Connect with us

Opinion

The Royal “We”

After reading a recent blog discussion about poor translations of Arabic texts, including the Quran, I though it would be worth reconsidering our insistence on using the royal “we”. There are many verses in the Quran where Allah speaks using the Arabic pronoun “nahnu” (meaning we) or its associated suffix….”we” created, “we” sent down, etc. In Arabic, this is perfectly acceptable, because “nahnu” does not necessarily imply plurality. It can also indicate the speaker’s lofty status, and thus, when the Most High uses it, the meaning is evident.

In English, there is technically a linguistic structure known as the “royal ‘we’,” but it is archaic. In practice, the term “we” is exclusively plural. Translating the Arabic “nahnu” to “we” (when Allah is referring to himself) is therefore highly problematic, not simply because the awkward use of English alienates and confuses the listener, but more importantly, because it obscures the core message of Islam–tawheed. The most significant aspect of Islam, before any acts of worship, or standards of morality, or rulings of permissibility/prohibition, is the belief that none has the right to be worshiped except the creator of the heavens and the earth, Allah. And Allah is one, without partners, offspring, or any other associates. And yet, when communicating some very basic verses expressing the Oneness and uniqueness of Allah, Muslims stubbornly insist on the literal translation, “we.”

For someone trying to learn about Islam, this is baffling. What on earth do they mean by “we”? How is that consistent with what they just told me about the pure monotheism of Islam? Some outlandish critics even go so far as to say that “we” refers to the trinity, and Muslims have just failed to pick up on that for the past 1400+ years. Some contend that “we” refers the Asiatic Black Man (or men), in accordance with the beliefs of some pseudo-Islamic groups in America.

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

The question arises: if we translate the relevant verses with the first person singular, “I”, do we thereby corrupt the Quran? Are we changing the meaning of the verses and tampering with revelation? Well, let’s consider the basic principle for translating the Quran: that translation, in a strict sense, is impossible. The Quran as revelation, as the speech of Allah, is Arabic. Once translated, it loses that quality. That is why you often see English Qurans described as “translation of the meaning of the Quran” rather than just “translation of the the Quran.” In practice, however, we often find a “poor translation of the meaning of the Quran.” The use of the royal “we” is a perfect example. It is really puzzling how some vigorously declare that the English translation can never fully capture the meaning of the Arabic Quran, and yet they still insist on awkward, literal translations, sometimes going so far as to Arabize English grammar (as if that will yield a perfect translation). In such cases, not only is the Quran stripped of eloquence, but the reader/listener is not even able to discern the basic meanings.

In other words, this is like saying “It is impossible to translate the Quran perfectly, and we can only translate its meaning. Nevertheless, I’m going to attempt to translate it perfectly, thereby obscuring its meaning, and its beauty.”

Once we recognize that the translation will never live up to the original, we must make every effort to convey the meaning in as clear and eloquent a manner as possible. With this in mind, using the royal “we” in English in ineffective. When conveying the message of the Quran to others, especially in a casual setting, we should consider substituting “I” for “we”.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Musa Maguire is from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and accepted Islam after graduating from college. In 2004-2005, he received a Fulbright grant to study in Egypt, and then spent the following year working at Huda TV, an English-language Islamic satellite channel that broadcasts from Cairo.

30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Navaid Aziz

    February 27, 2008 at 10:49 AM

    As salaam ‘alaikum Br. Musa,

    Jazaaka Allahu khairan for sharing your thoughts on this very insightful indeed. Ibn Taymmiyyah (RH) addresses this issue in his various books, and more specifically in minhaaj as-sunnah (if my memory serves me correctly), and that is the fact that when Allah utilizes the term “We” it usually is in a matter that Allah uses the angels as well. Such as revelation, certain aspects of creation, granting of rizq etc.. How ever when Allah talks about obedience and worship, Allah always refers to Himself in the singular as none of the creation have a share in this. Hope that adds some extra insight. Baaraka Allahu feekum.

  2. Avatar

    Harun

    February 27, 2008 at 11:09 AM

    Assalamu ‘alaykum br. Navaid,

    The view of Ibn Taymiyah also makes sense, but what about those ayaat where Allah says “wa ith qulnaa lil mala’ikat is-judu li Adam” (and when WE said to the angels bow down to Adam). How could the angels be included here if they were being addressed?

    JazakAllah khayr

  3. Avatar

    Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    February 27, 2008 at 11:36 AM

    As salaamu ‘alaykum yaa Musa,

    I wouldn’t necessarily oppose someone trying to come up with a different translation but the “problems” you mentioned would not be “solved” this way, would they.

    If some new convert has a problem understanding why the Qur’an uses “We” don’t you think they would have just as big or a bigger problem if someone told them, “those Muslims tell you that the Qur’an says I when referring to Allaah but the actual Arabic word nahnu means we, so they are changing the meaning on you, just like they accuse us (Christians or Jews) of doing.” So then you’d have to explain the whole concept of “royal we” and Arabic usage anyways.

    Allaah knows best.

    • Avatar

      Amanda

      December 4, 2012 at 10:19 PM

      Assalamu alaikum,

      very true. and as a new convert, this would be so hard on him/her that it could definitely challenge their faith in Islam

  4. Avatar

    Navaid Aziz

    February 27, 2008 at 11:54 AM

    Br. Harun,

    Wa ‘alaikum as salaam wa rahamatullahi wa barakaatuhu,

    You have raised an excellent question, baaraka Allahu feek.

