What’s the Purpose of Revelation and Prophethood?

The following are the notes and audio to a khutbah I delivered at the University of Pennsylvania on March 9th, 2012.

[audio:http://www.marcmanley.com/media/mp3s/khutbahs/2012-3-9-purpose-of-revelation.mp3|titles=Khutbah – What’s the Purpose of Revelation and Prophethood?|artists=Marc Manley]

What’s the purpose of Revelation? Of prophecy? Of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in our lives?

If the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم is Imam of the Messengers, then are we treating him as our Imam as well? Imam – the one who is in front and leading us.

Submission – it’s what we do for our own selves. Not whether or not others take us seriously.

وإذا رءاك الذين كفروا إن يتخذونك إلا هزؤا اَهذا الذى يذكر ءالهتكم وهم بذكر الرحمن هم كفرون

“When those who are kafir see you, they only make a mockery out of you: ‘Is this the one who makes mention of your gods?’ Yet they are kuffar about the mention of the All-Merciful.” [al-Anbiyā’ 21: 36]

Submission is an ongoing process.  In order to facilitate this, God has provided for us His Signs. We need only slow down to notice them:

خلق الإنسان من عجل – سأوريكم و ءايتى فلا تستعجلون

“Mankind was created hasty.  I shall show you My Signs so do hasten.” [al-Anbiyā’ 21: 37]

Don’t be hasty. Though we were created hasty, don’t be hasty. There’s a difference between how we are created and how Allah wants us to be.

If you allow it, the Qur’an will move you. It will lift your spirits, it will over-awe you, it will terrify you, it will move you to tears.

By coming to see this aspect of our relationship with Allah—The Big Picture—we foster a greater sense of realization [يقين-معرفة] of our purpose in life:

and …

الذين يذكرون الله قياما وقعودا وعلى جنوبهم ويتفكرون في خلق السموت والأرض ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا سبحانك فَقِنا عذاب النار

“Those who remember God standing, sitting and laying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth [utter], ‘O our Lord, You have not created all this in jest, how perfect You are, so protect us from the torment of the Fire.” [Āl-‘Imrān 3: 191]

عَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ رَضِيَ اللَّهُ عَنْهُ قَالَ: قَالَ النَّبِيُّ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ :

“يَقُولُ اللَّهُ تَعَالَى: أَنَا عِنْدَ ظَنِّ عَبْدِي بِي، وَأَنَا مَعَهُ إِذَا ذَكَرَنِي، فَإِنْ ذَكَرَنِي فِي نَفْسِهِ، ذَكَرْتُهُ فِي نَفْسِي، وَإِنْ ذَكَرَنِي فِي مَلَإٍ، ذَكَرْتُهُ فِي مَلَإٍ خَيْرٌ مِنْهُمْ، وَإِنْ تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ بِشِبْرٍ، تَقَرَّبْتُ إِلَيْهِ ذِرَاعًا، وَإِنْ تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ ذِرَاعًا، تَقَرَّبْتُ إِلَيْهِ بَاعًا(1) وَإِنْ أَتَانِي يَمْشِي، أَتَيْتُهُ هَرْوَلَةً

We all know the hadith: The world [al-Dunya] is a prison for the believer and a paradise for the ingrate [kafir]/روى أبو هريرة أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم قال الدنيا سجن المؤمن وجنة الكافر. Most folks stop at this and say, “there’s nothing we can do or enjoy from this life.” But the nature of all prisons is that the prisoners want to break out; the nature of Paradise is that no one wants to leave. So, we strive to break out of this prison, not to sit glumly by while not being tricked into thinking we’re staying here in this fake paradise forever.

Exercise in Islamization – Should(n’t) Islam Equal Good Design (?)

The following is an exercise in “Islamization”. Islamization may feel too large or charged a term but it is precisely the word I plan to use with a group of MSA students this weekend at our retreat. The idea behind Islamization is that one looks to one’s environment and is able to see, infuse or somehow impose or appropriate purpose upon that thing in such away it reminds oneself of God, of the Messenger صلى لله عليه وسلم or some other “Islamic” principle by which we can enrich our lives as Muslims.

