December 22, 2011

Footsteps in Heaven

It is related by Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet (s) once said to Bilal at the time of fajr: "Tell me about your act from which you expect the most in your Islam, for I have heard the sound of your footsteps in heaven."

"I have done nothing," replied Bilal, "which could give me hope, except that when I perform the wudu' in any part of the day or night I try to offer as much of salah with it as I can." (al-Bukhari)
-- from The Four Pillars of Islam by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi

November 11, 2011

Is Five Prayers per Day Excessive in Number?

In the Mi’raj fifty daily prayers were prescribed for the believers. However, their number was later reduced to five. This was done to impress upon man that he had been found capable by God of devoting such a large part of his time and energy to His worship. The one who keeps this in mind will never regard the five daily prayers as excessive. In fact, he will realize that he had been found worthy of much more and had the Lord, out of His Grace, not made the concession, he would be carrying out His command dutifully and performing as many as fifty prayers (salāh) every day. God showed his favor to him and made the five prayers equivalent of fifty in reward. However, the original command is there to stir his ambition and urge him on to greater effort.

- Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (1913-1999), The Four Pillars of Islam, p. 11

March 27, 2011

The Red Scarf

A strange and interesting hadith about a red leather scarf and how that led a black girl to Islam:

Narrated 'Aisha: "There was a black slave girl belonging to an Arab tribe and they manumitted her but she remained with them. The slave girl said, 'Once one of their girls (of that tribe) came out wearing a red leather scarf decorated with precious stones. It fell from her or she placed it somewhere. A kite passed by that place, saw it lying there and mistaking it for a piece of meat, flew away with it. Those people searched for it but they did not find it. So they accused me of stealing it and started searching me and even searched my private parts.' The slave girl further said, 'By Allah! While I was standing (in that state) with those people, the same kite passed by them and dropped the red scarf and it fell amongst them. I told them, "This is what you accused me of and I was innocent and now this is it."' 'Aisha added: 'That slave girl came to Allah's Apostle and embraced Islam. She had a tent or a small room with a low roof in the mosque. Whenever she called on me, she had a talk with me and whenever she sat with me, she would recite the following: "The day of the scarf (band) was one of the wonders of our Lord, verily He rescued me from the disbelievers' town."' 'Aisha added: 'Once I asked her, "What is the matter with you? Whenever you sit with me, you always recite these poetic verses." On that she told me the whole story.'"
- Sahih Bukhari, Book 8, Number 430

February 25, 2011


Karmakin, on the About "magic underwear" diary, wrote:

A good example is our cultural use of "god-fearing" as meaning a upstanding individual. (Ugly term really if you think about it)...

Now my purpose in writing this essay is not to call Karmakin out, but to give my reasons as to why "God-fearing" is, at least to me, a beautiful term.

One of the problems with the English language is that, although it is an extremely flexible language, it occasionally suffers from a blurriness of expression. The classic example is that of "hot." For example, your friend is eating Mexican food and he or she says the food is "hot." "Hot hot or spicy hot?" you might ask. But if you spoke Bahasa Melayu, the Malay language, the friend would have originally said that the food was either panas (of a hot temperature) or padas (spicy hot). There would have been no linguistic confusion to begin with.

Arabic has a similar differentiation with regard to the word "fear." In Arabic, the word for what could be considered normal "fear," the "emotion caused by [an] actual or perceived danger or threat" (per Wiktionary), comes from the root خ و ف (khā wāw fā). The word for "fear" that comes from this root is "khawf." (The only other primary word that comes from this root that is used in the Qur'an is "threaten.") An example of a Qur'anic verse that uses "khawf" is 2:62:

Those who believe (in the Qur'an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.

The Muslims, Christians, Jews, Sabians and any others who meet the conditions listed in this verse would not fear the potential physical torment of hell because, insha'allah, they would be going to jannah (heaven) instead.

However, when the Qur'an talks about "fearing Allah (swt)," the root normally used is و ق ي (wāw qāf yā). The most prominent word that comes from this root is taqwa; however, the meaning of taqwa is somewhat more complex than simply "fear" in the sense of "extreme veneration or awe." According to the Quranic Arabic Corpus, a fantastic concordance of the Qur'an produced by the University of Leeds (UK), taqwa has a number of meanings, including "protect," "righteous" and "righteousness," "save," "piety," "God-conscious" and, of course, "fear."

