Introduction to Ethics and Theology – II

[These are rough notes from the first session of the workshop on Historical, Intellectual and Spiritual Approaches to Islam conducted by Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed (db) in Karachi, during Feb 2016]

Cont’d from here.


Multiplicity of Meanings

I’m going to go back and show you what caused these four positions to emerge. There is this notion of multiplicity of meanings, which you will very quickly encounter, very first day in the first session I’m going to show you upfront why there is multiplicity of meanings. This itself disturbs some people. They don’t understand. A nice, well-intentioned, ordinary Muslim says how can there be disagreement on something fundamental like iman?

In order to understand why there is disagreement, you need to go behind the scenes and appreciate how that disagreement came about. Yes, there are some disagreements that come about because of ideology and sectarianism. But the point is to show you that there are some disagreements, meaning multiple, divergent understandings, which come only through this analytical, academic study of Islam.

When you take into account the intellectual, historical and spiritual approaches, you build the whole workshop, and you start turning the knob, you are going to get multiple meanings. Without the workshop, without touching the knob, without using all three approaches, you can end up with just one meaning.  But when you start doing all of those things that I have shown you up till now, you will start getting multiple meanings on very many things. Allah (swt) says in Qur’an:

ءَامَنَ ٱلرَّسُولُ بِمَآ أُنزِلَ إِلَيۡهِ مِن رَّبِّهِۦ وَٱلۡمُؤۡمِنُونَ‌ۚ كُلٌّ ءَامَنَ بِٱللَّهِ وَمَلَـٰٓٮِٕكَتِهِۦ وَكُتُبِهِۦ وَرُسُلِهِۦ لَا نُفَرِّقُ بَيۡنَ أَحَدٍ۬ مِّن رُّسُلِهِۦ‌ۚ وَقَالُواْ سَمِعۡنَا وَأَطَعۡنَا‌ۖ غُفۡرَانَكَ رَبَّنَا وَإِلَيۡكَ ٱلۡمَصِيرُ
The Messenger has believed in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, and the believers as well. All have believed in Allah and His angels and His Books and His Messengers. “We make no division between any of His Messengers,” and they have said: “We have listened, and obeyed. Our Lord, (we seek) Your pardon! And to You is the return.” [2:286]

Blessed Prophet (sws) believed in all that was revealed by Allah (swt), and all the believers also believed. So here you can see another concept of iman. Let me give you an example, how many of you have iman that I have a watch in my hand? All of you raising your hand are wrong! Alazina yu’minoona bil ghayb; iman means to believe in the unseen. You could see the watch. That’s called mushahada in Arabic. You have eye-witness testimony.

How many of you have iman that I have a pen in my pocket? The faithful are few and far between. You would have iman based on if you believed I was a true person. Allah (swt) is saying here that ’amana Rasulu; Blessed Prophet (swt) believes, bima; in each and every single thing, munzila elaihim min Rabbihi; that has been revealed to him (sws) from his Rabb, and the believers also believe in that.

Iman also means that we believe in everything that was revealed to the Prophet (sws). We still don’t know everything. Allah (swt) revealed to him (sws) the Qur’an, he recited it to us. Allah (swt) revealed to him (sws) hadith and sunnah to share with people, he recited that to us. But there may be some things that Allah (swt) told the Prophet (sws) that me and you don’t know. There may be some things that he (sws) saw in mi’raj that me and you don’t know, but we believe in all of that also. We believe in every single thing that Allah (swt) revealed to him as he (sws) believed in it. For it is ghayb.

Earlier in Qur’an, right at the start of Surah Baqarah, Allah (swt) says:

 الَّذِيۡنَ يُؤۡمِنُوۡنَ بِالۡغَيۡبِ
Who believe in the Unseen [2:03]

So now you are building up the material. If we took up all the verses of Qur’an about iman, it would take us all five days of the workshop. So I’m just showing you the elements of the workshop. We are building up our definition of iman; iman means to believe in the unseen; to believe in whatever Allah (swt) revealed to the Prophet (sws); to believe in all this with the same certainty as Blessed Prophet (sws) believed in it. When we take iman, what do we say? We have to take shahadah, which is a word from mushahida i.e. eye-witness testimony. It means you have to believe in the unseen as if it was seen. You have to believe in ghayb with so much yaqin and conviction as if it were mushahidah, that’s why it is called mushahida or tashahud. The language itself is teaching us this.

This is the answer to certain secular, atheist concepts of empiricism that we only believe in those things that can empirically be demonstrated. No, we believe in ghayb, we believe in it as much as we believe in all of the empirical, mathematical and scientific realities.

Then, there were some elements of iman here kullun each and everyone of Prophet (sws) and his companions (ra) ’amana billahi – they believed in Allah (swt) and the angels, the scriptures, and the messengers. But what’s missing here, so to speak, what was there in the hadith-e-Jibrael that is not in this ayah? Wal qadri khairihi, wa sharihi, belief that everything good or bad is from Allah (swt). It means that there is no single one text that can give you the definition of iman. I’m showing you why you need the workshop. We can find some elements in this verse, some in another verse, more in another hadith. You have to build the entire workshop.

Another thing is that we believe in all of the messengers equally. Our iman in the nabuwwah/prophethood of Syedna Isa (as) is equal to our iman in the nabuwwah of Syedna Rasool Allah (sws). In the spiritual realm, a person may ask that of course I do believe that Syedna Isa (as) was a prophet, but in my heart is that feeling as strong as my belief that Syedna Rasool Allah (sws) is a prophet? Sometimes a person does the spiritual check and realizes that it is less. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t believe that Isa (as) is also a prophet, but in his heart has he done the la nufarriqu that we don’t make any distinction?

Now love is different. We will love the Blessed Prophet (sws) more than all the other prophets. But your iman needs to have that certainty. Then there are some prophets who are also ghayb. There are so many prophets and we don’t even know their names, but we have to believe in them. There are just 25 or 30 whose names have come in Qur’an and Hadith. In one narration, and there are several narrations with different numbers, Blessed Prophet (sws) mentioned that there are 120,000 prophets. It means you believe in a prophet whose name you don’t even know with as much certainty as you believe in Syedna Rasool Allah (sws).

I have shown you the spiritual aspect of the workshop, I have shown you the textual aspect of the workshop, but if historically a person says what does that mean? You can go and read some text by, lets say, Imam al-Ghazali (rah) or some earlier scholar that how do they talk about Syedna Isa (as). When you read that, you will get a feeling that okay that’s what it means. The feeling that they clearly have in their heart when they write like that, that’s the feeling that I’m supposed to have in my heart about Syedna Isa (as).

اِنَّمَا الۡمُؤۡمِنُوۡنَ الَّذِيۡنَ اِذَا ذُكِرَ اللّٰهُ وَجِلَتۡ قُلُوۡبُهُمۡ
Certainly, the believers are those whose hearts are filled with awe when (the name of) Allah is mentioned [8:02]

It means that indeed who are the believers? When Allah’s (swt) name is mentioned in front of them, their heart tremble and quiver. Maybe their hearts flutter out of love, or their hearts tremble out of fear. Both meanings are there. This is again the knob, why are their hearts trembling? It could be fluttering out of love, or trembling out of fear. Multiplicity of meaning is embedded in Qur’an and Hadith text.

Arguments for/against the Tongue Position

Another thing we find here is zadat imana – that their iman becomes ziada; it becomes mazeed; it increases. That’s another thing we will add to the workshop that iman is apparently something that can increase. It’s not static. There’s a notion of increase in iman. That is going to work against the tongue argument, because when you just say it on your tongue, that’s just a single, static utterance. There is no question of increase or decrease in that. You just said that sentence once.

So now you see certain elements of the workshop will support one of those four positions more, and some of those positions won’t know how to handle this part of the workshop. When that happens, if there is an advocate of that position, what is he supposed to do? This is another thing, if you ever want to take the intellectual approach side of it, you must have, what we call, an intellectual honesty. You will have to honestly acknowledge that there are certain elements in the workshop that do not correspond with my position.

