Are Muslims the chosen people?

There was a time when the Children of Israel were the chosen people of God (2:47) and the special status, beginning with Abraham, continued up until Christ (2:124). Thereafter, specific people/nations/ethnicities were favoured no more, and instead, divine favour fell upon those committed to revelation. The Prophet informed: “God has a cohort (like close family) from amongst mankind…They are the people of the Qur’an, they are God’s people and His elect.” (Ahmad, Ibn Majah)

God himself told us,

We gave the scripture as a heritage to Our chosen servants…
Qur'an 35:32

I understand that for many people, this sounds like one of those generic posts, ones that often tell us to simply utter a portion of the Qur'an (whilst not understanding it) and that somehow we’ll all then be special. As I’ve shown elsewhere, this is not true and neither revelation itself nor the intellect attests to this.

I also sympathise with the view, although rarely acknowledged, that many regard the Qur’an as just too simple to provide answers/guidance/solutions to most things in isolation, and thus they don’t derive much out of it because they subconsciously regard it as too simple or generic (as abstract theological statements). In their limited experiences, when they see the Qur'an discussed at some depth its overly academic and directly irrelevant to everyday life. The latter point is also why people then practice Islam (or see religious interpretation) in the abstract as well. And where things are more grassroots, preachers seek to get people to go through religious motions rather than meaningfully engage with God ritualising everything, and whilst intentions may be sincere, such an approach is clearly misinformed.

Again, whilst I sympathise, I’m saying that simply calling yourself a Muslim or affirming abstract theological sentiments doesn’t make you ‘chosen’ or special. Going through motions might keep you out of trouble, but that isn’t what God ultimately intended from his guidance (and it’s a very low bar to set). Subservience (the verbal noun of aslama) is a lived phenomenon and only God’s word describes how to live it. Many rely on perpetually changing currents to give their lives value and meaning. This is a grave mistake, and like the many (eventually) informed believers I meet inform me (many of them activists), a lot of time is wasted and little personally achieved.

Fads come and go, social/religious causes build traction and fade away, ideologies catch hold and are discarded, nations rise and fall. But the living God, Creator and Sustainer of all is ever-present and eternal, and so too are His words. No matter the state of a perpetually changing world, the Most High and His guidance shall remain relevant, and the same can be said of absolutely nothing else.

Debaters, social media personalities, religious celebrities, young sectarian zealots all have their moment - in the vast majority of cases, it all dies out and they grow older getting on with their personal lives. In the end it is those who never sought such things, but simply a commitment to decency, righteous conduct, and an engagement with revelation: living it, teaching it, and advocating it, that ultimately endure and prove their utility until the very end. Have you heard of anyone except advocates of what God has revealed still proving their utility to believers into their 70s, 80s or 90s? Be from those people, from their gatherings, their cohorts, their active supporters and their circles. Don’t wait to figure this out until years down the line. Think maturely and be an early bird.

Is it not time for believers to humble their hearts to the remembrance of God and the Truth that has been revealed, and not to be like those who received the Scripture before them, whose time was extended but whose hearts hardened and many of whom were disobedient?
Qur'an 57:16

May God guide us all and aid us to be inspired to be His elect.

“Good luck!” (Is saying it haram?)

I have been increasingly asked whether the widespread expression ‘good luck’ is impermissible to use, and whilst I was initially surprised that it was even a topic of debate, I could empathise that the godly might be anxious when told that it is impermissible, based on the notion that luck is based on chance, and that it is God who determines all things - things do not happen outside the decree of the Most High.

But does the term ‘good luck’ denote or even infer a rejection of God’s decree? And must God’s power of decree be made explicit in all linguistic expressions?

Not really.

A brief explanation:

‘Good luck’ is merely an expression in the English language which confers the hope of success and advantageous outcome. Any inference beyond these simply depends on who is saying it. To assume anything more from this expression would be linguistic incompetence and unfamiliarity with how phrases or expressions inherently work. To misappropriate the English to impose upon it Islamic theology is misplaced. Yes, the expression can be intended to mean the desire for success as a random consequence, but nobody uses it with this staunchly intended meaning. In fact it’s simply a shortened way to say: "I hope it goes well."

Expressions are not simply the literal meanings of words that have been put together, they usually take on a different meaning. "He’s the bomb!", "What’s up?", "bee in a bonnet", "whatever the weather" etc. are all expressions that move beyond any literal meaning of the individual words. Furthermore, like with any linguistic term, in any language, it is about the meaning and intent inherent within the phrase. And where a word or phrase can synonymously mean several things, context dictates how it is taken.

