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Ramadan vs. Ramzan: How to Do Things with Words

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Nationalism is a funny thing. It can be the source of bonding and camaraderie as well as the cause of animosity, chest-puffing, and downright silliness.

Just consider all the online debate about the recent article “Why are Indian Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Ramadan’ instead of the traditional ‘Ramzan’?“, written by Shoaib Daniyal.

The article details how, historically, the Arabic word for Islam’s sacred month “Ramadan” came to be pronounced “Ramzan” in the sub-continent and how, recently, many South Asian Muslims are reverting to the “Ramadan” pronunciation due to, as the author puts it, the effect of a “Saudi-influenced brand of Islam” and “cultural insecurity” on the part of said South Asians.

Apparently, this is a debate that has been cropping up annually in South Asian communities around Ramadan time, and there are a lot of competing socio-political tensions that underlie and color the conversation. As far as this article is concerned, however, much of it is little more than nationalism and thinly-veiled anti-Arabism masquerading as serious historical and linguistic analysis.

The Urge to Purge

Calls for abandoning “arabicized” language in preference for a more “authentic,” “traditional,” or “pure” use of language is hardly new and certainly not limited to South Asia. Historically, many nationalist movements in the Middle East have called for dropping vocabulary, pronunciation, and script associated with Arabs and Arabic. In 20th century Turkey, for example, part of Ataturk’s compulsory modernization program was replacing the Perso-Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish with a new Latin-based Turkish alphabet that was meant to be truer to the modern secular Turkish identity. In Iran also, government programs under the rule of Muhammad Reza Shah attempted to “purify” the Persian language by excising any and all Arabic vocabulary and replacing it with Farsi equivalents, even if that meant inventing a Farsi word from scratch. Historically, these calls for purging Arabic almost always coincided with efforts to secularize society and attenuate the influence of Islam in people’s lives.

Beyond the Middle East and Arabic in particular, attempting to reform the way people use language is often little more than a way to bolster, entrench, or cultivate nationalistic identities. Mundane linguistic details become the battlefield for ideological tug of war. What often features in these debates, however, is partisan historiography and what Prof. Reza Zia-Ebrahimi of King’s College in London calls “dislocative nationalism.” Prof. Zia-Ebrahimi’s research is concerned with how Persian nationalists in the 19th and 20th centuries invented an Aryan national identity that they then back-projected thousands of years to claim that Iran — as a cohesive nation with its own distinct identity, religion, and language — existed in ancient times and persisted throughout history despite the “corrupting” influence of invading forces and cross-cultural mixing. Nationalist reformers in modern times then attempted to “purify” what they anachronistically believed to be that essence of Aryanness by “decontaminating” cultural markers of anything believed to be foreign and non-Aryan, e.g., the Arabic language and even Islam as a whole.

What these nationalists failed to appreciate, however, is that the concept of a nation is a modern construction — strictly speaking, just a figment of our collective imagination — and that the history of any given geographic region is a rich tapestry of interweaving cultures, languages, and traditions. Only a highly selective (and, hence, inventive) reading of history could ignore all that diversity in partitioning off a specific nationalistic or racial essence. This kind of nationalistic essentialism is, of course, not unlike what renowned scholar Edward Said identified and bemoaned as being operative in Orientalism and Western colonialism generally.

Truth be told, this kind of caricaturing and mythologizing of history in service of contemporary nationalistic identity politics is ubiquitous, whether it is modern Egyptians feeling a sense of connection to and national pride for the Ancient Pyramids or modern Americans celebrating Thanksgiving as a commemoration of a peaceful partnership between the Pilgrims and Native Americans.

What does all this have to do with Ramzan?

We can see this selective and romanticized reading of history in Daniyal’s Ramadan vs. Ramzan article. For example, the author repeatedly uses the term “traditional” to characterize the “Ramzan” pronunciative variant. The question to ask is, what makes “Ramzan” so traditional? Given that the sub-continent is home to hundreds of distinct languages and dialects, each with its own storied history, why insist on this one particular pronunciation? As Mahtab Alam noted in his post on this issue last year, not all Indians, let alone South Asians, claim Urdu/Hindi as their mother tongue. Besides “Ramzan,” many South Asians have Ramojan, Ramjan, Rumjan, Ramazan, and so on. As he succinctly puts it, “Insistence on one [variation] is as hegemonic as the other one.”

Further selectivity can be seen in how Daniyal describes the historical influence of Persian/Farsi on the Indian native language as opposed to the purported influence of Saudi Arabia today. The author does not see anything problematic or objectionable about the adoption of Persian language and culture in the evolution of the sub-continent over the course of centuries. But, when it comes to the contemporary adoption of Arabicized speech patterns, that is somehow indicative of Saudi meddling and “cultural insecurity” on the part of Indian Muslims.

So why the inconsistency? If it is a legitimate, natural, organic process for language to shift over time in the sub-continent due to Persian influence historically, why is it suddenly illegitimate, unnatural, objectionable when that language continues to shift in present times due to an Arab (or American, or English, etc.) influence today? In other words, why does Daniyal take a laissez faire attitude when it comes to language transformation historically, but when it comes to modern transformations, suddenly “tradition” is so important and we have to preserve the pronunciations of old? What is so special, culturally iconic, and indispensable about this one particular Persian variant, “Ramzan”?

All that Daniyal has to offer in response to this is that “Ramzan” is traditional because that is how “most Muslim” Indians have been pronouncing it for a few hundred years. Of course, he does not cite any statistics or census results to substantiate this. But, lack of verification aside, if we go back in time, at one point that “Ramzan” pronunciation itself was brand new and unprecedented in the sub-continent, just like “Ramadan” is (supposedly) brand new and unprecedented today. Maybe in a few hundred years, “Ramadan” too will be considered the “traditional” and culturally correct pronunciation. Only Khuda knows.

Persian Confidential

To step back and comment on this entire debate, I just want to say that, ultimately, it does not matter how one pronounces Ramadan or if a Muslim says “namaz” instead of “salat.” From my own life experience and observing the cross-cultural Muslim communities in the West and abroad, I have found that these cultural debates are often nothing more than tribalism (`asabiyya) rearing its ugly head.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am Persian American and grew up saying “Ramezan,” “namaz,” “roozeh,” “sahari,” “Khuda,” etc. I still use these words when speaking to my Iranian family members and do feel a warm connection to my Persian heritage. At the same time, I have no issue using the Arabic equivalents when speaking to others, e.g., my Egyptian wife, or my half-Persian, half-Egyptian sons, who speak both Farsi and Arabic ma sha’ Allah. And, coincidentally, in Persian, my first name, “Daniel,” is pronounced “Daniyal.” Hopefully, my pronunciation of my own name “Daniel” instead of “Daniyal” is not cultural insecurity on my part.

As far as orthoepy is concerned, correct pronunciation is religiously significant when it comes to obligatory prayers as well as the study of the Islamic sciences, e.g., transmission of hadith. Beyond this, as Muslims we should also not lose sight of the fact that Arabic is a special language for a number of reasons, chief among them that it is the language Allah chose for the Quran, His final revelation to mankind. Also, it is the mother tongue of the beloved Messenger of God ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Given these two facts alone, how can any Muslim not feel a deep abiding love for lisan al-`arab? As an American and a Persian, I personally feel no contradiction in or threat to my sense of identity by acknowledging this love. And when we look at the history, literature, and scholarship of non-Arab Muslims the world over, we also see a reverence for Arabic.