Unfortunately people who don’t have that intellectual honesty, rather they have an intellectual dishonesty, they will hide that from their pamphlet. They will give you a presentation on iman including only those parts of the workshop that supports their position that iman is only from the tongue. They will hide all parts of verses and hadith that goes against their position. This is one of the examples; the classical scholarly tradition went against this position that iman is just about the tongue, because there is no concept of ziada, there is no concept of increase then.

Another example, just to show you, this is a very commented-on verse of Qur’an:

قَالَتِ الۡاَعۡرَابُ اٰمَنَّا‌ ؕ قُلْ لَّمۡ تُؤۡمِنُوۡا وَلٰـكِنۡ قُوۡلُوۡۤا اَسۡلَمۡنَا وَلَمَّا يَدۡخُلِ الۡاِيۡمَانُ فِىۡ قُلُوۡبِكُمۡ‌ ۚ وَاِنۡ تُطِيۡعُوا اللّٰهَ وَرَسُوۡلَهٗ لَا يَلِتۡكُمۡ مِّنۡ اَعۡمَالِكُمۡ شَيۡـًٔــا‌ ؕ اِنَّ اللّٰهَ غَفُوۡرٌ رَّحِيۡمٌ‏
The Bedouins say, “We have come to believe.” Say, “You have not come to believe; instead, you (should) say, ‘We have surrendered’ and the belief has not entered your hearts so far. If you obey Allah and His Messenger, He will not curtail (the reward of) any of your deeds in the least. Surely Allah is Most-Forgiving, Very-Merciful.” [49:14]

That al ’arabu – i.e. the desert bedouin nomads started saying amanna – that we have iman. Allah (swt) told the Prophet (sws) that qul lam tu’minu wa lakin qulu aslamna – that say to them don’t say that you have iman, rather say that you have Islam. Up till now most people thought iman and Islam were the same thing! But here Allah (swt) is using the word iman and Islam in contrast with each other.

I remember when I studied this in tafsir, there were eight positions that I can recall right now of ulema that what is the difference between iman and Islam? This is another question they raised that what is Islam and what is iman? I’m showing you what goes on is ilm al-kalam. I’m giving you this introductory tour of theology. What’s the difference between those two? What does it mean that they cannot say amanna, they can only say aslamna? When will they be able to say amanna? Is Islam before and iman later?

To give you an example, one of the positions was that Islam and iman actually mean identical things when used separately. But when Allah (swt) uses them together in a single verse of Qur’an and is contrasting them like this, in that case iman is referring to the inner yaqin and conviction in the heart of a person – it is the inner aspect of deen. And Islam is referring to the outwards compliance and practice of a person, the outward aspect of deen. It means that those people must have started praying salah, paying zakah, they were doing the outward practices. But they had not yet developed that full feeling of yaqin in their heart. That full feeling of yaqin also again suggests that iman is gradated, this sense of ziada that there can be less or more iman.

Then Allah (swt) says wa lamma yad khulil imanu fi qulubkum – that iman has not yet entered your heart. Where has it not entered? In your heart. So again this goes against the tongue position that Allah (swt) is saying that don’t say you have iman because iman has not entered your heart, so it makes it quite clear that iman is in the heart. Now where did this tongue position come from? We don’t have much time but there is a hadith where the Blessed Prophet (sws) said that iman is to profess with your tongue, which is the shahadah. It is to profess la ilaha illallah muhammadun rasul ullah. This is there in the hadith.

On Selective Quotation

You have to be very careful about selective quotation from the workshop. This happens because most people who do it have a limited knowledge of the workshop. They don’t know. And a lot of your popular speakers on TV are guilty of this. It’s just ignorance. Because they don’t know the whole workshop, they come up with a skewed, incorrect and incomplete understanding of deen. And there are some people who are even worse; they know the whole workshop, but then they hide the things that do not support their position. So if somebody says why is iman just from the tongue? If we go back to our example, so the boy goes to some uncle and says uncle I want to marry this girl from America, the uncle says it’s okay son. Because there is this hadith of the Prophet (sws) that to take iman all you have to do is say this sentence.

The boy says oh he quoted a hadith. He looks up the reference in the footnote. But don’t be won-over just by references and footnotes. Everyone will give you a reference and a footnote. So when the uncle says that, the boy will think he is fine. The boy will genuinely think that. The boy is not disingenuine. The uncle is disingenuine. He should have done his duty. He should have said that this is not my game — I can’t play with the workshop because I don’t know the workshop. How can I tell you, O nephew of mine, what iman is? In order to know what iman is, you have to know the whole workshop. I don’t have that knowledge so you will have to go to a scholar.

The desi uncle doesn’t do that — not all of them are like that, but there’s a particular mentality some of them have. I call it the desi-uncle mentality that they think whatever limited knowledge they have that’s sufficient to give rulings. He will say I have shown you the hadith. Now the boy will look at the hadith, he loves the Prophet (sws), he believes in the Prophet (sws), so he goes back so happy that you can just say this sentence and you are good to go. My uncle just showed me a hadith that our beloved Prophet (sws) has said all you have to do is profess it with you tongue. Now you see what goes on?

Arguments for/against Heart + Tongue + Actions Position

Let’s look at some more things from the workshop. This a hadith by Prophet (sws):

The adulterer does not commit adultery when he does so while being a momin, nor does the one who drink wine do so while he is a momin. [Sahih Bukhari, Book of Hadud, Chapter on Prohibition of Wine]

This hadith was used by those people who thought actions must be a part of iman. Because Blessed Prophet (sws) said that the person who commits zina does not do so while they are a believer. Now iman is being linked with actions. Absence of iman here means absence of actions i.e. absence of obedience of Allah (swt) because zina is being told as the absence of iman. If they disobey Allah (swt) they are not doing it in a state of iman.

This poses another problem. If you are going to say that, then who is going to say they have iman? Almost everyone is a sinner. So again there is this notion of turning the knob, if I say it is just about zina, so that’s the literal meaning. But if I turn the knob at 1, it could mean kabair i.e. the major sins. If you turn the knob at 3, it can mean any sin. It depends, if you take it only literally, it is just zina. Turn the knob at 1, it is inclusive of all the sins as big as zina so it would include all of the kabair. Or you turn the knob at 3, and it would mean any sin.

If you take this position and you say that any time a believer commits any sin, they are not a momin while they are doing it, so this is a strange thing that iman can come and go. Does he has to take shahadah again? How does he get the iman again? Is it just that as soon as he stops the sin, he becomes a momin again? What happens? We need to investigate. There needs to be some understanding that has to be taking place.

All of this is there, by the way, there is nothing I am telling you except that pages and pages have been written about it. This is what the Islamic Scholarly Tradition is and this is what the vast majority of educated people have been kept from. You have been dumbed-down in your deen. You have only been taught O’levels Islamiyat, where, again, you are only taught about five pillars and four khulafa-e-rashidoon, and that’s it. You haven’t been exposed to the Islamic Scholarly Tradition at all. Even this small glimpse that I’m giving you, your educational system doesn’t even give you this much of a glimpse. There are questions that need to be answered. So if you take this position that are actions a part of iman, in another hadith Blessed Prophet (sws) has said:

Iman has sixty plus branches and haya is a branch of iman. [Sahih Bukhari, Book of Iman, Chapter on Matters Pertaining to Iman]

Iman has several branches, this hadith says there are sixty plus branches, sixty odd branches, another hadith says 70 odd branches. This suggests that iman is divisible, iman has components. Does that mean that if you have all of them then you have iman? Where do you find these sixty branches? It’s not in this hadith, again you go to the workshop. You start counting up your text that in this verse this is mentioned, in this hadith another is mentioned. Were you to do that, you would cross sixty.

