What does it mean to switch faiths? What is it like for Muslim “converts” in particular? (For lack of a better term!) What are the typical highs and lows that new Muslims experience? What happens to those open-minded seekers that when joining a group are led to exclusivism and narrow-mindedness? In this episode Dr. Farhad Shafti and Veronica Polo are joined by James Coates, who helps us with these questions as he walks us through his own particular journey.
After 9 years of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq which allowed the Shi’a government of Iran to make significant political gains in the Middle East, Al-Azhar saw a massive increase in Salafist influence. The Salafi movement is a Saudi Arabian based movement, a nation that is Iran’s historic enemy. Consequently, in 2012, the 1959 fatwah was reversed.
As a consequence of both of these events, we have a proxy war raging between two Muslim nations in multiple third party nations while their leaders vie for public support among Muslims worldwide for their cause against each other based on religious grounds.
As Muslims we need to remain committed to following Allah’s command. Our struggle, fisabilillah, is to remain a united community and resist the dividers.
“Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace; you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it- in this way God makes His revelations clear to you so that you may be rightly guided.” – Qur’an 3:103
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working with many types of people in the Islamic community, a cross section of ideologies, cultures and sects. I have taught classes with them, represented them in the media and learned about them, from them. When someone opens themselves up to learning about others, understanding comes, fears subside and stereotyping dissipates. One of the divisive ideological topics among Muslims is that between those with an agenda to malign the Saudi Kingdom and their brand of Islam dominant on the Arabian Penninsula by labelling Salafis ‘Wahhabi’. Interestingly, it is also a term propagated by anti-Islam haters to describe all of us Muslims. I will explain how the term is misleading, divisive, offensive and, yes, even racist in it’s use by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and should not be used. However, before I explain, it is important that anyone who discusses this topic understand the basic history of the Saud’s rise to power and the modern politic. There are a lot of support link references throughout the article for you to study if you really wish to delve into the topic.
The purpose of this write up isn’t for the defence of the Salafi movement or the Saudi Kingdom. However, as a Muslim, it is my duty to draw the line where the facts and sound reason exist, to stand firm for justice. Far too often innocent bystanders (and new Muslims) are caught up in a viscous propaganda campaign of hate waged by some Muslim groups and non-Muslim hate groups on this topic.
“You who believe, uphold justice and bear witness to God, even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives. Whether the person is rich or poor, God can best take care of both. Refrain from following your own desire, so that you can act justly- if you distort or neglect justice, God is fully aware of what you do.” Qur’an 4:135
Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was born and lived in ‘Uyaynah, Arabia from 1703-1792, though he spent many years abroad and taught in Basra, Iraq. He completed his education in Madina. In Iran, 1736 he taught against the ideas of various prominent Sufi leaders. The movement he founded never extended beyond Arabia, save the concepts of Tawheed.
Since the sack of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the Islamic Empire struggled with decline. Europe in the period after the Dark Ages, benefited from educating in Islamic territories and began to increase with technological and cultural innovation. By the 1700’s, it eventually had fully experienced the renaissance and began exporting this cultural innovation back to Islamic lands. Seeing these things as corrupt western innovation (biddah) of religion, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began a peaceful (non-violent) revivalist response to the decaying beliefs, morals and Islamic practice in the Arabian Pennisula. He preached the removal polytheism from Islamic society and return to the roots of the Salaf(ancestors). The Salaf movement was mainly concerned with issues of Tawheed (monotheism), shirk (polytheism) and western modern innovative influence among Arab Muslims seen to be the cause of moral decay. Today, the movement views the world in much the same way.
In 1744 Muhammad bin Saud sought to use his immense military forces to found the first Saudi state but didn’t have the influence he desired among all of the people to secure his rule. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was well known among these same Arabian tribes for his revivalist work. The two movements officially allied. Muhammad bin Saud married his son with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab’s daughter to seal the deal. Under the new Saudi state, Muhammad bin Saud was to be charged with political and economic affairs. Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was in charge of religious affairs.
The alliance became strong as the Saud’s conquered much of the Arabian peninsula. Religious enforcement (sometimes religious violence) was sanctioned and backed by the government of the newly formed state. To bolster Muhammad bin Saud’s forces, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab began to use his influence as a religious leader to recruit people to join the military for deployment in battlefield jihad on behalf of the state.
The mix of fundamental revivalist teaching coupled with strict state sanctioned enforcement lends outsiders to have the ‘illusion’ of orthodoxy in Islam where Salafis are concerned. The madhab (school of thought) dominant in Saudi Arabia where Salafi movement originates is Hanbali. There are many schools of thought in Islam and thus there is no ‘orthodoxy‘ in Islam.
Salafi groups generally do not partake in protests or even the political process, considering it a sin. They believe in obedience to government and are generally peaceable. Such an idea may work well in a monarchy, like the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. However, as with any group there are varying degrees of those (a minority) who grow disillusioned with pacificity and become militant within the same ideology. Militant groups in all movements often go to the extent of replacing reputable established Islamic jurists with their own leaders in order to pronounce takfir (declaring disbelievers) on other Muslims to sanction and attack them for not acting on the same ‘triggers’ deemed legitimate by the group. Duality is human nature and within individuals or groups the reversal of moral value or opinion can happen for many reasons and often has triggers. It is not an event that is specific to the Salafi movement or Islam and happens all over the world (Example).
Attempts are often made to say that the Salafi movement is the ‘exporter’ of extremist ideology because groups like ISIS are ‘Salafist’, but the facts to not support the idea of such sinister ideological ‘export’. The spread of terrorism misusing the Salafist ideology is incidental. ISIS is not the only terrorist group in the world. There is no evidence to support that all terrorist movements are ‘Salafist’ and most of these terrorist movements engage in acts that contravene the teachings of the movements from which they came.
The root cause for the current terrorism crisis is simmering political instability caused by United States foreign policies that began in the 1980’s. To advance the interests of the United States to fight communism, the US secured an agreement with the Saudi Arabian government (in coordination with Pakistan, Egypt and Israel) to drive the communist Soviet Union from Afghanistan by funding, arming and training extremist groups with US taxpayer money and resources. The problem was made worse by Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and subsequent 12 years of sanctions that reduced a middle class nation (Iraq) to one of the poorest in the world. These same CIA funded and equipped jihadist assets based in Afghanistan became disillusioned with US foreign policy later went on to attack the United States on September 11, 2001. The problem of global terrorism metastasised after the destabilisation of Iraq in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 and continues to grow with US foreign policies that include endless bombing campaigns, attempts at nation building and interventions across the Middle East, Asia, Europe and North Africa.
Today’s middle east crisis with ISIS is born directly out of political instability created by the United States invasion of Iraq, the attempt to ‘de-Baathify’ the Iraqi civil and military services leaving hundreds of thousands of Sunnis formerly loyal to Saddam Hussein without a job and removing the only security apparatus from the nation. The United States established a Shi’a led Iraqi government that marginalised Sunni groups. Al Qaida Iraq chose to capitalise on this and in 2006 is renamed Islamic State of Iraq. The group has re-branded itself many times since (ISIS/ISIL/IS; all the same group).
If countries are not stable, there is either no security apparatus or it is too weak to be effective. Lawlessness becomes the norm. Misuse of religion, iconography and ideology is commonplace in unstable or lawless countries. (Examples 1, 2) In fact, a large number of the recruits of these criminal enterprises or gangs also have criminal histories. The most notable global misuses of religion in human history has been the pogroms, Crusades and Inquisitions inflicted on the world by Christendom.
“Whether Sunni or Shia, Salafi or Sufi, conservative or liberal, Muslims – and Muslim leaders – have almost unanimously condemned and denounced Isis not merely as un-Islamic but actively anti-Islamic.” – New Statesman
The Council of Senior Scholars of Saudi Arabia have issued a ruling against terrorism and groups like ISIS, irrespective of the political establishment’s support for using them in the proxy war to confront Iranian influence in the region.
It’s also worth noting that in political foreign affairs that most governments have employed or supported terrorist groups to achieve their goals. In the case of the United States, examples range from the jihadist groups fighting ‘godless’ Soviet communism to the Bay of Pigs disaster to even funnelling arms and money to Al Nusra front in Syria (an Al Qaida affiliate). The current regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (supporting groups like ISIS against Iran) and Iran (Hezbollah & Revolutionary guards against the Saudi Kingdom), should be seen with these facts in mind as we try to make sense and solve the crisis of terrorism. If one condemns one nations terrorism, we must face the fact and condemn our own nation’s terrorism equally. The coordinated efforts by the United States, Israel, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (circa 1978) to fund, arm and train these extremist groups to fight Soviet communism gave the initial credibility and rise to jihadist groups that we despise, like Al Qaida and ISIS. The problem of terrorism (a tactic of war) lies primarily with government entities, not Islam or any one Islamic movement.
Now that we have waded though the politic and how Islamic movements have been distorted and misused for political gain of both Muslim and non-Muslim governments, let’s go on to draw the lines where they belong.
