The Humble "I"

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Syria: Righteous Outrage, Rulers & Rethinking Revolutions

3628447774_c90403bddb_b_92865322_mosque_beforeandafterInitially, Aleppo never witnessed the large scale anti-government protests that kicked-off in other parts of Syria, in March 2011. A year later, though, and Aleppo too became a bloody battleground when rebel fighters tried to drive government forces from the city. The offensive was not decisive and Aleppo ended up divided: government forces controlling the west, rebel fighters the east. For four years now, the battle for Aleppo has become a microcosm of the wider carnage engulfing Syria. The greater tragedy in this ongoing civil war has been to the civilian population. Over 13 million people need humanitarian aid in Syria. Just under 5 million Syrians are now refugees, one million of whom have fled to Europe. And in the past few days the world has seen an exodus of more than 100,000 people from Aleppo.

In the month-long siege which has seen pro-government forces oust the rebel fighters from Aleppo, thousands have been caught in the crossfire and have died, many have been seriously injured, families and children have being viciously massacred, and the city lacks basic food, water, sanitation and medicines. And while we must not lose our capacity to feel outrage when civilians have been so callously massacred, the question remains: how can we turn this righteous outrage into useful action?

What follows is far from being a decisive action plan. It is simply a few thoughts of a beleaguered student of Islam’s sacred sciences who, like so many others, is desperately trying not to be numbed by the sheer scale of the horrors that are now unfolding.

Three matters need urgently doing: one immediate, the other more long term, while the third is more mid-term. All three are crucial, but some things have an immediacy over others.

Finally, some (or even, much) of what I’ll advocate can and does apply to the people of Yemen, Iraq, Mali, Kashmir, Tunisia, Palestine and anywhere else where wars rage and civilians become fodder in the crossfire.

Immediate Action: This has surely got to be humanitarian aid to victims and refugees. Money, medical supplies, doctors and other skilled personnel are the types of services and aid the people of Aleppo need right now. As well as contributing to relief agencies and humanitarian convoys, volunteer rescue workers operating in war zones, such as the White Helmets, should be supported too. Undeniably, what is even more pressing than this is to broker a temporary truce that all sides are compelled to honour, so that the remaining civilians in Syria have time to move into safe zones or be evacuated.

Given that a million Syrian refugees have crossed into Europe, this raises the issues of asylum and the socio-economic difficulties, unrest, xenophobia or Islamophobia that can come along in the wake. Resettlement of refugees and taking in orphans becomes our collective responsibility: Have you seen him who denies the Religion? Such is he who repels the orphan, and who does not urge the feeding of the poor. [107:1-3] Islam does not just ask us to feed the poor; it requires of us to “urge others” to do so too.

A recent report by Oxfam highlights that the UK has taken just 18 per cent of its ‘fair share’ of Syrian refugees. Canada, in contrast, tops the league table of wealthy nations by welcoming 248 per cent of its share. While the United States has taken in a meagre ten per cent. To achieve what Oxfam reckons to be its fair share, the UK should have offered sanctuary to around 25,000 people since the crisis began, rather than just the 4414 it has thus far resettled. We the citizens of such under performing states should lobby our politicians and parliamentarians to get them to commit to resettling more refugees, as well as insist that they speak out against the xenophobia, distortions and myths which surround these refugees and other people who are in need of shelter and protection.

Along with aiding relief efforts, sponsoring orphans, fundraising, creating awareness, combating media stereotypes and public xenophobia, and lobbying government to do more to resettle refugees, we musn’t forget the power of petitioning Allah in du‘a. For du‘a is a powerful weapon for the oppressed, needy and helpless: ‘Our Lord! Rescue us from this town whose people are oppressors! And give us from Your presence a protecting friend; oh, give us from Your presence a defender!’ [4:75]

Mid-Term Action: The key task here must surely be to bring this grinding conflict to an end, so that some semblance of peace, safety and security is returned to whatever remains of Syria and its people. By ‘mid-term’ I do not mean that one works for it only after the humanitarian crises is concluded. Of course not! Peace must be brokered as soon as possible. But given the diverse mix of factions, forces and fears entailed, and the geo-political interests involved, calling for peace is easier said than done. So while the politics of it all is playing out, the humanitarian relief work must push on with as much urgency as the world can muster. That’s what I mean by brokering a peace deal being a ‘mid-term’ action.

A simplified sketch of the key actors in the Syrian conflict should serve as a reminder about the obstacles standing in the way of any peace accord. At the eye of the storm there is President Bashar al-Assad who, in March 2011, used brutal force to crush pro-democracy demonstrations concerned about the country’s high unemployment; state repression; and wide scale corruption. This triggered nationwide protests demanding that the president resign. As the unrest spread, the state crack down intensified. Very soon, opposition supporters were taking up arms to defend themselves and then later to fight government forces in their areas. The president vowed to crush the uprising and restore state control. The opposition formed into a myriad of rebel brigades and resolved to fight government forces; oust the president from power; and seize control of the country.

The president’s Shi‘ah Alawite sect and regime has the financial, political and military backing of Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah. The rebel factions, having no central authority and no single political ideology, represent a cross-section of Syria’s diversely religious society; although driven largely by an overall Sunni majority. Added to this already volatile cocktail are factions of foreign fighters and rebel groups who are al-Qaeda sympathisers. ISIS, who control large tracts of Syria, are also fighting: fighting both government forces and rebels. Saudi, Turkey and Qatar have been assisting some of the rebel factions, including both ‘moderates’ and ‘hardliners’, with military aid and financial support. The United States, too, has offered limited military assistance, but has thus far not given weapons to any of the rebel factions in Syria from fear of them falling into extremist hands. All in all, then, there is a Syrian civil war; a Sunni-Shi‘ah proxy-war being fought by Saudi and Iran; and a geo-strategic war being fought for regional hegemony. To top it all, various international peace initiatives have thus far failed, and the monster that is President al-Assad seems to be slowly garnering greater sympathy for apparently being the only capable actor that can stand in the way of an ‘Islamist’ or ISIS take over of Syria. Those, at least, are the cards being openly shown on the table: the cards beneath are anyone’s guess!

Of course, certain politician, on whatever side of the divide, will be busy sharpening their knives ready to carve out a slice of whatever they can for their own greedy souls. Other politicians, with a genuine concern for human welfare and world stability, will continue doing their utmost to bring about a peaceful resolution to a conflict that has already claimed the lives of millions. As for our scholars, given the hurdles, all we may hope for from those few that have any serious public or government clout is that they wisely, gently [though not sheepishly] and courageously speak truth to power, speak up for the voiceless, and help restore a sense of stability into the narrative. What we don’t want is for them to be domesticated by the powers that be, serving as little more than their voice pieces.

Longer Term Action: This action demands a deep and honest collective introspection in terms of our hitherto strategies for soci0-political reform. It requires of us to put aside strategies that are born of rage or revenge, knee-jerk reactions, pursuit of short-term goals, and not giving enough consideration to the consequences of our political action. If we’re to have any hope of climbing out of the political quagmire the Muslim world has wallowed in for the best part of a century, our politics needs to be infused with a deeper commitment to piety (taqwa), be guided by sound religious instruction and, in the light of such instruction and realpolitik, wisely weigh-up the benefits and harms (al-mawazanah bayn al-masalih wa’l-mafasid) of any and all subsequent political activism.

The violence and mayhem, or the chaos and carnage, that much of the Muslim world is now beholden to must surely give us all pause for serious political rethinking. If we are being unbiased and just, the tides of change for a brighter future the Arab Spring was supposed to usher in not only failed to materialise, in most cases it left in its wake a far greater scale of dissension, discontent, tyranny, and political abuses; arrests; and repression, than it sought to reform or replace. For in its wake came civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the rise of ISIS, repressive rule in Egypt, collapse of stable government in Libya, and waves upon waves of migrants risking all to flee such horrors. Tunisia, not without its huge share of problems, is the only Arab Spring country to have achieved most political change at the lowest human cost.

