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Rahmah – Not just ‘Mercy’

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By Adnan Majid  

 

Bismillah’l-Raḥmān’l-Raḥīm

As the Qurʾān’s first verse, the invocation above (known as the basmallah) is our gateway to divine revelation and our companion when beginning any activity. Its first part defines an essential element of Muslim identity – to approach all matters “in the name of Allah.” Its ending, listing two of Allah’s names, beautifully repeats the sounds r-ḩ-m in a way striking even to non-Arabic speakers.

Both these names of Allah center on the Arabic quality of rahmah: (a) al-Raḥmān, the One who is defined by complete and universal rahmah[1] and (b) al-Raḥīm, the One who continuously shows much rahmah. It is thus by His rahmah that Allah introduces Himself repeatedly throughout the Qurʾān, so much so that after His tawhid (Oneness), the Qurʾān uses no other quality to describe Allah more than rahmah.[2] This only underscores how central rahmah is to Islamic theology and our relationship with Allah.

So what is rahmah?

Our first answer may be that rahmah should be rendered as “mercy,” a word preferred in many Qurʾān translations. This, however, may be problematic. Although “mercy” is included in the meanings of rahmah, the modern English usage of “mercy” fails to do justice to the Arabic word in my opinion. Rather, I will argue that we speakers of modern English must understand rahmah as Allah’s Messenger understood the term – not simply as “mercy” but something deeper – an emotion  closely tied with motherhood.

“Mercy” in modern English

Ask a native English speaker to describe his or her mother, and one often will hear adjectives like “loving” or “caring.”  By contrast, native English speakers would rarely describe their mothers as “merciful.” Doing so sounds a bit odd to many of us, but why? The answer lies in the fact that “mercy” in modern English is associated with the negative connotation of the “power to harm,” something we do not associate with motherhood. Let’s look at the following definition from the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary[3]:

  1. A kind and forgiving attitude towards somebody that you have the power to harm or right to punish.

 a) to ask/beg/plead for mercy

 b) They showed no mercy to their hostages.

 c) God have mercy on us.

 d) The troops are on a mercy mission (a journey to help people) in the war zone.

  1. An event or a situation to be grateful for, usually because it stops something unpleasant.

 a) It’s a mercy she wasn’t seriously hurt.

 b) His death was a mercy (because he was in great pain).

From an Islamic standpoint, Allah is indeed merciful. Allah is kind and forgiving towards us while having the power to harm us and the right to punish us for our sins. But the Arabic term rahmah is not limited to “mercy” in the encompassing manner by which the Prophet used the term.

Let’s consider instances where we use “mercy” in modern English. For instance, if a ruthless dictator decides to stop killing innocent people temporarily, he would have shown them “mercy,” even if his primary motivation is political and not based on a sincere emotional desire to alleviate suffering. And if a cold-hearted murderer decides against killing a terrified victim, he too would have shown “mercy.” As we shall see, neither case would necessarily constitute rahmah.

We plead for “mercy” from police who can fine us, judges who can punish us, rulers who can overpower us, and murderers who can kill us. But the Messenger never spoke of such fearful people when describing Allah’s rahmah. Instead he reminded us of our mothers and the familiar emotions they show us – emotions we call “compassion” or “nurturing love.”

Rahmah according to Allah’s Messenger

In the Prophet’s many sayings about rahmah on earth, the central theme of nurturing, parental love clearly stands out. Allah’s rahmah, according to the Messenger, is the sole source of all earthly rahmah, such that all creatures show “love and kindness to one another, and even a beast treats her young with affection.”[4] Rahmah thus finds its most natural expression in the love of a mother.

And no one can match a mother’s love… except, of course, Allah. Imagine the emotions of a mother desperately searching for a lost child – and how much joy she must feel finding her child again. On witnessing this, the Messenger asked his companions, “Can you imagine this woman throwing her baby into fire?” When his companions responded in disbelief, he taught them, “Allah has more rahmah for His servants than this mother for her child.”[5] Once again, the Prophet saw rahmah as an emotion we have all experienced – not the modern English “mercy” but a mother’s natural love.

