The Humble "I"

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Archive for the tag “Islam and modernity”

Footprints on the Sands of Time 7

We moderns have been persuaded that we each have ‘a right to think for ourselves,’ and we imagine that we exercise such a right freely and autonomously. But we are unwilling to acknowledge, despite the plethora of evidences and examples around us, that our every thought is (and continues to be) shaped by cultural influences and media soundbites; and that our opinions are being made to fit into a limiting pattern of thinking which serves to perpetuate the continued and totalising dominance of the monoculture. These reflection (previous Footprints can be read here) form part of an on-going conversation about Islam and modern Muslimness, and the urgent need to be heretics to the monoculture; learning to critically think anew.

On the loss of all losses: It is better to lose some worldly thing for the sake of God than to lose God for the sake of some worldly thing.

Wisdom behind creation of evil: God does create things He dislikes or hates, but only for the sake of a wise purpose He loves and is pleased with.

Be moderate or to moderate; that’s the question: Political leaders seem to be tripping over themselves in their bid to be champions of ‘moderate’ Islam. But do they seek moderate Islam or to moderate Islam?

On women, mosques, and today’s all-male mosque committees: When seeking women’s rights that are related to the mosque, advice must be given to the committee in good faith. Rights should be sought with the desire to venerate Allah’s laws and uphold the ways of the Lord, in contrast to cherrypicking what religious obligation to accept and thereby play fast and loose with the shari‘ah. Of course, women being part of mosques committees (not for the sake of some quota, or to tick the gender equality boxes; but from a conviction that they will add value, piety and professionalism to the currently dull, dim and lowbrow all-male mosque committees that have for too long tribally ruled the roost) is to be welcomed and encouraged. Perhaps then we might even see more Islamically enlightened activities, or some fairness and inclusiveness from most of our local mosques. I suspect that most Muslims in 21st century Britain, especially those born and raised here, are not interested in mosques that offer some belongingness primarily on the basis of a pride of Panjabis, a brethren of Bengalis, or a gang of Gujratis.

On responding to the outrages of socio-political fortune: The believer is to withstand the injustices and political outrages of time, not with indifference or apathy, but with guarded perseverance, dignified response, and a sense of righteous anger that doesn’t burst at the seams or explode into uncontrolled rage.

It’s about God, all else is a footnote: Purification of the soul is unlikely to come as long as we are seeking it. It will come when we are seeking Him.

On love, through the Law: The shari’ah is there to instruct us which of our freely-chosen acts are pleasing to Allah and which displease Him; which win us His love and which His anger.

On the theology of divine love: If our theology doesn’t help stoke the fire of intimacy with God in our hearts, then we are likely going about religion in the wrong way.

On signs of real sincerity: True sincerity (ikhlas) isn’t just to single-out Allah for worship and to do things for His sake; it is to do so while not being moved by the sweetness of a compliment or the pain of criticism.

On manufacturing an Islam that is all things, to all people: The rightly acting ‘ulema have long been concerned about pseudo-scholars, charlatans or the weak-spirited not turning Islam into as many things as modernity wants Religion to be. In that the Islamic texts are twisted and tortured so as to make them compliant with whatever “ism” that happens to be modernity’s prevailing mood or zeitgeist: be it humanism, secularism, materialism, or nationalism; and more recently: liberalism, feminism, or transgenderism. Their concerns, as it turned out, were wholly justified!

Greater than unconditional love: Higher than giving our children our unconditional love which, of course, we must do, is to pray we can love them for God’s sake for the faith and the righteousness they hopefully live by.

On the place of the divine rigour and beauty: Whoever claims we can be beholden to the Divine Beauty, before being disciplined by the Divine Rigour, is an imposter – all except the majdhub!

On being true to the trust of teaching: Let the scholar or caller examine himself or herself on two accounts: [i] Am I fulfilling or betraying the trust of teaching; and [ii] Do I practice what I preach?

On living a contented life: In Islam, the good and happy life entails: being God-centred, not self-centred; quick in fulfilling the rights of others; prudent in speech; thankful for what one has, not greedy for what one does not; doing righteous works; and not being satiated in eating.

On timeless teachings and contemporary times: Being rooted in the old and deducing the new makes for a good scholar. 

Muslim activism stuck in a spider’s web: Some ‘ulema were quick to realise that whatever political or religious spectrum Muslims advocate, most Muslim activism and movements that sought change, throughout the twentieth century till today, are locked in the logic of modernity, and only operate within its limiting, hegemonic parameters; its spider’s web. Islam, however, premised on the Adamic fitrah and the prophetic Sunnah, lies outside the monoculture’s plethora of philosophies, and so cannot be made subordinate to it. This is why Islam is, and continues to be, the great global dissent from the totalising ideology of liberal modernity.

