taken from the book ‘Ihya al-Maqbur‘ pages 59-60.
by the late Muhaddith of the Age,
Imam Abu’l-Fayd Ahmad ibn Abi Abdallah al-Siddiq al-Ghimmari,
author of 143 books.
As for the Qarniyyun, their land has not been blessed by Allah with any wali or salih since the beginning of Islam down to the present day. Instead, he only gave it the Qarn al-Shaytan [‘the Devil’s Horn’], whose followers were the Khawarij of the thirteenth and subsequent Islamic centuries. So fear God, and do not be like he who is beguiled by them, and supports their corrupt sect and worthless opinion, and their state of misguidance which was explicitly described by the Prophet (upon whom be blessings and peace), who characterised them as the ‘Dogs of the Fire’ [kilab al-nar], and informed us that they are the ‘worst of all who dwell beneath the sky’, and that they ‘swerve from the religion as an arrow swerves away from its target,’ and that they mouth among the best of sayings in the form of their prattlings about Tawhid, and implementing the Sunna, and combating bid’as – and yet, by Allah, they are drowning in bid’a; in fact, there is no bid’a worse than theirs, which causes them to ‘swerve from the religion as an arrow swerves away from its target’, in spite of their superficial efforts in worship and adherence to the religion. It is as the Prophet (upon whom be blessings and peace) declared: ‘one of you would despise the prayer he says among them, and the fasting he completes with them; they recite Qur’an but it goes no further than their collarbones.’
It is for this reason that he refrained (upon him be blessings and peace) from making du’a for Najd in the way that he had prayed for the Yemen and for Syria, for he said: ‘Allahumma bless us in our Yemen; bless us in our Syria’ – and they said, ‘And in our Najd, o Messenger of Allah?’ (upon him be blessings and peace), but he repeated his prayer for the Yemen and for Syria; and they repeated their utterance; until he said, the second or the third time round, in order to explain why he would not pray for Najd:
‘That is the place of earthquakes, and fitnas, and from it the Devil’s Horn shall rise.’ [Narrated by Bukhari.] And nothing has emerged from there to bring about earthquakes and fitnas in the religion like Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who was astray and led others astray. Hence he was the Devil’s Horn foretold by the Messenger (upon him be blessings and peace), and he abstained from offering prayer for Najd because of him, and because of the fitnas which would flow from his demonic da’wa. Whoever adheres to that da’wa has committed unambiguous kufr, and is destined for apostasy and ‘swerving from the religion’, as is visible in the case of the other mulhids [heretical unbelievers] of the age who are notorious for their ilhad, for in every case they began by holding fast to the sect of the Devil’s Horn, as is well-known to scholars of experience and insight.
Wa-salla’Llahu ‘ala sayyidina Muhammadin wa-‘ala alihi wa-sahbihi kullama dhakaru a-dhakirun wa-ghafala ‘an dhikrihi al-ghafilun.
wa’l-hamdu li’Llahi rabbi’l-‘alamin
It is striking that not one of the great muhaddiths, mufassirs, grammarians, historians, or legists of Islam has emerged from the region known as Najd, despite the extraordinary and blessed profusion of such people in other Muslim lands. This essay offers to Muslims with open minds an explanation of this remarkable fact.
The land of Najd, which for two centuries has been the crucible of the Wahhabi doctrine, is the subject of a body of interesting hadiths and early narrations which repay close analysis. Among the best-known of these hadiths is the relation of Imam al-Bukhari in which Ibn Umar said: ‘The Prophet (s.w.s.) mentioned: “O Allah, give usbaraka in our Syria, O Allah, give us baraka in our Yemen.” They said: “And in our Najd?” and he said: “O Allah, give us baraka in our Syria, O Allah, give us baraka in our Yemen.” They said: “And in our Najd?” and I believe that he said the third time: “In that place are earthquakes, and seditions, and in that place shall rise the devil’s horn [qarn al-shaytan].”’
This hadith is clearly unpalatable to the Najdites themselves, some of whom to this day strive to persuade Muslims from more reputable districts that the hadith does not mean what it clearly says. One device used by such apologists is to utilise a definition which includes Iraq in the frontiers of Najd. By this manoeuvre, the Najdis draw the conclusion that the part of Najd which is condemned so strongly in this hadith is in fact Iraq, and that Najd proper is excluded. Medieval Islamic geographers contest this inherently strange thesis (see for instance Ibn Khurradadhbih, al-Masalik wa’l-mamalik [Leiden, 1887], 125; Ibn Hawqal, Kitab Surat al-ard [Beirut, 1968],18); and limit the northern extent of Najd at Wadi al-Rumma, or to the deserts to the south of al-Mada’in. There is no indication that the places in which the second wave of sedition arose, such as Kufa and Basra, were associated in the mind of the first Muslims with the term ‘Najd’. On the contrary, these places are in every case identified as lying within the land of Iraq.
The evasion of this early understanding of the term in order to exclude Najd, as usually understood, from the purport of the hadith of Najd, has required considerable ingenuity from pro-Najdi writers in the present day. Some apologists attempt to conflate this hadith with a group of other hadiths which associate the ‘devil’s horn’ with ‘the East’, which is supposedly a generic reference to Iraq. While it is true that some late-medieval commentaries also incline to this view, modern geographical knowledge clearly rules it out. Even the briefest glimpse at a modern atlas will show that a straight line drawn to the east of al-Madina al-Munawwara does not pass anywhere near Iraq, but passes some distance to the south of Riyadh; that is to say, through the exact centre of Najd. The hadiths which speak of ‘the East’ in this context hence support the view that Najd is indicated, not Iraq.
On occasion the pro-Najdi apologists also cite the etymological sense of the Arabic word najd, which means ‘high ground’. Again, a brief consultation of an atlas resolves this matter decisively. With the exception of present-day northern Iraq, which was not considered part of Iraq by any Muslim until the present century (it was called ‘al-Jazira’), Iraq is notably flat and low-lying, much of it even today being marshland, while the remainder, up to and well to the north of Baghdad, is flat, low desert or agricultural land. Najd, by contrast, is mostly plateau, culminating in peaks such as Jabal Tayyi’ (1300 metres), in the Jabal Shammar range. It is hard to see how the Arabs could have routinely applied a topographic term meaning ‘upland’ to the flat terrain of southern Iraq (the same territory which proved so suitable for tank warfare during the 1991 ‘Gulf War’, that notorious source of dispute between Riyadh’s ‘Cavaliers’ and ‘Roundheads’).
Confirmation of this identification is easily located in the hadith literature, which contains numerous references to Najd, all of which clearly denote Central Arabia. To take a few examples out of many dozens: there is the hadith narrated by Abu Daud (Salat al-Safar, 15), which runs: ‘We went out to Najd with Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) until we arrived at Dhat al-Riqa‘, where he met a group from Ghatafan [a Najdite tribe].’ In Tirmidhi (Hajj, 57), there is the record of an encounter between the Messenger (s.w.s.) and a Najdi delegation which he received at Arafa (see also Ibn Maja, Manasik, 57). In no such case does the Sunna indicate that Iraq was somehow included in the Prophetic definition of ‘Najd’.
Further evidence can be cited from the cluster of hadiths which identify the miqat points for pilgrims. In a hadith narrated by Imam Nasa’i (Manasik al-Hajj, 22), ‘A’isha (r.a.) declared that ‘Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) established the miqat for the people of Madina at Dhu’l-Hulayfa, for the people of Syria and Egypt at al-Juhfa, for the people of Iraq at Dhat Irq, and for the people of Najd at Qarn, and for the Yemenis at Yalamlam.’ Imam Muslim (Hajj, 2) narrates a similar hadith: ‘for the people of Madina it is Dhu’l-Hulayfa – while on the other road it is al-Juhfa – for the people of Iraq it is Dhat Irq, for the people of Najd it is Qarn, and for the people of Yemen it is Yalamlam.’
These texts constitute unarguable proof that the Prophet (s.w.s.) distinguished between Najd and Iraq, so much so that he appointed two separate miqat points for the inhabitants of each. For him, clearly, Najd did not include Iraq.
There are many hadiths in which the Messenger (s.w.s.) praised particular lands. It is significant that although Najd is the closest of lands to Makka and Madina, it is not praised by any one of these hadiths. The first hadith cited above shows the Messenger’s willingness to pray for Syria and Yemen, and his insistent refusal to pray for Najd. And wherever Najd is mentioned, it is clearly seen as a problematic territory. Consider, for instance, the following noble hadith:
Amr ibn Abasa said: ‘Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) was one day reviewing the horses, in the company of Uyayna ibn Hisn ibn Badr al-Fazari. […] Uyayna remarked: “The best of men are those who bear their swords on their shoulders, and carry their lances in the woven stocks of their horses, wearing cloaks, and are the people of the Najd.” But Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) replied: “You lie! Rather, the best of men are the men of the Yemen. Faith is a Yemeni, the Yemen of [the tribes of] Lakhm and Judham and Amila. […] Hadramawt is better than the tribe of Harith; one tribe is better than another; another is worse […] My Lord commanded me to curse Quraysh, and I cursed them, but he then commanded me to bless them twice, and I did so […] Aslam and Ghifar, and their associates of Juhaina, are better than Asad and Tamim and Ghatafan and Hawazin, in the sight of Allah on the Day of Rising. […] The most numerous tribe in the Garden shall be [the Yemeni tribes of] Madhhij and Ma’kul.’ (Ahmad ibn Hanbal and al-Tabarani, by sound narrators. Cited in Ali ibn Abu Bakr al-Haythami, Majma‘ al-zawa’id wa manba‘ al-fawa’id [Cairo, 1352], X, 43).
The Messenger says ‘You lie!’ to a man who praises Najd. Nowhere does he extol Najd – quite the contrary. But other hadiths in praise of other lands abound. For instance:
Umm Salama narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) gave the following counsel on his deathbed: ‘By Allah, I adjure you by Him, concerning the Egyptians, for you shall be victorious over them, and they will be a support for you and helpers in Allah’s path.’ (Tabarani, classed by al-Haythami as sahih [Majma‘, X, 63].) (For more on the merit of the Egyptians see Sahih Muslim, commentary by Imam al-Nawawi [Cairo, 1347], XVI, 96-7.)
Qays ibn Sa‘d narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) said: ‘Were faith to be suspended from the Pleiades, men from the sons of Faris [south-central Iran] would reach it.’ (Narrated in the Musnads of both Abu Ya‘la and al-Bazzar, classified as Sahih by al-Haythami. Majma‘, X, 64-5. See further Nawawi’s commentary to Sahih Muslim, XVI, 100.)
Allah’s Messenger said: ‘Tranquillity (sakina) is in the people of the Hijaz.’ (al-Bazzar, cited in Haythami, X, 53.)
On the authority of Abu’l-Darda (r.a.), the Messenger of Allah (s.w.s.) said: ‘You will find armies. An army in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and in the Yemen.’ (Bazzar and Tabarani, classified as sahih: al-Haythami, Majma‘, X, 58.) This constitutes praise for these lands as homes of jihad volunteers.
‘The angels of the All-Compassionate spread their wings over Syria.’ (Tabarani, classed as sahih: Majma‘, X, 60. See also Tirmidhi, commentary of Imam Muhammad ibn Abd al-Rahman al-Mubarakfuri: Tuhfat al-Ahwadhi bi-sharh Jami‘ al-Tirmidhi, X, 454; who confirms it as hasan sahih.)
Abu Hurayra narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s) said: ‘The people of Yemen have come to you. They are tenderer of heart, and more delicate of soul. Faith is a Yemeni, and wisdom is a Yemeni.’ (Tirmidhi, Fi fadl al-Yaman, no.4028. Mubarakfuri, X, 435, 437: hadith hasan sahih. On page 436 Imam Mubarakfuri points out that the ancestors of the Ansar were from the Yemen.)
‘The people of the Yemen are the best people on earth’. (Abu Ya‘la and Bazzar, classified as sahih. Haythami, X, 54-5.)
Allah’s Messenger (s) sent a man to one of the clans of the Arabs, but they insulted and beat him. He came to Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) and told him what had occurred. And the Messenger (s) said, ‘Had you gone to the people of Oman, they would not have insulted or beaten you.’ (Muslim, Fada’il al-Sahaba, 57. See Nawawi’s commentary, XVI, 98: ‘this indicates praise for them, and their merit.’)
The above hadiths are culled from a substantial corpus of material which records the Messenger (s.w.s.) praising neighbouring regions. Again, it is striking that although Najd was closer than any other, hadiths in praise of it are completely absent.
This fact is generally known, although not publicised, by Najdites themselves. It is clear that if there existed a single hadith that names and praises Najd, they would let the Umma know. In an attempt to circumvent or neutralise the explicit and implicit Prophetic condemnation of their province, some refuse to consider that the territorial hadiths might be in any way worthy of attention, and focus their comments on the tribal groupings who dwell in Najd.
The best-known tribe of Central Arabia are the Banu Tamim. There are hadiths which praise virtually all of the major Arab tribal groups, and to indicate the extent of this praise a few examples are listed here:
Allah’s Messenger (s) said: ‘O Allah, bless [the tribe of] Ahmas and its horses and its men sevenfold.’ (Ibn Hanbal, in Haythami, Majma‘, X, 49. According to al-Haythami its narrators are all trustworthy.)
Ghalib b. Abjur said: ‘I mentioned Qays in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (s) and he said, “May Allah show His mercy to Qays.” He was asked, “O Messenger of God! Are you asking for His mercy for Qays?” and he replied, “Yes. He followed the religion of our father Ismail b. Ibrahim, Allah’s Friend. Qays! Salute our Yemen! Yemen! Salute our Qays! Qays are Allah’s cavalry upon the earth.”’ (Tabarani, declared sahih by al-Haythami, X, 49.)
Abu Hurayra narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s) said: ‘How excellent a people are Azd, sweet-mouthed, honouring their vows, and pure of heart!’ (Ibn Hanbal via a good (hasan) isnad, according to Haythami, X, 49.)
Anas b. Malik said: ‘If we are not from Azd, we are not from the human race.’ (Tirmidhi, Manaqib, 72; confirmed by Mubarakfuri, X, 439 as hasan gharib sahih.)
Abdallah ibn Mas‘ud said: ‘I witnessed Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) praying for this clan of Nakh‘.’ Or he said: ‘He praised them until I wished that I was one of them.’ (Ibn Hanbal, with a sound isnad. Haythami, X, 51.)
On the authority of Abdallah ibn Amr ibn al-As, who said: ‘I heard Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) saying: “This command [the Caliphate] shall be in Quraysh. No-one shall oppose them without being cast down on his face by Allah, for as long as they establish the religion.”’ (Bukhari, Manaqib, 2.)
The hadith which appears to praise Tamim is hence not exceptional, and can by no stretch of the imagination be employed to indicate Tamim’s superiority over other tribes. In fact, out of this vast literature on the merits of the tribes, only one significant account praises Tamim. This runs as follows: Abu Hurayra said: ‘I have continued to love Banu Tamim after I heard three things concerning them from Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.). “They will be the sternest of my Umma against the Dajjal; one of them was a captive owned by ‘A’isha, and he said: ‘Free her, for she is a descendent of Ismail;’ and when their zakat came, he said: ‘This is the zakat of a people,’ or ‘of my people’.”’ (Bukhari, Maghazi, 68.)
This hadith clearly indicates that the rigour of the Tamimites will be used for, and not against, Islam in the final culminating battle against the Dajjal; and this is unquestionably a merit. The second point is less significant, since all the Arabs are descendents of Ismail; while the variant readings of the third point make it difficult to establish its significance in an unambiguous way. Even the most positive interpretation, however, allows us to conclude no more than that the Messenger (s.w.s.) was pleased with that tribe at the moment it paid its zakat. As we shall see, its payment of zakat proved to be short-lived.
Far more numerous are the hadiths which explicitly critique the Tamimites. These hadiths are usually disregarded by pro-Najdite apologists; but traditional Islamic scholarship demands that all, not merely some, of the evidence be mustered and taken as a whole before a verdict can be reached. And a consideration of the abundant critical material on Tamim demonstrates beyond any doubt that this tribe was regarded by the Messenger (s.w.s.) and by the Salaf as deeply problematic.
An early indication of the nature of the Tamimites is given by Allah himself in Sura al-Hujurat. In aya 4 of this sura, He says: ‘Those who call you from behind the chambers: most of them have no sense.’ The occasion for revelation (sabab al-nuzul) here was as follows:
‘The “chambers” (hujurat) were spaces enclosed by walls. Each of the wives of Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) had one of them. The aya was revealed in connection with the delegation of the Banu Tamim who came to the Prophet (s.w.s.). They entered the mosque, and approached the chambers of his wives. They stood outside them and called: “Muhammad! Come out to us!” an action which expressed a good deal of harshness, crudeness and disrespect. Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) waited a while, and then came out to them. One of them, known as al-Aqra‘ ibn Habis, said: “Muhammad! My praise is an ornament, and my denunciation brings shame!” And the Messenger (s.w.s.) replied: “Woe betide you! That is the due of Allah.”’ (Imam Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil [Beirut, 1403], p.702. See also the other tafsir works; also Ibn Hazm, Jamharat ansab al-‘Arab [Cairo, 1382], 208, in the chapter on Tamim.)
In addition to this Qur’anic critique, abundant hadiths also furnish the Umma with advice about this tribe. Since the tacit acceptance of the Prophet (s.w.s.) constitutes a hadith, we may begin with the following incident.
This relates to a famous poem by Hassan ibn Thabit (r.a.). The Tamimites were late converts to Islam, joining the religion, after much resistance, only in the Year of Delegations (‘am al-wufud), which was the ninth year of the Hijra. They hence miss the virtue of sabiqa, of precedence in Islam. Coming at last to the Prophet (s.w.s.), the Tamim insisted on a public debate against him, and he appointed Hassan to reply to the Tamimites’ vain boasting about their tribe. Hassan’s ode, which completely defeated and humiliated them by describing the low status of their tribe, can be considered evidence for the Prophet’s (s.w.s.) own view of Tamim, since the condemnation was given in his presence, and there is no record of his criticising it. (Diwan Hassan ibn Thabit [Beirut, 1966], p.440; for full details of the incident see Barquqi’s commentary in the same volume. See also Ibn Hisham, Sira [Guillaume translation], p.631.)
A further hadith concerning Tamim runs as follows:
On the authority of Imran ibn Husayn (r.a.): ‘A group of Tamimites came to the Prophet (s.w.s.), and he said: “O tribe of Tamim! Receive good news!” “You promise us good news, so give us something [money]!” they replied. And his face changed. Then some Yemenis came, and he said: “O people of Yemen! Accept good news, even though the tribe of Tamim have not accepted it!” And they said: “We accept.” And the Prophet (s.w.s.) began to speak about the beginning of creation, and about the Throne.’ (Bukhari, Bad’ al-Khalq, 1.)
The harsh waywardness of the Tamimi mentality documented in the Qur’an and Hadith casts an interesting light on the personality of Abu Jahl, the arch-pagan leader of Quraysh. Abu Jahl, with his fanatical hatred of the Prophet (s.w.s.), must have been shaped by the Tamimi ethic in his childhood. His mother, Asma’ bint Mukharriba, was of the tribe of Tamim. (al-Jumahi, Tabaqat Fuhul al-Shu‘ara, ed. Mahmud Shakir [Cairo, 1952], p.123.) He also married the daughter of ‘Umayr ibn Ma‘bad al-Tamimi, by whom he had his son, predictably named Tamim. (Mus‘ab ibn Abdallah, Nasab Quraysh [Cairo, 1953], p.312.)
An attribute recurrently ascribed to the Tamimites in the hadith literature is that of misplaced zeal. When they finally enter Islam, they are associated with a fanatical form of piety that demands simple and rigid adherence, rather than understanding; and which frequently defies the established authorities of the religion. Imam Muslim records a narration from Abdallah ibn Shaqiq which runs: ‘Ibn Abbas once preached to us after the asr prayer, until the sun set and the stars appeared, and people began to say: “The prayer! The prayer!” A man of the Banu Tamim came up to him and said, constantly and insistently: “The prayer! The prayer!” And Ibn Abbas replied: “Are you teaching me the sunna, you wretch?”’ (Muslim, Salat al-Musafirin, 6.)
Perhaps the best-known of any hadith about a Tamimite, which again draws our attention to their misplaced zeal, is the hadith of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira:
Abu Sa‘id al-Khudri (r.a.) said: ‘We were once in the presence of Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.) while he was dividing the spoils of war. Dhu’l-Khuwaysira, a man of the Tamim tribe, came up to him and said: “Messenger of Allah, be fair!” He replied: “Woe betide you! Who will be fair if I am not? You are lost and disappointed if I am not fair!” And Umar (r.a.) said, “Messenger of Allah! Give me permission to deal with him, so that I can cut off his head!” But he said: “Let him be. And he has companions. One of you would despise his prayer in their company, and his fast in their company. They recite the Qur’an but it goes no further than their collarbones. They pass through religion as an arrow passes through its target.”’ Abu Sa‘id continued: ‘I swear that I was present when Ali ibn Abi Talib fought against them. He ordered that that man be sought out, and he was brought to us.’ (Bukhari, Manaqib, 25. For the ‘passing through’ see Abu’l-Abbas al-Mubarrad, al-Kamil, chapter on ‘Akhbar al-Khawarij’ published separately by Dar al-Fikr al-Hadith [Beirut, n.d.], pp.23-4: ‘usually when this happens none of the target’s blood remains upon it’.)
This hadith is taken by the exegetes as a prophecy, and a warning, about the nature of the Kharijites. There is a certain type of believing zealot who goes into religion so hard that he comes out the other side, with little or nothing of it remaining with him. One expert who confirms this is the Hanbali scholar Ibn al-Jawzi, well-known for his hagiographies of Ma‘ruf al-Karkhi and Rabi‘a al-Adawiya. In his book Talbis Iblis. (Beirut, 1403, p.88) under the chapter heading ‘A Mention of the Devil’s Delusion upon the Kharijites’ he narrates the hadith, and then writes: ‘This man was called Dhu’l-Khuwaysira al-Tamimi. […] He was the first Kharijite in Islam. His fault was to be satisfied with his own view; had he paused he would have realised that there is no view superior to that of Allah’s Messenger (s.w.s.).’
Ibn al-Jawzi goes on to document the development of the Kharijite movement, and the central role played by the tribe of Tamim in it. Hence (p.89) ‘The commander of the fight [against the Sunnis, at Harura] was Shabib ibn Rab‘i al-Tamimi’; also (p.92) ‘Amr ibn Bakr al-Tamimi agreed to murder Umar’. All this even though their camp sounded like a beehive, so assiduously were they reciting the Qur’an (p.91).
The Kharijite movement proper commenced at the Siffin arbitration, when the first dissenters left the army of the khalifa Ali (k.A.w.). One of them was Abu Bilal Mirdas, a member of the tribe of Tamim (Ibn Hazm, 223), who despite his constant worship and recitation of the Qur’an became one of the most brutal of the Kharijite zealots. He is remembered as the first who said the Tahkim – the formula ‘The judgment is Allah’s alone’ – on the Day of Siffin, which became the slogan of the later Kharijite da‘wa.
In his long analysis of the Kharijite movement, Imam Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi also describes the intimate involvement of Tamimites, and of Central Arabians generally, noting that the tribes of Yemen and Hijaz contributed hardly anyone to the Kharijite forces. He gives an account of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira’s later Kharijite activities. Appearing before Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (k.A.w.) he says: ‘Ibn Abi Talib! I am only fighting you for the sake of Allah and the Hereafter!’ to which Imam Ali replies: ‘Nay, you are like those of whom Allah says, “Shall I inform you who are the ones whose works are most in loss? It is they whose efforts are astray in the life of this world, but who think that they are doing good!” [Kahf, 103].’ (Imam Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, al-Farq bayn al-firaq [Cairo, n.d.], 80; see the note to p.76 for the full identification of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira.)
As Imam Abd al-Qahir gives his account of the early Kharijite rebellions, replete with appalling massacres of innocent Muslim civilians, he makes it clear that the leaders of each of the significant Kharijite movements hailed from Najd. For instance, the Azariqa, one of the most vicious and widespread Khariji movements, were led by Nafi‘ ibn al-Azraq, who was from the Central Arabian tribe of Banu Hanifa (Abd al-Qahir, 82). As the Imam records, ‘Nafi and his followers considered the territory of those who opposed them to be Dar al-Kufr, in which one could slaughter their women and children. […] They used to say: “Our opponents are mushriks, and hence we are not obliged to return anything we hold in trust to them.’ (Abd al-Qahir, 84.) After his death in battle, ‘the Azariqa pledged their allegiance to Ubaydallah ibn Ma’mun al-Tamimi. Al-Muhallab then fought them at Ahwaz, where Ubaidallah ibn Ma’mun himself died, along with his brother Uthman ibn Ma’mun and three hundred of the most fanatical of the Azariqa. The remainder retreated to Aydaj, where they pledged their allegiance to Qatari ibn al-Fuja’a, whom they called Amir al-Mu’minin.’ (Abd al-Qahir, 85-6.) The commentator to Abd al-Qahir’s text reminds us that Ibn Fuja’a was also of Tamim (p.86).
The Azariqa, who massacred countless tens of thousands of Muslims who refused to accept their views, had a rival in the Najdiyya faction of the Kharijites. These were named after Najda ibn Amir, a member of the tribe of Hanifa whose homeland is Najd; Najda himself maintained his army in Yamama, which is part of Najd. (Abd al-Qahir, 87.)
As is the way with Kharijism in all ages, the Najdiyya fragmented amid heated arguments generated by their intolerance of any dissent. The causes of this schism included the Kharijite attack on Madina, which came away with many captives; and different Kharijite ijtihads over sexual relations with Muslim women who, not being Kharijites, they had enslaved. Three major factions emerged from this split, the most dangerous of which was led by Atiyya ibn al-Aswad, again of the tribe of Hanifa. Following Najda’s death, his own faction split, again into three, one of which left Najd to raid the vicinity of Basra (Abd al-Qahir, 90-1).
The last major Kharijite sect was the Ibadiyya, which, in a gentler and much attenuated form, retains a presence even today in Zanzibar, southern Algeria, and Oman. The movement was founded by Abdallah ibn Ibad, another Tamimi. Its best-known doctrine is that non-Ibadis are kuffar: they are not mu’mins, but they are notmushriks either. ‘They forbid secret assassinations [of non-Ibadis], but allow open battles. They allow marriages [with non-Ibadis], and inheritance from them. They claim that all this is to aid them in their war for Allah and His Messenger.’ (Abd al-Qahir, 103.)
The best-known woman among the Kharijites was Qutam bint ‘Alqama, a member of the Tamimite tribe. She is remembered as the one who told her bridegroom, Ibn Muljam, that ‘I will only accept you as my husband at a dowry which I myself must name, which is three thousand dirhams, a male and a female slave, and the murder of Ali!’ He asked, ‘You shall have all that, but how may I accomplish it?’ and she replied, ‘Take him by surprise. If you escape, you will have rescued the people from evil, and will live with your wife; while if you die in the attempt, you will go on to the Garden and a delight that shall never end!’ (Mubarrad, 27.) As is generally known, Ibn Muljam was executed after he stabbed imam Ali (k.A.w.) to death outside the mosque in Kufa.
Muslims anxious not to repeat the tragic errors of the past will wish to reflect deeply upon this pattern of events. Tens of thousands of Muslims, fervently committed to the faith and outstanding for their practical piety, nonetheless fell prey to the Kharijite temptation. The ulema trace the origins of that temptation back to the incident of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira, who considered himself a better Muslim than the Prophet himself (s.w.s.). And he, like the overwhelming majority of the Kharijite leaders who followed in his footsteps, was a Tamimi. Of the non-Tamimi Kharijites, almost all were from Najd.
There is a further issue which Muslims will wish to consider when forming their view of Najd. This is the attitude of the Najdis following the death of the Messenger (s.w.s.). The historians affirm that the great majority of the rebellions against the payment of zakat which broke out during the khilafa of Abu Bakr (r.a.) took place among Najdis. Moreoever, and even more significantly, many of the the Najdi rebellions were grounded in a strange anti-Islamic ideology. The best-known of these was led by Musaylima, who claimed to be a prophet, and who established a rival shari‘a which included quasi-Muslim rituals such as forms of fasting and dietary rules. He followed the Islamic prayer rules, but abolished the Fajr and the Isha prayers. One of his so-called ‘revelations’ ran:
Banu Tamim is a tribe of purity,
a free people, with no fault in them,
neither do they pay a tribute.
We shall be their allies of protection,
good to them for as long as we live!
We shall protect them from everyone,
and when we die, their affair is with al-Rahman.
(Imam al-Tabari, Tarikh al-Rusul wa’l-Muluk [Beirut, 1407], II, 276).
Musaylima was a forceful speaker, and soon gained a huge following in Central Arabia. However the historians record that when he tried to imitate the miracles of the Prophet (s.a.w.) disaster would result. Children brought to him for cures would become sicker. When his wudu water was poured over crops, the land would turn sterile. Wells that he had used would turn salty. However the power of tribalism caused many to pay no attention.
