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Balances Essays in contemporary OUTLINES traditional Islam
These essays were written for the Cape Town based Muslim Views newspaper between 2008 and 2011. I would like to especially thank its editor, Mr Farid Sayed, for graciously supporting their publication. They were written under the auspices of the Institute for the Study of Current Islam, the research arm of the International Peace College South Africa (IPSA), Cape Town.
Table of Contents
Of travelling paths and watering places The place of aesthetics in the Muslim psyche 7 11
Spectrum and partition thinking in Islam 15
Revisiting the relationship between culture and Islam Approaching the secular Civic consciousness and the Muslim Nzimande’s language proposal should be welcomed by Muslims
18 23 27
Looking for science in the Quran Naquib al Attas: Positioning science in the Islamic worldview 34
Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Science and the Unity of Knowledge in Islam Thinking about technology – some Islamic reflections The perils of internet Islam
40 44 48
The contemporary relevance of an archaic Islamic Discipline Shaykh Ninowy and the aqidah debates 52 55
An argument for music in Islam Respecting the form Much ado about ijtihad Shaykh Tantawi stirs another hornet’s nest Is radio an ideal medium for fatwas? Narrowing the broad 78 Getting to grips with bid’ah: Shaykh Ghawiji’s insights 81 More than about the law: Impressions on CCI’s 61 65 68 71 74
Marriages Bill workshop
The ultimately trivial nature of politics Complementing perspectives on Gaza Freedom of expression: an Islamic approach The question of alliances A necessary time-lag 89 92 95 98 101
The thought of Abdal Hakim Murad: In four parts 106
Charting the way ahead: Tariq Ramadan and the future of Western Islam 121 Building vibrant Muslim communities: some thoughts of Umar Faruq Abd-Allah
Nursi’s insights into Ramadan: Lessons for our age Ramadan cultural practices: more than just a supporting cast
Ramadan: The great compensation
Moving beyond identity 142
A simple faith
Of travelling paths and watering places The Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, has said: ―Speak to people according to the measure of their understanding.‖ This hadith conveys a profound truth: because of life circumstances, talents, temperaments and all such factors that make each individual who they are, Islam cannot be taught in a monolithic manner. Make that a directive: should not be taught in such a manner. I take ‗measure‘ (qadr) not only to mean the extent or degree of understanding reached due to incidental factors such as educational background. But, at a more fundamental level, it signifies the inherent manner-the special, divinely endowed, capacity- through which understanding takes place. This manner and capacity differs from person to person and culture to culture. The Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, was of course the best exemplar in this regard. He taught thousands of Companions of all manner of temperament and social, educational and cultural backgrounds (rural, urban, tribal, foreign, school, unschooled) and engendered in all of them an unprecedented love and loyalty to a Prophet, to the Supreme Being and to a religion. In the process was created the greatest generation who ever trod this earth. How was this challenge, this Sunnah, taken up by subsequent generations? In building itself into a civilization, Islam has indeed been blessed by extraordinary bands of scholars, saints and propagators (often with all their qualities combined in one person) who immediately recognized the importance of this Sunnah and instinctively applied it in their respective spheres. The result is what we see today: the marvelous proliferation in Islam of a variety of paths and methodologies adapted to the specific needs of regions, communities and individuals
A traditional metaphor for understanding this proliferation is that of masalik (travelling paths) and masharib (watering places). A maslak ( a travelling path) can be likened to the arterial roads that crisscross a country from one major destination to another. The goal of these paths is to realize Islam‘s chief objectives: (1) to believe as should be believed (2) to live as should be lived (3) to do both with sincerity In Sunni Islam, the Ashari and Maturidi paths have historically taken care of belief, the four madhabs (―ways‖) have informed us how to live, and the Sufi tariqas (―roads‖) have been responsible, directly or indirectly, for teaching and cultivating sincerity. These have been the well-lit and proven beacons by which the Sunni masses have navigated their religious journey. They have formed the fulcrum around which the expansion of much of Islamic civilization has taken place. Its arts, sciences, cultures and literatures bear the indelible imprint of these pathways. If masalik are like arterial roads, then masharib (―watering places‖) are like stopovers, a place of rest, refuge and refreshment; a place to recharge the batteries for the long journey ahead. These refreshments, intellectual and spiritual, are centred around blessed individuals whose approach to the religious journey appeals to specific temperaments. Masharib in the arena of beliefs and fiqh more directly concern the ‗ulama, who may develop an affection for the personality and method of a particularly brilliant scholar, or group of scholars. This scholar or group then become the guiding lights by which the ‗ulama teach their students. Examples of such lights include Imam Ghazali or Yemen‘s Ba Alawi tradition. Of course, the indirect impact of such beacons upon Muslim society in general can be
enormous. Cape Islam, for example, is suffused with the philosophy, teachings and practices of the Ba ‘Alawiyyah. Where the concept of masharib more directly affects many people, and where it is most visible, is in tasawwuf. ―There are seventy thousand ways to Allah‖ goes a Sufi saying and the tariqas palpably absorb all these possibilities. Within each tariqah there are numerous refreshment stations suited to the particular propensity of an individual: intellectual, emotional, visual, aural. A specific branch of the order, grouped and named around a charismatic saint, would focus on cultivating that propensity in an appropriate manner so as to achieve closeness to Allah. For example, one such sub-branch might focus on spiritual music as a means to realizing Allah‘s love. Another might require its adherents to cultivate the Shariah sciences (more than what is necessary for every Muslim to generally know) as a technique to grasp the ultimate realities. Still, another emphasises spiritualizing one‘s labour and occupation as the means to Allah. Of course, all such refreshment stations would require that no essential dimension of the path is neglected. But it is a question of emphasis. Occasionally, masharib might collide with one another, might not see eye to eye on certain issues, might even warn people of one off the other. There are often good reasons for this given very specific circumstances, an obvious one being to prevent confusion among the generality of Muslims. But such occasional conflict does not affect any mashrab’s essential correctness. In any case, the norm among masharib is one of co-operation, not discord. How do we know that these travelling paths and watering places are validated by the Shariah? There is a long and a short answer to this question. The long answer, one discussed by the scholars, is to trace the links (sanad) of all these paths and places back to the Prophetic
legacy. And all of them inevitably find their substantiation in the magnamity of the legacy- scholars having meticulously recorded proofs and chains of transmission in this regard. The short answer, the one available to all and sundry, is that these paths work. They have proved their efficacy time and time again in the compelling changes they engender in people‘s lives. Contentment, satisfaction and, at times, even bliss are the fruits that they produce. These fruits are the immense proofs that these paths and places are authentically following the Prophetic legacy. After all, the Prophet‘s mission was nothing other than bringing such fruits to creation. These proofs and fruits are seen all round us: in parents, in grandparents, in good people generally. They find exquisite manifestation in the spiritual guides this ummah has been blessed with throughout its history: the face of a saint is a thousand proofs. And it precisely because the great masses of Muslims intuitively know and feel that these paths and places must be right, that they continue to follow them. No amount of ranting by opponents against this legacy can change that. As the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him has informed us: ‗Beware the intuition of the believer for he sees with the light of Allah.‖
The place of aesthetics in the Muslim psyche The Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, presented an integrated mission. Law, theology and spirituality were not compartmentalized. The acclaimed ―Jibril‖ hadith best captures this: at one stroke the Prophet (SAW) instructs us as to what to believe, what to practice and, pre-eminently, how to believe and practice: ―Worship Allah as if you seeing Him and if you cannot see Him know that He is seeing you.‖ The motif of integration runs throughout the Quran and Hadith and by this very fact constitutes both a fard and a sunnah. As a fard, we are minimally required to believe and practice that which Muslims universally agree upon and are obliged to do so with sincerity. As a sunnah we strive to maintain a balance between these various dimensions at every stage of our life. Practice without due thought leads to insincerity, belief without requisite application fosters aridity, spirituality not firmly anchored in theology and law breeds waywardness. The historical unfolding of the Islamic intellectual tradition necessitated the compartmentalization of these various fields. But that was at the level of thought and systematization only. In actuality, in the living reality of people‘s lives, the underlying ethos of integration was maintained, and one was typically expected to give each dimension its necessary due. Of course, things did not always work out smoothly. Islamic history is peppered with instances of overbalancing, of privileging one dimension to the detriment of another. Mutazilite intellectualizing and theological polemics, while initially necessary and even exciting, became overbearing, creating a strong aversion among the ulama and the man in the street (and, I think, was in no small way the cause of their downfall.) Imam Ghazali famously railed against sections of the ulama who had made a god out of fiqh, they having cast the religion under the spell of legalistic stupor. And then there were the Sufis who, more often from within their ranks than
without, periodically kept in check tendencies that were at odds with even the formal expressions of fiqh and aqidah, leave alone the content of these dimensions. But by and large the balance was maintained. The most searing, still evident, manifestation of this fact is the nature of traditional Muslim societies. A traditional Muslim society has its class of ‗ulama and its intellectuals, but it also has its mystics, poets, artists, musicians and healers. Its artisans, traders, housewives, labourers and fishermen are as integral to its functioning as any political or spiritual leader. There is even an important space for its dissidents and satirists who help keep in check injustices and religious pomposity. There is no psychological make-up for which it does not make allowance [the businesslike way in which the classical ulama discuss the fiqh of the hermaphrodite is quite remarkable]. It is a complex tapestry, composed of multitudinous, overlapping hues and shades, each of which is a crucial aspect of the organic whole. The gel that holds all this together is an attitude, an aesthetic. This aesthetic sees the integrated, organic nature of components that comprise Islam and Muslim societies as an ideal, a norm. It is not an aberration. In contrast, those who veer towards overbalancing are hardly interested in aesthetics: their departure point is that where Islam is at, where Muslims are at, is fundamentally wrong. Certain dimensions of the religion need to be excised or at least be minimized, the dimensions that remain are very narrowly interpreted, Muslims have been doing ―culture‖ not Islam, Muslim society needs to be refashioned etc. They are doctrinal and social engineers, not aesthetes. Their trajectory is towards the compartmentalization of reality- which is quite alien to the sunnah of the Beloved. Which brings me to the present day. When blanket, unnuanced pronouncements are made on issues such as cultural practices, music, bid‘ah, fiqh issues in general etc. not only do they lack
precedent in terms of the Islamic scholarly tradition, they exhibit a startlingly reductive view of human nature. In the long run they only breed destructive tendencies within themselves [witness, quite literally, the spate of Sufi tomb attacks] and distaste and aversion in others. In contrast, the wise Muslims of old- conscious as always of the need to follow the Sunnah-had a much more nuanced, empathetic worldview. They loved creation. Little wonder then that their da‘wa was not only successful and enduring but left humankind rich cultural legacies to boot.
Spectrum and partition thinking in Islam The plethora of labels that engulf Muslims- Sunni, Shia, Salafi, Sufi, Wahabi, modernist, revivalist, traditional, progressive, moderate, extremist etc.- suggests the following questions: To what extent can Muslims see beyond these labels and strive for greater cohesion? To what extent do these labels represent boundaries that cannot and should not be crossed? While these questions have recurred throughout Islamic history in one form or the other, it can be argued that they have acquired greater urgency in an age where social and geographical boundaries are more fluid, ―other‖ people and ideas more visible, and information more dispersed. There is also a weakening of social and cultural structures that in the past insulated against the foreign and different. Labels have been applied since the period of Companions when various groups broke away from the main body of Muslims on certain issues of creed. These groups were then labeled- Kharijis, Shias etc- and the main body distinguished itself by another labelAhl Sunnah wal Jamaah. The justification for such labels were often traced to hadith and saying of the Holy Prophet and the Companions. In time within these groups various sub-groups also developed, each with different tendencies and often at loggerheads with one another. The central conflict between these groups and sub-groups revolved basically around whose views truly represented the Prophetic legacy. The claim to truth then becomes a defining cause partitioning various groups off from one another, claims it is said will have consequences in the Hereafter. There is another classification that is based on method, rather than truth. An example of this is the classification by certain scholars of three contemporary trends in Islam. The first, traditional Islam, proceeds on the wholesale acceptance of the scholarly tradition
developed over many centuries. Practically this translates into Islam being practiced according to the well-known schools of law. The second, the revivalist, is more suspicious of this tradition and seeks a more direct engagement with the Quran and Sunnah. Then third trend, the ―modernist‖ one, seeks to engage current knowledge and trends of thought and apply them to Islam. These divisions are broad and other scholars have refined them to create various sub-divisions. But even these sub-divisions tend to fall under one of these three ―methods.‖ What are we to make of these ―partitions‖ based on truth and method. Firstly, I think it has to be recognized that they represent real differences that cannot be wished away. These differences were always with us and in probability will always be with us. There are degrees of right or wrong and we are going to be accountable for the group beliefs we hold. Similarly, there are different approaches to looking at Islam and these are often going to produce conflicting outcomes. Again, these approaches need themselves need to be based on firm evidence and a convincing rationale and so we are also going to be responsible for the ones we choose. In brief, we are going to have to take sides and choose options whether we like it or not since mutually opposing truth claims and methods are involved. But does this necessarily mean that we are going to get bogged down in group thinking, in ―partition‖ thinking, in constantly demarcating ourselves from other Muslims. Not so. Another way of looking at the differences between various groups in Islam is as a spectrum encompassing various hues within the religion. These partitions overlap and it is this overlapping that creates space for joint efforts and strategic alliances, in spite of differences. This overlapping results at the most basic level from the consensus of the scholars on what constitutes the fundamentals of the religion (the basic beliefs in Allah, the Prophets etc.and the basic pillars of salaah, fasting etc) and what is necessarily known by Muslims with regard to right and wrong (the
fact that adultery is prohibited, wine is forbidden etc.). All these are recognized as what constitutes Islam and what makes us Muslim. It is this which gives us an affinity with one another irrespective of our differences and immediately imposes upon us the obligations of respect and honour due to a fellow Muslim. Within sub-groups such an obligation is even more acute since they will often agree on the same truth claims and methods but may differ on ethereal (but important) issues of creed or non-obligatory (but significant) modes of practice. Such respecting and honouring, though, depends upon our own perspectives not being demeaned by others. At a more intricate level differences in method, especially, are less rigidly divided than differences in truth claims. There is a lot of cross-pollination between the various methods involved – while a person maintains a basic frame of reference, traditionalist for example, he or she may easily and simultaneously be ―progressive‖ in some respects and ―revivalist‖ in others. Here a spectrum analysis indicates that a person cannot and should not be conveniently categorized for a view he or she may hold on a particular issue. It is clear that differences between Muslim groups occur at the level of branches as opposed to fundamentals. This is not to minimize the importance of these branches. The primary sources of the Quran and Sunnah indicate that we will be responsible for the options we choose with regard to these branches- choices that are made on the basis of the sustained evidence and reason. Further, many Muslims speak in the name of an ―Islamic‖ group, movement or party, glossing over the fact that it is a particular- and often not mainstream- brand of Islam that they propound. We must recognize that partitions are necessary and represent legitimate boundaries. Simultaneously, boundaries overlap and allow conversation and alliance. They do not foreclose dialogue. Muslims agree on fundamentals and defy easy categorization. It seems that that within one individual there should exist the space for respecting boundaries and being open to the other.
Revisiting the relationship between culture and Islam It is refreshing to observe that there is a greater appreciation of a community‘s peculiar cultural traits than was the case in much of the 20th century Muslim world. Influential quarters had previously looked upon cultural practices as unnecessary accretions, as barnacles that needed to be scrubbed off in order to restore ―true Islam‖. So they would deem, for example, the Cape custom of visiting the ―kramats‖ prior to undertaking the Hajj as, at best tolerable, at worst a ―bidah‖, a custom that added no religious value to this particular obligation. Or they would view the local flavourings injected into weddings, name-givings and other celebrations, including Eid, as superfluous, as not located in the Sunnah, as irritants or even obstructions to the true practice of Islam. The contemporary roots of such attitudes can be located with various anti cultural paradigms of Islamic thinking that emerged in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries. These paradigms can be loosely termed the Islamic revivalist (Islamist), the literalist and the modernist. The Islamist paradigm was initially influenced by revivalist Sufi trends of the time. These trends, characteristic of orders such as the Sanusiyyah and Tijanniyah, sought to bring Muslims back to a more literal application of the Quran and Sunnah, and they were antithetical to cultural phenomena that obstructed such an application. While much of later Islamism was to become suspicious or hostile to Sufism to greater of lesser degrees, the theme of ―back to the Quran and Sunnah‖ was to become the hallmark of its thought. The literalists found their roots in 18th century Wahabism, and were far more dogmatic in their rejection of cultural ―additions‖ and in confining the Quran and Sunnah to their outward meanings. Originally marginal in the pre-20th century Islamic world, Saudi state support coupled with the oil boom led to a global proliferation of this ideology particularly through returning ‗ulama from various parts of the Muslim world who had studied in that country and were inducted into this
thinking, again to varying extents. And a small but strategic group of modernists who wished Muslims to pursue progress, resonating significantly with the Western definition of this term, found Muslim culture antithetical to that progress. This scrutinization of the relationship between culture and religion was in the context of colonialism and the Muslim world‘s underdevelopment vis-à-vis the West. Muslims were desperately seeking solutions to their deplorable political state leading to intense self-analysis. It appeared to many of these early scholars that Muslims were following their religion as a cultural formality, that there was no distinction between the essential (the rules of the religions) and the non- essential (cultural practices), and that indeed often the non-essential was adhered to but the essential not! Such an analysis intensified in the course of the twentieth century through Islamist thinkers such as Mawlana Abul Ala Mawdudi and Imam Hasan al-Banna, the movements they inspired such as the Jamaat –e-Islami and the Ikhwan ul Muslimin, ‗ulama of revivalist Sufi institutions such as the Deoband seminary in India, ‗ulama inspired by Wahabism, and intellectuals who saw cultural appendages as responsible for Muslim backwardness and underdevelopment. This hotchpotch of thinkers and movements were not unchallenged. This was to be expected: they had not only taken on the cultural practices, but also the ‗ulama and Sufi shaykhs who had validated such phenomena as acceptable and even laudatory aspects of the religion. These ‗ulama were able to advance a cogent defence of many practices and customs on the basis of Islamic law and maintained their grip on mass religion in the Muslim world. The output and the influence of the Bareilly ‗ulama in India is a significant example in this regard and illustrative of many other areas in the Muslim world. However, for various reasons, such as growing urbanization, the oil boom, the growth of ―secular‖ studies and new organizational techniques the public face of the religion was changing. A new breed of Muslims, among both professionals
and ‗ulama, resonated with this new ―anti-cultural‖ shift. And they became significant spokespersons for this perspective. Two things have to be conceded: first, there were genuine problems of the sort noted above in the Muslim world. In fact, even the ‗ulama sympathetic to cultural practices often pointed to the need to reawaken the Shariah and reorder priorities (the obligatory, the sunnah, and then culture). Secondly, Islam has an in-built restorative spirit, that comes to the fore when the spirit of the religion appears to have been lost. There is an inevitable ―cleanup‖- one foreseen by the Holy Prophet when he spoke of a religious renewer (mujaddid) that would appear in every century. The anti-cultural turn in Islamic thinking could potentially be seen as a marker of such renewal. And no doubt these paradigms helped maintain and restore countless individual relationships with Allahrelationships that could otherwise have been lost to atheism and agnosticism, and at a societal level helped shaped major contemporary Islamic discourses with regard to knowledge, law and finance. The Islamic banking phenomenon, for example, is largely a product of Islamic revivalist thinking. But the anti-cultural paradigms went self-consciously beyond tajid to islah (reform), seeking to reshape elements of the religion that were in perfect conformity with the Shariah. They attacked notions such as intercession, the homage to the awliyah, the celebration of the Holy Prophet‘s birthday etc- all of which have a pedigree in the canons of Muslim law, facts which were ably pointed out by their adversaries. Moreover, there appears not to have been sufficient appreciation and understanding of the concept of ‘urf(custom)- a concept that generally legitimizes the customary practices and cultural habits of people as long as these are not in clear conflict with the Shariah. In fact, and more generally, anti-culturalists failed to fully appreciate the complexities of Islamic law- with regard to its sources and application- in their espousing of a literal approach to the Quran and Sunnah. But most tellingly, they at best regard cultural practices as tolerable whereas from the pro-cultural
platform they are seen as the heart of the religion. This is a point that needs some elaboration. At a surface level cultural practices form society‘s protective layer. The maintenance of cultural rituals, even when these are merely formal, allow individuals to keep in touch with the mores and values of that society. So a visit to a saint‘s tomb or attendance of a Mawlid by those who are not especially religious otherwise should not be scoffed at. Such practices maintain contact with the religion for those who otherwise may have had none at all. In fact, it can be argued that the endorsement of such practices by many of the ‗ulama is precisely so that even those on the margins have outlets for religious expression. In fact, many of these ‗ulama see such practices as ways by which the marginal will be gradually drawn into acting upon the central tenets of the religion. These ‗ulama are acutely conscious that gradualism is part of the religion‘s ethos: religious teachings cannot imposed upon an individual but has to make allowance for human nature and differing spiritual temperaments and capacities. But at a deeper level cultural practices can be seen as the very culmination of these teachings, as the very heart of the religion. The successful result of these teachings, after all, is the manifestation of beauty, love, respect and humility in both the individual and in society as a whole. Such qualities tend to be reflected in the profound etiquette (adab) associated with cultural practices. In fact, culture is all about etiquette and acting with refinement, both towards one‘s self and to others. So, for instance, in a nikah the practice of calling on more than the number of witnesses than is strictly required by the Shariah is in order to honour and respect to all branches of the family and not to hurt anybody by leaving them ―out‖. Such etiquette beautifies the Shariah, strengthening family and community bonds- bonds incontestably promoted by the religion. Similarly, the dignity and joy associated with birth of the Holy Prophet, as communicated in the central teachings of Islam, finds palpable expression in the rituals and recitals of the Mawlid ceremonies. The Mawlid, in an
important sense, ―completes‖ the feelings of love and respect for the Holy Prophet that follow from the central teachings of Islam. It is the arena which ensures that proper regard of the exalted status of the Prophet, upon whom be peace, will be diffused through society. And to come back to our original example: visiting the ―kramats‖ is a profound manifestation of respect and humility before Allah, humbling oneself before Him by giving proper recognition to those whom He honours and loves, and hoping by this recognition that one too is admitted into Allah‘s Favour. And this is, of course, the ultimate objective of our existence. Cultural practices, far from being an interesting aside to Islam or, worse, alien to true Islam, is in fact at the very heart of the religion. This does not mean, of course, that one simply validates any cultural practice- clearly restoration was needed to counter any enervating or distorting effects of practices. But all too often in contemporary public Muslim discourse the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater and the role of culture is fundamentally misunderstood.
