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Kalam & the Hanbalis: Is It Really Relevant Today?

Often rendered into English as ‘theology’, ‘ilm al-kalam (or kalam, for short) is the science which establishes and elaborates upon matters of doctrine and belief. Because it depends upon reason-based arguments, it is ‘discursive’: hence ‘ilm al-kalam is sometimes referred to as discursive theology. In its more conjectural or philosophical form – a form where it does not play a supportive role to the textual-based conclusions of the Islamic Revelation, but rather infers positions from its own first principles – ‘ilm al-kalam is often referred to as speculative theology. As for those theologians who are practitioners of kalam, they are called mutakallimun.

This article seeks to address four core issues: [1] The position of kalam in Sunni Islam; [2] the Hanbali position[s] concerning it; [3] its pros, cons and true purpose; [4] its relevance, if any, in today’s intellectually, faith challenging milieu – especially in terms of being able to offer cogent, articulate, Islamically-grounded responses to atheism and scientism.

I

1. Kalam (lit. ‘speech’, ‘discourse’) about God, using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments, found its way into early Muslim thought during the Abbasid period, via Arabic translations of the Greek philosophical legacy; particularly that of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring this philosophical reasoning to bear upon certain theological issues was the Mu‘tazilah. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – that is, to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, on certain theological matters to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. They were known to dismiss, distort or play fast and loose with verses from Revelation or prophetic hadiths, if these didn’t fit in with their Greek-inspired philosophical rationalisations.

2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from such kalam, usually with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous or, according to another reading, close to unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i stated: ‘We are not people of kalam.1 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; for the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’2 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’3 As for Imam Ahmad, his words on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’4 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’5 This latter saying of Imam Ahmad suggests there was some sort of Sunni kalam in vogue, as opposed to the widespread Mu‘tazilite one that the like of the above salaf-reports were apparently addressing, and that ostensibly he seemed to reject even that.

3. In contrast to a large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them which state that kalam is lawful, so long as it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and ijma‘ of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify, or twist them. From them is this saying from al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’6 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’7

4. Imam al-Bayhaqi also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam, for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; and as we have already mentioned.’8

5. The distinction between blameworthy and praiseworthy kalam began to gain traction among the scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent, primarily from the more purist, fideistic Hanbalis/Salafis. This approach ranged from an overall rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.9

6. Those who employed ‘ilm al-kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun stated about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by using rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’10 Of course, even from the pro-kalam viewpoint, there were always individuals who went into excess concerning it, or who sometimes simply lost the actual plot!

7. In asserting what he considered to be the middle ground on the issue of ‘ilm al-kalam, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about it: ‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11

II

8. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the full story. Whilst there is an absolutist, anti-kalam stance amongst Hanbalis, the historical truth of the matter is that there is a pro-kalam stance too. The anti-kalam sentiment is best exemplified by Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, a pillar of the madhhab, who wrote a scathing tract against delving into any sort of kalam, rebutting the Hanbali polymath Ibn ‘Aqil for having done so. In it he wrote, with the usual characteristic hostility of a purist against kalam: ‘As for him [i.e. Ibn  ‘Aqil], his faction consist of the people of kalam. To speak of them is only to censure them, to warn against them, to cause [people] to flee from associating with them, to order abandoning and shunning them, and to abandon looking into their books.’ He then cites Imam Ahmad, al-Shafi‘i and Abu Yusuf in their rebuke of kalam and then he wrote: ‘And Ahmad b. Ishaq al-Maliki declared: “The people of innovations and [false] desires, in the view of our [Maliki] colleagues, are the people of kalam. So every person of kalam is from the followers of false desires and innovations, be he an Ash‘ari, or not. No testimony of his should be accepted. He should be ostracised and punished for his innovation. And if he persists in it, his repentance should be sought.’12 This anti-kalam stance holds that there simply isn’t anything reliable or decisive from Imam Ahmad on the issue to render lawful the deployment of kalam.

9. As for the pro-kalam stance, Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’13

10. Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih quotes Ibn Abi Ya‘la as asserting that ‘the correct stance in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the opinion of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘14 The ‘affair’ being referred to was the inquisition unleashed against those upon the orthodox belief that the Qur’an is the uncreated Word of God, and his ‘defence’ of it was by using rational-based arguments; in other words, kalam.

11. Now whether Imam Ahmad’s later words abrogate his earlier ones, or whether it’s just a case of contextualising the Imam’s words, is an area of disagreement among pro-kalam Hanbalis. For while a group of them, such as Ibn Abi Ya‘la, held to the view of abrogation, others held to the more preferable view of jam‘; harmonisation. This is the stance which holds that Imam Ahmad employed kalam arguments when he believed there was a need, and refrained from it when he believed there wasn’t. Having cited the above words of Ibn Hamdan, al-Buhuti notes: ‘The statement of Ibn Hamdan is like a harmonisation between the two views [of forbiddance or allowance]; and this is preferable over abrogation. What supports this is the report from al-Marrudhi [that Imam Ahmad said]: “I am not a person of kalam. I do not view kalam in anything except if it be in the Book of Allah, the Hadith of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, or from any of his companions; may Allah be pleased with them, or one of the tabi‘un. As for other than these, then speech concerning it is not praiseworthy.” Related by al-Khallal.’15 In other words, whatever stands in opposition to the conclusions of the Book, the Sunnah, or a salaf-report, even if it appears to be rationally justifiable, is blameworthy.

12. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, his take on kalam and its nomenclature, as involved and highly complicated as it is, is most likely best represented in this passage from him: ‘The point being is that Ahmad would infer by way of rational proofs about propositions concerning Divinity, provided they were sound. What he censured was whatever opposed the Book or Sunnah, speech without knowledge, or speech [with] innovated meanings in the religion (al-kalam al-mubtadi‘ fi’l-din) … He [i.e. Imam Ahmad] was not averse to – if the meanings of the Book or the Sunnah were known – leaving [textual] terms for other terminologies, if a need for this presented itself. In fact, he did this himself. Rather, what he despised were innovated meanings (al-ma‘ani al-mubtadi‘ah) in this – i.e. in [theological issues] people were arguing about, such as [the nature of] the Qur’an; the Beatific Vision, Pre-Destiny or the Divine Attributes – except what conforms to the Book, the Sunnah, or reports from  the sahabah or tabi‘un.16 Ibn Taymiyyah’s point is that using kalam terminology is risky. For while the correct sense of the meanings may be established, such terms all too easily lend themselves to notions that are false, ambiguous, or inappropriate for God; or are at odds with established texts or salaf-reports. His main contention appears to be with the kalam conception of hulul al-hawadith – that contingencies do not indwell in the Divine Essence, and how such an ambiguous turn of phrase, whilst perfectly sound from one angle (that nothing created subsists in God and that God’s attributes aren’t created), is used to negate those acts of God he designates as af’al al-ikhtiyariyyah – “God’s chosen acts:” in that God acts, creates and speaks as He wills, whenever He wills.

13. So what conclusion can we draw about the Hanbali school’s view about ‘ilm al-kalam? Well the obvious one is that the school doesn’t have a single, unified stance. The reason is that the various reports concerning Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal’s attitude towards kalam lead to vastly different conclusions. Undoubtedly, there is his clear condemnation of it; and yet there are words from him that permit it. And then there is his al-Radd ‘ala’l-Jahmiyyah, a slim tract refuting certain innovators; not just with textual proofs, but with rational based arguments to support the textual assertions. Taking all of this into consideration, the later leading Hanbali authorities – particularly those whose manuals, commentaries and super commentaries of fiqh have now become the standard, relied-upon texts for teaching and fatwas over the past six hundred years – tended to adopt the view that ‘ilm al-kalam was lawful and legislated. Its role, however, was not as a discoverer of truths, but as a rational support to those axiomatic creedal truths found in Revelation. Ibn Hamdan’s 7th Islamic century Nihayat al-Mubtadi’in fi Usul al-Din has found widespread acceptance among the cream of Hanbali scholars – such as Ibn Muflih, al-Mardawi, al-Hajjawi, al-Buhuti and al-Safarini – and has been authoritatively cited by them. The same hold for its abridgement, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan, by Ibn Balban in the 11th century.17

III

14. Before discussing how relevant the ‘ilm al-kalam project is for today, let me address its role in the pre-modern Muslim scholastic period, as explained by non other than Imam al-Ghazali. As a sort of epilogue to his Jerusalem Creed, al-Ghazali outlines the pros and cons of kalam, explaining that the Islamic ‘aqidah which Muslims should know is not the same as kalam theology – which is there to support the ‘aqidah and protect it from heresies. He explained: ‘In it there is benefit and harm. As for its benefit, in those situations where it is beneficial it is ruled lawful, recommended or obligatory according to the circumstances. As for its harm, it is forbidden whenever and for whoever it is harmful. Its harms are that it creates doubts and unsettle beliefs, which [then] no longer rest of certitude and resolute conviction. This is something which happens at the outset, and there is no guarantee that he will ever win it back through [rational] proofs; for it differs from person to person. This, then, is its harm to sound beliefs.’18 The believer, yearning above all else to seek the Face of God, will pay this matter much heed.

15. Continuing the theme of kalam’s potential harms, the Imam said: ‘It has another harm, [namely] it hardens the beliefs of the heretics (al-mubtadi‘ah) in their heresy (bid‘ah) and strengthens it in their hearts, in that it riles them up and increases their resolve to persist in it. Such harm, however, arises from bigotry born of argumentation. This is why you see the ordinary, unlearned heretic (al-mubtadi‘a al-‘ammi) quickly dissuaded from his belief through gentleness, unless he has been raised in a place where argumentation or zealotry are rife; in which case if all mankind, from the first to the last, united together to remove it from his heart, they would be unable to. For desire, zealotry and contempt for his rivals or opponents so grip his heart, and thus blinds him to the truth … Such is the fatal disease that plagues cities and people; the sort of corruption caused by partisan disputation. This also is its harm.’19 In light of that, there’s little we can do save to seek Allah’s refuge from our self-serving egos masquerading as truth-seekers!

16. On the benefits of kalam, the Ghazalian insight may come as a surprise to some: ‘As for its benefit, it might be expected that it is to uncover truths and to know them as they truly are. If only that were so! Kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably confuses and misguides more than it reveals or teaches. If you had heard this from a hadith scholar or hashawi-literalist, you might have thought: “People are an enemy to what they don’t know.” So hear this instead from one highly versed in kalam; who left it after gaining mastery of it; who plunged its depths as far as any theologian can; who then went onto immerse himself in other sciences closely related to kalam, before realising that the path to the realities of gnosis (haqa’iq al-ma‘rifah) was barred from this angle. By my life, kalam theology is not void of revealing, defining or clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about matters that are already evident or that could probably be understood without delving into the art of kalam at all. Rather, it has one single benefit: to guard the common man’s creed that we have just outlined [in the Jerusalem Creed], and protect it by way of argument from the misgivings of heretics. For the common man is weak and can be unsettled by a heretic’s argument, even if corrupt. Yet something corrupt may be rebutted with something [less] corrupt; whereas people are only responsible for the creed we have previously outlined.’20

17. In Muslim Spain, some two centuries after al-Ghazali, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi (a celebrated Maliki jurist, legalist and exegist) felt that he could speak to the role of kalam theology in these terms: ‘As for the heretics, their words mustn’t be related, nor are their arguments to be rehearsed: unless their is a need for it. In which case, one may occupy themselves with rebutting them, just as ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbas did when the matter of the Khawarij began to spread. This is what called the leading mutakallimun, such as Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Abu Bakr b. al-Tayyib, and others; may God have mercy upon them, to speak about this when the various heretical sects arouse in their time. But as for our age, God has relieved us of this duty since they [the heretical sects] do not exist; especially in the lands of West Africa and Andalusia. Hence in our time, their views should not be turned to, nor made to cross any heart or ear, because it is harmful, and without any benefit. For the potential benefits of refuting them is meaningless in their absence. For the harms it contains, of falling into the forbidden, opposing the salaf, or darkening the heart, are all present and possible for whoever concerns himself with it.’21 Or to put it another way, Ibn Juzayy is insisting that kalam theology is a medicine that must be administered at the right time, and in the right dosage. In the absence of an illness, there simply is no need to administer a remedy. To do so would be pointless; more than that, might it not actually create an illness where there was none before? What is also worth remembering is that while discursive arguments no doubt have their place, sometimes one just needs to listen to the inner voice of conscience or fitrah in terms of intuiting or feeling the presence of God.