Of course,  this connection of rahmah and motherly love is linguistically unsurprising, for rahmah is related to the Arabic word rahm, which means “uterus,” “womb,” and figuratively “family ties.” This close linguistic connection is so eloquently expressed in Allah’s statement as transmitted in a hadith qudsi, “I am al-Raḥmān and created the rahm (uterus) – And I named it after Me.”[6] Therefore, if we are to grasp the rahmah that is core to God’s very nature, we must look to what this feminine organ symbolizes – the nurturing emotions we find in mothers and the bonds that tie families together. However, mothers are not the only ones characterized by rahmah; the Prophet himself embodied the quality when he would hug his grandchildren,[7] kissing them.

In the patriarchal Bedouin culture of his day, this was considered an effeminate characteristic.“I have ten children and have never kissed any of them!” retorted a proud, disapproving Bedouin. But the Messenger, knowing the beauty of parental love in Allah’s eyes, warned the man, “He who shows no rahmah will be shown no rahmah (in the hereafter).”[8],[9] And in another instance, he reiterated, “He who has no rahmah for children is not one of us.”[10]

“And God will show rahmah but to His servants who show rahmah,” said the Prophet, his eyes filled with tears as he held his dying granddaughter. When asked about these tears, he simply explained, “This is rahmah that God places in the hearts of His servants.”[11] This was a most natural emotion so familiar to us – again, not “mercy” but what we would call a grandfather’s “love.”

The Messenger’s mission was that we might truly know Allah, al-Raḥmān, in the very language of personal experience. To help us comprehend Allah’s rahmah, he did not speak of the earthly “mercy” of kings and judges – today’s modern English understanding of “mercy.” Rather, his demonstrations of rahmah directed us again and again to parental love, especially motherly love.

Is rahmah then “love”?

Yes and no. Although rahmah, according to the Messenger, is indeed a form of love, we should be very careful shifting our dependence from one imperfect translation (“mercy”) to another imperfect translation (“love”). “Love” is a very general term in modern English – we speak not only of “nurturing love,” but also “platonic love,” “romantic love,” “desirous love,” the “love of food,” and the “love of money.” These all signify different forms of “love.”

In contrast to English, Arabic uses a number of words to express these different forms of love, including hubb, mahabbah, wudd, and mawaddah. While the Messenger described Allah’s rahmah as a compassionate, nurturing love; Allah’s hubb is a love merited to those conscious of Him,[12] perfecting their deeds,[13] turning back after their mistakes, and always trying to purify themselves.[14] Whereas Allah’s rahmah in this world is universal, embracing everything,[15] Allah does not have hubb for those who commit aggression,[16] oppression,[17] and corruption.[18]

I am not arguing that the English-speaking Muslim community should settle on one alternative translation for rahmah which will serve to substitute “mercy.” In fact, no perfect translation may exist. However, if we seek to understand rahmah as the Messenger taught us, we may better understand revelation so as to clearly convey the divine message to others.

Dialogue with Christians

In our society, we Muslims must accurately convey Islam’s message to our non-Muslim peers. Though we should be very careful to not simply translate rahmah as “love,” understanding rahmah as a form of love is important whenever engaging in dialogue with Christians. Some Christians disparage the Qurʾān by claiming it rarely mentions “love” whereas the New Testament is translated to state, “God is love.”[19] We can readily see that this argument is weak when we take the Messenger’s understanding of rahmah, one of the Qurʾān’s central themes.

