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ADAB 14: The Proprieties of Prioritizing in Religious Practice

Ustadh Tabraze Azam gives a detailed account of the adab or the proprieties of prioritizing religious practice.

“From the marks of following whimsical desires is rushing to perform supererogatory acts of devotion, and laziness in the fulfilment of religiously obligatory duties.” Profound words from the remarkable Ahmad b. ‘Ata Illah al-Sakandari (may Allah sanctify his secret). You don’t start profiting until you’ve broken even, and a lack of religious priority and guidance can lead to loss in this life before the next. Fortunately, the scholars don’t just leave us in the dark about how to function prophetically, and with true, praiseworthy adab, but they take us by the hand to ensure that we grow, recognise, appreciate and are subsequently grown, even without our own doing.

Our Master ‘Abdullah b. ‘Amr reported that a man came to the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, and said: “I have come intending to set out in jihad with you, seeking thereby the countenance of Allah and the next abode. I have indeed come, but my parents are weeping.” He said, Allah bless him and give them peace, “Return to them and make them laugh just as you made them weep.” (Ibn Majah) It doesn’t matter about your emotions, how much you want something, how beloved it appears to be to the lawgiver, or anything else. What matters is priority, and this is not it in your life at this time. Priority is what the Lawgiver wants from you and I, and that takes time to realise, absorb, consider and do.

1. Divine Love in Priority

Our Master Abu Huraira reported that the Blessed Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said in a holy tradition (hadith qudsi), transmitting Allah’s Speech to us: “My servant draws near to Me with nothing more beloved to Me than that which I have made obligatory upon him; and My servant continues drawing nearer to Me with supererogatory works until I love him.” (Bukhari) It is not by jumping to recommended or mere charitable deeds that a believer wins unto the great, good pleasure of the Divine, but by fulfilling that which He has made obligatory upon us. 

In another tradition, our Master Jabir b. ‘Abdullah reported that a man came and said to the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace: “Do you think that if I pray the prescribed prayers, fast [the month of] Ramadan, deem the lawful to be lawful and the unlawful to be forbidden, and I do not add anything beyond that, I shall enter Paradise?” He, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: ‘Yes.’ (Muslim) The religion is comprised of different duties, of course, but there is something special about the obligatory acts, a secret by which a person can attain unto ultimate bliss. 

Obligatory, missed duties also need to be made up and should be given precedence over supererogatory works, unless that which requires attention is minimal. So you should focus, for example, on the missed dawn prayers (fajr) rather than praying extra cycles (rak‘as) of the mid-morning prayer (duha). Generally, makeup prayers and fasts should be prioritised, as is the case with missed zakat payments. Mandatory duties such as missed end of Ramadan charity payments (sadaqat al-fitr), missed ritual sacrifices (udhiya/qurbani), expiations for fasting, oaths and the like, should also be given precedence to other monetary acts of devotion

2. Duties: Communal and Personal

Allah Most High says, “However, it is not necessary for the believers to march forth all at once. Only a party from each group should march forth, leaving the rest to gain religious knowledge then enlighten their people when they return to them, so that they too may beware of evil.” (Sura al-Tawba 9:122) In his exegesis, Ibn ‘Ashur explains that seeking knowledge is also a communal obligation, and that the entire community of believers (umma) would have been negligent if they had all left in jihad. Rather, there were multiple obligations to take care of, and a sufficiently large group needed fulfil each duty. Both were prioritised and of equal, communal importance. 

The communal obligation (fard kifaya) is that which is due upon every community of believers in a particular place. It is not limited to seemingly religious roles. An example would be the need to have doctors, lawyers and traders, all of whom are required to run a healthy society. This obligation is only lifted if a sufficiently large number of people fulfil it whereby the need is taken care of. Otherwise, the entire community is sinful. The personal obligation (fard ‘ayn) is that which is due from every single individual without exception. Similarly, there is a communal sunna, such as the spiritual retreat (i‘tikaf), and personal sunnas, such as the emphasised cycles (rak‘as) associated with each prescribed prayer. All of these also require fulfilment as such sunnas are duties which cannot be left without a genuine, shari‘a-countenanced excuse. 

