Posts

Ramadan: A Time for Spiritual Nourishment (2) – Shaykh Seraj Hendricks

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, a leading and renowned scholar of South Africa, provides scholarly insights and spiritual reflections through a collection of essays on how we can make the most of Ramadan.

The Greatness of Ramadan

شَهْرُ رَمَضَانَ الَّذِي أُنزِلَ فِيهِ الْقُرْآنُ هُدًى لِّلنَّاسِ وَبَيِّنَاتٍ مِّنَ الْهُدَىٰ وَالْفُرْقَانِ ۚ
The month of Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed as a guidance for humanity, as a clear proof of that guidance, and as a criterion for distinguishing between right and wrong. (Q, 2: 185).

In as much as celebrating the Prophet’s birthday can be read as a celebration of the greatness of the Prophet (saw) in his aspect of the perfect man (al-Insan al-Kamil); and in as much as Yaum Ashura (the 10th of Muharram) can be read as a celebration of the saving of the Prophet Musa (Allah’s peace be upon him) from the tyrannical pharaonic oppressors; similarly Ramadan can be read as a celebration of the revelation of the Quran during this month. It stands as living proof of the divinity of Allah, as living proof of the authenticity of the prophethood of Muhammad, and as living proof of the supremacy of revelation over all else.

But the Quran is also a Huda (a guidance). And as Huda – as true guidance – it teaches us how to live our lives as complete human beings. It teaches us how to live our lives with respect, dignity, honour, and love. It further teaches us that Allah is a divinity that embraces the concerns of all humanity.

It is also important to remember that the guidance and concerns of Allah are not limited to mere theoretical or idealistic utterances. The guidance of Allah plunges us into the mainstream of our earthly existence. One of the ways in which Allah has done this is by making the fast obligatory upon all of us.

Not only are we required to sympathize with the poor and the hungry, but we are thrown into the very experience of hunger.

Not only are we required to reflect upon our condition in a society with its mores, customs, habits, rules, and general routine – which looms far greater than the sum of its individuals – but it forces us to reflect upon the very nature of that society. It is so easy to become a cog in the political, economic, social, and industrial machine. In short, to become a spiritually forgetful being in the material and mechanical processes of ordinary life.

Fasting forces us to break this forgetfulness and forces us to anchor the consciousness of truth and spirituality in every domain of our existence i.e. to act upon the truth of Islam and to live by its spirituality.

Fasting, by depriving us of the daily luxuries and niceties of our mundane existence asserts the supremacy of our essential condition as beings endowed with a soul (ruh) over our condition as material and temporal beings. Fasting, therefore, at once draws us into the bosom of Allah (swt) and allows us to reflect upon the high moral, social, and spiritual values that Islam sets for us. In other words, fasting focuses our attention on the broader meaning of Taqwa (a heightened consciousness of Allah) as expressed in the following verse:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الصِّيَامُ كَمَا كُتِبَ عَلَى الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِكُمْ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَتَّقُونَ
O you who believe, fasting has been prescribed upon you as it has been prescribed upon those before you so that you may learn Taqwa. (Q, 2: 183).

The Arabic of the phrase in the above verse “so that you may learn Taqwa” reads as “l’allakum tattaqun”. The term “taqwa” – in its narrower meaning – has been variously translated as fear, piety, self-restraint, and guarding against evil. However, to do justice to its meaning, and to better understand the link between the Quran as Huda (true guidance) and Taqwa as one of the most desired virtues, a more comprehensive understanding of the term is required. That understanding is dependent on our understanding of the nature of man and woman.

The Islamic perspective is that we, as people, are composed of both body and soul or matter and spirit. We are also considered to be both the vicegerents of Allah on earth and His bondsmen. As vicegerents we are commanded to perfect our earthly existence whether it be in our private, domestic, social, economic or political lives. As bondsmen of Allah we are ordered to perfect our spiritual existence. Taqwa circumscribes both these conditions. In other words, and as alluded to earlier, it means to observe our duty towards Allah in all our social and communal relations (towards Muslims and non-Muslims alike); and in our spiritual relations towards Allah Himself. This is a difficult task, and one of the means that Allah has given us to attain this level is Ramadan. But, and typical of Quranic “pragmatism”, there are no false promises. In the Arabic the emphasis is quite clearly on the phrase “l’allakum” (“so that you may” or “perhaps”). The means to Taqwa, through the great institution of fasting, have been placed at our disposal. It is up to us to use, misuse, or even ignore the means. This condition is encapsulated in the following Prophetic saying:

“For those who do not refrain from lying or acting on such lies, Allah has no need of their abandoning their food and drink” (Bukhari).

Taqwa can further be realized through three opportunities provided for us by the fast:

1. The disciplining of the will (tarbiyat ul-Iradah)
2. The purification of the self (tazkiyat un-Nafs)
3. The purification of the soul (tasfiyat ur-Ruh)

The potential of fasting as such, and Ramadan in particular, in making available these opportunities cannot be denied.

With regard to the disciplining of the will the Prophet Muhammad (Peace and salutations upon him) said:

“For everything there is a purification and the purification of the body is to fast; and fasting is half of endurance.” (Ibn Majah).

All acts of endurance are naturally a function of the strength (or otherwise) of the will. If the will is strong, endurance is strong; if weak, then endurance is weak. One of the primary aims of Sabr – as an act of will – is to bring the will of the human being in harmony with the Will of Allah. This is essential if we wish to be acknowledged as true ‘ibad (servants) of Allah.

As for purification of the self (nafs) – here understood as the egotistic self – the following Prophetic saying is a clear reference to the fact that fasting is intended as a conduit for such purification:

“If anyone of you fasts then do not speak obscenely nor act obscenely. If anyone picks a fight with him or insults him then let him say ‘I am one who fasts, I am one who fasts.’” (Bukhari and Muslim).

Here the outer manifestations of the nafs viz. that of obscene speech (rafath) and obscene behaviour (jahal), are addressed with a view to bringing under control, and hence purifying, the inner self.

The purification of the soul, on the other hand, is contingent on the extent to which it is absolved from all sin. The Prophetic saying: “Those who fast with absolute faith and absolute contentment will have all their previous sins absolved” (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Tirmdhi, Nisai), may be read as a definite promise to the effect that the absolution of one’s sins is guaranteed if the two ostensibly simple conditions of fasting with total faith and total contentment are met.

These three processes are intrinsic to the cultivation of genuine Taqwa, and few religious acts provide a greater opportunity for its cultivation than Ramadan.

Allah says at the conclusion of the verse initially quoted:

وَلِتُكْمِلُوا الْعِدَّةَ وَلِتُكَبِّرُوا اللَّهَ عَلَىٰ مَا هَدَاكُمْ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تَشْكُرُونَ
That He wants you to complete the prescribed period (of fasting) so that you are able to magnify the greatness of Allah for His having guided you, and so that – perchance – you may be thankful. (Q, 2: 185).

The greatness of Ramadan therefore lies in the opportunity it offers for the development of Taqwa – a virtue that allows us to truly participate in that great cosmic celebration in honour of the revelation of the Quran as a Huda to all people, which is, as mentioned earlier, Ramadan itself. It is a virtue furthermore, that allows us to magnify Allah  as He ought to be magnified, namely, with complete awareness of our earthly duties and spiritual vocation; and, therefore, to be of those who are truly thankful to Allah. It is a virtue too, which is ultimately celebrated in the Quran itself, for Allah says:

يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا ۚ إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
O humankind! We have created you from male and female; and fashioned you into peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another. But indeed, the most honoured amongst you (in the sight of Allah) are those who are the most righteous and God-conscious. (taqwa). (Q, 49: 13).

 


Biography

Shaykh Seraj Hasan Hendricks is an internationally recognised leading scholar of normative Sunni Islam, steeped in the rich legacy of the classical heritage, based in Cape Town, South Africa. He is Resident Shaykh of the Zawiyah Institute in Cape Town, and holder of the Maqasid Chair at the International Peace University of South Africa. Shaykh Seraj studied the Islamic sciences for more than a decade in the holy city of Makka, and was appointed as khalīfa of the aforementioned muaddith of the Ḥijāz, the distinguished al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamāʿ Makka – the (sufi) path of the Makkan scholars.

Shaykh Seraj Hendricks was a high school English teacher between 1980 and 1982 in Cape Town before leaving for Saudi Arabia in 1983 to study at the Umm al-Qura University in Makka. Before this, he spent many years studying at the feet of his illustrious uncle, the late Shaykh Mahdi Hendricks – erstwhile Life President of the Muslim Judicial Council and widely regarded as one of the foremost scholars of Islam in southern Africa. Shaykh Seraj was actively engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa during the 80’s and early 90’s.