All too often I see Muslims (particularly young Muslims) laboring underneath a cloud of inferiority, insecurity and just plain doubt as to what they can (or most likely) can’t do as Muslims. Part of this ailment hails from a lack of intellectual authority over their lives as Muslims. Simply put, they are not literate as Muslims, despite the fact that many are highly educated. So when I came across a documentary this weekend on Netflix entitled Objectified,  I was struck by Japanese designer, Naoto Fukasawa, when he expressed what he felt “good design” was:

“Design dissolving in behavior. Design needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.” – Naoto Fukasawa, industrial designer, former head of IDEO.

Immediately, my mind went to not design, but to Islam. For was not Islam something that should be and come natural to the human being? So I played a little experiment that I shall continue this weekend, but substituting the keyword of “design” with a variety of “Islamic” vocabulary in order to appropriate an idea/ideal, whose origin was not “Islamic” per se, but nonetheless, resonated well, exceptionally well in my opinion, in that it showcased the ghaayah or goal that Islam has with the human being and thus provided some clues as to how one must just go about “dissolving [it] in [one’s] behavior”:

Islam dissolving in behavior. Islam needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Qur’an dissolving in behavior. Qur’an needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Sunnah dissolving in behavior. Sunnah needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Taqwa dissolving in behavior. Taqwa needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Ihsan dissolving in behavior. Ihsan needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Adab dissolving in behavior. Adab needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Akhlaq dissolving in behavior. Akhlaq needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.
Shari’ah dissolving in behavior. Shari’ah needs to be plugged into natural human behavior.

Prophetic Love: A Look At Obedience to Prophet Muhammad

Love.  There are so many synonyms, so many names and inflections in this one little word.  We are encouraged to extol the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم.  And yet despite this, I see an increasing disconnect between Muslims and what and who the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم represents.  As a Muslim educator for over a decade (approaching two!), it would seem that the most neglected “science” amongst Muslims is the biography of the Prophet (referred to as the sirah) صلى الله عليه وسلم in particular and history in general.  The result has been a notion, not of a man who lived a real life with real pain (and love), real wins and real losses, but that of an abstract figure whose emulation remains elusive, like the remembrance of a dream upon waking: the harder you struggle to concretize that memory the more it fades away.

In observation it is clear that we as a community need to re-establish the humanness of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم: to re-assert that he lived and died, that he ate and drank, laughed and cried, married and buried spouses and children.  In order to do so, I will share some observations from the opening of Surah al-Hujarat, the Forty Ninth chapter of the Qur’an:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا تقدموا بين يدى الله ورسوله واتقوا الله إن الله سميع عليم

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not put yourselves forward in front of God and of His Messenger; and have taqwa of God. God is All-Hearing, All-Knowing.” – Qur’an, 49: 1.

Here, I have noticed a tendency that when we as Muslims discuss the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم and his legacy, we have lost a sense of reverence for his station. How quick are we to battle one another (let alone those outside our faith) about this or that point from his Sunnah.  Far too often we “raise our voices” as means of browbeating or intimidating others into accepting our provincial points of view regarding this or that argument.  But development of love for the Prophet عليه الصلوات والسلام starts with recognizing the space, rank, and station that his voice still retains to this day, one thousand four hundred and thirty two years after his demise صلى الله عليه وسلم.

God continues in the Qur’an with:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا لا ترفعوا أصوتكم فوق صوت النبي ولا تجهروا له بالقول كجهر بعضكم لبعض أن تحبط أعملكم وأنتم لا تشعرون

“O’ you who are secure in belief!, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet and do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another, lest your actions should come to nothing without your realizing it.” – Qur’an, 49: 2.

