Seeking Knowledge

(Reflections on Sheikh Hamza’s lecture on Book 1: On Knowledge)

There are three types of believer. Each one believes in God and the theological tenets of Islam, but have a different approach to its practice and epistemology:

  1. The Satisfied Antinomian – He does not grant much importance to following the law, but identifies himself as a Muslim.
  2. The Contented Follower – She practices the law, some are conservative, others are liberal, and accepts the Islamic theological and legal framework of a particular school. She deeply respects the scholars, classical and contemporary, and seeks knowledge as a means of knowing the law believing it is from God. They question by asking “What is…” or “How to” (e.g. What is Sheikh X’s opinion on abortion? How to distribute inheritance?)
  3. The Frustrated Seeker – They wrestle with Islamic beliefs, history and laws. Some will interpret the law in order to suit their own needs and therefore resemble the Satisfied Antinomian whereas others practice the law in order to gain proximity to God, and resemble the Contented Follower. Unlike the Contented Follower they are not sure they reach any proximity to God and feel frustrated. They seek knowledge by asking the question “Why”.

The delineations between the three are not exact, and there are overlaps as well as a spectrum within each group. But what is important to consider is that the categorisations provide an insight into how different types of believer approach seeking knowledge.

Seeking knowledge is important in Islam. Franz Rosenthal in his review of the importance of knowledge in the Islamic civilisation, Knowledge Triumphant, writes:

“There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, of Muslim religious and political life, and of the daily life of the average Muslim that remained untouched by the all-pervasive attitude toward “knowledge” as something of supreme value for Muslim being. Ilm is Islam”.

Religious scholars exhort their congregation to search for knowledge “even from as far China” as the Prophet allegedly said. They stress the importance of gaining religious knowledge, something Ghazali classes as the highest form.

Seeking knowledge can be divided into two types. The first is to gather knowledge as established. In other words, to learn what has already been produced. For instance, Muslims are expected to learn the tenets of faith such as aqidah tahwiyyah, and follow a legal school. The second, and interdependent with the first, is to create new forms of knowledge through ones reasoning.

When it comes the second,  the first five centuries of Islam is important because scholars were creating knowledge through developing methodologies to find knowledge, pedagogies to disseminate knowledge and systems to secure knowledge.  For the Contented Follower, it is enough to follow the system.

For the Frustrated Seeker, it is not. Islamic educational systems are suffering atrophy and have been for over two centuries. Scholars emerging today are finding it difficult to uphold tradition in the face of legal monism and secularism, which impacts the Frustrated Seeker. In reaction, they will delve into the past for answers, but will not be content with the responses.

Instead they will question why and challenge tradition. Contemporary Islamic legal opinions are often too brief or too slavish. Scholars have a tendency of saying the Hanafis say this, or there is a hadith in Bukhari that says this, and hence Muslims should follow it. For contemporary questions in the Western world, they are either simplified opinions or are issued by Arab or sub-continental scholars that do not live in region. The reasoning process is sacrificed for simplicity.

The Frustrated Seeker wants to go deeper into why things are: theologically, legally, spiritually. They want to understand processes, purposes and consequences. They are not satisfied with simple obedience or absolute statements. In many respects they undertake the enterprise of the early scholars that forged the Islamic framework Muslims follow today.

Ghazali praised the early scholars. He identifies five qualities that they had: acquaintance with jurisprudence, worship, asceticism, knowledge pertaining to the next abode, and sincerity . Jurisprudence was only sufficient for this world; the latter four qualities were more important in securing the next abode.

Scholars stress that Muslims should focus on these four qualities and avoiding questioning too much. Indeed, it is reported that al-Juwayni lamented on his death bed that he wished he had the faith of the women of Nishapur, the village he was from. It was to suggest that the intellectual speculative work he had done was in vain, and really all that mattered was practice. Al Juwayni is mistaken.  For those bestowed  with a questioning disposition, their desire to explore the discomforting areas of uncertainty or challenge the certainties of scholarly opinion is not only to strengthen their own faith but to help others resolve their questions; to help them turn from the Frustrated Seeker to the Contented Follower.

For the Frustrated Seeker, seeking knowledge is a journey, a long arduous journey, the destination of which is not certain. But they persevere, hoping, like Ghazali, that they reach a state of contentment.

The Internal Regulator

(Reflections on Book 14: The Halal and Haram)

The focus of the ihya is the individual. In reading and studying it, it is hoped that the Muslim will inculcate the lessons of the ihya within. Not only does the treatise attempt to affect the actions of the reader, but also their psychology. It is not enough just to do; one must have the right outlook as to the purpose behind actions.

