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Milk for Babes, Meat for Men: The Three Kinds of Tafsir

In Dan Brown’s novel, The Lost Symbol, the book’s central character, Professor Robert Langdon, is told that the Biblical ‘manna from heaven’ – the food God sent down to the Israelites during their long desert travels – is actually a code word for a profounder scientific truth understood only by those initiated. As part of his own initiation into the “Ancient Mysteries,” he is told: ‘When you see these code words in Scripture, pay attention. They are often markers for a more profound meaning concealed beneath the surface.’

We see the same idea of profound meanings concealed beneath the surface in the words of St. Paul too (although his is a reference to profounder spiritual, not scientific, truths). So in his letter to the Corinthian Church (Bible, I Corinthians), Paul says: ‘I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for till now you were not able to bear it; and even now you are not able.’ Being fed with milk refers to being instructed in the basic, elementary doctrines of Christianity, while meat denotes the more sublime and mysterious doctrines of the faith. He is telling them, in other words, that they weren’t as yet sufficiently schooled in Christian knowledge to grasp its higher mysteries.

When it comes to Islam, and in particular the Qur’an, there has long been a recognition by our ‘ulema that the Qur’an is a vast and deep ocean of meanings and wisdoms.

Over the course of time, three modes of tafsir (“interpretation,” “commentary,” “exegesis”) of the Qur’an have met with scholarly approval in order to help deep dive for these revelatory gems – although with varying degrees of authority and validity: [i] tafsir bi’l-ma’thur or “interpretation based upon textual reports;” [ii] tafsir bi’l-ra‘y, “interpretation rooted in [reasoned] opinion and; [iii] tafsir bi’l-isharah, “allegorical [spiritual] interpretation”.

Of the three kinds, only tafsir bi’l-ma’thur has unconditional approval in the scholarly or exegetical community. This mode of tafsir consists of interpreting the Qur’an by [other parts of] the Qur’an, by the words and deeds of the Prophet ﷺ, and the interpretations of the earliest Muslim authorities (salaf). The basic assumption here is that those closest in time to the prophetic age (and thus to the revelation itself) can best explain and contextualise the text authoritatively. Later generation of Muslims, it is believed, ought to accept this and ensure that their Quranic interpretation is guided and molded by those left by the salaf. The tafsirs of al-Tabari, al-Baghawi, Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn Kathir and al-Suyuti are pretty much typical of tafsir bi’l-ma‘thur.

Tafsir bi’l-ra‘y has occupied more of an uncomfortable place in the discipline of tafsir. One hadith emphatically states: ‘He who interprets the Qur’an based on his own opinion (ra‘y), then let him take his place in the Hellfire.’1 The scholars concur that interpretations of the Qur’an that violate the agreed upon premises or conclusions of tafsir bi’l-ma’thur, or that are based on personal opinions not rooted in the attendant sciences related to Quranic exegesis, are unacceptable. On the other hand, ra‘y which is led by linguistic, legal, theological, contextual and historical considerations, not contradicting anything catagorical (qat‘i) or for which there is scholarly consensus (ijma‘), has met with approval by most Muslim scholars. This genre of tafsir includes that of Ibn Juzayy, al-Qurtubi, al-Razi, al-Baydawi, al-Alusi and Ibn Ashur; among others. Not that such works are void of any tafsir bi’l-ma’thur, it’s just that their main aim is interpretation via scholarly reasoning or ijtihad.

Even more precarious than the above is tafsir bi’l-isharah. This genre of tafsir devotes itself mainly to allegorical, figurative and symbolic interpretations of the Qur’an: to profound meanings concealed beneath the surface. The nature of tafsir by way of isharah (lit. “sign”, “allusion”) is that it is very conjectural and speculative, void of a clear exegetical methodology. So to many of the ‘ulema, it is nothing more than fanciful ra‘y. Nonetheless, most leading imams do accept this mode of exegesis, provided certain conditions are met: (i) That no legal or theological position be derived by it. (ii) It must not contradict the zahir (“clear,” “apparent,” “obvious”) meaning of the verse. (iii) It not contradict other Qur’an or Hadith texts, nor an ijma‘. (iv) It should not claim to be the main or primary interpretation, let alone demand belief in it.

Examples in this category wherein its authors have attempted this esoteric and sublimely meditative interpolations are: the tafsirs of al-Tustari, al-Qushayri, al-Sulami, Ibn ‘Ajibah and al-Alusi’s Ruh al-Ma‘ani (a work that contours tafsir bi’l-ma’thur; indulges in the scholarly tafsir bi’l-ra‘y; and generally concludes with an ishari interpretation – making it one of the most comprehensive and satisfying of all tafsir works).

As an example of tafsir bi’l-isharah, consider the Quranic verse: And when Saul marched out with his army, he said: ‘God will put you to test by means of a river: whoever drinks therefrom shall not be of me, but whoever does not drink shall be of me, save he who takes a sip out of the hollow of his hand.’ But they all drank from it, except for a few. [Q.2:249] While affirming the apparent meaning and historical event, the following is the ishari meaning some have been inspired to give it: The river symbolises the world with which God tests His servants. Those who remain detached and don’t drink, only seeking God’s face, are the elect. As for those who take from it only as much as is needed, they are successful. But those who drink to their fill will be in loss.

Al-Qurtubi, having cited this ishari interpretation, said: ‘This would be excellent were it not for the fact that it involves distorted interpretation and a departure from the apparent sense. Its meaning, nonetheless, is sound from other than this [interpretation].’2 Which is to say, since it opposes the obvious meaning of the verse, it is unacceptable. If, though, the apparent meaning is affirmed, and the isharah is offered as a spiritual insight which attempts to uncover profound meanings concealed beneath the surface, then this would be valid.

Let’s look at one more example: Therefore, be patient with what they say. Praise your Lord’s glory before sunrise and before sunset, and glorify Him some hours of the night and the two ends of the day, that you may be content. [Q.20:130] The apparent meaning is in context of Allah consoling His Prophet ﷺ, telling him not to be grieved or distresses at what the unbelievers utter by way of taunts, ridicule or rejection. Instead, he in instructed to bear their scorn with patience, and to glorify his Lord throughout the day. Only when one’s heart is immersed in its Lord’s glory, the Prophet ﷺ is being told, and less concerned about what others say, will the heart be reassured of sacred truths and be made content. Most exegists also see in this ayah a reference to the five daily prayers: Praise your Lord’s glory before sunrise and before sunset is a pointer to the fajr and ‘asr prayer; some hours of the night, to the ‘isha prayer; and the two ends of the day, the zuhr and maghrib prayers.

As for the isharah; the spiritual allusion, Ibn ‘Ajibah had this to say: ‘Be patient, O you who are totally devoted to Allah and singularly obedient to their Master, with what others say in terms of what disturbs the heart. Instead, be engrossed with your Lord’s remembrance (dhikr) and [extolling] His transcendence at the rising and the setting of the sun and at the two ends of the day, until you lose yourself in the presence of the Knower of the Unseen. Perhaps then you will be given to spiritually witness the Beloved.’3

Of course, such ishari interpretations will not be to everybody’s taste, since not every person has a taste!

Wa bi’Llahi al-tawfiq.

1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2950, saying: ‘This hadith is hasan sahih.’

2. Al-Jami’ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:164.

3. Al-Bahr al-Madid (Cairo: Dar al-Tawfiqiyyah, n.d.), 4:327.

On True Salafism, False Salafism & Ijma‘ Theology (2/2)

Keen readers of the blog might realise that the last time I addressed the issue of Salafism and orthodoxy was when this blog first started, back in 2012. I haven’t returned to the subject till now. The reason for that is straightforward. This is a day and age, and it’s probably been like this for a considerably long time, that doesn’t respond well to correction. In this age of religious uproar, where souls are weak and arguments are more charged with ego or partisanship (tahazzub, hizbiyyah) than ever before, correctives seldom work. It’s an age when we find it incredibly difficult or agonising to really be open-minded to ideas outside of our own group-think or bubble. Trying to uproot erroneous notions all too often makes things worse nowadays. Egos get riled up, people take it personally, and positions usually become further entrenched. One hadith informs us that: ‘You must command good and forbid evil, until you see greed being obeyed, desires being followed, worldliness being preferred and every person being impressed with his own opinion.’28 So it’s a road we should seldom walk down; and when we do, we should do so reluctantly, wisely and warily.

