The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “correctives & clarifications”

Denying the Ahadith Concerning the Return of Jesus

Q. As a Muslim, must we believe in the return of Jesus, peace be upon him, and also in the Dajjal? Why are such matters not mentioned in the Qur’an? And is it true that the ahadith which mention them are all lies and fabrications?

A. Alhamduli’Llah wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasulillah. Before launching into a reply, let’s begin with two important preliminaries (muqaddamat) concerning knowledge (‘ilm). After that, we’ll discuss the ahadith about nuzul ‘isa ‘alayhi-salam – the descent of Jesus, peace be upon him; respond to some of the above objections; and then conclude with the ruling concerning someone who rejects the belief in Jesus’s return and the emergence of the Dajjal. I’ll also add, in the conclusion, a few words about correctives and clarifications, and in what spirit they should be undertaken, and what our main focus ought to be.

I

In Islam, knowledge is considered to be of three categories: Firstly, matters of Islam which everyone must know; be they scholar or layman. Such matters are technically known as al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – ‘Necessarily known to be part of the religion.’ Secondly, issues which not everybody knows. Thirdly, those matters differed upon by the scholars.1

Denying anything from the first category of knowledge can amount to disbelief (kufr), providing there is no excuse not to know these things, like someone who is a recent convert, or was raised in a place where ignorance of the religion was rife and widespread.

Denying something from the second category is only disbelief if one persists in denying it after he is made to understand that it is actually a part of what Allah sent His Prophet ﷺ with as religion. Before this, he is excused for not knowing; either out of it being inaccessible to him, or it is beyond what he is reasonably expected to know.

As for the third category, then such issues cannot be used as a yardstick to cast aspersions on someone’s orthodoxy; let alone charge them with disbelief.

II

If knowledge, for want of a simple definition, is true, justified belief, what are its sources? Or to put it slightly differently: I know something if I believe it to be true and that belief is justified; but what is its justification?

Our scholars say the sources of knowledge (madarik al-‘ulum) – in other words, our epistemology – are three: knowledge gained via (i) the five senses (al-hawas al-khams), (ii) truthful reports (ikhbar sahih); and finally (iii) rational inquiry (al-nazr).2 So if knowledge comes by way of the sound senses, a truthful report, or via sound premises and reasoning, then it can be said to be justifiably true. If it comes from senses that are impaired, a false report, or from faulty premises or unsound reasoning, then believing it will be unjustified.

The senses refer to: hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. Rational inquiry via the sound intellect (‘aql) begets two types of knowledge: Dururi – ‘axiomatic’ or ‘self-evident’; i.e. knowledge that is so evident, immediate and well-established that it needs no investigation, and is accepted without question or controversy. That the whole is greater than its part is an example of dururi knowledge. It is the type of knowledge people just know. Or istidlali – ‘inferential’; where some pause for thought is required, or some level of investigation; such as knowledge that there is a fire on seeing smoke.

As for truthful reports (ikhbar sahih, or khabar sadiq), it too is of two types: (i) Mutawatir – ‘multiple-chain transmission’; i.e. a report narrated by numerous individuals, separately, such that it is inconceivable for them to have concurred upon a lie or coincidently made the same error. Such reports yield certainty in knowledge (yufid al-‘ilm) or definite (qat‘i) knowledge. While scholars disagree on just how many people constitutes a mutawatir report (numbers range from four, five, twenty, seventy; even three-hundred and thirteen), the majority hold that what counts is not the question of a specific number, but any reasonable number whose testimony precludes the possibility of a collective lie or mistake, thus engendering sure knowledge. The Qur’an, in its entirety, is mutawatir; i.e. it has been mass-transmitted. Some hadiths are also mutawatir, as are a some reports of scholarly consensus (ijma‘).

The second type is the ahad – ‘singular’ or ‘solitary’ reports. The ahad includes any report which doesn’t reach the level of being mutawatir; whether it be one, two, three or however many reporting it. Such a report yields [highly] probable (zanni) knowledge; not certain. The rationale is that, even if the reporters in the chain are all precise, reliable and upright and not known to lie, there is always the possibility – as slim as it may be – that an error could have crept in. Whilst for the vast majority of scholars the ahad will offer highly probable, or probable or merely possible knowledge – enough to act upon and be reasonably sure – it cannot yield certainty or definite knowledge. Most authentic hadiths are of the ahad type, and thus yield zanni knowledge, as do some ijma‘ reports.

Some theologians contend that if any ahad hadith has corroborative evidence (qarinah, pl. qara’in), then its epistemological value will be bumped up to the level of certainty and sure knowledge (yufid al-‘ilm). That is, it will be like the mutawatir. This qarinah, or corroborative piece of evidence, may be a scholarly consensus (ijma‘) about the truthfulness of the report, or that the specialists of the ummah have accepted it (talaqihi al-qubul) within the theological canon, or other such qara’in. A number of Hanbali jurist-theologians took this view; they include Ibn Qudamah, Ibn Hamdan, al-Tufi, Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Balban. On investigation, however, the relied upon, mu‘tamad view of the Hanbali school is that the sound ahad hadiths, apart from those classified as mustafid,3 even if accompanied by a corroborative evidence, do not reach the level of being qat‘i; definite, but only zanni; highly probable or strongly possible.4 And Allah knows best.

With that so, let’s move on to the actual question, by first visiting those hadiths that speak about the descent of Jesus, peace be upon him, and his End of Days return:

III

The fact of the matter is, there are many truthful hadiths about Jesus’ descent and return, ‘alayhis-salam, that are authentically related from the Prophet ﷺ. They include:-

1 – ‘By Him in whose hand is my life, [Jesus] the son of Mary will soon descend among you as a just judge. He will break the cross, slay the swine, abolish the jizyah-tax, wealth will flow to the extent that no one will accept it, and a single prostration will be better than the world and whatever it contains.’5

2 – ‘By Him in whose hand is my life, [Jesus] the son of Mary will soon descend among you as a fair arbiter. He will break the cross, slay the swine, and abolish the jizyah-tax. Sturdy camels shall be abandoned and neglected. Spite, rancour and mutual envy shall depart, and money will be offered but none will take it.’6

3 – ‘There will never cease to be a group of my nation fighting upon the truth, being triumphant till the Day of Judgement. Jesus, son of Mary will descend, so their leader will say: “Come, lead us in prayer.” He will reply: “No, some of you are leaders over others, as an honour Allah has granted to this nation.”’7

4 – ‘How will you be when the son of Mary descends among you and your ruler is from yourselves?’8

5 – About the Hour, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not come till you have seen ten signs before it.’ Then he mentioned: The Smoke; the Dajjal; the Beast; the rising of the sun from the west; the descent of Jesus son of Mary; Gog and Magog; and three earthquakes, one in the East, one in the West, and one in Arabia; and the last of which is a fire that will blaze forth from Yemen and drive people to their place of assembly.9

6 – ‘I am the closest of people to Jesus, son of Mary, since there was no prophet between him and me. He will descend. So when you see him, recognise him. He is a man of medium [height], slightly ruddy [in complexion] … He will fight the people for Islam’s sake. He will break the cross, slay the swine and abolish the jizyah. In his time, Allah shall put an end to all religions other than Islam, and the Dajjal shall perish at his hands.’10

