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How To Neutralize the Violent Jihadist Pull


By: Yaya J. Fanusie. Yaya is a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. He is the director of analysis at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. He tweets at @signcurve and produces a personal storytelling podcast about his journey to Islam and working in national security called Rhythm of Wisdom.

The recent terrorist attacks in London show that jihadist conflicts around the globe are likely to continue ricocheting in the West. To keep up with this threat, the U.S. is leveraging all elements of its power. In the past few months, the U.S. Treasury Department has designated more than a dozen people for their involvement with al-Qa’ida (AQ) or the Islamic State (IS). They’re a diverse bunch. Two of the individuals are from the UK. Another pair are Canadian. The list also includes a Trinidadian, Malaysian, Indonesian, a Swede, and a guy from New Zealand. Clearly, the world’s most deadliest terrorist groups are equal opportunity recruiters. And these designations belie the idea that the U.S. can counter jihadist terrorism through a national security policy focus on the Middle East.

Obviously, these individuals do not represent the dominant attitudes of Muslims in these countries. But as a convert to Islam who spent several years working as a counterterrorism analyst for the CIA, I am particularly concerned about extremist narratives calling on Muslims in the West to support terrorist groups. The phenomenon of Muslims leaving places where Islam exists in relatively pluralistic environments to join al-Qa’ida and IS offers insights into the paths of jihadist radicalization and, hopefully, some ways to undercut it.

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While many may posit that what is needed is a shift in the Islamic theology that terrorists embrace, both my observations as an analyst and my personal experience within Islam point me to a more targeted conclusion. Countering extremists requires shifting how they think more than what they believe. And while religion is central to jihadist narratives, culture is a way more malleable variable that determines how one approaches religion.

It’s not about the organization, but the cause. One of the recent Treasury designees, British citizen El Shafee Elsheikh, left the UK in 2012 to join al-Qa’ida’s branch in Syria. But he later left that group to join IS where he became part of a quartet of Brits known for torturing and beheading hostages. Trinidadian IS sniper Shawn Dominic Crawford said in an interview with the group’s English-language magazine that before moving to Syria, he was part of a vigilante group in Trinidad that took revenge on non-Muslims accused of harming local Muslims. For 20 years, UK extremist Anjem Choudary encouraged followers to support jihadist movements. When IS took over territory in Iraq and Syria in 2014, he quickly pledged allegiance to the group from London.

While violent radicalization is a complicated process, the ideological attraction at play here is relatively simple. These folks desire to establish an Old World caliphate and are galvanized by the allure of fighting against forces they perceive as antagonists of Islam. If the operational structures of IS and al-Qa’ida were to disappear overnight, it would make little difference. As long as the jihadist mindset persists, new organizations would likely arise and draw new adherents.

Countering the extremist narrative requires proving that the jihadist struggle is not analogous to Prophet Muhammad’s mission. The jihadist narrative can’t be neutralized without attacking its base assumptions head-on. The argument that Muslims should leave their lands to join IS or AQ is enabled only by an incorrect reasoning that the historical occasions of Muhammad emigrating Mecca and fighting his pagan persecutors are precedents with a literal modern analog.

There are lots of scholarly arguments to counter this thinking, but the best approach is to invoke simple concepts that can resonate broadly amongst Muslims. One is that the Prophet’s mission was a universal and dynamic one that provides a mode to follow, but not necessarily a script. In the 21st chapter of the Qur’an (called The Prophets), Muhammad is described as someone who was sent as a mercy to all the worlds. The Arabic term for “all the worlds” (alameen) more appropriately should be understood as all the systems of knowledge. Its root meaning denotes knowledge and science, as one prominent American Muslim commentator pointed out decades ago.

This description from the Qur’an itself indicates that Muslims should approach Muhammad as a model to derive inspiration for bringing benefit to any setting. And the benefit should connect with the nature of that environment. The implication: Establishing Islamic life is not about implementing a carbon copy of life in 7th century Medina.

At the same time, this critical period in Islamic history is not to be discarded from Muslim identity consciousness. Rather, Muslims should study all of it, even elements which may not jibe with our 21st century environment, to derive spiritual principles to benefit the moral, material, and psychological well-being of contemporary human society.

Jihadist Salafis miss this mode because they approach Muhammad and his early followers like characters in an ancient play. And when the contemporary world is vastly different from that play’s script, they believe they must destroy the environment just so they can create a replica theater, complete with stage, costumes, and props to fit the play’s period. Proof of this is in their approach to antiquities.