    Firstly, it should be noted that Ibn Taymiyyah (RH) didn’t deny the presence of the “royal we” but rather suggested that just because the plural pronoun is used one should not assume by default that it is the plural we.

    Secondly, in terms of the ayah you mentioned I believe the “royal we” is more appropriate based upon the fact that Allah is showing his true authority over a creation that is made of light and getting them to prostrate to (or in the direction of, in another opinion) Adam (AS) who is made out of clay. Thus the “royal we” seems to be the most appropriate. Wallahu ‘aalam.

    Also keeping in mind that Al-Baghawi (RH) does mention a difference of opinion in Ma’aalim at-tanzeel as to which angels were asked to prostrate to Adam, was it all of them or just a group of them? Based upon that premise it is possible to assume that Allah could have asked one group of angels to command the other group of angels to prostrate to Adam and since this is a matter of the ghaib the ultimate truth is with Allah alone.

    I hope that helped. Baaraka Allahu feekum.

  5. Avatar

    Umm Reem

    February 27, 2008 at 11:58 AM

    My children always asked me this question whenever they would be reading the translation…i guess it was hard for them to understand.

    But I grew up hearing my parents use this word ‘we’ (in Urdu) all the time. The kind of Urdu my parents speak (classical or ‘fusha’ if u like:)), it is quite normal to refer to oneself as ‘we’.
    In fact, up to junior high, I used to call myself ‘we’ (in Urdu) until my desi friends started making fun of me that ‘how many are you’!
    (Multiple personality syndrome!!) :)

    • Avatar

      shahgul

      March 15, 2012 at 12:15 AM

       In my time, the joke was that ‘hum’ or ‘we’ was used either because you had lice in the hair or fleas in your clothes. Its usage is limited to the UP area.

  6. Avatar

    Imtiaz

    February 27, 2008 at 1:36 PM

    Quote:
    Some outlandish critics even go so far as to say that “we” refers to the trinity, and Muslims have just failed to pick up on that for the past 1400+ years. Some contend that “we” refers the Asiatic Black Man (or men), in accordance with the beliefs of some pseudo-Islamic groups in America.

    This is something I have run into when discussing Islam with many non-muslims. In doing so I brought up various analogies as well as the “Royal WE” .

    Jazzak Allah Khair, this is definitely needed.

  7. AbdulHasib

    AbdulHasib

    February 27, 2008 at 2:37 PM

    I actually like the da’wah opportunity.

    It’s something that I’ve seldom come across or that people have addressed, because there is a linguistic ‘license’ in most languages.

    Even if it doesn’t grammatically ‘exist’ in english, it is well known, at least in concept..

    It’s a rarety of contention.
    And personally I gained a lot through understanding arabic through a close-to-the-literal-meaning rather than the translations through meaning types.

    I think both are needed though

    As for “WE” to “I”..
    Allahu ‘Alam.

    Maybe Brother Nouman Ali can give us his insight bi idhnillah

  8. Avatar

    Nasir Muzaffar

    February 27, 2008 at 3:40 PM

    There’s an article on the same topic by
    Yahya Ibrahim :

    http://www.islaam.net/main/display.php?id=569&category=2

  9. Avatar

    Nasir Muzaffar

    February 27, 2008 at 3:49 PM

    The meaning of the pronoun “We” as used in the Qur’an

    http://islamqa.com/index.php?ref=606&ln=eng&txt=royal

  10. Avatar

    theManOfFewWords

    February 27, 2008 at 4:29 PM

    I think that keeping the royal ‘we’ and other idiosyncratic translations is very valuable if they come with the proper explanation.

    The Quran is to be studied and reflected upon. The benefits of preserving some words are as follows:

    1. when a strange term is introduced it becomes an opportunity for the English speaking reader to dig deeper into the meaning of the Quran and discover something new.

    1.5 In the beginning of Surat al Baqara the translation of dhalika al kitab … is not “this is the book…” rather it is “that is the book.” Tell me, had dhalika been translated as “that” wouldn’t you be wondering why? Wouldn’t the inquiry have brought you to a better understanding of what exactly is going on in that ayah that ALLAH is refering to the Quran as that book rather than this book. What is going on indeed? Hmm?

    2. Learning about the nuance of the Arabic language becomes yet another motivation to learn the Arabic.

    3. It is indeed more accurate than replacing it with I. Furthermore, it is easily explained and more honest to preserve the ‘we.’

  11. Avatar

    Musa Maguire

    February 27, 2008 at 10:25 PM

    I can certainly appreciate the importance of studying Arabic in depth, and using one’s native language is part of that process. But I personally sat staring at translations of the Quran for years wondering what “we” meant, thinking up all sorts of possible interpretations. And then even after hearing explanations of the “royal we”, it took some time to sink in before I could really appreciate that it is not plural. In the end, without a very clear explanation, it is a bad translation, and a bad translation should never be termed “accurate”.

    That said, I can understand preserving the “royal we” in print, as long as an effective explanation is also included. But if you are at a bus stop and explaining Islam to someone who has never met a Muslim, and may never meet one again, you certainly don’t want him to leave thinking that Muslims worship more than one God. That is what the common sense understanding of the English word “we” implies.

