A Working Explanation on the Hadith of “Imitation” Suhaib Webb


The Hadith:

“Whoever imitates a people is from them.”

This hadith was related on behalf of four different Companions: ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar, Abu Hurairah, Hudhayfa and Anas bin Malik [May Allah be pleased with them].

The narration of ‘Abdullah bin ‘Umar was related by Ahmed, Abu Dawod, al-Tabarani in al-Kabir through Abu Munib al-Jarshi but this chain is weak [tadhkira al-Maudu’at vol.1 Pg. 193]. However, al-Hafidh al-‘Iraqi noted that it is strengthened by the narration of al-Bazar from Hudhayfa, and Abu Na’im on behalf of Anas bin Malik, declaring it sound in his checking of the hadith of al-Ghazzali’s Ihyah [Takhri Ahadith al-Ihya vol. 2. pg. 343]. Imam al-Sanan’i mentions in Subula al-Salam that this hadith is strengthened by the narration of Abu Y’ala from ‘Abdullah bin Mas’ud [vol. 7 pg. 107.] Imam Ibn Taymiyyah mentioned this hadith staying, “It is a good hadith” [al-Fatawa al-Kubra vol. 3 pg. 315] and Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani mentioned it Bulugh al-Maram saying that Ibn Hiban authenticated it [Hadith # 1384]. Sheikh al-Bani commented on this hadith stating, “It is a good and sound hadith.” [Sahih wa Da’if Sunan Abi Dawod vol.9 pg. 31]

Fiqh of the Hadith

The Encyclopedia of Fiqh, compiled by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Religious Affairs under the entry imitating [tashabu], defines the word, according to the Arabic language, “To resemble another person.” It goes on to state, regarding its meaning and usage in Islamic Law, “This usage of the word by the scholars of Fiqh does not different from this meaning.” [al-Maws’u al-Fiqhiyah al-Kuwatiyah vol. 13 pg 1]

Seeking Clarity: Moving Beyond a Standardized Understanding of Tashabu

If we engage the classical Islamic legal texts we find the scholars divided this concept into the permissible, the forbidden, the disliked and, at times, the obligatory.

The Forbidden Tashabu and the One that Leads Towards Fisq:

The type of imitation of Non-Muslims that the majority of the scholars held as absolutely forbidden and considered a means for one to be an apostate are those things related to specific Non-Muslim identification, religious practices and beliefs. An excellent example would be a cross, the clothes of a priest and so one. This, according the sound opinion in the Hanafi school, the Malkis and the majority of the Shafi’s is absolutely forbidden takes one out of Islam [see conditions below] and falls under the legal axiom “[wearing] Clothes specific to the deniers of faith [religious clothing] is a rejection of faith.

The classical example is the one who wore the headgear of the Zoroastrians or belt that symbolized one’s affiliation with the Christian faith worn in the Muslim state. One who did this, with a clear intention and after investigation, was declared an apostate. However, the scholars conditioned this stating: unless it was worn do to necessity, force or to protect one’s self from the heat or cold” [regarding the headgear of the Zoroastrians] or for one “Who needed to enter the lands of war.” [al-Mawsua’h al-Fiqhiyah vol. 13. pg.1]

Imam Khalil states [his words are in bold] in his famous text, “Apostasy is the rejection of faith by a Muslim explicitly [Sh. Dardir states, meaning an explicit statement such as “I associate partners, or disbelieve in, Allah.”] or a statement that demands it [Imam al-Dardir states, “Such as denying something known from the religion by necessity.”] or by an act which demands it like throwing the Qur’an in the garbage or wearing the belt specific to the Christians.” [Sh. al-Dardi adds, Meaning one wore a type of clothing specific to the non-Muslims. Sharh al-Kabir vol.4 pg. 301.]

Thus, it becomes clear that the forbidden type of tashabu is related to one’s wearing clothing specific to the non-Muslims religious identities and practices as articulated by the scholars above. Ibn al-Shatt al-Maliki stated, “One who wears the clothes specific to the non-Muslims is not considered a non-Muslim until he clearly states such. That is because, if he does so, his heart and limbs are in agreement.” Imam Abu Hanifa said, “One cannot leave Islam except through the door he entered it which is affirmation and attestation.” The Hanbalis considered it Haram only for one to wear such dress and did not declare one who did so an apostate. Imam al-Nawawi noted that one who did so should be judged on “his/her intention.” [al-Maw’suah al-Fiqhiyah al-Kuwatiyah vol. 13. pg. 2]

Based on that the scholars, regarding the issue above provided the following conditions for the ruling of apostasy and fisq:

  1. That it is done in the lands of the Muslims.
  2. That it was done not out of necessity.
  3. That one wore clothes specific to a religious articulation. The Malikis added that one should also be seen going to their places of worship.
  4. That the time in which those clothes were worn was a time in which those clothes were well known as clothes of the non-Muslims. What is sighted as evidence for this is the hadith of Anas, see Haq’s post, and Ibn Hajar’s commentary.
  5. That it was not done out of jest.
  6. The wearing of clothing and so forth not related to the above matters is considered permissible [is not the forbidden tashbu] as long as such clothing agrees with the Sacred Law. Once Hisham said to Abu Yusuf [the great student of Abu Hanifa] , when he saw the latter wearing sandals made from palm trees with iron, “You don’t see wearing that iron as a problem?” Abu Yusuf responded, “No.” Then Hisham said, “Sufyan, Thawr and Ibn Yazid disliked it because it is an imitation of Christian priests.” Abu Yusuf responded, “The Prophet [May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] wore sandals with hair on them that was worn by the Christian monks.” [al-Mawsua’h al-Fiqhiyah vol. 13. pg.3]. Ibn al-Qayyim notes, in Zad al-Maad, that when the Christians of Egypt sent the Prophet [may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] a gift of clothes made by them he wore them.

That was because such dress what not related to the monks specifically or the Christians of Egypt, but was a common feature of the society. Based on this, the scholars stated that wearing the clothes of people does not fall under the forbidden aspects of tashabu as outlined and conditioned above. In fact, they state that “No one has a monopoly on clothing.” Meaning clothes are one of the things which are shared amongst people from different cultures and faiths. However, some scholars stated that if one wears such clothes with an intention to imitate someone who is not a non-Muslim, or even a openly evil Muslim, then this is a sin.

Case studies:

  • In November 1926. Mufti Abdul Majid Salim al-Azhari was asked about wearing western hats that had become fashionable in those days. In his response he stated, “If one wears a hat, not having the intention to imitate [the forbidden kind as outlined above] the non-Muslims, but to protect his/her self form the elements, then there is absolutely no sin in this what so ever.” [Fatwa al-Azhar vol. 5 Pg. 472].

I would think based on the authentic statement of the Prophet: “Allah is beautiful and he love beauty. We can add beautification above as well.

  • Some years ago the Standing Committee on Fatwa and Research in Saudi Arabia was asked about a ruling on a type of hairstyle that had just appeared in the kingdom. They stated, “If the intention to wear such a hair style is not to imitate [as outlined above] the non-Muslims then there is nothing wrong with this if is from one of trends that have recently appeared amongst women………….we see no problem with this.” [see Fatawa of the Standing Committee vol. 7. Pg. 150]

Benefiting from the General Principles of Islam

There a few general principles and axioms in Islam that will help us engage our societies, avoid alienation [on both sides] and work with others towards goodness:

“The origin of things is permissibility unless there is a clear texts to the contrary”

This axiom, held by the majority, states that in the affairs of our daily life, the origin of such things is permissible unless there is a clear text to the contrary. This is based on the verse, “It is He who created everything in the world for you.” This means that for one to insinuate that something is forbidden or leads to rebellious behavior [fisqh] he or she would need a clear text about which there are no differences on, to declare such a ruling absolute. If there are differences amongst the scholars on the meaning of such a text, then he/she is free to follow the opinion he/she feels is closest to the truth. However, he/she is not allowed to declare someone who follows another opinion, founded on sound scholarship, as a fasiq, avoid praying behind them and so on. [See Ibn Taymiyyah’s treaty on the Unity of the Muslims corrected and checked by Sh. Abdul Fatah Abu Ghuda].

“There is no declaring something forbidden without a clear text.”

I addressed, by Allah’s grace, this axiom in the last section.

“Harm is Removed”

This is one of the core axioms of our law and it is agreed upon by the scholars. For many converts one of the first things we have to deal with, besides being told to change our names that our mothers and fathers gave us, is to adopt Islamic dress beyond what is obligatory. This is a disaster for many, not all, and can lead to further alienation from one’s family and friends. I know because this happened to me. The first time I wore a thobe my father said, “Boy you look like a doll.”

By doing so we are forcing people to understand and accept something that Allah has not required from them. This can, at times, make an already cloudy picture more cloudier, create further distance from one’s families and friends. So instead of focusing on faith, relationship with God, charity and benefiting the society, we are presenting a message based on clothing and fashion and classical theological arguments that have no relevance to contemporary society.

A Relevant Message

The Axiom: “Call to the Way of Your Lord with Wisdom”

I have a dear friend who is a religious leader. I have known him for a long time and have never seen him outside of a thobe and kufi. Once he went to a bank and a man came up to him and said, “That is awesome man! You did it! You look just like him! Happy Halloween dude your OBL costume is off the chain! Where did you get that beard man!”

It was Halloween and that poor man failed to realize that the brother was not in costume. That was his real, every day, everywhere he goes dress! I’m not censuring one from wearing such dress, as I do sometimes, but I think it should be done with wisdom and in the right time and right place.

“The mufti Carries People According to Their States and Abilities”

This axiom was mentioned by ‘Umar bin Abdul ‘Aziz who said, “Judgments will deal with people according to their sins.” al-Shatibi stated in al-Muwafaqat that the role of the mufti was to treat people “like a doctor treats the ill.” Thus, I am saddened by those scholars who are very forceful about such issues. Besides contradicting the majority and the Usol, many of them have never spent an entire day with a non-Muslim, watched Nick at Night or observed Lebron posterizing KG and so on.

