The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “salafism reconsidered”

Scholars, Speakers & the Culture of “Edu-Tainment” [1/2]

Conference.001How do we distinguish a scholar from a da‘i, motivational speaker or ‘knowledgeable brother’? What are the proper qualifications for true scholarship? How serious a sin is giving fatwas and religious rulings without appropriate knowledge? What dangers are there in the Islamic ‘edu-tainment’ and ‘celebrity’ culture we are now in, especially where poorly qualified (or even unqualified) speakers take to social media to promote themselves and attempt to impart religious instruction? Given how the line has been blurred between qualified scholars and charismatic speakers; and given the confusion that currently surround these matters, I hope the following post will shed some much needed light on the topic.1

A good a place as any to start is a reminder about the seriousness of the matter, which can be gleaned from the following verse, hadiths and salaf-reports:

The Qur’an insists: And utter not lies in what your tongues allege [saying]: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to forge a lie against Allah. Those who forge lies against Allah will never prosper. [16:116]

The Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Allah does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’2

The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, let him take his seat in the Fire of Hell.’3

Similar to it is his ﷺ warning: ‘Whoever gives a fatwa without knowledge, shall bear the sin of those he gave it to.’4

Ibn Ma‘sud, one of the top-tier scholars among the sahabah, said: ‘You are in a time in which its scholars (‘ulema) are many and its speakers (khutaba) are few. But after you will come a time in which its scholars are few and its speakers many.’5

Imam Malik remarked: ‘Whoever is asked about a religious matter, before responding he should imagine both Heaven and Hell before him and consider his outcome in the Hereafter. Only then should he respond.’6

Imam Malik was once asked a religious question, to which he replied: ‘I do not know.’ It was then said to him: ‘But the issue is a light and easy one.’ At this he became angry, then said: ‘There is nothing about knowledge that is light. Haven’t you heard Allah’s words: We will soon cast upon you a weighty word. [73:6] Knowledge, all of it is weighty; especially what one will be questioned about on the Day of Judgement.’7

The above examples should suffice as a rejoinder for those in whose hearts faith and the fear of God still flicker.

Since the idea of “being qualified” or “proper qualification” lies at the very heart of the matter, let’s look at the levels of the scholars/muftis, along with their qualifications, as per a classical, authoritative categorisation:

The genre of literature referred to as Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti – “Conduct of Muftis and of Fatwa-Seekers” – lists the required credentials in terms of being ‘alim bi ahkam al-shar‘iyyah, “highly versed in the rulings of the Sacred Law.”8 This requires muftis to possess thorough knowledge of: [i] The five-hundred or so legal verses in the Qur’an. [ii] Those hadiths that relate to legal issues, along with knowing how to evaluate their soundness; or to at least rely upon the experts in this field. [iii] Those cases and issues which have become subject to a scholarly consensus (ijmå‘), so as not to contradict it. [iv] Rules and principles of abrogation, so as not to rule on the basis of an abrogated verse or hadith. [v] Classical Quranic Arabic language, in order to understand literal and metaphorical usage; general and particular discourse; idioms; and also equivocal and unequivocal speech. [vi] Methods of analogical deduction (qiyas) and procedures of inferential reasoning (istinbat).

The legal literature also states that the term mufti is synonymous with mujtahid – one capable of ijtihad: i.e. of extracting and inferring rulings directly from the texts of the Qur’an or the Sunnah. A mufti who has gained complete mastery in the above-listed qualifications is called an absolute mujtahid (mujtahid mutlaq). The mufti who gains expertise, but not complete mastery, in these ijtihad credentials is a mujtahid bound by the legal framework of a law-school (mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). In both cases, these two mujtahids work with the foundational texts: the first does so unrestrictedly and directly; the second  one, according to the methodological principles of his law-school or madhhab.

Below these two are muftis who are “non-mujtahids.” They too are of varying ranks. There is the mufti who, although not capable of ijtihad, is highly versed in his school’s modes of legal reasoning and analogy; has committed to memory its rulings; and is able to defend, refine and resolve ambiguous cases – tilting the scales in favour of one of two or more opinions on the matter. He can even infer rulings for new cases based on established precedents of the school. Then there are muftis who are trained jurists, but their skills are limited to distinguishing between the authoritative (mu‘tamad) and less authoritative positions of their school, as well as memorising its issues (masa’il), or positive law.

Finally comes the mufti who is a simply trained jurist and is unable to grasp complex legal talk. What he does have going for him, though, is a competency to transmit the authoritative rulings of the school on any or most given issues, with reliable accuracy. His level is ifta’ bi’l-hifz – “issuing fatwa by having carefully and diligently memorised the school’s legal rulings.” In the absence of other types of muftis, lay people and other non-muftis are obliged to ask such trained transmitters of law and legal rulings.9

Before soldiering on, a few remarks are in order:

Firstly, barring the last type of mufti, all the others engage in highly complex modes of legal reasoning and juristic activity.

Secondly, in our times, when we say that so-and-so is a mufti, we don’t mean that he is a mujtahid, but rather that he gives fatwas based on the books and rulings of his law school, or upon the ijtihad of a mujtahid he is following in the issue. That is, muftis of today do not infer legal rulings directly from the root sources.

Thirdly, although in Islam’s earlier period muftis were invariably mujtahids, the term was widened at some point to include non-mujtahid jurists too, out of a pressing need or hajah.10

Fourthly, even muftis at the bottom of the legal pecking order are thoroughly trained in religious rulings. Taking religious instruction from such muftis is to access reliable, orthodox knowledge. No such guarantee exists with a charismatic speaker or da‘i. In fact, it may very well be the case, as per the first hadith, of people taking ‘the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’ Sometimes, due to defective intentions or playing fast and loose with the religion, the “misguided and misguiding” – the dall mudill – are actually deserving of one another! And we seek refuge in Allah from this.

Fifthly, this categorisation helped people to recognise their own levels and boundaries, unlike today’s ego-driven, level-less learning, where anyone who acquires even a few crumbs of knowledge feels emboldened to give fatwas and religious instruction.

Finally, in terms of the levels of muftiship today, most muftis fall into the last category; some in the two levels above; fewer in the mujtahid level (either mujtahid in specific areas of the law, like marriage, divorce, inheritance, or finance; or the rarer mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). As for the absolute mujtahid, this cadre of muftis has been absent from the ummah for a very long time now.

Even with just a casual grasp of the above levels, the distinction between the qualified scholar or mufti, and between a motivational speaker/da’i will be clear. The former are qualified; the latter more often than not lack legal qualifications and fiqh schooling. Fatwa and religious instruction is sought from the former, not the latter. In fact, the latter are themselves in need of the former. As for the vague, new-fangled category of the “knowledgeable brother,” it would be best if we stopped using such a meaningless classification. For one’s knowledge either qualifies her or him to give religious rulings and fatwas, or it doesn’t. One is either followed in knowledge, or else one follows and imitates qualified scholarship; and in both there is goodness. Moreover, even if one has studied aspects of Islam with qualified teachers – Arabic grammar, tajwid, general Islamic studies, etc. – this does not mean that one is capable of giving fatwas or legal rulings: not unless one has been schooled in fiqh and authorised in it. Yet this simple piece of common sense is lost on so many in our time; including some graduates and drop-outs of Islamic universities.

On the topic of the ‘wannabe’ shaykh, the great polymath, Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi said: ‘There is nothing more harmful to knowledge and its people than those who enter into it, yet are not from it. They are ignorant, but think they are knowledgeable; they cause corruption while they think they are rectifying matters.’11

In the first part of this article we trekked through some basic foundations concerning what depth of learning is required for true Islamic scholarship, as well as the levels of scholarship. We encountered some proof-texts that showed how odious and sinful it is to speak about the religion without due knowledge. In fact, Imam Ibn Taymiyyah went so far as to declare: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’12 We then began to broach the topic about the difference between the qualified, seasoned scholar and between the charismatic, yet unqualified speakers either doing the rounds on the conventional speakers’ circuit, or flaunting their stuff on social media. But it’s a topic we’ll explore further in Part Two, when we look at the current Islamic “edu-tainment” culture, in light of the teachings from our scholars, sages and salaf.

Islam encourages, even obliges Muslims to grow in Islamic knowledge – knowledge of Allah; His religion; and its rulings. ‘Whoever traverses a path in search of knowledge, Allah will make easy for him a path to Paradise,’ is what our Prophet ﷺ said.13 There is also this hadith: ‘Whoever sets out to seek knowledge, is in the path of Allah until he returns.’14 That being the case, we ought to keep in mind the Arabic proverb: raha ‘ala hisan raja‘a ‘ala baghl – ‘He set out on a steed and returned on a mule.’ Setting out to seek sacred knowledge so as to grow in divine obedience is one of the noblest acts of the din. But we should always remember our level and never pretend to be at a level we are not at. To do so would be to return from seeking knowledge dishonoured and disgraced in Allah’s sight.

1. I’d like to thank Ustadha Zaynab Ansari for her: Blurred Lines, and Mobeen Vaid’s Mass Marketing Islam and “Edu-tainment” for helping to kick-start the much needed conversation. Vaid’s piece was the first time that I happened upon “edu-tainment” (an amalgam of the words education and entertainment) to describe the growing trend of conveying Islamic teachings and instruction. As for the Ustadha’s article, although its focus is different to this article, it nonetheless raises many concerns about the current speakers’ circuit and its impact upon Muslim community growth.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.

3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2950, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan.’

4. Abu Dawud, no.3657; Ibn Majah, no.53. It was graded as hasan by al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6068

5. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8066; Abu Khaythamah, al-‘Ilm, 109. Its chain was graded as sahih in Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: al-Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, n.d.), 10:510.

6.  Cited in Qadi ‘Iyad, Tartib al-Mudarik (Saudi Arabia: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un  al–Islamiyyah, 1983), 1:144.

7. ibid., 1:147-48.

8. Cf. al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar al-Ifta, 1968), 2:330-31; Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ (Beirut: Dar Ihya Turath al-‘Arabi, 1996)1:72-96; Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawziyyah, 2003), 6:40-208.

9. See: Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 6:125-28; Ibn al-Salah, Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Beirut: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1986), 87-102.

10. See: I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in, 2:86.

11. Ibn Hazm, al-Akhlaq wa’l-Siyar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 24.

12. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.

13. Muslim, no.2699.

14. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2649, who said: A hasan hadith.’

Joining Feet to Straighten Prayer-Rows: Is it a Sunnah?

taraweeh_universality1Q. As part of straightening the rows for congregational prayer (salat al-jama‘ah), is it required or recommended that each person join their feet with those standing either side of them?