Talha al-Namari came to Najd and said: ‘Where is Musaylima?’ At this the people said: ‘Careful! Call him the Messenger of Allah!’ So he replied: ‘No, not until I have seen him.’ So when he came to him he said: ‘You are Musaylima,’ and he replied, ‘Yes.’ He said: ‘Who comes to you?’ and he replied: ‘Al-Rahman’. He asked: ‘Does he come in light or darkness?’ ‘In darkness.’ Whereupon he said: ‘I bear witness that you are a liar and that Muhammad tells the truth, but a liar of your tribe is dearer to me than a truth-teller of his.’ So he joined Musaylima until he was killed at the Battle of Aqraba. (Tabari, II, 277).
Incidents like this are revealing in two ways. Firstly, they show the characteristic feature of Musaylima’s aqeedah: Allah resembles a physical being who can ‘come’. Secondly, they reveal the immense, blind power of Arabian tribalism as this still existed in Najd.
As leader of a rival religion, he and his Najdi enthusiasts were in a state of baghy, heretical revolt against due caliphal authority, and Abu Bakr (r.a.) sent an army against them under Khalid ibn al-Walid. In the year 12 of the Hijra Khalid defeated the Najdis at the Battle of al-Aqraba, a bloody clash that centred on a walled garden which is known to our historians as the Garden of Death, because hundreds of great Companions lost their lives there at the hands of the Najdis. The battle ranged the egalitarian spirit of Islam against the old Arab tribalism, as was shown by the fact that the banner of the Muhajirun was held by a freed Persian slave, Salim, while the banner of the Ansar was held high by Thabit b. Qays. The Muslim battle-cry was not the invocation of a tribe or an ancestor, instead it was, ‘Ya Muhammad!’ (Tabari, 281.) The pseudo-prophet was killed by Wahshi, the Ethiopian slave who, even though he had killed Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib, had made good his Islam, and was now an honored member of the community. The killing of the prophet of Najdi pride by a man of such humble origins was a powerful symbol of the principles that were at stake. (See Abdallah ibn Muslim Ibn Qutayba, Kitab al-Ma‘arif [Cairo, 1960], p.206; Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Baladhuri, Futuh al-buldan [repr. Beirut, n.d., p.86.])
Devotion to Musaylima lingered on in Central Arabia, however. An indication of the continuity of Najdi religious life is given by the non-Muslim traveller Palgrave, who as late as 1862 found that some Najdi tribesmen continued to revere Musaylima as a prophet. (W. Palgrave, Narrative of a year’s journey through Central and Eastern Arabia [London, 1865], I, 382.)
The other ringleader of Najdi rebellion against the khilafa was a woman known as Sajah, whose full name was Umm Sadir bint Aws, and who belonged to the tribe of Tamim. She made claims to prophethood in the name of a rabb who was ‘in the clouds’, and who gave her revelations by which she succeeded in uniting sections of the Tamim who had argued among themselves over the extent to which they should reject the authority of Madina. Leading several campaigns against tribes who remained loyal to Islam, the Najdi prophetess is said to have thrown in her lot with Musaylima. Other than this, little is known of her fate. (Ibn Qutayba, Ma‘arif, p.405; Baladhuri, Futuh, pp.99-100.)
It is well-known that the Najdi reformer, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, was a Tamimi. The violence and takfir associated with the movement which carries his name surely bears more than a coincidental resemblance to the policies and mindset of the Tamimi Kharijites of ancient Najd. Consider, for instance, the following massacre, of the Shi‘a of Karbala in April 1801, as described by a Wahhabi historian:
Saud made for Karbala with his victorious army, famous pedigree horses, and all the settled people and bedouin of Najd […] The Muslims (i.e. the Wahhabis) surrounded Karbala and took it by storm. They killed most of the people in the markets and houses. One cannot count their spoils. They stayed there for just one morning, and left after midday, taking away all the possessions. Nearly two thousand people were killed in Karbala. (Uthman ibn Bishr, Unwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd[Makka, 1349], 1, 121-122.)
It is hard to distinguish this raid, and the brutality of its accomplishment, from the Khariji raids from Najd into the same region a thousand years earlier.
Muhammad Finati, an Italian revert to Islam who served with the Caliphal army which defeated the Wahhabis, wrote a long first-hand account of the extreme barbarism of the Najdi hordes. For instance:
Such among us as fell alive into the hands of these cruel fanatics, were wantonly mutilated by the cutting off of their arms and legs, and left to perish in that state, some of whom, in the course of our retreat, I myself actually saw, who had no greater favour to ask than that we would put them to death. (G. Finati, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Giovanni Finati [London, 1830], I, 287.)
It is sometimes claimed that the days when ‘all the settled people and bedouin of Najd’ would happily commit such mass murder are long gone, and that Wahhabism has become more moderate. But another, more recent example, shows otherwise. In 1924, the Wahhabi army entered the city of Ta’if, plundering it for three days. The chief qadi and the ulema were dragged from their houses and slaughtered, while several hundred other civilians lost their lives. (Ibn Hizlul, Tarikh Muluk Al Sa‘ud [Riyadh, 1961], pp.151-3.) After giving the the Sunni population of the Hijaz this terrorist lesson, ‘Ibn Saud occupied Mecca with Britain’s tacit blessing’ (Alexei Vassiliev, A History of Saudi Arabia [London, 1998], p.264).
A good deal of material concerning Najd and Tamim has been preserved from the time of the Salaf. If we reject the method of some Najdi apologists, a method based on the highly selective quotation of hadiths coupled with the blind imitation of opinions expressed by late-medieval commentary writers, we may reach some reasonably settled and authoritative conclusions regarding Central Arabia and its people. The Qur’an, the sound Hadith, and the experience of the Salaf overwhelmingly concur that Central Arabia is a region of fitna. The first of all fitnas in Islam emerged from that place, notably the arrogance of Dhu’l-Khuwaysira and his like, and also the apostasy and fondness for false prophets which caused such difficulty for Abu Bakr (r.a.). Subsequently, the Kharijite heresy, overwhelmingly Najdi in its roots, cast a long shadow over the early history of Islam, dividing the Muslims, distracting their armies from the task of conquering Byzantium, and injecting rancour, suspicion, and bitterness among the very earliest generations of Muslims. Only the most determined, blinkered and irresponsible Najdi sympathiser could ignore this evidence, transmitted so reliably from the pure Salaf, and persist in the delusion that Najd and the misguided, literalistic rigorism which it recurrently produces, is somehow an area favoured by Allah.
And Allah knows best. May He unite the Umma through love for the early Muslims who refused bigotry, and may He preserve us from the trap of Kharijism and those who are attracted to its mindset in our time. Ameen.
Istiwâ’ [al-Qur’an 7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4]is one of the Attributes of acts (min sifât al-af‘âl) according to the majority of the explanations.” Al-Qurtubi.
“The establishment of His Throne in the heaven is known, and His Throne in the earth is the hearts of the People of Pure Monotheism (ahl al-tawhîd). He said: (and eight will uphold the Throne of their Lord that day, above them) (69:17), and [concerning] the throne of the hearts:
[We carry them on the land and the sea] (17:70).
As for the throne of the heaven: the Merciful established Himself over it (‘alayhi istawâ); and as for the throne of the hearts: the Merciful conquered it(‘alayhi istawlâ). The throne of the heaven is the direction of the supplication of creatures, while the throne of the heart is the locus of the gaze of the Real. Therefore, there is a huge difference between this throne and that!” – Al-Qushayri.
“We believe that [the Merciful established Himself over the Throne] (20:5), and we do not know the reality of the meaning of this nor what is meant by it (lâ na‘lamu haqîqata mi‘na dhâlika wa al-murâda bihi), while we do believe that [There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him] (42:11) and that He is exalted far above the most elevated of created things. That is the way of the Salaf or at least their vast majority, and it is the safest because one is not required to probe into such matters.” – Al-Nawawi.
Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash‘ari said:
“The establishment of Allah on the Throne is an action He has created named istiwâ’ and related to the Throne, just as He has created an action named ityân (coming) related to a certain people; and this implies neither descent nor movement.” Al-Bayhaqi confirms this: “Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali al-Ash‘ari said that Allah effected an act in relation to the Throne, and He called that act istiwâ’, just as He effected other acts in relation to other objects, and He called those acts ‘sustenance’ (rizq), ‘favor’ (ni‘ma), or other of His acts.” This is also the interpretation of Ibn Hazm (d. 456) – although a vehement enemy of Ash‘aris – who explains istiwâ’ as “an act pertaining to the Throne”.
Abu al-Fadl al-Tamimi mentioned that two positions were reported from Imam Ahmad concerning istiwâ’: One group narrated that he considered it “of the Attributes of act” (min sifât al-fi‘l), another, “of the Attributes of the Essence” (min sifât al-dhât).” Ibn Battal mentions that Ahl al-Sunna hold either one of these two positions: “Those that interpreted istawâ as ‘He exalted Himself’ (‘alâ) consider istiwâ an Attribute of the Essence, while those who interpreted it otherwise consider it an Attribute of act.”
Al-Tamimi further related that Ahmad said:
[Istiwâ’]: It means height/exaltation (‘uluw) and elevation (irtifâ‘). Allah is ever exalted (‘âlî) and elevated (rafî‘) without beginning, before He created the Throne. He is above everything (huwa fawqa kulli shay’), and He is exalted over everything (huwa al-‘âlî ‘alâ kulli shay’). He only specified the Throne because of its particular significance which makes it different from everything else, as the Throne is the best of all things and the most elevated of them. Allah therefore praised Himself by saying that He (established Himself over the Throne) , that is, He exalted Himself over it (‘alayhi ‘alâ). It is impermissible to say that He established Himself with a contact or a meeting with it. Exalted is Allah above that! Allah is not subject to change, substitution, nor limits, whether before or after the creation of the Throne.
The Maliki scholar Ibn Abi Jamra (d. 695) said something similar in his commentary on the hadith “Allah wrote a Book before He created creation, saying: Verily My mercy precedeth My wrath; and it is written with Him above the Throne”:
It may be said from the fact that the Book is mentioned as being “above the Throne” that the divine wisdom has decreed for the Throne to carry whatever Allah wishes of the record of His judgment, power, and the absolute unseen known of Him alone, in order to signify the exclusivity of His encompassing knowledge regarding these matters. This makes the Throne one of the greatest signs of the exclusivity of His knowledge of the Unseen. This could explain the verse of istiwâ’ as referring to whatever Allah wills of His power, which is the Book He has placed above His Throne.”
Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 161) interpreted istiwâ’ in the verse (The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) as “a command concerning the Throne” (amrun fi al-‘arsh), as related by Imam al-Haramayn al-Juwayni and quoted by al-Yafi‘i in the latter’s book Marham al-‘Ilal al-Mu‘dila fi Daf‘ al-Shubah wa al-Radd ‘ala al-Mu‘tazila (“Book of the Resolution of Difficult Problems for the Removal of Doubts and the Refutation of the Mu‘tazila”):
The understanding of istiwâ’ as the turning of Allah to a particular command concerning the Throne is not far-fetched, and this is the ta’wîl of Imam Sufyan al-Thawri, who took as corroborating evidence for it the verse: (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven when it was smoke) (41:11), meaning: “He proceeded to it” (qasada ilayhâ).
Al-Tabari said, in his commentary on the verse (Then turned He (thumma istawâ) to the heaven, and fashioned it as seven heavens) (2:29):
The meaning of istiwâ’ in this verse is height (‘uluw) and elevation… but if one claims that this means displacement for Allah, tell him: He is high and elevated over the heaven with the height of sovereignty and power, not the height of displacement and movement to and fro.
The above position is exactly that of the Ash‘ari school, as shown by Abu Bakr ibn al-‘Arabi’s and Ibn Hajar’s numerous comments to that effect directed against those who attribute altitude to Allahn their interpretation of His ‘uluw such as Ibn Taymiyya. The latter stated: “The Creator, Glorified and Exalted is He, is above the world and His being above is literal, not in the sense of dignity or rank.” This doctrine was comprehensively refuted by Ibn Jahbal al-Kilabi (d. 733) in his Radd ‘ala Man Qala bi al-Jiha (“Refutation of Ibn Taymiyya Who Attributes A Direction to Allah “) and Shaykh Yusuf al-Nabahani (1265-1350) in his Raf‘ al-Ishtibah fi Istihala al-Jiha ‘ala Allah (“The Removal of Doubt Concerning the Impossibility of Direction for Allah”).
Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597) in the introduction of his Daf‘ Shubah al-Tashbih said of the anthropomorphists: “They are not content to say: ‘Attribute of act’ (sifatu fi‘l) until they end up saying: ‘Attribute of the Essence’ (sifatu dhât).” Ibn Hazm also said: “If the establishment on the Throne is eternal without beginning, then the Throne is eternal without beginning, and this is disbelief.”
Al-Bayhaqi quotes one of the companions of al-Ash‘ari, Abu al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Mahdi al-Tabari (d. ~380) as saying in his book Ta’wil al-Ahadith al-Mushkalat al-Waridat fi al-Sifat (“Interpretation of the Problematic Narrations Pertaining to the Attributes”): “Allahs in the heaven above everything and established (mustawin) over His Throne in the sense that He is exalted or elevated (‘âlin) above it, and the sense of istiwâ’ is self-elevation(i‘tilâ’).” This is the most widespread interpretation (ta’wîl) of the issue among the Salaf: al-Baghawi said that the meaning of the verse ( The Merciful established Himself over the Throne) (20:5) according to Ibn ‘Abbas and most of the commentators of Qur’an is “He elevated Himself” (irtafa‘a). This is the interpretation quoted by al-Bukhari in his Sahih from the senior Tâbi‘i Rufay‘ ibn Mahran Abu al-‘Aliya (d. 90). Al-Bukhari also cites from Mujahid (d. 102) the interpretation “to rise above” or “exalt Himself above” (‘alâ). Ibn Battal declares the latter to be the true position and the saying of Ahl al-Sunnabecause Allah described Himself as “the Sublimely Exalted” — ( al-‘Alî) (2:255) and said: ( exalted be He (ta‘âlâ) over all that they ascribe as partners (unto Him)!) (23:92).
In complete opposition to the above Ibn Taymiyya said in his Fatawa: “The establishment of Allah over the Throne is real, and the servant’s establishment over the ship is real” (lillâhi ta‘âlâ istiwâ’un ‘alâ ‘arshihi haqîqatan wa li al-‘abdi istiwâ’un ‘alâ al-fulki haqîqatan). “Allahs with us in reality, and He is above His Throne in reality (Allâhu ma‘ana haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan).. . . Allahs with His creation in reality and He is above His Throne in reality (Allahu ma‘a khalqihi haqîqatan wa huwa fawqa al-‘arshi haqîqatan).”
Another interpretation commonly used by later Ash‘aris for istiwâ’ is that of istîlâ’ and qahr, respectively “establishing dominion” and “subduing.” Ibn ‘Abd al-Salam said:
His establishment (istiwâ’) over the Throne is a metaphor for establishing dominion (istîlâ’) over His kingdom and disposing of it, as the poet said:
qad istawâ Bishrun ‘ala al-‘Irâq
min ghayri sayfin wa damin muhrâq
Bishr established mastery over Iraq
without sword and without shedding blood.
It is a metaphor of similitude with kings, who dispose of the affairs of their kingdoms while sitting among the dynastic princes. The throne may also express rank, as in ‘Umar’s t saying: “My throne would have toppled if I had not found a merciful Lord.”
Ibn Battal and Abu Mansur al-Baghdadi attribute the interpretation as istîlâ’ chiefly to the Mu‘tazila. Ibn Hajar said:
The Mu‘tazila said its meaning is “establishing dominion through subjugation and overpowering” (al-istîlâ’ bi al-qahr wa al-ghalaba), citing as a proof the saying of the poet:
Bishr established mastery over Iraq
without sword and without shedding blood.
The anthropomorphists (al-jismiyya) said: “Its meaning is settledness (al-istiqrâr).” Some of Ahl al-Sunna said: “Its meaning is He elevated Himself(irtafa‘a)” while others of them said: “Its meaning is He rose above (‘alâ),” and others of them said: “Its meaning is sovereignty (al-mulk) and power (al-qudra).”
The latter Sunni interpretation is evidently similar to that of istîlâ’ and qahr. However, because the Mu‘tazila claimed that the divine Attributes were originated in time rather than uncreated and beginningless, their interpretation was rejected by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna. Ibn Battal said: “The Mu‘tazilaposition is null and void, for Allahs qâhir, ghâlib, and mustawlî without beginning.” Ibn Battal is referring to the Ash‘ari position whereby the Attributes of acts such as creation, although connected with created objects, are without beginning in relation to Allah. To those who object to istawlâ on the grounds that it necessarily supposed prior opposition, Ibn Hajar similarly remarked that that assumption is discarded by the verse: (Allah was (kâna) ever Knower, Wise) (4:17), which the scholars explained to mean “He is ever Knower and Wise.”
Thus Dawud al-Zahiri’s objection that istîlâ’ necessitates a wresting from an adversary is not absolute among Ahl al-Sunna. The Ash‘ari grammarian al-Raghib al-Asfahani (d. 402) said that istawâ ‘alâ has the meaning of istawlâ ‘alâ (“He overcame”) and cited the verse of istiwâ (20:5) as an example of this meaning: “It means that everything is alike in relation to him in such manner that no one thing is nearer to Him than another thing, since He is not like the bodies that abide in one place exclusively of another place.” In this sense, both the Mu‘tazili position of origination for the Attributes and the literalist requirement of conquest-after-struggle are dismissed, and istawlâ can be safely admitted among the interpretations of Ahl al-Sunna. As Ibn Battal alluded, “establishing dominion and sovereignty,” “subduing,” and “conquering” no more suppose prior opposition in the face of the Creator than do His Attributes of “All-Victorious” (Zâhir) “All-Compelling” (Qahhâr), “Prevailer” (Ghâlib), or “Omnipotent” (Qâhir) presuppose resistance or power on anyone’s part. This is confirmed by the verses: (He is the Omnipotent (al-qâhir) over His slaves) (6:18, 6:61) and (Allah prevails (ghâlib) in His purpose) (12:21). Al-Raghib said: “It means that everything is alike in relation to him” and he did not say: “became alike.”
Ibn al-Jawzi mentions another reason for permitting this interpretation: “Whoever interprets [and He is with you] (57:4) as meaning ‘He is with you in knowledge,’ permits his opponent to interpret istiwâ’ as ‘subduing’ (al-qahr).”
As for the linguistic precedent of the meaning istawlâ for istawâ, it is provided by the poet al-Akhtal (d. <110) who said: “Bishr established mastery over(istawâ ‘alâ) Iraq without sword and without shedding blood.” Some “Salafis” reject this linguistic proof on the ground that al-Akhtal was a second-century Christian. This shows ignorance of agreed-upon criteria for the probative force of Arabic poetry in the Shari‘a, which extends at least to the year 150 and applies regardless of creed.
Dr. Muhammad Sa‘id Ramadan al-Buti said:
The consensus in place regarding these texts is the refraining from applying to them any meaning which establishes a sameness or likeness between Allah and His creatures, and the refraining from divesting their established lexical tenor.
The obligatory way to proceed is either to explain these words according to their external meanings which conform with divine Transcendence above any like or partner, and this includes not explaining them as bodily appendages and other corporeal imagery. Therefore it will be said, for example: He has established Himself over the Throne as He has said, with an establishment which befits His Majesty and Oneness; and He has a Hand as He has said, which befits His Divinity and Majesty; etc.
Or they can be explained figuratively according to the correct rules of language and in conformity with the customs of speech in their historical context. For example: the establishment is the establishment of dominion (istîlâ’) and that of authority (tasallut); the hand of Allahs His strength in His saying: (The hand of Allahs over their hand) (48:10) and His generosity in His saying: (Nay, both His hands are spread wide, and He bestows as He wills)(5:64).
As for the interpretation of istiwâ’ as sitting (julûs), it is asserted in the book attributed to ‘Abd Allahbn Ahmad ibn Hanbal under the title Kitab al-Sunna (p. 5, 71): “Is establishment (istiwâ’) other than by sitting (julûs)?” “Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant.” Al-Khallal in his ownKitab al-Sunna (p. 215-216) states that whoever denies that “Allah sits on the kursî and there remains only four spans vacant” is an unbeliever. ‘Uthman al-Darimi went so far as to say in his Naqd al-Jahmiyya: “If He so willed, He could have settled on the back of a gnat and it would have carried Him thanks to His power and the favor of His lordship, not to mention the magnificient Throne.” Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn al-Qayyim endorsed these views. Al-Kawthari wrote in his Maqalat: “Whoever imagines that our Lord sits on the kursî and leaves space at His side for His Prophet to sit, he has followed the Christians who believe that ‘Isa u was raised to heaven and sat next to his Father – Allahs elevated above the partnership they ascribe to Him!”
Al-Munawi quotes the following conclusion on the verse of the Throne upon the water:
Al-Tunisi said that the verse (And His Throne was upon the water) (11:7) contains a clear proof that direction is impossible for Allah because the Throne settled (istaqarra) upon the water, therefore, since natural custom was broken by the settlement of that huge mass (jirm) – the largest of all masses – upon the water, contrary to the habitual fact that such a mass – or, rather, much less than it! – does not usually settle upon the water: it becomes known with certitude that istiwâ’ over it is not an istiwâ’ of settledness nor fixity.
The above proof is similar to the proof derived from Imam Malik’s statement: “The establishment is known, the ‘how’ is inconceivable, and to ask about it is an innovation!” Shaykh al-Islam Taqi al-Din al-Subki pointed out that the inconceivability of the modality of istiwâ’ proved that it precluded the meaning of sitting.
In his Qur’anic commentary entitled Lata’if al-Isharat (“The Subtle Signs”), Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465) – together with Imam al-Haramayn Ibn al-Juwayni and al-Khatib al-Baghdadi the main figure in the fourth generation-layer of al-Ash‘ari’s students – sums up the position of Ahl al-Sunnaconcerning istiwâ’:
(He established Himself over the Throne) (7:54; 13:2; 20:5; 25:59; 32:4), however, the One without beginning has no limit (al-qadîm laysa lahu hadd). He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, it is impermissible to attribute to Him proximity with His Essence nor remoteness. He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, the Throne would be the most needful of all things to an iota of connection (al-wisâl) [with Him] if it were only alive! But it is a lifeless solid, and when did solids ever possess volition? He “established Himself over the Throne,” however, He is the Everlasting Sovereign (al-Samad) without rival, the Unique without limit.
Many people today like to classify themselves as belonging to the Saved Sect (Firqatun-Najiyyah) – Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah; but do these people really know which is the Saved Sect, from the many sects we have today? The following is an attempt to clarify some misconceptions by way of definitive proofs from the Qur’an and Sunnah, as well as quotes from the profoundly learned Classical Scholars of Islam. Know that there is only one Saved Sect in Islam, and this is the original pristine form of Islam that has been transmitted to us by Allah Subhana Wa Ta’ala in his Qur’an, his Rasul (Peace and blessings be upon him), the blessed Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) and the great scholars of Islam (Allah’s mercy be upon them all) who have been following their Straight Path for more than one thousand years of Islam’s history. The first question that should be raised is: “What differentiates one sect from another sect?” The answer to this is simple and definitive! Know that the chief characteristic that distinguishes one sect from another, lies not in the differences of opinion that its scholars have attained by making ijtihad from the sources of the Shari’ah (this leads to the formation of the Madhhabs), but rather the actual belief (aqid’ah or i’tiqad in Arabic) that the scholars and laity of the sect in question are clinging onto – since the founding of their respective sect.
According to the unknown author of the book Belief and Islam (pp. 78-9), the faith of the People of the Sunnah and Jama’ah was spread as follows:
“Nowadays, some mouths frequently use the name of ‘Salafiyya’. Every Muslim should know very well that in Islam there is nothing in the name of the Madhhab of Salafiyya but there is the Madhhab of the Salaf as-salihin who were the Muslims of the first two Islamic centuries (i.e; the Companions, their successors and the followers of the successors) which were lauded in a Hadith sharif. The ulama of Islam who came in the third and fourth centuries are called Khalaf as-sadiqin. The i’tiqad (belief) of these honourable people is called the Madhhab of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah. This is the Madhhab of Iman, tenets of faith. The Iman held by the Sahaba al-Kiram (may Allah be pleased with them all) and by theTabi’un (Allah’s mercy be upon them all) was the same. There was no difference between their beliefs. Today most Muslims in the world are in the Madhhab of Ahl as-Sunnah (i.e; most Muslim’s claim to be Sunni’s). All the seventy-two heretical groups (see later for the actual Hadith and its commentary) of bid’ah appeared (mainly) after the second century of Islam. Founders of some of them lived earlier, but it was after the Tabi’unthat their books were written, and that they appeared in groups and defied the Ahl as-Sunnah.
Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) brought the beliefs of Ahl as-Sunnah. The Sahaba al-kiram (may Allah be pleased with them all) derived these teachings of Iman from the source (the Qur’an and Sunnah). And the Tabi’un (successors), in their turn, learned these teachings from the Sahaba al-kiram. And from them their successors learned, thus the teachings of Ahl as-Sunnah reached us by way of transmission and tawatur (through many undeniable chains of transmission). These teachings cannot be explored by way of reasoning. Intellect cannot change them and will only help understand them. That is, intellect is necessary for understanding them, for realizing that they are right and for knowing their value. All the scholars of Hadith held the beliefs of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The Imams of the four Madhhabs in deeds, too, were in this Madhhab. Also, al-Maturidi and al-Ashari (Allah’s mercy be upon them), the two Imam’s of our Madhhab in beliefs, were in the Madhhab of the Ahl as-Sunnah. Both of these Imams promulgated this Madhhab. They always defended this Madhhab against heretics and materialists, who had been stuck in the bogs of ancient Greek philosophy. Though they were contemporaries, they lived in different places and the ways of thinking and behaving of the offenders they had met were different, so the methods of defence used and the answers given by these two great scholars of Ahl as-Sunnah were different. But this does not mean that they belonged to different Madhhabs (rather they were both from the Ahl as-Sunnah). Hundreds of thousands of profoundly learned ulama and awliya (friends of Allah) coming after these two exalted Imams studied their books and stated in consensus that they both belonged to the Madhhab of the Ahl as-Sunnah. The scholars of the Ahl as-Sunnah took the nass (Qur’an and Sunnah) with their outward meanings. That is, they gave the ayats and Hadiths their outward meanings, and did not explain away (ta’wil) thenass or change these meanings unless there was a darura (necessity) to do so. And they never made any changes with their personal knowledge or opinions. But those who belonged to heretical groups and the la-Madhhabi (those who do not belong to one of the four Madhhabs) did not hesitate to change the teachings of Iman and Ibadat (worship) as they had learned from (the books of) Greek philosophers and from sham scientists, who were Islam’s adversaries.”
Let us now see what the definition of Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah was according to the classical scholars of this aided, Victorious sect (Tai’fatul-Mansoorah) of Islam.
(1) Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974/1567; R.A.)
Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami defined the Sunni Muslims as follows in his book Fath al-jawad:
“A mubtadi (innovator) is the person who does not have the faith (aqid’ah) conveyed unanimously by the Ahl as-Sunnah. This unanimity was transmitted by the two great Imam’s Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari (d.324/936; Rahimahullah) and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (d.333/944; Rahimahullah) and the scholars who followed their path.” Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami also said in his book al-Fatawa al-Hadithiyya (pg. 205): “Man of bid’ah means one whose beliefs are different from the Ahl as-Sunnah faith. The Ahl as-Sunnah faith, is the faith of Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari, Abu Mansur al-Maturidi and those who followed them. One who brings forth something which is not approved by Islam becomes a man of bid’ah.”
(2) Imam Ahmad Shihab ad-Din al Qalyubi (d.1069/1659; R.A.)
Imam al-Qalyubi wrote on the fourth volume of his marginalia to the book Kanz ar-raghibin:
“One who departs from what Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Allah’s mercy be upon them) reported is not a Sunni. These two Imam’s followed the footprints of Rasulullah (Peace be upon him) and his Sahaba (may Allah be pleased with them all).”
(3) Imam Abdullah ibn Alawi al-Haddad (d. 1132 AH; Rahimahullah)
Imam al-Haddad stated in The Book of Assistance (pg. 40):
“You must correct and protect your beliefs and conform to the pattern of the party of salvation, who are those known from among the other Islamic factions as the “People of the Sunnah and Jama’ah” (Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah). They are those who firmly adhere to the way of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), and of his Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all).
If you look with a sound understanding into those passages relating to the sciences of faith in the Book (Qur’an), the Sunnah, and the saying of the virtuous predecessors, whether they be Companions or followers, you will know for certain that the truth is with the party called the Ashari (NB-the Maturidi’s are also upon the truth), named after the Shaykh Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari, may Allah have mercy on him, who systematized the foundations of the creed of the people of the truth, and recorded its earliest versions, these being the beliefs with the Companions and the best among the followers agreed upon.”