In terms of weighing the benefits and harms in our political activism, the Arab Spring furnishes us with a few invaluable lessons:

Firstly, wherever civil resistance is used against a regime, there must be a credible plan for governing the country. Without such a plan, civil resistance is part of the problem, not the solution. Many of the spontaneous leaderless uprisings of 2011 were unsuited to take on the complex roles of governance.

Secondly, there’s a strong case for mass movements to make more modest demands of the government, rather than call for the fall of the regime or demand sweeping social changes all at once.

Thirdly, getting rid of murderous tyrants and corrupt rulers isn’t enough. Building the many essential institutions of governance, and restoring confidence in a flawed state, are much harder tasks.

Fourthly, civil resistance does indeed have political power, but sometimes too much. It is often reckless, and can undermine the pillars upon which orderly governance rests. And if it does bring the pillars of governance down, its needs to recognise the serious consequences of creating political power vacuums.

Fifthly, which brings me to my final point: just how in keeping with Islam is the call to rebel against an oppressive ruler? Unbeknown to so many Muslim activist in our time, our Prophet ﷺ had quite a lot to say about this very question. And it is because there is so much to learn, and so much more to be done, and so much doubt and confusion to overcome that I’ll end this piece with what revealed wisdom has to say on this vital matter:

1 – In context of a Muslim ruler, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It is upon a Muslim to hear and obey in what he likes or detests, so long as he is not ordered to sin. If he is ordered to sin, then there is no hearing or obeying [in that matter].’1

2 – In the case of a subject or a citizen seeing something objectionable from the ruler that cannot be remedied via any lawfully established political protocol through which one airs objections or dissent, then the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Whoever sees something from his leader which he dislikes, let him be patience. For whoever separates from the ruler by even a handspan, and dies, dies a death of [pre-Islamic] ignorance.’2

3 – This is the case, even if the ruler is a brutal despot or an autocrat. The Prophet ﷺ warned: ‘There shall come rulers after me who will not guide by my guidance, nor will they follow my Sunnah. Among them will be men whose hearts are the hearts of devils in the bodies of men.’ He was asked: O Messenger of Allah, what should I do if I reach that time? He replied: ‘Hear and obey the leader. Even if he flogs your back and seizes your wealth, still hear and obey.’3 In another hadith, it relates: ‘Hear and obey, in what you find easy or difficult, whether you are in high spirits or find it troublesome, even if others are preferred over you; and even if your wealth is devoured and your back is beaten – except if it entails sin.’4

4 – One’s duty is to exercise patience, but not to acquiesce to the evil: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you’ll approve of and object to. Whoever recognises [abhors their evil] is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’5 In other words, as al-Nawawi explained, ‘whoever is unable to remove the evil isn’t considered sinful merely by keeping silent. Rather, the sin is in approving of it, or in not [even] denouncing it in one’s heart.’6

5 – As for rising up in rebellion against a tyrannical Muslim ruler so as to remove him by force, we have this from our Prophet ﷺ: ‘The best of your rulers are those whom you love and they love you, and whom you pray for and who pray for you. The worst of your rulers are those whom you hate and who hate you, and whom you curse and they curse you.’ It was said: Shall we not raise the sword against them, O Messenger of Allah? He said: ‘No, not as long as they establish the prayer among you. If anyone sees from their leader something objectionable, let them hate his action and not withdraw the hand from obedience.’7 And in the above hadith about not consenting to a ruler’s evil, the Prophet ﷺ was asked at the end of it: Shall we not fight them? To which he replied: ‘No, not as long as they pray.’8 The rational for not attempting to topple such ruthless dictators is given by Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, when he wrote:

‘As for maintaining obedience to them [those in authority], even if they are tyrannical, then that is because the harms that would result from rebelling against them would be many times worse than that which results from their tyranny. Instead, by patiently bearing their injustices lies an expiation for our sins and an increase in rewards [from Allah]. For Allah only inflicted them upon us on account of our corrupt actions – and rewards are proportional to their deeds. Thus it is upon us to diligently strive to seek forgiveness, repent, and rectify our deeds. Allah, exalted is He, said: Whatever calamity befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And the Exalted said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] And the Exalted said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] Also: Thus We let some of the unjust have power over others because of their misdeeds. [6:129] So if those governed desire to rid themselves of the injustices of an unjust ruler, they too must abstain from unjust acts.’9

6 – In fact, there’s even a specific piece of prophetic guidance on how to advise those in authority: ‘Whoever intends to advise the ruler, let him not do so publicly. Rather, let him take him by the hand [and do so] privately. If he accepts, well and good; if not, then he has discharged his duty to him.’10

7 – Rising-up against an iron-fisted, pitiless Muslim ruler, to forcefully remove him, is only lawful if he openly and unambiguously demonstrates disbelief (kufr). A number of jurists have reported a consensus (ijma‘) about it. To this, the sahabi, ‘Ubadah b. al-Samit said: ‘The Prophet ﷺ called on us to pledge allegiance to him. Among what we pledged was to hear and obey in what we like and dislike, in ease and hardship, to give the rights due on us, and that we not remove the affair from its people unless we see clear-cut disbelief for which there is a proof from Allah.’11

Rebellion or armed revolt, then, is only lawful under strict conditions. That it doesn’t lead to greater evil or instability is the first. That the ruler or regime be replaced with a better one is the second. The question of the Muslim ruler’s apostasy or not is the third. Although a few theologians allowed rebellion against a ruler whose tyranny had become entrenched and widespread (provided the first two conditions could be met), most did not allow it unless there appeared from such a ruler unambiguous, clear-cut disbelief (kufr bawah). Imam al-Nawawi and the best part of Sunni orthodox record a consensus on this latter point. He states:

‘As for rebellion (khuruj) against them, and fighting them, it is forbidden by consensus of the Muslims; even if they are sinful or oppressive … Ahl al-Sunnah are unanimously agreed that the ruler is not to be removed due to sin. As for the view mentioned in the books of fiqh from some of our colleagues, that he should be removed – which is also the stance of the Mu‘tazilah – then this is an error from those who espoused it and is in opposition to the consensus. Scholars have said that the reason why he is not to be removed, and why rebellion against him is forbidden, is because of what it entails of sedition, bloodshed, and causing corruption between people. For the harm in seeking to remove the ruler is far worse than permitting him to remain.’12

Of course, it can and has been argued that all these hadiths are only applicable in the context of the state affirming Islam as the basis of its law, legislation or constitution. This stance also argues that most, if not all, present-day Muslim states are illegitimate from the above said angle. Now is not the place to discuss the rights or wrongs of this outlook, save to ask: If, for argument’s sake we accept this, does it imply that all state institutions, administrations, statutes, treatises, enactments and laws are illegitimate too? If the regime has no Islamic validity, are the judgement of its court, or its traffic laws, its granting of visas or asylum, its law-enforcing agencies, its monetary policies, its edicts concerning the protection of private wealth or property, etc., null and void too? If the response is yes, then that is agreeing to total anarchy and lawlessness – and both Islam and sound reason utterly abhor such a state of affairs. If one responds by saying that the state’s laws remain valid, but there’s a duty to replace the regime with an Islamic one, then the above hadiths retain their relevance in terms of the actual conditions required for rebelling against the existing political order and not creating a situation of greater evil, social unrest, civil war, anarchy, bloodbath, or power vacuum. Either there is a realistic confidence that the rebellion will, in all likelihood, succeed. If not, it is haram; and patience, working to deepen public piety, and refraining from political agitation become the duty and order of the day.