Of course, it should go without saying that one’s appreciation of Arabic has no bearing on one’s opinion of the Saudi government or any other state institution. And, furthermore, this love of classical, formal Arabic, i.e., fusha, does not give modern Arabs the right to look down on non-Arab Muslims as somehow less authentically Muslim for any reason, least of which the fact that non-Arab Muslims use the words “Ramzan,” “sehri,” etc., in lieu of the formal Arabic counterparts. Keep in mind that the first and, arguably, most influential book of Arabic grammar ever written was completed in the 2nd century of the Hijri calendar by the Persian Muslim scholar Sibawayh, who was a non-native speaker of the language to boot.

Whether we like it or not, if we go far enough back in time, all of our personal family and cultural histories are inevitably an amalgam of a multitude of cross-cultural influences, regardless of the modern national identities we may currently associate with. In that wider sense, vociferously insisting on a nationality and imbuing so much significance on a singular national identity and language just seems historically illiterate, chauvinistic, and, well, silly.

And a Final Note…

In this post, I have made a big deal about historical diversity and the intellectual inconsistency of essentializing and mythologizing the past in order to serve modern nationalism. But, as it turns out, this is precisely the reasoning many modern academics use to argue that there is no essential, definitive “Islam” with a capital “i”. Rather, there are only “islams,” i.e., myriad historical interpretations, all equally legitimate and normative because who’s to say otherwise? According to this reasoning, it is nothing more than crass essentialism and historical constructivism to pick out an “orthodox Islam” and try to tie that alleged orthodoxy to a past community, e.g., the Sahaba, the Salaf, the Khalaf, etc.

As I have argued elsewhere in response to this argument, there is a brazen double standard in modern academia where religions, like Islam, are portrayed as lacking the robust objectivity and internal coherence — in a word, an essence —that Western normative systems, like liberalism, secularism, communism, capitalism, etc., are believed to have. No one is charged with essentialism, for example, by claiming that liberalism stands for, say, equal rights for all. That is just what liberalism means, and then further details can be debated by scholars in an analytic way. Whereas for Islam, there are as many equally valid interpretations as there are interpreters, for liberalism, Marxism, feminism, etc., not any and every interpretation is valid. This is because those thought systems have an essential meaning that it is the job of a scholar to study and understand.

In other words, Western ideas are typically studied for their own independent merit as abstractions with logical implications completely apart from any sociological, cultural, or historical contextual considerations. When you study Descartes’ Meditations in modern introductory philosophy classes, for example, little attention is given to Descartes’ social or cultural milieu; the only concern is to understand the thesis of the work as Descartes intended it. Contrast this with how the Quran, for example, is treated in Islamic and religious studies departments. Little attention is paid to trying to understand what the Author of the Quran could be propounding and whether those propositions have any independent logical merit. After all, who’s to say what the text of the Quran even means? It is all open to interpretation, and any claim about the text is more a reflection of the biases and cultural and political commitments of the commenter than the text itself.

Now imagine if we took this same approach to an economics or analytic philosophy class, arguing that the concept of “democracy” is open to interpretation, and while in the cultural context of the US, we might understand democracy to mean one thing, in North Korea, it means something else entirely, and who’s to say which interpretation is more “correct” or “orthodox”? Or how about a physics class. Unless one’s physics professor is an unabashed postmodernist, he is not going to be amused by a student arguing that he does not deserve an ‘F’ on his midterm because Isaac Newton’s Principia or Albert Einstein’s The Field Equations of Gravitation are open to interpretation and the professor’s understanding is merely an ahistorical projection of biases onto the text in constructing an “orthodox physics.”

I, of course, do believe the Quran and the Islamic sciences in general have an internal logical coherence and intrinsic meaning (within a range of diversity of opinion). The question then is, why is such essentialism acceptable here but unacceptable in the case of nationalism? Answering this question in full is beyond the scope of this already long post, but part of the answer is that, over the centuries, scholars of Islam put a lot of time, energy, and thought in preserving the religion, preserving the Sunnah, and actively warding off  illegitimate deviation. And, importantly, they were perfectly aware that that was what they were doing — that was their explicit intent, as the historical record shows. Nationalism, in contrast, lacks that historical continuation and self-reflexivity since, of course, the concept of a “nation” is only a couple hundred years old and anything even approximating contemporary nationalistic identities are notably absent from the historical record. Furthermore, when we look at historical discourse, say a thosand years ago, we do not find Indian or Persian scholars, for example, theorizing about the Hindustani or Aryan essence or concerning themselves with preserving an ethnic discursive tradition or racialized normative system til the end of time. With Islam and Muslim scholars, however, we do see this concern with preserving the normative vision of Islam indefinitely, and that is a crucial distinguishing factor. WaAllahu`alam.

Daniel Haqiqatjou was born in Houston, Texas. He attended Harvard University where he majored in Physics and minored in Philosophy. He completed a Masters degree in Philosophy at Tufts University. Haqiqatjou is also a student of the traditional Islamic sciences. He writes and lectures on contemporary issues surrounding Muslims and Modernity. Email Daniel here .

16 Comments

16 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Daniel Haqiqatjou

    June 24, 2015 at 4:45 AM

    PS: The whole Ramadan/Ramzan debate can be understood through an analogy with food. For example, I am Iranian, but I am not ashamed to admit that my favorite cuisine is South Asian food. That doesn’t take anything away from my Persian-ness. Of course, I grew up eating Persian home cooking, and I do love Persian food and it has a place in my heart. But there’s also a special place in my heart for desi food… I guess I have a big heart (and high cholesterol)! Ultimately, each individual will have his or her own dietary preferences, especially in our increasingly globalized world. And when we even look at the history of different cuisines, we also see a smorgasbord of cross-cultural mixing. For example, one of my favorites, Biryani, is conventionally a South Asian dish. Some gastric historians, however, locate the origin of Biryani in classical Persia. Arabs also have many different versions of what is essentially Biryani, e.g., makloubeh, etc. Obviously, it would be impossible to try to tie a dish like Biryani to one nation since there is much influence from a great number of cultures over the course of centuries, as recipes and spices traveled throughout the Muslim world. But, at the end of the day, who cares? Let’s just enjoy the delicious Biryani together, whether for iftar or for suhur/sehri/sahari! Anyway, don’t know if that was coherent. Fasting is obviously affecting my brain…

  2. Avatar

    Mohammed Khan

    June 24, 2015 at 4:56 AM

    Masha Allah. You made the common sense prevail with objectivity.

  3. Avatar

    Mohammed Khan

    June 24, 2015 at 5:02 AM

    I want to believe that Biryani is Hyderabadi :-)

    • Avatar

      Haider Rehman

      June 27, 2015 at 3:50 AM

      Biryani is Pakistani ;)
      At least for me.

  4. Avatar

    Maleeha

    June 24, 2015 at 7:38 AM

    a really objective, thought provoking and an interesting read! Thank you for the article :)

  5. Avatar

    Ali

    June 24, 2015 at 8:26 AM

    Nationalism, the one type of cancer that will never be cured.

