The Humble I

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Reading Qur’an While Not Knowing the Meaning: Is There Reward?

Q. Is there any reward for reading the Qur’an in Arabic, even if you don’t know or understand the meanings? If so, what would be the point?

A. Alhamduli’Lah, wa’l-salatu wa’l-salam ‘ala rasuli’Llah. This nagging question has been around for a while. But only recently has it begun to be argued about in a more bullish, uncharitable manner. So let’s address this niggling issue via the following points:

1 – As Muslims, we must all be absolutely clear as to the purpose of the Qur’an, about which Allah says in the Holy Book: كِتَابٌ أَنزَلْنَاهُ إِلَيْكَ مُبَارَكٌ لِيَدَّبَّرُوا آيَاتِهِ[This is] a Book that We have sent down to you, full of blessings, that they may reflect upon its signs. [Q.38:29] To this end, Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘The purpose of the Qur’an is to understand its meanings and to act upon it.’1

2 – Al-Hasan al-Basri once remarked: ‘The Qur’an was revealed so as to act by it. But people have taken the recitation as the action.’2 The Qur’an speaks to such a discourteous attitude in these words: أَفَلاَ يَتَدَبَّرُونَ الْقُرْآنَ أَمْ عَلَى قُلُوبٍ أَقْفَالُهَاWill they not meditate on the Qur’an, or are their locks upon their hearts? [Q.47:24]

3 – The Qur’an says of those given revelation before hand: وَمِنْهُمْ أُمِّيُّونَ لاَ يَعْلَمُونَ الْكِتَابَ إِلاَّ أَمَانِيَّ وَإِنْ هُمْ إِلاَّ يَظُنُّونَAmong them are the illiterate, having no knowledge of the Book other than [vague] fancies; they do nothing but conjecture. [Q.2:78] One of the explanations given by Muslim exegists to vague fancies is: reciting the Book without any understanding.3 And while the tafsir literature tells us this verse refers to many Jews of Madinah vis-a-via the Torah, it’s a warning for Muslims not to behave like that with the Qur’an.

4 – In fact, the Qur’an goes so far as to say: مَثَلُ الَّذِينَ حُمِّلُوا التَّوْرَاةَ ثُمَّ لَمْ يَحْمِلُوهَا كَمَثَلِ الْحِمَارِ يَحْمِلُ أَسْفَارًاThe likeness of those who were entrusted with the Torah, then failed to uphold it, is as the likeness of a donkey carrying books. [Q.62:5] Imam Ibn al-Qayyim wrote: ‘Allah strikes an analogy of those who were entrusted with His Book – to believe in it, reflect over it, act upon it and call [others] to it, but they acted contrary to this and only upheld it by rote learning it; thus they read it without meditating upon it, or understanding it, or following it, judging by it, and acting upon what it necessitates – to a donkey on whose back are tomes of books. It has no idea of what’s in them. Its only share of them is to carry them on its back. Likewise, their state with Allah’s Book is as that of a donkey loaded with books. This likeness, although it is in context of Jews, is just as applicable to someone who memorises the Qur’an but doesn’t act on it, give it its right, or uphold its teachings.’4

5 – As for the many hadiths which speak about the ahl al-qur’an – the ‘People of the Qur’an’ or hamil al-qur’an – the ‘Bearers of the Qur’an, or other such lofty distinctions, these too must be understood in the light of not just memorising the Qur’an, but studying it; pondering its meanings, marvels and wisdoms; and acting by it. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Allah has family among mankind (ahlin min al-nas).’ They asked: O Messenger of Allah, who are they? He said: ahl al-qur’an hum ahlu’Llah wa khassatuhu – ‘The People of the Qur’an are the People of Allah and His elite ones.’5 Imam al-Munawi commented: ‘In other words, those who memorise the Qur’an and act according to it are the friends of Allah, who are as close to Him as a person’s family is to them. They are called this as an honour to them, just as [the Ka‘bah] is called ‘the House of Allah’.’6

6 – A more liberal view to the above hadith was presented by Ibn al-Qayyim, who said: ‘That’s why the People of the Qur’an are those who are learned about it and act according to what is in it, even if they haven’t committed it to heart. As for those who have memorised it, but neither understand it nor act upon it, they aren’t from its people.’7 This was said as part of his discussion on whether it is better to read the Qur’an slowly with reflection, or quickly in order to read more – about which the salaf differed.

