This article revolves around three questions: (1) Does translating din as ‘religion’ imply that it is only a private matter, having nothing at all to do with the public sphere – which is what people usually associate with the term religion? (2) If iman is translated as ‘faith’, does that not suggest it is ‘blind faith’ – which, again, is what many people think when they hear the word ‘faith’; that it is belief without evidence? (3) And what is the type of nazr -“reasoned reflection” – that the Qur’an constantly urges us with, so that people do not have blind faith in God or in the Qur’an?
Back in 2013, I wrote that the theologically correct term for a non-Muslim who becomes a Muslim is a ‘convert’, not a ‘revert’! After all, the Prophet ﷺ, whilst informing us that all people are born on the fitrah (predisposing them to the message of tawhid and Islam), he never actually said to those who became Muslim that, ‘You have re-entered Islam’, or ‘You have become Muslim again’. In other words, you have reverted. Instead, his call to people was simply: aslim – ‘enter into Islam,’ ‘submit,’ ‘become a Muslim’.1 He never asked them to ‘re-enter’ Islam; to revert! Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him, when he said: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’2 Again, he didn’t say: since the time ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘reverted back to Islam.’
In the end I said that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps there’s room in the language for both words: convert and revert (even if the first is theologically correct, and the other is not; and even if it’s the ‘revert posse’ that usually gets all agitated about it). Perhaps it’s just a case of a storm in a teacup?
Here I’ll interrogate two more Islamic terms which, if translated inaccurately or poorly, can lead to great obfuscation or significantly alter the sense of the word. Of course, there are some words which, no matter how painstakingly a translator attempts to render them into good, appropriate English, much will still be lost in translation:
1 – The first one is din. Often translated as ‘religion’, though many Muslims feel that this is a rather inadequate rendering of the word, and that ‘way of life’ would be more in keeping with the inclusiveness the word implies.
In classical Arabic, din means jaza’ – ‘recompense’ or ‘requital’ for acts done. It can also mean obedience (ta‘ah) and humility (dhillah). Islam as a din, therefore, is to obey Allah and to submit to Him in humility. The origin or etymology of the word din also relates to dayn – ‘debt’. In this reading, din is something we owe God by way of worship and loving submission that is due to Him from us.3 The upshot of this is that Islam as din requires believers to order their affairs so that this submission to God is reflected in every aspect of life; from the personal to the political.
Many say that in its etymology, religion comes from the Latin word religare – ‘to bind.’ In this sense, religion is that relationship which binds us to what is regarded as holy, sacred, divine, or worthy of special reverence. It also relates to the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death.
Given the meaning of din in classical or Quranic Arabic, and the sense that is conveyed by religion in English, religion doesn’t seem such a far-fetched way of rendering the word din into English – if it were not for the following:
Although long in the making, by the twentieth century religion no longer articulated the common social good as it once did. Instead, religion was relegated to the private sphere. This privatisation of faith is now the default assumption when we moderns, at least here in Western Europe, usually speak of religion. Previously, religious expression had been a total one. The Enlightenment’s vision of spheres outside the provenance of religion led to confining religion to a tighter space than it had ever occupied. Some, though, distinguish between ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ conceptions of religion. Jonathan Sacks, quoting Ernst Simon, defined as catholic ‘those religions which seek to sanctify all aspects of the life of the individuals and the community – eating, drinking, work, rest, welfare and legislation, love and war.’ ‘Protestant’ religions arose, he says, when significant areas of public life were wrested from religious guidance or authority. ‘Modernity for Jews,’ he writes, ‘meant the protestentisation of a deeply catholic faith.’4 The same may now be said for Islam and Muslims.
The question of whether liberal modernity can accept Religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould is, despite its commitment to an alleged religious tolerance, one that it has yet to clearly answer. Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right; the duty, even, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated; or reduced to a toothless tigers; or swiftly be branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order? Religion often involves living life on a wing and a prayer.
To conclude: It might not be necessary to go on an all out campaign against ‘religion’ as a translation for din. But we may have to spell out its ‘catholic’ undercurrents whenever we Muslims guardedly choose to employ it.
2 – The other problematic term is ‘faith’ as a translation for iman. Here, whatever else any Muslim theologian (or even a Christian one, for that matter) intends by the word, faith is now deemed by many to be something ill-founded, irrational, against the evidence; even. Spearheading this charge is Richard Dawkins who insists that ‘religious faith … does not depend on rational justification.’5 In fact, ‘Faith’, he states, ‘requires no justification and brooks no argument.’6 The prevalent mood today is that science is about facts and proof, while religion is about mere opinion or faith – by which is meant: credulity; an inclination to believe without sufficient evidence.
So what is the Islamic definition of iman? And how much does it tally up with the idea of faith? And is faith itself something unreasonable, or devoid of reasonable evidence? Let’s briefly go through them one at a time:
Lexically, iman means tasdiq – to ‘affirm’ or ‘attest to’ the truth, reality or correctness of something. Technically, iman is to affirm as true all that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent with, in terms of revelation and religion. Iman, therefore, is a state in which the heart accepts God’s truth and lives by it. Although theologians have differed over the exact link, mainstream Islamic theology, nevertheless, confirms that iman involves an unmistakable correlation between inner beliefs of the heart and outer actions of the limbs.7 Moreover, the deeper and profounder the iman, the greater is the sense of aman – the inner ‘peace’ and ‘security’ gifted by God. Leaving aside its link to actions, it might appear that iman is no different to the current picture of faith as unsubstantiated belief (as per New Atheism’s novel, but reductionist definition), were it not for the following:
The Qur’an says, describing one of the many traumatic laments that those who rejected Islam will have with one another in the Afterlife: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [Q.67:10] Anyone who has read the Qur’an, even in a cursory manner, will not have failed to notice its repetitive instance to think, reflect, consider, and use one’s faculty of reason (‘aql): So, for instance, the Qur’an says: Say: ‘I exhort you to one thing: that you awake for God’s sake, in pairs and individually, and then reflect.’ [Q.34:46] So the Qur’an invites people; cajoles them, even, to employ their sense of reason to deliberate over its message: Thus does God make clear to you His signs that you may reason, [Q.2:242], and that they may understand, [Q.6:65]: or that they may reflect, [Q.7:176] So: Will they not reflect? [Q.6:50].
The Qur’an, therefore, doesn’t demand blind faith. Nor does it ask that we accept without some convincing evidence God’s existence or presence in the cosmos. Instead, it asks that we reflect and consider as evidence the nature of the universe and whether it points to an atheistic understanding of the universe by cosmic fluke, or to the existence of a Designer-God who intended for sentient life to emerge in the universe? Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of the night and day, there are signs for those of intelligence. [Q.3:190] Taking a look at the world or at the larger universe, has led many people to conclude that there must be an intelligent, purposeful creator behind it all. This Creator, sound reasoning can tell us, must be eternal; without cause; but is the uncaused cause of all things. The very existence of our universe rather than an eternal nothingness (i.e. that there is something rather than nothing); the emergence of complex, sentient life; let alone the fine tuning of the universe – these offer proof for the existence of a Creator-God. Many scientists, from Newton to Einstein, or John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins in contemporary times, see these aspects of the universe as evidence of a designer. So to claim, as Dawkins and his ilk do, that theistic Religion isn’t rooted in any rational, reason-based evidence is being disingenuous. It’s just not true! For a believer, the entire cosmos is full of shawahid, witnesses, to the awe and splendour of the Divine Existence.
If using our senses and reason to consider the nature of the universe yields some general understanding about God, it is the Qur’an where the rich details are to be found of an All-Merciful, Beneficent God with whom we can seek closeness and loving intimacy. And just as Islam doesn’t require blind faith in God, the Qur’an itself insists that it be interrogated to see if it is really the Word of God: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from other than God, they would have found therein many contradictions. [Q.4:82] Do they claim: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [Q.52:33-34]
So nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of it or its fundamental theological tenets. Rather, it insists that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a ‘leap of faith’, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too. Indeed, mainstream Sunni theology has honoured this quest for reason-based faith when it says: tajibu ma‘rifatu’Llah ta‘ala shar‘an bi’l-nazr fi’l-wujud wa’l-mawjud ‘ala kulli mukallaf qadir – ‘It is a religious requirement upon ever sane person of legal capacity to know God through reflection upon existents and creation.’8 And while Sunni theology settled on accepting as valid iman that has not come about via nazr, but through taqlid; imitation, the thrust of Islam’s theological project – in order to shake off doubt (shakk) or any skepticism (shubhah) – is towards reflection, reasonable consideration and intelligent inquisitiveness.
The requirement to reflect (nazr) is a casual, general one for those who can only do so in broad outlines, and detailed for those who have the ability to get into the more nitty-gritty stuff. A modern education should allow most people to fall somewhere in the middle. And whilst for some lay Muslims, this theological insistence on nazr is honoured more in the breach than the observance, the principle, nonetheless, remains. If it is not nazr upon the cosmos and the nature of the created order, then the believer is expected to employ such nazr to the Qur’an’s truth claim; or to the profundity, simplicity, honesty and integrity of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ; or for those who lived during or close to the prophetic age, the Muhammadan miracles that have either been witnessed, or mass transmitted, or reliably heard. Whatever the case, faith is to be based on nazr and the conviction (yaqin) it yields. As for recognising God through the fitrah; one’s innate disposition, then given that the modern world has so radically and literally altered our thinking patterns, habits of the heart, and how we intuit and perceive things, it would be unwise to use that as an excuse not to engage in some level of nazr.
To wind-up: The idea that in Islam one is expected to have ‘blind faith’ doesn’t tally with the revealed texts or the mainstream theological teachings. The challenge for Dawkins et al. is to engage the actual arguments from theistic theology; not a strawman of their own creation. As for the word faith (or belief) as a translation for iman, despite its drawbacks or misrepresentations, I’m not sure what else could be used as a suitable replacement?
1. See: Al-Bukhari, no.1356.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.
3. See: al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 321; and al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:120-21.
4. Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (London: Continuum, 2005), 4.
5. The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2008), 31.
Q. As Muslims, what should our stance be on racism or racial discrimination, and should we be supporting social justice movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM)? And isn’t all of this support for BLM privileging justice for black people over others, especially when we Muslims realise the increasing Islamophobia and injustices being perpetrated against our fellow Muslim brothers and sisters around the globe?
A. At the outset, let me be clear about how I intend to engage these concerns. And that is by rooting them in mainstream teachings of Islam so as to address the issue of racism in a manner that might be meaningful in a British context, and recognised as being Islamic in a Muslim one. I have divided the response into five parts: [i] Islam & racism; [ii] modernity & racism; [iii] Britain & racism; [iv] Muslims & racism; and [v] BLM & racism.
I. ISLAM & RACISM
Although the following verse is not speaking of the modern social construct of racism per se, it is speaking to the pre-modern concept of groupings of people related by significant common descent; in terms of location, language, history and culture. Thus we read in the Holy Qur’an: O mankind! We have created you from a male and female, and then made you nations and tribes that you might know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is he who is the most pious. God is indeed Knowing, Aware. [Q.49:13]
The Prophet ﷺ brought skin colour into the mix in these words: ‘O mankind! Indeed your Lord is one, and indeed your father is one. Truly, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab, nor a non-Arab over an Arab; nor white (ahmar, lit. ‘red’ or ‘reddish’) over black, nor black over white – except by piety. Have I not conveyed [the message]?’1
In fact, the Qur’an doesn’t only negatively condemn such discrimination, but it positively and actively celebrates diversity too: And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the differences of your languages and your colours. In this are signs for people of knowledge. [Q.30:22]
The above verses and prophetic statement, then, were a total restructuring of the moral or ethical landscape prevalent throughout Arabia at the time. True worth would no longer be determined by skin colour, lineage, or even by grandiose shows of courage or generosity. Rather, true worth would be measured by taqwa – ‘piety,’ ‘godliness’ and ‘mindfulness’ of God’s commands and prohibitions.
Once, when one of the Prophet’s wives hurled a racial slur (or ethnoreligious insult, as we might say today) at another co-wife in a state of annoyance, disparagingly called her ‘the daughter of a Jew’, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Indeed, your [fore]father [Moses] was a Prophet; your [great] uncle [Aaron] was a Prophet; and you are married to a Prophet. What can she boast to you about?’2 Again, when one companion insulted another person, by insulting his mother because she was a non-Arab, the Prophet ﷺ said to him: ‘You still have some pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah) in you.’3 Thus no Muslim has even the slightest right to resurrect the vile attitude of racism; xenophobia; tribal bigotry; or insulting people due to them being seen as the ‘Other’, when the Prophet ﷺ radically eliminated such attitudes from the believer’s worldview and relationships. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘There isn’t a single verse in God’s Book that praises someone or censures someone due to just their lineage. Instead, praise is due to faith and piety, while blame is because of disbelief, immorality or disobedience.’4
II. MODERNITY & RACISM
In the 1830s, Samuel Morton, an American craniologist, amassed and studied hundreds of human skulls so as to measure differences in brain size between people from various ethnic backgrounds. Morton believed he had used science to prove that white people were intellectually superior to other ‘races’. In his Crania Americana, Morton declared that not only did white people have larger brains and thus were intellectually superior to all other races, but also that black people had the smallest brains sizes and were hence inferior to all others. Morton and others used this conclusion as a ‘scientific’ justification to continue slavery in the United States and negatively stereotype black people. Many hold Morton to be the founding father of scientific racism. It’s here that, based upon this pseudo-science and on certain superficial differences in physiological traits, the categorisation of people into distinct ‘races’ begins in earnest. And while the institutional racism, racial prejudice, and white supremacy that was to follow were directed at all races in Morton’s descending hierarchy, providing adequate grounds to treat other races differently, in terms of rights and privileges, it would be black people (at the supposed bottom of the heap) that would bear the greatest and most sustained brunt of it.