    The other issue is eloquence. No English translation can be as eloquent as the Quran, but we can at least try. You can’t present people with the most awkward, confusing English that they’ve ever seen and then convince them that it is a literary miracle. The fact is that standards of eloquence do not transfer from language to language. A perfect example is the use of repition in Arabic–using several different permutations of the same root. Even a non-Arabic speaker can appreciate the eloquence of such statements. In English, however, such repitition is about as awkward as you can get. Take, for example, this translation:

    Itha rujjati alardu rajjan

    56:4 When the earth is shaken with a shaking [severe],

    This is an attempt to preserve the Arabic repetition which results in very awkward English. Then consider:

    56:4 When the earth is shaken with a shock

    OR
    56:4 When the earth shall be shaken to its depths

    OR

    56:4 When the earth is shaken with convulsion

    All of these are more eloquent because they avoid repetition while trying to convey the amplification of meaning that is found in Arabic. There is no perfect translation in this regard, but clarity and eloquence are more likely to connect with the hearts of listeners/readers…which of course is what would lead them to a deeper study of Arabic and the Quran.

  12. Avatar

    Nazia

    February 28, 2008 at 12:14 AM

    Hmm, I never had a problem with the royal “we’ because, like UmmReem, I am also Pakistani and so I was familiar with the concept from Urdu.

    However, I agree with Br. Musa on the awkward English translations, but I thought that translators were bound to literally translate the meaning of the Quran…even if that takes away from the beauty? Because there is this rigid adherence to translation, at least we can be sure that almost all English Qurans will say about the same thing. But if you open the door to allowing translators to attempt to convey the inherent beauty, even if it moves away from literal translation, it might lead to made up translations?

    I don’t know. That would be my major fear when considering something like this. But, being an English speaker with only a minimal skill in Arabic, I would LOVE if there was an English translation that remained true to the meaning while possessing a greater degree of fluidity and clarity.

  13. Avatar

    Abu Zayd

    February 28, 2008 at 9:56 AM

    I don’t have a comment on the royal We, but Musa’s comments ignited a particular pet peeve of mine: why in the world can’t we have an eloquent, poetic translation of the Qur’an that is a pleasure to read as an independent work?

    I have every translation under the sun, and keep ordering any new ones I hear of, but none of them tickles my fancy. The latest I got just a few days ago is one by Laleh Bakhtiar (which, by the way, translates dhalikal-kitab as “That is the book”), but it is again cumbersome and uneloquent, and has been placed in my REJECTED list.

  14. Avatar

    Ahmad AlFarsi

    February 28, 2008 at 12:40 PM

    The latest I got just a few days ago is one by Laleh Bakhtiar

    this translation (Bakhtiar’s) is also a modernist translation, so beware.

  15. Avatar

    Ahmad AlFarsi

    February 28, 2008 at 12:42 PM

    I heard from ibnabeeomar that the translation by Abdul Haleem (from Cambridge, UK) is very good in preserving the meaning (however, also a pre-cautionary note on that one as it contains Asharite theology).

  16. Amad

    Amad

    February 28, 2008 at 1:06 PM

    Calling Laleh Bakhtiar’s translation modernist is an understatement. Her background, lack of hijab, and so many other facts belie her claimed “objectivity”. Her objective is clear: reinterpret Quran by removing it from ahadith and other required texts.

    Bakhtiar has been schooled in Sufism which includes both the Shia and Sunni points of view. As an adult, she lived nine years in a Shia community in Iran and has lived in a Sunni community in Chicago for the past 15 years.

    Comeon, you are a shia. Just admit it. If you search google, the first link is an intro by her on shia.com. I am not sure what the point of hiding this fact, other than the obvious trouble she will have with getting Sunnis to accept her unsupported, shia-slanted interpretation of what SHE thinks Allah is saying.

    If you want to read this translation, might as well pick up one from the Ahmedis too. Both pretty much junk.

  17. Avatar

    Ahmad AlFarsi

    February 28, 2008 at 1:33 PM

    recall, on the Bakhtiar translation fiasco:

    Amad: “Isn’t it amazing that someone who ADMITS that she doesn’t know Arabic, can claim to ‘translate’ Quran? And because that translation conforms to how ‘they’ like it, she gets NY Times coverage?! It is like the major newspapers and media outlets are announcing:

    “All Muslims, once-Muslims, Muslim-apostates, or never- Muslim – but – your – name – is-Muslim: Come one, come all, for free coverage and free promotion. All you have to do is either (a) claim to reform Islam or (b) tell us how bad Islam really was to you and is for all Muslims. This is your ticket to the American dream, fame and the almighty dollars. You’ll get it all!
    Disclaimer: Please note that any real Islamic knowledge or really any knowledge at all is not a prerequisite for the promotion”.

    Which reminds me that I am working on a translation of the Hebrew-edition of Old Testament. My zero knowledge of Hebrew should be no impediment, as there are plenty of google translation engines available. I will also promise all humanity that the new translation will include a clear reference to Muhammad, as the Messenger of Allah. That way Moslems and Jews can have peace in the Middle-East. The end justifies the means of course. Stay tuned… (NY Times, you can reach me on my personal email for the scoop, please also mention the moolah ;) ).”

  18. AnonyMouse

    AnonyMouse

    February 28, 2008 at 1:45 PM

    Although English is my first and pretty much only language, I’ve never had a problem understanding the “Royal We” – possibly because I used to be in love with the medieval ages and knew that “we” was used by rulers to sound “bigger” and more powerful… it made sense that the King of Kings would use similar terminology to convey His Power!

