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]

 

 

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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/

 

3194 : 2392

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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

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A Degree Over Women? Gender Equity and Quran 2:228

(ii) “A degree over women”

And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable, and men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)

The “degree” that men have over women, unspecified in the Qur’anic text, has given rise to a range of different suggested interpretations, some of which clearly hold little weight (such as the view that it refers to the beard!). The eminent traditionist-exegete Tabari (d. 310 H), after quoting all the transmitted opinions, concluded that the strongest view is that men are being instructed to unconditionally fulfill their duties and responsibilities in full, while being forgiving of women if they fall short in their duties; i.e. it is a degree of responsibility, rather than privilege. Tabari and others have narrated this view, with isnad, from Ibn `Abbas, an eminent exegete from among the companions of the Prophet.

According to traditional Muslim understandings of gender roles (I will not address Muslim feminist interpretations), men also are expected to lead the family unit (every social unit needs one person in charge, in order to function efficiently), but this leadership neither implies a superiority (remember when Abu Bakr was appointed Caliph, he said, “I have been appointed to lead you, but I am not the best among you”), nor is it supposed to be a means for overbearingness or tyranny. Rather, the relationship between husband and wife is to be based on love, compassion and cooperation, and includes consultation.

“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy.” (Qur’an, 30:21)

“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another” (Qur’an, 9:71)

“….and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (Qur’an, 42:38)

The alleged hadith, “Consult with [women] and then do the opposite of what they advise,” has no authentic chain of narration back to the Prophet (as pointed out, for example, by Sakhawi in al-Maqasid al-Hasana), and is likely a sheer fabrication. Among the more striking narrations showing that the Prophet (s) valued the opinions of women is the famous incident at Hudaybiyah, in which he acted on advice from his wife Umm Salamah on a matter of great religious and public significance.

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Gender Equity and Quran 4:34

A previous post showed the basic spiritual equality of men and women, as derived from the Quran. We now need to look more closely at three verses that are sometimes misunderstood to conclude an automatic superiority for men:

(i) “Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)

(ii) “And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)

(iii) “And the male is not like the female.” (Qur’an, 3:36)

(i) Men are qawwamun over women”

“Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)

Firstly, the Qur’an has told us clearly that the criterion for superiority before Allah is taqwa, not gender:

“Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an, 49:13)

Indeed, no Muslim man would dare claim that, merely by being male, he is better than Lady Khadijah, Lady Fatimah, or the Virgin Mary!

Remember also that two verses before this (4:32), we were reminded that men and women have each been blessed in different ways by Allah. What the verse 4:34 is telling us, therefore, is that men have the responsibility of taking care of women, because (generally) their constitution and nature are such that they are more capable or working and providing physical protection and defense.

Secondly, note that the wording is not فضلهم عليهن (which would clearly mean: graced/blessed men over  women) but rather: بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ literally: “has graced some of them over others.”  Shaykh al-Sha`rawi, the famous 20th-century Egyptian (male) scholar of tafsir, pointed out that although men may be graced/blessed in one aspect, they are less endowed in other respects, and that the two genders have complementary roles in which each utilizes their respective strengths to support the other. The 3rd-century theologian and polymath `Uthman al-Jahiz has pointed out several aspects in which women can be considered superior to men, including various positive traits of character (remember the Prophet (s) was described as more modest than a virgin in her chamber), and the fact that there has been a woman (the Virgin Mary) for whom Allah created a child without male involvement, but there has never ben a man for whom Allah made a child without female involvement. Contemporary female Syrian scholar Hanan Lahham expressed succinctly the logical conclusion to make from 4:34, tying together the concepts that were already known to earlier exegetes (mufassireen), even if they didn’t express it so explicitly. She writes that, “Allah granted to each gender characteristics that help them to perform their roles; the intended meaning is not a superiority of one gender over the other.”

