The 'threat' of reactionary religion

The threat to "islam" (subservience to God) today is not simply the West or secular ideologies which actually have relatively little impact on the individual lives of ordinary believing people who carry on with their faith, nor do I believe God will allow truth to be overcome. He says:

God has decreed: ‘I shall most certainly win, I and My messengers.’ God is powerful and almighty.
Quran 58:21

But one of the greatest threats to such submission is reactionary religion, it is changing the face of the faith. Nearly everything, from aqidah to fiqh, not to mention political engagement, is being framed or determined by the insecurities of Muslims. Nuance and intelligence are massacred by ignorant dogma, and as much as some despise secularism, their entire outlook is shaped by it, by reacting to what they perceive as secular hegemony and then framing their positions in contradistinction to it. That is an entirely incorrect understanding of what God has revealed. We ought to define Islam and the interests of Muslims by God's standards, and sometimes those positions will agree with others, at other times they won't.

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What is this 'Islam' that people claim to subscribe to?

10 min read

Is it a religion, a way of life, a belief system?

Everyone has their own idea of what it is and what it ought to be. But for the most part, I would say that many ascribe to what operates for most as a social construct.

But how so?

We take the Arabic verbal noun islam (which means "subservience to God") from the Qur'an, and instead of translating it as we would along with everything else, we write it out as Arabic in the English language (transliteration) and use it as an English proper noun, like John, Adam, Christianity, etc. This causes many people then to view what should simply be understood as the Abrahamic take on subservience to God as an eastern theistic culture that contains a number of (sometimes outlandish) directives and stories rather than a description which is what it's supposed to be.

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God’s account of reality

In the digital world ideological battles rage, whilst in the real world matters informed by faith are addressed in highly abstract ways. My argument for some time has been that the reason much of this happens is because we fail to adopt God’s account of reality and the first principles from which we ought to proceed.

(Personally, this has been my obsession from the very beginning of my journey, and remains something I am primarily invested in.)

Perhaps if people understood the below, firstly we’d be in a different league, and secondly, we’d pretty much be all on the same page. I advise spending some time to understand the outline provided here: go away and think about it deeply. It highlights what I mean by first principles and meta-narratives (the grand story), what one might need to do and where to begin, whilst sketchily proposing where things generally go wrong.

1. God gives us an account of reality. The most fundamental aspects of it that we need to know are explicitly laid out; the rest is inferred and for us to diligently explore and investigate. We need this account of reality to contextualise and make sense of everything else that follows. To substantively employ this account requires some shar’ī learning.

2. God gives us a system (something like an algorithm) for sustainable and positive living, known as the sharī’ah, which is rooted in that account of reality. The sharī’ah is not simply law in the form of commands and prohibitions, but all that God wants us to engender - comprising of commands, prohibitions, advice, warnings, lessons, and directions.

The account of positive living addresses:

  • The intellect: acquiring knowledge and functionalising it, reasoning coherently, and employing rationality
  • The mind and heart: strengthening mental wellbeing and building emotional resilience
  • The body: maintaining good health and physical strength
  • Interactions (with others): including trade, social relationships (marriage/friendships/ parenting etc), communal interests, and how to resolve disagreements/grievances; and interactions with the environment include how to engender sustainable use of resources.

3. On aḥkām (laws): We ought to know that commands and prohibitions do not only concern outward/perceivable actions that we do with our limbs, they also pertain to inward actions of the heart, such as feelings and emotions towards God and others. We ought to understand that what we’re told to do or avoid provides a standard of behaviour for positive living. We then develop this behaviour to become even more resilient and instituted in the most productive way to do life.

4. The Islamic disciplines/sciences (‘ulum) exist as methods to intellectually justify one’s understanding of God’s account. They are not the ends in themselves nor provide the account itself. The level of study/learning one requires is premised on the level of justification one intends to provide - this is the realm of scholarship. Laymen are required to turn to the learned to be informed of God’s account of reality, and here identifying the appropriately qualified persons is extremely important for acquiring a workable and productive account. Thus, there is a type of study for being informed, and another for justification; the former is for informed non-specialists, and the latter for trainee scholars. The curriculum for each is very different, although everyone ought to begin with the former, since God brought all of us out of our “mothers’ wombs knowing nothing.” (16:78)

5. In the public/political realm, everything we do as believers and as a reflection of His will ought to reflect God's account of reality and be rooted in it. This has been the way of the righteous from before, and what was meant by “follow the guidance they received.” (6:90) So when Muslims depart from that account, they end up having to adopt other accounts of reality, such as liberalism, conservatism, feminism, post-colonialism, and so on. (I might add that this is also how religious sects form.) These accounts offer some truths, but also many inaccuracies, and due to being built on flawed accounts of reality they are unable to realise the potential of the few truths they do contain.

