Q. I’m not the academic type, but I keep getting told how important gaining knowledge is in Islam. Some of my friends go to many of these religious weekend courses in their quest for knowledge, but that’s just not me. I have a husband and children who I’m devoted to, hold down a good job, and feel I stick to the basics of Islam in terms of my daily prayers; avoiding the haram, and trying to be good to others. So am I doing something Islamically wrong by not going to these courses, or by me just trying to be a good Muslim in context of my family and job? I’m quite desperate for guidance on the matter, because it does get to me sometimes.
A. All praise be to Allah. May His blessings and peace be upon our prophet, Muhammad; and upon his family, Companions and followers.
May Allah bless you, sister. You needn’t feel frustrated; nor does anyone have the right to make you feel you aren’t being a good enough Muslim. And while a small core amount of knowledge has been obligated on each Muslim to know and learn, as I’m sure you’re well aware, the ways of tahabbub ila’Llah bi ma yarda– “becoming beloved to Allah by doing what pleases him” are many. This path isn’t just limited to being a scholar or student of Islamic knowledge; as praiseworthy and as virtuous as they are. In fact, after one knows the basic beliefs of Islam, and is aware of one’s personal religious obligations (in terms of acts of worship, life’s daily halal and haram; duties owed to others; and core virtues like honesty, humility, patience; being just; and honouring contracts, pledges and promises), one then does whatever is best to live a good and godly life.
At the heart of such a life should be a desire to deepen our connection to Allah, through contemplating over His awe-inspiring creation and His constant favours and blessings to us. In doing so, our hearts will begin to fill with heightened gratitude and loving praise of Him. With this as the centre-piece of our lives – and it’s something which doesn’t require academic knowledge, formal study, or having to attend any Islamic courses – one seeks happiness and contentment through family, friends, sound health, job satisfaction, and enjoying (in moderation) the countless blessings the Good Lord has showered this earth with. This is all Allah asks from the great multitude of humanity: that in the ordinariness of our everyday life, we awaken to the extraordinariness of our existence and to the many graces bestowed upon us by Allah, and thus offer Him heartfelt thanks.
In terms of gratitude or thankfulness to God – or shukr, to use the Quranic language – let us be assured by these words in the Holy Qur’an: وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَ اللَّيْلَ وَالنَّهَارَ خِلْفَةً لِمَنْ أَرَادَ أَنْ يَذَّكَّرَ أَوْ أَرَادَ شُكُورًا – And it is He who has made the night and the day successive, for whoever desires to remember or to be thankful. [25:62]
Elsewhere, Allah says: يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُلُوا مِنْ طَيِّبَاتِ مَا رَزَقْنَاكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لِلَّهِ إِنْ كُنتُمْ إِيَّاهُ تَعْبُدُونَ – O you who believe! Eat of the good things which We have provided for you, and be thankful to Allah, if it is He whom you worship. [2:172]
How can we not offer reverent thanks when: وَاللَّهُ أَخْرَجَكُمْ مِنْ بُطُونِ أُمَّهَاتِكُمْ لاَ تَعْلَمُونَ شَيْئًا وَجَعَلَ لَكُمُ السَّمْعَ وَالأَبْصَارَ وَالأَفْئِدَةَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ – It is Allah who brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers when you knew nothing, and He gave you hearing, sight and hearts, that you may give thanks. [16:78]
We further read: مَا يَفْعَلُ اللَّهُ بِعَذَابِكُمْ إِنْ شَكَرْتُمْ وَآمَنْتُمْ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ شَاكِرًا عَلِيمًا – Why should Allah punish you if you render thanks to Him, and truly believe in Him? It is Allah that is Appreciative, Knowing. [4:147] Allah gains nothing from punishing His servants over whom He watches with affection, compassion and concern. On the contrary, He acknowledges any good we do – however little – and rewards us beyond measure. Subhana’Llah, such is Allah!
The hadith collections record that some of the Prophet’s Companions noticed one young man energetically racing to work, upon which they remarked: If only he had been racing so energetically whilst in the Path of Allah. Upon which, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Do not say that,’ and then went on to say:
‘If he leaves [home] striving for his young child, he is in the path of Allah. If he leaves [home] striving for his two elderly parents, he is in the path of Allah. If he leaves [home] striving to be self-sufficient, then he is in the path of Allah. If he leaves [home] striving to be boastful or to show-off, he is in the path of Satan.’1
Thus, see how Allah elevates what are considered mundane, worldly acts, conferring on them honour by including them in the distinguished category of fi sabili’Llah, ‘in the Path of Allah’; provided one does such things intending to please Allah and meet with divine approval.2
So beyond the need for highly specialised scholars in the various sacred sciences, most of us should – after the basics – only acquire of sacred knowledge those things which will increase our heart’s yearning for Allah; move it to be more desirous of the Afterlife; spur us on to doing more acts of worship and godliness; or help shield the soul from egotism, insincerity and the dunya’s deceptions. Instead, however, people rush to the “hot” topics. Or they learn in order to argue, help their ego stand out, or some other vile and wretched worldly motive. Such people, all too often, end up causing schisms and confusion among Allah’s servants, spreading fitnah and faulty fatwas; indeed, they are barely able to grow and shepherd their own souls, let alone the souls of others. If godliness is not the goal, souls will always run wild!