The Taliban’s demolition of giant Buddha statues in Afghanistan in early 2001 and Islamic State’s destruction of countless ancient artifacts in Iraq and Syria since 2014 is the unfortunate logical conclusion of a kindergarten-level understanding of Islam. The Qur’an does recount the story of another prophet, Abraham, smashing idol statues. And Muhammad reportedly destroyed idols that had been placed around the Kabba. But by interpreting these accounts as precise acts to imitate, their spiritual significance evades literalist thinkers.

However, when one views these acts as a mode instead of script, idols can represent concepts, habits, traditions, or possessions that people cling to that hinder the soul and constrain the intellect. They also can point to the barriers people imagine between themselves and God. This interpretation allows for personal analogy, where anyone can reflect on what may be the “idols” in their life that they need to remove for the progression of their soul.

In this light, Prophet Muhammad’s mission provides a pattern for finding ways to bring mercy to all of the conflicts and disharmony we face, in all of our personal or social “worlds.”

A similar distinction should be made about Prophet Muhammad’s involvement in war, which jihadists claim as a precedent for their own insurgencies. The Qur’an does speak unequivocally about war as part of the early experience of the Muslim ummah, although verses about death or destruction appear only in about two percent of the entire text.

Again, plenty of scholarly arguments exist to rebuke the narrative calling for violence in jihadist conflicts around the world. But the best counter-narrative is a simple one. Most Muslims are familiar with the context surrounding Muhammad’s fight in the later half of his mission. The Qur’an granted permission to fight because Muslims were receiving unabated, violent religious persecution for more than a decade. Muhammad’s mode was to preach a simple, monotheistic message which had been forwarded by earlier prophets. It was met by the leaders of the Quraysh with what would today be called massive violations of human rights.

People were discriminated against, dispossessed, and killed because they would not abandon their worship. The first impulse of Muhammad was peaceful patience and perseverance for more than a decade. And the verse which eventually allowed fighting contextualized such self-defense as necessary for also protecting the freedom of worship of Jews and Christians.

This provides a Qur’anic litmus test to anyone evaluating the credibility of the jihadist cause. One should ask, “Is their fight responding to a real threat against religious freedom?”

Some jihadist sympathizers may point to events soon after the early Muslim community eventually gained victory over Mecca, where the Prophet sent out military expeditions to consolidate the strength of the newly empowered, yet fragile ummah. Arab tribes that submitted to new Muslim rule and agreed to embrace the Muslim identity were forced to destroy their idols and fall under the Prophet’s leadership.

However, history also shows that this period was one of negotiation and alliance-making, not political Islam absolutism. According to various biographers of Muhammad writing about this time, in many cases Arab tribes were allowed to keep their religious traditions in exchange for entering into agreements of cooperation, keeping their own distinct identity, Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, or pagan. Any hostility was based on whether the tribe would be a threat or ally to the nascent Muslim community, not whether it followed Islam’s beliefs and practices. The notion that non-Muslims, minding their own business, should be warred upon as a matter of course to convert them to Islam, was not part of the Prophet’s methodology or motivation in warfare.

But even with this context, Muslims in the 21st century must understand that the references to fighting and war in the Qur’an and in Muhammad’s biography have more apt implications for spirituality and mindset than any physical battle.

For example, the Qur’anic term often translated as martyr is shaheed, but it literally means “a witness.” Muslims use a derivative of this word toward the end of every ritual prayer when reciting the declaration of faith, bearing witness to God’s oneness and Muhammad’s messengership.

So, the word’s full Arabic meaning points to the concept of verifiable proof. And it implies giving one’s whole self for God. In Muhammad’s time, individuals certainly gave their lives on the battlefield. But this idea of selflessness and sacrifice can inspire the believer to strive in all types of endeavors. And the historical fighting against the Kafiroon, usually translated as “disbelievers” can be analogous to the struggle between faith and altruism on one hand and evil and selfishness on the other – even within one’s soul. In fact, the Qur’an corrects those who use the term “believer” loosely. The Book describes a believer as a lofty, internal condition and not just an external label one can profess.

Muslims must access the deeper insights of this scripture, otherwise shallow interpretations will continue to allow Islam to be hijacked by armed groups participating in terrorism, often under the facade of freedom-fighting or liberation movements.