Approaching the secular I think that part of the confusion that stems from Muslim discussions of the secular centres around the definition of the term. There are some who appear to employ it in its literal sense: as relating to things of this world, of the here and now, of worldly concern and knowledge as separate from the more other-worldly concerns of religion. And not only is the secular and religion separate, they are meant to be separate. There are others who instinctively see the concept as one that is in opposition to religion, a way of approaching reality that abandons the divine and makes human beings and nature the measure of all things. Both definitions are correct, depending on what one is talking about. But failing to pick up the difference in nuance could result in talking at cross-purposes. And following from these definitions Islam both accommodates and rejects the secular. This might sound like a contradiction but becomes resolved when we realise that each is speaking to different dimensions of the religion. Accommodation is speaking to Islamic law while rejection is engaging the philosophy of the religion. Islamic law is eminently practical. It deals with the living reality of people's situations. It is not interested in projecting utopias of an ideal society and creating blueprints but focuses on addressing concrete circumstances and how best people can act in accordance with what is required by Allah given those circumstances. It constantly adjusts to and accommodates the broader social and political reality (without, of course, compromising its principles), weighs up options and scenarios, and applies itself to meeting the objectives of the Shariah within the constraints and possibilities of the society in which it finds itself. And if this means having to accommodate the secular, so be it. This accommodation with the secular is particularly evident in the political and educational realms. Politically, even in a militantly secular constitutional state such as Turkey, the Islamically rooted
governing party is at pains to assure the military and judiciary in particular that it respects and adheres to the secular principles of the country. While there might be a degree of expediency in this, it becomes easier to understand if we realize that the ruling party is talking at the legal level and not about the secular as a way of life. At this level there is scope for compromise between the Islamic and secular systems. For one thing, as long as the secular allows space for key objectives of the Shariah to be met there need not be a continual confrontation between the two systems. For another, even in an ideal situation where Islamic law and values can be implemented unimpeded, the actual running of the country is left to experts in the matters of ruling and governance, of administration, of implementation of policy -in other words, experts in such secular fields- while the ulama perform more of an advisory role. The reality at the legal level is that there is overlap, and therefore possibilities of accommodation, between the two systems. And that is why in benignly secular South Africa 'ulama here have had no qualms in utilizing opportunities for religious expression generated by the constitution, despite the fact that it contains provisions that are patently at odds with Islamic law. In the educational realm the pursuit of ―secular‖ knowledge has become universal among Muslims and old notions that such knowledge corrupts one's iman has virtually disappeared. And while modern science and humanities may have had their origins in a movement that broke with religion (in the European context) the information, facts, data and modes of technology generated by this shift in worldview need, from an Islamic legal perspective, to be known and acquired by Muslims. This is both for their intrinsic value and the pure fact that one simply cannot cope with the demands of modern society without them. And Muslims en masse engage in the pursuit of these secular disciplines, some neatly partitioning their acceptable aspects from those that are problematic from an Islamic point of view. Often, of course, the issue does not even present itself since what is learned is neutral and is easily accommodated within Islamic law.
Islamic law privileges, above all, the reality of people's situation and its accommodation with the secular is in order to ensure the functioning of Muslim society. But living reality is not necessarily ideal reality. In fact, it is often far from it. And here it must be absolutely clear that whatever allowances are made for the secular at the legal level, as a philosophy it stands in stark opposition to Islam's. For Islam Allah is always at the centre of existence and determines the way we look at all aspects of reality. Secularism privatizes religion, relegating it to the realm of personal beliefs and values, and looks and measures reality purely in worldly terms, divorced from any connection to the divine. While Islamic law may utilize the secular to capture religious space, its philosophy recognizes that the system in which this space is offered is based on moral relativism and hence fundamentally at odds with the notion of divine revelation. Notions such as democracy and human rights may be usefully accommodated at a particular historical moment, but ultimately have feet of clay. And while the acquisition of secular knowledge is essential, it must not be forgotten that the model which has generated this knowledge is based on a break with religion. It has no connection to the Islamic perspective which sees each item of knowledge as brought into being by Allah and one that must be related to Him. In fact, in the European world the Enlightenment (which laid the foundation for the secular approach to knowledge) led to a crisis of faith which characterizes the West until the present day. The Muslim world, for all its scientific and technological retardation in the last few centuries, has not suffered such a crisis and has clearly preserved its religious virility. If one had to choose one over the other, it is clear that a lasting relationship to Allah, the Everlasting, takes precedence over pyrrhic scientific and technological success. The maintenance of faith, it is often forgotten, is the great victory of Islam in these last few centuries of seeming humiliation. Given these philosophical differences, Islam is inevitably going to be a thorn in the side of secular culture, and a comfortable
relationship between the two is impossible. As Cambridge academic Dr Abdul Hakim Murad notes: ―Islam‘s ‗grand refusal‘ of the puerilization project [of secular modernity] is the great fact of our age; and the stubborn persistence of Muslims in respecting historic human normalcy in areas such as gender, sexuality, prayer, art and the meaning of nature, is an unmistakable sign of God‘s ongoing favour.‖. It's Islam's job to tell the secular where to get off.
Civic consciousness and the Muslim The Prophet (upon whom be peace) said that the lowest degree of faith is to remove an obstacle from a path. This Prophetic saying alone opens a wide path for ordinary citizens to work towards bettering their surroundings and communities- in other words to develop a civic consciousness. Such consciousness, as the above hadith indicates, is above all predicated upon ensuring that other people‘s lives are made easy, that they do not encounter avoidable difficulties and dangers and, by implication, that efforts are taken for their comfort and safety. Many municipal regulations have exactly the same end in mind and need to be adhered to as a religious obligation, aside from the fact that they form part of the law of the land. As one Islamic scholar put it, stopping at a red robot is part of the Shariah. Speeding recklessly, we can safely say, breaks both the secular and the divine law. But aside from being concerned for the safety and welfare of people at an individual level, civic consciousness also means being concerned about the welfare of society as a whole. We need to develop a consciousness about national issues such as poverty, unemployment, education, health, housing and the economy. And it is very clear how our religious value system expects us to approach these issues: to have a deep and fundamental empathy with the poor and to actively alleviate their lot, to recognize that everyone has an unqualified right to free, adequate, quality education and health, to recognize the right of everyone to dignity through work and proper housing, and to strive for an economy that ensures a country's wealth benefits its entire population. Of course, these things are very easy to say and everyone pays lipservice to them. But the crunch time comes when putting words into actions could undermine our self-interests. For example, it is generally recognized that while the South African government's neoliberal economic policies since 1996 have boosted the middle and upper classes, the poor- who constitute the bulk of this country-
have not seen little amelioration of their plight. Moreover, they are hardest hit by the high prices of essentials like food and oil prevalent in the country. The country is also crippled by a massive unemployment rate (officially at about 25% but unofficially much higher). All this together with the insensitive tendency among many ―have's‖ towards conspicuous consumption only exacerbates the serious crime situation and could give rise to a major social explosion, the seeds of which are already to be witnessed in the recent xenophobia outbreak. But requiring the government to change course and adopt policies leading to more equitable growth would inevitably mean sacrifices (such as having to pay more tax) by the better-off in the interests of the greater social good. The degree to which to which we all acquiesce to this sacrifice in the face of a clear national good would be a truer gauge of commitment to the values demanded by our religion at a societal level. But there is another level of civic consciousness, often below the radar, and that is to be critical and questioning of what types of information we receive. The media, activists of all sorts and politicians all have there own agendas in the type of information they put out and in setting out the types of debate they want the public to engage in. At times these are done with good intentions and seek to alert the public to real problems facing the country. But often they are quite manipulative and seek to direct the public away from those problems, or they get so wrapped up in special interests that they skew the broader picture. Numerous examples abound. The demonization of particular political figures might have more to do with the threats they represent to established class interests rather than concern for the public good. Uncritically letting special interest groups set the tone for the public debate on health issues tends to privilege one ―disease‖ and relegate other important ones. Maintaining the independence of the judiciary should not blind us to the fact that its members can be subject to their own prejudices. The critically conscious citizen does accept information indiscriminately but looks at issues individually and judges them on their own merits. A difficult ideal perhaps. But at
the very least they must not allow themselves to be shouted into a particular view.
Nzimande’s language proposal should be welcomed by Muslims The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, has proposed that learning an indigenous South African language be a condition for university graduation. While the mechanics of the proposal will be subject to much discussion and debate there can hardly be any disagreement regarding the principle. As Nzimande himself rather clumsily put it : ―We can't be expected to learn English and Afrikaans, yet they don't learn our languages‖. Clumsy because I think the many non-African citizens of this country would love to have the opportunity to learn an indigenous language but simply have not found an avenue to do so conveniently. Apartheid to a large extent ensured that and its legacy is still evident in this respect. But, still, we can forgive Dr Nzimande‘s miffed outburst. After all, racism is the elephant in the room among many of us and it is true that some will balk at having to learn what they deem to be an ―inferior‖ language. So, in this sense at least, he‘s right on the money. But, generally speaking, grabbing the opportunity to learn an indigenous language hardly requires a second thought. First up, its a new language, a new skill, a new world, a chance to expand one‘s horizons. It will give real meaning to the cliché ―rainbow nation‖, help carve an overarching South African identity and, above all, help us truly empathize as fellow citizens. And who hasn‘t admired the lustrous tones of our indigenous languages? They are simply beautiful languages which would warrant interest purely from an aesthetic perspective. This is an added bonus.
Muslims and language acquisition Muslims, in particular, should welcome the Minister‘s initiative. Islam has a rich tradition of adaptation to the vernacular. There is, of course, initially the da‘wah motive. The religion has to be made accessible in terms of the local language. But it is not only a matter of knowing the language but also the worldview it implicitly communicates. The explanation of Islam has to be in accordance with this mental universe, and not simply in terms of linguistic correspondence. The great da‘ees of Islam were acutely aware of this as they spread the religion in Turkey, Central Asia, East and West Africa, the Subcontinent and South East Asia. They grasped the mindset of the people through language, enabling them to communicate the religion a profound and culturally aware manner, infusing that language in terms with a deep Islamic ethos and even laying the ground for the emergence of ―Islamic‖‖ languages such as Malayu, Turkish, Urdu, Hausa and Swahili. Not for them was forcing people to ―Allah‖ instead of God or ―salaah‖ instead of prayer. They were not concerned with such, often alienating, robotism. . Their concern was with Allah or salaah represented in the mental universes of the people concerned. A remarkable and seemingly radicalexample of such cultural sensitivity is provided by Shaykh Umar Faruq Abd-Allah when he discusses Islam in China: ―The Hui [Chinese Muslims]circumvented the problem of transliteration by innovating meaningful Chinese renditions of Arabic words. They referred to God as the One, the Real, the Real One, the Real Lord, and the Real Ruler. ...The Hui referred to the Prophet Muhammad not by an awkward transliteration of his Arabic name but as the Chief Servant, the Sage, the Utmost Sage, and the Human Ultimate. They called the unicity of God (tawhid) Practicing One and Returning to the One. The Qur‘an was referred to as the Classic, which put it in the same category as the revered and sacred books (called ―classics‖) of ancient China. It was also known as the Heavenly Classic and the Real Classic of the True
Mandate. The direction of prayer toward Mecca (qibla) was called the Direction of Heaven. It would have been culturally problematic to call Islam ―submission‖ or to transliterate it, producing the awkward form Yi Si Lan Jiao [the religion of Islam]. Hui scholarship chose to call Islam the Religion of the Pure and the Real [Qing Zhen Jiao]. The words expressed the essence of Islam, avoided foreign associations, and emphasized core Chinese values, declaring Islam to be a cognate faith.‖ [―Seeking Knowledge in China, Nawawi Foundation Paper] This might seem somewhat radical to some of us but it was developed by ulama of tremendous stature who were fully confident of their religion, who could separate the wheat from the chaff, and who were exceptionally attuned to the importance of culture and the role played in it by language. And it because they immersed themselves in the mental universes of the local languages, Muslims went beyond da‘wah and made enormous literary contributions in such languages. Mevlana Rumi‘s Mathnawi, among the greatest poetic work in any language, was written in Persian. The forefathers of Cape Muslims, tremendous ulama in their own right, were similarly aware of the importance of local language in propagating Islam in 19th century Cape Town. They quickly cottoned on to the Cape lingua franca, playing a pivotal role in the development of Afrikaans , created a rich literature in the language and, for all intents and purposes, Islamized it for Cape Muslims in somewhat the same way that Swahili, Urdu etc. became Islamic languages. Islam historically not only acknowledges but revels in language acquisition, regarding each language as equally important because it has its own mental universe. It is this openness and receptivity that should help inform our approach to Nzimande‘s proposal.
Looking for science in the Quran Does science prove that the Quran is a divine revelation? The seeming correlations between modern scientific discoveries and Quranic descriptions have been used by many to prove the truth of the Quran. Others argue, however, that science leaps from one theory to another while the Quran is necessarily an unchanging and constant truth: a theory that is found to have justification in the Quran today may change tomorrow. Who is right? Part of the problem is defining what we mean by science. Is it the whole jumble of facts and theories that we call science today? Or are we speaking about facts as distinct from theories? There are problems associated with both definitions. Science contains theories- the most obvious being evolution- which flies in the face of the human being as ―khalifatullah‖ [special envoy of Allah]. Those who argue that we should be looking for science in the Quran will say that such theories are an extrapolation and not based on the facts themselves. Fact and theory in science can be distinguished. And we can continue to correlate the content of Quranic verses to scientific facts in order to prove the truth of the Quran.
But it has also been argued that facts in science are themselves a product of scientific theory- a way of looking at things. Each epoch in science needs a working theory in order to make sense of the data it collects and the data collected is in accord with the guidelines of theory. And as facts gather, and become increasingly difficult to be accommodated in the theory they operate, new theories are formed to explain them. So facts and theories are not that easy to separate. Does this mean we have to dispense with the approach that matches the Quran to scientific fact? Not necessarily. Part of the Quran‘s miraculous quality is corresponding to reality as
experienced by human beings in any given epoch. We cannot encompass all of reality- but the Quran does and speaks to us at our level. It is not merely coincidental that in this age of science we find so many parallels between the two. In addition, there is ought to be a certain consistency to scientific laws since Islamic theology teaches us that Allah creates in a habitual manner (the ―sunnah‖ of Allah). So there is bound to be parallels between the two that is important to explore. But the fact that science is bound by theories and subject to the vicissitudes of time and place does mean that, fundamentally, the Quran cannot be limited by such parallels. Far more instructive than looking for science in the Quran is to let the approach to science be guided by Quranic values and its worldview. This type of approach has already been advanced by a band of Muslim scholars and would seem to be the most obvious one. The approach preserves the supremacy of the Quran in practice while according science its proper role and limits. Some aspects of this approach are as follows. Scientific activity must be undertaken, and its results viewed, within the overarching framework of Tawhid- where all such activity and results are related to the oneness of Allah. Nature will then be seen as a sacrosanct gift rather than simply a force to be conquered. The broader ethical guidelines of Islamic law will naturally also become more prominent in determining how research is pursued. And, crucially, scientific interpretation will be subject to the Quranic perspective on time, space and causality. It is an indicator of the triumphal tone of science of science that this more obvious approach needs to be restated at all. It is this triumphal tone that made some of us almost obsessive about finding correspondences between the Quran and science. But fortunately, this triumphalism, particularly in the West, is waning. Two world wars, continuing poverty, ecological disaster and the persistence of personal unhappiness has done enough to expose the limitations, and indeed dangers, of the scientific enterprise.
Naquib al Attas: Positioning science in the Islamic worldview Sayyid Naquib al-Attas (1931-) is a prominent Malaysian scholar specializing in Islamic philosophy and theology. Thoroughly schooled in both traditional and modern learning, he played a key role in the Islamization of knowledge movement in the 70‘s and 80‘s and was founder/director of the International Institute Islamic Thought and Civilization (ISTAC), a highly regarded postgraduate institution in Kuala Lumpur. In his thoughts on science, he places emphasis on positioning the field within the broader Islamic view of reality. For Attas, our pursuit of science can never be separated from the broader human quest outlined by Islam. This quest is all about returning to Allah, to the state that we found ourselves in prior to our physical existence when we were souls contemplating His Greatness. In that state we were fully aware that the soul is the essence of our reality as human beings. It was in our ―soul state‖ that we truly recognized our indebtedness to Him. Our earthly life is all about reviving this awareness of Allah imprinted upon our soul through fostering all that which enhances His remembrance and avoiding whatever causes us to forget Him. With regard to science this quest means seeking to understand Allah‘s ―signs and symbols in the book of nature by means of the guiding light of His words and interpreted in the sacred person of His messenger.‖ Science must be tied to revelation. What is meant by God‘s signs and symbols in the book of nature? Nature is not divine in itself but a system of symbols that manifests the Divine. It is Allah‘s manner of showing His reality at the level of the senses. Islam steers clear of magical and mythical interpretations of nature and cultivates, in principle, the pursuit of the scientific method. But this method must be imbued with an understanding of nature as divine manifestation.
This is patently not the case at present. A secularizing modern philosophy has become the interpreter of science‘s results and conclusions, organizing these (and those of social science) into a worldview. Under this philosophy, our view of the world becomes handmaiden to science and reality is restricted to that which is seen and sensed. The sacred is hardly anywhere to be found. Attas interrogates this outlook of modern philosophy on a number of grounds. For one, its restriction of reality to that which is apparent is due to an arbitrary reduction of our means of knowing things to reason and the senses. Authority (as in revelation) and spiritual intuition are discounted altogether. This reduction in our methods of knowing reality filters into psychology, biology and anthropology. The human being comes to be regarded only as a further development of the animal species. Being aware of all methods of knowing is crucial to an integrated and proper understanding of the role of science. Islam engages the methods of reason and the senses, but goes far beyond that in establishing its hierarchy of knowledge. Within the senses, for example, there is not only the observation of a fact by the relevant sense organ, but also its representation by the corresponding internal sense of that organ, and then the grasping by the internal sense of the meaning that needs to be assigned to it. Then, at a higher level in this hierarchy, there are different degrees of authority and intuition that must also be taken into consideration. It is within such a holistic understanding of the Islamic worldview that science must be positioned. It is an element within this reality. The facts it generates do not represent truth in themselves, only truth in relation to this broader reality of which it is part. There can be no truth unless it is related to the Creator. And the acceptance of the Creator is premised on the acceptance of Revelation. And it Revelation, as the source for knowledge of ultimate reality, that must guide and direct our scientific foray. The acceptance of Revelation and its implicit or explicit denial by secular philosophy cannot be reconciled.
The notion of worldview is crucial to Attas‘s thought. Facts are generated in, and even created by, a particular worldview. They cannot be evaluated without reference to it. Statements and propositions may be factually correct, but still ―wrong‖ because the worldview in which they are generated has an inadequate understanding of reality. Attas provides the flowing example: ―And certain scientific propositions pertaining to him [the human being] thus considered, such as those arising from the statements and general conclusions of genetic engineering, for example, even though supported by empirical evidence, are yet false because they serve premises based upon a false interpretation of the nature of man, which in turn is dependent upon a false system purporting to describe the true order of reality.‖ What are the elements of an Islamic worldview that will provide an alternative interpretation of the facts? Among such elements are, as already indicated, a radically different conception of the human being to that found in modern philosophy based upon a purely secular reading of science. There is an encompassing view of truth/reality (haqq) that ties facts to the concepts of wisdom and justice in order to set things according to the proper order of existence. There is a view of existence that sees phenomena as both continuous and discontinuous, depending upon the grade of existence in which they are viewed. Continuity and discontinuity is linked to an orthodox view holding that Allah destroys and recreates existence at every moment. Attas develops these and other elements extensively in his various works. Whatever the particulars of Attas‘s argument, his main argument stands out: as Muslims we need to seriously and fully engage Islam in reflecting upon science. Such reflection does not allow us to remain complacent in the face of modern philosophy‘s secular interpretation of the field. And we need to revisit our legacy of learning in order to understand science in Islamic terms- in terms of reality as it truly is. He writes: ―We are not unaware of the fact that not all of Western science and technology are necessarily objectionable to religion; but this does not mean we have to uncritically accept the scientific and philosophical theories that go
along with the science and technology, and the science and technology themselves, without first understanding their implications and testing the validity of the values that accompany these theories. ….We know that no science is free of value; and to accept its presuppositions and general conclusions without being guided by genuine knowledge of our worldview- which entails knowledge also of our history, our thought and civilization, our identity- …the change that would result in our way of life [upon such acceptance] would simply be a change congenial to what is alien to our worldview.‖ [Quotations from Sayyid Naquib al-Attas Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam: An Exposition of the Fundamental Elements of the Worldview of Islam (Kuala Lumpur, ISTAC, 1995)
Seyyed Hossein Nasr: Science and the Unity of Knowledge in Islam There are few who are as formidably qualified to write about Islam and science as the Iranian/American Seyyed Hossein Nasr. A renowned professor of Islamic studies, he trained in physics and mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before completing his doctorate in Islamic science at Harvard. His book ―Science and Civilization in Islam‖ has been hailed as the ―authoritative statement of its subject‖. Nasr is adamant that science in Islam must be viewed through the lenses of the Islamic worldview- a worldview centered on the concept of Divine Unity. It must not be seen as a ―chapter‖- no matter how valuable- in the continuing history of science. To view it through the spectacles of science as we broadly understand it at present is to fundamentally misunderstand its nature. In others word, talk about how great Islam‘s contributions to science were because it laid down the foundations for the field as we know it today, is to miss the point. So what is the point? It is that the activity of the Muslim scientist is directed to ―realizing‖ the symbols of Allah as it pertains to his or her field, just like a Muslim artist or craftsman- for example- would strive to do the same in theirs. And what is meant by ―realizing‖? When a field is viewed and incorporated within the understanding provided by Revelation, the knowledge it generates does not become an end in itself but the means by which we reflect upon the acts and qualities of the Creator and, consequently, by which we come to know Him. Science, or any other legitimate field for that matter, is an act of worship. Two immediate things become apparent. One is that a Muslim scientist cannot become a mere slave of the scientific method. The collection and analysis of empirical data has its place, but only
within the wider scope of the worldview provided by Revelation. The prescriptions and descriptions provided by Revelation both inform the way in which the Muslim scientist approaches his or her subject matter, as well as determining the interpretations they put on their findings. Nasr calls this intertwined approach to science and Revelation ―intellection‖- a contemplative reflection that integrates the data of revelation, on the one hand, with reason and the information given by the senses, on the other, in accordance with their proper hierarchy. It may be added here that such ―embedded‖ science in no way makes it less rigorous or ―scientific‖. It was precisely the Quran‘s insistence on observation, of course, that propelled the characteristics of the scientific method as we know it today. Locating this method within the perspective of Revelation does not diminish its exacting nature- as long as we remember that it is a method, not a worldview in itself. The work of scholars such as alBiruni and ibn Haitham are testimonies to this Quranic spirit. Further, it was Muslim theologians‘ insistence that issues of time, space and causality be looked at strictly in Revelatory terms that generated a far more fluid view of these concepts than prevailed under their more static formulations in ancient Greek philosophy- a fluidity we now know is more in keeping with observations in physics. The second thing that becomes apparent is that, if all fields lead to Him, then they must be interconnected. Art and science might seem very different entities, but both are really sides of the same coin. Classical Islamic civilization had a propensity to produce polymaths who were equally at home in seemingly unrelated fields. Umar Khayyam was as skilled in mathematics as he was in poetry. Al-Biruni wrote as easily on comparative religion as he did on mineralogy. Ibn Sina was as equipped in philosophy as he was in medicine.
