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Dawah and Interfaith

We Need To Progress; But Where To? Part 2


hotel.jpg This is the second part of a blog piece that asks:  The blog is divided-up into six reflection, the first three of which may be read here. What follows is the fourth of these reflections:

4. Keeping it Real or Being Crippled by Nostalgia?

Ever since the Prophet’s era, peace be upon him, Muslims have sought a divine meaning in socio-political vicissitudes. Triumph and victory was traditionally seen as a sign that Muslims, on the whole, were in a state of pleasing surrender to God’s will, and were being favoured with Heaven’s good grace. Humiliation or defeat, on the other hand, were seen as signs of a waning in the devoutness of the believers, and a weakening of the bonds between Heaven and the Muslim polity on earth. To this end, the Qur’an insists: Whatever good befalls you is from God, and whatever ill befalls you is from yourselves.14 Whatever calamity befalls you is for what your own hands have earned.15 God never changes the condition of a people unless they change what is in themselves.16

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Some see the Ottoman defeat at the second siege of Vienna, in 1683, as marking the watershed in the ummah’s fortunes. Others point to Napoleon’s occupation of Egypt, in 1798, as the tipping point. What is certain is that by the end of the nineteenth century, European intrusion into the Islamic world, along with its subsequent colonisation of it, was more or less complete. The once underrated West saw victory on the battlefield, in the marketplace, and eventually in almost all aspects of public and even private life. It was now that the collective Muslim conscience began to anguish over “What went wrong?”

The traditional response blamed a diminishing adherence to the prescriptions and duties sanctioned by faith (“But they abandoned the commands of God, so look what’s become of them.”). The class of Western-educated Muslims which was just emerging, in contrast, laid the blame upon what was actually being adhered to. In their view, traditional Islamic teachings was what had made the Muslim world stagnant and was impeding their progress. If Muslims desired freedom from colonialisation, and wished to regain their dignity and political independence, they would have to modernise institutions and education, and, above all, rethink religion. This, in a nutshell, was their analysis. Some of them forsook religion. Others sought – in the light of modern science, technology and philosophical thought – to modernise and reform religion (and in our time, call for its liberalisation and democratisation).

A desire to facilitate ease, evolvement to fit the times, apologists, colonised minds, buckling under pressure – whatever the motives were that spurred on these modernists and reformers, one thing was incontestable: the world had changed dramatically – the material world, as well as the world of ideas – and that change of some sort would be required by Muslims.

For modernists (and the ‘liberals’ who, in our time, have inherited the baton of reform and progress from them), it was clear that the pre-modern formulation of the shari’ah had not only run out of steam and creativity, but it had also lost its ability – and hence its relevance – to evolve and adapt law to ever-changing situations. Armed with this, and a bundle of other well-placed and misplaced convictions, they embarked on the project of radically reformulating Islam in order to bring it into modernity. Ostensibly, this seemed like a good thing. To this, the caution of Ibn Mas’ud – a leading scholar among the first generation of Muslims – comes swiftly to mind: “How many there are that intend good, yet never reach the good.”17

Unlike the secular modernists, who held the view that Islam should be totally cast aside, the more dominant trend in the modernist school sought to wed the basic values of Islam with a body of law suited to the needs of the modern age. To do this, however, they put traditional Islamic legal theory (usul al-fiqh) on the operating table and, wielding the scalpel of progress, cut away significant organs of this legal theory. Out went the concept of juristic consensus (ijma’); in its stead came “consensus of the community” – which even includes those of the community utterly untutored in law and legal theory! That all-important distinction between mujtahid-jurist and muqallid-layman was also sliced away.  In the age of CD-ROMs and global internet access, the modernists would soon insist, anyone literate in Arabic should have the right to investigate the sources of Islamic law; challenge past interpretations; and serve-up new DIY “ijtihads” to the now fragile Muslim world. There can be no surer way to strike a death blow to the Islamic faith than to undermine legal authority, fan the flames of religious anarchy, and encourage whimsical formulations of law. Inna li’Llahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.

