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Shaykh Salman al-Oadah | The Four Imams: Leaders of a Third Way

If we look back on the lives of the four imams – Abū Hanifah, Mālik b. Anas, al-Shāfi`ī, and Ahmad b. Hanbal – we find that they were extremely tolerant people. They were respectful of their contemporaries, predecessors and the earlier generations of Muslims, whether they agreed with their views or not. Indeed, they followed the example of their predecessors in being tolerant of differences.

Allah says: “And those who came (into the faith) after them say: Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who were before us in the faith, and place not in our hearts any rancour toward those who believe. Our Lord! You are full of kindness, most merciful.” [Sūrah al-Hashr: 10]

The four imams — the leading scholars who founded the four canonical schools of Islamic Law — never allowed past disagreements to cause them to disparage or raise suspicions about the people of an earlier generation who held divergent views. Likewise, they never called for an inquest of their contemporaries who disagreed with them and they never got involved in their affairs except in a positive way.

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The four imams certainly disagreed with one another and with other jurists of their day, but they always maintained their calm in debate and disagreed respectfully. They never permitted others who spread their ideas to use their teachings as a source of conflict or as a means to cause division.

It could possibly be that the principle they developed, of coexistence in the face of changing political and social circumstances, came as a result of their engaging with the substantial societal changes they witnessed during the era in which they lived. They recognized a need to develop a clear and precise approach to respond to such changes.

It can be observed that none of the four imams ever accepted an official political post, not as judge nor magistrate nor anything else. At the same time, they also never constituted themselves as a political opposition. They never gave their support to the government’s political opponents, even though all four imams times suffered government persecution on account of accusations that they did. However, a close examination of the imams’ historical circumstances shows that such accusations were baseless. Instead, they were victims of the old idea: “You are either with us or against us.”

Their insistence on intellectual autonomy is what brought such suspicion upon them, along with how unscrupulous people would sometimes manipulate their statements and interpret their juristic verdicts for various political ends.

In truth, the four imams represented a third way: neither aligning themselves with the interests of those in power nor with the political opposition. This allowed them to carry out a vital leadership role of their own in maintaining social stability in a society made up of a number of contending factions: between the ruling class and the populace, as well as between a bewildering array of ideological factions and intellectual movements, not to mention ethnic and tribal differences. After all this, we can understand how they were so good at tolerating the disagreements of their colleagues among the various schools of Islamic jurisprudence!

They all kept a measured distance from the various contending elements in society while remaining fully connected to society. This made it possible for them to be a point of stability and balance, which protected Islamic civilization from a great deal of conflict, strife, and social disintegration.

The role they played in their times is all the more needed today with our widening social and class disparity and a weakened culture of tolerance, conditions that promote conflict whenever conditions are ripe for it.

The presence of an autonomous knowledge-based mediating authority is needed to act as a a source of strength for the weak and a moderating influence on the strong, to arbitrate in matters, and to impart to society the values of tolerance and mutual understanding. There is a need for those who can speak out for justice and the inalienable rights that are needed to ensure peace and security in any country, and which can prevent violent factions and extremist movements of whatever persuasion from developing.

The world contains nations where you find a strong government and an equally strong civil society. They are held together by organizing principles and their vital, political, social, and charitable institutions. This is what makes the government strong through its people and the people strong through their government.

Most Muslim countries do not enjoy this balancing of institutional power, essential for stability and continuity, which comes from the presence of mediating institutions that are widely recognized and accepted on both an official and popular level, institutions whose role is often only appreciated when their loss leads to the erosion of society.

Ideological and partisan disagreements, religious differences, and other potential sources of division do not inevitably lead to conflict and strife. Allah says in the Qur’ān: “It is He who has spread out the Earth for all His creatures.” [Sūrah al-Rahmān: 10]

Within the sphere of Islam, matters are referred back to universal principles and the legitimate needs of life that Islam upholds. When such a reference becomes impracticable due to the severity of the disagreement tor disparity of the parties involved and the matter cannot be brought to a resolution through dialogue, there still remains a broader circle for coexistence: the one of: “knowing one another” referred to in the verse: “O humankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that you may come to know one another.” [Sūrah al-Hujurāt: 13]

This coming to know one another, this mutual and reciprocal knowledge of the other, is the foundation for social relationships necessitating goodwill, justice, and kindness.

