Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 4

Chapter Four

THE END OF TIME

Islam, iman, and ihsan work together to coordinate all aspects of our life and being so that we may know how to worship and love in a manner that befits our true nature. By teaching us to live according to the same fundamental principles in all dimensions of life, they coordinate the chaos of worldly existence by returning it to its divine center of transmuting the diffuse cacophony of a misguided and undisciplined life into the harmony of a life lived by the eternal rhythm of truth. Nonetheless, the world, like our bodies, is condemned to a gradual process of decay. Just as the march of time weakens our bodies, it brings about moral decay, thus making it increasingly difficult to tell wrong from right. Just as the human body deteriorates while one is still living and even endures states that appear unnatural when compared to its healthy condition, so too the Qur’an and Hadith speak of many unnatural events that will afflict the world as it reaches its end. These are known as the “Signs of the Hour”. Their mark is a chaos that will make it more difficult than ever to maintain the proper balance between imanislam, and ihsan on both the societal and individual levels. This is referred to in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام when the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ says, “The slave will give birth to her mistress, and you will see the barefoot, naked, destitute shepherds vying in erecting tall buildings.” The former alludes to the dissolution of the family, the latter to the corruption of society, when the basest of people rule and care for nothing but position, reputation, and monetary gain.

The exact timing of the occurrence of the End of Time is unknown to us. God says clearly in the Qur’an,

Surely with God is the knowledge of the End of Time. (31 : 34)

The signs of the End of Time are many. They are generally divided into greater and lesser signs. The two mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ are among the lesser signs. The lesser signs also include rampant murder, widespread religious ignorance, a drastic increase in fornication, the proliferation of alcohol use, a sharp decrease in the number of viable men, a corresponding increase in the number of eligible unmarried women, a loss of trust between people, a tremendous increase in wealth; in addition, the Arabian Peninsula will become green and lush, and the prophecy that the caliphate will be held by twelve Qureyshi Imams will be fulfilled.

In regards to the two signs actually mentioned by the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎, which were noted at the beginning of this section, they both involve the emergence of a leadership class of base people. These base people who enter into positions of power and authority -positions they are unfit to hold- are referred to as the Ruwaybidah. Concerning them, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ mentioned, “Before the End of Time there will be treacherous years. The integrity of the trustworthy person will be impugned, and the blameworthy person will be trusted. During that time the Ruwaybidah will speak.” They said, “Who are the Ruwaybidah?” He replied, “Fools speaking in public affairs.”[1]

Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali has given a chilling warning as to the negative consequences of their ascension. He says,

When the barefoot, naked shepherds -and they are crude, ignorant people- become the leaders and wealthy, to such an extent that they begin vying with each other in the construction of tall buildings, [their ascension] will bring about the corruption of the religious and worldly order [of the Muslims].[2]

The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ comments upon both dimensions of social decay in another hadith, warning that towards the End of Time,

…a man obeys his wife while he is disrespectful to his mother, and is devoted to his friend while shunning his father. Voices are raised in the mosques and the leader of the people is the vilest among them. Some people will be treated respectfully solely for fear of their evil … and the later generations will curse the first generations.[3]

Whereas Western civilization tends to view the march of time as one of progress, Islam, like most other religions, sees it as a process of decay and corruption, for “no time comes but that what follows it is worse.”[4] As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ is said to be the last Messenger before the End of Time, his Hadith are filled with warnings of the trials (fitan) that shall come to pass as the world moves from order to chaos. The root of all these trials is the loss of knowledge and religion. We have referred to this in the discussion of other religions, where the teachings of the religions themselves are not criticized, but the human tendency to forget them and to fail to live in accord with them is. Regarding this continual loss of religious knowledge, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ said, “Among the conditions of the Hour is that knowledge is lifted and ignorance affirmed,”[5] and “Truly at the time of the Hour are days in which ignorance descends and knowledge is lifted.”[6] Regarding the gradual devolution of humankind that results from this, he said, “The best among my nation are the generation among whom I was raised, then the one after that, then the one after that…”[7] and “The upright will depart one after another until nothing remains but impoverished people, the like of leftover barley and dates.”[8]

Not conscious of their true nature, people of latter times will have no center other than their own egos and will live only to sustain them. As one of the Prophet Muhammad’s companions warned, “The first knowledge to be removed from the people is humility. Soon you will enter a full mosque and not see a humble man within it.”[9] At this time religion will no longer be followed, rather “…rapacity reigns, passions are obeyed, the world is given priority and each man admires his own opinions.”[10]  As mentioned previously, knowledge is removed from humanity by the removal of those who have knowledge, and as a result people will take ignoramuses as their leaders. Such people will be followed because “…the minds of most will be taken away. There will remain only those who resemble dust, most of whom will know nothing but think they know all.”[11] There will thus be great confusion regarding the practice of religion, something which can be seen throughout the Islamic world today, where some of the simplest practices have been forgotten, and others altered by those who think they know better. Nonetheless, there is a compensating mercy, for one cannot be held fully responsible for that about which they know nothing. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ said to his companions, “You live at a time when whoever omits one tenth of what he has been ordered [to do] is ruined. But there will come a time when whoever fulfills one tenth of what he has been ordered [to do] is saved.”[12]

In these times, adhering to the teachings of Islam is said to be as difficult as holding onto a hot coal. To prepare Muslims for such days, many of the illnesses that now afflict Muslims and people the world over were spoken of by the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎. For example the world economic system now prevents anyone from having money that has not in some way been touched by the usury of modern banking, a practice prohibited in Islamic law. Regarding this, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ said, “There shall come upon the people a time when they will take usury. Those who do not take it will be affected by the dust of it.”[13] It is said that corruption in economic affairs will be such that people do not care what source their money comes from. Foremost among the signs of these latter times is that Muslims will be many, but extremely weak. One day the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ told his companions, “The nations will soon invite others to partake of you, just as they invite one to eat from their bowl.” A man asked, “And how few will we be that day?” The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ responded, “Rather that day you will many, but you will be foam, like the foam of a wave, and God will remove the awe of you from the breasts of your enemies an will cast weakness into your hearts.” A person asked, “O Messenger of God, what is [that] weakness?” He replied, “The love of the world and aversion to death.”[14] When one sees that the political affairs of Muslims the world over are now determined by outside forces, it is apparent that in many ways this has come to pass.

Just as the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ taught his community how to live during the times when the spheres of islamiman, and ihsan were closely bound together, so too did he teach them how best to react in an age when the principles of religion have been all but forgotten. When speaking of such times, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ would often cry, for he knew that his followers would face many tribulations. As he said, “After me you will see issues and affairs that you will hate.” When asked how to respond to such times, he responded, “Give them their right and ask God for your right.”[15] This means that one must recognize such times for what they are and continue to act in accord with God’s decrees, rather than being caught up in one trend and then another, shifting from ideology to ideology. In such times confusion will reign. To become involved may thus serve to aggravate the problems more than alleviate them. In another account the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ tells his companions, “Be patient until you meet me at the pool,”[16] meaning the pool of paradise. Patience and nonviolence are what is recommended for confronting such calamities. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ has said, “Who comes upon a man from my people in order to slay him, let him slay. For the slayer is in the fire and the slain is in paradise.”[17]

In an account that sums up the nature of such times and the proper reaction to it, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ says:

At the time when the Hour comes there are trials like the pitch dark of night. During such trials a man rises as a believer and retires as an unbeliever, and rises as an unbeliever and retires as a believer. The one sitting at such times is better than the one standing, and the one walking is better than the one running. So break your hardness, cut off your desires, and break your swords upon a rock. And if anyone enters upon you, then be like the better son of Adam.[18]

Thus, one should be like Abel, who said to his brother Cain,

Even if you extend your hand to kill me, I will not extend my hand to kill you.
Truly I fear God the Lord of the worlds. (5 : 28)

While such an attitude would seem to contradict the many Qur’anic verses that call for Muslims to fight in the way of God, one must remember that in times when there are no true leaders, fighting only leads to greater strife. Even the first Muslims, who had a true leader, yet were weak in relation to those who opposed them, did not engage the enemy. Throughout the first twelve years of the Prophet Muhammad’s twenty-three year mission they suffered great persecution, but triumphed through patience and piety, not by retaliation and vengeance. Such a way of practicing Islam might seem foreign to many Muslims today. But as the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ has said, “Islam came as a strange affair and will return as a strange affair. So blessed are the strangers who rectify that of my custom which the people have corrupted after me.”[19]

As the Prophet Muhammad’s Sunnah and the Qur’an have been preserved to this day, the possibility of rectifying them and living in accord with them always remains. Indeed, for many Muslims it is precisely the fact that Islam has been preserved that makes it possible to know how to submit to God with faith and beauty while living in a world gone mad. As God has promised,

We have made the Remembrance (i.e., the Qur’an) descend and
We are preserving it. (15 : 9)

And as the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ said in his farewell pilgrimage: “I have left among you that which if you hold fast to it, you will never be misguided, a clear matter, the Book of God, and the custom of His Prophet. O people, hear my words and understand.”[20]


NOTES

[1] al-Bukhari, p. 1331, no. 7498
[2] Quoted in Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Jami’ al-‘ulum wa al-hikam (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1994 CE / 1414 AH), 1 : 139
[3] al-Tirmidhi, p. 507, no. 2210
[4] al-Bukhari, p. 1258, no. 7068
[5] Ibid., p. 34, no. 80
[6] Ibid., p. 1257, no. 7062
[7] Ibid., p. 640, no. 3651
[8] Ibid., p. 1150, no. 6434
[9] al-Tirmidhi, p. 602, no. 2653
[10] Ibid., p. 688, no. 3058
[11] Ibn Majah, Kitab al-fitan, v. 10, Cf., p. 67
[12] al-Tirmidhi, p. 521, no. 2267
[13] Ibn Majah, p. 326, no. 2278
[14] Imam Abu Dawud Sulayman b. al-Asha’th al-Sijistani, Sunan Abu Dawud (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1999 CE / 1420 AH), pps. 603 – 604, no. 4297
[15] al-Bukhari, p. 1256, no. 7052
[16] al-Bukhari p. 1256, introduction to section no. 2
[17] Abu Dawud, p. 597, no. 4260
[18] Ibid., p. 598, no. 4259
[19] al-Tirmidhi, p. 597, no. 2630
[20] Ibn Ishaq, Sirah Rasul Allah (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1979 CE / 1409 AH), 4 : 239

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 3

Having outlined the teachings that pertain to faith and submission, we now turn to the last of the three aspects of the natural state mentioned in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام, beauty (ihsan). Iman and islam can be broken down into the categories given for each in the Hadith, but ihsan is simply “to worship God as if you see Him”; so while iman and islam are presented as specific creeds and practices, ihsan is a state of being. Islam and iman thus tell us what is the best thing to do and to think, but ihsan tells us how to do it. It is an attitude, intention, and way of life that should permeate all that one says, thinks, or does. Hence the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said to his companions, “God has ordained doing what is beautiful for all things.” When iman and islam are not beautified through ihsan, they lose their efficacy. The law becomes a dead letter that stifles instead of frees, and the creed becomes an empty doctrine that kills the heart by enclosing it in the precepts of the mind rather than enlivening both the heart and mind by infusing them with the light of truth. As one of the great scholars of early Islamic history wrote when commenting upon the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام, “Islam is the outer, iman is the inner and the outer, and ihsan is the reality of the outer and the inner.”[1] From this perspective, the reality of the “submitting way” is doing all things with beauty (husn).