7 – ‘The Hour will not be established until the Romans descend upon al-A‘maq or Dabiq.11 An army, made up of the best of the people of the earth that day, will set forth from Madinah against them … When the prayer is being established, Jesus son of Mary shall descend and lead them. When the enemy of Allah [the Dajjal] sees him, he will begin to dissolve, as salt dissolves in water. If anything of him were to remain, he would continue to perish. But Allah will slay him at his [Jesus’] hand, and he will show the Muslims his blood on his spear.’12

IV

A number of hadith masters and Quranic exegists, both past and present, have categorically asserted that the hadiths about Jesus’ descent, ‘alayhi-salam, and the coming of the Dajjal; the Antichrist, are mutawatir. That is, the hadiths on the topic reach the highest degree of authenticity and certainty, and any belief based upon them is true and wholly justified. As for the other details in these ahadith, besides Jesus’ descent and the coming of the Dajjal, each of them will have to be considered on their own merit, to assess their epistemological values in terms of whether they yield qat‘i or zanni knowledge.

These hadiths, and more besides, however, each have a recurrent theme which runs through them via mass-transmission; namely, the descent of Jesus. Thus, this matter is taken to be a mutawatir fact. This is something which, as already said, has been asserted by many religious authorities:

At the head of them we have Imam al-Tabari, who wrote in explanation to the verse: [And remember] When Allah said: ‘O Jesus! I am gathering you and raising you to Me.’ [Q.3:55]: ‘The most preferred of these views in terms of soundness, in our opinion, is the view of those who say: “The meaning of this [i.e. of Jesus being raised] is: I have taken you from the earth and raised you to Myself,” due to the mutawatir reports from Allah’s Messenger ﷺ who said that Jesus son of Mary will descend and will slay the Dajjal …’13

Likewise, Ibn Kathir said: ‘These hadiths are mutawatir from the Messenger of Allah ﷺ, via the narrations of: Abu Hurayrah, Ibn Mas‘ud, ‘Uthman b. Abi’l-’As, Abu Umamah, al-Nawwas b. Sam‘an, ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Amr b. al-‘As, Mujammi‘ b. Jariyah, and Abu Sarihah Hudhayfah b. Usayd. They contain an evidence for the description of his descent, and its place; in that it is in Greater Syria – in fact, in Damascus at the Eastern minaret …‘14

Other verifying scholars have demonstrated the same; including: al-Kattani,15 Siddiq Hasan Khan,16 Anwar Shah al-Kashmiri,17 and al-Albani.18

V

I am not aware of any historical grievance from classical Sunni thought on the question of Jesus’ descent, peace be upon him, and the coming of the Dajjal. In fact, as we’ll see, the ‘ulema felt it certain enough to make it an article of Sunni creed as early as the eighth century of the common era (i.e. the second century of Islam). By the nineteenth century, however, under the weighty influence of Western ideas of rationality and progress, certain Muslim reformers set about modernising the scholarly tradition and turath, even if it meant rejecting parts of it and turning other parts on their head. Out of this alleged enlightenment came, among other things, the first real objections to the long held belief about Jesus’ second coming. So let’s briefly engage some of these objections:

The first objection is that, if the descent of Jesus, ‘alayhis-salam, is true, why is such an important eschatological fact left out of the Qur’an? The reply:

Not all notable beliefs or practices of Islam are in the Qur’an. Some are stated in the Hadith corpus. Take the two ‘Id days and ‘Id prayers, they aren’t mentioned in the Qur’an, only in the hadiths. But what Muslim would dream of rejecting these annual celebrations of Islam on account of them not being mentioned in the Qur’an, just the hadiths? The same goes for the obligatory details of how to pray or perform hajj, and other mandatory teachings found only in the sound hadiths. Thus Jabir relates: A donkey that had been branded on the face passed by the Prophet ﷺ, so he said: ‘Is there anyone among you who has not heard that I have cursed those who brand or strike an animal’s face?’19 So someone who hasn’t yet heard it, is excused for not knowing it. But it becomes disbelief if one persists in denying it after being made to understand that it is part of what the Prophet ﷺ came with as religion. This also applies to the matter of Jesus’ return and the Dajjal.

Another objection states that these hadiths sound ‘too Christian’; too much like certain passages from the Bible, so this belief must have crept into Islam from Christianity.

The response: The fact that there are similarities isn’t reason enough to reject these well-established hadiths. Otherwise shouldn’t all similarities be rejected? Furthermore, who decides what is ‘too’ Christian anyway? This subjective way of thinking is akin to Christians rejecting the Qur’an as divine revelation on the grounds that it contains stories also found in the Bible; thus the claim that the Prophet ﷺ must have copied parts of the Bible. The Muslim reply to this faulty thinking is to point out that mere similarities is not a proof of borrowing from the Bible. Instead, the Qur’an is simply affirming that such stories are historical truths forming a shared sacred history in the saga of Abrahamic monotheism. Any similarities between the hadiths about Jesus’ descent and the Bible equally has its roots in that same common sacred history. To deny the Descent-hadiths because of their Biblical similarity is, in all honesty, a rather flimsy objection. To reject such hadiths which have gone through a rigorous process of academic authentication, based on what amounts to little more than a hunch, seems like a desperate attempt to nail jelly to the wall!

A third objection claims: It is forbidden to do taqlid in issues of ‘aqidah. Instead, ‘aqidah matters must be arrived at through rational reflection (nazr). Belief in Jesus’ descent and return is based on taqlid, on top of which it is irrational.

The reply: Theologians have divided ‘aqidah into three parts: ilahiyyat – creedal issues related to God and divinity; nubuwwat – matters related to prophets and the nature of prophethood; and sam‘iyyat – doctrines received ex auditu, from sound reports unprovable by reason, although not unreasonable or irrational in themselves. So while Islam’s highly rationalised kalam theology requires core doctrines concerning ilahiyyat and nubuwwat to be rationally established – in terms of what is rationally necessary (wajib) for God and His prophets, what is possible (ja’iz), and what is impossible (mustahil) – the same is not the case for the sam‘iyyat.20 The sam‘iyyat (from the Arabic word sam‘ – to ‘hear’; in other words, these are ‘matters that are heard’ or ‘received in faith’) are considered to lie outside the reach of rational proof, unlike the other two main categories of theological inquiry, metaphysics (ilahiyyat) and prophecy (nubuwwat). The task of theology, when it comes to the sam‘iyyat, is to defend scriptural predictions from false interpretations or over rationalisations. For Allah to return Jesus to earth and for him to slay the Dajjal are all matters that are rationally possible, if Allah wills. To claim they are irrational is itself nonsensical. Likewise, to say that the sam‘iyyat must be rationally justified is to betray a level of ignorance of Islamic theology and the concern of the sam‘iyyat that one would not expect, even from a mediocre student of ‘aqidah; let alone one that is seasoned. Either that, or the objection is a dishonest one to begin with. As for it being taqlid, to follow such words of the Prophet ﷺ which have been rigorously authenticated and preserved is called ittiba‘; not taqlid!

Qadi ‘Iyad stated: ‘The descent of Jesus, peace be upon him, and his slaying the Dajjal, is true and authentic in the view of Ahl al-Sunnah; due to the authentic hadiths concerning this. There is nothing, rationally or religiously, to invalidate this: therefore it is obligatory to affirm it.’21

VI

In terms of the hadiths that speak of Jesus’ descent, peace be upon him, then a number of these hadiths are related in al-Bukhari’s Sahih or Imam Muslim’s Sahih. Some are narrated in both, making them: muttafaqun ‘alayhi – ‘agreed upon’ in terms of their authenticity. Hadiths that are agreed upon by both al-Bukhari and Muslim reach a level of believability and certainty second only to the Qur’an, in the science of Hadith. As with the above three objections, this one also lacks academic precision or intellectual rigour. It alleges that the reliability of al-Zuhri, who narrates many of these Descent-hadiths, is questionable. Some of them have stated that he is unreliable; or more specifically, he is a mudallis who practiced tadlis in terms of reporting hadiths. This has been used by some in these times to smear the reputation of this early Muslim pietist and scholar. But the reality of such an allegation is as follows:

In hadith terminology, tadlis (to ‘conceal’, ‘obfuscate’) refers to a narrator who reports from his shaykh, whom he has met and has related hadiths from, but didn’t directly hear this specific hadith. The one engaged in tadlis, the mudallis, narrates it in a manner which creates the impression that he did directly hear the hadith from his shaykh. The usual way would be to narrate it with a vague expression, like: ‘an – ‘on the authority of,’ rather than the precise: sami‘tu – ‘I heard it from,’ or haddathana – ‘he narrated to me.’22

A narrator may indulge in tadlis for a variety of reasons, not all being deceitful or insidious. A narrator may conceal their immediate source because he or she was considered weak or untrustworthy, or hold beliefs opposed to Sunni Islam whilst still being a reliable narrator. It could even be that a student might have to leave a hadith dictation session to answer the call of nature, let’s say, and so he would hear the hadiths he missed from a classmate; although when it came to relating those hadiths, he might miss out the classmate’s name and simply say: ‘On the authority of such and such teacher …’ There is also tadlis that does not involve tadlis al-isnad, indirect reporting. There’s tadlis al-shuyukh, where the narrator uses a source’s name that isn’t the usual name he or she is known by; thus causing some element of obfuscation.

While hadith masters did indeed include al-Zuhri in the category of those who committed tadlis, it’s also true that they graded such mudallisun into differing levels. Ibn Hajr lists them as five categories: [1] Those who fell into it rarely or occasionally. [2] Those whose tadlis was tolerated and who were narrated from in the Two Sahih and Malik’s Muwatta, let alone other hadith collections; due to their honesty, precision, knowledge and godliness. [3] Those who fell into tadlis frequently, but whose hadiths the scholars have accepted if they were reported with direct hearing. [4] Those whose hadiths the scholars agreed are unreliable, unless reported with direct hearing, due to them committing tadlis frequently from weak and unknown narrators. [5] Those who were deemed unreliable as narrators for reasons other than tadlis; their hadiths were rejected even when they reported directly.23

As for al-Zuhri’s integrity, precision and trustworthiness, there’s unanimity of the scholars in respect to his being one of the righteous, leading ‘ulema of early Islam. So someone as critical as Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal said: ‘Al-Zuhri was the best of people in hadiths and the most excellent of people in terms of chains of narrators.’24 In fact, for Imam Ahmad, the most authentic chain of hadith – i.e. his ‘Golden Chain’ – is: al-Zuhri, from Salim, from his father Ibn ‘Umar.25 Also, Imam Malik relates around twenty percent of his hadiths in al-Muwatta from al-Zuhri; and his hadiths abound in the Sahihs of al-Bukhari and Muslim. This is why Ibn Hajr describes him thus: ‘The jurist (faqih) and hadith master (hafiz) whose greatness, precision and reliability is agreed upon.’26 As for the question of his tadlis, Imam al-Dhahabi remarked: ‘He would commit tadlis rarely.’27 All this is assuming that his indirect reports constitute tadlis, not mursal khafi: an issue that doesn’t alter his reliable status, nor can it be explored here.

The long and the short of it is that Imam Ibn Shihab al-Zuhri is one of the most righteous scholars and trustworthy hadith narrators from the salaf. Those who seek to tarnish the reputation of this exemplary scholar, with lies; half-truths; and red herrings, they are the real deceivers and obfuscaters of truth. Our belief and attitude towards such early scholars should be as Imam al-Tahawi states in his famous ‘Aqidah:

‘The scholars of the salaf from the forerunners, and those who followed in their footsteps after them – the people of virtue and narrations, and of jurisprudence and investigation – are not to be spoken about, save in the most respectful way. Whoever speaks ill of them is surely upon a path that is astray.’28

VII

As mentioned, due to the definite nature of these hadiths, Muslim theologians were certain enough to make belief in Jesus’ descent, ‘alayhis-salam, and his killing the Dajjal, part and parcel of the orthodox Sunni creed by as early as the second Islamic century. Below is a small sample of such creedal declarations:

Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal stated in his Usul al-Sunnah: ‘To believe that the Dajjal will come forth, and written on his forehead shall be [the word] “kafir,” as per the hadiths that have come concerning it; and that Jesus will descend and slay him at the gate of Lod.’29

Imam al-Tahawi wrote: ‘We believe in the signs of the Hour, like the emergence of the Dajjal and the descent of Jesus son of Mary, upon whom be peace, from heaven.’30

Imam Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, who wrote under the forty-second point of ijma‘, or scholarly consensus: ‘There is ijma‘ about the Prophet’s intercession ﷺ for the major sinners …’ After which he said: ‘And likewise what is reported about the Dajjal and the descent of Jesus son of Mary, and his killing him.’31

Ibn Qudamah said: ‘From them are the signs of the Hour, like the emergence of the Dajjal; the descent of Jesus son of Mary, ‘alayhis-salam, who shall kill him; the emergence of God and Magog; the coming of the Beast; the rising of the sun from the West; and their like from what is authentically reported.’32

VIII

As for the ruling upon one who denies the return of Jesus, peace be upon him, or the coming of the Dajjal, it is grave indeed. Given the certain knowledge such mutawatir hadiths yield, and the obligation to submit to revealed knowledge on pain of obstinate refusal and rejection, a number of scholars have categorically confirmed the disbelief of those who persist in denying them after being made to understand that they are part of what the Prophet ﷺ came with as religion. From these scholars are:

Imam al-Suyuti, who said that to take the hadith: ‘There is no prophet after me’ on its literal meaning ‘entails one of two things: either denial of Jesus’ descent, or negating prophethood from him – both of which are disbelief (kufr).’33

Al-Alusi stated: ‘It is obligatory to believe in it. Those, such as the philosophers, who deny the descent of Jesus, peace be upon him, during the end of days, have disbelieved.’34

Let me begin to wrap it up with this rather incisive statement from Shaykh al-Kawthari, who wrote: ‘Assuming hypothetically that the hadith concerning the descent of Jesus is an ahad report which al-Bukhari and Muslim agreed upon; reporting it without criticism from anyone, from the perspective of the Hadith sciences. The ummah received it with acceptance (talaqqahu al-ummah bi’l-qubul); the later ones from the earlier ones. The scholars of the ummah have uninterruptedly believed in its content down through the ages. It is imperative, therefore, to accept it. This is assuming it to be an ahad report. So how will it be when it is, in fact, undeniably mutawatir; as per the words of the specialists in the field we cited! Thus rejection of it, after recognising the level of the hadith, is indeed dangerous. We ask Allah for safety. The verified opinion on the issue of [Jesus’] ascent and his descent is that the reports are mutawatir. Al-Bazdawi stipulated towards the end of his discussion about the mutawatir that one who rejects the mutawatir, and opposes it, becomes a disbeliever.’35

And while there may be a number of excuses why someone in this day and age isn’t a disbeliever (kafir) for denying the descent of Jesus, ‘alayhi-salam, and of the Dajjal perishing at his hands, the statement itself is disbelief (kufr). It is the latter – the ruling about the denial: not any specific person who does the actual denying – which must be the focus of Muslim scholarly concern.

To conclude: The Prophet ﷺ taught: ‘You must enjoin good and forbid evil until you see greed being obeyed, desires being followed, worldliness being preferred and each person being impressed with his own opinion.’36

Islam, no doubt, is a corrective tradition. False notions and misunderstandings have to be engaged and addressed. A vacuum cannot be left, but must be wisely filled. Perhaps because egos had become infatuated with their own opinions; or because back and forth argumentation in religious matters tends to harden the hearts, rile up souls or increases their stubbornness, that early orthodoxy went for a more sober approach to any corrective. Qul kalimatak wa’mshi – ‘Say your piece and move on’ – pretty much sums up that approach. Hence Imam Malik insisted: ‘Inform him of the Sunnah, if he accepts it [all well and good]; if not, then say no more.’37 Imam Ahmad urged something similar: ‘Tell him of the Sunnah, but do not get into argumentation.38

This particular corrective, as with others on this blog, has been written in such a spirit. It’s also written knowing that while there’s a need to firefight – shar‘an wa ‘aqlan, as the saying goes – we have far larger fish to fry. Correctives should not take us away from our greater focus, which is to evolve a long term strategy for how best to engage this bizarre new world in which there is a constructed absence of teleology, metaphysics and meaning, and an existential despair and loneliness which accompanies this void. Niels Bohr once said about Quantum physics that anyone who is not mystified by it, hasn’t understood it. The same might be said for modernity. Those religious minds who fail to see what all the fuss is about; who see it as an overblown manifestation of the worldliness we humans have always plunged into, have yet to understand our age. And in the absence of this understanding, they are unlikely to be effective healers.

Finally, correctives should not be an expression of the ego. Nor should they be used to mock, insult or debase those who have erred. For: ‘Others are our fellow travellers, even if they have lost the road.’39 Instead, let correctives be done in the same spirit as Ibn Taymiyyah mentioned, when he offered this insight into his own commitment to honouring brotherhood and sincere concern for the guidance and welfare of others: ‘The first of what I shall begin with from this principle is what relates to me. So you all know, may Allah be pleased with you all, that I wish no harm at all, neither inward nor outward, to anyone from the general public, let alone my colleagues. I do not harbour ill-will against anyone, and nor do I blame anyone in the slightest. Rather, in my estimation, they are deserving of honour, esteem, love and respect: over and over; each according to what they deserve.

‘And a person is either: someone who sincerely strives their best to reach the truth, and is correct; or [sincerely strives but] errs; or is sinful. So the first is rewarded and thanked. While the second is rewarded for his striving to know the truth, and is excused and forgiven his error. As to the third, then may Allah forgive us, and him, and all the believers.’40

Given that, my final du‘a – for both myself and for others – is the du‘a of Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal, when he would pray: ‘O Allah, whoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’41

Wa’Llahu wali al-mu’minin.

اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ
وَهُوَ يَظُنُّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ فَرُدَّهُ
إِلَى الْحَقِّ لِيَكُونَ
مِنْ أَهْلِ
الْحَقِّ

1. Consult: al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1996), 1:434.

2. Cf. al-Saffarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah Sharh al-Durrat al-Madiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 2016), 3:736-46.

3. The mustafid hadith (often synonymous with the mashhur) is one that never has less than three narrators at every level of its chain, and has become well-known or widespread among the scholars. Some see it as a category between mutawatir and ahad. Consult: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Nuzhat al-Nazr fi Tawdih Nukhbat al-Fikr (Karachi: Maktabah al-Bushra, 2011), 42-43.

4. Al-Futuhi, Sharh al-Kawkab al-Munir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-‘Ubaykan, 1993), 2:348; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 13:351; Ibn Balban, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 129; and al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah, 1:140-60.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.3448; Muslim, no.242.

6. Muslim, no.243.

7. Muslim, no.247.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.3449; Muslim, no.244.

9. Muslim, no.2901.

10. Ahmad, no.9349. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani graded its chain to be sahih in Fath al-Bari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 8:70-71; as did al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2182.

11. Two cities near Aleppo, Syria.

12. Muslim, no.2897.

13. Al-Tabari, Jami‘ an Ta’wil al-Qur’an (Cairo: Dar Hijr, 2001), 5:451.

14. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Alexandria: Dar al-‘Aqidah, 2008), 1:824.

15. Al-Nazm al-Mutanathir min al-Ahadith al-Mutawatir (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Salafiyyah, n.d.), 239; no.291.

16. In his al-Idha‘ah lima Kana wa ma Yakun Bayna Yadyi al-Sa‘ah (Beirut: Dar Ibn Hazm, 2000), 198.

17. As per his monologue on the topic: al-Tasrih bima Tawatur fi Nuzul al-Masih (Damascus & Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1992).

18. See: Al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah Sharh wa Ta‘liq (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2001), 107, no.100.

19. Abu Dawud, no.2564.

20. For the suprarational basis of the sam‘iyyat, consult: al-Saffarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah, 2:433; the rational basis behind the ilahaiyyat, and what is possible and inconceivable for the prophets, see: 1:263.

21. Cited in al-Nawawi, Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 18:61.

22. As in Ibn Hajr, Nuzhat al-Nazr, 80-81. Also cf. J. Brown, Hadith: Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World (London: Oneworld, 2018), 93-94.

23. See: Ibn Hajr, Ta‘rif Ahl al-Taqdis bi Maratib al-Mawsufin bi’l-Tadlis (Jordan: Dar al-Manar, n.d.), 13-14.

24. Al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risala, 1998), 5:335.

25. Cited in Ibn Kathir, Ikhtisar ‘Ulum al-Hadith (Riyadh: Dar al-Mayman, 2013), 97.

26. Taqrib al-Tahdhib (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1416H), 896.

27. Mizan al-I‘tidal (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1963), 4:40. It’s rather surprising to see Ibn Hajr put al-Zuhri in the third category of mudallisun, in his above essay Ta‘rif Ahl al-Taqdis, 45. The proofs suggest he be in the first or second level, if he should be classed as a mudallis in the technical sense of the term at all.

