God engages humans rationally

4 min read

Here are some fundamental positions (none of which should prove controversial) from which I speak about the shari'ah or approach revelation so that believers better understand where I am coming from. My belief is that if we constantly produce results with first principles in mind, we end up with a coherent conceptualisation of the shari'ah as opposed to the scattered approach, which amongst many negative outcomes, is leading many sincere believers into a state of internal conflict. The first of these is that God is a rational actor in the sense that:

  1. everything God does has a purpose, and
  2. everything God wants from human beings ought to resonate with the intellect since it is the tool with which we have been endowed to understand, engage with God, and determine right from wrong.

As a result:

  • what God wants of us will not be irrational, it will make sense;
  • it will not be without purpose, there will be reasons behind it;
  • it will not be beyond our collective comprehension, some might not get it but there will be others who will.
Short explanation:

God says, "We were not playing a pointless game when we created the heavens and the earth and everything in between,” (44:38) and repeatedly challenges cohorts of humans on a range of matters, both to do with their beliefs and actions, asking, “Do they not use their intellects,” and “how is it they judge?” On the city of Lot, God says, “We left some (of the town) there as a clear sign for those who use their reason,” (29:35) the idea being that through reasoning people might come to know the bad outcomes of committing immoral practices. The verses and ahadith on this are innumerable.

Now my ultimate point is that when it comes to fiqh and aqidah, things ought to make sense. And if it doesn’t, it means we’ve understood matters incorrectly. I find the Hanbali philosopher, jurist and theologian Muhammad b. Abi Bakr b. al-Qayyim’s point instructive here:

The entire edifice and foundations of the shariah are based upon wisdoms and advantages afforded to people in their living and afterlife; all of it is justice, all of it is mercy, all of it is utility, and all of it is wisdom.

Some reject this idea out of the fear that it might cause the laity to (mis)understand that if you don't get something you don't need to do it. But like with anything, not getting something doesn’t necessary demand inaction. In the majority of cases, and this being one of them, it simply necessitates a person humbly acknowledge his/her ignorance, and if they require, to find out from those who do get it.

One response I tend to get from students of theology/law is: “How can you say God intended something when He hasn’t explicitly said it?”

My answer is simple:

Such a response overlooks how much of the shari'ah actually works; the fuqaha do it as normal juristic practice and most (dhanni) ahkam are based on this! In the majority of cases, the illah (reason) or hikmah (wisdom) behind something is not explicitly stipulated (mansus) but derived through a process known as ‘masalik illah’ (see the chapter on qiyas in the field of usul al-fiqh). The view that we cannot ascertain the reasoning behind something unless it is explicitly spelled out by God and His Messenger is only held by Dhahiris (literalists). One of the key objectives of ijhtihad and tafsir is working out the reasoning behind a statement of God. [As I’ve already intimated, this is the realm of scholarship and I’m not suggesting every layman run away with his/her flights of fancy]

In this way, the statement of Imam al-Shafi’i is brought to life:

I believe in God and what has come from God in the way God intended it; and I believe in the Messenger of God and what has come from the Messenger of God, in the way the Messenger of God intended it.

What this means is that getting to the kernel of what God intends is key - I’m always seeking an explanation on the why and for a particular purpose: if we know why we’re doing or believing something it ultimately means we can do it properly, and subsequently, achieve the optimum outcomes God intended.

Three current approaches to religion

3 min read

Studying the variant approaches people take in their religion, on the ground and in my experience, there seems to be three overarching approaches that inform how their religion will be practiced and how it will look both in their daily lives and in society (including public discourse). Simplistically put:

  1. Revelation-based reasoning
  2. Ritualism (often, but not always, in the form of reductive literalism)
  3. Cultural reasoning

All three are very broad churches, and of course the boundaries between them aren’t precisely definable.

A brief breakdown:

(1) attempts to locate and apply meaning and purpose to acts of subservience, assuming that God has told us things for a reason/purpose, which should then inform how we do it so as to bring out optimum outcomes, and in a way that is coherent with the rest of the shariah.