Renewing Muslim culture is more appropriate than reforming Islam. The notion that Islam needs to be reformed as a religion is incorrectly presumptuous and even if it weren’t, it would be an elusive goal. This contention, widely promoted in some intellectual circles might just be inappropriate mirror imaging of the Protestant Reformation. The Reformation came at a time when the Church controlled the Christian layman’s access to scripture, its interpretation, and in principle, the salvation of its followers. In many cases, the Church forbade translating the Bible into local languages from Latin in order to stop the influence of reformers it considered heretics.

Martin Luther’s reformation aimed to disrupt the authority that Church hierarchy held over religious teachings and emphasize the Bible alone as the source for all affairs of the faith. Luther also sought to make the Bible readable by the laity, and thus translated into local languages. This brought scriptural interpretation within the reach of the Christian masses.

This reformation’s end-state is already present in Islam, where it is widely accepted that the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad are the chief sources of the religion and that clerics, while important, are not the arbiters of individual salvation. The current problem of violence by Muslims in the name of religion is not the result of a centralized religious authority. In fact, some could argue that it is exacerbated by its lacking. Jihadist movements often prop up their own clerics who may have little credibility within mainstream Islamic scholarship.

So, Islam already is constituted in a way which allows for varied and competing expressions of the faith. So, why has not a more enlightened interpretation of Islam won over those who are attracted to jihadism? Culture. There is a culture of uncritical thinking which determines the way many Muslims engage Islam.

An overly-literalistic and shallow reading of scripture is not intrinsically part of Islam. I converted while in college in the late 1990s largely through self-study, reading an English translation of the Qur’an, and without much engagement with the Muslim community initially. Born and raised in California, having already strong spiritual leanings in my young adulthood and an appreciation for critical thinking, it never dawned on me to interpret verses about fighting in the Qur’an as a prescription to wage war against non-Muslims. And as I learned about Muhammad’s life, I found no directive for me to join some sort of caliphate political structure.

What I did discover as I eventually interacted more with Muslim communities was that many others approached Islam with narrow-mindedness. I sensed this in proselytizing literature and Friday sermons which differed from the universality which drew me to the religion. Before I had ever heard the term Islamist, I remember thinking to myself as a recent convert that many were practicing some sort of “Islam-ism,” presenting the faith as a self-absorbed, particularistic sect.

For example, in college I started reading a popular English translation of the Qur’an given to me by a relative when I was in high school. From the translation, I got the sense that the Islamic identity as one in unison with the religion of the prophets preceding Muhammad. And I remember reading verses arguing that earlier religious peoples erred by becoming more attached to the particulars of their faith, drifting from universalism to sectarianism.
. It appeared to me that Islam instead provided a unifying, not divisive religious identity. But I soon began to notice many Muslims doing just what the Qur’an criticized – expressing themselves as a party simply “rejoicing in that which is with itself.”

In my early Qur’anic reading, I also found a constant call for the reader to use his or her intellect. To reflect. Throughout the Book I noticed passages of rhetorical questioning, a style that seemed to encourage the believer to come to faith through reasoning, not blind acceptance. This to me, showed an appreciation for critical thinking.

There was even a story about Abraham asking God to explain to him more clearly how the dead could be raised back to life. When, in response, God questioned Abraham as to whether he did not believe, Abraham responded that he did, but he just wanted to put his heart at ease; a clear example that it is ok to bring intellectual curiosity to God’s mysteries.

This all was intellectually stimulating. But though I gained these insights as a new explorer of Islam’s sacred text, it was apparent that this way of thinking about the faith was not predominant as I began to move more in Muslim circles. It seemed that many Muslims were not encouraged to approach scripture intellectually or seek the meaning behind religious rituals.

One time after I had converted, I happened to be at a mosque open house where non-Muslims were invited to visit. I overheard one of the visitors ask the imam if there was any spiritual significance to the various postures in the Muslim prayer ritual. The imam responded curtly, saying that Muslims did not worry about the meaning behind the ritual, but do it because God commands it. I could only think that such a response would be quite the turnoff to a spiritual seeker.

The difference between Islam as I initially discovered it and the religion I saw many Muslims propagate was not scripture by itself, but the cultural lens through which I engaged it; a lens valuing intellectual freedom and spiritual depth.

