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.