A. Two issues need addressing here. Firstly, the importance of straightening the rows and the care and attention our Prophet ﷺ gave to it. Secondly, the manner in which prayer-rows are to be straightened.


As for those hadiths which insist prayer-rows must be straightened, the following is a representative selection:

1. Anas relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Straighten your rows and keep close together, for indeed I see you from behind my back.’1

2. Abu Mas‘ud al-Ansari related that the Prophet ﷺ would touch our shoulders at the prayer, saying: ‘Straighten [your rows] and do not differ, lest your hearts differ.’2

3. Abu Umamah relates the Prophet ﷺ saying: ‘Straighten your rows, stand shoulder to shoulder, be soft upon your brother and fill the gaps, for the devil enters through the gaps like the small lambs.’3

4. Ibn ‘Abbas relates; the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘The best of you are those whose shoulders are the gentlest in the prayer.’4

5. Anas also relates that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Stand close together in your rows, keep them near each other and stand neck to neck. By Him in whose hand is my life, I see the devil entering between the gaps as do the small lambs.’5

6. Al-Nu‘man b. Bashir related that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Straighten your rows. For by Allah, if you do not straighten your rows, Allah will separate your hearts.’6

The above hadiths demonstrate that straightening the rows for prayer, and filling the gaps between people standing in prayer, is highly emphasised; a few jurists holding it to be obligatory.7 We further see that being neglectful about doing so could result in hearts being at odds with one another (as per the 2nd and 6th hadith): the shari’ah of Islam loathing even the slightest cause of disunity.


As for how the rows must be aligned and straightened, the following two companion-reports seem to lie at the heart of the contention:

Firstly, having related the 1st hadith, Anas, may Allah be pleased with him, went on to say: ‘I saw each one of us join shoulder to shoulder and ankle bone to ankle bone with that of his companion.’8

Secondly, at the end of the 6th hadith, al-Nu‘man b. Bashir, may Allah be pleased with him, remarked: ‘I saw each man join shoulder to shoulder with that of his companion, knee to knee with that of his companion, and ankle bone to ankle bone with that of his [companion].’9

In recent decades, and based upon these two companion-reports, some now hold that one is to literally [physically] join shoulders and feet with the persons praying either side of them. This they believe is the Sunnah that is to be maintained throughout the entire length of time one is standing in the prayer. At first glance, the opinion seems to be quite validated. But shine a little light on this claim and some quirky problems begin to show themselves.


Now before spotlighting some of these anomalies, it’s worth getting a grip on what’s at stake here. For this isn’t intended to be a bit of a fiqhi argy-bargy for its own sake. Not at all! Instead, the fact of the matter is that the above claim (that one is required to literally join shoulders and feet) is something of a point of dogma with many of its advocates. To them, this act isn’t only prescribed by the shari‘ah; more than that, it is: ‘an abandoned Sunnah that must be revived.’10 Who has it been abandoned by? Well, apparently not just by the ordinary laymen; those unschooled in the finer points of fiqh. But by the vast majority of the fuqaha and ‘ulema too! And just how long has this alleged Sunnah been abandoned? Apparently for more than a thousand years; in other words, for the majority of Islam’s fourteen hundred year history.

That’s not all: feeling more than a little privileged at being told of a sunnah neglected for the past millennium, the advocates are enjoined ‘to call the people to it, until they unify upon it’.11 Such is the spirit of dogma and missionary zeal which has been bred, that those who differ with this stance – even if they be from the ranks of the qualified scholars – can find themselves accused of ‘denigrating and belittling the status of the Sunnah.12 Lamentably, such can be the stakes.


So what are these anomalies? And how should the above two companion-reports be understood? As it happens, they’re quite straightforward to grasp. They do not require a trained juristic mind.

For instance, the norm among such practitioners is that they will get their shoulders and feet to literally touch the shoulder and foot of those standing either side of them in the prayer row. Yet why limit it to shoulders and feet; to just these two body parts? Where’s the proof? For doesn’t one of the reports mention knees as well?

To stand in the prayer, with not only shoulders and sides of the feet touching those on either side, but the sides of the knees too, makes for a highly awkward and difficult standing. For many, getting the knees to physically touch those praying on either side requires having to stand bandy-legged: standing with one’s legs curved outwards such that one’s knees are pushed wider apart and closer to one’s neighbours’. Is this gawky and ungraceful posture really what’s called for?

Furthermore, the apparent wordings of the reports do not actually mention feet, but rather anklebones (al-kabayn). Again, what’s the proof for not taking this literally? It could well be a case of the fiqh maxim: itlaq al-ba‘d wa iradat al-kul – ‘mentioning the part, but intending the whole.’ But what’s the proof for this being the case?

And if, as some die hards attempt to do, one insists on physically joining anklebone to anklebone, many people will not only be standing bandy-legged, but they’d also have to turn their feet outwards slightly in order for their anklebone to be physically joined to that of their companion. Such a standing goes from being awkward and unseemly, to being a tad gruelling and insufferable. As for how one can maintain the prescribed sakinah and adab – the tranquility, composure and dignified courtesy – in the prayer, in such a standing, it does beggar belief.

And what about the Prophet’s directive ﷺ to align the necks (as per the 5th hadith)? Should they be touching too? Obviously not!

Given the quirks and conundrums a literal reading of these hadith and reports throw up, a better reading of the reports could be what one contemporary scholar wrote: ‘All this – to straighten [the rows]; keep them aligned; and fill in the gaps – doesn’t mean that [the bodily parts] must physically touch. For getting necks to touch is impossible. Keeping shoulders touching throughout the entire standing is clearly taxing. Getting knees to touch is impossible. And ankles touching is, to an extent, unattainable … It is therefore evident that being close is from a single perspective, and it is in four things: necks, shoulders, knees and ankles. What is intended is to urge the establishment of the rows, keep them aligned and consolidate them: without any crookedness or gaps. By this, the aim of the Lawgiver is attained.’13

The above reading is more in keeping with what earlier, classical jurists have stated on the matter – as will follow shortly.


If, for a moment, we put aside talk of how right or not the ‘physical-touching’ reading is, yet even the application of it is often so very wrong. For what this opinion devolves down to a lot of the time is: fidgeting in the prayer so as to get feet touching; wedging one’s foot tightly against another’s (its detractors call it ‘foot-jamming’); and standing with feet so far apart that it causes huge gaps between peoples’ shoulders. Shaykh Ibn ‘Uthaymin once remarked:

‘From the extremism in this issue is what is done by some people, in that one of them will join his ankle with that of his companion, but his feet will be so wide apart that there will be a gap between his shoulder and that of his neighbour’s; thus opposing the Sunnah by doing so. Rather the aim is that shoulders and ankles should be aligned with one another.’14

Blinded by their uncritical convictions, such people fail to see how they contradict the Sunnah of filling the gaps, due to standing with feet so wide apart that it causes large gaps between people’s shoulders.

They fail to see how they breach the duty of limbs being reverent, tranquil and still; or hearts being attentive, mindful and focused (collectively called khushu‘), in the prayer, because of constantly fidgeting and foot-jamming.

And they fail to see how they violate the prescribed gentleness towards those praying next to them (as per the 4th hadith), because of an extreme reading, confusing means with ends, and an unwarranted rigidness in religious practice.


The bulk of jurists down the ages have understood the reports which mention knees and ankles are to be joined, to mean that they could be utilised to help align the rows; not that they should physically touch. Explaining al-Bukhari’s words in his Sahih al-Bukhari: ‘Chapter: Joining Shoulder to Shoulder and Foot to Foot in the Prayer-Row’, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani stated: ‘What is meant by this is to exaggerate [the importance of] straightening the rows and filling the gaps (al-mubalaghah fi ta‘dil al-saff wa saddi khalalihi).’15

After citing the above statement of Ibn Hajr, Shaykh Anwar Shah al-Kashmiri noted: ‘It is [also] the intended meaning in the view of the jurists from the Four Schools (al-fuqaha al-arba‘ah).’16

Al-Shawkani explains the hadith (no.3) which orders to ‘stand shoulder to shoulder’ to mean: ‘Aligning the body parts with one another so that the shoulders of each person praying are arranged and in line with the shoulders of others. In this way, shoulders and necks will be aligned.’17


To conclude: One hadith states that: ‘Allah’s Messenger ﷺ would straighten our rows as though he were straightening the shaft of an arrow, until he saw that we had learnt it. One day he came out and was about to commence the prayer, when he noticed a man whose chest was protruding from the row. He said: “O slaves of Allah! Straighten your rows, or else Allah may cause dissension among you.”’18

As to the expression: ‘he would straighten our rows as though he were straightening the shaft of an arrow’, Imam al-Nawawi explains that an arrow’s shaft (qidah) ‘is the long, wooden part of an arrow that is pared and trimmed [until it is as straight as can be] … Meaning that he paid great attention to making the rows straight, as if he were sparing no effort to straighten an arrow and keep it uncurved as possible.’19

This alone should help us realise just how punctilious we each should be to keep the prayer lines straight and to fill in the gaps. There’s an even greater responsibility upon the person who leads the prayer to ensure that this happens. The Sunnah demands we show no slackness in this, as part of our reverent quest to be present with Allah in the actual prayer.

As for how the prayer-rows are to be formed and straightened, we’ve seen that there is no requirement to join feet or knees with those praying on either side, such that they physically touch. Ironically, insisting upon only this view and refusing to accept the validity of any other scholarly view, creates the very schism between Muslims that the hadiths wish us to avoid. Classical jurists chose not to follow such a literal reading of the reports, not out of neglect on their part (as some would have us believe); but out of a keen knowledge of the intent of the reports. Their collective juristic wisdom also came down in favour of worshippers each standing with their feet roughly the width of four fingers apart, or even a handspan, presumably to reflect a sense of humility of posture.20 In this way, each person aligns their shoulders with those on either side of them and ensures that gaps are gently filled. The worshippers may then focus on the Great Encounter that lies immediately ahead of them: Allahu akbar!

And Allah knows best.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.719.

2. Muslim, no.432.

3. Ahmad, Musnad, no.21760. It was confirmed as authentic (sahih) in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.1840.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.672. The hadith, with its collective support, is sahih – as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), no.2533.

5. Abu Dawud, no.667; al-Nasa’i, no.814, with a sahih chain. See: al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 2000), 4:227; and Albani, Sahih Sunan Abi Dawud (Kuwait: Dar Ghiras, 2002), no.673; al-Arna’ut, Sunan Abi Dawud (Damascus: Dar al-Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2009), 2:9.

