By: Ustadh Suheil Laher

“If you don't convert to (my sect) you might as well not convert to Islam!” exclaimed the 'uncle' to the young Christian lady. The lady's husband, a Muslim, had requested his elder friend to come and help explain to her why Islam is so important to him, and why he'd like her, too, to share in its joy. The husband was startled by this narrow-minded bombshell. The shocking words of the 'uncle' highlight a lack of priorities plaguing some of those who profess themselves to be Muslim.

It is understandable for someone to feel passionately about a cause which (rightly or wrongly) they believe to be true. I remember a rabbi relating how he went home after his first year at rabbinical seminary and began self-righteously passing judgment on and correcting what seemed to be a plethora of misdeeds and mistakes of his family. But passionate belief (even when correct) becomes problematic if it results in a narrowed vision of reality and truth, and even more so when it leads to behavior that turns others away from the Path to God.

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was once leading prayers when he heard a man in the congregation saying, “O God! Bless me and Muhammad, and don't bless anyone else with us!” After the congregational prayer was over, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) remarked, chastising him, “You have restricted a capacious [thing]!” (Sahih Bukhari and others)

The blessings of God, and especially the spiritual blessing of right guidance embodied in the Final Revelation (the Qur'an), should not be confused with human constructions of group identity and boundaries. More specifically, some Muslims are sometimes (and any frequency is too often for something this important) too quick to declare someone to be outside the fold of Islam due to (i) imperfect practice, or (ii) disagreement on a non-core belief.

Priority is Bearing Witness

It is essential to realize that the believer's life is an ongoing journey of struggle to become a better person. None of us – including those born and raised as Muslims – are perfect. It is grossly unreasonable – nay, evil – to deny a neophyte entry to their newly-found faith, merely because s/he is not living a totally sinless life. The priority, for someone who has understood the basic message of Islam and voluntarily resolved to embrace Islam, is to help him/her to say the shahadatayn (the Declaration of Faith: “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God”) without delay.

Anything else – be it taking a bath (ghusl) for ritual purification, or giving up a personal vice – can wait. Anything else on your own to-do list can wait too. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) once even halted his Friday sermon to respond to a man who came to ask critical questions about belief. [Sahih Muslim and others] imam Nawawi, the Shafi`i jurist, writes in his encyclopedic Majmu` that his school's official position is that a Muslim is sinful for telling the ready convert to go and take a bath before having him/her say the shahada; indeed some Shafi`i jurists (Mutawalli and Baghawi) considered the one who gives such an order himself to have committed unbelief (by not realizing the importance and priority of the shahadah).

Similarly, the hopeful ready-to-submit-to-God should not be denied the shahadah merely on account of what we might consider as his/her sinful behavior, be it an attachment to alcohol or drugs, or involvement in an immoral or prohibited type of relationship. The priority is to help them aboard the ship of Divine Grace (by helping them say the shahadah); they can work on themselves in due course.

Even after the shahadah, the new convert should not be overburdened with duties and requirements. Give them time to grow, to learn, to discover, realize and make decisions and changes from their own conviction and at a fitting pace. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) rebuked one of his companions for cursing a man who would repeatedly be found drinking alcohol, and declared that the drinker “loves God and His Messenger”. [Sahih Bukhari and others] And he would instruct emissaries and teachers, before sending them on their mission, with the advice, “Make things easy, and don't make things difficult. Give people good news, and don't drive them away.” [Sahih Muslim and others]

Belief in the Fundamentals

It is of course necessary for an intending convert to have a general understanding of the core beliefs and practices of Islam (often called 'pillars': belief in God, Prophets, Scripture and the Hereafter, and performance of the shahadah, the prayer, fasting Ramadan, prescribed charity and the pilgrimage.) They are not required to know all the details, as these take time to learn, and in some cases are non-essential, or are not clear-cut and hence open to different interpretations.

The kernel of Islam, acknowledging the oneness of God, that God alone should be worshiped, and that the Qur'an is the book for human guidance revealed to the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), is simple, despite its profundity and universality. Edward Montet described it as, “A creed so precise, so stripped of all theological complexities and consequently so accessible to the ordinary understanding might be expected to possess and does indeed possess a marvelous power of winning its way into the consciences of men.” [Edward Montet, La Propagande Chretienne et ses Adversaries Musulmans, Paris 1890, p. 17-8, as quoted by T.W. Arnold, The Preaching of Islam, London 1913, p. 337.]

Someone with whom this profound truth has resonated should not be denied admittance to the House of Islam – nor expelled from it after entering – merely because of their not understanding, or having difficulty accepting, a more peripheral or secondary point of belief or practice. It pains me for an overt Muslim to be declared an unbeliever, or to be frightened away from Islam (and I have seen such cases personally) because of their not being convinced with the prevalent view about the place (or otherwise) of certain punishments and regulations in Islam (e.g. whether and when capital punishment is mandated for apostasy, or stoning for adultery, or the legal status of hijab).

