The Sharing Group Discussion: Did the Prophets Want Us to Imitate Them?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Brother Tim posted this on the 17th July, 2015, on The Sharing Group: “Why do so many Muslims seek to imitate the prophets when prophets tried to teach people not to imitate?  Granted, imitation is a form of learning for the young but aping as an adult must be the lowest form of religion.”

Sister Mrs-Munjlee Cawley: I believe it is less ‘imitation’ and more emulation in order to follow in the footsteps of the best examples for us to follow.

Brother Tim: Did the prophets seek emulation?

Sister Mrs-Munjlee Cawley: It is also said that imitation is the highest form of praise so it is seen as honouring the examples of the prophets to emulate them and praise them.

Brother Tim: Did the prophets seek emulation?  Similarly, I could never really understand a God that needed to be worshiped, but that is another question.  Yes, I am particularly concerned with the way religion and religious leaders can infantilise people, insisting that followers imitate or emulate makes us more prone to spiritual abuse.

Brother Paul Salahuddin Armstrong: I have noticed many are scared of causing controversy too, even when they have very good reason to question and challenge the status quo.   Of course, we should not be seeking to cause controversy for controversy's sake, but where there is genuine reason, we should not be scared to stand up and be counted for what we believe to be right.  It strikes me that the prophets were all very controversial people in their times.

Brother Tim: I can understand it from born Muslims who have been indoctrinated by an authoritarian religion from birth, but so many converts seem to be lacking in any critical or creative faculties too.  I agree, Brother Paul, prophets were contrarian and often shocked people out of their infantile trances.

Sister Hadeil EM: I think the topic here lays the premise about the nature of human as an imitating organism, whether we like to acknowledge or not, our conditioning already dictates this already built in mechanism of being driven to behave in certain ways elicited by our subconscious need for praise and avoidance of punishment.  Through time, our personalities are constructed by our environment to encourage the formation of, or the illusion of, permanent selves.  As the growing child becomes an adult, the automatic assumption is that imitation in its overt form should be avoided for the simple lack of awareness that we are already imitating.  Our frustration with this imitation that we subtly are aware of makes us retaliate against any overt forms of imitation.  And yet to consciously imitate is probably the solution to our imitation problem not because we imitate blindly, but because we refuse worldly imitations, trends and conditioning, which are social mechanism designed to make humans believe that they do not have choice all along.

Sister Fatima Ali Elsanousi: People would generally say that the Prophet (s.a.w.) is the perfect example.  However, I believe we should try to put his actions into concepts, then implement these concepts in a way that suits our time, location and culture.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: The Qur’an States thus:

Ye have indeed, in the Messenger of Allah, a beautiful pattern (of conduct) for anyone whose hope is in Allah and the Final Day, and who engages much in the praise of Allah. (Surah al-Ahzab:21)

The nature of this verse is implicit that we are to imitate the prophetic intent to seek perfection in religion, and to imitate his adab and manners to annihilate the ego.  It is a foundation of the religion to imitate the Prophet (s.a.w.).  From where did you arrive at the conclusion that the prophets told us to not imitate them, brother?

Brother Tim: We do not imitate examples but learn what excellence they are modelling to improve our own practice.  This is a conscious learning process, whereas imitation is more like copying without understanding.  It would be called cheating in a mathematics exam.  So the questions are what specifically is being exemplified and how can that be realised?

Sister Fatima Ali Elsanousi: Brother Terence, the prophet gave different advice to his companions depending on their strengths and weaknesses, so he did not advice all to do exactly like him and work for da’wah.  An extreme example for imitation could be like some villages in Saudi that only ride camels and prohibit cars because they want to imitate the Prophet (s.a.w.).  So I think blind imitation might sometimes lead to challenging realities!

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Everything we do must have some basis within the Qur’an and the sunnah.  Where does it say that we should not imitate the prophets?  Because if you are saying that it is wrong, there has to be a basis somewhere, brother.

Brother Tim: Jesus (a.s.) said, “Follow me.” but he also said, “but when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do.' The Lord's Prayer was presented as a model, an epitome, but can also be subject to imitation without understanding and realising its essence.  Interestingly the ayat you quoted does not refer to imitation at all but only an ‘example’ in respect of two aspects: looking unto Allah (s.w.t.) and Last Day; and remembrance of Allah (s.w.t.).  How is that a prescription to imitate in all respects?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: The Arabic is clear, brother.  I only gave the translation.  The entire concept of the sunnah is about ‘imitating’ the Prophet (s.a.w.).  That is an ijma’ and the very basis of why we have the sunnah and the ahadits.  The Qur'an is replete with verses that tell us exactly that.  The contention is on the nature of this imitation, this taqlid, so to speak.  There are several levels of it, from the apparent in the form of prying as we see him pray to taking our wudhu’ as he did; to the nature of the Prophetic intent where it is less about dressing as he dressed, for example, to understanding the deeper reality of the sunnah.

Using the verses from the Bible cannot be seen as an equivalent example because the Bible was compiled centuries after the fact.  The canonical gospels of Western Christianity were compiled between 90 to 110 years after the time of Jesus (a.s.).  The underlying circumstances are very different.

So, going back to Islam, what you are saying is contrary to the accepted principles of the religion.  As such, there has to be a scriptural basis.

Brother Tim: Micah did not say comb your hair like me or put your right foot forward first but:

Micah 6:8
8 Nay, son of Adam, what need to ask?  Best of all it is, and this above all the Lord Demands of thee, right thou shouldst do, and ruth love, and carry thyself humbly in the Presence of thy God.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Again, brother, we are talking about Islam.  A book of disputed authorship from the Nevi’im of the Old Testament cannot be considered an equivalent.

Brother Tim: You are taking about your definition of Islam, fundamentalist and authoritarian, which produces religious leaders demanding obedience as you are implicitly doing here.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: No, I am simply stating that organised religion by its very nature requires a basis in scripture.  We can entertain a variety of ideas and theories and these expand our understanding, but we must also be intellectually honest and find some basis in scripture.  When we move away from scripture, we have moved away from religion.  There is nothing wrong with fundamentalism.  I understand that word to mean that one is certain and has acquired mastery of the fundamentals of something.  In this case, it is scripture.  We must hold ourselves to the highest standards possible.

Brother Tim: Why scripture?  I had my fill of bibliolatry amongst Christians.  Revelation, leaders, reason and experience, all these are given, but none of them are sufficient sources of authority in isolation.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: The entire basis of Islam is the Qur’an.  Can anyone argue with that?  If you think otherwise, then we can agree to disagree and I have nothing more to say on this thread.

Brother Tim: You are arguing for it now using reason so you have demonstrated it is not sufficient.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: You have avoided the question here, brother.  What you have said essentially voids the concept of the sunnah.  What is the scriptural basis of that?

