The Knowledge-Voyagers

Cosmetic_icon_Itinerant_ScholarPeople have long traveled for diverse reasons, and there were various types of voyagers in the medieval Muslim world, including ardent pilgrims, wandering dervishes, and enterprising merchants. But, starting in the 8th century CE (2nd century Hijri), another large contingent joined the ranks of the itinerants: many Muslims began traveling extensively in pursuit of sacred knowledge, especially (but not limited to) to hear and write down ḥadīths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) from those who were transmitting them. This spontaneously gave rise to a remarkable, informal, decentralized,

unregulated, diverse global information network. We get some idea of the extent to which this voyaging reached by observing that ˁAlī ibn al-Ḥasan ibn ˁAsākir (d. 571/1176, a major hadith-voyager and chronicler) compiled a book called “The Forty City [Narrations]” (Arbaˁūn Buldāniyyah), which contained forty ḥadīths heard from forty different teachers in forty different cities, tracing back to forty different Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and dealing with forty different topics. In his prelude to the book, he describes the hadith-voyagers:

So, [the adīth-folk] intently pursued gathering [adīths] in all moments and circumstances, flying to [different] lands like eagles and falcons, consequently living lives of poverty and destitution in [willing] exile from home, and tolerating – on this quest – coarse food and clothing.”

It became unusual for someone laying claim to knowledge to not have traveled to seek knowledge from distant teachers. A couple of prominent exceptions are Imām Mālik ibn Anas (d. 179/796, the eponym of the Mālik school of law) and Abū Bakr ibn Mujāhid (d. 324/936, the famous canonizer of the Seven Quranic Readings, whose scholarly travel was restricted to his hajj travel to Makka).

Imam al-Shafi`i (d. 204H) wrote some lines of poetry encouraging people to travel. Three centuries later, Qadi Tartushi (d. 520H, a Maliki jurist and judge) wrote a rejoinder, discouraging people from travel, on the basis that times had changed. You can read both pieces of poetry, with their translations, here.

So, what about today? Two quick points:

1. Start Local

Scholars of the past would not travel for knowledge until they had exhausted the knowledge available to them locally. Most large metropolitan areas in the US (and probably many other countries) have individuals within them who are qualified to teach you the basics of one or more Islamic disciplines, and perhaps even things beyond that. It is rather a waste of money to travel overseas simply to learn the ABCs of a discipline that you could learn at minimal cost and without travel. If you delay your educational voyage until after you have mastered the basics, your overseas studies can also be more productive (such as by studying advanced texts that you couldn’t study locally). Of course, if you have additional legitimate motives for travelling overseas at an early stage, such as to spend some time living in a city where you hear the call to prayer (adhan) fives times a day, or to sightsee, or visit relatives, then that is a separate matter, and you are free to make your decision after due thought and diligence.

2. What about technology? Can’t I be a virtual globetrotter, attending online classes in multiple countries, and save the costs of traveling? Yes, you can do that, and might get the same information content, but you won’t get the intangibles and other elements that constitute the full experience: The tiring exertions and other difficulties of travel that will make you truly value what you got out of the trip…. The invaluable face-to-face dimension of student-teacher interactions through you which you can experientially learn things about behavior, manners and ethos in a way that you won’t find in a book…. and if you are traveling to a different country, the broadening of horizons that comes from living in a different culture and seeing the challenges and joys of its people. For an advanced seeker of sacred knowledge, travel is almost essential.

And of course, if you want to be a knowledge-voyager, then as with any deed by which you intend devotion, check your intentions.

IMAGE CREDIT: Itinerant Scholar, taken from https://dota2.gamepedia.com/Itinerant_Scholar, that website’s content provided under the terms of CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Lady Zaynab’s Karbala Lament

After the tragedy of Karbala (in the year 61H / 680 CE), in which the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn was slaughtered along with many of his family members, the following lines of poetry were recited by Zaynab bint `Ali (Husayn’s sister) (according to another version it was Zaynab bint `Aqil, Husayn’s first cousin):

Tell me what you would say if the Prophet of God were to ask: 
What, O what have you done, O ye readers of God's Final Book? 
To the folk of my household, my dear kith and kin, after me? 
See now half of them captives and half drenched in blood lying slain. 
Is this what I deserve? Nay, aforetime I warned you, quite clear, 
Lest you later betray me, mistreating my own flesh and blood.

