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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. For a while now, our post-modern world has been in a crisis. Whatever good the Enlightenment birthed continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism, eating away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. Human fulfilment is unlikely to come from predatory capitalism; and its Christian heritage seems long incapable of supplying the nourishment needed for the age. Islam, more than ever, seems called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its monotheistic message of hope, healing and happiness through God’s oneness can only truly illuminate times if its theological concerns are in tune with the needs of the time; when it is able to offer a worldview that helps make sense of the time; and is successful in delivering liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of the time. Between now and then there is much to deliberate over, and much work to be done. 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.

Revisiting the Sensitive Question of Islamic Orthodoxy

For much of Islamic history, the question of who embodies the majoritarian orthodox path of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah has been rather contentious. One view holds that it is only the Atharis [Salafis] that are orthodox, with the Ash‘aris and Maturidis being the closest of the heterodox Muslim sects to ahl al-sunnah. Another view is that it is only the Ash‘aris and Maturidis who represent Islamic orthodoxy. Some, like the Hanbali jurist Imam al-Safarini, extended the net as follows:

أَهْلُ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ ثَلَاثُ فِرَقٍ الْأَثَرِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَحْمَدُ بْنُ حَنْبَلٍ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ وَالْأَشْعَرِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَبُو الْحَسَنِ الْأَشْعَرِيُّ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ وَالْمَاتُرِيدِيَّةُ وَإِمَامُهُمْ أَبُو مَنْصُورٍ الْمَاتُرِيدِيُّ.

Ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah is three groups: Atharis, whose leader is Ahmad b. Hanbal, may Allah be pleased with him; Ash‘aris, whose leader is Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, may Allah have mercy on him; and Maturidis, whose leader is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi.’1

Yet how can it be three sects, when the hadith clearly speaks of one saved-sect? Well, in this broader view of ahl al-sunnah, the Atharis, Ash‘aris and Maturidis aren’t looked upon as different sects, but different ‘orientations’ or ‘schools’ with the same core tenets. And since all three ‘orientations’ consent to the integrity and authority of the Sunnah and that of the Companions, and to ijma‘ – contrary to the seventy-two other sects – they are all included under the banner of ahl al-sunnah. Differences between them may either be put down to semantics, variations in the branches of the beliefs (furu‘ al-i‘tiqad), or to bonafide errors of ijtihad.

Given that the Athari creed represents the earliest, purest form of the beliefs of ahl al-sunnah, there is a valid argument to be made by those who say that it should be preferred when there is a disparity between the three schools. For who besides the Atharis were ahl al-sunnah before the conversion of al-Ash‘ari to Sunni orthodoxy or the birth of al-Maturidi?

Having said that, the fact is that after the rise and establishment of the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools, one would be hard pressed to find a jurist, hadith master, exegist or grammarian who was not a follower of one of these two schools. Historically, and in short: Hanafis have been Maturidis, all except a few; Malikis and Shafi‘is have been Ash‘aris, all save a few; and Hanbalis have been Atharis, all but a few.

And Allah knows best.

1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:73.

Doctrine of the Divine Attributes

allah-calligraphy-3d-1280-720According to Islam, a sound understanding of Allah’s attributes rests on two pillars. The first concerns the doctrine or ‘aqidah – of how hearts should believe in them. The second is tied to practice or ‘aml – of how hearts should take on board their meanings and implications. The latter issue will be discussed in a future post, insha’Llah. In this article we shall discuss the doctrine concerning the divine attributes.

The Qur’an is replete with mention of Allah’s divine attributes, or sifat; though there are certain attributes related in the Qur’an that have stoked fierce controversy. Now a cardinal beliefs of Islam is that Allah is transcendent, unique and is utterly unlike His creation. The Qur’an declares: There is nothing like Him. [42:11] And equal to Him there is none. [112:4] Do you know any like Him? [19:65]

And yet other Quranic passages inform us that: The hand of Allah is above their hands. [48:10] And the face of your Lord shall abide forever. [55:27] The All-Merciful rose over the Throne. [20:5] Your Lord comes … [89:22] Verily you are before Our eyes. [52:48]

