Sunday, September 11, 2005

Is it permissible for a Muslim to believe that Allah is in the sky in literal sense?

©Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995



No. The literal sense of being "in the sky" would mean that Allah is actually in one of His creatures, for the sky is something created. It is not permissible to believe that Allah indwells or occupies (in Arabic, hulul) any of His creatures, as the Christians believe about Jesus, or the Hindus about their avatars.
What is obligatory for a human being to know is that Allah is ghaniyy or "absolutely free from need" of anything He has created. He explicitly says in surat al-Ankabut of the Qur'an,

"Verily Allah is absolutely free of need of anything in the worlds" (Qur'an 29:6).
Allah mentions this attribute of ghina or "freedom of need for anything whatsoever" in some seventeen verses in the Qur'an. It is a central point of Islamic `aqida or faith, and is the reason why it is impossible that Allah could be Jesus (upon whom be peace) or be anyone else with a body and form: because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything. This is the `aqida of the Qur'an, and Muslim scholars have kept it in view in understanding other Qur'anic verses or hadiths.
Muslims lift their hands toward the sky when they make supplications (du'a) to Allah because the sky is the qibla for du'a, not that Allah occupies that particular direction--just as the Kaaba is the qibla of the prayer (salat), without Muslims believing that Allah is in that direction. Rather, Allah in His wisdom has made the qibla a sign (ayah) of Muslim unity, just as He has made the sky the sign of His exaltedness and His infinitude, meanings which come to the heart of every believer merely by facing the sky and supplicating Allah.

It was part of the divine wisdom to incorporate these meanings into the prophetic sunna to uplift the hearts of the people who first heard them, and to direct them to the exaltedness and infinitude of Allah through the greatest and most palpable physical sign of them: the visible sky that Allah had raised above them. Many of them, especially when newly from the Jahiliyya or "pre-Islamic Period of Ignorance", were extremely close to physical, perceptible realities and had little conception of anything besides--as is attested to by their idols, which were images set up on the ground. Umar ibn al-Khattab mentions, for example, that in the Jahiliyya, they might make their idols out of dates, and if they later grew hungry, they would simply eat them. The language of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) in conveying the exaltedness of Allah Most High to such people was of course in terms they could understand without difficulty, and used the imagery of the sky above them. Imam al-Qurtubi, the famous Qur'anic exegete of the seventh/thirteenth century, says:

The hadiths on this subject are numerous, rigorously authenticated (sahih), and widely known, and indicate the exaltedness of Allah, being undeniable by anyone except an atheist or obstinate ignoramus. Their meaning is to dignify Allah and exalt Him above all that is base and low, to characterize Him by exaltedness and greatness, not by being in places, particular directions, or within limits, for these are the qualities of physical bodies (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur'an. 20 vols. Cairo 1387/1967. Reprint (20 vols in 10). Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d.,18.216).
In this connection, a hadith has been related by Malik in his Muwatta' and by Muslim in his Sahih, that Muawiya ibn al-Hakam came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and told him, "I am very newly from the Jahiliyya, and now Allah has brought Islam," and he proceeded to ask about various Jahiliyya practices, until at last he said that he had slapped his slave girl, and asked if he should free her, as was obligatory if she was a believer. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) requested that she be brought, and then asked her, "Where is Allah?" and she said, "In the sky (Fi al-sama)"; whereupon he asked her, "Who am I?" and she said, "You are the Messenger of Allah"; at which he said, Free her, "for she is a believer" (Sahih Muslim, 5 vols. Cairo 1376/1956. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1403/1983, 1.382: 538). Imam Nawawi says of this hadith:
This is one of the "hadiths of the attributes," about which scholars have two positions. The first is to have faith in it without discussing its meaning, while believing of Allah Most High that "there is nothing whatsoever like unto Him" (Qur'an 42:11), and that He is exalted above having any of the attributes of His creatures. The second is to figuratively explain it in a fitting way, scholars who hold this position adducing that the point of the hadith was to test the slave girl: Was she a monotheist, who affirmed that the Creator, the Disposer, the Doer, is Allah alone and that He is the one called upon when a person making supplication (du'a) faces the sky--just as those performing the prayer (salat) face the Kaaba, since the sky is the qibla of those who supplicate, as the Kaaba is the qibla of those who perform the prayer--or was she a worshipper of the idols which they placed in front of themselves? So when she said, In the sky, it was plain that she was not an idol worshipper (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi. 18 vols. Cairo 1349/1930. Reprint (18 vols. in 9). Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1401/1981, 5.24).
It is noteworthy that Imam Nawawi does not mention understanding the hadith literally as a possible scholarly position at all. This occasions surprise today among some Muslims, who imagine that what is at stake is the principle of accepting a single rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith as evidence in Islamic faith (`aqida), for this hadith is such a single hadith, of those termed in Arabic ahad, or "conveyed by a single chain of transmission", as opposed to being mutawatir or "conveyed by so many chains of transmission that it is impossible it could have been forged".
Yet this is not what is at stake, because hadiths of its type are only considered acceptable as evidence by traditional scholars of Islamic `aqida if one condition can be met: that the tenet of faith mentioned in the hadith is salimun min al-muarada or "free of conflicting evidence". This condition is not met by this particular hadith for a number of reasons. First, the story described in the hadith has come to us in a number of other well-authenticated versions that vary a great deal from the "Where is Allah?--In the sky" version. One of these is related by Ibn Hibban in his Sahih with a well-authenticated (hasan) chain of transmission, in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) asked the slave girl, "'Who is your Lord?' and she said, 'Allah'; whereupon he asked her, 'Who am I?' and she said, 'You are the Messenger of Allah'; at which he said, 'Free her, for she is a believer'" (al-Ihsan fi taqrib Sahih Ibn Hibban, 18 vols. Beirut: Muassasa al-Risala, 1408/1988, 1.419: 189).

In another version, related by Abd al-Razzaq with a rigorously authenticated (sahih) chain of transmission, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said to her, "Do you testify that there is no god but Allah?" and she said yes. He said, "Do you testify that I am the Messenger of Allah?" and she said yes. He said, "Do you believe in resurrection after death?" and she said yes. He said, "Free her" (al-Musannaf, 11 vols. Beirut: al-Majlis al-Ilmi, 1390/1970, 9.175: 16814).

In other versions, the slave girl cannot speak, but merely points to the sky in answer. Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani has said of the various versions of this hadith, "There is great contradiction in the wording" (Talkhis al-habir, 4 vols. in 2. Cairo: Maktaba al-Kulliyat al-Azhariyya, 1399/1979, 3.250). When a hadith has numerous conflicting versions, there is a strong possibility that it has been related merely in terms of what one or more narrators understood (riwaya bi al-ma'na), and hence one of the versions is not adequate to establish a point of `aqida.

Second, this latter consideration is especially applicable to the point in question because the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) explicitly detailed the pillars of Islamic faith (iman) in a hadith related in Sahih Muslim when he answered the questions of the angel Gabriel, saying, True faith (iman) is to believe in Allah, His angels, His Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and to believe destiny (qadr), its good and evil (Sahih Muslim, 1.37: 8)--and he did not mention anything about Allah being "in the sky". If it had been the decisive test of a Muslims belief or unbelief (as in the "in the sky" hadith seems to imply), it would have been obligatory for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) to mention it in this hadith, the whole point of which is to say precisely what "iman is".

Third, if one takes the hadith as meaning that Allah is literally "in the sky", it conflicts with other equally sahih hadiths that have presumably equal right to be taken literally--such as the hadith qudsi related by al-Hakim that Allah Most High says, "I am with My servant when he makes remembrance of Me and his lips move with Me" (al-Mustadrak ala al-Sahihayn. 4 vols. Hyderabad, 1334/1916. Reprint (with index vol. 5). Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d., 1.496), a hadith that al- Hakim said was rigorously authenticated (sahih), which al-Dhahabi confirmed. Or such as the hadith related by al-Nasai, Abu Dawud, and Muslim that "the closest a servant is to his Lord is while prostrating" (Sahih Muslim, 1.350: 482)--whereas if Allah were literally "in the sky", the closest one would be to Him would be while standing upright. Or such as the hadith related by al-Bukhari in his Sahih, in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) forbade spitting during prayer ahead of one, because when a person prays, "his Lord is in front of him" (Sahih al-Bukhari, 1.112: 406). Finally, in the hadiths of the Mir'aj or "Nocturnal Ascent", the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) was shown all of the seven heavens (samawat) by Gabriel, and Allah was not mentioned as being in any of them.

Fourth, the literal interpretation of Allah being "in the sky" contradicts two fundamentals of Islamic `aqida established by the Qur'an. The first of these is Allah's attribute of mukhalafa li al- hawadith or "not resembling created things in any way", as Allah says in surat al-Shura, "There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him" (Qur'an 42:11), whereas if He were literally "in the sky", there would be innumerable things like unto Him in such respects as having altitude, position, direction, and so forth. The second fundamental that it contradicts, as mentioned above, is Allah's attribute of ghina or "being absolutely free of need for anything created" that He affirms in numerous verses in the Qur'an. It is impossible that Allah could be a corporeal entity because bodies need space and time, while Allah has absolutely no need for anything.

Fifth, the literalist interpretation of "in the sky" entails that the sky encompasses Allah on all sides, such that He would be smaller than it, and it would thus be greater than Allah, which is patently false.

For these reasons and others, Islamic scholars have viewed it obligatory to figuratively interpret the above hadith and other texts containing similar figures of speech, in ways consonant with how the Arabic language is used. Consider the Qur'anic verse "Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you while it quakes" (Qur'an 67:16), for which the following examples of traditional tafsir or "Qur'anic commentary" can be offered:

(al-Qurtubi:) The more exacting scholars hold that it ["in the sky"] means, "Do you feel secure from Him who is over the sky"--just as Allah says, "Journey in the earth" (Qur'an 9:2), meaning journey over it--not over the sky by way of physical contact or spatialization, but by way of omnipotent power and control. Another position is that it means "Do you feel secure from Him who is over ('ala) the sky," just as it is said, "So-and-so is over Iraq and the Hijaz", meaning that he is the governor and commander of them (al-Jami li ahkam al-Qur'an, 18.216).
(al-Shirbini al-Khatib:) There are various interpretive aspects to "He who is in the sky," one of which is that it means "He whose dominion is in the sky," because it is the dwelling place of the angels, and there are His Throne, His Kursi, the Guarded Tablet; and from it are made to descend His decrees, His Books, His commands, and His prohibitions. A second interpretive possibility is that "He who is in the sky" omits the first term of an ascriptive construction (idafa)--in other words, "Do you feel safe from the Creator of him who is in the sky"; meaning the angels who dwell in the sky, for they are the ones who are commanded to dispense the divine mercy or divine vengeance (al-Siraj al-Munir. 4 vols. Bulaq 1285/1886. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Marifa, n.d., 4.344).

(Fakhr al-Din al-Razi:) "He who is in the sky" may mean the angel who is authorized to inflict divine punishments; that is, Gabriel (upon whom be peace); the words "cause the earth to swallow you" meaning "by Allah's command and leave" (Tafsir al-Fakhr al-Razi. 32 vols. Beirut 1401/1981. Reprint (32 vols. in 16). Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1405/1985, 30.70).

(Abu Hayyan al-Nahwi:) Or the context of these words may be according to the convictions of those being addressed [the unbelievers], for they were anthropomorphists. So that the meaning would be, "Do you feel safe from Him whom you claim is in the sky?--while He is exalted above all place" (Tafsir al-nahr al-madd min al-Bahr al-muhit. 2 vols. in 3. Beirut: Dar al-Janan and Muassasa al-Kutub al-Thaqafiyya, 1407/1987, 2.1132).

(Qadi Iyad:) There is no disagreement among Muslims, one and all--their legal scholars, their hadith scholars, their scholars of theology, both those of them capable of expert scholarly reasoning and those who merely follow the scholarship of others--that the textual evidences that mention Allah Most High being "in the sky", such as His words, "Do you feel safe that He who is in the sky will not make the earth swallow you," and so forth, are not as their literal sense (dhahir) seems to imply, but rather, all scholars interpret them in other than their ostensive sense (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 5.24).

We now turn to a final example, the hadith related by Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:
Your Lord Blessed and Exalted descends each night to the sky of this world, when the last third of the night remains, and says: "Who supplicates Me, that I may answer him? Who asks Me, that I may give to him? Who seeks My forgiveness, that I may forgive him?" (Sahih Muslim, 1.521: 758).
This hadith, if we reflect for a moment, is not about `aqida, but rather has a quite practical point to establish; namely, that we are supposed to do something in the last third of the night, to rise and pray. This is why Imam al-Nawawi, when he gave the present chapter names to the headings of Sahih Muslim, put this hadith under "Instilling Desire to Supplicate and Make Remembrance of Allah (dhikr) in the Last of the Night, and the Answering Therein". As for the meaning of "descends" in the hadith, al-Nawawi says:
This is one of the "hadiths of the Attributes", and there are two positions about it, as previously mentioned in the "Book of Iman". To summarize, the first position, which is the school of the majority of early Muslims and some theologians, is that one should believe that the hadith is true in a way befitting Allah Most High, while the literal meaning of it as known to us and applicable to ourselves is not what is intended, without discussing the figurative meaning, though we believe that Allah is transcendently above all attributes of createdness, of change of position, of motion, and all other attributes of created things.
The second position, the school of most theologians, of whole groups of the early Muslims (salaf), and reported from Malik and al-Awzai, is that such hadiths should be figuratively interpreted in a way appropriate to them in their contexts. According to this school of thought, they interpret the hadith in two ways. The first is the interpretation of Malik ibn Anas and others, that it ["your Lord descends"] means "His mercy, command, and angels descend," just as it is said, "The sultan did such-and-such," when his followers did it at his command. The second is that it is a metaphor signifying [Allah's] concern for those making supplication, by answering them and kindness toward them (Sahih Muslim bi Sharh al-Nawawi, 6.3637).