ماذا تقولون إن قال النبي لكم * ماذا فعلتم وأنتم آخر الأمم
بعترتي وبأهلي بعد مفتقدي * منهم أسارى ومنهم ضرجوا بدم
ما كان هذا جزائي إذ نصحت لكم * أن تخلفوني بسوء في ذوي رحمي

Abul-Aswad al-Du'ali, a close companion of `Ali ibn Abi Talib, 
responded upon hearing these words,
"We will say (to God): Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, 
and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, 
we will surely be among the losers. [Quran, 7:23]"
رَبَّنَا ظَلَمْنَآ أَنفُسَنَا وَإِن لَّمْ تَغْفِرْ لَنَا وَتَرْحَمْنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلْخَـٰسِرِينَ

Sources: Tarikh Dimashq, Ansab al-Ashraf, Muruj al-Dhahab  with slight variations in the wording of the lines of poetry

Destigmatizing Mental Illness

Mental illness is a frightening reality that has been falsely stigmatized in many of our communities. People ignore it, or are ashamed of it; they blame themselves for lack of faith; they blame demons and black magic; they avoid seeking medical treatment for it.

I have encountered many cases of mental illness in interactions with people in my personal life, as well as in my role as a chaplain. I have discussed these matters at some length with psychiatrists, and have attended various workshops about mental illness. I am also familiar with, and endeavor to remain faithful to the Islamic theological and legal tradition. So, with this background, let me make two quick points:

1. Being a good, practicing Muslim does not make you immune to mental illness

Your iman (faith) in God can help you in coping with mental illness, but it does not make you immune to it, just as faith does not make you immune to influenza, heart disease, cancer or broken bones. Mental illness is also a type of illness; after all the brain is part of the body. Hanafi jurist Ibn al-Humam (d. 861H) classified insanity as an involuntary contingency (عارض سماوي), and the same applies to many other forms of mental illness.  So, if you are suffering from mental illness, you do not have to assume it is because of weak faith or lack of spirituality. Do not be afraid or ashamed to reach out for social and medical help. As a Muslim, you are not committing any religious violation by taking medication. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,

تداوَوْا عبادَ اللهِ فإنَّ اللهَ لَمْ يضَعْ داءً إلَّا وضَع له دواءً (رواه ابن حبان)

Seek medical treatment, O servants of God,

for God has not made any disease without making a cure for it.”

2. But what about jinns and magic?

Insanity (جنون) was defined by pre-modern Muslim jurists as a disorder of the mind that prevents the person’s utterances and actions from being rational. It can be an ongoing condition, or have intermittent episodes. Most Sunni theologians do believe in the reality of demonic (jinn) possession and black magic. But this does not mean they are the cause of all mental illness. It is noteworthy that Hanafi jurist Amir Badshah (d. 972H), while discussing the “contingencies of capacity,” points out that there are two types of insanity: one caused by an imbalance in the brain, and which can be treated (with medication), and another type that is caused by demons, and against which spiritual remedies (such as Quranic recitation) can be of assistance1. I would go further to say that even if one is certain of the involvement of jinns or black magic, one can and should still pursue medical treatment for the symptoms, in addition to spiritual remedies such as Quranic ruqya.
May Allah protect us, and grant us strength to face the various tests in our lives.

 

FOOTNOTE:

1 (وَأما الْجُنُون) وَهُوَ اختلال الْعقل بِحَيْثُ يمْنَع جَرَيَان الْأَفْعَال والأقوال على نهجه إِلَّا نَادرا إِمَّا لنُقْصَان جبل عَلَيْهِ دماغه، فَلَا يصلح لقبُول مَا أعدّ لَهُ كعين الأكمه، ولسان الْأَخْرَس: وَهَذَا لَا يرجي زَوَاله، وَإِمَّا لخُرُوج مزاج الدِّمَاغ من الِاعْتِدَال بِسَبَب خلط أَو رُطُوبَة أَو يوسة متناهية، وَهَذَا يعالج، وَإِمَّا باستيلاء الشَّيْطَان وإلقاء الخيالات الْفَاسِدَة إِلَيْهِ. وَقد ينجع فِيهِ الْأَدْوِيَة الإلهية [أمير بادشاه, “تيسير التحرير” دار الكتب العلمية, 2/259]