6. There are also those who assert their commitment to God’s account of reality, but fail to fully grasp it or woefully misunderstand it (in the general sense), either due to shar’ī illiteracy, intellectual inconsistency, or because they make presumptions informed by particular interests (such as anti-colonialism, anti-racism, misogyny, personality worship, etc). Often, this leads to some form of laxity or extremism since they are then only partly informed and thus considerably guided by other accounts of reality.

Understanding "Muhammad is the Messenger of God"

4 min read

Q: Shaikh, I'm not sectarian and I find that neither the sufi nor salafi appellation work for me. (I agree with you that we need to mature beyond sectarianism). One thing I've always been uncomfortable about, and I guess it’s intuitive, is the way people explain "Muhammad is the messenger of Allah" and make it all about the prophet, peace be upon him. I feel this leads to hero worship because it centers the kalima around the personality. In their explanation, the emphasis seems to be on Muhammad the person, rather than his role as a messenger. Does Allah speak about this part of the kalimah or provide some insight?

A: Yes, God does.

The shahadatain has purpose and speaks to a number of different things simultaneously. If we go into the early years in Makkah, proclaiming that Muhammad was God's messenger would inform the pagan Quraishi leaders as to one's allegiance, and to undermine their power and hold. It was an open rejection of their pagan gods, their superstition, and their unjust social practices. Later on in Madinah, it would undermine competing claims from others, such as Musailamah, Aswad al-Ansi, and others, and emphasise that it is the Muhammadan sharī’ah and Qur'an that God actually revealed, and not what the liars and false prophets present. Exaggerating the status of the Prophet by stating that his name alongside God proves his quasi-divine like station, as some do, is not only a poor argument but deeply nefarious. And yes, they often focus on the noble person of the Prophet more than they do God. Ultimately, there is no comparison nor status-based proximity between God and men, and many hadith exhibit the Prophet's deep unease and anxiety at such a perilous situation occuring, especially since those before us fell into such darkness. For example, Umar b. al-Khattab related that the Prophet said: "Do not exaggerate in praising me as the Christians praised the son of Mary for I am merely a servant. So call me the servant of God and His messenger." (al-Bukhari)

On the otherhand, to speak of God's emissary as the average Joe is unbecoming of any believer, as if the Messenger of God was just some ordinary person. He was normal, but certainly not ordinary. And to speak of him with a mediocre regard is to offend God, since the Prophet is His closely loved servant and one He holds in the highest regard.

As for how we might productively engage with the shahadatain (testimony of faith and commitment), I find the following Qur'anic narrative concerning the disciples of Christ highly instructive. Here we are presented with a practical manifestation of the same commitment and formula - the shahadatain, albeit around Jesus:

"When Jesus realized they (still) did not believe, he said, ‘Who will help me in God’s cause?’ The disciples said, ‘We will be God’s helpers; we believe in God - witness our devotion to Him (literally: “witness that we are muslims”). Lord, we believe in what You have revealed and we follow the messenger: record us among those who bear witness [to the Truth].’"
Qur'an 3:53

Their response strongly infers that the desire to become God's helper is the natural inclination of those who believe in God and are devoted (the Arabic uses the word muslim) to Him. This seems to be a Qur'anic explanation of the formula "There is no god but God". As for an explanation of the formula "Muhammad is the messenger of God," the verse continues on to suggest that it is to believe in what God revealed (in our context the Qur’an), and follow the messenger. And we openly testify to this so that we may be recorded among those who bear witness to the Truth, both in this world, and with God.

