The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “knowledge & epistemology”

Guardians of Sacred Knowledge & Spiritual Growth

The core of this article centres on Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali’s discussion about the hadith that describes the three kinds of heart in respect to knowledge and guidance. Ibn Rajab also gives us a window into how revealed knowledge has been safeguarded for us – both its content and its meanings – throughout the ages, by those guardians described by our Prophet ﷺ as “the Trustworthy Ones of every generation”. What the unspoken question this articles asks is: What type of heart do we each wish to be?

We have revealed to you [O Prophet] the Reminder [Qur’an] that you may explain to people what was sent to them, that they may reflect. [Q.16:44]

This verse defines the Prophet’s function ﷺ as being, not just the conveyer of revelation, but its explainer and elaborator too. The Prophet, in other words, was not just invested with the wordings of the Qur’an, but its meanings as well. The Prophet’s legacy ﷺ in the form of his words, deeds and tacit approvals, are collectively known as his Sunnah – his “way” or “norm”. One famous hadith states: ‘I am leaving among you two things, you will never go astray as long as you cling tightly to them: the Book of Allah and my Sunnah.1 Another popular hadith states: ‘Whoever turns away from my Sunnah is not of me.’2

The injunctions laid out in Allah’s Book and the Messenger’s Sunnah ﷺ make-up what is known collectively as the shari‘ah – the Sacred Law of Islam. From this body of teachings come the laws and ethics that govern Islamic life. The shari‘ah is all-encompassing and, to worship Allah, believers must recognise that every area of human activity bears religious significance.

Now the men and women of the Prophet’s generation ﷺ, to whom he recited the Qur’an and who became his immediate disciples and followers, are known as the sahabah or “Companions”. The Qur’an says of them: As for the foremost, the first of the Emigrants and the Helpers, and those who followed them with excellence, Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. He has prepared for them gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they shall dwell perpetually. That is the supreme triumph. [Q.9:100]

The Prophet ﷺ asserted: ‘The best of mankind is my generation, then their immediate followers, then their immediate followers.’3

Another hadith says: ‘You will not cease to be upon goodness while there remains among you those who saw me and kept company with me. By Allah, you will not cease to be upon goodness as long as there remains among you those who saw those who saw and kept company with me.’4

One hadith states: akrimu ashabi – ‘Honour my Companions.’5 Another insists: la tasubbu ashabi – ‘Do not revile my Companions.’6 And a third informs that: idha dhukira ashabi fa’amsiku – ‘When my Companions are mentioned, withold [from speaking ill of them].’7 And outlining the path of salvation, the Saved Sect, the Prophet ﷺ stated it was: ma ana ‘alayhi wa ashabi – ‘That which I and my Companions are upon.’8

Since they actually had direct contact with the Prophet ﷺ, the Companions are thus the source for the exact wordings of the Qur’an, as well as for the Sunnah. An immense corpus of eyewitness reports about the sayings and actions of the Prophet ﷺ have been related by them – each report is called a “hadith”. The Companions, particularly the scholars and jurists among them, meticulously passed on this knowledge to their students from among the tabi‘un or “Successors” who, in turn, did the same with the next generation; and so on, to the present age.

This transmission; this passing down of knowledge, is what is depicted by the following hadith: ‘This knowledge shall be carried by the trustworthy ones of each generation: they will expel from it the distortions of the extremists, the concoctions of the liars; and the false interpretations of the ignorant.’9

These ‘udul or “trustworthy ones” are the scholars; the ‘ulema. Now the word ‘ulema just means: “learned ones”. The ‘ulema earn this recognition only after having extensively studied at the feet of authorised teachers and recognised religious authorities who went through a like process; and so on, in an unbroken chain going right back to the earliest religious authorities: the Companions. Because of this, the ‘ulema occupy an important place in Islam. They are no less than the guardians and interpreters of Sacred Knowledge. The Prophet ﷺ proclaimed: al-‘ulema warathatu’l- anbiya – ‘The scholars are the heirs of the prophets.’10