The Myth of Wahhabism
“Do not speak ill of one another; do not use offensive nicknames for one another. How bad it is to be called a mischief-maker after accepting faith! Those who do not repent of this behaviour are evildoers.” Qur’an 49:11
“The Messenger of Allah said, “Do you know what is backbiting?” The Companions said: “Allah and His Messenger know better.” Thereupon he said, “Backbiting is talking about your (Muslim) brother in a manner which he dislikes.” It was said to him: “What if my (Muslim) brother is as I say.” He said, “If he is actually as you say, then that is backbiting; but if that is not in him, that is slandering.“” (Riyadh as-Salihin [Muslim])
Taymiyyan? – The Salafi do not follow Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab. They rarely make mention of any of his teachings instead referencing various hadith from common sources (Bukhari, Muslim, Ibn Majah, Thirmidhi, etc). In fact, if one is lucky they may just find a biography of his life in a bookstore where Salafis patronise. Of the four Islamic schools of thought their madthab is Hanbali. Why are they not named after the madhab, Hanbalian? The Salafi rely on a host of scholarly opinions but orientalist scholars claim that they rely more heavily on Ibn Taymiyyah. If they reference Ibn Taymiyyah extensively and rarely if ever (I’ve never heard one in my 21 years as a Muslim) reference Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, how can they be ‘Wahhabi’? Why not ‘Taymiyyan‘?
Follow Muhammad (PBUH) – Salafi never call themselves Wahhabi. In fact, it is considered a derogatory designed to malign their movement by making the false claim that their movement is synonymous with terrorism (much like Islam-haters do to all Muslims). Like any other Muslim with our pet ideologies or favourite movement, they are followers of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Consequently, this is the same logic that is used by the Islam hate industry to slander all Muslims.
Islam-hate – It is a term also used by many non-Muslims to promote anti-Islam agendas. The term ‘Wahhabi’ means different things to different people. It means nothing (other than slander) to the Salafi because they don’t follow Wahhab. It is misapplied to them by other Muslims. It is a term applied by media pundits at times to identify terrorism. It is applied to all Muslims by the Islam-hate industry. The term is the source of confusion and hatred used not against just Salafi, but all Muslims be one Sunni, Sufi, Shi’a, liberal or conservative, whatever your persuasion.
Sectarianism – Muslim political and religious opponents (like some Sufi, Shi’a, even fellow Sunnis and others) intentionally mislabel Salafi as ‘Wahhabi’. It is commonplace among those opposing Muslim groups with an agenda to stereotype and malign both the militant and the pacifist among the Salafi, Saudi citizens or Arabs in general, painting them with a broad brush as the monolithic ideological source of all that is evil in the world (convenient for those swayed by alternate religious or national agendas). It also is used by some Muslim groups with an agenda to disqualify, dehumanise and demonise a fellow group of Muslims through labelling them extremists and spread unjustified fear and abhorrence for them. The fact is that we have already discussed the factors that brought extremist groups into existence and gave them credibility, no one group is the source of all evil. Muslim groups are being played in a game of divide and conquer by corrupt governments (Muslim and not) to advance their own interests.
No clerical system – Catholics believe that Jesus himself is God. Yet, not all Catholics follow the dictates of the Pope despite among Catholics the Pope is the head of the clergy and Jesus Christ’s divine representative on earth. In Islam there is not even a clerical system, let alone God’s divine representative in earth. It should be a no-brainer that not all Salafi side with the dictates of the Saudi political/religious establishment. Like other religious groups of people, despite perceived religious hierarchy or clergy they are still not homogeneous. Salafism has developed several schools of thinking. “There are Salafis who have become close to centrism, which is based on combining the opposites, combining mind and matter, combining the spirit and the material, sometimes interpreting and at other times abstaining from interpretation, and combining intellect, action, religion, and politics. Moreover, we cannot disregard the development of the Salafis; in the past they did not talk about politics, but now they participate in the political battles…” – Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi
Just plain stupid – In it’s mislabelling, the efforts of these Muslim opponents to keep people away from the teaching of the Salafi are made futile. As people become familiar with the slanderous label and then enter the mosque or community center there is no one there that calls him/herself ‘wahhabi’, but you will find people that refer to themselves as Salafi or following the Salaf. So, mislabelling may seem like semantics but all it does (besides the obvious slander and misleading people) is keep people from recognising them in the mosque. So, if one seriously fears their ideology so much to want to preach to people against them, why not want them identified by their proper name? Again, a no-brainer here.
Discouraging Converts – Intentionally mislabelling them a name that they don’t call themselves is divisive. The slander creates needless trouble between religious leaders (and their followers) who have agendas of hatred for the Salafi, the Salafi who don’t want to be maligned and those who want learn about Islam. It confuses people, especially new Muslims, who don’t know better and struggle to decipher Islamic groups that may be approaching them in the mosque. The agenda is more easily seen by new Muslims who get turned off by the divisiveness in a religion they chose, more than likely, to get away from this same kind of behaviour in a Church. Perhaps they just don’t have the time in their lives for such childish behavior either. You aren’t doing da’wah here, you are doing anti-da’wah. People will leave Islam and probably not even take the time to tell anyone. How is that going to look in our book of deeds? “The record of their deeds will be laid open and you will see the guilty, dismayed at what they contain, saying, ‘Woe to us! What a record this is! It does not leave any deed, small or large, unaccounted for!’ They will find everything they ever did laid in front of them: your Lord will not be unjust to anyone.” Qur’an 18:49
Racism – There is a conglomerate of groups that engage in this type of smear campaign. Western media and pundits, Islam-haters and even other Muslims who are using the term ‘Wahhabi’ are using the term to identify a particular type of extremism (or terrorism) that they oppose. Yet, there are no ‘Wahhabi’. Instead what they are tacitly referring to without being forthright is ‘all Salafi’ or ‘all Saudis’ or in some cases ‘all Arabs’ and even in the case of non-Muslim Islam-haters who use the term: all practising Muslims.
Racism isn’t merely maligning someone based on ethnicity. It is a legacy construct of colonialism, which places value on European civilisations over that of the occupied ‘savage’ colonies. The implication being an ‘us versus them’ attitude where all of ‘them’ are savages worthy of hatred, pogroms, or civilising campaigns based on ‘their’ grouping. By the same token, these former colonies have began using these ‘superior’ attitudes against others based on ethnicity, nationality, madhab, religion, etc. It is an attitude of ‘supremacy’ once particular to colonial Europe (that still exists among White Supremacists today) which has been learned by the colonised who are using it against each other, in this case the mythical demon named the ‘Wahhabi’. Racism is also not always expressed in explicit terms, but tacit. Racism may also entirely cast aside ethic markers. This is known as ‘cultural racism‘.
There are many groups of Muslims and western non-Muslims that use the term ‘Wahhabi’ in the derogatory sense to imply ‘all Arabs’ or ‘all Saudis’ are extremists. Recently, I experienced a group on Facebook who will go unnamed.
It was a 7000 member strong facebook group with a stated goal to ‘help new convert Muslims‘. In reality the group was mostly a cross section of ‘Asian’ Muslims who had repeated threads about the evil ‘Wahhabi’ and how to defeat them. The discussions rapidly descended into hate speech against Arabs. When prodded what was meant by some of the anti-arab statements, one of the members (again unnamed) joked, “All Arabs are killing machines”. I reasoned with him that mislabelling them and grouping all of them together coupled with making a statement like that is what leads to hate speech against peaceful ‘Salafi’ (fellow Muslims) and it does no practical good to mislabel them. Needless to say he didn’t take that well, sent me a message cursing at me, accusing me of calling him a hater and calling on the admin in the group to try to get me banned. In the spate of a few hours of this discussion followed by this group member’s threats to get me banned.
The point is that, though the group may have started with the best of intentions, the entire group was whipped up into a frenzy of ‘us versus them’ to the point that no one could reason and it didn’t take long. It was a flash response to challenging the social norm of anti-Arab (Muslim on Muslim) hate. If I were to believe their psychological projection onto the Salafi, it would be something I might have expected from these so-called ‘intolerant’ people they hated. It was no longer a forum of learning but a forum of anti-arab hate speech. Stereotyping, educating new Muslims (their stated goal), teaching them not to paint people with a broad brush of blind hatred, giving reasons to objection to the Salafi movement, didn’t matter. Anyone who questioned their blind stereotyping was a threat and needed to be cursed at and strong armed into silence. What mattered more was that they are Malay and they don’t like Arabs, our Islam is more valuable and valid while someone else’s is not. It is ‘us versus them‘. It’s the same thing Muslims often are seen complaining about when non-Muslims stereotype Islam, but on a micro level. I suspect in addition to ethnicity, religious persuasion played an ‘us versus them‘ role in this hateful response also.
“The Messenger of Allah said, “Four are the qualities which, when found in a person, make him a sheer hypocrite, and one who possesses one of them, possesses one characteristic of hypocrisy until he abandons it. These are: When he is entrusted with something, he betrays trust; when he speaks, he lies; when he promises, he acts treacherously; and when he argues, he behaves in a very imprudent, insulting manner.“” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
Bottom line is that it doesn’t solve the problem of extremism to mislabel Salafi (or anyone) ‘Wahhabi’. Most Salafi, most Muslims, are peaceful. Extremist militants do exist among them but extremist militants have existed among Jamaat-e-Islami, Iqwan, Sufi, Shi’a, etc. and in all other non-Muslim faiths, even Buddhism. In all cases, most people (Muslims and those of the Salafi movement included) value peace and security and militants are very much a small minority. Triggers and variations in these groups and their numbers often are relative to the politics in the region or globe and governments asserting their interests.
It’s okay to to disagree with how Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab did things, to criticise the Salafi or their scholars, to criticise how the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does things, to think they have an ideological problem that needs fixing or to have fundamental disagreements between each other, but maligning others by calling them by false names is unbecoming of a Muslim and fraught with error. Instead, our language should be precise and accurate. Reasonable discussion, intellectual education and debate needs to happen for any of us to benefit or solve the problems that plague our global community.
The term ‘Wahhabi’ is a manufactured-from-history and inaccurate name created by people with the intent to malign. It is incoherent, divisive and slanderous. If one is a Muslim and sincere in their faith, they should ask themselves if this is the kind of thing Allah would want us to be doing. I suspect, He wouldn’t.
Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided. Qur’an 16:125
In dealing with the issue of photography, we naturally have to reach back and talk about Islamic art since they both deal with the thing people object to, images. Art creativity has been around since long before the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), but as Islam expanded to new regions different attitudes towards the arts emerged. As Islam spread rapidly throughout the middle east, the Umayyids (661–750CE) made some advances in the arts but were the predecessors of the Islamic Golden Age. The Umayyids spread Islam as a dynamic religion which adapted to local cultures and the arts within the limitations of Islamic civilisation.
The Umayyids were a ruling tribe from the tribe Banu Umayya. The Banu Umayya were a tribe of Quraysh who converted to Islam during the time of the Prophet, the most notable of them Uthman ibn Affan who went on to become the third Caliph during the Rashidun period. Uthman ibn Affan is considered the third of four ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs‘ who Sunni look to (in addition to Qur’an and Hadith) when interpreting Shari’ah. Caliph Uthman is also attributed with completing the very first full edition of the Qur’an begun under Abu Bakr’s term as Caliph.
The Abassids where direct descendants of Al-Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, the youngest uncle of the Prophet Muhammad and overthrew the Umayyids in 750 CE. The Abassid reign under Caliph Harun al-Rashid built upon the culture and sciences of the Umayyids. The result was an explosion of advances in art, music, literature, science, medicine and much more that led Islam into a full blown Golden Age, while Europe plunged itself into the Dark Ages. It was this age that Europeans traveled to Islamic lands to study in Islamic universities to acquire education which they would carry back to Europe. Eventually, this led to the renaissance in 1300 CE pulling Europe out of the Dark Ages.
Since the beginning, Islamic civilisation has been familiar with depictions of Allah’s creation. 1400 years of Islamic history tells us that these depictions were mostly permitted unless there was an element of shirk (idolatry) associated with it. Even in the case of art that had idolatrous significance that became owned by Muslims, it was often marked but not destroyed. Human (or any) representation for the purpose of worship is shirk (idolatry) and is strictly forbidden. However, the evidence shows that Muslims from all eras have never conclusively viewed representation of mundane figures as forbidden.
However, if we reach back to the Prophet’s example, although shirk is forbidden, we still do not see a total destruction or defacement of works of art among non-Muslim communities who were in alliances with Muslims. The Prophet himself demanded that Muslims respect other faiths and even participate in maintaining and repairing their religious buildings, which were decorated with paintings, statues and other works that would naturally have items of religious value considered shirk by Muslims. Examples:
In recent centuries an effort to re-establish the past glory of Islam’s Golden Age, many Muslims have come to believe that instead of building from where we were at the height of the Golden Age that we must dial back Islamic civilisation by viewing it all as bid’ah (innovation) involving varying degrees of shirk (idolatry). In doing so, there is considerable effort put into regressive ideologies that do not consider the ‘larger picture’ of the facts of Islamic history, modern living, culture, science, economy and governance. One such movement today, the Salafist movement, is preoccupied with forbidding the things that were once the pinnacle of Islamic civilisation from its earliest days to its decline at the hands of the Mongols. This movement began 300 years ago in the mid 1700s and is rooted in Saudi Arabian history. The fundamentals of this revivalist Salafist movement seems sound on the surface. It is more often overly zealous to avoid what it identifies as unnecessary bid’ah (innovation) and ascribes shirk (polytheism) where none exists. It’s marriage to the Saudi Arabian government often is problematic when interpreting Islam as it applies autocratic ideology within the country and in the movement worldwide. Since the earliest days, Islam has always been a more dynamic faith.
O people, beware of exaggeration in religious matters for those who came before you were doomed because of exaggeration in religious matters. – Sunan Ibn Majah
There is nothing wrong with being overly cautious, however, this seemingly monastic outlook is unnecessary and shouldn’t be put off as the only correct Islamic view. Furthermore, it is over-burdensome in a way Allah and the Prophet (PBUH) never intended for the believers. Such puritan ideas in the arts (among other things) are themselves a destructive bid’ah (innovation) of religion in my view.
God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b
God does not wish to place any burden on you: He only wishes to cleanse you and perfect His blessing on you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 5:6
A bedouin urinated in the mosque and some people rushed to beat him up. The Prophet said: “Leave him alone and pour a bucket of water over it. You have been sent to make things easy and not to make them difficult.” – Riyad as-Salihin (Bukhari)
Interestingly, one of the things that most Muslims do not think about is the representation of one celestial body (sometimes accompanied by a second) that were once used by pagan idolaters that exists on most Mosques, many national flags or religious accessories today (like carpets). Like representations of humans, animals or plants, and unlike other symbols of faith, they are representations of Allah’s creation and people in the past have gone astray to worship them or use them for polytheistic purpose.
The Star and Crescent signifies victory, sovereignty and divinity. According to tradition, in 339 BC a brilliant crescent moon saved Byzantium (now Istanbul) from attack by Philip of Macedon. To mark their gratitude, the citizens adopted the Crescent of Diana as the city’s emblem. After Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, Byzantium became a Christian city in 330 AD and was renamed Constantinople. The Crescent was adopted from the goddess Diana and given a Star by the Emperor as symbolic of the Virgin Mary.
After 1299, during the reign of Sultan Osman Gazi of the Ottoman Empire, the Sultan had a dream of a crescent moon in every corner of the world with a “mighty wind, and turned the points of the sword-leaves towards the various cities of the world, but especially towards Constantinople.” The dream then became a symbol of the Ottoman dynasty. When Constantinople was conquered by Mehmed II in 1453, the crescent came to represent both Islam and the Turkish empire.
It is understood by all Muslims that this is merely symbolic and has no religious significance or polytheistic merit despite its idolatrous origins.
The night, the day, the sun, the moon, are only a few of His signs. Do not bow down in worship to the sun or the moon, but bow down to God who created them, if it is truly Him that you worship. – Qur’an 41:37
Yet, the Crescent and Star decorate our Islamic societies in the same way as picture art since the earliest days of Islam (unlike the Crescent and Star, such Islamic art never had any polytheistic or religious merit). We know with certainty that picture art decorated Mosques, town centers, palaces, homes, etc. since the Umayyids. There is one similarity between these two things (Crescent decoration and art) that tie this up into a neat bundle of understanding and is perfectly in line with Quran and Hadith. In creating and using these items, there is no intent to create a relic for people to venerate. No shirk is involved.
Since the development of the camera, there has been the ongoing debate over whether or not taking a photograph is forbidden or permitted in Islam, but there has been little understanding about what photography actually is. There are two forms of photography addressed by the scholars, ‘still photo’ and ‘video’.
Though it shares all of the characteristics of imagination involved in creating a painting, photography today is not creating a picture, nor is it taking a picture. A photograph is a reflection of a scene that already exists. Photography is the control of reflective light bouncing off of a subject. Controlling this light is similar to the control of water if you were to open a water tap and fill a jug for use at a later date. Photography is both an art form and a science. Photography is applying the talent that Allah has given you to see something and adjusting the mechanisms to control light which in turn determines how it is recorded on a micro storage chip, resulting in a great photograph for you to consume (use) at a later date. Here is how it works:
In the above diagram light rays already exist, even in total darkness. You can adjust light with a flash or simply have a longer exposure. Light bounces off or radiates from something in the world and is constantly travelling towards your camera. When you point the camera at a subject, the image is bouncing off of your mirror (or shutter in the case of mirror-less). The aperture in your lens can be adjusted for a faster (larger) or slower (smaller) light setting. The shutter can be set slower to allow more light or faster to allow less light. The sensor that will record the light can be set to more or less light sensitive. When the settings are optimal the shutter is released for the specified time. When the shutter is released, light that is already travelling into your camera continues on its way to the sensor. The sensor is electronic and the light from the scene is interpreted by the CPU, converted to data and stored in your data drive. The still photo is called a ‘frame’. The data from the photo frame can be exported for data manipulation on your PC, stored or printed for whatever reason.
