September 06, 2012

Camel Tracks

I had a recent discussion with an atheist, which has led to a new insight about the differences between atheists and Muslims (presumably this distinction could apply to a follower of any "Western" religion, but I'll approach this only from the perspective of Islam).

The difference is that an atheist is a literalist. They expect there to be proof of God's existence in such a way that there is no doubt in the atheist's mind. Ideally for them that proof would be tangible in nature and directly linked to God (as opposed to an indirect link, which would sow more confusion in their minds).

Muslims, on the other hand, tend to be more "metaphoralists," if there is such a word. The Qur'an, in and of itself, is a tangible, direct link to Allah (swt), which is proof enough for Muslims of His existence. But the Qur'an also has numerous verses that provide tangible evidence of His existence that are indirect; still, if one were to think more deeply upon these tangible proofs one might become convinced of His existence. The verses in question I refer to as the "nature verses," of which here are some:

It is He who sends down rain from the sky: from it ye drink, and out of it (grows) the vegetation on which ye feed your cattle. With it He produces for you corn, olives, date-palms, grapes and every kind of fruit: verily in this is a sign for those who give thought. He has made subject to you the Night and the Day; the sun and the moon; and the stars are in subjection by His Command: verily in this are Signs for men who are wise. And the things on this earth which He has multiplied in varying colors (and qualities): verily in this is a sign for men who celebrate the praises of Allah (in gratitude). It is He Who has made the sea subject, that ye may eat thereof flesh that is fresh and tender, and that ye may extract therefrom ornaments to wear; and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves, that ye may seek (thus) of the bounty of Allah and that ye may be grateful. And He has set up on the earth mountains standing firm, lest it should shake with you; and rivers and roads; that ye may guide yourselves; And marks and sign-posts; and by the stars (men) guide themselves. Is then He Who creates like one that creates not? Will ye not receive admonition?

Behold! in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the alternation of night and day,- there are indeed Signs for men of understanding,- Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth, (With the thought): "Our Lord! not for naught Hast Thou created (all) this! Glory to Thee! Give us salvation from the penalty of the Fire."

The key points to take away are that:

1) Natural phenomena are signs of Allah (swt). They are indirect evidence, but evidence nonetheless, for the existence of God. They are more than just the natural world that we see every day and take for granted.

2) It takes a person with a flexible mind, a person who can think deeply, to make the connection between the natural world and God. Notice what the Qur'an says in several of the verses above, that these are signs "...for those who give thought," "...for men who are wise," "...for men of understanding." Rather than being a religion of blind faith, Islam is a religion that asks its followers to think and contemplate. This is where I think atheists stumble. They have lost the ability to reason for themselves. They expect proofs from others instead of thinking for themselves.

To put the matter another way, the signs of God are like camel tracks in the sand. It is enough for the Muslim to see the tracks to know of the camel's existence. The atheist expects to see the camel in order to be satisfied of the proof, and blames the believer when the camel is never seen. But the tracks are proof enough, if only the atheist could recognize the tracks for what they really are.

3) Finally, the Qur'an points out to men of understanding who recognize that natural phenomena are signs of God's existence, that they would (or at least should) be grateful to Allah (swt) for what He has provided. Everything, and I mean everything, comes from Him, including our lives. But are most people grateful? Do they give Him the praise He deserves?

February 25, 2012

Principles and Foundations of the Islamic Economy

Khutbah from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS)
Originally published: 24 February 2012

Principles and Foundations of the Islamic Economy from the Perspective of Al-Quran and Sunnah of Rasulullah

Dear blessed congregation,

Let us strengthen our faith by performing what Allah has ordained and refraining from what He has prohibited. Let us stay true to the practices and guidance of Rasulullah (saw). May this bring us closer to the right path that is blessed by Allah (swt).

My beloved brothers,

In the past few weeks, much has been said on Rasulullah (saw) as a blessing to mankind. We reflect on this from the Sunnah of the Prophet which has transformed lives and spread exemplary character through good moral values.

On this note, let us ponder upon a hadith narrated by Abu Hurairah (ra):

“I have only been sent to perfect good manners.” Narrated by Imam Al-Bazzar.

Here, an exemplary manner or character encompasses man’s relationship with Allah (swt), with nature and towards ourselves, in the social, spiritual and even economic aspects.

It is no surprise that Islam emphasizes on morals and good character as a key element to overcome challenges in life. Moreover, the laws that Allah (swt) ordained are rooted in principles that we cannot defy – and this includes areas related to economics.

In the sirah of the Prophet, we can see how he held on strongly to moral principles and exemplary character, and it was not abandoned in Rasulullah’s economics transactions and trading activities within the community.

This is illustrated when the Prophet (saw) undertook trading deals on behalf of Sayyidatina Khadijah Binti Khuwailid (ra), where Rasulullah (saw) brought in large profits for the mission. This success was due to none other than the exemplary character of Rasulullah (saw) and his determination in doing trade.

Among the important principles in Islam that Rasulullah (saw) portrayed is being honest in everything that we do, including in economic engagements. Reiterating this, Rasulullah (saw) said:

“Allah blesses those who are charitable in their trade.” Narrated by Imam Bukhari.

That said, my dear brothers, we must know that the emphasis on morality does not mean that we have to reject the idea of a profitable business, or the potential benefits of such transactions to the economy in general.

In fact, this is the benefit of economic activity that Islam acknowledges. It lies in the balance between moral responsibility and material gains. We must bear in mind that, if morals are removed from economics, social balance will be threatened and eventually break down.