Presenting us with a window into this legacy, Ibn Rajab writes: ‘Allah has guaranteed to guard this Sacred Law and protect its followers from concurring upon misguidance and error. He raised from their midst a group that would never cease to be established upon the truth, victorious over those opposing them, until the Hour comes. He raised up those who would be the bearers of the Sacred Law: those who would defend it by the sword and tongue, and by proofs and clarifications. Which is why Allah appointed for this ummah – among the successors to the prophets and the bearers of proofs for each age – those who would specialise in meticulously preserving the actual wordings of the Sacred Law: guarding it from any additions or deletions; and those who would specialise in protecting its meanings and implications: guarding it against distortions and lies. The first are those versed in transmission (riwayah); the second are specialists in derivation (dirayah wa’l-ri‘ayah).

‘The Prophet ﷺ struck a similitude for these two groups, as is recorded in the Two Sahihs, where Abu Musa relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: “The example of what Allah has sent me with, of guidance and knowledge, is like that of a downpour of rain that falls upon parts of the earth. Some spots are fertile and accept the rainwater, bringing forth an abundance of pasture and greenery. Other parts are barren, but retain the water with which Allah benefits people, who use it to drink and sow. Others, still, are gullies which can neither hold water nor bring forth any pasturage. This is like a person who gains knowledge of the religion and benefits from what Allah sent me with; learning it and teaching it to others; and someone who pays no heed and rejects Allah’s guidance with which I was sent.”1112

Ibn Rajab, may Allah sanctify his soul, continues: ‘What the Prophet ﷺ said in the hadith of Abu Musa classifies hearts according to what they produce of knowledge and faith; whether or not they retain the water and sprout green pasture. Here, hearts are of three types:

‘A type that both retains the water and brings forth abundant pasture and herbage. This is like those who have the power to commit texts to heart, to comprehend and understand the religion, to gain insight into the finer points of interpretation, and to extract subtleties and treasures from the texts. Examples include: the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, ‘Ubayy b. Ka‘b, Abu’l-Darda’, Ibn Mas‘ud, Mu‘adh b. Jabal and Ibn ‘Abbas. They were followed by the likes of al-Hasan, Sa‘id b. al-Musayyib, ‘Ata’ and Mujahid. They were followed by the likes of Malik, Layth, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd, Abu Thawr and Muhammad b. Nasr al-Marwazi. These, and their like, are from those who were deeply versed in Allah’s laws, commands and prohibitions.

‘Their like also included: Uways, Malik b. Dinar, Ibrahim b. Adham, Fudayl b. ‘Iyad, Abu Sulayman, Dhu’l-Nun, Ma‘ruf, Junayd b. Muhammad, Sahl b. ‘Abd Allah, and al-Hirr b. Asad. They and their like are those who were deeply versed in Allah’s names, attributes, actions and days.13

‘The [second] type [of land] holds water and retains it, so that people may draw water and benefit from it [but doesn’t bring forth any herbage or pasturage]. They are those who have the power to commit texts to heart, accurately and precisely, but cannot infer rulings or extract meanings [from them]. Their likes also include Sa‘id b. Abi ‘Aruba, al-‘Amash, Muhammad b. Ja‘far Ghundar, ‘Abd al-Razzaq, ‘Amr al-Naqid and Muhammad b. Bashshar Bindar.

‘The third type are the worst of people [like land that neither holds water nor brings forth pasture]. For they do not learn or comprehend, nor do they transmit or understand. They are those who neither accept Allah’s guidance, nor do they pay any heed to it at all.14

Having let some fragrance of this classical legacy waft in through the window, Ibn Rajab concludes by saying:

‘The point here is that Allah protects this shari‘ah by raising up those who will be its carriers: the people of derivation and the people of transmission. Therefore a student of knowledge has to learn this from those who have already acquired it: i.e. the scholars. So he learns the wordings of the Qur’an and the hadiths from those who have meticulously preserved it: and he gains understanding of the religion – the outward laws of Islam and the inward realities of faith – from those who have mastered it.