Shaykh Seraj spent three years at the Arabic Language Institute in Makka studying Arabic and related subjects before being accepted for the BA (Hons) Islamic Law degree. He specialised in fiqh and uūl al-fiqh in the Faculty of Sharīʿa and graduated in 1992. During his studies at Umm al-Qura University, he was also a student of the late Sayyid Muhammad ʿAlawī al-Mālikī in Makka for a period of eight years and from whom he obtained a full ijāza in the religious sciences. He also obtained ijāzāt from both the late Sayyid Ahmad Mashur al-Ḥaddād and Sayyid ʿAbd al-Qādir b. Ahmad al-Saqqaf (d. 1431/2010). These scholars are all known as some of the pre-eminent ‘ulama of the ummah in the 20th century, worldwide.

After his return to Cape Town he received an MA (Cum Laude) for his dissertation: “Taawwuf (Sufism) – Its Role and Impact on the Culture of Cape Islam” from the University of South Africa (UNISA). He is currently at the tail-end of completing his PhD at the same institution.

Apart from fiqh and uūl al-fiqh, some of Shaykh Seraj’s primary interests are in Sufism, Islamic civilisation studies, interfaith matters, gender studies, socio-political issues and related ideas of pluralism and identity. He has lectured and presented papers in many countries, sharing platforms with his contemporaries.

He has translated works of Imam al-Ghazālī, and summarised parts of the Revival of the Religious Sciences (Iyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn), most notably in the Travelling Light series, together with Shaykhs ʿAbd al-Hakīm Murad and Yaḥyā Rhodus.

Some of his previous positions included being the head of the Muslim Judicial Council’s Fatwa Committee (which often led to him being described as the ‘Mufti of Cape Town’), lecturer in fiqh at the Islamic College of Southern Africa (ICOSA), and lecturer in the Study of Islam at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Currently he is a member of the Stanlib Sharīʿa Board, and chief arbitrator (akīm) of the Crescent Observer’s Society, and has been listed consecutively in the Muslim 500 from 2009 to 2018. He was also appointed Dean of the Madina Institute in South Africa, a recognised institution of higher learning in South Africa and part of the world Madina Institute seminaries led by Shaykh Dr Muhammad Ninowy. Shaykh Seraj is also a professor at the International Peace University of South Africa, holding the Maqasid Chair for Graduate Studies.

Shaykh Seraj has also been teaching a variety of Islamic-related subjects at the Zāwiyah Mosque in Cape Town, which together with his brother Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks, he is the current resident Shaykh of. Alongside his brother, he is the representative (khalīfa) of the aforementioned muaddith of the Ḥijāz, the distinguished al-Sayyid Muhammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, master of the Ṭarīqa ʿUlamāʿ Makka – the (sufi) path of the Makkan scholars.


 

Reconnecting with Our Scholars Upon the Plain of Taqwa – Dr Fareeha Khan

* Courtesy of The Sila Initiative

وَإِذَآ أَنْعَمْنَا عَلَى الإِنسَانِ أَعْرَضَ وَنَأَى بِجَانِبِهِ

وَإِذَا مَسَّهُ الشَّرُّ كَانَ يَؤُوسًا

“When We bestow Our favors unto man he turns away and becomes remote.
But when evil befalls he gives himself up to despair.” [17:8]

Among the many thousands of spiritual disciples of Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi (d. 1943), a large number of them were women, but he would only speak to them from behind a screen. That was in colonial India. In post-Ottoman Turkey, the Naqshbandi sheikh Hajji Baba (d. 1991) also took measures to be formal and conservative with his many women murids. He believed that without doing so, “even a sheikh could be expelled from the Divine Presence.”1 More contemporary to us, the Shadhili sheikh Nuh Keller will not meet with women in his zawiya in Jordan unless they don the face-veil (niqab) and other people are present nearby in the same setting. Sheikh Husain Abdul Sattar of Chicago for many years refused to take female disciples at all, and now does so but with the permission of her mahram2.

These kinds of measures are seen as commendable by certain Muslims of a traditional mindset. But for a number of Muslims in America, setting up such restrictions between male scholars of religion and female students of knowledge is seen as an act of placing barriers between women and their chance at religious advancement. In order to understand why some American Muslims would see the examples mentioned above in a negative light, I will first discuss some intellectual developments that affect the practice of Islam in America today. I will then argue that these developments constitute a shift away from the centrally important concept of taqwa, or Godfearingness. The final portion, and primary goal, of this essay, is to highlight this intellectual shift away from taqwa toward a liberal Islam as a means of explaining the current spiritual crisis facing the American Muslim community regarding its religious scholars.

The Effect of Liberalism3 on American Islam

Definitions of liberalism are debated, but it is generally acknowledged that some time in the 17th century there began to develop in Europe a system of thought that placed the individual at the center of human existence. The God-centered morality of Christianity and the Greek value of self-realization were replaced by an individualism that emphasized rights rather than duties and placed a central emphasis on freedom. As time progressed, freedom or the autonomy of the individual became the central goal of liberal society. And as liberalism developed and spread across the Western world, it became the dominant paradigm (in a sense, the basic ‘aqida) of industrialized Western society, such that the “supreme end of every individual” no longer was salvation, pleasing God, or self-improvement.4 Instead, it became freedom itself. The highest aim of human beings was now “to assert themselves in the world as the individuals they are.”5 Due to its pervasive influence, a critical study of liberalism would require a volumes-long assessment of modern civilization and its forms of thinking. For the purposes of this essay, three disparate seeming aspects of liberalism and its offshoots (e.g. feminism) will be outlined here. The reason for outlining these three in particular should be clear inshaAllah by the end of the essay.

i. Liberalism’s Belief in Progress

One of the unique aspects of the liberal tradition is that it upholds a meliorist view of man and society. That is, it affirms “the corrigibility and improvability of all social institutions and political arrangements.”6 The belief in progress and reform are an intrinsic part of the liberal worldview and inform therefore how the modern individual looks upon existing institutions, including that of religion (religion is viewed by secular liberals as a social institution, not as divinely revealed truth). What this means is that for the modern person, even long-established beliefs and practices are open to debate, since all such things are possible to improve.

ii. Woman as Victim

Another core tenet of the liberal tradition is that it affirms egalitarianism, in that “it confers on all men the same moral status and denies the relevance to legal or political order of differences in moral worth among human beings.”7 The early thinkers of classical liberalism had elite, propertied men in mind when calling for the equality of all. As Western political thought developed, more parties began calling for their own inclusion within this “all,” eventually leading to a movement for women’s rights to be established according to a liberal framework. However, because of the fact that liberalism emphasizes an intrinsic right to freedom, and because there continue to exist social institutions (like marriage and family) that are predicated on duties to others that must be fulfilled regardless of one’s conflicting inclinations, the feminist movement is caught in a predicament of forever positioning women as victims. To take the feminist call for freedom to its logical end, the entire structure of not just family but also men and women’s civic and social roles would have to be “radically altered” to achieve fully equal rights among adult members of a society. This is in fact the goal of many liberal and feminist thinkers today—a complete re-envisioning and restructuring of gender roles.8 As long as institutions like religion and marriage remain on earth, which honor and maintain the traditional roles of men and women, this goal cannot be fully achieved, and so the view of woman-as-victim remains.

iii. Islam vs. islams

As the liberal concept of equality gained ground in the intellectual, social and political realms of Western society, the concept of authority and authoritative figures suffered a major blow. With this, so did the idea of a unified, singularly authoritative religious tradition, with an agreed-upon set of values, practices and beliefs, since some authority would be needed to decide what in fact was agreed upon. Within the academic study of Islam, the idea began to circulate of the existence of multiple, coequal “islams”—all legitimate and equally compelling subjects of study.9 Any institutional or methodological claim to a true, capital-I “Islam” was seen as contrary to egalitarianism, and therefore circumspect. The Sunni conception of scholarly consensus (ijma‘), the authoritativeness of the four legal schools, or the exclusive validity of the Sunni schools of theology, began to be labeled by some Western academic scholars as constituting “Arab Islam.” The assumption of course is that there was something inherently unfair in the idea of a single, authoritative form of Islam. What formerly was considered to be authentic Islam was now ascribed to a single group (“Arabs”) among many, and every other individual Muslim’s interpretation of how to practice Islam was now seen as deserving of its rightful place in the liberal academic study of Islam.

American Islam and Its Scholars

As more and more Muslims in the post-colonial era began moving to Western nations, they naturally began to adapt to and be influenced by the liberal societies they now called home. They loved Allah and His Messenger (Allah bless him and grant him peace) but could not help but accept and internalize some of the liberal perspectives around them. Liberalism’s belief in progress, and its exasperation at the continued status of women as victims, were things colonized Muslims had already had to struggle with, since their colonizers had used these ideas to badger Muslim self-confidence during colonial rule (Did they believe in Islamic reform or not? Did they want advancement for women or not?). These questions followed Muslims to their new Western abodes, but to some degree they were not initially as painful to face as they had been during colonial days. Even in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and beyond, it was easy to find fellow Westerners who answered these questions with confidence in non-liberal ways, particularly in America where Christianity still had a strong presence. The fact that these Muslims now had some status as Westerners also helped, as the newly naturalized Muslim American could say, “Since I am now a citizen of your nation, do I not have the right to freedom of religion, to determine the answers to these questions as I please?” American converts to Islam had an even greater advantage in this regard and could confidently proffer non-liberal, Islamically-grounded answers to the questions in a way their immigrant coreligionists could not.

