Distinguishing between trustworthy and untrustworthy Muslim scholars and intellectuals

How can we distinguish an honest and good scholar from a bad and misleading. I used to think before that they are all honest so I didn't understand why Islam was telling me to be so evil. It also makes me confused because why would someone dedicate so much time for the sake of Allah to be a scholar and then be misleading?

Scholars are humans and are subject to all the forces and temptations that cause humans to be unjust at times. Sometimes out of anger or a personal dislike for someone, a person may feel strongly tempted to say or do something unjust.

As for finding who the best scholars and thinkers are, even the pagans of Mecca recognized the good and honorable character of Prophet Muhammad even though they rejected his mission. The reason they could do that was that they saw that the Prophet never lied, had impeccable manners, never broke promises and never betrayed anyone’s trust. Truthfulness and honorableness are characteristics that are relatively easy to discover in people.

Judge Muslim scholars and intellectuals according to their manners and character and how much they are like the best people mentioned in the Quran. Trustworthy Muslims do not scoop down to personal attacks. They are polite, even toward the rudest of people. They do not get angry. They admit the limits of the evidence instead of trying to convince you that their opinion is correct. If a Muslim is desperate to convince you of something so that you start to feel uncomfortable, as if they are trying to convince you to make a leap of faith and to submit to their opinion, that is a very strong red flag that that person is not trustworthy.

Trustworthy Muslims respect the fact that you are an honored human in the sight of God whose dignity and conscience are inviolable, they consider you a respected human whether you agree or disagree with them, while untrustworthy Muslims consider you an instrument; if you agree with them and submit to them, they will be nice and kind, and if you refuse to do that, they become rude. They are tribalists who only consider you a proper human if you belong to their “tribe” (sect, madhhab, etc.), and if you do not belong to it they treat you as if you were subhuman.

Above I have described the extreme examples of trustworthy and untrustworthy people. Most people fall somewhere between the two extremes since no human is perfect, so how much you trust someone should depend on how close they are to the trustworthy or untrustworthy side.

If you are sincere in your faith and you have the Quran to guide you, it would be easy for you to distinguish between those who are most trustworthy and those who are least. Those who fall victim to misguided and harmful doctrines generally do so because of flaws in their faith; they follow a person who offers them a lax version of Islam that helps them continue sinful lifestyles or one that offers them wealth, connections or glory, and they choose to follow them despite the warnings of their intellect and conscience. In Islam, since you have been blessed with an intellect and conscience, you are considered responsible for who you choose to follow. Saying “I followed the wrong person” is not a valid excuse, because you are considered sufficiently intelligent and capable to distinguish between trustworthy and untrustworthy people yourself (there might of course be rare exceptions). In two passages (2:165-167 and 34:31-33) the Quran mentions God rejecting the excuses of people on the Day of Judgment who say they were only following others.

On raising the hands during salah as a Hanafi

As a Hanafi would it be wrong for me to raise my hands during salah?

The Hanafi opinion is that you shouldn’t do that, so if you respect the Hanafi school and try to follow their opinions then you shouldn’t raise your hand.

You may also research the topic yourself and follow the opinion that sounds best to you. In the past, the schools of jurisprudence (madhhabs) were like guilds. Those who belonged to a school had to act according to the scholars of that school in order to be accepted by the community around the school, and the scholars themselves had to strictly adhere to the school, otherwise would have lost their jobs as teachers in the madrasas and imams in school-associated mosques. But the guild-like nature of the schools has today disappeared in many parts of the world today, especially in large, cosmopolitan cities. People instead follow the opinions of the scholars they respect most without caring very much about the scholar’s school, and the scholars themselves often combine opinions from multiple schools.

Ideally, Muslims should follow the opinions that have the most reliable evidence behind them regardless of what school the opinion comes from. But we cannot all research each and every topic as that would take most of our time, so in general it is reasonable to follow the opinions of scholars you know and respect.

On the Shia and their fate according to Sunni Islam

What are your views on Shia and their beliefs? And are they among the 70+ sects that are doomed?

First, the notion of the “72 doomed sects” is false, as I explain here. It is based on fabricated evidence.