‘The predominant state of the first three excellent generations was that they combined all of this. The Companions learnt all of this from the Prophet ﷺ; in turn, all this was learnt from them by their Successors: the following generation learning it from them.

‘During this time, the religious sciences were all unified. The distinctions between jurists (fuqaha) and traditionists (ahl al-hadith); scholars of legal theory (usul) and positive law (furu‘); sufi, faqr and zahid had yet to gain currency. Such distinctions became widespread after the first three generations. The [pious] predecessors (salaf), well they simply called those who possessed religious learning and practice, qurra’ – “Reciters.”‘15

1. Malik, al-Muwatta, no.2618, in balaghah form (i.e. “it has reached me”); al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, no.318; Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.951; and others. Some, due to its collective chains, graded the hadith as hasan, if not sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.2937.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.5063; Muslim, no.1401.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.3250; Muslim, no.2535.

4. Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, no.32421. Its chain is hasan, as per Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahihah al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-’Ilmiyyah, 1989), 7:7.

5. Ahmad, Musnad, nos.114, 117, and it is sahih. Cf. al-Halabi, Hidayat al-Ruwat ila Takhrij Ahadith al-Masabih wa’l-Mishkat (Cairo: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 2001), no.5957.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.3673; Muslim, no.2541.

7. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, 2:72:2. Its chain was graded hasan by al-‘Iraqi, Takhrij al-Ihya’ (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), 1:25, no.78.

8. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2641, who said: “This elucidating hadith is hasan gharib.

9. Al-Khatib, Sharafu Ashab al-Hadith, 29. The hadith, with its collective chains, is hasan, according to al-Qastalani, Irshad al-Sari li Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: al-Matba‘ah al-Kubra al-Amiriyyah, n.d.), 1:4.

10. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. The hadith, with its multiple chains, yields a final grading of hasan. See: Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, 1:212.

11. Al-Bukhari, no.79; Muslim, no.2282.

12. Majmu‘ al-Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Khadathiyyah li’l-Tiba‘ah wa’l-Nashr, 2002), 2:558.

13. Allah’s ‘days’ is a reference to Qur’an [14:5]: And We sent Moses with Our signs: “Bring your people out of the darknesses and into the light, and remind them of the days of Allah.” And [Q.45:14]: Tell the believers to forgive those who have no hope in the days of Allah. These “days” refer to momentous and defining events in the annals or history of a nation, in which we are meant to learn life lessons, deepen in mindfulness of Allah, and grow in spiritual practice. See: al-Sam‘ani, Tafsir al-Qur’an (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1997), 3:104.

14. Majmu‘ al-Rasa’il, 2:559-60.

15. ibid., 2:560-61.

Are We Becoming Bored of God?

THIS IS AN OBSERVATION that may be limited to my tiny window of experience; and it is something I’ve been aware of since the early 1990s. Which is that we Muslims are ready and eager to read stuff about the nitty gritty points of fiqh and shari’ah law, yet as soon as discussing the actual Lawgiver is involved, we tend not to be so keen or interested. Some choose to get so caught up in organising Islamic events, or engaging in activism, or doing da‘wah for God, that they simply don’t make any time to be alone with God.

This isn’t just an issue with the generality of Muslims; scholars can be just as guilty of it too. There are some who are so keen to prove the existence of God, yet care little for God Himself. Others will speak endlessly about divine governance, but care little for getting to know the “Governor” in any real or meaningful sense. Could it be that we’re turning those aspects of Islam into mini objects of devotion, instead of devotion to God Himself; exalted and majestic is He?

