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Yasir Qadhi | The Definition of “Travel” (safar) According to Islamic Law | Part 2

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Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Continued from Part 1

1.5 The Distance in Modern Measurements

So what exactly does a ‘day’s journey’ mean? Not surprisingly, there is no easy method of converting classical measurements into modern ones. It appears that many researchers (classical and modern) did not pay due attention to scientifically converting such measurements into modern ones. What follows is my brief attempt to illustrate the hurdles that one faces.

The standard units of measurement for travel during early Islam were thefarsakh and the barīd. However, the Prophetic traditions use the term ‘day’s travel’. So the first issue at hand is to convert the Prophetic ‘day’s travel’ into the classical terms of farsakh andbarīd. Before we even begin that, let us first define these terms and establish a relationship between them.

barīd was a distance that a messenger could travel before he needed to stop to allow his animal to rest. If the message was urgent, then at the end of every barīd there would be a fresh animal waitingfor him. Eventually, the term began to be applied to the ‘messenger’ himself and then to the actual ‘message’, hence modern Arabs still call the postal service ‘barīd’.[1]

farsakh appears to be a Persian measurement that the Arabs adopted (it was also adopted by the British and called a ‘league’). Most early works mention that four farsakhsmake up one barīd.[2] So it can be said that each barīd is divided into four smaller units of afarsakh (plural is farāsikh).

barīd = 4 farāsikh

So far, so good. Now the real confusion begins.

The first real issue is: How many barīds can be traversed in a 24-hour period? Unfortunately, this is not something that is unanimously agreed upon, and it is this difference of conversion that results in one difference of opinion over the number of days required to consider someone a ‘traveler’.

Collectively, the Ḥanbalīs, Shāfʿīs and Mālikīs all agreed that the distance of ‘travel’ wasfour barīds. However, they disagreed amongst themselves as to what exactly this meant in terms of ‘days of travel’. Some within these schools said that in any 24-hour period, a maximum of two barīds could be traversed; other scholars within these same schools, however, said that four barīds could be traversed in one 24-hour period. It is because of this conversion difference that these three schools of law had opinions of both one-day and two-days as being the minimal amount of ‘travel’.

One day’s travel = EITHER two barīds OR four barīds [both opinions held]

What is important for us to note is that these three schools were in agreement with the limit as being ‘four barīds’.

Therefore, for the ‘three schools’,

Sharʿī distance of travel = 4 barīds = 16 farāsikh [For the ‘3 schools’]

This is the opinion of the schools of law other than the Ḥanafī school. As for the Ḥanafīs, they also disagreed regarding how many farsakhs can be traversed in a day [and there is significant disagreement amongst their own scholars as well].

In order to simplify matters, the majority opinion within the Ḥanafī school appears to be that five farāsikh can be traveled in a 24-hour period [note that some Ḥanafī scholars said six, some said seven].[3]

Thus, for this school:

Sharʿī distance of travel = 3-day journey = 3 days x 5 farāsikh/day = 15 farāsikh [Ḥanafī school]

Ironically, even though the Ḥanafīs have a larger quantity in terms of travel days, because the actual journey traveled per day is shorter, the net difference was not of great significance.

Therefore, in the end, all four schools of law are relatively close to one another in terms offarāsikh (16 or 15).

The second dilemma that we face is: How exactly does one translate a farsakh into the modern measurements of miles and kilometers? Obviously, depending on one’s estimate of a farsakh, the distance of a day’s journey will vary accordingly.

Here is where we encounter our first serious problem.

We begin by pointing out that many medieval texts define a farsakh as being ‘3 mīls’. Mīl is, of course, how the Arabs pronounce the word ‘mile’. This would be absolutely perfect, until we understand that this mīl is not the equivalent of the modern ‘mile’! It appears that the Arabs got this word (as did the Romance languages) from the Roman mīllia, which they (i.e., the Romans) measured as a thousand paces by foot.  A ‘pace’ was defined to be a full stride of a Roman soldier (in our understanding, that would be two steps, one with each foot). It has been estimated that this ‘Roman mile’ was actually around five-thousand feet (in our current understanding of ‘feet’). It was only centuries later that the English Parliament standardized the exact length of miles and feet, and decreed that 1 mile = 5280 feet (around 1.6 km). [Why and how they came up with number is really beyond the scope of this article – our readers are already confused by now, and those who are interested may look this tidbit up in any encyclopedia].

While the Arabs took the name from the Romans, they did not take the same measurement. It is also claimed that the Roman soldier’s step was considerably larger than the average step of other ethnicities, especially those who had shorter statures.

The Roman mīllia was adopted by many different cultures. Therefore, to distinguish this Arab version of the mile from other adopted versions,  it was called the ‘Hashemite mile’. Other versions of the mile were the Russian, the Danish, the Portuguese, and the German (not to mention the Nautical Mile, which is different from land equivalents).

Our scholars did attempt to define this Hashemite mile (a.k.a. a mīl); however, in the days before scientific measurements and  international treaties that governed such matters, they could not come up with a unified definition. Some classical texts mention that a mīl consists of twelve-thousand steps; others claimed that a mīl was as far as the eye can see; yet others claimed that it was the distance where one could recognize a figure of a human in the distance but could not tell whether it was a male or female.[4]

What is clear from all of this is that not only is a mīl undefined, even if one of these definitions were to be taken, it would not be scientifically precise. The bottom line is that the Arab mīl, a.k.a. ‘Hashemite mile’, had never been scientifically defined. How could it, in an era before the Newtonian scientific revolution that we are all familiar with and upon whose standards we conduct experiments?

In the 16th century, the British parliament offered a precise definition that has stuck to this day: that 1 mile = 5280 feet (around 1.6 km).  Remember that this conversion factor was a relatively recent one, offered by the British. However, when some of our modern scholars attempted to then translate these ancient distances of farāsikh and barīd into modern units, they appeared to have read in the British conversion units into the ancient terms. Hence, they simply ‘chugged and plugged’ away, using the ancient definition of one farsakh being three medieval Hashemite mīls, and every ‘mile’ (sic.) being 5280 feet. Thus, they moved from an ancient term (farsakh) to a medieval one (mīl) to a British definition of another (mile).

This was not the only attempt to translate the farsakh into a recognizable unit. The famous scholar Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr (d. 463 AH) stated that a farsakh is roughly 10,500 ‘arm-lengths’ (dhirāʾ).[5] Very well, but what does that mean for us in our units of measurement? An average arm-length has been estimated in our times to be around 48 centimeters (i.e., 0.48 meters).[6] It appears that a large group of later scholars accepted Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr’s conversion factor and based modern calculations on it.

