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 UmmShibrs) 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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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
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
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:  Those who fell into it rarely or occasionally.  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.  Those who fell into tadlis frequently, but whose hadiths the scholars have accepted if they were reported with direct hearing.  Those whose hadiths the scholars agreed are unreliable, unless reported with direct hearing, due to them committing tadlis frequently from weak and unknown narrators.  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
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
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
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).
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.
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.
This is a piece discussing how Muslims can be divided into three categories in terms of religious knowledge, and how the middle category is where much of the ummah’s woes and fitnahs spring from. And as counter-intuitive as it may sound, this middle problematic category are those that are commonly referred to as the more committed in learning ‘practicing Muslims’! Finally, while the title may be somewhat on the dramatic side, it is my hope that the piece itself will be read with careful thought and measured consideration.
In the biography of ‘Ali b. Qasim, Imam al-Shawkani (d.1255H/1839CE) wrote the following: ‘From the beautiful words I heard from him were:
“People are of three categories: The highest category are the major scholars (al-‘ulema al-kibar) who are well-acquainted with truth and falsehood; and when they differ their differing does not become a cause for fitnah, because of their knowledge of what each other has [of proofs].
“The lowest category are the general public (‘ammah) upon the fitrah, who do not flee from the truth. They are followers of those they emulate: if those they emulate are correct, they are likewise; if they err, then they do too.
“The middle category is the source of evil and the root cause of fitnahs arising in the religion: They are those who are not seasoned in knowledge, such that they rise to the level of the first category, nor have they forsaken it to thus be of the lowest category. They are those who, when they see one of those from the highest level say something which they are not acquainted with and which contradicts their belief in which they fell short, they fire arrows of accusation at him and hurl at him all sorts of insults. They [also] corrupt the fitrah of the lowest category [the masses] from [no longer] accepting the [scholarly] truth, through disguising falsehood. By this, they establish religious fitnahs on a firm footing.”
‘This is the meaning of his words which I heard from him; and he has spoken the truth. For whoever ponders over them will find it to be so.’1
There are a number of benefits which may be taken away from the above; they include the following:
1 – In matters of furu‘, the branches or details of shari‘ah law where there is no juristic agreement or consensus (ijma‘), the scholars uphold the rule: ikhtilafu ummati rahmah – ‘Differences in my community is a mercy.’2 Such a rule has lent itself to mutual respect between scholars and an appreciation for the basis of legitimate scholarly differing (ikhtilaf) – even when a scholar passionately holds his view to be the correct one.
2 – This rule was so part and parcel of Sunni orthodoxy that we see someone like Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, the chief Hanbali jurist-theologian of the early seventh century, include it as part of the staple Athari creed: ‘Differing in the furu‘ is a mercy. Those differing are rewarded for their scholarly ijtihad. Their differing is a comprehensive mercy: their agreement a decisive proof.’3 Imam al-Nawawi wrote: ‘Realise, to know the madhhab of the salaf with its proof is a most essential need. For their differing in furu‘ issues is a mercy.’4
3 – As for the view of the late Salafi scholar Shaykh al-Albani, where he tried to show the futile nature of this rule then, in the light of our past Imams and theologians, I’ve discussed how his view is out of sync with the classical Sunni position, in my book, Fussing Over the Fifteenth of Sha‘ban & the Golden Rule of Differing. Hence rather than rehearse the arguments here, and before someone regurgitates the gist of his objections in the comments section, I recommend that one refer to the book.5
4 – That the ummah would be afflicted with its share of barefaced pretenders to Islam’s scholarly heritage is something our Prophet ﷺ cautioned us about. One hadith says: ‘Allah does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; but He takes away knowledge by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who when asked give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’6 These people are usually not from the lowest category of the general public, but – as al-Shawkani mentions – from the ‘middle category’ of the practicing Muslim cohort; those who have some passion to learn, practice and proselytise a little more than is usual for non-scholars.
5 – Ibn Mas‘ud said: ‘You are in a time in which its scholars (‘ulema) are many and its speakers (khutaba) are few. But after you will come a time in which its scholars are few and its speakers many.’7 This ‘speaker’ syndrome has, in our time, mushroomed into a rite of passage for any ignoramus, with the flimsiest knowledge and no grounding in the sacred Islamic sciences, to speak on behalf of Allah and to engage in shameless self-promotion. Such people deserve to be labelled as liars, as Imam Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he did not intend to lie!’8
6 – Left to their own natures, the general public always understood that there is a huge difference between them and scholars who, not too long ago would have had to spend, on average, seven to ten years just to get on the first rung of the ladder of serious scholarship. That is, a lay Muslim knew that he or she must follow qualified scholars in religious matters – taqlid being the technical religious term for such following, and muqallid for the follower.
