December 17, 2009

Is Life Fair?

This is another of my comments from over at Street Prophets, where a person asked the question, "Is life fair?" This is my initial comment to the diary:

The Qur'anic perspective is: good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people; both are tests.

Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits (of your toil), but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, Who say, when afflicted with calamity: "To God We belong, and to Him is our return." (2:155-56)

Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs. (3:186)

Nor strain thine eyes in longing for the things We have given for enjoyment to parties of them, the splendor of the life of this world, through which We test them: but the provision of thy Lord is better and more enduring. (20:131)

Every soul shall have a taste of death: and We test you by evil and by good by way of trial. to Us must ye return. (21:35)

In the first set of verses, 2:155-56, the response, "To God We belong, and to Him is our return," is what Muslims say upon learning of the death of a person. Death, of course, is another test, not only for the person who is dying (assuming he or she knows he/she will be dying soon), but for the people around that person, whether related or not. Indeed, people might be afflicted with some test, not so much that they themselves are being tested, but the other people around them. There is another passage in the Qur'an, where the Prophet Abraham (pbuh) prays,

"Our Lord! Make us not a (test and) trial for the Unbelievers, but forgive us, our Lord! for Thou art the Exalted in Might, the Wise." (60:5)

Muslims believe that Allah (swt) has His plan, but that we are not privy to it. For example, I suspect that the German Holocaust of the Jews was quite possibly a test to both the Germans and the Jews and, likewise, right now, the Jews and the Palestinians are being tested as well. (And we observers on the outside of that conflict may also be currently being tested, to see how we react to the suffering going on.) From this perspective, I believe that thinking of events in the life of an individual or community as being tests helps to sharpen one's moral judgments; i.e., what is the morally correct thing to do or say under the various circumstances? If you are Oskar Schindler, do you help save the lives of your Jewish workers or do you ignore them while collecting your steamer trunks' full of cash? Do you weep over the thought that you could have sold your Nazi membership pin to save the life of one more person (the movie) or do you drive away quietly in the middle of the night with diamonds stashed in the panels of your car's doors? (According to the book, the diamonds were stolen a few days later; easy come, easy go.) Do we follow the example of the Prophet Ayyub (Job, pbuh) when we are tested?

And (remember) Job, when He cried to his Lord, "Truly distress has seized me, but Thou art the Most Merciful of those that are merciful." So We listened to him: We removed the distress that was on him, and We restored his people to him, and doubled their number,- as a Grace from Ourselves, and a thing for commemoration, for all who serve Us. (21:83-84)

December 13, 2009

On Zakat

The following is a comment I wrote at Street Prophets in response to a diary on voluntary vs. "forced" charity:

In Islam there is a difference between voluntary charity and what I would call obligatory charity (as opposed to "forced"). Voluntary charity is either known as sadaqa (alms) or infaq fi sabilillah (spending in the service of Allah (swt)), whereas obligatory charity is zakat, the third of the five pillars. For most Muslims, the thought of not paying zakat is looked on with distaste because the voluntary nonpayment of zakat when one is obligated to and has the means to do so is tantamount to disbelief. Likewise, in the past, zakat was equivalent to a national tax, obligatory on all Muslim subjects of the realm, so the classical notion of zakat vs. modern income taxes is not that far off.

The thing is, Muslims were and are encouraged to pay both the obligatory and voluntary charities. It's not a question of suggesting that voluntary charity is good, obligatory charity is bad. Both are good. Paying zakat is not only for the benefit of the poor and others who are eligible to receive the money, it's actually as much for the benefit of the payer's soul. Zakat literally means "purification and growth" because the payment of zakat leads to both the purification and growth of one's soul. The act of giving zakat helps to dampen the soul's love and lust for material wealth. A hadith from Tirmidhi's collection has the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) saying:

The trial for my ummah is wealth.

By paying zakat we both fulfill our obligation upon the rights of men (just as prayer fulfills our obligation upon the rights of Allah (swt)) and increase our concern for our fellow man.

November 01, 2009

Mapping the Muslim Mind

Mike thinks in Martian -- and this gives him a different 'map.' You follow me"

"I grok it," agreed Jubal. "Language itself shapes a man's basic ideas."

"Yes, but -- Doctor, you speak Arabic?"

"Eh? Badly," admitted Jubal. "Put in a while as an army surgeon in North Africa. I still read it because I prefer the words of the Prophet in the original."

"Proper. The Koran cannot be translated -- the 'map' changes no matter how one tries. You understand, then, how difficult I found English. It was not alone that my native language has simpler inflections; the 'map' changed. English is the largest human tongue; its variety, subtlety, and irrational idiomatic complexity make it possible to say things in English which cannot be said in any other language. It almost drove me crazy ... until I learned to think in it -- and that put a new 'map' of the world on top of the one I grew up with. A better one, perhaps -- certainly a more detailed one.

