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I Almost Left Islam: Why Am I Muslim?

Umm Zakiyyah

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 A Burdened Soul

This isn’t a story I am proud of, and it’s not one I ever planned on writing. It’s not even one I planned on living. When I was younger, I imagined that leaving Islam was a logical process, one arrived at through careful analysis of Islamic beliefs and finding in them something inherently contradictory or something that one disagreed with. Thus, I never really comprehended it, and it consistently confounded me. How could a person go from believing in only God and worshipping Him alone to disbelieving in Him and worshipping creation instead of Him? It just didn’t make any sense.

I remember being deeply intrigued by the story of a famous NFL player who had left Islam and converted to Christianity. I was never a football fan, but as a youth, I had been a fan of his, mainly because he was both a star player and a practicing Muslim. When I’d heard that he had converted to Christianity, I dismissed it as an absurd rumor, it was so unbelievable. The media was in the habit of taking sensational stories and making them front-page “news” with little to no regard for authenticity or credibility. I’d assumed this was what had happened with the football player. Or at least I was hoping so—because the alternative was too difficult to fathom.

In my young mind, it was impossible to go from being a “devout Muslim” to worshipping one of Allah’s prophets and declaring this shirk as the only way to Heaven. Some months before, I had read a magazine feature about the NFL player in which he explained Islam to the readers and discussed the significance of the five daily prayers. I remember the piece really touching my heart. So it was difficult to reconcile this inspirational image with someone leaving Islam.

Months later, I was watching television and happened upon a Christian talk show in which the host said that today’s guest would be the NFL player telling the story of why he’d left Islam. Naturally, this caught my attention, and I waited to see if the athlete would really be there. Eventually, he came on to the set, and the first thing I noticed about him was how visibly uncomfortable and fidgety he was. I watched as he kept glancing over his shoulder as if he expected someone to walk in and “catch him” there, though I’m sure he was fully aware that he was on national television.

When the host asked what inspired his decision to leave Islam for Christianity, the NFL player said, “When I was Muslim, I always felt guilty when I sinned. Now that I’m Christian, I don’t feel guilty anymore because I know Jesus died for my sins.”

I was only a teenager at the time, but I felt like it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard. I nearly laughed out loud for how ridiculous this man’s reasoning was. So you want to get drunk and sleep with multiple women without the guilty conscience? I shook my head in humored disbelief.

But at least his decision made sense to me now. I had been waiting for some profound reflection on how he’d happened upon some groundbreaking “evidence” that God was now a man in flesh and part of a Trinity instead of the Creator who was completely separate from His creation and who shared no kinship to them. I couldn’t imagine what that “evidence” would entail, but at the time, it was the only logical reason my mind could accept for leaving the worship of God alone.

However, after hearing the NFL player’s explanation, I understood his soul’s desperate longing to live life without the burden of regret, self-correction, or personal accountability for his wrongs. Nevertheless, though I myself still had a lot to learn about life, I knew that even many devout Christians would find the man’s reasoning problematic. Till today, I find the reasoning problematic myself.

But the man’s story no longer confounds me.

It terrifies me.

Because I know how close I myself came to allowing my own soul to become “unburdened” by giving up on myself and my Lord.

I still haven’t found all the words to explain exactly what was happening to me during this time. But in this book, along with the video series , I pinpoint ten spiritual struggles that I faced during that time, along with ten solutions that I implemented to weather the most tumultuous spiritual storm of my life.

Our Agreement.

The agreement was

I was to accept the blows

And accept them quietly.

I was to show hurt

To ensure my shame

And to deny hurt

To protect their name

If they lied

I was to believe them

If they slandered me

I was to repent

If there was pain

(And there always was)

I was to cry in silence

And smile in front of the world

If I needed help

Love

Compassion

Or relief

I was to confide in the ones who hurt me

Or risk

Suffering beyond belief.

I wrote this poem while in a state of melancholy as I reflected on what I’d experienced in my life thus far as a result of taking to heart what I’d been taught about not having the right to exist. In my sincere ignorance and spiritual zeal, I had allowed myself to be mistreated and abused by those who claimed to love and care for me, and who claimed to have so much religious knowledge that I was obligated to do everything they said.

As I withstood the slander, emotional manipulation, and spiritual abuse, I was continuously reminded—often by the abusers themselves—of the rights these people had over me, as commanded by Allah Himself. Yet ironically, the reason I was continuously slandered and abused was that I consistently made exceptions to fulfilling the demands and desires of these people whenever I genuinely believed that doing so would displease Allah or harm my life and soul.