The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “God does not take away knowledge by plucking it from the breasts of people, but He does so by bringing to an end the lives of the scholars (‘ulema). Until when no scholar remains, people will begin to appoint ignorant leaders for themselves who, when asked, will give verdicts without knowledge: themselves misguided and misguiding others.”18

The modernists’ surgery entailed a number of radical bypasses too. Traditional rules governing ambiguous, absolute, restricted, general and particular textual language was mostly abandoned, as was the concept of naskh: abrogation, and qiyas: analogy. The once marginal role that maslahah, or public welfare, played in classical legal theory was greatly amplified to become the backbone of this hodgepodge of a reformulation. Now, any so-called need or necessity could be used as a pretext to override, or to rationalise away, hitherto clear-cut Islamic injunctions – all in the name of “public interest”. It was not only apparent to traditionally-trained scholars, but to others too, that the new legal system was arbitrary, chaotic, lacked intellectual and methodological rigour and, above all, seemed to pay little more than lip service to the divine sources.19 No wonder, then, that the ‘ulema levelled charges of zandaqa; “heresy,” against much of the reformulations of the reformers. For modernists, though, what did the ‘ulema really know anyway. They were still “stuck in Madinah”.

No doubt, Islam is an inherently conservative tradition; and a cardinal tenet of such a tradition is to conserve and preserve revealed truths and protect it from attack. Pivotal to this are the ‘ulema. One hadith declares: “This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation. They shall rid from it the distortions of the extremists; the false claims of the liars; and the erroneous interpolations of the ignorant.”20

But such conservatism can be a double-edged sword. Though it may be able to preserve what is essential and precious, it has the potential – not only of being open, foreword-thinking and embracing – but of being closed, highly sectarian and repelling. Regrettably, some of the ultra-conservatives tend to characterise this narrowness only too well. It is equally true that most of today’s ‘ulema seem thoroughly stumped by modernity: their discourse about it barely extending beyond a few criticisms levelled at Western immorality and ungodliness. One Islamic legal maxim stipulates: hukm ‘ala shay’ far‘un ‘an tasawwurihi – “passing judgement about a thing comes after [correctly] conceptualising it.” So without understanding the ideologies and institutions that underpin modernity, how can we expect to come to grips with it and overcome it; or to at least navigate safely through it?


Yet all is not bleak. Some of the more nuanced and informed ‘ulema – observing the extremism of the radicals and the liberalism of the modernists, with a faint grin of disquiet and dismay – are at pains to iterate to us words of realism and sanity. The first thing they point out is that modernity is a juggernaut, and has a tendency to flatten anything that comes in its way. Therefore, clashing with it head-on is unwise; to say the very least. Nor should it be a case of its wholesale acceptance (or rejection). Muslims, they also point out, seem to have an endless fascination with short term political issues, yet are largely ignorant of the wider trends of which these issues are merely the passing manifestations. Unless we Muslims become conscious of the larger trends of the age, we will continue to flounder in our current predicament.

Secondly; having asserted the above, the ‘ulema then draw our attention to the following fact. That the goal of Islamic civilisation has never been scientific or material progress, but rather realising slavehood to God (tahqiq al-‘ubudiyyah) and perfecting the human soul. Its most holistic expression comes to us in the celebrated hadith of the Angel Gabriel,21 where he came to teach the Muslims that religion – in its entirety – is encompassed in the three dimensions of iman, islam and ihsan: beliefs, practice, and spiritual growth – or if you like: knowing, doing, and becoming.22 For Muslims – individuals and societies – actualising these three levels of human life is the real measure of our progress and success. Whatsmore, it won’t be hidden from those familiar with Islam’s religious texts and history, that the optimum balance to ever be achieved vis-a-via these three dimensions of religion was by the Muslim community in Madinah during the lifetime of the Prophet; peace be upon him. In fact, from then onwards, it was to be (with a few exceptions aside) downhill all the way. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: “No time will come upon you except the time after it will be worse than it; until you meet your Lord.”23 He also informed us: “The best of mankind is my generation; then those who follow them; then those who follow them.”24 The Qur’an itself has it: As for the foremost, the first of the Emigrants and the Helpers, and those who follow them in excellence, God is pleased with them, as they too are pleased with Him. He has prepared for them Gardens beneath which rivers flow, wherein they shall dwell forever. That is the supreme triumph.25 It is not surprising, then, that this epic and unique Quranic generation, as it has been called, is one that most Muslims look back upon with reverence, loyalty and a deep sense of nostalgia.