Three Qur’anic passages discuss islam and ihsan together:

Who submits his face to God and does what is beautiful,
he has his reward with God,
he shall not fear, nor shall he sorrow. (2 : 112)

Who submits his face to God and does what is beautiful
has seized upon the firmest rope,
and to God do the affairs return. (31 : 22)

Who is more beautiful in religion
than one who submits his face to God,
does what is beautiful,
and follows the way of Abraham in pure faith. (4 : 125)

In Arabic, to submit one’s face means to submit one’s entire being, one’s essence; for the face, unlike other parts of the body, identifies who we are and is thus associated with our true nature. By joining together the states of submission and beautification, these three verses imply that the full depth of Islam -the reality of submission- is only attained through doing all that we can with beauty. This is because both islam and ihsan seek to control our passions and conceits, Islam by channeling and neutralizing them from outside through the pillars and the Shariah, ihsan by dissolving them from within. It should be noted, however, that when our passions and conceits are dissolved from within, many of the prescriptions and prohibitions that pertain to the outer neutralizing discipline do not need to be imposed because the actions they enjoin arise organically from our true nature (fitrah).

This world can never be perfect, but within the imperfection that defines our earthly existence, we can act beautifully. To do so is, in some small way, to make God present in the world, both by being conscious of God and because all beauty ultimately derives from God. As a famous hadith says, “God is beautiful and He loves beauty.”[2] And do not all things incline towards that which they love? According to the Qur’an beautification is part of God’s creative process:

It is God who made beautiful everything that He created. (32 : 6)

Who formed you and made your forms beautiful. (40 : 64)

He created the heavens and the earth through truth,
formed you and made your forms beautiful. (63 : 3)

God is thus the first to beautify; for us to beautify is to emulate God as best as we can. Although islam andiman are fundamental components of a complete human life, neither pertains directly to God. God does not submit; He can only be submitted to. God does not have faith or believe, rather,

He is the Knower of the unseen and the seen. (13 : 9, 39 : 46, 59 : 23)

For our Lord embraces all things in knowledge. (6 : 80, 7 : 89)

Ihsan is thus the mode of religious practice wherein the human being draws close to God by being as god-like as one can be; hence the Qur’an implores us,

Beautify as God has beautified you. (28 : 77)

Whereas God has made the outward forms of things beautiful, to be fully beautiful we must participate in the inner beautification of our characters; therefore the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم would pray, “God, you have made beautiful my creation (khalq), make beautiful my character (khuluq).”[3] Only after God has beautified one’s character is the human able to beautify in turn, for like comes only from like. This then leads to the continued beautification of one’s self:

Is not the recompense for beautifying
but beautification? (55 : 60)

As the character gradually grows in beauty, one participates more fully and freely in the beautification of his or her own soul and moves closer to God, the source of all beauty. As the Qur’an states,

Those who beautify
will receive beauty, and more. (10 : 26)

That which is most beautiful is God, for,

To Him belong the most beautiful names. (18 : 110, 20 : 8, 59 : 24)

In effect, the purpose of the Islamic tradition, or any religious tradition for that matter, is to beautify the human character. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “I was only sent to complete the noble character traits,”[4] and “Among the best of you is the most beautiful in character traits.”[5] The creeds explained in theology and the actions ordained in the Shariah are thus intended to engender a life lived in simple and utter beauty. A life lived in beauty is not lived on the periphery but in the heart. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “God does not look at your bodies, nor at your forms, He looks at your hearts.”[6] In fact, the heart determines all other dimensions of our being: “There is in man a clump of flesh. If it is pure, the whole body is pure. If it is polluted, the whole body is polluted. It is the heart.”[7] Nothing is more important for our final end than the state of the heart, for the Day of Judgment is,

A day when neither wealth nor sons shall profit,
save one who comes to God with a sound heart. (26 : 88)

When the heart is sound, the entire human is sound and the the ego has, in a sense, already died to the world.

The process of purifying the heart and slaying the ego is in a sense a process of learning how to worship freely with all that one is, not only because we are commanded to do so, but because it is pleasing to God. All of creation cannot but worship God in some way, for God is Absolute and we are contingent, God is the Creator and we are the created. As God tells us,

There is none in the heavens and the earth
that does not come to the All-Merciful as a worshipper. (19 : 93)

But human beings also have a degree of free will and thus have another form of worship prescribed for them so that they may freely choose to worship. This mode of worship takes form in the five pillars of Islam, the conditions of which are detailed in the Shariah, but this is only a bare minimum. For those who love God and are drawn to the Absolute, there is a degree of worship beyond the compulsory. These are the supererogatory devotions, such as reading the Qur’an regularly, performing extra prayers, fasting at times other than Ramadan, and giving alms beyond the required zakat. Sincere performance of the obligatory rites engenders a desire to please God more and draw nearer to Him, just as He draws nearer to us. This becomes manifest through increased devotion and remembrance of God, which then brings the worshipper even closer to God, for as God says,

Remember me, I am remembering you. (2 : 152)

Regarding the relationship between worship that is obligatory and that which is supererogatory, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said,

God says, “My servant draws near to Me through nothing that I love more than what I have made obligatory upon him. And My servant never ceases not to draw near unto me through supererogatory devotions until I love him. And when I love him, I am the hearing through which he hears, the sight through which he sees, the foot upon which he walks, the hand with which he strikes.”[8]

To reach the point where God is indeed the hand with which one strikes is not to imply union with God; rather it is complete awareness of our true nothingness before the Lord of the Worlds, Who is powerful over all things (2 : 255).

When one is aware of this fundamental reality, all that he or she does is an act of worship and beautification, and this is “to worship God as if you see Him.” For some this is a passing state that may last for a few moments, days, weeks, or months; for others it is supreme joy that will only be realized upon death. For the prophets and saints, it is the fullness of the human condition wherein on lives in the natural state, performing all actions with the perpetual awareness that,

He loves them and they love Him. (5 : 54)


NOTES

[1] Abu Nasr al-Sarraj, Kitab al-luma, ‘Abd al-Halim Mahmuad and Taha ‘Abd al-Zaqi Surur, eds (Cairo: Dar al-Kutub al-Hadithiyyah, 1970), p. 22
[2] Muslim, p. 93, no. 147
[3] Imam Abu Zakariyya yahya b. Sharaf al-Nawawi, al-Adhkar (Beirut: al-Maktabah al-‘Asriyyah, 2000 CE / 1421 AH), p. 248, no. 784
[4] Imam Malik b. Anas, al-Muwatta’, trans. A’isha ‘Abd al-Rahman and Ya’qub Johnson (Norwich, England: Diwan Press, 1982), p. 438
[5] al-Bukhari, p. 1086, no. 6029
[6] Ibn Majah, p. 604, no. 4143
[7] al-Bukhari, p. 27, no. 52
[8] Ibid., p. 1160, no. 6502

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 2

Chapter Two

SUBMISSION

As discussed in the introduction, the word Islam has many layers of meaning. It refers not only to the historical religion established through the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم but moreover to the attitude of submission inherent in all religions. While for both Muslims and non-Muslims today it is almost always understood in the historical sense, the more inclusive and spiritual sense is closer to the underlying meaning. This is all the more important when considering Qur’anic verses such as the following:

Truly the way with God is submission. (3 : 19)

Whosoever seeks other than submission as a way,
it will not be accepted from him. (3 : 85)

According to the Qur’an, all that is in the heavens and the earth prostrates to God:

Have you not seen how to God prostrates
whosoever is in the heavens and whosoever is in the earth,
the sun and the moon, the stars and the mountains,
the trees and the beasts, and many of mankind. (22 : 18)

The Qur’an repeatedly tells us that all that is in the heavens and the earth glorifies God. What distinguishes human beings from God’s other creations is that they must willingly submit in order to properly prostrate and glorify. For the beasts, trees, sun, moon, and stars, there is no choice. While not all people prostrate themselves to God, all human beings do eventually submit. What is important is whether they do so willingly or unwillingly:

Do they desire a way other than God’s,
while to Him submit all who
are in the heavens and the earth,
willingly or unwillingly? (3 : 83)

From this perspective, humans have the choice to submit to God willingly by following a revelation in this world, or unwillingly, eventually realizing this and being humbled by it on the Day of Judgment. In the Qur’anic context, Islam has at least three distinct dimensions: 1) The reality of human submission willingly or unwillingly; 2) the reality that all human beings are in submission to God by their absolute dependence on God; and 3) the willing submission of some to the guidance of God as revealed through the submission of the final Prophet, Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم.

As we saw in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام, the manner in which one submits is determined through actions ordained by God. The following actions are known as the five pillars of Islam: testifying that “There is no deity but God [and that] Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” praying, fasting, paying the alms tax, and making the pilgrimage to Mecca. From the outside they may appear burdensome, but for Muslims they are the means of living closer to our true nature, even when many of us are not aware of that nature. They center and purify the human soul, preparing it for the world to come and infusing the daily, weekly, and annual rhythms of life with the remembrance of God.

Testimony
The first pillar is the testimony (shahadah), which consists of two testimonies. Reciting the testimony is all that is required for one to become a Muslim; however this outward testimony should be an affirmation of an inner belief. As we have seen, the first testimony -that there is no deity but God- is the central message of all revelations. It is so crucial that it alone can save one’s soul. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Who dies and knows that there is no deity bot God enters paradise”[1] and “Verily God has prevented the fire [from touching] whoever says, ‘No deity but God,’ desiring the face of God.”[2] The first of the testimonies is universal, but the second testimony -that “Muhammad is the Messenger of God”- is particular to those who follow the revelation of the Qur’an as their way of confirming God’s oneness. They are then obligated to fulfill the other four pillars to the extent that they are able.