The statement "Muhammad is the messenger of God" is to say that his divine appointment is true - to deliver the divine message (the Qur'an) which we ought to be consumed by, understanding it the way God’s messenger taught. Where God refers to Muhammad as a messenger, He clearly draws our attention to revelation:

A messenger from God, reading out pages [blessed with] purity, containing true scriptures.
Qur'an 98:3-4

Of course, learning about him as a person entrenches us further in that belief and commitment, as it shows God's wisdom in choosing Muhammad b. Abdullah specifically, but it is not meant to turn our attention away from the message (and the One who sent it) to the messenger instead - that’d be quite irrational and clearly illegitimate.

I sympathise with such anxieties, and perhaps it raises how important a holistic conception is – one that doesn’t fall into any extremes.

May God guide us to truth, and complete knowledge rests with Him.

Maturing Beyond Sectarianism

It seems to be the growing sentiment of many Muslims that a maturation of Islamic thought that helps British Muslims find a comfortable and productive space in British society is direly needed. Social maturation is a complex process, so any assumption that a brief article can chart its course might be overly ambitious. However, to resolve anything of a complex nature the first step naturally requires a shift from one-dimensional perspectives to an appreciation for nuance (layered depth), and from naysaying to positive contribution.

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We don't have to justify what is halal, we have to justify what is haram

5 min read

There is a very well known shar’ī maxim that goes: The default in matters is permissibility based on the verse, "It is He who created all that is on the earth for you." (2:29) The basic understanding is that things are to be taken as halal (permitted) unless there is something that compellingly informs us that it is haram (impermissible). The practical points that come out of this:

1. Subservience to God isn't built on restrictions; this is not a godly attitude. Yes, we should be diligent in abstaining from those things that God deems harmful, but that's after we've strongly established God doesn't want those things for us. A godly mentality doesn't view the shariah as a restrictive framework but a constitutive one - it's more about what we do than what we don't do.

2. Seeking to be restrictive (rather than engendering diligence) contradicts what God wants. To prevent an austere outlook God warns, "Believers, do not ask about matters which, if made known to you, might make things difficult for you..." (5:101) The Qur'an offers many examples of how such an attitude leads to misguidance, most notably in the example of the Children of Israel. In fact, one of the reasons Jesus was sent to them was to temper their austerity! "I have come to confirm the truth of the Torah which preceded me, and to make some things lawful to you which used to be forbidden." (3:50)

3. God does not encourage austerity/restrictiveness anywhere in revelation, and in fact the opposite is true. We are told:

  • "Strive hard for God as is His due: He has chosen you and placed no hardship in your deen." (22:78)
  • "God wants ease for you, not hardship." (2:185)
  • "God wants to lighten your burden; man was created weak." (4:28)
  • "Say: ‘Who has forbidden the adornment and the nourishment God has provided for His servants?’ Say, ‘They are permitted for those who believe during the life of this world: they will be theirs alone on the Day of Resurrection.’ This is how We make Our revelation clear for those who understand." (7:32)

4. We must acknowledge our subjective interpretations and biases and be very careful not to impute these on God. This is why we find that earlier believers were particularly careful in making pronounced judgements of "halal" and "haram” and would instead say things like "I don't like it" or "that doesn't work for me" instead of saying emphatically "this is haram." Such behaviour was in following what God said, "Do not say falsely, ‘This is permitted and that is forbidden’ inventing a lie about God: those who invent lies about God will not prosper." (16:116)

Now I sympathise that this way of thinking can be challenging for some who have socialised into viewing 'religiosity' as a list of don'ts, or with those who fear that it opens the floodgates to lewd permissiveness and iniquity. I don't believe such fears are well founded since God clearly didn't when informing people of the optimum attitude.

To conclude, what I seek (here and beyond) is:

1. To address this misconstruction so that we rightly focus on the 'dos' which is far more inspiring, stands as actual weight on the scales of final judgement, and brings about actual productive outcomes. Not doing doesn't build much, it simply averts things. Where there is a focus on doing righteous productive things, harms are averted and benefits are produced simultaneously. It's an efficient attitude, and one God seems to promote. Furthermore, a prohibitory attitude causes us to obsess on material things rather than talk about, and celebrate, God.