7 –Over the past three decades, a vile bid‘ah has infected practicing Muslims, who are otherwise well-intended. And that is the idea that even they, without any juristic training; qualification; or expertise, can weigh-up shari‘ah proofs in the highly complex minutae of Islamic law and determine the ‘strongest’ view! And all because they believe they know a proof-text (dalil) or two on the issue. Ibn Taymiyyah put such falsehood to bed when he said: ‘As for a person who only knows one scholar’s view and his proof, but not the other scholar’s or his proof, is from the generality of the muqallids. He isn’t from the scholars capable of evaluating or weighing-up [proofs].’9
8 – The middle category of religious practitioners, as al-Shawkani points out, not only corrupt their own fitrah, but have been instrumental in corrupting the nature of the third category – a growing number of whom are also persuaded that they too can dive into detailed fiqh/furu‘ matters and play the part of self-made muftis. And whilst any Muslim may join the scholarly conversation, they can only lawfully do so with sound learning that is isnad-approved. Otherwise, it’s as Ibn al-Mubarak said: al-isnad ‘indi min al-din, law la’l-isnad laqala man sha’a ma sha’a – ‘The chain [of transmission], in my view, is a [required] part of the religion. If it were not for the chain, anyone could claim whatever they wanted to claim.’10
9 – That the lay folk aren’t obliged to know the proofs behind a fatwa or ruling they read or are given, shouldn’t prevent them from increasing in their overall knowledge of the Qur’an and the Hadith corpus. Islam encourages all Muslims to increase in their share of Islamic knowledge. Let lay people apply their God-given intellects to grow in knowledge of those verses and hadiths that relate to foundational beliefs; ethics and good character; virtues and vices of the heart and its spiritual growth; and rights and responsibilities. Books like Imam al-Nawawi’s Riyadh al-Salihin are priceless in this respect. It’s just in the domain of detailed Islamic law, in fiqh, where the proofs are often complex and subtle to fathom without formal legal training, that taqlid is legislated and qualified scholarship must be followed.
10 – Rather than acquaint themselves with the basic meanings of the Qur’an, or with hadiths that expound on the broad aspects of Islam mentioned above, the middle category feign knowledge; overstep their mark; criticise what they don’t understand; and eagerly plunge into pointless argumentation and issues of contention, none of which arouse in the soul a yearning for Allah or a desire to increase in acts of devotion. Malik b. Dinar said: ‘Whoever learns knowledge so as to act by it, his knowledge humbles him. Whoever seeks it for other than that, only increases in pride by it.’11 And Abu Qilabah advised: ‘If God gives to you knowledge, give to Him worship; and do not let your concern be to merely narrate to the people.’12
11 – Corrupt intentions or the soul’s arrogance aside, the chief reason why this middle category is a harbinger of fitnah is their lack of upholding the ikhtilafu ummati rahmah rule. For them, differing in the furu‘ is no longer a mercy, but a menace! Be it driven by compound ignorance (jahl murakkab – being ignorant of one’s ignorance), personal jealousy or sectarian prejudice, the hallmark of such people is ta‘alum – ‘feigning knowledge’ and, what could be described as fascist fiqh!
12 – Let me try to explain this last trait. Fascist fiqh is where furu‘ differences rooted in ijtihad are made into larger than life issues which are then used as a benchmark to judge who is deviant; whose Islam is not ‘sahih’ enough; or who must be boycotted, snubbed or shunned. That is why such bigotry, intolerance and authoritarianism in matters of legitimate scholarly differences is nothing short of a facist mentality in fiqh/furu‘. Hence, fascist fiqh. Ibn Taymiyyah tells us: ‘When it comes to issues of ijtihad, whoever takes the position of one of the scholar, cannot be rebuked or boycotted; while whoever adopts the other view cannot be censured either.’13
13 – Ibn Taymiyyah says: ‘In such ijtihadi matters, one cannot forbid someone with the hand, nor impose upon others the view he follows. He may, however, discuss it with knowledge-based proofs. Then whosoever sees one of the two views to be correct may follow it, while whoever follows the other view cannot be criticised. And the likes of such issues are many.’14 Such ijtihadi issues can be in matters of fiqh, or in hadith authenticities and the reliability of specific narrators, or even whether the conditions have been fulfilled for a person to be warned about or boycotted. For as long as there is no scholarly agreement or consensus on the matter, one scholar’s ijthad cannot be enforced or imposed on others. To do so is sheer misguidance and the essence of fascist fiqh.
