Being Muslim is Not the Natural State

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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.

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Who Should Honour Who?

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(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 visithttp://www.nursari.com/classes)

 

 

 

 

The Purpose of Revelation

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

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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 visithttp://www.nursari.com/classes)

“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)

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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  http://www.nursari.com/classes)

 

Where are God’s people?

(Reflections are from imam Ghazali’s independent book,  The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of God)

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“Where is God” is a common retort against God and religion. Evil and suffering are pandemic; their existence is inexplicable against the image of a loving, benevolent, God. If such a God exists, then evil should not.

The Ashari theology, to which Ghazali adheres, accepts evil and suffering as characteristic of the world. The theology goes so far as to say all troubles are from God. Indeed, our earthly abode was never intended to be a heaven. Heaven is not predicated on struggle.

This world is precisely the opposite. All humans are born and live in a state of struggle, which is especially hard when external and internal forces are against you. African Americans that undergird the BlackLivesMatter movement spotlight the iniquities of a discriminatory organ of the state that is meant to “serve and protect”; Syrians, for no fault of their own, are caught in a heinous war, and have seen their lives and possessions shattered. Where is God in this horror?

Likewise, where is God when the cancer sufferer writhes in pain, anguished in grief as, internally, his/her cells do battle against each other? Or when a child practically lives in the hospital because his/her organs are failing? Without doubt, the stench of unfairness prevails.

But then in the face of such tragedy, where are God’s people? Where are the activists challenging evil? Where are the scientists looking for cures for diseases?

It is not God who is absent. God is very much present through is attributes and his Names. In nature,  we view a beautiful vista, a sunrise emerging from ocean floor, we see majesty of creation. In the scene is God The Majestic (Al Jalil (الجليل)). When we confront a towering mountain, we are in awe of its grandness. In sight is God The Tremendous (Al Mutakabbir (المتكبر)).

Likewise, and more symptomatically, men reflect God’s attributes. If man wishes to be the embodiment of The Distresser (Ad Dharr (الضآر)), then the world will suffer from the qualities of distress such as oppression and encroachment. On the other hand, if man wishes to be the embodiment of the Bestower (Al Wahhaab (الوهاب)), then the world will gain from the qualities chracterising bestowment, such as providing succor to the suffering.

The Prophet said “There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He also has created its remedy.” He also said “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is oppressed. People asked, ‘It is right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?’ The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.”

Both seeking cures and seeking justice require struggle, patience and determination…such is the world. Distress and mercy will work hand in hand during the struggle, but man through his choices and actions determines the attribute of God that will prevail.

So ask not where is God; ask where are the people of The Merciful and The Compassionate?

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit http://www.nursari.com/classes)

 

 

 

 

Book 2: The Foundations of the Articles of Faith – The folly of Humanising God

(Reflections are taken from Sheikh Walead Mosaad’s class on Book 2 of the Ihya, “The Foundations of the Articles of Faith“. Click hyperlink to view the lecture)

 

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Looking up to the heavens in India

In a recent essay, the evolutionary biologist, Dr. David Barash, asserts that the monotheistic God is ‘remarkably humanoid’. Man created God to resemble a ‘harem master’, an ‘alpha male’, a ‘sexually distrustful dominant male’, suffering from ‘mammalian male anxieties.’ Barash concludes that homo sapiens have been ‘stuck with ossified behaviourial patterns and psychological dynamics that persist in its religious values and strictures’.

In other words, man created God in his own idealized image of a ruler.

Anthropomorphasising God is a common strategy used to devalue religion. Unfortunately, Baresh fails to see his assessment suffers from a deep irony. He sees God through the lenses of human experience and sentiment, and constructs an image through inference and postulation.

For Ghazali, personification of God in terms of emotions, body, and location is woefully inadequate and mistaken.  In describing God, Ghazali addresses what God is not thereby emphasizing that the Divine cannot be captured by human words or images. Descriptions, even religiously based, are limp attempts that form an allegory in order for man to relate. The truth is that God is thoroughly ineffable, unique and unknowable.

To learn God’s attributes, and accept a theological creed, is an intellectual exercise and only a mere step towards knowing the Divine.  It is not enough and certainly not sufficient. A creed gives the believer a foundation; truly knowing God is achieved by practice, reflection and, crucially, God’s eventual illumination if he so wills.

Ghazali, therefore, views the operation of Islam as a combination of intellect, practice, and hope.

Difficulties and dilemmas do arise from this philosophy.  Nevertheless, Ghazali insists that beyond the constructs of our mind and emotions lies a God who rises above human conceptualisations. The intellect alone is restricted in its understanding.  No words or concepts or names given to God adequately capture His reality. It is a point Dr.Barash, and other vocal atheists, ignore. Indeed, “Exalted is your Lord, the Lord of might, above what they describe” (Quran 37:180).

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit www.nursari.com/classes)

Book 1 : On Knowledge – The Arrogance of Extremism

(For explanation of Imam Ghazali’s Book 1: On Knowledge by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, please click here)

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Uncertainty in the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul

All religions suffer an epistemological paradox. How can man follow the commands of God when God does not directly speak to them? Legal scholars such as Ghazali’s teacher, al-Juwayni, believed transmitted knowledge of God’s commands is probablistic. For any given situation, we can only have a reasoned estimation of what God would have wanted.

That uncertainty can provoke three reactions among those who promulgate Islamic law:

1) Believe ones interpretation is ineluctably correct.

2) Regard the whole enterprise as inherently unstable, and ignore the whole interpretative process.

3) View uncertainty as part of one’s journey to the Divine and be humble as to one’s determination of law.

The beginning of Ghazali’s Book of Knowledge is a biting critique of legal scholars, who he regards as being” trapped in their arrogance” issuing rules for the sake of other considerations. Unfortunately, they ignore the key reason for God’s intervention in Human history, and that is to inform Man of life after death (the akhira). Man’s key concern should be in preparing for this eventuality.

Hence, only point 3 is the appropriate reaction to uncertainty.

When an Islamic scholar issues a ruling, he has to navigate the uncertainty inherent in expressing God’s will. How can he be sure he is correct? More importantly, he is burdened by the uncertainty as to whether the ruling pushes a person, and others indirectly affected by his ruling, away from contemplating the akhira.

The recent attacks in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad have the hallmarks of ISIS and Al Qaeda: wanton violence to illicit fear. The problem with their mission, however, is that they are concerned with political and legal dominance. Spreading the message about the akhira is largely ignored. They symbolise point 1.

Arrogance is therefore their mark. When followers can casually brutalise individuals who were non-Muslim or could not read the Quran properly, they have set themselves up as God. If God wished to destroy nations, he would have done so himself. What is worse, and indeed quite peculiar, is that behind the smiles of their own belief in their martyrdom, is that in killing and then being killed, they resemble the people the Angels worried about when God created man “Will You place therein those who will make mischief therein and shed blood, while we glorify You” (Quran 2:30)

Instead of fearing the consequences with God of unlawful murder against innocents, they butchered gleefully.

The Muslim’s role is to convey the message of the akhira, not to force obedience. All humans are in a state of uncertainty, only arrogance contemplates otherwise. To convey the message effectively takes time and patience. Indeed, Prophets in the Quran were granted time to convey.

People are scared of ISIS and their nihilistic proclivities, so the consequence of these attacks is fear of humans, and not fear of God.   For Ghazali, it is fear of God  that should direct one’s journey to the Divine. This represents the true foundation of knowledge and a guide to ones actions and interactions. Only from it can the immanence of the akhira be truly conveyed.

(To view and listen to more lectures on Imam Ghazali’s Ihya, please visit www.nursari.com/classes)