Chivalry and bravery have long been valued as noble human qualities. I remember a picture book in the library of my Kindergarten 2 class (at St Margaret’s Kindergarten School) about King Arthur’s knights, who are often regarded as emblematic of such ideals in the West. Jihad in Islam includes not only an inner dimension of spiritual struggle, but also an external dimension of helping the weak and striving against injustice. Extremist jihadi groups like ISIS appeal to Muslim youth (and others) on the basis of the latter, but by selective, decontextualized citations from an amalgam of history, medieval law and Islamic sacred texts, they bypass the honorable chivalrous teachings, higher objectives and profound vision of sacred law that are held to by mainstream Muslim scholars.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 drew widespread international condemnation, including a resolution by the UN General Assembly. In accordance with both the UN Charter and the Islamic understanding of self-defence against aggression, Afghans as well as many non-Afghan Muslims rallied against the Soviet intervention. The liberation effort was widely recognized in the Muslim world as a glorious jihad, and the United States government (among other Western and Eastern non-Muslim nations) was openly and actively providing financial, material, and moral support to the mujahideen. Naturally, many American Muslims also either supported the Afghan jihad or looked upon it favorably.
It was a euphoric time, but it was not to last. After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989, and the toppling of the Soviet-backed president in 1992, things took a darker turn. Civil war broke out among the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and some of the foreign mujahideen were left grappling with post-war trauma, along with the difficulty of reintegration into civilian life, compounded by their being unwelcome in some of their home countries due to fears that they would harness popular grievances to foment revolution against those Middle Eastern governments.
It was in such circumstances that some of the former mujahideen began to move in a new direction: away from the honorable chivalry of true jihad towards an ignominous extremist ideology. Al-Qaeda, and eventually ISIS were born. Extremists might capitalize on the acclaimedly glorious status of the Afghan jihad, to present themselves as its heirs and perpetuators. But in Islam, actions are validated by sacred texts, not by appeals to charismatic lineage. A religious rhetoric, similar to that which was once used to enthuse Muslims with the noble spirit of just resistance against Soviets, has now been subverted and perverted to call towards extremism and terrorism. The rhetoric is similar, and might appeal to some of the same principles (such as resisting oppression) and sacred texts, but the big difference is that it is now out of touch with the noble chivalry of true jihad that we find in the Qur’an and Sunna.
I advise Muslims (including, but not limited to, Muslim youth) not to be duped by half-baked religious rhetoric. To realize that while injustices exist in the world, and jihad continues until the day of Judgment, nevertheless true jihad must be carried out through legitimate and honorable means. Radical ISIS-style extremism is a crude and dangerous caricature of jihad. Exercise caution in your charitable giving, and don’t be deceived into thinking that you are helping Islam by supporting groups that are actually hurting the cause of Islam and Muslims. Do not capitulate to a cult mentality, where you take religious teaching from a limited set of scholars, who use emotions to make you feel that you would be betraying faith and justice if you listen to those who condemn terrorist acts. If you are not willing to listen to the other side, how can you be so sure you are correct? Did not the Prophet (peace be upon him) warn of people who would recite the Qur’an, and zealously worship and strive, and yet be a liability to Islam because of their lack of deeper understanding? Truth prevails, and Allah has given you a conscience and a mind that allow you to think for yourself. Islam is a profound religion that seeks to actualize lofty and noble objectives in both individual and society. If you refuse to think about and to see the bigger picture, and content yourself with a narrow tunnel-vision of Islam, I think you are short-changing yourself.
أما الخيام فإنها كخيامهم ** وأرى نساء الحي غير نساءها
(A poet describing with anguish how, in desparate search of the nomadic tribe of his fiancee, he discovers tents that look like their tents, only to discover that the people inhabiting them are different people.)
 “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” Chapter VII, Article 51.
Do you love the life of this world? Is a Muslim allowed to love it? The answer is YES. It is well-known that Muslims are not supposed to renounce the world; monasticism is not an ideal (as a hadith explicitly mentions), and in the Qur’an we are taught to pray for “good in the world and good in the Hereafter” [Qur’an, 2:201]. Yet, we find some passages of the Qur’an, and some hadiths, that are very critical of al-hayat al-dunya (often translated as “the life of this world”; I return below to a more expressive translation). Nevertheless, there is no contradiction or paradox here. In reality, the life of this world is not what is evil; the confusion comes from not taking account of lexicological and theological context . A complete condemnation of and renouncement of this world is not the correct Muslim attitude, and is dangerous and harmful to human existence.