(2) settles for ‘doing for the sake of doing’ and rarely assumes things to have meaning and purpose, and so how religious acts should be enacted is mainly dependent on (Arabic) linguistic constructions because the greater picture it feeds into is deemed unknown, irrelevant, or to not exist.

(3) makes assumptions about the shariah, interacts very little with revelation, and views faith through a secular prism as a cultural phenomenon. As such, faith is evaluated against the benchmark of modernity, its shifting moral trends and popular opinion.

The distinct methods that come out of this are: (1) revelatory authority (2) persona authority (3) modernity’s authority.

(1) constantly roots everything in God’s explicit discourse, navigating through various statements and dictates in order to find nuanced conclusions and locate the attitude of God towards that matter - it does not negate the way scholars of the past have deliberated, but also doesn’t arbitrarily afford them the last word, and instead understands them as humanly seeking to do the same - thus they serve as a valuable heuristic resource.

(2) sees sole authority in the interpretations of particular men and the validity of religious conclusions are rooted in the given authority of those men. (The men will differ depending on the sect/denomination). This is because there is no other ‘valid’ pathway to determine what God wants. Divine discourse is treated as dictates that have little worldly meaning/purpose since it is held that only the ancients understood their true meaning, and thus, we must be subservient to their (often contextual) conclusions, irrespective of whether their reasoning works or their conclusions make sense today. Consequently, this approach enacts subservience to God as manifested in the medieval period and does not account for later-arising variables that’d shape the particularities of such subservience today. Since ritualists do not apply reason, antithesis to things is often presented in the form of a moral panic and with fallacious analogies.

(3) sees little authority in anything, often faith is a subjective phenomenon based on a ‘blind leap’, a theism which is informed by humanistic philosophy, and assumptions as to what God wants are based on the social norms of the moment.

Interestingly, often it is only the third group viewed as the secular type, yet many of those who appropriate the markers of religious conservatism (group 2) also fall into this since Islam becomes a political identity marker where they are driven to conform to the social norms/groupthink of their particular sect.

(The purpose of this post is to provide a general overview to initiate some introspection)

Is Alif-Lām-Mīm proof that you don't need to understand the Qur'an?

Following my article on the importance of understanding revelation (rather than concentrating on ritual sounds) and another on memorisation and articulating the Qur'an merely as phonemes, I’ve had it repeatedly put to me that surely the disconnected letters (hurūf al-muqatta’ah) prove that God doesn’t require us to understand the Qur’an since they’re letters that intrinsically do not mean anything, even to those who understand the Arabic language. So as long as we pronounce the Arabic phonemes that make up God’s words, we’ve met God’s expectations.

Now whilst I can sympathise with how laymen might reach such a conclusion, I find it surreal that those who claim to be learned posit such a bad argument and demonstrate such shar’ī illiteracy. In a normal world it'd be quite embarassing.

To keep it simple, the problem here is the assumption - or assertion - that the disconnected letters do not mean anything, as well as the claim that this is the orthodox position. Yet the vast majority of scholars have held that the disconnected letters do indeed have meaning and purpose. Citing some of them in his explanation of 2:1, the most famous exegete, al-Tabari, put it that the letters are disconnected from nouns and verbs, with "every letter having a meaning that isn't the meaning of another letter." And with the ethos of continuously searching for meaning, the scholarly tradition is replete with various positions that affirm this overarching tenet. Here I've limited the very brief presentation to early exegetes:

  • In al-Suddi’s narration, Ibn Abbas opined that the disconnected letters are acronyms that spell out the names of God.
  • In Sa’īd b. Jubayr’s narration, Ibn Abbas opined that the disconnected letters are abbreviations that spell out specific monotheistic statements. He said, "So Alif-Lām-Mīm means 'I am God, I know'; Alif-Lām-Mīm-Ṣād means 'I am God; I know and clarify'; Alif-Lām-Rā means 'I am God, I see'; Alif-Lām-Mīm-Rā means 'I am God; I know and see.'" This view reflects the use of letters to represent words in ancient Arabic, with a popular ancient stanza cited: I told her to qifī (stop), she said: qāf (to denote waqaftu – I stopped).
  • Ikrimah (and Ibn Abbas according to a narration) viewed the disconnected letters to be oaths (qasm) with al-Akhfush explaining that God made an oath with these letters to impart honour and stature to these, as they make up the core principles of His revealed books.