The Sunni position which stresses the duty of obeying the ruler, and which prioritises stability over other social considerations, grew out of the above hadiths and was also significantly informed by well-known turbulent, historical realities. Muslims, even as late as the twentieth century, could justify their readiness to tolerate a ruthless ruler so long as the government had a short arm and interfered very little in the lives of the people. But the modern nation-state, with its modern political theorising, techniques and technologies, has extended the role of government into every street, every school and every household. As such, some argue that pre-modern Muslim political theories cannot give us a satisfactory insight into the socio-political culture that Muslims live under today.13 This line of reasoning makes the case that given the hegemonic nature of the modern nation-state – how it controls the economic life chances of its citizens; defines the parameters of political participation; controls the nature and framework of education; can intrude almost at will into the private lives of its citizens; and if it chooses, can tyrannise its citizens with impunity, for it alone has a monopoly over the legitimate use of force in society – how realistic is it to patiently plod along with day-to-day life when the state does decide to inflict widespread violence or tyranny on its citizens? So if what motivates Muslims to challenge the legitimacy or efficacy of the state are matters related to economic security, political participation, or basic human dignities, then the scholars must carefully consider such matters before assessing the validity or not of the uprising, act of civil disobedience, or rebellion.

There is little doubt that the modern nation-state (with its concepts of Westphalian sovereignty, legitimacy, allegiance, citizenship, political participation, social contract and monopolisation of legitimate violence over a given territory) exerts a control over the lives of its citizens in ways that were unimaginable in pre-modern times. Hence, any Muslim political theorising that hasn’t grasped the concrete differences between modern and pre-modern governance, or fails to clarify if such theorising is working within the framework of a modern state with its citizens, or a traditional sovereignty with its subjects, is going to be highly deficient, defective and damaging to Islam and Muslims. What we require from our scholars is serious analysis and advice about such issues, so our politics can be rooted in revealed teachings and resonate with the actual times. And yet with that said, there’s still a strong case to be made about the relevance of the “rebellion” hadiths for our times. For it is precisely because the modern state is so overbearing; and that it is highly weaponised; and that its surveillance and its state security is so very intrusive, that the rebellion/revolution option is so very unwise and unhelpful. That divine help is tied to piety and patience can never be underestimated, nor undermined.

Al-Hasan al-Basri once lamented: ‘If only the people had patience when being tried by their leader, it would not be long before Allah gives them a way out. But they rush for their swords, so they are left to their swords. By Allah! Not for even a single day did they bring about any good.’14

More than a few days have passed since I first started writing this blog piece. But as I put the finishing touches to it, a social media alert on my phone has just informed me that a nationwide ceasefire has been brokered in Syria. Here’s praying.

Revolutions are messy and bloody. And although you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, Islam insists that there can be other things on the menu besides eggs. Revolutions are not events, they are processes – often, long, drawn-out ones – whose intended aim and objective is seldom guaranteed. In fact, given our globalised world, wealthy and powerful outside interests, as well as regional geo-politics, are far more likely to shape final outcomes than are the well-conceived intentions of the masses. Mainstream Sunni Islam has long been suspicious about revolutions; and with plenty of reason to be so. Whatever else the Arab spring of 2011 has taught us; in general, and the Syrian uprising; in particular, one thing is clear: Revolutions often travel fast, but they seldom travel well.

O Allah! Heal the blessed land that now lies all shattered.
O Allah, defend and protect its people and
by Thy wrath let enemies
be scattered.
Amin!

1. Al-Bukhari, no.7144; Muslim, no.1839.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.7053; Muslim, no.1849.

3. Muslim, no.1837.

4. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.4562. The isnad is hasan, as per Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, al-Ihsan fi Taqrib Sahih Ibn Hibban (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1991), 10:426.

5. Muslim, no.1854.

6. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1995), 12:204.

7. Muslim, no.1855.

8. Muslim, no.1854.

9. Sharh al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1984), 381.

10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.14909. The hadith is sahih due to its collective chains. See: al-Albani, Takhrij Kitab al-Sunnah (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-Islami, 1980), nos.1096-98.

11. Al-Bukhari, no.7056.

12. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 12:189.

13. This train of thought is teased out in Imam Zaid Shakir, The Islamic Legitimacy of the Uprisings in Muslim Countries.

14. Cited in Ibn Sa‘d, Kitab al-Tabaqat al-Kabir (Cairo: Maktaba al-Khanji, 2001), 9:165; entry no.3883.

Footprints on the Sands of Time 5

sands_of_time_hourglass_sunset_abstract_hd-wallpaper-1718051None of us are immune from the intensifying pressures of a world that has little or no care for God. The idolatry, immorality and ignorance of God’s purpose that defile the world are the core dangers which Revelation warns against. Today, that which defiles souls is closer than ever. In our internet age, it’s often just a click away. In one of the earliest chapters of the Qur’an to be revealed, it says: O you enveloped in your mantle, arise and warnmagnify your Lord, purify your garment, and shun [all] defilement. [74:1-5] These “Footprints” are about how we as Muslims may best magnify God; to keep His holiness in our hearts and mould our lives around this holiness. It’s about how we, in this age of aggressive liberalism, can best be conscientious believers and responsible citizens while courageously, yet wisely, avoiding defilement. (Earlier “Footprints” may be read here, herehere and here).

On loyalty to la ilaha illa’Llah: In today’s world, behaviour inconsistent with the moral teachings of Islam, by those who claim to follow Islam, is a significant cause for Islam to be devalued and mocked.

On staying focused: The believer lives in this world; he doesn’t live for this world: And the Hereafter is better for those who are mindful of God. Have you no sense? [Qur’an 6:32]

On trying to nurture 20/20 vision: Religion is about learning to see. It’s about human vision – the heart’s vision – as it learns to see past surface appearances to witness the Real. For as the Qur’an puts it: It isn’t the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts in the chests that become blind. [22:46]

Addictions wreak marriages: Along with the obvious types of prospective husbands to avoid – those that are irreligious, immoral, arrogant, ill-tempered, miserly, immature, impatient, and lack compassion and understanding – one must also beware of those who are in the grip of serious addictions. Alcohol, drugs and pornography are obvious ones. But two subtler addictions should also be steered clear of: The first is a man’s addiction to his mother. In other words, a “mummy’s boy”. This must not be confused with our love, honour, duty, or kindness to our mothers. For there’s a huge difference between that and between sheepish subservience to them. A husband who allows his mother to rule the roost, permitting her to marginalise the role and rights of his wife, is failing to offer his wife the protective care she has a right to. The other addiction is to video games. An increasing number of marriages are now failing because of it. In short, addictions wreck marriages.

On science, religion and meaning:  It is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work; while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

On Ramadan’s reality: The whole purpose of fasting in Ramadan is to foster a state of detachment from the world, and from our ego and desires. This creates, as it were, a space in our souls for the remembrance of God and for awareness of His presence: O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may become mindful of God. [2:183]

On bowing to the monoculture: One of the signs of the End Days, and whose onward trajectory has been underway for a century or so, is: the uncritical imitation of non-Muslim lifestyles and values. One hadith says: ‘The Hour will not be established until my ummah takes to what previous nations took to.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7319] In another: ‘You shall soon follow the ways of those who came before you, inch by inch, handspan by handspan, so much so that if they were to enter a lizard’s hole, you’d do likewise.’ They asked: O Allah’s Messenger, do you mean the Jews and Christians? He replied: ‘Who else?’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7320; Muslim, no.2669]

Thus, as long as we keep deferring to the dominant monoculture and its ideals, things shall not bode well for this ummah of great mercies. Inculturation – i.e. one group or culture gradually acquiring the traits, values and norms of another culture – must be guided by the rulings and objectives of our fiqh teachings, as well as kept wise by the profound insights of our tasawwuf/tazkiyah tradition.

On lovers at love’s ocean: The conceited intellectual is always showing-off. The lover, through the shari’ah, is always getting lost. The self-absorbed intellectual is afraid of diving. The whole business of love is in the drowning.

