The winter break of December 2009 offered another chance to spend some blessed time in the company of Shaykh Akram Nadwi (may God increase him in good and reward, and continue to benefit us through him) in Batley, England – arranged skilfully by our dear brother in Islam, Sulayman Kazi. The pretext was to study al-`Aqidah al-Tahawiyya – a work of tenets of faith by Imam Abu Ja’far Tahawi (d. 321 AH). Yet the real reason – and, by the grace of God, the Divine gift, Alhamdulillah (all praise be to Allah) – was to benefit from the Shaykh’s spiritual state, and primarily learn from his admonitions.
As is usual for Shaykh Akram’s sessions, although the topics seemed devoid of paramount spiritual value, the two days ended being more like a spiritual retreat and a focus on the spiritual outlook of the believer, rather than two academic days filled with mere factual identification, rejection and eventual widespread guilty indictment or even anathematization – perhaps a description so indicative of much theological learning these days. Nevertheless, the content of the course did, naturally, contain a sufficient element of projecting authentic theology and the disavowal of its opposite, as the subject matter demanded. However, only a heart seeking discord, perhaps, would come away thinking that such discussions dominated proceedings.
Shaykh Akram emphasised an essentialist method, which has a high scholarship as its armoury, and a stress on the categorically proven matters of early Islamic beliefs, without a keen resort to later ‘scholasticism’ (to borrow from the Catholic Church what best describes some later high rational theological methodology, i.e. `ilm al-kalam). The teacher’s method is really the articulation of the post-`aqidah age, where the theological battles have been ignored by the majority of believers (as they always have been).
He stated the orthodoxy of the ‘Ash’aris,’ ‘Maturidis’ and the ‘way of the salaf.’ The latter phrase was amended by him to ‘the best of generations,’ or khair qurun, so as to avoid some modern-day appellations, or affiliations, that do not reflect the Shaykh’s comprehensive stance. Moreover, he forcefully stressed that people should not take his particular criticism of any group to be a general rejection of everything associated with that group, but rather his particular criticism is pertinent simply to the point being made and there is good and bad in every one of these later groups. This latter point can be taken conversely as meaning that the endorsement of a particular person or group on a certain point is not a complete approval of everything from such a group – as the Shaykh himself made clear when talking about people who he disagreed with on some issues, but that there was good to be taken on other matters.
In summation, his method is a very independent one, which is reflective of true scholarship. Such independence is unfamiliar in the English-speaking West, where students of knowledge are more common and people then tend to fit themselves and others into neat, little boxes, with the necessary conformist trappings and opinions. Such debates about the Shaykh’s theological stances often highlight the immaturity and/or haste of those willing to make widespread generalisations and jump to conclusions. His simplification of many matters are not a demonstration of incomprehension, for discussions with him highlight the depth that buttress his conclusions; but rather it is an inclination towards the safer approach of the khair qurun that is devoid of indefinite, even contentious, speculation.
In order to try and protect the Shaykh from loose tongues, I will not make many connections, quotations or references that I would normally do, because I’m accustomed to how certain personalities are led to let their minds and keyboards run away with them, whilst they fail to see the failings of their own certainty. The host requested that no-one was to comment on the course on the internet, but I was requested to write an article on the event, and the Shaykh gave me permission. Nevertheless, this is my own interpretation of events, and far from an official account.
Preliminary Matters Before Studying Actual Theology
There were three preliminaries that the Shaykh wanted to first set-out before directing himself to the actual text.
The first point was to delineate a clear distinction between two aspects of Divine Oneness: firstly, rabb and rububiyya, or Lord and Lordship; secondly, ilah. It was emphasised that rububiyya is the fact that God is the Lord. Now ilah is usually translated as god, but the Shaykh explained that ilah should be understood essentially in relation to ma’bud (worship) and uluhiyya (that only the True God, Allah, is worthy of worship). He explained how rububiyya is not in dispute, for many people know that God exists; but the problem is that people don’t want to worship God, and therefore the Prophets (upon them all be peace) and the Qur’an really come with the Message of uluhiyya, not about rububiyya. The Shaykh explained that when rububiyya is mentioned directly in the Quran it is to remind people to observe uluhiyya, i.e. you accept His Lordship so now observe the rights of His Lordship and worship Him.
After outlining this starting point, Shaykh Akram explained how the conversion of new Muslims at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century led to a shift in emphasis, as these converts brought with them intellectual baggage from their previous faith. Hence later Muslims began to discuss the nature of the rabb and the details of His attributes in a way unknown to the early generations. This trend was to effect theology in particular – with the development of elaborate schools like the Mu’taliza, Ash’aris and Maturidis – as well as to effect later Sufic trends (for what is called early ‘Sufism’ is really just early asceticism (zuhd)). The Sufic tendency under discussion meant focusing on rububiyyah so as to develop stations (maqamat) and one’s spiritual state (hal). For Shaykh Akram, Rashid Gangohi and Ashraf Ali Thanwi were great Sufic reformers in India because they attempted to return the spiritual Path to an emphasis on uluhiyya, and away from a concentration on visions and dreams.