If I put up the workshop in front of you that has everything that has been mentioned as iman, every hadith, every verse, you would cross seventy, you would cross eighty. Now you would be wondering of all those things, which ones are, quote unquote, the branches and which ones aren’t branches? All of this has been talked about and written about. I’m also showing you what is taught in the madrassah. I didn’t learn all this in Chicago or Oxford. I learnt all of this that I’m telling you in the madrassahs of Pakistan.

Now the multiplicity of meaning is done, building the workshop is done, positions on iman;

  1. Heart
  2. Tongue
  3. Heart + tongue
  4. Heart + tongue + actions

Let me show you more. This was one position. Second position was that iman increases, so what does that mean? Does iman increase or decrease quantitatively or qualitatively? This is a huge discussion. I will give you some names so you have an idea. Imam Shafi’i (rah) believes that iman increases quantitatively. And Imam Abu Hanifa (rah) believes that iman increases qualitatively. So all the texts that talk about ziadat an-imana it means qualitatively, it means the strength of your iman, the passion of your iman goes up. Quantitatively, on the other hand, means that your iman’s units go up. So you have 10 units of iman, you have 30 units of iman or you have 50 units of iman.

4. Running the Box

First question here is the tongue. Is the position that iman is only from the tongue alone okay or not? Now you do round 2; after you built the workshop, engaged the workshop, came up the first set of multiple meanings and positions that could be reasonably argued from the workshop, now in round 2, which is the analytical understanding, you have  to play these positions off one another. You have to comparatively assess these positions. To do that there is a third concept which is called the box. It’s a term to explain to you what is done in the Islamic tradition of ulema. What we do is that we run the box on the positions.

Imagine there is a box. The position goes inside the box. Box 1 has a heart in it, box 2 has the word tongue in it, box 3 has the word hear + tongue, and box 3 has heart + tongue + actions in it. First thing you do when you run the box, you look at all of those things that led to the box. So I will draw a whole set of arrows leading to the box; what are the textual evidences, what is the reasoning, what are the arguments that led to this position.

Now we are going to compare these with each other. Which one is stronger? Which one seems to be more reasoned, which one is more well-argued? Which one seems to be more grounded in the text? Which positions came from leaving the knob at zero? Which positions came from turning the knob to 1 or 2 or 3? We are going to tag, understand and dissect all of the arguments, evidences, reasoning, understandings, interpretations that led us to the position in the box.

In the second step, now I will draw arrows coming out of the box. We are going to run the box in a second way. If I accept this position, what are the necessary, logical consequences of accepting that? If I define iman as tongue, what consequence will it have on deen? If I take the position of iman + tongue + actions, what consequences will it have on deen? I have to extrapolate all of the consequences this position will have on deen. When I do that, I will have to compare those consequences that from among those consequences, is there anything that’s against some other text?

This is just for the iman workshop. There are many other workshops. There is another workshop going on what is ehsan? There is another workshop going on what is Islam? So is there any consequence of any of the four positions that is unacceptable in deen? If the consequences are unacceptable, that will make me downgrade that position. I keep running the box. This goes on for multiple rounds.

When you run the box, you may still end up with multiple positions. You may be able to eliminate one or two other positions, but you will still have more than one. On some things, in practical reality, you have to choose a side. I have to tell that boy if he can marry that girl on not. If he comes to me, he says I have heard you are a mufti. I say yes. He says I want a fatwa. I say what? He says I want to marry this girl. She has told me she is an atheist but she is willing to recite the kalima, can I marry her?

Now, if I tell him all this and make him listen to my full lecture, he will go crazy. He will say I just want to know yes or no. Most people, when they ask a fatwa, they want to know yes or no. It’s because you people want that, that’s why the mufti always tells you things in black and white because you can’t handle the coloured picture. We give you a monogram picture because you are not trained enough, you are not skilled enough, you don’t have enough hilm, zarf, tahammul to understand.

Imagine if I told him all of these things, he will walk away confused. And the danger of that confusion is that he might walk away from deen. He will say I thought my deen would guide me, I thought I would be able to do what is truly pleasing to Allah (swt), I went to a mufti because I wanted to please Allah (swt), I didn’t want to disobey Allah (swt), and he couldn’t give me an answer. So when it comes to fatwa, when it comes to court rulings, when it comes to the qadhi, the mufti, you have to decide.

This is true for all of the western law. The professors of law write all types of articles on criminal law and sentences in their legal journals. And they have all types of discussions in the law school classrooms, and debates in the conferences. But when it comes down to it, the judge has to issue one sentence. He has to decide one ruling. When the judge issues the ruling, it doesn’t mean he is negating all legal thought. But he has to necessarily, in the courtroom, issue one single ruling. Otherwise justice will never occur. There will be no concept of the law. That boy has to be given an answer.

So the first thing that happens when you run the box, and you comparatively assess the positions, you might be able to eliminate some. If you eliminate all except for one, then you are good to go.

5. Reconciliation: Tatbeeq and Tarjih

Sometimes, even when you run the box, you still end up with more than one position. Then there is a second phase of the activity that takes place called reconciliation; how do you resolve and reconcile this multiplicity? There are two ways I will show you in which this can be done. One is called tatbeeq and the other is called tarjih. Tatbeeq means that can I come up with some other position which is an over-arching position that somehow encompasses all of the positions that I have? Can I come up with an interpretive understanding, in fancy English they call it hermeneutics; some over-arching interpretive understanding that can take all of these positions along, that’s called tatbeeq.

If I can’t do that, can I do tarjih? Can I elevate and prefer and select one on the basis of some legitimate preference? It can’t be arbitrary, or what is easier. This is another problem that people say we will just take the position that’s easier. You can’t do that in deen. You have to be honest, you have to try your best to figure out what truly Allah (swt) wants. So you may have to pick one, but you have to pick one on the basis of some legitimate criteria of preference. This is not a legitimate criteria of preference to simply pick whatever is easy.

For that boy the easiest thing is for me to tell him to just marry her. Why can’t I do that as a mufti? Because I’m putting my neck out for him on the day of Judgement. On the day of Judgement if Allah (swt) asks him why did you marry her? He is going to present me. He will say I went to this person and he said he was a mufti of your deen. He told me I could marry her that’s why I married her. Other muftis might be willing, but I’m not willing to put my neck out on the day of Judgement for anyone.

Now I’m going to run the box for you on these positions. When we look at first running the box, which was to look at arguments and reasoning that went into the positions, in light of the entire workshop, the tongue position was discarded by the Islamic scholarly tradition. There was a very minor group known as Kalamiyya who selected this position. They were a handful of people who died out in one or two generations.

I already gave you a taste of that; that for example, Allah (swt) says in Qur’an that iman has not yet entered your heart. Remember, defining is about borders, the tongue position is saying that it is tongue only and not heart, you have to flush it out. In language you have to flush it out in order to compare and assess positions. So this position that tongue only and not heart, it wasn’t supported by the workshop and there were so many Qur’anic texts that went against that and so many hadith also where Blessed Prophet (sws) mentioned qalb/heart, so the tongue position was taken out.

Now you are left with three positions and all three of them have heart;

  1. Heart (only)
  2. Heart + tongue
  3. Heart + tongue + actions

We don’t have to look at the workshop any more about this issue of heart because all three of them are agreeing that iman does lie in the heart. So that’s agreement, we are done. We know for sure iman definitely is something that is in the heart. The question is does it also require to be professed with the tongue? Or does it also require actions?

Let me show you the other side of the box; to flush out the logical consequences. Let’s take the position of heart + tongue + actions. The Islamic scholarly tradition ran the box on this and realized it has serious implications. For example, if someone doesn’t pray, it would mean they don’t have iman. I’ll have to say he is a non-believer. There are so many actions, so many a’mal in our deen that were being figured out by the other workshop team who are doing what is Islam? They came up with a huge list of actions. They passed it over to us. And then when they looked at the sins, they took the hadith about the adultery, and they came up with a whole list of sins. That means if I take the third position that heart + tongue + actions = iman then a person needs to be doing all of this, and not doing all of that, and only then will I say that he has iman.