  6. Avatar

    June

    June 24, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    Assalamu Alaykum,
    Nice article. Very well put. The whole nationalism/tribalism being used to remove Arab influence in order to shift toward secularism really struck a chord with me. My in-laws are from Tajikistan and recently the country has been creating some very xenophobic laws very specifically against Arabic influences (and Islamic influences despite their claims against these accusations) for fear of Islamic radicalism (or, you know, just regular Islam. Men with beards?! Women wearing hijab?! EXTREMISTS!) They banned the use of Arabic names for anyone born from now on. As if having the name Muhammed or Khadija will turn you into a terrorist! grrrr….

    • Avatar

      Chang

      June 26, 2015 at 5:16 AM

      That was ridiculous

  7. Avatar

    Abdullah Ali

    June 24, 2015 at 4:37 PM

    Masha’Allah excellent article, and relevant discourse. Just because prior generations appeal to ignorance with regards to the linguistics of a foreign language, doesn’t make it OK for the next generations to adopt or accept an error based on the same logic. Sure, it can be a cultural exception for a particular generation based on the history of the error, but not a linguistic one. Words symbolize meaning. Although the variation of the word may mean the same semantically, the fact that two Muslims will pronounce an Arabic word differently, will in itself become a decisive factor in the interpersonal relationship. Atleast one of the two individuals will be cognizant of the difference, and therefore the word will become symbolic of not a different meaning, but ultimately a difference within the dyad. Whether they pay any mind to it or not, may also boil down to individual cultural norms. EXAMPLE: ‘door’ in Urdu would be transliterally pronounced ‘dharvaza’. No Urdu/Hindi/Punjabi speaker would be ok with someone saying ‘zharvaza’. It would be an error, that if used enough, could make one easily subject to correction by the native speaker. Where this issue gets stickier, is that the word Ramadan is used in the Qur’an. It’s meaning is derived from the Qur’an. Whenever it’s used by a foreign speaker, it’s almost always used in an Islamic context. Changing even a letter from the Qur’an can be easily discerned as a huge error. So when nationalism and history get in the way of acknowledging and correcting an error that gets passed on to new generations as norm, the idea of unity as a holistic society would demand we have this discourse. It’s not a debate. It’s about respecting the language of our faith. Fasting has nothing to do with this discourse. It’s about education, and the linguistics of a foreign language. The morphology of Arabic is very intricate, and even the smallest difference can change meaning. Committing to learning this intricacy with the right intention, could also reap spiritual benefit in this month as well. No debate necessary, just commitment to objectivity. Jazak’Allah khair!

  8. Avatar

    LearningArabic

    June 24, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    I’m a South Asian guy who used to say Ramzan as a child, but then started using Ramadhan once I started to learn Tajweed and proper Quranic recitation.

    Nothing to do with trying to be more Arab or letting go of my heritage. I don’t speak Urdu with an Arabic accent so why would I use Arabic words with an Urdu accent. I suspect many South Asians started to use Ramadan when they realized that it is the correct pronunciation.

  9. Avatar

    Mansoor

    June 24, 2015 at 11:44 PM

    This deconstruction is devoid of context. There is a creeping rejection of many cultural elements in sub continental societies along with a countervailing adaptation of such elements from the Arabian peninsula; not to mention some people rewriting their family trees to now trace their roots to that part of the world. This is seen by many (myself included) as a symptom of that creeping trend.

  10. Avatar

    Ali

    June 25, 2015 at 5:06 AM

    Assalamu alaikum warahmatullahi

    May Allah (swt) bless the writer of this article with ‘aafiyah, wisdom, and persistence. Ameen.

    JazakAllah Khayran. I love when Persians like you defend true Islam, because of the hadith of Rasulullah (saAllahu ‘alayhi wasallam). I hope that hadith is a source of happiness for you too.

  11. Avatar

    Mariam

    June 26, 2015 at 9:48 AM

    And to the dismay of my bretherns of South Asian descent, defending “ramzan”: If we were to live in a South Asian bubble this would have been easier to defend. I really think it is a matter of globalization. My spell-check doesn’t even recognize “ramzan”. The rest of the Muslim world is not Desi, and therefore, they would rather stick to Arabic “Ramadan” than Desi “Ramzan”. If you want to function with the rest of the world, gotta stick with original/approved spelling. After all, prez Obama says Ramadan ;)

    Ramadan, unlike how we would like to think, is not a food item. It is a religious month.

    We, south Asians, can now move on to patent the word “samosa” instead of Arabs “messing” it up by saying “sambosa” . After all, ours always tastes so much better!

    • Avatar

      Khaled Ahmad

      June 29, 2015 at 1:32 PM

      LOL, I’m always asking my Desi friends to hook it up with the Sambosas; now I feel ashamed….

  12. Avatar

    D G Ahmed

    July 3, 2015 at 4:00 PM

    In India-Bangladesh-Pakistan Subcontinent there existed fighting between ulemas (Pls note Ms. Mariam My spell-check doesn’t even recognize “ulema” – although it is most recognized word for meaning “Islamic Scholars”) over the last word of Suratul Fatiha. It is pronounced “DaLe-en” correctly by all today. But some 50 years before there were a group of ulemas- mostly from Deoband, who used to pronounce it as ‘ZuaLe-en”. In those days supporter each group would not go for prayer in a mosque in which his opposite was an Imam. Some times there would be physical assaults. So far I have gathered information ( Pardon me, I am not a linguist), in Turkey the Arabic letter ‘Duad’ is to be pronounced as ‘Zuad’. And dispute started from there. But in Egypt, which claims their Arabic is purer and classical, they pronounce the letter as ‘Duad’. Most of the eminent reciters of Holy Qur’an came from Egypt so the letter now found its original phonetic place. Now no one pronounce ‘ZuaLe-en’. True, in Subcontinent we have tremendous Persian influence as Persian was official language for 7 hundred years. Only British Raj drove Persian out from offices, but influence of Persian remained popular in Islamic Schools- we call “Madrashas’. Because of rise of nationalism Persian language is loosing its charm. True, now days Saudi Arabia is spending lot of money in these countries building mosques and other institutions to promote their version of interpretation of Islam encouraging Muslims to renounce 4 Schools of Imams, disrespecting Sufi Dervishes (who actually brought Islam to most of the Subcontinent), everywhere finding ‘shirk’ but no shirk in inviting America to protect them instead of seeking help from Allah Subhanu wata’ala. In fact Islam & Muslims are passing through a very critical moment in history now. May Allah Guide us through ‘Siratul Mustaqim’.

  13. Avatar

    Zia-e-Taiba

    October 31, 2016 at 8:45 AM

    Everybody should read this article The Campaign of Protecting the Sacred Words

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Lessons From Surah Maryam: 1

Shaykh Furhan Zubairi

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Alhamdulillah, it’s a great blessing of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that He has given us both the opportunity and ability to come here tonight to study and explore the meanings of His words in Surah Maryam. I’m truly grateful for this opportunity. May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) accept this effort from all of us and place it on our scale of good deeds.