As for the Shia, I believe that anyone who believes in God and His Books and does their best to follow Him, sincerely and in good faith, will be rewarded by Him, as the Quran promises:

Those who believe, and the Jews, and the Sabians, and the Christians—whoever believes in God and the Last Day, and does what is right—they have nothing to fear, nor shall they grieve.1

The above verse and those like it have been interpreted in various ways. The fate of ‘others’ in Islam, whether non-Muslims or Muslims belonging to sects considered non-orthodox, is a contentious issue that lends itself to many interpretations. Those interested can read professor Mohammad Hassan Khalil’s book Islam and the Fate of Others: The Salvation Question, which is a study that shows that there is sufficient room within Islam for what I mentioned above.

While it is common for Muslims to complain about Islamophobia in the West and the fact that people refuse to try to understand Islam, they themselves unfortunately act in very much the same way toward other Muslims. I have talked to some Sunni Muslims who have never met a Shia Muslim in their lives and who have the most absurd misconceptions and prejudices about the lives and thinking of the Shias. The Iranian government, in the name of Shia Islam, has committed a great deal of injustice and oppression against the Sunnis (a glaring example being that Sunni Muslims are not allowed to pray the Friday prayers in cities like Tehran, in their sectarian chauvinistic view only Shia mosques should have the right to hold Friday prayers). But many Iranian Shias do not support the actions of the government, or are simply busy making a living and not having the time to worry about what their government is doing, similar to the attitude of many Americans toward their government’s mass-murder of innocent people overseas. Among the Shia there are those who do their best to hold onto the Quran and to follow it in their lives, and God is generous and intelligent enough to understand and appreciate the efforts of such people even if they have beliefs and attitude that Sunnis would consider wrong. The Quran says the following about Jews and Christians, and I believe the same applies to the Shia:

113. They are not all alike. Among the People of the Scripture is a community that is upright; they recite God’s revelations throughout the night, and they prostrate themselves.

114. They believe in God and the Last Day, and advocate righteousness and forbid evil, and are quick to do good deeds. These are among the righteous.

115. Whatever good they do, they will not be denied it. God knows the righteous.2

So my view is that God holds each soul according to the knowledge He has given it:

God never burdens a soul beyond what He has given it.3

God will not hold a Shia Muslim responsible for what Sunnis consider wrong beliefs if they really think what they believe is true, if they follow the Quran in good faith, and if they do not knowingly do evil.

By saying that, I do not mean to say that Sunni and Shia Islam are equally good religions. Religions are tools toward understanding and worshiping God, and the best tool is the one that helps the most people worship God in the best way possible. We can judge a religion by the number of pious, self-less and devout people it can produce, and I believe Sunni Islam comes out on top according to this measure.

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.

On the unreliability of the hadith narrations mentioning 73 Muslim sects, 72 of which are supposedly doomed to the Hellfire

There are a group of hadith narrations, not found in al-Bukhārī and Muslim, but found in various other collections, in which the Prophet Muhammad mentions that the Muslims will divide into 73 groups, 72 of which will enter the Hellfire, meaning that only one among these 73 groups will be saved. This one group is known as al-firqa al-nājiya (“the group that attains salvation”).

These narrations have unfortunately been a favorite polemical tool. Each group can claim to be al-firqa al-nājiya to imply that the members of every other group will enter the Hellfire:

But they tore themselves into sects; each party (self-righteously) happy with what they have.1

The truth of the matter is that these narrations are all likely corrupted or fabricated, and there is no authentic evidence whatsoever for the part that says “all of them will enter the Hellfire except one”.

The Kuwaiti Islamic scholar Dr. Ḥākim al-Muṭayrī (b. 1964, holds PhDs in Islamic studies from Birmingham University and University of al-Qarawiyyin in Fez, Morocco) has conducted a study (Arabic PDF – 3 MB) of all of the relevant hadith narrations regarding this issue. He mentions that Ibn Ḥazm rejected the narration, and that al-Shawkani considered the part that says “all of them are doomed save one” a fabrication. In the conclusion, he writes:

وعلى كل فكل طرق هذا الحديث مناكير وغرائب ضعيفة ومنكرة، وأحسنها حالا حديث أبي هريرة وهو حديث حسن، مع تساهل كبير في تحسينه لتفرد محمد بن عمرو به، وهو صدوق له أوهام خاصة في روايته عن أبي سلمة عن أبي هريرة، ولهذا كان القدماء يتقون حديثه كما قال يحيى بن معين.

