The Humble "I"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A more foundational question is: Can shari‘ah governance and the modern nation-state actually go hand in hand? For a modern ‘Islamic’ ‘state’ is something of a contradiction in terms. For while an all-invasive modern state monopolises legislation, a classical Muslim state doesn’t legislate at all. Traditionally, legislation belongs to Allah; as understood and deciphered by the ‘ulema. How that may be squared with the modern state – in which to practice law making; to be part of the legislature, is to be an agent of the state – has not been adequately tackled by Muslim theologians or Islamists. For there is no modern state sovereignty without state-manufactured law, which the state alone then wields so as to reengineer the social order. To make the state ‘Islamic’, then, we need to search for ways where law is not contaminated by state involvement. Yet ever since the Ottoman reforms of 1856, when the modern Muslim ‘state’ began to become sole master and legitimiser of legislation, the shari‘ah and its fiqh became subjected to a great deal of aberration and to a huge process of politicisation. The question then is, can Islamic governance – whose moral, legal, social, political and metaphysical foundations are radically different to that of the modern state; and whose law is primarily a set of theological principles and moral precepts underscored by legal principles – function independently of the state? Can there be a model of a modern state which divests itself of legislation? Is such an arrangement even possible as an integral facet in the modern patchwork of nation states? Such are the questions that need serious depth of thought – beyond the usual clichés; and beyond our current Western-inspired Islamist or state totalitarianism solutions.

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

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

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

Reward of Muslim & Non-Muslim Doers of Good in the Afterlife

A man once came to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and asked: ‘What of a man who fights in a battle seeking the spoils of war and renown?’ The Prophet replied: ‘There is no [reward] for him [in the Afterlife.’ The man reiterated the question three times, each time he got the same reply: ‘There is no [reward] for him [in the Afterlife].’ The Prophet, peace be upon him, then added:

.إِنَّ الله عَزَّ وَجَلَّ لَا يَقْبَلُ مِنْ الْعَمَلِ إِلَّا مَا كَانَ لَهُ خَالِصاً وَبْتُغِي َبِهِ وَجْهُـهُ

‘Indeed, Allah does not accept a deed, unless it is done sincerely seeking only His face.’1

There are a few crucial points that may be gleaned from this hadith which, in our time, have either been misunderstood and muddled, or denied by a misguided sense of Muslim humanism. Such points include:

1 – This hadith, and others like it, demonstrates that the righteous deed of a Muslim will not be acceptable to Allah, unless the deed is done solely intending the pleasure of Allah. This is what is meant by Allah’s words: فَمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُوا لِقَاءَ رَبِّهِ فَلْيَعْمَلْ عَمَلاً صَالِحًا وَلاَ يُشْرِكْ بِعِبَادَةِ رَبِّهِ أَحَدًاWhoever hopes to meet his Lord, let him do righteous deeds, and let him not associate anyone with Him in worship. [18:110]

2 – If such is the case for a believer, what of a non-Muslim; a disbeliever, who does not do good deeds sincerely for Allah? The answer comes to us in this Quranic verse: وَقَدِمْنَا إِلَى مَا عَمِلُوا مِنْ عَمَلٍ فَجَعَلْنَاهُ هَبَاءً مَنْثُورًاWe shall turn to the deeds they have done, and We shall make them as scattered dust. [25:23] And: وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا أَعْمَالُهُمْ كَسَرَابٍAs for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage. [24:39]

3 – But what of those non-Muslims who do perform good deeds solely for God’s sake and for intending His good pleasure? We have these explicit words of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, that speak to this very point:

إِنَّ اللهَ لَا يَظْلِمُ الْمُؤْمِنَ حَسَنَةً، يُثَابُ عَلَيْهَا الرِّزْقَ فِي الدُّنْيَا، وَيُجْزَى بِهَا فِي الْآخِرَةِ، وَأَمَّا الكَافِرُ فَيُطْعَمُ بِحَسَنَاتِ مَا عَمِلَ للهِ تَعَالَى في الدُّنْيَا، حَتَّى إِذَا أفْضَى إِلَى الآخرَةِ، لَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ حَسَنَةٌ يُجْزَى بِهَا

‘Allah does not wrong the believer in terms of good deeds, for he shall be rewarded for it by provisions in this worldly life and [also] be recompensed for it in the Hereafter. As for the disbeliever, he will taste [the rewards] of his good deeds he did for Allah’s sake in this life, but in the Hereafter, he shall have no good deeds to be rewarded for.’2

4 – In other words, righteous deeds of disbelievers that were done sincerely for Allah will be rewarded in this present life; there will be no reward for them in the life to come. To this end, Allah, exalted is He, reveals in the Holy Qur’an:‎ ‎وَمَن يَكْفُرْ بِالإِيمَانِ فَقَدْ حَبِطَ عَمَلُهُ وَهُوَ فِي الآخِرَةِ مِنَ الْخَاسِرِينَWhosoever denies faith, his work shall be in vain, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers. [5:5]

In fact, Imam al-Nawawi states: ‘The scholars have a consensus that there is no reward in the Afterlife for a non-Muslim who dies in a state of unbelief.’3

5 – Some of the more informed may, at this point, ask about the Prophet’s beloved uncle, Abu Talib: won’t his punishment in the Hellfire be lightened because of his good deeds in aiding the Prophet, peace be upon him, and protecting him against harm and persecution in Makkah? The response to this objection is found in the following hadith:

لَعَلَّهُ تَنْفَعُهُ شَفَاعَتِي يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ، فَيُجْعَلُ فِي ضَحْضَاحٍ مِنْ نَارٍ يَبْلُغُ كَعْبَيْهِ، يَغْلِي مِنْهُ دِمَاغُهُ

‘Perhaps my intercession will benefit him on the Day of Resurrection such that he will be placed in a shallow part of the Fire that reaches up to his ankles, but by which it causes his brain to boil.’4

Thus, rather than being rewarded for his actual good deeds, Abu Talib’s punishment is lightened due to the Prophet’s intercession (shafa‘ah) for him. If, for argument’s sake, we admit that this intercession for him was due to his good deeds of defending the Prophet, peace be upon him, then this would be an exception to the rule that there is no reward in the Afterlife for non-Muslims who did good on earth but who died in a state of kufr.

6 – A final point: as for those non-Muslims who did good and who subsequently became Muslim and died upon Islam, Allah will reward them for each and every good deed they did even in their state of disbelief. About this, our Prophet, peace be upon him, said:

إِذَا أَسْلَمَ الْعَبْدُ فَحَسُنَ إِسْلَامُهُ كَتَبَ اللَّهُ لَهُ كُلَّ حَسَنَةٍ كَانَ أَزْلَفَهَا وَمُحِيَتْ عَنْهُ كُلُّ سَيِّئَةٍ كَانَ أَزْلَفَهَا

‘When a person becomes a Muslim and makes his Islam good, Allah writes for him every good deed he did in the past and erases from him any wrong deed he did in the past.’5

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Al-Nasa’i, no.3142. Its chain was graded as hasan by al-‘Iraqi, al-Mughni ‘ani’l-Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Tabariyyah, 1995), 1177; no.4269.

2. Muslim, no.2808.

3. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 17:124.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.1408; Muslim, no.360.

5. Al-Bukhari, no.41, in mu‘allaq form; al-Nasa‘i, no.4998.

Black Holes, Stephen Hawking, Heaven & Hell

In 1985, I started my degree in Astrophysics up in the north of England, at one of the only two places in the country which offered this course. It was more or less what I had set my heart on studying ever since reading Isaac Asimov’s, The Collapsing Universe: The Story of the Black Holes (1977) and Carl Sagan’s breath-taking book (and TV series), Cosmos (1980). Soul stirred, and heart and mind thoroughly infused with enchantment, I was determined to make engaging the wondrous mysteries of the cosmos my calling.