Those who have yet to read Part One of the discussion are urged to do so first (it may be read here). It sets the context for this final part. The centrepiece of that first discussion were these words of Ibn Taymiyyah, when speaking about the heterodox, innovated sects: ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus (ijma‘). But whoever speaks according to the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.29

These words of his were also central to the overall discussion: ‘Ijma‘ is the third fundamental which is relied upon in affairs of knowledge and faith. With these three fundamentals they weigh-up all that people say or do in terms of religion, be it inwardly or outwardly.’30

Lastly, this Taymiyyan statement is worth reiterating: ‘This is why the scholars of Islam concur upon declaring as an innovator one who contravenes the likes of these usul, contrary to someone who differs in issues of ijtihad.’31

Having covered three sections in the first part of the blog, and mostly speaking of Salafism in the abstract rather than discussing specific salafi individuals or groups, here are the concluding four sections:

IV

26 – So what is true Salafism? By as early as the fourth Islamic century, we find some scholars using the salafi label to describe certain scholars. So we see the historian Ibn Hayyan say about Isma‘il b. Hammad, the grandson of Imam Abu Hanifah: ‘They said that Isma‘il b. Hammad b. Abu Hanifah was a true salafi.’32 Or we see al-Dhahabi write in his biographical notice on Ibn Hubayrah: ‘He was versed in the [Hanbali] madhhab, Arabic, prosody, was salafi, athari.33 Of al-Akhna’i, al-Safadi said: ‘He was a lover of reports, salafi in approach.’34 Anyone prepared to do the academic spadework will discover that while such usage of the label ‘salafi’, both pre and post Ibn Taymiyyah, does make appearances in the medieval tabaqat-biographical literature, it does so infrequently.

27 – Another ‘as-a-matter-of-fact’ point about the salafi tag is that historically, prior to about the mid-1970s, its use was very specific. Dipping into the tabaqat works again, and we come across al-Dhahabi saying about Imam Ibn al-Salah: ‘He possessed remarkable majesty, solemnity, gravity, eloquence and beneficial knowledge. He was firm in faith, wholly salafi, of correct creed … He believed in Allah and what came from Allah, in terms of His names and attributes.’35 And of Abu’l-Bayan Naba b. Muhammad b. Mahfuz, al-Dhahabi says: ‘Shaykh Abu’l-Bayan, may Allah be pleased with him; shaykh of the Bayaniyyah [sufi] tariqah. He was of eminent status, a scholar who acted on his knowledge, a renunciant (zahid), devout, an expert of the [Arabic] language, a jurist of the Shafi‘i school, salafi in creed, and a caller to the Sunnah.’36 And in al-Safadi’s description of Abu Ishaq al-Kinani: ‘He was righteous, benevolent, abundant in the dhikr of Allah, salafi in creed (salafi al-mu‘taqad).’37 And Ibn Hajr on Muhammad b al-Qasim al-Misri: ‘He was the chief of the Malikis in Egypt, and one who had best memorised the madhhab among them. Versed in history, highly cultured, very religious, deeply devout … He was salafi in creed.’38

28 – The above quotes show how the salafi epithet was applied to scholars who, after the rise of the Ash‘ari and Maturidi theological schools, continued to stick to what they believed was the ijma‘ of the salaf in terms of creed (‘aqidah). Thus the designation, salafi mu‘taqad – ‘salafi in creed.’ Such purist scholars (and it was scholars given this tag, not laymen) were marked by two traits: [i] rejecting the rationalising methods (or most of it) of kalam theologians and, [ii] rejecting figurative interpretation (ta’wil) with regards to the divine attributes (sifat). For such salafi scholars, both these matters were fiercely repudiated by the ijma‘ of the salaf, as per reports related from them.39 Being salafi didn’t mean rejection of following a fiqh school, or being anti-madhhab or anti-taqlid, or kicking the whole of sufism (tasawwuf) into the long grass; as the above quotations clearly demonstrate. This was never the stamp of authenticity of true Salafism, but it would become the stock in trade of the false one.

29 – The past Sunni imams who did allow figurative interpretations (ta’wil) in the divine attributes did so, not because they believed it was lawful to reject an ijma‘, especially of the salaf, but because they didn’t believe there was an ijma‘. Typifying this stance is Imam al-Nawawi, who wrote: ‘They disagreed about the verses and reports to do with the divine attributes, should they be discussed by way of figurative interpretation or not? Some said that they should be, as befits them. This is the more well-known of the two views of the kalam theologians. Others said they should not be figuratively interpreted. Instead, one withholds from speaking about their meanings and entrusts knowledge of them to Allah, exalted is He, along with believing in Allah’s transcendence; exalted is He … And this was the path of the salaf, or [rather] the majority of them …’40 A similar reason is given for using kalam, as I’ve discussed in my article about Hanbalis & kalam.

30 – Given the above, we may say that all religious issues can fit into one of three categories:. Either it is one about which there is an undisputed ijma‘ (be it explicitly or tacitly stated); or it is an ijtihadi one where scholars agree to differ; or it’s one where consensus is claimed by one group of scholars, but disputed by another group: that is, there is no ijma‘ about the ijma‘. In the latter case, one does their best to do what is right, as per Allah’s statement: Fear Allah as best as you can. [Q.64:16] The agreed upon (mujma‘ ‘alayhi) issues, be they beliefs or actions, form the usul; and differing from them is forbidden and is considered sectarian splitting; the divider between ahl al-sunnah and ahl al-bid‘ah. Those differed over (mukhtalif fihi) issues form the furu‘ wherein the differences are valid and celebrated, and cannot be censured.

31 – So why does this all matter? Without being crystal clear in terms of what true Salafism was in the past, one is in real jeopardy of unwittingly following the false Salafism of the present. The stakes are that high! If, under the name of Salafism, or while claiming to be salafi, divisions are occurring over ijtihadi issues, or all of sufism – lock, stock and barrel – is being rejected as deviant, or following a madhhab is being seen as a sign of misguidance, these are perhaps tell tale signs that false Salafism is what is being followed. The way to make the necessary u-turn, after making tawbah, is by making ijma‘ the cornerstone, and by giving the mujma‘ ‘alayhi and mukhtalif fihi issues their due roles and rights. As for expanding the salafi tag beyond issues of ijma‘ (which are usually, but not exclusively, creedal), then this novel departure from what had been the norm for close to a millennium is what is discuss in the next section.

V

32 – Ibn Kathir stated of the great Shafi‘i scholar, Ibn Surayj, that ‘he was upon the school of the salaf (wa kana ‘ala madhhab al-salaf).’41 And al-Dhahabi said about al-Zabidi: kana hanafiyyan salafiyyan – ‘He was a salafi Hanafi.’42 To be clear and to press home this vital point: Being salafi in the classical sense of the label had nothing at all to do with fiqh or suluk/tasawwuf. Instead, it had everything to do with a purist, more fideist creed: one which early Hanbalis are usually associated with. This is how true Salafism was always understood until its radical reconstruction around the mid-twentieth century.

33 – In the early twentieth century, the salafi concept made an innovative leap from being the madhhab of the salaf in creed; that is, the ‘aqidah that the salaf had a general consensus upon, to becoming something much broader: Salafism (salafiyyah). Salafism, in the 1920s, was still work in progress. Its ideologisation was still growing. By the 1970s; and if not, the early 80s, Salafism would settle on being the all-encompassing thing that it is today. Today’s Salafism isn’t just about creed. It now encompasses fiqh issues, political stances and outlooks, and even the way you dress or pray. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to state that as contemporary Salafism became more and more encompassing, it became more and more intolerant too. It is now the norm to be divested of one’s salafi-ness, oftentimes at the drop of a hat. And one doesn’t have to have violated an ijma‘ for one’s salafi-ness to be questioned. It nearly always happens on matters of bonafide ijtihad. This isn’t a straw man depiction of today’s Salafism. It’s how it actually is.