14 – Regrettably, there is quite a lengthy catalogue of issues where this middle category has made mountains out of molehills, thereby riding roughshod over Sunni orthodoxy and causing schisms and divisions within this already fragile ummah. So whether it’s from using tasbih beads to tawassul bi’l-nabi, or from whether to mark out the night of mid-Sha‘ban with extra worship or celebrate the Prophet’s mawlid/milad ﷺ, then all such things are areas of valid scholarly ijtihad and are from the issues of fiqh and furu‘, not usul nor ‘aqidah. This will be evident, and as clear as day, just by looking into even what Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah had to say about these issues.15
15 – Given all the above, it won’t come as a surprise that making issues which are not agreed upon (mujma‘ ‘alayhi), but are instead valid differing (mukhtalif fihi), into benchmark issues or mini inquisitions one imposes on others, has always been deemed by the ‘ulema to be the stock-in-trade of the innovators. Typifying Islamic orthodoxy on the matter at hand, let’s here from Imam Ibn Taymiyyah one last time: ‘It isn’t [lawful] for anyone to set-up for the ummah an individual, calling to his way or basing one’s loyalty or enmity around him, except if it be the Prophet ﷺ. Nor must an opinion be set-up for them, around which loyalty and enmity is formed except if it be the Speech of Allah, or His Prophet, or what the ummah has agreed upon. Rather, this is from the practice of the people of innovations (ahl al-bida‘); those who affiliate themselves to a specific individual or opinion, basing their loyalty and enmity around such an opinion or affiliation.’16
Let me conclude with the following. In his scathing rebuke of those with half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi wrote – and how yesterday resembles today:
‘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, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah, exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’17
Of course, none of the above will likely have any effect on those in whose vapid hearts the poison of attention-seeking and shamelessness has been secreted. For as the Prophet ﷺ warned: idha lam tastahih f’sna‘ ma sh’it – ‘If you feel no shame, then do as you wish.’18 We ask Allah for safety from fitnah, and from the evils of our own selves.
From a struggling, mediocre student of sacred knowledge, Surkheel Abu Aaliyah
1. Al-Shawkani, al-Badr al-Tali‘ (Cairo: Dar al-Kitab al-Islami, n.d.), 1:473.
2. The rule or principle is related as an actual hadith. However, al-Subki said: ‘it is not known to the hadith scholars and I cannot find a chain for it; whether sound, weak or [even] fabricated.’ As cited in al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), no.288; 1:352.
3. Lum‘at al-I‘tiqad (Kuwait: Dar al-Salafiyyah, 1986), 35; no.94.
15. On Ibn Taymiyyah’s opinion concerning tasbih beads (subhah), see: Majmu‘ al-Fatawa, 22:506; on tawassul with the Prophet ﷺ, see: Majmu‘ Fatawa, 1:40, where he cites Imam Ahmad doing so, thus validating it as a legitimate fiqh view; concerning earmarking the fifteenth of Sha‘ban for optional ‘ibadah, cf. 23:131-32; on the mawlid, see: Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Riyadh: Maktabah Ishbiliya, 1998), 2:123, where he holds people will be rewarded for their love in doing so, but not for the actual act, again showing he considered it as an issue of legitimate ijtihad and differing.
16. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:164.
17. ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.
Now that certain objectionable practices have wiggled and wormed their way into the da‘wah – e.g. corporate attitudes which seems to put money first, the conscious use of comedy and tomfoolery, the culture of edutainment, the huge fees or honorariums that some charge for da‘wah, and an unhealthy celebrity culture which now surrounds certain speakers – let’s remind ourselves about the reality of revealed guidance and sacred Islamic knowledge:
1 – Sacred knowledge (‘ilm) is to be conveyed with seriousness and dignity, given the sources it is being conveyed from and the realities it reveals. The Qur’an speaks about itself in these very sober terms: إِنَّا سَنُلْقِي عَلَيْكَ قَوْلاً ثَقِيلاً – We shall soon cast upon you a weighty word. [Q.73:5] And: أَفَمِنْ هَذَا الْحَدِيثِ تَعْجَبُونَ وَتَضْحَكُونَ وَلاَ تَبْكُونَ – Do you then marvel at this discourse and laugh, yet not weep? [Q.53:59-60]
2 – The Prophet ﷺ said: لَوْ تَعْلَمُونَ مَا أَعْلَمُ، لَضَحِكْتُمْ قَلِيلًا، وَ لَبَكَيْتُمْ كَثِيرًا – “If you only knew what I know, you would laugh little and would weep abundantly.”1 Religious knowledge, then, is serious and weighty: nothing about it is light or frivolous or lends itself to frolics or fits of laughter.
