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: ثَلاثٌمُهْلِكَاتٌشُحٌّمُطَاعٌ،وَهَوًىمُتَّبَعٌ،وَإِعْجَابُالْمَرْءِبِنَفْسِهِ – ‘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: تَغَيَّرُالأَحْكامِبِتَغَيُّرِالأَزْمَانِ – ‘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:  Changes in social norms (‘urf, ‘adah);  dire necessity (darurah);  public benefit (maslahah);  deterioration or corruption of the times (fasad al-zaman); and  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:
‘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.
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.
One of the most crucial rules of normative Sunni Islam states: ‘A condition for censuring wrongdoing is that the act being censured must be something whose blameworthiness is not merely known by means of ijtihad. Any matter that involves ijtihad cannot be a cause for censure.’1
It is usually expressed in this maxim: la inkar fi masa’il al-khilaf – ‘There is no censuring in matters of [legitimate] differing.’
Imam al-Nawawi typified the point, when he wrote: ‘A person commanding or forbidding must have knowledge about what is being commanded or forbidden, which will vary with varying issues. Thus if it is from the clear-cut obligations or well-known prohibitions, like Prayer, Fasting, adultery, intoxicants, etc., then every Muslim is learned about them. But if it is in matters that are not clear-cut, or in issues of ijtihad, then the lay people cannot enter into it, nor censure it; instead it is only for the scholars [to do]’.2
Although there have been periodic disruptions of the above rule in the ummah’s history, by and large the rule has been respected between the scholars and schools of Islamic law. This was based on a recognition that opinions backed-up by decisive (qat‘i) proofs or by juristic consensus (ijma‘) justifiably represented the Islamic view, whereas those rooted in valid interpretive possibilities represent an Islamic view.
There was a time, not so long ago, that ignorance of the above maxim had almost become ubiquitous; to the point where mosques, Islamic centres and university prayer rooms were regular battlegrounds for hostile arguments and a fair bit of egotistical fatwa flinging. The schisms, many of us imagined, would surely dissipate as people became aware of the la inkar rule. And while much has improved in this regard, a cursory glance at the comments sections on so many an Islamic blog piece or Facebook post reveals just how much bigotry and intolerance still abound. For egos also abound and have learnt to cloak themselves in an alleged jealousy (ghirah) for religious purity and truth.
The following scholarly insights are less about the actual adab of differing, but have more to do with the ego’s deceptions in matters of khilaf between the scholars. All three insights come from Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali:
The first of these insights from Ibn Rajab concerns “loving and hating for God’s sake.” In one hadith, it states: مَنْ أَحَبَّ لِلَّهِ وَأَبْغَضَ لِلَّهِ وَأَعْطَى لِلَّهِ وَمَنَعَ لِلَّهِ فَقَدْ اسْتَكْمَلَ الْإِيمَانَ – ‘Whoever loves for God’s sake, loathes for God’s sake, gives for God’s sake and withholds for God’s sake has perfected faith.’3 It must be stressed that such hating, detesting or disliking can’t be done based on desires or ego. Rather it is principled, done purely for the sake of God: desires or ego having no share in it whatsoever. Nor, it must equally be stressed, is it a loathing that entails harm – as al-Munawi explained: ‘Hating for God doesn’t imply harming the one he loathes. Instead, it is for his disbelief or disobedience.’4 Yet not to belabour the point, it is also not a frenzied hating, where one froths at the mouth and spews out stupidity, as the blood curdles and the infantile ego flies into a rage. Rather, as said before, it is a righteous hating in which the ego is to have no share. And given how so very rare it is for egos to be truly tamed and trained, one can well comprehend why hating for God’s sake is from the highest perfections of iman.
In this insight, Ibn Rajab, rahimahullah, draws our attention to how, when scholars differ, they may be excused due to their good intention and scholarly ijtihad, but some of their followers will not. And that is because their heart’s intention and dislike of the view that opposes their shaykh’s was not to uphold the truth, but to merely be partisan and big-up their own corner. With that being the long and the short of it, here are his actual words:
‘When religious differences among people grew, and schisms deepened, then this led to an increase in mutual hatred and reviling: each of them apparently hating for the sake of God. In one and the same issue, some could be excused, while others may not. They may, in fact, just be following their desires or falling short in evaluating on what basis they are actually hating. For so much hating is of this nature; occurring when the one followed is differed with, and the followers thinks that the one he follows is always correct. And this [thinking] is a categorical mistake! But if he thinks him right on the issue being differed over, then he could be right or he could be wrong; or he could simply be inclining towards [the stance of the one followed] merely from desire; or from familiarity or habit. And all of this belies such hating being for God’s sake.’5
The second insight explores the above psychology of the zealous follower a little further. Ibn Rajab draws our attention to it by stating:
‘ … for it may be that he only supports the view because it’s the view of the one he follows. Had it been voiced by another scholar, he wouldn’t have accepted it; supported it; allied himself with those who agree with it; or shown enmity to those who differ with it. Despite this, he fools himself into thinking he’s supporting the truth, and is of the same position as the one whom he follows – and this is most certainly not the case! For the scholar he follows, his intention was to aid the truth, even though he erred in his ijtihad. As for the follower, his purpose in [supposedly] aiding the truth is polluted by his desire to elevate the person he follows; or make his opinion predominant; or that he not be thought of as being wrong: and this agenda taints the desire to support only the truth. So understand this, for it is a vital matter.’6
The last insight concerns how to behave justly with the slips and errors of a scholars. Ibn Rajab offers these following broad guidelines:
‘Here there are two points: Firstly, that whoever contravenes any directive of the Prophet, erring in his ijtihad while seeking to obey the Prophet and follow his injunctions, he is forgiven and his status is not demeaned at all because of this. Secondly, that the love and esteem the scholar is held in should never prevent clarifying how his view has actually contravened the Prophet’s order; peace be upon him. This, as part of sincere advice to the ummah in clarifying to them the command of the Prophet. Likewise, the one that is loved and held in esteem, if he knows his view contravenes the command of the Messenger, he should be pleased that it has been explained to the ummah, and that they have been duly guided to the Prophet’s command and have rejected his view. This point is hidden from many of the ignorant who have gone to extremes in following their scholars. They think that refuting someone of status, be he a scholar or a righteous person, is to denigrate him. But this isn’t the case at all.
‘It was out of such negligence that the religion of the People of the Book was altered. For they followed the slips of their scholars and turned away from that which their Prophets came with, until their religion was altered and they took their priests and rabbis as lords besides God: making lawful to them the forbidden, and forbidding them the lawful. Such became their worship of their scholars.’7
1. Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 1999), 121.
2. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:21-3.
3. Abu Dawud, no.4681. It was declared as sahih, due to its collective chains, in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.380.