Aside from the question of individual genius, there can be little doubt that such multi-faceted expertise sprung from the view that all fields of knowledge are inextricably linked to Revelation. This interconnectedness of knowledge was actively encouraged by the teaching system of the time which combined Islamic studies with healthy doses of science and humanities training. For example, ibn Khaldun classifies the disciplines that were typically offered by religious institutions as follows: 1. Transmitted sciences: Under this fell the standard Islamic sciences such as Quranic commentary, Hadith and its related disciplines, Islamic Law, Islamic theology, Sufism and Arabic language and literature 2. Philosophical sciences: Included in this category logic, the natural sciences, metaphysics and sciences of quantity i.e. geometry, arithmetic (including algebra), astronomy and music. Now, of course, seminary students may not have gone into the details of all the philosophical sciences (or even have studied all of them), but they were required to cultivate a broad understanding of its disciplines and their connection to the specifically Islamic sciences. Conversely, given the classical system of education, there was hardly a notable scientist that did not receive a solid formative exposure to the Islamic sciences. In his book Nasr does a marvelous job in demonstrating this almost seamless overlap of disciplines in the Islamic worldview, in the process unearthing many treasures of Muslim scientific thinking. The richness of this thinking derives precisely from being embedded in this worldview- a worldview where science is put at the service of Revelation. The worldview is not true because it conforms to science but science becomes meaningful because it affirms the worldview.
And this, we may add, is what ultimately matters. Not progress in a linear sense but truth. Science, like anything else, counts only insofar as it is a door to the Truly Real. [Based on a reading of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam, 2nd edition, The Islamic Texts Society, Cambridge, 1987]
Thinking about technology – some Islamic reflections When Muslims think and talk about technology, its often in utilitarian terms. What benefit can the cultivation of a specific technology have for the Muslim world? How do we catch up with the West in terms of technology so that we can stand militarily on equal terms and not be humiliated? These utilitarian concerns are vital. It is in fact an Islamic legal requirement to develop technology that benefits Muslims and preserves their honour. Whether we appreciate it or not, technology means power- a power that can be creative or destructive and we need as Muslims to be in control of guiding these processes, not merely be at the receiving end of its effects or simply copiers of other technologies. It is obvious, and Islamic scholars concur, that Muslim countries must develop the infrastructure and education to develop technological capacity. Whatever the causes of technological retardation in the Muslim world it is certainly not due Islamic law. What Islamic law is concerned about, however, are the uses of technology. Very broadly, if the technology is put into use in a manner that does not conflict with the Shariah then it is permitted; if there is such a conflict then not. Technology in itself is normally not good or bad- but the uses to which it is put are. The classic example in this regard is television. The majority of the ulama are of the opinion that if what is viewed is Islamically non-problematic then okay, otherwise not. There were some scholars who took umbrage with the technology itself, seeing it as the equivalent of ―picture-making‖, which they held was not permitted in Islam. But this view was relatively marginal and I think that the sheer pervasiveness of technology have compelled its proponents to modify their position and get involved in what they would deem as Islamically acceptable alternative viewing. The development of nuclear weapons is another example. Obviously, if these weapons are to be used in a way not sanctioned by the rules of jihad, this
would be unacceptable. But if they are used as a deterrent in order to protect attacks on Muslim countries, or in self-defense, their use would be fine. In fact, an Al-Azhar fatwa even makes the development of such weapons a religious obligation. It is worth noting, however, that some scholars support nuclear nonproliferation on the grounds that the catastrophic effects of nuclear war will overstep the rules of jihad. Again, though, this is the marginal view. While the utilitarian issues pertaining to technology are often discussed, its spiritual and theological dimensions are less wellknown. Apart from the uses to which technology is put, how do we spiritually engage this phenomenon? This question assumes heightened urgency given the fact we use computers, cell-phones, cars etc all the time. Technology has obviously impinged upon every facet of our existence. As Muslims we naturally look at the legal consequences of such technology. So many of us know, for example, that it is permitted to switch off a ringing cell-phone while making salaah! But, beyond the legal, how do we respond to the ubiquity of the phenomenon in our daily life? How do we see the cell-phone and the computer in the broader scheme of existence? In the dominant theological perspective in Islam, every act, every thing, every item is in reality created by Allah. The Quran says that Allah created us and all our acts (S 37: V 96). It conveys that not only did Allah create the seas but that He subjected the ships that sail on them to us (S 14: V 32). We choose to make artifacts, items and objects, but in reality it is only through His Power that all these things come into existence. By extension cell-phones, televisions and computers are created by Allah. Human beings are the instruments through which they come about. The intent of the human being in developing the object, whether good or bad, is what they will be rewarded for but the actual object purely comes into existence through Allah‘s power. This does not mean that we can be inactive and simply wait for things to happen. On the contrary, we
are required to respect Allah‘s ―habit‖ which is to exercise His Power through the laws of cause and effect. A technological item can only be developed through effort, know-how and the requisite infrastructure- these are the ―causes‖ that must be respected and adhered to for the ―effect‖-the technological‖ item to come into being. But underlying this is the understanding that all causes and effects only come into being through the Power of Allah. Such an understanding spiritualizes our approach to technological items. Whenever we engage with such an item we witness the power of Allah, knowing truly that the item comes from Allah. This witnessing and this realization itself is through Allah‘s power, making us aware of out utter dependence upon Him. The cellphone and the computer become a manifestation of the Divine act. Also, truly knowing that these items only come into being through the power of Allah will help rid many Muslims of the complex they have developed with regard to the West. Dazzled by the West‘s achievements in the sphere of science and technology, some feel inferior and overwhelmed and start subscribing to notions of racial hierarchy that are antithetical to Islam. However, as we have seen, technological items only come into being through Allah‘s power and thus a specific civilization‘s technological achievements are all part of the Divine plan. As to why they have been granted these achievements Muslim scholars have forwarded a few reasons. One is that the West has respected Allah‘s ―habit‖ in creating the necessary educational and social infrastructure for the development of technology. Their achievements are Allah‘s worldly reward for their respecting the laws of cause and effect. However, technology can also be a blight as one becomes so absorbed in its workings that one forgets its true Maker. Success in technology could, ironically, also be Allah‘s punishment for stubbornly ignoring His existence and control of all things. While technology can be spiritualized by looking at each object as a manifestation of the Divine act of creating, we may also need to take a break from technology to rediscover what truly counts.
Technology can fixate us, make us spellbound, to the detriment of our overall development. Television viewing is an example. Even if what we are watching is Islamically non-problematic, it may so absorb us that we forget the pleasures of reading, exercising, taking in a bit of fresh air or having a family conversation. To regain perspective and overall well-being we may just need to switch off the TV for a few hours. In general, and as pointed out by the philosopher Albert Borgmann, technology also makes us obsess about ―things‖, about devices, about gadgets rather than truly and fully engaging people and family- building practices. To rediscover this sense of engagement we might have to now and then push our obsession with technology into the background.
The perils of internet Islam The internet is a wonderful tool for studying Islam. Click the mouse and immediately locate a Quranic verse or hadith, access various translations of the Holy Book and collections of Prophetic sayings, type a search word and find an answer to a pressing legal issue, get an Islamic perspective on the news of the day, etc. A mountain of information on Islamic law, history, politics, mysticism and other disciplines is available allowing any interested party to access first hand even the most intricate debates and discussions. This exhilarating new vista comes at a price. Traditionally the ulamah used to mediate Islamic knowledge to the public. The very existence of the internet means that large numbers of Muslims can bypass such mediation to access this knowledge directly. But while direct access may be more convenient, the absence of mediation causes its own problems. In mediating knowledge the ulama also exercise a protective function in ensuring that what is imparted is correct and appropriate to the person's circumstances and needs. The absence of mediation means the absence of protection. Without such protection there exists the possibility of brutal exposure to the many perils of internet Islam. The first issue that can be listed in this regard is the problem of verification. Like other legal systems, Islamic law expects claims to be backed up with solid evidence. In particular, claims that challenge an established, accepted state of affairs need to be thoroughly scrutinized and verified rather than being taken as a fact, no matter how well it appears to state its case. For example, if a particular restaurant has been declared halal by a recognized authority, a claim disputing this cannot be accepted merely on the basis of e-mail messages, no matter how compelling the reasons given. If needs must, the relevant authorities can be contacted to comment on the reasons. But the e-mails themselves holds no water. The problem is compounded when, as often happens in the office culture of Muslims, the e-mails are forwarded! The internet, of course, is a minefield of claims and counter-claims, evidence and
counter evidence. Also, it is often not an issue of a valid claim versus an invalid one, but two valid claims in disagreement with one another. To navigate this minefield, to assess the validity of claims, to sift disruptive disagreements from enriching ones, the role of the ulama will always be crucial. The prevalence of e-mail forwarding brings to the fore another issue plaguing electronic Islam- hoaxes and homilies. Hoaxes are chain emails that demand one sends them to other users so as to obtain reward and avert calamity. Such e-mails have of course no basis in Islam and are easy to deal with: simply class them as junk mail. Homilies are a tougher proposition. Such e-mails encourage you to read a Name of Allah, or salawat, a particular number of times in order to obtain some good or some relief from distress. Now while reciting such litanies are good in themselves and do bring benefits the preponderance of these e-mails tend to promote an image of Islam as a religion focussed on formulas for obtaining worldly gain and averting worldly disaster. Its other more important dimensions are ignored- a religion which incorporates these litanies as part of a demanding spirituality whose only goal is to increase awareness of Allah and a religion which prizes the study of Islamic knowledge above formulaic recitations. The litanies to be recited must be a presented as a gateway to this demanding spirituality and knowledge activity, not as a substitute for them. In any case, litanies are to be normally given by a qualified spiritual guide. The internet is not the ideal place to be posting these things. Another peril of internet Islam is representvity. By the nature of things, groups who only have marginal voices in the Muslim community will make special efforts to make their voices heard on this medium and as a result will appear larger than they really are. A study has noted the preponderance of Salafi sites on the Web despite the fact that the the considerable majority of Sunni scholars and the Muslim public in general follow one of the four schools of law and either the Ashari or Maturidi schools of theology. Ignorance of these ideological differences mean that an unaware reader could regard some irregular or even deviant opinions as orthodox or
acceptable simply because of the sheer preponderance of websites espousing the position. These websites will of course not advertise the fact that they are Salafi but portray themselves as 'Islamic'. They will justify their positions with frequent quotes from the Quran and hadith fooling the credulous who are unaware of the sophistication of Islamic law and the ideological currents within Islam. There are other issues as well. Fatwas are given in a context and take account of the situation and needs of the questioner. Soliciting a one size fits all fatwa from the internet, even from a reliable source, can be problematic, particularly if the ulama of a specific region have given an alternative view given the real life context in which they operate. Another issue is how to deal with the plethora of anti-Islamic material on the internet. Ordinary Muslims may feel a strong need to fight these criticisms tooth and nail which is all well and good. But the best course of action might simply be to ignore such sites, focus on improving one‘s own knowledge of Islam, and let the ulamah pick and choose the fights they feel will be consequential for Muslim well-being. Imam Malik (RA) has cautioned us to be careful as to who we take our religion from. The internet's general anonymity forces us to take extra heed of this advice. In this we need the assistance of the ulamah who will always be crucial in separating the wheat from the chaff. A layperson who seriously relies on the internet for his or her Islamic knowledge and information needs to be in close contact with the ulamah so as to ensure not falling prey to the internet's religious dangers. In this sense the internet enhances rather than diminishes the traditional role of the ulamah. Once solidly grounded, the user can access the wonderful potential of internet Islam in an intellectually and spiritually enriching manner.
The contemporary relevance of an archaic Islamic discipline Classical Islamic theology, known in Arabic as ilm ul kalam, is an often anonymous and at times even maligned discipline in contemporary Islam. Once a hallmark of the Islamic sciences, and a blazing symbol of a vibrant Muslim intellectual culture, it has been overshadowed in the last 200 years or so by a more practical and literal approach to the body of Islamic knowledge. But a new book on the field, I believe, gives us a renewed respect for the discipline and its contemporary relevance. The Cambridge Companion to Islamic Theology (edited by Tim Winter, Cambridge University Press, 2008) not only provides a guide to a rich Islamic intellectual tradition but suggests important ways in which the field can enhance how we approach our contemporary situation. Islamic theology is fundamentally God-talk. The Arabic is literally translated as the science of talking, speaking and debating. And all this talking is at the bottom line about a proper conception of Allah. This whole branch of knowledge initially arose to establish an understanding of Allah that was rooted not only in the Quran but on firm rational foundations. More widely, theology also came to incorporate discussion regarding all fundamental Islamic beliefs. The majority of ordinary Muslims would not need such an overtly rational approach to the religion. And there is absolutely no problem in this. Ilm ul kalam was mainly meant for the ulama. The considerable majority of people do not ―analyse‖ Allah, they need to ―feel‖ Allah and they therefore find resonance with the Islamic branches of knowledge that make this connection, such as hadith or Sufism. So why are there increasing calls by a number of ulama to ―resurrect‖ this branch of knowledge? For one thing, its never good for a field to be so out of sight so as to almost be forgotten by the broader Muslim public. There could be many members of this public who would want a more philosophical or analytical understanding of what they believe in and this field may hold
answers to their perplexing questions. But aside from such personal resonance, classical Islamic theology can considerably enrich reflections on our contemporary situation. A case in point is the notion of causality. ―Whoever knows the causes of things is happy‖ goes a saying. Classical Islamic theology made a detailed study of the relationship between the Ultimate Cause of things (Allah) and secondary causes (things that ‗cause‘ other things- or the law of cause and effect). The dominant view balanced a respect for secondary causes with a full awareness that the Almighty was nevertheless the Cause of every act. Applied to today‘s tumultuous circumstances, such a view teaches Muslims to pay heed to the laws of cause and effect if they are going to prosper materially. At the same time, by making us understand that Allah is truly and fully in control of every thing and every event it provides perspective to issues, whether these issues are political, social or personal. As an Islamic scholar reminds us, ―history is in good hands‖. It is important to realize that this not merely psychological reassurance: classical Islamic theologians showed through sustained logical demonstration why this is factually the case. To have a view other than this was to be at odds with reality. Classical Islamic theology also enriches the way we currently engage with the other. Muslim theologians freely borrowed concepts from ancient Greek thought and ―Islamized‖ them, and they become a standard part of the syllabus at higher institutions of Islamic learning. The fact that Muslim theologians often had profound disagreements with one another did not stop them from benefiting from each other. As the book shows, mainstream Muslim theology was never rejectionist, but incorporated the methods and insights of its opponents in the development of its teachings. Another area where the field may help us is in understanding the relationship between the various Islamic disciplines. Here the book is particularly insightful. Islamic disciplines such as tafsir (Quranic commentary), fiqh (Islamic law), hadith (Prophetic sayings and deeds), tasawwuf (Islamic spirituality) and Islamic theology itself
are not islands unto themselves but intimately connected to each. There is no discipline that is expendable and a well-rounded Muslim individual should have at least a basic grasp, if not competence, of each to be able to apply it to a relevant area in his or her life. For example, every one of us should ideally know enough Islamic theology to rationally defend our beliefs, enough tassawuf to cultivate our spiritual side, enough fiqh to carry out our daily activities in accordance with Allah‘s laws, together with continuously exploring the Quran and hadith – ideally with scholars or commentaries- to enrich our understanding of the other three dimensions. This will of course help cultivate the ideal of a balanced personality. Sometimes we can perhaps become too ―legalist‖, too ―intellectual‖ or even over-zealously ―spiritual‖ at the expense of our holistic development. These dimensions also flow into one another, leading to the achievement of such balance. It is here that Islamic theology, focused as it is on the intellect (the ‗aql), becomes so important. Paying due attention to the intellect leads to a proper engagement with spirituality. (The book, in fact, shows the close nexus that developed between Islamic theology and Islamic spirituality (tassawuf) in Islamic history). And a proper engagement with spirituality leads to an increased awareness to keep within the boundaries of the Shariah by being aware of the rules of fiqh. Perhaps this integrative approach to Islamic knowledge is the most important lesson that ilm-ul-kalam communicates to us today. An ability to see each sphere of knowledge as part of a bigger picture, never to be rejected in itself, will surely help towards healing unnecessary ideological rifts between Muslims.
Shaykh Ninowy and the aqidah debates Islamic theology is in a curious position currently. This field, known in Arabic as Aqidah, ilm ul kalam, or ilm ul Tawhid (among other names) has historically been a minefield of discussion around Godhood, prophethood and the realities of the Hereafter, giving rise to various sects in Islam, the effects of which still reverberate today, primarily in the Sunni-Shia divide. The "victor" that emerged from these discussions- if we judge the matter purely in the terms of numbers-has been the the Ahl Sunnah wa Jamaah (people of the Sunnah and the Congregation) as represented chiefly by Imam Abul Hasan al-Ash'ari and Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and their followers. Many people have probably never heard of these Imams but the effect of their teachings is felt in countless universities, darul ulooms and pesantren throughout the Muslim world. And via the graduates of these institutions they are imparted to the Muslim masses. Whether they are aware of it or not, the vast majority of Sunni masses learn their fundamental belief system in the manner imparted by one of these two schools: the Ashari or the Maturidi. The differences between these schools are considered negligible since they relate to peripheral concerns. On core issues they stand united and both are considered authentic manifestations of Sunni orthodoxy- and, often, the only manifestations (the ―Athari‖ or traditionalist school is considered another manifestation-more on that a little later.) But, for practical purposes, as the late Shaykh al Azhar, Shaykh Sayyid Muhammad al Tantawi says: ―The Ashari and the Maturidi schools: they are the Ahl Sunnah wal Jama'ah‖. Yet, as was mentioned, the situation today is curious. While Ashari and Maturidi teachings still form the bedrock of the theological component of Islamic institutions from Morocco to China, they are done on a more limited scale (aqidah is typically a very small part of
the curriculum), without the fervour that characterized older discussions, quietly and away from the public gaze. To an extent this is understandable. Aqidah is a tough and intractable subject in certain respects. Topics around Allah's attributes, destiny and free will, the vision of Allah in the Hereafter have given rise to visceral debate among scholars and may prove too confusing to the unschooled. Better- the logic runs-to provide the masses with the bare basics and leave it at that. In addition, these beliefs are not simply intellectual but experiential as well. So -the additional thread to this logic runs- once these basic beliefs are affirmed by "taste" their validity will be confirmed and will render intellectual argument superfluous. And in the middle ages of Islamic history (14th to the 19th century) Sufism has been the vehicle by which masses have ―tasted‖ the truth of Ashari/Maturidi axioms. To top it all the success of the Ashari/Maturidi paradigm has led to a natural complacency. Why enhance the paradigm when there are no substantial challenges to its dominance? All well and good. But the colonial onslaught has meant that the situation has undergone change in the twentieth century, and a particularly radical one from the second half of the century. There has been general intellectual turmoil resulting from Muslim political weakness and loss of global power: past verities were not that easily accepted anymore. There has been the onslaught of secularization which sought to challenge the very foundations of religious belief. There has been a large-scale dissatisfaction with the seeming inability of traditional religious structures and institutions (who embodied the Ashari/Maturidi worldview) to respond to these crises. A breach was created and into it stepped other actors to challenge the dominance of this worldview. There was the emergence of the quasi-Mutazilite, rationalist trend which sought to respond to the secular onslaught but whose reach is generally confined and limited to an intellectual elite (probably because of intellectual overcompensation).
The Iranian Revolution has spouted a new phase of Shia theology and da‘wah but the historically ingrained suspicion of the Sunnis is always going to make their mission difficult. By far the most important group to challenge the Ashari/Maturidi dominance has been the Salafis. Aided by considerable financial resources and religious networks, the reduced impact of Sufi orders, the whole 20th century impetus to bypass the classical legacy and go back to the Quran and Sunnah for fresh inspiration, they have taken advantage of the decline of traditional aqidah studies in order to establish themselves as the true spokesperson for the Ahl Sunnah wal Jama‘ah. Fulfilling a need for more discussion of aqidah issues in public space they have had a considerable impact on Muslim youth in particular, giving rise to some considerable confusion in this area. So while most scholars teach, and the masses still imbibe, the traditional Sunni worldview the public expression of Islamic beliefs (internet, airwaves and popular religious literature) is dominated by those at variance with that legacy. Shaykh Ninowy: inspiring, educating, clarifying It is against this curious backdrop that Syrian-American scholar Shaykh Muhammad ibn Yayha al-Ninowy‘s course on the classic ‗aqidah text ―Al-Tahawiyyah‖ must be seen. (The course ran at IPSA and Masjidul Quds from 1-11 August 2011.) The Salafis have a number of beliefs in the sphere of aqidah that, from the Ashari/Maturidi perspective, are strange and frankly errant. Among these- stated to lesser or greater degrees of sophistication and obfuscation- is the effective belief that Allah shares some attributes of His creation, ascribing to Him place, time, movement and bodily attributes.
