Social Justice in Islam – From Awareness to Action

It was my honor to be invited to speak at Vanderbilt University on the top of social justice in the Muslim community. My hope was to deliver a talk that challenged some of the more stereotypical methods we conceive of social justice and how we might break down these barriers and get to the heart of what’s holding us back as a community. The following are my notes to go with the audio.


[Direct download]

Social Justice Nashville

“Racism systematically verifies itself when the slave can only break free by imitating the master: by contradicting his own reality.” — John O’Neal

In for a penny, in for a pound….

  • Muslims must overcome their Fear and Loathing of America: at once you fear America and you also loath it, but in the loathing you also desire its tempting fruits.
  • You may actually have the solution for an issues America doesn’t have an answer to yet.
  • Pope Francis’s visit renewed discourse on the role of religion in society and culture.
  • Not all of your queues (as Muslims) will come directly from religion (oh, no! what are you saying?!).
  • Shari’ah (define it!) is prescriptive vs. descriptive.

Surah Al ‘Imran:

كُنتُم خَيرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخرِجَت لِلنّاسِ تَأمُرونَ بِالمَعروفِ وَتَنهَونَ عَنِ المُنكَرِ وَتُؤمِنونَ بِاللَّهِ ۗ وَلَو آمَنَ أَهلُ الكِتابِ لَكانَ خَيرًا لَهُم ۚ مِنهُمُ المُؤمِنونَ وَأَكثَرُهُمُ الفاسِقونَ

  • Don’t allow one issue with which you may disagree dissuade you from taking a stance on other issues.
  • Look to the example of Suhayl bin ‘Amru and the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and how the Prophet negotiated a deal with non-Muslims.

وقد روى الإمام أحمد أن النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم بدأ يُمْلي شروط الصلح، وعلي بن أبي طالب رضي الله عنه يكتب، فكان مما أملاه صلى الله عليه وسلم: (بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم) فقال سهيل: أما الرحمن فوالله لا ندري ما هو، ولكن اكتب باسمك اللهم، فأمر رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم عليًّا فكتبها كذلك، ثم أملى صلى الله عليه وسلم: (هذا ما صالح عليه محمد رسول الله) فقال سهيل: لو نعلم أنك رسول الله ما صددناك عن البيت ولا قاتلناك، ولكن اكتبمحمد بن عبد الله، فوافق رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم وقال: (والله، إني لرسول الله وإن كذبتموني، اكتب محمد بن عبد الله).

“It’s not the size of the ship that makes the waves, it’s the motion of the ocean.” — John O’Neal

In other words – GET OUT THERE!! Simply building bigger, fancier trophy masajid/mosques will not get the job done.

Required Reading: Towards Empowering the Common Muslim

Towards Empowering the Common Muslim

The subject of religious literacy has been paramount on my mind for the past several years. Having stepped up on the minbar, I have had an opportunity to observe the Muslim community, if not from a bird’s eye view, at least from a few inches above the crowd. And one issue that seems to stand out clearly is the need for Muslims to have a foundation in religious literacy. Even just a few days ago, a young student approached me with a candidness I had to admire. He professed that on one hand, he wished to come to know and love the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم but that his main issue was that he was not clear on who the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم was and by proxy, what his Sunnah was. His courage to admit such a difficult quandary is as praiseworthy as it is insightful, for the young brother’s admission is far more common that we as a community might like to admit.

It is my hope in presenting Dr. Jackson’s short work here (I obtained Dr. Jackson’s permission) on the subject of af’al al-Nabi, or “actions of the Prophet” صلى الله عليه و سلم that it may help aid those who are looking for a foothold in the long ascent of coming to know and love the Best of Creation صلى الله عليه و سلم. I will also continue to update this article with as many of the direct sources as I can find and make them available so check back from time to time.

Philadelphia, 14th of Sha’ban, 1432AH.

Towards Empowering the Common Muslim

The Prophet’s Actions As a Source for Determining the Status of Things in Islam
By Dr. Sherman ‘Abd al-Hakim Jackson

INTRODUCTION

Praise be to God, the Lord of all being and becoming. Almighty, Compassionate God, we beg of You Your aid, Your forgiveness and Your guidance. We seek refuge in You from the evil that attaches to our souls and from the wickedness that assails our deeds. We believe in You. And we believe that whomsoever You guide, none shall be able to lead them astray. And whomsoever you leave to wander, none shall be able to guide them. Guide us, therefore, our Lord. And hear our testimony: We bear witness that there is no god except God and that Muhammad, the 7th century Arabian, is His servant and His messenger. May God’s blessings and salutations be upon our beloved Prophet Muhammad, and upon his Companions, his family and his followers all.

To proceed: It has become a common occurrence among Muslims that in discussing whether a particular action is permissible (halal) or forbidden (haram), the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم are introduced as evidence. “The Prophet never did that!,” one often hears as proof that a particular action is forbidden. On the other hand, what the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم did is just as often pointed to as proof of what a Muslim must do. To most Muslims, this approach represents little more than a firm commitment to “following the Sunna of the Prophet.” In reality, however, this is an oversimplification that may not only cause harm and difficulty but may also amount, in the final analysis, to the opposite of “following the Sunna of the Prophet.”

This small pamphlet is an effort to introduce the common Muslim to the manner in which the fuqaha’ فقهاء (scholars of Islamic law) dealt with the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم as a source of Islamic law. In so doing, it will not be our intention to present the view of anyone madhhab مذهب or school (classical or modem), nor to delve into the minor differences among them on questions of detail. The sole aim of this pamphlet is to empower the average Muslim to understand and implement the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in a manner that is intelligent and consistent with what the Prophet himself صلى الله عليه وسلم would have intended. To this end, we will look at the views of scholars from all four Sunni schools, as well as some who went beyond the traditional schools. This is in order to be able to present what was generally recognized by Muslim tradition as a whole, instead of privileging the view of one particular scholar from one particular school, time or place.

THE ACTIONS OF THE PROPHET (AF’AL AL-NABI)

Muslim scholars dealt with the actions of the Prophet (SAWS) under the heading of af’al al-Nabi, أفعال النبي literally, “the actions of the Prophet.” Part of what is being conveyed by this designation is the fact that the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم are fundamentally different from his statements. While both of these fall within the general realm of his Sunna, the Prophet’s words are recognized as being different from his actions in terms of the clarity and precision with which they convey meaning. This is because. while language is the shared property of the community that speaks it, actions are specific to individuals and may have no meaning beyond the individual who commits them. In other words, every utterance of a language has meaning that is determined and shared by that language’s community of speakers. As such, when speaking a language, an individual can only convey meanings that are recognized by the community as belonging to the words that he or she uses. For example, if I want someone to stand up, I issue the verbal command, “Stand up.” This use of the imperative is a standard, consistent and clearly identifiable way of issuing commands. As such, whenever I use this imperative, it will necessarily convey the wish that an act of standing take place. This is independent even of any intention on my part. If I say, “Stand up,” I cannot claim that what I really meant was “Cheddar cheese tastes good.” If I do, the community will judge me to be mad. This is because the community has already determined the meaning that goes along with these words. And until the community arrives at a new understanding of these words, no one will be able to use them without imparting this agreed-upon meaning or as a means of clearly conveying any other meaning.

Actions, on the other hand, are different. While the words. “Stand up,” take only one form (i.e., the imperative) and convey only one meaning, regardless of who is using them, an actual act of standing up may take many forms and convey many meanings, none of which the community necessarily recognizes or agrees upon and all of which may be unique to the individual actor. A young man, for example, will stand up in a manner that differs from the way an older man will; a shy person will stand up in a manner that differs from the manner in which a confident person will; a female may rise to her feet in a way that is slightly different from the way in which a male does. Most importantly, in all of these cases, the meaning attributed to any of these individuals’ acts of standing is not contained in the act itself but must be deduced from other considerations outside the act. If the doorbell rings, I assume a person stands up in order to answer the door. If another individual enters the room, I might assume that the person stands up in order to greet them; or maybe he or she stands up in preparation to flee, or as a simple gesture of respect. Where, however, there is no doorbell and no other person entering the room, I might not be able to attribute any meaning at all to a person’s act of standing. Maybe they stood up to stretch their legs; but maybe they needed to get a better look at the clock on the wall; maybe they were suddenly hit by a thought that excited them to the point of moving them to their feet.

Unlike words, then, actions are generally far less direct and far less precise in conveying meaning. This is why it is possible to compose dictionaries containing the direct and precise meanings of words, but it is not possible to compose dictionaries containing the direct and precise meanings of actions. In the case of words, silence is the norm while speech is the exception. Thus, we assume that a person only speaks in order to convey some specific meaning. In the case of action, however, movement is the norm, while non-movement is the exception. As such, an action (e.g., moving the chest in and out while breathing) may occur without there being any intention at all to convey any meaning. For this reason, it is often necessary to look beyond the action itself in order to determine what its actor meant by it, if, indeed, he or she meant anything at all. This is why Muslim scholars treated the Prophet’s actions صلى عليه وسلم in a manner that was different from the way they treated his statements.

