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Why Studying And Teaching Aqidah is Necessary for the Ulama And Students of Knowledge

Shaykh Hamzah Wald Maqbul

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Sunnism is suffering an identity crisis: other than not self-identifying as a Shī’ite, very few people who identify as Sunnīs can explain what beliefs makes a person a Sunnī. This has left a bleeding wound in people’s conception of Islām, through which infections such as Qādiyānism, Rāfidism, Progressivism, Modernism, and other forms of misguidance cause many well-meaning people great damage to both their faith as well as their worldly existence.

Otherworldly concerns of protecting people from the harm of odious deviation from the pure faith, which can delay or deny salvation, tag along with the deleterious effects of the pursuits of sectarian agendas in the guise of religion which are literally burning entire nations like Syria and Yemen to the ground in front of our eyes. At the same time Muslims living in North America and Europe are witnessing a coup against established legal, cultural and spiritual norms in the name of progressivism and liberalism, which confusingly seem to come from quarters which are, politically, less openly hostile to some version of an established Muslim presence. The chasm which is opening because of this coup threatens to divide what used to be the common Sunnī identity in these lands into a Reform/Conservative/Orthodox-type divide which currently exists in the Jewish community; the reform identity being roughly one of radically jettisoning canonical interpretive methodology and precedent. Conservatism is acknowledging the need to do what Reform Judaism did, while preserving the traditional forms of Judaism when practical. Orthodoxy has been seemingly left behind as an attempt to carry on the premodern Jewish theology and law, uninterrupted by modernity.

One should note that this divide within Judaism started from the United States, and has now pervaded the Jewish world, and likewise, if such a chasm formally opened up in the United States, it would be a matter of import for the entire ummah, as the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ stated, “You will follow those who went before you hand’s breadth for hand’s breadth, cubit for cubit, to the point that if they went into a lizard hole, you would also go into it.” They asked him ﷺ, “Do you mean the Jews and Christians?” He ﷺ replied, “Who else?” [1]

To the scholarly past of this ummah, the obvious place to find the necessary guidance to solve the above-mentioned problems should be in the books of ʿAqīdah of the Sunnī Kalām tradition; however, this seems to not be as obvious anymore to the ummah as it should be, and for that reason a number of problems arise.

The following tract, by Allāh’s help, is meant to investigate these problems, and to make the case that a serious revival of the study of ʿAqīdah in our communities is one of the foremost obligations upon Muslims today.

How Has the Study of Aqidah Fallen From Importance?

There are many reasons why the study of ʿAqīdah has fallen out of favor. Firstly, the lay public, due to sectarian influence of foreign groups, has come to see the word ʿAqīdah as a codeword for polemical infighting, something which most North American Muslims rightly intuit will lead to little or no benefit. Thus, the word ʿAqīdah now conjures up images of brothers pointing fingers upwards and asking, “Where is Allāh?” or whether or not you believe that the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ is omnipresent in all points of time and space. Such issues are irrelevant to the public.[2] Worse yet, they are weaponized by some and result in dissention and division within congregations.

Secondly, many madāris have severely downplayed if not outright jettisoned the study of Kalām[3] other than for the purpose of refuting heterodox groups. Worse yet, sectarian partisans use it to cut down other legitimate views within Sunnism, as if they are a patent falsehood, even though the matters at hand are, at most, differences of opinion. Although refutation is a legitimate purpose of the knowledge of ʿAqīdah, it is hardly the aim of its study. It is more important for a believer to know who he is, rather than who he isn’t: the former is based on the knowledge of revelation, whereas the latter is more conveniently facilitated by sectarian animus. It is important to note that revelation “taught man what he knew not”,[4] whereas even the people of falsehood are adept at circularly refuting one another.

Thirdly, much of the lay public has come to the idea that the old works of Kalām, even if a sentimentally important part of our intellectual heritage, lack relevance to today’s more pressing issues. Many may ask, what can Rāzī, Ghazālī, and Juwaynī practically teach me to prepare for an encounter with New Atheism or Liberalism, or any number of other prevalent ideologies at odds with the way of life prescribed by revelation?

The Role of Scholars & Students of Knowledge

For the reasons outlined above, scholars and students of knowledge have a responsibility[5] to act as facilitators and intermediaries between the laity and revelation’s Divine and prophetic sources. There are many benefits that the ummah will take from a clerical class well-grounded in Sunnī ʿAqīdah. Unfortunately, the very need for this class of specialists in the information age,[6] something taken for granted in past generations, requires explanation today.

Requisite Qualification

Pious and illuminated hearts and minds must disseminate the sacred creed of Islām, not use sectarianism to divide the ummah, build socio-political clout, or win followers and disciples,[7] but in order to show Muslims who they are, rather than who they aren’t. Only then will people once more start to see the Sunnī ʿAqīdah as a source of guidance and intellectual-spiritual order.

Indeed, the balance between the rational need for limits and an inclusivity which can only come from the generosity of being connected to the Divine is found in the Sunnī creed. Achieving this balance is a hallmark of being an imām[8] in this tradition. The emulation of the prophetic model is in bringing sincere believers together whenever it is possible, and separating individuals from the flock only when absolutely necessary. Thus, did Imām Ṭaḥāwī explicitly declare that anyone who meets even the most minimal standard for a valid islām is a walī[9] of Allāh, even if they are sinners or, in some instances even misguided.[10] It was a strong statement, and one he meant to make.

Large scale propagation of ʿAqīdah in such a way will negate the stigma of sectarianism by showing people the point of ʿAqīdah (a framework through which to view the world) and not a degenerate form of divisive sectarianism. It will also give people the understanding that whoever drives exclusionary sectarianism within the Sunnī populace, isn’t doing so as a representation of Sunnism; rather, it is a sign that something else is at play. In order to get the vastness of the ummah on to the same page in mind, then spirit and body, the framework of Sunnī ʿAqīdah must become the common thought currency between all Muslims, regardless of race, madhhab, Sufic association, socioeconomic status, occupation, or nationality.

The benefits to the ummah of the wide and proper dissemination of ʿAqīdah by no means stops there. Much of the abandonment of the commandments of the sacred Sharīʿah has to do with the lack of understanding amongst laypeople about the importance of Fiqh and its various sources rooted in revelation;[11] If they understood the importance of the law, they would be more avid to implement it, appreciating the elegance by which they are inseparable. In that sense, an overemphasis on the sacred law in comparison to both ʿAqīdah and Taṣawwuf when ministering to the public may be a cause of its diminished acceptance amongst that same public, as it is tough to bring the body to do things when the mind[12] and heart[13] aren’t in it.

As important as the dissemination of the sacred creed is, however, it can only be done on the heels of a solid understanding of it. This requires a depth of study by the scholarly class that goes beyond a basic minimum belief for a valid īmān. Maintaining a cohort of the learned who are custodians of such understanding is an obligation on communities; indeed, many a non-farḍ matter on individuals becomes a farḍ kifāyah on communities and sovereign states.[14] This is the case for all of the disciplines necessary in order for the Dīn of Allāh to be understood, implemented, and defended at individual and collective levels.

Methodology is Critical

This brings us to another matter which is one of great concern to anyone who has dedicated their life to knowledge, beyond the pursuit of degrees, ijāzāt, clerical career opportunities and fame as preachers and leaders; that is the uṣūlī nature of the sacred Sharīʿah. Uṣūl are the universal principles which make up for framework within which the individual rulings of the sacred Sharīʿah fit. The uṣūlī nature of the sacred Sharīʿah, and its understanding was always the crown pursuit of the greatest of the scholars. In fact, to call a scholar an uṣūlī is to bear witness to the integrated seamlessness and encyclopedic knowledge of the sharīʿah, bringing names like Ghazālī and Shāh Walīyyullāh to mind. The idea is that the Dīn of Allāh isn’t just a scattered distribution of rules, verses, statements and prohibitions to be read atomistically;[15] rather, those discrete data points fit into uṣūlī models and theoretical frameworks that undergird the different branches of learning in Islām. Thus, Ḥadīth is governed by uṣūl al-Ḥadīth, Fiqh is governed by uṣūl al-Fiqh[16], Tafsīr is governed by uṣūl al-Tafsīr, and so on. The reason is that without a methodology a person can hardly take an objective stance on any matter, much less understand large fields of information in a cohesive and cogent manner. All of these uṣūlī systems in turn are undergirded by ʿAqīdah, which is the Uṣūl of Uṣūl; it is perhaps for this reason that Imām Abū Ḥanīfah, may Allāh have mercy on him, named his work on ʿAqīdah with such a gravity, al-Fiqh al-Akbar.[17]

Jettisoning a holistic Usūlī approach to the Dīn by fixating on individual verses, aḥadīth, and legal rulings has allowed the jackals and hyenas who prey on this ummah to masquerade as representatives of the Islām and flagbearers of the Sunnī tradition,[18] whether they be in the form of modernists, terrorist groups, neo-Salafists,[19] neo-traditionalists, neo-Kharijītes, or the like. When uṣūl are cast aside, such groups can now regurgitate particular data points from the Islāmic tradition with enough charisma to woo audiences to their respective agendas.

