Essays

What the Prophets Teach Us About the Proper Etiquette of Dua (Supplication)

In answer to questions regarding the nature and ideal manner of supplication in Islam

The true servant of God is the one who accepts whatever the Creator decrees. If he asks of Him and He answers, he considers that a privilege granted by Him, and if he is denied, he considers that an act of the Master doing what He wills toward His subjects, so that there is no complaint in his heart toward his condition.

Ibn al-Jawzi

In this article I will explore what the Quran teaches us about the proper way of interacting with God when supplicating to Him. How does one show proper respect toward God during prayer? And what things are the best things to pray for, and what things are not so good to pray for? If you are looking for a quick answer, go to the bottom of the article to the “Summary and Conclusion” section.

The Prayers of the Prophtes in the Quran

The Quran encourages us to emulate the manners of the Prophets mentioned in the Quran when it says:

Those are they whom God has guided, so emulate them in their guidance. (From verse 6:90)

When it comes to prayer, the Quran gives us many examples of the way the Prophets interacted with God in their prayers.

Prophet Muhammad

We have the example of our Prophet Muhammad . He strongly desired for the qibla (the direction faced during the formal prayer) to be changed so that the Muslims would face Mecca rather than Jerusalem. But he did not voice his desire. He had submitted his heart so thoroughly to God that he considered it God’s business to decide the direction of the prayer and change it if and when He wanted, he did not presume to interfere with this by praying for a different direction despite his own personal desires. Still, God heard his unvoiced prayer; the Quran says:

We have seen your face turned towards the heaven. So We will turn you towards a direction that will satisfy you. So turn your face towards the Sacred Mosque. And wherever you may be, turn your faces towards it. Those who were given the Book know that it is the Truth from their Lord; and God is not unaware of what they do. (The Quran, verse 2:144)

Hadith narrations tell us that the Prophet prayed very ardently for God’s help before the Battle of Badr, a battle that was to decide the fate of the Muslims forever:

The Prophet (ﷺ) turned (his face) towards the Qibla. Then he stretched his hands and began his supplication to his Lord: "O Allah, accomplish for me what Thou hast promised to me. O Allah, bring about what Thou hast promised to me. O Allah, if this small band of Muslims is destroyed. Thou will not be worshipped on this earth." He continued his supplication to his Lord, stretching his hands, facing the Qibla, until his mantle slipped down from his shoulders.

Quoted from the longer narration at Sahih Muslim 1763

The Prophet is also mentioned in certain hadith narrations teaching his Companions, may God be pleased with them, how to supplicate.

'Aishah (May Allah be pleased with her) reported:
I asked: "O Messenger of Allah! If I realize Lailat-ul-Qadr (Night of Decree), what should I supplicate in it?" He (ﷺ) replied, "You should supplicate: Allahumma innaka 'afuwwun, tuhibbul-'afwa, fa'fu 'anni (O Allah, You are Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness; so forgive me)."

Al-Tirmidhi Book 9, Hadith 1195, Sunan Ibn Majah 3850 (judged authentic)

Abdullah reported that Allah's Messenger (ﷺ) used to supplicate (in these words):
" O Allah. I beg of Thee right guidance, safeguard against evils, chastity and freedom from want."

Sahih Muslim Book 48, Hadith 97

Prophet Adam and His Wife

22. So he lured them with deceit. And when they tasted the tree, their nakedness became evident to them, and they began covering themselves with the leaves of the Garden. And their Lord called out to them, “Did I not forbid you from this tree, and say to you that Satan is a sworn enemy to you?”

23. They said, “Our Lord, we have done wrong to ourselves. Unless You forgive us, and have mercy on us, we will be among the losers.” (The Quran, verses 7:22-23)

Prophet Nūḥ (Noah)

The Quran also gives us the example of a Prophet who makes the mistake of praying for something he should not be praying for. When Noah’s son is about to drown in the Flood, the following exchange takes place:

45. And Noah called to his Lord. He said, “O My Lord, my son is of my family, and Your promise is true, and You are the Wisest of the wise.”

46. He said, “O Noah, he is not of your family. It is an unrighteous deed. So do not ask Me about something you know nothing about. I admonish you, lest you be one of the ignorant.”

47. He said, “O My Lord, I seek refuge with You, from asking You for what I have no knowledge of. Unless You forgive me, and have mercy on me, I will be one of the losers.”

48. It was said, “O Noah, disembark with peace from Us; and with blessings upon you, and upon communities from those with you. And other communities We will grant prosperity, and then a painful torment from Us will befall them.” (The Quran, verses 11:45-48)

Noah’s son has proudly refused to embark on the Ark, saying that he would go to a mountain to be saved from the Flood (verse 11:43). When Noah sees him drowning, his fatherly instinct is to want to save him, so he calls out to God. Like the other Prophets, he does not make a specific demand, he only expresses the state of his heart to God but fears God too much to make demands of Him. In this case, God rebuffs him. Noah is not punished for praying for the wrong thing, he is only corrected (he is a Prophet and should know better than to try to save someone who proudly refused to be saved, even if it is his own son), then the kind words in verse 11:48 are said to him.

We also have these verses about him:

9. Before them the people of Noah disbelieved. They rejected Our servant, and said, “Crazy,” and he was rebuked.

10. So he appealed to his Lord, “I am overwhelmed, so help me.” (54:9-10)

In another place in the Quran we have Prophet Noah praying against those who rejected his message (after nine centuries of trying), while also praying for certain other things:

26. Noah said, “My Lord, do not leave of the unbelievers a single dweller on earth.

27. If You leave them, they will mislead your servants, and will breed only wicked unbelievers.

28. My Lord! Forgive me and my parents, and anyone who enters my home in faith, and all the believing men and believing women; and do not increase the wrongdoers except in perdition.” (The Quran, verse 71:26-28)

Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham)

We also have the example of Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham), who prays for some general things and some specific things:

35. Recall that Abraham said, “O my Lord, make this land peaceful, and keep me and my sons from worshiping idols.”

36. “My Lord, they have led many people astray. Whoever follows me belongs with me; and whoever disobeys me—You are Forgiving and Merciful.

37. “Our Lord, I have settled some of my offspring in a valley of no vegetation, by Your Sacred House, our Lord, so that they may perform the prayers. So make the hearts of some people incline towards them, and provide them with fruits, that they may be thankful.”

38. “Our Lord, You know what we conceal and what we reveal. And nothing is hidden from God, on earth or in the heaven.”

39. “Praise be to God, Who has given me, in my old age, Ishmael and Isaac. My Lord is the Hearer of Prayers.”

40. “My Lord, make me one who performs the prayer, and from my offspring. Our Lord, accept my supplication.”

41. “Our Lord, forgive me, and my parents, and the believers, on the Day the Reckoning takes place.” (The Quran, verses 14:35-41)

We also have the following passage that gives us some more detail on Prophet Ibrāhīm’s prayers:

126. When Abraham said, “O My Lord, make this a peaceful land, and provide its people with fruits—whoever of them believes in God and the Last Day.” He said, “And whoever disbelieves, I will give him a little enjoyment, then I will consign him to the punishment of the Fire; how miserable the destiny!”

127. As Abraham raises the foundations of the House, together with Ishmael, “Our Lord, accept it from us, You are the Hearer, the Knower.

128. Our Lord, and make us submissive to You, and from our descendants a community submissive to You. And show us our rites, and accept our repentance. You are the Acceptor of Repentance, the Merciful.

129. Our Lord, and raise up among them a messenger, of themselves, who will recite to them Your revelations, and teach them the Book and wisdom, and purify them. You are the Almighty, the Wise.” (The Quran, verses 2:126-129)

We also have this passage:

83. “My Lord! Grant me wisdom, and include me with the righteous.

84. And give me a reputation of truth among the others.

85. And make me of the inheritors of the Garden of Bliss.

86. And forgive my father—he was one of the misguided.

87. And do not disgrace me on the Day they are resurrected.

88. The Day when neither wealth nor children will help. (Verse 26:83-88)

Prophet Ayyūb (Job)

Another example of prophetic manners when it comes to prayer is Prophet Ayyūb (Biblical Job). He suffered from a terrible illness, but instead of praying for a cure, this was his prayer:

And Job, when he cried out to his Lord: “Great harm has afflicted me, and you are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” So We answered him, lifted his suffering, and restored his family to him, and their like with them—a mercy from Us, and a reminder for the worshipers. (The Quran, verse 21:83-84)

Ayyūb does not presume to ask for a cure. He simply says to God that he is suffering terribly while praising His mercy, leaving it to God to decide what to do in his case. His submission and awe toward God is so great that he probably considers it impolite to ask God to cure him when God is already fully aware of his situation. But he cannot help himself and cries out in pain, and God responds to him even though he does not specifically ask for anything.

Prophet Yūnus (Jonah)

87. And Jonah, when he stormed out in fury, thinking We had no power over him. But then He cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!”

88. So We answered him, and saved him from the affliction. Thus We save the faithful. (21:87-88)

Prophet Yūsuf (Joseph)

Prophet Yūsuf is mentioned making this prayer:

My Lord, You have given me some authority, and taught me some interpretation of events. Initiator of the heavens and the earth; You are my Protector in this life and in the Hereafter. Receive my soul in submission, and unite me with the righteous.” (Verse 12:101)

Prophet Mūsā (Moses)

We have the example of Prophet Mūsā (Moses) who, like Noah, makes a vengeful prayer:

88. Moses said, “Our Lord, you have given Pharaoh and his chiefs splendor and wealth in the worldly life. Our Lord, for them to lead away from Your path. Our Lord, obliterate their wealth, and harden their hearts, so that they will not believe until they see the painful torment.”

89. He said, “Your prayer has been answered, so go straight, and do not follow the path of those who do not know.” (The Quran, verses 10:88-89)

One may rightly wonder why a Prophet would make such a negative prayer instead of forgiving and trying to make the world a better place. And why does God grant it? The reason is that the party against whom the prayer is made (Pharaoh) fully deserves the punishment Moses asks for for his murder and oppression of the believers. When a faithful servant of God makes such a prayer, God grants it because it is just and fair to grant it when it is against someone like Pharaoh, and because granting it is no loss for anyone. It would have been better for Pharaoh and his people if he had become a believer, but since he was so immersed in evil for so long, God allowed his fate to be sealed. Destroying him and his army was no loss for anyone, since God can re-create a civilization like his in an instant if He wished. The loss is entirely Pharaoh’s loss.

He also prays in the following way for God’s help when God chooses him to be a messenger:

25. He said, “My Lord, put my heart at peace for me.

26. And ease my task for me.

27. And untie the knot from my tongue.

28. So they can understand my speech.

29. And appoint an assistant for me, from my family.

30. Aaron, my brother.

31. Strengthen me with him.

32. And have him share in my mission.

33. That we may glorify You much.

34. And remember You much.

35. You are always watching over us.”

36. He said, “You are granted your request, O Moses. (Verses 20:25-36)

The following are other verses that mention him praying:

He said, “My Lord, forgive me and my brother, and admit us into Your mercy; for you are the Most Merciful of the merciful.” (7:151)

And Moses chose from his people seventy men for Our appointment. When the tremor shook them, he said, “My Lord, had You willed, You could have destroyed them before, and me too. Will you destroy us for what the fools among us have done? This is but Your test—with it You misguide whomever You will, and guide whomever You will. You are our Protector, so forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are the Best of Forgivers.” (Verse 7:155)

He said, “My Lord, I have wronged myself, so forgive me.” So He forgave him. He is the Forgiver, the Merciful. (Verse 28:16)

Prophet Sulaymān (Solomon)

We also have the example of Prophet Sulaymān (Solomon) who asks to be given worldly power and his prayer is granted by God:

34. We tested Solomon, and placed a body on his throne; then he repented.

35. He said, “My Lord, forgive me, and grant me a kingdom never to be attained by anyone after me. You are the Giver.” (The Quran, verses 38:34-35)

Prophet Zakarīyā (Zechariah)

We also have the example of Prophet Zakarīyā (Biblical Zechariah). He was childless in his old age, and after being impressed by the piety of the young Mary (mother of Prophet Jesus, peace be upon them), he prays for a child for himself:

Thereupon Zechariah prayed to his Lord; he said, “My Lord, bestow on me good offspring from Your presence; You are the Hearer of Prayers.” (The Quran, verse 3:38)

This time we have a Prophet who prays for something specific; a child.

Prophet ʿĪsā (Jesus)

We also have the following verse about Prophet ʿĪsā (Jesus):

Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord, send down for us a table from heaven, to be a festival for us, for the first of us, and the last of us, and a sign from You; and provide for us; You are the Best of providers.” (5:114)

The Quranic Prayers

 

And among them is he who says, “Our Lord, give us goodness in this world, and goodness in the Hereafter, and protect us from the torment of the Fire.” (Verse 2:201)

And when they confronted Goliath and his troops, they said, “Our Lord, pour down patience on us, and strengthen our foothold, and support us against the faithless people.” (Verse 2:250)

285. The Messenger has believed in what was revealed to him from his Lord, as did the believers. They all have believed in God, and His angels, and His scriptures, and His messengers: “We make no distinction between any of His messengers.” And they say, “We hear and we obey. Your forgiveness, our Lord. To you is the destiny.” 286. God does not burden any soul beyond its capacity. To its credit is what it earns, and against it is what it commits. “Our Lord, do not condemn us if we forget or make a mistake. Our Lord, do not burden us as You have burdened those before us. Our Lord, do not burden us with more than we have strength to bear; and pardon us, and forgive us, and have mercy on us. You are our Lord and Master, so help us against the disbelieving people.” (Verses 2:285-286)

Those who say, “Our Lord, we have believed, so forgive us our sins, and save us from the suffering of the Fire.” (Verse 3:16)

“Our Lord, do not cause our hearts to swerve after You have guided us, and bestow on us mercy from Your presence; You are the Giver.” (Verse 3:8)

“Our Lord, we have believed in what You have revealed, and we have followed the Messenger, so count us among the witnesses.” (3:53)

Their only words were, “Our Lord, forgive us our offences, and our excesses in our conduct, and strengthen our foothold, and help us against the disbelieving people.” (3:147)

And why would you not fight in the cause of God, and the helpless men, and women, and children, cry out, “Our Lord, deliver us from this town whose people are oppressive, and appoint for us from Your Presence a Protector, and appoint for us from Your Presence a Victor.” (Verse 4:75)

And when their eyes are directed towards the inmates of the Fire, they will say, “Our Lord, do not place us among the wrongdoing people.” (Verse 7:47)

“We would be fabricating falsehood against God, if we were to return to your religion, after God has saved us from it. It is not for us to return to it, unless God, our Lord, wills. Our Lord embraces all things in knowledge. In God we place our trust. Our Lord, decide between us and our people in truth, for You are the Best of Deciders.” (Verse 7:89)

“You are taking vengeance on us only because we have believed in the signs of our Lord when they have come to us.” “Our Lord! Pour out patience upon us, and receive our souls in submission.” (Verse 7:126)

They said, “In God we have put our trust. Our Lord, do not make us victims of the oppressive people.” (Verse 10:85)

191. Those who remember God while standing, and sitting, and on their sides; and they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth: “Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You, so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” 192. “Our Lord, whomever You commit to the Fire, You have disgraced. The wrongdoers will have no helpers.” 193. “Our Lord, we have heard a caller calling to the faith: `Believe in your Lord,' and we have believed. Our Lord! Forgive us our sins, and remit our misdeeds, and make us die in the company of the virtuous.” 194. “Our Lord, and give us what You have promised us through Your messengers, and do not disgrace us on the Day of Resurrection. Surely You never break a promise.” (Verses 3:191-194)

And lower to them the wing of humility, out of mercy, and say, “My Lord, have mercy on them, as they raised me when I was a child.” (Verse 17:24)

And say, “My Lord, lead me in through an entry of truth, and lead me out through an exit of truth, and grant me from You a supporting power.” (Verse 17:80)

When the youths took shelter in the cave, they said, “Our Lord, give us mercy from Yourself, and bless our affair with guidance.” (Verse 18:10)

28. Then, when you and those with you are settled in the Ark, say, “Praise be to God, who has saved us from the wrongdoing people.” 29. And say, “My Lord, land me with a blessed landing, as you are the best of situators.” (Verses 23:28-29)

And say, “My Lord, I seek refuge with You from the urgings of the devils. 98. And I seek refuge with You, my Lord, lest they come into my presence.” (Verses 23:97-98)

There was a group of My servants who would say, "Our Lord, we have believed, so forgive us, and have mercy on us; You are the Best of the merciful." (Verse 23:109)

And those who say, ‘‘Our Lord, avert from us the suffering of Hell, for its suffering is continuous. (Verse 25:65)

And those who say, “Our Lord, grant us delight in our spouses and our children, and make us a good example for the righteous.” (Verse 25:74)

7. Those who carry the Throne, and those around it, glorify their Lord with praise, and believe in Him, and ask for forgiveness for those who believe: “Our Lord, You have encompassed everything in mercy and knowledge; so forgive those who repent and follow Your path, and protect them from the agony of the Blaze. 8. And admit them, Our Lord, into the Gardens of Eternity, which You have promised them, and the righteous among their parents, and their spouses, and their offspring. You are indeed the Almighty, the Most Wise. (Verses 40:7-8)

We have enjoined upon man kindness to his parents. His mother carried him with difficulty, and delivered him with difficulty. His bearing and weaning takes thirty months. Until, when he has attained his maturity, and has reached forty years, he says, “Lord, enable me to appreciate the blessings You have bestowed upon me and upon my parents, and to act with righteousness, pleasing You. And improve my children for me. I have sincerely repented to You, and I am of those who have surrendered.” (Verse 46:15)

And those who came after them, saying, “Our Lord, forgive us, and our brethren who preceded us in faith, and leave no malice in our hearts towards those who believe. Our Lord, You are Clement and Merciful.” (Verse 59:10)

Our Lord, do not make us a target for those who disbelieve, and forgive us, our Lord. You are indeed the Mighty and Wise. (Verse 60:5)

O you who believe! Repent to God with sincere repentance. Perhaps your Lord will remit your sins, and admit you into gardens beneath which rivers flow, on the Day when God will not disappoint the Prophet and those who believed with him. Their light streaming before them, and to their right, they will say, “Our Lord, complete our light for us, and forgive us; You are capable of all things.” (Verse 66:8)

And God illustrates an example of those who believe: the wife of Pharaoh, when she said, “My Lord, build for me, with you, a house in Paradise, and save me from Pharaoh and his works, and save me from the wrongdoing people.” (Verse 66:11)

And say, “My Lord, forgive and have mercy, for You are the Best of the merciful.” (Verse 93:118)

The Lesson from the Prophets’ Prayers

Almost all of the Prophets are mentioned as praying for God’s mercy and His forgiveness. This is the central theme of the vast majority of the prayers mentioned in the Quran. The Quran does not encourage us to pray for material things. In one of the most beautiful prayers in the Quran, we have Pharaoh’s wife praying for a house, not in this world, but in Paradise (Verse 66:8). The Quran encourages us to take care of the state of our souls and to give priority to the afterlife over the present life:

16. But you prefer the present life.

17. Though the Hereafter is better, and more lasting. (Verses 87:16-17)

Judging by what the Quran teaches us, it is almost an insult to God to ask Him for specific material gain, such as getting that particular car or house, or marrying a particular person. The Prophetic attitude is to ask for God’s help, mercy and blessings in general terms while living it to Him to take care of the details.

However, the Prophets make an exception when there is an overwhelming need. Prophet Muhammad asks to win the Battle of Badr even though God is capable of making the Muslims supreme in the Arabian peninsula whether they win the battle or not. This is what the Quran teaches at the beginning of Sūrat al-Rūm:

2. The Romans have been defeated.

3. In a nearby territory. But following their defeat, they will be victorious.

4. In a few years. The matter is up to God, in the past, and in the future. On that day, the believers will rejoice.

5. In God’s support. He supports whomever He wills. He is the Almighty, the Merciful.

6. The promise of God—God never breaks His promise, but most people do not know.

7. They know an outer aspect of the worldly life, but they are heedless of the Hereafter. (The Quran, verses 30:2-7)

The Quran acknowledges that the Muslims will celebrate when the Romans (who were Christians and thus were considered to follow the same God as the Muslims) win against the more pagan-like Persians. But the passage reminds us that God is in charge regardless of who wins and who loses, so we should not be too attached to what happens in this world, we should be more worried about the hereafter.

The other Prophets too at times ask for things that are not entirely spiritual. Ayyūb cries out to God when his pain becomes too great. Zakarīyā asks for a son. These should be considered exceptions that the Prophets made to their general rule (of always leaving things to God to decide, and only asking Him for His mercy, forgiveness and support).

We also have the example of Sulaymān which is somewhat conflicting with the rest, because he asks to be given a kingdom so great that no one will have the like of it afterwards. It appears from the Quranic mentions of Sulaymān that his appreciation for material things came from a deep spirituality rather than from a love of the worldly life.

30. And We granted David, Solomon, an excellent servant. He was penitent.

31. When the beautiful horses were paraded before him in the evening.

32. He said, “I have loved the niceties of this world because of the remembrance of my Lord—until it disappeared behind the veil.

33. Bring them back to me.” And he began caressing their legs and necks.

34. We tested Solomon, and placed a body on his throne; then he repented.

35. He said, “My Lord, forgive me, and grant me a kingdom never to be attained by anyone after me. You are the Giver.”

36. So We placed the wind at his service, blowing gently by his command, wherever he directed.

37. And the demons—every builder and diver.

38. And others fettered in chains.

39. “This is Our gift; so give generously, or withhold; without account.”

40. For him is nearness to Us, and a beautiful resort. (The Quran, verses 38:30-40)

Verse 32 above has many conflicting interpretations, but I prefer Muhammad Asad’s interpretation which fits the rest of the Quran, in that Sulaymān states that his love for niceties of this world comes from his remembrance of God. This would sound far-fetched in an ordinary person, but when a Prophet, descended from a Prophet and from a long line of Prophets before him claims this, we can believe him. God answers his prayer and says that the works done by Sulaymān were expressions of appreciation toward God:

10. We bestowed upon David favor from Us: “O mountains, and birds: echo with him.” And We softened iron for him.

11. “Make coats of armor, and measure the links well; and work righteousness. I am Observant of everything you do.”

12. And for Solomon the wind—its outward journey was one month, and its return journey was one month. And We made a spring of tar flow for him. And there were sprites that worked under him, by the leave of his Lord. But whoever of them swerved from Our command, We make him taste of the punishment of the Inferno.

13. They made for him whatever he wished: sanctuaries, statues, bowls like pools, and heavy cauldrons. “O House of David, work with appreciation,” but a few of My servants are appreciative. (The Quran, verse 34:10-11).

Sulaymān and his father were chosen for greatness in this world because of their deep spirituality. They were not worshipers of the worldly life, they appreciated it because they sensed God’s power and greatness through them.

What all of this teaches us is that we should not treat God like a genie in a bottle who answers wishes. We should instead treat Him like an all-powerful King who always knows what is best for us. We can make specific prayers when pain or desire overwhelms us, and He will humor us by responding to our prayer if He wishes, since it doesn’t decrease anything from His power. He gave Sulaymān everything he asked for because it did not cost Him anything to give him all of that, and because Sulaymān was a spiritual and appreciative servant who deserved it. God is a King who does what He wants in regards to His different servants.

Summary and Conclusion

Here are the general conclusions I have reached from studying the prayers of the Prophets:

  1. General prayers for God’s forgiveness, guidance and mercy are the best. Prophets are rarely concerned with material things, their main concern is God.
  2. If we strongly desire a specific thing, we can pray for it, but we should always do this with extreme respect and humility toward God. Prophet Nuh’s saying in verse 11:47 perfectly describes the attitude of the believer toward God when making prayers: “O My Lord, I seek refuge with You, from asking You for what I have no knowledge of. Unless You forgive me, and have mercy on me, I will be one of the losers.”
  3. It is highly insulting toward God to treat Him like a genie in a bottle, telling Him must do this thing for us otherwise we will be upset with Him. When praying, we must always keep in mind that God may have a different plan for us and that God wants us to prioritize our spirituality over our material desires.

Asking God for material things, thinking that we can get those things then hold onto them, shows great ignorance about the nature of this world. You can get the car you desire, but two years later you could be in an accident and lose it. There is no way to hold onto the material things we have in this world, we could always lose them, therefore the Prophetic attitude is to leave the material world in God’s care and to focus on the spiritual world, asking His help and guidance in our own spiritual growth and never treating Him like a lover of the worldly life would treat a magic lamp or ring that gives them what they desire.

When asking God for something specific, you should always keep in mind that God is in charge and it is His decision whether He grants what we ask or not, and if He does not, we have no right to complain. Every single blessing we enjoy, our very existence in this world, rely on His support every second of every day. God can give us everything we want, but He wants to give them to us when we have achieved Sulaymān’s spirituality, when we see God’s greatness and presence in everything around us (see this essay for how to achieve such a state and remain there permanently). Once we have achieved that, our attachment to the worldly life will have weakened to such a degree that we no longer feel a need to pray for material things. We end up living in God’s presence, seeking His love and guidance more than anything else.

 

Islam and Depression: A Survival Guide

A street in Chefchaouen, Morocco

Please note that this article is not meant as a replacement for medical help, but as a supplement to it.

What does Islam have to offer someone who has been suffering depression for years and sees no end in sight to their suffering?

Depression is not sadness and cannot be cured by thinking positively as some people insultingly think. The dismissive attitude of many Muslim immigrants toward depression is due to the fact that, thanks to having very large and well-functioning families, they enjoy a very powerful protection against depression that is largely lacking in the West (for more on this see the section on loneliness and social alienation below). Depression is what it feels like to be stuck in darkness between two high walls, with no way forward and no way backward. Every bad memory of the past feels as if it happened this very moment, while the future feels as if it will contain nothing but a continuation of the present misery. Depression is not caused by thinking negative thoughts. The line of causation is in the opposite direction; it is the depression that causes the negative thoughts. A depressed person can think of a happy event that took place years ago only to remember the negative things that happened during it. The negativity of depression blankets all of their thoughts like a dark cloud.

Some forms of depression are caused by life circumstances, while others, such as bipolar depression, are caused by chemical changes in the brain that are completely outside a person’s control. Positive things happening in their lives can help them experience short episodes of happiness, but these episodes end very quickly and the depression always comes back. For this reason, such people need long-term strategies that take the reality of their situation into account.

In this essay I will describe a long-term plan for dealing with depression that first takes the spiritual side into account and then the material side. This plan is not a cure, it is designed to make depression understandable and manageable for the person who suffers it so that they may, with God’s help, slowly climb out of it.

Acceptance

When we are depressed, we feel as if we have been abandoned in this big, wide world to suffer on our own, without any purpose or wisdom behind it. Day after day passes, we suffer, and we are not better off for it. What is the point?

The first step toward dealing with depression is to realize that God could solve all of our problems and take away our depression an instant, but He is choosing not to do it. You have not been abandoned by Him, He is allowing this to happen to you and watching you suffer every second. This sounds rather cruel, why would a kind God allow this? Some people abandon religion because of this, being unable to accept that a true God would watch humanity suffer without intervening to help them.

But think about Prophet Muhammad . He was chosen by God to teach and spread His religion. Yet he had to suffer abuse and persecution in Mecca for 13 year. Why did God allow this to happen? God could have made the Prophet successful on the very first day he received the revelation. But instead he had to go through an excruciatingly painful 13-year process filled with failures and losses.

The reason for that is that the universe is designed by God to function in this way. We can call the process that the Prophet had to go through “suffering through time”. Patiently suffering through time is how a believer’s character is proven. The Prophet could have just suffered for a day or two, or a month, then he could have been granted success. But God did not lose anything by letting him suffer for 13 years, those years were necessary for him to be shaped into the person he was.

Suffering through time is how we prove, every hour of every day, that we have faith in God. It enables us to affirm, and affirm, and affirm our faith day after day and year after year until we have truly proven ourselves to God. Once we reach the stage He desires, He can then grant us the greatest success and the greatest happiness in a single day.

Your depression is not purposeless. Your depression is a matter between you and God. He is completely in charge of it and only He can put a stop to it, if and when He wants. This is not to deny that your depression may have a material cause and may be treatable with the right drugs and therapies; but it is all up to God whether you will be able to find the right people to help you and the right treatment. God’s help does not come down from the sky in the shape of angels, He helps us by arranging this world in the right way for us to be helped while hiding His own hand in the matter. God does not want us to see Him or to see any direct evidence of His existence, He wants us to always have the option of doubting His existence, because this is what enables us to prove our faith in Him. There is no point in having faith in something when you have direct evidence of its existence, it would be like having faith in the law of gravity.

When you suffer, if you turn your back on God and blame Him for not helping you, you are failing His test. The attitude He wants you to show is one of submission and acceptance, the attitude that the Prophets of the Quran all show toward God when they suffer. Your attitude should not be, “God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. You are so cruel to allow this to go on!” Your attitude should be:

God, I know you are in charge, and I know you are watching me suffer. Forgive any sins that may have brought me here, help me correct any mistakes I have made that have brought me here, guide me and increase me in knowledge. Help me learn what I am supposed to be learning.

Depression is one of the ways that God distinguishes His faithful believers from the fair-weather believers whose faith is only strong when things are going well in their lives. Depression is an opportunity for you to transcend your human limitations, to show that you can love God and believe in Him even as He watches you suffer. This proves that you truly respect Him the way He deserves to be respected (by always thinking the best of Him) and that you have faith in His power, wisdom and love.

So be like Prophet Muhammad and the other Prophets. Do not despair, for if you do, you fail the test.

Think the best of God

It can be very difficult to think any positive thoughts about God when you feel so bad. In fact, sometimes it can be all that you can do to stop yourself from thinking very bad thoughts about Him. Those who truly fail their test are those who allow their suffering to permanently color their thinking about God. They build up a strong grudge and hatred against God for creating them, for creating this world the way it is. Some of these people end up calling themselves atheists, even though they do not really doubt God’s existence in their hearts, they just have a blinding hatred for Him.

If the best that you can do is to resist negative thoughts about God, then this is the best that you can do. God does not ask you to do more than you are able. Resist negative thoughts and constantly pray to God for His help.

Give up, surrender and learn the lesson

Depression causes you to suffer through time, sometimes for months and years, in order to prove your powerlessness to you. Depression shows you that you are not in charge. It is like a storm that throws us here and there, wherever it wants, while we are powerless to do anything about it. And that is the point. Suffering is designed to make us humble ourselves before God:

We sent messengers to communities before you, and We afflicted them with suffering and hardship, that they may humble themselves. If only, when Our calamity came upon them, they humbled themselves. But their hearts hardened, and Satan made their deeds appear good to them. (The Quran, verses 6:42-43)

The Quran also says:

But those who do not believe in the Hereafter are swerving from the path. Even if We had mercy on them, and relieved their problems, they would still blindly persist in their defiance. We have already gripped them with suffering, but they did not surrender to their Lord, nor did they humble themselves. Until, when We have opened before them a gate of intense agony, at once they will despair. (Verse 23:73-77)

The above passage describes the response of many people to depression. Rather than using the opportunity to affirm their faith in God, they despair. And if they are cured, rather than learning anything from their suffering, they again go back to ignoring God for most of them time.

Your depression is designed to help you break that cycle. God wants you to give up and surrender, to acknowledge that there is no power in this world besides Him. The Quran tells us the story of Prophet Yunus (Biblical Jonas) who also despaired of God like so many people do, but he was able to overcome his despair:

And Jonah, when he stormed out in fury, thinking We had no power over him. But then He cried out in the darkness, “There is no god but You! Glory to You! I was one of the wrongdoers!” So We answered him, and saved him from the affliction. Thus We save the faithful. (21:87-88)

Like Prophet Yunus, surrender completely to God and acknowledge that He is in charge and that only He can help you.

Stop hurrying

When suffering depression, we always wish for a magic cure that will stop the pain immediately. But remember the stories of the Prophets. Prophet Yaʾqūb lamented the loss of his son Yusūf for years before God gave him back his son. God could have prevented his suffering, but He did not. Yaʾqūb did not complain to God, asking Him why He had to do that to him when He could solve all of his problems instantly. He instead accepted his fate and knew that the matter was in God’s hands and that only God knew where it would lead.

Rather than rejecting your suffering, come to terms with it by accepting it and accepting the fact that it may go on for the foreseeable future. Rather than giving God an ultimatum, saying He should cure you within the next week or month or else you will stop believing in Him, your attitude should be one of utter submission. You belong to God and it is His business what He does with you.

Imagine someone who suffers depression for 60 years, dies, then enters Paradise, where every day is as good as the happiest memories of their lives, and where they can live forever. Exchanging a mere 60 years for an eternity of complete happiness is very much worth it if we think about it.

But the deal God offers us is actually much better than that. The Quran says:

Truly, with hardship always comes ease. (94:5 and 94:6)

It also says:

Whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer, We will grant him a good [worldly] life—and We will reward them according to the best of what they used to do. (16:97)

It also says:

And thus We established Yusuf in the land, to live therein wherever he wished. We touch with Our mercy whomever We will, and We never waste the reward of the righteous. But the reward of the Hereafter is better for those who believe and observed piety. (Verses 12:56-67)

Prophet Yusuf suffered unjustly for many years, being away from his family and later being put in prison for no fault of his own. But the Quran says God rewarded him in this worldly life by granting him a very high status, while also keeping in store a greater reward in the hereafter.

Cure your soul then seek a material cure

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes...

Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, “The Journey of Job”

Let us say, like in those lines above from the Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, you have accepted your fate. You have faced God and said to Him in all sincerity that you are willing to take whatever He sends your way. What is there to do next?

The next step is to make it part of your daily routine to perform a certain amount of extra worship, if you are able (if not, read on for what to do). What I recommend is performing at least an hour of tahajjud and Quran-reading every night before bed (see here for more details), other times and other forms of worship might work better for some. Your goal should not be to perform this until you get a cure. Your goal should be to perform this daily for the rest of your life.

It is impossible to remain close to God, to submit to Him and to rely on Him in full sincerity unless you dedicate a part of your day, every day, to extra worship. Just a few days of skipping this extra worship is sufficient to re-attach your heart to the worldly life and to put you back in square one, lost in the worldly life and faraway from God.

It is against human nature to submit to God, to remain pure of sin, to rely on Him and to only seek refuge in Him. Human nature makes us want to be egotistic, short-sighted and selfish. We need daily work to subdue the ego and restore the balance. You cannot maintain the character and spirituality of the Prophets and saints if you do not work for it daily. As soon as you stop the work, your human nature will reassert itself. This is a struggle that we have to keep for the rest of our lives.

If you are desperate to escape your depression, then this should be your first step. Promise God to perform an extra hour of worship every day for the rest of your life if He enables you to do it, and ask Him to give you a meaningful and productive life in return. Do this and your life may completely change within the next few months.

If you are too demotivated to perform worship

Sometimes it is enough of a struggle to get out of bed in the morning. If that is the case with you, start praying for these three things every time you think about God: ease, guidance and forgiveness. Even if you do not feel repentant, even if you cannot help but feel resentment for being in the situation you are, keep asking God for His forgiveness. Instead of turning your back on Him because of your suffering and resentment, turn to Him despite these things. Start facing Him and conversing with Him even if you do not feel like it, even if your negative thoughts make you feel as if He dislikes you and has abandoned you. Voice your thoughts to Him and complain to Him of your situation and your suffering.

Keep turning to God again and again and again even if everything makes you want to turn away from Him in anger and resentment. Do your best to think the best of Him regardless of how you feel. God is not going to ignore you. But He will not magically cure your situation either, God, in general, does not perform miracles in front of us, because that would be direct evidence for His existence. He wants to hide Himself from us so that we have the choice of having faith in Him or rejecting Him. While God will likely not suddenly fix your situation, if you keep up doing these things, He will cause small changes in your life that will accumulate over time, so that in three months, or six months, things could be very different for you.

Keep asking for God’s help and slowly, but surely, He will help you get on your feet and rebuild your life.

Start measuring time in periods of 3 months

When we are depressed, we tend to measure our suffering in minutes and hours. We feel as if our situation will continue in exactly the same way for eternity. We cannot think of any happy memories and we cannot think of anything to be optimistic about.

That is the normal depressed brain at work. What you should do is override that type of thinking by reminding yourself that change takes time, because God does not magically solve our problems for us. He helps us help ourselves, helping us so subtly that afterwards we are almost always able to take all the credit and ignore His part in it.

Start thinking of time in terms of three-month periods. Follow the advice in this essay then three months from now look back and see how things have changed. Chances are you will be in a much better state than you are now. And three months after that things will be even better. After a year passes, you may still have some depression, but God may have caused many changes in your life that enable you to feel much more purposeful and optimistic than you feel now.

Material considerations

Get potted plants

A common feature of depression is the feeling of alienation in time. Either one feels stuck, so that time does not seem to pass, or they feel as if time is running out and their problems are piling up without being able to do anything about it. Plants are a great way to rehabilitate your sense of time. As you take care of them and watch them slowly grow, they calm down your sense of the passage of time while also turning the passage of time into something positive, rather than something to worry about. A few days after taking care of a plant you start to look forward to seeing it grow. You will look forward to seeing how it might look in a few days or weeks. And that makes your depression slightly more manageable.

Potted plants are cheap, so get as many as you can (I recommend ten if your room or house is large enough). You can get plants that require very little care (if you feel you may not have the energy to take care of them), such as aloe vera, which thrives best when you leave it alone for weeks at a time.

Indoor plants are also great at fighting indoor air pollution. Carbon dioxide builds up inside homes that are not well-ventilated, sometimes reaching double the levels compared to the air outside. High carbon dioxide severely affects mental performance. Just a few indoor plants are sufficient to reduce indoor carbon dioxide significantly. This is a cheap and easy way of feeling better. Plants also reduce other harmful chemicals in indoor air that increase inflammation and make you feel unhealthy. One plant that is supposed to be great for reducing indoor air pollution is the Madagascar dragon tree (Dracaena marginata), which you can get in a small pot and watch it slowly grow into a nice little tree three or four feet high.

Exercise

Some people claim that exercise can cure depression. You should rightly be skeptical of such claims. But it is true that exercise can greatly improve your levels of motivation. It might make you feel 30% better than you feel right now, you may still feel depressed, but this might just be enough to give you the motivation to perform tahajjud, Quran-reading and other beneficial things. I recommend performing an hour of vigorous but not too strenuous exercise on an exercise bike. You can do it while watching a video.

Loneliness and social alienation

People who grow up in larger families are less likely to be depressed. Merely having more people around you in your life can be your greatest defense against depression, even if your relationship with these people has many flaws. For some Muslim immigrants coming from the Middle East, depression sounds like a wholly alien and impenetrable thing because they have never experienced it themselves and have no idea what is like to experience it. Some of them rather insultingly talk about how it is a lack of spirituality or a possession by Satan that is causing depression. The reason these people cannot experience depression is the fact they come from societies organized in such a way that make depression almost impossible, and in this is an important clue for treating depression.

In the Middle East, it is common for a person to be surrounded by siblings, aunts, uncles, siblings and other relatives who all contribute to a person’s self-esteem. The conviviality of these societies makes each person feel cared about, as if they have a very important place reserved for them by their societies. To understand the nature of this “place”, it is best compared to a king or queen’s throne. A king or queen gets treated with extreme respect and consideration regardless of who they are and what kind of personalities they have. The fact that they are king or queen, the fact that they have this “place” reserved for them by society, makes everyone treat them that way. In the same way, in a well-functioning Middle Eastern society, each person is given a “place” that ensures them love, respect and consideration regardless of their personalities. In other words, a person in such a society does not have to do anything to earn the respect and consideration of those around them. These things are automatically granted to them merely by the virtue of being born into that society.

Imagine if one day you woke up and discovered you are in a king’s palace and everyone started treating you like you are the king or queen. It will not take very long for you to believe it when everyone does that for you. In those Middle Eastern societies I am describing, a person is made to feel the same way by their relatives; they are treated as if they are lovable, as if they are important, as if they matter very much, and since everyone around them does that, a person starts to believe these things. This is probably more powerful than any anti-depressant. Each relative contributes 2% or 3% to a person’s sense of being important and lovable, and what do you know, it all adds up to such a high degree that it is made physically impossible for that person to suffer depression.

In the West, while certain people enjoy similar societies, this is the exception. In general, people in the West are socially alienated; most of the people around them do not treat them as if they have a place of great importance reserved for them. They are not surrounded on every side by people who treat them as if they are very important and very worthy of love. And because of that, people feel that they do not really have a place in society. They feel displaced, alienated.

To understand these things better, I recommend that you read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (in the 19th century at least some Western societies used to be like the Middle Eastern ones I describe). In the story, Mrs. Bennet is a rather ignorant and annoying woman and people are aware of it, yet everyone treats her as if she is an important person and as if she matters very much. It can be said that she does not “deserve” this good treatment. She has not done anything to deserve it, it is something automatically given to her by her society, and this acts as a very strong defense against her feeling lonely and depressed. It is almost as if there is a society-wide conspiracy to make her feel important and loved.

For a person to feel as if they matter and as if they are loved, it is essential that people around them constantly reaffirm these things. In the Middle East, this happens for most people on a daily basis because it is embedded within almost every social interaction. No one needs to say “I love you” because it is so strongly assumed that saying that is as ridiculous and unnecessary as saying “electricity exists”. In the West, however, a person can spend an entire day without anyone affirming their worth and importance. And if this continues day after day and week after week, so that feeling loved and cared about is a pleasant surprise rather than as common as air, then apathy and depression are the result.

Depression, in other words, is the natural result of people not constantly reassuring you, implicitly through their actions and manners, that you are loved and cared for.

According to that, the cure would be to have a large extended family that acts the way I described above. But since the type of family and society we have is out of our control, there isn’t much we can do about them. But recognizing the displacement and alienation are important contributors to depression can help you come up with strategies to use this knowledge to reduce your depression.

For example, having people around you even if you do not know them can help improve how you feel. You can confirm this by going to a coffee shop or library. You will be a lot more motivated to read something beneficial at one of these venues than you will be alone at home. Just having people around you gives you a sense of belonging that somewhat reduces your depression.

The best way to attack depression would be to increase your social connections, simply increasing the number of people you meet on a daily basis who are nice to you will greatly improve your self-esteem and diminish your depression. Many cities have clubs and meet-up groups that you can join to spend more time around other people. There are many sites like VolunteerMatch.org that help you find volunteering opportunities around you, volunteer at the charities and projects you like and the people you meet and your interactions with them can help you as much as any antidepressant can.

For an introverted person, meeting new people is always a challenge, this is something that exercise can help with because exercise reduces social anxiety. If you just ran for two miles, social anxiety would be the last thing on your mind for a while.

Try to spend less time alone and more time around other people. If you live with your parents, stay in the living room more often and spend less time in your room.

It is not always possible to do something about loneliness, and sometimes you are stuck around people who only worsen your depression. For this reason it is crucial that you constantly ask for God’s help, because He can arrange your circumstances for you and create ways for you reduce your loneliness. He can open doors for you that you did not know even existed.

Get medical help

Some types of depression are caused by your brain’s physiology. A person with bipolar II is going to be stuck in a never-ending cycle of depression and elation. Some of these people never get diagnosed because they are good hiding their depression and their periods of elation never reaches the point of mania and psychosis (as happens in bipolar I).

While medical help will likely not entirely cure you, it can improve how you feel to the point where you can feel motivated to do other things to improve your situation. If there is a drug that can reduce your depression by half, then there is no reason why you shouldn’t benefit from that. Therapy can also be very helpful, not necessarily because of any special knowledge of the therapist, but because just having someone be nice to you and treat you like you matter is very important for fighting depression.