The books on legal methodology (usul al-fiqh أصول الفقه) all include sections that give detailed instructions on how to decode the Prophet’s statements according to the formal structure of his words and sentences. For example, whenever the Prophet used an indefinite object (in English this would be a word that is preceded by the indefinite article “a” or “an”) in a direct command, e.g., “Feed a poor person,” it was automatically concluded that this command could be fulfilled by a single act of feeding any poor person, male, female, Muslim, non-Muslim. This held as long as there was no other evidence that restricted this feeding, e.g., to Muslim poor persons. On the other hand, no such mechanical decoding could be used in interpreting the Prophet’s actions. As we shall see, unless there was evidence indicating that the Prophet committed a particular act as a means of explaining how to carry out something already established in the Qur’an or Sunna, or as a means of drawing closer to God (qurbah قربة), a Prophetic act such as feeding a poor person might impart nothing more than the permissibility of doing so.

SOME BASIC PREMISES

We may begin with the general statement of the great Spanish scholar of the Zahirite school, Ibn Hazm (d. 456/1063). Unlike the other scholars whose views we will survey, Ibn Hazm is concerned almost exclusively with the claim that it is obligatory (wajib, fard واجب, فرض) to emulate the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in everything he did. Ibn Hazm insists that this is a claim for which there is no proof from the Qur’an or Sunna. He is aware that a commonly cited would-be proof is the verse from suwrah al-Ahzab: “There is for you in the Messenger of God a beautiful example … (La qad kana lakum fi rasulullahi uswatun hasanah … لقد كان لكم في رسول الله أسوة حسنة”. This, however, argues Ibn Hazm, is actually proof against those who claim that it is obligatory to follow every action of the Prophet. For he points out that the verse contains the phrase “for you (lakum لكم).” And, according to him, anyone who has a basic knowledge of Arabic knows that if an Arab says to you “This is for you (hadha laka هذا لك),” this would not mean that you were under any obligation to take it. Rather, you would merely enjoy the right or privilege of taking it, at your own discretion. In the same way, Ibn Hazm argues that what the verse in question really establishes is that, outside of explaining how to carry out duties already established in the Qur’an or Sunna, the Prophet’s actions are simply made available for those who would like to avail themselves of them, at their own discretion.

Beyond this, Ibn Hazm insists that those who argue that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم in everything he did are both arbitrary and inconsistent in holding this position. For, he argues … such a position leads to nonsense and requires of those who hold it that they make it obligatory upon every Muslim to live exactly where the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم lived, to place their feet in exactly the same places he placed his feet, to pray in exactly the same places he prayed, to fast on exactly the same days he fasted, to sit exactly as he sat, and to move in exactly the way that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم made his every move … But no Muslim (scholar) has ever held any of these things to be obligatory1.

Despite his fiery, confrontational language, Ibn Hazm’s discussion is actually quite instructive. In fact, he provides an extremely important insight into the very meaning of what many scholars who held it to be obligatory to follow the Prophet’s actions may have actually meant by this, and how this may have been mistakenly expanded into a blanket obligation to follow the Prophet in his every action.

Ibn Hazm notes that there is a difference between simply not following the Prophet in his every action and refusing to follow him in his actions as a matter of principle. In the latter case, the implication is that by following the Prophet one may be jeopardizing one’s salvation and standing with God. Thus, in order to preserve and protect oneself, one avoids even the actions of the Prophet, “just to be safe.” Among his examples, Ibn Hazm points to those who refuse to kiss their wives during the fast of Ramadan, despite their knowledge that the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم kissed his wives. The implication here is that the Prophet’s example is not reliable, and that even if one follows him perfectly, one might not attain salvation in the Hereafter. In other words, despite a man ‘s knowledge that the Prophet kissed his wives during the fast of Ramadan, he will intentionally refuse (tanazzaha ‘an تنزه عن) to kiss his wife because he wants to “make sure “ that he achieves the highest standing with God and that he does not engage in any actions that might earn God’s displeasure2. This implies, of course, that the Prophet either had imperfect knowledge of what would attain God’s pleasure or that he intentionally engaged in actions that would earn God’s displeasure. In either case, his example is unreliable, and one is forced, therefore, to devise his or her own foolproof way to salvation.

This, incidentally, is the real meaning of bid’a بدعة (unsanctioned innovation),as explained by one of the most important writers on that subject, Abu Ishaq Ibrahim b. Musa al-Shatibi (d. 790). Al-Shatibi was the author of a two-volume book entitled al-I’tisam الاعتصام (Holding Fast), hailed by many as the best book ever written on the subject of bid’a. In this work, al-Shatibi gives the following definition for bid’a:

 البدعة طريقة مخترعة في الدين تضاهي الشرعية يقصد بالسلوك عليها ما يقصد بالطريقة الشرعية

“A concocted manner of proceeding in religion that mimics the scripturally mandated way, with the aim of achieving through this concocted way that which should only be sought through the scripturally mandated way (al-bid’atu tariqatun mukhtara’atun fi al-din tudahi al-tariqata al-shar’iyah yuqsadu bi al-suluki ‘alayha ma yuqsadu bi al-tariqah al-shar’iyah).”3

In other words, bid’a is not simply committing an act that the Prophet did not commit or failing to commit an act that the Prophet actually did. Bid’a is, rather, committing or avoiding such actions as a means of making up one’s own way to God. In other words, the real issue is not whether an act is committed or not; the real issue is the religious value that one attributes to the commission or non-commission of an act. In this context, even Ibn Hazm would insist that it was obligatory to follow the actions of the Prophet4. What he meant, however, was that if one wants to attain God’s pleasure, one cannot imagine and seek to make up a more perfect way of achieving this than following the example of the Prophet5. This did not mean, as we shall further see, that it was obligatory to do or not do everything the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم did and did not do.

The Basic Approach to Assessing the Prophet’s Actions

The overwhelming majority of scholars agreed with the basic outlook of Ibn Hazm, i.e ., that it was not obligatory to follow the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in everything he did. They also agreed, however, that it was obligatory to follow him in some things. Regarding many, if not the bulk, of the Prophet’s actions, however, they held that it was simply recommended (mandub مندوب, mustahabb مستحب) or permissible (mubah مباح) to follow him6. On a minority of issues, such as where the Prophet’s actions were deemed to be specific to him, e.g., the number of wives allowed to him, they agreed that following him was forbidden (haram حرام).

Generally speaking, scholars divided the actions of the Prophet (SAWS) into two distinct categories:

  1. Clarifying actions“: These were Prophetic actions whose purpose it was to clarify some duty already addressed in only general terms in the Qur’an or Sunna (bayanan li mujmalin fi al-qur’an wa al-sunna بيانا لمجمل في القرآن و السنة). Regarding these actions, the general rule was that they acquired the same ruling, i.e., obligatory, recommended or neutral, as the thing they clarified. Thus, for example, where the Prophet (SAWS) performs an action as a means of clarifying the obligation to perform prayer, pilgrimage or the punishment for theft, such an action would generally – but not always- be deemed obligatory, like prayer, pilgrimage or the punishment for theft themselves.
  2. Spontaneous actions“:These were Prophetic actions that were not performed for the purpose of clarifying any pre-existing dictate of the Qur’an or Sunna. Rather, the Prophet performed these actions out of personal preference, recognition of a particular community or neighborly need, in response to some unanticipated situation, as a spontaneous gesture of gratitude to God, or for some other reason. Such spontaneous actions were further divided into two basic subcategories.
    1. Those that were performed with the explicit intention of “drawing near to God (qurbah قربة).”
    2. Those that were not performed with the explicit intention of “drawing near to God.”

Again, there was a general consensus (ijma’ اجماع)that it was obligatory to follow the Prophet’s clarifying actions whenever these were performed for the purpose of clarifying an act established by the Qur’an or Sunna. There was also general agreement, however, that where the action to be clarified was only recommended, it was likewise only recommended to follow the Prophet’s act regarding it. In other words, the general rule was that clarifying actions took on the same status as the thing they clarified — obligatory, recommended or neutral. In pre-modem limes, this was a very simple and straightforward rule. In modem times, however, it has become somewhat problematic, given a certain confusion that has developed around the term “sunna.”