The late Gai Eaton put his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he expressed 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 a long while now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying modern 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 – and those parts of the globe still known 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 concerning the philosophical and civilisational propositions modernity insists upon. These assumptions – that Man has now ‘come of age’ and is to be the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material Progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have prised the individual away from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that had been the setting for normative human life down 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 unbelief.
If commitment to religious faith and practice it to survive such a deluge, 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! But while less than half a century ago one could be a good Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of Imam al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who doesn’t have some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the Islamic faith is founded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in an impenetrable simplicity or naivety.
Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or a hell-bent society. They took as their queue the hadiths concerning times of great political discord, social upheaval, or religious and spiritual degeneration, in which: from the best of Muslims would be one ‘who secludes himself in a valley and worships his Lord,’3 or who takes his flock of sheep to a mountain top ‘fleeing with his religion from fitnah.’4
If it were feasible for those who see the monoculture for what it is to withdraw from society and go their own way in peace, this would probably be a good course of action (not forgetting the fact that the core of Islam’s call is decisively urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows more and more invasive and totalising: suffocating any meaningful dissent, assimilating any consequential diversity, and bulldozing any significant divergence. Driven into a tight corner, religion has no option but to turn and fight. Hence the need to raise the dust of polemics against theensnaring myths of modernity.
Thus with intellectual and spiritual inquiry as our starting point, and God as our goal, here are some of the most significant existential challenges (in terms of ideas and isms) to now confront Muslims and their faith; as well as an outline of some basic responses to them. And by far, the most destructive of these issues to faith and to salvation of the soul is atheism:
1. Atheism: Denying the existence of God is called atheism (sometimes it is defined as: lack of belief/conviction that God exists). A growing number of ex-Muslims – not just here in the West, but also in Muslim majority countries – now self-identify as atheists. Of course, atheism doesn’t come in one strain. There is, to lift a phrase from Professor Alister McGrath, ‘apathetic atheism’ or ‘atheism of indifference’, and then there is what he calls ‘committed atheism’.5 The former tends to entail no enmity towards God, nor even actively believe that God does not exist: hence the apathy or indifference. As for the latter, it equips itself with what it sees as certain explicit arguments and concerns against theism or belief in God. ‘Sociological research suggests that there are probably fewer committed atheists than apathetic ones.’6 And contrary to the assertion of such atheists today, belief in God is neither intellectual suicide; and nor has science pushed God out of the equation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The Qur’an asks: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? [52:35] The crux of the matter here is that while Muslims insist that the divine ‘fingerprints’ of God can be detected throughout the universe – how it originated, how it is ordered, how it operates, and how extraordinary the odds are of complex life or human consciousness emerging in it – atheists desperately field their counter-arguments. For despite modern science revealing the universe had a beginning and came into existence at an event we call the Big-Bang; or despite the fundamental physical constants of the universe being so finely tuned down to the minutest nth of a degree, that the chances of it being mere ‘coincidence’ isn’t just staggeringly improbable, had the value of any of these constants been different by a small, infinitesimal degree, there would have been no universe and no life – despite science telling us this and more, atheists want us to believe that such things happened purely by chance; a colossal cosmic fluke.7 In other words, the entire cosmos just happened to create itself; without any purpose, meaning or intentionality whatsoever. ‘Only within the scaffolding of these truths,’ wrote Bertrand Russell on the core conviction of atheism, ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation be safely built.’8
To be fair, not all atheists are satisfied with the ‘lucky-coincidence’ response. The fine-tuning of the universe seems far too precise to have happened merely by chance. So in order to explain the existence of a universe which fits the given physical constants and mathematical improbabilities without acknowledging the existence of a creator, many are now advocating the idea of a ‘multiverse’. Our universe is highly improbable only if it’s the only one there is. But if our universe is just one among an infinite number of universes, at least one would fit the required parameters, and it happens to be ours. Or as John Polkinghorne put it, ‘a kind of winning ticket in a gigantic multiversial lottery.’9 If this highly speculative notion turns out to be true, this just pushes back the question of who created our universe to who created the multiverse? Or one is confronted with even more incredulity than our improbable universe: that of an infinite number of self-creating universes. Either way, atheists do themselves no favour by replacing what they hold to be a single unprovable God for an infinity of unprovable universes! Moreover, can we really say that such replies have truly dispensed with the claim that our universe (or indeed, the multiverse) is far more consistent with theism than with atheism? Little wonder we find the Qur‘an saying: ‘Is there any doubt about God?’ [14:10]
That being said, the popularity of atheism, at least here in the West, is undoubtedly on the rise. As for how much of it is an intellectual phenomenon and how much a cultural one is debatable. Although it’s been said that ‘the convictions of the multitude are not so much true convictions as mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of opinion’.10 While some arrive at atheism via certain rational considerations, others are led to it emotionally, with little or no rational inquiry or intellectual journey. Some are atheist just because of family or upbringing and, being preoccupied with the tiny patch of grass under their nose, haven’t given religion or the ultimate existential question any time or thought. For them, atheism is little more than an emotional ‘habit’.