Prayer
After the testimony, the most important of the five pillars is prayer (salah). It is said that prayer is the first thing for which Muslims are taken to account on the Day of Judgment. All Muslims who have reached puberty are obligated to pray five times a day -sunrise (fajr), noon (zuhr), midday (‘asr), sunset (maghrib), and evening (‘isha) -although women are exempted during menstruation. The form of prayer is established precisely after the model of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, who ordered, “Pray as you saw me pray.”[3]

To pray one must be in a state of ritual purity. One who has had sexual relations, a man who has had a nocturnal emission, or a woman who has just finished menstruating or who has just given birth must perform the major ablution (ghusl), wherein the entire body is washed. If one does not need the major ablution but has, among other things, slept or relieved oneself, he or she must perform the minor ablution (wudu’). The minor ablution consists of washing the hands, face, arms, head, and feet. It washes away the dross of the world, reestablishing harmony between the body, soul, and spirit and marking the passage into a sacred rite. It has been said that on the Day of Resurrection the hands, feet, and faces of Muslims will shine from this daily purification.

When the time for each of he five prayers begins, the call the prayer (adhan) is made by a man chosen for his strong and melodious voice. From every mosque one will hear,

Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.
(God is greatest. God is greatest.)

Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.
(God is greatest. God is greatest.)

Ash-shahadu an la ilaha ila llah. Ash-shahadu an la ilaha ila llah.
(I testify that there is no deity but God.
I testify that there is no deity but God.)

Ash-shahadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah.
Ash-shahadu anna Muhammadan rasulullah.
(I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.)

Hayala as-salah. Hayala as-salah.
(Come to prayer. Come to prayer.)

Hayala al-falah. Hayala al-falah.
(Come to salvation. Come to salvation.)

Allahu akbar. Allahu akbar.
(God is greatest. God is greatest.)

La ilaha ila llah.
(There is no deity but God.)

Although it is not obligatory that people go to the mosque for the daily prayers, many do, as the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم advised that it is best to pray in a congregation and not delay performing prayers. At the mosque, sufficient time is allowed for people to arrive and perform their minor ablution, and then a shorter call to prayer (iqamah) is made before the start of the prayer. The imam, usually chosen for his knowledge of the Qur’an and the beauty of his recitation, is the person who leads the entire congregation, which stands in straight rows facing Mecca and synchronizes its movements with his. The prayer is always recited in Arabic, no matter where in the world it occurs. Following the prayer led by the imam, there remains additional time (the length of which is determined by the time of year and the locality) for one to pray without “missing” the prayer. On Fridays, the noon prayer is replaced with a special congregational prayer (jum’ah). A shortened prayer is preceded by a sermon (khutbah), and whereas the noon prayer is performed silently, the imam recites aloud for the congregational prayer. Attendance at the Friday prayer is obligatory for all male Muslims who live or work within a reasonable distance of a mosque.

Each prayer is broken into several cycles (raka’ah), with the key elements of each cycle including the recitation of the first chapter of the Qur’an, “The Opening” (al-Fatihah), followed by other verses selected by the imam in the first two cycles. A cycle consists of standing, followed by bowing at the waist, after which one stands again and then prostrates with the forehead, hands, knees, and feet upon the ground. The prostration (sajdah) is the height of prayer, wherein one is in full submission to God. Together, the standing, bowing, and prostration establish a full cycle of prayer. Each of the five daily prayers has a certain number of cycles allotted to it: two for sunrise, three for sunset, and four for the noon, midday, and evening prayers. In addition to the required prayers, there are many supererogatory prayers performed by Muslims for added blessings throughout the day. There are also other prayers for particular occasions that may differ somewhat in form.

The motions of each prayer cycle establish a perfect balance between the states of servitude and vicegerency discussed in the chapter on faith. But for this balance to be manifest, the prayer must be performed with attention and God-consciousness (taqwa). Regarding God-consciousness, it is said that each prayer should be prayed as if it were one’s last. Regarding attentiveness, it is said that a servant gets from the prayer only what he or she understands of it.[4] One should always seek to penetrate deeper into one’s prayers, since they were established not for the sake of the words and motions, but for the purpose of polishing the heart and renewing the remembrance of God. This purifying power of prayer was alluded to by the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم in his famous hadith:

The Messenger of God said, “Tell me, if one of you had a river at his door in which he washed five times a day, would any of his filth remain?” The people replied, “Nothing of his filth would remain.” He said, “That is a likeness of the five prayers. God obliterates sins with them.”[5]

But to receive the full benefit, the proper attitude toward prayer must be established. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Many who spend the night in prayer get nothing from their prayer but sleeplessness!”[6]

Alms Tax
Commonly translated as “alms tax”, zakat is more like a tithe computed from net income. Different categories of wealth are charged under different rules, making the exact calculations of the amount due a somewhat daunting task, much like modern income taxes. Nonetheless, the requirements for most people are simple. One must pay a certain percentage of one’s wealth, though anyone with less than three ounces of gold (about $1,000) in savings is not required to make any payments. As a result, the rich are tithed, but the poor are not. In addition, the equivalent of one meal’s worth of food must be paid before the end of the month of Ramadan.[7] According to the Qur’an, zakat is to be paid to the needy, the poor, those whose hearts are to be reconciled to Islam, those designated as collectors/distributors, those in debt, those who strive in the way of God, travelers, and captives. Although the wealth is paid out to these categories of people, it is in fact our debt to God, as God has loaned us all of our possessions. To pay zakat is thus a way of recognizing that nothing truly belongs to us.

The root meaning of zakat is purification. Many Qur’anic verses allude to the saving power of such purification:

Take alms from their possessions to purify them
and sanctify them with it. (9 : 103)

Who has purified (tazakka) has succeeded. (87 : 14)

He shall avoid the fire who gives his money to purify (yatazakka). (92 : 18)

More often than not, zakat is mentioned with salah in the Qur’an, for just as prayer purifies one’s time, alms purify one’s possessions. Failure to pay zakat and maintain economic justice is a charge the Qur’an makes against previous religious communities. Intentional neglect of zakat brings harm in both this world and the next. It is said that if it were not for God’s mercy upon the animals, the rain would cease to fall altogether as a result of society not observing this obligation.[8] For those who do not pay their obligatory zakat in this life, in the hereafter their wealth becomes like a snake wrapped around their necks, continually biting at their faces.[9] Regarding this, the Qur’an tells us,

Those who store gold and silver
and do not spend it in the way of God,
inform them of a painful chastisement,
a day when that wealth will be heated in the fire of hell,
their foreheads, flanks and backs will be branded with it.
“This is the treasure you stored for yourselves,
so taste what you were storing.” (9 : 34)

In other words, after death wealth recoils upon one who has not taken care to purify it in this life.

Money or food given out above and beyond the required zakat is considered charity (sadaqah). Sadaqah is often recommended as one of the most effective ways to ward off evil and sin and to seek God’s forgiveness if one has misstepped. Whereas the qualifications for receiving zakat are specified in Islamic jurisprudence, the rules for who can receive charity are not. Related to the Arabic word for sincerity and truthfulness, sadaqah, like prayer and fasting, should never be mixed with pride. Among the people who the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said will be shaded by God on the Day of Judgment is one who “gives charity in secret such that his left hand does not know what his right hand pays out.”[10] In other words, one does not congratulate oneself for giving charity but seeks only to please God.

Fasting
Like prayer and zakat, fasting (sawm) is considered by Muslims to be a universal religious practice. The Qur’an states,

O you who believe, fasting has been ordained for you,
just as it has been ordained for those who came before you,
that you may be God-fearing. (2 : 183)

Just as the form of prayer and the conditions for alms differ in other religions, so too is fasting observed in a particular manner in Islam. Muslims abstain from all food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations from dawn’s first light until sunset for the entire month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The beginning and end of Ramadan are determined by sighting the new moon of each month. Because the month of Ramadan is based on a lunar calendar system, every thirty-three years one will have fasted during every season -including the short winter days and the long, hot summer days.

Fasting is obligatory for people who have reached puberty, with the elderly being excused. Menstruating women, like the sick, travelers, and pregnant or nursing women, are exempted from fasting, but must make up the days they have missed at their own discretion. If someone is unable to fast due to a medical condition such as diabetes, it can be made up by giving alms to the poor or by serving the needy if one has no money for alms. If one intentionally misses a day of fasting for no good reason, he or she must fast two months straight or feed sixty needy people. If the fast is broken accidentally, one should continue to fast that day and make it up with another day of fasting after Ramadan. But as with all cases in Islamic law, these situations are dealt with on an individual basis.

Although fasting for thirty days can be quite strenuous, especially in the long summer months, many Muslims look forward to Ramadan and are saddened when it is over. It is said that when Ramadan comes, the gates of hell are closed and the gates of heaven are flung wide open. To take advantage of the opportunity for added blessings during this month, Muslims often gather in the mosque to recite the Qur’an and perform extra prayers. Many try to read one-thirtieth of the Qur’an each night as as to complete it by the end of the month. Following the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, very pious Muslims spend the last ten days of Ramadan immersed in religious devotion. The height of Ramadan is the Night of Power (laylah al-qadar), during which the Qur’an was first revealed. Regarding this exalted evening, God says,

Verily We made it descend on the Night of Power.
And what will show what the Night of Power is?
The Night of Power is better than one thousand months;
the angels and the Spirit descend therein
by the permission of their Lord, on every affair.
Peace it is until the rise of dawn. (97 : 1)

Many will stay up during the last ten nights of Ramadan in order to experience the incomparable blessings of this night, which is believed to fall on one of the odd evenings during this period. Some who experience it speak of being immersed in the divine presence with the heart focused entirely on God.

In many ways, fasting is both the most exalted and the most private of the five pillars of Islam. It is easy to sneak a bite or a quick smoke, so no one really knows who is fasting or not; thus the experience is truly between God and the person fasting. As related in a famous sacred hadith (hadith qudsi), which is a divinely-inspired narration by the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, God says, “Every good deed is rewarded anywhere from ten- to -seven-hundred fold, save fasting; for it is Mine and I reward for it [directly].”[11] In this sense, the person fasting empties himself or herself of the world in order to be more open to the immediate presence of God. The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم thus likened fasting to a shield and said that even the sleep of the one who fasts is a form of worship.