If people who can’t put in the commitment or time needed to become a seasoned student of sacred knowledge (let alone a mature, intellectual, qualified scholar); or who just don’t have the academic acumen or an inclination to pursue this path – if only they left it alone and realised there are other blessed paths to draw closer to Allah, then perhaps they’d be personally better-off in their relationship with their Lord; and the ummah wouldn’t have to suffer those who are unfit for purpose entering into sacred knowledge.
If it’s God we seek, many paths are open to becoming beloved to Him. One great way is in the hadith above: be a good, godly Muslim who knows at least the basic Islamic beliefs, practices, ethics and spiritual virtues; doesn’t tread on the toes of deeper knowledge and its scholars; strives to earn a halal living, be a loving and caring spouse, lovingly raise kids in the reverent thanks and worship of Allah, serve society in small but regular ways, and be an example of beauty – more in deeds than in words.
We ask Allah for tawfiq.
1. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Saghir, no.940; Bayhaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, no.15520. The hadith was declared as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1428.
2. I’d like to thank an old friend of mine, Saleem Chagtai, for bringing the above hadith to my notice via his Facebook page.
The Qur‘an teaches that whenever the love, longing, loyalty and submission which are due to Allah, are focused upon other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is shirk – idolatry; setting-up partners with Allah. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes, fears, love and loyalty around it; submitting to it independently of Allah, then this, for them, becomes a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth. Others make gods of celebrities. Still others make gods of their egos and desires. The Qur’an asks: Have you seen him who takes his desires for his god? [25:43] Of course we have! It is in this same vein that Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:
‘Whoever loves something and obeys it, loving and hating for its sake, then that is his god. Whoever loves or hates only for the sake of Allah, or forms allegiances and enmity only for Him, then Allah is his god in truth. But whoever’s loving or loathing revolves around his whims, forming enmity or allegiance on its basis, then these desires are his god that he worships.’1
Today’s Monoculture, for all its talk of tolerance, demands that we bow to its beliefs, values and worldview – even if it has to drag us there kicking and screaming. Wisdom enjoins that we engage with it; even partake in its political processes (for the Muslim collective benefit, or a national interest). But let us not forget the Monoculture exists, not for God, but in spite of Him; and even in brazen defiance of Him. That being the case, a believer participates in it as per the following Contention: ‘It is better to engage fully with the Monoculture from a position of dislike than to engage partly with it from a position of admiration.’2 Belief in Allah’s all-embracing knowledge, wisdom and care for creation, and loyalty to His lordship, require nothing less: Who is better in judgement than Allah for those who have certainty of belief? [5:50] In a world that insists we render our ultimate loyalty to liberal ideals, let’s recall that shirk isn’t only bowing to idols of wood or stone. Egos, desires, people and even philosophical ideals and political systems can be deified too!
The late Gai Eaton put his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he expressed three or four decades ago:
‘I think it must have been easy enough in earlier ages in the Christian world, and is still easy in those parts of the Muslim world which remain traditional, to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual content. I do not believe this is any longer possible in the modern world, for the spirit of our times asks questions – questions for the most part hostile to faith – which demands answers, and those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith, from study and meditation.’1
He then went on to note:
‘Whatever our religion, we can no longer be sure of holding onto it out of habit or by an act of will. We have to be, if not theologians, then at the very least people who study their religion and who think about it.’2
For a long while now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying modern assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims – and those parts of the globe still known as ‘the Muslim world’ – even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical concerning the philosophical and civilisational propositions modernity insists upon. These assumptions – that Man has now ‘come of age’ and is to be the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material Progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have prised the individual away from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that had been the setting for normative human life down throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of unbelief.
If commitment to religious faith and practice it to survive such a deluge, knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! But while less than half a century ago one could be a good Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of Imam al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who doesn’t have some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the Islamic faith is founded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in an impenetrable simplicity or naivety.
Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or a hell-bent society. They took as their queue the hadiths concerning times of great political discord, social upheaval, or religious and spiritual degeneration, in which: from the best of Muslims would be one ‘who secludes himself in a valley and worships his Lord,’3 or who takes his flock of sheep to a mountain top ‘fleeing with his religion from fitnah.’4
If it were feasible for those who see the monoculture for what it is to withdraw from society and go their own way in peace, this would probably be a good course of action (not forgetting the fact that the core of Islam’s call is decisively urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows more and more invasive and totalising: suffocating any meaningful dissent, assimilating any consequential diversity, and bulldozing any significant divergence. Driven into a tight corner, religion has no option but to turn and fight. Hence the need to raise the dust of polemics against theensnaring myths of modernity.
