A group of the extremists among the Imamis consider the legal obligation [to believe] in the infallibility of their leaders. They consider that to even be consistent with their treatment of animals and their servants. They have gone to an extreme in such matters that they have removed the veil of modesty from their faces and become objects of ridicule, amusement, and mockery of religion.
They even believe that this infallibility extends to every aspect of their lives such that they could not even theoretically make a mistake in their reports or testimonies in courts of law. But perhaps the most bizarre aspect of this is that they permit those same leaders, and even in some instances consider it their obligation, to practice taqiyyah [dissimulation]. They claim this is part of our religion. In other words, they permit bold-faced lies. If such is the case, how then is it possible by any stretch of the imagination to depend upon the infallibility of their words? If you permit them to say what they don’t believe, if you can’t trust them with what they say [as it may be taqiyyah], then how can you consider their actions infallible? If it is permissible to dissimulate in their words, then certainly the same applies to their actions.
– Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni (d. 478 AH/1085 CE), al-Ghiyathiy
The English love their tea, and some also seem to relish tempests in their teapots. In America, we love our mountains, and we tend to make them out of molehills. Making a big hullabaloo over small matters is a common human affliction.
Recently, a storm has been brewing in one of the tearooms of Cambridge, and it involves someone I have known and respected for more than three decades. Dr. Tim Winter, who teaches theology at Cambridge University’s Wolfson College, has been accused of homophobia for making remarks about homosexuals that, according to some, warrant his expulsion from Cambridge’s prestigious faculty.
The offending remarks are from a Rihla (Muslim teaching program) in 1995 when Dr. Winter was answering questions from a group of Muslim students, and they surfaced now through a video clip that was posted online. Dr. Winter answered a student’s question regarding homosexuality with what would pass as a normal response in almost any mosque throughout the Muslim world, and is the belief held by hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide. In essence, he said that homosexuality is an aberration and not consistent with the natural functions of the body.
The root of the problem here lies in not distinguishing between the same-sex attraction that many people, including obviously some Muslims, feel, and the actual act of sexual relations between two people of the same sex. As Dr. Winter explained in his answer, some people appear to be born with the tendency towards homosexuality, but “if they do not act upon this tendency, they are not sinning.” Unfortunately, that distinction is not commonly drawn, and this troublesome conflation—and the rarely understood nuanced difference in our religious tradition—is increasingly causing problems for Muslims. Too many of us alienate many good Muslims when we fail to make this distinction and simply demonize them.
Our scholars clearly made these distinctions in the books of Islamic jurisprudence and use the term ma’bun to refer to someone with same-sex tendencies. Imam Dasuqi says that if such a person leads the prayer, his prayer is valid. In fact, the actual text he was commenting on addresses who can or cannot lead the prayer. Quoting Mukhtasir Khalil, Dasuqi writes, “It is discouraged [but not prohibited] for a eunuch (khasi) or homosexual (ma’bun) to be a regular prayer leader.” In his commentary on this, Dasuqi, who died in 1815, explains:
It is disliked [but still valid] for a ma’bun to be an assigned leader of the obligatory prayers as well as for communal supererogatory prayers, but not tarawih, or travelers’ prayers, or as someone who leads them on occasion. And the intended meaning of ma’bun is a male who is effeminate in his speech, similar to a woman’s speech, or someone who desires rectal intercourse but doesn’t practice it, or someone who has practiced it but since repented yet, nonetheless, has set tongues wagging.
In the wake of the storm that engulfed Dr. Winter, he has apologized, and his retraction and clarification should be taken at face value as genuine maturity and growth in understanding.
Unfortunately, some critics and many troll commentators have suggested that Dr. Winter is practicing “taqiyyah,” a word now entering the Western vocabulary as Islamophobes increasingly promote it to insinuate that Muslims represent a “fifth column” of subversive quislings hell-bent on putting every pig farmer in the West out of business and forever banishing pork rinds from convenience stores. But, as the above-mentioned quote of Imam al-Juwayni shows, while taqiyyah is practiced by a small minority of sectarian Muslims, it is not in any way part of the Sunni tradition that Dr. Winter adheres to, and it is not permissible for a Sunni Muslim unless that person is under immediate threat of death. It is certainly not morally acceptable to practice taqiyyah simply to save face with a verbally hostile public or to preserve one’s job. Islamophobes will naturally argue that I am practicing taqiyyah here, so you can’t really win with them. But if that was the case, morality would lose all meaning, and a man’s word would be of no significance, something incomprehensible to anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of the Prophet Muhammad’s character—he was called “al-Amin” (the trustworthy) because he was known never to break his word, ever.
Fascists demand always that there be only one way of thinking, living, or believing. But ours is a pluralistic world, and our grandmothers and grandfathers fought a great war to prevent fascists from having their way in it. In a free society, Dr. Winter is entitled to believe in his faith, and his faith prohibits and deems sinful the act of sexual relations between unmarried couples whether gay or straight (since some states have now legalized same-sex marriage). What he has retracted and apologized for is the manner in which he said what he did at the time. “I believe—and Allah is my witness—that I was right, in Sharia, and considering the maslaha [commonweal] of the Muslims, to dissociate myself from the lecture and to apologize,” he wrote recently.
And then he added: “The key point is this: mercy and understanding are better than recrimination.”
One critic argued that Dr. Winter’s characterization of his comments as “youthful enthusiasms” is unacceptable given he was in his mid-30s at the time. However, in the Arabic language, the word “youth” (shab) indicates a period of one’s life that lasts until the age of 40, and, while perhaps not in the case of that critic, most of us are full of folly before the age of 40 and too many of us well after that. As someone who has known Dr. Winter over the years, I can say that while he, like all of us, is capable of mistakes and, like the rest of us, carries the baggage of “youthful enthusiasms,” he has always been one of the youngest wise men I have ever known.
Whatever his opinions on any subject, he is never fanatical and never imperious in his approach. Moreover, the guidance that he would impart to fellow Muslims who share the same beliefs as he does would naturally differ from his lectures whereby he would be sensitive as a professional and acknowledge the diverse sensibilities of a post-modern student body with all the varieties that that entails. I am sure that those who have been fortunate to study with him at Cambridge, whether gay or straight, would concur.
Meanwhile, let us be aware that much more formidable storms are raging in the world. We should be far more occupied with putting out the fires of war and tending to the needs of the refugees of real tempests than trying to get someone fired for “youthful enthusiasms.”
“Whenever someone calls his brother Muslim a kafir, one of them must be a kafir [either the one being accurately being called a kafir, or the one who falls into kufr, by inaccurately accusing his brother of being a kafir].”
– Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him
“Fitna is asleep; may God curse the one who awakens it.”
– Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him
“Takfir should be reserved for one who clearly falls into apostasy, states it openly, chooses it as his din, rejects the testimony of faith, and leaves the religion of Islam altogether.”
– Taqi al-Din al-Subki
“To deem a thousand disbelievers Muslim is safer with God than to deem one Muslim a disbeliever.”
– Imam Abu Hanifah
What is apostasy, and how does it differ from simple error? When a Muslim suspects a fellow Muslim of apostasy, how should he or she act? Recently, certain Muslims have been attempting to “expose” me as a deviant Muslim by highlighting mistakes I have made in my talks that are on the Internet. Some of these attempts have been so ridiculous that I will not waste time refuting them. Nevertheless, they raise some important issues that I want to address: What is a proper response to error? And what should a Muslim do when accused of apostasy? In this essay, I will explain how I fell into one error, and I will apologize for it. I will also review the larger issues of kufr, takfir, and fitna, and their interrelations.
An Error and a Retraction
The error I wish to clear up concerns a statement I made some years ago while commenting on Imam al-Tahawi’s creed. In dealing with the section on the “seal” of prophecy in that text, I brought up the false interpretation of that concept used by the false prophet, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. In retrospect, perhaps I should have refrained from providing a detailed explanation. Instead, I ventured into a thorny area, based upon my understanding of the key figures of the Ahmadiyya movement, and in doing so, I made some statements that I am obliged to retract.
My error was in differentiating between the status of the two groups – the Lahoris and the Qadianis – of the Ahmadiyya movement, and stating that the Lahoris are not outside the fold of Islam. My understanding of this issue came from people I trust, not to mention Al-Azhar University’s approval of Muhammad Ali’s Religion of Islam as well as his insistence in the introduction to his Qur’an translation that he was a Muslim who accepted the finality of the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him. Though I clearly stated that Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a false prophet and is considered outside the fold of Islam, as are his followers, and I warned people about reading Muhammad Ali’s books, I inappropriately commended his English translation of the Qur’an. I am certainly not the first Muslim to have done so, as some well-known scholars of the past have acknowledged the merit of Muhammad Ali’s translation, and some translators, including Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Pickthall, not only relied heavily on it but also praised it. Regrettably, I was in error by doing so. Adherence to the sound principles of our Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, is our only salvation from error. According to a hadith, to praise deviants and innovators is to aid in the destruction of Islam. I seek refuge in God from that and ask forgiveness for anything done unwittingly to that disastrous end.
When the issue concerning the difference between the Lahoris and Qadianis was brought to my attention, I made several calls to scholars I know and trust, and received different opinions about the religious category under which the Lahoris fall. One prominent and well-known Pakistani scholar informed me that while there is a nuanced difference between the two groups, both, however, are equally anathematized in Pakistan. Another well-known American scholar of Islam informed me that he was under the same assumption as I based upon Al-Azhar’s certification of Muhammad Ali’s Religion of Islam. He stated that Al-Azhar would never certify an apostate’s work on Islam. Nevertheless, since that time, several fatwas and statements of various scholars I trust stating the contrary opinion have come to my attention and convinced me of my error.
Al-Azhar has ruled that both sects are outside of Islam, and I accept the ruling of the former rector and mufti, Shaykh Al-Azhar, Gad al-Haqq, may God have mercy on him. I am very cautious of takfir, but if a body as meticulous as Al-Azhar issues an official position about a group, we are obliged to concede to them. I have great respect for the balance and moderate tradition that Al-Azhar represents and know that they do not take takfir lightly. Hence, I defer such judgment to them, and retract my previous statement. As the saying goes, “The people of Mecca are more familiar with their mountain trails.”
For all these reasons, I request that my statements about the Lahoris be removed from the Internet, as I am not qualified to have an opinion about the matter and cannot make takfir of a group or individual on my own, as that is a judicial responsibility in Islam.
Why Does This Matter?
Many modern Muslims are probably unfamiliar with the great loss of life this particular fitna caused in the past. In 1953, Pakistan was shaken by protests aimed at removing the Qadiani minister, Zafar Allah Khan. The protests succeeded, but over ten thousand Pakistanis lost their lives in the process. I hope that the few Muslims who have seized upon my mistakes will refrain from reawakening a fitna that has had such frightful consequences in the past. A hadith says, “Fitna is asleep; may God curse the one who awakens it.” The use of fitna as a method for social disruption is increasing in our communities. Muslims must be more vigilant about those within and without us who wittingly or unwittingly cause strife and conflict, which increasingly is leading to loss of life and limb. The Internet has become the number one source and weapon for this phenomenon, which may herald the introduction of what the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, referred to as “the age of fitna.”
In refutation to those accusing me of disbelief or questioning my faith, I would like to clarify something that is obvious to most people who know me: I am an orthodox Muslim. I follow the Maliki school of law; I believe in and accept the creeds of Imam al-Tahawi, Imam al-Ash’ari, and Imam al-Maturidi as all being valid understandings of the Divine in our faith and sources for sound dogmatic theology; and I am also a believer in the agreed-upon path of Imam al-Junaid and of those who are rightly-guided among the Sufis, such as Abu Talib al-Makki, Imam al-Qushayri, Imam al-Ghazali, Sidi Ahmad Zarruq, and countless others. I am not a Perennialist and never have been. I believe Islam abrogated previous dispensations, as asserted in the major creeds of Islam, but I do agree with Imam al-Ghazali’s position of the possibility of salvation outside of the faith of Islam and am not exclusivist in that manner. When I said, “I don’t believe in exclusivist religion” I was referring to that position and was not attributing Divine sanction after the advent of God’s final dispensation, Islam, to any other faith tradition.
I sincerely thank those who defended my honor in the light of these attacks and made excuses for me, as that, according to the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, is a hallmark of the believer, whereas seeking out mistakes is a quality attributed to hypocrisy. I was asked by several people to clarify this issue due to an apparent obsession that a few people seem to have with exposing my mistakes on the Internet, as opposed to writing to me privately and edifying me that I might correct them, especially at a time when Muslims are so disunited and fragmented. Their claims to have contacted me are bewildering, as I received nothing to that effect.