A major aim of Shaykh Ninowy‘s course was to completely dispel such notions, leaving the listener in no doubt as to their deviance from a classical point of view. As a basis for his analysis he employs the Quranic distinction between the ―muhkam‖ (clear, unambiguous verses) and those verses that convey multiple meanings (―mutashabihat‖). Key examples of ―muhkam‖ verses are ―Laysa kamithlihi shay‖―Nothing is like Him‖, ―Allah us Samad‖-―Allah‘s absolute freedom from need of anything and the neediness of all else on Him‖, and the verses declaring that Allah is One. Examples of ―mutashabihat‖ are the verses that speak of Allah‘s ―istiwa‖ (subjecting, sitting among a host of other connotations), or His ―yad‖ (hand, generosity, support, help among other meanings), and others which can be interpreted in various ways- some acceptable, some blasphemous. The unambiguous verses form the cornerstone of belief in Allah. They convey that Allah is absolutely other than His creation, unlike it in every respect. The ambiguous verses might be seen in the light of these and cannot be taken as a foundation for understanding Allah‘s attributes. The result is the total rejection of likening the Creator to the creation in any manner whatsoever, or what is classically termed ―tanzih‖-the pure transcendence of Allah. In his exposition the Shaykh spares no one from contorting or misunderstanding this utter otherness including some of the Sufis. Concepts such as Allah‘s nur or the vision of Him in the Hereafter are true but they are beyond modality. Modality applies only to the creation and understanding that Allah and His Attributes are beyond ―howness‖ is a key aspect to aqidah. What makes Shaykh Ninowy‘s approach rather different is his focus on the primary texts. He does not speak from ‗Asha‘ari or Maturidi texts but from the Quran and authentic Sunnah- which Salafis tend to claim as their forte. In this way he forces them to reconsider the way they have often glibly looked at and understood these sources. He unapologetically seeks to wrest the public discussion of
aqidah back from those he sees as doing a disservice to the understanding of the Quran and Sunnah. And in employing this methodology Shaykh Ninowy has helped revive a third, smaller strand in the historical evolution of the Ahl Sunnah wal Jamaah. This strand is known as the ―Athari‖ school which, in contradistinction to the Asharis and Maturidis, preferred not to engage in polemics and explanation but rather assigned the meanings of the ambiguous terms to that which was intended by Allah (a process technically called tafwid or assignation). It is a school that accepts the Quran, authentic ahadith and authentic reports of the Companions (athar)as they have come down, without adding or subtracting in the way of interpretation. It is to Shaykh Ninowy‘s immense credit that he was able to successfully show that tafwid is not a capitulation of reason, a declaration of failure to understand the Almighty, or an abdication of intellectual responsibility. On the contrary, it proceeds precisely from reason since it is the text that allows multiple interpretations, provided that the bedrock of utter transcendence is not disturbed. And this recognition of our incapacity to contain the Almighty is in itself an opening to spiritual freedom, a blessed recognition of our insignificance in the face of His Greatness. After all, aqidah is really about the ―taste‖.
An argument for music in Islam (With Ighsaan Taliep) The recent visit of singer Sami Yusuf to South Africa sparked yet again consternation in some quarters about music being tolerated as Islamic. In these quarters, music is not permitted, period, even if it were to be classed as ―Islamic music‖. And they quote hadiths, which on the face of it, strongly corroborate their position and may intimidate many unwary members of the Muslim populace into believing that this is the absolute truth of the matter. We wish to re-iterate the other view on this issue, a view which instinctively sees music as permitted and which not only allows, but recommends, the cultivation of contemporary forms of Islamic music. First of all, we need to be rigorous. A distinction between music and musical instruments must be made. To say that music in Islam is haram is problematic, since there are ‗ulama in all four Sunni schools of law who deem singing to be acceptable in principle. It is fine to state that musical instruments are forbidden if this is one‘s view on the matter. But to state even this as the Islamic view, without stating that alternative views on the issue exists, is not reflective of discussion among today‘s ‗ulama, or even of those of the past. The spirit of the Shariah is broad and accepting, not dismissive. Music is in the very make-up of the human being and spans across all cultures and traditions. It is inconceivable that Islam, which is the religion that corresponds to fundamental human nature (fitrah), would simply root out something which is so much part of that nature. The Prophet (SAW) demonstrated Islam‘s acute consciousness of this reality when he, as narrated in Bukhari, allowed two girls to sing about a pre-Islamic battle while in his presence. He (SAW) hoisted Aishah (RA) to see some dancing Abbysinians, encouraged the tambourine to be played at the weddings of the Ansar and did not object to the songs of joy sung
by Madinah‘s residents when they finally had a chance to see his glorious face.
If one looks at the spread of Islam in history, one also finds that ‗ulama who were organically connected to immediate communities generally countenanced local cultural practices, including its music. These wise men and women knew that it was fully in the spirit of Islam to allow people to have a natural outlet to express their worldly longings, hopes and sorrows. This is not to even speak of spiritual music that drew the masses closer to Allah and His Prophet. The Sufis, in particular, actively encouraged such music resulting in rich Islamic musical traditions throughout the Muslim world. It is incredible to believe that all such ulama, sufis and masses of Muslims were wrong, a notion which flies in the face of the well-known dictum stated by the Companion ibn Masud (RA): ―Whatever the Muslims deem to be good is good in the eyes of Allah and whatever they consider bad is bad in Allah's view.‖
Of course, there are ahadith which simplistically read might give the impression that Islam forbids music in total. We will leave aside the technical question of how authentic these ahadith are, just noting though that in the view of a number of scholars many of them are weak and cannot serve as a legal justification for prohibiting music or musical instruments per se. We will quote two hadith that were mentioned by the recent detractors of Islamic music. The first one states: ―Music causes hypocrisy to grow in the hearts, just like water causes the crops to grow.‖(Mishkat) Read carefully, the hadith can refer to one who has seeds of hypocrisy already in his heart and may safely be assumed to be listening to music that is in conflict with Islamic values. It does not appear to be referring to one who has a sound heart, who would by
nature not be inclined to listen to unacceptable music. The second hadith quoted is this: ―Verily Allah Ta'ala sent me as a mercy and as a guide unto the worlds. And Allah Ta'ala commanded me to destroy musical instruments.‖(Musnad Ahmad) We know for certain that the Prophet (SAW) countenanced the playing of the tambourine (diff) and so this hadith cannot be taken as barring musical instruments altogether. Further, a full text of the hadith reads: ―The Prophet said that Allah has sent him as mercy and guide for mankind and He commanded him to destroy all the musical instruments, idols, crosses and all the trappings of ignorance. Allah said that if a man took even a mouthful of wine, He would make him drink the same quantity of pus of the wounds of the people in Hell.‖ Quite clearly, and read in this context, the hadith can be seen as commenting on a type of musical activity that is associated with values contrary to Islam, not necessarily on the enterprise as a whole. Infact, the ahadith quoted as arguments against music often link it to general debauchery. There is no question that any music that is going to result in activities at odds with the Shariah is forbidden. It is fair to say that these ahadith are not attacking music in itself but, rather, its delinquent version. The renowned scholar, Dr Yusuf Qardawi, expertly notes this point when he talks about an often cited hadith that states: ―There will be a group from among my people who will be lax with regards to fornication, the wearing of silk, drinking of wine and the playing of musical instruments.‖ Qardawi argues that the hadith is in reality referring a group characterized by all these qualities and thus it would be incorrect to see the playing of musical instruments in itself as a sign of deviancy. It is, furthermore, methodologically incorrect to cite certain ahadith as proof for one‘s position, when that position should be resting on
the principles and maxims of Islamic law- principles and maxims firmly grounded in the totality of the Quran and Sunnah. One of these principles (umum ul balwa) maintains that when a phenomenon becomes so pervasive, one cannot escape it and is forced to recognize its reality, and engage with it. Unquestionably, music in today‘s society represents such a phenomenon. Another legal maxim states that ―Hardship must be alleviated‖ (al-usr yajib ut taysir). As the scholar Umar Faruq Abd-Allah points out, the application of this maxim requires the creation of alternatives. There is no doubt in our mind that the delinquency seen in much of contemporary music culture (and these days in the East as well as the West) embodies hardship for the masses of Muslim youth who are bound to come across its expressions in many areas of their life. We are required to create a more suitable alternative for our youth- an alternative that captures much of what appeals to youth on the current music scene while being driven by Islamic values. Artists like Sami Yusuf are doing just that and should be lauded for fulfilling what is possibly a fard kifayah (an obligation on the Muslim community that some must fulfill or else all will be answerable).
Respecting the form There appears to be a general interest by many Muslim scholars today to stress the spirit behind the Shariah rather than its outer or formal form. This is not to say they discard the formal form: on the contrary, they strive to understand the spirit behind the Shariah precisely because they have such a good grasp and appreciation of the latter. So, for instance, take the scholars who pursue the discipline known as the ―objectives of the Shariah‖ [maqasid ul Shariah]. This discipline teaches scholars how to look behind the formal aspects of the Shariah to its broader objectives and to take these into consideration when applying the law. But it precisely these scholars' grasp of the formal aspects of the law that leads them to a study of its objectives. Similarly, scholars of tasawwuf (Islamic spirituality) naturally gravitate towards looking at a person's heart or spirit in his or her approach to the Shariah, and not that much on the formal aspects of the law. But no recognized, credible practioner of tassawuf would advocate discarding the law to focus on the spirit. Indeed, the battle against the lower self pre-eminently means that one subjects oneself to the dictates of the Shariah and historically Sufis have been the most foremost observers and upholders of the formal aspects of the law. In the science of aqidah (Islamic belief) there is a more nuanced awareness of the difficulties and complexities in judging a person's belief based upon their formal utterances and actions. Callous and wild accusations of 'kufr' (disbelief) and 'shirk' (polytheism) appear to be currently more muted with people- perhaps more because of the political implosion in the Muslim world- more prudent in judging another's belief. Even so, scholars who have gone out of the way to explain why any particular person's seemingly problematic utterance should be seen metaphorically, for example, are
simultaneously careful in not overstepping formal boundaries in their expressions in this area. This going beyond the formal is, of course, a good thing. It is chiefly a reaction against the dry formalism and literalism that characterized certain important strands of Muslim discourse in the late 20th century. It is indisputable that the spirit behind the law is ultimately more significant than its formal aspect. The carrying out of formal duties is based, firstly, on believing with one's heart; secondly, an awareness that carrying out these duties brings spiritual and emotional fulfillment; and, thirdly, that sooner or later our intellect finds carrying out these duties the most ―rational‖ thing to do and consequently finds its own fulfillment. And yet, and this is the key point, it is precisely in constantly engaging the formal aspect that we find spiritual and intellectual fulfillment and thus these forms cannot be abandoned. The issue of the hijab- perhaps the most visible public symbol of formal Islam- is pertinent in this regard. We know that 'clothes maketh not the man' and equally a formal observance of hijab does not complete a woman. And, yes, there are many Muslim women who do not adhere to the hijab but have beautiful qualities. And, yes, there are women in hijab who may have less than ideal qualities (and we all are prone to mistakes and may Allah forgive us all). But a formal observance of the hijab is nevertheless a requirement of our religion. But one cannot stop at the formal. One has to be aware of the moral and spiritual purposes of the outward garment to fully appreciate its observance. Firstly, and most fundamentally, it represents obedience and submission to the Divine command, and thus is a continuous act of worship (an ibadah) in its own right. The wearing of the hijab then lays the formal groundwork for an intimate consciousness of the divine. Morally it helps society channel sexual conduct into acceptable spheres (it must not be forgotten here that hijab is also ―in the eyes of men‖ and they have an equal responsibility in ensuring that the proper mores are maintained). On another level the hijab is a metaphor for the divine hijab: just as Allah's grandeur is enclosed
and needs to be discovered by spiritual journeying, the hijab encloses the exalted spiritual nature of women. But the realisation of this morality and spirituality can only take place by observing the formal aspect of hijab. Arguing that we can have this spirit behind the hijab- intimate consciousness of the Divine, for example- without adhering to the hijab misses the point. It is precisely the form that makes us reflect upon the spirit, and it is this reflection upon the spirit that reinforces the importance of the form.
Much ado about ijtihad There have been calls from some quarters that the Islamic world needs to revive the spirit of ijtihad. Ijtihad means ―serious intellectual effort‖ and this call urges Muslims to apply new, creative ways of thinking in the legal, social, political and other fields in order to reinvigorate the ummah and restore the spirit that made it such a vibrant one in the past. While the call is undoubtedly noble it too often glosses over the complexities that are attached to the notion of ijtihad. Firstly, as renowned Syrian scholar Dr Said Ramadan al-Buti points out, a distinction has to be made between the legal field on the one hand and all others. Ijtihad can and has to take place in all fields. We cannot be stuck in a time warp. But Islamic scholars have developed specific conventions and rules for ijtihad in the legal arena that ensure that the application of the Shariah in any given context meets the needs of that context while being true to the totality of the Quran and Sunnah. Authenticity can never be sacrificed for expediency. In this arena it is more proper to define ijtihad, as Jordanian authority Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller does, as 'expert legal opinion'. And the expertise is only obtained after the normal thorough training in the requisite Islamic disciplines of Arabic, Fiqh, Quranic commentary, hadith etc. . While experts from other fields are of necessity called in to gain a proper understanding of an issue, be it scientific or social, it is the job of the mufti (the person technically qualified to pass a fatwa) to ultimately provide the legal understanding of the matter. And, as such, ijtihad is a continuous activity since new issues constantly arise and need to addressed from an Islamic legal perspective. The fact is that they are being addressed through the institution of fatwa, or considered legal opinion issued by an appropriately qualified scholar. A fatwa grapples with the understanding of an issue itself, looks at its ramifications, matches it to what is required by the Quran, Sunnah and objectives of the Shariah, and comes up with a view or verdict as required. It is, in
other words, a serious intellectual effort. The passing of fatwas has been unceasing from the time of the Companions up until the present day. In this sense ijtihad has never died in the Islamic world and to discuss reviving it is superfluous. There is though a misunderstanding with regard to ijtihad that has dogged both liberal and conservative positions. The misunderstanding revolves around the perception that the ―doors of ijtihad‖ were closed sometime in the fourth century of Islam. Quite patently, even if such an assertion was true, it has to be qualified since ijtihad in the form of the fatwa has never stopped. What is true though is that, for Sunni Muslims, the methodological principles for exercising ijtihad have been laid by the four great schools of law, or madhahib. Madhab, in actual fact, means 'way' or ―method'. These principles should not be seen as restrictive since they are governed by a vast internal logic- the product of a period of tremendous intellectual activity around these principles. By its very nature, this logic has its borders. Hence there is little point for further ijtihad on the principles themselves. To do so can only result in duplication. Unfortunately this quite logical ―closing of the door of methodological principles‖ has been misunderstood by some at both ends of the spectrum as the closing of the door of ijtihad in an absolute sense. Ijtihad in other spheres of human activity faces no such qualifications and conditions. Here the avenue for creative approaches to the issues of the day is almost unlimited as long as they do not overstep the agreed upon prohibitions of the Shariah. And these latter are tiny compared to what is allowed. Today, as in the past, there is exciting Muslim thinking that has taken taken place in the arts, sciences, humanities, politics and society. The ―Islamization of knowledge‖ project was a large-scale recent effort at thinking through the contemporary body of knowledge in terms of Islamic values. In fact, it shaped the ethos of two well-known Islamic universities. In all periods of Muslim history such general ijtihad was never absent and could never be if society was to survive. Even a cursory reading of Ottoman or Moghul history, for
example, shows innovative adaptations to the realities of the day. One must be cautious to attribute the decline of these great empires, and the Muslim world in general, to a paucity of ijtihad. This is not to say that all is hunky-dory with ijtihad as it stands. I think legitimate questions can be raised regarding the quality of ijtihad that issues forth from various quarters. In the legal field, for example, not all muftis have the same level of training. Islamic institutions, like educational institutes in general, differ in quality and areas of strength. In addition, some muftis may be more informed than others about the character and nuances of the society in which they need to make their judgment calls. With regard to other fields, the progress of ijtihad is substantially affected by educational infrastructure and opportunities, the nature of the bureaucracy, the wider social and political climate, and other such factors. In fact, I think it is such social factors, and not the absence of intellectual effort, which take more responsibility for any decline of the ummah. In Islamic legal thought, for example, there is typically a number of various views available on any given issue. Lack of access to differing perspectives may simply be a product of lack of education or a result of social conditioning that excludes other, equally legitimate views. The ijtihad is there but not accessed in the way it should be. It is subject to larger social, political and economic realities that limit and determine its quality and application. In the final analysis these realities need to change to ensure the full flowering of ijtihad.
Shaykh Tantawi stirs another hornet’s nest Has Al- Azhar University head Shaykh Muhammad Sayyid Tantawi put his foot in it again? Shaykh Tantawi, who in 2003 famously supported the French government‘s ban on wearing the headscarf (hijab) in its public schools, has now expressed a wish to do away with the niqab (the face veil- not to be confused with the headscarf) at all schools that are affiliated to the university. And this in Egypt! The initial reaction to this statement has been a predictable indicator of the deplorable state of debate in some sectors of the Muslim word. He‘s been accused of being a puppet of the Egyptian government, a scholar in their pay, impious and much worse. But few have actually looked at the arguments, both in 2003 and now, preferring to play the man rather than the ball. Of course, in playing the man few recognize that he is scholar of considerable stature (he wouldn‘t be Head of Azhar otherwise even if the government does play a role in his appointment) and has, among a number of other publications, penned a 7000 page commentary of the Quran. This alone should give pause to any of us before we rush in to pass judgment on the Shaykh. Be let‘s look at the arguments. In 2003 Tantawi supported the ban on the headscarf using the perfectly valid legal principle ―the lesser of two evils‖ (the other evil presumably being the further social and educational marginalization of Muslims in the country). He made it abundantly clear that the hijab was compulsory but that the situation in France was that of coercion and Muslims there had little option but to obey the laws of the state. Closely read, his views were actually an indictment of France‘s secular fundamentalism. In currently calling for the ban on the niqab, the Shaykh is perfectly within his rights to do so. He‘s asking for it to be banned in the Azhar school system, not anywhere else. The schools, in any
case, are not co-ed. The niqab is also not the traditional attire of Egyptian women, unlike some parts of Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan for instance. And it is not compulsory according to the Shariah, except for a minority. True, many classical scholars appear to view it as a recommended practice. And the Shaykh is most certainly aware of this fact. But one has to question whether its present-day proponents in that country are following it purely out of fidelity to this view. For the political subtext is quite clear: the niqab in contemporary Egypt is at least equally a symbol of a puritanical, ideologically rigid, anti-state brand of Islam as it is of a pious woman innocently trying to follow what she believes is the better course in the religion. And it is this which even well-meaning critics miss in their umbrage with the Shaykh. The Shaykh is not so much fighting the niqab- in fact, he made it clear that he respects the choice of the woman who dons it- but against its employment as a symbol against the Islam characteristic of Azhar and Egyptian society in general. This is an Islam that has a traditionally pragmatic approach to the Shariah, is sensitive to Sufi spirituality, and tolerant of customs, traditions and diversity. In fact, some of the criticism leveled at the Shaykh‘s views on niqab has borne this point out, being simply a pretext to attack the whole edifice of the Azharian brand of Islam. This is not to say that the Shaykh‘s views is above criticism. There has been criticism from within that edifice against the Shaykh‘s views and this is to be expected. . For example, there have been concerns as to whether the Shaykh underestimates the misuse of his views by Western governments.
There is bound to be such differences of intelligent opinion on this matter But ―intelligent‖ is the whole point. Not characterassassinating, politically driven, legally uninformed attacks. What, one can finally ask, about individual choice? What about the woman who simply wants to don the niqab out of respect of what sees as the Sunnah and who isn‘t interested in the political dimension of things? The truth is that, in Egypt at least, she is going to be part of this political battle whether she chooses it or not. And if she wishes to attend the Azhar school she has to respect their position in this conflict. ―The interests of the group takes precedence over that of the individual‖ goes an Islamic legal maxim.
Is radio an ideal medium for fatwas? Radio fatwas appear to be quite popular, judging by the associated buzz. And, of course, it fulfills a vital function in the community. For one thing, the medium is user-friendly and engaging, especially if the mufti (used here to mean any Islamic legal expert) has a great radio personality. For another, it might be the only way that many people can access this type of Islamic information. And there is the added benefit of the questioner being able to remain anonymous. No need to ask embarrassing questions face to face. But for various inter-related reasons it is clearly not the ideal medium for appreciating the nature of a fatwa. The first such reason is complexity. Islamic law, it needs to be repeated, is an exceptionally intricate discipline. The great bulk of it does not admit of single, easy answers to inquiries. Even within one madhhab there may be multiple answers to a particular issue. Within the Shafi‘i madhhab, for example, any number of its authorities its recognized authorities- Nawawi, Subki, Haytami, Ghazali, Rafi‘i, Suyuti and others- may have different takes on a problem. Now, naturally, all these views cannot be communicated on radio nor is it advisable to do so. This is bound to generate confusion. But there is, unfortunately, a tendency to go too far in the other direction and over simplify, to discuss issues composing multiple layers in a rudimentary fashion, to present only the mufti‘s point of view when a number of others exist, This is partly in the nature of the beast. The radio, unlike the written fatwa, does not allow a mufti to elaborate upon his opinion and subject it to the critical scrutiny of his peers. The more guileless members of the audience may take his every word as gospel.
In this position of unfettered power the mufti has a bounden duty to alert his audience to the partiality of his view, to the complexity of an issue, to remind them that his answers are necessarily limited, to urge and prod them to further questioning and study. Simply conveying his legal ruling is the least of his duties. His principal task is to make his audience appreciate the complexity of fiqh by teaching them the principles that underlie any given ruling. Ironically, he should be imparting tools of analysis that lessen their dependence upon him. This is done in every serious fiqh class- including those offered to laymen. There is no reason why it cannot be done on the radio. The second factor that militates against the radio fatwa is the matter of context. Fiqh is all about context. A mufti has to be fully conversant with the nature of the society in which he has to give his ruling. He must also be keenly aware of the individual context of the questioner. In some cases, something that might be haram as a general principle might be halal given an individual or locality‘s specific context. More broadly, any community has its own rhythms and temperaments and a mufti must be keenly sensitive to these when passing his legal verdict. A ruling which is insensitive to such a context can harm or cause difficulty to the questioner and the community in general. Such a verdict would be in gross violation of the Shariah principles demanding the prevention of harm and hardship. Radio is a blanket medium. It cannot be expected to be as sensitive to a context as the local mufti will be when approached by a questioner. But it can certainly mitigate this failing by making viewers continuously aware of its limitation in this regard and of their need to approach their local muftis with their particular situations. Answers via radio cannot be definitive, they at best are a guide.
The radio also needs to ensure that their designated mufti is someone who shows a thorough and supportive appreciation of the community‘s history and customs, identifies with the way they practice Islam and has an empathy with them that is akin to a ‗son (or daughter!) of the community.‖ In this way it can lessen the burden of context. Finally, there is the issue of ideology. Muftis come from particular ideological positions. This is inevitable and not a problem in itself. And it‘s also not a problem if any one wants to follow those positions. It‘s a free country, as the saying goes. But it is a problem if these ideological positions are not stated at the outset, and views are presented as if in a vacuum, unaccompanied by any baggage. This seeming neutrality of the mufti is reinforced by radio‘s ability to dislocate: we don‘t know who he is, where he comes from, who he associates with. Now, for various reasons a mufti might be a bit apprehensive about giving away his particular leanings. Whatever his own reason, listeners cannot be naïve about this. They may agree or disagree with the mufti, but they need to know where his coming from. And they can only do this by acquiring a working awareness of the ideological currents within Islam. Apathy in this regard is an invitation to gullibility. The whole radio (and tv) fatwa giving enterprise demands constant vigilance at every level- by stations, by muftis and by listeners- so as to ensure that the built-in imperfections of this medium as a fatwa provider aren‘t compromising the integrity of this traditionally highly refined and careful craft.
Narrowing the broad In the recent debate about women‘s attendance at Eid Salaah, one can‘t help but feel for Quraysha Sooliman and others who challenge the suffocating, narrow readings of Islamic law that prevail among some South African Muslims. And given the more putrid responses to their efforts, one detects with Professor Abdulkader Tayob, an unregenerate patriarchy among some seeking to keep women away from the mosques, a bald attempt to ―put women in their place.‖ But perhaps the worst offence done in this whole business was to the image of the Hanafi madhab. A madhab renowned among the ulama for its nuanced approach to the texts, emphasis on reason and the legal tools it affords to creatively adapt to new situations is now seen, due to some who speak in its name, as an inflexible, potentially misogynistic anachronism. This, of course, is very far from the truth- namely being a madhab which has helped to safely navigate the lives of countless Muslim millions in China, Turkey, Central Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh India and parts of the Arab world. Had it not been able to respond to their ongoing needs it would have long ago been abandoned. So how does one respond to the perfectly legitimate need for many women to feel (and not just to be) an equal part of the day and its proceedings without abandoning the principles of the madhab? The first thing to realize is that this madhab does not prevent women from attending the Eid prayer- it simply does not compel them to do so. This mean, as Hanafi scholar Naielah Ackbarali puts, they are not sinful if they miss this prayer (unlike the case of men) and they are, in fact, rewarded for their attendance. Now there is the well-known position in the madhab that it is disliked for women to attend the mosques for fear of the fitna that
this might cause. This a ―contextual‖ fatwa if we may term it thusa perfectly legitimate one but one that responds to conditions that exist in society at a given point in time. If those conditions change, the fatwa can change. As Deobandi school Mufti Muhammad bin Adam al-Kawthari reflects: ―If we were to apply this context to the modern era – where women are all over the market areas, shopping malls, shopping centres, streets and roads – it seems unfair to completely shun them from entering the Mosques. As one scholar of piety and knowledge once said: ―We don‘t mind women frequenting the most disliked of places in the sight of Allah which are the bazaars, but we have a major problem with women coming to the most beloved of places in the sight of Allah, which are the Mosques! More broadly, the madhab allows various innovative ways for women to fully participate in the public religious sphere without compromising any of its dictates, even if these were to be interpreted strictly. A good example in this regard is the phenomenon of Chinese womens‘ mosques. China has had a centuries old tradition of mosques catering exclusively to women headed by nu ahong(woman Imam). In line with a strict and minority view within the Hanafi school these women do not gather together to form congregational prayer. Yet such scrupulous observance does not prevent these institutions from being a visible, socially vital aspect of the Chinese Muslim landscape. In the words of Shaykha Ingrid Mattson: ―Muslims in China wanted to transmit their faith to their children; Chinese Muslim leaders believed that women needed to be educated in their faith in order to teach their children; in accordance with Islamic (and Confucian) norms of gender segregation, women needed their own space to learn their faith; it was not suitable for men to staff women‘s mosques; communities appointed female leaders—―imams‖—for the women‘s mosques. All of this was done without violating the traditional rules of ritual law: female imams do not conduct Friday congregational prayer and, in accordance with their Hanafi legal tradition, they do not even lead other women in daily congregational prayer. Rather, these women
teach other women how to pray, how to read Qur‘an, they visit the sick, they wash the bodies of deceased women and they live in the women‘s mosque, available to give spiritual support, advice and assistance to women in need.‖ Such a creative adaptation (incidentally, another praiseworthy ―bid‘ah‖) far from compromising the Hanafi madhab‘s teachings, represents its very essence, namely, ensuring that it responds to the needs of its constituency. If elements of that constituency are going to be left out, and their reasonable feelings and sensibilities ignored or trampled upon in the name of the Hanafi madhab, this would be nothing less than a travesty of all that it represents.
Getting to grips with bid’ah: Shaykh Ghawiji’s insights On 28 July 2010 the International Peace College South Africa held a seminar on the contentious issue of bid‘ah, or innovation in religion. The seminar,entitled ―Getting to grips with the bid‘ah debate: an exploration of the key issues‖, drew its inspiration from an Arabic work ―A guiding, knowledgeable word on bid‘ah‖ written by well-respected Syrian scholar, Shaykh Ghawiji Albani. The work, which was translated into English by IPSA students provides a concise but very powerful analysis of the issues at stake in debate. Shaykh Ghawiji opens his work by pointing out the dangers of naively reading books of hadith and understanding and acting upon them purely at face value. It is here that the arguments around bid‘ah often start. Many of those who read the hadith books in this way think that other Muslim, laymen and scholars, practice and teach a number of things in seeming conflict to the hadith.But such accusers fail to appreciate the complexity of hadith study. The Maliki jurist, ibn Rushd, in explaining why the study of hadith can be a pitfall except for those skilled in Islamic law, touches on this complexity as follows: ―a hadith may have been transmitted regarding a particular issue but it has a general intent, or it may have been transmitted in a general way but has a particular intent, or it may be abrogating or abrogated, or it may be of those ahadith that are not required to be acted upon, or it may be of those that require the literal to be explained in a figurative manner …‖ This also implies that hadith must be studied in conjunction with Islamic law, not in isolation. The four Imams were all keenly aware of hadith but sensitive to the principles underlying their correct application. They did not willy-nilly act on hadith but discerned between them in formulating the rulings of their school. In fact, fiqh (the term for Islamic law) literally means ―understanding‖ and is indispensable when the goal is precisely to understand hadith. Failure to grasp this simply perpetuates an ill-informed approach to the bid‘ah debate.
It is such understanding that is needed when approaching hadith such as : ―Every innovation is a bid‘ah, and every bid‘ah is misguided.‖ Throughout the ages, scholars from all the major schools of Islamic law see the hadith as having a specific, not a universal, intent. And they ground this specific understanding of the hadith in the Prophetic legacy itself. For one thing, the restriction on innovation is not applied to the way we go about our daily business of living in a society- our ―worldly life‖. This is obvious and clearly not intended by the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him. We would cease to function normally if this was the case and imperil our own existence as an ummah. No scholar, on whatever end of the spectrum in the debate, takes this view. But as obvious as this is, it does show that the hadith is intended to be specificand not to be applied unconditionally. So the hadith must refer to innovations of a religious nature. But even such an understanding needs to be made more specific given other sayings of the Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him such as ――Whoever introduces some good practice in Islam will have the reward of it, as well as the reward of those who act on it after him, without their rewards being diminished in any respect. And whoever introduces some evil practice in Islam will bear the burden of it as well as the burden of those who act on it after him, without theirs being diminished in any respect.‖ Here the Prophet, the Salutations and Peace be upon him, is actively encouraging innovation that furthers the aims of the religion. And Sayyidina Umar, Allah be pleased with him, followed this sunnah when he innovated the tarawih in the form that we have it today, famously commenting ―What an excellent innovation (bid‘ah) this is.
[Sometimes, it's just a superficial reading of a hadith that can cause unnecessary contention. For example, the hadith that states "Whoever introduces in this matter of ours that which is not of it, will have it rejected" is an an argument for acceptable innovation, not an argument against the concept altogether. For, as Arabic linguists point out, the hadith is implicitly stating that if such an introductionis of the religion- that is, follows in its spirit and does not contradict its established rules -then it should not rejected. ] In addition to tarawih, Shaykh Ghawiji provides a number of other authentically narrated instances where Companions themselves innovated various acts of worship which were either endorsed by the Holy Prophet in his lifetime or which followed in the spirit of his Sunnah after his passing on to Allah. Following these leads, Islamic scholars have broadly classed innovation into praiseworthy and blameworthy categories depending upon whether it furthers or detracts from spirit and aims of the religion. Under the praiseworthy category, some innovations are not merely recommended but obligatory as not acting upon these would cause irrerversible detriment to the religion. Examples of such obiglatory bid‘ah is compiling the Quran into book form (something that did not take place in the time of the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him) or learning Arabic grammar (something else that did not happen in that time), or writing books on Islam, etc.etc. . The upshot of all this is that an innovation that conforms to the intent and spirit of the Sunnah is encouraged; one that is contrary to the this spirit is avoided; something that is religiously neutral is simply permitted. Such an understanding has important implications for the cultural practices of South African Muslims. Many local practices such as gadat and rampies are not found in the Sunnah in the literal sense. But they unquestionably conform to the spirit of the Sunnah by encouraging the remembrance of Allah, deepening love for His Beloved, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, and
fostering family and community togetherness. Such practices fall under the category of praiseworthy bid‘ahs. On the other hand, preventing the means to such remembrance, love and togetherness is clearly contrary to the Sunnah. Condemning such practices because they not literally to be found in the sunnah can itself be viewed as a blameworthy bid‘ah. Those who carelessly throw around accusations of bid‘ah would do well to reflect on this.
More than about the law: Impressions on CCI’s Marriages Bill workshop UCT‘s Centre for Contemporary Islam‘s 22nd May 2011 workshop ―Muslim marriages: From constitution to Parliamentary Legislation‖ again revealed the now entrenched opposing positions around the issue. The bill, which had the buy-in of most of the ulama groupings and many women‘s rights advocates, is now up for consideration at cabinet level. But it does appear that its passage is not going to be an easy one, with a few significant ulama bodies still vociferous in their opposition. The conflict (and this conflict exists even within the ranks of those who are generally supportive of the bill),plays itself out in the legal realm, but has deep-rooted political, philosophical, textual and sociological dimensions which need to be appreciated by all parties involved. Everyone, of course, is aware that these dimensions to the issue are always in the background. Whether they appreciate them sufficiently is another matter altogether. I believe that they need to be firmly integrated into the issue itself to make fuller sense of why such conflict is taking place. We may never get rid of such conflict, but we need to walk in someone else‘s mocassins for a while. Lets start with the political dimension. Professor Abdulkader Tayob observed that MPL is just part of a long term national process where the state seeks to strike a balance between its own demands and that of its people. The state is centralizing and controlling―invasive‖-by nature but also has to limit itself in this respect because of the fundamental freedoms and rights it has to accord its citizens. Such a structural consideration is going to play a role in any issue of this nature that comes up before the state and MPL is not unique in this respect. His demarcation played itself out very nicely in two of the subsequent papers presented. Dr Ali Moosagie‘s critique of the marriages bill as it currently stands arose out of concern for the state‘s invasiveness- its wresting from Muslim control the ultimate
interpretation of Islamic Law.On the other hand, Mrs Rashieda Shabodien honed in on the freedoms and rights granted by the flexible, multicultural secular state of South Africa in her advocacy of the bill. We need to seriously ponder this built in tension within the nature of the state. What is the preponderance of ―invasiveness‖ versus the granting of cultural rights and freedoms? Proponents tend to bask in this latter, but the arguments for ―invasiveness‖ have been compelling enough for the Jamiat in Natal to do an about turn on its previous support of the bill. Philosophically, we can‘t runaway from the fact that the meanings of concepts such as fairness, equity, justice, and rights as conceived by Muslim jurists, on the one hand, and the liberal democratic state on the other, spring from different origins. There are linkages between the two and that makes command ground possible. Such accommodation allows us to even consider the possibility of MPL recognition. But the fact that these concepts spring from such different traditions is going inevitably to lead to tensions. Its like the intersection between two different sets of values- the intersection is there but it can‘t be disguised that we talking about two different sets.And I think a lot of the tension in the process springs from these underlying philosophical differences. Yet one finds discussion taking place using these concepts purely in a liberal democratic sense, appearing totally oblivious to the fact that many Muslims would find this very problematic and just plain wrong. For such Muslims, Islam has its own tradition and specific logic of these concepts which informs their understanding. And I think the belligerent stance of the opponents to the bill could be shaped by the fact that this point has not been sufficiently absorbed by some of the bill‘s proponents. . Textually: there appears to be the perception that many ‗ulama are out to put women in their place and pass judgments that benefit men. To adopt this as a default perspective is problematic to say
the least . From the Muslim jurist perspective, we are primarily talking about fidelity to the text. Of course, there are differences of opinion as to what such fidelity constitutes and hence different positions of the ulama on the matter. But in the end its about where the argument leads, based upon detailed systems of interpretation involving, among many other things, giving different types of weighting to evidence and views. And it is from here that the notions of ―conservative‖ or ―liberal‖positions mainly spring. Again, we have to respect the textual fidelity of even the most conservative positions. We might not agree with these, but we need to appreciate their vantage point. Otherwise we‘ll continue to talk past each other. Sociologically, legal recourse is the last port of call. Its not going solve problems- only alleviate those that get to this juncture. Its the ‗ulama, in fact, that have been to a large measure helping to solve problems before they even get to this stage, having to perform free (or stipendary) and emotionally-draining counselling sessions for which they get little appreciation.This is in addition to the marriage and other related classes they provide to the community. If it was not for such, there is little doubting that communities would have been further engulfed by the deluge of social problems. Legal recourse has to be linked to this side of the social reality as well. All this is not to paper over cases of clear abuse, misogynistic tendencies and inadequately thought out applications of Islamic law by the ‗ulama. They have to ensure that such abuse does not take place, that such tendencies are eradicated and that applications of the Shariah are properly regulated. But we can‘t confuse such cases with normative Islamic law. Its simply not true. To repeat: understanding these wider dimensions of the broader MPL debate will not solve conflict but it will help us understand it. And, judging from the workshop, we still have quite a way to go in this regard.
The ultimately trivial nature of politics The election season is again upon us and, as expected, there is much canvassing, discussion and debate among Muslims about which party to support, or about participation in general. The discussions have been robust and vigorous, showing how crucially the Muslim community views the upcoming elections. For many, as for other South Africans, it is seen as the most significant since 1994. The airing of views also clearly shows that Cape Town Muslims are far from homogenous, straddling the entire political spectrum from the left to the right. Add the fact that certain prominent politicians generate intense liking or disliking and we have a powder keg atmosphere, where tempers can get frayed and where the options we exercise may be taken very personally by others. Politics is, of course, a serious business and as Muslims we need to ensure that we contribute to this country‘s national discourse by being vociferous in this sphere. We cannot simply be uninterested in the elections or in the way people and organizations feel about the elections- Islam gives the political realm its due. As Muslims we also have a set of values that we, as far as possible, would like to be reflected in the nation‘s thinking and this demands political activism on our part. At the very least we cannot be apathetic. This being said this set of values is a complex one and may differ from Muslim to Muslim. It is fashioned by our own life histories, identity issues, present economic and social standing, guidance from those we respect, ideological trends within Islam or indeed those outside the religion, media, etc. It is clearly not ―obvious‖ for many Muslims that any particular party must be supported. Again, some Muslims may wonder how on earth other Muslims can support a particular party given its position on this or that. And we have a perfect right to engage and debate each other on the political positions we adopt given our understanding of Islam‘s set of values. And the ‗ulama, too, have a full right to provide the broader Muslim community with political direction since many of us look up to
them as having the best understanding of Islam‘s set of values. But the bottom line is that the political choices any Muslim makes is not obviously right or wrong, that it is a product of a whole complex of factors, and that it is very difficult to assail anyone‘s personal moral and religious integrity on the basis of those choices. The personal and the political must be separated. It might be useful, in this regard, to recall two traditional Islamic political maxims- maxims that are often misunderstood as implying political non-engagement or even apathy but in reality helps us to put politics in perspective. The first maxim is one attributed to Sayyidina ‗Ali (RA), stating that we get the leaders we deserve. This maxim does not of course mean that we should simply tolerate any political authority and just focus on reforming our morality. We need to ensure of course that authority in charge fulfills its required duties. But I believe that the maxim informs us that the solution to our national woes is fundamentally not a political one but is to be found in the moral and spiritual realms. If as a society we buy into crass materialism it is only going to produce leaders engaged in the same. It is only at the level teaching and disseminating true religious values and, above all, living the confidence and beauty of those values that we can positively impact others and effect true change in society and politics. Tuan Guru provides a stunning example of such impact. Focused apparently on an otherworldly teaching of Islamic beliefs and spiritual practices to a marginalized and broken Muslim community at the time, he laid the seeds through such teaching for a greater self-confidence among the Cape Muslims, which in turn led to proselytization (da’wah), many people coming into Islam, and the building of a Muslim community with considerable political clout in the nineteenth century. The political impact was a sideeffect of the spiritual revolution. In my reading this maxim depersonalizes the political: politicians and parties are not ultimately responsible for the state of society-
we are. Politics reflects the failures or success of our society- it does not determine it. The second maxim- which is more of a position really- is often misunderstood, even by its protagonists. This maxim holds that politics is a thing of this world (the ―dunya‖) and as Muslims we should be more focused on matters relating to the next world (the ―akhirah‖), thereby meaning our personal spiritual and moral development. Negatively, and I believe improperly understood, this maxim can be taken to mean that Muslims should be disinterested in politics. But I think a more rounded understanding of this maxim gives the political realm its due (its ―haqq‖)- after all, spiritual and moral development does result in tangible social outcomes, aside from the religious requirement that some Muslims must be involved in this sphere as a fard kifayah. What the maxim does communicate is that political involvement must be measured against the realities of the next world. It is not so much that politics is unimportant but rather that the next world is truly real. Measured against the realities of the next world, we give the dimensions of earthly existence, including the political one, their proper due and do not inflate their true role. We realize, in this measurement, that the ―movers and shakers‖ in this world are continually subject to the true ―Mover and Shaker‖, that human beings have values and dimensions that go beyond their political selves and choices, that the striving for earthly utopias through political ideologies hold no candle to the spiritual riches mined in the next world, that we do not know the ultimate end of anybody and that we have to exercise caution in judging them, and of course, that politics is in the end ephemeral. To rework Shakespeare, ―politicians must, like kings and chimney-sweepers, come to dust.‖ Politics is important but ultimately a trivial part of our existence. We would perhaps do well not to get too worked up over each other's political feelings and decisions.
Complementing perspectives on Gaza There are three ways, among others, that Muslims are responding to the situation in Gaza- in terms of ―realpolitik‖, in terms of ideal political realities, and in terms of the resources of their faith. These responses may at times appear to collide, but they are really complementary. ―Realpolitik‖ approaches the situation as it is, taking into account American and Israeli dominance, the consequent balance of power in the region, the realities of a divided Arab response and the factionalism among the Palestinians. Those looking after the broader Palestinian interests in this sphere talk diplomacy, convene meetings, broker ceasefires and look towards accomplishing realistic short-term goals in order to alleviate the immediate crisis. They quite rightly call for an end to Israeli military operations, for lifting the air and sea blockade on Gaza which makes normal economic activity impossible, for the end to Jewish settlements, for the destruction of the apartheid wall etc. Anyone with the barest sense of justice would want this. Those engaged in the nitty-gritty of negotiating may also call for respect of the 1967 borders, for a viable ―two-state‖ solution and concede to recognizing Israel. It is not that they wish to compromise, but they do not want to further jeopardize the already precarious situation by rash, emotively charged action. The memories of 1967- when even more was lost in the attempt recoup what was lost in 1948- are still fresh. Of course, recognizing these realities on the ground does not mean one likes them. The situation which gave rise to these realities was and is fundamentally unjust. The land called Israel belonged to the Palestinians and was taken away from them. It's as simple as that. No obfuscation by the Israelis can and should mask this brute historical fact. I think part of the reason why Western governments readily buy into Israel's obfuscation and its terms of reference for discussion is in order to conveniently forget their moral culpability in this outrageous act of dispossession. In terms of ideal political reality the original Palestinian homeland will be restored, with all
its peoples- Muslims, Christians and Jews- living in one state and governed by the normal processes of democracy. This 'one-state' solution, of course, is rejected by Israel- for whom the idea of an independent Jewish homeland is sacrosanct- and hence does not figure in 'realpolitik' at all. But it is the just solution. Muslim countries will have to display an unbreakable unity and sufficient military muscle for this ideal to be realized in any way. These are, unfortunately, a far way away but they need to remain as further ideals. Another political ideal- one which is the precondition for the others to be realized- is that Arab governments should be genuine representatives of the will of the people. Again, this appears a long way away. But the point about just ideals is that, no matter how unattainable they appear at a given time, they need to be worked towards. There ought to be no clash between the pragmatists and the idealists. One must work with one has got, but that should not mean that the ideals of fundamental justice must sacrificed. In negotiating 'peace deals' and the like the larger historical picture must be remembered. The two state scenario can be tabled as a realistic solution but it must always be borne in mind that it is not a just one. It should be seen as a stage towards the ideal solution. One must necessarily negotiate within the determined terms of reference, but it must not be forgotten that these terms are fundamentally warped and dictated by Israel and America. Conversely, it is very unhelpful for idealists to label pragmatists as collaborators and sell-outs. They need to appreciate the Muslim world's weak bargaining position, the complexities of geo-political and social forces and the delicate balances between groups and countries that need to be maintained. Both perspectives need each other: one to maintain realism, the other to ensure that the realism never becomes expedient. Calling upon the resources of one's faith appears to be a completely independent perspective but can and should be undergirding the other two. It is the only way to cope with the destructive activities of the Israelis, to make sense of why this is happening to a people. In
this respect iman is provides not only psychological solace and comfort to the stricken, but is actually strengthened by the tremendous duress- as clearly shown in interviews with Gazans. The notion of destiny (qada and qadr) becomes a positive one, one which provides re-assurance that there is ultimately a larger picture and justice will certainly be done, if not on earth then in the hereafter. And even in this world the final victory of the Muslims is guaranteed when Imam Mahdi (RA) and Nabi Isa (AS) emerge. It goes without saying that none of these beliefs is an excuse for inaction on the political level. But spiritual refuge remains the greatest resource available to Muslims when dealing with any calamity. It is the necessary complement to any other approachpragmatic and/or idealist- that is employed, especially to a problem of such magnitude.