Whether you have a camera dedicated for television or movies, DSLR or mobile phone, all digital cameras are video capable. A video is a series of still photo frames that are taken with the correct lighting controls (aperture, shutter speed and sensor strength) that are recorded for playback into what is called ‘frame rate’. When they are played back, the frame rate is the number of images that are played back, displayed or projected per second. Although video can be viewed as a separate art form, it works in the exact same way that still photography works, with one exception: audio. Audio breathes life into the collection of rapidly projected photographs and is imprinted on what we call television, computer screens, tablets and mobile phones. It can also be frozen by frame and printed the same as a still photo with the right software. Although this is less quality and overlooked in place of more appropriate still photography, Ultra-High Definition is making for clearer television pictures as technology advances.
Photography has many beneficial uses and as with anything that exists can be abused. It has some very relevant purposes, such as to communicate, tell a story, inspire, capture history, innocent retention of memories and challenge creativity. All of this can be used for good causes like remembering lost loved ones, making a record of your life for your family, communicating beauty on various subjects, conveying emotions, identification for ID cards or social media profiles, journalism, education in all sciences, and much more.
Scholarly Opinions, are Opinions
In large part, scholars do ‘permit’ photographs, even if they forbid painting art. However, most Salafis, who have now propagated their movement worldwide with the support of the Saudi Arabian government, have taught that still photography is forbidden except for photo ID like passports, etc. Interestingly, in the same stroke of a brush they claim that taking video is permitted. In fact, there is no difference between the two from a photographic standpoint.
It seems a lot of us Muslims get amnesia when it comes to leaders like the Saudi Arabian King Salman and a number of other Muslim dictators across Arab ‘Muslim’ countries. Their imposing portrait paintings and photographs are plastered all over our Islamic societies. These types of paintings and photos are designed to remind us who is in charge, who we should fear and who we should admire, and I don’t think they have Qur’an, Sunnah or Allah in mind. Still two wrongs wouldn’t make a right and someone’s disingenuous argumentation doesn’t allow us a free pass, so lets examine this topic further.
The evidences the scholars use to come to these conclusions are not based in Qur’an. There is no prohibition on drawing, painting, or creating art of any type in the Qur’an. The core message of Allah to Muslims is Tawheed (Oneness) and in the Qur’an He warns us about engaging in forms of idolatry. In other words, ascribing a supernatural quality, partnership, or divinity to corruptible things, either in Creation or that we create. If one examines the totality of hadith on the topic, there is a clear line in Islam between permissibly and discretion that indicates to us at what point our intent becomes the idolatrous behaviour which is prohibited in the Qur’an. Allah does not prohibit us from enjoying his creation through the arts, but limits us in our acts of divine adoration, supplication and worship to Him only. What I am speaking of is plain in the Quran:
If any, after this, invent a lie and attribute it to Allah, they are indeed unjust wrong-doers. – Qur’an 3:94
Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him. – Qur’an 112
Further to the discussion, according to the Qur’an Allah even blessed Prophet Sulaiman (a.s.) and his family to enjoy these things that were made for them.
They made him whatever he wanted- palaces, statues, basins as large as water troughs, fixed cauldrons. We said, ‘Work thankfully, family of David, for few of my servants are truly thankful.’ – Qur’an 34:13
The Qur’an is our primary source as it is the most authentic source. The hadith are our secondary source because they are not the words of Allah but a series of chain narrations that have been authenticated and recorded hundreds of years later (longer than it took for parts of the Bible to be put on papyrus), hence all hadith must be looked at in light of the Qur’an.
The prohibitions imposed by scholars who prohibit photographic art are entirely based on a group of hadith that if seen together, in light of Qur’anic verses and the history of what purpose many images served in the time of the Prophet, they can be easily understood as they always have been since the time of the Prophet Muhammad when Islam was perfected.
This day have I perfected your religion for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion. – Qur’an 5:3
Here is what the scholars say:
According to Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the subject matter of a photograph is factor in prohibition. For example, nude or semi-nude photographs, drawings or paintings would be forbidden because they go squarely against Islamic morals. Such a prohibition would also include portraits of tyrants or people who are leaders or celebrities that propagate immoral behavior. He also includes subject matter like religious symbols, such as crosses, idols, etc.
Sheikh Ahmad Kutty, says, “Photography as a medium of communication or for the simple, innocent retention of memories without the taint of reverence/shirk does not fall under the category of forbidden Tasweer [picture/image].
One finds a number of traditions from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, condemning people who make Tasweer, which denotes painting or carving images or statues. It was closely associated with paganism or shirk [association of partners with Allah]. People were in the habit of carving images and statues for the sake of worship. Islam, therefore, declared Tasweer forbidden because of its close association with shirk. One of the stated principles of usul-u-Fiqh( Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence) is that if anything directly leads to haram [forbidden acts], it is likewise haram. In other words, Tasweer was forbidden precisely for the reason that it was a means leading to shirk.
The function of photography today does not fall under the above category. Even some of the scholars who had been once vehemently opposed to photography under the pretext that it was a form of forbiddenTasweerhave later changed their position on it – as they allow even for their own pictures to be taken and published in newspapers, for videotaping lectures and for presentations; whereas in the past, they would only allow it in exceptional cases such as passports, drivers’ licenses, etc. The change in their view of photography is based on their assessment of the role of photography.
Having said this, one must add a word of caution: To take pictures of leaders and heroes and hang them on the walls may not belong to the same category of permission. This may give rise to a feeling of reverence and hero worship, which was precisely the main thrust of the prohibition of Tasweer. Therefore, one cannot make an unqualified statement to the effect that all photography is halal. It all depends on the use and function of it. If it is for educational purpose and has not been tainted with the motive of reverence and hero worship, there is nothing in the sources to prohibit it.”
Imam Afroz Ali, writes, “…the dominant opinion of the modern Scholars of High Knowledge is that photography is permissible as long as they are of benefit and not for any harmful or prohibited purposes, and that photographs of humans and animals not be displayed [on a wall].”
Sheikh Ibn Baz and other more restrictive scholars expressly forbids photographs and art, claiming that the areas that he deems ‘doubtful’ should be avoided. I’ve included a portrait of him here to illustrate that this type of outright restriction seems disingenuous.
The swiftness that Shiekh Ibn Baz and others exchange ‘avoidance’ (or other qualifiers) with ‘forbidden’ regarding photography is concerning. Qur’an says:
Be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong: those who do this are the successful ones. – Qur’an 3:104
God wants ease for you, not hardship. He wants you to complete the prescribed period and to glorify Him for having guided you, so that you may be thankful. – Qur’an 2:185b
You who believe, do not forbid the good things God has made lawful to you- do not exceed the limits: God does not love those who exceed the limits – Qur’an 5:87
Allah has never given a command forbidding picture making, but he has forbidden shirk, that we know in the Prophet’s time was more often associated with picture making. In the same ease of saying it is a ‘doubtful’ area (since it isn’t mentioned directly in Qur’an, hadith and history seem to conflict) that the Sheikh forbids it, we can also say that it is permitted unless shirk is involved. With the same logic to forbid it we can also make it permitted as something good for us, unless misused in ways against Qur’anic teaching of Tawheed. It’s important to note also that where these scholars used to expressly forbid it in all cases, many have now changed their views regarding some of it. Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi has even noted this among some of these Salafist scholars:
“The Salafis also have developed in several jurisprudence issues, such as “photography,” which they used to consider one of the major crimes, but now they consider it allowed.”
As a photographer, I would also say that there is legitimate reason to photograph some of these things Sheikh Al-Qaradawi mentions depending on circumstance. For example, education, journalism, news reporting, etc. The line to draw is in the intent of the photograph. For example, a picture of a cross can tell a story that can illustrate to the audience a valid educational opportunity or simply can serve as a mere collection of memories on a holiday trip to the Vatican, etc. Conversely, a portrait of a nation’s regime leadership is intended to portray them in a false light that exalts them, normalises them, reinforces their rule or washes out their crimes. I agree with Sheikh Kutty that the line is drawn at the use and function of it.
According to the sum of the hadith that even Sheikh Ibn Baz lists, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) dealt with issues where the images were closely associated with promoting shirk, which was common in the culture of his time. The intent of such art was towards advancingbeliefs contrary to Islam. Centuries of Islamic civilisation dating back to the earliest surviving examples from the 7th century through the Islamic Golden Age serve as an indicator of how this topic was interpreted by the early sahabbah [companions] and subsequent scholars. Surviving documents dictated by the Prophet Muhammad himself tell us how even in some cases Muslims were ordered to repair and maintain properties of other faiths that (as common in that time) would have had religious statues, paintings and other image art incorporated into their architecture. Such a notion is still completely in line with Qur’an that expressly forbids Muslims from engaging in all forms of shirk while serving a higher purpose of Islamic civilisation.
If we consider the sum of all hadith, the Qur’an, historical context since the time of the Prophet and sahabbah, agreements the Prophet Muhammad has made with non-Muslim groups and even later Islamic history leading into the Golden Age, we can see that the hadith that many people today use to prohibit all image making is really only prohibiting Muslims from the making of relics.