Developing a love and appreciation for who God’s Final Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم is starts with humbling yourself to his legacy.  This should not be confused with taqlid*, or “uncritical imitation” in matters that demand us to think.  It may be a great struggle to accept the primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم I one’s life; we all have different struggles.  But if one accepts that God sent Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم as the only infallible source of guidance, then perhaps from here we can lower our voices, not simply out of disrespect (hence the “do not be as loud when speaking to him as you are when speaking to one another”) but also so we can hear what it is his Sunnah is saying to us.

Though obvious to some, I believe it bears repeating: the Prophet’s legacy/Sunnah صلى الله عليه وسلم is for our benefit, meaning that its adherence or rejection in no way reflects on the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم, nor his status as God’s Beloved and Noble Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم.  We can see this in the next verse, where God says:

إن الذين يغضون أصوتهم عند رسول الله أولئك الذين امتحن الله قلوبهم للتقوى لهم مغفرة وأجر عظيم

“Those who lower their voices when they are with the Messenger of God are people whose hearts God has tested for taqwa. They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.” – Qur’an, 49: 3.

We should never think that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has truly departed from us: as he said, “I have left you two things … God’s Book and my Sunnah.”  It’s this point I want to drive home: Islam is a living religion with a living practice with a living legacy.  While God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم did depart from this life as we know it, nonetheless, we are commanded by none other than God to send salutations on him in every two units of prayer:

السلام عليك أيها النبي ورحمة الله وبركاته

“Peace be upon you!, O’ Prophet, and God’s mercy and blessings.” – Muslim prayer, al-Tashahhud.

So not only is it for our benefit, but with everything in Islam, obedience brings about reward: “They will have forgiveness and an immense reward.

So before we are so sure, so confident about whether this or that thing is simply culture (wearing hijab or growing one’s beard for instance) we need to investigate the Messenger’s relationship صلى الله عليه وسلم to that thing. Nor should we dismiss a thing lightly simply because it is only mustahibb or “loved” by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. This type of assumption can also be a “raising one’s voice above the Prophet” صلى الله عليه وسلم. It will prove extremely difficult for us as Muslims to grow our love the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم if we continue to dismiss what was endeared by him so easily صلى الله عليه وسلم.  It is this assumption, in my opinion, that illustrates the lack of primacy that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم has in our lives; our fall from grace if you will.

In closing, consider the follow account by ‘Ubayy Ibn Ka’b رضي الله عنه. To me, it beautifully sums up the station and primacy of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in the life of a Muslim.  It elucidates a type of emotional relationship with God’s Messenger صلى الله عليه وسلم that left me personally feeling a bit selfish and self-centered (I’m always asking God about me).  And yet, through putting the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم before myself—may God’s promise be true—I will have all of my needs, all of my wants, all of my anxieties attended to by the One Who Responds as well as forgiven by the One Who Forgives. For me, this is the syllabus for Islam 201.

كان رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم إذا ذهب ثلثا الليل قام فقال يا أيها الناس اذكروا الله اذكروا الله جاءت الراجفة تتبعها الرادفة جاء الموت بما فيه جاء الموت بما فيه قال أبي قلت يا رسول الله إني أكثر الصلاة عليك فكم أجعل لك من صلاتي فقال ما شئت قال قلت الربع قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت النصف قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قال قلت فالثلثين قال ما شئت فإن زدت فهو خير لك قلت أجعل لك صلاتي كلها قال : إذا تكفى همك ويغفر لك ذنبك

“The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, used to stand after two thirds of the night had passed and would go out to the people and say: ‘O’ people!, remember God, remember God! The First Blast has already come; the Second Blast is to follow it. Death has come, death has come.’ ‘Ubayy said, ‘I said: O’ Messenger of God, I pray for you often but how many prayers should I make?’ He [the Prophet] said, ‘as many as you wish.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘I said, “a quarter?”.’  He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He said: ‘I said, “two thirds?”.’ He said: ‘as you wish, but if you were to increase it, it would be better for you.’ He [‘Ubayy] said: ‘If I dedicate all of my prayer to you?’ He said: ‘Then your needs will be satisfied, and your sins forgiven.’ — recorded by al-Tirmidhi in his Sunan.

