"Merry Christmas"?

8 min read

For Muslims, saying "Merry Christmas" has been a particular sticking point for a long time. Every year at December, a dread falls over the western ummah. The Xmas Police are out in force, and the sincerely devout left confused and exasperated. Of course, for many such a mundane issue will sound absurd, and from the outside it certainly is. As time has gone by, for most Muslims this has become a non-issue. But misappropriating certain hadiths, along with interpreting proscriptions made by medieval scholars in a particular way has led to a lack of clarity.

My intent here is to unpick the contentions and conflations whilst analysing variant reasonings people employ. Like with most masa'il, I think it's a good case study to analyse religious reasoning (the main reason I've written this). And as usual, I speak in the context of the UK, although I suspect this post will be relevant to most western believers.

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Accepting Christmas presents

3 min read

Some scholars, from various denominations, are of the view that it is not permitted to accept Christmas cards or presents. However, many medieval Islamic jurists - those often cited by such scholars, held no such qualms with accepting presents on Christmas (or its like).

1. In general, there exists no impediment in accepting presents from
non-Muslims. Imam al-Bukhari relates, at the beginning of the chapter:
"Accepting gifts from pagans", that the Prophet Abraham and his wife
Sara were presented with Hagar by the Egyptian king; and the Prophet Muhammad
accepted gifts from: the King of Ailah, al-Muqawqis the Patriarch of Alexandria,
and a Jewish woman.

2. Of course, the above refers to gifts, but as with Christmas, accepting
presents is not about receiving something, but how accepting it will be
. The attitudes engendered by the Prophet’s companions strongly
suggest that receiving a Christmas gift is not deemed to be consenting to
unbelief or aiding the cause of shirk. Unlike the typical way in which he is
portrayed, the famed Hanbali scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah stressed its permissibility
in Iqtida as-Sirat al-Mustaqim relating the opinion to Imam Ahmad b.
Hanbal and offering the following points:

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"That's changing the deen!"

Whenever a question about motive or meaning is asked concerning the sharī’ah which sits uncomfortably with the cultural preachers who don't have a reasoned position, they holler "so and so is trying to change the deen!" Many then mindlessly adopt this rhetoric, erroneously railing against legitimate rectification and exploration. Now had religious literacy amongst the masses not have been so low there might be some basis for this claim, but it is essentially ignorance that becomes the criterion of truth. Of course, there ought to be some balance: on the one hand the laity must be careful not to follow every claimant in their fanciful views: "There are some who, with no knowledge, argue about God, who follow every devilish rebel" (22:3), but at the same time they must be able to transcend irrational, spurious or irrelevant traditions: "But when it is said to them, ‘Follow the message that God has sent down,’ they answer, ‘We follow the ways of our fathers.’ What! Even though their fathers understood nothing and were not guided?" (2:170)

I'm continuously asked: "How are the laity meant to know?" Well, to put it simplistically, having some general literacy of the Quran is a good place to start so that you can take what you hear and judge whether it resonates with the general nature (and entirety) of the divine message. And once lay people start to actually pay attention to what advocates are saying along with the depth of their arguments (rather than relying on sectarian rhetoric or cultural conformity) then I believe they'll start to recognise the range of standards and abilities out there, and discern the real from the pretenders.

In our context today, religious opinion is largely uninformed, social opinion judgemental, and political opinion either baseless or grievance driven. Most are led to believe there has only been ONE mainstream opinion on everything for a millennium. Yet there is nothing mainstream and traditional about contemporary religious rhetoric, in fact it’s very new and reactionary (mostly as a post-colonial force). One of our aims should be to revive the traditional realm of religious opinion that we so staunchly claim a commitment to, and challenge the provincial attitude that has become the status quo.

Those who position themselves as gatekeepers of the Qur'an and sunnah are no such thing; more than often they distort verses with mistranslations or misinterpretations, and as much as they claim the tradition of the past's ulama, they intend that you only follow their way, reducing the entire edifice of intellectual shar’ī thinking over a thousand years to the specific 3-4 people they've chosen to take as interpretative authorities. All sects and denominations do this, it's intrinsic to their nature. It's nothing new. Many hundreds of years ago, Ibn Taymiyyah addressed the same issue:

ومن الناس من يكون نشأ على مذهب إمام معين، أو استفتى فقهيًا معينًا، أو سمع حكاية عن بعض الشيوخ، فيريد أن يجعل المسلمين كلهم على ذلك

And there are some who develop (their views) according to the school of a particular Imam, or only seek answers from a particular jurist, or hear from some shuyukh, expecting ALL Muslims to be just like that.