Freedom of expression in Islam: An Islamic Approach Professor Hashim Kamali‘s ―Freedom of Expression in Islam‖ is one of seven books in his rather extraordinary project to communicate the traditional Islamic corpus of learning relating to rights and liberties in a manner that will find a receptive audience among today‘s Muslims. The series, which also includes titles such as ―The dignity of man: an Islamic perspective‖ and ―Rights to Education, Work and Welfare in Islam‖, contains all that is characteristic of fiqh scholarship at its very best: it exudes learning; it bristles with intelligence; it is thoroughly grounded in the classical legacy; andprecisely because of that legacy-its discussions are fashioned to meet the needs of its age. ‗Whoever is unaware of his time cannot be faqih (Islamic jurist)‖ to paraphrase a scholarly adage. A reading of ―Freedom of Expression‖ makes it clear that Islamic law is driven by the religion‘s specific moral content. Yes, freedom of expression is a right in the formal sense and, in this respect, may be compared favourably with that right as expressed in a secular constitutional democracy. To wit, there are ample Quranic provisions that safeguard this right: the principles of commanding good and forbidding evil, of providing sincere advice (nasihah), of consulting with experts in their fields as well as with the broader public (shura), of exercising considered judgment (ijtihad), the right to criticize the government in particular, to express an opinion in general, to form and join groups or associations of one‘s choosing, to be able to freely act upon one‘s conscience and exercise one‘s religious choice-all these presume the right to freedom of expression and have a solid basis in Islamic law and history. Yet the content that informs these concepts are shaped by adab in its most complete sense: these rights and duties are exercised courteously and with respect for the feelings of others, with full sincerity towards Allah and for the benefit of society in general.
For example, as per the rules of ijtihad another‘s considered opinion can never be derided. Opposition is not established simply for the sake of opposition or to protect the interests of a particular segment of society, but to ensure that rulers serve society in an efficient manner. Nasihah is provided in a way that does not embarrass or show up its recipient. Words and deeds of others should be taken at face value (within reason, of course) and should not be regarded with undue suspicion. All this might seem trite and is quite at odds with the acrimonious, cynical political culture in which we find ourselves today. But trite or not, these are the values which Muslims seek to inculcate at the individual level and which, as Kamali shows quoting chapter and verse, spill over into the collective one as well. The profoundly moral basis of the overarching right to freedom of expression is clearly demonstrated by the limits put upon it in Islam. These limits are both purely moral-which appeals to our consciences-and legal, where its abuse has judicial consequences. As to the purely moral: Islam forbids name-calling, backbiting, exposing the weakness of others, simply objecting to someone for the sake of objecting, distorting the religion, imposing one‘s opinion on others, caprice and fanaticism. These are not amorphous concepts and are rigorously defined by the Islamic tradition. Backbiting, for example, is defined as saying anything concerning another which one knows he or she will dislike, even if it happens to be true. And, of course, while in principle these are prohibited, allowances are made in the area of backbiting and the exposing of weakness under certain circumstances. For example, a person‘s fault may be disclosed if it will prove injurious to a third party. But even then this can be disclosed only to the potentially affected party and only to the extent necessary.
These purely moral restraints, while they may have no legal consequences, play an important role in shaping the nature of public discourse in a predominantly Muslim society in particular. The belief is that the violation of such restraints will have very real consequences in the next world and as such they need to be heeded. When applied, such restraints will induce a generally courteous, cultured, gentle and caring discourse reflective of higher Islamic values, one quite removed from a rapacious, cutthroat variety. Again, we notice a continuum: values espoused at the individual sphere also apply to the collective consciousness. As to the legal consequences: these follow from specific violations of freedom of expression such as slander, libel, insult, cursing, accusing a Muslim of disbelief, sedition (both moral and political) and blasphemy-all discussed in impressive detail by Kamali. Those convicted of such violations may face textually stipulated or court determined discretionary punishment depending on the type and circumstances of the crime. Kamali makes an important point regarding these legal limits to freedom of speech in Islam: they are there to ensure that this freedom does not encroach upon the dignity of others, cause social chaos or jeopardize the essential interests and values (as defined by Islamic law) needed to maintain a stable social and political order. Far from being restrictive or straitjacketing society, such limits ensure that freedom of expression does not become a god in itself, that free flowing debate and discussion takes place on a consistent as opposed to a capricious basis, and that-above all-reverence for the sacred, and the higher nature and purpose of the human being, are always kept in view. We naturally cannot apply such Islamic legal consequences in a secular democracy like South Africa. But we can be informed by the underlying ethos which shapes an Islamic approach to free speech as we grapple with the issue in this part of the world
The question of alliances Given the often precarious situation of Muslims, particularly where they reside as a minority, aligning with others who share their common objectives is an inevitable step. Often these others tend to be on the ―Left‖ of the political spectrum, subscribing to like-minded views on questions like Palestine, immigration and American foreign policy. Yet there is a natural wariness among amongst many Muslims when entering into such alliances. They may typically warm to the Left on the issue of Palestine but would be less than enthused with them on the question of homosexuality. So Muslim support for the Left is hardly a given. And even if Muslim leaders and opinion makers approve of an alignment with the Left (witness the MJC endorsement of parties with ―liberation credentials‖ a few years back) the Muslim masses are less than convinced (witness the actual Muslim voting patterns). For the average Muslim, concerns around abortion or the death penalty appear to have a more urgent relevance than abstract or long-term ones such as social justice or, even, Palestine. The major difficulty, of course, is that Islam resists being pigeonholed. It espouses the ideals of political and socio-economic justice associated with the left-wing. But it also promotes the family and personal religious values characteristic of the traditional right. Alliances are never going to be an easy fit. On balance, though- and especially given the emergence of a rabid right- the Left is clearly, for many Muslims today, the lesser of two evils. Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has recently pointed out the tenuous underpinnings of alliances between Muslims and the Left. In his essay ―Can liberalism tolerate Islam?‖ he observes that such an
alliance can only be a ―tempestuous marriage of convenience‖, prone to instability. The secular, and even pagan (the Green movement), roots of the modern Left stand poles apart from Islam‘s message of One, Living, All-Powerful Allah around whom life must be centred. So if the Left is problematic, and the contemporary right is clearly a no-go, with whom, then, should Muslims align? Murad believes that Muslims should seek friends among others who reject secular liberal orthodoxies around issues such as homosexuality and feminism. Such friends are to be found among conservative practitioners of other faiths who, ironically, may be the most resistant to mutual co-operation. He writes: ―The challenge is going to be for Muslim, Christian and Jewish conservatives to set aside their strong traditional hesitations about other faith communities, and to discover the multitude of things they hold in common.‖ Murad‘s suggestion makes eminent sense. Conservative practitioners take revelation and religious dictates seriously, believing its principal teachings to be non-negotiable and unchangeable. These teachings may differ from religion to religion but they are believed to be sourced in a living Divine, no matter how this may be conceived. And in this alone they share a more telling, more principled bond than can be achieved with secular groupings of whatever stripe. They resist change in religion merely to suit whatever current philosophy, trend or fad is in vogue (―human rights‖ being one such prominent philosophy today). They oppose relativizing fundamental values to ―adapt‖ to changing times and circumstances. This, they quite rightly intuit, makes a mockery of religious truth. As guardians of reverence they stand united. They are natural allies.
Such new alliances should also allow us to break free from the enervating, suffocating and often alien discourse of the Left and generate one that is more amenable to the spirit of the religion. Talk of elites, colonialism, Islamaphobia etc. are, in their proper sphere quite valuable tools of analysis. But for Muslims to define their recent history and current reality purely in these terms is quite foreign to the way they have traditionally looked at their situation where consciousness of the Divine Hand is never absent. It is also a far cry from the concept of futuwwah, or chivalry, where one‘s own faults are readily acknowledged and one‘s opponents achievements accorded due respect. We are talking here, of course, in broad-brush strokes: of the Left as a movement and not of individual members. Indeed, one suspects that many of its members are hardly ideological in the sense defined above and are motivated by basic concerns for justice and decency. This would certainly apply to its more religious members as well as to those simply searching for truth. South African Muslims famously grappled with the issue of alliances in the anti-apartheid struggle. Whether to team up with the UDF (ANC), or whether to team up with the PAC, or whether to team up with anybody at all were fiery topics at the time. The bonding of religious leaders of different faiths in opposing apartheid remains one of the most outstanding features of the period. As we become further entrenched in an uncertain, globalizing reality, and as we seek out allies in asserting our interests and values in this unfolding dispensation, we need to do some similar introspection and perhaps some similar bonding.
A necessary time lag Many Muslims must have felt disappointed by Al-Azhar‘s tardy reaction to the Egyptian revolution. First there was silence, then equivocation and finally support. It almost appears as if the ancient university jumped on the bandwagon after it became clear that the revolution was unstoppable. And all this apparently unseemly conduct was emanating from possibly the most revered educational institution in the Islamic world! It‘s easy to ascribe Al-Azhar‘s ambivalent, prevaricating stance to its dependence on state patronage. After all, it falls under state control, its lecturers and administrators get paid by the state, its key functionaries are state appointed and it often appears to provide religious sanction for government policy. But does AlAzhar‘s precarious political position make it a mere reflex of the regime? The reality, of course, is a bit more complex. First up, I do think suspecting Azhar (and all state ulama) of being automatically compromised because of state patronage- is quite inconsistent with the Islamic concept of husnul dhann (forming a good opinion of the intentions of others). What Shaykh Hamza Yusuf says in regard to the State Mufti of Egypt, Shaykh Ali Gomaa, may also apply to the Shaykh of Al-Azhar, Dr. Ahmed elTayeb (two closely related, ―revolving door‖ positions in any case), and to their institutions in general: …we should maintain a good opinion of the scholars who either take a position or choose to remain silent-a valid option during fitnah. We must recognize that personal ijtihad in difficult times is to be respected. The Mufti of Egypt is an honorable and pious man; he understands the complexity of the situation, the dangers of instability, and the tragedies that can quickly arise when conflagrations take a life of their own. Moreover, his position is certainly consonant with a traditional approach that was taken by many of the great scholars of the past. While some may not agree with his opinion, Muslims should respect religious authority,
acknowledge a scholar‘s right to it, and not assume we know anyone‘s intentions. God alone is the Judge of men‘s hearts. What are the roots of this submissive, compliant approach to authority? The eminent Shafi‘i jurist Imam Mawardi is a key architect of classical Sunni political theory. While his position is nuanced, he maintains obedience to the ruler- irrespective of how such a ruler came into power- as the norm demanded by the Shariah and disobedience as exceptional. The following Quranic verse is used to support his argument: ―Oh you who believe. Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those put in authority among you‖. [Quran 4:59] Mawardi includes rulers under those ―put in authority‖. He also adduces the following hadith as evidence: ―After me their will be rulers/ governers (wulat), the righteous (albarr) with his righteousness and the corrupt (al-fajir) with his corruptness. Listen to them and obey them in what is in accordance with truth. If they should rule wisely and justly then it counts in your and their favour. If they should act unjustly then it counts in your favour and against them.‖ The approach of Al-Mawardi is reflected in the classical Shafi‘i legal position on obedience to rulers. The Shafi‘textbook ―The Reliance of the Traveler‖ states: ―It is obligatory to obey the commands and interdictions of the Caliph (or his representative) in everything that is lawful even if he is unjust.‖ Akramzadeh and Saeed, the authors of Islam and Political Legitimacy, shed some further light on this: ―Obedience is required of Muslims as long as the ruler does not actively work against Islam, allows its practice and protects their lives- even though they may not be personally devout.‖
The politically compliant approach became characteristic of all great Imams of the school such as Imam Ghazali and Imam Fakhr al-Din al Razi. Imam Ghazali the Sufi warned against scholars unduly associating with rulers but Imam Ghazali the faqih and political realist writes: ―Which is to be preferred, anarchy and the stoppage of social life for lack of properly constituted authority, or acknowledgment of the existing power, whatever it be? Of these two alternatives the jurist cannot but choose the latter.‖ The Imam‘s judgment is confirmed by ibn Taymiyyah, the icon of the Salafi movement: ―It is obvious that [the affairs of the] people cannot be in a sound state except with rulers, and even if somebody among unjust kings becomes ruler, this would be better than their being none.‖ (In fact, as Egyptian columnist Hossam Tayyib points out, the Hosni Mubarak regime also drew substantially from the support of politically quietist Salafis in its attempt to quell the revolution). No doubt these Imams were motivated in their judgments by the Quranic verse which states that ―Fitnah (social strife) is worse than killing.‖ [Quran 2:191] Killing only leads to a loss of life- anarchy can potentially lead to something far worse: the creation of conditions that make religious life impossible. It only natural that the direction of a revolt be assessed before a Muslim jurist commits to a position. There is another, more fundamental, rationale to the compliant approach: we will be responsible as individuals before the Almighty for our fidelity to the teachings of Islam, not for the outcomes of our actions. If at times such fidelity requires us to bear tyranny and oppression with sabr then so be it. It is- its proponents would saynot out of fear we do so but because of our reading of the Islamic tradition. And it is this reading- like it or not- that the majority of our ‗ulama have espoused through the ages.
And while alternative readings of Islamic teachings exist validating a more activist approach (including another position by the very same ibn Taymiyyah), it is grossly reductionist to see the compliant approach as pure expedience. There are Quranic verses, hadith texts and scholarly precedents to deal with, and these cannot be lightly brushed over. And given this we have to concede that Azhar is operating from a position of integrity. We may or may not agree with their ijtihad (reasoning on the basis of the Shariah), but it is ijtihad. The Egyptian Revolution cannot but be welcomed by anyone with a sense of justice and fairness. The oligarchy, the corruption and the frustration was simply untenable. The Revolution also offers alAzhar a chance to wrest itself of at least some state control and more formally assert its independence. And the university must surely grasp this window of opportunity. But to have expected the university to be more pro-active from the very beginning goes against the very grain in which fiqh is done. The ‗ulama need to be cautious, circumspect and evaluative. Their brief is the protection of the religion in accordance with well-defined principles of jurisprudence. We certainly would not want them to be rash in executing this brief.
The thought of Abdal Hakim Murad: In four parts Part 1: The need for madhabs Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (a.k.a.Tim Winter) is an Islamic scholar firmly rooted in the classical Islamic tradition but at the cutting edge of observation concerning our modern day condition. The way this Cambridge lecturer is able to bring the insights of that tradition to bear upon our contemporary realities establishes him as pivotal figure for many young, educated, cosmopolitan Muslims in the West who seek to preserve an authentic Muslim identity while intelligently negotiating the often choppy waters, but also potential, of modern living. In what follows we offer an interpretative summary of key themes to be found in his work. Authenticity and tradition Who most authentically represents Islam? In the midst of competing claims, Murad subscribes to the view that its most authentic representatives are to be found in the vast masses of the Muslim world who choose to follow a particular school of Islamic law (madhhab), who at the very least are sympathetic to the spiritual tradition (tasawwuf) and its practices (if not outright adherents), and who adhere broadly (whether they know it or not) to a system of Islamic beliefs as defined by the Ashari or Maturidi theologians. Of course, the masses have received these beliefs as mediated by the scholars of Islam, the vast majority of whom have seen and defined Sunni Islam in these terms. Muslims, whether scholars or laymen, have ―voted with their feet‖ with regard to the authenticity of these criteria, intuitively feeling its ―rightness‖, intellectually being able to bring forth the proofs, time after time, to defend this legacy. In turn, this legacy-Islam as has been traditionally practiced by Sunni Muslims for most of the religion‘s history- has been remarkably resilient and united, a sure sign that it ―works‖. It is fidelity to this tradition that must drive our engagement with the present context. In recent Muslim history, in particular, this tradition has come under intense scrutiny and attack. Murad has been taking up the
cudgels in defending the elements of this tradition- its law, spirituality and theology- from this assault. Following a madhhab For example, one of the criticisms directed against traditional Islam is its general insistence that Muslims follow a particular madhhab. Why can‘t we derive rules directly from the Quran and Sunnah?runs a crude version of the anti-madhhab argument. A more sophisticated critique acknowledges that the four schools have done much to unearth the laws of the Quran and Sunnah, but that ultimately everyone (laypersons included) needs to evaluate matters in the light of the Holy Book and the Prophetic teaching and not simply follow the judgment of a particular school on issues. A major concern that Murad raises with these kinds of approaches is that they that fail to realize the sheer volume of the material that needs to be analysed before any ruling can be derived. There are over three hundred (many of them multi-volume) collections of ahadith with a number of sound Prophetic sayings to be found in little known ones. The individual who seeks a ruling directly from the sources would need to scour all of them if he or she is not going to distort Allah‘s Law. Of course, such are task would overwhelm an individual. In contrast, a madhhab, which has thousands of scholars that have contributed to building its scholarly tradition, would ensure that ensure all such ground would be covered. Sadly, there are still some who are not aware of the vastness of this task but who plunge into Bukhari or Muslim, or perhaps some of the other six well-known collections, deriving ―laws‖ in blissful ignorant of the undertaking‘s gravity. Aside from sheer volume, an even greater issue is the intricacy and complexity of the Quran and Sunnah. There is the apparent conflict between texts that need to be resolved, the fact that some texts may apply to special circumstances while others have a more general application, the historical reality of one textual ruling abrogating another, the precise import of the Arabic words used, the positions of the narrators of two irreconcilable reports, the use of analogy in understanding texts and a whole host of other issues.
It is obvious that unraveling this complexity requires considerable expertise and the employment interpretative methodologies- and these are precisely why the various schools of law have developed. These methodologies are in turn based upon an analysis of how the Companions and their Successors resolved such issues. This ensured that the schools of law faithfully represented the Prophetic legacy in terms of both method and content. The schools, far from being a deviation of the Quran and Sunnah, encapsulate both their letter and- more importantly-their spirit. While it might be that some scholars feel that one school has a stronger case on an issue than others, in no way is any school‘s ruling an invalid one. We are obeying Allah and His Prophet no matter which school‘s ruling we follow. Expertise requires time and obviously not everyone can become an Islamic legal expert- society would cease to function. It stands to reason that those who are not trained in this discipline should follow those who are and hence the ruling that laypersons in particular must follow a madhhab. But even among the trained the level of expertise differs- very few scholars have been able to reach the stellar heights of the four Imams in the discipline of Islamic law. The great majority of them are obliged to choose the interpretative framework of one of these Imams. And so we find that the stalwarts of this Ummah, such as Imam Muslim, Imam Nawawi, Imam Ghazali and countless others following a madhhab. The loyalty of this Ummah‘s scholars, both past and present, to the madhahib is in itself sufficient proof that these schools of law faithfully represent the teachings of the Quran and Sunnah and nothing more. Shaykh Murad writes: ―A madhhab is, after all, nothing more than a piece of precision equipment enabling us to see Islam with the maximum clarity possible. If we use our own devices, our amateurish attempts will inevitably distort our vision.‖ (Understanding the four madhhabs :the problem with antimadhhabism http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/newmadhh.htm )
Far from being archaic and irrelevant, it is precisely the complexity and breadth of the interpretative keys offered by the madhahib that allow us to effectively grapple with the nuances of modernity while remaining true to the Prophetic legacy.