But the word taqwa, even among Muslims, can be difficult to fully comprehend. A number of people over the centuries have tried to define or describe taqwa. Yusuf Ali (1872-1953), an Indian translator of the Qur'an into English, wrote that the fear with regard to the fear of Allah (swt) should be "the reverence which is akin to love, for it fears to do anything which is not pleasing to the object of love" (footnote 427 to verse 3:102).

Ali ibn Abi Talib (c. 598 - 661 CE), the fourth Caliph of the Muslim empire, defined taqwa as being "the fear of Jaleel (Allah), acting upon the tanzeel (Quran), being content with qaleel (little), and preparing for the day of raheel (journeying from this world)."

The Sufi Shaykh Hafiz Ghulam Habib (1904-1989) defined taqwa as "the shunning of everything and anything that causes a deficiency in one’s relationship with Allah."

However, the description I like the best comes from the following hadith:

Hadrat Umar ibn Khattab (R.A) once asked Hadrat Ibn Ka’ab (R.A) the definition of taqwa. In reply Hadrat Ibn Ka’ab asked, “Have you ever had to traverse a thorny path?” Hadrat Umar replied in the affirmative and Hadrat Ka’ab continued, “How do you do so?”

Hadrat Umar said that he would carefully walk through after first having collected all loose and flowing clothing in his hands so nothing gets caught in the thorns hence injuring him. Hadrat Ka’ab said, “This is the definition of taqwa, to protect oneself from sin through life’s dangerous journey so that one can successfully complete the journey unscathed by sin.”

So, for me, a God-fearing person is truly an upstanding individual. And there's nothing "ugly" about that.

January 06, 2011

Modern vs. Islamic Values

I was asked the following question this morning:

How would you respond to those who attack the Abrahamic religions on the grounds that they promote a pre-industrial system of values which no longer makes sense today.

The first thought that came to mind is, "These people don't understand Islam (or shari'ah)." Or perhaps even the other Ibrahimic faiths. Not that that's anything new!

I talked to my wife about this topic during lunch, and I'll write down what she said first, before giving my own answer. Her thought is that Islam maintains a dynamism through ijtihad. As I'm sure you know, Muslims are constantly asking for fatawa from imams regarding the halalness of various issues. Although the Qur'an and Sunnah are static documents, both shari'ah and fiqh are dynamic. The novel situations presented for review make fresh interpretations a regular occurrence. Add to that the differences in opinion between different scholars. So, from her (and my) perspective, Islamic values make a great deal of sense today because the values are evaluated and applied in our post-industrial society.

My own perspective is that Islamic values are not time-limited, but timeless. The details of human life have changed greatly over the millennia, but the essence of human existence is more or less the same since the beginning of recorded history. Shari'ah today deals with the same issues that existed when the Qur'an was revealed 1400 years ago: marriage, divorce, inheritance, theft, murder, eating, drinking, adultery, sex, and so on. Nothing has really changed since the beginning of time. What Islam doesn't do is change its core principles, its values. The guidelines for determining what is right and what is wrong remain the same. The same cannot be said for modern values, and I think society is the poorer for it.

The message continues:

The Muslim preference for a religiously-based legal system is probably the strongest example, but I'll use natalism (famously promoted by Roman Catholicism) as my example.

In pre-industrial times, natalism made sense for two reasons:

1) The pre-industrial economy was poor and to first approximation a zero sum game, so the only way to get appreciably richer was to rob wealth from someone else thru aggressive war.
2) The state of military technology at the time meant that "victory belonged to the bigger battalions", so maximizing the birth rate was an effective way for a state to maximize its political power.

Today however, natalism is a bad idea financially (because of the huge cost of educating all those extra children to the standard which a modern society requires) and can no longer be justified by its original basis. Aggressive war -- at least against other major powers -- is now suicidal due to nuclear weapons, and industrialization now allows ample opportunities for positive-sum economic growth.

And then there's the environmental consequences of excessive population growth!

Regarding natalism, while there is nothing similar to the Biblical "go forth and multiply," there is a slight natalist attitude in the Qur'an. You mention the argument that "natalism is a bad idea financially (because of the huge cost of educating all those extra children to the standard which a modern society requires)." But from an Islamic perspective this argument is very weak because it is an argument based upon selfishness. (This is a good example of the weakness of "modern values.") Several Qur'anic verses (e.g., 6:151, 17:31) condemn the killing of infants and children from a fear of their becoming economic burdens. Indeed, according to one hadith, the killing of children "lest it should share your food" is the second worst sin, behind only shirk.

Update: This essay was cross-posted at Street Prophets, where it has already been promoted to the Front Page.