28. Al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Dar al-Athariyyah, 2007), 63; §.97.

29. The short creed is cited in Ibn Abi Ya‘la, Tabaqat al-Hanabilah (Saudi Arabia; Maktabah al-Malik Fahd, 1999), 2:169, by way of ‘Abdus b. Malik al-‘Attar. Lod is a city nine miles southeast of Tel Aviv, Israel.

30. Al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah, 64; §.100.

31. Risalah ila Ahl al-Thaghr (Madinah: al-Jami‘ah al-Islamiyyah bi’l-Madinah al-Munawwarah, 1413H), 166.

32. Lum‘at al-I‘tiqad (Dar al-Athariyyah, 2007), §.57.

33. Al-Hawi li’l-Fatawi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2000), 2:157.

34. Ruh al Ma‘ani (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2010), 21:342.

35. Nazrat ‘Abirah fi Maza‘im man Yunkir Nuzul ‘Isa ‘alayhis-salam Qabl al-Akhirah (Cairo: n.p., 1986), 110-11.

36. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3058, who said that the hadith is hasan gharib.

37. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 8:108.

38. Cited in Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:221.

39. Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions, 10/45.

40. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 28:52-53.

41. Cited in Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1990), 10:329.

The Hanbalis & Merry Christmas: To Greet or Not To Greet?

red-flowers-next-to-candles-1Q. Is it true that Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and classical Hanbali scholars allowed Muslims to offer Christmas greeting to Christians? Based on this, a few fatwas today now allow us to wish our Christian friends, family or colleagues a Merry Christmas. Is this correct?

A. I’ll address the issue of whether Hanbali jurists allowed offering Christmas greetings to Christians (and by extension, congratulating other non-Muslims on their religious festivals) in these following points:

Firstly: Whatever the religious response, it mustn’t undermine the importance of fostering good relationships with non-Muslims, nor the desire to nurture a collective culture of tolerance, conviviality and courtesy: God doesn’t forbid you in terms of those who neither wage war against you on account of your religion, nor drive you from your homes, from being kind to them and treating them justly. God loves the just. God only forbids you from befriending those who fight against you on account of your religion, or drive you from your homes, or aid others in your expulsion. Whoever befriends them, those are the unjust. [Q.60:8-9]

Secondly: We must thank our scholars for their concern to facilitate ease for us, as per our Prophet’s repeated orders ﷺ: bashshiru wa la tunaffiru wa yassiru wa la tu‘assiru – ‘Give glad tidings, do not repel people; make things easy, do not make things difficult.’1 To offer the Muslim masses a more doable, easier fiqh ruling, provided it is a valid one according to the canons of Islamic law, is a sure sign of wise, sagacious scholarship. Imam Sufyan al-Thawri asserted: ‘In our view, knowledge entails issuing a legal concession (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’2 Another more contemporary way of looking at it is expressed in this Muradian Contention: ‘Preaching: this is an age for rukhas, not for ‘aza’im, and for conservatism, not for liberalism.’3

Thirdly: Of course, this method of tabshir and taysir – of facilitating good news and ease must be rooted in solid shari‘ah legal principles. It cannot be a case of bypassing or blurring well-established fiqh rulings. Nor can it be a case of the means justifying the ends. So while: inna’l-dina yusr – ‘Indeed this religion is [one of] ease,’4 we must ensure that the principle of ease does not become one of adulteration. Given the highly complex time we live in, there is bound to be well-intentioned errors from some of the scholars, for which other jurists and theologians must offer them sincere corrective advice. The balance comes to us in this saying of sayyiduna ‘Ali: ‘The scholar is not the one to cause people to despair of God’s mercy, nor to give them licence to sin.’5

Fourthly: As for the actual issue, then over the past decade or so, certain fatwas have been issued allowing Muslims to offer and exchange Christmas greetings with non-Muslims. Some are general in nature, arguing for the permissibility of giving Christmas greeting based on the fact that the Prophet ﷺ exchanged gifts with non-Muslims and encouraged good behaviour towards them. Others add that a Muslim wishing someone a Merry Christmas is done as a matter of custom and cultural goodwill, with no religious overtones intended. It entails no approval (rida) nor acceptance (iqrar) of the correctness of Christianity, for that would undoubtedly be clear disbelief (kufr): They have disbelieved who say: ‘God is Christ, son of Mary.’ [Q.5:72] And: They have disbelieved who say: ‘God is one of three [in a trinity].’ [Q.5:73] Some of these fatwas do make it clear that partaking in actual Christmas celebrations, or getting into the festive mood by having decorations or a Christmas tree, is forbidden.6 Such fatwas that allow Christmas greetings, it should be stressed, have not been without their juristic criticisms, legal deconstructions and fierce scholarly objections.

Fifthly: While such fatwas insist that their scope is limited to giving Christmas greetings, and in no way permit joining in actual celebrations, they also insist that the entire matter of whether to greet, or not to greet, revolves around its legal causation (‘illah): iqrar and rida – in this case, of accepting or approving the validity of the core Christian claim about Jesus’ [alledged] divinity. We are led to believe that classical Muslim jurists, right up until the 9-11 era, when they prohibited offering religious greetings to non-Muslims on their religious holy days and holidays, they did so because these Muslims were doing so out of rida or iqrar, approving the correctness of Christianity, or agreeing to some of its misbeliefs! They say: ‘The All-Merciful has begotten a son!’ You have uttered a monstrous lie at which the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in ruins, that they ascribe unto the All-Merciful a son! [Q.19:88-91] Of course, they insist, this is not the intent with which a Muslim offers Christmas greetings today.

Sixthly: A well-known legal maxim says: al-hukm yuduru ma‘a ‘illatihi wujudan wa ‘adaman – ‘The ruling revolves around the presence or absence of its legal causation.’ In other words, if the factor which gives rise to the ruling no longer exists, the ruling no longer stands. A simpler version states: intifa’ al-hukm li intifa’ ‘illatihi– ‘The ruling ends with the absence of its legal causation.’ When applied to the issue of giving Christmas greetings, it has been argued – and for the most part, rightly so – that when Muslims today wish their co-workers or non-Muslim friends or family a Merry Christmas, there is no rida and no iqrar inherent in their greeting; which is something that even a Christian recipient of such a greeting is clear about too. Therefore, it now becomes permissible. The issue thus seems to be done and dusted. But the question which requires asking is: Is rida or iqrar the actual ‘illah to which classical juristic attitudes on the matter were tied?