Modern day reductionists have peddled the idea that uṣūl are an unneeded vestige of medieval foolery, and must today be replaced by the empiricism of hard evidence in the form of literal text. While other scholarly endeavors like taḥqīq and takhrīj are worthy, they are not substitutes for uṣūl. Powered by the false confidence a literalist worldview engenders, unscrupulous operators resort to forcing the mismatched puzzle pieces together in new, scary and, incoherent ways. Indeed, many committed Muslims, upon encountering textual evidences produced by reductionists, find themselves at a loss to explain what is specifically wrong with such groups’ picture of Islām. From that pool, many subsequently join or at least tacitly support such groups, much to the spiritual, economic, political and social detriment of the ummah. Why would anyone bother to rearrange the sharīʿah in such a way? In order to deceptively harnesses the demographic, economic power of the love and zeal of the masses for Islām. If the Bolsheviks could do it, anyone can; indeed, their spiritual heirs,[20] may Allāh protect us from them, continue do so.

Uṣūlī thinking imparts a methodology by which one can understand the Dīn at a deeper level. It also gives its practitioner the ability to consume and solve new problems and digest issues which arise from unprecedented circumstances. I would go one step further and say for the robust intellect, nothing in creation would be “new”[21] anymore. Indeed, I can affirm that at least in my own experience many “new” challenges to Islām’s worldview are, in essence, rehashings of old challenges (albeit with different modalities). More often than not, historic iterations were far more sophisticated than contemporary ones. Due to the modernism’s reductionist approach,  philosophers have become largely irrelevant in the popular arena: the new standard bearers of materialism are often scientists, hard[22] or soft,[23] whose touting of materialism (and the atheism which inevitably emerges from it), is sophomoric at best.

The idea that uṣūl, or understanding how to think, is distinct and in many ways superior to only knowing what to think, should not be lost on any rational person.

The Continual Benefit of Kalām and the Harm in Ignoring It

Yet another sad consequence of abandoning the study of ʿAqīdah has been well-intentioned and ostensibly Sunnī public intellectuals, often very accomplished in Western Academia, but lacking even a basic command of classical Arabic, hastily dismiss Kalām as not being relevant to the “new” challenges posed to Islām and its intellectual framework. The strange thing is that many who express sentiments like this lack competence classical Arabic, yet believe their readings in English qualify them to make such serious judgments. Can you imagine what a mockery would be made of someone who only could speak and read Urdu and whatever was translated into it began to comment with an air of authority on theoretical physics or cutting-edge medical research? Even more frustratingly, those intellectuals who can access classical Arabic rarely have actually taken the time to read the old books of Kalām in any serious way, much less with a teacher.[24]

A noteworthy exception to the idea that all or most antagonists to the Kalām tradition are untrained in the classical Arabic sources are those who currently hold a position attributed to many of the salaf, namely that kalām is unsubstantiated speculation regarding revelation and the very nature of Allāh, thus a sin worse than theft and fornication, which is most widely ascribed to the Imām Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal, may Allāh sanctify his heart, and those who follow his school. Without casting any aggression toward this opinion which holds some merit, especially for the context in which it was first held, it goes without saying that such an approach will struggle to offer any help to a university student dealing with the ideological hailstorm on campus….

Such an attitude has gained currency among many generous and reverent defenders of Islām who opine that kalām held a useful function in the past, but gives the contemporary Muslim little preparation for the onslaught liberal modernity is directing at the world. Similarly, other less well-intentioned academic and post-colonial intellectual elites, hold en vogue a vision of Kalām as a kind of fossilized carcass, declaring it an irrelevant and even decadent feature of a past, best left behind. What’s fascinating here is that, both share a similar belief in history’s linear progress; somehow the future, solely by virtue of it being the future, necessarily brings with it more sophisticated challenges than the past did, a hallmark of haughty modernist thinking.

This idea seems to be validated in the colonized mind when it soaks in the stark reality of disenfranchisement and defeatism that surrounds it. I state here unequivocally that the ability to marshal armies and death-raining technology does not necessitate intellectual superiority. Nor is the ability to kill and enslave people an attribute of the ḥaqq.[25]

Yet still many Muslims wonder: what could discussions regarding the classical ideas about materialism or polemical refutations of the Muʿtazilah and Bāṭiniyyah have to do with answering Richard Dawkins, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Liberalism, and the like?

The answer is more than you think.

The arguments of scientists against religion are not as seemingly unassailable as they may appear. As empirical philosophers, they themselves have jettisoned a large part of rationality from their own discourse, vaingloriously declaring that if it can’t be seen, heard, tasted, touched, smelled or measured, it doesn’t exist. Such an unexamined statement, when taken to its logical conclusion, would have us revert to Roman numerals and render the Big Bang a rational conundrum.

The arguments for kufr, all of which, whether in the form of polytheism or atheism, all depend on affirming the divinity of the material things of this universe, in similar, but subtly different ways.

It is a maxim of the scholars based on a number of statements of revelation that all the different types of kufr, ultimately comprise of one millah.[26] For example some said that God resides in everything. Others said that God was born in the flesh. Some said that there is no God. All, however, in order to explain the incoherence of everything spontaneously existing from nothing, stated that the material universe must have always had attributes Muslims ascribed to the Divine. Many resort to claiming it existed in some cyclically reiterating form,[27] and thus will continue to do so, possessing pre-primordiality and eternity, both being essential attributes of what we call God. It is against this backdrop that Islām, rather than assigning Divine attributes to the creation, affirms Allāh’s being thoroughly unlike His creation and transcendent above it.

It is from this basis that the Kalām tradition painstakingly refutes many possible contortions and adjustments that kufr can, has, and will make in order to free itself from the trap of its own initial incoherence. Through study of those refutations, a roadmap to answers to modern obsessions like “if God is so omnipotent, why are children born with deformities?”; “why can’t we refer to God as a she,”; or “If God exists, show him to me, and if you can’t, admit He doesn’t exist,” comes into clear view. Once the existence of Absolute Truth is established and necessarily affirmed, the moral and existential chaos of an absolutist relativist (yes, I’m aware of how silly it sounds) liberal modernity is resolutely challenged. Without that affirmation, answering simple questions like “Who am I?” becomes cumbersome.[28]

Epilogue: Ijtihād

I’d like to conclude, not by neatly wrapping the discussion up, but by throwing a number of doors open, namely the doors of ijtihad, which were never closed in the first place, at least for those whose purview it was and remains. Ijtihād is a very interesting idea, one of which many speak but few understand. Much like playing on a professional sports team is the preserve of the elite of that sport, ijtihād is an actual reality for those few who combine the God-given spiritual[29] and intellectual strengths needed to have a shot at it, with the years of hard work and practice. Also, much like professional sports, although there may be only a handful of legitimate practitioners of ijtihad, there are thousands, if not millions of pretenders behind them ready to dream about it, talk about it and offer their detailed commentaries about it—commentaries bearing various levels of insight and/or connections to any kind of reality. The current reductionist, atomistic approach that is in fashion amongst the intelligentsia is an antagonist to an uṣūlī, methodologically consistent approach to anything in the Dīn; the lack of study of ʿAqīdah shuts out the student from uṣūl at the ground floor as ʿAqīdah itself forms the foundation of uṣūl.