As is well known, there are five legal categories or rulings (ahkam أحكام/s. hukm حكم) recognized by Islamic law. These are: 1) obligatory (واجب wajib, فرض fard), 2) discouraged (مكروه makruh), 3) neutral (مباح mubah), 4) recommended (مندوب mandub, مستحب mustahabb), and 5) forbidden (حرام haram). When God or the Prophet issue a command and it is understood that failure to perform this act incurs punishment in the Hereafter, while performing it incurs reward, that act is said to be obligatory. An example of this would be the five daily prayers. When failure to avoid an act is deemed to incur punishment in the Hereafter while avoiding it incurs reward, that act is said to be forbidden. Adultery would be an example here. When failure to perform an act is not deemed to incur punishment but performing it is deemed to incur reward, that act is said to be recommended. Paying severance gift to one’s divorced wife is said to be recommended in the Maliki school. When failure to avoid an act is not deemed to incur punishment but avoiding it is deemed to incur reward, that act is said to be discouraged. According to the Hanafi school, it is discouraged for women to lead other women in congregational prayers. Acts that incur neither reward nor punishment in the Hereafter are said to be neutral and are often simply referred to as “permissible.7

Now, one of the alternative terms for the recommended (mandub, mustahabb) category is the term “sunna.” In pre-modem times, this was clearly understood. But in modem times, especially in America, many are unable to distinguish between “sunna” as a recommended act — for whose non-performance there is no punishment — and “sunna” as “the sunna of the Prophet” — whose complete abandonment is likely to result bid’a. On this confusion, one who chooses not to perform an act that is merely recommended — which, according to Islamic law, he or she has every right to do — often ends up being accused of having engaged in bid’a or of having abandoned the “sunna of the Prophet.” By right, the charge of having abandoned the sunna of the Prophet should be reserved for those who fail or refuse to follow the Prophet in something regarding which it is obligatory to follow him, or those who abandon his sunna altogether. As for one who chooses, for example, not to pray two rak’ahs before the morning prayer, he or she should not be charged with having totally abandoned the Prophet’s sunna. For there may be many other aspects of the Prophet’s sunna, e.g., witr, that this person practices assiduously. Moreover, if a person has no choice but to offer two rak’ahs before the morning prayer, this would mean that these two rak’ahs were not recommended but rather obligatory.

Turning to the Prophet’s spontaneous actions, here is where the bulk of scholarly discussion occurred. According to the Spanish Malik, scholar, Abu al-Walid al-Baji, there was disagreement in the Maliki school regarding spontaneous actions of the Prophet that he performed for the purpose of drawing near to God. According to al-Baji, the majority held that following the Prophet in these actions was obligatory. Others held, however, that it was only recommended. Al-Baji himself supports the view of those who say that such actions are obligatory, unless there is additional proof that they are only recommended or permissible. As proof, he cites the verse from surah al-A’raf, … and follow him, perhaps you might be guided,” the verse from surah al-Nur, let those who go against his affair beware …,” and the verse from surah al-Ahzab, There is indeed a beautiful example for you in the Messenger of God.” He also points to the fact that the Companions immediately implemented the Prophet’s practice of performing a full ghusl in cases where there was no ejaculation. During the course of his treatment, however, al-Baji points to an important distinction that is taken up by several other scholars, as we shall see.

According to al-Baji, only if there are no indications that a Prophetic act of qurbah was performed as a recommended or permissible act must we accept any obligation to follow it. If we do take as obligatory an action that the Prophet only intended to be recommended or permissible, we are not following but going against the Prophet’s sunna. All of this is another way of saying that not every outward appearance of following the Prophet amounts to a proper act of “following the Prophet’s sunna.8” In fact, depending on the religious value attributed to such an outward act of following the Prophet, it might actually amount to an act of bid’a9.

As for spontaneous actions that are not performed with the specific intention of drawing near to God, e.g., eating, drinking, walking, putting on clothes, here al-Baji reports that most Maliki scholars held that following such actions was neutral. He notes, however, that some Maliki held such actions to be recommended. Included among such actions, according to them, were such things as eating with one’s right hand or putting on one’s left shoe before putting on’ one’s right one. Al-Baji himself comes out in favor of the view of the majority. He argues that inasmuch as there can be no doubt that there was no obligation to eat10 or wear shoes in the first place, the most that could be recommended would be the manner in which one ate or put on one’s shoes. In other words, al-Baji’s position was essentially that the Prophet’s having eaten or worn shoes do not render it obligatory or even recommended for us to eat or wear shoes. What the Prophet’s action implies, rather, is that whenever a Muslim does eat or put on shoes, it is recommended that he or she eat with their right hand and to put on their right shoe before putting on their left.

This basic “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach to Prophetic actions is repeated in almost all the major works of legal methodology. The Shafi’i, Sayf al-Din al-Amidi (d. 631), for example, repeals this basic layout. Like al-Baji, he concludes that it is not obligatory but merely permissible to follow the Prophet’s spontaneous actions that he did not commit in an attempt to draw near to God. Unlike al-Baji, however, al-Amidi insists that where the Prophet does commit actions in an attempt to draw near to God, such actions occupy a position between obligatory and recommended, i.e., a little stronger than just recommended but not quite to the point of being obligatory11.

The Shafi ‘i, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (d. 606) and his Maliki commentator Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi (d.684/ 1285)12 also repeat the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” distinctions, though they add a few minor details13. In contradistinction to al-Baji, however, al-Razi holds — and al-Qarafi approves of this — that actions of the Prophet performed with the aim of drawing near to God are only recommended — not obligatory — until proven otherwise.

As for the Hanbalis, according to the famous al-Musawwadah fi usul al-Fiqh (Manuscript on Legal Methodology) of the three great Hanbalis, Ibn Taymiyah (d.728/1328), his father and his grandfather, the dominant tendency in the Hanbali school was to follow the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach. According to them, clarifying actions took on the same status as the act they clarified. Spontaneous actions performed for the purpose of drawing near to God were simply permissible. As for spontaneous actions not performed for the purpose of drawing near to God, there was a difference of opinion among Hanbalis. Some held these to recommended, while others insisted that they were simply permissible14. Particularly interesting in the case of the Hanbalis, however, is the fact that they are explicit on a point that many others only allude to, namely that Muslims are not required to avoid actions simply because the Prophet never practiced them. In their words, “His having abandoned a particular action imposes no obligation upon us to abandon it.15

Outside the four schools, there is the view of the famous al-Shawkani. He also follows the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach16. According to him, it is obligatory upon Muslims to follow the Prophet in his clarifying actions and to give them the same status as the thing they clarified. He holds spontaneous actions performed by the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم for the purpose of drawing near to God to be at least recommended. As for spontaneous actions that do not appear to have been for the purpose of qurbah, al-Shawkani professes that he cannot imagine the Prophet performing such actions. As such, he holds that since there must be at least some element of qurbah in these actions, it is recommended for Muslims to follow them17. Like other jurists, al-Shawkani notes that if we know that the Prophet did something voluntarily and we follow his action as an obligatory duty, we are not following his example18. In fact, he insists, if we attribute obligatory status to an action of the Prophet without actually knowing that he treated it as an obligatory act, we are not following his example19.

In sum, the “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach to Prophetic actions was the rule rather than the exception among the major scholars of Islamic legal methodology. There were, of course, exceptions to this — as one might expect in any healthy intellectual culture. Yet, upon close examination, even those who diverged from this approach show themselves in the end to be in agreement with its conclusions.

To take one example, the Hanafi jurist, Abu Bake al-Sarakhsi (d.490) does not subscribe to the standard “clarifying — spontaneous — qurbah — non-qurbah” approach. Rather, he simply divides the Prophet’s actions into 1) those that are shared by all humans as a simple function of human nature, e.g., sleeping, bowel movements, etc.; and 2) those that are not a simple function of human nature but relate more specifically to the Prophet’s mission as prophet. Those actions that are merely a function of the Prophet’s humanity are immediately disqualified as a basis for any action by a Muslim20. As for those that were undertaken in his capacity as Prophet, al-Sarakhsi invokes a very simple rule: The basic status of all Prophetic actions is that it is permissible to follow them until some other proof (dalil) is found that would place them in some other category, such as recommended or obligatory21. In other words, while it might be obligatory to follow the Prophet on a certain non-clarifying action, such actions will be presumed to be permissible until proven otherwise.

OBJECTIONS AND RESPONSES

Muslim scholars’ approaches to Prophetic actions were both judicious and straightforward. According to the general consensus, only those actions deemed to have been carried out as a means of clarifying a previously revealed injunction were assumed to be obligatory. Beyond that, depending on circumstances, an action could assume anyone of the five legal statuses recognized under Islamic law. The bulk of the scholars’ time was consumed not in explicating this simple rule but rather in responding to would-be objections by those who might argue, as many do today, that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet in everything he did and did not do. This took the form of responding to certain Qur’anic verses or Prophetic hadith. As many of these arguments may still be heard today, I shall briefly review the most oft-repeated and important of these.