Culture influences how Muslims engage and think about religion. It impacts how they extrapolate from Muhammad’s life history.
The collective Muslim culture must be refined because its static and particularistic approach to scripture cultivates religious antagonism to a world which is increasingly dynamic and pluralistic. And in this pluralistic environment, when conflicts over political power and social grievances arise, this culture engenders religiously-framed violence as a logical conclusion. To push back this phenomenon, Muslim communities must approach religious texts with a cultural lens that respects the human intellect as a companion of faith, not its adversary.

However, cultural change is not brought about by policy speeches or (dare I say it) Op-eds. Culture comes from the attitudes and habits that parents pass on to children, ideas that teenagers circulate on social media, books that stimulate popular discussion, and of course, all types of entertainment and artistic expression. These things determine how people think and what they deem acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

In Muslim communities around the world today, Islamic scholars and imams probably are less influential on young people than art, entertainment, and social media. So, the question is not how to reform the Islamic religion, but how to cultivate a culture where Muslims derive enlightenment from religion and where shallow interpretations are unappealing; how to influence thinking and thus, behavior.

Some may think that this may be more possible in the West where religious tradition is less fixed than in Muslim-majority countries. That probably is true. But the broader culture of the U.S. and Europe has long influenced cultural attitudes in the rest of the world. It follows that Western Muslims who have reconciled their faith with pluralism should be well-positioned to engage the Muslim-majority cultures of Asia and Africa. Islam’s global demography today means that Muslims in the West might be the overlooked catalyst for cultural renewal for the Muslim ummah.

Muslim thought leaders in the West can take on this role by creating films, television programs, music, and other expressions that speak to this generation’s cultural appetites while drawing on central ideas of the Qur’an: the nobility of human nature, the importance of thinking and self-reflection, the long-term rewards of doing good in the world, and the hazards arising from abusing one’s human talents and mistreating others. God is key to all of these, but art done well need not overemphasize the obvious. Perhaps Islam’s great benefit to society today might be in offering audiences the option for good entertainment without disregarding universal moral principles.

Jihadists assume they have a monopoly on the idea of a grand and noble Islamic mission. But undoing the warped thinking about Islam that they have reinforced in the minds of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike may be the biggest Islamic cause of our age. If Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad’s mission was to be a benefactor for all aspects of human endeavor, informed by the light of revelation, we must assess how well we benefit the world; not in Friday sermons and dawa literature, but in advancing humanity through education, business, politics, and culture.

To give Islam the respect it deserves in the eyes of the world, the real global jihad has nothing to do with fighting the West, but everything to do with raising up the spiritual, mental, and material condition of people. This was Prophet Muhammad’s methodology. And it thusly propelled Muslims in the generations soon after him to advance in knowledge, science, and culture.

The true Islamic battlefield of the 21st century is in overcoming the influence of those who are blocking this potential mercy. Ironically, the people obstructing the beauty of Islam are not non-Muslims, secularists, or atheists, but rather those who cloak themselves in Islamic identity while trying to impose a most hollow understanding of our faith onto the world.

As Muslims concerned about our religion, we must be clear about the real threats facing our communities. And if we reflect on how the Qur’an speaks to the soul, it should be clear that the biggest challenge to our faith is not the enemy outside of us, but the enemy within.

Extremist narratives gain traction and go viral because they inspire. A new Muslim class of creatives should arise, learn from this, and produce art that connects to the hearts and minds which many mainstream religious leaders and scholars aren’t reaching. This cultural renewal, rooted in an enlightened understanding of scripture and Islamic history could inspire human excellence. And it may be the best way to wrestle control of religious interpretation from the hijackers.


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  1. Avatar


    July 12, 2017 at 5:35 AM

    Aqeedah and Seerah lessons from an ex-CIA counter terrorism analyst??? Who will you be publishing next – ex-Blackwater contractors discussing where the ummah went wrong in the last 100 years??

    This guy is a director at a horrible, horrible think-tank which is/has been funded by Haim Saban, Edgar Bronfman – an ex-President of the World Jewish Congress, and a huge array of Israel-First types.

    “FDD’s positions are generally considered to fall in line with the Bush Administration’s War on Terror and policies espoused by the Israeli Likud party.”

    MM – where was the due diligence before deciding to publish this article??

