Tackling Religious Literacy: Lexical Empiricism

In a recent khutbah, I addressed a major issue that Muslims in general, and American Muslims in specific, face: Religious literacy. There have been a few scholars coming out now to draw attention to this deficit in the community and I pray their efforts are doubly successful. While having a conversation today with a brother regarding fiqh, I came across a passage in the Mālikī text, al-Mudawwanah, a foundational treatise on Mālikī jurisprudence that reminded me again of the subtle and elusive nature of language. I hope these thoughts will be a small voice in the growing chorus calling for religious literacy by Muslims everywhere.

Religious literacy is not simply a new buzz word, a phrase to kick around to either feel good about or to feel intellectually superior, but it is a real need that embraces both the fard al-‘Ayn/فرض الكفاية as well as the fard al-Kifāyah/فرض العين: Individual as well as communal obligations. Religious literacy, like its secular counterpart, allows for functionality. It is also the engine that drives the plurality in Islam. At the moment, the engine block feels like it might seize at any moment. However, with some attention, care, and maintenance, we might set out to fix this debilitating condition. I would like to use wudū’/وضوء, or ablution, as the model to open the conversation on religious literacy.

I am sure many of us have experienced the following: One enters into the mosque to offer prayers, and before doing so, one goes to perform wudū’. Whilst performing wudu’, one is interrupted by an individual who objects to the manner and method one is making wudū’. “The water needs to be running,” the person says. “The water must be like this, or like that, you must apply the water this way, or that way.” You get the gist of what I am saying. The problem does not lay solely with this interrogation, but with the excessive demand that if one does not perform wudū’ in the way this particular person deems to be correct, then one’s wudū’—and by extension, prayer—is invalid. The typical response one might have is to offer this person one’s own proofs, from the Sunnah of course, and demonstrate that despite the difference of opinion you both share, rest assured, you are performing wudū’ correctly. Much to one’s chagrin, this is met with further condemnation, bordering on hostility.

So what is at play and at stake here? What stands out plainly here is that difference of opinion or practice, in our current time, is equivalent to innovation. Yet, as we will see below, differences in practice are a staple of our religious tradition. To begin, let us look at the difference of opinion that has cropped up regarding the wiping of socks/foot versus the washing the foot. As we will see, much of the basis for this difference is rooted in language—the very means by which we come to understand and know our religion, which highly complicates the notion of literalism being the equivalent of one single interpretation:

The first entry in Imām Mālik’s al-Mudawwanah al-Kubrā looks at wudū’ and how the act of wudū’ is approached, whether one is to wipe, wash, or touch the extremities once, twice, or three times, and some of the variance which surrounds it. Mālik’s student, ‘Abd al-Rahmān Bin al-Qāsim, provides us some background information on how Imām Mālik looked at the process of wudū’:

قال بن القاسم لم يكن مالك يوقت في الوضوء مرة ولا مرتين ولا ثلاثا وقال إنما قال الله تبارك وتعالى

“[Imām] Mālik did not arbitrarily wash once, twice, or three times, but instead also looked at what God Almighty had said concerning it [wudū’]:

يا أيها الذين آمنوا إذا قمتم إلى الصلاة فاغسلوا وجوهكم وأيديكم إلى المرافق وامسحوا برؤوسكم وأرجلَكم إلى الكعبين وإن كنتم جنبا فاطهروا وإن كنتم مرضى أو على سفر أو جاء أحد منكم من الغائط أو لامستم النساء فلم تجدوا ماء فتيمموا صعيدا طيبا فامسحوا بوجوهكم وأيديكم منه ما يريد الله ليجعل عليكم من حرج ولكن يريد ليطهركم وليتم نعمته عليكم لعلكم تشكرون

“O’ you who profess faith! When you stand to perform prayer, wash your faces and your hands and your arms to the elbows, and wipe over your heads, and your feet to the ankles. If you are in a state of major impurity, then purify yourselves. But if you are sick, on a journey, have come from the lavatory or have touched women and cannot find any water, then perform tayammum with pure earth and wipe your faces and your hands. God does not want to make things difficult for you, but God does want to purify you and to perfect God’s blessing upon you so that hopefully you will be thankful.” [Qur’ān al-Mā’idah (5):6]

I have marked some of the text with some colorations to key in on some of the inflections of the language here to highlight how, from the same lexical source, differing opinions on language, nuance, grammar, etc., can extract different opinions.

The first is the highlighted command, “wash your faces”. Most importantly here is the verb, “wash”, in the imperative mood. As we’ll see, this command here will be the root of one of the differences of opinion regarding washing one’s feet instead of simply wiping over them. Of key interest here is Ibn al-Qāsim’s observation:

فلم يوقت تبارك وتعالى واحدة من ثلاث

“The Almighty did not differentiate the number of times, one from three.”