It was also in 1985 that a rumour went round among some of the students on the course that Stephen Hawking – his body now ravaged by motor neurone disease, his speech now slurred so as to barely be intelligible, but who had already outlived the predictions of his doctors by more than fifteen years – had recently been hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The doctors had even considered pulling the plug on his life-support machine. It was then that a discussion began about the theoretical brilliance of Hawking. In fact, it wasn’t a discussion as much as it was one student’s passionate recollection of what he had thus far accomplished: his attempts to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics; his idea that the Big-Bang may have begun with a singularity1 – the same sort of singularities that supposedly lie at the centre of black holes; his thesis that black holes may not devour everything that falls into them, but they could leak radiation (later called “Hawking radiation”) by which they would “shine”. She was, I think, a third year student, and some of what she said flew over my head at the time. I remember this because of what she said at the end of all this. Apparently, she said, in a tone that was now quite subdued, Hawking was working on publishing a book that would explain all this incredible physics. What’s more, she said, the book is being aimed, not at scientists, but at a mass market. To be sure, I was beyond euphoric!

A Brief History of Time came out in 1988. Using minimal technical jargon, it was a thrilling book and an instant international bestseller. It swiftly became a modern classic, turning Hawking into an iconic celebrity, a household name as well as the most famous scientist in modern history. In spite of being wheelchair-bound or not being able to speak save by means of a speech synthesiser, Hawking continued to push the boundaries of cosmology and theoretical physics up till his death two weeks ago. His wit, grit, charisma, and good writing in which he unravelled for us the universe’s cutting-edge mysteries, will continue to enthral generations of readers; while his intuitive leaps and research will continue to keep scientists busy for decades to come. If people now talk about the Big-Bang and black holes over dinner, then the late Stephen Hawking has had a large part to play in this. Such is his inspirational and intellectual legacy.

Oftentimes, whenever a non-Muslim personality who has ostensibly brought about much good to the human situation passes away, many Muslims raise the age-old question: what is the ultimate fate of “good” non-Muslims in the afterlife? The news of Hawking’s death seems to have aggravated the matter. So let me recount some staple Islamic theology – in abstract, at least – to address the question:

1. Let’s start with how a Muslim ought to align or centre themselves. The Qur’an says: But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified your hearts with it, and has made hateful to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. Such are the rightly-guided. [49:7] Disbelief (kufr), then, is to be loathed; and the victims of kufr pittied and be given a charitable hand towards faith and right-guidance.

2. Some Muslims labour under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in God’s sight, one cannot speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) who dies in a state of disbelief. The prophetic teachings, however, do not require or insist upon such an approach. Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some, he ﷺ spoke more about their virtue than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im gave him during the trying years of Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’2 As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]

3. The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism – were damned in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’3 Of course, these words echo the Qur’an at numerous places when it says, for instance: And certainly it has been revealed to you, and to those before you, that: ‘If you ascribe a partner to Allah, all your works will be in vain and you will be among the losers.’ [39:65] Also: As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert which the thirsty one thinks is water, till when he reaches it he finds it to be nothing. [24:39]

4. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not reached? Here the Qur’an offers a far more ecumenical scope: Never do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] And: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The requirement of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, lies at the heart of the issue. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, will be among the inhabitants of the Fire.’4 Fleshing out the theological implications of the hadith, Imam al-Nawawi stated: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions are now abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’5 The details of this excuse or amnesty, and the scholarly differences about how this amnesty plays itself out in the Hereafter, can be read in the relevant works of Muslim theology.

5. As for the question of those who have heard about Islam, but in a garbled or distorted form, Imam al-Ghazali seems to have given us the definitive word on the issue. He wrote that in terms of people coming into contact with the message of Islam, they are of three types: ‘[i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’6

6. As much as peoples’ waywardness from God should both grieve and sadden believers, because of nurturing in their hearts something of the prophetic concern for humanity, the discriminating sword of truth must do what it must. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of juhud or wilful “rejection” of it, or takdhib, “belying” it. Others choose not to seriously entertain the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) whether out of arrogance, hostility, prejudice, or sheer indifference towards it (in some cases, doing so knowing it is the truth). Such are not considered to be truth-seekers. It’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of investigating the truths of Islam and discerning their correctness. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or for fear of losing their standing among people; or out of contempt for Muslims; or not wanting to give up following their own whims and desires for a revealed code of morality, many turn away from even looking into the Qur’an unbiasedly. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.7

7. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are judged as non-Muslims in this worldly life. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this guiding principle: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’8

8. Is it lawful to declare a specific person who dies as a non-Muslim, that he or she will be in Hell? The answer is that while some scholars hold it to be lawful, it seems the majority of Muslim theologians do not allow it. They say that not only will some non-Muslims have an amnesty in the Afterlife; not only do we not always know in what state a non-Muslim may have taken their last breath, but also those specific non-Muslims whom the Prophet ﷺ described as being in the Fire, was not from his personal judgement; but one that was revealed to him by God. Thus the correct position in this is: While one can make general declarations that Muslims go to Paradise and non-Muslims go to Hell, one cannot declare a specific Muslim to be in Paradise or a specific non-Muslim to be in Hell, unless there is textual evidence to say so. That textual evidence being either from the Qur’an, the Sunnah or a scholarly consensus (ijma‘).

9. Since we Muslims are a textual community; since our theology, law and spirituality are derived from revealed texts – as opposed to fluffy sentiments; emotions; personal whims; or what one’s own intellect, decoupled from Revelation, thinks to be good – let’s engage with a few such texts from which the above rule is culled. So as a general rule, the Qur’an says: Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the fire of Hell forever. They are the worst of people. [98:6] In contrast, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’9 As for the rule that applies to individuals specifically, Imam al-Tahawi wrote in his famous creedal tract about Muslims: ‘We do not specify anyone among them to be in either Paradise or the Fire … We resign their inner states to God, exalted is He.’10 Meaning, unless there is a textual proof, we cannot declare a specific Muslim to be damned or saved. The same goes for specific non-Muslims.

10. Finally, as I said earlier, our Prophet ﷺ usually kept quiet about the end state of most non-Muslims who died during his lifetime. Surely it would be best if we too did the same. Let us learn to be content, knowing that such end matters are in Allah’s hands in terms of whether those who die as non-Muslims receive divine amnesty, clemency and salvation; or encounter divine rigour, justice and chastisement. In fact, it’s possible that if we spent less time being concerned with such specific end matters, and invested more time trying to deepen our own faith and reach out to non-Muslims with that faith, the world may yet be a better place.

There’s one last point I’d like to discuss. I left my degree course for personal reasons and a religious calling in early 1986. And although I had intended to come back to complete it, perhaps after a year or two, it didn’t quite happen. My passion for the subject, however, has never abated; and I try to keep up with the latest theories and findings in the field via books, papers and science magazines. Yet I recall when I read the opening words of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos -: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’11 – I felt something was amiss. My religious convictions aside, even then I questioned whether such a materialistic assertion was actually science or merely what individual scientists brought to the table as their personal beliefs and biases? In fact, Naturalism – the belief that the natural order is all that there is, and that there is no transcendent or divine realm – is a philosophy which is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order, or the cosmos, is all that there is? Science can, of course, say that the cosmos is all that it can observe and know. But that is not the same as saying that the cosmos is all that there was, is or ever will be!

In the last book he co-authored, The Grand Design (2010), Hawking tackles the question of our universe’s apparent “grand design”: is it evidence for God, or does science offer up an alternative explanation? As per form, Hawking dismisses God as the ultimate explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers – not just the usual the “it just happened” riposte, or the “multiverse”, or even the “fluctuations in a quantum vacuum” answer. Instead, he says: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’12

His theoretical genius aside, Hawking seems to suffer from the same faulty theology that many other atheists of today are struck with. For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation. We don’t believe that it’s a case of either God created the universe or that x, y, or z scientific paradigm created it. Instead, Revelation permits us to believe that God is the agent who created the universe, and that x, y, or z is the mechanism by which He did so. Thus, just because science may have revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos kicked-off, it doesn’t deny God’s agency in the matter. Allow me to illustrate the point with this example:

Take the iPhone, for instance. Just because one may have deciphered the inner workings of an iPhone, it does not logically follow that we can now deny the existence of Steve Jobs as the originator of this tech. That would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Since we know the mechanism behind a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy. In philosophy, it’s a fundamental category mistake.