Note that the problem isn't with seeking a simple approach - it can actually be praiseworthy, but it's with imposing one's own personal choices on others as matter of fact. And this becomes particularly heinous when religious leaders/personalities do so, since irshad (religious guidance) requires from them wider learning, deeper understanding, and consideration of the variables that affect the context. We might sympathise with the parochialism of the unlearned, but when religious personalities advocate it, then they establish for us that they're pretenders.

Some general thoughts:

1. What God has revealed is known: "We have sent down the Quran Ourself, and We Ourself will guard it." (15:9) None can change that. What the righteous endeavour to do is challenge how it is misunderstood and how some want us to parochially understand what God wants from us, or the fact that some don't want us to understand God at all and instead want us to opt for irrational religion/faith as an extension of an ethnic identity, religio-cultural practices, or their fear-driven 'orthopraxy'.

2. It's not something the learned are at liberty to overlook (no matter how much they might want to and instead opt for a simple life). It is their duty and their responsibility. Abu Huraira reported: The Messenger of God said, “This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy of every successive generation, refuting the corruption of extremists, the distortions of falsifiers, and the interpretations of the ignorant.” (al-Tabarānī)

3. Seeking meaning and guidance from God and His messenger is something both progressives and the cultural preachers abhor. For the former, it absolutely undermines their superficial claims, and for the latter it divests them of the positions they occupy in their communities and places it back with God. They no longer get to control the masses, since it is through raising educational standards that the masses are empowered with some evaluative tools, at least to separate the wheat from the chaff. The motives of such preachers reflect those of the earlier Church which positioned priests as middlemen between God and humanity. How else can we explain the inane idea "If you read the Qur'an to understand it, or in a language you understand, you'll be misguided!"

4. The majority of our established practices are valid, but because we have lost much of their meaning, the substance of what we do and believe is insipid. Speaking about the why informs the how. Take the tarawih as an example, a perfectly valid and meaningful form of worship, yet being superficially committed to 20 rakat (units) as a doctrinal code means that many mosques offer prayers with such haste and empty movements that the entire 20 rakat are rendered meaningless and offensive. Had what God wanted from Ramadan night prayers been understood and explored appropriately, I doubt most (who do) would behave this way.

Is hijamah (cupping) sunnah?

5 min read

This brief post deals with the idea that hijamah (cupping) is mustahab (encouraged in the shari'ah). The point I make here is that it is not.

Cupping is an ancient medical practice that was practiced long before the Arabs, such as by the ancient Persians, Chinese and Egyptians, and something the Arabs widely practiced before the advent of prophethood. It wasn’t particular to the Prophet, nor was it a treatment that was specially 'revealed’ to him (I deal with the hadith on angels later on). The vast majority of classical jurists held that cupping was a form of treatment for those in need and not an habitual practice, and as such, viewed it (a) as scientifically the best medical treatment available (and so, mustahab in that sense), and (b) neither a metaphysical nor ritual phenomenon.

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Voting is polytheism?

I've been meaning to put something down that discusses democracy, shirk, the political engagement of Muslims in the UK, and so on. Given that the British General Elections are around the corner (12th December), once again anything I do now will be somewhat reductive. However, this is an ongoing and broad topic, and one I hope to fully address at some point. (The problem is that there doesn't seem to exist, as far as I'm aware, an entire narrative offering complete education on this topic, so everything always comes across in scattered tidbits that continues the confusion).