Some stumble into atheism due to an uncritical acceptance of cultural influences. They think that since science has explained the big questions (the Big-Bang explains how the universe got here; evolution explains how we got here) that there is, therefore, no need for God. But a little critical thinking would reveal that just because science explains the workings of how the cosmos came into existence, does not necessitate rejecting God as the creator of the mechanism; any more than knowing about the inner workings of an iPhone should not lead to disbelieving that Steve Jobs was the author of such culturally altering tech. Philosophers call this a category mistake; confusing between mechanism and agent: since we know a mechanism that explains a specific phenomenon, it proves there is no agent that designed the mechanism. Many an atheist, regrettably, even high profile ones, fall into this fallacy. But when, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is not agent God who designed it.’ It was quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.11
Some, repelled by bad experiences with ‘religious’ people, find their way into the arms of an often sympathetic atheism. Here they may find other embittered souls with their own horror stories to tell about religion or its practitioners. Yet people oftentimes have a very curious idea of religion. They think that merely because a person says: ‘I believe in God’ that he or she should at once become morally upright; saintly, even. If this does not happen, and very often it doesn’t, then either the believer must be a hypocrite of sorts, or else it says something dark about the religion itself. Many think that adhering to religion is the end of the path, whereas in fact it is only the beginning of a long and sometimes rough and rocky road. But whether religious, atheist, humanist or agnostic, inconsistencies abound in human souls, even if they ascribe to virtuous ideals. Yet this is not to say righteous religious behaviour should only be honoured in the breach and not in the practice. Islam, despite it not always being evident from the way some of us Muslims behave, calls to the highest moral and ethical ideals. If a believer’s ethics and conduct fail to demonstrate the beauty and attraction of husn khuluq; ‘refined’ or ‘good’ character, let it not be a cause for the crime of tanfir – of repelling people from religion: It was by the mercy of God that you were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around you. [3:159] That said, one suspects that for some people, casting of the constraints of religion is a matter of any pretext or excuse. Which brings me to one final point:
There’s another significant reason why some people choose atheism, and it’s one that is seldom admitted to. Some – and it wouldn’t be surprising if this some turned out to be a great many – are led to atheism, not by the careful hand of reason, but by the desire to follow their baser desires, unencumbered by moral codes. Here’s Aldoux Huxley, the famous English novelist, philosopher and atheist, on the deeper motive that fuels some people’s atheism and their desperate need for there to be no existential meaning to life: ‘For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning … of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.’12 Other atheists who have reflected carefully on their motives have likewise admitted that their atheism is more emotional and self-serving than it is rational and pure following of the evidences. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel is candid when he said: ‘It isn’t just I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’13
Such atheists understand that if God exists, there are certain ramifications, particularly moral ones. They are aware that it wouldn’t be a matter of sending off a few Dawkins’ titles to the charity shop, or apologise on social media for the unintended misguidance they may have uttered. They realise that such belief necessitates a life of commitment, service and loving submission to God, by growing in knowledge of God and seeking to mould one’s life around the spiritual teachings and moral laws which He revealed – ‘in short, the waving of the white flag and the rebel’s complete surrender’.14 Yet the rebel refuses to mould his ways around the awareness of the Divine Reality that surrounds him and everything else, and is unwilling to give up his ‘autonomy’ or his pride. Instead he claims the world is God-free, meaning-free and morality-free, so he can do more or less what he desires. This is what Dostoevsky could have been alluding to when he put these words into the mouth of one of The Brothers Karamazov: ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now’.15 If such self-deceit wants to pass itself off for enlightened, rational thought, then so be it. But it will ultimately prove costly.
Some of the classical works on Muslim theology relate the following account: It is said that a group of atheists came to debate the existence of God with Abu Hanifah – one of the greatest and most famous jurist-theologians of Muslim antiquity. He said to them: ‘Tell me, before we start to discuss the matter, what you say of a boat in the Euphrates that makes its own way to shore, docks by itself, loads itself with food and other goods, makes its own way back to port, anchors and then unloads its cargo, all without anyone steering it or directing it?’ They all cried out that this is impossible; never could such a thing happen. Thereupon Abu Hanifah said to them: ‘If this is impossible with regards to a boat, then what about this whole world and all that it contains?’16
This simple, undemanding type of reasoning has satisfied many a pre-modern skeptic, although one suspects this would not be the case today. To see this argument as over simplistic is to miss the point. Atheism, to be sure, isn’t anything new; and neither are the arguments of today’s New Atheists: even if their anger and aggression are. For what the issue boils down to is this: That against incomprehensible odds this vast universe came into existence, containing sentient life that has consciousness and to whom the universe is comprehensible. And that screams out for an explanation!
Atheism serves up blind chance or a multiverse as a more reasonable explanation than an omniscient, omnipotent God who created creation with intent and wise purpose. In fact, what seems like a desperate attempt to avoid theism at all costs, Stephen Hawking insists: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’17 But physical laws in and of themselves cannot createanything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which are inferred from real material events. So we are now offered belief in an eternal law (gravity), rather than an eternal law-giver (God). But that, it has to be said, is the absurdity of atheism.
The second part of this article explores the prohibited forms of taqlid which, unlike the prescribed type (see Part I), may rightly be called “blind following”. It also corrects some of the misguided notions and far-fetched interpretations in this regard; interpretations that are falsely peddled as being the stance of our past Imams and pious predecessors. Let’s pick up, then, where the first part let off, with Ibn al-Qayyim laying out the three kinds of forbidden taqlid:
‘The first category is of three types: Firstly, to turn away from what Allah has revealed and not resort to it, sufficing instead with following one’s forefathers. Secondly, doing taqlid of someone, not knowing if they are qualified so that they can be authoritatively followed. Thirdly, doing taqlid in the face of the proof being established, and it is clear that the proof opposes the view of the authority being followed.’1
XI. BAD TAQLID: FOLLOWING FOREFATHERS
The first type of forbidden taqlid is that of following one’s forebears and their customs and conventions, instead of Revelation or over and above Revelation. Having explained that children are socialised into the religion and culture of their parents or society, Ibn Taymiyyah goes on to say:
‘When a person reaches the age of legal responsibility, he should intend to obey Allah and His Messenger wherever he is. He cannot be of those who: When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say: “We shall follow what we found our forefathers following.” [2:170] All who turn away from following the Book and the Sunnah, or from obeying Allah and His Prophet, turning instead to his customs, or to that of his parents or people, are of the people of ignorance; worthy of the threat of punishment. By the same token, when the truth with which Allah sent His Messenger with is made clear to someone in any given issue, but he turns away from it in favour of his cultural norm, is of those who are blameworthy and punishable … As for someone not able to ascertain the ruling of Allah or His Prophet, and so follows in it one of the people of knowledge and piety; not knowing of an opinion more preferable than it, is praised and rewarded. He is not to be reproached for this, let alone punished.’2
XII. DEBUNKING A MODERN MYTH ABOUT FOREFATHERS
These words clarify who is meant by the verse that berates the following of forefathers, and that it refers to those who have no inkling whatsoever to follow the Revelation, but instead are satisfied with imitating the customs and practices of their family, society or forefathers. To apply it to Muslims who believe in Allah’s Revelation, but resort to the practice of permissible taqlid, is a grotesque misapplication of the verse (and others like it). Imam al-Qurtubi wrote:
‘One group applied this verse to the censure of taqlid; for Allah, exalted is He, rebukes the unbelievers for following their forefathers in falsehood, and emulating them in sin and disbelief. And this is correct in terms of falsehood.’3
‘As for taqlid in the truth, this is from the principles of the religion and a protection for the Muslims which the unlearned and deficient in examining proofs can resort to.’4
Sadly, it’s now not unusual to find some Muslims erroneously accuse other Muslims of blindly following their forefathers, when all the latter are doing is following practices they believe are Islamic and which they consider to be authoritative and sanctioned by the noted jurists of the past. How can this admirable attitude be equated with one that has no wish to conform to divine guidance and every wish to be in tune with cultural norms and conventions; even if they contravene Islam? Accusations of this sort must cease immediately, and damages must be repaired. We can no more have these roaring waves of misguidance crashing against the rocks of truth!
Ironically, those who rip such verses out of context and cast it upon those who are in a state of obedience to Allah via the prescribed taqlid, are either sinful for speaking about Allah’s religion without adequate knowledge, or are likely to be blind followers of rogue scholarship and toxic sources.