The preservation of ijtihad and its requisite branches of learning requires that there be a body of literature and group of people who can trace the final product of the various branches of Islāmic learning from source materials to the final prescriptions found in the canonical texts of the different sciences. A pseudo empirical-textual fixation not only subverts the superiority of the living tradition as described above, but also renders ijtihad practically meaningless. Supplanting the importance of uṣūl, which is the craft of ijtihad, games the system in the direction of literalism, or worse yet, a type of literalistically-inspired mya[30] in which each individual, who may be busy becoming a doctor, shopping, on Facebook and Twitter, and giving their opinion, interprets text based on the meaning that most strongly occurs to them.

In such a nightmarish reality,[31] truth, authority, reason and orthodoxy are replaced with a type of democracy of stupidities. This has been described in the ḥadīth of the Messenger of Allāh ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him): “Whoever speaks about the Qurʾān by his own opinion is wrong even if [he happens to be] right.”[32] The implication here is that the methodology by which the truth is sought is so horrid that it nullifies any possible benefit of randomly arriving at a correct conclusion. The similitude is one of a person who, instead of waiting to land at the airport and taking a cab home, jumps from the airplane as it flies over his house; timing his jump with a nearly impossible accuracy. Even if he is lucky and arrives at his destination, his arrival is not in any worthwhile manner.

Aside from the damage such an approach inflicts on the intellectual establishment of the Dīn due to its rabid irregularity, what is perhaps most tragic is how such intellectual vigilantism robs the top minds of the ummah of the chance to see the bigger picture when it comes to the sacred sharīʿah. Muslim scholars do not celebrate Abū Ḥanīfah and Mālik, amongst the salaf and Imām al-Ḥaramayn, Ghazālī, Shāṭibī, Qarāfī, Shāh Waliyyullāh, and others from the latter generations for amassing pages filled with attestations to particular rulings. Rather, they are looked to as beacons of light for their ability to explain the uṣūlī theory upon which the well-known precedents of the Sharīʿah were based. In many cases, they showed how that same uṣūl could be used to extrapolate rulings where no precedent existed.

Such a big picture understanding of the sacred Sharīʿah can only come from an uṣūlī understanding, the appreciation of which can only come with a solid foundation in the robust study of ʿAqīdah; without it you lose the Ghazālī and are left with the Ghazālī for Kids series.

Understanding how to think is indeed the crown jewel of ijtihad which is the difference between the ignoramus who will be punished even when arriving at the correct conclusion, versus the true ʿĀlim who will be rewarded twice for his correct conclusions and once for those which fall short of the mark. Thus, abandoning the study of ʿAqīdah is worthy of far more concern than many perceive.

Recommendations for Learning & Promoting Sunnī ʿAqīdah

Regular Folks

Take a course in a basic text of ʿAqīdah like that of Imām Ṭaḥāwī, Ibn Abī Zayd, Ibn ʿĀshir, or the like with an erudite and qualified scholar, like the mashāyikh at reputable institutions like Ribat, Dār ul-Qasim or Masjid al-Huda. If you don’t have access to in-person classes, listen to a recording of the explanation of the complete text of the ʿAqīdah Ṭaḥāwiyyah here.

Community Servant-Leaders

Contact organizations like Imam Ghazali Institute or those listed above, and coordinate bringing such a course to your community targeting community leadership, students of knowledge, academics, as well as the public at large.

Support, seek advice from, and give a platform to those scholars who truly understand, believe in, uphold, and promote the Sunnī tradition, not merely as identity, but as a functional basis for viewing the world.

Novice Students of Knowledge

Read, master, and memorize a simple matn like those mentioned above, in Arabic, and take time to read through their commentaries.

Familiarize yourself with the intellectual history of Sunnī ʿAqīdah, and be able to trace how it has developed from the age of Risālah, the Salaf, the founding of its three main classical traditions, namely the Ashʿarī, Māturīdī, and Atharī schools, and how they dealt with major intellectual challenges in the past, like the Muʿtazilah and the Bāṭiniyyah.

Seek out a qualified teacher in one of those three traditions, who can competently teach you beginning and intermediate Kalām works, and demonstrate to you the connection between the text and the school of Kalām; the Ḥanafī school of fiqh being deeply connected to the Māturīdī school of Kalām, the Shāfiʿī school being deeply connected with the Ashʿarī, and the Ḥanbalī school with the Atharī.[33] As for the Mālikī school, it was initially associated with the Atharī school, but after the fitnah of Ibn Tumart’s false claim to being the Mahdī, built on robust dialectics, they en masse took up the Ashʿarī school in order to defend the integrity of Sunnī creed from further spurious assault.[34] Keep contact with said teacher and refer back to him or her whenever questions regarding the creedal implications of any legal, social, political or other issue comes up.

Advanced Students of Knowledge

Teach a class based on a basic text, like those mentioned in the recommendation section for regular folks at least twice a year; it will solidify your knowledge of its contents and allow you to see their implications in other matters you would have otherwise been heedless of, due to them being in your mind constantly. Additionally, it will be a good way of paying the zakāt due on they knowledge you have accumulated.

Read the intermediate and advanced books of your Kalām tradition. The advanced level texts will orient you with the opinions of the other schools as well. Do not suffice with that; rather read the texts of the other schools in order to get a fresh and accurate picture of their arguments.

In addition to your teachers, keep contact with a group of students who are at your level of study and reading and discuss matters of import in the intellectual, social, political and cultural life of the Muslim and the world around. When appropriate, write about such topics for the benefit of other students of knowledge and even the general public.

Use ʿAqīdah as a way of grounding your view of the world around you, allowing you to extricate yourself from getting caught up in ancillary issues, which while important, take a secondary importance when compared to those residing in the space of creed.

Sh. Hamza was born in Whittier, California and lived in Southern California until the age of ten when he moved to Blaine, Washington. He later attended the University of Washington and in 2004 completed a Bachelors of Science in Biochemistry and a Bachelors of Arts in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He served as the president of the University of Washington Muslim Students Association, one of the largest and most active student groups on campus, as a student senator for two years, and as the Senate-appointed member of the special funding committee. After graduation, Hamza went on to pursue traditional Islamic studies, which took him to Syria and Egypt where he studied the Arabic language; Morocco, Mauritania, and the UAE, where he studied the madhab of Imam Malik, grammar, usul al-hadith, and the two renditions of the qira’ah of Imam Nafi’, Warsh and Qalun, and finally Pakistan where he had the opportunity to study tafsir, usul al-hadith, hadith, ‘ilm al-rijal and Hanafi fiqh.

All of these studies culminated in him receiving an ijazat al-tadris, literally meaning “a license to teach” which is the equivalent in Pakistani Islamic seminaries to a MA in Arabic and Islamic studies, as well as an unbroken chain of transmission by which to narrate the hadith of such books as the Muwatta of Imam Malik, the Sihah al-Sittah (Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasa’i and Ibn Majah), and the Sharh Ma’ani al-Athar of Imam al-Tahawi.

[1]  Narrated by Bukhārī, Muslim, Ahmad and others. The narration translated is from Bukhārī.

[2]  Many ardent proponents of sectarianism will argue passionately that these matters are of key importance to the belief of every Muslim. This flies in the face of the fact that if these matters were so essential to a person’s islām, they would have been explicated very clearly in one of the undisputable scriptural sources of dīn and on the tongue of the Messenger of Allāh ﷺ.

[3]  Kalām being the medium of the study of advanced ʿAqīdah in most Sunnī madāris

[4]  al-ʿAlaq 96:5

[5]  This responsibility comes hand in hand with the responsibility of the public to heed their teachings and admonishments.

[6]  Ironically so-named

[7]  One of the unfortunate consequences of the collapse of widespread and endowed patronage of the people of knowledge is that in order to prosecute their mandates, many scholars have become part time politicians in order to fund their projects, keep masjid boards at bay, make a living or even find a platform to be heard. Although it is part of the prophetic mandate for the ʿUlamāʾ to maintain a well-cultivated relationship with the public, there is an inherent tension between being a visionary representative of the Ḥaqq as transmitted through revelation and recruiting the resources from laypeople who view such support not as a sacred duty, but as transactional. Unfortunately, due to this conundrum, some scholars have turned to demagoguery and the trappings of cults in order to extract optimal support from their followers, while maintaining a level of control that mitigates the transactionality of that support; the problem here is that in solving one problem, a bigger one is created: the training of zombie-like masses who can no longer critically engage Islām, rather only parrot what their leader says. Such a model is not the one left to us by the Messenger of Allāh.