*Taqlid is a term used to describe many things though usually it refers to imitating or following a practice in Islam. In modern times, taqlid has become something of a pejorative though it is good to remind oursevles that for somethings, we can only follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and not simply make up our own way to pleasing or worshiping God (for this, see Dr. Jackson’s article, Towards Empowering the Common Muslim). An example of taqlid in which we have no choice but to follow exactly what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us are the three units of prayer for Maghrib: as to why they are three and not four, no one can say. But if one wishes to prayer Maghrib (and one must prayer Maghrib in order to complete the five canonical prayers) then one must follow what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم left us and any deviation from it would be considered unsanctioned innovation (bid’ah).

Time: A Khutbah

اقترب للناس حسابهم و هم في غفلة معرضون (۱) ما ياتيهم من ذكر من ربهم محدث إلا استمعوه و هم يلعبون (۲) لاهية قلوبهم و أسرو النجوى الذين ظلموا هل هذآ إلا بشر مثلكم أفتاتون السحر و أنتم تبصرون (٣) قال ربى يعلم القول في السماء و الأرض و هو السميع العليم (٤)

Mankind’s Reckoning has drawn very close to them, yet they heedlessly turn away (1). No fresh reminder comes to them from their Lord without their listening to it as if it was a game (2). Their hearts are distracted. Those who do wrong confer together secretly, saying, ‘Is this man anything but a human being like yourselves? Do you succumb to magic with your eyes wide open?’ (3). Say: ‘My Lord knows what is said in heaven and earth. He is the All-Hearing, the All-Knowing.’ (4). [Qur’an: 21: 1-5]

ألهاكم التكاثر حتى زرتم المقابر كلا سوف سيعلمون ثم كلا سيعلمون

You are distracted in excessive accumulation! So much so, that you visit graves. No!, you will come to know. No indeed!, you will come to know! [Qur’an: 102: 1-4]

Time in the Dunya is a serious affair. Serious in a way in which we know this life “isn’t it”. We should never have the opinion of just “killing time” or just being distracted with nonsense, so much so, that in the tafsir of these verses, that you either do so all your life until you “visit the grave” or that you take competition/bragging/مفاخرة to such an extent, you have to go and visit the graves of your dead as did Banu Sahm and Banu ‘Abd al-Manaf. We must be careful with what we do with our time. We will be held accountable.

الله نور السماوات و الأرض مثل نوره كمشكاة فيها مصباح المصباح في زجاجة الزجاجة كأنها كوكب درّى يوقد من شجرة مبركة زيتونة لا شرقية و لا غربية يكاد زيتها يضيء و لو لم تمسسه نار نور على نور يهدى الله لنوره من يشاء و يضرب الله الأمثال للناس و الله بكل شيء عليم (٣٥) في بيوت أذن الله أن ترفع و يدكر فيها امسه يسبح له فيها بالغدو و الأصال (٣٦) رجال لا تلهيهم تجارة و لا بيع عن ذكر الله و إقام الصلوة و إيتاء الزكوة يخافون يوما تتقلب فيه القلوب و الأبصار (٣٧) ليجزيهم الله أحسن ما عملوا و يزيدهم من فضله و الله يرزق من يشاء بغير حساب (٣٨)

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The metaphor of His Light is that of a niche in which is a lamp, the lamp inside a glass, the glass like a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, its oil all but giving off light even if no fire touches it. Light upon Light. God guides to His Light whoever He wills and Allah makes metaphors for mankind and God has knowledge of all things (35). In houses which God has permitted to be built and in which His name is remembered, there are men who proclaim His glory morning and evening (36), not distracted by trade or commerce from the remembrance of God and the establishment of salah and the payment of zakah; fearing a day when all hearts and eyes will be in turmoil (37) — so that God can reward them for the best of what they did and give them more from His unbounded favor. God provides for anyone He wills without reckoning (38). [Qur’an: 24: 35-38]

Food for thought: This was very timely, even though it was written in 1934. Just substitute “Muslim” for “art” in relation to our approach to Qur’an, Sunnah, fiqh, etc.:

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement.”