Our community is currently dealing with many grave matters: suicide bombings, sectarianism, civil wars, our great scholars of the past having their bodies dug up from their graves and desecrated, mentally challenged adolescent girls accused of blasphemy, embassies destroyed and ambassadors killed or under threat, … the list continues. As a result of the madness in our community, increasingly, for the first time since I became Muslim thirty-five years ago, I am hearing pleas such as, “Help my son – he has left Islam; help my daughter – she is having a crisis of faith.” I now receive letters and emails requesting that I talk to Muslim youth who no longer identify with our faith. Sadly, harsh-hearted haters among our community are driving people from the mosques and making the most beautiful teaching in the world appear ugly.
What Is Apostasy, and How Should We Respond to It?
A concerned brother from England, asking me to address the Lahori statement, pointed out that some brothers have declared me a kafir based upon the argument “one who does not make takfir of a kafir is also a kafir.” Their reasoning is this: Lahori Ahmadiyyas are kafirs; Hamza Yusuf did not call them kafirs; therefore, Hamza Yusuf is a kafir. To edify those seeking clarification on the issue of declaring Muslims kafirs, I have provided the explanation that follows.
The precept articulated is related to a precept known as “lazim al-madhhab madhhab,” which is not as simple as some would have it. Regarding apostasy, Sidi ‘Abd Allah Ould al-Hajj Ibrahim, the great usuli scholar, states: “Anyone who demeans the sanctity of God, His prophets, or His angels leaves Islam. The condition of intended apostasy when demeaning is a disregarded position.”
What he means is that anyone who diminishes the exalted station of God or any of His prophets, angels, or symbols (such as by spitting on the Ka’ba or throwing a copy of the Qur’an into the trash) is an apostate, whether that person intended to leave Islam or not. There is an opinion that the intention of apostasy must precede the act in order for it to be considered apostasy, but that is a weak opinion.
Sidi ‘Abd Allah then says, “The scholars are harsh on a mufti who says that one is not a kafir who is a kafir. Indeed, disbelief is feared for one doing so.”
“Disbelief is feared for one doing so” is the precept that the young man from England was referring to when he said, “one who does not make takfir of a kafir is also a kafir.” However, note how Sidi ‘Abd Allah articulates it. He refers to a “mufti” who does not deem as disbelief that which scholars have concluded is disbelief, whether in word or in deed. The scholars censure such a person severely, as a mufti’s implication that he accepts those proscribed words or deeds as permissible can lead to the disbelief of others.
Another aspect of this is contained in the related maxim, “What is implied or inheres in a statement is also a statement” (lazim al-qawl yu’addu qawlan). In other words, if a person does not declare to be kufr something that is considered kufr by a consensus of the scholars, then that disregard for the consensus of the scholars on that issue is, in effect, kufr. That is, if one does not deem kufr to be kufr, it follows that one accepts the kufr. However, implied in this principle is that one is pleased with the kufr or at least views it as acceptable for another person. In that case, the acceptance of the kufr is indeed kufr. In the case of grey areas, however, when possible, one should attempt to interpret the offending word or deed in such a way whereby implications of disbelief are overlooked.
To illustrate the nuances mentioned here, let us look at the problem of anthropomorphism. Someone who attributes to God qualities of His creation may not understand the inherent problems that such a position engenders. Some scholars declare such people outside of the faith, while others do not. Shaykh Abu al-Qasim al-Tawati says, quoting al-Takmil, “This is based upon the principle that ‘what is implied or inheres in a school is also a school’ (lazim al-madhhab madhhab). But this is a matter of difference among scholars.”
Shaykh al-Tawati continues, “Does the derived meaning of a statement function as the same statement or not? Many have been considered disbelievers based upon this, like the one who asserts rulings and attributes and yet denies them also – what innovation! [He is referring to the Mu’tazilites and others.] This includes also the Anthropomorphists. It follows that what they worship is other than what Muslims worship.”
His argument is that to attribute to God literally those things that are attributes of His creation, is, in essence, idolatry. That is because those who do so, while not worshiping anything physical, have conceptualized in their object of worship qualities that imply physicality, such as limbs and direction. Hence, some scholars have deemed them idolaters given that their literalism declares a deity who exists in space, is physically located on something, etc., all of which delimits the limitless true God of Islam.
On the other hand, a more lenient scholarly opinion holds that while such an understanding of God is erroneous, it does not render such people idolaters because they are merely asserting what God states in the Qur’an but are mistaking it as literal, failing to understand that such an interpretation results in profound theological problems. In his commentary on Ibn ‘Ashir’s poem, Ibn Hamdun says about this strain of Hanbali Anthropomorophists (Mujassimah), “Their faith (iman) is accepted only if their intellects cannot grasp the subtle distinction [between their conceptualization and its attendant problems].”
Hence, in a desire to avoid takfir, some scholars have rejected the principle, “What can be deduced from a statement is also a statement” (Lazim al-qawl yu’addu qawlan), given that it does not account for the person’s intention or heedlessness to the implications of their words or subsequent conceptualizations. This is a more merciful approach and one taken by the greatest scholars of Islam.
Sidi ‘Abd Allah then states, “[Charging] apostasy should be avoided if another interpretation can be found [to the act or statement].” This approach invokes the virtue of mercy, of being generous and charitable, if there is doubt in how we may be interpreting someone’s words or deeds, or if there is doubt regarding that person’s intention.
Shaykh al-Tawati comments, “If a statement implies disbelief or something else, one should not deem it apostasy but rather use an alternate interpretation, if it bears that, in order to prevent bloodshed.”
Sidi ‘Abd Allah then quotes a statement attributed to Imam Abu Hanifah: “To deem a thousand disbelievers Muslim is safer with God than to deem one Muslim a disbeliever.” Quoting Waking up the Sleeper (Iqadh al-wasnan), Shaykh al-Tawati states,
It was said to Malik, “Are the heretics (ahlu al-ahwa) apostates?”
He replied, “On the contrary: their heresies were an attempt to flee from disbelief.”
For example, in the case of the Anthropomorphists, they took their position of literalness out of fear of denying the Book of God or God’s attributes. Hence, they were indeed attempting to flee from disbelief, not fall into it.
In the same book, Taqi al-Din al-Subki was once asked if one should declare extreme innovators disbelievers (takfir ghulat al-mubtadi’ah), to which he replied:
Absolutely not! Know this, questioner! Anyone who fears God, the Exalted, will deem it an enormity to accuse someone who says, “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasulullah” of being a disbeliever. Indeed, this is an affair most grave and dangerous, because the one who calls another [Muslim] a kafir is really saying, “I know he will be forever in the hellfire; his blood and wealth are permitted in this world [apostasy was a capital offense according to most pre-modern scholars in the three Abrahamic religions]; he cannot be married to a Muslim woman [his marriage would be nullified]; and the rules of Islam do not apply to him, either in his life or after death.” Indeed, to mistake a thousand disbelievers [as believers] is better than to make a mistake that causes blood to flow from a Muslim. And a hadith states, “That a ruler should mistakenly forgive a criminal is dearer to God than that he should punish an innocent man.” So takfir should be reserved for one who clearly falls into apostasy, states it openly, chooses it as his din, rejects the testimony of faith, and leaves the religion of Islam altogether.
Conclusion: Sectarianism and Fitna
Some modern Muslims have become so sectarian that they are “quick on the [apostasy] draw,” ready to gun down anyone who disagrees with them – at times not just figuratively. Due to this misuse of learning, many Muslims have lost faith in the scholastic community, dismayed by the pettiness with which some half-baked imams and mullahs too often use their “knowledge.” As Allama Muhammad Iqbal so cogently and eloquently stated, “Neem hakim khatra-e jaan; neem mullah khatra-e iman.” And, in the wise words of Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, referring to these same “scholars”: “Ta’rifuna ma qala rabbukum, wa la ta’rifuna lima qala rabbukum.”
The seriousness that our earlier scholars applied to this issue is clear. Imam al-Ghazali begins his opus, Revival of the Religious Sciences (Ihya ‘ulum al-din), with a powerful indictment of the scholastic community whom he refers to as “formalists,” people who have become so trapped in the trappings of religion that they have forgotten its true essence. Echoing the Qur’an, Imam al-Ghazali pointed out that most people follow what they were born into and taught by their parents and elders. Moreover, it is the originators of false creeds and ideologies who are the real transgressors, not the unfortunate people who have unknowingly imbibed false teachings from early childhood, which makes discovery of truth much harder for them. These same people, after years of indoctrination, in turn indoctrinate their own children, unwittingly perpetuating the cycles of falsehood that the Qur’an came to end. God says, “Oppose the leaders of disbelief” (9:12), given that they are the ones who disseminate error and thus mislead the trusting masses. But as for their misguided followers, we should have compassion for them and help them see the truth. That is only achieved through mercy.
It is not in my nature to hate people. I actually desire good for all people, including Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, Agnostics, and certainly my brother and sister Muslims. I would hope to see humanity guided as opposed to misguided. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, said, “That a person should be guided at your hand is better than the world and what the sun sets upon.”
The Qur’an says to the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, “It is a mercy from your Lord that you are so gentle toward them. If you had been harsh and hard-hearted, people would have fled from your presence” (3:159). It is indeed the harshness and obstinacy of some overly zealous Muslims today, combined with the absence of mercy in their hearts, which is driving people out of Islam and deterring others from considering or even respecting it. They are conducting themselves based upon some misguided adherence to their understanding of Islam. They are uncertain in themselves, and so they feel threatened by anyone who might differ with them; through fanaticism, they attempt to protect themselves from doubt but result in only obscuring their view. Fanatics are blinded by the light of God as opposed to guided by it. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, warned of these people when he said, “Perish they who go to extremes.” We should try our utmost not to be one of them.
Ibn Qayyim said, “Forgiveness is more beloved to God than vengeance; mercy is more beloved to Him than punishment; acceptance is more beloved to Him than wrath; and grace is more beloved to Him than justice.”
I sincerely thank those many people who defended my honor as well as those who, with courtesy, brought this mistake to my attention that I might redress it. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, said, “All of you make mistakes, and the best of those who do so are those who repent from them.” Thank you for pointing out my mistakes that I might repent from and correct them. I am deeply sorry for any confusion they may have indirectly caused by allowing those who seized upon them to awaken a sleeping fitna.
When a woman chastised the caliph Omar for his claim that dowries should have limits, Omar, may God be pleased with him, said, “All of you are more learned than Omar” (Kullukum afqahu min ‘Umar).
 Fitna (Arabic: fitnah): “Sedition, dissention, discord.” The word’s root is related to “enticement,” “allure,” “intrigue,” and “temptation.” Fattan means “fascinating,” “captivating,” “enchanting”; “tempter,” “seducer”; “denunciator,” “informer,” “slanderer” (Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary). The close relationship of these words indicates that fitna can be seductive and enticing to some. When fitna broke out, the Salaf would often quote these lines of poetry: “War, when it first appears, is as a beautiful woman to every young ignoramus.” Under normal circumstances, such people do little or nothing but when exposed to a fitna suddenly become filled with zeal and actively engaged in “righteously” setting something right, often under the guise of duty and loyalty to the faith. This enticement is something from which we must guard our hearts.
 For example, I gave a talk to a group of Christian theologians, ministers, and students about the ill effects of usury, in which I argued that Christians had abandoned their prohibition of usury that had lasted for almost two thousand years. I used Dante Alighieri’s Inferno as a frame for the discussion. During the talk, I pointed out that Dante viewed the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, as a schismatic Christian as opposed to a false prophet, as I wanted them to reflect on Dante’s subtle acknowledgement of the doctrine of Islam, as argued by the Catholic priest and scholar, Miguel Asin Palacios. Hence I told them that I wanted to “defend Dante a little bit.” These Muslims seized upon my use of the word “defend,” by which I meant, “explain,” which is a synonym of “defend.” On this basis, they argued that I “defended” Dante for insulting the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him – a claim so patently false and unfair, not to mention absurd, that I won’t even entertain refuting it.
 Muhammad Ali (1874–1951) was the most prolific student of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and split with the Qadianis in 1914 over the issues of the succession and the claim to prophecy of Ghulam Ahmad, which Muhammad Ali argued was an addition by his son Bashiruddin and not part of the original teachings of Ghulam Ahmad. Muhammad Ali is considered the founder of the Lahori branch of the Ahmadiyyas.
 For a more detailed explanation of Imam al-Ghazali’s view on what makes a person a disbeliever, see my article in Seasons Journal, “Who are the Disbelievers?” Also, my article “Generous Tolerance in Islam and Its Effects on the Life of a Muslim” explains the noble character Muslims should have. Both articles can be found here: http://sandala.org/multimedia/articles/
 Punishment in this world for apostasy is not mentioned in the Qur’an; however, some sound hadiths indicate that it is a capital offense. These are not absolutely certain (mutawatir) traditions, and some scholars, such as al-Nakhi’ and others, argued against it. Imam Abu Hanifah’s school does not mandate capital punishment for a female apostate due to the mutawatir tradition prohibiting killing women or children, which he saw as limiting the singular hadiths enjoining capital punishment on apostates. Today, it could be strongly argued that the aim (maqsad) of considering apostasy a capital offense, which was to protect the faith, is lost in application, given that modern people suffer a crisis of faith due to such applications.