    • Avatar

      Mohamed Elibiary

      July 12, 2017 at 7:43 AM

      People should debate the merits of the article’s ideas, not play the game of associations. It’s not morally righteous to complain when that game is used upon other American Muslims, such as CAIR/ISNA/Etc, then turn around and do it to others. The article puts forward a theory, its constructive to debate its merits not smear the author. Suggest folks listen to the author’s podcasts too to learn about his personal life before assuming he’s responsible for policies he’s not. The Ummah doesn’t need anymore circular firing squads. ~ Walahu Alim

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Torment And Tears: The Emotional Experience of Tawbah

Have you ever had that moment where, all of a sudden, you remember something that you said or did in the past, the severity of which you only realized later on?

That sharp inhalation, shortness of breath, the flush of humiliation, the sick lurching in the pit of your stomach as you recall hurtful words, or an action that was so clearly displeasing to Allah… it is a very physical reaction, a recoiling from your own past deeds.

It may not even be the first time you think about those actions, it may not even be the first time to make istighfaar because of them… but sometimes, it may be the first time that you really and truly feel absolutely sickened at the realization of the gravity of it all. It might not even have been a ‘big deal’ – perhaps it was a cruel joke to a sensitive friend, or not having fulfilled a promise that was important to someone, or betraying a secret that you didn’t think was all that serious.

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And yet… and yet, at this moment, your memory of that action is stark and gut-wrenching.

It is a deeply unpleasant feeling.

It is also a very necessary one.

The Act of Tawbah

Tawbah – seeking forgiveness from Allah – is something that we speak about, especially in Ramadan, the month of forgiveness. However, it is also something that we tend to speak about in general terms, or write off as something simple – “Just say astaghfirAllah and don’t do it again.”

In truth, tawbah is about much more than muttering istighfaar under your breath. It is a process, an emotional experience, one that engages your memory, your soul, and your entire body.

The first step of tawbah is to recognize the sin – whether seemingly small or severe – and to understand just how wrong it was. Each and every one of our deeds is written in our book of deeds; each and every deed will be presented to us on the Day of Judgment for us to be held accountable for. There are times when we say things so casually that it doesn’t even register to us how we could be affecting the person we’ve spoken to.

As RasulAllah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) once told A’ishah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her),

“You have said a word which would change the sea (i.e. poison or contaminate it) if it were mixed in it.” (Sunan Abi Dawud)

The second step is to feel true remorse. It’s not enough to rationally acknowledge that action as being sinful; one must feel guilt, remorse, and grief over having committed it.

Tawbah is to feel that sucker-punch of humiliation and guilt as we recall our sins: not just the mildly awkward ones, like a petty fib or mild infraction, but the genuinely terrible parts of ourselves… ugly lies, vicious jealousy, violations against others’ rights, abuse.

Some of us may be actual criminals – others of us may seem presentable on the outside, even religious, maybe even spiritual… and yet have violated others in terrible ways. Abuse comes in so many forms, and some of us are perpetrators, not just victims.

Facing that reality can be a gruesome process. 

It is a necessary process. Token words, glib recitation of spiritual formulae, those do not constitute tawbah in its entirety. Rather, it is a matter of owning up to our violations, experiencing genuine emotion over them – true humiliation, true regret – and striving not to be that person ever again. 

Much as we hate to admit it, we have our own fair share of red flags that we create and wave, even before we get into the nasty business of committing the worst of our sins. Tawbah isn’t just feeling bad for those Big Sins – it’s to recognize what led us to them to begin with.

It requires us to acknowledge our own flaws of character, of the ease with which we fall into certain behaviours, the way we justify the pursuit of our desires, the blindness we have to the worst parts of ourselves. Tawbah is to sit down and face all of it – and then to beg Allah, over and over, not just to forgive us and erase those specific actions, but to change us for the better. 

This experience is so much more powerful than a mere “I’m sorry,” or “omg, that was awful”; it is an act that embodies our submission to Allah because it requires us to make ourselves incredibly emotionally vulnerable, and in that moment, to experience a deep pain and acknowledge our wrongdoing. It is to hold your heart out to Allah and to beg Him, with every fiber of your being, with tears in your eyes, with a lump in your throat, wracked with regret, to please, please, please forgive you – because without it, without His Mercy and His Forgiveness and His Gentleness and His Love towards us, we have no hope and we will be utterly destroyed.