XIII. BAD TAQLID: FOLLOWING ROGUE SCHOLARSHIP
The second type: Following the opinion of someone who is not known to be religiously qualified or authorised to give fatwas or religious rulings:
Ibn Mu‘ammar said in his treatise on Islamic legal theory: ‘In general, taqlid is required of a layman who does not possess a [scholarly] share of learning. If a situation arises [which requires a fatwa], he must seek it from someone known for his knowledge and uprightness, or whom he considers as being connected with learning and the giving of fatwas.’5
According to Imam al-Shatibi, a person will be in one of three categories when it comes to the textual evidence (dalil). That person will either be a mujtahid who is required to follow the legal conclusion his ijtihad leads him to. Or he is a murajjih; a “comparatist,” who is competent to understand proofs behind the ijtihad of mujtahids, and can prefer some rulings over others in certain issues. If his ability is recognized, he is similar to a mujtahid on that issue; if not, he is classed along with other muqallids that are obligated to follow mujtahids. The other category:
‘He may be a complete muqallid, unappraised of the knowledge required. In his case, he must have a guide to lead him, an arbitrator to give judgements for him, and a scholar to emulate. Obviously, he follows the guide only in his capacity as a man possessed of the requisite knowledge. The proof for this is that if he realises, or even suspects, that he does not in fact possess it, it is not permissible for him to follow him or to accept his judgement; in fact, no individual, whether educated or not, should think of following via taqlid someone who he knows isn’t qualified, in the way that a sick man should not put himself in the hands of someone whom he knows is not a doctor.’6
XIV. HOW A LAYMAN DECIDES WHO IS A MUFTI?
As to how a layman determines who is a qualified scholar from whom legal rulings can be taken, the following establishes a diminishing order of certainty:
[i] Established scholars testifying to the juristic credentials of a person, or accrediting him with an ‘ijazah; an “authorization”. [ii] Holding a teaching post at a respected and established institution of legal learning. [iii] Respect accorded to him by his teachers, peers and other scholars for his legal acumen. [iv] His general reputation in society, at large, as a scholar. [v] A layman being informed by someone he deems trustworthy in issues of religion, that a particular person is a mufti. (Of course, this last one is fraught with the dangers of pseudo-scholarship or the “knowledgeable brother” syndrome.) In brief, a layman acts on surety (yaqin), or preponderant certainty (aghlab al-zann), as to whom [s]he deems juristically qualified.7
The crux here is that a layman is duty bound to ask those he deems are qualified to give legal rulings. He doesn’t ask just any scholar, teacher or preacher of religion. The point is made by Ibn Hamdan, an accomplished classical Hanbali legalist, who wrote:
‘It is obligatory to seek a fatwa for every situation which requires you to know its legal ruling. It is [further] required for him to search for someone suitably qualified for him to seek fatwas from. If he doesn’t know him [to be so, it is unlawful] … It isn’t sufficient for him to be just a scholar, or attributed to knowledge. If he is appointed to teach or to hold other positions that people of knowledge [usually] hold, then the mere affiliation to this does not suffice [in seeking fatwas from him]. It is allowed to seek fatwas from those who are widely spoken about in society [as being a mufti] and to ask those whom one thinks is from those qualified to give fatwas. It’s also said that one should only rely on his statement: “I am qualified to give fatwa,” not on his reputation, nor the fact that he is widely spoken of as such. For this doesn’t amount to knowledge unless it is based on something tangibly known. As having a reputation among the laity is not something reliable, for the basis of it could be deception.’8
XV. BETWEEN SCHOLARS AND CLERGY
‘There is no clergy in Islam’ is an oft-repeated claim we Muslims tend to voice to non-Muslims about our religion. Of course, the assertion is perfectly sound if we mean that there is no ordaining body and nor any ecclesiastical hierarchy. Instead, every Muslim is required to grow in Islamic knowledge and deepen their personal faith and devotion to God. But if what is intended by the phrase is a denial of any type of hierarchy based upon meritocracy, or dismissing the existence of a formally trained scholarly class, then this is utterly at odds with the textual proofs of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.
After all, doesn’t the Qur‘an itself speak about the scholars of sacred knowledge (‘ilm), the ‘ulema, in these stellar terms: إِنَّمَا يَخْشَى اللَّهَ مِنْ عِبَادِهِ الْعُلَمَاءُ – Verily, only those of Allah’s servants who possess knowledge truly fear Him. [35:28] It also speaks to this hierarchy: قُلْ هَلْ يَسْتَوِي الَّذِينَ يَعْلَمُونَ وَالَّذِينَ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ – Say: ‘Are those who know equal to those who do not know?’ [39:9]
That’s not the only distinction Allah, exalted is He, makes in the Qur’an. There is the hierarchy between selected Prophets and others; between the earlier believers and later ones; between those who possess wisdom, insight and understanding into the realities of Islam, in contrast to those who possess just Islam; between believers who are drawn close, and between those who wrong their ownselves. Even among disbelievers there is a hierarchy: some being cast into lower depths of Hell than others, or some being closer to faith than others. The saying that there is no hierarchy at all in Islam, simply has no basis in Islam.
As for the ‘ulema class, one famous hadith states: إِنَّ الْعُلَمَاءَ وَرَثَةُ الْأنْبِيَاءِ – ‘The scholars are the inheritors of the prophets.’9 Whilst each Muslim is expected to learn a core amount of Islamic knowledge, the Prophet ﷺ nurtured a body of “specialist”, the ‘ulema, who were authorised to interpret the holy texts and to issue legal judgements. Out of the one hundred thousand plus number of sahabah there were, only one hundred and fifty or so were authorised and versed enough to issue fatwas; the remainder were followers of their scholars.10 In other words, roughly one percent of the sahabah were muftis; a decisive indication, if ever there was, of just how uphill a task it is of being juristically qualified in Islam. And whilst there is no “magisterium” as such in Islam, as there is in the Catholic Church, there is the authoritative and binding force of ijma‘ – “scholarly consensus”.
XVI. BAD TAQLID: OVERSHADOWING THE PROPHET’S WORD
The final prohibited kind of taqlid Ibn al-Qayyim mentioned is where the proof is at loggerheads with the opinion one is following: الثَّالِثُ : التَّقْلِيدُ بَعْدَ قِيَامِ الْحُجَّةِ وَ ظُهُورِ الدَّلِيلِ عَلَى خِلَافِ قَوْلِ الْمُقَلَّدِ – ‘Thirdly: doing taqlid in the face of the proof being established, and it is clear that the proof opposes the view of the authority being followed.’