The personal obligation is of greatest importance because matters which pertain to the generality are lesser in emphasis. But some individuals have a greater responsibility to take care of duties on behalf of the entire community because of their aptitude and personal circumstances, and their reward will be commensurate with the sincerity of their service and devotion. What this also means is that each person may get the reward of fulfilling an obligatory duty by intending their permissible work as such whenever they set out in the morning or night. Each person has a place, and actions are but by their intentions. When there is a choice, prioritising entails choosing a communal duty that is not yet fully fulfilled.

3. Knowledge of Your Current Circumstances (‘ilm al-hal)

It is obligatory, of course, to know enough that you can worship Allah Most High in the situations you normally find yourself in. In this context, worship relates to three things: (a) that which relates to the mind, ‘aqida; (b) that which relates to the limbs, fiqh; and that which relates to the heart, tasawwuf. All of this is required, albeit to the extent of the need, in order to fulfil your duty to worship. 

The Ottoman scholar, and the Shaykh of the Sacred Mosque (al-masjid al-haram) of his time, Yusuf al-Amasi (d. 1000 AH), writes in his brilliant treatise, Tabyin al-Maharim: “It is obligatory to know the [basic] rulings of (1) the five prescribed duties [assuming that they are due]; (2) the details of sincerity, because the soundness of actions depends upon it; (3) [basic] rulings of the lawful and the unlawful; (4) the details of showing off, because the worshipper is deprived of reward otherwise; (5) the details of envy and conceitedness, because they consume a person’s good deeds just as fire consumes wood; the details of (6) buying, selling, (7) marriage and divorce, for somebody who intends to do these things; and the (8) [basic] rulings related to foul and impermissible language.” A fair deal to work on! Note that this is just a list with respect to the obligatory. There are also mandatory (wajib) acts which require performance and severely offensive (makruh tahriman) acts which need to be avoided. 

What this means is that knowing the details of logical arguments, debates of ancient philosophers, when particular penal punishments are applicable, what Razi said about a particular verse, the names of the Companions who fought at Badr, in what situations the predicate is hidden in classical Arabic, and other non-essential issues from the various Islamic sciences may wait for another time. The sincere person is focused and clear about what he needs and he takes the requisite steps in order to attain unto it. Otherwise, one should look to their heart as to why they are studying whatever it is they are studying, and if it is at the expense of the above or not, because the scholars would state that this is following one’s desires and not acting in accordance with prophetic guidance. “Consult your heart,” said the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, even if the scholars answer you time and again.

A related issue is that a man would also need to know a sufficient amount of worldly knowledge such that he can earn a living and support his family, and accordingly, he is fulfilling an obligatory duty by learning a trade or preparing himself for that.

4. Different Priorities at Different Times

The scholars of the science of Islamic Spirituality (tasawwuf) mention that the true aspirant is a “son of his moment.” This is characterised in the words of Imam Junayd who said, “The believer’s state changes forty times daily,” pointing to the idea of prioritising whatever is required at any given time. It is clearly preferable to do certain things at certain times, and other things at other times. The key to all of this is knowledge, wisdom and sincerity. A brief example would be choosing between extensive night worship and being fresh and ready for work in the subsequent morning, even if in the month of Ramadan. Negligence in fulfilling one’s responsibilities with due care, a matter related to the rights of others, is far more serious than any reward earned for extra rak‘as or recitation of the Qur’an.
The jurists expressed this idea of priorities in the legal maxims (qawa‘id fiqhiyya) they developed to help those in the judiciary and elsewhere to understand the underlying principles which are shared between particular groups of rulings, but to also forward universals, something that the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, also encouraged. An example of this is the statement: “Warding off harms is given precedence over the attainment of benefits.” Similarly, “Severe harm is warded off by undertaking lesser harm.” It may well be that the circumstance calls you to behave in a manner which is contrary to that which is normally expected because there is some kind of grave harm entailed in doing otherwise.