Educate yourself

There are many people who, after reading a dozen or more books, were able to find just the right lifestyle and routine to help them keep their depression under control. Read memoirs and autobiographies by people who suffered from depression. Read any book on the topic of depression that you find interesting. These books can help point you in the right direction even if none of them give you a complete answer.

Summary: Remain with God

God can help you get into exactly the right situation you need to cure your depression. He can help you find exactly the right type of medical help that can help you, or guide you to the right advice or the right life choices. Realize that you are not in charge and that if God does not help you, nothing can. You should do everything you can to help yourself, but it is God who can make all the difference between whether your efforts will be successful or end in failure.

You should therefore prioritize the spiritual side over the material side. Take care of the state of your heart and soul, and God can take care of the rest for you by making things easy for you and guiding you in the right direction.

For more Islamic advice relevant to depression and other hardships, please check out my following essays:

 

Professor Abu Zahra: The Egyptian Islamic Scholar who Rejected the Punishment of Stoning

Sheikh Muhammad Abu Zahra (1898 – 1974)

Muhammad Abu Zahra was one of the foremost authorities on Islamic law in the 20th century, whose works on the various schools of Islamic law continue to be used in academia. He was a member of Al-Azhar University’s Academy of Islamic Research and a Professor of Islamic law at Cairo University. He was loved by his students for his personality that united piety, open-mindness and a great sense of humor.

In the year 1972, two years before his death, at in Islamic conference held in the city of al-Bayḍāʾ in Libya, he shook the scholarly community by declaring his informed personal opinion (ijtihād) regarding the stoning of adulterers in Islam, in which he rejected the punishment based on a number of arguments. While his arguments are not conclusive, they deserve to be taken seriously. If even there is the slightest chance that he is correct, then that should be sufficient to put a permanent suspension on this punishment, because it involves the taking of human lives, and we cannot do that if we cannot be sure whether God really commands it or not.

The reason why the majority of scholars defend the punishment is not that they like it. The historical evidence shows that Islamic judges have been extremely loathe to carry out this punishment, to the point of accepting to be banished from their cities rather than sign the order to stone someone. The reason they defend it is that it is mentioned in a number of authentic narrations. Putting these narrations into question would require rebuilding the foundations of the field of hadith studies from scratch, a task that most scholars have been unwilling to contemplate until recently, although things appear to be slowly changing with respected hadith scholars like Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn al-Idlibī engaging in content criticism and finding it acceptable to reject “authentic” narrations even in al-Bukhari and Muslim that go contrary to empirical evidence.

Without further ado, below is a translated article written by a young Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the respected Egyptian scholar, on Sheikh Abu Zahra’s opinion (here is an archived link to the Arabic original taken from al-Qaradawi’s website).

Beginning of translated article

In this forum [referring to the 1972 conference], the Sheikh Abu Zahra exploded a fiqhī (jurisprudential) bomb that shook the attendants, by surprising them with his new opinion. The Sheikh, may God have mercy on him, stood up during the conference and said: “I have been keeping secret a jurisprudential opinion for the past 20 years. I had spilled the beans to Dr. ʿAbd al-ʿAzīz ʿĀmir, isn’t it so doctor?” The doctor [who was present] replied in the affirmative. [He continued:]

It is time for me to make it public before I meet God, glory to Him, in case He asks me why I kept my knowledge secret and did not show it to the people. This opinion is related to the issue of the stoning of married adulterers. My opinion is that stoning was a Jewish practice that the Messenger at first followed, until the practice was abrogated by the punishment of a hundred lashes in Sūrat al-Nūr. And I have three arguments for this: First, God, glory to Him, says:

"When they are married, if they commit adultery, their punishment shall be half that of free women." [The Quran, verse 4:25]

Stoning is not a punishment that can be halved, which shows that the punishment is the one mentioned in Sūrat al-Nūr [i.e. 100 lashes].

My second argument is what al-Bukhārī narrates in his Ṣaḥīḥ from ʿAbdullāh bin Awfā that he was asked whether the punishment of stoning was carried out before or after Sūrat al-Nūr was revealed, and he replied that he did not know.

My third argument: The hadith they relied on [in support of stoning], saying that it was first part of the Quran then it was abrogated while its ruling remained, is not something that a rational mind can accept. Why would a verse be abrogated but its ruling remain in force?

And the argument that it was part of a written book of Quran but a she-goat ate the page cannot be logically accepted.

When the Sheikh finished his speech, most of the attendants started to verbally assault him. Many stood up and repeated what the books of fiqh say on these arguments. But the Sheikh remained steadfast in his stance.

When the meeting broke up, I [i.e. Yusuf al-Qaradawi] said to him: “O Mawlānā [Our Master], my opinion is similar to yours, but it is more likely to be accepted.” He asked what my opinion was. I said: “It is mentioned in authentic hadith that the punishment of the unmarried is 100 lashes, while the punishment of the married is 100 lashes along with stoning.”

He said: “And what is your conclusion from this hadith?”

I said: “Your Honor knows that the Ḥanafīs say regarding the first part of the hadith that the punishment is flogging, but that banishment and exile is allowed according to the judgment of the ruler, but that it is not obligatory in all cases. In addition to this, authentic narrations have come to us regarding stoning during the Prophetic time. He carried out stoning against Jews, against Māʿiz [bin Mālik], against al-Ghāmidīya [a woman’s name], and he sent one of his Companions to investigate the laborer’s wife, telling him to carry out stoning if she confesses. It is also narrated that Umar and Ali carried out stoning after the time of the Prophet.”

The Sheikh did not agree with me. He said:

O Yusuf, is it conceivable that Muhammad bin Abdullah, the Mercy Gifted to Mankind, would stone people to death? This is Judaic law, and it fits the cruelty of Judaic culture.

[It is unclear whether this following paragraph is Abu Zahra or al-Qaradawi speaking:] Sheikh al-Zarqā [a renowned 20th century Syrian scholar] agrees with the majority, but he disagrees with them in his definition of muḥṣin [the category of adulterers that can be stoned]. They say that a muḥṣin is any person who has married at some point, even if they have divorced or their spouse has died and are currently unmarried. But al-Zarqā says a muḥṣin is one who is presently married. This is also the opinion of the Sheikh Rashid Rida which he has mentioned in his Tafsīr al-Manār.

[Al-Qaradawi speaking:] I thought for a long time about Abu Zahra’s statement that he had kept his opinion secret for twenty years. Why did he keep it secret and not mention it in a lecture, book or article? He did that out of the fear that the masses would move against him and that his character and reputation would be maligned and vilified as happened in this conference. I said to myself, “How many new opinions and ijtihāds are locked up in their owners’ hearts until it dies with them without anyone hearing of them or transmitting them?”

That is why when I spoke of the framework for modern ijtihād, I said that we should open our hearts to those who make mistakes in their ijtihāds, for in this way ijtihād is revived and flourishes. A mujtahid is a fallible human. It is their right, no, even their obligation, to perform ijtihād and to publicize their opinions. It is not obligatory on them to always be right. As long as we close our hearts to opinions that go against the majority, ijtihād will not grow and will not give its fruits.

The truth is that what some people consider to be in error might actually be the correct opinion, especially when times and places change. It appears that the violent attack that Sheikh Abu Zahra faced made him keep silent about his opinion [after the conference], so that he did not write it down. Perhaps the reason is that he did not live long after it, for he died some months later, may God’s mercy and pleasure be with him. I saw that in his book Crime and Punishment in Islamic Law he had attributed this opinion to the Khawārij and mentioned them using the same arguments that he mentioned in Libya. I believe that was before the conference [i.e. his book was published before the conference, this seems to be confirmed by WorldCat.org which lists versions of this book published in 1970 and before].

End of translated article

The Point of Marriage in Islam (and the Problem with Romantic Relationships Outside of Marriage)

An essay on the question of whether romantic relationships outside of marriage are acceptable in Islam, and if not, why. Why is marriage such a big deal in religiously conservative societies? Why can’t people just enjoy themselves without involving everyone and their mother in their private affairs?

Islamic law does not have anything strict to say on the topic of romance. As religious scholars admit, falling in love is something we cannot help. But there are ways to engage in romantic relationships that fit within Islam’s framework of ethics and morality, and there are ways that conflict with it. Islam is not made to be applied in a vacuum. It is assumed that people who embrace Islam will, generation after generation, build their own culture around it, using its morality and ethical teachings to create their own standards of manners, etiquette and appropriate behavior. We see this in all Muslim societies. They often have a vast set of standards of behavior that cannot be found in any religious text. The reason for this is simple. Human life is so complicated that there is no way to define every single detail of their lives in a religious text. Rather, Islam provides general guidelines, people fill out the specifics, except in those rare cases where specifics are given (such as in the case of dividing an inheritance). If you were brought up in a devout Muslim family, you know that your parents will likely not think very highly of your being in a romantic relationship without their knowledge. To understand why there is a good reason for this taboo on romantic relationships outside the knowledge of your family and society, we have to talk about the point of marriage.

In Islam the appropriate, safe and socially integrated way for a man and woman to be in a relationship is through marriage. In many Western societies that have lost their religion and culture, marriage is just a silly formality, so that many people engage in intimate relationships without seeing a need for officially marrying. That is the primitive, natural way for humans to do things. Islam (and Christianity, and Judaism, and most sophisticated cultures) add an extra layer of formality to the relationships between men and women that greatly complicate matters. What is the point of that?

The point is that the formality enables the man and woman to relate to each other as socially integrated humans. A religiously conservative husband (assuming he is a relatively well-educated and civilized man) does not just see his wife as a piece of attractive flesh that can be treated however he likes. The solemnity of marriage, the fact that it involves so many people’s approval and attention, means that he is forced to look at her and see her not just as a body, but as someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. She is not detached from her society and background. She is a great deal greater than her body and her personality. And that means he is forced to respect her as a person. He is beholden to dozens of other people who will all have something to say about it if he mistreats her. Through the constant interactions with her family, he is reminded over and over again that she is more than just a body, that she is a person with an honored social status. One could say that we can have such relationships without involving our families; we do not need our families to force us to be nice and considerate toward our spouses. But the reality is that human nature always “reverts to the mean”. At the beginning of a romantic relationship we can treat the other person with the greatest consideration. But once the honeymoon is over, the couple start to take each other more and more for granted and start to do less and less for each other. This is something that has been experienced by most people, who may have at first thought they would be the exception to the rule. The point of socially integrating a romantic relationship into society is to extend the honeymoon-level of consideration to the period that comes after the honeymoon. That is the magic that social integration achieves and that is almost impossible to achieve without it.

A wife, in a religiously conservative society, is not just a random woman who signed some paperwork. She has a defined and honored social status. It is similar to the way a queen is honored and respected by the virtue of her social status, without anyone caring what her body or personality are like. Just by being queen, she gets all kinds of rights and privileges. In a similar way, marriage in a conservative, religious society forces men to treat women as if they are more than their bodies, their beauty or their personalities. You can see this at work in classical English-language novels like Pride and Prejudice, when the West was still highly religious. Mrs. Bennet, the mother of the novel’s heroine, is an extremely ignorant and annoying person. But thanks to the institution of marriage, everyone around her is forced to treat her with great respect. This is respect that she does not “deserve” if we were to look at her personal qualities. That is the point of marriage; it integrates people into society, gives them a status and position, and in this way protects their honor and dignity. Today a person like Mrs. Bennet would be made fun of by her children for being stupid and ignorant. She would probably have to take antidepressants because no one will treat her like she matters. In a society like that of Pride and Prejudice or like today’s conservative Muslim societies, she will be treated like she matters, because the society’s values and the institution of marriage force everyone around her to treat her with great respect and dignity and to take her opinions seriously regardless of how ignorant or stupid she is.

That makes her feel like she is important, like there is a place for her in society. She feels appreciated and is happy with her lot in life.

Such a system has its own problems. But as a person who has experienced such societies in countries like Iran and Iraq, and their opposite in the United States, I can say that such a social system is far superior to the disintegrated societies of the West (of course, things are not bad everywhere in the West and there are still many happy families and societies). In secular societies a woman has to prove her worth to be respected and taken seriously. In a traditional society she does not need to prove anything. She is a wife, a mother, a sister, an aunt, and since these social roles are taken very seriously, they grant her all the respect she desires without having to do anything. She is like a queen who is born into a social position without having to work for it.

Naturally, the system also provides similar benefits to men. A wife has to treat her husband, even if he is not very intelligent or attractive or interesting, as a person who matters. In a class I was attending in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a woman side that her husband had “the most boring job in the world.” It was a funny statement, but it made wonder why a woman of my society would consider it extremely vulgar of a woman to say such a thing about her husband in public. The reason, of course, is that in my society a husband is not just any random man. A wife and her husband together rule their own little private kingdom where they are honored and valued, and it would be as foolish for her to make fun of her husband as it would be for a queen to make fun of her king in public. In a religiously conservative society, a wife does not treat her husband as if he is a random male, she treats him according to the demands and duties of the offices they both hold; the offices of “husband” and “wife”. It is similar to the way a company executive treats another executive; or one government official or minister treats another. They cannot treat one another as random humans who met on the street, they have to respect the office or rank held by the other person and treat them according to that.

Marriage as Election

If you think about it deeply, in a religiously conservative society a marriage is an election. The extended families on both sides are given a proposal and study it, until they cast their votes in favor of or against the marriage taking place. This process is sometimes taken as seriously as the cardinals take the process of electing a new pope. Once the marriage is approved, the husband and wife end up wearing the “robes of honor” that signifies their new offices or ranks that society has elected to give to the two of them through its approval. In a disintegrated society “walking down the aisle” does not have that much significance (although it can still be quite affecting), while in a religiously conservative society “walking down the aisle” is quite similar to the coronation of a new king or queen and just as serious and solemn. It is how society integrates these two new people into its future. The wedding process in Islam is similar to two kingdoms coming together to agree on the formation of a new kingdom on their borders with one side providing the new king and the other the new queen.

The Marriage of the Prince of Wales with Princess Alexandra of Denmark, Windsor, 10 March 1863 by William Frith (1865)

In Islam, when a man wants to marry a woman, he has to first present himself to her family. The family judges him and casts votes either in his favor or against him. A critic of Islam, on reading this, may jump to the conclusion that that means the family control’s a woman relationship. But that is just the prejudiced nonsense that we Muslims have to deal with every day. The woman, being part of the family, also casts her own votes. If she is in favor of the man, her vote may count as 50% of the necessary vote. If her mother also approves, that may add another 25% to the vote, meaning that the family as a whole is 75% in favor of the marriage. If the father disapproves, his 25% negative vote would have to stand against the 75% positive vote, meaning that he will be under pressure to justify himself, and this pressure may make him slowly change his mind in favor of the man. These percentages of course change from family to family, and if the woman has siblings, they too will cast their votes. Ideally, and in most cases, the marriage will only go forward once the man has 100% of the vote of the woman’s family, and the woman has 100% of the vote of the man’s family. This makes the formation of the marriage something that is done with the unanimous vote of both of their families.

This extra layer of complexity and formality that religious societies have (and truly primitive societies lack) helps create a society where most people feel as if they matter regardless of their personal qualities. By the mere virtue of being in that society they get a great deal of respect and honor. The society as a whole acts like an aristocracy where everyone holds some important position and has to be treated according to it.

Romance Outside of Marriage

The reason that a romantic relationship outside of marriage is not liked by religiously conservative societies is that it does not fit well within the above picture. It is perfectly fine to be in love with someone and to know that they love you back, and to work toward getting married through socially-approved methods. The problem is when two people in such a society try to bypass their society in order to enjoy the benefits that come with marriage without doing the hard work of getting the approval of their society. They want to enjoy the benefits of the office of marriage without bothering to get elected.

A man and woman who build a romantic relationship without involving their families are insulting both of their families. The pleasures of love are something granted by society to people who go through the process that society has designed for creating romantic relationships in a safe and integrated way. A religiously conservative society honors you, takes you seriously and treats you like you matter very much just because you were born into that society. You did not do any work to deserve being honored by your society the way they honor you. The honor is granted to you by the mere virtue of being born into that society. But in return for honoring you, society demands that you honor it back. The way that people take their relationship with you seriously, treating you as if you are a worthy and important human being just because you are a daughter/sister/niece and so on, you have to take your relationship with them seriously.

And that means that when it comes to a romantic relationship, you cannot act entirely on your own initiative. You can do so at first, for example you may love someone and think they love you back. You can act on this and find out if they are interested in marriage. If they are, then that is when you should involve your family. The longer you wait, the more you involve yourself romantically with them, the more insulting your actions become toward your family. Your family’s involvement and approval are necessary to integrate your relationship with your society. This ensures that the person you wish to marry will become beholden to their office and the duties that come with it. A husband cannot treat a wife in any way he likes, he has to treat her in the way that his socially-granted office requires of him. In the same way, the wife is beholden to her office. These offices force them to be nice and considerate toward one another and toward one another’s family even if they do not feel like it. They act according to their office, not according to their personal desires.

The worst cases of abuse that I have heard about in the Middle East have often involved a man taking a wife then separating her from her family, such as by moving to a different city or country. When that happens, when the woman is taken out of her social context, he no longer feels beholden to her family and society. He starts to treat her however he likes. If he is a good and kind man then she would be in no danger. But if he is not, then there is nothing forcing him to be kind and considerate. She is fully at his mercy. Even if there are laws in their country against domestic abuse, these laws rarely do anything until things get really bad, sometimes after years of abuse. Most cases of abuse will likely not involve the law, and emotional abuse, which the law largely ignores, can be just as bad as physical abuse. In a religiously conservative society, by integrating marital relationships within society, a woman gets a great amount of protection for her rights and dignity.

In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bennet cannot start beating or insulting his wife even if he feels like it, because he knows everyone around him will be seriously angry and upset with him if he does that. Any undignified treatment of his wife will bring upon him a great deal of negative consequences that have nothing to do with the law.

One of Mr. Bennet’s daughters (Lydia) tries to have a romantic relationship with a man without involving her family. Her family are naturally greatly upset and insulted by this. A modern reader might think their reaction illogical and unjustified, a silly and hysterical response to an unimportant matter. But within that religiously conservative society, they have every reason to be upset and insulted, because she is being disloyal to her society. Her action is similar to a minister making an important decision about his country without consulting the other ministers. It is also similar to an employee making an important decision about his or her company without consulting the other employees. It is a betrayal because she is making a decision that affects everyone around her without bothering to get their opinion, approval or involvement. It is also similar to your daughter deciding to sell the family car or the house without consulting anyone else.

The result of her action is that her family lose their respect for her. They continue to treat her with the basic dignity that everyone gets in that society, but her action has proven that she is either foolish, disloyal and ungrateful. She has been treated with the greatest honor all her life even though she has done nothing to deserve it, yet instead of repaying that treatment in kind by honoring her parents and relatives and helping her society continue in a healthy way, she thinks she can make a decision that affects everyone without consulting them.

Now a person may ask why marriage has to be such a serious decision (it is like selling the family car like I said). Why shouldn’t it be her own business? The reason is that marriage is a fundamental aspect of society, similar to birth and death. It is how society creates new humans and integrates them into itself. Marriage, in a conservative society, is very serious business because it has everything to do with society’s existence, survival and continuation. Selling the family car is serious business because it affects everyone’s fate and happiness in the family. Marriage is serious business for the same reason. Everyone around you wants you to marry in a way that enables them to continue having you as a beloved daughter or son. Marriage should be about you entering a higher and better stage in society while everyone continues to love and appreciate you. They want to grant you the office and all the honors and respect that come with it. But if you bypass this, if you try to create your own happiness without regard for your family, this will break apart the way everyone around you relates to you; they could in fact lose you forever, and what you did could give them as much sadness as if you had died. It is quite similar to an aristocrat betraying his or her country. They lose their honors, their place in society, and their own families can no longer relate to them.

When we are young and desirous of love, we wish to avoid the difficulties society throws before us when it comes to love and romance. We wish to find a lover and go live in the woods together without anyone interfering with our lives. The young man will treat his lover like a queen, she will treat him like a king, and everything will be happy ever after. But those who are naive enough to actually go through with such a plan almost invariably end up suffering the greatest misery. All that it takes is a month or two for the honeymoon period of the relationship to be over. When it is over, the two start to take each other more and more for granted. Neither of them sees the other in a socially integrated way; he is no longer a king but a not-too-attractive male with all kinds of annoying habits and shortcomings. She is no longer a queen but a demanding or needy female with an anxiety problem. Neither of them is capable of being the other’s “everything”. They start to miss their previous, socially integrated lives that so effortlessly granted them so much respect and honor, and they wish to get that back. They will enviously look at those who “married right” and who continue to get the love and respect of their families, while they themselves are outcasts who have the tiresome task of being everything for each other.

The problem with romantic relationships outside of marriage is that such relationships have their own gravity that pulls people away from their families and societies, unless they quickly involve their families. As most classical fiction and poetry tells us, romantic relationships make demands on us that can break apart our families and lead to much misery. So an intelligent and pious Muslim girl will avoid romantic entanglements like the plague, knowing that despite the pleasures such relationships bring they can also do the greatest harm to her long-term happiness among her family and friends. Like a good girl in a Victorian novel, she finds it far beneath her to develop a romantic relationship outside of the knowledge and approval of her family. That is something done by low-class and uncultured women, it is not something she does.

If a man falls in love with her and approaches her, if she likes him then she will refer him to her family. She can introduce the matter to her parents, who may ask to see him. If they think it is too early for marriage (maybe they want their daughter to complete her university degree first) but they approve of the man, they can perform the nikāḥ ceremony for them without performing the wedding. This would officially engage them and make it perfectly fine for them, from the point of view of Islamic law, to become romantically attached to one another and to do whatever the typical engaged Western couple do before marriage. This is how marriages work in Iran, whether among Sunni or Shia Iranians. The nikāḥ ceremony makes their engagement official. During the engagement period the man and woman are given freedom to spend time together and go out together, they are considered to be dating. But it is culturally taboo for them to become sexually intimate until after the wedding. If they do become intimate, they do not break any Islamic laws because they have performed the nikāḥ ceremony and are already married according to Islam, they are merely delaying the consummation of the marriage.

In the above way, a man and woman can safely date and get to know one another in a way that enjoys society’s approval and protection. While in the West we often have boyfriends and girlfriends treating each other with the meanest and most disrespectful and hurtful attitudes, by solemnizing the relationship before dating can take place, the couple are forced to be nice and considerate toward one another regardless of how they feel. In the West we run into many people whose self-esteem has been completely shattered because of an abusive partner’s actions toward them. This solemn dating system helps prevent that. Since their families are greatly involved, they feel beholden to everyone around them to act responsibly and respectfully. To a Muslim woman who understands the benefits of this system, it would sound like utter madness to involve herself with a man without enjoying these protections. It would be like a queen going anonymous and getting into a relationship with man on the street who, of course, can treat her with the greatest disregard and disrespect. A queen, by going through the formal, socially approved methods for getting married, ensures that her husband will continue to treat her like a queen. In the same way, a self-respecting Muslim woman demands a husband who will continue to treat her like she is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, someone’s niece. The husband is forced to take her social status very seriously, and this ensures even if she has the most infuriating and annoying behaviors, he will tolerate her and not insult her. She, of course, is forced to have the same respectful attitude.

The above is how things work in many relationships in religiously conservative society. Of course, things do not always go perfectly and we have cases of the greatest disrespect and abuse. But the point is the nature of the average relationship in such a society compared to the average relationship in other societies. If 90% of Muslim marriages involve a husband and wife who respect each other greatly compared to 50% of secular Western marriages, then that is a great proof of the superiority of the conservative, Islamic system.

Love and Duty

Sometimes we cannot help it and fall in love with someone our families do not approve of. In such a situation, we have to balance our responsibilities toward our family and friends on the one hand, and our desire for personal fulfillment on the other. It would be highly irresponsible of us to bypass our families and let the romantic relationship take its course (even if we desire to do this with all of our hearts). We should instead try to convince our families to approve of the relationship, and if they are adamantly against it, we should patiently wait. When they see that we are refusing all other marriage opportunities, then they may slowly, after months or years, change their minds. That is the price way pay for enjoying the honors given to us by our religiously conservative societies.

We are free to ignore our families and do whatever we want. But the costs of doing this are very high and very few romantic partners deserve this sacrifice. When your family sees that you are staying loyal to them and patiently waiting for their approval, that is likely to soften their hearts, compared to if you were to try to keep a romantic relationship going out of their sight and enjoying it regardless of what they think.

It is not always easy to be patient or to make the right decisions. But it should always be our goal to mend things between us and our families and friends. We should remain loyal to them and honor them as much as we can the way they honor us. If we make the error of engaging a romantic relationship without their knowledge, we should try to tell them as soon as we can. Our desire for the pleasures of love should be counterbalanced by our knowledge that we have many decades in front of us. The honors our religiously conservative societies grant to us are extremely valuable and we should not let them go to waste, we should instead work to maintain and improve our societies.

In the United States, you have homeless people who have rich family members and relatives who do not care about them. That is what things look like when a society has disintegrated. The reason why society gets in the way of your desire for casual romantic relationships is to prevent that from happening. Our conservative Muslim societies, despite of their myriad problems, are infinitely superior to a society where things are in such a state. Romantic relationships outside of our families’ approval almost always end up damaging our relationship with our families unless things go perfectly, which they rarely do.

Romantic entanglements often force us to make a choice between our loyalty toward our families and our loyalty toward our lovers. The wise and pious thing to do is to not put ourselves in such a situation. Our religiously conservative societies are not against our enjoying ourselves. What they want is for us to do this in a way that enables to keep enjoying society’s benefits, to keep the love and respect of our families and to contribute something back to their happiness. And the way to do this is through having our relationships critiqued and approved by them. Once we have their blessing, we can enjoy ourselves as much as we want in a way that adds to their happiness and to the health of our societies rather than causing harm to them. It is, of course, sometimes a great sacrifice to put our romantic relationships at society’s mercy, letting it decide whether it can go forward or not. But in return for this show of loyalty, we continue to enjoy the great respect and honor that such a society has for us and that we did not do anything to deserve them to begin with. By continuing to respect our religiously conservative societies and holding ourselves to the high standards they demand of us, we can continue to enjoy our Pride and Prejudice-like world.

As for those who have never enjoyed living in such a world (converts, for example), through following traditional Islamic values you can be the initiator of such a world (although it can take generations for it to fully develop and flower).

I should mention that I have never actually seen a Muslim society that lived up to the high standards of good manners and ethics depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It represents an ideal that we can aim for. I should also mention that when young Muslims engage in illicit relationships, their families and societies are often partly responsible. When our children do not get the love and respect they deserve, they seek these things from others when they grow up and get the chance, and a romantic relationship, by promising them a lover that truly loves them and cares for them, can appear as a highly attractive alternative to the lowly lives they currently suffer in their families. Some families treat their children, especially their daughters, as part of their home’s furniture rather than as proper humans to be honored and respected and treated as integral parts of the family’s life. The beautiful thing about Islam is that when everyone tries to follow it as best as they can, they naturally tend toward the beautiful society depicted in Pride and Prejudice. It is when we fail at following Islam’s values, whether through disrespecting our parents or neglecting our children, that we suffer the painful consequences mentioned above.

Consensual Communities and the Sanctity of Human Life: The Path to Moderate Islam between Pluralism, Authoritarianism, Conformity and Individualism

Mardin, Turkey

Except for a small minority of Western thinkers who understand the origins of Renaissance and Enlightenment thought, today when people speak of pluralism, open-mindedness and diversity of ideas what they often mean is that we should act as if there are no objective truths; a person who offers the most ridiculous interpretations of a Quranic verse has to be taken seriously if their interpretation is pleasing to the liberal Western mindset. This type of thinking is naturally abhorrent to a person who likes to think that there is such a thing as objective truth. There is a line of thinking among certain secularized Muslims that the way forward for Islam is to treat the Quran as a product of 7th century Arabia. Its commandments were designed to deal with the context of 7th century Arabia, therefore things such as the command to wear hijab may have made perfect sense then, but does not make sense anymore today in these better times. The assumption behind this type of thinking is that God was not smart enough to realize that times would change. A God who invented this universe, who waited billions of years to give us the Quran, failed to foresee that humanity would go on developing for the next few thousands of years, so He gave us commandments that were destined to expire just a measly 1400 years later. This is a rather low opinion to have about God, and in fact such a God would not be worth believing in (which may explain the rather thin faith of the secular Muslim). An all-powerful and all-knowing Creator and Inventor of the universe would have been able to send us a Quran that would not expire, that would take account of the fact that humanity may go on developing for the next 100,000 years, and this is the only type of God I can believe in.

If we are to remain conservative Muslims who hold fast to the belief that the Quran is universal both through time and space (that it does not expire and can be followed on Mars as well as Earth), how can we respect secularist Muslims who have such a different view of the Quran? Shouldn’t we attack them as misguided fools who have not really appreciated God’s power and greatness? We could, and many do just that, but how can we do that and call ourselves enlightened and pluralist? What is pluralism but to respect those who disagree with us?

It is often the case that the idea of pluralism is used by liberals and secularists to feign an attitude of open-mindedness that in reality hides their utter contempt for those who disagree with them. In the name of respecting the other side, they demand respect while reserving the right to give no respect in return where it matters. Conservatives are required to respect liberals in the name of pluralism, but the liberals often are quite incapable of realizing that these means they too should be respectful toward the conservatives. Liberals, in the name of pluralism and diversity, often belittle and demonize the “outdated mullahs” and misogynists who supposedly represent the counterpart to liberalism. Now there is nothing wrong with pointing out the shortcomings in the views of conservative scholars. But when this comes from someone who has no empathy for them, who considers them an enemy to belittle and defeat, then what we are really seeing is a closed-minded bigot who in the name of liberalism attacks his or her enemies. He or she demands respect but gives back respect only with the utmost reluctance. The Middle East is full of intellectuals who talk about democracy, freedom and pluralism all the time while, at one and the same time, having the most militant and authoritarian attitude toward conservatives. In the name of these good-sounding Western ideals, they claim to possess the moral superiority, to enforce their views on everyone who disagrees with them. That brand of secularism, the brand of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Michel Aflaq is familiar to most conservative Middle Easterners and is recognized for what it is; totalitarian, dehumanizing ideologies that think they possess the whole of the truth and are prepared to murder innocent men, women and children to get what they want.

But that closed-mindedness of the secularists should not make us dehumanize them the way they dehumanize us. This is where many Muslim intellectuals seem to be stuck, or at least were stuck in the 20th century. Conservative intellectuals belittled liberals for watering the religion. Liberals belittled conservatives for being living fossils. And what neither side is capable of seeing is that there is one and the same attitude underlying the thinking of both sides. Saying this would shock both sides since they think they couldn’t be more different from one another, and each thinks it will or should one day defeat or wipe out the other. That attitude is the anti-humanist attitude, and sadly this is where many are stuck. It is the attitude that thinks it has the right to dehumanize and belittle the inner experience of other humans. Conservative intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a liberal Muslim to where they are today. And liberal intellectuals have no respect for the fact that a lifetime of experiences, learning and suffering may have led a conservative Muslim or an outdated mullah to be where they are today. Neither side is willing to really, truly acknowledge the humanity of the other side. Listen to a conservative and it soon comes out in his speech that he does not see liberals and secularists as really human, they are “liberals” and “secularists”, a different, non-human species that is accorded no sympathy. And listen to liberal and the exact same thing comes out; they do not see that conservatives and mullahs are really humans, they are “conservatives”, “mullahs”, different, non-human species that deserve neither respect nor sympathy.

The two sides are incapable of seeing that both of them are part of the problem and that there is a better way. That better way is… love. It is to see the other side as made up of people just like yourself, it is to treat them according to the Golden Rule: treat your neighbor the way you like to be treated yourself! Rather than discounting the inner experience of our fellow humans, the validity of their thinking and their right to independence of mind and conscience, we should respect these things that they possess as much as we respect them in ourselves.

I believe that what stops many from having such an attitude is that to them the very reason they disagree with the other side is their own superiority of intellect and upbringing that enables them to see truths the other, due to their stupidity, ignorance or corruption, cannot see. If they were to relent and give up this sense of superiority, this would be an admission of equality with other side, and an admission that the other side’s truths are just as good as their own truths. But to them history is a battle to be win, so admitting that there could be any validity in the thinking of the other side is an admission that the other side has some good things about them. When you are trying to win a battle, the last thing you want to do is admit the humanity of the other side. You want to reduce them to pests and cockroaches that have to be wiped out. You want to keep the morale of your soldiers high by telling them how infinitely superior in every conceivable way your side is compared to the other side, and how it is destiny, history, God Himself who will ensure that your side will wipe out the other.

This battle mentality prevents both sides from seeing that there is a new, unexplored territory that is far superior to the grounds they fight for.

Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

Pluralism without Relativism

The problem with real pluralism, that is, the humanist attitude, is that it seems to acknowledge that there are multiple truths; the other side can reach conclusions different from ours and yet be somehow “right”. How can that be when we believe there is only one truth that we all aim for? (Unless you are a postmodernist, but as I explain in this blog post, postmodernism has its own objective truth that it believes in, namely that there is no objective truth.)

All of us humans work toward discovering the truth. But due to our differences in talents, knowledge, circumstances and experiences, we often differ from one another in the things we observe and the conclusions we draw from them. Even though we all seek the truth, none of us can ever acquire the whole of the truth, unless we delude ourselves into thinking that we can somehow miraculously avoid all of the pitfalls and limitations of human understanding. Even though the truth is one, I might know only a small amount of it. And among the truths that I think I know, 80% might actually be really true and 20% might be false for all that I know. Below is a diagram to clarify this:

There is only one truth, represented by the circle, surrounded by falsehood, a sea of darkness, on all sides. The circle does not represent all of truth but important truths that we tend to disagree with others about. The green rectangle represents a human’s efforts at discovering these truths. They end up discovering some of them, but along the way they also pickup countless biases, prejudices and false beliefs and ideas that they think are true. That is the part of the rectangle that is in the gray area.

This person can have two attitudes about themselves: They can delude themselves into thinking that their viewpoint is entirely true, that their green rectangle is miraculously wholly within the light, or they can humbly acknowledge their limitations and say that they may be wrong about some things. Authoritarians, whether conservative or liberal, delude themselves into thinking that their viewpoint entirely captures truth and avoids falsehood, or that through proper submission to their authority this can be achieved sooner or later.

Now we can add a second person’s views to the diagram, this time represented by the yellow rectangle:

Person B knows many of the real truths that Person A knows. This is represented by the area that is shared between the two rectangles inside the circle. Person B also shares some of the prejudices and false beliefs as Person A, represented by the gray area on the right, outside the circle, that is shared between the two of them. He or she also has some prejudices and false beliefs that Person A does not have, represented by the gray areas that are only in the yellow rectangle and not in the green rectangle.

But most importantly, Person B also knows much more of the truth than Person A, represented by the new light areas covered by the yellow rectangle. Person B is closer to the truth on many things than Person A is. If Person B continues on this path, if they continue studying and discovering, their rectangle may expand downwards as follows so that it captures more of the light:

In the mean time, Person A may, though reading bad sources and reaching bad conclusions from their experiences, may actually expand their rectangle into the darkness rather than into the light:

What that means is that Person A is now sure of many new “facts” that are actually falsehoods.

The horror of recognizing our inherently limited and biased viewpoints causes some people to recoil into the delusion that by defining a narrow set of criteria, they can miraculously acquire the whole of the truth, be safe from falsehood and be the possessors of the light that gives them the right to rule over everyone that disagrees with them. This is the myth behind both Marxism and Wahhabism. They both imagine that they possess all the important truths, believe that they are so safe from falsehood that it only those who disagree with them who have prejudices and false beliefs. Wahhabis distort reality into this:

Marxists do the same:

In both ideologies, all that is outside the ideology is by definition false, evil, prejudiced, misguided. All that is inside is good, wholesome, light. Both pretend that their ideology captures the whole of the truth and is free from error. No disagreement or difference with the ideology is allowed, because any disagreement is automatically considered to be in the sea of falsehood.

Both of them offer a simplistic and naive view of reality, a “reality for dummies”, that is highly satisfactory to uncultured, authoritarian and power-hungry people.

Pluralism and Islam

Below is a diagram that represents the reality of life; it represents many people all trying to discover the truth:

It is this picture that horrifies Wahhabis and Marxists into wanting to chop off all the bits that do not fit. How can we have any form of community or progress in a world so complex and diverse? The Wahhabi and Marxist answer is that we cannot, therefore we have to force one view on everyone. Many conservative Muslims also suffer from a similar attitude. They believe that a very strong promotion of conformity is the only way to protect the integrity of the Muslim community. Disagreement is strongly discouraged and even attacked because when an intellectual disagrees with the rest, he is weakening the embattled ummah. In support of the ummah, we are supposed to keep silent when our intellects and consciences would have us speak. Cowardice becomes virtue; the cowardly who do not speak the truth fit in perfectly, while the brave who speak against falsehoods are shunned and attacked for being troublemakers and threats to the ummah.

The conformist assumption is that since “we” (the conformists) have the right ideas about religion and “they” do not, it is only right and just that “our” ideas should be forced on “them”. The question about who these people are who decide the truth for everyone else is not treated in detail, but it includes “me, my friends and everyone else who agrees with me.” We can call this the “top-down” approach to Islam; the idea that a minority should hold the reigns over the majority. They will be the benevolent dictators who tell everyone else what Islam should be. This is, of course, a self-elected priesthood by another name, and it is what Wahhabism, Marxism and radical feminism all share in common.

The numerous Islamist disasters of the past century should have been sufficient to convince most Muslims that the top-down, priesthood model is dysfunctional and impracticable, and perhaps most Muslims have been convinced. The alternative to the priesthood model is the ground-up (or grassroots) model, which is the model followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide (even though they do not talk about it), and it is also the model followed by Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The ground-up model, rather than involving a minority that seeks to force its ideas on everyone else, is a model that seeks consensus with others. The Prophet did not say “I miraculously possess the truth, so do as I say or else!” as was the attitude of Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab (the founder of Wahhabism) and Ayatollah Khomeini, even though he really was God’s prophet (as we Muslims believe) and did have divine guidance. The only person in Islamic history who could have claimed divine guidance for forcing his views on others refused to do so.

The Prophetic model was to seek to build a community through persuading other humans, while respecting their right to disagree with him, even to leave his community. His community was a consensual community in which everyone was persuaded of the truth of his message. In other words, his community functioned on the basis that humans can be persuaded of the truth without the necessity for authoritarian methods.

The experience of Muslim communities living in the West today lends the greatest support to the ground-up model. We do not have a religious authority enforcing its views on us. We do not have a morality police forcing our women to wear hijab. We listen to scholars coming from various schools of thought. People happily pray the noon prayer at one mosque and the evening prayer at another without caring much about whether the imam of the mosque follows one school or another. Most people couldn’t care less whether the imam believes in the theological views of al-Ashʿarī, al-Maturidī or ibn Ḥanbal.

We have a community of consensus in which we agree on the most important things without anyone having any authority to force his or her views on us. Any one of us could leave Islam at any time without facing any repercussions from a religious or political authority. The only way to make a member of this community do something or behave in a certain way is through persuading them. Our sheikhs do not have the power to whip men who fail to show up for the Friday prayers like the Wahhabi chief of the Shammar tribe used to do in 1840’s Arabia,1 yet our mosques are packed during those prayers.

Our community as a whole only acts communally on things upon which there is consensus (such as the obligatory nature of the Friday prayer), while leaving it to each person to act upon those things upon which there is no consensus. This freedom and lack of authority has not led to a “disintegration”, “corruption” or “decay” of our religion as conformists and authoritarians predict. Rather, it has led to a peaceful religious community that focuses on the most important things (worship and charity) while being largely free of religious strife. People eagerly read the works of classical scholars and attend lectures in which hadith narrations are explained. In an atmosphere that is free from authority, people, rather than abandoning Islam and forgetting about it, continue to hold on tightly to it.

The disagreements among the various Muslim schools of thought leads certain people to dream of the unity and political power that could be achieved if everyone agreed with everyone else. And a certain type of pathological personality takes this thinking to its extreme: unity and political power are the sole guidelines for Muslim existence; it is perfectly fine to oppress, restrict and terrorize every Muslim who disagrees with the version of Islam that Mr. Authoritarian and his friends cook up, and in this way a “unity” is achieved (that is in reality filled with hatred, fear and discontent) where no one dares to criticize the self-elected Muslim priesthood.

A shop somewhere in Morocco

Communities of Consensus

Authoritarians think Islam needs political authority to keep its integrity. The experience of the Prophet and of Muslim communities throughout history shows that it does not. A community of consensus is not one where the same views are forced on everyone. It is where the Islamic and legal practices we follow are all derived from our shared agreement on them. Everyone follows Islam in their own way and according to their own conscience, but since Islam is derived from the Quran and the Sunna, their practice of Islam ends up being very similar in most regards to other people’s practice of Islam. In this way a community organically comes into being where, by the mere fact of everyone doing their best to follow Islam, they form a strong but peaceful community. There is no authority forcing its views on anyone. Everyone is treated as a respected and honored human who is doing his or her best to make sense of Islam and life.

Authoritarians might predict that this free atmosphere will lead to a situation where 20% of the Muslims at the mosque start to think Islam is really a martial art and practice kung fu at the mosque rather than praying. Another 20% thinks Islam is about discovering the deep truths of the universe and instead of praying, they sit down and discuss philosophy. And among the various misguided sects and groups, there is a 5% minority of true Muslims whose views have been overshadowed by the corrupt majority. The authoritarian thinks the use of force, intimidation and even violence is justified to make the views of this 5% dominant over the rest.

But the question is whether that authoritarian prediction factually accurate. Does it reflect reality? It is certainly true that there have been periods in which misguided sects flourished, but to say that that happened because authoritarians weren’t there to save the day is to give preferential treatment to one explanation out of a dozen possible ones. It seems far more likely that the flourishing of misguided sects, similar to the flourishing of Marxism, came about because of authoritarianism not despite it; a small minority of authoritarians forced their corrupt views on everyone else and punished disagreement.

The ground-up model of Prophet Muhammad , the prophets before him, and mainstream Muslim communities shows the authoritarian prediction (that Islam will decay without authority) to be a fairy tale. Mosque after mosque after mosque in the West operates just like the mosques found in the East, despite our far greater freedom to change things and do whatever we like.

The reason is simple: humans are not animals. They are not sheep that need to be led by priesthood as authoritarians imagine. Humans, honored by God to the point that the angels bowed down to them, prefer guidance to misguidance once educated.

Prophet Muhammad’s attitude toward the people around him was the humanist attitude. It was to treat the people around him, Muslim and non-Muslim, as intrinsically worthy. When a person disagreed with him or even made fun of him, he did not attack and demonize them. He instead wished what is best for them. Why? An authoritarian will say the Prophet was acting like a politician, being nice, polite and forgiving not because he thought humans deserve such a treatment, but because this was the best way to manipulate them into becoming Muslim.

Authoritarians like Wahhabis do not believe in the intrinsic worth of human life as I explain in this essay, therefore that is the only way they can explain the Prophet’s behavior and the behavior of the prophets before him. Political manipulation. That is what they have reduced Islam’s beautiful moral and ethical teachings to. That is Islam according to these supposedly morally superior authoritarians who think they have the right to decide what Islam should be for everyone else.

Were the prophets nothing more than political manipulators when they were being kind to the disbelieving folk around them? Were the desperate efforts of Prophet Nūḥ (Noah) to save his people from the flood by trying to persuade them to believe in God was just him doing his job? Isn’t more accurate to say that as a human, he had love and sympathy for these fellow humans and did not wish bad things to happen to them?

Was Prophet Ibrāhīm (Abraham) merely doing his job as a political manipulator when he argued with God’s angels in order to protect a group of homosexual rapists from God’s punishment? Isn’t it far more likely that as a kindly and loving human he did not like the thought of these people suffering punishment, that he saw intrinsic worship in them despite being some of the worst sinners in existence? And even more importantly, God does not criticize him for arguing with His command, He praises him:

When Abraham's fear subsided, and the good news had reached him, he started pleading with Us concerning the people of Lot.