As with prayer, the efficacy of fasting is measured by one’s degree of attentiveness; hence the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم has said, “Many a person who fasts receives nothing from his fast but hunger.”[12] One of the most famous scholars in Islamic history, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, divided fasting into three levels: the fast of the masses, the fast of the elect, and the fast of the elite. The first is the most general, wherein one simply obeys the outward requirements. The fasting of the elect is “Restraining the hearing, seeing, tongue, hands, feet, and all other limbs from bad deeds.”[13] The third level is the fasting of the heart wherein one is restrained “from inferior aspirations and worldly thoughts, and restrains the heart from all that is other than God.”[14] Although this highest level is said to be the province of prophets and saints, it is nonetheless something that all Muslims strive to attain.

Pilgrimage
While fasting is the most private of religious rites, pilgrimage is the most public. As there are over one billion Muslims the world today and the hajj can only be performed during the first ten days of the last month of the Islamic lunar calendar (Dhu’l Hijjah), the throng of pilgrims is overwhelming. This annual rite, which is incumbent only upon those who have the health and financial means to perform it, retraces the steps of Abraham عليه السلام who, together with his son Ishmael عليه السلام, built the cubic shrine (Kaaba) in Mecca on the site where Adam عليه السلام had first constructed a house of worship. When the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم taught Muslims how to perform the hajj, he reminded them over and again that it was “the tradition of Abraham.”

The male pilgrim (hajji) must don two pieces of white cloth (ihram), which are often saved after returning from the pilgrimage to be used as one’s funeral shroud. This simple dress mirrors our true position before God, where king and peasant, rich and poor are no longer differentiated by dress and accoutrement. After donning the ihram, one may not have conjugal relations, trim nails, or wear perfume, for one is in a sense returning to the natural state and preparing to stand before God as we all must do on the Day of Judgment. As the pilgrims approach the sacred precinct, the traditional cry of the pilgrim goes out: “Here at Your service O Lord! Here at Your service!”

The best known of the rites is the circumambulation around the Kaaba, which is also performed at other times outside of the hajj. This counter-clockwise motion symbolizes the harmonious integration of all our various aspirations as they circle around the heart, which has been likened to the Kaaba within, for it too is a house of God. In the corner of the Kaaba is a black stone that is said to have been white when angels brought it down to earth but was blackened by the sins of man. To touch, or better yet, kiss the stone symbolizes a renewal of our eternal covenant with God.

The height of the hajj is the Day of Atonement on the plain of Arafat, approximately seven kilometers outside of Mecca. This is a day for reflection when all pilgrims are gathered in a singple place. A sermon is traditionally given this day, and it was here that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم shared with his fellow Muslims the last verse of the Qur’an revealed to him. Many who are not able to participate in the hajj will fast on this day and recite special supplications as a way of partaking in the purification. After going to the plain of Arafat, all pilgrims travel to the plain of Mina where they spend the night. The next day they stone three pillars on the plain of Muzdalifah to symbolize the stoning Satan and rejecting of one’s lower nature. After this, many return to circumambulate the Kaaba and sacrifice a sheep. many also take advantage of the opportunity of being on the Arabian Peninsula to travel to Medina for a visit to the Prophet Muhammad’s صلى الله عليه وسلم grave.

In premodern times, pilgrims had to arrange all of their affairs before the pilgrimage, as if they expected never to return. To prepare for hajj was thus like preparing for death. Indeed, one who performs the hajj with the correct intention has in a sense been born anew. In the words of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, “Who performs the hajj to God and commits no minor or major sins returns like the day his mother bore him.”[15] The pilgrim is thus purified of all sins and returned to the natural state. In addition to purifying the individual, the hajj is a tremendous social significance. Not only do the rich and the poor, the famous and the obscure come together as one, but also people of all lands -the black, the yellow, the white, the red, and more- join together in complete submission to the one God who created us all. This great international diversity ensured that Mecca and Medina serve as the intellectual center of the Islamic world, where many ideas were exchanged. After hajj, people would often stay in Arabia for many years to study, or they would sometimes travel to another land to seek scholars whose reputations had spread far and wide. Those who return from hajj are accorded great respect. Their arrival home is a festive occasion, during which they are treated as conquering heroes or returning kings. Several days of celebration will often ensue, for the pilgrim represents for the community (most of whom will never have the chance to go on hajj) a fulfillment of the most fundamental of human aspirations -to return to God.

Islamic Law
As religious rites, the five pillars and religious laws are both part and parcel of prophecy and revelation; as such they have been sent to all human communities:

And to each we have given a road (shir’atan) and a method,
and if God willed He would have made you a single people. (5 : 48)

Translated here as road, the word shir’atan is close to the Islamic word for law, Shariah, which literally means a “wide path leading to water”. THe primary sources for the Shariah are the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and according to Sunni MUslims, the consensus (ijma’) of the scholars and analogy (qiyas). To observe the law is to follow and obey God and the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, an action that one is frequently enjoined to do:

Obey God and the Messenger; that you be shown mercy. (3 : 132)

Who obeys God and His Messenger, He will admit him
to gardens through which rivers flow, dwelling therein forever. (48 : 17)

To obey and follow God and the Messenger is in effect translating the heart knowledge of faith into action with the limbs and voice with the tongue. One could say it is faith in action. To properly act out one’s faith, one must clarify anything with which he or she feels doubt through recourse to God and the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم:

O you who have faith!
Obey God and obey the Messenger
and the possessors of the command among you.
If you should quarrel on anything
refer it to God and the Messenger. (4 : 59)

Those who do not follow God and His Messenger by adhering to the Shariah, or divine law, follow their own conceits:

We have set you upon a clear road (Shariah).
So follow it, and follow not the whims
of those who do not know. (45 : 18)

The Shariah is also defined as “the collection of edicts (ahkam) that God has ordained for His servants”. It is the eternal, never changing, immutable law of God that becomes manifest in this world as injunctions and prohibitions. As God is the Lord who has measured out all things, God’s law governs all aspects of human life, from business transactions, inheritance, and taxation to marital relations, prayer, burial, and beyond. The edicts are generally divided into two broad categories: edicts of transactions (mu’amalat) that apply to relations between human beings and edicts of servitude (‘ibadat) that apply to the relationship between the divine and the human. Through the mercy of God, the Shariah teaches us how to conduct all of our affairs as if we lived in the natural state, even though most of us are far from it.

From a modern perspective, this all-encompassing nature of the Shariah might seem constricting, but from a traditional perspective, it is liberating because the Shariah teaches us not only how to live but how to be truly human. Just as knowing the principles of math and their applications allows us to conduct our financial affairs and knowing the rules of grammar allows us to convey our thoughts and even develop more sophisticated ideas, knowing the rules of the Shariah allows us to live more freely and more fully. One who does not have sufficient knowledge of the divine law to properly conduct his or her affairs is like one who attempts to communicate but does not know the meaning of what he or she says. One who does not follow the rules of language and math will have difficulty negotiating life in this world, and one who does not follow the divine law will have difficulty negotiating life in this world and the next.

The human intellect does not create the divine edicts of the Shariah, rather the intellect understands the edicts and then seeks to apply them to the contingencies of the world. This is the domain of jurisprudence (fiqh), which requires extensive knowledge of the sources from which one derives the edicts of the Shariah and the ability to derive them and apply them. In order to explain the Shariah, as well as the hadith and the sciences of determining their authenticity, the jurisprudent (faqih) must have comprehensive knowledge of Arabic, the Qur’an, and the sciences. Among other qualifications, he must also have knowledge of the society in which he lives, be very pious, and have acute analytical abilities. Fiqh is thus one of the most difficult sciences to master, and few reach the station of faqih. In the beginning of Islam, there were many people with knowledge of this science, but as time progressed, Muslims became more numerous and those with thorough knowledge became fewer. School of law (madhab) through which the rulings of fiqh could be applied to a wider collectivity thus began to develop. By the fourth century of Islam, only four Sunni schools of law -Shafi’i, Maliki, Hanbali, and Hanafi- and the Shia schools of law -Ja’fari and Zaydi- remained. They differ slightly in methodology, with the Ja’fari school giving more weight to the intellect and less weight to tradition, but they are very similar in their conclusions, so much so that scholars from one school of law will often refer to other schools of law for solutions to vexing questions.

A technical legal term that many in the West have now hears is fatwa. This is a legal opinion or verdict that a faqih issues regarding a particular matter. The opinion, however, is not necessarily binding. It is not a divine edict (hukm) -rather it is one faqih‘s individual opinion that has been ascertained by applying the Shariah to an issue that needs clarification for the community at large. One of the grave difficulties of the modern era is the rise of people who read the Qur’an and the hadith, and think that they have thereby obtained the qualifications to make a fatwa. The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم indicated that this would happen towards the End of Time:

Truly God does not remove knowledge by extracting it from [His] servants. Rather He removes knowledge by removing the scholars, until when no scholar remains the people take ignoramuses as their leaders. Then they are consulted and give fatwas without knowledge. So they are astray and lead others astray.[16]

Nowhere is such a trend more evident than in the plethora of fatwas calling for jihad now issued by people with little knowledge of the traditional methodologies of fiqh. Though misinterpretations arose in the past, this form of “jihadism” is distinctly modern. Before the advent of the printing press, anyone who wished to study the many manuals of hadith could only gain access to them by having some contact with the scholarly communities that had preserved the texts in handwritten manuscripts. Now anyone can go to a bookstore and purchase hundreds of volumes of hadith without ever meeting a true scholar. Not only will they not learn the methodologies for interpreting the texts, they will be unaware of the many misprints and omissions that plague these modern, printed editions. To issue fatwas with such cursory knowledge of the tradition is akin to purchasing medical journals and declaring oneself fit to perform surgery. The diagnosis will most likely be invalid, and the armchair surgeon will undoubtedly be inept.

Jihad is an important aspect of Islamic practice, so much so that it has been called “the sixth pillar of Islam”. This is because its root meaning is “striving”, and none of the pillars can be performed in its full depth if one does not strive to overcome one’s lower nature and live in accord with the natural state. This is why the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم reportedly said to his companions after a military expedition, “We are returning from the lesser jihad to the greater jihad.” Surprised by this proclamation, one companion asked, “O Messenger of God, what jihad could be greater than jihad against the unbelievers with the sword?” To which the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم replied, “Jihad against the enemy in your own breast.”[17] Indeed, one must first overcome one’s inner enemies to be fully qualified to fight outer enemies. This is the spiritual warfare that so many religious traditions have taught. But without broad knowledge of the entire tradition, many seek to engage in outer jihad while ignoring inner jihad. This results from a strident puritanical literalism, the followers of which often read the Qur’an and hadith outside of their traditional interpretive context and select only those that on the surface appear to support particular political agendas.