So the Ihya is not a book of laws to be wielded by the state as a means to regulate society. The state, as a legislature, has authority to constrain individuals through passing laws that define expectations, and enforcing them through punishment.  Law, as the legal theorist Hans Kelsen averred, is a series of rules whose consequence for contravention is punishment.

Accepting this definition for the moment, then the question for religions is “is it law, when there is no punishment”. The immediate answer is that God is the judge and will punish accordingly, but there is no certainty that he will. God’s mercy is above his wrath, as the Prophet said; and there are countless stories from the hadith of criminals pardoned by God; for instance, the genocidal prince that sought God’s mercy, or the prostitute that gave water to a dog. The crime was not so large that God could not forgive.

However, imposing western jurisprudential thinking onto Islamic legal thought has its flaws. Islamic law was never formulated in the corridors of power or from a body corporate; instead it evolved from within communities – Islamic law is bottom up, while western law is top down.

What this means is that individuals are primarily responsible for upholding the law. A body corporate is not required for its continuance or enforcement. Indeed, by assuming that Islamic laws are dependent on a legislature, it would disembody the law of purpose, permanence or meaning.

Fundamentally, Muslims are expected to inculcate the laws within themselves. There is a risk in following the law, the person alienates others. There can be great variation in how one actualises the law in their lives. Conservative individuals can be too judgmental, while liberal minded individuals ignore the sacredness of the law itself.

Ghazali recognises that people have levels of caution when following the law. The law can be broad for some; nevertheless, the law acts as an anchor to how people act. A conscious Muslim, regardless of how liberal they are, should be mindful of law and the objectives of it. Muslims might take out bank loans, but in the back of their minds they know interest is impermissible; they may have sexual relations, but they know that sex before marriage is prohibited.

Consequently, the law acts as an internal regulator for the Muslim. It cautions the individual, and even when a forbidden act is executed, it limits his/her from going further. Of course this is not a hard and fast rule, but in learning and studying, the Muslim is always growing in his religion, even if he/she does not live up to all its demands.


Being Muslim is Not the Natural State



Every single child is born upon the fitrah, and then his parents may make him into a Jew or Christian or Magian. Similarly, animals are born unbranded. Have you ever found an animal born branded until you brand it yourselves?Prophet Muhammad

There is a tendency for Muslims, pepped up with the love of their religion, to view the conversion of a non-Muslim to Islam, as a reversion. They argue that these individuals are returning to their original state of being a Muslim. They are reverts.

Such an overarching belief has many implications. It presupposes that the “revert” knew the truth before, and fought his way back to his original state of being a Muslim. This is perplexing as the hadith never states that every single child was born a Muslim. Instead it uses the word ‘fitrah’, which is usually translated as natural state, and wrongfully translated, on occasions, as Islam.  By this misinterpretation, Muslims can get caught up in their own pride and ignore the burdens their religion places upon them. In life, being a Muslim is not a get out of jail card.

Defining the ‘fitrah’ as connected to a religion is problematic. Most adherents of an organised religion, Muslims included, like to believe that their religion is objectively the truth. They ignore the leap of faiths they themselves have to make at some point where reason is not the guiding force.

So to decry other religions for being illogical is a subtle sign of hypocrisy as the proponent has failed to look at himself in the mirror. To believe a religion on account of its law and/or its ritualistic practices is not enough to justify its veracity.

Ghazali rightly observed that Christians grew up to be Christians, Jews grew up to be Jews and Muslims grew up to be Muslims. Therefore, the Fitrah, the natural state, was not the religion that defined the person, it was something else. He writes in his Deliverance from Error “ I was moved by a keen desire to learn what was this innate disposition in the child, the nature of the accidental beliefs imposed on him by the authority of his parents and his masters, and finally the un-reasoned convictions which he derives from their instructions”

Upon this keen desire, Ghazali commenced his journey, a journey that sought incontrovertible knowledge of the Divine. It was a journey of the mind and spirit, and a search for the providence of all creation. Ghazali did not doubt the existence of God, or the truth of his religion. His doubts stemmed from an emotional uncertainty as to whether he was sincere in his beliefs. Having knowledge of material facts was not enough. Following religious rituals was not enough. Sincerity in one’s belief went beyond the words and traditions of the religion.  It resided on a spiritual plain that could not be found unless one journeyed inward.

As walking sticks on the journey, Ghazali used the universal tools of all religions. He used prayer, fasting, solitude, silence, contemplation, and humility as means of finding the sincerity he felt he lacked. It was not an easy journey.

The outcome was a return to the natural state, and that natural state was not being part of a religion; it was being a believer of God, or a Mu’min, where one’s soul witnesses the Divine.  That is the whole purpose of revelation. Indeed, the Prophet’s own journey started with a quest for sincerity. His sojourns to Mount Hira were at a time where he had no religion, just belief and the universal walking sticks professed by all religions. In the cave, he found sincerity through his ascetic efforts, spiritually returning to that day when God asked am I not your Lord?

