The Humble "I"

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Footprints on the Sands of Time 5

sands_of_time_hourglass_sunset_abstract_hd-wallpaper-1718051None of us are immune from the intensifying pressures of a world that has little or no care for God. The idolatry, immorality and ignorance of God’s purpose that defile the world are the core dangers which Revelation warns against. Today, that which defiles souls is closer than ever. In our internet age, it’s often just a click away. In one of the earliest chapters of the Qur’an to be revealed, it says: O you enveloped in your mantle, arise and warnmagnify your Lord, purify your garment, and shun [all] defilement. [74:1-5] These “Footprints” are about how we as Muslims may best magnify God; to keep His holiness in our hearts and mould our lives around this holiness. It’s about how we, in this age of aggressive liberalism, can best be conscientious believers and responsible citizens while courageously, yet wisely, avoiding defilement. (Earlier “Footprints” may be read here, herehere and here).

On loyalty to la ilaha illa’Llah: In today’s world, behaviour inconsistent with the moral teachings of Islam, by those who claim to follow Islam, is a significant cause for Islam to be devalued and mocked.

On staying focused: The believer lives in this world; he doesn’t live for this world: And the Hereafter is better for those who are mindful of God. Have you no sense? [Qur’an 6:32]

On trying to nurture 20/20 vision: Religion is about learning to see. It’s about human vision – the heart’s vision – as it learns to see past surface appearances to witness the Real. For as the Qur’an puts it: It isn’t the eyes that grow blind, but it is the hearts in the chests that become blind. [22:46]

Addictions wreak marriages: Along with the obvious types of prospective husbands to avoid – those that are irreligious, immoral, arrogant, ill-tempered, miserly, immature, impatient, and lack compassion and understanding – one must also beware of those who are in the grip of serious addictions. Alcohol, drugs and pornography are obvious ones. But two subtler addictions should also be steered clear of: The first is a man’s addiction to his mother. In other words, a “mummy’s boy”. This must not be confused with our love, honour, duty, or kindness to our mothers. For there’s a huge difference between that and between sheepish subservience to them. A husband who allows his mother to rule the roost, permitting her to marginalise the role and rights of his wife, is failing to offer his wife the protective care she has a right to. The other addiction is to video games. An increasing number of marriages are now failing because of it. In short, addictions wreck marriages.

On science, religion and meaning:  It is in the nature of science to take things apart to see how they work; while it is in the nature of religion to put things together to see what they mean.

On Ramadan’s reality: The whole purpose of fasting in Ramadan is to foster a state of detachment from the world, and from our ego and desires. This creates, as it were, a space in our souls for the remembrance of God and for awareness of His presence: O you who believe, fasting is prescribed for you, as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may become mindful of God. [2:183]

On bowing to the monoculture: One of the signs of the End Days, and whose onward trajectory has been underway for a century or so, is: the uncritical imitation of non-Muslim lifestyles and values. One hadith says: ‘The Hour will not be established until my ummah takes to what previous nations took to.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7319] In another: ‘You shall soon follow the ways of those who came before you, inch by inch, handspan by handspan, so much so that if they were to enter a lizard’s hole, you’d do likewise.’ They asked: O Allah’s Messenger, do you mean the Jews and Christians? He replied: ‘Who else?’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7320; Muslim, no.2669]

Thus, as long as we keep deferring to the dominant monoculture and its ideals, things shall not bode well for this ummah of great mercies. Inculturation – i.e. one group or culture gradually acquiring the traits, values and norms of another culture – must be guided by the rulings and objectives of our fiqh teachings, as well as kept wise by the profound insights of our tasawwuf/tazkiyah tradition.

On lovers at love’s ocean: The conceited intellectual is always showing-off. The lover, through the shari’ah, is always getting lost. The self-absorbed intellectual is afraid of diving. The whole business of love is in the drowning.

On seeking to be present: Presence of heart with God (hudur al-qalb) isn’t only due in our salat and du‘a, it is something sought during each moment of our life. One of the greatest paths to nurturing such presence is by kathrat al-dhikr – “remembering God abundantly.”

On remembering our destination: Only fools wander, only the wise travel, and only a ship that knows where it’s heading benefits from favourable winds.

Please take some blame for the religious anarchy: The scourge of takfir is now a global epidemic. Indiscriminate violence, destruction of lives and property, decimation of public security and sectarian violence are its fruits. The image of Islam has never been so tarnished or been made to look so vile. Those who, for reasons of wanting to revive the Sunnah, opened the door for ordinary, religiously unqualified Muslims to ‘weigh-up’ and follow the ‘strongest’ proof in matters of taharah, salat and personal piety, but somehow imagined they could keep the door closed when it came to the more fragile, volatile matter of politics and public affairs – well that logic seems not to have faired so well. Those ‘ulema who opened the door now see droves of zealous and unqualified people rushing through it, giving wild and fallacious fatwas on Islam – undermining qualified juristic authority, creating religious anarchy, and tearing apart what remains of Muslim unity – and they don’t know what to do or how to stem this tide. And, of course, out of such a collapse of traditional scholarly authority have come the takfiris, with their terror and tribulations.

On our God-given intelligence: What’s the point of the shari‘ah aiming to protect the intellet (‘aql) – the ability to reason, reflect, discern benefit from harm, and to reign in the soul from wrongdoing – if we aren’t going to adequately utilise it?

On obsession with conspiracy theories: Are the various conspiracy theories that have etched their way into popular culture true? Maybe. Have the powerful elites of every age sought to band together to control, manipulate and subdue the masses? Possibly. Is God in full control of history and of human destiny? Absolutely! Yet many Muslims forget this last fact and instead are obsessed with chasing shadows.

On lowering the ceiling of learning: Those Muslims who think that they have enough religious learning and wish not to learn more, are not just unwise; they could even be outright fools.

On the modern Muslim challenge: Monotheism urges we be part of society, yet apart from society. It insists we heal and we dissent too. A 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, believers can combine pity for the monoculture’s shrunken victims with gratitude for God’s guidance.’

On the devil inspiring religiousness: A large number of Muslims involved in terrorism tend to lack even basic religious literacy. All too often their lack of religious learning is woefully infantile. Religion, it seems, plays a role less as a driver of their behaviour, but more as a vehicle for their pathologies and political outrage:

A bro who once lived with his mummy;
Wanted street cred more than some money.
“Shall I be a mufti,
Or takfiri jihadi?”
So he went and brought ‘Islam for a Dummy’.

On political order and disorder: Left to our egos or selfish impulses, man’s corrupted nature (fitrah) would render man’s life – to cite Hobbes – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’ Hence, according to classical Muslim scholarship, we have the blessings of God sending Revelation and Prophets, for the guidance and welfare of individuals and society. Hence, also, Islam’s insistence on yielding to political authority over anarchy, and guarding public security – wary of any actors who seek to erode or to undermine them. Needless to say, Islam envisages government to pursue the objectives of justice (‘adl), the promotion of benefit (maslahah), and the prevention of harm (mafsadah). To be specific, Islamic governance is committed to protect man’s five essential interests (al-dururiyyat al-khamsah); namely: faith, life, intellect, lineage and property. This, at least, is the theory.

On sifting the wheat from the chaff: ‘Ijazah (“authorisation” to teach) doesn’t always equate to having gained mastery in the particular subject of sacred learning. But it does represent an adab of learning and of heading in the right direction. It also helps to sift out DIY Islam from the real deal; the wheat from the chaff.

On the dumbing down of society: Here in the West, over the past four of five decades, much has been said and debated about the dumbing down of society. Dumbing down refers to the oversimplification of critical thought as well as the diminishment of the intellectual content in education, art, culture and politics. Even though we have more information at our disposal, we are seen to be far less capable of critical thinking than the generations of people before us. The argument is that media and entertainment, the over reliance on technology, and capitulating to turbo consumerism, has all led to this numbing and dumbing down. A more sinister narrative insists that the dumbing down has been socially engineered, so that “the powers that be” may keep the masses in check  – less the Orwellian, and more the Huxleyan engineering!

On a state worse than sin: Committing sin is undeniably wrong. But it’s when sins no longer strike a discordant note in the soul that one really needs to worry.

On the art of living beautifully: Adab is the art of being trained in decency. Such must be the hallmark of each believer.

Uhud & Hunayn: Lessons from the Frontline

Arab-Horsemen-by-a-Watering-HoleIn The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien puts these words into the mouth of the brave though modest Faramir (younger brother to the brave but impulsive Boromir): ‘War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I only love that which they defend …’

In classical Islam, warfare is regulated by an all-important shari‘ah dictum that states about jihad: wujubuhu wujubu’l-wasa’il la al-maqasid – ‘Its necessity is the necessity of means, not of ends.’1 Indeed, Islam’s overall take on war is best seen in the following words of the Prophet, peace be upon him: ‘Do not wish to meet your enemy, but ask God for safety. When you do meet them, be firm and know that Paradise lies beneath the shades of swords.’2 In other words, pursue the path of peace, with the presence of justice; if such a path be denied by belligerence or hostile intent, then be prepared to act differently.

War, invariably, can and does throw up immense carnage and destruction, and brings untold human loss and suffering. Yet it is also where some of the profoundest acts of courage, bravery and heroism are found, as well as invaluable lessons for life. In what follows, we shall look at two battles in the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and their core lessons that need internalising:

The first lesson is from the Battle of Uhud. It began at dawn on Friday, March 25th, 2H/624AD, a year on from the Battle of Badr. The Muslims numbered seven hundred against an enemy three-thousand strong. The prestige of the Makkan idolaters was at stake for the crushing defeat they suffered at Badr – including seventy deaths and just as many taken captive. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned his men so that Mount Uhud was behind them. The only way the Makkan cavalry could attack them now was from infront, so the Prophet posted fifty archers on a rise with strict orders to stay put, no matter what happened. This would be an excellent strategy, provided the archers obeyed their orders. But by nightfall, and due to the archers abandoning their post (thus leaving the rear of the army unguarded), the fortunes of war changed and disaster befell the Muslims: the Prophet would be wounded and seventy Muslims would be killed. But it didn’t have to be that way.

The Companion, Bara’ b. ‘Azib, recounts: We encountered the pagans on that day [of Uhud]. The Prophet, peace be upon him, positioned a group of archers and appointed ‘Abd Allah [b. Jubayr] as their leader, saying: ‘Do not leave this position. If you should see us defeat them, do not leave this position; if you should see them defeating us, do not come to our aid.’ When we met the enemy they fled on their heels, to the extent that we saw their women fleeing to the mountains, lifting their dresses and revealing their anklets. Some people started saying: ‘The booty, the booty!’ But ‘Abd Allah said: ‘The Prophet took an oath from me to not leave this post.’ His companions, however, disobeyed. So when they disobeyed, Allah confused them, so they did not know where to go, and because of which they suffered seventy deaths.3

Ibn al-Qayyim comments: ‘This calamity that struck them was as a result of their own actions. Allah said: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted [losses] twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves. Allah is able to do all things.’ [3:165] And He mentioned this very same matter in that which is more general than this, in one of the Makkan chapters: Whatever misfortune befalls you, is for what your own hands have earned, and He pardons much. [42:30] And He said: Whatever good befalls you is from Allah, and whatever calamity befalls you is from yourself. [4:79] So the good and bad mentioned here refer to blessings and misfortunes: Blessings are what Allah favours you with, while misfortunes occur because of your own selves and your misdeeds. The first is from His grace (fadl); the second, His justice (‘adl).’4

So the single most important lesson to learn from Uhud is that whenever we Muslims suffer defeat – be it on the battlefield of swords, ideas, or hearts and minds – we are to blame ourselves, take account of our souls and repent for our sins. There being no other way to correct our course. For despite the enemy attacking the Muslims from their unprotected rear and being the reason why one believer after another was cut down and killed; and despite the enemy being the reason for Muslim flight turning to full-scale panic as the Prophet, peace be upon him, was knocked down by a crushing blow to the head – the Qur’an still laid the blame for these calamities squarely at the feet of the Muslims: When a disaster befell you after you had yourself inflicted losses twice as heavy, you exclaimed: ‘How did this happen?’ Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165]

Nor was the defeat the result of the entire army’s disobedience, or even the majority; but because of less than fifty men among a total of seven-hundred! If such can be the consequences of a sin of a tiny minority, what then about the plethora of sins or acts of disobedience committed by a heedless, unrepentant, transgressing majority!

And tragically, as frequent as these verses appear in the Qur’an, we still choose not to internalise them or allow them to enter into our hearts. Instead, we allow our souls to be invaded by a false victim mentality and choose to play the blame game. We accuse all and sundry for our political woes and misfortunes – the West, the rulers, bankers, Zionists, along with a whole host of conspiracy theories which plague our minds and cripple our thinking – but we never accuse ourselves. We are keen to hold to account other people – in a way that contains no pity, mercy or leeway – but are not prepared to take ourselves to any serious account. And yet: Allah never changes the condition of a people unless they change what is within themselves. [13:11] Thus while we are clear about the evils of Assad and his crimes of carnage in Syria; and the shameless hypocrisy and tyranny of al-Sisi et al. in Egypt, we tend to steer shy of the all-important question of why such calamities occurred in the first place. The Quranic reply to this is very likely to be: Say: ‘It is from yourselves.’ [3:165] Isn’t it? And while this does not excuse us from raising our hands in prayer, and giving as much humanitarian aid as possible, we still need to sincerely confront the deeper question.

The second lesson we will consider is the Battle of Hunayn. It is Wednesday morning, February 2nd, 8H/630AD. The Muslim army, now twelve thousand strong, marched towards the valley of Hunayn to encounter the Hawazin tribe and their allies, whose number was perhaps a third of that of the Muslims. It is worth noting that two years earlier, when the Prophet came to Makkah for the lesser pilgrimage, or ‘umrah, only 1,400 people were with him. This was the time when the Prophet, peace be upon him, concluded the peace treaty with the Makkans at Hudaybiyah. A few months later, the same number fought alongside him at the Battle of Khaybar. And in previous battles, their numerical strength had been far smaller. But this time, many of the newcomers to Islam felt a sense of euphoria and over confidence as they observed the size of their army. They felt sure that, having previously won battle after battle with much smaller numbers, such large numbers would make victory a sure certainty. But as soon as the Muslims reached the valley, they were met with a fierce, unexpected torrent of arrows from all directions. Caught off guard, confused and overwhelmed, the Muslims were forced into a chaotic and panicked retreat. And though the Muslims would eventually prevail as victors in this battle (for the Prophet, as ever, remained calm in his wisdom, certainty and faith: he eventually rallied a hundred men and inflicted a most crushing defeat on the enemy), it wasn’t without many of them being slain in the ambush first. The Qur’an says: Allah had already helped you on many fields, and on the day of Hunayn, when you delighted in your numerical strength, it availed you nothing. And the earth, vast as it was, narrowed on you, and you turned back in retreat. [9:24]

Ibn al-Qayyim again: ‘Thus from Allah’s wisdom, transcendent is He, is that He first made them taste the bitterness of defeat and of being overcome – despite their large numbers, strength and preparation – so that heads that were raised in the Conquest of Makkah, should be lowered. For they did not enter His city and sanctuary as Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, had done: head bowed upon his horse; to the extent that his head almost touched the saddle out of humility to his Lord, humbleness to His glory, and submission to His might. For Allah had made lawful to him His sacred city [Makkah] and sanctuary, and had not made it lawful to anyone before him nor to anyone after him. [All this occurred] so that He could make it clear to those who said, “We will not be defeated today due to our numbers,” that help and victory come from Him alone; that whomsoever He helps, none can overcome; and that whomsoever He forsakes, none can grant victory to. [And that] it was He who took it upon Himself to give victory to His Messenger and to His religion – not because of their numbers that they revelled in. Such numbers, in fact, were of no avail to them, since they turned and fled. But when their hearts were humbled, Allah sent down the removal of their distress and a foretaste of victory by sending down His tranquility upon His Prophet and upon the believers, and by sending an army unseen. Hence from His wisdom is that He sends down His victory and gifts to them when their hearts become humbled and broken: And We desired to show favour to those who were oppressed in the earth, and to make them leaders, and make them inheritors. And to grant them power in the earth, and to show Pharaoh, Haman and their hosts that which they feared. [28:5-6]’5

The core lesson of Hunayn is, undoubtedly, to never overlook the real, most essential reason for victory: Allah. For victory comes from Him, not from numerical strength. (We do, however, have a duty to tie our camel, as one hadith says, and to then trust in Him.) The Muslims were initially given to taste the bitterness of defeat in order that they might remember precisely this. In fact, large numbers – in the absence of hearts feeling humbled before the majesty and might of Allah – are of little use. Having been taught a lesson in humility; having their pretensions of numerical strength shattered; and having presented their broken hearts to Allah, Allah then granted the believers victory at Hunayn at the hands of a small band of courageous, steadfast Muslims who remained dedicated to the Prophet, peace be upon him.

Allah is with the broken-hearted and will call overconfident, self-assured Muslims to account if they exult in their numbers or their material achievements – as He will call proud establishments and arrogant religiousness to account.

W’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Ibn Hajr al-Haytami citing al-Zarkashi, Tuhfat al-Muhtaj bi Sharh al-Minhaj (Beirut: Dar Sadir, 1972), 9:211.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.2991. For comparisons between Jihad theory and Western Just War theory, consult: Kelsay & Johnson (eds.), Just War and Jihad: Historical and Theoretical Perspectives on War and Peace in Western and Islamic Traditions (New York, Westport & London: Greenwood Press, 1991).

3. Al-Bukhari, no.4043.

4. Zad al-Ma’ad fi Hady Khayr al-‘Ibad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 3:214.

5. ibid., 3:418-9.

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