An excellent example of this strident puritanical trend is the interpretation of the following Qur’anic verse:

O you who have faith,
do not take Jews and Christians as legal guardians (awliya’),
they are the legal guardians for one another,
and the one among you who turns to them is of them. (5 : 51)

Revealed at a tenuous moment when the survival of the early Islamic community in the balance, this verse was meant to ensure cohesion among Muslims. But the word awliya’, translated here as “legal guardians”, can also mean “friends”. This is how pseudo-faqihs who issues fatwas against the Jews and Christians now wish to read it, so that Muslims are forbidden by God from taking anyone except Muslims as friends. Taking this incorrect interpretation, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have cited verse 5 : 51 as evidence that there should be no cooperation between Muslims and other peoples. Such a conclusion is belied by the Sunnah and by Islamic history.[18] Extremists have taken many other verses and hadith out of their traditional interpretive context in order to legitimize unbridled violence or heartless chauvinism. They do greater harm to the religion they claim to defend than to those they wish to attack. The underlying principle in Islam regarding conflict is to avoid it whenever possible and engage an enemy only when it can be done in the name of God. When engaged in conflict one must seek to end it as quickly as possible and must avoid harm to all non-combatants.

There are even specific laws forbidding the abuse of trees, crops, and animals. It cannot be denied that such principles have been violated and unjust leaders have tried to claim that they were fighting just wars. Nonetheless, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم has remained the exemplar of temperance in conflict. Muslims are always reminded that his greatest military victory, the conquest of Mecca, was a moment of incomparable mercy when he granted amnesty to those who had called him a liar and rejected God’s message, driven him from his home, and attempted to assassinate him and annihilate the Muslims of Medina. The contrast between the traditional Islamic attitude towards conflict and that of the modern “fundamentalists” is addressed most eloquently by Reza Shah-Kazemi:

The true warrior of Islam smites the neck of his own anger with the sword of forbearance; the false warrior strikes at the neck of his enemy with the sword of his own unbridled ego. For the first, the spirit of Islam determines jihad; for the second, bitter anger masquerading as jihad, determines Islam. The contrast between the two could hardly be clearer.[19]


NOTES

[1] Muslim, p. 74, no. 43
[2] al-Bukhari, p. 90, no. 425
[3] Ibid., p. 120, no. 631
[4] Imam al-Ghazzali mentions this tradition in his book, Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din. Imam al-‘Iraqi, however, finds no firm evidence attributing this tradition to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. See Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Ghazzali, Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din (Beirut: Dar Qutaybah, 1992 CE / 1412 AH), 1 : 241
[5] al-Bukhari, p. 106, no. 528
[6] Ibn Majah, p. 241, no. 1690
[7] Editor’s note: Some legal schools stipulate providing a food staple.
[8] Ibn Majah, p. 579 – 580, no. 4019
[9] al-Bukhari, p. 819, no. 4659
[10] al-Bukhari, p. 248, no. 1423
[11] Ahmad b. Shu’ayb al-Nasa’i, Sunan al-Nasa’i. Vol. 6 in 2 parts (Vaduz: Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, Jam’iyyah al-Markaz al-Islamiyyah, 2000), 1 : 362
[12] Ibn Majah, p. 241, no. 1690
[13] al-Ghazzali, 1 : 350 – 351
[14] Ibid.
[15] al-Bukhari, p. 266, no. 1521
[16] Ibid., p. 1298, no. 7307
[17] This tradition is also said to be fabricated, but the idea of greater jihad, or the struggle against the self, is well established in Islam; for example, Imam Qurtubi relates from Abu Sulayman al-Darani, commenting on the verse Those who struggle (jahadu) in Our cause We will guide to Our paths (Qur’an 26 : 69), “The jihad in this verse is not only physically fighting the antagonistic rejecters of Islam, it is assisting the religion, responding to falsifiers, and suppressing oppressors. Its core is commanding good and forbidding wrong. And it includes struggling against the self to obey God. This is the great jihad.” See Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Qurtubi, al-Jami’ li ahkan al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 1987 CE / 1407 AH), 13 : 364 – 365.
[18] For a more thorough analysis of this verse, see David Dakake, “The Myth of a Militant Islam” in Joseph E.B. Lumbard, ed., Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition (Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom Books, 2004).
[19] Reza Shah-Kazemi, “Recollecting the Spirit of Jihad” in Islam, Fundamentalism, and the Betrayal of Tradition, p. 138.

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 1.5

Jesus عليه السلام and Christianity
The Qur’an and hadith bear no opposition to Christianity. They do, however, take issue with particular Christian creeds, claiming that the fundamental teachings of Jesus عليه السلام have been altered over time. Nonetheless, the foundational miracle of Christianity -the Virgin Birth- is as celebrated in the Qur’an as it is in the Gospels. The nineteenth chapter of the Qur’an, named after the Virgin Mary, gives a detailed account of this seminal event:

And mention in the Book [the story of] Mary,
when she withdrew from her people to an eastern place,
secluding herself from them.
Then We sent to her Our spirit 
[Gabriel]
who appeared to her as a man.
She said, “Truly I seek refuge in the All-Merciful from you,
if you be God-fearing.”
He said, “I am but a messenger from your Lord,
to give you a sinless son.”
She said, “How shall there be a son to me
when no men has touched me, nor have I been unchaste?”
He said, “Thus says your Lord, ‘That is easy for Me,
and We will make him a sign for the people and a mercy from Us.
It is a thing decreed.'”
 (19 : 16 – 21)

Because he was born from the spirit breathed into the virgin womb, Jesus عليه السلام is referred to in the Qur’an as the “Word of God”. While in Christianity this is believed to make him divine, in Islam this is considered to make him free of sin. He is thus another of God’s many messengers, but one whose entire life was a miracle. Whereas most other prophets began to receive revelations at the age of forty, Jesus عليه السلام spoke as soon as he was born, saying,

Truly I am a servant of God,
He gave me the book and made me a prophet.
He has made me blessed wherever I may be,
and has prescribed prayer and alms so long as I live.
(19 : 29)

For Muslims, Jesus عليه السلام is thus like Adam عليه السلام:

The likeness of Jesus before God is as that of Adam.
He created him from dust and then said to him “Be,”
so he was.
(3 : 58)

The incomparable event of the divine word manifesting itself in the life of Jesus عليه السلام is beyond the pale of rational understanding. It is no surprise that it sparks great debate both within Christianity and between Christians and Muslims. There is in fact no single position in Islam regarding the prophecy of Jesus عليه السلام that was not at some point or another held by particular Christian communities. The discussion of Jesus عليه السلام in the Qur’an can therefore be viewed as divine proclamations regarding an ongoing religious debate. Foremost among the disputes between Christians and Muslims are the divinity and crucifixion of Jesus عليه السلام, both of which Islam rejects.

The Christian trinity is a matter of debate as well, but here the Qur’an states that those who claim that God is one of three have disbelieved; however, traditional Trinitarian theology does not make God one of three but rather speaks of the triune God, who is both one and three in a manner that transcends human understanding. There are, nonetheless, Christian theologians, such as Meister Eckhardt, who have spoken of the Godhead beyond the trinity. By reflecting upon their understanding of the divine names and qualities, Muslims can attain a greater appreciation of the theological possibilities inherent within the trinity, while avoiding types of superficial, simplistic thinking that they would never accept as a basis for judging the veracity of Islamic doctrines.

While almost all of the theological differences between Muslims and Christians can be understood through theological or metaphysical explanations, the issue that most separates Christianity and Islam is the understanding of the death and resurrection of Jesus عليه السلام. For Christians, Jesus عليه السلام took on the sins of all humankind and was crucified for their salvation. Then he arose on the third day and was assumed into the havens, where he is now seated at the right hand of the Father. For most CHristians, denying this is akin to rejecting God’s sacrifice of His only son for all mankind and thus to rejecting salvation itself. But the Qur’an states,

They did not kill him, nor did they crucify him,
but it was made to appear so unto them.
Those who differ regarding it are in doubt about it.
They have no knowledge regarding it,
save following conjecture.
They certainly did not kill him
. (4 : 157)

Most Muslims now view this verse as a straightforward denial of the crucifixion. But the phrase “but it was made to appear to them” has produced centuries of debate among Qur’anic commentators. One famous commentator, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, even allows that the body may have been killed while the spirit was spared. There are in fact many positions within the Islamic exegetical tradition that could help Muslims and Christians reach a more common ground. Moreover, Nestorian and Melkite Christians have claimed that the outer nature of Jesus عليه السلام was killed but his inner nature was not. This is an aspect about which both Muslims and Christians must fully examine the possibilities of their own traditions before condemning one another because of a narrow understanding of doctrine and orthodoxy. Just as light can be seen as either particles or waves, but not both at the same time, so too can a historical event have two very different interpretations in different religious universes.

The Return
When asked, “Who is the most intelligent and noble of men O Messenger of God?” The Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم replied, “The most diligent in recalling death and the one who is best prepared for it.”[1] In another hadith he said, “The intelligent man is he who judges himself and acts for what follows death.”[2] Remembrance of death is considered a mark of intelligence because it implies that one is aware of his or her true human nature, the spirit that existed before this world and will continue in the world to come. From a religious perspective, to not be prepared for death is like failing to prepare for retirement or failing to prepare one’s children for the responsibilities of adulthood. However, the potential consequences of neglecting one’s spiritual responsibilities are far greater than any of those regarding the neglect of worldly responsibilities.

