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Revisiting Women Only Tarawih

This article was written pre-COVID but is especially relevant this Ramadan

I still remember the first time I heard of a women-only Tarawih congregation. I was about 10 years old and my father had told me that Maulana Syed Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (1914–1999), a prominent Indian Hanafi scholar of the past century, had written a book about his mother (d. 1968) who was a hafidha (memorizer of the Quran) and had mentioned she would lead women in Tarawih. Shaykh Nadwi had written:

“What a beautiful era it was when they (his mother and aunts) all would recite one juz each in Tarawih. They would follow the fatwa of some scholars and have their own congregation in which there would be a woman Imam and women followers. Their Tarawih congregation would go on from after Isha till almost Suhoor time. All of them would recite Qur’an very beautifully with impeccable pronunciation. If it’s not disrespectful I would say that they recited better and more accurately than many of today’s scholars. Their heartfelt passion and natural melody would add even more beauty to this. I recall one time I stood for a long time watching my mother recite as she was leading Tarawih. It felt as if rain was descending from the heavens. I still have not forgotten the beauty of that moment.” (Nadwi, 1974).

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I remember finding this fascinating. The idea of women, women of recent history — and for me as a desi, desi women —  memorizing the Qur’an, and leading each other in long prayers was something I had never heard of or even thought was a thing. This was before I had heard of the concept of girls memorizing the Qur’an, before sisters’ qiyams gained relative popularity in American Muslim practice. The only thing I knew about women-led congregations then was that it was considered disliked according to the Hanafis, but permissible according to others.

Years later, after I memorized the Qur’an and I was studying in madrasa at Pakistan, I learned the concept of women-only Taraweeh prayers was still something alive and practiced. Many of the hafidhas there would also pray together in Tarawih in congregations of two or three. The position of our (Hanafi) madrasa regarding this was that this was permissible if it was done with the intention of reviewing the Quran.

In the past years, there has been a rise in North America in the popularity of sisters’ Tarawih and qiyams. As mentioned, this is not something new in our tradition. It has been done throughout the centuries, and hadiths indicate it was done even in the time of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and the Sahabah. It is something encouraged in some schools of fiqh. However since this is something this is against the classical Hanafi opinion, many people have questions about the validity or the advisability of such for Hanafis. As a woman who follows Hanafi fiqh, should I pray in a congregation of women? Is it okay for me to lead a congregation? What is the benefit of a sisters’ qiyam anyway? We’ll explore these questions in this article.

Hanafi Arguments Regarding Women-Only Congregations

There are many narrations that mention some Sahabiyyat, notably Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her), Umm Salamah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her), and Umm Waraqah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) led women in prayer, both obligatory prayers and voluntary. 

Some of the narrations are below: 

Layla bint Malik and Abdur Rahman bin Khallad Al-Ansari narrate on the authority of Umm Waraqah that after the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) fought in Battle of Badr she said, I said, “Oh Prophet of Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)! Allow me to join you in battle so that I can nurse the sick, and perhaps Allah will grant me martyrdom.” The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Remain at home for Allah will grant you martyrdom.” So she used to be called the martyr. She had recited the Qur’an so she asked the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) if she could appoint a muadhin for her house, so he gave her permission…” In another narration it mentions, “The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) commanded her to lead the members of her household in prayer.”  (Abu Dawud)

Ibrahim narrates on Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) that she used to lead women in prayer in the month of Ramadan, and she used to stand in the middle of the row. (Imam Muhammad ibn Hasan, Kitabul Athar)

Raita Al-Hanafiyya narrates that Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) led them in prayer and stood in the middle of them in a fard prayer. (Musannaf Abdur Razzaq). 

Hujaira narrates that Umm Salama raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) led them in Asr prayer and stood in middle.  (Musannaf Abdur Razzaq). 

Because of these and other similar narrations, the Shafii’s and Hanbalis consider it permissible for women to pray in congregation, even preferred when they are already gathered together or when done with the intention of education. The Malikis do not allow it at all. The Hanafi position on this is a little more nuanced, it is considered valid, but disliked prohibitively (makruh tahreemi). I will use the term disliked in the rest fo the article.

Before we look at the Hanafi argument, it’s important to keep in mind that while it is true that most classical Hanafi scholars were of the opinion that women only congregations (apart from Salatul Janazah which is permissible without dislike) were prohibitively disliked, it is also true that all Hanafi scholars were of the opinion that it is still valid. As Allama Kasani writes in Badai’us Sanai’ when discussing the conditions of being an Imam, “and likewise a woman also is fit for being an Imam, such that if she were to lead a congregation of women-only it would be valid … except that it is disliked according to us and preferred according to Shafi’i.” 

Therefore all Hanafi fiqh books also explain the method of how a women-only congregation will be carried out, namely where the imam will stand. 

The classical Hanafi argument against women-only congregations is as follows: Acts of worship are ta’abbudi, based on ritual, not reason, and therefore we stick to the manner it was done in the time of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and the generation of the Sahabah. Although there are narrations that mention some Sahabiyyat led women in prayer, this was the exception not the norm. If women only congregations were praiseworthy, there would be more recorded instances. Since this was not the regular practice of the Sahabiyyat, it should be avoided. The Hanafi response to the narrations of the Sahabiyyat leading prayer is that it is abrogated or that it was specific to the earlier days of Islam.

There is also a technical argument given by the Hanafis. It is argued that a women-only congregation will always consist of one of two potentially disliked actions of prayer. In women-only congregations, the imam stands in the middle of the first row, not ahead, because this is how it is narrated that Aisha and Umm Salamah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) stood when they led. Hanafis argue that in congregational prayers, it is sunnah for the Imam to stand in front of the congregation; standing in the same row as followers is disliked. Having the imam stand in the middle prevents this prayer from being done in the ideal way. Therefore it is disliked. 

