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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Foundations for proper thinking: reflections on Soorah Al-Baqarah's opening verses

Introduction


An oft-repeated assertion in the Qur'an is that it is "guidance" [Hudan Lil Muttaqeen]. An even stronger expression found in the text tells us that it is "that which gives clarity to all things" [ Tibyaanan likulli shay'] ( Q 16:89) .

A sceptical reader may treat these assertions with caution or even ridicule, but for this writer, the more I engage with the Quranic scripture, the more I find these statements to be accurate.Indeed, one of the interesting things is that it is the only text I have  ever engaged with and not had a moment of boredom. It gives us things to think about, to consider, even in the midst of some historical account.(ft.1)


The Qur'an is an ever-relevant Book, however it has to be read slowly, it has to be studied, we have to have patience with it. It cannot be treated in the way we treat other materials. It takes much work, particularly when one is not fluent enough to engage it in it's original language(ft.2).

For this post, we have not, unless otherwise stated, provided the English translation, only the references and the Arabic text. This will allow the reader to consult the translation of their choice.


Thinking about the first few verses of Soorah Al-Baqarah



[Q 2:1-5]

The Soorah, the longest of the Qur'an, begins with some mysterious letters, known as Al-Muqata'aat. Other chapters have the same formula or similar headings, and while some have advanced explanations, the general consensus is that God alone knows (in fact) the real meaning of these three letter initials. Ibn Katheer quotes in his Tafseer different views, among them is that these are attention getters. In other words, the fact that we don't automatically known or recognize what these three letters [Alif-Laam-Meem] signify or mean, it forces us to think about it. It grabs our attention because of it's novelty!

Although Ibn Katheer does not seem to accept that view, it is the view that is most convincing to me. The fact that it does begin with something not immediately knowable or recognizable does flow with the message which carries forth in the chapter, particularly in the opening words.

The qualities of those who are deemed aware of God [Muttaqeen], who benefit from this Scripture, is that they accept that there are realities that they cannot immediately see or know. This is called the Ghayb. They pray regularly, they pay in charity regularly, but all of that is prefaced by Alladheena yu'minoona bil Ghayb [Those who have faith in the unseen realities].

There are things we cannot immediately see or know, but that does not mean that they don't exist. It only means that our understanding is not at the level wherein we can see them. A scientist may analyse a micro-oganism, a cell, under a micrscope, yet such cannot be see with the naked eye. A tool or tools are required to see them.

It is under this premise that we have to accept some things which we cannot see. God cannot be physically seen. In addition to this, forces of good and evil, known as angels and demons respectively, cannot typically be seen, even though there existence is almost universally acknowledged.

This is the reality that we are to form a basis upon. The human mind has limitations, and should never be elevated to some divine status. Yes, we should think, ponder and even question, however we should, if we proclaim that we believe in Allah, be careful not to take it too far. Indeed, the Qur'an itself asserts: "Have you not observed the one who takes his whims [Hawaa] as his object of worship?Allah has made such most astray, upon his own knowledge [of that character's inner realities], placed a seal on his hearing, his heart, and has made on his vision a veil. So who will deliver him guidance after Allah? Will you not recollect?" ( Q 45:23)


The Qur'an is for those who accept as axiomatic truth that God has sent forth scriptures and Prophets, who are assured of deeper realities(ft.3], and are consquently, the objects of guidance and success.


Those who elevate their wrong thinking are the ones responsible for chaos

[Q 2:6-10]

It is important to read words in their context, because context often provides the proper or intended meaning. Here is a perfect example. The words Innal ladheena Kafarooo are usually translated as "Indeed, those who are disbelievers". The term "disbeliever" does not capture the full reality of Kufr. In these regards, Kaafir as presented in the Qur'an is something different than Kaafir as expressed in popular culture or even in the writings of the Fuqahaa.

The word Kaafir has to do with rejection, with hiding or denying, and even is connected with ingratitude. It is a deeply nuanced word, as well as the words which stem from Kufr. Notice here that they [Alladheena Kafaroo] don't accept God's message because they are blinded to those realities!

They are blinded because of their actions. They are blinded and- as the verses suggest- destined for hell, because they have waged war on what is right. They are driven by ambition and hubris, usually filled with hatred and envy, and produce nothing but destruction upon whatever it is they possession of.

They may even pretend, out of political considerations, to be Muslims! They may have our names and terminology, but their hearts are not really with Islam.

In short, such folks don't accept that Ghayb exists. They seek only power, glory and wealth, and, even then, it seems they would not be satisfied.

Their self-awareness is non-existent. "They seek to deceive Allah, and those who have 'imaan', yet they deceive only themselves and realize it not." ( Q 2:9)

2:10 in particular seems to show us that because of their own internal conditions, which they themselves are largely for creating, only becomes worse as time goes on. God allows it to happen, not for ideological or "religious" reasons, but because of their destructive intentions and wrong thinking.

Characteristists of rejection

[Q 2:11-16]

These types not only have a theological rejection of Allah's guidance, they spread chaos while proclaiming their 'wonderful intentions'. The modern era has seen this repeatedly, and is known widely by terms such as "white man's burden". Invasions are staged in order to "spread democracy and freedom". Slavery was a wonderful institution because it "civilized Africans" or brought them to Christianity, etc.

These types have no self-awareness, they are arrogant, narcissistic, and view themselves as extremly clever. Sometimes they even pretend to be believers, and this actually seems to be a historical pattern. The Qur'an speaks of hypocrites in Prophet Muhammad's time, even in his presence (Q 63:1-3) proclaiming one thing and believing another.

They go whereever the wind of politics blow. They seemingly have no true or firm principles. They have devilish companionship (shayateenihim) and God promises that they don't get away with their evil deeds  for long.


