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Tawhid: Worship & Witness God

700-521089Explaining the essence of Islam and its main pillars, the Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: testifying that there is no deity but God and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God, performing the prayers, paying the zakat; pilgrimage to the House; and fasting in Ramadan.’ [Muslim, no.21]

It is also related in these words: ‘Islam has been built on five [pillars]: worshiping God and rejecting whatever else is beside Him, performing the prayers, paying the zakat …’ [Muslim, no.20]

In another wording: “Islam is built on five [pillars]: an yuwahhadu’Llah – to single out God …” [Muslim, no.19]

Scholars have noted that the above three hadiths, despite their variant wordings, are synonomous with one another. That is to say, they each convey the same meaning. Thus, to testify or bear witness that there is no deity but God is the same as worshiping God and none other than Him, which, in turn, is the same as singling-out God. It is this convicion of singling-out God for worship which, above all else, lies at the heart of the Islamic faith.

The Qur’an proclaims: Worship God and ascribe not any partner to Him. [4:36] Another verse has it: We raised in every nation a messenger [saying]: ‘Worship God and shun false gods!’ [16:36] Yet another of its passages insists: We sent no messenger before you except that We revealed to him: ‘There is no god but I, so worship Me.’ [21:25]

This, then, is the doctrine to which every Muslim submits, and around which the life of the community of believers revolves; captured in Islam’s Declaration of Faith: la ilaha illa’Llah – “There is no deity [worthy of worship] save the One true God: Allah.” This declaration, which in Islam’s view is the central assertion of all the divinely-sent prophets, is a summons, as it were, to live an attentive and pious life.

La ilaha illa’Llah is also called the statement of tawhid – a word which can be rendered as “divine unity” or “monotheism”; although a more accurate translation would be: “to assert God’s oneness.” This idea of tawhid – that God is inevitably and utterly one, perfect, indivisible and unique – is the cardinal tenet of a Muslim’s belief. Now since it is the nature of theologians to try and dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, precise theological definitions of the term have been offered down the ages. Among them all, the following has received widespread acceptance. Tawhid is:

‘To single-out God for worship (ifrad al-ma‘bud bi’l-‘ibadah), accompanied by believing in His unity and affirming this for His Essence, Attributes and Acts.’1

Definitions like the above reflect the dual concern of Muslim theologians: to assert the absolute transcendence or “otherness” of God, and to affirm that God alone must be singled-out for worship. Lord of the heavens and earth and all that is between them. Therefore worship Him and be steadfast in His worship. Do you know anyone similar to Him? [19:65]

But Islam’s goal is God, not some theological abstraction written down on a piece of paper. To this end the Qur’an repeatedly enjoins upon us all a constant awareness of God, even in the midst of our worldly activities. This awareness is expressed by two words which the Qur’an frequently employs. The first is taqwa: often glossed as “fear of God” or “piety”. To have taqwa of God is to obey Him wholeheartedly, while being conscious of His gaze and scrutiny of us. In other words, it is to be profoundly aware of God, and to mould our lives around such an awareness.

Ihsan is the second word, and is commonly translated as “goodness” and “excellence”. The Prophet, peace be upon him, explained ihsan as: ‘To worship God as though you see Him; and though you may not see Him, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.8]

Revelation’s insistance on taqwa and on ihsan is precisely so that tawhid may be made into a living, experiential reality and for faith to be deepened and be made profound. In explaining the verse, Your God is One God; there is no God but He. [2:163], Ibn Juzayy outlines the three ascending degrees of tawhid: the sublimest degree being to witness God with the eye of the heart; witnessing everything is from God, not that everything is God. He writes:

‘Know that peoples’ tawhid of God is of three degrees: First, that which the generality of Muslims affirm, by which their lives are protected in this world and by which they are delivered from residing in Hell eternally in the world to come: which is to reject partners, rivals, spouses, children, likenesses or equals with God.

The second degree is the tawhid of the elite. It is to perceive that all acts emanate from God alone, and to witness this through spiritual unveiling (mukashafah), not by way of formal dialectical proofs that are accessible to every Muslim. This station of tawhid of the elect enriches the heart with imperative knowledge (‘ilm daruri) and hence has no need for formal proofs. The fruits of such knowledge are a wholehearted devotion to God, putting one’s trust in Him alone, and a turning away from all creation; so that he does not hope in anyone save God, nor fear anyone but Him. For he sees no Doer save Him and that all people are in His overwhelming grasp; none of the matter is in their hand. Thus he dispenses with [depending upon] all secondary causes and earthly lords.

[The person at] the third degree does not see anything in existence except God alone. He is absent from looking at people; until, for him, it is as if they did not exist. This is what sufis term the Station of Annihilation (maqam al-fana); which means becoming “absent” from people until one is lost from oneself and from one’s tawhid – that is to say, being absent due to being immersed in witnessing God.’2

1. Al-Safarini, Lawami‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 1:57; al-Bayjuri, Tuhfat al-Murid ‘ala Jawharat al-Tawhid (Cairo: Dar al-Salam, 2006), 38.

2. Al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2003), 1:164.

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Western Muslims: Prophetically-Inspired Voices of Dissent

64276_555052664515251_466050869_nThis is a companion piece to the previous blog I wrote, called: British Muslims & their Strategies for Living in the UK (which can be read here). Here, I will discuss a few of the principles which ought to animate our engagement with wider society and our fellow citizens; and how, in the time honoured tradition of Abrahamic monotheism, we are called upon to hold a mirror up to society and help steer it away from self-harm.

One Qur’anic verse is particularly telling on this point, for it says: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be witnesses over mankind and that the Messenger may be a witness over you. [2:143] Thus this ‘community of the middle way’, distant from all types of extremism; this ‘best part of everything,’1 has been tasked with the burden of being witnesses over mankind: witnesses to the truth of God’s Prophets and to the monotheistic message they each came with, and witnesses to the truth that a life lived in hedonistic pursuits will not bring about human happiness.

Muslims are called to witness that: Indeed We have created man in hardship [90:4]; that each day of our life brings a host of difficulties, discomforts and disappointments. We must bear witness too that while the monoculture teaches us to drown them out with drink, drugs and distractions; monotheism insists that our happiness is greatest when we face such trials patiently, stoically and responsibly: Those who endure with patience will be rewarded without measure. [39:10] ‘We shall indeed test you with something of fear and hunger, loss of property and lives and crops; but give glad tidings to those who show patience.’ [2:155] Adversity, then, is the non-negotiable fee that each of us must pay for the privilege of being born.

To be a witness is to be actively engaged. Isolationist policies that some Muslims have chosen stifle such witnessing. And who can be better in speech than one who calls others to God, does what is right, and says: ‘I am one of the Muslims’, states the Qur’an [41:33] In another verse, the Prophet, peace be upon him, is told to declare: Say: ‘This is my path. I call to God, clear-sightedly, I and those who follow me.’ [12:108] Isolationism oftentimes leads to ghettoisation and to monotheism’s lights being veiled from reaching others. The call need not be verbal: ‘actions speak louder than words’, and doing what is right has a greater impact on hearts than words alone. Debating the correctness of tawhid over shirk undeniably has its place and can help win arguments. But the conviction of tawhid lived out in a life of prayer, piety, charity, service and sacrifice tends to have a decisive edge in softening souls and inviting intellects.

Let us also recall that the uncompromising monotheism of God’s Prophets, peace be upon them, didn’t arise in the wilderness, or away from centres of civilisation or civic life. We only sent before you men to whom We reveal, of the people of the towns. [12:109] Some Prophets may have been driven to the wilderness, exiled there, or taken refuge there for a while. A few have felt the need to head for the hills for a time. But the core of their call was decisively urban and city-centred.

Prophetic cries from the wilderness there have been. But Prophets offer us something practicable and liveable; something people may actualise in their urban worlds which would help them to be recognisably human and spiritual. Along with an unflinching monotheism, the history of the great monotheistic epics were rooted in impassioned protests against corruption, tyranny, social iniquity or ‘the privilege and arrogance of power, whether that of kings as in the Hebrew bible, or the Roman Empire as in the Gospels, or a tribal elite as in the Quran.’2 Historical records show that what we now refer to as the drive for social justice was the idealistic underpinning of monotheistic faith. Such is the energy of the monotheistic call and the prophetically-inspired voices of dissent. Opium of the people? Nothing was ever less an opiate than a monotheistic religion of sacred discontent and dissatisfaction with the status quo.

So what are we Muslims to be or to do here in the West; in the place where most of us call home? What is it that we can offer? We can’t be mere armchair critics of society, that’s for sure; nor can we continue to moan from the fringes. We could, I suppose, settle as comfortably as possible into the consumerist culture and live our lives mostly for material pursuits. But that would be to shirk away from the commitment we have made to Abrahamic monotheism, to la ilaha ila’Llah, and ignore the demands it makes on us in terms of working for a more just, compassionate and ethical society.

We could, as some of us do, wallow in self pity and a culture of blame, accusing others for our woes and predicament, unable to move beyond past grievances. But that is to be ignorant of faith and the sense of personal responsibility, empowerment, hope and optimism that the monotheistic belief injects into individuals. ‘Monotheism makes a difference to what we believe and do,’3 and to the way we see our lives unfold and our responses to it. It is impossible to be moved by the prophetic call and not have a social conscience. Their message, delivered in the name of God, is: worship God alone, and take responsibility. For the world will not get better of its own accord.

We could opt for a browbeaten facsimile of monotheism, having nothing to say about our ever-growing social ills or the downwards spiral of spiritual decadence; content to pander to corporate agendas and the money markets; desperate to confine religion to the home, vexed whenever it enters the public space; servile to the monoculture; and in homage to the modern liberal state. Rowan Williams, former Archbishop, says that ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’4 Theology aside, the above applies equally to Muslim liberals as it does Christian ones; those who see the Qur’an as little more than a social manifesto which wholeheartedly endorses the liberal orthodoxies of our age. A privatisation of religion, no doubt; but a publicisation of a shameless defeatism too.

As explained before, Islam’s monotheism calls upon us to be witnesses; it equally calls upon us to be healers too: We send the Messengers only to bring good news and to warn. So those who believe and set things aright, no fear shall come upon them and nor shall they grieve. [6:48] This setting things aright; this healing, rings out in the next passage too: Have you seen him who denies the religion? Such is he who repels the orphan and who does not urge others to feed the poor. [107:1-2] This monotheistic spirit of healing has been eloquently expressed by Britain’s former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who writes: ‘We are here to make a difference, to mend the fractures of the world, a day at a time, an act at a time, for as long as it takes to make it a place of justice and compassion where the lonely are not alone, the poor not without help; where the cry of the vulnerable is heeded and those who are wronged are heard.’5

Monotheism undoubtedly urges compassion, but it demands courage too. It is not for the faint-hearted. For as its vision of the world inspires us to partake in the healing of society’s many wounds, it exhorts we be critical iconoclasts too: questioning society’s conventional wisdoms, challenging the secular orthodoxies of the age, speaking truth to power, calling into question whether universal human rights are actually universal, and interrogating liberalism to find out if it is merely a sophisticated veneer for a new type of totalitarianism that is unable to accept any true and meaningful diversity and unwilling to accommodate any significant voices of dissent.

In short: monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. That we heal and we dissent. An apparent paradox? Monotheism’s vision is very much about how to square such paradoxical circles.

Abdal Hakim Murad spoke of the need for Muslims to square the proverbial circle in these terms: ‘The challenge of modern Muslimness is to combine a confident dissent from the global culture with a sense of service and humility. Triumphalism is no less damaging to the soul than an inferiority complex. Where loyalty is for God, and love is for what humanity has been called to become, the believer can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’6

As to the rather tiresome question of whether or not Muslims can truly be at home in the West, then this is answered by the great bulk of ordinary mosque-going Western Muslims with a resounding “yes”. Millions of Muslims who live in the West continue to demonstrate that they are, with different degrees of accommodation, at home with the realities of life in the West. Those bread and butter issues which concern Western Muslims are concerns for everyone else too. Their specific challenge, however, is how to remain conscientious believers whilst being responsible, law-abiding citizens. Thus we need a theory to shore up the practice, and that theory must have at its centre the idea of Muslims being: shuhada ‘ala’l-nas – “witnesses over mankind”.

The hubris of the secular humanist system has placed undue strain upon life on earth. The urgent need from Muslims, therefore, is dignified dissent from the monoculture. But these prophetically-inspired voices of dissent must be infused with great wisdom, sacrifice, service and humility.

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Sardar, Reading the Qur’an (London: Hurst & Company, 2011), 111.

2. Hazleton, The First Muslim: the Story of Muhammad (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013), 102.

3. Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility (London & New York: Continuum, 2005), 175.

4. Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.

5. To Heal a Fractured World, 5.

6. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68.

With the Inbreak of Truth, Comes the Outbreak of Violence

islamophobia-1-638Ibn Mas‘ud – an early convert to Islam, who went on to become one of the most learned scholars from the Prophet’s Companions – said of the Prophet ﷺ when the latter sustained an injury during the battle of Uhud: ‘I can see myself looking at the Prophet ﷺ as he said about one of the prophets of old who, when his people had beaten him, was wiping the blood from his face whilst praying: O God! Forgive my people, for they know not.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3477; Muslim, no.1752]

The above incident brings to the fore certain realities that Muslims of today now face, as well as certain reminders they ought to keep firmly in mind:

Of those realities is the alarming rise in Muslim hate crimes and a new wave of anti-Muslim intolerance. Recall Marwa El-Sherbini who was stabbed to death in a court of law in Dresden, Germany, in 2009. Her murderer went from verbally abusing her for her faith and for her Islamic attire, to declaring all Muslims to be ‘monsters’, to finally stabbing her to death over fifteen times.

There is also the incident, far less tragic, of a former soldier who tied a pig’s head with ‘Allah’ written on it to the gates of a mosque in Cheltenham, in 2010.

Then there are the ever-growing cases of Muslim women being insulted, intimidated or physically assaulted because of choosing to wear a headscarf (or face veil) in public or in their work environment.

From the reminders is that insults, scorn and contempt tend to be the common man’s weapon of choice in the defence against the inbreak of truth (since it does not involve the commitment inherent in physical violence). The criminals, says the Qur’an, used to laugh at the believers, and wink at one another as they passed them by. When they returned to their people, they would mock them; and when they saw them, they would say: ‘These are surely astray!’ Yet they were not sent as keepers over them. On this Day [of Judgement] the believers will laugh at the disbelievers. [83:29-34]

As Muslims seek to mold and live their lives in the light of Islam’s revealed truths – in a continent that has become largely religiously illiterate, on top of being plagued with acute economic downturn and growing social unrest – they will be looked upon more and more as being counter culture; odd; out of sync with society; an annoyance, even; a fifth column, perhaps! Are the insults or the demonisation of Islam likely to stop any time soon? Most Muslims, I suspect, will intuit not!

Sometimes, though, as in some of the above instances, the inbreak of truth can lead to the outbreak of violence. Of course, even believers can or should take recourse to the law-enforcing agencies in order to procure justice or to fend-off harm. But where the law is unable, or simply fails them, faith instructs us to be patient and steadfast, and to try and cleanse our hearts of rage, revenge or undue anger. The higher virtue would be to repel evil with what is better [41:34] and pray, not for the destruction of the aggressors, but for their guidance and salvation.

One of the most painful episodes in the career of the Prophet ﷺ is that of Ta’if. In the year that would be known as “The Year of Sorrow” (which saw the passing of his beloved wife of twenty-five years, the lady Khadijah; followed by that of his dear uncle and earthly protector, Abu Talib), Islam and the Muslims encountered renewed hostility and rejection. So the Prophet resolved to go to Ta’if, expecting that he and his message would be more welcome.

To his utter dismay he was met with contempt, rejection and physical abuse. For the townsfolk unleashed a crowd of their slaves and teenagers upon him, who pelted him with stones until his feet were bruised and bloodied; and until Zayd b. Harithah, who had tried to shield him, had suffered several head wounds. Scorned, shunned, chased out, and emotionally and physically wounded, the Prophet ﷺ was forced to return back to Makkah. On route, he was visited by an angel who said that if the Prophet so wished, the angel could bring the two mountains crushing down on the town. To this, the Prophet ﷺ simply responded: ‘Do not do so! For I hope that from their offspring shall come a people who will worship God alone, ascribing no partner unto Him.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3231]

We are reminded here of the need to nurture in ourselves the prophetic concern for peoples’ guidance and welfare, and to never allow the call of Abrahamic monotheism to be eclipsed by whatever else we Muslims may say or do. Patience is greatly needed, not only to bear scorn and rejection, but also to partake  – even if against all odds – in the healing of the Monoculture. Whether as British, European or American Muslims, we need to cultivate within our souls the prayer: ‘O God, forgive our people, for they know not!’

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