In Arabic, there are a number of expressions that intimate what a Muslim would mean by good luck, one that is widespread is "bil-tawfiq". Now the expression literally means: to bring together in agreement. Where a Muslim might say it as an empathetic expression, it suggests the desire for God to facilitate good, but without explicit mention of God. In explaining 11:88, Al-Qurtubi put it that Tawfiq is al-rushd, that is, to be advantageously subjected to God’s agency, which is inherently what believers mean when they say ‘good luck’ in English. Notably, the expression isn’t a supplication, and I have never met (nor heard of) a scholar who opined that rather than saying bil-tawfiq one ought to make an explicit supplication - in fact to make this point would probably be considered quite sanctimonious. But as we see with a number of (inflated) issues in the west, self-righteous indignation often becomes the norm.

Another word that might be loosely translated as luck (with cognisance of God’s agency) is hadzh الحظ which literally means share or lot. It means, where used to denote advantage, to get a good share or lot of good outcomes. This word, amongst other places, appears at the end of 28:79, where God tells us that ‘those whose aim was the life of this world said, “If only we had been given something like what Qarun has been given: he really is a very fortunate man.”’

Likewise, we use terms such as fortunately and unfortunately, all of which could as equally be argued to denote fortune, i.e. luck. Even where it might be argued that these are being used in the descriptive sense, that is in looking back at a situation and describing it, the notion of luck (or lack of it) remains. There are also prescriptive forms, such as "it would be fortunate if…" To my knowledge, no one seems to have qualms with such a statement because they intuitively understand what is meant, without the etymological pedantry that is unreflective of popular usage. Going even further, one could argue that we shouldn’t include the word pig in guinea pig because a pig is impure which isn’t true of a guinea pig, and so on. The point is very simple, and as the Hanbali usuli Sulaiman al-Tufi put it, ‘words are not intended for their own sake, but to manifest meanings.’

Beyond expressions or phrases, there are also words, such as coincidence, which holds a plethora of connotations, and could denote randomness although no Muslim seeks to negate God’s agency when using it. When a believer uses the term coincidence, he merely means that it seems human agency seemingly had little to do with something, whilst affirming all things to be determined by Allah. In fact, Muslim usage of the term might be held as an affirmation of qadr (divine decree) and an expression of its wondrous nature, that God’s will came to pass in a way that was entirely removed from human intent.

When a believer says ‘good luck’ they simply express a hope for success, fully aware that success or failure is determined by God. In essence, the sentiment is: ‘I hope for your success’ with the ellipsis that "may God make it happen".

But wouldn’t it simply be better to make a supplication, such as ‘May God give you success’?

Not necessarily. It is perfectly valid to express empathy (and well wishing) to someone in a linguistic form that isn’t supplicatory. For example, there are several hadith in which the Prophet expressed his hope that a sahabi would attain membership of a given successful cohort, saying: "and I hope you will be from amongst them" and evidently felt little linguistic need to make clear in that moment the he hoped that it was God who would decree such a thing. Given that it was the Prophet saying it, the godly sentiment would be obvious, just as when a believer says good luck, the same would be assumed to be true.

Another relevant case study might be the prophetic compellation (as related by Ibn Abbas) to the sickly, "Not to worry, a purification - if God wills it." (al-Bukhari) It might be argued that the ending here denotes that it must be ascribed to God. However, some points to consider:

  1. The statement "Not to worry, a purification" presents as descriptive and so would have been taken by the sahabi as informative. However, the Prophet wasn’t informing him that it had occurred but expressing a hope, so by including "if God wills it" the Prophet made clear that it was a hope (i.e. non-grammatically supplicative), and not an inevitable occurrence.
  2. It is also telling that "Not to worry, a purification" meant that Prophet did not need to spell out that Allah was the source of that purification, that through the illness it was God that forgave sin. Again, the sentiment coming from a believer, and especially the messenger of God, made that clear.

Is it better to stay away from saying ‘good luck’ out of caution? Well, only for the one in doubt. If one isn’t in doubt, then there is nothing to be cautious about. Thus, if a person prefers not to use the phrase then that is perfectly fine, but to pontificate to others or to inaccurately evangelise on its impermissibility is severely misplaced.