PICTURE CREDIT: QuinceMedia, https://pixabay.com/en/brain-chain-health-idea-human-3446307/

Fiqh of Fasting (Hanafi) : annotated Quduri

The Chapter on Fasting from a central legal manual of the Hanafi school, the Mukhtasar of al-Quduri (d. 428H), annotated with clarifications and additional details from other normative Hanafi texts. Click the link below for the PDF:

Fiqh of Fasting (Hanafi) – Annotated Quduri

(c) 2018, Suheil Laher. Permission granted for personal, non-commercial use. May not be copied, sold, or posted on the internet without explicit permission.

DISCLAIMER: Information is presented for informational purposes. The translator neither guarantees that this
information is totally free from errors, nor that it is always suitable for acting upon or putting into
practice. Religious decisions should be taken with due care and thought, after reading and
investigating, but also after consulting with reliable people of knowledge – who are aware of one’s
particular circumstances – and then pondering and exercising one’s conscience.

Biography : Abu Saʻd Abd al-Karīm al-Samʻānī

Abu Saʻd Abd al-Karīm al-Samʻānī (nicknamed “Qiwām al-Dīn”), Shafi`i jurist and hadith-master, was an illustrious scion of the scholarly Samʻānī family. His father, Abul-Muẓaffar, was the Mufti of Khorasan, but died while Abu Saʻd was young, and the son was therefore raised by a paternal uncle and other relatives, who instilled in him the scholarly zeal of the family. He travelled extensively in pursuit of sacred knowledge, being especially devoted to the study of hadith, and his teachers totalled over 4,000. Abu Saʻd was born in Merv (in what is today Turkmenistan) in 506H / 1112 CE, and died in the same city in 562H / 1167 CE.

[Sources: Dhahabi, Siyar Aʻlām al-Nubalā’; Ibn Khallikān, Wafayāt al-Aʻyān]

 

 

What to Do during an Eclipse (Islam)

As discussed in another post, eclipses are a reminder of God’s power, and of cosmic events at the end of the world, and are therefore a good time for spiritual reflection and prayer. This post summarizes recommended acts during the eclipse, and comments briefly on the spiritual dimensions of eclipse-viewing.

 

 

1) The Eclipse Prayer (Salat al-Kusuf)

إِنَّ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ لاَ يَنْكَسِفَانِ لِمَوْتِ أَحَدٍ مِنَ النَّاسِ، وَلَكِنَّهُمَا آيَتَانِ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ، فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمُوهُمَا فَقُومُوا فَصَلُّوا

The sun and moon do not eclipse for anyone’s death, but [in fact] they are two of the signs of God, so when you see them, then stand and pray.” [Bukhari]

Muslim scholars differed about some of the details of how to perform the eclipse prayer, and this is not the place to discuss that. You can consult a scholars whose knowledge and piety you trust, and follow their instructions on how to perform the salat al-kusuf. This video describes one of the methods.

2) Remembrance of God (Dhikr)

فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمْ شَيْئًا مِنْ ذَلِكَ فَافْزَعُوا إِلَى ذِكْرِهِ وَدُعَائِهِ وَاسْتِغْفَارِهِ

…so, when you see anything of that, then hasten to remembrance (dhikr) of God, supplication (du`a) to God, and seeking God’s forgiveness (istighfar).” [Bukhari]

فاذكروا الله وكبروه وسبحوه وهللوه

so remember God, and declare God’s greatness, transcendence and oneness” [Sunan Sa`id ibn Mansur]

3) Charity

فَإِذَا رَأَيْتُمْ ذَلِكَ فَادْعُوا اللَّهَ وَكَبِّرُوا، وَصَلُّوا وَتَصَدَّقُوا

….so when you see that, then supplicate to God, declare God’s greatness, and give charity.” [Bukhari]

4) Manumission

لَقَدْ أَمَرَ النَّبِىُّ صلى الله عليه وسلم بِالْعَتَاقَةِ فِى كُسُوفِ الشَّمْسِ.