[8]  Imām here meaning an acknowledged authority in a field of learning amongst the sciences of revelation, as opposed to an imm in a local mosque.

[9]  An Arabic word for guardian and friend, it is the term most commonly used to denote sainthood amongst Muslims when used in the context of piety.

[10]  As long as such a misguidance doesn’t rationally necessitate negating Islām outright.

[11]  Herein lies a sign pointing to the prophetic methodology of teaching faḍāʾil or what the virtues of things are. Faḍāʾil as a branch of knowledge sometimes suffer the stigma of being less important than the rulings to which they point. However, inasmuch as they are necessary to engender the requisite respect in the hearts and minds of those who are morally obliged to follow those rulings, they may come to play a role which is much more important that many first think. Abandoning their mention is a departure from prophetic pedagogical methodology.

[12]  The mind being the spiritual seat of cognition, and the locus of correct ʿAqīdah.

[13]  The heart being a spiritual organ from where intentions originate, the rectification of which is the subject of Taṣawwuf.

[14]  For instance having memorized the entirety of the Qurʾān isn’t an integral component of faith in any individual, but it is a farḍ kifāyah on communities to maintain and produce those who carry and transmit the divine text.

[15]  As made up of an aggregate of small units which are analyzed and interpreted in isolation of others.

[16]  The differences in uṣūl amongst the madhāhib being the reason we have different madhabs.

[17]  Literally, the Greatest Fiqh

[18]  There are a number of popular figures who have raised great amounts of money and garnered large followings from demographically Sunnī populations, despite their utter disdain for the actual Sunnī creed in private. This is because their heterodoxy, if clearly labeled as such, would not find much support at all. Interestingly, a hallmark of Sunnism has always been isnād or an open declaration of one’s sources of knowledge, giving us the benefit of transparency as opposed to deception.

[19]  Neo-salafists being those who claim that they can bypass tradition in order to hearken back to the pristine Islām of the early generations. This is opposed to Sunnism which always held tradition as a great ark in which to preserve that same tradition and dispense it to the generations.

[20]  All those who use the Dīn to air unjustified economic grievances, and all those who believe in their hearts that some kind of redistribution of wealth will solve the problems that only a rectified heart can solve.

[21]  One of the hallmarks of modernist thinking is that the “newness” of a thing is directly connected to some sort of value it possesses. From a physical science point of view, we know that since the dawn of creation, there is nothing physically new, as matter and energy are neither created, nor destroyed. If that is the case for physical things, then what about the abstract and intangible universe of ideas? Furthermore, in the realm of ideas, something which was true yesterday is true today, and vice-versa, what relevance should “newness” have to ideas for an uṣūlī thinker in the abstract realm? In the dissemination of ideas, which is more of a political matter, these things are important, but in the world in which intellectuals transact, they rapidly lose currency amongst serious thinkers.

[22]  Like physicists and chemists

[23] Like Sociologists, Anthropologists, and the like.

[24]  A noteworthy exception to the idea that all or most antagonists to the Kalām tradition are untrained in the classical Arabic sources are those who currently hold a position attributed to many of the salaf, namely that kalām is unsubstantiated speculation regarding revelation and the very nature of Allāh, thus a sin worse than theft and fornication, which is most widely ascribed to the Imām Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal, may Allāh sanctify his heart, and those who follow his school. Without casting any aggression toward this opinion which holds some merit, especially for the context in which it was first held, it goes without saying that such an approach will struggle to offer any help to a university student dealing with the ideological hailstorm on campus. Even then, a negation of kalām as scholastic theology is far from a negation of the importance of ʿAqīdah. The majority of Muslim scholarship, at any rate, didn’t see kalām in the post-salaf context as an abomination; I feel that radiant lamp of truth preserved in the kalām tradition would be unfairly thrown into the garbage heap of history by many at a time of darkness when the ummah acutely needs its light.

[25]  Truth

[26]  الكفر ملّة واحدة

[27] Which, ironically, has yet to be empirically proven; who has an imaginary friend now?

[28]  It is interesting that in attempting to explore this question, cotigo ergo sum is considered to be a treasure of Farangī philosophy: in our tradition, one doesn’t even begin the long journey of understanding reality, without paying the toll tax of fanā. Indeed, when reading the works of kalām, one quickly realizes that the more intellectually taxing exercise isn’t the refutation of kufr, rather that of refuting heterodox groups which operate under the umbrella of Islāmic identity, like the Muʿtazilah, Khawārij, and the Rawāfiḍ, who dared not challenge God head on, but strayed by overlaying their own sophistry over revelation. Thus, the more skilled refutations are not those of kufr, but of the spurious interpolations of the nafs, which gave rise to heterodoxy in Islām, which is expressed in the refutation of such groups. Thus, one can restate a reality mentioned above through its opposite: the journey to kufr can only begin in earnest by the complete affirmation of nafs, Allāh forgive and protect us all, and give all of us a good end.

[29]  Not all spiritual achievements are virtuous. Some are evil, and many others are morally neutral.

[30]  The Hindu concept of the illusory conception that each individual has of the world around him. To others it is an illusion, but to the individual in question, it is real; thus there is no such thing as a reality anchored at any absolute truth, rather an array of quasi-truths, which may be completely true, but only to the individual who holds them as such.

[31]  This seems to be the direction in which the enfranchised elites of both the Muslim world and the world in general are both headed, if they haven’t already taken up residence decades ago.

[32]  Tirmidhī: بَابُ مَا جَاءَ فِي الَّذِي يُفَسِّرُ القُرْآنَ بِرَأْيِه

[33]  Being represented in the Salaf by the concept of Tafwīḍ, or vouchsafing the knowledge of that which is unclear to Allāh, rather than anthropomorphism.

[34]  المعيار المعرب, المجلّد الثاني

 

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Yusuf Smith

    April 2, 2018 at 1:44 PM

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    One should note that this divide within Judaism started from the United States, and has now pervaded the Jewish world, and likewise, if such a chasm formally opened up in the United States, it would be a matter of import for the entire ummah

    This hugely overstates the importance of the American Muslim community to the Muslim community worldwide. The USA was one of the major centres for emigration of Jews from eastern Europe during the Tsarist persecutions of the 19th and early 20th centuries; the UK was another. The world Jewish community was previously mostly found in eastern Europe and the Arab world (mainly north Africa and Iraq); today it is mainly found in the English-speaking world and Israel.

    In addition, the community was prone to schisms before the mass emigrations started. There was already a move towards secularism and humanism, called the Haskalah or “enlightenment”, as well as a schism between mystics (Hasidim) and legalists based in Poland and Lithuania respectively. This might be compared to the Brelvis and Deobandis in India, although the Hasidim are actually far more legalistic than the Brelvis are (I was making a rough equivalence).

    The USA’s Muslim population accounts for nothing like the same proportion of the world’s Muslim community as the USA’s Jewish population and the scholars in the USA are held in nothing like the same regard so they have much less potential to provoke a major schism. The greatest scholars are still in the lands they always were: India, Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Yemen and American Muslim communities still look to those places and send their aspiring scholars to universities and colleges in those places: Al-Azhar, the Qayrawiyeen, Dar al-Mustafa, Deoband and its offshoots, Madinah university.

    The Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) also told us where the major schisms would arise: the Najd, and the East generally. Nearly all the major schismatic groups emerged either there, or among tribes originating there. The West (i.e. Africa) was always a land where the Muslims clung to mainstream Sunni Islam, even though parts of Egypt and Tunisia were dominated by Shi’ites for a time, and much the same is true of the native Muslims of eastern Europe. The Muslims living in the Christian West are subject to the same schisms as the lands they came from; there is no suggestion that a major fitna originating in this part of the world might affect the whole Ummah.

    It’s worth noting that the major schism among the Indo-Pak community here in the UK is still the Deobandi/Brelvi schism and that originated in India; the “inquisition” fitna that tore apart the American and British “salafi” communities in the 1990s started in Saudi Arabia, not in Brixton or Philadelphia.

