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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa bihi al-tawfiq.

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

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

3. Al-Bukhari, no.5752.

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

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

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

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

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

9. Mirroring Murad, Contentions, 2/11. 

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

11. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.

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

13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:157.

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

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

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

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

18. ibid., 4:1058-64.

19. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:157.

20. ibid., 4:425.

21. ibid., 4:155.

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

23. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.

24. ibid., 3:419.

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

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

27. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 12:87.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feigning Islamic Learning: Are You a Troublesome Abu Shibr?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We ask Allah that He save us from ourselves.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.5219.

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

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

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

Muslim Controversialists: Thriving on Fitnah on Social Media

THE GREAT SAGE AND scholar of early Islam, al-Hasan al-Basri, once remarked: هِمَّةُ الْعُلَمَاءِ الرِّعَايَةُ وَهِمَّةُ السُّفَهَاءِ الرِّوَايَةُ – ‘The concern of the scholar is to cultivate, the concern of the foolish is to [merely] narrate.’1

One hadith foretells: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted and the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet ﷺ replied: الرَّجلُ التَّافِهُ يتَكَلَّمُ في أمرِ العامَّةِ – ‘The lowly, contemptible one who shall speak out about public affairs.’2

In the topsy-turviness that characterises social deterioration in the end of days, we have been cautioned about the Ruwaybidah. Scholarly commentaries do not specify exactly who the Ruwaybidah are, but do point out their traits. Lexically, being the diminutive of the word rabidah (‘lowly’, ‘despicable’, ‘worthless’), the Ruwaybidah are even lower than worthless: they are utterly worthless. These are people who are incapable of rising up to nobility, lack integrity and, above all, possess little more than a glimmer of religious knowledge.3 In spite of this, they feel to speak out about socio-political affairs beyond their pay grade. They eagerly give fatwas and act as social commentators, despite a lack of learning. And they promote themselves as sincere advisors to the ummah, while having no spiritual grounding and still being wet behind the ears.

Our social media age is one wherein controversies garner huge followings and where, like never before, even the talentless, worthless ruwaybidah may shine. From the embarrassing ignorance of self-proclaimed da’wah-men, through to the tragic rise of maverick pseudo-scholars and muftis, social media is awash with those who thrive on fitnah and controversy. 

It might even be said to have birthed the Muslim “controversialist” – one who craves attention through stirring up quarrelsome egos against the ‘ulema, or by courting highly contentious or dubious positions on theology or law – especially ones that ignore or contravene a well-established scholarly consensus (ijma’). The Golden Rule was expressed by Ibn Taymiyyah, when describing the tell tale signs of the heterodox innovators: وَشِعَارُ هَذِهِ الْفِرَقِ مُفَارَقَةُ الْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ ، فَمَنْ قَالَ بِالْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ  – ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘. But whoever speaks with the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘ is from Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama‘ah.4

Turning Facebook into Disgracebook, or turning Instagram into Fitnahgram, may help gain us a larger following or more likes. It may be a winning formula in terms of our murky desires for self-promotion. It might even assuage an ego desperate for attention and self-glory. But such insincerity will corrupt hearts and damage whatever little relationship we have with our Lord. Such dark and devious schism-mongering is wicked enough in itself. But when one adds to it the corrupting nature of certain social media algorithms, like that of Facebook’s which exploit the brain’s attraction to divisiveness; and how these algorithms are designed to create bubbles around us that keep us insulated from different viewpoints, thereby notching up intolerance levels, then it is an alarming case of darkness upon darkness! Worse still is that such controversialists know that they have a hungry audience waiting for them out there on social media: eager to devour their malignant content, revel in the latest schism, or gloat over how they and their clique are discovering ‘truths’ which have been veiled from even the scholarly consensus! The dal mudill, the misguided and misguiding, all too often make appropriate bedfellows.