Other scholars, such as al-Nawawī, al-Ramlī, and al-Ḥajjāwī all held the position that afarsakh is in fact eighteen-thousand dhirāʾ.[7]

Hence, plugging and chugging away:

– With the conversion factor of one farsakh = 3 mīl = 3 ‘standard’ miles

 

Four barīds = 16 farsakhs x 3 mīl/farsakh = 48 mīl = 48 miles = 77.25 km

 

– With the conversion factor of Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr:

 

Four barīds = 16 farsakhs x  10,500 dhirāʾ/farsakh x 0.48 meters/dhirāʾ = 80.64 km (50.4 miles)

 

– With the conversion factor of al-Nawawī:

 

Four barīds = 16 farsakhs x 18,000 dhirāʾfarsakh x 0.48 meters/dhirāʾ = 138.24 km (86.4 miles)

 

For reasons that I could not understand, the modern Ḥanafi position typically calculates a distance of 15 farsakhs to be 77 km (or 48 miles).

It can be seen that the conversion factor of al-Nawawī actually yields almost double the distance of the first conversion factor. It can also be seen that all of these conversions are rather tenuous; none of them could have been known or measured with such precision during the time of the first generations of Islam.

Now that we have successfully (?) translated these ancient units into three possible distances (and note that there are even more possibilities if we were to discuss other conversion factors), let us return to the issue of the distance required for one to be considered a ‘traveler’.

1.6 The strongest opinion

Now that we have discussed the actual distance of these measurements, let us return to the original question: which of these opinions appears to be correct?

The strongest opinion – and Allah knows best – appears to be the last one (viz., that a traveler is one who customarily understands his situation to be one of ‘travel’), for a number of reasons:

1) Ibn Taymiyya’s point that the Prophet did not specify any distance is a very poignant one. He neither ordered that the earth be measured, nor did most of the travelers of the time calculate the distance that they traveled. It does not make sense, therefore, that the Shariah would place a numerical value when such unit-definitions were not known or followed by the majority of that generation.

2) Even in the hadiths that the majority use (about a woman traveling without a maḥram), there are discrepancies between ‘one-day’, ‘two-days’ and ‘three-days’ – all three wordings are reported in one or both of the Saḥīḥ works. So which one should be resorted to?

Additionally, all three hadiths use the word ‘travel’; would it not, therefore, be safe to assume that the Prophet was not trying to link the word ‘travel’ to any distance, but rather simply discussing the issue of a woman traveling without a maḥram? Furthermore, the tradition about permitting wiping over the socks has nothing to do with setting a limit for ‘traveling’ – it merely sets a time-limit for allowing someone to wipe over one’s socks.

Therefore, there is nothing in the hadith literature that one can safely use as a defining distance for travel.

3) As can be clearly seen, there is no precise and agreed upon conversion factor for translating a ‘day’s journey’ into a tangible and precise measure. There are a number of ‘grey areas’ in this calculation.  What exactly is a ‘day’s journey’? How many barīds are in such a journey? How many farsakhs can be traveled in a day? How long is a farsakh? What exactly is a mīl? And so forth.

If this is the case, it does not make sense that our Shariah would have obligated us to measure ‘travel’ in units that to this day remain undefined and ambiguous.

4) To place a precise measurement on ‘travel’ seems to contravene the purpose of the law and hence the maqāṣid of the Shariah. The purpose of this ruling is to ease the burden upon the traveler by allowing him to shorten and join the prayer. If a traveler is engrossed in figuring out how far he has traveled (imagine in the days before car odometers gave this information), it is as if the Shariah is placing a bigger burden on him by asking him to calculate a distance that he is, in all likelihood, not capable of doing.

5) This distance really makes very little sense in modern times. A distance of 80 km is more akin to a picnic than to a travel – and according to Ibn Taymiyya’s definition, if one were to go to a park outside of one’s city with the express intention of returning in a short period of time, this would not constitute travel. If we look at the frame of mind of a family who is going on a day-trip to a park outside the city versus going on a journey, there is a significant difference. When one goes on a day-trip, the house is left as is, the neighbors are not told, life ‘at home’ is not assumed to be interrupted, and so forth. On the other hand, when one goes on a ‘travel’, miscellaneous factors must be taken care of before embarking on a ‘journey’. All of this is known to and experienced by the people of our time.

6) Before even beginning to ‘convert’ such ancient units into modern ones, an even more profound dilemma can and should be discussed. For those who follow one of the ‘standard’ opinions, the issue must be raised: is it not too literalistic to measure a ‘day’s- journey’ by the means and methods of eras gone by? In other words, if the primary means of travel of the time were horses and camels, and based on that one extrapolates a day’s journey, would it be permissible (in fact, would it not be more in line with the goals of the Shariah) to measure a modern day’s journey in car-travel time?

Personally, if I were to follow this opinion (meaning, if I were to follow a ‘two-day journey’ opinion), it would make more rational sense to me to measure a ‘day’s journey’ in the standard travel-means of our times, namely: a car. This then raises a further question: Does this mean we can eventually extrapolate to a passenger plane? How about a private jet? Questions abound; answers, on the other hand, are not so easy to bring forth.

All of this lends further credence to the position of Ibn Taymiyya: that a ‘traveler’ is one who is customarily considered one. An average Muslim does not need to resort to a scholar, or to a map, in order to find out if s/he is a traveler or not: you know it by what you do to prepare for a trip and your psychological frame of mind.

 

To be continued…

In our next and final installment, we will discuss how long one remains a traveler at a non-resident location.


[1] There are other opinion on the origin of this word as well. See Lisān al-ʿArab, 3/86-8.

[2] ‘Most’ because there is also an opinion that two farsakhs make up a barīd.

[3] Al-Tahānawī, Iʾlāʿ al-Sunan 7/282; al-ʿAynī, Sharḥ al-Hidāya 3/4.

[4] Lisān al-ʿArab, 11/639, al-Shawkānī, Nayl al-Awṭār, 3/245.

[5] To be more precise, he claimed that each farsakh was three ‘miles’, and each ‘mile’ was three-thousand five-hundred arm-lengths; hence each farsakh would be 3 X 3,500 = 10,500 arm-lengths.

[6] Najm al-Din al-Kurdi, al-Maqadir al-Sharʿiyya, p. 258.

[7] To be more pedantic, they claimed that a mīl is six-thousand ‘arm-lengths’, and a farsakhis three mīls, hence a farsakh would be 18 thousand arm-length. See: al-Ḥajjāwī, al-Iqnāʾ, 1/274; al-Shawkānī, Nayl al-Awṭār, 3/245.

