Religious Rulings: No Longer “Yes, No? Can I Go?” But a Method of Teaching the People


When Abraham said: “Show me, Lord, how You will raise the dead, ” He replied: “Have you no faith?” He said “Yes, but just to place my heart in complete ease.” Allah said, “Take four birds, draw them to you, and cut their bodies to pieces. Scatter them over the mountain-tops, then call them back. They will come swiftly to you. Know that Allah is Mighty, Wise.”
Al-Quran 2:260

There was once a time when the mustafti (the layman asking for a fatwa), having neither a great level of literacy, or little more than a deep emotional and spiritual connection to Islam (with great love for God and His Prophet), would approach the mufti and ask him: “Sheikh/Maulana/Mufti…Can I do this?”

The answer would come, either immediately or after the scholar had time to think over the question: “Yes.” “No.” “Yes, but xyz.” And so on. Questions about Zakah, Marriage, Divorce, Business, Prayer, Medicine, all of these would be answered in this manner. Why? Because the questioner may have been illiterate, or simply because the culture of the time and place did not necessitate any further discussion. The questioner, out of his sincere desire to follow the command of God and His Prophet (saw) would seek the expert of Sacred Law, the answer would be given, and the questioner could happily (or at least with a clear conscience) move forward with the knowledge that what he is doing is acceptable to God. There was nothing wrong with this method for the farmer, the shopkeeper, the baker, who simply wanted to live his life to please God and take care of his family. There was neither a burden on the Mufti to explain his answer, nor a demand from the questioner for evidence and process. The scholar of Sacred Law was qualified, the questioner was not, and this was the way of the world.

That environment was not an environment, nor was that time in an age in which the ranks of academia were filled with orientalist “experts” of Hadith sciences and Islamic Law, cadres of scientists trumpeting the theory of evolution, and armies of writers, bloggers, authors, speakers, and massive groups with deep pockets, pumping an intellectual, spiritual, and cultural inferiority complex into the veins of the Muslims. Granted, Islam had its detractors before, but not such that the airwaves and fiber-optic cables would carry their message into the homes, living rooms, and minds of every human being on Earth. It was also not a time when fataawa (often with opposing answers) were published for all the world to see and used as ammunition in the battles between groups and ideologies.

In such an environment, in such an age, it is imperative that the scholars, and the laymen, raise the expectations for themselves, and for each other. That they understand, that the days that one could give an answer and say “Yes, No”, and expect this to be sufficient…..are coming to an end. The university student, the school-child, the Muslim investment banker, the muslim sister working as a physician in a women’s clinic, even the housewife raising her children while watching the discovery channel’s explanation of evolution…will not be able to maintain their faith if they are treated like illiterate herds, unable to receive any rhyme or reason behind the rulings of their religion; unfit to see any of the beautiful rhythm underlying the Sacred Law of their faith. The transfer of a pre-modern, even pre-industrial mode of answering religious questions, to a post-modern society of Muslims struggling to learn about their faith and teach their neighbors, is a foolish and futile effort. “Listen to me because I am qualified and don’t ask me why”, only works on those….to whom you don’t need to say it.

The often-quoted slogan about a layman asking a scholar about a ruling: “The one who asks for proof has only shown proof of his own ignorance”….needs to enter the hall of retired and tossed out one-liners that never helped anyone and never will. Especially when one is dealing with a literate population which has been exposed to a myriad of thoughts and ideas, some new, some old, some completely out of line, and some absolutely brilliant. The mode of answering religious questions needs to adapt to counteract the baatil (falsehood) that has been pumped into the mind, and encourage the good. We can yell the slogan all we want, but one will find fewer and fewer followers.

In thinking about that slogan about proofs, perhaps we should remind ourselves of our father – Ibrahim (as). In the verse at the beginning of this article, we see Ibrahim, who clearly believes in Allah and has witnessed His power – to SHOW HIM – how He brings the dead to life. Ya Allah! To SHOW HIM? The Quran calls doubting the concept of resurrection absolute foolishness and mocks the doubters time and time again. Yet, our father Ibrahim is asking Allah(swt) to show him. Could not Allah (swt) have told him: “I saved you from fire and made you a Prophet….how dare you ask me for evidence! This is a sign of your own ignorance!” Of course, Allah had every right to do so.

But we know that Ibrahim never doubted Allah (swt). Ibrahim only wanted to increase his faith. He wanted to go from ilm-al-yaqeen…to ayn-al-yaqeen. From the Certainty of Knowledge, to the Certainty of Witnessing. In summary, he wanted a ma’rifah (profound realization) of the power of Allah, a gnosis, and deep understanding – not simply knowledge. This was not a challenge, it was a prayer for granting insight by evidence to strengthen his heart and drown it in the recognition of Divine Might.