Seventhly: Let’s begin to tie the issue of ‘illah to whether or not Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and the classical Hanbali school permitted Christmas greetings? The acclaimed legal theorist (usuli), Shaykh Bin Bayyah, said as part of his reply to the issue of greeting non-Muslims on their celebrations: ‘So there is nothing to prevent an individual Muslim, or an Islamic centre, to congratulate them on this occasion; verbally, or by a card, that doesn’t contain any religious emblem or expression that conflicts with any principle of Islam, such as a cross … Such customary words of congratulations on such occasions don’t entail a consent (iqrar) to their religion, nor any approval (rida) of it. Instead they are words of courtesy that people are [culturally] familiar with.’7

Eighthly: Having said that the basis for its lawfulness is the absence of rida and iqrar, he went on to say: ‘But let’s not forget to mention here that some of the jurists, like Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah and his student, the very learned Ibn al-Qayyim, were staunch in the matter of [Muslims] participating in the festivals of the idolators and the People of the Book. And we are with them in opposing [Muslims] partaking in the religious festivals of the idolators or the People of the Book – just as we observe some heedless Muslims doing in their celebrating Christmas as they celebrate the two Eids; or even more! This is not permitted. We have our celebrations; and they, theirs. But we see no problem in congratulating the people on their religious festivals.’8

Ninthly: The Shaykh brings the Hanbali school into the mix when he states in a postscript to his fatwa: ‘It may be appropriate to add here that greeting non-Muslims is differed upon by the scholars. In the school of Imam Ahmad, there are three reports: prevention, detestability and permissibility. This last stance is the one preferred by Shaykh Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah; for in it there lies a benefit. And this is what we prefer too.’9 Although not explicitly stated, this suggests that Imam Ahmad allows – in one report from him – congratulating non-Muslims on their religious festivities; and that Ibn Taymiyyah, and other jurists in the school, agree with this. And though some contemporary scholars and shaykhs have uncritically accepted this erroneous claim, propagating it as well, it’s far from being the actual case.

Tenthly: That Imam Ahmad and the Hanbalis differ about congratulating non-Muslims is only in the context of non-religious occasions, such as marriage; the birth of a child; moving into a new house; recovering from illness; etc. As for congratulating them on their religious festivals, they categorically state it is forbidden (haram). Let’s cite from some authoritative Hanbali fiqh manuals on the matter, starting with Ibn Muflih’s al-Mubdi‘ which states the different views: ‘On the legality to greet them, offer condolences to them, or visit them, there are two reports … [First:] it is forbidden … Second: permissibility … Third: allowance for an overriding benefit, like hoping for him to accept Islam; which was chosen by Shaykh Taqi al-Din [Ibn Taymiyyah].’10 So while Imam Ahmad had two views on the matter, the school itself has three.

But when shahadatu a‘yadihim, ‘partaking in their religious festivals,’ is listed, either by itself or in conjunction with what was mentioned above of visiting, sending condolences, and other non-religious activities, it is alway stipulated as forbidden. Mar‘i b. Yusuf’s Ghayat al-Muntaha typifies the point: wa haruma tahni’atuhum wa ta‘ziyatuhum wa ‘iyadatuhum wa shahadatu a‘yadihim – ‘And it is prohibited to greet them, give condolences to them, visit them, or partake in their religious celebrations.’11 Thus whilst worldly interactions are differed upon in the law school (madhhab), the issue of religious celebrations are not.

Eleventhly: As for the legal causation, or ‘illah, that gives rise to the ruling and underpins it, for Hanbalis it is not iqrar or rida. Instead, it is ta‘zim – to ‘laud’, ‘venerate’, ‘honour’, ‘esteem’, or ‘respect’ the occasion or festival; even if one doesn’t agree with the religious basis, and is not confused about the falseness of the Christian creed. Al-Bahuti stated: ‘It is prohibited to initiate [greetings of] salams to them … It is forbidden to congratulate them, offer condolences to them, visit them, or partake in their religious celebrations … However it is not forbidden for us to trade with them during it; i.e. their religious festivals, since it entails no respect (ta‘zim) of it.’12 Al-Futuhi stipulated the same about the forbiddance of taking part in such dini festivals, and the allowance of trading with them on such occasions, adding: ‘Because this doesn’t involve any ta‘zim of them.’13

Lastly, Putting things into context, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Section: Regarding congratulating them for marriage, a newborn, return of someone long absent, recovery from an illness, and the like, then the narrations from Imam Ahmad about this differ. He allowed it at one time, but forbade it another time. Speech about this is like that concerning visiting them or offering them condolences; there is no distinction between these two … But as for congratulating them on those specific times and occasions that are symbols of their disbelief, then this is forbidden by agreement (ittifaq); like congratulating them on their religious festivals or their fasts, saying: “Festive greetings to you,” or “Congratulations on this festival,” or the like. This, even if the one saying it were free from any disbelief, it is still from what is prohibited.’14 Which is to say, even if one did not intend iqrar or rida, or even ta‘zim; but instead congratulated them on the occasion, not for the occasion, it is forbidden, though not disbelief. And Allah knows best.

Conclusion: In reply to the question with which we began: Did Imam Ahmad and the Hanbali madhhab permit Muslims to congratulate others during the Christmas festive season? the answer is, it seems, a definite no! And those who have said otherwise have erred in the matter. For the Hanbalis, the prohibition on the issue isn’t because doing so entails an acknowledgement or approval of Christianity’s correctness. But because it involves a form of respect forbidden by the shari‘ah. We may be respectful of Christians (and other non-Muslims) in that we are civil, affable, tolerant, and just towards them. But we cannot, as Muslims, respect any expression, act or symbol of disbelief (kufr): But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified it in your hearts; and has made abhorrent to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. [Q.49:7]

If the legal causation (‘illah) in the other law schools, or in the view of other classical jurists, is also ta‘zim – as it is in the Hanbali school – then it simply will not be possible to offer Christmas greetings; and the matter will be, as Ibn al-Qayyim noted, a point of juristic agreement; a scholarly consensus (ijma‘) of sorts – and thus binding on one and all!

If, however, other madhhabs or jurists hold that the prohibition is tied just to iqrar or rida, then there might be a leeway in offering Christmas greetings. For whenever there is no scholarly consensus (ijma‘) nor juristic agreement on a matter, then the opinion or verdict of any scholar follows this unspoken rule: kalami mu‘lim laysa bi mulzim: ‘My words are instructional, not dictatorial (lit. not binding).’ In other words, a legitimate difference cannot be imposed upon others, or be made into a benchmark issue to determine who is dodgy or not; let alone for cancel culture to be invoked.

Such an investigation into the other madhhabs – on this point – is beyond the scope of this article, and beyond the ability of this author. It’s not just a case of consulting some comparative law manual (fiqh al-muqarin). For such manuals are – as the Shafi‘i faqih and academic, Shaykh al-Afifi once told me – okay on the broad strokes, but often err on the nuances and finer points, or miss them out altogether. No, in order to ascertain what the madhhabs say on such subtle points of law, one must consult highly seasoned jurists of those schools. So I will leave such an inquiry to others, if it hasn’t already been undertaken.

Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa bihi al-tawfiq.

1. Muslim, no.1732.

2. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.

3. Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions 9/73. Rukhas, the plural of rukhsah, while ‘aza’im is plural of ‘azimah – a “strict” religious ruling: a ruling in its original form, without any attendant reason or circumstance that could soften or ease its original force.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.39.

5. As is recorded by al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.

6. Consult: Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta’ fatwa on the issue, which can be read here; and the European Council for Fatwa and Research fatwa (Resolution 3/6), which may be read here.

7. Bin Bayyah, Sina‘at al-Fatwa (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2007), 341.

8. ibid., 341-42.

9. ibid., 342.