However, if the imam stands ahead, this is also disliked because in standing in front of everyone there is more exposure whereas the sunnah teachings regarding a women’s prayer is that it should be done in a way and place that is as concealing as possible. 

Because of this, the Hanafis argue either way it is done, one of two possible disliked actions will be carried out, and therefore the prayer itself is disliked. This position is present in most classical books of Hanafi fiqh and fatawa from the primers like Kanz ud-Daqaiq and Hidaya to the fatawa compilations like Raddul Muhtar and Hindiyya and is usually considered sufficient for explaining the Hanafi view on this issue. 

But while this is the majority Hanafi position on this issue, there has been some discussion about issues with these arguments even among the classical Hanafi scholars. 

Allama Ibn al-Hummam (d. 1273), the famous commentator of Hidaya discusses this matter in his commentary, Fathul Qadir, where he quotes many hadiths which show that certain Sahabiyyat would lead the prayer. He then mentions that to say these hadiths are abrogated or restricted to the earlier days is difficult to establish because there is no proof for that; all of the hadiths about women leading prayer are from the later Madinan period. One narration, for instance, mentions that Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) used to lead women in Ramadan. Tarawih prayer in congregation was something the Sahaba established regularly only after the death of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). If she used to lead Taraweeh after the death of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), it couldn’t have possibly been abrogated. He then mentions some responses to this but says it still doesn’t establish that this has been abrogated. The only hadith that might indicate that this is abrogated, he says, is the hadith in Abu Dawud and similar hadiths stating that the prayer of a women in the most concealed portion of her house is the best. But this hadith can only be used to establish that women-only congregations are no longer recommended (mustahabb), which is different from being deemed disliked prohibitively. (Fathul Qadir, volume 1, page 307).

Allama Abdul Hayy Lakhnawi, a Hanafi researcher and scholar from the 1800s, in his detailed discussion of this issue in “Tuhfatun Nubala fi Jama’atin Nisa” (Gift for the Noble Regarding the Congregation of Women), compiles many arguments for and against this topic.  After arguing that there is no proof to establish these hadiths have been abrogated, he lists many reasons why the aforementioned technical arguments of the Hanafis against women congregations are not strong. For instance, he argues that saying it is disliked for an imam to stand in the middle of the row is not correct because Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) would not have done so if it was disliked. It is possible that it is disliked for men, not for women. But even for men, it is not disliked in some instances, like when a man is leading only one or two other men in prayer. Also, if it is disliked, then why have we made an exception for Salatul Janazah and have said it is not disliked there? So to say that it is disliked completely is inconsistent. 

He also argues that saying there is more exposure if a woman stands ahead of everyone else is not valid either for many reasons. If a woman is standing ahead of everyone else, there are two possibilities: either her satr for prayer (the portion of the body that is obligatory to cover) is uncovered or it is covered. If it is uncovered the Salah itself is invalid, so it doesn’t matter whether it was in congregation or not. And if it is covered, it does not affect the validity of Salah because there isn’t anything disliked about praying fully covered in front of others. So the real reason why a woman stands in the middle is that Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) did so, not necessarily because she must conceal herself to that level when praying.

These are just some of the many arguments he presents. After mentioning all the arguments, he goes on to say, “The opinion that this is prohibitively disliked is not correct. Rather, following the truth wherever it is found is more correct.” He says that since the hadiths indicate that it is permissible, and there is no clear proof that this has been abrogated, nor can we say that it was done only in the beginning of Islam, and the technical reasons behind the apparent prohibition mentioned have their faults, the most we can say in this regard is that it is khilaful awla (not recommended, just slightly lesser than permissible). He concludes by saying, “What becomes obvious from this whole discussion is that saying it is disliked, especially saying that it is prohibitively disliked, is something the scholars derived based on their understanding and assumptions, not something that they learned from the Imams. Or perhaps they had a reason for this opinion that we haven’t been able to come across. Whatever we have come across, we have explained.”

In summary, although the classical, dominant Hanafi opinion was that it is prohibitively disliked, there were some Hanafi scholars who believed otherwise, and had strong arguments to establish this. To argue for the permissibility of women-only congregations is not something that was only done recently, nor is it something that is baseless. Of course the arguments of one or two scholars don’t automatically override all other fatwas but at the very least this indicates there is room even in Hanafi fiqh to allow for this and perhaps is something that should be reconsidered. 

Potential Benefits of Women Congregations

What is the point of women-only congregations? What is the benefit especially if it is something that many scholars of the past discouraged? Isn’t it better to avoid what is doubtful? 

We must remember that in issues like this where there is valid difference of opinion, and where there are proofs that justify both sides of the argument, the question is not whether the issue at hand is correct or incorrect. Rather, the question is determining which practice is closer to the Sunnah of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him), which practice will have the most benefits. When jurists say something is preferred or disliked here what they mean is that through their knowledge and understanding of the sources of Islamic law they believe this is the best application of the teachings of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and the best way to fulfill the various purposes of the Shariah, not that practicing the other way is an act of misguidance or clear error. For this reason, we need to look at the potential benefits and the needs and context of people to better understand whether and when this practice should be encouraged or avoided. 