Let’s look at one of the verses that paints al-hayat al-dunya negatively:
“Know that the ‘life of this world’ is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.” [Qur’an, 57:20]
Fakhruddin al-Razi (d. 606/1209) began his exegesis of this verse with a comment that might seem audacious, for he seems to be claiming the opposite of what the verse tells us:
“Know that the life of this world is wisdom and rectitude, and a blessing; in fact, the root of all blessings.” [Razi, Al-Tafsir al-Kabir]
Razi was not a closet heretic; rather, he is reminding readers that the life of this world has different dimensions, and that the verse is discussing only one of these aspects. So it is true, as he goes on to discuss, that this life can be:
- la`ib: play, like children engage in, tiring themselves without any benefit (i.e. without any goal or achievement),
- lahw: a diversion, such as adults may engage in but which results in regret,
- zinah: an adornment, which can only be necessary to beautify ugliness
At the same time, God has created this world for us [Qur’an, 2:29], not without purpose [Qur’an, 23:115], and so it is not meaningless or in vain. Razi then contextualizes the verse’s dispraise by quoting Ibn `Abbas (d. 68/687), the famous exegete from the Prophet’s companions:
“The meaning [of the verse] is that the disbeliever is busy all his life seeking the adornment of this world without working for the Hereafter.”
Hanbali theologian Hafiz Ibn Rajab (d. 795/1392) further clarifies the scope of the condemnation conveyed by this verse and similar texts. He observes that the condemnation:
- is not of the place of this world, for God has made it an abode and a cradle for human civilization [Qur’an, 20:53, etc.]
- nor of the natural phenomena in this world (such as mountains, seas, rivers, vegetation and animal life), for God has created them as blessings, and as great signs, which through reasoning and reflection yield profound insights regarding the Oneness of God
- nor of the time of this world, for God has made the alternation of night and day a reminder for those who ponder and are grateful. [Qur’an, 25:62]
Hence, he concludes that the condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (“the life of this world”) is a condemnation of the evil deeds committed therein by human beings; deeds which lack benefit and/or cause harm. [Ibn Rajab, Jami` al-`Ulum wal-Hikam]
This world is deceptive (e.g. Qur’an, 35:5), Ibn Rajab continues, in the sense that its pleasures do not endure; youth yields to old age, the healthy become sick, the wealthy may be reduced to poverty, the mighty might be abased. A person may spend the greater part of his life saving money and making plans for the future, only to die leaving it all behind. Similarly Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350) mentions how “this world” is like an elusive shadow, a mirage or a dream. In a (much earlier) saying from Ibn `Abbas, the pursuit of the superficial things of this world is likened to the pursuit of an ugly hag who has adorned herself in pretty clothes.
It is in this context of ephemerality (especially in comparison with the unending state of existence after death, the world Hereafter), and as a reminder not to neglect the deeper realities and more meaningful dimensions of existence, that we must understand the Qur’anic condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (I return below to a more accurate translation than ‘the life of this world’.) It is not a renouncement, a trivialization, or a blanket condemnation of everything of this life.
This has always been the understanding of leading scholars. Thus, while it is true that Caliph Ali would say, “O world! Go and deceive someone else!” nevertheless it is also reported that he scolded a man for cursing the world: Don’t curse this world, for the world contains the mosques devoted to God’s worship; the world is the place God honored by sending down revealed guidance, and it contains angels who are engaged in God’s obedience; the world is a marketplace for the believer (wherein he achieves good and thereby earns the life of eternal happiness). In this light, the ascetic of Rayy, Yahya ibn Mu`adh (d. 258/871) said, “How can I not love a world in which there is apportioned to me sustenance by which I can earn a life in which I obey God and thereby attain the Hereafter.” In fact, in a hadith we are told that even the most pious believers, the persons loved by God, love this life (“He hates death, and [God] hates to displease him.”).
How to translate al-hayat al-dunya?
As I mentioned earlier, a part of the confusion about the role of and attitude to this world comes from translating al-hayat al-dunya simply as “the life of this world”. Let’s look closer at the two Arabic words involved. Al-hayat does mean life, but al-dunya is not, strictly speaking “the world” (which would normally be al-`alam). Dunya is a superlative from the Arabic root d-n-(w/y), which has two meanings: one of nearness and the other of lowness and contemptibility. [See: Ibn al-Manzur’s classical lexicon Lisan al-`Arab] So al-hayat al-dunya is literally “the Nearest Life,” (by comparison with the Hereafter, which is temporally further away), but also potentially “the Lowest Life.” The latter translation is powerful in that it captures the underlying concepts discussed earlier in this article. So, let’s plug this back into our previous translation of [Quran, 57:20]:
“Know that the Lowest Life is play, and diversion, and….”