34 – This jump from employing the word salafi as an adjective (salafi mu‘taqad) to using it as a substantive or as an abstract noun (salafiyyah/Salafism) seems to have been driven, in significant part, with Muslim reformers pushing back, not just against Western colonialism in the latter part of the nineteenth or the first half of the twentieth century, but against the perceived fossilisation of the ‘late Sunni tradition’ too.43 By the 1980s, the idea of Salafism was well enough constructed for one of the most celebrated scholars and advocates of the late Sunni tradition (‘Traditional Islam’), Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti, to write his widely read anti-salafi tract, Salafiyyah – ‘Salafism’ (1988).

35 – While al-Albani is credited as the scholar who most popularised this new, all-inclusive idea of Salafism, he was not the first to invent it. That distinction, as the historical evidence seems to suggest, goes to the Egyptian scholar-cum-activist and professor of philosophy, Mustafa Hilmi. Against the backdrop of the spread of Western secular thought throughout the Islamic world, and the rise of Islamic modernism as well as a more politicised reading of Islam as the two counters to it, Hilmi took the identifiable madhhab of the salaf and invested it with a broader, more roomy scope to arrive at Salafism. Trained in the secular humanities, and fully devoted to the creed of the salaf, Hilmi co-opted some of the jargon of the humanities to express this totalising vision of Salafism in his book, Qawa‘id al-Manhaj al-Salafi – ‘Rules of the Salafi Methodology.’ (1976) and his next outing, al-Salafiyyah Bayna al-‘Aqidah al-Islamiyyah wa’l-Falsafah al-Gharbiyyah – ‘Salafism: Between Islamic Creed and Western Philosophy’ (1983).

36 – The designation manhaj (method, methodology) was already something of a buzzword in Western academic circles in 1960s Egypt. To speak of method was to speak of intellectual rigour and scholarly exactitude in a scientific idiom. The popularity of the term manhaj would soon extend beyond academic circles to include activists in the field of political Islam (Islamism, as it is now known); largely through the writings of Sayyid Qutb. Hilmi, inspired by Qutb’s usage of the term, constructed Salafism to represent an all-encompassing religious idea, or rather ideology. The jewel in the crown of his reframing of Salafism was the idea of manhaj al-salaf. Hilmi himself said in defining it: ‘Salafism became an all-inclusive technical term in designating the way of the salaf in grasping and applying Islam.’44

37 – Although the phrase ‘manhaj of the salaf’ was used before Hilmi (al-Albani used it occasionally around the 1950s, and Hamid al-Fiqi utilised it earlier still, in the late 1920s), it appears that there is no concrete evidence to suggest it was used as an all-inclusive concept till Hilmi employed it as such. Once he did, and once his Qawa‘id al-Manhaj gained wider reception (it earned him the King Faysal International Prize in Islamic studies, in 1985), the concept of being salafi would never be quite the same again. If salafi ‘aqidah is what divided salafis from other Muslims, then salafi manhaj would be significantly responsible for setting apart salafis from other salafis. Intra-salafi bickering and splitting and bigotry would soon become proverbial, and a perpetual air of enmity, mistrust and wariness between rival salafi factions would gradually be seen as business as usual.

VI

38 – For twentieth century salafi reformers, salafi manhaj would have an edge over the original notion of madhhab al-salaf or salafi mu‘taqad. Talk of manhaj allowed a level of flexibility (and some would argue innovation) that madhhab or ‘aqidah did not. One could now talk about an alleged salafi manhaj in fiqh, but not really a salafi madhhab. This permitted such reformers to defend their anti-madhhab and non-madhhab approach to Islamic jurisprudence – with all the religious anarchy, DIY fatwas and fitnah this would unleash. When placed in the deftly critical hands of someone like al-Albani, manhaj could be wielded to maximum effect. Other senior salafi scholars, like Ibn Baz, said there was no distinction between manhaj and ‘aqidah; that they are, in fact, synonymous.45

39 – Al-Albani would use manhaj to distinguish ‘purist’ salafis from half-baked or dubious ones. He categorised scholars and activists who believed in the salafi creed, but who were not ‘pure’ across the board, as being salafi in ‘aqidah, but not in manhaj. What did that actually mean? Were such people now outside of the saved-sect? Had such people violated an established ijma‘? Had their salafi-ness now been nullified? This wasn’t clear then, and is still unclear even today. What is quite clear is that as soon as someone like al-Albani doubted someone’s manhaj, such people were almost invariable treated by the salafi community as if they were deviant innovators. Weighing affairs with ijma‘ theology now took a back seat to weighing issues according to this newly invented manhaj. If not ijma‘, then by what golden standard was it decided whether someone was ‘off the manhaj’ or not? If no recorded ijma‘ had been contravened, was rebuking, censuring or questioning peoples’ orthodoxy in matters of ijtihad the way of the salaf? Can this be true Salafism? Among salafis, anarchy and ambiguity reign in this quarter too.

40 – From the 1980s, being a ‘pure’ salafi was becoming an uphill task. Not only did creed have to be correct, but fiqh ideas, epistemology, political outlooks and, over time, dress code too, had to pass the manhaj check list. All this can be seen in the multi-volume compilation (covering over five and a half thousand pages) of Shaykh al-Albani’s manhaj question and answers: Jami‘ Turath al-‘Allamah al-Albani fi’l-Manhaj wa’l-Ahdath al-Kubra (2011). It is one of Salafism’s biggest ironies, then, that Hilmi’s own salafi-ness was decided on the issue of manhaj. In the Jami‘, we see al-Albani querying about Hilmi in one such Q&A session: ‘Is he salafi? … Mustafa Hilmi a salafi? … What is the proof of his Salafism?’46 For most purist salafis in the know, that pretty much sealed Hilmi’s fate. Even if Hilmi did ascribe to the salafi ‘aqidah, his commitment to philosophical ideas and concepts would have excluded him from being a purist salafi in manhaj; as per the growing checklist.

41 – Let’s visit a few more examples of manhaj’s ability to include and exclude, as deployed by al-Albani. In the Jami‘, we find one reason to suspect a person’s salafi-ness is being loyal to an Islamic party, like the Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimun): this constituted hizbiyyah, ‘factional partisanship’. Such a person might be salafi in some matters, while ikhwani in other matters; and hence their Salafism was seriously tainted at best.47 Being too political; that is, putting political activism over gaining sound knowledge and nurturing oneself and others on such knowledge (something that al-Albani called the manhaj of tasfiyah and tarbiyah) was deviation from the manhaj too.48 It was, however, allowed to cooperate with such groups and parties, with the condition that it be on the basis of the Book, Sunnah and manhaj of the salaf.49

42 – These manhaj markers aren’t without their merits or their scriptural basis. In truth, they had good scriptural support. The problem was that they were too generic, lacking shari‘ah nuances. For what could be said, in the case of Islamic parties, of some learned person with salafi ‘aqidah, who felt it was their duty to focus on political activism, with a view to steering it aright so as not to leave a vacuum for unfettered emotions or egotistical rage to run wild; wisely injecting into the activism sound shari‘ah guidance? When has the red line of too much politics been crossed? Is it hizbiyyah? Has salafi-ness or orthodoxy been soiled, contaminated or rendered void because of it?  If so, again, where are the scales with which all this is weighed? Where is the ijma‘? Moreover, would activism of Muslim minorities living in Western democracies have the same, or slightly different guidelines than activism in Muslim majority countries? Is there only one absolutist answer to each one of these questions, or is it likely to be a case of varying ijtihads in such highly complicated areas of human life?