All of the ṭuruq (the chains of narrators) of this hadith are objectionable and unauthentic. The best of them is the hadith of Abū Hurayra, which is a ḥasan hadith (i.e. not good enough to be considered authentic, but having an acceptable meaning and not clearly fabricated), provided that we extend it great latitude (i.e. lower our standards) for the fact of Muhammad bin ʿAmr being its only transmitter, who is known to be a truthful person who has awhām (plural of wahm, "confusion" or "delusion", meaning he gets confused and mixes up narrations), especially in his narrations from Abū Salama, from Abū Hurayra, and for this reason the early hadith scholars were cautious of his narrations, as Yaḥyā bin Maʿīn has mentioned.

Note that this best hadith that Dr. Muṭayrī refers to does not have the part that says “all of them will enter the Hellfire save one” (see page 24 of the PDF). The most we can learn from these narrations is that the Muslims will possibly divide into 73 sects (which could possibly be a randomly chosen number used to imply “a great many”, as is typical in Arabian usage).

In conclusion, there is no justification whatsoever for using these narrations to imply that Muslims from other groups will enter the Hellfire; anyone who says such a thing has uttered a falsehood, either out ignorance or dishonesty.

The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion by John J. Saunders

The Muslim World on the Eve of Europe’s Expansion (published in 1966), at only 136 pages, is a short and enjoyable history of the Muslim world in the early modern period, with interesting articles on the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal Empires, the Mamlukes, the Uzbeks, Islam in Southeast Asia and Africa, the remnants of the Mongols in Russia, the Indian Ocean trade and the naval struggle between the Ottomans and the Christian powers.

Many interesting scenes from history are presented in the book; the siege of Vienna by the Ottomans; celebrations in Rome on the fall of Granada, the last Muslim principality in Spain; an Italian traveler who performs the Hajj in 1503 disguised as a Muslim.

The book is a collection of excerpts from other works. Each section is introduced by the fair-minded and able British historian John J. Saunders. The book is recommended to anyone who wants to enjoy a lighthearted and non-politicized introduction to the state of the Islamic world during the rise of European power.

On unanswered prayers, and is it normal for a Muslim to doubt God’s existence?

As a Muslim is it normal to ever doubt Allah's existence? I pray 5x daily and have completed Umrah, but i feel like my prayers have never been answered.

That’s normal, and that is why faith is rewarded. We are supposed to believe in God without having physical proof of His existence. Believing in God while having physical proof is like believing that the sun or the moon exist. There is no virtue in that. This world is designed to test our faith by making us feel abandoned, or making us think that good and bad things happen randomly, or that it is evildoers who are rewarded with the best life. These are very much part and parcel of the design of the universe, seeing these things around us is as normal as seeing furniture in a house.

It is normal to doubt God’s existence when you feel your prayers are not being answered. The question is whether you will keep your faith in Him despite this, whether you will continue to put your hope and trust in Him, or whether this world’s difficulties overpower you so that you turn your back on Him, doubt His existence and abandon serving Him. The Quran says:

Do you expect to enter Paradise before God has distinguished those among you who strive, and before He has distinguished the steadfast?1

God will intentionally make us go through periods of suffering and abandonment to bring out our true nature. Instead of letting us stroll into Paradise while we continue to be selfish, greedy and disloyal toward Him, He will make us suffer exactly the type of circumstances that brings out the best and the worst in us. And this way He distinguishes between His servants:

  • These are those who continue to love him and work to please Him despite the worst suffering.
  • There are those who are on the whole patient and faithful but whose faith is almost overwhelmed every time difficulty and abandonment hits them.
  • There are God’s fair-weather friends who are faithful during times of ease and abandon Him when their faith is tested.
  • There are the ex-believers who, after suffering a number of tragedies, turn their backs on Him, refusing to submit to His decree, thinking the worst of Him and even fighting against Him and His believers.

The Quran has this important passage on the issue of unanswered prayers:

47. To Him is referred the knowledge of the Hour. No fruit emerges from its sheath, and no female conceives or delivers, except with His knowledge. And on the Day when He calls out to them, “Where are My associates?” They will say, “We admit to you, none of us is a witness.”

48. What they used to pray to before will forsake them, and they will realize that they have no escape.

49. The human being never tires of praying for good things; but when adversity afflicts him, he despairs and loses hope.

50. And when We let him taste a mercy from Us, after the adversity that had afflicted him, he will say, “This is mine, and I do not think that the Hour is coming; and even if I am returned to my Lord, I will have the very best with Him.” We will inform those who disbelieve of what they did, and We will make them taste an awful punishment.

51. When We provide comfort for the human being, he withdraws and distances himself; but when adversity befalls him, he starts lengthy prayers.