Ibn al-Qāsim does note, however, [Imām] Mālik’s approach to wudū’ in a more comprehensive manner:

و ما رأيت عند مالك في الغسل و الوضوء توقيتا لا واحدة و لا اثنتين و لا ثلاثا و لكنه كان يقول يتوضأ و يغتسل و يسبغهما جميعا

“I did not see [Imām] Mālik, concerning ghusul/غسل[washing], wudu’, where it was done solely a number of times, once, twice, or three times, but instead he used to say one does wudū’ and ghusul a number of times asbagha/يسبغ أسبغ“excellently”, where these two components are considered part of an excellent wudū’ altogether [lit. jamī’an/جميعا].”

Mālik’s method as we can see here is a conglomerate of Qur’ānic sources as well as those compiled from the Sunnah, which we will note below for reference, though for time’s sake, we’ll skip in detail. But let us return to the above phrase, “wash your faces”, فاغلسوا وجوهكم. As I mentioned, this extended passage here is one of the source points for differences on washing versus wiping. This stems not from the “fā’”, but from the “waw” and the “bā’” in the phrase:

و امسحوا برؤوسكم و أرجلكم

For the ease of argument sake, I will note the two opinions: One stronger, the other weaker. The stronger opinion links the washing of one’s feet back to the washing of one’s face. This is a matter of rhetoric, or what is also known as balāghah/بلاغة . The weaker opinion, as is favored in some Shiite as well as “Sunni” schools [as minor opinions to be sure] is that the washing of the feet is linked not to the washing of one’s face, but to the wiping of one’s head. From this understanding, those that take this weaker or should I say minority opinion, root their stance not in wanton allegory, but in the language of the Verse itself. To be clear, this is not intended to be a lesson in wudū’, but to demonstrate the fluidity and nuance of language. In this case, the interpretations are literal: They proceed directly from the source text [the Qur’ān], yet, due to the duality of language, both parties are able to extract two very different meanings from the same source. To be sure, Imām Mālik, as supported by Ibn al-Qāsim’s statement, relies not solely on this Verse, but also includes states from other Companions, who themselves provide their own accounts of how the Prophet [peace and blessings be upon him] performed or reacted to [actively or tacitly] their respective performance of wudū’.

To see this play out in a different manner, let us examine some of the various English translations of the Qur’ān. We will see how each of these translators interpreted this verse, taking into account the aforementioned nuances of language:

“O ye who believe! When ye prepare for prayer, wash your faces, and your hands (and arms) to the elbows; Rub your heads (with water); and (wash) your feet to the ankles” [Abdullah Yusuf Ali].

“You who have iman! when you get up to do salat, wash your faces and your hands and your arms to the elbows, and wipe over your heads, and wash your feet to the ankles” [Aisha Bewley].

“O YOU who have attained to faith! When you are about to pray, wash your face, and your hands and arms up to the elbows, and pass your [wet] hands lightly over your head, and [wash] your feet up to the ankles” [Muhammad Asad].

As we can see here, all three of these translators had to tackle this issue regarding the interpretive methods of language. Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s method was to use parenthetical inserts to flush out the meanings that were not explicitly mentioned in the text. Inserts such as “(and arms)”, “(with water)”, and especially in relation to the argument here, “(wash)”, show how Ali had to tackle this issue of literal interpretation coupled with implicit meanings. Muhammad Asad’s translation follows a similar path, making use of brackets to highlight implied meanings. Aisha Bewely’s translation however, skips parenthetical usage and quotes, “and wash your feet to the ankles” as if the meaning were explicit. This is done in part because Bewely, a Mālikī scholar in her own right, is assuming Mālik’s position [the above “jamī’an”] which is in favor of washing the feet, and is no doubt familiar with this very same text. Again, the message here is not who is right or wrong, but rather to demonstrate how these three translators, who recognize the ambiguity that is latent in the text [the Qur’ān]—not unlike ‘Abd al-Rahmān Bin al-Qāsim, Ibn Wahab, and Imām Mālik himself—and are all able to make “literal translations” that differ in practice, though not in meaning, as they all recognize the closing portion of the Verse:

ما يريد الله ليجعل عليكم من حرج و لكن يريد ليطهركم وليتم نعمته عليكم لعلكم تشكرون

God does not want to make things difficult for you, but God does want to purify you and to perfect God’s blessing upon you so that hopefully you will be thankful. [Qur’ān al-Mā’idah (5):6]

