In continuing with the theme of religious literacy (or in the immediate case, illiteracy), another important component in this issue I wish to touch upon is the shared space between Muslims and non-Muslims. To be frank, Muslims in America are long overdue for an overhauling of how they conceptualize and approach the very possibilities of Muslim/non-Muslim engagement. Part of this was addressed in a recent series of khutbahs, Da’wah & Fraternity in Islam, as well as in the previous post, Tackling Religious Literacy: Lexical Empiricism. For this article, I will examine the word kafir, its uses in pre-modern and early modern sources, as well as highlight one example from ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf, a Companion of the Prophet ﷺ and his struggle to negotiate his own shared reality as a believer.
To say that the post-colonial period is still haunting Muslim thought to this very day would be a feat in understatement. One of the debilitating byproducts of colonization is that the colonized lose sight of dimension: What I would call the dementia of colonization. This disease renders its victims incapable of recognizing three dimensions or space. Like physical dementia, this version “affects memory, thinking, language, judgment, and behavior”. In this condition, all objects within an individual’s frame are compressed into one-dimensional objects, stripped of any human characteristics the victim might be capable of sympathizing with. For Muslims today this has resulted in the word kafir being de-contextualized, from where it once stood to demarcate the boundary of belief and disbelief, to one in which kafir is hurled about with impunity. Dr. Sherman Jackson, in his invaluable work Islam and the Blackamerican, gives an elegant breakdown of this malady:
“(The) dehumanized Post-Colonial Muslim, on the other hand, tends to objectify his target and view him as a thing to be conquered, dismantled, and controlled. In contradistinction to his premodern predecessors, he transforms the category “kafir” (i.e., “non-Muslim) into a reference to an almost subhuman species who is inherently and utterly different from Muslims, not only religiously but culturally, ethnically, and civilizationally as well.” Islam and the Blackamerican, pg. 94. (see footnote #72 below)
As we can see here, kafir is a word that clearly, in its modern use, indicates more than the boundary of belief and non-belief. Its contemporary use is more often implemented to draw the line on what has and does not have human value. And while Dr. Jackson’s observation reveals the genealogy of the word, it would be unfair to lay this change solely at the feet of post-colonial immigrant Muslims. Its use amongst Blackamerican Muslims has also been a code word for “white”, itself an epithet of sorts. In both uses, kafir comes to connote an feeling of anti-establishment. But how is all of this important to the article at hand? I will tie this into the story of ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf and his relationship with Ummayah Bin Khalaf, one of the major opponents of Islam at the time of the Prophet ﷺ.
In the nearly two decades I have worked in the Muslim community as an educator, adviser, and casual observer, one note that strikes me significantly is the need for a new fiqh. By fiqh I mean a new comprehensive understanding of Islam particularly as it relates to the daily existence of Muslims in America, not a necessarily a new school of jurisprudence. This of course may set many on edge who feel that their commitment to a legitimate and authentic expression of Islam is jeopardized by such utterances. And yet, I continue to watch American Muslims flounder under a practice of Islam that is detrimental to the healthy development and prosperity of Muslims in this part of the world. To be precise, what I am talking about here is the relational dynamic between Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly in relation to familial and fraternal social ties. Unlike many parts of the historical Muslim world, Muslims in America, particularly indigenous Muslims, have families where they may themselves to be the minority if not the only Muslim in their family. The demands that are put on Muslims here to navigate these sometimes-murky-waters are made even more perilous with a fiqh/comprehension of Islam that is antithetical and unresponsive to their needs. Such Qur’anic versus as the following are often conjured up to support this self-imposed exile:
يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تتخذوا اليهود و النصرى أولياء بعضهم أولياء بعض و من يتولهم منكم فإنه منهم إن الله لا يهدى القوم الظلمين
”You who have iman! do not take the Jews and Christians as your friends; they are the friends of one another. Any of you who takes them as friends is one of them. Allah does not guide wrongdoing people.” Qur’an 5: 51 — Aisha Bewley translation
”O ye who believe! take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors: They are but friends and protectors to each other. And he amongst you that turns to them (for friendship) is of them. Verily God guideth not a people unjust.” Qur’an 5: 51 — Abdullah Yusuf Ali translation
I have purposely chosen to show two of the most common translations here as they are representational of the dominant view on the contemporary meaning of this verse. Of main interest here is the plural, awliya’/أولياء; its singular being wali/ولي. Ali and Bewley translate awliya’ as “friends”. While I consider Ali and Bewley to be fine translators, I do question the choice of wording here. I find considerable evidence to support changing “friends” for “guardians as a translation for awliya’, especially given its Madinan context (where the verse was revealed). What is missing here, which interestingly enough, Muhammad Asad’s translation seems to find, is the call for political independence and responsibility on the part of the growing Muslim population in Madinah. Asad’s translation breaks ranks with Ali and Bewley, hinting at the contextual meaning, not solely the lexical one:
ولي الوالي البلد
ولي الرجل البيع
“The wali is the patron of the state/country.” Walia al-Wali al-Balad.