    • Avatar

      Hasan

      April 3, 2018 at 5:12 AM

      Great analysis by the shaykh. I would argue that American Muslims though few in number seem to have a lot of influence. In the UK the American Shaykhs get a huge following in comparison to the local scholars. At a recent conference by MEND all the speakers were Americans except Abu Eesa (but he hangs with Americans so can’t really count him as being totally British).

      This is not just limited to UK but NAK recently did a tour of Europe where he managed to pull in huge crowds and he is very popular across the world.

      Shaykh Hamza at a recent visit visit said something very interesting. Usually some ideas start in America then after a few years hit the UK and then a few years later they go to the Muslim lands.

      So there is no doubt that American Muslims do have influence despite their small numbers. It’s just that my personal experience shows that their influence has been detrimental in most cases. They have given rise to the celebrity speakers and a whole host of fitnas. Still there is hope with people like Shaykh Hamza Maqbul and others.

      With love from England

  2. Avatar

    Sarah

    April 3, 2018 at 10:15 AM

    An article which talks about being anti sectarian while disparaging “the Rafidha” and acting like Sunni scholars are not complicit in sectarianism in the Subcontinent in particular? Must be MuslimMatters! Just like the good old days again with Salafis talking about “the Rafidha” as an excuse to commit takfeer, except I guess now Salafism is out because people actually read Ibn Abd Al Wahhab and now romanticized Sunnism is in.

    Anyways – have fun with this, y’all. Kalam and usul texts are really interesting to study if you don’t take the authors as Divinely Protected and you read them alongside fatwa texts to keep yourself a bit grounded in the reality that usul didn’t guide everything, but hey, who am I but a Speck of Dust on the eternal light of the men gone by when I point out that usul sure as hell didn’t save luminaries like al Ghazali from putting words of misogyny and racism in the Prophet’s mouth via the use of weak ahadith. I’m sure that venerating texts that venerate hierarchies between the believers is going to make us all just swell and dandy and non sectarian – it’s not like any scholars studied these texts and came out far more skeptical than when they came in, but again, what am I but a pixelated set of code on the path of the True Scholars who sniff at the sight of my comment.

  3. Avatar

    S N Smith

    April 16, 2018 at 7:36 AM

    I have been saying the same thing for years

  4. Avatar

    Spirituality

    May 6, 2018 at 8:06 AM

    As Salamu Alaikum,

    Please read FN #24 of this article…I wish it was highlighted up front, as a disclaimer. Its an absolutely critical point to this entire discussion and should not have been buried as a footnote.

    “A noteworthy exception to the idea that all or most antagonists to the Kalām tradition are untrained in the classical Arabic sources are those who currently hold a position attributed to many of the salaf, namely that kalām is unsubstantiated speculation regarding revelation and the very nature of Allāh, thus a sin worse than theft and fornication, which is most widely ascribed to the Imām Aḥmad bin Ḥanbal, may Allāh sanctify his heart, and those who follow his school. Without casting any aggression toward this opinion which holds some merit, especially for the context in which it was first held, it goes without saying that such an approach will struggle to offer any help to a university student dealing with the ideological hailstorm on campus. Even then, a negation of kalām as scholastic theology is far from a negation of the importance of ʿAqīdah. The majority of Muslim scholarship, at any rate, didn’t see kalām in the post-salaf context as an abomination; I feel that radiant lamp of truth preserved in the kalām tradition would be unfairly thrown into the garbage heap of history by many at a time of darkness when the ummah acutely needs its light.”

  5. Avatar

    SM

    May 6, 2018 at 8:49 AM

    I read a lot, but the language and complexity of this article was beyond me. If aqeedah is the foundation of religious study then there should be a way of talking about it that is easy to grasp for regular people.

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More Baby, Less Shark: Planning For Kids In The Masjid

Zeba Khan

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Of all the challenges that your focus can face in prayer, there are few as insidious as Baby Shark.

Doo-doo-doo doo. Baby Shark, doo doo doo doo. Baby Shark.

If you are not a parent, or have the type of amnesia that parents sometimes develop once their kids grow up, then you might assume that not having kids in the masjid is actually a solution to Baby-Shark induced distraction.

The inconvenient (and often sticky) truth is that not having kids in the masjid is a serious problem, not a solution. No kids in the masjid means an entire generation of the Muslim community growing up outside of the Muslim community.

Restricting the presence of children and assigning masjid priority to fully-formed, quietly attentive, and spiritually disciplined attendees – like adults – is a bit like restricting health club membership to triathletes. You’re already fit. So can we please let someone else use the treadmill, even if they’re not using it as well as you could?

The masjid is the center of the community for all Muslims, not a sanctuary for the preservation of reverent silence.  For a more detailed discussion on this, please see this great Soundvision article, Children in the Masjid, Making Space for Our Future.

For suggestions on how to help your children enjoy the masjid without Baby-Sharking the rest of the congregation to tears, I present the following recommendations.

Come Prepared

Rather than assume your child will be entertained by nothing but the carpet and how many weird faces they can spot in the bilaterally symmetrical patterns, bring them something to play with. One way to do this is to prepare your child a special bag for the masjid.

Stock it with as many things applicable:

  • A reusable water bottle: Select a bottle that your child can drink from on their own, preferably not likely to tip or spill onto the masjid carpet. No one appreciates a soggy sujood
  • A nut-free snack: If you think it’s too much trouble to be considerate of people with life-threatening allergies, consider how much trouble it is to bury a child who dies of anaphylaxis. Children share snacks in the masjid, and that’s ok as long as no one dies.
  • A small, quiet toy: The dollar store can be tremendously helpful in keeping your inventory fresh and financially feasible. Please be aware of swallowing hazards, since your child is likely to share the toy with others. One hopes.
  • A sweater or blanket: Sitting for long periods of time in an air-conditioned building can make anyone cold.
  • Art Supplies: Pack crayons, pencils, or markers IF you feel your child can refrain from drawing on the walls, or allowing other, smaller children from doing so. Magic Erasers don’t work on the prayer rug.

Reverie in Blue – Artist Unknown

Critically- and I do mean critically- don’t let your children access the special masjid bag unless they are in the masjid. The last thing you want is for your child to be bored with its contents before they even make it to prayers. Storing this bag somewhere inaccessible to your child can help keep its contents fresh and interesting longer.

Non-parent tip: Keep allergen-free lollipops in your pocket. Reward the kids sitting nicely (with parents’ permission) and you have killed two birds with one stone.

  1. You’ve  helped a child establish a happy memory and relationship to the masjid.
  2. Kids with lollipops in their mouths make less noise.

Do not pack:

Balls: Not even small ones, not even for small children. Your child may not have the gross-motor skills to kick or throw a ball at people who are praying, but there will always be children in the masjid who do. They will take your child’s ball, and they will play ball with it, because that’s what balls are for. Consider also the potential damage to light fixtures, ceiling fans, audio/video equipment, and the goodwill of people who get hit, run down, or kicked in the shins. The masjid is just not the place to play ball, even if the floor is green and has lines on it.

Not every green thing with lines is a soccer field.

Scooters: Do not bring scooters, skateboards, heelies, or other mobility toys that would turn your child a faster-moving object than they already are. Your child’s long-term relationship with the community can be fostered by not crashing into it.

Slime: Slime and carpets do, in fact, go together. They go together so well as to be inextricable of one-another. Please, do not bring slime to the masjid.

Gum: Please, for the love of everyone’s socks, no gum.

Toy Guns, Play-weapons: It should go without saying. And yet, I have seen nerf guns, foam swords, and toy guns in masjid. Apart from the basic indoor etiquette of not sword-fighting, nor launching projectiles in a house of worship, please be sensitive. No one wants to see guns in their masjid.

Non-parent tip: If children playing near you are making “too much noise” smile and find another place to sit if possible. It is not always possible to ignore or move away from disruptions, but glaring, eye-rolling, and making tsk-tsk sounds is not likely to effect long-term change in either the child’s behavior or the parents’ strategic abilities. At best, you will embarrass the parents. At worst, you will push families away from the faith and the community while confirming the opinion that masjids are full of cranky, impatient people who wish kids didn’t exist in the masjid while criticizing Muslim youth for not being there. 

Avoid Electronics. But if you can’t…

I am prefacing this suggestion with a disclaimer. Habitually putting your child on a smartphone or tablet so that you can “enjoy” the masjid without the “hassle” of you making sure they behave properly is not good parenting. A child being physically present but mentally absent in the masjid is not a long-term strategy that any parent should get behind.