As for Hawking’s optimism that the laws of gravity created the universe, this is false. Laws of physics themselves don’t create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls. It is not laws that create or move a thing; it is an agent, a person, that does that. The laws of physics are merely mathematical equations that describe what happens under certain conditions.

Despite these failures and foibles, The Grand Design is still a tour de force of cutting-edge cosmology. There’s still so much to be held in awe at in terms of the way the late Professor Hawking illustrated the latest scientific mysteries about our universe. It’s understandable why his death has felt like such a huge loss to so many. One or two of my co-religionists have said to me, however, that should we really marvel at someone whose writings have been instrumental in trying to diminish the glory of God by driving souls to atheism? And I understand that too. So perhaps the best thing is to stick to the Quranic rejoinder: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]

1. A dot or point of infinite density, far far smaller than this full stop.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.4024.

3. Muslim, no.365.

4. Muslim, no.240.

5. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.

6. Al-Ghazali, Faysal al-Tafriqah (Damascus: 1993), 84.

7. See: Bin Bayyah, What of Those to Whom Islam Does Not Reach?

8. Faysal al-Tafriqah, 25.

9. Al-Bukhari, no.4203; Muslim, no.111.

10. The Creed of Imam al-Tahawi (USA: Zaytuna Institute, 2007), 68; §.89.

11. Cosmos (New York: Ballentine Books, 2013), 1.

12. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (Great Britain: Bantam Press, 2011), 227.

Politics of Idolatry, Beware!

The Qur‘an teaches that whenever the love, longing, loyalty and submission which are due to Allah, are focused upon other than Him, or others along with Him, then this is shirk – idolatry; setting-up partners with Allah. For as Islam sees things, whoever loves something, desires it, values it, and centres their hopes, fears, love and loyalty around it; submitting to it independently of Allah, then this, for them, becomes a deity, a god, an object of sacrilegious worship. Some there are who make a god of wealth. Others make gods of celebrities. Still others make gods of their egos and desires. The Qur’an asks: Have you seen him who takes his desires for his god? [25:43] Of course we have! It is in this same vein that Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali wrote:

فَمَنْ أَحَبَّ شَيْئًا وَأَطَاعَهُ، وَأَحَبَّ عَلَيْهِ وَأَبْغَضَ عَلَيْهِ، فَهُوَ إِلَهُهُ، فَمَنْ كَانَ لَا يُحِبُّ وَلَا يُبْغِضُ إِلَّا لِلِّهِ، وَلَا يُوَالِي وَلَا يُعَادِي إِلَّا لَهُ، فَاللَّهُ إِلَهُهُ حَقًّا، وَمَنْ أَحَبَّ لِهَوَاهُ، وَأَبْغَضَ لَهُ، وَوَالَى عَلَيْهِ، وَعَادَى عَلَيْهِ، فَإِلَهُهُ هَوَاهُ.

‘Whoever loves something and obeys it, loving and hating for its sake, then that is his god. Whoever loves or hates only for the sake of Allah, or forms allegiances and enmity only for Him, then Allah is his god in truth. But whoever’s loving or loathing revolves around his whims, forming enmity or allegiance on its basis, then these desires are his god that he worships.’1

Today’s Monoculture, for all its talk of tolerance, demands that we bow to its beliefs, values and worldview – even if it has to drag us there kicking and screaming. Wisdom enjoins that we engage with it; even partake in its political processes (for the Muslim collective benefit, or a national interest). But let us not forget the Monoculture exists, not for God, but in spite of Him; and even in brazen defiance of Him. That being the case, a believer participates in it as per the following Contention: ‘It is better to engage fully with the Monoculture from a position of dislike than to engage partly with it from a position of admiration.’2 Belief in Allah’s all-embracing knowledge, wisdom and care for creation, and loyalty to His lordship, require nothing less: Who is better in judgement than Allah for those who have certainty of belief? [5:50] In a world that insists we render our ultimate loyalty to liberal ideals, let’s recall that shirk isn’t only bowing to idols of wood or stone. Egos, desires, people and even philosophical ideals and political systems can be deified too!

1. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:524.

2. Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions, 13/6, at: masud.co.uk

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.

Understanding Taqlid: the Good, the Bad & the Ugly [1/2]

Must each Muslim know the proofs behind a religious action before performing that act? In Islam, what counts as “proof”? Is accepting a fatwa of a qualified Muslim scholar on trust, without knowing his legal reasoning, blind following? Can ordinary Muslims who’ve had no legal training evaluate proof-texts and identify the strongest view. How can Muslim laymen utilise their God-given intellects in matters of fiqh? How true is it that there is no “clergy” or magisterium in Islam when it comes to religious authority and knowledge? And who were the Four Imams addressing when they forbade taqlid? Such questions lie at the very heart of understanding what sound Islamic epistemology and orthodoxy is; generating huge schisms, strife and religious anarchy in the ummah wherever and whenever they are misunderstood. This article is an attempt to shed some much needed clarity, balance and authenticity on the subject; God-willing.

Now if we strip these contentions down to their bare bones, they’ve historically been framed simply like this: What is the Islamic ruling (hukm) concerning taqlid, in terms of qualified jurists, as well as in terms of non-jurists and the general Muslim public? It is from this perspective that we’ll broach the above questions. For convenience sake, I’ve split the article into two parts because of its length.

A final point: Some will notice that I mostly cite from Hanbali and Shafi‘i scholars. The reason for this is simply because I have a working familiarity with the Hanbali school and its legal theory, and an acquaintance with Shafi‘i legal theory. But I cannot say the same for Hanafi and Maliki legal literature: hence the slant. Despite this, I believe that the overall picture represent the normative legal theory of all four law schools.

I. DEFINING TAQLID

Let us begin by first defining a few basic terms, so as to avoid any cross wires or being at cross purposes. Thus in Islam’s legal culture, the term taqlid has two meanings: one lexical, the other religious. Lexically, it stems from the word qalladah – a “collar” – and is defined as: ِ‎وَضْعُ الْشَّيءِ فِي العُنُقِ مُحِيطاً بِه – ‘To place something around the neck so as to encircle it.’1 For the one doing taqlid, the muqallid, has entrusted his affair to the one he makes taqlid of. He is, so to speak, like someone being led by the collar.

Its religious/legal definition is: قَبُلُ قَوْلِ الغَيْرِ بِغَيْرِ حُجَّةٍ – ‘To accept the opinion of someone without knowing the proof.’2

Usually, but not always, the term taqlid refers to a layman (‘ammi) accepting a religious ruling from a qualified jurist, without knowing the proof (dalil) or legal rationale (ta‘lil) behind the ruling. In doing so, the layman resigns his affair to the scholar and agrees to be guided by him, out of a trust and a confidence he has in his scholarship. It is in this sense that jurists conventionally employ the term.3

II. UNDERSTANDING IJTIHAD

The science that evolved in understanding the shari‘ah, or Sacred Law of Islam, is called fiqh: usually translated as “jurisprudence”, and comes from the word faqiha, meaning: “to understand”. Fiqh, therefore, is all about understanding these divine laws and the way they shape the life-pattern of believers. Strictly speaking, shari‘ah refers to the body of laws revealed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ which he taught and lived by in his day to day life; while fiqh is the science of understanding, extracting and developing these laws – and this involves human effort.