The sad thing is expressed in verses 16, 18 and 20 is that they had oppurtunities to be guided to God's light. They were exposed to it, they are exposed to it and to God's messenger, in this case Prophet Muhammad- The final Prophet- peace and blessings be upon him. Yet, they squander and continue to squander away those oppurtunities.

What should we get from these verses?

The first thing we should seek from these verses is to do serious introspection. Are we firm as to what we are to accept and what we are to reject as Muslims? While I do mean  theologically, yet arguably  more importantly in our perception of self and perception of life. Do we have proper thinking?

How are our characteristics? We should be working on the development of better characteristics.

One of the Prophet's supplications is "O Allah, I seek refuge with you from bad characteristics, deeds, passions and diseases"
اللهم جنبني منكرات الأخلاق و الاعمال و الاهواء والادواء

Another well known supplication from that era is "O Allah, show us truth as truth, and give us the ability to follow it, and show us falsehood as falsehood, and give us the ability to abstain therefrom"

للهم ارنا الحق حقاً و ارزقنا اتباعه وأرنا الباطل باطلاً وارزقنا اجتنابه

The characteristics of spreading destruction on a great and even global scale, arrogance, self-delusions and the like, are characteristics of those with spiritual diseases.

To put it another way, these verses have shown us that Kaafir as a Quranic term is synonymous with Mufsid [one who spreads destruction], Munaafiq [hypocrite], and a host of other negative attributes, and should not simply be read with the theologically loaded term "disbeliever".

If we have these diseases, we need to work on getting cure. If our surroundings, the people and environment around us, are filled with those with incorrect thinking and the propagators thereof, with toxic personalities and insincere elements, it is best to step back from such types.

"And when you see them, their exteriors please you. and when they speak, you listen to their speech, they are like pieces of wood, dressed up, reckoning that every call is against them. They are (in fact) your enemy, so avoid them..and when it is said to them 'come, God's Messenger will seek forgiveness/protection for you, they turn their heads, and you see them hindering (others from the path of Allah), and they are arrogant." ( Q 63:4-5)

Your peace of mind, conscious and sense of security, both physical and spiritual, are to take precedent. As believers we have to be conscious of these things and try as much as possible to stay as Muslims, conforming in mind, body and spirit, to the Qur'an and Sunnah.

May Allah protect us and may He guide us to do just that.

Footnotes

[1] One example of this is Soorah Yusuf. While telling us a story about the life of Joseph, it says that the story itself contains guidance for those who are seeking (12:7). In other words, there are morals and lessons behind the story, and not simply a narration of facts.

[2] This is not to say that nothing can be gained from reading a translation, or that someone understadning classical Arabic will get all there is to gain. There are a number of good translations of the Qur'an now available in English (and indeed, in many other tongues) and we encourage utilizing those resources. We are simply attempting to emphasis that the text in the original language contains much more than is able to be conveyed with a translation. The Quranic language in particular is very rich in meaning, nunances and subtleties.



[3] The text wa bil Aakhirati hum yuuqenoon. I have rendered "Al-Aakhirah" as "deeper realities" rather than "the hereafter" because [a] The hereafter belongs to the ghayb, which is already covered in the previous sentence, this is acknowledged universally by the Mufassireen. [b] In context, it suggests that Qur'anic emphasis on thinking properly and spiritual exercise allows the believer to see or judge beyond shallowness. In other words, Al-Aakirah here is speaking to the Baatini realities. This is more apparent in Q 30:7. There ( starting from 30:1 and ending with 30:10) it speaks of a quarrel between two superpowers, one seemingly defeated eternally, but it seemed so to those who judge on a superficial level. In 30:7, the word "Al-Aakhirah" clearly refers to those deeper realities, contrasting to superficialness.






Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Holiday presentation: St George Orthodox Antiochian Church notes

( Note: The following is an edited version of a presentation I gave December 10th, 2017 at St George Church. The theme was sharing information on holidays from each religious tradition.)



We have gathered this evening to share thoughts, and to introduce to the audience aspects of faith that we maybe ignorant of, in particular, looking for theological or scriptural support for our traditional observances.

In this discussion, we have to remember that the core meaning of Holiday is "holy day", a moment or moments of time which are sacred or dedicated to the Divine in one sense or another.

"Holidays" have become cultural expressions, entering into our communal life, often transcending religious label. Thanksgiving, for example, was observed by Americans of all faiths and backrounds, not as a religious gathering, but rather because getting together at that time with family and friends is part and parcel of the American experience.

While it is true that Islam has its own particular "holidays", such as the 'Eid ul Fitr upon the end of Ramadan, and the 'Eid ul Ad-haa at the height of the pilgrimage ( To Makkah), it is also true that Islam teaches respect for the healthy cultural expressions of all peoples.

The text we will share from the Qur'an talks about Ramadan, a month-long period of fasting, more prayer and introspection. We also use that opportunity to read more of the Qur'an, the scripture sent forth to Muhammad The Prophet.

It should be remembered that these verses show us that the purpose behind the event of Ramadan is something much bigger than a cultural experience.

"The Month of Ramadan is that in which the Qur'an was sent,  a guidance for mankind, clear proofs of guidance and a criterion [for judging what is right and wrong]. So whosoever sees the moon [as the month is a lunar one] of the month, let him fast therein, whosoever is ill or on a journey, those days should be made up later. God does not intend hardship, rather, He wants for you ease and that you complete that period, glorify God because He has given you guidance, so that perhaps you will be grateful. "


"And when my servants ask you about Me [i.e. God], then I am near. I respond to the call of those who call to ME, so let them respond to ME, and believe in ME, so that perhaps they will be correctly guided." [Al-Qur'an 2:185-186]

Thank you.




Sunday, September 24, 2017

Are Activists allowed happiness?

