The Humble "I"

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Archive for the category “theology”

Help Your Brother, Whether He is the Oppressor or Oppressed!

Q. What is our Islamic duty when one Muslim – individual or nation – mistreats, exploits, oppresses or tyrannises another?

A. Alhamduli’Llah, wa’l-salatu wa’l-salamu ‘ala rasuli’Llah. In theory, the answer is pretty straightforward. In practice, it may often be tricky – especially if the oppression (zulm) is not by an individual, but by a group or faction, or it is political tyranny of a government; a police state; or a tyrant dictator.

As for the theory, or principle, our Prophet ﷺ said: انْصُرْ أَخَاكَ ظَالِمًا أَوْ مَظْلُومًا.‏ قَالُوا يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ هَذَا نَنْصُرُهُ مَظْلُومًا فَكَيْفَ نَنْصُرُهُ ظَالِمًا قَالَ: تَأْخُذُ فَوْقَ يَدَيْهِ – ‘Help your brother, be he the oppressor or the oppressed!’ They said: O Messenger of Allah, we can help the oppressed. But how do we help an oppressor? He said: ‘By restraining his hand.’1

There are some important points to consider here:

Firstly, it is a collective obligation; a fard kifayah, to stop an oppressor harming, exploiting or oppressing another. Which is to say, if one or more people do not stand up to stop the oppression or tyranny, the whole of the community or ummah is sinful.2 This, then, is the general rule of thumb concerning helping an oppressed person – regardless of the type of injustice or oppression; be it personal, marital, social, or political.

Secondly, the Prophet ﷺ warned of a divine punishment if such a collective obligation is shirked or left unfulfilled: ‘People, if they see an oppressor and do not restrain him, then perhaps Allah will cover them all with punishment.’3

Thirdly, there will be times where it simply isn’t possible to restrain the oppressor; but this should not be for a lack of wanting to stop oppression. One hadith states: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to, then with his tongue; if he is unable, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’4 So not having even the wish to help a victim of domestic violence; economic unfairness; or political tyranny, for instance, is a serious indictment on one’s level of faith and personal piety; and any claim to be upon the Sunnah is likely to be nothing more than a fantasy.

Fourthly, although the hadith that says: ‘Whoever is not concerned with the affairs of the Muslims is not of them’ isn’t authentic,5 its meaning is religiously sound. The next hadith bears this out: ‘The likeness of the believers in their mutual love, mercy and compassion is like that of a single body; when one part of it is in pain, the rest of the body suffers in sleeplessness and fever.’6 Which is to say, the bonds of faith between believers should be a cause for us to feel the injustices or suffering other Muslims are feeling. To the degree it does not, this is a telling sign that one’s faith (iman) is weak and that the heart has been desensitised to the cries of the ummah and the suffering of the sufferers. We ask that Allah place in our hearts concern and the desire to serve.

Fifthly, in attempting to rectify any instance of oppression or injustice, one must be sure to observe the well-established rule of enjoining good and forbidding evil, that: la yu’addi ila munkar akbara minhu – ‘It should not give rise to a worse evil.’ If righting a wrong is likely to result in a greater evil, or to the loss of a greater good, then one leaves off doing so until a positive outcome can be assured, or it is more likely to be the result. Ibn al-Qayyim said: ‘Forbidding munkar (“wrong”, “evil”, “sin”) has four levels: Firstly, it will be eliminated to be replaced by good. Secondly, it will be reduced, but not fully eradicated. Thirdly, it will be [removed but] replaced by an equivalent evil. Fourthly, it will be [removed but] replaced by a worse evil. The first two levels are [areas where forbidding evil is] legislated; the third is an area for personal reasoning (ijtihad); the fourth, however, is prohibitted.’7