The verse (4:34) also intimates that some women have certain superiorities over some men, and vice-versa. Thus, some women might be physically stronger, or more capable breadwinners, than some men. None of this is ruled out by the verse, nor by the labelling of men as maintainers, because as `Allamah Ibn `Ashur (a high-ranking 20th century Tunisian scholar) has commented in his tafsir, what the verse is describing is not a universal but a customary norm. (We may note, in passing that patriarchically organized societies have dominated human history for several millenia.) Even among pre-modern mufassirin, the possibility had been raised that this verse conveys that there are some women who are better than many men. In fact, the famous medieval linguist and mufassir, Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, mentioned the possibility (suggested by the verse) that the term “men” (الرجال) in the verse (4:34) refers not to gender (for otherwise the term “males” (الذكور) could have been used) but only to those males who are deserving of being called “men” by virtue of their strength, wisdom and resoluteness. A lot of women would not be able to fully respect a man who does not live up to his expected role. Thus, many of the fuqaha allow a wife to annul the marriage if the husband is not able to provide financial support to his wife. (Of course, she has the option of remaining with him and being patient, and also the option of spending her own money on the household, and can expect reward from Allah for doing so, but she is not obliged to do either of these).

 

-Suheil Laher

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Spiritual Equality of Men and Women

Umm Salamah asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), “Why is it that men are mentioned in the Qur’an, but we women are not mentioned?” In response, Allah sent down a verse1.

“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” (Qur’an, 33:35)

This is one of several Qur’anic verses that establishes the essential spiritual equality of men and women. Other verses tell us that believers – men and women – will receive light on the Day of Judgment, will enter Paradise, will not be wronged in the least, will be rewarded according to the best of their actions, and will be given provision without account. (See: Qur’an, 3:195, 4:124, 16:97. 40:40, 57:12).

Hence, Muslim scholars often mention a general principle:

النساء شقائق الرجال

Women are the counterparts of men.”2

This means that every right and obligation that applies to men applies equally to women, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Remember that, given the societal setup and norms of 7th-century Arabia, the Prophet (s) was, naturally, spending more time with men than with women, and so the wording of his statements would nomally be addressed in the male gender. Hence, when we find hadiths about marying for beauty, or desiring to have children, or remaining faithful to one’s spouse, even though many of these hadiths are addressed to men, we are entitled to deduce a similar, reciprocal ruling for women.

Notwithstanding the essential spiritual equality of men and women, there are areas in which they are not identical, and some of these (like childbearing) are physiological and (in a sense) inevitable.

“And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing.” (Qur’an, 4:32)

These differences do not mean men are superior, nor that women are superior. According to a report from Qatadah and al-Suddi (tafsir scholars of the Tabi`in, the above verse was revealed in response to some men who thought that they were entitled to double reward due to their gender, and some women who thought the punishment for their sins would be half that of men’s. 

Allah has made each gender unique and special in its own way, and we are expected to realize and accept this. 

To be continued — Part 2 examines three Quranic verses that are sometimes cited in support of an inherent male superiority, and shows how the verses do not support that conclusion.

— Suheil Laher

FOOTNOTES

1Ibn Kathir judged its chain of transmission as good (hasan) in Tuhfat al-Talib, as did Ibn Hajar in Muwafaqat al-Khabar. Tabari mentions several similar narrations in his exegesis (tafsir).

2 These words are also contained in a hadith, narrated by Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and others, but there is disagreement over one of the narrators, `Abd-Allah ibn `Umar al-`Umari, who was an upright man, but whom some critics judged to have poor memory. Nevertheless, Ibn al-Qattan apparently judged it as a sound hadith. And Allah knows best.

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Lawful and Prohibited : Miscellaneous Islamic Regulations

PROHIBITION AND PERMISSIBILITY”

Translated by Suheil Laher from

Kitab al-Hazr wal-Ibaha in Mukhtasar al-Quduri

(a summary-text of Hanafi law), with some re-arrangement and editing.

Rulings presented are as inferred from Qur’an and Sunnah by scholars of the Hanafi school.

DISCLAIMER: Information presented here is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a call to perform or abstain from any specific action mentioned in the text. 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.