IV

18. This brings us nicely on to our final concern: Does kalam theology have any relevance today? And if so, what? Well obviously we live in an age where false beliefs and heresies abound everywhere, and most Muslims are exposed to them from a very early age. Islands of Andalusian cocoons that Ibn Juzayy spoke of no longer exist. There isn’t a meaningful place called “the Muslim world;” and if there is, it has been so diluted and distorted with alien ideas, ideologies and attitudes so as to render the very idea defunct. Of course, there are individual Muslim minds and hearts that mostly reside in majority Muslim countries and societies. But even if such societies did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, they have been far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on. And this is the deeper concern for any continued, authentic sense of Muslimness. As for Muslims living in the West, in one sense, their faith-based dilemmas are acuter still. And so it must be that every Muslim should acquaint themselves with the sound Islamic creed or ‘aqidah; the correct set of Islamic beliefs each Muslim is mandated by the religion to know and to hold. To assume that just because one is Muslim, that one already knows all this stuff will, in all likelihood, be a blunder of seismic proportion!

19. The best way to do the above is through an intelligent and informed manner. And this is by either embarking upon a very short study of an authoritative ‘aqidah text which has met with continued scholarly approval throughout the centuries, or by reading such an ‘aqidah text by oneself, asking a qualified scholar for any further clarifications one may have. The objective isn’t to become a fully-fledged theologian, or to dive into debates and disputations with other Muslims. But rather to meet our Lord and Maker with sound belief concerning God, His prophets, scripture, pre-decree and faith. The Jerusalem Creed has already been mentioned. An even more accepted text, for layman and scholar alike, is the Tahawiyyah Creed. The idea is to keep it short and simple so as to know as a minimum the beliefs one is personally obliged to know. One just revisits or revises this creed on a yearly basis, in order to keep it all intact or dust any cobwebs off.

20. One highly relevant thing to come out of the kalam project, and of theology in general, is that ‘aqidah has three levels. There’s what can be called [i] Essential ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that are the dividing line between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); beliefs that are indispensable to hold, as well as beliefs one cannot possibly hold, so as to be Muslim. Such beliefs come under the rubric of: al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – ‘things that are known by necessity to be part of the [Islamic] religion’; and about which – unless one is a recent convert, or a Muslim raised outside a Muslim family or society – ignorance brooks no excuse. [ii] Orthodox ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that form a boundary between rightly-guided orthodoxy, and heresy; beliefs that, when one comes to reliably know of them, one is required to accept it. Prior to that, one may be excused for not knowing them. One who rejects such a belief, due to the knowledge not being clear to him, or inaccessible to him, or because it is something beyond what one is reasonably expected to understand, yet he stills holds to Islam’s essential beliefs, is a Muslim – albeit perhaps a heretical Muslim; but Muslim nonetheless. [iii] Personal ‘aqidah: beliefs that theologians legitimately differ over. Such beliefs, regardless if one holds one view or the other; or refrains from taking a position, has no bearing at all on one’s piety, orthodoxy, or ultimate standing with God.22

21. A greater recognition of such distinctions would bring about greater tolerance among Muslims. Teachers of Islamic theology are duty bound to explain that while orthodoxy is doubtlessly the ‘aqidah of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah; i.e. what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues speak to the difference between iman and kufr: the rest are matters which other Muslims may disagree with, yet still remain Muslim. Such was the pious caution of our past Imams, that whilst they would have no problem judging a particular belief to be actual disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs clearly warranted it, they would be extremely cautious to the nth degree about making takfir upon a specific individual who held such a belief. Al-Dhahabi relates by way of al-Bayhaqi; who relates from Abu Hazim al-‘Abdawi; that Zahir b. Ahmad al-Sarkhasi said: ‘When death came to Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, in my home in Baghdad, he called me and so I came to him, and he said: “Be my witness, I do not declare anyone a disbeliever who prays towards the qibla. For each directs themselves to the One whom alone is worshipped, while all of this [kalam controversy] is but different expressions.”’ Al-Dhahabi then stated: ‘This is my religious view [too]. So too, our shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah, who used to say in his last days: “I do not declare anyone of this ummah to be a disbeliever,” and he would relate that the Prophet ﷺ said: “No one but a believer [faithfully] performs ablution”23 [and then say]: “Thus whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim.”‘24

22. After affirming God’s utter perfection and transcendence above every imperfection or need, where kalam theology really comes into its stride is in furnishing us with proofs for what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin) or impossible (mustahil) for God; especially proofs for the necessary existence of God. In its simplest, bare bone form, the kalam cosmological argument goes like this: [i] All that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence. [ii] The universe began to exist. [iii] Therefore the universe must have a cause for its existence. One can rationally infer from the conclusion to the above syllogism that this Cause must be uncaused; omnipotent; possessed of intelligence, knowledge and volition; different to the stuff of the universe; not subject to the material existence of time or space, and therefore immaterial. In other words, this uncaused Cause is God! Eminent Muslim theologians aside, great rational minds in our time continue to uphold the kalam argument for God’s existence, with great philosophical craft and gusto. The most famed of them being Dr. William Lane Craig who defends it from contemporary criticism in his The Kalam Cosmological Argument. If we add to this kalam assertion, evidence from the fine tuning of the universe; and modern cosmology – as in notable works like Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers, Keith Ward’s God, Chance & Necessity, or John C Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? – there are powerful reasons to believe in the God of Abrahamic monotheism, and that science actually points to theism rather than atheism. Given that in today’s world, atheistic philosophies like naturalism and scientism continue to challenge or erode the essential belief of many Muslims, more than do the heresies of the Mu‘tazilah or the Jahmiyyah, such books are far more relevant and needed for a defence of theism, or to shore up one’s personal faith, than are classical works of kalam theology.

23. Since there are some critiques of the kalam argument’s two premises – that everything that came into existence must have a cause for its existence, and that the universe had a beginning – let’s briefly address them. One objection to the first premise asks: What is the proof that every contingent thing needs a cause? Obviously there’s no directly measurable or observable proof when it comes to the universe’s beginning. It’s not like we can create the event again and then watch it. However, it is a rational first principle that something cannot come from nothing: out of nothing, nothing comes. It is a truth that we rationally intuit if we give it some reasoned thought. Moreover, if something can come into being without a cause, then why doesn’t just anything or everything come into being without a cause? Why doesn’t money, MacBooks or Muhammad Ali pop into being out of nothing? Even quantum particles that appear to pop in and out of existence from nothing, actually come from something: a quantum vacuum that is teeming with virtual particles. Again, as we observe the natural world, we see that things don’t just pop into existence uncaused from nothing. We proceed on the well-observed, empirically established basis that things that begin to exist have causes. This conviction lies at the heart of the scientific method. Without it, one couldn’t or just wouldn’t do science! For if things didn’t have causes, why investigate them or try to connect the dots? The second premise has a lot of solid science behind it, in terms of the expanding universe; the Big Bang; or the microwave background radiation left over from it. Scientists feel, that despite certain gaps in their knowledge, or despite things needing to be ironed out in the overall theory (like the arbitrary inflation of the early cosmos, or justifying the current rate of expansion), they are on reliable grounds about the universe coming into existence after not existing. Thus, since both the premises are valid, the conclusion is true: the universe had a cause which needs explaining. Every other inquiry must play second fiddle to this meta question of cause. So while an atheist will have to find fault with this line of reasoning, it would be absolutely untrue to say that theistic belief, such as Islam’s, has no proof or basis; that it’s all just blind faith!

24. To conclude: As intellectual attacks on Islam increase; as universal literacy gets closer to the horizon; and as ever more people seek answers from Islam for a variety of reasons, there is a need for intelligent, articulate, Islamically-rooted answers – especially in terms of rational coherence, scientific literacy and liveable relevancy. Blind imitation of ethnic Islam will become less relevant to people, and even less capable of fulfilling intellectual and spiritual needs. As for well-written dialectical critiques of modernity’s philosophical premises, assumptions and conclusions; or addressing attacks on religion from scientism or other modern, atheistic philosophies, books that come to mind which are well suited to this task include: Gai Eaton’s King of the Castle, Huston Smith’s Beyond the Post Modern Mind, Jonathan Sack’s The Persistence of Faith and Abdal Hakim Murad’s recent Travelling Home. Such works are required reading for this epic duty, in a way scholastic works from pre-modern times obviously are not.

25. In respect to the traditional goals of kalam theology – defining the content of what is and is not faith, demonstrating its harmony with logic and sound reason, and furnishing arguments to  help be personally convinced about it – this is as relevant today as it was in past times. In that spirit and enterprise of classical kalam theology, Muslim theologians in our day and age have a three-fold collective duty (fard kifayah): Firstly, they must continue to establish proofs for the existence of God, in a way that resonates with the contemporary science-shaped mind; using arguments from necessity, design, and fine tuning. Secondly, they must respond to scientism, as it brashly theologises away belief in God, strengthens its totalitarian monopoly on what constitutes knowledge, and elevates presuppositions of naturalism to ultimate truths; without evidential proof. Thirdly, to continue to promote tolerance between Muslims, in terms of what beliefs form the dividing line between belief and disbelief. Let me end with Nuh Keller’s words that ‘one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.’25

And God alone is the Granter of guidance and grace.

1. Quoted in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.

2. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.

3. As per Ibn Qutaybah,Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.

4. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.

5. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.

6. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.

7. ibid.,1:470.

8. ibid.,1:468.

9. The views of the Hanbali scholars, and a birds-eye view of Imam Ahmad’s own stances on ‘ilm al-kalam, is presented in the second section.

10. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.

11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.

12. Tahrim al-Nazr fi Kutub al-Kalam (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutuib, 1990), 41-42.

13. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6.

14. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29.

15. Al-Buhuti, Hawashi al-Iqna‘ (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2004), 1:459-60.

16. Dar’ Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Saudi Arabia: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Sa‘ud al-Islamiyyah, 1991), 7:155.

17. Ibn Balban’s Qala’id al-‘Iqyan was republished in a fine critical edition (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), with a rich and exhaustive commentary. The commentary cites copiously from the likes of the above Hanbali jurist-theologians on each issue. Moreover, an English translation of the text of the Qala’id, with the accompanying Arabic, is given in: J. Starling (tr.), Qala’id al-Iqyan, n.p. 2020.

18. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:354.

19. ibid., 1:354-55.

20. ibid., 1:355-56.

21. Al-Nur al-Mubin fi Qawa‘id ‘Aqa’id al-Din (Tunis: Dar Imam Ibn ‘Arafah, 2015), 111.

22. Refer to my 2013 article, Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules, particularly rules nos.6-10.

23. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22433.

24. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 15:88.

25. Nuh Keller, Islam and Kalam. It is an admirable essay, one from which I have greatly benefitted in writing this article.

Guardians of Sacred Knowledge & Spiritual Growth

The core of this article centres on Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali’s discussion about the hadith that describes the three kinds of heart in respect to knowledge and guidance. Ibn Rajab also gives us a window into how revealed knowledge has been safeguarded for us – both its content and its meanings – throughout the ages, by those guardians described by our Prophet ﷺ as “the Trustworthy Ones of every generation”. What the unspoken question this articles asks is: What type of heart do we each wish to be?

We have revealed to you [O Prophet] the Reminder [Qur’an] that you may explain to people what was sent to them, that they may reflect. [Q.16:44]

This verse defines the Prophet’s function ﷺ as being, not just the conveyer of revelation, but its explainer and elaborator too. The Prophet, in other words, was not just invested with the wordings of the Qur’an, but its meanings as well. The Prophet’s legacy ﷺ in the form of his words, deeds and tacit approvals, are collectively known as his Sunnah – his “way” or “norm”. One famous hadith states: ‘I am leaving among you two things, you will never go astray as long as you cling tightly to them: the Book of Allah and my Sunnah.1 Another popular hadith states: ‘Whoever turns away from my Sunnah is not of me.’2

The injunctions laid out in Allah’s Book and the Messenger’s Sunnah ﷺ make-up what is known collectively as the shari‘ah – the Sacred Law of Islam. From this body of teachings come the laws and ethics that govern Islamic life. The shari‘ah is all-encompassing and, to worship Allah, believers must recognise that every area of human activity bears religious significance.