Alhamdulillah, in our last series we were able to complete the tafsir of Surah Al-Kahf. InshAllah, in this next series, we’ll be exploring the meanings, lessons, and reminders of Surah Maryam. Tafsīr is an extremely noble and virtuous discipline. The reason why it’s so noble and virtuous is that it’s the study of the divine speech of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). As mentioned in a hadith the superiority of the speech of Allah over all other speech is like the superiority of Allah over all of His creation. There’s nothing more beneficial and virtuous than studying the Quran. And by doing so we’ll be counted amongst the best of people. As the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “the best amongst you are those who learn the Quran and teach it.”

All of us need to build a stronger relationship with the Quran. The Quran is full of wisdom and guidance in every single verse and word. It’s our responsibility to seek that guidance, understand it, contextualize it and more importantly act upon it. Tafsīr is such a unique science that it brings together all of the other Islamic sciences. While exploring a Surah a person comes across discussions regarding Arabic grammar and morphology, rhetoric, Ahādīth, fiqh, sīrah and all those studies that are known as the Islamic Sciences. One scholar described the Quran as an ocean that has no shore, بحر لا ساحل له. The more we study the Qur’ān the stronger our relationship with it will become. We’ll become more and more attached to it and will be drawn into its beauty and wonder. The deeper a person gets into tafsir and studying the more engaged and interested they become. They also recognize how little they truly know. It develops humility. That’s the nature of true knowledge. The more we learn the more we recognize we don’t know. May Allah ﷻ allow us all to be sincere and committed students of the Qur’ān.

Surah Maryam

Surah Maryam is the 19th surah in the Quran. It is a relatively long Makki surah made up of 98 verses. Some commentators mention that it’s the 44th Surah to be revealed, after Surah Al-Fatir and before Surah Taha. It has been given the name Maryam because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) mentions the story of Maryam (as) and her family and how she gave birth to Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) miraculously at the beginning of the Surah. Just like other Makkan surahs, it deals with the most fundamental aspects of our faith. It talks about the existence and oneness of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), prophethood, and resurrection and recompense.

The Surah is made up of a series of unique stories filled with guidance and lessons that are meant as reminders. One of the main themes of this Surah is mercy… It has been mentioned over 16 times in this Surah. We’ll find the words of grace, compassion and their synonyms frequently mentioned throughout the sūrah, together with Allah’s attributes of beneficence and mercy. We can say that one of the objectives of the Surah is to establish and affirm the attribute of mercy for Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). That’s why all of the stories mentioned also have to do with Allah’s mercy.

Another objective of the Surah is to remind us of our relationship with Allah ﷻ; the concept of Al-‘Ubūdiyyah. These are the two major themes or ideas of this Surah; the concept of Rahmah and the concept of ‘Ubūdiyyah (Mercy and Servitude).

The Surah can be divided into 8 sections:

1) Verses 1-15: The surah starts with the story of Zakariyya (as) and how he was given the gift of a child at a very old age, which was something strange and out of the ordinary.

2) Verses 16-40: mention the story of Maryam and the miraculous birth of Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) without a father and how her community responded to her.

3) Verses 41-50: The surah then briefly mentions one part of the story of Ibrahim 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), specifically the conversation he had with his father regarding the worship of idols. The surah then briefly mentions a series of other Prophets.

4) Verses 51-58: Mention Musa and Haroon 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), Ismail 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) and Idrees 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) to show that the essence of the message of all Prophets was the same

5) Verses 59-65: compare and contrast the previous generations with the current ones in terms of belief and actions.

6) Verses 66-72: Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) addresses the Mushrikoon rejecting their false claims regarding life after death and judgment.

7) Verses 73-87: continue to address the Mushrikoon and warn them regarding their attitude towards belief in Allah and His messengers. They also mention the great difference between the resurrection of the believer and the resurrection of the non-believer.

8) Verses 88-98: contain a severe warning to those who claim that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has taken a child. They also express that Allah is pleased with the believers and mentions that one of the objectives of the Quran is to give glad tidings to the believers and to warn the non-believers.

Story

From various narrations, we learn that this surah was revealed near the end of the fourth year of Prophethood. This was an extremely difficult time for Muslims. The Quraysh were frustrated with their inability to stop the message of Islam from spreading so they became ruthless. They resorted to any method of torture that they could think of; beating, starving and harassing. When the persecution became so severe that it was difficult for the Muslims to bear it, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) gave permission to migrate to Abyssinia. “For in it dwells a king in whose presence no one is harmed.” 10 men and 4 women migrated in the 5th year of Prophethood secretly. After a few months, a larger group of 83 men and 18 women migrated as well. This migration added more fuel to the fire. It enraged the people of Quraysh.

Umm Salamah [rahna]narrated, “When we stopped to reside in the land of Abyssinia we lived alongside the best of neighbors An-Najashi. We practiced our religion safely, worshipped Allah without harm and didn’t hear anything we disliked. When news of our situation reached the Quraysh they started to plot against us…” They decided to send two delegates to persuade An-Najashi to send the Companions back by offering him and his ministers’ gifts. The plan was to go to each minister with gifts and turn them against the Muslims. So they went to each minister with gifts and said, “Verily, foolish youth from amongst us have come to the country of your king; they have abandoned the religion of their people and have not embraced your religion. Rather they have come with a new religion that neither of us knows. The noblemen of their people, from their fathers and uncles, have sent us to the king asking that he send them back. So when we speak to the king regarding their situation advise him to surrender them to us and to not speak to them…” The minister agreed.

Then they went to the king, offered him gifts and said the same thing… The ministers tried to convince him as well. An-Najashi became angry with them and said, “No, by Allah, I will not surrender them to these two and I don’t fear the plotting of a people who have become my neighbors, have settled down in my country, and have chosen me (to grant them refuge) over every other person. I will not do so until I summon them and speak to them. If they are as these two say I will give them up, but if they aren’t then I will protect them from these two and continue to be a good neighbor to them as long as they are good neighbors to me.”

al-Najāshī then summoned the Prophet’s ﷺ Companions. When his messenger informed the Prophet’s Companions that they were to appear before the king, they gathered together to discuss what they should do. One of them asked, “What will you say to the name (al-Najāshī) when you go to him?” They all agreed on what they would say to him, “By Allah, we will say what our Prophet ﷺ taught us and commanded us with, regardless of the consequences.” Meanwhile, al-Najāshī called for his priests, who gathered around him with their scrolls spread out before them. When the Muslims arrived al-Najāshī began by asking them, “What is this religion for which you have parted from your people? You have not entered into the fold of my religion, nor the religion of any person from these nations.”

