The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “knowledge & epistemology”

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.

Critical Thinking or Just the Ego’s Attempt at Intellectualism?

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.

Task of Tafsir Isn’t to Preach to the Public, It’s to Reveal Quranic Gems and Meanings

I recently met a brother who I’d not seen since the late ’90s. He was eager to remind me of an incident I had more or less forgotten about. I was working in an Islamic bookshop at the time and he came in to buy the ten volume translation of Tafsir Ibn Kathir Abridged. At the time it was selling for just under £100. To his surprise (and I’m guessing also to his disappointment), I dissuaded him from doing so; I put him off. Truth of the matter is he wasn’t the first one I discouraged from buying this multi-volume tafsir; I had done this to a few others before. But why?

But let me be clear. It wasn’t because I’m against people growing in sacred knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, and all praise is for Allah, Allah has allowed me to be involved in learning, teaching and disseminating sacred knowledge of Islam since the mid 1980s. Over three decades on, and it’s still my core passion and vocation.

Nor was it because of what I saw to be the somewhat inelegant way in which the Qur’an, the Word of God, had been rendered into English throughout the translation. And neither was my concern that it wasn’t the actual real deal; it was a tahdhib – an abridgement and a slight reworking of the original.

Instead, my motive was more straightforward. Tafsir works aren’t usually written with the general public in mind. Their whole style, length, format, content, technical vocabulary or discourse is mitigated against a general readership. In fact, the target audience of tafsir works is specifically the scholar or budding scholar.

Knowing the brother fairly well, and knowing he was neither an academic nor a keen lay reader, I explained why I thought he shouldn’t buy the Tafsir and suggested he buy some other books and CDs that would be more relevant and immediate to his needs and thirst for sacred knowledge. He took my advice, and I happily took his money.

Of course, I wasn’t suggesting that only a scholar could or should benefit from the Qur’an. But the reality is that non-specialists will almost certainly find tafsir books overbearing and difficult. Even the modern tafsirs (leaving aside how correct it is to describe some of them as tafsir) are a challenge for the layman: less due to language or style; and more due to just how lengthy any complete tafsir is likely to be! The non-academic or layman simply doesn’t usually have the sheer will to plough through volumes and volumes of pedantic commentary on the Qur’an – or anything else for that matter. Although most will find the sheer will to binge watch episode after episode of Ertugrul or Games of Thrones, or other multi-seasoned box set that takes their fancy. So it’s less a complete lack of will: it’s more a lack of will for some things, but not for others. Just saying.

To be fair, there have been a few diligent lay readers who’ve managed to plough through the entire ten volume tafsir! But this should be seen for what it is: rare exceptions to the rule. What should be asked here is that those who have churned their way through the entire tafsir, did they do so having learnt the personally obligatory (fard al-‘ayn) matters Islam obligates each Muslim to know – with regards to core knowledge of creed, acts of worship, social transactions, ethics, and spiritual purification of the heart – or was it at the expense of holistically learning this? Because as counter-intuitive as this may sound, digesting an entire tafsir is unlikely to teach a Muslim the fard al-‘ayn knowledge that he or she is required to know and practice.

I suspect, however, that most people who purchase this ten volume tafsir do so more as a reference work, or as something they can dip into now and again, rather than something to read from cover to cover. And that, no doubt, is a commendable and well-intended aim.

Going back to the brother. I also suggested to him that he find a good English translation of the Qur’an, perhaps one with some helpful footnotes (I suggested Yusuf Ali’s to him at the time), to help nurture a personal, practical, reflective relationship with Allah’s Book. A couple of years later, the heftier (in terms of sheer price, size and weight) and highly elegant The Majestic Qur’an came out, which I duly started recommending to people. Fast forward to 2019, and there are quite a few good translations of the Qur’an, some with useful footnotes to help the non-specialist deepen their understanding of the Holy Book. As for tafsirs, there’s now a wonderful translation, in one manageable slim volume, of the famous, yet simple Tafsir al-Jalalayn – which I certainly encourage the keen lay reader to perhaps consider trying to benefit from.

It has been said that throughout Islamic history, the lay person’s link with the Qur’an was less about trying to glean its gems of meaning and majesty, but was more about it being devotional recital: a sacrament; a ritual. I’m not sure how true that is. Though in a pre-modern age, where mass literacy or formal schooling weren’t widespread, it’s easy to see why that could have been the case.

That said, the modern world has changed the layman in respect to literacy and numeracy. Most people, certainly here in the West, have had at least a half decent education. Mass education and mass media have exposed us all to a whole raft of facts and figures, and ideas and abstractions, like never before. Thus it could reasonably be argued that today’s layman has less of an excuse not to engage a decent translation of the Qur’an (or a one volume tafsir) compared to a layman of earlier times. In other words, what stops today’s layman for reading a good translation of the Qur’an – not in order to dish out fatwas or make up their own rulings and interpretations, but to gain an overall understanding and appreciation of what the Good Lord wants; via the stories, lessons, parables and religious instruction related in the Qur’an?

As for the scholar, budding scholar, or student of sacred learning, their way is to regularly meditate over the Qur’an, and deepen their connection with it. Of course, aid should be taken from the books of tafsir: classical and contemporary; both the textual (ma’thur) and rational (ma‘qul) genres. Let them nurture and imbibe in themselves the adab, character and worldview of the Qur’an, and then help steer others towards this.

Whether in Friday sermons, or in general circles for the laity, let the scholar or student of knowledge – not as mufassir; exegist, but as khatib; preacher, and wa‘iz; exhorter – draw wisely from that rich, profound tafsir heritage and share some of what will awaken and inspire the hearts of the lay people to Allah and the Afterlife. This has been the tried and tested method to help attach people to the Qur’an, and to its invitation and summons to God and godliness.

And we seek Allah’s enabling grace.

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