Because the end of our earthly existence is inevitable, the Qur’an continually reminds us that, Every soul tastes death (3 : 185, 21 : 35, 29 : 57) and that all humans will meet God:

O human being!
You are laboring laboriously unto your Lord,
and shall encounter Him.
(84 : 6)

It also reminds us that we will be judged based upon our behavior in this world:

Surely the death from which you flee will overtake you.
Then you will be taken back to the Knower of the Unseen and
the Visible, and He will tell you what you have been doing.
(62 : 8)

But death is not so much an end as it is a rebirth, a return to our original abode:

As He originated you, so will you return. (7 : 29)

Indeed, all that exists returns to God:

To God belongs everything in the heavens and the earth,
and all things are taken back to Him. (3 : 109)

The life of this world is thus viewed as a test that will determine the nature of our return and of our existence in the world to come:

He originates creation, then He makes it return,
so that He may justly compensate those who have faith
and do wholesome deeds. (10 : 4)

The aspect of death and return is alluded to in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام through the mention of the Last Day. But it entails much more, for to believe in the Last Day is to accept that our earthly existence is but one stage of our immortal existence. The Last Day marks a passage from one stage of existence to another. These stages total five: pre-earthly, earthly, the grave, Resurrection and Judgment, and the final abode. They are all alluded to in the Qur’an:

How can you disbelieve in God
when you were dead and He gave you life?
Then He prescribes Death, then He gives you life.
Then you return to Him. (2 : 28)

The beginning and end of each of these stages is marked by a momentous passage. The end of our current stage appears as a death, but it will appear as a birth as we enter the next stage.

The Qur’anic discussion of our pre-earthly existence is brief and allusive, for it is not as important that we know where we have been as it is that we prepare for where we are going. One verse refers to a pre-temporal covenant (‘ahd) that all human beings are said to have made with God:

And when your Lord took from the children of Adam,
from their loins, their seed,
and made them testify against themselves,
“Am I not your Lord?”
They said, “Indeed, we testify.”
Lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection,
“Of this we were unaware.” (7 : 172)

This is referred to by some as the Day of the Covenant. To abide by this covenant in this world is to bear witness that there is no deity but God and that God is our Lord. All prophets have been sent to renew this covenant so no one will be able to say, “Of this we were unaware.” The nature of our passage from the life on earth to the next will be determined by the degree to which we have observed the covenant. As God says,

Be true to My covenant,
I will be true to your covenant. (2 : 40)

Those engrossed in worldly life often have an aversion to death because of their intuition of what is to transpire, while those who are aware of the larger scope of human existence accept, prepare for, and even look forward to death. In distinguishing between these dispositions, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم‎ said, “The world is the prison of the believer and the paradise of the unbeliever.”[3]

Imam ‘Ali bin Abi Talib رضي الله عنه has said, “People are sleeping and then they awake.”[4] Upon death the first thing the human being becomes aware of its his or her good and bad deeds. No longer veiled by worldly distractions and conceits, one comes to know how he or she truly lived. Thus God says,

Sufficient for you today is your own soul as a reckoner. (27 : 15)

In knowing the nature of our deeds, we will know what reward or punishment is merited. After death and before burial, the soul remains attached to the body and aware of all that transpires around it. In anticipation of the rewards to come, one who has been relieved by the good witnessed upon death will hasten those who carry the funeral bier. All who are buried are said to experience the constriction of the grave (qabd al-qabr), after which two angels, Munkar عليه السلام and Nakir عليه السلام, will ask, “Who is your Lord? What is your way?” and “Who is your prophet?” Based upon the answers and what has been recorded of one’s deeds, the grave will become either “a meadow of the meadows of paradise, or a pit of the pits of the fire.”[5]

This period in the grave is the third stage of human existence. People will dwell there until the fourth stage, the Resurrection that occurs on the Last Day. Until that time they remain aware of some events in this world, even saying prayers for relations who have yet to die and awaiting loved ones as they too pass to the grave. Here some dwell in a quasi-paradisial state where they delight in expectation of the greater joy they will experience after the Last Day. The less fortunate suffer in a quasi-infernal state, imprisoned in their own conceits until the Day of Resurrection when they experience the fury of hell. The experience of the grave is thus referred to as the lesser resurrection while that of the Last Day is referred to as the greater resurrection. The latter is the point at which the whole of the earth ceases to exist:

On a day in which the earth shall be changed
to other than the earth, and the heavens,
and they come forth to God, the One, the Severe. (14 : 48)

In the Qur’an this event is often referred to as the Hour:

The hour is coming no doubt
and God shall raise up whosoever is in the graves. (22 : 17)

At this point, all of humanity will be gathered together as they were on the Day of the Covenant. Then all will cross a bridge (sirat) said to be as fine as a hair and as sharp as a sword:

The first to cross to safety, swifter than lightning, shall be seventy-thousand believers whose faces are as radiant as the full moon. Their privilege will be to enter paradise without having to submit to the Judgment. They shall be followed by others whose faces are as bright as the brightest stars in the night sky; they will cross as swiftly as the wind. Then others will arrive who shall cross as rapidly as birds fly, others as purebred horses, and others still slower, until those who shall crawl across, some of them slipping into the furnace. Those who reach the other side safely will then implore God, asking for mercy for their brothers who have fallen into the fire.[6]

All who remain are then judged -the good will be separated from the evil, the latter being sent to hell, the former to paradise. These two abodes are contrasted in the Qur’an:

This is the similitude of paradise
which the God-wary have been promised:
Therein are rivers of water incorruptible
rivers of milk unchanging in flavor
and rivers of wine -a delight to the drinkers
and rivers too of purified honey …
Are they as those who dwell forever in the fire,
such as are given to drink boiling water
that tears apart the bowels? (47 : 15)

Nonetheless, several hadith tell of God’s continuing mercy, for as God says, Truly My mercy encompasses all things (7 : 156).

In the most famous of these, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم relates that God allows all of the prophets and pious believers to intercede on behalf of others. Then God tells the angels to save anyone with even “half an ant’s weight of good in his heart.” Then God will say, “The angels have interceded, the prophets have interceded, the believers have interceded. None remains save the Most Merciful of the Merciful.” Then God will take a handful from the fire, purify them of their sins and deliver them into paradise, declaring, “Henceforth, I will never be wrathful against you again.”[7]


NOTES

[1] Ibid. p. 620, no. 4259
[2] Imam Abu ‘Isa Muhammad b. ‘Isa al-Tirmidhi, Jami’ al-Tirmidhi (Riyadh: Dar al-Salam, 1999 CE / 1420 AH), p. 560, no. 2459
[3] Muslim, p. 1238, no. 2956
[4] See al-‘Ajluni, 2 : 312 for a discussion of this tradition.
[5] al-Tirmidhi, p. 560, no. 2460
[6] Most of this hadith is narrated by Imam al-Tabari commenting on the verse There is no one amongst them except he will atain to it… (Qur’an 19 : 71). See Imam Abu Jarir al-Tabari, Jam’i al-bayan fi ta’wil al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1977 CE / 1418 AH), 8 – 365 – 366, no. 23,846
[7] Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Ahmad b. Hanbal, Musnad Imam Ahmad (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1999 CE / 1420 AH), 18 : 394 – 396, no. 11,898

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 1.4

Angels
God sends down the nourishment that He has measured out for all things by means of luminous beings called angels. Although the modern consciousness thinks little of angels, for the traditional Islamic consciousness, they are an ever-present reality. The Qur’an repeatedly mentions them, and as one deepens in faith, one becomes increasingly aware of the role played by angels in every facet of our lives. What follows is a description of but a few other functions performed by angels. It begins with the highest order of angels, those who report directly to God -what the Christian tradition refers to as archangels. As previously mentioned, Gabriel عليه السلام is the angel of Revelation. The Angel Michael عليه السلام provides nourishment for all bodies and souls. Seraphiel عليه السلام will blow the trumpet twice to mark the End of Time, when all of creation will be brought before God. Azrael عليه السلام is said to be the angel of death. In addition, there are archangels who are said to carry the throne of God and others who are described as having no function other than contemplating and praising God.

Below the archangels are the angels who perform specific functions in the world. There are angels who attend to each and every existent thing, maintaining the measuring out as God has willed it. The attendant angels bring down blessings and report to God the news of His creatures. The guardian angels are always with human beings -one write down our good deeds and another records our evil deeds. Their presence obliges us to greet a fellow Muslim in the second person plural rather than the singular, so that the blessing of “Peace be upon you” is extended to that person’s guardian angels as well. Furthermore, in our prayers we must direct our greetings of peace to both our right and left sides in order to recognize our own guardian angels. When we die, Nakir عليه السلام and Munkar عليه السلام are two angels who will question us regarding God, the prophets, and the scriptures. All in all, every phase of life from birth to death is defined by our interaction with God’s angels.

Although most of the tasks angels perform differ from those of humans, there are two important functions we share: bearing witness to God’s oneness and wishing blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم. Regarding the first, God says,

God bears witness that there is no deity but He,
as do the angels and those possessed of knowledge,
abiding in justice.
(3 : 18)

Regarding the latter, God states,

Verily God and His angels invoke blessings upon the Prophet.
O you who believe, invoke blessings upon him
and extend him greetings of peace.
(33 : 53)

Both verses address human beings, but only “those possessed of knowledge” and “who believe” participate in these activities regularly. These are the human beings who are closer to the angelic reality and to their own true nature. To bear witness that God is one and invoke blessings upon the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم is to move further from the darkness of our bodily nature and closer to the luminosity of our angelic nature, and closer to God. As the Qur’an states,

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. (24 : 35)

He is the one who makes clear signs descend upon His servant
to remove you from the darkness into the light
. (57 : 9)

He is the one who invokes blessings upon you, with His angels,
to remove you from the darkness to the light.
(33 : 43)

Nothing descends but that an angel descends with it. In addition, angels also invoke blessings upon us. Through these two activities, angels play a vital role in bringing humans from the darkness of ignorance and heedlessness to the light of knowledge and faith. Without them we would be lost.