On seeking to be present: Presence of heart with God (hudur al-qalb) isn’t only due in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during each moment of our life. One of the greatest paths to nurturing such presence is by kathrat al-dhikr – “remembering God abundantly.”

On remembering our destination: Only fools wander, only the wise travel, and only a ship that knows where it’s heading benefits from favourable winds.

Please take some blame for the religious anarchy: The scourge of takfir is now a global epidemic. Indiscriminate violence, destruction of lives and property, decimation of public security and sectarian violence are its fruits. The image of Islam has never been so tarnished or been made to look so vile. Those who, for reasons of wanting to revive the Sunnah, opened the door for ordinary, religiously unqualified Muslims to ‘weigh-up’ and follow the ‘strongest’ proof in matters of taharah, salat and personal piety, but somehow imagined they could keep the door closed when it came to the more fragile, volatile matter of politics and public affairs – well that logic seems not to have faired so well. Those ‘ulema who opened the door now see droves of zealous and unqualified people rushing through it, giving wild and fallacious fatwas on Islam – undermining qualified juristic authority, creating religious anarchy, and tearing apart what remains of Muslim unity – and they don’t know what to do or how to stem this tide. And, of course, out of such a collapse of traditional scholarly authority have come the takfiris, with their terror and tribulations.

On our God-given intelligence: What’s the point of the shari‘ah aiming to protect the intellet (‘aql) – the ability to reason, reflect, discern benefit from harm, and to reign in the soul from wrongdoing – if we aren’t going to adequately utilise it?

On obsession with conspiracy theories: Are the various conspiracy theories that have etched their way into popular culture true? Maybe. Have the powerful elites of every age sought to band together to control, manipulate and subdue the masses? Possibly. Is God in full control of history and of human destiny? Absolutely! Yet many Muslims forget this last fact and instead are obsessed with chasing shadows.

On lowering the ceiling of learning: Those Muslims who think that they have enough religious learning and wish not to learn more, are not just unwise; they could even be outright fools.

On the modern Muslim challenge: Monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. It insists we heal and we dissent too. A paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles. Abdal Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, believers can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’

On the devil inspiring religiousness: A large number of Muslims involved in terrorism tend to lack even basic religious literacy. All too often their lack of religious learning is woefully infantile. Religion, it seems, plays a role less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage:

A bro who once lived with his mummy;
Wanted street cred more than some money.
“Shall I be a mufti,
Or takfiri jihadi?”
So he went and brought ‘Islam for a Dummy’.

On political order and disorder: Left to our egos or selfish impulses, man’s corrupted nature (fitrah) would render man’s life – to cite Hobbes – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Hence, according to classical Muslim scholarship, we have the blessings of God sending Revelation and Prophets, for the guidance and welfare of individuals and society. Hence, also, Islam’s insistence on yielding to political authority over anarchy, and guarding public security – wary of any actors who seek to erode or to undermine them. Needless to say, Islam envisages government to pursue the objectives of justice (‘adl), the promotion of benefit (maslahah), and the prevention of harm (mafsadah). To be specific, Islamic governance is committed to protect man’s five essential interests (al-dururiyyat al-khamsah); namely: faith, life, intellect, lineage and property. This, at least, is the theory.

On sifting the wheat from the chaff: ‘Ijazah (“authorisation” to teach) doesn’t always equate to having gained mastery in the particular subject of sacred learning. But it does represent an adab of learning and of heading in the right direction. It also helps to sift out DIY Islam from the real deal; the wheat from the chaff.

On the dumbing down of society: Here in the West, over the past four of five decades, much has been said and debated about the dumbing down of society. Dumbing down refers to the oversimplification of critical thought as well as the diminishment of the intellectual content in education, art, culture and politics. Even though we have more information at our disposal, we are seen to be far less capable of critical thinking than the generations of people before us. The argument is that media and entertainment, the over reliance on technology, and capitulating to turbo consumerism, has all led to this numbing and dumbing down. A more sinister narrative insists that the dumbing down has been socially engineered, so that “the powers that be” may keep the masses in check  – less the Orwellian, and more the Huxleyan engineering!

On a state worse than sin: Committing sin is undeniably wrong. But it’s when sins no longer strike a discordant note in the soul that one really needs to worry.

On the art of living beautifully: Adab is the art of being trained in decency. Such must be the hallmark of each believer.

Teaching & Purification: the Two Prophetic Tasks

Illuminating Turkish BeautyThe Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘I am the prayer of my father Abraham and the glad tidings [proclaimed by] Jesus to his people, and the vision of my mother who, while pregnant with me, saw a light issue forth from her which lit up the castles of Syria.’1

The good news of Jesus, referred to above, is mentioned in the following verse of the Qur’an: And [recall] Jesus, son of Mary, who said: ‘O Children of Israel, I am the Messenger of Allah to you, confirming that which was before me in the Torah and bringing good news of a Messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad.’ [61:6]

As for Abraham’s prayer, peace be upon him, the Qur’an says: ‘Our Lord! Raise among them a Messenger from them who shall recite Your signs to them and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

Allah’s response to His khalil’s prayer is: He it is who has sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite to them His signs and to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the wisdom, though before they were in manifest error. [62:2]

The above hadith and verses highlight some weighty considerations for our faith and spiritual growth; these include:

1. That our Prophet ﷺ was commissioned with two principle tasks: teaching (ta‘lim) and purification (tazkiyah): teaching us revealed knowledge about God, divinity and the afterlife; and purifying souls from the vices of idolatry (shirk), disbelief (kufr) and heedlessness (ghaflah) of the revealed commands and the Divine Presence.

2. Although Abraham put ta‘lim before tazkiyah in his supplication, Allah responded with tazkiyah first, then ta‘lim. Again in the Qur’an, Allah puts tazkiyah first: We have sent to you a Messenger from among you, to recite to you Our signs and purify you, teach you the Book and the wisdom, and teach you that which you knew not. [2:151] This tells us that purification has a distinction over teaching, and that the former is the goal while the latter is the necessary means.

3. That knowledge must be coupled with action – which is a sign that the purification process is underway – is borne out by the following salaf-reports: From Ibn Mas‘ud, may Allah be pleased with him, who repeatedly insisted: ‘O people, learn! Whosoever learns, then let them act.’2 The venerable sage, Sahl al-Tustari remarked: ‘Knowledge, all of it is of the world; that of it which is of the Hereafter, is action upon it.’3 And Abu Qilabah, a traditionist and pietist of Islam’s second century, stated: ‘When Allah gives you knowledge, give to Him worship; and let not your desire be to merely narrate it to the people.’4

4. In the context of knowledge and purification, the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Two qualities shall never coexist in a hypocrite: good character and understanding of the religion.’5 In other words, a hypocrite may acquire a sound, theoretical knowledge of Islam, but it won’t be reflected in piety, character or demeanour. Or it could be that a hypocrite might have a graceful character, but will lack a sound understanding of faith. It is only with the true believer that a sound understanding (fiqh) of the religion is united with righteous action and inward illumination of the soul. So knowledge in itself does not save: unless it is translated into piety, concern for beautiful character, compassion for creation and, ultimately, seeking Allah and the afterlife.

5.  As the monoculture puts Muslim distinctness under greater siege, we must ensure that the Quranic purification always remains at the heart of the Islamic story and its engagement with modernity. That any meaningful diversity is now seen as potentially destabilising to social cohesion simply serves to prove liberalism’s intolerance, as well as its growing totalitarian nature. Tawhid is told to not be so judgemental upon shirk. The Abrahamic odyssey is required to make way for the new Nimrods: the new lords of misrule. Monotheism is put on notice and told to bow down to Babylon. Pressures such as these will, regrettably, produce victims – except if my Lord has mercy. [12:53] For conformity is part of human nature. But a browbeaten Muslim who reluctantly gives in or capitulates isn’t the same as the ever growing cadre of Muslims who are anxious to please and who play fast and loose with revealed principles. Where we cannot live up to the social demands of faith, let us admit our own weaknesses and implore Allah for forgiveness, courage and strength. We cannot twist revealed truths, or water them down, or adulterate them just to fit in, gain acceptance, or curry favour. For as far as faith and hope are concerned, better a sinner than a sell-out.