Among the most commonly cited Qur’anic proofs are the following:

  1. “… and follow him and fear God … ” [6: 155]
  2. “… let those who go against his affair beware … ” [24: 63]
  3. “… and whatever the Prophet gives you, take it . .. ” [59: 8]
  4. “There is indeed for you in the Messenger of God a beautiful example for whomever desires God and the last day … ” [32: 21]
  5. “Say, If you love God. then follow me …. ” [3: 31]
  6. “Say, Obey God and obey the Messenger.” [4: 59]
  7. “So when Zayd consummated his marriage to her. We married her to you so that there would be no shame on the believers regarding the wives of their adopted sons after the latter have consummated their marriage to them. ” [32: 37]

The majority of scholars insist that these verses do not prove that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم in everything he did and that those who rely on such verses have either misconstrued them or seek to force out of them that which they do not contain. They give several responses to these verses, some of them quite complex. For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I will limit myself to the most straightforward of these.

As for the verse, “…. and follow him …,” al-Amidi intimates that even if it could be used to argue that one must follow the Prophet, this would not translate into a blanket- obligation to follow all of his actions as obligatory acts. That is to say, while it might be obligatory to follow the Prophet, this obligation might only be met in some instances by treating certain actions of his as recommended or permissible22. This is the same response that al-Shawkani gives for the verse, Say. if you love God, then follow me.23 Al-Razi also appears to give a similar response24. This is also essentially the argument given by al-Sarakhsi, though al-Sarakhsi adds an interesting twist. He points out that it is important to know how the Prophet himself صلى الله عليه وسلم understood his actions in order to be able to follow him properly. For it is certain, he points out, that the Prophet never drank wine even before it was forbidden by revelation. Yet, no one would be justified in arguing that it was forbidden for Muslims to drink wine before revelation outlawed it25.

As for the verse, let those who go against his affair beware … “ al-Shawkani points out that the Arabic word “amr أمر” (translated here as “affair”) normally refers to the Prophet’s statements, i.e., his orders, not his actions. In this particular case, however, this is of limited relevance, since, according to the widely accepted rule of Arabic syntax, the “his” in “his affair” should be understood to refer to God, not the Prophet, since God is the most recently mentioned entity..26 Al-Razi also argues that “amr” applies more readily to words and commands than it does to actions27. And al-Amidi gives a similar (though slightly more complex) argument28.

As for the verse, “… whatever the Prophet gives you, take it,” al-Amidi gives an argument similar to the one he gave in response to the verse, “and follow him.” That is to say, only if the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم understood his own action to be obligatory would “take what he gives you” translate into an obligation to follow him in these things29. Al-Amidi says that this also applies to the verse, There is indeed for you a beautiful example in the Messenger of God,” and the verse If you love God, then follow me.” As for al-Shawkani, he argues that “what (ma ما)” in what he gives you applies to his statements, i.e., his verbal commands, not his actions. This is supported by the fact that the second half of the verse reads, And what he forbids you, desist from it.” Al-Shawkani notes that just as “what” in this part of the verse can only apply to verbal commands, so too must it apply to only verbal commands in the first part of the verse. Beyond this, al-Shawkani insists that one can only “take” commands and prohibitions, not actions30.

As for the verse, There is indeed for you in the Messenger of God beautiful example,” we have seen the argument of Ibn Hazm above. This argument is repeated by al-Shawkani, al-Amidi, al-Razi, al-Qarafi and al-Sarakhsi. Indeed, it appears to be the standard argument against using this verse as proof that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet’s actions. However, al-Shawkani adds to this that taking the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم as one’s example (al-ta’assi bihi التأسي به) entails attributing to his actions the same status that he himself attributed to them. Thus, one must hold those actions of his that he committed as obligatory to be obligatory, those he held to be recommended to be recommended, and so forth31. This is also the argument applied by a number of scholars to the verses If you love God, then follow me,” and Obey God and obey the Messenger.” In other words, obedience and following can only be achieved by attributing to the Prophet’s actions the same weight and status he attributed to them.

As for the verse involving Zayd, al-Amidi points out that the most they indicate is that the Community is equal to the Prophet in terms of the rulings that apply to both. In other words, whenever the Prophet is allowed or forbidden to do something, it is assumed that the Community is allowed or forbidden that thing also, unless there is proof that this command or prohibition that was specific to the Prophet32. Al-Qarafi poses a similar argument and adds that technically the verse speaks only of God’s act of marrying the Prophet to Zaynab, not of the Prophet’s act of marrying her33. In sum, the general consensus is that all Zayd’s marriage to Zaynab proves is that it is permissible to follow the Prophet, not obligatory. Otherwise, all of the Companions who had adopted sons would have been obligated to marry the former wives of their adopted sons.

Besides these verses, those who argue that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet’s every action also point to the practice of the Companions. Several cases of the Companions following the Prophet’s actions are referred to as proof that they understood it to be obligatory to follow him. Examples include the hadith in which the Prophet removed his shoes during prayer and the Companions promptly followed him by removing theirs, the incident at al-Hudaybiyah where the Prophet ordered the Companions to shave their heads but none of them did so, but when he shaved his own head (at the suggestion of his wife, Umm Salamah) they promptly followed suit. Another oft-cited example is the Companions resolving their dispute over the requirement to take a full ritual bath (ghusl) after intercourse with no ejaculation, based on ‘A’ishah’s report that the Prophet took a full bath in such cases. In fact, this particular incident is claimed to constitute a unanimous consensus (ijma’) among the Companions, which Islamic legal theory holds to be a permanently binding sourced of law.

Scholars of Islamic legal methodology also deal with these arguments. As for the Companions taking off their shoes, it is pointed out that the hadith itself indicates that it was not obligatory for them to follow the Prophet in all he did. After the prayer was over, the Prophet himself asked the Companions, “Why did you take of your shoes?” As al-Sarakhsi points out, had the Prophet made it obligatory upon theCompanions to follow him in everything he did, this question would have made no sense34. As for the incident at al-Hudaybiyah, this was clearly a clarifying action of the Prophet, one that followed a verbal command by him. Moreover, rather than proving that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet in all his actions, what this incident really proves is that the Companions didn’t even understand all of the Prophet’s verbal commands to imply obligation. In other words, even when he verbally commanded them to do certain things, they sometimes took his commands to be recommendations rather than obligations.

Perhaps most interesting of all is an argument put forth by al-Sarakhsi. He notes that if the Companions had understood that it was obligatory to do everything the Prophet did, they would also have held it to be obligatory to avoid everything he did not do. For us, this would mean refusing to speak English or to marry non-Arab women, since the Prophet did neither of these. In the case of the Companions, it would have meant holding all kinds of things to be forbidden that everyone knows were not forbidden. For example, it is known that even before wine was made forbidden the Prophet never drank wine. If the Companions bad held everything the Prophet did not do to be forbidden, they would also have held wine to be forbidden even before revelation forbade it. But this we know not to be the case, as is made clear by the Qur’an itself: O you who believe, do not approach prayer while you are in a state of drunkenness ….. [surah al-Nisa’, 43] Second, al-Sarakhsi notes, if the Companions had held that it was obligatory to follow the Prophet in everything he did, they would have remained at his side at all times, in order to know what he was doing at all times in order to be able to follow him. But this too we know not to have been the case35.

As for the claim of consensus based on the hadith of ‘ A’ishah, it has been pointed out that the Companions who resolved their dispute over this issue were not all of the Companions. As such, their decision did not constitute a unanimous consensus36. Moreover, as al-Shawkani points out, they followed the Prophet in this case by attributing to his action the same status they assumed him to have attributed to it. They could have just as easily concluded that it was merely recommended to take a full bath in such instances37.

CONCLUSION

There can be no doubt that the Sunna of the Prophet is a binding source of Islamic law and doctrine, second only to the Qur’an. In fact, in terms of its actual authority, the Sunna is actually equal to the Qur’an, as is clearly established by the Qur’an itself: Whoever obeys the Prophet has obeyed God (—-).” As Muslims, we are thus bound to submit to both the Qur’an and the Sunna. And there can be no question about the status or the Sunna of the Prophet among Muslims.

The question, however, is, “What is the proper way to follow the Prophet’s Sunna?” It is unfortunate that in our times this Question is routinely treated in the most sloppy and cavalier fashion. In fact, many have fallen into the habit of exploiting and abusing the Sunna of the Prophet for purely selfish or ideological reasons. They indiscriminately proclaim that it is obligatory to follow the Prophet in everything he did. And they insist that anything he did not do, we are forbidden to do.

This small pamphlet has outlined the manner in which the great scholars of Islam addressed the issue of how to follow the actions of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم. We may summarize their general conclusions as follows:

Whenever the Prophet’s action is understood to clarify something already established in the Qur’an or his Sunna, that action takes on the same status as the thing it clarifies. It may be obligatory, recommended or permissible.

Whenever the Prophet’s action is understood to be spontaneous (i.e., it is not clarifying something already established), if the Prophet committed this action as I means of drawing near to God, most scholars hold it to be between recommended and permissible, though some hold it be between obligatory and recommended.

