I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah, Chairman of the Board & Scholar-in-Residence at the Nawawi Foundation, a non-profit educational foundation based in Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Abd-Allah offered me his insights into the growing phenomenon of Muslim women taking off their headscarves. The first part of the four-part interview can be read here, the second part of the interview can be read here, and the third part of the interview can be read here. The fourth and final part of the interview follows:
I take from this that you are emphasizing that Islamic Law is alive, dynamic, and constantly responding to social realities.
Yes, everything in the law has got to be finely tuned so that it works in the social reality. To be a jurist you have to understand reality and you’ve got to direct people to live and behave in a way that enables them to practice Islam in its fullest and to negotiate reality in the most effective way.
The living tradition always leaves you in the present tense.
It’s almost difficult for me to accept that Islam does acknowledge and respond to personal capacity. I feel comfortable struggling because somewhere inside me a little voice is saying that if it’s not difficult then I’m not doing enough. That’s really what I have understood a good Muslim and a good person to be – someone who is constantly struggling.
Islam is a constant spiritual and moral struggle for sincere obedience to God and self-perfection. Misunderstanding the nature of the moral and spiritual struggle of Islam is probably one of the core problems with Muslims today. We often make Islam rigid, and it is not meant to be that way.
When you study hadith with a traditional scholar, often the first hadith you study is called the opening hadith. It says,
“Those who show mercy [to others], the Most Merciful shows mercy to them. Be merciful to [all] who are on the earth, and He who is in the heaven will be merciful to you.”
We always started the study of hadith here because this is a religion of mercy, and mercy comes out of love.
For example, the Mawlid (the observation of the birth of the Prophet, peace be upon him) is meant to instill in us love and mercy by cultivating a deeper love for the Prophet. We should make the Mawlid one of the cornerstones of all our communities. It belongs to the central tradition of Sunni Islam and is completely consonant with the Qur’an and Prophetic Sunna. The great scholars of the four Sunni schools have consensus on its validity. The Prophet, peace be upon him, fasted on Thursdays because he was born on a Thursday, his wife ‘A’isha used to recite to him the verses of poetry which his contemporaries had composed in his honor. The Mawlid has traditionally been regarded as one of the greatest of all acts of worship that draw us closer to God.
Additionally, according to the renowned Qur’anic commentator Ibn ‘Aashuur, the closing lines of Surat al-Tawba, the last chapter of the Qur’an to be revealed to the Prophet, accentuate the love and mercy that the Prophet felt for all humanity. They verses read:
“Truly, a Messenger has come to you from among yourselves, one upon whom it weighs heavily that you should suffer in this life and the life to come, who is solicitous about you and your welfare, whose nature toward the believers is sheer kindness and mercy. So, if they turn away, say, ‘God is all I need. There is no god but He. It is He upon Whom I have placed my reliance, and He is the Lord of the Magnificent Throne.’”
According to Ibn ‘Aashuur, the first part of the verse was revealed about the disbelievers who had rejected the Prophet, and the end of the verse refers to the believers. It is as if the beginning of the verse is saying, “You who saw this beautiful Prophet in your midst and disbelieved in him, know that this pained him deeply because he desired for you all that is good in this world and the next.”
This is really important because sometimes we ask questions like, “Can we pray for non-Muslims?” The Prophet had a huge heart and his heart took in all humanity. He suffered with the suffering of the disbelievers. Who are we then, as Muslims, to be pompous and to be arrogant in this society?
We have got to begin to cultivate in this community men and women who are truly rooted in this religion and who can represent it to us and to others in a way that’s pleasing to God and his Prophet and doesn’t break the psyche. You will then see then that traditional scholars are those who won’t give you a guilt complex or make moral judgments against you. Islam is a religion of outward rules that are not arbitrary or rigid, and inward spiritual and moral guidelines. This Islam of rigid arbitrary rules is destroying us; hollow rules with no understanding or wisdom, no theology, no love of the Prophet, peace be upon him.
We are currently suffering from a blight of religious extremism. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned us against extremism and taught us that it has nothing to do with Islam. Religious extremism belongs to the “Party of Satan” (hizb al-Shaytan). Satan is himself an extremist and the greatest fanatic of history. The Sufis say that when you do an act of disobedience it requires one tawba, one act of forgiveness. When you do an act of obedience, it requires a thousand acts of forgiveness so that you do not become arrogant and proud and you do not look at yourself as better than others. Arrogance is the greatest sin of all, greater even than disobedience.
Arrogance is the mark of the Khawarij, the outsiders, the rebels who destroy Islam in the name of Islam and who, according to our Prophet, peace be upon him, are the worst of all God’s creation. The numerous hadith about the Khawarij are among the most authentic and the most multiply-transmitted (mutawaatir) of Islam. Imam Muslim’s “Sahih” has an extensive treatment of them towards the end of his Chapter on Zakah. The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned us: “There will come out of this religious community [of Islam] a people who will make you despise your prayer when compared to their prayer.” He adds that we “will despise our fasting compared to their fasting.” He also says, peace be upon him: “They recite the Qur’an [continuously] but it does not go deeper than their shoulder blades.” That is, it does not enter their hearts and fill them with light, mercy, and understanding. “They will shoot out of [this religion of] Islam like an arrow shoots out of the bow.” Their fanaticism has no spiritual foundation or religious depth. Because Islam is a religion of mercy and moderation, it ultimately rejects them and they ultimately reject it, and Islam returns to its normative beauty.
We’ve got to create a community in which it’s possible to breath. We must begin to set its own distinctive cognitive frames on the foundational principles of the Qur’an and Sunna and in a manner consistent with the four great Imams and the rich traditions of normative Islamic civilization. And then our Islam becomes human, beautiful, rational; it becomes common sense and most of the problems that we have they disappear.
*In light of questions asked about his initial answers to Part IV of the interview, Dr. Umar has clarified his responses and added citations to the hadith he quoted.
Rabea Chaudhry is Associate Editor of Altmuslimah.
Photo Credit: Seekers Hub