Now the men and women of the Prophet’s generation ﷺ, to whom he recited the Qur’an and who became his immediate disciples and followers, are known as the sahabah or “Companions”. The Qur’an says of them: As for the foremost, the first of the Emigrants and the Helpers, and those who followed them with excellence, Allah is pleased with them and they are pleased with Him. He has prepared for them gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they shall dwell perpetually. That is the supreme triumph. [Q.9:100]

The Prophet ﷺ asserted: ‘The best of mankind is my generation, then their immediate followers, then their immediate followers.’3

Another hadith says: ‘You will not cease to be upon goodness while there remains among you those who saw me and kept company with me. By Allah, you will not cease to be upon goodness as long as there remains among you those who saw those who saw and kept company with me.’4

One hadith states: akrimu ashabi – ‘Honour my Companions.’5 Another insists: la tasubbu ashabi – ‘Do not revile my Companions.’6 And a third informs that: idha dhukira ashabi fa’amsiku – ‘When my Companions are mentioned, withold [from speaking ill of them].’7 And outlining the path of salvation, the Saved Sect, the Prophet ﷺ stated it was: ma ana ‘alayhi wa ashabi – ‘That which I and my Companions are upon.’8

Since they actually had direct contact with the Prophet ﷺ, the Companions are thus the source for the exact wordings of the Qur’an, as well as for the Sunnah. An immense corpus of eyewitness reports about the sayings and actions of the Prophet ﷺ have been related by them – each report is called a “hadith”. The Companions, particularly the scholars and jurists among them, meticulously passed on this knowledge to their students from among the tabi‘un or “Successors” who, in turn, did the same with the next generation; and so on, to the present age.

This transmission; this passing down of knowledge, is what is depicted by the following hadith: ‘This knowledge shall be carried by the trustworthy ones of each generation: they will expel from it the distortions of the extremists, the concoctions of the liars; and the false interpretations of the ignorant.’9

These ‘udul or “trustworthy ones” are the scholars; the ‘ulema. Now the word ‘ulema just means: “learned ones”. The ‘ulema earn this recognition only after having extensively studied at the feet of authorised teachers and recognised religious authorities who went through a like process; and so on, in an unbroken chain going right back to the earliest religious authorities: the Companions. Because of this, the ‘ulema occupy an important place in Islam. They are no less than the guardians and interpreters of Sacred Knowledge. The Prophet ﷺ proclaimed: al-‘ulema warathatu’l- anbiya – ‘The scholars are the heirs of the prophets.’10

Presenting us with a window into this legacy, Ibn Rajab writes: ‘Allah has guaranteed to guard this Sacred Law and protect its followers from concurring upon misguidance and error. He raised from their midst a group that would never cease to be established upon the truth, victorious over those opposing them, until the Hour comes. He raised up those who would be the bearers of the Sacred Law: those who would defend it by the sword and tongue, and by proofs and clarifications. Which is why Allah appointed for this ummah – among the successors to the prophets and the bearers of proofs for each age – those who would specialise in meticulously preserving the actual wordings of the Sacred Law: guarding it from any additions or deletions; and those who would specialise in protecting its meanings and implications: guarding it against distortions and lies. The first are those versed in transmission (riwayah); the second are specialists in derivation (dirayah wa’l-ri‘ayah).

‘The Prophet ﷺ struck a similitude for these two groups, as is recorded in the Two Sahihs, where Abu Musa relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: “The example of what Allah has sent me with, of guidance and knowledge, is like that of a downpour of rain that falls upon parts of the earth. Some spots are fertile and accept the rainwater, bringing forth an abundance of pasture and greenery. Other parts are barren, but retain the water with which Allah benefits people, who use it to drink and sow. Others, still, are gullies which can neither hold water nor bring forth any pasturage. This is like a person who gains knowledge of the religion and benefits from what Allah sent me with; learning it and teaching it to others; and someone who pays no heed and rejects Allah’s guidance with which I was sent.”1112

Ibn Rajab, may Allah sanctify his soul, continues: ‘What the Prophet ﷺ said in the hadith of Abu Musa classifies hearts according to what they produce of knowledge and faith; whether or not they retain the water and sprout green pasture. Here, hearts are of three types:

‘A type that both retains the water and brings forth abundant pasture and herbage. This is like those who have the power to commit texts to heart, to comprehend and understand the religion, to gain insight into the finer points of interpretation, and to extract subtleties and treasures from the texts. Examples include: the Four Rightly-Guided Caliphs, ‘Ubayy b. Ka‘b, Abu’l-Darda’, Ibn Mas‘ud, Mu‘adh b. Jabal and Ibn ‘Abbas. They were followed by the likes of al-Hasan, Sa‘id b. al-Musayyib, ‘Ata’ and Mujahid. They were followed by the likes of Malik, Layth, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd, Abu Thawr and Muhammad b. Nasr al-Marwazi. These, and their like, are from those who were deeply versed in Allah’s laws, commands and prohibitions.

‘Their like also included: Uways, Malik b. Dinar, Ibrahim b. Adham, Fudayl b. ‘Iyad, Abu Sulayman, Dhu’l-Nun, Ma‘ruf, Junayd b. Muhammad, Sahl b. ‘Abd Allah, and al-Hirr b. Asad. They and their like are those who were deeply versed in Allah’s names, attributes, actions and days.13

‘The [second] type [of land] holds water and retains it, so that people may draw water and benefit from it [but doesn’t bring forth any herbage or pasturage]. They are those who have the power to commit texts to heart, accurately and precisely, but cannot infer rulings or extract meanings [from them]. Their likes also include Sa‘id b. Abi ‘Aruba, al-‘Amash, Muhammad b. Ja‘far Ghundar, ‘Abd al-Razzaq, ‘Amr al-Naqid and Muhammad b. Bashshar Bindar.

‘The third type are the worst of people [like land that neither holds water nor brings forth pasture]. For they do not learn or comprehend, nor do they transmit or understand. They are those who neither accept Allah’s guidance, nor do they pay any heed to it at all.14

Having let some fragrance of this classical legacy waft in through the window, Ibn Rajab concludes by saying:

‘The point here is that Allah protects this shari‘ah by raising up those who will be its carriers: the people of derivation and the people of transmission. Therefore a student of knowledge has to learn this from those who have already acquired it: i.e. the scholars. So he learns the wordings of the Qur’an and the hadiths from those who have meticulously preserved it: and he gains understanding of the religion – the outward laws of Islam and the inward realities of faith – from those who have mastered it.

‘The predominant state of the first three excellent generations was that they combined all of this. The Companions learnt all of this from the Prophet ﷺ; in turn, all this was learnt from them by their Successors: the following generation learning it from them.

‘During this time, the religious sciences were all unified. The distinctions between jurists (fuqaha) and traditionists (ahl al-hadith); scholars of legal theory (usul) and positive law (furu‘); sufi, faqr and zahid had yet to gain currency. Such distinctions became widespread after the first three generations. The [pious] predecessors (salaf), well they simply called those who possessed religious learning and practice, qurra’ – “Reciters.”‘15

1. Malik, al-Muwatta, no.2618, in balaghah form (i.e. “it has reached me”); al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, no.318; Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm, no.951; and others. Some, due to its collective chains, graded the hadith as hasan, if not sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.2937.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.5063; Muslim, no.1401.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.3250; Muslim, no.2535.

4. Ibn Abi Shaybah, al-Musannaf, no.32421. Its chain is hasan, as per Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahihah al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-’Ilmiyyah, 1989), 7:7.

5. Ahmad, Musnad, nos.114, 117, and it is sahih. Cf. al-Halabi, Hidayat al-Ruwat ila Takhrij Ahadith al-Masabih wa’l-Mishkat (Cairo: Dar Ibn ‘Affan, 2001), no.5957.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.3673; Muslim, no.2541.

7. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, 2:72:2. Its chain was graded hasan by al-‘Iraqi, Takhrij al-Ihya’ (Riyadh: Maktabah Tabariyyah, 1995), 1:25, no.78.

8. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2641, who said: “This elucidating hadith is hasan gharib.

9. Al-Khatib, Sharafu Ashab al-Hadith, 29. The hadith, with its collective chains, is hasan, according to al-Qastalani, Irshad al-Sari li Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: al-Matba‘ah al-Kubra al-Amiriyyah, n.d.), 1:4.

10. Abu Dawud, no.3641; al-Tirmidhi, no.2683. The hadith, with its multiple chains, yields a final grading of hasan. See: Ibn Hajr, Fath al-Bari, 1:212.

11. Al-Bukhari, no.79; Muslim, no.2282.

12. Majmu‘ al-Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Khadathiyyah li’l-Tiba‘ah wa’l-Nashr, 2002), 2:558.

13. Allah’s ‘days’ is a reference to Qur’an [14:5]: And We sent Moses with Our signs: “Bring your people out of the darknesses and into the light, and remind them of the days of Allah.” And [Q.45:14]: Tell the believers to forgive those who have no hope in the days of Allah. These “days” refer to momentous and defining events in the annals or history of a nation, in which we are meant to learn life lessons, deepen in mindfulness of Allah, and grow in spiritual practice. See: al-Sam‘ani, Tafsir al-Qur’an (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1997), 3:104.

14. Majmu‘ al-Rasa’il, 2:559-60.

15. ibid., 2:560-61.

Khawarij Ideology, ISIS Savagery: the Wahhabi Inspiration?

It has now been four years since I started this three part instalment. It’s been over three years since I wrote the rough outlines for this third and final part. One thing or another, however, stopped me from completing it. But given Saudi Arabia’s current socio-religious changes or transition under the Crown Prince Muhammad b. Salman; given how so many western ‘ISIS-brides’ wish to return home; given that the ISIS ‘caliph’ was recently killed, and given that even if ISIS as an entity has all but been vanquished, its kharijite ideology lives on, this seems as good a time as any to post the third and final part.

The first instalment of the blog (here) traced the ruthless and murderous pedigree of ISIS back to the first heterodox Muslim sect, the Khawarij. Anyone wishing to get to the nub of today’s Muslim political violence needs to first understand who or what the Khawarij are. Without understanding the religious component of this extremism and misuse of religion, any political analysis of the phenomenon is likely to be significantly flawed.

The second part (which can be read here) tackled ISIS’s claim of being a true caliphate, by addressing the question of what makes a caliphate legitimate in Islam? It also tackles the sensitive topic of jihad, beyond the usual cliches, and addresses whether a Muslim state wages jihad against a non-Muslim one because of their disbelief, or because it has shown hostile intent or aggression against a Muslim state?

This final part discusses the violent political programme which ISIS and al-Qaeda model themselves on: The Management of Savagery. It explains the rationale for the jihadi-takfiri worldview and violence. As for just how instrumental Saudi ‘Wahabbism’ has been to the mass takfir narrative, and to the ideology underpinning ISIS and al-Qaeda, that sits at the centre of our discussion. So with six fairly in-depth sections covered in the first two parts, here are the last five:

VII

In 2004, a treatise was posted on the internet which, as it turns out, was nothing less than a manifesto for global murder and mayhem. It was aptly and unblushingly entitled, idarat al-tawahhush – ‘The Management of Savagery.’ Published online, possibly by an al-Qaeda ideologue Abu Bakr Naji, its aim was to offer a definitive strategy for al-Qaeda and other such groups to establish an Islamic Caliphate.1 It laid out the various stages of the jihadi-takfiri violence in the following terms:

First comes the ‘stage of disruption and exhaustion’ wherein the enemy is politically worn down, economically drained and socially demoralised, by constant campaigns of violence and terror. ‘Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the Crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible,’ Naji writes, ‘so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.’

Hand in hand with the above stage comes ‘the management of savagery’. This is a phase of violent resistance and assault, with an emphasis of carrying out shockingly visible acts of terror. This serves as a glaring message to all its enemies, allies and sympathisers alike. Here the objective is to get the enemy, mainly the United States and its allies, to ‘abandon its war against Islam by proxy … and to force it to fight directly.’ Such media managed savagery is intended to recruit new youths into the takfiri fold and program and help push weaker regions of the Muslim world towards breakdown and savagery. Nothing can ever be achieved without the singular method of total warfare: ‘We must drag everyone into the battle in order to give life to those who deserve to live and destroy those who deserve to be destroyed,’ proclaimed the manifesto.

The final stage is to be the empowerment of ‘the regions of savagery’. Here, the sequence of events runs something like this: During “the management of savagery” steps, the first priority is to bring these regions under their administrative control. For such mayhem will spontaneously polarize those who live in these lawless regions of savagery and will drive these people, in their desperate desire to seek stability and security, into the arms of the jihadi-takfiris. ‘We will find,’ explained Naji, ‘that along with this first step there will be a continuous emigration of the youth of other regions to our regions’ in order to flee the anarchy and mayhem so as to live under some political stability. He also noted, of course: ‘There is a difference between the people accepting administration so that security may be provided for them and so forth, and between joining the ranks and working towards set goals and joining in the battle.’ Once under their control, the takfiri indoctrination and extremism can truly begin, and new soldiers and die-hard leaders can arise. About this, Naji wrote that, ‘speaking on the pulpit is easy, and in the newspaper even easier; and in books even easier than that. As for having [one’s] home destroyed and one’s family made homeless, or one’s mother and sister torn to pieces, only the most extraordinary men are capable of [bearing] that. Great leaders and hardened troops will not come forth save in an atmosphere like this.’