However, some have felt that there is some benefit in making the following brief points about the voting-is-shirk rhetoric, so here it is:

The idea that voting is shirk/kufr is theologically absurd. Some will say, “I respect the view but…/You have a right to that view but...” however there's nothing to respect from an ignorant position: it is devoid of shar’i knowledge, context, the Qur'an, the sunnah, and the insights of a thousand years of theological enquiry - let alone the nefarious implications of mass takfir. As a friend pointed out recently, the biggest problem with all the debates surrounding voting and engaging with people who think they have a shar'i argument is that they tend to premise their arguments on ideas that are used without clear parameters, like 'man-made law', hakimiyyah (God's sovereignty), al hukm bi ghair ma anzallallah (judgement by other than revelation), al Islam yaʿlu wa la yuʿla (Islam overcomes), etc. "Its just sloganeering, and how can one have a meaningful uṣūli discussion with someone who sloganeers??"

“You can’t vote for man-made law.”

Aside from the fact that the substance of this statement is paradigmatically nonsensical, it isn’t empirically correct (and the fact that dissenters fail to recognise this basic premise makes most discussions on voting very difficult to have). Even if we accept simplistic jargon like 'man-made law’, those who vote in upcoming elections won’t be voting for ‘man-made law’, it’s simply not an option on the table. Nobody is asking “which would you like, man-made law or God-law?” This ‘man-made law’ is already a given; instead you're being asked: “Of the representatives standing in your area, which one would you prefer and think would best serve your needs, given that there needs to be one, whether you participate or not?” To vote in these elections is to express a preference between unavoidable outcomes (one of the candidates is going to be elected). It's not the free choice of appointing someone.

Now as for whether, then, voicing your needs is shirk (an act of polytheism), please consider the following which is presented in six simplified steps for the sake of a structured and coherent presentation of the situation:

  1. We choose to live in a plural society made up of diverse people, those of different faiths and those of none, those of various cultures and backgrounds, people of differing ideas and ideological inclinations.
  2. Living together, there are collective decisions that need to be made affecting all citizens, and those decisions should be in the best interests of the people. We believe the shari'ah speaks to human interests, others have their own views. We live tolerantly, with basic civil rights in place that allow all citizens to pursue their conception of good in a way that doesn't impose on others. We seek to engage others constructively to convince them of a better way (shar'i values).
  3. Given the plural setting (which we’ve chosen to live in), decisions should rationally maintain everyone's economic and social welfare, and allow us to pursue a godly conception of the good life, without forcing it on others.
  4. Given that decisions have to be made, and will be made, all citizens are asked to voice who they would think would most represent their general interests.
  5. This bureaucracy is a form of decision-making for diverse groups of people who choose to live together (with a set of common values/interests that binds them together, alongside tolerance and respect.)
  6. Those who don't like it: Are they saying not to make decisions, or that we ought to allow decisions be made on our behalf and tacitly accept it by continuing to live by those decisions?

Now, if you don’t like the idea that in a plural society people get involved in collective decision making, where diverse voices will be heard, and the majority will take precedence (without curtailing key rights of the minority), then you've clearly decided to live in the wrong place. If you somehow hold this to be shirk, then you must necessarily conclude that you too are a mushrik for consciously continuing to be a member of such a decision making system. If you believe it is morally correct to impose the entirety of your views on the majority, and by force if needs be, then you are an extremist and have missed key parts of the Qur'an. And if you’d like to get on a plane destined for the “Muslim lands”, then bon voyage and I sincerely hope you the very best, although I doubt you’ll find it anywhere as good as you currently have it, all things considered.

Some argue that political engagement is disbelief in God and that we should stay away from voting until "God's laws" are implemented. They tend to be those with very little knowledge about God's laws, and how Islamic law, legal theory and political philosophy works, both in theory and practice. But let us, for the sake of argument, entertain this assertion. So what do we do in the interim? Sit on our hands and let others decide what should and shouldn’t happen to us/affect us? Consider this point (as one of many):

The Christian Negus of Abyssinia, to whom the early Sahabah fled, later on accepted the prophethood and mission of the prophet Muhammad. The Negus accepted Islam and called his people to it, but they rejected. So now, as a Muslim king of a non-Muslim country what did he do? Did he coerce everyone like some genocidal maniac? Did he simply stop ruling, and stop all decision making for his land? Did he simply renounce the throne and say ‘this is shirk and kufr’? Between his conversion and death there wasn’t a legislative vacuum - he continued to rule over the people as he had been doing and remained doing as much good as he could within the system that existed. (For those who disagree I'd advise reading Ibn Taymiyyah - a scholar they tend hold as authoritative - on al-Najashi). When the Negus died the Prophet said: “Go out and pray for a brother of yours who died in another land.” (al-Bukhari) In fact, the only people that had something negative to say about the Negus were the hypocrites who said of the Prophet, “Look at that man! He prays for a Christian Ethiopian infidel whom he has never seen before nor follows his religion.”