3 – Even if we are not scholars, it behoves us speakers or seekers of knowledge to adopt the demeanour and comportment of the scholars. Imam Malik once said: ‘It is a right upon a seeker of knowledge to be solemn, dignified, possess reverent fear [of Allah], and to follow in the footsteps of those who preceded him.’2
4 – The above must be done out of a love of virtue, beauty of adab, as well as saving others from the unsavoury aspects of our own character; not from showing-off or pretending to be what we are not. Of course, actions are judged by their intentions.
5 – Those giving religious instruction are meant to help raise our levels of piety and make us serious people. They must not pander to the mediocrity or frivolity that people have steeped themselves in, or surrounded themselves with, today. ‘Ali, radia’Llahu ‘anhu, said: ‘When you have learnt knowledge, then retain it; and do not mix it with laughter or futility so that hearts spit it out.’3 Ibn al-Jawzi makes a similar point about the wa‘iz; the preacher, not laughing, joking or behaving as the masses do: ‘so that they hold him in high esteem and thus benefit from his admonition.’4
6 – The occasional dignified humour or light hearted remark is permitted, providing it doesn’t compromise the seriousness of the message, nor trivialise it in peoples’ hearts; nor push people to being even more frivolous than most of them already are. While advising the students of Hadith – advice that is also applicable to other Muslim scholars, teachers, shaykhs and preachers – al-Khatib al-Baghdadi states:
‘The seeker of Hadith is required to shun levity, frivolity, or lowering oneself in gatherings by being silly or idiotic, roaring with fits of laughter and excess joking, and being overly humorous and frivolous. However, a little humour is permitted occasionally, as long as it doesn’t transgress the bounds of good manners or the way of knowledge. As for foolish, immodest, or immoderate behaviour, or whatever else gives rise to it in peoples’ souls or creates harm, it is repugnant. Too much joking or laughter demeans one’s status and belittles one’s gentlemanliness (muru’ah).’5
7 – In conclusion: If sacred knowledge doesn’t help lift our gaze towards God, or does not make us more serious people with lofty concerns, then we are, in all likelihood, receiving it with wrong hearts or from the wrong people! Sacred knowledge is noble; as must be its carriers, callers and teachers.
And Allah’s help is sought.
1. Al-Bukhari, no.4345; Muslim, no.426.
2. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, al-Jami‘ li Akhlaq al-Rawi wa Adab al-Sami‘ (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), no.212.
3. ibid., no.213.
4. Laftat al-Kabad ila Nasihat al-Walad (Beirut: Dar al-Muqtabas, 2013), 60.
This article revolves around three questions: (1) Does translating din as ‘religion’ imply that it is only a private matter, having nothing at all to do with the public sphere – which is what people usually associate with the term religion? (2) If iman is translated as ‘faith’, does that not suggest it is ‘blind faith’ – which, again, is what many people think when they hear the word ‘faith’; that it is belief without evidence? (3) And what is the type of nazr -“reasoned reflection” – that the Qur’an constantly urges us with, so that people do not have blind faith in God or in the Qur’an?
Back in 2013, I wrote that the theologically correct term for a non-Muslim who becomes a Muslim is a ‘convert’, not a ‘revert’! After all, the Prophet ﷺ, whilst informing us that all people are born on the fitrah (predisposing them to the message of tawhid and Islam), he never actually said to those who became Muslim that, ‘You have re-entered Islam’, or ‘You have become Muslim again’. In other words, you have reverted. Instead, his call to people was simply: aslim – ‘enter into Islam,’ ‘submit,’ ‘become a Muslim’.1 He never asked them to ‘re-enter’ Islam; to revert! Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him, when he said: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’2 Again, he didn’t say: since the time ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘reverted back to Islam.’
In the end I said that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps there’s room in the language for both words: convert and revert (even if the first is theologically correct, and the other is not; and even if it’s the ‘revert posse’ that usually gets all agitated about it). Perhaps it’s just a case of a storm in a teacup?