As for the relevance of Naji’s treatise, we need only look at how closely al-Qaeda sought to contour this manifesto in its strategies and actions, and how many of the plans laid out in the manifesto have already been carried out by ISIS!

VIII

Despite the plethora of fatwas (commencing two decades before, and right after, 9-11) by senior Salafi/Wahhabi scholars against unbridled takfir, suicide bombings, acts of terror and targeting civilians in war, as well as against political agitation and rebellion against Muslim state authority, a forceful argument has been made that the al-Qaeda/ISIS modus operandi is inspired, in significant part, by Wahhabism. So let’s look into the claim:

Now the idea that al-Qaeda and ISIS are inspired by Wahhabism is not anything strange; especially given how the works of Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d.1206H/1792CE), and books from other scholars from the same Wahhabi stream of thought, were a staple diet of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, and were/are core components of their educational curricula. But whilst that is very telling, the real issue is: did ISIS and al-Qaeda pick up their mass takfiri habbits from Wahhabi shaykhs, or is it something that the Saudi Wahhabi/Salafi scholars are free of? (I’m employing the terms Wahhabi and Salafi descriptively, not pejoratively; as well as using them interchangeably.) As for when a charge of takfir may or may not be made against an individual, and the conditions required to be actualised in doing so, I’ve explained the matter here.

It has long been alleged by the Muslim world, and most of its scholars, that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab didn’t just make takfir of certain specific individuals (which he certainly did), but more than that, he made mass takfir of whole Muslim societies and states; and that this mentality of mass takfir was carried on by his descendants and by other leading Wahhabi scholars and ideologues till our present time.

The more informed supporters of Shaykh Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his da‘wah will, at this point, demand that it is upon the accusers to bring a clear, unambiguous statement from him to support the allegation of mass takfir; and they’re quite right on insisting so. They may even point to specific statements from Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab refuting those who made such allegations against him during in his own lifetime – of which there are quite a few. From them are: ‘As for what has been mentioned to you that I make generalised takfir [of the masses] (takfir bi’l-‘umum), then this is from the lies of the enemies.’2 There’s also the following:

‘As for the lie and slander, its like is their saying that we make generalized takfir And when it is the case that we do not make takfir of those who worship the idol which is on the grave of ‘Abd al-Qadir [al-Jilani], or the idol upon the grave of Ahmad al-Badawi; and their likes – due to their ignorance and an absence of one to caution them – how could we then make takfir of those who does not commit shirk, when they do not migrate to us, nor make takfir of us, nor fight us?’3

His holding a certain act to be disbelief (kufr), but not accusing one who commits the act to be an unbeliever (kafir), is in keeping with a well known scholarly rule: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief becomes a disbeliever.’ And: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-shirk sara mushrik – ‘Not everyone who commits idolatry becomes an idolater.’ That is, scholars might judge a statement or act to be shirk or kufr, but refrain from declaring the one who utters such a statement or does such an act to be a mushrik or a kafir – either because of not being informed (or sufficiently informed) about the falseness of the act, or due to a mistaken interpretation that warrants giving them an excuse or amnesty.

There are these words too: ‘As for takfir, I only make takfir of whoever knows the religion of the Messenger ﷺ and thereafter insults it, forbids people from it, and manifests enmity towards whoever practices it. This is who I make takfir of. And most of the ummah, and all praise is for God, is not like this.’4

Of course, his detractors will take issue with some of the things he actually considers to be shirk or kufr, or what he included under the category of insulting the religion. Many will also point out that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, once he made an alliance with Ibn Sa‘ud, in 1744, inaugurating what is now called the first Saudi state, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab gave his loyalty and unyielding support to Ibn Sa‘ud, the amir of the new state. Ibn Sa‘ud, in turn, spread the doctrines of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab as a core part of his campaigns, killings and crusade, to bring the whole Najd province under his control. Opponents of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab will point out that he endorsed Ibn Sa‘ud’s “jihad” against the people in various regions of the Najd, and took booty from them, and that this is proof writ large that he made large scale takfir upon Muslims – as jihad is only waged against a disbelieving enemy! Eye witness Wahhabi chronicles of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers confirm that Ibn Sa‘ud did wage jihad against various peoples and provinces in the Najd: something these chronicles talk about with much pride and a great deal of satisfaction.5 So is this not a proof of mass takfir? It might well be!

What strengthens these allegations is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, in the year 1165H/1752CE, declared that the town of Huraymila had apostatised from Islam; including his very own brother Sulayman, their judge (qadi). That is, he made takfir of the whole town. Jihad was duly waged against them, and the booty was distributed among the Wahhabi warriors.6 If we add to this fatwa of town takfir, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s claim that in the Najd, only he alone knew the true meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah; not even the other scholars did, then it’s not surprising that mass takfir and the shedding of Muslim blood is seen to be his legacy. Here are his words:

‘And I inform you of myself – by God, whom there is none deserving of worship save Him: I sought knowledge, and those who knew me believed I had knowledge whilst I did not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah at that time, nor know the religion of Islam, before this goodness that God graced me with. Such was also the case with my teachers; there was no man among them who knew [any of] this. And if someone from the scholars of this and the surrounding areas claims he knew the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah, or knew the meaning of Islam before this time, or claims about his teachers that someone from them knew that, then he has lied, uttered falsehood, hoodwinked the people, and praised him with something he doesn’t possess.’7

Remember, we are not discussing whether such statements constitute sheer arrogance or some devilish narcissism. Rather, we are looking at the question: Did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make mass takfir upon Muslims, from which outfits and misfits like ISIS have taken their cue? Although takfir of even one individual, without the conditions or impediments being taken into consideration, or without the pious caution which is a hallmark of mainstream Islamic orthodoxy, is abhorrent and misguidance. That said:

An argument is made that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s policy was one of noninterference in the military activities of Ibn Sa‘ud, not active support or religious legitimation for them. That is to say, the shaykh’s attempts at religious reform were being eclipsed by the amir’s quest for state consolidation and material prosperity. By the time Ibn Sa‘ud had died, in 1767, and was succeeded by his son ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the Wahhabi capital of Dir‘iyyah, rather than being famous as a centre of learning, became known instead for its opulence, wealth and strength. According to Ibn Bishr, people had grown weary of holding back their desires.8 The sources will have to be scrutinised to see just how well the argument holds up, and to evaluate if Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s takfir of the whole town of Huraymila was an exception to the rule. What is beyond a shadow of a doubt is that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s da‘wah was used as justification – first by Ibn Sa‘ud, then his son – to kill, slaughter and assassinate multitudes of Muslims during Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s own lifetime; there being no public word of condemnation or unambiguous dissent recorded from him.

Again, it’s been suggested that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab had a tendency to withdraw from Ibn Sa‘ud’s company during jihad operations. Be that as it may, what we do know is that the shaykh withdrew from his public position, in the year 1773, six years into the rule of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Sa‘ud; and focused on teaching and authoring. He died nineteen years later, at the age of ninety-two, in 1792.

So did Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab make takfir? Yes he did; of, it appears, many individuals and at least one entire town. The contention was usually the issue of istighathah – calling on righteous, deceased persons for the fulfilment of a need. Unlike al-Razi or Ibn ‘Aqil before him who described the act as being shirk or kufr,9 Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab went steps further and made takfir of actual individuals who engaged in the act – after what he considered to be iqamat al-hujjah or “establishment of the proof” against them. As for mass takfir, the pro-Wahhabi sources do not mention it, except for Huraymila; and anti-Wahhabi sources, which I’ve chosen to avoid for this discussion, are adamant that he did! And Allah knows best.

After his demise, the first Saudi state expanded rapidly, growing even richer. It conquered Karbala, in 1802; and captured Makkah, in 1803. It reached its zenith in 1818, when it was vanquished by the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha. It is during the years of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s sons and grandsons, however, that we see categorical mass takfir being made. And that’s what we’ll address next:

IX

The Ottoman-Egyptian armies of Muhammad ‘Ali landed in Arabia, in 1811, reestablishing their control over the Hijaz, and also sacking the capital of the first Saudi state, Dir‘iyyah, in 1818. What helped this all out victory is that large pockets of Arabs, either unconvinced with Wahhabism; disaffected with it; or unhappy with the Sa‘ud (Saudi) state moving into their provinces and wresting control from them, welcomed Muhammad ‘Ali’s armies and lent support to them. In fact, even during a truce between Muhammad ‘Ali and the Saudi state, in 1815, many of these dissatisfied people called for the resumption of attacks upon Saudi-Wahhabi forces. Unsurprisingly, the Wahhabi scholars considered such support to a foreign invasion as a serious act of treachery and disloyalty.

During this political upheaval, Sulayman b. ‘Abd Allah (d.1818), a grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and one of the leading Wahhabi scholars of the time, wrote a tract on the highly sensitive topic of al-wala’ wa’l-bara’a – “Loyalty and Disavowal” – placing it in the context of the Saudi-Ottoman war.10 In it he asserts that any Muslim showing loyalty (muwalat, wala’) to the idolators – of whom he includes the Ottomans – is an idolator like them. The treaties opens with this passage: ‘Realise, may God have mercy upon you, that if a person manifests conformity (muwafaqah) to the religion of the idolators (mushrikin), from fear of them; or flattering them; or compromising so as to ward off harm from them, then he is a disbeliever like them – even if he detests their religion, loathes them, and loves Islam and the Muslims.’11 He continues by saying that those Arabs who assisted the Ottomans with loyalty, support or wealth, allied with them, conformed to their religion, and severed their connection to the [Wahhabi-Saudi] Muslims, ‘become from the soldiers of [worshipping] domes [over graves] (al-qubbab), and idolatry and its people.’12

Another core dimension of wala’ and bara’ah addressed in the tract, and another cause to excommunicate other Muslims, is the issue of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar – “seeking help from the unbelievers” against other Muslims. Citing the verse: O you who believe! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends and allies, they are friends and allies one to another. Whoever amongst you takes them for friends and allies is of them. Indeed, God guides not an unjust people, [Q.5:51] the tract declares: ‘Such is the ruling upon one who allies themselves with the unbelievers from the Magians or the worshippers of idols: then he is of them.’13 By the latter depiction, he means the Ottomans. And once the idea of wala’ and bara’ah had been weaponised in this way, it would have serious repercussions for our contemporary times; as we shall see in sections ten and eleven.

Other statements of mass Ottoman takfir include: Sa‘ud b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, the third ruler of the first Saudi state (r. 1803-1814). In one of his letters to an Ottoman governor, he writes: ‘But if you continue upon this condition of yours, and do not repent from the shirk you are upon; nor adhere to the religion of God with which He sent his Messenger; nor abandon idolatry and innovations, we will never cease fighting you until you return to the upright religion of God, and traverse its Straight Path.’14

And if anyone was having doubts about the legitimacy of this mass takfir of the Ottomans, ‘Abd Allah, son of ‘Abd al-Latif – the latter being the most learned Wahhabi scholar of his time – wrote: ‘Whoever does not acknowledge the disbelief (kufr) of the [Ottoman] State, nor differentiate between them and Muslim rebels (bughat), does not know the meaning of la ilaha illa’Llah! If, along with that, he believes the State is Muslim, then this is worse and is graver. This is what is [considered] doubting the disbelief of one who disbelieves in God, or commits shirk with Him. So whosoever aids and abets them against the Muslims, with any type of help, then this is clear-cut apostasy.’15

In fact, the fatwas, tracts and writings of the Wahhabi ‘ulema are replete with the verdict, and unanimous in their conviction, that the Ottoman empire was a disbelieving state; that it was dar al-harb – a “land or war” – exempting those towns, villages or settlements that accepted the Wahhabi da‘wah; and that the Al al-Sa‘ud, the Saudi ruling dynasty, was the true caliphate (khilafah).

Thus, Ibn Sa‘ud’s biography in al-Durar al-Saniyyah describes him as the ‘khalifah in Najd from the [Islamic] year 1157-1179; and the khilafah has continued through his descendants till now.’16 ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan, a prominent Wahhabi scholars of his age during the second Saudi state, described the reign of ‘Abd Allah b. Faysal (r. 1865-1871) as khilafah nubuwwah – ‘caliphate [upon the pattern of] prophethood.’17 And to a previous ruler, he addresses him as: imam al-muslimin wa khalifah sayyid al-mursalin – ‘leader of Muslims, and caliph of the master of the messengers.’18 So the vexing question about whether the Wahhabi-Saudi alliance rebelled against the Ottoman caliphate need not be asked. For in the Wahhabi worldview, the Ottomans were mushriks, and hence had no Islamic rule, let alone being caliphs. In fact, in this worldview, it was the mushrik Ottomans who rebelled against the [Wahhabi-Saudi] caliphate!