I’ve also found that many scholars do not understand what photography is and have not properly consulted the industry and educated themselves on the science. When making rulings on any topic this is imperative. In the end we are responsible to Allah for ourselves. Photography is a beautiful art that has many purposes. When you take photographs, consider your subject matter, is it haram? What is the intent of the image, education, saving a memory? In the end, you are the best qualified to chart the course of your life. Don’t surrender your mind to others who wish to use the ‘just in case’ reasoning to ban photography.
We have bound each human being’s destiny to his neck. On the Day of Resurrection, We shall bring out a record for each of them, which they will find spread wide open, ‘Read your record. Today your own soul is enough to calculate your account.’ Whoever accepts guidance does so for his own good; whoever strays does so at his own peril. No soul will bear another’s burden, nor do We punish until We have sent a messenger. – Qur’an 17:13-15
My view is that if you feel you need to go that extra mile to avoid something, then do it. However, such personal convictions shouldn’t be imposed on others. It could be that Allah has permitted it, as I believe is clearly shown in in light of all of the facts of Qur’an, hadith and history. The one who does not transgress the limits set by Allah (shirk) is exercising a creative right given by Allah to enjoy for a better purpose. There are things Allah has made clear and other things He has not. Of the things He hasn’t made clear He has left us room for growth. Both the conservative and liberal thinker can be right within the confines of what Allah has set out for us in the Qur’an. In the end, we must have faith in Allah that He is the God He says He is, the Most Merciful. Niyyah (intentions) is the foundation for every act in Islam.
Messenger of Allah said, “The deeds are considered by the intentions, and a person will get the reward according to his intention. So whoever emigrated for Allah and His Messenger, his emigration will be for Allah and His Messenger; and whoever emigrated for worldly benefits or for a woman to marry, his emigration would be for what he emigrated for”. – Riyad as-Salihin [Bukhari and Muslim]
Allah would, however, raise them according to their intention. – Sahih Muslim
Allah has given us a beautiful gift and it should be used for His glory and our enjoyment. An art that portrays a sense of skill, pride, joy and beauty in the world is not forbidden from Allah, it is a gift of Allah.
And (He has created) horses, mules, and donkeys, for you to ride and use for show; and He has created (other) things of which ye have no knowledge. – Qur’an 16:8
As I have established in my articles on ‘The Hadith‘ and ‘Shariah‘, the Qur’an is the primary source that guides a Muslim’s belief system, lifestyle and values. The hadith supplement these things in interpretations of Shariah that scholars make. In this decision making process, Shari’ah which does not relate to religious life (See: Islam is a 3 Dimensional Religion) or practice is “dynamic” and able to change based on time, place, the people and technology. Interpreting hadith is a science that many scholars devote their entire lives to. There is a historical and cultural context to hadith.
The hadith were written between 200-300 years after the Prophet and he never saw them or authorized them as he did the Qur’an, so we have to ‘authenticate’ the narrators. We call this ‘isnad‘ (chain of narration) and this tells us that the people who narrated the hadith are trustworthy or not. Isnad does not tell us that what was recorded in the hadith is definitively what was said or happened. Hadith are basically “hearsay evidence” and have many classifications of authenticity of isnad, not accuracy of content. This is why the hadith are a secondary source that supplement the Qur’an.
Keep in mind that although Muslims believe in the Bible (New Testament), we don’t rely on it for our belief system partly for the reason that the earliest writings are from 132AD (in Aramaic) and wasn’t canonized until 325AD (in Greek). More precisely, it has no isnad (chain of narration). That’s 100 to over 300 years after Jesus. The Prophet never saw our books of hadith and Jesus never saw the Bible to authorize it.
There is a logical fallacy by antagonists of Islam claiming that Aisha was too young to marry based on one or two hadith. People who claim this have little knowledge of what they are talking about and don’t have the desire or know how in order to find out. Hopefully, I have simplified it here for anyone to easily understand.
Aisha’s marriage was arranged by her father Abu Bakr and she was not married until she was legally able to accept the marriage. The age is highly debatable due to the contradictions of many hadith, compounded by people’s lack sourcing hadith and understanding how to fit them together, hence why it is considered a ‘science’. In fact, tallying up all of the contradictions on her age mentioned in various hadith averages out to age 19.
To arbitrarily say Aisha was six or nine years old without taking into account the many other hadith that contradict this is a serious logical error. To put faith in that assertion and deliberately hang on to the belief that Islam teaches Aisha was this young, the Prophet Muhammad was a sexual predator or Islam teaches Muslims to do this is simply half-baked and absurd.
Unlike in much of today’s western world, in seventh century Arabia, the onset for puberty defined adulthood. As late as five centuries later, this was the case also in Europe. King John of England was 33 years old and married Isabella of Angoulême, who was 12 at the time.
Also, it’s important to mention rarely thought of facts about our western societies before making negative judgments about the issue of ‘marital age’. “Modern standards” in the United States alone very greatly but all states allow early marriageable ages, some as young as 12. According to various US state law, a girl with her parents consent can marry and have sex in that marriage in her early to mid teens. There is no top end cap on the age of men, either. In Europe, many countries limit the legal age of consent to sex as low as 14 years old. It may or may not be acceptable to most of us for these ages, but before holding a double standard on 7th century Arabian cultural norms, we need to consider these facts, because they aren’t much different.
The fallacy of believing the error of Aisha being too young to be married involve these contradictions in the hadith:
Abu Bakr is reported in Tabari to have wished to spare Aisha the harsh trip to Ethiopia shortly after 615 CE and tried to marry her to Mut’am’s son sooner than planned (she was engaged once prior to the Prophet marrying her). Mut’am refused because Abu Bakr had converted to Islam. If Aisha was old enough to be engaged (of marriageable age) in 615 CE she would have been much older than nine in 622 CE when she married.
Tabari also reports that during Jahiliyyah (days before he accepted Islam) all of his kids were born. His jahiliyyah ended in 610 CE. This would make Aisha twelve when she married in 622 CE.
The earliest surviving biography of the Prophet (Ibn Hisham) says that she converted to Islam before one of the Prophet’s main companions (Umar ibn Al-Kattab) in the few years around 610 CE. In order to convert to Islam she had to be of the age of talking and understanding. Assuming this is around age three, that would make her at least 15 in 622 CE when she was married.
Fatima was five years older than Aisha according to Ibn Hajar. Fatima was born when Muhammad was 35 years old. This means that Aisha was born when the Muhammad was 40 years old which would make Aisha twelve years old when she was married.
Sahih Bukhari states that Aisha participated in both the battle of Badr and Uhud. According to Bukhari’s Kitab Al’ Maghzi (Book of History), Ibn Umar said that the Prophet did not allow him to participate in the battle of Uhud because he was 14 years old. No one younger than 15 was allowed to accompany raiding parties. However, on the day of the Khandaq battle Ibn Umar was 15 and he was allowed to participate. Since it was not allowed for people younger than 15 to participate in raiding parties, Aisha who participated in the battle of Uhud was at minimum 15 years old. This would put her at 13-14 at the time of marriage.
According the Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, Aisha was at the battle of Badr, which took place in 624 CE. It is not possible for her to be at the battle of Badr without being at minimum age 15 because no one younger than this was allowed to accompany raiding parties. If she was at the battle of Badr (which she was according to Qur’an) she would have been 15 or older. So, when she was married following the hijra (migration to Medina) in 622 CE she would have been 13 or older.
Aisha is said also to have been born eight years before Hijra (migration to Medina) in 622 CE. Yet, in Sahih Bukhari that at the time of the 54th chapter of the Qur’an was revealed (Surah Al-Qamar) Aisha is reported to have said, “I was a young girl”. However, the 54th Chapter of Qur’an was revealed nine years before Hijra. According to this, Aisha had not even been born yet. So, if Ashia, as an adult after the death of the Prophet, relayed a hadith remembering to a time when she was a young girl (during a time when she wasn’t even born yet) she would most likely be referring to being between 7-14, which would make her between 14-21 at the age of marriage.
It is generally accepted among historians that Aisha’s sister Asma was ten years older than her. Two sources (Taqreeb al-Tehzeeb and Ibn Kathir’s Al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah) state that Asma died in the 73rd year after Hijra (migration to Madina) when she was 100 years old. If Asma was 100 at that time, she would have been 27 or 28 during Hijra in 622 CE. This would make Aisha 17 or 18 years old at that time. If Aisha got married a year or two later in 1 AH or 2 AH (After Hijra) she would have been somewhere between 18-20 years old at the time of marriage.
Ibn Sa’d’s Tabaqat and Ansab al-Ashraf books are in disagreement concerning Aisha’s marriage. Accordingly, her marriage would have been two to five years after Hijra (migration to Madina) and would make her about 17-20. (Source)
Aisha was at minimum the age of puberty at the time of marriage according to 7th century customs, possibly older.
Aisha deeply loved the Prophet Muhammad long after he died and until the day she died. She was in love with him her entire life and he with her. Many hadith support how close and intimate their love was for each other.
Of all the demonizing from local tribes claiming he was demonically possessed, insane or altering the market economy by making their gods obsolete, etc., no one ever accused him of marrying a girl too young to be married.