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Sh. Dr. Yasir Qadhi is someone that believes that one's life should be judged by more than just academic degrees and scholastic accomplishments. Friends and foe alike acknowledge that one of his main weaknesses is ice-cream, which he seems to enjoy with a rather sinister passion. The highlight of his day is twirling his little girl (a.k.a. "my little princess") round and round in the air and watching her squeal with joy. A few tid-bits from his mundane life: Sh. Yasir has a Bachelors in Hadith and a Masters in Theology from Islamic University of Madinah, and a PhD in Islamic Studies from Yale University. He is an instructor and Dean of Academic Affairs at AlMaghrib, and the Resident Scholar of the Memphis Islamic Center.

25 Comments

25 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Abu "i wish i had a kunya"

    July 8, 2011 at 1:04 AM

    MashAllah, enlightening article.

    I wish Sheikh Yasir would write more articles related to islamic sciences (like this one) and less about politically charged issues.

    We like the “old” sh. Yasir :)

    • Avatar

      Zeyad

      July 8, 2011 at 10:24 AM

      I agree! I love articles that blend Islam, sciences, and world history! More please!

      Jazak Allah khair!

  2. Avatar

    Amy

    July 8, 2011 at 4:15 AM

    Salaam

    The first time I heard the opinion about travel being defined as what a persons considers travel to be made so much sense to me, while until then I had been baffled by seemingly arbitrary and obscure definitions. I think there is a flaw in the logic that a complex question (“What is travel?”) with many inherent variables (by what means, at what speed, through what terrain, etc) can be reduced to a single “magic number.” I’m not sure if it was your goal to demonstrate the futility of relying on archaic measures and conversion factors, but I think you succeeded.

    And I think your answer–the position of Ibn Taymiyya–is the only one that can withstand the scrutiny of time, as should the religion of truth.

  3. Avatar

    sakib

    July 8, 2011 at 5:16 AM

    Abu, what’s wrong with politically charged issues? Is politics not part of Islam?

    • Amad

      Amad

      July 9, 2011 at 5:35 PM

      exactly. Those are the issues that affect us as much as religious issues. May Allah put barakah in Shaykh Yasir’s works in all affairs that he provides guidance on… politics and religion.

      • Avatar

        Umar

        July 9, 2011 at 9:58 PM

        Ameen.

        Don’t you feel that his “religious” articles are a lot more comprehensive though? – as opposed to current affairs articles with a religious perspective.

        Salam

    • Avatar

      Abu "i wish i had a kunya"

      July 10, 2011 at 10:27 PM

      Sorry bro wish I could answer but moderator not letting my posts go through. Thanks.

  4. Avatar

    Leo Imanov

    July 8, 2011 at 6:57 AM

    bismi-lLaah wa-lhamdu li-lLaah wa-shshalatu wa-ssalamu ‘alaa rasuli-lLaah wa ‘alaa alihi wa man walah

    assalaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatu-lLaahi wa barakaatuH

    masya Allaah what an article syaikh yasir qadhi has written, an enlightening one!

    wa bi-lLaahi-ttaufiq wa-lhidayah

    wa-ssalamu ‘alaikum

  5. Avatar

    Zakir

    July 8, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    Interesting article but at the same time confusing. I found Islam to be very logical and practical.It make individuals accountable for their own actions depending on each persons ability.

    Why cant we see travelling as a choice made by the person .If he or she has the means to pray during the journey pray and if not adopt the concessions offered by Allah with best intentions.

    Most places now have facilities for prayer even while travelling and if we don’t have it we can even sit and pray.

    I have been asking many scholars to guide me to understand this , this article sheds a good light but still confusing.Hope the author will give us final easy to understand and practical conclusion for all of us to follow in the next part.

    Jzk

  6. Avatar

    Shuaib Mansoori

    July 9, 2011 at 6:59 AM

    An insightful series indeed. JazakAllah Khair! May Allah place success in this year’s IlmSummit. Awaiting your reply to my last email :)

  7. Avatar

    Teena

    July 9, 2011 at 6:21 PM

    Assalamu Alaikom! I found this article very beneficial alhamdulilah! This is something that I had been concerned about for a while now because I just got a new job in Clear Lake (though I live in Katy) and because I’ll be working on 12 hour shifts for three or four days a week, the only way that I can make this work is to stay in Clear Lake at a hotel for the three days in which I’m working back-to-back shifts. I would consider myself to be a traveler: I’ll pack baggage, stay at a hotel, eating outside (i.e. not being able to cook for myself), etc. It would definitely make things easier for me to be able to combine and shorten the prayers. Jazak Allahu Khair.

  8. Avatar

    MangoLassi

    July 10, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    JazakAllahu khayran ya shaykh!

    Couple of points: I grew up in the middle east and some of my dad’s colleague’s at work used to shorten their dhuhr and asr because they claimed that they lived in the suburbs and their commute distance was long! How absurd! I remember some of our family friends also shortenining and combining their prayers when they used to go to the mall in the evening cause they claimed it was far away and that the prophet (pbuh) did the same when he went shorter distances. You have shown that this interpretation is not sound cause going to work and going to the mall in the city does not constitute travelling :)

    My question is that sometimes when we’re fling international and are about to leave for the airport, I usually shortern and combine dhuhr and asr EVEN though I’m at home but theoritically in “travel” mode cause my bags are packed and am ready to leave for the airport. Is this fine? Then I usually pray combine maghrib and isha in the plane. Or should I pray dhuhr and asr while at the airport?

    • Avatar

      talwar

      July 11, 2011 at 12:51 AM

      Two separate issues here:

      Shortening salah is related to travelling.

      Combining (jam’) is related to difficulty.

      Since you are at the airport and within your city, do not shorten the salah. If you are going to face difficulty in doing your salah whilst travelling, then combine the relevant prayers at the airport.

      Short answer, combine if you have to but don’t shorten at the airport, wallahu alam.

  9. Avatar

    saalik

    July 11, 2011 at 9:23 AM

    “A distance of 80 km is more akin to a picnic than to a travel”

    Interesting to note that a < 80km trip, albeit short, can be considered travelling to a specific individual. Even to those who follow Ibnu Taymiyyah's opinion. In fact, the real issue is what is 'customarily' considered travel. Because someone may claim driving 350+km's (a round-trip/day trip) is not travel. Whereas someone may see it as travel.

    It boils down to that even those of us who agree with this opinion still need to understand what is customarily defined as travel because it differs among the people.

    Lastly, the shaykh himself (Ibn Uthaymeen) gave some nice advice in following this opinion:

    “The statement of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyyah is closer to what’s correct. Even when there’s a
    difference in what people customarily consider traveling, there’s still no problem if the person acts
    according to the specified distance opinion because some of the Imaams and scholars sincerely
    striving towards a correct verdict have said it. So, there’s no problem, if Allaah wills. As long as
    the issue is left undefined, then acting in accordance to what is normally considered travel is the
    correct opinion.”

    http://www.ibnothaimeen.com/all/books/article_18007.shtml

  10. Avatar

    Mohammed Khan

    July 11, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    Considering that taking Ibn Taymiyyah’s opinion will make things extremely hard for everybody and will leave the masses utterly confused, I’ll just stick to the opinion of the Madhab I follow.