    Speaking of translations of the meaning of the Qur’an, the one we refer to most in my house is the one published by Saheeh International… I like the footnotes in that they’re generally short, explanatory, AND not confusing!

  19. Avatar

    Musa Maguire

    February 28, 2008 at 2:08 PM

    Amad, thanks for the suggestion. Maybe I should play the disgruntled convert card to get some money and publicity. Fox News take note. I’m not sure what I’d say though, maybe “The Muslims told me I’d get to rule the world and have four wives and I didn’t get neither!”

  20. Avatar

    Abu Noor Al-Irlandee

    February 28, 2008 at 4:40 PM

    I, like Abu Zayd, try to get all the English translations of the Qur’an I come across, hoping to find something special. And surely I have benefitted from some of them.

    But, in my experience, once you learn how to read the Arabic letters, even if slowly and with mistakes at first, and if you can understand even a quarter to a half of the words you come across (which is pretty easy) then you will never again be able to read the translation for more than about half a page again…you will just keep realizing this is not the Qur’an, I want to read the Qur’an and if the Arabic is there on the page you will find yourself reading it because you just want to hear the Qur’an…reading a translation may help you to start understanding more of the meaning but just sitting to read a translation for any length of time is just a painful experience. This is of course, if you can at least read the letters — if one can’t read the Arabic letters, then I see why we read the translation…but I don’t think we get much out of that either.

    If there is any Muslim out there reading this who does not know how to read the Arabic. start trying to learn now. Maybe this experience was unique to me, but I know for the first couple of years I was Muslim, the task of learning to read a whole other alphabet was daunting and although I always “wanted to,” I didn’t know where to start. When a brother finally started teaching me, it was amazing how quick and easy it was. May Allaah (swt) reward that brother immensely! Imagine the reward he receives for every single letter than I or anyone else he taught reads of the Qur’an!

    At least that’s my experience.

    Allaah knows best.

  21. Avatar

    imran khan

    February 29, 2008 at 12:29 AM

    And now BBC playing their part to promote her….
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/7265021.stm

    “Bhaktiar’s English text has removed derogatory references to Christians and Jews. Most controversially, her Koran rejects the idea, in Chapter Four, verse 34, that men may beat their wives.
    “The word for “beat” has 25 meanings”, she says. “We need to look therefore at what Muhammad did. He didn’t beat but walked away. So why are we saying ‘beat’ when we can say ‘go away’ – which is what he did.” “

  22. Avatar

    al-istiqamah

    February 29, 2008 at 5:27 PM

    “The Muslims told me I’d get to rule the world and have four wives and I didn’t get neither!”

    What an incentive! :)

  23. Pingback: Open Thread Sunday 4/27/2008 | MuslimMatters.org

  24. Pingback: Institute Report: Genesis Week 4 | Times & Seasons

  25. Avatar

    shahgul

    March 14, 2012 at 11:56 PM

    In living Urdu language, you can tse either ‘mein’, the singular or ‘hum’ the plural for ‘I’, depending on local custom. Those using ‘hum’, though, are usually fom the uppity, sophisticated, Muslim nawab ruled areas of UP and Oudh in India. It therefore involves a certain degree of pomp and pride which is suitable for Iz u Jal only.

  26. Avatar

    shahgul

    March 15, 2012 at 12:07 AM

    Alhamdo lillah,

    Urdu translations used ‘hum’ for we, so we were never aware of this problem. Culture plays a big role. A sister from America was furious at a new Indian revert who named himself Alla Rakhha. She was angry at him for keeping his first name Allah.
    What she did not understand was that all cultures do not have a concept of first and last name. Also, Allah Rakhha means ‘kept by Allah .”

  27. Avatar

    yulius

    July 21, 2016 at 9:38 AM

    It would certainly help, if there are other instances in Arabic where people use “We” to refer to themselves besides Allah. Royalty or even common people maybe? Or the Aramaic language from which the Arabic language is derived from perhaps? Otherwise, it would seem like the meaning of “We” can be translated however anyone likes. Does anyone know of such instances?

  28. Avatar

    yulius

    July 21, 2016 at 9:48 AM

    Nevermind, got the answer from the link given by the post Institute Report: Genesis Week 4 above:
    “[non-plural we] does not exist elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible or the ancient Near East”

    Guess have to find other sources of why Allah would use a “We” to refer to Himself, when every Arabic human being then and now would consider “we” a plural thing. It would be easy for Christians to say that the Quran got the inspiration to use the “We” from the Genesis book of the Bible, which actually implied a plural meaning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

featured

I Once Spent Ramadan Semi-Quarantined, Here’s How It Went

Even though it was over 10 years ago, the memory of that Ramadan is seared into my mind.

I’d just taken my first consulting job – the kind in the movies. Hop on a plane every Monday morning and come home late every Thursday night. Except, unlike in the movies, I wasn’t off to big cities every week – I went to Louisville, Kentucky. Every week.

And because I was the junior member on the team, I didn’t get the same perks as everyone else – like a rental car. I was stuck in a hotel walking distance from our client in downtown, limited to eat at whatever restaurants were within nearby like TGI Friday’s or Panera. This was a pre-Lyft and Uber world.

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

A couple of months into this routine and it was time for Ramadan. It was going to be weird, and no matter how much I prepared myself mentally, I wasn’t ready for it — Iftar alone in a hotel room. Maghrib and Isha also alone in a hotel room. Suhur was whatever I could save from dinner to eat in the morning that didn’t require refrigeration.