Life is a thing, when you learn you grow: The narrow minded alway see certainties in fiqh issues. But the learned know that fiqh issues are never as ironclad as the narrow minded imagine.

On embracing the ways of wisdom: To know that one never gives walnuts to the toothless, or earrings to the earless, is part of true wisdom. 

Let pride be born of the Spirit, not of the ego: In principle, we are proud to be Muslims; pride born, not of the ego’s arrogance (kibr), rather of gratitude for God’s guidance: We would not have been guided had God not guided us. [Q.7:43] For we can rightfully be proud if it’s without the ego; if it is godly and not worldly. In practice, it is rare for such pride to be without ego – even when it relates to pride in Islam’s revealed truths. Al-Ghazali once said: ‘How much blood has been spilt to promote the causes of the masters of the law schools!’ So whilst truth and the details of ritual correctness are indeed important, it must not be driven by sectarian pride, nor come at the cost of one’s own salvation: ‘Whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise’ [Muslim, no.147] Hence if you know someone has opposed the Book, Sunnah, or ijma‘, ensure your state is one of gratitude to Allah for your guidance. Or better still, let us pray as Imam Ahmad would pray: ‘O Allah, whosoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’

On doing things well and with excellence: The archer intends, not merely to hit the target, but rather to hit the actual bullseye. So in all things, let us heed the Prophet’s words ﷺ: saddidu wa qaribu – that is, ‘aim as well as you can;’ for once the arrow leaves the bow, the outcome is out of our hands. 

On the signs of real knowledge: Truly beneficial knowledge should nurture four traits in a person: piety (taqwa) towards God, humility (tawadu’) towards others, detachment (zuhd) from worldliness, and spiritual striving (mujahadah) against one’s ego.

Footprints on the Sands of Time 2

6a00e554e88723883301a511ad66d6970c‘Modernity is simply our context,’ wrote Dr Sherman Jackson, ‘We must never allow it to become our excuse.’ As various global forces currently conspire against the call to Abrahamic monotheism, here are a few more Footprints exploring the nature of Islam, Muslims and modernity (the first set of Footprints can be read here):

On humility: The mark of those who have truly internalised the Sunnah’s beauty is: if praised, they take it embarrassingly or with a pinch of salt, for they see themselves as being unworthy; if censured, they make no defence.

On learning to see with the heart’s eye: If we deepen in our acknowledging the divine acts, the af’al al-rabb, we shall be led more and more to a sense of loving gratitude for He who manifests all blessings.

On the yardstick to assess change: Faith instructs us to measure progress and change, not in terms of material advancement, nor even in terms of the presence or absence of political freedom, but rather in terms of an increasing awareness of God’s presence, worship of Him, and fulfilling the prescriptions instated by faith. If change through political activism facilitates the former, but does harm to the latter, how can believers truly rejoice?

On the station of being loved: One of the surest ways of becoming beloved to Allah is through an unrelenting love of the Prophet ﷺ and manifesting such love through invoking abundant and constant salutations (salawat) upon him: Allahumma salli ‘ala sayyidina muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi wa sallim.

Beware trigger-happy texting: Received wisdom informs us that: Not everything that is good should be said, and not everything that is said should be spread. Today, such caution has been thrown to the wind, to be replaced by impulsive and ill-considered trigger-happy texting and tweeting.

On the hijab and Islam’s shieldmaidens: Since hijab signifies the higher statement of gendered humanity, the woman in hijab finds herself on the frontline in a war against the monoculture. So, as traditional modesty is made to buckle under the pressures of modernity, the woman in hijab stands out either as a witness to revealed difference, or to her own charms. She stands out either as a witness to her life lived for God, or to identity politics or egotistical fashion statements. And while inappropriateness for a lady in hijab isn’t always clear; and while she strives to guard and nurture her sense of modesty against modernity’s intrusions of immodesty, she remains the great global sign of dissent. In such a battle she must be supported, counselled and defended; but never dictated to. For a woman in hijab is a shieldmaiden of Islam.

On taking to the carpet of silence: It is in a state of solitude that the heart’s gaze can best be diverted away from creation and be focused solely on the Creator.