Abraham was gentle, kind, penitent.

“O Abraham, refrain from this. The command of your Lord has come; they have incurred an irreversible punishment.”2

The picture we have here is of a human who loves his fellow humans, who wishes what is best for them, and wishes to avert harm from them even when God has declared that harm should come to them. And God does not blame him for this. He praises him for having sympathy for these sinners. He dedicates an entire verse of the Quran to praising him for his sympathy.

This is the example of our Prophet Ibrāhīm , the father our religion as we call him during every prayer. Rather than being an authoritarian who gloated in destroying those who disagreed with him, he tried to protect the worst sinners from God’s punishment, going so far as to make a scene arguing with God’s angels.

If that is not one of the strongest affirmations of the humanist attitude then I do not know what can be.

Since people are intrinsically worthy, since they are honored by God, since they are sacred, since God praises our desire to protect sinners, then it logically follows that persuasion rather than force should be our method in our dealings with them. Since force is prohibited, the only way to build a Muslim community is through persuasion. Each member of the Muslim community is treated as intrinsically worthy regardless of their opinions. If that was Ibrāhīm’s attitude toward the worst sinners, it is far more imperative upon us to have a similar attitude toward those who believe in God and His Prophet .

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman

Organic Communities

My theory of the formation of Islamic communities is the complete opposite of the Islamist and authoritarian theories. When a group of people believe in God and His Messenger , they are naturally and organically inclined to form a moderate community that reflects the best teachings of Islam, without needing the services of authoritarians.

Authoritarians have an extremely low opinion of humanity, seeing most humans as something more akin to animals than humans who deserved the angel’s prostration. And their highness of their opinion of themselves is often in equal proportion to the lowness of their opinion of others. Such people exist everywhere, in all communities and religions. It is human nature to like to think highly of ourselves and lowly of those who disagree with us. Authoritarians are people immature and unscrupulous enough to take this to the extreme of turning themselves into demigods who miraculously possess the truth and who also possess the right to force this supposed truth on others.

My theory is that humans, by the mere virtue of being human, after accepting God and His Prophet , possess the right to read the Quran and hadith and other works and come to their own conclusions about them. This, rather than leading to disintegration in the community, leads to the formation of moderate communities, because all humans, once given the Quran and the Sunna, all slowly incline toward the same truth. Their humanity and their belief in God and the Prophet are what bind them into a community, not some authority that forces conformity on them.

This community has an inertia of its own. An ultra-liberal Muslim who comes into the community and talks about how gay marriage should be legalized, and a Wahhabi Muslim who comes into the community and talks about how Muslims should be obsessing about political power night and day, both get shunned by the community, the way an extended family shuns that annoying vegan relative who keeps lecturing everyone about his or her moral superiority. The community’s inertia is the product of human nature, the Quran, the Sunna and the opinions of respected classical and modern scholars. All of these things merge together and form of a vague set of beliefs, manners and practices that most of the community shares. There are also often some hangers-on, oddballs who differ greatly from the norm but who get tolerated since they do no harm.

Such a community has a natural inclination toward conformity, balanced by the fact that there is no authority forcing any single view on the members, so that each person differs in some ways in their views from those around them. The natural human desire to belong and fit within a community pulls the members toward conformity, while the natural human desire to have independence of mind and conscience pulls the members toward individualism. And the result is a balance between these two forces. We try to fit in as much as we can, doing our best to avoid offending others and trying to stay out of the line of sight of the community members who have a tendency to get ticked off easily. But in our private lives each person has his own favorite scholars and intellectuals. The Syrians and Egyptians at the mosque love Mohammed al-Ghazali and follow his style of Islam. The Turks love Said Nursî. The Pakistanis and Indians have their own scholars, often unknown outside of their cultures. The converts have their own style of Islam, often based in part on the thinking and ideas of high-profile converts who came before them.

Publicly, people try to fit in out of good manners and do not voice their private religious opinions to avoid useless arguments. Privately, they enjoy freedom of intellect and conscience. And out of these two things a moderate and peaceful community is created.

Authoritarians think they can do better than the above through the use of force and manipulation tactics. In the West, since they cannot use force, their favorite tactic is appealing to authority. They attack Muslims who do not follow their versions of Islam by acting as if their opinions are the only possibly valid ones. They often talk about how there is ijmāʿ (“consensus”) that everyone should do what they say. This is often a downright lie, since there is often no consensus on even the simplest and most essential things within Islam, such as how to perform the ablution. What they really mean when they talk about consensus is, “I and everyone who agrees with me has this opinion.” Whenever they claim consensus on something, all it takes is a cursory look through the classical sources to find highly respected scholars who disagree with their view. Mention that to them and they will come up with some underhanded argument for why that scholar’s opinion does not count, even if they were quoting their opinion yesterday in support of a different supposed “consensus”.

On the much-abused concept of ijmāʿ, I tend to agree with Imam Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal when he says: “Whoever claims consensus has lied, because people may have differed on that matter without him knowing about it.” (Transmitted by his son ʿAbdullāh in his Masāʾil). Imam Aḥmad did not entirely reject the concept, he apparently believed that it could be validly applied when speaking of the Companions of the Prophet . If all the evidence we have tells us that all of the Companions agreed on the same thing, then that is a consensus. This, however, has nothing to do with the authoritarian’s appeal to consensus, which invariably refers to the opinions of a cherry-picked group of scholars in complete disregard for vast areas of Islamic intellectual history.

There is also another consensus that I have already referred to, the organic consensus of the community. There is consensus among the members of every mainstream Muslim community on a great number of things. We believe that there is only one God and that the Quran transmits His uncorrupted words, that Muhammad was His last Messenger, that murder, stealing and adultery are wrong. A person who goes against these things can rightly be said to be outside the consensus of the community.

But that is not enough for authoritarians, who are control-freaks who cannot stand the thought that someone somewhere might be having thoughts of his or her own. They demand consensus on everything big and small, and not just that, they demand that it should exactly reflect their own beliefs and prejudices.

The Delusion of the Authoritarian Utopia

Authoritarians think that the community described is not good enough. They think that it would be so much better, people would be so much more united, if they were given free reign to dictate Islam to everyone else and manufacture consensus out of thin air on every big and small issue.

But let’s say we do as they want. Let’s give them free reign. What happens next? Does our love for Islam increase? Does our sense of unity increase? Do we start to love and appreciate one another more now that we have the One True™ version of Islam forced on all of us?

Of course not. In fact, quite the opposite happens. The culture of conformity that authoritarians promote means that the most dishonest and cowardly raise to the top. They have no firm principles of their own, so they are perfectly happy to fit in with the authoritarians to get privileges in return.

And as for the rest of the community, they continue to hold on to their own individual beliefs in private, but now they will be more careful in keeping their beliefs to themselves to avoid ticking off the authoritarians.

Rather than increasing unity, the authoritarians increase division. Some people, out of ignorance or self-interest, end up siding with the authoritarians, while others, out of conscientious difficulty with authoritarian beliefs and tactics, end up staying away from them as much as possible. The community is divided into two: the “career Muslims” who side with the authorities and derive power and privilege from this (as in Saudi’s Wahhabi ideologues and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards), and the ordinary Muslims who look on with dismay, keep quiet and keep following Islam in their own way in private as much as they can.

Authoritarians think they can create more unity by forcing one version of Islam on everyone. But reality has proven their thinking false again and again.

The Issue of Islamic Law (the Sharia)

Authoritarians often act as if there is an inherent conflict between living in a democratic and pluralistic society and the application of the Sharia, the implication being that 1. anyone who feels proud to be a citizen of a liberal democratic society is betraying the ummah and 2. we should submit to whatever half-baked plan they have for implementing the Sharia (which often starts with the application of the punishments prescribed in it, as if God’s law contains nothing useful or interesting). The truth is that there is no conflict between democracy and the Sharia unless one is an authoritarian, whether a secularist authoritarian who wishes to force secularism on everyone, or an Islamist authoritarian who wishes to force Islam on everyone. We do not have to submit to the views of either of these two immature sides. Rather, Muslims and non-Muslims can together create a constitution that applies to everyone in the country, Muslim and non-Muslim. Then, each city or state in the country should have the right to choose its own laws beyond the constitution, as is the case in the United States and many other countries. If there is a particular city or state that democratically chooses to implement the Sharia on its Muslim population, then I do not think most fair-minded and educated person would have a problem with that. And if there is a liberal city or state that does not want Sharia law, then the democratic process means that it will not get Sharia law.

Of course, authoritarians can derail this process, but here I’m speaking of humans acting like mature and civilized adults. Muslims, non-Muslims, conservatives and liberals can all sit down like mature humans and have an intelligent discussion on the best way to run their country that ensures the rights of everyone as much as possible. If most people’s basic assumption is that all humans are sacred and deserve protection and sympathy, then a fair and just system can be created that does not do injury to any group.

Respecting Muslims Who Disagree With Us

We can now go back to the question that this essay started with. What should be an educated and open-minded Muslim’s stance toward Muslims who disagree with them significantly?

Our stance should be the humanist, or Abrahamic, stance. They should be treated with respect and consideration regardless of their beliefs. They should not be insulted or demonized. But that does not mean that we should treat them as if their beliefs are just as valid as ours. We can point out why we disagree with them. We can politely debate them. We can politely but firmly prevent them from doing violence to our practice of Islam as discovered through the process of organic consensus. To give a dramatic example, a man who thinks he should have the right to pray naked at the mosque should be prevented from doing so. He has the right to make of Islam what he wants, and he has the right to defend his idea that prayer should be performed in nudity at the mosque, but he does not have the right to intrude upon the public manners and etiquette surrounding religion as developed through the process of organic consensus. He can start his own mosque and do that in it and see where that takes him. He does not have the right to force his religious views on others by claiming that his version of Islam is as valid as that which has been organically and democratically developed by the community over the years.

We can have a pluralistic Islamic society without becoming secularists. As long as secularism is not forced on us, our communities will naturally tend toward moderate, conservative Islam as is followed by the majority of Muslims worldwide. Human nature itself, with the help of the Quran and the Sunna, gravitates toward such an Islam.

It is not only secularists who should enjoy polite and respectful treatment. The same should apply to Muslims that we consider outdated, ignorant, or somewhat extremist and authoritarian. Whatever is wrong with them, they still deserve the same kindly attitude that Prophet Ibrāhīm had toward the People of Lūṭ (Lot). Whatever their mistakes, sins or deficiencies, they are still humans honored in the sight of God. It is not through insults and snarky attitudes that we can bring such people back to the path of moderation, it is through love, through making them feel appreciated and valued.

Authoritarians are terrified of their loss of power and authority that comes from letting every Muslim come to their own conclusions about Islam in complete freedom and independence. They want to control history so that things go exactly the way they want. They want, in short, to play God and determine humanity’s fate. But the burden of proof is on them to show that their thinking leads to a better and more pious Muslim community. It seems to me that it does not; it rather promotes dislike and hatred for Islam through their abuses of people’s rights and dignities.

Respecting Sectarian Muslims

Our attitude toward Muslims belonging to other sects can be the same as our attitude toward Muslims that do not perfectly fit in within our community (see above) and Christians (see below). They possess many of the truths we possess, and the fact of their humanity demands sympathy and respect.

Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow, Russia

Respecting non-Muslims

The same pluralist framework can be extended to non-Muslims. They too are sacred, even if they are engaged in worst of sins, they are still as sacred as Prophet Ibrāhīm considered the People of Lūṭ to be. Some Muslims are so distant from the Quran that they think it almost a betrayal of the ummah to have respect and sympathy for non-Muslims when Islam’s great Patriarch, Ibrāhīm, had just such an attitude. The Quran is infinitely more authoritative than the narrow-minded and prejudiced views of these Muslims in their incapacity to see non-Muslims as fellow humans, to be loved and respected.

Non-Muslims too are truth-seekers. They have the right to examine the evidence that life presents to them and come to their own conclusions. This is why the Quran is adamant that religion should not be forced on people. Rather than treating non-Muslims as misguided and twisted people, we should treat them as fellow humans, sacred and deserving of protection and sympathy. They too have some view of the truth even if we assume it is a narrower vision than ours, and there should be nothing too surprising in some non-Muslims knowing some truths that some Muslims do not know.

The above diagram represents the efforts of a Muslim (green), Christian (blue) and atheist (yellow) at discovering the truth. They all appreciate and agree on certain truths (for example, perhaps the fact that humans are sacred and should not be murdered without due cause and process). They also share some of the same false beliefs. In the diagram, the Muslim person has a better view of the truth than either. The atheist has only a small view. That is not to say that every Muslim has a superior view of the truth compared to every Christian, or that every Christian is superior to every atheist in this regard.

The atheist novelist Terry Pratchett (died in 2015) made many fair and occasionally unfair criticisms of religious people in his novels. But he believed in the sanctity of human life, saying that the objectification of humans is one of the greatest evils (or the root of all evil). This is an incredibly important truth, defended in the Quran in this way:

Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person—unless it is for murder or corruption on earth—it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.3

The above verse, as has been realized by interpreters, is telling us that human life has infinite worth. Regardless of how large the population becomes, killing a single human is as evil as killing all of humanity. This means that there is something special, sacred, about humans. Terry Pratchett, in recognizing this essential truth and defending it, is morally far superior to any Muslim who does not believe in the sanctity of human life and justifies murder in the name of Islam.

Despite our differences with non-Muslims, they are still our brothers and sisters, since we are all Children of Adam as the Quran constantly reminds us. Our attitude toward them should be the same as the attitude of the Prophets toward humanity; and attitude of respect and sympathy, not out of a desire to manipulate them, but because this the right and just way to treat humans.

Conclusion

Muslim unity will not come about through force, but through love and sympathy. Muslims, by the virtue of being humans, have a natural tendency toward creating communities of consensus that practice moderate, conservative Islam without the need for authority.

Authoritarians are mistaken in their belief that their services are needed to guide Islam. Empirical reality proves their views false; the world is full of highly faithful and devout Muslim communities that have no authority forcing any version of Islam on them.

Our appreciation for the sanctity of human life, our sympathy for our fellow humans, and the guidance of the Prophets should form the basis of how we relate to everyone around. People are to be respected regardless of their beliefs, unless they try to force their beliefs on others, in which case they are to be stopped. Our communities should be tolerant toward both ultra-liberal and ultra-conservative Muslims who do not fit in very well within the moderate Islam of the community as long as they do not try to do violence to the community.

Our attitude toward non-Muslims should be one of respect and sympathy, not one of belligerence. It is true that not all non-Muslims are nice and respectful people. I do not call for naive trust in non-Muslims or for being desperate to live up to their expectations. We treat them according to what we know to be right and just, and part of that is respect and sympathy toward those who mean us no harm.

As for those who have not fought against you for your religion, nor expelled you from your homes, God does not prohibit you from dealing with them kindly and equitably. God loves the equitable.

But God prohibits you from befriending those who fought against you over your religion, and expelled you from your homes, and aided in your expulsion. Whoever takes them for friends—these are the wrongdoers.4

Reader Questions

Is Islam really pluralistic? I've been wondering this for a long time. If so then why does Allah speak harsh against other religions, and the ahadith too?

God’s business with humanity is one thing, our business with humanity is another. God judges humanity and deals with them according to His justice and mercy. He does not give us the right to become judges over humanity and decide who gets to live and who to die, who gets blessings and who gets punishments. The way we deal with humanity is based on the laws and ethics He defines for us, not according to what we think God thinks about certain people. You might think your neighbor is a great sinner, but you have no right to take their judgment and punishment into your own hands. If they break the law, then the law will deal with them. If they do not break the law, then it is God’s business to judge them and deal with them.

As almost any mainstream scholar will tell you, the Quran does not forbid us from living peacefully in pluralistic societies, and this is the opinion reached by the majority of Muslims. A minority of Muslims, those with authoritarian personalities, disagree and think that their version of Islam should be forced on everyone. By what right? Because they supposedly possess truths that 99% of Muslims, including the best educated and most knowledgeable among them, do not possess.

So the first step in their thinking is to dismiss, demonize and dehumanize the majority of Muslims. This enables them to claim the right to be the ones who decide what is true and what is false and to be the juries, judges and executioners over everyone else in society.

Needless to say, it is only a very small minority of often mentally disturbed people who think like that. Islam does not have a pope or priesthood, therefore no one can ever rightly claim to possess the right to define religion for others. The practice of Islam is not based on an authority that defines religion (except in a few authoritarian countries like Saudi Arabia, or in Shia Islam where the Grand Ayatollahs have the authority to define religion). The practice of Islam as seen throughout the world is based on organic consensus, the fact of many people all coming to the same conclusion in complete freedom of mind and conscience. No one is forcing the mainstream mosques in London to all pray in the same way, yet that is just what happens. In Christianity, we have a situation where different groups are constantly splintering off from one another. In mainstream Islam we have quite the opposite situation: we have a vast amount of diversity throughout the Islamic world, yet we are all constantly gravitating toward that organic consensus I mentioned, where we agree with other Muslims on the most important things in our religion.

That is one of the reasons why Sunni Islam is the largest religion in the world (1.5 billion, compared to 1.2 billion for Catholic Christians). Sunni Islam cannot splinter like Christianity because it is entirely made up of splinters. Each individual makes his or her own Islam through what they learn from the Quran and the Sunna. Each person, in complete freedom of mind and conscience (except in certain authoritarian cultures) examines Islam’s texts and reaches largely the same conclusions as everyone else (with some usually unimportant differences). This gives us Sunni Muslims the incredible privilege of being able to go to almost any mosque in the world and feel at home there; we know that the people of that mosque went through the same process we went through and reached largely the same conclusions, and that regardless of what mosque we go to, there are usually some people who will largely agree with our views.

Making sense of the hadith literature is like trying to solve a puzzle, there are thousands of pieces of varying authenticity (even narrations that are considered ṣaḥīḥ themselves vary greatly in their authenticity). To make sense of things, scholars have to sit down and bring together all relevant narrations on any issue and try to make a unified system out of them. And when it comes to the issue of pluralism, every mainstream scholar who has sat down to do this work has come to the same conclusion, which is that Islam is not opposed to pluralism. The exception are those who have authoritarian personalities and wish to make a case for forcing their version of Islam on everyone, so what they do is cherry pick a dozen narrations and verses of the Quran, say that those verses of the Quran that get in their way are “abrogated” so that they can ignore them, and in this way they reach the conclusion they started with, which is that they have the right to force their version of Islam on everyone else. And to explain why most scholars disagree with them, they say that most scholars are misguided or hypocrites. Since they cannot prove their case through reasoned argument, they resort to demonizing those who disagree with them.

If we study the history of Islamic societies, we will find that mainstream Muslim societies everywhere have been extremely pluralistic. Whether you look at the Abbasid Empire, Muslim Spain, India’s Malabar coast, Java or Malaysia, you will find that for most of their histories they were extremely pluralistic. People of all kinds of beliefs and leanings lived side by side together without wanting to do violence to each other. The default attitude of Muslims toward non-Muslims has been one of “live and let live.” There has always been an authoritarian minority that has desired to force everyone to become “better” Muslims and to force non-Muslims to become Muslims. Every society, Muslim and non-Muslim, has these authoritarians who think that the world would be so much better if they could force their opinions on others. But the reality of Muslim life has always been one of pluralism except for those rare but disastrous instances when religion and politics became united, so that an authoritarian person tried to force his religious views on others. We have the example of the Abbasid caliph al-Maʾmūn’s Miḥna (Inquisition) which tried to force Muʿtazilī theology on everyone. We also have the example of Ibn Abdul Wahhab who allied himself with the Saudi family and in the name of spreading “true” Islam justified the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent Muslims.

But those disasters are the exception that proves the rule. For every million Muslims who live under an authoritarian version of Islam we have 99 million who live in pluralistic Muslim societies. There is still work to be done to protect things like free speech and the rights of minorities in these societies, and there are cases of unjust persecution (or rather useless blasphemy laws). But anyone who has lived in Egypt, Iraq, Syria or Turkey knows that you run into the most atheistic and anti-religious individuals every day without anyone trying to do them harm. Almost all of the Middle East’s universities invariably have some secularist professors who show the greatest disdain for religion without anyone getting in their way or trying to harm them. The community I grew up in in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which is supposed to be 98% Muslim, is full of atheists and secularists who make anti-religion posts on Facebook on a daily basis (and get upset when no one takes them seriously) . Islam’s detractors focus on the 1% of bad cases, ignore the 99% of peaceful and pluralistic Muslim societies, then tell us that Islam promotes intolerance.

Islam’s detractors blame the problems of the Middle East on Islam, ignoring the fact that Christian Latin America suffers from almost exactly the same problems everywhere. Latin America has dysfunctional democracies, far more child marriages than the Middle East, orders of magnitude more crime than the Middle East (Brazil’s murder rate is 29, Egypt’s is 2.51), a far more serious rape problem (Brazil’s rape rate is 37, Morocco’s is somewhere between 2 and 4), and honor killings. Where is the outcry against Christianity for promoting such things? According to Islam’s detractors, Latin America’s people are humans and have human problems, while the problems of Muslim societies are invariably blamed on Islam. These detractors are in general incapable of realizing that by their type of twisted thinking Latin America’s problems could be blamed on Christianity. And when it is pointed out that Muslim-majority countries like Iran, Turkey and Malaysia are far ahead of most of Latin America’s Christian countries when it comes to scientific research and technological innovation, you will see them switch gears and explain why the good things in Muslim societies are despite Islam.

So when it comes to the issue of pluralism we have the majority of Muslim scholars and intellectuals, who have all independently come to the conclusion that there is no conflict between Islam and pluralism today, and then we have an authoritarian minority who think that Islam is anti-pluralistic, and since they do not have any convincing evidence for their opinions and know that they cannot win in a fair and open debate, they resort to personal attacks against the majority. In the pluralistic majority we have all kinds of opinions; liberals, conservatives, moderates, Salafis. What unites them all is their unwillingness to use force on others. They are all happy enough to live in relative peace and prosperity and leave matters of governance to the experts and politicians.

Who to ask?

When it comes to questions like “Is Islam pluralistic?” it is important to separate the views of the average Muslim from the views of educated Muslims who are actually familiar with the Quran and Prophetic Traditions. Uneducated Muslims might ignorantly think that it is part of their religious duty to support forcing everyone to wear hijab and making the Sharia the law of the land. Asking such people about pluralism will not lead to any useful results about the nature of Islam. It would be similar to going to the backward parts of the United States, such as West Virginia, and finding random Christians and asking them whether ideally the Christian Church should make the laws of the land and many will likely agree that this is a good idea. Or we can ask them whether the hijab should be prohibited, or whether building mosques and synagogues should be prohibited, or whether all religions besides Christianity should be prohibited, and we will probably find many who say “Yes!” to these things. It would be highly unfair to consider these opinions as representative of Christianity.

To get an accurate idea of what Christians think about these matters, we have to find educated Christians; pastors, priests, and well-educated faithful Christians (architects, doctors, others with post-graduate degrees), people who have read more than a few books in their lives. And if you ask these people about the Christian view on pluralism, then you will generally get intelligent and sophisticated answers in support of it.

We should do the same when asking Muslims about these things. I’ve never met a Muslim doctor or architect, or a Muslim with a degree in Islamic studies, who supports the authoritarian side. People capable of reading Islam’s literature and judging it for themselves almost all invariably come to the same conclusions as everyone else. Rather than asking random people on the street or listening to random keyboard jihadists on the Internet when it comes to the issue of pluralism, we should listen to well-educated and well-respected scholars and intellectuals, and it is a blindly obvious fact that throughout the Muslim world, from Malaysia to Morocco, almost all of them agree on Islam’s compatibility with pluralism. This is not because almost every Muslim who knows the Islamic tradition is corrupt or a hypocrite (as authoritarians claim). It is because when someone tries to come to terms with all of the complex and contradictory pieces of evidence that we have, we are forced to admit the limits of our knowledge and the great amount of freedom and diversity that is possible within Islam.

People like the Taliban, who were taught Wahhabism in schools founded by Saudi Arabia in Pakistan, short-circuited this process of discussion and free examination of evidence and used funding and weapons provided by the CIA to take over Afghanistan. The nice Americans knew exactly what they were doing. As admitted by the mastermind of the plan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, they wanted to use these Muslims as bait (and paid them hundreds of millions of dollars annually) to make the Soviet Union invade Afghanistan, and that is just what happened. Somewhere between 500,000 and 2 million innocent Afghans died in this Machiavellian plan to further US interests by weakening the Soviet Union. (See America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History by professor Andrew J. Bacevich).

Beauty as Pointer: An Islamic Aesthetic Theory

Why is this beautiful?

There is something special about beauty, as has been recognized by philosophers in the recent centuries. If someone says the above piece of architecture is ugly, I would judge them either liars or somehow morally corrupt.

When we appreciate beauty, we feel morally uplifted. This is very strange. Why should appreciating some design have any relationship with how I feel about myself?

This makes me feel like a better person.

This moral sense of beauty is wonderfully expressed by Roger Scruton in the following passage:

Our need for beauty is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition, as free individuals, seeking our place in a shared and public world. We can wander through this  world, alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us. But—and this is again one of the messages of the early modernists—beings like us become at home in the world only by acknowledging our ‘fallen’ condition, as Eliot acknowledged it in The Waste Land. Hence the experience of beauty also points us beyond this world, to a ‘kingdom of ends’ in which our immortal longings and our desire for perfection are finally answered. As Plato and Kant both saw, therefore, the feeling for beauty is proximate to the religious frame of mind, arising from a humble sense of living with imperfections, while aspiring towards the highest unity with the transcendental.1

My point in this post is to take those thoughts slightly further using my Islamic education, especially al-Ghazali’s simulation theory.

A beautiful Gothic cathedral is a “glitch in the matrix” that creates a state of awe in your mind best expressed in the Quranic verse:

Our Lord, You did not create this in vain, glory to You!2

The state of mind tells us that while from inside the universe things may appear meaningless and random, if we could only look beyond, we would see that they have an architecture and a meaning; history has a director; God exists and watches on.

Appreciating beauty leads to a certain state of the mind. The way that taking a drug creates a certain mental state, appreciating beauty too does something to the mind, creating a special mental state. This state of mind produced feels meaningful because it points beyond the here and now, beyond the confines of space and time, beyond the individual human, in short, beyond the universe itself.

In Islam, we use the word ayah (“a sign that points toward something”) to refer to anything and everything that points to God. It might be possible to explain all beauty using the ayah concept alone (although I am not perfectly sure):

A beautiful thing is anything that points the human mind to the transcendent, i.e. to God.

The similarity between mystical experience and the experience of beauty is well-established. That, according to my theory, is because they are the same thing. The state of awe that beauty forces upon us makes us feel infinitely small, makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves and larger than the universe, and most importantly, makes us feel judged by an all-seeing subject, an eye that knows us better than anyone else and is ready to forgive us.

That is where the morally uplifting nature of beauty comes from. When faced with beauty, just as we are casually judging it, we suddenly become aware of an eye that looks back and judges us in return. Something suddenly goes click inside our psyche, we are transported beyond our circumstances, and we are offered a chance to become better than we are. We are on the edge of a great revelation but we do not know what is being offered or who is offering it.

For me appreciating the Quran creates the same psychological experience as appreciating beauty, natural or man-made.

This Quran, in pointing to God, is a universe that speaks. And this universe, in pointing to God, is a silent Quran.3

Many Western hippies have visited Fez, Morocco in their seeking of meaning in life. While Morocco has much beauty to offer, meaning that it helps travelers come face-to-face with the all-seeing subject that looks back at us, judges us and offers us forgiveness as we try to judge beauty, the same experience can be had for much cheaper at home by looking at the architecture of most churches and their surrounding scenery.

Moroccan pottery.

Beautiful art, whether Islamic or Christian, points to God. The experience of beauty, whether in Fez or in the English countryside, is one and the same. Both point to God and make moral demands on us, promising us salvation in return for piety.

The problem with Fez and Turkey’s many tourist attractions is that beauty is devoid of moral teaching, therefore while a lover of beauty is elevated by it and motivated to seek God, if they do not go through with this seeking (through religion or at least through the effort of direct communion with God without religion), they end up as moral failures who never reach what they seek. They admire God through beauty but are too cowardly to talk to Him face-to-face.

I have met some of these unfortunate seekers who never become finders. The fact that you can experience the moral uplift of beauty means that you are capable of contemplating God’s face and communicating with Him. But there is a next step you have to take, which is to seek moral guidance. You can experience God, but Your God can speak, so why don’t you listen to what He has to say?

Most mysticism ends in narcissism. Rumi’s poetry, Morocco’s beauty and Gothic architecture all lift us up into the stratosphere like a thousand tons of rocket fuel, but if we are content with this experience, if we seek the experience itself without bothering to listen to God, then our mysticism and spirituality becomes self-worship. We appreciate art or chant the name of God and enjoy the uplift that comes with it, but the moment God starts speaking to us we shun Him and run away, as if saying O God, give us the good feeling of being close to You, but do not make demands. You are lovely, beautiful, amazing, but stay where I put you.

The narcissistic mystic does not chase God, he chases the feeling of what it is like to be close to God. The one who chases God is eager to listen to Him, while the narcissistic mystic feels inconvenienced by His voice.

Ugliness

If beauty is that which points to God, ugliness is that which points away from Him. Beautiful architecture “traces the contours of God’s face” so to speak, helping us know what it feels like to be near Him even though we cannot see Him. Ugly architecture, on the other hand, often present us with faceless edifices that point to nothing beyond themselves, almost claiming that God does not exist and they are all that there is:

Ugliness personified: Zaha Hadid’s gigantic faceless worms (Galaxy SOHO in Beijing, China)

There is nothing to relate to as a human in the above building. It is an alien, impenetrable thing that might be an alien organism capable of wiping humanity out for all that we know. Beautiful things help us come face-to-face with God and offer us salvation. Ugly things offer us nothing and tell us we are not needed. Ugly architecture offers us cruel and vacant faces, telling us life is meaningless and that there is nothing beyond. Like those dismal Soviet apartment blocks, they remind us of the hopelessness and meaninglessness of existence without God. They can be interesting to look at as technological marvels, as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles below, but they are as morally uplifting as a washing machine.

The cruel, blank, inhuman faces of modern architecture.

And as a cure for the horror of experiencing looking at the above building, here is something beautiful and humane, a building that seems to whisper to us about God, almost as if it is an angel who points to God and offer us everything we could desire if we choose to be morally upright:

Religious propaganda

An important clarification has to be made here. By saying that beauty is all that points to God and that all that points to God is beautiful, I am not referring to religious propaganda, which is often ugly.

A Muslim-made billboard that quotes a verse of the Quran and talks to Christians about how Islam is better for them is not going to create any mystical experience in the hearts of the Christians who view it, because they know there is a human will behind the billboard that cannot be automatically trusted. The billboard might use a beautiful verse and a beautiful design, but the attitude behind the object makes it fall flat. Propaganda-makers pretend to possess the whole truth and refuse to acknowledge their doubts and their human weaknesses. Propaganda tries to change the course of history, it is an expression of the desire for a group of humans to make another group of humans do their bidding (I am not saying this is always bad, it can be done with good intentions, but the point is that it is not beautiful; it is not morally uplifting).

Unlike propaganda, beauty has no human will behind it and does not claim to be perfect. It does not matter who funded the above building and for what purpose. It stands on its own and humbly points to God, without pompously thinking that it knows what your beliefs should be, what you should do with your life or how history should go. It merely helps you have an experience of God while leaving it up to you to discover the truth on your own.

There is a certain class of religious art that does make truth-claims but that is not propaganda because it is aimed at members of the religious community itself; it does not seek to change them but only to reaffirm their faith and worldview. Such art is experienced by us as beautiful provided that we are members of that community because the attitude behind it no longer matters since we share the same attitude as its creators. It does not pompously claim to know the truth or try to change your way of life. It uses beautiful imagery to re-create mystical experiences you have already had in the past. The unsavory ingredient of attitude and politics is not present, so the artwork can be appreciated for itself.

Above, what might be experienced as a threatening cultural incursion by a Christian if they were to see it hung as a poster on some wall in their city is experienced by a Muslim as an apolitical reminder of many beautiful-mystical things: Ramadan, the peacefulness of small Middle Eastern towns in the desert, the Prophet’s migration to Medina . For a Muslim it points to God in numerous ways. For a Christian, if they were to see it hung in the wrong place (on a church’s wall!) it would be a direct, political attack on their way of life and independence of conscience. A beautiful thing in the wrong context can send all the wrong messages; instead of causing mystical experience it can cause discomfort and dread.

Mysticism without Sufism: A Guide to Tahajjud, Islam’s Meditation Practice

Samarkand

What does mainstream Islam offer to someone who wants a deep, meaningful and permanent connection with God? When it comes to Islamic mysticism, Sufism is often treated as its main and perhaps even only outlet. But the truth is that it is quite possible to have deep, mystical practice as a Muslim without going through Sufism. While Sufism’s organized and communal nature makes it deeply beneficial and meaningful to some people, it does not fit my temperament and way of thinking.

But in a different sense I am a Sufi. The teachings of Ibn al-Jawzi and Ibn al-Qayyim regarding developing a close relationship with God have always deeply touched me, and these are teachings derived from the lives and sayings of many early Muslim ascetics who are now considered Sufis (despite having little to do with today’s organized Sufism). Like those ascetics, I do desire a close relationship with God, as close as is humanly possible. Different people enjoy different forms of worship. For some, communal forms of worship are the most uplifting. For me, the worship I enjoy the most is reading (or listening to) the Quran. The problem, however, is that it is not easy to integrate Quran-reading into one’s daily life. It requires a great deal of willpower to arrange a specific time bracket in which you read the Quran for 30 minutes or 60 minutes every day. It can be done, and sometimes I have been able to keep it up for a week or two, but something always happens that wrecks my routine and suddenly I realize that weeks have passed by without reading any Quran.

What I have realized is that a certain physical practice is needed to integrate the Quran with my daily life. Sitting down on a couch to read the Quran every day cannot be done for any length of time (except perhaps for a very small minority of people). If you think theoretically it should be possible to do it, I challenge you to try it, and you are practically guaranteed to stop after a few days. The reason is that we humans are not disembodied intellects. We have a flesh and blood part that has its own desires, its own habits and routines, its own nature that gets in the way of the intellect. While intellectually we may desire that we should read the Quran every day for a certain amount of time, in the physical reality of human life, this desire alone is not sufficient. There is a missing ingredient; we need something to subdue the body to make it come along for the ride, every day.

As I discovered, Islam’s formal worship, the ṣalāh, is exactly what is needed to make both body and mind comply with routine, daily Quran reading. You cannot keep up daily Quran reading on the couch for any length of time, but you can keep up Quran reading indefinitely once you integrate it with the ṣalāh. Eventually I realized that the Islamic practice of tahajjud, the nightly voluntary prayer, is practically designed with these concerns in mind; it enables us to maintain daily Quran reading/listening indefinitely. Like the various rituals of Sufism that are designed to bring the seeker closer to God, tahajjud is the great Islamic mystical ritual that enables us to always remain close to God, to renew our relationship with Him daily, to get our sins forgiven (as in the Catholic confession), and to re-orient ourselves away from the worldly life’s pull and stress and toward the far simpler and blessed realm of walking with God through life.

Tahajjud for the Modern World

Sūrat al-Muzzammil (chapter 73 of the Quran), our Prophet is commanded to stay up half the night, more or less, in worship that involves reciting the Quran. This is known as qiyām al-layl (“staying up or standing at night”) and tahajjud (literally “to give up sleep”, “to keep a vigil”).  Linguistically the two terms have the same meaning, but some scholars choose to differentiate between them, reserving the word tahajjud for interrupting one’s sleep to pray, while considering qiyām al-layl to refer to praying without going to sleep at all.

The two words can be used interchangeably, however, since there is no compelling evidence in the Quran or the Sunnah to show us that the two forms of worship are distinct forms of worship. The first opinion on the meaning of tahajjud that the scholar al-Mawardi (d. 1058 CE) mentions in his commentary on the Quran is that it refers to any voluntary prayers offered at night with or without going to sleep first (his commentary on verse 17:79, at volume 3, p. 264 of the Dar al-Kutub version of his tafsir).

The tahajjud commanded in chapter 73 is generally understood, as by the Mālikī scholar Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1148 CE) in his Aḥkām al-Qurʾān, to be mainly the recitation of the Quran during the ṣalāh. The Quran is central to tahajjud, but one can also perform dhikr (repeating certain phrases in praise of God) and duʿāʾ (supplication) between its units.

A modern Muslim reading Sūrat al-Muzzammil may see in it a prescription for permanent sleep deprivation. We have work lives that would be unmanageable if we were to stay up half of the night in prayer. And if you work in an intellectually demanding field (such as computer programming or academic research), your work performance will seriously suffer if you do not get the necessary eight or so hours of undisturbed sleep. The last verse of Sūrat al-Muzzammil, which says “recite as much of the Quran as is easy for you…”, is understood to have replaced the earlier commandment of spending half, more or less, of the night in worship.

Unfortunately for many of us “recite as much of the Quran as is easy for you…” completely overshadows the earlier part of the sūra, so that we think it acceptable to ignore tahajjud unless we really feel like doing it, such as during Ramadan.

I believe that any Muslim who desires a close connection with God should take tahajjud very seriously and should try to follow all of chapter 73, as much as is possible, rather than ignoring it as most of us do. While our modern lives do not permit us to randomly stay up at night without suffering negative consequences the next day, we can integrate tahajjud into our daily routine by spending half or so of our nightly free time to perform it. If the ʿishāʾ prayer is at 9 PM and you go to bed at 11 PM, you have two hours of nightly free time in which you can perform tahajjud. Half of that free time is one hour. I believe that any fair-minded reading of chapter 73 should make a Muslim feel very strongly pushed to spend that hour in tahajjud.

There is something special about tahajjud, as the Quran tells us:

And perform tahajjud during parts of the night, as an extra worship, so that your Lord may raise you to a praiseworthy position.1

The phrase “praiseworthy position” is used only once in the Quran, in the above verse. I have searched in the Quran for the best ways of worshiping and pleasing God, and I have not found anything else described in a similar way. God promises the believers rewards for their good deeds throughout the Quran, deeds like performing the obligatory prayers and paying zakat. But there is no good deed, available to almost every Muslim every day, that is praised like tahajjud. The verse above tells us that those who pray tahajjud will be raised by God to a special status, beyond the status of His ordinary believers (provided, of course, that one’s relationship with God is not marred by sinful activities). The above verse is generally considered to be directed specifically to the Prophet Muhammad , but there is no reason why acting according to it will not get other believers similar rewards. The reason this verse in the Quran is because we are supposed to take it as an example to follow.

The verse above can be said to be offering to make a trade with us: Do tahajjud, God will raise your status to a praiseworthy position.

Zen Buddhists have meditation as their special mystical practice. Sufis have various forms of dhikr. Catholics have rosaries. Mainstream Muslims have tahajjud, this is the special part of our practice that we can use to connect with God and spend long hours in His presence. Tahajjud is how we comply with God’s command when he says:

And for part of the night, prostrate yourself to Him, and glorify Him long into the night.2

Think about it. Who is this command for if not for us who read the Quran and believe in it? Why should it be so easy for us to think that this command does not apply to us personally? By thinking it does not apply to us, we are telling God that we do seek that “praiseworthy status” that He promises us if we perform tahajjud (note that, technically, verse 76:26 is not a binding command but a strong recommendation, i.e. I am not claiming that 76:26 establishes a new obligatory prayer, but that, for a person who wishes to be the best believer they can be, it is almost a command, it cannot be ignored).

How to Perform Tahajjud

Tahajjud is performed in units of two rakʿāt, like the morning prayer. The number of times these units of two should be repeated is not agreed upon. Some recommend eight, others twenty, others thirty six. This is one of those areas of fiqh upon which endless argument is possible. The best opinion I have seen is that any number is permissible, starting from as few as two rakʿāt and going up to any number one can get up to.

There is another type of ṣalāh known as witr that is recommended to be performed after tahajjud. This prayer is performed in odd numbers and can be made up of just one rakʿa.3

Integrating the Quran with Tahajjud

The most important point of tahajjud for me, as mentioned, is that it allows me to read the Quran consistently as part of my daily routine. There a number of different ways of integrating Quran reading with tahajjud:

Reading Quran after Every Taslīma

In this method, every time you say the salām after praying the two rakʿāt, you would pick up a book of Quran and read a certain amount, let’s say two pages. Then you get up to pray another two rakʿāt. Then when you are done with that you sit down again and read some more Quran. Then get up and pray some more. And so on until an hour or more passes and you are ready to go to bed. Instead of reading it, you could listen to the Quran (perhaps using a smartphone app and headphones). This is what I do since, due to my eye sensitivity at night, I cannot use my eyes to read at that time. If I am especially tired or have pain, I pray, then sit back or lie down to listen to 10 minutes of Quran, then get up to pray two more rakʿāt, then sit or lie down again, and so on.

If you do not speak Arabic, you can use a book of Quran that has both the Arabic and a translation and use this as an opportunity to improve your Arabic.

Reading Quran Inside the Prayer

In this method, you would recite or read a the Quran once you are done with reciting al-Fātiḥa during every rakʿa. A person who has memorized the Quran would recite it from memory, while a person who has not can read it from a book, holding it while standing in prayer. Reciting the Quran in a non-Arabic language during the prayer is not permitted by the majority of scholars, therefore it should be avoided.

Integrating Dua (Supplication) with Tahajjud

The period of tahajjud is also a great time for dua (prayer or supplication). I always perform some dua during the prostrations of the prayer, but beyond that, sometimes after finishing the two rakʿāt, I sit for a few minutes to perform dua before moving on to listening to more Quran. I do not do this after every rakʿāt, usually I do it in one of the later ones in the night. My favorite prayers are the prayers mentioned in the Quran; praying for forgiveness, for guidance, for increases in knowledge and for having a wholesome life and afterlife.

Contemplating the Face of God

What is the point of reading the same book so many times in the course of the year when you could instead be doing something more “productive”, such as reading a new book or learning something? That is an intellectual’s question. The point is not intellectual benefit (although I believe there will be much intellectual benefit), the point is to spend an hour or more every day standing in the presence of God, listening to His words. What better way to connect with God?

Other meditative practices often involve speaking to God, asking of Him, or calling His name. Tahajjud, on the other hand, changes the direction of the communication from human-to-God to God-to-human during the Quran recitation, while there is human-to-God communication during the prostrations, in which we ask of Him and pray to Him and praise Him. Tahajjud is two-way communication between the human and God, and this two-way nature of it is a great cure for our inherent narcissism. When trying to perform any mystical practice our egos have this desire to make it all about me, me, me! Satan comes between us and God and wants to make us focus on chasing a spiritual “high” in which we feel connected with something transcendent without facing up to the moral demands that the transcendent makes of us. By listening to God rather than just talking and talking at Him, we are forced to quiet our minds down and truly listen to thr transcendent. The Quran, as many Christian converts to Islam have said, is a scary book in that it does not take any nonsense from the human. It looks deep inside you and sees every one of your faults and weaknesses and exposes them to you. There is no hiding from the eyes of the God of the Quran. He sees everything, He offers us forgiveness, but He requires that we be morally upright in return.

What the Quran absolutely does not accept of us is to be spiritual hippies who hold themselves to low standards by the supposed virtue of wanting to connect with the infinite. In the Quran, the Infinite talks back at you and tells you that He is not buying any of your nonsense. You are only as good as the effort and sacrifice you put into serving Him. Just because you feel “spiritual” does not mean anything to Him, how you feel changes from hour to hour and day to day. What matters to Him is your virtue, your uprightness, your truthfulness to yourself and to Him.