Most people think that with the isolation and extra time you would pass the time praying extra and reading tons of Quran. I wish that was the case. The isolation, lack of masjid, and lack of community put me into a deep funk that was hard to shake.

Flying home on the weekends would give me an energizing boost. I was able to see friends, go to the masjid, see my family. Then all of a sudden back to the other extreme for the majority of the week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that Ramadan with the prospect of a quarantined Ramadan upon us. I wish I could say that I made the most of the situation, and toughed it out. The truth is, the reason the memory of that particular Ramadan is so vivid in my mind is because of how sad it was. It was the only time I remember not getting a huge iman boost while fasting.

We’re now facing the prospect of a “socially distanced” Ramadan. We most likely won’t experience hearing the recitation of the verses of fasting from Surah Baqarah in the days leading up to Ramadan. We’re going to miss out on seeing extended family or having iftars with our friends. Heck, some of us might even start feeling nostalgia for those Ramadan fundraisers.

All of this is on top of the general stress and anxiety of the COVID-19 crisis.

Ramadan traditionally offers us a spiritual reprieve from the rigors and hustle of our day to day lives. That may not be easy as many are facing the uncertainty of loss of income, business, or even loved ones.

So this isn’t going to be one of those Quran-time or “How to have an amazing Ramadan in quarantine!” posts. Instead, I’m going to offer some advice that might rub a few folks the wrong way.

Make this the Ramadan of good enough

How you define good enough is relative. Aim to make Ramadan better than your average day.

Stick to the basics and have your obligatory act of worship on lockdown.

Pray at least a little bit extra over what you normally do during a day. For some, that means having full-blown Taraweeh at home, especially if someone in the house is a hafiz. For others, it will mean 2 or 4 rakat extra over your normal routine.

Fill your free time with Quran and dua. Do whatever you can. I try to finish one recitation of the Quran every Ramadan, but my Ramadan in semi-quarantine was the hardest to do it in. Make sure your Quran in Ramadan is better during the month than on a normal day, but don’t set hard goals that will stress you out. We’re under enormous stress being in a crisis situation as it is. If you need a way to jump-start your relationship with the Quran, I wrote an article on 3 steps to reconnect with the Qur’an after a year of disconnect.

Your dua list during this Ramadan should follow you everywhere you go. Write it down on an index card and fold it around your phone. Take it out whenever you get a chance and pour your heart out to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Share your stresses, anxieties, worries, fears, and hopes with Him.

He is the Most-Merciful and Ramadan is a month of mercy. Approach the month with that in mind, and do your best.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Continue Reading

#Current Affairs

Criticism, Accountability and the Exclusion of Quran and Sunnah – Critiquing Ahmed Sheikh’s Critique

Let me begin by making two things clear. First, this article is not seeking to defend the positions of any person nor is it related to the issue of CVE and what it means to the Muslim American community. I am in no way claiming that CVE is not controversial or harmful to the community nor am I suggesting that affiliations with governments are without concern.

Second, this paper is meant to critique the arguments made by the author that encourage holding Islamic scholars accountable. I encourage the reader not to think of this article as an attempt to defend an individual(s) but rather as an attempt to present an important issue through the framework of Islamic discourse – Quran, hadith supported by scholarly opinion. In that spirit, I would love to see articles providing other scholarly views that are contrary to this articles. The goal is to reach the position that is most pleasure to Allah and not the one that best fits our agenda, whims, or world views.

In this article I argue that Islamic scholars in America cannot effectively be held accountable, not because they are above accountability but because (1) accountability in Islam is based on law derived from Quran and hadith and this is the responsibility of Islamic experts not those ignorant of the Islamic sciences. And to be frank, this type of discourse is absent in Muslim America. (2) Muslim Americans have no standard code of law, conduct, or ethics that can be used to judge behavior and decisions of Muslim Americans. I do believe, however, that criticism should be allowed under certain conditions, as I will elaborate in the proceeding paragraphs.

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

To begin, the evidence used to support the concept of holding leaders accountable is the statement of Abu Bakr upon his appointment to office:

O people, I have been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do well, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me.

This is a well-known statement of his, and without a doubt part of Islamic discourse applied by the pious companions. However, one should take notice of the context in which Abu Bakr made his statement. Specifically, who he was speaking to. The companions were a generation that embodied and practiced a pristine understanding of Islam and therefore, if anyone were to hold him accountable they would do it in the proper manner. It would be done with pure intentions that they seek to empower Abu Bakr with Quranic and Prophetic principles rather than attack him personally or with ill intentions.

Furthermore, their knowledge of the faith was sufficient to where they understood where and when the boundaries of Allah are transgressed, and therefore understood when he was accountable. However, when these facets of accountability are lost then the validity of accountability is lost as well.

To give an example, during the life of Abu Bakr, prior to appointing Omar (ra) as his successor he took the opinion of several companions. The prospect of Omar’s appointment upset some of the companions because of Omar’s stern character. These companions approached Abu Bakr and asked him “what will you tell Allah when he asks why you appointed the stern and severe (ie Omar).” Abu Bakr replied “I will tell Him that I appointed the best person on earth,” after which Abu Bakr angrily commanded them to turn their backs and leave his presence.