2. To erode the idea that the moment we undermine a restrictive attitude or speak about the permissibility of particular matters that somehow it's a licence to legitimise immorality or what God has clearly sanctioned, or that we identify with the bizarre and paradoxical interests of "progressives/reformists", who we must acknowledge have capitalised on the cognitive dissonance induced by illegitimate restrictiveness (such as the abuse of "sadd dhari'ah" - the slippery slope argument). Without indulging "progressives/reformists" delusions, we need to speak to the suffocating mentality so that believers are unshackled by faith to experience the delights (halawah) of īmān and 'ubūdiyyah and witness its uplifting results.

3. To clarify that God wants us to celebrate all He has made available to us and constantly show our appreciation (hamd/shukr). We do not have to 'arrive at the conclusion' that something is permitted since that's a default position that doesn't change unless there's a strong argument to restrict the freedom to indulge. To be clear, I have no right to make subservience to God 'easier' for people, it is a right reserved solely for God. But God has articulated His expectations and in His own words He has made subservience easy, often effortless, since man was created weak, and suffocating or dissonance-inducing conceptualisations severely undermine the ability of humans to enjoin in consistent and persistent subservience. God says, "Believers, be mindful of God, as is His due, and make sure you devote yourselves to Him, to your dying moment." (3:102) And in speaking to consistency, Aishah relates that the Prophet would teach that the most valued actions to God are "those that are consistent, even if they are minimal." (al-Bukhari)

Motives on God rather than people

For reasons that I'd say were mostly political, a response or argument for justifying particular conceptions of the sharī’ah tends to be:

  • "What will non-Muslims say?!"
  • "But non-Muslims will laugh at us!"
  • "But people are leaving Islam!"

Whilst I acknowledge there can be sincere sentiments behind these and other statements, shaping a shar’ī understanding that is fixated on seeking approval is very misplaced and leads to both falsehood and ruin. Not only is it ungodly, but it's also unproductive. The palpable result tends to be a focus on issues that are of little concern to the believers and their growth but of great political importance to non-Muslims. Now before I proceed to expand on what God says on this, I'd like to provide some nuance and differentiate between two things here: (a) the substance of the sharī’ah and (b) its form.

(a) On substance: the contents of the sharī’ah, that's to say how we understand what God wants, cannot be dictated by what others might say, how they feel, or what they'll do. Our interests ought only to be theocentric (centred around God).

(b) On form: this is to do with the presentation of the substance and thus the opinions/views/attitudes/cultures etc of others need to be considered. It'll depend on who is being addressed, and as Ali b. Abi Talib put it: "Speak to people in a way they understand, do you desire that God and His messenger be rejected?!" This doesn't only go for the language used, but also how things are framed so that unnecessary impediments to understanding/acceptance are not imputed into the conversation.

So what does God have to say about a fixation on placating non-shar’ī sentiment, on shaping discourse to satiate non-believers, or advocating shar’ī understandings merely to save 'Muslims' who take umbrage with defining features of subservience to God?

1. Our motives must be theocentric and our concerns for articulating the sharī’ah ought to be to provide practical guidance for the believers, defined as the people of scripture - not those who, through speech or actions, care little for God nor holistically consider what He has told us: "Do not yield to those whose hearts We have made heedless of Our Quran, those who follow their own low desires, those whose ways are unbridled. Say, ‘Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so and let those who wish to reject it do so.’ (18:28-29) Further, our motive isn't to champion a 'religion' as a cultural construct but to seek true guidance. It is in this sense that God said to the Prophet: "The Jews and the Christians will never be (theologically) satisfied unless you follow their ways. Say, ‘God’s guidance is the only true guidance.’" (2:120)

2. We ought to shun a saviour complex. Firstly, God guides whom He wills and secondly, we cannot misrepresent what God wants or dilute His intent for the sake of some contrived inclusivity, or to have people superficially ascribe to 'Islam'. On the first point God says, "If you find rejection by the disbelievers so hard to bare, then seek a tunnel into the ground or a ladder into the sky, if you can, and bring them a sign: God could (compellingly) bring them all to guidance if it were His will, so do not join the ignorant. Only those who can hear will respond." (6:35-36) On the second point, "Say, ‘Now the truth has come from your Lord: let those who wish to believe in it do so and let those who wish to reject it do so.’" (18:29)