Of course, modern science has long since shown that brain size isn’t necessarily related to intelligence. Instead, brain size is tied to things like environment, climate and body size, while intelligence is more related to how many neurons, or how efficient the connections between neurons, are in the brain. Indeed, modern science has also largely debunked the biological basis of race, showing that there is as much genetic diversity within such racial groups as there is between them. Science now regards race as a conventional attribution; a social construct, but not a scientifically rooted or valid classification. And while today we tend to favour the term ethnicity over the arbitrary construct of ‘race’ based upon skin colour and physiognomy, race remains, for some, a focus of individual and group identity, particularly members of socially disadvantaged groups, like blacks, where it oftentimes is a source of pride and joy. All this has led many anthropologists to argue that since there is no scientific basis for race, we should just chuck the whole idea in the bin. Others say that if we’re going to continue to insist on the social fiction of racial differences, let it be based on ethical considerations that enhance justice, fairness and familiarity between peoples, not hatred, discrimination and xenophobia. In fact, this latter way of looking at ethnic or racial divides is probably more in keeping with what Islam wants for humanity. After all, God made of us nations and tribes lita‘arafu – ‘that you might know one another.’
The above, then, amidst the activities of European empires and colonialism is where such modern ideas of racial discrimination and racism were birthed; ideas and realities which still reverberate frustratingly down to these present times. Just how many ordinary white Britons internalised the racist pseudo-science over the past one hundred and fifty years or so, not because they were particularly bad or evil people, but because they believed the ‘science’, is anyone’s guess. Add to that the usual xenophobia that often exists against the outsider, the modern feats and achievements of white Western Europe which feed into the idea of white exceptionalism or supremacy, and the political utility of whipping up blame against immigrants in times of national difficulty and economic downturn, make for well-entrenched myths and discrimination against people of colour.
III. BRITAIN & RACISM
Although the history of the United States is drenched in racism; with the issue of race still being the most painful, divisive one for its citizens, it is racism in Britain – my home, and where I was born and raised – that I’d like to confine my remarks and anecdotes to. And in Britain, just as in America, while peoples of diverse ethnic minorities have undeniably been, and continue to be, victims of racism, it is discrimination against black people that is by far the more endemic and systemic.
The recent anti-racist protests that are taking place across the country aren’t just to show anger about the death of yet another black man, George Floyd, at the hands of yet another American police officer. They are also protests against the systemic racism here in Britain too. Long before racism against blacks, Asians, and Eastern Europeans, Jews as a people, and also the Irish, suffered racism in Britain. Jewish people still do; and we Muslims are fast becoming the new Jews (or even the new Blacks).
Whilst structural or institutional racism is difficult to conclusively prove, the lived reality of people of colour, as well as statistics after statistics, or report after report, all point to similar conclusions: Britain has a race problem. It doesn’t just have a problem with casual racism (now called micro aggression; as experienced in schools, jobs or everyday life), or racism born from unconscious bias (snap decisions conditioned by cultural upbringing or personal experience); it has a problem of systemic racism too – racial discrimination and negative stereotyping within many of its key institutions: the police force and the criminal justice system deemed to be among the main culprits.
It is, of course, argued that although Britain does indeed have individual racists, and that acts of racism do tragically still occur here, but Britain itself; even if it may have been in the recent past, isn’t institutionally racist anymore. We have the Equalities Act of 2010, as one of the clearest proofs against any institutional racism.
Or the case has been put that, ever since the Macpherson Report of 1999, which came as a result of the murder of Stephen Lawrence, in 1993 – and the two words in it that stood out from the rest of the 350 page report, that London’s Metropolitan Police was ‘institutionally racist’ – Britain’s police forces have internalised the criticism and have come on leaps and bounds since then: individually and institutionally. So to describe Britain’s police forces as still being systemically racist is unjust and unfair; or so the argument goes.
Be that as it may; and while many positive changes of both mind and structure have been sincerely made, the stark, present-day statistics tell us another story. Modern Britain is a place where black people, in contrast to white ones are: 10 times more likely to be stopped and searched; 4 time more likely to be arrested; twice as likely to be temporarily excluded from school; and 3 times as likely to be permanently excluded from school; and twice as likely to die in police custody. From any unbiased standard, does this look anywhere like equality? And just as importantly, are we saying that institutional racism is totally absent from these numbers?5
For most of my life, I’ve lived on one council estate or another in East London. In my pre-teen years, I grew up on an estate in Chingford, where most of the people were white, with a few Afro-Caribbean families and a couple of Asian ones: my family being one of them. I, like many other non-whites of my generation, encountered my share of racist abuse; and for a short time, a little racist bullying too. On the whole, I got along with most kids on the estate and at its primary school, regardless of colour; and they got along with me.
For my entire teen years, I lived on another estate in Leytonstone, where this time most of the residents were black. It was the mid 1970s, and it was a time when many young black people were, I wouldn’t say suffering an identity crisis, but more that they were searching for an identity. For unlike their parents, they were neither Jamaican, Bajan [Barbadian], or Trinidadian, nor did they feel (or were made to feel) totally British. Instead, young black Britons were turning to their Blackness to make sense of their place in Britain, developing a sense of collective cultural identity in the process. I felt a greater affinity to that culture, than I did any other. Voices like Bob Marley, Burning Spear, the Wailing Souls and Black Uhuru spoke to our plight and our aspirations. But whilst their conscious lyrics of roots reggae was coming out of Jamaica, it was home-grown, British reggae artists that would tell our own specifically British story: artists like Steel Pulse, Black Roots, Mikey Dread or, particularly for me, Aswad (or early Aswad, from ’76-’82). Aswad sang of African Children (which I’d swap in my mind for ‘immigrant’ children) ‘living in a concrete situation;’ in ‘precast stone walls, concrete cubicles. Their rent increasing each and every other day; Structural repairs are assessed and yet not done; Lift out of action on the twenty-seventh floor; And when they work, they smell.’ All of us youths crammed into the estate’s small youth centre, smiled, nodded away approvingly, and perfectly identified with the message when we first heard such conscious lyrics booming out at us. Whilst Marley spoke of the daily ghetto struggles of growing up in the concrete jungle of Kingston 12; Trenchtown, for me, Aswad spoke of parallel struggles growing up in the concrete situation of Leytonstone E11. We all a feel it, yes we a feel it!
Back to racism. My one little anecdotal proof of black victimisation from the police comes from the time when I was living on Leytonstone’s Cathall Road Estate. Police raids were a fairly usual occurrence on our estate as well as in the youth centre; sometimes with actual justification. In the youth centre, the police (usually with their police dogs), would stomp in; turn off the music; stamp out any spliff that was lit up; and then we’d all be told to line up against the wall with our hands behind our heads. Every time this happened, without exception, when it came to searching me, they never did. They’d simply insist that I leave the centre, or go home, which I would. I’d then usually come back half an hour or an hour later, and resume playing pool, table-tennis or bar football; or just soak up the vibes (not the spliff). Once, after a raid had happened, I came back to the centre, only for one of my close Rasta friends to advise me that it would be best if I stay home for a few days. I asked why? He told me that some people who hang out at the centre, but who don’t really know me, nor live on the actual estate, are saying that it’s odd that I never get searched and that maybe I was a grass. It would be an understatement if I said that I was scared stiff. I took the advice, and stayed away from the centre for a week, till I got the nod that things were all okay. A month or so later, and yet another raid. But this time, for me it was a Godsend: they actually searched me! I felt relieved, vindicated, and took it as a badge of honour. My point being is that throughout the ’70s and ’80s, there were countless times when I saw specifically black people stigmatised and victimised by the police.
To be honest, by the mid 1980s, with the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism doing their thing against the far-right National Front; with Reggae and Two-Tone Ska bands and gigs more and more mixing blacks and whites; and with attitudes of the young positively changing, I thought (perhaps naively) that racism in Britain would liklely be a thing of the past by the mid ’90s. Optimism, of course, is entirely healthy, as long as it doesn’t become blind to realism.
IV. MUSLIMS & RACISM
Here I’d like to speak about something that some Muslims will find uncomfortable: which is that we Muslims need to admit the anti-black racism that infects our own communities. Sadly, racism against black people – including fellow black Muslims – is all too common among British Asian Muslims of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi descent. Whether it is being stared at by elderly Asians in the mosque and so made to feel self-conscious, to the way we of South Asian descent use the word kala, ‘black’, in a derogatory way; or whether it’s about marriage, or thinking all black Muslims must be converts and then dishing out patronising praise to them over basic acts like making wudhu – this un-Islamic nonsense; this jahiliyyah, simply has to stop.
We must speak to our elders about their anti-black racism. We need to respectfully discuss why so many of our mosques continue to make black Muslims feel unwelcome, or drive them away, and what can be done about it? Yet while our masjids are undeniably masjids; ‘Most mosques function as “race temples” created as enclosures for single ethnicities, and their mono-ethnic and introspective leadership are generally unfamiliar with any novelty occurring outside their silos.’6 Such ‘race temples’ are where Ethnic Islam rules the roost, even at the cost of shari‘ah race equality, sirah hospitality, or sunnah unity.
But racism isn’t just an issue with South Asian elders. It lurks in the hearts and minds of my generation too; and maybe that of my children’s? It’s less the stares or the ignorance about Black achievements, and more the negative stereotyping; post-colonial complexes; desperation to whiten-up; or outright racism when it comes to marriage. Here as an Asian Muslim parent, I’m happy for my daughter or son to marry – religiously speaking – some adamant fasiq or fasiqah – especially if they are of a lighter complexion: but I could never accept them marring a godly, well-mannered, responsible Black person! But we convince ourselves we are not racist: after all, I love the sahabi, Bilal. I weep when I read Bilal’s life story. My good friend, Bilal, is black. But the proof is in the pudding, and the truth is that we need to move beyond tokenism; beyond Bilal.
Those Muslims who make an issue of colour; whose racist or tribal mindsets lead them to look down upon a person of darker colour or treat them unequally, let them consider the son-in-law of the Prophet ﷺ, and fourth Caliph, sayyiduna ‘Ali b. Abi Talib. The classical biographers all state: kana ‘ali adam, shadid al-udmah – ‘Ali was black, jet black.7 Or take our master ‘Umar who is also described in the same terms.8 The colour, adam may refer to skin complexion which is dark brown, like a native American; or darker still, like in native Australian aborigines; or jet black, like many Africans. When the phrase, shadid al-udmah is added, ‘extremely dark’, then there’s no mistaking what is meant: a person who, for all intents and purposes, is black. Such a description seems quite usual for the Arabs among the sahabah. Black skin is also the colour of the lady with whom the whole Muhammadan saga begins: our lady Hagar (Hajarah); she was a black Egyptian. Or consider the Prophet Moses, peace be upon him. Our Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘As for Moses, he was tall and dark brown, as like the men of al-Zutt.’9 The Zutt were a well-known tribe of tall dark men from the Sudan.10 After knowing the above, if we are still going to look down at people merely due to their darker complexion, then what ghustakh; what mockery and disrespect will we be possibly drowning in?
Islam is neither racist nor colour blind. It wants us to understand that skin colour has no intrinsic worth, only piety does. Yet at the same time, it allows us to celebrate differences in a way that does not offend Heaven, and in a way that causes us to offer joyful thanks to the One Who is the Maker of all Colours.
So let’s have the conversations. Let’s have some serious introspection. Let’s listen to what Black Muslims have to say. Let’s desire to be healers, not dividers. Let’s educate ourselves about the reality of Black lives in general, and Black Muslim lives in particular. Olusoga’s Black & British and Akala’s Natives are good places to start. Sherman Jackson’s Islam and the Problem of Black Suffering is, with its theological insights, a must read. Above all, let’s work towards not just being non-racist, but anti-racist.