And most interestingly, many Christians are unaware that the Bible’s understanding of “love” is not today’s general, modern English understanding of “love”! Just as in Arabic, biblical Greek had many different words that signified the various types of love. Let’s look at an analysis of this from a Christian website:

The Bible speaks of different kinds of love. Perhaps the most dominant usage of the word “love” in Western society refers essentially    to sexual love but is not found in the New Testament. One kind of love that the Bible does speak of is a friendship sort of love. This is expressed by the Greek word “philia.” It is a preferential type of love and not much different than a person saying that they love chocolate ice cream. “Agape” love however is the most common form of love in the Bible. It might be more likened to the sacrificial love a parent has for their child regardless of whether such love is reciprocated[20]

It may seem that Christian “love” in the Bible – agapē – could actually be more similar to rahmah and not other Arabic words like hubb. By contrast, hubb may correspond more to the Greek philia.[21] Though no two languages can ever match perfectly, both rahmah and agapē are non-desirous, nurturing forms of love that God expresses universally.[22]

In light of this, the Qurʾān’s emphasis on rahmah in dialogue with Christians stands out. For instance, the Qurʾān commends the early followers of Christ, may peace be upon him, by saying Allah put rahmah, not hubb, in their hearts.[23] And consider the high frequency of Allah’s name al-Raḥmān in Surah Maryam, a chapter named after Jesus’ mother Mary, peace be upon them.[24] Is the Qurʾān, while vehemently rejecting the notion that God has any need for a son, using this repetition to remind Christians that He remains the source of universal agapē as discussed in their religious texts? If so, it underscores the importance conveying the prophetic understanding of rahmah whenever giving da’wah to non-Muslims.[25]

Rahmah, our salvation and our obligation

If Christianity is said to be a “religion of love (agapē),” Islam is unquestionably the “Religion of Rahmah.” In this present world, Allah’s rahmah is universal, “having embraced everything.”[26] Moreover, the Messenger’s purpose is eloquently described as “rahmah to the worlds.”[27] In the hereafter, Allah’s rahmah is synonymous with salvation,[28] for no one can be saved, not even the Messenger, except by Allah’s rahmah alone.[29],[30]

This should give us a moment to reflect. Remember, with regards to the hereafter, the Messenger warned us, “He who shows no rahmah will be shown no rahmah,” and taught us, “God will show rahmah but to His servants who show rahmah.” If rahmah is the means to our salvation, having rahmah towards one another is an obligation upon each of us. We must take the Prophet’s commandment to heart:

Al-Raḥmān has rahmah for those who show rahmah. Show rahmah to those on earth – the One in heaven will show you rahmah.[31]

If one wants to learn how to show rahmah to those on earth, look to someone who shows compassion to others the way our mothers love and nurture us – someone who lets his or her tears flow in empathy, feeling the pain of the poor, hungry, and oppressed. Rahmah does not simply mean showing people “mercy” – restraining from harming while having the capacity to hurt. This “mercy” only scrapes the surface of rahmah, which must come from the heart. Neither does rahmah exclusively mean showing hubb to those who commit evil and oppression, “loving” what they do and “liking” to please them.

Instead, rahmah is to let one’s heart ache for those people, caring about their eternal well-being, so that we may all enter Allah’s rahmah, His salvation, in the hereafter. Rahmah is to embody the way of the Messenger, who said, “I was not sent to curse, but I was sent as a rahmah.”[32]

Last word: Hope

God’s revelation is timeless and should resonate with us always. It thus becomes the obligation of each generation to understand that revelation in the language of our own personal experiences. Unfortunately, our dependence on the modern English “mercy” as a translation of rahmah may be faulty and inadequate. All the Messenger’s descriptions of rahmah point to something deeper, something we are familiar with, something we readily know as “compassion” or “nurturing love.”[33]

With this understanding, how much more amazing are the Qurʾān’s words – that rain is rahmah, that revelation is rahmah, and that the Messenger himself is rahmah. We suddenly see all these blessings as God’s deep expressions of compassionate love.