Thus with intellectual and spiritual inquiry as our starting point, and God as our goal, here are some of the most significant existential challenges (in terms of ideas and isms) to now confront Muslims and their faith; as well as an outline of some basic responses to them. And by far, the most destructive of these issues to faith and to salvation of the soul is atheism:
1. Atheism: Denying the existence of God is called atheism (sometimes it is defined as: lack of belief/conviction that God exists). A growing number of ex-Muslims – not just here in the West, but also in Muslim majority countries – now self-identify as atheists. Of course, atheism doesn’t come in one strain. There is, to lift a phrase from Professor Alister McGrath, ‘apathetic atheism’ or ‘atheism of indifference’, and then there is what he calls ‘committed atheism’.5 The former tends to entail no enmity towards God, nor even actively believe that God does not exist: hence the apathy or indifference. As for the latter, it equips itself with what it sees as certain explicit arguments and concerns against theism or belief in God. ‘Sociological research suggests that there are probably fewer committed atheists than apathetic ones.’6 And contrary to the assertion of such atheists today, belief in God is neither intellectual suicide; and nor has science pushed God out of the equation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The Qur’an asks: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? [52:35] The crux of the matter here is that while Muslims insist that the divine ‘fingerprints’ of God can be detected throughout the universe – how it originated, how it is ordered, how it operates, and how extraordinary the odds are of complex life or human consciousness emerging in it – atheists desperately field their counter-arguments. For despite modern science revealing the universe had a beginning and came into existence at an event we call the Big-Bang; or despite the fundamental physical constants of the universe being so finely tuned down to the minutest nth of a degree, that the chances of it being mere ‘coincidence’ isn’t just staggeringly improbable, had the value of any of these constants been different by a small, infinitesimal degree, there would have been no universe and no life – despite science telling us this and more, atheists want us to believe that such things happened purely by chance; a colossal cosmic fluke.7 In other words, the entire cosmos just happened to create itself; without any purpose, meaning or intentionality whatsoever. ‘Only within the scaffolding of these truths,’ wrote Bertrand Russell on the core conviction of atheism, ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation be safely built.’8
To be fair, not all atheists are satisfied with the ‘lucky-coincidence’ response. The fine-tuning of the universe seems far too precise to have happened merely by chance. So in order to explain the existence of a universe which fits the given physical constants and mathematical improbabilities without acknowledging the existence of a creator, many are now advocating the idea of a ‘multiverse’. Our universe is highly improbable only if it’s the only one there is. But if our universe is just one among an infinite number of universes, at least one would fit the required parameters, and it happens to be ours. Or as John Polkinghorne put it, ‘a kind of winning ticket in a gigantic multiversial lottery.’9 If this highly speculative notion turns out to be true, this just pushes back the question of who created our universe to who created the multiverse? Or one is confronted with even more incredulity than our improbable universe: that of an infinite number of self-creating universes. Either way, atheists do themselves no favour by replacing what they hold to be a single unprovable God for an infinity of unprovable universes! Moreover, can we really say that such replies have truly dispensed with the claim that our universe (or indeed, the multiverse) is far more consistent with theism than with atheism? Little wonder we find the Qur‘an saying: ‘Is there any doubt about God?’ [14:10]
That being said, the popularity of atheism, at least here in the West, is undoubtedly on the rise. As for how much of it is an intellectual phenomenon and how much a cultural one is debatable. Although it’s been said that ‘the convictions of the multitude are not so much true convictions as mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of opinion’.10 While some arrive at atheism via certain rational considerations, others are led to it emotionally, with little or no rational inquiry or intellectual journey. Some are atheist just because of family or upbringing and, being preoccupied with the tiny patch of grass under their nose, haven’t given religion or the ultimate existential question any time or thought. For them, atheism is little more than an emotional ‘habit’.
Some stumble into atheism due to an uncritical acceptance of cultural influences. They think that since science has explained the big questions (the Big-Bang explains how the universe got here; evolution explains how we got here) that there is, therefore, no need for God. But a little critical thinking would reveal that just because science explains the workings of how the cosmos came into existence, does not necessitate rejecting God as the creator of the mechanism; any more than knowing about the inner workings of an iPhone should not lead to disbelieving that Steve Jobs was the author of such culturally altering tech. Philosophers call this a category mistake; confusing between mechanism and agent: since we know a mechanism that explains a specific phenomenon, it proves there is no agent that designed the mechanism. Many an atheist, regrettably, even high profile ones, fall into this fallacy. But when, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is not agent God who designed it.’ It was quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.11