On many occasions, I would try to explain myself to them and give detailed, heartfelt explanations (and apologies) so that they wouldn’t be offended by my life choices. But it was to no avail. I would be consistently asked, “Who do you think you are?”

So Why Am I Muslim?

It makes no sense to question one’s spiritual path based on mistreatment by those who claim the same path. However, due to the combination of my spiritual exhaustion and emotional trauma, I began to question why I was Muslim. I don’t have a detailed analysis of why this question weighed so heavily on me for so long, but it did. As a grappled desperately for an answer, I felt the dark waters of disbelief pulling me in, and I had no idea if I could keep my head above the water.

Why I Almost Gave Up

This is not a story that is easy to put into words. However, when I look back at the first problem I faced during my spiritual crisis, I can safely say it was rooted in three things pulling me down:

  1. I felt overwhelmed spiritually such that I feared I could no longer continue.
  2. I felt that I didn’t have the right to exist.
  3. I found many Muslim communities to be sources of pain and institutionalized pride.

I Felt Overwhelmed Spiritually

During my spiritual crisis, Islam began to feel like an increasing list of doubtful, haraam, and religious obligations; and I couldn’t keep up. I wanted to hold on to my emaan, and I knew that I needed to. But I felt like I couldn’t.

Part of the problem was my desire to stay away from anything that could even possibly be wrong. As a result of this determination, I followed the strictest opinion on nearly every ikhtilaaf issue amongst the scholars. The following excerpt from my blog Walking Guilty, the Weight of Doubt and Sin paints a pretty accurate picture of what led to this spiritual exhaustion:

I thought I had it all figured out. I know that sounds cliché, naïve even, but it’s true. I wasn’t going to compromise my soul. I wasn’t going to open myself up to sin. I wasn’t going to Hell with my eyes open. Yes, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew I’d have to sacrifice and struggle. And I knew there would always be that internal battle for sincerity that nobody could conquer perfectly in this life.

But I could at least protect my actions in some way.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “The halaal (permissible) is clear and the haraam (forbidden) is clear, and between them are matters that are mushtabihaat [unclear or doubtful]. Whoever is wary of these doubtful matters has absolved his religion and honor. And whoever indulges in them has indulged in the haraam. It is like a shepherd who herds his sheep too close to preserved sanctuary, and they will eventually graze in it. Every king has a sanctuary, and the sanctuary of Allah is what He has made haraam. There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily, it is the heart” (Bukhari and Muslim).

In my youthful zeal, I thought that staying away from doubtful and forbidden matters was as simple as doing what was “safest”: following the strictest opinion so as to remove any possibility of falling into error or sin.

So that’s what I did.

In my commitment to religious “safety,” I broke all my music CDs and stopped listening to music, thinking, “It might be a sin.” I questioned singing and dancing [even in my own home] because that too had been labeled as haraam by some scholars. I even tried to stop listening to nasheeds (songs without musical instruments) because “that was safest.”

I donned the niqaab (the face veil), thinking, “It’s certainly not wrong to wear it.” I wore an over-the-head abaya and gloves, and even experimented with covering my eyes. And I even left America to “make hijrah”, thinking, “I fear for my soul in a non-Muslim society.”

And though I loved to read, I even stopped reading novels for fear of “wasting time.” I stopped giving speeches in front of men because, allegedly, that was a fitnah (severe temptation) for men. I stayed away from co-ed gatherings because I didn’t want to “intermingle.” I stopped taking and keeping pictures, and contemplated throwing away my family photos because “pictures are haraam.” I questioned my calligraphy wall art because it “might be disrespecting the Qur’an.” I stopped reading the Qur’an during my menses because menstruating women were “unclean.”

And, believe it or not, the list goes on…

Stay Away From Doubtful?

“Of the most doubtful matters to me is continuously staying away from what is doubtful to someone else because they said it should be doubtful to me. This sort of spiritual manipulation makes me more fearful of my soul than that ‘doubtful matter’ ever could. So I stay away from doubtful by focusing on what my Lord has made clear—and by striving to not stress over others’ never-ending ‘what ifs’ of mind and heart, which they label ‘doubtful matters’ in my faith.”

—from the journal of Umm Zakiyyah

Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The Religion is easy. So whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not go to extremes, rather strive to be near perfection. Receive good tidings that you will be rewarded, and gain strength by offering the prayers in the mornings, afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).