I am not advocating complete relativism, nor denying the value and importance of Muslim scholarly endeavor and its opinions, nor am I saying that opposing views are always legitimate or correct. What I am pleading for is tolerance; of giving the benefit of doubt, whenever possible, to other professed Muslims who seem to be misinterpreting a sacred text. We are entitled to believe that a particular interpretation is wrong, even potentially sinful, but that does not justify excommunicating a person who holds to that interpretation, unless it involves something clear-cut and essential to Islam. Imam al-Shafi`i termed such core issues 'public knowledge' (`ilm al-`amma), and examples he gave to illustrate it are: the obligation and form of the five prayers and of fasting Ramadan, and the prohibitions of fornication, murder, theft and wine, and other such things, “in which error is not possible, nor [is it open to] interpretation or dispute.” [Shafi`i, al-Umm] Ibn Abi'l-`Izz, in his commentary on Tahawi's Creed, has discussed how a person may not be excommunicated on the basis of a shubha: a genuine misunderstanding s/he has reached on the basis of a sacred text.

Renowned theologian Abu'l-Hasan al-Ash`ari, who studied, debated and refuted many heterodox Muslim sects, declared on his deathbed to one of his students, “Bear witness that I do not judge any of the People of the Qibla to be unbelievers.” Shams al-Din al-Dhahabi, after quoting this account, mentions that his own personal belief is along these lines, and that he heard similar words from his teacher Ibn Taymiyyah towards the end of his life, “I do not declare anyone of the ummah an unbeliever. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, 'None but a believer takes care of his ritual purity (wudu').' So, whoever adheres to the prescribed prayers in a state of purity (wudu') is a believer.” [Dhahabi, Siyar A`lam al-Nubala']

Da'wah without Judgement

The problem, as one of our Shuyukh remarked to us, is that today we want to be muftis and judges (declaring a person to be inside or outside Islam), whereas the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was an inviter to God's way (da`iya). So, rather than worrying about the creedal judgment on a particular person, we should be more interested in asking ourselves, “How can I help him understand that he is mistaken?” Indeed, in some cases it might even be a case of, “How can I correct or fine-tune my own understanding of this issue?”

A believer is expected to be humble, and part of humility is acknowledging the limits of our individual knowledge: both of details of the religion, as well as of the inner workings of other people's hearts. If you consider yourself a Caller to God, then you should be calling to those things that are unambiguously and centrally part of God's revealed religion of Islam, and not to your own sect or interpretations of Islam. By all means, let us continue meaningful dialogue, and furthering the education of ourselves and others. But let's realize the kernel and the priorities, so that we don't hinder or expel others who are genuinely seeking or attempting to navigate the Path to God.

The author is the Muslim Chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer at Brandeis University.

26 Responses

  1. The Mad Monk

    The Prophet Muhammad
    was once leading prayers when he heard a man in the congregation
    saying, “O God! Bless me and Muhammad, and don’t bless anyone else with
    us!” After the congregational prayer was over, the Prophet remarked, chastising him, “You have restricted a capacious [thing]!” (Sahih al-Bukhari and others)
    ==========
    This is quoted wrong I believe. The hadeeth is about the bedouin who urinated in the Prophet’s Mosque. The Prophet did not “chastise” him but smiled at the man’s statement to bless only the Prophet and himself and no one else because the other Sahabah wanted to give him a beat down for doing what he did.

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  2. Muslima

    This article resonates well for Sunni Muslims, who claim that all non-Sunnis (Shias, etc) are outside of the fold of Islam. I’d be interested to hear the chaplain’s thoughts on that.

    – A Shia Muslim

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    • suheil

      Whether someone identifies as Shia or Sunni Muslim (or Ibadi, for that matter), I certainly do not automatically consider them to be outside Islam.

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    • Hyde

      I certainly do not believe Shia are the outside the fold of Islam, but some of the particular beliefs of the Shia are quiet alien to mainstream Islamic aqueeda. Not to mention the deliberate harangues on the beloved companions.

      Yes I do believe we are all Muslims but there is a sunnah al-wa jammah.