Some, repelled by bad experiences with ‘religious’ people, find their way into the arms of an often sympathetic atheism. Here they may find other embittered souls with their own horror stories to tell about religion or its practitioners. Yet people oftentimes have a very curious idea of religion. They think that merely because a person says: ‘I believe in God’ that he or she should at once become morally upright; saintly, even. If this does not happen, and very often it doesn’t, then either the believer must be a hypocrite of sorts, or else it says something dark about the religion itself. Many think that adhering to religion is the end of the path, whereas in fact it is only the beginning of a long and sometimes rough and rocky road. But whether religious, atheist, humanist or agnostic, inconsistencies abound in human souls, even if they ascribe to virtuous ideals. Yet this is not to say righteous religious behaviour should only be honoured in the breach and not in the practice. Islam, despite it not always being evident from the way some of us Muslims behave, calls to the highest moral and ethical ideals. If a believer’s ethics and conduct fail to demonstrate the beauty and attraction of husn khuluq; ‘refined’ or ‘good’ character, let it not be a cause for the crime of tanfir – of repelling people from religion: It was by the mercy of God that you were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around you. [3:159] That said, one suspects that for some people, casting of the constraints of religion is a matter of any pretext or excuse. Which brings me to one final point:
There’s another significant reason why some people choose atheism, and it’s one that is seldom admitted to. Some – and it wouldn’t be surprising if this some turned out to be a great many – are led to atheism, not by the careful hand of reason, but by the desire to follow their baser desires, unencumbered by moral codes. Here’s Aldoux Huxley, the famous English novelist, philosopher and atheist, on the deeper motive that fuels some people’s atheism and their desperate need for there to be no existential meaning to life: ‘For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning … of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.’12 Other atheists who have reflected carefully on their motives have likewise admitted that their atheism is more emotional and self-serving than it is rational and pure following of the evidences. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel is candid when he said: ‘It isn’t just I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’13
Such atheists understand that if God exists, there are certain ramifications, particularly moral ones. They are aware that it wouldn’t be a matter of sending off a few Dawkins’ titles to the charity shop, or apologise on social media for the unintended misguidance they may have uttered. They realise that such belief necessitates a life of commitment, service and loving submission to God, by growing in knowledge of God and seeking to mould one’s life around the spiritual teachings and moral laws which He revealed – ‘in short, the waving of the white flag and the rebel’s complete surrender’.14 Yet the rebel refuses to mould his ways around the awareness of the Divine Reality that surrounds him and everything else, and is unwilling to give up his ‘autonomy’ or his pride. Instead he claims the world is God-free, meaning-free and morality-free, so he can do more or less what he desires. This is what Dostoevsky could have been alluding to when he put these words into the mouth of one of The Brothers Karamazov: ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now’.15 If such self-deceit wants to pass itself off for enlightened, rational thought, then so be it. But it will ultimately prove costly.
Some of the classical works on Muslim theology relate the following account: It is said that a group of atheists came to debate the existence of God with Abu Hanifah – one of the greatest and most famous jurist-theologians of Muslim antiquity. He said to them: ‘Tell me, before we start to discuss the matter, what you say of a boat in the Euphrates that makes its own way to shore, docks by itself, loads itself with food and other goods, makes its own way back to port, anchors and then unloads its cargo, all without anyone steering it or directing it?’ They all cried out that this is impossible; never could such a thing happen. Thereupon Abu Hanifah said to them: ‘If this is impossible with regards to a boat, then what about this whole world and all that it contains?’16
This simple, undemanding type of reasoning has satisfied many a pre-modern skeptic, although one suspects this would not be the case today. To see this argument as over simplistic is to miss the point. Atheism, to be sure, isn’t anything new; and neither are the arguments of today’s New Atheists: even if their anger and aggression are. For what the issue boils down to is this: That against incomprehensible odds this vast universe came into existence, containing sentient life that has consciousness and to whom the universe is comprehensible. And that screams out for an explanation!
Atheism serves up blind chance or a multiverse as a more reasonable explanation than an omniscient, omnipotent God who created creation with intent and wise purpose. In fact, what seems like a desperate attempt to avoid theism at all costs, Stephen Hawking insists: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’17 But physical laws in and of themselves cannot createanything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which are inferred from real material events. So we are now offered belief in an eternal law (gravity), rather than an eternal law-giver (God). But that, it has to be said, is the absurdity of atheism.
Part Two of the blog, God-willing, tackles the impact of secularism and liberalism upon Muslims and their iman, and whether or not they aid in witnessing the glory of God or diminish it? The other instalments address feminism and Muslim feminists; whether or not Islam is compatible with science and reason?; evolution and the functional view of human beings; and today’s spiritual laziness and modernity’s loss of meaning.
This short video is about the demand being placed on Muslims to make their religious teachings align with the liberal orthodoxies of the age, and what our response to such pressures ought to be. Should we, as some are now doing, be watering down our faith teachings to make our religion more palatable to a wider secular audience? Should we compromise a few aspects of our religion in order to better our liberal credentials, thus making faith more palatable to the monoculture? These are the issues addressed in this Five Minute Meditation: https://youtu.be/l0xI6Agvjuk
Do fatwas change with place and time; if so, how? Is Islamic fiqh fossilised? Do we require a new fiqh for the 21st century? Are classically-trained muftis fit for purpose in today’s world? Should the ‘ulema be trained in the core philosophical underpinnings of modernity? Does the new maqasid-based fiqh offer a better way forward than the older models? Should Western Muslims rely on scholars from outside the West? These are the core concerns explored in this latest blog. In the course of the discussion, there is a brief reflection about just how legitimate the notion of a modern Islamic ‘state’ is.