Sixthly, as for preventing acts of political oppression, then of course this is far harder and could also be life threatening. But whilst keeping the above previous points in mind, there are these words of our Prophet ﷺ to internalise: ‘There will soon be rulers whom you’ll approve of and also object to. Whoever recognises [abhors their evil] is absolved. Whoever objects to it is saved. But whoever is pleased with it or approves of it [is sinful].’8 In other words, as al-Nawawi noted, ‘whoever is unable to remove the evil isn’t considered sinful merely by keeping silent. Rather, the sin is in approving of it, or in not [even] denouncing it in one’s heart.’9

Seventhly, entering upon rulers is always fraught with great danger, both in spiritual and worldly terms. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Listen! You may well have heard that after me there will leaders, whoever enters upon them and agrees with their lies, and supports them in their oppression, then he is not of me, nor I of him; and he shall not drink with me from the Fountain. Whoever does not enter upon them, nor help them in their oppression, nor agrees to their lies, he is of me, and I of him, and he will drink with me at the Fountain.’10 Scholars that do enter upon the ruler must do so only to wisely and gently right a wrong; or give religious instruction and exhortation; or to lessen an existing evil: this is what is sought after from such scholars. We ask that Allah grant our scholars ‘afiyah – safety and well-being.

Eighthly, in fact, to enter upon a ruler or a head of state, and flatter him or heap upon him exaggerated platitudes, isn’t really the conduct of a godly Muslim; let alone a scholar. Ibn ‘Umar relates that he was once told: ‘We enter upon our sultans and say to them things contrary to what we say when we leave their presence.’ Ibn ‘Umar remarked: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, we used to consider this to be hypocrisy.’11 Such platitudes only serve to obscure the true state of affairs to the ruler, in terms of his responsibilities and duties to God, and to subjects or citizens. It also reinforces his delusion that he is truly fit for purpose! As for speaking to him wisely, gently and by acknowledging the good he has done, this is praiseworthy. As for the dangers of the state seeking to domesticate Muslim scholars, I’ve written about it here.

Ninethly, in the attempt to restrain the tyranny of those in power, scholars shoulder a huge responsibility. As guardians of the sacred law and the prophetic legacy, they are expected to be courageous or independent enough to clarify truth from falsehood – without desires or ego getting in the way; and to gently, yet firmly speak truth to power – if the occasion arises. Fear that they may likely lose their life in the process; or be tortured; or bring harm upon their family or loved ones, may excuse them from this duty. But what they cannot be is a sheepish mouthpiece for shabby tyrants. So while speaking about how the venerable scholar and exemplar from Islam’s early past, Imam al-Awza‘i, spoke infront of the tyrant of the time, Imam al-Dhahabi explains that al-Awza‘i, يَصْدَعُهُ بِمُرِّ الحَقِّ كَمَا تَرَى، لاَ كَخَلْقٍ مِنْ عُلَمَاءِ السُّوءِ الَّذِيْنَ يُحَسِّنُوْنَ لِلأُمَرَاءِ مَا يَقْتَحِمُوْنَ بِهِ مِنَ الظُّلمِ وَالعَسْفِ، وَيَقلِبُوْنَ لَهُمُ البَاطِلَ حَقّاً ، قَاتَلَهُمُ اللهُ ، أَوْ يَسكُتُوْنَ مَعَ القُدْرَةِ عَلَى بَيَانِ الحَقِّ – ‘… proclaimed the bitter truth, as you have seen. Unlike those corrupt scholars who justify for the rulers the persecution and tyranny they plunge into, and turn falsehood into truth for them – may Allah fight them; or who keep silent, despite having the ability to proclaim the truth.’12

We ask Allah for ‘afiyah, courage and tawfiq.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.2444; Muslim, no.2584.

2. Cf. Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 6:238.

3. Ahmad, Musnad, no.31. Its chain was graded as sahih by Ahmad Shakir, al-Musnad al-Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (Egypt: Dar al-Ma‘arif, 1954), 1:36.

4. Muslim, no.49.

5. According to al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), nos.309-12, this and similar hadiths with this wording range from being mildly weak (da‘if), to very weak (da‘if jiddan), to fabricated (mawdu‘). The actual hadith is related in al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 4:352.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.6011; Muslim, no.2586.

7. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:339-40.

8. Muslim, no.1854.

9. Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1995), 12:204.

10. Ibn Hibban, no.282; al-Tirmidhi, no.2190, where he said: ‘The hadith is hasan sahih.’

11. Al-Bukhari, no.7178. The words: ‘In the time of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ’ is recorded in al-Tayalasi, Musnad, no.1900; and not al-Bukhari.

12. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1998), 7:125.

Islam’s Five Big Questions of Life

Just about everyone, at one time or another, wonders about life’s big questions: How did we get here? Why are we here? And where are we going? In these five short presentations, Shaykh Surkheel Abu Aaliyah address these Big Questions from the point of view of Islam and the Qur’an.

These short videos address some of the most important questions of religion, and offer straightforward answers and arguments so as to help inform & protect our faith from the current onslaught of atheism and materialism. Given the intensity of the onslaught, every Muslim (from parents, teachers, Muslim youth workers, to young Muslims themselves) should be aware of such issues and how they can be addressed. The reality is that the age of simple faith – of just accepting what one is told about religion – seldom works in our modern age. For the modern age is one which causes the mind to question, critique and be critical; and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, it is a large part of why God gave us an intellect and reasoning skills in the first place.

Part 1 tackles Islam’s cosmological question: How did the universe get here? It addresses, not just the traditional religious response, but also some of the contemporary objections that science has thrown up in recent times. Watch here.

Part 2 is Islam’s epistemological question: How we know what we know? In other words, what are the sources of human knowledge? Watch here.

Part 3 is the ontological question, which looks at the nature or essence of things; in this case: What is the human being’s essential nature? The video can be seen here.

Part 4 explains Islam’s teleological question: What is our actual purpose of being on Earth? Here’s the video to the fourth part.

Part 5, the final part, of Islam’s Five Big Questions of Life, tackles the eschatological question: Where are we ultimately heading? That is,  what is our final end? Watch here.

These short video presentations are based on a talk given by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf: “The 5 Essential Big Questions”: https://youtu.be/UB9l2ZvqnTs

Islam: Veiled by Ruthless Tyrants & Extremist Miscreants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Al-Bukhari, no.99.

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

3. Muslim, no.26.

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

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

Principle v. Practice: Questions on Modern Muslimness

In principle, there’s good cause to counter the allegation that, historically, Islam impeded the development of modern science in the medieval Muslim world. In practice, this must not translate into the belief that scientific progress is an absolute value upon which the credibility of Islam must actually rest.

In principle, a Muslim scholar possessed of sound theological learning has every right to declare a particular act or utterance to be disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs necessitate this. In practice, this is very different from declaring a specific individual who may have ignorantly, mistakenly or coercively committed such an act, or uttered such a profanity, as being a kafir; a disbeliever. The rule of thumb here is: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief [necessarily] becomes a disbeliever.’1

In principle, the believer ought to have a calm loathing for liberalism and its attempts to dismantle an engendered world. In practice, one must have pity for the shrunken victims of this insane, ungodly monoculture and help them back to the path of sanity and Adamic humanity: But God has endeared faith to you and beautified it in your hearts, and has made unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are the rightly guided. [Q.49:7]

In principle, anyone who does not declare the shahadah in this world is considered to be a non-Muslim in this world. In practice, some non-Muslims (kuffar) shall have an excuse or an amnesty in the Hereafter for only having heard a distorted message of Islam while in this world. The Qur’an says: Nor do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [Q.17:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with, will be among the denizens of Hell.’2 An-Nawawi explains: ‘In its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’3 Imam al-Ghazali ecumenically wrote about those who only heard a distorted message of Islam; filled with lies, half-truths and propaganda: ‘These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and an imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet … This party, in my view, is like the first party [which is excused]. For though they’ve heard of him, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this doesn’t provide enough incentive for them to look into [his true status].’4

In principle, an atheist may feel smug by countering the supposed theistic assertion that: ‘Everything must have a cause for its existence’, with: ‘So what caused God?!’ In practice, no Muslim theologian (nor any Jewish or Christian one) has ever asserted this. Rather the theistic belief is: ‘Everything that comes into existence, from non-existence, must have a cause for its existence.’ God, however, did not ‘come into existence’. He necessarily exists. God’s eternal attribute of life is intrinsic to, and inseparable from, His holy Essence.