The point of tahajjud and the Quran we recite in it is for us to remain on the Straight Path consistently. Just a few days away from the Quran is sufficient for all kinds of laziness to grow within us; we start to hold ourselves to lower standards, we start to think that we are better people than we really are, our thankfulness for the blessings we have evaporates, we stop seeking God’s forgiveness with heartfelt sincerity because we start to feel good in ourselves as if we are sinless. We start to think that our blessings will last forever, forgetting just how easy it is to lose everything we have. Practicing tahajjud daily helps us remain mindful of our blessings and our reliance on God.

And then there is another benefit, which is the simple fact of standing mindfully in God’s presence. It is the most meaningful experience of our lives to connect with our Creator, and through listening to the sound of His words and worshiping Him standing and sitting, we stretch out our arms towards Him, striving to be with Him. And this striving places us in a different relationship with everyone and everything around us. By being with God, the Constant, the Never-Changing, we acquire a firm foothold in a world that constantly changes and that never lives up to our expectations. The cares and concerns of this world are lifted from our shoulders, to be replaced with nothing but longing and striving for Him and nothing besides Him. Our attachment to the worldly life is weakened, our greed and ambition is checked, so that we end up realizing that pleasing God and obeying Him are more important than anything this world can offer. We become the type of people who can never justify evil for a supposed greater good, because God is our only striving, everything else is ephemeral and secondary. We try to see the world the way He might see it, and act in the world the way He wishes us to act, as His servants and agents on earth, rather than as independent, evil-doing creatures following our own desires and running amok.

Trading with God

The Quran uses the metaphor of trade in a number of places to describe the human relationship with God:

Those who recite the Book of God, and perform the prayer, and spend of what We have provided for them, secretly and publicly, expect a trade that will not fail.4

And among the people is he who sells himself seeking God’s approval. God is kind towards the servants.5

It is said by some mystics, such as Augustine of Hippo and Rābiʿa, that the true mystic should seek God for His own sake alone, neither seeking His rewards nor fearing His punishments. But the Quran does not support that kind of thinking:

And do not corrupt on earth after its reformation, and pray to Him with fear and desire. God’s mercy is close to the doers of good.6

So We answered him, and gave him John. And We cured his wife for him. They used to vie in doing righteous deeds, and used to call on Us in desire and fear, and they used to humble themselves to Us.7

Their sides shun their beds, as they pray to their Lord, out of fear and desire; and from Our provisions to them, they give.8

Above, the Quran describes the appropriate state of the human in the presence of God as awe of His greatness and desire (for His forgiveness, mercy and rewards). I believe that love is something that naturally develops when we feel connected with someone or with God, and I think it a rather wasted effort to try to get beyond fear and desire in order to serve God out of love alone. Desire, fear, and love, are all ways of relating to God. It would be rather unnatural for a person to have a close relationship with God but to only serve Him out of greed for His rewards and fear of His punishments, without any love existing. I doubt that such a human can even exist. Love is a natural byproduct of relating to God through awe and desire.

To think that loving God for His own sake without fear and desire is to make an unfounded assumption about God; it is to think that God appreciates love more than fear and desire. God wants us to fear Him and desire of Him just as He wants us to love Him. He demands all of these modes of relating to Him, because all of these affirm His attributes. It is a rather wasted effort to try to shut down certain parts of our human nature (fear and desire) in preference to other parts that we have arbitrarily decided as superior (love). The balanced way, the Quranic way (which I have found to always provide the balanced approach to every form of extremism and deviance), is to relate to God in appreciation of all of His attributes, and that means to fear Him, to desire of Him, to take refuge in Him and love Him. It can in fact be argued that it is a dereliction of duty to only love God and refuse to fear Him and desire of Him.

One day when I felt really down, as if everything I had ever done had been a failure, feeling stuck in my situation and unable to progress, this thought came to me:

The worship you do is how you pay for God's services to you. If what you have been getting is lowly, maybe what you have been paying has been lowly.

Hearing that thought, everything seemed to start to make sense and I started reading the Quran in a new way. I then ran into this verse:

Remember Me and I will remember you...9

And I realized the thought that had come to me was simply the above verse rephrased. If we want God to remember us, we have to remember Him! If we want God to give us special treatment, we have to give Him special treatment. If we want to have blessed and successful lives, we have to look at ourselves and ask: What payments are we making to God for these things?

I realized that I am willing to spend hours doing work I do not like just to get money. What a great insult to God that I am not willing to spend even a single hour a day working for Him. If I truly have faith in God, then I should be willing to spend an extra hour a day worshiping Him no matter how unproductive it feels. It is, in a very small way, a sacrifice, a payment. I pay God an hour of my labor, He pays me back. How I feel about it is irrelevant, what matters is that I should sacrifice an hour (or more) of my day every day solely for God. Not because it makes me feel good, not because I learn things during it, but because God deserves to be worshiped, because throwing away an hour of my day for God’s sake alone is a way of thanking Him for His blessings and paying Him for future blessings in this life and the next. It is similar to the way the ancient Israelites used to slaughter some of their livestock then set fire to it, letting its meat “go to waste” in the fire, a sacrifice meant for God alone that they themselves did not benefit from.

And it is through tahajjud that I make that sacrifice. I do not always feel inclined to spend an hour of my evening praying and listening to the Quran. On some days I just do not feel spiritually motivated and the verses I listen to do not touch my heart. On such days what motivates me to continue is the idea of the sacrifice. Even if I do not get anything from the tahajjud, the fact that I was willing to throw away one hour of my life for God’s sake has a very important meaning, and I trust in His ability to appreciate it and reward it.

Avoidance of Sin

One of the most important benefits of tahajjud is that if I spend an hour or more of the previous night in tahajjud, today the idea of even the most minor sin becomes unthinkable. The effects of having been in God’s presence the night before linger into the present day, making it feel like a great betrayal to do anything that might possibly displease God. It is not that my “willpower” for avoiding sin is strengthened. Avoiding sin no longer requires any willpower. It becomes an automatic response, the way one avoids poison. The attractions of sinful things no longer “register” in the mind. Enjoying something sinful feels like working to demolish something I spent an hour last night trying to build, it feels as irrational as trying to destroy anything else you have worked hard to build.

Worship versus Activism

One of Satan’s main methods for making us avoid worship is his telling us that we should instead be doing something productive for God’s sake. Instead of spending an hour or more going through a book we have gone through a dozen times before, we could be learning something new, or helping people, or working to earn money so that we can give it away in charity, or working to help Islam or humanity in some way.

The problem with that thinking is that it assumes God needs favors from us. He does not. What He wants from us is piety, perfection of character and worship before any other good deeds. There is a minimum amount of daily worship necessary to keep us on the straight path. Every day we stray away from this path, because the worldly life and its attachments are constantly pushing in various directions and away from God. A Muslim activist who neglects worship in the name of activism, despite their good intentions, can slowly become corrupt and misguided in their eagerness to achieve worldly success. We see this in certain Islamist politicians who use questionable and unethical means in order to supposedly support Islam and Muslims, or in Muslim writers and journalists using biased arguments to promote Islam. God has zero need for that type of action.

Unfortunately losing our away is the easiest thing in this world if we do not hold tight to God’s guidance and remembrance. There are so many people who have fallen into sinful and scandalous things while doing religious work because their focus on their work and eagerness for success made them neglect God. We need to seek balance, and that means spending sufficient time with God daily to purify our hearts, correct our mistakes and renew our dedication to Him.

An easy way of determining whether you have been doing sufficient worship or not is to see how easy it is for you to engage in extremely minor sins. If you are a man and you run into an advertisement in the street that portrays a half-naked woman, do you wait to admire it? Is it difficult to look away from it? Does it feel like a loss or wasted opportunity to not admire it? If any of these are true, then you have not been doing sufficient worship. If you are a woman, you can come up with a different test that is more relevant to your daily experience.

Before you try to fix the world, you have to fix yourself. If you do not bother to develop and maintain a close relationship with God, then neither God nor the world have any need for your favors. God can create a million people like you in an instant, and He can solve all of the world’s problems in an instant if He wanted. What He wants from us is to strive to perfect ourselves then to go out in the world and be His agents for good. If we try to serve Him while our hearts are still corrupt and sinful, we will actually harm His cause. People will see our weaknesses and insincerity and will know that we do not have a good relationship with God.

A Traditionalist Critique of the Islamic Prohibition on Taṣwīr (Making Drawings and Statues of Humans and Animals)

A Caravan with the Pyramids and Sphinx Beyond (Joseph Austin Benwell , 1868)

To many Muslims today, it will sound patently absurd if someone were to tell them that it is a mortal sin for them to draw a cat. But some religious scholars would tell you that drawing a cat is an act of taṣwīr (the depiction of living things in paintings, sculptures and elsewhere), a sin for which God supposedly promises the severest punishment.

Mainstream Sunni Muslims today follow the opinions of popular religious scholars like Muhammad al-Ghazali, Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Ali Gomaa, who by and large have no issue with drawings and statues. Since neither Muslims nor their respected scholars have an issue with taṣwīr, it is largely a theoretical issue within Islamic law. There is, however, a minority of puritan Muslims, especially on the internet, who often bring up this issue, claim that a severe and even violent distaste for taṣwīr is the proper Islamic stance, and who categorically reject the opinions of mainstream scholars like al-Ghazali, al-Qaradawi and Gomaa.

Such Muslims generally represent the influence of Ḥanbali thought. They wish to hold strongly to tradition and to please God as far as humanly possible in the manner of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal and his admirers, who went on to be called Ahl al-Ḥadīth, “The People of Tradition”, known as the Traditionalists in modern English-language Islamic studies. The fact that some command or prohibition sounds absurd is not sufficient reason to reject it. If there is a text commanding or prohibiting something, human reason has no authority to judge the command or prohibition; the only correct stance is to say “we hear and we obey”. If God, who is infinitely wise and just, commands something, it is the height of foolishness for one to critique His command, as if humans could ever hope to compete with Him in wisdom and justice. The Traditionalists include some of the most respected personalities in Islamic history, starting from Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (known reverentially as Imam Aḥmad) to the imams al-Bukhārī and Muslim, to many of the best known members of the Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī schools, such as Abū Ḥāmid al-Isfarāʾīnī (Shāfiʿī), Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn al-Jawzī (Ḥanbalī), Ibn Ṣalāḥ al-Shāhrazūrī (Shāfiʿī), Imam al-Nawawī (Shāfiʿī), Shams al-Dīn al-Dhahabī (Shāfiʿī), Ibn Taymīya (Ḥanbalī) and Ibn al-Qayyim (Ḥanbalī).

It would be a mistake to dismiss the Traditionalists as a narrow-minded group who refuse to listen to reason (which is how Western pundits and some reform-minded Muslims have portrayed them). By all accounts, the Traditionalists, despite their faults, were perhaps the closest group of Muslim scholars to the prophets mentioned in the Quran in their manners, their piety and their devotion to God. Their teachings continue to attract educated Muslims seeking pure and unadulterated Islamic teachings. When it comes to an issue such as that of whether drawing living things should be permissible or not, such Muslims would seek the opinions of these scholars, rather than relying on their own reasoning. An outsider may see this as typical of the irrationalism promoted by religion. Skepticism toward human reason can certainly be a sign of a lack of knowledge and sophistication. But it can also be a sign of a great deal of knowledge that has made one aware of the immense range of errors humans can fall into when they rely on their own cleverness. History is full of examples of humans who thought they knew what was best for them and who got things completely wrong. Read Plato’s Republic, which aims to describe how to create an ideal state of happiness and virtue in a city, but which would in all likelihood create a hellish nightmare if it were to be implemented in real life. Communism is another good example of the suffering and misery created by humans following their own cleverness. Aiming to free the masses from oppression, it ended up causing the deaths of over 100 million people in the 20th century. Since Muslims are blessed with teachings from God, it is common sense to give preference to His teachings and those of His Prophet rather than to one’s own reason. We can be sure that God and His Prophet are correct, while from our limited point of view, we can never be sure of the correctness of our thinking when it comes to complex and problematic matters of law and theology.

I am not a Traditionalist myself in the Ḥanbali sense, since I consider its extreme focus on hadith to be at the expense of the Quran. The Traditionalist scholars historically appear to be Islam’s best and most pious representatives, but I believe it is now possible to have something better by placing a much greater focus on the Quran and putting it back in the center of Islamic life.

This article seeks to answer the needs of Traditionalist-minded Muslims on the matter of drawings and statues. Below I translate an Arabic article I discovered a few years ago by a well-informed Traditionalist author who criticizes the supposed prohibition on taṣwīr. This article is significant because when even such a Muslim can find good reasons to doubt the prohibition on taṣwīr, this acts as supporting evidence for the mainstream Islamic practice of tolerating it. The author is an anonymous user of the Traditionalist internet forum Multaqā Ahl al-Ḥadīth (The Meeting Place of the Traditionalists) who goes by the name of al-Shaykh Muḥammad ibn Amīn.

The author’s notes are in parentheses, while translator’s notes are in square brackets. I use the word “statue” to translate timthāl, a catch-all term for all statues, sculptures, effigies, murals and other three-dimensional figures depicting humans and animals. I use the word picture, painting, image and figure mostly interchangeably, choosing one over the other depending on the context.1

Ḥukm al-Ṣuwar wa-l-Tamāthīl – The Islamic Ruling Regarding Pictures and Statues

Praise be to God. There has long been a legal theoretic issue of dispute, in fact since the time of the Companions, and that issue is this: Do we enact the literal meaning of a text or do we enact its spirit? Meaning, do we apply the text in its literal and apparent sense, or do we try to understand its spirit and rationale? The Companions differed on this. You are probably aware of the hadith on the ʿaṣr prayer in the Banī Qurayẓa affair. Some of the Companion understood [the Prophet’s instructions ] in their apparent form, while others tried to understand the purpose behind the instructions. The Prophet approved of the actions of both groups.

The issue [surrounding drawings and statues] is confused because there are texts mentioning instructions regarding the destruction of statues and the obliteration of pictures. Those who take these texts in their literal meaning would consider it obligatory to destroy every statue and obliterate every picture. Most of them [those who take the texts literally] consider photographic pictures permissible because they are merely the capturing of projections of light. And whoever prohibits this falls into contradiction since he is bringing together two mutually exclusive views.2

The other opinion is that the reason for the prohibition of pictures and statues was to prevent them from becoming means of shirk [assigning divine powers to other than God] or tabarruk [considering an object a source of blessings]. Forbidding statues does not require that they should be worshiped. If they are regarded with veneration by people, then this is sufficient to prohibit them in order to prevent this veneration from developing into worship. For this reason many of the ulema [scholars] consider it permissible to place pictures in debased places. It is permissible [in their opinion] for a rug to have pictures on it since it is stepped on by people, preventing the pictures from being venerated. It is also permissible to create statues without heads, since this makes them appear deficient. And it is also permissible to place a picture in a place where it cannot be viewed. It is not permissible to place a picture (photographic or drawn) on a wall, but it is permissible to place it between the pages of a book if one can be sure that the picture is not venerated (for example if it is not the picture of a sheikh or wali). The majority permitted pictures of living things that do not have rūḥ [soul or spirit], such as plants and nature. There are even those who permitted the creation of statues and pictures if it was certain that they would not be venerated. Al-Qirāfī [a Mālikī legal theorist of the seventh century of the hijra] used to make statues himself, as he mentioned in his book Sharḥ al-Maḥṣūr.

Two types of statues are mentioned in the Book of God [the Quran]: The first type are those statues that are worshiped instead of God. These are called tamāthīlaṣnām and anṣāb. It is obvious for us to say that these types of statues are prohibited for a Muslim to create or buy, since in such an act would be an aid in shirk. The second type are those statues that are not worshiped instead of God, such statues are not aṣnām or anṣāb. The Quran, in fact, mentions the creation of statues as one of the blessings that God bestowed upon Solomon :

12. And for Solomon the wind—its outward journey was one month, and its return journey was one month. And We made a spring of tar flow for him. And there were sprites that worked under him, by the leave of his Lord. But whoever of them swerved from Our command, We make him taste of the punishment of the Inferno. 13. They made for him whatever he wished: sanctuaries, statues, bowls like pools, and heavy cauldrons. “O House of David, work with appreciation,” but a few of My servants are appreciative.3

Here, God refers to statues as timthāl-s [statues] rather than aṣnām [idols], since they were not meant to be worshiped in God’s stead. This matter has to do with monotheism and faith and is a shared doctrine among all of the Prophets. There is no disagreement among the ulema that when it comes to the ʿaqāʾid [plural of ʿaqīda, beliefs regarding the nature of God and other matters] have not undergone change and that they have always been one and the same among the Prophets, for God says:

He prescribed for you the same religion He enjoined upon Noah, and what We inspired to you, and what We enjoined upon Abraham, and Moses, and Jesus: “You shall uphold the religion, and be not divided therein.” ...4

Many authentic hadith narrations exist that insist that the muṣawwirīn [figure-makers] are in the Hellfire, and that they will be among those who suffer the severest punishment. The reason for their punishment according to the texts of the hadith narrations is that they imitate God’s creation, and muḍāhāt [the sin the texts accuse them of] is the same as mushākala [the creation of the likeness of something], meaning that they create sculptures in the likeness of God’s creation, so that on the Day of Judgment they are told: “Bring to life what you have created!” Al-Nawawī5 says in his Commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim (14/84): “They [i.e. the ulema] agreed on prohibiting all [figures] that have shadows and on the necessity of changing them.” But Ibn Ḥajar6 adds in al-Fatḥ [his commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī] (10/388): “This consensus does not include children’s toys.”

There is conclusive evidence that the Prophet used pillows and utensils that had pictures on them, but he used to remove and wipe out pictures of crosses. It is also proven that he permitted children’s toys in the form of small statues/dolls, as is narrated from the Mother of the Believers Aisha, may God be pleased with her. Qaḍī ʿIyāḍ7 mentions that the majority of jurists permitted buying these dolls for the training of girls in matters pertaining to childcare, which is recognized as a worthy aim in Islamic law. While his information is correct regarding the permissibility of dolls, his reasoning is incorrect, since Aisha mentions a horse that had two wings; what relationship does that have with children’s education? The correct opinion is that children’s playthings are permissible for males and females without any karāha (legal disapproval), since they [dolls] are far away from the potential for veneration. One of our teachers used to say: “Children’s wisdom is greater than that of many adults, for you never find a child worshiping the doll he or she plays with.”

But if statues are an imitation of God’s creations, or creating their likeness, then that makes them forbidden and is considered a mortal sin according to the authentic narrations on the matter. But creating a likeness of God’s creations or imitating them could be done through making sculptures of soulless things like the sun, the moon, mountains and trees, and through making girls’ dolls and similar things that the texts explicitly permit. For this reason some of the ulema say that what is intended are those who create statues or make pictures with the aim of challenging God’s power, or those who think that they have a similar power to create as God has. God shows such people their incapacity by asking them to bring life to what they create. In support of this, Ibn Ḥajar, in al-Fatḥ al-Bārī [his aforementioned commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī], regarding God’s saying in His ḥadīth qudsī: “And who is greater in injustice than one who goes in order to create a creature like My creation?” interprets “goes” here to mean “aims”. According to this, the forbidden thing here is related to the intention of the maker [of the statue, etc.], whether the product is a statue or a hand-drawing of any image. It is mentioned in the Mawsūʿa al-Fiqhīya  [The Encyclopedia of Islamic Jurisprudence, a 45-volume work by Kuwait’s Awqāf ministry including opinions from all of the four schools of Islamic jurisprudence, completed in 2005 after 40 years of work], in Bāb al-Taṣwīr [the chapter on figure-making]:

The majority of ulema agree that prohibiting figures does not imply a prohibition on possessing them or using them, for regarding the process of making figures of things that have souls, it is mentioned that figure-makers are cursed and that they will be punished in the Hellfire and that they will be among the most severely punished among the people, but nothing is mentioned regarding possessing pictures, and there is no accepted evidence for the existence of a reason for prohibiting the user of such figures. Despite that, there are narrations that prohibit the possession and use of pictures, but they do not mention a punishment or equivalent that imply that possessing figures is a mortal sin. For these reasons, the judgment regarding the possessor of pictures whose possession is forbidden is that they have committed a small sin... Among those who were aware of the difference between figure-making and the [mere] possession of figures were: al-Nawawī... and most of the jurists are in agreement with this.

As for narrations saying that the angels do not enter a house in which there is a figure or a dog, the likely intent are the angels of revelation and not others. For this reason Ibn Ḥibbān8 made this restricted to the Prophet , for the angels that are assigned to each individual would enter such houses, and God knows best.

The majority of the jurists have permitted the user of statues and pictures in houses if they are not placed on curtains or walls with the intent to view them with veneration, and if they are subject to debasement as in people stepping on them and so on. ʿIkrima9 says: “They used to dislike statues set up on pedestals, but they saw no issues with those which feet could step on.” ʿIkrima here is transmitting from [mentioning the opinion of] the Companions. Muḥammad ibn Sīrīn10 said: “They used to see figures that were spread out or stepped upon as different from those that were set up on pedestals.” Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr11 says in the Tamhīd (21/199): “This is the most balanced among the opinions and the most moderate in this matter and most of the ulema are in agreement with it. Whoever is fatigued with narrations [unclear meaning] will not oppose this interpretation. This is the best of what I believe about this matter. God is the helper toward the correct opinion.”

It appears that the permissibility of leaving alone figures and statues that are not venerated is the creed of the majority of the Companions, even their consensus. For they did not destroy statues and pictures in the countries of Persia, the Levant and Iraq, but they did so in India and the Arabian countries. That is because these things were not worshiped in Persia, the Levant and Egypt. They did not touch those enormous edifices and great numbers of statues which remain there to this day. Consider this anecdote:

Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ (the conqueror of Iraq and one of those promised Paradise) entered the palace of Khosrow II in al-Madāʾin [Ctesiphon, the Persian capital, near modern-day Baghdad]. In that palace there were many figures on the walls and many statues. He did not destroy any of them, in fact they remain where they are to our day. None of the Companions criticized him or anyone else for this. This is a consensus from them regarding the permissibility of letting such things remain undestroyed if they are not worshiped in God’s stead and they are not ascribed holiness. Al-Tabarī says in his Tarīkh (2/464): “When Saʿd entered al-Madāʾin and saw its desertedness, and went to Khosrow’s hall, he went on to recite: “How many gardens and fountains did they leave behind? And plantations, and splendid buildings. And comforts they used to enjoy. So it was; and We passed it on to another people.”12  He performed ṣalāt al-fatḥ [ritual prayer performed after a conquest], which is not performed communally. He performed eight rakʿāt [units of prayer, plural of rakʿa] without pausing between them, and turned the hall into a masjid [mosque or prayer hall]. In it there were statues made of gypsum, of men and horses. Neither he nor the Muslims opposed their presence and left them where they were. It is said: Saʿd completed the prayer on the day he entered it, for he wanted to take residence in it [or take it as a seat of the new government]. The first Friday in which the Muslims gathered for Friday prayers in Iraq in al-Madāʾin was in the year 16 [of the hijra].” Also see the al-Dhahabi’s History of Islam (3/158).

In Khosrow’s hall there were colorful and life-sized pictures done in great detail. These pictures survive to our day. These pictures were, of course, not buried in the sand, rather, numerous companions entered this palace and stayed in it. How did they then not see the pictures which can be seen clearly to our day? Even if they were not able to destroy the pictures, they could have blotted them out through white-washing, and this does not require great expenses nor a large number of workers. It would have been easy for the ruling power to command that the walls be repainted. There is no other interpretation other than that they understood the hadith narrations regarding the destruction of figures as being specific to those which were accorded veneration or were worshiped in God’s stead. These pictures continued to be viewed, being described by historians and writers. Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī says in his Muʿjam al-Buldān [his famous geographical dictionary] (1/295): “In the hall there was Khosrow Anūshirvān picture, and that of Caesar king of Antioch, who was besieging it and fighting its people.”

The famous Abbasid poet al-Buḥturī describes them in his wonderful qaṣīda al-sīnīya [a type of ode]. He describes these pictures as having such detail that one could imagine them real, so that one would want to touch them to reassure themselves that they were mere pictures. He says in his ode:13

Sorrows attend my saddle. I direct
my stout she-camel to Madāʾin [Ctesiphon].
When you see a panel of the Battle at Antioch,
you tremble among Byzantines and Persians.
The Fates stand still, while Anūshirvān
leads the ranks onward under the banner
In a deep green robe over yellow.
It appears dyed in saffron.
The eye depicts them very much alive:
they have between them speechless signs.
My wonder about them boils till
my hand explores them with a touch.

The question here is: Why did the Companions let the pictures in Khosrow’s hall remain? Those who disagree with thus are incapable of answering this. One of them says that we should only follow hadith and disregard the actions of the Companions. This is strange, for is it imaginable that the Companions would randomly follow their own inclinations? Aren’t the actions of the Companions and their sayings an interpretation and illustration of the teachings of the Prophet ? We have not abandoned the Prophet’s sayings , and neither did the Companions, may God be pleased with them. Rather, they understood the texts in a way different from those who disagree with us. It is the Companions who narrated those hadith narrations to us. And it is they to whom those narrations were directed, therefore their understanding takes precedence in matters of dispute. And the ijmaʿ [consensus] of the Companions is one of the acknowledged sources of Islamic legislation. Additionally, all of the 73 groups claim to follow the Quran and the Sunnah, but the distinguishing characteristic of al-firqa al-nājiya [“the group that attains salvation”, i.e. from the hellfire]14 is that the group follows the Companions of the Prophet .

As for the claim that during all of those years they were too busy [to destroy the paintings and statues], I do not think the person saying that believes it himself, it is just that he cannot find a better argument. Was it too difficult for Saʿd bin Abī Waqqāṣ or one of the rulers after him to command one of the slaves to repaint those walls that had pictures? As for denying that the Companions had seen the pictures, this is obstinacy and denialism, for Khosrow’s hall is the biggest building in al-Madāʾin, and the fact of the Muslims entering it is a well-known and multiply-transferred piece of information that no one denies. It was full of pictures and statues and poems were written about it. This same hall became the center of government in Iraq until the building of the city of Kūfa was finished.

The sheikh Dr. Aḥmad al-Ghāmidī answered this criticism by saying: “These pictures and statues were not worshiped aṣnām, they were rather figures depicting past events, and perhaps there was a lesson or benefit in letting them remain.” I say that it might be so, and using the fact of their not being worshiped in his reasoning is the same as what I say. He also said: “Fifth, the prohibited thing is the creation of pictures. As for the narration from Ali, may God be pleased with him, regarding the destruction of figures, it refers to three-dimensional statues.” But they weren’t pictures only; the hall of Khosrow was full of statues as is the wont of kings. Ali himself ruled Iraq and did not order the destruction of any of its statues.

The mention of Khosrow’s palace is merely an example. In reality great statues have been allowed to remain not only in Khosrow’s palaces but in [the rest of] Iraq, the Levant, Egypt and Persia. Yes, certain worshiped statues were destroyed in Sindh [a province of modern-day Pakistan] and Transoxania when the Companions discovered peoples who worshiped them, as happened in the Arabian peninsula itself. But other than these, then no. A comical event was that one contemporary caller for the destruction of statues claimed that the Pharaonic statues had been buried in the sand and were not visible during the time of the Companions! Saying the in fact they hadn’t been seen until the past two hundred years. In this saying is negligence toward the books of history, for history books are full of information regarding the familiarity of Muslims with these statues. Al-Jāḥīẓ (who was a contemporary of the imams Mālik, al-Shafiʿī and Aḥmad) enumerated the wonders of the world, saying in his Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (3/65): “The ṣanam [statue of religious significance, singular of aṣnām] of the two pyramids is Balhawīya, also called Balhunayt [?] and called Abū l-Hawl by the common people. It is said that it is placed there as a talisman so that the sand would not overcome the Giza.” Yaqūt al-Ḥamawī in his Muʿjam al-Buldān (5/401) says: “On the corner of one of them (meaning the pyramids) there is a great ṣanam that is called Bulhayt [?]. It is said that it is a talisman for the sand so that it would not overcome the area of Giza. It depicts a human head and neck, and the top of its shoulders are like that of the lion. And it is very large. It has a pleasant appearance, as if its creator had recently completed it. It is painted a red color that survives to this day despite the great length of time and the distance of the years.” Also see the words of Ibn Faḍl in Masālik al-Abṣār (1/235) and the words of al-Baghdādī in al-Ifāda (p. 96).

The number of the Companions who entered Egypt was greater than three hundred, as al-Suyūṭī confirmed in Ḥusn al-Muḥāḍara (1/166). The first city they besieged was ʿAin Shams [today a suburb of Cairo] as is mentioned in Ibn Kathīr’s al-Bidāya wa-l-Nihāya (7/98). It is filled with large statues as ʿAbd al-Laṭīf al-Baghdādī mentioned in the sixth century [of the hijra], saying in his travelogue (p. 96): “Of that [type?] are the antiquities in ʿAin Shams. It is a small city the ruins of whose surrounding wall are visible, it appears that it was a place of worship. In it there are enormous statues carved from rock. The length of a statue is around thirty cubits, and its limbs are proportionally large. There is much writing on those rocks and figures of humans and animals of the unintelligible [ancient Egyptian] writing.” The Companions resided in al-Fusṭāṭ [today part of Cairo] and Giza, which are very close to the pyramids. It is worth mentioning that the pyramids themselves were covered in the language of the pharaohs, some of whose letters are in the shapes of birds and animals. Al-Baghdādī says about the pyramids (p. 92): “Upon those rocks there are writings in the unknown ancient pen, such that I did not find anyone in the towns of Egypt who knew of anyone who understood them. There is a great amount of these writings, such that if what is written was transmitted to pages of books, they would take up ten thousand pages.” Al-Masʿūdī mentions similar things in his history (1/361) and Ibn Taghrībirdī in al-Nujūm al-Zāhira (1/41).

Judging from all of that, the Companions who entered Egypt certainly saw the Sphinx and the pictures on the pyramids. These in addition to the statues in ʿAin Shams, about which there is no doubt that they saw them after its conquest and their entering the city. Denying that they saw them is obstinacy. These, in addition to the statues in the pharaonic cities of Memphis and others. It is more likely than not that they saw these too, due to the great number of the Companions and the length of their stay in Egypt. And it is these about which al-Baghdādī says (p. 102): “As for the statues, the greatness of their number and the enormity of their size, it is a matter that is beyond description and computation. The accuracy of their shapes, the meticulousness of their aspects and the carving upon them of natural facets is in truth a matter for wonder.” Despite that, we have not seen them [the Companions] destroy any of them. So were the Muslims incapable of destroying those statues? This is absolutely false. That is because they were able to destroy the fortress of Babylon and the walls of Nahavand in Persia, and they drilled through [the walls of] many of the fortresses they besieged, which were great fortresses that had armed guards that shot arrows at the Muslims during their drilling and destruction of them. Couldn’t they at least disfigure the faces of the statues? If this saying [that the Companions were unable to destroy the statues] is not an insult to the Companions then I do not know what is. Is it conceivable that non-Muslims were capable of building while the Muslims incapable of mere demolition? This is impossible.

To summarize, it is not permissible to hang any picture (including photographic pictures) if this has the potential of leading to veneration and the expectation of blessings from it (especially the pictures of sheikhs and leaders). But if one is safe from that (as in the case of one hanging his own picture or that of his child) then there is no issue with it. Any pictures that are in a place unlikely to be venerated, as on pillows and rugs, then there is no distaste for that. The same is true of statues. And there is no issue with children’s toys and dolls, for such things are not venerated. And if statues accomplish a benefit recognized by the Sharīʿa, such as for teaching or training (such as those used in schools for illustration and clarification), then they go from being mubāḥ [not forbidden] to mustaḥabb [recommended], they may even be wājib [strongly recommended or compulsory] in certain cases if they are a means of understanding the sciences and advancing in them. And God knows what the most correct opinion is.

End of the translated article

Translator’s Conclusion

It appears from the above discussion that one can conclude that the issue of taṣwīr is one of context. If a figure is accorded veneration for supposed metaphysical powers, it is prohibited to have it and use it. If it is not, then there is no issue with it. This means that the issue of taṣwīr is quite irrelevant to the lives of most educated Muslims, who find the idea of venerating a picture or statue absurd.

The issue is very similar to that of music (which I discuss here):

  • Neither taṣwīr nor music are mentioned in the Quran.
  • Neither are clearly and unequivocally prohibited by a command of the Prophet .
  • There is no good logical reason for prohibiting either; both have good and wholesome uses that do not cause any difficulty to the conscience or repugnance to one’s sensibilities.
  • Both of them are associated with highly sinful activities; taṣwīr with the worship of idols, music with maʾāzif (wild parties involving wine-drinking and half-dressed women), so that a Traditionalist wishing to be safe from sin would have a strong incentive to stay away from both regardless of any expected benefits.
  • The majority of the world’s Muslims refuse to take either prohibition seriously.

A Modern Explanation for the Quran’s “Wife-Beating Verse” (al-Nisa 4:34)

In der Moschee by Carl Friedrich Heinrich Werner (d. 1894)

In this essay, I present a plausible framework in which traditional scholarly interpretations of 4:34 can be considered correct without this becoming support for violence against women. I argue that the error has not been in understanding 4:34 but in scholarly efforts to justify it. There is a new line of justification that has so far been largely ignored and not taken to its conclusion.

Islam is often called a misogynistic religion. But if one checks out traditional works of Quranic exgesis, one finds a striking phenomenon: almost every scholar who has tried to interpret verse 4:34, in which a man is given the right to strike his wife in certain circumstances, has been at pains to place restrictions on it, as Karen Bauer discovered in her study of the historical Islamic sources on this issue.1 There were no feminists in the 8th century pressuring these scholars to be politically correct. We are talking about a time when the Viking campaigns of rape and plunder against the rest of the world were just starting to take off (and would continue for the next three centuries). What was making these men of those “Dark Ages” so sensitive toward women’s rights? I would argue that it was because they were humans taught by Islam to see women as fellow humans, and a chief feature of the human psyche is empathy when this empathy is not blocked due to the dehumanization of others. They had mothers, sisters, daughters and wives and did not like the thought of these loved humans suffering oppression and injustice.

Be that as it may, an uninformed reader who picks up an ancient Islamic text expecting to read things like “beat your wives, they are your property anyway” will be highly disappointed to find the depths and nuances of the Islamic discussions of the issue. Those who study Islam closely, the most important group being Western, non-Muslim scholars of Islam, are forced, often against their expectations, to respect it more the more they learn about it.

Like the scholars of ancient times, and like Prophet Muhammad himself (as will be seen), many Muslims feel uncomfortable with verse 4:34 of the Quran. It is difficult to find a balanced and holistic interpretation that does not either defend wife-beating or that does not nullify the verse completely. This essay attempts to provide such an answer; taking the traditional meaning of the verse seriously while explaining how it fits within a modern society in which violence against women is rare and taboo (as it should be). To begin addressing the issue, the first principle we can state on this matter is this:

There is no such thing as humanely striking a woman.

Contemporary Islamic scholars who wish to defend 4:34, such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi, often mention that there are various restrictions in Islamic law on the way a man can strike a woman, as if this somehow justifies it. It does not. What needs to be answered is why the Quran allows any form of striking at all.

Let’s now take a look at verse 4:34:

Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.2

The Arabic word qawwāmūn is translated as “protectors and maintainers” in English or something similar to it, and this leads to the verse sounding nonsensical. Why would the Quran go from the idea of financial support and protection for women to the idea of striking them in the same verse? The problem is that “protector and maintainer” is not exactly what qawwāmūn means. Qawwāmūn means “figures of authority who are in charge of and take care of (something)”.3 Verse 4:34 is about the issue of authority and law-enforcement within a household as I will explain, the idea of financial support and physical protection is only a subset of it.

Verse 4:34 establishes qiwāma, the gender framework within which Muslim families are meant to operate. The concept of qiwāma, along with that of wilāya (guardianship), have been a focus of concentrated feminist efforts that aim to defuse them in order to create gender equality within Islam.4 In a chapter of the previously cited Men in Charge? Omaima Abou-Bakr tries to trace the way the concept of qiwāma developed in Islam. She mentions Tafsīr al-Ṭabarī by the Persian scholar Ibn Jarīr al-Ṭabarī (d. 310 AH / 923 CE) as the “first” work of tafsīr (Quranic exegesis), going on to say:

Hence, not only did al-Tabari initiate and put into motion the hierarchal idea of moral superiority and the right to discipline (ta’dibihinna), but he also instituted the twisted logic of turning the divine assignment to provide economic support into a reason for privilege: ‘they provide because they are better, or they are better because they provide’.

The truth is that the pro-qiwāma interpretation of verse 4:34 starts not with al-Ṭabarī. It started as early as the Islamic scholar, prince of the Quran scholars, and Companion of the Prophet Muhammad ʿAbdullāh ibn ʿAbbās , in whose work of tafsīr5, authored two centuries before al-Ṭabarī, he says:

"Men are qawwāmūn over women" means umarāʾ ("commanders", "rulers", "chiefs"), she is required to obey him in that which he commands her. His obedience means that she should be well-mannered toward his household, she should watch over his property and [appreciate] the virtue of his taking care of her and striving for her sake.6

Incidentally, among other works of tafsīr predating al-Ṭabarī, also by two centuries, are the works of Mujāhid and al-Ḍaḥḥāk. Another early work of tafsīr is that of Muqātil bin Sulaymān (d. 150 AH / c. 767 CE), who predates al-Ṭabarī by a century and a half. Muqātil interprets qawwāmūn as musalliṭūn (“having lordship and authority”), a word that is largely similar to Ibn ʿAbbās’s umarāʾ, from the word sulṭa (“authority”, “dominion”).7 Al-Ṭabarī’s understanding of qawwāmūn was not new; he was following a tafsīr tradition that had been established centuries before him. The pre-Ṭabarī Ibāḍī scholar Hūd bin Muḥakkam al-Hawwārī (died in the last decades of the third century AH), reflecting a North African tafsīr tradition, also interprets qawwāmūn as musalliṭūn.8

Abou-Bakr goes on to conclude that al-Ṭabarī was responsible for the changes she mentions in the following passage:

Thus, the original direct meaning of qawwamun/bima faddala (financial support by the means God gave them) developed this way: 1) from descriptive to normative/from responsibility to authority; 2) introducing the noun qiyam (which paved the way to the later qiwamah) as an essentialist notion of moral superiority; 3) from the restricted meaning of providing financial support to a wider range of a generalized status of all men everywhere and at all times; and 4) from a relative, changing condition of material bounty on account of inheritance to an unconditional favouritism based on gender.

According to Abou-Bakr, an innocent and harmless verse 4:34 was over time given a patriarchal, male-centric interpretation by scholars like al-Ṭabarī. Such a narrative, if it were true, would certainly be strong support for the feminist cause. But Ibn ʿAbbās and Muqātil’s aforementioned interpretations are strong historical evidence against her thesis; the notion of qiwāma did not go from being merely about financial support among the early Muslims to something more later on through the harmful influence of tafsīr scholars; qiwāma was thought to be about authority from the time of the Companions. A second and equally serious flaw in her thesis is her considering financial support to be central to the verse’s reasoning. Verse 4:34 actually mentions financial support as the second, rather than the first, rationale for giving men authority over women (I will later discuss what this authority means, whether it can ever be fair and just, and the limitations Islam plaes on it). Let’s take another look at the relevant part of the verse:

Men are qawwāmūn over women as God has given some of them [i.e. males] faḍl [a preference, advantage, superiority in rank] over others [i.e. females], and because they spend out of their wealth.

The first reason for this authority is not men’s financial support of women, but a faḍl (“preference”) that God has given to men over women, as is recognized by Muqātil9. To clarify further, the verse can be rephrased as:

Men are qawwāmūn over women because 1. God has given men a faḍl over women, and 2. because men spend out of their wealth.

The superiority in rank, status or nature supposedly granted to men by God is what comes first, it is the main justification for qiwāma and has nothing to do with financial support as far as one can tell, since financial support is mentioned separately. As I will discuss below, this does not mean that men are morally superior to women, we can use the Quran to argue for the opposite. But to continue the discussion of rank, the Arabic wording of the verse can be said to go out of its way to make the separation between men’s rank and men’s financial support of women clear by using two bi-mās (“because”s) rather than one: because … and because … . It is quite unwarranted to collapse these two given reasons into one and claim that the verse is merely giving men the duty of supporting women’s welfare.

There are many hadith narrations that mention women as deficient in intellect and morality. I make no references whatsoever to those narrations in this discussion; the “preference” I refer to is the plain meaning of the Quranic verse; it is a rank granted by God, the way an army grants different ranks to different soldiers without suggesting that the lower ranks are morally inferior to the upper ranks. The concept of men having a superiority in rank over women is not unique to 4:34, it is also spelled out in verse 2:228:

Divorced women shall wait by themselves for three periods. And it is not lawful for them to conceal what God has created in their wombs, if they believe in God and the Last Day. Meanwhile, their husbands have the better right to take them back, if they desire reconciliation. And women have rights similar to their obligations, according to what is fair. But men have a degree over them. God is Mighty and Wise.

Scholars, such as al-Wāḥidī, Ibn al-ʿArabī, al-Rāzī, Ibn al-Jawzī, Abu Ḥayyān al-Gharnāṭī and Ibn al-Qayyim, mention that women are intrinsically mentally and morally inferior to men in their justification for the Quran’s special treatment of them in the matter of testimony (a man’s testimony equals two women’s, with various differences and nuances among the schools).10 A strong argument against the mental/moral inferiority thesis is that the Quran treats women as men’s equals throughout, considering them equally responsible for their actions and held to the same standards. If women were as irresponsible and foolish as children as some scholars suggest (such as al-Wāḥidī, Ibn al-Jawzī and al-Rāzī, who mention that women are perma-adolescents, never maturing), it would have been only fair to treat them as children in the matter of duties and punishments, yet the Quran treats them as complete humans. Karen Bauer writes:

But if women were deficient in rationality, then why did they have spiritual responsibilities similar to men? Although the majority of exegetes simply took inequality for granted, several explained why such inequality was fair, just, and according to God’s will. Such interpretations may reveal more, however, about the worldview of the interpreters than they reveal about the Qurʾān.11

A modern work of tafsīr that criticizes the infantilization of women in classical tafsīr works is Tafsīr al-Manār by the Egyptian reformist scholars Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905 CE) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE).12

Before we go on, we can summarize the evidence in support of the classical view of qiwāma as:

  • Classical scholarly works, such as those of Muqātil, al-Ṭabarī and al-Rāzī.
  • The opinion of the Prophet’s Companion Ibn ʿAbbās.
  • The wording of the verse, in which the primary rationale for qiwāma is given as a superiority in rank granted by God, rather than financial support.
  • The fact that the verse seems to absurdly switch from the issue of financial support to the issue of discipline if we accept the feminist interpretation that qiwāma has to do with financial support alone. But if we accept the classical view that it is about authority, then the verse makes perfect sense: The first part asserts that men are the chief authorities in their households; the middle part gives two reasons for this; the last part deals with the issue of what a man should do when this authority is challenged.

Laleh Bakhtiar’s interpretation of “and strike them” as “leave them” in her Sublime Quran is so far-fetched that it is not worth addressing. Men in Charge? does not give it a mention and assumes that “strike them/beat them” is the correct interpretation. Despite the book’s attacks on traditional qiwāma, the question of why the verse mentions striking women at all is strangely not addressed in the book as far as I could find. It is quite far-fetched to claim that a verse that allows the male to strike the female is innocent of patriarchal concepts.