I'm aware that I've delved far too deeply into this, granting a trivial issue more than it is worth. However, I have done so to demonstrate how simple issues can spiral out of control when some get “a bee in their bonnet” (another non-literal expression!) over something that really isn’t that deep, and going over the top by making it great cause for debate. This issue is a good example of the Prophetic caution, "The most criminal of Muslims are those who enquire into those things that haven’t been made haram, but then become haram because of their excessive questioning." (al-Bukhari and Muslim)

To say or not to say ‘good luck’ really isn’t that deep. But if you would like some brain food, read up on meaning in the philosophy of language, and sections on الألفاظ والمعاني in usul al-fiqh.

And God knows all.

Convert or Revert?

In the English language, the noun convert refers to a person who has changed his/her faith. The word revert has no theological connotation; it isn't used as a noun and as a verb simply means to return to a previous state. Applying it to those who submit to God and accept the prophethood of His final messenger is not only a linguistic aberration, but also theologically incorrect. It is essentially an unsound understanding of shar’ī sources.

Here are a few brief reasons:

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"What is the ruling on…?” or "What's the strongest opinion…?”

Often, when lay people ask this question they assume there's simply one objective answer. For those that do, here are some considerations:

This question usually concerns fiqh issues, the vast majority of which are open to sound interpretations (i.e. within certain parameters). On the majority of issues any response will not be definitive as there will be a number of valid opinions (i.e. ways of looking at it). So when you ask "what is the ruling on x?" what you're actually getting at is: "what is your opinion on what God might have said on x?" So generally, when someone is asking about a ruling on an issue they're seeking the scholar's insight and view on what God might be saying about a specific scenario. One of the reasons fiqh has become so polarising (whilst it wasn't so in earlier times) is because of fundamental mistakes people make in understanding the nature of fiqh and what jurists actually do.

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Hijab, male scholars and society

When a male scholar speaks of the hijab, there can often be the retort that men shouldn’t be telling women how to dress. Yet there is both truth and mistruth to such sentiments (as with many other things in Islam these days). Normatively, scholars do not tell women how to dress, or what to wear, but what God would have them cover (i.e. awrah). Some pretenders might use a platform to obsess over women’s clothing or pursue some form of cultural hegemony, but that must not negate that it is the job of Islamic jurists, both men and women, to study the will of God on a range of issues, including the shar’i dictates around bodily exposure. There are shar’i guidelines pertaining to the amount both men and women ought to cover, and the nature of that covering - but that doesn’t dictate that colour, cultural representation, or design of such covering. Let us remember that in the same way as male scholars, female scholars might also point out what men ought to be covering.

Whilst feminists might focus concertedly on deconstructing gender, seeing it as the product of illegitimate patriarchal structures, clearly God marked out differences such as what is considered the awrah for men and women. On this there is also the issue of terminology which I believe to be useful:

  • The head covering is generally referred to as a khimar.
  • The entire face covering (including the eyes) is a burqa’. That which covers the mouth and nose is a niqab.
  • The body covering is a jilbab which is legitimately understood or interpreted in various ways. An abaya is not a synonym for jilbab nor a divinely stipulated representation, it is a cloak worn in the Arabian peninsula and refers to both the cloaks Arab men and women wear. Thus for the Arab women of the Arabian peninsula - it is a particular cultural expression of the jilbab.

So what is the hijab? It is a state of covering appropriate to shar’i standards. That means that it is not limited to merely covering the head but describes the entire way a women covers. For example, if a Muslim woman dons a khimar along with a miniskirt, we cannot justifiably male the shar'i claim that she is in hijab. For a woman to be in hijab means for her to withhold her entire awrah from those who may not be permitted to see it.

In the Qur'an, God says concerning the Prophet, “When you ask his wives for something, do so from behind a hijab” (33:53) Clearly, it does not mean from behind a 'head covering' (as it wouldn’t logically be possible, nor make much linguistic sense). A hadith that comes to mind that contextualises this is found in the sahihain where Sa’d b. Abi Waqqas and Abd b. Zum’ah disputed over whom a young man belonged to (as a family member). In the context of the hadith, and at the end the event, the Prophet told his wife in regards to the boy, "واحتجبي منه يا سودة" meaning: “Hijab from him, Sauda.” The statement of the prophet shows that it wasn’t merely a statement to don a khimar but her general outward covering would subsequently treat the young man as a non-mahram.