But following the events of September 11, 2001, Muslims felt great pressure to present themselves as “more American than apple pie,” and the propagation of a liberal face of Islam suddenly became a matter of urgency. Virtually overnight, the freedom of Muslims to just be themselves turned into a second-class kind of freedom. Yes, you could practice your religion, but only as far as you can demonstrate how your religion matches up with the liberal ideals of America. Otherwise, you were not “moderate” enough to be trusted.

So began a liberalization of traditional Islam in America, with the tacit support of a beleaguered Muslim American public. Fatwas unconditionally permitting things like usurious loans, the keeping of dogs as household pets, and the marking of the Islamic calendar via astronomical calculation began to circulate.10,11 It was now more important in the eyes of some American Muslim thinkers to eat organic than to eat halal. Many times, these “fatwas” were issued by academic scholars of Islam or by committees comprised of such scholars as well as scientists, thus furthering the liberalization process by not recognizing the need for qualified religious scholars (‘ulama) trained in the high skill of fatwa derivation. Numerous, sometimes complex, arguments derived from classical Islamic legal discourse were presented as justification, despite the fact that never in Islamic history had these rulings been applied in such ways by scholars of any of the four Sunni legal schools.

The place where the liberalization of Islam became most palpable, however, was in the arena of the participation of women in the American Muslim public sphere, and in particular in circles of religious learning and Muslim activism. Women’s access to classes and teachers was emphasized like never before, but with the stated intent of “empowerment,” not toward inculcating submission and humility before God. The presence of female scholars and spokesmen became a priority as a means of redressing an assumed normalcy of discrimination, rather than teaching due to qualification. A certain reticence toward commenting on proper decorum and dress developed—to the point that women without hijab were sometimes appointed emcees of national religious meetings—as a statement endorsing the full inclusion of women. A blatant call for the development of an “American Islam” was put out, with encouragement especially of new cultural forms that honored a newly emerging American Muslim identity. In “third spaces” that were not quite social and not quite religious, women and men began interacting freely to enjoy spiritually uplifting song and performance. In some cases, it was the women who would perform, or play musical instruments, with prominent male scholars and preachers of the American Muslim community present to show their endorsement.

The Place of Taqwa

The prominent vocabulary of this liberalization phase has consisted of words like identity, culture, tradition, lineage. Knowledge has been emphasized as well, but as a means of preserving the four concepts just mentioned. Rarely in American Muslim circles is knowledge emphasized as a means of fully and properly submitting to Allah. Rarely, if ever, is it emphasized as a means of developing taqwa, a core teaching of the Qur’an:

“Have taqwa of Allah and He will teach you.” (2:282)

“You who believe, if you have taqwa of Allah, Allah will make a Discrimination12 for you.” (8:29)

“Had the people of the cities believed and had taqwa, We would have opened up baraka on them from the heaven and the earth.” (7:96)

“Whoever has taqwa of Allah, He will make a way out for him, and provide him from where he does not reckon.” (65: 2-3)

“Whoever relies on Allah, He is enough for him. The command of Allah reaches the mark.” (65:3)

“Whoever has taqwa of Allah, Allah will make his affair easy for him. That is the command of Allah which He has sent down to you.” (65: 4-5)13

There are more verses and Prophetic traditions like this, highlighting the importance of taqwa in the life of a Muslim. Taqwa can be defined as “Godfearingness” or “awe and dread for Allah’s might and power, and fear of overstepping His limits.”14 It is in the actualization of the Muslim’s submission to God at the level of the conscience, such that he can come to a place where he finally realizes his true purpose on earth: to demonstrate his slavehood (‘ubudiyya) to Allah.

“I have not created jinn or men except to worship me (ya‘budun).” [ 51:56]

This purpose is as common to the Muslim who lives in Egypt or Pakistan as the one who lives in America; the earth belongs in totality to the One who created it. The submission (islam) required of the Muslim is manifest at all levels—through his body when he prays or fasts; through his intellect when he believes in the Truth revealed to Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace); and through his method of acquiring knowledge of what God commands, by seeking it at the feet of those who submitted to the pious scholars who came before. The fruit of all of this submission is that the submitted human being’s consciousness becomes in tune with the command of Allah in a way that he can no longer even consider doing what is displeasing to Him.

Allah the Almighty has said: Whosoever shows enmity to a friend of Mine, I shall be at war with him. My servant does not draw near to Me with anything more loved by Me than the religious duties I have imposed upon him, and my servant continues to draw near to Me with supererogatory works so that I shall love him. When I love him I am his hearing with which he hears, his seeing with which he sees, his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of Me, I would surely give it to him; and were he to ask Me for refuge, I would surely grant him it. (Bukhari)15

How exactly can we know what the religious duties mentioned in this hadith are, what the command of Allah is in any given matter, so that we can thereby aim for this high rank of friendship with Allah? That is the real purpose of seeking knowledge in Islam. And when that is the real purpose, then selecting carefully who one takes one’s deen from—knowing who is qualified to speak on the authority of God, both in terms of training and in terms of personal piety—becomes critical.16 With this purpose, even the desire to be in the company of scholars begins to revolve around one’s need to develop taqwa.

Visiting the lords of taqwa. Go to them—it heals and it is
the key of the doors of guidance and good.17

But when seeking knowledge becomes about “representation”—who can best present an amicable face of an American Muslim identity—then the criteria of religious qualification, training, and, above all, taqwa, start to fade away into the artificially bright light of liberal public relations.

The Current Problem

Liberal American Islam is apparently here to stay. American Muslims are proud of the progress they have made beyond the Old World methods of practicing Islam. The compromised nature of women’s status is no longer a question. It is a fact, needing not even to be spoken, and to help overcome the historical victimization of women, access to religious learning (and all other aspects of public life) has been increased and promoted with obvious results. No longer do we feel the need to justify a different way of practicing Islam from those who came before. We are American, after all, and have the right to assert our American Islam in the world as the unique community that we are.

The above is the view of prominent liberalizing factions among the Muslims in America. But Allah Most High has now sent us a challenging test: how will you deal with situations where those you consider to be scholars of religion fail to have taqwa? Will your solution continue to lie within a liberal paradigm, or will you turn back to Allah? The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) told us, “The believer is the mirror of his fellow believer.” A mirror is now being held up to the lack of taqwa inherent in “American Islam”: what will we as a community of believers in this country reflect back?

I do not confess to have the answer. I am not a religious scholar, a member of the ‘ulama. I am, rather, an academic scholar of Islam, trained to analyze Islam through the lens of history and the liberal critical tradition that forms the foundation of the modern Western academy. But as someone who has tried to save her soul from the liberalizing tendencies of the Academy by keeping the company of religious scholars, and by seeking knowledge and advice from them, I offer below a few reflections and recommendations that I hope will prove useful to the Muslims in America who are struggling through the current test Allah has put before us.

I was fortunate in that I grew up in a conservative, traditionally minded community within America. My exposure to religious scholars came at a young age through Qur’an classes and Sunday school lessons on the basics of fiqhtajweed and seerah. The real exposure to seeking knowledge however came in 1998 when I was able to attend an Islamic study program in Fez, Morocco, in which we Western Muslim students were taught by both local Moroccan scholars as well as scholars who themselves resided in the West. It was a life-changing experience for which I will forever be grateful, as it helped me appreciate Islam, Islamic scholarship, and Muslim saints and scholars in a way I never had before. As a female student, had I not been given access to this opportunity, I don’t know if I ever would have embarked so confidently and with such enthusiasm on the journey to study Islam.

When I began graduate study of Islam in America, I was cognizant of the fact that studying Islam in the university was not the same as studying Islam at the feet of scholars. My professors at the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan were not the same as the pious, dignified, sunnah-following ‘ulama of the Qarawiyyin in Fez. My professors knew a lot about theory and history and legal methodology, but they were not even Muslim,18 let alone able to say anything of worth about what I as a Muslim should believe or how I should practice. So to get answers on questions regarding women in Islam—the focus of much of my research—I made it a point to seek out religious scholars both at home and abroad in the Muslim world. And to my surprise, some of the most well-known and conservative or traditional male scholars offered me the same access that had been granted to me by that Western-Muslim organized program in Fez.