Another line of attack against qiwāma has been that of claiming that Quranic verses and principles are historically localized; they applied in the Arabia of the 7th century CE, but they do not necessarily apply today. Addressing this criticism would require another essay. The belief that Quranic principles are historically localized is debatable, it is against the understanding of the vast majority of Islamic thinkers and scholars. We can localize a verse in its historical context to understand its meaning and intent, but once we have extracted these, they should be generalized to all times and places. Historical localization would allow one to nullify almost any Quranic concept they want by arguing that it only applies to a particular time and place and not to another. The common and common sense understanding of the Quran is that while its context can help us extract its meaning, the meaning itself is universal. The default assumption regarding the meaning of any verse should be that it is designed to be applied by all humans for all time. Overwhelming evidence should be needed to prove that the meaning of a particular verse has expired or is irrelevant today. In the case of qiwāma, there is no evidence at all that it is irrelevant today. There certainly is overwhelming desire among a certain group of intellectuals to throw the concept away, but that does not constitute evidence. Working for women’s rights is a good thing, but destroying the foundations of our understanding of the Quran in the process is not.

If the Quran was written by the Prophet , then it would would make sense that its meanings would expire and would be limited to the narrow context of 7th century Arabia. He was only a human and could not foresee all eventualities. But we believe the Quran is from God, it is His unchanged Words, which means that we have to treat it like a book written by an infinitely wise person who could foresee the fact that humanity would continue for the next 100,000 years (or however long). If something was supposed to only apply to one circumstance and not to others, then God would have told us so. What we believe is that the Quran was written by the Creator to be applied for all time. Saying that God was so short-sighted that He gave a universal command in His book that does not apply any longer is a great insult against the Creator of the universe. The question then becomes about the nature of God: mainstream Muslims believe that the Quran is from the same Creator who designed the laws of quantum mechanics and who watched the universe age for billions of years before humans started to walk the earth. When such a God tells us men should have a rank above their wives in their households, He is not stuck in the mindset of 7th century Arabia but is speaking from a billion-year perspective. Those who argue for historical localization are saying the opposite; they are saying that God was not intelligent and wise enough to see beyond 7th century Arabia. Therefore a person who argues for historical localization should first prove to us that God is not as intelligent and wise as we tend to think.

At this point, assuming that the classical interpretations of the verse are correct, we will examine how such a gender framework could be justified among civilized and self-respecting humans.

Domestic Violence in Islam

Domestic violence, as the phrase is commonly understood, is prohibited in Islam; a woman has the right to not be abused by her husband. This is the general rule; Islam does not tolerate cruelty and injustice toward anyone, whether man, woman, child or even animal. But verse 4:34 establishes an exception in the matter of authority and discipline in a household. The point of this verse is the establishment of a certain type of order within an Islamic household.

To explain how 4:34 can be implemented without this leading to domestic violence, the best analogy and the most relevant I have found is that of law enforcement. Throughout the world, the police have the right to strike a person who is about to break the law, for example a person who want to set fire to a building. The police are required to sternly warn the person to stop their behavior, and if they do not, they have the right to intervene physically and subdue the person to prevent them from doing harm. The right of the police to strike any citizen they want given the appropriate circumstances establishes a certain type of order within society. It does not lead to a reign of terror; look at a peaceful and quiet Western town and you will find that that peace and quiet is protected by the existence of a police force who have the right to use violence when necessary.

In the West, law enforcement is the job of the police; they are given the right to use violence when necessary to carry out this job. Islam creates a second law enforcement jurisdiction that is non-existent in the West, that of the family, with the power of policing given to a husband (rather than a police force) within this internal family jurisdiction (later on I will discuss possible reasons for why this power is given to men rather than women).

Similar to the police, men are not allowed to abuse this authority. Police brutality and husband brutality can both be severely punished by the law. Verse 4:34 gives a man the authority to police his household. If his wife is about to do something highly damaging, such as trying to invite a lover into the house, he has the right to sternly warn her to stop and to use force against her if she does not.

Here, it should be stated that under Islamic law a woman should have the right to divorce any time she wants. If her husband is abusive, besides having access to agencies protecting women, she should also be able to threaten to leave him, and the police should be there to protect her rights and prevent her from being kept as a wife against her wishes. Middle Eastern countries have been notoriously bad at protecting women’s rights, this is slowly changing, and Islam can actually be used as justification for creating agencies that protect women’s rights.

Islamic law creates this situation inside a family:

  1. A husband has the right to police his household and to use violence in the extremely rare case where his wife wants to do something completely unacceptable in their culture and society.
  2. A woman has the right to leave her husband any time she wants.13
  3. A woman has the right to be free from cruel treatment and abuse, and has the right to enjoy the police’s protection from abuse.

In the vast majority of marriages (perhaps 99.99%), husbands will never have to use their right to violence, the same way that in a peaceful society the vast majority of people are never beaten by the police, despite the fact that the police have the right to strike any citizen when necessary. Islamic law, similar to Western law, creates a certain social order that does not do violence to anyone as long as no one tries to break the law. A husband’s right to act as policeman is irrelevant except in the extremely rare case when a wife, for whatever reason, 1. insults and threatens him by her actions, 2. does not listen to admonishment and 3. does not want a divorce. That is quite a ridiculous situation that very few couples will find themselves in.

A person may ask, if this verse truly applies to only 0.01% of marriages, why would the Quran have a verse about it? For the same reason that Western law has many clauses on the use of violence by the police despite the fact that only 0.01% of citizens are ever subject to police violence. The right to use violence is what matters here, not the actual use of violence. When a Western town gives the police the right to use violence, they do not do so because they like to watch the police beat people up, but because they know that if the police did not have the right to use violence, they could not deal with the extremely rare cases in which violence is needed.

You cannot establish social order without giving someone the power to enforce it. A law is useless talk unless there is someone who can enforce the law, and the enforcement of law in human society requires the power to use violence (only the power, not the actual use of violence). While Western law defines a certain legal code enforced by the police where necessary, Islamic law defines this, and also, in addition to it, defines internal family law (non-existent in the West) that husbands can enforce through violence where necessary.

Senseless Beatings and Cultural Mores

When talking about 4:34, people’s minds immediately jump to an imaginary or real wife who is beaten by a cruel husband. But that has nothing to do with 4:34. The violence in 4:34 is similar to police violence; if it is cruel, if it is senseless, if it is unnecessary, then that is forbidden and should be punished by law. 4:34 only justifies violence in cases where the couple’s culture considers the violence justified. The woman’s own relatives should be able to look into the case and agree that the husband’s actions were justified.

What situations could possibly justify a husband striking a wife? This is similar to asking what situations could possibly justify the police striking a citizen. If we think of good citizens being beaten by the police, we naturally find that cruel and unjustified. So to sensibly answer the question, we have to think of bad citizens, those who do deserve violence according to the law worldwide. A bad citizen would be one who is mugging someone, or trying to steal a car, or trying to rape a woman. People will generally agree that police violence is justified in preventing such citizens from carrying out their intentions.

Verse 4:34 deals with the issue of bad wives, the way that Western laws allowing police violence are there to deal with the issue of bad citizens (I will address the question of bad husbands later on). In regards to good wives versus bad wives, verse 4:34 has this to say:

The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them.

The Arabic word that is rendered as “disloyalty” above is nushūz, which according to al-Rāzī has meaning close to “mutiny”, it is when a person acts as if they are superior to a figure of authority (as in a soldier acting in disregard of an officer’s rank).14 It literally means “to consider oneself superior”, the word can be used to describe a patch of land as being higher than another.1516

The word nushūz is vague and does not clearly define what situations deserve a strong response and which ones do not. I believe this is in order to leave it to each family, culture and society to decide it for itself. All wives probably know what their husbands’ “deal-breakers” are, things that he would consider a severe insult and a betrayal, and these things can be different for different people. The most flagrant case of nushūz is a wife trying to have an affair. In general, nushūz is any case in which a wife acts in disregard and disrespect to the Islamic social order that the Quran wants to establish within the family. Among forms of nushūz explained in the Islamic legal literature are, many of which sound antique or somewhat irrelevant today:

  • A woman refusing to engage in sexual intimacy with her husband without a valid reason.17 Ibn Rushd al-Jadd (grandfather of the more famous Ibn Rushd), in answer to a question, says that a man is not allowed to strike his wife if she refuses sexual intimacy unless she is doing it out of malice and spite and he fears she will continue to become more rebellious.18
  • Refusing to do housework. The Ḥanabalī scholar Ibn Qayyim al-Jawzīya (d. 751 AH / 1350 CE) considers it a duty, saying that the marriage contract assumes that the woman perform such services,19 while the Shāfiʿī jurist Abū Isḥāq al-Shīrazī (d. 476 AH / c. 1083 CE) does not consider housework one of her duties.20 According to the Spanish Malikī scholar al-Qurṭubī (d. 671 AH / c. 1273 CE),whether housework is obligatory depends on her social class; it is not obligatory for upper class women who expect their husbands to hire servants.21
  • Refusing to join the man in his home after marriage without a valid reason.
  • Inviting someone into her marital home against her husband’s wishes.

A technical, modern and pluralistic definition of nushūz would be:

A woman's acting in flagrant disregard of the terms implied by her marriage contract in her particular culture.

Is it acceptable for a husband to use violence against his wife for refusing him sexual intimacy, even if she is doing it maliciously, for example as a form of emotional blackmail? Most, if not all, people today will probably say violence is not justified; they should work out their issue peacefully or get a divorce. And perhaps that is the correct general principle today. What constitutes scandalous behavior that deserves a decisive response from a husband can change as humanity develops.

The Quran does not give us a strict definition of nushūz, allowing us to make its scope wider or narrower as our reason, conscience and cultural experience demands. Any case of a woman suffering violence in a way that is clearly unjust and unreasonable can automatically be considered outside the bounds of 4:34: In a Muslim society, a woman should never have occasion to say that her husband beat her without a valid reason. If that is true, her husband should be punishable by law, as is the opinion of Ibn Ḥazm.22 Scholars, however, have historically differed greatly on whether and when a man can be held accountable for striking his wife, some going as far as practically prohibiting all violence and others giving a man carte blanche to beat his wife whenever he wants.23 But thanks to the vagueness of the concept of nushūz, we are under no strict limitation in our ability to give it a reading that fits reason and conscience. In my proposed interpretation of 4:34, if a wife was struck by a husband, it would only be justified in situations like this:

I tried to cheat on my husband, he found out and sternly warned me to give up the idea. I did not. He told me I should get a divorce if I don't want to be with him anymore, but what I want is to stay married to him and enjoy the benefits that come with it while having a lover on the side. We had a fight and he physically subdued me and took my phone away from me so I wouldn't be able to talk to my lover.

In a Western country a husband in the above situation is required to let his wife do whatever she wants, only having recourse to divorce. The police will probably laugh at him if he was to give them a call and complain that his wife wants to sleep with another man. Under Islamic law, however, a husband is given the authority to be the law-enforcer himself in such a case. This creates a situation in which there is zero tolerance for a wife acting against the terms of her marriage. She is required to either accept to live amicably and faithfully with her husband or to get a divorce. Verse 4:34 ensures that there will be no “in-between” situations where a wife is only half faithful or respectful toward a husband, for example staying with him for the sake of the children while doing whatever she wants in her private life without concern for his interests. She is either fully committed to her life with her husband or she gets a divorce. While Western law tolerates all shades of commitment from full commitment to zero commitment between a husband and wife, Islamic law allows only full commitment or divorce, and gives the husband the right of violence to ensure that this will be the state of things in his family.

Theoretical Laws versus Real-Life Effects

Above, I have explained the theory behind verse 4:34. But that is only half the picture. Verse 4:34 creates a certain social order, a certain type of society, that an outsider may be completely unable to imagine from the wording of the verse. The type of society it creates is one in which it is unthinkable for a woman to flagrantly act in opposition to her husband and his household (the most glaring example being that of infidelity). It is as unthinkable for her to act thus as it is for a Western citizen to think of counterfeiting money. While in the West we do not live under a police reign of terror, we know that if we were to do something that severely threatens social order, such as making counterfeit money, law-enforcement will have something to say about it. We do not need the police to strike us to not make counterfeit money. We just know that in our society, in our social order, the making of counterfeit money is totally unacceptable and will bring down violence on the person who tries it.

In the same way, in an Islamic society, a woman knows that within the social order she lives in, she cannot act flagrantly in opposition to her husband; she knows that this is totally unacceptable in her society and can bring down violence on her. If there is a need for her to oppose her husband, she has the right to argue with her husband, to demand the support of her family and his family, to demand the support of women’s agencies, to sue him in court and to threaten divorce. These things ensure that her husband cannot abuse his authority and that her rights are not neglected. What she does not have the right to is acting in a way that damages her husband and his household. She is free to get a divorce; but while she chooses to be with him, she has to act in good faith toward him.

The “Rule” of Husbands

Giving husbands the right of policing does not make them tyrannical rulers, the same way that giving the police the right of policing and striking citizens does not make them rulers in society. Husbands and the police are both subject to higher laws that restrict their powers. In an Islamic society, both the husband and wife are subject to the law and its various restrictions. They are both servants of God who do their best to please Him. One of them, the husband, has the powers of the police delegated to him to deal with the extremely rare case of having to enforce internal family law. It is true that no sensible wife would act in a way that threatens her husband and his family, similar to the way that no sensible citizen would act in a way that threatens society and requires police action. But not all wives or citizens are sensible, therefore the law sees the need to give certain people the right to use violence against those rare wives or citizens that do not act sensibly.

In focusing on the extremely rare situations when violence becomes necessary, discussions of Islam and domestic violence ignore the overwhelming majority of marriages in which a husband striking his wife is considered unthinkable. It is like focusing on police brutality in a peaceful town and ignoring the 99.999% of the citizenry who live in peace and never have any dealings with the police.

A husband who habitually beats his wife is similar to a policeman who habitually beats citizens for no reason. Such a husband or policeman should be severely punished, and if they cannot stop their violence, they should be fired from their jobs (a judge should force the husband and wife to separate, and should fire the policeman).

Why Make Husbands Policemen?

Even if it is admitted that the mere right of using violence against a wife does not lead to an epidemic of domestic violence (and my experience of Muslim societies in Iran, Iraq and the United States illustrates this beyond doubt), one may doubt if giving men the authority to act as part-time policemen in their households is the best way to organize society.

The Quran’s theory is that society functions best when husbands are recognized as authorities in their households, with the power to act swiftly, decisively and even violently when their interests are seriously threatened.

The feminist (etc.) theory is that society functions best when a husband and wife have equal shares of authority in their households, somewhat similar to a country or company having two presidents.

Which theory is true? A great many scientific studies would be needed to find out beyond reasonable doubt which type of society functions best. Such studies should try to answer these questions:

  • Do women in devout Muslim households suffer more or less domestic violence compared to other women?
  • Are women in devout Muslim households more or less likely to suffer depression than other women?
  • Are women in devout Muslim households happier and more fulfilled or less compared to others?
  • Are children brought up in a devout Muslim family more or less likely to suffer trauma compared to children brought up in a non-devout Muslim family, compared to children brought up in non-Muslim families from societies of equal development and prosperity?
  • What type of society is more sustainable? Devout Muslim societies are sustainable in that families can produce enough children to replace the parents. Western societies are all failing at this; they are all slowly going extinct.

Note the keyword devout. Considering an alcoholic who regularly beats his wife representative of Islam just because he calls himself Muslim is something only a propagandist would do. Any study of the effects of the Quran’s teachings, including the teaching in verse 4:34, should focus on people who actually take the Quran’s teachings seriously.

My contention, and the Quran’s, is that a devout Muslim society will function better and will be happier than either a non-devout one or a modern, liberal and irreligious one.

Verse 4:34 explains why God considers men worthy of the authority He has given them in their households:

Men are qawwamūn (keepers, protectors and authorities) over women, as God has given some of them an advantage over others, and because they spend out of their wealth. The good women are obedient, guarding what God would have them guard. As for those from whom you fear disloyalty, admonish them, and abandon them in their beds, then strike them. But if they obey you, seek no way against them. God is Sublime, Great.24

The Quran gives two reasons:

  • Men are inherently (i.e. genetically) suited to the role of being figures of authority in their households
  • Men are the financial maintainers of women (by Islamic law)

The Quran’s contention, therefore, is that a family functions best when a man is the chief authority, because it is in the nature of human families that they function best when a man is the chief authority. We have on convincing scientific evidence for this at the moment, but we may have it in ten or twenty years. According to the Quran, humans have evolved (for a plausible reconciliation of Islam and evolution see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis) in a way that makes males different from females, and this difference justifies different roles within a relationship.

This difference does not mean that a man is given the right to do whatever he wants in his family. He is subject to the law and any abuse of his powers can be punished by law.

The question of whether men are really evolutionarily suited to be the chief authorities in their families cannot be settled by argument. It requires hundreds of scientific studies. Simply thinking of the 1% of men who abuse their powers tells us nothing about the 99% who do not. You cannot judge social policy by thinking of a few glaring bad examples. You have to study all of society. You cannot judge verse 4:34 by thinking of the hundred families in a Muslim city in which the husbands are abusive and ignore the 10,000 families in which the husbands are not abusive.

Bad Husbands

At this point a reader may wonder why there is a need for dealing with bad wives, while no similar clause exists in the Quran for dealing with bad husbands. What about a husband intent on doing harm to his family or wife?

Islam considers a man’s family an extension of himself. He is supposed to take care of it as a part of himself. This “sense of ownership” is designed to make him devoted to his wife and children, putting their interests on an equal footing to his own personal interests. In Islam, the family unit is arranged in such a way as to make it nonsensical for a man to try to damage it, for him it would be like shooting himself in the foot. This “sense of ownership” seems psychologically necessary to motivate men to feel attached to their families and to work hard for its benefit. Without it, you get selfish, irresponsible and child-like men like some of those in the West who are focused on their own individual pleasures and interests at the expense of their families.

In Islam, the family man is a ruler of his own little kingdom, attached to it and its interests. In the West, this type of attachment has broken down for many people. This is perhaps an important reason for the low fertility rates of all modern irreligious societies. Men are no longer willing to bear the great responsibility of having to care for children. For a Western man, a child represents a serious risk and responsibility who does not add any privileges or advantages to his life. He would rather enjoy intimacy with a woman without worrying about children. For a Muslim man, things are completely different. For him a child is an addition to the family unit, which itself is an extension of himself. The law forces him to take care of his wife and children, but it also grants him the privilege of being the unchallenged authority in his household. He is granted a little kingdom and is held responsible for it.

When it comes to the issue of a bad husband, the Islamic social order of having the man as the chief authority in the household means that it does not make sense for a wife to be a disciplining authority over him. If the husband is bad, she has to use alternative methods that make sense within her position in the family:

  • Asking for support from her and his family.
  • Asking for support from community leaders, such as imams.
  • Asking for the support of government agencies.
  • Threatening divorce.

Devout Muslims and Habitual Wife-beaters

It is my contention that the more devoutly Muslim a man is, the less likely he is to be a wife-beater. There are hundreds of verses in the Quran that call him to be kind and forgiving. A single verse that allows violence in extremely rare circumstances is not going to be sufficient to wipe out the teachings of these hundreds of other verses from his mind. Any person with sufficient intelligence to understand the Quran will feel restricted by it in his ability to be mean and violent toward others, including his own wife and children, rather than feeling encouraged by it.

Conclusion

I have no respect for a man who beats his wife and will never befriend a man who thinks he has the God-given right to beat women when the mood strikes him. I am not unique in this regard. In the devout Muslim society I come from, a man who is known to beat his wife is considered a hooligan and a fool, a person unworthy of befriending. Yet we are all Muslims who take the Quran seriously, including verse 4:34.

Verse 4:34’s main function is a defense of Islam’s “patriarchy”. It makes it impossible to give the Quran a feminist reading that sees men and women as exactly equal. It gives men higher authority in their households and goes as far as delegating some of the powers of the police to them. This is a completely anti-feminist way of organizing society, and for this reason feminists who wish to “feminize” the Quran will be forced to either ignore 4:34 or to give it far-fetched interpretations (as Laleh Bakhtiar has done).

Those who have occasion to talk about 4:34 are generally middle and upper middle class people for whom domestic violence is unthinkable (and it is that way for me too). But saying that 4:34 is unnecessary because our men and women are mature and sensible enough to act as honorable adults toward one another is like saying the police are unnecessary because we sensible people do not plan to break the law.

The police’s main function is not violence, it is the protection of social order. By using violence against the very small minority of citizens who wish to break the law, a certain type of order is created that everyone follows. The same applies to verse 4:34. By giving husbands the right of violence against the extremely small minority of wives who desire infidelity and other ways of damaging their families, a certain type of social order is created where wives are required to be 100% committed to their families. 4:34 establishes a social order in which wives are either fully committed or get divorces.

The vast majority of wives are already fully committed and do not need violence to make them so, the same way that the vast majority of citizens are fully committed to being good citizens and do not need violence to make them so. But it is foolishness to say that social order does not need a policing power to protect it. Without a violent power protecting against threats to order, social order will break down, as seen in cases where the police abandon a town (such as during a police strike), which quickly leads to looting and rioting by irresponsible citizens.

The Islamic social order that requires wives to be fully committed functions peacefully and without violence in the overwhelming majority of cases; 4:34 ensures that there is a policing power that protects this social order and can respond to those extremely rare cases where this order is threatened.

People have the right to wonder if this is the best way to create happy families and societies. But without a great number of unbiased scientific studies there can be no conclusive answer. It might seem “obvious” to someone that this is not a good way to create happy families and societies, but this is just a personal bias unless they can provide statistical data to back up their opinion. There are faithful and loyal wives among both Muslims and irreligious people, but if devout Muslim wives are on average 50% more likely to be loyal, and their families are 20% more likely to be happy and to avoid being broken up, then that is all we need to know to tell us that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge the sociological consequences of the Quran’s teachings.

As Muslims, we believe that God knows better than anyone else how families and societies should be organized, therefore even if we dislike the idea of violence against women (as perhaps all of us do), we have to believe that God knows best. Even the Prophet Muhammad had reservations about 4:34. Al-Rāzī, in his aforementioned exegesis of verse 4:34, mentions a narration from Ibn ʿAbbās in which he says that a woman came complaining to the Prophet that her husband had struck her. From the passage, it appears that the Prophet would have liked to punish the husband according to the law of qiṣāṣ, but verse 4:34 is revealed to him confirming that the husband was within his rights. The Prophet is quoted as saying “We wanted something, but God wanted another thing. And what God wants is best.”

To summarize, verse 4:34 creates an informal police force made up of husbands. They are charged with the protection of the integrity of their families and are given the power of violence as a last resort in the carrying out of this duty. Any use of violence by a husband that falls outside of this definition can be punished by the law.

From the above discussion, feminist critiques like the following (from Men in Charge?, chapter 7) will be seen to be quite beside the point:

Dina, a lawyer who founded and currently leads an NGO in one of Cairo’s poorest areas, added another layer to this new understanding of qiwamah. She noted, ‘Since women and men today have equal opportunities to pursue knowledge, with women sometimes excelling more, it would be indeed irrational to expect an illiterate man to have qiwamah over a female university professor, in the sense of authority.’

It would be irrational for a female university professor to marry an illiterate man to begin with. Considering the less absurd example of a female university professor married to a male university professor, it will be seen that the man is given the authority to defend his household, an authority that he will likely never have to enforce, since his college-professor wife is likely intelligent and self-respecting enough, like most middle class wives, to not act like the immature and out-of-control person described above as a bad wife. Saying it is irrational for this male professor to have qiwāma over his wife because of his wife’s qualities is similar to saying that it is irrational for a peaceful town to have a police force. Islam gives him policing power to deal with the extremely rare cases in which it might be needed. If he is blessed with a good wife he will never have a recourse to it, the way that the police force in a peaceful town never have recourse to violence against the town’s citizens. The above excerpt from Men in Charge? relies on the paralogism that:

  • Good wives do not need qiwāma and its enforcement in order to make them behave in constructive ways in their families.
  • Therefore qiwāma-enforcement is not needed.

Qiwāma-enforcement, as has been discussed, is entirely about bad wives, therefore the fact that good wives do not need it is irrelevant. What they say is similar to:

  • Good citizens do not need law-enforcement in order to make them behave in constructive ways in society.
  • Therefore society does not need law-enforcement.

If it is admitted that qiwāma-enforcement is about dealing with bad wives, a person might argue that this means that in a society of enlightened and educated individuals we can do away with qiwāma, living as if verse 4:34 does not apply to us. This is the argument of certain activists; qiwāma may have made sense in a certain time and place, but it is certainly quite out of place in modern society. This thinking relies on the assumption that there are no relevant differences between men and women that would justify giving men higher authority. The assumption is that men and women are exactly the same when it comes to everything that matters, therefore there is no sense in treating them differently.

But is that assumption true? 4:34 says that there is something intrinsic about men that justifies God giving them authority over their wives. There is some genetic/evolutionary reason why giving men authority over their wives leads to better results for everyone involved. If that is true (and we either have to assume it is true because the Quran says it is, or abandon the Quran for containing a falsehood), then giving men authority over their wives in a modern family is just as relevant as it would be in an ancient family. There are thousands of situations that come up in a modern family’s life in which the question of authority is significant. Should the wife accept that particular job? Should the son be allowed to go out with that group of friends? Should the daughter be allowed to wear that particular dress? Qiwāma allows for discussion and argument while giving the man the right of having the final word, because of a superiority in rank that God has given to him, and because he spends out his wealth to care for his family (the reasons given in 4:34).

A feminist who appreciates everything said above may go on to say that she does not like to live with a husband who thinks he has the right of having the final word. But even in this case she is misunderstanding the purpose of 4:34. If she marries a husband as intelligent and educated as herself, he will probably be the type of person to work out all issues of authority without having to resort to saying that God has granted him the final word. It is only an extremely socially inept man who insults his wife by telling her he has authority over her. An intelligent and intellectually mature Muslim man will instead treat her like an equal, the way Prophet Muhammad appears to have treated his wife Aisha.

The final remaining feminist criticism would be her saying that she does not want to be subject to a man’s authority no matter how good of a man he is. She wants to be free and make her own way in the world without reference to a man. Islam’s answer is that she is free to not get married, but the general framework of marriage within Islam will always be the qiwāma framework, which is prescribed in the Quran and accepted by the vast majority of the world’s Muslim men and Muslim women. Rejecting qiwāma is similar to rejecting the Ramadan fast. One can come up with various logical reasons for rejecting fasting (it reduces worker productivity, for example), but since it is God who prescribes it, we have no option but to do as He says. Additionally, if 99% of women are quite happy to live under qiwāma while 1% of them dislike it, whose opinion is more authoritative? The radical feminist answer would be that any woman who refuses to agree with feminism is foolish and her opinions do not count. The humanist answer would be that as a human, her worth does not derive from how much of a feminist she is, and if the majority of intelligent and educated Muslim women do not have a problem with qiwāma, that is very strong evidence in favor of the traditional Islamic family.

Many women can probably be convinced to dislike qiwāma in the name of women’s rights. This is similar to the way that even today it is easy to convince workers to support communism despite the horrors it led to in the 20th century. Both feminism and communism promise a specific class of people increased rights, powers, and privileges, and few humans have the wisdom to reject such things when offered to them freely. Ask any Muslim woman, especially an unmarried and college-educated one, “Do you want as much authority as your (future) husband or less authority?” and she will probably say she wants as much authority. This is similar to asking a worker, “Do you wish your boss was legally required to share much of his wealth with his employees?”, the answer will almost certainly be a “Yes!” The problem is that we cannot build a civilization based on answering the average person’s desires. Legal systems and social order have to be designed by mature people who can foresee the long-term results of their actions; all societies that have embraced feminism have below-replacement fertility rates (they are slowly going extinct), and all communist societies are poor, unhappy, unfree and unproductive. Ending qiwāma might make a small minority of women happy, but what will be the long-term costs to the rest of society? If it is said that a woman shouldn’t have to sacrifice her freedom and independence for the sake of society, the answer is that actually she does. Islam asks both men and women to sacrifice many of their desires for the sake of the greater good. They are required to limit sexual partners even if this reduces their fulfillment; they are required to pray at inconvenient hours; they are required to not enjoy alcohol even though it is highly pleasurable to drink and many people are capable of enjoying it without becoming alcoholics. Pious Muslim women by and large see no problem with qiwāma because it is one of dozens of limitations God places on women supposedly for their own good and the good of those around them. A Muslim woman either has to accept that God is right in His commandments, or that He is wrong and she can do better outside of them.

Interfacing With Secular Law

It should be mentioned that most legal systems do not recognize the validity of the use of violence against a wife in any circumstance except in that of physical self-defense. For this reason Muslims living under such laws are required to follow those laws. By the fact of accepting to live under a secular legal system and enjoying its protection, one also accepts to abide by its limitations. Upholding the “social contract” inherent in living under a secular legal system takes precedence over applying parts of Islamic law that conflict with it. In Islam the protection of life, property and dignity are the prime purposes of the law, so a secular legal system that affords these things but prohibits applying certain branches of Islamic law is still largely in accordance with Islam.

Fighting Violence Against Women

While 4:34 teaches us that there are extremely rare cases in which violence against a wife is justified, this should not make us indifferent toward cases of domestic abuse. The Quran throughout it is opposed to injustice and cruelty, and needless to say this means that we should be opposed to injustice and cruelty toward women. How can a man carry out the “greater jihad” of working to make the world a better place if he has created a cruel and tyrannical kingdom at home? Until recently Muslim societies (and of course non-Muslim ones too) were quite apathetic toward the issue of cruelty toward women. Things seem to be improving.

An intelligent legal theorist should have no trouble seeing that giving someone policing power is bound to lead to abuse if there is no oversight, therefore the creation of agencies protecting women against abuse should be an essential part of any developed Islamic legal system. Women should enjoy all of the protections of a country’s constitution and should have recourse to the authorities if they suffer abuse on the hands of their husbands, fathers or others.

It is not contradictory to fight violence against women while defending verse 4:34. It is similar to fighting police brutality while defending the police’s right to use violence when needed.

 

Reader Questions

Is a woman allowed to "beat" her husband if he plans on doing something terrible? (I mean beat as in to kick some sense into him, like a little slap or something...) Let's take your example of wanting to burn the house down

That is similar to the case of a citizen striking a policeman who wants to do something harmful. While her action runs contrary to 4:34, it is in accordance with other laws regarding the protection of life and property. So if her action is clearly justified, there would no reason to hold it against her, she can even be praised for doing the right thing.

In legal thinking, often numerous laws apply to the same situation all at the same time. It is up to the jurist to make sense of the complexities of the law and real life and come up with what is just and sensible. Islamic law is not made to be applied by senseless robots, but by intelligent humans who want to do what is just and right and kind in all circumstances.

The Road to Maturity: On Dealing with Life’s Unsolvable Problems

Schale mit Blumen by Marie Egner (1940)

Every person’s life seems to contain problems that have no solution. Such problems can last for years, even decades. Among such problems are:

  • Poverty: A person’s life may be denied many joys and contain many indignities brought about by poverty.
  • Having a disabled child: An otherwise happy and wealthy couple may be force to worry and spend much of their time and energy in the care of a disabled child, without any hope of things getting much easier.
  • Having to take care of an elderly parent: There are people who spend years as part-time nurses, having to take care of a parent that cannot take care of himself/herself. The person may not be able to afford professional care, so that despite their life’s various demands, this extra demand is placed on them, sometimes for many years or a decade.
  • Illness: There are people who suffer from an illness that prevents them from enjoying the foods they like or the activities they enjoy. Some illness are uncurable and will put a damper on a person’s life for the rest of their lives.
  • Family problems: A person may have nearly everything they want, but their life may be made extremely difficult due to abuse or neglect from a spouse, meanness from family members, or having a child that constantly gets into serious trouble.

There problems are unsolvable in the sense that there are generally no quick solutions to them. We desire to live in Paradise on earth, having a peaceful and easy life that is not marred by any serious issues. We wish to live in a light-hearted comedy rather than a tragedy.

But that desire for perfect peace will never come true in this life, because that is not the purpose of this life. Ibn Ata Allah al-Iskandari says:

So long as you are in this world, be not surprised at the existence of sorrows.

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

God, glory to Him, created His creation to worship Him, and that is their purpose, as He says: “I have not created jinn and humans except to worship Me” [Quran 51:56]. It is clear that the perfect servitude and worship that is required of humans cannot be achieved in the Home of Bliss [Paradise], but can only be achieved in the home of affliction and trials.

Ibn al-Jawzi says:

The worldly life has been created as a place of testing. The wise person should fully habituate himself to patience.

We want to escape this world with all of its little annoyances and worries and inconveniences so that we can enter a world of perfect peace. But this desire is mistaken and can never be attained in this world. Even if we unexpectedly acquire great wealth, leave behind all of our worries, move to a different country, buy an amazing house, and find a great spouse, the excitement of all of these will wear off in a few day, and we will feel as if we are back to square one. Problems will start to haunt us again out no nowhere. The perfect spouse may end up not being so perfect. We may engage in a seemingly profitable business enterprise that brings us great fear and worry, perhaps due to choosing the wrong business partner. If the wealth is enough to make us needless of any extra work or investment, we may dedicate ourselves to making art, or writing novels or poetry, only to experience discontent and grief as people ignore or criticize our works. Meanwhile, in our new social circle we may start to be judged for all kinds of things that we dislike to be judged for, and this may make us feel inferior.

While films and novels often tell us that we can live happily ever after once we solve our problems, get rich, or escape our past lives, reality will always prove this false. This world is a place of testing. There is no escaping God’s tests, and He knows better than anyone else exactly how to test you. Even if you are the ruler of the world, God can defeat all of your plans and place you in utter misery if He wishes. There is no escape from God. Regardless of where we run to, He will always be there first, ready with the next barrage of tests designed to build us into better and worthier people.

If you suffer from a problem of inconvenience and think “This is too stupid, I shouldn’t be having to deal with this type of nonsense!”, you have actually misunderstood the test. If something makes you feel discontented, impatient, angry or unthankful toward God, then that is exactly the type of test you should be going you through. A test that does not hit you right where it hurts is not a proper test. You have to best tested for all that you have, each test should reach deep into you and tempt you to anger and ungratefulness.

The Building of Character

Ibn al-Qayyim says:

When God tests you it is never to destroy you. When He removes something in your possession it is only in order to empty your hands for an even greater gift.

God does not take sadistic pleasure in seeing us suffer. The purpose of His tests is to show us our true natures, our weaknesses and our absolute dependence on His mercy, and these things prompt us to seek to improve ourselves. People who are never shown their faults and weaknesses fail to develop. If we are unaware that a problem exists, we have no incentive to seek a solution.

Mostafa Sadeq al-Rafi’i says:

When I looked into history I found a small number of individuals whose lives mirrored the life-cycle of a grain of wheat. They were torn from their roots, then crushed, then ground in mills, then kneaded with fists, then rolled out and baked in ovens at high temperatures… just so they could provide food for others.

The best people you meet are not people who have been spared life’s troubles. They are people who been crushed again and again by life’s troubles until they have reached a state of near-perfect acceptance and humility, so that they no longer reject God’s decrees nor do they desire to escape their lives. They know God is in charge, and that He can cure them from their distress any time He wants. They look to Him for help and seek refuge only in Him. The poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab, who suffered for years from a painful illness and from loneliness and nostalgia, expresses this type of thinking in his famous 1962 poem Sabr Ayyub (The Patience of Job).

For You is praise, no matter how long the distress lasts,
And no matter how oppressive the pain becomes,
For You is praise, afflictions are bestowals,
And suffering is of Your bounty.
Did You not give me this darkness?
And did You not give me this dawn?
Does the ground then thank raindrops,
But get angry if the clouds do not find it?
For long months, this wound
Has been cutting my sides like a dagger.
The affliction does not calm at morning,
And nighttime does not bring death to wipe out the agony.
But if Job was to cry, he would cry,
“For You is Praise, for suffering is like drops of dew,
And wounds are presents from the Beloved,
The stacks of which I hug to my chest.
You presents are in my line of sight, they do not leave,
Your presents are accepted, bring them on!”
I hug my wounds and call out to visitors:
“Look here and be jealous,
For these are presents from my Beloved!”
And if the heat of my fever approaches fire,
I would imagine it a kiss from You fashioned from flame.
Beautiful is insomnia, as I watch over Your heaven
With my eyes, until the stars disappear
And until Your light touches the window of my home.
Beautiful is the night: The hooting of owls
And the sound of car horns from a distance
The sighs of patients, a mother retelling
Tales of her forefathers to her child.
The forests of a sleepless night; the clouds
As they veil the face of heaven
And uncover it from under the moon.
And if Job cried out, he would say:
“For You is praise, O One who hurls fate,
And O One Who, after that, decrees the cure!”

If you are tested, instead of thinking “This shouldn’t be happening to me!”, consider it an opportunity to practice patience and a call to improve yourself. We never grow if we constantly turn our backs on our problems. Growth happens when we accept that this is exactly what we should be going through, this is God’s decree for us. If God wants, He can remove our difficulty in an instant. If we feel impatient and discontented, this is a clear sign that we are not close enough to God, that we are rejecting Him. We are, in effect, telling Him “We dislike this thing that You are doing to us O God and reject Your decree for us, we know better than You what should be happening to us, and this is not it.” You will meet many religious people who are stuck in this way of thinking. Their life’s difficulties, failures and missed opportunities are present in their minds and they blame God for not providing them with a better lot.

That is the state of a spiritually stagnant person. As for the best of the believers, they walk with God through life. They know He is in charge. They know that life’s difficulties are reminders from God that they should not put their trust in this world and that they should not expect to achieve perfect peace in it. Perfect peace is only achievable in the afterlife. Abdullah, son of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal, asked his father one day:

"O Father, when will we ever achieve rest?"

His father looked him in the eye and said:

"With the first step we take into Paradise."

Rather than feeling discontented with life’s unsolvable problems, accept them and tell yourself that this is the fate that has been decreed for you. If you wish for a better fate, if you wish God to raise your status and remove the various indignities you suffer in life, ask Him to raise your status. Only He can help you. Ibn al-Qayyim says:

Whoever among the workers wishes to know his status in the eye of the King, then let him look at what jobs He gives him and with what He busies him.

If you want to have a better lot in life, if you want your life to be more meaningful and to contain fewer problems, then ask yourself whether you deserve it, whether you deserve to be given special treatment over the millions of people who are equally suffering. In reality, you want God to treat you as if you are special. Do you deserve such treatment? If you constantly turn your back on Him, if you only do the minimum He asks of you, if you never take refuge in Him and do not consider Him in charge, then you are giving Him no reason to treat you specially. If you want a higher status in life, become the type of person who deserves a higher status in life. Do your best to stay close to Him. You should ask Him for these five things in every prayer you pray (during prostration) (I have written my favorite Arabic prayer words that I say for these purposes):

  • To forgive your sins. Allahumma innaka affuwwun tuhibbul afwa faafu anni (O God, you are the Most Forgiving, and You love forgiveness, so forgive me.)
  • To guide you and increase your knowledge and wisdom. Allahumma zidni ilman wahdini li aqraba min haza rushdan (O God, increase me in knowledge and guide me to a better state of maturity than what I currently possibly)
  • To support you: Allahummanasurni wa anta khairun nasireen (O God, support me, and You are the best of supporters.)
  • To bless your time and works: Allahumma baarik fi aamali wa awqati (O God, bless my works and my times/moments.)
  • To make things easy for you: Allahumma yasir li amree (O God, make the matters of my life easy for me.)

As Muslims, the best source of guidance we have is the Quran. Always remember the saying of the famous Pakistani poet and scholar Muhammad Iqbal:

Of the things that had a profound effect on my life is an advice I heard from my father: "My son, read the Quran as if it was sent down specifically to you."

Make the Quran your guide in life and treat as if it was sent down to you this very moment. The Quran is not meant to be a reference that we leave on the shelf. It is meant to be a guide that is present with us through life. When you suffer difficulty and discontent, always go back to the Quran and it will teach you a new lesson every time if you persevere in reading it.

Difficulties are part of the design of our universe. If we want to mature and to be raised in status, instead of rejecting God’s decrees, we must accept them, embrace them and seek refuge and support only in Him. Only He can make things easy for us, help us mature, make our lives more meaningful and raise our status. And rather than expecting to achieve perfect peace in this life, we should accept its nature (that there can be no perfect peace in it), and we should instead put our hopes for our final rest in the afterlife.

The life of this world will never live up to our expectations. We always think if only we get this or that we will be so happy! But as soon we get there, we start to feel like we are back to square one. Life’s problems continue to haunt us. And there is no escape. There are elderly people who, having always rejected God’s decrees, continue to express anger at life for throwing problems and undignities in their faces. Do not be like them. Accept the nature of this world. If you want your life to be more meaningful, if you want your difficulties to raise you rather than degrade you, ask God to raise your status, and do what is necessary to please Him and convince Him that you deserve a better lot in life.

A Biography of Ahmad Moftizadeh

Kak Ahmadi Muftizada: Darwazayak bo Xabateki Nanasraw (کاک ئەحمەدی موفتیزادە: دەروازەیەک بۆ خەباتێکی نەناسراو, Ahmad Moftizadeh: A Gateway to an Unknown Struggle) is a 394-page Kurdish biography of the great Iranian Kurdish leader Ahmad Moftizadeh written by Sarwat Abdullah, apparently published in 2010.

I have been reading all available materials on Ahmad Moftizadeh, since he is one of the few modern leaders who have truly embodied the type of activist, Quran-centered and heart-centered Islam I believe in, and it would be a shame to not learn everything significant that his life can teach. In my view studying the lives (and mistakes) of the previous few generations coming right before us is crucial to making progress.

Origin

It is mentioned that his grandfather, Abdullah Dishi, “came from” the village of Disha (a Hawrami village), which would suggest that Moftizadeh’s family are Hawrami. According to The Last Mufti, Abdullah Dishi’s family were originally from the Kurdish areas and had settled in Disha, meaning that they weren’t originally from this village, and meaning that Moftizadeh’s family are not necessarily Hawrami.

Ahmad Moftizadeh came from Iranian Kurdistan’s religious elite. His grandfather had been given the status of mufti (chief religious law-maker) of all of Iranian Kurdistan, and this title had been passed down to his son (Moftizadeh’s father), and Ahmad Moftizadeh was in line to receive the title himself. Moftizadeh’s father lectured at Tehran University on Shafii jurisprudence, and Ahmad Moftizadeh would go on to lecture there himself later on.

Dreams and childhood

It is mentioned that multiple people around him had dreams about him in his childhood in which they saw him as having a high status. This includes a very old and pious aunt of his when he was 4-5 years old. When he is 8 or 9 a friend of his mother has a dream in which she sees a great army in the city of Sanandaj and she is told that that is Ahmad’s army. She asks if they mean the little boy Aha Rash (a nickname for Ahmad Moftizadeh), and she is answered yes.

Moftizadeh had many dreams of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, in which the Prophet taught him things. Seeing the Prophet ﷺ in dreams is something highly prized by Sufis, whose influence on the area made the population look out for such dreams as well.

At the age of 13 a great officer in the army is invited to his home, so that his family cooks five types of rise and five types of meat. He is disgusted by this, considering it wasteful and thinking of all the poor people who have little to eat, and he decides not to eat anything of it. The aristocratic atmosphere of his home apparently makes him eager to leave it, so that he goes to Iraq to study.

Prison and repentance

After coming back from his studies, he goes to Tehran and is involved in some Kurdish nationalist activity, attracting the attention of the Shah’s secret police (SAVAK).

When Moftizadeh is imprisoned by the SAVAK 1964 for his Kurdish political activism, it is mentioned that he is taken to Evin prison, when in reality he was taken to Qezelqaleh prison as mentioned The Last Mufti. Evin prison comes at a later stage in his life, after the revolution. Later on, on page 53, the book contradicts itself, correctly saying that Moftizadeh was actually at Qezelqaleh.

