Thankfully, this series has generated a healthy amount of dialogue regarding its central theme. Many people recognize the gravity of the topic and understand the need for it to be addressed decisively. I am glad to say that I have learned a lot from the reader responses. Their input and insights have helped to flesh out the details of this debate tremendously and have revealed nuances that I was not fully aware of. I am very happy that this series is becoming a vehicle for a live and continuing conversation.
In light of reader suggestions, a few key phrases need to be precisely defined. This installment will focus on defining these terms in the context of the Sharīʿah, as ambiguity in the interpretation of these concepts is one of the factors that allow the directing of duʿāʾ to other than Allah seem legitimate in the minds of many Muslims. While I addressed the correct interpretation of these terms in the first installment to varying degrees, I think it is useful to dedicate an article solely to defining them.
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Translated as “prayer”, “invocation”, or “supplication”; Abū Sulaymān Al-Khattabi (a 4th-century scholar of fiqh, ḥadīth, and literature) defines it as:
“A servant’s calling upon his Lord for help. It’s reality is an expression of poverty to and need of Allah and admitting one’s lack of influence and power. It is a personification of servitude and recognition of the humbleness of mankind, and it implies praise of Allah and acknowledgement of His generosity”.
Ibn Manẓūr, the author of one of the definitive dictionaries of the Arabic language, Lisān Al-ʿArab, simply defines it as: “an expression of hope in Allah”.
Therefore duʿāʾ is more than just a request for help. It is an expression of a person’s deepest hopes and faith. We can see the veracity of the Prophet’s words when he called duʿāʾ “the essence of worship” (al-Tirmidhī).
What is observable from the actions of those who call upon other than Allah is that they direct these feelings of servitude, need and poverty to beings they call awliyāʾ. Their supplications are fervent and passionate, and they are often overwhelmed with tears, calling out in desperate hope, affection, and longing. They term it tawaṣṣul and justify it via an abstract intellectual caveat “but we know that only Allah answers ” akin to calling murder “collateral damage” or cheating on one’s spouse but justifying it by saying “I was actually thinking of him/her”. It is an evil act made more brazen by the audacious excuse.
Translated as ‘worship’; the famous linguist Ibn Al-Anbari said, “A worshipper is one who is humble before his Lord, submissive and compliant with His commands.” Ibn Fāris, one of the earliest and greatest scholars of Arabic said that the root of the Arabic term (ʿ–b–d) indicates softness, compliance, and humbleness, and gave the example of a domesticated camel (baʿīr muʿabbad). Ibn Taymiyyah said, “it is an all-encompassing term for the actions that please Allah, whether internal (via the heart) or external (through the limbs and tongue)”. Such absolute submission and humility is only achievable through a deep and personal understanding of Allah’s infinite grace and glory. May Allah grant us all such a blessing.
Tawaṣṣul means “to gain closeness to something via a specified means”. Waṣīlah is “the means through which closeness is achieved”.
This term occurs in the Quran: Allah advises us to seek a means of gaining His favor and mercy, “O you who believe, do your duty to Allah and seek a waṣīlah to Him” (5:35)
Ibn ʿAbbās explained “waṣīlah” as “to become close”. His student Qatādah, further clarified, saying that it meant “to draw near to Allah by obeying Him and doing deeds which are pleasing to Him.” Imam Al-Ṭabarī explained it in similar terms in his great tafsīr, Jāmiʿ Al-Bayān: “Seek closeness to Allah by doing deeds that please Him.” Ibn Kathīr mentions that the Imāms of Tafsīr do not differ in their interpretation of this verse. None of the scholars from Islam’s earliest and greatest generations interpreted tawaṣṣul to mean invoking the Awliyāʾ in need. Rather they interpreted it as being the good deeds that Revelation encourages us to do. And that these deeds serve as a means of gaining God’s mercy.
Thus, most forms of tawaṣṣul – as interpreted by the earliest generations – involve one’s own worship of God. The Quran and Sunnah display various manifestations of this:
To beseech Allah through His names and attributes:
“And to Allah belong the most beautiful names, so call upon Him by them” (7:180).