Brother Tim: No, I am saying that the concept of sunnah begs the question.

Sister Fatima Ali Elsanousi: The verse from Surah al-Ahzab:21 is part of the context of a battle.  The battle’s story starts at verse 9 and ends at verse 28.  I am not an expert, but usually I think just taking one verse out of a story might not give the complete understanding?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Sister Fatima Ali Elsanousi, what I am saying is the accepted orthodox position.  There is more than enough literature on the subject that I do not actually need to provide a dalil that can easily be Googled.  There are entire books on the concept of sunnah.  The verse in question has a tafsir that supports my contention.  Thus, I am not the one that needs to provide a dalil here.  But when a position is gharib, a dalil is required.

What I think we should consider, Brother Tim, is that Muslims in general misunderstand the concept of the sunnah and have relegated it to mere imitation of the externalities in the form of dress and behaviour, without meditating on the inner inherent wisdom that is the basis of it.  That would be how I am trying to understand what you say.

I agree with you on many things.  I detest the idea of an authoritarian universal interpretation without the consideration that underlying circumstances might require a different understanding and application.  I agree that people are imitative of the action without considering the intent, thus engendering the likelihood of actually acting contrary to the prophetic intent.  I agree that certain authorities have usurped the interpretation of scripture and the prophetic intent and consigned it to an act predicated on a mythical history and society.

Brother Tim: The entire basis of Islam is in God surely.  To equate the mediation of the Qur’an with God via somebody else’s reason, experience and leadership is usually called shirk, is it not?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Not necessarily, brother.  That would depend on the intent of the equation.  Were it solely upon that, then any understanding through taqlid would be shirk and that would not make sense.

Sister Fatima Ali Elsanousi: As we all know, the sunnah was written 200 years after Revelation.  Also, the Prophet (s.a.w.) prohibited his companions to write about him.  Taking these two facts into consideration, while most Muslims will not agree, I personally find putting Qur’an and sunnah on the same level of holiness really dangerous.  But of course, Allah (s.w.t.) Knows best.

Brother Tim: I am just wary of any kind of fundamentalism whether that is based exclusively on scriptural Revelation, traditions of leadership, theoretical reason or subjective experience.  An overemphasis on taqlid has massively distorted Islam, as Dr. William Chittick argues, at the expense of tahqiq, realisation.  Whatever the prophets said about imitation or emulation they would have produced an infantile nation of slaves doing the bidding of religious authorities like trained animals if they had not taught the conscious realisation of 'spiritual' realities too.  But wait, is that not precisely what ‘Islam’ has become?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Sister Fatima Ali Elsanousi, I do not who the ‘we’ who know that the ‘sunnah was written 200 years after Revelation’ but it cannot be the ‘ulama.  Abu Hurayrah (r.a.) and ibn ‘Umar (r.a.) wrote down ahadits of the Prophet (s.a.w.) in collections knowns as Swahifah and named after them respectively.  The Muwaththa’ of Imam Malik (r.a.) was from the time of the tabi’in.  There were already extent copies of the sunnah from the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.).  Where did this arbitrary number of years come from?  As to the hadits that the Prophet (s.a.w.) forbade the writing of ahadits, it is conditional and the explanation is found in the sharh of the hadits.  It was never a blanket prohibition.

Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad gives an excellent explanation of this need and development of taqlid: A Muslim Convert Once More: Understanding the Four MadzahibTaqlid is necessary because the majority of the ummah do not have the necessary tools for unfettered ijtihad.  Reason alone without knowledge of the sciences of religion is insufficient.  And knowledge of the religion without the capacity to reason is equally useless.

Brother Tim: I had a brief conversation with Shaykh Abdal Hakim recently in which he clearly wanted to steer me away from Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) towards Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.).  Of course he would want to promote the form of religious leadership he has espoused and sought to emulate himself.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Most people do not have the foundational sciences to read the works of Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.).  We had a thread here about a poem found on the tomb of two ‘ulama and already there was a ruckus.  Imagine if people thought they understood Shaykh al-Akbar and came up with controversial ideas.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: But even if Shaykh Abdal Hakim did want to promote that form of leadership, are his views on the subject contrary to Islam and incorrect?

Brother Tim: I am not questioning Shaykh Abdal Hakim’s orthodoxy.  I am, however, querying the overemphasis on taqlid which seems to have dumbed millions of Muslims down around the world and created a conformist collective Borg mentality.  It leads to mass cloning rather than intelligent learning for the masses whilst an elite group of scholars has a vested interest in keeping them this way.  The masses are now on the rise seeking to eliminate or assimilate all opposition, and your tautological solution is to say it is sunnah to imitate?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I believe you over-estimate the intellect of the average Muslim.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: The lacking in the world today is a lacking of love for humanity.  Ironically, humanism in its reducing everything to below our status has disenchanted the wonder that is man.  The love that is most lacking is a male’s love for the male.  I do not mean homosexuality here but actual profound love of one man for another and loving him for his superiority; a deep fascination and compulsion to imitate and emulate another.  This is seen in a healthy relationship of young son and father.  In healthier times, this love was retained and encouraged for much longer periods until the age of puberty.  Now, the Oedipus Complex is actually encouraged early on.  Love for leadership and for father is ridiculed routinely.  The ubiquitous exposure to such a culture bypasses reason and enters, for want of a better word, subconsciously.  If love is present through imitation, it also is not rational but instinctive.  But this is where the Sufi saints are so necessary.

Brother Tim: That may be true, Brother Terence, but it is to concede my point about infantilising people.

Brother Tarek Sourani: What is the problem with religious leaders?  Many people want someone to look up to, someone who embodies something.  I say that in spite of a German-socialised background.  Not everyone can guide themselves through life.  Why do we have problems with authority?  Among other things, the rejection of authority led to the phenomenon of Wahhabism.  The ‘old’ Muslims had in their communities normally also an amir, who was responsible for ‘secular’ matters, or for the collection of Zakat as an example.  I really cannot see the problem here.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Brother Tim, people are already infantile.  There is no need to infantilise them.

Brother Tim: You cannot expect an idealist teacher to accept that.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I am a pragmatist, brother.  I am as far from an idealist as you can get.

Brother Tim: Interesting reflection to ponder, Brother Abdulkareem.

Brother Tarek, I am not rejecting leadership at all; just taking a non-foundational position that is careful to avoid prioritising revelation, leadership, reason and experience at the expense of each other.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: I am not sure it is necessarily true to say that to take a scholar’s opinion on Islam, especially when one does not have the knowledge and experience oneself, is to infantilise them.  I accept that there is a serious lacking of the basic knowledge required of all Muslims and which does, in that sense, infantilise people.  But I have my own experiences and run my household for example; but where guidance is needed, I would ask someone who knows.  I am not a doctor so require medical expertise in that area.  Not making my own medical diagnoses does not infantilise me; it is a recognition of my limits.