Now “effort” in the area of jurisprudence is known as ijtihad (lit. “exertion”), and is the task of the mujtahid – a jurist qualified and capable of such juristic efforts, though only after receiving rigorous and prolonged legal training. For uncovering the intent of the Lawgiver – the murad al-shari‘ – and to infer new rulings and legislation from the root sources of Islamic law – the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as analogy (qiyas) and scholarly consensus (ijma‘) – can be an uphill task. Often a mujtahid must struggle through long days and nights to reach a conclusion.

The phrase used to describe this effort is: بَذْلُ المَجْهُوْد or اِسْتِفْراغُ الْوُسْعِ – “expending every possible effort” so as to reach a legal judgement.4 The significance here is that ijtihad is not just one of juristic effort or exertion, but one of exhaustion! The mujtahid spends every possible effort, leaving no stone unturned, in order to arrive at a ruling. Ijtihad is certainly not merely surfing a few websites on the internet, or skimming some pages of a few Arabic books. It is nothing less than examining and interrogating all the relevant proof-texts on the matter before arriving at a legal judgement or hukm – however many hours, days weeks or months it may take.

III. AN INSIGHT INTO IJTIHAD

Jumping the gun slightly, let’s just get an idea into what level of learning is required so as to undertake ijtihad. Now ijtihad has varying levels. The highest is when a jurist can perform absolute ijtihad – i.e. they can infer rulings directly from the primary texts of the Qur‘an or Sunnah, unrestricted by anyone else’s legal framework. A mujtahid who reaches this rank is called a mujtahid mutlaq. Imam Ibn Hazm was one such mujtahid-jurist. Contextualising Ibn Hazm’s words: ‘I follow the truth, make ijtihad, and do not confine myself to a single law school (madhhab),’ Imam al-Dhahabi wrote:

نَعَمْ، مَنْ بَلَغَ رُتْبَة الاجْتِهَاد، وَشَهِد لَهُ بِذَلِكَ عِدَّة مِنَ الأَئِمَّةِ، لَمْ يَسُغْ لَهُ أَنْ يُقَلِّدَ، كَمَا أَنَّ الفَقِيْه المُبتدئ وَالعَامِي الَّذِي يَحفظ القُرْآن أَوْ كَثِيْراً مِنْهُ لاَ يَسوَغُ لَهُ الاجْتِهَاد أَبَداً، فَكَيْفَ يَجْتَهِدُ، وَمَا الَّذِي يَقُوْلُ؟ وَعلاَم يَبنِي؟ وَكَيْفَ يَطيرُ وَلَمَّا يُرَيِّش؟

“Yes! Whoever reaches the level of ijtihad, and a number of scholars testify to it, taqlid is not allowed to him. Much like how a novice jurist, or a layman who has memorised the Qur’an or most of it, is not permitted to attempt ijtihad at all. How could he make ijtihad? What could he possible say? On what can he base his opinion? How can he fly and he has yet to grow wings?5

He then proceeds to detail the type of learning needed to reach a rank of ijtihad below that of the highest or absolute level. He says:

 الفَقِيْهُ المنتهِي اليَقظ الفَهِم المُحَدِّث، الَّذِي قَدْ حَفِظ مُخْتَصَراً فِي الْفُرُوع، وَكِتَاباً فِي قوَاعد الأُصُوْل، وَقرَأَ النَّحْو، وَشَاركَ فِي الفضَائِل مَعَ حِفْظِهِ لِكِتَابِ اللهِ وَتشَاغله بتَفْسِيْره وَقوَةِ مُنَاظرتِهِ، فَهَذِهِ رُتْبَة مِنْ بلغَ الاجْتِهَاد المُقيَّد، وَتَأَهَّل لِلنظر فِي دلاَئِل الأَئِمَّة، فَمتَى وَضحَ لَهُ الحَقُّ فِي مَسْأَلَة، وَثبت فِيْهَا النَّصّ، وَعَمِلَ بِهَا أَحَدُ الأَئِمَّةِ الأَعْلاَمِ كَأَبِي حَنِيْفَةَ مِثْلاً، أَوْ كَمَالِك، أَوِ الثَّوْرِيِّ، أَوِ الأَوْزَاعِيِّ، أَوِ الشَّافِعِيِّ، وَأَبِي عُبَيْدٍ، وَأَحْمَدَ، وَإِسْحَاق، فَلْيَتَّبع فِيْهَا الحَقّ وَلاَ يَسْلُكِ الرّخصَ، وَلِيَتَوَرَّع، وَلاَ يَسَعُه فِيْهَا بَعْدَ قيَام الحُجَّة عَلَيْهِ تَقليدٌ.

‘An extremely versed and brilliant jurist who – having committed to memory a primer in law, as well as a book on juristic maxims and on legal theory; has mastered grammar; memorised the Book of God and busied himself with its exegesis; possessesing a sharp, analytical mind – has now reached a rank of restricted ijtihad and is thus qualified to investigate the textual reasoning of the leading scholars. Thus when the truth becomes apparent to him in a given issue, and the proof well established, and it has been acted upon by one of the great Imams like Abu Hanifah, for instance, or Malik, al-Thawri, al-Awza‘i, al-Shafi‘i, Abu ‘Ubayd, Ahmad or Ishaq, he follows [what he sees as] the truth; without chasing concessions, but instead by being diligent. Taqlid is unlawful to him in the issue after the proofs have been established to him.’6

Now compare this with the da‘wah that insists (or at the very least, encourages) those who don’t have even an iota of the above depicted skill-set to “investigate” and “weigh-up” the proofs! Such an insane approach isn’t just reckless. It is possibly the single most significant cause for religious anarchy, extremism, and undermining shari‘ah structures to have ever afflicted the body of the ummah. For when juristic restraints are loosened, and handed to those wholly unfit for purpose, all things run amok!

IV. DIVINE LAW AND THE DETAIL

Let’s shuffle back to the issue of taqlid. In Islam, religious terms or concepts often have nuances or multiple meanings. Thus, both justice and academic integrity demand that we take to tafsil, “distinction” and “detail” and not be black and white. It might even be said (figuratively, of course) that when it comes to Islamic law, it is the divine – and not the devil – that is in the detail! To this end, Ibn al-Qayyim versified:

فَعَلَيْكَ باِلتَّفْصِيْلِ وَالتَّميِيْزِ فَال/إِطْلاقُ والإجْمالُ دُوْنَ بَيانِ
قَدْ أفْسَدَا هَذَا الوُجُودَ وخَبَّطَا الْ /أَذْهانَ وَالآراءَ كُلَّ زَمانِ

‘Take to distinction and differentiation;
For generalisations without clarification;
Have corrupted this existence and ruined
Intellects and opinions in every age.’7

With that in mind, the texts of the Book and the Sunnah, and the words of the eminent jurists, identify that taqlid is of two types: one prescribed, the other prohibited. Getting to the nub of the matter, one jurist wrote: ‘It is obligatory upon the lay people who do not have the ability to learn [proofs or means of juristic inference], to ask the scholars, and to then act on the fatwas they are given. This is taqlid in the conventional sense; its reality being: “Accepting the view of someone without knowing the proof.” And it is of two types: permissible and impermissible.’8

V. THE PRESCRIBED TAQLID

Here now is an outline of the lawful form of taqlid, courtesy of Shaykh Muhammad al-Amin al-Shanqiti, followed by its textual justifications:

وَالتَّحْقِيقُ : أَنَّ التَّقْلِيدَ مِنْهُ مَا هُوَ جَائِزٌ، وَمِنْهُ مَا لَيْسَ بِجَائِزٍ … أَمَّا التَّقْلِيدُ الْجَائِزُ الَّذِي لَا يَكَادُ يُخَالِفُ فِيهِ أَحَدٌ مِنَ الْمُسْلِمِينَ ، فَهُوَ تَقْلِيدُ الْعَامِّيِّ عَالِمًا أَهْلًا لَلْفُتْيَا فِي نَازِلَةٍ نَزَلَتْ بِهِ ، وَهَذَا النَّوْعُ مِنَ التَّقْلِيدِ كَانَ شَائِعًا فِي زَمَنِ النَّبِيِّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ وَلَا خِلَافَ فِيهِ. فَقَدْ كَانَ الْعَامِّيُّ يَسْأَلُ مَنْ شَاءَ مِنْ أَصْحَابِ رَسُولِ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ  عَنْ حُكْمِ النَّازِلَةِ تَنْزِلُ بِهِ ، فَيُفْتِيهِ فَيَعْمَلُ بِفُتْيَاهُ

‘Inquiry establishes that there is a type of taqlid that is permissible and a type that isn’t permissible … As for the permissible taqlid, which none from the Muslims contest, it is a layman’s taqlid of a scholar qualified to give fatwas about various occurrences. This type of taqlid was in vogue during the Prophet’s time ﷺ and there was no difference about it. So the layman would ask whoever he wished from the Companions of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ about the ruling for the situation he faced. When a response was given, he acted on it.’9

As for the textual proof for this type of taqlid, and who it applies to, this next account goes a long way in bringing clarity to the matter:

‘The legislated taqlid is performing taqlid of the scholars whenever there is an inability to decipher proof-texts. Those to whom this applies are of two groups: Firstly, the lay people who aren’t versed in jurisprudence (fiqh) or in the prophetic traditions (hadiths); nor can they evaluate the words of the scholars. Such people are required to perform taqlid; there being no contention over this. In fact, a number of jurists have recorded a consensus to this effect.

‘Secondly, a person that has acquired some awareness of a law school, and has studied a few of the texts of the later scholars … yet despite this, is deficient in examining proofs or evaluating the opinions of the jurists. Such a person must also perform taqlid. He is not obliged to shoulder what he cannot, for: Allah does not charge a soul with more than it can bear. [2:286]

‘The textual stipulations from the scholars about the legality of taqlid for such people are many, well-known, and rooted in Allah’s words: فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنتُمْ لاَ تَعْلَمُونَSo ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [21:7]; and in the Prophet’s words ﷺ that say: أَلاَّ سَأَلُوا إِذْ لَمْ يَعْلَمُوا فَإِنَّمَا شِفَاءُ الْعِيِّ السُّؤَالُ – “Why didn’t they ask if they knew not? The cure for ignorance is to ask.”10

‘The lay people haven’t ceased – since the time of the Companions, the Successors, and their followers – asking their scholars about rulings of the shari‘ah. Scholars, in turn, have readily responded to such queries without necessarily mentioning proofs; nor did they forbid this to them in the least. So this is a point of consensus on the lawfulness of the laity making taqlid of their mujtahid scholars, and that they are only required to do this of one whom they consider to be a scholar.’11

VI. CONSENSUS OVER THE PRESCRIBED TAQLID

As alluded to, the prescribed taqlid is a matter about which jurists are unanimous. That is to say, it is a point of scholarly agreement or consensus (ijma‘), and is thus a hallmark of Islamic orthodoxy; of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah. In fact, historically, only a handful of deviant innovators have ever rejected it.

So, for instance, Ibn Qudamah stated: وَأَمَّا التَّقْلِيدُ فِي الْفُرُوعِ فَهُوَ جَائِزٌ إِجْمَاعًا – ‘As for taqlid in the detailed branches of the law (furu‘), it is permitted by consensus.’12

Imam al-Qurtubi has similarly written: ‘There is no difference among the scholars that the lay people should perform taqlid of their scholars.’13

Ibn Qudamah also tells us of who injected this erroneous idea into the religion, seeking to burden the masses, and other non-specialists in fiqh, with an impossible task:

وَذَهَبَ بَعْضُ الْقَدَرِيَّةِ إِلَى أَنَّ الْعَامَّةَ يَلْزَمُهُمُ النَّظَرُ في الدَّلِيْلِ في الْفُرُوْعِ أَيْضاً ، وَهُوَ بَاطِلٌ بِإِجْمَاعِ الصَّحَابَةِ

‘It is the view of some of the Qadariyyah that the lay people are required to investigate the proofs, even in the furu‘. But this is futile by consensus of the Companions.’14

Thus the belief requiring lay people to first know the evidence for the religious ruling they wish to act upon, isn’t just a hopeless and undoable task. The actual antecedent or predecessors of this bid‘ah was a faction of the Qadariyyah: one of the most heterodox and misguided of the seventy-two sects.

VII. THE MUQALLID & THE COMPLETE PICTURE

Now if taqlid is defined as a person following a scholarly opinion while not knowing the proof, how can a partially learned person, or a layman who is familiar with a proof-text or two in a few religious issues, be considered a muqallid? Ibn Taymiyyah furnishes us with the answer. He explains:

فَأَمَّا مَنْ لَمْ يَعْرِفْ إلَّا قَوْلَ عَالِمٍ وَاحِدٍ وَحُجَّتَهُ دُونَ قَوْلِ الْعَالِمِ الْآخَرِ وَحُجَّتِهِ فَإِنَّهُ مِنْ الْعَوَامِّ الْمُقَلِّدِينَ؛ لَا مِنْ الْعُلَمَاءِ الَّذِينَ يُرَجِّحُونَ وَيُزَيِّفُونَ

‘As for a person who knows the opinion of one scholar and his proof, but not the other scholar and his proofs, then he is from the generality of the muqallids. He isn’t from the scholars capable of evaluating and weighing-up [proofs].’15

This is a highly important point that is all too often misunderstood. The great bulk of jurists maintain that if a person knows a proof-text for any given issue, but is unaware of the complete proofs, he is still a muqallid (albeit one familiar with a proof or two, but not enough to evaluate the juristic strengths and weaknesses of each argument). This “complete” knowledge has three aspects to it: Firstly, knowing the relevant proof-texts. Secondly, knowing how legal rulings are extracted from them. Thirdly, knowing how to resolve any textual conflicts (ta‘arrud al-adillah). So the muqallid includes: (i) a layman who does not know the proof-texts; and (ii) someone who knows some proof-texts, but in an incomplete manner.

VIII. LET US ALL GROW IN SACRED LEARNING

The Prophet ﷺ said in regards to the excellence of seeking sacred knowledge: مَنْ سَلَكَ طَرِيقًا يَلْتَمِسُ فِيهِ عِلْمًا سَهَّلَ اللَّهُ لَهُ طَرِيقًا إِلَى الْجَنَّةِ – ‘Whosoever traverses a path in order to seek knowledge, Allah will make easy for him a path to Paradise.’16

Another hadith says: مَنْ تَعَلَّمَ عِلْمًا مِمَّا يُبْتَغَى بِهِ وَجْهُ اللَّهِ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ لاَ يَتَعَلَّمُهُ إِلاَّ لِيُصِيبَ بِهِ عَرَضًا مِنَ الدُّنْيَا لَمْ يَجِدْ عَرْفَ الْجَنَّةِ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ – ‘Whoever learns knowledge by which the face of Allah is to be sought, but does so only to acquire some worldly thing, shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise on the Day of Resurrection.’17

Just because lay people aren’t obligated to know the proof behind a fatwa of ruling they read or are given, should not prevent them from increasing in their overall knowledge of the Qur’an or the Hadith corpus. As a rule of thumb, it is encouraged for all Muslims to increase in their share of sacred knowledge. Let the lay people apply their God-given intellects to grow in understanding textual proofs related to religious foundations (usul al-din), ethics and good character, matters of the heart and spiritual growth, and basic rights and responsibilities. Books like Imam al-Nawawi’s Riyadh al-Salihin are priceless in this regard. It is only in the area of detailed Islamic law, in fiqh, where the proofs are usually complex and difficult to fathom without legal training. And it is here that taqlid is legislated in order to relieve such hardships. Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi remarked:

‘As far as the Islamic rulings go, they are of two types. Firstly, those known by necessity to be part of the Prophet’s religion ﷺ – like the five daily prayers, zakat, or pilgrimage; and the prohibition of adultery, intoxicants, etc. In such issues taqlid is not allowed, for these are issues every person must know. The second: rulings that need to be inferred, like the details of the acts or worship (‘ibadat) or the social transactions (mu‘amalat). It is in these issues that taqlid is permitted.’18

So let the lay people grow in sacred knowledge and engage with the texts of the Qur‘an and hadiths in such clear-cut and unambiguous matters; whilst avoiding giving fatwas, inventing their own interpretations or speaking about religious matters without sound comprehension. And there’s plenty here for them to get on with. Even then, when they are unsure of what the texts mean or point to, let them heed Allah’s bidding: فَاسْأَلُوا أَهْلَ الذِّكْرِ إِنْ كُنتُمْ لاَ تَعْلَمُونَSo ask the people of knowledge if you do not know. [21:7].