The impassioned admonition towards committed and dynamic worship, aside from theological or esoteric meandering, was a constant theme for the course. At almost every opportunity the teacher urged the believers on to the path of servitude. Therefore the Shaykh attempted to strip theology of any later development – whether rejected or simply left without condemnation, or whether from Tahawi’s text or Ibn Taymiyya or later Ash’aris – so that a believer would know that the method of the early Muslims was a simple, initial belief in the essentials of faith; but then it was a full committed adherence to the path of worship, like ritual prayer and being in the path of God. He remarked how the early Muslims – such as the Companions and our guides like Abu Hanifa, Malik and Sufyan Thawri – were concentrated on worship and did not engage in great theological discussions. Ultimately, the point that struck me most, aside from the call towards uluhiyya, was a story narrated about Sufyan Thawri. The story mentioned how once Sufyan sat and ate a good meal and he then jumped up upon completion and said, “When the donkey has been fed, then you should put the donkey to work.”
The second preliminary point was about the nature of language. For instance, humans see a reality and give it a name. Then there are instances where a simile is made from that reality, and leads to words having metaphorical meanings (majaz). Thus real meanings (haqiqi) and metaphorical meanings are the construct of humans. Yet those matters beyond our comprehension that God has mentioned in the Sacred Texts are revealed in name, not reality. Therefore, by way of illustration, it was said that God’s attribute of hearing is neither haqiqi nor majaz for God, for haqiqi and majaz are simply human attempts at definitions of matters within their comprehension; but not for application to Divine realities beyond our understanding, whether the reality of Divine attributes, the secret of destiny and freewill or the gifts of heaven (such as ‘grapes’ and ‘wine’ – which only possess the names of this world, but have a reality known only to God). Hence the Shaykh, here, stands outside of two competing trends that are so familiar in our time: to argue for either the haqiqi or majaz meaning of statements concerning the attributes of God found in the Divine texts.
Moreover, for the Shaykh, to say that something like yad is majaz is to still make tashbih (similarity to God), even if one says its means quwwa (power), because in order to say that something is a metaphor one must have access to the meaning of the original; yet here the reality is not accessible, so the only categorical thing is to say what the early Muslims said: we believe in these matters, and we pass them on as they have come to us, but we know that “there is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” as the Qur’an says (42:11). The Shaykh then approvingly quoted Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Futuhat because of its succinct eloquence in highlighting how the Ash’aris, like the Mu’taliza, make distinctions in this regard without proof, whereas the safest course is simply to negate God’s similarity to creation and leave off everything else which is just human language. Nevertheless, the Shaykh underlined that the Ash’aris are Sunni, and that their method is one of sincerity; however, he preferred the safer and earlier course of leaving aside this whole dispute.
In other words, as in keeping with the Shaykh’s general method, he is trying to take people from any speculation so that they can concentrate on the certain, as was the method of the most glorious of generations. This is especially so, he said, when one considers that this is now a time when there are no Mu’tazila, so these outdated arguments are no longer generally needed due to their irrelevance. I would say that the idea of rigidly holding to outdated intellectual methods in general is one of the most damning criticisms levelled by Shaykh Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi at the scholars of late Islamic history, as can be seen in his Islam and the World and Western Civilization, Islam and Muslims.
This leads us onto the third preliminary: the sources of knowledge. It was argued that the basic sources of knowledge are the senses, and then the narration of a trustworthy source for any matters beyond our comprehension. He emphasised the fact that the intellect (‘aql) is not a source of knowledge, but simply a processor of information fed into it, very much like a computer. For me this relates pertinently to all these disputes, because people are led into this minefield of theological wrangling because they want to rationally understand almost every reality, even when they do not have the ability to comprehend it. The freedom bequeathed by relinquishing the need to satisfy this appetite is that one is able to then turn one’s attention to uluhiyya and one’s deficiencies in that respect. Such a method is in keeping with the spirit of the early Muslims. We should, I say, be on guard against the spirit of human over-confidence in which we seek – in utter delusion – to rationally understand every Divine Truth, whether theological or indeed legal.
Shaykh Akram stated that over 99% of Muslims, past and present, did not have `aqida, i.e. some elaborate detailed formulation of tenets of faith. They simply had the basics of faith, such as faith in God, His Messengers, His angels, His books, the Last Day, Heaven and Hell. The Shaykh mentioned how general people did not and do not call themselves Ash’aris or Maturidis. Instead it was mentioned that `aqida in this formal sense was not what the early Muslims had, and that it was only developed for people with doubts. Nonetheless, the Shaykh emphasised that while `aqida is not for general people, it should be mastered by a group of scholars so that they can defend the faith against troublemakers who sow doubts in the minds of some.
