The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Task of Tafsir Isn’t to Preach to the Public, It’s to Reveal Quranic Gems and Meanings

I recently met a brother who I’d not seen since the late ’90s. He was eager to remind me of an incident I had more or less forgotten about. I was working in an Islamic bookshop at the time and he came in to buy the ten volume translation of Tafsir Ibn Kathir Abridged. At the time it was selling for just under £100. To his surprise (and I’m guessing also to his disappointment), I dissuaded him from doing so; I put him off. Truth of the matter is he wasn’t the first one I discouraged from buying this multi-volume tafsir; I had done this to a few others before. But why?

But let me be clear. It wasn’t because I’m against people growing in sacred knowledge or understanding of Islam. Indeed, and all praise is for Allah, Allah has allowed me to be involved in learning, teaching and disseminating sacred knowledge of Islam since the mid 1980s. Over three decades on, and it’s still my core passion and vocation.

Nor was it because of what I saw to be the somewhat inelegant way in which the Qur’an, the Word of God, had been rendered into English throughout the translation. And neither was my concern that it wasn’t the actual real deal; it was a tahdhib – an abridgement and a slight reworking of the original.

Instead, my motive was more straightforward. Tafsir works aren’t usually written with the general public in mind. Their whole style, length, format, content, technical vocabulary or discourse is mitigated against a general readership. In fact, the target audience of tafsir works is specifically the scholar or budding scholar.

Knowing the brother fairly well, and knowing he was neither an academic nor a keen lay reader, I explained why I thought he shouldn’t buy the Tafsir and suggested he buy some other books and CDs that would be more relevant and immediate to his needs and thirst for sacred knowledge. He took my advice, and I happily took his money.

Of course, I wasn’t suggesting that only a scholar could or should benefit from the Qur’an. But the reality is that non-specialists will almost certainly find tafsir books overbearing and difficult. Even the modern tafsirs (leaving aside how correct it is to describe some of them as tafsir) are a challenge for the layman: less due to language or style; and more due to just how lengthy any complete tafsir is likely to be! The non-academic or layman simply doesn’t usually have the sheer will to plough through volumes and volumes of pedantic commentary on the Qur’an – or anything else for that matter. Although most will find the sheer will to binge watch episode after episode of Ertugrul or Games of Thrones, or other multi-seasoned box set that takes their fancy. So it’s less a complete lack of will: it’s more a lack of will for some things, but not for others. Just saying.

To be fair, there have been a few diligent lay readers who’ve managed to plough through the entire ten volume tafsir! But this should be seen for what it is: rare exceptions to the rule. What should be asked here is that those who have churned their way through the entire tafsir, did they do so having learnt the personally obligatory (fard al-‘ayn) matters Islam obligates each Muslim to know – with regards to core knowledge of creed, acts of worship, social transactions, ethics, and spiritual purification of the heart – or was it at the expense of holistically learning this? Because as counter-intuitive as this may sound, digesting an entire tafsir is unlikely to teach a Muslim the fard al-‘ayn knowledge that he or she is required to know and practice.

I suspect, however, that most people who purchase this ten volume tafsir do so more as a reference work, or as something they can dip into now and again, rather than something to read from cover to cover. And that, no doubt, is a commendable and well-intended aim.

Going back to the brother. I also suggested to him that he find a good English translation of the Qur’an, perhaps one with some helpful footnotes (I suggested Yusuf Ali’s to him at the time), to help nurture a personal, practical, reflective relationship with Allah’s Book. A couple of years later, the heftier (in terms of sheer price, size and weight) and highly elegant The Majestic Qur’an came out, which I duly started recommending to people. Fast forward to 2019, and there are quite a few good translations of the Qur’an, some with useful footnotes to help the non-specialist deepen their understanding of the Holy Book. As for tafsirs, there’s now a wonderful translation, in one manageable slim volume, of the famous, yet simple Tafsir al-Jalalayn – which I certainly encourage the keen lay reader to perhaps consider trying to benefit from.

It has been said that throughout Islamic history, the lay person’s link with the Qur’an was less about trying to glean its gems of meaning and majesty, but was more about it being devotional recital: a sacrament; a ritual. I’m not sure how true that is. Though in a pre-modern age, where mass literacy or formal schooling weren’t widespread, it’s easy to see why that could have been the case.

That said, the modern world has changed the layman in respect to literacy and numeracy. Most people, certainly here in the West, have had at least a half decent education. Mass education and mass media have exposed us all to a whole raft of facts and figures, and ideas and abstractions, like never before. Thus it could reasonably be argued that today’s layman has less of an excuse not to engage a decent translation of the Qur’an (or a one volume tafsir) compared to a layman of earlier times. In other words, what stops today’s layman for reading a good translation of the Qur’an – not in order to dish out fatwas or make up their own rulings and interpretations, but to gain an overall understanding and appreciation of what the Good Lord wants; via the stories, lessons, parables and religious instruction related in the Qur’an?

As for the scholar, budding scholar, or student of sacred learning, their way is to regularly meditate over the Qur’an, and deepen their connection with it. Of course, aid should be taken from the books of tafsir: classical and contemporary; both the textual (ma’thur) and rational (ma‘qul) genres. Let them nurture and imbibe in themselves the adab, character and worldview of the Qur’an, and then help steer others towards this.

Whether in Friday sermons, or in general circles for the laity, let the scholar or student of knowledge – not as mufassir; exegist, but as khatib; preacher, and wa‘iz; exhorter – draw wisely from that rich, profound tafsir heritage and share some of what will awaken and inspire the hearts of the lay people to Allah and the Afterlife. This has been the tried and tested method to help attach people to the Qur’an, and to its invitation and summons to God and godliness.

And we seek Allah’s enabling grace.

Knowing God is Like Knowing Your Neighbour

Many are keen to know about God’s laws. Others are keen to know how best to help God’s servants who have been wronged. But very few of us seem keen to want to know about God Himself, or want our hearts to deepen in knowledge of God. So the latest episode of this podcast seeks to help rectify this.

The Need to Be Known and to Be Understood

lonely-man-bridge-by-Stefano-Corso-711x460Three core ingredients go into making up the religion of Islam. And they are expressed in three simple words: iman – the “faith” or “belief” one must have in God, His Prophets, as well as in the Afterlife; islam – outward “submission” to God in terms of such things like prayer, pilgrimage or moral uprightness; and ihsan – usually translated as “excellence”, which refers to internalising faith and outward submission, and bringing them to their peak and perfection. The Prophet, peace be upon him, described ihsan in these words: ‘It is to worship God as though seeing Him; and though you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.2]

Time and again, the Qur’an speaks of God, of Allah, as being al-Basir – “All-Seeing” and al-Khabir – “All-Aware”. We read in the Qur’an: Nothing in the earth or in the heavens is hidden from God. [Q.3:5] We are also told: He knows what is secret and what is even more hidden. [Q.20:7] And as Edwin Arnold versified in Pearls of Faith:

‘Al-Khabir! Thou Who art ‘aware’ of all,
By this name also for Thy grace we call.
Yes! pardon, Lord, since Thou dost know
Tomorrow, now, and long ago.’

So God sees us at every moment; and is aware of all things, at all times. But we need to tread very carefully here. For allowing hearts to nurture a healthy sense of fear of God, through awareness of Him being All-Seeing, All-Aware, is undeniably part of sound faith. But the notion that God is some sort of “Super-Spy”, eagerly waiting to catch us out and to gleefully punish us when we may slip, stumble, or harbour fleeting, shameful secret thoughts that we dare not acknowledge even to our ownselves, is not what such Quranic verses are about. That God is lying in ambush to see us hopefully slip or sin, so as to then pounce on us with divine punishment – well that sort of idea of God as being some sort of mean-spirited, cosmic Tyrant is utterly alien to Islam!

The Holy Qur’an wishes us to understand that God’s all-seeing presence isn’t suffocating. Rather the believer finds God’s all-knowing presence reassuring and comforting. In their deepest need to be known, the believer is aware that God fully knows them: and that is surely reassuring. And in their deepest need to be understood, the believer realises that God truly understands them: and that is comforting. The sense of loneliness which haunts so many people in our age, cries out for love; for friendship; for companionship. It cries out to be known and to be understood. What a relief, then, to discover that – in the only way it truly matters – we are fully understood, because we are truly known. For He who created us and fashioned us is in the best position to truly know us, meaningfully heal us, and ultimately forgive us. 

But while the divine Mercy cannot wait to forgive us our sins and stupidities, it’s a two-way street. Whilst the Holy Qur’an insists that God’s mercy embraces all things [Q.7:156], it also states: Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself, that whoever of you does evil and afterwards repents, and does right, [for them] God is assuredly Forgiving, Compassionate. [Q.6:54] Repentance, or tawbah, doesn’t mean self-pitying guilt. It means turning back to God when we had turned away from Him, admitting the simple truth of our predicament: that we have fallen short of what could reasonably be expected of us.

But if our theology doesn’t help stoke the fire of intimacy with, or yearning for, God, then we are likely going about religion in the wrong way. Does our theology reassure us that we have a God who we can bring our sadness, our sorrows, our loneliness, our fear, our hurt, our shame and sins to, or is it just a case of knowing what Islam has to say about those moments and for us to then mechanically carry out the external processes? When it’s the latter, we’ll always tend to stop there and not voice such feelings to God, thereby denying ourselves the whole point of God’s essential nature: When My servants ask you about Me, I am near, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [Q.2:186]

That God is All-Seeing, All-Aware is, therefore to be known and, even more importantly, to be understood. And behind His awareness is the beautiful and comforting religious reality of a God who says: ‘O My servants who have wronged their own souls. Despair not of God’s mercy! For God forgives all sins; He is indeed Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [Q.39:53]

May knowledge of this truth lead to knowing Him more, and being known by Him. May it lead to deepening our awareness of Him, and being understood and healed by Him.

Dealing with the Errors of Scholars & Zealous Followers

One of the most crucial rules of normative Sunni Islam states: ‘A condition for censuring wrongdoing is that the act being censured must be something whose blameworthiness is not merely known by means of ijtihad. Any matter that involves ijtihad cannot be a cause for censure.’1

It is usually expressed in this maxim: la inkar fi masa’il al-khilaf – ‘There is no censuring in matters of [legitimate] differing.’

Imam al-Nawawi typified the point, when he wrote: ‘A person commanding or forbidding must have knowledge about what is being commanded or forbidden, which will vary with varying issues. Thus if it is from the clear-cut obligations or well-known prohibitions, like Prayer, Fasting, adultery, intoxicants, etc., then every Muslim is learned about them. But if it is in matters that are not clear-cut, or in issues of ijtihad, then the lay people cannot enter into it, nor censure it; instead it is only for the scholars [to do]’.2

Although there have been periodic disruptions of the above rule in the ummah’s history, by and large the rule has been respected between the scholars and schools of Islamic law. This was based on a recognition that opinions backed-up by decisive (qat‘i) proofs or by juristic consensus (ijma‘) justifiably represented the Islamic view, whereas those rooted in valid interpretive possibilities represent an Islamic view.

There was a time, not so long ago, that ignorance of the above maxim had almost become ubiquitous; to the point where mosques, Islamic centres and university prayer rooms were regular battlegrounds for hostile arguments and a fair bit of egotistical fatwa flinging. The schisms, many of us imagined, would surely dissipate as people became aware of the la inkar rule. And while much has improved in this regard, a cursory glance at the comments sections on so many an Islamic blog piece or Facebook post reveals just how much bigotry and intolerance still abound. For egos also abound and have learnt to cloak themselves in an alleged jealousy (ghirah) for religious purity and truth.

The following scholarly insights are less about the actual adab of differing, but have more to do with the ego’s deceptions in matters of khilaf between the scholars. All three insights come from Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali:

The first of these insights from Ibn Rajab concerns “loving and hating for God’s sake.” In one hadith, it states: مَنْ أَحَبَّ لِلَّهِ وَأَبْغَضَ لِلَّهِ وَأَعْطَى لِلَّهِ وَمَنَعَ لِلَّهِ فَقَدْ اسْتَكْمَلَ الْإِيمَانَ – ‘Whoever loves for God’s sake, loathes for God’s sake, gives for God’s sake and withholds for God’s sake has perfected faith.’3 It must be stressed that such hating, detesting or disliking can’t be done based on desires or ego. Rather it is principled, done purely for the sake of God: desires or ego having no share in it whatsoever. Nor, it must equally be stressed, is it a loathing that entails harm – as al-Munawi explained: ‘Hating for God doesn’t imply harming the one he loathes. Instead, it is for his disbelief or disobedience.’4 Yet not to belabour the point, it is also not a frenzied hating, where one froths at the mouth and spews out stupidity, as the blood curdles and the infantile ego flies into a rage. Rather, as said before, it is a righteous hating in which the ego is to have no share. And given how so very rare it is for egos to be truly tamed and trained, one can well comprehend why hating for God’s sake is from the highest perfections of iman.

In this insight, Ibn Rajab, rahimahullah, draws our attention to how, when scholars differ, they may be excused due to their good intention and scholarly ijtihad, but some of their followers will not. And that is because their heart’s intention and dislike of the view that opposes their shaykh’s was not to uphold the truth, but to merely be partisan and big-up their own corner. With that being the long and the short of it, here are his actual words:

‘When religious differences among people grew, and schisms deepened, then this led to an increase in mutual hatred and reviling: each of them apparently hating for the sake of God. In one and the same issue, some could be excused, while others may not. They may, in fact, just be following their desires or falling short in evaluating on what basis they are actually hating. For so much hating is of this nature; occurring when the one followed is differed with, and the followers thinks that the one he follows is always correct. And this [thinking] is a categorical mistake! But if he thinks him right on the issue being differed over, then he could be right or he could be wrong; or he could simply be inclining towards [the stance of the one followed] merely from desire; or from familiarity or habit. And all of this belies such hating being for God’s sake.’5

The second insight explores the above psychology of the zealous follower a little further. Ibn Rajab draws our attention to it by stating:

‘ … for it may be that he only supports the view because it’s the view of the one he follows. Had it been voiced by another scholar, he wouldn’t have accepted it; supported it; allied himself with those who agree with it; or shown enmity to those who differ with it. Despite this, he fools himself into thinking he’s supporting the truth, and is of the same position as the one whom he follows – and this is most certainly not the case! For the scholar he follows, his intention was to aid the truth, even though he erred in his ijtihad. As for the follower, his purpose in [supposedly] aiding the truth is polluted by his desire to elevate the person he follows; or make his opinion predominant; or that he not be thought of as being wrong: and this agenda taints the desire to support only the truth. So understand this, for it is a vital matter.’6

The last insight concerns how to behave justly with the slips and errors of a scholars. Ibn Rajab offers these following broad guidelines:

‘Here there are two points: Firstly, that whoever contravenes any directive of the Prophet, erring in his ijtihad while seeking to obey the Prophet and follow his injunctions, he is forgiven and his status is not demeaned at all because of this. Secondly, that the love and esteem the scholar is held in should never prevent clarifying how his view has actually contravened the Prophet’s order; peace be upon him. This, as part of sincere advice to the ummah in clarifying to them the command of the Prophet. Likewise, the one that is loved and held in esteem, if he knows his view contravenes the command of the Messenger, he should be pleased that it has been explained to the ummah, and that they have been duly guided to the Prophet’s command and have rejected his view. This point is hidden from many of the ignorant who have gone to extremes in following their scholars. They think that refuting someone of status, be he a scholar or a righteous person, is to denigrate him. But this isn’t the case at all.

‘It was out of such negligence that the religion of the People of the Book was altered. For they followed the slips of their scholars and turned away from that which their Prophets came with, until their religion was altered and they took their priests and rabbis as lords besides God: making lawful to them the forbidden, and forbidding them the lawful. Such became their worship of their scholars.’7

1. Ibn Qudamah al-Maqdisi, Mukhtasar Minhaj al-Qasidin (Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 1999), 121.

2. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:21-3.

3. Abu Dawud, no.4681. It was declared as sahih, due to its collective chains, in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.380.

4. Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami al-Saghir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), 7:543-4; no.8308.

5. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:267.

6. ibid., 2:268.

7. Majmu‘ Rasa’il al-Hafiz Ibn Rajab (Cairo: al-Faruq al-Khadathiyyah, 2002), 1:246.

Sincerity: Is Our Motive Purely for God, or for Others Too?

The Qur’an says: And they have been ordered no more than this: to worship God sincerely, devoting religion purely to Him. [98:5] According to Imam al-Raghib al-Asbahani, sincerity or ikhlas requires the heart ‘to be emptied of all else besides God.’1 This emptying is never that simple, for it involves struggling against the lower self so as to strip away the heart’s love of praise or its undue reverence of created things. It demands that the heart’s motives or intentions are purified from conceit, deceit, showing-off or self-aggrandisement so that acts of worship are done exclusively seeking God’s good pleasure.

Imam al-Qushayri’s words of the topic are not only one of the most authoritative and most cited in the Islamic tradition, they get to the very heart of the matter too. He wrote:

اَلْإخْلاصُ إفْرادُ الْحَقِّ فِي الطَّاعَةِ باِلْقَصْدِ، وَهُوَ أَنْ يُرِيْدَ بِطَاعَتِه التَّقَرَّبَ إِلٰى اللهِ تَعَالى دُوْنَ شَيْءٍ آخَرَ، مِنْ تَصَنُّعٍ لِمَخْلُوْقٍ، أَوِ اكْتِسَابِ مَحْمَدِةٍ عِنْدَ النَّاسِ، أَوْ مَحَبَّةِ مَدْحٍ مِنَ الْخَلْقِ، أَوْ مَعْنًى مِن المَعَاني سِوَى التَّقَرُّبِ إِلى اللهِ تَعَالى. وَ يَصِحُّ أَنْ يُقالَ: الْإِخْلاصُ تَصْفِيَةُ الْفِعْلِ عَنْ مَلاحَظَةِ الْمَخْلُوقِيْن

‘Sincerity is to single-out the Real [God] as the sole object of devotion. Meaning that one desires by their obedience to draw closer to God, exalted is He, to the exclusion of all else, such as making a show [of one’s piety] for people; seeking their praise; taking pleasure in their compliments; or other such things besides drawing closer to God, exalted is He. It is right to say that sincerity is: Purifying the act from creation having any share in it.’2

Abu Umamah al-Bahili relates that a man came to the Prophet ﷺ and said: I saw a person who fought for reward [booty] and renown: what will he get? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘There is nothing for him.’ He ﷺ then went on to say: ‘God does not accept an act, except if it is done sincerely seeking His face.’3 Ikhlas – doing an act of worship seeking to draw closer to God, or seeking God’s face – undoubtedly had degrees or depths. The lowest is to do an act of worship with the sole intent of pleasing God, seeking some worldly or otherworldly reward from Him. Deeper than this is when the act is done, as above, with the sole aim of drawing closer to God, but not desiring any reward; doing it purely for the love of God and nothing else. Deeper still is when the act is done purely for the love of God, but such is the depth of faith, such is the purity of devotion, that one doesn’t see their act as emanating from any effort or achievement on their part, but from God’s unmitigated grace. Masters of the inward life tell us that this is the degree of sincerity where the devotee is oblivious to their sincerity, for the heart is beholden only to God.

O Lord! make our actions correct and sincere,
seeking nothing but Your face;
and let no one have
a share of our
worship of
You.

1. Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 293.

2. Al-Risalat al-Qushayriyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2017), 476.

3. Al-Nasa’i, no.3140. Al-‘Iraqi declared its chain to be hasan. See: al-Mughni ‘an Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Tabariyyah, 1995), 3; 1177; no.4299.

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