The cases of this are too numerous to mention, but, as an example, consider the following list of scenarios which the jurists deemed to take precedence over the ritual prayer, even if it meant that the prayer time would exit: (1) a midwife who fears for the life of a baby; (2) anybody able to help a drowning or burning person, or anybody else in need of urgent, life-saving assistance; (3) a traveller who genuinely fears for his life or wealth from armed criminals. Please note that this is a technical discussion and if you face any of these scenarios regularly, it’s best to consult with a learned scholar first to ensure you fully understand the details of when such a choice is religiously acceptable and when it is not.

5. Avoiding the Unlawful versus Fulfilling the Obligatory

Our Master Abu Huraira reported that the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: “That which I have prohibited you from, shun it, and that which I have commanded you with, do it to the best of your ability.” (Bukhari) Not doing something is far easier than doing something, and this is partly the reason for the prophetic dispensation provided for the obligatory, contrary to the prohibited. One’s dedication in leaving the unlawful should be more intense than one’s performance of the obligatory, given that all it entails is not doing something, but the omission of both is obviously inexcusable. 

It is important to progress in learning with gradualness and wisdom. One should start with the obligatory (fard) and the prohibited (haram) and work to establish and remove those matters, respectively, and then move on to the mandatory (wajib) and the severely offensive (makruh tahriman) and so on. If you are jumping ahead to undertake commendable or praiseworthy (mustahab/mandub) actions, and you haven’t taken care of that which comes before, you are only kidding yourself. Fulfilling such matters is fine in moderation, even whilst you haven’t mastered the other things, but not at the expense of those which are hallmarks of sincere believers. The early righteous would say, “Works of piety are done by both the righteous and the corrupt, but nobody has the strength to leave sin except the sincerely faithful.” 

6. Public and Personal Benefit

The general principle is that benefit which accrues to other than oneself is better and more beloved to Allah Most High than personal benefit, except in some situations. An example of this latter case would be, according to Sultan al-‘Ulama al-‘Izz b. ‘Abd al-Salam, the remembrances (adhkar) after the prayer wherein one recites subhana Llah, alhamdu li Llah, Allahu akbar, thirty-three, thirty-three and thirty-four times respectively.

Our Master Abu Huraira reported that the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said: “Every person’s joints have [an associated] charity due each day in which the sun rises: to reconcile between two [disputing] people is a charity; to assist another by helping him onto his mount, or lifting his merchandise onto it for him, is a charity. A good word is a charity. Each step one takes to the prayer is a charity. And removing a harmful thing from the road is a charity.” (Bukhari)

Our religion is service at its very heart; the scholar is a servant, the doctor is a servant, everybody with a profession serves, even if only their dependents. “Whoever doesn’t serve, shall regret it,” as one of the righteous once remarked. 

Priority, then, is in recognising that some matters are more urgent than others, and for the believer, that the next life is far more important than this life. May Allah Most High grant us the vision to be farsighted enough to recognise where our eternal benefit lies, to facilitate the attainment of such goals, remove obstacles and hardships from our lives and the lives of all believers, and allow out hearts to thrive with His Pure Love. 

 

And Allah alone gives success.

Humanity Before Religiosity, a series by Habib Ali al-Jifri (English subtitles)

Habib Ali al-Jifri’s Ramadan program Humanity Before Religiosity has been translated into English and Sign Language. SeekersHub will feature each new episode on this page.

Our sincere thanks to Habib Ali’s team, particularly those who manage his YouTube channel and his Facebook page, for making this wonderful resource available to us, Alhamdulillah.

Episode 18: Dealing with Non-Muslims

Episode 17: Citizenship and Rights

Episode 16: When Religion is Violated

Episode 15: Sexual Identity

Episode 14: How to Deal With Wrongdoers

Episode 13: Forgiveness and Pardon

Episode 12: Chanelling youthful passion (part II)

Episode 11: Channeling youthful passion

Episode 10: A Humane Approach to Dealing With Transgressions

Episode 9: “Al-Walaa Wa-l Bara’a” – Is It From Islam?

Episode 8: The Impact of God’s love and the Prophet Muhammad’s love

Episode 7: How Love Affects Humanity

Episode 6: On Human Rights

Episode 5: Ethics and values

Episode 4: Striking the right balance

Episode 3: The Different Types of Desires in Humans

Episode 2: What is Humanity?