6. Keeping the two core prophetic tasks firmly in mind, we need to be mindful about any activism or call to action which seeks to eclipse them or deflect the ummah away from them. In fact, all socio-political activism must be subordinate to these two tasks. Those who have lost sight of these core concerns should be gently and wisely guided back to them. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Salvation for the first part of this nation is with certainty (yaqin) and worldly renunciation (zuhd); destruction of the last part of this nation is by miserliness (bukhl) and [lengthy] hopes (amal).’6 Munawi said: ‘Meaning that the earlier ones adorned themselves with certainty and worldly detachment and purged themselves of miserliness and hopes. This was a cause for their salvation from perdition. In the latter times, the opposite will be the case.’7 He also wrote: ‘In it is a censure of miserliness and hopes (amal). But what is blameworthy is lengthy hopes, as has been said. As for hopes in themselves, they are necessary for the establishment of this worldly life.’8 Yaqin, certainty of faith, is the fruit of sound teachings, while zuhd is the outcome of the soul’s restraint; itself a fruit of purification.

7. As to the levels of faith and certainty, they are: (i) Faith via taqlid: where faith comes from taking it from an authority one trusts, without knowing the formal proofs for it. This is the faith of the lay people, and is easily susceptible to doubts. (ii) Faith through evidence (burhan): this is the fruit of learning formal proofs and discursive arguments. This is the faith of scholars and theologians. (iii) Faith via spiritual sight (‘ayan): this is where faith is the result of the heart having an abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of Allah. It’s the faith of those having reached the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). (iv) Faith via spiritual witnessing (mushahadah): it is where the heart witnesses Allah, as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). The first level of faith can be fragile: the next three beget ascending degrees of conviction and certainty.9

8. Beware reformist Muslims aching to align Islam with current western sensibilities, desperate to erase any distinctness that may make the monoculture feel unsettled. Be mindful of Muslim preachers unhinged from the sanad tradition, unschooled in adab and spiritual wisdom, who conflate harshness and severity with piety, thereby helping to drive many a servant of God into the icy realms of Riddastan. Beware, also, of the Muslim activist adopting the Sunnah out of reaction, protest, desperation, insecurity, identity politics, or because he cannot discover what else he wishes to be. Experience repeatedly demonstrates that such a person is likely to be ‘an engine of tanfir, driving humanity away from Islam by turning it into a language for proclaiming his inward traumas.’10

9. Before finishing, this concern about ta‘lim and tazkiyah; teaching and purification: Be not like those who became fixated on demonstrating the correctness of Islam, but came to practice nothing of Islam itself. Be not like those who were busy proving the existence of God, but came to care nothing for God Himself.

10. Lastly, ta‘lim reveals that our age is frought with so much confusion. Tazkiyah tells us that souls have never been so prone to egotism or spiritual lethargy. Together they help us realise that the times call on us that we too, like Allah’s wali, be infused with a spirit of love. For loving Allah, the wali loves His purposes; and looking at creation with love, laments that the Lord is forgotten, His commands disobeyed, and His signs unheeded.

Allahumma habbib ilayna’l-iman wa zayyinhu fi qulubina,
wa karrih ilayna’l-kufra wa’l-fusuqa wa’l-‘isyan,
waj‘alna min al-rashidin.
Amin.

1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.4175. It being a sahih hadith is shown in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1545.

2. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.11.

3. ibid., no.20.

4. ibid., no.37.

5. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2684, and it is sahih due to its collective routes of transmission. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.278.

6. Ibn Abi Dunya, Qasr al-Amal, no.20. Al-Albani graded the hadith hasan li ghayrihi in Sahih al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2006), no.3340.

7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:282; no.9256.

8. ibid., 6:282.

9. For a further discussion on these levels of faith, see: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.

10. A.H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: Quilliam Press, 2012), 66.

Footprints on the Sands of Time 4

sand-desert-alone-people-sand-dunes-footprint-1920x1200-wallpaper_www.wallmay.net_14Ours is an age of unparalleled spiritual pollution and deeply instilled ignorance about the human purpose. It’s an age in which religious practitioners of all faiths are feeling more and more claustrophobic, as society accords them less and less breathing space and loses interest in their concerns. The pressures now brought to bear on Religion to keep chipping away at the Sacred to concede ever more to the profane, are immense. This series of reflections and musings are offered as part of an ongoing conversation about how we Muslims can best engage these turbulent times, in a way that allows us to cultivate an Islam that is true to its time-honoured tradition, relevant to its current context, and of benefit to the deepest needs of humanity. (Earlier meditations in this series of “Footprints” may be read here, here and here).

On appealing to hardened hearts: The councels of Revelation and the warnings of the wise are often, in and of themselves, insufficient for those whose hearts are encrusted in sins and worldliness. Allah then makes them taste the turmoils of worldliness and the anguish of sins, that they may become disillusioned by them. Avoiding them then becomes easier.

On the ego’s infamies: From the vulgarities of the ego (nafs) is that whenever a person loves attention or prominence, he actively seeks out the faults of others.

On being lulled into a sense of comfort, then carelessness, then kufr: The whole point of the monoculture is to make us as comfortable – and thus as forgetful – as possible; to live as cattle concerned only about the patch of grass under our noses. Abrahamic monotheism, however, teaches us that it’s not that this present life is worthless, but that there is something beyond worth infinitely more. It asks us to stop looking down on our small chewing patch and lift our eyes towards the far horizons.

On being driven mad through turbo consumption: “Insan with the e-culture becomes insane.” – Abdal Hakim Murad

On how to select a spouse and have a blessed marriage: Religiousness, piety and good character must be the touchstone for spouse selection. Much good can come from a God-fearing heart, and a pious disposition is essential for attracting divine grace and blessings from heaven. But being on good terms with God does not always translate itself into good behaviour with others. Hence the prophetic advice to select someone whose “religion and character pleases you.” [Al-Tirmidhi, no.1088]

On the essence of Islam: Taqwa can be rendered into English as piety, mindfulness of God, guarding against evil and fearing God. Its essence lies in being profoundly aware of God and moulding one’s life in the light of this awareness. In other words, taqwa is God-consciousness.

On the prophetic way of engaging the monoculture: In engaging the monoculture, let us have a heart of ‘izzah, the eye of rahmah and the hand of khidmah.

On the question of Muslims ditching science and being Creationists: Muslims are, by definition, “creationists” – in the sense that they believe in a Creator-God; not in the sense that they are tied to a belief that the earth is a mere five thousand or so years old. Since there is nothing definitive in Islam’s Revelation about the age of the earth, it’s age is thus a question for emperical data and science to answer.

On the voice and valour of the Abrahamic Call: Where the Makkan Quraysh failed to see the disconnect between them and the true Abrahamic legacy; and failed to heed the discontent and suffering of the many at the hands of the elite few, the Prophet ﷺ saw it, understood it and gave voice to it.

On jihad in Islam: In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’ Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following proclamation of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. But if you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172] That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.

Let’s not forget this martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the leader carefully evaluate the potential benefits and harms of armed struggle; ensure civilians and non-combatants are not killed or wilfully attacked; abide by the other sanctities upheld in Islam; and keep in mind receptivity to the call (da‘wah) to Islam.