Ghazali never disavowed his religion and its obligations. But for him to fully make sense of his position with the Divine, he had to undergo a spiritually purifying journey. In doing so, he wiped away the influences of his parents, customs and traditions – just as the Prophet had done – to reveal the true purpose of the natural state of all humans…and that is to sincerely humble oneself in worship and awe to the Divine.

This is the reversion, something even Muslims cannot claim for themselves as most are caught by the stranglehold of their traditions. Searching for sincerity without the influences of society is not easy.  It is a struggle, but it does giving meaning to our existence.

Who Should Honour Who?


(Reflections on Book 12: On the Etiquette of Marriage and Book 23: Breaking the Two Desires)

It is a struggle to accept verse 4:34 for many a modern, egalitarian mind. No matter how much legal, linguistic or hermeneutic gymnastics one wishes to undertake, the verse envisions a situation where hitting a woman is allowed.  Scholars throughout the ages have tried to limit its authority; no sincere interpreter can dismiss it.

To justify the patriarchal punitive power, the verse states that men are guardians or caretakers of women. If there is fear of rebellion can hit a woman in order to bring her back into order.  Hierarchy is certainty pronounced in this verse.

Ghazali would tend to agree with this patriarchy. He defines the gender roles, seeing the man as the authority and the woman as the maintainer. Women are subordinate to the man, and so a man can exercise his punitive powers if the context allows.

Verse 4:34 is a long verse. Analysis will typically be on the parts that imply a women’s inferiority and more particularly, the permission to hit. However, the verse is quite complex, and subtle points tend to be ignored.

The verse frames good women as obedient – once again a controversial term, although it is not clear if it means obedient to God or to their husband. The verse also frames good women as women that guard for the unseen what Allah guarded.

Translations differ. Some say “women guard in (husband)’s absence”, while others state they are “guarding in secret”.  Translations and tafsirs suggest that women are protecting a man’s honour though this is not clear.  The ambiguity allows for other interpretations. What appears clear from the Arabic is that women are guarding something Allah guarded. There is a sense that God has transferred something of his responsibility to women. When juxtaposed with the idea of man as caretaker of women, then men protect women (something of this world, or the mundane) and women protect something God protected (the transcendent).

In categorising differences between men and women, many commentators focus on psychological and emotive differences. These are not really differences. Behaviour can be controlled. Indeed, as the modern world has shown, women can more or less do what men can do. They can lead nations, they can write tomes, they can fight, they can be scientists or they can be weightlifters. Overall, as seen in sports, men are stronger and faster. But this is one of extent, not of ability.

Instead, the one true difference between men and women is that women have the capacity to create. It is within their bodies that a soul gathered on the day that God asked “Am I not your lord” is given its physical form. Women are the conduits between the transcendent world and the mundane world.

Not all women can create. Likewise, not all women will be wives. However, in merely having the potential to create, a woman is symbolically the nurturer of our souls.  Qualities such as compassion, generosity, mercy are generally considered to be feminine qualities. These are the qualities required to enable a person to learn and grow. These are also the qualities that God overwhelmingly defines Himself.

Protecting these qualities is paramount if souls are to be nurtured. Women, as the best exemplars and purveyors of these qualities, have to be safeguarded and protected and more importantly, honoured. So while most translations and legal opinions suggest that women should be protecting her husband’s honour, perhaps God meant it the other way. Perhaps men should be honouring women because they are the guardians of the most highest virtues.

Of course, there is a risk that the egalitarian mind can be apologists for the verse, attempting to reconcile the verse with prevailing norms. However, verses 4:34 and 4:35 combined are quite layered, expounding on principles, authority and hierarchy.  It requires a longer discussion, yet if one is expected to honour women as a fundamental principle of behaviour, then any instances of punishment can only be justified in most severe of circumstances. It is akin to the respect people have for their leaders. We honour them, we humble ourselves to them, we respect them, we eulogise them and we obey them…but only up to the point that they fail in their duties to look after us.  What that point is hard to determine. All that can be said is that only in the most drastic of circumstances can rebellion be justified.

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit





The Purpose of Revelation

(Reflections on Imam Ghazali’s Book 21 “ On Wonders of the Heart” and Book 22 “ Disciplining the Soul)


An oft disregarded aspect of the Abrahamic religious narrative is that revelation was confined to tribes. The duty of Prophets was to convey the message to their tribe, to their immediate sphere of concern. Only Ibrahim (RA) and Musa (RA) had confrontations with leaders of kingdoms, namely Nimrod and Pharoah, respectively. Dawud (RA) and Sulaiman (RA) ruled Kingdoms, but the size and scope is subject to debate. It certainly was not the size of the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Persian empires.