Surah Araf Verse 23

{Rabbanaa thalamnaa anfusanaa, wa illam taghfir lanaa wa tar’hamnaa, lanakunanna mina’l Khaasireen!}

{Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we will surely be among the losers!} (Qur’an 7:23)

This experience of tawbah is powerful, emotional, and heartbreaking. It is meant to be. It is a reminder to us of how truly dependent we are upon our Lord and our Creator, how nothing else in our lives can give us joy or a sense of peace if He is displeased with us. It is a reminder to us of how deeply we crave His Love, of how desperately we need it, of how His Pleasure is the ultimate goal of our existence.

Finally, there is the step of resolving never to commit that sin again, to redress the wrongs if possible, and to follow up the bad deed with a good one.

The vow is one we make to ourselves, asking Allah’s help to uphold it – because we are incapable of doing anything at all without His Permission; the righting of wrongs is what we do to correct our transgression against others’ rights over us, although there are times when we may well be unable to seek another individual’s forgiveness, whether because of distance, death, or otherwise; and the good deeds to undertake as penance are numerous, whether they be sadaqah or increased ‘ebaadah.

But it doesn’t end there. And it never will.

Tawbah is not a once-in-a-lifetime event. It is not even a once-a-year event, or once a month, or once a week. It is meant to be a daily experience, a repeated occurrence, in the earliest hours of the morning, in the depths of the last third of the night, during your lunch break or your daily commute or in the middle of a social gathering.

Tawbah is a lifelong journey, for who amongst us doesn’t commit mistakes and errors every day?

All we can do is beg of Allah not only for His Forgiveness, but also: {Allahumma ij’alnaa min at-tawwaabeen.} – O Allah, make us amongst those who are constantly engaging in repentance!

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Moonsighting Gone Wrong, Again.

Moonsighting is just not working out.

Atleast not for our community here in the Toronto area. As I speak to my friends in other large (read: fragmented) communities, such as those in the UK, I hear similar tales of confusion, anxiety and horror. The problem in these communities stems from the fact that there are numerous moonsighting organizations in the same area, all following different methodologies for declaring Eid and Ramadan. This naturally results in a catastrophe and Muslims from the same family living in the same city are forced to celebrate the holidays on different days.

To give you a taste of how (and why) things went wrong in this year’s Ramadan declaration, here’s a summary highlighting the series of events as they unfolded. (Reminder: Ramadan was expected to start on Friday, April 24th or Saturday, April 25th 2020 in North America)

  • Wednesday, April 22, 10: 13 pm EST: Crescent Council of Canada (CC) declares Ramadan to start on Friday, 24th April based on the fact that it received no reports of moonsighting sighting on Wednesday night. This committee follows global moonsighting and it declared Ramadan so early because it was already the 29th of Shaban based on the lunar calendar it follows (for most of North America, the 29th of Shaban was to be on Thursday). So, starting Ramadan on Saturday was simply not an option for the group (as it would have meant observing 31 days of Shaban). Also to note is that this group gives precedence to official declarations from authorities from Muslim-majority countries, even if these declarations conflict predictions of visibility charts and astronomical calculations. It argues that testimony of witnesses takes precedence in the sharia over astronomical data.
  • Thursday, April 23rd, 7:27 pm EST : The Hilal Council of Canada (HC), another committee in the area that follows global sighting, states that there has not been any sighting of the moon in any country, including South and Central America (it is past sunset in most of the Muslim world by now). The committee decides that it will wait till sundown in California to receive the final reports before making a declaration. Confusion starts spreading in the community as one organization has already declared Ramadan while another claims no one in the Muslim world saw the moon. Note that HC does not accept moonsighting reports if they contradict astronomical data.
  • 8:39 pm: Confusion continues. The CC claims that Saudi Arabia, UAE, Malaysia, Turkey and a host of Muslim countries have declared Ramadan. The committee thus feels validated in its original declaration which it made on Wednesday night.
  • 8:48 pm: More confusion: California-based also claims that moonsighting reports from the Middle-East and Africa are all negative. People naturally start wondering how so many countries supposedly declared Ramadan if there were no positive sightings.
  • 9:40 pm: The Hilal Committee of Toronto and Vicinity, the oldest moonsighting group in the city, declares Ramadan to start on Saturday the 25th of April. Since the committee did not receive any positive reports by sunset from areas in its jurisdiction, it declared Ramadan to commence on Saturday. This committee follows local moonsighting and doesn’t rely on reports from the Muslim-world. Two of the three major moonsighting groups in the city have declared Ramadan on different days at this time. Residents are confused whether to fast the next day or pray tarweeh as its almost Isha time.
  • 11:11 pm: The HC finally declares Ramadan to start the next day, i.e. Friday, based on confirmed reports from California. Mosques following the HC advice to pray tarawih – an hour after Isha time had already entered. After an anxiety filled and frustrating evening, residents finally know the positions of the various moonsighting groups in the city. Now they just have to decide which one to follow!
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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