A side point, and one the majority of western Muslims I’m sure are fully cognisant of, is that it's juvenile to assert that non-Muslim women who do not wear a khimar or jilbab, or those in jeans and a t-shirt etc to be ‘naked’, not only is it an extreme exaggeration that absolutely fails to reflect reality but also a considerably lame attempt to assert moral superiority in a very misplaced way. The way most non-Muslim women dress in public is the way Muslim women dress away from non-mahrams; can it be said that they’re all naked amongst one another! Yes, there are general understandings of indecent exposure, and by societal norms there are variant degrees to covering: extensive to minimal, conservative, (in)appropriate (for certain contexts), provocative, indecent, and so on. Whilst not everyone will agree precisely where the line is to be drawn between all of these (as will tend to be the case with most norms in all societies), cultural capital in wider society tends to inform us of the generalities. Only ignorant, insular, and insecure people tend to resort to such hyperbole. Believers are far more intelligent and civil.

On occasion, I'm particularly forthcoming in challenging the “hijab (or niqab) is my Muslim identity” narrative - we find such expressions nowhere in the Qur'an nor in the sunnah. But that is not to undermine that God the Most High has ordained the hijab. It is to counterbalance fickle narratives on Islam and Muslim identity, as well the overarching obsession found in the statements and books of clerics that erroneously and absolutely reduce a woman’s piety and contribution to communal faith down to covering. Often this has an adverse effect to the one intended where Muslim women are perversely sexualised, since they are primarily seen through the lens of sexual provocation rather than free intelligent believers.

Reforming the sharia? A misplaced idea

The reason any discussion of reforming the shariah is misplaced is because the statement assumes the shariah to be an entirely static construct. We do not need reform, but where we might be struggling is with a real-time application considerate of all variables. The issue is that for all of the talk of implementing of shariah, we hypothesise what the shariah might look like, and even when many western Muslims speak of contemporary application they merely resolve to focus on the Middle East.

But what is being overlooked is the manifestation of the shariah that is principled on what God wants, and moral directives in the context of being western Muslims. It's not just about the shariah but how its values inform our discussions and offers meaningful ways to react, suggest and progress.

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Jinn possession and scholarly opinions. Part 5

In short, what I’ve presented in this very brief series summarises the nucleus of the debate, and other things said about the issue tend to be complimentary or tangential. Along with scriptural sources and people’s experiences, a major topic that crops up is what scholars have had to say. What I’d like to put forward here about the view of scholars of the past is that many of them are not actually saying much of what’s claimed.

For example, some cite al-Qurtubi’s views on 2:275 which I covered in the post on the Qur’an, but as I highlighted (in the post on hadith), drawing on the sources holistically scholars concluded that jinn could penetrate the body to add potency to their whispers, not that the devil would penetrate the body to take it over and appropriate human autonomy. This is what Ibn Taymiyyah’s statement that “the leaders of Ahlussunnah agree that the jinns’ penetration of the human body is valid” was referring to in Majmu’ al-Fataawa, or Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari’s explanation (if we can soundly ascribe the Maqalaat to him) that “Ahlussunnah say that the jinn may penetrate the body of the afflicted.”

As for whether jinns take over a person’s limbs or intellect, then yes, Ibn Taymiyyah might have personally sympathised with this view but it’s one he noticeably doesn’t go on to ascribe to the leaders of Ahlussunnah instead reasoning it as an empirical fact (which I’ve asserted is incorrect in the ‘experiences’ post), saying: “it is something witnessed and felt for those who contemplate it.” The fact is, the view doesn’t seem to have been greatly held nor explicitly addressed in the way we do today. Yes, al-Qurtubi saw it as causing epilepsy, but think about it, even from al-Qurtubi’s point of view: causation is clearly not the same as taking over the body to pretend it has epilepsy! Many scholars of Ahlussunnah, past and present, have explicitly discussed the capabilities of devils, affirming from one perspective that their physical constitution allows them to be able to pass through a human body (and other things) but that their power (sultan) over humans is limited to waswasah (whispers). For clarity, there are two separate/distinct theological issues here:

1) that the faint physical constitution of jinns (like air) allows them to move through small crevices, including those within the human body;

2) that the power (sultan) jinns have is limited to waswasah/whispers, i.e. the power of suggestion (and not possession).

What has always surprised me, beyond how such matters have been conflated, is how people get away with an appeal to scholars that tends to rest on just a couple of names perceived to be in favour of possession. Although there are many scholars we're at liberty to cite, from whom we might infer a dismissal of the view, I’ll provide just a few here for some balance. I’ve chosen these luminaries because I believe that collectively they speak to the majority of British Sunni Muslims:

1. Ibn Hazm not only dismissed the idea of jinn possession explicitly, referring to it as a superstition (kharafaat), but held that “such things are not possible (i.e they don’t fall for it) except to the weak minds of the elderly…that he (the devil) can speak using someone’s tongue is senility and clear insanity; we seek protection in God from deception and affirming superstitions.”