Then there are hadiths in the same genre that state: ‘Our Lord descends to the lowest heaven every last third of the night.’1 And that, ‘Allah created Adam in His image.’2 ‘The hearts of the children of Adam are between the two fingers of the All-Merciful.’3 ‘[On the Day of Judgement], people shall be thrown into Hell, and it will keep asking, “Is there any more?” till the Lord of Might and Honour shall place His foot over it.’4 And: ‘Allah, exalted is He, says, “O Adam!” Adam shall reply: ‘Here I am, at Your beck and call!’ Then He shall call out with a voice …’5

Such verses and hadiths seem to compromise Allah’s transcendence; His dissimilarity to creation, and suggest that Allah is a corporeal entity (jism), composed of limbs and parts, and hence not too dissimilar to His creation. So how do these descriptions of Him tally with the Quranic belief in divine transcendence? An array of interpretative devices have been resorted to in order to square this circle. At one extreme lies an unyielding literalism that has no qualm in claiming that Allah has a corporeal body, limbs and others physical characteristics akin to human beings. Such blatant anthropomorphism (tajsim, tashbih) is confronted, at the other extreme, by a fierce negation (ta’til) of the divine attributes, stripping Allah to a sort of nothingness. Both these wildly speculative views amount to blasphemy, heresy and outright kufr or disbelief.

In contrast to the above, the following two hermeneutical stances have now come to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: the first typifying ‘later’ orthodoxy; the other, a much ‘earlier’ one. The orthodoxy associated with the later scholars – the khalaf – insist that all such texts that speak of the divine attributes must be figuratively explained, if we are to avoid the crime of resembling Allah to His creation: the apparent meaning of the texts cannot be what Allah intends. For this group, Allah’s “Hand” refers to His power; His “descending” refers to His angels descending; His “two fingers” mean His will and power; “rising over His Throne” means His dominion over creation; and Adam being created in Allah’s “image/form” means: with the qualities of life, knowledge, hearing and seeing. Recourse to figurative interpretaion or ta’wil has, in this reading, become the hallmark of a later Sunni orthodoxy.6

The earlier imams or religious authorities (the salaf) were, ironically, bitterly opposed to the idea of figurative explanation (ta’wil) when it came to the divine attributes. For them, ta’wil wasn’t a defining feature of orthodoxy, but of deviancy and innovation! Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:

‘The correct view is that of the pious predecessors (al-salaf al-salih), in their letting the verses and hadiths concerning the divine attributes pass as they came: without asking how they are, or explaining them, or likening them to creation. Nothing contravening this is authentically related from them; especially not from Imam Ahmad. And nor is anything recorded from them proving they probed into their meanings or propounded analogies or similitudes for them – even though there were some who lived close to the time of Ahmad who did delve into some of this – following the path of Muqatil. They, however, must not be imitated in this. Rather those who should be imitated are the leading religious authorities like Ibn al-Mubarak, Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq, Abu ‘Ubayd and their like.’7

Alongside the Sahih collections of Imam al-Bukhari and Muslim, the Sunan works of Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nasa’i and Ibn Majah are held as the most authoritative hadith canons in Sunni Islam. Of the ‘six canonical anthologies’, Imam al-Tirmidhi’s Sunan is the one that possibly contains the greatest benefit to non-specialist readers. For unlike the other five works, which more or less relate the hadiths and leave it at that, al-Tirmidhi adds a gloss to each hadith: noting the degree of its soundness; what other companions related the hadith; and what jurists based their fiqh ruling on the hadith. After relating the hadith: ‘Assuredly Allah accepts charity and takes it with His right hand,’ al-Tirmidhi glosses the following:

‘A number of the people of knowledge have spoken about this hadith, as well as those reports similar to it regarding the divine attributes, and of Allah’s descending to the lowest heaven each night, saying: The reports about such matters must be affirmed and believed in; they must not be imagined, nor asked how they are. This is what was related from Malik b. Anas, Sufyan b. ‘Uyaynah and ‘Abd Allah b. al-Mubarak. They all stated about such hadiths: “Let them pass without asking how (amirruha bila kayf).” Such is the stance of the people of knowledge from Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama’ah. The Jahmiyyah, though, reject such hadiths, alleging that this is resemblance (tashbih). But Allah, exalted is He, mentions at various places in His Book [His attributes of] Hand, Hearing and Seeing. The Jahmiyyah give them a figurative meaning, explaining them contrary to how the scholars explain them. Thus they say: Allah did not create Adam with His Hand: instead they claim that Hand means ‘Power’. Ishaq b. Ibrahim stated: “Resemblance is if one claims that Hand is like my hand or similar to it; or Hearing is like my hearing or similar to it. If it is said that Hearing is like my hearing or similar to it, this is resemblance. But to say what Allah says: Hand, Hearing, Seeing – neither asking how, nor claiming it to be like my hearing, or similar to it – then this is not resemblance. Rather it is as Allah, blessed and exalted is He, says in His Book: There is nothing like Him, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing.” [42:11]’8