Now in theory, and as part of our ‘aqidah, every Muslim must believe that the Prophet’s words ﷺ take precedence over the words of any other person, whosoever they may be. Allah has stated: يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لاَ تُقَدِّمُوا بَيْنَ يَدَيْ اللَّهِ وَرَسُولِهِ – O you who believe, do not be forward in the presence of Allah and His Messenger. [49:1] As for those duped by their ego-driven intellects into defying the Prophet’s commands ﷺ, Allah cautions: فَلْيَحْذَرِ الَّذِينَ يُخَالِفُونَ عَنْ أَمْرِهِ أَنْ تُصِيبَهُمْ فِتْنَةٌ أَوْ يُصِيبَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ – Let those who oppose the Prophet’s orders beware, lest some trial inflict them, or there befall them a painful punishment. [24:63] This, in principle, is how it must be: no ifs or buts.
In practice, the above words apply to seasoned jurists and not the lay people, in any real sense of the words. For as Ibn Taymiyyah said about the muqallid layman: مَنْ كَانَ مُقَلِّدًا لَزِمَ حُكْمَ التَّقْلِيدِ، فَلَمْ يُرَجِّحْ، وَلَمْ يُزَيِّفْ، وَلَمْ يُصَوِّبْ، وَلَمْ يُخَطِّئْ – ‘whosoever is a muqallid, then the ruling of taqlid applies to him: he cannot weigh-up, evaluate, or judge [a view] to be correct or incorrect.’11 And to cite Imam al-Shatibi’s fine point: فَتَاوَى الْمُجْتَهِدِيْنَ بِالنِّسْبَةِ إِلٰى الْعَوَامِ كَالْأَدَلَّةِ الشَّرْعِيَّةِ بِالنِّسْبَةِ إِلىٰ الْمُجْتَهِدِيْن – ‘The fatwas of mujtahids are to the laity as shari‘ah evidences are to the mujtahids.’12
Imam Ibn al-Qayyim rounds off his offensive on this kind of forbidden taqlid with this assertion:
‘This is the type of taqlid that the pious predecessors and the four Imams were united in their upbraiding and prohibition of. As for the taqlid done by a person who strives to follow what Allah has revealed, yet despite this some parts of it remain obscure to him, so he imitates someone more learned than himself, this is admirable, not deplorable; for this he is rewarded, not punished.’13
XVII. UGLY TAQLID: WHEN BLIND FOLLOWING BECOMES SHIRK
Of course, the forbidden taqlid may even move from bad to ugly if the heart harbours false or extreme attitudes about the one being imitated. While explaining to whom the censure of taqlid deservedly applies, Shah Wali Allah al-Dehlawi wrote:
‘[It also applies to] a layman who does taqlid of one specific jurist and who – believing that the likes of him can never err, and that whatever he opines is always correct – has secreted into his heart never to abandon taqlid of him, even if an evidence which runs counter to his view comes to light. This is what al-Tirmidhi records from ‘Adi b. Hatim, who said: I heard the Prophet ﷺ recite: اتَّخَذُوا أَحْبَارَهُمْ وَرُهْبَانَهُمْ أَرْبَابًا مِنْ دُونِ اللَّهِ – They take their rabbis and priests as lords besides Allah. [9:31] and then explain: أَلَيْسَ يُحَرِّمُوْنَ مَا أَحَلَّ اللهُ فَتُحَرِّمُوْنَهُ، وَ يُحِلُّوْنَ مَا حَرَّمَ اللهُ فَتُحِلُّوْنَهُ. فَتِلْكَ عِبَادَتُهُمْ – “When they declare a thing lawful, don’t the people take it as lawful; or when they declare a thing unlawful, don’t they take it as unlawful? That is their worship of them.”14’15
Here, again, there’s a dire need to disabuse this hadith of the improper use it’s been put to by the feckless and reckless. This hadith is not suggesting for a minute that a layman following the ruling of a qualified mufti or faqih, due to an inability to rigorously probe and appraise all the relevant proofs on the topic himself, is shirk! God forbid! In other words, it is not a slap in the face against the legislated taqlid. What it is rebuking is the attitude whereby the mufti’s view is bigotedly followed or dogmatically clung too, even when the layman is fully convinced it opposes the Qur‘an or the Sunnah. As for how he will ever know when this happens to be the case, is another matter altogether: for here we are concerned with the principle, not the mechanics.
It also applies to when the layman knows for certain that a particular ruling – be it an obligation or a prohibition – is undoubtedly part of Islam, and has been deemed so by a consensus or by a well-known chain of practice from Islam’s very outset, yet chooses to believe the misguided pronouncement of someone stating otherwise. Let such people not be surprised, on the Day of Judgement, if they are charged in the Divine Court with the heinous crime of shirk.
XVIII. THE FOUR IMAMS ON TAQLID
Let’s first [re]visit the statements of the Four Imams (Abu Hanifah, Malik al-Shafi‘i and Ahmad b. Hanbal) concerning their emphatic denunciation of taqlid, and then examine to whom their rebuke does and does not apply:
First up are these words of Imam Abu Hanifah: إِذَا صَحَّ الحَدِيْثُ فَهُوَ مَذْهَب – ‘When there is a sound hadith, that is my view.’16 From this illustrious Imam’s censure of taqlid is this too: حَرَامٌ عَلَى مَنْ لَمْ يَعْرِفْ دَلِيْلِي أَنْ يُفْتِيَ بِكَلَامِي – ‘It is forbidden for someone who does not know my evidence to give a fatwa with my words.’17
As for the venerable Imam Malik, the following are from his words on the topic: إِنَّمَا أَنَا بَشْرٌ، أُخْطِئُ وَأُصِيْبُ، فَانْظُرُوْا فِي رَأْيِيْ؛ فَـكُلُّ مَا وَافَقَ الْكِتَابَ وَ السُّنَّةَ فَخُذُوْهُ، وَ كُلُّ مَا لَمْ يُوَافِقِ الْكِتَابَ وَالسُّنَّةَ فَاتْرُكُوْهُ – ‘Indeed I am only a human being; I can be mistaken or correct. So look into my opinion; whatever conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, accept it; whatever opposes them, reject it.’18
As for the mujaddid of the second century, Imam al-Shafi‘i, he declared in no uncertain terms: كُلُّ مَا قُلْتُ فَكَانَ عَنِ النَّبِيِّ خِلاَفُ قَوْلِي مِمَّا يَصِحُّ فَحَدِيثُ النَّبِيِّ أَوْلىَ فَلاَ تُقَلِّدُونِي – ‘All what I say, for which something sound from the Prophet contravenes my statement, the Prophet’s hadith takes precedence. So do not imitate me.’19
Finally comes the saintly scholar and exemplar, Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal: لَا تُقَلِّدْنِي وَلَا تُقَلِّدْ مَالِكًاً وَلَا الشَّافِعِيَّ وَلَا الثَّوْرِيَّ وَلَا الْأَوْزَاعِيَّ، وَخُذْ مِنْ حَيْثُ أَخَذُوا – ‘Do not imitate me; nor imitate Malik, al-Shafi‘i, al-Awza‘i or al-Thawri. But take from where they took.’20
XIX. STEADYING ANOTHER MODERN SEISMIC BLUNDER
Let us now analyse the above. Phrases like: take from where they took (Ahmad), or: look into my opinion (Malik), and: do not make taqlid of me (al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad), and that: it is forbidden to give fatwas without knowing the proofs (Abu Hanifah), speak to the duty of evaluating evidences. And the very notion of scrutinising evidences, in the context of a legal argument (and obviously in the original Quranic Arabic language), clearly suggests another thing too: juristic qualification!