"But there are things which can be said in Arabic that cannot be said in English."

Jubal nodded. "That's why I've kept up my reading."

(Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land, pp. 212-13)

In the late 90s, as I studied the Qur'an more intently, I began to notice a change in my mind frame, a change in how I viewed and thought about the world, at least from a religious and ethical perspective. I knew this had come from studying the Qur'an, but I wasn't quite sure how this change came about. Then, the other day, as I began reading Toshihiko Izutsu's fascinating book, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an, I had some insight with respect to this question.

This change in mind frame isn’t new or unique. As the above passage from Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, discusses, many people who learn a foreign language at an older age undergo an “overlay” of their mental “map” as they develop some fluency in the new language. This isn’t due to just the addition of new vocabulary and rules of syntax, but also from an increased understanding of the foreign culture and the very assumptions the native speakers have made about the world that they incorporated into the language. This is yet another reason for people to learn a foreign language, to develop empathy for the people and culture of the language one is learning.

Of course, unless one is very proficient in the new language, one is likely to have a less-than-perfect understanding of all the nuances in the new language (a problem that afflicts native speakers around the world, as legions of language teachers will readily attest to). Add to this any other issues that might arise in deciphering the sender’s message. As Izutsu wrote,

[I]f we are but reminded that even when we are actually reading a text in the original we tend almost unconsciously to read into it our own concepts fostered by our mother tongue, and thus to transmute many, if not all, of its key terms into equivalent terms obtainable in our native language. But if we do this, we are, in reality, doing nothing more than understanding the original text in a translation; we are, in other words, manipulating translated concepts without being aware of it.

(Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an, p. 4)

For readers of the Qur’an whose mother tongue isn’t Arabic, this paragraph describes a familiar concept: Qur’an > Translation > Interpretation. Ignoring the real bastardizations of the Qur’anic text (for example, interpreting the text according to modern political ideologies, such as Western feminism), simply reading a translation of the Qur’an may result in “mistranslations” as a result of interpreting the translation according to the meanings inherent in the reader’s mother tongue. (This is one reason why I prefer translations, such as Yusuf Ali’s, that provide various meanings for key words in the footnotes, in addition to literal translations of some phrases, when appropriate. At least with the additional definitions the reader is able to evaluate how those definitions could apply to the translated text.)

What really provoked the most thought, though, was the following paragraph:

Take, for instance, the English word 'weed.' One dictionary defines this word as 'wild herb springing where it is not wanted,' in short, an undesirable, unwanted herb. Now in the world of objective reality, that is, in the realm of nature, there is no such thing as an 'undesirable' herb; such a thing can exist only in the sight of man, who looks at the infinite complexity of natural objects, puts them in order, and evaluates them in accordance with his various purposes. The concept of 'weed' is the result of such a process of ordering, sorting out, evaluating, and categorizing. It embodies, in this sense, a particular point of view, a particular subjective attitude of the human mind.

(Toshihiko Izutsu, Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Qur'an, p. 7)

In other words, understanding is dependent upon perspective. Consider the Qur’an. The normal perspective, I would say, is that of mankind reading the Qur’an and interpreting it based upon our perspective. Mankind is the intended audience of the Qur’an, and it was written for our benefit. But the Qur’an was not written by a human intelligence. It was written by Allah (swt), whose level of intelligence and understanding are infinitely greater than our own. Likewise, the text of the Qur’an was written from His perspective, which is that of objective reality rather than that of human reality, which is both subjective and limited.

My thought, then, is that as I continued (and continue) to study the Qur’an, my change in mind frame was akin to that of an overlay from learning a foreign language. The content of the Qur’an is powerful enough that, despite having relied upon English translations and my own interpretation of the text (at least for the first few years of study), I was able to begin thinking in the way Allah (swt) intended for me to think; i.e., as a Muslim.

Muslims, then, think in the way that the Qur’an has trained us to think, which is a different (and, IMO, better) manner than that of most non-Muslims. We will never think as well as Allah (swt), even if we understood classical Arabic as a mother tongue in the way the Arabs of the Prophet’s (pbuh) generation did. Even so, despite our limitations, the closer one is able to mirror the message of the Qur’an in one’s mind* and apply Qur’anic instructions in one’s daily life, the closer one will be, insha’allah, to becoming the best Muslim one can possibly be.

* And to do this, in my opinion, requires that the individual Muslim both remove one’s ego away from his or her interpretation of the Qur’an and follow the consensus orthodox interpretation of the Qur’an.