Introduction

This weekend has been a flurry of activity on Socia Media within the Muslim community worldwide, because of accusations leveled against a certain well-known Muslim personality. The said person released statements denying the accusations, and obviously his ideological foes have hooked themselves strongly to the accusations.

It is worth noting that the said person has not been accused by anyone of doing anything illegal, rather, at worst, of exercising poor judgement,  and I am actually not going to address that at all, as I find that such would be useless and unproductive. Rather, I would like to go to an even bigger issue, one which, I must confess, I have struggled for a very long time to be able to contemplate, let alone put into words. 

This bigger issue is not restricted to famous personalities and political figures. This issue is also an issue with anyone- well known or anonyomous- who has sincere belief in a certain cause and sacrifices for that cause, be it religious, social, national, global, etc.

People of dedication to meaningful causes or to living according to a serious code tend to have a number of struggles, in that they are attempting to do right and live right, according to their sincere understanding of that code, even going against their own impulses to those things which seems to bring them happiness, security, comfort and peace.Such folks, it seems, even unconsciously sabotage whatever efforts they do make at attaining that which can bring forth happiness, because of these struggles.

This is not restricted to issues of intimate relationships. This can also refer to living comfortably, nice homes, clothing and finances, or a combination of all the above. There are a great deal of complexities involved in thinking and speaking about subjects of this nature, as well as differences vis a vis public figures and regular citizens, as such, we will divide our thoughts broadly between the two categories of people, even though it is true that much overlapping can (and does) take place.

The Sincere have every right to happiness and comfort in this life

"Say: Who has eternally forbidden (Harrama) God's pleasant (things) [ft.1] which He has produced for his servants, as well as that which is wholesome from His (own) provsion? Say: They are for those who believe, in this life, as well as [being manifested ] specially on the Day of Resurrection. Thus, We (Allah) explain signs to a people of knowledge." ( Q 7:32)


This verse alone should be sufficient as an evidence that having a pleasant existence in this world does not negate any righteous cause, nor does it destroy one's chances with God in the next life. I think the idea that believers or people dedicated to certain goodly causes are to have mariginal existence here in this life stems from Christian rhetoric. After all, the Bible and Christian tradition depicts Jesus ( believed to be God incarnate as well as God's son) as unmarried, totally against material or financial comforts of any sort. That thinking has filtered down to the culture, creating attitudes such as swearing off the opposite sex as well as children and material comforts, even among Non Christians! 


Two famous supplications from the Qur'an below illustrate that the Islamic religion teaches a balanced approach to all these sorts of issues. 

Our Lord! Give on us that which is pleasant in this life, as well as that which is pleasant in the after-life, and protect us from the punishment of the fire[ft.2]  ( Q 2:201)
Our Lord! Bestow on us from our spouses and offspring that which will be a source of comfort for our eyes, and make us leading for those who are holding God in awe." ( Q 25:74)

There are many ahadeeth or sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace and blessings, which can be cited. Often his sayings discuss the issues of marriage because, as the reports are presented, there was a desire among many to swear off dealing with the opposite sex, even wanting to be castrated.  Perhaps this was done out of the convert's zeal, wanting to totally abandon the distractions present in the days of ignorance that preceded the Prophetic preaching in Arabia. Yet, The Prophet says "I fast and I break my fast, and I marry women." He says, further, "Marriage is my Sunnah, and whosever abandons My Sunnah, is not of me." [Sunan Ibn Maajah, Kitaab an Nikaah, narrated by 'A'ishaa].


There are many other verses of the Qur'an that speak to the privacy of the Prophet Muhammad needing to be respected. People were repeatedly told not to monopolize his time, to have  respect  for his household, even to pay something in the public charitable fund before making private appointments with him ( 33: 53-53, 58:13, among other verses). His time is valuable, and should not be abused. 


These are principles which can be applied to any public figure. Imams and teachers should be paid for their services, especially those in which more work and mental energies would be needed in order to address said situation. It is not that the teacher or the worker is greedy, but it does show respect as well as appreciation. The worker is human, has his own bills and needs for happiness just like anyone else. 

It is an odd situation in today's world in which people pay a therapist, psychcologist or counselor for one hour sessions gladly, burdening that person with all of their problems with the hopes that the person will be able provide some solutions, yet will not consider the same situation for their religious consultant. This does not only happen with Imams in the Muslim community, it happens with many of my clergy friends from across the religious aisle! Calling them at all hours of the night, text messages and social media messages asking all sorts of queries, seeking resolutions. 

That consultant does not only deserve a honorable financial compensation. He or she also deserves that they be allowed a private life, a life that has happiness therein. To demand that such persons live as hermits,overworked and underappreciated,  while their flock is busy in pursuit of dunya, is unreasonable and unrealistic.


Respecting the privacy of others

The Qur'an instructs that a home cannot be entered if permission has not been obtained from its resident ( 24:27-28). While this may seem to be common sense, a figurative way of looking at this command shows us that it can also mean that we should stay out of people's inner lives. Indeed, the only authentic reason where this may not be a workable situation is if there is a risk of public damage or health! 

In private, people can pursue Halaal as well as Haraam, but when others enter into private affairs, those distinctions get blurred, depending upon the prejudices and thinking pattern of those doing the meddling. 

A very interesting Quranic text reads "O Believers! Avoid much conjecture, because sometimes conjecture is sinful, spy not on one another, and do not backbite one another..." [Q 49:12]

This verse has in it the concept of Husnudh dhann, which basically means to assume the best before assuming the worst. An example is this real scenario. A person sees a Muslim, dressed in Muslim attire, entering a bar. To someone looking on, the Muslim is doing a Haraam act, about to consume alcohol.  However, as it turns out, that Muslim is a salesman, selling colones and perfumes, which is perfectly Halaal. The same person could be delivering food! 