Understanding affairs dedicated to modern British Muslim life – its specifics, not only its generalities; its daily practices, not merely its theory – is a non-negotiable requisite for issuing fully functional fatwas for Britain’s rising Muslim population. The Qur’an says: وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ رَسُولٍ إِلاَّ بِلِسَانِ قَوْمِهِ – We did not send any Messenger, except with the language of his people. [14:4]
The language of his people, as Mufti Taqi Uthmani insists, isn’t only about speaking the same lingo as your countrymen. It’s also about understanding their joys, sorrows and vicissitudes; their deepest aspirations, hopes and fears; and their culture, conventions and history. In other words, it’s about knowing who they actually are and what makes them truly tick.
Without such a familiarity, nothing else will do and such fatwas will readily be seen for what they probably are: off-key, lamentable and, in some cases, socially destructive or spiritually calamitous.
Elsewhere, the Qur’an says: وَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا مِنْ قَبْلِكَ إِلاَّ رِجَالاً نُوحِي إِلَيْهِمْ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْقُرَى – We only sent before you men to whom We reveal, from the people of the towns. [12:109]
The significance of God’s Prophets being from the people of the towns and cities (ahl al-qura) is that they were not bedouins disconnected from the culture and customs of the people, or their day-to-day lives and struggles. Not only did they understand their peoples’ attitudes, outlook, history, fears, concerns and aspirations, they were deeply concerned for their welfare and guidance too; because they were their “people”. The Prophet once prayed for the Makkan idolaters: اللَّهُمَّ اغْفِرْ لِقَوْمِي فَإِنَّهُمْ لا يَعْلَمُونَ – ‘O Allah, forgive my people for they know not.’1
The task ahead isn’t to now discard or disavow “foreign” scholarship. That would be uncalled for, as it would be reckless. For the creme of traditional Islamic scholarship still lies outside of the West. Furthermore, fatwas about rules of prayer, pilgrimage or ablution; as an example, or core beliefs and ethics, aren’t tied to whether one is from the East or West. Such things are fixed and unchanging.
Fatwas where customs and societal norms play a significant part; or where context or socio-political realities must be factored in; or where social conventions, mentalities and idiosyncrasies simply cannot be overlooked – then yes, to hand over such fatwas to foreign scholarship is either the act of fools or of bigots. Outside scholarship may be consulted, and the wisdom it offers should be considered. But the end fatwa must be the preserve of homegrown muftis known, not just for their depth of learning, but also for their piety, measured temperament, and avoidance of pandering to populist public opinion or politicians. (Of course, it has been argued that if we explain these cultural scenarios to foreign muftis, they’d get it and could then give us a relevant fatwa. Such a stance is a hit and miss one, at best; and a dangerous gamble with the souls of God’s servants, at worst!)
In context of the above come Ibn al-Qayyim’s famous, though highly misused, words: ‘Thus it is vital that he [the jurist] be thoroughly aware of the peoples’ ploys, schemes, culture and customs.’ He then said: فَإِنَّ الْفَتْوَى تَتَغَيَّرُ بِتَغَيُّرِ الزَّمَانِ وَالْمَكَانِ وَالْعَوَائِدِ وَالْأَحْوَالِ – ‘For fatwas change with the changing of time, place, customs and circumstances.’2
This above notion is expressed by the legal maxim: تغيّرُ الأحكامِ بتغيُّرِ الأزمانِ – ‘Rulings change with the changing of time.’ But this maxim is not an absolute one. But rather than explain it in my own words, let’s get Ibn al-Qayyim to do his own explaining. He writes in another one of his works that:
‘Legal rulings are of two types: a type which admits of no change whatsoever; neither due to time, place nor scholarly ijtihad – like the requirement of the obligatory duties, the forbiddance of the prohibitions, the prescribed punishments (hudud) for criminal offences; and the like … The second type: what may change, according to the general interest necessitated by change in time, place, or circumstance – such as the amount, forms or types of discretionary punishments (ta‘zirat) [meted out].’3
Thus the rule which states that: taghayyur al-fatwa bi taghayyur al-azman – “Fatwas change with the changing of time” is not a free for all. Those fatwas that may change due to time, place or circumstance; the mutaghayyarat, as some call them (in contrast to rulings that remain fixed and unchanging: the thawabit), may do so because of the following reasons:  Changes in customs (‘urf, ‘adah) is the obvious one; as is  dire necessity (darurah).  An overriding public benefit (maslahah) is yet another.  Then there’s the deterioration or corruption of the times (fasad al-zaman), and also  when afflictions or problems become widespread throughout the community (ma ta‘ummu bihi al-balwah). Some of these juristic tools can even make clear-cut prohibitions halal or lawful for a short time, as per the dire necessity. Others will change a ruling pretty much permanently. Of course, knowing how and when to employ such complex legal devices is the art and craft of the jurist-mufti; and none other.
Examples of when one or more of the above juristic devices have been employed so as to meet the changes in time, place or circumstance include: Loosening the condition of two just male witnesses (shahiday ‘adl) for a marriage, to two male witnesses, out of an increasing difficulty of finding men who qualified as being ‘adl – possessing moral and religious uprightness – in any given town or district. Nothing has changed in our time on that score! Registration of marriages through the courts was stipulated for similar reasons of peoples’ untrustworthiness in terms of testimony.