    Jazakumullah for spending all the time to compile this though.

    • Avatar

      abdur rahman

      October 5, 2013 at 8:14 AM

      Actually, i was always confused about the travel issue, due to the famous sahaaba’s opinions and also the 4 madaahib.

      Reading this article, personally, made me realize how easy ibn taymiyyah and scholars like him made islaam. So, you stick to following your madhab and me and quite a few others will stick to following something that is easy and halaal, at the same time.

      Following a respected scholar’s opinion on an issue made confusing by the madaahib.

      • Avatar

        Ibn Aziza

        February 16, 2014 at 6:34 AM

        Following a Scholar is following a Madaahib…..If you could care to explain the difference please?

  11. Avatar

    anonymous

    July 11, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    I wish more people would take Sh. Yasir’s (hafidullah) example and branch out and cover both. The Ummah is in need of leadership while also being in need of understanding the other classical issues of Islam.

  12. Avatar

    Asma

    July 12, 2011 at 11:05 PM

    Assalamu ‘alaikum wa rahmtuallah,

    JazakAllah khair for the clarification of this topic.

    Question:

    – How do define a journey? I mean if ibn Taymiyyah’s opinion were to be considered, how would the following situation be regarded: A person sleeping over at another person’s house, and thus brings forth with them luggage (e.g., change of clothes, toothbrush, etc). The distance between both houses would be no more than a half hour drive. (I guess you use your better judgment in such a case?)

    p.s., you can’t bring up the topic of travelling without going into detail about the topic of travelling without a mahram for a female :P It would be ideal if you can also shed some light into the differences of opinion about that, considering the need for clarification and understanding in this day and age where travelling for women has almost become a necessity at times.

    • Avatar

      InchiroAunt

      May 21, 2013 at 5:40 AM

      As Salaamu Alaikum

      An article on women traveling with/without mahrams would be immensely helpful. There are many sisters who revert to Islam and, obviously, do not have mahrams and if they are unmarried(willingly/unwillingly) how are they to manage traveling for employment, healthcare, caring for ill relatives, etc. Also, there are many sisters born and raised Muslim who may not have any male relatives or the Muslim male relatives they have are not practicing and are unable to fill the role of a mahram due to leaving Islam or not being of sound mind. I pray this will be your next article.

  13. Pingback: Yasir Qadhi | The Definition of ‘Travel’ (safar) According to Islamic Law | Part 3 | MuslimMatters.org

  14. Pingback: Yasir Qadhi | The Definition of ‘Travel’ (safar) According to Islamic Law | Part 1 | MuslimMatters.org

  15. Pingback: MM Treasures | Yasir Qadhi | The Definition of “Travel” (safar) According to Islamic Law | Part 1 - MuslimMatters.org

  16. Avatar

    ummAda

    December 6, 2014 at 7:04 AM

    Amazing article, masha Allah! There are so many opinions on the length of travel, but I had never heard of Ibn Taymiyyah’s. This article puts so many things in perspective. Jazak Allah khair for delving into these matters.

  17. Avatar

    Jafar Saeed

    October 13, 2015 at 12:23 PM

    Hmmm. This is very good research, but I am slightly disturbed by the fact that the author seems to curtly dismiss the other opinions in a few paragraphs as if the Companions (ra) and tabieen who held these opinions didn’t know what they were talking about and hadn’t considered these arguments.

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#Culture

Messiah, A Fitnaflix Production

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Netflix released Season 1 of a new thriller series called “Messiah”. The series imagines the emergence of a character claiming to be sent by God, the Messiah, or Al-masih (messiah in Arabic) as he is referred to in the television series. 

This so-called Al-masih first emerges in Damascus at a time when ISIS is about to storm the city. He then appears in Palestine, Jordan and ultimately America. Along the way, he performs miracles and dumbfounds the Israeli and American intelligence officers charged with tracking him and figuring out who is enabling him. The season ends with a suggestion that he is truly a divine man, with the ultimate miracle of reviving the dead.

The entertainment value here is quite limited. Some stretches of the series are just flat or straight out boring, and the acting is not all that great. However, the series does create an opportunity for discussion about Muslim eschatology (the knowledge of the end of times), response to fitnah (faith testing tribulations) and Muslims portrayal in and consumption of entertainment media. 

The series shows some sophistication in the portrayal of Muslim characters relative to what people have been accustomed to with Hollywood. Characters that are situated in the Middle East are performed by actors from that region who speak authentic regional Arabic (including Levantine and North African dialects). The scenes appear authentic. While this is progress, it is limited, and the series falls into oversimplification and caters to typical stereotypes. While several Muslim characters draw the viewers’ empathy, they are not used to provide context or nuance for issues that the series touches on: ISIS, refugees, the Israeli occupation and suicide bombings. The two American Muslim characters are never really developed. In fact, all Muslim characters tend to be “flat” and one dimensional. This is in contrast, for example, to American and Israeli characters which appear multi-dimensional and complex, often dealing with personal challenges that a Western audience is likely to identify with (caring for an aging parent, mourning the loss of a spouse, balancing career and life, dealing with family separation, abortion, etc.). While Muslim characters are shown as hapless refugees, terrorists, religious followers, political activists, a university professor and student, their stories are never developed.

The show repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. There is also consistent normalization of Israeli occupation and glorification of the occupying forces.  

Islamic eschatology 

Orthodox Muslims affirm a belief in “the signs of the End of Times, including the appearance of the Antichrist, and the Descent of Jesus 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) the son of Mary 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), from the celestial realm. We also believe in the sun’s rising from the west and the appearance of the “Beast of the Earth from its appointed place” [1]. Dr. Omar Al-Ashqar gives a detailed review of the authentic narrations regarding the signs of the end of times in his book Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra [2]. When it comes to actual figures who will emerge in the end of times, Sunni scholars generally affirm the following:

  • Imam Mahdi, who is a just ruler who will share the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) name. 
  • The False Messiah (Antichrist), or Al-Masjih Al-Dajjal, who will be the greatest fitna to ever to afflict this Ummah. 
  • The True Messiah, Isa ibn Maryam, who returns in the end of days, kills the Antichrist and rules for 40 years and establishes justice and prosperity – close to the time of the day of judgement. 

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) warned that the fitna of Al-Dajjal will be the most severe ever. In a hadith narrated by Ibn Majah and others, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is reported to have said, “Oh people, there has not been a fitna on the face of the earth, since God dispersed the progeny of Adam, greater than the fitna of Al-Dajjal. Every prophet of God warned his people from Al-Dajjal. I am the last prophet. You are the last Ummah. He will appear amongst you no doubt!”

