and of themselves cannot create anything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which are inferred from real material events. So we are now offered belief in an eternal law (gravity), rather than an eternal law-giver (God). But that, it has to be said, is the absurdity of atheism.

Part Two of the blog, God-willing, tackles the impact of secularism and liberalism upon Muslims and their iman, and whether or not they aid in witnessing the glory of God or diminish it? The other instalments address feminism and Muslim feminists; whether or not Islam is compatible with science and reason?; evolution and the functional view of human beings; and today’s spiritual laziness and modernity’s loss of meaning.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Reflections (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2012), 85.

2. ibid., 85.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.2786; Muslim, no.1888.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.19.

5. Why God Won’t Go Away (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 24.

6. ibid., 24.

7. The issue of the fine-tuning of the universe has been discussed on this blog in, Was the Universe Expecting Us?

8. See: Bertrand Russell, ‘A Free Man’s Worship’ in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (London: Routledge Classics, 2009), 39.

9. Science and Religion in Quest of Truth (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 74.

10. Gai Eaton, King of the Castle (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 110.

11. The above argument is adapted from John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Books, 2009), 45.

12. A. Huxley, Ends and Means: An Inquiry into the Nature of Ideals and into the Methods Employed for their Realization (London: Chatto and Windus, 1941), 273.

13. T. Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2110), 130 – cited in Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015), 91.

14. Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist, 96.

15. Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (London: Everyman’s Library, 1997), 589.

16. Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidat al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1999), 1:135.

17. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 227.

Meditations #1: Pressures to Water Down Faith

This short video is about the demand being placed on Muslims to make their religious teachings align with the liberal orthodoxies of the age, and what our response to such pressures ought to be. Should we, as some are now doing, be watering down our faith teachings to make our religion more palatable to a wider secular audience? Should we compromise a few aspects of our religion in order to better our liberal credentials, thus making faith more palatable to the monoculture? These are the issues addressed in this Five Minute Meditation: https://youtu.be/l0xI6Agvjuk

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