Another change was the allowance given by some scholars of paying zakat al-fitr, not in wheat, grain or other staple food stuff, but in money. This, contended the Hanafis and others from our early salaf, best allowed the overall objective of zakat al-fitr to be met, in terms of the poor recipients.
Some jurists overlooking the nisab threshold of zakat on silver is another example of change in fatwa. During the Prophetic era, silver’s nisab of 595 grams was comparable to gold’s (87.5 grams), and was enough for a family to subsist on for a year. When the value between gold and silver became significantly large, and when it was no longer feasible for a family to annually live on the monetary equivalent of 595 grams of silver, only the gold nisab was considered.
A final example is Muslims being divided into different countries, of not living under a single caliphate. Stating the ideal, then supplying this dispensation on the matter, Ibn Taymiyyah asserts: ‘The Sunnah is for the Muslims to have a single ruler (imam), with others being his deputies. But if it happened that the ummah left this, due to sin from some and inability from others, so that it had multiple rulers, it would then become incumbent on each ruler to establish the prescribed punishments and protect peoples’ rights.’4
Adapting to the changing realities and seismic political shifts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Muslim world, the jurist and murajjih, Imam al-Shawkani, stated: ‘However, as for after Islam became widespread and had reached many far away lands, then as is known, there arose in each province or territory a state with its own leader or ruler. This happened in all regions. The authority of each of them does not extend to the area of others, hence there is no harm in there being a number of leaders and rulers. Obedience to each of them, after the oath of allegiance, is obligatory upon the people of that area where his orders and prohibitions are operative. The same goes for the ruler of each area … So realise this.’5
In terms of the juristic techniques employed above, the first two are instances of fasad al-zaman – a deterioration of the times; the third is an issue of maslahah; the fourth, no doubt, is driven by change in ‘adah or societal customs; while the fifth is an example, at its core, of widespread calamity: umum al-balwah. That said, there’s an overlap in some of these legal predicaments and their utilisation.
What all these quotations, examples and discussions are aiming at is a singular reality concerning the nature and craft of fatwa and the mufti: that fatwas can and often do evolve and change with time. There simply is no such thing as fossilised fiqh! Ibn al-Qayyim said:
‘Whoever issues legal rulings to the people merely on the basis of what is transmitted in the [legal] compendia – despite differences in their customs, usages, times, places, conditions, or the particular circumstances of their situations – has strayed and leads others astray. His crime against the religion is far worse than the crime of a physician who gives people medical prescriptions without any regard for the differences in their climes, norms, the age they live in, or their physical natures; but merely in accordance with what he finds in some medical book about people with similar anatomies. He is an ignorant physician; but the other is an ignorant mufti and far more detrimental to peoples’ religion and physical welfare.’6
A century earlier, al-Qarafi offered a similar caution to the intellectually lazy muftis; those who become dysfunctional or unfit for purpose if they do not have a thorough grasp of the cultural milieu that they or the mustafti (the one seeking a fatwa) operate in. He wrote:
‘Whenever new customs are introduced, take heed of them; and whenever they are no longer practiced, disregard them. And do not blindly adhere to what is written in the books your entire life. Rather, if a man from another land came to you seeking for a fatwa, do not inform him of the customs of the people of your land. Instead, ask him about the customs of his people and hold him accountable for that; not your customs or what is in your legal compendia. This is the clear truth, and forever blindly clinging to [past] views is misguidance in religion and ignorance of the ultimate objectives of the Muslim scholars and the past predecessors.’7
The final issue I wish to deliberate upon concerns the mufti’s actual understanding of things, particularly 21st century modernity. But first let’s set the context with another citation from Imam Ibn al-Qayyim, rahimahullah:
‘Neither a mufti nor a judge can issue a fatwa, in truth, without [possessing] two types of understanding. Firstly, understanding the actual reality … Secondly, understanding the obligation related to the reality; i.e. understanding Allah’s judgement as expressed in His Book or in his [the Prophet’s] words regarding this reality.’8
Thus, having a deep understanding (fiqh, fahm) of the actual reality, the waqi,‘ is critical to the whole enterprise of ifta: of giving fatwas. Having an appreciation and awareness about the nature of modernity – its philosophical cornerstones, and the nihilism, sense of uprootedness, ennui and political resentment that inevitably follow in its wake – is just as crucial too.9
One example, I hope, will suffice to show just how indispensable both types of fiqh are; and it concerns calling for an ‘Islamic state’. A modern ‘Islamic’ ‘state’ is something of a contradiction in terms. Whereas the all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, the traditional Muslim state doesn’t legislate at all. Traditionally, legislation belongs to Allah; as understood and deciphered by the ‘ulema. How that may be squared with the modern state – in which to practice law making; to be part of the legislature, is to be an agent of the state – hasn’t been adequately tackled by Muslim legalists or Islamists. For there is no modern state sovereignty without state-manufactured law, which the state alone then wields so as to reengineer the social order. To make the state ‘Islamic’, then, we need to look for ways where law is not contaminated by state involvement. Sound fiqh concerning an ‘Islamic state’ is not only about the need for the political process in Muslim lands to reflect the dictates of mercy, justice and shari‘ah, and allow the Islamic potential of its subjects or citizens to flourish – of which there are a number of possible models which reflect what Islamic governance could be. But fiqh of our modern reality, our waqi‘, requires us to understand that ever since the Ottoman reforms of 1856, when the modern Muslim ‘state’ started to become master and legitimiser of legislation, the shari‘ah and its fiqh became subjected to a great deal of aberration and to an enormous process of politicisation. The question then is, can Islamic governance – whose moral, legal, social, political and metaphysical foundations are radically different to that of the modern state; and whose law is primarily a set of theological tenets and moral precepts underscored by legal principles – function independently of the state? Can there be a model of a modern state that divests itself of legislation? Is such an arrangement even possible as an integral facet in the modern patchwork of nation states is a question that needs serious thought and engagement (beyond our current Western-inspired Islamist or state totalitarianism solutions).