6. Abu Dawud, no.662 and its chain is sahih. Cf. Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.32.

7. Like al-Bukhari, Ibn Hazm and al-Shawkani. See: al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 2:266; al-Shawkani, Nayl al-Awtar (Dar al-Mustaqbal, 2005), 3:211.

8. Al-Bukhari, no.719. Shaykh al-Albani wrote: ‘This addition also occurs in the report of al-Mukhallis and Ibn Abi Shaybah [1/351] with the following wording: Anas said, “I saw each of us joining our shoulders with those of our companions and our feet with those of our companions. If you were to do this today, a person would flee [from you] like a restless mule.” And its chain is also authentic, according to the conditions of the two Shaykhs.’ Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, 1:1:71; no.31.

9. Abu Dawud, no.662.

10. Al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, 1:1:70; no.31.

11. ibid., 1:1:73; no.32

12. ibid., 1:1:73.

13. Bakr Abu Zayd, La Jadid fi Ahkam al-Salah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1998), 14.

14. Majmu‘ Fatawa wa Rasa’il (Riyadh: Dar al-Watn, 1992), 13:52; no.428.

15. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), 2:561.

16. Fayd al-Bari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2005), 2:302.

17. Nayl al-Awtar (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2006), 6:113.

18. Al-Bukhari, no.717; Muslim, no.436.

19. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 4:131.

20. See: al-Kashmiri, Fayd al-Bari, 2:302.

Beware Pseudo-Scholars & Half-Baked Knowledge!

tumblr_md1w1eooHu1rvnjwto1_500The best proverbs manage to capture important ideas in just a few words. One well-worn Arab proverb has it that: nisf al-‘ilm akhtaru min al-jahl – ‘Half-baked knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.’ ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ insists Steven Hawking, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’ In the scholastic tradition of Islam there is the concept of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: claiming to be well-versed in religious matters merely by reading books, rather than by learning, studying and dialoguing with seasoned scholars. And so very often, such half-baked knowledge can be more corrupting and dangerous – to both the individual and the society – than simple, plain ignorance. Permit me to elaborate:

The whole notion of how a little knowledge can deceive a person into thinking they are more expert than they actually are has, I think, been wonderfully stated in a poem by the English poet, Alexander Pope. In his An Essay on Criticism (1709), he says:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Some of the lines of his Essay have become part of the popular lexicon, such as: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Then there is the famous first line of the above couplets, often misquoted as: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’

In Greek mythology, it was held that drinking from the Pierian Spring would grant a person great knowledge and inspiration. Pope explains how if a person only learns a little; if they only drink shallow drafts, it’s likely to intoxicate them and make them feel giddy and delusional. It’s apt to make them feel as if they know a great deal. However, a greater share of learning should remove their false pretensions and humble them. For drinking largely sobers, in that one then understands their level and becomes aware of how little they truly know.

Pope’s dangers of a little learning finds an earlier parallel in Muslim heritage. In some of the manuals written to help train Muslim scholars, teachers and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). It’s said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: Whomsoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; while whoever enters the third realises they know nothing.’1 An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of learning; having only drunk shallow drafts, Abu Shibr is intoxicated, looses sight of his fledgling level, and acts as if he is seasoned in sacred knowledge.

Of course, not everyone who enters the first stretch of learning becomes intoxicated. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into the Abu Shibr persona, the experienced shaykh is likely able to treat the disease with an effective cure). Rather, it’s those whose knowledge comes only by way of a few books or surfing the Net that are most at risk. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a problem to himself as well as to others.

As for the second and third spans, or stretches, of knowledge, then as the months and years pass, the one seeking it appreciates, at first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even via one single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the highly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it. This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own level. With further learning and engagement with knoweledge, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they truly know – in comparison to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition.

Nowadays, online forums and chatrooms are awash with pseudo-scholars audaciously speaking about things they have no knowledge of. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’2 Such pretenders might know something about the subject they are discussing, but do not know enough for a God-pleasing, objective discussion. They know a thing or two on the matter, but are ignorant of ten other things about it: and all too often they are ignorant of their own ignorance! This is due to a diseased heart and diminished piety, so the ego pushes them into false pretence, denial, haughtiness, conceit and being too full of themselves – wa’l-‘iyazubi’Llah.

Al-Khalil b. Ahmad remarked: ‘There are four types of people: (1) One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him! (2) One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him! (3) One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him! (4) One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’3

Our ‘ulema explain that there are two types of ignorance (jahl): simple ignorance (jahl basit), and compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab). Simple ignorance is, to a degree, a minor problem, in that it is easily remedied by the simple act of asking. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know, orders the Qur’an [16:43] One hadith states: ‘The cure for ignorance is to ask (innama shifa’u’l-‘iyy al-su’al).4 Simple ignorance is where one is aware that one doesn’t know; in other words, one realises their state of ignorance. As such, there is a sense of humbleness that accompanies simple ignorance.

Not so compounded ignorance which, Islamically speaking, is a far more pernicious problem. For the person wallowing in this ignorance is convinced he knows what he doesn’t know. He thinks he has knowledge of the issue, while in reality he knows next to nothing about it. Much of the Islamic postings on the Internet are characterised by such ignorance upon ignorance, or half-baked knowledge, as they pass themselves off as the real McCoy. But what causes a person to pant like a dog on heat, insisting: ‘I do know, I do know’, while the reality is very different? And what are the telltale signs of being soiled by such ignorance?

As noted earlier, the ego is all too often the culprit in such matters. In his censure of half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, the great Muslim polymath, Ibn Hazm wrote:

‘Some people – who are overcome by ignorance, whose intellects are weak and whose nature is corrupt – think they are from the learned, but they aren’t. There is no harm greater to knowledge or the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah; exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or to shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’5

A telltale sign that one is afflicted with such a disease includes: An eagerness to poke one’s nose into difficult religious issues that are well above one’s proverbial pay grade, so as to offer their tuppence worth on the matter. The Arab proverb likely fits such a person: laysa hadha bi‘ushshik fadruji – ‘This isn’t your nest, so hop along.’

Another telltale sign is: being obnoxiously adamant that one’s own opinion is correct, and that everyone else is off. All too often this leads Abu Shibr to take this differing to the next level. His half-baked knowledge doesn’t allow him to realise that there may be more than one valid take on the issue, and that his mightn’t even be the soundest. But by this time it’s already too late, Abu Shibr has already made a mountain out of a molehill. In his hubris, he thinks that he alone is on haqq and the others are on batil. Such delusions of grandeur lead him to demean, defame and even boycot and warn against those who differ with him. In the bigotry and blind-following of his desires, Abu Shibr unwittingly does the devil’s work, becoming an active agent in destroying unity and brotherhood among the believers – and we seek refuge in Allah from such mischief and misguidance.

Another sign is: hiding behind phrases like, ‘I’ve got a brain to think for myself.’ But I suggest that this is to draw from the phrase more than is warranted. Whilst it’s a fact we’ve each been endowed with some level of intelligence or reason, it’s also a fact that some are more intelligent than others. Moreover, a person who can reason well in one topic or area of life, may be unfit to do so in another. Surely, true intelligence should lead us to acknowledge that some disciplines of life and learning require an immense amount of study and specialisation. Such is the case for the intricacies of Islamic law and theology. Yet some will casually dismiss the verdicts of highly qualified scholars, not upon a detailed evidence-based critique, but upon a vainglorious whim. ‘I’ve got a brain’ demands that we engage the evidences and legal rationals of the experts before dismissing their conclusions, or humbly defer to their authority. Anything else would make intellects look suspect; or even down right stupid! The Qur’an says: Yet among people are those who argue about Allah without knowledge, guidance, or an illuminating Book. [31:20]

Compounded ignorance; this Abu Shibr syndrome, is extremely difficult to cure. For the one afflicted with it doesn’t see the deficiency in himself. As far as he’s concerned, he knows; and that’s that! To reveal to him that he is ignorant of his own ignorance is nigh on impossible. And yet it’s because the Abu Shibrs of this world are least likely to recognise their inadequacies, and because the Abu Shibr syndrome can be contagious, that we need to be alert to the following shari‘ah cautions:

Firstly, that speaking about Allah, His religion, or its rulings, without due knowledge, is a heinous crime and amounts to lying against Allah and the religion of Islam: And utter not lies in what your tongues allege [saying]: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to forge a lie against Allah. Those who forge lies against Allah will never prosper. [16:116] Such a crime against Allah requires an immediate handbrake turn to tawbah.

Secondly, to reign-in our soul from its egotism, exhibitionism and from seeking to be a wannabe. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever does deeds in order to be heard of, Allah will make him heard of; and whoever does deeds to show-off, Allah will make a show of him.’6 That sincerity to Allah and sound intention are key, is vividly demonstrated in the next hadith too: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge so as to vie with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to attract peoples’ attention, then Allah shall enter him into Hell.’7 As can be seen, Islam doesn’t do ego. Those who are eager for it to be otherwise have possibly got the wrong religion and way of life.

Thirdly, that one of the best defences against getting intoxicated on shallow draughts of knowledge is: learning to say, ‘I don’t know’. In fact, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: la adri nisf al-‘ilm – ‘To say: “I don’t know” is half of knowledge.’8 One of the scholars said: ‘Realise, that to reply with, “I don’t know” doesn’t diminish one’s status; as some of the ignoramuses imagine. Instead, it elevates it. For it is a splendid proof of his lofty rank, strength of his religion, his fear of his Lord, and the purity of his heart.’9

Fourthly, ask, inquire, learn, study, discuss, and grow in Islamic knowledge – but let us do so with humility and with being aware of our own levels. In this respect, let’s take our queue from how the Angels extolled Allah: ‘Glory be to You! We have no knowledge save what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are the Knowing, the Wise.’ [2:32]

That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing is only when intentions are corrupt, or if we lose sight of our own levels. We all have half-baked knowledge about many matters. In some of those matters, our half-baked knowledge will mature and become seasoned knowledge. In some, it may improve but never fully ripen. In other cases, it may always remain half-baked. But that needn’t be a problem, so long as we are aware that we don’t know; that we don’t act like Abu Shibr; and that, if required or wanted, we are open to learning. In this regard it’s been wisely said that: ‘A half-baked idea is okay as long as it’s in the oven.’

Hear, hear!

1. Consult: Bakr Abu Zayd, ‘Hilyat Talib al-‘Ilm’, in Majmu‘at al-‘Ilmiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 198.

2. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.

3. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, nos.336-7. The hadith says: During the time of the Prophet ﷺ a man suffered a serious head wound. Later he had a nocturnal emission and inquired from some companions if he was allowed to perform dry ablution (tayammum)? They said that they didn’t think it was permissible. So he took a full bath (ghusl), because of which he died. When the Prophet ﷺ came to learn of this, he said: ‘They have killed him; may Allah kill them! Why didn’t they ask, if they did not know. Indeed the cure for ignorance is to ask.’