Change, thankfully, is in the air. For urban, millennial Muslims, and those of a generation younger still, these older ethnic divides are more and more of an irrelevance in their lives (though I’m not sure how much this applies to those raised in ethnic silos in Britain’s less urbanised cities). Such millennials have heard the stories of the intra-ethnic fighting; the anti-black racism; the token hospitality to black Muslims, but without ever giving them a voice; and the fruitless attempts to make the ‘race temples’ more inclusive, and how after decades, it’s a case of banging heads and brick walls. So owing to this, they are seeking to create more inclusive, culturally more meaningful spaces; away from all this toxic, ethnic Islam. Surely that’s where the rest of us should be heading too?
V. BLM & RACISM
The Qur’an says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2] Between this verse and the hilf al-fudul pact the Prophet ﷺ upheld and endorsed even after prophethood, we have a solid religious basis for supporting any individual or group working for issues of social justice: be it for Muslims or non-Muslims; be it led by Muslims or non-Muslims.
The Black Lives Matter movement has proven itself to be a powerful and effective vehicle over the past five years to demand reform in terms of anti-Black racism; with their current focus on justice for George Floyd and his family. Thus, how can Muslims not support it? Of course, we cannot give any organisation carte blanche support. Religiously, we Muslims cannot give unconditional support to anybody save to God and His Prophet ﷺ. Given that BLM has a few stated aims that are inconsistent with Islam’s theology (‘freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking’ is one of them, for instance), our activism must be guided by sacred knowledge and illumined by revealed guidance. Our intention is not supporting BLM, as such. Instead, it’s a case of making a stand against injustice, in this case anti-Black racism: supporting those individuals or organisations that are likely to be the most effective in achieving this goal. (It should go without saying, that we can work for justice for more than one cause or more than one set of people at the same time). And this is what the above verse and the hilf al-fudul pact have in mind. And just like the BLM describes itself as ‘unapologetically Black’, perhaps some of us need to be a tad more unapologetically Muslim?
But let’s take our focus off such theological nuances for now, and tie a ribbon around the whole thing and say: Let us, at least in spirit and in principle, if not in body, fully support Black Lives Matter as a cause, more than as a movement, in seeking to resolve structural racism; get justice done for all the George Floyds and all the Stephen Lawrences; and to get people to reflect on their own attitudes to racism and the racial ‘Other’ – ensuring our knee isn’t on the necks of others. We should support the overall goals of any grassroots movement that is working for a fairer, more just and tolerant Britain for everyone: black or white. Of course, for that to happen, from a Black Muslim perspective, anti-Black racism as well as an ever-growing Islamophobia must be tackled. Currently in Britain, God forbid that you are ostensibly a Muslim and Black!
Racism affects all people of colour. But when it comes to black people, they face a unique anti-black prejudice as the ultimate Other, propagated both by white majorities and even other ethnic minorities. As a marginalised community South Asians, no doubt, have their own prejudices thrown their way. But they are not the same lived experiences as that of Black people. And while it can be easy to lump everyone together and perceive ourselves as having a shared trauma, statistics show that this equivalence is not really true.
In closing, I’d like to thank my youngest daughter, Atiyyah, for inspiring me to revisit and renew my ideas on anti-black racism; and my friend, Dr Abdul Haqq Baker for prompting me to write this piece, offering invaluable suggestions, and then reviewing it for me.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22978. Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be sahih in Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Dar Ishbiliyah, 1998), 1:412.
2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3894, where he declared the hadith to be hasan sahih.
3. Al-Bukhari, nos.2545; 6050.
4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:230.
Often rendered into English as ‘theology’, ‘ilm al-kalam (or kalam, for short) is the science which establishes and elaborates upon matters of doctrine and belief. Because it depends upon reason-based arguments, it is ‘discursive’: hence ‘ilm al-kalam is sometimes referred to as discursive theology. In its more conjectural or philosophical form – a form where it does not play a supportive role to the textual-based conclusions of the Islamic Revelation, but rather infers positions from its own first principles – ‘ilm al-kalam is often referred to as speculative theology. As for those theologians who are practitioners of kalam, they are called mutakallimun.
This article seeks to address four core issues:  The position of kalam in Sunni Islam;  the Hanbali position[s] concerning it;  its pros, cons and true purpose;  its relevance, if any, in today’s intellectually, faith challenging milieu – especially in terms of being able to offer cogent, articulate, Islamically-grounded responses to atheism and scientism.
1.Kalam (lit. ‘speech’, ‘discourse’) about God, using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments, found its way into early Muslim thought during the Abbasid period, via Arabic translations of the Greek philosophical legacy; particularly that of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring this philosophical reasoning to bear upon certain theological issues was the Mu‘tazilah. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – that is, to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, on certain theological matters to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. They were known to dismiss, distort or play fast and loose with verses from Revelation or prophetic hadiths, if these didn’t fit in with their Greek-inspired philosophical rationalisations.
2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from such kalam, usually with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous or, according to another reading, close to unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i stated: ‘We are not people of kalam.‘1 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; for the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’2 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’3 As for Imam Ahmad, his words on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’4 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’5 This latter saying of Imam Ahmad suggests there was some sort of Sunni kalam in vogue, as opposed to the widespread Mu‘tazilite one that the like of the above salaf-reports were apparently addressing, and that ostensibly he seemed to reject even that.
3. In contrast to a large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them which state that kalam is lawful, so long as it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and ijma‘ of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify, or twist them. From them is this saying from al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’6 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’7
4. Imam al-Bayhaqi also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam, for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; and as we have already mentioned.’8
5. The distinction between blameworthy and praiseworthy kalam began to gain traction among the scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent, primarily from the more purist, fideistic Hanbalis/Salafis. This approach ranged from an overall rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.9
6.Those who employed ‘ilm al-kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun stated about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by using rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’10 Of course, even from the pro-kalam viewpoint, there were always individuals who went into excess concerning it, or who sometimes simply lost the actual plot!
7. In asserting what he considered to be the middle ground on the issue of ‘ilm al-kalam, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about it:‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11
8. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the full story. Whilst there is an absolutist, anti-kalam stance amongst Hanbalis, the historical truth of the matter is that there is a pro-kalam stance too. The anti-kalam sentiment is best exemplified by Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, a pillar of the madhhab, who wrote a scathing tract against delving into any sort of kalam, rebutting the Hanbali polymath Ibn ‘Aqil for having done so. In it he wrote, with the usual characteristic hostility of a purist against kalam: ‘As for him [i.e. Ibn ‘Aqil], his faction consist of the people of kalam. To speak of them is only to censure them, to warn against them, to cause [people] to flee from associating with them, to order abandoning and shunning them, and to abandon looking into their books.’ He then cites Imam Ahmad, al-Shafi‘i and Abu Yusuf in their rebuke of kalam and then he wrote: ‘And Ahmad b. Ishaq al-Maliki declared: “The people of innovations and [false] desires, in the view of our [Maliki] colleagues, are the people of kalam. So every person of kalam is from the followers of false desires and innovations, be he an Ash‘ari, or not. No testimony of his should be accepted. He should be ostracised and punished for his innovation. And if he persists in it, his repentance should be sought.’12 This anti-kalam stance holds that there simply isn’t anything reliable or decisive from Imam Ahmad on the issue to render lawful the deployment of kalam.
9. As for the pro-kalam stance, Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’13
10. Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih quotes Ibn Abi Ya‘la as asserting that ‘the correct stance in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the opinion of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘14 The ‘affair’ being referred to was the inquisition unleashed against those upon the orthodox belief that the Qur’an is the uncreated Word of God, and his ‘defence’ of it was by using rational-based arguments; in other words, kalam.
11. Now whether Imam Ahmad’s later words abrogate his earlier ones, or whether it’s just a case of contextualising the Imam’s words, is an area of disagreement among pro-kalam Hanbalis. For while a group of them, such as Ibn Abi Ya‘la, held to the view of abrogation, others held to the more preferable view of jam‘; harmonisation. This is the stance which holds that Imam Ahmad employed kalam arguments when he believed there was a need, and refrained from it when he believed there wasn’t. Having cited the above words of Ibn Hamdan, al-Buhuti notes: ‘The statement of Ibn Hamdan is like a harmonisation between the two views [of forbiddance or allowance]; and this is preferable over abrogation. What supports this is the report from al-Marrudhi [that Imam Ahmad said]: “I am not a person of kalam. I do not view kalam in anything except if it be in the Book of Allah, the Hadith of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, or from any of his companions; may Allah be pleased with them, or one of the tabi‘un. As for other than these, then speech concerning it is not praiseworthy.” Related by al-Khallal.’15 In other words, whatever stands in opposition to the conclusions of the Book, the Sunnah, or a salaf-report, even if it appears to be rationally justifiable, is blameworthy.
12. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, his take on kalam and its nomenclature, as involved and highly complicated as it is, is most likely best represented in this passage from him: ‘The point being is that Ahmad would infer by way of rational proofs about propositions concerning Divinity, provided they were sound. What he censured was whatever opposed the Book or Sunnah, speech without knowledge, or speech [with] innovated meanings in the religion (al-kalam al-mubtadi‘ fi’l-din) … He [i.e. Imam Ahmad] was not averse to – if the meanings of the Book or the Sunnah were known – leaving [textual] terms for other terminologies, if a need for this presented itself. In fact, he did this himself. Rather, what he despised were innovated meanings (al-ma‘ani al-mubtadi‘ah) in this – i.e. in [theological issues] people were arguing about, such as [the nature of] the Qur’an; the Beatific Vision, Pre-Destiny or the Divine Attributes – except what conforms to the Book, the Sunnah, or reports from the sahabah or tabi‘un.‘16 Ibn Taymiyyah’s point is that using kalam terminology is risky. For while the correct sense of the meanings may be established, such terms all too easily lend themselves to notions that are false, ambiguous, or inappropriate for God; or are at odds with established texts or salaf-reports. His main contention appears to be with the kalam conception of hulul al-hawadith – that contingencies do not indwell in the Divine Essence, and how such an ambiguous turn of phrase, whilst perfectly sound from one angle (that nothing created subsists in God and that God’s attributes aren’t created), is used to negate those acts of God he designates as af’al al-ikhtiyariyyah – “God’s chosen acts:” in that God acts, creates and speaks as He wills, whenever He wills.
13. So what conclusion can we draw about the Hanbali school’s view about ‘ilm al-kalam? Well the obvious one is that the school doesn’t have a single, unified stance. The reason is that the various reports concerning Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal’s attitude towards kalam lead to vastly different conclusions. Undoubtedly, there is his clear condemnation of it; and yet there are words from him that permit it. And then there is his al-Radd ‘ala’l-Jahmiyyah, a slim tract refuting certain innovators; not just with textual proofs, but with rational based arguments to support the textual assertions. Taking all of this into consideration, the later leading Hanbali authorities – particularly those whose manuals, commentaries and super commentaries of fiqh have now become the standard, relied-upon texts for teaching and fatwas over the past six hundred years – tended to adopt the view that ‘ilm al-kalam was lawful and legislated. Its role, however, was not as a discoverer of truths, but as a rational support to those axiomatic creedal truths found in Revelation. Ibn Hamdan’s 7th Islamic century Nihayat al-Mubtadi’in fi Usul al-Din has found widespread acceptance among the cream of Hanbali scholars – such as Ibn Muflih, al-Mardawi, al-Hajjawi, al-Buhuti and al-Safarini – and has been authoritatively cited by them. The same hold for its abridgement, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan, by Ibn Balban in the 11th century.17
14. Before discussing how relevant the ‘ilm al-kalam project is for today, let me address its role in the pre-modern Muslim scholastic period, as explained by non other than Imam al-Ghazali. As a sort of epilogue to his Jerusalem Creed, al-Ghazali outlines the pros and cons of kalam, explaining that the Islamic ‘aqidah which Muslims should know is not the same as kalam theology – which is there to support the ‘aqidah and protect it from heresies. He explained: ‘In it there is benefit and harm. As for its benefit, in those situations where it is beneficial it is ruled lawful, recommended or obligatory according to the circumstances. As for its harm, it is forbidden whenever and for whoever it is harmful. Its harms are that it creates doubts and unsettle beliefs, which [then] no longer rest of certitude and resolute conviction. This is something which happens at the outset, and there is no guarantee that he will ever win it back through [rational] proofs; for it differs from person to person. This, then, is its harm to sound beliefs.’18 The believer, yearning above all else to seek the Face of God, will pay this matter much heed.
15. Continuing the theme of kalam’s potential harms, the Imam said: ‘It has another harm, [namely] it hardens the beliefs of the heretics (al-mubtadi‘ah) in their heresy (bid‘ah) and strengthens it in their hearts, in that it riles them up and increases their resolve to persist in it. Such harm, however, arises from bigotry born of argumentation. This is why you see the ordinary, unlearned heretic (al-mubtadi‘a al-‘ammi) quickly dissuaded from his belief through gentleness, unless he has been raised in a place where argumentation or zealotry are rife; in which case if all mankind, from the first to the last, united together to remove it from his heart, they would be unable to. For desire, zealotry and contempt for his rivals or opponents so grip his heart, and thus blinds him to the truth … Such is the fatal disease that plagues cities and people; the sort of corruption caused by partisan disputation. This also is its harm.’19 In light of that, there’s little we can do save to seek Allah’s refuge from our self-serving egos masquerading as truth-seekers!