Perhaps it doesn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway. It’s not that the muqallid is seen as foolish or unintelligent. For muqallids could be theoretical physicists, mathematicians, doctors, erudite economists, philosophers, accountants, or a host of other professions which require intelligence and specialist learning. They could even be scholars in other branches of Islam: hadith experts, seasoned Arabic grammarians, cultivated linguists, accomplished theologians, or highbrow historians. But they aren’t schooled in fiqh and legal theory, and are not capable of ijtihad in juristic matters. And that, in itself, is not a blight upon their faith, character, or intellectual abilities.

IX. GOOD TAQLID: THE BOTTOM LINE

It terms of the legislated taqlid, it pretty much boils down to what Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah encapsulated when he said:

وَاَلَّذِي عَلَيْهِ جَمَاهِيرُ الْأُمَّةِ أَنَّ الِاجْتِهَادَ جَائِزٌ فِي الْجُمْلَةِ؛ وَالتَّقْلِيدَ جَائِزٌ فِي الْجُمْلَةِ لَا يُوجِبُونَ الِاجْتِهَادَ عَلَى كُلِّ أَحَدٍ وَيُحَرِّمُونَ التَّقْلِيدَ وَلَا يُوجِبُونَ التَّقْلِيدَ عَلَى كُلِّ أَحَدٍ وَيُحَرِّمُونَ الِاجْتِهَادَ وَأَنَّ الِاجْتِهَادَ جَائِزٌ لِلْقَادِرِعَلَى     الِاجْتِهَادِ وَالتَّقْلِيدَ جَائِزٌ لِلْعَاجِزِ عَنْ الِاجْتِهَادِ 

‘That which the vast majority of the ummah hold to is that ijtihad is allowed in general, and taqlid is allowed in general. Ijtihad isn’t obligated on everyone and taqlid forbidden, nor is taqlid obligated on everyone while ijtihad forbidden. Rather, ijtihad is for the one capable of it, while taqlid is for those who are incapable of it.’19

Again, stressing the limitations of a muqallid layman in the detailed and exacting art of fiqh, Ibn Taymiyyah reminds us that the muqallid is in no position whatsoever to make a just or knowledge-based evaluation of the proof-texts or scholarly positions in strictly legal matters:

لَا يَجُوزُ لِأَحَدِ أَنْ يُرْجِحَ قَوْلًا عَلَى قَوْلٍ بِغَيْرِ دَلِيلٍ، وَلَا يَتَعَصَّبُ لِقَوْلِ عَلَى قَوْلٍ وَلَا قَائِلٍ عَلَى قَائِلٍ بِغَيْرِ حُجَّةٍ؛ بَلْ مَنْ كَانَ مُقَلِّدًا لَزِمَ حُكْمَ التَّقْلِيدِ، فَلَمْ يُرَجِّحْ، وَلَمْ يُزَيِّفْ، وَلَمْ يُصَوِّبْ، وَلَمْ يُخَطِّئْ؛

‘It is not permissible for anyone to prefer one view over another without a proof, nor to be bias towards one opinion over another; or one person’s saying over another, without an evidence. Instead, whoever is a muqallid, then the ruling of taqlid applies to him: he cannot weigh-up, evaluate, or judge [a view] to be correct or incorrect.’20

Another demand arising from taqlid is: ‘There is a consensus among the Muslims that it is unlawful for a muqallid to state that something is halal or haram in those issues of ijtihad where he is doing taqlid of someone else. What he may say is: “This is the ruling in the madhhab I follow” or that: “I sought a fatwa and this was the response.”’21 If only people stuck to their levels and put the above rule into practice. So many quarrels and disputes would vanish into the twilight as egos wore thin and righteous conduct rolled in. But alas! Our social media age, whilst permitting a greater flow of information, has now elevated the hasty and ill-informed opinion to the same level as the seasoned and qualified one!

One last point. If this kind of taqlid is sanctioned by the Book and the Sunnah; and not only that, but jurists have a consensus about its legality, one cannot use a derogatory term for what Islam prescribes – i.e. taqlid is merely “blind-following.” Rather, this type of taqlid is Islamic, praiseworthy and must be seen for what it truly is: ‘The following of qualified scholarship in the details of the religion.’ After all, does one not get rewarded by Allah for this type of taqlid? Does it not count as an act of divine obedience drawing one closer to Allah?

X. THE PROHIBITTED TAQLID

Having covered the outlines of the prescribed taqlid, in particular how it relates to the layperson and anyone else incapable of ijtihad, let us now turn to the forbidden taqlid. Here, Ibn al-Qayyim said: ‘A mention about the details of taqlid and that it is classified into: [1] the prohibited; [2] the obligatory; [3] the permitted, but not obligatory.’22

Then he writes that the forbidden kind of taqlid takes three forms, which he goes on to elaborate as being:

أَمَّا النَّوْعُ الْأَوَّلُ فَهُوَ ثَلَاثَةُ أَنْوَاعٍ : أَحَدُهَا: الْإِعْرَاضُ عَمَّا أَنْزَلَ اللَّهُ وَ عَدَمُ الِالْتِفَاتِ إلَيْهِ اكْتِفَاءً بِتَقْلِيدِ الْآبَاءِ.  الثَّانِي: تَقْلِيدُ مَنْ لَا يَعْلَمُ الْمُقَلِّدُ أَنَّهُ أَهْلٌ لَأَنْ يُؤْخَذَ بِقَوْلِهِ. الثَّالِثُ: التَّقْلِيدُ بَعْدَ قِيَامِ الْحُجَّةِ وَ ظُهُورِ الدَّلِيلِ عَلَى خِلَافِ قَوْلِ الْمُقَلَّدِ

‘The first category is of three types: Firstly, to turn away from what Allah has revealed and not resort to it, sufficing instead with following one’s forefathers. Secondly, doing taqlid of someone, not knowing if they are qualified so that they can be authoritatively followed. Thirdly, doing taqlid in the face of the proof being established, and it is clear that the proof opposes the view of the authority being followed.‘23

This concludes the first part of the discussion. The second begins by looking into each of these three types of forbidden taqlid and, in the process, sweep away the myths and misinterpretations that have crept into this area, and that erroneously pass as religion in certain quarters of Muslim thought. The words of the Four Imams and their censure of taqlid will also be put into their rightful context. Finally, I’ll attempt to round off the article with a brief word about madhhabs.

1. Al-Tufi, Sharh Mukhtasar al-Rawdah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1410H), 3:650.

2. Al-Ghazali, al-Mustasfa min ‘Ilm al-Usul (Cairo: Maktabah al-Tijariyyah, 1356H), 2:387.

3. See: Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal ila Fiqh Ahmad b. Hanbal (Riyadh: Dar al-Tawhid, 1411H), 1:64.

