The Humble "I"

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Muslim Scholars Must Learn To Be Macro Thinkers

Let me commence with the following: The sixteenth century French essayist and moralist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote in his famous Essays: ‘It could be said of me that in this book I have only made up a bunch of other men’s flowers, providing of my own only the string to tie them together.’ This, I should confess, is what I’ve mainly done here in the following article.

As we Muslims endeavour to navigate the conflicting and faith corroding epistemologies of the secular monoculture, there are a host of micro and macro challenges that confront the religious mind. Some of these contemporary concerns, often the micro masa’il, need fast thinking and rapid responses. Other issues, the macro ones, require macro thinking. Such thinking needs time, reflection, the piecing together of many parts, and setting them in a wider context of meaning. In other words, they demand slow thinking.

While, on the whole, Muslim scholarship must be thanked for its handling of short term, micro issues (the many fatwas, responses and guidance to the Coronavirus pandemic is a good example of this), it has yet to find its stride when it comes to macro issues and long term visions. The current strategy thus far of Western born diaspora Muslims has usually been knee-jerk responses, or simply to fire fight. This must change if we are to thrive, and not just survive a historically unprecedented homogenising of human values by a godless monoculture.

Of course, this does not require that every Muslim scholar must train their academic skill sets towards macro thinking. But it’s probably the case that the more who can do so, the merrier. Nor is it likely to be the case that the majority of scholarly intellects will be suited to macro thinking. For slow, thoughtful, contemplative macro thinking, as with fast, time-constrained micro thinking, is something of an art. Divine providence makes some minds more suited to it than others.

So what are these macro concerns that confront modern Muslimness? Well, they pertain to the bigger questions about God’s agency in the cosmos and the world of matter, and our relationship to Him. They refer to the place or priority of tawhid, Abrahamic monotheism, in a modern world in the grip of angst, ennui and alienation, and of how monotheism can work as humanity’s healing balm. They are about interrogating the deeper intellectual or philosophical forces that have shaped and [de]formed our present. They’re concerned less with the fire fighting issues that come and go as part and parcel of life’s vicissitudes, and more with long term healing and nurturing of the God-given human potential that resides in each one of us. All this is to say, we need less of an atomised, issue-by-issue approach to our modern theological, ethical or fiqhi conundrums, and much more focus on the need to precisely, thoroughly and holistically understand modernity’s meta premises, and how best to redress them; to restore some balance. For if Muslims are to act effectively, and to discern the times they are in clearly and objectively, they must understand what it is that confronts them. In so doing, the following insights and first principles should be kept in the forefront of the engagement:

1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational, inductive or secular 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 exit from modernity’s many contradictions, tyrannies and traumas. And when, as it is wont to do, the monoculture comes around brandishing its sword so as to get us to assent to, say, the universal nature of the Declaration of Human Rights (most of which is relatively unremarkable as ethical declarations go), we could well have little choice but to say – in the interest of fostering peaceful coexistence rather than coercion or conflict: To you, your religion; and to me, mine. [Q.109:6]

2 – While the monoculture still argues about whether it is modern or postmodern, there is no denying that it is a world utterly strange and alien to anything and everything that has come before. It may once have prided itself on being the fruits of a revered Enlightenment rationality. But it now widely holds that we’re guided more by selfish genes, manipulative corporations, and unconscious psychological biases than we ever were, and could be, by reason. And although Man, not God, is still believed to be the measure of all things, it has more and more allowed irrational impulses, not rational thought, to be sovereign over the soul. While it still upholds the Enlightenment’s ideology of human progress, replacing the monotheistic idea of human salvation, whatever good such a progress did birth continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism gnawing away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. The monoculture’s chief value is the inviolable liberty of personal ‘will’ (read: ‘desire’): the right to decide for ourselves what we will/desire to believe, want, own or serve. The will is king, and is constrained by nothing greater than itself. And while in Islam, desires and rights do have their open spaces and green pastures, the Qur’an speaks more so in terms of constraints and duties. Likewise in Islam, though humans are seen as servants or slaves of God, their existence and life is not meant to be slavish. Instead, they are seen as self-determining free agents, endowed with reason and gifted with Revelation, enabling them to pursue ends that are good or beneficial for themselves and for their self-fulfillment. For the monoculture, however, it is choice itself, and not what is chosen, that is the first and greatest good. It believes in the nonexistence of any transcendent standard of the good that has the power, let alone the right, to order our desires towards any higher end. If this is understood, and its consequences even half-perceived, it should come as no surprise that society as a whole is in a tragic grip of ontological loneliness; a descent into nihilism and existential despair.1 For what other than angst, despair and a descent into the worst excesses of unredeemed hedonism could come from falsely believing that life is devoid of meaning; everything is here by some cosmic fluke; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end: therefore life is pointless? Such, then, is modernity’s context: it must never become our excuse – as Dr Sherman Jackson insists.