16. On the benefits of kalam, the Ghazalian insight may come as a surprise to some: ‘As for its benefit, it might be expected that it is to uncover truths and to know them as they truly are. If only that were so! Kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably confuses and misguides more than it reveals or teaches. If you had heard this from a hadith scholar or hashawi-literalist, you might have thought: “People are an enemy to what they don’t know.” So hear this instead from one highly versed in kalam; who left it after gaining mastery of it; who plunged its depths as far as any theologian can; who then went onto immerse himself in other sciences closely related to kalam, before realising that the path to the realities of gnosis (haqa’iq al-ma‘rifah) was barred from this angle. By my life, kalam theology is not void of revealing, defining or clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about matters that are already evident or that could probably be understood without delving into the art of kalam at all. Rather, it has one single benefit: to guard the common man’s creed that we have just outlined [in the Jerusalem Creed], and protect it by way of argument from the misgivings of heretics. For the common man is weak and can be unsettled by a heretic’s argument, even if corrupt. Yet something corrupt may be rebutted with something [less] corrupt; whereas people are only responsible for the creed we have previously outlined.’20
17. In Muslim Spain, some two centuries after al-Ghazali, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi (a celebrated Maliki jurist, legalist and exegist) felt that he could speak to the role of kalam theology in these terms: ‘As for the heretics, their words mustn’t be related, nor are their arguments to be rehearsed: unless their is a need for it. In which case, one may occupy themselves with rebutting them, just as ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbas did when the matter of the Khawarij began to spread. This is what called the leading mutakallimun, such as Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Abu Bakr b. al-Tayyib, and others; may God have mercy upon them, to speak about this when the various heretical sects arouse in their time. But as for our age, God has relieved us of this duty since they [the heretical sects] do not exist; especially in the lands of West Africa and Andalusia. Hence in our time, their views should not be turned to, nor made to cross any heart or ear, because it is harmful, and without any benefit. For the potential benefits of refuting them is meaningless in their absence. For the harms it contains, of falling into the forbidden, opposing the salaf, or darkening the heart, are all present and possible for whoever concerns himself with it.’21 Or to put it another way, Ibn Juzayy is insisting that kalam theology is a medicine that must be administered at the right time, and in the right dosage. In the absence of an illness, there simply is no need to administer a remedy. To do so would be pointless; more than that, might it not actually create an illness where there was none before? What is also worth remembering is that while discursive arguments no doubt have their place, sometimes one just needs to listen to the inner voice of conscience or fitrah in terms of intuiting or feeling the presence of God.
18. This brings us nicely on to our final concern: Does kalam theology have any relevance today? And if so, what? Well obviously we live in an age where false beliefs and heresies abound everywhere, and most Muslims are exposed to them from a very early age. Islands of Andalusian cocoons that Ibn Juzayy spoke of no longer exist. There isn’t a meaningful place called “the Muslim world;” and if there is, it has been so diluted and distorted with alien ideas, ideologies and attitudes so as to render the very idea defunct. Of course, there are individual Muslim minds and hearts that mostly reside in majority Muslim countries and societies. But even if such societies did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, they have been far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on. And this is the deeper concern for any continued, authentic sense of Muslimness. As for Muslims living in the West, in one sense, their faith-based dilemmas are acuter still. And so it must be that every Muslim should acquaint themselves with the sound Islamic creed or ‘aqidah; the correct set of Islamic beliefs each Muslim is mandated by the religion to know and to hold. To assume that just because one is Muslim, that one already knows all this stuff will, in all likelihood, be a blunder of seismic proportion!
19. The best way to do the above is through an intelligent and informed manner. And this is by either embarking upon a very short study of an authoritative ‘aqidah text which has met with continued scholarly approval throughout the centuries, or by reading such an ‘aqidah text by oneself, asking a qualified scholar for any further clarifications one may have. The objective isn’t to become a fully-fledged theologian, or to dive into debates and disputations with other Muslims. But rather to meet our Lord and Maker with sound belief concerning God, His prophets, scripture, pre-decree and faith. The Jerusalem Creed has already been mentioned. An even more accepted text, for layman and scholar alike, is the Tahawiyyah Creed. The idea is to keep it short and simple so as to know as a minimum the beliefs one is personally obliged to know. One just revisits or revises this creed on a yearly basis, in order to keep it all intact or dust any cobwebs off.
20. One highly relevant thing to come out of the kalam project, and of theology in general, is that ‘aqidah has three levels. There’s what can be called [i]Essential ‘aqidah:These are beliefs that are the dividing line between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); beliefs that are indispensable to hold, as well as beliefs one cannot possibly hold, so as to be Muslim. Such beliefs come under the rubric of: al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – ‘things that are known by necessity to be part of the [Islamic] religion’; and about which – unless one is a recent convert, or a Muslim raised outside a Muslim family or society – ignorance brooks no excuse. [ii]Orthodox ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that form a boundary between rightly-guided orthodoxy, and heresy; beliefs that, when one comes to reliably know of them, one is required to accept it. Prior to that, one may be excused for not knowing them. One who rejects such a belief, due to the knowledge not being clear to him, or inaccessible to him, or because it is something beyond what one is reasonably expected to understand, yet he stills holds to Islam’s essential beliefs, is a Muslim – albeit perhaps a heretical Muslim; but Muslim nonetheless. [iii] Personal ‘aqidah: beliefs that theologians legitimately differ over. Such beliefs, regardless if one holds one view or the other; or refrains from taking a position, has no bearing at all on one’s piety, orthodoxy, or ultimate standing with God.22
21. A greater recognition of such distinctions would bring about greater tolerance among Muslims. Teachers of Islamic theology are duty bound to explain that while orthodoxy is doubtlessly the ‘aqidah of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah; i.e. what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues speak to the difference between iman and kufr: the rest are matters which other Muslims may disagree with, yet still remain Muslim. Such was the pious caution of our past Imams, that whilst they would have no problem judging a particular belief to be actual disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs clearly warranted it, they would be extremely cautious to the nth degree about making takfir upon a specific individual who held such a belief. Al-Dhahabi relates by way of al-Bayhaqi; who relates from Abu Hazim al-‘Abdawi; that Zahir b. Ahmad al-Sarkhasi said: ‘When death came to Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, in my home in Baghdad, he called me and so I came to him, and he said: “Be my witness, I do not declare anyone a disbeliever who prays towards the qibla. For each directs themselves to the One whom alone is worshipped, while all of this [kalam controversy] is but different expressions.”’ Al-Dhahabi then stated: ‘This is my religious view [too]. So too, our shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah, who used to say in his last days: “I do not declare anyone of this ummah to be a disbeliever,” and he would relate that the Prophet ﷺ said: “No one but a believer [faithfully] performs ablution”23 [and then say]: “Thus whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim.”‘24
22. After affirming God’s utter perfection and transcendence above every imperfection or need, where kalam theology really comes into its stride is in furnishing us with proofs for what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin) or impossible (mustahil) for God; especially proofs for the necessary existence of God. In its simplest, bare bone form, the kalam cosmological argument goes like this: [i] All that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence. [ii] The universe began to exist. [iii] Therefore the universe must have a cause for its existence. One can rationally infer from the conclusion to the above syllogism that this Cause must be uncaused; omnipotent; possessed of intelligence, knowledge and volition; different to the stuff of the universe; not subject to the material existence of time or space, and therefore immaterial. In other words, this uncaused Cause is God! Eminent Muslim theologians aside, great rational minds in our time continue to uphold the kalam argument for God’s existence, with great philosophical craft and gusto. The most famed of them being Dr. William Lane Craig who defends it from contemporary criticism in his The Kalam Cosmological Argument. If we add to this kalam assertion, evidence from the fine tuning of the universe; and modern cosmology – as in notable works like Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers, Keith Ward’s God, Chance & Necessity, or John C Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? – there are powerful reasons to believe in the God of Abrahamic monotheism, and that science actually points to theism rather than atheism. Given that in today’s world, atheistic philosophies like naturalism and scientism continue to challenge or erode the essential belief of many Muslims, more than do the heresies of the Mu‘tazilah or the Jahmiyyah, such books are far more relevant and needed for a defence of theism, or to shore up one’s personal faith, than are classical works of kalam theology.
23. Since there are some critiques of the kalam argument’s two premises – that everything that came into existence must have a cause for its existence, and that the universe had a beginning – let’s briefly address them. One objection to the first premise asks: What is the proof that every contingent thing needs a cause? Obviously there’s no directly measurable or observable proof when it comes to the universe’s beginning. It’s not like we can create the event again and then watch it. However, it is a rational first principle that something cannot come from nothing: out of nothing, nothing comes. It is a truth that we rationally intuit if we give it some reasoned thought. Moreover, if something can come into being without a cause, then why doesn’t just anything or everything come into being without a cause? Why doesn’t money, MacBooks or Muhammad Ali pop into being out of nothing? Even quantum particles that appear to pop in and out of existence from nothing, actually come from something: a quantum vacuum that is teeming with virtual particles. Again, as we observe the natural world, we see that things don’t just pop into existence uncaused from nothing. We proceed on the well-observed, empirically established basis that things that begin to exist have causes. This conviction lies at the heart of the scientific method. Without it, one couldn’t or just wouldn’t do science! For if things didn’t have causes, why investigate them or try to connect the dots? The second premise has a lot of solid science behind it, in terms of the expanding universe; the Big Bang; or the microwave background radiation left over from it. Scientists feel, that despite certain gaps in their knowledge, or despite things needing to be ironed out in the overall theory (like the arbitrary inflation of the early cosmos, or justifying the current rate of expansion), they are on reliable grounds about the universe coming into existence after not existing. Thus, since both the premises are valid, the conclusion is true: the universe had a cause which needs explaining. Every other inquiry must play second fiddle to this meta question of cause. So while an atheist will have to find fault with this line of reasoning, it would be absolutely untrue to say that theistic belief, such as Islam’s, has no proof or basis; that it’s all just blind faith!
24. To conclude: As intellectual attacks on Islam increase; as universal literacy gets closer to the horizon; and as ever more people seek answers from Islam for a variety of reasons, there is a need for intelligent, articulate, Islamically-rooted answers – especially in terms of rational coherence, scientific literacy and liveable relevancy. Blind imitation of ethnic Islam will become less relevant to people, and even less capable of fulfilling intellectual and spiritual needs. As for well-written dialectical critiques of modernity’s philosophical premises, assumptions and conclusions; or addressing attacks on religion from scientism or other modern, atheistic philosophies, books that come to mind which are well suited to this task include: Gai Eaton’s King of the Castle, Huston Smith’s Beyond the Post Modern Mind, Jonathan Sack’s The Persistence of Faith and Abdal Hakim Murad’s recent Travelling Home. Such works are required reading for this epic duty, in a way scholastic works from pre-modern times obviously are not.
25. In respect to the traditional goals of kalam theology – defining the content of what is and is not faith, demonstrating its harmony with logic and sound reason, and furnishing arguments to help be personally convinced about it – this is as relevant today as it was in past times. In that spirit and enterprise of classical kalam theology, Muslim theologians in our day and age have a three-fold collective duty (fard kifayah): Firstly,they must continue to establish proofs for the existence of God, in a way that resonates with the contemporary science-shaped mind; using arguments from necessity, design, and fine tuning. Secondly, they must respond to scientism, as it brashly theologises away belief in God, strengthens its totalitarian monopoly on what constitutes knowledge, and elevates presuppositions of naturalism to ultimate truths; without evidential proof. Thirdly, to continue to promote tolerance between Muslims, in terms of what beliefs form the dividing line between belief and disbelief. Let me end with Nuh Keller’s words that ‘one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.’25
And God alone is the Granter of guidance and grace.
1. Quoted in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.
2. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.
3. As per Ibn Qutaybah,Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.
4. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.
5. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.
6. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.
9. The views of the Hanbali scholars, and a birds-eye view of Imam Ahmad’s own stances on ‘ilm al-kalam, is presented in the second section.
10. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.
11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.
12. Tahrim al-Nazr fi Kutub al-Kalam (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutuib, 1990), 41-42.
13. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6.
14. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29.
16. Dar’ Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Saudi Arabia: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Sa‘ud al-Islamiyyah, 1991), 7:155.
17. Ibn Balban’s Qala’id al-‘Iqyan was republished in a fine critical edition (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), with a rich and exhaustive commentary. The commentary cites copiously from the likes of the above Hanbali jurist-theologians on each issue. Moreover, an English translation of the text of the Qala’id, with the accompanying Arabic, is given in: J. Starling (tr.), Qala’id al-Iqyan, n.p. 2020.
18. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:354.
19. ibid., 1:354-55.
20. ibid., 1:355-56.