To conclude, we should always remember that rahmah is Allah’s very nature and our only means to salvation, and this should always be a cause of immense relief and hope. For as the Qurʾān and hadith qudsi relate:

And when there comes to you those who believe in Our signs, say, “Peace be upon you. Your Lord has prescribed rahmah on Himself: that any of you who does wrong out of ignorance and then turns back and makes amends – He is indeed forgiving, Raḥīm (full of rahmah).”[34]

Proclaim: “O My servants who have laid waste to their own souls, never lose hope in Allah’s rahmah. Allah forgives all sins entirely. Allah is forgiving, Raḥīm.”[35]

When God completed creation, He inscribed with Himself: “My rahmah has triumphed over My anger.”[36]



[1] Ibn Kathir records from Ibn Jarir al-Tabari that al-Rahmaan refers to universal rahmah with all creation and al-Raḥīm refers to a special rahmah for the believers (Huwa al-Rahmaan li jamee’i l-khalq, wa al-Raḩeem bil-mu’mineena khaassah).
[2] God describes Himself and His actions through rahmah numerously in the Qurʾān. In addition to the names al-Raḥmān and al-Raḥīm at the start of all but one chapter, the name al-Raḥmān occurs 64 more times and the description of Raḥīm occurs an additional 114 times (although once in reference to the Messenger). God’s Rahmah is explicitly mentioned an additional 116 times. With other references to Allah’s Rahmah (arḩamu r-ráḩimeen, khairu r-ráḩimeen, or uses of the verb yarḩam), the concept of rahmah in the Qurʾān occurs at least 545 times.
[4] Abu Hurairah relates that Allah’s Messenger said, “Allah’s rahmah has one hundred parts. He sends down one part of rahmah for the jinn, humans, animals, and insects such that they love and show kindness to one another. And even a beast treats her young with affection. And Allah saves ninety-nine parts of Rahmah for his servants on the Day of Resurrection.” And in a similar narration, “Because of this one part of rahmah, there is mutual love among creation that a mare lifts its hooves from her young for fear of harming it.” (Muslim, who deemed it sound, and others)
[5] ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab relates once being with Allah’s Messenger with a group of women and children detained after battle. One woman among them was searching for her child. Whenever she saw any child, she took the child to her bosom and began breastfeeding it. The Messenger asked his companions, “Do you think this woman would throw her child into fire?” They said, “No, by Allah, unless she has no power otherwise.” He replied, “Allah has more rahmah (arham) for His servants than this woman for her child.” (Muslim, who deemed it sound, and others)
[6] Related by the Messenger through ‘Abdur Raḥmān ibn ‘Auf. The hadeeth qudsi continues, “I have drawn close one who has drawn it (the raḩm) close (maintaining family ties) and have cut off one who has cut it off (breaking family ties).” (Ahmad, who deemed its chain sound, and others)
[7] ‘Usama ibn Zaid relates that as a child, the Messenger used to put Hasan and him on his lap, hug them, and pray, “O Allah, have rahmah for them (irhamhuma) as I have rahmah for them (arhamuhuma).” (Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others)
[8] Man lá yarham, lá yurhim. Abu Huraira relates that the man was Aqra’ ibn Habis at-Tanim, who was sitting besides the Messenger when he kissed his grandson Hasan. (Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others)
[9] In a similar narration, ‘A’isha relates that Bedouins visited and said, “You all kiss children! We never do that.” The Prophet replied, “What can I do for you if Allah removed rahmah from your heart?” (Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others)
[10] ‘Anas ibn Malik relates that when the people were slow to attend to an old man, the Messenger said, “One who does not show children rahmah or respect the elderly is not one of us.” (Tirmidhi, who deemed it sound, and others)
[11] Innamaa yarhamulláhu ‘ibaadahu al-ruhamaa. Related by ‘Usama ibn Zaid. When the Messenger began weeping as his dying granddaughter gasped for air, some of his companions, such as Sa’ad ibn ‘Ubada, initially expressed surprise. (Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others)