X

For our purpose, the Saudi story doesn’t quite end here. Although the victory over the first Saudi state was thorough and complete, by 1824, Turki b. ‘Abd Allah had retaken Riyadh. This marked the beginning of the second Saudi state. Things were going along pretty well, particularly during the reign of Turki’s son, Faysal. But when Faysal died in 1865, and his son, ‘Abd Allah, became the new ruler, this is where the story takes on a greater relevance for our times.

‘Abd Allah’s legitimacy was militarily challenged by his brother Sa‘ud. And although he managed to keep the reigns of leadership for several years, Sa‘ud took power in 1871. For the next decade or so, the second Saudi state was enmeshed in a civil war which erupted between the two brothers. In the same year, in 1871, ‘Abd Allah wrested back control; two years later, in 1873, Sa‘ud seized control for a second time. His reign lasted two years, but in 1875 he was replaced by ‘Abd al-Rahman. A year later, ‘Abd Allah regained power and reigned until his death in 1889. The above ‘Abd al-Rahman succeeded him and reigned for two more years by which time, weakened by all the political infighting, the second Saudi state (with very little territorial expansion during its time, and with diminished religious zeal) was led to its demise in 1891. Ibn Sa‘ud – having regained control of Riyadh in 1902, and most of the Arabian cities and regions by 1926 – established the third, modern Saudi state in 1932; formally calling it the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The point of this history is that they way ‘Abd Allah regained leadership (for a third time) from ‘Abd al-Rahman, was by calling upon the Ottomans for help and support. Although most Wahhabi scholars of the time viewed soliciting the Ottoman “mushriks” for political support to be a necessity, a small, yet powerful clique of leading Wahhabi scholars were incensed by this. Harkening back to the treatise of Sulayman, the grandson of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab in his treatment of wala’ and bara’ah, and of al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar, as well as add their own take on the matter, they declared that this amounted to an act of disbelief and duly made takfir upon Ibn ‘Ajlan, the Wahhabi judge who backed ‘Abd Allah’s decision. At the forefront of the charge was the preeminent Wahhabi scholar of the time, ‘Abd al-Latif b. ‘Abd al-Rahman Al al-Shaykh (d.1876) and Ibn ‘Atiq (d.1883). The latter wrote a tract on the issue, entitled: Sabil al-Najat wa’l-Fikak min Muwalat al-Murtaddin wa’l-Atrak – “Path of Salvation and of Separation from Loyalty to the Apostates and the Turks.”19

The tract commences with a few hadith citations, one of which states that the ummah will fight the unbelieving Turks (al-turk al-kuffar) described as having small eyes, ruddy faces, flat noses and faces like leather shields.20 He laments how so many Muslims have fallen into love, loyalty and imitation of non-Muslim ways and lifestyles.21 But the most novel and significant thing to come out of the treatise is that Ibn  ‘Atiq didn’t just emphasise not having wala’ for non-Muslims as a foundational part of faith, but that Muslims must also show bara’ah towards non-Muslims by actively disavowing them and showing contempt for them. So whilst Sulayman’s Dala’il spoke about the unlawful, inadmissible wala’, Ibn ‘Atiq’s Sabil shifted the emphasis to compulsory bara’ah.22

Fast-forward a century or so, and the fatwas of Shaykh Sulayman and Ibn ‘Atiq were given a new lease of life in the writings of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (b.1959).23 Inspired by the proof-texts and textual arguments in the Dala’il and Sabil, al-Maqdisi penned (1984) his Millat Ibrahim – “The Religious Way of Life of Abraham” – where he restated the duty to show enmity towards shirk and the mushriks, as part of having true faith, preferably by waging jihad against them. In it, he also re-weaponised wala’ and bara’ah by calling for jihad against what he deemed as nominal or token Muslim states and rulers.24 Ironically, whilst the establishment Saudi scholars had all but disregarded these 19th century tracts on wala’ and bara’ah, and had for varying rationales sanitised and depoliticised them, al-Maqdisi quoted freely and extensively from them, demonstrating their political relevance for today’s Muslim world. Summarising the radical jihadi-takfiri imperative, al-Maqdisi, wrote: ‘Know that from the most particular traits of the Abrahamic way of life, and most important of its essentials, which we see most of the callers in our age falling extremely short in – in fact, most have forsaken them and have let them die out – are: [i] Manifesting bara’ah against the idolators and their false objects of worship; [ii] Proclaiming disbelief in them, their deities, and their methods, legislations and idolatrous laws; [iii] Initiating enmity and hatred of them and their statutes and conditions of disbelief until they return to God; abandoning all of this, disavowing it all and disbelieving in it. God, exalted is He, stated: There is an excellent example for you in Abraham and those who followed him, when they said to their people: ‘We are free of you and that which you worship besides God. We disavow you; and enmity and hatred has arisen between us, until you believe in God alone.’ [Q.60:4]’25

It is his al-Kawashif al-Jaliyyah fi Kufr al-Dawlah al-Sa‘udiyyah – “The Evident Unveilings Concerning the Disbelief of the Saudi State” (1989) which took the Wahhabi weaponised understanding of wala’ and bara’ah to what appears to be its logical conclusion: accusing Saudi Arabia of being a kafir, infidel state. Again, drawing upon Wahhabi scholarship of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; and the twentieth century former Senior Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Muhammad b. Ibrahim Al al-Shaykh (d.1969), al Maqdisi insists that Saudi Arabia is a kafir state from three principle angles:

Firstly, that the kingdom, although it legislates with certain shari‘ah laws, also legislates with man-made laws in place of, as well as along with, many shari‘ah prescriptions. Al-Maqdisi calls the kingdom’s attempts at making people believe that it only legislates with shari‘ah laws as ‘an obvious lie!’26 He then goes on to devote the next ten pages or more documenting law after law after law that Saudi Arabia has legislated with respect to home affairs and foreign policy, and which violate shari‘ah teachings.27 To add insult to injury, he also records a volley of fatwas and letters by the former mufti, Muhammad b. Ibrahim wherein he rejects a whole raft of laws the kingdom introduces and which he believed was in opposition to the shari‘ah: these letters also advise the kingdom’s movers and shakers to keep to the straight and narrow, but to little or no avail.28 During this meticulous, yet scathing censure of how the kingdom has adopted man-made laws contrary to the norms of Islamic legislation, al-Maqdisi also marshals certain Quranic verses to nail the point; verses such as: Do they have partners [with God] who have made lawful for them in religion that for which God has not authorised? [Q.42:21] Also: Have you not seen those who pretend that they believe in what is sent down to you and what was sent down before you? They seek the judgement of false gods, although they are ordered to reject them. [Q.4:60] And: Is it a judgement of ignorance that they seek? Who is better in judgement than God for people who have sure faith? [Q.5:50] It should be noted, that despite Muhammad b. Ibrahim’s rejection of certain laws the kingdom introduced, he never once made takfir of the government, or deemed Saudi to be an unIslamic country (even if it did have some unIslamic laws).

Secondly, the kingdom has accepted membership of certain foreign organisations, such as the International Court of Justice and the United Nations, with its Charter, that govern on the basis of man-made laws. Such membership is an endorsement of man-made laws, and man-made laws are tawaghit (sing. taghut) – “false objects of worship” besides Allah.29

Thirdly, al-Maqdisi tries to demonstrate that Saudi Arabia’s ties with, and dependency on, the United States is a reason for it being a kafir state. This he does by giving a detailed, pedantic account of Saudi defense expenditure, showing that although the kingdom has spent billions of dollars on weaponry, Saudi still has a weak and incompetent army. This, he asserts, is because most of this military budget is spent on American advisors, soldiers, trainers and planners who are employed by the kingdom, not for Saudi interests, but for America’s (and for its main ally in the region, Israel).30

Al-Maqdisi’s radical solution to this Saudi ‘fitnah’, as he put it, is simply migration (hijrah) and jihad.31 Migration away from the kingdom (to where, he doesn’t really say), and then jihad against it (as well as against all other Muslim majority states and their leaders who have also substituted (tabdil) divine legislation with man-made laws). Writing about the Kuwaiti constitution, by then a typical example of legislators in Muslim lands replacing shari‘ah rulings with man made laws in their bid to modernise, al-Maqdisi wrote: ‘Before all else, you must disbelieve in this idol –  the [Kuwaiti] constitution and its laws – hate it, show enmity to it, disavow it, and not be pleased or submit except to the rule of God alone. This is so that one actualises the meaning of la illaha illa’Llah … And just as it is obligatory upon you to disavow this idol – i.e. the constitution and its laws – it is likewise obligatory on you to disavow everyone who defends it, protects its laws, and persists in legislating it and enslaving people to it.’32 In other words, enmity is not just to the laws themselves, but also to those who uphold them and defend them: be it rulers, legislators, bureaucrats, army, police, or the secret services. Such an outlook, slow to take off at first, would soon become the pivotal rationale for the jihadi-takfiri program – particularly after the First Gulf war of 1990.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Ottoman tanzimat reforms, which started in 1836, saw many shari‘ah laws being replaced with man-made laws; largely based on the Napoleonic Code and French law. It is this tabdil or “substitution” of shari‘ah laws, alongside Ottoman ideas of istighathah and their contravention of wala’ and bara’ah, that were the principle factors animating Wahhabi takfir of the Ottoman empire.

What is important to note in all of this is that al-Maqdisi draws heavily on the fatwas and works of preeminent eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi scholars like Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, Sulayman, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. Hasan and Ibn ‘Atiq. In his view, and the jihadi-takfiri cohort which was beginning to grow and mature around him and transnationally, Wahhabism was the doctrine giving legitimacy to the Saudi state; but the Saudi dynasty has for a long time now been biting the hand that feeds it, so to speak, thereby losing the right to govern. Wahhabi theology, once used to confer validity on the Saudi dynasty, had come full circle and was now being used to pull down the House of Sa‘ud! And as black and white, hostile, extreme, and devoid of compassionate concern for human welfare the traditional, non-Wahhabi ‘ulema find the Wahhabi worldview to be, there’s no mistaking al-Maqdisi’s pedigree: it is thoroughly Wahhabi, through and through.

XI

Al-Maqdisi’s voice was not a native Saudi one, being born in the West Bank. It would be a whole ten years after publishing his Kashf al-Niqab (1988) and his Kawashif, and almost fifteen years after his Millat Ibrahim, that the isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar theme would be raised by a native Saudi scholarly voice; putting it into, as al-Maqdisi did, a contemporary context. The first of these voices was that of Humud b. ‘Uqala (1927-2002), who penned al-Qawl al-Mukhtar fi Hukm al-Isti‘anah bi’l-Kuffar (1999). A few other voices followed, like al-‘Uyayri (d.2003), who was the first leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Nasr b. Hamd al-Fahd. After 9/11, it wasn’t just a case of the jihadi-takfiris accusing the Saudis of seeking help from the [American] disbelievers. But due to their participation in the U.S.-led ‘war on terror’, they could be accused of another act of kufr: of helping the disbelievers against other Muslims.

It must, of course, be said that other Salafi scholars have written rebuttals of al-Maqdisi’s views, attempting to offer alternative interpretations whilst trying to remain faithful to the classical Salafi-Wahhabi worldview. Muhammad b. ‘Umar Bazmul’s Mudhakkirah al-Radd ‘ala Kutub Mashbuhah, and Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Ra’is, are two such rebuttals. Both tracts attempt to defend Saudi against the takfir charges, and demonstrate how al-Maqdisi’s lack of scholarly credentials and nuance in such delicate issues, and his hastiness and generalisations, are his downfall. Bazmul noted that in his introduction, al-Maqdisi says: ‘I composed these pages out of an urgency of the matter and restricted time. I haven’t spent much time [doing so], nor a lot of effort.’33 To this, Bazmul retorts: ‘This, may God guide him, is what he says about giving such a critical matter its due.’34

Al-Ra’is, while clarifying the issue of al-wala wa’l-bara’ah, writes that some have gone to extremes in understanding the Quranic verses on the topic, while others have fallen short of what is required. He then said: ‘Of those who have gone into extremes in the matter; in fact, the utmost extreme, is this obstinate al-Maqdisi.’35 He then runs through the types of relationships with non-Muslims in respect to wala and bara’ah, seeking to put verses like: You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] in their proper context. He explains, in fairly typical Salafi fashion, that wala (love, loyalty) for the non-Muslims is of three categories: Firstly, loving a non-Muslim due to their religion or beliefs: this itself is clear-cut disbelief. The Quranic verse applies in this case: Whoever turns to them is of them. [Q.5:51] Secondly, loving a non-Muslim for a worldly motive or reason. This is forbidden and sinful, but not disbelief. You will not find a people who believe in God and the Last Day loving those who oppose God and His Messenger … [Q.58:22] speaks to this. Thirdly, natural love, affection or affinity (wala’ tab‘i, hubb tab‘i) for a non-Muslim due to them being one’s parents, siblings, wife (in the case of a Muslim man being married to a Jewish or Christian lady); or a kind and loveable relative or close friend. The Qur’an says to the Prophet ﷺ about the guidance of his dear uncle, Abu Talib, who was a non-Muslim: You cannot guide whom you love, but God guides whomsoever He wills. [Q.28:56]36 So this is the more nuanced Salafi-Wahhabi take on wala and bara’ah, contrasted with al-Maqdisi’s jihadi-takfir notions, and seemingly even those of nineteenth century Wahhabi thought.