(4) Imam Abdal Ghani an-Nablusi (d. 1143/1733; Rahimahullah)
Imam an-Nablusi stated in his book al-Hadiqat an-Nadiyya (vol. 2, pg. 103):
“Jama’ah is rahma, that is, the union of Muslims on truth brings Allahu ta’ala’s Compassion. Tafriqa is adhab, that is, separation from the Community of Muslims brings about punishment from Allahu ta’ala. Hence, it is necessary for every Muslim to unite with those who are on the right path. He must join and believe like them even if they are only a small group. The right path is the path of as-Sahaba al-Kiram. Those who follow this path are called Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. It should not confuse us that many heretical groups appeared after the time of as-Sahaba al-Kiram. Al-Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066; Rahimahullah) said, ‘When Muslims go astray, you should follow the right path of those who came before them! You should not give up that path even if you are left alone on the path!‘ Najm ad-Din al-Ghazzi (d. 1061/1651; Rahimahullah) wrote: ‘Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah are those ulama who keep on the right path of Rasullullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) and as-Sahaba al-Kiram. As-Sawad al-Azam, that is, the majority of Islamic scholars, have followed this right path. The Firqatun-Naajiyyah which was defined to be the group of salvation among the seventy three groups is this true Jama’ah.‘ The Qur’an al-Karim declares, ‘Do not disunite!‘ This ayat means ‘Do not disunite in i’tiqad, in the teachings of beliefs!‘ Most ulama, for example, Abdullah ibn Masood (may Allah be pleased with him), interpreted this ayat as above and said that it meant, ‘Do not deviate from the right path by following your desires and corrupt ideas.‘ This ayat does not mean that there should be no disagreement in the knowledge of fiqh. It forbids separation which causes discord and dissension in the knowledge of i’tiqad (see Imam al-Qurtubi’s opinion later). The disagreement in the knowledge (of fiqh) derived through ijtihad in the field of practices (amal) is not a discord, because such disagreement has brought to sight the rights, the fards and the subtle teachings in amal andIbadah (worship). As-Sahaba al-kiram (Allah be pleased with them all), too, differed from one another in those teachings that explained the daily life, but there was no disagreement among them in the knowledge of i’tiqad.”
(5) Allamah Sayyid Ahmad at-Tahtawi (d. 1231/1816; Rahimahullah)
Allamah Sayyid Ahmad at-Tahtawi, a great Hanafi fiqh scholar of Egypt, wrote on the subject of ‘Zabayih‘ in his Hashiya al-Durr al-Mukhtar:
“According to the majority of scholars of tafsir, the ayat, ‘They parted into groups in the religion,‘ referred to the people of bid’ah who would arise in this Ummah. In a Hadith reported by Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) said to Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her), ‘The ayat about the partitions into groups in the religion refers to the people of bid’ah and to the followers of their nafs who would arise in this Ummah.’ Allah declared in the 153rd ayat of Surah Al-An’am, ‘This is My Straight path, so follow it! Follow not other ways, lest you be parted from His way!‘ (that is, Jews, Christians, and other heretics departed from the right path; you should not part like them!). In the 103rd ayat of Surah Al-Imran, Allah declares, ‘And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah, and do not separate!‘ (see later for a brief commentary). Some scholars of tafsir said that Allah’s rope meant Jama’ah, unity. The command, ‘Do not separate‘, shows that it is so and the Jama’ah are the possessors of fiqh and ilm (knowledge). One who descents from fuqaha (scholars of fiqh) as much as a span falls into heresy, becomes deprived of Allah’s help and deserves Hell, because the fuqaha have been on the right path and have held on to the Sunnah of Rasulullah (Peace and blessings be upon him) and on to the path of al-Khulafa ar-Rashideen, the Four Khaliphs (may Allah be pleased with them). As-Sawad al-Azam, that is, the majority of the Muslims, are on the path of fuqaha. Those who depart from their path will burn in the fire of Hell. O believers! Follow the unique group which is protected against Hell! And this group is the one that is called Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. For, Allah’s help, protection and guidance are for the followers of this group, and His wrath and punishment are for those who dissent from this group. Today, this group of salvation comes together in the Four Madhhabs, namely the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, and Hanbali.”
It is very important to have unity in the Ummah, and to achieve this goal of unity it is incumbent that the whole Ummah has the correct and preservedaqidah of the Salaf as-salihin (may Allah be pleased with them all); since Allah will no doubt ask us about our aqidah if it is not in conformity with the divine revelation and what his Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) transmitted to us. The way of the Salaf as-salihin is the way of the saved sect of the Ahl as-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah. And we should all know that the Jama’ah is the sect which has the most correct and united aqid’ah out of all other Jama’ahs. To know what is the real Jama’ah, one must look into the Qur’an and Hadith for evidence. If one was to look deeply in to this matter with an open and scholarly mind, one will come to the conclusion that this great Jama’ah is the one which is composed of the foremost scholars of Qur’anic commentary, Hadith, fiqh and other Islamic sciences; it is no doubt the Jama’ah which has had the greatest following throughout Islamic history in terms of scholars and laity, and this alone is the main body of Islam which represents the views of the great mass of believers (as-Sawad al-Azam) as we shall see from the Hadith evidence below. Let us now see what Allah ta’ala has said about unity and schism in the Holy Qur’an.
(1) Surah al-Imran (3:103):
“And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah and be not divided.”
Imam Sayf ad-Din al-Amidi (d. 631/1233; Rahimahullah) said in his al-Ihkam fi usul al-ahkam (The proficiency: on the fundamentals of legal rulings, pg. 295) with regard to the above Qur’anic verse:
“Allah has forbidden separation, and disagreement with consensus (ijma) is separation.”
Hence, if Allah has forbidden separation then surely we must all unite on the unanimously accepted aqid’ah of our pious predecessors. And I have already quoted Hafiz Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (Rahimahullah) as saying: “This unanimity (in aqidah) was transmitted by the two great Imam’s Abu’l Hasan al-Ashari and Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Allah’s mercy be upon them) and the scholars who followed their path.”
Mahmoud Ayoub wrote in The Qur’an and Its Interpreters (vol. II, 275-6):
“Ibn Kathir (d. 774/1373; Rahimahullah) interprets the ‘rope of God‘ in verse 103 as ‘The covenant of God,‘ citing in support of this interpretation verse 112 below (in Surah al-Imran). Another view, he adds, is that ‘The rope of God‘ here refers to the Qur’an, as reported on the authority of Ali (Allah be pleased with him) who said that ‘The Qur’an is God’s strong rope and the straight way.‘ He cites another Hadith, on the authority of Abu Sa’id al-Khudri (Allah be pleased with him), where the Prophet (Peace be upon him) declared, ‘The book of God is God’s rope stretched from heaven to earth.‘ Abd Allah ibn Mas’ud (Allah be pleased with him) reported -that the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him) said, ‘Surely this Qur’an is God’s strong rope, manifest light, and beneficial source of healing. It is protection for those who hold fast to it, and a means of salvation for those who abide by it.‘
Ibn Kathir interprets the injunction, ‘and do not be divided‘ to mean strict adherence to unity among Muslims. He reports on the authority of Abu Hurayrah (Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘God will be pleased with three acts from you, and wrathful with three others. He wishes that you worship Him alone without associating any thing with Him; that you hold fast all together to the rope of God and be not divided; and that you show loyalty to those whom God has set in authority.‘ (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, II, pp. 83-4)
Qurtubi (d. 671/1273; Rahimahullah) agrees with Tabari (d. 923 CE; Rahimahullah) and Ibn Kathir regarding the meaning of ‘the rope of God‘ in verse 103. He cites with approval the famous traditionist Ibn al-Mubarak (d. 181/797; Rahimahullah) who said, ‘Surely unity is God’s rope; therefore hold fast all together to ‘its firm handle‘ (see Qur’an 2:256).’ Qurtubi adds that ‘God enjoins concord and forbids dissension, for in disunity is perdition, and in unity salvation.‘
Qurtubi offers two possible interpretations of the phrase ‘And be not divided‘:
‘Be not divided in your religion as were the Jews and Christians divided in their religions‘ and ‘Be not divided in following different false opinions and purposes. Rather, be brothers in God’s religion.‘
As a jurist, Qurtubi observes that, ‘There is no indication in this verse of the prohibition of disagreement in the branches (furu’) [of fiqh] as this in reality is not dissension. This is because true dissention is one wherein concord and unity become virtually impossible. As for disagreement in judgements based on personal effort (ijtihad), it is due to differences in deducing obligations (fara’id) and the minutiae of law.‘ On page 279, Imam al-Razi (d. 606/1210; Rahimahullah) was quoted as saying in conclusion to his commentary on the above ayat:
‘If a person going down into a well must hold fast to a rope in order that he may not fall in, so also the Book of God, His covenant, religion and obedience to Him, as well as unity and harmony among the people of faith are means of security for anyone who holds fast to them from falling into the bottom of Hell.'”
(2) Surah al-Imran (3:105):
“And be not like those who separated and disputed after the clear proofs had come unto them: For such there is an awful doom.”
(3) Surah al-Imran (3:110):
“Ye are the best community that has been raised up for mankind. Ye enjoin the good and forbid the evil; and ye believe in Allah”
(4) Surah Al-An’am (6:159):
“As for those who divide their religion and break up into sects, thou has no part in them in the least: Their affair is with Allah: He will in the end tell them the truth of all that they did.”
(5) Surah Al-Mu’minun (23:52-53):
“And verily this Ummah of yours is a single Ummah and I am your Lord, so keep your duty unto Me. But they have broken their religion among them into sects, each sect rejoicing in its tenets.”
(6) Surah Al-Rum (30:32):
“Those who split up their Religion, and become Sects, each sect exulting in its tenets.”
(7) Surah Al-Nisa (4:115):
“He that disobeys the Apostle (Muhammad) after guidance has been made clear to him and follows a way other than that of the believers, We appoint for him that unto which he himself hath turned, and expose him unto Hell – a hapless journey’s end!”
(8) Surah Al-An’am (6:153):
“This is My Straight path, so follow it. Follow not other ways, lest ye be parted from His way. This has he ordained for you, that ye may ward off (evil).“
(1) Imam Abu Dawood (Rahimahullah) has quoted the well known Hadith concerning the division of the Muslim Ummah into seventy-three sects in his Sunan (3/4580, English edn):
Abu Amir al-Hawdhani said, “Mu’awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan (may Allah be pleased with him) stood among us and said, ‘Beware! The Apostle of Allah (may peace be upon him) stood among us and said’: ‘Beware! The People of the Book before (you) were split up into 72 sects, and this community will be split up into 73, seventy-two of them will go to Hell and one of them will go to Paradise, and it is the majority group (Jama’ah).’
Another version of the above Hadith has been reported by Hafiz Ibn Kathir (Rahimahullah) in The signs before the day of Judgement (pg. 14):
“Awf ibn Malik reported that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘The Jews split into 71 sects: one will enter Paradise and 70 will enter Hell. The Christians split into 72 sects: 71 will enter Hell and one will enter Paradise. By Him in Whose hand is my soul, my Ummah will split into 73 sects: one will enter Paradise and 72 will enter Hell.’ Someone asked, ‘O Messenger ofAllah (Peace be upon him), who will they be?’ He replied, ‘The main body of the Muslims (al-Jama’ah).’ Awf ibn Malik is the only one who reported this Hadith, and its isnad is acceptable.” And in another version of this Hadith the Prophet (Peace be upon him) goes onto say that the saved sect, “…Are those who follow my and my Sahaba’s path” (Tirmidhi, vol. 2, pg. 89)
Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad al-Sirhindi (d. 1034/1624; Rahimahullah) who is regarded by many people in the Indian sub-continent as a great renovator of the Tenth Islamic Century (Mujaddid alf Thani) wrote in his Maktubat (Vol. 3, Letter 38):
“It was declared in a Hadith that this Ummah would part into 73 groups, 72 of which would go to Hell. This Hadith informs us that the 72 groups will be tormented in the Fire of Hell. It does not inform us that they will remain in torment eternally. Remaining in the torment of Hell Fire eternally is for those who do not have Iman. That is, it is for disbelievers. The 72 groups, on account of their corrupt beliefs, will go to Hell and will burn as much as the corruptness of their beliefs. One group, the 73rd, will be saved from Hell Fire because their belief is not corrupt. If among the members of this one group there are those who committed evil deeds and if these evil deeds of theirs have not been forgiven through repentance or intercession, it is possible that these, too, will burn in Hell as much as their sins. All of those who are in the 72 groups will go to Hell. But none of them will remain in Hell eternally. Not all of those who are in this one group will go to Hell. Of these only those who have committed evil deeds will go to Hell. The 72 reported groups of bid’ah, which will go to Hell, should not be called disbelievers, because they are Ahl al-Qibla (people of the Qibla in prayer). But, of these, the ones who disbelieve those facts in the Deen that are indispensably required to be believed, as well as those who deny the rules of the Shari’ah which every Muslim has heard and knows, become disbelievers.”
In another letter (vol. 1, letter 80) he said:
“There is no doubt whatsoever that the sect that made conforming to the conduct of the Prophet’s Companions (may Allah be pleased with them all) necessary, that alone is the Ahl as Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah.”
Shaykh Abdal Qadir al-Jilani (d. 561/1166; Rahimahullah) stated in his commentary to the above Hadith in Ghunyat at-Talibin (pg. 90),
“The Believer should adapt himself to the Sunnah and to the Jama’ah. The Sunnah is the way shown by Rasulullah (Peace be upon him). The Jama’ah is composed of the things done unanimously by the Sahaba al-Kiram who lived in the time of the four caliphs called Khulafa’ ar-Rashidin (and others in their path). A Muslim must prevent the multiplication of the men of bid’ah and keep away from them, and should not greet them (as given in many Hadith on this issue). Ahmad ibn Hanbal (rahimahullah), the Imam of our Madhhab, said that greeting a man ofbid’ah meant loving him since it had been declared in a Hadith, ‘Disseminate (your) greeting (salaam)! Love one another in this way!” He also said (pg. 143): “The title, Ahl as-Sunnah, which the innovators have expressed for themselves is not appropriate for them.“
Although Ibn Taymiyya was accused of holding certain corrupt points in his aqid’ah, which led so many scholars to denounce him for his heresy, he never the less hit the right point when he described those who are the real Sunni’s in his Aqeedat-il-Wasitiyyah (pg. 154):
” Their creed is the religion of Islam which was sent to the world by Allah through the Prophet (Peace be upon him). But the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘My Ummah will get divided into 73 sects and each one will go to Hell save one and that one is the Jama’at.’ Also in one Hadith he said, ‘They are those people who will follow this path which I and my Sahaba follow today.’ Therefore they have caught hold of Islam unalloyed from every adulteration and these are the people of Ahl as-Sunnah Wa’l Jama’ah. This group includes the truthful, the martyrs and the virtuous; it includes the minarets of guidance, lamps in the darkness and owners of such superiorities and virtues who have been already mentioned. It includes the saints and also those Imams on whose guidance Muslims are unanimous. It is this successful group about which the Prophet (Peace be upon him) has said: ‘One group from my Ummah will always remain dominant with truth; the opponents will never be able to harm its members or afflict them upto the Doomsday.'”
(2) Imam Muslim (Rahimahullah) has collected a number of variant Hadith on the saved sect. He has related a longer version of the last Hadith quoted above:
“Abdal Rahman ibn Shamasa al-Mahri said: ‘I was in the company of Maslama bin Mukhallad and Abdullah ibn Amr ibn al-Aas (may Allah be pleased with them).’ Abdullah said, ‘The Hour shall come only when the worst type of people are left on the earth. They will be worse than the people of pre-Islamic days. They will get what ever they ask of Allah.‘ While we were sitting Uqba ibn Amir came, and Maslama said to him, ‘Uqba, listen to what Abdullah says.‘ Uqba said, ‘He knows, so far as I am concerned, I heard the Prophet (Peace be upon him) say: A group of people from my Ummah will continue to fight in obedience to the Command of Allah, remaining dominant over their enemies. Those who will opose them shall not do them any harm. They will remain in this condition until the Hour over takes them.‘ (At this) Abdullah said, ‘Yes. Then Allah will raise a wind which will be fragrant like musk and whose touch will be like the touch of silk; (but) it will cause the death of all (faithful) persons, not leaving behind a single person with an iota of faith in his heart. Then only the worst of men will remain to be overwhelmed by the Hour.’” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4721, English ed’n, see also Sahih al-Bukhari, 9/414, English ed’n)
Imam Nawawi (d. 676/1277, Rahimahullah) said in his Sharh Muslim (vol. 2, pg. 143):
“The group of people (mentioned in the above Hadith) consists of scholars, jurisprudents, authorities on Hadith, those who enjoin Good (Maroof) and forbid Evil (Munkar) and all such persons who do good deeds. Such righteous persons may be found spread all over the world.”
Imam al-Tirmidhi (Rahimahullah) said:
“The explanation of al-Jama’ah according to the people of knowledge: They are the people of fiqh, knowledge and Hadith.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhi, 4/2167; Ahmad Shakir ed’n)
Imam Bukhari (Rahimahullah) stated in his Sahih (vol. 9, chapter. 10, English ed’n),
“The statement of the Prophet (Peace be upon him): ‘A group of my followers will remain victorious in their struggle in the cause of the Truth.’ Those are the religious(ly) learned men (Ahl ul-Ilm).”
Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (Rahimahullah) said about this group:
“If it is not the people of Hadith, then I do not know who they may be.” (Sahih Muslim Sharif-Mukhtasar Sharh Nawawi, vol. 5, pg. 183, W. Zaman)
Qadi Iyad (Rahimahullah) said in ash-Shifa (pg. 188):
“In a Hadith from Abu Umama (Allah be pleased with him), the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, `A group of my community will remain constant to the truth, conquering their enemy until the command of Allah comes to them while they are still in that condition.‘ He was asked, ‘Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), where are they?‘ He replied, `In Jerusalem.‘”
(3) Imam Muslim (Rahimahullah) has related in his Sahih (3/4553) under the chapter heading ‘Instruction to stick to the main body of the Muslims in the time of the trials and warning against those inviting people to disbelief‘, a Hadith on the authority of Hudhaifa ibn al-Yaman (Allah be pleased with him), who said:
“People used to ask the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) about the good times, but I used to ask him about (the) bad times fearing lest they overtake me. I said, ‘Messenger of Allah, we were in the midst of ignorance and evil, and then God brought us this good (time through Islam). Is there any bad time after this good one?’ He said, ‘Yes’. I asked, ‘Will there be a good time again after that bad time?’ He said, ‘Yes, but therein will be a hidden evil.’ I asked, ‘What will be the evil hidden therein?’ He said, ‘(That time will witness the rise of) the people who will adopt ways other than mine and seek guidance other than mine. You will know good points as well as bad points.’ I asked, ‘Will there be a bad time after this good one?’ He said, ‘Yes. (A time will come) when there will be people standing and inviting at the gates of Hell. Whoso responds to their call, they will throw them into the fire.’ I said, ‘Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), describe them for us.’ He said, ‘All right. They will be a people having the same complexion as ours and speaking our language.’ I said, `Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him), what do you suggest if I happen to live in their time?’ He said, ‘You should stick to the main body of the Muslims and their leader’ I said, ‘If they have no (such thing as the) main body of the Muslims and have no leader?’ He said, ‘Separate yourself from all these factions, though you may have to eat the roots of trees until death comes to you and you are in this state.'”
(NB-It is not likely that there will be an absence of a Jama’ah, since I have already quoted the Prophet, peace be upon him, as saying: ‘A group of people from my Ummah will continue to fight in obedience to the command of Allah, remaining dominant over their enemies. Those who will oppose them shall not do them any harm. They will remain in this condition until the Hour overtakes them.‘)
(4) Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“Who (ever) defected from the obedience (to the Amir) and separated from the main body of the Muslims – then he died in that state – would die the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic ignorance). And he who is killed under the banner of a man who is blind (to the cause for which he is fighting), who gets flared up with family pride and fights for his tribe – is not from my Ummah, and whoso from my followers attacks my followers (indiscriminately) killing the righteous and the wicked of them, sparing not (even) those staunch in faith and fulfilling not his obligation towards them who have been given a pledge (of security), is not from me.” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4557 & 4555; English ed’n)
Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066; Rahimahullah) stated in his: The Seventy-Seven Branches of Faith (pg. 42-3), under the fiftieth branch of faith (50 – Holding firmly to the position of the majority): “God Most High has said: Hold fast, all together, to the rope of God, and do not be disunited. [3:103]. Muslim (Rahimahullah) relates on the authority of Abu Hurayra (Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, ‘Whoever is disobedient, and departs from the majority, and then dies, has died in a state of Jahiliyya.‘ He also relates the following Hadith on the authority of Ibn Shurayh (Allah be pleased with him): ‘After I am gone, there will come days of corruption and turmoil. When you see people damaging the unity of the Community of Muhammad (Peace be upon him), you must fight them, whoever they may happen to be.‘
Abdal Hakim Murad (the translator of the above book) said in the footnote to the fiftieth branch of faith: ‘Orthodoxy in Islam is defined as the doctrine of ahl al-sunna wa’l jama’a, the People of the Sunna and the Community. To know whether a doctrine or practise is orthodox or heretical, the Muslim is required to find out whether it is recognised by the majority of Muslim scholars (see later for Imam al-Munawi’s commentary). Thus even without looking into their theology, he will know that sects such as the Isma’ilis, the Khariji’s, the Wahhabi’s, the Twelver Shi’a and others (not to mention anti-Islamic groupings such as the Ahmadiya and the Bahais) are to be repudiated.'”
(5) Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“One who found in his Amir (the ruler of the true Islamic state; which is absent today) something which he disliked should hold his patience, for one who separated from the main body of the Muslims even to the extent of a handspan and then he died, would die the death of one belonging to the days of Jahiliyya.” (Sahih Muslim, 3/4559; English ed’n & Sahih al-Bukhari, 9/257; English ed’n)
(6) Imam’s Ahmad and Abu Dawood (Allah’s mercy be upon them) said that Abu Dharr (Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“He who separates from the main body (of the Ummah) by even a hand’s breadth from the Community he throws off Islam from his neck.” (Mishkat-ul-Masabih, 1/185 & Sunan Abu Dawood, 3/4740)
NB-The following five Hadith have been mentioned by the great scholar of Hadith, Hafiz Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201; Rahimahullah) in hisTalbis Iblis (section entitled: Adherence to the Sunnah and Jama’ah). A section of the above work has been translated by Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips in to English, under the title: The Devil’s Deception of the Shee’ah (pp. 4-5). Bilal Philips has put footnotes to the five Hadith that I will be quoting below (to declare some of the Hadith to be Da’eef), but one thing that should be mentioned is that he has mainly relied upon al-Albani’s classification of the Hadiths in question; hence these ‘classifications’ of al-Albani need re-verifying! I say this because it is a well known fact that Hafiz Ibn al-Jawzi was noted for his exceptional stringency in accepting Hadith, and he has been known to have declared some of the Hadith in Bukhari/Muslim to be Da’eef, as well as declaring some sound Hadith to be fabricated! Nevertheless, I would like to make it clear to those readers who are unaware of the status of Bilal Philips, that he has heavily depended on the classifications of al-Albani in most of his books! If the esteemed reader is convinced that the errors of al-Albani are most apparent, then one should beware of the status of those Hadiths that have been used by Bilal Philips (on account of his accepting al-Albani’s classifications). Bilal Philips seems to be a leading critic of Taqleed who has been swept away by the tide of modern day “Salafiyyism”; and it seems that he has ‘blindly’ accepted the classifications of al-Albani without himself reverifying al-Albani’s classifications! I ask you, is this not a clear cut example of Taqleed? If it has been proven that al-Albani’s classifications are unreliable, would it not be just for Bilal Philips to re-verify all the Hadiths that have been authenticated by al-Albani and correct any misclassifications in his books? Allah know’s best.
(7) ‘Umar (Allah be pleased with him) reported that on one occasion Allah’s Messenger (Peace and blessings be upon him) stood up among them and said, “Whoever among you desires the centre of paradise should keep close to the Jama’ah for the Devil closely accompanies the solitary individual and is more distant from two.” (Collected by Imam Tirmidhi)
(8) And ‘Arfajah (Allah be pleased with him) reported (Allah’s Messenger, peace be upon him, as saying): “that Allah’s hand is over the Jama’ah and the Devil is with whoever deviates from the Jama’ah.” (Collected by Imam al-Tabarani)
(9) ‘Abdullah ibn Masood (Allah be pleased with him) reported that once Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) drew a line in the dust with his hand and said, “This is the straight path of Allah.” Then he drew a series of lines to the right of it and to the left and said, “Each of these paths has a devil at its head inviting people to it.” He then recited (Qur’an 6:153), “Verily this is my straight path so follow it and do not follow the (twisted) paths.” (Collected by Ahmad, Nisai and Darimi; see Mishkat ul-Masabih, 1/166)
(10) Mu’adh ibn Jabal (Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) said, “The Devil is like a wolf among humans as a wolf is among sheep; it snatches the stray sheep. So beware of the paths which branch off and adhere to the Jama’ah, the masses and the masjid.” (Collected by Imam Ahmad; NB- The version given in Mishkat, 1/184, also on the authority of Imam Ahmad does not have the addition ‘the masses and the masjid.’)
(11) And Abu Dharr (Allah be pleased with him) reported from the Prophet (Peace be upon him) that, “Two are better than one, and three better than two; so stick to the Jama’ah for verily Allah, Most Great and Glorious, will only unite my nation on guidance.” (Collected by Ahmad)
(12) Al-Harith al-Ashari (Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Messenger of Allah (Peace be upon him) said:
“I bid you to do five things: to remain attached to the main body (Jama’ah of Muslims), listen to your ruler (the Khalif of the Islamic state) and obey him, and migrate, and fight in the way of Allah. And he who detaches himself from the main body of the Muslims (Jama’ah) to the extent of one span of hand, he in fact, throws off the yoke of Islam from his neck, and he who calls with the call of ignorance, he is one from the denizens of Hell beyond doubt, even if he observes fast and says prayers and considers himself as a Muslim.” (Musnad Ahmad, vide: Selection from Hadith, no. 288; by A.H. Siddique)
(13) Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) reported Allah’s Messenger (Peace be upon him) as saying:
“Follow the great mass (as-Sawad al-Azam) for he who kept himself away from it, in fact would be thrown in Hell Fire.” (Ibn Majah; vide: Mishkat, 1/174, by A.H. Siddiqui).
The translator of Mishkat-ul-Masabih (A.H. Siddiqui, pg. 113) said in the footnote to the last Hadith:
“There is a good deal of difference of opinion as to what the term Sawad al-Azam implies. The overwhelming majority of the scholars are of the view that As-Sawad al-Azam means the largest group of the learned scholars and pious persons whose opinions are held in high esteem in Islam.”
(14) Imam al-Shafi’i (Rahimahullah) said in his Risala (pg. 252-3):
“Sufyan (ibn Uyayna) told us from Abd al-Malik ibn Umayr from Abd al-Rahman ibn Abd Allah ibn Masood from his father, that the Prophet (Peace be upon him) said, `God will grant prosperity to His servant who hears my words, remembers them, guards them, and hands them on. Many a transmitter of law is no lawyer (faqih) himself, and many may transmit law to others who are more versed in the law than they. The heart of a Muslim shall never harbour vindictive feelings against three: sincerity in working for God; faithfulness to Muslims; and conformity to the community of believers (Jama’ah) – their call shall protect (the believers) and guard them from (the Devil’s) delusion.‘” (vide: Sunan al-Darimi, vol. 1, pp. 74-6; Ibn Hanbal, vol. 6, pg. 96; Musnad al-Shafi’i, vol. 1, pg. 16; Mishkat-ul-Masabih, 1/228; and al-Bayhaqi in his al-Madkhal). Imam al-Shafi’i said (pg. 253): “The Apostle’s (Peace be upon him) order that men should follow the Muslim community is a proof that the ijma (consensus) of the Muslims is binding.”
(15) Imam al-Shafi’i (Rahimahullah) stated in al-Risala (pg. 286-7):
“And Sufyan (also) told us from `Abd Allah ibn Abi Labid from `Abd Allah ibn Sulayman ibn Yasar from his father, who said: `Umar ibn al-Khattab (Allah be pleased with him) made a speech at al-Jabiya in which he said: The Apostle of God (Peace be upon him) stood among us by an order from God, as I am now standing among you, and said: Believe my Companions, then those who succeed them (the Successors), and after that those who succeed the Successors; but after them untruthfulness will prevail when people will swear (in support of their saying) without having been asked to swear, and will testify without having been asked to testify. Only those who seek the pleasure of Paradise will follow the community, for the devil can pursue one person, but stands far away from two. Let no man be alone with a woman, for the devil will be third among them. He who is happy with his right (behaviour), or unhappy with his wrong behaviour, is a (true) believer.'” (see also Musnad al-Shafi’i, vol. 2, pg. 187; and Ibn Hanbal, vol. 1, pg. 112-13, 176-81).
Imam al-Shafi’i said in conclusion to this Hadith:
“He who holds what the Muslim community (Jama’ah) holds shall be regarded as following the community, and he who holds differently shall be regarded as opposing the community he was ordered to follow. So the error comes from separation; but in the community as a whole there is no error concerning the meaning of the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and analogy (qiyas).”