4. See: al-Ba‘li, Talkhis Rawdat al-Nazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1429H), 347.

5. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1419H), 18:191.

6. ibid., 18:191.

7. Al-Kafiyat al-Shafiyah (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 1428H), vv.774-75; 237.

8. Bakr Abu Zayd, al-Madkhal al-Mufassal, 1:64.

9. Al-Shanqiti, Adwa’ al-Bayan (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1417H), 7:318.

10. Abu Dawud. no.336; Ibn Majah, no.572. It was graded sahih due to supporting chains in al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1406H), no.4362.

11. Ibn Mu‘ammar, Risalah fi’l-Ijtihad wa’l-Taqlid (Jeddah: Dar al-Andalus, 1421H), 43-6.

12. Rawdat al-Nazir wa Jannat al-Manazir (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 1414H), 3:1015

13. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1417H), 11:181

14. Rawdat al-Nazir, 3:1019.

15. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1412H), 35:233.

16. Muslim, no.2699.

17. Abu Dawud, no.3664. Al-Nawawi declared its chain sahih in Riyadh al-Salihin (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1422H), no.1399.

18. Al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar al-Ifta, 1389H), 2:67.

19. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 20:203-04.

20. ibid., 35:233.

21. Al-Madkhal al-Mufassal, 1:73.

22. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1423H), 3:447.

23. ibid., 3:447.

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Fitnah: Coming to a Sin-e-World Near You! (Part 2)

red-apple-temptation-sanjay-nayarThe first part of this blog (here) discussed the fitnah or tribulation of wealth, civil war and men’s weakness for women. The second and final part of the blog discusses three more fitnahs – that of callers to misguidance, spreading of inverted understandings of Islam, and the question of governments seeking to domesticate Islam and its scholars. And Allah’s help is sought.

4Fitnah of Callers to Misguidance: Hudhayfah b. al-Yaman narrates: People would ask Allah’s Messenger ﷺ about the good, but I used to ask about the evil, for fear of it reaching me. I said: O Messenger of Allah! We used to be in a state of ignorance and evil, but then Allah sent you with this good. Will there be any evil after this good? He said: ‘Yes.’ I said: Will there be any good after this evil? He answered: ‘Yes, but it will be tainted.’ I asked: What shall taint it? He said: ‘A people who will guide with other than my guidance. You shall approve of them and disapprove.’ I said: Will there be any evil after this good? He replied: ‘Yes! Callers to the gates of Hellfire, whoever responds to them will be thrown into it.’ I inquired: O Allah’s Messenger, describe them for us. He said: ‘They will be of your skin and speak your language.’ I said: What do you order me if I should reach this? He said: ‘Cling to the united body (jama‘ah) of the Muslims and their leader.’ What if there is no united body or leader, I asked? He said: ‘Then remove yourself from all these sects, even if you have to cling to the trunk of a tree until death comes to you and you are in that state.’1

In this hadith the Prophet ﷺ spoke about: du‘at ‘ala abwabi jahannam – ‘callers to the gates of Hellfire.’ Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani commented on the hadith, saying: ‘[Qadi] ‘Iyad stated: “What is intended by the first evil is the tribulation (fitnah) that occurred after the murder of ‘Uthman. The intent of the good that comes after is what happened in the caliphate of ‘Umar b. ‘Abd al-‘Aziz. What is intended by those you will approve of and disapprove of are: the rulers who come after; among whom are those who adhere to the Sunnah and to justice, and among whom are those who call to innovations and to acting oppressively.”‘2 Ibn Hajr then says that these callers to the gates of Hell refer to: ‘Those who rise up seeking power and authority, from the Khawarij and their ilk.’3

A few centuries earlier, Imam al-Nawawi put slightly more flesh on the issue when he said about them: ‘Scholars say: They are those rulers who call to innovations or other deviations, like the Khawarij, Qaramitah, or the agents of the Inquisition (mihnah).’4

If the above hadith refers to rulers or regimes that were propagandists for innovation or heresy – endorsing it, sponsoring it and spreading it – this next hadith refers to the fitnah of innovators and persons of misguidance. Ibn Mas‘ud said: Allah’s Messenger ﷺ drew a line on the ground for us, saying: ‘This is Allah’s path.’ He then drew lines to its right and left, then said: ‘These are other paths; upon each path there is a devil calling to it.’ He then recited [6:153]: This is My straight path, so follow it; and follow not others paths, lest you be parted from His path.5

It shouldn’t need stating, but let’s do so anyway, that one of the foundational duties of every Muslim is to spurn religious innovation (bid‘ah). Our Prophet ﷺ warned in no uncertain terms: ‘Beware of newly-invented matters; for every newly-invented matter is an innovation, and every innovation is misguidance.’6 Also: ‘Whosoever introduces into this affair of ours what is not of it will have it rejected.’7 What is meant by bid‘ah is: ma uhditha mimma la asl lahu fi’l-shari‘ah yadullu ‘alayhi – ‘That which is newly-introduced, having no basis in the Sacred Law to substantiate [prove] it.’8 If what is newly-introduced does have a basis in the shari‘ah, then some scholars consider that a bid‘ah in the lexical sense; not the technical one. Others simply call it a ‘praiseworthy’ bid‘ah.9 Regardless of what one categorises it as, there’s absolute scholarly agreement that certain matters related to religion that came after the Prophet’s time, which have a basis in the din to prove their validity – either from the Qur’an, Sunnah, scholarly consensus (ijma‘), or analogy (qiyas) – can be brought under the umbrella of Islam and Islamic legislation. For in light of the second hadith quoted above in this paragraph: whoever introduces into this affair of ours what is of it will be accepted. It is just those matters that are newly-introduced as religious acts, but: la asl lahu fi’l-shari‘ah – ‘have no basis in the shari‘ah – which must be rejected and blacklisted.

All of this is to say that the primary obligation upon each Muslim is ittiba‘ – following what has been legislated and laid down in the Sacred Law; not ibtida‘ – innovating or introducing into the religion that which has no basis in the Sacred Sources. Moreover, the fact that some in our age have nosedived into extremes in this regard – so quickly and casually labelling any view opposing theirs as being a deviant innovation (and all too often accusing those holding such differing views as deviant innovators) – doesn’t excuse the rest of us from being lax in this fundamental area of faith, or shuffling into the opposite extreme.

The best way to steer well clear of these extremes is to ensure that in our learning and practice of Islam we be people of isnad; those who are linked to an unbroken ‘chain’ of scholarship which extends all the way back to the prophetic age. On this, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation. They will rid from it the distortions of the extremists; the false claims of the liars; and the flawed interpretations of the ignorant.’10 This hadith should help bury the myth that ‘authentic’ or ‘sahih’ Islam, after its golden first two centuries or so, was lost and unknown even to the scholars for most of Islam’s history (barring a brief come back in the 7th century), only to be rediscovered by a clique of Muslims in more recent times. For those interested, I have shown how this allegation is so way off the mark in: Being People of Isnad: Legitimate Islamic Learning.

5 – Fitnah of Inverted Understandings: The Prophet ﷺ foretold the following: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar shall be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous trusted, the trustworthy considered treacherous, and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? He ﷺ said: ‘The lowly, contemptible ones who will speak out about public affairs.’11

This inversion of understanding (inqilab al-fahm); such topsy-turvy ways of looking at things whereby good seems bad and bad good, or truth is seen as false and falsehood the truth, is foretold in other hadiths too. ‘When the affair is given to other than its rightful people, then await the Final Hour,’12 said the Prophet ﷺ. And: ‘Indeed from the signs of the Hour is that the virtuous will be demeaned and the wicked elevated.’13 Just how deeply this state of inversion has oozed into the soil of our ‘post-truth’ world and this age of ‘alternative facts’, is anyone’s guess. Much of this, it has got to be said, is a prelude; a trailer, for the drama of the Dajjal which will soon be showing in a sin-e-world near us all – and we seek refuge in Allah from Dajjal’s fitnah.