Thus, there are parts of this world — the more profoundly meaningful ideas, as well as beneficial acts and good deeds done with the correct motivation — that are not part of al-hayat al-dunya. We have already seen this implicitly contained in the statements of scholars quoted above, and to this we can add that the classical exegesis Tafsir al-Jalalayn states that “[good] deeds of obedience to God, and everything that assists in that,” are not part of the dunya but rather of the Hereafter. In English, we have the (similar, although perhaps narrower) term “low life” that carries similar connotations to dunya. A view from mystical Judaism considers this world – with its pain, suffering and death – as the “lowest” possible world that still reflects the attributes of divine goodness and mercy.
Rise Above the Lower Life
The correct attitude to this life is to keep striving to ascend to higher things, spiritually and morally.
“To [God] ascend the good words, and the righteous deeds lift them up.” [Qur’an, 35:10]
The five daily prayers – which according to the hadiths were prescribed upon Muslims on the Night of the Heavenly Ascent (Mi`raj) – are your personal opportunity for a private ascent to communicate with your Creator. In a hadith, we are told that the the Highest Assembly of Angels was arguing about the three expiators of sins (kaffarat) and the three deeds of rank (darajat). In order to ascend upwards, you need to first break free of the shackles of “the lowest life,” and your past sins are those shackles. This lift-off is achieved through the three expiators: performing ablution properly under difficulty, walking by foot to congregational prayer, and waiting for one prayer after the next. But in between we need to strive in the “worldly” domain too, and to continue the ascent there, as two of the three deeds of rank show: spreading peace and feeding others. Spreading peace is not limited to using the Islamic greeting of salam; rather it is merely a start of striving for global peace, and likewise we desire the eradication of poverty and hunger. The third deed of rank, “praying by night while people are asleep,” (a non-obligatory, but praiseworthy deed), is a reminder that the ascent cannot be achieved only by deeds that benefit others, unless the individual develops his/her own spirituality and relationship with the Creator.
So, to recap, this world is not evil, and not to be renounced. The Qur’an portrays the world as a blessing from God, full of tremendously profound and beautiful signs of God’s existence and oneness, and a place with potential for great good. The Prophet has said, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” [Narrated by Muslim] The condemnation is of the lowest life, a pursuit of the fleeting without concern for deeper values, and without acknowledging God and the eternity that is far greater (indeed, infinitely so, in mathematical terms) than this finite world. This world should be appreciated appropriately, which includes striving upward to make it a better place. An insular lack of concern for this, even in the guise of religiosity, is contradictory to the mission of humankind on this earth; the task of furthering good, and fostering and handing on a constructive, beneficial civilization (see: Qur’an, 67:2, 2:30, 11:61, 7:129).
A key to escaping the lowest life is: not to allow the mundane to become profane.
The arrival of Islamic rule marked an end to the persecution to which non-Zoroastrian minorities had been subjected in pre-Islamic Persia. It is sadly strange then, that fourteen centuries later, Islam is now being invoked and interpreted in an attempt to exterminate such populations, and moreover to do so in grisly and inhumane ways that are themselves incongruous with Islam’s central values of kindness and compassion.
I was incredulous when I first read recent reports of ISIS killing and enslaving members of the non-Muslim Yazidi minority in Iraq. The reported ISIS actions troubled my conscience, and furthermore, for historical and theological reasons, did not sit right with my understanding of Islam. Yet, I was aware of statements in medieval books of Islamic law that might be produced as partial justification of the ISIS actions, and so I felt the need to articulate a coherent response to questions such as the following: As a Muslim, am I required to agree with the ISIS actions? If they are correct, then how can it be that these religious minorities have survived fourteen centuries in the heart of the Islamic lands without yet having been exterminated?
The majority opinion among Muslim jurists, and the dominant operative view across Muslim history has been that of tolerance to all non-Muslim religious communities. After explaining this to be the case, I will show how this view is also in line with a general Qur’anic principle backed by common sense.