To profess our weakness and need. For example, the Prophet Zakariya, whilst longing for a son to carry on the legacy of Prophethood, invoked Allah with the following:
“My Lord! Indeed my bones have become feeble and my head glistens with white hair …”(19:4).
To mention Allah’s blessings and generosity, as the Prophet Yūsuf did in the culmination of the Quranic account of his dramatic story:
“O My Lord! You have bestowed upon me a portion of the dominion and the interpretation of dreams. Creator of the Heavens and Earth! You are my Protector in this world and the hereafter. Let me die as one who submits to You and unite me with the righteous” (12:101).
To reference our own good deeds in prayer,
“O Our Lord! Indeed we have believed, so forgive us our sins and protect us from the punishment of the Fire” (3:16).
To acknowledge and seek repentance for our sins, as Ādam and Hawwa did,
“O Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves! If You do not forgive us and bestow upon us Your Mercy, we shall surely lose everything” (7:23).
These are all very moving examples of how a person may draw closer to Allah (i.e. perform tawaṣṣul as per the Quranic definition) by invoking the very intimate details of the personal relationship that exists between the humble servant and the ever-present Creator.
Tawaṣṣul through another person
As for tawaṣṣul involving the actions of another person, the authentic narrations [cited below] show that it is only allowed to ask others to pray on your behalf with the condition that they be alive and present during the time of asking. (I find it disturbing that I have to list these [what should be] obvious caveats – Islam came to do away with such blatant, superstitious folly):
The ḥadīth of ʿUthman Ibn Ḥunayf, declared authentic by Al-Tirmidhī, Al-Ṭabarānī, Al-Ḥākim, Al-Dhahabī, and Ibn Khuzaymah.
“A blind man came to the Prophet and said: “Pray to Allah to cure me.” The Prophet said, “If you wish I will pray and if you wish you may be patient and that will be better for you.” He said, “Pray to Him.” The narrator said, “So the Prophet instructed him to make ablution, and then supplicate with this prayer: ‘Oh Allah, I ask You and turn to You through Your Prophet Muḥammad, the Prophet of Mercy. I turn through you, O Muhammad, to my Lord in this need of mine, that it be fulfilled. O Allah, grant him intercession for me.”
This ḥadīth indicates that it was permissible to directly ask the Prophet to pray on one’s behalf as a form of intercession during his life. No analogy can be made to extend this in the Prophet’s absence or after his death. As ʿAlī (raḍi Allāh ʿanhu) noted, analogies are not permitted in matters of worship, let alone ʿaqīdah, “If the religion were based on opinion, it would be more logical to wipe the underpart of the shoe than the upper but I have seen the Messenger of Allah wiping over the upperpart of his shoes.” (Abū Dāwūd). And even the attempt at analogy is in contradiction with the spirit of ikhlāṣ (pure and uncontaminated sincerity and devotion) to the Ever-Living Creator. Ponder the words of Islam’s first Caliph, who responded to the Ummah’s darkest hour with the following words, forever reminding us all about the true spirit of our religion: “Whosoever worshipped Muḥammad, Muḥammad is dead. Whosoever worships Allah, then He is Ever-Living and does not die.” These were the words that pierced the darkest clouds of sorrow and reminded the noblest generation of their mission and purpose, and enabled them to move on after their immeasurable loss.
All other authentic implementations of this type of tawaṣṣul are identical: requesting duʿāʾ from an esteemed living pious person in the hopes that Allah will answer their prayer. As narrated in Ṣaḥīḥ Al-Bukhārī, “Whenever drought threatened the Muslims, ʿUmar bin Al-Khaṭṭāb, used to ask Al-ʿAbbās bin ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib to invoke Allah for rain. He would say, ‘O Allah! We used to ask our Prophet to invoke You for rain, and You would bless us with rain, and now we ask his uncle to invoke You for rain. O Allah! Bless us with rain.’ And it would then rain.”
During the period of ʿUmar’s reign, his sense of duty and responsibility for Islam and its followers was unparalleled. Were it permissible to invoke the Prophet or ask the Prophet to pray on one’s behalf, there is no doubt that ʿUmar would have done so. Yet the narration clearly indicates that asking or invoking the Prophet was no longer an option and in acknowledgement of the unavailability of this option, ʿUmar turned to the Prophet’s living relative asking him to make the duʿāʾ for rain instead. Were ʿUmar to be somehow mistaken in his interpretation, another ṣaḥābī, perhaps Al-ʿAbbās himself, would have steered him towards invoking the Prophet, but there is no record of that.