There’s another reason why we could be disinterested in God, even if we are still actively doing religious stuff: Boredom! As odd as it may seem to some, becoming bored with God can and does happen. Apart from having defective intentions to begin with, in that Allah was never truly our sought-after goal (thus it’s possible to be committed to certain aspects of Islam, yet not actually be committed to God), there is boredom in our religious lives to contend with too. Boredom with God could manifest itself in a diminishing of one’s faith and religious practice. Or it could come in the guise of religious practice; but a practice where one is just going through the motions without any life, love or joy. Boredom could even show itself in an apathy to actually worship or obey God, even when there’s a keen interest – a passion, even – to endlessly talk about religious matters. Al-Hasan al-Basri, a formidable sage of early Islam, once remarked; when he chanced upon a group of people who were arguing about religious matters: مَا هَؤُلاءِ إِلَّا قَوْمٌ مَلُّوا الْعِبَادَةَ ، وَوَجَدُوا الْكَلامَ أَهْوَنَ عَلَيْهِمْ ، وَقَلَّ وَرَعُهُمْ ، فَتَكَلَّمُوا  – ‘Such are ones who’ve grown bored of worship; speaking has become easy for them, their piety has diminished, hence they talk.’1

So how do we stop the rot from setting in or, if it’s already done so, how do we reverse the rot? How can we cure spiritual boredom? The answer, as uninspiring as it may first seem, is to deepen our knowledge of God.

But how can knowledge be the healer of spiritual boredom when so many of us afflicted with this malady have attended plenty of Islamic courses, classes, seminars or talks over the years, or have watched enough clickbait Islamic videos on YouTube to last a lifetime? Well a lot depends on what one means by “knowledge.” Allow me to explain:

Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah, one of early Islam’s great scholars and saints, said: ‘The learned are of three types: One who knows God and knows His commands; one who knows God, but not His commands; and one who knows God’s commands, but not God. The most perfect of them is the first, and that is the one who fears God and knows His rulings.’2

In this sense, every one of the Prophet’s sahabah or “companions”, may God be pleased with them all, were ‘alim bi’Llah wa bi ahkamihi – “knowers of God and His commands”. Whether it was the likes of the senior companions who had been nurtured and tutored by the Prophet ﷺ for years or decades; or those lesser in rank who only spent a short time in the prophetic presence, each was a knower of God and knew the rulings God had obliged them to know for their daily lives – commensurate with their varying levels of faith, piety, ability and responsibility. 

By knowledge of God, I don’t mean some dry, formulaic learning about God. But learning which inspires the soul to be suffused with God’s majesty, awe, reverence, love, hope and fear. Knowledge which inspires hearts to yearn for God, know Him intimately, trust in Him wholeheartedly, remember and invoke Him abundantly, and seek the means of approach to Him sincerely.3

As for knowing God’s commands, it is to know what He has made lawful and unlawful in our daily lives, to know what deeds He loves and what ones He loathes, and the correct demeanour and comportment with which to worship Him.

To this end, sitting in the gatherings of those shaykhs or shaykhas who can nurture such knowledge and yearning of God in us is a tried and tested method. Reading books which depict the lives of God’s prophets, saints and sages is another potent way of stiring divine love in the heart. And contemplating the Qur’an with an eye to instil an abiding reverence and heartfelt acquaintance of God and His commands in us is yet another. Al-Hasan al-Basri again: ‘Knowledge is of two types: Knowledge which settles in the heart; and this is beneficial knowledge, and knowledge just upon the tongue; which is God’s proof against the Sons of Adam.’4

Islam teaches us that life does not run properly without joy. But true joy derives not from God and job, family, friends, Netflix, gaming, or the drug-like addiction of social media. True joy is only from, and ultimately in, God. Only when we can see God in everything, and the divine compassion, kindness and concern behind all things, are hearts gladdened and made joyful. And as hearts perceive God’s beauty in everyday life, and are thus made joyful, the world is gladdened and made joyful through them.

The world tells us that selfish indulgence in lusts or one’s desires is where the fun’s at. But our lives as Muslims should primarily be about quietly enjoying the beauty of God, and communing with him through prayer; gratitude; remembrance; and charity, in its widest sense, to His creation. The key to all this is ma‘rifah: knowledge of God, internalised and experienced.