 A half-baked doctor is a danger to the body; but a half-baked religious scholar is dangerous to the soul (lit. faith).
 You know what your Lord says, but you do not know why He said it.
 According to one narration, Omar, may God be pleased with him, says, “The woman is more learned than Omar,” but in another he states that everyone is more learned.
On Friday, August 3rd, Hamza Yusuf gave khutbah at a masjid in Abu Dhabi in which he spoke on the subject of just rulers.
Just rulers are the first of the seven groups mentioned in the Qur’an who are in the shade of God on the Day of Judgment. Hamza Yusuf explained why: They are a great blessing to all of humanity. Furthermore, the sultan represents the shade of God on the earth. When rulers abuse their power and exploit people for their own selfish ends, life becomes increasingly unbearable and often reaches a boiling point, as in the case of Syria. On the other hand, when rulers are just, security and peace reign, and people flourish.
* * * * *
Later that same evening, Hamza Yusuf gave a lecture at the national theatre in Abu Dhabi. He commented on a hadith related by Imam al-Tirmidhi on the authority of Mu’adh ibn Jabal in which he asks the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, if he could inform him of what he could do to enter paradise and avoid the hellfire. The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, told Mu’adh that he had asked about an immense matter, but that it was easy for one whom God facilitated it for.
The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, answered Mu’adh’s question by first stating the five pillars. Next, he informed him of the portals of goodness, the first being fasting, the second charity, and the third night prayers. Then he told him that he would inform him what was the head of the matter, its main support, and its peak: Its head was Islam; its main support was prayer; and its peak was jihad.
Next, the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, said to Mu’adh, “I will tell you how you can possess all of these things.” He took hold of his tongue and then said, “Control this.”
Mu’adh asked, “Are we taken to account for what we say?”
The Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, responded, “May your mother weep for you. Are people dragged in hell on their faces for anything other than the harvest of their tongues?”
Hamza Yusuf spoke about the importance of guarding the tongue, especially during Ramadan. To his surprise, in attendance were the sons of two of his Mauritanian teachers, Shaykh Muhammad Abdul al-Rahman, who is the son of Murabit Muhammad al-Amin, and Qadi Muhammad bin Bayyah, the son of Shaykh Bayyah bin Salik. Also in attendance was His Excellency, Dr. Hamdan Musallam al-Mazrouei, the Chairman of UAE’s General Authority of Islamic Affairs & Endowments.
The program ended with a question and answer session at the end.
Hamza Yusuf is currently visiting the Emirates. He studied there in his youth, and has maintained ties with his friends there over the years. He has been invited back many times to share his knowledge and experience with the people in the place where his journey of seeking knowledge began.
Hamza Yusuf gave a lecture after Tarawiyyah prayers on July 30th, 2012 in Sheikh Zayed’s Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi. It was aired on Abu Dhabi Radio.
The subject he spoke on was the Muslim household, and his remarks were based on the verses in Sura al-Ahzab (33:32-35) which address the wives of the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, letting them know that they are not like other women because of the great honor of being married to the Messenger of God, peace and blessings of God be upon him. The verses describe the wives as having seven characteristics, and Hamza Yusuf explained that every Muslim woman should model herself after them. They are as follows:
1) To have God-consciousness (taqwa), which entails adhering to the commandments of God and avoiding God’s prohibitions, inwardly and outwardly.
2) To not speak seductively, but rather to speak resolutely and forcefully with men who are not of the household in order to avoid being objects of desire for those whose hearts are diseased.
3) To stay home and not go out without good reason, as the house is the real abode of peace (dar al-Islam). It is the place where a believer can control his or her environment – hence the hadith, “What a blessed monastery is the house of a believer.”
4) To not ornament oneself with the ornaments of the Age of Ignorance (jahiliyyah) but to be modest in dress and movements when outside the home.
5) To establish the prayer and pay zakat. This is because prayer purifies the heart and zakat purifies wealth, and God has purchased from us our lives and our wealth.
6) To obey God and His Messenger, God’s peace and blessings be upon him. Even though prayer and zakat are part of obedience to God, they are mentioned before general obedience because those who pray and give zakat will find it easy to fulfill the rest of the obligations.
7) To remember God through recitation of the Qur’an and Prophetic practice.
After mentioning these seven characteristics, God reminds us that He is al-Latif; He knows the hidden matters of the house and of the heart. He is also al-Khabir; He knows the reality of everything.
The next verse describes the ten qualities that are necessary in order to have a purified household in this world as well as an eternal abode of bliss in the next world. They are as follows:
2) Faith (iman)
3) Piety; reliance on God with humility (qunut)
4) Truthfulness (sidq)
5) Patience (sabr)
6) Humility (khushu’)
7) Charity (sadaqah)
8) Fasting (siyam)
9) Chastity (hifdh al-furuj)
10) Much remembrance of God (dhikr)
In the midst of these verses, God reminds the household that the purpose of practicing these qualities is divine purification.
Hamza Yusuf concluded by suggesting that we all begin to try to inculcate these qualities during this blessed month.
A Sermon from The Mercy to All the Worlds
O community of Muslims, roll up your sleeves, for the matter is momentous. Prepare for an imminent journey. Garner provision now as the journey is long. Lighten your loads, for before you is an ascent most steep! Only those traveling lightly shall bear its climb.
O humanity, before the Hour comes, you will see wonders, vast tribulations, and difficult times. Darkness will prevail, and foulness will take the forefront. Those who enjoin right will be oppressed, and those who condemn vice will be suppressed.
Hence, strengthen your faith for that time, and cling to faith as you would clench on for dear life. Flee to righteous deeds, and force yourselves to perform them. Be patient during the difficult times, and you will eventually arrive to eternal bliss.
– Translated by Hamza Yusuf
My advice to myself and everyone else is to read this every day until the meanings are deeply dyed in our souls.
When Children Suffer
I would like to write a follow up to a question someone wrote in response to a quote I posted on Facebook a few days ago. The question was regarding how God could allow the rape of a seven-year-old girl. First of all, I would request that people not be so harsh with those who have valid questions. Some Muslims are too quick to attack and condemn Muslims with doubts or troubles and actually drive them further away from Islam. I have been guilty of this myself and sorely regret being too harsh with a Saudi youth in Jeddah once who was on the verge of apostasy. At that moment, I responded as I did because I felt so troubled that someone so close to the Haram Sharif could be in that state; however, in retrospect, I realized I probably made the situation even worse. I pray for him to this day.
In Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky poses this modern question of the suffering children on the tongue of Ivan to Alyosha and uses it as a proof that he can no longer believe in God or rather the God who could create such a world. To his credit, Dostoevsky gives this argument the best rendering that can be found. He did not set up a straw man to knock him down; rather, he dealt with it head on.
Many young Muslims in the West and in other areas connected online are now exposed to such questions. The ancients were far too present with the divine aspect of the world to ever question God about the world, as God is the one who questions us. While theology and theodicy are long and arduous courses to take to really delve into and tackle such human problems, we still need reasonable lay approaches to help our fellow Muslims and others who are seeking answers to pressing problems.
I want to look at a hadith that elucidates further the response I gave to the question that was posted on Facebook. The Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, said, “Whoever prays our prayer, faces our qibla, and eats our halal meat is a Muslim who has God’s protection and then the protection of God’s Messenger. So do not betray God in His protection” (la takhfiru ‘llaha fi dhimmatihi). The word dhimmah has several meanings, including, “care, custody, protection, covenant of protection, compact, responsibility, answerableness, liability, inviolability, security, and conscience.” The Arabs say, “‘ala dhimmati,” meaning, “upon my word of honor.” According to this hadith, God has placed His protection over certain things – in the case of this particular hadith, Muslims, but more generally, according to the Qur’an, many other hadith, and Islamic law, His creation in the world. Hence, trees, wells, rivers, oceans, air, soil, food, animals, and most importantly people, irrespective of faith, color, or creed have God’s protection. However, God has made the human being the divine custodian of this protection. The verb khafara – yakhfuru, a variant of which is used in the hadith, means, “To watch over, to protect.” Changing the present tense form from yakhfuru to yakhfiru, as is done in the hadith, changes the meaning to, “to betray.” Hence, the protection can easily be betrayed by a slip from top to bottom, from fathah dropping down to a kasrah.
The above-mentioned hadith does not exclude people of other faiths. Those who are not Muslim, which includes people of all other faiths and not just the Abrahamic ones according to the Maliki and Hanafi schools, are people of covenant in Muslims lands, as was Ottoman practice for centuries; hence, they are called, “the covenantal people of protection” (ahl dhimmah). Included also in this category are nations that have treaties with Muslim nations and peoples in non-Muslim lands in which Muslims are living safely. In other words, all these people are in God’s and His Messenger’s protection. This is why, on the Day of Judgment, the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, is the advocate of a person of covenant who was betrayed by Muslims against the Muslims who betrayed him.
Of all God’s creatures, it is children who warrant the greatest protection due to their helplessness and innocence, which is why the punishment for violating them is severe. The Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, loved children and honored them on many occasions, such as calling them by honorific epithets or patting young ones on the head, leaving the scent of musk upon them for the rest of the day. In fact, the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, visited one child whose pet had died in order to offer condolences and cheer him up. The Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, also cursed those who mistreated animals and told of a person punished in the hellfire for torturing a cat; contrariwise, he told of a prostitute forgiven for giving water to a dog dying of thirst.
Terrible crimes perpetrated against children are also a sign that we not only have freewill but, according to our creed, that God is not obliged to intervene when we use it to break covenants of God’s protection and violate the inviolable. Imam al-Laqqaniy says in his Jawharah,
“The claim of the Rationalists that God must only allow benefit is a lie;
Have they not seen the suffering of children in the world?”
Finally, increasing incidents of such violations are a sign of the end of time, as the Prophet, God bless and grant him peace, said, “The time is coming when little children will be lusted after like you today have natural desires.” The ability to break this covenant of protection is called freewill. The rights and protection that God has given humans is to be upheld and honored by each of us. If anyone betrays that trust, then, in this world, the government has the authority and right to redress the wrong. In redressing the wrong, wholeness is restored, and healing can take place. If this does not occur, the victim must remember: there is a day when the divine redresser will right every wrong, heal every wound, fulfill every vow, and remove for all eternity the scars of this world that were unjustly inflicted by those who betrayed God’s protection.
“All of the strife in this world is due to three people: a newscaster, a news seeker, and a news listener.” This is quoted by Imam al-Ghazali, may God have mercy on his soul and sanctify his secret, in his book Tibr al-Masbuk, which is only partially his work. He quotes this statement from Ibn al-Qasim al-Hakim. When I first read this, I was deeply struck by the statement. The more I reflected on it, the more profound it seemed to me.
Recently, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah pointed out a mistake in Ibn Taymiyyah’s fatwa, a printing error made a hundred years ago that ended up in almost every printed edition since then. One exception was a quotation of it in a book by Ibn Muflih, a direct student of the Imam. Upon hearing about this occurrence, Imam Raisuni, the Moroccan Usuli scholar, said, “After this, we must be skeptical of any edition that is not critical and from a sound source.”
This is sound advice, especially given that we live in an age of too much information that moves too fast across the Dromosphere. Unfortunately, the standards of journalism fail to provide any assurance that the news will report the truth. Similar standards now pass muster far too often in academia with fudged citations, plagiarism, and even doctored experiments, giving a new meaning to the academic title, “Doctor” i.e. “one who doctors,” or tampers with something. So we need to question what we hear and read and see, and we need to scrutinize the sources.
One of the fundamental teachings of Islam is to be extremely vigilant about one’s sources. Our scholars developed the most sophisticated process of authenticating statements and formulated a basic rule: The onus of the source is upon the one stating the quote, and the onus of proof is upon the one making the claim. In other words, any statement that attributes words to another person must have sound proof that the words are indeed from that person; secondly, any claim made must be substantiated with a sound argument or, in the case of Islam, with a clear text from revelation that supports the claim. A person must always be ready and able to back up his quotes with sources and support his claims with sound arguments. If one is unable to do either, the quote must be withdrawn, and the claim should be abandoned. It is not acceptable to make public a quote or claim if one cannot authenticate it.
Even love has its proofs. A poet said,
You claim to love God, and yet you disobey God
This is a bizarre way of reasoning
Surely, the lover, if his love is true,
Is most obedient to the one he loves.