The verse says not to engage in bad assumptions in opening observations, but it also prohibits spying on one another. There maybe skeletons in your brother's closet, or, at mimimum, private issues he would rather stay private. It is not an issue of what is Halaal or what is Haraam. It could be that the thing in question's Islamic status is unclear, or it could simply be no one else's business. 

This, I would say, is for public figures and regular citizens alike. We live in a sensationalized, staged world, with Television programs such as Jerry Springer and The Maury Povich show show viewers the most intimate and embarrasing details of families unknown to us. We have become accustomed to knowing and gossiping about private affairs, issues which may not even be crimes or religiously unlawful, that we forget the Islamic guidelines!


Jealousy of another's successess is a spiritual disease and can cause damage to the object of envy


Much of the Quranic treatment of scandals and social niceties also has therein mention of "hypocrites" or "those with diseased hearts". Indeed, Muslim women in general [Q 24:31] as well as the Prophet's own wives [Q 33:59-60 among other places]  are told to behave in such a way as to minimize gossip from detractors and those with incorrect thoughts on matters. This writer recalls that Michelle Obama, wife of then US president Barack Obama, causing controversy by wearing a sleveless dress. The critics themselves supported personalities who dress in much more revealing ways, however their attacks were not motivated by genuine concern on the morals of the inhabitants of The White House, rather, it was motivated by jealousy!

The Prophet Muhammad Sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam is reported to have said the following words:
"Do not be jealous of each other, do not inflate prices on each others, do not have  hatred of each other, do not turn away from each other, do not undercut each other, and be, O servants of Allah, brothers.." [Saheeh Muslim]


I find it interesting that the hadeeth here connects these issues, viz jealousy, price fixing etc..

Those with diseased hearts are people who have so much envy buried within that they seek to actually destroy the object of their envy! 

The ideal condition is that people should be happy at the success of others, especially if that success was earned lawfully and correctly, and that success is translating into good results, felt by many. However, not all people are thinking correctly.

In these regards, it is best to avoid, as much as within one's ability, showing off, especially if you become aware of jealousy surrounding you. The rich person should not brag about his riches or the food he wasted in front of a hungry, poor person. One's clothes should be modest, not just in regards to decency, but in displays that could possibly cause resentment. The Prophet's commands for men to not wear gold and silver are good places to start. In addition, one should treat all, rich and poor alike, equally and with justice. 

If you find that there are those around you who have resentment towards due to your perceived success, and that your efforts to dissuade them of their fears have come to naught, it maybe time to limit contact, if not break ties all together. One must look for one's own health, especially one's spiritual health, with great care.

It can happen, and seems to have happened in this public fiasco, that jealosy of a person's success can cause the "family" or "friends" around them to seek to knock them down, "put them in their place"- as the saying goes. 

This is why it is important, vital, to have the company of believers, of sincere and God-fearing folks, particularly in intimate situations.

I read a quotation in a book on marriage which has really been profound. In it, it says that a wise man once divorced his wife, who then remarried. Upon being asked why he divorced his wife, the wise man said "how can you ask me about another man's wife?"

In other words, despite whatever situation that emerged in his life, he had enough sense to simply keep that situation private. 


Conclusion

Regarding the scandal which has taken Muslims by storm on social media outlets, whatever happened does not seem to warrant the attention it has received. A mixture of motivations for many parties is the real reason this has been blown out of purportion, but it did inspire me to think about the overall bigger questions about activists and ordinary folks alike attempting to navigate between their feelings and what they believe to be religious commands/truths. 


Everyone has a right to privacy. That is recognized not only in Islamic teachings, but under US law. We should be careful and we should always seek to obey the commandments of our faith, we should exercise good judgement and discretion, to avoid the appearance of doing something wrong, however that does not negate the fact that everyone has a life that has private aspects, that such things should be respected. It's perfectly fine in Islam for a man to pursue a woman ( or a woman to pursue a man for that matter, as we know that Prophet Muhammad was the one proposed to by Khadijah), and unless some serious crime has occured, such as rape, incest, sexual harrasment, pedophilia or something along those, personal business should be left personal. 

The Prophet Muhammad (Sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam) is reported to have said "Among the pleasant [aspects of] Islam [is] to leave alone that which does not have meaning for you." 

That hadeeth, and ahadeeth like it, are more relevant now than at the time those words were originally uttered. 

I would like to conclude this post with another important verse from the Qur'an, regarding prohibitions

Say: The only items eternally forbidden by My Lord are shameful acts, public and private, sins, transgressing unjustly, associating to God which you have no authority, and speaking about God what you do not know." [Q 7:34]


Footnotes

[1] The phrase Zeenah [not to be confused with Zinaa, which means adultery] is used here. It has shades of meaning that all have to do with pretty or pleasantries, sometimes "glitter". Here, we have rendered it as "pleasant (things)".

[2] Imam W. Deen Mohammed (1933-2008) renders wa qina 'adhaaban Naar as "protect us from the fires of sin". 







Thursday, September 21, 2017

Can Modesty and Exhibition coexist? Thoughts on the first Hijabi supermodel



"And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze, guard their chastity( ft.1) and not to make a display of their attractiveness (ft.2) except what is obvious (ft.3), that they should drape their coverings (Khumurihinna) over their chests, and not to display their attractiveness except to their husbands....they should not strike their feet to draw attention to their hidden attractiveness. Turn towards God, all of you, O you who have faith, so that perhaps you will be successful." [Q 24:31]





A story on euronews I saw last week, and picked up by a number of news outlets, concerns Halima Aden. A young Somali-American, she has become famous for being on the runway of New York's Fashion show. Her story has received much attention, considering that she was born in a Kenyan refugee camp, and now is seemingly making a successful life in this field. A practicing Muslim, she wears Hijab [see here] , which obviously brings attention to the subject of modesty or Islamic dress in a field that thrives on sex appeal.