Regardless, it is claimed God sent down 125000 Prophets; only 4 of whom appear to have greater political import beyond the politics of their tribe.  It was not until the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) that there was a quest for religious expansion. Even Isa (RA)’s mission was directed towards the Jews of Israel; the growth of Christianity was remarkable for an absence of prophetic providence.

The Abrahamic religious narrative, therefore, is one predominately focused on the community, not political dominance. Abrahamic monotheism is focused on character development, not realpolitik. The starting point always begins at home, and separate to wider stately affairs.

Hence for religious growth, community is the immediate concern; although the boundaries of the community are difficult to delineate. Nevertheless, focus is not community expansion – tribes generally remained insular as seen by the tribes of Israel – rather it is spiritual expansion. And the starting point for spiritual expansion is knowledge of the divine.

Accusations of political quietism will obviously be leveled at this point. As expressed, our ethical compass calls for activism in the face of injustice. But this is separate from the key objective of revelation: God’s providence.  Certainly, most Quranic stories links a societal problem with God’s disapproval, and therefore many would argue that religion is inherently ethical and a champion of justice. Yet beyond the injuries to man, religious purpose calls for an acceptance that the first principle for human action is worship; that is independent, concentrated, and unadulterated worship. As the Quran says “And I did not create Man and Jinn except to worship”.

To develop that spiritual core is difficult and challenging. Muslims are far too confident about the fundamental principle of worshipping God. Except, in the absence of God’s tangible presence, concretising it within is a far more challenging enterprise than mere expressions of the Shadaha and illusions to the cosmic brotherhood of the ummah.

Ghazali saw the heart as the gateway to the divine. Unfortunately, the heart is cluttered by habits and desires for the world. To unclutter it is an arduous process only achievable by the ardent. Decluttering the veneer of the heart requires both commitment to worship as well upholding decency in interacting with others. Choosing the latter over the former is destined to push worshipping God into the background; while choosing the former over the latter provides no evidence of God’s providence to the unaware.

Undoubtedly, Islamic consciousness is rising in the world: men with beards, women with hijabs, the halal economy and the Islamic pedagogy finds presence. However, the tendency towards identity or upholding traditional values is emblematic of this rise in consciousness. It is easier to chart ones ‘Muslimness’ in this way. To know God, unfortunately, is a far more difficult affair – The Prophet spent days in solitude on Mount Hira before revelation came. The Abrahamic religious narrative rests upon concentrated, independent worship to have value, otherwise it is mere ideology. Thus revelation was predominately to small communities, because when the consciousness is narrow, it is easier to remove the clutter on the heart, and open the gateway to the Divine.

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit

“Do not feel lonely; the entire universe is inside of you”

(Reflections of Imam Ghazali’s Book 4 of the Ihya The Secrets of the Prayer)


Jobs forces us to be responsible. They are means by which man is disciplined. Michel Foucault astutely notes that the industrial revolution has made man into machines: waking up early, going to work, following instructions, application ad infinitum, go back home…and repeat. Over time, the process becomes second nature.

There is something within that makes us undertake such rigors. Perhaps it is our desire to survive,  or to fulfill our wants; maybe it is to look after our families, or to ensure good in society or maybe to achieve prestige. Perhaps it is all of them.  More often than not, however, our occupation is separate to our vocation. More often than not we work for the sake of earning money, without too much regard to the broad consequences of our production to the world.

For many, the Prayer is like a job. It appears to have little objective beyond fulfilling God’s desire. We have been ordered, and therefore we must do. We see it as a means of securing heaven. More often than not, we see it as separate to what we do to earn money.

This is unavoidable as prayer is deemed a punctuation to the day. That is one way of looking at it. In another way, prayer is gratitude for the time preceding the prayer. Each prayer commences at a certain pivotal point of the sun’s movement. Fajr welcomes the sun’s rise; Zuhr delights the sun at its zenith; Maghrib sighs when the sun starts to set; and Esha reclines when the sun has set. Only Asr time occurs at a point that cannot be deemed a pivotal part of the day, at least so it seems.

For prayer to be tied so closely to certain moments of the day shows the importance of man to be aware of how the earth and the sun interplay. Our consciousness, so consumed by our actions, finds it difficult to look beyond them and see ourselves as part of one holistic phenomena.

When we work, we are creating something new in order for our lives to have value; when we pray we are reflecting at how the mere act of living is the value. Man will be a part of the cycle, just as the Earth will continue to circumvent the sun. Our occupations makes us forget that we are part of the organics of this world. The Prayer is intended to remind us of our indelible part of the entire whole. As Rumi says “Do not feel lonely; the entire universe is inside of you”. Its a sobering yet magnificent thought.

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit