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Beware Pseudo-Scholars & Half-Baked Knowledge!

tumblr_md1w1eooHu1rvnjwto1_500The best proverbs manage to capture important ideas in just a few words. One well-worn Arab proverb has it that: nisf al-‘ilm akhtaru min al-jahl – ‘Half-baked knowledge is more dangerous than ignorance.’ ‘The greatest enemy of knowledge,’ insists Steven Hawking, ‘is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’ In the scholastic tradition of Islam there is the concept of ta‘alum, of ‘feigning knowledge’: claiming to be well-versed in religious matters merely by reading books, rather than by learning, studying and dialoguing with seasoned scholars. And so very often, such half-baked knowledge can be more corrupting and dangerous – to both the individual and the society – than simple, plain ignorance. Permit me to elaborate:

The whole notion of how a little knowledge can deceive a person into thinking they are more expert than they actually are has, I think, been wonderfully stated in a poem by the English poet, Alexander Pope. In his An Essay on Criticism (1709), he says:

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again.

Some of the lines of his Essay have become part of the popular lexicon, such as: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’ and ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Then there is the famous first line of the above couplets, often misquoted as: ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’

In Greek mythology, it was held that drinking from the Pierian Spring would grant a person great knowledge and inspiration. Pope explains how if a person only learns a little; if they only drink shallow drafts, it’s likely to intoxicate them and make them feel giddy and delusional. It’s apt to make them feel as if they know a great deal. However, a greater share of learning should remove their false pretensions and humble them. For drinking largely sobers, in that one then understands their level and becomes aware of how little they truly know.

Pope’s dangers of a little learning finds an earlier parallel in Muslim heritage. In some of the manuals written to help train Muslim scholars, teachers and students of Sacred Law, it cautions to beware of becoming an Abu Shibr (lit. “Father of a Span”). It’s said that: ‘Knowledge has three spans [or stretches]: Whomsoever enters the first stretch becomes puffed up with pride; whoever enters the second is humbled; while whoever enters the third realises they know nothing.’1 An Abu Shibr is someone who gets stuck in the first stretch. Having dipped his toe in the ocean of learning; having only drunk shallow drafts, Abu Shibr is intoxicated, looses sight of his fledgling level, and acts as if he is seasoned in sacred knowledge.

Of course, not everyone who enters the first stretch of learning becomes intoxicated. 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 the Abu Shibr persona, the experienced shaykh is likely able to treat the disease with an effective cure). Rather, it’s those whose knowledge comes only by way of a few books or surfing the Net that are most at risk. And like an alcoholic in denial, Abu Shibr is a problem to himself as well as to others.

As for the second and third spans, or stretches, of knowledge, then as the months and years pass, the one seeking it appreciates, at first hand, just how vast and complex the ocean of sacred knowledge is. The seeker becomes aware, even via one single religious issue, the linguistic and juristic nuances entailed in deriving a ruling for it; the highly 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 level. With further learning and engagement with knoweledge, one is led to the stark realisation of just how little they truly know – in comparison to the great masters and experts of this blessed tradition.

Nowadays, online forums and chatrooms are awash with pseudo-scholars audaciously speaking about things they have no knowledge of. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Whosoever speaks about the religion without knowledge is a liar, even if he didn’t intend to lie!’2 Such pretenders might know something about the subject they are discussing, but do not know enough for a God-pleasing, objective discussion. They know a thing or two on the matter, but are ignorant of ten other things about it: and all too often they are ignorant of their own ignorance! This is due to a diseased heart and diminished piety, so the ego pushes them into false pretence, denial, haughtiness, conceit and being too full of themselves – wa’l-‘iyazubi’Llah.

Al-Khalil b. Ahmad remarked: ‘There are four types of people: (1) One who knows and knows he knows; he is learned, so follow him! (2) One who knows and knows not that he knows; he is asleep, so wake him! (3) One who knows not and knows he knows not; he seeks to learn, so teach him! (4) One who knows not and knows not that he knows not; he is a fool, so shun him!’3

Our ‘ulema explain that there are two types of ignorance (jahl): simple ignorance (jahl basit), and compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab). Simple ignorance is, to a degree, a minor problem, in that it is easily remedied by the simple act of asking. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know, orders the Qur’an [16:43] One hadith states: ‘The cure for ignorance is to ask (innama shifa’u’l-‘iyy al-su’al).4 Simple ignorance is where one is aware that one doesn’t know; in other words, one realises their state of ignorance. As such, there is a sense of humbleness that accompanies simple ignorance.

Not so compounded ignorance which, Islamically speaking, is a far more pernicious problem. For the person wallowing in this ignorance is convinced he knows what he doesn’t know. He thinks he has knowledge of the issue, while in reality he knows next to nothing about it. Much of the Islamic postings on the Internet are characterised by such ignorance upon ignorance, or half-baked knowledge, as they pass themselves off as the real McCoy. But what causes a person to pant like a dog on heat, insisting: ‘I do know, I do know’, while the reality is very different? And what are the telltale signs of being soiled by such ignorance?

As noted earlier, the ego is all too often the culprit in such matters. In his censure of half-baked knowledge and pseudo-scholarship, the great Muslim polymath, Ibn Hazm wrote:

‘Some people – who are overcome by ignorance, whose intellects are weak and whose nature is corrupt – think they are from the learned, but they aren’t. There is no harm greater to knowledge or the learned than from the likes of such people. For they took a meagre part of some of the sciences, while missing a much larger portion than what they had grasped. Moreover, their seeking knowledge was not a search for knowledge of Allah; exalted is He, nor was their aim to escape the darkness of ignorance. Instead, it was to be one-up on people through showing-off and self-importance, or to attract attention by being cantankerous and stirring-up controversy, or to shamelessly boast about being from the scholars when in reality they are not.’5

A telltale sign that one is afflicted with such a disease includes: An eagerness to poke one’s nose into difficult religious issues that are well above one’s proverbial pay grade, so as to offer their tuppence worth on the matter. The Arab proverb likely fits such a person: laysa hadha bi‘ushshik fadruji – ‘This isn’t your nest, so hop along.’

Another telltale sign is: being obnoxiously adamant that one’s own opinion is correct, and that everyone else is off. All too often this leads Abu Shibr to take this differing to the next level. His half-baked knowledge doesn’t allow him to realise that there may be more than one valid take on the issue, and that his mightn’t even be the soundest. But by this time it’s already too late, Abu Shibr has already made a mountain out of a molehill. In his hubris, he thinks that he alone is on haqq and the others are on batil. Such delusions of grandeur lead him to demean, defame and even boycot and warn against those who differ with him. In the bigotry and blind-following of his desires, Abu Shibr unwittingly does the devil’s work, becoming an active agent in destroying unity and brotherhood among the believers – and we seek refuge in Allah from such mischief and misguidance.

Another sign is: hiding behind phrases like, ‘I’ve got a brain to think for myself.’ But I suggest that this is to draw from the phrase more than is warranted. Whilst it’s a fact we’ve each been endowed with some level of intelligence or reason, it’s also a fact that some are more intelligent than others. Moreover, a person who can reason well in one topic or area of life, may be unfit to do so in another. Surely, true intelligence should lead us to acknowledge that some disciplines of life and learning require an immense amount of study and specialisation. Such is the case for the intricacies of Islamic law and theology. Yet some will casually dismiss the verdicts of highly qualified scholars, not upon a detailed evidence-based critique, but upon a vainglorious whim. ‘I’ve got a brain’ demands that we engage the evidences and legal rationals of the experts before dismissing their conclusions, or humbly defer to their authority. Anything else would make intellects look suspect; or even down right stupid! The Qur’an says: Yet among people are those who argue about Allah without knowledge, guidance, or an illuminating Book. [31:20]

Compounded ignorance; this Abu Shibr syndrome, is extremely difficult to cure. For the one afflicted with it doesn’t see the deficiency in himself. As far as he’s concerned, he knows; and that’s that! To reveal to him that he is ignorant of his own ignorance is nigh on impossible. And yet it’s because the Abu Shibrs of this world are least likely to recognise their inadequacies, and because the Abu Shibr syndrome can be contagious, that we need to be alert to the following shari‘ah cautions:

Firstly, that speaking about Allah, His religion, or its rulings, without due knowledge, is a heinous crime and amounts to lying against Allah and the religion of Islam: And utter not lies in what your tongues allege [saying]: ‘This is lawful, and this is forbidden,’ so as to forge a lie against Allah. Those who forge lies against Allah will never prosper. [16:116] Such a crime against Allah requires an immediate handbrake turn to tawbah.

Secondly, to reign-in our soul from its egotism, exhibitionism and from seeking to be a wannabe. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Whoever does deeds in order to be heard of, Allah will make him heard of; and whoever does deeds to show-off, Allah will make a show of him.’6 That sincerity to Allah and sound intention are key, is vividly demonstrated in the next hadith too: ‘Whoever seeks knowledge so as to vie with the scholars, or to argue with the foolish, or to attract peoples’ attention, then Allah shall enter him into Hell.’7 As can be seen, Islam doesn’t do ego. Those who are eager for it to be otherwise have possibly got the wrong religion and way of life.

Thirdly, that one of the best defences against getting intoxicated on shallow draughts of knowledge is: learning to say, ‘I don’t know’. In fact, Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him, said: la adri nisf al-‘ilm – ‘To say: “I don’t know” is half of knowledge.’8 One of the scholars said: ‘Realise, that to reply with, “I don’t know” doesn’t diminish one’s status; as some of the ignoramuses imagine. Instead, it elevates it. For it is a splendid proof of his lofty rank, strength of his religion, his fear of his Lord, and the purity of his heart.’9

Fourthly, ask, inquire, learn, study, discuss, and grow in Islamic knowledge – but let us do so with humility and with being aware of our own levels. In this respect, let’s take our queue from how the Angels extolled Allah: ‘Glory be to You! We have no knowledge save what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are the Knowing, the Wise.’ [2:32]

That a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing is only when intentions are corrupt, or if we lose sight of our own levels. We all have half-baked knowledge about many matters. In some of those matters, our half-baked knowledge will mature and become seasoned knowledge. In some, it may improve but never fully ripen. In other cases, it may always remain half-baked. But that needn’t be a problem, so long as we are aware that we don’t know; that we don’t act like Abu Shibr; and that, if required or wanted, we are open to learning. In this regard it’s been wisely said that: ‘A half-baked idea is okay as long as it’s in the oven.’

Hear, hear!

1. Consult: Bakr Abu Zayd, ‘Hilyat Talib al-‘Ilm’, in Majmu‘at al-‘Ilmiyyah (Riyadh: Dar al-‘Asimah, 1997), 198.

2. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:449.

3. Cited in Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm (Saudi Arabia: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1994), no.1538.

4. Abu Dawud, Sunan, nos.336-7. The hadith says: During the time of the Prophet ﷺ a man suffered a serious head wound. Later he had a nocturnal emission and inquired from some companions if he was allowed to perform dry ablution (tayammum)? They said that they didn’t think it was permissible. So he took a full bath (ghusl), because of which he died. When the Prophet ﷺ came to learn of this, he said: ‘They have killed him; may Allah kill them! Why didn’t they ask, if they did not know. Indeed the cure for ignorance is to ask.’

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

6. Al-Bukhari, no.6499; Muslim, no.2986. The meaning of: ‘Allah will make him heard of’ is: Allah will publicly expose and humiliate him on the Day of Judgement – as said by al-Nawawi, Riyadh al-Salihin (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1990), no.1626.

7. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2654. The hadith is hasan, as per al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.6382.

8. Al-Bayhaqi, al-Madkhal, no.713.

9. Ibn Jama‘ah, Tadhkirat al-Sami‘ wa’l-Mutakallim (Beirut: Dar al-Basha’ir, 2013), 68.

The World Gets Topsy-Turvier: Signs of the End Days [2/2]

salvador-dali-swans-reflecting-elephants-1345978791_orgOne of the main themes that runs through hadiths about the End Days is how good will be considered as being bad; and visa versa, how trustworthiness and honesty shall disappear, how the worthless will be raised to positions of rank and respect, and how there will be an increase in disobedience and widespread violation of rights (kathrat al-‘uquq wa ida‘at al-huquq). Rights that firmly belong to some shall be denied them, and instead be given to others. This inversion of rights and reality, perhaps more than anything else, is what characterises the fated end times. And it is this topsy-turviness of the times, and the ensuing spiritual and social turmoil, that I wish to discuss in the second and final part of this blog. After quoting a volley of hadiths that describe the state of affairs that heralds the end days and final Hour, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali said: ‘All this is part of the inversion of realities during the end days and the topsy-turviness of affairs.’1

In what is to follow, one point must be kept firmly in our minds: Even though many negative things will eventually come to pass, we are each called upon to swim against the tide and work against the inevitable decay. In the words of the venerable Shaykh, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, it is a case of us each having to ‘fight against destiny’.

Having documented several of the signs of the Hour (ashrat al-sa‘ah) in Part I of this blog piece, let us now turn to those hadiths that specifically talk about things being turned on their head; how reality will be inverted and the world made topsy-turvy:

1. The first hadith to qualify for this genre has got to be: ‘When the affair is given to other than its rightful people, then await the Final Hour (idha wussida’l-amr ila ghayri ahlihi fantazari’l-sa‘ah).2 Al-Munawi explains that when matters such as the caliphate, governance, teaching religion or the issuing of fatwas are in the hands of those who are undeserving, unsuited and unqualified for such Herculean tasks, then this signals the coming of the Hour. Why? Because such an inversion of affairs can only happen when Islam becomes weak and neglected, ignorance has conquered minds and hearts, sacred knowledge has markedly diminished in society, egos and desires rule the roost, and the people of knowledge and wisdom are unable to establish the truth or support it.3 When religious and spiritual anarchy prevail at such levels in society, where in the land of the blind the one eyed man is comfortably king and the minds of the masses comfortably numb, how can such a state of affairs not foreshadow the approaching of the Hour? Regrettably, this rot continues to fester and secrete itself into the collective Muslim psyche and social fabric; and Allah’s aid is sought.

The remedy against this malaise is to not be pretentious, sincerely remember our own levels and conduct ourselves in a way that befits a believer. The crux of this all is that we avoid meddling in matters that do not concern us, or for which we are unqualified or inexperienced – especially when it comes to matters related to sacred knowledge. For unless one has been sufficiently nurtured at the hands of wise, qualified, seasoned and compassionate teachers, and has their permission and blessing to enter into such matters, we are likely to find that we will bring about far more corruption than good, as well as be a terrible nuisance to knowledge and its people. Imam Ibn Hazm wrote: ‘There is nothing more harmful to knowledge and its people than those who enter into it, yet are not from it. They are ignorant, but think they are knowledgeable; they cause corruption while they think they are rectifying matters.’4 The prophetic caution has been issued, it’s now up to each of us to take heed.

2. The Prophet, peace be upon him, once foretold: ‘Indeed from the signs of the Hour is that the virtuous shall be demeaned and the wicked elevated.’5 It is difficult to see how virtuous people could be devalued, unless you first demote and demean morality and virtue itself. And yet this is precisely what has happened. For ours is an age (and it has been so for quite some time now) where the old certainties, and the morality that flowed from them, have been dealt a crushing blow. Although long in the making, the liberal revolution of the 1960s was the beginning of the end of England as a Christian country in terms of Christian ethics being reflected in law and Christian morals being the glue that bound society. Against the backdrop of the swinging sixties, the country witnessed a series of liberalising laws that would usher in the start of a Post-Christian milieu: suicide ceased to be a crime in 1961; and in 1967, abortion was legalised, as was homosexuality. Hereinafter there would be a parting of the ways for law and morality: the law would now intervene only to prevent individuals from harming each other. As for morality, it could no longer be thought of as the code for society. Instead, it would be relegated to an individual choice, and people would be free to indulge in whatever experiments in living they desired. Rights would soon replace responsibilities, desires would eventually trump duties and, by the 1990s, society would begin to significantly fray at the seams. There is no other choice for believers, driven as they must be by the healing lights of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism, than to seek society’s redemption and moral restoration.

How much morality should be translated into law, and how much is to be left to the individual conscience, is a question which all civilised societies must grapple with. In Islam’s Sacred Law, ‘sins which involve injustice to others and injury to them, be it in the religious or worldly sense, are more severely punished in this world than those not entailing harm to others; despite the fact that the punishment for the latter may be greater in the Hereafter.’6 This is why, despite disobedience to parents being more morally wrong than, for instance, fornication, the shari‘ah has no fixed penalty for the former, but it does for the latter. Again, arrogance is a far greater sin than consuming alcohol; and yet there is no prescribed worldly punishment for the first, but there is for the second. ‘The reason is clear: such punishments are there to safeguard religious and worldly interests from the wrongdoing of wrongdoers, whereas the punishment of those who wrong only themselves is left to their Lord.’7

As the assault on traditional morality and virtue continues to intensify from, among other quarters, the media, movies and trash TV; and as more and more of the world is exposed to the mediocrity and moral bankruptcy of the monoculture and is gradually ‘normalised’ into it; we Muslims should be clear that ours is a religion of meritocracy. That is to say, in Islam people are valued, respected and held in high esteem according to their piety, virtue and merits. People of corrupt morals, or who lack basic adab and decency, or who wallow in self-inflicted ignorance of even the basic teachings of the faith – they may be looked upon with the eye of pity, tolerance and charity; but never with honour, distinction and approbation.

Those who have even a slight insight into the gravity of the Quranic message, or who recognise that the Sunnah came to elevate humankind and restore us to our Adamic dignity will, in all likelihood, find today’s crass (and oftentimes, vulgar and irreverent) celebrity culture more than a trifle troublesome. Surely ones ease with, or acceptance of, it simply reflects how much souls have become desensitised to virtue or how much hearts have cozied up to vice; doesn’t it?

This is why Islam puts great weight on al-amr bi’l-ma‘ruf wa’l-nahi ‘ani’l-munkar – the duty of “commanding good and forbiding wrong.” Allah, exalted is He, declares in the Qur’an: The believers, men and women, are allies one to another; they enjoin what is good and forbid what is evil. [9:71] If we are to continue to recognise and honour people of virtue and piety, so as to be inspired by their conduct and be guided by their example, then we must collectively ensure that the lines between halal and haram, virtue and vice, and morality and immorality, are not blurred or made fuzzy. For if knowledge of what constitutes virtue and vice is lost to us; if Islamic morality is made subjective to the tastes and fashions of the times, and is no longer a rock firmly planted, we shall have brought about our rack and ruin in both worlds. Immense pressure is now being brought to bear upon Muslims to do precisely this. Ibn Mas‘ud, one of Islam’s earliest converts and one of its most illustrious scholars, once heard a person say: ‘Whoever doesn’t enjoin the good or forbid evil has perished.’ To which Ibn Mas‘ud responded: ‘Rather, one whose heart doesn’t recognises good from evil perishes.’8 These words become even more meaningful if we recall the following hadith: ‘Whoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; if he is unable to do so, then with his tongue; if he is unable to do so, then with his heart – and that is the weakest of faith.’9 If the heart no longer recognise evil, let alone detests it or seeks to change it, then what type of faith is there? For in all of this, it is faith that is at stake.

3. ‘Allah does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are misguided and misguiding.’10 This hadith tells us about the public’s inability to reign in their haste and impulsiveness so as to patiently seek out qualified scholars from whom fatwas, religious rulings and guidance about the faith should be sought. Ask the people of knowledge if you do not know, is what the Qur’an says [16:43]. Things, however, have begun to be turned on their heads. Instead of the masses asking those who are qualified to give fatwas and have been schooled and authorised in fiqh, they have begun to ask any Tom, Dick or Harry, or the so-called “knowledgeable brother,” or even the now proverbial Shaykh Google! The upshot: they make the unworthy look worthy, treat the unqualified as qualified, and view the unschooled as schooled; with the ummah continuing to suffers at the hands of these imposter-muftis, cowboys da‘is and charlatan wannabe shaykhs.

In another hadith warning us against this same danger, we read: ‘From the signs of the Hour is that knowledge will be taken from the young ones.’11 These young [junior] ones (asaghir, sing. saghir) refers to either: the innovators (ahl al-bid‘ah); as Imam Ibn al-Mubarak declared, or to those who give fatwas and religious rulings without sound qualification and expertise; as per Abu ‘Ubayd and others.12 In either case, it is just as Ibn Mas‘ud, may Allah be pleased with him, cautioned: ‘People will not cease to be upon good as long as they take knowledge from their senior ones. If they take it from their junior and wicked ones, they are sure to perish.’13

What each of us must ensure is that, when it comes to seeking religious rulings and guidance, we must turn to those men or women known in society for their learning, knowledge, piety and qualification. Anything less than this will not do. The obligation on the general public is to not be slack, but rather to try their best and ask only those who they think are qualified; just as they would do in other important or crucial areas of their lives.

Similarly, mosques must ensure they do not give the pulpit to some young, half baked, hot-headed khatib. Muslim TV channels and websites which host Q&A sessions must only allow qualified people to answer the publics’ questions. And the public should, if they are unsure, ask the organisers of such shows and websites if those who are acting as muftis are qualified for the task. Let’s be clear. This is not about whether someone has memorised the Qur’an. or is a student of the sacred Islamic sciences (talib al-‘ilm), or is qualified in hadith, tafsir, tajwid or tarikh. It’s about whether they are qualified in actual fiqh and fatwa. If not; or if one is in doubt, switch channels.

4. Again from Ibn Ma‘sud: ‘You are in a time in which its scholars (‘ulema) are many and its speakers (khutaba) are few. But after you will come a time in which its scholars are few and its speakers many.’14 Again, the end times bring with it a deterioration in standards and an inversion in roles and ranks. Now since the idea of “being qualified” or “proper qualification” has been insisted upon a number of times already, let’s look at the learning and levels of the qualified scholar and muftis in more detail:

The genre of literature known as Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti – “Conduct of Muftis and of Seeking Fatwas” – lists the needed credentials in terms of being ‘alim bi ahkam al-shar‘iyyah, “learned in the rulings of the Sacred Law.”15 This requires muftis to possess thorough knowledge of: (i) The five-hundred or so legal verses in the Qur’an. (ii) The hadiths related to legal issues, along with knowing how to evaluate their authenticity and epistemological value; or to at least rely on the experts in this field. (iii) Those cases which have become subject to scholarly consensus (ijmå‘) so as not to contradict it. (iv) Theories of abrogation, so as not to rule on the basis of an abrogated verse or hadith. (v) Arabic language and its nuances, in order to understand literal and metaphorical useage; general and particular discourse; idioms; and also equivocal and unequivocal speech. (iv) The procedural methods of analogical deduction (qiyas) and inferential reasoning (istinbat).

The legal literature also states that the term mufti is synonymous with mujtahid – one capable of ijtihad: of extracting or infering rulings directly from the foundational texts (i.e. the Qur’an and Sunnah). A mufti who has gained complete mastery in the above-listed qualifications is called an absolute mujtahid (mujtahid mutlaq). A mufti who has gained expertise, but not complete mastery, in these ijtihad credentials is a mujtahid bound by the legal framework of a law-school (mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). In both cases, these two mujtahids work with the foundational texts: the first does so unrestrictedly and directly; the second, according to the methodological principles of his law-school or madhhab.

Below these two are muftis who are “non-mujtahids.” They too are of varying ranks. There is the mufti who, although not capable of ijtihad, is highly versed in his school’s modes of legal reasoning and analogy; has committed to memory its rulings; and is able to defend, refine and resolve ambiguous cases – tilting the scales in favour of one of two or more opinions on the matter. He can even infer rulings for new cases based on established precedents of the school. Then there are muftis who are trained jurists, but their skills are limited to distinguishing between the authoritative (mu‘tamad) and less authoritative positions of their school, as well as memorising its issues (masa’il), or positive law.

Finally comes the mufti who is a poorly trained jurist and is unable to distinguish left from right. What he does have going for him, though, is a competency to transmit the authoritative rulings of the school on any or most given issues, with reliable accuracy. His level is ifta’ bi’l-hifz – “issuing fatwa by having carefully and diligently memorised the school’s legal rulings.” In the absence of other types of muftis, lay people and other non-muftis are obliged to ask such trained transmitters of law and legal rulings.16

Before soldiering on, a few remarks are in order. Firstly, barring the last type of mufti, all the others engage in highly complex modes of legal reasoning and juristic activity. Secondly, in our age, when we say that so-and-so is a mufti, we don’t mean that he is a mujtahid, but rather that he gives fatwas based on the books and rulings of his law school, or upon the ijtihad of a mujtahid he is following in the issue. That is, muftis of today do not infer legal rulings themselves from the root sources. Thirdly, although in Islam’s earlier period muftis were invariably mujtahids, the term was widened at some later point to include non-mujtahid jurists too, out of a pressing need (hajah).17 And finally, in terms of the levels of muftiship today, most muftis fall into the last category; some in the two levels above; fewer in the mujtahid level (either mujtahid in specific areas of the law, like marriage, divorce, inheritance, or finance; or the rarer mujtahid fi’l-madhhab). As for the absolute mujtahid, from what my scholars and teachers have taught me, they have been absent from the ummah for a very long time now.

Even with just a casual grasp of the above levels, the distinction between the qualified scholar or mufti, and between the religious activist or da’i will be clear. The former are qualified; the latter more often than not lack legal qualifications and fiqh schooling. Fatwa and religious instruction is sought from the former, not the latter. In fact, the latter are themselves in need of the former. As for the vague, new-fangled category of the “knowledgeable brother,” it would be best if we stopped using such a meaningless classification. For one’s knowledge either qualifies her or him to give religious rulings and fatwas, or it doesn’t. For one is either followed in knowledge, or else one follows and imitates; and in both there is goodness. One hadith says: ‘Whoever gives a fatwa without due knowledge, shall bear the sin of those he gave it to.’18

5. Our final hadith depicting the topsy-turviness of the End Days is this one: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted, the trustworthy deemed treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah will speak out.’ They asked: Who are the Ruwaybidah? To which the Prophet, peace be upon him, replied: ‘The lowly, contemptible one who will speak out about public affairs.’19 This particular inversion of affairs usually plays itself out in matters related to society and politics.

Scholarly commentaries do not specify exactly who the Ruwaybidah are, but do point out their traits. Lexically, being the diminutive or tasghir of the word rabidah (“lowly”, “good for nothing”, “worthless”), the Ruwaybidah are lower than worthless: they are utterly worthless. These are people who are incapable of rising up to distinction, lack integrity and, above all, possess little more than a glimmer of religious knowledge.20 In spite of this, they feel to speak out about socio-political affairs beyond their grasp and experience. They feel to offer fatwas and act as social commentators, based upon their whims and ignorance. They presume to be sincere advisors to the ummah, while being infantile in their understanding and wet behind the ears! And those who speak from ignorance will, ultimately, do more harm than good.

In one verse of the Qur’an which speaks of society and politics, we learn this pivotal rule of conduct: If any matter comes to them concerning security or fear, they spread it around. But if they had only referred it to the Messenger or to those charged with authority, those among them who are able to investigate and think out the matter would then know [what to do with] it. [4:83]

Imam al-Sa‘di shed more light on the verse, saying: ‘This is a counsel from Allah, to His servants, about their unsuitable conduct. And that it is imperative for them, when there comes to them news about crucial affairs of public benefit – like those related to the security and welfare of the believers, or to breaches of security and calamities afflicting them – that they must first verify such things and not be hasty in spreading such news. Instead, they should refer such matters to the Messenger, or to those in authority among them: those possessed of sound judgement, learning, intelligence, sincere advice, calmness and composure; those who understand such issues and have knowledge of the associated benefits and harms.’21 It wasn’t too long ago, in the not so distant past, that we the ummah deferred to knowledge, wisdom and dispassionate worldly discernment. The Ruwaybidah, however, are contagious; like rabies, they have infected a significant part of the ummah. And social media continues to be a perfect platform for their madness to spread. A calm, yet courageous commitment to taqwa, and a return to knowledge and its people, is the only inoculation we have against the Ruwaybidah rabies; and Allah’s help is sought.

As the Final Hour closes in, the world is indeed getting more and more topsy-turvy. Currently, the ummah is in a state of weakness, chaos and confusion. Externally, our way of life is threatened by liberalism’s bulldozer, which seeks to flatten all voices of dissent; particularly the Ishmaelite one. Internally, we are weak, woefully divided, and plagued by extremism and religious anarchy. And yet believers despair not. For out of this weakness, confusion and chaos the Mahdi shall come!

1. Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 1:140.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.59.

3. Consult: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir Sharh al-Jami‘ al-Saghir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma‘rifah, n.d.), 1:451.

4. Ibn Hazm al-Zahiri, al-Akhlaq wa’l-Siyar fi Mudawat al-Nufus (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1985), 24.

5. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:554. Its narrators are all those of the Sahih, as stated by al-Haythami, Majma‘ al-Zawa’id (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2001), 7:326.

6. Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:181.

7. ibid., 28:182.

8. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8564. Its chain is sahih, as Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut said in his crititical edition of Ibn Rajab, Jami‘ al-‘Ulum wa’l-Hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:245.

9. Muslim, no.49.

10. Al-Bukhari, no.100; Muslim, no.2673.

11. Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Zuhd (Riyadh: Dar al-Mi‘raj, 1995), no.52. Its chain is excellent (jayyid), according al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), 2:316; no.695.

12. See: Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Jami‘ Bayan al-‘Ilm wa Fadlihi (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 1995), 612-17; nos.1052-60.

13. ibid., no.1057.

14. Al-Tabarani, Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.8066; Abu Khaythamah, al-‘Ilm, 109. Its chain was graded as sahih in Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Egypt: al-Matba‘ah al-Salafiyyah, n.d.), 10:510.

15. Consult: al-Khatib, al-Faqih wa’l-Mutafaqqih (Riyadh: Dar al-Ifta, 1968), 2:330-31; al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ (Beirut: Dar Ihya Turath al-‘Arabi, 1996), 1:72-96; Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawziyyah, 2003), 6:40-208.

16. Culled from: Ibn al-Qayyim, I‘låm al-Muwaqqi‘in, 6:125-28; Ibn al-Salah, Adab al-Mufti wa’l-Mustafti (Beirut: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1986), 87-102.

17. See: I‘låm al-Muwaqqi‘in, 2:86.

18. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.54. It was declared sahih by al-Suyuti, as per al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir, 6:77.

19. Ibn Majah, no.4036; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:465, who said: ‘Its chain is sahih.

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

21. Taysir al-Karim al-Rahman (Dammam: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2011), 193-4.

The Rabble, the Ruwaybidah & We the People (Pt 2)

tumblr_mr7nraxWnO1sz0elro1_1280This is the second part of the blog piece I wrote for (the first part may be read here).

After the battle of Hunayn, a delegation from the Hawazin clan came to the Prophet, upon whom be peace, requesting the return of their wealth and captives. They were given a choice between one or the other, so they chose the return of the captives. The Prophet, peace be upon him, then addressed his Companions, saying: ‘These brothers of yours have come to us in repentance, and I wish to return the captives to them. So those of you who wish to return your captives freely, let them do so; and those who wish to keep their share until we give him something of the first booty that God has bestowed on us, let them do so.’ Some of the people said that they would willingly give up their captives for the sake of the Prophet, while others said that they could not. The Prophet said: ‘I cannot tell who among you is granting permission, and who is not. So go back and send your leaders to discuss the matter with us.’ The people went back to speak to their leaders, who then returned to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and gave their consent to set the captives free.1

Undoubtedly, to garner the opinions or sentiments of the masses definitely makes for good governance. When it becomes difficult to ascertain their opinions directly, then appointing representatives on their behalf becomes vital. This is the rationale behind what we now call representative democracy. This type of democracy, says the English philosopher Roger Scruton, is where ‘the people choose (say by voting) representatives who are then answerable to them, but at the same time directly involved, and usually without further consultation, in the practice of government.’2

Does the incident of the Hawazin clan prove the validity of representative democracy in Islam? Not quite. Consultation or shura is at the heart of good decision making in Islam, and so the public should be consulted and governance must reflect their needs and aspirations. But to allow unambiguous revealed truths to be consented to or cast aside by public opinion is a different thing altogether. Faith-based truths, private and public morality, and what is lawful and prohibited are to be decided by the dictates of Revelation – not withstanding juristic disagreement on some of the finer details of the Revealed Law. The Qur’an asserts: It is not fitting for a believer, man or woman, when a matter has been decided by God and His Messenger, to have any option about their decision; and he who disobeys God and His Messenger is clearly astray. [33:36] Government of the people, by the people, for the people certainly has its merits. But: Who is a better judge than God for a people who have certainty of faith? [5:50] Democracy wherein people have sovereignty even over the Divine, cannot be countenanced by the faithful.

What then is the value of ‘We the People’? The Qur’an is explicit about the question of following the majority, insisting that numbers in themselves do not make for truth or right guidance: Were you to obey most of those on earth, they would mislead you far from God’s way. [6:116] Again, the Qur’an states: But most of mankind know not. [45:26] Or do you think that most of them hear or understand? They are like cattle. No, they are even more astray. [25:44]

And while human history is replete with examples of ‘We the People’ coming together to demonstrate courage and resilience in the face of tyranny, exhibiting strength and sacrifice in confronting falsehood, or showing acts of profound collective forgiveness against those who formerly oppressed them, that is no reason to downplay the above unambiguous verses nor, for that matter, ignore the warnings in the following hadiths which speak about the deterioration of people:

1. ‘The righteous will depart, one after another, leaving only the dregs behind, like the chaff of barley or dates: God will not accord to them any worth or weight.’3

2. ‘Glad-tidings are for the strangers: a few righteous people amidst a great number of wicked people; those who disobey them are more than those who obey them.’4

3. ‘Nations will soon summon each other to attack you, like [hungry] diners invite one another to eat from a platter of food.’ A person asked: Is it because we will be few in number that day, O Messenger of God? He said: ‘Rather, you will be plenty in number, but you shall be [as insignificant] as the foam on the ocean. And God will remove from the hearts of your enemies fear of you, and shall cast into your hearts weakness.’ They asked: What is the weakness, O Messenger of God? He replied: ‘Love of this world and hatred for death.’5

4. The hadith with which Part 1 began: ‘There shall come upon people years of deceit in which the liar will be believed, the truthful one disbelieved, the treacherous will be trusted, the trustworthy one considered treacherous; and the Ruwaybidah shall speak out.’ It was said: Who are the Ruwaybidah? The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: ‘The lowly, contemptible one who will speak out about public affairs.’6

5. ‘Indeed, people are like camels, out of a hundred you will hardly find a single one suitable for riding.’7

Explaining the above, Imam al-Sa‘di wrote: ‘This hadith incorporates a truthful report and a beneficial piece of guidance. As for the report, it is that the Prophet, upon whom be peace, informed us that deficiency (naqs) is something found in most people and that perfection (kamal) – or near perfection – is rare among them. Just like a hundred camels; a large number, but if you wanted one for carrying, riding, or going to and fro, you would be hard pushed to find even one. The majority of people are similar: if you wanted one suitable for teaching, giving fatwas, leadership, holding the highest office of governance, or lesser offices, or any other important task, you would hardly be able to find anyone to carry out the task properly. Such is the reality; and this because man is unjust and ignorant – injustice and ignorance being the causes of defects, which bar the attainment of perfection and completeness.

‘As for the guidance, then the report comprises an indication from the Prophet, peace be upon him, that the ummah should endeavour and labour together to prepare people who are suitable for taking charge of matters of importance and the running of public affairs beneficial to society as a whole.’8

The idea of human social life in its unregulated form as lacking morality, cooperation or cohesion has deep roots in traditional teachings. Without a higher code of ethics to guide them, or law to restrain them, human beings tend to ruthlessly pursue their own self interests and diverse passions; engage in harmful rivalry and constant strife; put qualities like affection and altruism on the back burner; and are ignorant of their true interests in this world and the Hereafter, thereby bringing about their own rack and ruin. Left to their egos and their own devices, man’s corrupted nature, or fitrah, would render man’s life – to cite Hobbes’s now famous words – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’9 Hence, according to medieval Muslim scholarship, the blessings of God sending Revelation and Prophets, for the guidance and welfare of both individuals and society. Hence, also, Islam’s insistence on yielding to political authority over anarchy and guarding public security, wary of any actors seeking to erode or undermine them. Needless to say, Islam envisages government to pursue the objectives of justice (‘adl), the promotion of benefit (maslahah), and prevention of harm (mafsadah). To be more 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.

My point here isn’t to try and flesh out the particular forms of Islamic governance in a post-Westphalian world of sovereign nation states, forceful regional/global economic unions and mega-corporate capitalism: even if I could! Rather, my point is simply this: what should the role of the masses in Muslim majority countries be, in terms of public uprisings, religious activism and socio-political change? Should they lead or must they be led? Steer or be steered? Define the discourse or defer to a higher discourse? And does the old dichotomy of the masses being the ‘ammah; the common folk and riffraff, and the rulers and religious leaders as the khassah; the elite, still hold? And given mass education and specialisation in the secular sciences, is there now not a new breed of masses; a third tier?

A number of Arabic words may be translated to mean “masses,” particularly ‘ammah (commoners, general public), jumhur (majority, multitude) and sha‘b (folk, populace). There are also more pejoratives terms, like ra‘a and ghawgha – often translated as the rabble, riffraff, or mob. The masses, especially in pre-modern history, were the lower and working classes, the great majority; sharply distinguished from the elite – those of learning and high culture – by their ignorance, or poor education or erudition.10 The great multitude can be a tremendous force for positive change. They can also be fickle and easily swayed. Sometimes they can be the reckless herd, even if well-intended. At other times they can exhibit mob mentality or mob rule; this is where the whims and passions of the majority rule over reason and religion. Ochlocracy, government by mob rule, is certainly not unheard of in human history!

The truth about human nature is that this mob mentality can be extremely infectious. Stand too close to the whirlpool of a reckless herd, and one is likely to get sucked right in. The medieval Syrian jurist-theologian, Ibn Taymiyyah, observed: ‘How many there are who intend neither good nor evil, until they see another – especially someone like themselves – doing it, and then they go and do the same! For it is the nature of human beings to imitate each other, as birds of a feather flock together.’11 This, in large part, explains fashion trends, social media trending, why those who are usually law-abiding and sensible can plunge into bouts of recklessness, frenzy and criminality when with a crowd, how the general public can become highly volatile and violent in the absence of law and order, and other mass hysterias.

Received wisdom from our scholars, sages and saints tells us that ‘We the People’ – the march of the masses – if it is not led by sound religious learning and judgement, and if unenlightened by deep-rooted spiritual acumen, will do far greater harm than good. It will neither bode well for our religious welfare, nor our worldly one. Experience and textual proofs amply prove the point.

Consider the following hadiths:

1. ‘God does not take away knowledge by wresting it from the hearts of men; rather He takes knowledge away by taking away the scholars. So when no scholar remains, people take the ignorant as leaders who, when asked, give fatwas without knowledge: they are astray and lead others astray.’12 Here we are told of the public’s inability to reign in their haste and impulsiveness and patiently seek out whatever remains of qualified scholarship. As headless chickens, they race about asking any Tom, Dick or Harry for religious judgements and guidance. The masses turn things on their head by making the unworthy worthy, the unqualified qualified, the unacceptable acceptable. The upshot: the ummah, as whole, seriously suffers. (Much of the above prophecy has, in fact, already come to pass – and God’s aid is sought!)

2. Abu Musa relates: God’s Messenger, peace be upon him, said: ‘Before the coming of the Hour there will be harj!’ I said: O Messenger of God, what is harj? He said: ‘Killing.’ Some of the Muslims said: O Messenger of God, now we slay [in battle] such and such number of idolaters in a single year. God’s Messenger said: ‘This won’t be like slaying the idolaters. Instead, you will kill one another, to the extent that a person will kill his neighbour, his nephew and relations!’ Some people said: O Messenger of God! Will we be in our right minds that day? He replied: ‘No! Reason will have departed from most people at that time, and there shall remain only the dregs of people who will be devoid of reason.’13 Thus we are assured in this hadith that madness shall descend upon the mob, giving rise to mutual bloodshed and much violence and murder.

3. As for the masses being the rabble and the riffraff, then Ibn ‘Abbas relates: I used to teach some of the Emigrants, among who was ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Awf. While I was in his house at Mina and he was with ‘Umar b. al-Khattab in what was his last pilgrimage, ‘Abd al-Rahman b. ‘Awf came to me and said: ‘If only you had seen the man who came to [‘Umar] the Leader of the Believers, saying: O Leader of the Believers! What do you say about someone who says that when ‘Umar dies, he will give the oath of allegiance to so and so person, for – by God – the oath of allegiance to Abu Bakr was nothing but a reaction that afterwards became established?’ At this, ‘Umar became angry and said: If God wills, I shall stand and address the people tonight and will warn them against those who seek to deprive people of their entitlements. ‘Abd al-Rahman exclaimed: ‘O Leader of the Believers, don’t do so! For the pilgrimage season gathers the rabble (ra‘a) and the riffraff (ghawgha), and they will be the ones who will get closest to you when you stand to address the people. I fear that they will misconstrue your words and twist them out of context. So wait till you reach Madinah, for it is the land of migration and the Sunnah (dar al-hijrah wa’l-sunnah). There you will be among the people of learning, understanding and nobility, where you can say what you have to say, with confidence. For the people of knowledge will understand your words and they will keep things in context.’ To this, ‘Umar said: By God, that is what I will do in my first address to the people of Madinah; God willing.14 The narration is very telling and begs the question: if that was the case about the masses then, one wonders how it could possibly be any better today?

To conclude: The year 2011 witnessed a seismic change in the concept of citizenship in the Arab world. We saw the masses determined to actively have a direct say in their own affairs and destiny, as citizens. Millions of people from different socioeconomic and religious backgrounds protested against tyranny and dictatorship via organised campaigns of civil resistance, demonstrations, labour strikes and rebellion to improve oppressive regimes or to topple them. ‘We the People’ saw themselves as direct agents of change. But We the People, as this article has sought to highlight, can be a force for mayhem and the erosion of faith, as it can for good. So given the many authoritative Islamic texts that speak of the deterioration of the masses (in terms of faith, spiritual growth and sound religious judgement; and the sociopolitical consequences), given also the rise of the Ruwaybidah among them, the mere fact that the masses are agents of change should not in itself engender any immediate hope or confidence. As for the question of whether or not such activism and rebellion was lawful in the first place, according to the rules and principles enshrined in the shari‘ah, that will have to be left to address elsewhere.

Islam teaches us to assess change, not in terms of material advancement, nor even in terms of the presence or absence of political freedom, but in terms of an increasing awareness of God’s presence, worship of Him, and fulfilling the prescriptions instated by faith. If change through activism facilitates the former, but not the latter, how can believers really rejoice?

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 and 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 less capable of critical thinking than those generations of people before us. The argument is that mass media and entertainment, the over reliance on technology, and allowing ourselves to be consumed by consumerism, has all led to this numbing and dumbing down. A more sinister narrative insists that the dumbing down has been engineered, in order that “the powers that be” can keep the masses subdued. (Less the Orwellian, and more the Huxleyan nightmare!)

Dumbing down has also been spoken of in the prophetic hadiths, some of which have been related above. They speak of how the masses will be dumbed down in respect to their escalating ignorance of religious knowledge; their diminishing grasp of spiritual realities; and their succumbing ever more to the dictates of anger and emotions which blind their sense of reason, making increasing moments of mob madness far more frequent. And while it is true that some of Muslim scholarship has still yet to make the transition into the modern world, where simple faith and little intellectual content tend not to be enough, our scholarship is becoming much more informed, critical and thoughtful. But if the masses are to be agents of positive change – and why shouldn’t they be – they too need to nurture in themselves a more thoughtful and enlightened practice of faith. And this can only come from resisting the Ruwaybidah tendencies in themselves and their ranks, reviving their connection to the scholars, and committing to a deeper level of religious study and meditation. Only then, when the scholars and masses work together for society’s moral, spiritual and worldly benefit, will the much sought-after change that believing hearts aspire to begin to come about. This ancient piece of scholarly wisdom must also be kept firmly in our minds: man ta‘ajjala’l-shay’a qabla awanihi ‘uqiba bi hurmanihi – ‘Whosoever seeks to hasten a thing before its time, will be deprived of its outcome.’

Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.

1. Al-Bukhari, no.2307.

2. Scruton, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought (Great Britain & New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 169.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.6434.

4. Ibn al-Mubarak, al-Zuhd, no.775; Ahmad, Musnad, no.6650. It was graded authentic (sahih) by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1619.

5. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4297, and it is sahih, Consult: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.958.

6. Ibn Majah, no.4036; al-Hakim, Mustadrak, 4:465, who said: ‘Its chain is sahih.

7. Al-Bukhari, no.2498; Muslim, no.2547.

8. Bahjat al-Qulub al-Abrar (Cairo: Dar al-Bayan, 1988), 365-66.

9. Hobbes, Leviathan (London: The Folio Society, 2012), 92.

10. See: G. Bowering (ed.), The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought (New Jersey & Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 2013), 330-31.

11. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 28:149-50.

12. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.

13. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.3959, Ahmad, Musnad, no.19492. It was graded as sahih by al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1682.

14. Al-Bukhari, no.6830.

Dhikr Repetition: Is it Allowed?

dhikrIn his al-Fawa’id (a patchwork-like book on moral psychology, that contains within it a collage of spiritual benefits and lessons on practical piety), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah wrote:

‘God, Exalted is He, says: And remember Job, when he cried unto his Lord: “Affliction has seized me. But You are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” [21:83] This supplication (du‘a) combines in itself the essence of tawhid, manifesting indigence before the Lord, the taste of divine love in the praise and flattery of Him, affirming His attribute of divine mercy and that He is the Most Merciful of those who show mercy, seeking the means to approach Him through [mention] of His attributes (transcendent is He), and one’s dire need of Him. Whenever the afflicted one feels this, his affliction will be removed. Experience confirms that whoever repeats this [verse] seven times, especially with this awareness, God shall lift from him his affliction.1

Consider also another passage from the works of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah. This time, he writes: ‘Among the experiences of the wayfarers (min tajribat al-salikin) that have been tried and found to be sound is that whoever accustoms himself to [reciting]: “O Living, O Sustainer! There is no [true] God but You,” shall be bequeathed life into his heart and mind because of it. Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah, may God sanctify his soul, was greatly drawn to it. He said to me one day: “These two Names of God – the Living (al-hayy) and the Sustainer (al-qayyum) – are decidedly effective in suffusing life to the heart. In fact, he indicated to me that they were God’s greatest Names (al-ism al-a‘zam). I further heard him say: “Whosoever habituates himself to reciting forty times each day, between the sunnah of Fajr and its fard: “O Living, O Sustainer! There is no God but You. With Your mercy I seek relief,” life shall be breathed into the heart such that it will never die.’2

There are a number of key principles and practices that relate to the above two passages; these include:

1. That it is not forbidden to repeat du‘as or dhikrs a specific number of times – even if this number hasn’t been stated as such in the Qur’an or hadiths – provided they have been initiated by one of our righteous salaf or imams; and that they not be deemed as an actual Sunnah; and that they not contradict a specifically legislated Sunnah for that time or occasion. In the above cases, although the du‘as are from the Qur’an (as in the first case) and from the Sunnah (as in the second), reciting them a specified number of times, and at specific times, has not been reported in the Book or the Sunnah. Instead, they stem from experience (tajribah) and spiritual intuition (ilham).

2. Permitting dhikr repetitions isn’t limited to the opinions of the above two scholars. Rather, droves of scholars can be seen allowing or practicing it. An early example of it can be seen with the Companion Abu Hurayrah, may God be pleased with him, who ‘would repeat God’s glorification (tasbih) twelve-thousand times every day.’3 He also ‘had a string on which there were a thousand knots and he would not go to sleep until he had counted tasbih on it.’4

3. One further example: Ibn Taymiyyah was asked about the legality of reciting la ilaha illa’Llah seventy-thousand times so as to gift the rewards of it to the deceased, and whether there was any specific hadith to this effect. His response was: ‘If a person recites la ilaha illa’Llah in this manner, seventy-thousand times; or more; or less, then donates the reward of it, God shall benefit the deceased by it. However, there is no actual hadith, be it sound or weak, to this effect. And God knows best.’5

4. A similar rule holds for initiating non-Quranic and non-prophetic du‘as – in that so long as they do not oppose a legislated Sunnah for that time or place; and provided such du‘as not be thought of as being Sunnah; then they too are permitted. Rifa‘ah b. Rafi‘ said: We were praying behind the Prophet, peace be upon him, when he raised his head from bowing and said: ‘May God hear whoever praises Him!’ a man behind me responded: ‘Our Lord! To You belongs all praise; abundant, excellent and blessed.’ Afterwards, the Prophet asked as to who had uttered such words, saying: ‘I saw thirty-odd angels competing as to who would be the first to record it.’6 Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani wrote: ‘From this hadith can be inferred the permissibility of inventing an invocation inside the prayer, other than what is textually-related, provided it doesn’t contravene anything that is textually-reported.’7

5. The juristic rule underscoring all the above instances is simply this: ‘Acts that have a basis and which the texts stipulate in general terms of desirability, even if the actual practice is not specifically related in the texts, are judged as praiseworthy.’8

6. With that being said, one strives to first give life to the textually-reported dhikrs in the Book and Sunnah – in both form and content – making them the bedrock of one’s invocations and du‘as to God. To limit oneself to du‘as initiated by our rightly-guided scholars and spiritual authorities, while neglecting to learn or to put into practice the textually reported du‘as, would indeed entail blame.

7. As for the modern[ist] phenomena of waging war on such repetitions, or declaring them to be misguidance, then such revisionism goes against the normative teachings of our relied-upon imams from whom religion is taken. And whilst it’s true that some people are overly concerned with such du‘as and repetitions, and pay scant attention to the prophetic petitions and invocations, there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water.

And God knows best.

1. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 292.

2. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 2:29. This Ibn Taymiyyan experience seems sufficiently important to be mentioned again at 4:136. The actual Arabic of the du‘a being: Ya hayyu ya qayyum la ilaha illa anta bi rahmatika astaghith.

3. Cited in Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-Safwa (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 2008), 249.

4. Al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 2:623.

5. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 24:323.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.799.

7. Fath al-Bari Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1989), 2:365.

8. See: Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam fi Usul al-Ahkam (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 1984), 1:47; Ibn al-Jawzi, Talbis Iblis (Cairo: Dar Ibn al-Haytham, 2004), 20.

Reason, Revelation, Religion: How Do They Fit Together?

oxford-uniThe Qur’an undoubtedly requires human beings to accept the authority of religion for whatever lies beyond the scope of reason or ‘aql. It never demands that he accept what is against reason. ‘The messengers,’ said Ibn Taymiyyah, ‘came with knowledge that reason is incapable of attaining to: never did they come with what reason deems impossible.’1

Islamic theology has long taught that human convictions can be grouped under three catagories: (i) hissi – those beliefs and ideas that are established by “sense perception” and empirical observation; (ii) ‘aqli – those that may be confirmed via “rationality” and logical arguments; (iii) shar‘i – that which cannot be proven by the above means, and are only known via revealed knowledge from God.2

The first category relates to what can be known reliably vis-a-via the natural sciences; the second, to what can be proven through rationalisation. The third, those values and beliefs that have shaped human culture and given it direction and purpose, yet cannot be proved by science or reason.

The idea that some things simply lie beyond the scope of science and reason is utterly repugnant to the cherished convictions of New Atheism’s cavaliers (its charge against religion currently led by the “Four Horsemen” – Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and the late Christopher Hitchins). For them, any belief not grounded in evidence and rationality is false.

Despite their parochial narrative-cum-dogma, reality shows us there are many beliefs and values that transcend what science and rationality can prove. Take the following example as case in point, courtesy of McGrath. In 1948, he wrote, the United Nations reaffirmed their faith in human rights. The statement of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights’ or ‘They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood’ cannot be proved logically, nor scientifically. Neither can the belief that democracy is better than fascism, or that oppression is evil. ‘But many noble and wise people make upholding such things their life’s work, trusting that they are, in the first place, right, and in the second, important. Nobody thinks they’re mad for doing so.’3 Such a universal declaration about Man cannot be justified rationally nor verified scientifically. In this sense, it is unprovable. Yet it is not unreasonable to hold onto such a belief or put stock in its truthfulness. Many have argued that such is the case for belief in God.

Historically, the rationalist faction in Islam tended to put reason (‘aql) over revelation (naql). Which is to say, they deemed reason to be the main tool to arrive at religious truths, preferring it over the texts of the revelation in dealing with theological matters; particularly when it was thought there was a conflict (ta‘arud) between the two.

For traditionalists (representing the voice of orthodoxy), reason determines good and bad in the absence of revelation; for God gave us reason before sending us revelation. But once we have revelation, we must choose to be guided by revealed knowledge. For revelation is a surer guide: the human mind errs, but God does not. ‘To be sure,’ writes Ibn Taymiyyah, ‘reason is a precondition to comprehend knowledge, and rectify and perfect actions. By it, knowledge and actions are refined; but it is not sufficient in and of itself. For it is an instinct and potency in the soul, much like the faculty of seeing by the eye. For when it receives the light of faith and the Qur’an, it is like the eye when it receives light from the sun or a fire. Left to itself, reason is not able to discern things it is unequipped to know by itself.’4

To be perfectly clear, it isn’t that traditionalists jettison reason and rationality, or that they favour irrationality. Instead, it is the degree to which they employ reason and the place they assign to it in the overall scheme of things. In fact, on the eclectic canvas of traditionalism, one may observe different colours and tones:

There is, for example, what some have termed “unreflective traditionalism”; typical of the Hanbali jurist Ibn Qudamah, and of the Athari school, in general. This is where, in theological matters (especially concerning the Divine Attributes), it is a case of simply submitting to the scriptural texts, without attempting to fathom the intent. Thus, Ibn Qudamah wrote: ‘For we have no need to know the meaning of what God intended by His attributes; as no course of action is required by them, nor any obligation attached to them, save to believe in them. For it is possible to believe in them without knowing their intended meaning. Indeed faith, with incomprehension, is sound.’5

Now contrast this with the arena of positive law (fiqh) where Ibn Qudamah is a jurist, highly accomplished in the exacting art of logic and reason-based inference. Towards the end of his essay censuring kalam, or discursive theology, Ibn Qudamah insists it is in the sphere of fiqh, maths and the like where reason should rightfully roam, recover and reveal.6 As for metaphysical or ghaybi (lit. “unseen”) matters, reason is expected to humble itself to the revealed texts; for it has no way of rationalising what is beyond its reach.

Then there are traditionalists with rationalist agendas, attempting to validate and to corroborate revealed truths with rational arguments; like al-Bayhaqi and the Ash‘ari school, at large. In the ‘aql-naql debate, Ash‘aris see themselves as the centre ground; the Atharis beg to differ. The polemics between the two camps has raged for almost a millennium, and is still on-going today.

There is also a faction, such as the Hanbali Ibn ‘Aqil and Ibn Taymiyyah, who add this subtle nuance: ‘Reason agrees with revelation, and nothing in revelation contradicts reason.’7 For both these polymaths, sound reason (al-‘aql al-sahih) and genuine texts of revelation (al-naql al-sarih) are always in agreement. The notion is profound, and one that Ibn Taymiyyah fleshes out over the course of his intense eleven volume Dar’ al-Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql – “Averting the Conflict between Reason and Revelation.”

A core premise of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Dar’ is that whenever there is any conflict between reason and revealed knowledge, the proof with the higher degree of certainty must be preferred, regardless of whether it is rational or transmitted. Uncertainty in a rational argument may arise in the case of conjectural or weak reasoning. Uncertainty about revealed knowledge arises in the case of fabricated or poorly transmitted hadiths (but not the Qur’an, as it is textually authentic in its entirety), or if a verse of the Qur’an or text of a hadith is conjectural in terms of their meaning. He writes:

‘If it is said that two proofs contradict each other, be they revealed or rational, then it must be said that either both are certain (qat‘i), or both are conjectural (zanni), or one is certain and the other conjectural. As for both being certain – be they rational or revealed; or one rational, the other revealed – then their contradicting each other is impossible … Whenever one finds a seeming contradiction between two proofs which are thought to be certain, then it necessarily follows that both proofs or at least one of them, are not certain; or that the two indicated meanings do not [actually] contradict each other … But if one of the contradicting proofs yields certainty, then according to the consensus of people of reason, its priority is necessary regardless of if the proof is revealed or rational, since conjecture does not override certainty.’8

Another tenet of Ibn Taymiyyah’s Dar’ concerns the limits of reason and what it may independantly discern of metaphysical truths. Reason, he insisted, can arrive at basic theological truths, but only revelation can furnish the details. Thus reason can discern the existence of God and that He possesses attributes of perfection, and that He must be the sole object of worship. It also affirms, in general, the necessity for prophets and that there has to be a resurrection and requital of actions so that justice is fulfilled. But it is revelation which offers specifics about God, His attributes, His will and His rules; only revealed knowledge gives us the details of resurrection, accountability, Paradise, Hell, the unseen world of angels and jinn and their interplay in the visible realm, and the particular forms and expressions of worship.9

Before concluding, mention must be made of a more murky tone that has appeared in recent times on the otherwise vibrant canvass of traditionalism. A mindset has raised its extremist head over the course of time that is narrow, belligerent, dismissive of the rational sciences as they developed in classical Islam; having the shallowest footing in knowledge and the intellectual activities of true Islamic scholarship. In fact, their link to traditionalism is that they too hold that ‘aql must be steered by naql. However, their blinkered, reptilian reading of the texts has made such people extreme, intolerant and hostile: violent, even. The description of them being “naql-heads” seems wholly apt, if not spot on.

Parking the resurgence of Khawarij-like mentalities for now, and the retreat from the naql-based intellectualisation which continues to impoverish contemporary Muslim discourse, our focus must be to first affirm our rich intellectual tradition and to then urgently work to reverse our current intellectual stagnation.

The post-modern world is in a crisis. Whatever good came out of the Enlightenment continues to be devoured by a hedonistic consumerism eating away at the core of its civilisational values like cancer. Its Christian heritage seems long unable to supply the nourishment needed for the age. Islam, more than ever, seems called to be the West’s intellectual and spiritual deliverance. Human fulfilment is unlikely to be achieved in predatory capitalism; and nor does it seem it will be offered by the Cross. The hunger of the human heart seems likely only to be answered by the Crescent. Indeed, Islam’s reasonable and rational monotheism, that pays reverence to the ‘aql, is starting to do just that.

1. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 3:339.

2. See: al-Safarini, Lawmi‘ al-Anwar al-Bahiyyah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1991), 2:440, where he terms the third catagory sam‘i – knowledge that comes via “hearing” revealed knowledge or truthful reports.

3. A. McGrath, Why God Won’t Go Away: Engaging with the New Atheism (Great Britain: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 59.

4. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 3:338-39.

5. Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam (Beirut: ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1990), §.55.

6. Cf. Tahrim al-Nazar fi Kutub Ahl al-Kalam, §.99.

7. Ibn ‘Aqil, Funun, 509 – cited in Makdisi, Ibn ‘Aqil: Religion and Culture in Classical Islam (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 97.

8. Dar’ al-Ta‘arud al-‘Aql wa’l-Naql (Riyadh: Dar al-Kunuz al-Adabiyyah, 1979), 1:79.

9. ibid., 1:88-280.

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