Amongst the Ṣaḥābah, all recorded manifestations of this type of tawaṣṣul were similar: requesting that an esteemed and present pious person make du‘ā’ for the benefit of others. “The sky withheld rain, so Muʿāwiyah Ibn Abī Sufyān and the people of Damascus went out to pray for rain. When Muʿāwiyah sat upon the minbar he said: ‘O Allah! We are today asking the best and most noble amongst us to supplicate to You for us, O Allah, today we put Yazīd Ibn al-Aswad al-Jurashī forward to supplicate to You for us.’ Then Yazīd raised his hands and so did the people [and he supplicated for rain], and it rained until people could hardly reach their houses.” (Narrated by Ibn Asakir in his book of history).
There are no authentic narrations demonstrating that the Ṣaḥābah performed tawaṣṣul via the absent or the dead. However, there does exist a variation of the ḥadīth mentioned above in which ʿUthman Ibn Ḥunayf teaches another man to make an invocation after the Prophet’s death:
“A man repeatedly visited ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān concerning something he needed, but ʿUthmān paid no attention to him or his need. The man met Ibn Ḥunayf and complained to him about the matter. Ibn Ḥunayf said to him: ‘Go to the place of ablution and perform ablution (wuḍūʾ), then come to the mosque, perform two rakʿahs of prayer therein, and say: “O Allah, I ask You and turn to You through our Prophet Muḥammad, the Prophet of mercy; O Muḥammad, I turn through you to my Lord, that He may fulfill my need,” and mention your need. Then come to me so that I can go with you to the caliph ʿUthmān.’
So the man left and did as he had been told, then he went to the door of ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, and the doorman came, took him by the hand, brought him to ʿUthmān ibn ʿAffān, and seated him next to him on a cushion. ʿUthmān asked, ‘What do you need?’ and the man mentioned what he wanted, and ʿUthmān accomplished it for him, then he said, ‘I hadn’t remembered your need until just now,’ adding, ‘Whenever you need something, just mention it.’ Then, the man departed, met ʿUthmān ibn Ḥunayf, and said to him, ‘May Allah reward you! He didn’t see to my need or pay any attention to me until you spoke with him.’ ʿUthmān ibn Ḥunayf replied, ‘By Allah, I didn’t speak to him, but I have seen a blind man come to the Messenger of Allah and complain to him of the loss of his eyesight. The Prophet said, “Can you not bear it?” and the man replied, “O Messenger of Allah, I do not have anyone to lead me around, and it is a great hardship for me.” The Prophet told him, “Go to the place of ablution and perform ablution (wuḍūʾ), then pray two rakʿahs of prayer and make the supplications.”’ Ibn Ḥunayf went on, “By Allah, we didn’t part company or speak long before the man returned to us as if nothing had ever been wrong with him.”
Only one person, Shabīb Ibn Saʿīd, reports this version of the narration. He is considered a trustworthy narrator (ṣadūq) with a weak memory and in this case he contradicts more reliable narrators who do not mention this incident which occurs after the Prophet’s death. (A detailed discussion of the chain of narration can be found in the corners of the Internet and in the books of the muḥaddithīn, if anyone is interested.) However, the details and intricacies of the arguments make the discussion irrelevant except to well-trained students of ḥadīth. For the majority of Muslims, the issue will simply devolve into a matter of taqlīd. What is undisputed, however, is that there is but one, single narration that reports this incident that occurs after the Prophet’s death and that this narration has not been authenticated by the likes of Al-Bukhārī, Muslim, Al-Dhahabī, Ibn Khuzaymah, Ibn Ḥajr, etc., scholars known for their deep and rigorous insight into the science of authenticating Prophetic narrations. As for Imām Al-Ṭabarānī’s previously mentioned declaration of “ṣaḥīḥ”, then it is in reference to the original narration which does not mention this extra story.