The hadith scholar Ali al-Qari says about the above hadith of Allah's "descending":
You know that Malik and al-Awazai, who are among the greatest of the early Muslims, both gave detailed figurative interpretations to the hadith. . . . Another of them was Jafar al-Sadiq. Indeed a whole group of them [the early Muslims], as well as later scholars, said that whoever believes Allah to be in a particular physical direction is an unbeliever, as al-Iraqi has explicitly stated, saying that this was the position of Abu Hanifa, Malik, al-Shafi'i, al-Ashari, and al- Baqillani (Mirqat al-mafatih: sharh Mishkat al-masabih. 5 vols. Cairo 1309/1892. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 2.137).
It is worth remembering that al-Iraqi was a hafiz or "hadith master", someone with over 100,000 hadiths by memory, while Ali al-Qari was a hadith authority who produced reference works still in use today on forged hadiths. In other words, each had the highest credentials for verifying the chains of transmission of the positions they relate. For this reason, their transmission of the position of the unbelief of whoever ascribes a direction to Allah carries its weight.
But perhaps it is fitter today to say that Muslims who believe that Allah is somehow "up there" are not unbelievers. For they have the shubha or "extenuating circumstance" that moneyed quarters in our times are aggressively pushing the bid'a of anthropomorphism. This bid'a was confined in previous centuries to a small handful of Hanbalis, who were rebutted time and again by ulama of Ahl al-Sunna like Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Jawzi (d. 597/1201), who addressed his fellow Hanbalis in his Daf shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih [Rebuttal of the insinuations of anthropomorphism at the hands of divine transcendence] with the words:

If you had said, "We but read the hadiths and remain silent," no one would have condemned you. What is shameful is that you interpret them literally. Do not surrreptiously introduce into the madhhab of this righteous, early Muslim man [Ahmad ibn Hanbal] that which is not of it. You have clothed this madhhab in shameful disgrace, until it can hardly be said "Hanbali" any more without saying anthropomorphist (Daf shubah al-tashbih bi akaff al-tanzih. Cairo n.d. Reprint. Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Tawfiqiyya, 1396/1976, 2829).
These beliefs apparently survived for some centuries in Khorasan, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the East, for Imam al-Kawthari notes that the Hanbali Ibn Taymiya (d. 728/1328) picked up the details of them from manuscripts on sects (nihal) when the libraries of scholars poured into Damascus with caravans fleeing from the Mongols farther east. He read them without a perspicacious teacher to guide him, came to believe what he understood from them, and went on to become an advocate for them in his own works (al-Kawthari, al-Sayf al-saqil fi al-radd ala Ibn Zafil. Cairo 1356/ 1937. Reprint. Cairo: Maktaba al-Zahran, n.d. 56).
He was imprisoned for these ideas numerous times before his death, the ulama of Damascus accusing him of anthropomorphism (al-Asqalani, al-Durar al-kamina fi ayan al-mia al-thamina. 4 vols. Hyderabad 134950/193031. Reprint. Beirut: Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, n.d., 1.155).

Writings were authored by scholars like Abu Hayyan al-Nahwi (d. 745/ 1344), Taqi al-Din Subki (756/1355), Badr al-Din ibn Jamaa (d. 733/ 1333), al-Amir al-Sanani, author of Subul al-salam (d. 1182/1768), Taqi al-Din al-Hisni, author of Kifayat al-akhyar, (d. 829/1426), and Ibn Hajar al-Haytami (d. 974/1567) in rebuttal of his `aqida, and it remained without acceptance by Muslims for another four hundred years, until the eighteenth-century Wahhabi movement, which followed Ibn Taymiya on points of `aqida, and made him its "Sheikh of Islam." But was not until with the advent of printing in the Arab world that Ibn Taymiya's books (and the tenets of this sect) really saw the light of day, when a wealthy merchant from Jedda commissioned the printing of his Minhaj al-sunna and other works on `aqida in Egypt at the end of the last century, resurrected this time as Salafism or "return to early Islam." They have since been carried to all parts of the Islamic world, borne upon a flood of copious funding from one or two modern Muslim countries, whose efforts have filled mosques with books, pamphlets, and young men who push these ideas and even ascribe them (with Ibn Taymiya's questionable chains of transmission, or none at all) to the Imams of the earliest Muslims. My point, as regards considering Muslims believers or unbelievers, is that this kind of money can buy the influence and propaganda that turn night into day; so perhaps contemporary Muslims have some excuse for these ideas--until they have had a chance to learn that the God of Islam is transcendently above being a large man, just as He is transcendently above being subject to time or to space, which are but two of His creatures.

To summarize what I have said in answer to your question above, scholars take the primary texts of the Qur'an and sunna literally unless there is some cogent reason for them not to. In the case of Allah "descending" or being "in the sky", there are many such reasons. First, a literal interpretation of these texts makes it impossible to join between them and the many other rigorously authenticated texts about Allah being "with" a servant when he does dhikr, "closer to him than the jugular vein" (Qur'an 50:16), "in front of him" when he prays, "closest" to him when he is prostrating, "in the sky" when a slave girl was asked; "with you wherever you are" (Qur'an 58:4), and so on. These are incoherent when taken together literally, and only become free of contradictions when they are understood figuratively, as Malik, al-Awzai, and al-Nawawi have done above. Second, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) detailed the beliefs that every Muslim must have in the Gabriel Hadith in Sahih Muslim and others, and did not mention Allah being "in the sky" (or anywhere else) in any of them. Third, Allah's being "in the sky" as birds, clouds, and so on are in the sky in a literal sense contradicts the `aqida of the Qur'an that there is "nothing whatsoever like unto Him" (Qur'an 42:11). Fourth, the notion of Allah's being in particular places contradicts the `aqida expressed in seventeen verses of the Qur'an that Allah is free of need of anything, while things that occupy places need both space and time.

These reasons are not exhaustive, but are intended to answer your question by illustrating the `aqida and principles of traditional ulama in interpreting the kind of texts we are talking about. They show just how far from traditional Islam is the belief that Allah is "in the sky" in a literal sense, and why it is not permissible for any Muslim to believe this. And Allah alone gives success.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

THE CURRENT CRISIS FORMULATING A RESPONSE Interview with Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller VOICE OF THE CAPE Radio Station

Cape Town, South Africa
Drivetime Show, 22 October 2001



THE CURRENT CRISIS – FORMULATING A RESPONSE

Introduction of show, the Sheikh and details of his CV...

VOC: Sheikh, I know you’re not too keen on personal questions, but I’m very curious to know what was your reason for relocating to Jordan?

SK: I moved here in 1979 just after I became Muslim (in 1977) and went on to finish my degree. Basically I moved here because of the principle of the Hijra. I wanted to find something more than I had in a non-Muslim country by moving to a Muslim one. And I did…

VOC: Any particular reason for zoning in on a place like Amman in Jordan?

SK: Originally because of the closeness of the dialect to classical Arabic. I also needed to learn Arabic.

VOC: Do you have a school or zawiya in Jordan?

SK: Yes, we have a zawiya, a room next to our house. Shafi’i and Hanafi fiqh are taught there and we have lessons in English and Arabic as well as lughat ul-‘Arabiyya—Arabic grammar and syntax. We also teach Ash’ari ‘aqida (tenets of belief) and have classes in traditional Islamic spirituality, in tasawwuf.

VOC: And Sheikh, looking at your approach of coming from the west into the heartlands of Islam—I’m not going to say the east—are there any murids (followers of your path of spirituality) from the west who’ve come to your zawiya to learn?

SK: We’re in contact with quite a number of people who’ve taken the path of the tariqa. The particular school of thought we teach is the Shadhili tariqa (Sufi order). There are probably five or six hundred murids, of whom many, if not most, have visited us here. There are easterners and westerners, those who speak Arabic and those who speak English.

VOC: So, if a person were to come to Amman with not much knowledge of Arabic they would be able to sit in your majlis (gathering) and be able to understand what’s going on?

SK: Yes, we teach two nights a week in English and two in Arabic­—and one in a sort of mixture.

VOC: Sheikh Nuh, what is the response of Arabs when they see that here is man from America, a so-called Westerner, teaching them about Islam?

SK: Each one probably has his own response. Knowledge is recognized as knowledge, and ignorance as ignorance, and if you want to know whether a person is knowledgeable or ignorant, you just have to listen to him for a few minutes and you can usually tell.

VOC: Sheikh, let’s get on … at Voice of the Cape we have been trolling in international waters, as it were, to try and get a take on the World Trade Centre bombing…what traditional Islam says about this…what’s your personal take on the WTT bombing?

SK: As you probably know in order to give a fatwa (edict) about something, there have to be a number of conditions that exist in the ‘alim (scholar) who is giving the fatwa, especially in political matters.

The first is that his information is not simply at the level of what one can glean from journalistic reports because, as we all know, journalism is an instrument in the hands of those with political and military aims. And so he (the ‘alim) has to have access to the kind of information people in the intelligence business have access to, not merely journalistic commentary and analysis which is often merely for mass consumption.

Secondly, he has to be able to speak freely—there have to be no consequences if the ‘alim has an opinion for something or against something. And thirdly, he should be in an otherwise neutral country in order to give a reasonable ruling. And because of the need for each of these conditions, I have to disqualify myself from giving a fatwa about the WTT bombing.

However, we can say some things about it and I have written a small piece on Masud Khan’s web site called “Making the World Safer for Terrorism.” Basically it boils down to the fact that “noble” aims have been stated for bombing the World Trade Centre and for bombing Afghanistan. However, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and one may not kill civilians, because it is not moral, regardless of what one’s aims are. Islam most certainly does not support the killing of civilians. This is absolutely haram.

And so, we can’t say that one bad act deserves another….killing civilians is not moral and will never be. In other words, reciprocal atrocities do not make for a moral outcome. This is my basic opinion on the matter.

VOC: Sheikh, let’s go on a slightly different tack. A problem that we seem to be having in South Africa with regards to the situation (particularly Afghanistan) is that you hear voices saying, “support these people, support those people” just because they happen to be Muslim without looking at the moral credentials of whatever party they want to support. Do you think that in the Islamic world today we have to be a lot more honest about whom we sometimes are?

SK: With reference to whom we are, or to those in Afghanistan?

VOC: Basically with reference to whom we are as well as to Afghanistan. That we have to blindly defend Muslim nations or communities regardless of their human rights records…this kind of mentality.

SK: As you may have inferred from my previous remarks, the depiction of the Taliban and of the Northern Alliance is a journalistic one, this is how the news reaches us. Here, it depends on whom you ask. Misinformation is a weapon used by both sides in a military conflict. If you listen to the ambassador of the Taliban everything he says seems reasonable, if you listen to Western news media, obviously interested in justifying what the West is doing in Afghanistan, you get quite a different story.

So what I think that needs defending in Afghanistan is national sovereignty. If we say we are nations and we have a right to pass the laws that we think are just, then we have to recognize that wherever you go in the world if you enter a country you have to agree to abide by their laws. So in Afghanistan, if there is a certain rule of law that exists, we have to acknowledge their national sovereignty, otherwise we’re hypocrites.

If they have done something that is against another member of the world community then the World Court and the United Nations have to settle the dispute. It’s a question of the law of nations and of recognizing real national sovereignty—or, is it a question of the law of the jungle? The law of the jungle obviously needs no comment…

VOC: Most certainly. Now Sheikh, what interests us at the foot of Africa, geographically distant from what’s happening, is how what’s happened has been perceived in Jordan and the Arab world in general? The reason I ask this is because we saw CNN images of Palestinians celebrating at the news of the planes having crashed into the twin towers in New York.

SK: Well, in the Arab world like in most other parts there are people who are very intelligent, people of average intelligence and people who have little intelligence. Amongst those with intelligence –and certainly the tragedy of the WTT was a saddening event—it was generally realized by everyone that it was a tremendous setback for Muslims and an aberration, far from what anybody would have understood as Islamic in any of the past ages of Islamic greatness.

As President Bush has said, it was a twentieth century phenomenon. The idea that terrorism is halal is an idea that does not have a great deal to vouch for it, certainly not in traditional Islam. And this, I think, is the reaction that has been seen in Jordan and elsewhere in the Islamic world.

VOC: And Sheikh, the other big question that is being asked here (in South Africa) is whether the current situation is having any bearing on the Palestinian crisis which is just across the river from where you are sitting? We hear about new peace moves. Has this got anything to do with what's happening in Afghanistan. People are beginning to make these links.

SK: That's what we saw in the news here. On the day of the tragedy and thereafter we saw the Israelis celebrating. Noam Chomsky has drawn attention to the word "terrorism" being used as a license to kill almost anything and anyone. This is a huge setback for Palestine because it gives the seeming justification to do anything to Muslims and to depict Muslims in a very bad light and to permit all sorts of things against them.

The ruling that American weapons were prohibited against the civilian population of Palestine was revoked only four days before the tragedy occurred. And so this is a sort of carte blanche for state terrorism…Of course the WTT bombing has been a tremendous setback for the Palestinians, there's no question (about that).