It is possible that through such relationships you will realize your own best interests as well as those of the people you disagree with at one and the same time. We see this in so many aspects of life: commercial dealings, in public administration, health, development, and industry.

Returning to the four imams, it needs to be pointed out that the disagreements between them in Islamic Law were nothing compared to the disagreements that existed among the Companions and Successors. Moreover, they introduced through their own juristic efforts a number of opinions that were new to their generation. Therefore, it is wrong for anyone to claim that their views abrogate the views of their predecessors and exclude all views other than theirs.

The later scholars who worked within the framework of one of the four schools of law, though they did not usually go off in an entirely independent direction, never ceased to engage in choosing between different opinions and deducing new rulings on the basis of precedent. I have studied the legal preferences of the preeminent Hanbalī jurist Ibn Qudāmah, and found that he sometimes adopted a position that was at variance to what was adopted by all four schools of thought. He did so after acknowledging and discussing all of their received opinions. His judgments in these cases are often quite erudite and impressive.

We can find similar cases among the jurists of all four schools of law. This is because the views of the Companions, Successors, and other jurists are no less important than the views of the four imams. They were also from the earliest Muslim generations and theirs is a rich and valuable legacy which has been preserved for us in works like the Musannaf of `Abd al-Razzāq, the Musannaf of Ibn Abī Shaybah, and the writings of Ibn Mundhir.

When we look at the magnitude of the changes taking place in the world today, we can appreciate the value of there being such a broad spectrum of opinion during the earliest days of Islam. Their contributions should not be ignored, since they enrich our understanding of Islamic Law. Though there may have been times in the history of Muslim civilization that such a plurality of opinion was unnecessary for society to function, our present age is certainly not one of those times.

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Siraaj is the Operations Director of MuslimMatters as well as its new lead web developer. He's spent nearly two decades working in dawah organizations, starting with his chapter MSA in Purdue University, and leading efforts with AlMaghrib Institute, MuslimMatters, and AlJumuah magazine. Somewhere in there, he finds time for his full-time profession as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. He holds a bachelor's in Computer Science from Purdue University and a Master's certificate from UC Berkeley. He's very married and has 5 wonderful children

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Pingback: Shaykh Salman al-Oadah | The Four Imams: Leaders of a Third Way | allah.eu

  2. Avatar

    abu Yunus

    May 10, 2011 at 1:24 AM

    Neither did the imaam say that you should leave the hadeeth and follow our opinion; something which many blind-followers of madhhabs do. In fact, they said the opposite. Hence, a lot of of claimants of these madhhabs are just that, they are not actual adherents.

  3. Avatar

    Ghazala

    May 10, 2011 at 1:34 AM

    Slamu ‘alaikum wr wb

    Jazakallahu khairan for an insightful article. May Allah give all these Imams Jannatul Firdaous. But I have always wondered why the difference of opinion of these Imams exists, when everything they say be it commands or prohibitions, rulings or justifications all can be traced back to the Qur’an and Sunnah. I have asked many many people and never been satisfied with the responses.

    Also why does one have to follow just 1 Imam and not all, for example Hanafi maslak says Qasar applies after distance ‘X’, while Hambali may say, it applies after distance ‘Y’ and both can be traced back to the Prophet. Why can I not shorten my Salah, say in one situation after dis. ‘X’ and in another situation after dis. ‘Y’ ?

    Thirdly why must one follow a Maslak. Simply following the Qur’an and Sunnah should suffice. To me if the Qur’an says it or the Prophet’s Sunnah or Hadith prove it or the Ijtima of scholars agrees upon it, I do it, otherwise I don’t. I do not follow any Maslak, am I wrong in that case?