2. Al-Tahawi’s commentary on previously cited hadiths in Mushkil al-Athaar resolutely puts it that the influence of the jinn on humans is limited to the power of suggestion through waswasah (whispers) saying, “The only thing people were commanded to do is seek protection from the devil against the power (sultan) he has over them which is waswasah (whispers) that incite an adoration for evil and a dislike of good…” Ibn al-Qayyim provides a similar commentary for the same hadith on cursing the devil in Zaad al-Ma’ad.

3. Al-Razi, the imam of kalam/Ash’arism/tafsir/fiqh/usul pretty much seems to suggest the same as al-Tahawi in his al-Tafsir al-Kabir, affirming that the physical constitution of jinns allows them to be able to pass through a human body (and other things) but that their power (sultan) over humans is whisperings. The latter point is seemingly further advocated where he explores two opinions that people hold on the devil’s touch suffered by the Prophet Job, with an emphasised exploration of the view that “the devil has absolutely no ability to confer diseases or painful afflictions.”

4. In more modern times, Ibn Ashur also holds to the Quranic narrative that limits the influence of the jinn to waswasah in Tahrir wa Tanwir, and in his explanation interprets the oft-cited hadiths consistently in that context.

In the same vein, there’s a final point that stoutly needs to be corrected about the Mu’tazilah, which also exposes the ignorance of those who engage in bad faith. As I wrote, those today who charge interlocutors with Mu'tazilism (in nearly every matter) know absolutely nothing about the scholarly tradition of the Mu'tazilah. On this matter, Qadi Abdul Jabbar, an imam of the Mu’tazilah, sympathised with Ahlussunnah’s view that jinns might be able to traverse a human body, stating that “if what we have argued about the faint constitution of the jinn and that their constitution is like air is correct, then it is not inconceivable that they may enter our bodies just as air or repeated breaths do.” Other Mu’tazilis didn’t even get to the point of dismissing possession per se since they erroneously believed that scriptural references to jinns were metaphorical and that jinns don’t exist in reality. What I’m highlighting here is that essentialising Mu’tazili opinion to deploy the fallacy of association (“this is just Mu’tazili!”) is plain ignorant. To add to this is the obvious point that not all of what the Mu’tazilis held was wrong - as if they got nothing right!

Whilst the aversion of early scholars towards the Mu’tazilah began as theological, the aversion quickly included legitimate political grievances towards them. This grievance was carried by later generations into a wider theological setting where misconceptualisations of many Mu’tazili views became essentialised and entrenched, with the group conveniently employed as theological bogeymen. Where some later medieval scholars would disparage the alleged views of the Mu’tazilah, it wasn’t always the case that the Mu’tazilah homogeneously held those views, if at all. In case someone misses the point here, I’m not launching a defence of the Mu’tazilah but highlighting how scholarship requires diligence when unpacking claims/assertions, let alone resorting to juvenile tactics.

Having said all this, I hope what I have presented in this series is clear and coherent. There are many British Muslims who do not really believe in possession (and other superstitions), but due to the militant way in which many advocates behave, most are intimidated into outward submission. If people want to believe in possessions then that's their (unhealthy) prerogative, but we'll not leave believers to be intimidated into accepting superstitions that are impediments to good health and faith, and opportunistically abused by pretenders.

May God guide us all to what is upright and beneficial for both abodes.

What to make of 'Jinn possession' claims. Part 4

When it comes to talking about whether jinn possession is real and a valid belief, often people will cite their experiences.

Here are some points to consider:

1. The purpose of theologians is to establish what God has told us. The theological validity of something is not established by what people feel or any other emotions. Claiming you've experienced something is of course your perogative, but we must recognise that it's not a theological argument, and has no evidentiary authority for claims about the unseen.

2. Experiences are a matter of perception, which is subjective. I'm not saying that people haven't experienced something but what they make of it is a matter of interpretation. It's logical that where a person has never been introduced to the notion of jinn possession, it's not an explanation s/he'd fall on - and as I've very briefly covered, the Islamic sources (nusus shar'iyyah) cannot be credibly taken that way. Many people claim things: some Hindus will claim they're touched by one (or more) of their gods, some Christians claim Jesus has spoken to them or that they've received the holy spirit. Some Muslims will visit shrines and claim to be literally "visited" by the dead saint buried there. And yes, tens of thousands (if not millions!) from each faith and tradition have made such claims, so based on claim and/or numbers, does that validate their interpretation of what they experienced? Of course not, and inherently their interpretation of an experience is shaped by their pre-conceived beliefs and ideas. A study (with limitations) offers some insight here. Now this is not to say that devils do absolutely nothing - as I've already stated (as so too have many other scholars past and present) the Qur'an explicitly refers to "touch" /المس - in the form of whispers (which everyone agrees on), but these whispers of a metaphysical nature do not in any way strip an individual of their autonomy. It's simply not in the remit of the devil (see 14:22).

3. It's an irresistible fact that only the people who believe in possession seem to experience it and interpret events in that way, just like only Hindus feel Shiva or Christians feel Jesus/holy spirit (and to argue that those who dismiss the idea also do but they don't know it is an incredibly weak assertion). One of the things the Hasanat saga reveals is that sincere souls were duped into believing that Hasanat was relieving them of the jinn that had supposedly possessed them. Think about it, as the result of Hasanat's so-called ruqyah, an agnostic non-Muslim who didn't even believe in what he was doing and really just putting on a show, many of his patients felt the jinn possessing them had been exorcised. Either we accept that it was all a scam that relied on a mistaken belief in possession, or we accept that non-Muslim exorcism (and/or ruqyah by a non-Muslim as a form of ibadah) is valid and works. If you assert that maybe they were mistaken in their belief that they were possessed, then how do we ascertain when a person is actually possessed as oppose to a misdiagnosis? If you assert that maybe the jinn didn't leave but pretended to, then what you're suggesting is that we should accept their claims that they were possessed, but we shouldn't accept their claims that they were relieved of that possession by a non-Muslim. You cannot have it both ways, and if you try to, then it's clear confirmation bias.

4. "But I witnessed the jinn, my friend/family (etc) spoke a language they didn't even know / spoke in a voice I didn't recognise!" Such phenomena have been widely documented amongst all types of people (usually following some trauma) including non-Muslims who dismiss the idea that the jinn actually exist. Foreign accent syndrome and polyglot aphasia are specific conditions that come to mind, but the explanation you opt for will rely a lot on your preconceived ideas - and as I've covered, the Islamic sources cannot be compellingly read as offering an explanation that rests on jinn possession.

5. In my anecdotal experience and having spoken to literally hundreds of people about their 'possession' experiences over the years, the way in which they describe what's happened always discloses how their preconceived ideas shaped their perception of the actual event. When I've probed into exactly what's occurred, it's been clear to see that the event could be taken a number of ways. What one learns pretty quickly in the realm of religious ministry is that for most people, religion doesn't run on reason but on emotion. People follow their instincts and backfill arguments to fit them.

Is Jinn possession established in the Sunnah? Part 3

Again, nowhere near.

Here I'll briefly deal with the most significant hadith cited in favour of possession. The aim is to make clear how the interpretation of particular hadith to establish that jinns take control of humans where the soul loses cognitive and physical autonomy is either a misunderstanding of the hadith, exceedingly far-fetched and weak, and in some cases relies on ambiguous wording - all of which is an illegitimate way to establish what is meant to be a theological imperative. As I've stated, I'm not dealing with the entirety of the subject but the popular arguments made for possession.

Here are some of the most cited hadith used for jinn possession, with very brief comments:

1. Hadith of Ibn Abbas (al-Bukhari and Muslim) about a women suffering from seizures who came to the Prophet and said: "I suffer from seizures and I become exposed, so call on God for me." The Prophet replied: 'If you want, you can be patient and you'll have paradise, or if you want I can call on God to cure you." She responded: "I'll have patience...but call on God that I do not become exposed." The discussion on possession arises because in another narration she blames the devil for her exposure. Yet in that narration she does not ascribe the seizures to the devil and neither does the Prophet. Furthermore, we almost certainly know that the Prophet didn't view the seizures as the works of the devil for it is inconceivable that a believer would come to the Prophet complaining about the devil whom the Prophet could effortlessly ward off, yet would consciously allow the devil to persist and instead tell the believer to have patience with him, not even encouraging her to take refuge in God as per his advice to others (in keeping with 41:36). This is an important hadith as it explicitly relates how the Prophet saw a seizure, clearly he viewed it as a physiological problem which God poses to test human patience and godly resolve (indicated by his response in the story). Not only is it far-fetched to interpret this hadith as evidence of jinn possession, it's counter-productive as it establishes the opposite!

2. Hadith of Uthman b. Aas al-Thaqafi (Sahih Muslim) whom the Prophet told to lead his people in prayer. He responded "I find something within me." The Prophet placed his hand on his chest and back and then said: "Lead your people in prayer, and the one who does so should lighten it for amongst them are the old, the sick..." What he felt within him, as al-Nawawi points out in his commentary of Sahih Muslim, is the whisperings of the devil that sought to confuse him. This is made evident by the other narration in al-Bukhari and Muslim, where he says to the Prophet: "The devil comes between me and my recitation, confusing me." The Prophet responded: "That is the devil Khanzab. So if you feel him (trying to confuse you), seek refuge in God from him..." With what is consistent with waswasah, the Prophet instructed him to seek refuge in God, acting on the verse: "If Satan should prompt you to do something, seek refuge with God." (7:200, 41:36) It is extremely unsound to interpret the event as Uthman being possessed by the devil. (The narration in Ibn Majah is problematic as it contradicts narrations far more sound than it, and its various chains include weak narrators or those known for munkar narrations.)

3. Hadith of Safiyyah b. Huyay (al-Bukhari and Muslim), the noble wife of the Prophet, who visited the Prophet whilst he was in I'tikaf. The Prophet said to two Companions who noticed him walking her home later that night and feared that they may misunderstand the affair: "The devil runs in the veins of Adam, and I feared that he would plant something in your hearts." Some scholars took the statement concerning the devil running through the veins of Adam literally, others took it figuratively. I think the context strongly suggests that "the devil runs in the veins of Adam" was meant as a figuritive expression. However, the key point here is that the Prophet doesn't say that he fears the devil will possess them, but clearly refers to the devil's planting of ill-thoughts in their hearts - waswasah.

A very important point to note is that it was mainly this hadith led scholars to conclude that the devil can enter the body - NOT to possess the human but simply to get closer to the heart/brain where the devil's whispers would be even more potent. This was the position of scholars who advocated that the devil could penetrate the body (i.e. to have more potency), not that the devil would penetrate the body to take over and appropriate human autonomy. Those who advocate possession and draw on classical scholars completely misunderstand what the vast majority of those scholars were actually saying!

4. Hadith of Ya'la b. Murrah (Musnad Ahmad and others) about a young boy who had seemingly been afflicted with insanity. The Prophet said to him: "Get out enemy of God, I am the Prophet of God!" The particular narration often cited in Musnad Ahmad is weak having a broken chain (munqati') although there are numerous corroborating narrations, the acceptability of which have been debated by muhaddithin, some of whom have deemed them reliable. Even if we were to accept the narration, it does not tell us that the boy was possessed, nor does it clarify what the Prophet was referring to. He may have been speaking to the affliction itself, or conceivably, speaking to a devil hiding within the boy to get closer to the heart/brain where the devil's whispers would be even more potent (as explained in point 3). Also note that the Prophet didn't perform ruqyah for possession as has become the habit today, but commanded departure - and of exactly what he intended, we cannot be certain. (In a hadith of Ibn Abbas, agreed to be a fiction by all muhaddithin, a mouse jumped out of the boy's mouth!) Asserting this inconclusive narration as the basis for substantiating a theological imperative is simply absurd by any standard of religious reasoning and theology construction, especially when the interpretation contradicts the Quranic narrative.

The next post addresses what we're to make of people's experiences.

Is Jinn possession established in the Qur'an? Part 2

Nowhere near.

Here I'll briefly deal with the most significant verse cited in favour of possession (2:275). The aim is to make clear how the interpretation of verses that try to establish that jinns take control of humans where the soul loses cognitive and physical autonomy is exceedingly far-fetched and weak, and misunderstands what's been said by scholars of the past. I'm not dealing with the entirety of the subject but the popular arguments made for possession.

The MOST cited Quranic evidence for jinn possession, and the strongest according to its advocates, is the following verse:

But those who consume usury will rise up like someone tormented/driven insane by the devil’s touch.
Qur'an 2:275

This verse refers to the resurrection of those who practice usury, who shall come back to life behaving like someone who is insane. al-Qurtubi explains this behaviour as caused by the usury weighing heavily down on their stomachs (from its consumption) which causes the usurer to continously lose balance and fall over thus resembling someone crazy. The verse led scholars to explore the nature of the statement that God made in 2:275: was it literal or figuritive? If it's literal, can a devil merely touch someone to cause epilepsy? Given that the verse is related to the afterlife, and if it's taken literally, does it only refer to interactions between humans and devils in the afterlife? On all of these al-Qurtubi records the variant views. But what the scholars were NOT discussing was whether jinns take control of humans personally.

Explaining the devil's "touch"

1. The verse clearly refers to touch, NOT autonomy-losing possession. In a desperate bid to make the verse about possession, some draw on al-Qurtubi's 11-12th points of commentary (on 2:275) where he discusses how the touch of the devil can afflict a person. To be clear: al-Qurtubi is often misrepresented here - he doesn't say jinns take control of humans where the soul loses cognitive and physical autonomy. He claims that the touch causes a seizure, going on to define "touch" as the cause of insanity (junun) and NOT a jinn inside of a human pretending to be insane. al-Qurtubi then goes on to express two contentions:
a) with those who dismiss epilesy as being caused by the jinn, claiming that epilepsy is a physiological phenomenon (and not a supernatural one), and;
b) with those that claim the devil cannot traverse the human body, and that no such "touch" ever occurs.
Now the idea that epilepsy is simply a supernatural phenomenon is one nobody legitimately accepts today. However I sympathise with his second contention (which I'll explain in a later post).

2. Some draw on Ibn Taymiyyah's claim to consensus, somthing I'll deal with later on. However, according to Ibn Taymiyyah's (et al) interpretational principles, the strongest form of tafsir is to understand the Qur'an by means of the Qur'an itself (تفسير القران بالقران), i.e. an inter-textual analysis. So in this vein, if we look at God's use of the "devil's touch" elsewhere in the Qur'an, what might we strongly conclude? That "touch" refers to the whispers (waswasah) of the devil. Being touched by devils is to be subjected to their whispers (i.e figuratively touched by them) which either incite you to disobedience or misguidance, or draw on vulnerable emotions to push you over the edge.

3. For an inter-textual analysis: the most significant and detailed verses on the devil's touch are:

Those who are aware of God think of Him when the touch of Satan prompts them to do something and immediately they can see [straight]; the followers of devils are led relentlessly into error by them and cannot stop.
Qur'an 7:202-204

The verses simply tell us that God-conscious people think of God and seek refuge in him when the touch of Satan prompts them to do something. Here God relates the devil's touch as being his misguidance - by remembering God and seeking refuge in Him, they overcome a touch that leads others (followers of devils, or literally "their brothers") who don't remember God into error (الغي). Interestingly, al-Qurtubi doesn't repeat his contentions here, and considering views variant to his own without disparagement, cites Abu Ja'far al-Nuhas who said that "touch" refers to the devil's whispers. Understanding the "devil's touch" in the Quranic context is really that simple.

4. But to briefly add to this, another notable reference to "devil's touch" concerns the Prophet Job who cried out to his Lord: "Satan has touched me with weariness and suffering.’" (38:41) This verse creates a double-edged dilemma for advocates of possession. If they use it literally it helps in the argument that the devil can cause physical suffering, but taking it literally also means that it's through touch and NOT possession. Even if they had found a way around this dilemma (which they haven't), would they have the temerity to suggest that the Prophet of God Job was possessed, and thus open to be inspired, by the devil?! If the devil had such power, especially over Prophets, it'd be the end of truth and monotheism!

So what did Job actually say?

The Arabic phrase can be taken in a number of ways depending on the 'ba' (preposition). Grammatically, we may take it as the devil's touch causing Job's suffering, OR it can be taken as the devil's waswasah which exploited Job's suffering and vulnerability in an attempt to misguide him. For many reasons, it seems that the most reasonable and consistent way (inter-textually) to take his statement is that the devil would whisper to him using his vulnerabilities to incite him against God. To provide a couple:

- The context of Job's story: the devil believed he could misguide Job and turn him away from God. Throughout the Qur'an the term "touch" can be consistently understood as waswasah, which the Quran tells us is through "whispers into the hearts of people" (114:4) with "no power over you except to call you." (14:22) Notably, it's related (in the Isra'iliyaat and by Muslim historians) that the devil appeared to Job as an old man suggesting that God was ignoring his supplications and prayers.

- With what is consistent with waswasah, Job's reaction (as 38:41 illustrates) was to seek refuge in God. Thus he acted as God expects: "If Satan should prompt you to do something, seek refuge with God." (7:200, 41:36)

[Note: some exegetes merely considered it godly etiquette that Job ascribed the harm to the devil since it is inappropriate to ascribe negative things to God.]

Now as I've said, this is a very short treatment of the most significant verse cited in favour of possession. This isn't even being 'scholarly' yet and I'm sure much of this is apparent for most laymen who actually engage the Qur'an. There's so much more that can be explained, and many more verses that we can draw on, but for the purposes of a short post I hope that this very short treatment suffices.

The next post looks at some of the most significant hadith cited in favour of possession.