Asma’, the daughter of Abu Bakr, said: “God’s Messenger commanded the freeing of slaves at the solar eclipse.” [Bukhari]

5) Eclipse-Viewing

It is permissible to view the eclipse, provided you take sufficient precautions to avoid damaging your eyes. You should consult medical and astronomical experts for details of how to view the eclipse safely. If you take approriate medical precautions, then there is no religious prohibition on observing the eclipse, and in fact it is recommended if done with the correct attitude and intention.

Say: Observe what is in the heavens and earth.” (Quran, 10:101)

Do they not look into the realm of the heavens and the earth and everything that Allah has created and [think] that perhaps their appointed time has come near? ” (Quran, 7:185)

A couple more points should be noted regarding eclipse-viewing:

1) According to most Muslim scholars, the specific eclipse prayer (salat al-kusuf) is not an obligation, and according to this view one would not be sinful if one did not perform the prayer and instead spent the time observing the eclipse or engaged in other mundane activities. However, most Muslim scholars also agree that the eclipse prayer is strongly recommended, with some holding it to be obligatory. Therefore, it would not be encouraged to neglect this prayer entirely. The optimal eclipse prayer extends through the entire duration of the eclipse, but if one is unable to do that due physical difficulty, or time constraints, or simply because one would like to spend some time observing the eclipse, then one could perform a shorter eclipse prayer. Given that the eclipse duration will be close to three hours, you can very easily perform an eclipse prayer that is decently long (30 minutes or an hour, for example) and time this in such a way that you can still observe some of the eclipse. Small children, who will probably not have the attention span or endurance for a 2-3 hour prayer, should still be given the experience of partaking in a shorter eclipse prayer, and the rest of the eclipse duration can be filled in with eclipse-viewing, dhikr, dua, discussion about the mechanics and spiritual dimensions of the eclipse, and perhaps some craft activities.

2) While it is certainly permissible to view the eclipse, for the believer, such a viewing is not merely a “fun activity” or light-hearted party (for which there are plenty of other opportunities). Observing the eclipse should ideally be done with a spiritual attitude, bringing to mind God’s greatness, and with feelings of awe and fear.

إِنَّ الشَّمْسَ وَالْقَمَرَ آيَتَانِ مِنْ آيَاتِ اللَّهِ، لاَ يَنْكَسِفَانِ لِمَوْتِ أَحَدٍ، وَلَكِنَّ اللَّهَ تَعَالَى يُخَوِّفُ بِهَا عِبَادَهُ

The sun and moon are two of God’s signs. They do not eclipse for anyone’s death, but God thereby instils fear in His servants.” [Bukhari]

This fear is not an irrational, superstitious fear, but rather an experience of natural awe, as well as of fear of the events of the Day of Judgment. In fact, the religiously-recommended activities listed could conceivably be considered a type of Qiyama-drill that makes us think of God’s oneness, uniqueness and power; seek forgiveness from God; try to tip your balance of deeds through charity; free slaves, for the human being should be in bondage only to God.

And God knows best.

– Suheil Laher

 

PHOTO CREDIT: Vishnu_kv, https://pixabay.com/en/solar-eclipse-eclipse-sun-sky-moon-2575133/

 

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Solar Eclipse : Spiritual Synergy vs Superstition

The year was 632 of the Common Era (Julian) calendar, the day 27 January (29 Shawwal year 10 of the Islamic Hijri calendar). It was probably a mild, dry, mid-winter day in Madinah, with a clear sky, and a gentle easterly breeze. In the middle of the morning, the people of Madinah witnessed a solar eclipse, with about three-fourths of the sun becoming obscured. A solar eclipse remains even today a moving experience, with darkness falling and the stars coming out in the middle of the day, but in that late-antique period, superstitions and myths about eclipses were still rife, and this particular instance came in the midst of an emotionally charged atmosphere. The Prophet Muhammad’s son, Ibrahim, had just died that day, aged about 16 months. It was not long before people began chattering, saying that the two events were connected, and that the eclipse was either a sign of divine mourning or a portent of negative consequences to occur on the earth. The Prophet himself did not buy into his people’s superstitions, but upon the onset of the eclipse his first thoughts were turned towards the Creator, for the eclipse is a awe-inspiring reminder of God’s power, and of similar cosmic events that will occur on the Day of Resurrection. Prophet Muhammad therefore hastened to the mosque, where he performed a special prayer involving recitation of lengthy portions of the Quran, and prolonged glorification of God’s greatness. After completing the prayer, he gave a special sermon to address and dispel the superstitious rumor. He said, “The sun and moon are two of the signs of God. They do not eclipse for anyone’s death nor for anyone’s birth. So, when you see that [occurring] then perform prayer until it passes over.”