21. Al-Nur al-Mubin fi Qawa‘id ‘Aqa’id al-Din (Tunis: Dar Imam Ibn ‘Arafah, 2015), 111.
Q. Does a Muslim have a right to choose whether to pray, fast, financially maintain family, or wear hijab?
A. A Muslim may indeed decide not to pray. But do they have a “right” to choose not to pray? Well, not really.
A Muslim man may decide not to maintain his family and dependents. But does he have a“right” to choose not to maintain them? Again, of course not.
A Muslim women may decide not to wear the hijab. But does she actually have the “right” to choose not to do so? Again, by no means.
In fact, the Holy Qur’an says about such matters: وَمَا كَانَ لِمُؤْمِنٍ وَلاَ مُؤْمِنَةٍ إِذَا قَضَى اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ أَمْرًا أَنْ يَكُونَ لَهُمْ الْخِيَرَةُ مِنْ أَمْرِهِمْ وَمَنْ يَعْصِ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَقَدْ ضَلَّ ضَلاَلاً مُبِينًا – It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger, to have any choice about their decision: whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into manifest error. [Q.33:36]
To imagine that we Muslim have a “right” to choose in those matters that Revelation has clearly made the choice for the believer is, as far as knowledge and faith are concerned, both incorrect and infantile. We simply do not have the “right” to disobey God!
Of course, some may use phrases such as: “It’s my choice to pray or not,” or “I will choose whether I wear hijab or not,” to simply mean that they should not physically be forced to comply with God’s commands, but should be given space or time to grow in surrender, commitment and obedience to God. In this case, such people should indeed be helped, encouraged and be given space.
This post isn’t speaking to such people who, in principle, believe and respect God’s sacred rulings, but who may struggle to live up to some of those duties in practice.
It isn’t even addressing those who believe in the revealed laws, but who – out of buckling under social pressure; or feeling a need to compromise; or being embarrassed or unable to wisely state revealed truths as they are; or other such human frailties – fudge issues of Islam and blur the lines between halal and haram, in order not to bring down scorn or criticism upon themselves.
Rather, the post addresses those who imagine they have the God-given “right” to choose to reject God-given laws, after such laws are made clear. For what faith can there be if one believes their alleged personal “right” can ride roughshod over God’s Right!
If our egos, desires or weakness gets in the way of fulfilling God’s Right – yet still believe such an act (like prayer or hijab) is indeed part of God’s Right, then faith is still present. But we are sinful and have a duty to desist, repent and reform.
If, however, a person believes such acts are indeed obligated by Islam, yet still insist they have a choice whether to believe in them being obligations or not, then this isn’t just a lapse in religious observance; as with the above case. It is an actual lapse in faith itself!
And while the post isn’t an incitement for people to start declaring specific individuals to be unbelievers or apostates (the scholarly maxim here is: “Not everyone who commits disbelief becomes a disbeliever because of it”). It is a reminder of how grave such words are about having “the right to choose” not to pray, fast, wear hijab, or accept other clear-cut, agreed upon and well-known obligation and prohibition of Islam.
We ask Allah to guide and protect us, and when we’re wrong that He gently correct us.
It has now been four years since I started this three part instalment. It’s been over three years since I wrote the rough outlines for this third and final part. One thing or another, however, stopped me from completing it. But given Saudi Arabia’s current socio-religious changes or transition under the Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman; given how so many western ‘ISIS-brides’ wish to return home; given that the ISIS ‘caliph’ was recently killed, and given that even if ISIS as an entity has all but been vanquished, its kharijite ideology lives on, this seems as good a time as any to post the third and final part.
The first instalment of the blog (here) traced the ruthless and murderous pedigree of ISIS back to the first heterodox Muslim sect, the Khawarij. Anyone wishing to get to the nub of today’s Muslim political violence needs to first understand who or what the Khawarij are. Without understanding the religious component of this extremism and misuse of religion, any political analysis of the phenomenon is likely to be significantly flawed.
The second part (which can be read here) tackled ISIS’s claim of being a true caliphate, by addressing the question of what makes a caliphate legitimate in Islam? It also tackles the sensitive topic of jihad, beyond the usual cliches, and addresses whether a Muslim state wages jihad against a non-Muslim one because of their disbelief, or because it has shown hostile intent or aggression against a Muslim state?
This final part discusses the violent political programme which ISIS and al-Qaeda model themselves on: The Management of Savagery. It explains the rationale for the jihadi-takfiri worldview and violence. As for just how instrumental Saudi ‘Wahabbism’ has been to the mass takfir narrative, and to the ideology underpinning ISIS and al-Qaeda, that sits at the centre of our discussion. So with six fairly in-depth sections covered in the first two parts, here are the last five:
In 2004, a treatise was posted on the internet which, as it turns out, was nothing less than a manifesto for global murder and mayhem. It was aptly and unblushingly entitled, idarat al-tawahhush – ‘The Management of Savagery.’ Published online, possibly by an al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji, its aim was to offer a definitive strategy for al-Qaeda and other such groups to establish an Islamic Caliphate.1 It laid out the various stages of the jihadi-takfiri violence in the following terms:
First comes the ‘stage of disruption and exhaustion’ wherein the enemy is politically worn down, economically drained and socially demoralised, by constant campaigns of violence and terror. ‘Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible,’ Naji writes, ‘so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.’
Hand in hand with the above stage comes ‘the management of savagery’. This is a phase of violent resistance and assault, with an emphasis of carrying out shockingly visible acts of terror. This serves as a glaring message to all its enemies, allies and sympathisers alike. Here the objective is to get the enemy, mainly the United States and its allies, to ‘abandon its war against Islam by proxy … and to force it to fight directly.’ Such media managed savagery is intended to recruit new youths into the takfiri fold and program and help push weaker regions of the Muslim world towards breakdown and savagery. Nothing can ever be achieved without the singular method of total warfare: ‘We must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed,’ proclaimed the manifesto.
The final stage is to be the empowerment of ‘the regions of savagery’. Here, the sequence of events runs something like this: During “the management of savagery” steps, the first priority is to bring these regions under their administrative control. For such mayhem will spontaneously polarize those who live in these lawless regions of savagery and will drive these people, in their desperate desire to seek stability and security, into the arms of the jihadi-takfiris. ‘We will find,’ explained Naji, ‘that along with this first step there will be a continuous emigration of the youth of other regions to our regions’ in order to flee the anarchy and mayhem so as to live under some political stability. He also noted, of course: ‘There is a difference between the people accepting administration so that security may be provided for them and so forth, and between joining the ranks and working towards set goals and joining in the battle.’ Once under their control, the takfiri indoctrination and extremism can truly begin, and new soldiers and die-hard leaders can arise. About this, Naji wrote that, ‘speaking on the pulpit is easy, and in the newspaper even easier; and in books even easier than that. As for having [one’s] home destroyed and one’s family made homeless, or one’s mother and sister torn to pieces, only the most extraordinary men are capable of [bearing] that. Great leaders and hardened troops will not come forth save in an atmosphere like this.’
As for the relevance of Naji’s treatise, we need only look at how closely al-Qaeda sought to contour this manifesto in its strategies and actions, and how many of the plans laid out in the manifesto have already been carried out by ISIS!
Despite the plethora of fatwas (commencing two decades before, and right after, 9-11) by senior Salafi/Wahhabi scholars against unbridled takfir, suicide bombings, acts of terror and targeting civilians in war, as well as against political agitation and rebellion against Muslim state authority, a forceful argument has been made that the al-Qaeda/ISIS modus operandi is inspired, in significant part, by Wahhabism. So let’s look into the claim:
Now the idea that al-Qaeda and ISIS are inspired by Wahhabism is not anything strange; especially given how the works of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d.1206H/1792CE), and books from other scholars from the same Wahhabi stream of thought, were a staple diet of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, and were/are core components of their educational curricula. But whilst that is very telling, the real issue is: did ISIS and al-Qaeda pick up their mass takfiri habbits from Wahhabi shaykhs, or is it something that the Saudi Wahhabi/Salafi scholars are free of? (I’m employing the terms Wahhabi and Salafi descriptively, not pejoratively; as well as using them interchangeably.) As for when a charge of takfir may or may not be made against an individual, and the conditions required to be actualised in doing so, I’ve explained the matter here.
It has long been alleged by the Muslim world, and most of its scholars, that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab didn’t just make takfir of certain specific individuals (which he certainly did), but more than that, he made mass takfir of whole Muslim societies and states; and that this mentality of mass takfir was carried on by his descendants and by other leading Wahhabi scholars and ideologues till our present time.
The more informed supporters of Shaykh Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his da‘wah will, at this point, demand that it is upon the accusers to bring a clear, unambiguous statement from him to support the allegation of mass takfir; and they’re quite right on insisting so. They may even point to specific statements from Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab refuting those who made such allegations against him during in his own lifetime – of which there are quite a few. From them are: ‘As for what has been mentioned to you that I make generalised takfir [of the masses] (takfir bi’l-‘umum), then this is from the lies of the enemies.’2 There’s also the following:
‘As for the lie and slander, its like is their saying that we make generalized takfir … And when it is the case that we do not make takfir of those who worship the idol which is on the grave of ‘Abd al-Qadir [al-Jilani], or the idol upon the grave of Ahmad al-Badawi; and their likes – due to their ignorance and an absence of one to caution them – how could we then make takfir of those who does not commit shirk, when they do not migrate to us, nor make takfir of us, nor fight us?’3
His holding a certain act to be disbelief (kufr), but not accusing one who commits the act to be an unbeliever (kafir), is in keeping with a well known scholarly rule: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief becomes a disbeliever.’ And: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-shirk sara mushrik – ‘Not everyone who commits idolatry becomes an idolater.’ That is, scholars might judge a statement or act to be shirk or kufr, but refrain from declaring the one who utters such a statement or does such an act to be a mushrik or a kafir – either because of not being informed (or sufficiently informed) about the falseness of the act, or due to a mistaken interpretation that warrants giving them an excuse or amnesty.
There are these words too: ‘As for takfir, I only make takfir of whoever knows the religion of the Messenger ﷺ and thereafter insults it, forbids people from it, and manifests enmity towards whoever practices it. This is who I make takfir of. And most of the ummah, and all praise is for God, is not like this.’4
Of course, his detractors will take issue with some of the things he actually considers to be shirk or kufr, or what he included under the category of insulting the religion. Many will also point out that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, once he made an alliance with Ibn Sa‘ud, in 1744, inaugurating what is now called the first Saudi state, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab gave his loyalty and unyielding support to Ibn Sa‘ud, the amir of the new state. Ibn Sa‘ud, in turn, spread the doctrines of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab as a core part of his campaigns, killings and crusade, to bring the whole Najd province under his control. Opponents of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab will point out that he endorsed Ibn Sa‘ud’s “jihad” against the people in various regions of the Najd, and took booty from them, and that this is proof writ large that he made large scale takfir upon Muslims – as jihad is only waged against a disbelieving enemy! Eye witness Wahhabi chronicles of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers confirm that Ibn Sa‘ud did wage jihad against various peoples and provinces in the Najd: something these chronicles talk about with much pride and a great deal of satisfaction.5 So is this not a proof of mass takfir? It might well be!
What strengthens these allegations is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, in the year 1165H/1752CE, declared that the town of Huraymila had apostatised from Islam; including his very own brother Sulayman, their judge (qadi). That is, he made takfir of the whole town. Jihad was duly waged against them, and the booty was distributed among the Wahhabi warriors.6 If we add to this fatwa of town takfir, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s claim that in the Najd, only he alone knew the true meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah; not even the other scholars did, then it’s not surprising that mass takfir and the shedding of Muslim blood is seen to be his legacy. Here are his words:
‘And I inform you of myself – by God, whom there is none deserving of worship save Him: I sought knowledge, and those who knew me believed I had knowledge whilst I did not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah at that time, nor know the religion of Islam, before this goodness that God graced me with. Such was also the case with my teachers; there was no man among them who knew [any of] this. And if someone from the scholars of this and the surrounding areas claims he knew the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah, or knew the meaning of Islam before this time, or claims about his teachers that someone from them knew that, then he has lied, uttered falsehood, hoodwinked the people, and praised him with something he doesn’t possess.’7
Remember, we are not discussing whether such statements constitute sheer arrogance or some devilish narcissism. Rather, we are looking at the question: Did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make mass takfir upon Muslims, from which outfits and misfits like ISIS have taken their cue? Although takfir of even one individual, without the conditions or impediments being taken into consideration, or without the pious caution which is a hallmark of mainstream Islamic orthodoxy, is abhorrent and misguidance. That said:
An argument is made that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s policy was one of noninterference in the military activities of Ibn Sa‘ud, not active support or religious legitimation for them. That is to say, the shaykh’s attempts at religious reform were being eclipsed by the amir’s quest for state consolidation and material prosperity. By the time Ibn Sa‘ud had died, in 1767, and was succeeded by his son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the Wahhabi capital of Dir‘iyyah, rather than being famous as a centre of learning, became known instead for its opulence, wealth and strength. According to Ibn Bishr, people had grown weary of holding back their desires.8 The sources will have to be scrutinised to see just how well the argument holds up, and to evaluate if Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s takfir of the whole town of Huraymila was an exception to the rule. What is beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s da‘wah was used as justification – first by Ibn Sa‘ud, then his son – to kill, slaughter and assassinate multitudes of Muslims during Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s own lifetime; there being no public word of condemnation or unambiguous dissent recorded from him.