Aisha was a warrior who commanded men from her tribe in battle. She was a strong woman with high status in Islam and Arabia. She relayed the majority of the Prophet Muhammad’s hadith after he died. Since she had the power to do so, there is no evidence that she reflected in her stories of the Prophet’s life that he victimized her by marrying her or that her marriage or relationship made her unhappy. She was totally devoted to him until she died.
Aisha never gave any indication that she was forced to marry and forced marriages is against Islamic teaching. Her marriage was willful and accepted by her as per custom among Muslims.
Aisha had a healthy relationship with the Prophet and no serious scholar of Islamic history has ever noted signs of a forced or sexually abusive relationship.
The term “Jihad” is almost always mistranslated by westerners as “Holy War.” In fact, the term “Jihad” literally translates to “struggle against.” “Holy war” today is often misapplied to Jihad because of western orientalist and Christian cultural understanding of the Crusades. The First Crusade was launched in 1095 Pope Urban II preached a war ideology referring to it as a “Holy War” in order to garner Christian support to retake the “Holy Land” from the Muslims.
The concept of what is “holy” may seem like semantics over something petty but it is a significant part of understanding proper Islamic Aqeeda (Creed) and Tawheed (Purity, Uniqueness and Oneness of Allah). Often, Muslims who don’t have the knowledge, are trying to bridge the understanding gap on your own terms or are speaking from common cultural misunderstanding will misuse the word “Holy.” It’s important to know that in Islam nothing is “Holy” except Allah. Many Muslims often say “Holy Qur’an” or “Holy Prophet”, but this is misleading. In Islam, nothing that is part of creation, able to be corrupted, mutilated or annihilated, is “Holy.” We often say that the Qur’an or the Prophets are most deserving to be called holy, but they by nature are not Holy. Muslims with the understanding of this concept will call the Qur’an the “Glorious (or Noble) Qur’an” or the Prophet “Most beloved (or Noble) Prophet” or something similar. According to Islamic teachings, the worst failing in human history is war and war is certainly NOT “Holy.” Therefore, the concept of “Holy War” is alien to Islam.
The Arabic word for “war” is “harb” and the Arabic word for “fighting or killing” is “qital.” Neither harb or qital are Holy and according to the examples set forth in the Qur’an only engaged in AFTER extensive diplomacy by a form of “government” has failed. According to Islam the last resort act of state sanctioned war ceases and peace is re-established when there is hope of diplomacy succeeding and is re-established.
There are 3 types of Jihad in Islam:
Jihad bil nafs – The struggle of the inner self relating to immoral of imperfect behaviour. It is closely related to the concept of “Ihsan” that I spoke about in my post entitled, “Islam is a 3 Dimensional Religion”
Jihad bil Qallam – The struggle of society through the pen or tongue (lisan) to establish justice in the land. In western analogy it can be comparable to the Edward Bulwer-Lytton 1839 quote, “The Pen is Mightier than the Sword.” It is one of the greatest forms of Islamic Jihad according to the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.
Jihad bis Saif – A “state level” self-defence permission in Islam which is given to an Islamic government that allows for a well-regulated standing military controlled by a diplomatic system of governance and refers to harb and qital when all possibility of diplomacy has failed.
Of the three types of Jihad, “The best fighting (jihad) in the path of Allah is (to speak) a word of justice to an oppressive ruler.” – Prophet Muhammad (Abu Dawud Book 38, Hadith 4330; Grade: Sahih)
Contrary to what you see misguided Muslim individuals, Muslim terror groups and criminal enterprises or even some Muslim controlled governments doing today, jihad or struggle (which is a defensive strategy) involving harb or qital, has very strict rules. These rules are more restrictive than most any modern government, including the United States, Britain and other governments.
According to Islam, both combatants and non-combatants, believer and unbeliever have rights that are not to be infringed upon. In all cases, no exception, these are just a few things which are expressly FORBIDDEN (haram or major sins) in Islam:
Vigilantism, force converting, enslaving, raping, torturing, killing non-combatants (civilians), committing suicide, attacking the wounded, executing prisoners, mutilating dead bodies or refusing to return them to their families, intentionally destroying buildings or property, looting, destroying agriculture/crops, and burning people with fire.
Islam is very clear that Muslims who do this are not martyrs, but criminals subject to punishment in this life and in the afterlife.
“THE FIRST of men (whose case) will be decided on the Day of Judgment will be a man who died as a martyr. He shall be brought [before the Judgment Seat]. Allah will make him recount His blessings (i. e. the blessings which He had bestowed upon him) and he will recount them (and admit having enjoyed them in his life). [Then] will Allah say: What did you do [to respond to these blessings]? He will say: I fought for Thee until I died as a martyr. Allah will say: You have told a lie. You fought that you might be called a” brave warrior”. And you were called so. [Then] orders will be passed against him and he will be dragged with his face downward and cast into Hell.” – Prophet Muhammad (Sahih Muslim; The Book on Government, Hadith 4688)
The purpose of Jihad as taught by Islam in all cases is to promote and establish justice in one’s own life or the life of others. Where there is struggle that does not include from start to finish the establishment of justice or the rules of this concept are not followed, there is no struggle (jihad) but sin and corruption.
As recent politics has put Islam and Islamic Shari’ah into the spotlight of public discourse, there is every reason you all should know about the topic of Shari’ah. A ton of misinformation has been circulating about Shari’ah and I’d suggest paying close attention to this post and ask questions if you don’t understand something or wish clarification.
The word “Shari’ah” literally means, “an immense road leading to a flowing source of water.” It is literally the lifeblood of human social development, advancement, economics, enlightenment, culture and sophistication. Shari’ah guides us in every aspect of our lives such as our religion, culture, society and even as minute as personal hygiene.
There is no theocracy in Islam and as such Shari’ah as a whole is NOT God’s Law. Shari’ah consists of laws and interpretations codified by groups of ‘Uleema (scholars/judges) in legal judgments called fatawah (rulings or opinions) plural or fatwah singular.
These scholarly opinions are based in part on God’s revelations, the recordings of the hadith of Prophet Muhammad’s life collected 300 years after his death, modern social and cultural norms and new technologies. Scholarly opinions on Shari’ah are based in areas of study among various Islamic schools of thought.
There are 5 main “Madhab” (pronounced “maḏhab”), or “Schools of Thought” that are based on Imam (scholarly thinkers; teachers) who lived over 1000 years ago. Each school interprets Islamic texts differently on various issues and our modern scholars often refer to them to make decisions of Shari’ah and issue fatawah (rulings/opinions). Some madhab are more predominant in some countries or regions than others. Prime examples of differences between the madhab are Saudi Arabia (Sunni; Hanbali) and Iran (Shi’a; Ja’fari school) which are both Muslim but have developed hugely different religious structure and viewpoints. You can see that many countries also share the same madhab. Some Muslim communities in the west may have representations of all of the schools of thought, like United States, United Kingdom and others. Muslims in the west are a melting pot of ideas not just in secular society but also often in their religious communities.
These are the 5 main Madhab (Islamic Schools of Thought):
Shari’ah on an issue in one group may not resemble the shari’ah in another. For example, the religious shari’ah rulings of the Hanafi school (South Asia) says Muslims should pray with their hands folded, while the Maliki school (North Africa) says to pray with the arms by one’s side. Such rulings that differ can be on social, political and national differences as well. Example of national differences might be Saudi Arabia (Hanbali) which may cut off someone’s hand for stealing whereas Malaysia (Shafi’i) may simply put them in prison and give a hefty fine.
There is no single book of Shari’ah. You cannot go to a bookshop and ask for “The Book of Shari’ah,” like you might the Bible or Qur’an or a volume of Hadith. It isn’t there. Shari’ah is a “science of interpretation” by groups of people (Uleema; Scholars or Judges) among the various schools of thought which appear in fatawah (rulings) that can be made on a regional, national or local level or even internationally agreed upon by consensus.
Many western antagonists like to pretend to know about Shari’ah and claim that the totality of Shari’ah is summed up in penal codes only acceptable in ancient times (such as the Roman Empire) but considered barbaric today. Shari’ah is made up of infinitely more than the few penal codes of certain repressive governments which they commonly point to today.
There are some “religious” aspects of Shari’ah that are internationally recognized as unchangeable and some of those rulings you have already read in my previous posts, like, “Islam is a 3 Dimensional Religion.” The very basic religious aspects of Shari’ah are agreed upon internationally by all Muslims and therefore unchangeable. To change or deny these religious ideals would be to deny Islam itself. So, it is ridiculous for an antagonist to ask a Muslim if they deny Shari’ah as a measure of religious “moderation, reform or modernization.” What part of it? Why would we deny “Shari’ah?”
For example, based on the Qur’an and Hadith, according to all scholars of Islam worldwide, there are 5 pillars of Islam. The first pillar of Islam is the very basic entry point to becoming a Muslim (Shi’a and Sunni) and to become Muslim one must recite with wilful conviction the Shahaddah (Confession of Faith). It is a requirement to be considered a Muslim by our peers. It is therefore, part of the Shari’ah that a person must understand that there is no other god except the One God and Muhammad is the Last Messenger and make a confession of their belief. Shari’ah goes on to detail the other pillars (like Prayer, Fasting, Charity, and Pilgrimage) and the requirements for successfully fulfilling those requirements. How to pray, how many times to wash per day, requirements for giving charity, how to make pilgrimage are all detailed by Shari’ah. Why would we be asked to deny these as a sign of “moderation or reform” when to do so makes us either a non-Muslim, like a non-Muslim or prevents us from carrying out our Islamic duties? To ask us to deny Shari’ah in light of this aspect is tantamount to asking a Christian to deny the articles of faith decided upon by their founding Church elders.