Theological Dimensions of the eclipse
1. The Quran states clearly that the sun and moon move, “by precise calculation,” (Quran, 55:5) and that each moves in its own path, so that neither of them reaches or catches up to the other (Quran, 36:40). This cuts at the heart of baseless beliefs of eclipses being a fight between the sun and moon, or a union between them. These verses had been revealed in Makkah (i.e. many years before the eclipse), but it often takes time for people to release themselves from the mental and psychological shackles of superstition. Lunar eclipses are relatively frequent, and the Prophet used to observe the eclipse prayer when they occurred.The solar eclipse, on the other hand, is rarer and also more striking, and the instance described above was probably the only solar eclipse witnessed by the Prophet Muhammad. It was therefore an ideal teaching moment, and the lesson conveyed in such a moment would have a powerful and lasting impression on those present. Rather than opportunistically fuel people’s superstitions, and thereby garner status for his own family by presenting the eclipse as a divine sign in honor of his son’s death, the Prophet instead used the opportunity to uproot the superstition. Sadly, some Muslims even today still hold on to superstitions, such as believing a pregnant woman should not view an eclipse or should not use a knife during an eclipse lest her child be born deformed. Such baseless notions are still firmly ingrained in many Muslim cultures, despite the fact that they have no basis in the Quran or sunna.

2. One question might remain, however, Why did the Prophet perform a special prayer during the eclipse, for is this not itself superstitious? The answer (to which I already alluded in the narrative) is that the eclipse prayer is not motivated by superstition, but rather by senstivity to the greatness of God that the eclipse manifests. We do not pray out of unfounded fears such as thinking that the dragon might gobble up the sun if we don’t pray for safety. But there is a big difference between superstition and being in tune with nature and aware of the attributes of God that manifest in the natural world.
“And how many a sign within the heavens and earth do they pass over while they, therefrom, are turning away. ” (Quran, 12:105)
“Do they not look into the realm of the heavens and the earth and everything that Allah has created and [think] that perhaps their appointed time has come near? ” (Quran, 7:185)

That heart that is not awed and moved by powerful natural phenonema is either spiritually cold and unfeeling, or too much distracted by other concerns. As William Wordsworth observed in one of his poems, “The world is too much with us,” and we often fail to see the beauty and power of the universe. The Prophet Muhammad was in touch with God’s signs, and would see powerful natural phenomena as reminders of God’s greatness and ability to punish, and would draw admonition from them. An eclipse, in particular, is a reminder of cosmic events associated with the Day of Judgment.
“When the sight is dazzled, and the moon loses its light, and the sun are brought together (possibly in the figurative sense that they will both lose their light, as many Quranic commentators suggested).” (Quran, 75:7-9)
The moon “losing its light” might be an eclipse, and the Arabic word used carries both the meanings of “eclipse” and of “losing light.”

Even such seemingly mundane things as the winds and rain can be powerful reminders of God, as the Quran often draws our attention to. Unusual natural phenomena catch our attention, and are therefore appropriate occasions for spiritual reflection and prayer.

– Suheil Laher

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Ramadan Plan : Know, Worship, Strive

Suggested action points for a successful Ramadan.

The Male is Not Like the Female : Gender Equity and Quran 3:36

(iii) “The male is not like the female”

The Quran recounts to us the story of the pious woman who, while pregnant, vowed to dedicate the coming child to the service of God. She had been expecting a son (who could serve in the Temple at Jerusalem), but went on to deliver a daughter. It is at this time that she (or God, according to a different reading) remarks, “The male is not like the female.” The statement is not clear-cut in indicating overall preference for either one of the genders.