A few clarifications before we continue: In Hanafi fiqh, for obligatory prayers, it is better to have one large congregation than multiple small ones. To have a regular congregation outside the masjid is discouraged. This is another reason why women-only congregations were not encouraged, because they are not meant for everyone. So it is important to keep in mind that if we are mentioning benefits of obligatory prayers in women-only congregations, this is meant occasionally and in the context of when women are not regularly attending the masjid for the five daily salahs (as is arguably usually the case). It does not mean that women who already regularly attend the congregation in the masjid leave the congregation in the masjid and start a congregation with each other or that women who usually pray individually specifically go out to join a congregation for fard (mandatory) prayers.

Another issue to clarify is the ruling regarding women reciting out loud in prayers, be it in individual or congregational prayers. Hanafi scholars have generally said this is disliked, whereas the Hanbalis encourage it so as long as no non-mahram men can hear. The Shafiis also say it is permissible with that condition. The Malikis consider it disliked regardless. However, this is more to do with the adab of prayer, and how ideally the prayer of a woman should be done in a concealing manner, not something that affects the validity of prayer, based on the preferred opinion that the voice is not awrah. So there is room for following another opinion here as we see in Shaykh Nadwi’s mother’s example.

With that said, the first thing to discuss is the general benefits of congregational prayers – be it at the masjid with everyone else, or women only. Praying the five daily prayers in congregation is one of the most important parts of the concept of iqamatus salah, establishing salah, which has been commanded repeatedly in the Qur’an. To establish salah openly together can serve as a powerful way of aiding each other in good deeds and taqwa, and building bonds and unity.  The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) would put great effort into lining up the companions in prayer and stressed that gathering together and standing in a straight line increases unity and removes hatred. While women are excused from praying in congregation unlike men, women can still benefit from many of the blessings of congregational prayer every now and then, be it the unity that it can build or the way it can help make salah something visibly central in their lives. 

Another important role of congregational prayer is how it teaches how to perform and establish salah. It is through the congregational prayer that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) taught the Sahabah, both male and female, how to pray and perfect their prayers, how to center their life around prayer. And even the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) himself learned to pray from Jibril 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) who led him in salah. Praying in congregation is most effective way to learn how to pray and to build a habit of prayer, something which so many people, both male and female, are in need of.

One may argue that generations of women have learned how to pray without attending congregations. Even if it may be possible to learn salah without participating in a congregational prayer, it’s not always the case. How many of these women really had the opportunity to learn how to pray correctly and develop a habit of salah? And how many of them learned the adab of praying in a congregation or in the masjid? We need to consider whether not allowing or encouraging women to pray in congregation, either at the masjid or together, may be affecting the establishment of salah in their lives especially for those who live in places where salah isn’t publicly established.

So although regular congregations of the five daily prayers may not be necessary for all women, they can be beneficial for those who are learning to pray, like children and younger people. For instance, if a group of girls are together, and prayer time comes in, having them all pray together in congregation can be much easier and more beneficial than telling them all to pray individually as is often done among Hanafis. 

Apart from these general benefits there are also benefits especially applicable to women only Tarawih congregations.  

The most commonly cited benefit of women-only Tarawih congregations is that it gives hafidhas a chance to properly review and practice their Qur’an. The best way to review the Qur’an and ensure that it remains in the memory year after year is to not only review it regularly but to recite it at least once a year in Taraweeh. Of course, this can also be done individually, but it may be difficult. The traditional Hanafi fatwa here says that if a hafidha is not confident enough in her hifdh to pray by herself, she should recite out loud and have someone not praying listen to her recitation and note her mistakes so she can be informed after prayer (not in middle, because that also invalidates prayer according to Hanafis). The problem, however, is that this is not really practical. Not every hafidha can find someone willing to sacrifice 1-2 hours in Ramadan, to just sit and listen. Allowing hafidhas to lead each other makes easier to practice. And even if a hafidha is only leading non-hafidhas in prayer, it still allows her to practice and keeps her motivated to review.

Another benefit is that it allows women whom Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has gifted the knowledge and recitation of the Qur’an an opportunity to share, benefit, and teach others, and through this, grow in their own knowledge. It is mentioned in the hadiths about Umm Waraqah raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) that she had recited the Qur’an, i.e. learned the Qur’an, which is why the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) appointed her to lead at her house. Part of the responsibility of those who have knowledge of the Qur’an is sharing it and using it to help others. 

But the biggest benefit of a women-only congregation in my opinion is that it can serve as an inspiration to women and girls to increase their love for the Qur’an and create in them a stronger desire to learn it. Many huffadh mention that their original inspiration to memorize the Qur’an came from witnessing a Tarawih prayer as a child. This is not the same for girls though. Tarawih at the masjid may increase them in their love for the Qur’an, but if this is all they see, it can also leave them feeling that memorizing the Qur’an is something only for boys because they will not get to be at the position of that imam. The issue here is not about memorizing for the purpose of leading or fame, the issue is about having a relevant positive role model that inspires you to do good as you can aspire to be like. 

Women’s Tarawih

Hearing a fellow female recite the Qur’an, inside or outside of prayer, is something unfortunately many women do not usually have the opportunity to do so. Listening to the recitation of the Quran from others is a powerful form of worship and gaining closeness to Allah. For the female listener, there’s a special power in a female voice. Those who have experienced it know how it allows the beauty of the Qur’an be reflected in a different manner and how it’s a reminder the Qur’an was also sent down to females to recite, learn, and protect. This may seem obvious, but the reality is that since so many girls have grown up without hearing a woman recite the Qur’an, they often feel it is not something for them to do. 

Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi shared the intimate experience of his mother’s Tarawih. He could have chosen not to mention it, to keep it between her and Allah. But he shared it. Decades later and hundreds of miles away, just hearing about her being devoted to the Qur’an at that level and leading women in Tarawih inspired me as a child to memorize the Qur’an. And it wasn’t just me, I know a whole generation of hafidhas from the subcontinent and perhaps across the world, cite her as their inspiration for memorizing. 

If this is the power of hearing about one woman’s Tarawih congregation imagine how much more powerful and inspirational it would be for a young girl to witness a women’s congregation, to witness hafidhas reciting the Quran in a beautiful manner and leading their sisters in Tarawih.  Imagine the potential effect attending women-only congregations can have on a generation of girls and how much closer it can bring them to the Qur’an. 

Seeing women-only congregations being held across the country in Ramadan is a sign that women are devoted to the Quran, that they have learned it well enough to lead, that they are devoted to worship, that they are gathering together for a good purpose. Yes, it is true there is a difference of opinion here and it is fine to disagree. But in issues where there is a valid difference of opinion, there is no reason to speak against someone who follows the other also valid opinion and there is definitely no room for mocking those who choose to practice this sunnah of the Sahabiyyat.

Suggested articles:

And the Male Is Not like the Female: Sunni Islam and Gender Nonconformity

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Identity Scholarship: Ideological Assabiya And Double Standards

The Prophet helped the Arabs overcome their asabiya (tribalism) and enter a new defining bond of Islam. The criterion for right and wrong was no longer clan membership, but rooted in the religion of Islam. Muslims were instructed to defend the truth, command good, and forbid evil regardless of tribal affiliation. Asabiya does not just relate to kin-based tribes.  One of the resurging traces of jahilya affecting our discourse is ideological tribalism. In ideological tribalism, we hold double standards between our tribe and other tribes, and overlook fallacies in our group that we would not for other groups. Just as we protect an idea that represents our identity, when a personality reflects our group identity, there is a personal reason to defend the personality. It then becomes instinctual then to double-down in discussions even when wrong to show group strength, which at this point is a survival mechanism and not a true dialectic. Abandoning a quest for truth and succumbing to an in-group vs. out-group dichotomy leaves us to defend falsehood and dislike truth. Refusing to accept truth is one way the Prophet described arrogance. 

Group belonging

One of the main drivers of identity scholarship is group belonging. When we focus on defending our group rather than principles which extend beyond group delineations we prove false our claims of wanting the truth.  The burden of moral responsibility is not offset by finding someone to follow [1]. Charismatic leaders have an ability to tap into latent desires of individuals and awaken in them the desire to be part of something greater than themselves. Their own identities are often validated by following the charismatic figure, and they then work hard to preserve the group as they would to preserve their own selves.

According to Ann Ruth Willner, charismatic authority “derives from the capacity of a particular person to arouse and maintain belief in himself or herself as the source of legitimacy. Willner says that the charismatic leadership relationship has four characteristics:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow superhuman.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.
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Charismatic leadership satisfies our desire to be part of something bigger, and paradoxically, to hand all power over to someone else can make us feel more powerful because we think that person is the best version of ourselves. We feel that we have gained ‘agency by proxy.’ We have also dumped all responsibility for decisions onto the leader- what Erich Fromm, the scholar of Nazism, called an ‘escape from freedom.’ When we are in a charismatic leadership relationship, our sense of self-worth gets (attaches) attached to the identity of the leader, so that we take personally any criticism of that leader, and have as much difficulty admitting flaws or errors on the leader’s parts as we do on our own. Because we see the leader as us, and we see us as good, we simply can’t believe that he or she might do bad things” (59) [2].

Charismatic leadership is emotional and works on desires. This type of leadership has no relation to truth. It exists and persists due to feelings, hence contradictions, double-standards, and outright hypocrisy aren’t issues for those in the relationship. Even when the leader confidently behaves irresponsibly, followers do not think less of him. What is inconsistent and irresponsible for an out-group observer is charming to members of the in-group. As Miller points out: 

Followers don’t expect charismatic leaders to be responsible for what they say, nor to behave responsibly; their irresponsible behavior is part of their power. Their use of hyperbole and tendency to be unfiltered in speech are taken to signify their passionate commitment to the in-group (60).

Such loyalty is not specific for charismatic leaders, The Minimal Group Paradigm shows that we have more empathy for our in-group even if that in-group is arbitrarily assigned, and we will act biased in their favor against an arbitrarily assigned out-group. This is a tendency against which we must actively fight to maintain clarity in thinking and fair standards in discussions. When group loyalty is prized there is a fear of opposing the group, which obliterates any chance of scholarly discourse. Questioning a position becomes akin to questioning authority and leaves the questioner ostracized and out-casted. When the out-group is pejoratively labeled, there is an additional fear of thinking like or ending up in that group. 

Identity scholarship

Rather than looking at the argument constructed and judging whether or not it is sound, identity scholarship approves or dismisses arguments based on the person making them. Arguments are then validated by personalities and not standards of scholarship.  This is a dangerous shift from reasoning and evidence to personalities. 

Identity scholarship leverages the need to belong and centers the personality over the argument. However, focusing on the strength of arguments and not the personality is especially important given that the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is applied to vocationally trained Muslims, seminal graduates, preachers, or to those who display a scholarly caliber in Islam alike. This is a sufficient crisis. The term is heavily equivocated, and should never serve to stand in place of standards of scholarship in discourse. 