There was a difference, however, in how that access was granted in comparison to some of the scholars I met in America, and therefore a subtle difference in what was ultimately conveyed. When I met to discuss my work with Mufti Taqi Usmani in Karachi, he made sure when we were done to introduce me to his wife as he and my husband went off to pray in the masjid. In Damascus, the Hanafi scholar Sheikh Hassan al-Hindi gave me a lot of time, may Allah preserve him. Like Mufti Taqi, he too had me meet his wife and family, and took numerous other precautions to assure the appropriateness of our meetings, despite the fact that he is blind. The great Syrian hadith scholar Dr. Nuruddin ‘Itr introduced me to his top female student, presumably as a means for me to benefit not just from the single meeting with him but from potential long-term contact with women scholars of the deen. In Abu Dhabi, the Yemeni scholar Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri made sure to have an excellent, academically-informed translator present during our meeting, in case I would have any trouble conveying my own ideas or grasping his. He too made sure to connect me with a female member of his family—his sister, a woman of religious accomplishment—which I interpret to be an act of propriety as well as a mode of encouragement to me as a female student in my pursuit of sacred knowledge.

Such precautions and markers of propriety served to grant me access, while making clear that the intellectual exchange was purely for the sake of Allah, upon the grounds of taqwa, not for the appeasement of some liberal ideal of equal opportunity. On the other hand, though meeting with Muslim scholars in America was generally within the bounds of propriety (alhamdulillah), there were times when I faced awkward circumstances. On one occasion, I was given an appointment to meet with a scholar at the institution where he teaches. I waited for my appointment as he finished a class with two men, but then they left, and I ended up in a meeting with this scholar alone on a large premises with no one else around. The same thing happened at another institution, with a well-known religious scholar of a different educational lineage. I showed up to the meeting assuming the bustle of students and classes, or at least the presence of staff. But I again found myself alone with a male scholar, and though technically someone could have easily walked in,19 as a woman and as a student of knowledge who knows better, both these meetings made me highly uncomfortable. On another occasion, I was given permission to meet a renowned scholar at his residence. Having learned my lesson from previous experiences, I took a companion with me. Had I not done so, I found that for a good part of that meeting too I would have been alone with him.

Aside from what happened at these meetings, other cues have been given to me by American Muslim scholars regarding the need to relax the traditional boundaries between men and women. As a young woman at an Islamic study program, I wore the face-veil for a couple of days, imitating what I saw to be the good practice of one of the British students there. But one of the main teachers of the program discouraged me from wearing it, citing no valid religious justification for his discouragement. On another occasion, a well-known Muslim scholar deliberately initiated a handshake with a random non-Muslim woman passing out pamphlets on the street. Since the woman was barely paying attention to our presence, the only reason I could discern for why he had done that was to demonstrate to me (the only other person around) that this is what the face of American Islam should look like.

I relay these stories with some shame and quite a bit of hesitation, because though I do not ascribe any sinister motive to any of the people mentioned, and in fact respect all of them for the good work they have done and continue to do, I do believe there was something wrong done at each of these occasions. Having gone through these experiences myself, I can relate to the claim that women in such situations cannot be judged harshly, because the power differential in place (he being a respected scholar, I being a mere student) compromises the woman’s ability to speak out.

But by using this as a reason to demonize male scholars and deem women as perpetual victims who cannot be held accountable is taking a page out of the liberal, feminist rule book. Instead, we must remind ourselves that, despite the social structures in place that try each of the genders in different ways, we will all have to answer to Allah for our own contribution to any given life situation. I know that the women scholars with whom I have studied and spent time, whether from the Levant, Pakistan or elsewhere, have taqwa so engrained into their practice of Islam that they would have left the former situations as soon as they saw something to be off. They would have left, or not have allowed themselves to be caught in such a situation in the first place. And in the latter types of situations, they would have spoken out. When I told one of my teachers about the handshaking incident, she looked at me incredulously and exclaimed, “Why didn’t you say something?”

I could have said something. In both types of incidents, I could have taken a stand. I could have said, “I’m sorry but I didn’t realize there would be no one else here. Can we reschedule this meeting?” I could have said, “I have to say, that was wrong to shake that woman’s hand, and it made me uncomfortable seeing it.” It is my own weakness of resolve and taqwa that I did not do these things. Both actions would have been difficult for me to do, but not nearly impossible. To call out the handshaking incident would have been especially hard though, because the liberal concept of “live and let live” does not match up well with the Islamic obligation of enjoining the good and forbidding the wrong. It would also have been hard because within American Muslim circles, so much rhetoric had already gone into questioning the laws of Islam on this matter that even an observant Muslim woman like me who knows it is wrong to touch unrelated men would be confused as to whether it would be right for me to say anything at all.

Though I am a human being accountable before Allah, and I was as obliged to do the right thing as the men mentioned in the incidents above, as a Muslim woman it would have been much easier for me to stand up for the truth had there already existed a robust culture of taqwa within Muslim communities in America. Wasn’t it this same culture of taqwa that allowed the knowledgeable woman to question the noble Companion ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with them) when she saw he was advocating something not in line with the teachings of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace)?20 Why do we read feminism and individual rights into such situations, when we know that the Companions, both men and women, have their high rank because of their single-eyed focus on gaining the pleasure of Allah, even to the detriment of their own selves?

Having such a culture of taqwa engrained into the practice of Islam in America would help the male scholars do right just as it would help women. There are, in fact, many ‘ulama in America who do take measures of taqwa when teaching and interacting with their female students. As a graduate student, when I was going through a text of Islamic legal rulings (fiqh) with a local scholar, we would always meet in the masjid right in the center of the men’s prayer hall after Maghrib salah, sometimes with my husband present. A friend of mine relates how careful her teacher was when training her in the science of Qur’anic recitation (tajwid). Not only did he teach from behind a curtain, he also avoided communicating with his female students on the phone (preferring written communication outside of class) in order to prevent the growth of familiarity and casualness in the student-teacher relationship. What is unfortunate, however, is that these measures do not match up with the current religious atmosphere in America. The ‘ulama are labeled as unaccommodating or extremist if they ask for such protective measures to be taken. We have to realize though that if such taqwa-centered practices are normalized, and are instituted from a place of wanting to please Allah, then everyone in the community will feel more confident to act according to the laws of God and to stand up for these laws when they are being violated.

The point is, our community and interpersonal affairs must be handled through taqwa, not through the lens of liberal thought that supposedly empowers the ever-victimized woman to live according to a more progressive paradigm. What does a liberal American Islam have to say about the former above-mentioned incidents of seclusion, except “it’s all fine as long as women are being empowered, everyone’s consenting, and nothing bad happens”? Why not pay more attention to the Lord of men and women, who laid down the rules of taqwa to help ward away evil before it comes?

“Do not even approach zina (sexual unlawfulness), for it is an indecent thing and an evil way.”
(Quran 17:32)

The possibility of zina is always present and is the reason why the scholars of the Muslim world whom I met took the precautions they did. No human being, in the East or West, is safe from the devising of Satan or the inclinations of his lower self (nafs). But in a place like America, we do not have the unwritten rules of a Shariah-infused culture to help guide our everyday interactions, as is the case still in many Muslims lands. The fact that we do not have cultural understandings and social structures that encourage taqwa should make us as American Muslims eager to be more cautious, not less. The unfortunate reality however is that the sense of superiority and self-sufficiency that is unique to America results in an exceptionalism that is useful for the liberalization project. Through it, Muslim Americans are emboldened to rewrite the rules of decorum in even “Islamic” and “traditional” spaces in a manner unprecedented.

Now that some breaches of conduct have happened, instead of deriving solutions to the problem from the Shariah, some Muslims are continuing to apply the same liberal standard of ethics that got us to the ugly place where we now stand. There is a call to action, particularly on social media, with every man and woman speaking his individual mind. But taqwa there is almost non-existent, with little regard for the Divine commands related to backbiting, slander, rules of evidence, etc.

As for more formal action, meetings are being organized, conferences held, and policies drawn up, that aim to prevent sexual violations between male scholars and their female students and co-workers. But the language being employed indicates not a concern to make tawba from the community’s collective turning away from the Rule of God, nor even reminders to individual believers that we must all one day face Allah. The language of these more formal initiatives is deeply liberal, assuming: that hierarchical relationships are intrinsically problematic; a tendency in men to abuse power; the victim status of women regardless of their actions and intentions; and a program of reform that further promotes a fractured, distrustful, and ultimately incoherent view of Islamic social and communal relationships.

A Call Toward Reorientation

How fortunate we would be as a community if we called each other to “enjoin the good and forbid the evil” according to a comprehensive plan to abide by the command of Allah, one that calls for a reassessment of: the changes that have come about in American Muslim religious spaces; the changing dynamic of family and marriage among American Muslims; the particular pressures that high-profile scholars and their families face; the unique religious challenges to proper decorum posed by the now widespread use of social media; and the need to increase access to the religious education of all members of the American Muslim community while still upholding the dictates of the Sacred Law.

Centering the discourse on taqwa rather than on the liberally defined rights of “socially disempowered” individuals does not mean that women will be excluded from circles of learning. The Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) himself set aside a day just for women at their request, “admonishing them and enjoining them” (Bukhari). The Prophet’s wife ‘Aisha (Allah be pleased with her) is cited as having personally taught the 2,210 hadith she related from him (Allah bless him and grant him peace) to 17 women and 156 men, “with a throng besides those”21 that hadith scholars were unable to list. The teaching of women must continue. As a community, however, we should purify our intention to make such opportunities open to women out of a desire to help them succeed on their path to Allah, not out of conscious or subconscious imitation of the liberal model of representation and empowerment.

