* Courtesy Radio Islams International
* Courtesy Radio Islams International
* Courtesy of Al-Huda TV Kenya
Prof Mehmet: What are the places of Sayyids and Sharifs in the Islamic tradition?
Prof Al – Attas: Nowadays, I feel that these two concepts have become separated in such a way that the Sharif are Hasanese (i.e. following Hasan), and the Sayyid are Husseinese (i.e. following Hussein). I think that this was probably the same in earlier times. Sayyids were called Sharif, and Sharifs were called Sayyid. Of course it is true that the Hasanese gradually became the Sharifs of Mecca and the post of Sharif was established by the Abbasids. I noticed that when I was reading Tabari, he mentioned that Al-Ma’mun appointed one of the sons of Ali as the Sharif of Mecca. The main aim of Al Ma’mun here was to neutralize the followers of Ali in a diplomatic way, as at first they were opposed to the Umayyads and later to the Abbasid’s as well. Thus, he was trying to be friendly with them and to show his favor by appointing such people. Now, Al Ma’mun lived around the year 800; another man al-Dimashqi, who was a geographer, wrote in 1200 that the first missionaries to be sent to Asia were in the time of Uthman’s caliphate; therefore, he said, the missionaries were here because they were running away from Al-Hajjaj, from his persecution, in the time of the Umayyads. They first fled and then they came to that part of Indo-China known at that time as Shampa, and now called Sand in Cambodia. And they then came to Southeastern Asia. Al-Dimashqi referred to them as Alawiyyun (followers of Ali). This was in the time of Uthman. Therefore in the time of Al-Ma’mun and at later dates there were many envoys who were sent to China; it is said that there were at least 32 envoys sent between the time of the Umayyad and Abbasids until around the year 500 (Hijrah).
Prof Mehmet: Was there any policy to send envoys that had been particularly chosen from the Prophet’s descendants?
Prof Al – Attas: Yes, I think that the Chinese emperor respected them more because they were from the Prophet’s descendants. I suppose the reason why the Tang dynasty sent a Chinese ambassador to the court of Medina at the time of Umayyads was because the political center was still in Medina at that time, not in Mecca. There was a Sharif in Mecca, but the seat of caliph was in Medina. The purpose of this ambassador was to report to the emperor about this new power in the world. Who was this new power? It was reported back to China that they were worshipping heaven. They had no idols and they did not eat pork. The source that mentions this ambassador also records that an Arab general accompanied the ambassador back to China. We are not sure who this general it was. Some say that he was Sad b. Abi Waqqas; the Chinese believe that he is buried in the north of the country. This was at the time of the Companions.
Prof Mehmet: Was there a difference between the Sayyids and the Sharifs in this sense?
Prof Al – Attas: The role of the Sharifs, I think, was more administrative. They gradually became the Sharifs of Mecca. That is, they acted like governors and gradually became the rulers. But the Sayyids were the ones who continued to struggle, as the Umayyads were more opposed to the Husseinese rather than the Hasanese. Many of them were located in southern Arabia. What is now known as Oman at that time was called Hadramout – Hadramout is even mentioned in the Bible, and this was at the time of Moses – and this was a very important area.
Many of the Husseinese were located in this area. They were a seafaring people, who traveled by sea. It is for this reason that Ibn Khurdabbe talks about the sea routes, and he mentions how the Sayyids got to China and how they went on to India and so on. They were people who spread Islam following the hadith (sayings of the Prophet). You know the Dutch scholars and Western scholars talk about merchants and traders. Merchants and traders would not be able to be close with ruling powers. The ruling powers would only have respected people who were descendants of the Prophet. For that reason, the locals intermarried a great deal with the Sayyids, just like in Sumatra.
I think one of the characteristics of the Sayyids is that wherever they went, they were not very nationalistic or racist. I think it was Sayyid Ali who was the first one to marry with a non-Arab, the daughter of the Persian emperor, Yezdecarb. In other words, the Sayyids married non-Arabs, but other Arabs did not act like this. When the Sayyids went to Africa, they gradually became like the Africans with this intermarriage, and the same can be stated for China.
But what is important here is that the role of these people, this mission, was prepared in advance. It did not happen accidentally. In other words, they were selected as pious people who knew Islam, and were brave enough to go on these dangerous routes. They were not only traders and merchants either. The western people knew that traders and merchants would not able to spread the religion. They claim that in Islam everybody is a missionary. Of course, theoretically this is true, but in reality, a missionary must be acquainted with many things, because ultimately he has to speak with the king. They have to be able to be close to the kings. Much of the missionary work consists of this high-level diplomacy. That is what is most important in my opinion.
Prof Mehmet: In your opinion, what is the social responsibility of descending from the family of the Prophet?
Prof Al – Attas: These descendants of the Prophet spread knowledge. Even Western orientalists say that the descendants of the Prophet are the ones who spread the knowledge. They mentioned the Fatimids and the Al-Azhar. These people established universities and places of education, and much more.
Of course, not everybody was doing all of these things. Some of them, the simple people, may have been doing nothing. It was a question of spreading knowledge and the religion.
And they were careful not to add to the heresy. They were more traditional, and being traditional entailed going back to the ways of the Prophet. This was because, particularly in the southern part of Hadramout, they were isolated. The early Sayyids who came here learned the hadiths, and then they read the works of the ulama. The books that we can see they were using were ones like Kutb al-Kulub, al-Maki, al-Qushayri’s Risala and several others, as well as Ghazali, of course.
As for Hadramout, the first man who brought Sufism (tasawwuf) was a man called Fakih al-Mukaddaam, and this must have been sometime in the 15th century.
Prof Mehmet: We see that these journeys started very early from the time of the Prophet. As soon as they learned about Islam they left their country and went to a different part of the world. The Prophet also encouraged the Companions to make these journeys.
Prof Al – Attas: Yes, as we have said already, before the advent of Islam, it has been acknowledged that there were already Arabs in Europe, even at the time of Christ in that area, and they were involved in trade at the time of the Romans.
But I think the role of the Sayyids was to spread Islam. This was the most important. The second factor was that they were trying to teach people the proper forms of Islam from such books. They did not add any thing. Of course, they studied the hadith, so they had more information about what was legitimate. They also read other works. But they did not seek publicity. They also did not care if people acknowledged them or not. They just completed their tasks.
Prof Mehmet: How were the Sayyid roots of the first people arriving into Asia influential in the Islamization of the region?
Prof Al – Attas: It is true that the Sayyids came first. These Sayyids were already in the north of Sumatra. They came first to Sumatra, then to the Malay peninsula and then to Joho. Malaca, of course is Joho, and from there they went to Brunei and from there to Sulu and then finally Java. I think the reason why they arrived last in Java is because Java was very powerful at that time and the kingdom was very large. There were also Arab writers there in ancient times; it is said that the maharaja was not called a maharaja, but rather known by the Japanese title batara. It is said that he had a hundred thousand troops and weapons ships. In other words, this was a very strong kingdom with a tradition of Hinduism or Hindu -Buddhist.
So, the plan was probably to first Islamize the Malay side and when that was done then to go on to Java. It would not have been possible to go to Java first, because they were so powerful. Gradually, of course, by coming to them in the 1470s, the Japanese kingdom fell into the hands of Islam. However, some Arabs navigators writing in the 1430s said they Muslim kingdoms were already present in Java. The problem is that I am not sure if this date is correct.
The simpler meaning of Sayyid is those people who went to the villages. They taught people Islam, and the question of adab (manners). This is still going on. If you go to Indonesia you can find many of such people in the villages. They demonstrate a certain exemplary behavior, and they are very pious people. You can the see Hasanese in Singapore; they are very popular in Singapore, even among the non-Muslims, because they are simpler and more open-handed as well.
Syed Muhammad al Naquib bin Ali al-Attas (born September 5, 1931) is a prominent contemporary Muslim philosopher and thinker from Malaysia. He is one of the few contemporary scholars who is thoroughly rooted in the traditional Islamic sciences and who is equally competent in theology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, and literature. He is considered to be the pioneer in proposing the idea of Islamization of knowledge. Al-Attas’ philosophy and methodology of education have one goal: Islamization of the mind, body and soul and its effects on the personal and collective life on Muslims as well as others, including the spiritual and physical non-human environment. He is the author of twenty-seven authoritative works on various aspects of Islamic thought and civilization, particularly on Sufism, cosmology, metaphysics, philosophy and Malay language and literature.
* This article was modified from its original source (lastprophet.info)
Osama: You have forwarded the idea that Islam is an enlightened religion because it has the light of true revelation that other religions like Christianity and Judaism don’t possess. I would like to discuss this point in greater detail with you in another conversation, but for now, how do you respond to those who argue that, in reality, what Islam is lacking is an Enlightenment similar to one that Christianity went through?
What is your take on this?
Shaykh Hamza: The reason why people say that Islam needs an Enlightenment is that they look at the Muslim world and they see congestion on the roads, litter in public spaces, pollution in the air, grime on buildings, and rust and dents on cars.
They compare this image with the image of a modern Western city with fast-moving highways, clean streets, fresh air, tall steel skyscrapers, and shiny new cars.
When they think of the Muslim world, they think of unemployment, no industry, no science or technology, and when they look at the modern Western city, they think of the opposite.
So you have this contrast, and when people in the media say that Islam needs to be enlightened, what they are really looking for is the worldly prosperity that is associated with the Western world.
This worldliness is, after all, the lens of the Enlightenment (or as we decided to call it, the Age of Escape from Oppressive Religion) because when in this age people moved away from oppressive religion, which used the idea of afterlife, God, and spirituality to oppress other people, they also turned away from the ideas of afterlife, God, and spirituality that were associated with oppression, and focussed instead on the here-and-now.
Their goal is for us to use our full human potential in this life. That is the lens that they look through when they bring the two opposite images to mind. The idea of the Muslim world needing an enlightenment is driven by a desire to have these things in the here-and-now, and that is really the question that is being asked.
We have two responses to this question.
The first is that, whereas in the case of Europe, there was a collusion between an established Church and a corrupt government to oppress people in the name of religion, that is not the case in the Muslim world today, nor has it ever been the case in our history.
Oppression in the Muslim world in recent times has not happened because of religion, but because of socialist dictatorships, and socialism is a child of the Enlightenment, not a child of Islam.
The corruption that has beset many Muslim countries, too, is a child of the Enlightenment because it comes from worldliness, a focus on the here-and-now, even at the expense of religious principles. If Muslim societies were religious, there wouldn’t be any corruption–corruption is religiously forbidden in the strongest of terms.
If Muslim societies were religious, we wouldn’t litter and we would be conscious of pollution–cleanliness, as we all know, is a part of our faith.
If Muslim societies were religious, they would excel in everything they did, in industry, in science, in technology, everything–the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is narrated to have said that Allah loves for us to perfect everything that we do.
So even if we look through the lens of the here-and-now, the way to achieve it is to become more religious, not to become more worldly under the false pretext of an enlightenment that seeks to overthrow a nonexistent oppressive religiousness.
The second response is that being Muslim means that we look at the world through a different lens. For example, an illiterate old woman in the middle of Africa who lives in a small mud hut, who wakes up at night to prostrates to her Creator, who adores Him, loves Him, reveres Him, and cries before Him in prostration every night, but who is not surrounded by skyscrapers, nor does she have a shiny car, nor does she know anything about science or technology — from our lens, this woman is enlightened because she has found the purpose of her life, whereas someone who has all of the trappings of modern life and is pursuing the pleasures of this world while forgetting about God, forgetting about their soul, forgetting about the afterlife, forgetting about the purpose of their existence — they are not enlightened.
Being Muslim means that your whole perspective changes. And if you look at the world from this perspective, if you look at the congested city with old cars and dirty streets, and then, in the middle of all of this, you hear the adhan (call to prayer) from mosques all over the city, then that adhan drowns out the negativity associated with the congested city and old cars and dirty streets because the adhan drives us to the purpose of our lives.
This is not to say that streets shouldn’t be clean; they should be clean.
It is not to say that traffic shouldn’t be regulated; it should be regulated.
It is not to say that there should be no prosperity in this world; that is something that Allah gives us when we turn to Him sincerely. That’s not the point.
The point is: is our purpose the here-and-now, as those who ask this question imagine, or is our purpose with Him and with the afterlife? It’s with Him and with the afterlife.
Osama: Great, now I’d like to request of you to summarise for us, how do Muslims understand the term purpose when asking the question: what is the purpose of life?
I ask this question now because we have discussed in a lot of detail what the presuppositions of pre-enlightenment Christian intellectuals influenced by Aristotelianism were, and what the presuppositions of post-enlightenment modernist and post-modernist intellectuals influenced by scientism were, about the use of the term purpose, and would now like to know what the presuppositions of Muslim scholars would be about the use of this term.
Shaykh Hamza: We believe based on evidence that God exists and that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) is His final messenger. Based on this evidence-based belief, we see that this universe is created by a doer, a volitional agent, that is God.
God created this universe for a purpose. Everything in the universe is created for a purpose. He tells us these purposes in the Quran.
The locus of the entire universe is the human being, and the human being stands out because the purposes of everything else are found in relation to the human being, and the purpose of the human being is found in his relation to God.
Allah tells us why He created us in the Quran:
“I only created jinn-kind and mankind is so that they might worship me.” Qur’an, 51:56
The original Arabic of this verse has the letter lam before the verb, “to worship” — illa li ya‘budun. This lam is normally translated as “because”. With this translation, the verse would mean, “I created jinn-kind and mankind because I wanted them to worship me.” This is an incorrect translation here and it is not what this verse means.
Let me explain.
Allah created the universe with wisdom. The idea of purpose in the universe, for us, returns to the wisdom of Allah.
Allah’s wisdom is something that He creates in the universe.
To say that He creates everything with a wisdom is different than saying that He created everything with some motive. This is important to understand.
What’s the difference?
Well, when I explained Aristotle’s idea of the final cause, I gave you the example of the coat that I wear in order to become warm. The final cause, in this case–in order for me to become warm–is my motive. It is, in other words, a need that drives me to do something to fulfill that need–I need to become warm, so I wear my coat.