Fast forwarding to the life of Uthman, large groups of Muslims accused Uthman of changing the Sunnah of the Prophet in several manners. Part of this group felt the need to hold Uthman accountable and ended up sieging his home leading to his death. Now, when one researches what this group was criticizing Uthman for, you find that Uthman (ra) did make mistakes in applying the sunnah that even companions such as Ibn Mas’ood expressed concern and disagreement with. However, due to the lack of fiqh and knowledge, these Muslims felt that the actions of Uthman made him guilty of “crimes” against the sunnah and therefore he must be held accountable.

With this I make my first point. A distinction between criticism and accountability must be made. Ibn Mas’ood and others criticized Uthman but, since they were scholars, understood that although Uthman was mistaken his mistakes did not cross the boundaries of Allah, and therefore he was not guilty of anything and thus was not accountable.

Holding Muslim scholars accountable cannot be justified unless evidence from the Quran and hadith indicate transgression against Allah’s law. Thus, before the Muslim American community can call for the accountability of Dr. Jackson, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, or others, an argument founded in Quran and Sunnah and supplicated by scholarly (classical scholars) research and books must be made.

It is simply against Islamic discourse to claim that a scholar is guilty of unethical decisions or affiliations simply because CVE is a plot against Muslims (as I will detail shortly). Rather, an argument must be made that shows how involvement with CVE is against Quran and sunnah. Again, I emphasize the difference between criticizing their decision because of the potential harms versus accusing them of transgressing Islamic principles.

To further elaborate this distinction I offer the following examples. First, Allah says in context of the battle of Badr and the decision to ransom the prisoners of war,

“It is not fit for a prophet that he should take captives until he has thoroughly subdued the land. You ˹believers˺ settled with the fleeting gains of this world, while Allah’s aim ˹for you˺ is the Hereafter. Allah is Almighty, All-Wise. Had it not been for a prior decree from Allah, you would have certainly been disciplined with a tremendous punishment for whatever ˹ransom˺ you have taken. Now enjoy what you have taken, for it is lawful and good. And be mindful of Allah. Surely Allah is All-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (8:67-69)

In these verses Allah criticizes the decision taken by the Muslims but then states that ransom money was made permissible by Allah, and therefore they are not guilty of a punishable offense. In other words, Allah criticized their decision because it was a less than ideal choice but did not hold them accountable for their actions since it was permissible.

Another example is the well-known incident of Osama bin Zaid and his killing of the individual who proclaimed shahadah during battle. Despite this, Osama proceeded to slay him. Upon hearing of this the Prophet (s) criticized Osama and said, “did you see what is in his heart?”

Although Osama’s actions resulted in the death of a person the Prophet (s), did not hold Osama accountable for his actions and no punishment was implemented. Similarly, Khalid bin Waleed killed a group of people who accepted Islam accidentally and similarly, the Prophet (s) criticized Khalid but did not hold him accountable.

Why was there no accountability? Because the decisions of Osama and Khalid were based on reasonable – although incorrect – perspectives which falls under the mistake category of Islamic law “And there is no blame upon you for that in which you have erred but [only for] what your hearts intended. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (33:5)

The previous examples, among others, are referred to in Islamic discourse as ta’weel (interpretation). There are many examples in the lives of the companions where decisions were made that lead to misapplications of Islam but were considered mistakes worthy of criticism but not crimes worthy of punishment or accountability.

Ta’weel, as Ibn Taymiyya states, is an aspect of Islam that requires deep understanding of the Islamic sciences. It is the grey area that becomes very difficult to navigate except by scholars as the Prophet (s) states in the hadith, “The halal is clear and the haram is clear and between them is a grey area which most people don’t know (ie the rulings for).”

Scholars have commented stating that the hadith does not negate knowledge of the grey entirely and that the scholars are the ones who know how to navigate that area. The problem arises when those ignorant of Islamic law attempt to navigate the grey area or criticize scholars attempting to navigate it.

Going back to Ibn Taymiyya -skip this part if you believe Ibn Taymiyya was a dancing bear- I would like to discuss his own views on associating oneself with oppressive rulers. In his book “Islamic Political Science” (As Siyaasa ash Shar’iah) he details the nuances of fiqh in regards to working with or for oppressive rulers.

It would be beneficial to quote the entire section, but for space sake I will be concise. Ibn Taymiyya argues that the issue of oppressive rulers should not be approached with a black and white mentality. Rather, one must inquire of the relationship between the person and the ruler.

One can legitimately adhere to the verse “And cooperate in righteousness and piety” (5:2) while working for an unjust ruler such as: “performing jihad, applying penal laws, protecting the rights of others, and giving those who deserve. This is in accordance to what Allah and His messenger have commanded and whoever refrains from those things out of fear of assisting the unjust then they have left an obligation under a false form of asceticism (wara’).”

Likewise, accepting a position under an unjust regime may prevent or reduce the harm of that regime, or prevent someone mischievous from taking the position and inflicting even more harm, then such an association is Islamically valid. Furthermore, someone working in a particular department is not responsible or accountable for the crimes being committed in another department nor are they guilty of “cooperat[ing] in sin and aggression” (5:2). He ascribes these fiqh rulings to the majority of scholars including Abu Hanifa, Malik and Ahmed.

The argument against those who are affiliated with the UAE is simply not grounded in fiqh or supported by clear evidences from the Quran and hadith. How does being part of a peace forum make the participants guilty of the crimes in Yemen? The claim that such participation enhances the influence of these regimes is not necessarily consistent with Quran and hadith.