VOC: As you sit there, very briefly, are you optimistic that something good can happen for the Palestinians? Or is the situation going from bad to worse?

SK: I don't know what the future may hold. However, there is a consensus throughout the world amongst everyone associated with the Israelis and the United States that there should be two nations in Palestine, that they should return to the 1967 borders, and that there should be sovereignty for each. And that Israel and Palestine should have peace and respect for each other within their own national boundaries.

Anything that can facilitate the implementation of this consensus will be beneficial. This is not something I'm pulling out of my pocket, but something plain to whoever looks at the press in Europe and throughout the world, and anywhere people are not Israeli, or worried about being re-elected in the United States' political process.

We hope that this consensus can lead to a just and lasting peace. And if it serves as a wake up call to see what's happening, then it will be a good thing that we may hope for something positive.

VOC: Insha-Allah. And Sheikh Nuh, we go to another question. Samuel Huntington talks about a clash of cultures. We've heard certain commentators saying that if you look at the real problems vis-a-vis Islam and the rest of the world, it's rather a clash of ignorance. What's your reading of this?

SK: It's no question that it's a clash of ignorance. There are horizons each culture has. They're based on epistemology: what they judge to be knowledge and what they judge to be ignorance. Certainly, the Muslims have another dimension that people who don't subscribe to a religion do not possess. This is the point that there is an afterlife and a next world waiting for us…that there are consequences for our actions and that there is an ultimate good.

Consequently, I don't think that the bases for agreement between a Christian country and a Muslim country are that far apart. We all believe in one God, we all believe that there will be a judgement, and we all believe that there will be consequences. No one believes that killing civilians is halal, or just, or is right. No one's religion condones it.

So if we're talking to Godless people who only recognize the law of the jungle, it's very difficult to avoid a clash—whether we call it a clash of ignorance or of civilizations. If we're talking to a people who recognize an ultimate God and objective, natural moral law and the Divine Recompense for actions in this life, certainly, there is room for agreement.

Here we have to underscore the point of national sovereignty. Meaning that if some country doesn’t agree with our Western interpretation of the way things should be, of the sort of things that should be sold in the market place, and of other questions of law…we can't go in and impose our laws upon the people of that country.

I think the principles are fairly well understood here, and that if there's international law that has teeth, one power can't stomp over all the others as soon as it wishes for something that the others have, or wishes to change something that they do. So if there's international law, and a law-like interpretation of conflicts, there need not be any conflict. And Allah knows best.

VOC: Right Sheikh, and of course this leads on to another question. When one talks about ignorance, do you think that this syndrome of Islamophobia—racism against Islam—that seems to have reared its head since the WTT bombing; do you think that we have to blame ourselves to a certain extent for this? That we have failed to really tell the world what Islam is about? What is your reading of that?

SK: Of course, we have to propound traditional Islam, and we haven't yet had much of a forum to do so. Ask anyone who's had their finger on the pulse of what's been happening, particularly in the late 1970's and 1980's. Muslims in every country throughout the world know that the money has mainly been coming from Saudi Arabia, and that scholarships have been coming from them as well. For every word that anyone else speaks, for any other viewpoint that anyone else has, they produce ten.

Moreover, everyone knows that they have a rather extreme interpretation, that of Wahhabism, which is radically different from all previous centuries of traditional Islamic practice and learning. It's different in fiqh, in that it doesn't emphasize the four traditional madhhabs, but rather emphasizes the ijtihad (or “juridical reasoning”) of just about anyone who thinks he’s qualified to make ijtihad. The bombing of the WTT is a direct result of ijtihad from people who are not qualified to make it. These people are essentially vigilantes, whose ijtihad leads to them to believe they can slaughter “generic Americans”, and who don't care if 6,000 human beings have to perish. This is a direct outcome of their personal whims, which they call "ijtihad."

It is pure Wahhabism. It is the result of the oil money that has flooded every single country where there are Muslims, in order to put this view across. No one wonders where it came from. I think that the Western intelligence agencies know it, and that some of the journalists know it as well.

The fact is that traditional Islam has been derailed in the twentieth century, especially during the 1970's and 1980's with all the Saudi-Wahhabi oil-money and the consequences of educating people at “Wahhabi U.” in Medina. Mainstream Sunni Islam has been derailed so completely in the last half of this century that nobody any longer realizes that this is what has happened. Of course, it is our obligation to tell people what's been going on.

What happened to the WTT Centre is the result of a splinter faction of a splinter faction of Islam. It doesn't have anything to do with what any Muslim would have understood, even 150 years ago, as traditional Islam. It's ‘amal bi la ‘ilm or “extreme religious practice without any knowledge” of what religious practice should be. As a result, there is no baraka or “blessing” in it. Rather there is only disaster and calamity in it, for Muslims and non-Muslims. It should be identified as such. After all, we can only tell things as they are. It's not a propaganda effort. It's merely telling people what has happened.

VOC: Sheikh, to get a bit philosophical—do you think that this so-called “self-ijtihad” of the extremists is a good example of a person’s nafs or “ego” overwhelming their angelic essence—would you agree with that kind of perspective?

SK: Islam is submission to the laws of Allah Almighty and the sunna of His Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). The Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) was a man of clemency, a man of peace. He was a man whose entire struggle to overcome idolatry in the Arabian Peninsula saw only 250 people killed on all sides, altogether, in all of the wars.

This was the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him peace) and there’s no question that the Wahhabi call, with its new Twentieth Century facelift, termed Salafism, is an appeal to the ego. A person will say: “I’m a man, and Abu Hanifa is a man.” Well, we can see you’re not a woman, but what other resemblance do you bear to him or any other of these great scholars?

Of course, people don’t like to submit: they don’t like to say if there’s a jihad, it can only be declared by a competent authority; not by some “shopping bag ‘alim” who has a bunch of books that he totes around with him, and opens them up to manifest his “knowledge” to people. This is a parody of ‘ilm, and is a parody of ijtihad. Only a person whose nafs is riding squarely on top of him, and he is its donkey, will be fooled by such claims.

It goes without saying that in traditional Islam we have spirituality. The horizons of traditional Islam are far, far more comprehensive than “can we get this piece of dunya back, or, can we get that piece of dunya over there…” Much broader. People who espouse extremism don’t make remembrance of Allah except a little…This is obvious: if you sit with these people you can tell what your heart feels like afterwards, it’s not the same as after making ‘ibada (worship) or doing a good act or anything useful. What we see at large in the world are clearly but the consequences of this.

VOC: Sheikh Nuh, our next question. One of our local ‘alims in Cape Town said the other day on this radio that mainstream Ahl-u-sunna Islam had to develop a culture of resistance to ignorance and extremism. Would you agree with this idea?

SK: Islam is already against ignorance and extremism. And we do have to take a look at what we already have in traditional Islam. I agree one-hundred percent. There doesn’t have to be a revival of anything in particular except the Islamic culture that we already have. Take the works of Imam Ghazali, for example. The baraka only left people of knowledge when the students of traditional Islam ceased to carry the Ihya ‘Ulum ad-Din (“The Revival of the Sciences of Religious Knowledge”) around with them under their arms. This is no secret. I think that the traditional Islam that has been known for centuries is sufficient. Ignorance and extremism is already rejected by it.

VOC: And of course, Sheikh, you would agree with the opinion of most responsible ‘ulama that Islam is then in no need reformation. At the turn of this century and the previous this was a strong message and I think even during the 1940’s there were scholars propagating the idea that the Din had to be reformed, modernized…you would say that this is nonsense?

SK: Absolute nonsense. This is what may be referred to as the derailing of traditional Islam. It goes off the tracks in many places and in many mosques precisely because of these reformers. Islam doesn’t need to be reformed at all. The traditional Islam that we’ve known and that our forefathers have known has the answer to every question. The answer as to how Muslims are supposed to deal with non-Muslims is with mutual respect. Islam is not a religion of violence or contempt towards people of other religions.

VOC: Sheikh, do you think that Muslims have to be a lot more confident about whom they are. What I mean is do you think that Muslims are still suffering from an inferiority complex as a result of the breaking up of the Ottoman Empire and the colonial carving up of the Muslim world?

SK: There is something of that. We’re in a historical period of political weakness. This is obvious to everyone. As Muslims we should take advantage of this as the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) took advantage of the early Muslim’s period of political weakness to spread the message of Islam (da’wa) as widely as possible. Because when there is no strong political entity behind it, people are less afraid of something—and if they’re less afraid they can be talked to. So we should be making da’wa to them. If everyone in America became Muslims tomorrow, a great, great many political problems would be obviously solved in the Muslim world. So we should be emphasizing da’wa.

VOC: Most certainly.

SK: One has to make hay while the sun shines.

VOC: And Sheikh Nuh, the final question…are you a prisoner of hope for the immediate future of Islam?

SK: I am hopeful. Anyone who wants to understand everything about what’s going on in this world or the next only has to read the Qur’an. He will understand why Allah Most High has created good people, why He has created wicked people, and why He has created everything in this world and in the next. Everything is part of Allah’s grand purpose. It’s impossible to read the Qur’an without being hopeful.

If we have patience with the tests that come to us, then we have a reward from Allah Most High and it’s better for us. If we see atrocities that do not agree with how Allah Most High has told people to behave, and we say, “This is an atrocity, this is a foul and wicked deed”, then in relation to us that evil becomes a good because we have a reward from Allah for believing that it is evil, and we have a higher degree in Paradise.

So, in relation to the believer nothing is “bad”, since nothing can harm him: if he believes that it is bad and is a sin, he has a reward for his iman (faith) in condemning that which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) taught and defined for us as being evil. Evil cannot touch the mu’min (true believer) if he is a mu’min. We have to return to fundamentals and increase our belief in the eternal verities of faith. We have to read the Qur’an and know that this is the truth from Allah Most High. If we understand this, then outward appearances, be they of success or failure, we will know the inward meaning of them.

We are sitting in a room in which we’re undergoing an examination, and soon we’ll stand up and leave the room and get our marks. This is the reality and the meaning of this world: that there is heaven and hell, and we are not responsible for making things happen in this world that are beyond our control. We’re only responsible for our own adab (conduct) before the Divine in relation to these things, and to do that which Allah Most High has asked us to do.

Allah Most High in His mercy has made this conditional upon our own capacity, for He has said, “fattaqullaha ma stata’tum”—“Have as much taqwa of Allah as you are personally able to,” and He doesn’t require anything more or less than that. So everyone has to use all of their capacities and talents, and “None of you believes until he wishes for his brother that which he wishes for himself,” which Imam Nawawi has said means one’s non-Muslim as well as Muslim brothers.

And so we wish for them, for every non-Muslim in the world, exactly what we would wish for ourselves…to enter into the joys of Islam in this world and perpetual bliss in the next by following the commands of Allah. This is why the soul that is between our two sides was created in each of us: to know Allah Most High, and be on a good standing with Him. That He may make us the locus of his generosity forever and ever.

When one does this, one’s heart is at peace and this peace is what Islam has to offer the world. I think this is already clear to everyone who has any faith, certainly clear to you, Shafiq, and all of the Muslims who may be listening to this. I am only saying it to remind myself, and to anyone else who needs a reminder, Allah Most High willing.

VOC: Sheikh Nuh Ha Mim Keller unfortunately time has run out on us…we must honor the time you set aside …it has been a great pleasure…

SK: Alhamdulillah, it was my honor to speak to you and your listeners.



VOC: Insha-Allah, and it’s been a great pleasure listening to you…sitting at your feet and hearing your words of wisdom. And insha-Allah, we hope to hear more from you…Jazak Allahu bi Khayr, shukran jazilan for taking time out to talk to us, Sheikh.

SK: Jazak Allahu Kulla Khayr, was-salam ‘alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatu.

ENDS.

Becoming Muslim

© Nuh Ha Mim Keller

In the name of Allah, Most Merciful and Compassionate


Born in 1954 in the farm country of the northwestern United States, I was raised in a religious family as a Roman Catholic. The Church provided a spiritual world that was unquestionable in my childhood, if anything more real than the physical world around me, but as I grew older, and especially after I entered a Catholic university and read more, my relation to the religion became increasingly called into question, in belief and practice.
One reason was the frequent changes in Catholic liturgy and ritual that occurred in the wake of the Second Vatican Council of 1963, suggesting to laymen that the Church had no firm standards. To one another, the clergy spoke about flexibility and liturgical relevance, but to ordinary Catholics they seemed to be groping in the dark. God does not change, nor the needs of the human soul, and there was no new revelation from heaven. Yet we rang in the changes, week after week, year after year; adding, subtracting, changing the language from Latin to English, finally bringing in guitars and folk music. Priests explained and explained as laymen shook their heads. The search for relevance left large numbers convinced that there had not been much in the first place.

A second reason was a number of doctrinal difficulties, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, which no one in the history of the world, neither priest nor layman, had been able to explain in a convincing way, and which resolved itself, to the common mind at least, in a sort of godhead-by-committee, shared between God the Father, who ruled the world from heaven; His son Jesus Christ, who saved humanity on earth; and the Holy Ghost, who was pictured as a white dove and appeared to have a considerably minor role. I remember wanting to make special friends with just one of them so he could handle my business with the others, and to this end, would sometimes pray earnestly to this one and sometimes to that; but the other two were always stubbornly there. I finally decided that God the Father must be in charge of the other two, and this put the most formidable obstacle in the way of my Catholicism, the divinity of Christ. Moreover, reflection made it plain that the nature of man contradicted the nature of God in every particular, the limitary and finite on the one hand, the absolute and infinite on the other. That Jesus was God was something I cannot remember having ever really believed, in childhood or later.

Another point of incredulity was the trading of the Church in stocks and bonds in the hereafter it called indulgences. Do such and such and so-and-so many years will be remitted from your sentence in purgatory that had seemed so false to Martin Luther at the outset of the Reformation.

I also remember a desire for a sacred scripture, something on the order of a book that could furnish guidance. A Bible was given to me one Christmas, a handsome edition, but on attempting to read it, I found it so rambling and devoid of a coherent thread that it was difficult to think of a way to base one's life upon it. Only later did I learn how Christians solve the difficulty in practice, Protestants by creating sectarian theologies, each emphasizing the texts of their sect and downplaying the rest; Catholics by downplaying it all, except the snippets mentioned in their liturgy. Something seemed lacking in a sacred book that could not be read as an integral whole.

Moreover, when I went to the university, I found that the authenticity of the book, especially the New Testament, had come into considerable doubt as a result of modern hermeneutical studies by Christians themselves. In a course on contemporary theology, I read the Norman Perrin translation of The Problem of the Historical Jesus by Joachim Jeremias, one of the principal New Testament scholars of this century. A textual critic who was a master of the original languages and had spent long years with the texts, he had finally agreed with the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann that without a doubt it is true to say that the dream of ever writing a biography of Jesus is over, meaning that the life of Christ as he actually lived it could not be reconstructed from the New Testament with any degree of confidence. If this were accepted from a friend of Christianity and one of its foremost textual experts, I reasoned, what was left for its enemies to say? And what then remained of the Bible except to acknowledge that it was a record of truths mixed with fictions, conjectures projected onto Christ by later followers, themselves at odds with each other as to who the master had been and what he had taught. And if theologians like Jeremias could reassure themselves that somewhere under the layers of later accretions to the New Testament there was something called the historical Jesus and his message, how could the ordinary person hope to find it, or know it, should it be found?

I studied philosophy at the university and it taught me to ask two things of whoever claimed to have the truth: What do you mean, and how do you know? When I asked these questions of my own religious tradition, I found no answers, and realized that Christianity had slipped from my hands. I then embarked on a search that is perhaps not unfamiliar to many young people in the West, a quest for meaning in a meaningless world.

I began where I had lost my previous belief, with the philosophers, yet wanting to believe, seeking not philosophy, but rather a philosophy.

I read the essays of the great pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer, which taught about the phenomenon of the ages of life, and that money, fame, physical strength, and intelligence all passed from one with the passage of years, but only moral excellence remained. I took this lesson to heart and remembered it in after years. His essays also drew attention to the fact that a person was wont to repudiate in later years what he fervently espouses in the heat of youth. With a prescient wish to find the Divine, I decided to imbue myself with the most cogent arguments of atheism that I could find, that perhaps I might find a way out of them later. So I read the Walter Kaufmann translations of the works of the immoralist Friedrich Nietzsche. The many-faceted genius dissected the moral judgments and beliefs of mankind with brilliant philological and psychological arguments that ended in accusing human language itself, and the language of nineteenth-century science in particular, of being so inherently determined and mediated by concepts inherited from the language of morality that in their present form they could never hope to uncover reality. Aside from their immunological value against total skepticism, Nietzsche's works explained why the West was post-Christian, and accurately predicted the unprecedented savagery of the twentieth century, debunking the myth that science could function as a moral replacement for the now dead religion.

At a personal level, his tirades against Christianity, particularly in The Genealogy of Morals, gave me the benefit of distilling the beliefs of the monotheistic tradition into a small number of analyzable forms. He separated unessential concepts (such as the bizarre spectacle of an omnipotent deitys suicide on the cross) from essential ones, which I now, though without believing in them, apprehended to be but three alone: that God existed; that He created man in the world and defined the conduct expected of him in it; and that He would judge man accordingly in the hereafter and send him to eternal reward or punishment.

It was during this time that I read an early translation of the Qur'an which I grudgingly admired, between agnostic reservations, for the purity with which it presented these fundamental concepts. Even if false, I thought, there could not be a more essential expression of religion. As a literary work, the translation, perhaps it was Sales, was uninspired and openly hostile to its subject matter, whereas I knew the Arabic original was widely acknowledged for its beauty and eloquence among the religious books of mankind. I felt a desire to learn Arabic to read the original.

On a vacation home from school, I was walking upon a dirt road between some fields of wheat, and it happened that the sun went down. By some inspiration, I realized that it was a time of worship, a time to bow and pray to the one God. But it was not something one could rely on oneself to provide the details of, but rather a passing fancy, or perhaps the beginning of an awareness that atheism was an inauthentic way of being.

I carried something of this disquiet with me when I transferred to the University of Chicago, where I studied the epistemology of ethical theory how moral judgments were reached reading and searching among the books of the philosophers for something to shed light on the question of meaninglessness, which was both a personal concern and one of the central philosophical problems of our age.

According to some, scientific observation could only yield description statements of the form X is Y, for example, The object is red, Its weight is two kilos, Its height is ten centimeters, and so on, in each of which the functional was a scientifically verifiable is, whereas in moral judgments the functional element was an ought, a description statement which no amount of scientific observation could measure or verify. It appeared that ought was logically meaningless, and with it all morality whatsoever, a position that reminded me of those described by Lucian in his advice that whoever sees a moral philosopher coming down the road should flee from him as from a mad dog. For such a person, expediency ruled, and nothing checked his behavior but convention.

As Chicago was a more expensive school, and I had to raise tuition money, I found summer work on the West Coast with a seining boat fishing in Alaska. The sea proved a school in its own right, one I was to return to for a space of eight seasons, for the money. I met many people on boats, and saw something of the power and greatness of the wind, water, storms, and rain; and the smallness of man. These things lay before us like an immense book, but my fellow fishermen and I could only discern the letters of it that were within our context: to catch as many fish as possible within the specified time to sell to the tenders. Few knew how to read the book as a whole. Sometimes, in a blow, the waves rose like great hills, and the captain would hold the wheel with white knuckles, our bow one minute plunging gigantically down into a valley of green water, the next moment reaching the bottom of the trough and soaring upwards towards the sky before topping the next crest and starting down again.

Early in my career as a deck hand, I had read the Hazel Barnes translation of Jean Paul Sartres "Being and Nothingness", in which he argued that phenomena only arose for consciousness in the existential context of human projects, a theme that recalled Marx's 1844 manuscripts, where nature was produced by man, meaning, for example, that when the mystic sees a stand of trees, his consciousness hypostatizes an entirely different phenomenal object than a poet does, for example, or a capitalist. To the mystic, it is a manifestation; to the poet, a forest; to the capitalist, lumber. According to such a perspective, a mountain only appears as tall in the context of the project of climbing it, and so on, according to the instrumental relations involved in various human interests. But the great natural events of the sea surrounding us seemed to defy, with their stubborn, irreducible facticity, our uncomprehending attempts to come to terms with them. Suddenly, we were just there, shaken by the forces around us without making sense of them, wondering if we would make it through. Some, it was true, would ask Gods help at such moments, but when we returned safely to shore, we behaved like men who knew little of Him, as if those moments had been a lapse into insanity, embarrassing to think of at happier times. It was one of the lessons of the sea that in fact, such events not only existed but perhaps even preponderated in our life. Man was small and weak, the forces around him were large, and he did not control them.

Sometimes a boat would sink and men would die. I remember a fisherman from another boat who was working near us one opening, doing the same job as I did, piling web. He smiled across the water as he pulled the net from the hydraulic block overhead, stacking it neatly on the stern to ready it for the next set. Some weeks later, his boat overturned while fishing in a storm, and he got caught in the web and drowned. I saw him only once again, in a dream, beckoning to me from the stern of his boat.

The tremendousness of the scenes we lived in, the storms, the towering sheer cliffs rising vertically out of the water for hundreds of feet, the cold and rain and fatigue, the occasional injuries and deaths of workers these made little impression on most of us. Fishermen were, after all, supposed to be tough. On one boat, the family that worked it was said to lose an occasional crew member while running at sea at the end of the season, invariably the sole non-family member who worked with them, his loss saving them the wages they would have otherwise had to pay him.

The captain of another was a twenty-seven-year-old who delivered millions of dollars worth of crab each year in the Bering Sea. When I first heard of him, we were in Kodiak, his boat at the city dock they had tied up to after a lengthy run some days before. The captain was presently indisposed in his bunk in the stateroom, where he had been vomiting up blood from having eaten a glass uptown the previous night to prove how tough he was.

He was in somewhat better condition when I later saw him in the Bering Sea at the end of a long winter king crab season. He worked in his wheelhouse up top, surrounded by radios that could pull in a signal from just about anywhere, computers, Loran, sonar, depth-finders, radar. His panels of lights and switches were set below the 180-degree sweep of shatterproof windows that overlooked the sea and the men on deck below, to whom he communicated by loudspeaker. They often worked round the clock, pulling their gear up from the icy water under watchful batteries of enormous electric lights attached to the masts that turned the perpetual night of the winter months into day. The captain had a reputation as a screamer, and had once locked his crew out on deck in the rain for eleven hours because one of them had gone inside to have a cup of coffee without permission. Few crewmen lasted longer than a season with him, though they made nearly twice the yearly income of, say, a lawyer or an advertising executive, and in only six months. Fortunes were made in the Bering Sea in those years, before overfishing wiped out the crab.

At present, he was at anchor, and was amiable enough when we tied up to him and he came aboard to sit and talk with our own captain. They spoke at length, at times gazing thoughtfully out at the sea through the door or windows, at times looking at each other sharply when something animated them, as the topic of what his competitors thought of him. "They wonder why I have a few bucks", he said. "Well I slept in my own home one night last year."

He later had his crew throw off the lines and pick the anchor, his eyes flickering warily over the water from the windows of the house as he pulled away with a blast of smoke from the stack. His watchfulness, his walrus-like physique, his endless voyages after game and markets, reminded me of other predatory hunter-animals of the sea. Such people, good at making money but heedless of any ultimate end or purpose, made an impression on me, and I increasingly began to wonder if men didn't need principles to guide them and tell them why they were there. Without such principles, nothing seemed to distinguish us above our prey except being more thorough, and technologically capable of preying longer, on a vaster scale, and with greater devastation than the animals we hunted.

These considerations were in my mind the second year I studied at Chicago, where I became aware through studies of philosophical moral systems that philosophy had not been successful in the past at significantly influencing peoples morals and preventing injustice, and I came to realize that there was little hope for it to do so in the future. I found that comparing human cultural systems and societies in their historical succession and multiplicity had led many intellectuals to moral relativism, since no moral value could be discovered which on its own merits was transculturally valid, a reflection leading to nihilism, the perspective that sees human civilizations as plants that grow out of the earth, springing from their various seeds and soils, thriving for a time, and then dying away.

Some heralded this as intellectual liberation, among them Emile Durkheim in his "Elementary Forms of the Religious Life", or Sigmund Freud in his "Totem and Taboo", which discussed mankind as if it were a patient and diagnosed its religious traditions as a form of a collective neurosis that we could now hope to cure, by applying to them a thoroughgoing scientific atheism, a sort of salvation through pure science.

On this subject, I bought the Jeremy Shapiro translation of "Knowledge and Human Interests" by Jurgen Habermas, who argued that there was no such thing as pure science that could be depended upon to forge boldly ahead in a steady improvement of itself and the world. He called such a misunderstanding scientism, not science. Science in the real world, he said, was not free of values, still less of interests. The kinds of research that obtain funding, for example, were a function of what their society deemed meaningful, expedient, profitable, or important. Habermas had been of a generation of German academics who, during the thirties and forties, knew what was happening in their country, but insisted they were simply engaged in intellectual production, that they were living in the realm of scholarship, and need not concern themselves with whatever the state might choose to do with their research. The horrible question mark that was attached to German intellectuals when the Nazi atrocities became public after the war made Habermas think deeply about the ideology of pure science. If anything was obvious, it was that the nineteenth-century optimism of thinkers like Freud and Durkheim was no longer tenable.

I began to re-assess the intellectual life around me. Like Schopenhauer, I felt that higher education must produce higher human beings. But at the university, I found lab people talking to each other about forging research data to secure funding for the coming year; luminaries who wouldn't permit tape recorders at their lectures for fear that competitors in the same field would go one step further with their research and beat them to publication; professors vying with each other in the length of their courses syllabuses. The moral qualities I was accustomed to associate with ordinary, unregenerate humanity seemed as frequently met with in sophisticated academics as they had been in fishermen. If one could laugh at fishermen who, after getting a boatload of fish in a big catch, would cruise back and forth in front of the others to let them see how laden down in the water they were, ostensibly looking for more fish; what could one say about the Ph.D.'s who behaved the same way about their books and articles? I felt that their knowledge had not developed their persons, that the secret of higher man did not lie in their sophistication.

I wondered if I hadn't gone down the road of philosophy as far as one could go. While it had debunked my Christianity and provided some genuine insights, it had not yet answered the big questions. Moreover, I felt that this was somehow connected I didn't know whether as cause or effect to the fact that our intellectual tradition no longer seemed to seriously comprehend itself. What were any of us, whether philosophers, fishermen, garbagemen, or kings, except bit players in a drama we did not understand, diligently playing out our roles until our replacements were sent, and we gave our last performance? But could one legitimately hope for more than this? I read "Kojves Introduction to the Reading of Hegel", in which he explained that for Hegel, philosophy did not culminate in the system, but rather in the Wise Man, someone able to answer any possible question on the ethical implications of human actions. This made me consider our own plight in the twentieth century, which could no longer answer a single ethical question.