October 01, 2009

The Questions

One of the interesting things about the Qur'an is that there are a number of verses (at least 21) that I think of collectively as "The Questions." Each of the questions are framed in an "either-or" format: your answer is either one or the other. The answer to each of the questions is painfully obvious to a believer (in this case I don't think there even needs to be a distinction between Muslims, Jews or Christians). For a non-believer, I think the questions are more challenging, especially some of the more nature-oriented verses, like 56:58-9. Sperm are created within the male body, and a typical man can ejaculate over 40 million sperm at any one time; yet, how many of those sperm did we "create?" Do we have any conscious control over the creation of sperm, say, with respect to different features of a body (e.g., hair color, shape of the nose, etc.)? No, of course not. Through Allah's (swt) will, our bodies create the sperm in the way that He decides, not in how we choose.

If you know of any other "Questions" in the Qur'an that I missed, please add them in the comments.

Is the man who follows the good pleasure of God Like the man who draws on himself the wrath of God, and whose abode is in Hell?- A woeful refuge! (3:162)

Is it not (the case) that to God belongeth whatever is in the heavens and on earth? Is it not (the case) that God's promise is assuredly true? Yet most of them understand not. (10:55)

Is then one who doth know that that which hath been revealed unto thee from thy Lord is the Truth, like one who is blind? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition;- (13:19)

Is then He who standeth over every soul (and knoweth) all that it doth, (like any others)? And yet they ascribe partners to God. Say: "But name them! is it that ye will inform Him of something he knoweth not on earth, or is it (just) a show of words?" Nay! to those who believe not, their pretense seems pleasing, but they are kept back (thereby) from the path. And those whom God leaves to stray, no one can guide. (13:33)

Is then He Who creates like one that creates not? Will ye not receive admonition? (16:17)

Is then the man who believes no better than the man who is rebellious and wicked? Not equal are they. (32:18)

Is he, then, to whom the evil of his conduct is made alluring, so that he looks upon it as good, (equal to one who is rightly guided)? For God leaves to stray whom He wills, and guides whom He wills. So let not thy soul go out in (vainly) sighing after them: for God knows well all that they do! (35:8)

Is it not to God that sincere devotion is due? But those who take for protectors other than God (say): "We only serve them in order that they may bring us nearer to God." Truly God will judge between them in that wherein they differ. But God guides not such as are false and ungrateful. (39:3)

Is one who worships devoutly during the hour of the night prostrating himself or standing (in adoration), who takes heed of the Hereafter, and who places his hope in the Mercy of his Lord - (like one who does not)? Say: "Are those equal, those who know and those who do not know? It is those who are endued with understanding that receive admonition. (39:9)

Is, then, one against whom the decree of Punishment is justly due (equal to one who eschews Evil)? Wouldst thou, then, deliver one (who is) in the Fire? (39:19)

Is one whose heart God has opened to Islam, so that he has received Enlightenment from God, (no better than one hard-hearted)? Woe to those whose hearts are hardened against celebrating the praises of God! they are manifestly wandering (in error)! (39:22)

Is, then, one who has to fear the brunt of the Penalty on the Day of Judgment (and receive it) on his face, (like one guarded therefrom)? It will be said to the wrong- doers: "Taste ye (the fruits of) what ye earned!" (39:24)

Is not God enough for his Servant? But they try to frighten thee with other (gods) besides Him! for such as God leaves to stray, there can be no guide. (39:36)

Is then one brought up among trinkets, and unable to give a clear account in a dispute (to be associated with God)? (43:18)

Is then one who is on a clear (Path) from his Lord, no better than one to whom the evil of his conduct seems pleasing, and such as follow their own lusts? (47:14)

Is it that their faculties of understanding urge them to this, or are they but a people transgressing beyond bounds? (52:32)

Do ye then see?- The (human Seed) that ye throw out,- Is it ye who create it, or are We the Creators? (56:58-9)

See ye the seed that ye sow in the ground? Is it ye that cause it to grow, or are We the Cause? (56:63-4)

See ye the Fire which ye kindle? Is it ye who grow the tree which feeds the fire, or do We grow it? (56:71-2)

Is then one who walks headlong, with his face groveling, better guided,- or one who walks evenly on a Straight Way? (67:22)

Is not God the wisest of judges? (95:8)

September 09, 2009

Ramadan Reminders

The following came from the Surah Yasin group at Facebook. This is a very nice set of reminders for us Muslims to act upon as we enter the final days of this month of Ramadan:

Rasullulah (pbuh) said, "The dua of a fasting person is not rejected" (Bayhaqi).

He also stated, "The dua of a fasting person at the time of Iftaar is accepted." (Abu Dawood).

Rasullulah (pbuh) said, "Do four things abundantly, two to please your Lord, and two you need for yourselves.