The implications of that are very difficult. That would lead to a very, very narrow definition of iman, and that spirit of such narrowness was not borne out by the text and the workshop, so we also look at the letter and the spirit. But always remember, it’s a mistake to think that the spirit is easy and the letter is difficult. It’s not like that. We will genuinely look at the letter and the spirit. Sometimes the letter is difficult, the spirit is easy. Most of the times the spirit is more difficult, and the letter is easy. How to do nikah? You just have to say a few words. That’s the letter of the law. But to really have the spirit of marriage in Islam is very difficult. Don’t think spirit of Islam is easier than the letter of Islam. The spirit of Islam is much much more difficult.

So the heart + tongue + actions was put to the side but it was not removed entirely because there were many texts in the workshop that did suggest action. So we put of question mark on it. We can’t accept this position, but what are we going to do about those texts that actions are part of iman? We have to figure something out. So we put it to the side.

Then we were left with two things: heart only and heart + tongue. Then the Islamic scholarly tradition said that here we will do the tatbeeq. We will take heart + tongue, because there were some texts in the workshop that talked about the tongue, and the notion is that true iman lies only in the heart. This is the tatbeeq; they are reconciling between these two positions that iman truly lies in the heart, but the deen of Islam, the Shari’ah requires that a person should profess it with their tongue, except in extremely rare circumstances, for example someone says if you accept Islam, I’ll kill you.

There was a time like that with the mushrikeen parents at the time of Blessed Prophet (sws), so that person was allowed to have iman in their heart and keep it a secret and not profess it with their tongue. Other than those extreme circumstances, a person should profess iman, they should self-identify themselves as a faithful believer because the deen of Islam requires that. For example, if she doesn’t self-identify herself as a believer, no one will marry her. He needs to self-identify himself as a believer so he can pay zakah, otherwise he won’t know he should be paying zakah. So iman itself lies in the heart but Islam requires it to be professed with the tongue. Those two positions were reconciled.

We were still left with the issue of the question mark over the actions. So the tatbeeq here, the way these positions were reconciled with the following; that a’mal are not ajza-e-haqeeqi of iman, ’amal are ajza-e-muhsina of iman. It means actions are not actually constituent parts of iman, rather actions are the way you adorn your iman, actions are a way you get that ziada, because there was this concept of iman becoming stronger or weaker. Actions have to do with the strength or weakness of iman.

So what we did was we eliminated the tongue position, because it just wasn’t borne out of the workshop, then we reconciled the other positions as follows; iman truly lies in the heart but Islam requires for a person to profess that iman with their tongue, and the role of actions is not about the absence or existence of iman, the role of actions is that ziada that has been mentioned many times that increase in iman.

The only difference that was left was does the action increase your iman quantitatively or does it increase it qualitatively; that was a difference that was completely tolerable and doesn’t cause problems. So we maintain the multiplicity there. It’s not always a quest for elimination for unicity. We can maintain a certain level of multiplicity and right up till today in the sunni Islamic tradition, there are some scholars who believe that ’amal increase iman qualitatively and some who believe ’amal increase iman qualitatively. Ultimately it doesn’t have any implications or consequences for any aspect of our deen.

This was a behind-the-scenes on this one aspect, there is so much more on this discussion of what is iman? There was so much more in the workshop, so many more positions, so many arguments that led to those positions, so many consequences, so many more ways in which those things were comparatively assessed but, like I told you, I was only trying to give you a feel on what really happens in Islamic theology.

Boundaries of Iman

In boundaries of Iman you will talk about three possible things:

  1. Inclusivism
  2. Exclusivism
  3. Pluralism & Tolerance

Inclusivism means that everyone has iman who self-describes themselves as a Muslim. Then there is a notion of exclusivism. It doesn’t mean to exclude everyone, but there will be certain people who will be excluded from having iman. One important case I will tell you, which is an example of this, is that all of the Sunni and Shi’i ulema have agreed upon, historically and currently, that if any human being in history or present or future, believes in another human being as a prophet, in any sense of the meaning — be it a real nabi, or shadow nabi, or partial nabi — after Blessed Prophet (sws), that person will be excluded from iman.

A person’s voluntary choice to believe in a nabi after Blessed Prophet (sws) puts them outside of iman; whether that other prophet’s name was Musailma al-Kazzab, or Baha’ullah who founded the Baha’i faith, or Mirza Ghulam Qadiyani. It doesn’t matter, it’s nothing personal for us. And there have been many, many others in history, and there are many yet to come in the future. Any person who believes that any one after Blessed Prophet (sws) is a nabi or a prophet, that person is excluded from iman.

When you exclude them from iman, it doesn’t automatically mean you can do violence against them. It’s a non-violent exclusion. We can live with them as fellow citizens. You can be fellow citizen in complete peace with the Christian, the Jew or an Atheist, Buddhist, Agnostic or a Qadiyani. It doesn’t make a difference to us as far as mutual, fellow co-existence as citizens of one country in one state goes. However, when it comes to iman, any person who chooses to believe in another prophet, they will be excluded from iman.

This is not just an Islamic principle. This is a principle that is followed by other religions. If a Christian in America meets me, they will call me a non-Christian. I won’t be offended by that, I won’t say you have offended my human rights. I would say that’s a factual statement. A Jew in America calls the Christians non-Jew. The Christians say why? We share so many things. We both believe in the old testament. They would say but you believe that Isa (as) is a son of God, or even if you believe he was the prophet, and we believe that Moses (as) was the last prophet. Therefore, you are a non-Jew, you are a Christian.

Were I to open up a masjid in the U.S., and call it a catholic church, this will not be called freedom of religion. This will not be called freedom of expression. I will not be allowed to do that. I could say but I believe in Isa (as), I believe that the bible was revealed by Allah (swt), but yes there are some problems with the ones they print in America, but I believe in the religion of bible. They will say you are not Catholic. You are Muslim.

I would say I want to call myself Catholic. They will say you can’t. I say it’s my freedom of expression that I want to call my masjid catholic church. They will say you can’t because you believe in an additional prophet beyond Catholicism. You cannot use the word Catholicism, you cannot call your masjid the catholic church of America. It has nothing to do with freedom of rights, freedom of expression. You can now understand why I am telling you this.

We 100% believe that if there was any non-Muslim, we will live with them absolutely peacefully. Taking the historical approach, we can look at the history of Islam; the Ottoman Empire, Andulus Empire, Mughal Empire, Safavid Empire; we are talking about centuries. United States became the superpower after World War II, that’s not even one century yet. Ottoman Empire was a superpower for 4-5 centuries. Andulus was a superpower for 3-4 centuries. In those massive, centuries long rule, there was a complete peaceful co-existence with non-Muslims. There were a few minor episodes, and those episodes were viewed as wrong. The Jewish historian will tell you that until the modern-day Israel, the best position the Jews ever had was either during Andulus before the Spanish invasion, or for the Jewish citizens of the Ottoman Empire.

Hindus in the Mughal Empire, and there was a bit more violence against Hindus, but it wasn’t massive violence. For the vast majority of the history of Mughal, which was technically a Muslim Empire, Hindus were able to live in peace under the Mughal Muslim rule. Vast majority of history is that, and the vast majority of Hindus lived peacefully. Yes, some of them were victims of unlawful, illegitimate violence, but the fact that the unlawful, illegitimate violence exists again is a social reality that will make us careful about how we talk about this. We don’t want to use inflammatory words, we don’t want to use hateful speech.

By saying that we don’t believe that someone who believes in another prophet is a Muslim, doesn’t mean we are saying that you can burn them, kill them, attack them or discriminate against them. We have to take into account the social reality and make sure we frame the discussion in light of that social reality and make sure that there is no negative repercussion from our theological belief in the social reality, in the social fabric of this country. But at the same time, iman is what it is, and believing in another prophet no longer entitles you to call yourself a Muslim. We can’t compromise on that either.