To believe these Four Imams were addressing the illiterate; or those who have no fiqh and usul al-fiqh mastery whatsoever, is utterly ludicrous. The idea that the Four Imams were telling the unqualified, untrained masses to evaluate proofs, is so off the mark, it just beggars belief! Any unblinkered or unbiased reading of their statements makes it crystal clear that their words were aimed squarely at their student (and those like them) who were versed in ijtihad and discovering the divine intent in the revealed texts. This has always been the classical scholarly understanding of their words. Thus Ibn ‘Abidin, explaining the above words of Imam Abu Hanifah, wrote:
‘It will not be hidden that this is for those who are qualified to examine the proof-texts and who know those that are clear beyond doubt from those that are abrogated.’21
Resonating a similar juristic vibe, Ibn Taymiyyah puts Imam Ahmad’s above words into their correct, orthodox context:
‘As for the likes of Malik, al-Shafi‘i and Sufyan, or Ishaq b. Rahawayh and Abu ‘Ubayd, there is a clear stipulation in another place that he [Imam Ahmad] deemed it unlawful for a scholar capable of ijtihad to make taqlid of them. He said: “Do not make taqlid of me, nor of Malik, al-Shafi‘i, or al-Thawri” … He instructed the lay people to seek fatwas from Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd, Abu Thawr and Abu Mus‘ab. But he forbade the scholars from among his students – like Abu Dawud, ‘Uthman b. Sa‘id, Ibrahim al-Harbi, Abu Bakr al-Athram, Abu Zur‘ah, Abu Hatim al-Sijistani, Muslim and others – from making taqlid of any other scholar. He would say: “Stick to the basic principle by [following] the Book and the Sunnah.”’22
Much of the chaos surrounding the correct view of taqlid stems from misapplying the words of the Four Imams. Regrettably, one now finds these statements being quoted to the masses out of context in a legion of books, talks and websites. And one will be hard pushed to find in them a caveat making clear that such words were addressed to their mujtahid colleagues and students; not the unqualified masses. Still more tragic, and not without its irony, is that this flawed reading has been blindly parroted and uncritically spread far and wide, and has turned into something of an article of faith in the minds of a certain faction of Muslims. In this sense, it may not be too dramatic to say that this is possibly one of the worst bouts of blind following in Islam’s recent history.
XX. ITTIBA‘ & THE MUTTABI‘: A RED HERRING?
The Qur’an states: اتَّبِعُوا مَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْكُمْ مِنْ رَبِّكُمْ وَلاَ تَتَّبِعُوا مِنْ دُونِهِ أَوْلِيَاءَ – Follow what is sent down to you from your Lord, and follow no protecting friend other than Him. [7:3] The command to “follow”, ittiba‘, occurs in numerous places in the Qur‘an.
Based on such verses, some in recent times insist that, in fiqh matters, people fall into three categories: the mujtahid, the muqallid and a class in between; the muttabi‘ – the one who “follows’ the evidence. The qualifications of a mujtahid are explicit and clear-cut (and can be read here). The muqallid is anyone who doesn’t have the qualifications for ijtihad, as has already been thrashed out. But who is a muttabi‘? What qualification does the muttabi‘ have in fiqh issues that does not place him among the mujtahids, yet raises him above the level of muqallids?
Unfortunately, for the tiny minority that advocates this three-tier distinction, there is very little agreement on the scholarly definition of a muttabi‘. On the one hand ittiba‘ is described as being: ‘Any ruling whose proof from the Qur’an, Sunnah or consensus is clear-cut and free from textual conflict (salim min al-mu‘arid) – in such a case taqlid is not lawful, nor is ijtihad; rather ittiba‘ is obligatory. The reality of ittiba‘ is: accepting whatever is established by a proof from the Qur’an, Sunnah or consensus, providing it is free from being in conflict with others proofs.’23 As can be seen, ittiba‘ can only be gauged by a highly competent jurist who is in a position to determine when a proof is or is not salim min al-mu‘arid – when it is clear-cut in meaning and applicability and free from textual conflict with other proofs. The muqallid will still have to make taqlid of a jurist in knowing all this, and is thus still a muqallid!
Then there’s this vague bash to explain a muttabi‘ as being those who are: ‘to a degree able to evaluate viewpoints and are able to determine which of them are stronger in light of the evidences … they may not have this ability in every issue and hence may still be required to perform taqlid in some issues.’ This somewhat wooly clarifications can be taken in two ways:
Firstly, if what is intended is that a lay person unqualified in fiqh – irrespective of how academic, intelligent or professional they are in their secular vocations and lives – can and should be examining proof-texts in fiqh issues and weighing-up what is stronger, then this is a sheer bid‘ah. And to then attribute this to what the non-jurists among the salaf used to do is … well … simply not true. Regrettably, this is how many laymen from the contemporary salafi movement take it, falsely imagining they aren’t muqallids, but are in the ranks of the so-called muttabi‘. And Allah’s refuge is sought from such a trial and misgiving.
The second way it can be taken, and this isn’t what salafis usually intend, is: someone who is qualified to exercise some level of ijtihad and make tarjih – the murajjih. We’ve already seen in the first part (section III), how al-Dhahabi depicted the one qualified to undertake restricted ijtihad. This is similar to Imam al-Shatibi’s middle category of the ”comparatist”; the murajjih (see section XIII above). Thus if by muttabi‘ one means the mujtahid-murajjih (for want of a better term), then such a level must be conceded. Such a person, however, falls under the ijtihad category: it does not need a third and separate classification. The vast majority of classical jurists have not deployed such a confusing distinction. For them, in terms of fiqh and fatwas, one is either a mujtahid – of varying ranks and degrees, or a muqallid – again, of varying degrees.