3. Seeking accommodation from those unreasonably opposed to Islam out of fear of what they might do, is no valid strategy. God says, "You will see the perverse at heart rushing to them saying, ‘We are afraid fortune may turn against us.’ But God may well bring about triumph or some other event of His own making: then they will regret the secrets they harboured in their hearts." (5:52) In such scenarios we must trust in God and continue the march towards progress, "who strive in God's way without fearing anyone's reproach." (5:54)

4. Mockery and them (whoever they might be) "laughing at us" is absolutely irrelevant when deducing the substance of the sharī’ah, for God tells us, "The wicked used to laugh at the believers, they would wink at one another when the believers passed by them, joke about them when they got back to their own people, and say, when they saw them, ‘These people are misguided'" (83:29-32) However, there are situations in which some Muslims invite mockery by (a) speaking from a point of ignorance, presenting the sharī’ah as some absurd proposition and using weak/irrational reasoning, and (b) due to a lack of integration they have little cultural capital with wider society and consequently have no idea of how to make themselves reasonably understood and consequently sound foolish. The Companion Abdullah b. Mas'ud put it, "It is problematic to speak to a new people [where Islam is novel to them] with things they cannot make sense of." (Muslim)

As we ought to see, dealing with the shari’ah requires differentiating between substance and form, but my general objective is to speak about the substance of the shariah in a way that cares little to satiate secular sentiments/aspirations, although I actively strive to present things in a way that will hopefully resonate with all.

Dealing with the shari'ah on its own terms

There are many ways in which the shariah ought to be dealt with on its own terms, and in this post, I'd like to point to three issues which arise frequently in the real world, and briefly highlight how I approach them.

1. Using shar’ī terms

When discussing the sharī’ah, I believe we ought to stick to the shar’ī terms God sets out as closely as possible, they are most accurate since it is how God and His messenger described and taught an issue/concept:

  • the words God and His messenger use reflect particular meanings and an outlook which allows us to more accurately get to the kernel of what was intended,
  • it offers a 'rooting' which ensures that however wild and lost interpretations get, we always have an established and legitimate basis to default back to and start again.

This point also extends to translations. Often, English words that are meant to represent shar’ī concepts (whether fiqh or aqīdah) are the closest resembling words but not the exact thing, rarely are they conceptually the same. For example, riba is not the equivalent of interest, and depending on context, interest might or might not be ribawi. (There are many other examples.)

2. False dichotomies:

I do not consider concepts such as deen/dunya or religion/science as binaries, and in the case of spirituality/fiqh I hold separating the two to be detrimental to our understanding of what God wants.

  • The deen occurs in the dunya so there shouldn't be antagonism between the two, what God warns of is obsessing over 'hayat dunya' in a way that causes us to neglect the 'hayat akhirah'; 'hayat' (life) refers to the way we act out our time, not the time itself.
  • The English word 'religion' refers to a social construct premised on certain beliefs, and science is an enquiry into the processes behind what God has said about the corporeal world - there shouldn't be antagonism between the two;
  • Spirituality is an ambiguous term that undermines the fact that heartfelt subservience to God as an inherent part of our 'religious' actions, and the basis of their validity/divine acceptance.

An important point to consider is that there is an inherent difficulty in carving up the nature of subservience to God into neat slices which can be removed from one another. It's nigh impossible to precisely determine where one ends and the other begins, and rigid divisions such as those between spirituality and law, or the sacred and profane are myths. I strongly advocate the undifferentiated whole.

3. Categorisations in fiqh and aqīdah

The purposes of categorisations in fiqh and aqīdah is to provide a presentation that is analytically clearer and has greater explanatory power for issues that concern us. This means that categories have no inherent value but simply serve as aids - they are conceptual tools that help us to understand things. Issues change and so do the ways we understand things. So sticking to categorisations formulated by mediaeval scholars who were speaking to the particular needs of their masses defies reason. Nearly every categorisation/framework we have in aqīdah (regardless of the school) was formulated by men and derived through reasoning and deduction (sabr wa taqsim). Depending on the perspective, there are always variant ways the same thing can be looked at - this is just common sense.

If today we seek to categorise things, it should simply be to make things analytically clearer and offer greater explanatory power for issues that concern us, not out of some immature notion to champion something from the past that doesn't require championing.