When one reads Nawawi in his introduction to al-Majmu’, and his argument that normal believers and even most people of knowledge should refrain from complex theological discussions, then one wonders with how much dismay would he view the minority in the West who try to elaborately articulate and prove their own case to a an audience that is largely Arabic-less and unacquainted and unprepared for these complex controversies? Furthermore, such words of caution make one realise the good sense propounded by Shaykh Akram, and that it is really something that has been adhered to through the ages by wise heads, i.e. these discussions are for a select group of academic theologians or scholars, and not for mass consumption as a foundational ‘tradition’ or ‘manhaj’ (method).
On the Tahawiyya
The Shaykh’s teaching of the Tahawiyya reflects his khair quruni approach at every instance. Moreover, it was illuminating to see how the story of theological works, even the Tahawiyya, bear the marks of history, and how theological terminology was to develop over the centuries in response to the doubts and arguments of certain elements in society. From the text itself, it was noted by the teacher how when Tahawi mentions that ‘He is the Eternal without a beginning,’ the author used the word qadim to express ‘Eternal’; and qadim is not a word from the original texts, but is a word brought forward by the philosophers; and God uses the name al-Awwal, or The First, as one of His beautiful names. Again, in this example, the Shaykh expressed his preference for Qur’anic wordings, as opposed to later nomenclature.
Moreover, the historical context of terminology was highlighted in relation to the definition of faith. Tahawi notes: “Belief consists of affirmation by the tongue and acceptance by the heart.” Here it should be remembered that Tahawi is simply recording the ‘school of the jurists’ from Kufa such as Abu Hanifa, Abu Yusuf and Shaybani. This time was one where the definition of faith without adding the condition of action was appropriate. However, by the time of Bukhari, people had become lazy with sin due to this original definition, so the condition of action was added in order to correct the people.
This method of attempting to correct the people through clever devices of language was used as an example to defend Hasan Basri against the charge that he belonged to the sects with deviant views on destiny. The Shaykh mentioned that Hasan Basri was a reformer of society, hence his use of language was to always bring people to a medium after they had gone to excess; therefore some take such admonitions too literally, and are led to imaging that the reformer was adhering to some heterodoxy.
Another feature of his teaching is to present his position, with its basis, but without resorting to concluding the disbelief or deviance of those Sunni groups that he has disagreed with. This is another vital characteristic of the Shaykh that sets him apart from modern polemicists of various hue who want to prove that really they are the real People of the Sunnah, and that their arch opponents are innovators, if not disbelievers; or they are willing to load up the kufr, or disbelief, gun, but not lay claim to the consequences of pulling the trigger. In this regard, the Shaykh really embodied the Tahawiyya text: ‘We call the people of our qiblah [direction of worship towards Makkah] Muslims and believers as long as they acknowledge what the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) brought, and accept as true everything that he said and told us about.’ The Shaykh’s method is all about proof, as is the case of any scholar, rather than just some group affiliation, or ill-defined/rigged attempts at a numbers game (“so many on this side, and so many on the other: so the winner by majority decision is…us!”) Thus a belief or an accusation of disbelief or major deviance is one that requires the most confirmed of proofs – a fact perhaps lost on many who have set their little band of men up as the sole upholders of orthodoxy and heritage.
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Sulayman Kazi made a good point at the beginning of the course, and that was that people who want to learn what the Shaykh’s theological positions are should come and study with him, and that he should not be the subject of ‘hearsay’ – largely inadmissible in legal cases, as Sulayman the lawyer pointed out – on the internet by the participants in the course. This sound advice for direct study is all the more valuable when one reflects on the Shaykh’s standing as one of the few expert scholars who can effectively communicate in English, masha’Allah. In our age where we are encouraged to leap to half-baked conclusions by the culture of our modern universities, he is a reminder that scholarly excellence is still a gift from the East and from those who have studied well and graduated from the best Eastern institutions and scholars. It is such matured scholarship that we so need in the West.
Yet this weekend course is not about another group, complete with some more blind-followers who slavishly mouth their own individual slogans; but, rather, it means having scholars like Shaykh Akram who don’t come with their excellence as a stick in which to browbeat you to accept their every word. Instead, they come to raise you up, build you, and encourage you to keep your mind open on the path of knowledge – as the Shaykh explicitly said when he discussed the etiquette of study, and how one should makes one’s teachers prove their points. This is a contrast with the groups who want you to submit, stop questioning, and become clones that regurgitate, word for word, according to the specified order of learning and thinking. Of course, the ability to question depends on one’s state of learning, but it means exertion, sound principles, sincerity and a discerning intelligence – and to God we seek help. We pray that this articulation of the post-`aqidah age – what is hopefully a verbal relief for the silent majority whose silence has indicated their utter contempt for the detailed disputes of certain factions – will lead to a revival of Islamic piety that bears the hallmarks of the best of generations: a mighty wealth of good deeds that illuminate future people, as opposed to an abundance of words that only sow debilitating discord for the present and posterity. To God we turn in seeking help and forgiveness of our faults, and He knows best.