The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Archive for the category “short texts for reflection”

Revisiting the Sensitive Question of Islamic Orthodoxy

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Allah knows best.

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

Turning to God After All Else Has Failed Us

image-by-Robert-GoldsteinIsn’t it the height of bad faith if we turn to God only after everyone else, or after everything else, has failed us? Isn’t that trivialising God’s greatness that we’ve put Him last on our list? If so, will He still listen to my plea for help? Should I still turn to Him? Or will it be a case of: ‘The cheek of it!’?

In his celebrated volume of spiritual discourses, entitled: Futuh al-Ghayb, the saintly scholar and sayyid, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d.561H/1166CE) – the leading Hanbali jurist of Baghdad in his age – commences the third of his orations with these words:

إِذَا اُبْتُلِيَ الْعَبْدُ بِبَلِيَّةٍ تَحَرَّكَ أَوَّلًاً فِي نَفْسِهِ بِنَفْسِهِ, فَإِنْ لَمْ يَتَخَلَّصْ مِنْهَا اسْتَعَانَ بِالْخَلْقِ كَالسَّلَاطِينِ وَأَرْبَابِ الْمَنَاصِبِ وَأَرْبَابِ الدُّنْيَا وَأَصْحَابِ الْأَحْوَالِ وَأَهْلِ الطِّبِّ فِي الْأَمْرَاضِ وَالْأَوْجَاعِ، فَإِنْ لَمْ يَجِدْ فِي ذَلِكَ خَلَاصًاً رَجَعَ إِلَى رَبّهِ بِالدُّعَاءِ وَالتَّضَرُّعِ وَالثَّنَاءِ. مَا دَامَ يَجِدُ بِنَفْسِهِ نُصْرَةً لَمْ يَرْجِعْ إِلَى الْخَلْقِ، وَمَا دَامَ يَجِدُ بِهِ نُصْرَةً عِنْدَ الْخَلْقِ لَمْ يَرْجِعْ إِلَى الْخَالِقِ.

‘When the servant is tried with some difficulty, his first impulse is to try and cope with it by himself. If he is unable to extract himself from it, he looks to others for help, such as those in power, important officials, people of means and influence, or medical experts; if disease or physical ailment is involved. If he still finds no relief, he then turns to his Lord with prayers of petition, humble entreatment and offerings of praise. As long as he feels he can cope on his own, he will not turn to others; and so long as he can count on others, he will not turn to the Creator.’1

It seems a poor thing to turn to God as a last resort; to remember Him when all else fails us; to lift our hands to Him only when the ship is going down. If God were proud He would never accept us on such terms. But God is not proud. Instead, Kind, Caring and, Merciful – God will have us even if we have shown that we have preferred others over Him and that we come to Him only because we are now at a dead end. Indeed, it does not really proclaim the glory of God if we chose Him only as an alternative to Hell; and yet even this He accepts. Such is God’s mercy and kindness; such is how He forgives and overlooks His glory’s diminution. In fact, God says in the Holy Qur’an: When My servants ask you concerning Me, I am indeed close, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [Q2:186] And God states: Say: ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their own souls! Despair not of God’s mercy. God forgives all sins; for He is the All-Forgiving, All-Merciful. [Q.39:53]

Further on in the very same discourse, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir speaks about how, when the person’s illusions of self-sufficiency are shattered – and for the person’s sake they must be shattered – and as he is made to realise that none can help him or grant him relief except God, God responds to his servant’s humility and brokenness and shades him from distress. For God accepts His servants however they may come to Him – if not in loving submission, then by trials and troubles, or by simple fear of the eternal flames; unmindful, even, of His glory’s diminution.

1. Futuh al-Ghayb (Cairo: Dar al-Maqtam, 2007), 22; start of the third discourse. My translation is based on M. Holland, Revelations of the Unseen (Florida: Al-Baz Publishing, 2007), 11.

Piety Demands We Think Before We Text, Tweet or Speak!

twitter_keyboard-d1e079745afd757a6b2597e5e169973ae837a5cb-s6-c30‘A still tongue makes a wise head’, says one proverb. Another says: ‘The wounds of a sword may heal one day; the wounds of the tongue, they never may.’ And then there is this note of caution: ‘Speak when you’re angry and you will make the best speech you’ll ever regret.’