Behind every motive lies a need.
Needs move us, motivate us, to undertake certain actions.
This is how human beings work, and this is how Aristotle formulated his thought.
Now, when we ask about the purpose of the universe, then we have to look at the question in a different manner because Allah doesn’t need anything.
Everything needs Him; He doesn’t need anything.
That, in fact, is the meaning of the Qur’anic verse that all of us know: Allahu al-Samad (Qur’an, 112:2). This means that Allah is al-Samad, which means that He is the one who everything needs but who Himself needs no one.
Allah Most High exists necessarily; everything else is contingent. He doesn’t need anything; everything needs Him. He is the absolute King and Master. He is the Sustainer and Lord of everything.
Since He doesn’t need anything, He cannot be driven by motives.
But everything that He creates has a purpose.
But that purpose is not a motive that drives Him to create that thing.
So the purposes that He creates in the universe aren’t things that drive Him.
If you return to the verse I cited above–”I only created jinn-kind and mankind so that they might worship me,”–you will notice that I translated the lam before the verb, “to worship” as “so that they might…” If I had translated it as “because he wanted ..” then it would mean that Allah Most High needs jinn and humans to worship Him. But that is not what the verse means.
The verse does not mean that Allah Most High needs us to worship Him.
He created us to worship Him?–Yes.
He created us because He needs us to worship Him?–No.
He tells us many times in the Qur’an that no one who disbelieves in Him does Him any harm whatsoever because, “Allah is completely free of needing anything in the universe.” (Qur’an, 3:57) He tells us many times in the Qur’an that, “whoever does good only benefits himself, and whoever does good only harms himself.” (Qur’an, 41:46) And the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) told us that Allah Most High says, “O My servants! You will never be able to harm Me, nor will you ever be able to benefit Me. O My servants! Were every single one of you, humans and jinn, to be as Godfearing as the one with the most Godfearing heart among you, that would not increase My Kingdom in the slightest. O My servants! Were every single one of you, humans and jinn, to be as wicket as the one with the most wicked heart among you, that would not decrease My Kingdom in the slightest.” (Muslim)
So Allah Most High doesn’t need our worship.
When He says that He created us in order to worship Him, He doesn’t mean that He needs our worship; He means that the purpose for which He has created us–our purpose that lies within us, the purpose of our lives, in other words–is for us to worship Him.
Let me give you an example.
If I were to take your cell phone and try and play baseball with it, I may or may not do well. I may hit a home run with it (unlikely!), or I might break your phone in my attempt to hit a home run (likely!). If it works, however, it is not going to work that well. Pretty soon, I will give up using the cell phone as a baseball bat, and go find an actual bat whose purpose is to be played baseball with.
Why doesn’t a cell phone work like a baseball bat? It doesn’t work because that is not the reason, the purpose that the maker of the cell phone made it for.
Similarly, Allah created us for the purpose of worshipping Him. That means that if We worship Allah, then it’s like we are playing baseball with a baseball bat, but if we turn away from that and stop worshipping Allah, then it’s like playing baseball with a cell-phone — life won’t seem to work for us because that is not what we were meant to do.
You might break, just like the cell-phone if it is used to play baseball.
You are going to find frustration, you are going to find depression, the world won’t make sense, the world will be pointless, and you will have all of these feelings because you are not fulfilling your purpose.
You will have a spiritual void, a sense of meaninglessness, a sense that things are right and that you aren’t doing what you should be doing. Much of what we discussed in our previous conversation, the spiritual void that people feel in their lives as a result of a lack of genuine religious company and practise, it stemmed from this lack of purpose.
But when you do what you were created for, when you worship Him in prostration, when you cry, when you recite the Quran, when you give charity, you will find within yourself a happiness that a million dollars won’t give you.
That’s what we mean by “purpose”.
Osama: Okay, it seems that we are now done with our discussion about the meaning of the term purpose when the question what is the purpose of life is asked by following three groups of people:
Now that we have gained a deep and strong appreciation of what the meanings of the term purpose are of these various groups of scholars, I’d like to turn your attention toward the second term that was used in the question, life.
Shaykh Hamza: Sure, though I would like to remind you that you haven’t shared your definition of the term life with me yet (smiles).
Osama: Thank you for reminding me to define my terms (smiles).
If I were to put on the hat of a pre-Enlightenment Aristotelian thinker, then I would most likely define life as being a term that refers to the existence of an individual human being or animal.
If I were to put on the hat of a post-enlightenment scientistic thinker, then I would most likely define life as the condition that distinguishes “living things” [animals and plants] from “non-living things”.
I am interested to know how you, as a Muslim, define the term life?
Shaykh Hamza: I don’t like your definition of life (laughs), and I don’t think that that is what people mean when they ask “what is the purpose of life?”.
I would like to say two things here.
The first is that the idea of “life” is related to the idea of “purpose”.
There is a field in science called biochemistry. Biochemists study the chemical processes of life. The emergence of biochemistry was very exciting for people who wanted to explain the world without any reference to God because it contains the idea that life can be explained through a series of chemical reactions.
Now, chemical reactions do have a relation to life. That they are related to life is undeniable–all of modern medicine is based on this. But is life a series of chemical reactions? No it is not. And anybody who asks the question “what is the purpose of life” knows deep down within them that life is more than a series of chemical reactions, it is more than what the biochemists say.
Animal life (we’ll put plant life aside for a moment) is historically associated with the idea of voluntary movement. An animal is anything that moves voluntarily. When a lion roars, it roars voluntarily. There is some sort of volition involved: he can roar or not roar. Likewise, I, as a human being, when I speak, my speech is voluntary–I can choose to speak or not speak.
Animal life thus is associated with voluntary action.
Note that this is a very different kind of definition of “life” that you will get in biology because biology examines life from the perspective of efficient causes, from the perspective of chemical reactions, not from the perspective that I am bringing, which was there in the Christian tradition as well as the Muslim one, and it probably has its roots in Aristotle.
Any sensible human being would look at things like this. And so I guess that when I say “any sensible human being would look at things like this”, this is a jab in the ribs of scientists who want to do away with a God-centered perspective of the world, life, and everything. Because when they say that life is just a series of chemical reactions, they are not sensible.
Just look inside and ask yourself: if they were to publish volumes and volumes of books with chemical reactions and tell you that this is life, would you believe it? No you won’t!
Life has to do with volition and voluntary movement.
That is life with respect to animals but with respect to human beings, it is something more.
Because human beings have a mind and a soul, and they can use their minds to reflect on the universe to see that it was created by God, and they can see that they are responsible to God, and they can see that their life has a purpose and that the purpose of their life is to worship Allah (Glorified is He) so that when we are resurrected and we meet Him on the Day of Judgement that we will be successful forever in our life to come. These are things that we as human beings can see. (Remember, this is all based on evidence because we have evidence-based belief in our religion.)
So human life is characterized not just by voluntary motion, but by voluntary motion that is governed by mind rather than instinct.
Animals act, however, is based on instinct.
Human beings, on the other hand, can reflect, decide to go one particular way or another, discern right from wrong, and they can choose to do the right, and choose to turn away from the wrong.
I would say that somebody who asks, “What is the purpose of life?”, they are not asking about the purpose of some bacterium, but they are asking about the purpose of human life, because they are searching for purpose, we are searching for purpose, and we feel that we know that there is a greater purpose for which we are created.
So I will rephrase your question: Instead of asking, “What is the purpose of life?” we should ask, “ “What is the purpose of my life?” or we should ask, “What is the purpose of the life of human beings?”
In these questions, life is not a chemical reaction. In these questions, “life” means the choices that we make to do things based on our mind.
This question is revealing; it is actually asking: “what kinds of choices should I make?” or “what kinds of things should I do in my life?”
That’s the question, and that what I think is being asked.
Osama: I must say that I truly admire what you have said with regards to life, and how the human mind and soul is what differentiates human life from animal life.
I have an important question though; considering that we live in a world dominated by materialistic and scientistic thought, how is one able to prove the existence of the soul, which seems to be an abstract and immaterial reality?
Shaykh Hamza: Well, the Enlightenment has created a materialistic worldview. It has created, along with modern science, a way of looking at the world in terms of matter–things that you can touch, feel, sense, measure, and do experiments.
It seeks to understand everything through this lens, including the human being.
The human being is not matter, the human being is more than matter. Matter makes up the body of the human being. What makes the human being alive, what gives the human being life, what makes the human being who he is, is not the matter that we can sense. What makes the human being who he is, is his soul.
If you were to ask me, “How do we know that the soul exists?” I would say that the soul is “you” — it is known through introspection. All of us know that there is an “I”.
If you were to ask me, “What is “I”?” I would say that “I” am not the cells in my body. The cells die and they are regenerated. After so many years, almost every cell in your body is replaced with a new one. This means that you are not your cells, that is not who you are — that comes and goes.
If you were to ask me: “Who are “you”?” I would say that the physical “you” changes. You were a child, and then you grew up to become an adult. You grow old and everything about you changes but you are “you”, you remain “you”, and you know that “you” haven’t changed.
If you were to ask me: “What is the “you”, the “I”, the thing that gives you your identity, the thing that makes you alive by virtue of which you have volition, and gives you the ability to choose?”
I would say that this is your soul.
We all know that it is there.
It is the unchanging “I” as the physical and material aspects of the body change but the “I” aspect doesn’t.
Science is materialistic, so it doesn’t explain things using the soul, it explains things using biochemistry, chemical reactions, electrical impulses — that is how it explains the phenomenon of life.
Science explains life with reference to reproduction and metabolism but it doesn’t actually explain what life is — life is consciousness.
There is a problem that philosophers and scientists grapple with and it hasn’t been answered yet, it is called the problem of consciousness.
The problem of consciousness is that none of these things explain what it means to be conscious. When we are conscious, we feel pain, happiness, sadness, and we make choices — we have experiences. These experiences, we know, they are not chemical reactions. My happiness is not a chemical reaction, my sight is not a chemical reaction — this is consciousness. I am conscious of something, I know, I choose, and I do.
If you were to ask me: “What’s the locus of consciousness and all of these experiences?” I would say that the locus is the human soul.
It is the human soul that feels happy, pained, sad, and that has love, and it is the human soul that knows God. Empirical observations don’t take you there.
Finally, if you were to ask me to summarise in exact terms: “What is the reality of the soul — what is it exactly?” I would say, well, we don’t know (smiles).
We know it is there but we don’t know what it is.
Allah tells the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) that:
قُلِ الرُّوحُ مِنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّي وَمَا أُوْتِيْتُم مِنَ العِلْمِ اِلَّا قَلِيْلًا
Say: The spirit is from the tremendous affair of my Lord, and you’ve only been given a little bit of knowledge.
In other words, the soul shows human weakness and incapacity, and that is who we are. We are incapable and weak and so we need Allah. The fact that the very thing that we are — the “I” — we can’t fathom it, it shows how weak and incapable we are.
The fact that we can’t fathom it, however, doesn’t mean that it is not there.
We can’t fathom God, but we know that He is there, we have evidence that He is there.
How can we fathom God when we can’t even fathom ourselves?
The ruh, or the human soul, is a tremendous creation of God, He swears by it in the Quran:
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا
By the great soul, and the tremendous One who fashioned it.
Whenever Allah swears an oath by something, it means that it is tremendous, and this is one of the greatest creations of Allah.
This is the soul and that is how we know that it exists.
Osama: That seems to be a fair explanation of the soul though I’d be very interested to talk about in detail with you in one of our future conversations. You said that the soul is what feels love, happiness, and sadness etc. I’d be interested to find out how this ties in with our purpose, which is to love God. I wonder how the soul “loves” God? I won’t ask you to answer this question now, let’s leave it for another conversation because we have had a pretty long conversation thus far (smile).
Let’s conclude Shaykh Hamza, if I were to ask you to please answer the question “what is the purpose of life?” directly after having considered the meanings of the individual terms purpose and life, how would you answer this question?
Shaykh Hamza: Well, the first step towards answering this is to understand the concept of life, which we discussed in great detail just now, and in order to understand that concept, we need to understand who you are. The question of what life is revolves around who you are, and as we discussed, you are your soul.
A great Muslim poet, an early Afghan Shafi’i called Abul Fath al-Busti, who lived almost a thousand years ago wrote:
يَا خَادِمَ الجِسْمِ كَمْ تَشْقَى بِخِدْمَتِهِ
أَتَطْلُبُ الرِّبْحَ فِي مَا فِيْهِ خُسْرَانُ
أَقْبِلْ عَلَى النَّفسِ وَاسْتَكْمِلْ فَضَائِلَهَا
فَأَنْتَ بِالنَّفْسٍ لَا بِالْجِسْمِ اِنْسَانُ
O servant of the body, how miserable will you be by serving your body?
Do you seek profit in that in which there is loss?
Turn to the soul and complete its perfections,
for it is by virtue of your soul that you are a human being, not by virtue of your body.
So, what is the purpose of your existence as a soul?
As a soul that has the capacity to discern the fact that Allah created it, and sent messengers who it can discern are genuine, to call you to the worship of Allah?
Allah created souls before He created bodies.
We had a life before the life of this world — it was called the universe of souls (‘alam al-arwah).
Allah mentions in the Quran:
وَاِذْ أَخَذَ اللَّهُ مِنْ بَنِيْ آدَمَ مِنْ ظُهُوْرِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُوْا بَلَى شَهِدْنَا
Allah brought out all of the souls that would ever exist, He then addressed them: Am I not your Lord? They said, Indeed we witness [your Lordship].
We know Allah, we knew Him before we came into this world, we spoke to Him and recognized Him, and remnants of this conversation are imprinted in us. As we come into adulthood from childhood, this yearning for the knowledge of Allah, which is the purpose of our existence, drives us as we search for our purpose in life, and we find that purpose when we use our mind that is enlightened by the light of revelation to discern our Creator and what He wants from us by listening to the messengers, and living our lives according to what they convey from Allah — worshipping Allah and making Him our sole goal in our lives.
وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الجِنَّ وَالاِنْسَ اِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُوْنَ
I only created jinn-kind and mankind so that they might worship me.
This is the purpose and wisdom for which Allah created us, and then He placed within us a recognition of this wisdom. This is why when we incline towards this world for the fulfilment of our desires, we do not find within ourselves happiness and we don’t find within ourselves that we are living a purposeful and meaningful life.
Our purpose is realised by looking beyond this world into the world through which we, through our soul, will persist. If we worship Allah in this life, it gives us eternal felicity in the next life and we fulfill the purpose for which we were created.
All of this is not because Allah needs something — because there is a difference between a motive and wisdom — and purposes with respect to Allah are wisdoms not motives.
Allah did this out of sheer generosity so that we could be happy in this world and attain to eternal felicity in the next world, and that is the purpose of our existence and life.
Osama: I ask God to increase you, to grant you the best of both worlds, and to grant all of us, all human beings, the ability to be able to fulfill their real purpose for being alive in the most resplendent of ways that pleases the One who made them the way they are.
Thank you, and I look forward to our next conversation.
al-Salam ‘alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.
Shaykh Hamza: Amin!
Wa ‘alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu.
Osama Hassan is an Australian of Pakistani descent who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from Curtin University. He is currently pursuing studies in the Islamic sciences and Arabic in Amman.
Lola: It is obvious your work is infused with a spiritual sense of purpose but how did it come about?
Virginia: I majored in World Religions in university in New York. This was in the early 60’s. And Islam was not even included back then. And we all had the idea it was 1001 Nights, camels and harems and Baghdad! We all had read 1001 Nights. But it wasn’t taught among the world’s religions. And I majored in Hinduism. And when I got out of university I was looking for a way, because every faith tradition is both a doctrine and a methodology.
In that, you finally come to realize that the aim of all faith traditions, every single one of them, is…(and we have the prophets and messengers and each one of them exemplifies humility and service and emptiness of ego. You empty of all that comes along with your nafs in order to be fully present when you meet God at the end of your life. And so you realize that you can’t really do that from just reading books)…that you actually need a spiritual direction; you need to see that alive.
So at the time, I was married to a Venezuelan film director and we became Muslim through reading Al-Ghazali and other books but at that time either they were crummy books, you know, like horrible paper, awful print, you know really embarrassingly crummy books or really academic books done by scholars at Cambridge and Oxford. But those were done by what we call the Mustashriqeen or Orientalists translating some of the great books like the Mutanabee but the problem was that back in their minds, at least in our estimate, they were really serving the British and the people who needed to feel comfortable about colonizing all these Muslim countries. So there was always the element of sneering at Islam, the Prophet’s wives, whatever you have it. And I really felt this was really unfortunate.
So in the summer of ’68 we sailed over to Morocco on a freighter with 8 people and bought a Citroen car in Paris, and drove to Cairo which took about year because we saw all of Morocco. And then I got pregnant and we had a baby born in Libya, Hajar, and we lived in Baydha. And then we came into Egypt in the spring of ’69 and we met some of the most beautiful and saintly beings you can imagine! They were there, living in Cairo. There were three of them, in fact.
So we began meeting with people our own age from Japan, and from France, and from England,and many countries, who were also looking for spiritual direction and guidance. And so we spent ten years studying in Al-Azhar in special studies in Arabic, Fiqh, Tajweed. And our son Mustafa was born there. And after ten years of that we thought ghasb ‘anna– it’s our responsibility to give back. We now see what it really is. By that time we had worked with the Saudis and made a film about Muslims making the Hajj, (featuring)Muslims from as far as Taipei, Kyoto, Kuala Lampur, Indonesia.
So we have come to understand the beautiful nature and quality of the Muslim people, which is really magnificent-never mind in the desert how a mechanic would take us in when our car broke in the Algerian desert and make sleep in their only bed. You know that’s really touching you know.
Then, after all those years of study, we move to England in ‘79 and opened Jam’iyat Alnusoos Alislamiya (Islamic Text Society). The idea would be to start getting really amazing scholars from japan to California and translate all the great Islamic classics. Beautifully translated but also produce it beautiful and highest form of publishing and typesetting because we saw a need and started to fill the gap.
So it began at Cambridge.The children grew up there, and I did a Master’s in Education started a doctorate. We had a beautiful building on Green Street. We had some wonderful Saudi friends who made it possible for us to have a whole building with a book store. And we started with Abdul-Hakim Murad (Tim Winters). He was just coming out of Pembroke. He was in his early twenties and he was already brilliant in Arabic. And so he translated the first of our Ghazali series which is book 40, which is on death and what comes after, from the ‘Ihaya’ Uloom Ideen. And we knew him and we’ve been close to him all the way through. I mean I just went with him to Bosnia this past August and I actually worked in the war with him in the ‘90’s and he is the one who actually has named my publishing company, the new one – Fons Vitae. So anyway we started this publishing in England and began doing Al-Ghazali and we were trying to do things in the “ahsani taqweem” (in the best form) and it worked. I am very happy to say I can’t tell you how many Islamic publishers copy us. And I am so glad they are because the amount of beautiful books are being produced by Muslims is really wonderful
Lola: What would you say is your role as Muslim publisher?
Virginia: Well, you see there are two kinds of things going on. If you look at the publishing lists of Oxford and Cambridge universities (press or slash?) Yale. Most of the books by modern day scholars and academics are really about the changing scene, ISIS or politics, or history. And I am not interested in any of that. Because life is extremely quick. I mean this last 25 years since I’ve been back in America has gone in a flash. Like Omar Alkhayam said: Life is like the snow on the desert’s ((breast)). It’s that fast. The reason I was interested in religion to start with even as a child, is that friends of mine, even at 15 and 16 years, died and I wanted to know where are they, what happened, what is death. And everyone wonders about that and that’s why I focused on religion, but I’ve always thought that I’m about to die. And I’m right. I am. In a way, you and I, we think we’ve got all this time but time is very fast and in a certain sense we both are already dead and we’ve got just a few minutes left in our mind. If you think about the past 10 years in your mind, it’s just a few ideas. And it’s going faster all the time.
So we focused on the inner life and how to prepare and cleanse the soul in order to meet God. So that’s been our thrust. I have zero interest in the refined little things that people do their doctoral thesis on. That’s well…they’re all talking to each other. But they aren’t giving anything that will address the real question at hand that we are going to die very quickly and you know we really never had any time. If you devoted your whole life to your inner life, you would barely have time, much less to go off in a thousand different directions.
So anyway, the one thing that I did think (of how others view our role as publishers) was just a couple of years ago, might be 3 or 4, in Marrakesh.There was a huge festival done in honor of Fons Vitae and it was very touching. It was organized under the auspices of the king.Scholars came from all over Europe and everywhere to talk about our books, and I presented the Ghazali (for Children project) as well. And they said the reason they were doing it because (and this is very touching) because Fons Vitae has devoted itself for keeping the magnificence of the Islamic spiritual heritage in print for the West. Because you see it’s in Arabic and French, and many languages but at least Fons vitae is the foremost Sufi publisher in the world.
Islam is a beautiful religion. It has everything, it is wonderful, it has inner dimensions. There’s something for everybody, every moment of their lives. And I had met people who can’t stand Ghazali, who can’t stand Sufism, who’ve led lives of perfect service, perfect humility,who honestly were sanctified at death. So it’s not Sufism or literalism, but it’s really doing the thing which is at the core of the whole thing which is finally being humble and putting everything else aside to serve
Lola: How did the Ghazali for children project come about and what was the process of turning this magnum opus into a children’s series like?
Virginia: What got me off on to this whole path was when I was about 22 and read in the New York public library Ghazali’s “almunqith Min aldhalal”, (Deliverance from Error). His spiritual autobiography which he wrote towards the end of his life, after he wrote the “Ihya’. In it, he describes his crisis where he was teaching in Baghdad and he was the equivalent of the president of Oxford and Harvard today and everyone looked up to him, and he knew everything and he won every argument and then he really looked, he realized, “I know the truth but I am not able to do it”. And that’s a crisis I feel I am going through in my life. And I am trying to go inward now at the lasts second but the Ghazali children’s project has been a God sent. But anyway, then when Ghazali had written in his autobiography: “My soul is on a crumbling bank. Up, up, and away. If not now, when?!”
And you know when I read that and I was only 22 and I mean by the time you are 22 you already know it all. You know what the deal is. You (don’t) have to read about it over and over and over again. It’s clear in all faith traditions and the essence of human life. I was so scared by that that I fell in love and wanted to know more about Alghazali. With his quotations from the Qur’an and Hadith and quotations from the Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din.’”, I was in a state like very high but I was like clinging to the pages with my fingernails. I could read it. I could go high with it. But when I shut the book I was still me and I didn’t know how you could incorporate those great teachings into your own daily outlook.
About 8 years ago Hamza Yusuf called up and he was very sad because he said his children were going to an Islamic school and it wasn’t working out. Probably because it was so dry and rote and not fun. So we hatched the idea for the Ghazali children’s project. Everyone said, how can you do Ghazali for children? But what it was that it was my own salvation in a certain sense, the beginning of my own spiritual life, because I sat with the Book of Knowledge, the first book of the forty of the Ihya. And that particular book is said to be a summation, the essence of the entire ‘Ihya’ Uloom Ideen, in this book 1. And everyone said don’t start with it. It’s really hard. But how could you not start with book 1?
I sat right here behind on this couch. So I sat there for 4 yrs.
Four years read it very slowly. First I printed it all out. We had all of these books translated. Hamza Yusuf picked the latest critical edition of Alghazli, the Arabic edition by the Darul Manhaj press in Jeddah. We would print out, let’s say, book 1 and send it to a scholar. So in the case of book 1 it would be Ken Honerkamp (Abdulhadi) You have to be very careful when you choose a translator, because it is their (level of viewing the world) that will flavor the entire book, and if the person themselves is not seeking the inner life they are not going to be able to translate it right. And a lot of them were done by Abdurrahman Fitzgerald who lives in Marrakesh who is a saintly being. And they are wonderful.
And then after they put them into English, they go to editors; Muhammad Huzein who has Gazali.org the greatest Ghazali website, most complete in the world and his wife who is a top editor for every publisher in the world. They then very carefully put these translations into English that could be read by parents and teachers as well as scholars. It’s totally scholarly but it just doesn’t use words that are just too high all the way through. And then I take a print out of this and would go through this and circle every key idea because you can’t leave anything out because Ghazali builds. You can outline what he says. And each thing is based on what comes before. It is utterly brilliant.
And Hamza Yusuf I think said to me once “the Ihya is the Qur’an in a usable order and if you did everything that Ghazali said, you would have arrived as it were at true being.”
So I was sitting with the book of knowledge and imaging how I would say it to my granddaughter who was 5 or 6 at the time, and so I sort of whispered it. How I would really get it across to her?
So the Book of Knowledge is forty stories which deal with all those essential points about the nature of the heart.
Lola: What were your deepest aims and purposes of this project? How did you go about turning a private prayer into a public work?
Virgina: A man is putting the whole project into Swedish. It is now going into 12 languages the Urdu one is already being used in Pakistan, and Al-Azhar University did the Book of Creed children’s book in Arabic for their school system.
But the Swedish translator had said honestly until he had this system he had no way to talk to his children about such profound concepts .
Think about it, how do you start to tell your children about the deeper realities? Well why figure it out when Ghazali already did it?
We have a huge pilot school program with over 180 schools all over the world
Some people don’t have the money to buy the books and if they sign up for our pilot school, we can send them the pdf’s and they can use them in their classes. But the pity is that the books are so beautiful; big and hard-back and exquisite illustrations. Such a shame that Muslims parents who don’t buy books, wouldn’t buy this because when the children see the beauty of the books they realize the importance of the subject. The subject is the only subject (purification) the Prophet of God, Allah bless him and give him peace, said “I only came to teach good character”.
What it is that we are doing here, is the inner Sunnah. It’s easy to be told do ten of these, three of these, use siwak, etc. the outer Sunnahs. But what about the inner state of mind? The literal inner state the inner Sunnah? And this is what’s been left out (from mainstream teachings of Islam to children)
In the stories we have a motif. There are some children walking home from school in an anonymous Muslim town somewhere in the world. and they are discussing how their parents are upset with them about being late to prayers but we don’t know the meaning behind why we have to do it.
So they find a forgotten garden (quite a symbol) and they go and find a beautiful clearing with flowering trees and rabbits and they agree we’ll meet here and talk about our concerns. And then they think but who will answer our questions? And then they recall sitting in the park everyday this beautiful old man with birds all over him feeding squirrels etc. named hajj Abdullah. Hajj meaning he has made THE pilgrimage to his heart, right?! And Abd Allah servant of God. And so they go to him and he says yes I will come and answer your questions but not from myself. it will be through the great writing of imam Alghazali.
So that’s how it’s done. Right from the start even the book on wudu and prayer.
Allahu akbar” is it just moving your lips? Or shouldn’t we also be in mode of being that is for that.
And he (Alghazali) said when you open your prayer and do the takbeer you should gather yourself into your heart, and be totally attentive and present with God. When you say Subhan Allah you should be in a state of awe. When you say: “ihdina alsirata” should inspire a state of lowliness and seeking guidance.
With each aya there is a different way to be. And this state of being when you do it in prayer, the prayers become full of light. It’s even fun doing it in this way.
Being awake to the inner dimensions of it and learning over time to be present and awake and not just mouthing words and doing postures without understanding.
Hamza Yusuf says Islamic education has ta’leem, the learning of everything, which we need to do. And tarbiya which is the character change.
In terms of our methodology, each book comes with a work book, and a teacher’s manual and a full curriculum, chapter by chapter. And each chapter in the curricula has a Qur’anic or a Hadeeth passage to which the whole core teaching relates and then of course the workbook has fun things to do and then the curricula has play acting as its major thing.
I have to say it saved my life. I can work on myself because I have the tools to do it. Now I have the meanings. I didn’t see the meanings. I didn’t see what was really going on. I was just taught the five pillars and “do this” and “don’t do that”.