43 – Once the manhaj had been questioned at this top level, it would filter down to the salafi foot soldiers in its usual reductive, simplistic fashion. The familiar psychology will then play out: backbiting; name-calling; slandering; disabusing this fellow Muslim of their sanctity and orthodoxy; bullying the faithful, where needed, so they fall in line with the latest manhaj fatwa, correction or u-turn; ideological intimidation of those who may have lingering doubts about the new manhaj stance they must adopt in terms of who’s now on or off; and, of course, the panic, excitement and PDFs generated in the process. It’s all part of the bog standard expressions of ungodliness that inevitably ensue. And no one asks the godly question: What clear sin has been committed by this person to warrant all this kerfuffle against him in the first place?

44 – Imam Ibn Taymiyyah once wrote: ‘If an instructor or a teacher insists that a person be boycotted, discredited, their reputation be damaged, or that they be expelled, it must be seen: If he has committed a sin in the eyes of the shari‘ah, he is punished according to the degree of the sin; but no more. But if he hasn’t, then it is not permissible to punish him in any way, just because the teacher or others wish it. It is not for teachers to disunite the people or to do that which will sow enmity or rancour between them. Instead, they should be like brothers co-operating on goodness and godliness; as Allah, Exalted is He, says: Help one another in righteousness and piety, help not one another in sin or transgression. [Q.5:2]’50

45 – Back to the Jami‘, where we find al-Albani offering the following sartorial criticism (in the context of Muslims living in majority Muslim countries, in the 1970s or 80s): That most leading Muslim activists and Islamists would imitate a western dress code, and oftentimes have no beards or barely a beard. For al-Albani, as for other salafis, this moved from being a fiqhi matter into a problem of manhaj.51 And then there was the dilemma of so-called salafi fiqh. Al-Albani insisted that, while following a madhhab or Sunni law-school was permissible and was better than following cowboy muftis with zero or half-baked learning in fiqh and fatwa, the true salafi way was not to be confined to one fiqh school. It was for this reason he declared Shaykh Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab to be salafi in ‘aqidah, but not in fiqh; since he limited himself to the Hanbali school (and a few tarjihat of Ibn Taymiyyah), not being an independent researcher in fiqh matters.52 This, of course, earned him the anger of certain other salafis, in certain quarters of the salafi world. It also proclaimed that Salafism demands the act of tarjih or ijtihad in fiqh: a volatile ingredient in the recipe of religious anarchy. It suggested, too, that the classically accepted view of someone being a salafi-Hanbali or salafi-Hanafi, as per the previous scholarly biographies, was somehow false, off-key, or at best, semi-Salafism. It would appear that classical notions of Salafism are open to criticism, but newer, contemporary notions of Salafism are not.

46 – Why should this all matter? The value we ascribe to words has a powerful way of moulding the way we think, construct ideas, view the world, or interact and govern others. Because contemporary Salafism – i.e. today’s idea of being salafi – is generally seen as a total orientation that embraces the entire gamut of the religious personality, we must be careful not to project this inclusiveness back in time, imaging Salafism has always been like this. It most certainly has not! Instead, it is part product of the many forces that gave rise to various other twentieth century isms. This is particularly so with the idea of salafi manhaj. With its arrival, no person’s salafi-ness, sanctity or honour was any longer safe from ijma‘-less accusations. Furthermore, once a religious issue is linked with manhaj, in the salafi mind, the issue then becomes one of orthodoxy (instead of seeing if the issue is actually one of usul or furu‘). And when conflating usul with furu‘, or the mujma‘ ‘alayhi with the mukhtalif fihi, or issues of ijma‘ with valid ijtihad – once blurring the distinction between such issues itself becomes a consistent, well-entrenched manhaj, or methodology, then how can that not be false Salafism?

VII

47 – Around the last decade, or perhaps even less, before Shaykh al-Albani died (in 1999), he was asked about the state of Salafism, in general; and specifically in Kuwait, Egypt and Saudi. His reply: ‘I say: regrettably the salafi da‘wah, right now, is in turmoil (inna al-da‘wah al-salafiyyah al-an, ma‘a’l-asaf, fi idtirab). I attribute this cause to the hastiness of many of the Muslim youths in claiming knowledge. He has the audacity to give fatwas, or [declare things to be] haram or halal, before he has knowledge. Some of them, as I have heard many a time, cannot [even] recite a verse from the Qur’an properly, even if the noble mushaf is open in front of him … Many of these people become headstrong and hasty in claiming knowledge or writing [pseudo-scholarly] works; and so this is what makes those who, after not having traversed even half the path of knowledge, but now subscribe to the salafi da‘wah, unfortunately splinter into factions and parties.’53

48 – Further on in the same conversation, the Shaykh mentions the following well-known salaf-report from ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Layla: ‘I met one hundred and twenty Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, from the Ansar. There wasn’t a man among them who was asked about something, except that he loved for his brother to suffice him [by responding].’54 He then said: ‘The reason for this is that they feared making a mistake, which others would then fall into. Thus each of them wished they didn’t have to carry such a burden and that another would shoulder this responsibility for him. As for now, the situation is – with immense regret – the total opposite. And the cause of this goes back to a clear reason that I’ve mentioned time and again: That this blossoming which we are now experiencing of the Book, Sunnah and the salafi da‘wah, is in its infancy. So very little time has elapsed for people to reap the fruits of this da‘wah, that some call a blossoming or an awakening, within themselves; namely, by being nurtured on the foundations of the Book and the Sunnah. Then they can benefit from this sound nurturing (tarbiyah), founded upon the Book and the Sunnah, as well as benefit those around them: starting with those closest, then the next closest.’55

49 – The Shaykh then lamented: ‘So the reason why the fruits of this da‘wah have not become apparent is that it is new to the age in which we live. This is why we find the situation to be contrary to what ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Abi Layla narrates about those Companions who were wary of being asked, hoping that someone else would be asked instead … But as for now, we find in many salafi communities, let alone others, that a person who is considered to be the most learned in the gathering is asked a question, only to find so-and-so person has started to speak without being asked, or such-and-such person has begun to answer, without him being asked! What makes them do this? It is love of fame. It’s the “I” syndrome; “I’m here;” that is, “I have knowledge, masha’Llah to me.” This proves that we have not yet been nurtured upon salafi tarbiyah. We have been raised on salafi knowledge, each according to their efforts and striving to acquire it. But as for tarbiyah, we have not yet acquired it as an Islamic, salafi community.’56

50 – Why should this all matter: Perhaps this idtirab; this disarray or turmoil Shaykh al-Albani spoke of has to do with certain aspects of knowledge too; and not only a lack of tarbiyah? Perhaps what is really needed is to return to a pre-manhaj Salafism; one firmly rooted in the distinction between not crossing the boundaries of ijma‘ and being within the bounds of valid ijtihad? For it is not that scholars cannot criticise or disagree with the ijtihad of other scholars. It’s that the one who performed the ijtihad (and the laymen who follow it) cannot be censured, disparaged or declared to have left the Sunni fold; to have violated their orthodox, salafi-ness, unless an ijma’ has actually been contravened.

To conclude: Whilst respect for the salaf is wholly warranted among Muslims, respecting today’s Salafism is a different matter. For much of Salafism today, it would seem, has seeds sown into it to create perpetual schisms. Trading insults with great gusto is what salafis are best known for. Routinely haemorrhaging their own unity, splintering into tinier and tinier cliquey factions, is another. Any veneer of credibility contemporary Salafism might have is largely based on associating it with the fundamental Islamic principle: the obligation upon all Muslims to follow the [ijma‘ of the] salaf.

That Salafism today has totally blurred the distinction between mujma‘ ‘alayhi or “agreed upon” issues and between mukhtalif fihi or the legitimately “differed over” issues, has proven incredibly lethal. Maverick preachers, possessing only a faint grasp of legal or theological doctrines, are now unleashed on the public. Zealous shaykhs, ustadhs or da‘is, ill-equipped to navigate the complex nuances embedded in classical Muslim scholarship, continue to erode and devalue ijma‘ theology. And Salafism, today, for maybe the most part, is fixated on externals; lacking the spiritual or intellectual depth which historically typified orthodoxy. How such a state of affairs came to characterise today’s Salafism is a question that I’ve touched upon, but the finer details must be passed over here.