1.0 SILK

1. It is not permissible for men to wear silk, but it is permissible for women.

2. There is no objection to wearing pure silk in war according to the two of them, but it is repugnant according to Abu Hanifah.

3. There is objection to wearing [clothing made of] a blended fabric if its warp is silk and its weft is cotton.

[

‘Blended fabric’ here refers to an interlaced or interwoven fabric, with warp and weft not of the same material.

Warp” is the set of threads held in tension on a loom.

Weft” is the set of threads interlaced with the warp.

]

2.0 GOLD AND SILVER

2.1 Jewelry and Decorations

1. It is not permissible for men to use jewelry of gold,

2. Nor [may they wear jewelry of] silver excepting:

3. It is permissible for women to use jewelry of gold and silver.

4. It is repugnant to make a [minor] boy wear gold and silk.

5. It is disliked to mark verses in tens in the mushaf, and [also] to add diacritical dots [when
not needed for correct reading].

6. There is no objection to decorating the mushaf, [nor to] engraving mosques and decorating them [on
the outside] with gold-water.

2.2 Vessels

1. It is not permissible to eat, drink, use oil or perfume from vessels of gold or silver, neither for men nor for women.

2. There is no objection to using vessels of glass, crystal or cornelian.

[“Cornelian” is a reddish-white variety of quartz.]

3.0 LOOKING AND TOUCHING

3.1 Looking at Women

1. It is not permissible for a man to look at a stranger-woman, except at her face and hands. But, if he
did not consider himself safe from lust, he may not look at her face except out of need.

to look at her face, even if he fears he may experience lust.

2. A man may look at his mahram’s (i.e. permanently umarriageable female relatives’) face, head, chest,
shins and arms, but he may not look at their back or belly. There is objection to touching what it is permissible to look at [of the mahrams] [for a legitimate reason, i.e. provided there is no fear of lust or other inappropriate consequences].

3. A man may look at his wife [entirely] including [even] her genitals.

4. A woman may look at that [much] of another woman that a man may look at of another man.

3.2 Looking at Men

1. A man may look at all of the body of another man except for what is between his navel to his knee.

2. It is permissible for a woman to look at that [part] of a man which another man may look at.

3. It is repugnant to employ the service of eunuchs [if that involves perpetuation of the
practice of castration, which is a prohibited act of mutilation]

4.0 CREDIBILITY

2. It is permissible to accept, in [the matter of] a gift or permission, the word of a child or servant.

3. The word of a transgressor is acceptable in transactions [and other mundane matters]

4. Only the word of a morally upright (`adl) person is acceptable in religious matters.

5.0 TRADE

1. Hoarding of staple-foods of humans and cattle is repugnant, if that is in a land in which hoarding harms
the inhabitants.

2. One who hoards the produce of his [own] estate, or what he has imported from another land, is not [termed] a hoarder.

3. It is not appropriate for the ruler to regulate prices for people [as long as they do not reach the level
of exploitation, which is harmful to the public interest]

4. It is repugnant to sell weapons in times of fitna [i.e. turmoil (in which the side of truth is unclear) or sedition (in which there is unjustified rebellion against a legitimate ruler and one is selling weapons to the rebels)]

5. There is no [judicial] objection to selling juice to someone whom it is known will produce wine from it [but notwithstanding the absence of worldly prosecution, the seller might still be sinful in the spiritual domain].

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Chivalric Glory and Extremist Ignominy

By Suheil Laher

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[1] 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.)

ENDNOTE
[1] “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.

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This World is the Root of All Blessings

Earth observations

Image courtesy of NASA;http://d3.static.dvidshub.net/media/thumbs/photos/1210/680029/445x450_q95.jpg

By Suheil Laher

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.