    Please respond in detail as I have asked so many people including learned ones but I cannot understand any of this for the life of me, neither can I explain it to my children.

    Barak Allahu Feekum
    Ghazala

    • Avatar

      mohammad taha

      May 10, 2011 at 7:20 AM

      even i cannot understand the difference between the imams .what could have been the reason —maybe they could’nt ,meet each other ,or their works could not be mutually compared ,surely they were not arrogant not to learn each others point of view and looking forward to reconcile.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj

      May 10, 2011 at 7:25 PM

      Salaam alaykum Ghazala,

      Often looking at the same evidences, scholars might come to different conclusions about what was meant, or whether something was a requirement or a recommendation. Throughout time, our scholars have been exposed to various intellectual influences that affect the way they process the Qur’aan and Sunnah (not a bad thing), and this can lead to different conclusions when constructing rulings.

      The differences are really not the problem – the problem is how people deal with it. When differences are respected, then the mercy in them is apparent because it reminds us that we cannot be perfect and though we are imperfect, so long as we are trying to please Allah, we can expect that our actions will be accepted.

      When differences are not respected, the mercy turns into a nightmare of broken brotherhood and hyper partisan bickering in masjids, communities, and even ethnic groups.

      Siraaj

      • Avatar

        Abu Yusuf

        May 10, 2011 at 8:43 PM

        Brother memoni has indeed made a valid point about not letting the differences of opinion bifurcate communities or even split them asunder. Lots of minor things should not even be debated (where to hold the hands during salaah, to wag the index finger or hold it firm during tashhahhud, to eat Christian meat or stick only to Muslim-slaughtered meat, etc).

        One point to note about broad spectrums of opinions is that this does not mean acceptance of the dictums of clearly deviant branches such as the Isma’eelis, Rawaafid, Nusayrites, Saint-worshipping Sufis, etc. It only means acceptance of differences of opinion within the sunni methodology and aqeedah.

        I’m curious about the author of the article though. Had not Dr. Salman Aoudah fallen into disfavor and jailed by the erudite and forbearing scholar ibn Baaz and had not his tapes been banned and distribution of his literature condemned? I hope the case has eased upon the brother and unity and halcyon days exist.

    • Avatar

      Mezba

      May 11, 2011 at 9:59 AM

      Pick whichever ruling you like according to the situation – if they are all correct it shouldn’t matter. Islam came before the madhabs anyways, and I also read when one of the Imam was visiting another imam’s house, he prayed the way the host imam said, and not according to his own ruling. When people asked, he said it was to honour his host. So if the imams can pick and choose, so should we according to our situations. Quran says in Surah Taha Islam has not come to make our lives harder.

      • Avatar

        Siraaj

        May 11, 2011 at 5:29 PM

        Salaam alaykum mezba

        They aren’t all correct. They strove to find what is correct, but that doesn’t mean they always did. They strove to understand the truth according to their capacity and teach it to others. What is accurate to say is that they are not they are not held accountable for mistakes, nor are we in following them provided our goal is to please allah.

        Statements like “Islam came to make things easy” should be placed in better context – praying 5 times daily is not easy, as musa clearly understood and tried to have the prophet get a reduction, knowing well that he majority of people would not do it (and it’s true).

        Islam is submission to Allah and not situations. If our situation allows for options, then we can exercise those options as we like, but if not, then we should be careful of scapegoating multiple opinions to avoid a little discomfort.

        Siraaj

        • Avatar

          Nahyan

          May 12, 2011 at 12:42 AM

          @Siraaj – just wanted to bold in your response: we should be careful of scapegoating multiple opinions to avoid a little discomfort.. Well put.

          @Mezba – The fuqaha are rewarded even if they concluded incorrectly and rewarded doubly for coming to the right ruling. So validity doesn’t equal “correct”.

          The switching you’re talking about must have knowledge basis (if that applies to the situation) rather than being for convenience. Then we’re kinda writing our own customized Islam. Know what I mean?