(16) Imam Hakim (1/116) has related a Sahih Hadith from the Prophet (Peace be upon him) in the following words: “My Ummah shall not agree upon error.”
(17) Imam al-Tirmidhi (4/2167) reported on the authority of Ibn Umar (Allah be pleased with him) from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), who said: “Verily my Ummah would not agree (or he said the Ummah of Muhammad) would not agree upon error and Allah’s hand is over the group and whoever dissents from them departs to Hell.” (see also Mishkat, 1/173)
Imam al-Azizi (d. 1070/1660; Rahimahullah) quoted Imam al-Munawi’s (d. 1031/1622; Rahimahullah) commentary to the last Hadith in his al-Siraj al-munir sharh al-Jami al-saghir (3.449), as follows:- Allah’s hand is over the group
(al-Azizi): Munawi says, “Meaning his protection and preservation of them, signifying that the collectivity of the people of Islam are in Allah’s fold, so be also in Allah’s shelter, in the midst of them, and do not separate yourselves from them.” The rest of the Hadith, according to the one who first recorded it (Tirmidhi), is:-
and whoever descents from them departs to hell.
Meaning that whoever diverges from the overwhelming majority concerning what is lawful or unlawful and on which the Community does not differ has slipped off the path of guidance and this will lead him to hell.” (vide: The Reliance of the Traveller, pg. 25)
From Al-Albani Unvelied by Ahmed ibn Muhammad
A defence of the Ash’ari school by one of the foremost scholars of Hadith and Fiqh in Makkah of his time – Shaikh Sayyid Muhammad Alawi al-Maliki al-Makki (RahimAllah).
Shaykh Muhammad ‘Alawi Maliki: “Many sons/daughters of Muslims are ignorant of the Ash’ari School, whom it represents, and its positions on the tenets of the Islamic faith (aqidah), and yet some of them are not God-fearing enough to refrain from accusing it of deviance, departure from the religion of Islam, and heresy about the attributes of Allah. The ignorance of the Ash’ari school is a cause of rendering the unity of the Ahl al-Sunnah dispersing its ranks. Some have gone as far as to consider the Ash’aris among the categories of heretical sects, though it is beyond me how believers can be linked with misbelievers, or how Sunni Muslims can be considered equal with the most extreme faction of the Mu’tazilites, the Jahmites.
“Shall We deal with Muslims as We do criminals? How is it that you judge?” [Qur’an 68:35-36]
The Ash’aris are the Imams of the distinguished figures of guidance among the scholars of the Muslims, whose knowledge has filled the world from east to west, and whom people have unanimously concurred upon their excellence, scholarship, and religiousness. They include the first rank of Sunni scholars and the most brilliant of their luminaries, who stood in the face of the excesses commited by the Mu’tazilites, and who constitute whole sections of the foremost Imams of Hadith, Sacred Law, Quranic exegesis. Shaykh al-Islam Ahmad ibn Hajar ‘Asqalani (d. 852/1449; Rahimullah), the mentor of Hadith scholars and author of the book “Fath al-Bari bi sharh Sahih al-Bukhari“, which not a single Islamic scholar can dispense with, was Ash’ari. The shaykh of the scholars of Sunni Islam, Imam Nawawi (d. 676/1277; Rahimullah), author of “Sharh Sahih Muslim” and many other famous works, was Ash’ari. The master of Qur’anic exegetes, Imam Qurtubi (d. 671/1273; Rahimullah), author of “al-Jami’ li ahkan al-Qur’an“, was Ash’ari. Shaykh al-Islam ibn Hajar Haytami (d. 974/1567; Rahimullah), who wrote “al-Zawajir ‘an iqtiraf al-kaba’ir“, was Ash’ari. The Shaykh of Sacred Law and Hadith, the conclusive definitive Zakariyya Ansari (d. 926/1520; Rahimullah), was Ash’ari. Imam Abu Bakr Baqillani (d. 403/1013; Rahimullah), Imam ‘Asqalani; Imam Nasafi (d. 710/1310; Rahimullah); Imam Shirbini (d. 977/1570; Rahimullah); Abu Hayyan Tawhidi, author of the Qur’anic commentary “al-Bahr al-muhit“; Imam ibn Juzayy (d. 741/1340; Rahimullah); author of “al-Tashil fi ‘ulum al-Tanzil“; and others – all of these were Imams of the Ash’aris. If we wanted to name all of the top scholars of Hadith, Qur’anic exegesis, and Sacred Law who were Imams of the Ash’aris, we would be hard put to do so and would require volumes merely to list these illustrious figures whose wisdom has filled the earth from east to west. And it is incumbent upon us to give credit where credit is due, recognising the merit of those of knowledge and virtue who have served the Sacred Law of the Greatest Messengers (Allah bless him and grant him peace). What good is to be hoped for us if we impugn our foremost scholars and righteous forbearers with charges of aberrancy and misguidance? Or how should Allah give us the benefit of their scholarship if we believe it is deviance and departure from the way of Islam? I ask you, is there a single Islamic scholar of the present day, among all the PhD.’s and geniuses, who has done what Ibn Hajar ‘Asqalani or Imam Nawawi have, of the service rendered by these two noble Imams (May Allah enfold them in His mercy and bliss) to the pure Prophetic Sunnah? How should we charge them and all Ash’aris with abberancy when it is we who are in need of their scholarship? Or how can we take knowledge from them if they were in error? For as Imam Zuhri (d. 124/742; rahimullah) says, “This knowledge is religion, so look well to whom you are taking your religion from.”
Is it not sufficient for someone opposed to the Ash’aris to say, “Allah have mercy on them, they used reasoning (ijtihad) in figuratively interpreting the divine attributes, which it would have been fitter for them not to do”; instead of accusing them of deviance and misguidance, or displaying anger towards whoever considers them to be of the Sunni Community? If Imams Nawawi, ‘Asqalani, Qurtubi, Baqillani, al-Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Haytami, Zakariyyah Ansari, and many others were not among the most brilliant scholars and illustrious geniuses, or of the Sunni Community, then who are the Sunnis?
I sincerely entreat all who call others to this religion or who work in the field of propagating Islam to fear Allah respecting the honour of the Community of Muhammad (Allah bless him and grant him peace) is possessed of goodness until the Final Hour, we are bereft of any if we fail to acknowledge the worth and excellence of our learned.”
In conclusion, the Ahl al-Sunnah wa’l Jama’ah are the true followers of the Prophet (Peace be upon him) and his Companions (Allah be pleased with them all), followed by by those who trod their path for the last 1400 years. It is in summary the followers of Imam Abu’l Hasan al-Ash’ari (Rahimullah) and Imam Abu Mansur al-Maturidi (Rahimullah) in Aqeedah, and this saved sect is represented by the adherents of one of the four schools – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i and Hanbali today. This is the sect which has had the largest following throughout Islamic history as-Sawad al-Az’am) as confirmed by the Qur’anic and Ahadith based evidence and it will remain dominant until the Hour is established, inshaAllah.
Abu Hanifa says in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar about the qualities of God:
“He has a hand, a face, and a self. So what He, High is He, mentions in the Qur’an of the mention of the face, hand, and self, they are all attributes of His with no modality (or description).
Rather, His hand is His attribute with no modality (or description). And His anger and His satisfaction are two of His attributes with no modality (or description)…”
One must first understand that by virtue of the fact that the book – Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar – is considered to be the first book written in the time of the Taabi’een on the topic of Tawheed in an organized and methodical fashion during an age of great controversy when Sunnis were attempting to codify the orthodox creed of Muslims that there will be statements found in it that may be problematic.
Of course Salafis would find great joy in seeing such statements like the one above, since it apparently gives credence to their arguments about what they refer to as ‘The Attributes of Allah,’ like the hand, face, eyes, foot, side, shin, self, etc.
They could easily make the claim that their ‘aqeedah is correct and in agreement with the creed of the Salaf, since Imam Abu Hanifa who is one of the Salaf says in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar that Allah has a hand. And His hand is an attribute, similar to what they say.
So on the surface it would seem that the argument is over, and that Salafis have proven themselves to be victorious in their claims.
However, a number of other things have to be considered before accepting their arguments.
Firstly, if we are to accept that Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar is an authentic work legitimately ascribable to Abu Hanifa and that it represents the ‘aqeedah of the Salaf, Salafis have to accept all that it contains. So they’d have to also accept the following statement made by Abu Hanifa about Allah’s speech:
“And He speaks, not as our speech. We speak with tools and letters while Allah, High is He, speaks without a tool and without letters. The letters are created. And the speech of Allah, High is He, is uncreated.”`
In this passage, Abu Hanifa states that when Allah, High is He, speaks, He speaks without letters. But Salafis believe that when Allah speaks, He speaks with letters and sounds.
So, really this is another case of Salafis selectively abusing and misusing the words of the Salaf and those attributed to the Salaf in an attempt to make it seem that their creed agrees with that of the Salaf, when in fact it doesn’t.
Add to that, Salafis are those who argue that the current version of Kitab al-Ibaanah ‘an Usool ad-Diyaanah, attributed to Imam Abu al-Hasan Al-Ash’ari, is a proper ascription to him.
And in that book, it states that Imam Abu Hanifa believed that the Qur’an was created1,. But if Salafis accept that Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar is appropriately ascribed to Abu Hanifa, they have to also accept his words that contradict this claim when he says:
“The Qur’an is Allah’s word, High is He, in pages transcribed, in hearts protected, on tongues recited, and on the Prophet (PBUH) and His family revealed. Our utterance of the Qur’an is created. Our writing of it is created. Our recitation of it is created. And the Qur’an is uncreated.”
How more explicit can the Imam be? He expressly states in Al-Fiqh al-Akbar that the “Qur’an is uncreated.” But the Salafis claim that the narrations in Al-Ibaanah that claim that Abu Hanifa believed that it was created is a proper ascription to Abu al-Hasan. And at the same time they consider Al-Fiqh al-Akbar to be properly ascribed to Abu Hanifa.
In addition to that, Imam Abu al-Hasan doesn’t make any mention of Abu Hanifa as being one of those who believed that the Qur’an was created in his more prominent and well-established work entitled ‘Maqaalaat al-Islaamiyyeen.’ And according to Salafis, Kitaab al-Ibaanah was his last work.
So how do they explain the fact that Imam Al-Ash’ari waited until his final work to mention Abu Hanifa, who died more than a century prior to him, as one of those who believed that the Qur’an was created in his supposed last work, when he didn’t mention him in what they believe to be one of his earlier works?
Did not Al-Ash’ari know that Imam Abu Hanifa was the author of Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar?
They just can’t have it both ways.
Either Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar is Abu Hanifa’s work, which would make Kitaab al-Ibaanah – in its present form – not Abu al-Hasan’s work. Or the current Kitaab al-Ibaanah is Abu al-Hasan’s work, which would mean that Al-Fiqh al-Akbar is not Abu Hanifa’s work.
And if Al-Fiqh al-Akbar is Abu Hanifa’s work and Salafis want to use it as proof that their ‘aqeedah is no different than his, they have to accept everything in it without exception.
Now as for the issue of the statement in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar about the hand, face, and self and them being attributes, we must consider two things in particular:
1 – Imam At-Tahaawi makes no mention of hands, a face, or a self in his ‘aqeedah. And his book has been accepted as the one that represents the ‘aqeedah of Imam Abu Hanifa and his two companions, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad Ash-Shaibaani.
2 – Secondly, we must understand any comment made in Al-Fiqh al-Akbar – as in other works – according to context.
According to Al-Fiqh al-Akbar, Allah has two general classifications of attributes known as ‘Attributes of the Essence’ and ‘Attributes of Action.’
Attributes of the Essence are the essential qualities of His being.
As for attributes of action, they are things that happen outside of His being. And since He is the one responsible for those occurrences, they are attributed to Him and called ‘Attributes of Action.’
Imam Abu Hanifa explains this in his book when he says:
“He doesn’t resemble anything of His creation, and nothing of His creation resembles Him. He has always and will always exist with His names and His attributes of the (divine) essence and those (attributes) of action.
As for those of the essence, they are: life, power, knowledge, speech, hearing, seeing, and will.
And as for those of action, they are: creating, providing, producing, originating, manufacturing, and other attributes of action.”
So the attributes of Allah’s divine essence are seven:
As for the attributes of action, he states things like
Then, Abu Hanifa says,
“He has always and will always exist with His names and attributes. He has not acquired any new name or attribute.”
As for restricting the attributes of the essence to merely seven, this is not to say that these are the only attributes that Allah has. It is merely to say that this is the number that both revelation and reason have been able to conclude. As for the standard view of Maaturidis, the attributes of the essence are 8.
In the end, most of that is just a difference in semantics. And the true difference is with relationship to what Ash’aris call ‘Abstract Attributes’, which are the 7 that Abu Hanifa mentions in Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar, while Maaturidis add an eighth called ‘Takween.’
At any rate, notice how Abu Hanifa doesn’t make mention of the hand, face, and self until he enumerates the attributes of the essence. And, so that the readers can see, here is the complete text prior to the mention of the hand, face, and self:
“He doesn’t resemble anything of His creation, and nothing of His creation resembles Him. He has always and will always exist with His names and His attributes of the (divine) essence and those (attributes) of action.
As for those of the essence, they are: life, power, knowledge, speech, hearing, seeing, and will.
And as for those of action, they are: creating, providing, producing, originating, manufacturing, and other attributes of action.
He has always and will always exist with His names and attributes. He has not acquired any new name or attribute.”
So if He hasn’t acquired any new name or attribute, there are truly no other definitive attributes of essence other than those mentioned above, and the hand, face, and self aren’t included among them.
Then he continues:
“He has always been Knowing by His knowledge. And knowledge has been an attribute since pre-eternity.
(He has always been) Powerful by His power. And power has been an attribute since pre-eternity.
(He has always been) A Speaker by His speech. And speech has been an attribute since pre-eternity.
(He has always been) A Doer by His will to act. And the will to act has been an attribute since pre-eternity. The Doer is Allah, High is He. The will to act has been an attribute since pre-eternity. And the resulting entity of His will to act is created, while Allah’s will to act, High is He, is uncreated. And His attributes have been since pre-eternity un-invented and uncreated. So whoever says that they are created or invented, remains silent about them, or entertains doubts about them is one who rejects faith in Allah, High is He.”
He also says,
“And Allah, High is He, was indeed a Speaker at a time when He had not yet spoken to Musa, upon him be peace. And Allah was indeed a Creator in pre-eternity even though He had not yet created. ((There is nothing like unto Him. And He is the All-Hearing All-Seeing)). So when He spoke to Musa, He spoke to him with His speech, which has been an attribute of His since pre-eternity. And All of His attributes are without beginning from pre-eternity; contrary to the state of the attributes of created beings.
He has knowledge, not as our knowledge. He has power, not as our power. He sees, not as our seeing. He hears, not as our hearing. And He speaks, not as our speech.
We speak with tools and letters while Allah, High is He, speaks without a tool and without letters. The letters are created. And the speech of Allah, High is He, is uncreated.
He is a thing, not like other things. And the point of saying ‘thing’ is to confirm His existence while not being a divisible body, an indivisible body, and not an accident of a body.
He has no boundary. He has no opposite. He has no rival. And He has no equal.
Then finally he says,
He has a hand, a face, and a self. So what He, High is He, mentions in the Qur’an of the mention of the face, hand, and self, are all attributes of His with no modality (or description).
Rather, His hand is His attribute with no modality (or description). And His anger and His satisfaction are two of His attributes with no modality (or description)…”
So what are we to understand from all of this? How do we reconcile between Abu Hanifa’s saying after mentioning the seven attributes of the essence:
“He has always and will always exist with His names and attributes. He has not acquired any new name or attribute.”
And between his saying,
“He has a hand, a face, and a self. So what He, High is He, mentions in the Qur’an of the mention of the face, hand, and self, are all attributes of His with no modality (or description).”?
I believe that the best way to reconcile between the two is to say that ‘hand, face, and self’ are references to either one of Allah’s true attributes of the essence as stated in the first clause by Abu Hanifa. Or they are references to one of His attributes of action.
One cannot deny that by such words being annexed to Allah’s name or pronoun in the Qur’an, they are being ‘attributed’ to Him directly even if calling them ‘attributes’ doesn’t coincide with the original linguistic definition of what an attribute is.
So calling them attributes would be a metaphorical application as opposed to a literal application. And if it is a metaphorical application, it would have to be accepted that such named ‘attributes’ are metaphorical ‘attributes.’ So the hand, face, and self would have to be a metaphorical ‘hand, face, and self,’ which are references to one of Allah’s true attributes, since there is nothing like unto Him. And ‘hand’ in its original linguistic understanding applies only to created beings.
Abdur-Rahman ibn Al-Jawzi says while mentioning the mistakes of some Hanbali scholars in the area of scriptural interpretation of the problematic verses of the Qur’an,
“And those writers who I have mentioned have erred in seven areas. The first of them is that they called the ‘reports’ ‘attributes.’ When they are merely annexations/possessive forms. And not every possessive form is an attribute. For Allah, High is He, has said: ((And I have blown into him from My spirit)) [Al-Hijr: 29]. And Allah doesn’t have an attribute known as a ‘spirit.’ So those who have called ‘the possessive form’ (idaafa) ‘an attribute’ are guilty of innovation.”
The linguist, Tha’lab says in Taaj al-‘Aroos,
“A ‘na’t’ is a description given to a specific part of the body like the word ‘lame’ (‘araj). A ‘sifa’ (attribute) is for non-specificity (‘umoom), like the word ‘magnificent’ (‘azeem) and ‘generous’ (kareem). So Allah is described with a ‘sifa’. But He is not described with a ‘na’t.’”
What this would mean is that the word ‘sifa’ (attribute) is being used metaphorically to mean ‘na’t’, which is another word for ‘attribute’ or ‘trait.’ The difference is that a ‘na’t’ describes a specific part of a body, like ‘lame’ or ‘blind’.
For this reason, Imam Bukhaari uses the word ‘nu’oot’ (plural of na’t), instead of ‘sifaat’ (plural of sifa) to refer to those reports that make mention of Allah’s anger, laughter, foot, hand, and face even though He isn’t a body and doesn’t have a body.
This would have to be the accepted interpretation. Otherwise, we must accept that Abu Hanifa contradicts his self by first limiting the attributes of the essence to the 7 mentioned above, and then later adding Allah’s face, hand, and self.
Another important question is ‘Why doesn’t Abu Hanifa add to what he considered attributes ‘the shin, the side, the eyes, the foot, and the spirit?’
This is important because Allah annexes His name or personal pronoun to each of these things in the Qur’an or the Messenger does so in the hadith. So if I am to accept that Allah has a face, self, and hand, simply because He annexes such things to His name or pronoun, I should also accept that He has eyes, a spirit, a foot, a side, a shin, a she-camel, a house, and any other thing that He has attached His name or pronoun to.
And if the Salafis agree with Abu Hanifa’s creed, they should only accept as attributes those things that Abu Hanifa declared to be attributes. This would mean that Salafis have to stop saying that Allah has a foot, a shin, a side, and eyes.
But we know that they won’t do that, because Salafis are very selective about what they want to accept from the Salaf and what they don’t want to accept, all the while claiming that their ‘aqeeda is the ‘aqeeda of the Salaf.
If they use Abu Hanifa’s words about the face, hand, and self as being proof that they follow the minhaaj and understanding of the Salaf, they should only say what the Salaf said and stop adding to their words.
So to accept that these are the words of Abu Hanifa, we’d either have to accept the first interpretation or we’d have to accept the second, which would mean that he is in contradiction with his self.
And if that is so, we’d have to accept that Abu Hanifa may not have been an authority on this subject.
As for referring to these problematic verses and hadiths as ‘Attribute Verses’ (Aayaat as-Sifaat) or ‘Reports of Attributes’ (Akhbaar as-Sifaat), this was the specific terminology that scholars used to refer to them even though they didn’t actually mean that such ascriptions mentioned in scripture were attributes of Allah. Imam Ibn Al-Jawzi’s words above clarify the error of this sort of designation. So hopefully that should resolve any confusion about the issue.
“Haarun ibn Ishaaq al-Hamdaani mentioned about Abu Na’eem from Sulaimaan ibn ‘Eesaa Al-Qaari that Sufyaan Ath-Thauri said: “I said to Hammaad ibn Abi Sulaimaan: “Proclaim to Abu Hanifa, The Idolater, that I am innocent of him.”” Sulaimaan said: “Then Sufyaan said: “That’s because he used to say, ‘The Qur’an is created.’”
Sufyaan ibn Wakee’ said: “I heard ‘Umar ibn Hammaad, the grandson of Abu Hanifa, say: “My father said to me: “The comment that Ibn Abi Lailaa demanded that Abu Hanifa repent from was his statement: ‘The Qur’an is created.’” He (Hammaad) said: “So he repented from it and announced his repentance publicly. My (Hammaad) father said: “How did you turn to this?” He (Abu Hanifa) said: “I feared – By Allah – that I would be disciplined. So I used a misleading expression to trick him (heela).”
Haarun ibn Ishaaq said, “I heard Ismaa’eel ibn Abi Al-Hakam mention about ‘Umar ibn ‘Ubaid At-Tanaafusi that Hammaad – i.e. Ibn Abi Sulaimaan – sent someone to Abu Hanifa to say: “Verily I am innocent of what you say until you repent.”
Ibn Abi ‘Inabah was with him (i.e. Hammaad) and said: “Your neighbor told me that Abu Hanifa invited him to what he was asked to repent from after he had already been asked to repent from it.”
And it was mentioned that Abu Yusuf said, “I debated with Abu Hanifa for two months until he retracted his statement about the createdness of the Qur’an.”
[Al-Ash’ari, Abu al-Hasan (ascribed to him), Kitaab al-Ibaanah ‘an Usool ad-Diyaanah: 1998/1418 Daar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, Marginal Notes by ‘Abdullah Mahmood Muhammad ‘Umar.]
On the same page, the commentator, Abdullah Mahmood Muhammad ‘Umar, makes the following comments:
“Tahaawi states in his book, Al-‘Aqeedah At-Tahaawiyyah, what contradicts these narrations that claim that Abu Hanifa used to state that the Qur’an is created. And Tahaawi is more reliable in transmission and more knowing of the creed of his comrades (Abu Hanifa and his two companions) than Al-Ash’ari is. Imam Tahaawi, the Hanafi, says: “The Qu’ran is the word of Allah. It came from Him as speech without it being possible to say how. He sent it down upon His messenger as revelation. The believers accept it as absolute truth. They are certain that it is, in truth, the word of Allah. It was not created like the speech of human beings…”
So the commentator, in spite of the fact that he seems to accept that the book is properly ascribed to Imam Al-Ash’ari, he establishes that such a claim made by him cannot be substantiated, since it conflicts with the reports given by those who have better knowledge of the creed of Abu Hanifa who conveyed it to the Ummah.
Add to this, Al-Ash’ari doesn’t list Imam Abu Hanifa among those who believed the Qur’an to be created in his book, Maqaalaat al-Islaamiyyeen, even though the narrations above from Al-Ibaanah give the impression that Abu Hanifa never actually relinquished the presumed belief that the Qur’an is created.
Existence is known as the ‘Essential Attribute’ (As-sifah An-nafsiyyah), since without it Allah would not be able of being described by any of the others.
The other 5 are known as the ‘Negating Attributes’ (As-Sifaat As-Salbiyyah). This is because by establishing them, one negates their opposites from Allah’s being.
They are called the ‘Signifying Attributes’ (As-Sifaat al-Ma’nawiyya), because they signify that Allah has the attribute that each adjective implies, i.e. power, will, knowledge, life, sight, hearing, and speech.
Abu Hanifa mentions only the 7 abstract attributes. But this doesn’t mean that he denies the existence of the other 13 mentioned by Ash’aris. This is because the ‘essential attribute’ of ‘existence’ and the other five negating attributes are characteristics of the 7 essential qualities. So they go without saying.
 The reason that Abu Hanifa doesn’t mention the 5 ‘Negating Attributes’ (i.e. permanence without beginning, endurance without end, absolute independence, dissimilarity to creation, and oneness), the ‘Essential Attribute’ (Existence), and the 7 signifying attributes stated above, is that these attributes are actually qualities of Allah’s main qualities, which are the 7 Attributes of the Essence or as Ash’aris call them, ‘Abstract Attributes.’
 The ‘will to act’ is a translation for the word, ‘fi’l,’ usually translated as ‘action.’ I translated as ‘will to act’ since it is more in line with the actually creed of Maaturidis who based much of their creed off of the doctrine of Imam Abu Hanifa. To translate ‘fi’l’ as ‘action’ or ‘act’ would imply that the creation – one of Allah’s actions – is eternal without a beginning, since the author states that the ‘fi’l’ is uncreated.
 In other words, to say such a thing would be equal to saying what the people who deny the divine decree (qadar) say and like the Mu’tazilites who say that every time Allah ascribes a hand to His self, it means ‘power.’
 Imam Shaukaani states in his Irshaad al-Fuhool while discussing the different relationships that tie between literal and figurative language that one of them is, “Assigning a thing the name of one of its forms and manifestations, like using the word ‘hand’ to refer to ‘power…” [Irshaad al-Fuhool: 1/119] In other words, the hand is a form or manifestation of power. This would mean that when one says that the ‘hand’ is one of Allah’s attributes, he really means that it is His power even though a different word is used to apply to it. And Allah knows best.
Thus article is reproduced courtesy of Lamppost Productions
‘Blood is no argument’, as Shakespeare observed. Sadly, Muslim ranks are today swollen with those who disagree. The World Trade Centre, yesterday’s symbol of global finance, has today become a monument to the failure of global Islam to control those who believe that the West can be bullied into changing its wayward ways towards the East. There is no real excuse to hand. It is simply not enough to clamour, as many have done, about ‘chickens coming home to roost’, and to protest that Washington’s acquiescence in Israeli policies of ethnic cleansing is the inevitable generator of such hate. It is of course true – as Shabbir Akhtar has noted – that powerlessness can corrupt as insistently as does power. But to comprehend is not to sanction or even to empathize. To take innocent life to achieve a goal is the hallmark of the most extreme secular utilitarian ethic, and stands at the opposite pole of the absolute moral constraints required by religion.
There was a time, not long ago, when the ‘ultras’ were few, forming only a tiny wart on the face of the worldwide attempt to revivify Islam. Sadly, we can no longer enjoy the luxury of ignoring them. The extreme has broadened, and the middle ground, giving way, is everywhere dislocated and confused. And this enfeeblement of the middle ground, was what was enjoined by the Prophetic example, is in turn accelerated by the opprobrium which the extremists bring not simply upon themselves, but upon committed Muslims everywhere. For here, as elsewhere, the preferences of the media work firmly against us. David Koresh could broadcast his fringe Biblical message from Ranch Apocalypse without the image of Christianity, or even its Adventist wing, being in any way besmirched. But when a fringe Islamic group bombs Swedish tourists in Cairo, the muck is instantly spread over ‘militant Muslims’ everywhere.
If these things go on, the Islamic movement will cease to form an authentic summons to cultural and spiritual renewal, and will exist as little more than a splintered array of maniacal factions. The prospect of such an appalling and humiliating end to the story of a religion which once surpassed all others in its capacity for tolerating debate and dissent is now a real possibility. The entire experience of Islamic work over the past fifteen years has been one of increasing radicalization, driven by the perceived failure of the traditional Islamic institutions and the older Muslim movements to lead the Muslim peoples into the worthy but so far chimerical promised land of the ‘Islamic State.’
If this final catastrophe is to be averted, the mainstream will have to regain the initiative. But for this to happen, it must begin by confessing that the radical critique of moderation has its force. The Islamic movement has so far been remarkably unsuccessful. We must ask ourselves how it is that a man like Nasser, a butcher, a failed soldier and a cynical demagogue, could have taken over a country as pivotal as Egypt, despite the vacuity of his beliefs, while the Muslim Brotherhood, with its pullulating millions of members, should have failed, and failed continuously, for six decades. The radical accusation of a failure in methodology cannot fail to strike home in such a context of dismal and prolonged inadequacy.
It is in this context – startlingly, perhaps, but inescapably – that we must present our case for the revival of the spiritual life within Islam. If it is ever to prosper, the ‘Islamic revival’ must be made to see that it is in crisis, and that its mental resources are proving insufficient to meet contemporary needs. The response to this must be grounded in an act of collective muhasaba, of self-examination, in terms that transcend the ideologised neo-Islam of the revivalists, and return to a more classical and indigenously Muslim dialectic.