[12] Qurʾān 3:76
[13] Qurʾān 2:195
[14] Qurʾān 2:222
[15] My punishment (in this world) strikes whom I wish, but My Rahmah has embraced/enveloped everything (Qurʾān 7:156).
[16] Qurʾān 2:190
[17] Qurʾān 3:57
[18] Qurʾān 5:64
[19] Ho Theòs agápē estín, in Greek. First Epistle of John, 4:8. Interestingly, this verse is translated as “God is charity” in the King James Version in order to distinguish agápē from the general English understanding of “love.”
[20] Emphasis mine, with minor grammatical corrections, from Berean Christian Bible Study Resources. “An Analysis of Agape Love.” February 10, 2009. (Accessed at http://www.bcbsr.com/topics/love1.html)
[21] Phília is the Greek root from which we get words such as philosophy (love of knowledge), philanthropy (love of people), and anglophile (lover of English).
[22] There are undoubtedly linguistic differences between how rahmah is used in 7th-century Arabic and how agápē is used in 1st-century Koine Greek – no two languages are perfectly matched in meaning. However, I’d like to use this space to illustrate why the relationship between the two terms maybe more than just a coincidence. The question I raise is the following: Would Christians in 7th-century Syria or Yemen hearing the Qurʾān for the first time recognize rahmah as something similar to the agápē of the New Testament? I will argue that this may indeed be the case, with the following evidence:
Firstly, although rahmah is an Arabic term, speakers of closely related Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac would have recognized the three-letter r-ḩ-m root formation from their own languages. The root itself does appear in the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible (Old Testament) as רחם. Here’s the entry from the Gesenius’s Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon to the Old Testament Scripture (1881), which I have copied from the Islamic Awareness website (cited below) and which can also be found at http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/Lexicon.cfm?strongs=H7355:
The above definitions of “love of parents towards their children” and  “the compassion of God towards men” are precisely in line with the Messenger’s own usage of rahmah in Arabic.
This Semitic correspondence relates directly to the Greek term agape used in the New Testament. In order to understand the New Testament in their own Semitic tongue, early Syrian Christians translated the Greek text into the Syriac Peshitta beginning around the 2nd century. These pre-Islamic Christians often used the r-ḩ-m root (written as  in Syriac) as one translation for the agápē verb-form (although they sometimes also used the ḩ-b root as well). Please consider these Gospel verses followed by the old Syriac translations obtained from http://www.aramaicpeshitta.com/aramaic_nt_resources.htm where words with the r-ḩ-m root are boxed (remember, Syriac like Arabic is read right to left):
Matthew 22:36-40 – “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Jesus replied, “’Love (agapḗseis) the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love (agapḗseis) your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hand on these two commandments.”
John 14:21 – (Jesus says:) “Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves (agapȏn) me. Anyone who loves (agapȏn) me will be loved (agapēthḗsetai) by my Father, and I too will love (agapḗsō) them and show myself to them.”
Thus, 7th-century Syrian Christians first hearing the Qurʾān may have immediately recognized rahmah as connoting their familiar Greek equivalent: agápē.
What about Arabic-speaking Christians before Islam? Interestingly, note that the name al-Raḥmān was unfamiliar to the pagan Arabs of Mecca. Suhail ibn ‘Amr, for instance, admitted, “We do not know what is meant by Bismillah’l-Raḥmān’l-Raḥīm, when objecting to the term in the treaty of Hudaybiya (Muslim and others). By contrast, there is evidence from pre-Islamic inscriptions that al-Raḥmān was used as God’s name by Christians and Jews in Southern Arabia, such as those of Najran. (Please see this fascinating review by MSM Saifullah and ‘Abdullah David at Islamic Awareness: http://www.islamic-awareness.org/Qurʾān/Sources/Allah/rhmnn.html.) As we shall soon see, the name al-Raḥmān is used with high frequency in Surah Maryam. Could this be to address a Christian Arab population (and maybe also the Abyssinian Christians to whom Ja’far Ibn Abi Talib recited Surah Maryam on the First Emigration) using the very names of God they are familiar with?