On spirituality & shopping malls: While it is beyond doubt that markets (in our time, shopping malls) and trade have played a pivotal role in Muslim life and society; and that in many traditional Muslim cities, markets were located around the main jami‘ah or Congregational mosque; there are, nevertheless, a few hadiths that speak of their unsavoury nature. One hadith says: ‘The most beloved of places to God, on earth, are the mosques, while the most deplorable are the markets.’ [Muslim, no.671]

Of course, markets being despised has nothing to do with trade or commerce, per se. It does have to do with the fraud and deception common in such places, as well as the greed, avarice, bickering and yelling found therein. There, false oaths are frequently sworn, and honest remembrance of God usually conspicuous by its absence. But more than that, the market is where even a renunciant’s heart can easily be entangled in the tentacles of dunya, and be ensnared by its false glitz and glitter. Enter it for needs, we must; enter it for wants, we may. But enter it bewitched or besotted, we must not!

Islam’s invitation to humankind: The Call of Islam is, without doubt, a call to prayer, charity, building character, remembrance of God and spiritual struggle. It is also a call to ease, for it takes into account public interest and peoples’ frailties, weaknesses and vulnerabilities. The Qur’an states: God wishes to lighten the burden for you, for man was created weak. [4:28]

On a believer’s compassion and easy-going nature: Shut not the door of Allah in the faces of Allah’s servants; but: ‘Make things easy for the people and do not make things difficult. Give them glad tidings, do not drive them away.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.69; Muslim, no.1734]

When the principle of ease becomes one of adulteration: The desire to bring religion to people and make it easy for them is, surely, a noble one; and revelation commends it. But this is hardly a case where the means justify the ends. Diluting the truth for the sake of meeting misguidance halfway is self-defeating; isn’t it? If people have drifted away from the centre to the fringes of heedlessness, then charity requires that they be shown the way back. To imagine that one can take the centre out to them, while they stay exactly where they are, is sheer folly.

On harnessing harmony in marriage: Only when egos are hung up on coat pegs, and the Revealed Law (shari’ah) honoured and observed, can husband and wife find sacred peace (sakinah): And from His signs is that He created for you wives from yourselves that you might find peace in them. [30:21]

On one rule for us, another for others: Why do we always find an excuse for our own wrong behaviour, but never an excuse for others? Why do we always look at ourselves through rose-tinted glasses, yet look at others through a magnifying glass?

On an inquisition against traditional morality: While the unfailing light of Revelation tells us that the act of homosexuality is sinful and immoral, “Will you commit foulness such as no creature ever did before you? For you come with lust to men instead of women; you are indeed a transgressing people” [7:80-1], we needn’t voice our opposition to it in hostile rage or violence; but rather peacefully, calmly, without calling for persecution. Mercy is better than malice; understanding better than recrimination.

As for the inquisition or Islamophobia being dolled out by the liberal stalwarts against those who oppose certain sexual practices, let us respond with restraint, dignity and tolerance. And nor should their intimidation and bullying cause us to cower, or fail to state the correct ruling on the matter.

On the inner serenity that comes by recalling that all is unfolding as per His plan: The believer is to withstand the tragedies and outrages of time, not with indifference, nor apathy, but with self-restraint, dignified response and righteous indignation that does not burst at the seams or explode into uncontrolled rage.

When putting on an act is not hypocritical: Some feel that the attempt to put on good character so as to present one’s best face to people is disingenuous; hypocritical even. That may be so if the intention is merely to impress people or to win brownie points in da‘wah. But if one does so from a love of dignified behaviour and good character; or out of a desire to shield others from one’s misdeeds and shortcomings; or from the hope of being more worthy of Allah, despite our inadequacies, then this is deemed as something virtuous. Indeed, cultivating good character and dignity of behaviour have always been highly regarded in Islam.

On the three classes of scholars: Religious scholars, long ago, have been divided into three types: [i] government scholars (‘ulema al-dawlah), [ii] populist scholars (‘ulema al-‘ammah) and [iii] righteous religious scholars (‘ulema al-millah).

Government scholars needn’t be salaried employees of the state. Rather, the label will apply to any scholar whose intended aim is to be royalist and to defend official state policies – regardless of truth, justice and the shari‘ah. Their goal is not God, as much as it is to placate the palace. These sell-outs are different from those state appointed scholars whose lives are a testimony to their God-fearingness and piety, but whose perceptions and outlook, when it comes to fatwas on larger political matters, could be skewered by false government briefings, misinformation and palace propaganda. While the personal integrity of such scholars is unquestionable; their political fatwas are less so.

Populist scholars are at the other end of the spectrum. They are scholars whose chief purpose is to be popular among the masses. Their fatwas are always anti-government, merely for the sake of gaining acceptance among the masses. Again, God, justice, and truth isn’t their main goal, as much as it is keeping the hysteria of the masses happy, courting the crowds, and pandering to the public’s praises. These people, as with the above, have also betrayed their scholarly credentials.