5. Ibn  Hazm, ‘Maratib al-‘Ulum’ in Rasa’il Ibn Hazm al-Andalusi (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-‘Arabiyyah, 1983), 4:86.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.6499; Muslim, no.2986. The meaning of: ‘Allah will make him heard of’ is: Allah will publicly expose and humiliate him on the Day of Judgement – as said by al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1990), no.1626.

7. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2654. The hadith is hasan, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6382.

8. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Madkhal, no.713.

9. Ibn Jama‘ah, Tadhkirat al-Sami‘ wa’l-Mutakallim (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir, 2013), 68.

Knowing, Doing & Becoming

islamic-tourism-018Q. I’ve been following your talks and writings, on and off for about sixteen years now. You often mention the Islamic concept of knowing, doing & becoming, describing it as the “methodology of a Muslim” and a “blueprint for a believer.” It’s even the motto of your blog and the Jawziyyah Institute. I know you’ve explained what it means many a time in your talks, but I was hoping you could put something in writing about it.

A. Bismi’Llah. Alhamduli’Llah. Wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. The first thing I’d like to point out is that the idea of knowing, doing & becoming is not mine. Rather, it is something which the scholars are generally united upon, even if they may sometimes express it in different ways. Knowing, doing & becoming refers to: knowing faith, doing works of faith, then becoming transformed by faith. Having laid out the bare bones of the matter, allow me to put some flesh on those bones:

1. The concept of knowing, doing and becoming has its starting point in the celebrated Hadith of Gabriel (jibril). This is the hadith which tells how the Angel Gabriel came to a public gathering of the Prophet ﷺ, in the guise of a man, and put three elemental questions to him: what is faith (iman); what is [outward] submission (islam); and what is [spiritual] excellence (ihsan)? The Prophet ﷺ replied to the first question by saying that faith is firm and unwavering belief in Allah, the angels, the prophets, the revealed scriptures, the Last Day, and divine decree (qadr). To the next, he ﷺ responded that submission entailed uttering the two testimonies of faith (shahadah), performing the five daily prayers, paying the annual zakat, fasting during the month of Ramadan and undertaking pilgrimage to the Ka‘bah in Makkah. To the last: ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him; and while you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ Later, the Prophet ﷺ disclosed: ‘That was Gabriel; he came to teach you your religion.’1

2. The significance in the above hadith is that the entire religion was encapsulated in three spheres: iman, islam and ihsan. The first is about knowing what to believe in; the second, doing those deeds which give concrete expression to one’s beliefs; the third is becoming transformed by those beliefs and deeds. This, then, is the basis for: knowing, doing & becoming. On the merits of this hadith, Qadi ‘Iyad said: ‘This hadith entails an explanation of all the duties of worship, inward and outward, from those [related to] the bonds of faith, actions of the limbs, inward sincerity and protecting actions from the dangers [of non-acceptance] – to the extent that all of the shari‘ah sciences return back to it and branch off from it.’2

3. Knowing (‘ilm), doing (‘aml) & becoming (hal) equate to iman, islam and ihsan. These three, in turn, equate to the Islamic sciences of beliefs (‘aqidah), positive law (fiqh) and spirituality (suluk, tazkiyah, or tasawwuf). Now spirituality is somewhat of a blurry and nebulous word. Today, spirituality can mean anything from lighting an incense stick, hugging a tree, feeling elated by the natural world; art; or a piece of classical music, to long walks, quiet reflection, yoga, meditation, or organised religion. As far as Islam is concerned, spirituality relates to the Spirit; the ruh. Or to the soul (nafs). Spirituality, in Islam, is about traversing the path to Allah by acts of sincere, loving submission. It’s about, as some spiritual masters have put it, how to journey into the presence of the King of kings (kayfiyat al-suluk ila hadrati malik al-muluk). It entails inwardly purifying the soul from its vices (radha’il) and adorning it with virtues (fada’il) so that, with its labours of love, it is gradually weaned away from its distractions and its opposition to the divine will. This is when such a soul has been made worthy of divine acceptance and is given to enter the divine presence: But those who feared the standing before their Lord and curbed their soul’s passions, the Garden is their abode. [79:40-41]

4. Knowing, doing & becoming has levels. There are some matters a Muslim is obligated to know, do and become; while other things are preferred to know, do and become. This is seen in the next hadith: ‘Allah, exalted is He, said: “Whoever shows enmity to a friend (wali) of Mine, I shall be at war with him. My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have enjoined on him, and My servant continues to draw near to Me with optional works so that I shall love him.”‘3 What this make clear is that there is no way to Allah’s walayah – love, sanctity and closeness – except by fulfilling the obligations (fara’id) then performing optional works of faith (nawafil). The first encircles us in Allah’s love; the second endears us to Allah even more so. One keeps in mind however: man shaghalahu’l-fard ‘an al-nafl fa huwa ma‘dhur, wa man shaghalahu’l-nafl ‘an al-fard fa huwa maghrur – ‘One busied by obligatory acts, away from optional ones, is excused. One busy in optional acts, away from obligatory ones, is deluded.’4

5. About the obligations in ‘aqidah, fiqh and suluk, Shaykh Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi said: ‘The Prophet ﷺ said: “The seeking of knowledge is compulsory on every Muslim.’5 This includes understanding tawhid and to know about [the uniqueness of] Allah’s Essence (dhat) and Attributes (sifat). It entails knowing the acts of worship (‘ibadat), the lawful and prohibited, and what is permissible and forbidden in terms of social transactions (mu‘amalat). It further includes learning the praiseworthy spiritual states of the heart; like patience, gratitude, generosity, good character and companionship, truthfulness and sincerity; as well as the blameworthy ones, such as rancour, envy, treachery, pride, ostentation, anger, enmity, malice and miserliness. Learning how to acquire the first [set of traits] and to remove the second is as much a personal duty as ensuring the validity of one’s beliefs, acts of worship and social transactions.’6

6. Every Islamic curriculum, methodology (manhaj), or claim to orthodoxy not having the Hadith of Jibril and the Hadith of Allah’s Wali – i.e. the concept of knowing, doing & becoming (iman, islam & ihsan) – at its core, is incomplete, imbalanced and unsound. Hadith Jibril is generally felt to be the most succinct summary of the entire din, which touches on every aspect of belief, practice and spiritual growth (‘he came to teach you your religion’). Indeed, al-Haytami says of the hadith that ‘it is dubbed ‘the Mother of the Sunnah (umm al-sunnah) like al-Fatihah is called ‘the Mother of the Qur’an (umm al-qur’an)’, since it encapsulates the Sunnah’s entire message.’7 For faith to be correct and come to true fruition, iman, islam and ihsan must be brought into an equilibrium; that is, ‘aqidah, fiqh and suluk must be in balance and harmony. Problems occur in the Muslim personality and collectivity whenever they are out of kilter. So, for instance, if fiqh isn’t accompanied by serious commitment to suluk, it often results in dry legalism and puritanical behaviour. Without fiqh and adherence to the law, suluk is merely self-deception and wishy-washy spirituality. Without fiqh, ‘aqidah is no more than empty slogans. In the absence of suluk, ‘aqidah becomes blind ideology. Yet without ‘aqidah, both fiqh and suluk are sterile or futile. Thus all three are indispensable. In summary: without ‘aqidah, there is just idolatry and heresy; without fiqh, vanity and futility; and without suluk, hypocrisy and pretentious piety.

7. While it is categorically true that the Qur’an says (51:56) we were created to worship Allah, the Hadith of Jibril informs us how this worship should be: ‘That you worship Allah as though seeing Him; and while you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ It is, I think, an indicment of sorts on an individual’s source of learning if, after some time, he or she hasn’t been led to or taught this all-inclusive understanding of Islam. If that be so, one needs to seriously question one’s source of knowledge and learning, since it smacks of treachery to the trust of teaching. The area that is usually ignored, treated lightly, undermined, or even scoffed at, is that of ihsan – the becoming dimension. As this is all too often the case, let me say this much about it:

8. Masters of the inward life say that ihsan during acts of worship has three degrees:8 (i) Performing the act excellently and with proper decorum (adab), by at least fulfilling its conditions (shurut), pillars (arkan) and obligations (wajibat). (ii) Performing the act with an awareness of Allah’s presence and watchful gaze – known as muraqabah. The shaykhs of ihsan teach us that if, when recalling the fact that Allah sees you, a shyness emerges in your heart that drives you to exert yourself in Allah’s obedience or deters you from disobedience, then you possess something of the realities of muraqabah or vigilance. (iii) Beyond this lofty degree lies that of mushahadah – spiritually witnessing Allah; or “seeing” Him with the eye of the heart (bi ‘ayn al-basirah). This is where faith has flooded the heart and filled it to the brim, due to being immersed in Allah; lost in contemplation of Him; and witnessing His hand in all things and behind all things. Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali said that it is the degree where: ‘the heart is illumined with faith, and the inner sight arrives at experiential knowledge such that the Unseen becomes, at it were, seen (huwa an yutanawwara’l-qalb bi’l-iman wa tanfudha’l-basirah fi’l-irfan hatta yasira’l-ghaybu ka’l-ayan).’9 Attaining muraqabah is, we are told, rare. Arriving at mushahadah is rarer still. It can’t be gained by any effort on our part; rather it is sheer gift and grace from Allah to His sincere devotees, lovers and saints.

9. It is the transformation, the becoming, which is the goal. That is, it’s not only about praying, fasting or doing other acts of piety (taqwa); it’s about cultivating one’s soul, so as to make piety an ingrained habit. In other words, it’s about becoming one of the pious (muttaqun). It is not just about giving zakat or some charity (sadaqah), but about becoming, by nature, of the charitable (mutasaddiqun). Nor is it only about patience, speaking truth, making dhikr, or doing a deed or two of rectification. It’s about being rooted in these traits, to become of those who are patient (sabirun), truthful (sadiqun), constantly remember Allah (dhakirun), and are healers and rectifiers (muslihun). It’s all about the becoming. Above all, it’s about becoming mukhlisun – those who purify their worship making it sincerely and exclusively for Allah; muhsinun – those who worship Allah upon spiritual excellence; and muhibbun – true lovers of Him. In the religion of Islam, it’s very much about the becoming.

Allahumma inna nas’aluka hubbaka, wa
hubba man yuhibbuka, wa hubba
‘amalin yuqarribuna
ila hubbika.

1. Muslim, no.8.

2. Cited in Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 1:142-43.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.6502.