Brother Tarek Sourani: Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi, absolutely, as it is Said:

And before thee also, the messengers We Sent were but men, to whom We Granted inspiration: if ye realise this not, ask of those who possess the Message. (Surah an-Nahl:43)

Brother Tim: Asking an expert is a sign of intelligence unless it is an excuse for not learning.  But copying someone instead of tasting reality is anathema.

Brother Khalid Yaqub: Brother Tim, you said, “It leads to mass cloning rather than intelligent learning for the masses whilst an elite group of scholars has a vested interest in keeping them this way.”  No, it does not necessarily.  People are encouraged to think, but a lot of people are not particularly concerned with thinking through everything; it is human nature.

Secondly, it is not necessary to think through everything to lead a virtuous life - indeed, thinking every little thing through can get in the way of leading a virtuous life- this may be happening in your case, and emulation is a experiential way of learning; when one acts, then ponders, a kind of learning happens that does not happen when one ponders before acting.

Brother Tarek Sourani: Do we not ‘copy’ everything in the beginning?  When I study piano, I copy my teacher and so I copy the prayer of the beloved and it works.

Brother Tim: The original post accepts that imitation is the beginning of learning.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: The crisis, I think, is not in sunnah but in the lack of basic knowledge amongst Muslims of their religion, fardh al-‘ayn, which includes the sunnah.  So the ignorant end up asking scholars about a load of inane things; it also leaves them open to being appropriated as drones by the Wahhabi central hive mind.  The solution is partly perhaps, if you will forgive the expression, to carpet bomb the world with fardh al-‘ayn courses from an orthodox perspective, including Qur’an and sunnah.  At the same time, Wahhabism also needs to be tackled seriously by our politicians rather than sucking up for inward investment and ignoring their theology.

Brother Tim: Take the threefold differentiation of islam, iman and ihsan in the Hadits of Jibril (a.s.).  Can any of these be imitated?  Or are they matters for realisation?

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: With the best will in the world, very few ever become genuine polymaths, and so the rest of us will never achieve proficiency in a great deal of subjects, especially nowadays given the hyper specialisations predominant within academia.  This I do not think is an excuse but reality.  The days of the quintessential British generalist are, I am afraid, long gone; much as a shame it is.

Brother Tim: Forget the multiplicity of sciences which are a jobsworth for scholars.  How about islam, iman and ihsan?

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: I am not sure that one can necessarily divorce imitation from realisation.  There would seem to me to be a prerequisite of a certain level of knowledge, likely attained by imitation, before one is granted realisation, if it be His Will.  Very few however, ever even get the chance to imitate anyone worth imitating, so do not progress towards realisation.

Brother Tim: So is Brother Terence right?  That the mass of Muslims are ignorant and uneducable and just need controlling through slavish imitation?  That is a pretty pessimistic view of the plight and poverty of Islam and the people Allah (s.w.t.) Created.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: I wouldn't be that pessimistic, Brother Tim, but it is a major problem as we are not only fighting our own wilful ignorance, but also those who would mean to keep us this way.  We can turn it around but it will take a couple of generations at least, including the serious engagement of the politicians.  The revival of orthodox sunnah is also vital in this process.  But until then, the situation in Iraq now rather illustrates how a strongman is needed to keep Muslims in check.  If this strongman, or a series of benevolent ones, can successfully fight off attempts to drown an enlightenment in its infancy then there is hope.  Perhaps this plight is the means through which we will rise again from the ashes.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: The Prophet (s.a.w.) is an example to imitate; not necessarily the clothes and the miswak, but his behaviour, his morals, his ethics, his generosity and compassion, and on and on to include all the highest virtues available to us.  Also the Qur’an he brought is inimitable.  Love of the Prophet (s.a.w.) is love of Allah (s.w.t.).  Imitating the Prophet (s.a.w.) in his virtues is the path to Allah (s.w.t.).

Brother Tim: Now we are getting somewhere.  But none of the above can simply be imitated, Brother Hajj Ahmad.  They depend not on mimicking externally observable behaviour or aping physical attributes, nor the mastery of sciences, but on a great deal of caring, critical and creative thinking if they are to be internalised and realised authentically for oneself.  From an educational point of view, this is not just about training habits but about cultivating dispositions and evokes the higher aspects of one’s soul, not just the conformity and curtailment of the lower.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: Absolutely, Brother Tim, but we cannot ape caring, compassion, generosity, and so forth and even if we do, the Prophet (s.a.w.) once said if you cannot initially feel the inward impetus, at least imitate, and in so doing the action, if it becomes habitual, will eventually become transformative.  This is why we do imitate the Prophet (s.a.w.).

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: There as to be a certain level of knowledge and understanding.  Without a foundation, and without a scriptural basis, people must be imitative in faith and practice.  We live in an age where people will insist that their doctor be qualified, their teachers be accredited, their mechanic has good reviews.  But on the subject of the soul, everyone is now an expert.  They decry those who imitate as lesser Muslims, seeking the leadership of mindless innovation in thought, in understanding and in interpretation.  That is actually the imitation of Satan.  Taqlid is the foundation of the ummah.  And in that, there are two types.  There is the taqlid of those who follow the pious predecessors, content in that.  And there are those who follow and delve deeper into the reasons why they are muqallidin.  That is the limited ijtihad that is actually encouraged since it is the path of knowledge.

We must follow the Prophet (s.a.w.) since it is a sign of love.  And love is directly linked to faith.  One cannot have faith without loving what God Loves to the exclusion of what of we desire.  That is the entire basis of our ‘ibadah.  The whole idea that the religion should be decoupled from the imitation of the Prophet (s.a.w.), not prophets as stated in the original question, actually jeopardises the second portion of the shahadah.

Brother Tim: On balance, I believe Muslims need to do a little more learning and thinking and a little less posturing and pretending.  I am not content to simply follow pious predecessors as it is their impious successors who are compelling me to.  Perhaps we can agree that imitation without realisation is a problem and there is a paradox in the fact of prophets and saints pointing away from themselves to God rather than seeking emulation as the example to follow.  Prophets were not as self-assertive nor authoritarian as much of the ‘ulama is on their behalf.  And the shahadah is a case in point: whether it is a formula to be mechanically reiterated or a mantra to a deeper life of witness.  A realisation of human being not the imitation of human doing.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: There is no doubt that what you say is true.

Brother Tim: Some folk are worth emulating obviously, after due consideration.  Concerning the politics of learning, imitation is still being linked to the subjugation of Muslims in several of the voices in this thread.  Power corrupts and prophets had influence without political power until the Medina project and look what happened within a generation.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: The religious and moral authority of the prophets were a political tool too, just not the deeply corrupt one that the word has become synonymous with.  It was when this moral authority was lost that the problems started.  In a way, this was inevitable, but we have yet to learn and internalise how to manage the craziness since.