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  3. GregAbdul

    as salaam alaikum,

    the issue is not Muslims harassing converts. This real issue is non Muslims declaring what is acceptable Islam. I am sort of with them when the Salafi bashing starts. I don’t accept ignoring 1400 years of scholarship. It is un-academic and leads to excess and extremism. The Ahamdis (Ahmadiyyahs) reject the finality of Prophet Muhammad’s (sws) mission. This is the real debate. The Ahmadis spend all their energy convincing non Muslims they are the real Muslims and we who follow the Sunnah and love the messenger are extremists. This is the debate about who is really a Muslim. Ahmadis belong to Ghulam, not our messenger. The non Muslims like confusion amongst the Musilms. Islam is simple. You have to believe in the Shahada. Ahmadis do not, yet insist on calling themselves Muslims. This is the only argument and bad feelings. I like Bahais because at least they don’t call themselves Muslims even as they follow our book and our messenger. The only debate is about those who reject the Shahada as they call themselves Muslim. This also applies to people who brag and say “I don’t pray.” If you reject Islam, that is where the debate comes from. We need to be careful with converts, al hamdulillah. There’s no debate there. The debate is from those who reject Islam and at the same time want to call themselves Muslims, instead of what they really are. This comes from the Ahamadis and non Muslims who support them.

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    • Hyde

      As much I see the Wahhabi hypocrisy ennobled with the Saudis, I am in compete agreement with you regarding the Ahmadiyyahs: They are NOT Muslims. Yes in today’s age the Muslims need to to be united (“Divide and Conquer, the oldest trick in the book”), but let’s not pollute our beliefs so much that we end becoming a liberal church. I abhor the senseless violence against anybody, especially the Ahmadiyyahs in Pakistan and Indonesia, but that does not mean they should be labelled as Muslims, because they simply are not. That is challenge the Muslims will face very, very soon.
      “Let’s not be harbingers of opprobrium for the sake of Islam”

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      • Sunny Salman Jamil

        I await an article regarding the status of a believer, his or her rights, and the ‘ummah’s rights over him or her during life and after death. ‘In shaa’ Allaah.

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    • Muslim

      Excellent job in completely missing the message of the blog. Not sure which world you currently live in but the real problem is Muslims passing judgements on other Muslims, not anything else. Similar to how you did with Ahmadis. They do profess and believe in the Shahada, if you ever bothered listening to what they had to say instead of 3rd parties, you would have understood this simple fact. If you actually think the real problem is non-Muslims deciding on Islam, I suggest you tune back into the current Muslim world and whats happening in many muslim countries today, i.e. persecution of Muslim and non-Muslim minorities.

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  4. Deuce Prez

    This is why it’s more important to simply be a Muslim.

    Weren’t we directed to NOT divide into sects anyway….??!!

    I am a Muslim. Period.

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  5. User unknown

    I find it funny to read this post when even its name, ‘Muslim Mattters” when I contacted Muslim Matters, I was continually ignored and my nature I am persistent I finally did get a reply and it was with hostility. Ironic of your name.. Muslim Matters is online to make money. That was loud an clear to me.

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    • Hena Zuberi

      Assalam alaykum,
      We are a non-profit site. Please tell us what you wanted to contact us about and inshaAllah we can address your concerns.
      with salam,
      EIC

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    • Aly Balagamwala | DiscoMaulvi

      Dear Anonymous

      I’m not sure where you get the idea that we make money. Please note that MM is a not-for-profit, which is run primarily thru donations and our staff is mainly volunteers who do this for the sake of Allah (SWT).
      We are sorry you had a bad experience in trying to get in touch with us. Whom had you contacted and for what reason?
      I would also like to remind you that leveling false accusations are frowned upon by Islam as a grave sin. So it is best not to make such accusations. JazakAllah Khair.
      -Aly

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  6. Sally Wilton

    I live in Luxor Egypt, in the hub of the very area where cliterectomies are routinely carried out on girls of 13 years of age to make them marriageable, and I wish that doctors such as yourself would spend more time on educating Muslim people not to have their girls genitally mutilated. There are no excuses for doing this and it is no good saying it is the culture, which has come from Islam anyway, whilst imams go about telling people it is in the koran or hadiths. You really need to start doing something about this terrible atrocity that is affecting girls for the rest of their lives and causing pain and misery, Rather than think the modern world needs to know about Islam, these people need to be taught about the modern world and quickly.

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    • suheil

      Thank you for your comments and concern, Sally. I agree that a lot of education is needed to increase awareness among Muslims…..not just of the modern world, but in fact about Islam itself. I would respectfully (yet strongly) differ with your estimation that the culture has ‘come from Islam.’ There are a plethora of cultural practices in Muslim-majority countries that do not have a basis in the religious texts, or are even contradictory to those texts. I do agree with you that abuse of women (as often occurs in FGM) should be stopped. While there are moves being made by Muslim leaders against FGM (see, for example, this BBC report:
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/6176340.stm), I don’t doubt that there is still much ground to cover in terms of action.
      We can add this to the list of problems in our societies – Muslim and non-Muslim: domestic violence, corruption, crime, ……)
      Mainstream traditional Muslim scholarship (including the established schools of Muslim law) do not condone the mutilative practices of FGM. The fact that some ignorant would-be imams might claim otherwise does not change that fact. Religion is often manipulated to serve other agendas (hence the importance of clarifying the true teachings of Islam). Some Muslim scholars do claim a religious basis for a form of circumcision that is not mutilative; the following article might be of interest:
      http://seekersguidance.org/blog/2012/04/mutilating-facts-setting-the-record-straight-about-female-circumcision-genital-mutilation/

      Thank you again for your concern. May God bless you.