Again, it’s been suggested that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab had a tendency to withdraw from Ibn Sa‘ud’s company during jihad operations. Be that as it may, what we do know is that the shaykh withdrew from his public position, in the year 1773, six years into the rule of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Sa‘ud; and focused on teaching and authoring. He died nineteen years later, at the age of ninety-two, in 1792.
So did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make takfir? Yes he did; of, it appears, many individuals and at least one entire town. The contention was usually the issue of istighathah – calling on righteous, deceased persons for the fulfilment of a need. Unlike al-Razi or Ibn ‘Aqil before him who described the act as being shirk or kufr,9 Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab went steps further and made takfir of actual individuals who engaged in the act – after what he considered to be iqamat al-hujjah or “establishment of the proof” against them. As for mass takfir, the pro-Wahhabi sources do not mention it, except for Huraymila; and anti-Wahhabi sources, which I’ve chosen to avoid for this discussion, are adamant that he did! And Allah knows best.
After his demise, the first Saudi state expanded rapidly, growing even richer. It conquered Karbala, in 1802; and captured Makkah, in 1803. It reached its zenith in 1818, when it was vanquished by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. It is during the years of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s sons and grandsons, however, that we see categorical mass takfir being made. And that’s what we’ll address next:
The Ottoman-Egyptian armies of Muhammad ‘Ali landed in Arabia, in 1811, reestablishing their control over the Hijaz, and also sacking the capital of the first Saudi state, Dir‘iyyah, in 1818. What helped this all out victory is that large pockets of Arabs, either unconvinced with Wahhabism; disaffected with it; or unhappy with the Sa‘ud (Saudi) state moving into their provinces and wresting control from them, welcomed Muhammad ‘Ali’s armies and lent support to them. In fact, even during a truce between Muhammad ‘Ali and the Saudi state, in 1815, many of these dissatisfied people called for the resumption of attacks upon Saudi-Wahhabi forces. Unsurprisingly, the Wahhabi scholars considered such support to a foreign invasion as a serious act of treachery and disloyalty.
During this political upheaval, Sulayman b. ‘Abd Allah (d.1818), a grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and one of the leading Wahhabi scholars of the time, wrote a tract on the highly sensitive topic of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’a – “Loyalty and Disavowal” – placing it in the context of the Saudi-Ottoman war.10 In it he asserts that any Muslim showing loyalty (muwalat, wala’) to the idolators – of whom he includes the Ottomans – is an idolator like them. The treaties opens with this passage: ‘Realise, may God have mercy upon you, that if a person manifests conformity (muwafaqah) to the religion of the idolators (mushrikin), from fear of them; or flattering them; or compromising so as to ward off harm from them, then he is a disbeliever like them – even if he detests their religion, loathes them, and loves Islam and the Muslims.’11 He continues by saying that those Arabs who assisted the Ottomans with loyalty, support or wealth, allied with them, conformed to their religion, and severed their connection to the [Wahhabi-Saudi] Muslims, ‘become from the soldiers of [worshipping] domes [over graves] (al-qubbab), and idolatry and its people.’12
Another core dimension of wala’ and bara’ah addressed in the tract, and another cause to excommunicate other Muslims, is the issue of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar – “seeking help from the unbelievers” against other Muslims. Citing the verse: O you who believe! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends and allies, they are friends and allies one to another. Whoever amongst you takes them for friends and allies is of them. Indeed, God guides not an unjust people, [Q.5:51] the tract declares: ‘Such is the ruling upon one who allies themselves with the unbelievers from the Magians or the worshippers of idols: then he is of them.’13 By the latter depiction, he means the Ottomans. And once the idea of wala’ and bara’ah had been weaponised in this way, it would have serious repercussions for our contemporary times; as we shall see in sections ten and eleven.
Other statements of mass Ottoman takfir include: Sa‘ud b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the third ruler of the first Saudi state (r. 1803-1814). In one of his letters to an Ottoman governor, he writes: ‘But if you continue upon this condition of yours, and do not repent from the shirk you are upon; nor adhere to the religion of God with which He sent his Messenger; nor abandon idolatry and innovations, we will never cease fighting you until you return to the upright religion of God, and traverse its Straight Path.’14
And if anyone was having doubts about the legitimacy of this mass takfir of the Ottomans, ‘Abd Allah, son of ‘Abd al-Latif – the latter being the most learned Wahhabi scholar of his time – wrote: ‘Whoever does not acknowledge the disbelief (kufr) of the [Ottoman] State, nor differentiate between them and Muslim rebels (bughat), does not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah! If, along with that, he believes the State is Muslim, then this is worse and is graver. This is what is [considered] doubting the disbelief of one who disbelieves in God, or commits shirk with Him. So whosoever aids and abets them against the Muslims, with any type of help, then this is clear-cut apostasy.’15
In fact, the fatwas, tracts and writings of the Wahhabi ‘ulema are replete with the verdict, and unanimous in their conviction, that the Ottoman empire was a disbelieving state; that it was dar al-harb – a “land or war” – exempting those towns, villages or settlements that accepted the Wahhabi da‘wah; and that the Al al-Sa‘ud, the Saudi ruling dynasty, was the true caliphate (khilafah).
Thus, Ibn Sa‘ud’s biography in al-Durar al-Saniyyah describes him as the ‘khalifah in Najd from the [Islamic] year 1157-1179; and the khilafah has continued through his descendants till now.’16 ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan, a prominent Wahhabi scholars of his age during the second Saudi state, described the reign of ‘Abd Allah b. Faysal (r. 1865-1871) as khilafah nubuwwah – ‘caliphate [upon the pattern of] prophethood.’17 And to a previous ruler, he addresses him as: imam al-muslimin wa khalifah sayyid al-mursalin – ‘leader of Muslims, and caliph of the master of the messengers.’18 So the vexing question about whether the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance rebelled against the Ottoman caliphate need not be asked. For in the Wahhabi worldview, the Ottomans were mushriks, and hence had no Islamic rule, let alone being caliphs. In fact, in this worldview, it was the mushrik Ottomans who rebelled against the [Wahhabi-Saudi] caliphate!
For our purpose, the Saudi story doesn’t quite end here. Although the victory over the first Saudi state was thorough and complete, by 1824, Turki b. ‘Abd Allah had retaken Riyadh. This marked the beginning of the second Saudi state. Things were going along pretty well, particularly during the reign of Turki’s son, Faysal. But when Faysal died in 1865, and his son, ‘Abd Allah, became the new ruler, this is where the story takes on a greater relevance for our times.
‘Abd Allah’s legitimacy was militarily challenged by his brother Sa‘ud. And although he managed to keep the reigns of leadership for several years, Sa‘ud took power in 1871. For the next decade or so, the second Saudi state was enmeshed in a civil war which erupted between the two brothers. In the same year, in 1871, ‘Abd Allah wrested back control; two years later, in 1873, Sa‘ud seized control for a second time. His reign lasted two years, but in 1875 he was replaced by ‘Abd al-Rahman. A year later, ‘Abd Allah regained power and reigned until his death in 1889. The above ‘Abd al-Rahman succeeded him and reigned for two more years by which time, weakened by all the political infighting, the second Saudi state (with very little territorial expansion during its time, and with diminished religious zeal) was led to its demise in 1891. Ibn Sa‘ud – having regained control of Riyadh in 1902, and most of the Arabian cities and regions by 1926 – established the third, modern Saudi state in 1932; formally calling it the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The point of this history is that they way ‘Abd Allah regained leadership (for a third time) from ‘Abd al-Rahman, was by calling upon the Ottomans for help and support. Although most Wahhabi scholars of the time viewed soliciting the Ottoman “mushriks” for political support to be a necessity, a small, yet powerful clique of leading Wahhabi scholars were incensed by this. Harkening back to the treatise of Sulayman, the grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in his treatment of wala’ and bara’ah, and of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar, as well as add their own take on the matter, they declared that this amounted to an act of disbelief and duly made takfir upon Ibn ‘Ajlan, the Wahhabi judge who backed ‘Abd Allah’s decision. At the forefront of the charge was the preeminent Wahhabi scholar of the time, ‘Abd al-Latif b. ‘Abd al-Rahman Al al-Shaykh (d.1876) and Ibn ‘Atiq (d.1883). The latter wrote a tract on the issue, entitled: Sabil al-Najat wa’l-Fikak min Muwalat al-Murtaddin wa’l-Atrak – “Path of Salvation and of Separation from Loyalty to the Apostates and the Turks.”19
The tract commences with a few hadith citations, one of which states that the ummah will fight the unbelieving Turks (al-turk al-kuffar) described as having small eyes, ruddy faces, flat noses and faces like leather shields.20 He laments how so many Muslims have fallen into love, loyalty and imitation of non-Muslim ways and lifestyles.21 But the most novel and significant thing to come out of the treatise is that Ibn ‘Atiq didn’t just emphasise not having wala’ for non-Muslims as a foundational part of faith, but that Muslims must also show bara’ah towards non-Muslims by actively disavowing them and showing contempt for them. So whilst Sulayman’s Dala’il spoke about the unlawful, inadmissible wala’, Ibn ‘Atiq’s Sabil shifted the emphasis to compulsory bara’ah.22
Fast-forward a century or so, and the fatwas of Shaykh Sulayman and Ibn ‘Atiq were given a new lease of life in the writings of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b.1959).23 Inspired by the proof-texts and textual arguments in the Dala’il and Sabil, al-Maqdisi penned (1984) his Millat Ibrahim – “The Religious Way of Life of Abraham” – where he restated the duty to show enmity towards shirk and the mushriks, as part of having true faith, preferably by waging jihad against them. In it, he also re-weaponised wala’ and bara’ah by calling for jihad against what he deemed as nominal or token Muslim states and rulers.24 Ironically, whilst the establishment Saudi scholars had all but disregarded these 19th century tracts on wala’ and bara’ah, and had for varying rationales sanitised and depoliticised them, al-Maqdisi quoted freely and extensively from them, demonstrating their political relevance for today’s Muslim world. Summarising the radical jihadi-takfiri imperative, al-Maqdisi, wrote: ‘Know that from the most particular traits of the Abrahamic way of life, and most important of its essentials, which we see most of the callers in our age falling extremely short in – in fact, most have forsaken them and have let them die out – are: [i] Manifesting bara’ah against the idolators and their false objects of worship; [ii] Proclaiming disbelief in them, their deities, and their methods, legislations and idolatrous laws; [iii] Initiating enmity and hatred of them and their statutes and conditions of disbelief until they return to God; abandoning all of this, disavowing it all and disbelieving in it. God, exalted is He, stated: There is an excellent example for you in Abraham and those who followed him, when they said to their people: ‘We are free of you and that which you worship besides God. We disavow you; and enmity and hatred has arisen between us, until you believe in God alone.’ [Q.60:4]’25
It is his al-Kawashif al-Jaliyyah fi Kufr al-Dawlah al-Sa‘udiyyah – “The Evident Unveilings Concerning the Disbelief of the Saudi State” (1989) which took the Wahhabi weaponised understanding of wala’ and bara’ah to what appears to be its logical conclusion: accusing Saudi Arabia of being a kafir, infidel state. Again, drawing upon Wahhabi scholarship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the twentieth century former Senior Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad b. Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh (d.1969), al Maqdisi insists that Saudi Arabia is a kafir state from three principle angles:
Firstly, that the kingdom, although it legislates with certain shari‘ah laws, also legislates with man-made laws in place of, as well as along with, many shari‘ah prescriptions. Al-Maqdisi calls the kingdom’s attempts at making people believe that it only legislates with shari‘ah laws as ‘an obvious lie!’26 He then goes on to devote the next ten pages or more documenting law after law after law that Saudi Arabia has legislated with respect to home affairs and foreign policy, and which violate shari‘ah teachings.27 To add insult to injury, he also records a volley of fatwas and letters by the former mufti, Muhammad b. Ibrahim wherein he rejects a whole raft of laws the kingdom introduces and which he believed was in opposition to the shari‘ah: these letters also advise the kingdom’s movers and shakers to keep to the straight and narrow, but to little or no avail.28 During this meticulous, yet scathing censure of how the kingdom has adopted man-made laws contrary to the norms of Islamic legislation, al-Maqdisi also marshals certain Quranic verses to nail the point; verses such as: Do they have partners [with God] who have made lawful for them in religion that for which God has not authorised? [Q.42:21] Also: Have you not seen those who pretend that they believe in what is sent down to you and what was sent down before you? They seek the judgement of false gods, although they are ordered to reject them. [Q.4:60] And: Is it a judgement of ignorance that they seek? Who is better in judgement than God for people who have sure faith? [Q.5:50] It should be noted, that despite Muhammad b. Ibrahim’s rejection of certain laws the kingdom introduced, he never once made takfir of the government, or deemed Saudi to be an unIslamic country (even if it did have some unIslamic laws).