This baffling circus of contradictory declarations is nothing new; it has become a yearly occurrence. Last year we saw the exact same series of events unfold and the same confusion spread throughout the community; it is entirely expected that the same will happen again in future years.

Our leadership has decided that it is acceptable to put the average Muslim through this nerve-racking experience every year. For Eid declarations, the experience is far worse as thousands are often waiting till midnight to decide whether to go work the next day or send their children to school. The stress and anxiety this decision causes for the average person year after year is simply unacceptable.

Popular advice in these situations has been to ‘follow your local masjid’. However, this idea is impractical for large communities where there are numerous local mosques, all following various opinions. It is also impractical for the thousands who simply don’t frequent the mosque and are not tied to a particular organization. The layperson just wants to know the dates for Ramadan and Eid; it is an undue burden on them to research the strength of various legal opinions just to know when to celebrate a religious holiday with their families.

Only one way forward: astronomical calculations

There have been numerous sincere attempts to solve these long-standing problems associated with moonsighting over the past 50 years – all have failed. I have documented in detail these attempts, the reasons for their failure and argued for the only viable solution to this problem: astronomical calculations.

Since its introduction in 2006, Fiqh Council of North America’s calculations-based lunar calendar has proven to be the definitive solution for communities struggling to resolve the yearly moonsighting debacle. An example of such a resolution is the 2015 agreement by some of the leading mosques in the Chicago area who put aside their differences and united behind FCNA’s calendar. This approach has brought ease and facilitation for the religious practice of thousands of Muslims in that community.

While the use of calculations has been a minority position in Islam’s legal history, it has a sound basis in the shariah [1] and has been supported by towering figures of the past such as Imam Zakariya al-Ansari and Imam Ramli. Given the challenging circumstances we find ourselves in now, it is incumbent on scholars of today to revisit this position as a means of providing much needed relief to the masses from this lunar quagmire.


[1]  From SeekersGuidance: Scholars upholding this can be traced all the way back to the first Islamic century. The textual basis for this opinion is the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari, “When you see it [the new moon of Ramadan] then fast; and when you see it [the new moon of Shawwal], then break the fast. If it is hidden from you (ghumma ‘alaykum) [i.e. if the sky is overcast] then estimate it (fa-qdiru lahu);” (al-Bukhari, hadith no. 1900). The last verb, fa-qdiru, can be validly understood to mean calculation. Of the scholars who held this, are Abu al-‘Abbas b. Surayj (d. 306/918), one of the leading founders of the classical Shafi‘i school, the Shafi‘i scholar and renowned mystic Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), the leading Shafi‘i judge Taqi al-Din al-Subki (d. 756/1355), the Shafi‘i legal theorist al-Zarkashi (d. 794/1392), the renowned Maliki legal theorist al-Qarafi (d. 684/1285), and some Hanafi scholars. The late Shafi‘i commentator al-Qalyubi (d. 1069/1659) held that all sighting-claims must be rejected if calculations show that a sighting was impossible, stating, “This is manifestly obvious. In such a case, a person may not fast. Opposing this is obstinacy and stubbornness.” See al-Mawsu‘ah al-fiqhiyyah al-kuwaytiyyah, c.v. “Ru’yat al-hilal,” vol. 22, pp. 31-4. The leading scholar of the late Shāfi‘ī school Muhammad al-Ramli (d. 1004/1596) held that the expert astronomer was obliged to follow his own calculation as was the non-astronomer who believed him; this position has been used by some contemporary Shafi’i scholars to state that in the modern world, with its precise calculations, the strongest opinion of the Shafi’i school should be that everyone must follow calculations; see ‘Umar b. al-Habib al-Husayni, Fath al-‘ali fi jam‘ al-khilaf bayna Ibn Hajar wa-Ibn al-Ramli, ed. Shifa’ Hitu (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), pp. 819-22. See also the fatwa of the Hanafi scholar Dr Salah Abu al-Hajj (معنى-حديث-لا-تصوموا-حتى-تروا-الهلال-ول) last accessed 9/5/2016) which states, after arguing against relying on calculations, “However, the position of [following] calculations is the position of a considerable group of jurists, so it is a respected disagreement in Islamic law, whereby, if a state were to adopt it, it is not rejected, because the judgment of a judge removes disagreement, and the adoption of a state is [as] the judgment of a judge.

