Perverted Priorities

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from Perverted Priorities: Who is and Who is not Muslim by Ustadz Suheil Laher.  The author is the Muslim Chaplain at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a lecturer at Brandeis University.

“‘If you don't convert to my sect, you might as well not convert to Islam!’ exclaimed the ‘uncle’ to the young Christian lady.  The lady’s husband, a Muslim, had requested his elder friend to come and help explain to her why Islam is so important to him, and why he would like her, too, to share in its joy.  The husband was startled by this narrow-minded bombshell.  The shocking words of the ‘uncle’ highlight a lack of priorities plaguing some of those who profess themselves to be Muslim.  It is understandable for someone to feel passionately about a cause which, rightly or wrongly, they believe to be true.  I remember a rabbi relating how he went home after his first year at rabbinical seminary and began self-righteously passing judgement on and correcting what seemed to be a plethora of misdeeds and mistakes of his family.  But passionate belief, even when correct, becomes problematic if it results in a narrowed vision of reality and truth, and even more so when it leads to behaviour that turns others away from the Path to God.

The Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) was once leading prayers when he heard a man in the congregation saying, ‘O Allah, Bless Muhammad and I alone.’

After the congregational prayer was over, the Prophet (s.a.w.) remarked, chastising him, ‘You have restricted something capacious!’  This is narrated in Swahih al-Bukhari and others.

The Blessings of God, and especially the spiritual blessing of right guidance embodied in the Final Revelation, should not be confused with human constructions of group identity and boundaries.  More specifically, some Muslims are sometimes, and any frequency is too often for something this important, too quick to declare someone to be outside the fold of Islam due to imperfect practice, or disagreement on a non-core belief.  It is essential to realise that the believer's life is an ongoing journey of struggle to become a better person.  None of us, including those born and raised as Muslims, are perfect.  It is grossly unreasonable, or even evil, to deny a neophyte entry to his newly-found faith, merely because he is not living a totally sinless life.  The priority, for someone who has understood the basic message of Islam and voluntarily resolved to embrace Islam, is to help him to say the shahadatayn, the Declaration of Faith: “I bear witness that there is none worthy of worship but God, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God,” without delay.  Anything else, be it taking a bath, ghusl, for ritual purification, or giving up a personal vice, can wait.  Anything else on your own to-do list can wait too.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) once even halted his Friday sermon to respond to a man who came to ask critical questions about belief.  This is narrated in Swahih Muslim and others.

Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.), the Shafi’i jurist, wrote in his encyclopedic Majmu’ that his school’s official position is that a Muslim is sinful for telling the ready convert to go and take a bath before having him say the shahadah; indeed some Shafi’i jurists such as Imam al-Mutawalli (r.a.) and Imam al-Baghawi (r.a.) considered the one who gives such an order himself to have committed unbelief by not realising the importance and priority of the shahadah.

Similarly, the hopeful, ready to submit to God, should not be denied the shahadah merely on account of what we might consider as his or her sinful behavior, be it an attachment to alcohol or drugs, or involvement in an immoral or prohibited type of relationship.  The priority is to help them aboard the ship of Divine Grace by helping them say the shahadah; they can work on themselves in due course.

Even after the shahadah, the new convert should not be overburdened with duties and requirements.  Give them time to grow, to learn, to discover, realise and make decisions and changes from their own conviction and at a fitting pace.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) rebuked one of his companions for cursing a man who would repeatedly be found drinking alcohol, and declared that the drinker ‘loves God and His Messenger’.  Again, this is narrated in Swahih al-Bukhari and others.  And he would instruct emissaries and teachers, before sending them on their mission, with the advice, ‘Make things easy, and do not make things difficult.  Give people good news, and do not drive them away.’  This is found in Swahih Muslim and others.