That said:

3 – We, as believers, cannot merely be armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or curse, or be angry; forever 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, an act at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of in a state of tumaninah; inner calm, then in all likelihood this Agitated Islam is animated by the ego (nafs), not the Spirit (ruh). True religious observance must beget tranquility, even in the midst of turbulence: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28] And: He it is who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the believers, so that they would have more faith added to their [present] faith. [Q.48:4] So if not revenge-filled, rage-driven reactions, then what? Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad says: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. … Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’2 That is to say, we are to be healers with humbleness. Murad again: ‘The monoculture multiplies matter, and cannot discern spirit; and Islam, the great global dissident, is called upon to heal the consequence.’3 Islam’s monotheism exhorts that we be part of society, yet apart from society; that we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Abrahamic monotheism has always been very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.

4 – The Holy Qur’an frequently speaks about the virtue of service to others. In one place, it extols the believers as those who lived their lives in the service of others: unassumingly, without fanfare, or desire for reward or recognition; rather out of their hearts overflowing with sincere compassion and concern for human welfare: And they fed, for the love of God, the needy, the orphan, and the captive; saying: ‘We feed you for the sake of God. No reward do we desire from you, nor thanks.’ [Q.76:8-9] The Qur’an also says: We have honoured the children of Adam. [Q.17:70]. That being so, Islam reckons it as an affront to this God-given dignity of the human person if they are denied life’s basics. Like Islam, secular humanism valorises the human creature too. Unlike Islam, such humanism has done away with God and the sacred and has put the human subject on a deified pedestal. Humanism has done away with service for the love of God, and replaced it with service for the love of man. And concern for human welfare for God’s sake (lit. yearning ‘for the face of God’) has now been secularised and decoupled from as much connection to any divine purpose or traditional morality as possible. For most secular humanists, whatever little Religion does have going for it, ultimately, and on the whole, it is an obstacle to true human self-fulfillment. What now counts for most people, including an increasing number of religious followers, isn’t God or holiness. It’s that we simply be ‘good’ people, and agree to the secular decencies of our age.4 The further people have drifted away from God’s revealed truths, the greater the temptation becomes to water down the truth, glossing over its more rigorous aspects that modern secular sensitivities find unpalatable. So divine Judgement becomes a myth, hell a wicked superstition, prayer less important than decent behaviour, and sins and their upshot less relevant than social activism or caring for others. We Muslims, then, ought to beware of not going down the road that others have unconsciously and unguardedly gone down; mixing sacred values with secular humanistic faith. The prophets of God, peace be upon them, weren’t mere ethicists. Once the prophetic concern is represented as primarily being about welfare, or social justice; rather than with sin, salvation and preparation for eternity, then aren’t feet already on a slippery slope?