Secondly, the kingdom has accepted membership of certain foreign organisations, such as the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, with its Charter, that govern on the basis of man-made laws. Such membership is an endorsement of man-made laws, and man-made laws are tawaghit (sing. taghut) – “false objects of worship” besides Allah.29
Thirdly, al-Maqdisi tries to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia’s ties with, and dependency on, the United States is a reason for it being a kafir state. This he does by giving a detailed, pedantic account of Saudi defense expenditure, showing that although the kingdom has spent billions of dollars on weaponry, Saudi still has a weak and incompetent army. This, he asserts, is because most of this military budget is spent on American advisors, soldiers, trainers and planners who are employed by the kingdom, not for Saudi interests, but for America’s (and for its main ally in the region, Israel).30
Al-Maqdisi’s radical solution to this Saudi ‘fitnah’, as he put it, is simply migration (hijrah) and jihad.31 Migration away from the kingdom (to where, he doesn’t really say), and then jihad against it (as well as against all other Muslim majority states and their leaders who have also substituted (tabdil) divine legislation with man-made laws). Writing about the Kuwaiti constitution, by then a typical example of legislators in Muslim lands replacing shari‘ah rulings with man made laws in their bid to modernise, al-Maqdisi wrote: ‘Before all else, you must disbelieve in this idol – the [Kuwaiti] constitution and its laws – hate it, show enmity to it, disavow it, and not be pleased or submit except to the rule of God alone. This is so that one actualises the meaning of la illaha illa’Llah … And just as it is obligatory upon you to disavow this idol – i.e. the constitution and its laws – it is likewise obligatory on you to disavow everyone who defends it, protects its laws, and persists in legislating it and enslaving people to it.’32 In other words, enmity is not just to the laws themselves, but also to those who uphold them and defend them: be it rulers, legislators, bureaucrats, army, police, or the secret services. Such an outlook, slow to take off at first, would soon become the pivotal rationale for the jihadi-takfiri program – particularly after the First Gulf war of 1990.
It’s also worth mentioning that the Ottoman tanzimat reforms, which started in 1836, saw many shari‘ah laws being replaced with man-made laws; largely based on the Napoleonic Code and French law. It is this tabdil or “substitution” of shari‘ah laws, alongside Ottoman ideas of istighathah and their contravention of wala’ and bara’ah, that were the principle factors animating Wahhabi takfir of the Ottoman empire.
What is important to note in all of this is that al-Maqdisi draws heavily on the fatwas and works of preeminent eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi scholars like Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Sulayman, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan and Ibn ‘Atiq. In his view, and the jihadi-takfiri cohort which was beginning to grow and mature around him and transnationally, Wahhabism was the doctrine giving legitimacy to the Saudi state; but the Saudi dynasty has for a long time now been biting the hand that feeds it, so to speak, thereby losing the right to govern. Wahhabi theology, once used to confer validity on the Saudi dynasty, had come full circle and was now being used to pull down the House of Sa‘ud! And as black and white, hostile, extreme, and devoid of compassionate concern for human welfare the traditional, non-Wahhabi ‘ulema find the Wahhabi worldview to be, there’s no mistaking al-Maqdisi’s pedigree: it is thoroughly Wahhabi, through and through.
Al-Maqdisi’s voice was not a native Saudi one, being born in the West Bank. It would be a whole ten years after publishing his Kashf al-Niqab (1988) and his Kawashif, and almost fifteen years after his Millat Ibrahim, that the isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar theme would be raised by a native Saudi scholarly voice; putting it into, as al-Maqdisi did, a contemporary context. The first of these voices was that of Humud b. ‘Uqala (1927-2002), who penned al-Qawl al-Mukhtar fi Hukm al-Isti‘anah bi’l-Kuffar (1999). A few other voices followed, like al-‘Uyayri (d.2003), who was the first leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Nasr b. Hamd al-Fahd. After 9/11, it wasn’t just a case of the jihadi-takfiris accusing the Saudis of seeking help from the [American] disbelievers. But due to their participation in the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’, they could be accused of another act of kufr: of helping the disbelievers against other Muslims.
It must, of course, be said that other Salafi scholars have written rebuttals of al-Maqdisi’s views, attempting to offer alternative interpretations whilst trying to remain faithful to the classical Salafi-Wahhabi worldview. Muhammad b. ‘Umar Bazmul’s Mudhakkirah al-Radd ‘ala Kutub Mashbuhah, and Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Ra’is, are two such rebuttals. Both tracts attempt to defend Saudi against the takfir charges, and demonstrate how al-Maqdisi’s lack of scholarly credentials and nuance in such delicate issues, and his hastiness and generalisations, are his downfall. Bazmul noted that in his introduction, al-Maqdisi says: ‘I composed these pages out of an urgency of the matter and restricted time. I haven’t spent much time [doing so], nor a lot of effort.’33 To this, Bazmul retorts: ‘This, may God guide him, is what he says about giving such a critical matter its due.’34
Al-Ra’is, while clarifying the issue of al-wala wa’l-bara’ah, writes that some have gone to extremes in understanding the Quranic verses on the topic, while others have fallen short of what is required. He then said: ‘Of those who have gone into extremes in the matter; in fact, the utmost extreme, is this obstinate al-Maqdisi.’35 He then runs through the types of relationships with non-Muslims in respect to wala and bara’ah, seeking to put verses like: You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] in their proper context. He explains, in fairly typical Salafi fashion, that wala (love, loyalty) for the non-Muslims is of three categories: Firstly, loving a non-Muslim due to their religion or beliefs: this itself is clear-cut disbelief. The Quranic verse applies in this case: Whoever turns to them is of them. [Q.5:51] Secondly, loving a non-Muslim for a worldly motive or reason. This is forbidden and sinful, but not disbelief. You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] speaks to this. Thirdly, natural love, affection or affinity (wala’ tab‘i, hubb tab‘i) for a non-Muslim due to them being one’s parents, siblings, wife (in the case of a Muslim man being married to a Jewish or Christian lady); or a kind and loveable relative or close friend. The Qur’an says to the Prophet ﷺ about the guidance of his dear uncle, Abu Talib, who was a non-Muslim: You cannot guide whom you love, but God guides whomsoever He wills. [Q.28:56]36 So this is the more nuanced Salafi-Wahhabi take on wala and bara’ah, contrasted with al-Maqdisi’s jihadi-takfir notions, and seemingly even those of nineteenth century Wahhabi thought.
It would be useful to research (if it hasn’t already been done so) just how well highlighted the idea of a natural wala has been in the writings of Salafi shaykhs before 9-11, and how much has come as an afterthought. For it is seldom enough just to have the correct stance. Often, it’s also a case of how one emphasises an issue or downplays it that has a crucial bearing on sound Islamic education and nurturing.
Ruling by other than the judgement of God (hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah) likewise has its nuances, as well as a difference of opinion between Wahhabi-Salafi scholars. Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim elucidated what looks to be the dominant stance of senior Salafi-Wahhabi jurist-theologians on the matter. He explains that the disbelief (kufr) of ruling by other than God’s judgement is of two types: the greater form of kufr, which takes a person out of the fold of Islam, and a lesser kufr, which makes a person a sinful Muslim; but not an apostate. He says that the greater kufr involves:
[i] To totally reject judging by God’s judgments, believing it is not required at all. [ii] The belief that some other judgement or system of legislation is better than God’s law. [iii] The belief that another judgement is equal to, but not better than, God’s judgement. [iv] The belief that it is permissible to give a judgment that opposes the judgement of God – even if one believes nothing is equal to, or better than, God’s laws. [v] To judge by one’s tribal or cultural norms and conventions, in complete disregard for God’s laws. [vi] To substitute the shari‘ah and shari‘ah courts with man-made systems of legislation, root and branch. As for the lesser kufr, which Ibn ‘Abbas explained was: ‘Disbelief lesser than [the greater] disbelief (kufr duna kufr)’, it is when someone judges in opposition to God’s judgement, whist believing it is forbidden and that one is sinful for doing so.37Is not God the best of Judges? [Q.95:8] speaks to all the above, as does: Whoever judges not by what God has sent down, such are the disbelievers. [Q.5:44]
About the last category of tabdil – “substituting”, “replacing” the shari‘ah with man-made laws from top to bottom; completely or predominantly, Muhammad b. Ibrahim said: ‘This is the greater, most extensive, clearest obstinacy against the shari‘ah; haughtiest rejection of its laws; and worst defiance of its law-courts [in terms of] organisation, maintenance, provisions, foundations, branches, forms, types, rulings, diktats, or sources of reference. For just as the shari‘ah courts have their reference points they refer to – each relying on the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Messenger ﷺ – then these courts that judge with a patchwork of disparate man-made laws also have their reference points; be it the French, American, British, or other legal systems … So what disbelief is more audacious than this? Or what greater opposition is there to the testimony that Muhammad ﷺ is the Messenger of God?’38
Other Salafi scholars, in concert with most other non-Wahhabi ones, hold the view that the act of tabdil alone isn’t sufficient to prove disbelief or apostasy in one’s heart, unless accompanied by istihlal – a verbal affirmation that one “believes it to be lawful” to do so. This was the view held by Bin Baz (d.1999), al-Albani (d.1999) and a few other prominent Salafi scholars.39 What that means is that one cannot declare a ruler or a government to be apostates, unless and until they verbally declare their belief that the man-made rules they have substituted, instituted, or inherited are permissible to judge by in opposition to the shari‘ah. Therefore, such governments or leaders are, at best, sinners; not apostates.
So where are we in all this politics and theology? Well the fact remains, whilst the views of the Saudi establishment scholars concerning the Islamic forbiddance of suicide bombings or targeting civilians can and has made significant inroads in the deradicalising process, they appear to be struggling to win the argument against the jihadi-takfiris in other areas such as hukm bi ghayr ma anzala’Llah and isti‘anah. For here, the latter have the firm and decisive support of early Wahhabi fatwas and theology. Not only that, but the way Middle-Eastern politics has and is unfolding, and the current liberalesque reforms in Saudi, only serve to exacerbate the situation. There is, of course, a flip side to all this extremism and radicalism. The voices of our ‘ulema have, since 9-11, been key in combating jihadi-takfiri extremism head on; with the Salafi ‘ulema addressing these concerns earlier still – since possibly the 1980s. Another factor in deradicalisation is simply age: young people who may hold radical views about politics, or about the world and their place in it, will often grow out of their black and white take on things when they grow into the responsibilities of life, marriage, job and family. There’s also the growing mistrust with the promises of Islamism (although the term is semantically problematic, I use it for lack of a better one), particularly after the Arab Spring. And while the Muslim world reconsiders the pros and cons of anti-government protests and uprisings, the ummah is in dire need of a prophetic uprising; that’s for sure. Religious burn outs and religious apathy may, in part, be behind this mistrust: but they are two more reasons for a reduction in extremism. Another is that a large and growing part of the ummah, especially its younger elements, just wish to live a worldly life; have fun; and catch up (or keep up, as the case may be) with the rest of the “progressive” world! Lastly, there are government-orchestrated deradicalisation programs for which, I suppose, we ought to be guardedly thankful.
But seeds had been sown. In the 1980s, al-Maqdisi revived the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi ‘ulema on the incendiary socio-political topics of wala and bara’ah, and al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar. In the 1990s, a group of diehards centred on Humud b. ‘Uqala propagated al-Maqdisi’s books and ideas, and soon added their own works to his. ‘Uqala et al. were pivotal in convincing a generation of how they should hold firmly to the pure Wahhabi ideals, unsullied by the state’s more palatable version of Wahhabism; and how they should stand against Western intrusion and hate both it and the West. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, after 9-11, provided just the right pretext to demonstrate that contempt and bara’ah. We must add to the mix certain jihadi-takfiri foot soldiers, like al-Maqdisi’s one time prodigy, al-Zarqawi (d.2006). Al-Zarqawi, ideologically forged by al-Maqdisi; but his time as actual practitioner of war, terror and mass murder in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the early 2000s, in contrast to a jihadi-takfiri academic like al-Maqdisi, earned this jihadi thug a sizeable following. This self-proclaimed leader of ‘Al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers’ took his ideas of takfiri terror to new heights, disturbing people like his former mentor and even Bin Laden! And so it is that a mixture of Wahhabi ideology, their application to the contemporary Muslim world by al-Maqdisi, al-‘Uqala, and co., al-Naji’s Management of Savagery, and the grassroots strategies of terror devised by the likes of al-Zarqawi, became the potent mixture that would form the operational basis for the jihadi-takfiri outlook of ISIS and their like. That this well-defined program and outlook is wholly khariji; of Kharijite nature and nurturing, should be of little doubt.