These are very delicate things I’m talking to you about. These are very delicate and sensitive things. Most people in Pakistan don’t have the ability to handle and navigate these topics with that delicacy, because they don’t do the historical, spiritual and intellectual approach, they don’t have enough understanding, they cannot handle multiplicity of meaning, they don’t know the workshop, they don’t know about the knob, they don’t run the box. They don’t do these things.

There was another thing I wanted to do with you, but I will not be able to due to shortage of time. However, I can direct you to a reading. Imam al-Ghazali (rah) wrote a book, called Faysal at-Tafriqa bayn al-Islam, in English you will have to search on the title Boundaries of Theological Tolerance in Islam. This was translated by a Muslim convert, an African-American, Dr. Sherman A. Jackson. In Muslim circles he goes by the name Abdul Hakim Jackson. He is a professor of Islamic studies in the U.S. and he translated this book from Arabic to English, and interestingly it was printed in Oxford University Press Pakistan, as opposed to anywhere else in the world.

In this book, Imam al-Ghazali (rah) talks about a third thing also, after inclusivism and exclusivism in iman, which is pluralism and tolerance. Pluralism means how do you navigate the multiplicity of social reality? There is more than one sect of aqeedah, there is more than one theological sect out there in the whole Muslim Ummah, in every Muslim country. How do you set boundaries and how do you have tolerance?

I personally feel that Imam al-Ghazali’s approach is correct, but to do justice to that, we don’t have time. Since the book is available in English, you can read it. I will just give you one element and a central, core aspect of his approach and that is to focus on the Blessed Prophet (sws) and his nabuwwah, his (sws) prophethood and prophecy. One of the things he mentions is that anyone who accepts Prophet (sws) as a last, perfect and complete prophet, and doesn’t have any belief which somehow suggests that they don’t believe in the perfection and completion and finality of prophethood, and they believe in Allah (swt) and Qur’an, he says that’s sufficient.

Interestingly, Imam al-Ghazali (rah) was living at a time when, no matter what the English media may make you think, there was much more sectarianism during the middle period of Islam. In fact, when Islam was at that height of knowledge, astronomy, invention and discovery, that was also the height of sectarianism in Islam. He was living in the city Baghdad, which was extremely cosmopolitan with many sects in it; many denominations, many religions, many faiths, many atheist philosophers, everything was there.

Historically, he wrote responding to such a time, and I also accept there is this criticism that he wrote it in a particular historical context. But I feel that if our current context resembles that historical context, there is no harm in being guided and reformed by a past thinker. But I leave that up to you. So you can obtain that book, and it’s readily available at the OUP bookstores, and you can read it. You will find very interesting discussions there on this notion of pluralism and tolerance. And may be perhaps some other time in life, we might give you a short, one-day seminar, just on that text.

The second thing I wanted to do with you was an introduction to Ethics. But that’s an entire lecture in of itself. What I would have done for you was to show you in a similar way, using all of these approaches, how to define ethical and moral behavior, and the interaction between ethics and law. So I’m going to table that for you.

Law and Ethics

  • Authority
  • Legitimacy
  • Validity

If we have any left-over time in another session, I will try to return to this topic and do this brief introduction to ethics in our deen.


Introduction to Ethics and Theology

[These are rough notes from the first session of the workshop on Historical, Intellectual and Spiritual Approaches to Islam conducted by Shaykh Kamaluddin Ahmed (db) in Karachi, during Feb 2016]


Disclaimer: This is a purely educational course held to spread the teachings of Islam, with no intention of offending any sect or School of Thought.

Defining the Premises 

This series will cover three approaches to Islam:

  • Historical
  • Intellectual
  • Spiritual

The mistake some of us make is that we take singly or exclusively an intellectual approach to religion. We try to understand it only on the basis of our mind. We don’t realize that ultimately deen is a matter of the heart. In Qur’an Allah (swt) is addressing our heart. Blessed Prophet (sws) was gifted with a pure, noble and a beautiful heart. His (sws) heart won over the hearts of Sahaba (ra).

Vast majority of people who convert to Islam today, were you to ask them their story, they would tell you a story of the heart. Along the way there will be small triggers and decisions that may have taken place in their minds, but if you try to track their journey, it would come to be a journey of the heart. Therefore, there should also be an understanding of the spiritual aspects of Islam.

If a person takes all of these three aspects into account, then they would get this multi-dimensional, coloured, robust, in-depth picture of the deen of Islam. This is the overall approach that we are going to take to this course.

In the Western universities they have developed three models to study religion.

  • Faith-Based
  • Secular
  • Divinity School Approach

Faith-based: Sometimes it is also called a confessional study of religion. It means those people who confess, who profess their belief in that scripture, they try to go into an academic study of religion, but that academic study of religion obviously has a limit, because in the course of that study, they are not going to question the existence of Allah (swt); they are not going to question whether Blessed Prophet (sws) was really a prophet or not. That has already been decided by their iman. Those are the first principles that they assume and take for granted, and on that platform they want to study their deen.

For example, they still have, even though most people in Pakistan don’t know about it, a lot of madrassahs which are called seminaries. There are some very prominent seminaries, like the Jews Theological Seminary in New York, there is a Catholic Theological Seminary, and Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, and different denominations of Protestant seminaries. A few of them even have affiliations with top universities. One seminary in Chicago, the Graduate Theological Union, has affiliation with the University of Chicago – one of the top 5 schools. There is another seminary in Berkeley that has affiliation with University of California, Berkeley – also one of the top 10 schools in the US. Inside a seminary, they conduct a faith-based and confessional study of religion.

Secular: Secular study of religion doesn’t just entail, but it demands, it necessitates that you don’t bring your belief in Allah (swt), belief that Qur’an is kitab ullah, belief that Blessed Prophet (sws) is the prophet and messenger of Allah (swt), you don’t bring that to your study of religion. Your approach to religion should be, in their terms, quote unquote, open minded. It means that your mind should be open to disbelief; open to the possibility that Allah (swt) doesn’t exist; open to the possibility that the Qur’an may or may not truly be the word of God; open to the possibility that Blessed Prophet (sws) was the prophet, or he wasn’t. This is the secular study of religion.

In the US people who study in the departments of religion, most of the faculty and students aren’t believers of any particular religion. There are a number of believers as well, but they make it a point to divorce and separate their belief from the classroom, from the lecture and from their own writings. Literally, it’s a very conscious effort in trying to despiritualize their study of religion. That’s one way of studying it.

Divinity School Approach: In some universities, particularly in Harvard, Yale and Chicago, they have made another school called the Divinity School, they call it Div School for short. In this school of divinity a new approach is taken; trying to combine the faith-based confessional study of religion along with those elements of the secular study of religion that are not critical to or skeptical of the matters of belief. You can say it is a faith-based academic approach that is willing to engage in that level of academics that does not critic or call into doubt one’s very foundations of belief. This is the method which I will be taking with you in these sessions.

This is actually something that is extremely lacking in Pakistan. Here we just have madrassahs, or we have faculty that teaches religion, especially in the elite universities, that are not bound by the faith-based approach. You will find varying levels of iman in different professors of Islamiyat, and obviously that is a matter between them and Allah (swt), but they have chosen to adopt secular methods in terms of their teaching and they often try to divorce their faith from their teaching. I don’t feel there is a need to do that. Or, at the very least, if one were to argue that the secular university should operate on that principle, we still need institutes that combine both. We need, what we have called, the divinity school approach.

Critical v. Analytical

I want to show you the difference between these two terms because there is a lot of buzz here that you should have critical thinking. Critical thinking in of itself is a good thing, but you have to be very careful, because when a secular educational institute uses the word critical thinking, for some of them the underlying message is that you should be willing to critic Allah’s (swt) book Qur’an, you should be willing to critic Blessed Prophet’s (sws) sunnah. So the more proper term which I prefer to use is analytical thinking, analytical thought, which is also a term, you can Google it. In fact, there is a whole area of Philosophy called Analytic Philosophy, some people call it Analytic Theology, and this actually has been used very much in Divinity School approach in America by Christians who want to retain their core principles of faith and belief, while embarking on an academic study which has the historical, intellectual and spiritual approaches to understanding the religion.