5 – Turning to the question of religion and science, what are the bigger, underlying meta precepts that modern science raises against Muslim theology and practice? Well first, let’s recall that science entails the rational examination of evidences: observing and collecting data; forming a hypothesis from the data; doing experiments to test the ideas; working out a theory to account for the results; then making predictions based on that theory. Two attitudes taint modern science, making it appear science points to atheism rather than to theism: naturalism and scientism. Naturalism – the claim that nature is all that there is, and that there is no supernatural or divine realm – is a philosophy brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can one be so adamant that the natural order is all there is? As for the belief that science is the only path to know objective truth and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, this is known (pejoratively) as Scientism. In many ways, the evidence for it is even more pitifull than for naturalism. And as has been pointed out often enough, scientism is actually a self-refuting belief. The assertion that only science can deliver true knowledge hasn’t been arrived at by scientific methods. Instead, it is a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Hence, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true! Dawkins has a maxim he is fond of using in this regard (and one he usually aims squarely at theists). He says: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’5 Yet this maxim is more applicable to him, and to the naturalism and scientism he so aggressively upholds, than it does to the theology of Islam (or Jewish or Christian theology, for that matter).

6 – To be perfectly clear, it’s not a case of micro thinking versus macro thinking. We need both. Just as fiqh issues need detailed fatwas and responses, something similar holds for science-religion concerns too. It is important to have intelligent, scripture-based answers to claims like: ‘natural selection is the ultimate explanation for our existence’ (Dawkins); or that: the universe came from a quantum vacuum, which is nothing, hence the universe came from nothing (Krauss); and: ‘because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing’ (Hawking). But the meta question of existence is not about how it is that the universe (or human life) came about from causes already internal to it – the fact of the matter is is that a quantum vacuum isn’t nothing, it is something; and laws of physics themselves do not create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls: it is not laws that create or move things; it is an agent or person that does that; and natural selection only occurs with stuff that is already present: for even the simplest of life forms must first of all be – but how it is that anything (including a cause) exists at all. For nothing contingent within the universe (nor even the universe itself) can be rationally conceived as the explanation or source of its own being. A contingent thing’s essence (what it is), fails to account for its existence (that it is). Islamic theology, though, has a rich, coherent intellectual tradition to account for the existence of contingent things (things that, prior to their existence, didn’t exist). Muslim theologians hold that since the universe is contingent, and contingent things aren’t able to generate themselves, that they are dependant upon an agent who belongs to another order of being (min ghayri jinsiha); namely, a deity [God] who is eternal, and whose existence is inseparable from his essence. That is, God has no cause, He necessarily exists (wajib al-wujud); and although God is the author of time and space, He is distinct and beyond both. The meta question, then, is this: Which assumption does science support: atheism or theism? That is, does science – with its question of why there is something instead of nothing, or why the universe is so finely-tuned for the emergence of sentient life – best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, totally random natural processes working upon the basic materials of the universe? Or does the theistic belief best fit the evidence – that we were put here by an intelligent Creator-God, who created an intelligible universe, finely-tuned, that we might know Him, discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and realise His purpose for us? That’s the real meta question.

7 – My last issue in the religion-science arena concerns God’s agency in the universe, and the issue of cause and effect. Some mistakenly believe that God created the cosmos ‘in the beginning’ and it has existed on its own ever since. Merely because there is a universe, or a world full of creatures, there is no rational or scientific guarantee that it will persist for another instance. Rather, God alone directly creates and sustains the universe at each and every instant; it exists and endures only by God’s will and creative act. God, the Creator, is continuously creating. The idea that the universe isn’t a sufficient cause to explain its own presence, and that it must be made present, ab extra, at every point in its duration, leads to the doctrine of Occasionalism. This is the view which states that created things cannot be the cause of events. Instead, all events are taken to be caused directly by God. In other words, nothing that occurs is due to natural causes or the operation of scientific laws, and that apparent causal relations between events simply prompt God with the occasion to see to it that certain acts will usually be followed by others. For no contingent thing has the intrinsic ability to benefit, harm or cause an effect. Only God has such power and ability. This is what is meant by: la hawla wa la quwwata illa bi’Llah – ‘There is no might, nor power, except with God. Hence, according to this mainstream Muslim theological stance, fire doesn’t have any intrinsic property to burn. Rather, when a flammable object is placed near fire, at that very instant God causes the object to combust and burn. Likewise, it isn’t water that quenches, or food that satiates, or a knife that cuts. Rather it is God who causes the effect at the precise moment that the water, food, or knife is used. That there appears to be uniformity in the laws of science, and causal relationships between certain things and others, is just that: appearances. It is a necessary illusion; a veil, behind which lies the Source of all being, namely God. At the deeper level, it is God creating and recreating at every instance.6 A core part of Islamic spirituality is to see the af‘al al-rabb, the divine acts, behind such veils. As counterintuitive as this can all sound, quantum physics seems to support the idea that causality isn’t rigidly fixed into the nature of things. Over the past decade, experiments in quantum causality have been carried out which seem to confirm that the quantum realm allows events to occur with no definite causal order. While this is all very exciting for technologies such as quantum computers and communications, what it means for the materialist creed will have to wait. It is still early days. Islamic theology will hopefully, though, have significant things to say on the matter.