Episode 1: The Vessel of Religiosity

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"We tell you the stories of the Messengers so we may make firm your heart" – Ustadh Salim Mauladdawila

The stories told by and of the Messengers of Allah are not for mere entertainment and neither are the rituals Muslims perform as part of their religious practice. Each one is pregnant with meaning as Ustadh Salim Mauladdawila explains.

Of the recorded events in the lives of the prophets, one of the most historically significant is certainly the migration of the prophet Ibrahim with his wife Hajar, and infant son Ismail. Ibrahim, following God’s command, took his family from their home in the Levant to settle in the desert valley of what would become the holy city of Makkah. Fully aware of the difficulty of their task, he would leave them in that uncultivated valley to God, with only some dates and water for nourishment, before leaving and praying to God for their protection. When they inevitably ran out of water Ismail began to cry, and out of sheer despair Hajar climbed the nearest mountain, Safa, desperate to see someone in the area, but no one was to be seen. She descended Safa and, as Imam al-Bukhari relates the Companion Abdullah Ibn Abbas saying, “When she reached the valley she lifted the hem of her dress and ran as a distressed person runs, crossing the valley and reaching [the mountain] Marwa. She ascended and looked out, but she didn’t see anyone. She [travelled between them] seven times. The Prophet said, ‘That is why people run between [Safa and Marwa].’ When she reached Marwa [the final time], she heard a voice. She told herself to be silent, and she listened. Again she heard the voice and said, ‘I have heard you. If you have [aid], aid!” And behold! She saw an angel at the place of Zamzam, digging the earth with his heel (or his wing), until water appeared”.

The prophet Muhammad ﷺ narrated this story to his companions not as mere entertainment, but, as is said in the Quran, “We tell you the stories of the Messengers that we may make firm your heart” [11:120]. Stories in hadith and the Quran serve as examples, encouraging us in our faith and connecting us to our fellow believers in eras beyond our own.

Due to her strong faith and piety, God ensured that Hajar, whose actions would indirectly affect the course of human history, would be a woman remembered by believers thousands of years after her passing. Everyone who has ever had their thirst quenched by Zamzam has Hajar to thank, and the millions of believers who would travel to Makkah from throughout the world tell her story.
Uniquely out of our religious acts of worship, the Hajj was not sanctified by the actions of the prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Indeed, the prophet Muhammad himself was ordered to perform the Hajj as we do, following in the footsteps of the prophets, messengers, and believers who lived before him. Hajj is not only a gathering of Muslims from all walks of life in our lifetime, but it connects us to the very first believers, the last believers, and to the believers in the celestial and unseen realms. In the Hajj, we see that our own belief is but a fruit of believers thousands of years before us.
The prophet Ibrahim would later return to the valley he left his family, and go on to rebuild the Kaaba, aided by his now mature son Ismail. As God says, “And when Ibrahim and Ismail raised the foundations of the House” [2:127]. Explaining this verse, scholars of Quranic exegesis have said that the archangel Gabriel manifested himself to Ibrahim, and ordered him to rebuild the Kaaba from the original foundations laid by the prophet Adam AS.
When Adam, the first human, was created, God told the angels the reason behind his creation, stating, “I will create a vicegerent on earth” [2:30]. Interestingly, God always intended for humans to live on Earth, as evidenced here, yet resided our forefather in heaven. An effect of this and his expulsion from heaven was that he was imbued with a longing for his Lord’s pleasure and for the celestial.
Subsequently, as Adam roamed the Earth, Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi narrates that he complained to God of his loneliness. It was then that he was ordered to build the Kaaba, establishing on Earth a physical place of connexion to the heavens for himself and all believers after him. God says in the Quran, “Verily the first House established for humanity was that at Bakka: blessed, and guidance for the worlds” [3:96], Bakka being one of the names of Makkah. Adam’s longing for the divine forms a part of our fitra, or inherent nature, spoken about by God, “So direct your face toward the religion completely; the fitra of God upon which He has created all people” [30:30]. Fath al-Mousili, the Iraqi gnostic, remarked on the topic, “We were a people of heaven, then Satan cursed us to the Earth. Thus we only have worries and sadness until we return to the abode we were expelled from”.
Imam al-Baghawi relates that once the prophet Adam completed construction of the Kaaba and had circumambulated it, the angels informed him that they themselves had built the Kaaba and performed Hajj 2000 years prior to him. Further, all prophets after Adam were to perform Hajj and circumambulate the Kaaba, it being rebuilt as necessary over the passage of time. This continued, as stated by al-Tabari in his landmark work of Quranic commentary, until the time of the flood of Nuh, when the Kaaba was raised to the heavens. Thus the Earth was bereft of its Kaaba until it was rebuilt by Ibrahim.