Similarly, we should for sure hold those in positions of power and influence to greater accountability, as can be seen in the examples of the Messenger of God (Allah bless him and grant him peace) and his blessed Companions, who only placed those most fearful of Allah in positions of influence. What I argue is that our impetus for holding influential men accountable should be the same desire to please Allah and preserve the deen that the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) and his Companions had. We should not be holding them accountable due to the inherent distrust of men that results from liberalism, which only encourages individualism and fails to connect human beings to each other in any kind of wholesome manner.

Along with robust discussion on how taqwa can be increased and compliance to the Shariah improved on a community-wide level, the men who are religious scholars and teaching in our communities should call themselves to account and check their own intentions before Allah.22 Even though his contemporaries taught women, the Shafi‘i scholar ‘Abd al Wakil al-Durubi (d. 1993) refused to do so, saying, “Were she Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya, and I Hasan al-Basri, I wouldn’t teach her the ABC’s.”23 As a community, we should respect such positions, and laud the types of measures taken by the scholars mentioned at the very start of this essay, instead of lambasting them for being unfair and accusing them of being unconcerned for the advancement of women, even as we construct opportunities for learning that are in line with what is pleasing to Allah.

Our goal as a community when trying to return to a condition of taqwa, particularly in our religious institutions and gatherings, must be to do so with the wisdom and balance of what the Shariah calls for. We can only do this with confidence as Muslims in America, however, when we believe in the truth and efficacy of the sacred laws of God. A good friend of mine demonstrated this confidence at her workplace, where she is part of the administration of a public school. It was the height of the Me Too movement (the same time as when our own Muslim American fitna began). She approached the male principal of the school and stated, “Michael24, you need to not meet with teachers in private behind closed doors anymore, unless the room has windows.” She went on to explain to both the principal and other staff that this was for the protection of both him and the female teachers of the school. Michael readily agreed, and so did the rest of the administration. When done with wisdom and confidence, even non-Muslims can appreciate the social benefit that results from putting the Shariah in place.

When I advocate a return to a taqwa-centered approach to Islamic practice in America, I am not endorsing any particular practice or regimen. “Al-taqwa ha-huna,” “Godfearingness lies right here,” said the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace), pointing to his chest three times, indicating that real consciousness of God lies in one’s heart, at the core of one’s being. Wearing the face-veil, for instance, may be appropriate and called for in Muslim lands, but numerous ‘ulama of high standing have discouraged the practice in America because they see the possibility of greater harm being done than good. This is a Shariah-based calculation though, not something based on whim or liberal calls to freedom of expression, and so such an ijtihad25 within the practice of American Muslims may very well come from a place of taqwa.

At the same time, we must remember how fortunate we are as Muslims, as a people of God whose religion has been divinely preserved till the end of time, that the main teachings of our religion are clear and agreed upon, with no room or need for legal deliberation (ijtihad). This broad consensus on the teachings of Islam had struck me even as a young woman: the piety and practice I saw among the religious scholars of Fez was the same as what I experienced when I later married into a religious family from Pakistan. If the practices that mark pious comportment in the Muslim world seem foreign to some of us, this is only because we have allowed American exceptionalism to color the way we view our own practice of Islam.  It is up to us to reject such an exceptionalist view of Islam in America. As American Muslims, we have access to the same beliefs and practices that have always beautified the lived practice of Islam, and many Godfearing families here in America continue to abide by the rules of decorum that a state of taqwa entails.

Finally, if we as American Muslims are to take any lesson from liberalism, let it be the emphasis on you as an individual in its ultimate sense. Those who believe know that each of us will stand alone as individuals before Allah on the Last Day, and so carry themselves accordingly. The Shadhili Sheikh al-Kurdi (d. 1972) had told his disciples in Jordan, “If you see me step outside the masjid with my right foot first,26 cease to follow me.” His example is used by Sheikh Nuh Keller to convey the same idea to his own disciples: do not succumb to following a “sheikh” if you find that he does not follow the Shariah and the sunnah of the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace). These words indicate not just the humility before Allah of these men, but the fact that the onus is on us as individuals. It is up to us, once we profess belief in Him, to obey the command of Allah, whether we are women or men. On the private level, each one of us is responsible to uphold the laws of God as best as we are able.

As for the public sphere, what measures are required to bring the American Muslim community back to a taqwa-based equilibrium with respect to Islamic practice is not for me or any one person to decide. It will take consultation and honest discussion between the religious scholars and the men and women of our community, as has already begun to some extent. What I wish to emphasize, however, is that this discussion must include the ‘ulama in their roles as teachers who guide us on how to truly submit to Allah, and not simply use them as tokens of legitimization of the liberalization process.  If we wish to take a God-centered approach to the problem, we cannot take the liberal stance of excluding and deeming suspicious the scholars who hold fast to the authoritative positions and perspectives of Islam. It had been the responsibility of the ‘ulama to guide the community toward taqwa in open and in secret. When they failed to do this, and the community went along with the liberalization of Islamic practice in America, Allah removed His protective cover from over this community, and the sins of a few became the spiritual crisis of many. It is now up to the Muslim Americans who have been active or complaisant supporters of this liberalization to make tawba,27 whether they are scholars or lay women and men, for we all bear responsibility before Allah in this regard. Turning back to Him with sincerity will, inshaAllah, be the key to us gaining His Help, as well as our ultimate salvation.

That is His right over us, to turn back to Allah and to adopt taqwa at both the private and the public level. As the Messenger of God (Allah bless him and grant him peace) told us, it is also the only real means of success and protection for the Muslims of America:

Be mindful of Allah, and Allah will protect you. Be mindful of Allah, and you will find him in front of you. If you ask, ask Allah. If you seek help, seek help of Allah. Know that if the Nation were to gather together to benefit you with anything, it would benefit you only with something that Allah had already prescribed for you, and that if they gather together to harm you with anything, they would harm you only with something Allah had already prescribed for you. The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried.28


Notes:

As quoted in Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, Sea Without Shore: A Manual of the Sufi Path. Amman: Sunna Books, 2011, p. 102.

i.e. close male relative

To critique liberalism is not the same as taking a politically right-wing stance, as some in America who are unfamiliar with the broader history of classical liberalism may assume. This paper is essentially arguing for an Islamic counter-perspective.

Gray, John, Liberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995, p. 9-11.

ibid., p. 11.

ibid., p. xii.

ibid.

Okin, Susan Moller, Women in Western Political Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979, p. 278-281.

By the time the eminent anthropologist Talal Asad critically engages with the concept of “islams” in his 1987 paper, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” it had already been around at least for some decades, if not from the turn of the century in the works of Orientalists like Snouck Hurgronje (d. 1936). Reprinted: Asad, Talal, “The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam,” Qui Parle, vol. 17, no. 2 (2009), p. 1-30.

10 Despite the difference of opinion regarding the ritual impurity (najasa) of dogs, Maliki scholars hold it to be either disliked or impermissible to keep a dog at home without reasonable need.

11 In the late Shafi‘i school, al-Ramli (d. 1004/1596) held that a person with knowledge of astronomy could follow calculations instead of sighting the moon, and those who trust him can do so as well, but it is not on the basis of his opinion, nor on the conditions specified by the Shafi`i school, that the calculation position had been adopted in North America. In fact, Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Shah, executive director of the Fiqh Council of North America, states explicitly in a 2018 article that the calculations position on moonsighting was adopted in North America with the intent of carving out a new legal position and methodology that would “make Islam germane” to modern realities, showing no awareness or need of the Shafi‘i position in his defense of the calculations position. This confirms my assertion that the North American position was adopted from a stance of liberalization that honors progressive innovation and the interpretive right of American Islam (as per the specific aspects of liberalism that I outline at the start of my essay), and not according to the legal methodology of the Sunni Islamic tradition: “The Muslims in the West are living different realities than their brethrens in the Muslim majority contexts. Their hermeneutical instincts are expected to be at variance with their fellow Muslims in the Muslim world because of the circumstantial disparity. The Muslim jurists of the West also have leverage over their counterparts in the Muslim world. They can dare to think out of the box and withstand the popular pressure. I am confident that they will rise above the tide of criticism, stand their grounds and continue their principled stand. The employment of astronomical calculations is a new phenomenon and a new debate. Gradually it will become a norm like the calculated prayer schedules with more education, awareness and passage of time.” Zulfiqar Ali Shah, An Analysis of Moon Sighting Arguments, June 22, 2018, http://fiqhcouncil.org/an-analysis-of-moon-sighting-arguments/ Last accessed: December 11, 2019.  See also: See: Hamza Yusuf, “Caesarean Moon Births,” 2006; Sohail Hanif, “Why Can’t We Unite? A Brief Overview of Moon-Sighting Wars (And How to Avoid Them),” https://seekersguidance.org/articles/social-issues/moon-sighting-wars/ Last accessed: December 5, 2019; and Waleed S. Ahmed, “Crescent Chronicles: A Brief History of Moonsighting in America,” https://muslimmatters.org/2014/07/26/crescent-chronicles-a-brief-history-of-moonsighting-in-north-america/ Last accessed: December 11, 2019.