In prison, in solitary confinement, with death feeling close at hand, he starts to feel guilty about his government job. He worked at a government office where part of his job was to assess and receive taxes from people. While he did his job with conscientiousness, not taking bribes and not cheating people (like other government employees would do), he has the realization that his salary from that job was partially impure, since it was from a government’s unjust taxes on the people.

At first he is too shy to seek repentance from God, feeling that with death so close at hand, the time of repentance is past. He eventually repents, and says to himself, “Even if my (infant) son Jiyan is about to starve to death, I will not use impure money to buy him powdered milk.”

Later in his life, one night his son Jiyan is extremely sick and the only open pharmacy in town is one that is Jewish-owned. He refuses to buy from them, thinking that his money would be used to “buy bullets” for Israel’s terror against Palestinians.

While somewhat extremist (Islam allows one to make exceptions in times of need), his method of thinking of ordinary daily decisions in activist terms is very important and relevant, and quite similar to Sayyid Qutb’s thinking. The spiritual world takes precedence over the material world. He refuses a material good (the feeding of his son, or his son’s health) to maintain a spiritual good (remaining true to God, refusing to be party to any form of injustice, even if it is merely by buying a drug from an entity that might possibly support injustice).

In mainstream Islamic practice, the culture and the clerics come in between the Quran and population. The job of making moral choices was outsourced to the religious establishment, so that morality was not something on the minds of ordinary people. If the mullahs allowed something, it was OK. If they didn’t, it wasn’t. Moftizadeh and Sayyid Qutb’s approach was to take the religious establishment out of the equation; one reads the Quran, understands its moral philosophy to the best of his or her ability, then follows it to the best of his or her ability in everything in their lives.

This is far more difficult, since there are many difficult moral choices the responsibility for which must be carried by each individual, instead of throwing the responsibility on the shoulders of the establishment without giving it a thought.

More dreams

In prison, he has a dream in which he is about 13 years of age and the Prophet ﷺ is teaching him from the Quran. His elbows are resting on the Prophet’s left shoulder, with him looking on as the Prophet passes his right index finger over a book of Quran that he is reciting from. He mentions that this dream put him in a state of joy and ecstasy that lasted for many days, considering it such a great honor from God.

The start of his Quran-focused Islam

So far in his life, Ahmad Moftizadeh had been a classical Shafii jurist, having had a classical education under his father and other scholars in Iran and Iraq.

He has a dream in which he is standing on the rooftop of his childhood home in Sanandaj, when he sees two persons coming toward him from a distance. The persons do not take steps but appear to glide. They stand about a meter and a half from him and ask him to interpret Sura ad-Duha and Sura ash-Sharh (chapters 93 and 94 of the Quran). Instead of trying to interpret these chapters as an intellectual exercise, he starts speaking effortlessly, saying things he had never even thought of before.

He says that as he spoke, he saw the Prophet ﷺ and his followers during what is known as the Meccan Boycott of the Hashemites, in which the he and his followers suffered extreme difficulty. He saw the relevance of the verses he was interpreting to these conditions, as if they were all part of the same story that he himself had lived. He also sees the Prophet ﷺ praying ardently for Umar ibn al-Khattab to be guided to Islam. He says the things he said in his interpretation of these chapters were as obvious and clear to him as 2+2 = 4. When he wakes up, he is completely thunderstruck by the dream, since none of the things he had said had ever before seemed obvious to him.

This dream causes him to completely change his approach to the Quran. Before this, he had the classical approach, what I call considering the Quran a “historical artifact” or a “dead book”. He says:

Before that, when I would look at the Quran, I would look at its meaning as mere Arabic words and sentences. After that, when I looked at the Quran I saw it as a living thing. The way I looked at life, that way I also looked at the Quran.

Strangely, this appears to also have been the approach of Said Nursi and Sayyid Qutb, both of whom also suffered through prison, and both of whom went on to be great revivalists.

Moftizadeh considers this discovery his re-birth, and afterwards would go on to speak of “the old Ahmad’ and “the new Ahmad”, similar to Said Nursi’s “old Said” and “new Said”.

He says that without his discovery of the Quran’s nature, his life would have been empty, and that a hundred thousand lifetimes were nothing compared to that single moment where he discovered the Quran.

Training the vanguard

After being released from prison, SAVAK offers him a professorship at Tehran University in return for softening his rhetoric against the Shah’s regime, which he refuses. He goes back to Sanandaj with his wife and child. He appears to conclude that the best way to spread Islam’s message is to train activists, a vanguard who embody the Quran’s teachings and go on to create change within their own social circles. This was also Sayyid Qutb’s idea.

His non-classical (Quran-focused) approach quickly garners him fame and people start to flock to his house to learn his reformist-activist approach on various issues, such as women’s rights.

He invites a number of faqih‘s (mullahs-in-training) to come to Sanandaj to learn and work on his project, and works hard to buy them a house. He has a highly valuable rug in his own house that he gives away and places in the new house. When asked why, he says, “This was the last artifact I had of my jahili (pre-enlightenment) life, and you are the cause of freeing me from it.”

He starts giving lectures at Sanandaj’s mosques, until he attracts a fellowship of 60-70 people. SAVAK issues a threat against his followers, so that most of the followers leave and only 15-20 people remain. SAVAK approaches him and offers him wealth and protection, and not just for himself but for his followers too, in return for a. not working with political parties and b. softening his stance against the Shah. His extreme poverty and the pressure his extended family puts on him to make him accept this offer slowly makes him start considering it. He wasn’t going to be involved with political parties, so this wasn’t an issue. And what harm did it do to accept not to speak against the Shah?

He says this was the most difficult moral dilemma of his life, since the things offered him were so attractive, and the things required of him so seemingly unimportant. During this, he has a dream that involves the Prophet ﷺ and Umar ibn al-Khattab. The Prophet is about to tell Umar something, starting by “O Umar…”, but Moftizadeh wakes up before hearing it. This greatly upsets him and he starts to look in the books of hadith to find narrations in which the Prophet speaks to Umar in such a manner. Despairing of his search, he goes to the Quran and tries to find guidance in it for his situation, and he finds that in verse 13:17:

He sends down water from the sky, and riverbeds flow according to their capacity. The current carries swelling froth. And from what they heat in fire of ornaments or utensils comes a similar froth. Thus God exemplifies truth and falsehood. As for the froth, it is swept away, but what benefits the people remains in the ground. Thus God presents the analogies.

He sees the Shah and his apparatus as the ephemeral “froth” that is covering truth and justice for a time, but that will surely be swept away by the forces of time. This makes him decide that truth and justice are timeless principles that deserve his full and never-ceasing allegiance, while any request from the Shah and SAVAK for his allegiance should be automatically rejected, since they are the froth who want to cover up what benefits the people. They are nobodies who will be swept away by history, while truth and justice will remain supreme. He goes on to live by this learning for the rest of his life, even after the Shah falls and the “Islamic” Republic is established.

Maktab Quran

Moftizadeh garnered fame in Iranian Kurdistan by his famous speeches, such as the one he gave at the funeral of the poet Suwaray Ilkhanizada. His fearless criticism of the Shah (sometimes comparing him to the Pharaoh of the time of Moses) gave people hope, since the rest of the Islamic establishment was thoroughly hand-in-hand with the Shah’s regime. A Muslim scholar speaking against the Shah was something unknown and highly attractive.

Maktab Quran (“school of Quran”) is the name of the movement/organization he and his friends created, first in the city of Mariwan and later in Sanandaj. The word maktab refers more to a “school of thought” than a physical entity (as pointed out by Ali Ezzatyar in The Last Mufti), a reference to his use of the Quran as a source for a reformist-activist Islam. He did, however, create schools in multiple cities where the Quran and related topics were taught, so Maktab Quran was a physical entity as well.

Revolution (1978)

Moftizadeh’s fame and opposition to the Shah made him a natural leader of Iranian Sunnis at the time of the Iranian revolution. The revolution worried him because he considered it untimely, and was aware of the great possibility for the rise of a new anti-Kurdish tyranny in Tehran (which is what happened).

He believes that if his movement had been given 10-15 years without the Iran Revolution happening, the movement would have been able to bring Kurds to a state where they were ready to be the leaders of revolutionary change, since his goal was to teach people to insist on truth and justice and refuse to (intellectually) submit to tyrants.

SHAMS

After the Iranian revolution, Moftizadeh worked with other Sunni leaders (such as the scholar Abdulaziz Malazadeh from Sistan-Balochistan) to create a unified front for interacting with the Shia-majority revolutionary government, accepting Khomeini’s promises of respecting democracy and pluralism. This unified front was called SHAMS (which means “sun” in Arabic, and was an acronym for shurayeh markaziyeh sunnat, meaning “central council of the Sunnis”). A meeting was held in Tehran in public in which the creation of SHAMS was announced and its details agreed upon by Sunni religious leaders from various areas of Iran.

Naturally, Khoemini and his friends considered this union of the Sunnis a dangerous attack on their establishment, and the Iranian propaganda press went into overdrive over the few days following the meeting, associating the meeting with foreign influence, treason and all the other buzzwords that governments use to describe those who make them feel uncomfortable. Khomeini even gave a speech denouncing SHAMS.

Prison again

Khomeini’s extremist grip on power continued to increase as a number of convenient assassinations removed his more balanced Shia friends from Earth (such as Ayatollah Beheshti). This purging of the moderate Shias cleared the field for him to let his totalitarian tendencies run wild.

A year after SHAMS, the Iranian government cracked down on those associated with Moftizadeh’s Maktab Quran movement throughout Iranian Kurdistan and imprisoned many of them, including Moftizadeh himself.

They held him for ten years in solitary confinement, never allowing a single visitation by his family and friends.

Keeping Kurdistan together

During the revolution (between 1978 and 1981), Moftizadeh worked constantly to bring the Kurds together and have them reach a peaceable agreement with the new government to ensure the rights of the Kurds. The people he was interacting with, the leftist Kurdish parties on the one hand, and the Shia government on the other, were both equally power-hungry, duplicitous and unreliable, so that his efforts were seemingly entirely futile.

Moftizadeh continued to try to work with everyone else in good faith, expecting the best of them, signing agreements with Kurdish party leaders who would go on to change the agreement the next day, adding their own clauses to it that had not actually been agreed upon, or agreeing on one thing then acting another way.

Moftizadeh tried his best fulfill his role as “the leader of Iran’s Kurds” as he was widely considered, but to no good. Would it have been better if he had refused, seeing as the Kurds and the Shias were both totally and utterly incapable of working in good faith together? What is the point of trying to make things work when everyone you are dealing with is corrupt and selfish?

While his political work has generally been considered a failure, his appeals for peace and avoidance of blood-shed may have saved Iranian Kurdistan from having the same fate as Iraqi Kurdistan, with hundreds of thousands of lives lost in a war with the government. It is quite possible that hundreds of thousands of Kurds living in Iran today owe their lives to some degree to his political work.

His fight with the sheikhs and mullahs

I wonder at the people of this town. They have so many mullahs, yet they have managed to remain religious and pious and they have not lost the way of Islam. —Ahmad Moftizadeh

Ahmad Moftizadeh, despite being a classically trained religious scholar and being the son of the chief religious authority of Iranian Kurdistan (and being offered this position himself later on), was a strong critic of the Islamic establishment of his time. The Sufi sheikhs and mullahs had created a comfortable religious aristocracy where the population was made to serve their interests, finding clever ways of extracting money from the poor, such as making farmers take large portions of their harvests to the nearest Sufi establishment where a fat and corrupt Sufi sheikh usually presided.

The mullahs (clerics and preachers who worked at the mosques) weren’t much better, fleecing the population through things like “repairing” divorces, without actually working to solve the roots of society’s issues.

Islam had become a ceremonial religion devoid of its activist message. Moftizadeh considered the religious establishment cowardly and complicit with the Shah’s regime. Not a single leader could be found who dared to speak a word of truth against the Shah’s injustice. Moftizadeh made many enemies by opposing this system, so that some mullahs and sheikhs labelled him a “hypocrite” and scared people away from his circles. Eventually, with his radical honesty and fearless criticism of the Shah despite the dangers to his own life, he became the unchallenged leader of Iran’s Kurdish Sunni Muslims (and perhaps forever broke the hold of the religious establishment on Islam).

In Shia Islam, the clerical establishment claims to have secret powers to interpret Islam properly, powers granted to them as descendants of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. This is highly convenient, since it gives the Shia clerical establishment monopoly power over the way Islam is interpreted and practiced.

Sunni Islam rejects this, saying there is nothing too special about being descended from the Prophet ﷺ. In practice, however, the Sunni establishment acts somewhat similar to the Shia establishment, requiring someone to be part of the establishment before considering their opinions valid. For many Sunni clerics, ordinary Muslims do not have the right to refute a ruling from an establishment scholar. The content of the refutation does not matter; if you haven’t gone through the establishment and do not have their stamp of approval, you do not have the right to speak your mind.

Ahmad Moftizadeh’s teachings took Islam away from the establishment and gave it to each Muslim capable of reading and understanding the Quran.

Moftizadeh’s Kurdish identity

Moftizadeh in Kurdish pants.

Moftizadeh insisted on wearing Kurdish pants, as a way of encouraging other Kurds to not be ashamed of their cultural practices. This was considered unfashionable in his time by other Kurds. They would tell him “You are not a lower-class laborer, so why do you wear that?” He says he replied to such a statement once by saying, “I am a human, and laborers are humans.”

In Sanandaj, the nicknames of kaka (“big brother”), khalo (“uncle”) and mamo (also meaning “uncle”) were used as a way of addressing lower-class people. Moftizadeh came to be called kaka, and he asked his followers to continue calling him this, rejecting honorific titles.

He strongly opposed titles like “sayyid”, “sheikh”, “mala”, “haji”, all of which were used as honorifics for people supposedly religiously or socially superior to others, and all o which could be used to describe himself if I remember correctly. He says these are used to separate one section of society from another, the holier from the less holy, and this makes them un-Islamic and sinful.

Ahmad Moftizadeh considers the Medes the ancestors of Kurds, and the Persians their usurpers. He considers the Persian Empire a permanent force of oppression against Kurds since its inception. He considers Nawroz (the Iranian new year celebration) an imperial and anti-Kurd invention that celebrates the Persian usurpation of Kurdish power.

I have my doubts about this theory, and believe that considering all the Iranian races (Kurds, Lurs, Persians, Pashtos) one race that slowly branched out a far better foundation for building a constructive identity. Kurdish victimhood identity is extremely dangerous, as like all victimhood identities (Zionism, communism, feminism, Shiism) it reduces empathy and the sense of moral responsibility. A victim has the right to more privileges and is held to lower moral standards, and acts as such.

In Moftizadeh’s view, Kurds have been oppressed for 2500 years. In my view, the oppression of the Kurds might very well be a 20th century invention, as Turkish, Arab and Persian nationalism grew as responses to colonialism. Before that, the Kurds were just another subject nation of the Ottomans and the Safavids, and often enjoyed great autonomy, and their noblemen were accepted in the courts of these empires as men of power and status.

Having a single, global humanist identity is so much more beautiful and productive (I should note that I am strongly opposed to globalism, but that is another matter). Western Muslim intellectuals are ahead in this regard, in shunning racial and nationalist identities. But Moftizadeh was a product of his time, and at that time, the issue of Kurdish identity was a matter of top priority, since Persians by and large considered Kurds a backwater nation that should be Persianized for their own good. Moftizadeh’s response was to fight for Kurdish identity, saying that Kurds had as much right to exist and exercise their language and culture as Persians.

The Umayyads

Moftizadeh considers the Umayyads the root cause for the loss of the original “true” Islamic caliphate, and says things mirroring the Shia view on them; that Abu Sufyan’s conversion to Islam was not true and that Muawiyah was on the whole an evil ruler. Since he brought back the old aristocratic system, threw out the shura system of democratic rule, established a dynastic monarchy, and built a palace in which he lived in luxury, for Moftizadeh this is sufficient evidence to consider him evil and corrupt.

Personally, I doubt there is sufficient evidence to conclusively rule that Abu Sufyan or Muawiyah weren’t truly good people. They may have liked wealth and power and worked for it, but so do many other Muslims. They weren’t perfect, but this does not mean that they weren’t on the whole reasonably good people.

Moftizadeh’s anti-Umayyad stance comes from his extreme anti-aristocratic views and his dislike for the Sunni-Shia divide for which he holds the Umayyads responsible.

I believe a more balanced and sophisticated approach is needed when it comes to the historical facts of the matter. As for the religious division issue, focusing on history is not going help matters. The Shia establishment will continue promoting the Shia vicitmhood narrative, since this is important for maintaining power and relevance.

Equality and Marxism

Moftizadeh says “An Islamic society is one in which there are no (social) strata,” advocating for a radical equality among the population, from the ruler to the lowliest laborer (using the example of the Rashidun caliphs to explain what he meant). Some mullahs said that he was becoming a communist with his calls for equality. In response, he instead make a powerful critique of communism, recognizing its feudal nature. He says that communism is actually aristocracy taken to its most obscene extreme, where the central government becomes the unquestioned lord and the entirety of the population its lowly servants.

He strongly disliked the undue respect that government officials received. In one Islamic gathering he sees that a section of the best seats have been reserved for officials. He goes and sits there, to set the example that officials should not be treated specially. When officials visit his home, he is harsh and unfriendly with them. On the other hand, he treats the lower classes with the utmost love and respect.

Regarding the problem of nepotism, ever-present in the Middle East, he says:

Anyone who in his or her dealing with a government official gets preferential treatment because of family ties or other things, and he or she accepts this treatment, they have done injustice.

And on respecting the lower classes:

How miserable is the person who works in the name of leading a religious movement and dislikes meeting the poor, while exulting at meeting the rich and powerful.

His manners

Some of his followers suggested that he should get bodyguards, since they feared for his safety with his great fame and high status. He rejected this, saying that he is no better than the Rashidun caliphs Ali and Umar, who never had bodyguards. He says that one must go among the people, like the prophets used to, that separating himself from the people would automatically make him a failure.

When out, his friends suggest using a taxi to go somewhere (considered a luxury form of transport at the time), he refuses, saying “Why can’t we go like the rest of the people?”

After his release from prison (and close to his death), he was extremely sick from cancer and his body broken by the torture he had received under the Iranians. At one point he was receiving visitors, with everyone sitting on the floor as it is customary in Iran, and as he himself tried to sit, he suffered extreme pain since he couldn’t sit comfortably on the floor. Some offered to bring him a soft cushion to sit on, but he refused, saying, “A sick person can relax as needed when resting, but when among the people, he must behave like the people.” His meaning was that his sickness did not give him the privilege of acting differently and being catered to. This was part of his extreme insistence on equality and “not separating from the people”.

At one point, one of his followers opens a car door for him as a show of respect. He tells them to close it, to go sit themselves, and says, “Do you think I don’t know how to open car doors?”

He sees that someone refers to him as “dear kak Ahmad” in writing, and tells the person not to attach any title to him, even if it is merely “dear”.

One of his followers, who goes on to be killed by the Iranian government, explains that the reason why Moftizadeh attracted such a devoted following was that he truly embodied the three points mentioned in this verse of the Quran:

And who is better in speech than someone who calls to God, and carries out wholesome deeds, and says, “I am of the Muslims”? (The Quran, verse 41:33)

  • Moftizadeh called toward God, toward submission to Him and freedom from submission to all other authorities and powers. He never worked for political power or for recognition, he never called for some group of his own.
  • Moftizadeh worked to do good deeds day and night. He was a leader in applying the Quran in his own life, and this could be seen everywhere in his manners and actions.
  • His stance always was “I am of the Muslims”, which this student of Moftizadeh interprets as meaning that the person does not separate himself from the Muslims using titles and status symbols. While the typical religious leader was happy to use his status as a bargaining tool for dealing with others in power, and while such a leader usually had a highly stratified organization around him, Mofizadeh not only rejected all of this, but turned the tables; he would treat the supposedly lowliest Muslims with the utmost respect and honor, while dealing harshly with the figures of authority in his town (knowing they were corrupt and hand-in-hand with the regime).

Relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood

Some members of the Muslim Brotherhood have mistakenly claimed that Moftizadeh was a member of their organization. While he had very close relationships with some Brothers, he did not do this out of allegiance to the Brotherhood, but out of his heart-centered approach; he would collaborate and help anyone who appeared like a good person.

He was, near the end of his life, against political work, and he is quoted in The Last Mufti as saying that one who engages in political work is very likely to lose the way of guidance.

Comparison with The Last Mufti

The last 100 pages or so of the book is dedicated to translations of articles and interviews with him published in various Iranian publications in the early years of the Iranian Revolution.

The Last Mufti does a far better job of describing the cultural context of Moftizadeh’s time and the origins of his family, likely due to the fact that The Last Mufti relied on far more many sources than this book does. However, it does contain many interesting details and anecdotes not mentioned in The Last Mufti, so both are well worth reading.

Heroes

Moftizadeh’s (and Sayyid Qutb’s) life shows that people need heroes. Moftizadeh was not the founder of a new school of fiqh and one cannot point to any major work of his. A scholarly skeptic, proud of his own works and education, may look at Moftizadeh’s followers and think “What is wrong with all of these people who glorify this nobody?”

Yet the service that Moftizadeh did Islam has been immense and worthier than the works of perhaps a hundred scholars. By embodying his radical message, he became the message. It is sufficient to mention “Moftizadeh” to any of thousands of Iranian Sunnis to renew their motivation, their hope, their trust in God, their insistence on truth and justice, their bravery.

So while many people belonging to the Islamic establishment will be able to call Qutb and Moftizadeh “nobodies”, it is sufficient to see the effects of these men on their respective audiences to realize that these men did tremendously important things, that they were greater than the thousands of religious clerics who failed to do the same, who preferred silence and comfort to telling the truth and putting their lives at risk.

This is an important realization for me; that Islam cannot revive hearts and cannot cause social change unless it is embodied in certain people, no matter how few. For true, dynamic, activist Islam to exist in a community, that community needs to have its own Qutbs and Moftizadehs who are ready to be crucified for its sake, who tell the truth and stand for justice despite the danger to their own careers and lives.

Without such people, the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized will look at the religious establishment and think, “Look at those pompous idiots who think they are here to bring us salvation while they do nothing to protect our lives and dignity.” This was the attitude of people in Iran, Iraq and Egypt toward the religious establishment until people like Moftizadeh and Qutb appeared, and this is probably the attitude of many Saudi people toward their cowardly and well-fed Salafi scholars who turn a blind eye to the abuses of the Saudi family.

This is also the attitude of many Westerners toward the churches. Churchgoers who are not eager to give up large portions of their wealth to feed the poor and the oppressed in their communities have little right to pretend to be followers of Christ, and fully deserve to be considered out-of-touch and pompous hypocrites who do not really believe in their message.

If you do not embody Islam or Christianity’s radically activist message, don’t be surprised if no one takes you seriously.

Conclusion

Moftizadeh’s manners and story is similar to that of Jesus in the New Testament. He fearlessly embodied his message of radical honesty, of respecting all humans, of working against injustice and tyranny, acting like a wrench thrown into the comfortable decay of the Shah’s Kurdistan.

Moftizadeh was the worst nightmare of every corrupt politician, cleric and faux revolutionary, never accepting to limit his speech against them, never seeking material gain (thus he was unbribable), and treating his followers with far more respect and honor than the figures of authority of his society, whether secular or religious, in this way creating a new power structure that discredited the existing ones and empowered ordinary people to feel as if they had the freedom to question things.

Just like it happened with Jesus, many people started calling for his blood, including the religious establishment he was a part of. His criticism of the Shah’s regime helped topple it, but instead of acting the expected way toward his new Shia masters, silently acceding to them, he continued just like before, speaking his mind, discrediting them, not taking them seriously and focusing on truth and justice above all else.

Moftizadeh represents the ideal Muslim citizen; a good and kind friend of every good and kind person, a peaceful activist who did his utmost to prevent violence, a nightmare to every greedy and power-hungry politician, cleric and aristocrat.

Moftizadeh is a very difficult ideal to emulate. People either choose to be power-seeking revolutionaries who risk some but get a lot in return, or quietist mystics who risk nothing and enjoy a comfortable living. Moftizadeh brings together the difficult parts of both lifestyles and throws away the parts palatable to the human ego; you must be a revolutionary who does not seek power, and a mystic who risks everything. Most humans can either live up to the revolutionary ideal or the mystic ideal, very few can unite the two, because not only is there no personal gain in doing this, there is much chance of personal loss. Moftizadeh did that and suffered horribly for it, but renewed the world with his suffering.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet by Tariq Ramadan

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In the Footsteps of the Prophet is a long-needed biography of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ that focuses on his character, manners and experience, rather than merely narrating dates and facts.

Many classical Islamic books are somewhat out-of-touch for modern readers, so that while they may have been satisfactory to their original (often Middle Eastern) readers, when translated into English they end up being unapproachable and highly inadequate, often leading to more questions than answers. In the Footsteps of the Prophet, having been written by someone who lives and breathes the Western worldview, lacks these shortcomings, so that I can refer Europeans to it without having to make apologies for it.

On embracing faith

Ramadan writes:

From the outset, the Quran presents itself as the mirror of the universe. The term that the first Western translators rendered as “verse”-referring to biblical vocabulary-literally means, in Arabic, “sign” (ayah). Thus, the revealed Book, the written text, is made up of signs (ayat) just as the uni­verse, like a text spread out before our eyes, is teeming with signs. When the heart’s intelligence, and not only analytical intelligence, reads the Quran and the world, then the two texts address and echo each other, and each of them speaks of the other and of the One. The signs remind us of what it means to be born, to live, to think, to feel, and to die.

His writing style creates vague clouds of meanings and feelings, and it is often left as an exercise to the reader to make out anything concrete from what he says. This is very much unlike my own style, but perhaps there is a demographic that finds better meaning in his. What he is saying above is that the Quran provides various pointers (rather than conclusive proofs) of the Creator’s existence and presence, and the universe around us also provides its own pointers (rather than conclusive proofs). When you bring together the total of the Quran’s pointers and the universe’s pointers, your conscience (what he refers to as your heart’s intelligence) is offered the very difficult choice of accepting faith or rejecting it.

When you run into sufficient ayat in yourself, in the world around you, and in the Quran, you reach a point where non-submission to the Creator becomes a sin against your conscience. This is the sin of kufr (disbelief), of denying God’s signs and/or favors.

Throughout your life, your conscience is like a jury watching a trial that tries to decide whether God exists or not. Sign after sign is presented to your conscience, never sufficient to conclusively prove to your rational brain that God exists, but never so little that you can deny those signs in good conscience. Once you have seen sufficient signs, you will feel guilty to deny God, because you have done something that goes against your conscience. Even if you can rationally justify your rejection of God, the guilt may never leave.

As for someone who has never seen sufficient signs, that is a different matter.

The super-humanity or not of the Prophet ﷺ

Ramadan embraces the idea that there was something special (super-human) about the Prophet ﷺ, narrating a few stories like the angels visiting him when he was a child and performing surgery on him to remove a black piece of flesh from his heart, in this way purifying him from something bad that other human hearts supposedly contain. The Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali in his Fiqh al-Sīra rejects this story, saying that good and evil are a matter of the spirit, not the flesh.

The story is problematic because it suggests there is some inherently evil within humans, embedded right in their flesh, reminiscent of the Christian concept of original sin. This story is just one example of the myriad stories in books of sīra (biographies of the Prophet ﷺ) suggesting that the Prophet ﷺ was special, something more than human. The Christians turned Jesus into God, and Muslims would probably have done the same, out of love and a desire for a human divinity that wasn’t so terrifying as God, if the Quran wasn’t so insistent that God has no associates and wasn’t so critical of the idea of Jesus as a Son of God.

While we may not be able to conclusively say that there is was nothing specially super-human about the Prophet ﷺ, a truly human Prophet is far more admirable than a super-human Prophet in reality. What’s so special about bearing a burden if you are given super-powers by God to bear it? And resisting evil while desiring it is a greater accomplishment, as in the case of Prophet Yusuf (biblical Joseph), than resisting it after God sends angels to perform surgery on you to make you a better person.

The beautiful story the Quran tells us is that the Prophet was a human just like any of us, and that he was given a terribly difficult mission that terrified him. He had to bear this burden with all of his fears and weaknesses, he had to face humiliation after humiliation among his relatives and tribe, and he had to face death on numerous occasions, not as a super-man who couldn’t be harmed, but as a fragile human who could suffer, who could fear, who could desire, who could be impatient, who could make terrible mistakes.

Say, “I am nothing more than a human being like you, being inspired that your god is One God. Whoever hopes to meet his Lord, let him work righteousness, and never associate anyone with the service of his Lord.” (The Quran 18:110)

God did not tell the Prophet to say, “All humans are equal, but I am more equal than you.” He is told to say “I am nothing more than a human being”. That is it. There is no need to turn him into a super-man and in this way take away his achievements as a human.

In the Footsteps of the Prophet contains only a few such stories, which makes it superior to other books of sīra.

Aisha

Sufficient evidence is not presented to show why the relationship between Aisha and the Prophet was special and exemplary, a claim that the book makes in multiple places. The issue of Aisha’s age is not addressed, and for someone who has this in mind while reading the relevant passages, nothing presented sufficiently justifies things (see my article here for the views of the latest scholars who say that there is good evidence that Aisha was close to 18 at the time of her marriage). He mentions that the Prophet ﷺ “stayed away” from Aisha for a month after she was accused of adultery, then mentions that this event “reinforced their love and trust”. But this claim is not convincing when no evidence is presented for it, and in fact evidence is provided that it harmed their relationship.

The very important spiritual side of this matter is not mentioned. This was an intensely difficult lesson for the Prophet ﷺ, for he had not received guidance on what to do in the case of someone being accused without evidence being presented. Since the person accused was his own wife, and since he had no specific guidance on the matter, he could do nothing but suffer. He did not dare interact with his wife, not knowing whether her status as his wife was valid anymore.

Mentioning these facts would have shown that his abandoning her for a month was not an him throwing away his wife until she was proven innocent, as it would appear to a critical reader. Both in this book and Karen Armstrong’s  Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time, the focus on the Prophet’s persona and his sociopolitical status sometimes causes the fact of his servitude toward God to be neglected. In the issue of Aisha’s accusation, he was a helpless servant of God, not knowing what to do to please Him.

Later it is mentioned that Aisha remained upset with the fact that the Prophet had doubted her chastity. Her mother asks her to thank the Prophet ﷺ for forgiving her and taking her back, but she says she will only thank God, since the Prophet ﷺ had doubted her. This, while seemingly a negative fact, is a good illustration of the fact that she maintained her independence of mind and did not act as an intellectual slave to her husband, but considered him a human that could be challenged.

Sufficient justification for the war on Khaybar is not mentioned: the fact that it continuously sought to pay Arab tribes to go to war with the Muslims, hoping to remain the supreme Jewish power over the gentiles of Arabia, the way Israel today hopes to remain the supreme Jewish power over the gentiles of the Middle East, and using one group of gentiles to do their dirty work for them against another group while they themselves remained safe in their fortresses, the way today they get Christians to fund and fight Israel’s wars for them.

The Prophet’s manners

As mentioned, the book approaches the Prophet ﷺ as a human to be understood and emulated, and many examples are shown of his immense kindness, tolerance and civility toward both his followers and his sworn enemies. While on the whole the image of the Prophet ﷺ presented by the book is believable, there are also passages like the following which appear to insert too much of the author’s own reading into the character of Prophet ﷺ:

The Messenger, moreover, drew from children his sense of play and innocence; from them he learned to look at people and the world around him with wonder. From watching children experience beauty he also more fully developed his sense of aesthetics: in front of beauty, he wept, he was moved, he sometimes sobbed, and he was often filled with well-being by the poetic musicality of a phrase or by the spiritual call of a verse offered by the Most Generous, the Infinitely Beautiful.

It would have helped if these characteristics were backed by concrete examples. We have no evidence that this is not merely how Ramadan wishes the Prophet ﷺ to have been.

Conclusion

In the Footsteps of the Prophet is a book I would recommend to anyone wanting to get something of an accurate view of Islam’s founder, a view that is neither harshly critical or fawningly uncritical piece of marketing. It shows the Prophet ﷺ as those who know the most about him see him, and I cannot give it a higher praise than this.

A non-Muslim may naturally be skeptical of a book, written by a Muslim, that offers such a seemingly charitable glimpse of the Prophet. Muslims have everything to gain if non-Muslims see the founder of their religion in a more friendly light. To that I will say that this is the Prophet ﷺ as Muslims see him. There are no dark secrets. If someone says that the Prophet said or did something horrible, we reject it. The Prophet’s character, as his wife Aisha said, “was the Quran”. We think of the Prophet as a follower of the Quran, someone who did his utmost to embody its teachings, and if someone makes a claim about the Prophet that is highly out of character for him as a person who lived and breathed the Quran, then we reject that claim regardless of where it comes from.

This is a simple matter of giving weight to more reliable evidence (the Quran) over less reliable evidence (hadith). If the more reliable evidence gives you one view of the Prophet, and the less reliable evidence gives you another one, if you are a rational human, you will prefer the view arrived at through the more reliable evidence, and this is what we Muslims do, and this is what In the Footsteps of the Prophet does. Those who have an ax to grind against Islam ignore the reliable evidence and waste their time building an alternate-reality version of the Prophet ﷺ based on less reliable evidence, a version of the Prophet that goes entirely against the Quranic view. What they say about the Prophet, therefore, is automatically rejected, since they intentionally ignore the most important evidence (the Quran) and instead focus on secondary evidence that confirm their preconceived biases.

A fair-minded person should therefore see that what In the Footsteps of the Prophet does is exactly what we Muslims do in trying to arrive at an accurate understanding of the Prophet ﷺ; we use the canonical, Quranic view to make sense of a world of secondary evidence of varying authenticity to reach a good enough understanding of the Prophet’s mind and character.

Conflicts of Fitness: Islam, America, and Evolutionary Psychology

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Conflicts of Fitness: Islam, America, and Evolutionary Psychology by A.S. Amin is a highly original examination of the dynamics of gender and sexuality within Western societies on the one hand, and within Islamic societies on the other.

As someone who has been working on reconciling Islam and evolutionary theory and on developing a post-feminist theory of human sexual dynamics, I hardly expect most books to tell me anything I haven’t already heard or thought about, but this book manages it. It is a short and enjoyable read that sticks to the facts and does not often try to force an interpretation on them, which will make it agreeable to people coming from differing backgrounds and ideological currents.

The author’s main thesis is that different societies have different reproductive climates designed to maximize reproductive success. In a short-term climate, like that of most of the United States, human evolutionary instincts drive men to do their best to have sex with as many women as possible while not caring very much about a woman’s virginity and past sexual experiences. As for women, the climate drives them to display sexual receptivity through makeup, dress and manners designed to encourage men to think of them in sexual terms.

On the other hand, in a very-long-term climate like Saudi Arabia, men maximize reproductive success not by trying to have as many short-term relationships as possible, but by maximizing paternity confidence. Saudi Arabian seek virginal women so that they can be assured their children are theirs, and they go to extremes to ensure this; marrying very young women and preventing women from leaving the house, getting an education or a career.

This way of looking at the problem of women’s status in extremely conservative Muslim societies is a breath of fresh air from all of the moralistic or emotional treatments the subject has so far received on the hands of ideologically-driven intellectuals and commentators. It is also good to find another Muslim who can think of these matters in scientific and largely apolitical terms.

A reader of Conflicts of Fitness may wonder how a Muslim can write from an evolutionary perspective when Muslims do not generally accept the theory of evolution. Amin does not offer an explanation for this, focusing on his research topic without delving into this issue, leaving it to the readers to work it out. In my essay God, Evolution and Abiogenesis I explain how the Quran is compatible not only with evolution, but with abiogenesis as well.

Explaining Islam’s policy toward polygamy

Before reading this book, I had often thought of polygyny as a privilege granted men in order to deal with certain exceptional circumstances (such as having an infertile wife). Conflicts of Fitness explains that there is more to it than this, and that women, rather than men, are potentially the primary beneficiaries of polygyny:

  • If you have ten men and ten women, by allowing the most successful man to marry the two women, nine men are left to compete for the remaining eight women. These men will be forced to offer stronger commitment to these women in order to secure their hands in marriage, in this way creating a society where most relationships are highly committed.
  • Successful middle-aged men often strongly desire to use their wealth and success to build new families and have more children. In a monogamous society, such men are forced to divorce their current wives, or worse, cheat on them. In an Islamic society, a safe outlet is provided for these men, enabling them to keep their current wives (who, if divorced, would most likely be unable to marry again due to their old age), while also enabling them to create new families. While this is not ideal for the current wives, most would prefer it over being divorced. This also increases the options of younger women, since married men would compete for their hands in marriage. Polygyny is not a zero-sum game for women, and the overall benefits to women is almost certainly greater than the harm it does.

Most Western women and men empathize with the underdog when thinking of hypothetical situations, therefore they are unlikely to accept the above explanation, since they empathize with the poor woman who will suffer having to share her husband with another woman. The fact that she chooses this over divorce is not given attention since it goes against the “Islam is misogynistic” narrative.

For a Muslim who already believes in the Quran, the explanation is a good vindication of the policy, and it should help restrain scholars overeager to place strict restrictions on polygyny. In a society where marriage is by consent and where people are free to divorce whenever they want, polygyny will be self-balancing. Men will have to balance the fear of losing their present wife with their desire for a second one, meaning that the majority of men will be unlikely to abuse this right. My experience of Kurdish and Persian society proves this correct.

Explaining makeup

In a short-term reproductive climate, women signal their receptivity to short-term-style sexual relationships in various ways, one of which is makeup. One thing that makeup does is simulate the effects of sexual arousal:

It turns out that when a woman becomes sexually aroused, certain physiologic changes take place. Among these changes are dilation of the pupils and the blood vessels in the cheeks and lips.

The author refers to this facet of makeup-as-a-signal-of-sexual-receptivity in many places in the book. However, while this is highly informative, it is not the complete picture. Makeup also serves as an important axis for enabling women to get ahead of themselves and other women. Makeup enables a woman to enhance her apparent quality as a worthy mate by making herself look younger and healthier. In a long-term or somewhat-long-term climate, makeup helps a woman appear as a better substance compared to her competitors. This, however, runs the danger of sending the wrong signal, of appearing to be receptive to sexual advances, for this reason in a long-term climate, a woman has to walk a fine line between enhancing her looks (which helps her get the interest of more suitors wanting to marry her) and signalling sexual receptivity (which garners the attention of the wrong audience).

The generational gap in reproductive strategies

The author mentions that an important reason for the strife that so often exists between teenage girls and their parents regarding dress and makeup is a generational gap in reproductive strategies. The parents grew up in a climate that was more long-term-oriented than the present climate, and they want to enforce the mores of their outdated climate on their children, not realizing that the climate has changed, and that by preventing their daughter from dressing more skimpily or wearing more makeup or dating more freely, they are causing her to fall behind her peers. Immigrants, especially Muslims, bringing up children in the West suffer a similar conflict. What should be done to handle this problem? The author does not say.

Should Muslims submit to the new climate, admitting that laxer standards are needed for their children, or should they fight off the West and try to keep isolated?

The Muslim Westerner’s mindset toward the West’s short-term reproductive climate should not reactionary, it should instead be constructive. Muslim men and women, following the Quranic program, should live and marry and construct their own Western society that proudly rejects everything it considers inferior and harmful and happily embraces everything it considers beneficial. Instead of trying to live in an “intellectual ghetto”, as Tariq Ramadan calls it, they live in the center of the Western intellectual tradition, reforming it, critiquing its weaknesses, calling for betterment, and freely defining new ways of life, exactly the way the intellectual elite throughout the ages have always done, defining new ways of life for themselves often at odds with the wider society.

Approaching Muslim women

I have seen some Western non-Muslim men wonder how you go about approaching a Muslim woman (to see if she is interested in a relationship), since the way they dress often signals unapprochability. The answer is that you don’t approach Muslim women (at least not the vast majority). The author gives an evolutionary explanation for this. Muslim women seek long-term partners, which requires deep knowledge of the man before any contact is made. It is for this reason that parents, relatives and friends are often heavily involved in planning and executing marriages. Approaching a Muslim woman, telling her she is beautiful and that you find her really interesting will most likely upset and offend her, since you are offering her exactly what she does not want; a relationship based on a short-term sexual attraction, and because being seen talking to a random man can harm her reputation.

Westerners, and some liberal Muslims, think these facts show that Muslims are out of touch or backward, and that they must be “better-educated”, “liberated”, “integrated”, “assimilated” and a whole lot of other euphemisms referring to the belief that Muslims should stop being Muslims and act more like non-Muslims for their own good.

The Quran requires that Muslims implement long-term reproductive strategies in their lives, meaning that for Muslims to remain Muslims, short-term reproductive behaviors can never be normalized. A Muslim woman who has a PhD and is attending a conference is not going to respond positively to some non-Muslim man’s pick-up line no matter how well-educated and liberated she is, if she is a devout Muslim. This is because in effect the man is calling her to abandon her chosen way of life. For her, sexual relationships are long-term matters that require the critique and approval of her family, relatives and friends, since Islam teaches her to think of herself as a member of a community, and to respect the opinions of her relatives and the authority of her parents. If a man is interested in her, instead of approaching her directly, he does it in a manner that shows his respect for the Muslim community and her family, and that shows his long-term interest in her, by having a friend or relative approach a friend or relative of hers.

Of course, this is not always an option, sometimes a direct approach is the only one possible, for example for a Muslim man and woman studying at the same college but knowing nothing else about one another, and having no one to mediate for them.

Islam, women, careers and divorce

The book analyzes the significant relationship between reproductive climates and attitudes toward women having careers. In a short-term climate, men cannot be relied on as providers, since they are interested in independence and short-term sexual relationships. In a long-term climate, men can be relied on, since men have no option but to be providers, in order to be able to attract the love interest of women.

This means that in a short-term climate, a career can be essential to a woman’s survival, while in a long-term climate, it can be largely irrelevant.

Men who like to follow a short-term sexual strategy (having sexual access to many females without having to commit themselves) will have an incentive to promote women’s “liberation”. For such men, it can be frustrating to live in a society that limits the availability of women, and they may do what they can to bring about change, to discredit the “backward” patriarchs, to get women out of society’s protection and into their own hands.

In his analysis of Islamic thought as it applies to the topic, the author’s methods and ways of thought are close to mine, which was a pleasant surprise. He refers to some of my favorite scholars while also maintaining a critical eye toward their opinions. He makes many references to the UCLA professor Khaled Abou El Fadl, someone largely unknown to me until reading this book:

Reviewing many of the Qur’ānic verses used to justify women’s restricted access to divorce, he concludes that the full implications of these verses have not been fully considered and intimates his opinion that Islam gives women the same access to divorce as it does to men. However, Abou El Fadl seems somewhat troubled that his opinion is in disagreement with the majority of Muslim jurists throughout Islamic history. The question becomes, is the majority opinion the result of the unequivocal evidence found in the sources of Islamic law, or a manifestation of the reproductive climates in which those opinions were formulated?

A woman should have full rights to divorce, because ethically, this is almost certainly crucial for ensuring the fairness of the marriage system. A man is given a degree of authority over his wife in his household. To ensure that this authority does not lead to abuse and tyranny, a woman must always retain the right to leave. Preventing her from leaving is going to greatly reduce her bargaining power in the relationship. I also support the opinions of the Salafi scholars al-Albani and Ibn Baaz in requiring a formal procedure for a man to divorce his wife, requiring him to stay with her for one menstrual cycle without having sex before the divorce is considered official. I believe that allowing a man to perform a permanent triple divorce by uttering a sentence is a highly damaging and defeats many of the purposes of Islamic law.

Reproductive climates and the practice of fiqh

Fiqh refers to Islamic jurisprudence, the field of discovering the best possible practical applications for the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah (the Prophet’s traditions ﷺ). One of the main theses of the book is that the reproductive climate affects the way men interpret Islamic principles.