In principle, it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; or even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. In practice, this must never lead us to believe that Adam had biological parents, or to somehow imagine that he was the offspring of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.

In principle, the sirah teaches us the socio-political importance of forming an “Alliance of Virtue” with non-Muslim seekers of social justice, as per the hilf al-fudul saga. In practice, the sirah also tells us that alliances of this sort must not come at the cost of compromising Islam’s core tenets or blurring the unchangeables. Thus, even as Quraysh’s big whigs put Abu Talib, the Prophet’s dear uncle, between a rock and a hard place, to get his nephew to tone down his message before they forcefully made him do so; and even as the Prophet ﷺ may have been torn between seeing his uncle under such pressure, on the one hand; and his duty not to compromise the message, on the other, we hear this from the nephew to his beloved uncle: ‘I am no more able to stop this [message] as you are to snatch a piece of flame from the sun.’5 And in a popular wording: ‘O uncle, if the sun were placed in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not give up this affair until either God grants me success in it, or I perish in its pursuit.’ The Prophet ﷺ then broke down in tears.6

In principle, Allah’s earth has been made for the whole of humanity’s use and enjoyment, not just for the privileged few: God created for you all that is on the earth. [Q.2:29] And: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For God loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31] In practice, partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we surely may; but partake of them excessively and irresponsibly, or in a way that upsets the balance, we may not: And He has raised the heavens and has set a balance, that you may not upset the balance, but observe the balance and not fall short therein. [Q.55:7-9] Currently we are not doing so well on this score; heading, as we are, to the brink of ecological disaster.

In principle, we are proud to be Muslims; pride born, not of the ego’s arrogance (kibr), but of joyous gratitude for God’s gift of guidance: We would not have been guided had God not guided us. [Q.7:43] For we can rightfully be proud if it’s without the ego; if it is godly and not worldly. In practice, it is rare for such pride to be without ego – even when it relates to pride in Islam’s revealed truths. Al-Ghazali once said: ‘How much blood has been spilt to promote the causes of the masters of the law schools!’7 So whilst truth and the details of ritual correctness are indeed important, it must not be driven by sectarian pride, nor come at the cost of one’s own salvation: ‘Whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise’8 Hence if you know someone has opposed the Book, Sunnah, or ijma‘, ensure that your state is one of gratitude to Allah for your guidance.9 Or better still, let us pray as Imam Ahmad would pray: اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَهُوَ يَظُنُّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ فَرُدَّهُ إِلَى الْحَقِّ لِيَكُونَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْحَقِّ – ‘O Allah, whosoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’10

In principle, we may incline to measured political activism, or to a principled apoliticism; there is leeway in the prophetic Sunnah for either. In practice, if we wish to thrive and not just survive, we must each grow in inward and outward godliness and in practical degrees of worldly detachment (zuhd), in humility, in respecting neighbours and serving the poor; whilst also choosing our battles wisely and fussing less about Islamophobes, not being so antagonistic, seeking to win peoples’ hearts while sincerely working for their welfare.

1. See the article on this blog: Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules – particularly rule 4 & 5.

2. Muslim, no.240.

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

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

5. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.6526, with a hasan chain. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.92.

6. Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 1:303. The chain is missing two successive links between the Prophet and the narrator, Ya‘qub b. ‘Utbah. Hence the chain is da‘if mu‘dal. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.909.

7. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 8:382.

8. Muslim, no.147.

9. See: Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 174.

10. The du‘a is cited in Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1990), 10:329.

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.

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