My point here is to undermine the superficial and specious claim that all of the salaf (early exemplars), or that the Islamic scholarly tradition has held the bizarre view that pronouncing the Qur’an’s Arabic phonemes meets God’s expectations of His servants.

But then what for the few scholars such as al-Sha’bī who opined that the disconnected letters are from the mutashābihāt (ambiguous) that God refers to in 3:7? al-Sha’bī and the others seem to have concluded this from the statement of the prophetic companion, Abū Bakr, who referred to the disconnected letters as "the secrets of God". Al-Baghawī relates that Dāwūd b. Abū Hind asked al-Sha’bī’ about disconnected letters (referring to them as the “openings of chapters") to which he replied: "Dāwūd, for every book there is a secret and the secret of the Qur'an is the openings of chapters, so leave them and ask about anything else." There are two pertinent things to note about al-Sha’bī’s opinion from this:

1. That his view on the disconnected letters being mutashābih (and thus unintelligible to us) is based on his interpretation of Abu Bakr's reference to “secrets”. Ultimately, this is al-Sha'bī's personal interpretation of an equivocal statement made by a sahābī – and it certainly wasn’t a widely held interpretation of the statement.

2. al-Sha'bī clearly viewed the disconnected letters as a special case and affirmed the meaning of ALL other verses – “leave them and ask about anything else.” So to use his position on the disconnected letters to discount the need to understand the Qur'an is a gross misrepresentation of his position.

Yet the discussion doesn't end there. As is the practice of actual scholars, those such as al-Tabari would tease out all possibilities: for argument's sake, let's say the disconnected letters aren’t an abbreviation. What then? al-Tabari wrote: “If it is said: Is there anything in the Qur'an that doesn't have meaning? The response is: the meaning of this is that He begins the chapters with the disconnected letters so that it is known that the chapter before it has ended…”

So even if we hypothetically accept that the disconnected letters do not represent abbreviated words, al-Tabari infers that they'd still serve a meaningful purpose which is to demarcate between two chapters. They're not just there for the sake of it. Along this line of thinking, Zaid b. Aslam and Mujahid opined that they were the names of the actual surah.

Whatever the case, there is neither a compelling argument to establish that the disconnected letters exist for the sake of it, nor that God sent a message that isn’t required to be understood by those able to do so - and the continued persistence of some to establish both, while disparaging those who reject phonemic ritualism for those that can do better, is incredibly odd.


Now I acknowledge that there's the argument affirming that the disconnected letters have meaning/purpose, but that we may not know them and still recite them, and that this may be indicative of a virtue (fadl) of reciting the book that is not dependent on understanding. Aside from having already dealt with what reciting means here, I make the following points:

1. Of course, there’ll be many things in a text that the laity don’t know, but it’s quite bizarre to conclude from this that the virtue of reading anything is not dependent on understanding. If one doesn’t know something s/he simply finds out! There are many Qur'anic terms that the sahābah would recite and not understand, so they would go and ask the Prophet (or other sahābah more learned). It’s quite bizarre that we take a binary position. And when the sahābah didn’t understand a word or phrase, they certainly didn’t conclude that the fadl of reciting the book is not dependent on understanding! In fact, the mere fact that they would go and ask tells us that they fully expected the Qur’an to have meaning and that the Quran’s primary objective was to guide them, not just be sung as divine sounds. Not knowing everything is understandable. Here my concern is that making ‘not knowing’ an acceptable norm that we should engender (across the board) is absurd and dangerous.

2. One of the major points of this article was to show that the initial assumption amongst the early mufassirin very clearly was that disconnected letters have meaning/purpose, which is why they sought to explore them.

3. As I pointed out with the hypothetical scenario above (where disconnected letters aren’t an abbreviation), we can still affirm that the disconnected letters have a purpose (as intimated by al-Tabari), such as acting as a marker between surahs. As an analogy, one might not know the meaning/purpose of a full stop but abide by it anyhow, and not knowing its meaning/purpose doesn’t mean that we ought not to understand the essay or article, and that there is virtue in doing so!