7 – As for the sahabah and their relationship with the Qur’an, we encounter these words of Ibn ‘Umar: ‘We lived during a period of time in which one of us would be granted faith (iman) before the Qur’an. As chapters were revealed, we learnt what was lawful and unlawful, commanded and forbidden, and what required pausing at from it, just as you all, today, learn the Qur’an. But I have seen men today who are given the Quran before iman. He recites it from start to end without knowing what it commands or forbids, or what must be paused at. He races through it hurriedly.’8 In this context, the terms iman and Qur’an imply one of two things: the first refers to the foundations of faith; the latter, the rulings and injunctions. Or iman can refer to the meanings and wisdoms of the Book, while the Qur’an refers to the mere recitation of its words – which is what is intended here. The same explanations hold for the statement of Jundub b. ‘Abd Allah: ‘We learnt iman before the Qur’an, then we learnt the Qur’an and it increased us in iman.9 And Allah knows best.

8 – Spotlighting the sahabah again, we read the following: Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman relates. ‘They – i.e the sahabah – would learn ten verses from the Prophet ﷺ, and wouldn’t learn ten more till they knew what they contained of knowledge and action. They would say: “We learnt knowledge and action [together].”’10 So the way of the sahabah was iman before the Qur’an, while ours is Qur’an before iman. Their way was understanding (fahm), reflecting (tadabbur), acting (‘aml), while ours is confined to reading (qira’ah), reciting (tilawah), memorising (hifz). And then we wonder why we’re in the state we are in?

9 – But what about the question of reciting the Qur’an without understanding a word of what one is reading? Well it would be a foolish person who insists that there’s no point in reading the Qur’an as a sacrament; i.e. just to gain blessings or grace, unless one understands what is being read – especially in light of the following hadith: ‘Whoever recites a single letter from the Book of Allah will be given the likes of ten good deeds. I do not say alif lam mim is a letter. Rather alif is a letter, lam is a letter, and mim is a letter.’11 So here we see our Prophet ﷺ choosing the words: alif lam mim as an example, knowing full well he had not explained their meanings to the ummah (in fact, when it comes to the tafsir of such cryptic letters, these huruf al-muqatta‘at, the vast majority of our scholars simply assert: wa’Llahu a‘lam bi muradihi – ‘Allah knows best what it means.’). Yet despite that, he described the immense reward one gains for reciting these three cryptic letters that make up the Arabic and Quranic alphabet. Which is to say, there is indeed reward for reading the Qur’an, even if one doesn’t know the meaning. Moreover, one would be hard pushed to find even one single leading Imam who is followed in the ummah who forbids reading the Qur’an, or denies a reward for one’s recitation, unless the meaning is known.

10 – That said, such tilawah without understanding (fahm) must never become one’s usual practice. That would be to defeat the aim in sending the Qur’an and would be a type of disrespect of it. If it is recited to obtain rewards and blessings then – and this is what needs to be paid careful attention to – it is allowed, but it mustn’t be made into a habit such that this is the only engagement one has with the Holy Qur’an. One bears in mind the divine order: فَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ مَا اسْتَطَعْتُمْSo fear Allah as best as you can. [Q.64:16]

11 – Lest there be even the slightest trace of confusion, all the above is in no way meant to discourage or belittle the act of reciting or memorising the Qur’an if one is unaware of its meaning. Certainly not! No one has the right to call others to leave off reciting the Qur’an. What the above is an invitation to is to raise our recitation from reciting just its words, to reciting it with tadabbur – meaning, reflection and deliberation; then reciting it so as to internalise its message and act upon its demands and guidance. The same applies to memorisation (hifz) of it. The established principle when it comes to doing good deeds is: ma la yudrak kulluhu la yutrak kulluhu – ‘If you cannot achieve all of it, do not abandon all of it.’ Yet let’s work on making our recitation (tilawah) ascend to higher heights. Only then will we be truly fulfilling Allah’s words: الَّذِينَ آتَيْنَاهُمْ الْكِتَابَ يَتْلُونَهُ حَقَّ تِلاَوَتِهِ أُوْلَئِكَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ – Those to whom We have given the Book, and who recite it the way it should be recited, truly believe in it. [Q.2:121]

12 – As for focusing on completing the Qur’an in Ramadan or in any other holy time or place, without taking the time to ponder its meanings, Ibn Rajab wrote: ‘The salaf would recite the entire Qur’an in the month of Ramadan, both inside and outside of prayer. Al-Aswad would finish the Qur’an every second night in Ramadan. Al-Nakha‘i would do likewise in the last ten nights, while in the rest of the month [he would finish it] every third night. Qatadah would consistently complete the Qur’an every seven days, and in Ramadan every third night; and each night during the last ten nights. Al-Shafi‘i would complete the Qur’an sixty times in Ramadan, outside prayer. Abu Hanifah did likewise … What is related about the forbiddance of reciting the Qur’an in less than three days applies to doing so regularly. As for times of great virtue, such as the month of Ramadan, especially the nights in which laylat al-qadr is sought; or in virtuous places like Makkah, for one who enters it not as a resident, it is recommended to increase in recitation of the Qur’an, taking advantage of the time or place. This was the view of Ahmad, Ishaq and others leading scholars. And this is proven from the action of others, whose mention has already preceded.’12

It is not unusual to hear scholars liken reading the Quran without knowing the meaning of what is being recited, to a sick patient for whom a doctor writes a prescription. Yet instead of understanding what the prescription says, or acting on what it requires, the patient simply keeps reading the prescription over and over again; making such recitation an end in itself. In all likelihood, we’d think this person a fool, and maybe even say that he has only himself to blame if his illness persists. So what is the case if we limit ourselves to reciting the Qur’an, without trying to understand its meanings in order to be shaped, even in some small way, by God’s final message to mankind? The Qur’an cajoles us to open it; invites us to read it; and demands that we understand and ponder over it: فَهَلْ مِنْ مُدَّكِرٍ – So is there any who will take heed? [Q.54:17]

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 23:55.

2. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 1403H), 109.

3. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Makkah: Dar Taybah al-Khudra’, 2018), 1:329.

4. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 123H), 2:288.

5. Ahmad, no.11870; Ibn Majah, no.215, and it is sahih. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), 4:85; no.1582.

6. Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), 3:518.

7. Zad al-Ma‘ad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:327.

8. Al-Hakim, al-Mustadrak, 1:83.

9. Ibn Majah, no.61. It was graded as sahih in al-Albani, Sahih Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1997), 37; no.52.

10. Ahmad, Musnad, no.23482. Its chain was graded hasan in Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, Musnad Imam Ahmad b. Hanbal (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 2001), 38:466.

11. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2912, who said it is hasan.

12. Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 399-400.

Footprints on the Sands of Time 8

These reflections are offered as part of a continued conversation about how we as Muslims can best retain meaning in modernity, and nurture an Islam that is true to its time-honoured tradition; relevant to our current context; and of benefit to man’s deepest needs. Previous ‘Footprints’ can be read here:

Footprints 1 | Footprints 2Footprints 3Footprints 4Footprints 5 | Footprints 6 | Footprints 7

On the boundaries of Islamic inculturation: In order to offer us some principled accommodation with the global, liberal reality, we Muslims may lick the lolly, but we must never bite the stick.

On the marks of our self-obsessive, online age: Social media is the opium of the narcissists.

Keep the end in mind: Shaykhs of spiritual wayfaring (suluk) tell us to engage in spiritual striving (mujahadah) right up till our death. After that, they say, it is spiritual witnessing (mushahadah) all the way: O Allah, grant me the delight of gazing at Your face and the yearning to meet You.’ – Prophetic du‘a.

Being more critical: We Muslims stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms and vocabulary of the social sciences to a critical Islamic theological scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without this critical evaluation, feminist and gender theories, for instance, or critical race theory, are in danger of leaving the soul in critical condition, requiring critical care.

On rewriting the past to reinvent the present: ‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became truth.’ – Orwell, 1984.

On intelligent husbands: An intelligent husband never withholds one person’s right at the expense of another. This is especially the case vis-a-via his wife and his mother: O people! Give just measure and weight, nor diminish anything that is due to people. [Q.11:85]

On truth-seeking and comfort zones: In calling our post-monotheistic milieu to Islam, we must first help people reawaken their fitrah, so that they may leave their comfort zones, question the assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers.

On the deeper wisdom behind following the divine commands: Masters of the heart tell us that the secret behind ittiba‘ or ‘following [the revealed teachings]’ is: yakhruj al-insan min muradi nafsihi ila muradi rabbihi – ‘A person leaving his own wants and loves for what his Lord wants and loves.’

On understanding our times and our people: The post-religious person is beset by existential angst, despair and loneliness born from wrongly believing that life is bereft of meaning; we are all here by a series of huge cosmic flukes; and that despite our freedom to choose, death is our ultimate end, therefore life is pointless. Knowing the psychology and philosophies that have created such a profane age, and have so damaged the human perception, is of paramount importance. Abdal Hakim Murad noted: ‘The greatness of a prophet, as opposed to a mere logician, is that he understands the inner life of his adversaries, and constructs arguments that help them to recognise the nature of their own subjectivity.’

On the devil’s goto weapon of choice: The first ruse of shaytan is to distract and divert a person away from their work of worship and obedience to God.

On breathing in spiritual pollution: Rida ‘an al-nafs, to be ‘self-satisfied’ – i.e. to feel smug about oneself, about one’s knowledge, or one’s accomplishments – is the spiritual poison many of us seem content to inhale, despite it choking to death our spiritual life.

Making beginnings good, so endings will be good: When one resolves to make Allah their aim and ambition, or when one wishes to turn away from a former life of heedlessness or dereliction of duty, then one begins with sincere tawbah, repentance: Truly Allah loves those that turn to Him in repentance, and strive to cleanse themselves. [Q.2:222]

On divine calling and destiny: Islam, more than ever before, seems to be called upon to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. But its message of hope and healing will only illuminate these bewildering times if its theological concerns are firmly-grounded, yet are in tune with the needs of the time; if it can offer a worldview that helps make sense of these soul-numbing times; and if it can deliver practical, liveable guidance to navigate the stormy seas of these times. This all needs cool heads and macro thinking. Macro thinking, in turn, requires that we not get caught up in the moment, but rather take a step back to get a clearer view of the trends and trajectories that are unfolding.

On not living excessively: Partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we may; but to partake of them excessively and irresponsibly we may not: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For Allah loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31]

On marital bliss: The entire issue of marriage in Islam revolves around mutual love, kindness, compromise and companionship. Whenever spouses enter the marital home, let them each hang their egos up on the coat peg. For marital becomes martial when the “i” is pushed foreword!

On prophetic uprisings, not leftist revolutions: The Muslim scholarly tradition is built on conserving whatever is best in any given political system, collective or society; and advocates addressing and rectifying imbalances and injustices, rather than toppling or tearing down the whole structure in the forlorn hope that something better will arise out of the ashes. And Muslim activism – be it here as minorities in the West, or in Muslim majority lands – would do well to reflect this.

On the centre-piece of a godly life: At the heart of such a life must be a desire to deepen our connection to God, and heighten our gratitude and loving obedience to Him.

Revealed truths and being unpopular: ‘It really is the responsibility of religious communities to risk unpopularity, and to speak prophetically and clearly what they take to be truth. Being apologetic or too strategic is not really the prophetic way. One has to risk unpopularity … This has to be done with considerable wisdom and discretion.’ – Abdal Hakim Murad

On the Adamic Man: it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; nor even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. But this must never lead us to think that Adam had biological parents; that he was the child of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.

On clinging to muraqabah and mindfulness: Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoon once said the following about spiritual excellence, or ihsan, that it is when: ‘a person brings to mind at every moment that Allah is watching me. Whoever actualises such a state will not commit a sin. This is why our grand shaykh, the venerable ‘arif, Mawlana Shah ‘Abd al-Ghani Puhlpuri, rahmatullah ‘alayhi, would teach this muraqabah practice that for five minutes each day meditate over the verse: أَلَمْ يَعْلَمْ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يَرَى – Is he not aware that Allah sees? [Q.96:14] This is every Muslim’s belief. We all believe that Allah, exalted is He, sees us. But as a person steadily contemplates over the fact that my Lord sees me, then love of Allah grows and it becomes harder to commit sins.’

Why Isn’t My Life Blessed?

In this podcast, we explore the question many people ask themselves in their lives; questions like: Where have all the blessings gone from my life? Or: Why is my life not as smooth sailing as that of others I know? Why does my life lack so much of the goodness and happiness that others have? Why is my marriage, or my job, or my relationship with others, so rough and rocky? In other words, Why isn’t my life blessed?! The Qur’an offers a deeply satisfying and pragmatic answer to such questions, which isn’t as complicated or entangled as one might expect. (Previous podcast can be found on iTunes, and also on this blog here)

Feigning Islamic Learning: Are You a Troublesome Abu Shibr?

IN MANUALS WRITTEN TO train Muslim scholars and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). Thus it is said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: whosoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; and whoever enters the third realises they know very little.’

An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of sacred learning; having only drunk small drafts, Abu Shibr gets intoxicated, looses sight of his own infant level, and behaves in a haughty, self-righteous way. For he deludes himself into thinking he’s now something in terms of sacred knowledge and learning: a duckling that thinks it’s a graceful swan, or a kitten that thinks it’s a tiger!

Of course, not everyone who enters this first stretch of learning becomes drunk. Those who receive knowledge at the hands of wise, cultivating scholars are less likely to labour under such a delusion (and if some do slide into an Abu Shibr persona, their wise teacher is likely able to treat them with a corrective cure). Instead, it is those whose few crumbs of learning comes by way of a few books or some YouTube videos of non-scholars, or those who are nowhere near being seasoned students of sacred knowledge, that are the usual culprits. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a danger to himself and is a trouble to others. Brash, hostile, argumentative, divisive, self-assured to the point of kibr … we’ve all seen it (and some of us may have even been it!).

As for the second and third spans of learning, as the years pass, the sincere, intelligent and well-trained student appreciates, first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even by way of a single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the complexly elaborate legal theory that underpins it; and the intricate scholarly conversations that surround it. 

This is very humbling, making one acutely aware of their own true level. With further learning and engagement with ‘ilm, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they actually know compared to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition. ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ it has been said, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’

In our scholastic tradition there’s the idea of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: acting as if one is versed in religious issues through little haphazard reading of books or surfing a few websites, rather than any through, serious, systematic learning, studying or dialoguing with trained scholars. One of most dangerous calamities that currently afflicts the ummah is the growing spectacle of all the Abu Shibrs (and a few Umm Shibrs) that are now frantically clambering over each other, like frenzied rugby players on crack, to get attention, social-media ‘likes’, and other ego-driven ways of getting their voices heard. It is shameless, ungodly, and nothing short of stupidity on stilts. Nor is there anything as ugly as when the ego attempts to dress itself in the robes of sacred knowledge.

The lady Asma relates that a woman came to the Prophet ﷺ and asked: I have a co-wife, so is it alright for me to pretend that my husband has given me what he hasn’t given me [in order to tease her]? The Prophet ﷺ responded: ‘The one who pretends to have what he has not been given is like someone who puts on two garments of falsehood.’1 If that is the case in terms of claiming to possess worldly stuff one does not have, then what about giving others the impression that one has seasoned Islamic knowledge when one does not? For we are either qualified to represent Allah’s religion or we are not. The godly thing to do if we are ever asked questions about Islam which are above our proverbial pay grade is to simply say that we cannot give what we do not have.

In one sound hadith, we read an uncanny description of what seems to so aptly describe our times. In it, the Prophet said ﷺ: ‘Today, you are in an age in which its scholars are many and its speakers few: whoever leaves a tenth of what he knows has followed his desires. Later there will come an age where its speakers are many and its scholars few: whoever clings to a tenth of what he knows will be saved.’2

This is an era of fake knowledge, when it’s never been easier to fake what you know. Ours is an age where an increasing number of speakers sell themselves to the public as if they are seasoned shaykhs or mature students of knowledge, when most of them are clearly not. Such speakers tend not to have the dignity, gravitas or adab of the scholars, let alone their learning, wisdom and concern. And while social media and the reckless herd may have made such people into ‘influencers’ or go-to voices, the wise are wary of such self-styled speakers and Allah’s awliya appalled at their false pretensions. We should be too. The remedy for this corrupt behaviour is to make sincere tawbah and to reassess whether one should be publicly preaching or speaking on behalf of Allah; and if doing so is unavoidable, to always recall one’s level and not discourse beyond it, to never play to the crowd, and to ensure one has a healthy dose of answering questions with the godly words: la adri – ‘I do not know.’

Talking of those whose knowledge is half-baked, yet are deluded into thinking they are the real deal, Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah said:

‘It is said that those who most corrupt the world are: the half baked theologian, the half-baked jurist, the half-baked doctor and the half-baked grammarian. This [first one] corrupts religion; this [second], the country; this [third], physical bodies; and this [fourth], the language.’3

This too, from Ibn Hazm, is worth pondering – for those with corrupt natures and delusions of grandeur, but who earnestly wish to be rectified:

‘Some people who are overcome with ignorance, whose intellects are weak, and whose nature is corrupt think they are from the learned, when they are not. There is no greater harm to knowledge or to the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, but missed a much larger part than what they grasped. Their quest for knowledge, moreover, was not a search for knowledge of God, exalted is He; nor was their intention to escape the darkness of ignorance. Rather it was to be one-up on people through showing-off or self-importance, or attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or unashamedly boasting about being scholars when in reality they are not.’4

The Holy Qur’an counsels us: And seek not corruption in the earth; for Allah loves not the corrupters. [Q.28:77]

We ask Allah that He save us from ourselves.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.5219.

2. Al-Harawi, Dhamm al-Kalam, 1:14-15. Its isnad was graded sahih by al-Albani, despite it containing Muhammad b. Tafar b. Mansur. For how such a verdict was reached, cf. al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1996), 6:1:40-42; no.2510.

3. Majmu’ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 5:118-19.

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

Muslim Controversialists: Thriving on Fitnah on Social Media

THE GREAT SAGE AND scholar of early Islam, al-Hasan al-Basri, once remarked: هِمَّةُ الْعُلَمَاءِ الرِّعَايَةُ وَهِمَّةُ السُّفَهَاءِ الرِّوَايَةُ – ‘The concern of the scholar is to cultivate, the concern of the foolish is to [merely] narrate.’1

One hadith foretells: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted and the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet ﷺ replied: الرَّجلُ التَّافِهُ يتَكَلَّمُ في أمرِ العامَّةِ – ‘The lowly, contemptible one who shall speak out about public affairs.’2

In the topsy-turviness that characterises social deterioration in the end of days, we have been cautioned about the Ruwaybidah. Scholarly commentaries do not specify exactly who the Ruwaybidah are, but do point out their traits. Lexically, being the diminutive of the word rabidah (‘lowly’, ‘despicable’, ‘worthless’), the Ruwaybidah are even lower than worthless: they are utterly worthless. These are people who are incapable of rising up to nobility, lack integrity and, above all, possess little more than a glimmer of religious knowledge.3 In spite of this, they feel to speak out about socio-political affairs beyond their pay grade. They eagerly give fatwas and act as social commentators, despite a lack of learning. And they promote themselves as sincere advisors to the ummah, while having no spiritual grounding and still being wet behind the ears.

Our social media age is one wherein controversies garner huge followings and where, like never before, even the talentless, worthless ruwaybidah may shine. From the embarrassing ignorance of self-proclaimed da’wah-men, through to the tragic rise of maverick pseudo-scholars and muftis, social media is awash with those who thrive on fitnah and controversy. 

It might even be said to have birthed the Muslim “controversialist” – one who craves attention through stirring up quarrelsome egos against the ‘ulema, or by courting highly contentious or dubious positions on theology or law – especially ones that ignore or contravene a well-established scholarly consensus (ijma’). The Golden Rule was expressed by Ibn Taymiyyah, when describing the tell tale signs of the heterodox innovators: وَشِعَارُ هَذِهِ الْفِرَقِ مُفَارَقَةُ الْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ ، فَمَنْ قَالَ بِالْكِتَابِ وَالسُّنَّةِ وَالْإِجْمَاعِ كَانَ مِنْ أَهْلِ السُّنَّةِ وَالْجَمَاعَةِ  – ‘The hallmark of these sects is their splitting from the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘. But whoever speaks with the Book, the Sunnah and the ijma‘ is from Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l-Jama‘ah.4

Turning Facebook into Disgracebook, or turning Instagram into Fitnahgram, may help gain us a larger following or more likes. It may be a winning formula in terms of our murky desires for self-promotion. It might even assuage an ego desperate for attention and self-glory. But such insincerity will corrupt hearts and damage whatever little relationship we have with our Lord. Such dark and devious schism-mongering is wicked enough in itself. But when one adds to it the corrupting nature of certain social media algorithms, like that of Facebook’s which exploit the brain’s attraction to divisiveness; and how these algorithms are designed to create bubbles around us that keep us insulated from different viewpoints, thereby notching up intolerance levels, then it is an alarming case of darkness upon darkness! Worse still is that such controversialists know that they have a hungry audience waiting for them out there on social media: eager to devour their malignant content, revel in the latest schism, or gloat over how they and their clique are discovering ‘truths’ which have been veiled from even the scholarly consensus! The dal mudill, the misguided and misguiding, all too often make appropriate bedfellows.

As for using the religion to get noticed, or become a controversialist, or for other types of egotistical self-promotion, then those in whose hearts godliness still flickers, and whose fitrah still flinches at the thought of hypocrisy, will surely profit from the following exhortation:

Imam Muslim has recorded an incident which took place during one of the early Muslim fitnahs, or political controversies: Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas was tending his sheep and camels when his son, ‘Umar, came to him. When Sa’d saw him, he remarked: “I seek refuge in Allah from the evil of this rider.” When the son dismounted, he said to him: “You tend your sheep and camels while people are arguing over who is to rule?” Sa’d struck ‘Umar on the chest and then said: “Be quiet! For I heard Allah’s Messenger ﷺ say: إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْعَبْدَ التَّقِيَّ الْغَنِيَّ الْخَفِيَّ – ‘Allah loves the servant who is God-fearing, content and hidden [not known].’”5

I began with the saying of al-Hasan al-Basri, so let me end with another one of his wisdoms. He once entered upon a group of people who were disputing, to which he said: مَا هَؤُلاءِ إِلَّا قَوْمٌ مَلُّوا الْعِبَادَةَ ، وَوَجَدُوا الْكَلامَ أَهْوَنَ عَلَيْهِمْ ، وَقَلَّ وَرَعُهُمْ ، فَتَكَلَّمُوا – ‘Such are ones who’ve grown bored of worship; speaking has become easy for them, their piety has diminished, hence they talk.’6

I think that probably sums-up the psychology behind so much of our religious controversies on social media. And Allah knows best. 

We ask Allah for safety.

1. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.39.

2. Ibn Majah, no.4036; Ahmad, no.7899; al-Hakim, Mustadrak,4:465, saying: ‘Its chain is sahih.’

3. See: Sunan Ibn Majah bi Sharh al-Sindi (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1996), 4:377.

4. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:346.

5. Muslim, no.2965.

6. Cited in Abu Nu‘aym, Hilyat al-Awliya (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1996), 2:156-57.

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