Lola: Can you tell me about your Interfaith work?
Virginia: I have always been an interfaith person because of the passage in the first book I read on Islam in 1966 was called “Focus on Islam” and on the opening page it said: “We have sent at all times prophets to people in their own language”. And I thought that’s wonderful because I majored in world religions, and of course God is merciful and He doesn’t leave somebody out. He doesn’t. So I’ve always been interested in, not just faiths tolerating one another, but learning to admire one another because each faith has some very special beautiful things that we can learn from each other. So I’ve done a lot of interfaith work and publishing. We did a book with Prince Ghazi of Jordan called “The Common Ground Between Buddhism and Islam”
Because Buddhism is focused on emptiness and mindfulness. Being empty of all but God and being mindful. And if you think of the essence of Islam is faqr (holy poverty) and humility and the remembrance of la ilaha illa Allah so they are not very different.
I’ve worked on something international that is based here (Kentucky) called the Festival of Faiths board for 25 years.
(As for) the local network of interfaith work, the Muslims here in Louisville Kentucky (Let’s just say the Pakistani doctors) are doing amazing things and they are loved by our community and our mayor. For example, there’s a Christian group that has created something that’s called a Water Step which is a device that can be taken by/into interior land and it’s like a car batteryIt is taken by land and it can purify like fifty gallons of water in a minute. And when Haiti had those terrible devastating floods, these Muslim doctors paid for that to be put in Haiti and then when there were floods in Pakistan they gave the Christian group $200,000 and went with them and trained their Pakistani brothers and worked on the water. And it’s that kind of thing that should be going on between all faiths.
Somebody had gone just this past week (Feb 2019) here in Louisville into a Hindu temple and desecrated it and the Muslims were there first. Everyone was there standing with the mayor and there to help clean it off. And that’s the way we should be. We are a human family. There’s no point in disliking another group because of a religion they’ve been raised. Ghazali said: I noticed the Jews raise their children as Jews and Christian children of course taught Christianity by their parents etc etc and Ghazali says: “I wonder who we were before our parents said, ‘here’s the package’”.
These are our human brothers and we should just have nothing but mercy and love and compassion and respect for everyone. I can’t imagine being taught anything less than that.
All religions have a form, and because Islam has a form that is copying the Sunnah it is beautiful that no matter where you go in the world because people are practicing the Sunnah you can find yourself at home no matter where you go. It’s all beautiful.
SYR: Unfortunately, there is a lot of deep seeded ignorance around the community and the world regarding this topic. There are people who simply don’t know what they need to know, and then there’s something called compounded ignorance, when someone sees the basics as something that doesn’t really mean anything. The greatest scholars, who have reached the pinnacle of scholarship and piety, not only do they do the basics but they do them in the most excellent manner. There could be two people who are outwardly performing the prayer correctly, but they each have very different inward states in terms of concentration, meanings in the heart, and witnessing of the divine impact on creation. We learn the basics and reinforce them throughout our lives, and in the end, we hope to reach the highest degree of spiritual realization. One of the early imams, al-Junayd, was seen after his death in a dream and was asked “What did Allah do with you?” He said, “‘All the expressions have gone, and all of the subtle indications have vanished, and all that benefited me was small cycles of prayer that I prayed during the night.’”
What remains is for us to figure out what is obligatory knowledge? How can we acquire it and put it into practice? How can we reinforce it and increase it? Any knowledge that is not based on revelation, or meant to preserve revelation, is an inferior type of knowledge. These other types of rational sciences are very popular now, but we must remember that revelation is a higher source of knowledge. We are required to study knowledge throughout our lives. The Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, told us that whoever treads a path to seek sacred knowledge, Allah will facilitate for him to enter paradise. We cannot fulfill the duty our time by rooting ourselves in our unchanging principles and wisely deal with the challenges of our time, without the foundational knowledge. When the winds of tribulation blow through, if one is not grounded, then they are going to get blown with the wind.
Scholars have long discussed the concept of fard ayn knowledge, which is obligatory for every male and female of age. In Imam al-Ghazali’s Ihya Ulum al Din, he describes this knowledge as knowledge of what is obligatory in the moment. Everything one does in their life, must be based on knowledge. Although everyone of age should learn the basics of purification and prayer, creed, and the attributes of Allah, one must also look at their own circumstances and learn accordingly. If someone is married, engages in financial transactions, or has a death in the family, they must know the law. It is shocking to see how many Muslims get involved in complicated matters while neglecting even the basics of prayer and purification. The obligatory knowledge is what we need to know for our beliefs to be correct, our practice to be right, and our heart to become clear before Allah.
SYR: The first thing is to not see the two as mutually exclusive. Imam Malik was once asked about seeking sacred knowledge. He said it is a great thing, but one should also look at their own circumstances and circle of responsibility. If someone is required to do something, whether it is to take care of a family member or a loved one, and they are not able to free themselves up for sacred knowledge, then they must give precedence to the responsibilities on their shoulders. We should not see this as all or nothing, everyone must do what they can. I want to see a rebirth and a revival around talib al-ilm, of seeking knowledge, for the young and old. For most people, it is mainly a matter of priorities. We must make knowledge a priority in our lives. As I was leaving Mauritania, and heading to Tarim, one of the scholars, Shaykh Muhammad Zayn, said, “Make knowledge an excuse for other things and do not make other things an excuse for knowledge.”
Every Muslim should be taking at least one class per week. Anything less than that is falling short of the mark. With a strong intention to learn, and dedication, one can still learn quite a bit by seeking knowledge part-time. This includes informal and formal ways of learning. Some small ways include putting a book in the car to read, playing something in the car during a commute, and reading a book with one’s spouse or children. Most people have time for these things, and this is considered seeking sacred knowledge. Any sacrifice one makes in their career, to free oneself up a little bit more to study and learn, will never be lost with Allah. Everyone should benefit from their local resources, utilizing weekend learning and vacation time. A good way to track activity is to keep a notebook, so that every time one attends a conference, retreat, or lecture, they can fill up this notebook with benefits. This enables us to teach this knowledge to others.
SYR: In a traditional setting, the focus is devotion. One is studying this knowledge to get closer to Allah and prepare for the hereafter. In a traditional setting, a student gets very close to their teachers and a profound love is developed through mentorship. The students try to emulate and follow the teacher. There is emphasis on the chain of narration back to the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace. Those are some of the strengths of the traditional method. The purpose of studying sacred knowledge is to transcend the self and benefit others.
On the other hand, for the vast majority of people studying in western academic institutions, the goal is to get a degree. Some people are interested in the topic they study, but it is a different experience. A student will not develop the same type of relationship with the teacher. Knowledge is respected, but in a secular sense. The western academic institution has strengths in that it concentrates on the context of a text. In my field, I study the life of Imam al-Ghazali, who was he? How did the circumstances of his life affect his scholarship? What led outwardly to him writing Ihya Ulum al-Din? If one is grounded in traditional scholarship, they can more easily sift through the bad western scholarship and benefit from the good western scholarship that exists. This enhances one’s learning, without contradiction to the traditional understanding of the text. Although there is some benefit in studying Islamic Studies in a western academic setting, there is also a lot of ignorance surrounding the texts. They make a lot of mistakes and assumptions based on their limited understanding. Western scholarship is based on imitation, scholars will quote previous writers without confirming the validity of their sources. We must critique western scholarship. Most academics believe they are objective and that this is the only way of knowing this information.
Unfortunately, I have found the vast majority of Muslims involved in western academic institutions do not have the tools necessary to navigate these distinctions, and it becomes a little bit overwhelming. This is not to say that we should not be involved. We do not have the luxury of remaining completely isolated. We need scholars who have the proper training, who are able to find answers within the tradition, who know what to do in different circumstances, and are able to find real solutions to the problems people are facing in their lives. This is an enormous task. Everyone is affected by the society in which they live. There is a philosophy behind everything which we are exposed to. It necessary that we engage academia and have Muslim academics teaching Islamic Studies. Muslims should be contributing in all types of disciplines. We want to them to make principal contributions which reflect our values and character. This is one of our greatest challenges, to root Muslims in knowledge, devotion, and service, and train them to make principled contributions in society.
Cori Mancuso is a graduate in Religious Studies at Lycoming College. While seeking sacred knowledge, she develops content for SeekersHub and Sabeel Community.
Welcome to our first conversation with Shaykh Hamza Karamali as part of the “Talk About Islam” series. My name is Osama Hassan, and I will be having monthly conversations with Shaykh Hamza Karamali around topics that we are faced with as we struggle to live as Muslims in the modern age. Shaykh Hamza is the Dean of Academics at SeekersGuidance, and is one of our senior teachers. Today’s topic is the relevance of religion in the 21st century.
Osama: Salam ‘alaykum Shaykh Hamza, It’s great to be here talking to you today.
Shaykh Hamza: Wa ‘alaykum salam Osama, it’s nice to be talking to you too. How can I be of service today?
Osama: I have a question for you: Is religion relevant in the 21st century?
Shaykh Hamza: That depends on what you mean by “religion”, “relevance”, and the “21st century”.
Osama: Well, “religion”, as I see it, could be defined as an organised system composed of a doctrine and method that serves to express adoration of an unseen Divine Being. As for the question of religion’s “relevance” in the “21st century”, it arises for me due to the staggering advancements that have been made through scientific inquiry and empirical observation after the breaking away of academic institutions from ideas like religion, mythical beings, and unseen realities.
Shaykh Hamza: Great! Let’s start with your definition of religion: “An organised system composed of a doctrine and method that serves to express adoration of an unseen Divine Being.”According to this definition, the answer to the question, “Is religion relevant in the 21st century?” might be, “Yes” or it might be, “No”.
For example, the Christianity of pre-modern Europe was “an organised system composed of a doctrine and method that served to express adoration of an unseen Divine Being” and it led to bloodshed, intolerance, and a corrupt collusion between the Church and the State to oppress the general masses, keeping them poor, hungry, and weak while the officials of the Church and the State became rich, fat, and strong.
This Christianity fits the definition of religion that you gave, and if we substitute it into the question to ask, “Is the Christianity of pre-modern Europe relevant in the 21st century?” the answer is, “No”, not in the 21st century, nor in any other century!
Buddhism is also commonly classified as a “religion” and would come to most people’s minds if you asked the question, “Is Buddhism relevant in the 21st century?” If you look, for example, at the ongoing Buddhist genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar, the answer is again, “No.”
Strictly speaking, however, Buddhism doesn’t fit the definition of “religion” that you have given because it does not express adoration of a Divine Being. It seeks instead to break free of all attachments, even attachments to God. That suggests that we might need to re-think the definition of “religion” that you have given. Let’s come back to that thought.
Islam also fits the definition of religion that you have given. If you were to ask me, “Is Islam relevant in the 21st century?” I would say, “Absolutely!”, because it fills a moral and spiritual void that no other religious or non-religious system can fill. But that’s not because its an “organised system” that is composed of a “doctrine” and “method” that serves to express “adoration” of a Divine Being.” It’s not because it’s a “religion” in the way that you have defined religion. It’s for a different reason.
Defining religion as an “organized system of beliefs” can turn it into a political ideology because the ones who are in charge of organizing the and regulating the system of beliefs will use it to further their own political ends and to oppress and terrorize others–as I illustrated with the example of pre-modern Christianity and the example of Buddhism. Islam fits the definition of religion that you have given, but it is not a political ideology.
I think that in order to answer your question, we need to work with a different definition of religion. I also think that we need to think carefully about your question itself, as it makes a number of false assumptions that I do not agree with. We need to think carefully about the historical circumstances that lead people ask this question in the first place.
Osama: Okay, so how would you define “religion”?
Shaykh Hamza: Well, the Arabic word that is most commonly translated as “religion” into English is “deen”. Traditionally, Muslim scholars have defined this word as:
وضع إلهي سائق لذوي العقول السليمة باختيارهم المحمود إلى ما هو خير لهم بالذات
(which means) Rules that come from God, which drive people of sound reason to make good choices to voluntarily do what is really and truly in their best interests.
Let’s unpack this definition.
God sent the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) to teach people “rules” that were “really and truly in their best interests”. So he taught us how to have a relationship with God, how to worship Him, and how to love Him. Then, he taught us how to live with others, and this involved teaching people how to have a happy marriage, how to cultivate sincere friendships, how to have kindness towards one neighbours, and how to build functional and happy communities.
He came to teach us these “rules” because they were “really and truly in our best interests” not only in this life, but also forever. Let me say that last part again: “… not only in this life, but forever.”
Now, if you think for a moment about the question that you are asking, “Is religion relevant in the 21st century?” you will see that there is an implicit assumption in your question. You are asking about the utility of religion in this world in the 21st century. But what about our eternal lives after death? Your question assumes that religion has a limited and time-bound benefit in this world in the 21st century. But that is false. The true and lasting relevance of religion is in the after life because we only live in this world for a limited period of time, but we live after our deaths forever. The benefits that we accrue from religion in this world dwindle to nothing in the face of the everlasting benefits that it leads us to in the next world.
You asked: “Is religion relevant in the 21st century?” I think that the more important question that we need to ask is, “Is religious relevant for our eternal lives after death?”
Let’s return to the definition. But let’s return with the idea in our minds that this world is not all that there is and that the value of religion isn’t merely that it gives us purpose and meaning in this life, but that it also comes to tell us to look beyond this life, to tell us that there is much more than this life, and that religion–according to the definition that I am now working with–is the only way to success in that life.
So the definition tells us that religion drives people of sound reason to make good choices that lead them to voluntarily do what is truly good for them.
Now, your definition used the word, “doctrine”. Saying that religion is “doctrine” carries the connotation that it is something that you accept and cling to despite it being irrational. But that is not what religion means to us. The definition that we are working with tells us that it is something that people of sound reason voluntarily choose to do because they see that it is something that benefits them forever. Religion is rational. The sensible thing to do is to be religious, to believe in God and the Messengers that He sent to us, and to believe in the afterlife.
The definition that we are working with also tells us that God doesn’t want to drive us to follow His rules by coercion, but He wants to us to use our reason to see that religion is really and truly in our best interests — extremely relevant to us, in other words — and then to make our own good choices to freely do what is in our own best interests.
This is important to keep in mind because, in our times, when we say that religion consist of “rules”, it leads people to imagine that religion is something that is imposed on them against their will, that it is dictatorial (or “theocratic”), like an organized system that is imposed by an infallible pope who appoints and oversees bishops who comprise a Church that is your only path to God, and which is then imposed by the State onto the masses. The Church and the State then collude to put an end to heresy and to tell the masses that they need to give money to Church officials to have a happy afterlife, and the Church officials proceed to fill their pockets with their money. This is not religion according to our definition because it is forced. This is what I meant when I said earlier that Islam is not a political ideology.
In true religion, compulsion is inconceivable because religion, or “deen”, is a set of rules that God reveals for our own benefit that He wants us to choose to follow through our own choices after coming to reasoned conclusions. If somebody goes and compels somebody to behave in a certain way then it is not religion, or “deen”, because they haven’t chosen it for themselves.
So that’s how I would define “religion”. You can see that if you understand “religion” in this way, you won’t ask the question that you have asked. You’ll ask some other question.
Osama: Well, before I ask some other questions, I’d like to ask one more question to further this discussion: Why do you think people question the “relevance” of “religion” in the 21st century?
Shaykh Hamza: Because we live in a post-Enlightenment world, and the Enlightenment was a period in Western history when oppressive and corrupt religion was displaced through revolution in some places and gradual movements in other places because there was an oppressive religious state structure that wronged people by denying them property rights, trapping most people in a life of serfdom in which they were bought and sold with the land they belonged to, wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few people, and religious people would use religion to become wealthy.
Allah Most High describes this historical circumstance in the Qur’an:
إن كثيرا من الأحبار والرهبان ليأكلون أموال النّاس بالباطل ويصدون عن سبيل الله
Surely, many Christian monks and Jewish Rabbis consume the wealth of people without right, and turn them away from God’s path [9:34]
This verse condemns the indulgences that Martin Luther protested against to begin the Reformation. (The Qur’an called for a Reformation, too!)
When religion is associated with this kind of reality on the ground and then people rise up against the oppression — which they should have risen up against — they do away with religion completely. They were right when they marginalised the religion that they experienced — it was false religion. But to then extend that understanding of religion to all other types of religions — all “organized systems that have a doctrine and method and seek to express adoration of a Divine Being” — to make that extension is a fallacy that logicians call a “hasty generalisation”.
One of the features of the Enlightenment is the focus on the here-and-now, on human success and material prosperity here-and-now, and forgetting about the afterlife. So the church would say: you’re a serf because it’s the decree of God and since we are the people of God, we are your only avenue to God, and in the afterlife you’ll have a good life if you pay us lots of money and make us fat (laughs).
The natural response to this type of religion is: “Forget you! Forget your religion! I want relevance and happiness in this life.”
This is where questions like, “What is the relevance of religion in the 21st century?” come from.
Osama: What I can gather from what you have said is that in the past religious leaders colluded with the state to consume the wealth of people in the name of religion. This led to an establishment of an oppressive religious hierarchy, which the people came to despise (and rightfully so). This caused them to overthrow this type of religion in the name of freedom, justice, and reason. This period in which they overthrew oppressive religion came to be known as the Age of Enlightenment.
So when we hear people question the relevance of religion, it is due to the traumatic experiences of these peoples with oppressive religion in past that causes them to question religion’s relevance in the present.
Well, if we were to agree with all of that, then the question still remains: why should one give religion another go when it has, through experience, demonstrated that it doesn’t work?
People have already had a bad experience with it, what’s your proof that your religion is actually going to work?
Shaykh Hamza: You used the terms “proof” and “experience”. Embedded in your question is the idea that when someone uses the word, “proof” they are usually looking either for a “logical proof” or an “experiential proof”.
The logical proof of the validity of a religion, in brief, is that the universe is evidence for the existence of God, and the character of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace), and the miracles that were manifest at his hand–which we know of with absolute certainty because they have been mass-transmitted through generations of people since his time–are evidence that he was a genuine messenger from God.
These logical proofs are unpacked in a podcast that I produce for SeekersGuidance called Why Islam is True and also in a series of courses on Islamic Theology that I teach starting with the Step 2 Umm al-Baraheen course. I’ll refer you to those resources to further investigate the logical proofs.
But people look for more than logical proofs; they look for “experiential proofs”. What is an “experiential proof”? It is finding happiness. People just want to be happy. The happiest people that I have met have been people of religion. People of religion not in the way that you defined it but in the way which corresponds with the definition that I gave. I have met many religious people who don’t have huge houses but are extremely happy.
I was once with a student of the late Shaykh ‘abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri (Allah have mercy on him), who was a spiritual guide in Damascus who taught people how to find and love Allah Most High. This student of Shaykh ‘abd al-Rahman once visited me when he was suffering from pancreatic cancer — which is one of the most aggressive and dangerous kinds of cancers — while he was going through chemotherapy, an extremely unpleasant and painful treatment, and so I asked him how he was feeling.
In response to my question, he talked for about 20 minutes about how Allah Most High doesn’t need anything and hence hasn’t created the universe because He needs anything, but out of His sheer generosity, to give to us, to make us happy. At times, someone might go through something that seems unpleasant but it has only been created for his own happiness. He also told me stories of righteous people that he had met who went through extreme difficulties but were grateful to Allah Most High throughout, and saw everything as happening through the agency of the One they loved. He said all of this from the depth of his heart with complete conviction, and I saw within him a happiness that I had not seen anywhere before.
Let me give you another example. Here in Jordan, we have janitors that take care of our buildings, and these janitors come from poor countries to earn money in Jordan to send back to their families. Some of these people that I have met are among the happiest people that I have come across. They are cheerful when they talk to me, they are always talking about relying on Allah Most High, they live simple and uncomplicated lives, the things that give me worry and grief don’t seem to affect them at all!
Another example is a close friend of mine who became Muslim and left a very successful life behind him in America. He had a car, house next to the beach, all of the things that people in the 21st century believe give you happiness–entertainment, substances, living on the edge, travelling, you name it. But he wasn’t happy. So he left everything and travelled in search of happiness. He ended up in Kenya where he tried to live with the tribal folks but was instructed by them to leave because they feared that he would die of disease if he lived with them. So he left for Egypt where he became Muslim and lived as a farmer for three years. He told me that those three years were the best years of his life.
So I think that people are searching for an experiential proof of religion, and the answer is right here, so try it out and you will find it, but trying out requires sincerity, humility, gratitude, and a desire to love and worship God.
Osama: You mentioned that “it [the experiential proof] is right here so try it out”, what do you mean by that?
Shaykh Hamza: The Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said that God says:
“I Am as My servant thinks of Me, and I Am with Him when he remembers Me. So if he remembers Me to himself, then I remember him to Myself, and if he makes mention of Me in a gathering of people, then I make mention of him in a better gathering of angels.”
The narration continues:
“Whoever comes close to Me by a handspan, I come close to him by an arm’s length;
Whoever comes close to Me by an arm’s length, I come close to him by a fathom; and
Whoever comes to Me walking, I come to him running.”
All of these are metaphors that express the fact that if somebody turns to God, the small steps that they take towards God, will be met by huge blessings that will come to them from God.
So “trying it out” means acknowledging that you have a Creator, and every single benefit that you enjoy in this life was granted to you by that Creator, not because of anything that you did, but because of His Generosity, and so you realize that you have fallen short of what He deserves from you, so you turn to Him in repentance, and seek to know what He has asked you to do, and you do that with sincerity towards Him.
In order to do that, you must find other people who are trying to build such a relationship with their Maker, because you cannot do it on your own. So by keeping their company, working with them, spending time with them, being inspired by them, and making that the purpose of your life, that is what is meant by “trying it out”.
Osama: For most people who work full-time jobs, or are studying at academic institutions, taking the time out to “find” such people is asking a lot. Many people due to the struggle to make ends meet, don’t even get time to pray in the mosque, or spend proper quality time with their family members.
A point to note, however, is that when most people do find time off from their busy schedules, they usually gravitate towards entertainment, food, or other forms of pleasure to find happiness.
Is this the right approach to finding that happiness? Where does one find happy people whose sole purpose in life is to live to please their Beloved Maker?
Shaykh Hamza: So you have to take a handspan, take a step, and walk the walk.
Somebody who is caught up with life to such an extent that he doesn’t find time for himself needs a break from his lifestyle. He needs to take himself out of that environment. Everyone feels that need. Everyone takes themselves out of that lifestyle. They normally do that by taking a vacation to some tourist destination or by finding some other means of entertainment. You only have to glance at the glitz of the entertainment industry to get an idea of how much time and money people are spending on entertainment.
But entertainment is just a distraction from the underlying problem, not a solution to it.
Ibn ‘ata-Illah al-Askandari says: “The anxieties and worries that people carry in their hearts are there because they don’t have an experiential relationship with Allah.”
So if somebody is caught up and finds himself in a situation where they feel unhappy and feel something missing, then they should look at this statement of Ibn ‘ata-Illah and try it out.
“Trying out” means that instead of going out on a vacation or spending money on entertainment, you need to take time off and go and visit someone who is really and truly happy to learn how you can really and truly become happy yourself.
Unfortunately, people like this are rare now; and they’re even rarer in the West.
I live in a community here in Amman where I have a teacher, Shaykh Nuh Keller, and the reason why I live here is because here there is somebody who is like that who I can watch and learn from so that I can become like that. There are people here that visit and take time off to spend time here. There are other people as well, like Habib Umar bin Hafiz, who visits places around the world. Actually, Shaykh Nuh also visits around as well.
So we should find people who have a spiritual relationship with God, and teach people how to have a spiritual relationship with God. We need to create time in our lives to visit such people, learn from them, and listen to them. Then we can go back to other things that we need to do in our lives.
Going towards entertainment won’t give you happiness, and won’t solve your problems; it is simply a distraction.
Osama: You mentioned the aphorism of Ibn ‘ata-Illah al-Askandari, in which he astutely points out that anxieties and worries are actually a symptom of a deeper problem, which is the absence of a real experiential and spiritual relationship with God.
To further what you have said, I find it no wonder then that we see a rise in mental health related issues, especially in the West. I was, for example, not that long ago reading an article on BBC that pointed out that there has been a stark rise in anxiety and depression related issues within high-school students in Australia. This is not a peculiar problem to Australia; based on my limited experience, I feel it is a global epidemic that is growing day-by-day. The technological advancements aren’t helping either because they are making entertainment and immediate gratification even more accessible to people thereby fuelling this spiritual void even further.
Escapism may be the real problem here; we are running away from this spiritual void that we have created within ourselves by getting rid of religion completely from our lives. That may explain why you will find that people don’t find meaning in their careers, education, family, and relationships.
What do you think is the cause of this spiritual void? Are we experiencing this void because we have replaced sound religion with amusement and entertainment?
Shaykh Hamza: The cause of this spiritual void, I feel, is not just seeking pleasure through entertainment, rather it comes from broken homes. Part of the the rules that came from God in the form of deen (religion) are rules for creating a home environment that works.
A home environment that works is one in which there is a father who works, a mother who is at home to take care of the family and the house, children who love to be at home because they feel the love between the father and mother. The home is haven for everyone in it. We need this because as we have social needs. The family structure, which is made up of husband, wife, children, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, with the rules of the responsibilities that each has to the others, is extremely important to preserve.
In our times, the mother and father often both work full-time, and, since they are often not religious, the home, instead of being a haven, becomes a scene of arguments and abuse. The grandparents, cousins, uncles, and aunts, are busy dealing with the same problems in their own homes.
All of this is a result of people no longer being religious. Keep in mind that a religious person is not just someone who follows a series of rules. He is a person who has humility, reverence for God, sincere love and desire for the welfare of others, patience in the face of trials, responds to bad with good, and who lives his life not just for selfish desires but in order to help others. So now when you don’t have people like this and religion is taken out of the picture, then when they come together and have a marriage, then the marriage will end up in a series of fights, breaking of dishes, and various forms of abuse. Psychological, sexual, verbal, and forms of physical abuse have now become common as a result of this void.
But the rules are also important. I am a father in a local Boy Scouts troop for my children and the children of the community. In order to be officially certified as a scout leaders by the Boy Scouts of America, all adults must complete a course on “Youth Protection Training” to protect the young boys from the dangers of child abuse which is now extremely prevalent. The rules that are mentioned in the training manuals are very similar to the rules that were God revealed to us through the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace). I thought to myself, if we just followed the Divine Law, then these problems would just go away.
So, for example, we have rules of khalwa (seclusion with the opposite gender). These rules stipulate that an unmarried man and woman who are not related to each other cannot be alone in a room together. Now, over a thousand years ago, the fuqaha explained that these rules also apply to a man and a young boy–for a man to be alone with a young boy is just as prohibited as for him to be alone with an unrelated woman.
We also have rules of ‘awra (concealing one’s nakedness). According to these rules, men and boys cannot reveal the area between their navel and knees to anyone else, not even another man.
So when we were doing this youth protection training with all of the fathers and children, all I had to do was to teach them these Divine Rules. We should all know these rules. We should all realize that these rules are there to protect us and our children from harm.
Now, when these rules are abandoned, then we have societies where women and children are abused, and things like pornography become common, promoting abuse even further. The effects of this psychological, physical, and sexual abuse is apparent in the people who come and are looking for happiness. Then, to search for the solution in entertainment is only going to make the situation worse. So the problem is not just in entertainment; the problem is also in not following the rules of religion. God sent us these Divine Rules not because He needs something from us but because they are in our own best interests.
It is not possible for us to attain happiness without having reverence for the rules that the Allah Most High has given us for our own benefit. We need to learn these rules of worship, buying and selling, marriage and divorce, inheritance, so that we can return to living as healthy families and communities.