Always remember that, if you ever hear any Islamic lecturer or an ’Alim counseling you not to adopt critical thinking, they are not saying that don’t use your mind. They are saying don’t engage in critiquing Allah’s (swt) Qur’an, or critiquing the sunnah of Blessed Prophet (sws). Any Islamic scholar is human; he is subject to critic, he is subject to review and refutation, he is subject to partial or full agreement – that’s for insan. But as far as Allah’s (swt) Qur’an and Blessed Prophet’s (sws) sunnah go, the word we are going to use is analytical i.e. we are going to analyze, we want to understand, we want to explore, we want to ponder, we want to reflect.

Introduction to Theology

In Arabic, there are two words used in theology:

  1. Aqidah
  2. Kalam

Aqidah: Strictly speaking, aqidah is normally translated as creed, or a creedal statement. For example, within Sunnis the most agreed upon creedal statement is a text written by Imam Abu Ja’far Tahawi (rh) known as Al-Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah; which is agreed upon by all the Sunnis, and even in terms of contemporary Pakistani/Indian Sunni division, known as Deobandi, Barelvi, Ahl-e-Hadith; all three of them agree on this aqidah; the Saudis agree on it, the Pakistanis agree on it, the Indonesians agree on it. And it has been translated in English by a very well-known, respected American convert scholar to Islam, Hamza Yusuf. His translation was published in America.

So aqida; creedal statement — what does this mean? A creedal statement embodies your basic set of beliefs about Allah (swt), prophecy, prophethood of Blessed Prophet (sws), angels, scriptures, life after death, resurrection, etc. They are very short statements. Another well known aqidah has been written by Imam al-Ghazali (rh), and some say he wrote it when he was in Quds sharif i.e. Jerusalem, and it is known as Ar-Risala al-Qudsiya fi Qawa‘id al-‘Aqa’id. It has also been translated in English, in fact both of these books are available on the internet. I’m not going to talk to you about aqidah in this course.

Kalam: Kalam is an analytical approach in trying to understand matters of faith. In English they sometimes translate it as Dialectic Theology. Ilm al-Kalam is all about going deep into different things that Allah (swt) has mentioned to us. For example, what is iman? What does it mean that Allah (swt) has a zaat; has an essence; has siffat – attributes?

You would be amazed at how deep some of the ulema explore some questions e.g. free will and predestination; these are questions that many university educated people ask, like do I have a free will if Allah (swt) knows everything, if Allah (swt) decrees everything? You will find lengthy discussions on this topic. Why did Allah (swt) create evil? Why did Allah (swt) create Shaytan? Why will Allah (swt) punish somebody eternally to hellfire, why not punish them for a finite amount of time? Why does Allah (swt) need to punish people?

I have, in my own personal one life, never yet encountered a single question raised by any philosopher or any Atheist, except that when I went back and researched I found that the ulema of kalam had already discussed and analyzed the same question at length, but using their understanding of Qur’an and Sunnah — and not merely on the basis of their intellect and rationality.

All of these questions have been addressed in ilm al-kalam. We will be talking about some of these questions in the upcoming session Science, Rationality and the New Atheism. I hope to do a couple of them today so you would get an idea how this system works. Every lecture that I’m giving you is just a drop in a very vast ocean. We could do a whole course on Islamic Theology. One could design an entire degree program on this; and there are such degrees in the world.

The point of these few sessions is just to give you a glimpse of, what I sometimes call, a behind-the-scenes tour. What happens when you go on a behind-the-scenes tour of a factory? You will not learn enough to build your own factory, nor will you learn enough to understand every element of the factory, but somebody will grab you by the hand and show you major things in that factory, and at the end they will take you right back to the exit door and send you on your way. If ever you decide that you also want to build a factory, or really understand a factory, for that you will have to embark on a much longer course of study.

Hadith-e-Jibrael & the beginning of Islamic Learning

This is a very famous hadith. It has been narrated both by Imam Bukhari (rh) and Imam Muslim (rh) in their Sahih collections. The reason I’m mentioning this to you today is that the classical study of Islam used to usually begin with this hadith, and this hadith was used to frame a discussion.

From ‘Umar, there is that he said, “While we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, one day a man came up to us whose clothes were extremely white, whose hair was extremely black, upon whom traces of travelling could not be seen, and whom none of us knew, [Syedna Umar (ra) must have realized that he was not from Madinah, so he must have come from somewhere else, and if he came from somewhere else and he made a desert journey, then his clothes should have been dusty and his black hair should have been dusty. All of you in Pakistan like to buy white cars, once a boy explained to me that black-coloured cars show dirt more. I said white will show the dirt more, he said no dark will show it more. And he was right as it turns out. So that’s what they mean here, there are both things; that the clothes were white and the hair was black.] 

He sat down close to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, [he cut through all our ranks and he went straight to Blessed Prophet (sws) and he sat by him] so that he rested his knees upon his knees and placed his two hands upon his thighs [which is a very intimate way; physical contact, considering he is a stranger, without a doubt, and he immediately asks a question, no salam, no introduction, no how are you, no who am I?] and said, ‘Muhammad, tell me about Islam.’ The Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless with him and grant him peace, said, ‘Islam is that you witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and you establish the prayer, and you give the Zakat, and you fast Ramadan, and you perform the hajj of the House if you are able to take a way to it.’

He said, ‘You have told the truth,’ and we were amazed at him asking him and [then] telling him that he told the truth [normally a person higher in knowledge would tell you if you had spoken truly]. He said, ‘Tell me about iman.’ He said, ‘That you affirm Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you affirm the Decree, the good of it and the bad of it.’ [as I told you, aqidah, creedal statement, begins with this sentence and they just open it up, and they write a commentary of 6-7 points] He said, ‘You have told the truth.’ He said, ‘Tell me about ihsan.’ He said, ‘That you worship Allah as if you see Him, for if you don’t see Him then truly He sees you.’

He said, ‘Tell me about the Hour.’ He said, ‘The one asked about it knows no more than the one asking.’ He said, ‘Then tell me about its tokens.’ He said, ‘That the female slave should give birth to her mistress, and you see poor, naked, barefoot shepherds of sheep and goats competing in making tall buildings.’ He went away, and I remained some time. Then he asked, ‘Umar, do you know who the questioner was?’ I said, ‘Allah and His Messenger know best.’ [look at his (ra) adab; he didn’t try to guess and score some CP points!] He said, ‘He was Jibrael who came to you to teach you your deen’.”

Now I’m going to open this up for you that how this is the beginning of studying deen. It begins with the last line ‘He was Jibrael who came to you to teach you your deen’. This is a very beginning, elementary definition, to what is deen. Deen means:

  • Iman
  • Islam
  • Ihsan
  • Social Reality [knowing that there is something coming i.e. the Hour; end of the world, and knowing the signs that will reveal the coming of that time.]

So all four of these constitute deen. Part of deen is to understand these three things i.e. iman, Islam and ihsan. Another part is this notion that there is an end of times which is a notion of the future. One is the historical past, one is the vision of the future. And secondly, there will be signs that indicate the decline that will lead to the end — that’s the understanding of a society. In modern terms we will call this Sociology. It’s an understanding of a social reality.

It is also implying that for deen, you need to be aware of the social reality, because, why are signs given? Signs are given for you to prepare, but if you don’t have your pulse on society and you don’t have a social reality, you will not be able to perceive those signs, you will not be able to take the heed which Allah (swt) wants you to by telling you of those signs. It means that part of deen is knowing there is a future as an end of the world, and that future is going to be marked by spiritual decline, and for this a person must be tracking the spiritual decline in society. Therefore, you can see why I have mentioned this notion of historical approach.