No doubt, nostalgia may so overcome some people that they can end-up trying to relive the past. The love affair with the Prophet’s Madinah can, if we are not careful, blur the distinction between what is descriptive in Madinah from what is prescriptive. But that, for the large part, may be remedied by following sound fiqh. Nostalgia for Madinah, as the more nuanced ‘ulema remind us, in no way implies ignoring our current reality and responsibilities. For loyalty to the past does not mean living in the past.

Lastly, they remind us that as the End of Days approaches, various “Signs of the Hour” are anticipated. Among them is the increase in social commotions, seditions and civil wars – collectively referred to as fitan (sing. fitnah). Here the hadiths tell us that, “There will be periods of commotion in which one who sits will be better than one who stands; one who stands will be better than one who walks; one who walks will be better than one who runs.”26 When asked what to do in such times, the Prophet instructed: “Keep to your houses, control your tongues, cling to what you approve, leave what you disapprove, attend to your own affairs, and avoid public affairs.”27 The eleventh century Shafi’i jurist and hadith master, al-Munawi, explains that keeping to your houses … clinging to what you approve means: keeping your head down and getting on with what benefits and concerns your spiritual and worldly well-being. Leaving what you disapprove mandates avoiding such affairs of people which you know to be contrary to the Sacred Law. This, along with thanking God for averting this iniquity from you, as well as censuring the wrong with civility, gentleness and patience, and with an inward serenity born of a conviction that – despite things seeming bleak – all is in God’s hand, and all is unfolding according to the divine plan. Avoiding the affairs of the general public, as al-Munawi says, implies that when enjoining good or forbidding evil is more likely to be ineffective at rectifying a fitnah or a social ill – either because of it being so widespread; or too entrenched; or one simply fears for their own safety in doing so – there is a dispensation to not engage the wrong or seek to check it. However, one is still duty bound by faith to detest the wrong inwardly, and to knuckle down and carry out the cardinal demands made by religion.28

Though scholars point out that the circumstance warranting this type of social disengagement hasn’t quite come to a head yet, they do speak about significant parallels between such times and our current one. So what do they counsel? By no means are they agreed upon a detailed plan or response. But for some time now a consensus has begun to emerge among them about the most appropriate course of action. Since modernity is a one-way street and religion positioned in the wrong direction, the ‘ulema realise that any forward motion is fraught with difficulty and danger. They are aware, too, of the need to steer a path between mindlessly reacting to modernity and timidly retreating from it.

Priority, they stress, is for Muslims to learn and maintain the fard al-‘ayn: those duties that are a personal obligation for each Muslim to know and fulfil. They also underscore living according to the Prophet’s Sunnah, peace be upon him, wherever we can; as much as we can. This applies to the private sphere. As for the public space, the advice here is more nebulous. Are we obliged to challenge modernity square on and brazenly confront its decadent wrongs? A mixture of textual indicants, received wisdoms, experience and hindsight have all worked together to make this an intemperate option as far as most ‘ulema are concerned. Any militant conflictual policy is more likely to harm Islam than anything else. Instead, do what you can in the public space, is what they advise, and begin to develop strong civil institutions: religious, educational and social. Furthermore, start to form Alliances of Virtue with like-minded non-Muslims in order to help build a better society – alliances aimed at working for justice, accommodation and coexistence.

What this requires is for us to adopt a far more nuanced, wiser and courageous approach; albeit one where the balanced and spiritual nature of Islam can better manifest itself, and where it can also retain its voice as a prophetically-inspired dissent whilst engaging the realities of the modern world. This sacred function of Muslims being dissenting witnesses is based on the verse: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be a witness over mankind, and that the Messenger may be a witness over you.29

With this being said, what of the “liberal” question? That is to say, what about the concerns highlighted by “liberal Islam” and the modern, liberal world: the issue of womens’ equality, democracy, human rights, freedom of thought and progress, separation of church and state? Can, as many in the West now ask, traditional Islam fit a modern, liberal world, or are they simply incompatible? Is there one voice with which traditionalists speak, or are there diverse voices?These are some of the themes to be discussed in the third and final part of this blog, God-willing.