It would be useful to research (if it hasn’t already been done so) just how well highlighted the idea of a natural wala has been in the writings of Salafi shaykhs before 9-11, and how much has come as an afterthought. For it is seldom enough just to have the correct stance. Often, it’s also a case of how one emphasises an issue or downplays it that has a crucial bearing on sound Islamic education and nurturing. 

Ruling by other than the judgement of God (hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah) likewise has its nuances, as well as a difference of opinion between Wahhabi-Salafi scholars. Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim elucidated what looks to be the dominant stance of senior Salafi-Wahhabi jurist-theologians on the matter. He explains that the disbelief (kufr) of ruling by other than God’s judgement is of two types: the greater form of kufr, which takes a person out of the fold of Islam, and a lesser kufr, which makes a person a sinful Muslim; but not an apostate. He says that the greater kufr involves:

[i] To totally reject judging by God’s judgments, believing it is not required at all. [ii] The belief that some other judgement or system of legislation is better than God’s law. [iii] The belief that another judgement is equal to, but not better than, God’s judgement. [iv] The belief that it is permissible to give a judgment that opposes the judgement of God – even if one believes nothing is equal to, or better than, God’s laws. [v] To judge by one’s tribal or cultural norms and conventions, in complete disregard for God’s laws. [vi] To substitute the shari‘ah and shari‘ah courts with man-made systems of legislation, root and branch. As for the lesser kufr, which Ibn ‘Abbas explained was: ‘Disbelief lesser than [the greater] disbelief (kufr duna kufr)’, it is when someone judges in opposition to God’s judgement, whist believing it is forbidden and that one is sinful for doing so.37 Is not God the best of Judges? [Q.95:8] speaks to all the above, as does: Whoever judges not by what God has sent down, such are the disbelievers. [Q.5:44]

About the last category of tabdil – “substituting”, “replacing” the shari‘ah with man-made laws from top to bottom; completely or predominantly, Muhammad b. Ibrahim said: ‘This is the greater, most extensive, clearest obstinacy against the shari‘ah; haughtiest rejection of its laws; and worst defiance of its law-courts [in terms of] organisation, maintenance, provisions, foundations, branches, forms, types, rulings, diktats, or sources of reference. For just as the shari‘ah courts have their reference points they refer to – each relying on the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Messenger ﷺ – then these courts that judge with a patchwork of disparate man-made laws also have their reference points; be it the French, American, British, or other legal systems … So what disbelief is more audacious than this? Or what greater opposition is there to the testimony that Muhammad ﷺ is the Messenger of God?’38

Other Salafi scholars, in concert with most other non-Wahhabi ones, hold the view that the act of tabdil alone isn’t sufficient to prove disbelief or apostasy in one’s heart, unless accompanied by istihlal – a verbal affirmation that one “believes it to be lawful” to do so. This was the view held by Bin Baz (d.1999), al-Albani (d.1999) and a few other prominent Salafi scholars.39 What that means is that one cannot declare a ruler or a government to be apostates, unless and until they verbally declare their belief that the man-made rules they have substituted, instituted, or inherited are permissible to judge by in opposition to the shari‘ah. Therefore, such governments or leaders are, at best, sinners; not apostates.

So where are we in all this politics and theology? Well the fact remains, whilst the views of the Saudi establishment scholars concerning the Islamic forbiddance of suicide bombings or targeting civilians can and has made significant inroads in the deradicalising process, they appear to be struggling to win the argument against the jihadi-takfiris in other areas such as hukm bi ghayr ma anzala’Llah and isti‘anah. For here, the latter have the firm and decisive support of early Wahhabi fatwas and theology. Not only that, but the way Middle-Eastern politics has and is unfolding, and the current liberalesque reforms in Saudi, only serve to exacerbate the situation. There is, of course, a flip side to all this extremism and radicalism. The voices of our ‘ulema have, since 9-11, been key in combating jihadi-takfiri extremism head on; with the Salafi ‘ulema addressing these concerns earlier still – since possibly the 1980s. Another factor in deradicalisation is simply age: young people who may hold radical views about politics, or about the world and their place in it, will often grow out of their black and white take on things when they grow into the responsibilities of life, marriage, job and family. There’s also the growing mistrust with the promises of Islamism (although the term is semantically problematic, I use it for lack of a better one), particularly after the Arab Spring. And while the Muslim world reconsiders the pros and cons of anti-government protests and uprisings, the ummah is in dire need of a prophetic uprising; that’s for sure. Religious burn outs and religious apathy may, in part, be behind this mistrust: but they are two more reasons for a reduction in extremism. Another is that a large and growing part of the ummah, especially its younger elements, just wish to live a worldly life; have fun; and catch up (or keep up, as the case may be) with the rest of the “progressive” world! Lastly, there are government-orchestrated deradicalisation programs for which, I suppose, we ought to be guardedly thankful.

But seeds had been sown. In the 1980s, al-Maqdisi revived the writings of eighteenth and nineteenth century Wahhabi ‘ulema on the incendiary socio-political topics of wala and bara’ah, and al-isti‘anah bi’l-kuffar. In the 1990s, a group of diehards centred on Humud b. ‘Uqala propagated al-Maqdisi’s books and ideas, and soon added their own works to his. ‘Uqala et al. were pivotal in convincing a generation of how they should hold firmly to the pure Wahhabi ideals, unsullied by the state’s more palatable version of Wahhabism; and how they should stand against Western intrusion and hate both it and the West. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, after 9-11, provided just the right pretext to demonstrate that contempt and bara’ah. We must add to the mix certain jihadi-takfiri foot soldiers, like al-Maqdisi’s one time prodigy, al-Zarqawi (d.2006). Al-Zarqawi, ideologically forged by al-Maqdisi; but his time as actual practitioner of war, terror and mass murder in Afghanistan and Iraq, in the early 2000s, in contrast to a jihadi-takfiri academic like al-Maqdisi, earned this jihadi thug a sizeable following. This self-proclaimed leader of ‘Al-Qaeda in the land of the two rivers’ took his ideas of takfiri terror to new heights, disturbing people like his former mentor and even Bin Laden! And so it is that a mixture of Wahhabi ideology, their application to the contemporary Muslim world by al-Maqdisi, al-‘Uqala, and co., al-Naji’s Management of Savagery, and the grassroots strategies of terror devised by the likes of al-Zarqawi, became the potent mixture that would form the operational basis for the jihadi-takfiri outlook of ISIS and their like. That this well-defined program and outlook is wholly khariji; of Kharijite nature and nurturing, should be of little doubt.

Today’s jihadi-takfiris extend their jihad to all rulers over Muslims states, along with their armies, police force and government administrators. The political logic behind the enmity and violence is simply that: [i] Hakimiyyah, (“sovereignty”, “judgement”) belongs solely to God. [ii] Today’s rulers do not judge by God’s laws, hence they are disbelievers (kuffar). [iii] It is obligatory to fight against them, remove them and replace them with true Muslim leaders. [iv] Those who side with such rulers (be they scholars, bureaucrats, or citizens) are also disbelievers. [v] Since the rulers are disbelievers, all their covenants of security, and domestic or international treatises, are null and void. Only the jihadi-takfiris are true Muslims; hence political violence must fill our cities! For them, fighting and acts of terror are ideally for tamkin – “consolidating” or “establishing” authority over a particular piece of land or region; and if not, then for nikayah – inflicting as much harm, damage, murder and mayhem as possible. Even if one takes out the first two pillar about hakimiyyah, and convince the jihadi-takfiris about the correctness of the second view on tabdil, it only gets replaced with: [i] Wala’ should only be for God and Islam. [ii] Today’s rulers do not have wala for God, Islam or its laws, hence they are disbelievers!

This, then, is the jihadi-takfiri agenda; inspired – in great part – by original, authoritative Wahhabi teachings. And while groups like al-Qaeda or ISIS emotionally employ atrocities of Western foreign policy in Muslim countries, Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, or the murder and tyranny of brutal dictators against their Muslim citizens, as a recruitment tool and motivator; and while many who join their terrorist bandwagons may not be clued up about the details of the core jihadi-takfiri philosophy, the real driver for their raison d’être and savage activism are the above five pillars of their religious-political logic. It is not only Western foreign policies and interventions in the Middle-East and Palestinian grievances that need to be redressed. But to truly take the sting out of these terrorist outfits and their ideologues, we ask that our ‘ulema continue to deconstruct their falsehood, twisted logic and extremism – especially as it concerns the Quranic understanding of wala’ and bara’ah and al-hukm bi ghayri ma anzala’Llah – “ruling by other than the judgement of God”. But merely contenting ourselves with labelling them Kharijites and terrorists, and not tackling their warped understanding of these delicate religious texts and concepts head-on, we do our religion; ourselves; and the wider world a possible disservice.

Conclusion: Whether blaming Wahhabism (and indirectly, Saudi Arabia) for acts of terror carried out in Islam’s name is a red herring or not has been fiercely debated for over two decades. Yet while it is true that there is no single-cause explanation behind why people join terrorist groups, Wahhabi ideas are certainly the main driver behind the jihadi-takfiri worldview – as evinced by the fact that all its main ideologues subscribe to the Wahhabi-Salafi form of religion. We have further seen that even if the charge of mass takfir against Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab seems to be inconclusive; or at best, untrue, mass takfir is undoubtedly found from his descendants and other leading Wahhabi scholars in the end part of the first Saudi state, and throughout the era of the second Saudi state. Given how the earliest Wahhabi historians, Ibn Ghannam and Ibn Bishr, weren’t shy of recording the takfir verdicts (large scale or otherwise) of Wahhabi ‘ulema – in fact, it often seems like a badge of honour – one would expect them to have chronicled any mass takfir of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab himself, if he had done so. And God knows best.

Again, while there are complex political, economical or psychological reason people join terrorist outfits like ISIS; and while other conservative, apolitical forms of Salafism (even if there is religious intolerance), do not necessarily lead to becoming terrorists, we noted how al-Maqdisi infused a new lease of life into the takfir fatwas of the 18th & 19th century leading Wahhabi ‘ulema, which would soon become the very backbone of the jihadi-takfiri worldview and activism.

Likewise, it is absurd to suggest that would-be terrorists, especially in Britain and Europe, end up joining or supporting ISIS by wandering from mosque to mosque or trawling the internet, and stumbling upon the book Kitab al-Tawhid by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, then a few weeks later the book incites them to make their way to Syria, or to plot terrorist attacks in their native countries. The reality is far more involved than that. Yet that mustn’t obscure the fact that core Wahhabi tenets are the linchpin for today’s jihadi-takfiri ideas. Certainly, Sayyid Qutb (d.1966) may have partly inspired some core al-Qaeda members, though less so core ISIS ones. And yes, he may have supplied some of the jihadi-takfiri vocabulary and context. But there is no doubt that the bulk of the jihadi-takfiri theological scaffolding and inspiration is decidedly Wahhabi. Starting with early Wahhabi takfir writings, through to al-Maqdisi, then ‘Uqala and others, the pillars of the jihadi-takfiri method were forged: [1] Hakimiyyah. [2] Apostasy of all the rulers. [3] Jihad against the apostate rulers and regimes to establish an Islamic State. [4] The only viable means to change secular Muslim states is the bullet, not the ballot box. [5] The inevitable conflict between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); between the jihaditakfiris and the rest.