Brother Tim: The prophetic tradition in ancient Israel was deeply anti-political and arguably Jesus (a.s.) was too, above and outside politics, holding political leaders to account.  Once the prophetic consciousness is domesticated to an intramundane world, it ceases to be prophetic.

Sister Anjum Anwar: You imitate those you love.

Brother Tim: Do we?  That seems like a pious platitude to me.  Do we not love what completes us, is distinctive but complimentary, is attractive or beautiful?  I do not imitate my wife or children yet I love them.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: I do not claim to understand Christianity very well, but on the face of it, chasing the money lenders out of the temple would seem a hugely significant political statement.

Brother Tim: Yes, but only by virtue of being anti-political; challenging the pretensions and deviations of religious authorities.  The prophets called the priesthood and monarchy to account to renew their respective spiritual vocations before God.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: But that would be political; to challenge and resist what has become of what was meant to be.  Pope Francis is doing similar at the Vatican.  Today's attempts to defeat the Wahhabi heresy, for example, are also profoundly political, albeit for God rather than for personal power I hope.  I do not see how politics can be removed from this arena.

Brother Tim: The issue is the conflation of prophethood and political governance in Islam, the caliphate.  Throughout Jewish and then Christian history, the attempt to join the two in the form of Caesaropapism was always challenged by a continuing ‘prophetic’ tradition that posed a spiritual opposition to the abuse of power.  I accept that it is arguable that shari’ah carried out this prophetic function to keep rulers in check in Islam.

Brother Ijaz Linor Ahmad: Perhaps we could refer to this: What Does “You Have a Good Example in the Prophet” Mean?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: There is merit in imitating the mannerisms, the dress and the actions of the Prophet (s.a.w.).  That is the external sunnah.  The issue is on the intent of imitating the Prophet (s.a.w.).  If one imitates the Prophet (s.a.w.) for the purposes of religiosity, then it is nifaq and hidden shirk.  And if one does so out of love, he is a mu’min since he has annihilated his ego.

As reiterated above, the idea that we should not imitate the Prophet (s.a.w.) is contrary to the religion.  Personally, I would say it is a ridiculous idea that ignores everything we understand about Islam and Revelation.  It also ignores the nature of people.  We imitate.  There is no shame in that.  The baby imitates the adults around it.  The student imitates the teacher.  People imitate their idols, their role models, their heroes.  There is no such thing as not imitating.  We are Muslims.  Compared to the status of the Prophet (s.a.w.), we are always children.  Compared to him, we are always learning.  And to the believer, he is our hero, our role model.  And that is a Clear Command from the Qur’an.

I am also unimpressed with this tirade against some imaginary priesthood in Islam.  In all cases that I have encountered it, it is an excuse for people to do what they want and ignore scholarship, ignore the inconvenient requirements of religion and the portions of scripture that offends their sense of self.  We have issues with scholarship.  And that is petty scholarship, pseudo-scholarship and people who want to be authorities in religion but do not want to take the effort to acquire the tools required for it.  We have issues with people who misinterpret fatawa, or who import rulings from another age without considering the change in the underlying factors pertinent to these fatawa, or people who think they are somehow qualified to directly form opinions on rulings based on translation of verses of the Qur’an or some narration they pulled from somewhere.  We have no tyranny of scholars.  We have a tyranny of the ignorant.

Sister Sabine: Brother Hamayoon, you said, “But I have my own experiences and run my household for example; but where guidance is needed, I would ask someone who knows.”  I am not a doctor so require medical expertise in that area.  Not making my own medical diagnoses does not infantilise me; it is a recognition of my limits.”  Same here.  But when I see a doctor about a particular issue, I do not take his advice, or the medicine or procedure he wants to prescribe, without questioning.  I might have a different opinion or prefer a different approach.  I will do my own research, ask a number of other experts and in some cases act contrary to what the medical expert – or a number of them – suggest.

I have rejected the advice of medical experts a number of times.  And I am very picky and critical when it comes to doctors.  If he or she does not take the time to explain things to me, does not mention different opinions, or sees himself as an authority, I should simply follow instead of a medical adviser who should enable me to make an educated decision, I am not likely to go back there.

Of course, that does not mean I believe my knowledge in medicine is superior to that of doctors.  But I know that there are different approaches to medical issues.  I know that often there is more than just one – or the most common – solution.  I know that even doctors sometimes say things that I know not to be true.  Or they might lack knowledge in a particular area.  And, at the end of the day, it is my body and my health, so I reserve the right to make decisions that affect it.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I agree with you, Sister Sabine.  I believe the contention though is that we should not discard doctors in their entirety.

Sister Mahshid Turner: We are all mirrors for Manifestation of God’s Names.  If we see someone manifesting, for example, God’s Name of Justice, or Shafiqat, Kindness, then there is nothing wrong with imitating those attributes.

Brother Tim: Now that's a much more interesting line of enquiry, Sister Mahshid.  If the prophets exemplify Attributes of the Divine, then imitation may be an appropriate mode of learning, though I would still advocate that this is a conscious process of realisation rather than mere infantile mimicry.  If the purpose of prophets is to be living signs and exemplars, reflecting the Divine in themselves, they call us to emulate the Signs of the Divine Manifested within them and on the horizons.  But this is a rather different order of taqlid than deciding how to walk or shave, and is inextricably bound up with tahqiq.

Sister Mahshid Turner: Yes, definitely.  Blind imitation means doing things without tahqiq.  Sometimes, things appear good to us when in fact they are not.  This is why we need the criteria of the Qur’an in order to judge between right and wrong.  We also need to consider that sometimes we can understand God’s Attributes by its opposites, for example, without manifestation of oppression we would not be able to understand the concept of kindness.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: I could ask questions, Sister Sabine, and I do, but ultimately as a non-doctor, none of that matters as I am not qualified to make a decision on something that I just would not understand.  My only real decision to make is whether I feel the doctor is competent.

Imam Ramadhan al-Buwthi (q.s.) had a debate with Naswir ad-Din al-Albani, the Wahhabi, and this issue came up.  The former asked the latter if a father advised by a doctor to take one course of action refused in favour of another treatment he had read about, and the child subsequently died as a result, would the father be responsible for the death before Allah (s.w.t.)?  The latter argued no, which the former considered so bizarre so as to end the discussion right there.

Brother Paul Salahuddin Armstrong: Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi, fair enough.  I am certainly no fan of al-Albani, but I do not think this is a good comparison.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: This is the transcript of that conversation between Imam Muhammad Sa’id Ramadhan al-Buwthi (q.s.) and Naswir al-Din al-Albani: A Muslim Convert Once More: Why Does One Have to Follow a Madzhab.