14. Qur’an 4:79.

15. Qur’an 42:30.

16. Qur’an 13:11.

17. Al-Darami, Sunan, 1:68-9.

18. Al-Bukhari, no.34; Muslim, no.2673.

19. As per the observations of Wael B. Hallaq in his A History of Islamic Legal Theories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 211, 261.

Coulson noted that, “Strict theorists may, and indeed do, object to the activities of the reformers on the ground that the interpretation of the divine texts should be purely objective, while so-called modern “ijtihad” amounts to little more than forcing from the divine texts that particular interpretation which agrees with preconceived standards subjectively determined.” A History of Islamic Law (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1964), 216.

20. Al-Bayhaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, 10:209; al-Khatib, Sharafu Ashab al-Hadith, no.50. Al-Qastalani, Irshad al-Sari, 1:4, grades the hadith hasan since its many chains strengthen one another.

21. Cf. Muslim, Sahih, no.8. The complete English text may be found in Ibrahim & Johnson-Davies (trans.), An-Nawawi’s Forty Hadith (Beirut: Dar al-Koran al-Kareem, 1983), 28-33.

22. They can also be expressed as: intending, worshipping, and witnessing; or as: law (shari’ah); path (tariqah); and reality (haqiqah). Cf. Ibn Ajibah, Iqaz al-Himam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2008), 23.

23. Al-Bukhari, no.7068.

24. Al-Bukhari, no.2652; Muslim, no.2533.

25. Qur’an 9:100.

26. Al-Bukhari, no.3601; Muslim, 2886.

27. Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4342. Its chain is hasan, as per al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, n.d.), no.626; and sahih, as per al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma’arif, 1995), no.205.

28. Cf. Fayd al-Qadir, 1:353.

29. Qur’an 2:143.

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Abu Aaliyah is the founder of The Jawziyyah Institute, a leading institute for Islamic moderation and contemporary thought in the United Kingdom. Sidi Abu Aaliyah has been in involved in Dawah and Islamic teachings since 1986. He has translated a number of books from the Arabic language into English such as "The Exquisite Pearls". Abu Aaliyah's written works and audio lectures can be found online.



  1. Ibn Masood

    December 11, 2008 at 2:18 AM

    MashAllah Shaykh JazakAllah khair,

    A Stunning Part II to an amazing Part 1. Looking forward to the end of the trilogy inshAllah =)

  2. Dawud Israel

    December 11, 2008 at 5:08 AM

    A keeper that’s for sure. Keep the rhythm of it.

    The number of things one has to factor into discussions of these sorts are too many, and I think that’s why it’s the most challenging topic this Ummah faces. But it’s good to see it being discussed.

  3. Mustapha

    December 11, 2008 at 7:40 AM


    JazzakAllah for the articles brother Abu Aliyah. It may be good to give some examples of who these modernists and progressives are. Many of us are not very nuanced on this subject and to fully comprehend the points your forwarding I would appreciate it if you could give some examples? The reason why akhi, is that to some, people like Dr Tariq Ramadan would be considered a ‘modernist’ who is compromising many of the ‘fundamentals of the din’ and to others he may be a scholar trying to balance tradition and modern challenges. While some will hold Dr al-Qaradawi a liberal modernist and others will give him the title of Shaykhul Islam. I hope you could shed some light?


  4. Solomon2

    December 11, 2008 at 9:22 AM

    AA, do you think the observations of “the more nuanced and informed ‘ulema” are a fair and complete summary of the common ground between the conservatives and the modernists?

  5. abu abdAllah, the Houstonian

    December 11, 2008 at 9:42 AM

    innalhamdolillah. bismillah. jazak Allah khayr, shaykh abu aaliyah. may Allah increase the benefit of your works. ameen.

  6. abu abdAllah, the Houstonian

    December 11, 2008 at 10:31 AM

    bismillah. shaykh abu aaliyah, i pray that Allah will only increase you in beneficial knowledge and wisdom, and that we will benefit from it all, inshaAllah.

    please allow me to quote from part 1, and then pose a question to you.