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#Current Affairs

COVID19: Calling The Conscientious

Violating borders, scaling every wall and traveling faster than a rumor, COVID19 is now around nearly everywhere. It has reduced nations and societies, low and mighty, to their knees, demoted all preoccupations to insignificance and is threatening to torch everyone in its path.

The imperial hubris of nations, with and without nuclear weapons has crumbled. Mighty militaries have been reduced to mere spectators. Borders are closed. Markets have tumbled. Even the gods amongst humans – rulers, monarchs, dictators, religious heads, generals, billionaires, movie stars, icons of sports and music –have been forced to recede from the limelight. Neither they are in control nor can they perform. All of them are forced to surrender by an unseen microscopic speck with an insatiable appetite to devour humankind, bit-by-bit, part by part.

A pre-COVID19 world is now a blurred memory. It was not long ago that we were a different planet and a different people. Neither hand-sanitizers nor masks were precious enough to purchase let alone hoard, or even think about. YouTube was popular but not so much for videos on how to wash hands or what to do when self-quarantined. And, shaking hands were a norm and we used to respond with a “bless you” to our neighbor’s cough or sneeze.

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That was pre-COVID19.

Places of worship are already shut down and airports, train stations and shipping ports are shutting down. Boulevards and avenues are eerily silent. Shopping malls and theaters stand abandoned.

This is post-COVID19.

Yet, there are flashes of hope and inspiration. Medical professionals and health care workers are fighting to save mankind, a patient a time. Our ill equipped and fatigued hospitals are abodes of our new heroes and true patriots. And no less are trash collectors, grocery workers, truck drivers, postal workers, fruit pickers among others whom we took for granted all along.

Covid-19 is not just the biggest story of our time, it is the only story.

Amidst a piercing cacophony of politicians’ press conferences and public interest advisories, we cannot afford to miss out the soft whispers of COVID19.

It is telling us to pay more attention to the under-estimated meaningful over the hyper-marketed mundane. Its whispers remind us to remember that we are but a mere mortal. We are reminded in the Quran that God made us from a mere speck (40:67).

Not, too long ago, we seldom had to remind ourselves that we are human. Not too long ago we could afford to be enemies of ourselves. Humans were enemies of humans, fighting and taking life of those considered ‘others’. We fostered division … “them” and “us,” “citizens” and “illegals.” COVID19 has spoken: no more. We stoked exclusion … “black, brown and white,” “conservative and liberal,” and “urban and rural.” COVID19 has spoken: no more.

In its sweeping trail of destruction, COVID19, is imploring us — harness my power to cause dread in each one of you, across borders, across genders, across races — and unite. COVID19 is challenging us: find a common cause against me. When any of you find an antidote against me, may that be a reason for your coming together, even if right now I have forced you to stay away from each other – six feet part.

COVID19 is an equal opportunity and a non-discriminating enemy, which will kill no matter how we worship, what we eat, where we live. One touch strikes all with equal precision.

Today, as we face an existential threat from a mortal molecular foe, we must remind ourselves about what matters most, our humanity and not our race and nationality.

The truth is that long before COVID19 struck us, we were sick. We spread viruses; hate and bigotry, we held thoughts of xenophobia for those who did not deserve it. We wallowed in bias and built echo chambers. COVID19 exposed all of our pre-COVID19 shortcomings.

Coronavirus will kill us for a while, but then in the end, we will overpower it. But before that happens, all the human deaths would be in vain if we don’t realize that in a world of such threats, we never needed to have been at each other’s throats.

In fear and panic, people resort to extreme behavior, it amazes us with their capacity for wisdom and kindness, or stupidity and cruelty. COVID19 is beseeching us to reclaim and regain our humanity of compassion and kindness. It is telling us to come together to fight our common battles. It is forcing us to wash our hands of all sins of our past and then lock our hearts and hands and build a world where meaning must matter more than the mundane.

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