As for the non-Wahhabi, classically-trained ‘ulema: In general, for much of the twentieth century these ‘ulema scrutinised the contents of the shari‘ah, in order to accord Muslims some principled accommodation with the emerging global reality. As it happens, Islam’s legal tools were well-disposed to the task. The juristic tool of tahqiq al-manat – identifying the context for laws so as to ascertain their current form and application, and maslahah mursalah – taking account of public interest and utility, moved the legalists of the major centres of Muslim scholarship in the direction of acclimatisation and adaption. Yet while it’s not Islam’s calling to conform to the age – it is, after all, the great global dissent – it can and must furnish Muslims with the spiritual and social technologies required to live in the age and navigate its eclectic mix of challenges. More than that, true religion must offer people insights into how best to heal modernity’s discontents and despair too.

Those doctors of Islam’s legal tools, who are also blessed with being spiritually rooted in the realities of ihsan, teach us that God’s law exists to instantiate mercy not severity; ease not hardship; good news (tabshir) not alienation (tanfir). They insist that today’s times call for tashil; facilitation, but not tasahul; slackness or over-leniency. And that far from caving-in to secular modernity, as the short-sighted or fiqh-less zealots believe, this path maintained a wise, far-sighted openness to gentleness, which long predated the advent of the modern world. Sufyan al-Thawri stated: ‘In our view, knowledge entails granting legal concessions (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’40 Sayyiduna ‘Ali, may God be pleased with him, once said: ‘The scholar is not the one to cause people to despair of God’s mercy, nor to give them licence to sin.’41

Such scholars were also concerned about pseudo-scholars and charlatans, and the weak-spirited, not turning Islam into as many things as modernity wants Religion to be; in that Islam’s texts are twisted and tortured so as to make them compliant with whatever “ism” that happens to be modernity’s prevailing mood or zeitgeist: be it humanism, secularism, materialism, or nationalism; or in more recent times, liberalism, individualism, feminism, etc. Such concerns were not unjustified!

Some of the ‘ulema were also quick to realise that whatever political or religious spectrum Muslims advocate, most Muslim activism and movements that sought change, throughout the twentieth century till today, are locked in the logic of modernity, and can only operate within its hegemonic parameters. Islam, however, premised on the Adamic fitrah and the prophetic Sunnah, lies outside the monoculture’s plethora of philosophies, and so cannot be made subordinate to it. And this is why Islam is, and continues to be, the great global dissent from the totalising ideology of liberal modernity. 

Another insight of the ‘ulema was that one cannot simply go crashing into the juggernaut of modernity, as it has a tendency to flatten anything that comes charging at it. Therefore, instead of the Wahhabi obsession of defining what we are against, these ‘ulema privileged the notion of what we are for. Of course, shirk is shirk and tawhid is tawhid, and never the twain shall meet. Thus, for example, a Muslim’s relationship with non-Muslims would be guided by privileging this Quranic passage over others: God does not forbid you in terms of those who neither wage war against you on account of your religion, and nor drive you from your homes, from being kind to them and treating them justly. God loves the just. God only forbids you from befriending those who wage war against you on account of your religion, or drive you from your homes, or aid others in your expulsion. Whoever befriends them, those are the unjust. [Q.60:8-9] The Wahhabi insistence on enmity and hate would be privileged by the prophetic virtue of loving guidance and goodness for the non-Muslims wandering in the darkness and distractions of disbelief.

Of course, such privileging, or giving emphasis to one thing over another, isn’t without its dangers and difficulties. For those unschooled in ihsan – in the beauty of shari‘ah-rooted suluk or spirituality – will only bring ugliness into the world. If we are to be constructive healers, healing the world a day at a time or an act at a time, we must ensure that our fiqh deliberations are infused with the profound wisdoms and insights of our suluk tradition.

Let me wrap-up the post (and, indeed, this series) with these reflections – which speak of where we Muslims need to be heading. Explaining his own contention: ‘Being heretics to the Monoculture requires both courage and style,’ Abdal Hakim Murad writes:

‘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 is called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’42

Part of that gratitude and humility, he says, involves an awareness that not everyone can muster up the strength to be different: ‘Human nature is conformist and the monoculture increasingly demonises Muslim distinctiveness. Browbeaten Muslims, anxious to please, are everywhere; they are no use to their communities, or, ultimately, to their hosts, since they cannot function as healers, only as a chorus of frightened eulogists. Allah is testing us through them; and the only successful response to this test is to be forgiving, and try and find an ointment for the scars inflicted by the melting-pot, as it grows ever hotter, year after year.’43

We ask Allah for guidance, courage, humility and safety.

Allahumma ‘rzuqna’l-iman wa’l-aman fi kulli bilad
wa’ruqna’l-fahm wa tasihhu’l-jihad
anta rabb wa nahnu al-‘ibad.
wa’rzuqna khayr
al-zad.

1. First posted on the now defunct al Ekhlas website, it was translated into English in 2006 by William McCants and released by the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point. See: Stern & Berger, ISIS: the State of Terror (London: William Collins, 2015), 23. A translation is downloadable here.

2. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi’l-Ajwabat al-Najdiyyah (n.p, 2004), 10:131, a collection of essays, tracts and fatwas by Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and early Wahhabi scholars,

3. Mu’allafat al-Shaykh al-Imam Muhammad b. ‘Abd al-Wahhab (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Su‘ud, 1398H), 4:11.

4. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 1:82-3.

5. Cf. Ibn Ghannam, Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Dar al-Thuluthiyyah, 2010), volume two devoted to the jihad campaigns, ending in 1206H with the death of Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab; Ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd (Riyadh: Matbu‘at Darat al-Malik ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, 1982), 1:46, which speaks about the first of many jihad campaigns.

6. Consult: Unwan al-Majd, 1:65, 69-72.

7. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 10:51.

8. Cf. Unwan al-Majd, 1:44.

9. See: al-Razi, Tafsir al-Kabir (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1981), 17:63; Ibn ‘Aqil, approvingly cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar Ibn al-Haytham, 2004), 388-89; also al-Alusi, Ruh al-Ma‘ani (Beirut: Dar al-Ihya al-Turath al-‘Arabi, n.d.), 6:128. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, then he has a separate treatise on the issue, entitled: al-Istighathah fi Radd ‘ala’l-Bakri (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1426H).

10. The tract is called, al-Dala’il fi Hukm Muwalat Ahl al-Ishraq (The Proofs Against Loyalty to the Idolators), and can be found in al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121-43.

11. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah, 8:121.

12. ibid., 8:121. Al-‘Anqari writes in the next volume, 9:157: ‘The reason for composing the Dala’il is that Shaykh Sulayman authored it when the Turkish armies invaded Najd in his time, intending to eradicate the religion from its foundations.’

13. ibid., 8:127-28.

14. ibid., 1:312. Towards the end of a letter to the Ottoman governor of Baghdad, Ibrahim Pasha, written at the close of the year 1810CE.

15. ibid., 10:429.

16. ibid., 16:355.

17. ibid., 14:122.

18. ibid., 14:77.

19. Sabil al-Najat wa’l-Fikak min Muwalat al-Murtaddin wa’l-Atrak (Riyadh: n.p., 1415H).

20. ibid., 25. The hadith about fighting the Turks is given in al-Bukhari, no.2928; Muslim, no.2912.

21. ibid., 62-3.

22. ibid., 23 onwards.

23. For a comprehensive review of al-Maqdisi’s life, ideology and influence as one of the most important radical jihadi thinkers of our age, see: Wagemakers, A Quietist Jihadi: The Ideology and Influence of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

24. Millat Ibrahim (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, http://www.tawhed.ws).

25. ibid., 18.

26. Al-Kawashif al-Jaliyyah fi Kufr al-Dawlah al-Sa‘udiyyah (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, http://www.tawhed.ws, 1421H), 17.

27. ibid., 18-21, 24-28, 34-35.

28. ibid., 39-68.

29. Cf. ibid., 79-104.

30. ibid., 118-31.

31. ibid., 178-80.

32. From al-Maqdisi’s Kashf al-Niqab ‘an Shari‘at al-Ghab (Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad, http://www.tawhed.ws), 102-3.

33. Kawashif al-Jaliyyah, 4.

34. Mudhakkirah al-Radd ‘ala Kutub Mashbuhah (n.p, n.d.), 86.

35. Tabdid Kawashif al-‘Anid (Cairo: Dar al-Imam Ahmad, 2007), 86-7.

36. ibid., 91-8. Also consult: al-Fawzan, I‘anat al-Mustafid bi Sharh Kitab al-Tawhid (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2002), 356, on natural wala’ towards non-Muslims.

37. See: Fatawa wa Rasa’il Samahat al-Shaykh Muhammad b. Ibrahim b. ‘Abd al-Latif Al al-Shaykh (Makkah: al-Hukumah al-Makkah al-Mukarramah, 1399H), 12:284-91. This letter is published as a separate epistle, under the title of Tahkim al-Qawanin.

38. ibid., 12:289-90.

39. Cf. al-Halabi (ed.), al-Tahdhir min Fitnah al-Takfir (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 1997), 13-44, for al-Albani’s fatwa; and pp.45-9 for Ibn Baz’s approval of al-Albani’s fatwa and that istihlal is a condition for judging by other than God’s laws to be kufr akbar. Also cf. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz b. Baz, Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Maqalat Mutanawwi‘ah (Riyadh: Dar al-Qasim, 1420H), 5:355.

40. Quoted in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.

41. Cited in al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.

42. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contention (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 68; no.39.

43. ibid., 68.

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The Veiling of Islam & Modern Muslimness

islamophobia_in_the_press_compositeWith everyone offering their opinion about what Islam is really about, with even far-right voices cashing in on the furore, Muslims are in danger of allowing the essential message of their religion to be drowned out in all the hullabaloo. And while it’s not always easy to essentialize the faith, to sort out Islamic principles from Muslim practices, this much has to be clear:

A Muslim, by definition, is anyone who has sincerely uttered the Declaration of Faith; the shahadah: bearing witness to the fact that God is One, unique, perfect, having no partner or associate, with none deserving to be worshiped except Him; bearing witness also that Muhammad is His final Messenger sent to all humanity. Since we cannot rip open hearts to read their secrets (unless they are explicitly or unequivocally revealed through word or deed), judgement about sincerity is left with God. These words of the Prophet ﷺ speak to the reality that la ilaha illa’Llah isn’t something to merely be uttered by the tongue, with no understanding of its meaning or sincerity to its demands: ‘The person most delighted by my intercession on the Day of Resurrection will be the one who says, la ilaha illa’Llah sincerely from his heart.’1 And this: ‘Whoever bears witness to la ilaha ila’Llah, sincerely from his heart, will enter Paradise.’2 Also these words: ‘Whoever dies knowing that there is no god [deserving of worship] except Allah, will enter Paradise.’3

Of course – and rightly so, few would consider this is sufficient in practice, unless such a Declaration is taken to include affirming the necessary consequences which flow from it. One of Islam’s early pietists, Wahb b. Munabbih, was once asked: ‘Isn’t la ilah illa’Llah the key to Paradise?’ To which he explained: ‘Indeed! But there isn’t a key, except that it has incisions (asnan, lit. “teeth”). If you bring a key that has [the right] incisions, the door will open; if not, it won’t!’4 What is meant by these “incisions” are the duties and obligations instated by the faith. In other words, while the Muslim believes in the One true God, in the angels, in all the messengers sent to mankind for their guidance from the beginning of the human saga, and in the divinely-revealed books – the Qur’an being the final Word of God, unaltered and unalterable; Muslims also believe in the obligation to uphold the religious obligations, at the head of which are the “Five Pillars” of Islam which are: the Declaration of Faith, the five daily prayers, the payment of zakat, the fast of Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Makkah by those physically and financially able to do so. A Muslim may, to their own harm or ruin, neglect to practice one or more of the pillars (except the first one), or fail to fulfil one or more of the religious obligations, and still be counted as a Muslim; albeit a sinful one. But if he denies their necessity; their obligatory nature, he has placed himself beyond the community of believers and outside the fold of Islam.

The world would indeed be a fine place if people only judged Islam by its clear, normative teachings, instead of how Muslims may or may not have practiced it throughout the ages. Nor does a writer have any duty to defend or justify the way in which Islam is practiced in any historical period by those of its followers whose blips show up on the radar of history. For when it comes to human beings, good men and women are by no means thick on the ground. And vice learnt a long time ago that it could pay its tribute to virtue by dressing in the garb of religion. Which brings me to my main point:

It wasn’t so long ago when Muslims would still identify a person by the religion they were born into, rather than their nationality or ethnicity. In such a weltanschauung, Europeans were habitually described as Christians, even if large swathes had forsaken their ancestral religion for no religion or for atheism. For their part, the ‘Christian’ West usually regarded anyone from a Muslim majority country to not just be Muslim, but to somehow represent the ‘Muslimness’ that Islam as a religious way of life extols – whether that person was an ordinary citizen, filthy rich playboy or tycoon, or shabby tyrannical head of state! During the latter part of the 20th century, the image of Islam was veiled behind the daily tabloid escapades of Arab tycoons, playboys, dictators or despots. But the faith has seldom been discoverable in the lives of such tycoons, leaders and official spokesmen – but those who seek it, will surely find it.