In determining your stance on this issue, consider the following:
1. The doubt that surrounds this narration
2. The lack of authentic supporting evidence
3. Its contradiction with the actions of the Prophet’s companions
4. Other narrations that warned against praying at the graves of prophets (“Allah’s curse be upon the Jews and Christians for taking the graves of their prophets as places of worship” – al-Bukhārī and Muslim), let alone actually directing prayer to them.
5. Its contradiction with the spirit of Islam, as embodied by the muḥkamāt of the Quran, which guide us to direct all hope and trust in Allah alone.
In light of these points, supporting the notion of making duʿāʾ to the Prophets or the Awliyāʾ based upon this singular evidence is a frail argument indeed. As Allah says, “those who take other than Allah as their Awliyāʾ are like the spider and its home; surely the frailest of all dwellings is the spider’s home, if only they truly knew” (29:41). They hang their hopes, prayers, and even their entire religion on very, very thin strands.
Translated as “intercession;” within an Islamic context it means “to beseech Allah for the sake of another person”. Al-Khalīl, author of the first dictionary of the Arabic language, Kitab Al-ʿAyn, defines an intercessor as “one who requests on behalf of another”. In an authentic ḥadīth transmitted by Imām Muslim, the Prophet said, “There is no Muslim who dies and his funeral is attended by forty men, none of whom associate partners with Allah in any way, except that Allah will accept their intercession for him”. As is obvious from the observable practice of the ṣalāt al-janāzah (funeral prayer), the form of this intercession is the duʿāʾ made on behalf of the deceased (may Allah grant us this mercy!).
The ḥadīth above sheds light upon how one may be granted this type of intercession. The text of the ḥadīth, in complete coherence with the muhkamāt of Allah’s revelation, tells us that this intercession is granted as a reward for the worship of Allah alone. It is an honor granted to the intercessors and a mercy for the recipient, both parties are being blessed with this because of their worship of Allah. In another ḥadīth transmitted by Imām Muslim, the Prophet is asked, “Who is the one that will most enjoy your intercession, O Messenger of Allah?” The Prophet replied, “The one who says lā ilāha illa Allah with absolute purity (khāliṣan) of heart.” Ikhlāṣ is a very powerful word, indicating something free of any contamination, free of anything mixing with it and diminishing its purity. Imagine new fallen snow or the purest gold and you will have a good visual representation of ikhlāṣ. The objective of the sacred kalimah is to achieve this type of purity in one’s relationship with the Creator: complete devotion, absolute love, constant obedience, unwavering hope, and full submission, undiluted with excessive attachment to anything or anyone else. Islam’s laws, its myriad forms of worship, the revolutionary information and exhortations of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet and his companions all serve this extraordinary goal. Now contrast this with the act of directing one’s prayer towards someone other than Allah (regardless of what interpretive justification is offered for it); the very definition of aberration.
Commonly translated as “god”, in the Arabic language (and hence in its Quranic usage) ilāh refers to “something that is worshipped,” whether justifiably or not. In Lisān Al-ʿArab, Ibn Manẓūr says, “Ilāh refers to Allah and anything other than Him that is taken as an object of worship. That thing [the object of this worship] is termed the ilāh of the worshipper”. Fakhr Al-Dīn al-Rāzī, a famous scholar and mufassir, defined ilāh as: “something worshipped, whether in truth or in falsehood” in adherence with the word’s linguistic roots. In numerous places in the Quran, Allah conveys the words of the pagan Arabs describing their idols as ālihah (plural of ilāh), for instance: “And they said: Will we forsake our gods (ālihah) for the sake of a mad poet?” (37:36).
The blessed kalimah: ‘lā ilāha illa Allāh’, contains only four words, so it is extremely significant to understand what each one of them means. The word ilāh appears to be the only one for which there exists conflict amongst the People of the Qiblah in regards to its interpretation, and the consequences of misunderstanding this single word are profound. If understood according to classical Arabic as established here, the kalimah can be translated as: “There is no being worthy of worship except Allah”. If its interpretation is subject to the influence of theological discourse originating in Greek philosophy, we find that many (but not all) Islamic theologians from the schools of Kalam (Speculative Theology) interpret ilāh as “a being capable of creation”. Thus, the kalimah will be interpreted as: “There is no being capable of creation other than Allah”.