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On Celebrating Mawlid/Milad

By Suheil  Laher

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[1]. If you do celebrate, then avoid the temptation to think that those not celebrating are lacking in love for the beloved Prophet[2]. 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 often 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 right to perform them.[3]

 

There is no disagreement that the Prophet’s birthday was not celebrated as a festival until approximately 600 years after him[4], and therefore no Muslim would be so bold to claim that it is a religiously mandated festival on par with the Two Eids (al-Fitr and al-Adha). Yes, many scholars across history have found such celebration to be acceptable, within certain boundaries, but there is further difference of opinion on what precisely those boundaries are. Those who endorse the celebration resort to general texts and concepts that show the legitimacy of feeling joy for the coming of the Prophet, and the permissibility of giving lectures about his life and reciting poetry praising him[5]. e.g.

Those who object to celebrating the Mawlid do not deny these general concepts (and they certainly do not deny the necessity of loving the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him and his Household)). Rather, their objections are based on one or more of the following points:

i) The festival was not observed by the first generations of Muslims, and since it has a religious component, there is the danger of it being (or becoming) a heretical practice (bid`ah). While there is no objection, in principle, to lectures or poetry about the Prophet, nevertheless fixing a particular time of year for such acts, and/or a rigid format, are problematic, and over time may lead to people thinking that it is integral to Islam, or that there is special virtue in doing it on that day and/or in that specific way.[6] (This is aside from the uncertainty about the precise day on which the Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him) was born[7].)

ii) Indeed, in some parts of the  Muslim world, some people effectively see the Mawlid as a required devotional act, such that those who choose not to attend are considered to be deficient in their Islam. Conversely, some ignorant  folk come to believe that by attending the Mawlid to show love for the Prophet, they are automatically good Muslims even if they neglect their daily prayers and other religious obligations.

iii) Information inaccuracy: it is not uncommon to find speakers at a Mawlid quoting narrations/hadith that are extremely weak in their transmission or even fabricated. Similarly, some people exaggerate in praising the Prophet, in ways that he himself may have disapproved of, and which in some cases can even be tantamount to (or at least close to) polytheism (shirk). The shaykh of some of our shuyukh, the Morocan Shadhili master `Abdullah al-Ghumari (Allah’s mercy be upon him) compiled a small booklet warning against some of these widely-quoted yet unreliable hadiths.[8]

iv) Sometimes, there are other objectionable aspects to Mawlid gatherings, such as unrestrained mixing between genders, or neglect of prayer-times during the celebration.

In summary, it is your decision to celebrate or not celebrate, depending on how comfortable your conscience is with the matter. If you do celebrate, avoid the pitfalls mentioned earlier. And whether or not you celebrate:

1)                 Make sure your regular daily conduct and behavior reflect your love for the Prophet (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him).

2)                 Exercise wisdom in your dealings with those who disagree with you about the Mawlid. If you believe they are wrong/mistaken, then there are etiquettes for dealing with disagreements. Dialogue, based on acknowledgement of the other’s sincerity and meritorious deeds, along with a sincere desire for their (and your own) improvement will go much further than labelling, condemnation and polar isolationism.

Before closing this article, I must make some comments on a personal note[9]. I will say that I do have reservations about Mawlid gatherings that include the pitfalls mentioned earlier, and if I know for a fact that some of the more serious infractions will be present, I would decline participation. However, if (as I was recently called upon to do so), I am invited to give a lecture about some aspect of the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him and his Household), then I don’t find myself obliged to decline, nor to interrogate the attendees and organizers on their beliefs about it, but I go in clear about my own intentions. We read that Imam Malik once entered the mosque after `Asr and directly sat down, for he believed the Tahiyyat al-Masjid prayer to be impermissible during this time.  But when a boy innocently told him to stand up perform the prayer, he obliged, later explaining, “I feared being one of those who ‘when they are told to bow, they do not  bow.’”[10] It is an honor for me to speak about the Prophet, and if my words can be of some benefit, then I am happy. However, my speaking at such a gathering should not be taken as an acceptance or endorsement of everything said and done there by others. I might very well disagree with some things, but even if the disagreement is not within what I would consider legitimate scholarly disagreement, I will try to give them the benefit of the doubt, with the hope that they are rewarded for their good intentions, and that – at some point – they come to realize where they had been going wrong. It is not always a priority (and sometimes more damaging than beneficial) to speak out against something one sees as wrong. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal disapproved of decorating pages of the Qur’an, but when he was asked about a man who had spent a lot of money adorning a Qur’an with pure gold, he did not call for condemnation, but rather made a remark indicating that there are worse uses to which the gold could have been put.[11]

I am acutely aware that we do have bigger and more pressing problems in our communities than discussing the Mawlid, but it is precisely because of this fact that I feel it is important for us to be able to properly contextualize the Mawlid and take it in stride as we (hopefully) continue in more lofty pursuits.

