Tag Archives: sawm

Submission, Faith, and Beauty – 2

Chapter Two


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.

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.

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.

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.

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]


[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.