Brother Dawud Marsh: Brother Tim, do you have any evidence for your assumption that the prophets tried to teach people not to imitate them?  I am not convinced by your statements.  Islam is layered and multifaceted and to amputate one aspect of Islam from its interconnected parts belittles what is a complete religion.  Yes, I would say that there are Muslims who have yet to delve deeper into the religion to gain further and fuller understanding of all of its many layers, but to say ‘many’ without hard evidence falls into the same trap others do when they label us as extremists, with only on source to base that view on.  I have a far better view of my fellow Muslims and believe that everyone I have personally met are struggling with their own faith given the world in which we live.  To do this, they study Qur’an, follow the sunnah and study ahadits and the life of the Prophet (s.a.w.) from earliest sources to better able themselves to be closer to Allah (s.w.t.) through emulating the Prophet (s.a.w.).  That is my personal experience and I am not qualified to make any other statement.  Interesting thread though. It has given me food for thought about myself and how best I can live my life and about my understanding of Islam and the sunnah.  Thanks for posting.

Sister Sabine: Brother Hamayoon, you said, “I could ask questions, Sister Sabine, and I do, but ultimately as a non-doctor, none of that matters as I am not qualified to make a decision on something that I just would not understand.  My only real decision to make is whether I feel the doctor is competent.”  What do you do if you get two opposing opinions from two doctors you feel are both competent?

Brother Tim: Brother Dawud, my evidence is that if prophets wanted us to imitate them we would all be prophets or failed prophets and that would be absurd.  Or would it?

Brother Dawud Marsh: That is not evidence, Brother Tim; that is your opinion.

Brother Tim: It is logic, not opinion.

Brother Dawud Marsh: I disagree.  On Friday, I believed that if East London celebrated ‘Iyd on Friday then surely, logically the vast majority of the country also celebrated ‘Iyd on Friday.  But, when I did research, I actually found that large areas of UK were celebrating ‘Iyd on Saturday and some even today.  My logic was based on an assumption from my own, limited experience - what I saw happening locally.  I was wrong and realised this once I did my research.  I have limited knowledge and understanding and pray for guidance and ask forgiveness if I say anything to offend, that is not my intention but to learn from those who know, insha’Allah.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: The logic does not follow, Brother Tim.  It is clear in the Qur’an that we are supposed to imitate the Prophet (s.a.w.).  If you can produce something from the Qur'an to the contrary, I would certainly be interested.  Otherwise, it is truly an opinion, not logic.  Imitating the Prophet (s.a.w.) does not mean we become prophets since the underlying assumption then would that prophethood is a worldly status that is achievable.  The religion is not predicated on the collection of goods, abilities and titles.  It is predicated on the struggle.  On the basis of tawhid al-af’al, actions Belong to Him, and by that, Reward is also His.  As such, it is He Alone Who Appoints prophets.  It is a materialistic assumption to think that we must aspire to a station for the title.  Rather, we aspire to it for the experience and lessons of that journey.  That is the process of spirituality.

Brother Tim: The logic of sunnah and taqlid pushed to its extreme is that we imitate the Prophet (s.a.w.) in becoming prophets is it not?   But actually, that is only absurd to Muslim ears who are being taught by scholars to dumb down and be subservient to those who know better.

Brother Dawud, you have confessed your limited knowledge which is good but that does not mean you have to be dependent on scholars.  They are guides only.  Earlier, I said that Revelation, guides, reason and experience are all important criteria, sources of authority, but I declined to privilege any one of those.

Brother Dawud Marsh: Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis, says it how I never could.  That is what I was trying to ask, Brother Tim: where is your evidence?  And please try not to assume where I gather my knowledge from.  I disagree with your assumption that scholars dumb down knowledge for us mere regular people.  That could be interpreted as an insult.

Brother Tim: There have been Muslims, as also Christians, who kept the prophetic spirit alive but were persecuted for it by those with a politically vested interest in control.  Orthodoxy is never innocent.

Brother Dawud Marsh: I think this thread needs some serious evidence to take it forward otherwise it will go round and round covering the same ground.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: No, Brother Tim, the logic of the sunnah is actually about the annihilation of the self, fana’.  In the doctrine of rabithah, one is annihilated with the Prophet (s.a.w.), and thus with Divine Will.  The reason for this is because true knowledge in Islam is about dzawq, taste.  To put it in a way that can be understood, if you know a friend who has never even seen honey, you may describe it in all sorts of ways and yet, even with the use of every language known, we would still be inadequate.  How do we describe ‘sweet’?  How do we describe ‘faith’?  These are mere terms that have no reality beyond any conceived conception of the mind.  But one dollop of honey in the palate, and all knowledge is inherent.

The only person who has that dzawq, taste, is the Prophet (s.a.w.).  He is the key to the deepest understanding of the reality of the religion in all its forms.  That is what we aspire to.  What others my see as blind imitation may be another path towards that.  Since we do not know the Prophet (s.a.w.) personally, we must know those who know those who know him.  That is why there is an insistence on the chains of transmission in everything.  One then becomes annihilated in his shaykh, as his shaykh is annihilated in his shaykh, in a chain that is traced directly to the Prophet (s.a.w.).  And then those chains are compressed and one is direct with the Prophet (s.a.w.).  This is mukashafat, unveiling.

When one is annihilated with the Prophet (s.a.w.), then, he has truly submitted.  That is the meaning of this ayat:

It is not ye who slew them; it was Allah: when thou threwest (a handful of dust) it was not thy act, but Allah’s: in order that He might Test the believers by a gracious trial from Himself: for Allah is He Who Heareth and Knoweth (all things). (Surah al-Anfal:17)

This is also the meaning of the hadits where it is said that the Prophet (s.a.w.) is the Shadow of God.  The shadow does not move except when that which causes it moves.  It has no independent existence.  Nothing that the Prophet (s.a.w.) did was by his own desire.  That is clear in the Qur'an.  And that is what we imitate.

As to the contention that ‘blind’ following is wrong, the truth of the matter is that we are all blind to an extent.  The question is how blind?  It is not the following that corrupts the religion, nor the ludicrous assertion that the scholars dumb down thing that is the problem.  The real problem is when people claim to follow but they have a hidden desire or a secret agenda.  We all have that to an extent.  That is why most of the religion is about purifying the intent.  That is, trying to find absolute sincerity, true ikhlasw.  That can only be done when there is no self.

Brother Tim: My observation is that the majority of Muslims have been trained to be infantile with regards to ‘authority’ and Brother Terence has admitted that.  Have you read through the thread as we had begun to address a more grown up way in which imitation might be applicable with Sister Mahshid’s help.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: What I really meant is that the majority of people, since this is not just the disease of the Muslims, have been trained to be infantile in this thinking.  This is because education in this age is essentially indoctrination, whether religious or secular.

