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The Hanbalis & Merry Christmas: To Greet or Not To Greet?

red-flowers-next-to-candles-1Q. Is it true that Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and classical Hanbali scholars allowed Muslims to offer Christmas greeting to Christians? Based on this, a few fatwas today now allow us to wish our Christian friends, family or colleagues a Merry Christmas. Is this correct?

A. I’ll address the issue of whether Hanbali jurists allowed offering Christmas greetings to Christians (and by extension, congratulating other non-Muslims on their religious festivals) in these following points:

Firstly: Whatever the religious response, it mustn’t undermine the importance of fostering good relationships with non-Muslims, nor the desire to nurture a collective culture of tolerance, conviviality and courtesy: God doesn’t forbid you in terms of those who neither wage war against you on account of your religion, nor drive you from your homes, from being kind to them and treating them justly. God loves the just. God only forbids you from befriending those who fight against you on account of your religion, or drive you from your homes, or aid others in your expulsion. Whoever befriends them, those are the unjust. [Q.60:8-9]

Secondly: We must thank our scholars for their concern to facilitate ease for us, as per our Prophet’s repeated orders ﷺ: bashshiru wa la tunaffiru wa yassiru wa la tu‘assiru – ‘Give glad tidings, do not repel people; make things easy, do not make things difficult.’1 To offer the Muslim masses a more doable, easier fiqh ruling, provided it is a valid one according to the canons of Islamic law, is a sure sign of wise, sagacious scholarship. Imam Sufyan al-Thawri asserted: ‘In our view, knowledge entails issuing a legal concession (rukhsah). As for being strict, anyone can do that.’2 Another more contemporary way of looking at it is expressed in this Muradian Contention: ‘Preaching: this is an age for rukhas, not for ‘aza’im, and for conservatism, not for liberalism.’3

Thirdly: Of course, this method of tabshir and taysir – of facilitating good news and ease must be rooted in solid shari‘ah legal principles. It cannot be a case of bypassing or blurring well-established fiqh rulings. Nor can it be a case of the means justifying the ends. So while: inna’l-dina yusr – ‘Indeed this religion is [one of] ease,’4 we must ensure that the principle of ease does not become one of adulteration. Given the highly complex time we live in, there is bound to be well-intentioned errors from some of the scholars, for which other jurists and theologians must offer them sincere corrective advice. The balance comes to us in this saying of sayyiduna ‘Ali: ‘The scholar is not the one to cause people to despair of God’s mercy, nor to give them licence to sin.’5

Fourthly: As for the actual issue, then over the past decade or so, certain fatwas have been issued allowing Muslims to offer and exchange Christmas greetings with non-Muslims. Some are general in nature, arguing for the permissibility of giving Christmas greeting based on the fact that the Prophet ﷺ exchanged gifts with non-Muslims and encouraged good behaviour towards them. Others add that a Muslim wishing someone a Merry Christmas is done as a matter of custom and cultural goodwill, with no religious overtones intended. It entails no approval (rida) nor acceptance (iqrar) of the correctness of Christianity, for that would undoubtedly be clear disbelief (kufr): They have disbelieved who say: ‘God is Christ, son of Mary.’ [Q.5:72] And: They have disbelieved who say: ‘God is one of three [in a trinity].’ [Q.5:73] Some of these fatwas do make it clear that partaking in actual Christmas celebrations, or getting into the festive mood by having decorations or a Christmas tree, is forbidden.6 Such fatwas that allow Christmas greetings, it should be stressed, have not been without their juristic criticisms, legal deconstructions and fierce scholarly objections.

Fifthly: While such fatwas insist that their scope is limited to giving Christmas greetings, and in no way permit joining in actual celebrations, they also insist that the entire matter of whether to greet, or not to greet, revolves around its legal causation (‘illah): iqrar and rida – in this case, of accepting or approving the validity of the core Christian claim about Jesus’ [alledged] divinity. We are led to believe that classical Muslim jurists, right up until the 9-11 era, when they prohibited offering religious greetings to non-Muslims on their religious holy days and holidays, they did so because these Muslims were doing so out of rida or iqrar, approving the correctness of Christianity, or agreeing to some of its misbeliefs! They say: ‘The All-Merciful has begotten a son!’ You have uttered a monstrous lie at which the skies are ready to burst, the earth to split asunder, and the mountains to fall down in ruins, that they ascribe unto the All-Merciful a son! [Q.19:88-91] Of course, they insist, this is not the intent with which a Muslim offers Christmas greetings today.

Sixthly: A well-known legal maxim says: al-hukm yuduru ma‘a ‘illatihi wujudan wa ‘adaman – ‘The ruling revolves around the presence or absence of its legal causation.’ In other words, if the factor which gives rise to the ruling no longer exists, the ruling no longer stands. A simpler version states: intifa’ al-hukm li intifa’ ‘illatihi– ‘The ruling ends with the absence of its legal causation.’ When applied to the issue of giving Christmas greetings, it has been argued – and for the most part, rightly so – that when Muslims today wish their co-workers or non-Muslim friends or family a Merry Christmas, there is no rida and no iqrar inherent in their greeting; which is something that even a Christian recipient of such a greeting is clear about too. Therefore, it now becomes permissible. The issue thus seems to be done and dusted. But the question which requires asking is: Is rida or iqrar the actual ‘illah to which classical juristic attitudes on the matter were tied?

Seventhly: Let’s begin to tie the issue of ‘illah to whether or not Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal and the classical Hanbali school permitted Christmas greetings? The acclaimed legal theorist (usuli), Shaykh Bin Bayyah, said as part of his reply to the issue of greeting non-Muslims on their celebrations: ‘So there is nothing to prevent an individual Muslim, or an Islamic centre, to congratulate them on this occasion; verbally, or by a card, that doesn’t contain any religious emblem or expression that conflicts with any principle of Islam, such as a cross … Such customary words of congratulations on such occasions don’t entail a consent (iqrar) to their religion, nor any approval (rida) of it. Instead they are words of courtesy that people are [culturally] familiar with.’7

Eighthly: Having said that the basis for its lawfulness is the absence of rida and iqrar, he went on to say: ‘But let’s not forget to mention here that some of the jurists, like Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah and his student, the very learned Ibn al-Qayyim, were staunch in the matter of [Muslims] participating in the festivals of the idolators and the People of the Book. And we are with them in opposing [Muslims] partaking in the religious festivals of the idolators or the People of the Book – just as we observe some heedless Muslims doing in their celebrating Christmas as they celebrate the two Eids; or even more! This is not permitted. We have our celebrations; and they, theirs. But we see no problem in congratulating the people on their religious festivals.’8

Ninthly: The Shaykh brings the Hanbali school into the mix when he states in a postscript to his fatwa: ‘It may be appropriate to add here that greeting non-Muslims is differed upon by the scholars. In the school of Imam Ahmad, there are three reports: prevention, detestability and permissibility. This last stance is the one preferred by Shaykh Taqi al-Din Ibn Taymiyyah; for in it there lies a benefit. And this is what we prefer too.’9 Although not explicitly stated, this suggests that Imam Ahmad allows – in one report from him – congratulating non-Muslims on their religious festivities; and that Ibn Taymiyyah, and other jurists in the school, agree with this. And though some contemporary scholars and shaykhs have uncritically accepted this erroneous claim, propagating it as well, it’s far from being the actual case.

Tenthly: That Imam Ahmad and the Hanbalis differ about congratulating non-Muslims is only in the context of non-religious occasions, such as marriage; the birth of a child; moving into a new house; recovering from illness; etc. As for congratulating them on their religious festivals, they categorically state it is forbidden (haram). Let’s cite from some authoritative Hanbali fiqh manuals on the matter, starting with Ibn Muflih’s al-Mubdi‘ which states the different views: ‘On the legality to greet them, offer condolences to them, or visit them, there are two reports … [First:] it is forbidden … Second: permissibility … Third: allowance for an overriding benefit, like hoping for him to accept Islam; which was chosen by Shaykh Taqi al-Din [Ibn Taymiyyah].’10 So while Imam Ahmad had two views on the matter, the school itself has three.

But when shahadatu a‘yadihim, ‘partaking in their religious festivals,’ is listed, either by itself or in conjunction with what was mentioned above of visiting, sending condolences, and other non-religious activities, it is alway stipulated as forbidden. Mar‘i b. Yusuf’s Ghayat al-Muntaha typifies the point: wa haruma tahni’atuhum wa ta‘ziyatuhum wa ‘iyadatuhum wa shahadatu a‘yadihim – ‘And it is prohibited to greet them, give condolences to them, visit them, or partake in their religious celebrations.’11 Thus whilst worldly interactions are differed upon in the law school (madhhab), the issue of religious celebrations are not.

Eleventhly: As for the legal causation, or ‘illah, that gives rise to the ruling and underpins it, for Hanbalis it is not iqrar or rida. Instead, it is ta‘zim – to ‘laud’, ‘venerate’, ‘honour’, ‘esteem’, or ‘respect’ the occasion or festival; even if one doesn’t agree with the religious basis, and is not confused about the falseness of the Christian creed. Al-Bahuti stated: ‘It is prohibited to initiate [greetings of] salams to them … It is forbidden to congratulate them, offer condolences to them, visit them, or partake in their religious celebrations … However it is not forbidden for us to trade with them during it; i.e. their religious festivals, since it entails no respect (ta‘zim) of it.’12 Al-Futuhi stipulated the same about the forbiddance of taking part in such dini festivals, and the allowance of trading with them on such occasions, adding: ‘Because this doesn’t involve any ta‘zim of them.’13

Lastly, Putting things into context, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Section: Regarding congratulating them for marriage, a newborn, return of someone long absent, recovery from an illness, and the like, then the narrations from Imam Ahmad about this differ. He allowed it at one time, but forbade it another time. Speech about this is like that concerning visiting them or offering them condolences; there is no distinction between these two … But as for congratulating them on those specific times and occasions that are symbols of their disbelief, then this is forbidden by agreement (ittifaq); like congratulating them on their religious festivals or their fasts, saying: “Festive greetings to you,” or “Congratulations on this festival,” or the like. This, even if the one saying it were free from any disbelief, it is still from what is prohibited.’14 Which is to say, even if one did not intend iqrar or rida, or even ta‘zim; but instead congratulated them on the occasion, not for the occasion, it is forbidden, though not disbelief. And Allah knows best.

Conclusion: In reply to the question with which we began: Did Imam Ahmad and the Hanbali madhhab permit Muslims to congratulate others during the Christmas festive season? the answer is, it seems, a definite no! And those who have said otherwise have erred in the matter. For the Hanbalis, the prohibition on the issue isn’t because doing so entails an acknowledgement or approval of Christianity’s correctness. But because it involves a form of respect forbidden by the shari‘ah. We may be respectful of Christians (and other non-Muslims) in that we are civil, affable, tolerant, and just towards them. But we cannot, as Muslims, respect any expression, act or symbol of disbelief (kufr): But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified it in your hearts; and has made abhorrent to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. [Q.49:7]

If the legal causation (‘illah) in the other law schools, or in the view of other classical jurists, is also ta‘zim – as it is in the Hanbali school – then it simply will not be possible to offer Christmas greetings; and the matter will be, as Ibn al-Qayyim noted, a point of juristic agreement; a scholarly consensus (ijma‘) of sorts – and thus binding on one and all!

If, however, other madhhabs or jurists hold that the prohibition is tied just to iqrar or rida, then there might be a leeway in offering Christmas greetings. For whenever there is no scholarly consensus (ijma‘) nor juristic agreement on a matter, then the opinion or verdict of any scholar follows this unspoken rule: kalami mu‘lim laysa bi mulzim: ‘My words are instructional, not dictatorial (lit. not binding).’ In other words, a legitimate difference cannot be imposed upon others, or be made into a benchmark issue to determine who is dodgy or not; let alone for cancel culture to be invoked.

Such an investigation into the other madhhabs – on this point – is beyond the scope of this article, and beyond the ability of this author. It’s not just a case of consulting some comparative law manual (fiqh al-muqarin). For such manuals are – as the Shafi‘i faqih and academic, Shaykh al-Afifi once told me – okay on the broad strokes, but often err on the nuances and finer points, or miss them out altogether. No, in order to ascertain what the madhhabs say on such subtle points of law, one must consult highly seasoned jurists of those schools. So I will leave such an inquiry to others, if it hasn’t already been undertaken.

Wa’Llahu a‘lam wa bihi al-tawfiq.

1. Muslim, no.1732.

2. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1467.

3. Abdal Hakim Murad, Contentions 9/73. Rukhas, the plural of rukhsah, while ‘aza’im is plural of ‘azimah – a “strict” religious ruling: a ruling in its original form, without any attendant reason or circumstance that could soften or ease its original force.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.39.

5. As is recorded by al-Qurtubi, Kitab al-Tadhkirah (Riyadh: Maktabah Dar al-Minhaj, 1425H), 800.

6. Consult: Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta’ fatwa on the issue, which can be read here; and the European Council for Fatwa and Research fatwa (Resolution 3/6), which may be read here.

7. Bin Bayyah, Sina‘at al-Fatwa (Beirut: Dar al-Minhaj, 2007), 341.

8. ibid., 341-42.

9. ibid., 342.

10. Al-Mubdi‘ Sharh al-Muqni‘ (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 2003), 3:325. Also cf. al-Mardawi’s encyclopaedic al-Insaf fi Ma‘rifat al-Rajihi min al-Khilaf (n.p. 1956), 4:234, where he stated that the second report from Imam Ahmad is that it is not forbidden, but disliked.

11. Mar‘i b. Yusuf al-Karami, Ghayat al-Muntaha Jam‘ al-Iqna‘ wa’l-Muntaha (Kuwait: Mu’assasah Ghuras, 2007), 1:489.

12. Al-Bahuti, Sharh Muntaha al-Iradat (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1993), 1:664.

13. Al-Futuhi, Ma‘una Ula al-Nuha Sharh al-Muntaha (Makkah: Maktabah al-Asadi, 2008), 4:458.

14. Ahkam Ahl al-Dhimmah (Dammam: Ramadi li’l-Nashr, 1997), 1:441.

Is Din ‘Private’ Religion & Is Iman ‘Blind’ Faith?

This article revolves around three questions: (1) Does translating din as ‘religion’ imply that it is only a private matter, having nothing at all to do with the public sphere – which is what people usually associate with the term religion? (2) If iman is translated as ‘faith’, does that not suggest it is ‘blind faith’ – which, again, is what many people think when they hear the word ‘faith’; that it is belief without evidence? (3) And what is the type of nazr -“reasoned reflection” – that the Qur’an constantly urges us with, so that people do not have blind faith in God or in the Qur’an?

Back in 2013, I wrote that the theologically correct term for a non-Muslim who becomes a Muslim is a ‘convert’, not a ‘revert’! After all, the Prophet ﷺ, whilst informing us that all people are born on the fitrah (predisposing them to the message of tawhid and Islam), he never actually said to those who became Muslim that, ‘You have re-entered Islam’, or ‘You have become Muslim again’. In other words, you have reverted. Instead, his call to people was simply: aslim – ‘enter into Islam,’ ‘submit,’ ‘become a Muslim’.1 He never asked them to ‘re-enter’ Islam; to revert! Or take the words of Ibn Mas‘ud, may God be pleased with him, when he said: ‘We have not ceased to be strong since the time ‘Umar accepted Islam (mundhu aslama ‘umar).’2 Again, he didn’t say: since the time ‘Umar ‘re-entered Islam’ or ‘reverted back to Islam.’

In the end I said that maybe it doesn’t really matter. Perhaps there’s room in the language for both words: convert and revert (even if the first is theologically correct, and the other is not; and even if it’s the ‘revert posse’ that usually gets all agitated about it). Perhaps it’s just a case of a storm in a teacup?

Here I’ll interrogate two more Islamic terms which, if translated inaccurately or poorly, can lead to great obfuscation or significantly alter the sense of the word. Of course, there are some words which, no matter how painstakingly a translator attempts to render them into good, appropriate English, much will still be lost in translation:

1 – The first one is din. Often translated as ‘religion’, though many Muslims feel that this is a rather inadequate rendering of the word, and that ‘way of life’ would be more in keeping with the inclusiveness the word implies.

In classical Arabic, din means jaza’ – ‘recompense’ or ‘requital’ for acts done. It can also mean obedience (ta‘ah) and humility (dhillah). Islam as a din, therefore, is to obey Allah and to submit to Him in humility. The origin or etymology of the word din also relates to dayn – ‘debt’. In this reading, din is something we owe God by way of worship and loving submission that is due to Him from us.3 The upshot of this is that Islam as din requires believers to order their affairs so that this submission to God is reflected in every aspect of life; from the personal to the political.

Many say that in its etymology, religion comes from the Latin word religare – ‘to bind.’ In this sense, religion is that relationship which binds us to what is regarded as holy, sacred, divine, or worthy of special reverence. It also relates to the way people deal with ultimate concerns about their lives and fate after death.

Given the meaning of din in classical or Quranic Arabic, and the sense that is conveyed by religion in English, religion doesn’t seem such a far-fetched way of rendering the word din into English – if it were not for the following:

Although long in the making, by the twentieth century religion no longer articulated the common social good as it once did. Instead, religion was relegated to the private sphere. This privatisation of faith is now the default assumption when we moderns, at least here in Western Europe, usually speak of religion. Previously, religious expression had been a total one. The Enlightenment’s vision of spheres outside the provenance of religion led to confining religion to a tighter space than it had ever occupied. Some, though, distinguish between ‘catholic’ and ‘protestant’ conceptions of religion. Jonathan Sacks, quoting Ernst Simon, defined as catholic ‘those religions which seek to sanctify all aspects of the life of the individuals and the community – eating, drinking, work, rest, welfare and legislation, love and war.’ ‘Protestant’ religions arose, he says, when significant areas of public life were wrested from religious guidance or authority. ‘Modernity for Jews,’ he writes, ‘meant the protestentisation of a deeply catholic faith.’4 The same may now be said for Islam and Muslims.

The question of whether liberal modernity can accept Religion in other than a ‘protestant’ mould is, despite its commitment to an alleged religious tolerance, one that it has yet to clearly answer. Can ‘catholic’ forms of religion – religions that do not separate the sacred from the secular; ones that claim a right; the duty, even, to order their affairs so that the teachings of faith are reflected in every aspect of life – continue to function and flourish without being spiritually emaciated; or reduced to a toothless tigers; or swiftly be branded as extremists and enemies of the civic order? Religion often involves living life on a wing and a prayer.

To conclude: It might not be necessary to go on an all out campaign against ‘religion’ as a translation for din. But we may have to spell out its ‘catholic’ undercurrents whenever we Muslims guardedly choose to employ it.

2 – The other problematic term is ‘faith’ as a translation for iman. Here, whatever else any Muslim theologian (or even a Christian one, for that matter) intends by the word, faith is now deemed by many to be something ill-founded, irrational, against the evidence; even. Spearheading this charge is Richard Dawkins who insists that ‘religious faith … does not depend on rational justification.’5 In fact, ‘Faith’, he states, ‘requires no justification and brooks no argument.’6 The prevalent mood today is that science is about facts and proof, while religion is about mere opinion or faith – by which is meant: credulity; an inclination to believe without sufficient evidence.

So what is the Islamic definition of iman? And how much does it tally up with the idea of faith? And is faith itself something unreasonable, or devoid of reasonable evidence? Let’s briefly go through them one at a time:

Lexically, iman means tasdiq – to ‘affirm’ or ‘attest to’ the truth, reality or correctness of something. Technically, iman is to affirm as true all that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was sent with, in terms of revelation and religion. Iman, therefore, is a state in which the heart accepts God’s truth and lives by it. Although theologians have differed over the exact link, mainstream Islamic theology, nevertheless, confirms that iman involves an unmistakable correlation between inner beliefs of the heart and outer actions of the limbs.7 Moreover, the deeper and profounder the iman, the greater is the sense of aman – the inner ‘peace’ and ‘security’ gifted by God. Leaving aside its link to actions, it might appear that iman is no different to the current picture of faith as unsubstantiated belief (as per New Atheism’s novel, but reductionist definition), were it not for the following:

The Qur’an says, describing one of the many traumatic laments that those who rejected Islam will have with one another in the Afterlife: And they will say: ‘Had we but listened or used our intelligence, we would not now be among the people of the Blazing Fire.’ [Q.67:10] Anyone who has read the Qur’an, even in a cursory manner, will not have failed to notice its repetitive instance to think, reflect, consider, and use one’s faculty of reason (‘aql): So, for instance, the Qur’an says: Say: ‘I exhort you to one thing: that you awake for God’s sake, in pairs and individually, and then reflect.’ [Q.34:46] So the Qur’an invites people; cajoles them, even, to employ their sense of reason to deliberate over its message: Thus does God make clear to you His signs that you may reason, [Q.2:242], and that they may understand, [Q.6:65]: or that they may reflect, [Q.7:176] So: Will they not reflect? [Q.6:50].

The Qur’an, therefore, doesn’t demand blind faith. Nor does it ask that we accept without some convincing evidence God’s existence or presence in the cosmos. Instead, it asks that we reflect and consider as evidence the nature of the universe and whether it points to an atheistic understanding of the universe by cosmic fluke, or to the existence of a Designer-God who intended for sentient life to emerge in the universe? Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of the night and day, there are signs for those of intelligence. [Q.3:190] Taking a look at the world or at the larger universe, has led many people to conclude that there must be an intelligent, purposeful creator behind it all. This Creator, sound reasoning can tell us, must be eternal; without cause; but is the uncaused cause of all things. The very existence of our universe rather than an eternal nothingness (i.e. that there is something rather than nothing); the emergence of complex, sentient life; let alone the fine tuning of the universe – these offer proof for the existence of a Creator-God. Many scientists, from Newton to Einstein, or John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins in contemporary times, see these aspects of the universe as evidence of a designer. So to claim, as Dawkins and his ilk do, that theistic Religion isn’t rooted in any rational, reason-based evidence is being disingenuous. It’s just not true! For a believer, the entire cosmos is full of shawahid, witnesses, to the awe and splendour of the Divine Existence.

If using our senses and reason to consider the nature of the universe yields some general understanding about God, it is the Qur’an where the rich details are to be found of an All-Merciful, Beneficent God with whom we can seek closeness and loving intimacy. And just as Islam doesn’t require blind faith in God, the Qur’an itself insists that it be interrogated to see if it is really the Word of God: Will they not reflect upon the Qur’an? If it had been from other than God, they would have found therein many contradictions. [Q.4:82] Do they claim: ‘He has invented it?’ No, they have no faith. Let them produce a speech like it, if what they say be true! [Q.52:33-34]

So nowhere does the Qur’an require blind acceptance of it or its fundamental theological tenets. Rather, it insists that people use their God-given sense of reason and ponder over its assertions and truths. And while the final step is, ultimately, a ‘leap of faith’, the actual run up to it is a matter that engages, not just heart and soul, but the faculty of mind and reason too. Indeed, mainstream Sunni theology has honoured this quest for reason-based faith when it says: tajibu ma‘rifatu’Llah ta‘ala shar‘an bi’l-nazr fi’l-wujud wa’l-mawjud ‘ala kulli mukallaf qadir – ‘It is a religious requirement upon ever sane person of legal capacity to know God through reflection upon existents and creation.’8 And while Sunni theology settled on accepting as valid iman that has not come about via nazr, but through taqlid; imitation, the thrust of Islam’s theological project – in order to shake off doubt (shakk) or any skepticism (shubhah) – is towards reflection, reasonable consideration and intelligent inquisitiveness.

The requirement to reflect (nazr) is a casual, general one for those who can only do so in broad outlines, and detailed for those who have the ability to get into the more nitty-gritty stuff. A modern education should allow most people to fall somewhere in the middle. And whilst for some lay Muslims, this theological insistence on nazr is honoured more in the breach than the observance, the principle, nonetheless, remains. If it is not nazr upon the cosmos and the nature of the created order, then the believer is expected to employ such nazr to the Qur’an’s truth claim; or to the profundity, simplicity, honesty and integrity of the Prophet’s life and character ﷺ; or for those who lived during or close to the prophetic age, the Muhammadan miracles that have either been witnessed, or mass transmitted, or reliably heard. Whatever the case, faith is to be based on nazr and the conviction (yaqin) it yields. As for recognising God through the fitrah; one’s innate disposition, then given that the modern world has so radically and literally altered our thinking patterns, habits of the heart, and how we intuit and perceive things, it would be unwise to use that as an excuse not to engage in some level of nazr.

To wind-up: The idea that in Islam one is expected to have ‘blind faith’ doesn’t tally with the revealed texts or the mainstream theological teachings. The challenge for Dawkins et al. is to engage the actual arguments from theistic theology; not a strawman of their own creation. As for the word faith (or belief) as a translation for iman, despite its drawbacks or misrepresentations, I’m not sure what else could be used as a suitable replacement?

1. See: Al-Bukhari, no.1356.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.3684.

3. See: al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 321; and al-Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 1:120-21.

4. Sacks, The Persistence of Faith (London: Continuum, 2005), 4.

5. The God Delusion (London: Bantam Press, 2008), 31.

6. ibid., 308.

7. Cf. Ibn Abi’l-‘Izz, Sharh al-‘Aqidat al-Tahawiyyah (Beirut: Mu’assassah al-Risalah, 1999), 2:505-35; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawhar al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90-103.

8. Ibn Balban, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2015), 94, 143.

Kalam & the Hanbalis: Is It Really Relevant Today?

Often rendered into English as ‘theology’, ‘ilm al-kalam (or kalam, for short) is the science which establishes and elaborates upon matters of doctrine and belief. Because it depends upon reason-based arguments, it is ‘discursive’: hence ‘ilm al-kalam is sometimes referred to as discursive theology. In its more conjectural or philosophical form – a form where it does not play a supportive role to the textual-based conclusions of the Islamic Revelation, but rather infers positions from its own first principles – ‘ilm al-kalam is often referred to as speculative theology. As for those theologians who are practitioners of kalam, they are called mutakallimun.

This article seeks to address four core issues: [1] The position of kalam in Sunni Islam; [2] the Hanbali position[s] concerning it; [3] its pros, cons and true purpose; [4] its relevance, if any, in today’s intellectually, faith challenging milieu – especially in terms of being able to offer cogent, articulate, Islamically-grounded responses to atheism and scientism.

I

1. Kalam (lit. ‘speech’, ‘discourse’) about God, using reasoned-based proofs and rational arguments, found its way into early Muslim thought during the Abbasid period, via Arabic translations of the Greek philosophical legacy; particularly that of Aristotle. The earliest Muslim sect to bring this philosophical reasoning to bear upon certain theological issues was the Mu‘tazilah. Their deviancy was to give primacy to reason – that is, to subordinate the texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, on certain theological matters to do with the nature of God; His Attributes; and free will and predestination, to the dictates of reason. They were known to dismiss, distort or play fast and loose with verses from Revelation or prophetic hadiths, if these didn’t fit in with their Greek-inspired philosophical rationalisations.

2. The early religious authorities, the salaf, recoiled from such kalam, usually with great vehemency. Their opposition to it was unanimous or, according to another reading, close to unanimous. For example, typifying this stiff opposition, Imam al-Shafi‘i stated: ‘We are not people of kalam.1 Also from him: ‘Do not oppose the Imams; for the practitioner of kalam will never prosper!’2 Imam Abu Yusuf stated: ‘Whosoever seeks knowledge by way of kalam shall become a heretic (man talaba’l-‘ilm bi’l-kalam tazandaqah).’3 As for Imam Ahmad, his words on the matter include: ‘The practitioner of kalam shall never prosper; nor do you ever see anyone looking into kalam, save that in his heart is corruption.’4 And: ‘Do not sit with the people of kalam, even if they are defending the Sunnah.’5 This latter saying of Imam Ahmad suggests there was some sort of Sunni kalam in vogue, as opposed to the widespread Mu‘tazilite one that the like of the above salaf-reports were apparently addressing, and that ostensibly he seemed to reject even that.

3. In contrast to a large volley of reports from our early Imams against indulging in kalam, there are a handful of statements from some of them which state that kalam is lawful, so long as it was used to prop-up the conclusions of Revelation and ijma‘ of the salaf, rather than to subjugate, falsify, or twist them. From them is this saying from al-Shafi‘i: ‘Every person of kalam upon the Qur’an and Sunnah possesses diligence; every other upon the foundation of other than the Book and the Sunnah is delirious.’6 After relating this, as well as other comparable words from him, Imam al-Bayhaqi then stated: ‘In these reports is a proof that what is reprehensible of kalam is that which is not rooted in the Book and the Sunnah.’7

4. Imam al-Bayhaqi also wrote: ‘In this is an indication that it is undesirable, according to those of our Imams who stipulated it, to argue via kalam, for the reasons we have shown; and because the reprehensible type of kalam is that of the innovators who oppose the Book and the Sunnah. As for the kalam which conforms to the Book and the Sunnah, and is elucidated rationally and wisely, then such kalam is praiseworthy and desirable when called for. Al-Shafi‘i utilised it, as did others from our Imams – may God be pleased with them – whenever it was needed; and as we have already mentioned.’8

5. The distinction between blameworthy and praiseworthy kalam began to gain traction among the scholars. Eventually, pro-kalam theology prevailed within Sunni Orthodoxy: as represented by the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools of theology. However, there remained a voice of dissent, primarily from the more purist, fideistic Hanbalis/Salafis. This approach ranged from an overall rejection of kalam; to a shy flirtation with it; through to a guarded, tempered acceptance of it.9

6. Those who employed ‘ilm al-kalam contended that in order to confront the arguments of various non-Muslims in the vastly expanding Islamic empire, and to engage with the polemics challenging orthodoxy over the nature of divinity and faith, the rationalising methods of heterodox sects like the philosophers and Mu’tazilites needed to be used so as to rebut them on their own turf. Ibn Khaldun stated about the kalam which came to be associated with Sunni orthodoxy: ‘This is the science which involves arguing in defence of the articles of faith, by using rational proofs, in refuting the innovators who have deviated in their beliefs from those of the salaf and Sunni Orthodoxy (ahl al-sunnah).’10 Of course, even from the pro-kalam viewpoint, there were always individuals who went into excess concerning it, or who sometimes simply lost the actual plot!

7. In asserting what he considered to be the middle ground on the issue of ‘ilm al-kalam, Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani had this to say about it: ‘So fortunate is he who clings to what the salaf were upon and avoids what the latecomers (khalaf) innovated. If he cannot, then let him take from it only that which is required; and let the original way be his intended goal (wa yaj‘al al-awwal al-maqsud bi’l-asalah).’11

II

8. Of all scholarly groupings, the outright rejection of kalam is usually associated with the Hanbalis. Now as prevalent as this notion is, by no means is it the full story. Whilst there is an absolutist, anti-kalam stance amongst Hanbalis, the historical truth of the matter is that there is a pro-kalam stance too. The anti-kalam sentiment is best exemplified by Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, a pillar of the madhhab, who wrote a scathing tract against delving into any sort of kalam, rebutting the Hanbali polymath Ibn ‘Aqil for having done so. In it he wrote, with the usual characteristic hostility of a purist against kalam: ‘As for him [i.e. Ibn  ‘Aqil], his faction consist of the people of kalam. To speak of them is only to censure them, to warn against them, to cause [people] to flee from associating with them, to order abandoning and shunning them, and to abandon looking into their books.’ He then cites Imam Ahmad, al-Shafi‘i and Abu Yusuf in their rebuke of kalam and then he wrote: ‘And Ahmad b. Ishaq al-Maliki declared: “The people of innovations and [false] desires, in the view of our [Maliki] colleagues, are the people of kalam. So every person of kalam is from the followers of false desires and innovations, be he an Ash‘ari, or not. No testimony of his should be accepted. He should be ostracised and punished for his innovation. And if he persists in it, his repentance should be sought.’12 This anti-kalam stance holds that there simply isn’t anything reliable or decisive from Imam Ahmad on the issue to render lawful the deployment of kalam.

9. As for the pro-kalam stance, Ibn Hamdan, one of the leading Hanbali authorities of his age, explained: ‘The science of blameworthy kalam (‘ilm al-kalam al-madhmum) is when the articles of faith (usul al-din) are spoken about using only reason, or contravene clear-cut textual proofs. But if it is spoken about using textual proofs alone, or textual proofs accompanied by reason which supports them, then this is the [true] usul al-din and the path of ahl al-sunnah and its adherents.’13

10. Ibn Muflih, another towering authority of the school, discussed the Hanbali school’s stance on kalam at some length. After quoting an imposing salvo of reports from Imam Ahmad in terms of his dhamm al-kalam, or ‘censure of kalam’, the pro-kalam arguments are then made. Here, Ibn Muflih quotes Ibn Abi Ya‘la as asserting that ‘the correct stance in the madhhab is that the science of discursive theology (‘ilm al-kalam) is prescribed and sanctioned’ so as to refute the innovators. Such was the opinion of a party of the school’s verificationsists (muhaqqiqun), including Qadi Abu Ya‘la and al-Tamimi. He noted how Imam Ahmad himself wrote al-Radd ‘ala’l-Zanadiqah wa’l-Qadariyyah ‘in which he relied upon rational arguments’ to demolish the false ideas of the deviants. Ibn Abi Ya‘la then says: ‘What the earlier scholars held to of Ahmad’s words were abrogated. Ahmad said, as reported by Hanbal: “We used to order silence. But when we were called to the affair, it was incumbent for us to defend it and clarify the matter.”‘14 The ‘affair’ being referred to was the inquisition unleashed against those upon the orthodox belief that the Qur’an is the uncreated Word of God, and his ‘defence’ of it was by using rational-based arguments; in other words, kalam.

11. Now whether Imam Ahmad’s later words abrogate his earlier ones, or whether it’s just a case of contextualising the Imam’s words, is an area of disagreement among pro-kalam Hanbalis. For while a group of them, such as Ibn Abi Ya‘la, held to the view of abrogation, others held to the more preferable view of jam‘; harmonisation. This is the stance which holds that Imam Ahmad employed kalam arguments when he believed there was a need, and refrained from it when he believed there wasn’t. Having cited the above words of Ibn Hamdan, al-Buhuti notes: ‘The statement of Ibn Hamdan is like a harmonisation between the two views [of forbiddance or allowance]; and this is preferable over abrogation. What supports this is the report from al-Marrudhi [that Imam Ahmad said]: “I am not a person of kalam. I do not view kalam in anything except if it be in the Book of Allah, the Hadith of Allah’s Messenger ﷺ, or from any of his companions; may Allah be pleased with them, or one of the tabi‘un. As for other than these, then speech concerning it is not praiseworthy.” Related by al-Khallal.’15 In other words, whatever stands in opposition to the conclusions of the Book, the Sunnah, or a salaf-report, even if it appears to be rationally justifiable, is blameworthy.

12. As for Ibn Taymiyyah, his take on kalam and its nomenclature, as involved and highly complicated as it is, is most likely best represented in this passage from him: ‘The point being is that Ahmad would infer by way of rational proofs about propositions concerning Divinity, provided they were sound. What he censured was whatever opposed the Book or Sunnah, speech without knowledge, or speech [with] innovated meanings in the religion (al-kalam al-mubtadi‘ fi’l-din) … He [i.e. Imam Ahmad] was not averse to – if the meanings of the Book or the Sunnah were known – leaving [textual] terms for other terminologies, if a need for this presented itself. In fact, he did this himself. Rather, what he despised were innovated meanings (al-ma‘ani al-mubtadi‘ah) in this – i.e. in [theological issues] people were arguing about, such as [the nature of] the Qur’an; the Beatific Vision, Pre-Destiny or the Divine Attributes – except what conforms to the Book, the Sunnah, or reports from  the sahabah or tabi‘un.16 Ibn Taymiyyah’s point is that using kalam terminology is risky. For while the correct sense of the meanings may be established, such terms all too easily lend themselves to notions that are false, ambiguous, or inappropriate for God; or are at odds with established texts or salaf-reports. His main contention appears to be with the kalam conception of hulul al-hawadith – that contingencies do not indwell in the Divine Essence, and how such an ambiguous turn of phrase, whilst perfectly sound from one angle (that nothing created subsists in God and that God’s attributes aren’t created), is used to negate those acts of God he designates as af’al al-ikhtiyariyyah – “God’s chosen acts:” in that God acts, creates and speaks as He wills, whenever He wills.

13. So what conclusion can we draw about the Hanbali school’s view about ‘ilm al-kalam? Well the obvious one is that the school doesn’t have a single, unified stance. The reason is that the various reports concerning Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal’s attitude towards kalam lead to vastly different conclusions. Undoubtedly, there is his clear condemnation of it; and yet there are words from him that permit it. And then there is his al-Radd ‘ala’l-Jahmiyyah, a slim tract refuting certain innovators; not just with textual proofs, but with rational based arguments to support the textual assertions. Taking all of this into consideration, the later leading Hanbali authorities – particularly those whose manuals, commentaries and super commentaries of fiqh have now become the standard, relied-upon texts for teaching and fatwas over the past six hundred years – tended to adopt the view that ‘ilm al-kalam was lawful and legislated. Its role, however, was not as a discoverer of truths, but as a rational support to those axiomatic creedal truths found in Revelation. Ibn Hamdan’s 7th Islamic century Nihayat al-Mubtadi’in fi Usul al-Din has found widespread acceptance among the cream of Hanbali scholars – such as Ibn Muflih, al-Mardawi, al-Hajjawi, al-Buhuti and al-Safarini – and has been authoritatively cited by them. The same hold for its abridgement, Qala’id al-‘Iqyan, by Ibn Balban in the 11th century.17

III

14. Before discussing how relevant the ‘ilm al-kalam project is for today, let me address its role in the pre-modern Muslim scholastic period, as explained by non other than Imam al-Ghazali. As a sort of epilogue to his Jerusalem Creed, al-Ghazali outlines the pros and cons of kalam, explaining that the Islamic ‘aqidah which Muslims should know is not the same as kalam theology – which is there to support the ‘aqidah and protect it from heresies. He explained: ‘In it there is benefit and harm. As for its benefit, in those situations where it is beneficial it is ruled lawful, recommended or obligatory according to the circumstances. As for its harm, it is forbidden whenever and for whoever it is harmful. Its harms are that it creates doubts and unsettle beliefs, which [then] no longer rest of certitude and resolute conviction. This is something which happens at the outset, and there is no guarantee that he will ever win it back through [rational] proofs; for it differs from person to person. This, then, is its harm to sound beliefs.’18 The believer, yearning above all else to seek the Face of God, will pay this matter much heed.

15. Continuing the theme of kalam’s potential harms, the Imam said: ‘It has another harm, [namely] it hardens the beliefs of the heretics (al-mubtadi‘ah) in their heresy (bid‘ah) and strengthens it in their hearts, in that it riles them up and increases their resolve to persist in it. Such harm, however, arises from bigotry born of argumentation. This is why you see the ordinary, unlearned heretic (al-mubtadi‘a al-‘ammi) quickly dissuaded from his belief through gentleness, unless he has been raised in a place where argumentation or zealotry are rife; in which case if all mankind, from the first to the last, united together to remove it from his heart, they would be unable to. For desire, zealotry and contempt for his rivals or opponents so grip his heart, and thus blinds him to the truth … Such is the fatal disease that plagues cities and people; the sort of corruption caused by partisan disputation. This also is its harm.’19 In light of that, there’s little we can do save to seek Allah’s refuge from our self-serving egos masquerading as truth-seekers!

16. On the benefits of kalam, the Ghazalian insight may come as a surprise to some: ‘As for its benefit, it might be expected that it is to uncover truths and to know them as they truly are. If only that were so! Kalam theology is simply unable to fulfill this noble aim, and it probably confuses and misguides more than it reveals or teaches. If you had heard this from a hadith scholar or hashawi-literalist, you might have thought: “People are an enemy to what they don’t know.” So hear this instead from one highly versed in kalam; who left it after gaining mastery of it; who plunged its depths as far as any theologian can; who then went onto immerse himself in other sciences closely related to kalam, before realising that the path to the realities of gnosis (haqa’iq al-ma‘rifah) was barred from this angle. By my life, kalam theology is not void of revealing, defining or clarifying some issues, but it does so rarely, and about matters that are already evident or that could probably be understood without delving into the art of kalam at all. Rather, it has one single benefit: to guard the common man’s creed that we have just outlined [in the Jerusalem Creed], and protect it by way of argument from the misgivings of heretics. For the common man is weak and can be unsettled by a heretic’s argument, even if corrupt. Yet something corrupt may be rebutted with something [less] corrupt; whereas people are only responsible for the creed we have previously outlined.’20

17. In Muslim Spain, some two centuries after al-Ghazali, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi (a celebrated Maliki jurist, legalist and exegist) felt that he could speak to the role of kalam theology in these terms: ‘As for the heretics, their words mustn’t be related, nor are their arguments to be rehearsed: unless their is a need for it. In which case, one may occupy themselves with rebutting them, just as ‘Ali and Ibn ‘Abbas did when the matter of the Khawarij began to spread. This is what called the leading mutakallimun, such as Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, Abu Bakr b. al-Tayyib, and others; may God have mercy upon them, to speak about this when the various heretical sects arouse in their time. But as for our age, God has relieved us of this duty since they [the heretical sects] do not exist; especially in the lands of West Africa and Andalusia. Hence in our time, their views should not be turned to, nor made to cross any heart or ear, because it is harmful, and without any benefit. For the potential benefits of refuting them is meaningless in their absence. For the harms it contains, of falling into the forbidden, opposing the salaf, or darkening the heart, are all present and possible for whoever concerns himself with it.’21 Or to put it another way, Ibn Juzayy is insisting that kalam theology is a medicine that must be administered at the right time, and in the right dosage. In the absence of an illness, there simply is no need to administer a remedy. To do so would be pointless; more than that, might it not actually create an illness where there was none before? What is also worth remembering is that while discursive arguments no doubt have their place, sometimes one just needs to listen to the inner voice of conscience or fitrah in terms of intuiting or feeling the presence of God.

IV

18. This brings us nicely on to our final concern: Does kalam theology have any relevance today? And if so, what? Well obviously we live in an age where false beliefs and heresies abound everywhere, and most Muslims are exposed to them from a very early age. Islands of Andalusian cocoons that Ibn Juzayy spoke of no longer exist. There isn’t a meaningful place called “the Muslim world;” and if there is, it has been so diluted and distorted with alien ideas, ideologies and attitudes so as to render the very idea defunct. Of course, there are individual Muslim minds and hearts that mostly reside in majority Muslim countries and societies. But even if such societies did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, they have been far less critical of the philosophical propositions modernity insists on. And this is the deeper concern for any continued, authentic sense of Muslimness. As for Muslims living in the West, in one sense, their faith-based dilemmas are acuter still. And so it must be that every Muslim should acquaint themselves with the sound Islamic creed or ‘aqidah; the correct set of Islamic beliefs each Muslim is mandated by the religion to know and to hold. To assume that just because one is Muslim, that one already knows all this stuff will, in all likelihood, be a blunder of seismic proportion!

19. The best way to do the above is through an intelligent and informed manner. And this is by either embarking upon a very short study of an authoritative ‘aqidah text which has met with continued scholarly approval throughout the centuries, or by reading such an ‘aqidah text by oneself, asking a qualified scholar for any further clarifications one may have. The objective isn’t to become a fully-fledged theologian, or to dive into debates and disputations with other Muslims. But rather to meet our Lord and Maker with sound belief concerning God, His prophets, scripture, pre-decree and faith. The Jerusalem Creed has already been mentioned. An even more accepted text, for layman and scholar alike, is the Tahawiyyah Creed. The idea is to keep it short and simple so as to know as a minimum the beliefs one is personally obliged to know. One just revisits or revises this creed on a yearly basis, in order to keep it all intact or dust any cobwebs off.

20. One highly relevant thing to come out of the kalam project, and of theology in general, is that ‘aqidah has three levels. There’s what can be called [i] Essential ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that are the dividing line between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr); beliefs that are indispensable to hold, as well as beliefs one cannot possibly hold, so as to be Muslim. Such beliefs come under the rubric of: al-ma‘lum min al-din bi’l-darurah – ‘things that are known by necessity to be part of the [Islamic] religion’; and about which – unless one is a recent convert, or a Muslim raised outside a Muslim family or society – ignorance brooks no excuse. [ii] Orthodox ‘aqidah: These are beliefs that form a boundary between rightly-guided orthodoxy, and heresy; beliefs that, when one comes to reliably know of them, one is required to accept it. Prior to that, one may be excused for not knowing them. One who rejects such a belief, due to the knowledge not being clear to him, or inaccessible to him, or because it is something beyond what one is reasonably expected to understand, yet he stills holds to Islam’s essential beliefs, is a Muslim – albeit perhaps a heretical Muslim; but Muslim nonetheless. [iii] Personal ‘aqidah: beliefs that theologians legitimately differ over. Such beliefs, regardless if one holds one view or the other; or refrains from taking a position, has no bearing at all on one’s piety, orthodoxy, or ultimate standing with God.22

21. A greater recognition of such distinctions would bring about greater tolerance among Muslims. Teachers of Islamic theology are duty bound to explain that while orthodoxy is doubtlessly the ‘aqidah of ahl al-sunnah wa’l-jama‘ah; i.e. what Sunnis believe, only some of their issues speak to the difference between iman and kufr: the rest are matters which other Muslims may disagree with, yet still remain Muslim. Such was the pious caution of our past Imams, that whilst they would have no problem judging a particular belief to be actual disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs clearly warranted it, they would be extremely cautious to the nth degree about making takfir upon a specific individual who held such a belief. Al-Dhahabi relates by way of al-Bayhaqi; who relates from Abu Hazim al-‘Abdawi; that Zahir b. Ahmad al-Sarkhasi said: ‘When death came to Abu’l-Hasan al-Ash‘ari, in my home in Baghdad, he called me and so I came to him, and he said: “Be my witness, I do not declare anyone a disbeliever who prays towards the qibla. For each directs themselves to the One whom alone is worshipped, while all of this [kalam controversy] is but different expressions.”’ Al-Dhahabi then stated: ‘This is my religious view [too]. So too, our shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah, who used to say in his last days: “I do not declare anyone of this ummah to be a disbeliever,” and he would relate that the Prophet ﷺ said: “No one but a believer [faithfully] performs ablution”23 [and then say]: “Thus whoever regularly attends prayers with ablution is a Muslim.”‘24

22. After affirming God’s utter perfection and transcendence above every imperfection or need, where kalam theology really comes into its stride is in furnishing us with proofs for what is rationally necessary (wajib), possible (mumkin) or impossible (mustahil) for God; especially proofs for the necessary existence of God. In its simplest, bare bone form, the kalam cosmological argument goes like this: [i] All that begins to exist must have a cause for its existence. [ii] The universe began to exist. [iii] Therefore the universe must have a cause for its existence. One can rationally infer from the conclusion to the above syllogism that this Cause must be uncaused; omnipotent; possessed of intelligence, knowledge and volition; different to the stuff of the universe; not subject to the material existence of time or space, and therefore immaterial. In other words, this uncaused Cause is God! Eminent Muslim theologians aside, great rational minds in our time continue to uphold the kalam argument for God’s existence, with great philosophical craft and gusto. The most famed of them being Dr. William Lane Craig who defends it from contemporary criticism in his The Kalam Cosmological Argument. If we add to this kalam assertion, evidence from the fine tuning of the universe; and modern cosmology – as in notable works like Martin Rees’ Just Six Numbers, Keith Ward’s God, Chance & Necessity, or John C Lennox’s God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? – there are powerful reasons to believe in the God of Abrahamic monotheism, and that science actually points to theism rather than atheism. Given that in today’s world, atheistic philosophies like naturalism and scientism continue to challenge or erode the essential belief of many Muslims, more than do the heresies of the Mu‘tazilah or the Jahmiyyah, such books are far more relevant and needed for a defence of theism, or to shore up one’s personal faith, than are classical works of kalam theology.

23. Since there are some critiques of the kalam argument’s two premises – that everything that came into existence must have a cause for its existence, and that the universe had a beginning – let’s briefly address them. One objection to the first premise asks: What is the proof that every contingent thing needs a cause? Obviously there’s no directly measurable or observable proof when it comes to the universe’s beginning. It’s not like we can create the event again and then watch it. However, it is a rational first principle that something cannot come from nothing: out of nothing, nothing comes. It is a truth that we rationally intuit if we give it some reasoned thought. Moreover, if something can come into being without a cause, then why doesn’t just anything or everything come into being without a cause? Why doesn’t money, MacBooks or Muhammad Ali pop into being out of nothing? Even quantum particles that appear to pop in and out of existence from nothing, actually come from something: a quantum vacuum that is teeming with virtual particles. Again, as we observe the natural world, we see that things don’t just pop into existence uncaused from nothing. We proceed on the well-observed, empirically established basis that things that begin to exist have causes. This conviction lies at the heart of the scientific method. Without it, one couldn’t or just wouldn’t do science! For if things didn’t have causes, why investigate them or try to connect the dots? The second premise has a lot of solid science behind it, in terms of the expanding universe; the Big Bang; or the microwave background radiation left over from it. Scientists feel, that despite certain gaps in their knowledge, or despite things needing to be ironed out in the overall theory (like the arbitrary inflation of the early cosmos, or justifying the current rate of expansion), they are on reliable grounds about the universe coming into existence after not existing. Thus, since both the premises are valid, the conclusion is true: the universe had a cause which needs explaining. Every other inquiry must play second fiddle to this meta question of cause. So while an atheist will have to find fault with this line of reasoning, it would be absolutely untrue to say that theistic belief, such as Islam’s, has no proof or basis; that it’s all just blind faith!

24. To conclude: As intellectual attacks on Islam increase; as universal literacy gets closer to the horizon; and as ever more people seek answers from Islam for a variety of reasons, there is a need for intelligent, articulate, Islamically-rooted answers – especially in terms of rational coherence, scientific literacy and liveable relevancy. Blind imitation of ethnic Islam will become less relevant to people, and even less capable of fulfilling intellectual and spiritual needs. As for well-written dialectical critiques of modernity’s philosophical premises, assumptions and conclusions; or addressing attacks on religion from scientism or other modern, atheistic philosophies, books that come to mind which are well suited to this task include: Gai Eaton’s King of the Castle, Huston Smith’s Beyond the Post Modern Mind, Jonathan Sack’s The Persistence of Faith and Abdal Hakim Murad’s recent Travelling Home. Such works are required reading for this epic duty, in a way scholastic works from pre-modern times obviously are not.

25. In respect to the traditional goals of kalam theology – defining the content of what is and is not faith, demonstrating its harmony with logic and sound reason, and furnishing arguments to  help be personally convinced about it – this is as relevant today as it was in past times. In that spirit and enterprise of classical kalam theology, Muslim theologians in our day and age have a three-fold collective duty (fard kifayah): Firstly, they must continue to establish proofs for the existence of God, in a way that resonates with the contemporary science-shaped mind; using arguments from necessity, design, and fine tuning. Secondly, they must respond to scientism, as it brashly theologises away belief in God, strengthens its totalitarian monopoly on what constitutes knowledge, and elevates presuppositions of naturalism to ultimate truths; without evidential proof. Thirdly, to continue to promote tolerance between Muslims, in terms of what beliefs form the dividing line between belief and disbelief. Let me end with Nuh Keller’s words that ‘one of the most important lessons that the history of kalam can teach; that if Muslims cannot expect to agree on everything in matters of faith, they can at least agree on the broad essentials, and not to let their differences descend from their heads to their hearts.’25

And God alone is the Granter of guidance and grace.

1. Quoted in al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam wa Ahlihi (Madinah: Maktabah al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam, 1996), 6:102; no.1161.

2. ibid., 6:109; no.1172.

3. As per Ibn Qutaybah,Ta’wil Mukhtalif al-Hadith (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1999), 113; al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Sharafu Asahab al-Hadith (Cairo: Maktabah Ibn Taymiyyah, 1996), no.2.

4. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), 942; no.1796.

5. Ibn al-Jawzi, Manaqib Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Hajr, 1984), 210.

6. Al-Bayhaqi, Manaqib al-Shafi‘i (Cairo: Dar al-Turath, 1970), 1:470.

7. ibid.,1:470.

8. ibid.,1:468.

9. The views of the Hanbali scholars, and a birds-eye view of Imam Ahmad’s own stances on ‘ilm al-kalam, is presented in the second section.

10. Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddamah (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1998), 440.

11. Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Cairo: Dar al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), 16:251.

12. Tahrim al-Nazr fi Kutub al-Kalam (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutuib, 1990), 41-42.

13. Kitab Sifat al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Sumay‘i, 2015), 225-6.

14. Ibn Muflih, al-Adab al-Shar‘iyyah (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1996), 1:219-29.

15. Al-Buhuti, Hawashi al-Iqna‘ (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Rushd, 2004), 1:459-60.

16. Dar’ Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Saudi Arabia: Jami‘ah al-Imam Muhammad b. Sa‘ud al-Islamiyyah, 1991), 7:155.

17. Ibn Balban’s Qala’id al-‘Iqyan was republished in a fine critical edition (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), with a rich and exhaustive commentary. The commentary cites copiously from the likes of the above Hanbali jurist-theologians on each issue. Moreover, an English translation of the text of the Qala’id, with the accompanying Arabic, is given in: J. Starling (tr.), Qala’id al-Iqyan, n.p. 2020.

18. Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 1:354.

19. ibid., 1:354-55.

20. ibid., 1:355-56.

21. Al-Nur al-Mubin fi Qawa‘id ‘Aqa’id al-Din (Tunis: Dar Imam Ibn ‘Arafah, 2015), 111.

22. Refer to my 2013 article, Takfir: Its Dangers & Rules, particularly rules nos.6-10.

23. Ahmad, Musnad, no.22433.

24. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 15:88.

25. Nuh Keller, Islam and Kalam. It is an admirable essay, one from which I have greatly benefitted in writing this article.

Do We Muslims Have the Right to Not Pray, Fast or Wear Hijab?

RightsQ. Does a Muslim have a right to choose whether to pray, fast, financially maintain family, or wear hijab?

A. A Muslim may indeed decide not to pray. But do they have a “right” to choose not to pray? Well, not really.

A Muslim man may decide not to maintain his family and dependents. But does he have a “right” to choose not to maintain them? Again, of course not.

A Muslim women may decide not to wear the hijab. But does she actually have the “right” to choose not to do so? Again, by no means.

In fact, the Holy Qur’an says about such matters: وَمَا كَانَ لِمُؤْمِنٍ وَلاَ مُؤْمِنَةٍ إِذَا قَضَى اللَّهُ وَرَسُولُهُ أَمْرًا أَنْ يَكُونَ لَهُمْ الْخِيَرَةُ مِنْ أَمْرِهِمْ وَمَنْ يَعْصِ اللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُ فَقَدْ ضَلَّ ضَلاَلاً مُبِينًا – It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by Allah and His Messenger, to have any choice about their decision: whoever disobeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly strayed into manifest error. [Q.33:36]

To imagine that we Muslim have a “right” to choose in those matters that Revelation has clearly made the choice for the believer is, as far as knowledge and faith are concerned, both incorrect and infantile. We simply do not have the “right” to disobey God!

Of course, some may use phrases such as: “It’s my choice to pray or not,” or “I will choose whether I wear hijab or not,” to simply mean that they should not physically be forced to comply with God’s commands, but should be given space or time to grow in surrender, commitment and obedience to God. In this case, such people should indeed be helped, encouraged and be given space. 

This post isn’t speaking to such people who, in principle, believe and respect God’s sacred rulings, but who may struggle to live up to some of those duties in practice. 

It isn’t even addressing those who believe in the revealed laws, but who – out of buckling under social pressure; or feeling a need to compromise; or being embarrassed or unable to wisely state revealed truths as they are; or other such human frailties – fudge issues of Islam and blur the lines between halal and haram, in order not to bring down scorn or criticism upon themselves.

Rather, the post addresses those who imagine they have the God-given “right” to choose to reject God-given laws, after such laws are made clear. For what faith can there be if one believes their alleged personal “right” can ride roughshod over God’s Right!

If our egos, desires or weakness gets in the way of fulfilling God’s Right – yet still believe such an act (like prayer or hijab) is indeed part of God’s Right, then faith is still present. But we are sinful and have a duty to desist, repent and reform. 

If, however, a person believes such acts are indeed obligated by Islam, yet still insist they have a choice whether to believe in them being obligations or not, then this isn’t just a lapse in religious observance; as with the above case. It is an actual lapse in faith itself!

And while the post isn’t an incitement for people to start declaring specific individuals to be unbelievers or apostates (the scholarly maxim here is: “Not everyone who commits disbelief becomes a disbeliever because of it”). It is a reminder of how grave such words are about having “the right to choose” not to pray, fast, wear hijab, or accept other clear-cut, agreed upon and well-known obligation and prohibition of Islam.

We ask Allah to guide and protect us, and when we’re wrong that He gently correct us.

Man, Universe & Macro Theology: Created in God’s Image

Apart from being story-telling creatures, we humans are also meaning-seeking creatures. Once we’re fed, clothed and sheltered, we have an inner tendency to want to find purpose and meaning in things. No matter how much we’re surrounded by comforts, or how much our needs and wants are catered for, we have an innate drive and hunger to find meaning; especially in terms of life’s meaning and purpose. This article addresses the heart of such thirst, by explaining how Islam says everything came to be, and why? That is, we will do a bit of macro theology so as to get an idea of Islam’s bigger cosmic picture:

The meaning-seeking drive in us humans can be seen in the following hadith report: Abu Razin once inquired: O Messenger of Allah ﷺ, where was our Lord before He created the creation? He replied: ‘He was in obscurity [lit. clouds] (kana fi ‘ama), with no wind (hawa) below Him and no wind above Him, and He created His Throne over the water.’1

In another hadith, we are presented with a somewhat more elaborate account of the great cosmic ‘How’ and ‘Why’ questions – how did we, and all of this stuff around us, get here; and why are we here? We read about the how question:

‘Imran b. Husayn relates: I was once sitting with the Prophet ﷺ when some people from the tribe of Tamim came to him. He then said to them: ‘Receive the good news, O tribe of Tamim.’ They said: You have given us good news, so grant us [something else]. Just then, some people from Yemen entered, so he said: ‘Receive the good news, O people of Yemen, for the tribe of Tamim did not accept it.’ They responded: We accept it! We have come to you in order to become versed in the religion, and to ask you concerning what was the beginning of this affair? He ﷺ answered: ‘Allah was, and there was nothing before Him. His Throne was over the water, He then created the heavens and earth and wrote down everything in the Register [the Preserved Tablet].’2

It has also been recorded with the following wording: ‘Allah was, and there was nothing other than Him.’3 Which suggest that Allah, the Creator, had not as yet created anything. He then created the water, Throne, Pen, Preserved Tablet, the heavens and the earth, and all things in them. There’s also this hadith to add to the jigsaw puzzle: ‘Allah decreed the measure of all things fifty thousand years before He created the heavens or the earth; and His Throne was over the water.’4

What empirical evidence has allowed us to understand is that the creation of the heavens and the earth wasn’t an instantaneous event, but instead it was a long drawn out process spanning aeons. Currently, the best scientific model we have that describes the origin and growth of our universe is the Big-Bang theory. As science goes, it’s a fine and exhilarating piece of detective work, the outlines of which go something like this:

In 1927, George Lemaitre, whilst studying Einstein’s new theory of relativity and gravity, deduced that if the theory was right (and there had been good evidence for it since 1919), then our universe was not static (as people had believed since the time of the early Greek philosophers). Rather it was expanding! Unfortunately, he had no empirical data to prove this, so his idea was ignored. Even Einstein felt uneasy about endorsing this implication of his general theory of relativity.

By 1929, we learnt that galaxies were rushing apart from each other at incredible speeds, thanks to the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble. Lemaitre used Hubble’s observations as clear proof for his theory of an expanding – not an eternal, unchanging – universe.

By 1931, Lemaitre explored the consequences of an expanding universe and proposed that the universe must have originated at a finite point in time. He argued that if the universe is expanding, it must have been far smaller in the past. If we keep rewinding the cosmic clock, going further and further back in time, our universe would have been smaller and smaller still. So much so, that there must have been a point in time when all of the matter and energy in the universe must have been densely packed together in a single point – the “primeval atom” as he called it – which then exploded, giving birth to time and space and the expansion of the universe. Lemaitre also proposed that there should be some leftover heat from the Big-Bang, which would have rapidly cooled with the expansion, to leave our universe with an overall uniform temperature. This Belgian priest-cum-astronomer would have to wait some decades before he was proven correct about the heat left over from the birth of the universe.

Ironically, in a 1949 broadcast for BBC Radio, the English astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term “the Big Bang” for that initial cosmic explosion. The irony being that Hoyle did not believe in Lemaitre’s theory. Hoyle was an ardent believer in the Steady State theory of the universe: i.e. the universe was static, wasn’t expanding, and had existed from eternity. The term, however, caught on and stuck.

The deal-sealer came in 1964, when two American radio-astronomers Penzias and Wilson stumbled across the cosmic background heat, or radiation. This radiation was acting as a source of excessive noise in a radio receiver they were building. Despite taking all possible steps to eradicate this strange buzzing sound; even removing some nesting pigeons from the antenna, the noise still persisted. Again by sheer chance, they learned that a group of Princeton astrophysicists were researching for means to detect the residual radiation left over from the Big Bang. As it happened, the radiation detected by Penzias and Wilson was the very same Cosmic Background Radiation that earlier astronomers and physicists had predicted, and which the researchers were looking for. This accidental discovery, along with the fact that our universe is expanding, put the big bang theory firmly on the map, as well as make history.

Currently, astrophysicists and cosmologists put the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years old. The planets in our solar system, including our own, are around four and a half billion years old. Although there are a few alternative models that attempt to explain the genesis and growth of the universe, none have as wide an acceptance as the big bang theory.

One last matter. Merely because we now have a good scientific model which explains the mechanism behind the universe’s origins, it doesn’t mean that there was no agent behind the birth of the universe. To think otherwise would be like believing that just because we know the inner workings of an iPhone, that there was no Steve Jobs as the agent behind that tech. Which is to say, knowing the mechanism, doesn’t negate there being an agent behind it. So having discussed a bit about the mechanism that got the universe going, let’s talk about the Agent behind it and why the universe and us are here:

That Allah kana fi ‘ama – was in some kind of veiled or clouded obscurity before creating creation – ties in with a very popular hadith, usually found in sufi literature, which is the “Hidden Treasure” hadith. This is the hadith that ascribes the following words to Allah: ‘I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation to make Myself known; they then knew Me.’ According to the hadith specialists, however, this hadith is a fabrication.

In his compendium of hadith forgeries, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari wrote: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah asserts: “These are not the words of the Prophet ﷺ, and nor does it have any chain, be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani state the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as was explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’5 This echoes the Qur’an when it says: Allah it is who created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [Q.65:12] The point being made here is that Allah can only be worshiped after knowing Him. Which is why He created the heavens, earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness, divinity, glory, majesty and might.

An even more wondrous way that promotes li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah – is the way in which Allah made Man. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Now Allah manifested some of His tremendous power and astounding wisdom through righteous humans – via prophets and saints – in ways He hasn’t done so, not even via angels. For He united in the former, qualities that are dispersed throughout the other types of creation. So Allah created man’s physical body from the earth, while his spirit (ruh) was created from the Highest Assembly of Angels. That is why it is said: “Man is a microcosm, but contains the macrocosm (huwa al-‘alam al-saghir huwa nasakhah al-‘alam al-kabir).”’6 If we add to this the fact that we’re divinely designed with a spiritual heart (qalb) that can truly know Allah and can yearn to seek intimacy with Him, and an intellect that above all other creatures can grasp Allah’s signs and infer their meanings, then each of us are endowed with the potential to be what we are called upon to be: knowers, worshippers and lovers of God!

Profounder still is what our Prophet ﷺ taught us about Man in this next hadith: ‘Indeed Allah created Adam in His own image.’7 As to what this theomorphic nature of the human creature actually is, our ‘ulema have a few views concerning this:8

One view holds that the word “image” (surah) refers to: “attributes,” like hearing, seeing, knowledge and speaking. In other words, Adam, upon whom be peace, was created with certain attributes Allah also describes Himself with; although the attributes of the former are created and imperfect, whilst Allah’s attributes are eternal, perfect and absolute; and bear no resemblance or likeness to any of the creation, save in name: There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing. [Q.42:11]

A second view has it that what is intended by “image” is Adam, peace be upon him, being created in a direct way by Allah, without the usual human birth process; and that he was endowed with the same form or image on earth, as he had in Paradise.

A third opinion simply insists in issues like this: amirruha kama ja‘a bila kayf – ‘Let it pass as it came, without inquiring into how.’ Most of the early believers accepted such hadiths (or verses) concerning Allah’s attributes on trust, and were content to leave any apparent anomaly or mystery unexplained. In fact, a number of early scholars have cited an actual consensus, or ijma‘, on this approach.9

All this is with the assumption that the pronoun in ‘ala suratihi – “in his image” – returns back to Allah, and not to another human; as held by some. Such are the opinions offered to explain the intent behind the words: ‘Allah created Adam in [H]is own image’ or, as per the hadith (if sound): ‘Do not say [to another]: “May Allah disfigure your face;” for the son of Adam was created in the image of the All-Merciful.’10

This theomorphic nature of having been created in His image finds its practical expression in another spiritual principle of the faith: takhalluqu bi akhlaqi’Llah – “Adorn yourselves with the qualities of God[liness]” Although it is not a hadith by any stretch, it forms a core aspect of Islam’s spiritual ethics.11 Imam al-Suyuti explains that: ‘Its meaning is to adorn oneself with praiseworthy attributes and rid oneself of the blameworthy ones. Its meaning isn’t that we [try to] usurp any of the divine attributes.’12 Teasing it out a little more, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:

‘He [i.e. Allah] is compassionate and loves those who are compassionate; merciful to His servants who show compassion. He conceals [faults] and loves those who cover the faults of His servants. He is clement and love those who pardon; forgiving and loves those who forgive; gentle and loves those who are gentle to others. But He is angered by those who are rude, rough or hard-hearted. He is companionable and loves companionship [among people]; forbearing and loves forbearance; good and loves goodness and its doers; just and loves justice. He loves to accept excuses and loves those who excuse others. Thus He recompenses His servant inasmuch as these attributes are present or absent in him.’13

It may likewise be said that we are something or nothing inasmuch as such attributes are present or absent in us. The Holy Qur’an teaches us that we are obliged to choose between being something or being nothing! Created, according to the hadith, in Allah’s image – a theomorphic being – our natures are such that we, above all creatures in this vast cosmos, can reflect, as in a mirror, the names or attributes of our Lord. In practice, it means that the believer’s heart should be like a mirror; such that when God gazes at it, He sees – as it were – His own reflection!

To sum-up: There was Allah, He that is One, and nothing else was with Him; and He was as yet unknown. He then created creation in order to be known. First came the water, Pen and Throne (though not necessarily in that order), and then the heavens and earth. Long ages passed as the heavens and the earth took form; and as the earth was being prepared to receive Man. Such was the jewel in the crown of the divine plan. So when the time was right, and what was destined for Adam and his wife overtook them, they were both sent down to earth to dwell therein: to live, cultivate and to bring forth new life in the reverent worship, knowledge, and gratitude of God.

Being a theomorphic creature, made in His image, the divine hand made of man a work of art. The human soul, when purified of its ego and opposition to the divine will; and when enrobed in the akhlaq of Allah, becomes the highest embodiment of beauty in the created order, reflecting something of the Divine Beauty. For the goal of Islam’s spiritual path is not to acquire the attributes of divinity, but to embrace our full humanity. And this is done by being steered by the attributes of Lordship and making Allah’s acts the basis for one’s own. Such is the implication of our theomorphic nature.

To be something, or nothing: that seems to be the question. Whether to grow and nurture our theomorphic potential and be lifted to a station loftier than that of angels, or to live in pursuits of whims, desires and distractions and thus sink to the lowest of the low, is the choice before each of us. All other concerns must surely take a lower priority?

Wa’Llahu’l-hadi ila sawa’ al-sabil.

1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3109, who graded it hasan.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.7418.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.3191.

4. Muslim, no.2653.

5. Al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 18:122.

6. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 11:96.

7. Al-Bukhari, no.6227; Muslim, no.2841.

8. Consult: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), no.3928; al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Damascus: al-Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), no.2559, 8:167-68; no.6227, 19:6-7.

9. See the article on this blog: Doctrine of the Divine Attributes.

10. Ibn Abi ‘Asim, Kitab al-Sunnah, no.517; and al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.13580. Despite the narrators being highly reliable (thiqah), al-Albani showed how its chain has four ‘ilal, or hidden defects, and is therefore da‘if, in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1176.

11. Ibn al-Qayyim called it batil in Madarij al-Salikin (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 2003), 3:226-27; al-Albani declared it to have no chain at all (la asl lahu) in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2000), no.2822.

12. Ta’yiyd al-Haqiqat al-‘Aliyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2006), 84-5.

13. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Beirut & Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 79.

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