Umm Salamah [rahna] narrated, “The Person among us who would speak to him was Jaʿfar ibn abī Ṭālib [rahnu] who then said, “O king, we were an ignorant people: we worshipped idols, we would eat from the flesh of dead animals, we would perform lewd acts, we would cut off family ties, and we would be bad neighbors; the strong among us would eat from the weak. We remained upon that state until Allah sent us a Messenger, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and chastity we already knew. He invited us to Allah – to believe in His oneness and to worship Him; to abandon all that we and our fathers worshipped besides Allah, in terms of stones and idols. He ﷺ commanded us to speak truthfully, to fulfill the trust, to join ties of family relations, to be good to our neighbors, and to refrain from forbidden deeds and from shedding blood. And he ﷺ forbade us from lewd acts, from uttering falsehood, from wrongfully eating the wealth of an orphan, from falsely accusing chaste women of wrongdoing. And he ﷺ ordered us to worship Allah alone and to not associate any partners with him in worship; and he ﷺ commanded us to pray, to give zakāh, and to fast.” He enumerated for al-Najāshī the teachings of Islam. He said, “And we believe him and have faith in him. We follow him in what he came with. And so we worship Allah alone, without associating any partners with Him in worship. We deem forbidden that which he has made forbidden for us, and we deem lawful that which he made permissible for us. Our people then transgressed against us and tortured us. The tried to force us to abandon our religion and to return from the worship of Allah to the worship of idols; they tried to make us deem lawful those abominable acts that we used to deem lawful. Then, when they subjugated us, wronged us, and treated us in an oppressive manner, standing between us and our religion, we came to your country, and we chose you over all other people. We desired to live alongside you, and we hoped that, with you, we would not be wronged, O king.” al-Najāshī said to Jaʿfar [rahnu], “Do you have any of that which he came with from Allah?” Jaʿfar [rahnu] said, “Yes”. “Then recite to me,” said al-Najāshī. Jaʿfar [rahnu] recited for him the beginning of Surah Maryam. By Allah, al-Najāshī began to cry, until his beard became wet with tears. And when his priests heard what Jaʿfar [rahnu] was reciting to them, they cried until their scrolls became wet. al-Najāshī then said, “By Allah, this and what Mūsa (as) came with come out of the same lantern. Then by Allah, I will never surrender them to you, and henceforward they will not be plotted against and tortured.”

Describing what happened after the aforementioned discussion between al-Najāshī and Jaʿfar [rahnu], Umm Salamah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) said, “When both ʿAmr ibn al-ʿĀṣ and ʿAbdullah ibn abī Rabīʿah left the presence of al-Najāshī, ʿAmr [rahnu] said, “By Allah tomorrow I will present to him information about them with which I will pull up by the roots their very lives.” Abdullah ibn Rabīʿah who was more sympathetic of the two towards us said, “Don’t do so, for they have certain rights of family relations, even if they have opposed us.” ʿAmr said, “By Allah, I will inform him that they claim that ʿĪsā ibn Maryam is a slave.”

He went to the king on the following day and said, “O king, verily, they have strong words to say about ʿĪsa (as). Call them here and ask them what they say about him.” al-Najāshī sent for them in order to ask them about ʿĪsa. Nothing similar to this befell us before. The group of Muslims gathered together and said to one another, “What will you say about ʿĪsa when he asks you about him?” They said, “By Allah, we will say about him that which Allah says and that which our Prophet ﷺ came with, regardless of the outcome.” When they entered into his presence, he said to them, “What do you say about ʿĪsa ibn Maryam?” Jaʿfar raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) said, “We say about him that which our Prophet ﷺ came with – that he is the slave of Allah, His messenger, a spirit created by Him, and His word, which he bestowed on Maryam, the virgin, the baṭūl.”

al-Najāshī struck his hand on the ground and took from it a stick. He then said, “ʿĪsa ibn Maryam did not go beyond what you said even the distance of the stick.” When he said this, his ministers spoke out in anger, to which he responded, “What I said is true even if you speak out in anger, by Allah. (Turning to the Muslims, he said) Go, for you are safe in my land. Whoever curses you will be held responsible. And I would not love to have a reward of gold in return for me hurting a single man among you. (Speaking to his ministers he said) Return to these two (men) their gifts, since we have no need for them. For by Allah, Allah did not take from me bribe money when He returned to me my kingdom, so why should I take bribe money. The two left, defeated and humiliated; and returned to them were the things they came with. We then resided alongside al-Najāshī in a very good abode, with a very good neighbor.”

The response was simply amazing in its eloquence. A believer puts the needs of his soul before the needs of his body. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) starts the Surah by saying,

Verse 1: Kaf, Ha, Ya, ‘Ayn, Sad.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) starts Surah Maryam with a series of five letters. There are many different saying or explanations regarding these five letters. The most correct opinion is that these are from the broken letters. There are 29 different Surahs in the Quran that start with the broken letters. Only Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone knows the meanings of these letters. They are a secret from amongst the secrets of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), meaning that no one knows what they truly mean. Only Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) knows their meanings so they are from amongst the Mutashaabihat, those verses whose meanings are hidden.

However, we do find that some great Companions, as well as their students, sometimes gave meanings to these words. For example, it’s said that it is in acronym and each letter represents one of the names of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). Kaf is for Al-Kafi or Al-Kareem, “haa” is for Al-Hadi, “yaa” is from Hakeem or Raheem, “’ayn” is from Al-‘Aleem or Al-‘Adheem, and “saad” is from Al-Saadiq. Others said that it is one of the names of Allah and it’s actually Al-Ism Al-‘Atham or that it’s a name of the Quran. However, these narrations can’t be used as proof or to assign definitive meanings. They offer possibilities, but no one truly knows what they mean.

Now the question should come to our mind that why would Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) start of a Surah with words that no one understands?

1) To grab the attention of the listeners.

2) To remind us that no matter how much we know there’s always something that we don’t know.

3) These letters are the letters of the Arabic language and the Quran was revealed at a time that was the peak of eloquence of the language and it was their identity. The Quran was revealed challenging them spiritually and intellectually. The Arabs never heard these letters being used in such a majestic way.

4) To prove the inimitable nature of the Quran.

Allah then starts the story of Zakariyya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Zakariyya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) was one of the Prophets sent to Bani Israel. He was the husband of Maryam’s paternal aunt. He was also one of the caretakers or custodians of Baitul Maqdis.

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When Faith Hurts: Do Good Deeds = Good Life?

Loving Allah and trusting the Wisdom and Purpose in everything He throws your way- even if it hurts. It is a time to learn.

Zeba Khan

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hurts, hardship. Allah, test, why Allah is testing me

The Messenger of Allahṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said that the faith in our hearts wears out the way our clothes wear out. Deterioration, maintenance, and renewal are part of the cycle.  That’s life with all that hurts. That’s normal.

But what happens when that’s life, but life is not your normal? What happens when it feels like life isn’t normal, hasn’t been normal, and won’t be normal for a foreseeably long time?  For some of us, refreshing faith becomes secondary to just keeping it.

It’s easier to say Alhamdulillah when you are happy. It’s harder when you’re not. That’s human nature though. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there is something wrong with what we teach about faith that can leave us unprepared for when Allah tests it. I believe that our discussions about faith tend to be overly simplistic. They revolve around a few basic concepts, and are more or less summed up with:

Faith = Happiness

Righteousness = Ease

Prayer = Problem Solved

Good Deeds Equals Good Life?

Basically, the TLDR is Good Deeds = The Good Life. None of these statements are technically untrue. The sweetness of faith is a joy that is beyond any other gratitude, for any other thing in this world. Righteousness in the sight of Allah will put you on the path to the good life in the afterlife. Making dua can be the solution to your problems. But when we say these things to people who have true faith but not happiness, or righteous behavior yet distressing hardship, we’re kind of implying that that either Islam is broken (because their prayers seem unanswered), or they are broken (because their prayers are undeserving of answers.) And neither of those is true either.

Allow me to elaborate. I think it’s safe to say that there is not a single parent who has not begged Allah to make their sick or disabled child well again. Yet, our Ummah still has sick and disabled children. Through history, people have begged Allah for a loved one’s life, and then buried them – so is prayer not equal to problem solved?