This does not take away from their classical training, but it does, we must admit, damper their ability to articulate a religious expression that is Islamic and at the same time benefits the societies we live in. Even in most Muslim countries such people live in a box. If, and I’ve traveled a lot in the Muslim world, Muslims themselves feel alienated from such scholars, then what can we say of the non-Muslims and Western Muslim Youth of today? This is not an issue of Halal and Haram, but an issue of loosing our own. And that is a whole different discussion…

Imam al-Bukhari, in his Sahih, relates that a woman from Ethiopia came to Medina. Upon meeting the Prophet [may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] the Prophet [May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him] responded in her language. Thus, until we can muster the fortitude to trust ourselves, our faith and our identities, we will not be able to engage an extremely mature society and, instead, focus on secondary issues of importance as a means of escape. For that reason, we find Muslims ready to engage each other over the slightest theological issues, but impotent when it comes to handling teen pregnancy, abortion, human rights, the plight of the poor, the environment, looking after converts, establishing institutions and building communities that don’t incubate the youth, but prepare them. Ibn al-Qayyim mentions that the qualities of the Mufti are two: knowledge of the faith and knowledge of the hood. [see ‘Ilam al-Muwaqi’in ‘An Rabil al-‘alamin vol. 1]

Based on that we are presented with a twofold crisis:

  1. A community of believers who lack literacy to engage their faith.
  2. A scholarly community who lacks popular culture literacy by which they can make things relevant and provide literacy to the above.

“The Changing of a Fatwa According to Time and Place”

This important principle was noted by Ibn ‘Abdidin in his Hashyiah, noted by al-Dasuqi al-Maliki in Sharh al-Kabir, Ibn Rushd, Ibn al-Qayyim and others.

What is meant here is that issues of ijtihad, where there is no binding consensus, are open for inspection and correction by the scholars due to environmental realities amongst other issues. The best example, given by al-Dasuqi Sharh al-Kabir is taking money for teaching religion. He mentions in the early days of the Ummah that most of the scholars held it forbidden to do so. However, in his age the 12-13th century A.H he states, “Today we know of no difference on taking money to teach. Because if teachers are not paid, no one will be left to teach.” This was due to the collapse of the waqf, corruption in the government and a rising tyranny that has gripped the Muslim world until today. The same can be said of fatwas regarding clothing and the like.

While certain movements are highly respected, they must be examined in the light of anthropology and sociology as well religious sciences. Because their environments surely had an effect on their ijtihads. This can be seen in the fatwa’s regarding dress and Western attire. Since most of these fatwas were written at time when the British Empire, France and others were killing and conquering the Muslim world, or during the Crusades, one could expect to see such fatwas that state it is a sin to wear Western clothing and so on. However, today is a different situation for many. We are living in the West and have nowhere to migrate. I was shocked at the argument of al-‘Allamah Dr. Ramadan Buti against Minority Fiqh stating that we in the West, if we need a special fiqh, should migrate. My question is to Dr. Buti: It is not possible for Westerners [from the USA] to even study in Syria [since many of them were, or are going to be, kicked out] let alone move there. Thus, such an argument, although from a highly respected and honored scholar, lacks any realistic direction for Muslims in the West. I say that with nothing but respect for Dr. Buti who I’ve met and found to be a great scholar and person of piety. However, “there is no order without a means” and “there is no obligation in the face of weakness.

Finally, while one can certainly agree with the plight of our sisters and some of our brothers. I think the example of the guy in shorts and his wife in a niqab is not the norm. Let’s give the example of a guy in suit and tie and his wife in correct Islamic dress. Both, according to the majority, have fulfilled what Allah as obligated upon them. By confusing the kufi with the hijab or shalwar, we are playing a dangerous tune and confusing the rulings of Shair’ah. While emotions are important, it is more important to make sure they agree with the scales of rulings set by the Law. In this case, the Hijab is a fard, about which there is no doubt, where as the Kufi and the Turban are, at the most, highly recommended Sunnah for which one would not be punished for leaving according to the majority. Thus, let us practice restraint, stay balanced and let our feelings liberal, conservative, or otherwise, be guided by the law. Please forgive typos and lack of periods, my Unicode system went nuts!

Allah knows best

Asalamu alaykum

Suhaib Webb al-Azhari

www.suhaibwebb.com

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52 Comments

  1. Amatullah says:

    Asslualaykum wa rehmatullahee wa barakatoo,

    Jizakallahukhayrun for a very informative article!
    I have a very important question about the Hadith and the traditional dress code today
    The Hadith does mention that in general men shouldn’t imitate women and vise Versa bearing in mind the rulings in accordance with that. I am a youth and so I am finding it rather hard to get my head around the traditional clothing such as the thowb which is similar to a long dress which is very very similar to the abaya that a women wears. I so understand the reason as to why a women wears the abaya and so alternatives are acceptable but for men….I am pretty confused.

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