***** ***** *****
The proof of love is wanting to please the beloved. In the age of the Internet, news and information posted online or broadcast globally reaches the far corners of the globe instantaneously. And if the information is incorrect, it’s almost impossible to correct it everywhere it reached. Early last year, when Hosni Mubarak’s regime was falling in Egypt, most major news organizations, including CNN, BBC, major British and American newspapers, all reported that he had stolen $70 billion from his country. This figure spread like wildfire in cyberspace and was amplified across the Muslim world. As it turns out, later reports put that figure closer to a few million or hundreds of millions. A billion is a thousand million. Hundreds of millions, undeniably substantial, is far from 70 thousand million. So what is the truth? Who knows, and that is the point. Muslims are sometimes quick to abandon our teachings and principles, especially when faced with “information” we find to our liking. On the one hand, many do not trust the news, claim it’s biased and conspiratorial, and so on. On the other hand, many quote BBC or CNN as if it was a Sahih hadith, especially if it substantiates a point we want to make.
In December, we heard that car bombs in Damascus killed 44 civilians. The news reports said it was done most likely by opponents of the Syrian government, which is arguably among the most vicious and unethical in the world. The government said it was done by Islamists. The great bogeyman of the West has gone East. While Bin Laden is dead, it seems his vast international network of shoe and underwear bombers are still capable of pulling off an extremely sophisticated scheme in the most controlled city in the world. I don’t know who masterminded the suicide bomb attacks, but I find it difficult to trust any official statements from the Syrian government. It is not a credible source. And as for the fact that the perpetrators were Muslims, it behooves us to keep in mind that Islam’s sacred law condemns suicide as well as murder, most likely with eternal damnation.
***** ***** *****
Our challenge in this age of information overload is how to be informed without abandoning the principles and teachings of Islam, which require strict rules for authentication. We need to learn to question and examine what we hear or read, and not pass along anything unless we know the sources to be sound. I think we need news fasts just like we have food fasts. “If you are not careful,” Malcolm X said, “the newspapers will have you hating the people who are oppressed and loving the people doing the oppressing.” Henry David Thoreau, the inspirational mind behind the Occupy Wall Street movement, said, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.” The Qur’an says, “What are they asking about? The great news! About which they are in great difference” (78:1-3).
Mutannabi, the 10th Century Arab poet, whose name is derived from the word for “news” and can mean “the forecaster,” wrote in a poem,
People differ to such a degree they agree on nothing,
Except death that is, and even on that they disagree.
Some say the soul goes on after the death of the body
While others claim the soul, with the body, dies too.
I believe that everything we hear, see, and read, even from our own tradition, with the exception of the actual text of the Qur’an and rigorously authenticated hadith, must be looked at with a critical eye. But the real crisis is that too few of us have done the work or been afforded the education to develop a sound critical eye. To quote Mutanabbi again:
How many a fault-finder in words
Only reveals his faulty understanding.
Learning to read is much more difficult than what is taught or naturally acquired in early education. Reading involves coming to terms with the writer, i.e. understanding his words. It involves a familiarity with what is referred to in logic as material fallacies; they crop up in modern thought more abundantly than weeds in a wasteland. Critical eyes need refined minds, and the place to refine them is at school. But our schools have failed most of us, and the rapid decline and fallen state of our popular culture is proof perfect. More refined minds would demand more refined pleasures to entertain them when pleasure and repose is called for, but more refined minds would want to spend what precious time they have concerned with matters more elevated than constant entertainment. (For the thirsty, I would recommend reading Tolstoy’s masterful essay, “What is Art.”)
The birthday of the Prophet, God’s peace and blessings be upon him, is a great blessing for our community and, indeed, for all believers. So if we know the day, it should renew our joy manifold times. The Mawlid (his birthday) has traditionally been a time to reflect on – and be grateful for – our Prophet, peace be upon him, and his life, miracles, and the sacrifices he made on behalf of his community. Most of our scholars have considered celebrating the Mawlid as a good practice based upon the sound hadith, “Whoever establishes an excellent practice (sunnah hasanah) in Islam has its reward and the reward of those who act upon it.” This hadith, as some less perspicacious have thought, does not contradict the narration of Lady Aisha, may Allah be pleased with her, in which she relates that the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said, “Whoever introduces something in this matter of ours that is not from it will find it rejected.”
The latter hadith refers to blameworthy innovations that are not from Islam. Ibn Daqiq al-Eid, a polymath master of Islamic tradition, says that this hadith is foundational and that it rejects any innovation in the religion, and then further explains,
As for those matters that branch off of the roots and do not depart from his Sunnah, peace be upon him, this rejection does not apply to them, such as the copying of the Qur’an [with its innovated orthographies], and the various juristic schools that emerged as a result of the excellent study and thought of our mujtahid scholars capable of seeing the connection that the branches have to the roots, which is what the Messenger, peace be upon him, has transmitted; not included also [in this prohibition] are the later books of grammar, arithmetic, inheritance laws, and other sciences that have their basis in the words of the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, and his dictates. None of that applies to this hadith.
Celebrating the Mawlid, as great scholars such as Imam al-Suyuti have shown, does not depart from the Sunnah and is a branch from the root of love of the Messenger, peace be upon him.
Loving him is clearly from the Sunnah, as illustrated in the hadith in which when Umar, may Allah be pleased with him, expressed his love saying, “O Messenger of Allah, you are more beloved to me than everything except my own soul,” he was then reminded by the Prophet, peace be upon him, “None of you truly believes until I am more beloved to him than even his own soul between his sides.” At that point, Umar said, “By Allah, you are more beloved to me than my own soul between my sides.” The Prophet, peace be upon him, then said to Umar, “Now, O Umar, now!”
At that moment, Umar’s faith was completed – when his love matured from natural love to willful love. Natural love is the love of a child for a parent or the love of a devoted student for a teacher. This emanates from a simple truth, as stated by the Prophet, peace be upon him: “Hearts are inclined to love those who do good to them.” In other words, the human heart has no choice in the matter of natural love – love simply flows. Willful love, on the other hand, is of a higher order; it is love attained after deep contemplation of the beloved and a profound awareness that the object of one’s love is perfect, as in the case of God, or after the realization of the immense debt one owes to the beloved, as in the case of the Prophet, peace be upon him. Willful love is a matter of choice and introspection. Umar realized that his own soul that he loved so much was nothing, a cipher, without the blessing of the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him. It was at that moment that his willful love occurred; it took precedent over the natural love that everyone feels instinctively and without musing or meditation.
The celebration of his birthday, peace be upon him, is a matter of willful love, as it is from the religion to honor him and remember him, and part of the remembrance of Allah is to pray upon our Prophet, peace be upon him. Anything that helps us to do that, and is not an innovation, is good. Ibn Lubb and others have defined innovation as “what obliterates a sunnah.” Encouraging the community of believers to reflect on the Prophet, peace be upon him, on the sacred day of the 12th of Rabi’a al-Awwal, the day of his birth, is not destructive to the Sunnah that he brought. Moreover, the day itself is auspicious – it was the day of the Prophet’s arrival to Medina after his migration (hijrah). The day he died was also the 12th of Rabi’a al-Awwal. These are not coincidences. So let the lovers love in peace. The Mawlid is a national holiday in every Muslim country in the world except for one. May you use this time to read sirah and reflect on the blessings of his birth.
In closing, I would like to share a poem written by one of my favorite scholars, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi, who died a martyr in the battle of Tarifah defending the lands of the Muslims:
I desired to praise the Chosen One and was hindered
By my own inability to grasp the extent of his glory.
How can one such as I measure an ocean, when the ocean is vast?
And how can one such as I count the stones and the stars?
If all of my limbs were to become tongues, even then –
Even then I could not begin to praise him as I desired.
And if all of creation gathered together in an attempt
To praise him, even then they would stint in his due.
I have altogether ceased trying – awestruck, clinging to courtesy,
Tempered by timidity, glorifying his most exalted rank.
Indeed, sometimes silence holds within it the essence of eloquence,
And often speech merely fodder for the faultfinder.
Islam is rooted in the idea that knowledge is the most potent force on earth. The more one knows, the closer one gets to the One who knows all. The Prophet, peace and blessings of God be upon him, loved knowledge, and it is the only prayer the Qur’an commands him to supplicate: “Say: O my Lord, increase me in knowledge” (20:114).
I feel fortunate that I am able to spend a great deal of time in the pursuit of knowledge, and in sharing what I have learned. We live in a time when technology has made both the acquisition and the impartation of knowledge easier than ever before. And Wikipedia, launched in 2001, has fast become a quintessential tool of knowledge transmission.
Nary a day goes by when I don’t look something up on Wikipedia. For starters, it is surprisingly accurate and studies have shown that it stands up to, and even surpasses, the accuracy of information published in encyclopedias. Except that, unlike most encyclopedias, Wikipedia is a nonprofit entity. What truly amazes me is the powerful message of hope it gives by being an open source medium, a testament to the talent and skills of a global community of experts and amateurs who service it for our sake.
There is something in us that loves to share. The great Persian theologian, Fakhrudin al-Razi, said that discoveries are without enjoyment if they are not shared, and even a child, upon discovering something new, runs frantically to find someone to share it with. As adults, we love to share knowledge because we know, deep down, that it doesn’t belong to any individual but to everyone. That is the power and message of Wikipedia.
What I find most wondrous in this age of avarice and venality, where the mercenary attitude has possessed even the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker, is that the people who conceived Wikipedia and run it are committed to a commercial-free knowledge zone in cyberspace. The price they pay, willingly, for keeping it untainted by commercial considerations is that they work with less; they have a smaller staff that works for smaller wages than most private, for-profit online institutions. And yet they have built what is now the fifth most popular website in the world. They are doing all of us a great service, and they actually believe that that is reward enough – to serve humanity. When Jonas Salk discovered the polio vaccine in 1955, he refused to patent it, instead giving the rights to the society. Asked why he didn’t patent it, he replied, “Could you patent the sun?”
Wikipedia is committed to spreading the light of knowledge as freely as the sun spreads its light. And Wikipedia needs our help.
Wikipedia, overseen by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation, has less than 100 employees and 100,000 contributors. And it needs to stay independent and free from advertising or commercial underwriters who will inevitably use it to their ends. In order to draw our attention, bothersome banners are currently on their site, banging the proverbial tin cup, seeking donations. I hope all of you who use Wikipedia will donate. I am committed to sending them a yearly donation to help keep it free.
The beauty of Wikipedia is that it is knowledge for the people and by the people. It may not be flawless, but if we find flaws or biased statements, we have a right and a duty to correct them. If we have expertise in an area, we ought to be vigilant and contribute our knowledge so others can benefit. And for many of us who are simply users, we should donate.
I am aware that Wikipedia represents the lowest form of knowledge, i.e. scientia, which is related to facts, sound opinions, and information. In the classical schema, the intellectual virtues were science, understanding, and wisdom; in Islam this was ‘ilm, fahm, wa hikmah – knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
However, both understanding and wisdom are dependent upon knowledge, so it is the foundation. Wikipedia is an incredible source for those pursuing knowledge and those who want to share what they have learned.
As for understanding and wisdom, that, unfortunately is not readily available online.
If you would like to make a donation, click here.
One of the great traditions of Islam is what is referred to as “tabaqat” literature. It is essentially biographical material that highlights the lives and qualities of the great sages, scholars, ascetics, and saints of Islam. The earliest biographical literature, such as Ibn S’ad’s Tabaqat, pertains to the lives of the Prophet’s Companions. The benefit of reading such literature is feeling one’s own meager existence when compared with the luminaries of the past; it also rouses ourselves from our heedlessness in order to set out as those before us, who left, for those to follow, their footprints on that ancient and well-trodden path of purification and ensuing illumination. In light of this, I hope to share with my readers certain highlights and qualities I have witnessed and come to know of in the people whom God has blessed me with knowing and benefitting from. The primary purpose here is to let those who have not been afforded such opportunities, but still love to hear the stories of the righteous, experience vicariously their presence. The scholars say, “When the righteous are remembered, grace descends.” That such luminaries still exist is testimony to the continued spiritual power and effectiveness of our Prophet’s teaching, peace and blessings of God be upon him. God has blessed this community with such men and women until the end of time, and even in this dark time of spiritual sloth and vanity they nurture those who come to know and love them. When the pleasures and the pastimes of the ego have blinded so many of us from the path of purity and piety that leads to salvation and sanctification, they reveal themselves as cogent reminders to those who will listen that the world is temporal, fleeting as dissipating before our very eyes and we too shall follow.
The first is that of the great Moroccan sage, scholar, and saint, Sidi Fudul al-Huwari. Though we make no claims about people’s ranks with God – as God alone knows the hearts – rather, we assume their high spiritual station from our good opinion of them based upon their outward noble character and exemplary piety.
Born around the turn of the twentieth century, Sidi Fudul al-Huwari grew up in Fes and served as an imam in the large mosque next to Bab Boujloud, and also taught Ibn Ashir and other basic texts in the Bou Inania Mosque.