It is of course necessary for an intending convert to have a general understanding of the core beliefs and practices of Islam, often called pillars: belief in God, prophets, scripture and the Hereafter, and performance of the shahadah, the prayer, fasting Ramadhan, prescribed charity and the pilgrimage.  They are not required to know all the details, as these take time to learn, and in some cases are non-essential, or are not clear cut and hence open to different interpretations.  The kernel of Islam, acknowledging the Oneness of God, that God Alone should be worshiped, and that the Qur’an is the book for human guidance Revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), is simple, despite its profundity and universality.  Edward Montet described it as, ‘A creed so precise, so stripped of all theological complexities and consequently so accessible to the ordinary understanding might be expected to possess and does indeed possess a marvelous power of winning its way into the consciences of men.’  This is found in La Propagande Chretienne et ses Adversaries Musulmans, as quoted by Sir Thomas Walker Arnold, in ‘The Preaching of Islam’.

Someone with whom this profound truth has resonated should not be denied admittance to the House of Islam, nor expelled from it after entering, merely because of their not understanding, or having difficulty accepting, a more peripheral or secondary point of belief or practice.  It pains me for an overt Muslim to be declared an unbeliever, or to be frightened away from Islam and I have seen such cases personally because of their not being convinced with the prevalent view about the place or otherwise of certain punishments and regulations in Islam, such as whether and when capital punishment is mandated for apostasy, or stoning for adultery, or the legal status of hijab.

This is not advocating complete relativism, nor denying the value and importance of Muslim scholarly endeavour and its opinions, nor saying that opposing views are always legitimate or correct.  What is pled for is tolerance; of giving the benefit of doubt, whenever possible, to other professed Muslims who seem to be misinterpreting a sacred text.  We are entitled to believe that a particular interpretation is wrong, even potentially sinful, but that does not justify excommunicating a person who holds to that interpretation, unless it involves something clear-cut and essential to Islam.  Imam ash-Shafi’i (r.a.) in al-Umm termed such core issues public knowledge, ‘ilm al-‘ammah, and examples he gave to illustrate it are: the obligation and form of the five prayers and of fasting Ramadhan, and the prohibitions of fornication, murder, theft and wine, and other such things, ‘in which error is not possible, nor is it open to interpretation or dispute.’  Imam ibn Abi al-‘Izz, in his commentary on Imam ath-Thahawi’s (r.a.) creed, discussed how a person may not be excommunicated on the basis of a shubhah, a genuine misunderstanding has reached on the basis of a sacred text.

Renowned theologian, Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Ash`ari (r.a.), who studied, debated and refuted many heterodox Muslim sects, declared on his deathbed to one of his students, ‘Bear witness that I do not judge any of the People of the Qiblah to be unbelievers.’

Imam Shams ad-Din adz-Dzahabi (r.a.), in Siyar A‘alam an-Nubala’, after quoting this account, mentions that his own personal belief is along these lines, and that he heard similar words from his teacher, Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) towards the end of his life: ‘I do not declare anyone of the ummah an unbeliever.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) said, ‘None but a believer takes care of his wudhu’.’  So, whoever adheres to the prescribed prayers in a state of purity, wudhu', is a believer.’

The problem, as one of our shuyukh remarked to us, is that today we want to be muftiyyun and judges declaring a person to be inside or outside Islam, whereas the Prophet (s.a.w.) was an inviter to God’s Way, da’iyah.  So, rather than worrying about the credal judgment on a particular person, we should be more interested in asking ourselves, ‘How can I help him understand that he is mistaken?’  Indeed, in some cases it might even be a case of, ‘How can I correct or fine-tune my own understanding of this issue?’

A believer is expected to be humble, and part of humility is acknowledging the limits of our individual knowledge: both of details of the religion, as well as of the inner workings of other people’s hearts.  If we consider ourselves a Caller to God, then we should be calling to those things that are unambiguously and centrally part of God’s Revealed religion of Islam, and not to our own sect or interpretations of Islam.  By all means, let us continue meaningful dialogue, and furthering the education of ourselves and others.  But let us realise the kernel and the priorities, so that we do not hinder or expel others who are genuinely seeking or attempting to navigate the Path to God.”


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