Part two: The inner reality of Islam Muslims must rediscover the inner reality of Islam, that fundamental spiritual core which was the bedrock of its spread to so many areas of the world. This is another, and often repeated, theme in Shaykh Murad‘s writings. He notes: ―… as the Blessed Prophet never tired of reminding us, there is little value in outward conformity to the rules unless this conformity is mirrored and engendered by an authentically righteous disposition of the heart. ‗No-one shall enter the Garden by his works,‘ as he expressed it.‖ (Abdal Hakim Murad, Islamic Spirituality: The forgotten revolutionhttp://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/fgtnrevo.htm) Morality and good works are not ends in themselves, but the fruits of a faith, of a soul that perpetually remembers its Creator with love and awe. It is such perpetual remembrance that is the goal of Islam, not a mechanical following of its laws. In Muslim history, tasawwuf (or Islamic spirituality) has traditionally been the pre-eminent discipline in teaching Muslims how to cultivate such remembrance. It is that branch of knowledge that analyzes the states of the hearts, providing methods by which a sick heart can become a sound one, a heart filled with the remembrance of Allah. It is patently obvious that cultivating the remembrance of Allah in his Companions and curing their hearts was precisely what the Holy Prophet set out with such success to do. If this is the case, why –particularly in recent times- are hackles raised against the discipline of tasawwuf? The most notable contemporary critics of Sufism are Wahabis, or Salafis as they term themselves. Most of their criticism stems from their interpretation of the concept ―bid‘ah‖ (innovation) which they define in restricted, negative terms. Failing to distinguish between the essence of Sufism (the remembrance of Allah) and the forms it may take given a particular context, they tend to dismiss the whole enterprise as ―bid‘ah‖, and hence reprehensible. Suffice to say that their understanding of the concept departs from that of the
considerable majority of the ‘ulama who have historically seen ―bid‘ah‖ in a much wider, more positive sense and hence are able to discern the essence behind the forms. The fact that great droves of ‗ulama throughout Muslim history have had associations with tasawwuf at some level or another is sufficient proof of its validity. Tasawwuf is premised on the fact that Islam has outer (zahir) and inner (batiin) dimensions. Both dimensions are crucial and touch upon all aspects of the religion. Murad provides the following example: ―For instance, Allah says: Wa-aqimi’s-Salata li-dhikri: ‗and establish the Prayer for My remembrance‘. He tells us that the prayer is not an arbitrary command, a set of physical movements which earn us treats in the hereafter. It has a wise purpose, which is to help us to remember Him. The believer at prayer is not just offering his physical form as a token of submission to the divine presence whose symbol is the Ka‗ba. He, or she, is worshipping with the heart. The body of flesh bows towards the Ka‗ba of stone; while the invisible spirit bows to the invisible divine. Only when both of these take place is worship truly present.‖(Seeing with both eyes, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/cardiff.htm) The same can be said about other acts of worship. Fasting, to take another example, is not done for its own sake but in order to learn taqwa(proper God-consciousness)- its inner meaning. When done only formally it simply produces hunger and thirst, as a hadith informs us. The zahir and the batin need to be in balance. The batin needs the zahir in order to be realized- that is, the haqiqah (to see things as they truly are) needs the Shari‘ah (Islamic law). Otherwise, the reality that is revealed will be a false one. And the outer, formal following of the Law needs to know the inner meaning of its observances, not only in order to be vivified, but so as to guard against the spiritually deadly sins of hypocrisy and ostentation. As Murad points out, ostentation is possible even when we pray alone: ―by going through the motions of the prayer, we gratify our own self -image as pious, superior people.‖ By cultivating the inner dimensions of acts, we become less prone to making them our ‗god‘. The balance between
the zahir and the batin also represents a supreme Sunnah of the Holy Prophet, one resplendently demonstrated in his life, Allah‘s peace be upon him, and in the life of his Companions. Lit by the luminosity of the Holy Prophet, these latter were, as a saying goes, ―cavalrymen by day, monks by night‖- pointing to the way they perfectly joined the zahir and the batin in their persons. A final note: the true state of a person‘s beliefs is necessarily a private affair between himself and the Creator. Unlike religious practices it lends itself more to the batin than to the zahir . This perhaps explains why there has been such a close relationship between Sufism and Islamic theology (represented in Sunni Islam chiefly by the Ash‗ari and Maturidi schools), whose job it is to communicate the standard beliefs of Islam. Sufism not only preserves those beliefs, which are the foundations stones for any spiritual progress, but makes them real to the individual. Theology, with its specialized language, its textbook logic and discussions of metaphysical issues, may only appeal to select individuals but Sufism is universally accessible, giving that same message to the Muslim masses with the added dimension of experiential realization. Sufism, the storehouse of the inner realities of Islam, then further acts as the best vehicle for the preservation of the core beliefs of the religion.
Part three: Islam and modernity How does Islam engage with modernity- that is, the whole edifice of contemporary living, globalization, capitalist consumer culture, and the privileging of the secular as against the sacred.In his ―Faith in the future: Islam after the Enlightenment‖ Shaykh Murad argues that given Islam‘s universal nature it necessarily adapts to modernity‘s infrastructure- the reality of contemporary living- while simultaneously challenging its ethos- the ideas that have generated and continue to sustain it. Adaptation is inherent to Islam as shown by its interaction with local cultures worldwide. Islam does not obliterate such cultures but is diffused through them. There is no reason why modernity should be the exception and the way millions of Muslims worldwide adapt to its reality in their lives is proof that this is happening. There are many Muslims that are fully Western in their cultural habits but uncompromisingly Muslim in their beliefs, ethos and religious practice. Equally, the populations of Muslim countries are willing participants in the global marketplace but would not necessarily see such participation as a dilution of their religious consciousness. The purported clash of civilizations, championed, ironically, by both Islamophobes and Muslim extremists, simply does not reflect the reality of people‘s lives. What makes such adaptation possible is the broadly accommodative law (fiqh) of Islam which typically tolerates a host of different, often conflicting viewpoints, on an issue. While Muslims are generally united around the core beliefs of the religion, there is scope for multiple solutions regarding the day to day issues faced by people- issues which enter under the domain of fiqh. Away from the sabre-rattling on both sides, the ulama have quietly gone about their business of issuing fatawas (legal opinions) around typically modern concerns affecting Muslims in general such as organ transplantation, sms divorce, praying in an aeroplane and the likeall the time engaging with modernity.
This engagement that Islam already has with modernity is clearly not understood by many public opinion makers in the West. They argue that the religion, like Judaism and Christianity has to go through the ―laundromat‖ of the Enlightenment in order to fit into the contemporary Western setting. It is simply too archaic, too at odds with the contemporary Western mindset, to be accepted there in its present form. Murad answers the charge by questioning whether the legacy of the Enlightenment was indeed worth it. The Enlightenment, this 18th century sea-change in European thought, placed the human being at the centre of existence- moving God to the periphery- and in so doing ushered in the ―modern age‖, an age characterized by the privileging of the human faculties of reason and senseexperience as opposed to a reliance on any supposed divinely originated sources. Man is the measure of all things, is the famed dictum associated with this movement. But this effectively removed any higher principle through which virtue could be grounded. Why be good if there is no one telling us to be so, or to whom we are ultimately responsible for doing otherwise? The consequences of this worldview for modern civilization were quite staggering. We have the rise of the totalitarianisms of the 20th century, such as those in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, and its associated violence. Further, since there is nothing sacred, nature becomes fair game to exploit- the environmental consequences of which we are now reaping. Most tragically, perhaps, it has reduced the human being to a rational, biological animal with little thought given to the notion of the soul and spiritual-moral growth. At a micro-level, modernity has also had devastating consequences for family life. Society‘s values are now based on an ever-changing liberal consensus as against what was believed to be permanent and lasting principles of tradition- principles that were in accord with natural human disposition or fitrah, to use an Islamic term . The modern emphasis on rights rather than duties encourages selfcentredness as opposed to the sense of responsibility which is such an integral part of the social glue. Add to this the disproportionate
influence of the orthodox feminist and homosexual lobbies- whose views on gender roles and sexuality is often the antithesis of fitrahand the following picture, as quoted by Murad , emerges: ―In recent weeks, several religious figures in Britain have offered their thoughts, often anguished, generally cogent, on the tragedy of the progressive decay of the family. The Bishop of Liverpool and the Chief Rabbi have both summarised the process with the usual statistics: 34% of British children are now born outside wedlock; a similar proportion of adults suffer the heartbreak of divorce; within twenty years fewer than half of the nation‘s children will be brought up by their own two parents; and so on. Few doubt the practical catastrophes which ensue: in the United States, it is said that over half of prison inmates are from broken homes, while men and women are known to suffer deep psychological harm from parental divorce even in middle life or old age.‖ (The Fall of the Family,http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/family.htm) In fact, the Enlightenment has sown the seeds of its own destruction. The development of post-modernism, an antirationalist reaction, shows that it has simply not worked in the way that many would have liked. It has not provided that happiness, that fulfillment that people naturally seek. How does traditional Islam react to all of this? Traditional Islam steers clear of both the banality of liberal Islam- which confines Islam to the private sphere- as well as the rejectionist stance of the extremists. For Murad it has to be a prophetic, dissenting voice within the reality modern world. Aside from its natural adaptation to modernity in the realm of fiqh, it must make the divine a living reality in people‘s life and, in so doing, provide a persuasive and stable ground for virtue and, by extension, citizenship. It needs to reassert spirituality as a precondition for true knowledge. The mind alone is not sufficient. In order to know the world we first need to know ourselves. Murad believes that Sufism is the most effective vehicle in Islam for communicating this message to the modern world. It has traditionally been the instrument through which Islam becomes
embedded in specific culture, and the same should hold true for modernity. It applies religion in a sensible manner, making wisdom and compassion guiding principles for the exercise of the law. And from the very start it emphasizes the potential grandeur of the human being, the recipient of God‘s Names- and it is in the shade of this grandeur that the human being finds lasting freedom and fulfillment. It is freedom and fulfillment that, after all, was the goal of the Enlightenment and of the modern project in general.
Part four: The roots of extremism Islamic extremism is a reality. There are Muslims who commit all sorts of atrocities in the name of Islam. It is also an aberration. The reaction to 9/11 and 7/7 unequivocally showed that the great majority of Muslims, ‘ulama and laymen alike, view such acts as having no basis in Islam. But, if not Islam, where do these actsand, more crucially, the mindset that leads to them- originate? Shaykh Murad believes that the roots of Islamic extremism are to be found firmly located in the West. Firstly, the alienation and rootlessness felt by extremists is a characteristic product of modernity as it stomps all over traditional cultural and religious identities. Alienation goes hand in glove with a siege mentality, the sense that the world is out to get you. The identity vacuum created comes to be filled in many artificial ways, one of which is belonging to splinter groups that are founded precisely on the basis of an ―us‖ versus ―them‖, who appear to offer a convenient explanation of the world‘s ills, and who as a result provide their members with a sense of purpose and belonging. There is nothing uniquely Islamic about such a phenomenon, as can be seen in the myriad of groups with similar characteristics in the West, for example, the neo-Nazis. Equally, nothing is further from the truth than the Western caricature which paints Islamic extremists as ―third-worlders‖ who fail to understand the modern world and are envious of the West‘s scientific achievements. On the contrary, they are technologically very literate, many of them having studied the natural sciences at Western universities and are deeply familiar with the programmatic ethos of modernity. It is this ethos that they in turn have imbibed and which they are now employing against the West. Al-Qaida ―represents the worst of Enlightenment‘s possibilities‖, not of Islam‘s. (Abdal Hakim Murad, Bombing without moonlight,http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/moonlight.htm). There are other features that Islamic extremism and the West share: the historical anti-Semitism found in the West is now transplanted upon the Muslim mindset, which too becomes obsessed with forged documents such as the ―Protocols of Zion‖.
Such anti-Semitism has not been part of the traditional Islamic legacy. The notion of suicide bombings also has strong Western precedents, particularly in the stories surrounding the Biblical hero, Samson. The West is blind to its own tradition if it sees anything intrinsically Islamic in this. More tellingly, the whole doctrine of the ends justifying the means has always been part of the modern Western mindset, whatever verbal statements to the contrary This can be seen, for example, in the massive British public support for the bombing of German cities, such as Dresden, during World War 2. The bombing campaign, which claimed a half million civilian lives was based on the implicit premise that ethical concerns could be suspended given the need to break German morale. Similarly, the attacks on innocents by radical Muslims is part of a wider picture of deep surrender to Enlightenment thought, which by its very ―this worldly‖ worldview, has generated the possibility of suspending the ethical. In contrast, traditional Islamic thought has always insisted on the ethical, on the fact that the ends can never justify the means, since- after all- Allah is in charge of all things, holding us to account as to how we act, not what we achieve. It may be added that Islamic extremism also mimics modernity in its eagerness for science, its hatred for ―superstition‖, its disdain for tradition in general. It is, in a word, a thoroughly Western product, a fully modern mindset in an Islamic guise. Extremists dismiss the legal, theological and mystical intricacies of the Islamic tradition as dead wood. For them the cultivated pragmatism of traditional Sunni thought is a caving in, the cardinal error in its thought. In this criticism, extremism closely resembles the Kharijite sect of early Muslim history who insisted on seeing the world in black and white, in the process establishing a perspective which will always see the world as a perpetual conflict between good and evil. Such a perspective is more resonant of American
neo-conservative ideology that it is of the way Muslims have traditionally interacted with others and amalgamated into different cultures. But for traditional Sunni thought the shades of grey cannot but be taken into account. Of course, when jihad must be undertaken there can be no recoiling from this fact. The involvement of the traditional ‘ulama and Sufis in the jihads against colonialism during the 19th century demonstrably show that inherent Sunni pragmatism is not borne out of fear, but of principle. The realities of the 20thcentury are far different, necessitating- by the logic of the Shari‗ah- that Islam‘s response to modernity will be better served through a cautious, conciliatory and disciplined outlook that seeks to identify both the positives and negatives of contemporary global culture, rather than through armed struggle. How is extremism to be overcome? Of course, one has to work all the time at combating its breeding grounds, namely, the impoverished situation of many Muslim countries and the undoubted injustices of Western policy towards the Muslim world. At a more fundamental level, since it is a Western product, it cannot be defeated by a logic that is Western as found, for instance, in secular liberalism or neo-conservatism. Rather, its defeat depends upon the defeat of the current global system and its replacement with an order ground in the ethics of the monotheistic religions- an order that simultaneously tackles environmental loss, unfair trade, genetic manipulation and host of such issues that are symptomatic of the contemporary secular ethical fall-out. In the Muslim world, this would require the restoration of vibrant Sunni normalcy, a normalcy continuously energized by its attachment to Islam‘s rich spiritual traditions, whose fiqh is simultaneously authentic and relevant, whose theological and intellectual outlook is broad and cosmopolitan while always being grounded in tradition and the Real. It is this normalcy that kept
going no matter the changing political fortunes and other vicissitudes that are bound to characterize any society‘s movement through history. It is this normalcy that taught Muslims never to despair. As Shaykh Abdul Hakim continuously reminds us: ―Allah only has good intentions for us History is in good hands.‖ Bibligraphy: Many articles of Abdal Hakim Murad, in addition to the ones mentioned in our essay, are to be found on the following website: http://www.masud.co.uk/
Charting the way ahead: Tariq Ramadan and the future of Western Islam Muslim communities in the West are undergoing visible introspection in a post 9/11 world. Whether in America, Britain or elsewhere they are loudly talking among themselves about where they at and where they ought to be. One of the most prominent voices charting this territory is the acclaimed Islamic thinker Professor Tariq Ramadan. In his ―Western Muslims and the Future of Islam‖ he describes the major challenges that face Muslims in the Western context and proposes a vision through which Muslim citizens of Western countries can become full, contributing members of their societies. We will touch upon some of his thoughts here given its palpable relevance for South African Muslims. Ramadan is adamant that Western Muslims must not see themselves as a ―minority‖, as on the margin of mainstream society. They must see themselves as part of the mainstream, as integrated, contributing members of the society. This implies a mind shift: a shift away from seeing the West as alien and having one‘s ―real‖ roots located elsewhere to one where the West becomes a genuine home. And, consequently, Western Muslims should strive to be intellectually, politically and financially independent of Muslim ―homelands‖. As Ramadan puts it: ―Western citizens of the Muslim faith must think for themselves, develop theses appropriate to their situation, and put forward new and concrete ideas. They must refuse to remain dependent, either on the intellectual level or, more damagingly, on the political and financial levels.‖ Ramadan is no free-ranging ―modernist‖. He shows fidelity to classical Islamic law and spirituality and believes that his ideas follow from a faithful, orthodox interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah. The Quran, he says, takes intelligence and reasoning capacity for granted. The majority of its verses demand real interpretative effort [ijtihad] on the bases of certain well worked out
principles developed by the early scholars. In the area of societal affairs [economics, politics, culture] in particular it leaves a huge gap for the exercise of reason and creativity. There is ample scope to experiment and innovate as long as the boundary of the explicitly forbidden is not crossed. A Muslim community is not then tied to a particular type of political, economic or social model. They can adopt any model as long as the essential Islamic principles underlying all models are respected. In fact models are bound to change because time changes. Political and economic systems become more complex over time and the Muslim community is in fact duty bound to develop a model appropriate to their given context. Culture, too, is not static and monochrome. Ramadan points out that the revealed sources compel Muslims to integrate all that is acceptable in other cultures – everything that is not against an established principleand integrate it as part of their own. This principle has historically enabled Muslims to settle in and make their own all cultures in which they have established themselves as can clearly be seen in Asia and Africa. Similarly there should be no problem for Muslims in applying this principle to their interaction with the West. Applying the principle will give birth to a European or American Islamic culture: a culture imbibed with universal Islamic principles but sustained by the history, traditions, styles and tastes of Western countries. Muslims, Ramadan urges, need to go beyond the confines of the mosque, the Islamic bookshop and the Islamic association to recognize the good in Western culture, literature the arts. ―Islamic‖ bookshops, for example, can offer customers new literary horizons- novels, short stories, as well as works in the humanities and philosophy. The same approach should be followed with regard to music, cinema and television Some may feel uneasy about such close interaction. Among other things, they may argue that there is a contradiction in fully belonging to the Umma and to a nation-state at the same time. Ramadan does not see a conflict. He says that we are talking about two different entities. Belonging to an ummah is primal [about one‘s deepest being] while belonging to a nation-state is spatial and
relational [a relation to the constitution]. But, one may ask, what if the constitution clashes with Islamic values? Ramadan replies by making an important distinction between what the law allows one to and what the law compels one to do. We may read the following into what Ramadan says: the law allows many things, including a large space to fulfil one‘s Islamic requirements. Although it allows many things that are at variance with Islam, it does not compel one to adopt them. And for this reason he believes that it is illegitimate for a Muslim living in the West to act against the law. Ramadan is rather critical of Islamic schools in the West. He believes that these schools only cater for a small percentage of Muslim children. They become schools for the affluent if not subsidized. He asks: What about the others who cannot afford these schools? Further, he believes that these schools create an ―artificially Islamic ― environment closed off from the Western world they are surrounded by. There is no link to the society around it. Students do not know how to live an integrated life once they graduate from these schools. A scattering of Islamic teachings do not necessarily forge an intelligent, conscious Muslim. As an alternative Ramadan proposes a complementary between the standard education given in the West and the overall Islamic message. Thus he says to go with the adequate public school system already provided. Then a complementary ―religious‖ education is correlated to the school‘s program and adapted to levels of understanding determined by patterns at school. In this way, the religious teaching becomes far more integrated with ―secular‖ knowledge and students will experience an ongoing contextual understanding of their religion. As full citizens of a country, Ramadan believes that Muslims should develop a state of mind that thinks of responsibilities rather than rights. This starts at the individual level. They should also strive to respect and promote the rights of all- not only that of their own community. Besides legal rights, this should include social rights of disadvantaged social classes. This reaching out to beyond their own community should include creating partnerships with other religions to promote a shared ethics, as well as with groupings who
have a shared commitment to human rights. Further, he thinks that Islamic organizations should develop associations that are not based simply on the Muslim identity of their founders reach beyond to be an encounter and dialogue with the other. In terms of political involvement Western Muslims must be principled but flexible. They should be focused in their political strategy on the social benefits that will accrue to the Muslim community of a particular course of action. In the less than ideal situations they will presumably often encounter that may have to choose the lesser of two evils. They should acknowledge the positive political features of their society, fight all forms of injustice as a priority and have a keen continuing awareness of the actors and the key points in the social and political dynamics of their situation. Their involvement in the political processes must always lead to greater justice. For this reason they cannot co-operate with a dictatorial government and their members must be wary of being used as pawns to get the ―minority vote‖. Economically, Western Muslims must be aware that the current system is fundamentally unjust. Everyone has become enmeshed in the global economic system with all its injustices, its new look colonialism and long distance slavery. There exists no space currently for an untainted Islamic economics. This does not mean that we should remove ourselves from the economic system. On the contrary, that is an unrealistic strategy and one should continue working in the system. But our intent should be to acquire the means to create a viable alternative to the dominant system while protecting the possessions and independence of Muslims in their society. Again, Muslims must not go it alone but get involved with groups seeking alternative economic frameworks. Ramadan has an interesting take on zakaah. He believes that an effective system of zakah- one which will establish a real system of social security and that frees the poor from their dependency – can only come into being by wedding a thorough knowledge of the social context to the giving of the alms tax. What do we need to do to
make the poor ultimately independent of the need for zakaah? This will involve employing zakaah giving strategies that lead to autonomy not continued dependence. It will mean, for example, using zakaah as a means to buy tools or rent land to create a sustainable income. Ramadan‘s ideas may be somewhat contentious and they demand critical scrutiny. But whatever one‘s take on his views, I think the issues he raises need to be prioritized as Muslim communities chart their course through the 21st century.
Building vibrant Muslim communities: some thoughts of Umar Faruq Abd-Allah Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, an American convert to Islam, is Director of the Nawawi Foundation the United States which has its mission the fostering of an indigenous American Muslim identity. He is thoroughly trained in both the Islamic and Western world views, an accomplished ‗alim and academic, and has written what I believe to be some path-breaking articles on the principles that underpin vibrant Muslim communities. Though writing for an American Muslim audience in particular, I feel his ideas resonate with the South African Muslim situation and are worth some scrutiny. Abd-Allah outlines five operational principles- principles derived from a distilled understanding of Islam- that he believes will result in personal and community growth. These principles are: 1)Trusting reason 2) Respecting dissent 3) Stressing societal obligations 4) Setting priorities 5)Being aware of and embracing key Islamic legal maxims Abd-Allah writes: ―Any approach to Islam that does not cultivate and respect the free and candid use of reason is inadequate and cannot lay the foundations of a viable future.‖ Reason is in fact the bedrock of Islamic law. Laws, as Abd-Allah rightly observes, require ongoing scrutiny to ensure that their application remains consistent with their rationale. Applying this principle to South Africa there may still be some Muslims who feel that certain areassuch as rationally discussing arguments for the existence of Allahmay be out of bounds. Of course, this has not been the norm in Islamic scholarship. For the youth, especially, an atmosphere of being able to ask all manner of questions without fear of being ostracized should prevail. Simultaneously, the limits of reason should always be kept on the horizon and they should be taught that an ultimate appreciation of the divine and religion comes with life-experience, respect and living the values of one‘s faith.