In 1978, when he was still quite vibrant and able to teach, I visited him for the first time. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it was the beginning of a powerful and wonderful relationship that would last for over twenty years and leave an indelible mark on me that I feel to this day. On that first visit, he explained how, from being a barely literate craftsman, he became an imam and a scholar: One day while still in his teens and busy at his job in a shop, a shaykh, whom he had seen on many occasions walking to the Qarawiyyin, stopped and stood outside his workplace, watching him. Eventually Sidi Fudul realized he was being watched; the shaykh then asked the shop’s keeper if the young man could come with him. The man obliged, and the shaykh took Sidi Fudul to the Qarawiyyin and instructed him to sit in the outer circle and simply listen. The shaykh explained that not much would make sense to him but to be patient. He did this for some time, and, soon enough, the lessons did begin to make sense. After many years of study, Sidi Fudul became a scholar in his own right. The shaykh’s name was Sidi Muhammad bin al-Habib, and Sidi Fudul later became his leading student and a commentator of his diwan of mystical poetry. Sidi Fudul was himself a poet of some note.
On one visit, he gave me the original handwritten manuscripts of his commentaries on his shaykh’s diwan, which I still treasure. He also gave me a teaching license (ijazah) in person, orally, and then later had his student, Maulay Hasan Lamdaghari, send me a written one. Sidi Fudul was given the mantle of his own shaykh and was recognized as a spiritual adept but declined to accept it. He once told me, “I know my limits, and I could never fill the shoes of Shaykh Ibn al-Habib.”
Shaykh Bennani, a great scholar and qadi from Fes, told me, “Sidi Fudul is not one of the great scholars. His outward knowledge, while competent, is not vast like the great scholars, but he knows what most of the great scholars do not. He knows his Lord.” By contemporary standards, however, he is a notable scholar of the later part of the twentieth century. He loved to comment on the Qur’an, and had a special affinity for the Verse of Light, which he commented on countless times, always with new insights. His lectures on Ibn Ashir were some of the most well-attended and popular lectures in Fes among common people.
Sidi Fudul was a beautiful man, who symbolized a Morocco that is fast disappearing. He was a true gentleman, erudite, learned, forbearing, and above all, he was in a constant state of submission to his Lord. He once lamented to me that modern-day Morocco had drifted far from the Islam of their past, and he warned me of the new trends of Islamic revival, which he saw as having more to do with politics than with the spiritual center of Islam. In his earlier life, Sidi Fudul had been active in the politics of Fes, driven not by the utopian fantasies of some modern Islamists but rather by a sense of civic duty. He once said to me, “Calling other Muslims innovators is an innovation.”
Once, late in his life, I visited him when he was in a coma, lying on his bed. He had lost both his hearing and sight at this stage. His daughter, Fatima, at that time in her seventies, was looking after him. We greeted him, and Maulay Hasan said to me, “He cannot hear anymore.”
At that point, Sidi Fudul spoke up: “Give me a moment. I am coming to visit.”
A few minutes later, he asked to be helped to sit upright, and we complied. He then asked for his eyeglasses. Fatima brought them and put them on for him. He suddenly opened his eyes wide, scanned the room, and proclaimed, “Yasin!” He then began to recite Sura Yasin, the thirty-sixth chapter of the Qur’an. We all joined him in the recitation. When we finished, he began to tell us of wonders he had been experiencing in his state. He also conveyed to us that he had exhausted all of the demons and that they had given up on sowing doubt in his heart about his Lord. This memory of my last meeting with Sidi Fudul forever abides in my heart.
Sidi Fudul spent his life acquiring and then teaching the sciences of Islam. He was a well-respected scholar in Fes and present at the gatherings of notables. He had a gentle character, and should your eye fall upon his face, you were reminded of your Lord. His tongue was always moist with the remembrance of God, and he always had time for anyone who needed advice or to know a legal ruling. He had a small spice shop in the market near his house, and he could be found there reciting Qur’an or reading a book of knowledge while waiting for his provision. Shaykh Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki, the great Meccan scholar, whenever he visited Morocco, would always visit Sidi Fudul in his house in Fes. Just as birds of a feather flock together, saints find sanctuary in one another’s company.
Copyright: From the forthcoming book, Meetings with Mountains, by Peter Sanders. www.petersanders.com
There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes?
– Hamlet, William Shakespeare
Salem Saif al-Mazrui grew up in Ra’s al-Khaimah, a beautiful part of the Arabian Peninsula, boasting some of the most tranquil desert scenes juxtaposed with majestic seascapes and mountains. It is an irenic place. It is also one of the most religiously conservative of the seven Emirates in the UAE. Though it does not have the natural resources of its sister Emirates, it maintains a profound connection to its religious and national identity, and has a warm and welcoming tourist industry.
Salem comes from the clan known as al-Mazari; they trace their lineage back to the most ancient Arab tribes of the peninsula. His name, Salem Saif, means “peaceful sword” and aptly reflects the archetypal character found in Arabia. The desert is a harsh place, and one must be tough to survive, but survival itself depends on others. Hence, the Arabs developed a code of ethics regarding guests whom they may not know well or at all. A stranger is always honored, but if he presents a threat, the desert Arab can quickly thrust aside his natural generosity, hospitality, and congeniality, and become the fiercest of opponents.
Salem was a 28-year-old military officer from a small village. His father was stricken with cancer and needed treatment. Since the United States has some of the most advanced treatment centers in the world, it was the natural choice for the family. Many Emiratis have studied in Texas and know the area, but more importantly, it has a world famous cancer institute that received a $150 million donation from the president of the UAE. One would also expect that, given the UAE’s largesse, the center treat their Emirati patients with heightened Southern hospitality.
So the dutiful son Salem brought his father to America in hopes of a healing. Little did they know how tragic things would turn out.
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Unlike some Muslims from abroad who come to America and gravitate to the glitz and glitter of nightlife, Salem was a committed Muslim who arrived on a mission – to serve his father in his hour of need, providing the emotional and familial support vital during arduous cancer treatments. They rented an apartment in a gated community, which for many people engenders a false sense of security in an increasingly fearful and desperate America.
A week into Ramadan, Salem and his father were on their way back from the tarawih prayers at the local mosque, and stopped by their apartment to pick up some sweets before heading on to dinner at a friend’s house nearby. Salem left the car idling and walked to the apartment with his father, both dressed in their national robes. At this point, two armed men accosted them at gunpoint, blocked their doorway inside the apartment, and demanded money. The bandits locked the two men in a room and began to rummage for valuables. But the desert men, with their profound sense of honor and natural courage, broke free and found themselves face to face with the two desperate and armed robbers.
Salem moved to defend his father; shots rang out; bullets pierced his chest. The men grabbed Salem’s wallet, fled the scene, and drove off in their victim’s Toyota Avalon, leaving behind a brave, young, Arab military officer, with a new wife and two-month-old child in his village back home, dead in a pool of his own blood. After police found the abandoned car and identified the fingerprints, an arrest warrant was issued for Corey Trevon Perry, 17, and his 18-year-old accomplice Detone Lewayne Price, both African-Americans. While the two were charged with perpetrating a heinous crime, they are also victims of another crime, that of a derelict America.
Police initially suspected it may have been a hate crime, given the rising anti-Muslim sentiments in America, but once the culprits were identified as African-American teens with prior criminal records, the theory was discarded, and the tragedy was relegated to a crime of armed invasion gone violently wrong.
Salem’s death came while he was in a good state, ready and prepared. He had come home from night prayers, was in the service of his father and family, and was planning to leave for the home of a fellow Muslim to share in a fraternal meal, even bringing a gift of sweets that he had stopped to pick up. He is no doubt, in my mind at least, a martyr. Our Prophet, peace and blessings of God be upon him, said, “Anyone who dies defending his property is a martyr.” Unlike Detone and Corey, both Salem and his wife grew up in a society where the family is still central, where the community is still close-knit, and where caring and compassion are values that bind people together. Though the Emirates are not free of problems, basic communal bonds are still strong.
Salem’s murder should serve as a cautionary tale for both Americans and Emiratis. On the surface, it can simply be reduced to a random crime. But for those who believe in fate, there are much deeper implications. For the Emiratis (and other Arabs), it’s a reminder that America is no longer the land where many Arabs came to study in the 1960s and 1970s.
While crime has always been around and during some periods and places in America quite high, violent crime is becoming commonplace, and murder, which once made the front page nationwide for weeks, is now relegated to a back page story, if even that. And while violent crimes committed by the older population are down, teenage violence is higher than ever before. The recent riots in England and the sports violence in America are signs of societies that have lost their bearings. It isn’t that the moral compass is just not working – in some cases, it has been discarded all together.
Sociability is the essence of a society, what Ibn Khaldun referred to as ‘asabiyyah. When that social solidarity and common purpose get lost, people no longer feel a sense of camaraderie with their fellow citizens. We live in a virtual society, a society of ghosts haunting a once inhabited house; many text and twitter, but they no longer commune in prayer or pleasure.
Muslims must feel grateful that our Prophet, peace and blessings of God be upon him, put into place so many ways in which people are bonded. Just praying five times a day with a group binds us in social and spiritual solidarity. Ramadan, that great feast of friendship and family, is a time in which the community in its entirety is directed inwardly for a month, united during the day by hunger and joined at night by food and prayer.
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The breakdown of the family is the breakdown of society. The African-American family was the first casualty of an inherently racist system that too often punished black males, which led in turn to dysfunctional, impoverished, and deteriorating social conditions in black communities. The Black Church mitigated the breakdown but eventually proved incapable of stemming the tide. It was left to overwhelmed black mothers who did their best to hold together fracturing families in a rapidly collapsing social system that in many places today resembles war zones – Detroit is perhaps the most blatant example.
Minority communities are the canaries in the coal mine of American culture. The dominant culture consistently follows the trends that first show up in minority communities. In certain areas, great strides have been made, but the reality of inner cities today is far worse than before the civil rights movement. While we have elected an African-American president, the Congressional Black Caucus says little or nothing is being done by this administration to address the chronically high unemployment among African-Americans. Thus, socio-economic disparities between the races and the concomitant trauma are a long way from over. Wounds have not only failed to heal, they continue to fester, and communities far from being restored are deteriorating – think Katrina. Thus, it could be argued that the election of President Barack Obama has given many in white America the false impression that we have crossed an imagined threshold and are now magically a color-less society.
Far from it. The African-Americans of East Oakland, the South Side of Chicago, South Central L.A., and so many other ghettos have the entire deck stacked against them just coming into this world. It is a testimony to the human spirit that so many do so well. To blame the victim is to play the trump card of the oppressor.
When African-Americans are given the same opportunities as that of mainstream America, they do just as well if not better than their culturally dominant counterparts. But criminal and destitute environments breed crime, and statistically speaking, as highlighted by studies mentioned in Levitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics, it was only a matter of time before Detone and Corey would have a run-in with the law. Instead of beating a path to becoming president of the United States, or a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or mechanic, their nihilistic environments insured for them a tragic date with destiny on that balmy Houston night in the blessed month of Ramadan. The teenagers’ crime exposed everything that is wrong with America and revealed everything that is right with the Emirates.
Unlike the desert heat of Salem’s homeland, which makes people more inter-dependent and brings them closer, the urban heat of America’s inner cities alienates the youth and destroys their sense of community.
While the murder of Salem Saif al-Mazrui was merely a media blip in Houston and almost entirely ignored by the national news media, his death nevertheless traumatized an entire society in the Emirates. His community turned up in large numbers to pray in solidarity at his funeral, including the ruler of Ra’s al-Khaimah. While I was in the UAE recently, Salem’s murder made headlines in all the newspapers for several days, just as a murder would have been covered here in America when our country was comprised of tightly-knit communities with real families, not T.V. families, local churches, not mega-churches, real friends, not Facebook friends. Life revolved around neighborhoods without hoodlums, not “hoods” without neighbors, and there was social solidarity in both its black and white communities, despite their parities, differences, and inequalities. My ninety-year-old mother told me that when she was young, any murder, even that of a hobo, would have been front page news for days in San Francisco. Now it is a daily occurrence in most places that barely gets noticed. While many Americans think Muslims have no qualms about taking a life, the truth is that murder – political violence in a few destabilized places notwithstanding – is still quite rare in most Muslim countries. It is for this reason that I’ve always felt safe in Muslim towns, villages, and cities at any time, day or night.
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May God bless Salem and reward him for his filial piety, and for his fasting and night prayers; may He grant the young man a place among the martyrs of our faith. May God strengthen his wife and raise his child in faith and love, and give ease in the hearts of the family; and may He heal his father from his cancer by the blessing of the good deeds of the son.