[23] Wa ja’alná fee quloobi lladheena t-taba’oohu ra’fatan wa rahmah (Qurʾān 57:27).
[24] The name al-Raḥmān occurs in Surah Maryam an amazing 16 times, much higher in frequency than any other part of the Qurʾān. Consider the following verses:
That day We will gather the God-conscious to al-Raḥmān as honored guests and will drive criminals to hell thirsty. None will have the benefit of intercession except those who have made a bond with al-Raḥmān. And yet they have said, “Al-Raḥmān has taken a son”! Indeed you claim something monstrous – as though the skies would tear apart, the earth split asunder, and the mountains collapse in ruin – that they have ascribed to al-Raḥmān a son! For how inconceivable it is that al-Raḥmān could have a son! Indeed, none comes before al-Raḥmān except as a servant. (Surah Maryam 19:85-93)
[25] Not only Christians, but also Buddhists, for whom rahmah is precisely the Pali concept metta (Sanskrit maitri). Consider the Metta Sutta: “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart one should cherish all living beings.” Buddhists translate metta into “compassion” or “loving-kindness” to differentiate it from plain “love,” which can be desirous and harmful to the self.
[26] See above. Qurʾān 7:156
[27] Wa má arsalnáka illá raḩmatan li l-‘álameen (Qurʾān 22:107)
[28] Abu Hurairah relates that the Messenger said, “The Garden (paradise) and Fire (hell) quarreled before their Lord. The Garden said, ‘Lord, what’s wrong with me that only the poor and humble enter me?’ And the Fire boasted, ‘I have been favored to inherit the arrogant.’ So Allah told the Garden, ‘You are My rahmah,’ and told the Fire, ‘You are My punishment, which I inflict upon whomever I wish. And both of you will have your fill.’” (Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others)
[29] ‘A’isha relates that God’s Messenger said, “Observe moderation, and if you can’t observe it perfectly, try your best. And be happy (hopeful), because no one can enter the Garden on account of one’s deeds alone.” They said, “O Messenger of Allah, not even you?” He said, “Not even me, unless Allah envelops me in His rahmah. And remember that the deed most loved by God is the one done constantly even though it’s small.” (Muslim, who deemed it sound)
[30] And Abu Hurairah relates that God’s Messenger said, “None of your deeds can save you.” They said, “Not even you, O Messenger of God?” He said, “No, not even me, unless God bestows His rahmah upon me. So do good deeds properly, sincerely, and moderately, and worship God in the morning and afternoon and during part of the night. And always adopt a middle, moderate, regular course to reach your goal.” (Bukhari, who deemed it sound)
[31] Al-raahimoon, yarhamuhumu al-Rahmaan – urhamoo man fi l-arḍ, yarhamkum man fi s-samá’. The English translation fails to do justice to the poetic beauty of the Prophet’s statement, related by ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Amr ibn al-‘As. The narration continues, “The uterus (rahm) derives from al-Raḥmān. Allah has drawn close one who has drawn her close and has cut off one who has cut her off.” (Tirmidhi, who deemed it good and sound, and others)
[32] Related by Abu Hurairah when someone had urged the Messenger to send a curse upon the polytheists. (Muslim, who deemed it sound, and others)
[33] Though again, we should be careful to simply call it “love” without specifying its form.
[34] Qul: salaamun ‘alaikum. Inna Rabbakum kataba ‘alaa nafsihi al-rahmah (Qurʾān 6:54).
[35] Qul: yaa ‘ibaadi alladheena asrafoo ‘alá anfusihim, lá taqnaţoo min rahmatilláh. (Qurʾān 39:53).
[36] Related by Messenger through Abu Huraira. Narrations use ghalabat (has triumphed/won over), sabaqat (has excelled over/raced past), or taghlib (triumphs/wins over) and may additionally mention Allah “upon the Throne.” (Bukhari, who deemed it sound, and others)
13 Comments