"Things to please your lord:

1. Say La illaha ill Allah abundantly
2. Do Istigfar (seek repentance)

"Things you need for yourself:

1. Ask Allah for Jannah (heaven)
2. Ask Allah to protect you from Janhannam (hell)"

Many individuals see no benefit in asking for the protection from Jahannam if they already ask for Jannah. It is our aqeeda (creed) and belief that an individual may have to spend time in Jahannam in order to be purified from his sins so he may enter Jannah. Jannah is pure and only the pure are allowed to enter.

There is a hadith narrated by Rajab al-Hambali's in Lata'if al-Ma'arif: "A person who does dhikr (the remembrance of Allah (swt)) during Ramadan is forgiven. And a person who asks Allah (swt) in Ramadan will not fail [Allah will give him what he wants]." Therefore do as much dhikr as one can.

Shaykh Abdur Raheem ibn Dawood Limbada

August 27, 2009

My Tafsir on Surah Fussilat (41):9-12

"The Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go." - Cardinal Cesar Baronio (1598), as cited by Galileo Galilei

A couple days ago, I received a comment from a certain someone who asked about verses 41:10-12 in the Qur'an. This person is apparently under the impression that the Qur'an is suggesting that the Earth was created first in all the universe before anything else (including the stars). I told him that the verses were analogical, but I wanted to expand on the point further. Below are the relevant verses (41:9-12):

Say: Is it that ye deny Him Who created the earth in two Days? And do ye join equals with Him? He is the Lord of (all) the Worlds.

He set on the (earth), mountains standing firm, high above it, and bestowed blessings on the earth, and measure therein all things to give them nourishment in due proportion, in four Days, in accordance with (the needs of) those who seek (Sustenance).

Moreover He comprehended in His design the sky, and it had been (as) smoke: He said to it and to the earth: "Come ye together, willingly or unwillingly." They said: "We do come (together), in willing obedience."

So He completed them as seven firmaments in two Days, and He assigned to each heaven its duty and command. And We adorned the lower heaven with lights, and (provided it) with guard. Such is the Decree of (Him) the Exalted in Might, Full of Knowledge.

First, I'm amused that verse 41:9 was skipped in the certain someone's original comment, if only because we both that he's become a self-proclaimed apostate. So, unless he's changed his mind and come back to a state of Islam (insha'allah), I'd say that his answer to the first question is "no." (Astaghfirullah!) Regardless...

The thing about the remaining verses, 41:10-12, is that they follow a specific sequence. This sequence was done with the original recipients of the Qur'an in mind, that being the early Muslim community and the Jahiliyyah-era Arabs (this surah, Fussilat, being revealed in the later Makkan period). As any good writer knows, you write to the level of your audience. Verse 41:9, for example, talks about the creation of the Earth, but Allah (swt) uses concepts that the audience at the time of the revelation would have understood; i.e., it took two of His days to complete. He, Allah (swt), didn't talk about things like the nebular hypothesis of solar system formation or protoplanetary disks. That sort of thing would have been far above the heads of the original recipients of the Qur'an.

So He followed a specific sequence that could be understood. Verse 41:10 first discusses the earth, the mountains, and the necessary chemicals - including water - that were needed to support life (once again, written in a way that could be understood by the original recipients). This verse came first, IMO, because everyone knows what the Earth is and would have asked a question like "How was the Earth made?" at some point in their life. The following verse, then, would be the next logical question: "How was the sky made?" And, finally, verse 41:12, completes the sequence by discussing the heavens and the stars. These verses were written in an order that is completely natural from the perspective of a human: we look down at the ground and then progressively higher, into the sky and then up to the heavens.

The mistake is to assume that these verses show the actual sequence of creation. Like the quotation at the top of this post, the Qur'an was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. These four verses were revealed not to provide a scientific proof, but to discuss how the Earth, sky and heavens were created in a manner that a people with a lack of scientific knowledge could understand.

Wa allahu alim. (And God knows best.)

May 18, 2009

The Meaning of the Word "Halal"

We Muslims use the word halal on a daily basis, using it normally to describe various foods, drinks or behaviors that are acceptable ("legal") in Islam. However, for those of us whose mother tongue isn't Arabic, we may miss out on some of the deeper meanings of even familiar words that have made their way into English language discourse about Islam between Muslims and even non-Muslims.

One such word is halal, which, as we Muslims know, means "that which is allowed, permitted or permissible, legal, licit, legitimate." But did you know that it also means "to loosen a knot?"

Hallun originally meant to untie a knot. In Surah Ta Ha, 20:27, Moses (pbuh) asks Allah (swt) to "loosen the knot from my tongue." Apparently, Moses (pbuh) was a stutterer, and was asking for Allah's (swt) help in order to be able to speak more clearly when facing off against Pharaoh.