Prophecy
Whereas traditional Christianity recognizes only Jesus عليه السلام as the guide and savior of mankind, Islam, like Judaism, recognizes a panorama of prophets through whom God guides mankind. The cycle of prophecy began with Adam عليه السلام and ended with the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم, who was declared to be “the seal of prophets” (khatam al-nabiyin). The station of prophecy is not something humans can work towards; instead, God bestowed it upon them before the beginning of time itself. As the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “I was a prophet when Adam was between water and clay.”[1] Prophets were then sent to mankind at different points in human history to reestablish the relationship between the divine and the human. As previously stated, God’s messenger have been sent to all human collectivities:

We have sent to every people a messenger,
that they may worship God.
(16 : 32)

And for every people there is a messenger. (10 : 48)

Each messenger came to teach the oneness of God and submission to the divine will. The forms of submission -the rites, rituals, and laws- differ, but the message of God’s oneness never alters:

And We never sent a messenger before you
save that We revealed to him, saying,
“There is no deity but I, so worship Me
.” (21 : 25)

Given the difference in religious forms, some prophets are distinguished:

And those messengers; some We have distinguished over others.
Among them was he 
[Moses] to whom God spoke,
and He raised some in degrees.
And We gave Jesus son of Mary the clear explications,
and We confirmed him with the Holy Spirit
. (2 : 253)

But at the same time, God says,

We do not differentiate between any of His messengers. (2 : 285)

God commands Muslims to have faith in all of them:

Say, we have faith in God,
and in what has been sent down
to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and the tribes,
and that which was given to Moses
and Jesus and the prophets by their Lord.
We make no distinction between any of them,
and to Him have we submitted.
(2 : 136)

While one prophet may be distinguished with more beauty and another with more eloquence, no prophet is distinguished from any other in the essence of prophetic nature itself. The Qur’an unambiguously states, “We make no  distinction between any of the Messengers” (2 : 285), and again, “But those who believe in God and God’s messengers, and do not make a distinction between any of them, they will be given their reward. And God is most forgiving, most merciful” (4 : 152). The Prophet صلى الله عليه وسلم also said, “Do not prefer me over Jonah.” The religion of God is submission, and therefore no prophetic dispensation is superior to another, as each originally taught the same essential truths. The excellence of any specific dispensation over another is based upon the degree to which its adherents remain true to the teachings of God as delivered by the respective prophet. And although the prophetic stories of the Qur’an are limited to the Jewish, Christian, and a few ancient Semitic prophets, revelation through emissaries has been a  universal phenomenon. The Qur’an states, “For We sent you with truth, as a herald and a warner. And there was never a people among whom a warner [prophet] never passed” (35 : 24). God further says in the Qur’an:

Verily We have revealed to you
as We revealed to Noah and the prophets after him.
And We revealed to Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac
and the tribes and Jesus, Job, Jonas, Aaron, and Solomon,
and We gave David the Psalms;
and messengers regarding whom We have informed you
and messengers regarding whom We have not informed you.
(4 : 163)

Only twenty-four messengers are mentioned by name in the Qur’an, but a hadith tells us that there have been either 313 or 315 messengers throughout human history, far more than those that God mentions in the Qur’an. Although most Muslim scholars maintain a narrow and exclusivist view or revelation, some have read this hadith as a possible reference to the messengers of non-Abrahamic traditions. It should be noted that there is an important distinction between messengers and prophets. Messengers are those who are commanded to propagate their revelation, whereas prophets receive revelation without propagating it. A messenger thereby fulfills all the functions of a prophet, but a prophet does not perform the same functions as a messenger. The prophets are far more numerous, totaling 124,000 according to one hadith.

Just as communities speak different languages and face different trials, the messages sent to them differ in language and in the laws they ordain. Regarding language, God says,

We have sent no messenger save with the tongue of his people. (14 : 4)

Regarding laws, God states,

For each of you We have made a law and a practice;
and if God wanted He would have made you a single people.
(5 : 48)

Jesus عليه السلام reports that he was sent,

To confirm the truth of the Torah that is before me,
and to make lawful to you certain things
that before were forbidden to you.
(3 : 50)

So too the Qur’an confirms the previous revelations while bringing new laws using a different language. There exists an underlying continuity between all revelations. As God says to the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم,

Nothing has been said to you
save what was said to the messengers before you.
(10 : 48)

Regarding the Qur’an, God states,

Truly it is a Revelation from the Lord of the worlds,
brought down by the Faithful Spirit upon your heart
that you may be among the warners,
in a clear Arabic language.
Truly it is in the scriptures of the ancients.
(26 : 192)

In another verse, God states,

Truly this is in the scriptures of the ancients,
the scriptures of Abraham and Moses
. (87 : 18)

It is to remind us of this that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم made the previously mentioned statement, “The prophets are half brothers, their mothers differ, and their way is one.”[2]

Because revelation is universal guidance that was sent to all human collectivities in one form or another, the Qur’an provides an extensive discussion of the “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitab), those who follow the scriptures revealed through God’s other messengers. Qur’anic teachings regarding these faith communities are very subtle. On the one hand, the People of the Book are admired for their piety and promised salvation:

Verily those who believe and those who are Jews,
and the Sabeans and the Christians
are those who believe in God and the Last Day
and do righteous deeds,
so they shall not fear nor shall they sorrow.
(2 : 62, 5 : 69)

On the other hand, a group of them is said to be condemned to hell with the polytheists:

Verily those who disbelieve among the people of the Book
and the polytheists are in the fire for eternity
. (98 : 6)

Muslims are warned,

Many of the People of the Book
wish that they might return you to unbelief,
after your faith, because of the envy in their souls.
(2 : 109)

These are the people who have, forgotten a part of what they were reminded of (5 : 13) and have even altered the scripture of God to accord with their own conceits.[3] Therefore, those who do not follow their book as it was revealed are blameworthy, while those who do are praiseworthy:

Some of the People of the Book are a wholesome nation.
They recite God’s signs in the watches of the night,
prostrating themselves, having faith in God and the Last Day,
bidding to honor and forbidding dishonor,
and vying with one another in good deeds.
They are among the wholesome.
Whatever good they do, they will not be denied its reward.
(3 : 113 – 114)

One verse that is often read as a condemnation of Judaism and Christianity by Muslims is actually a condemnation of religious censuring:

The Jews say, “The Christians are founded upon nothing.”
The Christians say, “The Jews are founded upon nothing.”
Yet they recite the book.
Likewise, those with no knowledge
say the like of what they say.
And God shall judge between you
on the Day of Resurrection
regarding that wherein you differed.
(2 : 113)

In this vein, it is wiser to read Qur’anic criticism of people of other faiths not as a condemnation of their faiths, but rather as a warning that people who profess to follow the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم are also susceptible to forget a part of that of which they were reminded.[4]

This is confirmed by several hadith, including “You will follow the customs of those before you, length for length, cubit for cubit, until if they go down a snake hole, you will go down after them” The companions of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم asked, “O Messenger of God, [do you mean] the Jews and the Christians?” He said, “Who else?”[5] in another account, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم warns that many calamities will befall Muslims if they lose or falsify knowledge. A companion asked how that could be when Muslims will continue to teach the Qur’an generation after generation. He replied, “May your mother weep for you! Do you not see these Jews and Christians? They read the Torah and the Gospels and do not act in accord with them”[6] This indicates that although the outer form of the religion may remain, the inner meaning will be forgotten. People of varying faiths will then fight about the forms because they have forgotten their inner meanings, forgotten that they are all paths leading to the same peak.


NOTES

[1] al-Hakim, 2 : 453, no. 3566
[2] al-Bukhari, p. 610, no. 3443
[3] Qur’an 2 : 75
[4] Editor’s note: Many Muslims unfortunately read the Qur’an as a condemnation of previous religious peoples as opposed to a method to understand their flaws inherent in all of humanity, and as a warning. The prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم told many stories that involved righteous Jews and Christians of the past whose exemplary behavior elucidated his points. Abu Dharr once quoted a verse about hoarding wealth and the governor of Syria, Mu’awwiyah replied, “That was revealed about the People of the Book!” To which Abu Dharr said, “Yes, but for our reflection!”
[5] al-Bukhari, p. 612, no. 3456
[6] Ibn Majah, p. 584, no. 4048

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 1.3

Human Rights
Many issues currently debated in discussions of Islam can only be fully understood by applying the principles of God’s oneness and measuring out. Foremost among these issues is the topic of human rights. To speak of human rights, one must first speak of the human being, for what the human actually is determines what his or her rights are. When understood in terms of the measuring out, the human being is nothing but a manifestation or reflection of God’s names and qualities that God has measured out in a precise amount. Whereas other creatures manifest only some of the divine names and qualities, human beings have the capacity to perceive all of the divine names and qualities. This is alluded to in the Qur’anic account of the creation of the first human being, Adam عليه السلام:

God taught Adam the names, all of them. (2 : 31)

As the names of all things are produced by God measuring out portions of the divine names and qualities, what Adam عليه السلام was taught is how each and every part of creation reflects some aspect of the divine itself. Such knowledge is accessible to all human beings when they live in accordance with their true nature. While on the one hand, this is a great honor, on the other, it entails a great responsibility.[1]

The human being is both a servant (‘abd) and a vicegerent or representative (khalifah) before God. As a servant, the human is completely passive towards God, receiving what is measured out without opposition. As a vicegerent, the human is active towards creation and his lower nature, ordering that which is below in accord with that which is above. To maintain the rights that derive from our position as vicegerent, we must first fulfill the responsibilities as servant. Several verses of the Qur’an make it clear that the first responsibility of the human state is service: We have not created jinn and humanity but to serve God. (51 : 56)

The Arabic word for service (‘ibadah) also means worship. The purpose of human existence is therefore service to and worship of God. When the human serves and worships, he or she stands in perfect passivity before the divine, reflecting the divine names and qualities like a still body of water. But when the wind of conceit (hawa) blows within the breast, the waters undulate and the reflection is distorted. When the reflection is distorted, one is unable to find the proper balance between servitude and vicegerency and thereby seeks to be active when he or she should be passive and passive when he or she should be active. This results in a distorted perception of the divine names and qualities and their proper relations.

When we cannot see the proper relations, it is difficult to recognize the rights of others, not just humans but also plants and animals. The Arabic word for right in this context is haqq, which means truth, true, reality, real, right, or due. The fact that the word for right and the word for truth or reality are the same demonstrates that the rights due to all of God’s creation do not derive from a mere “social contract” but rather from the very nature of existence. Indeed, the True or the Real (al-Haqq) is one of the names of God. God has measured out from His own Right a right for each and every existing thing. As vicegerents of God, we have the responsibility to recognize these rights. But if we do not first take the divine right into account, then we have ceased to see the manner in which the relative right is viewed in relation to the Absolute, then we are able to recognize the proper balance between the rights of all created things -not only those of human beings.

From an Islamic perspective, the current debates regarding human rights render humans as absolute, while forgetting the rights of both God and His creation. This feeds a fundamental imbalance in our understanding of all rights and leads to egregious errors; for example, the global environmental crisis results from an inability to recognize the rights of plants, animals, and even water and air. We now see, perhaps too late, that the failure to recognize these rights may result in our own extinction. Until we return to a holistic understanding of rights, we will continue to abuse the rights of some in the name of the rights of others; we desperately seek to find the proper balance, which can only be achieved through steadfast recourse to the Absolute Right -God.