Here I’ll interrogate two more Islamic terms which, if translated inaccurately or poorly, can lead to great obfuscation or significantly alter the sense of the word. Of course, there are some words which, no matter how painstakingly a translator attempts to render them into good, appropriate English, much will still be lost in translation:
1 – The first one is din. Often translated as ‘religion’, though many Muslims feel that this is a rather inadequate rendering of the word, and that ‘way of life’ would be more in keeping with the inclusiveness the word implies.
In classical Arabic, din means jaza’ – ‘recompense’ or ‘requital’ for acts done. It can also mean obedience (ta‘ah) and humility (dhillah). Islam as a din, therefore, is to obey Allah and to submit to Him in humility. The origin or etymology of the word din also relates to dayn – ‘debt’. In this reading, din is something we owe God by way of worship and loving submission that is due to Him from us.3 The upshot of this is that Islam as din requires believers to order their affairs so that this submission to God is reflected in every aspect of life; from the personal to the political.
Many say that in its etymology, religion comes from the Latin word religare – ‘to bind.’ In this sense, religion is that relationship which binds us to what is regarded as holy, sacred, divine, or worthy of special reverence. It also relates to the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death.
Given the meaning of din in classical or Quranic Arabic, and the sense that is conveyed by religion in English, religion doesn’t seem such a far-fetched way of rendering the word din into English – if it were not for the following:
Although long in the making, by the twentieth century religion no longer articulated the common social good as it once did. Instead, religion was relegated to the private sphere. This privatisation of faith is now the default assumption when we moderns, at least here in Western Europe, usually speak of religion. Previously, religious expression had been a total one. The Enlightenment’s vision of spheres outside the provenance of religion led to confining religion to a tighter space than it had ever occupied. Some, though, distinguish between ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ conceptions of religion. Jonathan Sacks, quoting Ernst Simon, defined as catholic ‘those religions which seek to sanctify all aspects of the life of the individuals and the community – eating, drinking, work, rest, welfare and legislation, love and war.’ ‘Protestant’ religions arose, he says, when significant areas of public life were wrested from religious guidance or authority. ‘Modernity for Jews,’ he writes, ‘meant the protestentisation of a deeply catholic faith.’4 The same may now be said for Islam and Muslims.
The question of whether liberal modernity can accept Religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould is, despite its commitment to an alleged religious tolerance, one that it has yet to clearly answer. Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right; the duty, even, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated; or reduced to a toothless tigers; or swiftly be branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order? Religion often involves living life on a wing and a prayer.
To conclude: It might not be necessary to go on an all out campaign against ‘religion’ as a translation for din. But we may have to spell out its ‘catholic’ undercurrents whenever we Muslims guardedly choose to employ it.
2 – The other problematic term is ‘faith’ as a translation for iman. Here, whatever else any Muslim theologian (or even a Christian one, for that matter) intends by the word, faith is now deemed by many to be something ill-founded, irrational, against the evidence; even. Spearheading this charge is Richard Dawkins who insists that ‘religious faith … does not depend on rational justification.’5 In fact, ‘Faith’, he states, ‘requires no justification and brooks no argument.’6 The prevalent mood today is that science is about facts and proof, while religion is about mere opinion or faith – by which is meant: credulity; an inclination to believe without sufficient evidence.
So what is the Islamic definition of iman? And how much does it tally up with the idea of faith? And is faith itself something unreasonable, or devoid of reasonable evidence? Let’s briefly go through them one at a time:
Lexically, iman means tasdiq – to ‘affirm’ or ‘attest to’ the truth, reality or correctness of something. Technically, iman is to affirm as true all that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent with, in terms of revelation and religion. Iman, therefore, is a state in which the heart accepts God’s truth and lives by it. Although theologians have differed over the exact link, mainstream Islamic theology, nevertheless, confirms that iman involves an unmistakable correlation between inner beliefs of the heart and outer actions of the limbs.7 Moreover, the deeper and profounder the iman, the greater is the sense of aman – the inner ‘peace’ and ‘security’ gifted by God. Leaving aside its link to actions, it might appear that iman is no different to the current picture of faith as unsubstantiated belief (as per New Atheism’s novel, but reductionist definition), were it not for the following:
The Qur’an says, describing one of the many traumatic laments that those who rejected Islam will have with one another in the Afterlife: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [Q.67:10] Anyone who has read the Qur’an, even in a cursory manner, will not have failed to notice its repetitive instance to think, reflect, consider, and use one’s faculty of reason (‘aql): So, for instance, the Qur’an says: Say: ‘I exhort you to one thing: that you awake for God’s sake, in pairs and individually, and then reflect.’ [Q.34:46] So the Qur’an invites people; cajoles them, even, to employ their sense of reason to deliberate over its message: Thus does God make clear to you His signs that you may reason, [Q.2:242], and that they may understand, [Q.6:65]: or that they may reflect, [Q.7:176] So: Will they not reflect? [Q.6:50].