“The man secures the transaction,” Wali al-Rajul al-Bay’. — Mukhtar al-Sihah, pg. 306
From these sources, I feel there is more than enough evidence to support a revisiting of the definition of awliya’/wali as “friend”. Not from the position of wanting other than what God has intended, but precisely because the current entrenched methods and approaches Muslims are currently engaged in are in contradiction to this Divine edict. But finally, to bring it back to the story of ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf and Ummayah Bin Khalaf, we’ll examine a hadith that recounts their relationship in a way that will, I hope, help to illustrate how tenuous this endeavor was, and still is.
In the story of Revelatory Islam (i.e., Islam at the time of the Prophet ﷺ), there were few greater opponents of Islam than Ummayah Bin Khalaf. Know as the master of Bilal Ibn Ribah, Ummayah’s name is famous as one of the staunchest opponents of monotheism. Before the advent of Islam however, Ummayah had developed a friendship with ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf. This friendship of theirs became strained and was put to the test upon the conversion of ‘Abd al-Rahman, whose name before his conversion was ‘Abdu ‘Amr (lit. “the slave of ‘Amr”). Eventually, ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf migrated to Madinah to join the Prophet ﷺ. Despite ‘Abd al-Rahman’s growing commitment to Islam, the two men still tried to maintain civility and even entered into a pact with one another:
كاتبت أمية بن خلف كتابا ، بأن يحفظني في صاغيتي بمكة ، وأحفظه في صاغيته بالمدينة
“I entered into an agreement with Umayyah Bin Khalaf, where Umayyah would protect my affairs (property and family) in Makkah and I would do the same for his in Madinah.” Narrated by ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf, related in Sahih al-Bukhari #2301
At the time of drafting up this agreement, ‘Abd al-Rahman’s “Muslim name” was mentioned in the document (not ‘Abdu ‘Amr), Umayyah protested, saying,
فلما ذكرت الرحمن ، قال : لا أعرف الرحمن ، كاتبني باسمك الذي كان في الجاهلية ، فكاتبته : عبد عمرو
“I do not know al-Rahman” and requested that the pre-Islamic name ‘Abdu ‘Amr should be used, to which ‘Abd al-Rahman yielded.”
Sometime later, during the Battle of Badr, Umayyah was captured by his old friend ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf. Even though the two men found themselves on two opposite sides of a battle, ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf attempted to intervene on behalf of his old friend (who, as no small crime, had persecuted other Muslims, Bilal in specific, whom he tried to force a recanting of his testimony of “no god but God” by crushing Bilal underneath a rock). Even to the very end, when a group of Muslims led by Bilal himself, sought revenge, ‘Abd al-Rahman protested on Umayyah’s behalf, going so far as to try and shield Umayyah’s body with his own.
So what can we deduce from this? Was ‘Abd al-Rahman disobeying God’s commands by maintaining his friendship with a polytheist? Or did ‘Abd al-Rahman perhaps understand the above verse and its counterparts in a different framework than we commonly do today. Surely, there is little argument concerning ‘Abd al-Rahman’s qualifications as a pious and learned Muslim: He was amongst the first converts to Islam and thus spent considerable time with the Prophet ﷺ; ‘Abd al-Rahman is agreed to be amongst the Ten Who Are Promised Paradise/العشرة المبشرون بالجنة; ‘Umar Ibn al-Khattab chose him to be on council of Shura to choose the Khalifah after his death. To say that ‘Abd al-Rahman was a pious and intelligent Muslim, one who lived at the time of the Prophet ﷺ, during the time of Revelation, who lived in direct presence of the only living infallible interpretation of Islam ﷺ and was not chastised for “becoming one of them”, Muslims cannot continue to perpetrate social and cultural disengagement in the name of piety and religiosity. ‘Abd al-Rahman Bin ‘Awf was a man, God be pleased with him, who still loved and cared for his friend, despite their theological differences, and even put his life and potentially political standing on the line.