Of course, 9-11 changed that; not just in the West, but globally. Islam’s image would now be associated primarily with acts of terror and violence of the al-Qaeda or ISIS type. Some will say that this is the default perception of Islam’s image in the West. For if it isn’t the Muslim terrorist blowing up people, it’s Muslim fundamentalists on the rampage, burning some innocent book or publication. And if not that, it’s ruthless dictators; or even earlier still, the image of the Muslim Saracen with his menacing face, wielding his sword against the innocent ‘infidel’! The West, it seems, can’t stop caricaturing the entire global Muslim population in one negative way or another. Beneath the surface, however, and invisible to the media or to the wider public, are the countless ordinary men and women – exemplary Muslims, faithful and compassionate – whose lives could help redeem much of this false image, if godliness and humility were commodities that sold newspapers, made headlines or attracted social media clicks and likes!

Some Muslims will insist that image doesn’t matter; it shouldn’t bother us what the non-Muslims think of us. And that’s true: but only partially. It’s true in terms of the message and its content. We cannot change Islam or water down its teachings merely to please peoples’ whims or sentiments, or to better our liberal credentials. Islam is what it is, and that’s that! To this, the Qur’an states: Perhaps you might feel the inclination to omit part of what is revealed to you, and be distressed because they say: ‘Why has no treasure been sent down to him, or why has no company of angels been sent with him?’ You are only a warner, and God is a Guardian over all things. [Q.11:12] In other words, wisely and faithfully deliver the message as it is, then leave the rest to Allah. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad strikes the right chord when he explains: ‘[I]t’s human nature, given that we’re weak, to crave praise, and to have arguments that are publicly respected. And when we’re not praised, but despised – or the victims of Islamophobia, or whatever you choose to call it – where our arguments are not respected, the ego is dented. And that can be dangerous and that can lead to aberrant behaviour in our communities, or depression, or lead to a determination to change the religion in order to please the people who are regarded as having opinions which matter. And all of this is subversive. But the real Muslim really doesn’t care what people think; he only cares about what Allah, subhanahu wa ta‘ala, thinks.’5

As for how the message and its content are to be delivered, then image – or perhaps we can say: presentation – does indeed matter. Here, one does have concern for form, not just content. The Holy Qur’an stresses: Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [Q.16:125] A healthy share of Islamic knowledge, wisdom, gentleness, the art of persuasion, prioritising the contents of the message, and a familiarity with audience type are core qualities necessary to make the call conform to the above Quranic description.

We ask Allah, the Gracious Lord, for His kindness.

1 Al-Bukhari, no.99.

2. Ibn Hibban, Sahih, no.7, and its chain is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1991), no.2355.

3. Muslim, no.26.

4. Al-Bukhari, in ta‘liq form, preceeding hadith no.1237; commencing the Book of Funeral Prayers. The complete chain is given in his al-Tarikh al-Kabir, no.261.

5. The citation is from a 2013 lecture entitled: Master Classes on Imam Al-Ghazali – 3. The clip starts at 34:55.

A Word on Salafis & Ash‘aris, and Fossilised Theologies

Speaking about his personal hopes and endeavours, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah once shared these following remarks:

‎وَالنَّاسُ يَعْلَمُونَ أَنَّهُ كَانَ بَيْنَ الْحَنْبَلِيَّةِ وَالْأَشْعَرِيَّةِ وَحْشَةٌ وَمُنَافَرَةٌ. وَأَنَا كُنْت مِنْ أَعْظَمِ النَّاسِ تَأْلِيفًا لِقُلُوبِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَطَلَبًا لِاتِّفَاقِ كَلِمَتِهِمْ وَاتِّبَاعًا لِمَا أُمِرْنَا بِهِ مِنْ الِاعْتِصَامِ بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ وَأَزَلْت عَامَّةَ مَا كَانَ فِي النُّفُوسِ مِنْ الْوَحْشَةِ، وَبَيَّنْت لَهُمْ أَنَّ الْأَشْعَرِيَّ كَانَ مِنْ أَجَلِّ الْمُتَكَلِّمِينَ الْمُنْتَسِبِينَ إلَى الْإِمَامِ أَحْمَدَ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ وَنَحْوِهِ الْمُنْتَصِرِينَ لِطَرِيقِهِ كَمَا يَذْكُرُ الْأَشْعَرِيُّ ذَلِكَ فِي كُتُبِه

‘People know that there has been, between the Hanbalis and Ash‘aris, much alienation and animosity. I was of those who strove my utmost to reconcile the hearts of the Muslims and sought to unify their ranks, in emulation of the [divine] command to hold fast to the Rope of Allah. I removed much of the alienation which existed in the hearts and clarified that al-Ash‘ari was one of the noblest of the discursive theologians (mutakallimun) to have ascribed themselves to Imam Ahmad, may Allah have mercy on him, as well as those like him who supported his way – as al-Ash‘ari himself mentioned in his works.’1

Those who know something of the historical context in which Ibn Taymiyyah was writing the above sentiment will not fail to see something of an irony in this. For although, for a variety of reasons (including his scathing rebuttals against some of his Ash’ari opponents) Ibn Taymiyyah didn’t bring about the outcome he perhaps hoped for, the spirit of uniting hearts and lessening the schisms between Muslims must be the concern of us all.

Those who are qualified and versed to thoroughly and meticulously investigate the Athari-Ash‘ari [Salafi-Ash’ari] theological controversies should follow whatever conclusions their research necessitates – regardless of whether that makes them uncompromising or not. What is also required of such people is that they be wise about how and how much they push such abstruse, theoretical controversies into the public domain, thus sowing further divisions, discord or enmity among this already vulnerable yet blessed ummah. It should also be expected of such seasoned theologians that although they may be fiercely critical of theological positions which contravene their own; and even take it upon themselves to write scathing rebuttals of beliefs they see to be unorthodox, yet let them be respectful as possible to their Salafi or Ash‘ari opponents and not attack or insult actual personalities; many of whom might well be known for their great piety, sincerity, devotional worship, worldly detachment, long service to knowledge, and love for the prophetic Sunnah and the sahabah – regardless of theological mistakes or blunders.

As for those who simply do not have the necessary theological grounding or intellectual prowess to justly and thoroughly evaluate both sides of the highly complex polemics, with what right – and with what knowledge – do they feel they can be unyielding or dogmatic about such matters? For they have no real grasp of these issues. They are just followers of their scholars; many of them bigoted, blind followers at that.

So let repentance be made and schism-mongering be stayed; and perhaps the Generous Lord will look kindly upon us so that we may all be saved.

Of course, one needs to ask how relevant many of these classical theological conundrums are to the current Muslim predicament? How useful are these matters in respect of helping Muslims grapple with perhaps more pressing contemporary theological concerns? While it would be a fool’s errand to imagine we could formulate robust critiques or responses to such challenges by ignoring the principles and insights classical Muslim theology has to offer, there is a growing sense that we are stuck in a phase of fossilised theology. These classical insights haven’t significantly engaged the theological, philosophical and ethical challenges of our time; they have yet to meaningfully deconstruct modernity’s wholesale reinvention of the human story. And whilst some headway is being made by a few Muslim theologians and public intellectuals, we are far from offering any robust responsa to the theological challenges of modernity or the post-modern world.

What are some of these challenges? Well they include, amongst other questions, issues of theology as they relate to science: Does science point towards atheism or theism, is one such question? Another is whether science is intrinsically naturalistic, or is naturalism a philosophy imposed upon the scientific method? Then there is the question of Quantum physics with its principle of indeterminacy and how that bears upon the understanding of causality or occasionalism. Quantum theory also makes itself felt in the question on the actual nature of time, and even the ideas of the soul and [Quantum] consciousness. And then, of course, there is Islam’s evolution question: less about fossils and palaeontology, and more about genetics and genomes. Does, for instance, the idea of ‘Theistic Evolution’ actually square with the Adamic saga or God’s omnipotence, as taught in the Qur’an? And how do we square the evolving fossil records of bipeds over two hundred-thousand years old that, for all intents and purposes, look very similar to us in terms of skeletal structure and cranium capacity, and who seem to be the very first hominids to hunt; use fire; make complex tools; look after their weak and frail; as well as ritually bury their dead, with the explicit Quranic passages speaking about Adam as being the very first Man, and not born of any creature or parent?

As for theology when it is compelled to rub-up against philosophy, there is the question of epistemology: What is knowledge and its nature, and how do they relate to concepts like religious [or revealed] truths, beliefs and justifications? Or to put it in simpler terms: How do we know Islam is the truth? Theodicy; the question of evil, desperately needs stating in a more coherent and convincing manner for modern minds, as does the status of reason or rationality in religious doctrine. Also, secularism’s alleged neutrality towards religious freedom needs to be interrogated, not only in light of its own claims, but also in regards to whether it helps religious practitioners deepen their awareness of the Divine Presence or weaken their sense of it?

Theology as it engages the question of ethics and ultimate values raises all sorts of issues (some which may be better dealt with by our fiqh tradition than our theology one). There are issues starting to grow around AI: Artificial Intelligence, and its benefits to mankind. Theological ethics in this regard will have to focus on matters such as robot rights (which is not an issue if robots are little more than advanced washing machines or dish-washers; but not so clear if they are able to have, or to mimic, emotions and feelings). It will have to work hard to avoid discrimination and bias when developing algorithms for AI. It needs to address the concerns of AI as military robots, or as autonomous weapons without human intervention, in order to avoid the spectre of an AI global arms race or war. It must also confront the existential dilemma posed by AI as superintelligence: where robots begin to recursively self-improve themselves, to the point where they surpass human intelligence by leaps and bounds. We may also discern the growing relevancy of such inquiries if we recall that in 2017, Saudi Arabia became the first ever country to grant actual citizenship to a robot! The robot, called Sophia, now has more rights and entitlements – or at least, on paper – than many foreign workers or expats working in the oil-rich kingdom?

Muslim theological ethics also has more immediate concerns: the issue of gender fluidity, currently being championed by liquid modernity, and how it tallies with Quranic norms of celebrating gender in a gendered created cosmos? Then there are the strident demands of feminism (perhaps one of the greatest challenges to normative scriptural reading in our time). Not in the sense of whether women should be empowered, or accorded their rights and entitlements. Rather, in terms of comparing feminism’s narrative of equality and of its central belief of dismantling all forms of patriarchy, with the Qur‘an’s language of justice (and not equality) and honouring gender distinctions (prescriptively, not descriptively). In fact, ethics must ask an even more fundamental question: By what ethical standard does Western feminism; in particular, or Western liberalism; in general, have a unilateral right to impose its values on other peoples and societies? The crux of such an imposition is the belief in a secular modern trinity: autonomy, equality and rights. To claim, as Islam does, that there are obligations which could constrain our choices, or duties that puts a limit on our desires, is to utter nothing less than a monsterous modern blasphemy!

Theology as it refracts the concept of shari‘ah governance is an area inadequately handled over the past century or more. Here we must ask if the modern nation state, in its secular-liberal matrix, can accept religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould? Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right, indeed the duty, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life: from the personal to the political – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated and made into toothless tigers, or swiftly branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order?

A more foundational question is: Can shari‘ah governance and the modern nation-state actually go hand in hand? For a modern ‘Islamic’ ‘state’ is something of a contradiction in terms. For while an all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, a classical 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 – has not been adequately tackled by Muslim theologians 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 search for ways where law is not contaminated by state involvement. Yet ever since the Ottoman reforms of 1856, when the modern Muslim ‘state’ began to become sole master and legitimiser of legislation, the shari‘ah and its fiqh became subjected to a great deal of aberration and to a huge 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 principles and moral precepts underscored by legal principles – function independently of the state? Can there be a model of a modern state which divests itself of legislation? Is such an arrangement even possible as an integral facet in the modern patchwork of nation states? Such are the questions that need serious depth of thought – beyond the usual clichés; and beyond our current Western-inspired Islamist or state totalitarianism solutions.

The above, then, are some of the pressing issues Islam’s orthodox theological tradition[s] needs to engage if it is to reflect its truth-claims of being God’s final revelation, and if it wishes to retain its relevancy and vocation as being guide and healer to humanity. Thus between now and then, there is much to deliberate over, and much work to be done. So here’s to rolling up our spiritual and intellectual sleeves.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:227-8.

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