As for using the religion to get noticed, or become a controversialist, or for other types of egotistical self-promotion, then those in whose hearts godliness still flickers, and whose fitrah still flinches at the thought of hypocrisy, will surely profit from the following exhortation:

Imam Muslim has recorded an incident which took place during one of the early Muslim fitnahs, or political controversies: Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas was tending his sheep and camels when his son, ‘Umar, came to him. When Sa’d saw him, he remarked: “I seek refuge in Allah from the evil of this rider.” When the son dismounted, he said to him: “You tend your sheep and camels while people are arguing over who is to rule?” Sa’d struck ‘Umar on the chest and then said: “Be quiet! For I heard Allah’s Messenger ﷺ say: إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْعَبْدَ التَّقِيَّ الْغَنِيَّ الْخَفِيَّ – ‘Allah loves the servant who is God-fearing, content and hidden [not known].’”5

I began with the saying of al-Hasan al-Basri, so let me end with another one of his wisdoms. He once entered upon a group of people who were disputing, to which he said: مَا هَؤُلاءِ إِلَّا قَوْمٌ مَلُّوا الْعِبَادَةَ ، وَوَجَدُوا الْكَلامَ أَهْوَنَ عَلَيْهِمْ ، وَقَلَّ وَرَعُهُمْ ، فَتَكَلَّمُوا – ‘Such are ones who’ve grown bored of worship; speaking has become easy for them, their piety has diminished, hence they talk.’6

I think that probably sums-up the psychology behind so much of our religious controversies on social media. And Allah knows best. 

We ask Allah for safety.

1. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.39.

2. Ibn Majah, no.4036; Ahmad, no.7899; al-Hakim, Mustadrak,4:465, saying: ‘Its chain is sahih.’

3. See: Sunan Ibn Majah bi Sharh al-Sindi (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1996), 4:377.

4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:346.

5. Muslim, no.2965.

6. Cited in Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 2:156-57.

Humiliation of the Muslims: Causes & Cure

In one hadith that is so incredibly relevant to our times and our plight – which pinpoints the causes for why Muslims shall suffer collective humiliation and weakness, and what the cure for such socio-political degradation is – we read: ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, narrates; that he heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ saying:

إِذَا تَبَايَعْتُمْ بِالْعِينَةِ ، وَأَخَذْتُمْ أَذْنَابَ الْبَقَرِ ، وَرَضِيتُمْ بِالزَّرْعِ ، وَتَرَكْتُمْ الْجِهَادَ ، سَلَّطَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكُمْ ذُلًّا لَا يَنْزِعُهُ حَتَّى تَرْجِعُوا إِلَى دِينِكُمْ

‘When you deal in ‘inah transactions, hold on to the tails of cows, are content with farming, and abandon jihad, Allah shall permit your humiliation and He will not lift it from you, until you return back to your religion.’1

Let’s unpack the hadith and break it down into bite size chunks, so to speak, in order to better deliberate over the lessons and implications embedded in it:

إِذَا تَبَايَعْتُمْ بِالْعِينَةِ – ‘WHEN YOU DEAL IN ‘INAH TRANSACTIONS’:

‘Inah is a form of a sale which, on the face of it seems completely legitimate as far as Islamic law is concerned, but in reality it is merely a cunning legal ‘trick’ (hiylah) to make money through usury/interest (riba). It is to sell something at a price to be paid at a later date (i.e. deferred payment), but to then buy it back at a lower price for cash on the spot. The upshot is that the initial buyer walks away with cash, but must pay back a higher amount at a later date.

So, as an example, Bilal needs to borrow £500 for one year from Zayd, but Zayd wants £600 back; which, of course, Bilal cannot agree to because that would be riba – interest! So Zayd suggests the following: Zayd sells Bilal a laptop for £600 to be paid for at the end of twelve months. That done, Zayd then buys the laptop back from Bilal, there and then, for £500 cash on the spot. The end result is that Bilal walks away with £500 cash; however, at the end of one year, he owes Zayd £600. Whilst the two transactions, taken separately, are each lawful and sound, combined together, they amount to Zayd lending Bilal £500, but Bilal having to pay Zayd back £600 a year later – the extra £100 being riba. Such a legal ‘trick’, with the aim of skirting around the Islamic rules concerning the prohibition of interest, is considered forbidden (haram) by most jurists.

Although the person may consider themselves shrewd or clever at having found a loophole in the law, or at having evaded the shari‘ah ban on riba; in reality, all they have achieved is combining a sinful act with trying to cheat or deceive God! How clever is that?! The attitude is worse than the actual deed. When such an action; or indeed, such an attitude, becomes widespread in society, it doesn’t take the religious imagination much to realise the possible consequences.

As a side point: Classical Muslim jurists recognised two types of hiylah – legal ‘tricks’ or ‘stratagems’. One used to circumvent a divine order or divine aim, the other for ta‘lim al-makhraj: providing an exit for one in difficulty, all the while keeping Allah’s commands and the purpose of the law uppermost in mind. For most legalists, the first is the forbidden type of hiylah; the second, the lawful type. Ibn al-Qayyim explains: ‘If the aim is good then the hiylah is also good, if it is bad then the hiylah is also bad. If the aim is obedience and worship then the hiylah is likewise: if the aim is disobedience or iniquity so is the hiylah.2 In other words, the legality of a hiylah is tied to the individual purpose it serves.