The Qur’an, therefore, doesn’t demand blind faith. Nor does it ask that we accept without some convincing evidence God’s existence or presence in the cosmos. Instead, it asks that we reflect and consider as evidence the nature of the universe and whether it points to an atheistic understanding of the universe by cosmic fluke, or to the existence of a Designer-God who intended for sentient life to emerge in the universe? Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of the night and day, there are signs for those of intelligence. [Q.3:190] Taking a look at the world or at the larger universe, has led many people to conclude that there must be an intelligent, purposeful creator behind it all. This Creator, sound reasoning can tell us, must be eternal; without cause; but is the uncaused cause of all things. The very existence of our universe rather than an eternal nothingness (i.e. that there is something rather than nothing); the emergence of complex, sentient life; let alone the fine tuning of the universe – these offer proof for the existence of a Creator-God. Many scientists, from Newton to Einstein, or John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins in contemporary times, see these aspects of the universe as evidence of a designer. So to claim, as Dawkins and his ilk do, that theistic Religion isn’t rooted in any rational, reason-based evidence is being disingenuous. It’s just not true! For a believer, the entire cosmos is full of shawahid, witnesses, to the awe and splendour of the Divine Existence.
If using our senses and reason to consider the nature of the universe yields some general understanding about God, it is the Qur’an where the rich details are to be found of an All-Merciful, Beneficent God with whom we can seek closeness and loving intimacy. And just as Islam doesn’t require blind faith in God, the Qur’an itself insists that it be interrogated to see if it is really the Word of God: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from other than God, they would have found therein many contradictions. [Q.4:82] Do they claim: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [Q.52:33-34]
So nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of it or its fundamental theological tenets. Rather, it insists that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a ‘leap of faith’, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too. Indeed, mainstream Sunni theology has honoured this quest for reason-based faith when it says: tajibu ma‘rifatu’Llah ta‘ala shar‘an bi’l-nazr fi’l-wujud wa’l-mawjud ‘ala kulli mukallaf qadir – ‘It is a religious requirement upon ever sane person of legal capacity to know God through reflection upon existents and creation.’8 And while Sunni theology settled on accepting as valid iman that has not come about via nazr, but through taqlid; imitation, the thrust of Islam’s theological project – in order to shake off doubt (shakk) or any skepticism (shubhah) – is towards reflection, reasonable consideration and intelligent inquisitiveness.
The requirement to reflect (nazr) is a casual, general one for those who can only do so in broad outlines, and detailed for those who have the ability to get into the more nitty-gritty stuff. A modern education should allow most people to fall somewhere in the middle. And whilst for some lay Muslims, this theological insistence on nazr is honoured more in the breach than the observance, the principle, nonetheless, remains. If it is not nazr upon the cosmos and the nature of the created order, then the believer is expected to employ such nazr to the Qur’an’s truth claim; or to the profundity, simplicity, honesty and integrity of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ; or for those who lived during or close to the prophetic age, the Muhammadan miracles that have either been witnessed, or mass transmitted, or reliably heard. Whatever the case, faith is to be based on nazr and the conviction (yaqin) it yields. As for recognising God through the fitrah; one’s innate disposition, then given that the modern world has so radically and literally altered our thinking patterns, habits of the heart, and how we intuit and perceive things, it would be unwise to use that as an excuse not to engage in some level of nazr.
To wind-up: The idea that in Islam one is expected to have ‘blind faith’ doesn’t tally with the revealed texts or the mainstream theological teachings. The challenge for Dawkins et al. is to engage the actual arguments from theistic theology; not a strawman of their own creation. As for the word faith (or belief) as a translation for iman, despite its drawbacks or misrepresentations, I’m not sure what else could be used as a suitable replacement?
1. See: Al-Bukhari, no.1356.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.
3. See: al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 321; and al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:120-21.
4. Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (London: Continuum, 2005), 4.
5. The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2008), 31.