As for the perpetrators, I am reminded of a Muslim brother who used to write me from prison. He was incarcerated because he was involved in a murder when he was just 18-years-old. He was a star athlete but happened to be in the wrong company that night, and for it he spent ten years in prison. After a lengthy period of correspondence with him, in which he acquired a great deal of Islamic knowledge, I wrote a letter to his parole board encouraging them to release him. He is now a thriving member of society, with a good job and a family, responsible and still pursuing sacred knowledge. After his conversion to Islam and the opening of his eyes, he could no longer recognize his former self: that fated boy in the car ten years earlier on that ill-omened night. The inner cities and many of the young who are disenfranchised, alienated, lost, and angry need Islam – not just any “Islam” but a sound understanding of our rich tradition and certainly not the disenfranchised, alienated, and angry identity politics posing as religion that is tearing apart Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and too many other places.
As Ramadan moves along, we realize the rapidity with which the month travels. The word “month,” derived from “moon,” essentially measures one lunar cycle: the roughly 29.5 days it takes the moon to circle the earth. A lag time is involved due to the earth’s spin and its own movement around the sun. The Qur’an tells us that fasting is prescribed so we may learn to ward off evil, and then reminds us of the “limited days” (ayyaman m’adudat) before fasting comes to an end (2:183-184). The plural form used for “days” is known in Arabic morphology as a “plural of paucity,” meaning the number is not large. In other words, Ramadan is a limited time of spiritually powerful days.
During Ramadan, one can achieve spiritually what would take far longer during other times of the year. But restraining our zest for food is a prerequisite. In his book Hujjat Allah al-Balighah, Imam Shah Wali Allah al-Dahlawi explains that our faith provides special times of blessing that have enhanced spiritual power, and only a receptive soul will experience great openings during such times. To prevent the openings from blockage, he recommends, among other things, ensuring that the stomach is not sated. This advice is in the prophetic tradition. The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The worst vessel the son [or daughter] of Adam ever fills is his [or her] stomach.” He also said, “It is enough for the son of Adam to eat a few morsels that will maintain his back’s uprightness. But if he must add more to his stomach, then let it be one third for food, one third for water, and one third for air.” The Persian scholar Sahl al-Tustari was asked about a man who ate once a day, and he replied, “This is the way of the prophets.” Asked about someone who eats twice a day, he said, “This is the way of the righteous.” Finally, he was asked about someone who eats three meals a day, and he replied, “Build for him a trough!” Abu Madyan al-Ghawth, who laid the foundations along with Imam al-Ghazali for the way of Shaykh Abd Allah al-Haddad of Hadhramaut, remarked that his own path was one of hunger.
Ramadan is an especially opportune time to reflect on the blessings of food and satiety. When we eat less, our stomachs shrink, and we feel full after a few bites at the end of the day. Fasting allows us to experience once a year what many throughout the world experience almost daily. Hunger, for them, is not a choice; it is simply a fact of life. Currently, Somalia and other parts of East Africa are gripped by a devastating drought, and the lives of millions of men and women — and sinless children — hang in the balance. Such tragedies make some people ask, “Where is God?” But God may very well answer with a question: “Where are you?!” After all, these catastrophes are avoidable. A recent study of global food wastage indicates that we waste millions of tons of food each year. Even a portion of that would ward off any potential famine.
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Somalia has gone through great tragedies of late. We should not forget that in the not too distant past, Somalia was a wonderful pastoral society of profoundly spiritual people. The occasional clashes of clan and feuds over water were usually resolved by the elders without bloodshed. Somalis had an irenic culture largely bilingual due to their love of Arabic and immersion in a classical training in the Yemeni tradition of islam, iman, and ihsan. They were people who would wake before dawn to call on their Lord before setting out for a rural day’s work. I know this both from my own elderly Somali friends whom I cherish, and also from my time in a very similar society in West Africa. In fact, the Somali of Mauritania are descendants of Somali migrants from East Africa. Some of the most brilliant scholars I met in Mauritania are from the Somali people. In the San Francisco Bay Area, our own dear Shaykh Abdar Rahman Tahir, a brilliant scholar of Arabic from Somalia, was a student of the great master of Arabic, Muhyiddin Abdul Hamid.
Somalia’s recent history has unfortunately been one of political upheaval and the collapse of civil society and functional government. As it emerged from the weight of colonialism, it fell victim to Cold War politics and international intrigue due to its important strategic spot in the Horn of Africa. Now the persistent poverty has been compounded by drought and famine, even as internal violence makes everything far worse. Yet Africans in general are always low on the so-called world community’s list for help. Higher up on the list are the bailouts of Wall Street firms or the financial institutions of Greece or Italy or Spain because those have consequences for people in the West. But when it comes to starving Africans, one hears the refrain, “When are they going to help themselves?” That is the thinking of Iblis. The Qur’an quotes the mentality of such people; they say, “Shall we feed those whom had God could have fed if He willed?” (36:47). The Prophet, peace and blessings upon him, said, “You are aided by aiding the weak among you.”
Somalia deserves to have the aid of all of us.
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It is Ramadan, a time when our own self-induced hunger should bring us a bit closer to those whose hunger is caused by circumstance, not choice. I am in the Emirates now and have seen the generosity of the government and its people here in coming to the aid of Somalia; they have sent about 900 tons of food and have begun well-drilling operations. But much more needs to be done. The Red Crescent is extremely active there, as are other charitable organizations.
Charity conquers the greed of our souls and actualizes the solidarity of humanity, as those who have reach out to those who have not with love, compassion, and faith. Let us all remember them tonight at iftar as we break our fasts and pray for them. Let each of us find it in our hearts to do something, no matter how small, to address the problem. And let us not forget to pray for our brothers and sisters in Libya, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Afghanistan, whose Ramadan is filled with trials and tribulations, while most of ours are filled with relative ease and comfort.
In this blessed month of Ramadan, let us do what we are able for those in need, whose hunger and pain is likely to outlast this brief month.
Note to readers: I want to thank everyone who wrote recently and inquired about my health. I had a terrible fall a few weeks ago and had a mild concussion from it. I appreciate the wisdom of wearing a turban more. I am better, and the headaches have subsided – thanks be to Allah.
Unfortunately, it prevented me from writing much. I have been in Medina and am traveling to Turkey for the Rihla program. Please keep me in your prayers. I appreciate it greatly. I want to write soon in a more substantial way, in sha Allah. But for now, I would like to share my thoughts on some unpleasant recent developments and also share some observations from my recent stay in Medina.
I have been troubled by the attacks made on several notable scholars, especially the slanderous material written about my own teacher, Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah. He never pays any attention to them, but I have lived with him and witnessed his piety, decency, virtuous character, and genuine love for the Prophet’s Ummah, and I fear for those people who so lightly attack him, or who attack others, like Shaykh Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, simply because they disagree with them.
We ought to know that such criticism of learned people is not a good sign. As recorded in al-Hakim’s Mustadrak, the Prophet of God, peace and blessings be upon him, is reported to have said, “When the Muslims begin to loathe scholars and are preoccupied with commerce and its development, obsessing over accumulation of wealth, God will then direct at them four tribulations: loss of productivity, oppressive rulers, corrupt justice systems, and enemies who find them easy prey.”
Islam has been a knowledge-based tradition from the start, with the first word revealed: “Read!” And scholars, more than any others, have carried that tradition forward through the centuries. Inquiring minds should peruse Franz Rosenthal’s Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam, a wonderful study on the centrality of knowledge in the Islamic world. When Abu Dawud narrated hadith, it was said, hyperbolically perhaps, that as many as 70,000 inkpots filled the mosque. Men and women from rich families and poor ones vied to be students of knowledge. Books were written in gold ink with stunning calligraphy, and are now displayed in Western museums as great works of art. Scholars filled our community centers, and a love of language, literature, and all things shining – thus Islamic – was the hallmark of our lost Muslim societies.
This is well documented in the travelogues of scholars such as Ibn Jubayr, which is available in English. About Damascus, Ibn Jubayr recounted that the sound of Qur’an recitation was akin to the buzzing of bees in their hives due to the vast numbers of people reciting. Circles of knowledge covered the mosque, and he was surprised to find that even the ordinary folk were listening to high levels of discourse. In other words, people strived to learn and increase their knowledge and understanding, and they looked to the mosques and community centers to quench their thirst.
In today’s mosques, we often hear stories of the righteous that are related in an attempt to inspire people. Imam Malik, however, did not allow storytelling in the Prophet’s mosque; he saw it as an innovation and as antithetical to real knowledge, which is incumbent upon every adult Muslim, male and female, according to the well-known hadith related in Ibn Majah’s collection. Today, however, such a position is often viewed as “elitist,” and scholars are expected “to get down with the common people.” Things have become topsy-turvy. In the past, it was understood that the common people needed to seek knowledge and be elevated – Shaw’s Doolittle had aristocratic pretentions to speak like Higgins, whereas today Higgins is wearing designer torn jeans and speaking in the debased vernacular of Doolittle, pretending to be hoi polloi. Today, the burden is on the scholars to downgrade their discourse so the common people can “get it.” Hence, rap replaces poetry, music replaces the maqams, stories replace study, and ideology replaces creed.
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Meanwhile, sure as the Prophet’s prediction, we find Muslims preoccupied and obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and material possessions. We see Muslims, even in the revered places of Islam, more eager to sate their worldly appetite than their spiritual one. Mecca and Medina are transforming into giant malls where pilgrims spend hours wandering in a daze, gorging on their choice flavor from Baskin-Robbins, or seeking out the McDonald’s to grab a halal Big Mac before the farewell tawaf. It is now not uncommon at the Sacred Mosque to hear a pilgrim’s plea: “Oh, can you please take my picture as I kiss the Black Stone?”
In Medina, I found more signs of the troubled times we live in. I tried to find a non-smoking hotel because my children were with me, and because my reactive airway doesn’t tolerate smoke well. Sad to say, I was unsuccessful. Despite the fact that all of the major hotel chains outlaw smoking in their European and American locations, they revert to allowing smoking – due to popular demand, no doubt – in the two most sacred spots where smoking is not only haram1 but manifold times more so. And it’s common knowledge that secondary smoke clearly causes harm to others. When I went to a hotel’s manager to protest that my rights were being violated, he looked at me as if I was mad and flatly stated the obvious reason for their policy: “The majority of guests here prefer smoking!” So what is clear is that in the City of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, a smoker’s right to harm himself and others trumps a non-smoker’s right to be free from harm and to breathe the blessed and healing Medinan air.
Apparently, they also prefer to waste food. The wastage I witnessed was beyond belief. While in Medina, my wife and I took leftover food out to the streets and found poor people who were overjoyed to eat it and thanked us profusely for having thought of them. I spoke with one of the waiters in our hotel about people placing far more food on their plates from the buffet table than they could possibly eat, and he responded, “If you saw what we see, you would weep.”
We clearly suffer from those very tribulations the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, identified, and we have to realize that the source of the tribulations is not the big bad West, nor is it the evil rulers in Muslim countries, or the unjust judges. We need only look within our selves. We are consumed by our indulgences and our excesses. These problems are all only symptoms, and as long as we treat the surface symptoms, the disease lies beneath and only gets worse. The antidote is to follow the Prophet’s sunnah.
In another hadith, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, was reported to have said, “God is never angered with a people except that they suffer from inflation, their markets become depressed, corruption becomes the norm, and unjust governance becomes more severe. When that happens, the wealthy among them forget the rights of the poor, governance loses its virtue, and the poor stop praying.”
If we look at the current economic crisis, the prevailing view is that there are clearly discernible causes for it that have been studied, documented, analyzed, and articulated. And there are legal and legislative and systemic solutions being offered. But these are merely symptomatic analyses, and as long as the metaphysical roots are ignored, the tribulations will only recur. When God’s limits are transgressed, certain responses are incurred. God is not susceptible to emotions, so when He is “angered” (sakhita), this should not be understood anthropomorphically.
The solution then is to work to attain God’s pleasure (rida). One of the prayers of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, every day was, “O God, I seek refuge in You from your anger and the fire, and I ask You for Your pleasure and Your paradise.” The pleasure of God is only discerned through following, to the best of our ability, the way of His beloved Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him. Our task is to learn and live by it. It begins with sincere intention, is followed by disciplined study, and is fulfilled through purposeful actions based upon sound knowledge.
I have no contempt in my heart for anyone. While in Medina, though troubled by much of what I observed in the Prophet’s city, my heart was always filled with a love for his community and with a desire to see them, and myself, on a path to purification. If the Prophet’s sunnah is not practiced in his own city, where the beloved rests awaiting the day of judgment, tell me, where then will it be practiced?
1While some difference of opinion still exists, the vast majority of scholars have declared smoking among prohibited matters based upon the hadith, “No harm and no reciprocating harm.” Smoking is clearly harmful, and secondary smoke harms others. See the transcript of the Friday sermon on “The Legal Ruling on Smoking” delivered by the excellent and courageous Syrian scholar, the Sharif, Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack on the U.S. ten years ago, I was catapulted into a position of spokesperson for a community. My history of criticizing American foreign policy complicated matters for me, given the almost inquisitional environment that began to arise in the U.S. since then. Some have attempted to present any criticisms Muslims make of U.S. policies overseas as evidence for their sympathies with the terrorists. Nothing could be further from the truth.