Dr. Jackson, I argue, is in line with Islamic discourse when he says that being part of such initiatives does not mean he agrees with all they do. The same goes for CVE. As Ibn Taymiyya suggests above, participating in such programs is Islamically justifiable if the goal is to reduce the harm and this is what Dr. Jackson claims. Ibn Taymiyya gives the example of someone working as a tax collector for a ruler who unjustly takes taxes from his citizens. If the individual can reduce the amount being taken then his position is Islamically valid.

One might state that such a claim – reducing the harm – is naïve and an excuse to justify their affiliations. No doubt this is a possibility, however, I once again quote Ibn Taymiyya,

“The obligation is to bring about the benefit to the best of their ability and or prevent the harm or at least reduce it. If there are two possible benefits then the individual should pursue the greater of the two even if it leads to losing the lesser. If there are two possible harms to prevent then they should prevent the greater of the two even if it results in the occurrence of the lesser.”

There are ways of determining whether a persons is clearly excusing himself. At the same time, the debate as to whether the benefits outweigh the harm is almost always within the grey area mentioned above. Thus, it is irresponsible to attack Islamic scholars and call for their accountability for positions that are not clearly against Quran and hadith.

Another rebuttal might claim that the rulers during the time of Ibn Taymiyya were better than present day rulers and that his fiqh was addressing his realities which are inconsistent with ours. My response is that although that is true, Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings are not built on contextual realities that are only effective in those realities. Rather, his teachings are built on principles that are formulated in a way that renders it capable of measuring a particular context. In other words, it acts in a way that considers the realities and context as part of the equation and decision process.

A third rebuttal might claim that Ibn Taymiyya, like many others, warned of the harms of befriending rulers. Again, this is accurate, however, an important distinction must be made and that is between spiritual advice and fiqh rulings. An issue can be spiritually problematic but permissible fiqh-wise and this differentiation is seen in the lives of the companions and spiritualists in general.

For example, the companions rejected many worldly pleasures out of zuhd and wara’ (two forms of asceticism) and not because they are forbidden. To be more specific, a person may restrict themselves from drinking green tea not because it is forbidden by Quran or hadith but because of they view it as a desire that distracts them from the next life.

Similarly, the discouragement scholars expressed towards relationships with rulers was because of the spiritual harms and not because of an unequivocal prohibition against it. This is an important facet of Islamic discourse that should be recognized by the Muslim community. That is, a person can critique an issue from various angles (for example the psychological harms of political rhetoric and how it effects a person’s spirituality) while remaining neutral to Islamic law. What I am trying to say is that legitimate criticisms can be made about a particular issues without having to bring a person’s Islamic credibility into the discussion.

To conclude, I’d like to once again emphasize a distinction between criticism and accountability. Criticism is justified when the criticizer is qualified in the topic and when the one being criticized has made a mistake. Accountability is legitimate when a person has transgressed red lines established by Islam itself. But, in order for such accountability to be valid one must invoke the Quran and hadith and here lies the problem.

In the several articles posted against UAE and CVE, Quran and hadith are excluded and such has become Muslim American discourse – we are Muslims who invoke Allah and His messenger yet exclude their words from the conversation. I remind the Muslim American community and myself of the following verse “And if you disagree over anything, refer it to Allah and the Messenger, if you should believe in Allah and the Last Day. That is the best [way] and best in result” (4:59).

I would like to pose the following questions to the Muslim American community:

  • Under what code of law and ethics should scholars be held accountable? In other words, what standards do we use to deem a scholar accountable or guilty? Who determines these laws and principles? Is it other scholars who are well versed in fiqh? Is it American standards or perhaps Muslim American activists and whatever is in line with their agenda?
  • Who or what institution has the authority to hold scholars accountable?
  • To what extent do we consider Quran, hadith, fiqh and scholarly opinions in determining illegal actions, problematic decisions, and or immoral behavior?
  • Are these laws and principles only applicable to scholars or are other Muslim leader figures held to the same standards?
  • Are all scholars “dancing bears” who have no credibility? If not, who, in your opinion, is trustworthy and credible and why do you think so? Is it because they are following Quran and Sunnah, or because they fit activism?
  • Do you believe that certain celebrated Muslim American activists / politicians present theological and moral problems to American Muslims that are corrupting their faith and behavior? Should they be held accountable for their statements and actions? What about the various Muslim organizations that invite them as keynote speakers and continue to show unwavering support?
  • Do you believe it is fair to say that these celebrated activists are not responsible for clarifying to the community their controversial positions and statements because they are not scholars or seen as religious figures?
  • Do you believe that activism is dominating Muslim American discourse and do you believe that there is a serious exclusion of Quran and hadith in that discourse?

I hope the community will acknowledge the concerning reality of the exclusion of Quran and hadith from our affairs. Until we live up to the standards of Quran and sunnah our criticism will only lead to further division and harm.

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Continue Reading

#Society

Do You Know Why Uzma Was Killed?

#JusticeForUzma is a campaign that highlights the many terrible ways household help is treated in places around the world. Here, Fatima Asad writes about how she is raising her children to be the change they want to see in their society. 

Last week, Pakistani society was struggling with the story of the horrific murder of Uzma, a teenager, who worked as a house maid in the city of Lahore. The 16-year-old was allegedly tortured for months and then murdered by the woman she worked for…for taking a bite from the daughter’s plate. #JusticeForUzma is a campaign that highlights the many terrible ways household help is treated in places around the world. Here, Fatima Asad writes about how she is raising her children to be the change they want to see in their society. 