Shari’ah as a living breathing legal system that is interpreted differently by different people and a small portion of it actually defines religious duties. It is imperative to note that over 90% of Shari’ah does not relate to religious life or practice and is “dynamic” and able to change based on time, place, the people and technology. Social issues and criminal penal codes of shari’ah could and should be modernized. Often the only modernization we see is among western Muslim scholars and communities who live away from brutally repressive regimes. Under dictatorships that control Muslim populations today (like Saudi Arabia or Egypt) speaking publicly with new ideas that challenge, criticize or question social norms, the law and government could be a prison or death sentence. The state exerts absolute control over the religious establishment. Freedom of expression in the west has cultivated a new generation of scholars free to propose new ideas on modernization of Shari’ah that could not be done in nations like Egypt, Saudi, Iran, etc.
Shari’ah Courts; Halakkah Courts
A Beth Din is a Jewish Halakkah (Jewish Law) court that is set up in the United States, Europe and many other countries. These Jewish courts make rulings (like fatwah) on behalf of Jewish communities in the United States. One such ruling is for Jewish communities to establish the Eruv (a physical public barrier that encircles a township or area predominantly Jewish which allows certain religious rights to Jews) in predominantly Jewish neighborhoods in non-Jewish countries. If one isn’t Jewish he/she wouldn’t even know what it is even if it was pointed out to them let alone know if one is present in the area they live in.
Despite the ancient Jewish practices (no longer practiced) of stoning homosexuals and adulterers (Deuteronomy 17:5; Leviticus 20:13), these Jewish courts in foreign countries (like the United States) function the same way Islamic Law courts do in many non-Muslim countries around the world today. The implementation of Jewish Law in a non-Jewish society has no bearing on non-Jews because Jews living in the west have modernized the portions of Jewish Law that is not necessary to faith, like barbaric penal codes once acceptable 3000 years ago. Like Jewish Halakkah courts, shari’ah courts operate in many countries Muslim and non-Muslim (including Israel) leaving behind the ancient barbaric penal codes.
In fact, the debate about allowing Jewish Law and Jewish Halakkah courts, especially on issues like the Eruv to be implemented in Jewish communities in the US (and even in Europe), has brought the same concerns from the public as with Shari’ah courts. Despite antisemitic fear mongering that has suggested in the past that the Jews were setting up a Jewish enclave in the US, it hasn’t created such issues like Jews stoning people in the streets, etc.
Shari’ah courts in a large number of countries (including many western countries) are offered on an “opt-in” basis and makes rulings between parties on issues of civil, divorce or inheritance. Some Muslim countries refer marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance to Shari’ah courts by default preferring unislamic (and barbaric) European colonial penal codes, laws and cultural attitudes for the rest. In some dictatorships, where freedom to challenge the ruling party does not exist these courts are used as a mouth piece of the Monarchy or Dictatorship to make religious and other rulings often nonsensical to most ordinary Muslims and often contrary to Islam itself and a violation of human rights.
Shari’ah and Shari’ah courts are not something to be feared by westerners. Islamic shari’ah is not divine, monolithic or rigid. Islam never allows compulsion in religion. Shari’ah is not imposed on non-Muslims and Muslims may opt in or out. Islamic shari’ah is as compatible with western law and way of life as Jewish Halakkah. The key to a successful and integrated Shari’ah is to foster religious freedom for Muslims to debate ideas and partner with us to help us promote human rights in our communities here and around the world. We will never “abandon our Shari’ah” because it defines and shapes our Aqeeda (Creed) and our religious practice. However, we can modernize, assimilate or shed outdated interpretations of Shari’ah, such as penal codes designed for a place, a time and a people that is far distant in the past. It is not against Islam but rather consistent with Islam, from it’s inception to its Golden Age, to replace old ideas with new modern values suited for the times and place we live in.
“O ye who believe! stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be (against) rich or poor: for Allah can best protect both. Follow not the lusts (of your hearts), lest ye swerve, and if ye distort (justice) or decline to do justice, verily Allah is well-acquainted with all that ye do.” – Qur’an 4:135
Among all Muslims worldwide these concepts are agreed upon. Although we all agree on the Qur’an and these basics, building past the very basic foundations of “Sunnah” (which also overlap historical events) is where the Sunni and Shi’a divide begins to take shape. I’m going to keep this simple so I don’t make this article too large or off topic. In an upcoming article I’m going to explain about the division in historical events, it’s effect on the followers of the religion and modern times.
There are three main usages of the word “Sunnah” among Muslims:
“The Way” – In the earliest description of Jesus’ followers, before Paul’s mission to the Pagans where they were first called “Christians” in a derogatory sense, the movement of the original disciples of Jesus who were in the Synagogues was known as “the Way.” (Acts 9:2). Muslims carry on this tradition and description in the word “as-Sunnah” which means “the Way.” When we refer to the Sunnah (unless otherwise ascribed to another Prophet or Jesus Christ) we are generally referring to “the Way” of the Prophet Muhammad. The Sunnah in this sense refers to the things he is reported to have said, did or approved of in hadith. In the same way that we use it for the Prophet Muhammad, we can also apply this to others, such as the “Sunnah of Jesus Christ” or “the Way of Jesus Christ” based on what we know of the things he said, did or approved. We can apply the usage to “the Way” of any of the other Prophets or Messengers when refering to events in their lives.
Reference – Sunnah is a reference to the collective recordings of Hadith. For example, the “Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad” says, “Messenger of Allah [Muhammad] said, ‘When any of you is invited to a meal, he should accept the invitation. If he is observing Sawm (fasting), he should supplicate for the betterment of the host and if he is not fasting, he should eat.’ (Sahih Muslim)” So, as an example, Muslims would say, “The ‘Sunnah says,’ it is better for us not to turn down an invite to a meal when invited.” Sunnah is a reference to any hadith in any of the recorded volumes.
Legal Term – Sunnah is also a “legal definition” used by the ‘Uleema (Scholars/Judges) to classify if something is recommended for one’s own good. Legal classifications is where we get our concept of what is “sin” against God, ourselves, fellow humans, animals, planet, etc. In this case, there is 5 categorizations in Shari’ah:
Fardh (Mandatory; Get God’s blessing for doing and His punishment for not doing)
Sunnah (Recommended; Get God’s blessing for doing and nothing for not doing)
Mubah (Permissible; Don’t get God’s blessing for doing and don’t get his punishment for not doing)
Makruh (Strongly disliked though technically permitted; Don’t get God’s blessing for doing but get His blessing for NOT doing)
Haram (Forbidden; Get God’s punishment for doing and get His blessing for NOT doing)
The concept of Sunnah is integral to both sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi’a, as it guides us to better enlightenment by the example of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, whom we believe was sent by God as the “Seal” of “the Way” of the Prophet’s and Messengers and their Revelations before him.
Secondary (or supplemental) books. What are hadith?
Similar to Judaism which has a core book (the Torah) and secondary oral traditions (the Talmud), Islam has a core book (Qur’an) and a recorded “oral tradition” that we call “ah-Hadith.” The Talmud and Hadith have been both recorded in many hundreds of volumes and both serve to supplement understanding of their respective core books (Torah and Qur’an) and build upon the foundation of religious practice.
The hadith are the “secondary source” after the Qur’an to which Muslims refer in order to supplement their faith, interpret Islamic Shari’ah or to form opinions on interpretation of our religion. They are a collection of writings that were passed down person to person by “word of mouth over 200-300 years” until they were compiled and written into central books by various scholars who collected them. We call this ‘isnad‘ (chain of narration) and this tells us that the people who narrated the hadith are trustworthy or not. Isnad does not tell us that what was recorded in the hadith is definitively what was said or happened. Hadith are basically hearsay evidence and have many classifications of authenticity of isnad, not accuracy of content. This is why the hadith are a secondary source that supplement the Qur’an. Keep in mind that although Muslims believe in the Bible (New Testament), we don’t rely on it for our belief system partly for the reason that the earliest writings are from 132AD (in Aramaic) and wasn’t canonized until 325AD (in Greek). More precisely, it has no isnad (chain of narration). That’s roughly 100 to over 300 years after Jesus. The Prophet never saw our books of hadith and Jesus never saw the Bible to authorize their authenticity. These books of hadith are commonly named after the scholars that compiled them, such as “Imam Bukhari, Imam Muslim or Imam Abu Dawud.” There are collectively hundreds of volumes.
Unlike the Qur’an, the hadith were dictated by a chain of ordinary individuals about the things the Prophet Muhammad supposedly said (qawl), did (fi’l) or approved (taqrir). The Prophet Muhammad “never authorized or saw” these compilations or recordings. They were not preserved with the same integrity of the Qur’an. The hadith have errors, contradictions and are NOT considered “infallible.” The Qur’an is the primary authoritative source of all things in Islam. The hadith are secondary to supplement or clarify the Qur’an and subordinate to it.