It was thus as if this century's unparalleled mastery of concrete things had somehow ended by making us things. I contrasted this with Hegel's concept of the concrete in his "Phenomenology of Mind". An example of the abstract, in his terms, was the limitary physical reality of the book now held in your hands, while the concrete was its interconnection with the larger realities it presupposed, the modes of production that determined the kind of ink and paper in it, the aesthetic standards that dictated its color and design, the systems of marketing and distribution that had carried it to the reader, the historical circumstances that had brought about the readers literacy and taste; the cultural events that had mediated its style and usage; in short, the bigger picture in which it was articulated and had its being. For Hegel, the movement of philosophical investigation always led from the abstract to the concrete, to the more real. He was therefore able to say that philosophy necessarily led to theology, whose object was the ultimately real, the Deity. This seemed to me to point up an irreducible lack in our century. I began to wonder if, by materializing our culture and our past, we had not somehow abstracted ourselves from our wider humanity, from our true nature in relation to a higher reality.

At this juncture, I read a number of works on Islam, among them the books of Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who believed that many of the problems of western man, especially those of the environment, were from his having left the divine wisdom of revealed religion, which taught him his true place as a creature of God in the natural world and to understand and respect it. Without it, he burned up and consumed nature with ever more effective technological styles of commercial exploitation that ruined his world from without while leaving him increasingly empty within, because he did not know why he existed or to what end he should act.

I reflected that this might be true as far as it went, but it begged the question as to the truth of revealed religion. Everything on the face of the earth, all moral and religious systems, were on the same plane, unless one could gain certainty that one of them was from a higher source, the sole guarantee of the objectivity, the whole force, of moral law. Otherwise, one man's opinion was as good as another's, and we remained in an undifferentiated sea of conflicting individual interests, in which no valid objection could be raised to the strong eating the weak.

I read other books on Islam, and came across some passages translated by W. Montgomery Watt from "That Which Delivers from Error" by the theologian and mystic Ghazali, who, after a mid-life crises of questioning and doubt, realized that beyond the light of prophetic revelation there is no other light on the face of the earth from which illumination may be received, the very point to which my philosophical inquiries had led. Here was, in Hegel's terms, the Wise Man, in the person of a divinely inspired messenger who alone had the authority to answer questions of good and evil.

I also read A.J. Arberrys translation "The Qur'an Interpreted", and I recalled my early wish for a sacred book. Even in translation, the superiority of the Muslim scripture over the Bible was evident in every line, as if the reality of divine revelation, dimly heard of all my life, had now been placed before my eyes. In its exalted style, its power, its inexorable finality, its uncanny way of anticipating the arguments of the atheistic heart in advance and answering them; it was a clear exposition of God as God and man as man, the revelation of the awe-inspiring Divine Unity being the identical revelation of social and economic justice among men.

I began to learn Arabic at Chicago, and after studying the grammar for a year with a fair degree of success, decided to take a leave of absence to try to advance in the language in a year of private study in Cairo. Too, a desire for new horizons drew me, and after a third season of fishing, I went to the Middle East.

In Egypt, I found something I believe brings many to Islam, namely, the mark of pure monotheism upon its followers, which struck me as more profound than anything I had previously encountered. I met many Muslims in Egypt, good and bad, but all influenced by the teachings of their Book to a greater extent than I had ever seen elsewhere. It has been some fifteen years since then, and I cannot remember them all, or even most of them, but perhaps the ones I can recall will serve to illustrate the impressions made.

One was a man on the side of the Nile near the Miqyas Gardens, where I used to walk. I came upon him praying on a piece of cardboard, facing across the water. I started to pass in front of him, but suddenly checked myself and walked around behind, not wanting to disturb him. As I watched a moment before going my way, I beheld a man absorbed in his relation to God, oblivious to my presence, much less my opinions about him or his religion. To my mind, there was something magnificently detached about this, altogether strange for someone coming from the West, where praying in public was virtually the only thing that remained obscene.

Another was a young boy from secondary school who greeted me near Khan al-Khalili, and because I spoke some Arabic and he spoke some English and wanted to tell me about Islam, he walked with me several miles across town to Giza, explaining as much as he could. When we parted, I think he said a prayer that I might become Muslim.

Another was a Yemeni friend living in Cairo who brought me a copy of the Qur'an at my request to help me learn Arabic. I did not have a table beside the chair where I used to sit and read in my hotel room, and it was my custom to stack the books on the floor. When I set the Qur'an by the others there, he silently stooped and picked it up, out of respect for it. This impressed me because I knew he was not religious, but here was the effect of Islam upon him.

Another was a woman I met while walking beside a bicycle on an unpaved road on the opposite side of the Nile from Luxor. I was dusty, and somewhat shabbily clothed, and she was an old woman dressed in black from head to toe who walked up, and without a word or glance at me, pressed a coin into my hand so suddenly that in my surprise I dropped it. By the time I picked it up, she had hurried away. Because she thought I was poor, even if obviously non-Muslim, she gave me some money without any expectation for it except what was between her and her God. This act made me think a lot about Islam, because nothing seemed to have motivated her but that.

Many other things passed through my mind during the months I stayed in Egypt to learn Arabic. I found myself thinking that a man must have some sort of religion, and I was more impressed by the effect of Islam on the lives of Muslims, a certain nobility of purpose and largesse of soul, than I had ever been by any other religions or even atheisms effect on its followers. The Muslims seemed to have more than we did.

Christianity had its good points to be sure, but they seemed mixed with confusions, and I found myself more and more inclined to look to Islam for their fullest and most perfect expression. The first question we had memorized from our early catechism had been Why were you created? to which the correct answer was To know, love, and serve God. When I reflected on those around me, I realized that Islam seemed to furnish the most comprehensive and understandable way to practice this on a daily basis.

As for the inglorious political fortunes of the Muslims today, I did not feel these to be a reproach against Islam, or to relegate it to an inferior position in a natural order of world ideologies, but rather saw them as a low phase in a larger cycle of history. Foreign hegemony over Muslim lands had been witnessed before in the thorough going destruction of Islamic civilization in the thirteenth century by the Mongol horde, who razed cities and built pyramids of human heads from the steppes of Central Asia to the Muslim heartlands, after which the fullness of destiny brought forth the Ottoman Empire to raise the Word of Allah and make it a vibrant political reality that endured for centuries. It was now, I reflected, merely the turn of contemporary Muslims to strive for a new historic crystallization of Islam, something one might well aspire to share in.

When a friend in Cairo one day asked me, Why don't you become a Muslim?, I found that Allah had created within me a desire to belong to this religion, which so enriches its followers, from the simplest hearts to the most magisterial intellects. It is not through an act of the mind or will that anyone becomes a Muslim, but rather through the mercy of Allah, and this, in the final analysis, was what brought me to Islam in Cairo in 1977.

Is it not time that the hearts of those who believe should be humbled to the Remembrance of God and the Truth which He has sent down, and that they should not be as those to whom the Book was given aforetime, and the term seemed over long to them, so that their hearts have become hard, and many of them are ungodly? Know that God revives the earth after it was dead. We have indeed made clear for you the signs, that haply you will understand. (Qur'an 57:16-17)
Nuh Ha Mim Keller

Why Muslims Follow Madhabs

© Nuh Ha Mim Keller

"Who needs the Imams of Sacred Law when we have the Qur’an and hadith? Why can’t we take our Islam from the word of Allah and His Messenger?" Nuh Ha Mim Keller explains the necessity to respect and value scholars and the schools of Islamic law.

The work of the mujtahid Imams of Sacred Law, those who deduce shari‘a rulings from Qur’an and hadith, has been the object of my research for some years now, during which I have sometimes heard the question: "Who needs the Imams of Sacred Law when we have the Qur’an and hadith? Why can’t we take our Islam from the word of Allah and His Messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), which are divinely protected from error, instead of taking it from the madhhabs or "schools of jurisprudence" of the mujtahid Imams such as Abu Hanifa, Malik, Shafi‘i, and Ahmad, which are not?"

It cannot be hidden from any of you how urgent this issue is, or that many of the disagreements we see and hear in our mosques these days are due to lack of knowledge of fiqh or "Islamic jurisprudence" and its relation to Islam as a whole. Now, perhaps more than ever before, it is time for us to get back to basics and ask ourselves how we understand and carry out the commands of Allah.

We will first discuss the knowledge of Islam that all of us possess, and then show where fiqh enters into it. We will look at the qualifications mentioned in the Qur’an and sunna for those who do fiqh, the mujtahid scholars. We will focus first on the extent of the mujtahid scholar’s knowledge—how many hadiths he has to know, and so on—and then we will look at the depth of his knowledge, through actual examples of dalils or "legal proofs" that demonstrate how scholars join between different and even contradictory hadiths to produce a unified and consistent legal ruling.

We will close by discussing the mujtahid’s relation to the science of hadith authentication, and the conditions by which a scholar knows that a given hadith is sahih or "rigorously authenticated," so that he can accept and follow it.

Qur’an and Hadith. The knowledge that you and I take from the Qur’an and the hadith is of several types: the first and most important concerns our faith, and is the knowledge of Allah and His attributes, and the other basic tenets of Islamic belief such as the messengerhood of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the Last Day, and so on. Every Muslim can and must acquire this knowledge from the Book of Allah and the sunna.

This is also the case with a second type of general knowledge, which does not concern faith, however, but rather works: the general laws of Islam to do good, to avoid evil, to perform the prayer, pay zakat, fast Ramadan, to cooperate with others in good works, and so forth. Anyone can learn and understand these general rules, which summarize the sirat al-mustaqim or "straight path" of our religion.

Fiqh. A third type of knowledge is of the specific details of Islamic practice. Whereas anyone can understand the first two types of knowledge from the Qur’an and hadith, the understanding of this third type has a special name, fiqh, meaning literally "understanding." And people differ in their capacity to do it.

I had a visitor one day in Jordan, for example, who, when we talked about why he hadn’t yet gone on hajj, mentioned the hadith of Anas ibn Malik that

the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, "Whoever prays the dawn prayer (fajr) in a group and then sits and does dhikr until the sun rises, then prays two rak‘as, shall have the like of the reward of a hajj and an ‘umra." Anas said, "The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: ‘Completely, completely, completely’" (Tirmidhi, 2.481).

My visitor had done just that this very morning, and he now believed that he had fulfilled his obligation to perform the hajj, and had no need to go to Mecca. The hadith was well authenticated (hasan). I distinguished for my visitor between having the reward of something, and lifting the obligation of Islam by actually doing it, and he saw my point.

But there is a larger lesson here, that while the Qur’an and the sunna are ma‘sum or "divinely protected from error," the understanding of them is not. And someone who derives rulings from the Qur’an and hadith without training in ijtihad or "deduction from primary texts" as my visitor did, will be responsible for it on the Day of Judgment, just as an amateur doctor who had never been to medical school would be responsible if he performed an operation and somebody died under his knife.

Why? Because Allah has explained in the Qur’an that fiqh, the detailed understanding of the divine command, requires specially trained members of the Muslim community to learn and teach it. Allah says in surat al-Tawba:

"Not all of the believers should go to fight. Of every section of them, why does not one part alone go forth, that the rest may gain understanding of the religion, and to admonish their people when they return, that perhaps they may take warning" (Qur’an 9:122)

—where the expression li yatafaqqahu fi al-din, "to gain understanding of the religion," is derived from precisely the same root (f-q-h) as the word fiqh or "jurisprudence," and is what Western students of Arabic would call a "fifth-form verb" (tafa‘‘ala), which indicates that the meaning contained in the root, understanding, is accomplished through careful, sustained effort.

This Qur’anic verse establishes that there should be a category of people who have learned the religion so as to be qualified in turn to teach it. And Allah has commanded those who do not know a ruling in Sacred Law to ask those who do, by saying in surat al-Nahl,

"Ask those who recall if you know not" (Qur’an 16:43),

in which the words "those who recall," ahl al-dhikri, indicate those with knowledge of the Qur’an and sunna, at their forefront the mujtahid Imams of this Umma. Why? Because, first of all, the Qur’an and hadith are in Arabic, and as a translator, I can assure you that it is not just any Arabic.

To understand the Qur’an and sunna, the mujtahid must have complete knowledge of the Arabic language in the same capacity as the early Arabs themselves had before the language came to be used by non-native speakers. This qualification, which almost no one in our time has, is not the main subject of my essay, but even if we did have it, what if you or I, though not trained specialists, wanted to deduce details of Islamic practice directly from the sources? After all, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said, in the hadith of Bukhari and Muslim: "When a judge gives judgement and strives to know a ruling (ijtahada) and is correct, he has two rewards. If he gives judgement and strives to know a ruling, but is wrong, he has one reward" (Bukhari, 9.133).

The answer is that the term ijtihad or "striving to know a ruling" in this hadith does not mean just any person’s efforts to understand and operationalize an Islamic ruling, but rather the person with sound knowledge of everything the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) taught that relates to the question. Whoever makes ijtihad without this qualification is a criminal. The proof of this is the hadith that the Companion Jabir ibn ‘Abdullah said:

We went on a journey, and a stone struck one of us and opened a gash in his head. When he later had a wet-dream in his sleep, he then asked his companions, "Do you find any dispensation for me to perform dry ablution (tayammum)?" [Meaning instead of a full purificatory bath (ghusl).] They told him, "We don’t find any dispensation for you if you can use water."