If the spontaneous action is not understood to be for the sake of drawing near to God, the general consensus it that such actions are between recommended and neutral.

Given this perspective of the great scholars of Islam, it is interesting and, indeed, lamentable, that many Muslims today readily acknowledge that one does not have to pray two or four rak’ahs before and after Zuhr, but they will insist that one must wear a turban or eat with one’s bare hands. They allow for the divergence from actions that the Prophet did in an obvious attempt to draw near to God, but they allow for no divergence from actions that he clearly did not do for this purpose. Clearly, this is the result of a desire and attempt to impose upon the actions of the Prophet symbolic and ideological significance that he himself never attributed to them. And it is precisely this tendency that we must dedicate ourselves to eliminating from our personal and collective lives. For only when we commit ourselves to following the Prophet in the manner in which he intended for us to follow him are we likely to earn the pleasure of our Lord and reinvest the Prophet’s Sunna with the sweetness and nectar that it had for the early generations of Muslims.

Islam is a marathon, not a fifty-yard dash. Given the average lifespan of a human being, a Muslim in his or her twenties will have to practice Islam for another fifty years. It is important to understand that different individuals need and are able to make use of different things at different times in their lives. A young man in his teens has little use for a Medicare plan; a woman in her seventies has little use for a four-year scholarship to college. The Prophet, however, was a model for all people for all time. As such, his example might be likened to a medicine cabinet that has the cure for every disease but whose entire contents no individual need consume. A stingy person will not be cured of stinginess by imitating the Prophet’s courage in battle. A lazy person will not overcome slothfulness by focusing on the Prophet’s kindness and civility. A husband who suffers from an inflated male ego will not find an alternative modality of Muslim manhood in the manner in which the Prophet trimmed his nails. We ask God Almighty to direct our minds and our hearts, individually and collectively, to the proper way to follow the guidance sent through His Prophet Muhammad. And we ask Him to protect us from the pettiness of our fragile egos, the treacherous whisperings of our anxiety-ridden souls and the relentless machinations of Satan the accursed. Praise be to God. And may God’s blessings and salutations be upon His servant and His messenger, our beloved Prophet Muhammad, after whom there shall be no prophet, and upon his Companions, his family and his followers all.

End Notes

  1. See Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam fi usul al-Ahkam 8 vols. Ed. A.M. Shakir (Beirut: Dar al-Afaq al-Jadidah, 1403/1983, 2: 8. But see his entire discussion at 2: 6-11.
  2. Ibn Hazm, al-Ihkam, 2: 7-8.
  3. Abu lshaq Ibrahim b. Musa al-Shatibi, al-I’tisam 2 vols. Ed. A. A. al-Shafi (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyah, 1408/ 1988). 1: 28.
  4. al-Ihkam. 2: 8.
  5. This is also probably the context in which other noted scholars, such as Imam Malik, are reported to have insisted that it was obligatory to follow the actions of the Prophet.
  6. On these legal categories. i.e., mandub, mustahabb, mubah, see below, p. 10-11.
  7. This too, however, is actually an oversimplification, as all acts that fall outside the forbidden (haram) category are technically permissible.
  8. On this point, see also Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, al-Mahsul in Shihab al-Din al-Qarafi’s Nafa’is al-usul fi sharh al-mahsul 4 vols. (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-Ilmiyah, 1421/2000), 3: 165, 3: 167,3: 177.
  9. See above, on al-Shatibi’s definition of bid’a.
  10. This might sound somewhat contradictory, given the well-known ban on suicide in Islam. But one does not have to “eat” in the literal sense in order to survive. One could just as easily survive by drinking liquids or on nutrients supplied intravenously.
  11. Sayf al-Din al-Amidi, al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam 4 vols. (Cairo, Nd), 1: 160, but see his entire discussion from 1: 159-73.
  12. See al-Qarafi’s Nafa’is usul fi ‘ilm al-usul and al-Razi’s al-Mahsul, which is included in Nafa’is.
  13. See, e.g., Nafa’is, 3: 157-84, esp. 181 ff.
  14. al-Musawwadah fi usul al-fiqh, ed. M. “Abd ai-Hamid (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi. Nd), 186-88.
  15. al-Musawwadah. 193.
  16. See Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Shawkani, Irshad al-fuhul ila tahqiq al-haqq fi ‘ilm al-usul (Cairo: Mustafa Babi al-Halabi, 1356/1937), 35-38.
  17. See Muhammad b. ‘Ali b. Muhammad al-Shawkani, Irshad al-fuhul ila tahqiq al-haqq fi ‘ilm al-usul (Cairo: Mustafa Babi al-Halabi, 1356/1937), 35-38.
  18. Irshad, 37.
  19. Irshad, 37.
  20. We must be careful to remember that even in instances where the Prophet’s action alone would not oblige us to commit any action, this same action may serve as a clarifier of some verbal command of his. In this case, it would be obligatory to give this action of the Prophet the same status as the verbal command it clarifies.
  21. See Usul al-sarakhsi, 2 vols. Ed. R. al-‘Ajam (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1418/1997), 2: 87-90.
  22. Ihkam, 1: 165.
  23. Irshad, 36.
  24. Nafa’is, 3: 165.
  25. Usul al-Sarakhsi, 2: 89.
  26. Irshad, 36. The entire verse reads: “God certainly knows those who slip away in an attempt to escape danger. So let those who go against his affair beware, lest they be visited by a trial or a grievous punishment.”
  27. Nafa’is, 3: 165.
  28. Al-Ihkam, 1: 165-66.
  29. Al-Ihkam, 1: 166.
  30. Irshad, 36.
  31. Irshad, 36-37.
  32. Al-Ihkam, 1: 167.
  33. Nafa’is, 3: 170-71.
  34. Usul al-Sarakhsi, 2: 88.
  35. Usul al-Sarakhsi, 2: 89.
  36. See, e.g., al-Qarafi, Nafa’is, 3: 171.
  37. al-Shawkani, Irshad, 37.

Required Reading: Muslims, the Constitution and Negotiating Political Reality

As the world sits and celebrates the death of Osama Bin Laden, Muslims eagerly await the outcome of this event to see if there is any means of exorcising the association of extremism and terrorism from themselves and their religion. This is of particular concern to Muslims in America, who are ripe for political exploitation with the upcoming election. To be sure, Muslim-Americans bear a great part of the responsibility to ensure that whatever opportunities exist are capitalized upon. However, in order to do so, it will require a new level of commitment and literacy, both political and religious, on the part of the rank-and-file Muslim.

To dive in, this call for a greater political literacy is inextricably tied to a greater religious literacy, as will be demonstrated below. The article I have to offer is a rebuttal of Dr. Sherman Jackson, professor of Islamic studies at large, to Dr. Vincent Cornell’s “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” The reason why I consider Dr. Jackson’s refutation required reading is not for the sport of his dismissal, but because of the threads he lays bare of some very insidious and intimidating arguments facing Muslim-Americans, particularly in light of growing Islamophobia in general and Osama Bin Laden’s death in particular. While some liberal leaning Muslims may have hoped that by expressing joy and elation over Bin Laden’s death—the man who supposedly “tarnished” Islam’s image—it is clear that to those political parties that wish to marginalize and demonize Muslims are in no hurry to exonerate Muslims upon his demise. In fact, pre-OBL’s death, there has been a steady and growing anti-Muslim sentiment centered around Muslim belonging, Shari’ah, and commitment on the part of Muslims to the American project, vis-a-vie the Constitution. What is needed now, is not simply pandering out of fear oppression or hope of acceptance from the dominant culture, but a more pragmatic approach to the future of Islam in America by engaging, as Dr. Jackson puts it, the American political reality “as believing, practicing Muslims!”. Muslim-Americans, despite the voices that argue to the contrary, “do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî‘a”, but rather, Muslim-Americans can still “firmly embrace this Constitution” without sacrificing their commitment to Divine law and its superiority over any man-made document. It is not, as many radical elements claim, an us-or-them argument. We do not need Peter King or any other political office to put us to the Ordeal, to The Question, to know where our political allegiances lay and how they operate. And just as importantly, to the nay-sayers from the Muslim side of the isle, being politically engaged in a political reality which is based on a flawed, man-made document, is not sufficient grounds to disengage from the political process altogether. For like the Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلم at the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, we engage the American political reality not based on its [non-present] transcendent truths, but on its facts and political dividends.

It is my hope that both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences will read Dr. Jackson’s article and reflect on the lessons to be learned from it. Now’s the time, Charlie Parker once said, and time certainly is of the essence. Hat tip to brother Stephen for the article.