As for those righteous religious scholars, their intent is God’s good pleasure. They issue fatwas out of piety, in light of the shari‘ah and with trying to conceptualise the actual situation. Their fatwas are based on knowledge, justice and on scrupulousness. God’s pleasure is their aim: whether the fatwa agrees with the monarchy or the masses, the president or the public. These are the true inheritors of the Prophets.

On steering emotions and actions with sound knowledge: Firmness without learning leads to extremism. Frankness without learning leads to insolence. Boldness without learning leads to disputation.

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

On living for the long run: Be not honoured in this world, but disgraced in the next; remembered on earth, but forgotten in Heaven; loved today, but ignored tomorrow.

On the importance of keeping spiritual company: Keeping company with those who can instruct us in our shariah duties and, more importantly, whose presence can help reform our inward state, is a crucial teaching of our religion – and one that is all too often forgotten, neglected or overlooked. O you who believe! Fear God, and be with the truthful ones, says the Qur’an [9:119].

On the heart’s solace: In the midst of this burdened world we make our supplications, knowing that when all else fails us, He is ever with us; listening and ready to respond: And your Lord has said: ‘Call on Me, and I will answer you.’ [Qur’an 40:60]

How Should Muslims Best Tackle the Juggernaut of Modernity?

chaplin_modern_timesIslam is an inherently conservative tradition, in the sense that a cardinal tenet of such a tradition is to conserve and preserve revealed truths, defending them against attack. Pivotal to this preservation are the ‘ulema or religious scholars. One hadith says: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation. They shall rid from it the distortions of the extremists; the false claims of the liars; and the mistaken interpretations of the ignorant.’ [Al-Bayhaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, 10:209]

But such conservatism can be a double-edged sword. For though it may be capable of preserving what is essential or precious, it has the potential – not only of being open, foreword-thinking and inclusive – but of being closed, highly sectarian and exclusive. Regrettably, some of the more hardline, ultra-conservative ‘ulema tend to characterise this narrowness only too well.

Also true is that many of today’s ‘ulema seem thoroughly stumped by modernity: their discourse about it barely extending beyond a few criticisms levelled against the West’s immorality and ungodliness. One crucial Islamic maxim insists: hukm ‘ala shay’ far‘un ‘an tasawwurihi – “Passing judgement about something comes after having [correctly] conceptualised it.” So without understanding the ideas or institutions that undergird modernity, how can we expect to come to grips with it and stand-up to it; or to at least navigate safely through it?

Yet all is not bleak. There are a number of more nuanced and informed ‘ulema, whose ranks seem to be growing steadily but surely. Observing the extremism of the radicals and the cowboy reforms of the liberals with a faint grin of disquiet, they are at pains to iterate to us words of realism and sanity:

The first thing they point out is that modernity is a juggernaut, that has a tendency to flatten anything that comes in its way. Hence clashing with it head-on is unwise. Nor must it be a case of its uncritical acceptance or wholesale rejection. We seem to have an endless fascination with short term political issues, yet are largely ignorant of the wider trends of which these issues are merely the passing manifestations. Unless and until we Muslims become conscious of the larger trends of the age – until we learn to look past the zahir; the superficial externals, to the batin; the deeper realities – we will continue to flounder in our current predicament. A prophetic du‘a runs: Allahumma arina’l-haqqa haqqan wa’rzuqna itibaahu wa arina’l-batila batilan wa’rzuqna ijtinabahu: ‘O God show me truth as it really is and cause me to follow it; and show me falsehood as it really is and turn me away from it.’

Secondly; having stressed the above, such ‘ulema draw our attention to the following: The goal of Islamic civilisation has never been scientific or material progress. Instead, realising worship of God (tahqiq al-‘ubudiyyah) and seeking to perfect the human soul (tazkiyat al-nafs) are its goals. Its most holistic expression comes to us in the famous hadith of the Angel Gabriel [Cf. Muslim, no.8], where he taught that the religion, in its entire, is encompassed in the three dimensions of iman, islam and ihsan: beliefs, actions and spirituality. Or if you will: knowing, doing and becoming – knowing faith; doing works of faith; then becoming transformed by faith.1

For Muslims, as both individuals and societies, actualising these three levels of human life is the real measure of progress or success. Furthermore, it cannot be hidden from those familiar with Islam’s religious sources or history, that the optimum balance ever to be achieved in terms of these three din dimensions, was by the Muslim community in Madinah during the prophetic age. In fact, from then on it was to be (barring a few exceptions) a downwards spiral. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No time will come upon you except that the time after it shall be worse than it; until you meet your Lord.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7068] He ﷺ also said: ‘The best of mankind is my generation; then those who follow them; then those who follow them.’ [Bukhari, no.2652; Muslim, no.2533] It isn’t surprising, then, that this “unique Quranic generation” is one that most Muslims look back upon with reverence, loyalty and a deep sense of nostalgia.