So he performed the purificatory bath and his wound opened and he died. When we came to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), he was told of this and he said: "They have killed him, may Allah kill them. Why did they not ask?—for they didn’t know. The only cure for someone who does not know what to say is to ask" (Abu Dawud, 1.93).

This hadith, which was related by Abu Dawud, is well authenticated (hasan), and every Muslim who has any taqwa should reflect on it carefully, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) indicated in it—in the strongest language possible—that to judge on a rule of Islam on the basis of insufficient knowledge is a crime. And like it is the well authenticated hadith "Whoever is given a legal opinion (fatwa) without knowledge, his sin is but upon the person who gave him the opinion" (Abu Dawud, 3.321).

The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) also said:

Judges are three: two of them in hell, and one in paradise. A man who knows the truth and judges accordingly, he shall go to paradise. A man who judges for people while ignorant, he shall go to hell. And a man who knows the truth but rules unjustly, he shall go to hell (Sharh al-sunna, 10.94).

This hadith, which was related by Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Ibn Majah, and others, is rigorously authenticated (sahih), and any Muslim who would like to avoid the hellfire should soberly consider the fate of whoever, in the words of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), "judges for people while ignorant."

Yet we all have our Yusuf ‘Ali Qur’ans, and our Sahih al-Bukhari translations. Aren’t these adequate scholarly resources?

These are valuable books, and do convey perhaps the largest and most important part of our din: the basic Islamic beliefs, and general laws of the religion. Our discussion here is not about these broad principles, but rather about understanding specific details of Islamic practice, which is called precisely fiqh. For this, I think any honest investigator who studies the issues will agree that the English translations are not enough. They are not enough because understanding the total Qur’an and hadith textual corpus, which comprises what we call the din, requires two dimensions in a scholar: a dimension of breadth, the substantive knowledge of all the texts; and a dimension of depth, the methodological tools needed to join between all the Qur’anic verses and hadiths, even those that ostensibly contradict one another.

Knowledge of Primary Texts. As for the breadth of a mujtahid’s knowledge, it is recorded that Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal’s student Muhammad ibn ‘Ubaydullah ibn al-Munadi heard a man ask him [Imam Ahmad]: "When a man has memorized 100,000 hadiths, is he a scholar of Sacred Law, a faqih?" And he said, "No." The man asked, "200,000 then?" And he said, "No." The man asked, "Then 300,000?" And he said, "No." The man asked, "400,000?" And Ahmad gestured with his hand to signify "about that many" (Ibn al-Qayyim: I‘lam al-muwaqqi‘in, 4.205).

In truth, by the term "hadith" here Imam Ahmad meant the hadiths of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in all their various chains of transmission, counting each chain of transmission as a separate hadith, and perhaps also counting the statements of the Sahaba. But the larger point here is that even if we eliminate the different chains, and speak only about the hadiths from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) that are plainly acceptable as evidence, whether sahih, "rigorously authenticated" or hasan "well authenticated" (which for purposes of ijtihad, may be assimilated to the sahih), we are still speaking of well over 10,000 hadiths, and they are not contained in Bukhari alone, or in Bukhari and Muslim alone, nor yet in any six books, or even in any nine. Yet whoever wants to give a fatwa or "formal legal opinion" and judge for people that something is lawful or unlawful, obligatory or sunna, must know all the primary texts that relate to it. For the perhaps 10,000 hadiths that are sahih are, for the mujtahid, as one single hadith, and he must first know them in order to join between them to explain the unified command of Allah.

I say "join between" because most of you must be aware that some sahih hadiths seem to controvert other equally sahih hadiths. What does a mujtahid do in such an instance?

Ijtihad. Let’s look at some examples. Most of us know the hadiths about fasting on the Day of ‘Arafa for the non-pilgrim, that "it expiates [the sins of] the year before and the year after" (Muslim, 2.819). But another rigorously authenticated hadith prohibits fasting on Friday alone (Bukhari, 3.54), and a well authenticated hadith prohibits fasting on Saturday alone (Tirmidhi, 3.120), of which Tirmidhi explains, "The meaning of the ‘offensiveness’ in this is when a man singles out Saturday to fast on, since the Jews venerate Saturdays" (ibid.). Some scholars hold Sundays offensive to fast on for the same reason, that they are venerated by non-Muslims. (Other hadiths permit fasting one of these days together with the day before or the day after it, perhaps because no religion venerates two of the days in a row.) The question arises: What does one do when ‘Arafa falls on a Friday, a Saturday, or a Sunday? The general demand for fasting on the Day of ‘Arafa might well be qualified by the specific prohibition of fasting on just one of these days. But a mujtahid aware of the whole hadith corpus would certainly know a third hadith related by Muslim that is even more specific, and says: "Do not single out Friday from among other days to fast on, unless it coincides with a fast one of you performs" (Muslim, 2.801).

The latter hadith establishes for the mujtahid the general principle that the ruling for fasting on a day normally prohibited to fast on changes when it "coincides with a fast one of you performs"—and so there is no problem with fasting whether the Day of Arafa falls on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

Here as elsewhere, whoever wants to understand the ruling of doing something in Islam must know all the texts connected with it. Because as ordinary Muslims, you and I are not only responsible for obeying the Qur’anic verses and hadiths we are familiar with. We are responsible for obeying all of them, the whole shari‘a. And if we are not personally qualified to join between all of its texts—and we have heard Ahmad ibn Hanbal discuss how much knowledge this takes—we must follow someone who can, which is why Allah tells us, "Ask those who recall if you know not."

The size and nature of this knowledge necessitate that the non-specialist use adab or "proper respect" towards the scholars of fiqh when he finds a hadith, whether in Bukhari or elsewhere, that ostensibly contradicts the schools of fiqh. A non-scholar, for example, reading through Sahih al-Bukhari will find the hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) bared a thigh on the ride back from Khaybar (Bukhari, 1.103–4). And he might imagine that the four madhhabs or "legal schools"—Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi‘i, and Hanbali—were mistaken in their judgment that the thigh is ‘awra or "nakedness that must be covered."

But in fact there are a number of other hadiths, all of them well authenticated (hasan) or rigorously authenticated (sahih) that prove that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) explicitly commanded various Sahaba to cover the thigh because it was nakedness. Hakim reports that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) saw Jarhad in the mosque wearing a mantle, and his thigh became uncovered, so the Prophet told him, "The thigh is part of one’s nakedness" (al-Mustadrak), of which Hakim said, "This is a hadith whose chain of transmission is rigorously authenticated (sahih)," which Imam Dhahabi confirmed (ibid.). Imam al-Baghawi records the sahih hadith that "the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) passed by Ma‘mar, whose two thighs were exposed, and told him, ‘O Ma‘mar, cover your two thighs, for the two thighs are nakedness’" (Sharh al-sunna 9.21). And Ahmad ibn Hanbal records that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, "When one of you marries [someone to] his servant or hired man, let him not look at his nakedness, for what is below his navel to his two knees is nakedness" (Ahmad, 2.187), a hadith with a well authenticated (hasan) chain of transmission. The mujtahid Imams of the four schools knew these hadiths, and joined between them and the Khaybar hadith in Bukhari by the methodological principle that: "An explicit command in words from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) is given precedence over an action of his." Why?

Among other reasons, because certain laws of the shari‘a applied to the Prophet alone (Allah bless him and give him peace). Such as the fact that when he went into battle, he was not permitted to retreat, no matter how outnumbered. Or such as the obligatoriness for him alone of praying tahajjud or "night vigil prayer" after rising from sleep before dawn, which is merely sunna for the rest of us. Or such as the permissibility for him alone of not breaking his fast at night between fast-days. Or such as the permissibility for him alone of having more than four wives—the means through which Allah, in His wisdom, preserved for us the minutest details of the Prophet’s day-to-day sunna (Allah bless him and give him peace), which a larger number of wives would be far abler to observe and remember.

Because certain laws of the shari‘a applied to him alone, the scholars of ijtihad have established the principle that in many cases, when an act was done by the Prophet personally (Allah bless him and give him peace), such as bearing the thigh after Khaybar, and when he gave an explicit command to us to do something else, in this case, to cover the thigh because it is nakedness, then the command is adopted for us, and the act is considered to pertain to him alone (Allah bless him and give him peace).

We can see from this example the kind of scholarship it takes to seriously comprehend the whole body of hadith, both in breadth of knowledge, and depth of interpretive understanding or fiqh, and that anyone who would give a fatwa, on the basis of the Khaybar hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari, that "the scholars are wrong and the hadith is right" would be guilty of criminal negligence for his ignorance.

When one does not have substantive knowledge of the Qur’an and hadith corpus, and lacks the fiqh methodology to comprehensively join between it, the hadiths one has read are not enough. To take another example, there is a well authenticated (hasan) hadith that "the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) cursed women who visit graves" (Tirmidhi, 3.371). But scholars say that the prohibition of women visiting graves was abrogated (mansukh) by the rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith "I had forbidden you to visit graves, but now visit them" (Muslim, 2.672).

Here, although the expression "now visit them" (fa zuruha) is an imperative to men (or to a group of whom at least some are men), the fact that the hadith permits women as well as men to now visit graves is shown by another hadith related by Muslim in his Sahih that when ‘A'isha asked the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) what she should say if she visited graves, he told her, "Say: ‘Peace be upon the believers and Muslims of the folk of these abodes: May Allah have mercy on those of us who have gone ahead and those who have stayed behind: Allah willing, we shall certainly be joining you’" (Muslim, 2.671), which plainly entails the permissibility of her visiting graves in order to say this, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) would never have taught her these words if visiting the graves to say them had been disobedience. In other words, knowing all these hadiths, together with the methodological principle of naskh or "abrogation," is essential to drawing the valid fiqh conclusion that the first hadith in which "the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) cursed women who visit graves"—was abrogated by the second hadith, as is attested to by the third.

Or consider the Qur’anic text in surat al-Ma’ida:

"The food of those who have been given the Book is lawful for you, and your food is lawful for them" (Qur’an 5:5).

This is a general ruling ostensibly pertaining to all their food. Yet this ruling is subject to takhsis, or "restriction" by more specific rulings that prove that certain foods of Ahl al-Kitab, "those who have been given the Book," such as pork, or animals not properly slaughtered, are not lawful for us.

Ignorance of this principle of takhsis or restriction seems to be especially common among would-be mujtahids of our times, from whom we often hear the more general ruling in the words "But the Qur’an says," or "But the hadith says," without any mention of the more particular ruling from a different hadith or Qur’anic versethat restricts it. The reply can only be "Yes, brother, the Qur’an does say, ‘The food of those who have been given the Book is lawful for you,’ But what else does it say?" or "Yes, the hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari says the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) bared his thigh on the return from Khaybar. But what else do the hadiths say, and more importantly, are you sure you know it?"

The above examples illustrate only a few of the methodological rules needed by the mujtahid to understand and operationalize Islam by joining between all the evidence. Firstly, we saw the principle of takhsis or "restriction" of general rules by more specific ones, both in the example of fasting on the Day of ‘Arafa when it falls on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, and the example of the food of Ahl al-Kitab. Secondly, in the Khaybar hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari about baring the thigh and the hadiths commanding that the thigh be covered, we saw the principle of how an explicit prophetic command in words is given precedence over a mere action when there is a contradiction. Thirdly, we saw the principle of nasikh wa mansukh, of "an earlier ruling being abrogated by a later one," in the example of the initial prohibition of women visiting graves, and their subsequently being permitted to.

These are only three of the ways that two or more texts of the Qur’an and hadith may enter into and qualify one another, rules that someone who derives the shari‘a from them must know. In other words, they are but three tools of a whole methodological toolbox. We do not have the time tonight to go through all these tools in detail, although we can mention some in passing, giving first their Arabic names, such as:

The ‘amm, a text of general applicability to many legal rulings, and its opposite:
The khass, that which is applicable to only one ruling or type of ruling.
The mujmal, that which requires other texts to be fully understood, and its opposite:
The mubayyan, that which is plain without other texts.
The mutlaq, that which is applicable without restriction, and its opposite:
The muqayyad, that which has restrictions given in other texts.
The nasikh, that which supersedes previous revealed rulings, and its opposite:
The mansukh: that which is superseded.
The nass: that which unequivocally decides a particular legal question, and its opposite:
The dhahir: that which can bear more than one interpretation.
My point in mentioning what a mujtahid is, what fiqh is, and the types of texts that embody Allah’s commands, with the examples that illustrate them, is to answer our original question: "Why can’t we take our Islamic practice from the word of Allah and His messenger, which are divinely protected, instead of taking it from mujtahid Imams, who are not?" The answer, we have seen, is that revelation cannot be acted upon without understanding, and understanding requires firstly that one have the breadth of mastery of the whole, and secondly, the knowledge of how the parts relate to each other. Whoever joins between these two dimensions of the revelation is taking his Islamic practice from the word of Allah and His messenger, whether he does so personally, by being a mujtahid Imam, or whether by a means of another, by following one.