Muslim scholars, across sects and the various legal schools, are in agreement that Jews and Christians, being People of Scripture, can live as subjects of the Islamic state, and are not forced to convert to Islam (although they are welcome and encouraged to do so). They are subject to a tax called the jizyah, which was paid, as British Orientalist Thomas Arnold Walker explains, “by those whose religion precluded them from serving in the army, in return for the protection secured for them by the armies of the Musulmans.” Muslim scholars are further agreed that Zoroastrians can similarly live as subjects of the Islamic state, even though they are not decisively People of Scripture, because the Prophet Muhammad himself afforded them such treatment. Jurists of the Maliki school (which dominates North and West Africa), and the Zaydi Shi`ite school, along with Imam al-Awza`i (whose school was widely followed in the Levant and across North Africa before being displaced by the Malikis and Shafi`is), generalized from this to conclude that the same courtesy is extended to people of all religions. The Hanafi school (geographically and historically the school with the widest following among the public and the most implemented by rulers) concluded similarly, making an exception only for idolators of Arabia which is actually a moot point given that idolatry did not survive there following the large-scale conversions to Islam during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. When the Muslims ruled Mogul India, the (idolatrous) Hindus remained tolerated under Hanafi legal doctrine.
Reframing the preceding breakdown of views, we realize that the earliest schools of Islamic law and the most widely followed (Hanafi, Maliki and Awza`i), allow and tolerate non-Muslim minorities of any religion within the Islamic lands (i.e. the “Islamic state,” for let us not allow ISIS to monopoloize and subvert the term). Given the status of these schools and their adoption by Muslim governments across the centuries (until the Muslim world was largely secularized in early modernity), this view has also been the operative view across the overwhelming bulk of Muslim history. The dissenting view (of the (later) Shafi`is and Hanbalis, along with the Imamis), for practical purposes, persisted as little more than hypothetical juristic cogitations, and perhaps as reminders of the more stark era of war in the Hebrew Bible, where for example we read that the city of Jericho (including even the women, children and beasts) was put to the sword apparently for idolatry. That tolerance of all religious groups was the norm in Muslim history is reflected in the fact that the Mandaeans, Yazidis and others have survived and maintained a presence in Islamic lands to this day.
It is worthwhile to note that the dominant Islamic view, of tolerance towards other religious communities, is also backed by general Qur’anic principle, and by common sense. The Qur’anic principle is that, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of the] religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), and common sense confirms that a forced conversion is unlikely to be genuine. How can it be reasonable to suddenly expect Yazidis, who have been raised in their own religion all their lives, to suddenly give it up at the point of a sword or rifle? Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that if there be but one right [religion], and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged.” The Qur’an foreshadows these wise words of Jefferson’s:
“Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah , and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.” (Qur’an, 10:99-100)
“[U]pon you is only the [duty of] notification, and upon Us is the account.” (Qur’an, 13:40)
“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.” [Qur’an, 16:125]
So far, we have established that the majority and operative position across history has been tolerance of all non-Muslim religious communities. This is sufficient to refute the notion that ISIS’ recent actions represent the majority of Muslims, and to dispel the idea that ISIS is implementing a clear and immutable Islamic teaching. But what if ISIS claims that they want to follow a minority position on religious tolerance, and to revive the practices of enslavement and concubinage? In what follows, I explain how their actions are actually inconsistent with several broader Islamic principles:
(i) The Qur’anic principle (backed by common-sense) of non-coercion in faith, already mentioned earlier (above).
(ii) The importance of priorities. Even if someone truly believes it justified to target the non-Muslim minorities, they should ask themselves: If these minorities were not exterminated by the Prophet, nor by the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, then how can a Muslim group today consider it their prerogative and priority to undertake such a genocide?
(iii) Categorical imperative: If we as Muslims are to exterminate or expel indigenous non-Muslims who have been living in a country for centuries, how are we better than the Zionists who attempt to do the same to indigenous Palestinians?
(iv) The use of inhumane techniques (such as the forced starvation ISIS apparently attempted to inflict on tens of thousands of Yazidis) contradict the Prophet Muhammad’s code of ethics in war and peace. When Thumama ibn Athal, a South Arabian chief, imposed a wheat embargo on the idolatrous Makkans to punish them for their mistreatment of the Muslims, Prophet Muhammad asked him to lift the embargo to prevent the starvation of the Makkan idolators and especially of their women and children.
(v) The Prophetic paradigm calls for wisdom, which includes recognition of people’s sensibilities and thinking. The Prophet Muhammad once remarked to his wife that he would have liked to demolish the Ka`bah, and then to rebuild it according to the original pattern on which Prophet Abraham had built it. However, he refrained from this, citing as a reason the fact that people had only recently come out the state of idolatrous ignorance (and would therefore misconstrue his action as sacrilegous). The fourth Caliph, the Prophet’s son-in-law `Ali, drawing attention to the importance of sensitivity in engaging people, said, “Speak to people with what they can relate to. Would you like for God and His Messenger to be considered liars?” The renowned 19th century Hanafi Muslim jurist Ibn `Abidin wrote, in his didactic poem Rasm al-Mufti, “Customary norms are to be given consideration in the Sacred Law, and hence the legal determination may hinge upon it.” Actions such as forced conversions and enslavement surely have a bigger impact on the public than mere words, and taking a human life is clearly more drastic than demolishing a brick-structure. Even if (hypothetically) someone’s conscience is genuinely not troubled in the least by such actions as enslavement, they should ponder deeply the consequences of their actions on the image and perception of Islam among non-Muslims, and remind themselves that Islam’s mission is to be a source of blessing to all.