As I reflected on the burdens I’d put on myself and the personal extremes to which I’d gone to “be safe,” I had an epiphany: Religious safety isn’t an objective matter; it’s a personal matter. Safety isn’t something you arrive at based on a theoretical reality “out there”… on the pages of Islamic books or in scholarly lectures. It’s something you arrive at based on your spiritual reality “in here”… in the heart and soul—and rooted in what you truly understand and believe about your faith.

No, you certainly cannot throw out objectivity altogether and ignore scholarly evidences, but after steering clear of what is undeniably wrong and doing what is undeniably obligatory, religious safety is first and foremost what preserves your soul.

What ‘Staying Away From Doubtful’ Really Means

It is well known that religion is defined by core beliefs and specific acts of worship. Islam is no different. Thus, the rules of what we believe and how we worship are very specific. In fact, they form the very definition of faith. The slightest deviation from what Allah and His Messenger taught regarding belief and worship is at the very least bid’ah (blameful religious innovation) and at the worst kufr (disbelief in Islam itself). Hence, our greatest concern for religious safety must be in protecting our beliefs and worship.

It is well known that worldly affairs, as a general rule, are not religious matters. Thus, humans are free to enjoy and benefit from anything of this world that they wish—unless Allah has expressly forbidden it (i.e. eating pork, drinking alcohol, or engaging in any sexual intimacy outside the God-mandated union between a man and a woman).

In other words, all matters of belief and worship have the general principle of prohibition unless there is clear proof for them in the Qur’an and Sunnah; and all matters related to our worldly life have the general principle of permissibility unless there is clear proof against them in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Thus, for me, I was able to reclaim my faith by staying away from doubtful by adhering to this general rule, rooted in the Qur’an and Sunnah: If I hear of a religious belief or mode of worship that I cannot be absolutely sure (based on evidences) is sanctioned in the Qur’an or the Sunnah, I stay away from it “to be safe.” But if I hear of a worldly matter being prohibited based on “proofs” not rooted in clear evidences from the Qur’an and Sunnah (or historical ijmaa’), I consider it permissible “to be safe.”

Focus on Allah, Not Other People’s Doubts

Reaching a spiritual place where I could let go of other people’s doubts and focus on my own has been a long, tough road. Shedding the indoctrination that I don’t have a right to my own mind, life, and soul has not been easy, as many communities and Islamic classes don’t teach tawakkul, such that you establish a personal relationship with Allah and trust in Him alone. They teach human dependency and scholar-worship, such that you establish a spiritual relationship with your imam or teacher, whom you are expected to trust to do your thinking and soul-work on your behalf.

In some cultures, this human dependency is taught as being between parent and child, such that parents must be trusted to do the thinking and soul-work on the children’s behalf, even when these “children” are now adults.

However, in my own spiritual crisis, I reached a point where this “so-and-so always knows better than you” thinking was no longer an option, literally. It was either let go of this human dependency or let go of my emaan. I chose my emaan.

Today, I consciously stay away from environments and classes that teach self-denial over self-care, particularly regarding worldly matters subject to permissible disagreement. Islam itself has enough rules and guidelines that restrict aspects of our worldly life such that healthy self-denial is an integral part of practicing our faith. Thus, I don’t understand the obsession of some Muslims with continuously adding to this list.

And here, I differentiate between those who follow the strictest view because they genuinely believe it to be correct in front of Allah (and thus respectfully share with others what they’ve studied or learned), and those who resort to emotional manipulation or spiritual abuse when it becomes clear that the other person is not convinced that such-and-such is haraam. When their threats of Hellfire, censuring quotes from their sheikhs, and implications that the person is a bad Muslim don’t work; like clockwork, they resort to the final spiritual manipulation technique, as if reciting from a memorized script: “You should stay away from what’s doubtful.”

Today, when I hear this statement used as a guilt tactic to convince someone to follow the strictest view on a non-ijmaa’ issue, I sometimes have to recite dhikr to calm down, I get so angry. As I mentioned in my blog “Suffering From Religious OCD?”: You cannot live your entire life throwing every worldly issue into the category of “doubtful matters” just because you aren’t personally aware of its specific “ruling” in Islam. If you do, you’ll likely overburden yourself in the religion until you are paralyzed into inactivity, anxiety, and stress—and until you give up on practicing Islam altogether.

Furthermore, as many scholars have explained, “doubtful matters” is not a definitive category of issues in Islam. What is doubtful to one person is not doubtful to another, as “doubtful” depends on each individual person’s level of Islamic knowledge, as well as his or her own internal discomfort with something.