Disciplines of Islamic Learning

Following disciplines emerged in Islamic learning from the above mentioned constituents of deen:

Ilm al Kalam: First discipline that emerged was the study of iman, that was the subject matter of aqidah and kalam. This was a whole area of learning with a whole spectrum of scholars, again, across time, in historical context, who were also trying to capture the universal meanings of truths; a whole series of scholarship; books, treatises, discussions, debates, disagreements, consensuses taken on this question of iman – this is known as ilm al-kalam, or ilm al-aqai’id.

Ilm al Fiqh: Second, on the notion of Islam, Blessed Prophet (sws) has mentioned some of our obligations: prayer, fasting, zakah, hajj. A whole realm of scholarship developed around the study and understanding of this and that is known as ilm al-fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and we will be covering it a few days later. It means to understand the commands and wishes of Allah (swt) from the sources of deen, from the Qur’an and Sunnah; to derive an understanding from the textual sources of Islam.

For example, here we understand that we have to fast. But what is fasting? How long is the fast? What breaks the fast? That’s not mentioned in this hadith. It’s mentioned that you should pray, but how do you pray? How many raka’at are in a prayer? What will invalidate your prayer? What are those things that, if you forget, you can make up for with two extra sajdahs? That’s not mentioned in this hadith. So a whole world was developed called the ilm al fiqh; which another whole area of study.

Ilm al Tazkiyah: Third was what is ihsan? A whole world was developed on this as well, we were given a target: worship Allah (swt) as if you see Him. First of all, what does that even mean? What does it mean that you worship Allah (swt) as if you are seeing Him? These are the things that are beyond the realm of rationality. Your rational mind will tell you I cannot see Allah (swt), but Blessed Prophet (sws) is saying worship as if you see Allah (swt). Obviously, there has to be something beyond rationality, some way of learning, some understanding.

This is the realm of the spiritual approaches. This is known as ilm al tazkiyah; the knowledge of spiritual purification. Later some people gave it the name tasawwuf, but its original, classical name is ilm al tazkiyah. It’s about how to create those feelings in yourself. If you cannot get the feeling that you are looking at Allah (swt) then know that Allah (swt) is looking at you.

Some people when they narrate this hadith, they use the word ta’budallah; make ibadah, it means all ibadah, not just the salah, not just the daily prayer. If you recite the Qur’an, recite it in a way that you feel as if you are seeing Allah (swt). If you recite durud sharif, salawat, do it in a way as if you are seeing Allah (swt). It can even be taken to mean a broader sense of ibadah; if you are doing any relief work, any humanitarian work, khidmet for society, even if you are spending time with your family (any and every aspect of your life, with the right intention, can be construed as ibadah of Allah swt) so it means do all of that with the feeling in your heart as if you are seeing Allah (swt).

How does a person do that? How does a person spend their whole life such that this feeling is always there? So we need some understanding for that. This needs to be opened up in tafseel; we need to learn it and be trained in it in order to acquire this. Why? Because this is also a part of your deen. This is why it is a great mistake that people make when they say that in Islam you just need to do these five things. Look at this hadith; Islam also means that you need to have this iman, it also means that you worship Allah (swt) with such feelings, and it also means that you have awareness of social reality; of the notion that the humanity is going on decline.

Tools of Analytical Interpretation

1. Intellectual Approach

a. Turning the knob

I’m going to go back to the hadith-e-Jibrael and show you a way the deen is analyzed i.e. its analytical study. I will start with this very last thing which are the signs of the Hour:

“The slave-girl will give birth to her mistress”

Some things in Islam are literal; we can understand them just by the linguistic meanings. For example, make hajj if you are able to. Understood. But what does this mean that the slave-girl will give birth to her mistress? When you are going into an analytical study of Islam, the question is that will you always take the text literally, or are you open to the idea that maybe the literal meaning is not only what is intended, maybe the literal meaning is a metaphor.

This is something we call turning the knob. The knob is the interpretive scope that you want to apply on any verse of Qur’an or any text of hadith. If you keep the knob at zero, the meaning is only literal i.e. there is a girl who is a slave who will grow up to have a daughter, and somehow that daughter will become free and she will choose to buy her mother as a slave, thus she will enslave her own mother. There is no metaphor here, no deeper meaning, no general meaning. That’s quite difficult to imagine. It’s almost impossible that someone would become free and enslave her own mother. But, strictly speaking, because now this is a faith-based element, our faith in the Blessed Prophet (sws) demands us to believe that that might very well happen. Allah (swt) knows best, I may not be able to see how it will happen, but there may come a time in the world when this will happen, and when that literally happens, I will understand it as the sign of the Hour.

Second option is to turn the knob a little, so lets say I turn it to 1. Here we will open up the meaning a little bit. Maybe Blessed Prophet (sws) is telling me a deeper meaning so I have to read into that language. The lesson we derive from the literal text is that it would be a terrible thing to do for a daughter to enslave her own mother. So if we take this lesson, it would mean that the daughter would not respect her mother. We may even take the meaning that she will be so disrespectful to her mother, she will view herself as the mother and make herself a female master of her own mother.

If you turn the knob further at 2, you will get a wider meaning. You will still keep the literal meaning, and the second meaning that daughters will disrespect their mothers. Third, it is just generally referring to social disorder and chaos. It is the over-turning, flip-flop, of the natural order of things. So, for example, now in 2016 I could say that in some Western countries they believe in the same-sex marriage which, otherwise, classically, in the vast majority of Western history and even today among many people in the West, has been viewed to be strictly between a man and a woman. If I turn the knob at 3 and take this wider meaning, this is called in Arabic amoom al ma’ana; ta’leel fil ma’ana — to create a broader understanding in the meaning from the lafz (articulated word). Then I would say this is a role reversal. Role is supposed to be that man and a woman get married. Now they are saying that man and man can get married, or woman and woman can get married.

Now what happens is that, depending on where you turn the knob, it would determine whether the sign has occurred or not. If I turn the knob all the way to point 3, you might say that same-sex marriages are happening in the world so this is a sign that the day of judgement is coming near. If a person keeps the knob at zero, so there is no slave-girl yet who has given birth to her mistress, you might say that the sign hasn’t happened yet. So you see it has mass implications. When you open up and explore, you get a wide range of meaning, so the term we are going to use for this is turn the knob. How far will you turn the knob?

That is another question that who is allowed to touch the knob. If anyone could touch the knob, there’s going to be a problem. Even on sound control over here, we always designate people who are going to be doing the sound and presentation. If everyone jumped in then, like they say, too many cooks spoil the broth. This interpretation cannot be completely arbitrary or completely random. There needs to be some guidelines, some limitations. I’m not going to do those guidelines with you in this course. This is just for you to understand that all these things come up when you want to have an analytical understanding of your deen.

“Barefoot, naked, destitute shepherds will compete with one another in constructing tall buildings”

Here if you keep the knob at zero, you can actually see this happening if you ever travel to Saudi Arabia or any of the GCC countries. Part of it is a kinayah (metaphor) to indicate that they are extremely poor and they are being used to construct sky-scrapers, you can see this today even in Makkah Mukarma. If this is the interpretation, and if this is a sign that is there even within hudood-e-haram itself where you will find Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Egyptians and even some Indonesians now, very poor people, this is called migrant labor who are being given very low wages, living about 10 persons to a room to save some money to send back home, and what are they doing? They are constructing tall buildings. Dubai had the highest one, and now Saudis are saying that we are going to make the highest one, so there is this notion of competition. So besides the barefoot and naked part, if you keep the knob at zero, the literal meaning is there.

If you turn the knob a little bit, you can get a more general meaning from that. Lets turn the knob all the way to 3. This could mean materialism, capitalism, this notion of free competition in order to pursue materialistic ends. So basically, it’s about the knob. One interpretive tool is the knob. Another tool is explanation, that’s different from interpretation. For example, worship Allah (swt) as if you see Him. You need an explanation on how to do this. So you open it up, you get explanation. But here, in interpretation, you turn the knob. So this is the first aspect where I give you a glimpse of theology. So I showed you how, like this hadith, is studied, understood and analyzed.

b. Building the workshop

What is iman? You might think that why do I need to ask this question when you just showed me the hadith that Angel Jibrael (as) asked the Blessed Prophet (sws) this question. It’s already been done. And Blessed Prophet (sws) responded that iman is to believe in the angels, the books, prophets, day of judgement, and the decree that everything good and bad comes from Allah (swt). But the reality is that now when you understand anything, for example in the case of iman, you have to do a second thing called a workshop.