“We have not sent you [Muhammad], except as a blessing to all creatures.” [Qur’an, 21:107]
 “The followers of all those varied forms of faith could breathe again under a rule that granted them religious freedom and exemption from military service, on payment of a light tribute.” Thomas Arnold Walker, The Preaching of Islam: a history of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith, (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1896), 177.
 Walker, The Preaching of Islam, 55-57.
 See, for example, the following medieval references of Islamic law: Ibn `Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar; al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’an; Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Murtada, al-Azhar fi FIqh al-A’immahal-Athar.
 See: Joshua, 6:21.
 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. William Peden (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1982) 160.
 See: Ibn Hisham, Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah.
 The building, in Makkah, that Muslims believe was the first house of pure monotheistic worship on earth, built by Prophet Abraham.
 Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim.
 Narrated by Bukhari.
Prophet Muhammad (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) was a wonderful and exemplary human being who was concerned for the spiritual welfare of humankind, and endured great hardship to convey and explain God’s final message. Every Muslim loves him, and indeed love for him necessarily follows from belief in God. I have personally seen signs of deep love for him among various flavors of Muslim, across sectarian and ideological spectra: Sunni, Shi`i, Sufi, Salafi and others, and this is one of numerous central teachings that unite us as Muslims. I feel it is important to keep this in mind, at this time of year in which controversies emerge — sometimes even rage — over whether (and if so how) to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him). If we consider the situation carefully, I am confident we can greatly reduce, hopefully even eliminate, stereotyping and condemning other Muslims with whom we happen to disagree on this matter.
If you don’t celebrate, then realize that those celebrating the occasion are moved by love for the beloved Prophet, even if you disagree with some of the specifics of how they are celebrating. You might believe they are wrong or mistaken in those details, but you cannot cast aspersions on their sincerity. Give them the benefit of the doubt as far as possible if you see or hear something objectionable from them. If you do celebrate, then avoid the temptation to think that those not celebrating are lacking in love for the beloved Prophet. Whatever your view, realize that the Muslim holding the opposing view on Mawlid might be better than you (overall and in the final analysis), and perhaps even love the Prophet more. In our world, we need more dialogue, tolerance and unity between Muslims, and we positively want to avoid entrenching ourselves into narrow, exclusive moulds. We may note that when Hindus in India were objecting to Shi`ite Muharram processions (which are generally considered a heretical practice by Sunnis), a prominent Sunni (Hanafi Deboandi) scholar, Moulana Asraf Ali Thanwi, told Sunni Muslims in India to support the Shi`ites in this matter.
A closer analysis of Qur’an, 5:51
Are Muslims allowed have non-Muslim friends? If not, then what should be our stance towards others?! Anyone who thinks that Muslims must take all non-Muslims as enemies is ignorant of the Qur’an and the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, and ignorant of the centuries of friendly co-existence between Muslims and others across history, not mention that such a person is blind to the decency and goodness to be found and appreciated in many other human beings. The Prophet’s own example clearly illustrates that the attitude of the Muslim toward the non-Muslim is not one of bigotry or unconditional animosity. For example, “when Makkah was in the grip of famine, [the Prophet Muhammad] personally went out to help his enemies. When non-Muslim prisoners of war were presented before him, he treated them with such tenderness [as] many cannot even claim to have done in respect to their children. A delegation from Banu Thaqif who had not yet embraced Islam upto that time came to visit him. They were given the honor of staying in the Mosque of the Prophet. Umar [the second Caliph] gave allowances to needy dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects) [rather than obliging them to pay the jizyah tax.” [see: Muhammad Shafi`’s (erstwhile Grand-Mufti of Pakistan) Ma`ariful-Qur’an, 2/57-58.]