10. Al-Mubdi‘ Sharh al-Muqni‘ (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2003), 3:325. Also cf. al-Mardawi’s encyclopaedic al-Insaf fi Ma‘rifat al-Rajihi min al-Khilaf (n.p. 1956), 4:234, where he stated that the second report from Imam Ahmad is that it is not forbidden, but disliked.

11. Mar‘i b. Yusuf al-Karami, Ghayat al-Muntaha Jam‘ al-Iqna‘ wa’l-Muntaha (Kuwait: Mu’assasah Ghuras, 2007), 1:489.

12. Al-Bahuti, Sharh Muntaha al-Iradat (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1993), 1:664.

13. Al-Futuhi, Ma‘una Ula al-Nuha Sharh al-Muntaha (Makkah: Maktabah al-Asadi, 2008), 4:458.

14. Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Dammam: Ramadi li’l-Nashr, 1997), 1:441.

Muslim Fitnah-Makers & their Fascist Fiqh!

This is a piece discussing how Muslims can be divided into three categories in terms of religious knowledge, and how the middle category is where much of the ummah’s woes and fitnahs spring from. And as counter-intuitive as it may sound, this middle problematic category are those that are commonly referred to as the more committed in learning ‘practicing Muslims’! Finally, while the title may be somewhat on the dramatic side, it is my hope that the piece itself will be read with careful thought and measured consideration.

In the biography of ‘Ali b. Qasim, Imam al-Shawkani (d.1255H/1839CE) wrote the following: ‘From the beautiful words I heard from him were:

“People are of three categories: The highest category are the major scholars (al-‘ulema al-kibar) who are well-acquainted with truth and falsehood; and when they differ their differing does not become a cause for fitnah, because of their knowledge of what each other has [of proofs].

“The lowest category are the general public (‘ammah) upon the fitrah, who do not flee from the truth. They are followers of those they emulate: if those they emulate are correct, they are likewise; if they err, then they do too.

“The middle category is the source of evil and the root cause of fitnahs arising in the religion: They are those who are not seasoned in knowledge, such that they rise to the level of the first category, nor have they forsaken it to thus be of the lowest category. They are those who, when they see one of those from the highest level say something which they are not acquainted with and which contradicts their belief in which they fell short, they fire arrows of accusation at him and hurl at him all sorts of insults. They [also] corrupt the fitrah of the lowest category [the masses] from [no longer] accepting the [scholarly] truth, through disguising falsehood. By this, they establish religious fitnahs on a firm footing.”

‘This is the meaning of his words which I heard from him; and he has spoken the truth. For whoever ponders over them will find it to be so.’1

There are a number of benefits which may be taken away from the above; they include the following:

1 In matters of furu‘, the branches or details of shari‘ah law where there is no juristic agreement or consensus (ijma‘), the scholars uphold the rule: ikhtilafu ummati rahmah – ‘Differences in my community is a mercy.’2 Such a rule has lent itself to mutual respect between scholars and an appreciation for the basis of legitimate scholarly differing (ikhtilaf) – even when a scholar passionately holds his view to be the correct one.

2 This rule was so part and parcel of Sunni orthodoxy that we see someone like Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, the chief Hanbali jurist-theologian of the early seventh century, include it as part of the staple Athari creed: ‘Differing in the furu‘ is a mercy. Those differing are rewarded for their scholarly ijtihad. Their differing is a comprehensive mercy: their agreement a decisive proof.’3 Imam al-Nawawi wrote: ‘Realise, to know the madhhab of the salaf with its proof is a most essential need. For their differing in furu‘ issues is a mercy.’4

3 – As for the view of the late Salafi scholar Shaykh al-Albani, where he tried to show the futile nature of this rule then, in the light of our past Imams and theologians, I’ve discussed how his view is out of sync with the classical Sunni position, in my book, Fussing Over the Fifteenth of Sha‘ban & the Golden Rule of Differing. Hence rather than rehearse the arguments here, and before someone regurgitates the gist of his objections in the comments section, I recommend that one refer to the book.5

4 – That the ummah would be afflicted with its share of barefaced pretenders to Islam’s scholarly heritage is something our Prophet ﷺ cautioned us about. One hadith says: ‘Allah does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; but He takes away knowledge by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who when asked give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’6 These people are usually not from the lowest category of the general public, but – as al-Shawkani mentions – from the ‘middle category’ of the practicing Muslim cohort; those who have some passion to learn, practice and proselytise a little more than is usual for non-scholars.

5 – Ibn Mas‘ud said: ‘You are in a time in which its scholars (‘ulema) are many and its speakers (khutaba) are few. But after you will come a time in which its scholars are few and its speakers many.’7 This ‘speaker’ syndrome has, in our time, mushroomed into a rite of passage for any ignoramus, with the flimsiest knowledge and no grounding in the sacred Islamic sciences, to speak on behalf of Allah and to engage in shameless self-promotion. Such people deserve to be labelled as liars, as Imam Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he did not intend to lie!’8

6 – Left to their own natures, the general public always understood that there is a huge difference between them and scholars who, not too long ago would have had to spend, on average, seven to ten years just to get on the first rung of the ladder of serious scholarship. That is, a lay Muslim knew that he or she must follow qualified scholars in religious matters – taqlid being the technical religious term for such following, and muqallid for the follower.

7 – Over the past three decades, a vile bid‘ah has infected practicing Muslims, who are otherwise well-intended. And that is the idea that even they, without any juristic training; qualification; or expertise, can weigh-up shari‘ah proofs in the highly complex minutae of Islamic law and determine the ‘strongest’ view! And all because they believe they know a proof-text (dalil) or two on the issue. Ibn Taymiyyah put such falsehood to bed when he said: ‘As for a person who only knows one scholar’s view and his proof, but not the other scholar’s or his proof, is from the generality of the muqallids. He isn’t from the scholars capable of evaluating or weighing-up [proofs].’9

8 – The middle category of religious practitioners, as al-Shawkani points out, not only corrupt their own fitrah, but have been instrumental in corrupting the nature of the third category – a growing number of whom are also persuaded that they too can dive into detailed fiqh/furu‘ matters and play the part of self-made muftis. And whilst any Muslim may join the scholarly conversation, they can only lawfully do so with sound learning that is isnad-approved. Otherwise, it’s as Ibn al-Mubarak said: al-isnad ‘indi min al-din, law la’l-isnad laqala man sha’a ma sha’a – ‘The chain [of transmission], in my view, is a [required] part of the religion. If it were not for the chain, anyone could claim whatever they wanted to claim.’10

9 – That the lay folk aren’t obliged to know the proofs behind a fatwa or ruling they read or are given, shouldn’t prevent them from increasing in their overall knowledge of the Qur’an and the Hadith corpus. Islam encourages all Muslims to increase in their share of Islamic knowledge. Let lay people apply their God-given intellects to grow in knowledge of those verses and hadiths that relate to foundational beliefs; ethics and good character; virtues and vices of the heart and its spiritual growth; and rights and responsibilities. Books like Imam al-Nawawi’s Riyadh al-Salihin are priceless in this respect. It’s just in the domain of detailed Islamic law, in fiqh, where the proofs are often complex and subtle to fathom without formal legal training, that taqlid is legislated and qualified scholarship must be followed.