13 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Saad

    December 3, 2012 at 6:39 AM

    Jazakumullah kheyr for writing and sharing this. Things make a LOT of sense to me now. I especially like the bit where the author says that languages don’t match perfectly.
    This is why it is absolutely necessary for us to learn as much arabic as we can to really understand Qur’an’s message.

  2. Avatar

    Adnan Majid

    December 3, 2012 at 2:20 PM

    Salam Alaikum dear readers,

    There seems to be an issue by which key images associated with Note 22 do not properly display. Please find those images in the original post of this article at SuhaibWebb.com: http://www.suhaibwebb.com/relationships/withthedivine/ra%E1%B8%A9mah-not-just-mercy/ (July 27, 2012).

    Jazakumullah Khair!

  3. Avatar

    Yasmin

    December 3, 2012 at 2:32 PM

    Mashallah, beautiful and informative post! Jazakallah khair for your hard work!

  4. Avatar

    nousheen

    December 4, 2012 at 1:53 AM

    MashAllah,
    very informative,may Allah gives u the reward for this great effort.ameen

  5. Avatar

    Olivia

    December 4, 2012 at 5:18 PM

    Mashallah, very thoughtful and helpful to those of us who dont speak arabic. Jzk

  6. Avatar

    Asmeeni

    December 8, 2012 at 2:47 AM

    Jazkumullah Khairan. Very well written and well researched piece.

  7. Avatar

    Abdullah

    December 13, 2012 at 11:26 AM

    This is a very important study in our society today. Growing up in the US, I have often been accosted by Christian missionaries who claim that Islam’s mention of God’s love and the love we should have for one another is paltry compared to what one would find in Christianity. Those experiences have in the past sometimes left me in reduced iman. Some of our brothers and sisters seem to have left Islam on account of experiences like mine: http://spa.qibla.com/issue_view.asp?HD=7&ID=17124&CATE=24

    It’s a shame that so many English translations of the Qur’an rely on translating rahmah as “mercy,” overlooking the emotion used when the Prophet (saws) uses the term. I grew up reading the English translation and never felt that emotion until focusing on the word “rahmah” rather than “mercy.” I think “compassion” would be a much better translation today, more accurate with regards to how the Prophet (saws) used the term.

    Jazakumullah khair

  8. Pingback: Rahmah – Not just ‘Mercy’ | MuslimMatters.org | hasantnt's blog

  9. Avatar

    Aisha

    April 7, 2014 at 3:42 AM

    Masha Allah. A very detailed and beautifully explained work. May Allah put Barakah in your knowledge.ameen

  10. Pingback: Marriage: How to Keep it Off The Rocks - MuslimMatters.org

  11. Pingback: » Ambassadors Of Good Will: On Manners and Marketing

  12. Pingback: ISIS and Its Faulty Logic « Muslimyouthstoday's Blog

  13. Avatar

    Rahma

    June 30, 2016 at 3:51 AM

    Wow I am impressed with the in depth meaning of my own name! Didn’t know that!

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#Current Affairs

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

Shaykh Tarik Ata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#Society

Do You Know Why Uzma Was Killed?

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

Fatima Asad

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

By Fatima Asad

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

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

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

Wake up, my child! Beta jaag jao.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#justiceforuzma #justiceformaids

 

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#Life

OpEd: Breaking Leases Into Pieces

Abu Awad

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Ali ibn Talib raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him)once said, “Know the truth and you’ll know who’s speaking the truth.” 

I am based in Canada and was recently having coffee with friends. In the course of the conversation, a friend (who I consider knowledgeable) said that it’s okay to pay interest on a leased car because interest doesn’t apply to lease contracts. This completely caught me off guard, because it made no logical sense that interest would become halal based solely on the nature of the contract.

I asked him how this can be true and his response was that the lease contract is signed with the dealer and the interest transaction is between the dealer and the financing company so it has nothing to do with the buyer. Again, this baffled me because I regularly lease cars and this is an incorrect statement: The lease agreement is signed with a third party financing company who is charging you directly for the interest they pay the car dealership. Therefore, any lease contract that has interest associated with it is haram. This is the same as saying your landlord can charge you interest for his mortgage on a rental contract and this would make it halal. I tried to argue this case and explain to my friend that what he was saying was found on false assumptions and one should seriously look into this matter before treating riba in such a light manner.