Given that each and every existing thing receives a measure that is unlike that of any other thing, one cannot speak of rights in an absolute manner. Some have rights that others do not; for example, parents have the right to obedience and respect from their children, while children have the right to nourishment, guidance, and discipline from their parents. To insist that parents and children have the same rights in relation to one another would undermine both the family and the societal structure. We see the adverse effects of such a destabilization in today’s society.

Gender and Equality
The fact that all rights are not absolutely applicable to each member of society is of fundamental importance for understanding gender relations in Islam. Muslims recognize that all men and women are equal before God but that for each gender God has measured out different qualities. The female receives a greater measure from the names of beauty, while the male receives a greater measure from the names of majesty. The female thus differs qualitatively from the male in some ways, and the male differs qualitatively from the female in others, such that they coexist in a complementary relationship. The manner in which each gender realizes its true nature therefore differs. As God says,

The male is not like the female. (30 : 36)

The difference in genders is not simply biological. It is a sacred sign, a manifestation on earth of the complementary relationship between God’s names and qualities. When viewed as such, the cooperation between male and female is not only a social necessity; it is a means of spiritual realization. God says,

Among His signs is that He created
spouses for you from your selves,
that you may dwell in tranquility with them,
and He set love and mercy between you.
Surely in that are signs for people who reflect.
(30 : 21)

The implications of the male-female dichotomy are of such fundamental importance in Islam that the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said, “Marriage is a half of religion.”[2]

Given the incomparable spiritual efficacy of healthy gender relations, Muslims seek to establish a society that allows for the different dimensions of each gender to be fully realized. In this way, our inherent gender differences lead to complementarity rather than opposition. Men and women, therefore, have different rights over each other; for example, the man must provide for all material needs of the household, while, according to several schools of Islamic thought, the woman must tend to the maintenance of the household. In general, the man is more responsible for those activities that pertain to the public sphere, while the woman is more responsible for those activities that pertain to the private sphere. This is not, however, an absolute division. When the Prophet Muhammad’s wife ‘A’isha رضي الله عنها was asked how he conducted himself in the home, she answered, “He served his family; he would sweep the floor and sew clothes.”[3] Likewise, Muslim women are able to work in the public sphere, holding professional positions of importance and influence. Medieval Islamic history provides many examples of influential female scholars and jurists, though this tradition has been forgotten in most parts of the Islamic world during the modern period. In traditional Islamic civilization, however, the public sphere is not privileged over the private sphere as it is in modern civilization. To be a mother in in fact the position of greatest honor.

When someone asked the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم who had the most rights over him, he replied, “Your mother.” The man repeated the question twice, and each time the response was the same, until the fourth time, when the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم responded, “Your father.”[4] Forgetting the rights of the mother is among the most prevalent signs of the End of Time because it marks a complete inversion of the rights of mother and child. This is why in the Hadith of Gabriel عليه السلام the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم listed it first among the signs of the Hour: “… the slave girl will give birth to her mistress.”[5]

Like Western civilization, Islamic civilization has lost the complementary balance between the male and the female. In many lands, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم have been misconstrued by men who seek to make women submit to the male ego rather than divine principles. But current attempts to impose the crude egalitarianism of secular Western society upon the Islamic world are closer to cultural imperialism than gender justice. The Qur’an and Hadith contain the necessary remedies for the gender inequalities Muslims now confront. Muslims do not need to endure the pornography, rape, prostitution, and other gender injustices endemic to the secular social experiment in order to overcome their own gender injustices. They must instead turn to the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم who said, “The believer whose faith is most complete is the one whose character is the best; and the best among you are those who are best with their wives.”[6] That Muslims would forget this dimension of his practice was among his chief concerns, such that he stated it in his last sermon in Mecca and in his final public address.


NOTES

[1] The greatest scholar al-‘Izz b. ‘Abd al-Salam discussed how a human may manifest many of the names of Allah in his book, Shajarah al-ma’arif wa al-ahwal.
[2] Imam Abu ‘Abd Allah Muhammad b. ‘Abd Allah al-Hakim al-Nisaburi, al-Mustadrak (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1990 CE / 1411 AH), 2 : 175, no. 2681
[3] al-Bukhari p. 126, no. 676
[4] Ibid., p. 1078, no. 5971
[5] Muslim, p. 65, no. 8
[6] Ibn Majah, p. 283, no. 1977

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 1.2

The Attributes of God
The Absolute, in and of itself, is completely beyond human comprehension. It is the divine essence, which is known only to itself. To admit that one cannot know the divine essence is an important part of faith. As the first caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq رضي الله عنه said, “The inability to realize [the divine essence] is a realization.” Traditionally, God is said to have ninety-nine names relating to different aspects of the divine. The all-encompassing reality of the Essence is conveyed by names such as the Holy (al-Quddus), meaning that which is beyond all else; the Peace (al-Salam), meaning the one beyond all disequilibrium; and the Self-Sufficient (al-Ghani), meaning the one who is free of all need and limitation. The next level of names contains those pertaining to the divine attributes, such as the Knower (al-‘Alim), the Alive (al-Hayy), the Powerful (al-Qawi), the Hearing (al-Sami’), and the Seeing (al-Basir). These names pertain to the aspects of God about which we can have some understanding, for we too share in these attributes, though they are on loan to us from God. The third level includes the names of God’s acts. These names describe the relation of the divine to creation and include names such as the Creator (al-Khaliq), the Originator (al-Bari’), the Life-Giver (al-Muhyi), the Causer of Death (al-Mumit), and the Forgiver (al-Ghafur). These names have no meaning without an agent toward whom God performs the actions implied by such attributes.

The divine names are the means by which God brings the whole of creation into existence. From one perspective, the universe is a panorama of divine names manifest in a manner that both reveals and conceals. But whereas a creature may be alive, knowing, seeing, and powerful, God is the Alive, the Knowing, and the Powerful. These qualities are thereby relative as manifest in the human being but absolute in relation to God. They are, in fact, on loan from God to all of existence. Whereas God’s knowledge and power are unlimited, the knowledge and power of any human being has inherent limitations.

In relation to creation, the divine names are again divided into two categories: names of beauty (jamal) and names of rigor or majesty (jalal). Names of beauty include the Merciful (al-Rahman), the Compassionate (al-Rahim), the Beautiful (al-Jamil), the Kind (al-Latif), the Loving (al-Wadud), and the Clement (al-Halim). These manifest what could be called the feminine side of the divine. Names of rigor include names such as the Conqueror (al-Qahhar), the Vengeful (al-Muntaqim), the Subduer (al-Jabbar), the Slayer (al-Mumit), and the Abaser (al-Mudhill). These manifest what could be called the masculine sie of the divine. Although the divine essence is beyond all duality and gender specification, the names of beauty and of majesty display a complementarity from which derives the duality inherent in creation. As God says,

And of each thing We created a pair. (51 : 49)

On the level of the names of the attributes, there exists a multiplicity that cannot be present in the divine essence itself. Nonetheless, it is still a multiplicity within unity wherein all the names refer to the attributes of a single unique and absolute Essence.

Just as God is beauty and rigor, mercy and vengeance, so too is God near and far, ever present, while also being transcendent and incomparable. The transcendence of God is referred to by the term tanzih, which means “making or declaring something to be free of all else”. Tanzih is emphasized in both theology and daily discourse; for example, the mention of God is often followed by the phrase “Glorified is He and Transcendent” (subhanahu wa ta’ala).

The Qur’an affirms that God is incomparable and that God is eternal while all else is fleeting:

Nothing is like unto Him. (42 : 11)

All is perishing save His face. (28 : 88)

All that is upon the earth fades,
but the face of your Lord remains.
(55 : 26)

But at the same time, the omnipresence of the divine is attested to in several Qur’anic verses that tell of God’s presence around us and with us:

Wheresoever you turn there is the face of God. (2 : 115)

If My servant asks about Me, surely I am near. (2 : 186)

He is with you wherever you are. (57 : 4)

We have created the human
and We know what whispers in his breast,
and We are closer to him than his jugular vein. (50 : 16)

There is no group of three but that He is their fourth,
nor of five but that He is their sixth,
nor lesser nor greater than that,
but that He is with them wherever they are.
(58 : 7)

The concept of God’s uniqueness provides a more complete understanding of the relation of the Absolute to the relative. At all times God is both infinitely far and indescribably near -near because nothing can exist without being sustained by God and far because God infinitely transcends all creation.

The Measuring Out
God is omnipotent, and this omnipotence is emphasized by the ability to create and then to ordain, or measure out, all things associated with creation; hence, all good and evil that is associated with God’s creation is also created by God. As the Qur’an states,

God gave everything its creation. (20 : 50)

Thus the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said that faith is to believe in “the measuring out, both the good of it and the evil of it.”[1] For although we may not see the wisdom or reason behind something, God does.

The Arabic word translated here as “measuring out” is qadar and is related to the word for power (qudrah) and the divine name the Powerful (al-Qadir). Qadar can also be translated as power, but in the Qur’an it specifically refers to the manner in which God exercises His power by measuring out the proper portion of life, power, knowledge, and all the characteristics for each created thing. It is through a wisdom that is seldom apparent to us that the limitations upon all things have been established by determining the measure granted to them, be it a rock or a human, an elephant or a gnat. As God says in the Qur’an,

Indeed We have created everything through a measuring out. (54 : 49)

He created everything and measured it precisely. (25 : 2)

These precise measurements are taken from God’s storehouses:

There is nothing whose storehouses are not with Us,
and We do not send it down
except with an established measure.
(15 : 21)

From one perspective, these storehouses contain the meanings of divine names and qualities which belong to God and are always with Him, and which He manifests to His creation in various measures. On the one hand, they belong only to God. On the other, all that we see around us is a tapestry of the divine names and qualities measured out in different proportions so each thing as God has willed. This can also be seen as the manifestation of God’s sustaining nourishment (rizq). In numerous verses throughout the Qur’an, God speaks of “spreading out” and “measuring out” the nourishment for His servants or for whomsoever He wills. Although we may think that one person should be nourished with more power than another, that one should have more knowledge than another, or conversely, that God should have provided equally for all His creatures, all such assumptions stand against the dictates of faith. The following Qur’anic verse addresses this common human error:

Had God expanded His provision to His servants,
they would have been insolent in the earth.
But he sends down whatsoever He wills
through a measuring out
. (42 : 27)


NOTE

[1] Muslim, p. 65, no. 8