By Fatima Asad

Living in Pakistan, my children realize that within the gates of our neighborhood, they will see no littering, they will not experience water or electricity shortages and certainly, no one will be knocking on the door begging for food or money. The reason they have this realization is because I make it the day’s mission to let them know about their privilege, about the ways they have been blessed in comparison to the other, very real, living, breathing little girls and boys outside those gates. Alas, my children come face to face with those very real people as soon as the gates close behind us.

Support MuslimMatters for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

“Why are there so many poor people in Pakistan, Mommy?” they ask, quite regularly now, unsatisfied with the answers I’ve provided so far. The question perpetually makes me nervous, uncomfortable, and I hastily make a lesson plan in my mind to gradually expose this world’s truths to them… ahista, ahista…(slow and steady).

But on days like these, when we find out about the death of yet another underprivilged young girl (they’re becoming redundant, aren’t they?), on days like these, I want to hold them, shake them, scream at them to wake up!

Wake up, my child! Beta jaag jao.

Do you know why that little girl we see outside, always has dirt on her face and her hair is in visible knots?

It is because, there are too many people who can take a shower anytime they want, who have maids to oil, brush and style their hair.

Do you know why there are children with no clothes on their backs?

It is because, there are too many of us with too many on ours. There are too many of us with walk-in closets for mothers and matching wardrobes for their infant daughters. We obsess about tailors, brands, this collection, last season. How often do we hear or say “can’t repeat that one”, “this one is just not my thing anymore…”

Do you know why there are children with their cheeks sunk deep in their skulls, scraping for our leftovers in our trashcans?

Because there are too many of us, who are overstuffed with biryani, burgers, food deliveries, dinner parties, chai get-togethers, themed birthday cupcakes, and bursting appetites for more, more, more, and different, different, different.

There are too many of us craving the exotic and the western, hoping to impress the next guest that comes to lunch with our useless knowledge of foods that should not be our pride, like lasagna, nuggets, cinnamon rolls, banana bread, pizza, minestrone soup, etc.

There are too many of us who do not want to partake from our outdated, simple traditional cuisines… that is, unless we can put a “cool” twist on them.

Do you know why there are children begging on the streets with their parents? Because there are too many of us driving in luxury cars to our favorite staycation spots, rolling up the windows in the beggars’ faces.

We are rather spent our money of watching the latest movies for family nights, handing out cash allowances to our own kids so they won’t feel left out when going out.

Do you know why there are mothers working during the days and sacrificing their nights sewing clothes for meager coins? Why there are fathers, who sacrifice their sleep and energy to guard empty mansions at the cost of their self-respect? Because there are too many of us attending dance rehearsals for weddings of the friends we backstab and envy. Because there are too many of us binge-watching the latest hot shows on Netflix, hosting ghazal nights to pay tribute to dead musicians and our never-ending devotion for them, and many more of us viciously shaking our heads when the political analyst on TV delivers a breaking report on a millionaire’s private assets.

Do you know why there are people who will never hold a book in their hands or learn to write their own names? Do you know why there will never be proof that some people lived, breathed, smiled, or cried? Because there are too many of us who are given the best education money can buy, yet only end up using that education to improve our own selves – and only our own selves. There are too many of us who wear suits and ties, entrusted with building the country, yet too many of our leaders and politicians just use that opportunity to build their own legacies or secret, off shore accounts.

Do you know why children, yes children, are ripped apart from their parents, forced to provide their bodies and energies so that a stranger’s family can raise their kids? Because, there are too many of us who need a separate maid for each child we birth. Because, there are too many of us who have given the verdict that our children are worth more than others’.

Because, there are too many of us who need a maid to prove to frenemies our monetary worth and showcase a higher social class.

Because, there are too many of us who enslave humans, thinking we cannot possibly spoil our youth, energy and time on our own needs, our own tasks, our own lives.

Because, there are too many of us who need to be comfortable, indulged, privileged, spoiled, educated, satisfied, excited, entertained and happy at the expense of other living souls.

And we do all this, thinking—fooling ourselves into believing— that our comforts are actually a way of providing income for another human being. Too many of us think that by indulging in our self-centered lifestyles, we are providing an ongoing charity for society’s neediest.

Too many of us are sinking into a quicksand that is quite literally killing us. This needs to stop immediately. This accelerating trend of possessing and displaying more isn’t going to slow down on its own- in fact, it’s become deadly. Too many of our hearts have hardened, burnt to char.

More of us need to sacrifice our comforts, our desires, our nafs so others can have basic human rights fulfilled. More of us must say no to blind consumerism, envious materialistic competition and the need for instant gratification so others can live. We may have the potential to turn into monsters, but we have exceedingly greater potential to be empathetic, selfless revolutionaries. Too many of us have been living for the here and now, but more of us need to actively start thinking about the future.

Do we want to raise generations that will break bread with the less fortunate or do we want to end up with vicious monsters who starve and murder those they deem unworthy? The monsters who continue to believe that they have been blessed with more, so others can be given less than they are entitled to.

It is time for change andthe change has to start from within these gates.

#justiceforuzma #justiceformaids

 

Support Our Dawah for Just $2 a Month

MuslimMatters has been a free service to the community since 2007. All it takes is a small gift from a reader like you to keep us going, for just $2 / month.

The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Continue Reading
.
.

MuslimMatters NewsLetter in Your Inbox

Sign up below to get started

Trending

you're currently offline