Three things, then, need attending to urgently by today’s salafis: [i] Being clear about the difference between the usul and furu‘. [ii] Expending far greater effort to know what issues have classically been areas of legitimate difference, and to then train the soul to be tolerant and at ease in such areas of ijtihad and valid differing. [iii] Not filtering the entire scholastic legacy of Islam through the lens of a small band of past scholars, and an even tinier clique of current ones. This task calls for sincerity, sound traditional learning and, above all, reining in the ego. Without these, base metal will never turn into gold; and the lines between false and true Salafism will continue to be blurred or compromised.

Finally, while being acutely aware of the dangers of self-promotion, I hesitantly add that ‘salafism reconsidered’, in the categories section of this blog, might be a good place to find relevant articles for this corrective process.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

28. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3058, saying that the hadith is hasan gharib.

29. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:345-6.

30. ibid., 3:157.

31. ibid., 4:425.

32. Akhbar al-Qudat (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, n.d.), 342.

33. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 20:426.

34. Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turtath al-‘Arabi, 2000), 2:194.

35. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 23:142.

36. Tarikh al-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 1995), 38:68.

37. Al-Wafi bi’l-Wafayat, 5:231.

38. Lisan al-Mizan (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 2002), 7:452, no.7322.

39. See my article: Doctrine of the Divine Attributes.

40. Al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2011), 1:439.

41. Tabaqat al-Fuqaha’ al-Shafi‘iyyin, (al-Mansura: Dar al-Wafa’, 2004), 1:185.

42. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 20:317.

43. For the construction of contemporary Salafism, cf. Lauziere, The Making of Salafism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 95-129.

44. Qawa‘id al-Manhaj al-Salafi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2005), 176.

45. Consult: Fatawa al-Lajnat al-Da’imah (then presided over by Shaykh Ibn Baz), fatwa no.18870.

46. Jami‘ Turath al-‘Allamah al-Albani fi’l-Manhaj wa’l-Ahdath al-Kubra (Sana: Markaz al-Nu‘man, 2011), 12:163.

47. ibid., 3:22, 41, 123-24.

48. Ibid., 2:434-35.

49. ibid., 3:311.

50. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 28:15-16.

51. Jami‘, 3:438.

52. See: ‘Id ‘Abbasi, al-Da‘wah al-Salafiyyah wa Mawqifuha min al-Harakat al-Ukhra (Alexandrai: Dar al-Iman, 2002), 28.

53. Jami‘, 1:184.

54. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.2201.

55. Jami‘, 1:186.

56. ibid., 1:186-87.

On True Salafism, False Salafism & Ijma‘ Theology (1/2)

Much has been written about Salafism (salafiyyah) over the past half a century or so, particularly after 9-11. Among Muslims who ascribe to Sunni Islam, the whole concept of Salafism and what it stands for (and what it has done at the ground level) continues to be a source of great contention. While some see it as the representation of pure, authentic Islam, most view it as cultish and highly sectarian – with varying degrees of heresy, unorthodoxy, extremism and uber-intolerance running throughout it; reflecting the diverse types of salafis as well as salafist claims that exist in reality.

This post isn’t written as an expose of contemporary Salafism. Those hoping for a blustering refutation, or cancel culture content, will be very disappointed and are advised to move on. Instead, the intention of the article is to ask that, while the principle of following the collective religious agreement of the early Muslim scholars (affectionately called the salaf) is an indisputable one in Sunni Islam, is today’s Salafism a true representation of that unanimous, collective path; or is it something quite different to the actual principle?

I have chosen the following passage from the writings of Ibn Taymiyyah to help address the issue. My main reasons for doing so are: it is short; it get’s straight to the point; it is a voice that salafis will respect and, more crucially, it clearly essentialises the difference between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, between ahl al-sunnah and ahl al-bid‘ah, between the Straight Path in Islam and between the stray paths in Islam – the paths of the misguided Muslims sects.

Why should all this stuff about sectarianism and Salafism matter? Well, I don’t think it will be lost on most Muslims that each of us have an obligation to be truth-seekers and truth-followers. What this demands in terms of actions and intent is that we align ourselves with the divine will and the divinely-ordained way of life as best we can; starting with those beliefs and precepts which form the basis of right-guidance, or orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

As part of his reply to a query about the Muslims splitting-up into seventy-three sects (with only one of these sects being the orthodox or “saved” one), and who these various sectarian groups are, and what are their distinguishing features, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote:

وَلِهَذَا وَصَفَ الْفِرْقَةَ النَّاجِيَةَ بِأَنَّهَا أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ وَهُمْ الْجُمْهُورُ الْأَكْبَرُ وَالسَّوَادُ الْأَعْظَمُ . وَأَمَّا الْفِرَقُ الْبَاقِيَةُ فَإِنَّهُمْ أَهْلُ الشُّذُوذِ وَالتَّفَرُّقِ وَالْبِدَعِ وَالْأَهْوَاءِ وَلَا تَبْلُغُ الْفِرْقَةُ مِنْ هَؤُلَاءِ قَرِيبًا مِنْ مَبْلَغِ الْفِرْقَةِ النَّاجِيَةِ فَضْلًا عَنْ أَنْ تَكُونَ بِقَدْرِهَا بَلْ قَدْ تَكُونُ الْفِرْقَةُ مِنْهَا فِي غَايَةِ الْقِلَّةِ . 

وَشِعَارُ هَذِهِ الْفِرَقِ مُفَارَقَةُ الْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ . فَمَنْ قَالَ بِالْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ .

‘It is why the saved-sect is described as being ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah. They are the overwhelming multitude and the great majority. As for the other sects, they are followers of aberrant views, schism, innovations and deviant desires. None even comes close to the number of the saved-sect, let alone its calibre. Rather each such sect is extremely small [in number].

‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus (ijma‘). But whoever speaks according to the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.1

I

In the following points, let us try to unpack this compact, yet highly significant Tamiyyan passage:

1 – The first point to pay heed to is how orthodox Islam – technically known as ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah (‘Sunnis’, for short) – is depicted as encompassing the bulk of this blessed ummah: ‘They are the overwhelming multitude and the great majority.’

2 – In stark contrast to this, the standard salafi psyche would have us believe that most Muslims are deviant innovators outside of the Sunni fold – unless, of course, we join them. I’ve addressed this seismic, yet typical salafi mistake in the article: The Seventy-Three Sects: Is Most of the Ummah Deviant? Whenever a person or group misunderstands this one crucial fact, then it’s usually downhill from here.

3 – This error stems from misreading the words of the early scholars in their explanation of who the jama‘ah is. Take, for instance, the statement of Ibn al-Mubarak who, when asked who the jama‘ah was, replied: ‘Abu Bakr and ‘Umar. It was said to him that they have died, so he said: so-and-so and so-and-so. He was told that they too have passed away. So he said: Abu Hamzah al-Sukkari is the jama‘ah.’2 From here, salafis erringly conclude that the path of orthodoxy can even be just one or two individuals; and is always the path of the select few strangers, or ghuraba’.

4 – But the traditional scholarly take on this is that when Ibn al-Mubarak said that Abu Bakr and ‘Umar are the jama‘ah, he wasn’t negating right-guidance from the other sahabah. Likewise, when he pointed to al-Sukkari as being the jama‘ah, he was not denying the orthodox credentials of other scholars of the same era (like al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, Malik, or Abu Hanifah). Rather this salaf-report simply highlights the pivotal role of the scholars in defining orthodoxy. The masses, by virtue of them following the ‘ulema, are also from the jama‘ah. Mentioning a specific scholar as being the jama‘ah is just a way of showcasing that these scholars best exemplified the jama‘ah in their respective times or locales, and were most worthy of emulation. Other scholars also epitomised the jama‘ah, but perhaps not quite to the same degree.