Nor can it be that Muslims are supposed to just pretend to be nice to others while hating and cursing them among themselves in private, for the Prophet has denounced duplicity:
“You will find the worst person to be the two-faced one, who comes to [one people] with one face, and to [another people] with another face.” [Bukhari]
In the Qur’an, the common origin (and hence essential oneness) of the human race is stressed:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an, 49:13]
And basic values and decency are not to be reserved only for fellow Muslims:
“God does not prohibit you from being kind and just to those who have not fought you on account of religion, nor expelled you from your homes. Allah loves those who are just.” Q[60:8]
We may note that the word used in the verse for ‘kindness’ (al-birr) is the same word used in some hadiths for loving, kind treatment of one’s parents.
“If you don’t convert to (my sect) you might as well not convert to Islam!” exclaimed the ‘uncle’ to the young Christian lady. The lady’s husband, a Muslim, had requested his elder friend (despite his different school of thought in Islam) to come and help explain to her why Islam is so important to her husband, and why he’d like her, too, to share in its joy. The husband was startled by this narrow-minded bombshell. The shocking words of the ‘uncle’ highlight a lack of priorities plaguing some of those who profess themselves to be Muslim.
More specifically, some Muslims are sometimes (and any frequency is too often for something this important) too quick to declare someone to be outside the fold of Islam due to (i) imperfect practice, or (ii) disagreement on a non-core belief (e.g. whether and when capital punishment is mandated for apostasy, or stoning for adultery)
These are nights for increasing one’s worship to Allah, and seeking closeness to Him.
The specific deeds listed (below) can be observed. But make a plan for yourself, whereby you:
- Establish a baseline: do at least something extra on all the last ten nights
- Do still more on the odd-numbered nights
- And maximum effort on the one (or two, or three) nights that you feel are most likely to be Laylatul-Qadr (based on the conditions observed on the night, as well as the ahadith narrated about its occurrence).
1. Supplicate using these words:
اللَهُمَّ إِنَّكَ عَفُوٌّ تُحِبُّ العَفوَ فاعفُ عَنّي
“O Allah You are pardoning, and love to pardon, so pardon me.” [Narrated by Ahmad, Tirmidhi, Nasa’I, Ibn Majah]
2. Pray `Isha’, as well as Maghrib and Fajr, in congregation.
Sa`id ibn al-Musayyib said: “Whoever caught `isha’ [in jama`ah] on Laylatul-Qadr has taken his share of [the night].” [Malik]
“One who performs `Isha’ prayer in congregation, is as if he has performed Salat for half of the night. And one who performs the Fajr prayer in congregation, is as if he has performed Salat the whole night.” [Muslim]
3. Pray Tarawih
“Whoever stands [in prayer] on Laylatul-Qadr, with faith and expectation [of reward], his previous sins are forgiven him.” [Bukhari, Muslim]
4. Pray Tahajjud
The last part of the night is especially valuable for supplicating for forgiveness, and for your needs (of this world and the Hereafter), as is indicated by numerous sayings of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace).
5. Do I`tikaf - for the entire 10 days, or for one or more nights
Spending the night in the mosque, is a way to earn credit even during the time you sleep.
6. Wash yourself, and wear good clothes.
The early Muslims (salaf ) used to consider it recommended to perform ghusl for this night and to wear good clothes for it. [Ibn Jareer].
Thabit al-Bunani and Humayd al-Taweel used to dress up, apply perfume, and perfume the mosques. Tameem al-Dari had a costly (1,000 dirham) garment only worn on this night, and similar was the case with Anas ibn Malik. [Ghumari, Ghayat al-Ihsan]
And Allah knows best.
Completing recitation of the Qur’an at least once in Tarawih can be shown to be recommended (mustahabb). This article discusses the basis for this ruling, and concludes with some practical notes and advice.
[Note: this article does not discuss the preferred number of rak`ah of tarawih, nor the ruling on offering tarawih in jama`ah.]
Ramadan is the month of revelation of the Qur’an [Qur’an, 2:185], and a month for more intensive recitation and study of the Qur’an. The Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) used to meet Angel Gabriel (peace be upon him) every night, and they would study the Qur’an [Bukhari]. Another narration tells us that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) would go over the entire Qur’an with him once every Ramadan, and that in the last Ramadan of the Prophet’s life, they reviewed the entire Qur’an twice [Bukhari, Muslim]. Hence, it is sunnah to recite or listen to the recitation of the entire Qur’an at least once during the month. Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq is reported to have allowed finishing the Qur’an only once a month outside of Ramadan, but once every three days in Ramadan. [Wasa’il].
Recitation does not necessarily have to be in tarawih, although recitation in salah is generally held to be more meritorious than recitation outside of salah.