“Soft Sharî’a Fundamentalism” and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell

Sherman A. Jackson: The University of Michigan

I have been invited to respond to Vincent J. Cornell’s critical assessment of some of my views in his recent essay, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari’a Fundamentalism and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” Cornell weaves an elaborate web of questionable characterizations, name-calling and outright personal attack. This is joined by a tendency to impose his constructions on the statements of others, employ a double-standard in using the term “fundamentalist,” de-historicize the articulations of modern Muslim thinkers, and apotheosize the American nation-state. This is all ostensibly vindicated by appeal to a would-be panacean liberalism, the poverty of whose freedom, equality and tolerance is painfully demonstrated and repeatedly confirmed. For the moment, however, most of this will have to pass without comment. Instead, given the limited space I have been allotted, I shall focus on a single issue—my depiction of the normative relationship between American Muslims and the U.S. Constitution—in hopes of steering serious readers away from what Cornell presents as the clear and only logical conclusions to be drawn from the ideas of mine he cites.

Cornell is deeply perturbed by my assertion that the Constitution is a political fact, not a transcendent ‘truth’ to which we must all give assent as truth, as I put it, “no more binding on the Muslim-American moral/religious conscience than was, say, tribalism or agrarianism on that of the early Muslim-Arabian community.” For Cornell, this is “a tepid endorsement,” certain to reinforce charges of Muslim disloyalty. This is especially problematic given that I imply (and let me state here clearly, I actually believe) that Sharî’a, i.e., in its broadest, ideal sense, is binding on the Muslim moral/religious conscience. For Cornell, the logic here is simple: “If Sharî’a is in fact the only legitimate legal and moral order in the eyes of God, then participating in a self-governing liberal democracy is at best a cynical exercise in political accommodationism.” This is what makes me a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” incapable of embracing the U.S. Constitution, except as a modus vivendi, ultimately a duplicitous act of stealth dissolution (taqîya). In this regard, I differ only in degree, not kind, from such hard “Sharî’a fundamentalists” as OBL and Sayyid Qutb.

Now, there is much to unpack here. For one, Cornell’s conflation of my position with that of OBL or Qutb is simply a poor excuse for not engaging in a more serious and fairer analysis of my view, which my writings—including, as we shall see, Islam and the Blackamerican—make abundantly clear. But, again, given the limited space I have been allotted, let me cut to the heart of the matter.

Cornell has an emphatically romantic view of the Constitution. How much of this is indebted to 9-11 and its aftermath I cannot tell. But in this essay he makes it clear that he sees the Constitution as a statement of truth, indeed, perhaps transcendent truth. On this understanding, one can only accept the Constitution if one accepts its truth. And, one cannot really accept the Constitution’s truth if one has another source of truth, in my case, Sharî’a. Now, this view of the Constitution is Cornell’s business. But he ought not be so, well, “fundamentalist,” that he cannot accept that others might legitimately entertain another perspective. I for one do not see the Constitution as a statement of truth; nor did the actual Framers; nor has the Supreme Court or the American scholarly tradition. Rather, the Constitution, as Robert Dahl notes, was and is basically a negotiated, political arrangement. Few delegates to the convention got exactly what they wanted (or what they held to be the ‘truth’ of the matter); in fact, so stern was their initial opposition that Rhode Island refused to send any delegates and New Hampshire’s didn’t arrive for several weeks. The Constitution contains, thus, not transcendent, ultimate truth but a negotiated, compromise-agreement over how political rights and protections are to be distributed and adjudicated.

It is thus not the substance of the Constitution that is operative but the fact that it was agreed to. Agreements, of course, e.g., when disputing parties agree to split the difference, rarely express what either party believes to be true or even right. They merely express the basis upon which the parties agree to act, based on their inability or refusal to impose their will unilaterally. If Cornell wants to make the substance of the Constitution (i.e., qua substance, not qua agreement) binding on my moral/religious conscience as an expression of some sort of ultimate truth, I should like to ask when the Constitution acquired this proud preeminence: When it declared me three-fifths of a human? When it was constitutionally legal for him to enslave me? When women were not recognized as enjoying the right to vote? Of course, all of this ultimately changed. And this is precisely my point: what changed was the substance, which everybody recognized as not transcendent but changeable, not the fact that whatever was agreed to remained a binding agreement.

Now, the other side of Cornell’s misunderstanding is the distinction he overlooks between moral/religious and political conscience in Islam. On this distinction, I as a Muslim can honestly and fully embrace the fact of our Constitutional agreement without having to believe its substance per se to be binding on my moral/religious conscience, as an expression of ultimate truth. This distinction is clearly reflected in numerous actions of the Prophet, God’s peace and salutations be upon him. Take, for example, the Treaty of Hudaybîyah. When the Prophet set out to draw up this agreement, he began with the dedication, “In the name of God, The All-Merciful, The Mercy-Giving.” The negotiator from Quraysh stopped him and refused to recognize this. The Prophet agreed to have it removed. When the Prophet proceeded to state, “This is what Muhammad, the Messenger of God agrees to with…” the Meccan negotiator stopped him and said, “If I thought you were the Messenger of God, I would not have fought you. Change this to, ‘Muhammad, the son of ‘Abd Allâh’.” The Prophet agreed. The treaty itself went on to stipulate, inter alia, that the Muslims could not make pilgrimage that year but must return to Medina and come all the way back the next year. Now, my point in all of this is that, as a matter of moral/religious conscience, the Muslims believed much of the substance of this treaty to be wrong; they certainly did not believe it right to omit the dedication or the prophethood of Muhammad; nor did they think it right that they could not make the pilgrimage to the pan-Arabian sanctuary. Yet, as a political arrangement, this is what they agreed to. And it was the fact of this agreement, not the ‘truth’ of its substance, that rendered this treaty binding on the Muslim political conscience.

Part of what I find so sad and myopic in Cornell’s critique is that in his hasty zeal to ram the Constitution down Muslims’ throats he actually does more to alienate them—especially practicing, second-generation youth—by demanding that they see in the Constitution a truth that they believe to be the preserve of God alone. On this alienation, these youth are rendered more rather than less susceptible to attempts by the likes of Anwar al-Awlaki or others to radicalize them. I, on the other hand, am telling these youth that they do not have to substitute the Constitution for God or the Prophet or Sharî’a and they can still recognize and firmly embrace this Constitution—as believing, practicing Muslims!—as a fact, an agreement that is binding on the political conscience and has the authority to regulate the political life of all Americans. And just to be clear here and to show the extent to which Cornell misrepresents me on this issue, let me quote what I actually wrote in Islam and the Blackamerican, from the same section, incidentally, from which Cornell purports to reconstruct my view:

To my mind, a more profitable approach would be not only to accept the provisions of the Constitution but to commit to preserving these by supporting and defending the Constitution itself. According to the Constitution, the U.S. government cannot force a Muslim to renounce his or her faith… The U.S. government cannot even force a Muslim (qua) Muslim to pledge allegiance to the United States! Surely it must be worth asking if Muslims in America should conduct themselves as “nouveau free” who squander these and countless other rights and freedoms in the name of dogmatic minutiae, activist rhetoric, and uncritical readings of Islamic law and history, rather than turning these to the practical benefit of Islam and Muslim-Americans. (IBA, 148)

Try as I may, I see nothing duplicitous or remotely suggestive of OBL or Sayyid Qutb here. True, OBL, Qutb and I all recognize the ultimate moral/religious authority of Sharî’a. But so did Abû al-Hasan al-Shâdhilî, Ibn ‘Atâ’ Allâh al-Sakandarî, ‘Abd al-Qâdir al-Jilânî, al-Junayd and countless other Sufis. Would Cornell count these men “Sharî’a fundamentalists”? Clearly, then, one can recognize the primacy of Sharî’a without being a “Sharî’a fundamentalist.” But Cornell might protest that I am skirting the issue here, as these men, unlike OBL, Qutb and allegedly me, did not embrace Sharî’a as the repository of a “totalitarian epistemology,” according to which, if I understand him correctly, it was looked to for the answers to all questions, as an all-inclusive, self-contained, self-sufficient leviathan that stands over and against any and all man-made propositions. Now, I cannot speak for OBL or Qutb (though I would invite honest, serious inquirers to recognize the role of rhetoric in their articulations). But I have long recognized the limits of Sharî’a‘s concrete rule-making capacity and noted the ease with which it appropriates ideas and institutions from other civilizations, unceremoniously distinguishing “non-Muslim” from “un-Islamic.” All of this I have expressed explicitly in my writings.

Now, if we couple this perspective on Sharî’a with what I said earlier about the distinction between moral/religious versus political conscience, we can easily see our way to the conclusion that, while Sharî’a clearly entails political values, principles, concerns and sensibilities, it neither provides nor dictates the concrete, detailed substance of what kind of political arrangement Muslims in America must or can come to with the American state. Sharî’a empowers Muslims to engage and agree; then it compels them to uphold their agreements: O you who believe, fulfill your agreements! [5: 1] From here, what Muslims agree to, assuming due diligence, enjoys the full sanction and force of Sharî’a! Cornell attacks me as a “soft Sharî’a fundamentalist,” because, according to him, I, like OBL and Sayyid Qutb, see Sharî’a as dictating a divinely ordained, concrete, specific political arrangement that stands in stark contradiction with the Constitution. On this understanding, I can be committed either to Sharî’a or to our man-made Constitution, but not both. Whereas OBL and Qutb accept this contradiction openly, I, and my likes, hide behind the slick and specious rhetoric of would-be ‘moderates’.