Symptomatic of the disease is the fact that among all the explanations offered for the crisis of the Islamic movement, the only authentically Muslim interpretation, namely, that God should not be lending it His support, is conspicuously absent. It is true that we frequently hear the Quranic verse which states that “God does not change the condition of a people until they change the condition of their own selves.” But never, it seems, is this principle intelligently grasped. It is assumed that the sacred text is here doing no more than to enjoin individual moral reform as a precondition for collective societal success. Nothing could be more hazardous, however, than to measure such moral reform against the yardstick of the fiqh without giving concern to whether the virtues gained have been acquired through conformity (a relatively simple task), or proceed spontaneously from a genuine realignment of the soul. The verse is speaking of a spiritual change, specifically, a transformation of the nafs of the believers – not a moral one. And as the Blessed Prophet never tired of reminding us, there is little value in outward conformity to the rules unless this conformity is mirrored and engendered by an authentically righteous disposition of the heart. ‘No-one shall enter the Garden by his works,’ as he expressed it. Meanwhile, the profoundly judgemental and works – oriented tenor of modern revivalist Islam (we must shun the problematic buzz-word ‘fundamentalism’), fixated on visible manifestations of morality, has failed to address the underlying question of what revelation is for. For it is theological nonsense to suggest that God’s final concern is with our ability to conform to a complex set of rules. His concern is rather that we should be restored, through our labours and His grace, to that state of purity and equilibrium with which we were born. The rules are a vital means to that end, and are facilitated by it. But they do not take its place.
To make this point, the Holy Quran deploys a striking metaphor. In Sura Ibrahim, verses 24 to 26, we read:
Have you not seen how God coineth a likeness: a goodly word like a goodly tree, the root whereof is set firm, its branch in the heaven? It bringeth forth its fruit at every time, by the leave of its Lord. Thus doth God coin likenesses for men, that perhaps they may reflect. And the likeness of an evil word is that of an evil tree that hath been torn up by the root from upon the earth, possessed of no stability.
According to the scholars of tafsir (exegesis), the reference here is to the ‘words’ (kalima) of faith and unfaith. The former is illustrated as a natural growth, whose florescence of moral and intellectual achievement is nourished by firm roots, which in turn denote the basis of faith: the quality of the proofs one has received, and the certainty and sound awareness of God which alone signify that one is firmly grounded in the reality of existence. The fruits thus yielded – the palpable benefits of the religious life – are permanent (‘at every time’), and are not man’s own accomplishment, for they only come ‘by the leave of its Lord’. Thus is the sound life of faith. The contrast is then drawn with the only alternative: kufr, which is not grounded in reality but in illusion, and is hence ‘possessed of no stability’.
This passage, reminiscent of some of the binary categorisations of human types presented early on in Surat al-Baqara, precisely encapsulates the relationship between faith and works, the hierarchy which exists between them, and the sustainable balance between nourishment and fructition, between taking and giving, which true faith must maintain.
It is against this criterion that we must judge the quality of contemporary ‘activist’ styles of faith. Is the young ‘ultra’, with his intense rage which can sometimes render him liable to nervous disorders, and his fixation on a relatively narrow range of issues and concerns, really firmly rooted, and fruitful, in the sense described by this Quranic image?
Let me point to the answer with an example drawn from my own experience.
I used to know, quite well, a leader of the radical ‘Islamic’ group, the Jama’at Islamiya, at the Egyptian university of Assiut. His name was Hamdi. He grew a luxuriant beard, was constantly scrubbing his teeth with his miswak, and spent his time preaching hatred of the Coptic Christians, a number of whom were actually attacked and beaten up as a result of his khutbas. He had hundreds of followers; in fact, Assiut today remains a citadel of hardline, Wahhabi-style activism.
The moral of the story is that some five years after this acquaintance, providence again brought me face to face with Shaikh Hamdi. This time, chancing to see him on a Cairo street, I almost failed to recognise him. The beard was gone. He was in trousers and a sweater. More astonishing still was that he was walking with a young Western girl who turned out to be an Australian, whom, as he sheepishly explained to me, he was intending to marry. I talked to him, and it became clear that he was no longer even a minimally observant Muslim, no longer prayed, and that his ambition in life was to leave Egypt, live in Australia, and make money. What was extraordinary was that his experiences in Islamic activism had made no impression on him – he was once again the same distracted, ordinary Egyptian youth he had been before his conversion to ‘radical Islam’.
This phenomenon, which we might label ‘salafi burnout‘, is a recognised feature of many modern Muslim cultures. An initial enthusiasm, gained usually in one’s early twenties, loses steam some seven to ten years later. Prison and torture – the frequent lot of the Islamic radical – may serve to prolong commitment, but ultimately, a majority of these neo-Muslims relapse, seemingly no better or worse for their experience in the cult-like universe of the salafi mindset.
This ephemerality of extremist activism should be as suspicious as its content. Authentic Muslim faith is simply not supposed to be this fragile; as the Qur’an says, its root is meant to be ‘set firm’. One has to conclude that of the two trees depicted in the Quranic image, salafi extremism resembles the second rather than the first. After all, the Sahaba were not known for a transient commitment: their devotion and piety remained incomparably pure until they died.
What attracts young Muslims to this type of ephemeral but ferocious activism? One does not have to subscribe to determinist social theories to realise the importance of the almost universal condition of insecurity which Muslim societies are now experiencing. The Islamic world is passing through a most devastating period of transition. A history of economic and scientific change which in Europe took five hundred years, is, in the Muslim world, being squeezed into a couple of generations. For instance, only thirty-five years ago the capital of Saudi Arabia was a cluster of mud huts, as it had been for thousands of years. Today’s Riyadh is a hi-tech megacity of glass towers, Coke machines, and gliding Cadillacs. This is an extreme case, but to some extent the dislocations of modernity are common to every Muslim society, excepting, perhaps, a handful of the most remote tribal peoples.
Such a transition period, with its centrifugal forces which allow nothing to remain constant, makes human beings very insecure. They look around for something to hold onto, that will give them an identity. In our case, that something is usually Islam. And because they are being propelled into it by this psychic sense of insecurity, rather than by the more normal processes of conversion and faith, they lack some of the natural religious virtues, which are acquired by contact with a continuous tradition, and can never be learnt from a book.
One easily visualises how this works. A young Arab, part of an oversized family, competing for scarce jobs, unable to marry because he is poor, perhaps a migrant to a rapidly expanding city, feels like a man lost in a desert without signposts. One morning he picks up a copy of Sayyid Qutb from a newsstand, and is ‘born-again’ on the spot. This is what he needed: instant certainty, a framework in which to interpret the landscape before him, to resolve the problems and tensions of his life, and, even more deliciously, a way of feeling superior and in control. He joins a group, and, anxious to retain his newfound certainty, accepts the usual proposition that all the other groups are mistaken.
This, of course, is not how Muslim religious conversion is supposed to work. It is meant to be a process of intellectual maturation, triggered by the presence of a very holy person or place. Tawba, in its traditional form, yields an outlook of joy, contentment, and a deep affection for others. The modern type of tawba, however, born of insecurity, often makes Muslims narrow, intolerant, and exclusivist. Even more noticeably, it produces people whose faith is, despite its apparent intensity, liable to vanish as suddenly as it came. Deprived of real nourishment, the activist’s soul can only grow hungry and emaciated, until at last it dies.
How should we respond to this disorder? We must begin by remembering what Islam is for. As we noted earlier, our din is not, ultimately, a manual of rules which, when meticulously followed, becomes a passport to paradise. Instead, it is a package of social, intellectual and spiritual technology whose purpose is to cleanse the human heart. In the Qur’an, the Lord says that on the Day of Judgement, nothing will be of any use to us, except a sound heart (qalbun salim).  And in a famous hadith, the Prophet, upon whom be blessings and peace, says that
“Verily in the body there is a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the body is all sound. If it is corrupt, the body is all corrupt. Verily, it is the heart.
Mindful of this commandment, under which all the other commandments of Islam are subsumed, and which alone gives them meaning, the Islamic scholars have worked out a science, an ilm (science), of analysing the ‘states’ of the heart, and the methods of bringing it into this condition of soundness. In the fullness of time, this science acquired the name tasawwuf, in English ‘Sufism’ – a traditional label for what we might nowadays more intelligibly call ‘Islamic psychology.’
At this point, many hackles are raised and well-rehearsed objections voiced. It is vital to understand that mainstream Sufism is not, and never has been, a doctrinal system, or a school of thought – a madhhab. It is, instead, a set of insights and practices which operate within the various Islamic madhhabs; in other words, it is not a madhhab, it is an ilm. And like most of the other Islamic ulum, it was not known by name, or in its later developed form, in the age of the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) or his Companions. This does not make it less legitimate. There are many Islamic sciences which only took shape many years after the Prophetic age: usul al-fiqh, for instance, or the innumerable technical disciplines of hadith.
Now this, of course, leads us into the often misunderstood area of sunna and bid’a, two notions which are wielded as blunt instruments by many contemporary activists, but which are often grossly misunderstood. The classic Orientalist thesis is of course that Islam, as an ‘arid Semitic religion’, failed to incorporate mechanisms for its own development, and that it petrified upon the death of its founder. This, however, is a nonsense rooted in the ethnic determinism of the nineteenth century historians who had shaped the views of the early Orientalist synthesizers (Muir, Le Bon, Renan, Caetani). Islam, as the religion designed for the end of time, has in fact proved itself eminently adaptable to the rapidly changing conditions which characterise this final and most ‘entropic’ stage of history.
What is a bid’a, according to the classical definitions of Islamic law? We all know the famous hadith:
Beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in Hell. 
Does this mean that everything introduced into Islam that was not known to the first generation of Muslims is to be rejected? The classical ulema do not accept such a literalistic interpretation.
Let us take a definition from Imam al-Shafi’i, an authority universally accepted in Sunni Islam. Imam al-Shafi’i writes:
There are two kinds of introduced matters (muhdathat). One is that which contradicts a text of the Qur’an, or the Sunna, or a report from the early Muslims (athar), or the consensus (ijma’) of the Muslims: this is an ‘innovation of misguidance’ (bid’at dalala). The second kind is that which is in itself good and entails no contradiction of any of these authorities: this is a ‘non-reprehensible innovation’ (bid’a ghayr madhmuma). 
This basic distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of bid’a is recognised by the overwhelming majority of classical ulema. Among some, for instance al-Izz ibn Abd al-Salam (one of the half-dozen or so great mujtahids of Islamic history), innovations fall under the five axiological headings of the Shari’a: the obligatory (wajib), the recommended (mandub), the permissible (mubah), the offensive (makruh), and the forbidden (haram).
Under the category of ‘obligatory innovation’, Ibn Abd al-Salam gives the following examples: recording the Qur’an and the laws of Islam in writing at a time when it was feared that they would be lost, studying Arabic grammar in order to resolve controversies over the Qur’an, and developing philosophical theology (kalam) to refute the claims of the Mu’tazilites.
Category two is ‘recommended innovation’. Under this heading the ulema list such activities as building madrasas, writing books on beneficial Islamic subjects, and in-depth studies of Arabic linguistics.
Category three is ‘permissible’, or ‘neutral innovation’, including worldly activities such as sifting flour, and constructing houses in various styles not known in Medina.
Category four is the ‘reprehensible innovation’. This includes such misdemeanours as overdecorating mosques or the Qur’an.
Category five is the ‘forbidden innovation’. This includes unlawful taxes, giving judgeships to those unqualified to hold them, and sectarian beliefs and practices that explicitly contravene the known principles of the Qur’an and the Sunna.
The above classification of bid’a types is normal in classical Shari’a literature, being accepted by the four schools of orthodox fiqh. There have been only two significant exceptions to this understanding in the history of Islamic thought: the Zahiri school as articulated by Ibn Hazm, and one wing of the Hanbali madhhab, represented by Ibn Taymiya, who goes against the classical ijma’ on this issue, and claims that all forms of innovation, good or bad, are un-Islamic.
Why is it, then, that so many Muslims now believe that innovation in any form is unacceptable in Islam? One factor has already been touched on: the mental complexes thrown up by insecurity, which incline people to find comfort in absolutist and literalist interpretations. Another lies in the influence of the well-financed neo-Hanbali madhhab called Wahhabism, whose leaders are famous for their rejection of all possibility of development.
In any case, armed with this more sophisticated and classical awareness of Islam’s ability to acknowledge and assimilate novelty, we can understand how Muslim civilisation was able so quickly to produce novel academic disciplines to deal with new problems as these arose.
Islamic psychology is characteristic of the new ulum which, although present in latent and implicit form in the Quran, were first systematized in Islamic culture during the early Abbasid period. Given the importance that the Quran attaches to obtaining a ‘sound heart’, we are not surprised to find that the influence of Islamic psychology has been massive and all-pervasive. In the formative first four centuries of Islam, the time when the great works of tafsir, hadith, grammar, and so forth were laid down, the ulema also applied their minds to this problem of al-qalb al-salim. This was first visible when, following the example of the Tabi’in, many of the early ascetics, such as Sufyan ibn Uyayna, Sufyan al-Thawri, and Abdallah ibn al-Mubarak, had focussed their concerns explicitly on the art of purifying the heart. The methods they recommended were frequent fasting and night prayer, periodic retreats, and a preoccupation with murabata: service as volunteer fighters in the border castles of Asia Minor.
This type of pietist orientation was not in the least systematic during this period. It was a loose category embracing all Muslims who sought salvation through the Prophetic virtues of renunciation, sincerity, and deep devotion to the revelation. These men and women were variously referred to as al-bakka’un: ‘the weepers’, because of their fear of the Day of Judgement, or as zuhhad, ascetics, or ubbad, ‘unceasing worshippers’.
By the third century, however, we start to find writings which can be understood as belonging to a distinct devotional school. The increasing luxury and materialism of Abbasid urban society spurred many Muslims to campaign for a restoration of the simplicity of the Prophetic age. Purity of heart, compassion for others, and a constant recollection of God were the defining features of this trend. We find references to the method of muhasaba: self-examination to detect impurities of intention. Also stressed was riyada: self-discipline.
By this time, too, the main outlines of Quranic psychology had been worked out. The human creature, it was realised, was made up of four constituent parts: the body (jism), the mind (aql), the spirit (ruh), and the self (nafs). The first two need little comment. Less familiar (at least to people of a modern education) are the third and fourth categories.
The spirit is the ruh, that underlying essence of the human individual which survives death. It is hard to comprehend rationally, being in part of Divine inspiration, as the Quran says:
“And they ask you about the spirit; say, the spirit is of the command of my Lord. And you have been given of knowledge only a little.”
According to the early Islamic psychologists, the ruh is a non-material reality which pervades the entire human body, but is centred on the heart, the qalb. It represents that part of man which is not of this world, and which connects him with his Creator, and which, if he is fortunate, enables him to see God in the next world. When we are born, this ruh is intact and pure. As we are initiated into the distractions of the world, however, it is covered over with the ‘rust’ (ran) of which the Quran speaks. This rust is made up of two things: sin and distraction. When, through the process of self-discipline, these are banished, so that the worshipper is preserved from sin and is focussing entirely on the immediate presence and reality of God, the rust is dissolved, and the ruh once again is free. The heart is sound; and salvation, and closeness to God, are achieved.
This sounds simple enough. However, the early Muslims taught that such precious things come only at an appropriate price. Cleaning up the Augean stables of the heart is a most excruciating challenge. Outward conformity to the rules of religion is simple enough; but it is only the first step. Much more demanding is the policy known as mujahada: the daily combat against the lower self, the nafs. As the Quran says:
‘As for him that fears the standing before his Lord, and forbids his nafs its desires, for him, Heaven shall be his place of resort.’
Hence the Sufi commandment:
‘Slaughter your ego with the knives of mujahada.’ 
Once the nafs is controlled, then the heart is clear, and the virtues proceed from it easily and naturally.
Because its objective is nothing less than salvation, this vital Islamic science has been consistently expounded by the great scholars of classical Islam. While today there are many Muslims, influenced by either Wahhabi or Orientalist agendas, who believe that Sufism has always led a somewhat marginal existence in Islam, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the classical scholars were actively involved in Sufism.
The early Shafi’i scholars of Khurasan: al-Hakim al-Nisaburi, Ibn Furak, al-Qushayri and al-Bayhaqi, were all Sufis who formed links in the richest academic tradition of Abbasid Islam, which culminated in the achievement of Imam Hujjat al-Islam al-Ghazali. Ghazali himself, author of some three hundred books, including the definitive rebuttals of Arab philosophy and the Ismailis, three large textbooks of Shafi’ifiqh, the best-known tract of usul al-fiqh, two works on logic, and several theological treatises, also left us with the classic statement of orthodox Sufism: the Ihya Ulum al-Din, a book of which Imam Nawawi remarked:
“Were the books of Islam all to be lost, excepting only the Ihya’, it would suffice to replace them all.” 
Imam Nawawi himself wrote two books which record his debt to Sufism, one called the Bustan al-Arifin (‘Garden of the Gnostics’, and another called the al-Maqasid (recently published in English translation, Sunna Books, Evanston Il. trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller).
Among the Malikis, too, Sufism was popular. Al-Sawi, al-Dardir, al-Laqqani and Abd al-Wahhab al-Baghdadi were all exponents of Sufism. The Maliki jurist of Cairo, Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani defines Sufism as follows:
‘The path of the Sufis is built on the Quran and the Sunna, and is based on living according to the morals of the prophets and the purified ones. It may not be blamed, unless it violates an explicit statement from the Quran, sunna, or ijma. If it does not contravene any of these sources, then no pretext remains for condemning it, except one’s own low opinion of others, or interpreting what they do as ostentation, which is unlawful. No-one denies the states of the Sufis except someone ignorant of the way they are.’
For Hanbali Sufism one has to look no further than the revered figures of Abdallah Ansari, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Ibn al-Jawzi, and Ibn Rajab.
In fact, virtually all the great luminaries of medieval Islam: al-Suyuti, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, al-Ayni, Ibn Khaldun, al-Subki, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami; tafsir writers like Baydawi, al-Sawi, Abu’l-Su’ud, al-Baghawi, and Ibn Kathir ; aqida writers such as Taftazani, al-Nasafi, al-Razi: all wrote in support of Sufism. Many, indeed, composed independent works of Sufi inspiration. The ulema of the great dynasties of Islamic history, including the Ottomans and the Moghuls, were deeply infused with the Sufi outlook, regarding it as one of the most central and indispensable of Islamic sciences.
Further confirmation of the Islamic legitimacy of Sufism is supplied by the enthusiasm of its exponents for carrying Islam beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world. The Islamization process in India, Black Africa, and South-East Asia was carried out largely at the hands of wandering Sufi teachers. Likewise, the Islamic obligation of jihad has been borne with especial zeal by the Sufi orders. All the great nineteenth century jihadists: Uthman dan Fodio (Hausaland), al-Sanousi (Libya), Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (Algeria), Imam Shamil (Daghestan) and the leaders of the Padre Rebellion (Sumatra) were active practitioners of Sufism, writing extensively on it while on their campaigns. Nothing is further from reality, in fact, than the claim that Sufism represents a quietist and non-militant form of Islam.
With all this, we confront a paradox. Why is it, if Sufism has been so respected a part of Muslim intellectual and political life throughout our history, that there are, nowadays, angry voices raised against it? There are two fundamental reasons here.
Firstly, there is again the pervasive influence of Orientalist scholarship, which, at least before 1922 when Massignon wrote his Essai sur les origines de la lexique technique, was of the opinion that something so fertile and profound as Sufism could never have grown from the essentially ‘barren and legalistic’ soil of Islam. Orientalist works translated into Muslim languages were influential upon key Muslim modernists – such as Muhammad Abduh in his later writings – who began to question the centrality, or even the legitimacy, of Sufi discourse in Islam.
Secondly, there is the emergence of the Wahhabi da’wa. When Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, some two hundred years ago, teamed up with the Saudi tribe and attacked the neighbouring clans, he was doing so under the sign of an essentially neo-Kharijite version of Islam. Although he invoked Ibn Taymiya, he had reservations even about him. For Ibn Taymiya himself, although critical of the excesses of certain Sufi groups, had been committed to a branch of mainstream Sufism. This is clear, for instance, in Ibn Taymiya’s work Sharh Futuh al-Ghayb, a commentary on some technical points in the Revelations of the Unseen, a key work by the sixth-century saint of Baghdad, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani. Throughout the work Ibn Taymiya shows himself to be a loyal disciple of al-Jilani, whom he always refers to asshaykhuna (‘our teacher’). This Qadiri affiliation is confirmed in the later literature of the Qadiri tariqa, which records Ibn Taymiya as a key link in the silsila, the chain of transmission of Qadiri teachings.
Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, however, went far beyond this. Raised in the wastelands of Najd in Central Arabia, he had little access to mainstream Muslim scholarship. In fact, when his da’wa appeared and became notorious, the scholars and muftis of the day applied to it the famous Hadith of Najd:
Ibn Umar reported the Prophet (upon whom be blessings and peace) as saying: “Oh God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said: “And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!” but he said, “O God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said, “And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!”. Ibn Umar said that he thought that he said on the third occasion: “Earthquakes and dissensions (fitna) are there, and there shall arise the horn of the devil.”
And it is significant that almost uniquely among the lands of Islam, Najd has never produced scholars of any repute.
The Najd-based da’wa of the Wahhabis, however, began to be heard more loudly following the explosion of Saudi oil wealth. Many, even most, Islamic publishing houses in Cairo and Beirut are now subsidised by Wahhabi organisations, which prevent them from publishing traditional works on Sufism, and remove passages in other works considered unacceptable to Wahhabist doctrine.
The neo-Kharijite nature of Wahhabism makes it intolerant of all other forms of Islamic expression. However, because it has no coherentfiqh of its own – it rejects the orthodox madhhabs – and has only the most basic and primitively anthropomorphic aqida, it has a fluid, amoebalike tendency to produce divisions and subdivisions among those who profess it. No longer are the Islamic groups essentially united by a consistent madhhab and the Ash’ari [or Maturidi] aqida. Instead, they are all trying to derive the shari’a and the aqida from the Quran and the Sunna by themselves. The result is the appalling state of division and conflict which disfigures the modern salafi condition.
At this critical moment in our history, the umma has only one realistic hope for survival, and that is to restore the ‘middle way’, defined by that sophisticated classical consensus which was worked out over painful centuries of debate and scholarship. That consensus alone has the demonstrable ability to provide a basis for unity. But it can only be retrieved when we improve the state of our hearts, and fill them with the Islamic virtues of affection, respect, tolerance and reconciliation. This inner reform, which is the traditional competence of Sufism, is a precondition for the restoration of unity in the Islamic movement. The alternative is likely to be continued, and agonising, failure.
4. This hadith is in fact an instance of takhsis al-amm: a frequent procedure of usul al-fiqh by which an apparently unqualified statement is qualified to avoid the contradiction of another necessary principle. See Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveller, tr. Nuh Ha Mim Keller (Abu Dhabi, 1991 CE), 907-8 for some further examples.
I received a letter in Jordan not too long ago from a British Muslim, asking me questions about modern calls to replace traditional Islam with an ostensible “return to the way of the Salaf, or ‘early Muslims.’” When I answered one of these questions, I realized that many other people might be wondering the same thing, and thought that presenting the question to you tonight in a wider forum might be of greater benefit to the British Muslim and non-Muslim audience.
The letter asked me:
Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna? And was Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal an anthropomorphist—meaning someone who ascribed human attributes to Allah? Can you provide me examples of the sayings of Imam Ahmad that show he did not have anthropomorphic ‘Aqida?
The questions proved to be related in ways unsuspected by their author. What unites them is literalism as an interpretive principle, which is the subject of my talk tonight. We will look at it first in respect to ijtihad, meaning the ‘qualified deduction of Islamic legal rulings from the Qur’an and hadith.’ But we will look at literalism also, and most carefully, from the point of view of ‘aqida or Islamic belief, in understanding the Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadiths that are called mutashabihat or ‘unclear in meaning’—such as the verse in Surat al-Fath that says,
“Allah’s hand is above their hands” (Qur’an 48:10)
—termed ‘unclear in meaning,’ mutashabih, because linguistically hand can bear multiple interpretations, and its ostensive sense seems to imply ‘belief in a God with human attributes,’ that is, anthropomorphism, an understanding categorically rejected by the Qur’anic verse in Surat al-Shura,
“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11).
We shall see that literalism was a school of thought in Islamic jurisprudence, though not considered a very strong one by traditional scholars. But in tenets of faith, and particularly in interpreting the relation of the mutashabihat to the attributes of Allah, literalism has never been accepted as an Islamic school of thought, neither among the Salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ nor those who came later.
In answer to the first question, “Are the Hanbali Mujtahid Imams al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm considered Ahl al-Sunna?” Dawud ibn ‘Ali al-Dhahiri of Isfahan, who died 270 years after the Hijra, and Abu Muhammad ibn Hazm, who died 456 years after the Hijra, were not followers of Ahmad ibn Hanbal but Dhahiris or ‘literalists’ in jurisprudence. Whether Dawud al-Dhahiri was a mujtahid—meaning qualified to issue expert Islamic legal opinion—has been disagreed upon by Muslim scholars, not only for reasons we will discuss, but also because little that he wrote has come down to us.
As for Ibn Hazm, traditional Islamic scholars have not accepted his claims to be a mujtahid, the first qualification of which is to have comprehensive knowledge of the Qur’an and hadith. Scholars point to his many substantive mistakes in hadith knowledge, and adduce, for example, that if someone doesn’t even know, as Ibn Hazm did not, about the existence of the Sunan of al-Tirmidhi, who died nearly a hundred and fifty years before Ibn Hazm did, it is not clear how he can be considered a mujtahid. But aside from their qualifications, what interests us tonight is their Dhahirism or ‘textual literalism’ as an interpretive method.
What the Dhahiris are most famous for is their denial of all qiyas or analogy. It is recorded, for example, that Dawud held that the Qur’anic prohibition of saying “Uff” in disgust to one’s parents did not prove that it was wrong to beat them, since the literal content of the verse only concerned saying “Uff,” and no analogy could be drawn from this about anything else. Similarly, Ibn Hazm seems to have believed the prohibition in hadith of urinating into a pool of water did not show that there is anything wrong with defecating in it. These are two examples of denials of what is called in Arabic aqiyas jaliyy meaning an a fortiori analogy.
Denying the validity of the a fortiori analogy is so counterintuitive, that Imam al-Juwayni, who died 478 years after the Hijra, has said:
The position adopted by the most exacting of scholars is that those who deny analogy are not considered scholars of the Umma or conveyers of the Shari‘a, because they oppose out of mere obstinacy and exchange calumnies about things established by an overwhelming preponderence of the evidence, conveyed by whole groups from whole groups back to their prophetic origin (tawatur).
For most of the Shari‘a proceeds from ijtihad, and the uniquivocal statements from the Qur’an and hadith do not deal [n: in specific particulars by name] with even a tenth of the Shari‘a [n: as most of Islamic life is covered by general principles given by Allah to guide Muslims in every culture and time], so they [the literalists] are not considered of the learned” (al-Dhahabi, Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ [Beirut: Mu’assasa al-Risala, 1401/1984], 13.105).
From Juwayni’s remark that “the uniquivocal statements from the Qur’an and hadith do not deal with even a tenth of the Shari‘a,” we can understand a main impetus of Dhahiri thought by which it differed from the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence; namely, that it radically truncated the range and relevance of the Shari‘a to nothing more than those rulings established by the literal wording (dhahir) of hadiths or verses. And this is perhaps one reason today for renewed interest in the long-dead school, namely, that it frees people from having to learn and follow the large part of the Shari‘a deduced from the general and comprehensive ethos of the Qur’an and sunna.
But secondly, if one reflects for a moment on the fiqh questions we hear urged today by youthful reformers in our mosques, it is plain that a great many of what are termed “Salafi ijtihads” are not salafi (early Muslim) at all, but mere Dhahiri or literalist interpretations of hadiths. To their credit, the movement we are speaking of has revived interest in hadith among Islamic scholars across the board. But it has also given rise to a bid‘a or ‘reprehensible innovation’; namely, that the emphasis on hadith and its ancillary disciplines to the exclusion of other Islamic sciences equally necessary to understanding the revelation, such as fiqh methodology, or the conditioning of hadith by general principles expressed in the Qur’an, has created a false dichotomy in many Muslims’ minds of either fiqh or hadith, where what is needed is fiqh or ‘understanding’ of hadith.
For example, a young man, after leading us at salat al-fajr prayer in Chicago a few months ago, told a latecomer to the first rak‘a (who had been finishing his sunna prayer when the iqama (call to commence) was made): “If the prescribed prayer begins, you don’t finish the sunna, but quit and join the group. Don’t listen to Abu Hanifa, or Malik, or Shafi‘i; the hadith is clear: La salata ba‘da al-iqama illa al-maktuba ‘There is no prayer after the iqama except the prescribed one.’”
Now, the dhahir or ‘literal meaning’ of the hadith was as he said, but the Imams of Shari‘a have not understood it this way for the very good reason that Allah says in Surat Muhammad of the Qur’an, “And do not nullify your works” (Qur’an 47:33), and to simply quit an act of worship—namely, the sunna rak‘as before fajr—is precisely to nullify one of one’s works.