Unfortunately, it is rare that a Muslim advises a fellow believer to simply turn to Allah for guidance on how to handle a practical dilemma or a confusing predicament that involves permissible disagreement in Islam. Instead, we rush to make the person’s life difficult by saying, “Stay away from doubtful,” as if this is the cure-all to all of life’s problems and uncertainties. But we label this approach “protecting the soul.”

However, I know firsthand the spiritual harms of continuous self-denial in the name of “protecting your soul.” I stayed away from any and every thing that I felt could even be possibly be doubtful, only to find myself exhausted and my soul harmed so much that I felt I couldn’t even be Muslim anymore. I wish it had occurred to me that the most serious “doubtful matter” to stay away from is that which makes me doubt my faith itself.

Daughter of American converts to Islam, Umm Zakiyyah writes about the interfaith struggles of Muslims and Christians, and the intercultural, spiritual, and moral struggles of Muslims in America. She is the internationally acclaimed author of more than fifteen books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, His Other Wife and the newly released self-help book for Muslim survivors of parental and family abuse: Reverencing the Wombs That Broke You, with contributions by Haleh Banani, behavioral therapist.Her books have been used in universities in America and abroad including Indiana University-Bloomington, Howard University, University of D.C. and Prince Sultan University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.To learn more about the author, visit uzauthor.com.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    RY

    June 11, 2017 at 5:51 PM

    Salam Sister,
    That was amazing, I have had to grapple with this and similar issues. I really like the fitrah aspect you touched on, I think the fitrah is amazing and it is that common human experience. I love that you balanced that with using the clear guidelines in Islam, but on those matters that lack clarity use your God given intuition (fitrah) as a compass. One example that relates to me, is that I find provocative imagery on movies, games, and other mediums to be a fitnah to myself, now I think to a great degree all muslims (esp brothers) should feel uncomfortable with such things, but there may be some gray as in for example going to a mall or other things that is a personal decision and it may not be right for some but it may be right for those that aren’t affected by it. Every person has to be honest with themselves “Does this action take my heart away from Allah and into something that will displease Allah, is this a stepping stone of Shaytan”, I think its beautiful that all of us have our own strengths and weaknesses and each of us know what’s good for us in those gray areas. Another example is more simpler, but is that of eating sugar. I personally cut out sugary foods and drinks for the most part, because I know when I eat it I binge eat and can’t control, however there are those that can eat it and not necessarily succumb to it. I hope what I’m saying makes sense and is relevant to what you’re saying JAK for the article.

  2. Avatar

    Simeen

    June 13, 2017 at 1:33 PM

    Jazakillahu khayran katheera for such a thought-provoking article.

  3. Avatar

    Ruqayya

    June 15, 2017 at 3:25 PM

    I am so glad that you were able to find balance in your faith…this is a battle that a lot of us go through nd unfortunately not all of us are able to break hold of the chains that bind us to religious extremities. may Allah ease things for us, forgive us our shortcomings nd bless us with insight to distinguish right from wrong. Amin

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#Life

So You Are The Wali, Now What?

Dr Shadee Elmasry

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The way most Muslims (as well as conservative Christians and Jews) live, a man asks for a woman’s hand in marriage from the father.

The father is not just a turnstile who has to say yes. He is a “wali” or protector and guardian of his daughter’s rights. So he will be asking some serious questions that would be awkward if the woman had to ask them.

Furthermore, in the Muslim community today esp. in the West, there are many converts that seek out a wali because they have no male relative who is Muslim. In this post, I share some guidelines aimed at the wali in his new role and stories that are useful.

Being a wali is not an honorary role. You’re not just throwing out the first pitch. You’re actually trying to throw curveballs to see whether the proposal checks out or has issues.

Here are some questions and demands a wali should make:

Background check: Call and meet at least four people that were close to the man who has proposed and interview them. There’s no husn al-zann (good opinion) in marriage. As a potential suitor, you are rejected until you prove yourself, much like an application for employment. These days, most people’s background can be found on their social media, so the wali has to spend time scrolling down. Keep scrolling, read the comments, look at the pictures, click on who’s tagged in those pictures. Get a good idea. You are a private investigator *before* the problem happens, not after. 

Check financials:  You need to see the financials to make sure they are not in some ridiculous debt or have bad credit such that they can’t even rent an apartment or cover basic needs. You want some evidence that he can fulfill the obligation of maintenance.

Check the educational background or skill set: This is a given. If it’s solid, then it can outweigh lack of funds at this moment.

Check medical records: If this is a stranger, the wali needs medical records. There was once a wealthy, handsome young man that was suave and a seemingly amazing prospect who proposed for a girl who was comparatively of average looks and from a family of very modest means. The mother and daughter were head over heels, but the dad had enough common sense to know something was up.

“Why would he come knocking on our door?,” he asked.

So the father demanded medical records. The guy never produced them. When the dad pressed him, the man admitted, he had a sexually transmitted disease (STD) and that’s why he couldn’t find anyone else to marry him.

Now note, there are legitimate cases where people have a past when they have made mistakes. This happens to the best of us, and the door for tawbah (repentance) is open. In those cases, there are organizations that match-make for Muslims with STDs. People should act in a responsible manner and not damage the lives of other humans beings.

Lifestyle: It is your job to check if the two parties have agreed on life essentials such as religious beliefs, where to live, how to school kids, etc?

In-laws: Have you at least met the family of the suitor and spent some time with them to make sure there’s nothing alarming?

Engagement: Contrary to popular understanding, there is such a thing as engagement in Islam. It’s an announcement of a future commitment to marriage. Nothing changes between the fiancees, but nobody is allowed to propose anymore. The purpose of engagement is to give time for both parties to get ready. For example, the groom may want to save up some money, or the girl may be finishing up college. Also, it’s easy to put on a face during the get-to-know process, but it’s hard to fake it over an eight or nine-month period. I remember a story where a young woman was engaged, and four months into the engagement they discovered the young man was still getting to know other women. He basically reserved the girl and then went to check for better options. Needless to say, he was dumped on the spot. Engagements are commonly a few months. I think more than a year is too much.

Legal/Civil:  The marriage should be legal/civil in the country where you will settle. If you accept a Shariah marriage but not a civil one, know that you’re asking for legal complications, especially if a child enters the picture. (Ed. Note- we realize that some countries do not allow legal registration of more than one marriage- if that is a consideration please look at all options to protect your ward. There are ways to get insurance that can be set up.)

Mahr: Get 50% of the dowry upfront (or some decent amount) and whatever is scheduled to be paid later should be written and signed. I’ve seen too many cases where a really nice dowry is “promised” but never produced.

The dowry should be commensurate to current standards depending on the man’s job. For example in our area in America 5, 7, or 10k is a common range.

In sum, there are very few things in life that are as bad as misery in marriage. The wali’s job is to eliminate the bad things that could have been avoided. If that means he has to be demanding and hated for a few months, it’s worth the cost.

It’s preventative medicine.

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

Dr Usaama al-Azami

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Sepoy rebellion, Shaykh Hamza

In recent years, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, a notable Islamic scholar from North America, has gained global prominence by supporting efforts by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to deal with the fallout of the Arab revolutions. The UAE is a Middle Eastern autocracy that has been the chief strategist behind quelling the Arab revolutionary aspiration for accountable government in the region. Shaykh Hamza views himself as helping prevent the region from falling into chaos by supporting one of its influential autocratic states. However, more recently, he has become embroiled in another controversy because of comments he made regarding the Syrian revolution in 2016 that surfaced online earlier this week and for which he has since apologised. I will not discuss these comments directly in this article, but the present piece does have a bearing on the issue of revolution as it addresses the question of how Islamic scholars have traditionally responded to tyranny. Thus, in what follows, I somewhat narrowly focus on another recent recording of Shaykh Hamza that has been published by a third party in the past couple of weeks entitled: “Hamza Yusuf’s response to the criticism for working with Trump administration”. While it was published online at the end of August 2019, the short clip may, in fact, predate the Trump controversy, as it only addresses the more general charge that Shaykh Hamza is supportive of tyrannical governments.

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

Opposing all government vs opposing a government

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

A complex tradition

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

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

What does the tradition actually say?

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

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

Al-Ghazzali on confronting tyrants

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

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

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

Modern discontinuities and their high stakes

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

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

Shaykh Hamza on the nature of government

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

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

Where do we go from here?

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

And Allah knows best.

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Can Women Attend The Burial Of The Deceased?

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

Dr Usaama al-Azami

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Quran at graveyard, woman attend burial

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

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

Key positions and evidence

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

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

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

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

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

Interpreting the evidence

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

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

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

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

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

The fiqh of modernity

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

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

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

And God knows best.

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