Having said that, if you do give your kids a tablet or phone in the masjid, please disable Youtube and bring over-ear headphones.

Do not rely on YouTube Kids to take responsibility for your child’s content choices either. Long after Baby Shark has sunk to the depths of the internet, there will always be loud, inappropriate, or just plainly distracting and disturbing things that your child can access on it.

Instead of relying on Youtube at all, install child-friendly apps that you know won’t have external links embedded in their ads, and won’t lead to inadvertent, inappropriate viewing in case your child – or my child sitting next to them – click out of their app and into the great wide world. I highly recommend anything from the Toca Boca suite of apps.

Parents at Taraweeh – Making it Work

Non-parent tip: If you see a child on a tablet, do not lecture their parent. As a special needs parent, there are times when I too allow my autistic son onto a tablet to prevent a meltdown or try to get just 15 more minutes out of him so I can finish attending a class. Do not automatically assume laziness or incompetence on behalf of parents whose children you see on an electronic device. 

Reward for Success, in this life and the next

You show up in the masjid because you hope for a reward from Allah. As an adult, you have the ability to delay the gratification of this reward until well after you die. Your kids, however, don’t.

Motivate your kids with small rewards for small accomplishments as you remind them of the reward that Allah has for them too. You can choose to reward a child after every two rakah, or after every two days. How often you reward them, and what you choose to reward them for depends on their age and their capabilities.

Make dua for your kids when you reward them. If they get a small handful of gummy bears after a good evening at the masjid, pair it with a reminder of the bigger reward too.

“Here the icecream I promised you for doing awesome in the masjid today. May Allah grant you mountains of icecream in Jannah so big you can ski down them. Ameen.”

Non-parent tip: It’s not your job to discipline the children of others, but you can help praise them. Randomly compliment kids who are sitting nicely, sharing toys, playing quietly, or wearing cute headgear. Their parents will likely not mind.

Reinforce the rules – but define them first.

“Be Good In the Masjid” is a vastly different instruction depending on who you’re instructing. For a teenager, praying with the congregation is reasonable. For a two-year-old, not climbing the congregation is reasonable.

Define your rules and frame them in a positive context that your children can remember. Remind them of what they’re supposed to be doing rather than calling them out for what they are not. For example, no running in the masjid vs. please walk in the masjid.

Avoid saying this:

Try saying this instead:

Stay out of my purse Please use the toys in your bag
Don’t draw on the walls Crayons only on the paper
No yelling Please use your “inside” voice
No food on the carpet Please have your snack in the hallway
Don’t run off Stay where I can see you, which is from [here] to [here.]
No peeing the carpet We’re taking a potty break now, and we’ll go again after the 4th rakah’.
No hitting Hands nicely to yourself.

While it might look like semantics, putting your energy into “To-Do’s” versus the “To-Don’ts” has long-term benefits. If your child is going to hear the same thing from you a hundred times before they get it right, you can help them by telling them what the right thing is. Think of the difference between the To-Do statement “Please use a tissue,” versus the To-Don’t statement of “Don’t pick your nose.” You can tell you kid a hundred times not to pick his or her nose, but if you never tell them to use a tissue, you’re missing the opportunity to replace bad behavior with its functional alternative.

Plan for Failure

Kids don’t walk the first time they try. They won’t sit nicely the first time you ask them to either. Decide what your exact plan is in case you have to retreat & regroup for another day.

  • How much noise is too much? Do your kids know what you expect of them?
  • Where are the physical boundaries you want your kids to remain in? Do they know what those boundaries are?
  • For kids too small to recognize boundaries, how far are you ok with a little one toddling before you decide that the potential danger may not be worth it?
  • Talk to your spouse or other children and get everyone on board. Being on the same page can look like different things according to different age groups. A plan of action can be “If we lose Junior Ibn Abu, we’re taking turns in prayer,” or “If you kick the Imam again, we’re all going home.”
  • If your child is too small, too rowdy, or too grumpy to sit quietly at the masjid, please take turns with your spouse. The masjid is a sweet spiritual experience that both parents should be able to enjoy, even if that means taking turns.

Don’t Give up

If you find yourself frustrated with being unable to enjoy the masjid the way you did before your child starting sucking on prayer rugs, remember this:

Raising your children with love and patience is an act of worship, even if it’s not the act of worship you thought you were coming to the masjid for. No matter what your expectations are of them – or how far they are from meeting them – the ultimate goal is for your child to love Allah and love the House of Allah.

When they get things right, praise them and reward them, and remind them that Allah’s reward is coming too. When they get it wrong, remind them and forgive them, and don’t give up. The only way children learn to walk is by falling down over, and over, and over again.

Avoiding the masjid because your kids don’t behave correctly is like not allowing them to walk because they keep falling down. The key is to hold their hand until they get it right, and maintain close supervision until you can trust them to manage on their own, InshaAllah.

May Allah make it easy for you and bless your children with love for the masjid in this life and love for Allah that will guide them through the next. Aaaaaaaameeeeeeeeen

Children @ Taraweeh: Storm in a Teacup

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Etiquettes of Praying For Your Brother And Sister | Imam Omar Suleiman

Level up your duas by including those who least expect to be in your most private moments and get angels to say Ameen

Imam Omar Suleiman

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It’s very common to find in the stories of the pious predecessors those who kept lists of people they prayed for on a nightly basis. This was a testimony to their sincerity, selflessness, and sacrifice. The basis of the act comes from a famous hadith:

وعنه أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم كان يقول‏:‏ ‏ “‏دعوة المرء المسلم لأخيه بظهر الغيب مستجابة، عند رأسه ملك موكل كلما دعا لأخيه بخير قال الملك الموكل به‏:‏ آمين، ولك بمثل‏”‏ ‏(‏‏(‏رواه مسلم‏)‏‏)‏‏.‏

“The supplication of a believer for his brother in his absence will certainly be answered. Every time he makes a supplication for good for his brother, the angel appointed for this particular task says Ameen! May it be for you too’.” [Sahih Muslim].

Since the supplication of the fasting person is accepted, this is the best time to do it. But it’s also important to be intentional about how you pray for someone. Any prayer for your brother or sister is accepted if sincere, but it becomes even more blessed when made personal and customized. Under normal circumstances, It’s also best to keep your personal prayers to yourself and without the knowledge of the person you’re praying for. Sometimes it’s ok to tell someone you’re praying for them for the sake of solidarity. But the general rule is that it’s best to conceal it even from them for the sake of sincerity. Also, make sure to include in your prayers people who would never expect you to pray for them.

Then as you start to make dua for someone, think about how you can diversify the supplications and people you make dua for so that you are 1. Touching numerous lives 2. Covering different issues and ailments 3. Guaranteeing that the return on your prayers is also comprehensive.

So, in particular, think of a person in each of the following categories and make dua for them daily:

  1. A person who has good qualities but hasn’t been guided to good faith. Make dua for guidance for that person so that perhaps Allah grants you further guidance.
  2. A person who is involved in good work, that Allah accepts from them and keeps them sincere so that perhaps Allah uses you for His cause and keeps you sincere.
  3. A person who is committing a public sin. Make dua that Allah forgives that person. Imagine if the dua is accepted for a major public sin, then the angels will say Ameen for you also and perhaps Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will forgive you for both your public and private sins.
  4. A person who is ill, that Allah grants him or her full health so that perhaps Allah will either heal you if you are sick or preserve your health for you if you are healthy.
  5. A person who is struggling financially or suffering a worldly hardship, ask Allah to help that person so that perhaps Allah will help you in that same situation.
  6. A person who has a particular blessing that you wish for, that Allah maintains that blessing upon that person without making it a means of taking him or her away from goodness in the hereafter so that perhaps Allah will grant it for you or maintain your blessings upon you without making them a means of harm for you.

This is how you bring together the Prophetic tradition of praying for your brother/sister, and the other tradition about not truly believing until you love for your sister or brother what you love for yourself.