Ibn Kathir – whose exegesis (tafsir) of the Qur’an has met with widespread scholarly approval, and continues to be hugely popular among the educated laity too – penned the following about the divine attributes:

‘As for His words: He rose over the Throne [7:54], people have taken many [conflicting] stances in the matter; but now isn’t the place to discuss them. Instead, in this respect we travel the path taken by the pious predecessors: Malik, al-Awza‘i, al-Thawri, Layth b. Sa‘d, al-Shafi‘i, Ahmad, Ishaq b. Rahawayh and other leading authorities, ancient and recent, which was to let the verse pass as it came – without inquiring into the modality [howness] (takyif), resemblance (tashbih) or denying it (ta’til): the apparent meaning which comes to the minds of the anthropomorphists is negated from Allah, since nothing created resembles Him: There is nothing like Him, He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing. The issue is as the leading imams have stated, such as Nu‘aym b. Hammad al-Khuza‘i – Bukhari’s shaykh: “Whoever likens Allah to His creation, has disbelieved; whoever denies what Allah described Himself with, has disbelieved. There is nothing in what Allah described Himself with, or in what His Messenger described Him with, that implies resemblance.” Therefore, whoever affirms for Allah, exalted is He, what is reported in the explicit verses or in the authentic narrations – doing so in a manner that befits His majesty, and negating from Him any defects or imperfections – has indeed traversed the way of right guidance.’9

Finally, al-Khatib al-Baghdadi wrote this superb exposition on the subject, the likes of which would be hard pushed to better:

‘With regards to the divine attributes and what is reported in the authentic Sunan about them, the position of the salaf was to affirm them and to let them pass upon their literal sense (‘ala zawahiriha), neither asking about their modality (kayfiyyah), nor resembling them to created things (tashbih). Certain people negated the attributes and so nullified what Allah, exalted is He, affirmed. Others declared them to be real, then went beyond this to a sort of likening them to creation and ascribing to them a modality. The true goal is none other than to tread a middle path between the two methods. For Allah’s Religion lies between extremism and laxity. The rule that is to be followed here is that speech concerning the Divine Attributes (sifat) is a branch of speech regarding the Divine Essence (dhat). The path to follow in the former is the same extreme caution as in the latter. So if it is understood that affirming an Essence for [Allah] Lord of the Worlds is only an affirmation of existence; not of modality, it must be similarly understood that affirmation of His attributes is an affirmation of their existence, not affirmation of their definition (tahdid) or modality (takyif). Thus when we say that Allah has a Hand, Hearing and Sight, they are none other than attributes Allah affirms for Himself. We shouldn’t say the meaning of Hand is power, or that Hearing and Seeing means knowledge. Nor do we say they are bodily organs (jawarih), or liken them to hand, hearing and sight which are organs and instruments of [human] acts. Rather we say: What is obligatory is to affirm them, since they are textually stipulated, and to negate from them any likeness to created things – as per Allah’s words: There is nothing like Him. Also: And equal to Him there is none.’10

Expressions like: letting the texts about the divine attributes pass ‘ala zahir – “upon their apparent meaning”, or ‘ala haqiqah – their “literal meaning”, then this is said in contrast to giving them a figurative meaning – keeping in mind what Ibn Kathir said: ‘the apparent meaning that comes to the minds of the anthropomorphists is negated from Allah, since nothing created resembles Him.’ In short: the way of our noble salaf was grounded in the principle of imrar: letting the attributes pass as they came, without asking how, while at the same time upholding Allah’s transcendence above whatever resemblance, likeness or anthropomorphism these terms may suggest.