The Kaaba, then, is not simply an ancient architectural curiosity, dwarfed by modern architectural wonders; it is our prime place of connecting to our Lord and reconnecting with countless believers who have walked the Earth before us. God says, “We made the House [the Kaaba] a place of assembly for people and [a place of] safety. And take the place where Ibrahim stood as a place of prayer” [2:125].

The Kaaba unites all Muslims not only across the barriers of wealth, race, and ideology, but also across time, and even species. Numerous hadith mention the presence of angels at the Kaaba, and al-Fakihi recounts in his book on the history of Makkah that even animals have travelled there to worship. Imam al-Bukhari narrates that located in the seventh heaven above the Kaaba is its likeness in the celestial realm, al-Bait al-Ma’mur, “where 70,000 angels pray daily, and when they leave, they never return”, and Abi Dawud relates that the Mahdi, the promised redeemer of Islam of whom the Prophet told us about in rigorously authenticated hadith, will come forth in Makkah. And the Kaaba isn’t alone in bringing us this profound unity: the “place where Ibrahim stood” is the stone he stood on when building the Kaaba, and God ordered us to pray there; we walk between Safa and Marwa retracing the footsteps of Hajar; we throw stones at the Jamaraat during Hajj emulating the prophet Ibrahim, who threw stones at the devil there; the sacrificial animal slaughter is done commemorating the story of Ibrahim and Ismail; and we gather at Arafat, on the same day of the lunar year where believers have been gathering annually for over 1000 years. All of these sacred places and their religious rites have meanings far greater than their outward forms.
Entering this blessed month of Hajj, we should know that it was made sacred by God even before he created humans: “Indeed, the number of months with Allah is twelve [lunar] months in the book of God, [from] the day He created the heavens and the earth; of these, four are sacred” [9:36]. We are now but the latest people to have been blessed with this realisation. Islam is a living tradition, one which began thousands of years ago before the prophet Adam and will continue for untold generations to come. We, Muslims living 1425 lunar years after our prophet’s passing, are the present link in that tradition, and the need for us to realise its importance is arguably more important now than ever before. Unfortunately, when Islam, and religion in general, is under attack from so many directions, it is easy for one to lose their bearings. When we are portrayed as a foreign belief and something that should be feared, it is easy to forget that we are not at all strange. It may be lost to us that the very first of creation were all believers, and we are simply trying to following in their wake. We are a link which, according to a recent Pew survey, makes up 23% of the world’s population, and the Hajj is calling us to unity: unity in belief in God, and unity amongst ourselves.
The Prophet is quoted as saying, “Verily God has ordered me to make my speech, remembrance; and my silence, contemplation; and [what I look at], a lesson”. The believer, then, should endeavour to derive benefit from everything that is around them, and now is a prime time for contemplation, reflection, and connexion.

To paraphrase Goethe, if we cannot draw from thousands of years of our history, we are living from hand to mouth. Knowing the stories behind religious rituals and seeing their meanings allows us to unite with all Muslims, strengthening our individual and communal identities with centuries of belief. Being grounded in our religious tradition brings well-needed perspective into our lives; we begin to understand the value of this blessing of faith, and we begin to understand why we believe.

The Muslim is not a single, lone human carried to and fro by aimless tides. We are not the flotsam of civilisation; we are here with purpose. When we see that we were created as “a vicegerent on Earth”, we can understand the responsibility that is upon us as individuals and do our best to live up to it. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said in a hadith narrated by al-Tabrani, “The most beloved people to Allah are the most beneficial of them for the people”. Let this, then, be the starting point from where we begin everything we do, and the more we are united, the more beneficial we can be.

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