May Allah accept your Ramadan and Laylatul Qadr, as well as all of your good deeds. And may He forgive you for your sins, and distance you from all that distances you from Him. Ameen

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Lesson 12 From Surah Al-Kahf

Tafsir of Verses 83-98

Shaykh Furhan Zubairi

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Alhamdulillah last session we were able to explore the meanings of verses 71-82. InshAllah tonight we’ll cover the meanings and lessons of verses 83-98. Just as a quick reminder the last passage of the Surah dealt with a very unique and interesting episode from the life of Musa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him); the story of his encounter and journey with a man of God known as Khidr or Khadir. There are a number of very beneficial and practical lessons that we can learn from this particular story. That’s why it’s important for us to recite it, reflect over it and try to relate it to our daily lives.

In this next set of verses, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) tells us the story of Dhul Qarnain, a just and righteous king who ruled over the entire known world of his time. He was a righteous servant of Allah to whom Allah granted might, power and sovereignty over the world along with knowledge and wisdom. He was a special servant of God. We’re told about his journeys to the east, west, and north as well as his building of a huge wall to prevent Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj from escaping. This narrative is the answer to the third question that the Quraysh asked the Prophet ﷺ after consulting with the Jews of Madinah. If you remember at the beginning of the Surah we talked about the sabab al-nuzūl or the circumstances and background in which the Surah was revealed.

Ibn ‘Abbas raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated that the Quraysh sent two men, Al-Nadr ibn Al-Hartih and ‘Uqbah ibn abi Mu’ayt, to the Jewish scholars of Madinah. The Quraysh told these two men to ask the Jews about Muhammad (saw), his characteristics and to inform them about some of his teachings because they knew more about Prophets since they were people of the book. So they arrived in Madinah and told the Rabbis about Muhammad (saw), about his characteristics, his message and his teachings. They said ask him three questions; if he answers them correctly then he is a prophet and a messenger. If he doesn’t answer them then he is a fake.

  • سلوه عن ثلاث، فإن أخبركم بهن فهو نبي و إن لم يفعل فالرجل متقول

Ask him about the young men who left their city in the distant past and what happened to them, because this is a unique event. Ask him about the person who traveled the East and the West and what happened to him. Ask him about the spirit and what it is.

So they came back and posed these three questions to the Prophet ﷺ. The Prophet ﷺ told them that he would reply to them the next day expecting Allah ﷻ to send down revelation, but he forgot to say inshAllah. Allah ﷻ didn’t send down any revelation for the next fifteen days (one narration says 3) and the Quraysh began to assume that he didn’t know the answers and that his claims to prophethood were false. After 15 days Allah ﷻ revealed the entire Surah and reminded the Prophet ﷺ to always say InshAllah.

This is the fourth story mentioned in the Surah after the story of the people of the cave, the owner of the two gardens and the story of Musa (as) and Khidr. Allah ﷻ introduces the story by saying,

Verse 83: They ask you about Dhul-Qarnain. Say, “I shall now recite to you an account of him.”

Meaning the Quraysh asked you about Dhul Qarnain after consulting with the Jews of Madinah so tell them you will now recite some of his story to them that will answer their question.

Who was Dhul Qarnain?

The Quran doesn’t tell us the exact identity of Dhul Qarnain, why he was given that name, and what time period he lived in or the exact location of his travels and rule. All these details are extra and unnecessary and immaterial; no aspect of our belief or action depends on knowing these details. However, the commentators do get into discussions regarding these details in an attempt to present historical facts. So we’ll go through a brief discussion about who he was and his time period.

Some historical narratives mention that there were four people who ruled over the entire known world of their respective times, 2 believers and 2 non-believers. Throughout history, there have been a few people who were given the name Dhul Qarnain and interestingly they all had the title Alexander as well. Some people held the opinion that the Dhul Qarnain mentioned in the Quran is the famous Alexander the Great, the Greek who had Aristotle as his teacher. Although he fits the description of having ruled the East and the West he can’t be the Dhul Qarnain mentioned in the Quran because he was a non-believer. This is the conclusion of ibn Kathīr.

According to ibn Kathīr, Dhul Qarnain lived during the time period of Ibrahim (as) and he also mentions that Khidr was his minister. Other researchers are of the opinion that the Dhul Qarnain mentioned in the Quran is the ancient Persian king Cyrus the Great. In modern times this theory has been given more weight because of supporting evidence. As for the name Dhul Qarnain, it literally means “the person with two horns”. The name is due to his having reached the two ‘Horns’ of the Sun, east and west, where it rises and where it sets” during his journey. The following is what the Quran tells us about him.

Verse 84: Surely, We gave him power on earth and gave him means to (have) everything (he needs).

Meaning, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gave him all the material instruments and resources, knowledge, insight, and experience needed to be an effective ruler. Allah gave him everything he needed to maintain just rule, establish peace and extend his area of influence.

Verse 85-86: So he followed a course until when he reached the point of sunset, he found it setting into a murky spring, and found a people near it. We said, “O Dhul-Qarnain, either punish them or treat them well.”

He traveled towards the West until he reached where the sun sets, to the extreme west beyond which there was only an Ocean, which was most likely the Atlantic. There he found the sun setting into dark, muddy spring, meaning that it looked as if the sun were setting into the Sea. Depending on our own geographic location the sun seems to set into different places within the horizon. For example, from our perspective sometimes it looks like the sun is setting into the ocean, or behind a mountain or into the sand.

At this location, there was also a nation of disbelievers. So Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) told him through Ilham (inspiration) that he has a choice. He can either punish them for their disbelief or he could deal with them kindly, invite them to the truth and teach them. Then reward those who believe and punish those who choose to disbelieve. He chose to invite them to belief first and then reward the believers and punish the non-believers.

Verse 87-88: He said, “As for him who does wrong, we shall punish him, then he will be sent back to his Lord, and He will punish him with severe punishment. As for the one who believes and acts righteously, he will have the best (life) as reward, and we shall speak to him politely in our directions.”

This is an expression of his justice; Dhul Qarnain was a just ruler who ruled according to the dictates of faith, belief, and righteousness. Those who were presented with the truth, Islam, and then chose to consciously reject it would be punished in this world and then Allah will punish them in the next. And as for those who accept Islam, who affirm faith in Allah, His prophets and the last day and do righteous deeds will be rewarded. When those who do well in the community, pursuing a fair line of action in all their pursuits, receive a good reward for their actions, and when the unjust and oppressors receive a fair punishment and humiliation, then the whole community is motivated to follow the line of goodness. But when matters go wrong, and the unjust, oppressor and corrupt people are the ones who enjoy favor with the ruler, while those who are good and fair are persecuted, then the ruler’s power becomes no more than a tool of corruption and misery for the whole community. Nothing remains fair. The whole society sinks into chaos. He established peace and justice and this location and then decided to travel towards the East.

Verse 89-90: Thereafter, he followed a course until when he reached the point of sunrise; he found it rising over a people for whom We did not make any shelter against it.

Then he travelled towards the East and there he found a group of people who were not used to the ways of advanced people. They didn’t have homes or shelter or clothes to protect against the sun. These people were also non-believers so he dealt with them in the same way as he dealt with the previous people. He employed the same policy of fairness and justice and building a society on faith.

Verse 91: Thus it was, and Our knowledge fully comprehends whatever (wealth and equipment) he had with him.

Ibn Kathīr writes that the early commentators Mujahid and As-Suddi said, “This means that Allah knew everything about him and his army, and nothing was hidden from Him, even though they came from so many different nations and lands. For, ﴿لاَ يَخْفَى عَلَيْهِ شَىْءٌ فِي الاٌّرْضِ وَلاَ فِى السَّمَآءِ﴾ truly nothing is hidden from Allah in the Earth and in the heaven. After establishing justice and peace he decided to move north.

Verse 92-93: Thereafter he followed a course until he reached between the two mountains, he found by them a people who were almost unable to understand anything said.

Then he traveled towards the North until he reached a point between two mountains. There he found a nation of people who were barely able to understand what he was saying because of their foreign language. They said to him through a translator or through some other means.

Verse 94: They said, “O Dhul-Qarnain, the (tribes of) Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj (Gog and Magog) are mischief-makers on the earth. So, should we assign a payment for you on condition that you make a barrier between us and them?”