This will lead to unhealthy competition and feelings of distrust, when in fact the economic engagements and human interactions within should be on the basis of harmony, cooperation and compassion between one another. Therefore, Allah (swt) reminds us in Surah Al-Takaathur verse 1-2:

“The mutual rivalry (for piling up of worldly things) diverts you, until you visit the graves (until you die).”

My dear brothers,

Allah has created and preserved an economic system to His will, and the Al-Quran and Sunnah gives assurance to man including those who are associated in aspects of trading and the economy.

While Allah (swt) has commanded man to strive for his sustenance and wealth, let us be reminded that He is the All-Provider. Allah (swt) said in Surah Hud verse 6:

“And no (moving) living creature is there on earth but its provision is due from Allah. And He knows its dwelling place and its deposit. All is in a Clear Book – the Luh Mahfuz.”

This assurance by Allah does not at all mean that we should leave everything to fate without effort. Rather, it serves to instill a sense of confidence and peace, as well as faith in destiny when the prosperity we are hoping for does not materialize.

With this, man will not panic nor be demoralized, or even lose hope when their plan fails. Similarly, it reminds us to remember Allah and keep our arrogance in check, when provisions are bestowed upon us. This guarantee of provision by Allah should further motivate us to keep on trying despite multiple failures.

In emulating the exemplary character as propagated in Al-Quran and the Sunnah of Rasulullah (saw), let us pray for success in all that we do, as we seek His pleasure. Amin.


Amin: Amen.
Hadith: Reports on the sayings and the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (saw) or what he witnessed and approved are called hadith (plural: ahadith). These are the real explanation, interpretation, and the living example of the Prophet (saw) for teachings of the Qur'an. His sayings are found in books called the hadith books. Some famous collectors of hadith are Imam Al-Bukhari, Imam Muslim, Imam An-Nasa'i, Imam Abu Dawood, Imam At-Tirmizi, and Imam Majah. There are many others.
Luh Mahfuz "Clear Record." "Human knowledge is subject to time, and is obliterated by time. Allah's knowledge is like a Record and endures forever. And His Record has a further quality which human records have not. The most permanent human record may be quite intelligible to those who make it but may be ambiguous to others and may become unintelligible with the progress of time, as happens almost invariably to the most enduring inscriptions from very anceint times: but in Allah's "Record" or knowledge there is no ambiguity, for it is independent of time, or place, or circumstances." Yusuf Ali, Footnote #1450 to verse 10:61.
(ra): Radiallhu Anhu, "May Allah be pleased with him." This phrase is commonly added after mentioning one of the companions of the Prophet (saw).
Rasulullah: The Prophet of God, Muhammad (saw).
(saw): These letters are abbreviations for the words “Salla Allahu ‘Alaihi Wa Sallam,” which means, “May the blessing and the peace of Allah be upon him.” When the name of Prophet Muhammad is mentioned, a Muslim is to respect him and invoke this statement of peace upon him.
Sirah: Biography; in this case, a biography of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).
Sunnah: In this context, the sayings and practices of the Prophet Muhammad (saw).
(swt): These letters are abbreviations for the words of “Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala.” When the name of Almighty Allah is pronounced, a Muslim is to show his respect to Him by reciting this. The meaning of this statement is that Allah is purified of having partners or a son.

February 13, 2012

Basic Concepts Regarding Prayer and Worship in Islam

Recently I got into a discussion about the differences between prayer and worship in Islam, followed by an additional conversation about whether the concepts of "bless," "exalt" and "worship" in Islam were distinct. I've rearranged my commentary somewhat to improve the flow of thought in this brief essay.

Prayer itself is categorized into two forms within Islam: salah (pl. salat) and dua (pl. du'wat). The former is the formal, ritualized prayer that is performed five times per day, and is what non-Muslims see on the TV when they see Muslims praying. The latter, however, is perhaps even more commonplace. These are the prayers Muslims make under a wide variety of situations. For example, the prayer the proverbial student makes before doing a test is a dua.

Dua: informal and voluntary; salah: formal; may be either required (fard; the five daily prayers) or voluntary (sunnah).

Worship, on the other hand, encompasses both salat and du'wat but also includes other acts. I would define Islamic worship as any act or thought that is made with the intention of trying to please Allah (swt). Thus, working at one's job, farming, taking care of children, all could be considered a form of worship, the key being intention.

The question your post raises is whether bless, exalt, and worship are distinct.

In Islam these three concepts are semi-distinct. Worship I described above; it is a very broad concept and can encompass acts that might seem mundane to an outside observer.

With respect to "bless," most Muslims use this term (barakah) in a specific manner: that Allah (swt) blesses mankind. We do not refer to ourselves blessing Allah (swt), nor do Muslims bless each other. (The Wikipedia article will talk about barakah flowing from "saints" and other people and objects to those who seek barakah, but that is a Sufi concept to which I don't subscribe.)

The concept of "exalt" in Islam is a little ambiguous. First, most translators don't necessarily use "exalt" but "glorify." To glorify Allah (swt) may take several forms. One way is to do additional sunnah prayers (salah), especially at night (e.g., tahajjud, witr). Another way is to do what is known as tasbih, which comes from the same root as "glorify" (sin ba ha). Tasbih may be done at any time of day, but the "canonical form" (as mentioned in the Wikipedia article) is frequently done right after salah.

Now, when I said that the three are semi-distinct, to me, barakah is distinct from worship and glorifying, whereas to glorify Allah (swt) is a subset of the greater set of "worship."