Following Scholars (Taqlid). The Qur’an clearly distinguishes between these two levels—the nonspecialists whose way is taqlid or "following the results of scholar without knowing the detailed evidence"; and those whose task is to know and evaluate the evidence—by Allah Most High saying in surat al-Nisa’:

"If they had referred it to the Messenger and to those of authority among them, then those of them whose task it is to find it out would have known the matter" (Qur’an 4:83)

—where alladhina yastanbitunahu minhum, "those of them whose task it is to find it out," refers to those possessing the capacity to infer legal rulings directly from evidence, which is called in Arabic precisely istinbat, showing, as Qur’anic exegete al-Razi says, that "Allah has commanded those morally responsible to refer actual facts to someone who can infer (yastanbitu) the legal ruling concerning them" (Tafsir al-Fakhr al-Razi, 10.205).

A person who has reached this level can and indeed must draw his inferences directly from evidence, and may not merely follow another scholar’s conclusions without examining the evidence (taqlid), a rule expressed in books of methodological principles of fiqh as: Laysa li al-‘alim an yuqallida, "The alim [i.e. the mujtahid at the level of instinbat referred to by the above Qur’anic verse] may not merely follow another scholar" (al-Juwayni: Sharh al-Waraqat, 75), meaning it is not legally permissible for one mujtahid to follow another mujtahid unless he knows and agrees with his evidences.

The mujtahid Imams trained a number of scholars who were at this level. Imam Shafi‘i had al-Muzani, and Imam Abu Hanifa had Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani. It was to such students that Abu Hanifa addressed his words: "It is unlawful for whoever does not know my evidence to give my position as a fatwa" (al-Hamid: Luzum ittiba‘ madhahib al-a’imma, 6), and, "It is not lawful for anyone to give our position as a fatwa until he knows where we have taken it from" (ibid.).

It is one of the howlers of our times that these words are sometimes quoted as though they were addressed to ordinary Muslims. If it were unlawful for the carpenter, the sailor, the computer programmer, the doctor, to do any act of worship before he had mastered the entire textual corpus of the Qur’an and thousands of hadiths, together with all the methodological principles needed to weigh the evidence and comprehensively join between it, he would either have to give up his profession or give up his religion. A lifetime of study would hardly be enough for this, a fact that Abu Hanifa knew better than anyone else, and it was to scholars of istinbat, the mujtahids, that he addressed his remarks. Whoever quotes these words to non-scholars to try to suggest that Abu Hanifa meant that it is wrong for ordinary Muslims to accept the work of scholars, should stop for a moment to reflect how insane this is, particularly in view of the life work of Abu Hanifa from beginning to end, which consisted precisely in summarizing the fiqh rulings of the religion for ordinary people to follow and benefit from.

Imam Shafi‘i was also addressing this top level of scholars when he said: "When a hadith is sahih, it is my school (madhhab)"—which has been misunderstood by some to mean that if one finds a hadith, for example, in Sahih al-Bukhari that is inconsistent with a position of Shafi‘i's, one should presume that he was ignorant of it, drop the fiqh, and accept the hadith.

I think the examples we have heard tonight of joining between several hadiths for a single ruling are too clear to misunderstand Shafi‘i in this way. Shafi‘i is referring to hadiths that he was previously unaware of and that mujtahid scholars know him to have been unaware of when he gave a particular ruling. And this, as Imam Nawawi has said, "is very difficult," for Shafi‘i was aware of a great deal. We have heard the opinion of Shafi‘i's student Ahmad ibn Hanbal about how many hadiths a faqih must know, and he unquestionably considered Shafi‘i to be such a scholar, for Shafi‘i was his sheikh in fiqh. Ibn Khuzayma, known as "the Imam of Imams" in hadith memorization, was once asked, "Do you know of any rigorously authenticated (sahih) hadith that Shafi‘i did not place in his books?" And he said "No" (Nawawi: al-Majmu‘, 1.10). And Imam Dhahabi has said, "Shafi‘i did not make a single mistake about a hadith" (Ibn Subki: Tabaqat al-Shafi‘iyya, 9.114). It is clear from all of this that Imam Shafi‘i's statement "When a hadith is sahih, it is my position" only makes sense—and could result in meaningful corrections—if addressed to scholars at a level of hadith mastery comparable to his own.

Hadith Authentication. The last point raises another issue that few people are aware of today, and I shall devote the final part of my speech to it. Just as the mujtahid Imam is not like us in his command of the Qur’an and hadith evidence and the principles needed to join between it and infer rulings from it, so too he is not like us in the way he judges the authenticity of hadiths. If a person who is not a hadith specialist needs to rate a hadith, he will usually want to know if it appears, for example, in Sahih al-Bukhari, or Sahih Muslim, or if some hadith scholar has declared it to be sahih or hasan. A mujtahid does not do this.

Rather, he reaches an independent judgment as to whether a particular hadith is truly from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) through his own knowledge of hadith narrators and the sciences of hadith, and not from taqlid or "following the opinion of another hadith scholar."

It is thus not necessarily an evidence against the positions of a mujtahid that Bukhari, or Muslim, or whoever, has accepted a hadith that contradicts the mujtahid’s evidence. Why? Because among hadith scholars, the reliability rating of individual narrators in hadith chains of transmission are disagreed about and therefore hadiths are disagreed about in the same manner that particular questions of fiqh are disagreed about among the scholars of fiqh. Like the schools of fiqh, the extent of this disagreement is relatively small in relation to the whole, but one should remember that it does exist.

Because a mujtahid scholar is not bound to accept another scholar’s ijtihad regarding a particular hadith, the ijtihad of a hadith specialist of our own time that, for example, a hadith is weak (da‘if), is not necessarily an evidence against the ijtihad of a previous mujtahid that the hadith is acceptable. This is particularly true in the present day, when specialists in hadith are not at the level of their predecessors in either knowledge of hadith sciences, or memorization of hadiths.

We should also remember what sahih means. I shall conclude my essay with the five conditions that have to be met for a hadith to be considered sahih, and we shall see, in sha’ Allah, how the scholars of hadith have differed about them, a discussion drawn in its outlines from contemporary Syrian hadith scholar Muhammad ‘Awwama’s Athar al-hadith al-sharif fi ikhtilaf al-A’imma al-fuqaha [The effect of hadith on the differences of the Imams of fiqh] (21–23):

(a) The first condition is that a hadith must go back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) by a continuous chain of narrators. There is a difference of opinion here between Bukhari and Muslim, in that Bukhari held that for any two adjacent narrators in a chain of transmission, it must be historically established that the two actually met, whereas Muslim and others stipulated only that their meeting have been possible, such as by one having lived in a particular city that the other is known to have visited at least once in his life. So some hadiths will be acceptable to Muslim that will not be acceptable to Bukhari and those of the mujtahid imams who adopt his criterion.

(b) The second condition for a sahih hadith is that the narrators be morally upright. The scholars have disagreed about the definition of this, some accepting that it is enough that a narrator be a Muslim who is not proven to have been unacceptable. Others stipulate that he be outwardly established as having been morally upright, while other scholars stipulate that this be established inwardly as well. These different criteria are naturally reasons why two mujtahids may differ about the authenticity of a single hadith.

(c) The third condition is that the narrators must be known to have had accurate memories. The verification of this is similarly subject to some disagreement between the Imams of hadith, resulting in differences about reliability ratings of particular narrators, and therefore of particular hadiths.

(d) The fourth condition for a sahih hadith is that the text and transmission of the hadith must be free of shudhudh, or "variance from established standard narrations of it." An example is when a hadith is related by five different narrators who are contemporaries of one another, all of whom relate the same hadith from the same sheikh through his chain of transmission back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Here, if we find that four of the hadiths have the same wording but one of them has a variant wording, the hadith with the variant wording is called shadhdh or "deviant," and it is not accepted, because the difference is naturally assumed to be the mistake of the one narrator, since all of the narrators heard the hadith from the same sheikh.

There is a hadith (to take an example researched by our hadith teacher, sheikh Shu‘ayb al-Arna’ut) related by Ahmad (4.318), Bayhaqi (2.132), Ibn Khuzayma (1.354), and Ibn Hibban, with a reliable chain of narrators (thiqat)—except for Kulayb ibn Hisham, who is a merely "acceptable" (saduq), not "reliable" (thiqa)—that the Companion Wa’il ibn Hujr al-Hadrami said that when he watched the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) kneeling in the Tashahhud or "Testification of Faith" of his prayer, the Prophet lifted his [index] finger, and I saw him move it, supplicating with it. I came [some time] after that and saw people in [winter] over-cloaks, their hands moving under the cloaks (Ibn Hibban, 5.170–71).

Now, all of the versions of the hadith mentioning that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) moved his finger have been related to us by way of Za’ida ibn Qudama al-Thaqafi, a narrator who is considered reliable, and who transmitted it from the hadith sheikh ‘Asim ibn Kulayb, who related it from his father Kulayb ibn Shihab, from Wa’il ibn Hujr al-Hadrami. But we find that this version of "moving the finger" contradicts versions of the hadith transmitted from the same sheikh, ‘Asim ibn Kulayb, by no less than ten of ‘Asim’s other students, all of them reliable, who heard ‘Asim report that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) did not move but rather pointed (ashara) with his index finger (towards the qibla or "direction of prayer").

These companions of ‘Asim (with their hadiths, which are well authenticated (hasan)) are: Sufyan al-Thawri: "then he pointed with his index finger, putting the thumb to the middle finger to make a ring with them" (al-Musannaf 2.68–69); Sufyan ibn ‘Uyayna: "he joined his thumb and middle finger to make a ring, and pointed with his index finger" (Ahmad, 4.318); Shu‘ba ibn al-Hajjaj: "he pointed with his index finger, and formed a ring with the middle one" (Ahmad, 4.319); Qays ibn al-Rabi‘: "then he joined his thumb and middle finger to make a ring, and pointed with his index finger" (Tabarani, 22.33–34); ‘Abd al-Wahid ibn Ziyad al-‘Abdi: "he made a ring with a finger, and pointed with his index finger" (Ahmad, 4.316); ‘Abdullah ibn Idris al-Awdi: "he had joined his thumb and middle finger to make a ring, and raised the finger between them to make du‘a (supplication) in the Testification of Faith" (Ibn Majah, 1.295); Zuhayr ibn Mu‘awiya: "and I saw him [‘Asim] say, ‘Like this,’—and Zuhayr pointed with his first index finger, holding two fingers in, and made a ring with his thumb and second index [middle] finger" (Ahmad, 4.318–19); Abu al-Ahwas Sallam ibn Sulaym: "he began making du‘a like this—meaning with his index finger, pointing with it—" (Musnad al-Tayalisi, 137); Bishr ibn al-Mufaddal: "and I saw him [‘Asim] say, ‘Like this,’—and Bishr joined his thumb and middle finger to make a ring, and pointed with his index finger" (Abi Dawud, 1.251); and Khalid ibn Abdullah al-Wasiti: "then he joined his thumb and middle finger to make a ring, and pointed with his index finger" (Bayhaqi, 2.131).

All of these narrators are reliable (thiqat), and all heard ‘Asim ibn Kulayb relate that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) "pointed with (ashara bi) his index finger" during the Testimony of Faith in his prayer. There are many other narrations of "pointing with the index finger" transmitted through sheikhs other than ‘Asim, omitted here for brevity—four of them, for example, in Sahih Muslim, 1.408–9). The point is, for illustrating the meaning of a shadhdh or "deviant hadith," that the version of moving the finger was conveyed only by Za’ida ibn Qudama from ‘Asim. Ibn Khuzayma says: "There is not a single hadith containing yuharrikuha (‘he moved it’) except this hadith mentioned by Za’ida" (Ibn Khuzayma, 1.354).

So we know that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to point with his index finger, and that the version of "moving his finger" is shadhdh or "deviant," and represents a slip of the narrator, for the word ishara in the majority’s version means only "to point or gesture at," or "to indicate with the hand," and has no recorded lexical sense of wiggling or shaking the finger (Lisan al-‘Arab, 4.437 and al-Qamus al-muhit (540). This interpretation is explicitly borne out by well authenticated hadiths related from the Companion Abdullah ibn al-Zubayr that "the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to point with his index finger when making supplication [in the Testification of Faith], and did not move it" (Abi Dawud, 1.260) and that he "used to point with his index finger when making supplication, without moving it" (Bayhaqi, 2.131–32).

Finally, we may note that Imam Bayhaqi has joined between the Za’ida ibn Qudama hadith and the many hadiths that apparently contradict it by suggesting that moving the finger in the Za’ida hadith may mean simply lifting it (rafa‘a), a wording explicitly mentioned in one version recorded by Muslim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) "raised the right finger that is next to the thumb, and supplicated with it" (Muslim, 1.408). So according to Bayhaqi, the contradiction is only apparent, and raising the finger is the "movement" that Wa’il saw from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the people’s hands under their cloaks, according to Za’ida’s version, which remains, however, shadhdh or "deviant" from a hadith point of view, unless understood in this limitary sense.

(e) The fifth and final condition for a sahih hadith is that both the text and chain of transmission must be without ‘illa or "hidden flaw" that alerts experts to expect inauthenticity in it. We will dwell for a moment on this point not only because it helps illustrate the processes of ijtihad, but because in-depth expertise in this condition was not common even among top hadith Imams. The greatest name in the field was ‘Ali al-Madini, one of the sheikhs of Bukhari, though his major work about it is now unfortunately lost. Daraqutni is perhaps the most famous specialist in the field whose works exist. In the words of Ibn al-Salah, a hafiz or "hadith master" (someone with at least 100,000 hadiths by memory), the knowledge of the ‘illa or "hidden flaw" is:

among the greatest of the sciences of hadith, the most exacting, and highest: only scholars of great memorization, hadith expertise, and penetrating understanding have a thorough knowledge of it. It refers to obscure, hidden flaws that vitiate hadiths, "flawed" meaning that a defect is discovered that negates the authenticity of a hadith that is outwardly "rigorously authenticated" (sahih). It affects hadiths with reliable chains of narrators that outwardly appear to fulfill all the conditions of a sahih hadith (‘Ulum al-hadith).