For many, much of this is common sense, and I commend you all for using it. The conversation on voting and shirk has many avenues that can be addressed in order to shut it down (this post being a very very simple one) and far more than a short article could suitably explore. But I'd like to point out that the knowledge is there, the revelatory guidance is there, and the historical accounts are there. The Prophet warned us about being fooled by the ruwaybidah: foolish, imbecilic, contemptible juveniles who speak ignorantly on the affairs of the people (as the Prophet put it). The Andalusian scholar Ibn Hazm said quite insightfully, in light of this hadith, that "there is nothing more harmful to knowledge and its people than those who enter into it, yet are not from it. They are ignorant, but think they are knowledgeable. They cause corruption assuming they are rectifying matters."

Across the board, you will find that those who hark on with such theological inaccuracies and mistruths, completely disregarding implicit and explicit ayat and hadith, who think that being a (social or otherwise) media personality stands in for years of study, research and scholarly engagement, and tend to be those who do little for Islam. Their religious identity isn’t about God, but a political identity and a facile show of machismo and sloganeering. Their entire narrative, even far beyond politics and voting, is usually premised on doing nothing and they consistently call on all others to be the same.

The interests of ubudiyyah and all those things that facilitate it is what we must be committed to. Whilst there are certainly sincere but mistaken individuals (those whom I will always have time for), beware of the sectarian self-interested:

There are people whose views on the life of this world may please you, he even calls on God to witness what is in his heart, yet he is the bitterest of opponents.

Qur'an 2:204

If you plan to vote, then you may do so confidently. If you're in doubt about its permissibility, there isn't a reason to be - may God guide us all to what is true and benefits godly interests.

Thinking about Halloween: considerations for parents (and others)

5 min read

As Halloween comes around, some Muslim parents will enquire once again into the shar’i permissibility of allowing their children to dress up in costumes and join in activities such as trick-or-treating. We could get into a long-winded and technical breakdown on what it means to participate in a festival that includes enthusiastically dressing up as Shaitan & Co (regardless of whether one’s child also does or does not) but I think most people, intuitively, can figure out what is appropriate for the people of imaan and followers of the Prophets.

So my point here isn’t to engage with Halloween, but with sentiments that are tangentially raised by some parents when asking me the question: “Is it permissible…because I don’t want the kids to feel left out and it’s good that they integrate/get involved…” So the two points parents reason with are: (1) Integration, and (2) feeling left out. Generally, it's very important that Muslims integrate rather than segregate for a number of shar’i and political reasons (better explored elsewhere), and fitting in as much as possible (and as much as is feasible in accordance with the shari'ah) normalises people of faith in wider society and helps young believers develop a sense of belonging to their people.

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Is oral sex impermissible?

No, it is not.

There has been an ongoing conversation among British Muslims, literally for decades about oral sex (fellatio and cunnilingus) and the Victorian attitudes that inform certain cultures that make up the British Muslim population has meant that it is rarely dealt with decisively, pragmatically, and with some logic. It can be understandably frustrating when we have to deal with things repeatedly that should have been settled long ago. In my interactions I have found that even the critics of oral sex themselves do not recognise how they impose regressive attitudes on shar’ī discourse and the nature of the bizarre reasoning to justify it, nor the ambiguous nature of answers they give because they become prudish in a public setting.

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Studying Īmān over Aqīdah

5 min read

The last post provides the perspective I intend when discussing the study of īmān over aqīdah here.

What aqīdah study largely denotes today is polemic debate about scholarly positions on abstract intellectual musings, usually centred around the nature of God and the unseen. It obsesses over “tradition” in a way that’s meaningless to the everyday emotional, cognitive and psychological stability all humans require. In most circles, aqīdah points are weaponised to become social markers and police batons rather than a means of inciting reverent awe of God, subservience to Him, and righteous actions for Him. Hence, it tends to inspire little more than argumentation, sectarianism, and quite ironically, a type of secularisation that places faith in the realm of the abstract rather than an inspiring, stabilising and productive lived experience.