Osama: So if the solution lies in following and revering the rules that God has revealed to us for our benefit, what then is the first step to realising these rules in our life?
Shaykh Hamza: What steps should one take? One should find people who are living in this way and try to keep as much of their company as possible, and one should learn the rules by which one should live one’s life. We have courses on SeekersGuidance through which you can learn most of these rules in a way that is relevant to modern life.
The technical term for living a life that is based on following these rules is taqwa. Taqwa literally means to protect yourself from harm, and the greatest harm that we can protect ourselves from is Allah Most High’s punishment in the Hellfire. We do that by doing what Allah Most High has commanded us to do and avoiding what He has commanded us to avoid. A person with taqwa he protects himself by following these rules.
People of taqwa are rare because the way in which most of us conduct our lives is based on our desires and whims. A person of taqwa, however, is somebody who does certain things, and doesn’t do other things. That’s why people of taqwa stand out in our societies, it is because they fear God, and protect themselves from harmful things by avoiding them even when everyone around them is doing them.
These things may seem very difficult and unsurmountable but they are not. We should start with small steps and make du’a (supplicate Allah Most High). Remember: go a handspan, an arm’s length, then walk, and Allah Most High will respond far beyond your expectations.
Osama: Brilliant, so what you have argued so far is that true religion is relevant, and is, indeed, a path to happiness. You have forwarded the idea that this path to true happiness cannot ever be successfully realised without following and revering the Divine Law.
Now, to learn this Divine Law, and to practise the realities that are embedded within these laws, people will have to look towards practising Muslim scholars. In our times, however, we find that many Muslims, due to their cultural and educational backgrounds, haven’t been exposed to religious people that are truly practising and religious. Often, many will look up to a religious preacher, but after a while, find out that they are not as what initially met the eye. Sometimes the issue lies with the religious person’s character or education, and sometimes it lies with the person misconceiving the true nature of the religious person. In any case, this creates trust issues and can become a barrier for people in trusting Muslim religious leadership.
What is your advice to people that struggle to build lasting, true and real relationships with pious and religious people?
Shaykh Hamza: I once heard Shaykh Nuh Keller relate a story of a man who came to Shaykh ‘abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, and started to praise him excessively. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Rahman responded by telling him to place his trust in Allah. He told him that if you place your trust in people, then you will be disappointed, but if you place your trust in Allah, then you will never be disappointed.
It is a very difficult experience to place your trust in the hands of a person who you believe is religious, and to then end up being disappointed by them, perhaps through mistreatment, perhaps through betrayal, perhaps through a breach of trust. If that happens, the lesson to take is that we should rely on Allah, not on people.
This goes back to the hadith in which Allah Most High says, “I am as my servant thinks of me to be.”
Your relationship with other people should be for the sake of Allah, which means that your intention should be to reach closeness to Allah. You should realize that Allah has placed people around you so that you can benefit from them and use them as a means to get close to Him. The goal is not to gain the love of people; the goal is to gain the love of Allah.
(For example, ) excessive formalities with one’s teachers is wrong. We have to respect people of piety and knowledge but you we also need to have a normal human relationship with them. I remember one of my teachers, Shaykh Muhammad Shuqayr, frequently citing the hadith, “I and the people of taqwa from my ummah are free of formalities.” Now, this is not an authentic hadith, but its meaning is true. When you take a teacher, you always need to remember that he is a fallible human being who Allah Most High has created for you to take as a means to get close to Him. You show him respect, you learn from him, but he is not the goal; the goal is Allah Most High. If he falters, if he makes a mistake, if he falls short of what Allah Most High has commanded, if he gets angry at you, if he forbids you from ever attending his classes again, that does not mean that you can’t benefit from him in the future, and that also does not mean that you should forget about everything that you have benefited from him in the past. Every human being will have faults. Perfection is only for prophets. We don’t rely on people. We rely on Allah Most High.
If you read the stories of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace), great Companions like Abu Bakr (Allah be pleased with him) and ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him), you will find that people would go up to them, disagree with them, tell them they were wrong, and at the same time realize that they were the best of the ummah of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).
I think that the loss of trust that you mention comes from not having a proper relationship with a religious person. The way to have such a relationship is to have humility towards them, to appreciate their knowledge and religiousness, to see that this person has something that you don’t have, and you go to that person to learn what you don’t have and use that to go towards Allah Most High, all the way remembering that we are all fallible.
Osama: Before I ask you the final question, I find it pertinent to review some of what we have discussed.
We started off by defining “religion” as the Muslims scholars have defined it. Then, we went over the proofs for the trueness of Islam as a religion. These proofs were divided into two: logical and experiential. You briefly summarised the logical proofs for us, which you go through in detail in the Islam is True series and the Umm al-Baraheen course. Then, we talked at length about the pursuit of happiness, and how the experiential proof of true religion lies in being happy.
Now, after having a good idea of what religion is. and what it is supposed to do; I ask: How is this religion relevant to us in a time wherein mankind has made staggering advancements in technology through empirical observations and scientific endeavour; has science not in the 21st century replaced religion?
Have we not realised that, in reality, there are only material realities in the world? In this post-Enlightenment and postmodern world, most people have dismissed religion and immaterial realities as mythical; what is your take on that?
Shaykh Hamza: Bertrand Russell, a 20th century atheist, represents some of what you said about mythical creatures. He has this analogy called Russell’s Teapot. He explained his analogy in the following words:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.
Historically, the Church’s theology integrated with Aristotelian science and it was imposed upon people as religious dogma. Then, Copernicus and Galileo scientifically challenged this religious dogma by arguing that if you use your mind and your eyes, then you will see that the Earth goes around the Sun, not the other way around, as the Church and Aristotelian science taught. The Church said that we do not want to use our mind let alone use our eyes. The general approach of Christian philosophers and theologians since (even after they accepted the conclusions of modern science and threw away Aristotelianism) has been to say that we cannot prove religion by reason but, at the same time, religion also cannot be disproven by reason so we don’t want to let go of it. So Russell came up with his Teapot analogy.
He is saying that if you want to believe in something, then you should believe in it based on clear evidence. He is arguing that a religious person who responds in the way that I just described is like someone who believes that there are tiny teapots go around the sun.
But we disagree with this type of religion. We say that everyone is obligated to use their mind and reason to establish the truths of religion. We also believe that if you were to use your mind correctly, then you would come to the conclusion that God does indeed exist, that the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) was genuinely God’s messenger, that there is, indeed, an afterlife, and that Islam is true.
So we don’t agree with the fact that religion is a fairytale. That’s my response to the final part of your question. As for the beginning of the question, it is based on a trajectory of emotion, thought, and history that is unique to the modern Western psyche. We should not understand the world according to this trajectory. We should understand the world according to the trajectory of prophecy from God, beginning with the Prophet Adam, going through the Prophet Moses, then the Prophet ‘Isa (or Jesus), and ending with the final Prophet Muhammad (may Allah Most High bless them all and give them peace), all of whom taught us to use our reason to discern the truth of the divine rules that they taught, so that we could freely choose to do what would benefit us forever.
The trajectory of the Western psyche is very different. According to this trajectory, masses of oppressed people in Western Europe revolted in the name of science and reason against the Church. It was through this reason-based revolt against “religion” that they found morality and freedom. They thought that by ridding themselves of religion, they would release themselves from its shackles in order to gain morality and freedom, and this is what created the modern world. This is called “modernity”. Modernity is full of hope and prind in a reason-based revolt against religion. It believes that we can now use our reason to create a Paradise on Earth. Your question reflects this hope and pride when you talk about the “staggering achievements” of technology and the replacement of religion by science.
But we no longer live in modernity. We don’t live in a modern world. We live in postmodern world. Postmodernism was born after the First and Second World Wars. To call them “World Wars” is a misnomer. They were not conflicts between all countries of the world. They were conflicts between the “modern” societies of Western Europe and America (plus Japan in WWII). We shouldn’t call them “world wars”, but “wars of modern Western states that destroyed the world”. 50 million deaths in WWI and 70 million in WWII. These are huge numbers. Think about them for a second. The population of Canada is 35 million. It’s like all of Canada being killed three times over and then a couple of million more. The “staggering achievement” of modernity is not the technology that the tiny fraction of the world’s population has the privilege of using everyday; it is the nuclear bomb that destroyed entire cities in WWII and which threatens to destroy all of us all over the world should another world war ever break out again (may Allah Most High protect us!). The technology that the Enlightenment gave birth to has enabled us to kill each other on a scale that has never been imagined in human history.
This modern violence gave birth to postmodernism, which, unlike modernism, is anti-rational, and is based on the idea that whenever human beings have power, it will always lead to oppression. We now believe that the human power of modernism leads to oppression, not panacea, as the Enlightenment promised.
We live in a postmodern world, not a modern one. Your question is full of optimism in reason and technology. That optimism is gone for anyone who has studied world history, and for anyone who follows the conflicts that continue to plague our world today. Modernism has not brought us happiness. Ask the Syrians if it has brought them happiness; ask the Rohingya if it has brought them happiness; ask the Africans if it has brought them happiness. If you are an American, if you are a Canadian (me!), if you are a European, if you are an Australian (you!), you are part of a privileged minority.
The world that modernity created is not as great as we think it is. Internally, within our privileged societies, there is a profound internal sadness, and externally, outside our societies, we have expressed this sadness by destroying countries all over the world.
This takes us back to the question that you started with, about religion being relevant in the 21st century. I would say, based on the last couple of answers, that not only is it extremely relevant, but it is absolutely necessary, necessary for our happiness, necessary for our security, necessary for the preservation of human life. But remember that even more important than its relevance and necessity in the 21st century is its relevance and necessity in our everlasting lives to come in the afterlife.
Osama: Shaykh Hamza, it has been a pleasure talking with you today. I look forward to having many more insightful conversations with you. Thank you, and al-salam ‘alaykum.
Shaykh Hamza: You are most welcome, wa ‘alaykum al-salam.
Osama Hassan is an Australian of Pakistani descent who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Finance from Curtin University. He is currently pursuing studies in the Islamic sciences and Arabic in Amman.
AM: Tell us the context in which the Steps Curriculum was introduced?
SHK: In pre-modern Islamic societies, the only institutional learning was the religious seminary. They would sometimes call this a Madrasa in certain parts of the world. There was no other institutional learning. The students would go to the Madrasa to learn basic literacy, how to read the Qur’an, logic, critical thinking, language skills, and then they would learn the traditional Islamic Sciences which included Fiqh (Sacred law), Kalam (Islamic theology), Aqidah (Theology), Hadith, Tafsir (Exegesis), Authentication of Hadith and the whole spectrum of other Islamic Sciences. They would then graduate from this institution and they would be employed normally in prominent positions in society.
So you would find that all of the government employees were graduates of the Madrasa, the judge of the supreme court would be a graduate of the Madrasa, the Head of the Army would be a graduate of the Madrasa, the local judges and legal advisors would be graduates of the Madrasa, the Imams of the masjid would be graduates of the Madrasa – all of the influential positions in society were occupied by graduates of this Madrasa.
With the onset of modernity and the political decline of the Ottoman Empire, we have a new form of education that began to come to the Muslim world. These were initially military and medical colleges, but they slowly grew and became universities. When these new institutions arrived on the scene, they weren’t integrated to the Madrasa. And because of the political decline in the Muslim world, there was an increasing emphasis placed on engineering, science and technology.
There was a need to modernize Muslim society, so that you could have a population that is literate enough to make the country economically competitive in the world and to have a modernized army and a strong government. So there was a split in the education system, and for a while the two systems existed side-by-side until the middle of the previous century, when the religious education system was completely eclipsed by modern schooling and universities.
This brought both positives and negatives. The positives are that you can now go anywhere in the Muslim world and you’ll have traffic lights, cars, planes, computers. Here in Amman you have special economic zones, business parks, technology hubs and modern hospitals. So you have a society that is well-educated from the perspective of being a society that fully participates in the economic and technological developments of the 20th and 21st centuries.
We no longer live a village or an agrarian society. But there is a problem, a negative. The negative is that as Muslims we don’t just live for this world: we live for the next world and every single action we do is directed towards our eternal life after death. The Prophet of God taught us how to live our lives in a way that would bring us happiness and prosperity in this world and also give us eternal felicity in the next life. But we have Muslim societies now where people are no longer educated in their religion.
We go to school, we take classes from Kindergarten until Grade 12. There is a well-thought-out curriculum of education in science and mathematics because these are socially important. But for religious education, we relegate it to after school a few times a week if you come from a conservative family or to a Sunday school which happens only once a week. In less conservative families, there is no religious education at all, just the Muslim identity of showing up at the mosque once in a while on special occasions such as Eid.
This is a religious negative and also a worldly negative because modernity has brought many harms along with its benefits. You see families have been broken up, the divorce rates are rising, there is pollution, there are wars being fought, humans are being killed, there is crime, there is homelessness, there is corruption – these problems cannot be solved by studying science or math. These are human problems.
The value of religion is that it teaches you how to be a human being. Muslims need a thorough religious education so that they can live as good human beings in societies that can be part of the 21st century but our model is the Sunna of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him. We have stable families, well-raised children, low crime rates, a compassionate society that cares for the poor, the elderly, and the environment. To do that we need a thorough religious education. Just like we have a thorough education in the other sciences. This is why the Steps Curriculum is important and we need to understand it in this context.
SHK: We live busy lives, we have family obligations, we need to earn a living but we also have to learn the religious sciences as they were studied in the past at the same level and with the same rigor. In previous times, you could go to a Madrasa and study all of the traditional Islamic Sciences in one place by spending five years there. And you’d be done. Because of the circumstances in Muslim lands, because of post-colonial legacies and the development needs of society, Muslims have not prioritized their Islamic education. A religious education does not have the same economic value as an education in engineering or medicine.
The effect of that has been that a hodgepodge of institutions are now competing to offer Master and PhD programs in Islamic studies, and there are scattered pockets of traditional Islamic learning in various parts of the Muslim world. But none of these offer the complete curriculum of the classical Islamic sciences whose graduates were great scholars like Ghazali, Nawawi, and Suyuti.