Hadith are categorized based on what we call “Isnad” or trustworthiness of the “chain of narrators.” The three categorizations are:
Sahih (Strong; Narrators were known to be reputable)
Hasan (Good; Narrators may be questionable)
Da’if (Weak; Serious problems with narrators or method of transmission)
It is important to note that a “Strong” narration may still have inaccuracies or have different narrations of the same event described in Islamic history. The categorization only speaks to the reputations of the individuals in the “chain” over generations or the method of transmission, were the individuals transmitting known to be liars, cheats, abusers or trustworthy people? Also, as we know, even a story told by the most trustworthy people in a chain of many individuals can come out on the other side of the chain a very different story than when it began.
In order to sort these out, we have to study the event in-depth according to hundreds of other hadiths, Qur’an and Islamic history to determine the outcome. There is no room for “clever slogans”, rash interpretations or assumptions that many deviant Muslims or anti-Islam proponents try to assert. It is why we call the study of hadith, “The Science of Hadith.” It takes serious long term study and every hadith that remotely can speak to a situation must be evaluated in light of each other.
Divisions among Muslims have risen over the existence of volumes of hadith, interpretations of hadith and even ascribed authors or recorders of hadith. Entire schools of thought have been formed and draw on some hadith more than others. The Sunni and Shi’a historical divide has been greatly amplified over the existence and interpretations of hadith.
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about hadith is that Qur’an is more authoritative. If there is not a direct Qur’anic reference to cross reference and unequivocally confirm the hadith then the hadith holds less authority.
An example of hadith that would hold a great degree of authority in a valid interpretation of Islam can be seen in the Qur’anic verse that tells Muslims to establish formal prayers. The Qur’an does not tell us how to do that.
“Verily, I am Allah: There is no god but I: So serve thou Me (only), and establish regular prayer for celebrating My praise.” (Qur’an 20:14)
So, we have to refer to hadiths that directly describes the topic in order to learn how. Qur’an makes the mandate, the hadith explains the mandate.
Mainstream core doctrine. Islam is a 3 Dimensional Religion
Islam means to “surrender ones will or submit” to God. It has a root word in the Arabic which is “S-L-M.” This root word S-L-M is the word for Salaama, meaning “Peace.” So, as a religion called “Islam” it is descriptively called in Arabic, “Of those who surrender to God and gain peace.” The word “Muslim” also has the same root word, S-L-M. So the word Muslim descriptively means “the one who surrenders his/her will to God to gain peace.”
The religion of Islam has 3 dimensions.
Islam – “Submission” to God, implying obedience to His laws and following the acts of worship that are prescribed for Muslims in the Qur’an. Islam tells us what is required of us to obey God as a Muslim, which are described as the “Five Pillars of Islam.” Of these 5 pillars, not obeying them (save the 1st pillar) does not take one out of Islam. It just makes one not a very observant Muslim. Committing sin, minor or major, does not take one out of Islam or make them a non-Muslim, except if it violates the 1st Pillar of Islam.
Iman – Translated as “faith” in God and in his description of the realm of the unseen. These are summed up in 6 basic beliefs.
Ihsan – Translated as “working towards perfection.” This level is attained by the one who lives his or her life as if they are actually standing in the presence of God, like a child when he is in the direct presence of a parent will do everything possible to do good. Ihsan is a level of moral character of the highest caliber in which one has overcome egotistical desires and promptings, such as envy, jealousy, rivalry, deceit, and other characteristics which degrade our moral character.
DIMENSION 1 – ISLAM; The 5 Pillars are:
Shahaddah – Confession of faith. This is the entry point which, through repentance (tauba), makes one a Muslim and the only pillar that if one rejects or alters makes one a non-Muslim. This confession of faith is “I bear witness that there is no god except The One God and Muhammad is the Last (Final) Messenger of God.” (in a line of Prophets and messengers before the Day of Judgment). The statement also implies that God does not have partners or equals, as Qur’an 5:73 states, “Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying the truth: there is only One God.”
Salat – Prayer. 5 daily formal prayers. These are unlike informal prayers (du’a) which are encouraged, but are “formal” prayers with specific recitations and movements that are required at specified times of the day. Muslims believe they have a diret line to communicate with God, so during all forms of Islamic prayer (formal or not) Muslims only pray to God and never pray to, or in the name of, an intermediary such as Mary, Jesus or Muhammad (peace be upon them).
Zakat – Mandatory charity. 2.5% of one’s residual wealth is required to give to the poor or needy. The Mosque or Islamic charity collection institutions cannot benefit from it, 100% of what one gives must go to the poor.
Sawm – Fasting. Fasting for all able bodied persons for the 30 days of Ramadan.
Hajj – Pilgrimage. Making journey to Makkah to pray at least once in one’s lifetime.
DIMENSION 2 – IMAN; The 6 Basic Beliefs are:
Muslims believe that there is one true God, who is the Creator of the Universe(s) and everything in it. The Arabic word for God is Allah, which literally means “the One God” and directly refers to the God of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). So, God’s name isn’t just a name but very descriptive and exclusive to Himself. Arab Christians also use the word Allah for God. The word Allah, however, unlike the word God, cannot be made plural. Muslims also never attempt to physically portray God.
Muslims believe in the realm of what is called “the Unseen”, which includes the belief in the Angels. Angels are considered another form of creation, who unlike humans do not have the free will to obey or disobey God, but rather, carry out His commands on earth. The Angels are programmed to obey God’s commands or praise God for His greatness. When they are not being commanded they praise God indefinitely. Most famous among the angels is the Angel Gabriel, believed to have brought revelation to the Prophet Muhammad and previous prophets.
Muslims believe that beginning with the first human being, Adam, God sent down prophets and messengers to convey His guidance to the rest of humankind. Muslims believe in many of the same prophets one may find in the Old Testament, including Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus the Messiah (Christ). Muslims view Jesus as one of the many prophets sent with the same basic monotheistic message, but that he was miraculously born to the Virgin Mary. There is actually an entire chapter in the Qur’an named after Mary which describes his birth and other miracles. Muhammad is of course considered to be the last and final prophet until the Day of Judgment.
Muslims believe that some of these prophets were also messengers in that they received a divinely revealed scripture or book, including the Torah revealed to Moses, the Psalms revealed to David, the Gospel revealed to Jesus, and the Qur’an revealed to Muhammad, may peace be upon them all. The Qur’an confirms much of previous revelation and contains similar stories of prophets, injunction and commands.
Muslims believe that this life is not the final destination for humans, but rather a temporary place that eventually will come to an end, at which point all of us will be brought back to life and held accountable before God for our individual actions in this life. The Day of Judgment is where those whose good acts outweighs their evil will be rewarded with paradise, and those whose evil outweighs their good will be punished with hell. Muslims believe in God’s infinite mercy and justice.
Muslims believe in the “Foreknowledge” of God, called Al-Qadar. This is part of the belief that God is in charge of everything. Mankind has freewill to do good or bad and choose his destiny however,
God knows everything, what will happen or has happened;
God has recorded all that will happen and has happened;
Whatever God wills to happen happens;
God is the Creator of everything.
God has created us and knows what decisions we will make given a certain set of circumstances. For a Muslim it basically means that everything that happens to them has a purpose. Since God is in control and not bound by the limitations of time and space, this also gives a Muslim a sense of patience when something bad happens, that it is part of God’s plan, and they should be patient with bad events, prayerful and thankful for good events.
DIMENSION 3 – IHSAN; The characteristics of a Muslim
Muslims are asked to perfect their faith. Ihsan is what makes a Muslim the type of person everyone would want to live in their community.
This involves different levels:
One’s spiritual relationship with God. Ishan improves and refines one spiritually to bring alive the saying of the Prophet Muhammad which is described as “worshipping God as if one sees Him.”
It is the purification of one’s intentions. Good verses bad intentions are extremely important in Islam, and a Muslim should strive constantly to purify his or her intentions.
It is perfecting moral character. One of the main purposes of Islam is the perfection of moral character, especially when interacting with others. This can be summarized by the basic precept of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Part of perfecting moral character is of course avoiding bad deeds and doing good.
One can find the same general precepts of most faiths such as, avoiding such vices as back-biting, lying, cheating, envy, in addition to the major sins such as stealing, killing, etc., and conversely encouragement for such recommended acts or qualities as generosity, kindness, honesty, forbearance, etc. Cultivating such qualities is the true goal of all faiths and is often, unfortunately the greater challenge for adherents to any religion.
In the Islamic community, you will find that Muslims are very generous (sometimes overly) and honest people who don’t drink alcohol, gamble, commit adultery and go through great extent to avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.
The importance of doing good deeds can’t be understated. There are many who are less fortunate, who get themselves in a bad situation or in some other way need our help. While cultivating our inner qualities we could not have Ihsan without helping others whether they be individuals, entire communities or other nations. Law enforcement, as well as firefighters and relief organizations, in the United States (Muslim or not) is devoted to a large part of this aspect of Ihsan in America.