The question that must be asked is, do Muslims not owe it to themselves to examine, re-examine, and change their tactics if they wish to please both God and country. To remain ensconced in a protest spirit, one that seeks to enthrall us as much as set us free, without any principles attached to it, can only spell future doom for Muslims in America if major steps are not taken to educate themselves on the rich, nuanced, and complex narrative of Islam.
1. Footnote #72: Premodern and even early modern jurists spoke quite casually of the “non-Muslim wife” (al-zawjah al-kafirah), the “non-Muslim mother” (al-umm al-kafirah), and “non-Muslim parents” (al-walidan al-karifan) as human beings worthy of respect as such. For example, in Bulgat al-salik li agrab al-masalik ila madhhab al-imam Malik 2 vols. (Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d.) (an authoritative Maliki text still used on the graduate level at al-Azhar seminary today), after indicating that a Muslim must be good to his parents regardless of their religion, al-Dardir (d. 1201/1786) writes, “and he should guide the blind parent, even if he or she is a kafir, to church, and deliver him or her thereto and provide him or her with money to spend during their holidays” (2: 523). Also, the Maliki and Hanafi schools unanimously agree that a non-Muslim mother (umm kafirah) had a primary right to custody of her Muslim children in cases of divorce from a Muslim husband, assuming she would not attempt to steer the children away from Islam. For more on this point see my “Kramer versus Kramer in a Tenth/Sixteenth Century Egyptian Court: Post-Formative Jurisprudence between Exigency and Law,” Islamic Law and Society 8, no. 1 (2001): 33-36. It should be noted that the Maliki school bore the brunt of the atrocities inflicted by the Christians upon the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain and Sicily and the Hanafi school bore the brunt of the Mongol invasions. Still, these views on non-Muslim relatives remain standard in the Maliki and Hanafi schools right down to the present day. On another note, the tendency of certain Muslim “liberals” to deny essentially that anyone is a kafir reflects their subscription to this same notion of kafir being some sort of subhuman species. (Islam and the Blackamerican, 212)
3. كاتبت أمية بن خلف كتابا ، بأن يحفظني في صاغيتي بمكة ، وأحفظه في صاغيته بالمدينة ، فلما ذكرت الرحمن ، قال : لا أعرف الرحمن ، كاتبني باسمك الذي كان في الجاهلية ، فكاتبته : عبد عمرو ، فلما كان في يوم بدر ، خرجت إلى جبل لأحرزه حين نام الناس ، فأبصره بلال ، فخرج حتى وقف على مجلس من الأنصار ، فقال : أمية بن خلف ، لا نجوت إن نجا أمية ، فخرج معه فريق من الأنصار في آثارنا ، فلما خشيت أن يلحقونا ، خلفت لهم ابنه لأشغلهم فقتلوه ، ثم أبوا حتى يتبعونا ، وكان رجلا ثقيلا ، فلما أدركونا ، قلت له : ابرك فبرك ، فألقيت عليه نفسي لأمنعه ، فتخللوه بالسيوف من تحتي حتى قتلوه ، وأصاب أحدهم رجلي بسيفه ، وكان عبد الرحمن بن عوف يرينا ذلك الأثر في ظهر قدمه
“I entered into an agreement written with Umayyah Bin Khalaf, where Umayyah would protect my affairs (property and family) in Makkah and I would do the same for his in Madinah. When I mentioned the word ‘al-Rahman’ in the documents, Umayyah said, ‘I do not know al-Rahman. Write down your name from the Jahiliyyah (Pre-lslamic Period of Ignorance).’ So, I wrote my name, ‘Abdu ‘Amr. On the day Badr, when all the people were asleep, I went up the hill to protect him. Bilal saw him and went to a gathering of Ansar and said, ‘Here is Umayyah Bin Khalaf! Woe to me if he escapes!’ So, a group of Ansar went out with Bilal to follow both of us. Being afraid that they would catch us, I left Umayyah’s son for them to keep them busy but the Ansar killed his son and insisted on following us. Umayyah was a fat man, and when they approached us, I told him to kneel down, and he knelt, and I laid myself on him to protect him, but the Ansar killed him by passing their swords underneath me, and one of them injured my foot with his sword.” (The sub narrator said, ” ‘Abd al-Rahman used to show us the trace of the wound on the back of his foot.”) Narrated by ‘Abdur-Rahman Bin ‘Awf, related in Sahih al-Bukhari 2301.