  4. Avatar

    Sajjad

    May 10, 2011 at 8:24 AM

    Salam alaykum , Sis Ghazala, You have rightly said or indicated that the way is One, i would recommened you the lecture of brother bilal philips which itself is named as the way is one…

    Please find the lecture on islamhouse.com

    Here is the link :- http://www.islamhouse.com/d/files/en/ih_sounds/single/en_The_Way_is_One.mp3

  5. Avatar

    Answer

    May 10, 2011 at 10:13 AM

    Remember, all the scholars always claimed to be following the Quran and Sunnah. Once that is established, human beings being human beings, differ and see things differently (i.e. see the same evidence differently).

    This happens to us, for example, when someone asks you to rate an abstract painting. One person thinks it’s terrible while another thinks it’s great. There is no definitive way of saying why they differ… Differences are a mercy, and a God-sent.

  6. Avatar

    F

    May 10, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    Excellent article. If one look at the history of the Muslims over the last 1000 years, many of the problems have stemmed from an improper distribution of power between the various institutions. Therefore, we end up often with the khalifa/dictator who can do whatever he wants without any checks and balances.

  7. WAJiD

    WAJiD

    May 11, 2011 at 12:36 PM

    Asalaam Alaikum,

    Whilst I very much agree with the sentiments expressed in this article (i.e. independent scholarship is vital + the principle of accepting that there is a range of acceptable differences of opinion) I just wanted to point out that this statement is not historically accurate:

    “They never gave their support to the government’s political opponents, even though all four imams times suffered government persecution on account of accusations that they did.”

    Imam Abu Hanifa financially and morally supported the Abassids against the Umayyads during the revolution that overthrew the latter for the former. Although, the point br. Siraaj makes about them not getting excessively involved stands.

    • Avatar

      Siraaj

      May 11, 2011 at 5:34 PM

      Actually, this shaykh Salman al oadahs article, not mine.

  8. Avatar

    Hfzshk

    May 11, 2011 at 6:26 PM

    Rather than wondering why the differences, why not look at it as Allah azza wa jal in his infinite mercy has created men capable of making differing opinions as a mercy to human kind. Can you imagine if there was only one way and that was it? I known i would struggle like mad.

    Jazakallah

  9. Avatar

    Ghazala

    May 12, 2011 at 8:05 AM

    Jazakumullahu khairan everyone for your insightful input and also the link :)
    It is indeed wonderful to be part of a universal Muslim ‘Ummah. Alhamdulillah.
    Off tangent, I hope some one can soon come up with a program for the youth, esp. with Summer break in (today’s the last day for Universities, in the south) . Not just suggestions and advice but something that says, today- watch this video or read that article with links provided, books suggested…..

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#Culture

Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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History and Seerah

Podcast: Five Historic Events That Rocked The World During Ramadan | Dr. Muhammad Wajid Akhter

We all know that Ramadan is the month of fasting, abstinence and reflection. Ramadan also just happens to be a month of awesome history defining events that shaped the world we live in today.

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Aqeedah and Fiqh

Prosperity Islam And The Coronavirus Problem

Hadith: “Hasten to perform good deeds before seven events: Are you waiting for poverty that makes you forgetful? Or wealth that burdens you? Or a debilitating disease or senility? Or an unexpected death or the False Messiah? Or is it evil in the unseen you are waiting for? Or the Hour itself? The Hour will be bitter and terrible.

Islam encompasses all of human experience. We believe in the good and bad from divine decree. The ‘problem of evil’ is not a Muslim dilemma because the abode of this world is a test, and the next life is the abode of recompense. Those who do evil in this world may enjoy comfortable and pleasurable lives. Pious Muslims on the other hand may live in immense suffering and oppression.

One’s state with Allah is not known through worldly position.

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The Quran has lots of mention of suffering in this world and the reward for the pious is constantly in the hereafter. Distance from the Quran distances us from what our Creator told us about living in His world.

Habituation to feel-good religious programs and motivational talks has left us unable to know how to be serious. The Coronavirus pandemic should be all the motivation we need for serious learning and hasten to good deeds.

New-age religion and the prosperity gospel

Modern Islamic discourse intertwines notions of sulook (spiritual wayfaring) with new-age spiritual ideas which make spiritual progression a self-centering endeavor of ‘personal development.’ Missing from this discourse is submission to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), which entails doing what one is obliged to do- even if there is no apparent personal win. A self-centering religious perspective is antithetical to true religion, and ironically a spiritual pursuit becomes a selfish pursuit.

Within this approach, we see our practice of Islam not in terms of fulfilling obligations or understanding we must develop virtues we lack; rather we approach Islam as consumers and form identities around how we choose to be Muslim. This is visible on marriage apps where Muslims will brand themselves around how often they pray, whether or not they eat halal, and how practicing they are. Once this identity is formed, such Muslims are less likely to experience contrition and ultimately improve. The self is then a commodity on the marriage market.

When it comes to worship, for example, giving charity becomes an ‘act of kindness’ to fill the quota of selfless acts to becoming a better person. In other instances, acts of worship are articulated in worldly language, such as fasting in Ramadan being a weight-loss opportunity. One can make multiple intentions, but health benefits of fasting should not be used to articulate the primary benefit of fasting. In other instances, some opt to not pray, simply because they don’t feel spiritual enough to pray. This prioritizes feelings over servitude, but follows from a ‘self’ focused religious mentality.

Much like the prosperity Gospel, Muslims have fallen into the trap of teaching religion as a means of worldly success. While it is true that the discipline, commitment, and work ethic of religious progression can be used for material success, it is utterly false that religious status is on any parallel with material status.

Too many Sunday schools and conferences have taught generations that being a good Muslim means being the best student, having the best jobs, and then displaying the power of Islam to non-Muslims via worldly success and a character that is most compliant to rules. Not only does this type of religion cater to the prosperous and ignore those suffering, it leaves everyone ill prepared for the realities of life. It comes as a shock to many Muslims then that bad things can happen even when you work hard to live a good life. The prosperity gospel has tainted our religious teachings, and the pandemic of COVID19 is coming as a shock difficult for many to process in religious terms. There will be a crisis when bad things happen to good people if we are not in touch with our scripture and favor a teaching focused on worldly gains.

Why it leads to misunderstanding religion

Tribulations, persecution, and events that are outside of our control do not fit the popular self-help form of religion that is pervasive today. Islam means submission, and while we must avoid fatalism, we cannot delude ourselves into idolatry of the self. An Islam that focuses on our individual life journey and finding ourselves has no room for the ‘bad stuff.’ This type of religion favors well-to-do Muslims who are used to the illusion of control and the luxuries of self-improvement. Those who believe that if you are good then God will give you good things in this world will have a false belief shattered and understand the world is not the abode of recompense for the believer.

Islam means submission, and while we must avoid fatalism, we cannot delude ourselves into idolatry of the self.Click To Tweet

Tribulations may then effect faith because it questions the often subconscious teachings of prosperity gospel versions of Islam that we are in control of our own destiny, if we are good enough we will succeed. If this is the basis of a person’s faith, it can be proven “wrong” by any level of tribulation. Having one’s ‘faith’ disproven is terrifying but it should make us ask the question: “Does this mean that Islam is not true, or does this mean that my understanding and my way of living Islam are not true?”

My advice is do not avoid struggle or pain by ignoring it or practicing “patience” just thinking that you are a strong Muslim because you can conquer this pain without complaint. Running from pain and not feeling pain will catch up to us later. Learn from it. Sometimes when we are challenged, we falter. We ask why, we question, we complain, and we struggle. We don’t understand because it doesn’t fit our understanding of Islam. We need a new understanding and that understanding will only come by living through the pain and not being afraid of the questions or the emptiness.

Our faith needs to be able to encompass reality in its good and bad, not shelter us from reality because, ultimately, only God is Real.