So we can take a lesson from this story. If Ibrahim, who has witnessed Allah’s power, can ask for a greater understanding by actual sight, about an undeniable aspect of Allah’s power – the power to resurrect – and Our Lord did not become upset with him…..why should not the layman strive to ask for a greater understanding of the Sacred Law on a question affecting his life?

And why should the scholar feel the need to become upset with him if he asks for some kind of reason of evidence, when our Lord was so accommodating when a human being (though amongst the greatest of them) asked for a physical manifestation of His power to raise the dead? Truly, Allah’s power to resurrect is far more undeniable, than one human being’s ability to process Sacred Law. So when the layman asks with a desire for understanding…he should not be turned away or left with a one word answer.

In short – the religious answer needs to educate and empower the Muslim, not simply command. The religious answer needs to leave the Muslim with at least a small bit of a profound sense of understanding of the beauty, complexity, and perfection of the Sacred Law – not simply an order or prohibition. The religious answer, and the hundreds of thousands of them, millions of them that are given each day, must be increasingly presented to allow the Muslim to come out with a greater sense, no matter how much greater, of appreciation for the gift of this Path that he has been given by the Lawgiver. This especially applies to those answers which are published on the Internet and in newspapers for the world to see in response to specific questions.

Of course we do not mean in fataawa related to highly-specific cases meant for a single individual, but rather the hundreds of thousands of answers given to questions publicly.

And last but not least, whenever applicable the religious answer must imbibe an understanding through tone and style, at least covertly if an overt effort will cause confusion, that one must not use the fatwa as a launching point for attacks on the differing opinions of others, as this is against the spirit of what a fatwa is for.

In this inshAllah, the respect and authority which scholars – the Heirs of the Prophet(saw) – deserve, can be restored, revived, and renewed in the hearts and minds of our Ummah, and we can follow them through an appreciation for their sacrifice, their knowledge, their piety, and their ability to fuse the classical tradition with the modern world and present the Sacred Law in the dynamic, ever-relevant mode that it is meant to be in.

Anything less, and we risk leaving the Muslims, especially the youth – unequipped, unprepared, and unready, to face the spiritual, intellectual, and cultural onslaughts, being launched against them from every side, and which only look poised to increase.

And Allah knows best.

Abdul Sattar

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7 Comments

  1. J says:

    This was an AMAZING article, masha-Allah. Much needed, much appreciated. I haven’t read this good of an article in a long time. Jazakh-Allah khair. May Allah [swt] reward you!

    Fi Aman Allah,
    J

  2. Abd- Allah says:

    The difference between in the past and recent times is that in the past, there were only a (relatively) few scholars that were known to be knowledgable and so that is who everyone asked their questions, and many times though these scholars did provide some evidence to back what they are saying, but even if they didn’t provide anything other than a simple yes or no, they were trustworthy people, so people didn’t have a problem relying on them. Now we have plenty of “scholars” and everyone who has attended an islamic intitution for a year or 2 and got some sort of degree from there is termed a “scholar” when infact the true scholars are few. Not everyone can be trusted now, and since there are many opinions out there, people ask for the proof so that they can defend their opinion if someone objects to it later.
    The prophet peace be upon him said “Allah will not take away knowledge by removing it from the hearts of men, but he takes it away by the death of scholars.”
    and when there are few true scholars left, it is then when people start taking ignorant people as “scholars” who give rulings based on their own desires without any proof, and so they misguide others while being misguided themselves. That is why we should always ask for the evidence that supports the claim being made by any shaikh or mufti!

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  4. Angie says:

    Jazak Allahu khayran. Beautifully worded!

  5. Salaam alaykum Abdul-Sattar,

    A very well-thought out article, and A badly-needed challenge to the status quo. It’s not that we ought to underestimate and disregard our scholars and teachers, but just the opposite – our teachers and scholars have to recognize and not underestimate the growing literacy and intelligence of the “layman” population.

    Siraaj

  6. J says:

    Brother Abd-Allah, I find your post to be highly offensive. There are plenty of scholars nowadays, and *usually* the only ones who claim otherwise are the extremists from either side (the khawaarij on the one end and the murjia on the other).

    Yes, you are right to say that there are some bad apples here and there (which would make it important to ask for proof), but to say that almost all are this way or that way is certainly from extremism. It is ironic because usually those who say “so-and-so is not a scholar” and “I don’t take from so-and-so” are the most ignorant of all; in other words, they are claiming that so-and-so is ignorant, but in reality 99% of the time they themselves are more ignorant than so-and-so!

    Fi Aman Allah,
    J

  7. ASA,

    Imam W. D. Mohammed (may the mercy of Allah be upon him) would always warn his students of those sheikhs and scholars who would control and hold back many of their followers by not revealing much of the deeper understanding of the Islamic sciences. It was as if those scholars were fearful of loosing the power they had over the students and the people. This is knowledge that has no benefit and we ask Allah (swt) to keep us away from this ego.

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