4. Even on viewing the disconnected letters as a “secret” that we don’t know, al-Sha'bī himself states that disconnected letters are disanalogous with the rest of the Qur’an - we shouldn’t infer anything about the rest of it from disconnected letters - they’re an exception. And as a point of usul: it’s irrational to extract general rules or an overarching attitude from exceptional cases; we extract general rules from generalities.

5. Following on, let’s for a moment imagine there were no disconnected letters in the Qur’an: would we still assert that the virtue of reciting the book is not dependent on understanding? So if not, as we'd then have little reason to, are we undermining a common-sense approach that affirms words are for meaning, based on approximately 6500 verses, with an approach that says reciting the book is not dependent on understanding because we literally have a few verses that make up the disconnected letters? It seems a very unbalanced method of reasoning.

6. Also, and relatedly: letters by their very nature do not mean anything - they only mean something when they come together to produce a word, or represent something (as an abbreviation for example). Thus, drawing an overarching approach to words and sentences based on letters is fallacious.


I’d like to point out that this isn't the full extent of opinions by early exegetes that establish my point. But it is meant to show how a paltry 15 minutes of reading around the topic would put any attempt to use the disconnected letters as an argument against understanding the Qur’an squarely to rest. My issue is not with the sincere laity for whom a simple idea might spring to mind (and for whom this article is primarily for), nor with those who are misinformed and can get sensitive when they hear things that go against their protracted miseducation (we can sympathise), but those who position themselves as scholars, religious leaders, and spokespersons for God who are clearly uninformed, and routinely misinform their lay followers on a host of basic matters, often emboldening them to argue with others, all the while claiming the mantle of "the salaf" or "tradition" which as we've seen here (and often elsewhere) goes in another direction!

If believers are being held back on even the most basic of matters of faith, such as the primacy of understanding God's words, what are we meant to expect when it comes to more complicated matters of theology, law, ethics, politics or society?!

May God guide us all.

Ashura and the Hebrew Exodus

On the 10th Muharram we are encouraged to fast, not simply because Muhammad, the final messenger of God did so, but because the believers have been told to mark the Exodus which was when God saved Moses and his people from Pharaoh. When the Prophet arrived in Madinah after the great hijrah (emigration), he found that the Jews there fasted on the 10th Muharram who said, “This is a blessed day: on this day God saved the Children of Israel from their enemy and so the Prophet Moses fasted on this day giving thanks to God.” The Prophet responded, “We are closer to Moses than you are.” So he fasted on that day and commanded the believers to fast. (al-Bukhari)

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Imaan Boosters and Softeners

Amongst many, religious culture and cultivation tends to centre on imaan boosters: perceived short term-fixes that leave people on a religious ‘high’ for a few hours (or at least what they perceive the feeling to be), after which it evaporates and promptly returns the person to their initial state. Due to the superficial nature of such cultivation, there is a counter-productivity inherent in this way of doing things. Amongst them is that being interested in religion boils down to the amount of videos that are viewed on YouTube and the number of speakers being followed on social media. A few lessons that offer a basic commentary on al-Nawawi’s forty hadith offers the seeming notion of ‘higher’ religious education, or at least something substantial, and provides the consolation that an effort is being made to obtain some religion, or more egregiously, that it’s acceptable now to form and advocate personal religious opinions. For others, a few tajweed classes suffice, but learning how to make guttural sounds doesn’t exactly offer action-guiding principles. Additionally, given the status and/or capacity of local religious clerics and imams, people often turn to online outlets to look for something more substantial where they find consoling rhetoric that seems to resonate by offering something relevant to their lives. If lay personalities online offer what they propose to be major religious concepts in a tweet or three minute clips on YouTube, why would viewers assume there’s more to it? This all then reduces religious activity either to rituals or watching something, yet does little to identify and remedy the specific religious issues an individual distinctively faces.

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A conversation on superstition

The purpose of this post is to provide some clarity on what I where I'm coming from when I use the term superstition.

Being superstitious (kharafah) is when someone believes anything has autonomous metaphysical power besides God.