As one deepens their knowledge of God, and seeks to internalise it, the soul is illumined; character is given to reflect prophetic beauty; and the heart is brought to bear upon life’s Ultimate End and love’s Ultimate Encounter. 

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq. 

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

2. ibid., 7:280.

3. See: Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Bayan Fadl ‘Ilm al-Salaf (Kuwait: Dar al-Arqam, 1983), 46.

4. Ibn Abi Shaybah, Musannaf, no.34361; al-Darimi, Sunan, no.394.

Intelligent and Informed Faith is Our Only Option

THE LATE GAI EATON PUT his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he wrote three or four decades ago:

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

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

For quite some time now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying orthodoxies, assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims (particularly those parts of the globe still referred to as “the Muslim world”), even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on.

These assumptions – that Man has now come of age and is the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material and consumer progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have severed us from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that has been the setting for normative human life throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of doubts and disbelief.

If commitment to religious faith and practice is to survive such a deluge, firm knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! However, while less than half a century earlier one could be a decent Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of al-Ghazali, al-Razi or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who does not possess at least some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the faith of Islam is grounded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in some impenetrable bubble of naivety or simplicity.

Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or hell-bent society. If it were possible for those who see the monoculture for what it truly is to withdraw from society and to go their own way in peace, this would probably be a decent course of action (not forgetting that the core of Islam’s call is very much urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows ever more invasive and totalising, suffocating any meaningful dissent; assimilating any significant diversity; and erasing any significant divergence. So driven into a tight corner, religion has little option but to turn and fight. Hence an urgent need to raise the dust of polemics against the ensnaring assumptions of modernity.

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

2. ibid., 85.

Recognising the Role & Value of Muslim Teachers

DESPITE THEM BEING on the frontline of rearing, educating and nurturing the hearts and minds of the young, day in; day out, the sad reality is that Muslim teachers are still hugely undervalued by us Muslims as a community. And yet it is undeniable that young people are more positively influenced by teachers than they are likely to be, at their ages, by any scholar, shaykh or da’i. They are far more likely to air their problems or their concerns to a trusted teacher than to a distant, albeit qualified scholar. Young people are convinced, and rightly so, that if any adult is going to get what they are going through, it’s likely to be their teachers than it is the unapproachable imam in a mosque, or some Muslim celebrity scholar on the internet. If it is to be an adult, then it is to a trusted teacher that a young person is likely to air their life problems. So how can this frontline of Muslim teachers not be given the respect, or given their due, when it is they who most engage, or who are most instrumental in nurturing and caring for the wellbeing of the young today? Their role and influence upon young people; in general, and on young Muslims; in particular, is surely second to none?!

The Prophet ﷺ once said of the act of earning a lawful income and of being responsible for one’s dependants: ‘If one leaves [home] striving for his young child, he is in the path of God. If one leaves [home] striving for his two elderly parents, he is in the path of God. If one leaves [home] striving to be self-sufficient, then he is in the path of God. If one leaves [home] striving to be boastful or to show-off, he is in the path of Satan.’1

So Islam elevates a worldly job, conferring on it honour, by placing it in the distinguished category of fi sabili’Llah – “in the Path of God”; provided it is a lawful job, done with the overall intention to earn Allah’s pleasure and approval.

If this is the case with the job of a farmer, trader or candlestick maker, then more so is the case for those whose professions it is to educate and nurture young minds and hearts in Muslim schools; or Muslim teacher who work in state schools with the godly intention of imparting whatever moral, ethical or religious instruction possible in such environments. Given this reality, the role or status of Muslim teachers cannot be underestimated.

It’s about time that we gave proper recognition to these unsung heroes of our community. It’s time we gave credit where credit is long overdue. We must invest in those individuals and institutions which will help to nurture future generations of young Muslims who are religiously and ethically grounded and, who are at one and the same time, conscientious believers and responsible citizens.

While we Muslims do seem to value the building of Muslim schools, we must value even more so the teachers that work there, as well as those Muslim teachers employed in state schools hoping to attain likeminded outcomes. We continue to do both ourselves, and our younger generation, a great disservice if we do not appropriately value Muslim teachers, or realise their paramount role in the community. The Qur’an says: Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from people the things that are their due. [Q.11:85]

1. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Saghir, no.940. The hadith was declared as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1428.

Islam’s Critical Thinking: Hurdles & Principles

Like the words “diversity,” “freedom,” or “moderate,” “critical thinking” is one of those unexamined buzz-words of our age that is banded around without much errr … critical thinking!

For what differentiates critical thinking from ordinary thinking? Or what level or depth is needed for thinking to be deemed “critical”? Can the critical thinking of two people on the same issue allow two completely opposite conclusions? And who decides what is or is not “critical thinking”?

We tend to refer to critical thinking as a way of approaching a given question that allows us to thoughtfully analyse and dissect the issue; highlight any nuances; and uncover any bias or faulty assumptions, in order to form a judgement or arrive at the best answer. And whilst everyone thinks; not everybody thinks critically, unbiasedly, calmly or rationally. A lot of our thinking is done haphazardly, emotionally, as a reaction and often by being only partially informed.

Critical thinking isn’t just required in academia, the sciences or the executive workplace. We use levels of critical thinking in our everyday life too. Deciding what are healthy food options that falls within our budget, for instance, requires some scrutiny, skepticism and critical thinking. So does (or should) the act of voting in elections or referendums. It goes without saying that correct facts and sound knowledge are crucial to critical thinking. If the information that the intellect is critically working upon is itself faulty, then even with the best intellect in the world, the conclusion will always be faulty. You simply can’t nail jelly to a wall!

It should also go without saying that not everyone is capable of critical thinking when it comes to the more academic or analytical level. That is not an insult; and nor is it a stain on their character or humanity or – if religion is involved – their piety. People are blessed with varying abilities and talents: If someone is an academic; another is a craftsmen or an artist. If one is a mathematician; the other a poet or author. If one is a doctor or a surgeon; the other is a sportsperson or a designer. If one is an accomplished politician; another is a loving and caring spouse, with a happy and successful marriage. Or if one is intellectually gifted; another is spiritually or emotionally gifted. Human beings are diverse, as are their talents and strengths. Furthermore, while critical thinking has a lot going for it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that such a talent will make one a good person (or – again, if religion of the monotheistic type is involved – a sincere or devout worshipper of God). It would very much depend on how one puts such talent to use.

For the remainder of this post I shall focus on critical thinking as it pertains to religious knowledge and scholarship in Islam, at both the spiritual and intellectual levels. I’ll also touch upon some principles that must be acknowledged – or at least not ignored – whilst discussing the type of critical thought that is reflective of the Islamic textual tradition:

Often, but not always, those who think they are cutting-edge critical thinkers suffer from large bouts of ‘ujb – vanity; conceit; being egotistically impressed, smug and self-satisfied with one’s own opinions or accomplishments. The Prophet ﷺ said: ثَلاثٌ مُهْلِكَاتٌ شُحٌّ مُطَاعٌ ، وَهَوًى مُتَّبَعٌ ، وَإِعْجَابُ الْمَرْءِ بِنَفْسِهِ ‘Three are [causes of] destruction: greed that is obeyed, whims that are followed, and a person vainly impressed with his ownself.’1 It’s not just a matter of being smug or egotistically impressed with oneself. ‘Ujb is usually accompanied by a failure to be appreciative and respectful of other peoples’ views or accomplishments, or by a need to put others down and deride them. That is, ‘ujb and kibr (pride, arrogance), are very often bedfellows.

When it comes to Islam and Muslim matters in our contemporary age, the need to re-visit our scholarly corpus and textual legacies so that, along with ensuring the Islamic rulings for new issues and circumstances are sound and contextual, we need to evaluate if earlier rulings require any modification or reappraising, in light of the juristic maxim: تَغَيَّرُ الأَحْكامِ بِتَغَيُّرِ الأَزْمَانِ – ‘Rulings change with the changing of time.’ And while this legal maxim isn’t a free for all, certain rulings – the changeable: mutaghayyarat (in contrast to rulings that remain fixed or unchanging: the thawabit) – can or do legally change due to: [1] Changes in social norms (‘urf, ‘adah); [2] dire necessity (darurah); [3] public benefit (maslahah); [4] deterioration or corruption of the times (fasad al-zaman); and [5] when afflictions or problems become endemic in society (ma ta‘ummu bihi al-balwah).2 In other words, while the shari‘ah is a firmly-planted rock that can weather the ages, it isn’t entirely immutable or unchangeable. It has built into it the capacity to adapt and to expand, especially in the area of social civil transactions (mu‘amalat).

However, the principle that some fatwas can and must be revisited, due to change in time, place or cultural norms, was sure to be a magnet for the cardinal sin of ‘ujb – given our spiritually crippling, egotistical age. And that’s precisely what we now see!

For it is becoming more and more fashionable (and has been for quite some time now) to flippantly challenge, or readily dismiss, classical juristic formulations of shari‘ah. There is indeed often a fine line between reprehensible innovation and thinking outside the box: but the latter does not always imply the former. Yet whilst the Muslim jurists and legalists have their work cut out for them, the re-evaluation task has unsurprisingly teased out the charlatans, the sellouts and those whose minds have been colonised by the values of the dominant culture. For even when we humans do think or act rationally, our rationality or logic are so often coloured by our assumptions (or what psychologists refer to as ‘confirmation bias’).

Creative or critical Muslim thinking cannot overlook these all-important principles, if it is to truly pass as being Islamically ‘authentic’:

1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational or inductive methods, for these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Only the guidance in God’s final Revelation can offer an intellectually rigorous escape from post-modernity’s many traumas.

2 – That we as believers can’t be mere armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or forever be angry; always raging against the monoculture. True religion is about being healers. It’s about seeing the best in all things, and the Adamic potential in all people; while seeking to heal the world a day at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of being in a state of tumaninah; of being calm (yet also concerned), then in all likelihood we are animated by ego, not God. True religion begets tranquility, even in the midst of turmoil: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28]

3 – As we begin to see the goodness and potential in people, as opposed to always fault-finding and criticising, then we should know that what counts in these labours of healing and renewal (tajdid) is method, more than end rulings. One hadith informs us: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, then even if he is right, let him take his seat in the Hellfire.’3 So it’s not just about getting the interpretation right, as critical as it is. But about using the right method of interpretation, rather than a layman’s guess or an unqualified opinion. The same is true in Islamic law or theology, as it is for Quranic exegesis or tafsir. So we needn’t take issue with whether a shaykh’s opinion has a liberal slant or conservative one; but issue we must take if the shaykh isn’t qualified to espouse this ruling, yet arrogates to himself the right to speak on behalf of Allah in the matter! If unqualified, the above hadith speaks to that scenario. As for the qualified, they get two rewards if they are correct in what they rule, or one if they err; but never are they sinful because of it. Of course, when determining what the divine intent is likely to be in any given situation (rather than conforming to the zeitgeists of the age), ikhlas is key.

4 – The correct method for an interpretation or view to be valid in Islam entails: [i] The opinion must stem from a jurist qualified to undertake ijtihad in the matter. [ii] That the view must not oppose a text that is qat‘i al-thubut and qat‘i al-dalalah – “unquestionably established in its authenticity” and “unambiguous in its meaning”. [iii] It not contradict an established ijma‘ or scholarly “consensus”. [iv] That it not oppose a sound analogy; or qiyas jali. [v] It must not violate a confirmed principle of the religion; and [vi] That it not be shadhdh, or “aberrant,” as per the canons of Islamic law.4 All this requires serious fiqh schooling: the more complex the issue (the issues modernity throws up are usually highly complex), the deeper or profounder the fiqh skills need to be.