— John Dewey, from Art As Experience. Again, the analogy that can be drawn between Islamic law/studies and what Dewey calls “art” here is intriguing.

Knowledge of the truth about the world of empirical things can indeed be achieved and increased through inquiry made by generations of mankind. But true knowledge has an immediate bearing on the individual man as it pertains to his identity and destiny, and he cannot afford to suspend his judgment concerning its truth, as it is not meant to be something that can be discovered eventually by future generations.”

Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future by Syed Muhammad Naqib al-Attas.

We must strive to be observant for time can pass and actions can be made to seem good to us, even though in reality, they may not be pleasing to God!

تالله لقدَ اَرسلنا إلى أُمَمٍ من قبلك فزين لهم الشيطان أعمالهم فهو وليهم اليومَ و لهم عذاب اَليم

By God!, We sent Messengers to communities before your time, but Shaytan made their actions seem good to them. Therefore today he is their protector. They will have a painful punishment. [Qur’an: 16: 63 ]

و إذا مس الإنسان الضر دعانا لجنبه أو قاعدا و قائما – فلما كشفنا عنه ضره مر كأن لّم يدعنا إلى ضر مسه – كذالك زين للمسرفين ما كانوا يعملون

And when calamity touches mankind, he calls out to Us, on his side, sitting down, or standing. Yet when We remove his affliction, he passes along as if he never cried out to us when the harm touched him. In this way the deeds of the musrifun are made to seem fair and pleasing to them. [Qur’an: 10: 12]

Note: God did not say ما كانوا يفعلون but said ما كانوا يعملون. The significance here is deeds, not simply actions. In otherwords, worship.A musrif is someone who squanders, who wastes, who is immoderate.

Make good use of your time!

و لا يحسبن الذين كفروا أنما نملى لهم خيرٌ لأنفسهم – إنما نملى لهم ليزدادوا إثما – و لهم عذاب مهين

Those who are kafir should not imagine that the extra time We grant to them is good for them. We only allow them more time so they will increase in evildoing. They will have a humiliating punishment. [Qur’an: 3: 178]

The Purpose of Time

و جعلنا اليل و النهار ءايتين – فمحونا ءاية اليل و جعلنا ءاية النهار مبصرة لتبتغوا فضلا من ربكم ولتعلموا عدد السنين و الحساب – و كلَ شىء فصلناه تفصيلا

We made the night and day two Signs. We blotted out the Sign of the night and made the Sign of the day a time for seeing so that you can seek favor from your Lord and will know the number of years and the reckoning of time. We have made all things very clear. [Qur’an: 17: 12]

أمن هو قانت – انآء الليلِ ساجدا و قائما يحذر الاخرةَ و يرجوا رحمة ربه

What of him who spends the night hours in prayer, prostrating and standing up, mindful of the Next World, hoping for the mercy of his Lord? [Qur’an: 39: 9]

Time Management

Be cognizant of time, as Shaytan will whisper to you to make time for this and that useless thing. It is an illusion that we have time, especially because we think we are young. Manage the time and space of your affairs!

Imam al-Ghazzali, may God have mercy on him, left us with this excellent advice:

اجتهد أن لا يراك حيث نهاك و لا يفقدك حيث أمرك قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه و سلم قال عز و جل ما تقرب إلي المتقربون بمثل أداء ما افترضته

Managing time and affairs. Strive to not be seen where God has forbidden you to be and likewise, strive to not be found absent where God has commanded you to be. The Messenger of God, peace and blessings upon him, said: “God the Almighty has declared: ‘no one draws closer to Me, from those who draw close, than by maintaining what I have made obligatory on him.’”

Listen and download the khutbah here.

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.

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