Many righteous people stand up, and are then ostracized for their faith. Many people speak truth in the face of a tyrant only to be punished for it. Many of us live with complete conviction, with unshakeable belief in the existence and wisdom and mercy of Allah, and still find ourselves unhappy and afraid of what He has willed for us.

Are We Broken?

No, but our spiritual education is. In order to fix it, we have to be upfront with each other. We have to admit that we can be happy with Allah and still find ourselves devastated by the tests He puts before us, because faith is not a protection from struggle.

Has anyone ever said this to you? Have you ever said this to anyone else?

No one ever told me. It was hard for me to learn that lesson on my own, when I pleaded with Allah to make my son’s autism go away, and it didn’t. Everyone told me –Make dua! The prayer of a mother for her child is special! Allah will never turn you down!

It was hard trying to make sense of what seemed like conflicting messages- that Allah knows best, but a mother’s prayer is always answered. It was even harder facing people who tried to reassure me of that, even when it obviously wasn’t working.

“Just make dua! Allah will respond!”

I’m sure people mean well. But it’s hard not to be offended. Either they assume I have never bothered to pray for my son, or they imply that there must be good reason why Allah’s not granting to my prayers. What they don’t consider is that allowing my test to persist – even if I don’t want it to- is also a valid response from Allah.

I have been told to think back in my life, and try to determine what sin caused my child’s disability, as if the only reason why Allah wouldn’t give me what I asked for was because I was so bad I didn’t deserve it. As if good deeds equaled the good life, and if my life wasn’t good, it’s because I hadn’t been good either.

Bad Things Happen to Good People

You can assume whatever you like about my character, but bad things do happen to good people, even when they pray. You can try your hardest and still fall short. You can pray your whole life for something that will never come to you. And strength of faith in that circumstance doesn’t mean living in a state of unfulfilled hope, it means accepting the wisdom in the test that Allah has decreed for you.

That’s a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it.  When we talk about prayer and hope, we prefer to talk about Zakariyyah 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) – who begged Allah for a child and was gifted with one long after anyone thought it even possible. But we also need to talk about Abu Talib.

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was raised by his uncle Abu Talib, and in his mission to preach Islam he was protected by Abu Talib.  But Abu Talib died without accepting Islam, was there something wrong with the Prophet, that Allah did not give him what he asked for? Was he not good enough? Did he not pray hard enough? Astaghfirullah, no. So if Prophets of God can ask for things and still not get them, why are we assuming otherwise for ourselves?

Making a Bargain with Allah

If we can understand that faith is not a contract for which we trade prayers for services, then maybe we can cope better when fate cannot be bargained with. Maybe it won’t have to hurt so bad – on spiritual level – when Allah withholds what we ask for, even when we asked for the “right” things in the right way and at all the right times.

Life is not simple. Faith is not simple. The will of Allah is not simple, no matter how much we want it to be, and when oversimplify it, we create a Muslim version of Prosperity Gospel without meaning to.

If you’ve never heard of it, prosperity gospel is a religious belief among some Christians that health and wealth and success are the will of God, and therefore faith, good deeds and charity increase one’s wellbeing. Have faith, and God will reward you in this life and the next. That’s nice. But it’s too simple. Because the belief that Good Deeds = The Good Life doesn’t explain how Ibraheem 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)’s father tried to have him burnt alive.

Yusuf 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him)’s brothers left him for dead in the bottom of a well. He grew up a slave and spent years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Aasiya 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) – the wife of the Pharoah – one of the four best women in the history of womankind – died from her husband’s torture.

Good people are not guaranteed good lives. Islam is what we need, not a system of practices that we use to fulfill our needs.

When we limit our understanding of faith to a simplistic, almost contractual relationship with Allah, then we can’t even explain the things that Allah Tested His own prophets with.

Nor can we understand, or even begin to cope with- what He Tests the rest of us with either. We have to be real in our talk about faith, because otherwise we set each other up for unrealistic expectations and lack of preparation for when we face hardship. Faith is not protection from hardship. Faith is part of hardship. And hardship is part of faith.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) asks us in the opening of Surah ‘Ankabut,

Do people think once they say, “We believe,” that they will be left without being put to the test? We certainly tested those before them. And ˹in this way˺ Allah will clearly distinguish between those who are truthful and those who are liars.

Allah says in Surah Baqarah, ayah 155: “And most certainly shall We try you by means of danger, and hunger, and loss of worldly goods, of lives and of the fruits of your labor. But give glad tidings to those who are patient in adversity.

tests, hurts, faith , hardship

Allah Tests Everyone Differently

Allah tests each of us differently, but in every single case – every single time – a test is an invitation to success. Hardship is the process through which we prove ourselves. Experiencing it– and then drawing closer to Allah through it –is how faith is tested as well as strengthened.

If we can change how we perceive hardship, then we can also change how we perceive each other. On our cultural subconscious, we still see worldly failure as being equivalent to spiritual failure. So when we see people who are homeless, we assume fault. When we see people facing depression or divorce, we assume fault. We even look at refugees and victims and special needs children and we look for fault. Because if it’s that bad then it’s has to be someone’s fault, right?

Fault is how we place blame. Blame is how we know whose mistake it is. But the will of Allah is never a mistake, it’s a test.  Instead of faulting each other for what Allah tests us with, we could respect each other for the struggles we all endure. We could see each other with more compassion for our challenges, and less aversion when Allah tests us with dealing each other.

So when you’ve done things the right way, but the right things aren’t happening. Or you’ve been charitable to others, and they’re being evil towards you. Or you’ve earned only halal, but haram- it’s been taken away from you, remember this- your faith is being tested. Allah tests those that He loves. When He raises the difficulty level, Allah is extending a direct invitation for you to climb higher.

So How Do We Succeed When Faced With Failure?

The first thing to do is redefine failure. There is only one true failure in this life, and that is dying on the wrong side of Siraat ul Mustaqeem, because if close your eyes and wake up in Jahannam, no success in this life can compensate for that.

I find that helpful to remember, when I fail to stay fit because I can’t exercise without hurting myself, when I fail to fast in Ramadan because it’s dangerous for me to do so- when I fail to discover a cure for my family’s personal assortment of medical issues through rigorous internet “research,” none of that is my failure either. And I can feel a lot of different ways about these situations, but I do not feel guilty- because it’s not my fault. And I do not feel bitter, because my test is my honor. Even when I do feel scared.

Being scared in not a failure either. Neither is being unemployed. Being unmarried is not a failure. Being childless is not a failure. Being divorced is not a failure. Nothing unpleasant or miserable or unexpected is a failure. It’s all just a test, and seeing it as a test means you have the state of mind to look for the correct answers.

Not even sin is failure, because as long as you are alive, your sin stands as an invitation to forgiveness. The bigger the sin, the greater the blessings of repenting from it.  Everything that goes bad is the opening of the door for good. A major sin can be the first step on a journey that starts with repentance and moves you closer to Allah every day thereafter. Sin only becomes failure when it takes you farther away from Allah, rather than closer to him.

Jahannam is the Only Failure

Addiction is not a failure. Depression is not a failure. Poverty is not a failure. Jahannam is the only failure. Everything else is a gap in expectations.