While it is certainly true that great good can come from the tongue, it is also true that it can stir up immense enmity and strife. The tongue, despite it being a small organ of the body, has an influence wholly disproportionate to its size. How many conflicts, divisions, divorces and distresses have been triggered by angry words and unbridled tongues! Regretably, the tongue as a source of evil is something our communicative, social-networking culture seldom considers. In contrast to the modern urge to endlessly yap, yell and yodel (or rather I should say, text, tweet and tag), our ancients recognised that when a carpet of silence is laid, wisdom begins to settle.

As part of his celebrated and encyclopedic anthology of transmitted du‘as from the Prophet ﷺ, called: al-Adhkar, Imam al-Nawawi (d.676H/1277CE) devotes a chapter on the obligation to guard the tongue and the merits of silence. The following is a translation of the opening segments of that discussion:

اعْلَمْ أَنَّهُ يَنْبَغِي لِكُلّ مُكَلَّفٍ أَنْ يَحْفَظَ لِسَانَهُ عَنْ جَمِيعِ الْكَلَامِ إِلَّا كَلَامًاً تَظْهَرُ الْمَصْلَحَةُ فِيهِ، وَمَتَى اسْتَوَى الْكَلَامُ وَتَرَكَهُ فِي الْمَصْلَحَةِ فَالسُّنّةُ الْإِمْسَاكُ عَنْهُ، لِأَنَّهُ قَدْ يَنْجَرُ الْكَلَامُ الْمُبَاحُ إِلَى حَرَامٍ أَوْ مَكْرُوهٍ، بَلْ هَذَا كَثِيرٌ أَوْ غَالِبٌ فِي الْعَادَةِ، وَالسَّلَامَةُ لَا يَعْدِلُهَا شَيْءٌ.

رَوَيْنَا فِي صَحِيحَيِ الْبُخَارِيِّ [رَقْمُ: 6475] ، وَمُسْلِمٍ [رَقْمٌ: 47] ؛ عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ، عَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ، قَالَ: “مَنْ كَانَ يُؤْمِنُ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ فَلْيَقُلْ خَيْرًاً أَوْ لِيَصْمُتْ”.

قُلْتُ: فَهَذَا الْحَدِيثُ الْمُتَّفَقُ عَلَى صِحَّتِهِ نَصّ صَرِيحٌ فِي أَنَّهُ لَا يَنْبَغِي أَنْ يَتَكَلَّمَ إِلَّا إِذَا كَانَ الْكَلَامُ خَيْرًاً، وَهُوَ الَّذِي ظَهَرَتْ لَهُ مَصْلَحَتُهُ، وَمَتَى شَكّ فِي ظُهُورِ الْمَصْلَحَةِ فَلَا يَتَكَلَّمُ. وَقَدْ قَالَ الْإِمَامُ الشَّافِعِيُّ رَحِمَهُ اللَّهُ: إِذَا أَرَادَ الْكَلَامَ فَعَلَيْهِ أَنْ يُفَكِّرَ قَبْلَ كَلَامِهِ، فَإِنْ ظَهَرَتِ الْمَصْلَحَةُ تَكَلَّمَ، وَإِنْ شَكَّ لَمْ يَتَكَلَّمْ حَتَّى تَظْهَرَ.

‘Know that it is required of every legally responsible person (mukallaf) that they guard their tongue from all speech, save that which contains overriding benefit. Whenever speaking or keeping silent are equal in their benefits, then the Sunnah is to refrain from speaking. For speech which begins as permissible can quickly degenerate into what is forbidden or disliked. In fact, this occurs a lot, or is more often the habit; and there is no substitute for safety.

It is related in the Sahihs of al-Bukhari [no.2018] and Muslim [no.47]; via Abu Hurayrah, may God be pleased with him; who relates that the Prophet ﷺ said: “Whoever believes in God and the Last Day, let him speak well or keep quiet.”

I say: The soundness of this hadith is agreed upon and it contains an explicit stipulation that one must not speak unless one’s words are good and that the benefit in doing so is clear and preponderant. Whenever there is uncertainty about the benefit being preponderant or not, one remains silent. Imam al-Shafi’i, may God have mercy upon him, has said: “When one intends to speak, let him think before he does so. If there is an overriding benefit, let him speak; if in doubt, let him desist from speaking until the benefit is clear.”‘1

Of course, nowadays, it’s not just our speech that we need to be concerned about. We need to guard what we text or tweet about too; for that too is part of our speech. The above words of Imam al-Nawawi, and the numerous hadiths that caution against the sins of the tongue, equally apply to our texts and tweets on social media. If talk can rapidly degenerate into what is haram, our texting or tweeting can do so too.