The modern world is radically different to anything and everything which went before. Defining modernity is elusive, even to philosophers and to those in the social sciences; but it does have certain traits. The modern world – this ‘brilliant series of distractions,’ as it’s been called – is the great leveller: Where once there was meaning, there is now anomie and meaninglessness. Where once there was optimism, there is now discontent and despair. Where there was religion and spiritual ambition, there is now a yawning gulf. And where there was direction, there is now a maelstrom of confusion and a lack of inner purpose. To mask this bleak reality; to anaesthetise us, modernity offers us a plethora of gadgets and technology so as to distract us like kids with their new toys. A basic religious insight is that sa‘adah – human ‘happiness’ is to do with the soul. It’s to do with hope, optimism, security, having a sense of direction, a sense of purpose and meaning. And this is something modernity simply cannot supply.
Another religious insight concerns fitrah, in that it regards some things as immutable. For modernity, though, all is up for grabs, nothing is constant or unyielding. ‘Forms of modern life may,’ writes Bauman, ‘differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change.’ He says that to be modern means to compulsively and obsessively modernise; not ‘just to be’, but forever ‘becoming.’ He then goes on to contend that what was not too long ago dubbed ‘post-modernity,’ which he calls ‘liquid modernity,’ is the growing belief that ‘change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.’10
Of course, this does not mean that muftis now all have to dive, head first, into the sea of eighteenth-century tracts on the doctrine of natural rights, or a nineteenth-century discourse on liberty: although it could be useful. Nor is it required to grasp more recent obscurities like Derrida’s deconstructionism, or Sartre’s existentialism: although, again, an acquaintance could indeed prove fruitful. What must be done, however, is to avoid the 19th and 20th century naiveties of the Muslim modernist movements, whose love affair with the West’s alleged Enlightenment – as per the ideas of Kant, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, et al. – blinkered many of them from discerning true ishraq from ghaflah and zandaqah. Without some appreciation of the deeper structures of modernity, though, it is likely that we’ll continue to look at things too simplistically. So we either have those who, on the one extreme, reject the modern world on moral grounds, but are entirely smitten by its science and technology; welcoming them with uncritical acceptance. On the other extreme there’s the wholesale acceptance of modernity: those who think that the underlying logic, values and priorities of the secular modern world is where Islam ought to be; and that all we must do to modernity’s basic form is add Islamic content like hijab, halal meat and other such things. Islam’s usual rule in such matters is: khayr al-umur awsatuha – ‘The best of affairs is a middle one.’ And this requires a high degree of depth, deliberation and critical discernment – not only in terms of fiqh, but in terms of ihsan or being spiritually rooted too.11
To be perfectly clear, the intellectual and psychological challenges posed by modernity are probably the hardest and most complex the ummah has ever faced. This is why the capacity of the scholars for tamyiz – to correctly ‘discern’ and to ‘evaluate’ – needs to be stronger and sharper than ever before. There’ll be times, even, when the textual proofs may lend themselves to ambiguities; where the scholar is at a loss to decide as to what is the proper course. In such a case, spiritual inspiration (ilham) – as birthed from deep piety, worship and dhikr; and from purifying the soul from its ego, false pretension, and responses based on agitation, anger or over-admiration – can help decide the issue. Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘If the seeker, after taking the clear shari‘ah proofs into consideration, fails to reach an answer, his ilham may be an argument to help him resolve the matter: providing he is pious and has right motives.’12
Currently, in terms of legal methods and hermeneutics, there are two competing legal models that form the basis for our contemporary fiqh and fatwa. There’s the traditional nazilah method and the more recent maqasid one. What’s meant by nazilah (pl. nawazil) is a momentous and highly problematic event, usually impacting on society as a whole. This fiqh al-nawazil which, let us not forget, has a long history of tackling momentous and unprecedented cases, assesses the nazilah within the classical juristic framework of ijtihad; of identifying features that the new case may have with earlier legal precedents; of isolating the ratio legis or legal causation (ta‘lil); of utilising juristic devices like ‘adah or darurah, and to then rule accordingly. And while greater scrutiny of the ta‘lil behind religious rulings is certainly warranted, and deeper appreciation of modernity required, claims about an epistemological crisis within the traditional juristic paradigms tend to be greatly exaggerated.