W’Llahu a‘lam.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.1145; Muslim, no.758.

2. Muslim, no.2612.

3. Muslim, no.2654.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.4848; Muslim, no.2848.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.3348; Muslim, no.222.

6. Consult: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 158-9.

7. Bayan Fadl ‘Ilm al-Salaf (Kuwait: Dar al-Arkam, 1983), 33.

8. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 168; no.662.

9. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 2:230.

10. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubula (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1995), 18:284.

Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules

takfirTakfir – accusing a fellow Muslim of apostasy; of having left the fold of Islam and being a disbeliever (kafir) – is indeed a grave affair in Islam. It is a fitnah, or “sedition,” whose flames were historically put out by the defeat of the Kharijites (khawarij), only to be set alight again in our times, on a global scale, by a highly-politicised reading of Islam. It is one of the worst fitnahs of our age, continuing to ensnare into its ghastly traps many a well-intended Muslim. But, as one piece of ancient wisdom goes, wa kam min muridin li’l-khayr lan yusibahu – ‘How many people intend good, but never reach it.’1

What follows is an elaboration of the basic rules and guidelines concerning the matter of takfir – of declaring another Muslim a kafir. For the purpose of clarity, the discussion has been divided into ten points or rules:

RULE ONE: Imam al-Shawkani (d.1250H/1834CE) sets the tone about the huge danger of rushing into making takfir, saying: ‘Know that judging a Muslim to have left the fold of Islam and entered into disbelief is something no Muslim who believes in Allah and the Last Day would proceed to do, except with a proof more evident than even the day time sun. It is confirmed in the authentic hadiths, related by a group of Companions, that: “Whoever says to his brother, ‘O disbeliever,’ it returns to one of them.”2 Its like occurs in the Sahih. And in another wording in the Two Sahihs and others: “Whoever accuses someone of disbelief, or of being an enemy of Allah, while he is not like that, it will return back to him.”3 In one of the Sahihs, the wording is: “It returns to one of the two.” So there are in these hadiths, and their like, the severest reprimand and greatest warning against hastening to make takfir.’4

RULE TWO: In terms of “stepping outside” the fold of Islam, the rule in this respect is: la yakhruju’l-‘abd min al-iman illa bi juhudi ma adkhalahu fihi – ‘A person does not step outside of belief, except by rejecting what brought him into it.’5 Classical law manuals will usually contain a chapter on apostasy and what necessitates it. Thus, for instance, Ibn Qudamah’s (d.641H/1267CE) authoratative fiqh manual, al-Kafi, states:

‘Apostasy (riddah) occurs by retracting the two shahadahs, or any one of them; vilifying Allah, Exalted and Holy is He, or His Prophet, upon whom be peace; falsely impugning the honour of the Prophet’s mother; rejecting any part of the Book of Allah; [rejecting] one of His prophets, or one of His books; rejecting a clear-cut agreed upon obligation, like the five [pillars of] worship; making lawful a well-known agreed upon prohibition, like wine, pork, carrion, blood, illicit intercourse or the like.

‘If this happens due to the person’s ignorance, or him being a recent convert to Islam, or his awakening from insanity and the like – he does not become a disbeliever, but is apprised of the law [on these issues] and of its proof. But if he persists, he does become a disbeliever, because the proofs of these clear-cut matters are evident in the Book of Allah and in the Sunnah of His Prophet. The rejection [of these matters] does not stem save from a person who gives the lie to Allah’s Book and to the Sunnah of His Prophet, peace be upon him.’6

RULE THREE: It is vital to understand at this point that denial (juhud), and “giving the lie to” (takdhib), are radically different from the act of just committing a sin (ma‘siyah). To clarify the point: A Muslim who drinks alcohol or eats pork, believing it to be sinful or forbidden – not intending to mock, deny or reject the shari‘ah – is still a Muslim (though a sinful one); who is required to repent and refrain from such sin. If, however, he believes it lawful to consume alcohol or pork, rejecting or shrugging-off the Qur’an’s prohibition, he denies a clear-cut Islamic edict and rejects an explicit divinely-revealed ruling; thus nullifying his faith and leaving the fold of Islam. That is to say, he becomes an apostate (murtadd) – God forbid!