Halaltu was used to express the idea of untying knots of the luggage to stop on a journey. Likewise, the second half of verse Ibrahim 14:28 (wa ahallu qawmahum darul bawaar) meant that the kufran caused their people to alight in the house of perdition:

Hast thou not turned thy vision to those who have changed the favor of Allah into blasphemy and caused their people to descend to the House of Perdition?-

Likewise, someone who unties his ahraam after the hajj is said to have become halal: "But when ye are clear of the sacred precincts and of pilgrim garb (wa idha halaltum), ye may hunt..." (fas-Taadoo; see Surah al-Ma'idah 5:2).

Another passage that refers to halal is Surah al-Ahzab 33:50, which reads in part, "We have made lawful to thee thy wives..." (inna ahlalna laka azwajaka). The husband is haleel and the wife haleela. They are haleels to one another.

So how does halal relate to food? While halal-uqdah means untying (i.e., solving) a (problematic) knot, the expression metaphorically refers to the slaughtering of an animal when the "knot" of its neck is "untied," thus becoming permissible to eat.

(Based upon pp. 141-42 of Muhammad Umar Chand's book, Halal and Haram: The Prohibited and the Permitted Foods and Drinks According to Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptures.)

May 08, 2009

What is Riba?

This post is primarily based upon a comment I wrote over at Jay Solomon's blog, The Zen of South Park:

This is one of the trickier questions in Islamic finance. As Jeffrey Harding pointed out in his recent article, The Money That Prays, the definition of riba is problematic, especially for non-Muslims:

After a long study of Islamic finance, the anthropologist Bill Maurer couldn’t settle on ‘interest’ as the perfect translation: it seemed clear at first but became streaky as he looked closer. ‘Usury’ is the obvious alternative, but are we to rely on the older sense of the term – any charge, however small, for the use of borrowed money – or on the way it’s understood today, as extortionate interest only? Wilson, a professor in the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham who is intrigued by ‘the influences of religious belief on economic behavior’, holds that riba is usury in the first sense. That’s the view of most practicing Muslims; it seems to echo the meaning of the word in Deuteronomy, where Moses instructs the people of Israel not to lend to their own kith and kin at a rate: ‘Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury.’ Very close to ‘interest’ after all then. Yet if, like Melanie Phillips, you believe Islamic banking in the UK merely hastens the day when a green flag is raised over Westminster, it’s important to think of ‘usury’ in the later sense, in order to insist that Muslim law is either deluded or deceitful: ‘The whole issue of sharia finance,’ Phillips wrote last year, ‘is based on a fabrication . . . sharia does not proscribe interest. It proscribes usury.’

Phillips, a known Islamophobe, would obviously want riba to be "usury" in the modern sense, an excessive interest rate. However, Phillips is not an Islamic scholar by any stretch of the imagination. Riba, in my opinion, is any amount of interest, even one cent above the amount of principal. Consider the following ahadith:

Narrated Abu Salih Az-Zaiyat:

I heard Abu Said Al-Khudri saying, "The selling of a Dinar for a Dinar [gold], and a Dirham for a Dirham [silver] (is permissible)." I said to him, "Ibn 'Abbas does not say the same." Abu Said replied, "I asked Ibn 'Abbas whether he had heard it from the Prophet s or seen it in the Holy Book. Ibn 'Abbas replied, "I do not claim that, and you know Allah's Apostle better than I, but Usama informed me that the Prophet had said, 'There is no riba (in money exchange) except when it is not done from hand to hand (i.e., when there is a delay in payment).' " (Bukhari: 3.34.386)

Abu Salih reported: I heard Abu Sa'id al-Khudri (Allah be pleased with him) said: Dinar (gold) for gold and dirham for dirham can be (exchanged) with equal for equal; but he who gives more or demands more in fact deals in interest. I sald to him: Ibn 'Abbas (Allah be pleased with them) says otherwise, whereupon he said: I met Ibn 'Abbas (Allah be pleased with them) and said: Do you see what you say; have you heard it from Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him), or found it in the Book of Allah, the Glorious and Majestic? He said: I did not hear it from Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him). and I did not find it in the Book of Allah (Glorious and Majestic), but Usama b. Zaid narrated it to me that Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: There can be an element of interest in credit. (Muslim: 10.3876)

Ubaidullah b. Abu Yazid heard Ibn 'Abbas (Allah be pleased with them) as saying: Usama b. Zaid reported Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) as saying: There can be an element of interest in credit (when the payment is not equal). (Muslim: 10.3877)

Ibn 'Abbas; (Allah be pleased with them) reported on the authority of Usama b. Zaid Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as having said this: There is no element of interest when the money or commodity is exchanged hand to hand. (Muslim: 10.3878) [In other words, what is known as a spot transaction.]