These discussions are not new. We have had both Hijabi and Non Hijabi Muslim women participating in the Olympics, and of course last year Hijab clad Noor Tagouri ( a journalist) appeared in Playboy [see here ]. While many on the Muslim community have treated this trend with approval, because they view these as examples of Muslims being accepted as a part and parcel of the American mainstream, other voices have expressed caution, as to the possible erosion of Islamic ethics.

What does the Qur'an say?

The Quranic verse which opens this article is one of three verses which are normally cited with regards to dress. We have opted for this verse, which comes from the twenty-forth chapter (called "The Light") because it appears within a context of broader social expectations. The chapter speaks on adultery and its legal [Shar'i] punishment ( vv. 2-9) (see ft.4), slander ( vv. 10-20), whom to marry ( in particular verse 26) , avoiding invading the privacy and personal business of others ( vv.27-29) 
  and that both sexes are to avoid objectifying each other  (vv.29-30). In other words, the so called Ayatul Hijaab here is given within a set of guidelines that are met to govern human interactions.

In 24:30 it says that men are supposed to guard their chastity(ft.5) because "That is the purest for them". In other words, it is best for men to avoid the temptations out there because it brings them into more problems.

We do have other texts within the Qur'an which speak of a dress code. Q 33:59 tells us that Muslim women are to wear coverings which would not bring forth undue and unwanted advances and that they be "known" as women of respect and "off-limits" in terms of harassment. The context there is interesting, in that speaks of "hypocrites and those who have diseased hearts" (33:60). I think that this informs us that while many men would not be bothered at all, regardless of how a woman is dressed [and such seems to be a healthy mentality], others would indeed be inspired to improper behavior and perhaps even worse! Therefore, the Quranic guidelines is that women should not even risk it!


Islamic values should influence the culture, not vice versa

Men and women both make judgements all the time, in terms of who and what they see as attractive. That would happen regardless of how much clothes is being worn, if a woman wears a scarf or not, or even if a woman wears a face-veil (Niqaab) (ft.6).

The Islamic position is that sex appeal should NOT be used to sell products or ideas. The Islamic position is that such an appeal, particularly for women, should be restricted, not as an item for oppression, but rather as a way to maintain public respect and decorum.

This does not require men to be awkward around women or women to be awkward around men. That does happen as well, and is a problem. Every culture has certain norms and expectations, and while we should be able to navigate all of them in such a way that we cause offense to no one, at the same time we should  avoid contradicting Islamic values of modesty and proper behavior.

I believe that Muslim women have rights just as men have rights, however for women in particular, be they Muslim or Non Muslim, they should not allow themselves to become little more than display models, products to be sold and objectified.

Hijab is meant to prevent that very thing, if we take the time to read the aforementioned Quranic texts.  Even within American culture, a Catholic nun [who, until relatively recently, used to wear a uniform that was similar to Muslim clothing, symbolizing modesty] may be attractive, and her attractiveness was evident, but was viewed and treated in public with respect.

So just as the dress of Catholic nuns denoted a loyalty to God and the church, as an example for the rest of society to consider, the Hijab should likewise be seen in the same light, and not be co-opted into a capitalist economy which considers everything for sale. Islam should inspire the best impulses in human beings, and a healthy questioning of the thinking modern life seems to preach is a good place to start.

I hope these few words generate thought and discussion. I would also like to point out that none of this should be seen as an attack on Halima Aden or anyone else, nor a questioning of anyone's loyalty to Islamic ethos. Indeed, in any field, identifying as a Muslim is an act of courage. We are simply seeking to impart that we need to think about this subject, as well as other topics that come up in the modern world.

Footnotes

[1] Furujahunna literally means their private areas. It is an expression oft used in the Qur'an to denote sex. In keeping with other translators, we have rendered it here as "chastity".

[2] The word rendered here as "attractiveness" is Zeenah (Zeenatahunna). There is some disagreement as to what exactly this entails, however I think that this would be recognizable to any adult, regardless of backround or cultural experience. There are clothing, speech and behavior that occurs within the familiar and the close circle that would not be deemed acceptable with those outside of that. It is sometimes imagined that Zeenah here refers to, in essence, attractive clothing, makeup, etc.. that should be only worn for the benefit of marriage relationship, yet the verse goes on to say that such Zeenah cannot be displayed except for husbands and  fathers, and so forth. It is well known that Islam restricts the intimate ties [and forbids incest and the like] so the verse cannot be simply speaking about, for example, lingerie. In light of these realities, we explain the verse as given in this note, that there is simply a limitation being made on the levels of openness to be made with those outside of a certain circle. Perhaps we can use more examples, such as how any person dresses in their home in the presence of their family, they will dress differently in the presence of strangers or non family members.

[3] Illa Maa Dhahara Minhaa, rendered as "except what is obvious" is another phrase that whose understanding varies among the commentators. A man or woman may be judged as handsome or non handsome, a woman attractive or non attractive, by any observer they encounter. Some believe the term Khimaar (The plural Khumur is given in the verse) includes covering of the eyes, in fact, one Tafseer states that only one eye of a woman is allowed to be seen, however that does not coincide with the Qur'an. If The Qur'an [Q 24:30] commands women to cover their faces, the injunction to not objectify women [translated by Yusuf Ali as "say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze"] would be meaningless!

It is worth remembering that every culture has its norms. In places within the Persian Gulf, as well as within Afghanistan and Western Pakistan, it is the norm for women to cover their faces. While it is not our intention to pass judgements on this practice, the Qur'an obviously speaks of a society in which men and women are at least, in normal circumstances, able to see each other. This seems to be the normative situation in human societies.