Unlearn false teachings

Prosperity religion makes it much easier to blame the person who is suffering and for the one suffering to blame himself. As believers we take the means for a good life in this world and the next, but recognize that acceptance of good actions is only something Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows, and that life is unpredictable.

Favor from God is not reflected through prosperity. It is a form of idolatry to believe that you can control God or get what you want from God, and this belief cannot even stand up to a distanced tragedy.

Responding appropriately requires good habits.

Tribulations are supposed to push us towards God and remind us to take life very seriously. Even with widespread calamity and suffering, many of us still have a very self-centered way of understanding events and do not hasten to good actions.

For example, reaching old age is supposed to be an opportunity to repent, spend more time in prayer, and to expatiate for shortcomings. Old age itself is a reminder that one will soon return to his Lord.

However, we see many of today’s elders not knowing how to grow old and prepare for death. Most continue in habits such as watching television or even pick up new habits and stay glued to smart phones. This is unfortunate but natural progression to a life void of an Islamic education and edification.

Similarly we are seeing that Muslims do not know what to do in the midst of a global crisis. Even the elderly are spending hours reading and forwarding articles related to Covid-19 on different WhatsApp groups. This raises the question of what more is needed to wake us up. This problem is natural progression of a shallow Islamic culture that caters to affluence, prosperity, and feel-good messaging. Previous generations had practices such as doing readings of the Quran, As-Shifa of Qadi Iyad, Sahih al-Bukhari, or the Burda when afflicted with tribulations.

If we are playing video games, watching movies, or engaging in idle activities there is something very wrong with our state. We need to build good habits and be persistent regardless of how spiritual those habits feel, because as we are seeing, sudden tribulations will not just bestow upon us the ability to repent and worship. The point of being regimented in prayer and invocations is that these practices themselves draw one closer to God, and persisting when one does not feel spiritual as well as when one does is itself a milestone in religious progression.

While its scale is something we haven’t seen in our lifetime, it’s important to recognize the coronavirus pandemic as a tribulation.  The response to tribulation should be worship and repentance, and a reminder that ‘self-improvement’ should not be a path to becoming more likable or confident only, but to adorn our hearts with praiseworthy qualities and rid them of blameworthy qualities. Death can take any of us at any moment without notice, and we will be resurrected on a day where only a sound heart benefits.

Our religious education and practice should be a preparation for our afterlife first and foremost. Modeling our religious teachings in a worldly lens has left many of us unable to deal with tribulations to the point where we just feel anxiety from the possibility of suffering. This anxiety is causing people to seek therapy. It is praiseworthy for those who need to seek therapy, and noble of therapists to give the service, but my point is the need itself serves as a poignant gauge for how much our discourse has failed generations.

Benefit from Solitude

We should use solitude to our benefit, reflect more, and ponder the meanings of the Quran.  Completing courses on Seerah, Shamail, Arabic, or Fiqh would also be good uses of time. What should be left out however are motivational talks or short lectures that were given in communal events. In such gatherings, meeting in a wholesome environment is often the goal, and talks are compliments to the overall atmosphere. When that atmosphere is removed, it would be wise to use that normally allotted time for more beneficial actions. Instead of listening to webinars, which are not generally building an actual knowledge base that the previously mentioned courses would, nor is it a major act of worship like reading and reflecting upon the Quran. In other words, our inspirational talks should lead us to action, and studying is one of the highest devotional acts.

The pandemic should serve as sufficient inspiration and we need to learn how to be serious. I urge Muslims to ignore motivational and feel-good lectures that are now feel-good webinars, and focus on studying and worshipping. We should really ask if we just lack the capacity to move beyond motivational lectures if we still need motivation in the midst of a global pandemic.  The fact that after years of programming the destination is not the Quran for ‘processing events’ or studying texts for learning is symptomatic of a consciously personality oriented structure.

Muslims struggling to process a pandemic (opposed to coping with associated tragedies, such as loved ones dying or suffering) show the lack of edification feel good talks can produce.

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