Ultimately, however, this accusation is purely—and sadly—a reflection of Cornell’s attempt to impose his understanding of Sharî’a on me. Long before his essay, I stated explicitly that, going all the way back to classical times, Sharî’a always recognized the validity of a broad range of man-made laws that the entire tradition, including such arch-“Sharî’a fundamentalists” as Ibn
Taymîya, openly recognized and endorsed. Now, I take great umbrage at Cornell’s insistence that converts to Islam and immigrant Muslims have no right to challenge the substance of the Constitution. But that that substance itself, simply because it did not originate in Cairo or Baghdad or Muslim America, must be understood as standing in categorical opposition to Sharî’a is simply the invention of Vincent J. Cornell and his totalitarian epistemology grafted onto Sharî’a. It is not the position of Sherman Jackson or, necessarily, those who believe, as he does, in the supremacy of Sharî’a as the presumptive repository of divinely ordained truth. And God knows best.

You can read the articles here:
Vincent Cornell’s article, “Reasons Public and Divine: Liberal Democracy, Shari‘a Fundamentalism, and the Epistemological Crisis of Islam.” [PDF].
Dr. Sherman Jackson’s response, ” ‘Soft Shari‘a Fundamentalism’ and the Totalitarian Epistemology of Vincent Cornell” in [PDF].
A display of “true patriotism”.

Muslim Development Course – Round One: Class Notes

Course Objective: to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that our practice of Islam reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles on our part, found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

Here’s a short list of the things we’ll look at in this course: Who are we? Before we can understand Islam we must know ourselves. Prologue – Life in the Hijaz: to what extent does jahili life play in our understanding of Islam? Revelation – big “R” versus little “r”: Allah as the God of nature and human history. Topography: Getting a lay of the land: the Prophet’s heritage and the build up to the Revelation. Introduction to Qur’anic Language: re-textualization: how did Allah make use of preexisting terms and ascribe new meanings to them? How is this important for us to understand? Introduction of Muslim Morals and Ethics: themes from the early Revelation.

  • Day One
  • Day Two & Three
  • Day Four

Day One

Here are some quick notes of the topics we talked about today

Taqwa: What’s In A Word?

We took a quick look at the word taqwa, from a few lines of Jāhiliyyah poetry, and examined what it meant. In the Mu’allaqah, Zuhayr said:

و قال سأقضي حاجتي ثم أتقي * عدوي بألف من روائى ملجم

“I will satisfy my vengeance [on my brother’s killer by taking his life!], then I will defend myself from their reprisal with a thousand horses, all bridled in support of my cause!”

Wa qāla sa-aqdī hājatī thumma a’ttaqī ‘aduwwī bi alfin min rawā’ī muljami.

The important thing to note here is the use of taqwa– it’s the word that Zuhayr uses to “defend himself”.  To help define this, let’s look at what al-Tabrizi says, concerning taqwa:

الإتقاء أن تجعل بينك و بين ما تخافه حاجزا يحفظك

“Taqwā is the idea that you [A] place something — a barrier — [C] between yourself and that which you fear could destroy you [B].”

What al-Tabrizi is us is that taqwa is a type of self-defense or self-preservation system or technique to ward off destruction by placing something between yourself and that impending doom. For the Muslim, this is nothing other than protecting oneself against the Punishment of Allah on the Day of Judgment through the practice and accumulation of good deeds. Our example of this from the Qur’an was from suwrah al-Baqarah:

و اتقوا يوما لا تجزي نفس عن نفس شيئا و لا يقبل منها شفاعة و لا يوخذ منها عدل و لا هم ينصرون

“Defend yourself against a day that will come where no soul shall be of assistance to another whatsoever – nor shall it put forth an intercessor in its place – no compensation will be taken from it – nor shall there be anyone to come to its aid.” [Q: 2:47]

Here, Allah is commanding man to defend himself against His punishment on a day in which there will be no help, intercession, or aid from another person. In other words, protect yourself before it’s too late. For other similar uses of taqwa, see these verses: 2: 24, 2: 103, 2: 189, 2: 281, and 3: 131 for further examples.

Day Two & Three

The History of Modern American Thought — Deism and the Legacy of Enlightenment Thought in Europe and America

The European Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that sought to put the faculty of human reason at the forefront of interpreting and understanding reality.  Through this process, reason and reliance on rationalism came to put Christianity and its religious thinking at something of a “disadvantage”.  The disadvantage stemmed from Christendom’s inability to respond to the claims of Enlightenment thinkers.

For our purposes, Deism, from the Latin “deus“, meaning “god”, can be thought of thus: a belief system in which one recognizes the existence of a supreme being or creator without the need for any formal or “organized” religion.  Deists [those who practice Deism] claim that belief in God can be achieve through the sensoria or the human senses [again, with an almost total reliance upon the faculty of observation] alone without out any external influence.  Deism also rejects the notion of the supernatural: Revelation, revealed books, prophets, miracles, and the like.  They draw no discerning line between the supernatural and the superstitious.  For the Deists, to believe the Qur’an is the word of God would be just as superstitious as believing in “lucky stars or numbers”.

While the Enlightenment’s heyday was during the 1700’s, some scholars put its time line as from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s.  It died out by the early 19th century but its descendants continued on to what came to be known as Deism.  In fact, Deism, with its similar reliance on rational thought, had a tremendous influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States.  Some, such as Benjamin Franklin, were essentially card carrying members, while others, such as Thomas Jefferson—more an admirer of Deism—actually belonged to one of its descendants: Unitarianism.  It is Jefferson’s and his compatriots’ adherence to Unitarian thought—whose values are rooted in Deism—that played a role in how they defined the separation of Church and State.  For in Unitarian/Deistic thinking, there is no revelation; no Divine Law.  Thus, there could be no good reason to include religion in the decision making process of government.  This, along with a desire for religious freedom [amongst other reasons], explains how they chose to exclude religion from government.

Summary

  • rejects revelation, miracles, prophets, etc.
  • puts complete reliance on human reason to be able to know the cosmos and God
  • the Enlightenment lasted from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s
  • while the Enlightenment declined in popularity, it was succeeded by Deism
  • Deism went on to have tremendous influence: the Founding Fathers; 19th-century-thinker Charles Darwin [1809—1882], who was an English Naturalist [another descendant of Enlightenment/Deistic thought] who is responsible for the theory of evolution, eventually became an atheist. Darwin’s theory on evolution removed any potentiality for God remaining active in the cosmos [a remote or absent god]
  • was a driving force behind the separation of Church and State

So why do we need to know all of this?  The answer is that if we are to both understand ourselves better—to know the history of our own thought processes—as well as to give more effective da’wah, then we must know the method and history of how people think. In this case, American people.

Along with this greater understanding of America’s intellectual history is a need for understanding Islam [the Qur’an and the life/Sunnah of the Prophet] that also encompasses its themes and history. In today’s class we looked at the two major themes of Qur’anic revelation: the Makkan period, and the Madīnan period.

Makkah: the Revelation begins in Makkah, a small city located in a forgotten part of the world. At this time [7th century c.e.], Arabia and the Arabs were of little to no importance outside of the Hijaz.  But as one of my teachers told me, there was a great wisdom in Allah choosing the Arabs as the people who would first receive His Message. It took a group of nobodies and made them somebodies.  The Arabs of this early period were instilled with a sense of dignity [different than pride!]—a dignity that comes from making God central to one’s life—which is what carried them out of the Arabian peninsula and out to the known world.  This God-centered dignity is quite different from nationalistic types of identity, where one’s sense of worth and pride are not necessarily rooted in a practice that seeks to please Allah.

The early Makkan suwrahs are mainly concerned with trying to awaken the human being to the Ultimate Reality—there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger—and bring his or her understanding of reality into conformity with that reality.  The world has been created by a Creator, a God, and it was not done so without purpose:

والذين يذكرون الله قياما وقعودا وعلى جنوبهم ويتفكرون في خلق السماوات والأرض – ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا سبحانك فقنا عذاب النار

“And those who remember God, either standing, sitting, as well as sitting on their sides and is given to frequent contemplation about the creation of the heavens and the earth respond: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose. You are without peer or similitude so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” [Q: 3: 191]

This process of “reorientation” by Allah seeks to take the mundane [normal] world of humans and transform it into one where everything is a sign that speaks to us of God’s existence:

تسبح له السماوات السبع والأرض ومن فيهن

“The seven heavens and the earth proclaim none other than lā ilāha illa Allah as well as whoever is in them.” [Q: 17: 44]

In fact, as we noted when looking at Muslim history, when Muslims veered too far off course and began to concentrate more on “conquering” than on empowering, things “fell apart”.  The great empires of al-Andalus [Muslim Spain] and the Ottomans dissolved over internal strife.