Al-Dajjal comes after a period of famine and drought. He will be one-eyed and will claim to be God. Believers will recognized a mark or word of disbelief on his forehead. He will perform many miracles. He will endow those who follow him with material prosperity and luxury, and those who deny him will be inflicted with deprivation and suffering. He will travel at high speeds, and  roam the whole world, except Makkah and Madinah, which he will not be able to enter. He will create a heaven and hell, command rain, the earth, animals, and resurrect the dead – all supernatural occurrences that he has been afforded as a trial and test for others. The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) went as far as encouraging us to flee from confronting him, because it will be a test of faith like no other.

Reflections on the series and lessons to be learned

The Prophets and the righteous are not tricksters and riddlers.

The Netflix series portrays the character ‘al-masih’ as someone who speaks cryptically; it is never clear what he is teaching and why. He leads his followers on long physical journeys without telling them where they are going or why. He speaks in riddles and tortures his followers with mental gymnastics and rhetorical questions.

On the other hand, a true prophet of God offers real guidance and brings clear teachings and instructions – the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) spoke clearly to his followers, he taught them how to worship Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone, to be just, to uphold the ties of kinship, to look after one’s neighbour, and so on. He did not abandon them in a state of confusion to fend for themselves. Moreover, “al-masih” deceives his followers by concealing his true name (“Payam Golshiri”) and background – something a righteous person would never do, let alone a prophet.

What Netflix got right and what it got wrong

The Al-masih character initially emerges in Damascus (and the Islamic tradition mentions Isa ibn Mariam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend in Damascus). However, the character is eventually revealed to hail from Iran. A number of ahadith refer to Al-Dajjal first appearing in Khurasan, which is part of modern-day Iran. He poses as a righteous person, but it is revealed that he doesn’t pray at all. He quotes religious scripture, but only to service his cryptic speeches. That Al-Dajjal would pose as a religious person would not surprise Muslims, since some hadith mention he will emerge from the remnants of the Khawarij, a heterodox group known for overzealousness and fanaticism [3]. Al-Dajjal travels the world at fast speeds, disappearing from one land and appearing in another, just as the character in the series does. 

messiah

photo credit: IMDb

However, numerous features of Dajjal would make his identity obvious to believers, not the least of which is that the word ‘disbeliever’ will be written – whether literally or metaphorically (scholars differ) – on his forehead in such a manner which even those unlettered would be able to read. Physically, Dajjal is a short man, with a deformity of his legs, and one of his eyes is likened to a “floating grape”, sightless, and “green like glass”. The Prophet is said to have focused on these physical features because they are so manifest and eliminate any confusion.

Al-Dajjal’s time overlaps with that of two other eschatological figures – Imam Mahdi and Esa ibn Maryam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Imam Mahdi is prophesized to fill the world with justice and rule for seven years, after which Dajjal will emerge. While the Muslims following al-Mahdi are taking shelter in Damascus, Prophet Esa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend and eventually slay the Dajjal. Therefore, according to the Islamic eschatological tradition, things will get better before they get worse before they get better again – Imam Mahdi precedes Dajjal and Dajjal precedes Prophet Esa [2].

Safeguarding against tribulations

The best safeguard is to have sound knowledge of theology and law, and to have our iman rooted in revelation and reason. For example, the most basic understanding of Islamic theology would lead us to reject any man who claims to be God, as Al-Dajjal will claim. With basic Islamic knowledge and reasoning, we would know that Allah does not manifest in human-like form, much less one that is deformed, as Allah is the all Powerful and Perfect. Could it be that at the end of times even such essential Islamic knowledge is lacking? 

walking on water

Al-Dajjal deceives people by his miracles and supernatural abilities. Our iman should not be swayed by supernatural events and miracles. We should measure people and ideas according to their standing with the Shari’ah. We must keep our heads level and not be manipulated because we cannot explain an occurrence. 

Al-Dajjal also lures people by his miracles and by his ability to give them material prosperity, comfort and luxury. We must tie our happiness and sense of satisfaction to eternal spiritual truths, not to the comforts of this life, and be willing to give up what we have for what we believe. We should live simply and not follow into the path of excessive consumerism and materialism.  

Another important consideration is not to base our connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) on another human being (except the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Scholars, celebrity preachers, imams and teachers are all prone to error and sin. We must use the Shariah and the Prophet Muhamamd’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) character and teaching as the filter by which we evaluate them, not the other way around. Despite his obvious deformities, the Antichrist will be a mesmerizing blinding celebrity, but whose falsehood will be uncovered by believers who make judgements based on loyalty to principle, not personality. 

Is it time to live on a remote mountain?

The clearest indication of the nearness of the Day of Judgement is the prophethood of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). The Prophet likened the difference between his time and the Day of Judgement as the difference in length between the index and middle fingers. However, before we sell everything and move to a remote mountain, let’s exercise care in projecting Islamic eschatology on the political events of our times. The reality is that no one knows when these things will happen. Explaining the current phase in our history away by end of times theories or conspiracy theories, are simpleton intellectual copouts that lead our Ummah away from actively working towards its destiny. Anyone who has claimed that this event (remember Y2K) or that event is a major sign of the Day of Judgement has been wrong, so far. There were scholarly guesses in the early centuries of Muslims that expected the Hour 500 years after the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) death. Yet, here we are. No one knows.

The best you can do is stay calm and make salat!

Muslims and the entertainment media

This increased sophistication and the apparent familiarity with Islamic sources exhibited by Messiah producers should lead us to value the importance of producing accurate, authentic and polished material and content about Islam and Muslims and our community’s role as a source of information. 

It is also important for Muslims to produce works for the mass media and entertainment industries. This is no longer the era of the sole MSA Da’wah table. Sophisticated, entertaining and authentic media production is an imperative for modern Muslims.  When we don’t tell the story, someone else will. 

Make it a Netflix Night?

We may refer to it as Fitnaflix, but let’s all admit that we cannot avoid television and the entertainment industry, for better or for worse. We can however moderate, guide and channel its use. Start breaking the isolation in which many of our children and young adults consume media. Families should watch TV together and use it as an opportunity to model how we select appropriate material and to create teaching and discussion moments. Parents should know what is influencing their kids even if they don’t like it. 

Some parts of the series Messiah, despite its flaws (and an explicit sexual scene in episode 9, not to mention profanity), could be used as a teaching moment about trials and tribulations, the end of times and the importance of Muslims engaging in the entertainment industry in a principled and professional manner. 

Ed’s note: Much of the series’ content is R-rated. Besides depictions of terrorism and other mayhem, sexual activity and brief rear nudity are shown. Mature themes include abortion, adultery, infertility and alcoholism.

Works Cited

[1] T. C. o. I. Al-Tahawi, Hamza Yusuf (trans), Zaytuna Institute, 2007. 
[2] O. Al-Ashqar, Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra, Dar Al-Nafa’is, 1991. 
[3] [Online]. Available: https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2014/06/23/dajjal-emerges-khawarij/.

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Shaykh Hamza Yusuf And The Question of Rebellion In The Islamic Tradition

Sepoy rebellion, Shaykh Hamza
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In recent years, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a notable Islamic scholar from North America, has gained global prominence by supporting efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to deal with the fallout of the Arab revolutions. The UAE is a Middle Eastern autocracy that has been the chief strategist behind quelling the Arab revolutionary aspiration for accountable government in the region. Shaykh Hamza views himself as helping prevent the region from falling into chaos by supporting one of its influential autocratic states.

However, more recently, he has become embroiled in another controversy because of comments he made regarding the Syrian revolution in 2016 that surfaced online earlier this week and for which he has since apologised. I will not discuss these comments directly in this article, but the present piece does have a bearing on the issue of revolution as it addresses the question of how Islamic scholars have traditionally responded to tyranny.

Thus, in what follows, I somewhat narrowly focus on another recent recording of Shaykh Hamza that has been published by a third party in the past couple of weeks entitled: “Hamza Yusuf’s response to the criticism for working with Trump administration”. While it was published online at the end of August 2019, the short clip may, in fact, predate the Trump controversy, as it only addresses the more general charge that Shaykh Hamza is supportive of tyrannical governments.

Thus, despite its title, the primary focus of the recording is what the Islamic tradition purportedly says about the duty of Muslims to render virtually unconditional obedience to even the most tyrannical of rulers. In what follows, I argue that Shaykh Hamza’s contention that the Islamic tradition has uniformly called for rendering obedience to tyrannical rule—a contention that he has been repeating for many years—is inaccurate. Indeed, it is so demonstrably inaccurate that one wonders how a scholar as learned as Shaykh Hamza can portray it as the mainstream interpretation of the Islamic tradition rather than as representing a particularly selective reading of fourteen hundred years of scholarship. Rather than rest on this claim, I will attempt to demonstrate this in what follows. (Note: this article was sent to Shaykh Hamza for comment at the beginning of this month, but he has not replied in time for publication.)

Opposing all government vs opposing a government

Shaykh Hamza argues that “the Islamic tradition” demands that one render virtually absolute obedience to one’s rulers. He bases this assertion on a number of grounds, each of which I will address in turn. Firstly, he argues that Islam requires government, because the opposite of having a government would be a state of chaos. This is, however, to mischaracterise the arguments of the majority of mainstream scholars in Islamic history down to the present who, following explicit Qur’anic and Prophetic teachings, opposed supporting tyrannical rulers. None of these scholars ever advocated the removal of government altogether. They only opposed tyranny. For some reason that is difficult to account for, Shaykh Hamza does not, in addressing the arguments of his interlocutors, make the straightforward distinction between opposing tyranny, and opposing the existence of any government at all.

A complex tradition

Rather than support these tyrannical governments, the Islamic tradition provides a variety of responses to how one should oppose such governments, ranging from the more quietist—opposing them only in one’s heart—to the more activist—opposing them through armed rebellion. The majority of later scholars, including masters such as al-Ghazzali (d. 505/1111), Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali (d. 795/1393), and Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1449) appear to have fallen somewhere between these two poles, advocating rebellion only in limited circumstances, and mostly advising a vocally critical posture towards tyranny. Of course, some early scholars, such as the sanctified member of the Prophetic Household, Sayyiduna Husayn (d. 61/680) had engaged in armed opposition to the tyranny of the Umayyads resulting in his martyrdom. Similarly, the Companion ‘Abdullah b. Zubayr (d. 73/692), grandson of Abu Bakr (d. 13/634), and son of al-Zubayr b. al-‘Awwam (d. 36/656), two of the Ten Companions Promised Paradise, had established a Caliphate based in Makkah that militarily tried to unseat the Umayyad Caliphal counter-claimant.

However, the model of outright military rebellion adopted by these illustrious scholars was generally relinquished in later centuries in favour of other forms of resisting tyranny. This notwithstanding, I will try to show that the principle of vocally resisting tyranny has always remained at the heart of the Islamic tradition contrary to the contentions of Shaykh Hamza. Indeed, I argue that the suggestion that Shaykh Hamza’s work with the UAE, an especially oppressive regime in the Arab world, is somehow backed by the Islamic tradition can only be read as a mischaracterisation of this tradition. He only explicitly cites two scholars from Islamic history to support his contention, namely Shaykhs Ahmad Zarruq (d. 899/1493) and Abu Bakr al-Turtushi (d. 520/1126), both of whom were notable Maliki scholars from the Islamic West. Two scholars of the same legal school, from roughly the same relatively peripheral geographic region, living roughly four hundred years apart, cannot fairly be used to represent the swathe of Islamic views to be found over fourteen hundred years in lands as far-flung as India to the east, Russia to the north, and southern Africa to the south.

What does the tradition actually say?

Let me briefly illustrate the diversity of opinion on this issue within the Islamic tradition by citing several more prominent and more influential figures from the same tradition alongside their very different stances on the issue of how one ought to respond to tyrannical rulers. Most of the Four Imams are in fact reported to have supported rebellion (khuruj) which is, by definition, armed. A good summary of their positions is found in the excellent study in Arabic by Shaykh ‘Abdullah al-Dumayji, who is himself opposed to rebellion, but who notes that outright rebellion against tyrannical rule was in fact encouraged by Abu Hanifa (d. 150/767) and Malik (d. 179/795), and is narrated as one of the legal positions adopted by al-Shafi‘i (d. 204/820) and Ahmad b. Hanbal (d. 241/855). As these scholars’ legal ideas developed and matured into schools of thought, many later adherents also maintained similar positions to those attributed to the founders of these schools. To avoid suggesting that armed rebellion against tyrants was the dominant position of the later Islamic tradition, let me preface this section with a note from Holberg Prize-winning Islamic historian, Michael Cook, who notes in his magisterial study of the doctrine of commanding right and forbidding wrong that “in the face of the delinquency of the ruler, there is a clear mainstream position [in the Islamic tradition]: rebuke is endorsed while [armed] rebellion is rejected.”