Any worshipper of God not afflicted with spiritual apathy will recognize that the difference between these two interpretations is enormous. The first is a mandate that all devotion, love, and worship must be directed singularly to the One, unique God and the latter simply requires that one not recognize any other being as sharing in the creation or control of the world around us. As has been established in the first installment of this series, even the pagan Arabs recognized that Allah alone was Lord and Creator of the universe, yet that conviction did nothing to lift the charge of “shirk” from them. It was only through rejecting the worship and adulation of all beings except Allah that they were able to escape this colossal sin and be accepted into the fold of Islam.
In addition, the evidence supporting the correct interpretation of the kalimah is not limited to just a series of statements from various scholars, but also includes two decades of struggle between the Prophet and his followers and those who chose to reject his message. Any and all Sīrah books (and the Quran is the most profound conveyor of the Prophet’s life and mission) will attest that the pagan Arabs did not attribute the creation and control of the world to their idols and jinn, but rather that they worshipped these things in the belief that they would intercede for them:
“And those who take Awliyāʾ besides Allah say: We worship them only that they may bring us nearer to Allah. Indeed, Allah will judge between them in that wherein they differ. Indeed, Allah does not guide those who are false and ungrateful” (39:3)
Mujāhid, one of the most accomplished and renowned students of Ibn ʿAbbās, said in regards to this verse: “This is how Quraysh feel about their idols, and others feel the same about the angels, or ʿĪsā the son of Mary, or Uzayr”.
Thus the nature of the relationship between the pagan Arabs and their gods was that they worshipped them in the name of intercession. Yet, these were understood to be their taken gods (as the Quran itself attests) despite the fact that they did not assign the status of Creator or Sustainer to these idols.
As Allah has promised, His book delivers clear and pure guidance to anyone who truly seeks it. Wa-l-ḥamdu li’llāh.
According to Ibn Fāris, one of the greatest Arabic linguists our Ummah has ever produced, the word shirk indicates a coupling of two things and is the opposite of “uniqueness” and “singularity”. The common translation of “to make partners with Allah” seems to be universally accepted. The problem occurs when certain sects of Islam choose to limit the generality of this term, saying that the label of shirk only applies when it concerns one’s belief about creation or sustenance or control of the world. There is no evidence for this modification, no reason to limit the vastness of this word and its implications. Linguistically, its ability to encompass every variation of the theme “making partners with Allah” is spiritually profound. To fear something as one fears God, to obey someone as one obeys God, to love and adore another as one loves and adores the Creator, all fall under the shadow of the all-encompassing term that is shirk. To escape it, a person has to liberate his heart from attachment to the creation and re-focus all the deepest manifestations of his humanity on the unseen Creator. This is true faith and is only achievable by deeply imbibing the Prophetic legacy. This journey is the journey of Islam itself, the Straight Path.
There is no doubt that Islam’s earliest and greatest generations interpreted shirk in this all-encompassing way, making it applicable to worship, belief, love, obedience, and other actions. Limiting the concept of shirk to only matters of belief in rubūbiyyah is in direct contradiction with Allah’s words:
“And most of them believe not in Allah except that they attribute partners unto Him (mushrikūn)”(12:106)
Ikrimah, another of Ibn ʿAbbās’ notable students of tafsīr, said the following in regards to this verse: “If asked who created them and who created the heavens and the earth, they will say “Allah,” and that is their belief in Allah, though they worship others alongside him”. Ikrimah has clearly interpreted that second half of the verse, in which these people are referred to as mushrikūn, as being shirk that occurs via worship.
Another Quranic verse that condemns the association of partners with God in any way can be found in Sūrah al-Baqarah:
“… And do not assign rivals (andād) unto Allah whilst you know the truth” (2:22)
We again find that the scholars of Islam’s best generations embraced a general understanding of this concept. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān ibn Zayd ibn Aslam, an imām of Tafsīr and a freed servant of ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb, explained that the “Rivals” mentioned in the verse are the gods that the pagans worshipped, offering to them the same kind of devotion that they were offering to Allah. Ibn Jarīr al-Tabarī, the Imām of the mufassirīn and the author of Islam’s greatest collection of tafsīr, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān, said in regards to this verse: “they make partners in their worship of Allah, worshipping alongside Him their idols and gods, though these false gods have created nothing and have not provided their worshippers with anything, rather Allah alone is responsible for creation and sustenance, yet these people commit shirk by worshipping others alongside Him.” This is a testament from someone who is arguably Islam’s greatest scholar of Tafsīr (after the likes of Ibn ʿAbbās and Ibn Masʿūd) that shirk occurs via worship. The fact that the pagan Arabs and others like them recognize Allah as the sole Creator and Sustainer of the universe, yet still direct their devotion and worship to other beings is something that adds to the magnitude of their ingratitude and infidelity.