12 Discrimination through which you can discern Right from Wrong.

13 The translations of these Quranic verses have been taken from ad-Darqawi, Mawlay al-Arabi, The Darqawi Way: The Letters of Shaykh Mawlay al-‘Arabi ad-Darqawi, trans. Aisha Bewley. Cambridge: Diwan Press, 1979, p. 139 and 311.

14 Keller, Sea Without Shore, 417.

15 al-Nawawi, Yahya b. Sharaf al-Din, An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, trans. Ezzeddin Ibrahim and Denys Johnson-Davies. Beirut: The Holy Koran Publishing House, 1976, p. 118.

16 The relationship between worship, taqwa and seeking sacred knowledge is beautifully summed up in a letter by the Naqshbandi sheikh Khwaja Nasir al-Din ‘Ubaydullah Ahrar (d. 1490 CE) to his disciple Mawlana Muhammad Qadi: “The true essence of worship is humble veneration, supplication, and contrition. These qualities arise in the heart through the contemplation of God’s glorious majesty. The achievement of such bliss depends on love. Love becomes manifest through obedience to the Prophet and Master of all ages. We therefore need to know how to obey. Thus it becomes necessary to pay attention to those scholars who are the heirs  to true religious knowledge. As for those who abuse their learning, making it a means to worldly gain or an instrument of fame and fortune, they must be avoided. One should not mix with dervishes who indulge in music and dancing and who do not hesitate to buy and sell all kinds of things. One’s ears must be deaf to heretical doctrines. One must study to acquire true wisdom, in conformity with the practice of the Prophet. May you be blessed with peace.” From Safi, Mawlana ‘Ali b. Husain, Rashahat-i ‘Ayn al-Hayat, as cited in, Shushud, Hasan Lutfi, Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2014, p. 119.

17 Poetic verse of Sheikh Ibrahim al-Taza, as quoted in ad-Darqawi, The Darqawi Way, p. 118

18 Save one! May Allah bless him with the khayr.

19 Islamic sacred law prohibits khalwa or unlawful seclusion between an unrelated man and woman. Technically in the Shariah, a situation where two people are meeting in a public place, where others are expected to easily walk in and out, does not constitute khalwa.

20 See the commentary for Qur’an verse 4:20, for example in al-Qurtubi, Muhammad b. Ahmad, al-Jami` li ahkam al-Qur’an. Cairo: Dar al-Shu`b, n.d. vol. 3, p. 1669.

21 Quoted from Imam Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi’s Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala in Keller, Sea Without Shore, p. 101.

22 Sheikh ‘Abdullah ibn Ahmad al-Zubaydi asked Imam al-Haddad about the following hadith: “There is a valley in Hell against which Hell itself cries out seventy times a day for protection; it has been prepared by God the Exalted for those scholars of this community who are hypocrites.” Imam al-Haddad responded by saying that the ‘ulama being referred to here were either a) actual hypocrites with no faith in their hearts or b) people of faith who became “so overcome by their love for social eminence and high status that they ostentatiously display their devotion and knowledge to achieve them.” al-Haddad, Imam, The Sublime Treasures: Answers to Sufi Questions, trans. Mostafa al-Badawi, Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2008, p. 38.

23 Keller, Sea Without Shore, p. 101.

24 Name has been changed.

25 i.e., a legal position based on reasoning and contemporary circumstance

26 The practice of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) was to enter the mosque with his right foot and to exit with his left. It is not required for Muslims to do the same, but it is highly commendable to imitate the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) in all of his states and actions to the best of one’s ability.

27 i.e., turn to Allah in sincere repentance

28 Hadith related in al-Tirmidhi. Translation adapted from al-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith, trans. Ezzeddin Ibrahim and Denys Johnson-Davies.

 


About Dr. Fareeha Khan

Born and raised in Chicago, Fareeha holds an M.A. from the University of Chicago in Middle Eastern Studies and a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from the University of Michigan. Fareeha studied under Dr. Sherman Abdul Hakim Jackson at Michigan, and her main academic research interests include Islamic law, women, and application and interpretation of the Islamic tradition in the modern period. She is an affiliated scholar at Willamette University (where she has also served as assistant professor), and is an Advisory Editor for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Islamic Law. Fareeha has been blessed to be able to study with Islamic religious scholars as well. Some of her teachers include: Sheikh Nuh Keller, Umm Sahl, Sheikh Faraz Rabbani, and Sheikh Ashraf Muneeb. She lives with her husband Ibrahim Mansoor in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where she continues to write and study privately and online. She also serves on the Sila Executive Board.


The Sila Initiative was founded to address the concerns of Muslim women in regards to their relationships with their families, society, and Islam. The Initiative is grounded in the work of contemporary ‘ulama, who are the inheritors of a rich tradition of Islamic scholarship. Through emphasizing the need for knowing and loving Allah, we hope our research and educational efforts will bring much needed balance to contemporary discussions on women and men in Islam and encourage Muslims to strengthen their relationship with Allah Most High.


 

ADAB 12: The Proprieties of Ramadan

Ustadh Tabraze Azam gives a detailed account of the adab or the proprieties of Ramadan.

The fast is mine, and I shall recompense for it” (Bukhari). This is what Allah Mighty and Majestic instructed the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, to inform his community (umma). The centrality of Ramadan and the fast is not lost on any of us. Allah Most High says, “Fasting is prescribed for you—as it was for those before you—so perhaps you will become mindful of Allah” (Sura al-Baqara 2:183). A month of seemingly endless mercies, blessings and spiritual joy which returns, by Divine grace, year after year to stir up the believers into performing works of everlasting consequence. The secret to a successful Ramadan is in recognizing that, whilst the blessed month comes and goes, the one who makes it come and go is the All-Generous, Ever-Present. The point of Ramadan is to reorient our lives to Allah Most High. This is what we see in the prophetic example, and this is what we aspire to. 

1. Sowing the Seeds & Preparation

Genuine and sincere longing for the blessed month entails preparation, namely, some time to sow the seeds, and then to harvest when the noble guest of Ramadan arrives. The proprieties of true preparation include repentance and seeking forgiveness for wrongs, returning any rights owed to their respective owners, reconciling relationships after having wronged people, refraining from sin, planning ahead to ensure that you will have time to reap your harvest, and making lofty intentions. 

On the evening following the twenty-ninth day, it is recommended to seek out the new crescent. If it is seen, the recommendation is to supplicate with the words, “O Allah, make it rise over us with safety and faith, and security and submission. My [Lord] and your Lord is Allah (allahumma ahillahu ‘alayna bi’l yumni wa’l iman wa’s salamati wa’l islam rabbi wa rabbuk Allah)” (Tirmidhi). If the sky is overcast, the thirtieth of Sha‘ban is termed the Day of Doubt (yawm al-shakk). Fasting a voluntary fast on this day is recommended, but not necessary, nor disliked, as long as your intention is unequivocally clear. 

2. Recommended Sunnas of the Fast

From amongst the recommended sunnas is to partake in a pre-dawn meal (sahur). The Noble Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Partake in the pre-dawn meal, for indeed, it has blessing [in it].” (Bukhari) Of course, it isn’t necessary to actually have an entire meal, rather a sip of water or a single date also fulfils the sunna. The proper time for this extends from just after the halfway point of the islamic night right up until dawn. Delaying it until just before dawn is also recommended. 

When breaking the fast, the sunna is to hasten it. The Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Allah Mighty and Majestic said, ‘The most beloved of My servants to Me are those who are quickest to break their fast.’” (Tirmidhi) An excessive or undue delay would be to avoid breaking the fast until the stars become manifest in the sky, which, incidentally, is the entry of the disliked time for the sunset (maghrib) prayer. Moreover, the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, would regularly break his fast with fresh dates (rutab) or normal dates (tamr), and in their absence, water. (Abu Dawud) But failing that, anything sweet would also suffice, such as various types of fruit. Needless to say that facilitating the means for others to break their fast is also something tremendous in the sunna. 

From the greatest of times for supplication is actually any point during the fasting day, but particularly at day’s end. The Noble Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, would supplicate with the words, “The thirst is gone, the veins have been moistened and the reward is assured, if Allah wills (dhahaba al-zama’ wa ‘btallati ‘l-‘uruq wa thabata al-ajr in sha Allah).” (Abu Dawud) Lastly, and most importantly, the greatest sunna of them all is to fast spiritually by abstaining from all that is displeasing to Allah Most High. The warnings of doing otherwise are plain in the prophetic sunna, “… Allah has no need for him to leave his food and drink.” (Bukhari)

3. Generosity & Charity

Our Master ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas reported that the Supreme Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, was “the most generous of people,” and in the month of Ramadan, he was more generous than “an encompassing, swiftly flowing breeze.” (Muslim) Generosity can be in knowledge, service, charity, assistance or otherwise. 