In recent times we have witnessed a trend among Muslim activists to dismiss and downplay Hijab. The argue that the word Hijab is never used in the Qur'an for a head covering. While this is true, the Qur'an 24:30 uses the term Khumur (Singular Khimaar as explained above) and this is what is today commonly called Hijab. The Khimaar is understood to have to cover not only the hair, but also the neck, ears, and the verse places emphasis on covering up the chest.

Any other clothing item[s] that have the same function as explained above is Islamically acceptable. shirts, head scarves, bonnets and hats, etc... and indeed throughout the Muslim world we see that clothing style varies, especially among women.


[4] The Qur'an prescribes lashes as a penalty for Zinaa [Adultery]. However, it also requires four witnesses ( Q 24:14) to the act, and the scholars have stated that they must witness actual penetration. This is an almost impossible requirement, a criterion unneeded in any other legal situation. Moreover, in Islam there are prohibitions against getting into the private lives of others (Q 49:12, as well as the Prophet's statement "from among the pleasant Islamic [decrees] is to leave alone that which has no meaning to him", in Tirmidhee's collection]. So the punishment is to be given only in instances where public health and morality are under threat. It is also interesting that historically the Hanafi Fuqahaa seemed to have treated Zinaa and Nikaah [marriage] as the same, so that practically the prohibitions of marriage [for example, not being allowed to marry one's mother in law] also applies to Non marriage relationships. It is said that Imam Abu Hanifa felt that those who did have relation outside of marriage should simply get married. The treatment of Zinaa and Nikaah as being equal is not agreed upon by the scholars. Great luminaries such as Imam Shafi'ee and Imam Malik are examples of those who totally rejected the Hanafite viewpoint.

[5] The term Furuuujahum appears here, as referring to males (contrasting to females as explained in footnote 1). This shows us that contrary to popular opinion, chastity is a requirement for both genders!

[6] Niqaab, as well as it's variants worldwide, is something not commanded by the Qur'an. Our reasoning is articulated in footnote 3. This does not mean that we see the Niqaab as being prohibited. Ultimately people can wear whatever they want, as dictated by personal taste and cultural styles. There is a level of common sense in all of this as well. Ski masks are not allowed in banks, and universally passport pictures require that the face be shown, yet, in places in the Middle East and West Africa, it is necessary to cover the face to protect it from sunburn.





Monday, September 11, 2017

Study Notes: Accepting God's will: Refections upon Soorah Al Hijr ( 15: 80-90)

( Note: The following is an edited version of my reflections on a handful of Quranic verses. Previously, we have looked at vv. 70-80, which can be found here . The English translation has not been included, unless otherwise stated. This allows the reader to consult the translation of their choice. The Arabic text has been included, and, as always, discussion is welcome.]


[ Q 15:80]

As found in the previous article, we have a brief gloss of the regions Madyan and Hijr. The famed Zamakhshari has suggested ( as quoted by Muhammad Asad) that "Messengers" is a reference to not only the Prophet Saaleh, but rather to his followers, suggesting that the followers of the Prophet Saaleh [and perhaps, by the followers of all Prophets] have a Prophetic mission themselves.


[ Q 15: 81-84]









It is generally imagined that Prophets are figures speaking to primitive societies, however the words of the Qur'an point towards the opposite conclusion. We are talking about highly advanced, materially rich, cultures. We should also consider connecting these verses to the Sodom and Gommorah situation, in the sense that both had the same issues of moral decay.

Q 15:72 states that Sodom and Gomorrah existed in a drunken condition, blindly wandering. Now, in v.82, we see that these groups would ignore Allah's signs and exist "feeling secure" because their homes were built in seemingly solid places such as mountains. However, that did not save them!

This is a lesson that we in the developed world need to learn. As we compose these words, the USA is facing Hurricanes in our southern regions. Indeed, it has to be admitted that those of us living in the USA and in other highly developed nations perceive ourselves as largely immune to the disasters, both natural and man-made, that other societies face on a regular basis. The feeling of complacency, in the face of eventualities as well as in the face of social and moral injustices, can very well be the seeds that plant our eventual destruction.

We are not advocating a negative view on everything, only that we keep our eyes open, and our hearts firmly planted within Allah's guidance.


[Q 15:85]

Haqq has a plethora of meanings and implications, here, it is best to render it as "Purpose". In another verse, Allah says "And We ( i.e. Allah) have not created the sky and the earth and what is between them for play" [Q 21:16].

The One who created the universe for Haqq, will, likewise, end it all in Haqq. The ending is the "hour" of Judgement. That day is also called The Last Day [Yawm Al Aakhir]. Because the beginning and ending all exists within God's purposes, we are told "So forgive with gracious forgiveness" (Saheeh International translation).

This last sentence in the verse is clear enough, yet Tafseer Al Jalalayn asserts that it is abrogated by "The verse of the sword", which reads, as translated by Saheeh International  : "And when the inviolable months have passed, then kill the polytheists whereever you find them and beseige them and sit in wait for them at every place of ambush.." ( Q 9:5)

We find this assertion to be unsupported by the context, moreover, the assertion is a violation of well known principles. Q 9:5 is clearly in a certain war context at a certain place and time. Indeed, all one really needs to do is read the contex [Starting from 9:1 and ending in 9:10]. In other words, verses regarding war are at a particular place and moment, specific to that, whereas the principle of graciousness, humility, forgiveness and kindness are general and timeless.

The general principle, when and where general situations are applicable, have nothing to do with war and fimness during periods of imposed conflict.

Throughout the Qur'an, we read statements such as "and when the ignorant address you, say "peace"" [Q 25:63].

Therefore, we cannot agree with the claim that this text has been abrogated. We question the entire basis for the claim that any verse of the Qur'an has been abrogated(ft.1)


[Q 15:86]




Al Khallaq means the ever-Creating. It is different from Al-Khaaliq {The Creator}. The former shows us that God is constantly at work in creating!