I believe that this is a good thread, but despite its merits, the foundations of the hypotheses need serious work.  We cannot mistake religiosity for following the prophets.  To go back to the Bible since you brought it up, Brother Tim, Jesus (a.s.) himself clearly preached against it and the hierarchy of religion, specifically in the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  This does not mean, however, that we abandon the foundations of scholarship and belittle the scholars.  This means we must re-examine everything with a new light, less tied to cultural preconceptions masquerading as Scripture and religions rulings.

Brother Tim: As I have said repeatedly, Scripture, guides, reason and experience are all necessary.  But I do not accept the assertion that education must be indoctrination in our age.  That assertion is symptomatic of the problem I am addressing.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: Sister Sabine, I will only take a second opinion if the first doctor seemed incompetent and I clearly felt that they were giving me incorrect advice; and that has never happened, al-Hamdulillah.  Also, I would be creating trouble for myself if I consulted widely but with no idea or expertise on what to do with the medical advice and information I received, other than my own ill-informed prejudices.

Brother Paul, the point is not about not questioning, but about accountability in the face of someone who would likely know better.  I can check their qualifications but I could never reasonably question their advice with anything other than my own ill-informed assumptions on the subject.  If Allah (s.w.t.) Wills, I may get lucky and it might work, but that does not mean that I would have known what I was doing.  If it goes wrong, then I will have killed someone against better qualified advice, and for this, there are eternal consequences.

Sister Sabine: Rejecting a doctor’s advice does not mean you are acting on the basis of ‘ill-informed prejudices’.  That is a really strange way to put it. I mentioned questioning and doing research earlier on, so I am talking about well-informed, not ill-informed decisions.  An example: Some time ago I was suffering from an infection of the gallbladder.  One of the gastroenterologists I saw is considered an expert in the field and is being recommended on the doctors’ lists of a number of embassies here.  He told me I had to have surgery to remove the gallbladder.  I said that I have been having gallstones ever since I was very young and never had any complications, so I did not believe one infection warranted the removal of a vital organ.  He was not even willing to discuss it with me and insisted there was no other option.  Two other doctors I saw basically told me the same thing.  I opted against surgery and later on saw a couple of doctors who completely agreed with my decision.  Was the first doctor incompetent or my decision based on ‘ill-informed assumptions on the subject’?  I do not think so.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: I don't know how long you researched and studied gastroenterology before making your call, Sister Sabine, but I suspect it was nowhere near the number of years a Western doctor has to study before being licensed to do their job.  As I said, above someone might get lucky but that does not mean that they knew what they were doing.  If you were in Egypt or another developing country the time, then medicine there, I accept, can be problem.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I believe Sister Sabine has amply shown that it is not enough to have many doctors, but rather, the right doctor.  And if one is not around, then we should trust our instincts.  It is the same with religion.

Sister Sabine: My point was that I do not need to study gastroenterology for years in order to be entitled to disagree with that doctor.  He was giving me the standard opinion without even taking a look at my status of health, past medical history, fitness, dietary and lifestyle habits.  And he was not interested in discussing alternative treatments.  He also did not tell me that removing the gallbladder, despite it being a very frequent surgery, is not always as safe and effective as doctors claim.

As I said, my evaluation of the issue was being shared by two doctors I saw later. Both of them have studied for years in the West.  So I was justified and correct in sticking to my resistance to the first expert's advice.  That does not mean he is not competent, or that I believe I am more competent than he is.  It just means we have different approaches to important issues and that I know what is best for my body and soul.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: Brother Terence, that, I completely agree with; it is the same with religious scholars, hence why I take my fatawa from one of two scholars who I trust and do not need to question.

Brother Waqar Ali: It is interesting that the arguments Brother Tim has bought forward regarding taqlid resemble those of Muhammad ‘Abduh, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and the other ‘reformers’ in Egypt.  al-Albani also made similar arguments.  I highly recommend this book: Islamic Reform and Conservatism by Dr. Indira Falk Gesink.
Brother Tim: It looks interesting, Brother Waqar.  I am just applying an educator’s ‘common sense’ to what I know of the politics of learning and abuses of authoritarian religion.  Thank you for your reflections everyone.  Actually, I do not think anyone has addressed the core issue better than Dr. William Chittick whom I alluded to earlier on the demise of the Islamic intellectual tradition which has resulted in an overemphasis on taqlid.

Brother Waqar Ali: Salafist thought is the abandonment of taqlid; where has that got us?

Brother Tim: A passage from Dr. Chittick’s ‘Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul’ gets to the nub of this: Can the Islamic Intellectual Heritage be Recovered?

Brother Waqar Ali: Dr. Indira Falk Gesink wrote in his Islamic Reform and Conservatism, “That campaign for reform stood at the centre of an intellectual battle between so-called modernists and conservatives, the effects of which reverberated throughout the Islamic world.  Both Western and Muslim scholars reproduced only the modernists’ side of the story.  In the course of the debate, the modernists depicted the Islamic legal tradition as stagnant and in need of revival.  They also altered the meaning and usage of certain legal mechanisms, leading to the development of lay legal interpretation.

The modernists originally intended lay interpretation to strengthen Muslims’ faith, but today, it has freed Sunni Muslims to draw their own conclusions from the Qur’an and ahadits rather than bowing to legal scholars’ interpretations.  It has also conventionally been accepted that conservative scholars succeeded in blocking reforms at al-Azhar, although the modernist vision of reform ultimately won over the literate public and spread around the world, inspiring Muslim revivalist movements from Indonesia to Turkey.  However, a close look at the process of al-Azhar’s reforms suggests that conservatives actually accomplished them.”

Brother Tim: Might not the obsession with countering Wahhabism be mirrored in an overemphasis on taqlid?  More on Dr. Chittick’s argument here, light years beyond a theological debate between conservatives and modernists: Al-BAB: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul.

Brother Hajj Ahmad:  It is written here, “What Chittick proposes requires enormous training and personal discipline in the development of one’s self and soul, the very instrument through which verification and understanding are gained.  But, he makes a powerful argument that this is the real Islamic tradition, and one that offers the modern world, East and West, the chance to rediscover the self as the proper basis for knowledge and creativity.”

This is not the ‘original’ real Islamic tradition.  The original Islamic tradition is purely Revelatory and was part and parcel of the Prophet’s (s.a.w.) being.  The Revelation was the Prophet (s.a.w.).  The notion that he was just a loudspeaker reciting from on High is ridiculous.  You should read ‘The Expansion of Prophetic Experience’ by Dr. Abdolkarim Soroush for an understanding of this premise.  I do not agree with all he says, by the way.  Dr. Soroush also puts forth the idea of plurality of religions and religious experience.