On working towards realities, not just claims: Scholars say: al-‘ibrah bi’l-haqa’iq wa’l-ma‘ani la bi’l-alfaz wa’l-mabani – “What counts are realities and meanings, not merely wordings or labels.” Consider the following limerick:

There once was a sufi with beads,
Who was terribly impressed with his deeds,
The salafi, he scorned
“You’ve no purity” he warned,
With his self he was O so well-pleased.

On shared morals as social glue: For all our urbanised airs and graces, in the absence of laws obeyed and a strong sense of a shared moral code, community and society will undoubtedly begin to fray at the seams.

On visiting the ahlu’Llah – the “people of Allah”: One sits in their presence to listen, observe, learn, practice service (khidmah) and gain self-knowledge; not pursue worldly ambitions, promote one’s ego, or encounter “exciting” spiritual experiences.

 

On the monoculture’s manufacturing of consent: How many cherished convictions of the masses in today’s “advanced” democracies are actually well-informed, fact-based certainties? And how many of them are mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of media soundbites, entertainment education and the passing trends of the time?

On the different kinds of drunkenness: It was once said to the distinguished sufi and venerable Imam of Ahl al-Sunnah, Sahl al-Tustari, that intoxications are of four kinds. So he asked: “Tell me what they are.” The man replied: “The intoxication of drink, the intoxication of youth, the intoxication of wealth and the intoxication of authority.” Sahl replied: “There are two more kinds: the intoxication of the scholar who loves this world, and the intoxication of the worshipper who loves to be noticed.”

Revolutions are just a tweet or a T-shirt away: Revolutions are messy and bloody. And although you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs, Islam insists that there can be other things on the breakfast menu besides eggs. Revolutions are not events, they are processes – often, long, drawn-out ones – whose sought-after outcomes are seldom guaranteed. In fact, given our globalised world; wealthy and powerful outside interests, as well as regional geo-politics, are far more likely to shape final outcomes than are the well-conceived intentions of the masses. Mainstream Sunni Islam has long been suspicious about revolutions; and with plenty of reason to be so.

On seeking a murshid; a “guide” to God: The murshid instructs, advises, trains, arouses sleepy souls, revives decaying hearts and, above all, leads by example.

On a believer’s love of martyrdom: In one hadith, we hear the Prophet ﷺ declare the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way, then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; and then be killed.’ [Muslim, no.1910] Indeed the Prophet relished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; neither for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest act of service and ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to God one’s life, for a cause God loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving God. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whosoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6830] Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a saintly life. For how can one sincerely desire to die for God, if one doesn’t truly try to live for God?

On where to find one’s heart: “Seek your heart in three places: where the Qur’an is recited; in the gatherings of dhikr; and in times of seclusion. If you do not find it in these places, then ask God to bless you with a heart. For you have no heart!” – Ibn al-Qayyim

On the changing tides of our times: The first chords of the monoculture’s swan song began a few centuries back. We are perhaps now on the final encore.

On luminous souls: Be kind, be courageous; seek the good in everything, harm none, show courtesy to all living creatures; be enchanted with creation, take responsibility; and be learned in the ways of God and godliness – or at least sincerely try.

Revering the Symbols of God

Kaaba-7The Qur’an says: Whoever reveres the symbols of God, that is from piety of hearts. [22:32] Symbols (sha‘a’ir) refers to signs, marks or emblems by which something is known to belong to some particular body or group of people. Flags, for instance, are sha‘a’ir; as are those religious rites and practices which are emblematic of, or specific to, certain religious communities.

Here, the symbols of God being spoken of in the above verse refer to those well-known, external commands and prohibitions emblematic of Islam: the prayer, adhan, fasting, pilgrimage rites, the prohibition of pork or of drinking intoxicants, etc. Revering and venerating God’s symbols shows veneration for the One who sent them; which is from piety of hearts.

The signs that one reveres God’s sha‘a’ir are: fulfilling their demands; keeping to their limits; being attentive to accomplishing them correctly; hastening to them when they are due; and to be sad, disappointed or contrite if having missed any of their benefits. Another sign of veneration is to feel anger when God’s symbols are mocked or reviled, and sadness when they are disobeyed.1 Such anger, I must add, isn’t the uncontrolled, egotistical kind that causes faces to be twisted or contorted beyond recognition, and mouths to froth with frenzied rage and pathetic political imbecility. God forbid that the dignity of a believer should be so degradingly compromised.

Revering the symbols of God, and the Sacred Law of God, becomes ever more difficult when one lives in an Age of Irreverence, as we do. For treating someone or something, not just with courtesy, but with deep respect – for that’s what reverence calls for – can be an uphill task. The ego is ever eager to demean the sacred and drag things down to the lowest common doleful denominator. The pursuit of its own diktats, cravings and impulsive desires is what the ego is about; not the pursuit of virtues, or the growth of the Spirit. Whatever good is inherent in any liberal democracy, is being demonstrably erased by the unstoppable entrenchment of an ego culture. Affluenza is what British psychologist Oliver James has named it. For embedded in the philosophy of political liberalism, and consumerism, is the principle of pandering to the ego, and a reverence for irreverence.

As today’s liberal prescriptions become ever more intolerant; and ever more eager to suppress, stigmatise and demonise any significant dissenting voices, honouring God’s symbols (especially in respect to morality and gender relations) becomes much more difficult. Even so, we mustn’t be bullied into failing to state the correct Islamic rulings in such matters, nor be browbeaten into silence: And whoever reveres the sacraments of God, that is better for him with his Lord. [22:30].

1. Cf. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah, al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 32, 39.

Amusing Our Hearts to Death

maxresdefaultOne hadith states: ‘Laugh not too much; for too much laughter deadens the heart.’1 This isn’t to say that laughter or humour must be avoided altogether; for laughter and light-heartedness, in moderation, are prophetic Sunnahs that helps lighten burdens, ease anxiety and bring about joy to oneself and to others. Indeed, there is little virtue in always looking grave and solemn: And that He it is that makes to laugh and makes to weep. [53:43] And as the Prophet, peace be upon him, remarked: ‘O Hanzalah! There is a time for this and a time for that.’2 Yet, as the above hadith shows, to overindulge in laughter is a lethal poison that kills the heart spiritually.

The eleventh century hadith master, ‘Abd al-Ra‘uf al-Munawi points out: ‘Making a habit of laughing diverts one from deliberating over matters of importance.’3 When life becomes little more than “a bundle of laughs,” then the heart’s spiritual death has well and truly set in. Al-Munawi again: ‘The laughter that kills the heart comes from being frivolous and careless in the world. The heart has [spiritual] life and death: its life lies in continuous obedience [to God]. Its death, in responding to the call of other than God; be it one’s ego, desires, or the devil.’4 In fact, in the prophetic teachings, a cheerful countenance and an easy-going nature (one hadith says: ‘The believers are amiable and easy-going: al-mu’minun hayyinun layyinun.’5) is to be tempered with the sobering recollection of God, death, the Afterlife and the imminent Judgement and Accountability. The Prophet, upon whom be peace, urged: ‘Remember frequently the destroyer of pleasures [i.e. death].’6 A heart desensitised to such realities, or numbed to their recollection, is a heart that has had the stuff of life sucked out of it.

The Qur’an warns about being diverted or distracted through things of the world: ‘O you who believe! Let neither your wealth nor your children divert you from remembrance of God. Those who do so, they are the losers.’ [63:9] In houses which God has allowed to be raised up, where His name is remembered. In them is He glorified morning and evening. By men whom neither merchandise nor trade distract from the remembrance of God. [24:36-7] Trade, riches, possessions, and the pursuit of thrills and pleasures so preoccupy most people, so as to make them oblivious to all else; unless hearts are tuned to the higher purpose of their existence. Wealth and children and partaking of permissible worldly pleasures are all lawful, and are to be a means to maintain our connection with God; unless and until they distract us from the worship and remembrance of Him. If we lose ourselves to the world, we ultimately lose everything.