Scholars rather understand the hadith to mean that one may not begin a sunna (or other nafila) prayer after the call to commence (iqama) is given. And this is very usual in human language: to use a general expression, in this case, “There is no prayer” to mean a specific part or aspect of it; namely, “There is no initiating a prayer.” Consider how the Qur’an says, “Ask the village we were in, and the caravan that we came with” (Qur’an 12:82), where the dhahir or literal meaning of village and caravan; namely, the assemblage of stone huts and the string of pack animals, are not things that can be asked—but rather a specific aspect or part of them is intended; that is, the people of the village and the people of the caravan, or rather, just some of them. There are many similar expressions in every language, “Put the tea on the stove,” for example, not meaning to heap the dried leaves on the stove, but rather to put them in a pot, add water, and light the stove, and so on. It is all the more surprising that anyone, Dhahiri or otherwise, could have ever imagined that Arabic, with its incomparable richness in figures of speech, could be so impoverished as to lack this basic expressive faculty.
In reference to modern re-formers of Islam, such literalism necessarily forces itself upon someone trained in hadith alone, as most of them are, when they try to deduce Shari‘a rulings without mastery of the interpretive tools needed to meet the challenges that face the mujtahid, for example, in joining between a number of hadiths on a particular question that seem to conflict, or the many other intellectual problems involved in doing ijtihad. This has made some contemporary Muslims seriously believe that it is a matter of either following “the Qur’an and sunna,” or one of the schools of themujtahid Imams.
This idea has only gained credibility today because so few Muslims understand what ijtihad is or how it is done. I believe this can be cured by familiarizing Muslims with concrete examples of how mujtahid Imams have derived particular Shari‘a rulings from the Qur’an and hadith. Such examples would first show the breadth of their hadith knowledge—Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd Allah ibn al-Munadi, for example, who died in 272 years after the Hijra, heard Ahmad ibn Hanbal say that having memorized three hundred thousand hadiths was not enough to be a mujtahid—and second, would show the mujtahids’ mastery of the deductive principles that enabled them to join between all the primary texts.
Until this is done, the advocates of this movement will probably continue to follow the ijtihad of non-mujtahids (the sheikhs who inspire their confidence), under the catch phrase “Qur’an and sunna” just as if the real mujtahids were unfamiliar with these. The followers perhaps cannot be blamed, since “for someone who has never travelled, his mother is the only cook.” But I do blame the sheikhs who, whatever their motivations, write and speak as if they were the only cooks.
Finally, if the shortcomings of Dhahiri interpretation is plain enough in fiqh, in ‘aqida, it can amount to outright kufr, as when someone reads the Qur’anic verse,
“Today We forget you as you have forgotten this day of yours” (Qur’an 45:34),
and affirms that Allah forgets, which is an imperfection, and not permissible to affirm of Allah. Of this sort of literalism, Dawud al-Dhahiri and Ibn Hazm were innocent, for this is anthropomorphism, meaning to believe Allah has human attributes, and as such is beyond the pale of Islam.
Regarding the second question that I received in my letter, of whether Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was an anthropomorphist, this is something that has been asked since early times, particularly since someone forged an anthropormorphic tract called Kitab al-sunna [The book of the sunna] and put the name of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s son Abdullah on it. It was published in two volumes in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, by Ibn al-Qayyim Publishing House, in 1986.
I looked this book over with our teacher in hadith, Sheikh Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, who had examined it one day, and said that at least 50 percent of the hadiths in it are weak or outright forgeries. He was dismayed how Muhammad al-Qahtani, the editor and commentator, could have been given a Ph.d. in Islamic faith (‘aqida) from Umm al-Qura University in Mecca for readying for publication a work as sadly wanting in authenticity as this.
Ostensibly a “hadith” work, it contains some of the most hard-core anthropomorphism found anywhere, such as the hadith on page 301 of the first volume that “when He Most Blessed and Exalted sits on the Kursi, a squeak is heard like the squeak of a new leather saddle”; or on page 294 of the same volume: “Allah wrote the Torah for Moses with His hand while leaning back on a rock, on tablets of pearl, and the screech of the quill could be heard. There was no veil between Him and him,” or the hadith on page 510 of the second volume: “The angels were created from the light of His two elbows and chest,” and so on.
The work also puts lies in the mouths of major Hanbali scholars and others, such as Kharija [ibn Mus‘ab al-Sarakhsi], who died 168 after the Hijra, and who on page 106 of volume one is quoted about istiwa’ (sometimes translated as being ‘established’ on the Throne), “Does istiwa’ mean anything except sitting?”—with a chain of transmission containing a liar (kadhdhab), an unidentifiable (majhul), plus the text, with its contradiction (mukhalafa) of Islamic faith (‘aqida). Or consider the no less than forty-nine pages of vilifications of Abu Hanifa and his school that it mendaciously ascribes to major Imams, such as relating on page 180 of the first volume that Ishaq ibn Mansur al-Kusaj, who died 251 years after the Hijra said, “I asked Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, ‘Is a man rewarded by Allah for loathing Abu Hanifa and his colleagues?’ and he said, ‘Yes, by Allah.’” To ascribe things so fatuous to a man of godfearingness (taqwa) like Ahmad, whose respect for other scholars is well attested to by chains of transmission that are rigorously authenticated (sahih), is one of the things by which this counterfeit work overreaches itself, and ends in cancelling any credibility that the name on it may have been intended to give it.
The ascription of this book to Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s son ‘Abdullah fails from a hadith point of view, since there are two unidentifiable (majhul) transmitters in the chain of ascription whose names are given as Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Simsar and Muhammad ibn Ibrahim al-Harawi, of whom no other trace exists anywhere, a fact that the editor and commentator, Muhammad al-Qahtani, on page 105 of the first volume tries to sweep under the rug by saying that the work was quoted by Ibn Taymiya and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya.
But the fact that such a work even exists may give one an idea of the kinds of things that have been circulated about Ahmad after his death, and the total lack of scrupulousness among a handful of anthropomorphists who tried literally everything to spread their innovations.
Another work with its share of anthropomorphisms and forgeries is Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya [The meeting of the Islamic armies], published by ‘Awwad al-Mu‘tiq in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, in 1988, which on page 330 mentions as a hadith of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the words “Honor the cow, for it has not lifted its head to the sky since the [golden] calf was worshipped, out of shame (haya’) before Allah Mighty and Majestic,” a mawdu‘ hadith forgery apparently intended to encourage Muslims to believe that Allah is physically above the cow in the sky.
On page 97 of the same work, Ibn al-Qayyim also mentions the hadith of Bukhari, warning of the Antichrist (al-Masih al-Dajjal), who in the Last Days will come forth and claim to be God; of which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Allah has sent no prophet except that he warned his people of the One Eyed Liar, and that he is one-eyed—and that your Lord is not one-eyed—and that he shall have unbeliever (kafir) written between his two eyes” (Sahih al-Bukhari, 8.172). Ibn al-Qayyim comments, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) negated the attribute of one-eyedness [of Allah], which is proof that Allah Most High literally has two eyes.” Now, any primer on logical fallacies could have told Ibn al-Qayyim that the negation of a quality does not entail the affirmation of its contrary, an example of the “Black and White Fallacy” (for example, “If it is not white, it is therefore black,” “If you are not my friend, you must be my enemy,” and so on), though what he attempts to prove here does show the kind of anthropomorphism he is trying to promote. Forged chains of hadith transmission in Ibn al-Qayyim’s Ijtima‘ al-juyush al-Islamiyya are the subject of a forthcoming work by a Jordanian scholar, In Sha’ Allah, which those interested may read.
For all of these reasons, the utmost care must be used in ascribing tenets of faith to Ahmad ibn Hanbal or other Imams, especially when made by anthropomorphists whose concern is to create credibility for the ideas we are talking about. Many would-be revivers of these ideas today have been misled by their uncritical acceptance of the statements and chains of ascription found in the books of Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, which they cite in print and rely on, and from whence they get the idea that these were the positions of the early Muslims and prophetic Companions or Sahaba.
Umbrage has unfortunately been taken at the biographies I appended to my translation Reliance of the Traveller about Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, which detail the gulf between Ibn Taymiya’s innovations and the ‘aqida of the early Muslims, though anyone interested can read about it in any number of other books, one of the best of which has been published in Cairo in 1970 by Dar al-Nahda al-‘Arabiyya, and is called Ibn Taymiya laysa salafiyyan [Ibn Taymiya is not an early Muslim], by the Azhar professor of Islamic faith (‘aqida) Mansur Muhammad ‘Uways, which focuses primarily on tenets of belief. Another was written by a scholar who lived shortly after Ibn al-Qayyim in the same city, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr al-Hisni, author of the famous Shafi‘i fiqh manual Kifaya al-akhyar [The sufficiency of the pious], whose book on Ibn Taymiya is called Daf‘ shubah man shabbaha wa tamarrada wa nasaba dhalika ila al-sayyid al-jalil al-Imam Ahmad [Rebuttal of the insinuations of him who makes anthropomorphisms and rebels, and ascribes that to the noble master Imam Ahmad], published in Cairo in 1931 by Dar Ihya’ al-Kutub al-‘Arabiyya. Whoever reads these and similar works with an open mind cannot fail to notice the hoax that has been perpetrated by moneyed quarters in our times, of equating the tenets of a small band of anthropomorphists to the Islamic belief (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad and other scholars of the early Muslims (al-salaf).
The real (‘aqida) of Imam Ahmad was very simple, and consisted, mainly of tafwid, that is, to consign to Allah the meaning of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent meanings’ of the Qur’an and hadith, accepting their words as they have come without saying or claiming to know how they are meant. His position is close to that of a number of other early scholars, who would not even countenance changing the Qur’anic order of the words or substituting words imagined to be synonyms. For them, the verse in Sura Taha,
“The All-merciful is ‘established’ (istawa) upon the Throne” (Qur’an 20:5)
does not enable one to say that “Allah is ‘established’ upon Throne,” or that “The All-merciful is upon the Throne” or anything else besides “The All-merciful is ‘established’ (istawa) upon the Throne.” Full stop. Their position is exemplified by Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna, who died 98 years after the Hijra, and who said, “The interpretation (tafsir) of everything with which Allah has described Himself in His book is to recite it and remain silent about it.” It also resembles the position of Imam Shafi‘i, who simply said: “I believe in what has come from Allah as it was intended by Allah, and I believe in what has come from the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) as it was intended by the Messenger of Allah.”
It should be appreciated how far this school of tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah’ is from understanding the mutashabihator ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah as though they were meant literally (‘ala al-dhahir). The Hanbali Imam Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Khallal, who died in Hijra year 311, and who took his fiqh from Imam Ahmad’s students, relates in his book al-Sunna through his chain of narrators from Hanbal ibn Ishaq al-Shaybani, the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s father, that
Imam Ahmad was asked about the hadiths mentioning “Allah’s descending,” “seeing Allah,” and “placing His foot on hell”; and the like, and Ahmad replied: “We believe in them and consider them true, without ‘how’ and without ‘meaning’ (bi la kayfa wa la ma‘na).”
And he said, when they asked him about Allah’s istiwa’ [translated above as established]: “He is ‘established’ upon the Throne (istawa ‘ala al-‘Arsh) however He wills and as He wills, without any limit or any description that be made by any describer (Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih, 28).
This demonstrates how far Imam Ahmad was from anthropomorphism, though a third example is even more explicit. The Imam and hadith master (hafiz) al-Bayhaqi relates in his Manaqib al-Imam Ahmad [The memorable actions of Imam Ahmad], through his chain of narrators that:
Ahmad condemned those who said Allah was a “body,” saying, “The names of things are taken from the Shari‘a and the Arabic language. The language’s possessors have used this word [body] for something that has height, breadth, thickness, construction, form, and composition, while Allah Most High is beyond all of that, and may not be termed a “body” because of being beyond any meaning of embodiedness. This has not been conveyed by the Shari‘a, and so is rebutted” (al-Barahin al-sati‘a, 164).
These examples provide an accurate idea of Ahmad’s ‘Aqida, as conveyed to us by the hadith masters (huffaz) of the Umma, who have distinguished the true reports from the spurious attributions of the anthropomorphists’ opinions to their Imam, both early and late. But it is perhaps even more instructive, in view of the recrudescence of these ideas today, to look at an earlier work against Hanbali anthropomorphists about this bid‘a, for the light this literature sheds upon the science of textual interpretation, and I will conclude my talk tonight to it.
As you may know, the true architect of the Hanbali madhhab was not actually Imam Ahmad, who did not like to see any of his positions written down, but rather these were conveyed orally by various students at different times, one reason there are often a number of different narratives from him on legal questions. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the real founder of the Hanbali madhhab was the Imam and hadith master (hafiz) ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi, who died 597 years after the Hijra, and who recorded all the narratives from Imam Ahmad, distinguished the well-authenticated from the poorly-authenticated, and organized them into a coherent body of fiqh jurisprudence.
Ibn al-Jawzi—who is not to be confused with Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya—took the question of people associating anthropomorphism with Hanbalism so seriously that he wrote a book, Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih [Rebuttal of the insinuations of anthropomorphism at the hands of transcendence], refuting this heresy and exonerating his Imam of any association with it.
One of the most significant points he makes in this work is the principle that al-Idafatu la tufidu al-sifa, meaning that an ascriptive construction, called in Arabic an idafa, ‘the x of the y’ or in other words, ‘y’s x’ does not establish that ‘x is an attribute of y.’ This is important because the anthropomorphists of his day, as well as Ibn Taymiyya in the seventh century after the Hijra, used many ascriptive constructions (idafa) that appear in hadiths and Qur’anic verses as proof that Allah had “attributes” that bolstered their conceptions of Him.
To clarify with examples, you are doubtless familiar with the Qur’anic verse in Surat al-Fath of the Sahaba swearing a fealty pact (bay‘a) to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), that says,
“Allah’s hand is above their hands” (Qur’an 48:10).
Here, with the words yad Allahi ‘the hand of Allah,’ Ibn al-Jawzi’s principle means that we are not entitled to affirm, on the basis of the Arabic wording alone, that “Allah has a hand” as an attribute (sifa) of His entity. It could be that this Arabic expression is simply meant to emphasize thetremendousness of the offense of breaking this pact, as some scholars state, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) placed his hand on top of the Sahaba’s, and the wording could be a figure of speech emphasizing Allah’s backing of this action; and classical Arabic abounds in such figures of speech. The Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace) used hand as a figure of speech in the rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith, Al-Muslimu man salima l-Muslimuna min lisanihi wa yadih “The Muslim is he who the Muslims are safe from his tongue and his hand,” where handmeans anything within his power to do to them, whether with his hand, his foot, or by any other means. As Imam al-Ghazali says of the word hand:
One should realize that hand may mean two different things. The first is the primary lexical sense; namely, the bodily member composed of flesh, bone, and nervous tissue. Now, flesh, bone, and nervous tissue make up a specific body with specific attributes; meaning, by body, something of an amount (with height, width, depth) that prevents anything else from occupying wherever it is, until it is moved from that place.
Or [secondly] the word may be used figuratively, in another sense with no relation to that of a body at all: as when one says, “The city is in the leader’s hands,” the meaning of which is well understood, even if the leader’s hands are missing, for example (al-Ghazali, Iljam al-‘awam ‘an ‘ilm al-kalam [Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1406/1985], 55).
We have already mentioned the school of thought of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Shafi‘i, and other early Muslims of understanding the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning,’ scriptural expressions about Allah by tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah.’ But secondly, we have seen from the example of the hand, that because of the figurative richness the Arabic language, and also to protect against the danger of anthropomorphism, many Muslim scholars were able to explain certain of the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning’ expressions in Qur’anic verses and hadiths by ta’wil, or ‘figuratively.’
This naturally drew the criticism of neo-Hanbalis, at their forefront Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, as it still does of today’s “reformers” of Islam, who echo these two’s arguments that figurative interpretation (ta’wil) was a reprehensible departure (bid‘a) by Ash‘aris and others from the way of the early Muslims (salaf); and who call for a “return to the sunna,” that is, to anthropomorphic literalism. Now, the obvious question in the face of such “reforms” is whether literalism is really identical with pristine Islamic faith (‘aqida). Or rather did figurative interpretation (ta’wil) exist among thesalaf? We will answer this question with actual examples of mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning’ Qur’anic verses and hadiths, and examine how the earliest scholars interpreted them:
1. Forgetting. We have mentioned above the Qur’anic verse,
“Today We forget you as you have forgotten this day of yours” (Qur’an 45:34),
which the early Muslims used to interpret figuratively, as reported by a scholar who was himself an early Muslim (salafi) and indeed, the sheikh of the early Muslims in Qur’anic exegesis, the hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Jarir al-Tabari who died 310 years after the Hijra, and who explains the above verse as meaning: “‘This day, Resurrection Day, We shall forget them,’ so as to say, ‘We shall abandon them to their punishment.’” Now, this is preciselyta’wil, or interpretation in other than the verse’s ostensive sense. Al-Tabari ascribes this interpretation, through his chains of transmission, to the Companion (Sahabi) Ibn ‘Abbas (Allah be well pleased with him) as well as to Mujahid, Ibn ‘Abbas’s main student in Qur’anic exegesis (Jami‘ al-bayan, 8.202).
2. Hands. In the verse,
“And the sky We built with hands; verily We outspread [it]” (Qur’an 51:47),
al-Tabari ascribes the figurative explanation (ta’wil) of with hands as meaning “with power (bi quwwa)” through five chains of transmission to Ibn ‘Abbas, who died 68 years after the Hijra, Mujahid who died 104 years after the Hijra, Qatada [ibn Da‘ama] who died 118 years after the Hijra, Mansur [ibn Zadhan al-Thaqafi] who died 131 years after the Hijra, and Sufyan al-Thawri who died 161 years after the Hijra (Jami‘ al-bayan, 27.7–8). I mention these dates to show just how early they were.
3. Shin. Of the Qur’anic verse,
“On a day when shin shall be exposed, they shall be ordered to prostrate, but be unable” (Qur’an 68:42),
al-Tabari says, “A number of the exegetes of the Companions (Sahaba) and their students (tabi‘in) held that it [a day when shin shall be exposed] means that a dire matter (amrun shadid) shall be disclosed” (Jami‘ al-bayan, 29.38)—the shin’s association with direness being that it was customary for Arab warriors fighting in the desert to ready themselves to move fast and hard through the sand in the thick of the fight by lifting the hems of their garments above the shin. This was apparently lost upon later anthropomorphists, who said the verse proved ‘Allah has a shin,’ or, according to others, ‘two shins, since one would be unbecoming.’ Al-Tabari also relates from Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd al-Muharibi, who relates from Ibn al-Mubarak, from Usama ibn Zayd, from ‘Ikrima, from Ibn ‘Abbas that shin in the above verse means “a day of war and direness (harbin wa shidda)” (ibid., 29.38). All of these narrators are those of the sahih or rigorously authenticated collections except Usama ibn Zayd, whose hadiths are hasan or ‘well authenticated.’
4. Laughter. Of the hadith related in Sahih al-Bukhari from Abu Hurayra that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,
Allah Most High laughs about two men, one of whom kills the other, but both of whom enter paradise: the one fights in the path of Allah and is killed, and afterwards Allah forgives the killer, and then he fights in the path of Allah and is martyred,
the hadith master al-Bayhaqi records that the scribe of Bukhari [Muhammad ibn Yusuf] al-Farabri related that Imam al-Bukhari said, “The meaning of laughter in it is mercy” (Kitab al-asma’ wa al-sifat, 298).
5. Coming. The hadith master (hafiz) Ibn Kathir reports that Imam al-Bayhaqi related from al-Hakim from Abu ‘Amr ibn al-Sammak, from Hanbal, the son of the brother of Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s father, that
Ahmad ibn Hanbal figuratively interpreted the word of Allah Most High,
“And your Lord shall come . . .” (Qur’an 89:22),
as meaning “His recompense (thawab) shall come.”
Al-Bayhaqi said, “This chain of narrators has absolutely nothing wrong in it” (al-Bidaya wa al-nihaya,10.342). In other words, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, like the Companions (Sahaba) and other early Muslims mentioned above, sometimes also gave figurative interpretations (ta’wil) to scriptural expressions that might otherwise have been misinterpreted anthropomorphically. This was also the way of Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari, founder of the Ash‘ari school of Islamic belief, who had two views about the mutashabihat, the first being tafwid, or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ and the second being ta’wil or ‘figurative interpretation’ when needed to avoid the suggestion of the anthropomorphism that is explicitly rejected by the Qur’an.
In light of the examples quoted above about such words about Allah as ‘forgetting,’ ‘hands,’ ‘shin,’ ‘laughter,’ ‘coming,’ and so forth, it is plain that Muslims scholars of ‘Aqida, whether of the Ash‘ari school or any other, did not originate ta’wil or figurative interpretation, but rather it had been with Muslims from the beginning, because that was the nature of the Arabic language. And if the above figures are not the salaf or ‘early Muslims,’ who are? Ibn Taymiya and Ibn al-Qayyim, who died more than seven centuries after the Hijra?
In view of the foregoing examples of figurative interpretation by early Muslims, we have to ask, Whose ‘early Islam’ would today’s reformers of ‘Aqida have us return to? Imam Abu Hanifa first noted, “Two depraved opinions have reached us from East, those of Jahm [ibn Safwan], the nullifier of the divine attributes, and those of Muqatil [ibn Sulayman al-Balkhi, the likener of Allah to His creation” (Siyar a‘lam al-nubala,’ 7.202).
These are not an either-or for Muslims. Jahm’s brand of Mu‘tazilism has been dead for over a thousand years, while anthropomorphic literalism is a heresy that in previous centuries was confined to a handful of sects like the Hanbalis addressed by Imam Ibn al-Jawzi in his Daf‘ shubah al-tashbih, or like the forgers of Kitab al-sunna who ascribed it to Imam Ahmad’s son ‘Abdullah, or like the Karramiyya, an early sect who believed Allah to be a corporeal entity “sitting in person on His Throne.”
As for Islamic orthodoxy, the Imam of Ahl al-Sunna in tenets of faith, ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi says in his ‘aqida manual Usul al-din [The fundamentals of the religion]:
Anyone who considers his Lord to resemble the form of a person [. . . ] is only worshipping a person like himself. As for the permissibility of eating the meat he slaughters or of marriage with him, his ruling is that of an idol-worshipper.
. . . Regarding the anthropomorphists of Khurasan, of the Karramiyya, it is obligatory to consider them unbelievers because they affirm that Allah has a physical limit and boundary from underneath, from whence He is contact with His Throne (al-Baghdadi, Usul al-din [Istanbul: Matba‘a al-Dawla, 1346/1929], 337).
In previous Islamic centuries, someone who worshipped a god who ‘sits,’ moves about, and so forth, was considered to be in serious trouble in his faith (‘aqida). Our question should be: If anthropomorphic literalism were an acceptable Islamic school of thought, why was it counted among heresies and rejected for the first seven centuries of Islam that preceded Ibn Taymiya and his student Ibn al-Qayyim, and condemned by the scholars of Ahl al-Sunna thereafter?
To summarize everything I have said tonight, we have seen three ways of understanding the mutashabihat, or ‘unapparent in meaning’ verses and hadiths: tafwid, ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ ta’wil, ‘figurative interpretation within the parameters of classical Arabic usage,’ and lastly tashbih, or ‘anthropomorphic literalism.’
We saw that the way of tafwid or ‘consigning the knowledge of what is meant to Allah,’ was the way of Shafi‘i, Ahmad, and many of the early Muslims. A second interpretive possibility, the way of ta’wil, or ‘figurative interpretation,’ was also done by the Companions (Sahaba) and many other early Muslims as reported above. In classical scholarship, both have been considered Islamic, and both seem needed, though tafwid is superior where it does not lead to confusion about Allah’s transcendence beyond the attributes of created things, in accordance with the Qur’anic verse,
“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11).
As for anthropomorphism, it is clear from this verse and from the entire history of the Umma, that it is not an Islamic school of thought, and never has been. In all times and places, Islam has invited non-Muslims to faith in the Incomparable Reality called Allah; not making man a god, and not making God a man.
Wa jazakum Allah khayran, wa l-hamdu li Llahi Rabbil ‘Alamin.
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
This is the Text of a lecture given at Islamic Cultural Center (Regents Park Mosque) 28th January 1995.
The word salafi or “early Muslim” in traditional Islamic scholarship means someone who died within the first four hundred years after the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), including scholars such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi’i, and Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Anyone who died after this is one of the khalaf or “latter-day Muslims”.
The term “Salafi” was revived as a slogan and movement, among latter-day Muslims, by the followers of Muhammad Abduh (the student of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani) some thirteen centuries after the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), approximately a hundred years ago. Like similar movements that have historically appeared in Islam, its basic claim was that the religion had not been properly understood by anyone since the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims–and themselves.
In terms of ideals, the movement advocated a return to a shari’a-minded orthodoxy that would purify Islam from unwarranted accretions, the criteria for judging which would be the Qur’an and hadith. Now, these ideals are noble, and I don’t think anyone would disagree with their importance. The only points of disagreement are how these objectives are to be defined, and how the program is to be carried out. It is difficult in a few words to properly deal with all the aspects of the movement and the issues involved, but I hope to publish a fuller treatment later this year, insha’Allah, in a collection of essays called “The Re-Formers of Islam“.
As for its validity, one may note that the Salafi approach is an interpretation of the texts of the Qur’an and sunna, or rather a body of interpretation, and as such, those who advance its claims are subject to the same rigorous criteria of the Islamic sciences as anyone else who makes interpretive claims about the Qur’an and sunna; namely, they must show:
1. that their interpretations are acceptable in terms of Arabic language;
2. that they have exhaustive mastery of all the primary texts that relate to each question, and
3. that they have full familiarity of the methodology of usul al-fiqh or “fundamentals of jurisprudence” needed to comprehensively join between all the primary texts.
Only when one has these qualifications can one legitimately produce a valid interpretive claim about the texts, which is called ijtihad or “deduction of shari’a” from the primary sources. Without these qualifications, the most one can legitimately claim is to reproduce such an interpretive claim from someone who definitely has these qualifications; namely, one of those unanimously recognized by the Umma as such since the times of the true salaf, at their forefront the mujtahid Imams of the four madhhabs or “schools of jurisprudence”.
As for scholars today who do not have the qualifications of a mujtahid, it is not clear to me why they should be considered mujtahids by default, such as when it is said that someone is “the greatest living scholar of the sunna” any more than we could qualify a school-child on the playground as a physicist by saying, “He is the greatest physicist on the playground”. Claims to Islamic knowledge do not come about by default. Slogans about “following the Qur’an and sunna” sound good in theory, but in practice it comes down to a question of scholarship, and who will sort out for the Muslim the thousands of shari’a questions that arise in his life. One eventually realizes that one has to choose between following the ijtihad of a real mujtahid, or the ijtihad of some or another “movement leader”, whose qualifications may simply be a matter of reputation, something which is often made and circulated among people without a grasp of the issues.
What comes to many peoples minds these days when one says “Salafis” is bearded young men arguing about din. The basic hope of these youthful reformers seems to be that argument and conflict will eventually wear down any resistance or disagreement to their positions, which will thus result in purifying Islam. Here, I think education, on all sides, could do much to improve the situation.
The reality of the case is that the mujtahid Imams, those whose task it was to deduce the Islamic shari’a from the Qur’an and hadith, were in agreement about most rulings; while those they disagreed about, they had good reason to, whether because the Arabic could be understood in more than one way, or because the particular Qur’an or hadith text admitted of qualifications given in other texts (some of them acceptable for reasons of legal methodology to one mujtahid but not another), and so forth.
Because of the lack of hard information in English, the legitimacy of scholarly difference on shari’a rulings is often lost sight of among Muslims in the West. For example, the work Fiqh al-sunna by the author Sayyid Sabiq, recently translated into English, presents hadith evidences for rulings corresponding to about 95 percent of those of the Shafi’i school. Which is a welcome contribution, but by no means a “final word” about these rulings, for each of the four schools has a large literature of hadith evidences, and not just the Shafi’i school reflected by Sabiq’s work. The Maliki school has the Mudawwana of Imam Malik, for example, and the Hanafi school has the Sharh ma’ani al-athar [Explanation of meanings of hadith] and Sharh mushkil al-athar [Explanation of problematic hadiths], both by the great hadith Imam Abu Jafar al-Tahawi, the latter work of which has recently been published in sixteen volumes by Mu’assasa al-Risala in Beirut. Whoever has not read these and does not know what is in them is condemned to be ignorant of the hadith evidence for a great many Hanafi positions.
What I am trying to say is that there is a large fictional element involved when someone comes to the Muslims and says, “No one has understood Islam properly except the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and early Muslims, and our sheikh”. This is not valid, for the enduring works of first-rank Imams of hadith, jurisprudence, Qur’anic exegesis, and other shari’a disciplines impose upon Muslims the obligation to know and understand their work, in the same way that serious comprehension of any other scholarly field obliges one to have studied the works of its major scholars who have dealt with its issues and solved its questions. Without such study, one is doomed to repeat mistakes already made and rebutted in the past.
Most of us have acquaintances among this Umma who hardly acknowledge another scholar on the face of the earth besides the Imam of their madhhab, the Sheikh of their Islam, or some contemporary scholar or other. And this sort of enthusiasm is understandable, even acceptable (at a human level) in a non-scholar. But only to the degree that it does not become ta’assub or bigotry, meaning that one believes one may put down Muslims who follow other qualified scholars. At that point it is haram, because it is part of the sectarianism (tafarruq) among Muslims that Islam condemns.