[This can be supported by the logical reasoning that recitation in salah is necessarily accompanied by additional good deeds: wudu’, ruku`, sujud, etc. A hadith in Mishkat al-Masabih states explicitly that, “Recitation of Qur’an in salah is more virtuous that recitation of Qur’an not in salah”, but its chain of transmision is weak.]
Nevertheless, tarawih itself could be performed even with recitation of short surahs, even every day, if need be. It is reported that Caliph `Ali ibn Abi Talib led the tarawih reciting 5 verses in each rak`ah. [Yahya ibn Hamzah in al-Intisar], which would mean approximately half a juz’ was recited per night.
[Twenty rak`ah were performed each night during Caliph `Ali’s time, as we find in the Musnad of Imam Zayd ibn `Ali and elsewhere].
Rabi`ah, the famous teacher of Imam Malik, observed that in the past, not all the imams of tarawih had memorized the entire Qur’an [Mudawwanah]. Certainly, if there are time constraints, whether on the community (such as during summer tarawih in extremely northern latitudes, where the night is extremely short) or on the individual (who has work commitments, for example, or who is praying alone and has not memorized long surahs), then it is valid to shorten the tarawih recitation in this manner, and the sunnah of finishing the Qur’an could be accomplished outside of salah. In the absence of such constraints, the preference is for prolonged recitation in the optional night prayer.
“Arise [to pray] the night, except for a little – Half of it – or subtract from it a little. Or add to it, and recite the Qur’an with measured recitation. Indeed, We will cast upon you a heavy word. Indeed, the hours of the night are more effective for concurrence [of heart and tongue] and more suitable for words.” [Qur’an, 73:2-6]
There are further textual indications that make a case for completion of the Qur’an in tarawih being a sunnah. We know that in general, throughout the year, the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) used to stand in prolonged prayer by night, to the extent that his feet would become swollen [Bukhari], or torn [Tirmidhi]. The Mother of the Believers, Aishah, was asked about his prayer by night, and she replied that he would offer 8 rak`ah every night – but do not ask about how long and beautiful they were [Bukhari]. There are also narrations that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) would exert himself even harder in the last ten nights of Ramadan [Muslim], when he might stay awake all night [Bukhari]. Given these descriptions of the Prophet’s (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) night prayer, we can easily conclude that he must have completed recitation of the Qur’an at least once during the month in his night prayer. In addition to this enacted sunnah of the Prophet, we also find an authentic hadith of verbal encouragement for long recitation in salah.
“Whoever stands [in prayer] with 10 verses will not be written among the negligent. Whoever stands [in prayer] with 100 verses will be written among the devoted. Whoever stands [in prayer] with 1000 verses will be written among those amassing a treasure.” [Narrated by Abu Dawud.]
A narration recorded by Bayhaqi might provide further support for this practice:
“The Messenger of Allah came out one night in Ramadan, and saw people in a corner of the mosque praying, whereupon he asked, “What are these [people] doing?” Someone replied, “O Messenger of Allah, these are people who do not have the Qur’an [memorized], so Ubayy ibn Ka`b is reciting and they are following him in salah.” He said, “They are doing good,” or “They are correct,” and he did not disapprove of that.”
[There is disagreement over the authenticity of this hadith. It was narrated by Abu Dawud, who graded it weak on account of one of its narrators (Muslim ibn Khalid). Al-`Ala’i judged it acceptable (salih) in his fatawa, and Nimawi graded it as good (jayyid) in Athar al-Sunan; vide I`la al-Sunan, 7/69]
If authentic then this indicates that they were praying with the specific aim of hearing the entire Qur’an, for Ubayy had memorized the Qur’an, whereas not all of the other Companions had.
The precedent set by the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) was continued by his Companions and subequent generations after him. In every generation, there are many Muslims who have not memorized large portions of the Qur’an, and who therefore seek to benefit from hearing it being recited by others. Hence, the Companions would gather in small groups in the masjid, each group praying behind a reciter/memorizer. This was the state of affairs that motivated Caliph `Umar ibn al-Khattab to gather people in a single congregation, reviving and institutionalizing the congregational aspect of the prayer that had only been performed on a couple of nights by the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) himself [Bukhari, Malik]. `Umar appointed Ubayy ibn Ka`b to lead the men and (according to one narration) Tamim al-Dari to lead the woman in salah, because they were both memorizers of the Qur’an. The more authentic narrations tell us that the Companions would perform 20 rak`ah every night. Some narrations also point out that the recitation was long, to the extent that people would even tend to support themselves with sticks towards the end, due to the length of standing. [Recorded by Bayhaqi, and authenticated by Nawawi and others] Bayhaqi has also recorded a narration [I have not found discussion of, nor looked into, its authenticity yet] which states that Caliph `Umar summoned three reciters, and had them recite before him. Then, he told the fastest one to recite 30 ayat in each rak`ah, the medium-paced to recite 25 ayat in each rak`ah, and the slowest to recite 20. Even with 20 ayat per rak`ah, and 20 rak`ah, the Qur’an would actually be finished twice over a month. In the face of all of this, it is inevitable that they would be completing recitation of the Qur’an at least once during the month.