Indeed, received wisdom informs us that: Not everything that is good should be said, and not everything that is said should be spread. After all, as the saying goes, ‘The fool’s mind dances on the tip of his tongue’ – I suppose we could add, ‘… and his texting thumbs!’

Today, such wisdom has been largely thrown to the wind, to be replaced by hasty, trigger-happy texting or tweeting (the upshot of which can be damaging and damning, in both this world and the life to come). Let’s not let our tongues or activities on social media, become the nail in the coffin of our spirituality. As the Prophet, peace be upon him, once said whilst pointing to his tongue: ‘Restrain this. Is there anything that topples people on their faces into Hellfire other than the harvests of their tongues?’2

1. Al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2008), 535.

2. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2616, who said: the hadith is hasan sahih.

*This blog first appeared on The Humble I on 16th August, 2012, with the title: ‘Think Before You Speak.’ Here it has been revised, updated and reposted.

The Signs of Bliss & Misery

c06d5c005fc611dfb18f000b2f3ed30fSome people are catapulted into the limelight; some have a quiet greatness thrust on them; most, though, live simple, ordinary lives. The ordinary believer believes in God and realises he is here through God’s purpose, love and compassion. So he lives each day as God’s blessing and acknowledges what he has he owes to God – and therefore, whatever he can he seeks to share with others. He does good deeds unassumingly and unostentatiously, because that is what believers do. The ordinary believer’s life, then, in its simplicity, radiance and gravitas, is actually quite extraordinary.

In what follows, Ibn al-Qayyim outlines the path of the believer’s life – content, meaningful and blissful – as well as pointing to its opposite. He writes:

مِنْ عَلَامَاتِ السَّعَادَةِ وَالْفَلَاحِ أَنَّ الْعَبْدَ كُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي عِلْمِهِ زِيدٌ فِي تَوَاضُعِهِ وَرَحْمَتِهِ، وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي عَمَلِهِ زِيدٌ فِي خَوْفِهِ وَحَذَرِهِ، وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي عُمْرِهِ نَقَصَ مِنْ حِرْصِهِ، وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي مَالِهِ زِيدَ فِي سَخَائِهِ وَبَذْلِهِ، وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي قَدْرِهِ وَجَاهَهُ زَيْدٌ فِي قُرْبِهِ مِنْ النَّاسِ وَقَضَاءِ حَوَائِجِهِمْ وَالتَّوَاضُعِ لَهُمْ.

وَعَلَامَاتُ الشَّقَاوَةِ أَنَّهُ كُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي عِلْمِهِ زِيدَ فِي كِبَرِهِ وَتِيهِهِ،وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي عَمَلِهِ زِيدٌ فِي فَخْرِهِ وَاحْتِقَارِهِ لِلنَّاسِ وَحَسْنِ ظَنِّهِ بِنَفْسِهِ،وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي عُمُرِهِ زِيدٌ فِي حِرْصِهِ،وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي مَالِهِ زَيدَ بُخْلِّهِ وَإِمْسَاكِهِ،وَكُلَّمَا زِيدَ فِي قَدْرِهِ وَجَاهَهُ زَيْدٌ فِي كِبَرِهِ وَتَيهِهِ.

وَهَذِهِ الْأُمُورُ ابْتِلَاءٌ مِنَ اللَّهِ وَامْتِحَانٌ يَبْتَلِي بِهَا عِبَادَهُ، فَيَسْعَدُ بِهَا أَقْوَامٌ وَيَشْقَى بِهَا أَقْوَامٌ.

‘From the signs of bliss and success is that a person, as he grows in learning, he grows in humbleness and compassion. As he grows in works of faith, he grows in fear and vigilance. As he grows in age, he diminishes in greed. As he grows in wealth, he grows in generosity and giving. And as he grows in strength and status, he grows in drawing closer to others so as to serve them and help fulfill their needs.