Now someone might ask: Okay, you've denied the power of everything but God, but isn't a belief in God and His might also superstitious?

I say: No, because the entity we refer to as God we have come to accept as a matter of reason, putting it simplistically that all of this did not come from nothing, and that the entity with the profound ability to create all that exists by means that even our wildest thoughts on quantum physics has yet to even partially fathom, can also directly interact with the events/particles of our daily lives. However, there is no reasonable justification that other (created) entities also have autonomous power.

They respond: Well the supreme entity you have just reasoned and justified empowered entities it created to also directly intervene and affect our agency.

I say: The problem is that this is simply an untrue claim, for the only way to know this matter of the unseen is if the supreme entity tells us, which not only has He not done, everything He has actually told us contradicts this!

They respond: But there are many verses and hadith on these so-called superstitious matters!

I say:

  1. The verses and authentic hadith you cite do not explicitly say what you interpret them to mean. You predetermine what you'd like them to mean and then impose that interpretation on us as if it's explicit. Yet your weak interpretations contradict other verses on the topic.
  2. The hadith you rely on do not stand the rigour of an authentication process (they're categorically weak or made up), something well recognised by hadith scholars over a thousand years.
  3. Your views that you read into verses that clearly aren't saying what you'd like them to also contradict: (1) the principle of Tawhid, (2) the purpose of revelation, and (3) what God has actually told us about the unseen and some of the entities that exist in full reality (including what's beyond our sensory perception).

How so?

On (1), God tells us that absolutely nothing in the unseen can harm nor benefit humans except God, and it is an expression of His divine might and power that only He can do so. God strongly rebukes the pagans for this belief they hold about idols (10:28), jinns (72:6, 34:41) and angels (34:40).

On (2), revelation was sent to save man from the darkness of irrational pagan thinking and superstitions that led to an evil and disastrous culture, and to engage with reasoned logic. Pointing to the statement of the examplar Abraham, "His people argued with him, and he said, ‘How can you argue with me about God when He has guided me? I do not fear anything you associate with Him: unless my Lord wills [nothing can happen]. My Lord encompasses everything in His knowledge. How can you not take heed?" (6:80)

On (3) God speaks of jinn, angels, sihr and so on, but the way we understand them is open to interpretation, and those who interpret them superstitiously choose to do so in such a way. It is not that these verses decisively (qat'an) suggest what they advocate, and in light of points (1) and (2) it's quite to the contrary, but that they seek to confirm preconceived beliefs and read these interpretations into scripture.

Why do I think this is an important topic given all the challenges we face?

  1. Pagan culture is irrational, and superstitions tend to inform the usul of our outlook. We cannot progress in anything if we can't even look at it reasonably, and engendering a superstitious outlook means we deem it to be acceptable to employ irrationality, which then has a knock on effect on other aspects of our individual and collective lives.
  2. It undermines the very thing that God created for us to flourish: the intellect. And it is only by turning our brains off that the devil can easily overcome us.
  3. Muslims are obsessed with supernatural entities, and the numbers of people turning to such explanations leads us to necessarily conclude there is an epidemic! Even a cursory study of the hadith or Qur'an screams the absence of this attitude amongst the Prophet and his companions towards life, yet it's the first point of explanation for many people who claim to be believers. If believers can be educated and helped to overcome this and identify the actual causes to their problems, they'd be able to effectively deal with issues and swiftly progress.

I'm not particularly interested in looking rational because I fear non-Muslim mockery, 83:29-32 suggests it's inevitable and in that context I guess I welcome it. My agenda is very simple: I'm specifically concerned with what God wants and how that can be best achieved; to support the call to tawhid, and undermine the devil's attempt to deceive humans and have them drown in ignominy, irrationality, populism and ignorance. Essentially, I believe the devil encourages superstition in a bid to severely undermine Abrahamic monotheism.