Our Prophet went out of his way to shield us all from this inqilab al-fahm. He ﷺ once averred: The stars are the custodians of the sky; when the stars depart, what has been decreed for the sky shall come to it. I am the custodian of my Companions; when I depart, what is decreed for my Companions will come to them. And my Companions are the custodians of my ummah; when my Companions depart, what is decreed for my ummah shall come to it.’14

So what has been decreed for this ummah after the Companions (sahabah) – who are its keepers, guardians and custodians – depart? Al-Nawawi tells us it is: ‘The spread of innovations and newly-invented matters in the religion, fitnahs in it …’15 Al-Munawi says, writing almost four-hundred years ago: ‘It is the proliferation of innovations, the dominance of [false] desires, schisms in creedal matters, the appearance of the Horns of Satan, the ascendency of the Romans [Christians], and the desecration of the Two Holy Places (haramayn). All of these miraculous predictions have occurred.’16

So how do we stop the rot? How do we halt the descent into deviation? The answer is straightforward, though getting our desires and egos to act upon it may not be quite so: Follow the revealed teachings, and shun innovations in religion. Let’s look at what else our Prophet ﷺ urged in this respect:

In one famous hadith, the Prophet ﷺ lays down this cure for the rot: ‘Those among you who live [long] will see many schisms. So cling to my Sunnah and to the Sunnah of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs after me; cling to it unyieldingly.’17

And the Prophet ﷺ said to his Companions one day: ‘Verily there will soon be fitnah.‘ They asked: How shall we be, O Allah’s Messenger, and what shall we do? He ﷺ said: tarji‘una ila amrikum al-awwal – ‘Return to your original affair.’18

The intent of the above two hadiths is made even more clear in these definitive words of the Prophet ﷺ: ‘My ummah will split-up into seventy-three sects; seventy-two are in the Fire, one in Paradise.’ They asked: Who is that one, O Allah’s Messenger? He ﷺ said: ‘That which I and my Companions are upon.’19 Historically, this one saved-sect became known as ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah; or Sunnis, for short.

What all this points to is that any method or call which outrightly rejects the Sunnah, or the integrity and authority of the Prophet’s Companions, or denies an established scholarly consensus (ijma‘), is utterly false – regardless of how appealing or academic the falsehood is made to seem. For it is the hermeneutics of reprehensible innovation; if not outright heresy. No weight must be given to it in matters of religion. Al-Bayhaqi said about such schisms from Islamic orthodoxy: ‘We have already stated in the book al-Madkhal, and elsewhere, that the blameworthy differing (al-khilaf al-madhmum) is whatever differs from the Book, the authentic Sunnah or a scholarly consensus.’20 Ibn Taymiyyah stated: ‘The hallmark of these [innovated] sects is them splitting from the Book, the Sunnah, or scholarly consensus. Whoever speaks with the Book, the Sunnah and the scholarly consensus is from ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah.21

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. Scholars like Imam al-Safarini and others, however, extend the net as follows: ‘Ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah is of 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 upon him; and Maturidis, whose leader is Abu Mansur al-Maturidi.’22

Yet how can it be three sects, when the hadith clearly speaks of one saved-sect? 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 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; in the view of this writer, it should be preferred wherever there is a disparity between the three schools. 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, grammarian or historian who wasn’t a follower of one of these two schools. Historically, and in short: the 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.

One final point: Describing people as innovators from the seventy-two sects (in other words, outside the fold of ahl al-sunnah), isn’t saying they’re apostates outside the fold of Islam – as is spelled out in: The Seventy-Three Sects: Is Most of the Ummah Deviant? One can have innovated beliefs or practices and still be a Muslim; albeit a misguided one. As for what groupings come under the umbrella of Islam, The Amman Message of 2004, and its three-point declaration, directly addresses that. The Message doesn’t concern itself with who is a ‘true’, orthodox Muslim; but simply who is a Muslim. For its aim is to help halt the widespread evil of takfir on Muslims, and to wrest the giving of fatwas from those who do not have the prerequisite learning or qualification.

6 – The Fitnah of Governments Seeking to Domesticate Scholars: Our starting point is this advice from the Prophet ﷺ: ‘Whoever comes to the doors of the ruler is put to trial.’23 Discussion about this, I must admit, is a difficult and delicate one; so I’ll try to be as nuanced and even handed as possible. And Allah’s help is sought.

This concern, first off, is not new. Scholars down the ages of Islam have cautioned the scholarly community about the trial (fitnah) entailed in rubbing shoulders with rulers or governments. Ibn al-Jawzi sketches the usual pious concerns, thus:

‘From the Devil’s deception on the jurists is them mixing with the rulers and sultans, flattering them and leaving-off censuring them when able to do so. And perhaps they find allowances for them when there really isn’t one, in order to attain some worldly thing … In summary: entering upon rulers entails great danger. For the intention may be good at first, but then may change by them honouring you or bestowing [gifts] on you; or by [you] harbouring worldly ambitions; or by not being able to avoid flattering them; or leaving-off censuring them. Sufyan al-Thawri used to say: “I don’t fear them debasing or disgracing me. Rather, I fear them being generous towards me so that my heart inclines towards them.”‘24

Again, teasing out the soul’s psychology in this matter, and the subtle cravings of the ego, Ibn Rajab said: ‘Also, many of the salaf used to forbid those who desired to order the kings with good or prohibit them from evil, from entering upon them … And this was from fear of the fitnah of entering upon them. For when he is at a distance from them, the ego deceives the person into believing he will order and forbid them, and be stern with them. However, when he comes face to face with them, his soul is swayed towards them. For love of being honoured is concealed in his ego. Hence, he starts to flatter them, is over lenient with them, and perhaps he grows fond of them and loves them – especially if they treat him well and hold him in high regard, and he accepts this from them.’25

Of course; and this is the second point, this avoidance is by no means categorical, nor absolute. Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr rounds-up the chapter in which he relates the salaf’s dislike of entering upon rulers and kings, stating: ‘The meaning of this entire chapter is with regard to the wicked, oppressive ruler (al-sultan al-ja’ir al-fasiq). As for the just among them, and the virtuous, then entering upon them; meeting them; and assisting them to rectify affairs is from the best deeds of righteousness … Thus when a scholar enters upon the ruler now and again, and whenever there is a need; and he says what is good and speaks with knowledge, then that is good and is a means of Allah’s pleasure until the Day he meets Him. Such meetings, however, are usually a fitnah; and safety lies in abandoning what is in them.’26

One will not find a ‘one-hat-fits-all-sizes’ rule in this area. For the needs and variables of each country or polity are different. The whole affair hinges on benefits and harms and final outcomes; and rests on the individual scholar’s intention and ability to cope with the fitnah, and the openness or otherwise of the ruler or regime. If a scholar feels strong enough in faith or feels obligated to to do so, or/and the ruler is open to advise, then one enters and does ones duty wisely, courageously and respectfully (respectful, if not of the actual ruler, then of the office they hold). Scholars should also keep this juristic maxim in play: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak ba‘duhu – ‘If one cannot achieve the whole, one does not give-up [achieving] the part.’ What a scholar must not be is a sheepish partisan voice piece for the outrages and injustices of power, or an apologist for it. The scholar’s burden is neither to pander to the palace, and nor to the public. It is simply to be principled according to the dictates of piety.

My third and final point bears upon Muslim scholars in Britain (and North America, for that matter); especially in respect of helping their governments in the fight against extremism and the promotion of ‘moderate’ Islam. The aim in what follows is not to preclude any collaboration or cooperation between Muslim scholars (or activists) and governments. Instead, I wish only to point out that there are different fitnahs at work in any such union, which cannot be ignored.

One issue that tends to haunt the air of any genuine cooperation for many a scholar is the RAND report of 2007: Building Moderate M