‘From the signs of misery is that a person, as he grows in learning, he grows in pride and conceit. As he grows in works of faith, he grows in boasting; belittling others; and having an inflated opinion about himself. As he grows in age, he grows in greed. As he grows in wealth, he grows in stinginess and miserliness. And as he grows in status and standing, he grows in vanity and arrogance.

‘All these matters are trials and tribulation from Allah by which He tries His servants. Through it, He makes some happy and blissful, while others are made wretched and miserable.’1

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 28.

Better the Devil You Know than the Devil You Don’t

devilsepiasmall‘It is a pity,’ argued Gai Eaton, ‘that so few people believe any longer in shaytan, the devil, if not in a personalised form, at least as an influence or a tendency. We need to be able to identify evil, not only when it manifests itself in genocide or torture, but in its roots and its ramifications. We need also to understand how subtly it can operate behind the scenes, seldom showing its true face … The idea of the devil, in Islam as in Christianity, has been that of a force – an agency – which reverses values, making evil seem good, and good seem evil.’1 The Qur’an says: But the devil made their [foul] deeds seem fair to them. [Q.16:63]

Below, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah (d.751H/1350CE) summarises for us the main ways in which Iblis, the Devil, seeks to assault Man; rendering him ungrateful, then forgetful of God. He writes:

فَائِدَةٌ كُلُّ ذِي لُبٍّ يَعْلَمُ أَنَّهُ لَا طَرِيقَ لِلشَّيْطَانِ عَلَيْهِ إِلَّا مِنْ ثَلَاثٍ جِهَاتٌ:

أَحَدُهَا التَّزَيّدُ وَالْإِسْرَافُ فَيَزِيدُ عَلَى قَدْرِ الْحَاجَةِ فَتَصِيرُ فَضْلَةً وَهِيَ حَظّ الشَّيْطَانِ وَمَدْخَلُهُ إِلَى الْقَلْبِ وَطَرِيقُ الِاحْتِرَازِ مِنْ إِعْطَاءِ النَّفْسِ تَمَامَ مَطْلُوبِهَا مِنْ غِذَاءٍ أَوْ نَوْمٍ أَوْ لَذَّةٍ أَوْ رَاحَةٍ فَمَتَى أَغْلَقَتْ هَذَا الْبَابَ حَصَلَ الْأَمَانُ مِنْ دُخُولِ الْعَدُوِّ مِنْهُ.

الثَّانِيَةُ الْغَفْلَةُ فَإِنَّ الذَّاكِرَ فِي حِصْنِ الذّكَرِ فَمَتَى غَفَلَ فَتْحُ بَابِ الْحِصْنِ فَوَلَجَهُ الْعَدُوُّ فَيَعْسُرُ عَلَيْهِ أَوْ يَصْعُبُ إِخْرَاجُهُ.

الثَّالِثَةَ تُكَلّفُ مَالًا يَعْنِيهِ مِنْ جَمِيعِ الْأَشْيَاءِ.

‘Whoever possesses intelligence knows there is no path for Satan to overcome him, except from three directions:

Firstly, excess and extravagance. Excess is whatever is beyond one’s needs: it is the actual surplus which is the devil’s portion and with which he invades the heart. The path of diligence is to not gratify the ego (nafs) in all that it desires of food, sleep, pleasure and recreation. Whenever the doors to such [gratification] are closed tight, one obtains safety from the devil entering.

Secondly, heedlessness (ghaflah) of God’s remembrance. For one remembering God is in the fortress of remembrance (dhikr). When he lapses into ghaflah, the doors of the fortress are opened and the Foe enters. Once inside, it is harder and more difficult to expel him.

Thirdly, burdening yourself with things that do not concern you.’2

Aware of the monoculture’s greed, extravagance and excesses; its relentless push to render people heedless of God; and its seduction of souls, alluring them with all but the Essential – it’s not surprising that many Muslims see this bulldozing liberal process as ‘satanic’. And that which strays so defiantly from God’s ways is unlikely to escape the Divine Rigour or Divine Wrath for very long: How many a city given to wrongdoing did We destroy, after which We raised up another people. [Q.21:11] And also: And how many a town did We destroy which was thankless for its means of livelihood. [Q.28:58] For believers, all this makes it urgent that we come together to partake in the healing of this ever-growing, decadent monoculture. And God’s help is sought.

1. Remembering God: Reflections on Islam (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 2000), 22.

2. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 277

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