No doubt, nostalgia may so overwhelm some people that they could end-up trying to relive the past. The love affair with the Prophet’s Madinah may, if we get too dreamy, blur the distinction between what is descriptive in Madinah from what is prescriptive. But that, for the most part, can be mitigated by following qualified, contextual fiqh. Nostalgia for Madinah, as the ‘ulema say, in no way permits ignoring our context and reality. In other words, we have a duty to keep it real. Loyalty to the past doesn’t mean living in the past.

Lastly, they remind us that as the End of Days approaches, various “Signs of the Hour” are anticipated. Among them is the increase in social commotions, seditions and civil wars – collectively referred to as fitan (sing. fitnah). Here the hadiths tell us: ‘There will be times of commotion in which one who sits will be better than one who stands; one who stands better than one who walks; and one who walks better than one who runs.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3601; Muslim, no.2886] On being asked what to do in such times, the Prophet ﷺ advised: ‘Keep to your houses, control your tongues, keep to what you approve, leave what you disapprove, attend to your own affairs and avoid public affairs.’ [Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4342]

The Shafi’i jurist and hadith master, al-Munawi (d.1031H/1622CE), said that keeping to your houses … clinging to what you approve means: to keep your head down and get on with whatever benefits your spiritual and worldly well-being.

Leaving what you disapprove mandates avoiding such affairs of people that you know to be contrary to the shari‘ah. This, along with thanking God for averting this sin from you, as well as censuring the wrong with civility, gentleness and patience, and with an inward serenity born of a conviction that – despite things seeming bleak – all is in His hand and is unfolding according to the divine plan.

Avoiding the affairs of the general public, al-Munawi wrote, implies that when enjoining good or forbidding evil is more likely to be ineffective at rectifying a fitnah or a social ill – either because of it being so widespread; or is too entrenched; or one simply fears for their own safety in doing so – there is a dispensation to not tackle the wrong. But one is still duty bound by faith to detest the wrong inwardly, and to knuckle down and carry out the cardinal demands made by religion.2

Scholars say that the circumstance warranting this type of social disengagement have not quite come to a head yet. But they do speak of significant parallels between those times and our present one. So what do they counsel?

By no means are they agreed on a detailed plan or response. Though for a while now, a consensus has begun to take shape among them about the most appropriate course of action. Since modernity is a one-way street and religion is positioned in the wrong direction, the ‘ulema realise that any forward motion is fraught with danger. They are aware, too, of the need to steer a path between mindlessly reacting to modernity and timidly retreating from it.

Priority, they stress, is for Muslims to learn and maintain the fard al-‘ayn: those duties that are a personal obligation for Muslims to know and fulfil. They also enjoin living according to the Prophet’s Sunnah, peace be upon him, wherever we can; and as much as we can. This applies to the private sphere.

As for the public space, the advice is far more nebulous. Must we challenge modernity square on and brazenly confront its decadent wrongs? A mixture of textual indicants, received wisdoms, experiences and hindsights have all worked together to make this a wild or intemperate option, as far as the ‘ulema are concerned. Any policy of militant conflict is more likely to harm Islam than anything else. Instead, do what you are able to do in the public space, is their advise, and begin to develop strong institutions: civil, religious, educational and social. Furthermore, start to form Alliances of Virtue with like-minded non-Muslims so as to help build a better society – alliances aimed at working for justice, accommodation and coexistence.

What this needs is for us to take a more nuanced, wiser and courageous approach; an approach where the balanced and spiritual nature of Islam can better manifest itself. The approach must also be one that allows Islam to retain its voice as a prophetically-inspired dissent that engages the realities of the modern world. This sacred function of Muslims being dissenting witnesses is based on the verse: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be a witness over mankind, and that the Messenger may be a witness over you. [2:143] With knowledge, justice, compassion and courage this is what we have been called upon to do: to be witnesses to tawhid, divine truths and delivery of the Message to a world retreating from the Sacred and plunging ever more into the profane!

1. Iman, islam and ihsan have also be expressed as: law (shari‘ah), path (tariqah) and reality (haqiqah). Here, shari‘ah means: to worship only God; tariqah, intending only Him; and haqiqah, spiritually witnessing Him. Consult: Ibn Ajibah, Iqaz al-Himam fi Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2008), 23.

2. Cf. al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, n.d.), 1:353; hadith no.626.

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