XXI. THE LAYMAN AND A MADHHAB
I’ll keep the question of madhhabs brief, intending a more detailed write up to follow at some future date, God willing. So for now, we’ll leave the question of why only Four madhhabs (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i and Hanbali schools) and no more? Or how it is that something which wasn’t around during the prophetic era (and these codified madhhabs were not) can then become a legislated part of Islam? But the reality is that since only four orthodox Sunni schools of law now remain, and since no scholar has ever rejected the legitimacy of these madhhabs, let’s address the central issue about it, as it relates to the layman:
The crux of the matter is the question of whether or not a layman is required to follow one madhhab, or law school, in all that it instructs and informs. The truth is that jurists have a legitimate difference over this all-important question: ‘Sticking to a madhhab of a specific imam is better by agreement. It being required is a matter of difference.’24
I believe the following words of Imam al-Nawawi pretty much get to the gist of things, as far as juristic responses go. He writes:
‘That which the proof necessitates is that a layman is not obligated to follow a specific madhhab. Instead, he seeks a fatwa from whoever he wishes or comes across, provided he does not chase after concessions. Perhaps those who prevented him did so because they were not convinced he would not chase after concessions.’25
Jurists like al-Nawawi, who do not require a layman to follow a single madhhab, tilt the balance in favour of the original principle, which is that a layman may ask any qualified mufti regardless of the mufti’s madhhab affiliation. Those who obligate it gave greater weight to the likelihood that lay people would play fast and loose with religious rulings and follow concessions (al-rukhsah) so as to gratify their whims or desires. And if we’re honest, most of us need not look far to see how the idea of rukhsah – a concessionary ruling brought about by mitigating circumstances, so as to bring about ease in difficult situations – is being misused in the face of diminishing piety, obedience to desires, and the ego’s incessant tantrums for its alleged rights and entitlements.
XXII. RULES ABOUT FOLLOWING CONCESSIONS
The lawful concession (rukhsah), or relaxation of the law, is forbidden to seek without a valid shari‘ah justification. Moreover, a shari‘ah-legislated rukhsah is based on observing certain obligatory guidelines; which include: [i] The opinion that brings about the ease must be a valid fiqh opinion; not an anamolous (shadhdh) one. [ii] The rukhsah should ward of a genuine hardship, be it to the individual or society. [iii] Deciding if a rukhsah needs taking must be determined by someone known to be qualified and known also for their piety, integrity and adherence to revealed truths. [iv] Following rukhsahs must not become a habitual practice; a device to skirt around the usually legislated ‘azimah; the more ‘stringent’ normative ruling. [v] The rukhsah must never lead to the forbidden type of talfiq (lit. ‘piecing together’), where the picking and choosing; the mixing and matching, of madhhabs either contravenes an established ijma‘, or leads to a totally new ruling not confirmed by any madhhab or mujtahid.26
Legalistic aspects aside, there is also the spirit of the law to consider when dealing with rukhsahs. For a rukhsah is there to facilitate ease and allow obedience to flourish under exceptionally difficult circumstances. Its goal is to make things easier in order for faith to still thrive; not for piety to spiral downwards or slackness towards sins normalised. An individual must, therefore, balance between their spiritual growth which arises as a result of battling against one’s ego or desires in order to obey Allah, and between being overwhelmed with hardship due to not taking a shari‘ah-sanctioned concession. One must never divorce such matters from the believer’s ultimate quest and goal: اَلتَّحَبُّبُ إِلٰى الله بِمَا يَرْضٰى – ‘Becoming beloved to Allah by doing what pleases Him.’
XXIII. ON MOVING FROM MADHHAB TO MADHHAB & FATWA TO FATWA
The reality of mahbubiyyah, of loving Allah and becoming beloved to Him, has its root in adherence to the prophetic teachings. The Qur‘an informs: قُلْ إِنْ كُنْتُمْ تُحِبُّونَ اللَّهَ فَاتَّبِعُونِي يُحْبِبْكُمْ اللَّهُ وَيَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ ذُنُوبَكُمْ وَاللَّهُ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ – Say: ‘If you do love Allah, follow me; then Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [3:31]
The objective of this adherence, the nobility in it, and the secret behind it, is that: يَخْرُجُ الْاِنْسَانَ مِنْ مُرَادِ نَفْسِهِ إِلٰى مُرَادِ رَبِّهِ – ‘A person renounces his own likes and wants for what his Lord likes and wants.’27 In fiqh matters, this is best achieved when we get our egos to submit to the higher authority of a madhhab, rather than to pick and choose rulings based on the dictates of our personal whims, pathologies or paltry learning. This may go some way in explaining why one often finds those who reject following madhhabs, in favour of a DIY approach to Islam, tend to be hostile, extreme, argumentative, highly divisive and self-righteous. For despite some of the outer trappings of religion, little to no effort is made on inward purification of the egotistical self.
Even when one does follow a madhhab, there’s always a danger that desires get in the way – as discussed by Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah in the next passage:
‘Whoever follows a specific madhhab, then acts in opposition to it – without making taqlid of another scholar’s fatwa; nor inferring it from a proof that requires acting contrary to it; nor has an excuse from the shari‘ah to allow it – is following his desires. He is neither making ijtihad nor taqlid, but doing something forbidden without a valid excuse from the shari‘ah: and this is repugnant! … There is a clear-cut stipulation from Imam Ahmad and others that it is unlawful for someone to believe something to be obligatory or forbidden, and to then not believe it to be obligatory or forbidden, based on his desires … But if it becomes clear to him that which necessitates preferring one view over the other – either due to detailed evidences if he knows and comprehends them; or because he holds one of the two scholars to be more learned in the issue and more God-fearing in what he says, and so he deems this view to be preferable than the other – it is allowed: in fact, it is obligatory. There being a clear stipulation from Imam Ahmad concerning this.’28
XXIV. MADHHABS AS MEANS TO AN END
Those following a specific madhhab must keep in mind the following guidelines: Firstly, a madhhab is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The end is to obey Allah and His Messenger ﷺ by knowing the rulings of religion. Secondly, one avoids bigotry (ta‘assub) or partisanship (hizbiyyah) at all cost, by not thinking their madhhab is superior than all others, and by not basing their allegiance or enmity around it. Thirdly, one must have a firm conviction that the words of Allah and His Messenger take precedence over that of others, whatever their rank.