Understanding the shari'ah properly leads to overarching positive outcomes

4 min read

I hold that a sound understanding of the shariah should include at least the following three major positive outcomes, and if an understanding doesn’t, there’s something wrong with it. As Ibn Al-Qayyim put it, “every issue that goes from justice to oppression, from mercy to its opposite, from benefits to loss, from wisdom to imprudence, then it is not the shariah even if it is made to appear so through interpretation (of revelation)."

1. It should result in (increased) godliness: “God increases the guidance of those who follow right guidance, and grants them their taqwa [of Him].” (47:17) This verse tells us that by following right guidance we are increased in guidance and God consciousness. So from this and other verses, I generally conclude that any understanding (or view) of the shariah that neglects rabbaniyyah, diminishes consciousness of God or impedes its growth, and fails to prove inspirational in a way that develops a person holistically, does not reflect what God wants.

2. It brings about optimum outcomes which include noble virtues and prosperity: “When the righteous are asked, ‘What has your Lord sent down?’ they say, ‘All that is good.’ There is a reward in this present world for those who do good…” (16:30) So any understanding of the faith that doesn’t lead to ‘all that is good’ - i.e. optimum outcomes - ‘in this present world’ including civility, intelligence (a sound, sustained and productive use of the intellect), and moral conduct, as well as social, political, and economic welfare, is not a sound understanding. As Ibn al-Qayyim put it above, “it is not the shariah even if it is made to appear so through interpretation (of revelation)."

3. It brings about happiness and contentment: Through producing optimum outcomes that are relative to the context, the shariah creates positive opportunities to thank God since it is the primary purpose for which we are on earth, with Iblis's ultimate objective to ensure "most of them are ungrateful." (7:17) So any understanding that brings about sorrow, anxiety, hatefulness, despair, confusion, suffering etc., where these negative outcomes are directly induced by actions necessitated by a particular understanding, cannot be a sound understanding of the shariah. They do not reflect the 'light' and 'peace' God speaks of when he says, "God guides to the ways of peace those who follow what pleases Him, bringing them from darkness out into light, by His will, and guiding them to a straight path." (5:16) Furthermore, God says, “The truth has come, and falsehood has passed away: falsehood is bound to pass away. We send down the Quran as healing and mercy to those who believe,” (17:81-82) where ‘truth’ understood properly heals these maladies and God’s mercy fills believers with contentment and dignity.

Now I understand that various questions might arise, such as: how do we
determine whether an understanding increases godliness, and brings about
optimum outcomes and contentment? How do we then explain those people who
practice the faith but are not content? I would briefly put it that these poor
souls have not understood the entire edifice of the shariah and how it works in
a holistic way, which results in internal conflicts where their understanding
of the shariah doesn’t work in the real world, or where they haven’t
appropriately understood what they’re doing and how to effectuate optimum
outcomes. I'm sure some might put it simplistically that such people are merely
overcome by worldly desires, but given the question applies to those who practice
their faith sincerely, I'm not convinced such a retort applies here.

However, putting aside these short responses, I believe these questions are best answered by actually teaching the shariah and showing what I mean in practice (rather than musing with hypothetical scenarios) - the functionalist approach I speak of - so that we can fully see how it all works.

God is not an ideologue

6 min read

People tend to be very quick to impose their interests and aspirations on others, and people do this no less with God. The feminist will argue for a feminist God, the secularist for a secular God, the theocrat for a political God, the ritualist for a quietest God, and so on. Yet God is not subject to the diverse and banal interests of His creation, fleeting views and ideologies that come and go as fads. Allah is not only Lord of the east and west (73:9) but is the Owner of time and what happens both within it, and beyond it. Rather than assuming He is caught up with our moment, culture, or context, we ought to recognise that He has an elevated perspective over all of time: past, present and future. In this sense I don’t believe it is sensible to accept binary ways of viewing the shari'ah which are predicated on age-related social paradigms such as religious vs secular, religion vs science, and so on. This also suggests that when we ascertain what God wants of us in our moment, we must recognise that His will is not bound by the nature of Muslim or non-Muslim populism, the battle between ideologies (secular or religious), and the politicisation of Islam (both in wider society and amongst Muslims themselves).

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