وَأَخَذْتُمْ أَذْنَابَ الْبَقَرِ – ‘HOLD ON TO THE TAILS OF COWS’

This is a figurative expression, referring to how – in pre-modern societies – a farmer who ploughed the land would walk behind the cow or ox, driving it on. Hence it is like holding on to the tail of a cow. And as we shall soon see below, this isn’t a censure or blame of farming or ploughing the land, per se. But it is a censure of becoming so preoccupied with one’s job or vocation, that it becomes of greater concern than works of faith and preparing for the afterlife.

وَرَضِيتُمْ بِالزَّرْعِ – ‘CONTENT WITH FARMING’

This is similar to the above, in that it is a rebuke of becoming so engrossed with farming and tilling the land, to the extent that this worldly matter is of greater concern, or greater priority, than Allah and the afterlife. This is particularly so when we prefer devoting our time and energy to our jobs or other worldly goals, over and above jihad – striving and sacrificing – for the sake of Allah. We read in the Qur’an: يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مَا لَكُمْ إِذَا قِيلَ لَكُمْ انفِرُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ اثَّاقَلْتُمْ إِلَى الْأَرْضِO you who believe! What is it with you that when you are asked to go forth in the cause of Allah you cling heavily to the earth [Q.9:38]; that is, you show a reluctance; an aversion, even, clutching instead to a life of ease, comfort and materialism. The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Whoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’3

The verse continues by asking: أَرَضِيتُمْ بِالْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا مِنْ الْآخِرَةِDo you prefer the life of this world to the Hereafter? [Q.9:38]; i.e., as one scholar wrote in explanation to this part of the verse: ‘The reaction is like that of someone who is pleased with the world and strives his utmost in it, having no care for the Afterlife. It is like he doesn’t really believe in it.’4

The verse concludes: فَمَا مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا فِي الْآخِرَةِ إِلَّا قَلِيلٌBut little is the comfort of this life as compared with the Hereafter. [Q.9:38] Unto that, the believer holds.

وَتَرَكْتُمْ الْجِهَادَ – ‘ABANDON JIHAD’

That is, forsaking the duty of jihad wherein lies the strength, honour and glory of the religion. Thus one does not wage jihad (or even desire to do so) for Allah’s sake: neither with one’s wealth, one’s physical self, or one’s tongue in defence of revealed truths – not a military jihad against the enemies of Al-Rahman, nor a spiritual jihad against one’s hawa, nafs or shaytan.5

سَلَّطَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْكُمْ ذُلًّ – ‘ALLAH SHALL PERMIT YOUR HUMILIATION.’

Which is to say that when people engage in acts of disobedience and ignominy, Allah will afflict them with humiliation, dishonour and disgrace, since: al-jaza’ min jins al-‘aml – ‘The recompense is proportional to the deed.’ Indeed, every time we disobey the command of the Prophet ﷺ, we expose ourselves to some share of humiliation. The Prophet ﷺ cautioned: ‘Humiliation and ignominy is for one who opposes my command.’6 This echoes the Holy Qur’an, which warns us in no uncertain terms: Let those who oppose his order beware lest an affliction befall them or lest there visits them a painful punishment. [Q.24:63]

So when people try to evade the prohibition of riba through legal trickery and, by extension, evade other commands or prohibitions of the religion; and when they are so absorbed in worldly pursuits, giving them precedence over religious obligations or working for the afterlife; and when they give up jihad for Allah’s sake, then Allah will allow lowliness and humiliation to be inflicted upon them at the hands of other nations – a sad reality that has already occurred.