5 – Ibn Taymiyyah says that the heterodox sects (ahl al-bid‘ah), the ‘followers of aberrant views, schism, innovations and deviant desires’ do not ‘even comes close to the number of the saved-sect. Rather each such sect is extremely small [in number].’ In other words, the number of actual innovators in the ummah is relatively tiny compared to the adherents of Sunni orthodoxy, of whom there is a multitude. Again, this is something which salafis generally, as almost a point of creed, have flipped on its head.

6 – The following hadith gives us an idea of what number of multitude we are talking about. ‘Nations were presented to me and I saw a prophet with one or two followers; another prophet who had a few followers; and also another with no followers at all. Then I saw a huge multitude of people filling the horizon, and hoped that this was my nation. But it was said to me that this was Moses and his people. I was then instructed to look, and I saw another great multitude of people filling the horizon. I was told to look here, and here as well, and again I saw huge multitudes who filled the horizon. It was then said to me: These are your nation. Along with them, seventy-thousand shall enter Paradise without reckoning or punishment.’3 An addition to the above states: ‘I asked my Lord for increase, so He increased it. Thus with every thousand there would be another seventy-thousand, plus three measures [lit. scoops] from His measures.’4

7 – Taking the above hadith at face value will yield a figure of 4.9 million people who shall enter Paradise without reckoning or accountability. And that is not factoring in the extra ‘three measures of His measures (thalathu hathayat min hathayatihi).’ Scholars explain that a hathyah; a ‘measure’ refers to scooping up a large or generous amount of something.5 In the above context, it’s a reference to God taking three large ‘scoops’ of people, besides the 4.9 million, and entering them into Paradise without reckoning. And that’s just those who enter without accountability. How many more millions shall enter after their reckoning? And yet it is not uncommon to find salafis who dogmatically believe that only they and their tiny group, and perhaps ten or twenty other small cliques like them around the world, are the privileged few and the saved sect! If the sahabi who thought it could be seven hundred thousand rather than seventy thousand, is correct, then the matter is even more staggering.6

8 – One final point about the numbers issue. Scholars explain that the ummah is divided into three categories: the rightly-guiding scholars; the lay people who are followers of their scholars; and the real innovators who oppose the way of right guidance, who prescribe in religion that which Allah hasn’t legislated, and who oppose the collective agreement of the scholars after the proofs have been established upon them. The first group is always a minority in every age; the second, the great majority; whilst the third (i.e. actual innovators) is minuscule in number. This is not to say that innovations, deviant practices and false ideas aren’t to be found among the Muslim masses. Instead, it is insisting that even though this is indeed the case, unintentionally falling into innovations (while not intending to contradict scholarly teachings) is not the same as being an out and out innovator. Orthodox theology states: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-bid‘ah sara mubtadi‘ – ‘Not everyone who falls into innovation becomes an innovator due to it.’ So if such people aren’t of the seventy-two innovated sects, then they are – and all praise is for Allah – from the saved sect.7

9 – Why does all this matter? There are a few reasons. The obvious one is that it is absolutely haram to label people as innovators when they are not. ‘Whoever accuses a believer of what he is not, Allah will cause him to dwell in the pus of the inhabitants of Hellfire and not leave till he retracts what he said,’ states one hadith.8 Another reason is that once the psyche has been poisoned by the belief that most of the ummah is deviant, such people will always be a menace to the Muslims; always agitated with them and viewing them with various degrees of disdain. Once Satan gets this far, he secretes into such hearts the deadly poison of conceit, given how such people are so self-righteously assured in their saved-sect complex. True religion calls us to become better people: false religion tells us that this has already occurred.9 Perhaps the biggest reason why this should matter, though, is that it causes the soul to harbour bad suspicion about Allah, imagining He has misguided all but a handful of people in the ummah’s life, despite it being the most honoured ummah in His sight.

II

10 – Now to the actual nub of what makes orthodoxy orthodoxy; of what makes someone a genuine follower of the salaf. Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘The hallmark of these [innovated] sects is their splitting from the Book, Sunnah and scholarly consensus (ijma‘). But whoever speaks according to the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.’ Now while Imam Ibn Taymiyyah does have a few isolated and erroneous opinions in matters of theology, this statement of his is not one of them.

11 – Preceding Ibn Taymiyyah by about three centuries, Imam al-Bayhaqi stated towards the end of his work on theology and creed: ‘We have already stated in the book al-Madkhal, and elsewhere, that the blameworthy differing (al-khilaf al-madhmum) is whatever differs from the Book, the authentic Sunnah, or a scholarly consensus.’10 In other words, what counts is the principle of being in conformity with the Qur’an, Sunnah and ijma‘. Those who affirm the principle are of the saved sect; ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah: those who reject it are not. It is, in abstract, as straightforward as that.

12 – So vital to orthodoxy are these three sources, that Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘The religion of the Muslims is built on following the Book of Allah, the Sunnah of His Prophet ﷺ and what the ummah is united upon. These three are infallible fundamentals (usul ma‘sumah).’11 That the Book and the Sunnah are infallible sources is well understood by most Muslims. As for the unanimous agreement of the scholars, or ijma‘, then its infallibility is taken from the hadith: ‘Indeed, Allah will never unite my ummah upon misguidance.’12 Which is to say, when the scholars of the ummah collectively agree on a point of religion, it is always right and right guidance.

13 – Thus more than just a cliché; more than a claim; more than even a name, the saved-sect (al-firqat al-najiyah) is identified with what may be termed as ijma‘ theology: a set of beliefs and practices rooted in the Qur’an, the Sunnah and the consensus (ijma‘) of the Muslims scholars. Issues wherein a consensus exists constitute the fundamentals (usul) of Islamic orthodoxy, from which it is unlawful to differ. In fact, differing from the usul is actually iftiraq, or splitting from orthodoxy. As for those issues which are open to more than one legitimate scholarly reading or interpretation, or wherein no actual consensus exists, they are not part of orthodoxy’s usul. Instead, they constitute the furu‘ – the detailed rulings – where legitimate differing stemming from qualified, scholarly ijtihad aren’t just tolerated, they are positively celebrated.

14 – Two last points about ijma‘. According to Ibn Taymiyyah: ‘The ijma‘ that is [most] accurately ascertainable is what the pious salaf were agreed upon; for after them differences increased and the ummah dispersed.’13 Ibn Taymiyyah isn’t denying the validity of consensus after the age of the salaf, as some think. He’s just saying that ascertaining points of ijma‘ from later scholars is trickier than it is when scholars were less scattered across the world; as was the case during the age of the salaf. A side point: When Ibn Taymiyyah opposes an ijma‘, it’s not an opposition to the principle. It’s because he believes there is no sound ijma‘ on the issue; that the claim of an ijma‘ is mistaken (for which he is either right or wrong in his ijtihad judgement).