When one gains Islamic knowledge and puts fiction aside, one sees that superlatives about particular scholars such as “the greatest” are untenable; that each of the four schools of classical Islamic jurisprudence has had many many luminaries. To imagine that all preceding scholarship should be evaluated in terms of this or that “Great Reformer” is to ready oneself for a big letdown, because intellectually it cannot be supported. I remember once hearing a law student at the University of Chicago say: “I’m not saying that Chicago has everything. Its just that no place else has anything.” Nothing justifies transposing this kind of attitude onto our scholarly resources in Islam, whether it is called “Islamic Movement”, “Salafism”, or something else, and the sooner we leave it behind, the better it will be for our Islamic scholarship, our sense of reality, and for our din.
©Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
Our teacher in hadith, Sheikh Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut, tells my wife and me that Sheikh Nasir al-Albani learned his hadith knowledge from books and manuscripts in the Dhahiriyya Library in Damascus, as well as his long years working on books of hadith. He did not get any significant share of his knowledge from living hadith scholars, according to Sheikh Shu‘ayb, for the very good reason that there wasn’t anyone in Damascus at the time who knew much about hadith, and he didn’t travel anywhere else to learn. I have heard Salafis say that he has an ijaza from one person in Syria, but it could only be (according to Sheikh Shu‘ayb) from someone with far less knowledge than himself
I believe Sheikh Shu‘ayb about this, because his family, like Sheikh Nasir’s, were of the Albanians who emmigrated to Damascus at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and they all know each other rather intimately. The impression one gets is that Sheikh Nasir’s father, Sheikh Nuh al-Albani, was so strict a Hanafi that he produced something of an over-reaction in Sheikh Nasir not only against Abu Hanifa and his madhhab, but against traditional Islamic sheikhs as well. According to Sheikh Shu‘ayb, Sheikh Nasir studied tajwid or ‘Qur’anic recitation’ and perhaps the Hanafi fiqh primer Maraqi al-falah [The ascents to success] with his father Sheikh Nuh al-Albani, and possibly other lessons in Hanafi fiqh from Sheikh Muhammad Sa‘id al-Burhani, who taught in Tawba Mosque, in the quarter of the Turks on the side of Mount Qasiyun, near Sheikh Nasir’s father’s shop. Sheikh Nasir subsequently found that his time could be more profitably spent with books and manuscripts at the Dhahiriyya Library and in reading works to students, and he did not attend anyone else’s lessons
As for his ijaza or ‘warrant of learning,’ Sheikh Shu‘ayb tells us that it came when a hadith scholar from Aleppo, Sheikh Raghib al-Tabbakh, was visiting the Dhahiriyya Library in Damascus, and Sheikh Nasir was pointed out to him as a promising student of hadith. They met and spoke, the sheikh authorized him “in all the chains of transmission that I have been authorized to relate”—that is to say, a general ijaza, though Sheikh Nasir did not attend the lessons of the sheikh or read books of hadith with him. Sheikh Raghib al-Tabbakh had chains of sheikhs reaching back to the main hadith works, such as Sahih al-Bukhari, the Sunan of Abu Dawud, and hence had a contiguous chain back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) for these books. But this was an authorization (ijaza) of tabarruk, or ‘for the blessing of it,’ not a ‘warrant of learning’—for Sheikh Nasir did not go to Aleppo to learn from him, and he did not come to Damascus to teach him
This type of authorization (ijaza), that of tabarruk, is a practice of some traditional scholars: to give an authorization in order to encourage a student whom they have met and like, whom they find knowledgeable, or hope will become a scholar. The reason I know of such ijazas is because I have one, from the Meccan hadith scholar Sheikh Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki, which authorizes me to relate “all the chains of transmission that I [Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki] have been authorized to relate by my sheikhs,” including chains of transmission reaching back to the hadith Imams Malik, al-Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi, al-Nasa’i, Ibn Majah (Mecca: Muhammad ‘Alawi al-Maliki, 1412/1992). Though my name is on the authorization, and it is signed by the sheikh, it does not make me a hadith scholar like he is, because aside from some of his public lessons, my hadith knowledge is not from him but from Sheikh Shu‘ayb, whom I have actually studied with. Rather, Sheikh al-Maliki knows my sheikhs in Damascus, that I am the translator of ‘Umdat al-salik [Reliance of the traveller] in Shafi‘i fiqh, that we have known each other for some time, and he approves of my way. The scholarly value of such ijazas is merely to establish that we have met.
As for Ibn Baz, I do not know who he studied with, though from his broadcasts on the radio, I would be most surprised if he had ever studied with someone uncommitted to what he and his colleagues simply call the da‘wa or ‘propagation,’ that is, of the revisions of Islam advocated by Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab.
As it is unlawful to say anything disliked about a Muslim except for an interest countenanced by Sacred Law, the following discussion will not exceed (a) whether these revisions constitute a sectarian emphasis differing from traditional Islam; and (b) if sectarian, how this influences issues that Sheikh Nasir and Ibn Baz might otherwise be believed about
I mention this to you, because, as you may know, some people take offense at the word Wahhabi—and with good reason, if we mean to suggest that they do not love Islam, or are not trying to practice it to the best of their understanding and ability. I feel this is true of virtually all separatist groups, from the beginning of Islam. Provided they do not negate something necessarily known to be of the religion (necessarily known meaning that which any Muslim would know about if asked), all these groups may be said to have tried to understand and apply the Qur’an and the sunna, even though their understanding has brought them to a mistaken conclusion. This is why Shari‘a manuals say things like:
They [those who rise in insurrection against the caliph] are subject to Islamic laws (because they have not committed an act that puts them outside of Islam that they should be considered non-Muslims. Nor are they considered morally corrupt (fasiq), for rebels is not a perjorative term, but rather they merely have a mistaken understanding), and the decisions of their Islamic judge are considered legally effective (provided he does not declare the lives of upright Muslims to be justly forfeitable) if they are such as would be effective if made by our own judge (Reliance of the Traveller, 594).
The fact that such people may consider other Muslims not of their sect to be non-Muslims—the hallmark of heterodox (batil) sects of all times and places—does not change the above rulings, and the caliph or his representative may use only enough force to end the strife. We find in the Hashiya radd al-muhtar ‘ala al-Durr al-mukhtar sharh Tanwir al-absar [(Ibn ‘Abidin’s) Commentary: the guide of the perplexed, upon (Haskafi’s) The choice pearls, an exegesis of (Tumurtashi’s) Illumination of eyes], whose every word is considered a decisive evidence (nass) in the Hanafi school:
(al-Haskafi:) Those who revolt against obedience to the imam [meaning the caliph or his representative] are of three types:
(1) highwaymen, and their ruling is known [n: i.e. the death penalty, if they do not give themselves up before they are caught];
(2) rebels (bughat) against the caliphate, whose ruling will be discussed below [n: i.e. they are fought with as much force as needed to make them desist, as in theReliance above];
(3) and kharijites, meaning men with military force who revolt against the imam because of a mistaken scriptural interpretation (ta’wil), believing that he is upon a falsehood of unbelief (kufr) or disobedience to Allah (ma‘siya) that necessitates their fighting him, according to their mistaken scriptural interpretation, and who consider it lawful to take our lives, our property, and take our women as slaves, and who consider the Companions of our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to be disbelievers. Their ruling is the same as that of rebels (bughat) against the caliphate [n: (2) above] by unanimous consensus of fiqh scholars.
(Ibn ‘Abidin:) His words and who consider the Companions of our Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to be disbelievers are not a condition for someone to be a kharijite, but rather are a mere clarification of what those who revolted against ‘Ali (Allah Most High be well pleased with him) in fact did. Otherwise, it is enough to be convinced of the unbelief of those they fight against, as happened in our own times with the followers of [Muhammad ibn] ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who came out of the Najd in revolt, and took over the sanctuaries of Mecca and Medina. They followed the Hanbali madhhab, but believed that they were the Muslims, and that those who believed differently than they did were polytheists (mushrikin). On this basis, they held it lawful to kill Sunni Muslims (Ahl al-Sunna) and their religious scholars, until Allah Most High dispelled their forces, and the armies of the Muslims attacked their strongholds and subdued them in 1233 A.H.  (Hashiya radd al-muhtar, 4.262).
The Shafi‘i mufti of Mecca, Ahmad ibn Zayni Dahlan (d. 1304/1886), a historian as well as a scholar, recorded the story of the Wahhabis’ takeover of the holy places in a number of books, one of which, his two-volume history al-Futuhat al-Islamiyya [The Islamic conquests], gives the following description of what became perhaps their most famous, and certainly their most lethal ijtihad; namely, that the sunna of tawassul or ‘supplicating Allah through an intermediary’ was shirk:
Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab claimed that his aim in this school of thought he innovated was to make sincere the belief in Allah’s unity (tawhid), and to abjure worshipping false gods (shirk), and that Muslims had been worshipping false gods for six hundred years, and that he had revived their religion for them. He interpreted Qur’anic verses revealed about worshippers of false gods (mushrikin) as referring to those who worship Allah alone, such as the word of Allah Most High,
“And who is further astray than he who supplicates apart from Allah someone who will not answer him until Resurrection Day, while they are oblivious to their supplication” (Qur’an 46:5),
and His word,
“Do not supplicate besides Allah what will not benefit or harm you” (Qur’an 10:106).
There are many such verses in the Qur’an , so Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab said that whoever seeks the help of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) or others, of the prophets, the friends of Allah (awliya’), or the righteous; or calls on him or asks him to intercede—was like such worshippers of false gods, and was referred to by the generality of such verses. He believed the same thing about visiting the tomb of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and all others of the prophets, friends of Allah, or the righteous. He said about the word of Allah Most High, who quotes the idolators about worshipping their idols:
“We only worship them that they may bring us the nearer to Allah” (Qur’an 39:3)
that people who pray to Allah by means of an intermediary (tawassul) are like these worshippers of false gods who said, “We only worship them that they may bring us the nearer to Allah.” He said that the worshippers of false gods didn’t believe their idols created anything, but rather that the Creator was Allah Most High, as shown by Allah’s word
“And if you ask them who created them, they will say, ‘Allah’” (Qur’an 43:87),
“And if you ask them who created the heavens and earth, they will say, ‘Allah’” (Qur’an 31:25),
such that Allah did not judge them to have committed unbelief and worshipping false gods except for their saying, “that they may bring us all the nearer to Allah,” and in consequence, these people [Muslims who make tawassul] are like them.
And this is simply wrong, for Muslim believers do not take the prophets (upon whom be peace) or the friends of Allah as gods or make them co-partners (shuraka’) with Allah, but rather, they believe that they are created slaves of Allah and do not deserve any worship
As for the worshippers of false gods whom these Qur’anic verses were revealed about, they believed that their idols were gods, and reverenced them with the reverence of godhood, even if they acknowledged that they did not create anything—while believers do not hold that the prophets orawliya’ deserve worship or godhood, and do not reverence them with the reverence due solely to the Divine. Instead, they believe that they are the servants of Allah, and His beloved ones, whom He has elected and chosen, and through His blessings to them (baraka), He shows mercy towards His slaves. Their intention in seeking blessings through them is the mercy of Allah Most High, and much attests to the validity of this in the Qur’an and sunna.
The creed of the Muslims is that the Creator—He Who Afflicts, He Who Benefits, He who deserves worship—is Allah alone. They do not believe that anyone else has any effect whatsoever; and they believe that the prophets and awliya’ do not create anything, do not possess any ability to benefit or harm, but merely that through Allah’s grace to them (baraka), He shows mercy towards created servants.
It was the belief of the worshippers of false gods that their idols deserved worship and godhood that made them guilty of associating co-partners with Allah (shirk), not merely their saying, “We only worship them that they may bring us the nearer to Allah.” For it was only when it was proved to them that their idols did not deserve to be worshipped—as they believed they did—that they said by way of excuse, “We only worship them that they may bring us nearer to Allah.”
So how should Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab and his followers consider believers who acknowledge the unity of tawhid to be comparable to those worshippers of false gods who believed in the godhood of their idols? For all the above-mentioned verses and those like them specifically refer tonon-Muslims and worshippers of false gods, while not a single believer enters into them.
Bukhari relates from ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar (Allah be well pleased with father and son) who related from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) that in [foretelling the] description of the Kharijites, he said that they would “proceed to Qur’anic verses revealed about non-Muslims, and interpret them as if they referred to believers.”
And in another hadith, also from Ibn ‘Umar, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The thing I fear most for my Umma is a man who interprets the Qur’an taking it out of its context”; both of these hadiths being applicable to this sect
If believers’ praying to Allah through an intermediary (tawassul) and the like were worshipping false gods, it wouldn’t have been done first by the Prophet himself (Allah bless him and give him peace), his Companions, and the Muslim Umma, from first to last (Dahlan, al-Futuhat al-Islamiyya[Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tijariyya al-Kubra, 1354/1935], 2.258–59).
This passage shows us why the Wahhabis’ were considered like Kharijites, men who, as al-Haskafi notes above, revolted against the imam “because of a mistaken scriptural interpretation (ta’wil),” believing that he was “upon a falsehood of unbelief (kufr) or disobedience to Allah (ma‘siya) that necessitates their fighting him.”
The main difficulty with their theory that tawassul amounted to worshipping false gods was the fact that it was taught to the Umma by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)—something you have asked about and will be discussed in question (9) below—which was perhaps why no one in the previous eleven centuries of Islamic scholarship before Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab had ever noticed that it was unbelief
In this respect, it is fortunate that Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab didn’t get his hands on his own Imam, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who enjoined his most outstanding student, Abu Bakr Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Marrudhi (d. 275/888) to make tawassul through the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Al-Marrudhi relates the tawassul of the hadith of the Companion (Sahabi) ‘Uthman ibn Hunayf containing the words, “O Allah, verily, I turn to You through Your prophet Muhammad, the Prophet of Mercy (Allah bless him and give him peace); O Muhammad, verily I turn through you to my Lord, that He may fulfill my need [emphasis the translator’s]”—which al-Marrudhi relates from Ahmad ibn Hanbal in the “Chapter on Supplications” of his Kitab al-mansak [Book of Hajj and ‘Umra]. This is mentioned by Ibn Taymiya (Qa‘ida jalila fi al-tawassul wa al-wasila [N.d. Reprint. Beirut: al-Maktaba al-‘Ilmiyya, n.d.], 98), whom I tend to believe on it, since it is something whose sunna character he tries to disprove his Imam about, though without conceiving it to be idolatry (shirk) or unbelief (kufr), as the Wahhabis did more than four centuries later.
Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab is gone today, together with the fatwas he gave that resulted in the attacks on Mecca, Ta’if, and Medina beginning in 1205/1790 by “reformers” who believed that the lives, women, and money of ordinary Sunni Muslims who did not feel that tawassul was shirkcould be lawfully taken by those who did. There are no more Wahhabis in this sense. As King Fahd (who, on the whole, has had a positive, moderating influence) said a few years ago in a speech, “We are not Wahhabis, we are Hanbalis.”
Yet if the “revolt” (in al-Haskafi’s words) is gone, the “mistaken scriptural interpretation” remains; and its intellectual influence is still strong on all aspects of the religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. Many of the questions you have asked deal specifically with ideas aggressively packaged and exported to other Muslim countries under the aegis of Ibn Baz, and given currency by the support of Sheikh Nasir and his followers
These are revisions to traditional Islam, and if many ordinary Muslims have forgotten this, it is due to the extent to which they have succeeded, abetted by heavy subsidizing and the present lack of traditional scholars (‘ulama) to teach Muslims the truth. Yet one cannot but feel they mark a transient phase, for Allah has promised to protect the din, and if the rebuttals of classical scholars were heard, these innovations would melt away. In the meantime, “reforms” have been slated for all three pillars of the din, Islam (Shari‘a), Iman (‘Aqida), and Ihsan (Tariqa), and can perhaps be best summarized under these headings:
(1) Islam (Shari‘a): To their credit, the movement we are speaking of has revived interest in hadith among Islamic scholars across the board. But the emphasis on hadith and its ancillary disciplines to the exclusion of other Islamic sciences equally essential to understanding the revelation, such as fiqh methodology, or the conditioning of hadith by general principles expressed in the Qur’an , has created the false dichotomy in many Muslims’ minds of either fiqh or hadith. And this is an intellectual bid‘a of the most ominous sort for Islam, which has never accepted ijtihad from non-mujtahids, or anything short of the fiqh (literally “understanding subtle points”) of hadith.
One sad outcome of dichotomizing fiqh and hadith is the revival of Dhahiri thought we have talked about above, with its “fallacy of misplaced literalism” in interpreting primary scriptural texts. Such literalism necessarily forces itself upon someone trained in hadith alone (like Sheikh Nasir) if he tries to deduce Shari‘a rulings without mastery of the interpretive tools needed to meet the challenges that face the mujtahid, for example, in joining between a number of hadiths on a particular question that seem to conflict, or the many other intellectual problems involved in doing ijtihad. This strident Dhahirism—especially among Sheikh Nasir’s followers—has made some contemporary Muslims seriously believe that it is a matter of either following “the Qur’an and sunna,” or one of the schools of the mujtahid Imams
Now, the big lie has only gained credibility today because so few Muslims understand what ijtihad is or how it is done. I believe this can be cured by familiarizing Muslims with concrete examples of how mujtahid Imams derive particular Shari‘a rulings from the Qur’an and hadith, examples which first, demonstrate the breadth of their hadith knowledge (Muhammad ibn ‘Ubayd Allah ibn al-Munadi (d. 272/886) relates that Ahmad ibn Hanbal said that having memorized three hundred thousand hadiths was not enough to be a mujtahid), and second, demonstrate their mastery of the deductive principles that enable one to join between all the primary texts. Until this is done, the advocates of this movement will probably continue to follow the ijtihad of non-mujtahids (the sheikhs who inspire their confidence), under the catch phrase “Qur’an and sunna” just as if the realmujtahids were unfamiliar with the obligation of following these. The followers perhaps cannot be blamed, since “for someone who has never travelled, his mother is the only cook.” But I do blame the sheikhs who, whatever their motivations, write and speak as if they were the only cooks
(2) Iman (‘Aqida): The uncritical acceptance and subsidizing of Ibn Taymiya’s and Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s opinions in ‘aqida has had a number of results
One is that Ibn Taymiya’s denial of all figurative expression (majaz) in the Qur’an , what we have called above “misplaced literalism,” has caused the anthropomorphism it brings to most minds to spread to the horizons, under the slogan of a “return to the ‘aqida of early Muslims,” which, as explained above, it most certainly is not
In this connection, I was recently speaking with Mawlana ‘Abdullah Kakakhail, a scholar of Islamic belief (usul al-din) from Islamabad, who told me that he graduated from the Islamic University in Medina in 1966, and shortly afterwards, on the verge of returning home, had been summoned to the office of the vice-rector of the university, who expressed his disappointment that the student had not benefited more from his studies in Islamic faith (‘aqida). The vice-rector said he knew ‘Abdullah was returning to Pakistan with the same tenets of faith he had had when he came. They got to talking about the mutashabihat or ‘unapparent in meaning’ Qur’anic verses and hadiths, and the discussion turned to Allah’s ‘hand’ (Qur’an 48:10). “You say,” the young man told the vice-rector, “That ‘the hand is known, but the how of it is unknown.’ What does the unknownness of this howmean?” The vice-rector said, “It means we do not know whether the hand is black or white, or whether it is long or short.” The vice-rector’s name was Ibn Baz, and this was what was being offered at the time as the da‘wa or ‘invitation’—apparently to the faith (‘aqida) that inspired the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
Secondly, the yawning gulf between this kind of anthropomorphism and the entire previous Qur’an tafsir literature has necessitated the explanation that someone (namely, the Ash‘ari school) has crept in upon the Umma and altered the “‘aqida of the early Muslims” that is alleged to have been there before (but now cannot be found). This has in turn divided the field of ‘aqida into two camps, pro- and anti-Ash‘ari, whereas for the previous thousand years, Sunni Muslims agreed upon the orthodoxy of the Ash‘ari and Maturidi schools. Why was something fixed that was not broken?
Indeed, when a wealthy trader from Jedda brought to life the long-dead ‘aqida of Ibn Taymiya at the beginning of this century by financing the printing in Egypt of Ibn Taymiya’s Minhaj al-sunna al-nabawiyya and other works, the Mufti of Egypt Muhammad Bakhit al-Muti‘i, faced with new questions about the validity of anthropomorphism, wrote: “It was a fitna (strife) that was sleeping; may Allah curse him who awakened it.”
But perhaps the most ill-starred ‘aqida legacy of the historical Wahhabi movement is something now practiced from the Najd to the Indian Subcontinent, to the East and the West; namely, the ease with which Muslims call each other “unbelievers.” Whether it is over a fiqh question liketawassul, or an ‘aqida question like the above, this is precisely the sectarianism which Allah forbids in the Qur’an with the words,
“And do not be like those who separated into factions and differed between themselves” (Qur’an 3:105),
Sectarianism of this sort is something that did not exist in traditional Sunni Islam for the previous thousand years, but rather represents a break with that tradition. Whether we justify it in the name of an ‘Islamic reform,’ or a ‘return to early Islam,’ sectarianism is and remains the kind of bid‘aof misguidance of which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said in the hadith of Muslim,
“Whoever innovates something in this matter of ours that is not from it shall have it rejected” (Muslim 3.1343).
(3) Ihsan (Tariqa): The third of the re-forms, and among the most aggressively pursued today is an attempt to finish tasawwuf or ‘Sufism’ as one of the Islamic sciences, though there is no doubt that it has been considered as such by virtually all classical scholars since the religious sciences were first recorded. Our times have seen the printing and reprinting of works like ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi’s Talbis Iblis [The Devil’s deception] passages of which criticize “the Sufis” (meaning groups of them in his time) without mentioning that a great many of the biographies of his five-volume Sifa al-safwa [Description of the elect] are the very Sufis quoted in extenso in Qushayri’s classic work on Sufism al-Risala al-Qushayriyya.
Though Sufism exists for the good reason that the sunna we have been commanded to follow is not just the words and outward actions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), but also his states, such as reliance on Allah (tawakkul), sincerity (ikhlas), forbearance (hilm), patience (sabr), humility (tawadu‘), perpetual remembrance of Allah, and so on. Many, many hadiths and Qur’anic verses indicate the obligatory character of attaining these and hundreds of other states of the heart, such as the hadith related by Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,
“No one will enter paradise who has a particle of arrogance in his heart” (Muslim, 1.93).
or the sahih hadith in the Sunan of Abu Dawud about the obligatoriness of having presence of heart in the prayer (salat), that ‘Ammar ibn Yasir heard the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) say,
“Verily, a man leaves, and none of his prayer has been recorded for him except a tenth of it, a ninth of it, an eighth of it, a seventh of it, a sixth of it, a fifth of it, a fourth of it, a third of it, or a half of it” (Sunan Abi Dawud [N.d. Reprint. Istanbul: al-Maktaba al-Islamiyya, n.d.] 1.211).
Half a minute’s reflection should show each of us where we stand on these aspects of our din, and why in classical times, helping Muslims to attain these states was not left to amateurs, but rather delegated to ‘Ulama’ of the heart, the scholars of Islamic Sufism
As in other Islamic sciences, mistakes historically did occur in Sufism, most of them stemming from not recognizing the Shari‘a and tenets of faith (‘aqida) of Ahl al-Sunna as being above every human being. But these mistakes were not different in principle from, for example, the Isra’iliyyat(baseless tales of Bani Isra’il) that crept into Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) literature, or the mawdu‘at (hadith forgeries) that crept into the body of prophetic hadith. These were not taken as proof that tafsir was bad, or hadith was deviance, but rather, in each discipline, the errors were identified and warned against by the Imams of the field, because the Umma needed the rest. And such corrections are precisely what we find in books like Qushayri’s Risala, Ghazali’s Ihya’ and other works of Sufism.
In contrast, the re-formers of our times have hit upon the expedient of creating doubts of there being any genuine Islamic science to attain spiritual sincerity in a systematic and knowledge-based way. But perhaps today they are beginning to realize that if one ends all spiritual aspiration, one will only produce numbers of aggressive Muslims with no other means of feeling more religious than by arguing to prove their fellow Muslims are less so—an unenviable condition described in the hadith of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace),
“No people went astray after guidance, except that they were afflicted with arguing.”
To summarize, the movement to re-form our din attacks the scholarly authority that has traditionally been the support of its three pillars: in Islam, by turning Muslim’s hearts against the madhhabs that are our Shari‘a; in Iman, by presenting Ibn Taymiya’s anthropomorphism as the ‘way of the early Muslims’; and in Ihsan, by trying to close the door of traditional Islamic spirituality once and for all.
Sheikh Nasir and Ibn Baz are among the main luminaries of the movement, and the latter’s whole career shows an emphasis on these reforms, from the publications printed under his auspices and distributed across the globe, to the funding of Wahhabi U. graduates to return from Medina to their homelands to disseminate the teachings of sect, tirelessly retelling of how few Muslims scholars over the last fourteen hundred years have truly understood Islam as it was understood by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and themselves.
So perhaps the best answer to your question about the ijazas of these two men is to ask in turn: What relevance to such re-formers should the traditional ijaza system have, when its function was to preserve intact the understanding of Islam by traditional scholars down through the centuries, an understanding they wish to change?
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
I do not know how widespread it is, but it certainly does exist. Of hard evidence that I have personally seen, there is the work that I am currently translating, Kitab al-adhkar [The book of remembrances of Allah] by Imam Nawawi. The text that Nawawi wrote in the Book of Hajj of the Adhkar reads:
“Section: The Visit to the Tomb of the Messenger of Allah (Allah Bless Him and Give Him Peace), and the Remembrances of Allah Made There”Know that everyone who performs the hajj should set out to visit the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), whether it is on one’s way or not, for visiting him (Allah bless him and give him peace) is one of the most important acts of worship, the most rewarded of efforts, and best of goals.
When one sets out to perform the visit, one should do much of the blessings and peace upon him (Allah bless him and give him peace) on the way. And when one’s eye falls on the trees of Medina, and its sanctum and landmarks, one should increase saying the blessings and peace upon the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), asking Allah Most High to benefit one by one’s visit to him (Allah bless him and give him peace), and grant one felicity in this world and the next through it. One should say, “O Allah, open for me the doors of Your mercy, and bestow upon me, through the visit to the tomb of Your prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), that which You have bestowed upon Your friends, those who obey You. Forgive me and show me mercy, O Best of Those Asked” (al-Adhkar al-Nawawiyya, 283–84).
In the 1409/1988 printing of this work, published by Dar al-Huda in Riyad, Saudi Arabia, under the inspection and approval of the Riyasa Idara al-Buhuth al-‘Ilmiyya wa al-Ifta’ or “Presidency of Supervision of Scholarly Studies and Islamic Legal Opinion,” the same section has been changed to agree with Ibn Taymiya’s view that setting out to visit the Prophet’s tomb (Allah bless him and give him peace) is disobedience. (It only becomes permissible, according to this point of view, if one intends visiting the mosque of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace).) The re-formed version reads as follows, italics showing the alterations made to Nawawi’s text:
“Section: The Visit to the Mosque of the Messenger of Allah (Allah Bless Him and Give Him Peace) [deletion]”
Know that it is preferable, for whoever wants to visit the Mosque of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), [deletion] to make much of the blessings and peace upon him (Allah bless him and give him peace) on the way. And when one’s eye falls on the trees of Medina, and its sanctum and landmarks, to increase saying the blessings and peace upon the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), asking Allah Most High to benefit one by one’s visit to his mosque(Allah bless him and give him peace), and grant one felicity in this world and the next through it. One should say: “O Allah, open for me the doors of Your mercy, and bestow upon me, through the visit to the mosque of Your prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), that which You have bestowed upon Your friends, those who obey You. Forgive me and show me mercy, O Best of Those Asked” (al-Adhkar, 295).
The same printing has completely dropped nearly a half page of the section of tawassul (supplicating Allah through the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)) when visiting the Prophet’s tomb—apparently to promote the Wahhabi doctrine that this is shirk or “assigning co-sharers to Allah.”
They have attributed the above words to Imam Nawawi without mentioning that it has been altered in any way.
This should not surprise Westerners, who have had before them Muhammad Muhsin Khan’s translation of Sahih al-Bukhari for some years now. In it, we find Bukhari’s heading about the effects of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace): “and of his hair, his sandals, and his vessels, of that which his Companions and others used to obtain blessings through after his death (yatabarraka bihi As-habuhu wa ghayruhum ba‘da wafatihi),” in which the words yatabarraka bihi have been rendered as “were considered as blessed things” in the English (Khan, Sahih al-Bukhari, 4.218). The Arabic verb tabarraka bihi signifies “He had a blessing; and he was, or became, blest; by means of him, or it” (Lane, Arabic-English Lexicon, 1.193), or often, “he looked for a blessing by means of,” or “regarded as a means of obtaining a blessing from,” him or it (ibid.)—in either case actually obtaining, or hoping to obtain, a blessing by means of these things, a nuance quite different from the passive “were considered as blessed,” which does not entail any special benefit from them.