But there were also clearly plenty of outliers, or more qualified endorsements of rebellion against tyrants, as well as the frequent disavowal of the obligation to render them any obedience. Thus for the Malikis, one can find Qadi Abu Bakr b. al-‘Arabi (d. 543/1148) who asserts that advocating rebellion against tyrants is the main position of the madhhab; similarly among later Hanafis, one finds Qadi Abu Bakr al-Jassas (d. 370/981); for the Hanbalis, one may cite the positions of the prolific scholars Imam Ibn ‘Aqil (d. 513/1119), Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201), and in a more qualified sense, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali. Among later Shafi‘is, I have found less explicit discussions of rebellion in my limited search, but a prominent Shafi‘i like the influential exegete and theologian al-Fakhr al-Razi (d. 606/1210) makes explicit, contrary to Shaykh Hamza’s claims, that not only is obeying rulers not an obligation, in fact “most of the time it is prohibited, since they command to nothing but tyranny.” This is similar in ways to the stance of other great Shafi‘is such as al-hafiz Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani who notes concerning tyrannical rulers (umara’ al-jawr) that the ulama state that “if it is possible to depose them without fitna and oppression, it is an obligation to do so. Otherwise, it is obligatory to be patient.” It is worth noting that the normative influence of such a statement cited by Ibn Hajar transcends the Shafi‘i school given that it is made in his influential commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari. Once again, contrary to the assertions of Shaykh Hamza, there is nothing to suggest that any of the illustrious scholars who supported rebellion against tyrannical rulers was advocating the anarchist removal of all government. Rather they were explicitly advocating the replacement of a tyrant with a just ruler where this was possible.

Al-Ghazzali on confronting tyrants

A final example may be taken from the writing of Imam al-Ghazzali, an exceptionally influential scholar in the Islamic tradition who Shaykh Hamza particularly admires. On al-Ghazzali, who is generally opposed to rebellion but not other forms of opposition to tyranny, I would like to once again cite the historian Michael Cook. In his previously cited work, after an extensive discussion of al-Ghazzali’s articulation of the doctrine of commanding right and forbidding wrong, Cook concludes (p. 456):

As we have seen, his views on this subject are marked by a certain flirtation with radicalism. In this Ghazzālī may have owed something to his teacher Juwaynī, and he may also have been reacting to the Ḥanafī chauvinism of the Seljūq rulers of his day. The duty, of course, extends to everyone, not just rulers and scholars. More remarkably, he is prepared to allow individual subjects to have recourse to weapons where necessary, and even to sanction the formation of armed bands to implement the duty without the permission of the ruler. And while there is no question of countenancing rebellion, Ghazzālī is no accommodationist: he displays great enthusiasm for men who take their lives in their hands and rebuke unjust rulers in harsh and uncompromising language.

Most of the material Cook bases his discussion upon is taken from al-Ghazzali’s magnum opus, The Revival of the Religious Sciences. Such works once again demonstrate that the Islamic tradition, or great Sufi masters and their masterworks, cannot be the basis for the supportive attitude towards tyrannical rule on the part of a minority of modern scholars.

Modern discontinuities and their high stakes

But modern times give rise to certain changes that also merit our attention. In modern times, new technologies of governance, such as democracy, have gone some way to dealing with challenges such as the management of the transition of power without social breakdown and the loss of life, as well as other forms of accountability that are not possible in absolute autocracies. For their part, absolute autocracies have had their tyrannical dimensions amplified with Orwellian technologies that invade private spaces and facilitate barbaric forms of torture and inhumane degradation on a scale that was likely unimaginable to premodern scholars. The stakes of a scholar’s decision of whether to support autocracy or democracy could not be higher.

Modern scholars like Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi (b. 1345/1926), someone who Shaykh Hamza’s own mentor, Shaykh Abdullah b. Bayyah (b. 1353f./1935) considered a teacher until fairly recently, has advocated for an Islamic conception of democracy as a possible means to deal with the problem of tyranny that plagues much of the Muslim world. He is hardly the only scholar to do so. And in contrast with some of the scholars of the past who advocated armed rebellion in response to tyranny, most contemporary scholars supporting the Arab revolutions have argued for peaceful political change wherever possible. They have advocated for peaceful protest in opposition to tyranny. Where this devolved into violence in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, this was generally because of the disproportionately violent responses of regimes to peaceful protests.

Shaykh Hamza on the nature of government

For Shaykh Hamza, the fault here appears to lie with the peaceful protestors for provoking these governments to crush them. Such a conception of the dynamics of protest appears to assume that the autocratic governmental response to this is a natural law akin to cause and effect. The logic would seem to be: if one peacefully calls for reform and one is murdered in cold blood by a tyrannical government, then one has only oneself to blame. Governments, according to this viewpoint, have no choice but to be murderous and tyrannical. But in an age in which nearly half of the world’s governments are democracies, however flawed at times, why not aspire to greater accountability and less violent forms of governance than outright military dictatorship?

Rather than ask this question, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf appears to be willing to defend autocracy no matter what they do on the grounds that government, in principle, is what is at stake. Indeed, in defending government as necessary and a blessing, he rhetorically challenges his critics to “ask the people of Libya whether government is a blessing; ask the people of Yemen whether government is a blessing; ask the people of Syria whether government is a blessing?” The tragic irony of such statements is that these countries have, in part, been destroyed because of the interventions of a government, one for which Shaykh Hamza serves as an official, namely the UAE. This government has one of the most aggressive foreign policies in the region and has been instrumental in the failure of representative governments and the survival of tyrannical regimes throughout the Middle East.

Where do we go from here?

In summary, Shaykh Hamza’s critics are not concerned that he is “supporting governments,” rather they are concerned that for the last few years, he has found himself supporting bad government and effectively opposing the potential for good government in a region that is desperately in need of it. And while he may view himself as, in fact, supporting stability in the region by supporting the UAE, such a view is difficult if not impossible to reconcile with the evidence. Given his working relationship with the UAE government, perhaps Shaykh Hamza could use his position to remind the UAE of the blessing of government in an effort to stop them from destroying the governments in the region through proxy wars that result in death on an epic scale. If he is unable to do this, then the most honourable thing to do under such circumstances would be to withdraw from such political affiliations and use all of his influence and abilities to call for genuine accountability in the region in the same way that he is currently using his influence and abilities to provide cover, even if unwittingly, for the UAE’s oppression.

And Allah knows best.

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Can Women Attend The Burial Of The Deceased?

A short survey on what leading scholars and the four schools of law (madhhabs) have to say on the issue

Quran at graveyard, woman attend burial
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A few weeks ago, my brother passed away, may Allah have mercy on his soul. By Allah’s grace, his funeral was well-attended by many friends, relatives, and students of his, including a number of women. In this context, someone asked me about the Sharia’s guidance regarding women attending the burial of the deceased, and in what follows I consider what leading scholars and the four schools of law (madhhabs) have to say on the issue. The short survey below is by no means exhaustive, something that will need to be left for a much longer piece, but I hope it can be considered representative for the purposes of a general readership. 