In order to get a deep analytical understanding of your deen, you have to go to Qur’an and take every single verse that has iman, mu’min, alazina amanoo, mu’mineen, and bring it all to the table. You have to build a workshop even if you want to answer this one question that what is iman. Then you have to go to the hadith and take everything where Blessed Prophet (sws) has told us about iman, has described iman, and defined iman, and bring all of that to the workshop. It’s not easy! Don’t think the analytical approach means that you just use your mind and try to guess what iman is. In any academic endeavor, there are some sources, there is certain literature, certain fundamental truths that you have to engage. In Islam the fundamental truths are the Qur’an and the Sunnah. The answer you will get even to such a central, crucial question as this, would be multiple, multi-layered and it might even sometimes appear to have contradictions.

c. Linguistic Analysis

There is another aspect to the intellectual approach, which is linguistics. I can go deep into Arabic linguistics, I can do what is called the etymological study, I can look at the roots of iman; ا م ن; iman (ایمان) is related to aman (امن). Can the Arabic language itself tell me something about what is iman? Yes, it can. I could say that iman and aman are derived from the same note so iman means aman; all the words that are derived from the same root have an interrelationship (nisbah) what we call in Arabic alaqatu tashbeeh (interrelationship in meaning), that’s also something I will bring to the table.

2. Historical Approach

Now were you to take the historical approach, it would add that how do all of these verses on iman have been understood historically by the tafsir tradition. So now I will add to the workshop every single mufassir’s commentary on every single verse of iman. Obviously, that is not necessarily binding upon me but it’s something I should look at. Similarly, I have to take every hadith scholar’s (muhadith) commentary and understanding and explanations (tashrih) of every hadith that mentions iman. I’m building a huge workshop, then I’m going to dive in and read all of that stuff and try to figure out the basic crux of what is iman.

3. Spiritual Approach

Spiritual means the living embodiment of deen; those individuals in the ummah who have had this iman, because, obviously, deen isn’t just about the theory. Deen must necessarily also have a practical, real, lived, exampled and legacy in a real living tradition. Those people who really are mu’mineen, saliheen mu’mineen, mutaqeen mu’mineen, zakireen mu’mineen, sadiqeen mu’mineen, awliya mu’mineen — all of these words are in Qur’an — what was their spiritual state? What was their condition that described the feeling of iman? What does it feel to have iman in a heart? What are those things that can increase or decrease the strength of iman in one’s heart?

Living tradition will tell me all of this. Sometimes these people expressed their iman in poetry, sometimes in prose, sometimes they wrote letters and treatises explaining what makes a person’s iman strong, or weak. I’ll have to add all of that from the spiritual, lived tradition, the legacy and practical aspects of iman. All of this needs to be done if you want to truly get an understanding of your deen; intellectual, spiritual, historical; the text, the context, the interpreted tradition, the linguistic aspects, the lived aspects, the feelings aspect — all of that just to answer this question that what is iman.

Positions on Iman

After the Islamic tradition built this workshop and they looked at all the things I’ve just mentioned to you, they came up with four answers to this question that what is iman.

  1. Heart: Iman is a feeling that lies in the heart only. Simply feeling the feelings of iman.
  2. Tongue: If someone expresses iman with their tongue i.e. they simply say ash’hadu an la ilaha illallahu wa ash’hadu anna muhammadan abduhu wa rasuluh, they just have to say it with their tongue and it will be enough for iman.
  3. Heart & Tongue: They have to do both. They must truly believe in it in their heart and they must also express it with their tongue.
  4. Heart, Tongue & Actions: Iman means to believe in your heart, to express it with your tongue, and to perform the actions of iman. The way they express it is that al ’amalu dakhil i.e. actions are a part of iman, they are not something separate.

Showing you the whole workshop would take up a lot of time. When I was a full-time student of Sahih Bukhari, its chapter on iman is like a dozen pages, and we had to spend a few hours everyday, 6-days a week, for a couple of months just to do kitab al iman, just to understand that one part of the workshop about those hadith that Imam Bukhari (rh) narrated on iman. There are many other hadith and verses, linguistics and all of that. So the workshop is very in-depth but I’ve fast forwarded it to show you the conclusion. There is no fifth conclusion that came out in the entire history of Islam.

Why is this important? Sometimes you might get a question; I’ll give you a very classic example. It happens many times in this community that there is a Pakistani boy who has gone abroad to study in America or UK and he comes back and he says that I want to marry this girl and it turns out that the girl was born to an Atheist family, and the girl is an Atheist. Now parents come to me that our son wants to get married to an Atheist! But you yourself had sent him abroad, you put him in a university which was an open minded decision you took, where he lived in an open society, in an open environment, with open interaction with the opposite gender, so when you created so much openness these things can happen. Then they say that we have explained to him that the girl must accept Islam and the girl has agreed.

What does it mean to accept Islam? So for some people it’s just about saying the sentence. So what she means is that look I really want to marry you and you want to marry me and all I have to do is say this sentence in front of a few people, so I’ll say the sentence and we will get married. Sometimes the parents are also happy with that. They say that son, as long as she is willing to say the sentence (they will euphemise it in a nice way) only Allah knows what’s in the heart. That’s true too; only Allah (swt) knows what’s in a person’s heart, but many times a person reveals their heart.

If somebody comes and says I’m an Atheist, I can’t say that only Allah (swt) knows if there is iman in his heart or not. Obviously Allah (swt) knows, but I also know now because he has said there is no iman in his heart. It doesn’t mean that the human being cannot know things; we can know things! But to know things we need to receive it from an authentic source. If someone else tells me something about someone, that’s not an authentic source. But if a person himself tells me that I don’t have iman in my heart, that’s an authentic source, it’s a source of knowledge, I’m entitled in my deen to say this person does not have iman because he himself told me that he doesn’t have iman.

What happens is that the girl says that I’m still an Atheist, but I’m willing to recite this sentence, and sometimes the boy’s parents will say that it’s fine as long as you recite the sentence. Now, it depends on what position you take. If you take the second position that iman is just reciting the sentence with the tongue, then you are good to go and you can get them married. But if you take any other position on the board, because all the other three have a heart, she will truly have to believe in her heart, but she’s saying I don’t do that, so this marriage will not be valid. That goes back to what social reality a person has. Your understanding of deen effects the issues of social reality.

There are so many issues like this. For example, who has to pay zakah? A person who just says it with their tongue, or a person who believes it in their heart? There are things like marriage where we do need to identify this question to determine as to who has iman or not. There are certain societal, family, collective, interpersonal aspects of Islam that require this question to be defined.

Defining the Boundaries: Inclusivism & Exclusivism

When you are talking about definitions (e.g. the definition of iman) to define something also means to create its border. The Arabic definition for border is hadd; hudood i.e. borders; to define something. In formal science concerned with definition, which is called taxonomy, you try to define things so precisely that it includes all elements of that set (inclusivism) and excludes all the elements that are not a part of that set (exclusivism).

It would mean to define iman so precisely that everyone who has iman would be included in that definition, and also people who don’t have iman should be excluded from that definition. That’s also a word in Qur’an and it’s called kufr; and there is a word kafir; kuffar — people who don’t have iman. That’s also a concept of Qur’an. Right now people are not learned enough to handle the topic of what is kufr in a sensitive, academic, non-violent, non-extremist manner. So right now I chose to do iman for which I gave you this much of an answer; howsoever you answer the question what is iman, it will also necessarily give you an answer to your question what is not iman. When you decide what is iman, you will, as a necessity, end up also deciding what is not iman.

[Cont’d here]