So there is no one institution where you can study everything now. al-Azhar has been reformed and modernized, the Darul Ulooms in the subcontinent no longer emphasize mastery in all of the Islamic sciences as they used to in the past. In the Arab world, the Madrasa has been completely replaced by modern university education. We now have individual scholars scattered across the Muslim world who went through this traditional curriculum. Some of them caught the last batch of the old Azhari curriculum before its modernization and others studied individually in private settings. The only way now to acquire a complete and thorough education in all of the traditional Islamic sciences is to find these individual scholars, who are often scattered across large geographical distances, and to privately study with them, moving from scholar to scholar in order to gather all of these traditional sciences.
The idea behind the Steps Curriculum is to have one place where all of the Islamic Sciences are taught. Gradually progressing from absolute zero to where you would have ended up 200 years ago in an institution like the old Azhar of Cairo or the elite Ottoman Madrasas in Istanbul or the Farangi Mahal school in Lucknow. The idea is to have an online repository of all of these courses being offered where everything can be stored using modern methods of education and pedagogy and to have assessments to ensure that students meet well thought out learning goals. And access to all of this is provided online.
Ideally, the best way to do this is to have a blended learning approach. Students today often seek the traditional Islamic sciences in places like Egypt, Turkey, India, or Yemen, but you will find that there is no complete curriculum anywhere. Teachers and institutions of particular areas have particular strengths in particular subjects but they lack experience in others. They might teach some of the sciences to a very high level, but they might not have real-world experience in the other sciences that they teach. Learning the Islamic Sciences is not just about reading books. It’s also about having the experience in using those sciences to solve real-world problems. Someone might go to a place that is not urban–a village or a desert–where we have great scholars, you learn how to answer certain questions but you won’t understand how to apply what you have learned in real life. Students can go various places in the Muslim world to study, but they will almost always find that their education is not complete and that they have to complement their studies in order to complete their education.
So the idea is to enable these students so that they can travel to learn privately in the pockets of scholarship in the Muslim world and then supplement their private studies with a complete curriculum that we provide online. They can study privately in-person wherever possible and they can fill in their curricular gaps with the Steps online curriculum.
The Steps online curriculum also helps students by providing milestones, learning goals, and assessment. As students progress in their private studies, supplementing their education with the Steps curriculum, they can benefit from mentorship, direction, and assessment through the Steps curriculum to make sure they are going in the right direction, to identify gaps in their learning, and to avoid making common mistakes and wasting valuable time. They can make sure that they are progressing through their studies towards a goal.
Everything that I’ve just explained is for students who have decided to dedicate themselves to full-time studies by traveling to the pockets of scholarship in the Muslim world. Most students, however, have other responsibilities, obligations with work, family, and community. These students can simply complete the entire curriculum online at a pace that fits their schedules.
So that’s the idea behind the curriculum and its deployment online.
SHK: If you go back two hundred years to the seminaries in the capital of the Ottoman Empire—Istanbul, or even at Azhar—you had institutions but when the students graduated where did the recognition come from? The teaching license was not actually granted by the institution; the teaching license was granted by the teacher. So if a student went to Azhar, they would go to a pillar and study with a particular teacher. After years of study with that teacher (supplemented by studies with other teachers), the teacher would personally issue them a license to teach. So the value of the student’s teaching qualifications came from the individual teacher, not from the institution. Students understood this, teachers understood this, all Muslims used to understand this. This used to be common knowledge. This is how our religion was preserved and transmitted.
The hallmark of modernity is the institutionalization and the modernization of the Madrasa. When it becomes a university, now the degree is granted by the institution. The individuals fade away into the background and the institution now sets the priorities. It makes the educational and pedagogical decisions. And most of these institutions are governed by the Ministry of Education of the nation-state that they are a part of, and their employees are all graduates of the institution of the modern university. The university degree acquires its value by the value that modern society gives to these modern institutions, which have displaced and pushed the person of the traditional scholar into the background because modern society no longer gives that person the value that traditional religious societies used to.
So the challenge that a traditional institution—an institution that wants to retain the teacher-focused method of learning that goes back to the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him—faces is this social recognition. Because most of us have a different perspective on education than traditional societies did two hundred years ago, traditional teachers no longer have social value, and, as a result, traditional institutions no longer have social value. So that’s the position that we find ourselves in.
So, in light of that, let’s ask your question: Are the Steps Curriculum and its certificates recognized by any educational body? I think it’s important to rephrase the question. There are two reasons why someone might ask this question. The first reason why someone would want to know if this is recognized by an educational body is to know if this is a solid, rigorous program. That’s a good question. And the other reason is to find out that if I take this program, what social value will I have?
Now you have to step back and understand that the social priorities of Muslim societies all over the world are no longer shaped by religious concerns. This affects institutions and the employability of their graduates. Because our social priorities are no longer shaped by religious concerns, anyone who takes out time to get a religious education is making a sacrifice. He is spending time doing something that does not have social value when he could have spent that time doing something that does have social value. He is spending time doing something knowing that employability will be a challenge.
Can you be an Imam after completing the Steps Curriculum? Well, it depends on the people who are employing you to be an Imam. Are these people valuing the traditional model of Islamic education? If they are, then yes, you will be employed. If they don’t, then you might struggle.
You also have to understand that in pre-modern times, the graduates of these traditional madrasas were not always Imams; they occupied important positions in their societies—they were judges, they had social and political influence. How, then, did the graduates of the Madrasa in recent times came to be known only for being Imams? They were confined into becoming only Imams because with the modernization of Muslim society, all of the prominent influential positions in the society were occupied by graduates of competing secular institutions. And the only religious space that was left was the mosque. So we have a challenge before us. We don’t want our scholars to be confined only to the mosque, we need to bring them to the mainstream. In order to take them to the mainstream, you also need them to have a mainstream education.
If someone wants to be a counselor, he needs to go to a university and get a degree in counseling and also spend time getting a traditional religious education. Then they can use this degree and their religious education to counsel people. If someone wants to get into public policy and participate in government, then they need to have a degree in government and policy-making and also spend time getting a traditional religious education. Only then will they be able to use their religious education in the mainstream because the world which we find ourselves often looks down on people with a religious outlook and only allows people into the mainstream through a university education.
It’s also important to remember that everyone doesn’t have to have a role of public service. You can also be a computer programmer—I used to be a computer programmer! You can be a computer programmer and also learn about your religion. You can be a carpenter and also learn about your religion. You can be a secretary and also learn about your religion. Religious change begins with ourselves and our families, our households, our children. It is only when there is a large number of individuals and families who set their priorities through a religious lens that someone with a traditional religious education will be able to perform a role of public service. Otherwise he will have no one to serve! It’s a long cycle. But you have to start somewhere and religious education is where everyone has to start.
Shaykh Hamza Karamali earned his BASc. and MASc. in Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, after which he moved abroad to study the Islamic sciences full-time in private settings with distinguished traditional scholars in Jordan, Kuwait and the UAE, reading and memorizing traditional works in all of the Islamic sciences.
He taught the Islamic sciences online at SunniPath.com, then at Qibla.com, then taught advanced Arabic grammar and rhetoric at Qasid Institute, and then joined Kalam Research & Media, where he worked for three years, designing, managing, and participating in research and education projects around the integration of modern analytic philosophy and science with traditional Islamic theology and logic. He is the author of The Madrasa Curriculum in Context, as well as a forthcoming work that presents traditional Islamic logic in the idiom of contemporary logic and philosophy.
Hamza joined SeekersHub in 2016, where he has taught courses on logic, legal theory, and Islamic theology. He also has a regular podcast and video series called Why Islam is True, in which he applies logic and traditional Islamic theology to answer contemporary questions about belief in God, the genuine messengerhood of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah bless him and give him peace, and the truth of resurrection and the afterlife.
Ustadh Abdullah Anik Misra was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, into a Hindu family of North Indian heritage. He became Muslim at the age of 18, graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in Business Administration, worked briefly in marketing, and then went abroad with his wife to seek religious knowledge full-time, first in Tarim, then in the West Indies, and finally in Amman, Jordan, where he has focussed his traditional studies on the sciences of Sacred Law (fiqh), hadith, Islamic belief, tajwid, and sira. In this interview, he speaks about the challenges reverts face today, the experience of teaching the Islamic sciences online, the traits a student should look for in a teacher, and the checklist a student needs to run through before setting out to seek knowledge. Excerpts from the interview:
The effect of the Internet on the Umma today can only be seen in the context of the effect of the Internet on humanity in general. The Internet has brought many benefits and good things to human civilization. But there have been many great harms as well to society. So obviously the benefits are the greater and faster communication, it’s easier now to convey ideas from one part of the world to the other. Finding solutions to problems, finding answers to questions, and finding advice is possible through it. Knowledge has become democratized in a sense. Now everyone has a lot more access to knowledge. Certain points of discussions can be had, dialogues are possible now in a way that never existed before. All of these things are general benefits to mankind that the Internet has bought.
But there have been downsides too, for example, the addictions that the Internet has brought, the convenience of horrible ideas like pornography and violence. The spreading of wrong ideas become easier now. Misleading people has become easier now with stuff like fake news. There is also the dumbing down of people, that has become easier on the internet. The level of social interaction has dropped.
In the greater context, we can say that all the benefits and the harms that have happened to society at large have also occurred to the Muslim Umma. There are things that have specifically affected the Umma because there are certain things that Muslims are not supposed to be doing, on or off the Internet. Certain things like pornography are now easier for Muslims to access and fall into, for example. That’s one thing. The Umma specifically has now become more exposed to disobedience than it was before. The other thing that has happened is that corrupt ideas pop up, non-experts speaking to people, you know, everybody kind of saying what they think about an issue. This has also caused a little bit of confusion in many people.
Also, just from a spiritual perspective, the amount of ghiba that a person reads and engages in, for example, backbiting people on the Internet, has actually increased exponentially. So whereas before backbiting used to be something you tell one person, now you put it on a blog and a person’s sins multiply exponentially by everyone who reads it.
Are there good effects of the internet as well? Of course there are, without a doubt, SeekersGuidance itself. Then the Dawa a potential that the Internet has. How many people became Muslim through reading something on the internet or discovered or came back to a worshiping Allah Most High, came back to religiosity, came back to a sense of faith? People who were confused and had questions have found answers to their questions. Learning has become possible. Now there are people, for example, I know one girl, in a remote village somewhere in South America, who through the internet came to learn about Islam, embraced Islam and then began learning about Islam. She doesn’t have much of a support system around her. So now she finds support online. So there have been a lot of opportunities of good as well on the Internet, but its harms need to be pointed out so that we as an Umma can intelligently navigate the ocean of the Internet and take what is good and avoid what is bad.
Of the constant themes, number one is OCD; people having waswasa or obsessive compulsive disorder. The teaching of religion online, especially fiqh and aqida tends to be a kind of a honeypot to attract people who are susceptible to obsessive compulsive disorder. The issue is, they are seeing their religion as a source of worry and problems rather than using their religion as a source of solace and guidance to help them in their lives.
And so this is a problem of self study sometimes, having misplaced priorities and inordinate fear over hope when it comes to religion. So part of the thing SeekersGuidance answer service, and SeekersGuidance in general tries to do is help with this. If you notice, all the scholars that are related to it are trying to bring people out from looking at religion as something that is primarily based on fear, threat, haram and halal, and does and don’ts; and bringing them into a more enlightened, more fulfilling and more spiritual way of looking at their religion. This is in terms of bringing them closer to their Maker and using that relationship of love and mercy to walk in the rest of their religious journey, carrying that knowledge of Allah’s mercy with them.
So that’s one of the themes that comes up, that people have been viewing their religion in a negative light all too often. They are actually trapped and burdened by these issues. Our job would then be to encourage people to see their religion in the balanced way that it’s supposed to be. And help them use the religion to come out of their problems in their lives and find greater meaning for themselves.
Other constant issues are, I would say, family issues. These are things that are very common. Intricacies and disputes within the family, questions about adjusting to societal norms, the demands of society when it seems to clash with a one’s religious principles, and so on.
This is a very good question and it’s much easier to answer this question in retrospect than when you’re in the situation. Part of what helps a student go abroad is that when they’re young, they’re idealistic and they have fewer responsibilities. I was in my early mid-twenties when I left Canada. I think a part of not having the complete picture of responsibilities and being a bit more adventurous actually helps. It’s a wisdom of Allah to get young people out without considering too many things.
But there is a checklist that one needs to know. First of all, what’s my goal? At the end of the day, what do I want to do? This can actually develop and change as a student matures and grows older, and they begin to realize that their intention itself develops and grows deeper and deeper. So this is something that they should know, that they will change on their journey. In the beginning it’s good to ask yourself, why are you going abroad? What do you want to achieve from this? What do you want to do for yourself in the future? And then there are practical questions: where am I going? Am I likely to achieve my goals? How long do I plan to go for? How do I plan to support myself? Is it safe to be there?
Is it a place where I can adjust? What type of ideas will I come across? Is the environment that I’m going to study in conducive to a balanced learning of mainstream traditional Islam? So these are different questions that one has to ask oneself. They should also ask, have they consulted with the scholars and other students of knowledge who have gone to the same places and come back or still there regarding their advice? And then also, why am I going abroad and what am I leaving behind? Am I leaving things behind in a responsible way, or am I running away? Am I undertaking this to seek Allah’s pleasure or for religious tourism?
So there are different things that people should ask themselves before they go abroad. But sometimes, and most of the time, many people who enter abroad, they didn’t ask themselves these questions, but through the journey Allah taught them what they should be doing and how they should be looking at their purpose in life. So many people would come back from the journey without having achieved their goals, but having matured in different ways and finding their place back in society again. And some would go for a long time and achieve their goals. I think part of that has to do with continuously running through their purposes and their intentions, and developing the idea of what they want to do with the knowledge they gain.