May Allah bless Muhammad and his Household and grant them peace.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: Image of moon from http://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/image/planetary/moon/clem_full_moon_strtrk.jpg, accessed 1/21/14, 10:46pm.


FOOTNOTES

[1] The Hanbali polymath, Shaykhul-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah insightfully observed that among those who are censuring heretical practices (bid`ah), we find many individuals who are themselves actually negligent in observing the sunnah, so much so that they might actually be in a worse spiritual condition than those who are performing those disputed acts of devotion that include some heretical aspect. Thus, even though Ibn Taymiyyah was opposed to celebration of the Mawlid, and considered it a bid`ah, he writes that there is great (spiritual) reward in it for some people, because of their good intention and veneration for the Prophet. [Iqtida’ al-Sirat al-Mustaqim (Dar al-Fikr, s.d.) p. 297] Return to main text

[2] I remember one of my teachers, a devoted Sufi and Hanafi, remarking how one statement he came across in Shaykh Muhammad ibn `Abdil-Wahhab’s Kitab al-Tawhid convinced him that the man had deep love for the Prophet. This is one of several personal anecdotes I could share from my teachers to illustrate respect across sectarian boundaries. Return to main text

[3] See, e.g. `Allamah Zafar al-`Uthmani, I`la al-Sunan. Return to main text

[4] The Ayyubid governor Muzaffar al-Din Kawkabri (d. 630 H / 1232 C.E.) is typically credited as the first to institute the festival. [See, e.g. Dhahabi, Siyar A`lam al-Nubala’] Return to main text

[5] See, for example, `Allamah Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti’s Husn al-Maqsid fi `Amal al-Mawlid. Return to main text

[6] Our shaykh, and shaykh of some of our shaykhs, Muhammad Hasan Dado al-Shinqiti, who identifies as Salafi, observes (in a clip available on youtube) that there is no objection to feeling happy when one recollects that the Prophet was born during this month. He criticizes both those who go beyond acceptable limits in celebrating, and those who go to the other extreme of trying to behave as if there is nothing joyful in the fact. It is not a festival (`Eid), but is nevertheless one of a number of happy occasions. Return to main text

[7] It is popularly held, in the Sunni world (and among the Zaydi Shi`ah), that he was born on 12th Rabi` al-Awwal, but this is one view among several. The Shafi`I Sunni scholar Ibn Kathir considered 2nd Rabi al-Awwal as the strongest view, and listed the other possibilities as: 8th, 10th, 12th, Rabi` al-Awwal, and a fringe view (of al-Zubayr ibn Bakkar) that it was in the month of Ramadan. Another prominent view (again, among both Sunnis and Zaydis) is 9th Rabi` al-Awwal. The Imami Shi`ah typically prefer 17th Rabi` al-Awwal. [See: Hafiz Ibn Kathir, al-Fusul fi Sirat al-Rasul; Dr. Murtada al-Mahatwary al-Hasany, Al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah; Shaykh Safiyy al-Mubarakpuri, The Sealed Nectar] Return to main text

[8] Its title is Irshad al-Talib al-Najib ila ma fil-Mawlid al-Nabawiyy min al-Akadhib. Return to main text

[9] I generally avoid speaking about myself and my personal views, but make an exception here because some people are apparently confused by my recent participation in a particular gathering. Return to main text

[10] See: Qurtubi, Al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, under the verse 77:48. Return to main text

[11] Ibn Taymiyyah, ibid. Return to main text

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