This is not a fatwa, but rather a brief outline of what past scholars have argued to be the case with some suggestions as to how this might be understood in modern times. Finally, I should note that this is a discussion about accompanying the deceased to their final resting place (ittiba‘/tashyi‘ al-jinaza) after the conducting of funeral prayers (salat al-janaza). Accompanying the deceased on the part of women is considered more contentious than simply attending the funeral prayer, so in general, jurists who permit such accompaniment would allow for attending the prayer, while jurists who do not permit accompaniment of the deceased may be more reluctant to permit prayer. Whatever the specific cases may be, I do not go into this discussion below.

Key positions and evidence

In brief, I have been able to discern three general positions regarding women accompanying the deceased until they are buried: 1. A clear majority of scholars indicate that women are permitted to attend the burial of the deceased, but it is generally discouraged (makruh). 2. Some scholars permitted elderly women’s attendance of the burial unconditionally. 3. Others prohibited all women’s attendance unconditionally.

Overall, it is clear that most schools have permitted women’s attendance of burial, with most of these scholars discouraging it for reasons we shall consider below. The notion that women should not attend the burial of the deceased will thus clearly be shown to be a minority position in the tradition, past and present. Being a minority position does not mean it cannot be practiced, as we will consider in due course. The evidence from the Sunnah is the main legal basis for the ruling, and I shall now consider the most authentic hadiths on the matter.

The general rule for legal commands is that they apply to both genders equally. Accordingly, in a hadith narrated by Bukhari and Muslim, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) strongly encouraged attending the burial of the deceased. That the ruling for women would be one of discouragement (karaha) rather than of encouragement (istihbab) would thus necessarily arise from countervailing evidence. This may be found in another hadith narrated by both of the earlier authorities. This short hadith is worth quoting in full: 

(‏متفق عليه‏) قالت أم عطية: نهينا عن اتباع الجنائز، ولم يعزم علينا

In translation, this reads: Umm ‘Atiyya said, “We were prohibited from following the funeral procession, but it was not insisted upon.”

Interpreting the evidence

The Sharia’s ruling on this matter hinges on how this hadith is understood. On this point, scholars of various schools have adopted a range of positions as outlined earlier. But on the specifics of how the wording of the hadith should be understood, it is worth considering the reading of one of the towering figures of hadith studies, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1449). In his authoritative commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari entitled Fath al-Bari, he glosses the phrase in the aforementioned hadith “but it was not insisted upon” as meaning, “the prohibition was not insisted upon.” He adds: “It is as though she is saying: ‘it was discouraged for us to follow the funeral procession, without it being prohibited.’”

The hadith has, however, been interpreted in various ways by the schools of law. A useful summary of these interpretations may be found in encyclopedic works of fiqh written in recent decades. In his al-Fiqh al-Islami wa-Adillatuhu, the prolific Syrian scholar Wahba al-Zuhayli (d. 1436/2015) notes (on p. 518) that the majority of jurists consider women’s joining the funeral procession to be mildly discouraged (makruh tanzihi) on the basis of the aforementioned hadith of Umm ‘Atiyya. However, he adds, the Hanafis have historically considered it prohibitively discouraged (makruh tahrimi) on the basis of another hadith in which the Prophet reportedly told a group of women who were awaiting a funeral procession, “Return with sins and without reward.”

Al-Zuhayli inclines towards this ruling despite noting in a footnote that the hadith he has just mentioned is weak (da‘if) in its attribution to the Prophet. However, he also adds that the Malikis permitted elderly women to attend the burial of the deceased unconditionally, and also young women from whom no fitna was feared. What constitutes fitna is not generally specified in these discussions and perhaps needs further study, but one contemporary Hanafi defines it as “intermingling with the opposite sex,” and thus suggests that where there is no such intermingling between members of the opposite sex, it is permissible for young women to attend funerals and burials.

Another valuable encyclopedic source for learning about the juristic rulings of various schools and individual scholars is the important 45-volume al-Mawsu‘a al-Fiqhiyya compiled by a team of scholars and published by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Endowments a quarter of a century ago. In its section on this issue, it notes that the Hanafis prohibitively discourage women’s attendance of the funeral procession, the Shafi‘is mildly discourage it, the Malikis permit it where there is no fear of fitna, and the Hanbalis mildly discourage it. The reasoning behind these positions may be found in the Arabic original, and ought to be made available in English by Muslims in the West investing in translating such voluminous works into English. 

From the above, we may gather that of the four schools, only the pre-modern Hanafis prohibit women’s attendance of funeral processions. I have already indicated one example of a modern Hanafi who moves closer to the position of the less restrictive schools in this issue, but it is worth highlighting another. Shaykh Nur al-Din ‘Itr (b. 1355/1937), one of the greatest Hanafi hadith experts alive today, in his commentary on the hadith of Umm ‘Atiyya writes that the report indicates that women’s attending a funeral procession is only mildly discouraged (makruh tanzihi). Additionally, in a footnote, he criticises a contemporary who interprets the hadith as indicating prohibition and then proceeds to cite the less restrictive Maliki position with apparent approval.

The fiqh of modernity

In none of the above am I necessarily arguing that one of these positions is stronger than the other. I present these so that people may be familiar with the range of opinions on the matter in the Islamic tradition. However, this range also indicates the existence of legitimate difference of opinion that should prevent holders of one position from criticising those who follow one of the legitimate alternatives with the unfounded charge that they are not following the Qur’an and Sunna.

Furthermore, there are often interesting assumptions embedded in the premodern juristic tradition which modern Muslims find themselves out of step with, such as the assumption that women should generally stay at home. This is clearly an expectation in some of the fiqh literature, and in modern times, we sometimes find that this results in incoherent legal positions being advocated in Muslim communities. We find, for example, that in much of the premodern fiqh literature, Hanafis prohibit women from attending the mosque for fear of fitna, while we live in times in which women frequently work outside the home. As one of my teachers in fiqh, the Oxford-based Hanafi jurist Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, once remarked in class, is it not absurd for a scholar to prohibit women from attending the mosque for fear of fitna while none of these scholars would prohibit a woman from going to a mall/shopping centre?

This underlines the need for balanced fiqh that is suited to our times, one that allows both men and women to participate in spiritually elevated activities, such as going to the mosque and attending funerals while observing the appropriate Islamic decorum, so that the rest of their lives may be inspired by such actions. The answer to modernity’s generalised spiritual malaise is not the shutting out of opportunities for spiritual growth, but rather its opposite. This will only come about when Muslims, individually and communally, invest more of their energy in reflecting on how they can faithfully live according to the Qur’an and Sunna in contexts very different to those in which the ulama of past centuries resided.

And God knows best.

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