Another theme to the early Revelation is to set free and empower the human being from slavehood to this life.  One of Islam’s primary objectives is to open up and set free human beings:

إذا جاء نصر الله والفتح

“When comes the help of God and the Opening.” [Q: 110: 1]

In this verse, many English translators have translated the word “fat’h” as “conquering” or “victory”.  But in fact, its root of f-t-h is more akin to “opening”.  And in particular, the opening here is referring to the Opening of Makkah, upon the Prophet’s [s] final return to Makkah.  This retaking of Makkah was a bloodless transference of power.  The result was literally, the opening of the minds and hearts of the Makkan people to the message of Islam.  When they saw that the Prophet [s] was not interested in subjugating them but rather delivering them into Islam, the numbers of Muslims grew tremendously.

This theme of opening has been repeated before.  In fact, one of the early scholars of Islam, a companion of the Prophet [s], said that the “manifest victory [opening] was not the retaking of Makkah, but was in fact, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah:

إن فتحنا لك فتحا مبينا

لّيغفرَ لك الله ما تقدم من ذنبك و ما تأخر و يتمَ نعمته عليك و يهديَك صراطا مستقيما

و ينصُرَك الله نصرا عزيزا

“Without a doubt, we have granted you [Muhammad] the clear, manifest victory. In order that Allah might forgive you for what you have done regarding your sin, as well as pardoning any later ones, and complete His favor upon you and guide you to a straight path. And so that Allah may help you with a great assistance.” [Q: 48: 1‐3]

The man who initially arbitrated for the Quraysh [against the Muslims] was Suhail Bin ‘Amr. In his initial meeting with the Prophet [s], he refused to acknowledge him as the Messenger of Allah, instead the Prophet had to settle for putting “in the name of your Lord” and “Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah” on the contract.  While this enraged some of his companions, he saw it as achieving a “manifest victory”: giving the Muslim a legitimate seat at the Ka’abah.  For without it, the Muslims would have always been seen as an “other” in Arabia. Now there were no psychological or cultural barriers between being an Arab, a Makkan, and being a Muslim.

In the years that followed the Prophet’s death [s], the Arabian peninsula threatened to revert back to its pre-Islamic ways.  It was through the courageous efforts of some of the companions that kept Islam alive.  One such companion was the aforementioned Suhail Bin ‘Amr.  After seeing how the Prophet dealt with the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and finally, with the Opening of Makkah and its people, Suhail became Muslim [his son, Abu Jandal, had converted some years before].  So when Suhail fought to keep Islam alive after the Prophet’s demise [s], he was struggling for his own deen, his own religion.  If we want our youth and new shahadahs to strive for Islam, we must impart to them a sense of ownership of Islam.

ربنا زدنا في علمنا وانفعنا به

“O’ Our Lord!, increase us in knowledge and make us benefit from it!

Day Four

In our last class, we discussed the importance of making room for our brothers and sisters, even though they may not appear to be people of significance. We discussed the story of al-Arqam Ibn al-Arqam, the cousin of the Prophet’s [s] cousin, who, out of generosity, donated his house in Makkah, at the foot of Mount Safa, to the service of Islam. This house, named Dar al-Arqam, of “The House of Arqam”, was the first safe heaven for the Muslims to gather, pray, and spread their da’wah.

We also discussed the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah. This was a pact what was signed by the Muslims and by the Quraysh to allow the Muslims access to the Ka’abah. Quraysh had elected Suhail Ibn ‘Amr as their representative to barter and negotiate with the Muslims. Famously, this is where the Prophet [s] agreed to sign his name as Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah [s] instead of Muhammad, the Messenger of God. There was a number of concessions that the Prophet made that day but in the end, it achieved his goal of successfully delivering the message of Islam to the people of Makkah. In the end, Suhail himself became Muslim after he saw how the Prophet negotiated and how he dealt with the people of Makkah at the Fatḥ al-Makkah.

Some interesting facts about the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah:

  • There was to be a truce of 10 years between the Muslims and Quraysh.
  • Those who wished to leave Makkah and go to the Prophet [s] in Madinah but did not obtain permission from someone of authority in Makkah, the Muslims must send them back. If, however, someone from Madinah wishes to leave Muhammad [s] and the Muslims and return to Makkah, s/he may do so freely.
  • Suhail Ibn ‘Amr, while making this treaty, held some animosity towards the Muslims because his own son, Abū Jandal, had become Muslim.

Moving on from above, we next discussed the more subtle nature of tawhid. Most of us are familiar with the notion that tawhid means “oneness”, or as it relates to Islam, the “Oneness of God”. Tawhīd, however, means more than simply stating one recognizes that God is one, but that one’s actions, one’s internal thoughts reflect this truth. For Muslims, tawhid points to Allah, the One God, and therefore, for Muslims, life takes on a special type of focus, where one is always aware of his or her Return to God.

ثم إلينا مرجعك فننبئكم بما كانوا تعملون

“Then you will be returned to Us and We shall inform you all of what you used to do.” [Q 10: 23]

On the other hand, we talked about the term, takthir [تكثير]. While shirk may be the theological opposite of tawhid, takthir is its linguistic opposite and can allow us to think a bit more clearly on the subtle dangers of shirk by talking about it through the lens of takthir.

In many ways, takthir denies any purpose to life by refusing to point back, from the many, to the One.  Instead, it sees that there are many “gods” and from them, many more things abound.  The Qur’an refutes this, by stating life most certainly does have a purpose as well as a Creator:

و يتفكرون في خلق السموت والأرض ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا

“And they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose!'” [Q3: 191]

Islam should bring the many into focus, into a view that points to The One versus, as Muhammad Iqbal said:

“The various natural sciences are like so many vultures falling on the body of Nature, and each running away with a piece of its flesh.”

Finally, some words from our esteemed imam, Imam al-Ghazzali wrote, concerning this life:

“The should take care of the body, just as the pilgrim on his way to Makkah takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim spends his whole time in feeding and adorning his camel, the caravan wil leave him behind, and he will perish in the desert.”

In a collected hadith, the Prophet [s] relates to us:

أثقل ما يوضع في الميزان يوم القيامة تقوى الله و حسن الخلق

“The heaviest thing to be weighed on the Scale on the Day of Judgment will be taqwā of God and goodness of character.”

من ظن أنه بدون الجهد يصل فهو متمن – و من ظن أنه ببذل الجهد يصل فهو مستغن

“For the one that thinks that he will achieve his goal without effort is a wishful thinker – and for the one that thinks that he shall, by the expending of effort, be successful, is presumptuous.”

Reading List

Finally, let me say it was my pleasure to teach this course on behalf of the Quba Institute. It was the first time I taught this course, and thus it was something of an “experiment”. Please feel free to leave me your feedback and comments and of course, if you have any questions about what was covered, please contact me.

Muslim Development Course: Update

The Muslim Development Course has been rescheduled! It is due to start up again on April 4th.

The Muslim Development Course is the class I will be teaching that is part of the Quba Adult Learning Program entitled, al-Qāfilah: ‘The Knowledge Caravan’. The objective of this course is to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that it reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles found in the Qur’ān and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

This course will examine the current conditions of Muslims – most immediately of those living in the Philadelphia area (though the principles may be applied to any) – with the aim of looking critically at our current condition and how we might apply the Qur’ān and Sunnah in our lives by actively engaging in its historical realities and processes. Such topics will include, but are not limited to: the life of the Prophet [s] – a.k.a., the sīrah up to the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah; the early Qur’ānic Revelation (Makkan period): the cultural context as well as its audience; pre-Islamic life in the Hijāz (the jāhiliyyah): what was pre-Islam Arabia like? How did pre-Islamic Arabs think?; the language of the Qur’ān: its history, its audience, its changes – how do we as an English speaking audience conceive of its meaning?; the socio-political order of Makkah and Madinah: what lessons are there for us today, both personal and collectively? Through engaging in a dialog with the collective of Muslim Revelation, history, thought, and language, we can better understand ourselves and, God willing, have a deeper commitment to the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad.

The class starts April 4th. Running time is from 10:00am until 12:30pm. The class will run for four Sundays: April 4th, 11th, 18th, and 25th. This session, the second session, will be held at Masjid Mujahideen, in West Philadelphia:


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The first cycle of this class was started on March 7th, and will is currently running until March 28th [taught by Imam Anas of the [Qubā’ Institute]. If you would like to sign up for this course, please contact the Qubā’ Institute as follows:

Phone: 215-473-8589. E-mail: adultprogram@qubainc.org. The course fee is $50 [this is less than $15 a day!]