And how could things like love be excluded from this conversation when Allah says:
“Yet of mankind are those who set up rivals to Allah, loving them as only Allah should be loved. Those who believe are more fervent in their love of Allah…” (2:165).
And finally, the Messenger himself clarified the nature of shirk with the following ḥadīth: Nawfal al-Ashja’i said, “Oh Messenger of Allah, teach me what to say when I lie down to sleep. He said, Read Qul yā ayyuha al-kāfirūn (Surah al-Kāfirūn), then sleep after completing its recitation, for it is liberation from shirk.” (Narrated by Aḥmad, Abū Dāwūd, Al-Tirmidhī, declared Ṣaḥīḥ by al-Ḥākim and Al-Dhahabī). Thus, the Prophetic prescription to free oneself of shirk is found in Sūrah al-Kāfirūn, a chapter of the Quran solely dedicated to the concept of worshipping Allah alone. How then, can any supposed scholar or school of Islam limit the concept of shirk to belief in Rubūbiyyah alone (Creation, Sustenance, and Control)?
May the greatest blessings of God be upon the man who delivered the Creator’s final revelation with such clarity and certainty.
Linguistically derived from the word wāḥid (the Arabic word for “one”), tawhīd means “to recognize” or “affirm something as being singular”. Ibn Fāris says that roots of this term indicate singularity. When this term is applied to the rights of the Creator, it gains a vastness that is beyond limit and means “to give unto God all that He is due, recognizing that only the Creator deserves our deepest devotion and that only He can fulfill our deepest needs”. Remembrance, devotion, worship, love, adulation, hope, and trust; these are all manifestations of the true servant’s tawḥīd. They are all steps along the Straight Path. And it is simply amazing, an honor beyond description, that Allah wants us to have such a relationship with Him.
Again, there is no evidence (and even less need) to limit the scope of this concept in relation to Allah, the Exalted. The idea that tawḥīd is restricted to only beliefs regarding creation and dominion of the world (often referred to as rubūbiyyah) is simply ludicrous. This limitation has no support from the Arabic language, it is directly contradicted by the words and actions of Islam’s greatest generations, and spiritually, it is a crippling interpretation of God’s divine right.
As we mentioned earlier, the Arabic word ilāh refers to a “worshipped being”. The scholars of Islam, reaching back to its earliest generations, refer to something called tawḥīd al-ulūhiyyah, a term derived from the word ilāh. This phrase means “affirming the singularity of Allah’s right to be worshipped” and it is by no means new. Once again we turn to Imām al-Ṭabarī, whose tafsīr contains the greatest known collection of interpretations of the Quran from Islam’s noblest generations. Here is how this true Imām of the Quran explains lā ilāha illa Allah:
“(Through this phrase) Allah informs us that al-ulūhiyyah (the right to be worshipped) is His alone and is not permitted for other gods and rivals (that men have created), that only He is deserving of worship since He is alone in Rubūbiyyah (creation and dominion of the world) and He is alone in Ulūhiyyah (the right to be worshipped), and all things besides Him are His creation and He has no partner in His dominion…”
The above interpretation of the sacred kalimah, which I have done my meager best to support throughout this entire series, comes from an undisputed Imām of tafsīr, who drank more deeply from the wisdom and insight of the Ṣaḥābah and Tābiʿīn than any mufassir that came after him. It is the interpretation that fully utilizes the richness and power of the Arabic language and it refuses any artificial intellectual constraint. The āyāt that support it are truly countless, and can be found in the words of Allah and His Messenger, as well as the wonder of Allah’s creation; for they all point to the unseen Creator as the only being worthy of our deepest affections and worship.
And Allah knows best.
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