Ambiguity in the term ‘scholar’ or ‘shaykh’ is exploited by groups to strengthen their influence. Not always pernicious, this is the natural progression of proselytizing via group identity. An in-group who will dismiss dissenting voices for not having studied long enough, not obtaining ijazas, will promote voices of similar or less educated Muslims when those voices are in their ‘in-group.’ Titles like ‘ustadh’ and ‘ustadha’ are quickly conferred upon those who are volunteers or proponents of the ‘in-group’ even with minimal study. Advocating for the correct paradigm is rewarded more than a knowledge based approach to issues. Giving titles to those with social capital in your in-group is also an effective way for brand expansion. For example, loosely affiliated students with avenues into the growing Muslim mental health field are often referred to as ‘ustadha.’  Also, traditionalists will often promote in-group religious figures engaging in no-risk activism like condemning already popularly condemned figures as exemplary ‘scholars and activists’ who should be followed by other activists.  

If a person has been doing this long enough they become ‘shaykh,’ and then eventually a ‘senior scholar’ with assumed wisdom and spiritual insight, worthy of deference. I am well acquainted with the unfortunate irony in traditional circles where those who push a manhaj of studying at the feet of scholars have by and large not done so beyond attending general lectures by visiting scholars.  Many do not even know Arabic, but their zeal and tenure of feel good lectures in a community primarily interested in nasheeds and tea coupled with their promoting the right figures secure for them a scholarly status by generations who venerate the theory of studying at the feet of scholars. 

Thus authority and titles are conferred by virtue of in-group allegiance. 

Slip into demagoguery

When we accept an in-group and out-group dichotomy and don’t argue fairly, we lay the foundation for demagogic discourse. As Patricia Mill-Roberts writes “If people decide to see things as a zero-sum game- the more they succeed, the more we lose, and we should rage about any call made against us, and cheer any call made against them- then democracy loses” (13). The best way to avoid this is by maintaining fair discussions and letting go of double standards. Arguments appealing to in-group or out-group positions rather than being based in fact should not be accepted regardless of which group they are coming from. Several tactics used in these types of arguments are described below. 

Creating a strawman

Falsely representing the out-group is a common tactic in demagogic discourse. One example is portraying out-group critics as only critics. The critic is frozen in time as someone who has accomplished nothing, helped no one, and as only one who sees the faults in others. The in-group then goes on to list what they have accomplished -‘albeit with some faults’- to not seem as braggarts, but insists that those faults are magnified by the arm-chair critics. 

Another example is labeling Muslims more concerned with academic preservation and development as Muslims in ivory towers. This suggests knowledge is only relevant if immediately actionable and discounts the role of theoretical knowledge in both present and future action as well as an intrinsic end.  

Even when it comes to the epitome of practical action, Allah tells the Muslims to not all go out in battle, but to have groups remain behind to study.

Condescending discrediting

One way demagoguery characterizes the out-group is by a “dithering, wavering, impaired masculinity, and weakness…”(66).  Just as Rudy Giuliani dismissed those protesting Trump’s 2016 win as “professional protestors” with nothing else to do in life, so do we dismiss dissenting voices. 

Terms like ‘keyboard warrior’ should be dropped from the vernacular of anyone who uses the internet for Islamic education. If the internet is good enough for theatrical Ramadan reminders and choreographed Islamic reflections, it should also be good enough for dissent and valid critiques.[3] We have to embrace the fact that the internet is not a pretend medium; social media posts are used in newsfeeds, are reacted to on the mimbar, and even prompt live events. If we dismiss valid criticisms made online as the act of ‘keyboard warriors’ we should also call those giving dawah online ‘studio daa’is.’  

Discrediting due to inexperience

Experience is an important element in answering questions and dealing with different scenarios, and, should rightly be considered when one is looking for a teacher, etc. However, frequently, the standards for what constitutes experience are used inconsistently. The same individuals who refer to young teachers as ‘shaykh’ or ‘mufti’ while in their in-group, dismiss ‘shaykhs’ and ‘muftis’ in the out-group of similar age and experience, arguing that a person can’t be a ‘real’ mufti because studying 7 years doesn’t make anyone a scholar. Graduating from a seminary or Islamic university will be the standard for members of an in-group to be called scholars, but the out-group will be ‘immature graduates’ who have not learned wisdom.  Wisdom itself will be defined as the avoidance of actions which challenge the in-group. Likewise an activist saying the right thing and echoing in-group talking points will be called ‘ustadh,’ but if from the ‘out-group’ dismissed as a Godless- activist’ that just hates hierarchy. 

Victimization and Victimology

Demagoguery thrives on the in-group being victimized by the out-group. It is common for religious figures to dismiss valid criticism as nothing but hate, envy, or ignorance [4]. When criticized by activists, it is common to label them as ‘anti-clerical’ activists who only have an issue with Islamic leaders because they are neo-Marxists. 

‘Neo-Marxist’ is used as a catch-all term to discredit those who disagree with the positions of some religious leaders to insinuate the disagreements are rooted in hate for hierarchy or authority thus being illegitimate. Even conservative and practicing Muslims are labeled as ‘leftists’ and ‘Godless activists’ for simple critiques. In Sufi groups, disagreeing with leadership is often said to be the result of being spiritually veiled, or the work of ‘dark forces’ and ‘shayateen’ dividing us. If we can agree that black-magic and evil-eye are real but should not be the first culprit in a failing marriage, let’s also look for practical failures when religious organizations break down before we start blaming the ‘shayateen.’  

On one hand the in-group claims they are victims, on the other they blame the out-group for having a victim mentality.  This may seem like an obvious contradiction, but as Miller explains,  

If condemnation of out-group behavior is performed by a very likeable persona, then onlookers are likely to conclude that the rhetor would never engage in the behavior she or he is condemning. This maneuver is especially effective with people who believe that you can know what someone believes by listening to what values he or she claims to espouse, and with people who think you can predict behavior by listening to values talk (who believe that ‘good people- that is, people who say the right things- don’t do ‘bad’ things) (56) 

Another tactic is using terms like ‘victomology’ to belittle legitimate grievances of being wronged and falsely representing those grievances as an attitude of being a victim in life.