`Umar ibn `Abdil-`Aziz told the Taraweh leaders to recite 10 ayat in each rak`ah (which would lead to completion of the Qur’an once over a month) [Mudawwanah]. Imam al-Bukhari used to lead his companions in tarawih reciting 20 ayat in each rak`ah until they completed the Qur’an [Reported by al-Hakim]. Some of the imams of fiqh (Malik and Ahmad) permitted reading from the mushaf in tarawih, even if they did not normally permit it, due to the importance they saw in completing recitation of the Qur’an in tarawih. This emphasis actually can be traced back to the Companions. The wife of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) Ummul-Mu’mineen Aishah (who would have her servant Dhakwan lead her in tarawih from the mushaf) [Cited by Bukhari as ta`liq]. Imam al-Zuhri of the Tabi`in said, “[Some of] the best of us used to recite from the mushaf [in Ramadan].” These scholars would not have conceded permissibility of reading from the mushaf had completing the recitation of the Qur’an in tarawih not been a sunnah.
In summary then: Ramadan is the month of the Qur’an, the Prophet (may Allah bless him and his Household and grant them peace) would go through the entire Qur’an during Ramadan with Gabriel (peace be upon him), and we also know he would stand in prolonged salah by night. The Companions continued upon his path, and the practice of completing the Qur’an at least once in tarawih every year continued to be handed down through the generations. This practice has played an important role in the oral preservation of the Qur’an.
Practical Notes / Advice
Without detracting from the above strong desirability and importance, we may nevertheless observe that:
1) It is not necessary to complete the Qur’an inside tarawih, so if it is a personal or communal hardship to do so, then the tarawih can be made shorter.
2) Completion of the Qur’an is not the sole aim of tarawih. Some mosques hold ‘marathon’ tarawih sessions in which the Qur’an is completed within the first ten nights or less (3 juz’ per night). This is well and good, but those who attend should not be doing so with the aim of ‘getting the khatm done’ and then neglecting tarawih (or performing it with extremely short recitation) for the rest of the month. Nor should the recitation ever be so fast that the letters and words are not properly pronounced.
Those who complete the tarawih khatm a few nights before the end of Ramadan are encouraged to avoid the temptation to thereafter perform tarawih with only the last 10 surahs each night (especially if they are able to recite other verses). There is no harm in shortening the duration of the tarawih if circumstances call for it, but the sunnah is actually to increase the volume of worship in the last ten nights, in search of Laylat al-Qadr (the Night of Destiny / Value). Even the 27th night of Ramadan, although considered very likely by many scholars is not guaranteed to be Laylat al-Qadr.
And Allah knows best.
Is it ok to pray tarawih alone at home? Is it better to pray it in the masjid?
The short answer is: it depends, but if you do pray it at home, make sure you are not just being lazy. Read on for more.
- Benefitting from listening to the recitation of the imam of tarawih, especially for those who have not memorized large portions of the Qur’an themselves.
- Getting encouragement and motivation from seeing others praying, particularly for someone who might get lazy (and thus not pray at all, or not pray as much) if they were to be alone at home.
- Greater sincerity, and reducing the risk of ostentation (praying to show off)
- Practicing one’s own recitation
- (Potentially) earning more spiritual reward by praying for longer, and/or in a later portion of the night
- (For some people): being able to attend to other important business which they might not be able to do if the tarawih in the masjid lasts a long time. This might include getting enough sleep to be able to function effectively at work, depending on the person’s physical stamina and type of job. It is up to you to be honest with yourself.
- Zayd said, “We used be in the presence of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), gathering the Qur’an from pieces of parchment.” [Narrated by al-Hakim with an isnad on the criteria of Bukhari and Musch surlim]
- As part of a longer hadith, narrated by `Uthman (may Allah be well-pleased with him), in response to a question from Ibn `Abbas, “…when something [of the Qur’an] came down upon [the Prophet], he summoned some of those who would write, and tell them, ‘Put these verses in the surah that mentions such-and-such.'” [Ahmad, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasai, Ibn Hibban, al-Hakim] Read more