Ibn Taymiyyah was once asked whether it was correct to say that Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani was the best of all shaykhs and that Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal was the best of all imams? This was his reply:
‘As for preferring some imams or shaykh over others, like a person preferring the imam whose madhhab he learns fiqh from or the shaykh that he follows – for example, like someone who prefers Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir, Shaykh Abu Madyan, or [Imam] Ahmad, or others – then most people speak about this matter based on conjecture and what their desires incline to. They do not really know the reality of the ranks of these scholars or shaykhs, and nor do they intend to follow the absolute truth. Instead, each follows his own desires in thinking the one that he follows to be better than others; even when he has no proof for this.‘29
Imam Ibn Taymiyyah also gives us this timely and timeless piece of advice:
‘Rather the names that are allowed to call oneself by – for instance, peoples’ affiliation to an imam, like Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i or Hanbali; or to a shaykh, like Qadiri, ‘Adawi or their like; or an ascription to a tribe, like Qaysi or Yemeni; or a province like Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian – then it is not permissible for anyone to test people on such a basis, or form enmity or allegiance on such names. Instead, the best of people in God’s sight are those who have the most piety: whatever group they belong to.’30
XXV. TAQLID & MADHHABS: IN A NUTSHELL
Bringing down the curtains on the second and final part of this article, let me distill the issue of taqlid and madhhabs into these four points:
• In fiqh issues, we noted how one is either a mujtahid of varying ranks, or a muqallid of varying degrees: وَاَلَّذِي عَلَيْهِ جَمَاهِيرُ الْأُمَّةِ أَنَّ الِاجْتِهَادَ … جَائِزٌ لِلْقَادِرِعَلَى الِاجْتِهَادِ وَالتَّقْلِيدَ جَائِزٌ لِلْعَاجِزِ عَنْ الِاجْتِهَادِ – ‘That which the vast majority of the ummah hold is that … ijtihad is for the one capable of it, while taqlid is for those who are incapable of it.’31
• The muqallid does not have the juristic skill set to weigh up proofs in any meaningful way or form: مَنْ كَانَ مُقَلِّدًا لَزِمَ حُكْمَ التَّقْلِيدِ، فَلَمْ يُرَجِّحْ، وَلَمْ يُزَيِّفْ، وَلَمْ يُصَوِّبْ، وَلَمْ يُخَطِّئْ؛ – ‘Whoever is a muqallid, then the ruling of taqlid applies to him: he cannot weigh-up, evaluate, or judge [a view] to be correct or incorrect.’32
• We came across this rule: ‘There is a consensus among the Muslims that it is unlawful for a muqallid to state that something is halal or haram in those issues of ijtihad where he’s doing taqlid of someone else. What he can say is: “This is the ruling in the madhhab I follow” or that: “I sought a fatwa and this was the response.”’33
• Following a madhhab (particularly for the core pillars of practice: taharah, salat, zakat, sawm, hajj) is unarguably the preferred and safest path; especially in these times where egos are rife and rampant, following false desires know of no bounds, and caution has long since been thrown to the wind.
The above concerns a layman. As for the deeply-versed and highly intelligent jurist: the murajjih, al-Dhahabi paints this overall picture:
‘There is no doubt that anyone who has a thorough grasp of fiqh, whose knowledge is broad and intention sound, is not allowed to stick rigidly to one madhhab in all that it stipulates. For perhaps another madhhab may present stronger evidences in an issue and evidences may emerge by which the proof is established to him. [In this case] he should not follow his imam, but must act in accordance with the proof, by following the imam with whom the proof lies; not out of obeying his whims. However, he is not to give a fatwa to the general public except in accordance with the madhhab of his imam.’34
The Four Imams have been described by some as ‘grammarians of the divine Word’, and the four streams of law and legal culture that flowed from them lent themselves to the overall stability of Muslim societies and polities for over a millennium. But by the beginning of the 20th century – ‘the Age of Extreme’, as it’s been dubbed – reaction to the madhhabs was being made felt, even to the general public. Here, as is often the case, extremes meet. On the one hand, modernists dismissed the classical legal formulations as being out of date and irrelevant to the times; on the other, a ‘fundamentalist’ bent sought to ‘return to the Qur’an and the Sunnah in its pristine purity’, and sift the wheat from the chaff in the madhhabs. Some of its ideologues chose to ignore the bulk of classical legal culture in an attempt to return to this pristine state; others made it their goal to patch together a meta-madhhab; a madhhab to end all madhhabs. What they had in common was an unwillingness to admit that the men whose works and insights they so lightly regarded were probably far better and wiser than they were. Thus:
Those who, for reasons of wanting to revive the Sunnah, opened the door for ordinary, religiously unqualified Muslims to ‘weigh-up’ and follow the ‘strongest’ proof in issues of taharah, salat and personal piety, but somehow imagined they could keep the door closed when it came to the more fragile, volatile matters of politics and public affairs: well that logic seems not to have faired so well. Such a bid‘ah was unheard of in Islam until less than a century ago, and it is a myth to claim that the early Muslim scholars, the salaf, instructed the laity to dabble in the dalil.
Indeed, those shaykhs who opened this door now see droves of zealous and unqualified people rushing through it, giving wild and fallacious fatwas on Islam – undermining qualified juristic authority, creating religious anarchy, and tearing apart what remains of Muslim unity – and they don’t know what to do or how to stem this tide. And, of course, out of this cavalier call and this collapse of traditional scholarly authority have come the liberals, with their laxity and low regard for sacred law; and the takfiris, with their terror and tribulations.
1. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1423H), 3:447.
2. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1412H), 20:225.
3. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1417H), 2:142.
4. ibid., 2:142.
5. Risalah fi’l-Ijtihad wa’l-Taqlid, 47.
6. Al-I‘tisam (Amman: Dar al-Athariyyah, 1428H), 3:441-42.
8. Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Riyadh: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 1436H), 271-3.
9. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. It has supporting chains that strengthen it, as said by Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, which should yield a final grading of at least hasan. See: Fath al-Bari (Egypt: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 1434H), 1:245.
10. Consult: Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 2:18-22.
11. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 35:233.
12. Al-Muwafaqat (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 1417H), 5:336-37.
13. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 3:448.
14. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.217-18; al-Tirmidhi, no.3095. It was graded hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1422H), no.3293.
15. Hujjat Allah al-Balighah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1421H), 1:289.
16. Cited in Ibn ‘Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1423H), 1:167.
17. Its like is recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, al-Intiqa’ fi Fada’il al-Thalathat al-A’immah al-Fuqaha (Cairo: Maktabah al-Qudsi, 1350H), 145.
18. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1414H), no.1435.
19. Quoted in Abu Nu‘aym al-Asbahani, Hilyat al-Awliya (Egypt: Dar al-Rayyan, 1406H), 9:106-07.
20. Cited in I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 3:469.
21. Radd al-Muhtar, 1:167.
22. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:226.
23. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal ila Fiqh Ahmad b. Hanbal (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 1411H), 1:66.
24. As said by Aba Butayn, Mukhtasar fi ‘Ilm Usul al-Fiqh (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 1430H), 110.
25. Minhaj al-Talibin (Beirut: Dar al-Basha‘ir, 1421H), 11:117.
26. Cf. Al-Bassam, Tawdih al-Ahkam (Riyadh: Dar al-Mayman, 1430H), 2:571-72.
27. The likes of this was voiced by Imam Ahmad, as per Abu Ya‘la, Tabaqat al-Hanabilah (Cairo: Matba‘ah al-Sunnah al-Muhammadiyyah, n.d.), 2:379.