Being oppressed (mazlum) does not require living a tough life, being a victim in life, or being part of an oppressed group. We are told by the Prophet that delaying a payment owed while being capable of paying is oppression (Muslim). When our God given rights are transgressed upon, we are mazlum in that situation. It is not uncommon however to see Muslims want to claim their rights and express they have been wronged to be dismissed as those who love to be victims. Ironically, this is even done by organizations that describe themselves with the leftist concept of ‘safe spaces.’  

Disregarding Nuance

“Demagoguery is comfortable because it says the world is very simple, and made up of good people (us) and bad people (them)” (24). 

We must understand that if someone does not see an issue as black or white, it’s not because they are obviously corrupt, willfully ignorant, or stupid.  The word nuance itself triggers cynicism and is treated as an excuse to employ mental gymnastics to deny what is ‘obvious.’  The fact of the matter is when it comes to khilafi issues there is generally a vast scope of acceptable actions, and when it comes personal ijtihaadi matters for policy there is often no clear-cut best answer. Thus in such matters the objective is to come to a best resolution or course of action. In short, we should all take appropriate measures in our decisions to ensure the benefit outweighs the harm. Certain positions are cautioned against due to the likelihood of harm to one’s religion, but that likelihood may not serve as evidence that one has harmed his religion. As the great scholar Muhammad Awama relates in Ma’laam Irshadiya, the way of the scholars is to leave people in what they are following as long as it is correct and has a valid legal perspective [5]

Scholarly discourse

Advice from recognized experts in a field carries weight, but it should not be conflated with a scholarly argument. A common mistake is to confer authority upon an opinion outside the area of one’s authority. Scholarly works must prove themselves to be scholarly as stand-alone works. Even if a great scholar has published many scholarly works, his advice should be taken as advice. For example, Imam al-Ghazali was a great scholar, but Dear Beloved Son is not a scholarly work.  We have a malfoozaat (wisdom-sharing) tradition that is precious, but we must know where to place it in the hierarchy of Islamic knowledge. 

Islamic scholarly discourse should be evidence based, demonstrative of legal proficiency, and cater to Islamic concerns. Those engaging should share the evidence for what they say, the sources of the rulings they share, the difference between the reason for a ruling and the wisdom of a ruling [6], understand contextual fatwas,[7] and understand which rulings are based on urf and which rulings are intrinsic obligations or prohibitions. These are just some elements of Islamic scholarly discourse, and it cannot exist alongside identity scholarship. 

There should be private forums with prerequisites where scholarly discourse can take place. When these discussions move outside of their proper place other issues such as discussing weak or aberrant (shadh) fiqh opinions arise, which to an undiscriminating audience all will seem co-valid on the spectrum of differing opinions in sharia. Promoting aberrant positions caters to our cultural preferences of thinking outside the box and carries the façade of an intellectual approach to Islam. In Maharam al-Lisaan (Prohibitions of the Tongue) Muhammad Mawlud lists both mentioning the conflict between the Sahabah, and mentioning aberrant opinions as prohibitions.  This is not due to the utterance being sinful, but rather to the misconceptions it can lead to for the average Muslim if not properly addressed.  

There may be a need to dismiss open innovators and those spreading misguidance, because there is no end to the possibilities of innovation and it obfuscates what should be self-evident, and can be very difficult for even scholars to refute in ways that resonate with those affected by innovation. The double standard as previously mentioned is when lack of formal credentials is only a problem for out-groups. 

How to have productive discourse

Islamic historical discourse has its share of polemics. There are commentaries, fatwas and treatises which insult valid ijtihad and even refer to the entirety of a madhab with epithets. Some scholars were harsh and had a penchant for polemics. Transgressions into mockery and slander were not condoned, and belligerent attitudes were something scholars sought to check with reminders of adab al-ikhtilaf (the etiquettes of disagreement). While the previously mentioned certainly existed and such an approach may serve to strengthen positions of the in-group to the in-group, it does not make for productive dialogue with the out-group.

Outside of scholarly discourse, when we debate policy and Islamic positions, we need to have sincere, fact based arguments with the goal of arriving at truth. Our ability to accept truth no matter who says it shows we have transcended in-group vs. out-group tribalism and have entered the realm of sincere discourse.  Overcoming in-group tribalism and following the truth, rather than blindly following our ‘fathers’ is a central message in the Quran. 

And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers understood nothing, nor were they guided?  2:170 

Arguments on points should never be personal. We should train ourselves to evaluate arguments and understand that people we like can make mistakes, and people we dislike and generally disagree with may be right on certain matters. 

Don’t take cheap shots if you disagree with someone, such as pointing out a typo to insinuate incompetence. 

It’s important to leave double-standards, and to point them out when someone is employing them.  When one side is unfair or uses double standards, it encourages the opposition to act in kind, and the discussion devolves into a fight. When disagreeing with someone, never insult that person.  When a personality is attacked, the response will be defending the personality, and the entire discussion is derailed. 

Sharing a post, or article should not be seen as endorsing an individual or a post. Sometimes it’s a means of opening a discussion, other times to share beneficial points even if the entirety of what is shared is not beneficial. Furthermore, endorsing an individual in one area is not a blanket endorsement, and should never be taken as such.  The Hanafi tradition was able to benefit from legal fatwas while not accepting theology of Mu’tazilite scholars. Likewise, many of our best tafseers are from Mu’tazilite scholars. The widely studied and highly regarded Tafseer al-Baydawi is basically a reworked Mu’tazilite tafseer without the Mu’tazilite aqidah. Scholars have been able to ‘take the good and leave the harm.’ 