This is an important nuance because as scripture readers, we tend to think of Allah as only acting in the past, whereas the fact of the matter is is that Allah is still and will always be at work in the universe He runs.  The importance of Ayatul Kursiyy  ( Q 2:255) is highlighted in such a discussion. If God is simply a historical figure, a being who worked in the past, the presence of Ayatul Kursiyy in the Qur'an would be pointless, as would the numberous Prophetic traditions encouraging us to regularly recite that text!


[Q 15:87]



"Seven oft repeated" is universally understood to refer to Soorah Al-Faatihah. That chapter, the Qur'an's opening words, is recited several times daily in Muslim prayers.

It is signifigant to this writer that all Muslim demoninations without exception agree that Al-Faatihah is necessary for the daily prayers, even though there is no verse which directly says that one must recite it in the prayers.(Ft.2)


[ Q 15:88-90]








This is directed to Prophet Muhammad, upon whom be peace and blessings, moreso than anyone else. In essence, it says to him to never be tempted to give up your faith and the company of those sincere in their faith, because God has already given you so much. The material or worldly trappings in the hands of the disbelievers should not dissuade you.

Other Quranic texts tell the Prophet, Sall Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam, the same message. In particular, many of the texts in the Juz 'Amma section . I would recommend reading some of those Soorahs, such as Ad Duhaa ( chapter 93), Inshiraah ( chapter 94) and Al Kawthar (chapter 108).

Verse 90 is more difficult to grapple, and that difficulty is reflected in the different interpretations found in the books of Tafseer.

If connected with vv.91-92, the context seems to be a warning, just as warning is found in general in the story of Lot's people and the Madyan and Hijr above, to not pick and choose what one accepts of Divine Revelation.

The Qur'an states "..and those firmly grounded in knowledge assert 'We believe in it, all of what is from the presence of our Lord.." ( Q 3:7).

In today's world, we have trends which attempt to carve up the scripture, both figuratevly and literally. We have writers and lecturers, of Muslim family backround, asserting that Muhammad made up parts of the Qur'an in order to justify genocide and to have women!

We have "Muslims" who esentially reject what the Qur'an says on race relations, who attempt to use the Scripture to justify racism, hatred, misogny, and immoral behaviour.

The Qur'an can never have textual corruption (called Tahreef in the literature) but it can have distortions based upon a copy/paste approach. This is done by extremist groups all the time among Muslim ranks, but it is also done diverse groups as Islamophobes ( folks with an irrational fear of Islam and Muslims) and liberal voices in the Muslim community.

I think it is better for people to admit that they have weaknesses rather than to justify the unjustifiable in Islam. It would be more honest.

In any case, there are other interpretations of verse 90 [and the verses following it] that could be the correct understanding. For now, we share our views above and conclude with the reminder that at the end, only Allah knows best.


Conclusion

The world and life therein can be a confusing place. The diversity of personalities, cultures, egos and agendas can bring people to a state of loss, of feeling lost. The Qur'an comes along to help us on life's journey, but in order for it to really be effective, one must reflect on it in a continous manner, regularly studying it, reciting it, and acting upon it.

This should not be done in a superficial way, nor should it be dogmatic, in the sense that the text gets manipulated to suit our whims.

In our previous article, we looked at the story of Lot, how the people there were "wandering about blindly, in a drunken state". In this article here, we read how Allah says that another group felt that they were secure from any catastrophe because their homes were built within mountains.

We should consider taking the above sentiments further, not just in social analysis, but within our own circles or existence of life. Are we walking blindly or acting drunk in our lives and in our thinking? Are we oblivious to realities? Are we painting the doors while the house is on fire?

May Allah show us truth as truth, and give us the ability to follow it, and falsehood as falsehood, and give us the ability to abstain therefrom.


Footnotes

[1] For more on the question of abrogation [known as Naskh] go to this link .

[2] We have a number of Prophetic Ahadeeth which tell us that Al-Faatihah is to be included in prayers. All the groupings, despite their many theological and methodological differences, accept that Al-Faatihah is needed to be included in their prayers. The necessity for Al-Faatihah in worship is also accepted by most of those who reject Hadeeth as a source of Islamic understanding, known widely as Quranites or "Quran alone". Thus, one can find the writings and videos of Rashad Khalifa, one of the most well-known proponents of a hadeeth-free understanding of Islam, advocating that Al-Faatihah be recited in prayers.

Al-Faatihah is known as Umm Al Qur'an, the essence of the Qur'an. It is the perfect text for worship, and logically we should be able to see why the Prophet Muhammad said that any prayer in which that Soorah was not included was "Incomplete" ghayr Tamaam. The source of this hadeeth is Saheeh Muslim.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Study Notes: Soorah Al Hijr [ 15: 70-80]. The implications of the story of Lot [Luut عليه السلام]

[ Note: The following is an edited version of some reflections on ten verses from the Qur'an. Originally, these notes were prepared for a weekly Quranic discussion I participate in, however I have decided to share them here, with the hopes of generating discussion and thinking. Also please note that unless otherwise seen in the text, the English translation has not been included. This will influence the reader to check the translation of their choice. The Arabic text is included.]


Some backround

This particular section deals with the story of Prophet Lot, known as Luutعليه السلام  in Arabic. The immediate context preceding the verses in question tell us that Lot's own household contained contrasting elements therein, as do all families. While Lot is connected to Allah, his wife is counted as being among the 'criminal class' [15:58-60]. Eventually, God's angelic messengers conveys notice to Abrahamعليه السلام ,  Lot's uncle,  that Sodom and Gommorah will be destroyed. The Qur'an says elsewhere ( Q 7:80-81 among other places) that the society engaged in intimate activity that cannot be deemed natural .