While many Muslims are profoundly troubled by the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and other places where Muslims have felt the brunt of brute force, almost all are disgusted to see the devastation unjustly wrought in Islam’s name as a response.
Richard Scheinin’s interview of me in the aftermath of 9-11, which appeared in the San Jose Mercury, still very much reflects my sentiments about the event. I think the entire piece, which covered a page of the Mercury and was quoted extensively throughout the world, still holds up today. I believe it is the view of most Muslims worldwide and reflects well the authoritative Islamic legal opinion. The Prophet Muhammad set down rules of engagement. Sven Lindqvist points out that the earliest humane rules related to warfare are to be found in Abu Hanifa’s formulations in the 7th century. Lindqvist writes:
It was Abu Hanifa, a leading legal expert of Persian origin, the founder of a school of law in Baghdad, who first forbade the killing of women, children, the elderly, the sick, monks and other non-combatants. He also condemned rape and the killing of captives.… A legal expert in Baghdad, [he] attempted to make war more humane by setting forth rules that were not accepted in Europe until several centuries later—rules that were still not accepted, in any case not practiced, when colored people were involved. [Sven Lindqvist, A History of Bombing (New York: The New Press, 2000), 9.]
In fact, it was Abu Hanifa who first codified these rules in a legal system, but all of the rules were taken from injunctions given by the Prophet Muhammad himself.
Thoughts on the extrajudicial execution of Usama Bin Ladin will be posted soon, in sha Allah. (But I’m extremely busy with several current commitments, so please be patient.)
“Surely God is with the patient.”
As promised at the end of my blog, “On Libya,” here is the text of the Du’a al-Nasiri along with my English translation of the Arabic poem:
- The Du’a al-Nasiri with English Translation
- Transliteration of the Du’a al-Nasiri with English Translation
- Audio Recording of the Du’a al-Nasiri
- About the Translation and Recording of the Du’a al-Nasiri
About The Prayer of the Oppressed:
The power of this prayer of Imam Muhammad al-Dar’i lies in its simplicity, its purity, and its sincere supplication. It is essentially a plea to God that our transgressions be overlooked, that divine mercy be bestowed upon us, that social justice be restored in spite of us, that wrongs be righted, and that righteousness reign once again in our lands, so that the destitute may no longer be in need, the young may be educated, the animals’ purpose fulfilled, rain restored, and bounties poured forth. It is a plea to be freed from the aggression of foreigners in lands over which they have no right – a plea much needed in our modern world, rampant as it is with invasions and territorial occupations. Ultimately, it asks not that our enemies be destroyed, but simply that their plots, and the harm they cause, be halted. Its essence is mercy, which in turn is the essence of the Messenger of God, Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him: “And We have only sent you as a mercy to all the worlds.”
“Shaykh Hamza Yusuf has rendered a tremendous service to Islam with this translation of a powerful, deeply spiritual supplication, and passed it along to a community of Muslims far removed from its Moroccan roots. He has also augmented it with a riveting Introduction that examines the nature of oppression and its impact on human societies, while challenging us to admit our powerlessness to God.”
— Imam Zaid Shakir
Author, Co-founder of Zaytuna College
“Hamza Yusuf is in himself and his work, a beautiful, and absolutely necessary, living bridge between the Islamic and American cultures. His eloquence, and his brilliant intelligence, are vital energies, nourishment, we can share.”
— Coleman Barks
Author, The Essential Rumi
“The prayer of Imam al-Dar’i is a reminder that in all religions and all cultures there are men and women of wisdom and courage who rise to stand with the oppressed against the oppressor. The greatest virtue we possess, as the poet knows, is compassion, not only for the victim but also for the victimizer. It is the contradictory tension of justice and mercy, of law and forgiveness, which makes us complete human beings.”
— Chris Hedges
Author, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning
Stunning. Imam Muhammad b. Nasir al-Dari’s prayer-poem is beautiful, the accompanying CD is beautiful, but what is most remarkable is the introduction by Hamza Yusuf. It is as thoughtful and erudite, as clever and as powerful, as honest and moving as anything ever written by a Muslim in North America. This guy isn’t building bridges; he’s revealing the ones that are already there. This is wonderful stuff by a scholar who needs to sit down and seriously start thinking about writing a book.
The Prayer of the Oppressed also contains an extensive essay by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf on oppression – including the causes of oppression and how to deal with oppression. Click here if you wish to purchase the book (which includes a CD of the Du’a al-Nasiri recitation by the renowned Fez Singers).
Posted from Medina Munawara, the City of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him.
“If a profligate comes to you with news, make sure you understand it (tabayyanu) and make sure you know it indeed happened (tathabbatu), or else you will attack people out of ignorance and end up in great remorse” (Qur’an 49:6).1
How many fault-finders of statements
Yet the fault is faulty understanding
Upon seeing one of his students reading a difficult book, a teacher said, “Don’t read that book yet.”
The student replied, “I promise only to take from it what I understand from it.”
“It is not what you understand that concerns me,” responded the teacher, “but what you think you understand.”
– Shaykhna b. Mahfudh
“How quick people are to condemn things they don’t understand.”
– Lady Aishah, the wife of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
Sahih Muslim, Chapter on Funerals
I want to write about the importance of proper reading and writing, as well as the importance of proper adab (manners) when one criticizes or debates another. This topic was partly inspired by the general debasement of our public discourse taking place these days and partly by some comments from readers of my recent blog posts. These comments, some published and some not, concerned statements I wrote regarding Islam and politics, so I shall also take this opportunity to elaborate on those statements.
First, we have to understand that one aspect of language, even in its most simple usage, is ambiguity. Anyone who has ever used a dictionary knows that words often have multiple meanings. (For that reason, Wikipedia has a “disambiguation” option.) In rhetoric, amphiboly refers to the phenomenon of ambiguous syntax.
In the Islamic tradition, the prerequisites of debate include a mastery of grammar, rhetoric, logic, and a branch of logic that involves the comportment of research and dialectic (adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah). Those ill prepared in these areas fall prey to common misunderstandings. In the past, such people did not debate with or challenge statements made by an erudite person because they knew well the verse in the Qur’an, “Are those who know and those who don’t equal?” (39:09) – a rhetorical question, needing no response, as the answer is obvious. Furthermore, in the Islamic tradition, a long-standing convention of glosses exists whereby scholars would shed light on the abstruse language used by their predecessors. The Maliki scholars, in particular, preferred to write in such abstruse language in order to prevent ill-equipped readers from venturing into their books. (In the West, legal books often use a similar tactic so that only jurists can comprehend the text with ease.) Sometimes, glosses were written on previous glosses, and some works contain marginalia that involve three or four books in one. All of the above were ways in which highly capable scholars removed ambiguity from previous texts in order to enable educated but less capable scholars to understand the texts.
I spend a good deal of time reading such texts as a result of my own dependence on far more knowledgeable scholars. I also frequently look up a word in my readings, sometimes for the sheer pleasure of exploring nuances and other times to make sure I understand the word correctly. Recently, reading an Arabic poem, I came across an unusual word and looked it up only to find that the meanings provided in one Arabic dictionary did not make sense within the context of the poem, demanding I resort to another larger dictionary, which, indeed, provided the appropriate meaning.
Reading is an activity largely of the mind, but reading well is an exhausting effort of one’s mental faculties. One of my own teachers said that reading has four levels: understanding the outline of the piece; coming to terms with the author’s terms (meaning that one understands terms as the author intended); understanding the propositions, their arguments, and evidence supporting them; and finally, responding with the appropriate etiquette. This last phase, which Mortimer Adler describes as “talking back” to the author, is the most difficult level of reading. It is the ability to criticize with understanding, giving your reasons for dissent, and supporting them with counter arguments, but this last and problematic phase of reading is entirely predicated upon the mastery of the first three. At this level, criticism means disagreeing with all or part of an author’s assumptions, logic, or conclusions based upon an accurate and contextual reading of his work.
A serious student of knowledge must work to grasp the ambiguities of the text she is reading. For instance, Imam al-Ghazali is noted for saying, “Laysa fi al-imkaan abda’ mimma kana,” and multiple meanings can be inferred from this statement. Indeed, whole books were penned in an attempt to pin down Imam al-Ghazali’s precise meaning.
To use a classical example of an ambiguous statement in usul, scholars mention the hadith of the Prophet, peace be upon him, which may be translated from the Arabic as, “Whoever follows up Ramadan with six days from Shawwal, it is as if he has fasted constantly.” The original Arabic contains the phrase, “min Shawwal,” which means, “from [the month of] Shawwal.” “Min” is a preposition in Arabic. Ibn Hisham’s famous Mughni al-labib is an exhaustive compendium of Arabic prepositions and particles, along with a few verbs and adverbs that he felt needed to be included. (Despite his exhaustive study, commentaries on this book further explain what he meant.) Ibn Hisham lists fifteen possible meanings of the preposition “min” when used in a sentence. Imam Malik believed the “min” in the context of this hadith is initiative, so he interpreted the hadith to mean Shawwal as the time when the fasting may begin and then continue on into the following months. (For example, if one says, “I began my journey from Mecca,” it means one initiated travel from Mecca but continued beyond Mecca.) However, Imam Shafi’ understood the preposition “min” to be partitive, (as in “I ate from the bread,” which does not include eating from other foods.) Hence, Imam Shafi’ believed the hadith to mean that the days of fasting must be only within the month of Shawwal and not extend to the later months. Both interpretations of this hadith are valid. In this case, the disambiguation is simply choosing one interpretation over the other.
The fact that language allows so many meanings and multiple possibilities reveals its richness. Readers can marvel at the sundry possibilities of words on their own or in order; explore the possibilities of meaning in their attempt to exhaust meaning, which is what Muslim scholars and exegetes tended to do; or they can misread and subsequently fall victim to anger and confusion. Some go even further by responding with vituperative diatribes, even using foul language; such people are known affectionately as “trolls” in internet jargon. In actuality, due to their failure to understand as opposed to their ability to read, they simply reveal their own ignorance, as reading and understanding are two distinctly different phenomena. The Qur’an describes those who know the literal Torah, but do not understand it as being like “donkeys carrying books.”
Misunderstanding with the assumption of understanding is common to people who are arrogant, ignorant, or just too lazy to probe further in order to grasp the subtleties or nuances of the language. Their self-conceit leads them to believe that they simply know. “I understood it, and I am right. Hence he is wrong.” This is the path Iblis chose: “I am better than Adam; I am superior to him. My knowledge surpasses his.” On the other hand, when a humble person finds words that ring false or challenge his own assumptions, he pauses, thinks, and asks himself, “Am I understanding this correctly? Did the author mean what I think he means?” If they can ask the author, all the better; if not, they may seek a second opinion from an intelligent friend or resort to a good reference book or dictionary, seeking shades of meaning they may have missed. The Internet provides another albeit dangerous option.
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In my previous blog on Egypt’s “revolution,” I wrote, “Islam is not a political ideology and hence does not offer a political solution per se.” This caused great consternation in some people, and several uncouth remarks were made in response to that statement.
So in the interest of disambiguation, I want to delve further into the issue of Islam and politics. To negate politics as a subject matter that is part of Islam is to deny a rich tradition of scholarship known as siyasah shari’iyyah, the politics of sacred law. But to say that politics is essential to the practice of an individual’s Islam is to deny the hadith in al-Bukhari’s collection in which the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, told Hudhayfah that if there was no clear leader of the Muslims to “disengage from all the sects and cling to a private Islam.” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, also informed a Bedouin that if he only practiced the five pillars, he would have salvation.
For most adherents of the faith, Islam is apolitical in that politics or political systems they may happen to live under do not affect their personal faith in God or their personal practice of Islam. But for those involved in politics and especially those who have political power, there is a component in the Islamic sciences known as ‘ahkam al-sultaniyyah, rules that relate to power that they are obliged to follow.
It appears from the comments I received that the reason so many people had trouble with that sentence I wrote is because they did not understand the term “ideology” in my usage, as it has several possible usages. An Arab poet once wrote, “Only the wearer knows what’s under his cloak, and only an author knows what’s the meaning of his book.” Some people responded defending my statement and clearly showed me that many people did understand what I meant by that term. However, “disambiguation” for others was clearly necessary. So, let me explain my usage of the ambiguous term “ideology” and why I think it has nothing to do with Islam. It comes from a French term that was used in the revolutionary period to articulate a new way of thinking not encumbered by metaphysics, religion, or tradition. Napoleon derogatively referred to the proponents of ideology as “ideologues.” While it has a neutral meaning, as in “world-view,” most educated Westerners would view it pejoratively. Islam is wahy, a revelation from God, not an ideology.