52. Say, “Have you considered? If it is from God and you reject it—who is further astray than he who is cutoff and alienated?”

53. We will show them Our proofs on the horizons, and in their very souls, until it becomes clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not sufficient that your Lord is witness over everything?

54. Surely they are in doubt about the encounter with their Lord. Surely He comprehends everything.2

As believers, it is normal for this world to continuously challenge our faith and tempt us to abandon God. The question is whether we remain faithful despite these challenges, whether we continue to humbly submit and say “It is all from God, we belong to God and He can do anything He wants with us”, or whether we arrogantly reject His decree, become enamored of this world and start to disbelieve in Him.

The principle of Plausible Deniability (which I discussed in a previous answer) means that God will never, or almost never, answer our prayers in a clearly miraculous way. You may wish to get high marks on an exam, pray ardently for this and work hard, and once you do get the high marks, you will look back and wonder whether God had anything to do with it or whether it was all your own hard work.

That is how God answers our prayers; subtly, always keeping Himself hidden, and always leaving us room for doubt. He will not miraculously answer our prayers, because that would be physical proof of His existence.

If you wish for your prayers to be answered, become the type of person who deserves such a favor. Do you deserve having your prayers answered? Even if we pray ardently for something and worship God, if we regularly disobey Him, or selfishly ignore His commandments (such as those regarding giving charity to one’s relatives, etc.), or are involved in something sinful (such as having an interest-bearing savings or retirement account), then we are in effect asking for God’s help while also insulting Him by our disobedience. Such a person will have a very low status in God’s eyes.

Therefore we must first work on ourselves. We must purify ourselves, rededicate ourselves to God, give up all sin and disobedience, do everything we can to raise our rank in God’s eye, then we should expect Him to give us what we wish for.

The majority of people are only half-dedicated to God, so it is no surprise that God does not elevate their ranks. They serve Him with one hand while insulting Him with the other. God, out of His generosity and kindness, still protects such people and blesses them in countless ways that they cannot see:

That is because God is the mawlā (Protecting Friend) of those who believe, while the disbelievers have no protecting friend.3

There are millions of Muslims who have worse lives than we do. Why should we expect to be treated any better by God than those Muslims? What is so special about us that our prayers should be answered? Unless we have attained a special status in God’s eyes, we should not expect special treatment. God takes care of the faithful and ensures that they will have a generally good life, as the Quran promises:

Whoever works righteousness, whether male or female, while being a believer, We will grant him a good life—and We will reward them according to the best of what they used to do.4

But if we want more than that, if we want a life that has special blessings that we desire, than we should turn ourselves into the type of believer who deserves those special blessings.

On giving up a sinful relationship

I was and still am in a “friends with benefit” relationship with a senior in my uni, it wasn’t intimate one but making out and I fell in love with him but he doesn’t love me back. I’m a revert and he happens to be a Qatari. I know we both have sinned but we couldn’t stop each other. I’m attached and each time I want to say no, he kinda blackmails and I give in. It is damaging me and my soul because, he became my strength and I just can’t give up. I deeply love him. Please help

Your situation is similar to any addiction situation, where a person wishes to give up something but does not have the strength to do so. Continuing to be in contact with him would be similar to an alcoholic who wishes to give up alcohol but continues to regularly take a sip of alcohol every now and then, which makes it impossible for them to have the strength to give it up.

The best way to escape that situation would be to cut all contact with him difficult as it would be, telling him that he should either marry you or stop talking to you.

If you are too much in love to consider that, you should try finding a job in a different city or state.

When you are addicted to something sinful, it means it is impossible for you to control your impulses, therefore if you truly want to give up the sin, instead of trying to control your impulses, you should plan against the sinful behavior. By planning I mean coming up with creative ways of making it difficult or impossible for you to engage in the sin. Perhaps you can honestly tell God that you tried to stop sinning but as long as the sin was available you could not stop. But you are still responsible for staying in that situation when there might be alternatives, such as moving to a different town, state or country, which would put an end to the sin.