The maqasid approach pushes for something of an overhaul of the classical paradigms. It (like the fiqh al-aqaliyyat or “jurisprudence of [Muslim] minorities” that draws heavily from it) contends that the wholesale secularisation of societies, along with modernity’s other intrusions, require that we think anew how shari‘ah and legal judgements are to be [re]formulated and administered in today’s world. And that’s where the concept of maqasid-based ijtihad comes in. Now maqasid (sing. maqsad – “aim”, “goal”, “objective”, “purpose” of the shari‘ah) isn’t a new legal device, per se; what’s new is its utilisation and scope. Muslim jurists, as far back as al-Juwayni and al-Ghazali, identified certain higher objectives or aims of the shari‘ah ethics and laws. Via a process of istiqra’ or “induction”, whereby a universal rule is inferred from particular instances of the law, these legalists concluded that the maqasid al-shari‘ah; the overall aims of Islam’s Sacred Law, are five: preservation of religion, life, intellect, property and lineage (with some adding a sixth: honour). Three points must be kept in mind about the classical idea of maqasid. Firstly, it was seen as interchangeable with the idea of maslahah – public “welfare” or “utility”. Secondly, its scope was fairly limited. Thirdly, it couldn’t trump explicitly revealed texts or juristic consensus.13
Today’s maqasid approaches are being steadily freed from their historical shackles and, for all intents and purposes, have started taking on lives of their own. Critics of these new maqasid approaches point to a number of concerns. Probably the main objection is that it is too arbitrary; that in its bid to seek end objectives and purposefulness in law for modernity, it ends up allowing maslahah to override clear-cut textual stipulations. Other jurists are suspicious. They see it as nothing more than a Trojan horse galloping its way into the heart of Islamic law-making, fuelled by mindsets that are besotted with Western liberal ideals. The upshot is that it arms such maqasidites with power to alter and abrogate God’s word with their own subjective preferences.14 Some will say that this horse has already bolted.
Notions of public welfare are not just rooted in ease or lenience. Nor are they confined just to this world. Rather, human welfare concerns both this world and the next, and is rooted more so in mercy (rahmah) and reigning in the ego (dabt al-nafs), than in taysir, ease, for its own sake. The truly-taken ease that the shari‘ah permits, or even urges, will always help you to grow; even if only a little. The falsely-taken ease will diminish you; and will often do so rapidly.
Here, let me pause and offer this seldom asked question for consideration. What fatwas has this new maqasid-based ijtihad delivered to us that haven’t been duly addressed by traditional legal methods? What is the traditional method incapable of addressing so as to warrant a complete overhaul, or a radical quantum leap, in legal thought and fatwas? That the maqasid approach allows us to live in the monoculture with greater ease and satisfaction, or that it inches us closer to joining the table of the liberal West, is simply not a good enough response.
A final criticism is that the maqasid approach is too in awe of Western Enlightenment ideals, too readily mistaking them for universal ones. Abdal Hakim Murad notes that these theorists ‘propose reforms to God’s law on the basis of outmoded identifications of human utility, which always seem to be of Western inspiration. The public interest (maslaha, maqsad) always turns out to take the form of what is intelligible and desirable to those outside Islam.’15
To conclude: While some of its presumptions are flawed, some of the insights modern maqasid theory yields can and should be benefited from. Traditional fiqh methods can certainly benefit from a renewed engagement with maqasid theory. With its complex, multifaceted methods and axioms, traditional fiqh methods, rather than being found wanting, continue to demonstrate an authentic robustness and flexibility.16 Yet what is clear in this whole analysis is that we are still in need of highly-versed, pious, creative muftis with far-sightedness into “the language of the people” – especially the language and logic of modernity.
وصلّى اللهُ وسلّم على سيّدِنا محمّد و آلِهِ وصحبِهِ أجمعين
1. Al-Bukhari, no.3477; Muslim, no.1752.
2. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 6:113-14.
3. Ighathat al-Lahfan (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2011), 570-71.
4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:175-76.
5. Al-Sayl al-Jarrar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 4:512.
6. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 4:470.
7. Al-Qarafi, al-Furuq (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1998), 1:322-23. Similar words from him can be found in his al-Ihkam fi Tamyiz al-Fatawa ‘an al-Ahkam (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir al-Islamiyyah, 1995), 232.
8. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 2:165.
9. A disquieting account of modernity’s discontents can be read in Mishra, Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Great Britain: Allen Lane, 2017).
13. A good discussion on maslalah is given in Kamali, Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2003), 351-368. For a more detailed and in-depth study, cf. Opwis, Maslaha and the Purpose of the Law (Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2010).
14. Such suspicions were fleshed out more than half a century ago by al-Buti as part of his clarification and critique of modern maslahah theorists, in Dawabit al-Maslahah fi Shar‘iyyah al-Islamiyyah (Damascus: Dar al-Fikr, 2009).
15. Commentary on The Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 42.
16. For non-specialists, a useful discussion on the relevance of traditional fiqh and legal theory to contemporary issues can be read in: A. Mohammed, Muslims in Non-Muslim Lands: A Legal Study with Applications (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2013). The study does much to disabuse us of the myth that traditional fiqh methods are outdated and inflexible.