Language-wise, there are three possibilities, and each of these views is a position held among Muslim scholars:

  1. to indicate preference for the male, i.e. the male is not like the female, he has the advantage of being able to serve in the temple (under Jewish ritual law) without the monthly menstrual interruption [Mawardi, and many other scholars of exegesis]
  2. to indicate preference for the female, i.e. the male I wanted is not like the female God gave me; God’s choice is necessarily better [Zamakhshari, Abu Hayyan; two prominent exegetes, both of whom are heavyweights in the Arabic language]
  3. to not imply any preference either way (simply that they are different), like red is not like green, nor is green like red. [Ibn Hazm]

Even if one takes the first or second interpretation, it is still contextual, and cannot be a proof-text for overall superiority of one gender, because:

From this post, along with the preceding three (1 2 3), it is clear that the Quran does not teach intrinsic superiority of either of the two genders. Certainly, an ordinary believing man cannot claim superiority over the prophetesses and spiritual heavyweights like Mary and Fatimah. Rather, the criterion is piety: “Indeed, the most noble of you before God is the most pious.” And believing men and women are expected to support, protect and help one another – not to deride nor to oppress one another (despite what too often happens in some Muslim societies).

— Suheil Laher

Not in God's Name

Human history, one might conclude from the Bible and Quran, is an ongoing struggle against the human tendencies towards evil and polytheism. The late Hebrew Prophet Jeremiah censures his people for (among other transgressions) sacrificing their children to the Ammonite god Molekh. Much earlier, such child sacrifices are already condemned in the Pentateuch, and Leviticus 20:3 describes this ritual as profaning (חַלֵּל) God’s holy name. The Hebrew root for ‘profaning’ H-L-L, has an Arabic cognate, which is found in a Quranic verse (5:2) warning believers not to profane (تحلوا) God’s religious symbols, days, rituals and devotees. A famous Biblical prohibition against taking God’s name in vain (although it uses different wording) has been interpreted in various ways, many of which prohibit associating God’s name with sinful acts (be they lies, idolatrous rituals or anything else sinful). So, God’s name can be profaned by both explicit and implicit association with evil.

A famous hadith says that, “Any matter of importance that is not begun with God’s name is defective,” and observant Muslims are in the habit of reciting God’s name at the beginning of prayer, before eating, and when about to undertake any major action – provided of course the act is something religiously lawful. The hadith’s specification that the teaching applies to matters of importance implies that trivial matters should not be started with God’s name, in order to preserve the sanctity of the Name by not taking it in vain. Clearly, then, the name of God should not be recited before sinful actions, and in fact to do so is considered an act of blasphemy and apostasy by Muslim legal scholars. (They make an exception for someone who says it out of habit, without presence of mind, because he did not consciously intend to associate the name of God with the sin. In Shakespeare’s poem, The Rape of Lucrece, Tarquin stops at Lucrece’s door to pray before entering to rape her, “As if the heavens should countenance his sin.” “But in the midst of his unfruitful prayer,“ Tarquin realizes:

The powers to whom I pray abhor this fact;

How can they then assist me in the act? )

If the Hebrew prophets of yore were to witness our times, they would likely inveigh against the many social and ethical ills of today. And while child sacrifice is (thankfully) no longer prominent, there is a bane of our times that is evocative of its horrific disdain for the sacredness of life. Of course, I am referring to the acts of wanton killing and terrorism that (sadly) appear to be increasingly common. Major sins, like rape and murder, are certainly an act of implicit profanation of God’s name, and if someone (God forbid) explicitly utters God’s name upon it, the profanation becomes even greater.

 

When Caliph `Ali heard the Kharijites chanting the slogan, “Judgment is only God’s,” he is reported to have said, “It is a statement of truth by which falsehood is intended.” So, if a murderer shouts “Allahu Akbar” / “God is Great” / “Elohim Gadol” over his murder, those who truly understand God’s teachings might well shake their heads, and respond much as Caliph `Ali did. Yes God is indeed greater; greater than to defile His name by your profane sin of murder; greater than to not hold murderers responsible. We will not allow criminals to appropriate our sacred language. God is truly Great.

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