“I don’t think you could search America, sir, and find two men who agree on everything.” – Malcolm X

We need to uplift our intellectual level and drop disclaimers like “I don’t agree with everything in this article” or “I don’t agree with everything he said.”  It is only worth stating when you do agree with everything someone says or does.  The common disclaimers should be taken as givens and we shouldn’t capitulate to a cultural push of walking on egg-shells so no one accuses us of supporting the wrong person or idea. 

It is critical we operate under the assumption that sharing a panel with or working with an individual is not an endorsement of that individual. Likewise, working with an organization is not an endorsement of that organization. Such associations are attacked as potentially confusing to the average Muslim, but we must work towards establishing that such actions are not support. 

Here we see an ambivalent conceptualization of the ‘average Muslim’ as someone who both deserves transparency from religious scholars for their actions as well as one who is easily confused or misled by the actions of Muslim scholars. If we can accept both propositions, that a scholar’s actions are not proof, and that working with someone and sharing posts and platforms do not equate support for every particular view or stance of a person, we may set the foundation for being issue focused rather than personality focused. 

In conclusion, it is important we all hold ourselves to high standards of discourse and not support behavior or fallacies from our in-group that we would deride from an out-group. The groups themselves are inevitable and not a problem, but we have to work to overcome the natural ideological tribalism that accompanies group membership.  If we personally transcend in-group bias and reflect it in our discourse, we can overcome the pettiness and hypocrisy that stifles productive discussions. 

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 16: The Best of You

Now that we have learnt about fruit out of season, let’s now talk about the best of you.

I want you all to think about your closest friends and how you treat them. 

Question: Would anyone like to share how they try to treat their closest friends?

That’s wonderful! You try to be thoughtful and considerate of their feelings. You bring snacks to share with them, you may buy or make them a gift.

Question: Now, I want you to close your eyes and think of the way you treat your family members. Is it the same?

Question: Why do you think that there is a difference between the way we treat our friends and the way we may treat our siblings or parents?

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Yes, we do spend a lot of time together. We see each other when we’re cranky or frustrated. Sometimes we want our own space to think, or we don’t want someone interfering with our things. Those are all valid reasons. But, do you know that it is more beloved to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) that you treat your family members better than you even treat your friends?

It’s true! In a hadith, Aisha raḍyAllāhu 'anha (may Allāh be pleased with her) reported: The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said: 

عَنْ عَائِشَةَ قَالَتْ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ خَيْرُكُمْ خَيْرُكُمْ لِأَهْلِهِ وَأَنَا خَيْرُكُمْ لِأَهْلِي وَإِذَا مَاتَ صَاحِبُكُمْ فَدَعُوهُ

“The best of you are the best to their families, and I am the best to my family.” 

Question: What are some ways we can be the best to our family members? I’m going to share with you a hadith that may help you get some ideas: 

وعن أبى أمامه الباهلى رضي الله عنه قال‏:‏ قال رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم‏:‏ “أنا زعيم ببيت في ربض الجنة لمن ترك المراء، وإن كان محقاً، وببيت في وسط الجنة لمن ترك الكذب، وإن كان مازحاً، وببيت في أعلى الجنة لمن حسن خلقه” ‏(‏حديث صحيح رواه أبو داود بإسناد صحيح‏).‏

“I guarantee a house in Jannah (Paradise) for one who gives up arguing, even if he is in the right; and I guarantee a house in the middle of Jannah for one who abandons lying even for the sake of fun; and I guarantee a house in the highest part of Jannah for one who has good manners.”

If we work on these three things: less arguing, no lying, and good manners, alongside all of your other suggestions, we will be rewarded with Jannah, inshaAllah

Question: Do you think we can all work hard to be the best to our family members?


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Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas | Book Review

In the second decade of the 21st century in America, Muslims consider themselves “as American as apple pie,” don American-flag hijabs, and consider their presence and participation in American politics as a crowning achievement. There is little to no resemblance between the majority of the American Muslim population today, and the very first Muslims who landed in America – not as privileged individuals, but as enslaved people at the hands of vicious white colonizers who had already decimated the Indigenous population and who had no qualms about destroying the lives of their slaves. Dr Sylviane A. Diouf’s book “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” tracks the journeys and experiences of African Muslims who found themselves shipped aboard slave-trafficking vessels and taken to the other side of their known world. From their induction into the Transatlantic slave trade, to their determination to uphold the five pillars of Islam – regardless of their circumstances – to the structure of the enslaved Muslim community, their prized (and dangerous) literacy, and their never-ending resistance against slavery, Diouf illustrates in incredible detail the powerful and painful experiences of enslaved African Muslims, and the legacy that they left behind in the Americas.

This review of “Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas” will focus on the unique qualities and formidable faith of the very first Muslims in the Americas, and the legacy that they left for Muslims in the Americas today.

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In Chapter One, Diouf begins by answering the very first question that arises when considering the path of enslaved African Muslims: how did they end up enslaved in the first place? Slavery already existed as an institution in Africa, though vastly different from the horrifying standards of the European slavers. Between the existing slave trade, military conflicts that created prisoners-of-wars who were then sold as slaves, and the European propensity for kidnapping innocent people, many Muslims found themselves swept into the Transatlantic slave trade. These same Muslims were the ones who provided us with much of the knowledge that we have today regarding the American slave experience. Most African Muslims were literate, due to the religious and cultural importance of education; of those enslaved, many were religious scholars or students of knowledge. They described how they were captured, the torturous journey of the slave caravans across the continent, and the even more horrific experience of the slave ships themselves. These men also documented their lives as slaves, and indirectly, provided deep insight into their own inner nature. 