The same goes for one who considers lawful stealing, murder, illicit intercourse – be it hetrosexual or homosexual – or any other prohibition which is clear and agreed upon. The same rule holds in the case of one who rejects or denies an established obligation such as the five daily prayers, the fast of Ramadan, zakat, or ensuring lawful income.

RULE FOUR: A common problem is that some people today, when they read in a book of Islamic law, or theology, phrases like: ‘Whoever does such and such has disbelieved,’ or: ‘Whoever believes such and such is a disbeliever,’ they jump to the conclusion that Muslims they know or have heard of, who hold such views, are kafirs. In their zealotry, or folly, these people have failed to uphold the distinction between a general charge of disbelief (takfir ‘amm), and between the charge of disbelief upon a particular individual (takfir mu‘ayyan). Ibn Taymiyyah (d.728H/1328CE) stated: ‘They have not given proper consideration that making takfir has certain conditions (shurut) and impediments (mawani‘) that must be actualised if it is to be applied to a specific individual. Because a general declaration of takfir doesn’t imply takfir upon a specific individual – unless if the conditions are fulfilled and the impediments lifted.’7

Ibn Taymiyyah reitterates the same principle that: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief, becomes a disbeliever [because of it].’ He writes elsewhere: ‘It does not necessary follow that if a statement is disbelief, all those who said it – perhaps out of ignorance or misinterpretation – are disbelievers. Since affirming that a specific Muslim has become a disbeliever is like affirming the textual threat will be applied to him in the Hereafter. And this, as we explained elsewhere, has conditions that need fulfilling and impediments that need removing.’8

Again, from a slightly different angle, he says: ‘The textual threats which occur in the Book and the Sunnah, or words where the Imams make takfir or declare a person to be a reprobate (tafsiq), or the like, doesn’t necessitate it applies to a specific individual: except if the conditions are present and the impediments absent.’9

RULE FIVE: Just what are these conditions and impediments which need actualising, before a particular charge of takfir can be levied against a specific individual?

Essentially, there are three condition and impediments: (i) ‘Ilm: the person must have knowledge of the prohibition and not be ignorant (jahl) of it – to be discussed in more detail below. (ii) Qasd: it must be deliberate, intentional; not ghayr qasid, unintended. (iii) Ikhtiyar: the person must have freely chosen to do it, not being under compulsion (jabr): Whoever disbelieves in Allah after he has believed – except he who was forced, while his heart remained secure in faith – but those who open their breast to disbelief, upon them will be anger from Allah, and there awaits them a formidable torment. [16:106] 10

RULE SIX: As for knowledge (‘ilm), then careful juristic consideration shows it to be of three categories: Firstly, matters of Islam which everyone knows – whether scholar or layman, young or old. Such matters are technically referred to as al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – “Necessarily known to be part of the religion”. Secondly, issues which not everybody knows. Thirdly, matters differed upon by the scholars.11

RULE SEVEN: Denying anything of the first category of knowledge amounts to clear and manifest disbelief, for there is no excuse not to know these things in the lands of Islam except for someone who is a recent convert, or was raised in the wilderness or in a place where ignorance of the religion was rife and widespread. In this case, such people are treated like those from the second category.

Al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE) wrote: ‘Whoever denies something necessarily known to be of the religion of Islam is declared an apostate and disbeliever; unless he is a recent convert, or grew up in the wilderness, or for some similar reason was unable to learn his religion properly. He must be apprised of the truth. But if he continues as before, he is judged to be a non-Muslim. This is the same as with any Muslim who believes it lawful to commit adultery, drink wine, kill, or commit other acts that are necessarily known to be unlawful.’12

Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said: ‘Many people are born and raised in places and times where much of the prophetic teaching has been extinguished, to the extent that nothing remains of what Allah sent His Prophet with of the Book and the Wisdom. Such people cannot be charged with disbelief. This is why the Imams are agreed that someone who is born and raised in the desert regions, far from the people of learning and faith, or is a recent convert to Islam, and he denies any of the manifest clear-cut rulings, must not be judged a disbeliever until he learns about what the Prophet came with.’13

RULE EIGHT: Denying something of the second category – issues of the faith that not everyone knows – is only disbelief if one persists in denying it after he is made to understand that it is part of what Allah sent His Prophet, peace be upon him, with as religion. Before this he is excused for not knowing, because of it being inaccessible to him, or it is beyond what he is reasonably expected to know. The Qur’an states: We burden not any soul beyond its scope. [6:152] And: Nor do We punish until We have sent a Messenger. [17:15]

Also, Jabir relates: A donkey that had been branded on the face passed by the Prophet, upon whom be peace, and he said: ‘Is there anyone among you who has not heard that I have cursed those who brand or strike an animal’s face?’14 That is, whosoever has not heard it – i.e. does not know it – is not culpable of it, even if he did it.

RULE NINE: As for the third category – matters which scholars differ about – then such issues cannot be used as a yardstick to cast aspersions on someone’s orthodoxy; let alone charge them with disbelief!

This is the case provided it is a legitimate scholarly position – one which stems from a scholar qualified to make ijtihad or “juristic inference”; that the view not contradict a text which is qat‘i al-thubut and qat‘i al-dalalah – that is, “unquestionably established in its authenticity” and “incontestable in its meaning”; that it not oppose an ijma‘ or “juristic consensus”; and that it not be shadhdh; “irregular” or “anomalous” according to the canons of Islamic law.15

RULE TEN: Given the depth and subtleties involved in charging a particular Muslim with disbelief or apostasy; given also the immense enormity of doing so without due precaution or the prerequisite knowledge, such takfir must be left to the qualified and seasoned God-fearing scholars; and none else.

Indeed, no one should be desirous for a fellow Muslim to be expelled from the fold of the religion. The Prophet’s example – after all, it is he who is our exemplar – teaches us the utmost concern a Muslim must have for the guidance and welfare of others. One hadith states: ‘My example and yours may be likened to a man who kindled a fire, and when it had lit up its surroundings, flies and moths started falling into it. And although he tried to prevent them, they got the better of him and flew into it. In a like manner, I am holding you around your waists, pulling you away from the Fire, but you are trying to get free and rush head long into it.’16

Thus, a highly cautious and restrained Ibn Taymiyyah remarks that: ‘I am always – as those who sit with me know from me – from the strictest of people in forbidding that a specific person be accused of disbelief, iniquity (fisq) or sinfulness till the proof has been established to him, such that the one contravening it is, at times, a disbeliever; at times, a reprobate; and at other times, a sinner. And I affirm that Allah excuses this ummah its mistakes, whether it be in matters of beliefs or actions.’17

And Allah knows best.

1. These are the words of the famous Companion ‘Abd Allah b. Mas‘ud, as recorded by al-Darimi, Sunan (Karachi: Qadami Kutub Khanah, n.d.), 1:78-9, no.204.

2. Muslim, Sahih, no.60.

3. ibid., no.61.

4. Al-Sayl al-Jarrar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 4:578.

5. Cf. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), §.79

6. Al-Kafi (Riyadh: Dar Hajr, 1997), 5:319-20.

7. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 12:487-8.

8. Minhaj al-Sunnah (Riyadh: Jami‘ah Muhammad b. Sa‘ud, 1986), 5:240.

9. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 10:372. Also cf. 35:165-6.

10. Consult: al-Bassam, Nayl al-Ma’arib fi Tahdhib Sharh ‘Umdat al-Talib (Riyadh: Dar al-Mayman, 2005), 4:357-60; al-Jibrin, Dawabit Takfir al-Mu‘ayyan (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2005); 10-25. I thank Shaykh Salim al-Amri for gifting me this last treatise.

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

12. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 1:134.

13. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 11:407.

14. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.2564.

15. See: al-Zarkashi, al-Manthur fi’l-Qawa’id (Kuwait: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu‘un al-Islamiyyah, 1985), 2:140; al-Shinqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddah: Dar al-Manarah, 1999), 636-8.

16. Al-Bukhari, Sahih, no.6483; Muslim, Sahih, no.2284.

17. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:229.

Reason, Revelation, Religion: How Do They Fit Together?

oxford-uniThe Qur’an undoubtedly requires human beings to accept the authority of religion for whatever lies beyond the scope of reason or ‘aql. It never demands that he accept what is against reason. ‘The messengers,’ said Ibn Taymiyyah, ‘came with knowledge that reason is incapable of attaining to: never did they come with what reason deems impossible.’1

Islamic theology has long taught that human convictions can be grouped under three catagories: (i) hissi – those beliefs and ideas that are established by “sense perception” and empirical observation; (ii) ‘aqli – those that may be confirmed via “rationality” and logical arguments; (iii) shar‘i – that which cannot be proven by the above means, and are only known via revealed knowledge from God.2

The first category relates to what can be known reliably vis-a-via the natural sciences; the second, to what can be proven through rationalisation. The third, those values and beliefs that have shaped human culture and given it direction and purpose, yet cannot be proved by science or reason.

The idea that some things simply lie beyond the scope of science and reason is utterly repugnant to the cherished convictions of New Atheism’s cavaliers (its charge against religion currently led by the “Four Horsemen” – Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchins). For them, any belief not grounded in evidence and rationality is false.

Despite their parochial narrative-cum-dogma, reality shows us there are many beliefs and values that transcend what science and rationality can prove. Take the following example as case in point, courtesy of McGrath. In 1948, he wrote, the United Nations reaffirmed their faith in human rights. The statement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ or ‘They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood’ cannot be proved logically, nor scientifically. Neither can the belief that democracy is better than fascism, or that oppression is evil. ‘But many noble and wise people make upholding such things their life’s work, trusting that they are, in the first place, right, and in the second, important. Nobody thinks they’re mad for doing so.’3 Such a universal declaration about Man cannot be justified rationally nor verified scientifically. In this sense, it is unprovable. Yet it is not unreasonable to hold onto such a belief or put stock in its truthfulness. Many have argued that such is the case for belief in God.

Historically, the rationalist faction in Islam tended to put reason (‘aql) over revelation (naql). Which is to say, they deemed reason to be the main tool to arrive at religious truths, preferring it over the texts of the revelation in dealing with theological matters; particularly when it was thought there was a conflict (ta‘arud) between the two.

For traditionalists (representing the voice of orthodoxy), reason determines good and bad in the absence of revelation; for God gave us reason before sending us revelation. But once we have revelation, we must choose to be guided by revealed knowledge. For revelation is a surer guide: the human mind errs, but God does not. ‘To be sure,’ writes Ibn Taymiyyah, ‘reason is a precondition to comprehend knowledge, and rectify and perfect actions. By it, knowledge and actions are refined; but it is not sufficient in and of itself. For it is an instinct and potency in the soul, much like the faculty of seeing by the eye. For when it receives the light of faith and the Qur’an, it is like the eye when it receives light from the sun or a fire. Left to itself, reason is not able to discern things it is unequipped to know by itself.’4

To be perfectly clear, it isn’t that traditionalists jettison reason and rationality, or that they favour irrationality. Instead, it is the degree to which they employ reason and the place they assign to it in the overall scheme of things. In fact, on the eclectic canvas of traditionalism, one may observe different colours and tones:

There is, for example, what some have termed “unreflective traditionalism”; typical of the Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudamah, and of the Athari school, in general. This is where, in theological matters (especially concerning the Divine Attributes), it is a case of simply submitting to the scriptural texts, without attempting to fathom the intent. Thus, Ibn Qudamah wrote: ‘For we have no need to know the meaning of what God intended by His attributes; as no course of action is required by them, nor any obligation attached to them, save to believe in them. For it is possible to believe in them without knowing their intended meaning. Indeed faith, with incomprehension, is sound.’5

Now contrast this with the arena of positive law (fiqh) where Ibn Qudamah is a jurist, highly accomplished in the exacting art of logic and reason-based inference. Towards the end of his essay censuring kalam, or discursive theology, Ibn Qudamah insists it is in the sphere of fiqh, maths and the like where reason should rightfully roam, recover and reveal.6 As for metaphysical or ghaybi (lit. “unseen”) matters, reason is expected to humble itself to the revealed texts; for it has no way of rationalising what is beyond its reach.

Then there are traditionalists with rationalist agendas, attempting to validate and to corroborate revealed truths with rational arguments; like al-Bayhaqi and the Ash‘ari school, at large. In the ‘aql-naql debate, Ash‘aris see themselves as the centre ground; the Atharis beg to differ. The polemics between the two camps has raged for almost a millennium, and is still on-going today.