In fact, whenever a believing community or nation begin to change themselves from putting their religious duties above all else, to making them play second fiddle to worldly goals and consumerist ambitions, then this is only unleashing the genie from the bottle, and a change in fortunes from good to bad is the only inevitable outcome. The Qur’an speaks to this reality, declaring: That is because Allah never changes the blessings He has bestowed on a people until they change that which is in themselves. [Q.8:53]

Likewise, whenever wrongdoing and disobedience to Allah become endemic in society, despite the presence of some saintly souls and godly worshippers in it, the Holy Qur’an tells us that this is inviting tyrants and wrongdoers to be given the reigns of political authority, as a consequence of the sinful behaviour of the masses: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [Q.6:129]

In 28H (649CE), the first Muslim naval expedition was launched against Cyprus, which was under the Byzantine empire’s rule; now in the twilight of its years. The Muslim army quickly overran the small Byzantine garrison and its people were soon paying tribute to the Muslim victors. On seeing the ease with which this once powerful empire lay defeated, Abu’l-Darda began to cry. When asked why he wept on the day Allah had given victory to Islam and the Muslims, he said: ‘Woe to you, O Jubayr! How insignificant a people become to Allah when they neglect His commands. Here is a nation which was once mighty, powerful and had dominion. Then they neglected Allah’s commands, now look what has become of them.’

And this ummah will never escape its humiliation or its fall from grace … hatta tarji‘u ila dinikum: until you return back to your religion.

حَتَّى تَرْجِعُوا إِلَى دِينِكُمْ – ‘UNTIL YOU RETURN BACK TO YOUR RELIGION.’

Lessons of history may, in many cases, require interpretation. In this case the lesson here is spelt out in simple words, for all to read: That this humiliation will continue to plague us until we return back to establishing our religion and fulfilling our religious duties – as Allah intended, in the way He intended. And no amount of secularising, liberalising or compromising on Islamic norms will change this servile reality. In fact, it will only make it worse.

What is required is nothing less than courage and a prophetic uprising in order to return back to the religion. This entails that we first and foremost honour Allah by revering His orders and prohibitions; work for the Hereafter and give it priority over earthly aims or acquisitions; and wisely and courageously engage the various types of jihad that Allah has obligated us with. In fact, the matter is more dire than most people realise. For the upshot of doing those things spoken of in the above hadith is so grave that the Prophet ﷺ: ‘likened it to apostatising and leaving the religion.’8 The Holy Qur’an says: Say: If your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your wives, your tribe, the wealth you have gained, the trade you fear may slacken, and the homes you love – if they are dearer to you than Allah and His Messenger and jihad in His cause, then wait until Allah brings about His command. Allah guides not the corrupt. [Q.9:24]

 IN CONCLUSION

The truth of the matter is that when we become too comfy in the consumerist world; when we allow the dunya to distract us from our religious obligations, which includes the duty of jihad; and as we get more and more entangled in the monoculture’s deceptive mind control in a way that makes us servile and numbs our soul, then this is the destruction that is meant in the verse: And do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. [Q.2:195] Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, may Allah be pleased with him, said: ‘This verse was revealed about us, a group of the Ansar. When Allah gave victory to His Prophet and made Islam dominant, we said: “Come, let us stay with our wealth and properties in order to improve it.” It was then that Allah, mighty and majestic is He, sent down the verse: Spend in the cause of Allah, and do not cast yourselves into destruction by your own hands. [Q. 2:195] To cast ourselves into destruction by our own hands meant we stayed with our wealth and properties, and neglected jihad.’9

Let’s close with this thought. Given the confusion and intra-Muslim squabbling over the best way out of our subjugation and socio-political malaise, it could be that there are only two questions which really need asking. Despite us Muslims having tried the various isms and ideologies which others have demanded we follow – nationalism, Marxism, capitalism, and now liberalism – are we as an ummah still humiliated? And does the above hadith offer us a clear-cut answer and method of how to reverse our fortunes? The answer to both questions is in the affirmative. That being so, isn’t it high time we buck the trend, put all of the political philosophising to bed, and earnestly pursue the ways of the Lord?

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Ahmad, no.4987; Abu Dawud, no.3462. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chains to be excellent (jayyid) in Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 29:30; al-Albani analysed the hadith and its many chains, giving it a grading of sahih, in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), 1:1:42; no.11.

2. Ighathat al-Lahfan (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1999), 659.

3. Muslim, no.1910.

4. Al-Sa‘di, Taysir Karim al-Rahman (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2012), 374.

5. See: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), 1:514, no.514; also consult my article on this blog: Jihad & Martyrdom, War & Peace.

6. Abu Dawud, no.4031. Ibn Taymiyyah said, Iqtida al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2003), 163: ‘Its chain is excellent (jayyid).

7. Cited in Ahmad, al-Zuhd (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1999), 117; no.763.

8. Al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir, 1:514.

9. Abu Dawud, no.2512; al-Tirmidhi, no.2972, stating: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih gharib.’

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