Despite the intense pressure and demands on African enslaved people to renounce their ‘heathen faith’ and be inducted as Christians, African Muslims demonstrated a commitment to Islam that should cause modern Muslims today to feel deeply ashamed in comparison. The very first words that Job ben Solomon (Ayuba Suleyman Diallo) uttered, after running away and then being discovered in Pennsylvania, were the shahaadah; Omar ibn Sa’id wrote numerous Arabic manuscripts, in which the shahaadah was always found (Diouf, 2013, p. 72-73). When Catholic priests tried hard to educate slaves about Christianity as part of the conversion process, the African Muslims were both resistant and unimpressed; they were already familiar with many Biblical stories, thanks to their Qur’anic education. Of those who seemed to have accepted Christianity, many did so only outwardly, while confirming their belief in Allah and His Messenger in every aspect of their lives. Indeed, in Brazil and other areas where there were large concentrations of Muslim slaves, the Muslims established underground madaaris to maintain and pass on their Islamic knowledge and education. Muhammad Kaba Saghanughu was a man whom the missionaries had thought was successfully converted when he provided all the right answers to their pre-baptismal questions – eleven years later, in a Baptist Missionary Society notebook, he wrote a 50-page fiqh manual in Arabic that encompassed the rulings of salaah, marriage, and other topics. 

Slavery did not stop the African Muslims from maintaining their salaah in whatever manner they could manage, considering their circumstances. Some did so in secret, while others insisted on upholding their salaah in public, to the extent that these incidents were recorded by the descendants of slaves and slaveholders alike. In Brazil, the African Muslim community – both enslaved and freed – held together so strongly that they were able to secretly establish Salatul Jumu’ah and attend gatherings of dhikr, even in the face of intense scrutiny (Diouf, 2013, p. 88-89). 

Perhaps one of the most greatly moving examples of enslaved African Muslims’ dedication to their Islam was that even in the midst of the utter poverty of slavery, they found a way to uphold zakaah, sawm, and Hajj. In Brazil, it was recorded that the Muslims would end Ramadan with the exchanging of gifts, no matter how simple they were; in truth, these gifts were zakaatul fitr and zakaatul maal.

In other areas, the descendants of Muslim slaves recalled that their parents and grandparents would make rice cakes called saraka at least once a year – saraka was a corruption of the Arabic word sadaqah, and the rice cakes were a Jumu’ah tradition in West Africa. (Diouf, 2013, p. 92-94) In Ramadan, many Muslims sought to fast; indeed, despite the incredible hardship and lack of nutritious food that the slaves already endured, there were those who fasted voluntarily outside of Ramadan as well, often by pretending to be ill. They knew that their situation meant that fasting – in Ramadan and outside of it – was not obligatory on them, and yet, to them, no circumstance was bad enough to warrant not even attempting to observe Ramadan. Hajj was another pillar of Islam that was both impossible and no longer obligatory on the enslaved Muslims; yet in Brazil, in a house that was used as a masjid, there were illustrated depictions of the Ka’bah – demonstrating the emotional bond that the African Muslims had with the Sacred House. 

Throughout Diouf’s book, the overwhelming theme that arises is the fierce commitment that enslaved African Muslims had to Islam. It was not superficial, shallow, or easily shrugged away in the face of difficulty. Instead, the African Muslims held onto their belief in Allah and their daily, lived practise of Islam, even when they had every excuse to relax their obligations. They upheld their Islamic and cultural dress code, not just at its minimum standard of modesty, but in a way that clearly demonstrated their religious identity (Diouf, 2013, p. 101-110). They found ways to make prayer mats and dhikr beads; they gave their children Muslim names in secret, when they were expected to present themselves as Christians; they even strove to observe whatever they could of the Islamic dietary code, by refusing to drink alcohol or eat pork – Ayuba Diallo went so far as to only eat dhabiha meat that he himself slaughtered (Diouf, 2013, p. 119-122). The enslaved African Muslims valued their Islamic identity above all. Even in slavery, they knew that their ‘izzah came from their Deen – and so did those around them, who noted their unique bearing in the face of the horrors of slavery. 

The story of the African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to the Americas is not merely a history lesson, or a token homage in honour of Black History Month. It is a story that echoes the persecution of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, and applicable to Muslims today. Muslim minorities in the West are often all too eager to complain of our difficulties and to seek religious exemptions for our minor inconveniences. Yet who are we in comparison to the earliest African-American Muslims, who endurable the unspeakable? Who are we, with our privileges, with our very freedom, in comparison to those Muslims who were stripped of everything and everyone they knew and loved, and who still held ever tighter to the Rope of Allah? One may say that it is unfair to compare us and them; that to recognize their struggles should not mean invalidating the challenges we face today. Certainly, we face numerous different fitan that are very different from what they experienced, but the truth is that we should compare our attitudes with those of our predecessors. We should be ashamed of our own weaknesses in times of privilege compared to their strength in times of oppression. More importantly, we must learn from them what it means to have such a relationship with our Creator and our Deen that we are capable of surviving and thriving in even the worst of circumstances. 

May Allah have mercy on the enslaved African Muslims who endured one of this Ummah’s historic tragedies, and may He make us of those who demonstrate their strength of love for Him through every tragedy of our own.

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