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  7. Schvach

    I’m a bit confused about one point. If, according to Islam, we are all created Muslim (‘fitrah’), then how is it possible for one to be excommunicated from Islam?

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    • suheil

      Yes, we were all born in the natural state of goodness (fitrah), but we also have the capability to suppress, fight and deform that natural goodness.
      While every act of evil is wrong, and contrary to the teachings of goodness, evil has levels. *Some* evil acts (or beliefs) are antithetical to the foundations of Islam, and thus it is possible for someone to depart from Islam. It is worthwhile to note, however, that Islam does not have a central ecclesiastical authority for making or enforcing such judgments.

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  8. Abu Milk Sheikh

    As bad as it is to do takfeer of a Muslim, it is equally as bad to deny the kufr of a kaafir. There are certain fundamentals in our religion which, if denied, can eject a person from the fold of Islam. Still others were never Muslim in the first place, since the basis of their belief is in contradiction with these fundamentals.

    We have a normative framework for declaring takfeer and there is no harm whatsoever in qualified people making use of it. We also have matters that are ma’loom min ad’Deen bi’dh’dharoorah (known to be of the religion by necessity) which are not up for debate and not up for disagreement. Anyone rejecting or contradicting one of these matters is automatically an apostate (or never Muslim in the first place,) and there is no need for a qualified person here; any Muslim can identify the kufr and do takfeer.

    And Allah knows best.

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    • suheil

      Thank you for your comments. I agree, and did mention, in the article, that there are essential beliefs (what you refer to above as معلوم من الدين بالضرورة , and which Imam al-Shafi`i referred to in Ar-Risaalah as علم العامة ) that cannot be compromized. But there are a few notes of caution in order, which my article was addressing:
      (1) People have a tendency to over-extend the boundaries of this core category, and thereby consider to be essential and central what is actually not so. Fuqaha across the schools (and independent mujtahids too) have statements cautioning about pronouncing kufr, e.g.
      – stressing the requirement of clear-cut kufr for takfeer to be valid, e.g. Imam al-Shawkani’s statement that one requires a proof clearer than the sun in daylight.
      – giving benefit of the doubt wherever possible , even if a statement made by someone has 99 possible interpretations that are kufr, and only 1 that is not kufr.
      – taking into consideration even a weak juristic view to avoid takfeer.
      – saying it is preferable to err on the side of caution, and to consider an apostate as a Muslim (Imam Ghazali actually said: to leave 1,000 apostates in islam) — where doubt exists as to the apostasy — than to mistakenly exclude a Muslim from Islam.
      (2) Even in cases of denial of such a core belief, we are not necessarily obliged to tell the person that they have committed kufr. Yes, the individual Muslim is required to believe the truth in his heart, and when seeing blatant kufr to remind him/herself that it is kufr. But to declare kufr on an individual is the concern of a qadi when the need arises (or a mufti, but the mufti’s decision need not necessarily be conveyed to the offender). And the existence of kufr should not impede da`wah, nor put an end to it. Rather, there should be increased concern to get the person to see and return to the truth. Telling someone ‘You are kafir’ to their face is usually not going to help achieve that goal, and might even have the opposite effect.
      (3) Recognizing kufr is a matter of `aqidah, and to some extent at least, it is, as you allude to, the concern of every Muslim to recognize and dislike kufr within himself. But declaring kufr on an individual (takfeer) is a juristic (fiqhi) and worldly ruling. A judgment of takfeer on a person in this world, even if it came from a qualified Islamic judge, does not necessarily mean the person is a kafir before Allah, because there may be extenuating circumstances, reduced responsibility, ignorance or other factors that we, as human beings, are not privy too. Often, scholars will declare a particular belief as kufr, but not do takfeer on a specific individual who holds it. Thus, Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal is reported to have prayed behind the Jahmis, despite having declared some of their beliefs to be kufr. Imam Ibn Taymiyyah used to say to some of his contemporaries, “I do not pronounce kufr on you, for you are ignorant. But if I were to say what you are saying, I would have committed kufr.”
      And indeed, Allah knows best.

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      • Abu Milk Sheikh

        Jazakallahu khairan. You should have included these points in the article, hehe.

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  9. brothers

    Can this scholar talk about Brother having beard, if it is sunnah or not and what length etc.

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