According to Amin, in very-long-term climates like Saudi Arabia, paternity confidence is one of the prime directives in the minds of the jurists, so that they support nearly everything that can in some way restrict a woman’s freedom and make her a better reproductive object. Egyptians have a less long-term climate, so that their scholars are willing to make concessions to women’s freedom even if they acknowledge that in certain circumstances these granted privileges may lead to less paternity confidence.

Amin’s thesis is that reproductive climates affect the derivation of fiqh, leading to differing rulings (fatwas). This is one of the main conclusions of the book, that Muslim men prefer different interpretations of Islam based on their reproductive climates. To Saudi Muslim men, it is “obvious” that women should be restricted for everyone’s good, while to (cosmopolitan) Egyptian Muslim men, it is “obvious” that women should have more freedoms. A man’s reproductive strategy affects his values and makes him prioritize certain things over others, leading to a type of Islam that fits his own reproductive goals.

This scientific analysis of the derivation of fiqh is important and very much needed in order to separate what is truly Islamic from what is merely cultural within the rulings of the scholars. A new field can be launched, the (evolutionary) sociology of fiqh, that studies these matters.

The limitation of his evolutionary psychology approach is that it treats humans as genetic creatures, so that he studies how manifestations of genetically-driven instincts affect psychological behavior. To me this is only half of evolutionary psychology, although I know that many evolutionary psychologists limit themselves to this.

Humans are not genetic creatures, but genetic-cultural creatures, genes affect culture and culture affects genes. This adds a layer of complexity to human psychology that, if ignored, leads to incomplete theories. Thus the Egyptian toleration for less paternity confidence is not necessarily a consequence of the reproductive climate, it might be a cause of it. Perhaps the cultural appreciation of Egyptians for human rights led to a toleration for a shorter-term reproductive climate, so that this ideal was given priority over the concern for paternity confidence.

IQ is largely genetic (i.e. not cultural), but its consequence is a culture that appreciates various intangible ideals, whose consequence, in turn, is a re-interpretation of religion that tolerates a laxer reproductive climate, since this is more likely to achieve those ideals.

Having a high IQ does not mean that a person will be a nice, idealistic person. Rather, a high IQ population, after accepting certain teachings (Western/Christian philosophy, the Quran, Sufism), ends up becoming something of a humanist. A low IQ population, given the same teachings, will mostly focus on its form and ignore its content (ideals). Thus low IQ Muslims and Christians are often obsessed with appearances, socialization and ritual, while it is the high IQ Muslims and Christians who bother to read deeply into the texts.

It is, therefore, my hypothesis that when Islam is given to a high IQ population, the result is a humanist Islam, as is so well seen in cosmopolitan sections of Egypt. While when Islam is given to a low IQ population (Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan), the result is a focus on texts (naql, its extreme example being Wahhabism) and negligence toward the Quran’s principles.

While the author’s focus on reproductive concerns within the practice of fiqh is useful and enlightening, it is an incomplete view of the system. Genetics can lead to certain cultural (by “cultural”, I mean everything that’s not genetic) behaviors, which can then come back and influence reproductive behaviors, leading to highly complex feedback loops.

Dress codes for slave women

Amin mentions the fact that jurists have tolerated laxer dress codes for slave women compared to free women. According to his theory, this is a sign of the fact that since a slave woman is a short-term mate (more of an object of desire than reproduction), a short-term mindset toward her was tolerated, some jurists going as far as allowing her to show her breasts in public. Since paternity confidence was not a concern, the amount of skin a slave woman showed was not of much concern.

This behavior is also seen in Arab and Indo-Pakistani men living in the West who have short-term sexual relationships with Western women, but once they go on to seek a wife, they look for women from conservative families whose chastity and virginity can be relied on.

In both of the above situations, a double standard is maintained depending on the purpose of the woman in question. While the dress codes of slave women have no practical relevance to the modern practice of Islam, from a sociology of fiqh perspective, the matter might provide a useful insight into the thinking processes of jurists, showing how personal biases and reproductive goals affect the way Islamic sexual morality is interpreted.

It should, however, be noted that part of the justification for this double standard for the dress codes of free vs. slave women is verse 33:59 of the Quran:

O Prophet! Tell your wives, and your daughters, and the women of the believers, to lengthen their garments. That is more proper, so they will be recognized and not harassed. God is Forgiving and Merciful.

A common interpretation of “so they will be recognized” is that so that it will be known that they are free women and not slaves (as mentioned in al-Tabari’s tafseer). This clearly provides justification for tolerating different dress codes for different classes of women.

Another Persian scholar, al-Razi, interprets this verse as saying that virtuous women should dress more conservatively if there is a chance they will run into uncouth strangers, so that those strangers may recognize them as virtuous women and not women open to flirtation. This interpretation is more satisfactory in my opinion and prevents the use of the verse as justification for having double standards regarding different classes of women.

What does Islam select for?

All societies select for something. —Greg Cochran
All policy is eugenics.1 —Ikram Hawramani

Another relevant and highly interesting topic that is not covered by the book is the effects of reproductive climates on genes. For example, in a society that practices polygyny for long enough, the sex ratio will likely correct itself so that slightly more women than men will be born.

As I explain in my essay The Gene-Culture, any study of humans that entirely focuses on genes, or entirely focuses on culture, is going to be incomplete, because it focuses on one force while ignoring its equally important companion force.

A study of religious policies toward gender as entirely reproductive strategies, while highly informative, is incomplete. Thinking in terms of centuries and millennia, rather than in terms of individual generations and societies, will bring into focus the importance of religion as a gene-modifying force; Islamic culture will rewrite genes by selecting for certain characteristics and against others, the same way that genes (and reproductive strategies) affect our practice and interpretation of Islam, causing us to focus on certain aspects of Islam (and ignore others at times).

Islam rewards and promotes self-restraint, which is strongly associated with IQ, therefore high IQ people will get a more favorable treatment under Islam compared to lower IQ people who have difficulty with self-restraint. A woman who has a reputation for being “wild” is going to be passed up by men in favor of women who have a reputation for restraint. A man who does not have the long-term planning capacity to get a degree and a good career is going to be passed up by women in favor of men who have such capabilities.

Short-term climates create winner-take-all realities where a few attractive men get to have sex with a great number of women, as Conflicts of Fitness studies in detail, while the less sexually attractive and shy “nerdy” men are going to find it very difficult to find mates.

The Islamic system prevents this reality from existing. It punishes the womanizing “alpha males” by forcing them into long-term relationships where they have to make do with one, two or at most four women. And since many of these “alpha males” will not have the money to take care of too many women at the same time, they will often be forced to make do with just one or two women. This means that the rest of the women will not have access to these men, so that they are made to settle for less attractive men.

In an Islamic society, similar to Japanese society 100 years ago, the majority of men will be able to marry, including shy and nerdy ones who are totally incapable of using charisma to attract women. This fact of Islamic societies may be a significant contributor to the high fertility rates that devout Muslim societies enjoy.

Conclusion

Conflicts of Fitness is a worthy contribution in the best tradition of Western civilization, an effort to arrive at the truth without concern for political considerations.

Islam’s theory of free will versus physical determinism: Why humans are responsible for their actions even though God operates the universe

Emission Nebula

In your essay "God, Evolution and Abiogenesis," you said an atom has no power to move on its own. It is God who has to move every single thing that moves in this world. Given that, does that mean we don't have free will? On the atomic level, it is due to the chemical reactions and the firing of neurons in our brains that we think and make decisions. So, since God is responsible for everything that's in motion (including atoms), then isn't God to blame for all my immoral actions?

Your soul is “plugged into” this universe without being part of it. When you desire to lift up your hand, the desire is yours, therefore you are responsible for this action, but it is God who actually has to move the atoms (and everything else) for your hand to actually move.

When you play a video game, you can issue a command for your game character to lift its hand. You personally have no power to lift the character’s hand, it is the video game engine that actually has to carry your command out, and if the video game engine malfunctions, no matter how many times you issue the command for your character to do something, it may not do it.

When your soul, which is independent from this universe, issues a command, it is fully responsible for this command. But this command is nothing but a feeble wish, it has zero power to change the universe. It is God who has to communicate the soul’s commands to your body, and it is God who has to carry the command out by moving the universe, since nothing in this universe has the power or ability to move or change by itself.

So your soul is free, it is not part of the functioning of this universe. This universe can be thought of as a simulation that is entirely upheld and operated by God. Your soul has no power except to wish for things, and God can transfer these wishes to the body that is temporarily under a human’s control inside our universe. When a person dies, the soul is simply “unplugged” from the universe, and when the person is resurrected, the soul is plugged back into a new body.

Since He wants us to have the choice of disbelieving in Him, He always reliably operates this universe for us, making us think that we have control over our brains and bodies, and making us think that this universe would function by itself even if there was no God. This is a necessary part of the design of the universe, to make faith in God a choice.

Imagine yourself as sitting in a room outside of this universe, holding a remote control that enables you to send commands to your brain and body which are inside the universe. You are responsible for the commands you issue, but you do not have any power or authority to cause a change within the universe. God (or some mechanism laid down by Him) changes the universe so that the command is carried out. He does this so reliably for us that we are tricked into thinking that we have power over this universe.

In reality, the view of the universe we arrive at from the Quran is that it is a simulation-like thing upon which humans have zero power. The human soul is temporarily given the illusion of control over a body, and as the soul issues commands, God moves the body in response, as part of everything else He does in operating this universe.

Saying the soul is independent of this universe does not mean that it is not affected by it. By being plugged into this universe, it experiences it and responds to it. When a human is presented with a temptation, the physical body (and I include the brain in this), which belongs to this universe, responds to it and desires it. The soul, however, maintains final judgment on whether the human succumbs to the temptation or not. The stronger the temptation is, the less room there is for the soul to exert control over the physical body, and the weaker the temptation, the more control the soul has over the body. For this reason we are not always, perhaps never, entirely responsible for the bad deeds we do, the environment affects us and pushes us toward some things. The mistake is in thinking that the environment completely controls us, which is what some atheists say. The Quran says that while the environment affects us, our soul maintains its independence, being able to go against the environment if it wants.

God could prevent all evil from happening, since all that He has to do is stop carrying out an evil person’s intentions, or cause slight changes so that a terrible accident does not happen. I explain why He does not prevent evil things from taking place in my essay Why God Allows Evil to Exist, and Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.

Humans would have had no responsibility for their actions if they were merely brains and bodies, similar to other animals. If things were so, they would be parts of this universe, and everything they do would be a consequence of the motion of particles and forces within the universe, similar to the actions of bacteria in a pond. But when a soul is plugged into the body, the soul “rides” the body, taking charge of it, directing it, and being responsible for it.

At times, the physical body is out of control, such as when under the influence of a drug, or due to mental illness, or due to witnessing some horrible crime. When this happens, when the soul loses control over the brain and body, it is no longer responsible for what the brain and body do until it regains control.

Our responsibility for a sinful act increases as the involvement of the soul increases. If there is no terrible temptation making us partially lose control over the human body that we control, if our sin is done in cold blood while having full control over the earthly body, then this is a far greater sin than a sin done out of overwhelming desire.

This concept also applies to good deeds. A person who forces their unwilling earthly body to do a good deed is going to deserve higher rewards than a person who only does good deeds that make them feel good. It is for this reason that Umar ibn Abdul Aziz says:

The best good deeds are those that one has to force the ego to perform.

When your ego wants to do evil and your soul overcomes it and prevents it from doing it, or your ego dislikes to do a good deed but your soul overcomes it and forces it to do it, in both of these cases you deserve reward, you used your free will to go against the environment, against the ego your soul is plugged into.

The ego is the earthly body’s sense of self. Even if humans had no free will, if they were merely animals, they would still have an ego. This ego makes them seek what they desire and avoid what they do not desire. The soul is an add-on over the ego, able to override it or go along with it. The ego is arrogant, loves pleasures and dislikes work. The soul can submit to it and do as the ego pleases. It can also receive guidance, submit to God and go against the ego when the ego desires something harmful.

You will meet some humans who mostly live inside their egos. The soul has nearly fully relinquished all control, letting the ego make nearly all of their decisions for them. These people are greedy, power-hungry and love pleasures, they are kind and loving toward their own families (since it is an animal instinct to be this way toward one’s own family), but have no empathy or understanding for others. If their child unjustly beats up someone else’s child, they will continue to defend their own child without caring about right or wrong, since they judge things based on the ego, and the ego wants what is good for the human animal’s interests and does not care about justice.

An easy way to find out if someone lives in their ego is to ask yourself, “Will this person help me if helping me required them to do something that gave them some inconvenience and discomfort?” People who live in their egos will generally only help others if helping others is easy and costs them nothing. If there is any cost involved, they immediately ignore the person who is asking for help, treating them as an annoyance to be gotten rid of. But if helping others will bring them fame and praise, they will do it.

The concepts mentioned in this answer are not meant to be used in scientific discussions with atheists, they help explain the Quranic view on these matters for people who have already accepted the truth of the Quran. The concepts in this essay are also useful in discussions with atheists like Sam Harris who falsely claim that the theory of physical determinism proves free will wrong. If the universe was physically determinate, there would be no free will. But there is no proof for this, as I will explain. What they say is similar to saying “If God did not exist, then there would be no God.” In reality, we can have a perfectly scientific universe that appears physically determinate, while also having free will that operates in parallel to it, and which to a scientist appears either as randomness or as a chaotic and emergent behavior

There is no proof that free will exists, the same way there is no proof that God exists. All that we have is soft evidence (rather than hard evidence) that the Quran is true, and once we have accepted the Quran as true, we accept that both God and free will exist.

God has not abandoned you: Regaining your sense of purpose when life feels spiritually empty, lonely and meaningless

Flowering Azaleas by Marie Egner (c. 1895)

I would appreciate some advice. I pray all my prayers on time and I read Quran daily, along with other forms of worship, but I feel so numb & empty. I feel like I have no purpose in this life, like if I died it won't even matter. I don't affect this Ummah in any way. I just work full-time, I'm single, I don't have friends, my family and relatives are not on good terms, and I have social anxiety so I hate interacting with others. I feel so useless, is there a point to my worship?

It is human nature to want to be productive and achieve things for the sake of any cause you believe in, such as Islam. But ideally, your Islam should not be in any way attached to results.

Even if you were the only remaining human on earth, you can still perfectly apply Islam in your life, achieving your mission in life and a great success in the afterlife.

Your mission is the same as the Prophet’s mission, . It is to read the Quran and apply it wherever you can in your life, living by its manners, principles and philosophy.

When speaking of placing humans on Earth, God said to the angels, “I am placing a steward on Earth.” What is a steward? It is someone who takes care of something, for example a farm, for the sake of its owner, until the owner comes back.

We Muslims (and faithful Christians and others) are stewards on Earth. Our job is to take care of it for the sake of its Master. And this is achieved by following God’s Straight Path. The Straight Path is a program designed to ensure two things: humanity’s long-term survival (by placing various mechanisms to ensure that humanity doesn’t die out), and humanity’s short-term moral integrity (never justifying evil in the name of the greater good, never saying “the end justifies the means”).

We stewards are God’s representatives on Earth, and an important part of our stewardship is to keep God’s remembrance alive:

"And I have chosen you so listen to what is being revealed.
"Indeed, I am God, there is no god except Me, so worship Me and establish the prayer for My remembrance. (The Quran, verses 20:13-14)

Regardless of your situation, you are always able to fully live your life as a Muslim. You do not need anyone else’s involvement, this is something between you and God.

I have lived alone twice in my life, once when I was 18 and another time when I was 27, and both are some of the worst experiences of my life. I understand the difficulty of your situation, and how purposeless and meaningless it feels.

These are the times when your faith in God is tested. Will you think bad thoughts about Him, consider Him incapable of helping you, or consider Him unkind so that He wants you to suffer?

If we are fair-weather friends of God, then we will worship Him and love Him when things are easy, and once things get truly difficult, once our patience is tested, we fail the test and prove that we are unworthy of being honored by Him.

The Prophet, , suffered many hardships during his career that must have seemed purposeless and needless, since God had the power to protect him at all times and to ensure the very best for him. For 13 years he and his followers had to suffer under the hands of the pagans of Mecca. Couldn’t have God made this only one year, so that the Prophet and his followers used their time more productively? Couldn’t they have used all these years of suffering better if God had enabled Islam to spread faster? What was the point of the Prophet losing his wife and his main protector in Mecca, his uncle Abu Talib, at a crucial place in his career, greatly weakening him?

What the Prophet was taught with all of these difficulties is that God is a King, and He does as He wishes with His servants. If we have truly submitted, we will accept His decrees, thinking the best of Him and continuing to love Him, praise Him and worship Him, even as we suffer knowing that He can end our suffering.

Know that God has no need of you. You cannot do God any favors. No matter how talented or capable you are, God can always create someone with exactly your talents and abilities in little time. Everything we do for God’s sake is actually a gift from Him, because it is He who taught us, guided us, and sustained us throughout all of these years so that we could do this thing in His name and claim credit for it.

Any good deed you do for God is actually a favor from Him. If you want to be productive, to serve Islam, Muslims and humanity, what you are actually asking is for God to give you the favor of being useful in His cause.

You are asking God for a great favor. Ask yourself if you deserve it. Ibn al-Qayyim says:

Whoever, among the workers, wishes to know his status in the eye of the King, let him look at what jobs He gives him and with what He busies him.

If you want the King to give you a great job the ensures you rewards in this life and the afterlife, then you must know that this job is given to those He wishes, and not to everyone. You must purify yourself, rededicate yourself to God, give up all sinful behaviors, and constantly seek His guidance and forgiveness, while remaining patient and thinking the best of Him, and in this way you will be guided to Him step by step, month after month, until you reach a place where He decides to give you a better task in life.

There are no shortcuts if you want to be a sincere and useful servant of God. You must turn yourself into the type of person who deserves God’s honor and favors, and He will give these to you.

God can change your situation in an instant, solving all of your problems, giving you immense knowledge and placing you somewhere where you can be a great and highly admired leader. God will not do this for you, because God does not perform miracles for us. If God did miracles for us, yet we sinned afterwards, this would cause us to deserve the utmost punishment from Him, as happened to Jesus’s apostles:

112. “And when the disciples said, 'O Jesus son of Mary, is your Lord able to bring down for us a feast from heaven?' He said, 'Fear God, if you are believers.'“

113. They said, “We wish to eat from it, so that our hearts may be reassured, and know that you have told us the truth, and be among those who witness it.”

114. Jesus son of Mary said, “O God, our Lord, send down for us a table from heaven, to be a festival for us, for the first of us, and the last of us, and a sign from You; and provide for us; You are the Best of providers.”

115. God said, “I will send it down to you. But whoever among you disbelieves thereafter, I will punish him with a punishment the like of which I never punish any other being.” (The Quran, verses 5:112-115)

They demanded a miracle from God, and God answered their prayer. But to maintain justice, it is necessary for God to hold these people who see the miracle to extremely stringent standards afterwards. Disobeying God after seeing physical evidence with your own eyes of His power is a far greater sin than disobeying God while He feels hidden from you.

It is out of His mercy that He does not do miracles for us. If He did miracles, this would be a burden that many of us couldn’t carry. On the one hand, it would cheapen our good deeds, because now we’d be doing them while having some proof of God’s existence. On the other hand, it would greatly increase our sinfulness if we disobeyed Him in anything, because we’d be committing sins while having had direct experience of Him.

What God wants, instead, is for us to go through the boring, difficult, numbing experiences of life, so that the good we do can be fully attributed to us, and so that we can be rewarded for our faith and patience. If God intervened directly in our lives, showing Himself and performing miracles, all of these things possibilities would be destroyed.

Accept your situation, knowing that God is fully capable of changing it in an instant. He wants you to be responsible for the change, so that He can reward you for it, instead of He Himself causing the change directly and taking away the chance for you to prove yourself.

Nothing you achieve in this life is going to be of any worth except the record of your deeds. Even if you build the world’s greatest mosque in His name, when the world ends, it will be destroyed and turned into nothing, as if it never existed. If you want to work for Him, then know that results only come through Him, and not through your own efforts. If He allows you to achieve any success in His name, then know that this is a favor from Him, not a favor from you to Him.

This is not to say that nothing we do for Him is of value, saying that He can accomplish anything He wants Himself. It is, rather, to realize that there are two worlds, the world of the seen and the world of the unseen. The unseen world is that which has priority. Nothing you do in the seen world is of value if the unseen part of your world is corrupt. And nothing you do in the unseen world is worthless regardless of your results in the seen world.

Becoming a chosen servant of God

If you want to become the type of servant that God favors by making him or her productive in His cause, then these are the steps you can follow to accomplish this.

1. Clean your slate

Chronic sins in your life will block God’s blessings. You cannot hope to be honored by God if part of your life is in direct contradiction to His teachings. For example, if you have usurious debt (debt upon which you pay interest, such as mortgage, car or credit card debt), then this is going to be a blocker of God’s blessings in your life. If you have cut off your relationship with a family member despite the fact that God commands love and kindness and tolerance toward them, then this will block God’s blessings.

Think of your life and find anything that could be considered a chronic sin, and fix it as soon as you can, doing your utmost to do so. God will not believe you to be sincere in wishing for His forgiveness and love if your life contains sinful parts that are insults toward Him.

The next thing to do is to ask God for His forgiveness for every great and small sin you have ever committed. Do this with every prostration of every one of your formal prayers, and do it after every formal prayer.

Equally important is to not add new sins to your record. Your goal should be to have a pristine record, clear of all sins. You cannot hope to have God’s favors if you are carrying a great burden of sins on your back.

2. Reestablish your connection with God through worship and Quran-reading

Perform tahajjud at night and read Quran between every two units. The Quran is the most important guide in our lives, because it is humanly impossible for us to remain mindful of all of our duties and concerns. Without the Quran, we end up focusing on one thing and ignoring other equally important things. We may think that being kind to our parents, or being charitable, or doing public service, or performing dhikr throughout the day, is the most important thing in life. We invariably edge toward one or a few things and lose our balance. Through daily Quran reading, we are made mindful of every possible mistake and are reminded of the dozens of things that we need to balance in life to be well-rounded and complete believers. There is no one clever maxim or teaching (“subdue the ego!”) that can replace the Quran, nothing can replace it because humans are complicated and life is complicated and to remain on track and to remain connected with God in the best way possible, we need its thousands of verses to help shape our characters and correct our errors.

For more tahajjud please see my essay: Mysticism without Sufism: A Guide to Tahajjud, Islam’s Meditation Practice

Sit down for a few minutes after every formal prayer, supplicating to God for everything you desire. Do this with all of your five prayers.

3. Be patient and do not expect results

Even if you do not see results for months, detach yourself from expecting results, knowing that God is a King, and a King does what He wills with His servants. Submit to His decree. Do your part of worship, seeking forgiveness and avoiding sins, knowing that God will do His part. If you repent, worship Him ardently and constantly pray for His help, yet see no results for a week or two, what do you know, perhaps if you are patient, results will come in a few months, when you are ready for it.

If you feel numb, uncared for and abandoned, then realize that all of us have felt like that at some point in our lives, even the Prophet, who after revealing the first few revelations, stopped receiving revelation for a period of six months to two years, after which these verses were revealed:

1. By the morning light.

2. And the night as it settles.

3. Your Lord did not abandon you, nor did He forget.

4. The Hereafter is better for you than the First.

5. And your Lord will give you, and you will be satisfied.

6. Did He not find you orphaned, and sheltered you?

7. And found you wandering, and guided you?

8. And found you in need, and enriched you?

9. Therefore, do not mistreat the orphan.

10. Nor rebuff the seeker.

11. But proclaim the blessings of your Lord. (The Quran, verses 93:1-8)

4. Read

An important help toward being patient, thinking the best of God and understanding His decrees is to read. Read Ibn al-Jawzi‘s and Ibn al-Qayyim‘s sayings. If you do not speak Arabic, read multiple translations of the Quran, especially Muhammad Abdel-Haleem’s. Read Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet if you haven’t. Read every good Islamic book you can find, especially by modern, mainstream writers.

5. Put your hopes in the afterlife

This world will never live up to your expectations, and nothing you achieve in it will last forever. It is a central spiritual teaching of the Quran to focus more on the hereafter than on the present life, as verse 4 above teaches.

Think of this world as nothing more than a waiting room. You are here for a while, waiting for the door to be opened, behind which there is a beautiful and thriving city where you can finally have peace and freedom from all stress and worry. Arriving at this city must be your goal, you must never be deluded by the cheap counterfeit goods of the worldly life, which almost always cause as much pain as the pleasure they bring.

If you at this moment feel depressed and unable to do anything for the afterlife, then wait patiently, and this in itself is worship. Imagine yourself waiting in that waiting room. Just wait, if you cannot do anything more. Wait, knowing that eventually the door will open. You do not need to do anything more than waiting, God does not burden you with more than you are able.

6. Be easy on yourself

A mistake many of us make is to rededicate ourselves to God for a short period of time, such a during Ramadan, only to burn out, feeling that we can never be the perfect saint that we hope to be.

Never push yourself beyond what you are able to carry at this moment. Continue to enjoy what you enjoy, reading novels, browsing your favorite sites, playing video games, doing whatever (non-sinful) thing you enjoy doing.

Islam does not ask you to give up the pleasures of this world, or to turn yourself into a God-worshiping robot. It asks you reform your life, to remain close to God as much as you are able, and to continue living a normal human life. God does not blame you for enjoying yourself, for taking the time off to go to the park, to listen to music, to do anything you find enjoyable and uplifting.

Be gentle with yourself and increase what you do for God only when you are able. If today you are tired and cannot perform an extra good deed that you performed yesterday, then do not do it.

Pushing yourself too hard can cause your ego to rebel, because it will feel like Islam is an enemy that wants to prevent it from enjoying life. Children and teenagers also feel this way when their parents try to push them too hard to be pious and religious.

Instead, be a gentle and kind master with yourself, respecting your own dignity and giving yourself time to do what you enjoy.

7. Rely on His guidance

Another mistake that people make is losing hope in God’s ability to guide them. They lose hope and think that they are permanently lost, thinking as if God is incapable of reaching into their lives and purifying it again. The truth that Quran teaches us is that God is with us every hour of every day, teaching us, educating us, helping us overcome challenges and grow into better humans.

Some Muslims, especially strict ones, mistakenly think that for a person to acquire guidance, a thousand things have to go exactly perfectly for them. In reality, once a person accepts the Quran as their guide, and sincerely prays to God for guidance, then their guidance is assured. God will take care of arranging for them everything necessary to help them grow and improve. The Quran speaks much of guidance (al-huda), and there would be little point in mentioning this if it was all about a human’s own efforts toward learning about God and Islam. Rather, guidance is largely about God bestowing His favor upon humans, inspiring them and helping them along the way:

God chooses to Himself whom He wills, and He guides to Himself whoever repents. (The Quran, 42:13)

He said, “I am going towards my Lord, and He will guide me.” (The Quran, verse 37:99)

No matter how lost you feel, pray to God for guidance, and He will guide you, in ways you do not expect. He will arrange for you to go through the right experiences, to hear, read and see the right things, to be able to learn and grow and mature. What you must do, above all, is repent and be sincere.

On social anxiety and loneliness

I too do not enjoy social interactions except with people I know really well. This is perfectly normal. It is not a character flaw, it is due to your genes. If you get only four hours of sleep one night, the next day nearly all of your social anxiety will be gone, because the parts of your brain that cause you social anxiety will stop doing their usual thing.

Consider social anxiety just one of life’s annoyances, similar to a person who has an accident and has to limp for the rest of their lives. It is probably never going away completely, although many things can significantly reduce it (such as gaining wealth and status). Accept social anxiety as a part of life and move on. There are people who are blind, be thankful that your problem is not as serious. It will still get in the way of enjoying a life that people would call normal, but it is not more than you can bear.

When you are in a situation where your social anxiety becomes a factor, it is like a person who has a limp being expected to move fast or run. It is not enjoyable and you’d much rather avoid it, but if you think of it as just another physical disability, then you will be able to handle it with few negative emotions. If people constantly expect you to be outgoing and comfortable socially, then the blame is on them for expecting you to act in a way you are not designed to act. Instead of trying to live up to their expectations, trying to act the way their genes make them act, instead of acting the way your genes make you act, be comfortable with yourself, accepting your limitations, finding social enjoyment in the ways you can (instead of in the ways people expect), and having hope that as you grow older, you will learn better ways of dealing with the issue.

If you feel lonely and wish for meaningful social interactions, for example with a loving spouse, then you can pray for this and let God decide when and how you will have it. Loneliness is just one of the many tests of life, and the happiness we desire from ending our loneliness is only something that God can give to us:

42. And that to your Lord is the finality.

43. And that it is He who causes laughter and weeping.

44. And that it is He who gives death and life.

45. And that it is He who created the two kinds—the male and the female.

46. From a sperm drop, when emitted.

47. And that upon Him is the next existence.

48. And that it is He who enriches and impoverishes. (The Quran 53:42-48)

It is best not place your hopes of fulfillment in this life, as already mentioned, and this includes hoping for an end to loneliness. It is better to put our ultimate hope in the afterlife and to serve God as best as we can, expecting favors and blessings only from Him, whenever He decrees these for us.

This is about the spiritual side of things. As for the material side of things, you are free to seek fulfillment, for example by trying to get married. If you take care of the spiritual side, God will give you His help and guidance as you use your intelligence and planning ability to improve your material situation.

Spiritually, seek fulfillment only through God. Wealth, a spouse, family and friends will not bring you fulfillment unless He allows it and makes it possible. In the worldly life, act like any intelligent human, spiritually, act like His servant, knowing that He is the King above all kings.

Also see:

Understanding Islam’s Sophisticated Approach to Slavery: Why Muslims Practiced Slavery in the Past, and Why They Reject it Today

Below are my preliminary thoughts on why Islam’s tolerance for slavery is not necessary unethical.

It may sound like nothing but empty apologetics to defend Islam’s toleration of slavery and say that Islam’s goal was to abolish it, when Islam’s Prophet  and his companions all practiced it widely. And generally this is what much of the arguments defending Islam’s views on slavery sound like when they come from traditional scholars.

It is difficult to reconcile classical Islam with modern views on slavery because classical Islam calls for applying the Quran and the Sunnah (the Prophet’s traditions ﷺ as recorded in hadith collections) as equal authorities. Since the Prophet ﷺ practiced slavery, the implication is that anyone can practice it without it being an issue. Saying slavery is morally wrong today is like saying the Prophet ﷺ did something morally wrong, which naturally is considered unacceptable. The Saudi Salafi scholar Saleh al-Fawzan, reflecting this kind of thinking, recently issued a fatwa (ruling) saying that terrorist groups operating in Iraq have the right to enslave women belonging to the non-Muslim Yazidi minority.

According to Abul A’la Maududi, the Prophet ﷺ freed 63 slaves by himself during his life. In his commentary on Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani’s Bulugh al-Maram, the historian Muhammad bin Isma`eel al-San`ani says that the Prophet ﷺ and his companions together freed over thirty-nine thousand slaves in their lives.

I will focus on early Islamic history, since what Muslims did after that did not always reflect Islamic principles. If we find moral justification for the Prophet’s practices ﷺ, then this is sufficient. It is not necessary to find moral justification for Ottoman practices regarding slavery, since what they did regarding slavery and a thousand other things does not necessary reflect the teachings of Islam.

Islam’s critics may say that we modern Muslims are trying to back-rationalize Islam’s “savage” beginnings by reinterpreting the Prophet’s actions ﷺ as if he wasn’t a vicious and power-seeking warlord. But as will be shown below, his policies and reforms regarding slavery were so noble and ahead of their time that he puts the Christians of a thousand years later to shame.

The Arabian System of Slavery

Slavery has been a part of life in most human societies. American Christians were having sexual intercourse with their black slaves by the tens of thousands only to refuse to take care of the children born in this way and deny them their right to a family. Since Christianity has no framework for dealing with slavery, the slaves and the children born would be abandoned, rather than taken care of as Islam would require.

At Islam’s beginnings, it was common practice to take the defeated enemy’s women as slaves, this was done by the pagans too. It was an ordinary and accepted part of life. Before Islam, Arabs had twenty ways of acquiring slaves according to the scholar Muhammad Mutawalli Sha`rawi, such as people being made slaves due to debt, or a tribe offering one of their own as a slave as an offering to another tribe, or one tribe attacking another with the purpose of enslaving them. Islam reduces these ways to only one way: Enemy prisoners coming out of a just war, not an offensive war done for gain, but a war done against an aggressor.1 And if there are international treaties for dealing with prisoners of war, like there are today, then this way too would be closed.

So within the Islamic system, this is how slaves are created:

  1. During an age of the world where slavery is a worldwide practice, some group launches a war of aggression against Muslims. The Quran expects Muslims to sign treaties with their neighbors and commands them to not be aggressors, therefore a war would only be against an enemy that has broken treaties. Of course, many Muslim states throughout history have abused Islamic law to justify wars of aggression, but the actions of Muslims are one thing, and Islamic principles are another. You cannot hold Islam responsible when Muslims break its laws. All major religions, ideologies and constitutions have been used to justify wars of aggression.
  2. The enemy is offered peace but refuses to back down.
  3. The enemy is conquered.
  4. The enemy’s men, women and children are taken as captives and have the status of slaves, with a long list of rights ensured by Islam. Note that the enemy would have done the same to the Muslims if they had been the conquerors.

This is what happened to the Jewish Banu Qurayza tribe, who at Islam’s darkest hour, when the Muslims were under attack by a large alliance of pagan Arabs during the Battle of the Trench, broke their treaty with the Muslims and plotted with the attackers to help them destroy the Muslim state. Their men were executed for high treason (treason during a time of war, it is also the law in the United States to execute those convicted of high treason), and their women and children were enslaved. Executing the enemy’s men was done for their treason, this wasn’t the standard Islamic practice against enemies. And it wasn’t the Prophet’s judgment. The Jews demanded that their judge should be a Muslim man from Medina that they liked and trusted, and the Prophet agreed to delegate the judgment to that man. And that was his judgment.

In Islam’s early history, this enslavement of an enemy was not done out of aggression. An enemy, instead, initiated the aggression, with full knowledge of its potential consequences. In the case of Banu Qurayza, it was a risk they took, hoping to annihilate the Muslims on the one hand, and to take over their wealth, lands, women and children on the other. The risk they took did not pay off. Had they been successful, it would have been the Muslims who would have suffered execution and enslavement under the hands of the pagan Arabs and their Jewish accomplices.

Couldn’t God have asked the Muslims to do something morally superior to enslaving the women and children? He could have, but He didn’t.

The main reason for tolerating slavery could be that slavery took care of providing for the women and children acquired through war. The Jewish solution to this problem in Biblical times was to also kill the women and children, as is recorded in the First Book of Samuel in the Bible and in other places:

…and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (Samuel I, 15:3)

Christians did the same at times, for example:

Albert of Aachen, a chronicler of the First Crusade era, explicitly claims that the Arab soldiers capture and enslave virgins. (According to him, the Christians just kill everyone.)

[From a historian’s answer posted on Reddit]

Muslims, being more civilized, did not kill people needlessly, and especially not women and children. The killing of women and children in war is strictly prohibited by Islamic law.

New populations of slaves acquired during war would be mostly women and children (because the men were mostly dead, since the wars in those times were often “total wars”, where all the males fought). If this population of mostly women and children had been abandoned, they could have starved, since they had no men to take care of providing for it.

The Prophet ﷺ couldn’t have asked the Muslims to take care of these women and children without getting anything in return. Food, clothing and houses did not magically fall from the sky; it required much labor to provide these. Politically it could have been highly damaging to his cause to force the men to become practically slaves of the interests of this defeated population, building them new neighborhoods of homes in their towns and feeding and clothing them without getting anything in return. Doing this would have also led to a great increase in prostitution and theft, because this new population of women and children would have had no alternative ways for advancing in life. This is what happened in New York City in the 1850’s when a great number of unmarried Irish women and children were dumped into the city, escaping famine in Ireland. Their neighborhoods turned into ghettos full of crime, as happens to all jobless and idle populations, and the meme that Irish Americans are dirty criminals lasted for over a century afterwards.

The Prophet ﷺ could have asked his followers to marry these women and take care of their children. This wouldn’t have worked because only a man who had two homes and the income to maintain both could have married a second woman. They couldn’t keep two wives under the same roof, because this is practically guaranteed to cause marital discontent (it is quite difficult enough for a man to manage two wives living under separate roofs). Most men did not have a second home or the income to maintain one. So marrying these women wouldn’t have been practical, a few of the women could been married, but not most.

As a reminder, I am describing the reasons why Islam tolerated slavery in the ancient world. As I will describe below, Islam today does not tolerate slavery and Muslims around the world have supported banning it, this is not because Islamic principles have been abandoned for modern principles, it is because the Quran supports us in doing what we know to be the just and kind thing, while also tolerating slavery in societies that already practice it. The Quran has an anti-slavery agenda, but its agenda requires that it should tolerate slavery if a society already practices it, ending it from the inside. Societies that already practice slavery may be violently opposed to the thought of abandoning slavery, as the example of the American Civil War shows. Islam’s toleration for slavery enables it to spread in such societies and gently reform them until it can put an end to slavery.

So marriage was not a practical option. What was needed was a form of marriage that did not strongly compete with the man’s existing marriage, that did not require a second home, and that did not require high income for a man to engage in it. The Arabian system of slavery provided all of these features by enabling the women to work as servants in the men’s homes, in this way not being competitors in status to their wives. By giving the men the right to have sex with their female slaves, it made the men willing to keep them as slaves, otherwise they wouldn’t have wanted them (as will be described further).

In this way the women were taken care of and fed as were their children, they were not killed like Jews and Christians would have done, and they were not left to starve. These women grew up thinking of slavery and concubinage as a normal part of life and probably had them in their own homes, they saw nothing wrong with this as long as it was not happening to them. For them the difference between being a wife and a concubine was a difference in status, not a difference between a consensual sexual relationship and rape. This is evident to someone studying China and Japan’s ancient practice of concubinage. Concubines were neither wives nor mere sex toys. They had a specific social status, it was lower than that of a wife, but it is a highly naive view of history to think of such women as merely bodies that were abused and raped.

The Christians of Egypt gifted the Prophet ﷺ a Christian concubine named Maria. Were the Christians merely sending the Prophet ﷺ a sex toy as a gesture of good will? Of course not. As any historian of ancient times will tell you, this was similar to a man offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to someone else as the Christian Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos did when he offered his daughter’s hand in marriage first to Hulagu then to Hulago’s enemies in his attempts to ally himself with the winning side. In such a marriage her own opinion in the matter was ignored, as has been standard practice among large sections of society in all of history, especially among the aristocracy. A concubine did not have to be placed in chains and shipped off in a box. For her this was her status in life, and she had no problem with doing it, similar to the way today female actresses do not mind having a male actor’s sexual organ inside them for a movie sex scene, it is part of their job and they do it.

The difference is that, in theory, concubinage was “forced”, while a modern actress is not “forced” to do that. But it all depends on the woman’s mindset. A concubine did not feel raped the way a modern woman forced into slavery would feel, she felt that she belonged to a lower-class caste of women, one of whose jobs was to have sex with their masters. She may have hoped for a better life, to one day be a full wife and not merely a concubine, but she had a respected social status and function, she thought of herself as an integral part of society, not as someone imprisoned and raped against her will like modern-day sex slaves are. These things do not justify slavery, but provide part of the explanation for why Islam tolerated it. A modern woman may value her own dignity so much that she may consider murdering anyone who tries to enslave her, but at that time, the women thought of concubinage as a forced, low-status marriage that would be their fate if their men failed to protect them, and they perfectly approved of it as long as it was happening to their sisters.

In the modern world, a sex slave is an unperson; she is a non-human commodity used and discarded as an animal. In Islam’s system, a concubine was a person. She had rights, she could own property, her master could be punished for mistreating her and he did not have the right to sell her if he got her pregnant. A sex slave has no place in society, her status is lower than even a family’s dog, because a family dog fits within the family and is loved and is respected. It has a place. A sex slave has no place. She has been dehumanized into an object whose opinions, rights and free will no longer exist. It is as if she is dead and animated by some form of magic that keeps her flesh alive so that she can continue performing her sexual functions. This is a far cry from concubinage in Islam, in which, first and foremost, the concubine has a place in society. She is not an unperson, she continues to be treated like a human. A low class of human, certainly, but still a human; people would treat her the way they treat the extremely poor among them.

In Hegelian terms, the sexual relationship between a master and his concubine is a relationship between subjects, while the relationship between a kidnapper and his sex slave in the modern world is a relationship between a subject and an object. For more on the important differences between subject-subject and subject-object sexual relationships please see Sexual Desire by the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton.

In Islam, the relationship between a slave woman and her master is an official relationship, it is similar to a marriage. She cannot be in a sexual relationship with anyone else during this relationship (there are many stories of masters who would unscrupulously exploit their concubines and share them with other men, but that behavior is against Islamic teachings.). If she is already pregnant when acquired, her master does not have the right of having sex with her until she gives birth. If she becomes pregnant by her master, her master no longer has the right to sell her, because she acquires that status of umm walad and cannot be sold as a slave, becoming a semi-wife instead. Her children that are born to her and her master will be free citizens and not slaves, and if her master dies, she becomes a free woman herself. If Islam was a barbaric religion that taught its adherents to enslave people, why would it have so many sophisticated mechanisms for eradicating it?

What is the point of preventing a master from selling his slave once she is pregnant or has given birth? The Christian slave owners of America didn’t think there was any point in this, since they were not civilized enough to worry about the status and rights of the slave, while the Muslims of 630 AD found a point in this, because it enabled the woman to care for her children under the care and protection of her master, while also forcing the master to take full responsibility for the children, who were now free citizens. Americans just 160 years ago were savages in their dealing with slaves compared to the Arabs of 630 AD.

A person who has a limited view of history may think that the best solution to slavery is to ban it and let whatever happens happen afterwards, and this was the idea of the North in mid-19th century America, which led to the American Civil War2, causing the death of about a million people (it was the bloodiest war in history up to that time). Since Islam was not invented by short-sighted humans, it respects the existing culture, enables an extremely undeveloped society to take care of the women and children who are victims of war (instead of killing them, allowing them to starve or encouraging them to become prostitutes and criminals by dumping them into cities), and provides various methods for slowly but surely eradicating slavery until it can be banned without any social unrest, the way almost all Muslim-majority countries today have banned slavery. Muslim Tunisia banned slavery before the United States did.

While these facts are, of course, not sufficient to justify slavery in the modern world, in the ancient world, given the political and economic circumstances of those times, it is understandable why Islam tolerated slavery.

It would be untrue to say that the Prophet tolerated slavery entirely out of charitable motivations. The Arabian system of enslaving war captives and distributing them was done as part of the distribution of war booty, the goods taken from a defeated prisoner. From Tariq Ramadan’s In the Footsteps of the Prophet:

Seven days had elapsed since the surrender, and the Hawazin had not appeared to ask for their womcn and children back. Now thinking that they would not come, Muhammad decided to share out the captives between the Quraysh Muslims (who once again received a more important share) and the Ansar. He only just finished the distribution when a Hawazin delegation arrived. The Prophet explained to them that he had waited for them, but since they had not arrived he had already shared out the captives; he said that he would intercede for them and ask people to give back their prisoners if they wanted to. After some hesitation, all the fighters gave up their captives to the Hawazin delegation. (Pages 184 and 185)

The Muslim fighters wanted the captives as their slaves. The Prophet, however, wanted them to wait for the captives’ tribe to come and hopefully sign a peace treaty, after which they would be given back to the tribe. Since the Hawazin didn’t seem willing to come for a treaty, the Prophet assumed they still intended war, and for this reason allowed the Arabian system to take its course, giving his warriors what they were used to get.