You assumed you would have something, but it’s not written for you. You assumed you’d ask Allah for something and He’d give it to you, but what is that assumption based on again? That good deeds are the guarantee to the good life, and that prayer equals problem solved?

Allah has all the knowledge, Allah has the wisdom, Allah is the best of Planners – how are you assuming that your wishes supersede His will? Even when you put your wishes in the form of a prayer?

They don’t. It is absolutely true that Allah may choose to rewrite Qadr itself based on your prayers – but that’s still His choice. Allah has always, and will always be in control of this world. And that means your world too. If you still think you’re in control, you will find it really, really hard to cope the first time you realize you’re not.

When we understand that we don’t get to control what happens and what doesn’t, we can then release ourselves from the misplaced guilt of things going wrong.  Lots of special needs parents struggle with guilt. I meet them often – and every single parent has asked the question- directly or indirectly-

What did I do for my child to deserve this?

Can you hear the presumption in there? That the parents were good, so why did something bad happen? They were expecting for good deeds to equal the good life.

There’s a second presumption in there too, that their life choices were a determining factor of what happened to their child. That is a presumption of control. And as long as you try to hold on to that presumption of control, there is the constant feeling of failure when it just doesn’t work the way you think it will.

I am not proposing that we lose hope in Allah and despair of His Mercy. I am in no way insinuating that Allah doesn’t hear every prayer, hasn’t counted every tear, and isn’t intimately aware of your pain and your challenges. Allah hears your prayers, and in His wisdom, sometimes he grants us exactly what we want. In His Wisdom, sometimes he grants us exactly what we need.

Even if we don’t see it.

Even if it scares us.

Even if it hurts us – because Allah has promised that He will never, ever break us.

hurts, hardship, special needs

Allah Tests Us in His Mercy

I am proposing that we put trust in the wisdom of Allah, and understand that when He tests us, that is part of his mercy, not a deviation from it. When He grants something to us, that is part of His mercy, and when he withholds something from us, that too is part of His Mercy, even if we don’t like it. Even when we ask Him to take it away.

The third thing I would like to propose, is that we correct our understanding of – Fa Inna Ma’Al usri yusraa, Inna Ma’al usri yusra.

So verily, definitely, for sure- with hardship there is ease. Again, Inna – for sure, with hardship there is ease.

I’m sure lots of you have said this to people you loved, or to yourself when you’re struggling with something and you’re just trying to get through it. But did you mean that this hardship will end, and then things will be good again? Like as soon as things have been hard for a while, Allah will make them easy again?

Would you believe that’s not really what that means? Ma’a means with, not after. With this hardship, there is ease. And maybe you’re like aww man, but I wanted the ease! I want the hardship to go away and Allah I’m ready for my ease now!

But that hardship, will bring you ease. Allah does not tell us what the ease will be, or when it will be- but He says it’s there, so trust Him. Even if you can’t see it right away, or in this life –it will become apparent.

I can tell you some of the ease I found with mine.

Learning When It Hurts

When my son was diagnosed with autism, my husband and I had to drop everything. We dropped our plans to save, to travel, and to live the charmed life of neurotypical parents whose only fears are that their children may grow up and NOT become Muslim doctors. We spent our earnings and our savings and our time and our nights and our tears and Alhamdulillah, we learned patience. We learned perspective. We learned compassion.

We really learned what we thought we already knew – about unconditional love and acceptance. We learned to be bigger than our fears, and smaller than our own egos. We learned to give and take help. We learn to accept what wisdom our cultures could offer us, and respectfully decline what did not. We learn to set boundaries and make rules that did justice by our children and our family, regardless of whether they were popular. With hardship comes ease.

When we couldn’t afford therapy for my son, my husband and I founded a not for profit organization in the UAE that provided it for my son and dozens of other people’s sons and daughters. Three and a half years ago I left that organization to seek better educational opportunities for my son here in the US, but it’s still running. The seed that our challenges planted has grown into something beyond us. With our hardship came ease for ourselves and others as well.

When I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, my health issues were upgraded from challenging to permanent. I had to rethink how I lived, how I planned, how I dressed, and even – my relationship with Allah. But if I had never been sick, I would never have started writing. When it hurt, I wrote. When I was scared, I wrote. When I was lonely, I wrote. And by and by the grindstone of fear and sickness and frustration sharpened my skills. Where I am today both spiritually and professionally – is actually a direct result of both autism and chronic illness. With hardship comes ease.

I don’t like my hardships, but I don’t have to. You don’t have to either. Being a good Muslim doesn’t always mean being a happy Muslim. It just means being Muslim, no matter the circumstances.

That means loving Allah and trusting the Wisdom and Purpose in everything He throws your way – even if not loving everything He throws your way. You may hate your circumstances, and you may not be able to do anything about them, but as long as you trust Allah and use your hardships to come closer to him, you cannot fail, even if this life, you feel as if you never really succeeded.

hurts, depression, faith , hardship

Faith Wears Out In Our hearts, The Way Our Cothes Wear Out on Our Bodies

The hardship that damages and stains us is Allah’s invitation to repair, renew, and refresh ourselves. Our test are an invitation, an opportunity, an obstacle – but not a punishment or divine cruelty. And when we know that those tests will come, and some may even stay, then we can be better prepared for it.

Trust Allah when He says that He does not burden any soul with more than it can bear. He told us so in Surah Baqarah Ayah 286. Remember that when you are afraid, and Allah will never cause your fear to destroy you. Take your fear to Allah, and He will strengthen you, and reward you for your bravery.

Remember that when you are in pain. Allah will never cause your pain to destroy you. Take your pain to Him, and He will soothe you and reward you for your patience. Take it all to Allah – the loneliness, the anxiety, the confusion. Do not assume that the only emotions a “good Muslim” takes to Allah are gratitude and happiness and awe. Take them all to Allah, uncertainty, disappointment, anger — and He will bless you in all of those states, and guide you to what is better for you in this life, and the next, even if it’s not what you expected.

The struggles in your life are a test, and whether you pass or fail is not determined on whether you conquer them, only on whether you endure them. Expect that they will come, because having faith is not protection from struggle. Faith is protection from being broken by the struggle.

I ask Allah to protect us all from hardship, but protect us in our hardships as well. I ask Allah to grant us peace from His peace, and strength from His strength, to patiently endure and grow through our endurance.

Ameen.

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What Does Sharia Really Say About Abortion in Islam

Abortion is not a simple option of being pro-life or pro-choice, Islam recognizes the nuance.

Reem Shaikh

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The following article on abortion is based on a research paper titled ‘The Rights of the Fetus in Islam’, at the Department of Sharia at Qatar University. My team and I presented it to multiple members of the faculty. It was approved by the Dean of the Islamic Studies College, an experienced and reputed Islamic authority.

In one swoop, liberal comedian Deven Green posing as her satirical character, Mrs. Betty Brown, “America’s best Christian”, demonized both Sharia law as well as how Islamic law treats abortion. Even in a debate about a law that has no Muslim protagonist in the middle of it, Islam is vilified because apparently, no problem in the world can occur without Islam being dragged into it.