10 – Rather than acquaint themselves with the basic meanings of the Qur’an, or with hadiths that expound on the broad aspects of Islam mentioned above, the middle category feign knowledge; overstep their mark; criticise what they don’t understand; and eagerly plunge into pointless argumentation and issues of contention, none of which arouse in the soul a yearning for Allah or a desire to increase in acts of devotion. Malik b. Dinar said: ‘Whoever learns knowledge so as to act by it, his knowledge humbles him. Whoever seeks it for other than that, only increases in pride by it.’11 And Abu Qilabah advised: ‘If God gives to you knowledge, give to Him worship; and do not let your concern be to merely narrate to the people.’12

11 – Corrupt intentions or the soul’s arrogance aside, the chief reason why this middle category is a harbinger of fitnah is their lack of upholding the ikhtilafu ummati rahmah rule. For them, differing in the furu‘ is no longer a mercy, but a menace! Be it driven by compound ignorance (jahl murakkab – being ignorant of one’s ignorance), personal jealousy or sectarian prejudice, the hallmark of such people is ta‘alum – ‘feigning knowledge’ and, what could be described as fascist fiqh!

12 – Let me try to explain this last trait. Fascist fiqh is where furu‘ differences rooted in ijtihad are made into larger than life issues which are then used as a benchmark to judge who is deviant; whose Islam is not ‘sahih’ enough; or who must be boycotted, snubbed or shunned. That is why such bigotry, intolerance and authoritarianism in matters of legitimate scholarly differences is nothing short of a facist mentality in fiqh/furu‘. Hence, fascist fiqh. Ibn Taymiyyah tells us: ‘When it comes to issues of ijtihad, whoever takes the position of one of the scholar, cannot be rebuked or boycotted; while whoever adopts the other view cannot be censured either.’13

13 – Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘In such ijtihadi matters, one cannot forbid someone with the hand, nor impose upon others the view he follows. He may, however, discuss it with knowledge-based proofs. Then whosoever sees one of the two views to be correct may follow it, while whoever follows the other view cannot be criticised. And the likes of such issues are many.’14 Such ijtihadi issues can be in matters of fiqh, or in hadith authenticities and the reliability of specific narrators, or even whether the conditions have been fulfilled for a person to be warned about or boycotted. For as long as there is no scholarly agreement or consensus on the matter, one scholar’s ijthad cannot be enforced or imposed on others. To do so is sheer misguidance and the essence of fascist fiqh.

14 – Regrettably, there is quite a lengthy catalogue of issues where this middle category has made mountains out of molehills, thereby riding roughshod over Sunni orthodoxy and causing schisms and divisions within this already fragile ummah. So whether it’s from using tasbih beads to tawassul bi’l-nabi, or from whether to mark out the night of mid-Sha‘ban with extra worship or celebrate the Prophet’s mawlid/milad ﷺ, then all such things are areas of valid scholarly ijtihad and are from the issues of fiqh and furu‘, not usul nor ‘aqidah. This will be evident, and as clear as day, just by looking into even what Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah had to say about these issues.15

15 – Given all the above, it won’t come as a surprise that making issues which are not agreed upon (mujma‘ ‘alayhi), but are instead valid differing (mukhtalif fihi), into benchmark issues or mini inquisitions one imposes on others, has always been deemed by the ‘ulema to be the stock-in-trade of the innovators. Typifying Islamic orthodoxy on the matter at hand, let’s here from Imam Ibn Taymiyyah one last time: ‘It isn’t [lawful] for anyone to set-up for the ummah an individual, calling to his way or basing one’s loyalty or enmity around him, except if it be the Prophet ﷺ. Nor must an opinion be set-up for them, around which loyalty and enmity is formed except if it be the Speech of Allah, or His Prophet, or what the ummah has agreed upon. Rather, this is from the practice of the people of innovations (ahl al-bida‘); those who affiliate themselves to a specific individual or opinion, basing their loyalty and enmity around such an opinion or affiliation.’16

Let me conclude with the following. In his scathing rebuke of those with half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi wrote – and how yesterday resembles today:

‘Some people who are overcome with ignorance, whose intellects are weak, and whose nature is corrupt think they are from the learned, when they are not. There is no greater harm to knowledge or to the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah, exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’17

Of course, none of the above will likely have any effect on those in whose vapid hearts the poison of attention-seeking and shamelessness has been secreted. For as the Prophet ﷺ warned: idha lam tastahih f’sna‘ ma sh’it – ‘If you feel no shame, then do as you wish.’18 We ask Allah for safety from fitnah, and from the evils of our own selves.

From a struggling, mediocre student of sacred knowledge,
Surkheel Abu Aaliyah

1. Al-Shawkani, al-Badr al-Tali‘ (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Islami, n.d.), 1:473.

2. The rule or principle is related as an actual hadith. However, al-Subki said: ‘it is not known to the hadith scholars and I cannot find a chain for it; whether sound, weak or [even] fabricated.’ As cited in al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), no.288; 1:352.

3. Lum‘at al-I‘tiqad (Kuwait: Dar al-Salafiyyah, 1986), 35; no.94.

4. Al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Jeddah: Maktabah al-Irshad, n.d.), 1:19.

5. Fussing Over the Fifteenth of Sha‘ban & the Golden Rule of Differing (London: Jawziyyah Press, 2014), 46-53.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.

7. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8066, and its chain is sahih. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: al-Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, n.d.), 10:510.

8. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.

9. ibid., 35:233.

10. Sahih Muslim, Muqaddimah (Beirut: Dar al-Tasil, 2014), no.28; 1:316.

11. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1977), no.31.

12. ibid., no.38.

13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 28:15.

14. ibid., 30:80.

15. On Ibn Taymiyyah’s opinion concerning tasbih beads (subhah), see: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa, 22:506; on tawassul with the Prophet ﷺ, see: Majmu‘ Fatawa, 1:40, where he cites Imam Ahmad doing so, thus validating it as a legitimate fiqh view; concerning earmarking the fifteenth of Sha‘ban for optional ‘ibadah, cf. 23:131-32; on the mawlid, see: Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Maktabah Ishbiliya, 1998), 2:123, where he holds people will be rewarded for their love in doing so, but not for the actual act, again showing he considered it as an issue of legitimate ijtihad and differing.

16. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.

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

18. Al-Bukhari, no.6120.

Is Din ‘Private’ Religion & Is Iman ‘Blind’ Faith?

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.

6. ibid., 308.

7. Cf. Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidat al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:505-35; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawhar al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90-103.

8. Ibn Balban, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 94, 143.

On British Muslims & Racism: Do Black Lives Matter?

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.

5. GOV.UK: Black Caribbean Ethnicity Facts and Figures.

6. Abdal Hakim Murad, Travelling Home (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2020), 49-50.

7. See: Ibn ‘Asakir, Tarikh Madinat al-Dimashq (Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 42:24.

8. As per Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, al-Isti‘ab fi Ma‘rifat al-Ashab (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1971), 3:236

9. Al-Bukhari, no.3438.

10. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 8:61.

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