Today’s jihadi-takfiris extend their jihad to all rulers over Muslims states, along with their armies, police force and government administrators. The political logic behind the enmity and violence is simply that: [i] Hakimiyyah, (“sovereignty”, “judgement”) belongs solely to God. [ii] Today’s rulers do not judge by God’s laws, hence they are disbelievers (kuffar). [iii] It is obligatory to fight against them, remove them and replace them with true Muslim leaders. [iv] Those who side with such rulers (be they scholars, bureaucrats, or citizens) are also disbelievers. [v] Since the rulers are disbelievers, all their covenants of security, and domestic or international treatises, are null and void. Only the jihadi-takfiris are true Muslims; hence political violence must fill our cities! For them, fighting and acts of terror are ideally for tamkin – “consolidating” or “establishing” authority over a particular piece of land or region; and if not, then for nikayah – inflicting as much harm, damage, murder and mayhem as possible. Even if one takes out the first two pillar about hakimiyyah, and convince the jihadi-takfiris about the correctness of the second view on tabdil, it only gets replaced with: [i] Wala’ should only be for God and Islam. [ii] Today’s rulers do not have wala for God, Islam or its laws, hence they are disbelievers!
This, then, is the jihadi-takfiri agenda; inspired – in great part – by original, authoritative Wahhabi teachings. And while groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS emotionally employ atrocities of Western foreign policy in Muslim countries, Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, or the murder and tyranny of brutal dictators against their Muslim citizens, as a recruitment tool and motivator; and while many who join their terrorist bandwagons may not be clued up about the details of the core jihadi-takfiri philosophy, the real driver for their raison d’être and savage activism are the above five pillars of their religious-political logic. It is not only Western foreign policies and interventions in the Middle-East and Palestinian grievances that need to be redressed. But to truly take the sting out of these terrorist outfits and their ideologues, we ask that our ‘ulema continue to deconstruct their falsehood, twisted logic and extremism – especially as it concerns the Quranic understanding of wala’ and bara’ah and al-hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah – “ruling by other than the judgement of God”. But merely contenting ourselves with labelling them Kharijites and terrorists, and not tackling their warped understanding of these delicate religious texts and concepts head-on, we do our religion; ourselves; and the wider world a possible disservice.
Conclusion: Whether blaming Wahhabism (and indirectly, Saudi Arabia) for acts of terror carried out in Islam’s name is a red herring or not has been fiercely debated for over two decades. Yet while it is true that there is no single-cause explanation behind why people join terrorist groups, Wahhabi ideas are certainly the main driver behind the jihadi-takfiri worldview – as evinced by the fact that all its main ideologues subscribe to the Wahhabi-Salafi form of religion. We have further seen that even if the charge of mass takfir against Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab seems to be inconclusive; or at best, untrue, mass takfir is undoubtedly found from his descendants and other leading Wahhabi scholars in the end part of the first Saudi state, and throughout the era of the second Saudi state. Given how the earliest Wahhabi historians, Ibn Ghannam and Ibn Bishr, weren’t shy of recording the takfir verdicts (large scale or otherwise) of Wahhabi ‘ulema – in fact, it often seems like a badge of honour – one would expect them to have chronicled any mass takfir of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself, if he had done so. And God knows best.
Again, while there are complex political, economical or psychological reason people join terrorist outfits like ISIS; and while other conservative, apolitical forms of Salafism (even if there is religious intolerance), do not necessarily lead to becoming terrorists, we noted how al-Maqdisi infused a new lease of life into the takfir fatwas of the 18th & 19th century leading Wahhabi ‘ulema, which would soon become the very backbone of the jihadi-takfiri worldview and activism.
Likewise, it is absurd to suggest that would-be terrorists, especially in Britain and Europe, end up joining or supporting ISIS by wandering from mosque to mosque or trawling the internet, and stumbling upon the book Kitab al-Tawhid by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, then a few weeks later the book incites them to make their way to Syria, or to plot terrorist attacks in their native countries. The reality is far more involved than that. Yet that mustn’t obscure the fact that core Wahhabi tenets are the linchpin for today’s jihadi-takfiri ideas. Certainly, Sayyid Qutb (d.1966) may have partly inspired some core al-Qaeda members, though less so core ISIS ones. And yes, he may have supplied some of the jihadi-takfiri vocabulary and context. But there is no doubt that the bulk of the jihadi-takfiri theological scaffolding and inspiration is decidedly Wahhabi. Starting with early Wahhabi takfir writings, through to al-Maqdisi, then ‘Uqala and others, the pillars of the jihadi-takfiri method were forged:  Hakimiyyah.  Apostasy of all the rulers.  Jihad against the apostate rulers and regimes to establish an Islamic State.  The only viable means to change secular Muslim states is the bullet, not the ballot box.  The inevitable conflict between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); between the jihadi–takfiris and the rest.
As for the non-Wahhabi, classically-trained ‘ulema: In general, for much of the twentieth century these ‘ulema scrutinised the contents of the shari‘ah, in order to accord Muslims some principled accommodation with the emerging global reality. As it happens, Islam’s legal tools were well-disposed to the task. The juristic tool of tahqiq al-manat – identifying the context for laws so as to ascertain their current form and application, and maslahah mursalah – taking account of public interest and utility, moved the legalists of the major centres of Muslim scholarship in the direction of acclimatisation and adaption. Yet while it’s not Islam’s calling to conform to the age – it is, after all, the great global dissent – it can and must furnish Muslims with the spiritual and social technologies required to live in the age and navigate its eclectic mix of challenges. More than that, true religion must offer people insights into how best to heal modernity’s discontents and despair too.
Those doctors of Islam’s legal tools, who are also blessed with being spiritually rooted in the realities of ihsan, teach us that God’s law exists to instantiate mercy not severity; ease not hardship; good news (tabshir) not alienation (tanfir). They insist that today’s times call for tashil; facilitation, but not tasahul; slackness or over-leniency. And that far from caving-in to secular modernity, as the short-sighted or fiqh-less zealots believe, this path maintained a wise, far-sighted openness to gentleness, which long predated the advent of the modern world. Sufyan al-Thawri stated: ‘In our view, knowledge entails granting legal concessions (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’40Sayyiduna ‘Ali, may God be pleased with him, once said: ‘The scholar is not the one to cause people to despair of God’s mercy, nor to give them licence to sin.’41
Such scholars were also concerned about pseudo-scholars and charlatans, and the weak-spirited, not turning Islam into as many things as modernity wants Religion to be; in that Islam’s texts are twisted and tortured so as to make them compliant with whatever “ism” that happens to be modernity’s prevailing mood or zeitgeist: be it humanism, secularism, materialism, or nationalism; or in more recent times, liberalism, individualism, feminism, etc. Such concerns were not unjustified!
Some of the ‘ulema were also quick to realise that whatever political or religious spectrum Muslims advocate, most Muslim activism and movements that sought change, throughout the twentieth century till today, are locked in the logic of modernity, and can only operate within its hegemonic parameters. Islam, however, premised on the Adamic fitrah and the prophetic Sunnah, lies outside the monoculture’s plethora of philosophies, and so cannot be made subordinate to it. And this is why Islam is, and continues to be, the great global dissent from the totalising ideology of liberal modernity.
Another insight of the ‘ulema was that one cannot simply go crashing into the juggernaut of modernity, as it has a tendency to flatten anything that comes charging at it. Therefore, instead of the Wahhabi obsession of defining what we are against, these ‘ulema privileged the notion of what we are for. Of course, shirk is shirk and tawhid is tawhid, and never the twain shall meet. Thus, for example, a Muslim’s relationship with non-Muslims would be guided by privileging this Quranic passage over others: God does not forbid you in terms of those who neither wage war against you on account of your religion, and nor drive you from your homes, from being kind to them and treating them justly. God loves the just. God only forbids you from befriending those who wage war against you on account of your religion, or drive you from your homes, or aid others in your expulsion. Whoever befriends them, those are the unjust. [Q.60:8-9] The Wahhabi insistence on enmity and hate would be privileged by the prophetic virtue of loving guidance and goodness for the non-Muslims wandering in the darkness and distractions of disbelief.
Of course, such privileging, or giving emphasis to one thing over another, isn’t without its dangers and difficulties. For those unschooled in ihsan – in the beauty of shari‘ah-rooted suluk or spirituality – will only bring ugliness into the world. If we are to be constructive healers, healing the world a day at a time or an act at a time, we must ensure that our fiqh deliberations are infused with the profound wisdoms and insights of our suluk tradition.
Let me wrap-up the post (and, indeed, this series) with these reflections – which speak of where we Muslims need to be heading. Explaining his own contention: ‘Being heretics to the Monoculture requires both courage and style,’ Abdal Hakim Murad writes:
‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity is called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’42
Part of that gratitude and humility, he says, involves an awareness that not everyone can muster up the strength to be different: ‘Human nature is conformist and the monoculture increasingly demonises Muslim distinctiveness. Browbeaten Muslims, anxious to please, are everywhere; they are no use to their communities, or, ultimately, to their hosts, since they cannot function as healers, only as a chorus of frightened eulogists. Allah is testing us through them; and the only successful response to this test is to be forgiving, and try and find an ointment for the scars inflicted by the melting-pot, as it grows ever hotter, year after year.’43
We ask Allah for guidance, courage, humility and safety.
Allahumma ‘rzuqna’l-iman wa’l-aman fi kulli bilad wa’ruqna’l-fahm wa tasihhu’l-jihad anta rabb wa nahnu al-‘ibad. wa’rzuqna khayr al-zad.
1. First posted on the now defunct al Ekhlas website, it was translated into English in 2006 by William McCants and released by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point. See: Stern & Berger, ISIS: the State of Terror (London: William Collins, 2015), 23. A translation is downloadable here.
2. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi’l-Ajwabat al-Najdiyyah (n.p, 2004), 10:131, a collection of essays, tracts and fatwas by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and early Wahhabi scholars,
3. Mu’allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Su‘ud, 1398H), 4:11.
4. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 1:82-3.
5. Cf. Ibn Ghannam, Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Dar al-Thuluthiyyah, 2010), volume two devoted to the jihad campaigns, ending in 1206H with the death of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab; Ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Matbu‘at Darat al-Malik ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, 1982), 1:46, which speaks about the first of many jihad campaigns.
6. Consult: Unwan al-Majd, 1:65, 69-72.
7. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 10:51.
8. Cf. Unwan al-Majd, 1:44.
9. See: al-Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981), 17:63; Ibn ‘Aqil, approvingly cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar Ibn al-Haytham, 2004), 388-89; also al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 6:128. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, then he has a separate treatise on the issue, entitled: al-Istighathah fi Radd ‘ala’l-Bakri (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1426H).
10. The tract is called, al-Dala’il fi Hukm Muwalat Ahl al-Ishraq (The Proofs Against Loyalty to the Idolators), and can be found in al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121-43.
11. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121.
12. ibid., 8:121. Al-‘Anqari writes in the next volume, 9:157: ‘The reason for composing the Dala’il is that Shaykh Sulayman authored it when the Turkish armies invaded Najd in his time, intending to eradicate the religion from its foundations.’
13. ibid., 8:127-28.
14. ibid., 1:312. Towards the end of a letter to the Ottoman governor of Baghdad, Ibrahim Pasha, written at the close of the year 1810CE.
20. ibid., 25. The hadith about fighting the Turks is given in al-Bukhari, no.2928; Muslim, no.2912.
21. ibid., 62-3.
22. ibid., 23 onwards.
23. For a comprehensive review of al-Maqdisi’s life, ideology and influence as one of the most important radical jihadi thinkers of our age, see: Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).
35. Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid (Cairo: Dar al-Imam Ahmad, 2007), 86-7.
36. ibid., 91-8. Also consult: al-Fawzan, I‘anat al-Mustafid bi Sharh Kitab al-Tawhid (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2002), 356, on natural wala’ towards non-Muslims.
37. See: Fatawa wa Rasa’il Samahat al-Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. ‘Abd al-Latif Al al-Shaykh (Makkah: al-Hukumah al-Makkah al-Mukarramah, 1399H), 12:284-91. This letter is published as a separate epistle, under the title of Tahkim al-Qawanin.
38. ibid., 12:289-90.
39. Cf. al-Halabi (ed.), al-Tahdhir min Fitnah al-Takfir (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 1997), 13-44, for al-Albani’s fatwa; and pp.45-9 for Ibn Baz’s approval of al-Albani’s fatwa and that istihlal is a condition for judging by other than God’s laws to be kufr akbar. Also cf. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Baz, Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi‘ah (Riyadh: Dar al-Qasim, 1420H), 5:355.
40. Quoted in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.
41. Cited in al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.
42. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contention (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 68; no.39.