5 – That a more thoughtful and spiritually-infused fiqh is required for our times, one that rejects a puritanical mentality and the tunnelled-vision fiqh that it has given birth to. This blinkered vision is unable to see Islam as anything but a purely legalistic religion, fixated on outward religiosity, devoid of deeply nuanced spiritual or literary possibilities.

6 – That said, our discourse can’t all (or even primarily) be about fiqh issues, despite their centrality to orthopraxy. We certainly do need sound fiqh solutions to raging issues like modern finance, bit coint currencies, environmental crisis, genetic engineering, modern weapons of mass destruction, and other pressing concerns which the modern mufti must grapple with today. But an over focus on the fiqh level, on micro management, instead of engaging the macro issues, will only delay Muslims from meaningfully coming to grips with modernity on our own indigenous religious terms.

7 – That we stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms, taxonomies and vocabulary of the humanities and the social sciences to a detailed and thorough Islamic theological and spiritual scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without doing so, we’re in danger of turning these taxonomies and concepts into overarching sources of guidance, to which even Revelation is now expected to pay homage. Currently, American Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without much critical assessment. The Anglo-Saxon Muslim narrative isn’t that far behind. So we now talk of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; or “feminist” and “gender” theories – all with their highly rarefied, secular jargon, but without the rigorous critical discrimination to Islamically sort out the wheat from the chaff

Perhaps we need less critical thinking and more criticism of our own thinking. So much of what’s currently alleged to be critical thinking is little more than a pale shadow of the real McCoy. Instead, it seems to be more the voice of the ego, self-promotion, half-truths, shoddy scholarship, or poor intellectualisation, than it does religious truth, intellectual beauty, or sincerely seeking the welfare of Allah’s servants.

Some of this ‘critical thinking’ is merely a veneer to mask the promotion of reprehensible innovations or religious heresies. Undermining ijma‘-theology, the well-attested hallmark of mainstream Sunni orthodoxy, is now the in-thing. While much of this opposition stems from egotism and from false desires, some comes from hastiness with sacred knowledge; youngness; inexperience; not allowing ideas to mature enough before letting them loose in the public domain; or not being spiritually rooted. Indeed, sin, committing haram and following false and forbidden desires, can seriously compromise the heart’s intellect and blur its vision! Ibn al-Qayyim reminds us:

‏ فَإنَّ إتِّبَاعَ الهَوَى يُعمِي عَيْنَ القَلْبِ ، فَلا يُمِيزِ بَينَ السُّنَّةِ والبِدْعَةِ ؛ أَو يُنَكِّسُهُ ، فَيَرَى  البِدْعَةَ سُنَّةً والسُّنَّةَ بِدعَةً

‘Following false desire can blind the heart’s [in]sight, so that it can no longer distinguish Sunnah from bid‘ah; or it can invert it, so that it sees bid‘ah as the Sunnah and Sunnah as bid‘ah.5

Thus while the rational or intellectual faculty of a person is still under the domination of its desires, and while one hasn’t taken any serious steps to tame or train the nafs through the heart’s purification, one cannot be sure if the intellect is primarily or significantly being driven by baser motives, or the ego’s deceptions and cunning. And when that is so, in what measure can that ever be called intellectualism, let alone critical thinking? And yet, as the prophetic warning states: ‘If you have no shame, then do as you wish.’6

We ask Allah for safety from the heart’s blindness or inversion; and we beseech Him for well-being in terms of faith, practice and right attitude.

1. Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.80. After analysis of its various chains, it was graded hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1802.

2. This has been discussed in an earlier blog piece, called: ‘Concerning Functional Fatwas & Dysfunctional Muftis.’

3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2951, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan.’

4. Consult: al-Zarkashi, al-Manthur fi’l-Qawa’id (Kuwait: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un al-Islamiyyah, 1985), 2:140; al-Shanqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddeh: Dar al-Manarah, 1999), 636-38.

5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 224.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.3296.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: