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Teaching & Purification: the Two Prophetic Tasks

Illuminating Turkish BeautyThe Prophet ﷺ once said: ‘I am the prayer of my father Abraham and the glad tidings [proclaimed by] Jesus to his people, and the vision of my mother who, while pregnant with me, saw a light issue forth from her which lit up the castles of Syria.’1

The good news of Jesus, referred to above, is mentioned in the following verse of the Qur’an: And [recall] Jesus, son of Mary, who said: ‘O Children of Israel, I am the Messenger of Allah to you, confirming that which was before me in the Torah and bringing good news of a Messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad.’ [61:6]

As for Abraham’s prayer, peace be upon him, the Qur’an says: ‘Our Lord! Raise among them a Messenger from them who shall recite Your signs to them and teach them the Book and the wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

Allah’s response to His khalil’s prayer is: He it is who has sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite to them His signs and to purify them, and to teach them the Book and the wisdom, though before they were in manifest error. [62:2]

The above highlight weighty considerations for our faith and spiritual growth; which include the following:

1. That our Prophet ﷺ was commissioned with two primary tasks: teaching (ta‘lim) and purification (tazkiyah): teaching us revealed knowledge about God, divinity and the afterlife; and purifying souls from the vices of idolatry (shirk), disbelief (kufr) and heedlessness (ghaflah) of the revealed commands and the Divine Presence.

2. Although Abraham put ta‘lim before tazkiyah in his supplication, Allah responded with tazkiyah first, then ta‘lim. Again in the Qur’an, Allah puts tazkiyah first: We have sent to you a Messenger from among you, to recite to you Our signs and purify you, teach you the Book and the wisdom, and teach you that which you knew not. [2:151] This tells us that purification has a distinction over teaching, and that the former is the goal while the latter is the necessary means.

3. That knowledge must be coupled with action – which is a sign that the purification process is underway – is borne out by the following salaf-reports: From Ibn Mas‘ud, may Allah be pleased with him, who repeatedly insisted: ‘O people, learn! Whosoever learns, then let them act.’2 The venerable sage, Sahl al-Tustari remarked: ‘Knowledge, all of it is of the world; that of it which is of the Hereafter, is action upon it.’3 And Abu Qilabah, a traditionist and pietist of Islam’s second century, stated: ‘When Allah gives you knowledge, give to Him worship; and let not your desire be to merely narrate it to the people.’4

4. In the context of knowledge and purification, the Prophet ﷺ stated: ‘Two qualities shall never coexist in a hypocrite: good character and understanding of the religion.’5 In other words, a hypocrite may acquire a sound, theoretical knowledge of Islam, but it won’t be reflected in piety, character or demeanour. Or it could be that a hypocrite might have a graceful character, but will lack a sound understanding of faith. It is only with the true believer that a sound understanding (fiqh) of the religion is united with righteous action and inward illumination of the soul. So knowledge in itself does not save: unless it is translated into piety, concern for beautiful character, compassion for creation and, ultimately, seeking Allah and the afterlife.

5.  As the monoculture puts Muslim distinctness under greater siege, we must ensure that the Quranic purification always remains at the heart of the Islamic story and its engagement with modernity. That any meaningful diversity is now seen as potentially destabilising to social cohesion simply serves to prove liberalism’s intolerance, as well as its growing totalitarian nature. Tawhid is told to not be so judgemental upon shirk. The Abrahamic odyssey is required to make way for the new Nimrods: the new lords of misrule. Monotheism is put on notice and told to bow down to Babylon. Pressures such as these will, regrettably, produce victims – except if my Lord has mercy. [12:53] For conformity is part of human nature. But a browbeaten Muslim who reluctantly gives in or capitulates isn’t the same as the ever growing cadre of Muslims who are anxious to please and who play fast and loose with revealed principles. Where we cannot live up to the social demands of faith, let us admit our own weaknesses and implore Allah for forgiveness, courage and strength. We cannot twist revealed truths, or water them down, or adulterate them just to fit in, gain acceptance, or curry favour. For as far as faith and hope are concerned, better a sinner than a sell-out.

6. Keeping the two core prophetic tasks firmly in mind, we need to be mindful about any activism or call to action which seeks to eclipse them or deflect the ummah away from them. In fact, all socio-political activism must be subordinate to these two tasks. Those who have lost sight of these core concerns should be gently and wisely guided back to them. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Salvation for the first part of this nation is with certainty (yaqin) and worldly renunciation (zuhd); destruction of the last part of this nation is by miserliness (bukhl) and [lengthy] hopes (amal).’6 Munawi said: ‘Meaning that the earlier ones adorned themselves with certainty and worldly detachment and purged themselves of miserliness and hopes. This was a cause for their salvation from perdition. In the latter times, the opposite will be the case.’7 He also wrote: ‘In it is a censure of miserliness and hopes (amal). But what is blameworthy is lengthy hopes, as has been said. As for hopes in themselves, they are necessary for the establishment of this worldly life.’8 Yaqin, certainty of faith, is the fruit of sound teachings, while zuhd is the outcome of the soul’s restraint; itself a fruit of purification.

7. As to the levels of faith and certainty, they are: (i) Faith via taqlid: where faith comes from taking it from an authority one trusts, without knowing the formal proofs for it. This is the faith of the lay people, and is easily susceptible to doubts. (ii) Faith through evidence (burhan): this is the fruit of learning formal proofs and discursive arguments. This is the faith of scholars and theologians. (iii) Faith via spiritual sight (‘ayan): this is where faith is the result of the heart having an abiding vigilance (muraqabah) of Allah. It’s the faith of those having reached the Station of Vigilance (maqam al-muraqabah). (iv) Faith via spiritual witnessing (mushahadah): it is where the heart witnesses Allah, as though seeing Him. This is the faith of the ‘arifun blessed with reaching the Station of Spiritual Witnessing (maqam al-mushahadah). The first level of faith can be fragile: the next three beget ascending degrees of conviction and certainty.9

8. Beware reformist Muslims aching to align Islam with current western sensibilities, desperate to erase any distinctness that may make the monoculture feel unsettled. Be mindful of Muslim preachers unhinged from the sanad tradition, unschooled in adab and spiritual wisdom, who conflate harshness and severity with piety, thereby helping to drive many a servant of God into the icy realms of Riddastan. Beware, also, of the Muslim activist adopting the Sunnah out of reaction, protest, desperation, insecurity, identity politics, or because he cannot discover what else he wishes to be. Experience repeatedly demonstrates that such a person is likely to be ‘an engine of tanfir, driving humanity away from Islam by turning it into a language for proclaiming his inward traumas.’10

9. Before finishing, this concern about ta‘lim and tazkiyah; teaching and purification: Be not like those who became fixated on demonstrating the correctness of Islam, but came to practice nothing of Islam itself. Be not like those who were busy proving the existence of God, but came to care nothing for God Himself.

10. Lastly, ta‘lim reveals that our age is frought with so much confusion. Tazkiyah tells us that souls have never been so prone to egotism or spiritual lethargy. Together they help us realise that the times call on us that we too, like Allah’s wali, be infused with a spirit of love. For loving Allah, the wali loves His purposes; and looking at creation with love, laments that the Lord is forgotten, His commands disobeyed, and His signs unheeded.

Allahumma habbib ilayna’l-iman wa zayyinhu fi qulubina,
wa karrih ilayna’l-kufra wa’l-fusuqa wa’l-‘isyan,
waj‘alna min al-rashidin.
Amin.

1. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.4175. It being a sahih hadith is shown in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1545.

2. Cited in al-Khatib al-Baghdadi, Iqtida’ al-‘Ilm al-‘Aml (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2002), no.11.

3. ibid., no.20.

4. ibid., no.37.

5. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2684, and it is sahih due to its collective routes of transmission. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.278.

6. Ibn Abi Dunya, Qasr al-Amal, no.20. Al-Albani graded the hadith hasan li ghayrihi in Sahih al-Targhib wa’l-Tarhib (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2006), no.3340.

7. Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 6:282; no.9256.

8. ibid., 6:282.

9. For a further discussion on these levels of faith, see: al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 90.

10. A.H. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: Quilliam Press, 2012), 66.

Islam’s Rational Monotheism in a Nutshell

oxforduniShaykh Abdal Hakim Murad explains: ‘In the Western milieu, converts to Islam claim that they are attracted to what they regard as its clear, rationally-accessible teachings, unobscured by elaborate mysteries. It is not only insiders who wish to take this view. Non-Muslim academic accounts … now frequently draw attention to the central role of reason in Islamic theology.’1

He cites Leaman in his The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia, saying: ‘The Qur’an does indeed display an unusual commitment to argument and logic in its self-explanation.’2

Earlier in the same volume, Leaman says that whereas Judaism is strongly linked with ethnicity, and Christianity with a leap of faith, Islam, he says, has successfully grown by stressing its rationality and evidentiality.3

With that being said, let us now consider a few examples of how the Qur’an employs a universal rationalist discourse – especially in terms of its theology and its invitation to monotheism:

1. One of its rational arguments confronts atheism. Here the Qur’an interrogates the belief of atheists by asking: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? Or did they create the heavens and the earth? No, they have no certainty [52:35-6] Thus, either we created ourselves: which is inconceivable; or we were created from nothing: another impossibility. Logic just leaves us a third possibility: that we were created by a creator. This simple argument doesn’t only posit a creator, but given the remarkable diversity and complexity of life and the universe, this creator must possess power, will, knowledge, wisdom and intent. That is, creation must have a wise, intelligent and purposeful Designer.

One detects the sheer eloquence and potency of the original Arabic (undoubtedly, lost in translation) in the conversion story of Jubayr b. Mut‘im. He says that he once heard the Prophet, upon whom be peace, recite the chapter containing this verse during the sunset prayer. When he reached the actual verse, Jubayr said, kada qalbi an yatir – ‘I felt as if my heart would fly out [of my chest].’ He then went on to embrace Islam.4

2. Another logical argument the Qur’an uses is: Have you not heard of he [Nimrod] who argued with Abraham about his Lord, because God had given him the kingdom? Abraham said: ‘My Lord is He who gives life and death.’ He replied: ‘I give life [by sparing people] and death [by executing them]!’ So Abraham replied: ‘God causes the sun to rise from the east, so cause it to come from the west!’ Thus was the disbeliever confounded. [2:258]

Nimrod initially feels smug in his response to Abraham that he too has power over the life and death of his subjects. Hence, having seen the way Nimrod is prepared to twist the issue, Abraham takes the argument to another level by challenging him to alter the movement of the sun as it courses through the sky. Nimrod is silenced and stupefied; his pretences shattered; and he is made to realise that divinity cannot be claimed merely by having sovereign power over a people in some tiny corner of God’s earth.

3. In addressing the Christian claim of Jesus’ divinity, the Qur’an says: The Messiah son of Mary was no more than a Messenger, before whom other Messengers had passed away. His mother was a saintly woman. They both ate food. See how We make the signs clear for them; then see how they are deluded from the truth. [5:75]

The ordinary human life which Christ lived has troubled those who wish to make him into a deity, in spite of evidences to the contrary in the Gospels. The Qur’an’s logic is clear. Food is eaten to satisfy an unquestionable physical need. Whoever needs to eat earthly food cannot, therefore, be a true deity possessing absolute perfection and thus be worthy of worship. The saintly Mary and her son, Jesus, both ate; thus they cannot be divine.

In fact, based on the likes of this verse, many theologians went on to rationally define a true deity, or ilah, as: ‘One who is independant of all needs beyond Himself, while all else is totally in need of Him (mustaghni ‘an kulli ma siwahu wa muftaqir ilayhi kulli ma ‘adahu). Now this is less a definition of ilah  – which is unanimously defined as al-ma’bud, or “that which is worshipped” – as it is the least common denominator which would rationally qualify something to be worthy of being the true deity.5

As for condemning the attitude which deifies Jesus – see how they are deluded from the truth – can this be a justification for Muslims to not respect the beliefs of others? Well that all depends upon how we define respect. Respect can mean to admire, honour or approve of a thing. It may also be used in the sense of being polite, civil, courteous and considerate. If a belief is blasphemous or idolatrous (which for both Jews and for Muslims Jesus’s alleged divinity is), it is inconceivable that believers could respect it in the sense of honouring, admiring or approving it. If, on the other hand, respect refers to a call to tolerate other peoples’ beliefs – along with civility, courtesy and dignified engagement, whilst remembering that faith must be freely chosen, since: There is no compulsion in religion [2:256], then this must surely be the mandate.

We may not respect a particular belief, but we must be respectful of those who hold it. Call to the way of your Lord, asks the Qur’an, with wisdom and kindly exhortation and reason with them in the most courteous manner. [16:125] And speak kindly to people [2:83] is another Quranic prescription.

4. The Qur’an employs the “logic of Lordship” to clarify to the pagan Arabs (mushriks) the folly of idolatry – of worshipping gods alongside the One true God. It says: If you were to ask them: ‘Who is it that created the heavens and earth, and subjected the sun and the moon?’ they will say: ‘God!’ Why then are they lying. [29:61] Another verse declares: Say: ‘Who is it that provides for you from the sky and the earth? Or who is it that has power over hearing and sight? Or who is it that brings forth the living from the dead and the dead from the living?And who is it that directs all affairs?’ They will say: ‘God!’ Then say: ‘Will you not then fear Him?’ [10:31]

Thus, having affirmed the role of God as sole Lord, Creator and Sustainer, the Qur’an demands that the pagan Arabs take the logic of this Lordship to its logical conclusion: that nothing else must be worshipped besides God. Ibn Kathir wrote: ‘The pagans who worshipped others along with Him affirmed that God is the sole, autonomous creator of the heavens and earth, sun and moon, alternating night and day; and that He alone is the Creator and Provider of His servants, meting out for them their livelihoods and life spans … Despite this being so, why worship others, or depend on others? For just as dominion and sovereignty is exclusively His, then likewise, He alone deserves to be worshipped.’6

5. One final example of Islam’s rational invitation: Hasn’t man seen that We created him from a drop of sperm, then he becomes an open opponent? And he makes comparisons for Us, and forgets his own creation, saying: ‘Who can revive dry bones after they have rotted away?’ Say: ‘He who created them the first time will again give them life!’ [36:77-79] The Qur’an is eager to demonstrate the plausibility of the resurrection to many of the Arab idolators who rejected the actual notion, by simply reminding them of “the first creation” of man. The fact that every individual has been brought into existence once before by the Creative Will of God, should be proof in itself that the same Creative Will is capable of doing so a second time: Do they not consider how God begins creation, then repeates it? That is easy for God! [29:19]

The Qur’an also alludes to how the phenomenon of resurrection is prefigured in this world. “Mini-resurrections” take place all the time in the natural world: flowers and foliage die partial deaths in winter, only to be brought to life again in spring.

The Qur’an also gives the simile of a desert whose scorched dead earth springs to lush green life with each merciful drop of rain: He it is who sends the winds as glad-tidings to herald His mercy, till, when they bear a cloud heavy with rain, We drive them to a dead land and then cause the rain to descend, thereby bringing forth fruits of every kind. Thus shall We raise up the dead. Perhaps you will remember. [7:57]

The above are a few samples of how the Qur’an uses a rational discourse to vindicate its key theological truths, without having to revert to a circular argument (i.e. it is true because the Qur’an says so). So whilst the Qur’an does insist upon it being the revealed truth and the Word of God, and that it should be accepted as such, it permits a defence to be made of itself and its core metaphysical claims based on rational arguments and sound reasoning. As for how the Qur’an vindicates itself, that shall be the concern of a future posting; God-willing.

1. Reason as Balance (CMS Paper 3), 2, at www.cambridgemuslimcollege.org – drawing from Anne-Sophie Roald, New Muslims in the European Context (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 2004), 116-24.

2. Leaman, The Qur’an: An Encyclopedia (London: Routledge, 2008), 65.

3. ibid., 55.

4. Al-Bukhari, no.4573; Muslim, no.463.

5. Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 208. As for its agreed-upon definition of ma‘bud – “that which is deified,” it can be found in: Qurtubi, al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 2:128; al-Suyuti, Tafsir al-Jalalayn (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 2002), 33; al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 82.

6. Tafsir Qur’an al-‘Azim (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, 1987), 3:431.

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