    To add some sense of nuance, I’d like to sub-divide the traditionalists into two groups, thus giving us three broad responses to change…

    As for the modernists, it is difficult to pigeon-hole them into a single unified narrative. Modernism is more of a rubric for a number of diverse ideas, trends and peoples: reformists, liberals, progressivists, secularists. What may be said to characterise them all is their jettisoning of tradition which, in Islam’s case, refers to an unbroken chain of learning and received wisdoms reaching all the way back to our Prophet, peace be upon him. Tradition is backward looking; it suffocates progress; it’s a relic of the past, the modernists would have us believe.

    as i read the three groups you have offered, and as i consider the little i have studied of the history of Islam, i wonder where does one place groups that claim to be responding to change but are in fact initiating radical changes of their own. doesn’t one have to lump them in with the modernists because whenever these groups do look to authentic sources they do so selectively and with disregard to any authorities that contradict their agendas?

    for example, even the khawaarij could be characterized as responding to change. but those who never recanted had to ignore the arguments of the sahabah, to ignore Qur’an and sunnah that contradicted their radical plans, to ignore the students of the Prophet sull Allaho alayhi wa sallam. in our own times, modern khawaarijists often put on the trappings of ultraconservatives — claiming to be defenders of Islam, to be restoring Islam, or at least to be adhering to the fundamentals of Islam — but they pick, choose, and ignore sources to justify what can only be called villainy.

    so to me they seem to be very much closer to the modernists than to the two groups of traditionalists you discuss.

    finally, i do not know if you have any plans (or desire) to be in Texas at the end of December, but i know all of us here in Houston would love to see you at TDC.

  7. IbnAbbas

    December 11, 2008 at 12:05 PM

    Assalaamu a’laikum

    jazakallahu khairan katheeran for such another thought-provoking post. As it was requested on Part 1, it would be best if you could examples of some ‘modern’ and other groups in our times because many laymen like us may misundersand one for another.

    Shaykh, please make your visit more frequent on the forum and continue to share your wisdom with us inshAllah :)

    p.s. we’re still eagerly waiting for Part 2 on the Taqlid topic inshAllah.

  8. Algebra

    December 11, 2008 at 9:35 PM

    I have to go home right now but i LOVED that FACT that you gave REFERENCES to your WORK.Mash’Allah!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i am going to forward this article to my brothers and i am sure my sisters are really going to love this article as much as I have enjoyed………..
    you made my day.
    I am so impressed by your writing, Mashallahsalam

  9. J

    December 13, 2008 at 7:18 PM

    The reason why akhi, is that to some, people like Dr Tariq Ramadan would be considered a ‘modernist’ who is compromising many of the ‘fundamentals of the din’ and to others he may be a scholar trying to balance tradition and modern challenges. While some will hold Dr al-Qaradawi a liberal modernist and others will give him the title of Shaykhul Islam. I hope you could shed some light?

    Some (ill-mannered) people even say Ustadh Yasir Qadhi is a modernist, and that Muslim-Matters is also a modernist website!! Or that Hamza Yusuf and Zaytuna are modernists, SunniPath are modernists, etc.

    It seems that the word ‘modernist’ is very subjective. To some people, *I’d* be a modernist and so would MM, YQ, SunniPath, HY, etc. Yet, to others, we’d all be considered ‘fundamentalists’. I guess it just depends on who you hang out with. If you hang with people to the left of you, they will say you are a fundamentalist, and if you hang with people on the right of you, they will say you are a modernist.

  10. Mustapha

    December 14, 2008 at 4:14 PM

    Thank you for that J, I concur with your comments completely. It would be beneficial if brother Abu Aliyah could give some examples?


  11. Nomadic

    January 1, 2011 at 1:06 PM

    It is nice to see Sidi Abu Aliya articulating what most scholar grounded in tradition have been stating. In the age of self delusion of grandeur, muslim ignorant of history or islamic sciences do not hesitate to air opinions in matters of deen. Too many people are refered to as shaikh when some of these people simply gone through some of relegious syllabus without demonstrating their capability. Hence we have people with no ijaja/ permission in the relevent field desiminating information causing much of the most present day confusion. It seem all one needs is to to have a good advertising team. Substance is replaced shallow media hype. How many times have we heard so called young scholar ‘Shaikh’ from other part of the world with little scholastic credential parting advice in local matters. Indeed good intention can not replace due process. This is exactly what we are witnessing every day in UK. Relegion has become a source of entertainment for the people suffering from new money syndrome.

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