So, (1) how does one study īmān and (2) what does exploring īmān do?

1. There are three particular aspects to studying īmān: (1) learning what īmān is, (2) exploring how to cultivate īmān, and (3) learning about the things God wants us to have īmān in.

This is NOT a linear process from 1-3, but an ongoing/perpetual process throughout life, with each point interlinked with the others. For example: God has ordained īmān in angels, but what are angels (3), what does it mean to have īmān in angels (1), and what does īmān in angels afford us (2)?

As you might recognise, aqīdah loosely fits into point (3) but because a more holistic īmānic approach is missing (points 1 and 2) the purpose of point 3 is lost and with an argumentative nature God speaks about (18:54) most fall into a mentality that induces juvenile bickering leading to a toxic state. The irony is that God cautions against this, informing us about earlier believers from the Children of Israel: “We gave them clear proof in matters [of religion]. They differed among themselves out of mutual rivalry, only after knowledge came to them…” (45:17) We often refer back to the sunnah and the early years of Islam, and everyone makes sophisticated claims. Yet their ‘aqidah’ was to simply to learn īmān and reverent subservience. As Jundub b. Abdullah reported, “We learned faith before we learned the Quran, then we learned the Quran and it strengthened our faith.” (Ibn Majah) In this way, ‘fiqh’ was practical - to seek optimum outcomes within an ethical framework, and ‘sunnah’ was Madinan social culture and civility fostered by the Prophet.

2. Īmān, first and foremost, provides humans with cognitive, emotional and psychological stability. It’s not merely what we think or affirm but something we deeply internalise that provides a lens with which to evaluate the world, and a compass guiding us in the right direction. It provides cognitive structures that helps you to intuitively evaluate everything you hear and see, builds resilience for a host of situations, and meaningfully connects you to your Creator.

“Well, surely the laity don’t have to do away with aqīdah – can’t they just do what they’re doing and incorporate īmān?”

The problem here is that:

a) Aqīdah is an aspect of the study of īmān and not the other way around - primacy lies with the latter, so to incorporate īmān into aqīdah instead of the other way around will inevitably lead to a misconceptualisation. Having an īmānic approach means you avoid being polemic and reactionary and opt for the inspirational, strengthening rabbāniyyah (godliness) and war’a (piety).

b) The aqīdah paradigm has become so entrenched that to expect change in any reasonable timeframe is simply unrealistic. For the sake of our salvation, we need to start again, differently, and at the beginning.

Please note:

  • I acknowledge that some teach aqīdah in a way that might equate to what I mean about teaching īmān here.
  • This discussion concerns the laity and everyday faith. As such, these are thoughts that do not intend the context of training to become a theologian, or the need to study theology for academic (in both shar’ī and non-shar’ī settings) purposes. I’m talking about the teaching and learning aqīdah to be a ‘good Muslim’.

Is it permissible to drink standing?

For many Muslims, the notion of drinking standing up is taboo, and many of us have been witness to those who, believing they have to sit down whilst drinking or think they’ll be looked down on if they don’t, awkwardly squat on the ground (often in the middle of a public space!) just to take a few sips. Is this awkward practice what the Prophet intended?

Not at all, and even besides a holistic reading of revelation (which I’ll present shortly) common-sense reasoning tells us that such a practice isn’t exactly becoming of a believer and noble behaviour which the Prophet upholds.

Now some will reductively relate the hadith in Sahih Muslim (by Anas, Abu Hurairah and Sa’eed al-Khudri) that the Prophet forbade drinking whilst standing. But this is the reductive approach I often refer to, since the analysis doesn’t quite end there.

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Are women allowed to cut their hair 'short'?

It is perfectly legitimate for a Muslim woman to cut her hair short. Abu Salamah b. Abd al-Rahman narrates: “The wives of the Prophet used to cut their hair until it came just below their ears.” (Muslim) However, the Prophet forbade women from shaving their heads (al-Tirmidhi). Where the shar'i maxim goes that a thing is permitted unless there's a prohibition that states otherwise, cutting one's hair to varying lengths is fine as long as it is not shaved off.

The rest of this article summarily discusses some important points for consideration:

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