4. See: Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2012), 14:338.

5. Ibn Majah, no.224. It is is hasan due to its multiple chains of transmission. See: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 4:268; no.5264.

6. Maw‘izat al-Mu’minin (Beirut: Dar Ibn Kathir, 2001), 45.

7. Al-Fath al-Mubin bi Sharh al-Arba‘in (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 187.

8. See: al-Jurdani, Jawahir al-Lu’lu’iyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2013), 121, who goes on to says: ‘Each of these three stations are [part of] ihsan. Except that the ihsan which is a prerequisite for the validity of worship is the first one. As for the other two levels of ihsan, they are the traits of the elite (khawwas), for which most are excused.’

9. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:129.

Khawarij Ideology, ISIS Savagery: Part 2 of 3

IsisThe first instalment of this blog (here) charted the rise of Islam’s first heterodox sect, the Khawarij, who were described by the Prophet ﷺ as being: ‘the worst of mankind and beasts’1 and ‘dogs of Hellfire.’2 We saw how their defining traits were: (i) rebellion (khuruj) against legitimate state rule; (ii) declaring Muslims to be apostates (takfir) for sins or opinions that do not warrant apostasy and; (iii) shedding peoples’ blood and causing chaos and terror throughout the land (fasad fi’l-ard). Such have tended to be this heinous group’s timeless traits.

Whatever other motives or pathology are at work in the Khariji mind, the underlying cause of their deviation was clearly stated by Ibn ‘Abbas when he said to them, in his encounter with them: ‘I come to you from the Emigrants (muhajirun) and the Helpers (ansar) and the son-in-law of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ. To them the Qur’an was revealed. They are more learned about its meanings than you are; and there is not a single one of them among you.’3 In other words, Ibn ‘Abbas is insisting that he has come from a people educated and nurtured by the Prophet ﷺ himself; a people whose knowledge of the meanings, context and intent of the Quranic teachings is second to none. It’s as if he was saying: ‘Pray tell, with what authority do you presume to know better than the sahabah – the actual people of knowledge, understanding and excellence?’

With that short recap, let’s now turn our focus to ISIS. At the outset, it is important to note that no single writing of this size can hit every relevant nail on the head in this affair. There are far too many questions and concerns to tackle for that to realistically happen. Nor is this piece meant to be academically exhaustive or politically thorough. Instead, the purpose is to compare the claims and modus operandi of ISIS with that of Islam’s well-established juristic norms, and to show how they are the most recent face of Kharijite misguidance, barbarity, indiscriminate killings and takfirism.

I’d also like to stress here that not all those waging jihad in Syria are the ISIS/al-Qaeda types. Many groups and individuals are; but not all. Likewise, not all who are fighting under, or migrating to, the ISIS banner deserve the same ruling or description. While it is true that many (or even most) ISIS-affiliates are no more than thugs, deviants and followers of false desires; others are sincere, but betaken with idealism and naivety; or are ensnared by claims of an alleged caliphate (khilafah) and misled into believing the grass is greener on the other side.

Yet since ISIS has a clear-cut command structure, and its ideology and decrees come from top down, there is sufficient enough shari‘ah justification to be able to describe the group in collective, generic terms – even if not every individual affiliated with the group fits the description. This shall be the stance I take when writing this blog. So to continue on from Section III of the first part of the blog, let’s start with a declaration from the leader of ISIS:


On May 14th, 2015 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the alleged khalifah of all Muslims, said in a 34 minute audio address: ‘O Muslims, Islam was never for a day the religion of peace. Islam is the religion of war. Your Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) was dispatched with the sword as a mercy to the creation.’4 The issue of jihad and Islam’s attitude to war is as good a place as any to start our examination of ISIS.

Without a doubt, jihad in the sense of qital (“fighting”, “military war”) is enjoined on the faithful at numerous places in the Qur’an and is seen as a highly meritorious form of duty and sacrifice in Islam. Al-Raghib wrote about the schematics of jihad in these terms: ‘Jihad is of three types: jihad against the apparent enemy; against the devil; and against the ego (nafs). All three types are included in Allah’s words, exalted is He: And wage jihad in Allah’s path with all the striving that is due to Him. [22:78] And wage jihad with your wealth and your lives in the way of Allah. [9:41] … Jihad is to be waged with the hand and the tongue, as he [the Prophet] ﷺ said: “Wage jihad against the unbelievers with your hands and your tongues.”56

Undeniably, then, military or armed jihad is well-attested to in the revealed texts.7 Yet to equate this one virtuous act of the faith with the totality of Islam is nothing short of being perverse or pathological.

The self-proclaimed Caliph and so-called caretaker of the ummah has nothing to say about prayer, fasting or pilgrimage. No significant exhortation to piety or to purifying the heart. No word about cultivating good morals and ethics, or kindness to parents, fulfilling contracts or guarding the tongue. There’s just a call to fighting, violence and shedding blood. The slick ISIS media output is filled with images of blood and gore; of victims in the process of being executed, burnt or beheaded; and children playing amidst decapitated heads. ISIS wants us to believe this is the real Islam; that this is the spirit of a true Muslim: and that anyone who recoils from such imagery is but a pale reflection of the real deal. In the ISIS reading of Islam, this is how the Prophet ﷺ was. This is what al-Baghdadi is hell bent on making us believe. In fact, this is what so many in the world have come to believe; and it utterly repulses them.

So what was the Prophet’s attitude ﷺ to war? And how does the shari‘ah, the Sacred Law of Islam, countenance war?

In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’8 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following declaration of our Prophet Muhammad ﷺ: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask Allah for safety. If you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’9 That is to say, pursue the path of peace and reconciliation; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently. The following hadith might also be used as a support: ‘After me there will be conflicts and affairs. If you are able, resolve them peacefully.’10 Also revealing are these words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘The most detested of names to Allah are War (harb) and Bitterness (murrah).’11

All this is a far cry from the ISIS reinvention of the Muslim personality and from their irreverent portrayal of the Prophet ﷺ. If anything, their portrayal is more a betrayal. Jihad of the military kind, as we have seen, is not a goal in itself; it’s a means to a goal: the free and unhindered invitation to Islam and the summons to worship Allah alone. Let’s not forget this martial jihad has rules and codes of conduct too. Among them is that the leader carefully evaluate the potential benefits and harms of armed struggle; ensure civilians and non-combatants are not killed or wilfully attacked; abide by the other sanctities upheld in Islam; and keep in mind receptivity to the call (da‘wah) to Islam.

ISIS, however, seems not to give much thought about receptivity to Islam, nor about sanctity of life – including Muslim life. Despite their claims to uphold the shari‘ah, the list of their atrocities and violations reads like an Argos catalogue. These involve: the indiscriminate killing of Muslims; kidnapping and killing of non-Muslims who have entered Muslims countries as aid workers, journalists or under a covenant of security; torturing and killing prisoners as well as mutilating their bodies; exacting revenge and retribution upon the public if they disagrees with ISIS; illegally seizing the wealth and property of Muslims; and, of course, their rampant takfir of a large numbers of Muslims – scholars and mujahids included. It seems the only difference between ISIS and the Khawarij of earlier times is in the sheer scale of ISIS’s takfir, bloodshed and savagery. In this sense, ISIS are not Khawarij, they are ubër-Khawarij! And nor should one be taken in by their apparent Islamic rhetoric. For the Prophet ﷺ warned about the Khawarij thugs that: ‘There shall appear in my ummah schisms and divisions, and a people who will beautify their speech, but their actions will be evil. They shall recite the Qur’an, but it will not pass beyond their throats …’12 Also: ‘They shall recite the Qur’an thinking it is for them, but it is against them.’13 And that: ‘They would call to the Book of Allah, but would not be from it at all.’14


In the same audio speech, al-Baghdadi goes to great lengths to rally every able-bodied believer to his cause: ‘Muslims! Do not think the war that we are waging is the Islamic State’s war alone. Rather it’s the Muslims’ war altogether. It’s the war of every Muslim in every place, and the Islamic State is merely the spearhead in this war. It is but the war of the people of faith against the people of disbelief, so march forth to your war O Muslims.’15

This brings us to another crucial aspect about jihad in Islam: who may be fought? Are Muslims required to wage jihad against disbelievers due to their disbelief (kufr)? Imam Ibn Taymiyyah takes up the issue, stating: ‘The disbelievers, they are only to be fought on condition of them waging war first – as is the view of the majority of scholars; and as is proven by the Book and the Sunnah.16 Which is to say, Islam permits fighting disbelievers, not because of their disbelief, but only if they initiate war against Muslim societies, or manifest belligerence towards them. The Qur’an says: Fight for the sake of Allah those that fight against you, but do not transgress the limits. [2:190]

Ibn al-Qayyim, another medieval maestro of Islamic jurisprudence, wrote: ‘Fighting is only a duty in response to being fought against, not in response to disbelief. Which is why women, children, the elderly and infirm, the blind, or monks who stay out of the fighting are not fought. Instead, we only fight those who wage war against us.’17

Ibn al-Qayyim also stated about the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Never did he force the religion upon anyone, and he only fought those who waged war against him and fought him. As for those who entered into a peace treaty with him, or concluded a truce, he never fought them, nor ever coerced them to enter his religion, abiding by his Lord’s order: There is no compulsion in religion. True guidance has become distinct from error. [2:256] … It will be clear to whoever ponders the life of the Prophet ﷺ, that he never coerced anyone to enter his religion and that he only fought those who fought against him first. As for those who ratified a peace treaty with him, he never fought them, provided they kept to their covenant and did not violate its terms.’18

Again, the issue of jihad isn’t quite as ISIS makes it out to be: ‘It is but the war of the people of faith against the people of disbelief.’ Rather, as per the above, and as most of the qualified jurists and recognised fatwa bodies of our time hold – and their word in shari‘ah affairs is authoritative and represents orthodoxy – that a state of war shall not exist between Muslims and others except if hostility against a Muslim land is initiated or barriers to da‘wah erected.19

As for when the Muslim army is in the thick of a religiously-sanctioned war, then this is where the following verses of the Qur’an (and their like) come into play: Slay them wherever you find them; drive them out of the places from which they drove you. [2:190-91] Also: Slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them [captive] and besiege them, and lie in ambush for them everywhere. [9:5] And then, of course, there is this: But if they incline towards peace, incline to it too. [8:61]

Lastly, let’s touch upon the following: the believer’s love of martyrdom. In one hadith, we see the Prophet ﷺ relish the following: ‘By Him in whose hand is my life. I would love to be killed in Allah’s way and then be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed and be brought back to life; then be killed.’20 The Prophet ﷺ cherished martyrdom, not because of the love of blood and gore; nor for the glory of war itself; nor for the clanging of steel or the thrill of the fight. He loved it because of what it manifested of the highest service and the ultimate sacrifice for God. To surrender to Allah one’s actual life, for a cause Allah loves and honours, is the greatest possible expression of loving Allah. It’s no wonder, then, that the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whosoever dies without partaking in a military expedition, or even desiring to do so, dies upon a branch of hypocrisy.’21 Believers, though, whilst they long to meet a martyr’s death, strive to live a saintly life. For how can one truly desire to die for God, if one doesn’t sincerely try to live for God?