Islam shares nothing with what can be called an ideology if we understand the term both etymologically and in modern usage. Indeed, there are several Islamophobic websites now which claim that Islam is not a true religion but only an ideology. Furthermore, you can’t even find a word in classical Arabic that expresses the meaning of “ideology”; no equivalent word can be found in Ibn Manzur’s authoritative dictionary of classical Arabic, Lisan al-Arab, and it is certainly nowhere to be found in the Qur’an or hadith. Neither the Salaf nor any of the scholars for that past 1300 years of Islam used that term. In fact, it only becomes widespread after ideologues in the Islamic world, infected with Marxist thought, began to re-form Islam as a colonial and post-colonial resistance movement
Since the Arabs don’t even have a word for this phenomenon in their classical language, they had to make one up to express the idea; when we look up “ideology” in any modern English-Arabic dictionary, we find, “idiolojiyyiah.” However, if we use classical Arabic to attempt to translate this word, “mandhur fikri” is a closer rendering. “Fikr” is not an attribute of God. “Mufakkir” is not one of God’s 99 Names, and unlike “tafakkur,” which carries a positive meaning in the Qur’an, “fikr” has a negative connotation, as in “Innahu fakkara wa qaddara, fa qutila kayfa qaddara” (74:18-19), which is translated, “For he thought and calculated. And how he calculated, to his doom.”
Islam is not an idea, even though some modern writers have used the term fikr Islami (Islamic thought). One of my teachers in Mauritania, a master of Arabic and Islam, once said to me, “What does fikr Islami mean? I have never seen that in an old book on Islam.” When I explained its meaning, he said, “That is very different from how the Salaf would have understood Islam.”
A reader must try to understand the terms of any article, book, or argument based on what the author or speaker meant by it, as writers use words, which invariably have ambiguity, in order to convey their intended meaning. According to Adab al-bahth wa al-munadharah, a book on Islamic manners related to research and discussion, it is a requisite of discussion that when terms are introduced, an interlocutor may request a definition if it is ambiguous; hence, our tradition has glosses and super-glosses. When I used the word “ideology,” I was referring to something that comes from thought that entails an all-encompassing absolutist view, such as found in Marxist ideology. If you have ever had a political discussion with a Marxist, you will understand exactly what “ideology” means. Islam, on the other hand, is far more nuanced than any ideology.
To use ideology to describe our religion is worse still, as most educated Americans consider “ideology” a pejorative term, extreme leftists notwithstanding. In his Political Dictionary, under “ideology,” William Safire says, “Originally, a system of ideas for political or social action; in current political attacks, a mental straightjacket or rigid rules for the philosophically narrow-minded.” In the same entry, he later quotes Reagan saying, “I think ‘ideology’ is a scare word to most Americans.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, Raymond Williams mentions that Marx used the term in a pejorative sense saying that ideas were “nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships…. Failure to realize this produced ideology, an upside down version of reality … ideology is then abstract and false thought, in a sense directly related to the original conservative use….” Thus, both conservatives and Marxists originally used it pejoratively.
Lenin departed from Marx’s use of the word, and it later became a common word in Leftist vocabulary to mean a political worldview. Geert Wilders, in a recent book, argues that Islam is not a religion but rather an ideology, and “ideology” is the word he uses when referring to Islam. Unfortunately, he has plenty of uneducated Muslims that will provide him with quotes to support that thesis. And we will continue to hear the detractors of Islam refer to Islam as an ideology rather than a religion. Pat Robertson said, “This Islamic – I want to say religion, but it’s not a religion. It is a political system,” i.e. an ideology.
After stating that Islam was not an ideology, I said that hence it “does not offer a political solution per se.” The operative idiom here is “per se.” Anyone who missed the meaning of “per se” missed the meaning of the whole sentence. (One commentator wished to set “semantics aside”; however, semantics is precisely what is needed to discern the meaning of this sentence.) “Per se,” means “by or of itself, inherently or in isolation.” Hence, in the context of the sentence I wrote, what it means is that without the foundational morality of Islam, any political system, Islamic or not, will not work. For example, in the Egyptian constitution, a political solution to the problem of presidential corruption is that a president may not earn money or take any monetary remuneration outside of the state salary. As such, that is a reasonable political solution, but without the moral basis within the heart of the president, the solution fails. A person with a corrupt heart will not abide by the rulings of any constitution. Therefore, the focus of Islam has never been on rectifying the state, but rather on rectifying the state of the souls that make up the state. “Surely, God does not change the state of a people until they change the state of their own souls” (Qur’an 13:11). We need an Islamic state of mind more than an Islamic state.
In one of my favorite books, The Lamp of Rulers (Siraj al-muluk), Imam al-Tartushi says, “The qualities necessary from our religion that are necessary for an Islamic polity are three: gentleness and not roughness with the populace; mutual consultation [parliament or congress, in today’s language]; and not to give positions of power to those who seek them or desire them.” If those three were implemented, we wouldn’t need so called revolutions to change the status quo. Instead of serving the people, the rulers have made the people their servants.
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I also want to expound on one of the most important aspects of the Islamic polity known as ahkam al-siyar, i.e. the relations of one polity with another, especially rules of engagement, which are discussed in the section on jihad, which is also part of Islam. I once said on a radio program, “Jihad is never used in the Qur’an to mean war.” Many people misunderstood my statement and, in response, quoted several Qur’anic verses that used various derivations of the verb “jahada.” In the Qur’an, various forms of the word occur four times. In Sura Taubah, it is used in the indefinite form, which can be understood to exalt it; however, according to some of the great usuli scholars, it is for generality, as not all of the usuli scholars stipulate a negative before an indefinite to mean a generality (people who know usul will know what that means), and so it refers to the general struggle of Muslims, which obviously includes going out to defend themselves but is not limited to that type of struggle only.
In Sura al-Furqan, it says to not obey the disbelievers and to struggle with the Qur’an against them, which means, as Imam al-Nasafi and others said, to argue with the disbelievers in a big jihad, using the superior proofs of the Qur’an.
In Sura Hajj, it is mentioned in the context to struggle for the sake of God. The construct is unusual, as the jihad is attributed to God, but actually means for God’s sake. This form, although in the genitive construct, is an accusative of purpose, i.e. why you are doing something, and the grammarians agree that any noun in that form relates to the action of the heart and not the limbs. Hence, the jihad is in one’s intention and not in the action itself.
This is also the form of the word jihad in Sura Mumtahanah, which is in the accusative of purpose and therefore refers to the action of the heart and not the limb.
Hence, my statement about jihad, though misunderstood, was accurate without denying martial jihad, which is part of Islam, and to deny that is to deny something known by all in our faith. But martial jihad is conditional – it must be in the right time, under the right conditions, and according to the rules of engagement. The opinion that all jihad is defensive is not a dominant opinion but is a valid one that does not deny pre-emptive offensive defense. That was relevant in the pre-modern world, where war was the normal state and peace was the anomaly, unlike today when peace is the norm and war is the anomaly.
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Language is the crowning achievement of human beings, and that is something Muslims have always known and revered. We are a literate people whose miracle is a Book from an unlettered man, peace and blessings be upon him, who was the most articulate and eloquent human being who ever lived. We honor our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, in honoring language that he loved so much and used so well.
We also honor him in honoring, as he did, the ambiguities of language so beautifully expressed in the hadith in al-Bukhari, “Let none of you pray ‘Asr except in Bani Quraydha’s dwellings.”
As the Companions were on their way to Bani Quraydha, the time of ‘Asr came in, and some of them said, “We need to pray.”
Others said, “No, the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, told us to only pray it at Bani Quraydha.”
The first group said, “He meant for us to hasten so we would be there by ‘Asr.”
The other group took his statement literally and did not pray until they reached Bani Quraydha.
When they arrived at their destination, they informed the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, of what happened, and he accepted both understandings as ways to interpret his words.
Disambiguation is sometimes in accepting ambiguities.
1 Tabayyanu and tathabbatu are two different recensions of the same word and thus carry both meanings in this verse.
I want to share some quick thoughts and recollections inspired by the current turmoil taking place in Libya, which pains me deeply. Ghaddafi reminds me of Shakespeare’s tyrant, Richard III: conniving, mutant, dark, and absolutely cruel, with no concern for his family, friends, or companions, let alone the people he rules over. He kills to get to power and maintain it, but as power diminishes before his eyes, he unleashes his fury and decimates his own army, only to end up alone, condemned to die a traitor to his country and people.
I hope Ghaddafi’s reign comes to an end soon for the sake of Libya’s beautiful people. They deserve much better and, in sha Allah, they will get better. In each of our daily prayers, we should all pray for their succor and divine aid. God answers prayers, and there is no barrier between the oppressed and God. The iniquitous suffering Ghaddafi has ravaged upon Libya’s cities and towns is worse than reprehensible and reveals his low nature. I have personally known some of those who were closest to him at his career’s outset and then fled Libya as a result of his unspeakable treatment of his coterie; they know too well how evil this man is and has been.
I have visited Libya once, which was in 1979 and was quite a bizarre experience. Ghaddafi had been in power for just a decade, seizing control through a military coup in 1969 while King Idris was out of the country for medical treatment. On this trip, I accompanied a British convert to Islam who was raising money for a mosque project in England. I had been Muslim for only a few years and was just starting my studies in Arabic, so I was not yet fluent. Everywhere we went, I saw posters that read, “Alijan fi kulli makan” (Committees in everyplace) based on the “Colonel-leader’s” legerdemain of a true “people’s democracy” in which local committees decided their own fates. But after seeing through the illusion, Libyans, I was told, interpreted it to mean “Al-jan fi kulli makan,” (Devils in everyplace).
At the outset of the coup, in their misguided support, some of the less perspicacious Libyans actually chanted, “Iblis wa la Idris” ([Give us] the devil and not Idris). Beware of what you ask for; sometimes you actually get it.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
– The Declaration of Independence
July 4, 1776
America, where are you? The people of Egypt are clamoring for the very right of dissolving the social contract with their current government due to its long string of abuses, a right enshrined in our nation’s foundational document. It behooves America to lend a helping hand to Egypt’s people at this crucial moment.
There was a story in the New York Times a few days ago about how the “revolution” in Tunisia was sparked in December by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old, befuddled roadside green grocer. Like so many young Arabs, he was born poor and only dreamed of providing for his siblings and his mother. He had been to college, where he studied law, but had found no employment possibilities. So, given the basic dignity often found in people in places like Tunisia, he chose to humble himself and find a halal means to generate some income. But he kept running into problems with the police and government inspectors until the fateful day in December when they confiscated his cart and his produce, saying he didn’t have a proper permit, and leaving him with an unpaid loan with which he’d bought the goods. At the station, upon attempting to reclaim his cart, he was slapped and humiliated publicly. His already deferred dreams had clearly dried up. Bouazizi left an apologetic note for his mother and set himself on fire in front of the local government building.
Four weeks later, the protests sparked by his death brought down the government of President Zine el Abdidine Ben Ali, who’d ruled Tunis with an iron hand for 23 years.
I have had the good fortune of visiting Tunisia many times. During my last visit, which was in the early nineties, I was harassed by the Mukhabarat (secret police), and the family that I was staying with was also questioned. That left a bad taste for me, and I decided not to return to the country and have not been back since.
To God belongs the dominion of the heavens and the earth, and the day on which the end of time will happen, a day on which prattlers will lose out. And you will see every people kneeling; every people will be summoned to its record: “Today you are being repaid for what you used to do. This record of Ours speaks about you in truth; for We have been transcribing what you have been doing.” As for those who believed and did good works, their Lord will admit them into divine mercy. That is the evident success. And as for those who scoffed, were not My signs recited to you, yet you were arrogant, and were sinning people? And when it has been said that the promise of God is true, and there is no doubt about the end of time, you have said, “We do not understand what the end of time is; we suppose it merely speculation, and we cannot be sure.” And the evils they did will be manifest to them, and what they used to sneer at will have surrounded them.
– Qur’an, 45:27-33
No matter what a Man’s foul character may be,
Though he imagines it is concealed from the people,
It shall be revealed.
– Zuhayr b. Abi Sulma, Favorite seventh century Arabian poet of Umar b. al-Khatab
In the seven years I spent with Mauritanians who are Bedouin people of the Sahara, what struck me most about them was the transparency in their lives. They live without walls, and hence what the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung termed the “shadow self,” which holds our repressed weaknesses and darker side, seems wholly absent from their personalities. I never saw the Bedouins hide anything from me. Even when they go to relieve themselves, it is often in open space. Once I was with a particularly gruff Bedouin, and in the middle of our conversation, he turned around, walked a few paces from me, and, taking cover with his outer robe, he dropped his pants, squatted, urinated, cleaned himself with sand, returned, and continued the conversation.