Tragically we are now a culturally obese society, continuously feeding on an excessive diet of trivial amusement and entertainment. This over-consumption of laughter and frivolity, as noted before, distracts most of us from more serious considerations: war, famine, disease, environment, disintegration of society and breakdown of the family; as well as existential issues more serious still, that relate to our Creator, the Afterlife and our purpose of being. Our continued addiction to all this joviality and diversion has made us a society wherein we are, in the words of Neil Postman’s deftly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

O people! Fear your Lord, and fear a Day when the parent will not be able to avail his child in any way, nor the child to avail his parent. God’s promise is the truth. Let not the life of the world deceive you, nor let the deceiver deceive you concerning God. [31:33]

1. Ibn Majah, no.4193.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2014.

3. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:157.

4. ibid., 5:52.

5. Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.139.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2307.

Living Faith in Secular Societies: I

shutterstock_96065306These are some reflections based on a presentation I delivered at an Interfaith forum in  November, 2011; arranged and hosted by al-Noor school. The discussion was about how the practice of one’s own faith is affected by the secular landscape of our society. How far my thoughts on the subject convey or represent the voice of the Muslims is definitely contestable and open to debate. For the simple fact of the matter is that the Muslim journey into secular modernity has birthed, not a monolithic voice, but many divergent conversations.

As for my conversation; my reflections, I shall endeavour to root them in mainstream, orthodox Muslim scholarship. This is the voice – the majoritarian voice – which holds that adapting to the ever-changing world comes about only within the confines of well-established juristic mechanisms and spiritual foundations, embedded in Islam’s shari‘ah. This is the voice which also insists that, as a rule, the meta-principles guide and direct the shari‘ah details, but do not eclipse or erase them.

For the sake of convenience, I’ve divided these reflections into seven brief section (the first four of them form Part I; the last three will form Part II). Furthermore, I have not attempted to flesh out the theological or juristic nuances in these reflection; precisely because they are just that – reflections.

1. It will be helpful if, at the outset, we remind ourselves what we mean by secularism. The American sociologist Bryan Wilson described secularism as: ‘the process in which religious consciousness, activities and institutions lose social significance.’1 For Roger Scruton, the English philosopher and political analyst, secularism entails: ‘the process whereby religious offices, institutions and ceremonies are extruded from public life – in education, law-making, administration and government.’2 Secularism, explains the French Islamicist Olivier Roy, ‘comes about when religion ceases to be at the centre of human life, even through people still consider themselves believers; thus the everyday practices of people, like the meaning they give to the world, are no longer constructed under the aegis of transcendence and religion.’In secular societies, then, religion no longer articulates the common good as it once did. Instead, religion is relegated to the private sphere that may have to be curbed for the greater good. For a secular society is one that looks to a rational or civic consensus on the best way to order itself. At least, that is how it is here in the West, and how it is exported around the globe.

2. How did secularism come about? Secularisation is a complex process, taking place across three or four centuries, and occurring over several different dimensions of life and society. Many factors – historical, sociological, technological – have gone into the recipe of secularism. One of its ingredients stands out above others: religion. That is, at some point in time in the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that ravaged Europe between the sixteenth and seventeenth century, this question was asked: How may people committed to different beliefs co-exist convivially under one political arrangement, without any religious faction co-opting state power for its own political ends? The answer: religious tolerance, as well as the removal of religion from political decision making. Here was birthed the secular idea. Secularism was not set into motion by atheists or irreligious people, or those indifferent to religion; but by those with deeply held religious convictions. Separation of Church and State was their way of preserving faith; not destroying it.4

3. Speaking about the differences between the essence of religion and that of politics, Britain’s Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, writes: ‘Religion and politics speak to different aspects of the human condition: the one binding people together in communities, the other to mediating peaceably between their differences. The great tragedies of the twentieth century came when politics was turned into a religion, when the nation (in the case of fascism) or system (communism) was absolutized and turned into a god. The single greatest risk of the twenty-first century is that the opposite might occur: not when politics is religionized but when religion is politicized.’5

He also notes: ‘Religion binds, politics mediates. That is why, what in politics, may be a necessary virtue – compromise, ambiguity, diplomacy, coexistence – are, from the point of view of religion, usually seen as vices.’6

4. Secular societies are not monolithic; there are differences. Contemporary Western societies are secular, either because separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution (United States); or because society no longer defines itself via religion or religious practice (Britain, Germany, the Scandanavian countries); or because secular constitution and the retreat of religion converge to support each other (France). Such nations use two different models to manage their minorities: multiculturalism (as per Britain, United States, Canada and most of Western Europe), and assimilation (as in France). The multicultural model – now being called into question by countries such as Britain and Holland – sees some religions as embedded in distinct cultures that are handed on from one generation to the next; here one can be a good citizen without identifying with the dominant culture, but with one of the many minority cultures. In the assimilationist model, all cultural backgrounds (be they religious or ethnic) are erased from the public space; citizens are given everything as individuals, but nothing as minority communities.

The two models are very distinct. The French see Anglo-Saxon style multiculturalism as ultimately eroding national cohesion, and even a path to ghettoisation. The French “resistance is futile” model is considered to be authoritarian and infringing the rights of minorities. Roy dubs the two different embodiments of secularism as ‘Anglo-Saxon indulgence’ and ‘Galic suspicion’, and that the former needs to be ‘less naive’ and the latter ‘less pathological.’7

Having sketched an outline of what secularism stands for, and how and why it came about in Western Europe, the second part will offer my reflections on the pros, cons and challenges of living a life of faith in modern, secular Britain.

1. Wilson, ‘Secularization,’ in The Encyclopedia of Religion – in Sacks, The Persistance of Faith: Religion, Morality and Society in a Secular Age (London & New York: Continuum, 2005), 2.

2. Scruton, Dictionary of Political Thought (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 622.

3. Roy, Secularism Confronts Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 7-8.

4. See: The Persistence of Faith, 1; Williams, Faith in the Public Square (Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 2012), 52; Gregory, The Unintended Reformation (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012), 129-79.

5. Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (London & New York: Continuum, 2003), 42-4. His tenure as Chief Rabbi ended in September 2013.

6. ibid., 42.

7. Secularism Confronts Islam, 94.

Western Muslims: Prophetically-Inspired Voices of Dissent

64276_555052664515251_466050869_nThis is a companion piece to the previous blog I wrote, called: British Muslims & their Strategies for Living in the UK (which can be read here). Here, I will discuss a few of the principles which ought to animate our engagement with wider society and our fellow citizens; and how, in the time honoured tradition of Abrahamic monotheism, we are called upon to hold a mirror up to society and help steer it away from self-harm.

One Qur’anic verse is particularly telling on this point, for it says: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses over mankind and that the Messenger may be a witness over you. [2:143] Thus this ‘community of the middle way’, distant from all types of extremism; this ‘best part of everything,’1 has been tasked with the burden of being witnesses over mankind: witnesses to the truth of God’s Prophets and to the monotheistic message they each came with, and witnesses to the truth that a life lived in hedonistic pursuits will not bring about human happiness.

Muslims are called to witness that: Indeed We have created man in hardship [90:4]; that each day of our life brings a host of difficulties, discomforts and disappointments. We must bear witness too that while the monoculture teaches us to drown them out with drink, drugs and distractions; monotheism insists that our happiness is greatest when we face such trials patiently, stoically and responsibly: Those who endure with patience will be rewarded without measure. [39:10] ‘We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who show patience.’ [2:155] Adversity, then, is the non-negotiable fee that each of us must pay for the privilege of being born.