Or consider the seventy-three-page “introduction” to volume one of this same translation, a tract that explains the Muslim Trinity: Tawhid al-Rububuyya, Tawhid al-Uluhiyya, and Tawhid al-Asma wa al-Sifat—the (1) Tawhid of Lordship, (2) Tawhid of Godhood, and (3) Tawhid of Names and Attributes. By way of preface to it, Dr. Khan notes that many Western converts enter Islam without knowing what belief in the Oneness of Allah really means. He clarifies that tawhid is not one; namely, to say and believe the shahada of Islam with complete conviction—as it was from the time of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) until the advent of Ibn Taymiya seven centuries later—as new converts might imagine, but must now be three in order to be one, and cannot be one without being three. While such logic may be already familiar to converts from Christianity, Imam Bukhari (d. 256/870) certainly never knew anything of it, and its being printed as an “introduction” to his work seems to me to qualify as “tampering with classical texts”—aside from being a re-form of traditional ‘aqida, in which Islam, in the words of the Prophet of Islam (Allah bless him and give him peace), “is to testify that there is no god except Allah, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah . . .” (Sahih Muslim, 1.37: 8).
Another example is found in the commentary of the famous Maliki scholar Ahmad Sawi (d. 1241/1825) on the Qur’anic exegesis Tafsir al-Jalalaynof Jalal al-Din Mahalli and Jalal al-Din Suyuti, in which he says of the verse “Truly, the Devil is an enemy to you, so take him as an enemy: he only calls his party to become of the inhabitants of the blaze” (Qur’an 35:6): It is said this verse was revealed about the Kharijites [foretelling their appearance], who altered the interpretation of the Qur’an and sunna, on the strength of which they declared it lawful to kill and take the property of Muslims—as may now be seen in their modern counterparts; namely, a sect in the Hijaz called “Wahhabis,” who “think they are on something, truly they are the liars. Satan has gained mastery over them and made them forget Allah’s remembrance. Those are Satan’s party, truly Satan’s party, they are the losers” (Qur’an 58:18–19). We ask Allah Most Generous to extirpate them completely (Sawi: Hashiya al-Sawi ‘ala al-Jalalayn, 3.255). This passage is quoted from the ‘Isa al-Babi al-Halabi edition published in Cairo around the 1930s. It was also printed in its entirety in the Maktaba al-Mashhad al-Husayni edition (3.307–8) published in Cairo in 1939, which was reproduced by offset by Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi (3.307–8) in Beirut in the 1970s. By the early 1980s, the Salafi movement, or oil money, or some combination of the two, had generated enough of a market to tempt Dar al-Fikr in Beirut to offset the same old printing, but with a surreptitious change. In the third volume, part of the bottom line of page 307 and the top line of 308 have been whited out, eliminating the words “namely, a sect in the Hijaz called ‘Wahhabis,’” venally bowdlerizing the whole point of what the author is trying to say about the modern counterparts of the Kharijites in order to sell it to them. The deletion was virtually indistinguishable from an ordinary spacing mistake, coming as it does at the ends of the two pages, though Dar al-Fikr made up for any technical shortcomings in this respect in 1993 with a newly typeset four-volume version of Hashiya al-Sawi ‘ala al-Jalalayn, which its title page declares to be “a new and corrected (munaqqaha) printing.” The above passage appears on page 379 of the third volume with the same wording as the previous coverup, but this time in a continuous text, so no one would ever guess that Sawi’s words had been removed.
Or consider the example from the two-volume Qur’anic exegesis of Abu Hayyan al-Nahwi (d. 754/1353), Tafsir al-nahr al-madd [The exegesis of the far-stretching river] condensed mainly from his own previous eight-volume exegesis al-Bahr al-muhit [The encompassing sea], arguably the finest tafsir ever written based primarily on Arabic grammar. Abu Hayyan, of Andalusion origin, settled in Damascus, knew Ibn Taymiya personally, and held him in great esteem, until the day that Barinbari (d. 717/1317) brought him a work by Ibn Taymiya called Kitab al-‘arsh [The book of the Throne]. There they found, in Ibn Taymiya’s own handwriting (which was familiar to Abu Hayyan), anthropomorphic suggestions about the Deity that made Abu Hayyan curse Ibn Taymiya until the day he died. This was mentioned by the hadith master (hafiz) Taqi al-Din Subki in hisal-Sayf al-saqil (85). Abu Hayyan, in his own Qur’anic exegesis of Ayat al-Kursi (Qur’an 2:258) in surat al-Baqara, recorded something of what so completely changed his mind: I have read in the book of Ahmad ibn Taymiya, this individual whom we are the contemporary of, and the book is in his own handwriting, and he has named it Kitab al-‘arsh [The book of the Throne], that “Allah Most High is sitting (yajlisu) on the Kursi but has left a place of it unoccupied, in which to seat the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace)” [italics mine]. Al-Taj Muhammad ibn ‘Ali ibn ‘Abd al-Haqq Barinbari fooled him [Ibn Taymiya] by pretending to be a supporter of his so that he could get it from him, and this is what we read in it (al-Nahwi, Tafsir al-nahr al-madd, 1.254). This is of interest not only because it documents (at the pen of one of Islam’s greatest scholars) that Ibn Taymiya had a “double ‘aqida,” one for the public, and a separate anthropomorphic one for an inner circle of initiates—but also because when Abu Hayyan’s work was first printed on the margin of his longer exegesis al-Bahr al-muhit in Cairo by Matba‘a al-Sa‘ada in 1910, the whole passage was deleted—intentionally, as the guilty party later confessed to Muhammad Zahid Kawthari, who quotes the above passage in a footnote toal-Sayf al-saqil and then says:
This sentence is not in the printed exegesis al-Bahr [al-muhit], for the copy editor at Matba‘a al-Sa‘ada told me he found it so extremely revolting that he deemed it too enormous to ascribe to a Muslim, so he deleted it, so it would not be exploited by the enemies of the religion. He asked me to record that here by way of making up for what he had done, and as a counsel (nasiha) to Muslims (al-Sayf al-saqil, 85).
The deception was perpetrated anew when Abu Hayyan’s Tafsir al-nahr al-madd was printed on its own in Beirut with the same deletion by Dar al-Fikr in 1983, and was not rectified until Dar al-Janan and Mu’assasa al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyya in Beirut brought it out using original manuscripts of the work in 1987.
I think these examples are sufficient to give a general idea of the process, though the motives may differ from case to case. And Allah knows best.
© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
The Ash‘ari school and Maturidi schools have represented the ‘aqida or “tenets of belief” of the majority of Sunni Muslims for more than a thousand years; just as the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali schools have represented the shari‘a or “Sacred Law” for the majority of Sunni Muslims for this period. Those against these two traditional schools of tenets of faith are people of bid‘a, defined in a fatwa or formal legal opinion by Imam Ibn Hajar Haytami as “whoever is upon other than the path of Ahl al-Sunna wa l-Jama‘a, Ahl al-Sunna wa l-Jama‘a meaning the followers of Sheikh Abul Hasan Ash‘ari and Abu Mansur Maturidi, the two Imams of Ahl al-Sunna” (Haytami, al-Fatawa al-hadithiyya, 280). In the past, such contraventions, aside from Mu‘tazilites, Shiites, and purely sectarian movements, were confined to a handful of mainly Hanbalis, whose bone of contention with the two traditional schools was that neither had anything to do with their literalist, anthropomorphic understanding of Allah Most High, which they promoted by all means at their disposal.
In answer to your question, the claims that Imam Abul Hasan Ash‘ari (d. 324/936) repudiated his own positions are not new, but have been circulated by these Hanbalis for a long time, a fact that compelled the hadith master (hafiz) Ibn ‘Asakir to carefully investigate this question, and thesanads (chains of narrators) for the attribution of these repudiations to Ash‘ari. The results of his research furnished probably the best intellectual biography of Ash‘ari ever done, a book that rebuts these claims thoroughly and uniquivocally, called Tabyin kadhib al-muftari fi ma nusiba ila al-Imam al-Ash‘ari [On showing the untruth of the liars, concerning what has been ascribed to Imam Ash‘ari], that proves that there are liars in all thesanads that impute this to Imam Ash‘ari. The book is in print, and whoever would like the details should read it.
Imam Ash‘ari’s al-Ibana ‘an usul al-diyana [The clarification of the bases of the religion] was not his last book, but rather among the first after he broke with Mu‘tazilism. Imam Kawthari states:
The Ibana was authored at the first of his return from Mu‘tazilite thought, and was by way of trying to induce [n: the Hanbali literalist] Barbahari (d. 328/940) to embrace the tenets of faith of Ahl al-Sunna. Whoever believes it to be the last of his books believes something that is patently false. Moreover, pen after pen of the anthropomorphists has had free disposal of the text—particularly after the strife (fitna) that took place in Baghdad [n: after A.H. 323, when Hanbalis (“the disciples of Barbahari”) gained the upper hand in Baghdad, Muslims of the Shafi‘i madhhab were beaten, and anthropomorphism became the faith (‘aqida) of the day (Ibn Athir:al-Kamal fi al-tarikh, 7.114)]—so that what is in the work that contradicts the explicit positions transmitted from Ash‘ari by his own disciples, and their disciples, cannot be relied upon (al-Sayf al-saqil, 108).
This is borne out by hadith master (hafiz) Dhahabi in his Siyar a‘lam al-nubala’ (15.90), as well as Ibn ‘Asakir’s Tabyin kadhib al-muftari. As for seeing dreams, dreams may warm the heart, but they are not a proof for either Islamic law or tenets of faith. In his introduction to Ibn ‘Asakir’s work, Kawthari notes that “the anthropomorphists are the ones who seem to need this [relating of dreams]: when unable to prove their point while awake, they go to sleep, to find the proofs they are looking for while asleep, to fill their books with them” (Tabyin kadhib al-muftari (21–22).
In relation to your questions in general, it is noteworthy that Saudi Arabia has printed and distributed worldwide thousands of copies of a Salafi book called Manhaj al-Asha‘ira fi al-‘aqida [The methodology of the Ash‘aris in tenets of faith] by one Safar Hawali, a professor at Umm al-Qura University in Mecca. It ascribes to the Ash‘ari school the misrepresentations typical of that part of the world, identifying the school with the positions of heretical sects like the Jahmiyya, the Qadriyya, Murjiites, and so on, and contains a number of the things you asked about the Ash‘aris, so I would guess this is the misinformation that your English Salafis are going upon. One can find the details in Hasan Saqqaf’s recent rebuttal of the work entitled Tahni’a al-sadiq al-mahbub, wa nayl al-surur al-matlub, bi maghazala Safar al-maghlub [The greeting of the beloved friend, and attainment of happiness sought, in affectionate discourse with Safar the defeated]. I have heard that Hawali has since moved on from his positions, though I do not know the details.
Saqqaf also talks in his work about the bogus Hanbali “repentances” of various Ash‘ari Imams such as Ash‘ari, Juwayni, and Ghazali, that don’t appear in their books but have rather reached us by sanads each containing an anti-Ash‘ari or two, as is also corroborated by Ibn Subki in hisTabaqat al-Shafi‘iyya al-kubra [The greater compendium of the successive generations of Shafi‘i scholars] under the biographical entries on each of these scholars.
From the wider perspective of Islamic law, these forgeries are rather meaningless, since a Muslim may not believe in the Islamic faith (‘aqida) of Ahl al-Sunna merely because his Imam has said it, but rather because he sincerely believes it is the truth. Scholars say that it is not legally valid to follow qualified scholarship (taqlid) in tenets of Islamic faith (as opposed to rulings of Islamic law) unless one has full conviction of these tenets of faith from one’s own heart—which is why they tell us that one’s faith (iman) by taqlid in such tenets is only legally valid on condition that if one’s Imam were to cease believing something of them, one would not. So the forgeries would seem to have little scholarly relevance, other than to show the lengths to which their perpetrators were willing to go.
©Translated by Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995
[Nuh Ha Mim Keller:] I will close this answer by translating a conversation that took place in Damascus between Shari‘a professor Muhammad Sa‘id al-Buti, and a Salafi teacher. Buti asked him:
Buti: “What is your method for understanding the rulings of Allah? Do you take them from the Qur’an and sunna, or from the Imams of ijtihad?”
Salafi: “I examine the positions of the Imams and their evidences for them, and then take the closest of them to the evidence of the Qur’an and Sunna.”
Buti: “You have five thousand Syrian pounds that you have saved for six months. You then buy merchandise and begin trading with it. When do you pay zakat on the merchandise, after six months, or after one year?”
Salafi: [He thought, and said,] “Your question implies you believe zakat should be paid on business capital.”
Buti: “I am just asking. You should answer in your own way. Here in front of you is a library containing books of Qur’anic exegesis, hadith, and the works of the mujtahid Imams.”
Salafi: [He reflected for a moment, then said,] “Brother, this is din, and not simple matter. One could answer from the top of one’s head, but it would require thought, research, and study; all of which take time. And we have come to discuss something else.”
Buti: I dropped the question and said, “All right. Is it obligatory for every Muslim to examine the evidences for the positions of the Imams, and adopt the closest of them to the Qur’an and Sunna?”
Buti: “This means that all people possess the same capacity for ijtihad that the Imams of the madhhabs have; or even greater, since without a doubt, anyone who can judge the positions of the Imams and evaluate them according to the measure of the Qur’an and sunna must know more than all of them.”
Salafi: He said, “In reality, people are of three categories: the muqallid or ‘follower of qualified scholarship without knowing the primary textual evidence (of Qur’an and hadith)’; the muttabi‘, or ‘follower of primary textual evidence’; and the mujtahid, or scholar who can deduce rulings directly from the primary textual evidence (ijtihad). He who compares between madhhabs and chooses the closest of them to the Qur’an is a muttabi‘, a follower of primary textual evidence, which is an intermediate degree between following scholarship (taqlid) and deducing rulings from primary texts (ijtihad).”
Buti: “Then what is the follower of scholarship (muqallid) obliged to do?”
Salafi: “To follow the mujtahid he agrees with.”
Buti: “Is there any difficulty in his following one of them, adhering to him, and not changing?”
Salafi: “Yes there is. It is unlawful (haram).”
Buti: “What is the proof that it is unlawful?”
Salafi: “The proof is that he is obliging himself to do something Allah Mighty and Majestic has not obligated him to.”
Buti: I said, “Which of the seven canonical readings (qira’at) do you recite the Qur’an in?”
Salafi: “That of Hafs.”
Buti: “Do you recite only in it, or in a different canonical reading each day.”
Salafi: “No, I recite only in it.”
Buti: “Why do you read only it when Allah Mighty and Majestic has not obliged you to do anything except to recite the Qur’an as it has been conveyed—with the total certainty of tawatur (being conveyed by witnesses so numerous at every stage of transmission that their sheer numbers obviate the possibility of forgery or alteration), from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)?”
Salafi: “Because I have not had a opportunity to study other canonical readings, or recite the Qur’an except in this way.”
Buti: “But the individual who learns the fiqh of the Shafi‘i school—he too has not been able to study other madhhabs or had the opportunity to understand the rules of his religion except from this Imam. So if you say that he must know all the ijtihads of the Imams so as to go by all of them, it follows that you too must learn all the canonical readings so as to recite in all of them. And if you excuse yourself because you cannot, you should excuse him also. In any case, what I say is: where did you get that it is obligatory for a follower of scholarship (muqallid) to keep changing from one madhhab to another, when Allah has not obliged him to? That is, just as he is not obliged to adhere to a particular madhhab, neither is he obliged to keep changing.”
Salafi: “What is unlawful for him is adhering to one while believing that Allah has commanded him to do so.”
Buti: “That is something else, and is true without a doubt and without any disagreement among scholars. But is there any problem with his following a particular mujtahid, knowing that Allah has not obliged him to do that?”
Salafi: “There is no problem.”
Buti: [Al-Khajnadi’s] al-Karras, which you teach from, contradicts you. It says this is unlawful, in some places actually asserting that someone who adheres to a particular Imam and no other is an unbeliever (kafir).”
Salafi: He said, “Where?” and then began looking at the Karras, considering its texts and expressions, reflecting on the words of the author “Whoever follows one of them in particular in all questions is a blind, imitating, mistaken bigot, and is “among those who have divided their religion and are parties” [Qur’an 30:32]. He said, “By follows, he means someone who believes it legally obligatory for him to do so. The wording is a little incomplete.”
Buti: I said, “What evidence is there that that’s what he meant? Why don’t you just say the author was mistaken?”
Salafi: He insisted that the expression was correct, that it should be understood as containing an unexpressed condition [i.e. “provided one believes it is legally obligatory”], and he exonerated the writer from any mistake in it.
Buti: I said, “But interpreted in this fashion, the expression does not address any opponent or have any significance. Not a single Muslim is unaware that following such and such a particular Imam is not legally obligatory. No Muslim does so except from his own free will and choice.”
Salafi: “How should this be, when I hear from many common people and some scholars that it is legally obligatory to follow one particular school, and that a person may not change to another?”
Buti: “Name one person from the ordinary people or scholars who said that to you.”
He said nothing, and seemed surprised that what I said could be true, and kept repeating that he had thought that many people considered it unlawful to change from one madhhab to another.
I said, “You won’t find anyone today who believes this misconception, though it is related from the latter times of the Ottoman period that they considered a Hanafi changing from his own school to another to be an enormity. And without a doubt, if true, this was something that was complete nonsense from them; a blind, hateful bigotry.”
I then said, “Where did you get this distinction between the muqallid “follower of scholarship” and the muttabi‘“follower of evidence”: Is there a original, lexical distinction [in the Arabic language], or is it merely terminological?”
Salafi: “There is a lexical difference.”
Buti: I brought him lexicons with which to establish the lexical difference between the two words, and he could not find anything. I then said: “Abu Bakr (Allah be well pleased with him) said to a desert Arab who had objected to the alotment for him agreed upon by the Muslims, ‘If the Emigrants accept, you are but followers’—using the word “followers” (tabi‘) to mean ‘without any prerogative to consider, question, or discuss.’” (Similar to this is the word of Allah Most High, “When those who were followed (uttubi‘u) disown those those who followed (attaba‘u) upon seeing the torment, and their relations are sundered” (Qur’an 2:166), which uses follow (ittiba‘) for the most basic blind imitation).
Salafi: He said, “Then let it be a technical difference: don’t I have a right to establish a terminological usage?”
Buti: “Of course. But this term of yours does not alter the facts. This person you term a muttabi‘ (follower of scholarly evidence) will either be an expert in evidences and the means of textual deduction from them, in which case he is amujtahid. Or, if not an expert or unable to deduce rulings from them, then he is muqallid (follower of scholarly conclusions). And if he is one of these on some questions, and the other on others, then he is a muqallid for some and amujtahid for others. In any case, it is an either-or distinction, and the ruling for each is clear and plain.”
Salafi: He said, “The muttabi‘ is someone able to distinguish between scholarly positions and the evidences for them, and to judge one to be stronger than others. This is a level different to merely accepting scholarly conclusions.
Buti: “If you mean,” I said, “by distinguishing between positions differentiating them according to the strength or weakness of the evidence, this is the highest level of ijtihad. Are you personally able to do this?”
Salafi: “I do so as much as I can.”
Buti: “I am aware,” I said, “that you give as a fatwas that a three fold pronouncement of divorce on a single occasion only counts as one time. Did you check, before this fatwa of yours, the positions of the Imams and their evidences on this, then differentiate between them, so to give the fatwa accordingly? Now, ‘Uwaymir al-‘Ajlani pronounced a three fold divorce at one time in the presence of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) after he had made public imprecation against her for adultery (li‘an), saying, ‘If I retain her, O Messenger of Allah, I will have lied against her: she is [hereby] thrice divorced.’ What do you know about this hadith and its relation to this question, and its bearing as evidence for the position of the scholarly majority [that a threefold divorce pronounced on a single occasion is legally finalized and binding] as opposed to the position of Ibn Taymiya [that a threefold divorce on a single occasion only counts as once]?”
Salafi: “I did not know this hadith.”
Buti: “Then how could you give a fatwa on this question that contradicts what the four madhhabs unanimously concur upon, without even knowing their evidence, or how strong or weak it was? Here you are, discarding the principle you say you have enjoined on yourself and mean to enjoin on us, the principle of “following scholarly evidence (ittiba‘)” in the meaning you have terminologically adopted.”
Salafi: “At the time I didn’t own enough books to review the positions of the Imams and their evidence.”
Buti: “Then what made you rush into giving a fatwa contravening the vast majority of Muslims, when you hadn’t even seen any of their evidences?”
Salafi: “What else could I do? I asked and I only had a limited amount of scholarly resources.”
Buti: “You could have done what all scholars and Imams have done; namely, say “I didn’t know,” or told the questioner the postition of both the four madhhabs and the postion of those who contravene them; without givng a fatwa for either side. You could have done this, or rather, this was what was obligatory for you, especially since the poblem was not personally yours so as to force you to reach some solution or another. As for your giving a fatwa contradicting the consensus (ijma‘) of the four Imams without knowing—by your own admission—their evidences, sufficing yourself with the agreement in your heart for the evidences of the opposition, this is the very utmost of the kind of bigotry you accuse us of.”
Salafi: “I read the Imams’ opinions in [Nayl al-awtar, by] Shawkani, Subul al-salam [by al-Amir al-San‘ani], and Fiqh al-sunna by Sayyid Sabiq.”
Buti: These are the books of the opponents of the four Imams on this question. All of them speak from one side of the question, mentioning the proofs that buttress their side. Would you be willing to judge one litigant on the basis of his words alone, and that of his witnesses and relatives?”
Salafi: I see nothing blameworthy in what I have done. I was obliged to give the questioner an answer, and this was as much as I was able to reach with my understanding.”
Buti: “You say you are a “follower of scholarly evidence (muttabi‘)” and we should all be likewise. You have explained “following evidence” as reviewing the positions of all madhhabs, studying their evidences, and adopting the closest of them to the correct evidence—while in doing what you have done, you have discarded the principle completely. You know that the unanimous consensus of the four madhhabs is that a threefold pronouncement of divorce on one occasion counts as a three fold, finalized divorce, and you know that they have evidences for this that you arae unaware of, despite which you turn from their consensus to the opinion that your personal preference desires. Were you certain beforehand that the evidence of the four Imams deserved to be rejected?”
Salafi: No; but I wasn’t aware of them, since I didn’t have any reference works on them.”
Buti: “Then why didn’t you wait? Why rush into it, when Allah never obligated you to do anything of the sort? Was your not knowing the evidences of the scholarly majority a proof tht Ibn Taymiya was right? Is the bigotry you wrongly accuse us of anything besides this?”
Salafi: “I read evidences in the books available to me that convinced me. Allah has not enjoined me to do more than that.”
Buti: “If a Muslim sees a proof for something in a the books he reads, is that a sufficient reason to disregard the madhhabs that contradict his understanding, even if he doesn’t know their evidences?”
Salafi: “It is sufficient.”
Buti: “A young man, newly religious, without any Islamic education, reads the word of Allah Most High “To Allah belongs the place where the sun rises and where it sets: wherever you turn, there is the countenance of Allah. Verily, Allah is the All-encompassing, the All-knowing (Qur’an 2:115), and gathers from it that a Muslim may face any direction he wishes in his prescribed prayers, as the ostensive purport of the verse implies. But he has heard that the four Imams unanimously concur upon the necessity of his facing towards the Kaaba, and he knows they have evidences for it that he is unaware of. What should he do when he wants to pray? Should he follow his conviction from the evidence available to him, or follow the Imam who unanimously concur on the contrary of what he has understood?”
Salafi: “He should follow his conviction.”
Buti: “And pray towards the east for example. And his prayer would be legally valid?”
Salafi: “Yes. He is morally responsible for following his personal conviction.”
Buti: “What if his personal conviction leads him to believe there is no harm in making love to his neighbor’s wife, or to fill his belly with wine, or wrongfully take others’ property: will all this be mitigated in Allah’s reckoning by “personal conviction”?
Salafi: [He was silent for a moment, then said,] “Anyway, the examples you ask about are all fantasies that do not occur.”
Buti: “They are not fantasies; how often the like of them occurs, or even stranger. A young man without any knowledge of Islam, its Book, its sunna, who happens to hear or read this verse by chance, and understands from it what any Arab would from its owtward purport, that there is no harm in someone praying facing any direction he wants—despite seeing people’s facing towards the Kaaba rather than any other direction. This is an ordinary matter, theoretically and practically, as long as there are those among Muslims who don’t know a thing about Islam. In any event, you have pronounced upon this example—imaginary or real—a judgement that is not imaginary, and have judged “personal conviction” to be the decisive criterion in any event. This contradicts your differentiating people into three groups: followers of scholars without knowing their evidence (muqallidin), followers of scholars’ evidence (muttabi‘in), andmujtahids.”
Salafi: “Such a person is obliged to investigate. Didn’t he read any hadith, or any other Qur’anic verse?”
Buti: He didn’t have any reference works available to him, just as you didn’t have any when you gave your fatwa on the question of [threefold] divorce. And he was unable to read anything other than this verse connected with facing theqibla and its obligatory character. Do you still insist that he must follow his personal conviction and disregard the Imams’ consensus?”
Salafi: “Yes. If he is unable to evaluate and investigate further, he is excused, and it is enough for him to rely on the conclusions his evaluation and investigation lead him to.”
Buti: “I intend to publish these remarks as yours. They are dangerous, and strange.”
Salafi: “Publish whatever you want. I’m not afraid.”
Buti: “How should you be afraid of me, when you are not afraid of Allah Mighty and Majestic, utterly discarding by these words the word of Allah Mighty and Majestic [in Sura al-Nahl] ‘Ask those who recall if you know not’ (Qur’an 16:43).”
Salafi: “My brother,” he said, “These Imams are not divinely protected from error (ma‘sum). As for the Quranic verse that this person followed [in praying any direction], it is the word of Him Who Is Protected from All Error, may His glory be exalted. How should he leave the divinely protected and attach himself to the tail of the non-divinely-protected?”
Buti: “Good man, what is divinely protected from error is the true meaning that Allah intended by saying, “To Allah belongs the place where the sun rises and where it sets . . .”—not the understanding of the young man who is as far as can be from knowing Islam, its rulings, and the nature of its Qur’an. That is to say, the comparison I am asking you to make is between two understandings: the understanding of this ignorant youth, and the understanding of themujtahid Imams, neither of which is divinely protected from error, but one of which is rooted in ignorance and superficiality, and the other of which is rooted in investigation, knowledge, and accuracy.”
Salafi: “Allah does not make him responsible for more than his effort can do.”
Buti: “Then answer me this question. A man has a child who suffers from some infections, and is under the care of all the doctors in town, who agree he should have a certain medicine, and warn his father against giving him an injection of penicillin, and that if he does, he will be exposing the child’s life to destruction. Now, the father knows from having read a medical publication that penicillin helps in cases of infection. So he relies on his own knowledge about it, disregards the advice of the doctors since he doesn’t know the proof for what they say, and employing instead his own personal conviction, treats the child with a penicillin injection, and thereafter the child dies. Should such a person be tried, and is he guilty of a wrong for what he did, or not?”
Salafi: [He thought for a moment and then said,] “This is not the same as that.”
Buti: “It is exactly the same. The father has heard the unanimous judgement of the doctors, just as the young man has heard the unanimous judgement of the Imams. One has followed a single text he read in a medical publication, the other has followed a single text he has read in the Book of Allah Mighty and and Majestic. This one has gone by personal conviction, and so has that.”
Salafi: “Brother, the Qur’an is light. Light. In its clarity as evidence, is light like any other words?”
Buti: “And the light of the Qur’an is reflected by anyone who looks into it or recites it, such that he understands it as light, as Allah meant it? Then what is the difference between those who recall [Qur’an 16:43] and anyone else, as long as all partake of this light? Rather, the two above examples are comparable, there is no difference between them at all; you must answer me: does the person investigating—in each of the two examples—follow his personal conviction, or does he follow and imitate specialists?”
Salafi: “Personal conviction is the basis.”
Buti: “He used personal conviction, and it resulted in the death of the child. Does this entail any responsibility, moral or legal?”
Salafi: “It doesn’t entail any responsibility at all.”
Buti: I said, “Then let us end the investigation and discussion on this last remark of yours, since it closes the way to any common ground between you and me on which we can base a discussion. It is sufficient that with this bizarre answer of yours, you have departed from the consensus of the entire Islamic religion. By Allah, there is no meaning on the face of the earth for disgusting bigotry if it is not what you people have” (al-Lamadhhabiyya (b01), 99–108).
Buti concludes the story by saying:
I do not know then, why these people don’t just let us be, to use our own “personal conviction” that someone ignorant of the rules of religion and the proofs for them must adhere to one of the mujtahid Imams, imitating him because of the latter’s being more aware than himself of the Book of Allah and sunna of His messenger. Whatever the mistake in this opinion in their view let it be given the general amnesty of “personal conviction.” like the example of him who turns his back to the qibla and is his prayer is valid, or him who kills a child and the killing is “ijtihad” and “medical treatment” (ibid. 108).