What Dr. Chittick puts forth according to the above review, and I like Dr. Chittick and have been in touch with him personally, is an elitist understanding, and I do not mean to use the word ‘elitist’ in an arrogant fashion; the Sufis refer to the common people, the elect and the elite of the religion of Islam.  The common man does not have the intellectual ability nor the ‘enormous training and discipline’ which is just as important if not more so than the intellectual ability.  There are a number of different ideological engagements with Islam including that which is primarily taqlid and should not be faulted for being so.  The creation is plural, and our elitist idea about what should or should not be is simply not the reality of what is.

Brother Tim: Maybe that is why I struggle with Islam in its entirety.  I genuinely never could relate to the masses and I do not mean that arrogantly.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: I could not either, Brother Tim, until I took the chip off my shoulder.  It took over three decades to come off my high horse and realise that the Prophet (s.a.w.) was there for the common man.  The other thing that so-called ‘intelligent’ people lose sight of is the element of serving others over and above intellectual pursuits or at least equal to them.  And the writer of this post, moi, is as guilty if not more so than most.  Service actually deepens spiritual consciousness.  Connected with service is community, because one cannot serve if one is not connected with a group to serve.  The Prophet (s.a.w.) is said to have said upon his death, ‘Ummati, ummati, ummati…” meaning, “My community, my community, my community…”  This is a big one for certain of us to overcome.

Brother Tim: Oh I have been there for the ‘common man’, teaching in challenging inner city schools for 25 years, but inferior teachers dumbing kids down did it for me in the end.  And I find it difficult to tolerate the same attitude amongst Muslims.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: I understand, Brother Tim.  You are now speaking about something that is very specific to your experience.  It is the proverbial ‘having a dog in the fight’.  And this comment certainly modifies mine.  I was thinking in general terms.  It is indeed unfortunate to see and experience ignorance, for lack of a more politically correct word, amongst the Muslims.  Actually, this was also the case in the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.).  That is probably why he repeated ‘my community’ over and over, because he saw what a mess they would get up to.  Upon reflection, I must admit that one needs to have a community available that is at least generous, hospitable and accepting of different views.  Otherwise, it is not much fun.

Brother Tim: Not much fun but a few, it would appear, are called to be more solitary in their journeying, the sa’ihun.  Shaykh ibn ‘Arabi (q.s.) is the only one I know who has identified this experience from the inside.

He wrote in his Futuhat al-Makkiyyah, Chapter 173: On the Inner Knowing of the Station of Wandering and Its Secrets, “God described the people of God as ‘wandering’.  Now ‘wandering’ means roaming about the earth by way of seeking spiritual insight and closeness to God, because of the essential oneness that comes from keeping company with creatures.  For you must know that the people of God have only sought out this wandering through the earth and the accompanying poverty, and the shores of the seas, because of the state that has overcome them through their keeping company with Creation.”

He further said, “That is because although socialising looks outwardly like intimacy and familiarity, inwardly it is really a feeling of loneliness and alienation - although the person who goes off seeking that wandering is unaware of that: he does not realise this inner estrangement that led him to that until after he has discovered what that wandering brings about within him.

This is because God created the fully human being – who is Adam (a.s.) and every other khalifah – in His own image.  Yet God Denied the possibility of likening anything to Him, in His Saying there is nothing like Him; and He Secreted the mystery of this Divine Reality with the human being.  So when someone turns to God and repents, his soul becomes aware of that level – I mean of the denial of any ‘likeness’.  Then when he looks at those like him among the people, he is jealous that there should be anyone like him – just as al-Haqq is Jealous that there should be anyone else attributing godhead to themselves.  And as result, he feels estranged from those people and seeks to be alone with his own essence, away from others like him, so that he is intimate with nothing but his own essence.  Therefore he flees with his self to those deserted places where he sees no one like himself, frequenting the mountains and the depths of gorges.  And this is the spiritual state of ‘spiritual wandering’.  Then this wandering begins to disclose to him what he was seeking, so that he becomes intimate with his own essence.”

And he say, “For there is no longer any pretender there laying claim to godhead.  And likewise, for this person, in the state of poverty in which he now finds himself, there is no one else there like himself to be called a human being, except for the wild animals.  For the wild animals and other species than his own are in the same relation to him as the world is to God.  This is why such a person chooses the ‘disclosing-journey’ – that is, the reality that makes manifest what we have mentioned.

And this Reality is what Shaykh Shibli (q.s.) was alluding to when he passed the night with one of his brothers and stayed up talking with him through the night.  Then Shaykh Shibli’s (q.s.) companion said to him, ‘O Shibli, stand up so we can worship together.’

And Shaykh Shibli (q.s.) replied: ‘Worship cannot be shared.’

And neither can Lordship be shared.  Thus it is as a result of that Form according to which human being was Created that the wanderer seeks to flee from other people, rather than any of the other creatures.  For not a single one of the other creatures has ever claimed godhood, except for this human species.  So it is because of this that the wanderer does not want to see his like. This is the spiritual station of this journey.  And this is the wandering of the elite among the People of God.

As for the wandering of the commonality among them, the occasion for their wandering is God’s Saying, ‘O My servants who have faith – surely My earth is vast: so let them worship Me!  So they began to reflect on what was ‘God’s Earth,’ and they concluded that it was all the unoccupied earth without any owner but God.  For that land, far from civilisation is free from encroachment.

Therefore those God-seekers said, ‘The earth in which God Ordered us to worship must have some special characteristic – and the only characteristic of this land is that there is not a soul in it, except for the Breath of the All-Compassionate!’

So when a human being worships his Lord in land like this, he finds that intimacy and companionship, and with it relief from that loneliness he felt back in civilisation!  And he finds pleasure and a blissful feeling in his heart, in his being all alone.  All of that is from the influence of that Breath of the All-Compassionate through which God ‘Breathes Out’ and Reveals of Himself these states which that person could not find among the suffering and anguish and distress of the earth that is shared.

So this is what led the common folk among the people of God to take up wandering.  Then they saw in this earth Signs and wonders and lessons which called them to reflect on what might be due to the Owner of this earth.  So God Illumined their hearts with the Lights of inspired knowing.  And He opened up for them, in their reflection on these Signs and Indications.”

He says, “Thus when they see the peak of a towering mountain they are reminded of their own  dignity and sublimity, such that they do not seek from God anything but the ‘Breaths,’ which means being alone with Him, withdrawn from their fellows so as to avoid being distracted from those Breaths.

And when they are in the depths of a gorge or in one of the canyons, that reminds them of their servanthood and humbleness beneath the omnipotent Might of their Creator’s Rule.  So they are humble by themselves, and they recognise their true extent and come to know through God’s Grace and Providential Caring – not through anything they deserve.”