What I find interesting is that riba applies even to material goods. Consider:

Abd Sa'id reported: Bilal (Allah be pleased with him) came with fine quality of dates. Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said to him: From where (you have brought them)? Bilal said: We had inferior quality of dates and I exchanged two sa's (of inferior quality) with one sa (of fine quality) as food for Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him), whereupon Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) said: Woe! it is in fact usury; therefore, don't do that. But when you intend to buy dates (of superior quality), sell (the inferior quality) in a separate bargain and then buy (the superior quality). And in the hadith transmitted by Ibn Sahl there is no mention of" whereupon". (Muslim: 10.3871)

Narrated Abu Burda: When I came to Medina. I met Abdullah bin Salam. He said, "Will you come to me so that I may serve you with sawiq (i.e. powdered barley) and dates, and let you enter a (blessed) house that in which the Prophet entered?" Then he added, "You are In a country where the practice of riba (i.e. usury) is prevalent; so if somebody owes you something and he sends you a present of a load of chopped straw or a load of barley or a load of provender then do not take it, as it is riba." (Bukhari: 5.58.159)

In the first hadith, the excess quantity of dates traded (the inferior quality dates) was riba and therefore haram; even an equal trade of inferior for superior dates would be haram as the quality of the two sets of dates would not have been equal. Thus, a halal transaction is two sided, the sale of the inferior dates for cash first, the purchase of the superior dates for cash second.

The second hadith is even more interesting for how commonplace this custom is. "I owe you, and I'm repaying my debt to you, but let me also give you this gift to make up for the fact that I owed you the repayment (and maybe I was late in making payment)." Sound familiar? That's riba, too.

May 05, 2009

Shaitan as the Wolf

I came across this one hadith I was unfamiliar with, and found it of interest:

Transmitted Ahmad. Narrated Mu'adh bin Jabal (r.a.): "Allah's Messnger (s.a.w.) said: 'Verily Satan is the wolf of a man just as the wolf is (the enemy) of a flock. He seizes the solitary sheep going astray from the flock or going aside from the flock. So avoid the branching paths; it is essential for you to remain along with the community.'" (Mishkat [1/184])

The Qur'an and Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) warn us against the dangers of bida and internal division (forming sects and denominations). Those who complain that the "gates of ijtihad" need reopening should reconsider their beliefs. To continue the analogy of the hadith, it is better to be alive, even if one is a "herd animal," than dead, being feasted upon by Shaitan.

Wa Allahu 'alim.

April 29, 2009

The Hadith of the Whale

I was doing some research tonight on various foods that are halal, and came across some ahadith I was unfamiliar with. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had sent out a military expedition of three hundred men, led by the Abu Ubaida, that came across a dead whale on a sea coast. While land animals that are already dead (maitah, not having been slaughtered) are haraam, animals from the water that happen to be dead are still considered halal. The Prophet (pbuh) is reported to have said of the sea, "Its water is pure and its dead are permissible." Below is the most complete of the three ahadith:

Sahih Muslim, Book 021, Number 4756:

Jabir reported: Allah's Messenger (may peace he upon him) sent us (on an expedition) and appointed Abu 'Ubaida our chief that we might intercept a caravan of the Quraish and provided us with a bag of dates. And he found for us nothing besides it. Abu Ubaida gave each of us one date (everyday). I (Abu Zubair, one of the narrators) said: "What did you do with that?" He said: "We sucked that just as a baby sucks and then drank water over that, and it sufficed us for the day until night. We beat off leaves with the help of our staffs, then drenched them with water and ate them. We then went to the coast of the sea, and there rose before us on the coast of the sea something like a big mound. We came near that and we found that it was a beast, called al-'Anbar (spermaceti whale). Abu 'Ubaida said, 'It is dead.' He then said: 'No (but it does not matter), we have been sent by the Messenger of Allah (may peace be upon him) in the path of Allah and you are hard pressed (on account of the scarcity of food), so you eat that.' We three hundred in number stayed there for a month, until we grew bulky. He (Jabir) said: 'I saw how we extracted pitcher after pitcher full of fat from the cavity of its eye, and sliced from it compact piece of meat equal to a bull or like a bull.' Abu 'Ubaida called forth thirteen men from us and he made them sit in the cavity of its eye, and he took hold of one of the ribs of its chest and made it stand and then saddled the biggest of the camels we had with us and it passed under it (the arched rib), and we provided ourselves with pieces of boiled meat (especially for use in our journey). When we came back to Medina, we went to Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) and made a mention of that to him, whereupon he said: 'That was a provision which Allah had brought forth for you. Is there any piece of meat (left) with you, so that you give to us that?' He (Jabir) said: 'We sent to Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) some of that (a piece of meat) and he ate it.'"

April 19, 2009

The Danger in Damning Someone to Hell

Narrated Abu Huraira: 'I heard Allah's Messenger saying: "There were two fraternal persons among the Children of Israel. One of them was engrossed in committing sins while the other was devoted to worship. The devotee used to see his fellow committing sin and advise him: 'Desist from doing so.' One day when he found his fellow committing sin, he said to him: 'Avoid it.' He fellow said: 'Leave me alone. Have you been sent out as a vigilant on me?' The devotee said: 'By Allah, He will neither forgive you nor admit you to Paradise.' When they died, they were gathered before the Lord of the Worlds. Allah asked the devotee: 'Were you assured of knowing Me or were you having power over what was in My Hands?' Then He said to the sinner: 'Go and enter Paradise by My Mercy,' and ordered the angels about the devotee: 'Lead him to Hell.'"'

After narrating the Hadith, Abu Huraira commented: "By Him in Whose Hand my soul is: One word spoken by the devotee ruined his good deeds in the world as well as in the Hereafter."

-- From "110 Ahadith Qudsi: Sayings of the Prophet Having Allah's Statements"

April 18, 2009

Ibrahim (pbuh) and the Birds

Hast thou not Turned thy vision to one who disputed with Abraham About his Lord, because God had granted him power? Abraham said: "My Lord is He Who Giveth life and death." He said: "I give life and death". Said Abraham: "But it is God that causeth the sun to rise from the east: Do thou then cause him to rise from the West." Thus was he confounded who (in arrogance) rejected faith. Nor doth God Give guidance to a people unjust.

Or (take) the similitude of one who passed by a hamlet, all in ruins to its roofs. He said: "Oh! how shall God bring it (ever) to life, after (this) its death?" but God caused him to die for a hundred years, then raised him up (again). He said: "How long didst thou tarry (thus)?" He said: (Perhaps) a day or part of a day." He said: "Nay, thou hast tarried thus a hundred years; but look at thy food and thy drink; they show no signs of age; and look at thy donkey: And that We may make of thee a sign unto the people, Look further at the bones, how We bring them together and clothe them with flesh." When this was shown clearly to him, he said: "I know that God hath power over all things."

Behold! Abraham said: "My Lord! Show me how Thou givest life to the dead." He said: "Dost thou not then believe?" He said: "Yea! but to satisfy My own undertaking." He said: "Take four birds; Tame them to turn to thee; put a portion of them on every hill and call to them: They will come to thee (Flying) with speed. Then know that God is Exalted in Power, Wise."

2:258-260, Yusuf Ali Translation of the Qur'an

Jay Solomon, at The Zen of South Park, has been working his way through the Qur'an, trying to understand its meaning better. This week he focused on verses 2:258-260; the central point of his that I try to address is below:

It seems especially odd to me that someone speaking to God would then question matters that God says are so, like resurrection. It seems somewhat illogical since faith is believing without proof and Abraham already has proof of God since they’re chatting casually. Why would Abraham tell God that he has faith but that he just needs a little proof to lay his mind at ease. Needing proof is the essence of not having faith. As Jesus said, it is a wicked generation that needs signs. Not to go all Jesus quoting on anybody - I think it can be very annoying when people do that to make a point - but I do it to emphasize the notion of faith, which is Jesus’ point. You have to believe in things without being shown that they are so. Otherwise you don’t have faith.

This is my response:

I think your connection between verses 2:258 and 2:260 (faith vs. no faith) is very interesting. Personally, I don't see these two verses as being in such a black-and-white contrast; I do view them as a reaffirmation of Allah's (swt) power and ability in light of our niggling doubts.

Here's how I see these two verses. I think Ibrahim (pbuh) was an intelligent man, although he made occasional mistakes in judgment; for example, by associating the stars, moon and sun with Allah (swt) (6:74-79). In the end, he realized his errors and began worshiping Allah (swt) alone. Thus, by the time of his meeting with the king (Nimrod, according to Ibn Kathir) in 2:258, he correctly points out that the king's power is very limited, especially in comparison to that of Allah (swt).

However, as an intelligent man, he is beset by niggling doubts. I think this is a "curse" of intelligence, that we become so filled with facts and enamored with logic that our conscious and subconscious minds begin to fill us with questions about our faith. Some people lose that faith entirely; others (like me) battle time and time again with the questions. In this regard I see Ibrahim (pbuh) in a sympathetic light. I don't believe that I have no faith simply because I have doubts or questions. I believe my faith is tempered and strengthened through my internal jihad against the doubts and questions. In other words, despite the doubts and questions, my faith in Allah (swt) and Islam remains and grows stronger (and will continue to in the future, insha'allah).

So, by the time of verse 2:260, Ibrahim (pbuh) has his doubts and asks Allah (swt) for reassurance. Interestingly enough, Allah (swt) normally spurns providing such "proof," at least to unbelievers; for example:

If their spurning is hard on thy mind, yet if thou wert able to seek a tunnel in the ground or a ladder to the skies and bring them a sign,- (what good?). If it were God's will, He could gather them together unto true guidance: so be not thou amongst those who are swayed by ignorance (and impatience)! (6:35)

They say: "We shall not believe in thee, until thou cause a spring to gush forth for us from the earth, "Or (until) thou have a garden of date trees and vines, and cause rivers to gush forth in their midst, carrying abundant water; "Or thou cause the sky to fall in pieces, as thou sayest (will happen), against us; or thou bring God and the angels before (us) face to face: "Or thou have a house adorned with gold, or thou mount a ladder right into the skies. No, we shall not even believe in thy mounting until thou send down to us a book that we could read." Say: "Glory to my Lord! Am I aught but a man,- an apostle?"(17:90-93)

Ibrahim, however, is both a prophet (nabi) and a messenger (rasul) of Allah (swt), so Allah (swt) provides him with a miracle. Now the Qur'an mostly focuses on what I call lower-case miracles, the signs of Allah (swt) that permeate the universe to the point where we largely take them for granted. But in 2:260, we have an upper-case MIRACLE. Except, in Muhammad Asad's translation, you'd never know it.

In 2:259, the nameless traveler ('Uzayr/Ezra, according to Ibn Kathir) dies, is resurrected in 100 years, then is told to look at his food and drink, which remained fresh after all that time, and his donkey, which had died and was nothing more than bones. The donkey is resurrected in front of the traveller ("When this was shown clearly to him..."):

As-Suddi said, " `Uzayr observed the bones of his donkey, which were scattered all around him to his right and left, and Allah sent a wind that collected the bones from all over the area. Allah then brought every bone to its place, until they formed a full donkey made of fleshless bones. Allah then covered these bones with flesh, nerves, veins and skin. Allah sent an angel who blew life in the donkeys' nostrils, and the donkey started to bray by Allah's leave.'' All this occurred while `Uzayr was watching, and this is when he proclaimed,

(He said, "I know (now) that Allah is able to do all things,'') meaning, "I know that, and I did witness it with my own eyes. Therefore, I am the most knowledgeable in this matter among the people of my time.'' (Tafsir Ibn Kathir)

Now the traveler knows the true power of Allah (swt). Likewise, with Ibrahim (pbuh). He says to the king in 2:258 that "My Lord is He Who Giveth life and death." But apparently he thought to himself afterwards, "Did I speak truly?" So he asks Allah (swt) for a similar demonstration in His power to resurrect the dead. Allah (swt) asks, "Don't you believe?" To which Ibrahim (pbuh) says, "Yes, Lord, but I wish to be stronger in faith."

Now Muhammad Asad's translation reads,

Said He: “Take, then, four birds and teach them to obey thee; then place them separately on every hill [around thee]; then summon them: they will come flying to thee.

Sounds simple enough. Train the birds, place them on different hills, then call them; they will all return to you. But every other translation that I've checked (Pickthall, Yusuf Ali, Hilali & Khan, Ibn Kathir) all say that the birds were killed and dismembered first! Ibn Kathir:

And (remember) when Ibrahim said, "My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.'' He (Allah) said: "Do you not believe'' He (Ibrahim) said: "Yes (I believe), but to be stronger in faith.'' He said: "Take four birds, then cause them to incline towards you (then slaughter them, cut them into pieces), and then put a portion of them on every hill, and call them, they will come to you in haste. And know that Allah is All-Mighty, All-Wise.''

(cause them to incline towards you) means, cut them to pieces. This is the explanation of Ibn `Abbas, `Ikrimah, Sa`id bin Jubayr, Abu Malik, Abu Al-Aswad Ad-Dili, Wahb bin Munabbih, Al-Hasan and As-Suddi. Therefore, Ibrahim caught four birds, slaughtered them, removed the feathers, tore the birds to pieces and mixed the pieces together. He then placed parts of these mixed pieces on four or seven hills. Ibn `Abbas said, "Ibrahim kept the heads of these birds in his hand. Next, Allah commanded Ibrahim to call the birds to him, and he did as Allah commanded him. Ibrahim witnessed the feathers, blood and flesh of these birds fly to each other, and the parts flew each to their bodies, until every bird came back to life and came walking at a fast pace towards Ibrahim, so that the example that Ibrahim was witnessing would become more impressive. Each bird came to collect its head from Ibrahim's hand, and if he gave the bird another head the bird refused to accept it. When Ibrahim gave each bird its own head, the head was placed on its body by Allah's leave and power. ''

What more powerful demonstration of Allah's (swt) ability to resurrect the dead could there be? Ibn Abbas is reported to have said, "To me, there is no Ayah in the Qur'an that brings more hope than this Ayah.''