This particular issue is a deeply sensitive and potentially divisive one in today's world. I think it is important to see all of this in connection to what is repeatedly stated in these verses, and that is the title "The Family of Lot " [Aal Luut]. Lot is the family patriarch, the caring, wise and loving father and perhaps grandfather that we all have in our family units, seeking to preserve the morals of those under his care. Lot recognizes that wild behavior is something which leads to disastorous consequences ( Q 15: 61-64).

Lot advocates that the thinking of his family and followers be upon correct or healthy boundaries. He tells them to neither long for the social ties with those engaged in destructive behavior, nor even be in their company. In our age, the wise parent may instruct his child to stay away from certain other children because of their behavior, and the same parent may put restrictions [or even remove] the television or the cell phone when such devices of entertainment are found to be detrimental to the oveall development of his child [15: 65-66].

The society, probably more in particular the elites in power [called Al Mala' throughout the Quranic narrations], had places restrictions on Lot. In a sense, he seemed to have been a character that they wanted to silence, to be under house arrest. Lot  has some "guests" [who are actually these angelic messengers mentioned earlier] . These guests were threatened with attack, and the text implies that they were even threatened with rape! Lot makes a final appeal to any Taqwaaa [reverence for God Almighty] as well as any sense of social propriety, but alas, his pleas fall upon deaf ears. [Q 15: 67-69]

But as we come to know, attempts to restrict or suppress the truth eventually come to naught! Truth cannot be defeated( 15:70) . The Qur'an says "And say: Truth has come, and falsehood vanishes. Indeed, falsehood is, by it's nature, a vanishing [thing]' [Q 17:81]

[15:71]


In his comments, the translator Yusuf Ali righly points out that this language is the language of a family patriarch, an older man trying to push atleast a little bit in a different direction.
Thus, "My daughters" are not literal, nor is he seeking to sacrifice the women in his society to be raped, as sometimes thought by some critical readers. Perhaps marriage between men and women was a dying institute, as it is in our society today, and sought, out of desperation, to revive it.

[15:72]



The social order of  Sodom and Gomorrah was blinding and intoxicating. The verse uses the term  لفي to denote the intensity of this condition. 

It is very difficult for those affected by such conditions to see the reality of their existence. 

Prophets and Scripture comes forth in order to open up the eyes and to have foundations for proper thinking. I see the Prophet Muhammad's   صلى الله عليه وسلم   supplication as particularly relevant here in the sense that one not only invokes Allah but it also provides a philosophical foundation for acting in the real world.


His prayer is "O Allah, show us truth as truth, and give us the ability to follow it, and show us falsehood [Baatil] as falsehood, and give us the ability to abstain therefrom." 

[ 15: 73-74]


Sayhah is also translated as "scream", and seems to denote a general overturning of the social order.


[15:75]




The translator Muhammad Asad, quoting Imam Razi and the famed grammarian and commentator Zamakhshari, points out in his note that Mutawassim means " One who applies his mind to the study of the outward appearance of a thing with the view to understand it's real nature and inner characterstics".

This is a deeply important verse here. When connected to 15:72, we can see that the argument is that a society of blinded, drunken (in their thinking and actions) human beings brings forth their own destruction. God says here that such societies should be studied, and this is precisely what social scientists, archaeologists, and related fields do. This also occurs with intelligent figures interested in the betterment of their own societies. One need only look at the libraries of such figures as Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and Malcolm X.  The latter, in his autobiography, mentions the many books he studied, they include histories, political theory, philiosophy, and more. 

The Qur'an is not a book that encourages blind faith. In fact, it points to the sciences, to certain fields and disciplines that would be deemed by many today as non religious! The guidance of God tells us that we should take lessons from the mistakes of past societies. It has been my observation that those who are deeply influenced by the Qur'an, personalities whom I know personally and others whom I have not interacted with, are people who are not limited to the Qur'an. Their interests are expansive, usually to include history, the physical world, science,  and the fate of civilizations. This does not mean that they all reach the same conclusions on all subjects, or that their conclusions are always correct. However, it does indicate that they are pondering deeply upon the words of Allah, which makes them look at the other important subjects. 

I would dare take this further to say that those who claim to study the Qur'an and yet have no interest in these [and other related] subjects, have in fact not studied the Qur'an properly! Perhaps a better way of saying that is that their "studies" are actually superficial at best. The need to study these other important fields is particularly acute in our Imams, scholars and speakers, especially the famous ones or those up and coming! 

There is no need for us to become like many who are referred to as Biblical fundamentalists, people who read and study only  the [translations of] Bible. Such reading may be a nice pious exercise, however the results can be very problematic, and we don't want to follow in the same mistakes.


[15: 76]


The location of Sodom and Gommorah is well known, as was known at the time of the revelation. God lets such remmants exist in order to be a lesson for future generations. Yet. today, at the site, it is not taken seriously. Indeed, it is now a swimming attraction today.


[15: 77]


Believers do take the warnings and signs of past civilizational failures seriously.

[15: 78-80] 






Madyan is in NorthWest Arabia, to whom a Prophet named Shu'ayb      عليه السلام   was sent.

Hijr is said to be between the Hijaz [Western Arabia, where Makkah and Madinah are located] and Syria. To them, a Prophet named Saaleh  عليه السلام         was sent forth.

Zamakhshari [as quoted by Muhammad Asad] suggests that the term "Messengers" here means Saaleh and his followers. This would suggest that the followers of Prophets likewise have a Prophetic mission.



These observations are not meant to be dogmatic, but rather to point out that the Quranic treatment of subjects are very nuanced. Indeed, even with the Sodom and Gomorrah story, we should be able to see that the prevalence of sexual relations outside of the norm is only a sympton of a deeper illness. We should also be able to see that the Qur'an advocates a serious study and search for solutions to the issues we face in today's world.

Wallaahu A'laam

Wa Billaahit Tawfeeq