The principle of trusting reason is closely tied to the second one: respecting dissent. Abd-Allah notes that with regard to fundamentals Islam speaks with a monolithic voice, but in others with multiple ones and this toleration of diverse opinions is central to Islamic heritage. In fact, Islamic scholarship has specifically developed a ―protocol of dissent‖ which describes how to live with and benefit from opposing points of view. He also makes the point that historically Islam‘s openness to novel and often conflicting ideas was important part of its cultural and intellectual success. South Africa has made great strides in this arena, with increased appreciation and respect for a madhhab other than one‘s own and for alternate legal positions. Of course, more can be done. At the layperson level the distinction between fundamentals and branches and the fact that there can be different positions even within a madhhab still needs to be properly understood. The Eid issue, for example, is a ―branches‖ issue and subject to different points of view. To be fair, this is being increasingly recognized among laypersons. Some still believe that a woman‘s voice being part of her awrah is the only legitimate view on the matter. While it is quite understandable that some ‗ulama sought to preserve people from confusion and a laissez-faire attitude towards the religion by only stressing particular points of view , it is more expedient in the current climate to provide them with more exposure to different points of view. Arming with information is also a form of protection and can enhance devotion. With regard to fulfilling societal obligations, Abd-Allah strongly feels that Muslims in their preoccupation with individual interests and obligations have lost sight of Islam‘s social mission and that this to a large extent has been responsible for the ―lamentable‖ state of Muslims worldwide today. He believes that Muslims of the West must identify and implement societal obligations that are relevant to their context. In America he identifies the following obligations among others: the development of resources that address the issues of better social services, professional marriage counseling, the development of Islamic financial institutions and the establishment of advanced Islamic seminaries. Of course, the fulfilling of these obligations require communities to develop a
strategic vision. Abd-Allah writes: ―Muslim communities cannot meet their societal obligations without farsighted institutional development, including the establishment of religious endowments and the employment of well-trained professionals.‖ In this area too the South African Muslim community has made considerable progress and has in a somewhat decentralised piece-meal manner created a fairly well-developed infrastructure to fulfill the social needs it encounters. Needs, though, evolve and challenges change. One needs to be ever-vigilant of new societal obligations. Joblessness and high food and accommodation prices are current difficulties. Addressing such difficulties, as well as the broader issue of globalization and its social impact, will require South African Muslims to continually review and renew the ways they carry out their societal obligations. An area where the South African Muslim community does seem at surface level seem somewhat remiss is that of setting priorities. According to Abd-Allah, Islamic law sets three descending levels of priority in order to secure society‘s well-being: necessities, needs and complements. Keeping this order of priority in mind, Muslims are able to allocate time and resources to imperative, major requirements without becoming side-tracked by minor or even false concerns. If all three levels of priority cannot be achieved- which is often the case- then the lower priorities have to be traded for higher ones. Abd-Allah gives the following example: an Islamic seminary project (a necessity) must not be held back because of difficulty in securing scholarships (a need) or finding an aesthetically pleasing location (a complement). I think that misplaced priorities often flow from good intentions but with an ill-conceived idea of the broader vision and objectives of Islam. While memorizing the Quran is a meritorious act, it should generally take a backseat to learning Arabic and making sense of the Holy Book‘s meaning. While sincerely establishing a mosque brings rewards to the individuals involved, in cases of its construction not being a necessity issues like poverty alleviation and creating job opportunities are more important. These latter are the greater Sunnah in such a context.
Finally, Abd-Allah urges us to focus on key maxims underlying Islamic law and not simply on its directives. These maxims, which he believes must form a key component in the community‘s religious instruction, highlight the spirit in which the law must be approached. The first of these maxims is that matters will be judged by their purposes. This maxim implies that work in general, whether related to personal actions, policies or institutions, must have direction and carried out in a way that is likely to achieve their rationale and objective. Another maxim stresses that certainty is not undermined by doubt. Well established convictions cannot be disregarded until there is stronger evidence to the contrary. This implies, among other things, that one is innocent until proven guilty and that things are deemed to be permissible until proven otherwise. This, as Abd-Allah observes, requires us breaking out of seeing Islam as a list of do‘s and don‘t‘s- where the don‘t‘s outnumber the do‘s. Two further maxims are closely related to each other, namely, that harm must be removed and hardship alleviated. The removal of harm means a primary focus on victims of harm, injustice and oppression. The alleviation of hardship implies the creation of easier alternatives. Finally, the maxim ―Custom has the weight of law‖ does mean that we are free to imbibe from other cultures whatever does not explicitly conflict with Islamic law. Ideally, it is the adoption of good cultural norms in a manner that produces what is more beautiful and beneficial than existed before. Abd-Allah believes that this imaginative adoption has already been shown by American Muslims in fields as diverse as fashion, design, literature and comedy, among others. I believe that Abd-Allah‘s ideas display a rich freshness that can re-invigorate the strategies of Muslim community leadership as they seek ways in which to engage with the other. His ideas also provide a practical intellectual platform by which they can carry their communities forward. They are also rest assured that these ideas are not novel ones that have little basis in the classical tradition; on the contrary, they flow from the very essence of that tradition.
Nursi’s insights into Ramadan: Lessons for our age The loss of the sacred is perhaps the most glaring characteristic of the modern age. In contrast, it appears that there was a far greater sense of the divine in pre-modern societies. Whatever their religion, the customs, traditions and systems of law of almost all societies were firmly anchored in religious foundations. But with the rise of an unfettered rationalism in Europe, and the exporting of this mentality globally, the sense of the sacred became eroded. Reason, utility and progress, rather than a connection to the divine, became the fundamental yardsticks by which all social activity was to be measured. Human beings, in other words, generally became more absorbed with themselves than with the sacred. With the current unbalanced emphasis on rights rather than duties, and a secular moral relativism that shamelessly has no compass in the divine, such self-centredness is only exacerbated. Against this backdrop, Bediuszaman Said Nursi‘s insights into Ramadan are particularly pertinent to our times. Nursi, who was born in the second half of the nineteenth century, had a key role in keeping Islam alive in Turkey during particularly difficult times for the religion. Through his struggles and writings he bridged the gap between the old and the new, demonstrating the beautiful, vital relevance of Islam to the age of science and reason. The fruits of his persistence are being seen today in Turkey‘s Islamic renaissance and his work is now being made available to Muslim communities worldwide. In a short but profound meditation on the holy month, Nursi reflects on how fasting breaks down our self-centredness, allowing the divine to flow back into our consciousness. He notes that fasting returns us to our primal state of being totally in need of Allah. In the normal run of things, we tend to become heedless of this primal state since we rely and depend on intermediate causes for our sustenance, forgetting about the true source which is none other than Allah. These intermediate causes ―veil‖ us from recognizing and paying due heed to the real origin of our
sustenance. I may add that in the modern age in particular intermediate causes are even seen as ultimate ones, and this makes the breakdown of such causes even more necessary. Ramadan suspends the normal run of things and we are forced to keep away from intermediate sources of nourishment such as food and drink. In being compelled to do this we gradually come to recognize that the true Nourisher and Sustainer is Allah. And, consequently, in Nursi‘s beautiful image, ―As sunset approaches, they [Muslims] display a worshipful attitude as though, having been invited to the Pre-Eternal Monarch‘s banquet, they are awaiting the command of ―Fall to and help yourselves!‖ Fasting, as Nursi points out, also destroys the illusion of selfsufficiency, of the self seeing itself as having a dominion of its own, of being in control over its own affairs. This is indeed one of the great illusions that characterize our modern era. It is manifested in an almost religious belief in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems, in arguing that we can make up the rules as we go along, in the whole belief- stated or otherwise - that might is right. But the roots of such illusions are, of course, in individuals. It is with our ―selves‖. And fasting, Nursi declares, is effective in crushing these illusions of the self. The self by nature does not want to admit the true source of its bounties. The situation is made worse when it possesses worldly wealth and power and, heedless of the divine, it devours Allah‘s bounties like a ―thieving animal.‖ But in Ramadan this lower self comes to understand ―that it does not own itself, but is totally owned; that it is not free, but is a slave. It understands that if it receives no command, it is unable to do the simplest and easiest thing, it cannot even stretch out its hand towards water. Its imaginary dominicality [dominion] is therefore shattered; it performs its worship and begins to offer thanks, its true duty.‖ The giving of thanks to Allah- a true, sincere and extensive thanksis, in fact, for Nursi, the key outcome of fasting in Ramadan. In
compelling us to look beyond the intermediate causes to the true Cause of our bounties, we are simultaneously driven to give thanks to that cause and truly appreciate the value of the bounties He has given us. Nursi provides us with a poignant image in this regard: ―Fasting in Ramadan, then, is the key to a true, sincere, extensive, and universal thankfulness. For at other times of the year, most of those who are not in difficult circumstances do not realize the value of many bounties since they do not experience real hunger. Those whose stomachs are full and especially if they are rich, do not understand the degree of bounty there is in a piece of dry bread. But when it is time to break the fast, the sense of taste testifies that the dry bread is a most valuable Divine bounty in the eyes of a believer. During Ramadan, everyone from the monarch to the destitute, manifests a sort of gratitude through understanding the value of those bounties.‖ In an age when the rat-race makes it difficult for us to stop and ―smell the roses‖, when the modern lifestyle, and often artificial, pressures put on our time depreciates the true value of little things, Nursi‘s observation is very pertinent.
Ramadan cultural practices: more than just a supporting cast The giving of plates, the munayats and their distinct lagus, boeber on the 15th of Ramadan- all these are among the cultural practices of many Cape Town Muslims in Ramadan. And, similarly, across South Africa and throughout the world other Muslim communities, big and small, have developed their distinctive cultural practices related to this month. These practices allow one to reconnect to the Almighty, to the Prophet, to the Quran, to one‘s loved ones, to one‘s community in a manner that is soothingly familiar. Little wonder then that many who are away miss home the most in this period. Yet we may tend to regard these practices as expendable. After all, they not obligated by the religion in any direct sense. They give Ramadan ―atmosphere‖ to be sure, but they hardly the central message of the month. While on the face of it such an attitude may be justified- there is a vast difference between the obligatory and the permitted- to casually dismiss cultural practices as mere extras or appendages is to miss their point. In one sense they are appendages, in another, they represent the very essence of Ramadan. The meaning of culture To grapple with this latter sense we need to revisit the meaning of culture. Quite often, we take culture simply to be an add-on to Islam. Its there, it exists but it does not truly form part of Islam. Worse, for some, culture needs to be separated from ―pure‖ Islam, accompanied by an activism to purge Islam of its cultural content. In his important essay ―Islam and the cultural imperative‖ Shaykh Umar Faruq Abd-Allah shows how such understandings are far removed from the perspective of the classical ulama and the historical reality of Muslim societies. The ulama consciously permitted and respected local customs and traditions as long as these did not transgress clear and established
Islamic provisions. They recognized the necessary role such customs and usages played in people‘s lives and formulated their legal opinions (fatwas) accordingly. Shaykh Abd-Allah quotes the judicial authority, al Tusuli, as follows: ―Allowing the people to follow their customs, usages, and general aspirations in life is obligatory. To hand down rulings in opposition to this is gross deviation and tyranny.‖ The faqih cannot statically reproduce received opinion but must give due consideration to local circumstances. The eminent jurist, al-Qarafi, strongly makes this point when he says:―Persons handing down legal judgments while adhering blindly to the texts in their books without regard for the cultural realities of their people are in gross error. They act in contradiction to established legal consensus and are guilty of iniquity and disobedience before God, having no excuse despite their ignorance; for they have taken upon themselves the art of issuing legal rulings without being worthy of that practice…‖ (Quoted by Abd-Allah). Abd-Allah further points out that the adage ―Cultural usage is second nature‖ is a principle of Islamic jurisprudence. The adage implies ―that it is as difficult for people to go against their established customs as it is for them to defy their instinctive natures. Consequently, wise application of the law required broad accommodation of local norms, which should be altered or obstructed only when absolutely necessary.‖ The logical conclusion of this attitude is evident around us. Islam has not supplanted the cultures to which it has spread but has indeed shaped itself in accordance with their societal norms, without any sacrifice of its basic tenets. And thus whether in China, Turkey, South East Asia, South Asia, West Africa, East Africa or Central Asia we find an Islam thoroughly wedded to its local environment.
It is clear that classical jurists would not have regarded Ramadan‘s cultural traditions as mere appendages nor would they have wanted to indiscriminately separate these from ―pure Islam‖. Instead, their understanding of culture would be very much akin to the one provided by Abd-Allah (a definition in any case built upon a distilled understanding of the classical tradition): ―Beyond what is purely instinctive and unlearned, culture governs everything about us and even molds our instinctive actions and natural inclinations. It is culture that makes us truly human.... speech, politics, religion, and all essentially human traits are fundamental components of culture, and, whatever else we may be, humankind is, first and foremost, ―the cultural animal....Culture weaves together the fabric of everything we value and need to know—beliefs, morality, expectations, skills, and knowledge—giving them functional expression by integrating them into effectual customary patterns.‖ In other words, the lagu of a munayat is not merely an add-on; it is embedded in the consciousness of its practitioners as an essential, interconnected, element of the Ramadan experience. It is part of who they are, part of the way they must do Ramadan. Technically and on paper the munayat, or other Ramadan cultural practices are an addition to what is legally necessary; as a lived reality they are almost a wajib. This is not to suggest these practices as such must exist. Customary patterns are inevitably subject to change and as old ones erode new ones come into being. What is crucial, though, is that the meanings and values implicit in every effective cultural pattern continue. So, for example, the giving of plates denotes sharing, generosity and the maintenance of family and community ties, the making of boeber a mini-celebration for what has been accomplished and a psychological fortification for what is still to come, the plaintive lagu of the munayat a culmination of our feelings towards the Creator at the end of the day. And so while these patterns may
undergo transformation the new ones have to meet similar essential human needs and aspirations.
Ramadan: the great compensation If we were to ask ourselves: what is the characteristic that most clearly distinguishes modern living from that of previous generations?- then its increasing remoteness from nature- would be pretty high up on the list. This remoteness extends to all aspects of our lives: in where we live, in the manner we commute, in how we entertain ourselves and in the way we eat. We now live in cities whereas our forbears were rural. They tilled the soil, saw their crops grow, bore personal witness to the destructive and regenerative powers of nature and eat directly from the land with this consciousness in mind. Food could not be taken for granted. As urbanites we, of course, can‘t be immediate witnesses to the natural cycle. We go to the supermarkets and rightly expect our food to be on the shelves. As consumers we at the tail end of the economic chain, the furthest removed from the elemental forces of nature which first combined in leading to the product we casually put in our trolley. Other elements of modern living serve to reinforce this remoteness from nature. When we drive in our cars, the simple act of walking, of smelling the air, taking in the sights, is immediately relegated to the background. Another veil between us and nature is created. Of course, driving is necessary. But that does not mean that the veil is not created. The remoteness from nature inevitably spouts vicarious living, especially in the way we entertain ourselves. We live through the accomplishments of our favourite sports teams and figures, seeing their victories as our victories, feel as embittered as they do at a loss. We may follow the lives of entertainers, actors and even television characters and series with more than just a passing
interest. All of this is perfectly understandable, but vicarious living remains removed from actuality. This remoteness becomes decidedly problematic when it distorts reality, when we become obsessed with what should be passing interests or when the lines between reality and fiction become blurred. We start living in artificial worlds of our own construction. It is at this point that the remoteness from nature has overreached itself and becomes the polar opposite of that which is natural, actual and real. It is no accident that the natural is tied to the Divine. The peasant who plants and reaps his or her crops is constantly witnessing the Verse: ―And among His Signs is this:thou sees the earth barren and desolate; But when We send down rain to it , it is stirred to life and yields increase.‖ [Surah 41: Verse 39] And the Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, is titled Ummi- the entirely pure and natural , untouched and unblemished by the sophistry, artificiality and extraneous learning of an urban world. Hence he, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him, was the perfect receptacle for the treasury of Divine realities. And., conversely, remoteness from nature is a corollary of remoteness from the Divine. City life, by its nature, numbs us against the most basic, elemental forces of nature – precisely those forces in which we see the Divine at its most immanent, precisely those forces which, in an immediate sense, make us realize that Allah is All-Encompassing. It is here that Ramadan is the great compensation for the time we living in. When we are forcibly kept away from food we are reduced to our most basic state. .We are forced to ponder over and be thankful for our food as opposed to mechanically imbibing it whenever and however we like. It triggers us to reflect on the elemental forces of rain, sun, light and earth which are its material
causes. We are, above all, compelled to reflect upon its Ultimate Cause and Originator, through Whom in reality we receive nourishment. Ramadan brings us back to the elemental realities of the universe, to nature, to actuality, to the Reality. It awakens the ummi within all of us. We cannot choose to live in an era other than that in which we find ourselves. And there is, of course, infinite wisdom in the Divine Willing of this era. In addition, among the compensations of this era, as Gai Eaton reminds us, is the statement of Allah‘s Beloved to his Companions: ―You live in such a time that if you abandon one tenth of what you are ordered you will perish; Then will come a time such that if you do one tenth of what you are ordered, you will be saved.‖ : Ramadan, existing as it does as a rare focusing moment in distracting universe, presents a superb opportunity to tread this generous path to salvation.
Moving beyond identity We often think of ourselves, and define each other, in terms of how we look, where we come from, our customs and peculiarities, and other related factors that make up an ―identity‖. Such things are not unimportant. In fact, cultural identity forms an essential part of who we are. It is natural to orient ourselves through such identity, which determines so many things in our lives - dress, food, manners of greeting etc. It is unrealistic to divorce such elements from one‘s religious identity as a Muslim. Any meaningful study of Muslims in the Middle East cannot be separated from their Arabness and, likewise, the study of Muslims in the Turkish, Malay, Indo-pak, Hausa, African and other regions cannot be separated from their respective cultures. Culture, as Shaykh Umar Faruq Abd-Allah has pointed out, incorporates religion into its ambit as one of its dimensions, and in Islamic history the spread of the religion has almost invariably been accompanied by its fusing with the local culture. But cultures are not permanent and neither are the identities to which they are almost inextricably tied. Cultures morph, often beyond recognition, and at times - especially in times of great stress - they may even be substituted for other cultures. Subcultures are a recurrent feature of broader culture (and those involved in such subcultures often find them more important than the broader culture, preferring to define their identity in terms of the former rather than the latter). Someone has rightly spoken of, for example, various communities of Muslims within Cape Town. These communities, I may add, live parallel to each other and to speak of an organically connected single community is increasingly problematic. The simultaneous morphing of identities that accompanies these cultural transformations leads to a paradox: to be rooted in a specific cultural identity is almost a necessity, yet that rootedness is by nature something impermanent and changeable.
This paradox does not normally present a problem: we recognize that our own identity and culture works for us but that simultaneously it is but one among many and subject to mutation and the vicissitudes of context. It becomes problematic when we start regarding these identities as permanent and - worse - as better than others. This attitude gives rise to cultural chauvinism which has been the bane of many Muslim communities. In cultural chauvinism we simply forget that we are part of the bigger ummah and that our muslimness trumps regional, national, cultural and ethnic affiliation. When we look at another Muslim we should of course bear in mind that they are part of us and not the ―other‖. When we look at someone primarily as ―Malay‖ or ―Indian‖, for example, relegating their ―Muslimness‖ into the backgound we are going to look at each other as the ―other‖. Cultural identity, while innately healthy, can become harmful if not circumscribed by this ―ummatic consciousness‖. Our loyalty to the Holy Prophet (SA) transcends any other type of loyalty. But changeable cultures and identities need not be the only standpoint by which we view each other. The Quran says: indeed the believers [mu'mineen] are one brotherhood. It is interesting that Allah uses the word ―mu'mineen‖ which is tied to the word ―iman‖ [genuine faith in the reality of Allah]. Believers are bonded together by their love for Allah and love each other for the sake of Allah. They see each other as ―souls‖, that essential part of the human being, as opposed to merely accidental cultural identities. They take to heart a saying attributed to Sayyidina Ali (ra), namely, that what is important is not where you come from, but where you are going to. This journey to Allah becomes the measure by which they relate to the rest of creation. This journey will give worldly culture and identity their due, but ultimately provides a radical new standard for looking at each other, a standard that compels us to place each other in the bigger picture of creation, moving way beyond a transient identity bounded by time and space.
A simple faith Many elders taught us a simple faith: honour the awliya. They may have had basic formal knowledge of the religion but their Islam was drenched in love and esteem for the Friends of Allah. And they ensured that this love was communicated by word and deed to the children, both through the practice and passing of traditions associated with the awliya and by reverent recounting of their stories and status. And so in South Africa we find that gadats, gaajahs and samans – practices tied to figures such as Shaykh Yusuf and Tuan Guruhave become an ingrained aspect of Cape Muslim culture. We also find among this country's Muslims the veneration of walis such as Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (RA), Khawaja Muinuddin Chisti (RA) and other personally and culturally important saints at both public and private levels: publicly through events such as Urs and more quietly through the recounting of their exploits and rank to family members. Such a simple faith is simultaneously profound. The great awliya are the most complete inheritors of the Prophetic legacy, having achieved mastery not only in the formal disciplines of Islam such as fiqh and beliefs but, more significantly, over the inward realities of the religion. Honouring them at once opens a window to the totality of the message of Holy Prophet, the Salutations and Peace be upon him. True honouring of the awliya implies, of course, following them. It means believing as they believed, acting as they acted and behaving as they behaved. And so such a simple faith has a momentous social consequence: it reinforces and spreads among the masses the beliefs of the Ahl Sunnah wal jamaah, the fiqh of the four madhhabs and beautiful adab rooted in the Sunnah of Allah's Beloved. And this adab in turn becomes characteristic of Muslim
society, allowing its members to deal with the joys and strains of life in the light of that beauty. Yet the adoption of such beliefs, fiqh and adab is not simply an extension of this honouring. To the degree that they are absorbed, the average practicing Muslim himself or herself comes to recognize and appreciate the manner in which these formal dictates open the window to the truth of existence. Shariah is the door to haqiqah (ultimate reality). And, correspondingly, to the extent this recognition occurs they too become beautified by the light that shines upon the awliya. And it is a matter of everyday experience that many of our elders shine with such light. Perhaps the most profound consequence of this uncomplicated faith is the manner in which it has impressed the honoring of Allah‘s Beloved among the Muslim masses. The awliya have told us to revere the Holy Prophet, the Peace and Salutations of Allah be upon him, in the most exceptional manner possible. And because they have told us, we do so. And so the Mawlid has become a staple ingredient of almost every Islamic culture. Yet, again, this goes beyond mere extension of the teachings of the awliya. The awliya themselves reflect the Prophetic light. If the manifestations are so dazzling what of the source itself?! Our words can never truly comprehend nor exhaust the greatness of Allah‘s Beloved. This is what the awliya, both by their teachings and their being have taught the ummah. Attachment to the awlia, whether directly through a Shaykh or indirectly through participation in traditional practices such as dhikr, cultivates a living link to the Prophet, the Salutations and Peace of Allah be upon him. It allows even the most unlettered Muslim to taste the realities of religion in at least an equal manner to those formally trained in the Islamic sciences. The purpose of the formal sciences ('ilm) is, after all, simply to act as a gateway to the realities of the religion (ma'rifah). More precisely, it is to recognize
and become absorbed in these realities. Many elders may have had elementary formal 'ilm but they walked in the blazing light of ma'rifah.
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