Some of the challenges that reverts face today, I think are the fact that there are a lot of voices claiming to represent Islam. It’s not as simple as reading an introductory book on Islam and then start practicing basic religion anymore. Before, you might have found at most two or three groups in the masjid that calling you towards different things. No matter which one you join, you will become religious anyway. That’s how it was in the past, when I became Muslim. Now, I think there is a lot more confusion because certain basic principles on the Internet are challenged and questioned by those who do not have sufficient qualification or understanding and training in religion.
So this becomes very confusing for the reverts. The other thing is that because the Internet is the primary way of interacting with one’s religious search, they come across many things that dissuade them, and untruth as well. So they have to navigate through a lot more false hope to get to the truth. Another challenge that reverts face today is the level of indoctrination that they are coming from, from their own societies, and the paradigms that have to sometimes be shifted in order to settle into their new religious outlook and way of life. That is more challenging today because the world has gotten further and further away from a natural, wholesome, holistic lifestyle that is good for mankind in general from the fitra.
For example, family life is breaking down in many places. Consumerism, materialism is increasing. It’s the age of anger where shouting and insulting becomes a norm over a rational dialogue, discussion, and mutual respect. A lot of people are coming with that baggage into the truth. It takes some time to basically cleanse that out of one’s system, and become wholesome and natural in the way of living life again.
First of all, I think one should study Arabic as a tool and then apply it to one’s understanding of Qur’an, Hadith and whatever else one wants to do with Arabic. You can study Arabic only to understand the Qur’an, but what happens is that the person’s understanding of Arabic becomes shallower than if they understand Arabic as a full-fledged, a beautiful language that it is, and then approach the Qur’an and understand what it’s saying. In our time, I don’t think there’s any one way that a person has to learn Arabic. I think the main thing is that one should take any means possible at all times and continuously apply oneself to try different means.
People often take intensive crash courses. That’s good. But the way to retain that or the way to grow is to gradually a study it over a longer period of time, right? To consolidate. Even if you do something intensive, you have to give some time every week to keep up with it. That’s one thing. The second thing is to be persistent. If one avenue doesn’t work, try another. I found that the biggest obstacle is that people usually try to study Arabic in two or three or more ways before they actually succeed in getting a modicum of Arabic language down just to understand the classical texts. The problem is every time a person tries one way and fails, they usually stop studying Arabic for a while. It could be months or even years. And then go back to it again and revisit it later on.
So many people who I see who are studying Arabic will tell me they tried this and they tried that over the years. The thing to be aware of is that if one thing doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that you’re bad. It just means that this is not the way that you need to learn it. Just because one way of learning didn’t work for you, you shouldn’t be dissuaded from learning altogether, whether it’s online, or in the company of a scholar.
Arabic is a tool science. It need not be studied in a religious setting necessarily or under an Islamic scholar. Arabic is a tool science, meaning it’s something you need to understand the texts. Some people try to seek their spiritual and religious experience and knowledge experience through the study of language itself. And unless you’re planning to enroll in a madrasah for a number of years, I find that it’s much more effective to just look at which program is most effectively going to teach you the Arabic. Once you have the Arabic, you can then go to get your religious experience after that, once you have the tools to understand classical texts and sit in the company of scholars.
The key takeaway is that teaching via the Internet has made it possible for us to connect with people that we never would’ve been able to connect with or know because they’re just too far apart, and too scattered, too disconnected. Allah has made a way of connecting believers to each other and to Him in a time of disconnectedness. That’s one thing. Number two, because communities have actually broken down, Allah made another way for Muslims to hang on to their tradition and their religion. So it’s a great mercy. The takeaway though is that this should transition at some point into personal, actual, on the ground interactions with teachers and scholars in order to create a healthy exchange from heart to heart.
So I think the introductory phases are okay online. But at some point in time, travelling or finding local scholars must be done. The traditional way is the best way to observe what Islam looks like when it’s actually practiced in a balanced and beautiful way. Otherwise the person runs the risk of not knowing how to balance the theory of what they learned with an actual lived example. To express things like good character, mercy, consideration for others, which are not necessarily always encoded, but that require a spiritual state and a broader understanding in order to display and demonstrate. That aspect should come into play. It shouldn’t remain on the Internet. The Internet should be a tool to connect people to each other and to use to the extent that is necessary.
This becomes possible by the Internet because now scholars can get in touch with different communities and travel to those communities or advertise, for example, when they have retreats. People can travel to that. That’s a way of connecting. Then go back to where you live and continue through the Internet. So it’s a blend. You also learn, you also meet other seekers, fellow seekers whom you can form friendships with, where people can rely on each other for spiritual support.
This is a very good question. I think the number one thing is that the teacher should have a pedigree to qualified traditional scholars who themselves are a representative of the tradition, in its most balanced and beautiful way.
What does the teacher believe? Where are they coming from? The other thing the student should look for is, do the teacher’s mannerisms and inner state correspond with what they’re saying and what they’re teaching on the outward? A teacher should not just be one who knows a lot of facts or is able to memorize the most. Now that does sometimes impress people. But even if they have a lesser amount of knowledge that they reliably know but carry that with a higher level of character and a deeper spiritual understanding of the beauty of Islam, that’s better for a student in the beginning. And even later on. Someone who has a lot of knowledge, but is devoid of the prophetic example, that’s something that a student should look out for. The other thing is that there should be an understanding of the realities of what the student goes through, the modern world, the society where the student comes from. This is important as well for the student to get answers and guidance relevant to the way that they see things.
Another thing is that the teacher should not be overly polemical or partisan to the extent that their teaching becomes more about debating. Debating people and argumentation takes away the baraka from studying the religion, unless people are at a specialized level. That’s different. But for a beginning student, they should avoid a teachers that try to impose a polemical identity on them, rather than to teach them the basics of how to know, worship, and come closer to their Lord.
We have to consider the trauma the Umma went through in the last few centuries, especially in the colonial and postcolonial period. There are reforms from all different types of groups, not just for example, those who are literalist, but also those coming from what you might call the spiritual camps as well. Many different groups that insisted they’re trying to solve the question of how did we get into this situation, and many of them are speculating on the reasons as to why, what deficiency was it, what should we have been focused on and what was everyone doing wrong that got us into this position in the first place? To answer this question, they seem to focus on certain things that they believe are priorities in the religion and picked on things, or highlighted things that they felt were the causes of the problems that the Muslim world is in today.
The centuries old mainstream consensus that you’re asking about was much more balanced. It balanced fiqh, it balanced hadith, it balanced logic, it balanced aqida, it balanced politics and ethics. It balanced a spirituality, a mysticism, teaching, and philosophy.
So the previous age was an age of balance in which the Muslim Umma would balance itself out because it was at the liberty to pursue this knowledge in a safe space, and allow the free flow of knowledge between scholars in the Umma. Now because of the breakdown in the authority structures in the circles of knowledge, the institutions of knowledge, what’s happened is that different people (not just reformers, there are many groups; I don’t think we should pick on any one group necessarily) are trying to figure out what happened. What needs to be done, I believe, is that we need to go back to looking at how the Umma had its balance and how it viewed different forms of worship within Islam, within different subjects, different knowledges and sciences, the different responsibilities and prerogatives of the Umma.
We have to go back to viewing these things in a balance, rather than-a-one-size-fits-all-solution. We need to go back and invest in the things that will stabilize our communities, first at the individual, then the family, then the community level. We have to pay attention to the inward and the outward of religion, to the physical, the mental and the spiritual. We need to try to regain that sense of balance and get on an even keel before we start. What this will help us do is to express things in a balanced way, right? So then when we study, when we teach, when we call people to the religion, and we live life, we will be without theological and spiritual excesses, and deficiencies as well.
Saad Razi Shaikh is a journalist based in Mumbai. He writes on popular culture and community initiatives. He can be reached on Twitter @writweeter
Shaykh Mohammad Ba-Dhib, sits in his brightly lit office and waits for me to begin the interview. We have another brother present, a student named Abdullah waiting to assist us if a translation is required. Shaykh smiles at me and I ask if I can record the interview for my own notes and record. He obliges.
I tell him that I will be asking questions about his childhood, and chosen path of Islamic studies. He laughs a little nervously.
I know that the newest resident-scholar of SeekersGuidance was born in Shibam, Hadramawt, Yemen. He is not much older than me but has published over 70 books in theology, Islamic Fiqh, Islamic history, Arabic literature, Arabic poetry. His accomplishments might intimidate me if it wasn’t for his warm smile and approachable demeanour.
I begin by asking Shaykh Mohammad about his favourite subject in all the topics he has studied, researched and written of. He tells me enjoys the history of Hadith, and particularly the biography of the Fuqaha and Muhaddit’hain. Shaykh Mohammad tells me that he was always inclined towards learning in the Islamic tradition. He was but eight years old and had memorized the last quarter of the Holy Qu’ran. He loved going to madrassa after school for the Maghrib prayer, and would stay to study of his own volition. When many children are commanded by their parent to sit, listen, learn and recite, Shaykh Muhammad was eager to be immersed in this Prophetic tradition.
Shaykh Mohammad was an excellent student and so much that even in his youth, his peers named him “Shaykh Badiyya” after their teacher because of his mature disposition and affinity for learning in the Islamic Sciences.
As the youngest of five boys (his eldest brother is 22 years older) I wonder whether his parents encouraged him to pursue his passion for Islamic studying. He laughs heartily.
I rephrase my question and wonder whether his father wanted him to be an engineer or a doctor, because he was always such a high achieving student in all subjects.
“A pharmacist or a doctor,” he says with a shining smile. “[Initially] My father was against me.”
He moved to Saudi Arabia when he was 12 years old and studied with one of the greatest Shaykhs of that time, Shaykh Umer Jadahi Sadaat. Shaykh Muhammad wanted to go to study at Al-Ahqaf University in Tarim, Yemen, which only began running programs and classes in 1996. Naturally, his father had some reservations about the institution as it had only recently been established.
The teachers at the university recited Fatiha and not long after, his father had an operation. During his recovery, he went to the the teachers and they helped encourage him to give his son his blessing.
Shaykh Muhammad is the proud father of three children, two teenage sons ( one of whom is already Hafiz) and a very young daughter. He tells me that he would support his children’s decision to enrol in traditional Islamic studies. In fact, he would even prefer if one of them chose that path. I notice that he does not discriminate between genders of his children. I ask him about the perceived lack women in Islamic Scholarship, and if there women on the path of seeking knowledge. Shaykh Muhammad sits up and for a moment looks serious. I understand this is to emphasize the importance of what he will clarify. “I have taken Ijaazat from Syeddat (female teachers)!”
Shaykh Mohammad tells me about one of his own teachers and mentors, Dr. Attiya Arab, who granted him Ijaaza in Hadith. She taught at the University of Karachi and comes from a long line of scholars who have contributed immensely to Islamic Scholarship. She has Ijaaza in teaching the Isnad from Shaykh Maymani. Her father is Maulana Khalyl Al-Yamani.
This is also of significance. At Aligarh Islamic University in India, there is a council of Arabic and Islamic studies which publishes a special edition of a journal. One issue includes the entire treatise that Dr. Attiya Arab wrote. The point of sharing this is to illustrate that great scholars are certainly taught by women.
Shaykh Mohammad’s craving for knowledge not only took him to Tarim, but to Beirut, Lebanon. He completed his PhD in Theology from Aligarh University in India. Over a four-year period, he completed his doctorate in the History of Hadhrami Scholars in India, while travelling back to the Middle East.
He grins and tells me that butter chicken was his favourite dish. I smile knowingly, because who among the most pious people and greatest minds, does not love juicy chicken pieces smothered in a creamy savory sauce?
“After that?” I ask.
“Parathas, with ghee” he replies very quickly. We digress from the usual interview questions and Shaykh Muhammad tells me that in Yemen, there is a similar type of bread called “barowtha”. I am beginning to get hungry.
I ask Shaykh Mohammad about his experiences in India. He tells me that after Makkah, Madinah and Yemen, India is a spiritual place full of Islamic tradition, and I can see that it is very close to his heart.
He describes a very precious memory to me, as I listen keenly. Shaykh Mohammad is the type of teacher who makes you want to catch every word he says.
“When I was in India, the laundry man … how do you say…”
“Dhobi?” I offer.
“Yes,” he grins “Dhobi! The dhobi used to iron my clothes – 2 Rupees per piece, and he used coal in the iron…:”
“He used coal?” I asked incredulously.
I look at Brother Abdullah to make sure that the words are correct in English. He nods and they exchange a few sentences in Arabic. Brother Abdullah smiles and confirms. “Yes, they use coal.”
Shaykh Muhammad asks Brother Abdullah to Google it. He does. I am fascinated by this information, and also feeling a slight bit sheepish because I had no idea they put coal in irons.
But this incredibly knowledgeable Shaykh, remembers the 80-something year old ‘Dhobi’ who pressed his clothes over four years. He remembers him well. I wonder if the coal ever stained his clothes. But Shaykh Mohammad is pristine and I immediately feel a pang of guilt for assuming that the Dhobi wouldn’t be anything but phenomenal in his professional work.
I appreciated how Shaykh Ba-Dhib recollected this memory, something small that is ample yet meaningful, a poignant reminder of his personality and character.
Often, we see our teachers and our Shuyukh as people who are larger than life. They espouse knowledge, wisdom and are often our guides to betterment. But there are always the moments when their personalities shine through and we get an opportunity to see them as part of the Umma, as former students who struggled, as those striving to follow in the path of the Prophetic tradition, as people who remember their journeys with gratitude and reflection.
Earning a PhD in Theological studies is not a simple task. Taking in the surroundings in a foreign country with so much positivity is no small feat. This is one of the small lessons I have picked up from our hour-long conversation.
Shaykh Mohammad guides students to have a clear focus. He is very ready to offer a lot of practical advice.
“Students should have a plan,” he reiterates. “So they do not get distracted.” Shaykh Mohammad believes that being goal-oriented is important in many things, particularly in higher studies.
He has not only shown this from a very young age, but continues to exemplify this today. He is of the highest calibre of teachers and brings a sound understanding and personality to SeekersGuidance.
I make a mental note to bring butter chicken to the next community event.
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