15 – Secondly, some have taken the words of Imam Ahmad: man idda‘a’l-ijma‘ fa huwa kadhib – ‘Whoever claims consensus has lied,’14 and thinks this means he rejected the concept of ijma‘. This, however, is false. His words were said in context of certain innovators (al-Marisi and al-Asamm, as the rest of the report clarifies) falsely claiming an ijma‘ where none exists. So Imam Ahmad sternly warned against recklessly citing an ijma‘. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali said: ‘He said it by way of rebuking the Mu‘tazilite jurists who would [falsely] claim an ijma‘ of the people for what they were espousing. Yet they were the people least aware about the opinions of the sahabah and the tabi‘un.’15

16 – If we add to this the fact that Imam Ahmad himself reported an ijma‘ on various issues, this is proof writ large that he held ijma‘ to be authoritative. So, for example, Abu Dawud narrates: Imam Ahmad said to someone that reciting al-Fatihah behind the imam is particularised by the verse: When the Qur’an is recited, listen to it and pay heed. [Q.7:204] The person inquired: Who says this? Imam Ahmad said: Ajma‘a al-nas anna hadhihi’l-ayah fi’l-salat – ‘People have a consensus that this verse is about the Prayer.’16 Also, when he was asked as to where he took the opinion that the takbirs for ‘Id commence from the Day of ‘Arafah till the last day of Tashriq, he said: ‘By the ijma‘ of ‘Umar, ‘Ali, ‘Abd Allah b. Mas‘ud and ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abbas.’17 Further evidence of Imam Ahmad’s use of ijma‘ is presented by Qadi Abu Ya‘la in his book on Hanbali legal theory.18

17 – Why should this matter? Well Ibn Taymiyyah rightly says about these three infallible fundamentals: ‘Ijma‘ is the third fundamental which is relied upon in affairs of knowledge and faith. With these three fundamentals they weigh-up all that people say or do, inwardly and outwardly, in terms of religion.’19 Now whenever an individual or group is unclear about ijma‘ theology, they will have the wrong tools to weigh-up what is an orthodox view from a heterodox one; an Islamic stance from the Islamic stance; legitimate differing from blameworthy splitting; ikhtilaf from iftiraq. Any issue about which there is an ijma‘ becomes part of orthodoxy. It becomes the Islamic view; and differing from it after being reliably informed that it runs counter to a consensus is the unlawful sectarian type of splitting (iftiraq). Where there is no ijma‘, only valid scholarly differing based on qualified ijtihad, then it is haram to split the ummah in such issues. And yet, attacking valid ijtihadi views where no ijma‘ exists (be it on a point of ‘aqidah, fiqh, or judgements on individuals in respect to their orthodoxy or not) and considering people to be dodgy due to them following a different scholarly ijtihad, has become something of a calling card for today’s salafi movement. So to know the role of ijma’ in defining Sunni orthodoxy is crucial. Without it, one is likely to end up being an enemy to the awliya and a plague of untold fitnahs for this blessed ummah.

18 – Given that iftiraq, or splitting from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah, just occurs in the all-important fundamentals (usul): those issues that are underpinned by an ijma‘; and given also that ikhtilaf arising from qualified scholarly ijtihad is from the branches (furu‘) of the religion, then it is not permissible to label any Muslim an innovator, except if he opposes one or more of these great usul. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘This is why the scholars of Islam concur upon declaring as an innovator one who contravenes the likes of these usul, contrary to someone who differs in issues of ijtihad.’20

III

19 – So where does following the salaf, or being salafi, fit into all this? Well we began with Ibn Taymiyyah pin-pointing the core feature of the innovated sects: their splitting from ijma‘ theology. Elsewhere, he says: ‘It should be known that the hallmark of the innovators is their forsaking ascription to the salaf.21 Thus the two traits boil down to the same thing: forsaking ascription to the ijma‘ of the salaf. Thus, whatever the salaf agreed upon constitutes the madhhab (‘path’ or ‘school’) of the salaf and deserves to be called the salafi way – the way that the salaf took as a united body. And this is what scholars like al-Dhahabi meant by their statement: ‘Salafi: one who is upon the way of the salaf (man kana ‘ala madhhab al-salaf).’22

20 – As for what the salaf differed in, then there is no one unified path, there is no salafi way; there is just legitimate differences of opinion. Those qualified in the juristic art of weighing-up proof-texts (i.e. tarji‘) do so, following the stance they believe is soundest. Those who aren’t just follow a scholar who they trust: Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [Q.21:7] Since this is a matter for which there is no agreement of the salaf, no ijma‘, so therefore no salafi way. They aren’t matters that defines what is or isn’t the saved-sect. If some people insist on calling such splitting over ijtahidi issues salafiyyah or Salafism, then it is undeniably false Salafism, not true Salafism.

21 – Regrettably, this one simple piece of understanding has been lost on most salafis, with tragic consequences for Muslim social harmony, and bitter fruits for personal spiritual growth. There’s no joy in declaring that the list of ijtihadi issues over which salafis split from other Muslims is painfully long. Aversion to using tasbih beads, making du‘a to Allah through tawassul bi’l-nabi, honouring the 15th night of Sha‘ban with extra worship, dhikr repetitions not specified in the texts, or gifting the rewards of reciting the Qur’an to the deceased have all been turned into fault lines, benchmarks or imtihan-inquisitions, to determine who is or is not a follower of the salaf – despite such issues being the opinion of some, or the majority, of the salaf. And while there are a few salafis who do not split on such issues, the reality is that most do (and as the juristic maxim says: al-hukm ‘ala’l-aghlab – ‘The ruling is upon what is predominant’). And that, as the saying goes, is just the tip of the iceberg.

22 – Writing of how a believer’s loyalty and enmity can only be centred around the usul, or agreed-upon issues, Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘It is not for anyone to set up for the ummah an individual – calling to his way, and forming loyalty or enmity around him – save if it be the Prophet ﷺ. Nor may any speech be set up for them around which loyalty or enmity is formed, except if it be the Speech of Allah and His Messenger, or what the ummah has agreed upon. Rather, this is from the practices of the innovators; those who ascribe themselves to a specific person or opinion, creating divisions in the ummah due to it; and basing their loyalty and enmity around such an opinion or ascription.’23 But isn’t this what false Salafism does? Hasn’t it taken the opinion of a scholar, or a few scholars, despite other qualified scholars differing, and divided the ummah over it? Does it not often label those who disagree with them in legitimate ijtihadi matters as being innovators; if not, then treating them as innovators are treated? Doesn’t it, as a frequent policy, assert, even in issues for which no ijma‘ exists that, ‘You are either with us, or against us?’ Honesty, justice and sincere introspection is what godliness demands here.

23 – Again, speaking about sectarianism and factionalism, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah remarked: ‘How is it permitted for the ummah of Muhammad ﷺ to divide and differ to the extent that a person aligns himself with one faction and is hostile to another, based upon conjecture or caprice, without a decisive proof from Allah. Indeed, Allah and His Prophet ﷺ are free of those who act in this manner. This is the behaviour of the innovators, like the Khawarij, who split the unity of the Muslims and made permissible the blood of those who opposed them.’24 It’s the hallmark of false Salafism too, except that while most salafis today categorically denounce violent extremism or shedding peoples’ blood, so many have made it their mission to attack peoples’ honour. Even the moderate salafis, who may not use the salafi label, can often have a skewed view of ijma‘ theology, and therefore of what is or isn’t a ‘dodgy’ opinion.

24 – Wasn’t this the point Ibn ‘Uthaymin was trying to make, when he said: ‘As for taking Salafism to be a specific method which singles-out particular people, and considers as deviant any Muslim who differs from it, even if the truth is with the latter – making Salafism into a partisan thing – then there is no doubt at all that this is contrary to Salafism … However, some people that have taken the salafi approach in the present time declare anyone who differs with them, even if the truth be with the latter, to be misguided. Some have taken it to be a method of partisanship … Look at the way of the pious salaf and what they did in terms of their methodology, and the openness of their hearts in regards to differing, in that which ijtihad is permitted … So Salafism, with the meaning of a specific party, with specific distinctions, where other than them are seen as deviant, then we say: they are not from Salafism in the least.’?25

25 – Why does all this matter? Well while the intention to follow the salaf is a truly noble one, it’s best to keep in mind these words of Ibn Mas‘ud: wa kam min muridin li’l-khayr lan yusibahu: ‘How many people intend good, yet never reach it.’26 Ibn Taymiyyah has some poignant remarks here too: ‘Many of the later people do not know the reality of the speech of the salaf and the leading scholars. Of them are those who revere the salaf and say that they follow them, but then oppose them in ways they do not realise.’27 To err here and there is one thing. But nose diving into the myths, schisms and authoritarian claims of false Salafism is another thing entirely.