Upon going home that night, I pulled out all my lease contracts (negotiated to 0% mind you) and sent them over to my friend. They clearly showed that a bill of sale is signed with the dealer, which is an initial commitment to purchase but the actual lease agreement is signed with a third party financing company which is charging you interest directly. If this interest rate is anything above zero it is haram (anything which is haram in a large quantity is also haram in a small quantity).

To my dismay, instead of acknowledging his mistake, my friend played the “Fatwa Card” and sent me a fatwa from a very large fatwa body in North America, which was also basing their argument on this false assumption. Fortunately for me, my friend pointed out the hotline number and the day and time the mufti who gave the fatwa would be available to answer questions.

I got in touch with the scholar and over a series of text messages proceeded to explain to him that his fatwa was based on a wrong assumption and for this reason people would be misled into leasing cars on interest and signing agreements with financing companies which are haram.
He was nice enough to hear my arguments, but still insisted that “maybe things were different in Canada.” Again this disappointed me because giving fatwa is a big responsibility – by saying “maybe” he was implying that full research has not been done and a blanket fatwa has been given for all of North America.

It also meant that if my point was true (for both Canada and the United States) dozens of Muslims maybe engaging in riba due to this fatwa.

The next week I proceeded to call two large dealerships (Honda and Toyota) in the very city where the Fatwa body is registered in the US and asked them about paperwork related to leasing. They both confirmed that when leasing a new vehicle, the lease contract is signed with a third party financing company which has the lien on the vehicle and the dealer is acting on the financing company’s behalf.

It is only when a vehicle is purchased in cash that a contract is signed with the dealer. This proved my point that both in the US and Canada car lease contracts are signed with the financing company and the interest obligations are directly with the consumer, therefore if the interest rate is anything above 0% it is haram. I sent a final text to the mufti and my friend sharing what I had found and letting him know that it was now between them and Allah.

1. As we will stand in front of Allah alone on Yaum al Qiyamah, in many ways we also stand alone in dunya. You would think that world renowned scholars and an entire institution would be basing their fatwas on fact-checked assumptions but this is not the case. You would also think that friends who you deem knowledgable and you trust would also use logic and critical thinking, but many times judgment is clouded for reasons unbeknownst to us. We must not take things at face value. We must do our research and get to the bottom of the truth. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says to stand up for truth and justice even if it be against our ourselves; although it is difficult to do so in front of friends and scholars who you respect, it is the only way.

2. There are too many discussions, debates and arguments that never reach closure or get resolved. It is important to follow up with each other on proofs and facts to bring things to closure, otherwise our deen will slowly be reduced to a swath of grey areas. Alhamdulillah, I now know enough about this subject to provide a 360 degree view and can share this with others. It is critical to bring these discussions to a close whether the result is for you or against you.

3. Many times we have a very pessimistic and half hearted view towards access to information. When I was calling the dealerships from Canada in the US,  part of me said: Why would these guys give me the information? But if you say Bismillah and have your intentions in the right place Allah makes the path easy. One of the sales managers said “I can see you’re calling from Toronto, are you sure you have the right place?” I replied, “I need the information and if you can’t give it to me I don’t mind hanging up.” He was nice enough to provide me with the detailed process and paperwork that goes into leasing a car.

Finally, I haven’t mentioned any names in this opinion and I want to make clear that I am not doubting the intentions of those who I spoke to; I still respect and admire them greatly in their other works. We have to be able to separate individual cases and actions from the overall person.

May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) guide us to the truth and rid of us any weaknesses or arrogance during the process.

Aameen.

Ed’s Note: The writer is not a religious scholar and is offering his opinion based on his research on leasing contracts in North America.

Suggested reading:

Muslim’s Guide to Debt and Money Management Part 6

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