To be a witness is to be actively engaged. Isolationist policies that some Muslims have chosen stifle such witnessing. And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God, does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims’, states the Qur’an [41:33] In another verse, the Prophet, peace be upon him, is told to declare: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to God, clear-sightedly, I and those who follow me.’ [12:108] Isolationism oftentimes leads to ghettoisation and to monotheism’s lights being veiled from reaching others. The call need not be verbal: ‘actions speak louder than words’, and doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk undeniably has its place and can help win arguments. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and sacrifice tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects.

Let us also recall that the uncompromising monotheism of God’s Prophets, peace be upon them, didn’t arise in the wilderness, or away from centres of civilisation or civic life. We only sent before you men to whom We reveal, of the people of the towns. [12:109] Some Prophets may have been driven to the wilderness, exiled there, or taken refuge there for a while. A few have felt the need to head for the hills for a time. But the core of their call was decisively urban and city-centred.

Prophetic cries from the wilderness there have been. But Prophets offer us something practicable and liveable; something people may actualise in their urban worlds which would help them to be recognisably human and spiritual. Along with an unflinching monotheism, the history of the great monotheistic epics were rooted in impassioned protests against corruption, tyranny, social iniquity or ‘the privilege and arrogance of power, whether that of kings as in the Hebrew bible, or the Roman Empire as in the Gospels, or a tribal elite as in the Quran.’2 Historical records show that what we now refer to as the drive for social justice was the idealistic underpinning of monotheistic faith. Such is the energy of the monotheistic call and the prophetically-inspired voices of dissent. Opium of the people? Nothing was ever less an opiate than a monotheistic religion of sacred discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo.

So what are we Muslims to be or to do here in the West; in the place where most of us call home? What is it that we can offer? We can’t be mere armchair critics of society, that’s for sure; nor can we continue to moan from the fringes. We could, I suppose, settle as comfortably as possible into the consumerist culture and live our lives mostly for material pursuits. But that would be to shirk away from the commitment we have made to Abrahamic monotheism, to la ilaha ila’Llah, and ignore the demands it makes on us in terms of working for a more just, compassionate and ethical society.

We could, as some of us do, wallow in self pity and a culture of blame, accusing others for our woes and predicament, unable to move beyond past grievances. But that is to be ignorant of faith and the sense of personal responsibility, empowerment, hope and optimism that the monotheistic belief injects into individuals. ‘Monotheism makes a difference to what we believe and do,’3 and to the way we see our lives unfold and our responses to it. It is impossible to be moved by the prophetic call and not have a social conscience. Their message, delivered in the name of God, is: worship God alone, and take responsibility. For the world will not get better of its own accord.

We could opt for a browbeaten facsimile of monotheism, having nothing to say about our ever-growing social ills or the downwards spiral of spiritual decadence; content to pander to corporate agendas and the money markets; desperate to confine religion to the home, vexed whenever it enters the public space; servile to the monoculture; and in homage to the modern liberal state. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop, says that ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’4 Theology aside, the above applies equally to Muslim liberals as it does Christian ones; those who see the Qur’an as little more than a social manifesto which wholeheartedly endorses the liberal orthodoxies of our age. A privatisation of religion, no doubt; but a publicisation of a shameless defeatism too.

As explained before, Islam’s monotheism calls upon us to be witnesses; it equally calls upon us to be healers too: We send the Messengers only to bring good news and to warn. So those who believe and set things aright, no fear shall come upon them and nor shall they grieve. [6:48] This setting things aright; this healing, rings out in the next passage too: Have you seen him who denies the religion? Such is he who repels the orphan and who does not urge others to feed the poor. [107:1-2] This monotheistic spirit of healing has been eloquently expressed by Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes: ‘We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.’5

Monotheism undoubtedly urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It is not for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it exhorts we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are actually universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is merely a sophisticated veneer for a new type of totalitarianism that is unable to accept any true and meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.

In short: monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. That we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.

Abdal Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’6

As to the rather tiresome question of whether or not Muslims can truly be at home in the West, then this is answered by the great bulk of ordinary mosque-going Western Muslims with a resounding “yes”. Millions of Muslims who live in the West continue to demonstrate that they are, with different degrees of accommodation, at home with the realities of life in the West. Those bread and butter issues which concern Western Muslims are concerns for everyone else too. Their specific challenge, however, is how to remain conscientious believers whilst being responsible, law-abiding citizens. Thus we need a theory to shore up the practice, and that theory must have at its centre the idea of Muslims being: shuhada ‘ala’l-nas – “witnesses over mankind”.

The hubris of the secular humanist system has placed undue strain upon life on earth. The urgent need from Muslims, therefore, is dignified dissent from the monoculture. But these prophetically-inspired voices of dissent must be infused with great wisdom, sacrifice, service and humility.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Sardar, Reading the Qur’an (London: Hurst & Company, 2011), 111.

2. Hazleton, The First Muslim: the Story of Muhammad (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013), 102.

3. Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (London & New York: Continuum, 2005), 175.

4. Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.

5. To Heal a Fractured World, 5.

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

Hunger Games & Harmful Hopes

ghost-fog-wallpapers_128171Poetry, it is said, is ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful meanings.’ The following poem is no exception. For the poem speaks of a love beyond earthly love; of a deep yearning for what may soothe our sorrows. Though not at all religious, believers may uncover in the poem powerful symbols of religious sentiment: seekeing, yearning and a love sublimer than any earthly love – the heart’s hunger for God.

In his 1822 poem, One Word is Too Often Profaned, the English Romanitc poet, Percy Shelley, wrote:

I can give not what men call love;
But wilt thou accept not
The worship the heart lifts above
And the Heaven’s reject not:
The desire of the moth for the star,
Of the night for the morrow,
The devotion of something afar
From the sphere of our sorrow?

Poetry like this often presents us with powerful imagery that can help us to reflect upon the theme of “Meaning”. For ‘In some poetry,’ the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said, ‘there is wisdom.’

Shelley sees in the moth’s desire for the star a poignant symbol of the heart yearning for something which is profound, compelling, sustains hope and soothes us from our immediate sphere of sorrow. Now for reasons we don’t fully understand, moths have a tendency, an innate, inborn nature, to be attracted to light. Starlight and moonlight attracts moths; so do candlelight and floodlights. But there is something of a problem for moths. A candlelight at night will attract moths, but they end up being consumed in its flame. Floodlights on a football pitch attracts moths, but will vaporise them on first contact. The innate longing of a moth for light, if it is the wrong source of light, can lead to its own destruction.

There is a parallel here with the human situation. Man, too, has a deep hunger for what will truly satisfy him – and that longing Islam tells us is for God. In the Qur’an, one of God’s Beautiful Names is al-Kafi – “The Sufficer”, “He who satisfies all needs”. It follows, then, that when we turn our backs on the Sufficer, we shall continue to remain unsatisfied and unfulfilled.

Another of God’s Names is al-Nur – “The Light”, for God is the light of the heavens and the earth, says the Qur’an [24:35]. Muslims hold that creation is a theophany (tajalli), a manifestation, of the Divine Names. Hence if God were not light, there’d be no light anywhere in creation: neither physical nor spiritual.

As human beings, we have an innate hunger for God’s light – for God – and in the absence of that light there is only an unfulfilled restlessness within us. Like the moth attracted to harmful sources of light, we too can misdirect our hopes and longings to things that may harm us, as they fail to deliver what we had expected. The objects of our desires have a marked tendency to frustrate us in that everything we hoped would bring meaning into our lives ends up disappointing us. A most obvious point in case is our current monoculture with its many quick-fixes and promises of fulfilment.

In fact, such yearning for God may even be subverted or perverted, in that one could end-up making a ‘god’ out of created beings or forces. For whenever the love, longing, devotion, loyalty and submission that is due to God, is focused on other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is idolatry – shirk. 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 God, then this, for them, is a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth, others make gods of women, still others make a god of their own whims and desires. Asks the Qur’an: Have you seen him who takes his whims for his god? [25:43]

Of course we have!

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