I will mention one last hadith here from Mālik’s al-Mudawwanah to highlight the existence of ambiguity, particularly as it relates to language. Mālik sites a hadith from ‘Uthmān Bin ‘Affān, a noted Companion of the Prophet [may God be pleased with him and peace and blessings upon the Prophet], where by ‘Uthmān uses the preposition “nawha”/نحو :

أن عثمان بن عفان دعا يوما بوضوء فتوضأ فغسل كفيه ثلاث مرات ثم تمضمض واستنثر ثلاث مرات ثم غسل وجهه ثلاث مرات ثم غسل يده اليُمنى إلى المرفق ثلاث مرات ثم غسل يده اليسرى أيضا إلى المرفق ثلاث مرات ثم مسح رأسه وأذنيه ثم غسل رجله اليمنى إلى الكعب ثلاث مرات ثم غسل رجله اليسرى إلى الكعب ثلاث مرات وأخبرنا أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم توضأ نحو وضوئي

“‘Uthmān Bin ‘Affān called to make wudū’ one day and so he performed wudū’: He washed his palms three times, then rinsed his nose and mouth three times, washed his face three times, washed his right hand to his elbows three times as well as the left, then he wiped his head and ears and washed his feet, right then left, up to his ankle bone, three times, whereupon he informed us that the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him, performed wudū’ similar to my wudū’.

‘Uthmān’s use of “similar”/نحو is of key importance [as is Mālik’s mentioning of it], as it highlights a proximity, not an exactness, of ‘Uthmān’s wudū’ and that of the Prophet. Mālik quotes the Prophet again:

من توضأ نحو وضوئي هذا ثم قام فركع ركعتين لا يحدث فيهما نفسه غفر له ما تقدم من ذنبه

“Whoever performs wudū’ like me and then stands for prayer, praying two units, does  not talk idly to himself, he will be forgiven for what sins proceeded him.”

I hope the short example here will be of some use to demonstrate not only the pluralism that exists in Islam, but to show that literalism is not the same as uniformity. Language is a multifaceted enterprise and cannot be reduce to single interpretations. It is my hope as well to also illustrate that literal interpretations are also not problematic [as is often the opinion of certain voices who feel ‘literal interpretations’ are always locked in stasis of a time gone by]. Above all, I hope this case helps to impart the awe, humility, and respect we should all be taking when approaching this gift we call Islam. We may differ from one another, but before we cast aspersions at one another, I hope we will think twice, and take more time to grasp the enormity, if not the entirety, of these topics which are both broad and expansive.

Additional Resources

Library of Islamic Books and Documents

For the students of Islamic studies, lay or otherwise, I thought, as I go, I would like to or provide books or other documents for download. I may also provide some reviews for books I’ve read in English on Islamic studies as well.

Books For Viewing & Download

‘Ilm Tajwid al-Qur’an علم تجويد القرآن: [download PDF] a concise introduction to science of  tajwid (rules for reciting the Qur’an) by Syrian scholar, Muhammad Hisham al-Burhani. Shaykh al-Burhani has been a faculty member of the University of Damascus in the department of Islamic jurisprudence [fiqh] as well as having spent some time in the Gulf, teaching at the University of al-‘Ayn [جامعة العين في أبي ظبي] in Abu Dhabi. I will be using elements of this book to teach a tajwid class for UPenn’s MSA, starting Spring 2012.

Kitab al-Miftah fi al-Sarf كتاب المفتاح في الصرف: [download PDF] a short introduction to sarf (morphology) by the medieval scholar of Arabic language, al-Jurjani (full name Abu Bakr Abd al-Qāhir bin Abd al-Rahman bin Muhammad al-Jurjānī). The work here is a short but concise intro to the study of Arabic morphology. Recommended for students who are able to read in Arabic but are looking to tackle the study of sarf in the Arabic language.

Bidayah al-Hidayah: [download PDF] a classic in the field of Muslim spirituality as well as moral and ethical excellence, Imam al-Ghazzali’s Beginning of Guidance is also available in a bilingual edition translated by Mashhad al-Allaf via White Thread Press.

Tafsir Ibn Abi Hatim: [download PDF] a large early tafsir by Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Rahman Ibn Abi Hatim al-Razi [born in al-Rayy in 240/854]. The son of a well-respected scholar, Abu Hatim al-Razi, this tafsir is based on the accounts of the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم, the Companions, and the Inheritors [may God be pleased with all of them]: امتاز هذا التفسير بأنه جمع بين دفتيه تفسير الكتاب بالسنة و آثار الصحابة و البابعين بالإسناد.

Hikam Ibn ‘Ata Allah: [download PDF] a collection of aphorisms by the Alexandrian scholar. A few minor errors in the copy until I get a chance to re-type a new one. English and Arabic edition.

al-I’tisam: [Vol. 1 and Vol. 2PDF; Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 .docx; ebook format with .epub and .mobi files] by Imam al-Shatibi—literally translated as Holding Fast—is an important volume on fiqh, especially as it relates to the Sunnah. The two volumes go into detail on such important topics as bid’ah, as well as clarifying actions and spontaneous actions. I hope to be able to translate this work into English.

Sunan al-Darimi: [download the PDF] the author’s full name being ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Darimi (181H–255H), his Sunan is a hadith collection among the other prominent collections such as the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik and the Musnad of Imam Ahmad, etc. Despite its title as a Musnad, it is not arranged by narrator in the manner of other musnads, such as that of Tayalisi or Ibn Hanbal. It is arranged by subject matter in the manner of a book of Sunan, like the Sunan Ibn Majah.

al-Mudawwanah [10 parts]: a classic Maliki text on fiqh. I wrote a small piece about it here. Download the 10 parts here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 [PDF’s].

Matn al-Risalah of Ibn Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani: [download the PDF]. Abi Zayd al-Qayrawani was a scholar devoted to the education of the youth. His scholarship still remains in a prominent position as one of the earliest proponents of education in history. The book is a summary of the main aspects of Aqidah (Faith), Fiqh (Jurisprudence) and Akhlaq (character), and explains the essences of education in terms of these three principles. It was divided into 45 small, easy to read and understand chapters.

Mushaf al-Sahabah: a small volume [PDF] on the 10 recitations via the accounts of the Companions.

Sahih Ibn Hibban [two parts]: 1, and 2 [PDF’s]. A great muhadith and Shaykh, Muhammad Ibn Hibban al-Busti [also known as Ibn Habban], died in the year 354/965. His collection of hadith were compiled as Sahih Ibn Hibban. The hadiths in his book are arranged neither as in a musannaf nor as in a musnad. Ali b. Balban rearranged the hadiths and published them as al-Ihsan Fi Taqrīb Sahih Ibn Hibban. Ibn Hibban’s collection contains 2647 hadiths, which do not appear in the collections of Bukhari or Muslim, published in legal order in the book Mawarid al-Zam’an Ila Zawa’id Ibn Hibban by Nur al-Din ‘Ali b. Abi Bakr al-Haythami.

al-Wabil al-Sayyib: by reknowned scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah [download the PDF]. The volume, also know in English as The Invocation of God, is a commentary on his master’s work [Shaykh al-Islam, Ibn Taymiyya], al-Kalim al-Tayyib, or The Goodly Word, also available in English.

Musannaf Ibn Abi Shaybah [in 3 parts]: a short hadith collection from one of the early sources. Volume 1, 2, and 3 in PDF format.

Sahih al-Bukhari [in 12 parts]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. All are Microsoft Word documents [.doc extension]. This files will only work on a PC to my knowledge, as the font is formatted for the PC. However, if you have a dual-book Mac with a PC side, it should work.

Sahih al-Bukhari [in 12 parts]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. All are PDF documents. These files are best if your machine [Mac, for example] cannot read the Arabic font from a PC.

Mukhtasar al-Akhdari: a short Maliki text on worship [‘ibadat] by the reknown scholar Abu Zayd ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin Muhammad al-Sagir al-Akhdari. Word .doc, PDF or eBook format — Arabic only.

Tafsir al-Jalalayn: one of the most significant tafsīrs for the study of the Qur’an, Tafsir al-Jalalayn is generally regarded as one of the most easily accessible works of Qur’anic exegesis because of its simple style and one volume length. Download as a PDF.

Mushaf Riwayah Warsh ‘an Nafi’: a PDF document. For audio files of the entire Qur’an in the Warsh recitation, see here.

Mushaf Riwayah Qalun ‘an Nafi’: a PDF document. For audio files of the entire Qur’an in the Qalun recitation, see here.

Mushaf al-Susi min Abi ‘Amru al-Basri: a PDF document. For audio files of the entire Qur’an in the al-Susi recitation, see here.

Mushaf Riwayah Khalaf ‘an Hamzah: a PDF document. For audio files of the entire Qur’an in the Khalaf ‘an Hamzah recitation, see here.

Hans Wehr Arabic-English Dictionary: The Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic is an Arabic-English dictionary compiled by Hans Wehr and edited by J Milton Cowan. First published in 1961 by Otto Harrassowitz in Wiesbaden, Germany. Download as a PDF.