From the wisdoms of the month of Ramadan is that we get to appreciate what those of somewhat lesser means experience much more regularly. With our bellies starved of nourishment, our souls weaken and are humbled before our Lord, and what better way to increase in manifest good in such a state than to pull something out of our pockets to give in the way of Allah Most High.

The lawgiver encourages us to give by stipulating a mandatory requirement of charity. Specifically, this is to pay the end of Ramadan charity (sadaqat al-fitr) whereby we strive to lend a hand on the day of ‘Eid to the poor and needy so that they can be as joyous as others. The amount due is the local monetary value of approximately two kilograms of wheat, but each believer may pay beyond that whatever he likes. In order to meet needs, it is preferable to pay it early enough so that it may reach the poor in good time. There’s also nothing wrong with pooling funds together to give a larger amount to a needy person or family. 

4. The Secret of Taqwa

The secret of benefiting from this month is in upholding the spiritual dimensions of the fast. What this means is that you protect your mouth from engaging in lying, slander and the like, your eyes from impermissible gazes, your ears from hearing the unlawful, and the rest of your limbs from succumbing to the self’s weakness in this sensitive time. The Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, encouraged us to be steadfast when he explained that you should say, “I’m fasting,” (Muslim) to the one provoking you to the unbecoming. He also informed us, Allah bless him and give him peace, “How many a fasting person gets nothing from his fast except hunger.” (Ibn Majah)

As well as being vigilant not to break one’s greater fast, one should strive to avoid making up for lost food in the evenings! Many scholars have expressed the harm and undoing of any spiritual gain which comes about by indulging after sunset. Being a little less nourished is sought, and acting in a manner contrary to that vitiates the very experience one is supposed to have in the blessed month. Similarly, one should be avid with time. Disengage from social media and other forms of gratificatory engagement so that you have time for Allah Most High. Keeping up one’s warm family ties (silat al-rahim) is always encouraged, but strive to decrease in unneeded commentary and entertainment. 

5. Recitation of the Qur’an

Allah Most High says, “Ramadan is the month in which the Quran was revealed as a guide for humanity with clear proofs of guidance and the standard to distinguish between right and wrong.” (Sura al-Baqara 2:185) This is the month of reconnecting to the Qur’an, engrossing oneself in its recitation and meanings, and changing one’s life for the better by its blessings. The Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, used to mutually recite and review the Qur’an with our Master, the Archangel Jibril, may Allah give him peace, in this month, and notably, twice in the year he left this world. (Bukhari) The same, incidentally, occurred in his final spiritual retreat where he performed it for twenty days, teaching us, once again, that works of devotion should increase, as the days of our life pass by, and not decrease. 

The Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Recite the Qur’an in every month.” (Bukhari) The best of times you can fulfil this sunna is in this blessed month. If difficult, you can also combine your recitation of the Qur’an with listening sessions where you can focus instead on the meanings of what is being recited. Optimally, you would use the month of Ramadan to understand the actual message of the Qur’an, and how to apply it in your life. There are a handful of useful works in English which may help with this, but the best situation is being able to read a reliable work of exegesis (tafsir), ideally with a teacher. 

6. Night Prayer

The Beloved Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, informed us that, “Whosoever stands [in prayer] in the month of Ramadan, out of faith and sincerity, his past sins will be forgiven.” (Bukhari

The night prayer (qiyam al-layl) of Ramadan is tarawih. These twenty cycles (rak‘as) were originally prayed by the Beloved Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, only later to be institutionalised by the Companions (sahaba). All four canonical schools of Islamic Law hold that the tarawih prayer is twenty cycles, and that they are to be prayed after the nightfall (‘isha) prayer. Praying less doesn’t fulfil the sunna fully, but it is superior to not praying at all, particularly in the presence of a genuine excuse. Ideally, these cycles should take place at the mosque because of the special benefits found therein, but praying individually also minimally fulfils the sunna. 

The Lady ‘A’isha, may Allah be well-pleased with her, transmitted to us that Allah’s messenger, Allah bless him and give him peace, used to pray eight cycles of night vigil (tahajjud) both inside and outside of Ramadan. (Bukhari) The takeaway is that the month of Ramadan is about struggle, increase and striving, and not simply using the expected works of devotion as replacements for existing routines of worship. But whatever you can do with sincerity is better than nothing at all, and if one does so, one can be hopeful of attaining unto an enormous windfall from an All-Generous Lord. 

7. The Spiritual Retreat (i‘tikaf)

One of the dearest of the sunnas of the month of Ramadan is the spiritual retreat (i‘tikaf). Our Master Abu Huraira, may Allah be well-pleased with him, reported that the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, used to perform the ten-day retreat every single year. (Bukhari) The jurists explain that it is a communally emphasised sunna (sunna mu’akkada kifaya) to perform retreat, that is to say, the duty is fulfilled if somebody in the community performs the retreat at the local mosque, yet all have committed something blameworthy if entirely omitted without excuse. 

The retreat entails spending approximately the last ten days and nights in the mosque, worshipping Allah Most High, intending to rise to angelic levels of obedience and devotion, entirely detached from the world and worldliness altogether. The one in the retreat would eat, drink and sleep in the mosque, leaving only for something essential such as to perform the ritual ablution (wudu) and to use the bathroom. Merely being in the mosque and waiting from prayer to prayer, engrossed in learning, remembrance and sincere adoration of the Divine can be a life-changing experience.  

If there is a dignified and safe space in the mosque for women, it would be permitted for them to also perform the retreat in the mosque if there is some otherwise unattainable benefit to be found therein. But the Sacred Law (shari‘a) has also permitted them to perform the retreat at home, and it is usually superior for them to do so, all else being equal, something which men are not permitted to do. 

8. The Night of Power (laylat al-qadr)

Allah Most High says, “The Night of Glory is better than a thousand months.” (Sura al-Qadr 97:3) 

There are many different narrations and positions amongst the scholars of Islam regarding when the Night of Power actually occurs. But many scholars are inclined towards the odd nights of the last ten days of Ramadan. Needless to say that this is also one of the wisdoms for being in a spiritual retreat in the last days of Ramadan! Incidentally, in the nights which may possibly be this special occasion, it is recommended to bathe, cleanse oneself and adorn oneself with perfume and good clothing. But with that, the scholars explain, outward purity is meaningless if unaccompanied with inward purity, namely, deep repentance. 

The Beloved Prophet of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, would strive in Ramadan in a manner greater than other months, and in the last ten days in a manner unlike the others. (Muslim) The Lady ‘A’isha, may Allah be well-pleased with her, said that when the last ten days of Ramadan arrived, the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and give him peace, “would worship in the night, awaken his family, strive and really dedicate himself to working [righteous deeds].” (Bukhari

She also reported, may Allah be well-pleased with her, that she asked the Noble Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, “If I know which night the Night of Power is, what should I supplicate in it? He said, ‘Say: O Allah, You are Pardoning and you love pardon, so pardon me (allahumma innaka ‘afuwwun tuhibbu ‘l-‘afwa fa‘fu ‘anni).’” (Tirmidhi

9. Keeping up the Forward Impetus

The early Muslims (salaf) would supplicate for up to six months after the ending of Ramadan, asking Allah Most High to accept their works. A meaningful Ramadan is a month in which routines of consistent devotion are established, godfearingness (taqwa) settles in the heart and a desire to please Allah Most High covers one’s states and works. Finally, the Beloved Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, said, “Whosoever fasts [the month of] Ramadan and follows it up with six [fasts] of Shawwal, it is as if he has fasted the entire year.” (Muslim)

We ask Allah Most High to grant us the ability to become people of deep faith, certitude and godfearingness, solely for His sake, increasing in each and every moment to higher states of Divine Good Pleasure. 

 

And Allah alone gives success.


 

All That Remained – Navigating Dementia With Faith

A student observes his grandmother dealing with dementia, and discovers the one thing that remains with her as her memory slowly fades.

Dementia is a heartbreaking illness. It impairs a person’s ability to think, changes their personality, and can cause them to forget their most beloved ones. In times of hardship, when all else is stripped away, true character shines through. Some conditions, like personality changes, are not the person’s fault. But Allah is never far, and He manifests His mercy in amazing ways.

In the early 60s a pious woman, married a simple bus driver in Pakistan. Three weeks later, she relocated to the United Kingdom, where she is now the matriarch of over 30 children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Now in her eighties and despite her age and her deteriorating health, she remains steadfast in her prayers and fasting, seems to constantly be in a state of Dhikr, and is often reading the Qur’an. She is always present for family events, whether they be weddings, funerals, mawlids or casual get-togethers.

For decades she would cook and serve food to the entire family, always offering to serve others. Her food was not just tasty, but had a lot of love and baraka in it.