ISIS has no qualms in shamelessly flaunting its cruelty and deviancy. Although the so-called khalifah hides away from the public’s gaze, the khariji ideology and attitudes he propagates and presides over are on display for all to see. But ideology isn’t always the core appeal. Some are drawn to ISIS, not because of its ruthless ideology, but because for them it represents a rallying force against taghut rulers, establishments that have failed them, and western foreign policies. The claim to have reestablished the khilafah is the ultimate rallying force to galvanise the disaffected and disempowered. But has ISIS really reestablished the Caliphate? Is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi truly the khalifah, the amir al-mu’minin, of all Muslims? Is there an Islamic duty upon each of us to give him the oath of allegiance, or bay‘ah? The short answer to all these questions is: Of course not! And here are a few reasons why:

1. The khalifah must be appointed by consultation (shura) of the ummah’s movers and shakers: its senior scholars, political leaders, wealthy ones, and any others who exert influence on large factions of the ummah and whose agreement is vital to bring about a unified stance. Without their approval, any claims of a khilafah is both unachievable and illegitimate. If anything, it will have the exact opposite effect. It will be the cause for schisms, divisions and civil unrest to erupt. ‘Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, said: ‘Whoever gives the oath of allegiance to a man, without consulting the Muslims, is not to be sworn allegiance to, nor is the one whom he swore allegiance to, for fear they both may be killed.’22 From this angle alone, there simply is no shari‘ah legality to al-Baghdadi’s claim to be khalifah. For consultation with a few unknowns and misfits doesn’t count as shura in such a key public affair.

2. Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The Prophet ﷺ ordered us to obey leaders who were both present and well-known (al-a’immah al-mawjudin al-ma‘lumin); those who wield executive political authority and have the capability to address the political needs of the people. He did not [order us with] obedience to leaders who are absent or unknown; or to those who lack executive authority and have no real governing power over anything.’23 So these are a few more reasons which make al-Baghdadi’s claim of being caliph bogus. He’s an unknown (as are the many former high-ranking Ba’athists he’s chosen to fill top organisational positions in ISIS). Moreover, his political clout is confined; it doesn’t extend globally, nor reach into Muslim majority countries.

3.  Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote of one of the pragmatic rulings that have shaped Sunni political theory and its rules of governance (ahkam al-sultaniyyah): ‘The scholars have united upon the obligation to obey the ruler who gains ascendency by force … For in it lies preservation of blood and public order.’24 The rationale here is quite simple: al-bay’ah khayrun min al-furqah – ‘Oath of allegiance is better than dissension.’25 Now it has been argued that since al-Baghdadi and ISIS have conquered territory and gained sovereignty by force, this somehow makes him khalifah. This is nonsense; as shown by the previous point. At best, ISIS is an emirate and al-Baghdadi is its amir, or leader. At worst, it temporarily controls conquered territories in an ongoing war zone, and al-Baghdadi a calculated fitnah-maker falsely claiming the title of Caliph; splitting the ranks of those who are fighting Syria’s tyrant; and turning his guns on mujahidun and anyone else who disagrees with his caliphal claim. Either way, ISIS most certainly isn’t a khilafah by any stretch of the imagination. Those that aid and abet ISIS, only aid and abet murder, mayhem and misguidance.

Then there’s the matter of whether multiple rulers (ta‘addud al-a’immah) are lawful or not in Islam, or are Muslims always required to be politically unified under one single ruler or caliph? Here’s an outline of the issue:

4. After citing the hadith, ‘Whoever comes to you whilst your affairs are unified under a single person, seeking to undermine your unity or divide your ranks, execute him,’26 al-Qurtubi remarked: ‘This is the strongest evidence prohibiting the establishment of two leaders [simaltaneously]. For this will lead to hypocrisy, dissension, schisms, civil strife and the removal of blessings. But if the lands are far apart and independent, like Anadulsia and Khurasan, it becomes permissible.’27

5. First stating the ideal, then supplying this dispensation on the topic, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The Sunnah is for the Muslims to have a single ruler (imam), with others being his deputies. But if it happened that the ummah left this, due to sin from some and inability from others, so that it had multiple rulers, it would them be incumbent upon each ruler to establish the prescribed punishments and preserve peoples’ rights.’28

6. Adapting to the changing realities and seismic political shifts of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Muslim world, the jurist and murajjih, Imam al-Shawkani, stated: ‘However, as for after Islam became widespread and had reached many far away lands, then as is known, there arose in each province or territory a state with its own leader or ruler. This happened in all regions. The authority of each of them does not extend to the area of others, hence there is no harm in there being a number of leaders and rulers. Obedience to each of them, after the oath of allegiance, is obligatory upon the people of that area where his orders and prohibitions are operative. The same goes for the ruler of each area … So realise this. For it is in full accord with the principles of the shari‘ah and agrees with what the texts indicate. Ignore what is said contrary to this, since the difference in the condition of the rule of Islam in the beginning and the condition today is clearer than the daytime sun.’29

7. Although Muslims being split into countries, states and kingdoms is nowhere near ideal – given that sectarian strife and political discord exists in and among them; and many of their rulers are shabby tyrants, unfit for purpose, or have betrayed their trust as political caretakers – there is no shari‘ah duty to establish the khilalfah via terror or savagery or the destruction of peoples’ lives, property and honour. As the saying goes: al-‘aqil la yubni qasr wa yuhaddimu misr – ‘The intelligent one doesn’t build a palace by laying waste to the city.’ Rather, each subject or citizen lends their hand to obedience and law-abidingness, in that which does not entail disobedience. Shaykh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab said: ‘For a very long time, since before the time of Imam Ahmad, till nowadays, the people have not united under one single ruler. Nor is it known that any of the scholars have said that there is any ruling which is not correct except with the greater imam (al-imam al-a‘zam).’30

In Part 2, we’ve seen reasons why ISIS’s claim of a caliphate is fraudulent and invalid, and how some of its key views on warfare and jihad do not reflect normative readings or attitudes at all. ISIS, rather than being a true defender and carer of Muslim sanctity and lives, has gone out of its way to murder Muslims and perpetrate violence against them on a horrific scale. That their glossy media machine is now pushing the-idyllic-life-in-the-Islamic-State image, more than their usual blood and gore one, should not hoodwink anyone. If ISIS had done what they’ve done, under the name of politics and power grabbing, that would have been one thing. But it has done so under the name of Islam; using Islamic rhetoric; trying to justify its deeds with gross misreadings and misapplications of shari‘ah texts. This is what makes ISIS so utterly shameless. This is what makes ISIS so Khawarij-like in its self-righteous obstinacy. We ask Allah that He guide us and them and forgive us our sins. We also ask Him that He steer them aright or break their backs.

As for my brothers and sisters whose hearts have not been dulled by the dunya; whose souls yearn to strive in Allah’s cause; whose blood flows with the love of tawhid, piety and justice; but who may have become persuaded by the ISIS narrative or feel inclined to its call – please think! Think about the proofs and arguments laid out here, as well as the words of the people of knowledge cited here. Do not dismiss them out of hand merely because the heart of the one writing this has long ago been numbed by dunya and courage no longer courses through his veins. Instead, think about what is written here on its own merits. Consider it carefully. Consider also the many hadiths which warn against the Khawarij, and how they shall appear throughout time – even until close to the End of Days. Then ask yourselves: Who do these numerous hadiths refer to in our present day and age? Who best fits their description in these recent times? And then, with anger and emotion aside, be led by knowledge, piety and the courage of your conviction; and see ISIS for what it truly is. As for those preparing to secretly sneak away from home and join the so-called caliphal caravan, let me leave you with the following:

Describing how the Khawarij sent a call out to recruit people, urging them to secretly leave their homes and join their ranks, al-hafiz Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘How superb is what one of the salaf said about the Khawarij, in that they are the ones mentioned in Allah’s words, exalted is He: Say: ‘Shall We tell you those whose works will bring the greatest loss.’ Those whose efforts have been wasted in the life of this world while they thought they were doing good. Those are they who disbelieve in the signs of their Lord and the encounter with Him. Therefore their works are in vain, and on the Day of Resurrection We give no wait to them. [18:103-5] The point is that such ignorant and misguided ones, wretched in both words and deeds, agreed upon rebelling against the Muslims …’31

After stressing how their self-righteousness is so entrenched, that they go through life working mischief and misguidance, thinking that they are acquiring virtue, Ibn Kathir then said:

‘They then wrote an open letter to whoever was upon their way and path in Basra and elsewhere, sending word to tell them to meet them by the river so they could form a single hand against the people. They then began to leave, sneaking out one by one, lest it was realised and they were then prevented. They left from amidst their fathers and mothers, and uncles and aunts; leaving all their near ones. They did this thinking, in their ignorance and in their lack of knowledge and understanding, that this matter would please the Lord of the heavens and the earth. What they didn’t realise was that this was one of the worst of the major sins and destructive deeds, and one of the most contemptible of wrongdoings; and that it was made to look appealing to them by Iblis and by their egos which constantly incited towards evil. A group realized what some of their children, cousins and brothers were up to, so they stopped them, restrained them and censured them. Thereafter, some turned back and continued to be upright, while others fled and joined the Khawarij and thus were made wretched until the Day of Resurrection.’32

1. Muslim, no.750.

2. Ibn Majah, no.176. Al-Albani graded it as sahih in Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1987), no.3347.

3. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1982), 89-90.

4. Dabiq (issue #9: Sha’ban, 1436), 52; the official online magazine of ISIS. The quote starts 13 minutes, 12 seconds into the audio.

5. Abu Dawud, no.2504. Its chain is sahih, as per al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2000), no.1357, but with the wording: ‘ … with your wealth, lives and tongues.’

6. Al-Raghib al-Asbahani, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 208; under the entry, j-h-d.

7. For the merits and shari‘ah status of the inner jihad against the unruly ego, refer to my article: The Greater Jihad.

8. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.3024; Muslim, no.172..

10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.695. Its chain was graded sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 2:84-5, despite the presence of two questionable narrators in the chain: Faysal b. Sulayman and Iyas b. ‘Amr.

11. Abu Dawud, no.4950. The hadith, with its various chains, strengthen each other to yield a final grading of sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1987), no.1040.

12. Abu Dawud, no.4765. The hadith was graded sahih in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.

13. Muslim, no.1066.

14. Ahmad, no.1338, and it is sahih. Consult: al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.3668.

15. Dabiq (issue #9: Sha’ban, 1436), 54.

16. Kitab al-Nubawwat (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 140.

17. Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Dammam: Ramadi li’l-Nashr, 1997), 1:110.

18. Hidayat al-Hiyara (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2008), 29-30.

19. Consult: al-Khallaf, al-Siyasat al-Shar‘iyyah (Cairo: Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, 1931), 75. In an age of the Internet and social media, it’s almost nigh on impossible for countries to erect barriers to prevent the da‘wah to Islam.

20. Al-Bukhari, no.2797; Muslim, no.1497.

21. Muslim, no.1910.

22. Al-Bukhari, no.6830.

23. Minhaj al-Sunnah (Riyadh: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad ibn Sa‘ud, 1986), 1:115.

24. Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: al-Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 15:593.

25. See: al-Shatibi, al-I‘tisam (Amman: al-Dar al-Athariyyah, 2007), 3:46.

26. Muslim, no.1852.

27. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:30.

28. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 35:175-76.

29. Al-Sayl al-Jarrar (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 4:512.

30. Al-Durar al-Saniyyah fi’l-Ajwibat al-Najdiyyah (n.p., 1995), 9:5.

31. Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Dar al-Hijr, 1998), 10:580.

32. ibid., 10:581.

How Long Will You Keep Ignoring the Sunnah’s Inner Beauty?

zillij7The Qur’an says: To Allah belong the most beautiful names. [7:180] In a sahih hadith we read: ‘Allah is beautiful and loves beauty.’1 Now these aren’t statements about feelings, impressions or sentimentality, they’re statements about the very nature of the Divine Reality! Imam al-Munawi comments upon Allah’s beauty (jamal): ‘He is the possessor of absolute and perfect Beauty. From this Beauty, every manifestation of beauty that exists in creation emanates. His Essence (dhat) is beautiful; His Attributes (sifat) are beautiful; and His Acts (af‘al) are beautiful. If His Face were not veiled by light (nur), the majestic splendour of His Face would annihilate creation as far as it extends.’2

A more recent commentator had this to say about the above hadith: ‘Allah, exalted is He, is beautiful in regards His Essence, Names, Attributes and Acts; and He loves both outer and inner beauty. [He loves] outer beauty, like cleanliness of one’s body, clothes and home; and their like. As for inward beauty, it is beautification of character with excellence. This is why one of the prayers of the Prophet ﷺ would be: “O Allah, guide me to having beautiful conduct and character; for none can guide me to beautifying them except You. And avert from me bad conduct and character; none can avert them from me save You.”3 And Allah knows best.’4

Religion, then, is the recognition of such beauty, as well as the quest to actualise it in our lives and society at large.

For believers, to imitate the Prophet ﷺ is to imitate beauty. Emulating the example of the Prophet ﷺ – known in religious parlance as his Sunnah (lit. “way”) – must be at the core of every believer’s life. The Qur’an states: You have in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful example. [33:21]

The love, respect, attachment and admiration Muslims have for the Prophet ﷺ (from which imitation of him is arises) is not just an impressive fact of history, it is a central part of faith itself. He was a man who experienced life in an exceptional range. Not only was he a shepherd, merchant, orphan and exile, he was also a leader, law-giver, statesman and soldier. He was also a husband, a father who was bereaved many times over, a friend, a companion, and a widower. And in all these roles he was an exemplar. His wife, the lady Aishah, was once asked as to what he was like. She responded with these words: kana khuluquhu’l-qur’an – ‘His character was that of the Qur’an.’5 So her intimate knowledge of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ led her to conclude he was the living embodiment of the Revelation – he was, figuratively speaking, the ‘walking’ Qur’an.

For Muslims, therefore, the Prophet’s Sunnah represents the very perfection of human conduct and being. It is to such beauty – and not to the mediocrity or ugliness offered by the norms of today’s dominant culture – that believers must fix their gaze.

In the botanical world there are certain plants which need to be grown on a trellis or a support of some kind, if they are to grow to their full potential. Otherwise they tend to sprawl across the ground, without direction, their leaves devoured by snails and slugs, their purpose unfulfilled.

In a similar way, man is a ‘climber’ too, and we need not look very far for examples of the human inability to grow or to flower without a firm support or framework. In this sense the Prophet’s Sunnah, Gai Eaton wrote, ‘provides not only a framework but also, as it were, a network of channels into which a believer’s will enters and through which it flows smoothly, both guided and guarded. It is not his way, the Muslim’s way, to cut new channels for his volatile life through the recalcitrant materials of the world against the grain of things. At first sight one might expect this to produce a tedious uniformity. All the evidence suggests that it does nothing of the kind; anyone who has had contact with good and pious Muslims will know that though they live within a shared pattern of belief and behaviour, they are often more sharply differentiated one from another than are profane people, their characters stronger, their individu-alities more clearly delineated. They have modeled themselves upon a transcendent norm of inexhaustible richness, whereas profane people take as their model the fashions of the time. To put it another way: the great virtues – and it is the Prophet’s virtues that the believer strives to imitate – can it seems be expressed through human nature in countless different ways, whereas worldly fashion induces uniformity.’6

The Sunnah, however, insists that a certain sense of haybah, or “dignity” of character, is essential to make even the most valuable manners respected and respectable. The belief that the Sunnah can be practiced without the least change in how we do things “on the streets” or “in de hood” is more ego than Islam. The Sunnah comes to elevate and dignify. Indeed, the greatest achievement of the ego is to make the practice of the Sunnah look ugly or undignified. For nothing is more troublesome than when the ego seeks to wear the robe of the Sunnah.

At the end of the day, those who drag the Sunnah down to their own crass, unrefined levels need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner beauty?

By the same token, to follow the Sunnah out of anger, protest, resentment or identity politics, darkens and deforms it and causes people to flee from Islam. Following it out of love for Allah’s Beloved ﷺ, intuiting its beauty and wisdom, is a radiant light and conclusive proof.

At the end of the day, those for whom the Sunnah is little more than a tool with which to vent their political angst and frustrations need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner beauty?

Likewise, to limit the Sunnah to no more than a few outward expressions of piety and external modes of behaviour makes it look superficial, unworthy and uninviting. The consequence of such shallow piety and religious reductionism: the Prophet’s beauty is veiled behind his Sunnah. Just to be clear. Emulating and imitating the Prophet ﷺ in his comings and goings, and in his manners and modes of behaving, is the hallmark of a true believer; of a lover, even. But outward emulation is of little worth unless it both reflects and engenders a profound inward conformity.

At day’s end, those fixated upon just the external aspects of the Sunnah need ask only this: How long will I delay embracing the Sunnah’s inner wisdoms and beauty?

The Sunnah, let’s not forget, is the middle way; and strict compliance with the Sunnah is what faith enjoins so as to avoid the fringes of deviancy. But strictness driven by the ego’s diktats is extremism; strictness that is born of the Spirit is pure submission. In fact, one of the great virtues of the Prophet ﷺ was his perfect sense of balance and proportion; of being able to put things in their right priority, correct order and proper perspective. The closer we contour the Sunnah, the closer we are to such balance.

At the end of the day, those who obscure the lines between the Spirit’s rigour and the ego’s; making them cold, harsh and hostile, need only ask this: How long will I ignore the Sunnah’s inner beauty.

As for those who consider the details of the Sunnah to be trivial and insignificant, for which we need to apologise or to exorcise from Islam; and if not, then from the public sphere, they either have a poor grasp of the realities of faith, or else are uninterested in the prophetic light. For his beauty ﷺ is in the detail, not just the broad strokes. We seek refuge in Allah from ugliness; and ask that He make us people of beauty.

1. Muslim, no.147.

2. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 2:224.

3. Muslim, no.771.

4. Al-Sa‘di, Bahjat al-Qulub al-Abrar (Cairo: Dar al-Furqan, 2004), 203

5. Muslim, no.746.

6. Islam and the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 201.

Tawhid: Worship & Witness God

700-521089Explaining the essence of Islam and its main pillars, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: testifying that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, performing the prayers, paying the zakat; pilgrimage to the House; and fasting in Ramadan.’ [Muslim, no.21]

It is also related in these words: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: worshiping God and rejecting whatever else is beside Him, performing the prayers, paying the zakat …’ [Muslim, no.20]

In another wording: “Islam is built on five [pillars]: an yuwahhadu’Llah – to single out God …” [Muslim, no.19]

Scholars have noted that the above three hadiths, despite their variant wordings, are synonomous with one another. That is to say, they each convey the same meaning. Thus, to testify or bear witness that there is no deity but God is the same as worshiping God and none other than Him, which, in turn, is the same as singling-out God. It is this convicion of singling-out God for worship which, above all else, lies at the heart of the Islamic faith.

The Qur’an proclaims: Worship God and ascribe not any partner to Him. [4:36] Another verse has it: We raised in every nation a messenger [saying]: ‘Worship God and shun false gods!’ [16:36] Yet another of its passages insists: We sent no messenger before you except that We revealed to him: ‘There is no god but I, so worship Me.’ [21:25]

This, then, is the doctrine to which every Muslim submits, and around which the life of the community of believers revolves; captured in Islam’s Declaration of Faith: la ilaha illa’Llah – “There is no deity [worthy of worship] save the One true God: Allah.” This declaration, which in Islam’s view is the central assertion of all the divinely-sent prophets, is a summons, as it were, to live an attentive and pious life.

La ilaha illa’Llah is also called the statement of tawhid – a word which can be rendered as “divine unity” or “monotheism”; although a more accurate translation would be: “to assert God’s oneness.” This idea of tawhid – that God is inevitably and utterly one, perfect, indivisible and unique – is the cardinal tenet of a Muslim’s belief. Now since it is the nature of theologians to try and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, precise theological definitions of the term have been offered down the ages. Among them all, the following has received widespread acceptance. Tawhid is:

‘To single-out God for worship (ifrad al-ma‘bud bi’l-‘ibadah), accompanied by believing in His unity and affirming this for His Essence, Attributes and Acts.’1

Definitions like the above reflect the dual concern of Muslim theologians: to assert the absolute transcendence or “otherness” of God, and to affirm that God alone must be singled-out for worship. Lord of the heavens and earth and all that is between them. Therefore worship Him and be steadfast in His worship. Do you know anyone similar to Him? [19:65]

But Islam’s goal is God, not some theological abstraction written down on a piece of paper. To this end the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins upon us all a constant awareness of God, even in the midst of our worldly activities. This awareness is expressed by two words which the Qur’an frequently employs. The first is taqwa: often glossed as “fear of God” or “piety”. To have taqwa of God is to obey Him wholeheartedly, while being conscious of His gaze and scrutiny of us. In other words, it is to be profoundly aware of God, and to mould our lives around such an awareness.