Moving forward and actualising faith today

I have written before that I believe today's believer can:

  • be committed to the Quran and the sunnah without being salafi;
  • benefit from a mad'hab without immaturely pledging allegiance to it, building an identity on it, or viewing everything through the lens of fiqh;
  • have an aqidah that isn't polemic and reactionary but inspirational and imaan based, strengthening rabbaniyyah (godliness) and wara' (piety);
  • be introspective and build a personal relationship with God where God is an active participant in one's life without ascribing to sufism;
  • be politically active/aware in a way that goes beyond anti-colonialism and without the baggage of last century's Muslim political movements;
  • be socially integrated in society without losing their faith or having their fundamental godly practices restricted.

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Meditation Fads and Salah

God, in His infinite knowledge, created humans with particular strengths and weaknesses. He instituted specific core practices that'd keep the human mind, body and spirit in an optimum state. Amongst those things is the Salah, ordained for humanity since the earliest times.

Even over my own short lifetime I've seen a thousand fads and moral panics inconsequently come and go. It is the nature of humans that they move with schizophrenic tendencies from one hype to the next, "man is ever hasty." (17:11)

This is one of the reasons I rarely delve into an academic appraisal for the public on social media. Although it can be tempting to do so and I'm constantly requested for commentary on xyz, the influence of fads are usually fleeting and the engagement meaningless ten minutes later. Moral panics pass as soon as another rears its head. Stringently refuting fads (let alone ideologies) is time consuming and doesn't constructively imbue believers with something meaningful that'll afford them longevity - action informing guidance that'll direct them long in the future (which I'm more interested in). By engaging the latest ideological hype I feel I'd simply be running from pillar to post - the definition of firefighting rather than building. Liberalism, feminism etc all have their shortcomings, but rather than spend the limited time I have educating people about those ideologies I'd rather teach what God says and what operationalising His message might contextually look like. Anti-liberalism/feminism won't get you into paradise, but a meaningful conception of the shariah might (depending on your commitment and soundness of heart). And by knowing what to do, you'll intuitively and reasonably know what to avoid. Two birds, one stone.

But yes, I digress.

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What is God centeredness?

It's a concept that resonates with every believer, a cognitive station to which the sincere aspire - to have God at the center of everything they do. It's not merely a principle or a concept but an entire attitude that puts God first, that posits His primacy, where the believer is perpetually engaged with the question: "What does God want here and now?"

Of course, to answer this question effectively requires knowledge, experience and godly intuitions. But these are not necessary to engage the question, they're necessary to answering them with some cogency. How you address these questions will simply depend on your circumstances, and for the vast majority of believers it'll be to consult the people of learning - those whom they've invested the resources in to provide them with the complex answers required today.

For me, a great example of God centeredness, and one that left a lasting impression on me, was the response of the true Prophet of God, Muhammad, to Musailamah the false prophet (as narrated by Ibn Hisham et al).

Musaylimah had written to the Prophet seeking to make an equal claim to prophethood:

I have been made your partner in the matter of prophethood. Half of the land belongs to us (Hanifah tribe) and the other half belongs to Quraysh. However, Quraysh do not act justly.

It was a move to solidify the power of Musaylimah and the Hanifah tribe over the Najd region, whilst attempting to ensure that the Prophet would restrict his 'reign' (as Musaylimah saw it) to the Hijaz.

The spectacularly noble and theocentric response of the Prophet was this:

This is a letter from Muhammad the Prophet of God to Musaylimah the Liar. Peace be upon the followers of guidance. The earth belongs to God, He gives it to whomever He wishes of His pious servants - and the pious shall meet a good end.

The Prophet didn't engage in a personal war of words, nor reduce His noble mission and the status God gave him to vying with a miscreant over some land. When Musaylimah made a claim over a part of the earth, the Prophet simply reminded him that the affair was bigger than any human being, and that the land which he was attempting to claim belonged to nobody but God, and that He alone decides who shall be invested with earthly authority. In that moment the Prophet wasn't overcome by emotions, nor personal interests, but broached Musaylimah's challenge with a godly lens.

After years of contemplating this prophetic event, I'm still in awe of how perfect the response was. A short statement that said so much: it inferred that Musaylimah was using the guise of prophethood for personal gain, that he actually cared little for God, and that in contrast, Muhammad's mission was not of his own nor to raise his own status but simply to raise high the word of God. Had Muhammad not been a true Prophet of God, he would've responded in like, seeking the land for himself and engaging in an egotistical polemic against Musaylamah. But the response centered solely on God, a pure tawhidic rejoinder.