But dementia has taken its toll on her life, and she is unable to do many of the things she once enjoyed. She recently asked one of her daughters, my aunt, “How many children do I have?” and on another occasion, “How many children do you have?” In addition, I once overheard my uncle say that it’s difficult to plan trips and outings, because she will forget about it when it’s time to go.

When dementia strips a personality down to the bare bones, it reveals what lies underneath. The night before my brother’s wedding, she came to stay at our house, and Allah showed me her rank. I was reading from Sura al-Baqara, the longest chapter of the Qur’an, while she was lying down alongside me. She seemed to be dozing, oblivious to what I was doing. Suddenly, she shouted out and grabbed me on the arm.

At first, I was confused as to what she was doing until I rechecked the verse and discovered that I had mispronounced one of the letters. I reread the word correctly and she nodded and allowed me to continue. I thought it was a coincidence, or that maybe I had been reading a verse that she knew well. But a few minutes later, she woke up again when I’d made another mistake, and she corrected me again in the same way. She corrected me in the same manner that Shaykh Ibrahim Osi-Efa corrects those who slip up while reciting a mawlid.

She has not memorized the Qur’an, nor is she a scholar of tajwid. Yet somehow, she sensed my mistake and been able to correct me. I always knew that she had a love for the Qur’an. It amazed me how Allah had beautifully preserved her memory for His Book, even as the memories of her own children faded.

My grandmother is now entering into the final chapters of her life. We pray that Allah grants her a good end and a felicitous entry into Paradise, by His Grace.

By Zaid Malik


This piece was written by a SeekersHub student. Looking to inspire? Consider writing for our Compass Blog! We are looking for individuals willing to submit feature pieces for publication. Share your stories with us. Contact [email protected] with your pitch and inspire and motivate hundreds – if not thousands – of others.


How Do I Get Closer to Allah After a Very Sinful Lifestyle?

Answered by Ustadha Raidah Shah Idil

Question: Assalam aleykum,

I am a young woman born to Muslim parents. I have sinned in the past due to my very Western lifestyle and am so ashamed of myself. I want to get closer to Allah but have no idea how. How do I have greater taqwa?

Answer: Assalamualaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,

I pray this finds you well. May Allah reward you for reaching out to us.

Repentance

It was narrated from Abu Hurairah (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) said: “If you were to commit sin until your sins reach the heaven, then you were to repent, your repentance would be accepted.” [Sunan Ibn Majah]

Dear sister, I pray that Allah helps you make a complete and beautiful repentance. Alhamdulilah for your longing to draw closer to Allah. This is a wonderful sign of His favour upon you.

Taqwa

“Whoever has mindfulness of Allah, Allah grants a way out and provides for them in ways they could never imagine.” [Qur’an, 65.2-3]

Attaining higher levels of taqwa is a lifelong journey. I encourage you to listen to this inspiring lecture by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani:

Positive Spiritual Thinking: Choosing Mindfulness (taqwa) and Embracing Trust (tawakkul).

I encourage you to build a solid foundation of knowledge, and then for you to act upon it. When registration reopens, please enrol in courses such as Introduction to Islam: What It Means to Be Muslim and build up to courses like Essentials of Islamic Belief: Dardir’s Kharida Explained.

In the meantime, please listen to lessons sets such as Who is Allah? by Ustadha Shehnaz Karim and Shaykh Hamdi Ben Aiss and podcasts such as Why Islam Is True by Shaykh Hamza Karamali.

Supplication

The time before the entry of Fajr is a blessed time. Please begin with making dua for Allah to guide you. Work your way up to

Practical steps

1) Guard your daily obligatory prayers.

If you have missed any obligatory prayers, then please make yourself a timetable and slowly but surely pay them back. Please esure that you are praying according to a valid school of thought: A Reader on Following Schools of Thought (Madhabs).

2) Seek out righteous company.

It is easier to live by the deen when your close friends are too. Perform the Prayer of Need and ask Allah for these kinds of friends.

3) Watch what you consume

When you eat and drink from the halal, then it is much easier for you to incline towards good actions. Listen to inspiring podcasts such as The Rawha: Daily Guidance for Seekers. Limit your time on social media, because that can stir up feelings of envy and longing for the forbidden.

4) Give in regular charity

Even a small amount, given regularly, will do wonders for the state of your heart.

5) Work out a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly ibadah plan

Sit down with your planner and schedule in regular times for you to pray, read Qur’an, and so on. Once you pencil it in, then you are more likely to commit to it.

6) Patience

Be patient with yourself. You are making a tremendous change. Ask Allah to help you be steadfast.

I pray that Allah makes you steadfast in your journey of attaining closeness to Him. Please keep in touch. We are at your service.

Please see:

A Reader on Tawba (Repentance)
A Reader on Missed Prayers

Wassalam,
[Ustadha] Raidah Shah Idil

Checked & Approved by Shaykh Faraz Rabbani

Ustadha Raidah Shah Idil has spent almost two years in Amman, Jordan, where she learned Shafi’i’ fiqh, Arabic, Seerah, Aqeedah, Tasawwuf, Tafsir and Tajweed. She continues to study with her Teachers in Malaysia and online through SeekersHub Global. She graduated with a Psychology and English degree from University of New South Wales, was a volunteer hospital chaplain for 5 years and has completed a Diploma of Counselling from the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors. She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, with her husband, daughter, and mother-in-law.

Etiquette of Social Media – Ustadh Amjad Tarsin

As main tools of communication and connectivity, Social Media is everywhere, and with immediacy. Ustad Amjad Tarsin calls us to ponder to what end? For what purpose?

Two individuals could be doing the exact same thing, and one is rewarded and one may be punished. What gives? What is the difference between the two?  Ustadh Amjad invites us to ponder on the value of purpose and intention in every deed and action performed by the individual; what makes or breaks our actions?
“As believers we do not go off on auto pilot” reminds Ustadh Amjad; the urgency lies in reflecting and making purposeful intentions. “Social media should not be a replacement for real life.”

Ask yourself, “what purpose is this for– to what end? How does this connect me to Allah ?” Sure , social media offers you anonymity from the creation and instant connectivity; but Allah is always with you and aware of all that you do–even before you think of it. What then have you to show your Creator? what is it that you wish to share with your Lord?

The believer should have purpose in life with God-consciousness and intentionality as the provisions and tools for true, long lasting success.

Cover photo by  MKHMarketing

Resources for the Seekers:

Etiquette of the Seeker According to the Teachings of Shaykh Salih al-Ja’fari

The engaging and eloquent Shaykh Babikr Ahmed Babikr offers this series on the etiquette of the seeker according to the teachings of Shaykh Salih al-Ja’fari, a renowned Sudanese scholar – a must listen.

Who Was Shaykh Salih al-Ja’fari?

The Etiquette of the Seeker: Sincerity

 

The Etiquette of the Seeker: Truthfulness

The Etiquette of the Seeker: God-wariness

The Etiquette of the Seeker: Obedience

The Etiquette of the Seeker: Reliance on God

Our sincere thanks to The Source, the organisers of the retreat where these lessons were delivered and nuruddinzangi for making them available.

[cwa id=’cta’]

Ten Qualities of Those Seeking Closeness to Allah

Shaykh Faraz Rabbani explains the ten qualities or stations of those seeking closeness to Allah. Using the classical work Manazil al-Sa’ireen by Khawaja Abdullah al Ansari of Herat, Shaykh Faraz gives a description of each quality, its basis in the Holy Qur’an and a brief commentary.

The ten qualities are:

1. Resolve (القصد)
2. Determination (العزم)
3. Seeking (الارادة)
4. Proper manners (أدب)
5. Certitude (يقين)
6. Intimacy (أنس)
7. Remembrance (ذكر)
8. Neediness (فقر)
9. Freedom of need (غنى)
10. Station of being sought (مقام المراد)

The Secrets Within The Prophet’s ﷺ conversations with God – Shaykh Hamdi Ben Aissa

What are the qualities we need in order to internalise the way of the Prophet, peace be upon him, such that we can taste a bit of the secrets of his closeness to Allah? He, peace be upon him, knew Allah like no other – what did he ask for from Allah, that he attained this level of gnosis?

Shaykh Hamdi Ben Aissa explains at this McGill University Muslim Students Association program.

The Fully Integrated Life – Shaykh Abdal-Hakim Murad

“Allah bears witness that there is no god except He, and the Angels and the ones endowed with knowledge, upright with equity (bear witness). There is no god except He, The Ever-Mighty, The Ever-Wise…” (Surah al-Imran, Verse 18)

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad talks about how one should approach the balance needed in life, to put everything where it deserves to be put. How should one manage the different influences and complexity of life as a student? How does one find the right balance between what may seem deen and what may seem Dunya? The shaykh explains how we must strive for the fully integrated life and shares some useful tips from the works of Hujjat ul-Islam Imam Al-Ghazali.

Our deepest gratitude to Cambridge Khutbahs for making this recording available.