These people recognized that Dhul Qarnain was a fair and just ruler so they asked him for help against the menace of Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj. Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj is the name of a tribe of people. There’s a lot of speculation regarding who exactly they are and what area or region they’re from, but nothing can be said with certainty. They complained to Dhul Qarnain saying that they spread mischief and corruption in our lands by killing and destruction. If we pay you some money will you build a barrier between them and us to prevent them from reaching our town?

Verse 95: He said, “What my Lord has (already) given in my control is better (for me than the payment you are offering to me), so help me (only) with strength, and I shall make a barrier between you and them.

Basically, he told them that he doesn’t need their money, but he will need their help. Meaning, Allah ﷻ had given him such great wealth and power that he had no need of what they could offer him. He would provide this service simply for the sake of righteousness and doing good.

Verse 96: Bring me big pieces of iron.” (They proceeded accordingly) until when he leveled (the gap) between the two cliffs, he said, “Blow.” (They complied) until when he made it (like) fire, he said, “Bring me molten copper, and I will pour it upon this.”

So they brought pieces of iron and filled the space between the two mountains with it. Then they made this iron really hot and poured molten copper over it making a huge metal structure.

Verse 97: So they (Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj) were not able to climb it, nor were they able to make a hole in it.

They weren’t able to climb it because of its height nor were they able to make a hole in it because of its depth and strength. After building this giant barrier Dhul Qarnain said,

Verse 98: He said, “This is a mercy from my Lord. Then, when the promise of my Lord will come, He will make it leveled to the ground. The promise of my Lord is true.”

Meaning his ability to build such a strong and impenetrable barrier was a mercy from Allah ﷻ; it had nothing to do with his own strength or ability. The “promise of my Lord” is referring to the onset of the events that will lead to the Hour; the Day of Judgment. This includes the trials of Dajjāl and the return of ‘Isa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). One of these events will be that the barrier will crumble to dust and Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj will wreak havoc across the Earth. And once their barrier is opened and they’re let loose they will descend from every elevation, attacking humanity from every single corner and angle. They will come rushing down the mountains in huge groups like waves crashing down upon the people while destroying and killing everything in sight.

There are many sings of the Day of Judgment mentioned in the Quran and Ahādīth of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Some of them are minor and some of them are major. Some of them will happen further away from the Day of Judgment and others will happen very close to the Day of Judgment. For example, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) being appointed the last and final Messenger is one of the signs that the Day of Judgment is near. As the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) told us, “I and the Last Hour have been sent like this and (he while doing it) joined the forefinger with the middle finger.”

  • عَنْ أَنَسٍ، قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم ‏ “‏ بُعِثْتُ أَنَا وَالسَّاعَةُ كَهَاتَيْنِ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ قَالَ وَضَمَّ السَّبَّابَةَ وَالْوُسْطَى ‏.

Hudhaifah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated that once the Companions were sitting together in the middle of a discussion and the Prophet (saw) came and asked what they were talking about. They said they were talking about the Day of Resurrection. The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Indeed the Hour will not come until you see 10 signs before it.” He mentioned the smoke, Dajjal, the beast, the rising of the sun from the west, the return of ‘Isa ibn Maryam (as), Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj and three land-slides (sink holes); one in the East, one in the West and one in the Arabian Peninsula, at the end of which fire would burn forth from Yemen, and would drive people to the place of their assembly.”

Two of the greatest trials, greatest fitnahs, this Ummah will face before the Day of Resurrection is the fitnah of Dajjal and the attack of Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj. Both of these are major signs of the Day of Judgment and will happen very close to each other. There’s a very lengthy hadīth recorded in Sahīh Muslim narrated by Al-Nawwās ibn Sam‘ān raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) that gives the details of these two specific trials, meaning the trial of Dajjal and Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj. Basically, the narration tells us about the details of the fitnah of Dajjal; his description, how long he will stay and how exactly he’s going to test us. He will stay in this world for a period of forty days; but the first day will be equivalent to one year, the second day to one month and the rest of the days will be normal. He will move extremely swiftly across the Earth spreading his mischief and asking people to believe in him. He will continue to misguide and test people until ‘Isa (as) is sent back to this world. ‘Isa (as) will search for him until he catches up with him at the eastern gate of Ludd, located in Palestine, where he will kill him.

Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will then reveal to him, “I have brought forth from amongst My creatures people against whom none will be able to fight. Take My servants safely to mount (Tūr).” Then Allah will send Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj, as Allah says: “And they, from every elevation, will descend.”

Another narration from Abu Sa’eed Al-Khudri raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) describes what they will do when they descend upon the people. They will be seen coming down from the mountains like waves of people overwhelming humanity, killing and destroying everything in sight. ‘Isa (as) along with his companions will take refuge on Mount Tūr and the other Muslims will retreat to their own cities and strongholds. They (Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj) will drink all the water of the land until some of them will pass a river and drink it dry, then those who come after them will pass by that place and will say, “There used to be water here once.” Then there will be no one left except those who are in their strongholds and cities. Then one of them will say, “We have defeated the people of the earth; now the people of heaven are left.” One of them will shake his spear and hurl it into the sky, and it will come back stained with blood, as a test and a trial for them.

The narration of Al-Nawwās tells us that while this is happening, ‘Isa (as) and his companions will turn to Allah asking him to remove their distress. Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will answer their prayer and send an epidemic that will completely wipe Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj out. Allah will send some sort of insect that will attack their necks, and in the morning they will all perish as one. Then `Isa and his companions will come down and they will not find a single spot on earth that is free from their putrefaction and stench. Then `Isa and his companions will again beseech Allah, and He will send birds with necks like those of Bactrian camels, and they will carry them and throw them wherever Allah wills. Then Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) will send rain continuously for forty days to cleanse and purify the earth. The earth will be washed clean until it looks like a mirror. Then it will be said to the earth: bring forth your fruit and restore your blessing. On that day a group of people will be able to eat from one pomegranate and seek shade under its skin, and everything will be blessed. A camel will give so much milk that it will be sufficient for a whole group of people, and a cow will give so much milk that it will be sufficient for a whole clan, and a sheep will be sufficient for an entire household. (This period of extraordinary peace, protection, and blessings will last for forty years) At that time Allah will send a pleasant wind which will reach beneath their armpits and will take the soul of every Muslim — or every believer — and there will be left only the most evil of people who will commit fornication like mules, and then the Hour will come upon them.”

From other narrations, we learn that Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj have already made a hole in their wall. Zainab bint Jahash raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated that once the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) woke up from sleep saying, “There is no being worthy of worship except Allah; there is a destruction in store for Arabia because of turmoil which is at hand, the barrier of Gog and Magog has opened so much. And Sufyan made a sign of ten with the help of his hand (in order to indicate the width of the gap) and I said: Allah’s Messenger, would we perish in spite of the fact that there would be good people amongst us? Thereupon he said: Of course, but only when the evil predominates.”

  • عَنْ زَيْنَبَ بِنْتِ جَحْشٍ، أَنَّ النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم اسْتَيْقَظَ مِنْ نَوْمِهِ وَهُوَ يَقُولُ ‏”‏ لاَ إِلَهَ إِلاَّ اللَّهُ وَيْلٌ لِلْعَرَبِ مِنْ شَرٍّ قَدِ اقْتَرَبَ فُتِحَ الْيَوْمَ مِنْ رَدْمِ يَأْجُوجَ وَمَأْجُوجَ مِثْلُ هَذِهِ ‏”‏ ‏.‏ وَعَقَدَ سُفْيَانُ بِيَدِهِ عَشَرَةً ‏.‏ قُلْتُ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ أَنَهْلِكُ وَفِينَا الصَّالِحُونَ قَالَ ‏”‏ نَعَمْ إِذَا كَثُرَ الْخَبَثُ ‏”‏ ‏.

In a narration recorded in Tirmidhi Abu Hurairah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (saw) said: Ya’jūj and Ma’jūj continue digging through the wall built by Dhul Qarnain. Every day the dig so much that they reach the farthest part of the iron wall. They’re so close that light from the other side is almost visible. But at that point, they stop digging and decide that they will complete the task the following day. However, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) makes the wall just as thick and strong as it was before so when they come back they have to start all over again. This cycle of digging and re-building will continue as long as Allah wills. Then one day when it has been decreed for them to be released they will dig all the way to the end and say, “If Allah wills we will cross it tomorrow. So when they return the next day they will find the wall just as they left it and break through wreaking havoc on the Earth.

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