Now considering this response compels us to evaluate how we do faith. Is God at our center? Are we obsessed with what God will say, or more worried about the community and other peers? Do we view orthodoxy as what pleases God, or what merely keeps us as bonafide members of the in-group?

When we speak on matters of the faith, is a debate on fiqh or aqidah issue about pedantic and technical minutae, or an exploration of what God ultimately wants where we're somewhat confidant in meeting Him with sound justifications? How much of our Islam is actually islam (subservience) and how much a social construct put on show to demonstrate allegiance to a group of people? What are our personal interests and/or allegiances, and where does God come in our 'religiosity'?

Claiming the “understanding of the salaf”

“Understanding of the salaf” (salaf here meaning early Islamic scholars) is possibly the most misrepresented claim of authority amongst Muslims today, deployed by various groups across the board and usually against one another, from the Deobandis, Salafis and Sufis, to the Shi’ah and even militant Muslim secularists. Just this fact alone tells you that the term is not only used ambiguously, but also rather subjectively.

But beyond this there’s a conceptual issue at hand that’s nearly always overlooked - they speak of an understanding of the salaf but rarely do they (both clerics and laymen) actually draw on the salaf’s actual understanding. Instead they simplistically adopt the context-specific conclusions of particular early Muslim scholars.

So there are two important points to explain here:

1. Early Islamic scholars reasoned phenomenally, nothing like the binary and uncouth articulations of many clerics today - and it’s as simple as picking up one of their books and reading it cover to cover to see this. They were highly intelligent and philosophical, and understood the sophisticated nature of operationalising revelation, identifying principles (أصول), operative factors (علل) and contextual variables (قرائن) that would lead them to specific conclusions for specific scenarios. They’d even discuss how these tools would determine their conclusions! But those today who claim to adhere to their “understanding” don’t actually seek to understand matters as they did, in an unschooled fashion they just look at what their concluded statements for an issue were, neglecting why they came to that conclusion for that scenario, what their methods of reasoning were, which operative factors they took into consideration and how they saw it as fitting into the bigger picture of the shariah, all of which serve to enlighten our approach to the issues of today.

“But Umar/Ibn Mas’ud/Abu Hanifah/Malik/Ahmad etc said…” is not a complete way of thinking, it’s severely lacking. The question that ought to arise is why they said what they did - what were they speaking to? A response is that “Yes, they said it about that, but THAT is not THIS!

One point that certainly requires further contemplation is the problem with today's “traditional” Islamic studies: they offer a somewhat linear view of the history of fiqh or aqidah as a steady progress from the imams to contemporary manifestations of religious practice, passing over the many problems in transferring assumptions that were largely fashioned in the distant past and applying them today.

2. Early Islamic scholars differed on many issues, and studying those differences ought to be highly enlightening for a mufti - it’s a record of how the godly brought together reason and revelation to conclude what God might want from them.

Where they’d all agree on something, that’d simply be Ijma (juristic consensus) and invoking the “understanding of the salaf” in such cases would be pointless since juristic consensus is far more authoritative.

So when the clerics use the term “understanding of the salaf” they're not actually referring to a pervasive understanding back then, but an opinion of some scholars of the salaf, or one sahabi (prophetic companion), with other scholars seeing the respective issue differently. It’s a dishonest way of evoking the idea of widespread conformity amongst early Muslims in order to misleadingly establish a sectarian version of “orthodoxy”.

And which scholars of the salaf ought to be the focus for precedent differs amongst the groups - there were thousands of early scholars - one group will draw on a particular cohort from the salaf whilst the other has its own cohort. So in reality, whilst they all seem to be claiming the same thing it remains an appeal to authority that isn’t mutual.

[Of course, there are legitimate reasons for invoking the “understanding of the salaf”, an example of which is where a mufti is simply evidencing precedent for an opinion and staving off infantile or unschooled accusations of heresy or it’s like by showing that it was an established opinion of those whom the interlocutor may take as authorities.]