It may surprise some people to learn that one example often cited in hadith textbooks of such a hidden flaw (‘illa) is from Sahih Muslim, all of whose hadiths are rigorously authenticated (sahih), as Ibn al-Salah has said, "except for a very small number of words, which hadith masters of textual evaluation (naqd) such as Daraqutni and others have critiqued, and which are known to scholars of this level" (‘Ulum al-hadith). The hadith of the present example was related by Muslim from the Companion Anas ibn Malik in several versions, which might convince those unaware of its flaw to believe that someone at prayer should omit the Basmala or "Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim" at the beginning of the Fatiha. According to the hadith, Anas ibn Malik (Allah be well pleased with him) said,

I prayed with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, and they opened with "al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin,"not mentioning "Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim" at the first of the recital or the last of it [and in another version, "I didn’t hear any of them recite ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim’"] (Muslim, 1.299).

Scholars say the hadith’s flaw lies in the negation of the Basmala at the end, which is not the words of Anas, but rather one of the subnarrators explaining what he thought Anas meant. Ibn al-Salah says: "Its subnarrator related it with the above-mentioned wording in accordance with his own understanding of it" (Muqaddima Ibn al-Salah (b01), 99). This hadith is given as an example of a "hidden flaw" in a number of manuals of hadith terminology such as hadith master (hafiz) Suyuti’s Tadrib al-rawi (1.254–57); hadith master Ibn al-Salah’s Ulum al-hadith; hadith master Zayn al-Din al-‘Iraqi’s al-Taqyid wa al-idah (98–103); and others. Al-‘Iraqi says, "A number of hadith masters (huffaz) have judged it to be flawed, including Shafi‘i, Daraqutni, Bayhaqi, and Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr" (ibid., 98).

Now, Bukhari has related the hadith up to the words "and they opened with ‘al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin’"; without mentioning omitting the Basmala (Bukhari, 1.189), and Tirmidhi and Abu Dawud relate no other version. Scholars point out, in this connection, that the words "al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin" were in fact the name of the Fatiha, for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and his Companions often used the opening words of suras as names for them; for example, in the hadith in Sahih al-Bukhari of Abu Sa‘id ibn al-Mu‘alla, who relates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said:

"I will teach you a sura that is the greatest sura of the Qur’an before you leave the mosque." Then he took my hand, and when he was going out, I said to him, "Didn’t you say, ‘I will teach you a sura that is the greatest sura of the Qur’an before you leave the mosque’?" And he said: "‘Al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin’: it is the Seven Oft-Recited [Verses] (al-Sab‘ al-Mathani) and the Tremendous Recital (al-Qur’an al-‘Adhim) that I have been given" (ibid., 6.20–21).

In this hadith, "Al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin" is plainly the name of the Fatiha, and means nothing besides, for otherwise, it is one verse, not seven. ‘A'isha, who was one of the ulama of the Sahaba, also referred to names of suras in this way, as in the hadith of Bukhari that

the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), when he went to bed each night, joined his hands together, blew a light spray of saliva upon them, and read over them "Qul huwa Llahu Ahad," "Qul a‘udhu bi Rabbi l-Falaq," and "Qul a‘udhu bi Rabbi n-Nas"; then wiped every part of his body he could with them (ibid., 233–34),

which clearly shows that she named the suras by their opening words (after the Basmala), as did other early Muslims (such as Bukhari in his chapter headings in the section of his Sahih on the Virtues of the Qur’an, for example). So there is no indication, in the portion of the Anas hadith’s wording that is agreed upon by both Bukhari and Muslim; namely, "I prayed with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, and ‘Uthman, and they opened with ‘al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin,’" that the Basmala was not recited aloud. Says Tirmidhi: "Imam Shafi‘i has said, ‘Its meaning is that they used to begin with the Fatiha before the sura, not that they did not recite "Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim."’ And Shafi‘i held that the prayer was begun with ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim,’ and that it was recited aloud in prayers recited aloud" (Tirmidhi, 2.16).

Hadith scholars who are masters of textual critique, like Daraqutni and others, consider the words of the Anas hadith"not mentioning ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim,’" which outwardly seem to suggest omitting the Basmala, to be vitiated by an ‘illa or "hidden flaw" for many reasons, a few of which are:

—It is established by numerous intersubstantiative channels of transmission (tawatur), that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, "There is no prayer for whoever does not recite the Fatiha" (Bukhari, 1.192). That the Basmala is the Fatiha’s first verse is shown by several facts:

First, the Sahaba affirmed nothing in the collation of the Qur’an (mushaf) of ‘Uthman’s time except what was Qur’an, and they unanimously placed the Basmala at the beginning of every sura except surat al-Tawba.

Second, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, "When you recite ‘al-Hamdu li Llah,’ recite ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim,’ for it is the Sum of the Qur’an (Umm al-Qur’an), and the Compriser of the Scripture (Umm al-Kitab), and the Seven Oft-Repeated [Verses] (al-Sab‘ al-Mathani)—and ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim’ is one of its verses" (Bayhaqi, 2.45; and Daraqutni, 1.312), a hadith related with a rigorously authenticated (sahih) channel of transmission to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and through another chain to Abu Hurayra alone (Allah be well pleased with him).

Third, Umm Salama relates: "The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to recite: ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim. al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin,’ separating each phrase"; a hadith which Hakim said was rigorously authenticated (sahih) according to the conditions of Bukhari and Muslim, which Imam Dhahabi corroborated (al-Mustadrak, 1.232). Daraqutni also relates from Umm Salama that "the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) when he used to recite the Qur’an would pause in his recital verse by verse: ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim: al-Hamdu li Llahi Rabbi l-‘Alamin: ar-Rahmani r-Rahim: Maliki yawmi d-din.’" Daraqutni said, "Its ascription is rigorously authenticated (sahih); all of its narrators are reliable" (Daraqutni, 1.312–13). These hadiths show that the Basmala was recited aloud by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) as part of the Fatiha.

Fourth, Bukhari relates in his Sahih that when Anas was asked how the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to recite, "he answered: ‘By prolonging [the vowels]’—and then he [Anas] recited ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim,’ prolonging the Bismi Llah, prolonging the r-Rahman, and prolonging the r-Rahim" (Bukhari, 6.241), indicating that Anas regarded this as part of the Prophet’s Qur’an recital and that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) recited it aloud.

Fifth, Daraqutni has recorded two hadiths, both from Ibn ‘Abbas, and has said about each of them, "This is a rigorously authenticated (sahih) chain of transmission, there is not a weak narrator in it," of which the first is: "The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to recite ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim,’ aloud"; and the second is: "The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to begin the prayer with ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim’" (al-Nawawi: al-Majmu‘, 3.347).

—Imam al-Mawardi summarizes: "Because it is established that it is obligatory to recite the Fatiha in the prayer, and that the Basmala is part of it, the ruling for reciting the Basmala aloud or to oneself must be the same as that of reciting the Fatiha aloud or to oneself" (al-Hawi al-kabir, 2.139).

—Imam Nawawi says: "Concerning reciting ‘Bismi Llahi r-Rahmani r-Rahim’ aloud, we have mentioned that our position is that it is praiseworthy to do so. Wherever one recites the Fatiha and sura aloud, the ruling for reciting the Basmala aloud is the same as reciting the rest of the Fatiha and sura aloud. This is the position of the majority of the ulama of the Sahaba and those who were taught by them (Tabi‘in) and those after them. As for the Sahaba who held the Basmala is recited aloud at prayer, the hadith master (hafiz) Abu Bakr al-Khatib reports that they included Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman, ‘Ali, ‘Ammar ibn Yasir, Ubayy ibn Ka‘b, Ibn ‘Umar, Ibn ‘Abbas, Abu Qatada, Abu Sa‘id, Qays ibn Malik, Abu Hurayra, ‘Abdullah ibn Abi Awfa, Shaddad ibn Aws, ‘Abdullah ibn Ja‘far, Husayn ibn ‘Ali, Mu‘awiya, and the congregation of Emigrants (Muhajirin) and Helpers (Ansar) who were present with Mu‘awiya when he prayed in Medina but did not say the Basmala aloud, and they censured him, so he returned to saying it aloud" (al-Majmu‘, 3.341).

These are some reasons why scholars regard the Anas hadith in Sahih Muslim to be mu‘all or "flawed." We cannot here discuss other aspects of the hadith such as the flaws in its chain of narrators, which are explained in detail in Zayn al-Din ‘Iraqi’s al-Taqyid wa al-idah (100–101), though the foregoing may give a general idea why it has been considered flawed by hadith masters (huffaz) such as Suyuti, ‘Iraqi, Ibn Salah, Ibn ‘Abd al-Barr, Daraqutni, and Bayhaqi—and why the shari‘a ruling apparently deducible from the end of the hadith; namely, omitting the Basmala when reciting the Fatiha at prayer, has been rejected by al-Shafi‘i, Nawawi, and others, who hold that the Basmala is recited aloud whenever the Fatiha is. (The position of Abu Hanifa and Ahmad ibn Hanbal, it may be noted, is that one recites the Basmala to oneself before the Fatiha, thus joining between hadiths on both sides by interpreting the "omitting" in the Anas hadith in other than its apparent sense, to mean merely "reciting to oneself.") In any case, it is clearly not a story of "the hadith in Sahih Muslim that the Imams didn’t know about," as some of the unlearned seriously suggest today, but rather a difference of opinion in hadith authentication involving the highest levels of shari‘a scholarship.

Studying the five conditions above for a sahih hadith and the differences about them among specialists shows us why the mujtahid Imams of the schools sometimes differ with one another about whether a particular hadith is really from the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). Whoever believes that a single scholar, whether Bukhari, Muslim, or a contemporary sheikh, can finish off all differences of opinion about the acceptability of particular hadiths, should correct his impressions by going and studying the sciences of hadith. What we can realize from this is that when we find a hadith in Sahih Bukhari that one school of fiqh seems to follow and another does not, it may well be that differences in fiqh methodology, hadith methodology, or both, play a role.

Conclusions. Let me summarize everything I have said tonight. I first pointed out that the knowledge you and I learn from the Qur’an and hadith may be divided into three categories. The first is the knowledge of Allah and His attributes, and the basic truths of Islamic belief such as the messengerhood of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), the belief in the Last Day, and so on. Every Muslim can and must learn this knowledge from the Book of Allah and the sunna, which is also the case for the second kind of knowledge: that of general Islamic laws to do good, to avoid evil, to perform the prayer, pay zakat, fast Ramadan, to cooperate with others in good works, and so on. Anyone can and must learn these general prescriptions for him or herself.

Then we discussed a third category of knowledge, which consists of fiqh or "understanding" of specific details of Islamic practice. We found in the Qur’an and sahih hadiths that people are of two types respecting this knowledge, those qualified to do ijtihad and those who are not. We mentioned the sahih hadith about "a man who judges for people while ignorant: he shall go to hell," showing that would-be mujtahids are criminals when they operate without training.

We heard the Qur’anic verse that established that a certain group of the Muslim community must learn and be able to teach others the specific details of their religion. We heard the Qur’anic verse that those who do not know must ask those who do, as well as the verse about referring matters to "those whose task it is to find it out."

We talked about these scholars, the mujtahid Imams, firstly, in terms of their comprehensive knowledge of the whole Qur’an and hadith textual corpus, and secondly, in terms of their depth of interpretation, and here we mentioned Qur’an and hadith examples that illustrate the processes by which mujtahid Imams join between multiple texts, and give precedence when there is ostensive conflict. Our concrete examples of ijtihad enabled us in turn to understand to whom the Imams addressed their famous remarks not to follow their positions without knowing the proofs. They addressed them to the first rank scholars they had trained and who were capable of grasping and evaluating the issues involved in these particular proofs.

We then saw that the Imams were also mujtahids in the matter of judging hadiths to be sahih or otherwise, and noted that, just as it is unlawful for a mujtahid Imam to do taqlid or "follow another mujtahid without knowing his evidence" in a question of fiqh, neither does he do so in the question of accepting particular hadiths. Finally, we noted that the differences in reliability ratings of hadiths among qualified scholars were parallel to the differences among scholars about the details of Islamic practice: a relatively small amount of difference in relation to the whole.

The main point of all of this is that while every Muslim can take the foundation of his Islam directly from the Qur’an and hadith; namely, the main beliefs and general ethical principles he has to follow—for the specific details of fiqh of Islamic practice, knowing a Qur’anic verse or hadith may be worlds apart from knowing the shari‘a ruling, unless one is a qualified mujtahid or is citing one.

As for would-be mujtahids who know some Arabic and are armed with books of hadith, they are like the would-be doctor we mentioned earlier: if his only qualification were that he could read English and owned some medical books, we would certainly object to his practicing medicine, even if it were no more than operating on someone’s little finger. So what should be said of someone who knows only Arabic and has some books of hadith, and wants to operate on your akhira?

To understand why Muslims follow madhhabs, we have to go beyond simplistic slogans about "the divinely-protected versus the non-divinely-protected," and appreciate the Imams of fiqh who have operationalized the Qur’an and sunna to apply in our lives as shari‘a, and we must ask ourselves if we really "hear and obey" when Allah tells us

"Ask those who know if you know not" (Qur’an 16:43).