8 – Language is a uniquely human gift, and is central to our experience of being human. Language doesn’t just help express our thoughts and ideas, it profoundly effects the way we think and see the world too. It can also be used to manipulate the way we think, as it did with ‘Newspeak’ in the grim, dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four. So if for no other reason than this, 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 expected to bow or pay homage. Currently, Western Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without critical assessment. So we now speak of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; “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; powerless to break free of the intellectual confines such concepts can keep us caged in.7

9 – What holds for the social sciences should be more so the case for political science and securitisation studies. Here, we should jettison vague and imprecise terms like Islamism, jihadi/jihadist or takfiri/takfirism where possible. Such unhelpful taxonomies aren’t really the fruits of any lexical, academic rigour. Instead, such semantics seem to be pejoratively used to denote the activities or policies of some Muslims that are held as an anathema to Western sensitivities. Takfir, for instance, is a normative theological act in Islam, accepted by every Muslim sect, designating the act of stepping beyond the pale of the religion and thus being expelled from the fold of Islam. The jihadi, a term now deployed for a terrorist claiming Muslim motivation, is another example of obfuscation. To use this, and the term jihad, as synonyms for Muslim acts of terror is to completely ignore Muslim juristic norms which classically employs the label irhabah for such atrocities; reserving jihad for a very different military activity, strictly guided by jus in bello rules that forbids the targeting of civilians. As for Islamism, used to mean the ideology which commends implementation of Islamic legal norms by the state, this would be laughable, if it wasn’t so serious in its geo-political consequences. As Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has pointed out, Morrocco, whose monarch bears the caliphal title of “Commander of the Faithful,” and which declares that it applies a variant of the shari‘ah, is not described as Islamist by most Western politicos, academics, or journalists. Nor, even more strikingly, is Saudi Arabia described as such by those who currently infest the security industry. And yet Turkey, we are assured, is meant to be in the soft grip of Islamism; despite the fact that its President hasn’t enacted a single shari‘ah law!8 All this is to emphasise that we must interrogate language, labels, terms and taxonomies, if we are to remain faithful to revealed truths and authentically live out God’s intent behind them; and if we wish not to be played by Muslim/non-Muslim states and their security apparatus, using terrorism as an excuse for all sorts of irreligious and authoritarian measures.

10 – This brings me to my last quibble, as it were. If Muslim students or scholars of Islam’s sacred sciences are to become macro thinkers for the love of God; if we are to produce men or women able to effectively articulate and engage their learning in today’s complex age, we need to place far more importance on creating institutes of higher learning fit for such a lofty, lordly, rabbani purpose. ‘Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man,’ wrote Francis Bacon. Islamic pedagogy must be rooted in reading widely, exploring different territories in literature; conferring and questioning, especially with those more grounded; and quality writing, which compels the writer to search their mind, dictionary or thesaurus for the best words to express one’s ideas or deliberations, allowing them to be refined and re-refined – academically, semantically and aesthetically. Currently our madrasahs or institutions of higher learning are either too narrow in their adherence to traditional Islam, or else overly secular. For what are we to make of a dars-e-nizami type curriculum which instils in the student the core ‘ulum, in line with a well-bred medieval madrasah canon, but continues to fail to equip the talib with the necessary tools to apprehend, engage or address the intellectual challenges modernity poses? Thankfully, though, there are a few institutions beginning to bridge this pedagogical chasm. Of these few, Britain’s Cambridge Muslim College, under the esteemed leadership of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, is potentially the best of them. In all likelihood, it is the world’s premiere Muslim institution in this regard. Not to reinvent the wheel, the College takes graduates from the recognised, traditional ‘alimiyyah courses, and puts them through its “finishing school,” so to speak. One of the stated aims of CMC is to ‘enable students to understand and engage with contemporary debates about the role of religion in general, and Islam in particular, in modern society.’ As with other unique enterprises that are a class unto their own, wider awareness of CMC and its potential is an issue, as is the age-old concern for support and funding. To not support such an institution in whatever way possible would surely count as a dereliction of Western Muslim duty, as well as an indictment of sorts on the current state of modern Muslimness. While academia is not every Muslim’s cup of tea, the concern for Islam to meaningfully flourish in modernity surely must be!

Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; while Britain’s Christian heritage has seemed long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. The Christian Church, it has been argued failed, less because a fashionable secularism was set against it, but because the Church itself gradually imbued the errors of the age. Had it, as Gai Eaton once so poetically put it, not swapped a policy of ease or facilitation for one of compromise; had it not reduced the price of its goods in the forlorn hope that people with more pressing concerns might show even a slight interest; had it offered a real alternative, a rock firmly planted from the very start, the public might even have been prepared to pay a high price. ‘It is even possible, had the priest turned his back upon them, attending to only the divine sun which seizes and holds his gaze, they might have come up quietly behind him, knelt down – looking where he looks – and forgotten all their cares and their troubles. It might be said that the basic command of religion is not “Do this!” or “Do not do that!”, but simply “Look!” The rest follows.’9

Surely, then, in where others have gone, and in how good intentions went steadily astray, there is something for us Muslims to learn.

Thus it is that Islam, more than ever, seems to be called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its message of hope and healing will only illuminate these bewildering times if its theological concerns are firmly-grounded, yet are in tune with the needs of the time; and if it can offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and if it can practically deliver liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. This all needs slow, cool headed, measured macro thinking; and macro thinking, in turn, requires that we not get caught up in the moment, but rather take a step back to get a clearer view of the trends and trajectory that are unfolding.

Whilst we try to heal this scarred world an act at a time, I believe that we must, however, be realists. In realistic terms, and to a certain degree, we have to live in the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. Moreover, we participate in the healing not to court secular humanism, but for the love of God and for the love of what people have the potential to be. It has to always be about God, and healing for the sake of God. For whatever else we may do with the time we’ve each been given by Heaven, yearning for the Face of God must take over our life.

We ask Allah for taysir and tawfiq; for ease and for grace.

1. See: D.B. Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2009), 21-22.

2. Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68.

3. ibid., 172.

4. The point is taken up in context of humanism, Christianity, and the Church of England, in E. Norman, Secularisation (London & New York: Continuum, 2002), 1-9.

5. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.

6. This Ash‘ari view on occasionalism and the nature of causes and effects (al-asbab wa’l-musabbabat) is teased out in: Winter (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 273-74; A. Hussain, The Muslim Creed (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2016), 260-67. A highly useful and colourful explanation of it is given in Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1994), 242-43. Ibn Taymiyyah held that effects occur via secondary causes created by God. So, for instance, cotton burns by (bi) a potency God creates in fire; not by God directly at the moment (‘inda) the two are conjoined. Secondary causes, he clarifies, have no causal autonomy from God. They have no efficacy in themselves to cause effects. God is the causer of all effects. See: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 8:520; 534. Ibn Taymiyya’s view seems to shy away from explaining why such secondary causes are required in the first place, and how they function or differ from God’s direct intervention. The Taymiyyan view is fleshed out in J. Hoover, Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2007), 156-65.

7. On the relationship between language, power and epistemic sovereignty, cf. W. Hallaq, Restating Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 12-13; 61-63.

8. As per the video lecture: How Islamic is “Islamic Studies”? His discussion on the terms, which I mirror above, starts at 40:27.

9. G. Eaton, King of the Castle: Choice and Responsibility in the Modern World (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1999), 17-18.

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.

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