Ihsan is the second word, and is commonly translated as “goodness” and “excellence”. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained ihsan as: ‘To worship God as though you see Him; and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.8]

Revelation’s insistance on taqwa and on ihsan is precisely so that tawhid may be made into a living, experiential reality and for faith to be deepened and be made profound. In explaining the verse, Your God is One God; there is no God but He. [2:163], Ibn Juzayy outlines the three ascending degrees of tawhid: the sublimest degree being to witness God with the eye of the heart; witnessing everything is from God, not that everything is God. He writes:

‘Know that peoples’ tawhid of God is of three degrees: First, that which the generality of Muslims affirm, by which their lives are protected in this world and by which they are delivered from residing in Hell eternally in the world to come: which is to reject partners, rivals, spouses, children, likenesses or equals with God.

The second degree is the tawhid of the elite. It is to perceive that all acts emanate from God alone, and to witness this through spiritual unveiling (mukashafah), not by way of formal dialectical proofs that are accessible to every Muslim. This station of tawhid of the elect enriches the heart with imperative knowledge (‘ilm daruri) and hence has no need for formal proofs. The fruits of such knowledge are a wholehearted devotion to God, putting one’s trust in Him alone, and a turning away from all creation; so that he does not hope in anyone save God, nor fear anyone but Him. For he sees no Doer save Him and that all people are in His overwhelming grasp; none of the matter is in their hand. Thus he dispenses with [depending upon] all secondary causes and earthly lords.

[The person at] the third degree does not see anything in existence except God alone. He is absent from looking at people; until, for him, it is as if they did not exist. This is what sufis term the Station of Annihilation (maqam al-fana); which means becoming “absent” from people until one is lost from oneself and from one’s tawhid – that is to say, being absent due to being immersed in witnessing God.’2

1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:57; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 38.

2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:164.

Ma‘rifah: Getting to Know God

allah-calligraphy-1When we compare our lifespans, wherein our lives unfold, to the age of the earth or to the visible universe of nearly fourteen billion years, it seems less significant than a drop of water in an endless ocean. To today’s materialists, life holds little significance beyond that of selfish genes and chance mutations (or of exploitation and unfettered consumption). To believers in Allah and His Oneness (tawhid), however, life is seen as a rich tapestry of signs and an arena of tests that grant us the opportunity of knowing Allah and of worshiping Him. I only created jinn and men, stresses Allah in the Qur’an, that they may worship Me. [51:56]

The famous Quranic exegesis (mufassir), Mujahid, explained Allah’s words: “that they may worship Me (illa li ya‘budun)” to mean: “that they may know Me (illa li ya‘rifuni).”1 The rationale here being pretty straightforward, which is that we can’t worship Allah without first knowing something about Him.

In his essay about divine love, Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns – “Inhaling the Breeze of Divine Intimacy” – Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote: ‘Allah created creation in order that they may worship Him, with love, fear and hope in Him. Allah, exalted is He, declares: I created jinn and men only that they may worship Me. However, Allah, transcendent is He, can only be worshiped after knowing Him. This is why He created the heavens, the earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness and majesty. Allah informs: Allah it is who has created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [65:12]’2

So here we are told that the whole of creation was created li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah, and know that His Command courses throughout creation and that His omnipotence and omniscience envelop all things. This, then, forms the deep wisdom behind why creation was created: to know Allah; know He is One, utterly unique, the sole Lord, Creator and Controller of creation, and that none deserves to be worshiped except Him.

As for the hadith frequently cited in sufi literature: “I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation and made Myself known; they then knew Me,” hadith masters declare this report to be a chainless forgery.

In his encyclopaedia of hadith forgeries and fabrications, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari said about it: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah stated: “These aren’t the words of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and nor does it have any chain; be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani said the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’3

That its meaning is sound is confirmed by the Qur’an and by a whole host of classical scholars. So here is a case where we needn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

When speaking about Islam’s religious ultimate: Allah, the language of Islam and of its learned ones often make reference to the term, ma‘rifatu’Llah – having ma‘rifah of God. Ma‘rifah (which is derived from the word ‘arafa: “to know”, “to be acquainted”) may be translated as: knowledge of God. It is of varying degrees and tends to refer to knowledge which has been arrived at through reflection and contemplation, and then internalised and experienced by the heart and the senses. In other words, ma‘rifah is experiential knowledge (sometimes translated as “gnosis”). The deeper the reflection, the profounder the ma‘rifah.

Whilst elaborating on the following hadith: “Know Allah in times of prosperity and He will know you in times of adversity,”4 Ibn Rajab said:

A person’s ma‘rifah of his Lord is of two degrees: Firstly, a general ma‘rifah that entails acknowledging, affirming and believing in Him. This degree of ma‘rifah is common to every Muslim. Secondly, a more specific type of ma‘rifah which causes hearts to incline completely to Allah, be devoted to Him, seek intimacy in Him, be at peace whenever remembering Him, feel shy before Him and be in awe of Him. This level of ma‘rifah is the type around which the knowers of Allah (‘arifun) revolve. One of them said: “The paupers of this world have departed from it without having tasted the sweetest thing in it.” Someone inquired: What is the sweetest thing in it? He said: “Ma‘rifah of Allah; mighty and majestic is He.” Ahmad b. ‘Asim al-Antaqi said: “I wish not to die until I attain to ma’rifah of my Lord. I don’t mean a ma‘rifah in terms of merely believing in Him. But a ma‘rifah such that, when I know Him, I feel shy before Him.”’5

Now these levels of ma‘rifah may be likened to that of a man and his neighbour who’s just recently moved in next door.6 Initially the man becomes acquainted with his new neighbour in a general sense. He may learn of his name; his vocation; whether he is married or not. He will also learn of his general appearance and be able to recognise him when meeting him on the street. He may even, by asking around, be able to glean other facts about his new neighbour. Yet whatever facts he does learn about him will be at an indirect, impersonal level, unlikely to stir the heart into having any deep or abiding sense of respect and admiration for him. In fact, beyond acknowledging the neighbour’s existence or presence in the locality, his outlook towards him will likely be one of polite indifference. This is akin to the first degree of ma‘rifah spoken of by Ibn Rajab.

Let us now imagine the man decides to know his neighbour directly and introduce himself to him; frequently visit him; socialise with him; and, over time, form a sincere and faithful friendship with him. He is now able to see and experience, at first hand, his neighbour’s fine character, kindness, generosity, knowledge, wisdom, compassion and other virtues which can only be known through direct contact. Such an intimate awareness of his neighbour will eventually evoke in the man a profound respect and admiration for him, and a deep, abiding love for him. It is probable; guaranteed, even, that his neighbour will now begin to disclose to him many of his most private and cherished thoughts, and share with him many of his most intimate feelings, which could never have been known even with a lifetime’s worth of indirect observation or investigation. Rather, this knowledge is only granted to him out of the neighbour’s own desire to be more intimately known, and from the man abiding by the rules of courteous conduct (adab) in seeking to know and draw closer to his neighbour. This reflects the higher degree of ma‘rifah.

As for how ma‘rifah of Allah can be inspired and instilled in our hearts, Ibn al-Qayyim (Ibn Rajab’s most cherished teacher) tells us: ‘In the Qur’an, Allah invites His servants to attain ma‘rifah in two ways: The one, by contemplating the creation. The other, by meditating upon the Qur’an and contemplating its meanings. The first are His signs that are seen and witnessed; the second, His signs that are read and understood.’7

Contemplating the Creator’s handiwork within creation enables us, at least to some extent, to admire His wisdom, splendour and sublime power. This, in turn, inspires reverence and love of Allah in human hearts. For the natural world is like a mirror, itself beautiful while reflecting an even greater beauty of Allah. If the starry heavens elicit in us a sense of awe; if a newly sprung red rose evokes in us a sense of beauty; if the solemn stillness of an autumn woodland kindles in us a sense of sublimity, then how much more awesome, beautiful and sublime must the Creator of such things be? Appreciating the splendour of the creation and being enchanted by it is, therefore, a means of knowing and glimpsing the still greater splendour of its Maker.

As for the Qur’an, in demonstrating Allah’s tawhid, it depicts a vivid portrayal of Allah. This is so we may attain a more immediate awareness of Him, through pondering over His acts and attributes of perfection, by which He makes Himself known. When the Qur’an depicts such attributes – like when it says that Allah is wise, just, majestic, omnipotent, generous, compassionate, loving and forgiving – it insists Allah possesses such qualities in utter perfection. This ‘divine disclosure’ is, again, aimed at inspiring hearts to incline to Allah in reverence, awe and loving submission.

Therefore, amidst the dramas of the world, and amidst its songs of joy and sorrow, the Qur’an asks each of us to know their Maker and to live out our lives in conscious awareness of Him. Those who worship Allah with such awareness, and in accordance with Islam’s Sacred Law or shari‘ah, are led by it to an even deeper awareness. So it is that Allah, in His overwhelming generosity and perfect grace, elevates those who are imperfect, weak and ignorant, yet strive to subdue their lower souls, open their hearts to His light and seek to know and draw closer to Him.

We ask you, O Allah, to deepen our ma‘rifah of You, fill our hearts
with love and awe of You, grant us sincerity in our
worship of You, and not to be deprived
of Your shade; on the Day there
shall be no shade
but Yours.

1. Cited in al-Baghawi, Ma‘alim al-Tanzil (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2010), 4:235.

2. Istinshaq Nasim al-Uns, 60.

3. Al-Qari, al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353. Almost identicle words have been reproduced in al-Sakhawi, al-Maqasid al-Hasanah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al–‘Ilmiyyah, 2003), no.836.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, 1:307; al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.11560.

5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:473.

6. The simile is culled from Sayyid Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas, Islam and Secularism (Lahore: Suhail Academy, 1998), 80-81. My thanks goes to Shaykh al-Afifi, of Oxford, for pointing this valuable book out to me.

7. Al-Fawa’id (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2001), 42-3.

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 hermeneutical (interpretational) 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 come to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: one 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 them, 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 related from them with any authenticity; especially not from Imam Ahmad. Nor is anything recorded from them proving that 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 about 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 and imperfections – has indeed traversed the path 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 the 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 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.

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