IV

26 – So what is true Salafism? By as early as the fourth …

 … The remainder of this crucial discussion is given in Part 2. In it, I’ll address the following: the distinction between true Salafism and false Salafism; how today’s Salafism differs from the original, classical idea of the madhhab of the salaf, of how it came to be steadily constructed from the 1920’s onwards; how Salafism’s intolerance grew and grew the more and more its scope widened to beyond ‘aqidah and issues of ijma‘; who devised the idea of the salafi manhaj during the mid twentieth century; why the goal posts moved from madhhab of the salaf to salafi manhaj; and how might one stop blurring the lines between true Salafism and the false one.

Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa bihi al-tawfiq.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:345-6.

2. Cited in al-Tirmidhi, no.2167, in his gloss to the hadith: ‘God will never unite my ummah upon misguidance, and the hand of God is over the jama‘ah.’

3. Al-Bukhari, no.5752.

4. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2437, saying that the hadith is hasan gharib.

5. Cf. al-Mubarakpuri, Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi bi Sharh Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1990), 7:129.

6. As per al-Bukhari, no.3247.

7. See: Maqbali, al-‘Alam al-Shamikh fi Ithar al-Haqq ‘ala’l-Aba wa’l-Mashayikh (Egypt: n.p., 1910), 417-18.

8. Ahmad, no.5385. Its chain was graded sahih in al-Arna’ut (ed), Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Ma’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 9:283.

9. Mirroring Murad, Contentions, 2/11. 

10. Al-I‘tiqad wa’l-Hidayatu ila Sabil al-Rashad (Damascus: al-Yamamah, 2002), 354.

11. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.

12. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2167. The hadith, with its collective chains, is sahih. See: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1848.

13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:157.

14. As per: Masa’il al-Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal Riwayat Ibnihi ‘Abd Allah b. Ahmad (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1981), 439; no.1587.

15. Cited in al-Mardawi, al-Tahbir Sharh al-Tahrir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2000), 4:1528-9.

16. Masa’il Imam Ahmad Riwayat Abi Dawud (Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1999), 48; no.223.

17. Quoted in Qadi Abu Ya‘la, al-‘Uddah fi Usul al-Fiqh (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Sa‘ud, 1993), 4:1060-63.

18. ibid., 4:1058-64.

19. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:157.

20. ibid., 4:425.

21. ibid., 4:155.

22. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1993), 5:21.

23. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.

24. ibid., 3:419.

25. Liqa’at al-Bab al-Maftuh (Saudi Arabia: Mu’assasah Shaykh Muhammad b. Salah al-‘Uthaymin, 2016), 3:242; no.1322.

26. Al-Darimi, Sunan (Karachi: Qadami Kutub Khanah, n.d.), 1:79-80, no.204.

27. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 12:87.

Feigning Islamic Learning: Are You a Troublesome Abu Shibr?

IN MANUALS WRITTEN TO train Muslim scholars and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). Thus it is said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: whosoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; and whoever enters the third realises they know very little.’

An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of sacred learning; having only drunk small drafts, Abu Shibr gets intoxicated, looses sight of his own infant level, and behaves in a haughty, self-righteous way. For he deludes himself into thinking he’s now something in terms of sacred knowledge and learning: a duckling that thinks it’s a graceful swan, or a kitten that thinks it’s a tiger!

Of course, not everyone who enters this first stretch of learning becomes drunk. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into an Abu Shibr persona, their wise teacher is likely able to treat them with a corrective cure). Instead, it is those whose few crumbs of learning comes by way of a few books or some YouTube videos of non-scholars, or those who are nowhere near being seasoned students of sacred knowledge, that are the usual culprits. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a danger to himself and is a trouble to others. Brash, hostile, argumentative, divisive, self-assured to the point of kibr … we’ve all seen it (and some of us may have even been it!).

As for the second and third spans of learning, as the years pass, the sincere, intelligent and well-trained student appreciates, first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even by way of a single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the complexly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it. 

This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own true level. With further learning and engagement with ‘ilm, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they actually know compared to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition. ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ it has been said, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’

In our scholastic tradition there’s the idea of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: acting as if one is versed in religious issues through little haphazard reading of books or surfing a few websites, rather than any through, serious, systematic learning, studying or dialoguing with trained scholars. One of most dangerous calamities that currently afflicts the ummah is the growing spectacle of all the Abu Shibrs (and a few Umm Shibrs) that are now frantically clambering over each other, like frenzied rugby players on crack, to get attention, social-media ‘likes’, and other ego-driven ways of getting their voices heard. It is shameless, ungodly, and nothing short of stupidity on stilts. Nor is there anything as ugly as when the ego attempts to dress itself in the robes of sacred knowledge.

The lady Asma relates that a woman came to the Prophet ﷺ and asked: I have a co-wife, so is it alright for me to pretend that my husband has given me what he hasn’t given me [in order to tease her]? The Prophet ﷺ responded: ‘The one who pretends to have what he has not been given is like someone who puts on two garments of falsehood.’1 If that is the case in terms of claiming to possess worldly stuff one does not have, then what about giving others the impression that one has seasoned Islamic knowledge when one does not? For we are either qualified to represent Allah’s religion or we are not. The godly thing to do if we are ever asked questions about Islam which are above our proverbial pay grade is to simply say that we cannot give what we do not have.

In one sound hadith, we read an uncanny description of what seems to so aptly describe our times. In it, the Prophet said ﷺ: ‘Today, you are in an age in which its scholars are many and its speakers few: whoever leaves a tenth of what he knows has followed his desires. Later there will come an age where its speakers are many and its scholars few: whoever clings to a tenth of what he knows will be saved.’2

This is an era of fake knowledge, when it’s never been easier to fake what you know. Ours is an age where an increasing number of speakers sell themselves to the public as if they are seasoned shaykhs or mature students of knowledge, when most of them are clearly not. Such speakers tend not to have the dignity, gravitas or adab of the scholars, let alone their learning, wisdom and concern. And while social media and the reckless herd may have made such people into ‘influencers’ or go-to voices, the wise are wary of such self-styled speakers and Allah’s awliya appalled at their false pretensions. We should be too. The remedy for this corrupt behaviour is to make sincere tawbah and to reassess whether one should be publicly preaching or speaking on behalf of Allah; and if doing so is unavoidable, to always recall one’s level and not discourse beyond it, to never play to the crowd, and to ensure one has a healthy dose of answering questions with the godly words: la adri – ‘I do not know.’

Talking of those whose knowledge is half-baked, yet are deluded into thinking they are the real deal, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said:

‘It is said that those who most corrupt the world are: the half baked theologian, the half-baked jurist, the half-baked doctor and the half-baked grammarian. This [first one] corrupts religion; this [second], the country; this [third], physical bodies; and this [fourth], the language.’3

This too, from Ibn Hazm, is worth pondering – for those with corrupt natures and delusions of grandeur, but who earnestly wish to be rectified:

‘Some people who are overcome with ignorance, whose intellects are weak, and whose nature is corrupt think they are from the learned, when they are not. There is no greater harm to knowledge or to the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, but missed a much larger part than what they grasped. Their quest for knowledge, moreover, was not a search for knowledge of God, exalted is He; nor was their intention to escape the darkness of ignorance. Rather it was to be one-up on people through showing-off or self-importance, or attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or unashamedly boasting about being scholars when in reality they are not.’4

The Holy Qur’an counsels us: And seek not corruption in the earth; for Allah loves not the corrupters. [Q.28:77]

We ask Allah that He save us from ourselves.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.5219.

2. Al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam, 1:14-15. Its isnad was graded sahih by al-Albani, despite it containing Muhammad b. Tafar b. Mansur. For how such a verdict was reached, cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 6:1:40-42; no.2510.

3. Majmu’ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 5:118-19.

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

Denying the Ahadith Concerning the Return of Jesus

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

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

I

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

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

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

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

II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IV

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

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

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

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

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

V

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VII

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

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

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

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

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

VIII

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wa’Llahu wali al-mu’minin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Muslim, no.243.

7. Muslim, no.247.

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

9. Muslim, no.2901.

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

11. Two cities near Aleppo, Syria.

12. Muslim, no.2897.

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

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

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

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

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

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

19. Abu Dawud, no.2564.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

40. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 28:52-53.

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

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