It is important to clarify what Sharia is before discussing abortion. Sharia law is the set of rules and guidelines that Allah establishes as a way of life for Muslims. It is derived from the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which is interpreted and compiled by scholars based on their understandings (fiqh). Sharia takes into account what is in the best interest for individuals and society as a whole, and creates a system of life for Muslims, covering every aspect, such as worship, beliefs, ethics, transactions, etc.

Muslim life is governed by Sharia – a very personal imperative. For a Muslim living in secular lands, that is what Sharia is limited to – prayers, fasting, charity and private transactions such as not dealing with interest, marriage and divorce issues, etc. Criminal statutes are one small part of the larger Sharia but are subject to interpretation, and strictly in the realm of a Muslim country that governs by it.

With respect to abortion, the first question asked is:

“Do women have rights over their bodies or does the government have rights over women’s bodies?”

The answer to this question comes from a different perspective for Muslims. Part of Islamic faith is the belief that our bodies are an amanah from God. The Arabic word amanah literally means fulfilling or upholding trusts. When you add “al” as a prefix, or al-amanah, trust becomes “The Trust”, which has a broader Islamic meaning. It is the moral responsibility of fulfilling one’s obligations due to Allah and fulfilling one’s obligations due to other humans.

The body is one such amanah. Part of that amanah includes the rights that our bodies have over us, such as taking care of ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally – these are part of a Muslim’s duty that is incumbent upon each individual.

While the Georgia and Alabama laws in the United States that make abortion illegal after the 6-week mark of pregnancy are being mockingly referred to as “Sharia Law” abortion, the fact is that the real Sharia allows much more leniency in the matter than these laws do.

First of all, it is important to be unambiguous about one general ruling: It is unanimously agreed by the scholars of Islam that abortion without a valid excuse after the soul has entered the fetus is prohibited entirely. The question then becomes, when exactly does the soul enter the fetus? Is it when there is a heartbeat? Is it related to simple timing? Most scholars rely on the timing factor because connecting a soul to a heartbeat itself is a question of opinion.

Web MD

The timing then is also a matter of ikhtilaf, or scholarly difference of opinion:

One Hundred and Twenty Days:

The majority of the traditional scholars, including the four madhahib, are united upon the view that the soul certainly is within the fetus after 120 days of pregnancy, or after the first trimester.

This view is shaped by  the following hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Masood raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him):

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: إن أحدكم يجمع خلقه في بطن أمه أربعين يوما ثم يكون في ذلك علقة مثل ذلك ثم يكون في ذلك مضغة مثل ذلك ثم يرسل الملك فينفخ فيه الروح..

“For every one of you, the components of his creation are gathered together in the mother’s womb for a period of forty days. Then he will remain for two more periods of the same length, after which the angel is sent and insufflates the spirit into him.”

Forty Days:

The exception to the above is that some scholars believe that the soul enters the fetus earlier, that is after the formation phase, which is around the 40 days mark of pregnancy.

This view is based on another hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Masood raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him):

قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم: إذا مر بالنطفة إثنتان وأربعون ليلة بعث الله إليها ملكاً، فصوره، وخلق سمعها وبصرها وجلدها ولحمها وعظمها…

“If a drop of semen spent in the womb forty-two nights, Allah sends an angel to it who depicts it and creates its ears, eyes, skin, flesh and bones.”

Between the two views, the more widespread and popular opinion is the former, which is that the soul enters the fetus at the 120 days (or 4 months) mark, as the second hadith implies the end of the formation period of the fetus rather than the soul entering it.

Even if one accepts that the soul enters the fetus at a certain timing mark, it does not mean that the soul-less fetus can be aborted at any time or for any reason. Here again, like most matters of Islamic jurisprudence, there is ikhtilaf of scholarly difference of opinion.

No Excuse Required:

The Hanafi madhhab is the most lenient, allowing abortion during the first trimester, even without an excuse.

Some of the later scholars from the Hanafi school consider it makruh or disliked if done without a valid reason, but the majority ruled it as allowed.

Only Under Extreme Risks:

The Malikis are the most strict in this matter; they do not allow abortion even if it is done in the first month of pregnancy unless there is an extreme risk to the mother’s health.

Other Views:

As for the Shafi’i and Hanbali schools of thought, there are multiple opinions within the schools themselves, some allowing abortion, some only allowing it in the presence of a valid excuse.

Valid excuses differ from scholar to scholar, but with a strong and clear reason, permissibility becomes more lenient. Such cases include forced pregnancy (caused by rape), reasons of health and other pressing reasons.

For example, consider a rape victim who becomes pregnant. There is hardly a more compelling reason (other than the health of the mother) where abortion should be permitted. A child born as a result in such circumstances will certainly be a reminder of pain and discomfort to the mother. Every time the woman sees this child, she will be reminded of the trauma of rape that she underwent, a trauma that is generally unmatched for a woman. Leaving aside the mother, the child himself or herself will lead a life of suffering and potentially neglect. He or she may be blamed for being born– certainly unjust but possible with his or her mother’s mindset. The woman may transfer her pain to the child, psychologically or physically because he or she is a reminder of her trauma. One of the principles of Sharia is to ward off the greater of two evils. One can certainly argue that in such a case where both mother and child are at risk of trauma and more injustice, then abortion may indeed be the lesser of the two.

The only case even more pressing than rape would be when a woman’s physical health is at risk due to the pregnancy. Where the risk is clear and sufficiently severe (that is can lead to some permanent serious health damage or even death) if the fetus remained in her uterus, then it is unanimously agreed that abortion is allowed no matter what the stage of pregnancy. This is because of the Islamic principle that necessities allow prohibitions. In this case, the necessity to save the life of the mother allows abortion, which may be otherwise prohibited.

This is the mercy of Sharia, as opposed to the popular culture image about it.

Furthermore, the principle of preventing the greater of two harms applies in this case, as the mother’s life is definite and secure, while the fetus’ is not.

Absolutely Unacceptable Reason for Abortion:

Another area of unanimous agreement is that abortion cannot be undertaken due to fear of poverty. The reason for this is that this mindset collides with having faith and trust in Allah. Allah reminds us in the Quran:

((وَلَا تَقْتُلُوا أَوْلَادَكُمْ خَشْيَةَ إِمْلَاقٍ ۖ نَّحْنُ نَرْزُقُهُمْ وَإِيَّاكُمْ ۚ إِنَّ قَتْلَهُمْ كَانَ خِطْئًا كَبِيرًا))

“And do not kill your children for fear of poverty, We provide for them and for you. Indeed, their killing is ever a great sin.” (Al-Israa, 31)

Ignorance is not an excuse, but it is an acceptable excuse when it comes to mocking Islam in today’s world. Islam is a balanced religion and aims to draw ease for its adherents. Most rulings concerning fiqh are not completely cut out black and white. Rather, Islamic rulings are reasonable and consider all possible factors and circumstances, and in many cases vary from person to person.

Abortion is not a simple option of being pro-life or pro-choice. These terms have become political tools rather than sensitive choices for women who ultimately suffer the consequences either way.

Life means a lot more than just having a heartbeat. Islam completely recognizes this. Thus, Islamic rulings pertaing to abortion are detailed and varied.

As a proud Muslim, I want my fellow Muslims to be confident of their religion particularly over sensitive issues such as abortion and women’s rights to choose for themselves keeping the Creator of Life in focus at all times.

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