There is also a faction, such as the Hanbali Ibn ‘Aqil and Ibn Taymiyyah, who add this subtle nuance: ‘Reason agrees with revelation, and nothing in revelation contradicts reason.’7 For both these polymaths, sound reason (al-‘aql al-sahih) and genuine texts of revelation (al-naql al-sarih) are always in agreement. The notion is profound, and one that Ibn Taymiyyah fleshes out over the course of his intense eleven volume Dar’ al-Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql – “Averting the Conflict between Reason and Revelation.”

A core premise of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Dar’ is that whenever there is any conflict between reason and revealed knowledge, the proof with the higher degree of certainty must be preferred, regardless of whether it is rational or transmitted. Uncertainty in a rational argument may arise in the case of conjectural or weak reasoning. Uncertainty about revealed knowledge arises in the case of fabricated or poorly transmitted hadiths (but not the Qur’an, as it is textually authentic in its entirety), or if a verse of the Qur’an or text of a hadith is conjectural in terms of their meaning. He writes:

‘If it is said that two proofs contradict each other, be they revealed or rational, then it must be said that either both are certain (qat‘i), or both are conjectural (zanni), or one is certain and the other conjectural. As for both being certain – be they rational or revealed; or one rational, the other revealed – then their contradicting each other is impossible … Whenever one finds a seeming contradiction between two proofs which are thought to be certain, then it necessarily follows that both proofs or at least one of them, are not certain; or that the two indicated meanings do not [actually] contradict each other … But if one of the contradicting proofs yields certainty, then according to the consensus of people of reason, its priority is necessary regardless of if the proof is revealed or rational, since conjecture does not override certainty.’8

Another tenet of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Dar’ concerns the limits of reason and what it may independantly discern of metaphysical truths. Reason, he insisted, can arrive at basic theological truths, but only revelation can furnish the details. Thus reason can discern the existence of God and that He possesses attributes of perfection, and that He must be the sole object of worship. It also affirms, in general, the necessity for prophets and that there has to be a resurrection and requital of actions so that justice is fulfilled. But it is revelation which offers specifics about God, His attributes, His will and His rules; only revealed knowledge gives us the details of resurrection, accountability, Paradise, Hell, the unseen world of angels and jinn and their interplay in the visible realm, and the particular forms and expressions of worship.9

Before concluding, mention must be made of a more murky tone that has appeared in recent times on the otherwise vibrant canvass of traditionalism. A mindset has raised its extremist head over the course of time that is narrow, belligerent, dismissive of the rational sciences as they developed in classical Islam; having the shallowest footing in knowledge and the intellectual activities of true Islamic scholarship. In fact, their link to traditionalism is that they too hold that ‘aql must be steered by naql. However, their blinkered, reptilian reading of the texts has made such people extreme, intolerant and hostile: violent, even. The description of them being “naql-heads” seems wholly apt, if not spot on.

Parking the resurgence of Khawarij-like mentalities for now, and the retreat from the naql-based intellectualisation which continues to impoverish contemporary Muslim discourse, our focus must be to first affirm our rich intellectual tradition and to then urgently work to reverse our current intellectual stagnation.

The post-modern world is in a crisis. Whatever good came out of the Enlightenment continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism eating away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. Its Christian heritage seems long unable to supply the nourishment needed for the age. Islam, more than ever, seems called to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. Human fulfilment is unlikely to be achieved in predatory capitalism; and nor does it seem it will be offered by the Cross. The hunger of the human heart seems likely only to be answered by the Crescent. Indeed, Islam’s reasonable and rational monotheism, that pays reverence to the ‘aql, is starting to do just that.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:339.

2. See: al-Safarini, Lawmi‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 2:440, where he terms the third catagory sam‘i – knowledge that comes via “hearing” revealed knowledge or truthful reports.

3. A. McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 59.

4. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:338-39.

5. Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1990), §.55.

6. Cf. Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam, §.99.

7. Ibn ‘Aqil, Funun, 509 – cited in Makdisi, Ibn ‘Aqil: Religion and Culture in Classical Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 97.

8. Dar’ al-Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Riyadh: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyyah, 1979), 1:79.

9. ibid., 1:88-280.

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