But once the Hawazin finally appeared, the Prophet showed his noble character and the non-Arabian-ness of Islam by convincing his fighters to give the captives back. Instead of acting like an Arab warlord, rejoicing in defeating and enslaving an enemy that had gathered to destroy the Muslims, he let them go free once their representatives came to ask for peace.

This scene also illustrates the sensitivity of the Prophet’s political situation. He could not force his fighters to give up the captives. They were from different Arabian tribes with their own ideas about their rights and their status in relation to the Prophet. The Prophet was not in charge of a “horde” of mindless soldiers like so many detractors of Islam wish to portray, he had to keep a sensitive political situation balanced, giving sufficient satisfaction to each section of his following so that they would not rebel against him.

He did not act like the largely Bolsheviks of Russia (led by the Jewish Vladimir Lenin), enforcing a new ideology on the entire population and giving everyone the option of either accepting it or dying. He humored the population, their pride, their culture and their various forms of social organization. He did not want to destroy society then rebuild it (like all Marxist and neo-Marxist ideologues wish to do), he peacefully gave his message to his society, giving them the option of either accepting it or leaving it, and never responding to the violence offered him and his followers. Only when he was elected the sovereign ruler of Medina by its main tribes did he start to act like a ruler, doing what was necessary to protect his state against aggressors.

And even then, he continued to respect the existing society and culture. Instead of acting like Lenin or Ayatollah Khomeini, using assassinations and purges to enslave the population to his interests in the name of the greater good, even though he was a prophet of God and had His authority behind him. He continued to respect them, consult them, while the Muslims continued to maintain the right to question and criticize his decisions. Even at the end of his life, when he had become the supreme ruler of Arabia, his companions severely criticized him to his own face after he chose a 17-year-old as the leader of a Muslim army. Instead of thinking “God’s messenger says so, therefore no argument can be admitted”, they treated him like a human and felt free to disagree with him, so that he had to convince them of the sense and rationality of his decisions.

In his truly democratic form of governance, in allowing everyone to voice their opinions and take part in decision-making, treating him like any other human, rather than as a supreme leader, he was a far cry from the typical modern dictator who expects absolute obedience, or the typical modern democratic leader who considers democracy an annoying formality that gets in the way of their achieving their goals, paying lip service to it while betraying its principles on a daily basis. It is all the more strange that someone who had over 100,000 people under him, considering him truly a messenger from God, would never make use of his status as God’s messenger to get his way, instead allowing people to challenge him daily.

Compare him to Ayatollah Khomeini, who by the virtue of (supposedly) belonging to the Prophet’s descendants and being the main religious authority of his sect, while in his weakness he professed to believing in democracy and spoke with non-Shia leaders like Ahmad Moftizadeh, once he achieved supremacy in Iran, he quickly went on to purge the government of his opposition, rushed the constitution he liked through the judiciary to the dismay of his opposition and his own friends, and used theological arguments to prove that his decisions could not be questioned.

Vaso di fiori sulla finestra di un harem (“The window of the Harem”) by Francesco Hayez (first half of 19th century)

The Prophet’s Concubines ﷺ

A person may acknowledge that politically and economically, it made some sense for Islam to tolerate slavery instead of banning it immediately. They may even acknowledge the fact that Islam in the modern world does not command slavery nor support it, since the Quran does not command the practice of slavery, and since we in the modern world dislike slavery and consider it repulsive, Islam gives us full rights to ban it.

But they may wonder why the Prophet ﷺ himself accepted to have slave women he had sex with (concubines). Couldn’t he himself, and his closest companions, have chosen the moral high ground of avoiding it?

We cannot find a conclusive answer for this, but we can speculate. Perhaps in God’s view, there was no good to be gained by prohibiting the Prophet ﷺ and his companions from keeping concubines when everyone else did. These women would have had masters anyway, so it wouldn’t have improved the lot of these women to prevent some Muslims from keeping them, it may have even worsened their lot, because many Muslims may have tried to follow the Prophet’s example ﷺ of not keeping concubines, creating large populations of female slaves that nobody wanted. And if the Prophet ﷺ had kept concubines without having sex with them, in this way practicing slavery without the sexual intercourse part, other Muslims may have tried to follow his example, and by so doing, they may have avoided keeping female slaves at all, since an important reason, perhaps 90% of the reason, for their wanting to take care of these slave women was that they received the privilege of intimacy with them. So the result, again, could have been large populations of female slaves that no one wanted. The result would have been that the slaves would have been sold to non-Muslims (since Muslims didn’t want them), and this wouldn’t have been better for the women, but worse, since the non-Muslims may have had no laws for protecting the rights of these slaves or providing them with ways for themselves or their children to be freed. So there would have been no moral gain from these choices.

By keeping concubines the way the rest of the culture did, the Prophet ﷺ showed the rest of the Muslims that they too could do this. In this way the society of that time was able to absorb conquered populations and slowly free them.

In Islam, slaves also have the right of mukataba, which was for them to be given free time in which to work, so that they could buy themselves off of their masters. In this way many male slaves were able to buy their own freedom. America’s slave owners of 1850 CE and their official laws considered their slaves and everything the slave owned as properties of their masters. Imagine their infuriation if they were told their slaves should be allowed to have free time in which to work, or that what they earned was not a property of the master, but a property of the slave. They, including their religious clergy, would have considered this a dangerous attack against their God-given rights over their slaves.

The Prophet ﷺ himself could have kept no concubines, saying that God had commanded him not to keep any, while making it lawful for everyone else. This could have affected his status negatively in the eyes of his followers and allies, since the concubines belonging to a man’s household added to his prestige. The Prophet himself ﷺ was part of Arabian culture, considering slavery and concubines a normal part of life, like everyone else did. God could have taught him that one day humans will discover that it is morally wrong to enslave people, but He did not for His own reasons, perhaps it served the interests of everyone, including the slaves, for the Arabian system to continue functioning like usual, with a few crucial reforms added to it to significantly reduce the number of new slaves, and to provide various ways for slaves to be freed.

While today we can think of various things the Prophet ﷺ could have done at that time instead of practicing slavery and concubinage, we can never be sure that our solutions wouldn’t fail miserably in that ancient Arabian context. We can never be sure if Islam’s solution wasn’t the best possible solution for that time and place, enabling a society to slowly eradicate slavery without causing civil wars, and without the religion being abandoned for being too ahead of its time if it had outright banned slavery.

Therefore a fair-minded reading of the Quran and early Islamic history will see that there is not sufficient justification for calling Islam a false or unjust religion for tolerating slavery at that time. They will see that the Prophet ﷺ was already greatly ahead of his time and that he made some incredible reforms in various areas of life, including reforms regarding slavery. Therefore the only thing they can criticize him for is not being even more ahead of his time, which is a pretty weak criticism. Who is to say that he wasn’t already operating as much ahead of his time as it was possible to be without people abandoning his movement?

Is Islam Outdated?

A person could say that now that the world is sufficiently developed, Islam is an outdated religion, that since it contains many rules and regulations regarding slavery, the religion must have been meant for ancient times and not today.

The truth is that there is no guarantee that the world will continue to be developed. Perhaps a nuclear war will break out 10,000 years from now and there will be isolated areas of the world that would live in conditions as basic as those of 630 AD, and in that case, there may again be warring entities that practice slavery, and Islam’s rulings regarding it would become relevant again.

Or humans could establish a colony on another planet where slavery is practiced. If some people among them convert to Islam while belonging to that culture that practices it, then Islam’s rulings regarding slavery would be relevant again.

Islam’s Historical Mistakes

It is true that various Islamic empires have acted aggressively and have sought to enslave not as a matter of practical necessity but for profit and pleasure. One could say that if Islam had forbad slavery, all of those evils would have been prevented. There is no way to know this for sure, because as explained, banning slavery may have been politically and economically unfeasible, and even if it had been banned, Muslims were still free to do a thousand other evil things.

Therefore a fair-minded person will not criticize the deeds of Muslims, but the program they follow. Islam is the program, and its programming logic makes Muslims avoid and ban slavery, therefore there is nothing to criticize today’s Islam for regarding slavery. You can, however, make this criticism:

I dislike the fact that in some isolated space colony 1000 years from now if slavery is already practiced, and if some people embrace Islam, I dislike that they will not ban it immediately but instead take a generation or two doing it.

A final question could be; why believe in a religion that has parts which require so much justification, why not just abandon it and embrace the modern world instead? Because Islam has undeniable soft evidence of its truth in the Quran, therefore the issue of slavery is a very minor thing for someone who has accepted Islam based on this evidence. In my essay God, Evolution and Abiogenesis: The Topological Theory for the Origin of Life and Species, I discuss the reasons why I believe in Islam.

Conclusion

The best of Christians have also acted as the best of Muslims in fighting slavery, therefore what I mentioned above is about Christian history, not Christian ideals. Christians continue to use Islamic history against Islam, so there is no injustice in doing the same towards Christian history, so that it is known that Christian criticism of Islam is generally quite ignorant of the ugly sides of Christian history. As for Christian work against slavery, from Wikipedia:

Several early figures, while not openly advocating abolition, did make sacrifices to emancipate or free slaves seeing liberation of slaves as a worthy goal. These include Saint Patrick (415-493), Acacius of Amida (400-425), and Ambrose (337 – 397 AD). Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) went even further and stated opposition to all slavery as a practice. Later Saint Eligius (588-650) used his vast wealth to purchase British and Saxon slaves in groups of 50 and 100 in order to set them free.

Today, if there is a war of conquest between a Muslim nation and a non-Muslim one, then there would be no question of slavery, the enemy’s women would be treated according to modern practices. Muslim states officially recognize and respect international treaties, and the majority of Muslims have no problems with this. It is only barbaric, CIA-trained-and-funded groups like ISIS and al-Nusra which want to bring back slavery.

So it is true that Islam does not forbid slavery, and it is against the Quran and the Sunnah to say that the religion forbids it. But it does not encourage it either. It has a sophisticated approach toward it that takes the facts on the ground into account, regulating it and ending it when the time is right, rather than doing it too soon when it might cause starvation or war.

The fact that a child born to a female slave and her master is considered a free citizen, and the fact that the Quran strongly encourages the freeing of slaves is sufficient evidence for the fact that Islam came to end slavery, not to encourage it. If the Muslims before us made the mistake of encouraging slavery at times instead of fighting against it, we the Muslims of today are not required to act like them, and in fact are fully justified in disavowing their actions as we follow the Islamic program in the modern world.

The Last Mufti of Iranian Kurdistan (And a Critique of Political Islam)

This book is a beautiful tribute to the memory of Ahmad Moftizadeh, may God have mercy on him, containing a detailed and well-supported biography of the man and detailing his works and beliefs.

As someone whose (Sunni) family spent the late 80’s and most of the 90’s in Iranian Kurdistan, Ahmad Moftizadeh and Nasir Subhani, I have been hearing the names of these two men mentioned with love for as long as I can remember.

I am thankful that such a work was done by someone with a Western background, since the quality of the research is much higher than that of Eastern publications.

On the matter of politics, the author quotes Moftizadeh as saying:

He who embarks on a political project is the most likely to lose God’s
way. Just take a look at the world.

The book provides further evidence of the futility of political Islam, something I have been studying for years, beginning with my study of Sayyid Qutb. Both men belong to a class of Islamists who believed that “good and sincere” men would be the perfect men to govern a country, ignoring the fatal flaw within this hypothesis; that there is no way to reliably find “good and sincere” men, and once supposedly “good and sincere” men are selected, there is no way to reliably make them continue being good and sincere. You always end up with a limited democracy where all kinds of insincere power-seekers make it through the system and gain power. From the history provided by The Last Mufti and clues elsewhere, it appears that there were many good and sincere men among the Shia leaders of the Iranian revolution, but within ten years the revolutionary government was ruled by some of the worst criminal scum to ever walk this earth.

The critical weakness within political Islam is that for it to work, everything must go perfectly:

  • Nearly everyone involved in the political movement must be sincere and not a power-seeker
  • The current government must respect the Islamists and allow them to peacefully take power, it must not persecute them and assassinate its leaders (Iran, Algeria, Iraqi Kurdistan and Egypt’s experience show just how naive this expectation is.)
  • Most of the country’s Muslims must support them, instead of the party becoming a cause for division and dislike among Muslims, where some people trust the party and others have good reasons not to trust it due to what they know about the party’s leadership and power structure.
  • It must be able to keep its moral integrity and attain success despite facing a thousand dirty tricks played by the opposition, which has no religion and no qualms about using every trick in the book to defeat them. If the opposition makes up lies, sets fire to its establishments, intimidates its members and uses the law to put hurdles in front of them, the Islamists, if they want to continue to follow Islam truly, must not counter these with their like.

The conclusion I have reached at the moment is that seeking power is like seeking wealth, and that no God-fearing Muslim or group of Muslims will self-elect themselves to do it. Power corrupts and attracts the corruptible. All Islamist political activism that is aimed at seeking power (such as by winning elections) is inherently un-Islamic because the chances of it doing good are far smaller than the chances of it doing evil:

  • The party can attract good and sincere people, only to have the government imprison and torture them, because the party makes them easy targets, and makes the powers that be uncomfortable. While if they had not acted politically, if they had remained ordinary civilians, they would have attracted dangerous attention far later in their careers, and any persecution would have befallen a far smaller group of people. The Muslim Brotherhood has probably caused the unintentional deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people who by today would have had millions of descendants who would be devout Muslim judges, journalists, writers and professionals, doing far more for Islam than the Brotherhood has done.
  • The party causes division among Muslims, because not everyone will want to join them, since people will judge the party by its members, and if they know any of its members to be insincere and corrupt (and the party is bound to attract such members), they will not want to have anything to do with the party. This is a cause for a highly dangerous and corrupting form of division in the community, as is highly evident in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamist scene.
  • The party can give Islam a bad name, as Iran’s Shia Islamists, Turkey’s Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood have all done. Any evil they do reflects on Islam.
  • Terrorism is just a continuation of political Islam by other means.
  • When a foreign government wants to interfere with local politics for its own benefit, political groups including Islamist ones, are at the forefront of the tools it will consider using. Examples are Iranian support for Iraqi Kurdish Islamists, Turkish support for Syrian and Chechnian Islamists, Saudi and US support for various Islamists around the world including terrorist ones. The Islamist group can easily be entangled in international power plays and become nothing but a disposable tool that will have support for a while from a foreign entity, until the winds change and the foreign entity abandons them or starts to support their enemies against them.
  • Group think: Every political party eventually builds its own culture of “political correctness”, because there will be members who seek power, and one of the main ways of ensuring an increase in power and avoiding a loss in power is to fit in with everyone else. The least sincere and most toxic individuals will be the most eager to fit in, to create a large set of virtue-signalling behaviors that they follow to show their sincerity and dedication. This will cause others to respond in kind, and soon members of the party can be easily distinguished from the general population by their distinguishing manners, values and forms of speech developed within the party. This culture makes it difficult for sincere members to contribute through constructive criticism, because insincere power-seekers will act as if such criticism is defeatist, divisive and harms the interests of the party. The sincerest members can easily become marginalized within the party.

I am not against all Islamic political activism, however. The “good” form of Islamic political activism has one key attribute: It must never seek power. That is the key differentiator. We can criticize governments, we can publish exposés, we can refuse to do any evil the government apparatus asks us to do, we can try to influence politicians in a publicized manner (we must never scheme behind the scenes, as this too is a form of power-seeking, any dealings we have with politicians must be public, such as in the form of open letters, if it has to be secret, it is a way of befriending politicians and gaining power from it, and this causes it to turn into the “bad” type of political Islam), we can do everything we can to improve the world and to reduce tyranny, but none of this must include power-seeking.

This is the way of the Prophet, , while he was under the sovereignty of another power. He spoke the truth, but he never sought power. And his activities eventually made those in power uncomfortable, until they tried to kill him. What he did was not fight back, but immigrate to a different area.

If the Prophet, , had acted like today’s Islamists, using political organization and directly targeting Mecca’s power structure, he would have attracted the murderous attention of Mecca’s pagans far more quickly, perhaps within a few months. But by not doing this, by not being political, he was able to work for 13 years in Mecca. And once it became too dangerous for him to be there, he left for a different place.

Whether political Islam seeks or does not seek power, it will always risk persecution. But the point is that while Islamism spends lives needlessly (attracting murderous persecution quickly), the Prophet’s type of political activism does not spend lives needlessly.

Islamism tries to change the world in a top-down way; we gain power, then we will do good with it. The Prophet’s political activism, on the other hand, tries to change the world in a bottom-up manner; we work with the people and tell the truth, and this causes social and political change down the road.

The Prophet’s way is far more likely to be successful because:

  • It only attracts sincere people. People are not attracted to the movement for power, because it promises no gain in power. This means that like the Prophet’s circle, it will be free from the poisonous personalities that seem to exist in every Islamist party.
  • It does not attract quick and harsh persecution. It may attract it eventually, but it will have far more time to attract devoted followers.
  • It does not create division among the people, because there is no “my Islamist group” vs. “your Islamist group”. All Muslims are treated the same by it.
  • There is no danger of group think, because the group does not seek power. There are fewer insincere people wanting to increase their power and status through virtue-signalling.

At this moment, to me the facts that the power-seeking form of political Islam attracts insincere personalities, creates division and invites harsh persecution are sufficient to consider it a very foolish form of activism. The right way is the Prophet’s way, which is to never seek power, but to work with the people, helping them improve spiritually, while also criticizing tyranny and injustice, knowing that all power comes from God, and if the time is right, He will give it, if He wants.

In Islam, we neither seek wealth nor power. We act as if we already have these, not feeling poor or weak, but criticizing those in power bravely, because we know we are servants of the Most Rich and the Most Powerful. Like the Prophet, , our mission is to live the Quran while not being attached to wealth or power (because by the virtue of being God’s agents, we already have these). The seeking of wealth or power has nothing to do with our mission. Our mission is to be with the people, the poor, the enslaved, the voiceless, to teach them, to help them regain some hope and courage. Like the Prophet, we deal neither with wealth nor power unless these things are freely and openly given to us, in which case we follow his example in dealing with them.

One argument in favor of political Islam that Islamists mention is that Muslims need “organization” to better arrange their affairs. I agree, but we can have all the organization we need without seeking power, therefore this does not justify Islamism.

And if they say that Islamists are needed to protect the interests of the Muslims, the examples of the past century show that Islamists expose Muslims to far more persecution, torture and murder than they would be exposed to without them, therefore no, Muslims do not need this type of poisonous favor. Islamists have shown time and again that they are completely powerless at defending the interests of Muslims. Either they and their friends get imprisoned, tortured and assassinated en masse, or they gain power only to be bombed into oblivion by the latest bully on the world stage. They can say that ideally, if everything goes perfectly, they can do much good. Yes, but things never go ideally. Ideally communism can create great happiness and equality. Realistically, communism always creates police states, purges and starvation. In the same way, realistically, Islamism always creates far more evil than good despite the best intentions of its leaders.

It should be mentioned that Maktab Quran, Moftizadeh’s movement which continues to exist today, does not seek political power. However, it continues to act as something of a party, just not a political one, and this makes it suffer some of the issues Islamist parties suffer from (causing division, attracting persecution, having limited penetration among the population). They would have done much better if they had been nothing but a group of friends with each of them acting independently, becoming leaders in their own communities, and not naming themselves anything. They continue to be highly respected and to do good deeds, as they do not suffer from one important weakness of political parties, which is the promise of power attracting toxic personalities. Their lack of power-seeking ensures that only sincere people are attracted to their group.

Better than Maktab Quran would be a movement that is not a party, but a creed, and that has no organization (or need for one). It is an intellectual movement of educated and dedicated people acting together because they all follow the same creed, similar to a colony of ants which does not have central organization, but whose each part functions in tandem with the parts closest to it. And this already exists to some degree. Throughout the world, millions of Muslim intellectuals are developing a sense of belonging to a “mainstream”, loving its leaders and doing good works in their local communities. A new creed from a new Ghazali could help give direction to them and cure the Muslim world from the misguided, power-seeking form of political Islam.

The author provides the following interesting snippet on life in modern Tehran:

During the government of Mohammad Reza Khatami, the first so-called reformist president of the Islamic Republic, the author was an intern for Iran’s premier private consulting firm in Tehran. The firm’s management was educated and or raised in the West, while the majority of its employees had similar backgrounds, or came from a segment of Iran’s middle class that was educated and relatively progressive in its values. Headscarves were promptly removed in the office, flirting was common among the young employees, and everyone but the valet sipped tea throughout the day during the month of Ramadan. Even though most of these individuals voted for reformist candidates in the Islamic Republic’s elections, they disavowed allegiance to the system, and did not believe religion should play a role in government. For them, “reformism” ideally meant reforming Iran into a modern, Western-style secular country.

On the Scrabble and IQ debate, or why mastering Scrabble doesn’t require genius

My answer to the Scrabble-IQ debate which keeps coming up on the Unz Review, from a comment I wrote on there:

The entire debate may be about crystallized versus fluid intelligence.

Scrabble requires that one be intelligent enough to be able to “crystallize” the patterns for solving each situation, so that a person can do it without having to think about it the next time they run into the same situation, but no more intelligent than that.

Winning games like chess and Scrabble requires some fluid intelligence (IQ), and massive amounts of crystallized intelligence (stored solutions), which is why they need so much training.

If you are familiar with computing, it is easy to understand what this means. A lower-IQ person can simulate high IQ in a game like Scrabble using this function:

solve(game_context) {
  if(cached_answer_exists(game_context)) {
    return get_cached_answer(game_context); // extremely fast, even for a low IQ person
  }
  else {
    return compute_answer(game_context); // slow, even for a very high IQ person
  }
}

So a game like Scrabble has a very high “caching advantage”, a person who spends immense amounts of time with it will have thousands, maybe millions, of cached answers in their heads, that enable them to nearly instantaneously find the solution for a new game context, because there is no computation involved, the solution is cached in their brains.

A lower-IQ Scrabble “genius”, however, will be incapable of mastering a topic of study they have never studied before (such as economics), so that they can quickly (within a year or two) come up with original and interesting solutions and ideas within the field, because their genius is about being good at caching answers. Their genius has nothing to do with fluid intelligence, the type of intelligence needed to handle massive data, operate on it and synthesize new things from it. Your millions of cached Scrabble solutions are just that, millions of cached Scrabble solutions. A Scrabble genius is like a computer that has tons of Scrabble solutions and is very good at winning Scrabble games, but that cannot do much of anything else. The computer is not an AI genius, it simply has a hard drive that is filled with canned solutions.

My hypothesis, therefore is this: A race or nationality’s ability to master Scrabble does not predict its intellectual, scientific or technological achievements, because Scrabble does not require very high IQ, while the rest of these things do.

In fact, I would hazard a guess that very few really-high-IQ people (135+) bother to play games like Scrabble, because they would rather do something open-ended, rather than something entirely unproductive, with their time.

Another hypothesis is this: A Scrabble genius will be very bad at games with a low caching advantage. Thus a race or nationality that is good at Scrabble will perform worse at Go than a higher IQ nation, because Go has a lower caching advantage (it requires more fluid intelligence, i.e. IQ, since the situations that arise in the game are too diverse to cache, there will of course still be some caching advantage, therefore we must find a game that has a very low caching advantage, such as…Raven’s Progressive Matrices1).

The Islamic View of Sex Education and Adolescent Exposure to Sexual Scenes in Novels and Films

My child loves to read books. Some of the books she wants to read mention sex. She is 13 years old and I don't know when to allow her to read those books or even when to tell her about sex. I need help with this. Thank you!

When a child reaches puberty (and I assume your daughter has), in Islam they are considered mukallaf (responsible for their actions, i.e. legally adults). This means that parents should start to treat them like adult humans, respecting their intelligence and freedom of choice as humans. Parents should no longer treat them like children whose lives they control and dictate.

At that age, they have the right to demand honest answers from their parents regarding sex, and they have the right to be educated about the Islamic rules and etiquette regarding sex and marriage. In Islam there is no difference between the rights and responsibilities of an adolescent 13-year-old and a 25-year-old, legally they have the same status, although developmentally they are not exactly the same.

It is natural to be wary of letting an adolescent learn about sex because of the vague potential for harm that we perceive, but we should also take into account the even greater potential for harm that comes from belittling them and restricting them for no obvious reason. There is no Islamic or scientific reason to prevent an adolescent from learning about sex, and the great scholars of the past, such as Ibn al-Jawzi, would have memorized thousands of hadith narrations, some of them explicitly dealing with sex, before the age of 10.

If she has reached puberty, then it is your duty to teach her all of the Islamic rules that surround menstruation, such as by getting her a book on this matter. You do not have to give it to her specifically if this would be too embarrassing, it can be somewhere in your house where she can look at it when she wants. It will be largely your failing if she prays in a way that is invalid because no one told her any better.

You probably know much about sex, but your appreciation for Islamic principles enables you to stay devout and to put sex in its proper context. An adolescent can do the same if the parents have done their duty of giving them an Islamic upbringing, and if inside the home they maintain Islamic manners and standards. Trying to control a child’s knowledge about sex is a futile effort, especially today when they can easily find out everything they want on the internet. There is no way you can take away all possible opportunities for them to learn about it. The logical thing to do is to be moderate, letting them learn about sex and read books that you yourself would read, while not letting them have unmonitored access to the internet and not letting them read erotic books that you yourself wouldn’t read.

There is No Conflict Between Islam and Sex Education

Is a 13-year-old who knows much about sex from books less likely to be religious and devout than a 13-year-old who has been forbidden to learn anything about it?

I would hazard a guess that the one whose intelligence and dignity has been respected to the degree that he or she is allowed to read books on sex is going to be more religious and devout, because they are not made to feel that Islam is against human nature, that there is something wrong with them when they think about sex or want to learn about it.

Devoutness has nothing to do with how much a person knows about sex. Regardless of whether an adolescent knows nearly everything or nearly nothing about sex, they will have the same level of desire for the opposite sex. This desire is not about knowledge, it is about hormones and the human brain. To be able to resist this desire, what is needed is an understanding of Islamic principles and internalization of Islamic values, so that the adolescent knows that there is a good reason why they should resist their sexual desire, instead of feeling like they are being prevented from sexual pleasure for no good reason (like some adolescents brought up in extremely strict Muslim and Christian homes feel).

For an adolescent, learning about sex is like learning about any other topic, such as physics. There mere knowledge of sex is not going to push them into sinful behaviors, the same way that a divorced 30-year-old is not going to be more likely to sin just because they know very much about sex. Their knowledge of sex and their knowledge of Islam are two separate things.

Once a child reaches puberty, their sex hormones make it certain that they will have highly detailed and explicit daydreams and nighttime dreams about sex, and that sex will be on their minds often. Muslim adolescents generally spend ten years thinking about sex, whether they want to or not, before they get married, and reading or hearing a story or anecdote about sex, whether in an Islamic book or non-Islamic book, is going to be little more than a drop in the ocean of sexual thoughts that is in their heads.

As for books that are designed to be read for sexual pleasure (erotic and explicit romance books), then neither you nor your child should reach such books, because it is against Islamic manners to seek sexual pleasure outside of marriage, and no one who reads such books can honestly claim to be reading them without sexual intent.

The Developmental Concern

The one serious concern regarding exposing an adolescent to information about sexuality is that with their as-of-yet undeveloped minds, and their heightened sexual desire, they may be more likely to fall into sinful behaviors.

Isn’t it better to let them grow some more, garner more experiences, before they are exposed to such things?

It is true that the human is not fully developed until the late twenties, that is when a person’s impulse control matures. It is for this reason that insurance companies charge higher rates to people under the age of 25, because such people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors and cause accidents.

The problem is that, their lack of wisdom and development also means that will be unable to understand why information about sex is being kept from them, and their impulsiveness means that they will be extremely unlikely to be content when a parent says they are too young. They will probably jump on any chance to learn about sex from friends, from the internet, from libraries, from anywhere they can.

Preventing an adolescent from learning about sex is in fact telling them, “You are too impulsive and not enough of an adult to learn about sex, but you must act like an adult and control your impulses when you desire to learn about it.” It is placing a contradictory demand on them. If they are too impulsive to safely read about sex, they are too impulsive to be prevented from reading about sex out of your sight.

Therefore the argument that they are too young to learn about sex is false. If they are treated like they are too immature and foolish to be allowed to learn about sex from proper sources, they will only be right to act immature and foolish by seeking information from harmful sources, they are acting exactly the way we say they will act, and they are likely to do it just out of spite. If we belittle them and make them feel they are not proper members of society, they will naturally feel like outcasts, and they will be right to act like outcasts, ignoring customs and people’s expectations. If they are not allowed to enjoy the privileges of being full members of society, why should they suffer its restrictions?

It is best to treat them the Islamic way, to acknowledge their status as full members of society, while also acknowledging the fact that they are not fully developed yet. This is the best way to prepare them for adulthood; by treating them like adults. Treating them like children is not going to do any good, they are going to resent it.

Once an adolescent is given the freedoms and privileges of an adult, they will stop thinking of themselves as children who selfishly think of their own needs the whole time, and will instead start to think of themselves as respected members of their families and societies. This is very important for their growth. By being treated like a growing adult, being given both rights and responsibilities, they will try to live up to this expectation.

If a parent is too strict, this can cause the child to feel oppressed and controlled, and this can cause them to dislike the parent and the religious motivations for the parent’s choices. It is better to give the child sufficient freedom to not feel oppressed, but not so much freedom that they can do whatever they want in private. Since they live under your roof, you can set standards of behavior and etiquette that must be observed by them and any other adult living with you.

I have rarely seen children brought up in strict families grow into sincerely devout adults. They generally consider Islam a burden that’s placed on them, rather than something they love and follow by choice. They sometimes have a child’s mentality, thinking that their families and societies are against them, that what is good and fulfilling in life is one thing and society’s expectations another thing, because they do not feel like full members of Islamic society.

The Islamic Way of Bringing Up Devout Children: Balancing Conservativeness and Liberality

The best Muslims I have known in my life have been brought up in families that mixed conservativeness and liberality, conservative in the most important things, liberal in the rest. This means that the children are taught to carry out all their obligatory duties like prayer and fasting. It is not accepted of them to abandon these like some misguided liberal Muslim families allow. They are taught the Quran and encouraged to read beneficial Islamic books, most importantly the life of the Prophet and the lives of his companions. If the child is female, she should have access to at least 10 books dedicated to famous Muslim women in history and encouraged to read them (but not forced).

What are Islam’s priorities? It is to believe in God and the Day of Judgment and the rest of the Islamic items of faith (aqeedah). The entire family must act and live by these beliefs. The next priorities are the obligatory deeds, the entire family must carry them out (except for children who cannot), it should be an unspoken assumption in the family that abandoning the Islamic obligatory acts of worship is entirely unacceptable.

The next thing after the above is abandoning sinful behaviors. It should be unacceptable for anyone in the family to engage in anything clearly sinful, such as drinking alcohol. It is the job of the parents to ensure that Islamic standards are maintained in the family, that no one engages in anything sinful.

The above is the core of Islam. A child brought up in a loving family to believe in the Islamic items of faith, to carry out the obligatory deeds and to follow Islamic manners is guaranteed to grow into a devout Muslim, unless at some point they make a conscious choice to abandon Islam. Humans have free will, which means that regardless of their upbringing, they will forever have the choice to abandon Islam, this ability cannot be taken away from them.

A family that focuses on the above and gets it right can then be liberal in everything else. This liberality is very important. Islam must feel small and simple to a child, it must not feel like something that controls and burdens them. This means that filling one’s home entirely with Islamic books, always having Islamic channels on TV, allowing the children to visit the mosque and no other venue, forcing them to go to Quran schools instead of learning about other things they are interested in, are all exactly the correct way to make a child hate Islam. There is only so much religion a person can take. Religion is a tool to help us develop a spiritual connection with God and to guide our manners as we go about in the world living our lives. Once a person has the correct aqeedah, performs the obligatory deeds, loves the Quran and fears God’s punishment, religion’s goal has been accomplished in them. Religion is not there to dominate them and take their humanity away from them, it is to guide them to be better humans, as they continue to be humans, doing and enjoying human things.

This means that once the core of Islam has been actualized in a family’s life, from then on everyone should be free what they do with their time. Islam does not forbid children from playing video games, women from enjoying shopping or men from playing soccer, even if none of these things serve a productive purpose. The clearest proof of this is that in Islam it is acknowledged that people have sex for pleasure, unlike among some Christians who think that sex must always be done with the intention of procreation. Sex that is done for pleasure does not serve an obvious productive purpose, except for the fact that it improves the relationship between the husband and wife and makes them have a more positive view of life.

And the above reason is also why many other enjoyable acts that strict Muslims may scoff at are actually lawful and even encouraged. A child who is allowed to play the video games he or she likes, while also being expected to follow Islamic manners and carry out their Islamic duties, is going to grow up knowing that Islam is not against human nature and the enjoyment of life, that Islam is there to help them live better lives that they define themselves, instead of being there to force them to live a narrowed down life defined by ancient texts and society.

On Books that Mention Sex

As for your original question, there is no clear Islamic text that deals with her reading books that mention sex, but if you yourself would read that book and think that it is permissible for you, then she too can read it.

Since Islam is vague on this topic, one should act based on maslahah (“what is in the best interest of the person, family and society”) with regards to it. Allowing her to read a book she likes is a good thing, because it reaffirms her dignity and freedom, and reaffirms the fact that she can enjoy what she likes while also being a devout Muslim, that Islam is not her enemy like some teenagers mistakenly think. If the book contains casual mentions of sex but is not dedicated to arousing sexual desire in the reader like erotic books are, then I see little harm in it. Adolescents are perfectly capable of imagining sexual scenes in their heads, reading about one more sexual scene is not going to be anything significant.

Philosophically, there is no difference between an Islamic book that describes a sexual act and a random non-Islamic book that does the same, since in both cases, the reader is made to imagine a sexual scene in their heads. If reading about a sexual scene is sinful, then this means reading many hadith narrations and Quranic commentaries is sinful, since they too describe sexual scenes.

Your child has the right to read the Quran, books of interpretation of the Quran (tafseer), and books of hadith, and you should encourage her to do so, and if she does, then there is no avoiding the topic of sex, since the Quran, its interpretations and books of hadith cover various sexual topics in detail. Some scholars, in fact, consider it highly recommended that the child should be taught all of these things, meaning that to them sex education is part and parcel of Islam.

A person may say that the sexual acts described in a novel might be sinful acts (they might be between unmarried people), and that this makes it forbidden to read them. But this is logically a false argument. The Quran describes various sinful acts of previous nations, if reading the description of a sinful act is sinful, then reading the Quran would be sinful. And if reading the description of a sinful sexual act is sinful, then reading various books of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) would be sinful, since they are full of mentions sinful sexual acts. The reader is expected to understand that it is sinful, and to have their core of Islamic belief prevent them from engaging in similar acts.

A person may go on to say that novels would describe sinful sexual acts in a context that approves of them, while Islamic books do not. This too is an invalid argument. The Quran mentions in detail the arguments of Islam’s detractors, arguments which support disbelief if they are read out of context:

But the notables of his people, who disbelieved, said, “This is nothing but a human like you, who wants to gain superiority over you. Had God willed, He would have sent down angels. We never heard of this from our forefathers of old. He is nothing but a man possessed. Just ignore him for a while.” (The Quran, verses 23:24-25)

If you obey a human being like yourselves, then you will be losers. Does he promise you that when you have died and become dust and bones, you will be brought out? Farfetched, farfetched is what you are promised. There is nothing but our life in this world. We die, and we live, and we are not resurrected. He is nothing but a man, making up lies about God. We have no faith in him.” (The Quran, verses 23:34-38)

Since the person is reading the Quran, we assume that they will also know about counter-arguments the Quran offers. There is nothing sinful in relating a sinful behavior as long as the person is educated sufficiently to put it in context. The above verses relate the sin of shirk (denying God’s oneness), which is a far greater sin than any sexual crime, because it is the one sin that God says He will not forgive.

Someone who reads about a sinful sexual act is not going to be led into sin by it when they also read the Quran constantly, when they have had an Islamic upbringing and have internalized Islam’s values. Any novel a devout Muslim reads is already in proper context, because the context is their own minds, which is already firm on the belief in God and the Islamic principles. Reading a random sexual scene in a novel is only the feeblest challenge to someone’s faith.

I do not recommend letting adolescents read just about everything they want. Reading a book that is designed to be read for sexual pleasure is going to be an insult to the maintenance of Islamic manners in your home, and this should not be allowed. But as for the average Western-written novel, whether you let your daughter read it should rely on what you consider to be in her best interest. Preventing her from reading a book or a category of books she likes is going to harm her faith, because her freedom is restricted in something that is not clearly harmful, and her own interpretation of Islam is discounted and your interpretation imposed upon her, which always has a psychological cost on her and on her relationship with you.

We all want to bring up devout children, and our policies toward them should be geared toward this. If being strict in the Islamic matters of priority mentioned above while being liberal in everything else enables us to bring up children who are more devout and more likely to love Islam, then that is what we should do.

In general, arbitrarily forbidding children things because of a vague potential for harm is going to do more harm than good. I know someone who started to steal from his relatives in his childhood in order to be able to go to an arcade to play video games, because his strict father refused to buy him a video game console to play with at home, since according to him it was harmful. The child was forced to engage in a clearly sinful behavior due to the father’s misguided apprehension of the possible harms of video games.

Whenever you think of forbidding your child something that you consider potentially harmful, always keep in mind that the act of forbidding itself is also always potentially harmful. You must balance between these two concerns. Being too strict is always harmful, and being too lax is also always harmful. One must find a balance. The best balance I have seen is for the parents to focus on the core Islamic principles, manners and acts of worship, then be liberal in most other things, respecting their children’s right to make their own choices even if we are not always perfectly comfortable with their choice. It is in their best interest to feel free and to be treated like respected adults whose choices are respected, it is also in their best interest to follow Islam devoutly. These two interests must be balanced, neither of them should be neglected.

I would never forbid an adolescent from reading a book I would read myself, because there is no Islamic basis for creating such a rule, and it is disrespectful and belittling toward them, and they can probably find ways of reading it out of my sight.

If your child has not read the Quran, books of tafseer, books of hadith and Islamic biographies, then this should be corrected as soon as possible. They should have sufficient appreciation for Islam to follow it in public and in private of their own desire, and if they read or hear anything that challenges their Islamic belief, they should be able to counter it themselves.

If you worry about the influence of the non-Islamic books she reads, you can ask her to read one Islamic book for every few non-Islamic books she reads, or find some other arrangement.

I would have a library in my house filled with all kinds of books, and I would give the adolescent the right to read what they want. As long as they have had a proper Islamic upbringing, as long as they have been encouraged to read the Quran, hadith, Islamic biographies and other beneficial books, then there is no danger in this. I would never forbid my daughters from reading any of the hundreds of books I have in my house even though I may have the authority to do this. What right do I have to decide for her what she can and cannot read? If I give myself the right to read something, it feels highly hypocritical to me to forbid others from reading it.

Saying that she shouldn’t read a book she wants to read will make her feel insulted and belittled. I want to treat her like an adult, like a dignified and respected human, doing that will show her that I am not really honest in that treatment, that I still consider her a child even if I say otherwise.

Is it worth it to do this? Does it improve our relationship and her love for Islam or does it harm it?

My philosophy is that influences should be countered by influences. It is true that most of the West’s media and publishing contain harmful influences.The right way to counter this is to expose my children to good influences, such as from Islamic books and TV shows like the beautiful series The Companions of the Cave, instead of following the futile strategy of forbidding them from all potentially harmful influences, which would cause them to feel restricted and belittled, and which would reduce their love for their family and for Islam. As long as my children practice the core of Islam with understanding, this by itself is a strong influence helping them counter bad influences. And this understanding can only come from being educated in Islam, learning about the purposes of the acts of worship, the meanings of the verses of the Quran they recite, and biographies of the great Muslims of history.

Out of the fear of God, if a reader starts to feel sexually aroused by a sexual scene in a book, they can skip it. What is sinful is intentionally seeking sexual pleasure outside of marriage, and a person can use an Islamic book or non-Islamic book for this purpose if they want, and they can do it even without a book using their imagination. This is a small matter between a person and God, and it is not sufficient justification for forbidding someone from reading a book.

Films are a different matter, because it is impossible to watch a sex scene without becoming aroused by it, especially when the watcher is a young and healthy person. Since a person who fears God can never be sure that God approves of this, they will not engage in it. Parents should make sure that no one under their roof, child or adult, watches sex scenes under their roof, as a matter of maintaining Islamic standards. They, however, should not make a big deal out of this, keeping an authoritarian watch over everyone’s activities. They should put it in its proper context, which is that compared to the important matters of Islamic belief and practice, it is a relatively unimportant matter and no one should be condemned and harassed for it, the same way that if a man sees his son admiring an attractive woman on the street, instead of beating him up or shouting at him, he should gently tell him it is not polite to do that, and that should be the end of it, he should immediately go back to treating him like normal, with love and kindness. The son is treated like an equal, with dignity and respect, not like a piece of property to be beaten into shape.

Summary

In summary, what we allow our children to engage in should be decided based on their best interests. An important part of their interests is to be treated with dignity and respect, and to be given freedom instead of being made to feel oppressed and controlled. Another part of their interests is to ensure that they are not given so much freedom that they develop sinful habits and engage in them without restriction. Good Muslim parents will find a balance between these two concerns, neither being too strict nor too lax, but being strict in the Islamic matters of priority and liberal in everything else, while also ensuring that many good influences are available to counter bad influences, including Islamic books and TV shows.

Adolescents have the right to sex education. There is no conflict between Islam and learning about sex. And just because a book contains mentions of sex is not sufficient reason to forbid adolescents from reading it. Any book we think we can read ourselves, they too should be allowed to read. We should not approve of their reading erotic books or watching sex scenes in films. But we should also not turn these into a great matter of concern. We should instead treat it the same way we treat a son admiring an attractive woman, with politeness and gentleness, without condemnation, respecting them as our friends and equals.

Adolescents have poor impulse control due to a not-fully-developed prefrontal cortex. This means that even if they love Islam and want to follow it, they are more likely to fall into sinful behaviors without parental guidance. They should not be allowed to spend long periods of time in privacy, and they should not be allowed to have private access to the internet or television. They should be treated like good friends who are more likely to engage in minor sins if they are not watched, they should not be held to the same standards as older adults, and if they make mistakes, they should be quickly forgiven and not condemned, acknowledging that they are good people who do not have very good impulse control at the moment, but who will one day have it.

Follow-up Question

So if the child reads a book and the book contains just one scene of sex and there is some love triangles in the book, she can read it, right?

The general rule is that anything you can read, she can read too. As long as her life is filled with good influences, one book is a minor influence and of little concern. It will become a cause for concern if someone constantly seeks that type of book to the exclusion of other books. But if a person reads such books because they are famous or classics, then there is no issue with it.

It is about intentions. A person can peruse a medical textbook with the intention of learning. Another person can peruse it for the pictures of naked people it contains. Since adolescents have low impulse control, you cannot just let them read every romance novel they want, since it can become a habit like it becomes in some people in the West, who use romantic novels as a more refined alternative to pornography. The sexual arousal that comes from reading such books can make a person want to seek more of it.

But if I have a large library and some of the novels are romance novels, and the child likes to read every type of novel, then I will not prevent them from reading what they like. The context and the child’s reading habits matter.

The most important point is that, as a matter of maintaining Islamic manners, no one in the household should make it a habit to seek sexual arousal and pleasure in a non-marriage context. Your son should not be allowed to watch erotic music videos and your daughter should not be allowed to read books designed to be read for their erotic content. But a parent who harasses them by trying to control everything they can see and read is going to do more harm than good.

For the child’s own spiritual good, they should be given enough freedom of choice and privacy not to feel oppressed and controlled, but not so much that they develop sinful habits.

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