The Quran says:

Say, “If your parents, and your children, and your siblings, and your spouses, and your relatives, and the wealth you have acquired, and a business you worry about, and homes you love, are more dear to you than God, and His Messenger, and the struggle in His cause, then wait until God executes His judgment.” God does not guide the sinful people.1

Now, God does not ask us for more than we are able to give. Therefore if you truly cannot escape that situation, then complain of your weakness to God, and ask Him sincerely to help you and find a solution for you, and His help will come to you sooner or later inshaAllah. Also see these essays of mine:

A Muslim who cannot escape the guilt of a sinful life

I’m a revert, I lost my path again. I don’t really pray much now but still on deen. I have some confessions to be made cause these are eating me away. I tried to tell it all in a prayer (while making dua) but these things they still haunt me and I’m still in touch with it cause I’m bonded with it. I can’t let it go. It is a part of my life. I regret but I have no other option. Sometimes it gets suicidal but there’s no point in self harm. I can’t sleep and function properly.

Humbly ask God for His help and guidance. Talk to Him and tell Him that you are weak and that you do not know what to do. If you sincerely call for His help, He will help you. It might take time, but if you sincerely ask Him every day then your life will slowly improve, so that a year from now your situation may have greatly improved.

Do not give up hope. Prophet Ibrahim says:

“And who despairs of his Lord’s mercy but those who are truly lost?”1

And do not expect too much improvement immediately. Leave it to God to fix your life. If at the moment you feel so weak and exhausted that there is nothing you can do, then let it be so. God does not ask you for more than you are able.

Also see: On giving up a sinful relationship

Why is seeking knowledge important in Islam?

Why is seeking knowledge important in Islam and how does seeking knowledge not only religiously brings us closer to Allah swt?

The Quran says:

25. If they disbelieve you, those before them also disbelieved. Their messengers came to them with the clear proofs, with the Psalms, and with the Enlightening Scripture. 26. Then I seized those who disbelieved—so how was My rejection? 27. Have you not seen that God sends down water from the sky? With it We produce fruits of various colors. And in the mountains are streaks of white and red—varying in their hue—and pitch-black. 28. Likewise, human beings, animals, and livestock come in various colors. From among His servants, it is the learned who (truly) fear God. God is Almighty, Oft-Forgiving. 29. 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.1

Exalted is God, the True King. Do not be hasty with the Quran before its inspiration to you is concluded, and say, “My Lord, increase me in knowledge.”2

In fact, it is clear signs in the hearts of those given knowledge. No one renounce Our signs except the unjust.3

And in another place it says, regarding the uneducated Bedouins:

The Desert-Arabs are the most steeped in disbelief and hypocrisy, and the most likely to ignore the limits that God revealed to His Messenger. God is Knowing and Wise.4

The Desert-Arabs say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not believed; but say, ‘We have submitted,’ for faith has not yet entered into your hearts. But if you obey God and His Messenger, He will not diminish any of your deeds. God is Forgiving and Merciful.”5

The picture that the Quran draws is that those who lack knowledge are more likely to fall into error and sinful behaviors, and that increased knowledge helps a person become better and more pious.

As for non-religious knowledge, it helps us appreciate the Creator’s greatness to know more about His creations.

190. In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, are signs for people of understanding. 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.”6

Do they not consider that God, Who created the heavens and the earth, is Able to create the likes of them? He has assigned for them a term, in which there is no doubt. But the wrongdoers persist in denying the truth.7

In verse 21:30, the Quran refers to two facts of the physical world, one from physics, the other from biology:

Do the disbelievers not see that the heavens and the earth were one mass, and We tore them apart? And that We made from water every living thing? Will they then not believe?

For a person who believes in God, the above verse seems to refer to the Big Bang hypothesis, which is the accepted theory for how the universe started. The Quran even refers to the expansion of the universe that was discovered in the last century:

We constructed the universe with power, and We are expanding it.8

While these facts of physics, biology, etc. are not sufficient to constitute proof, they are sufficient to constitute āyāt (“signs”, “pointers”). They are not proofs of God’s existence and greatness, by the point to Him and His power, they suggest it, and for the person who humbles his or her heart to God, they act as strengtheners for their faith and their appreciation of God’s presence and greatness.

The Egyptian scholar Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996) says:

The Quran, in pointing to God's existence, is a universe that speaks, the same way that this universe is a silent Quran.

For those of us who have submitted to God and love Him, the more we learn about the universe the closer we feel to Him, because we know it is all His creation, and that He is in charge of it.

Secular knowledge helps us know God better and also helps improve our lives in various ways (you can read a scientific book about food and in this way make better diet choices). It is quite obvious that more knowledge is better than less knowledge.

And as for religious knowledge, it helps us avoid errors and know the best ways of pleasing God, which is the purpose of our lives.

For a discussion of Islam and science see my essay: God, Evolution and Abiogenesis: The Topological Theory for the Origin of Life and Species

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