Not much imitation going on here.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: Yes, Brother Tim, but first of all, we are not him.  And secondly, he says several times that the prophetic path must be adhered to and the Qur’an accepted literally at base.  Then he remarks that if one has true wahy, inspiration, it is for him alone unless it becomes yaqin, certainty, at which time he can share it with others, but this does not contravene the literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the necessity for following the sunnah of the Messenger (s.a.w.).  People tend to take pieces of Shaykh ibn al-‘Arabi (q.s.) and not the holistic essence of his teaching.

Brother Tim: He would have been murdered if he did not take care of his orthodoxy.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: I do not believe that, Brother Tim.  I believe he was not practicing taqiyyah, but actually believed what he said.  That being said, some say he was a closet Shi’ah so taqiyyah is possible.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Guidance is from Allah (s.w.t.) but guidance is through people.  Knowledge is from Allah (s.w.t.) but come through teachers.  If we became disillusioned with teachers in their entirety then knowledge would entropy rapidly.  If we becomes disillusioned with guides to success in both worlds we will harm both of them.  The Qur’an Says the successful one is he who is saved from the Fire.

Brother Tim: I welcome the Fire then; it must be for someone after all.  But what kind of person would dream up that crazy idea anyway?  It is used to scare little children into behaving who then do not grow up.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: And remember Jesus (a.s.) said so:

Matthew 18:3
3 …and said, “Believe me, unless you become like little children again, you shall not enter the kingdom of Heaven.”

Brother Tim: Precisely, little children have not been contaminated by conventional adult minds.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Maryam (a.s.) was brought up by adults who believed in conventional religion.  Children have no difficulty in comprehending the truth of Revelation.  Jesus (a.s.) would have been brought up to believe in the hereafter.

Brother Tim: Prophets are constrained by their culture?

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: No, and neither are children.  The existence of punishment in the Hereafter is commonsensical.  Obviously Allah (s.w.t.) Created the world and Rewards and Punishes.

Brother Tim: None of this is obvious unless you were brought up in an authoritarian family, society or religion that threatens children with violence in this life and eternity if they do not do what they are told.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: I was brought up as an atheist but still believed in God for a while.  Why would God Allow good and evil without Reward?  Without that, I found it difficult to retain belief in God.  But was told the idea from early on there is no Fire.  This troubled me as a child I could find no reason to do good but wanted to do good.  It seemed to me, as a child, unfair that evil doers seemed to get the best.  But society forced me to believe that was just the way it was.  For me, the only hope was we would eventually evolve into something better.  I feel the stark disbelief was imposed on me and it caused such isolation and despair as a child.  The brutality of so called atheism is a terrible infliction and cruelty upon a child.

Brother Tim: So you adopted an authoritarian religion in order to get revenge in the hereafter?

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: It makes common sense that if parent say things like “Are you are such a good boy,” or “naughty boy” that God does the same.  And when confronted with the brutality of adult behaviour, the idea that they will not be punished is too much for a child.  Children know about the horrors adult can get up too.  And then say, “Oh, nothing will happen to them,” is so unfair.  To tell a child God does not punish is one of the worst lies you can tell a child.  He will think, “Why not?”  And the answer will either be, He does not exist, or is too soft or just cruel.

Brother Tim: So God is a punitive parent?

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: We will leave the parent idea aside and ask, “Is Allah (s.w.t.) punitive?”

Brother Tim: But you have already indicated that a punitive parent is inextricably bound up in your consciousness of God.  I am worried that this is implicitly shared by the majority of Muslims and it is directly related to the authoritarian way Muslims replicate themselves by imitation from one generation to the next.  I encounter many converts with authority issues who gain security in an authoritarian religion which absolves them of responsibility if they just slavishly follow the rules.  Do what they are told like good little children.  I accept that individuals may have a particular type of personality that predisposes them towards this kind of religion but this is a matter of egos projecting themselves onto God.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: As in the other thread, I do believe that born-Muslims are in such a poor state that they need a punitive parent; it is a sad state of affairs for a people who previously achieved so much but it is where we are.  Like children, we need to be taught again right and wrong before being allowed to go forth and multiply.

Sister Sabine: I cannot believe in a God who is like a punitive parent.  Or, for that matter, any sort of father or mother figure.

Brother Tim: But Brother Hamayoon, if parenting has failed to produce better Muslims why prescribe more parenting?

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Well, I was brought up in the maelstrom of the seventies in which all morality was questioned, my parents were young and part of the rejection of all ‘man-made morality’.  There were positive aspects of that which I appreciate, but with hindsight, the anarchical rejection of received morality led personally to a crisis of identity.  The society I grew up amongst intentionally tried to deprogramme what they thought was generations of brainwashing.  But belief in God is fithrah, and to understand Him in terms of one’s parents is also natural.  If parents reward good actions, then why should God not?

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: Everyone needs parenting, Brother Tim; the problem has been the quality and relevance of the parenting in a rapidly changing world, and which needs reform, rather than a bonfire of the parents.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: By refusing to attribute any punitive Attribute to God we logical refute His Quality of Rewarding good.  Reward, then, becomes just another method of manipulation.  This is a cynical and nihilistic position.  The crisis of authority led my parents to a crisis of parenting.  This was ultimately something I had to make sense of.  I felt the evaporation of certainty and the isolation of being insignificant atoms accidentally arranged in a random universe.  I tried to make sense of human morality but was taught it was just a construct of men’s minds.  Justice, likewise, becomes an illusionary concept.  Is there a greater disaster within the human soul than the idea there is no such thing as justice?  If Allah (s.w.t.) is not punitive, then humans can do no wrong.

Brother Tim: I sympathise.  But can you not see that your version of Islam and God may be a mirror of your militant atheistic upbringing?  It must have been difficult to be brought up like that but going from one extreme to another is not the solution, I would suggest.  Islam may be the antidote but I am averse to privileging the idea of a punitive God, an authoritarian prophet and infantile followers who believe they are agents of Divine Justice.  Now that is dangerous.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: A sharp blade is dangerous but it is the most important artefact humans have ever created.  Without a blade, a pen could not be sharpened.

Brother James Harris: I think that way of thinking is familiar to many of us born in the early ‘70s, Brother Abdulkareem.

Brother Tim: I am not sure what relevance blades have in this context, other than decapitating people.  I said I was averse to privileging the idea of a punitive God, an authoritarian prophet and infantile followers who believe they are agents of Divine Justice.  I would not be entrusting a blade to such followers in a hurry.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: I have never understood God as punitive in the Qur’an; well almost never.  Fortunately my Islam from the onset was permeated with ‘irfan so that there was a deeper and more global understanding of the Qur’an.  I also never saw the Prophet (s.a.w.) as authoritarian, but as a loving and concerned, spiritual father figure.  However, I agree with Brother Tim that many of the 1.5 billion Muslims on the planet have the understanding profile that he puts forward, and I attribute this to lack of holistic teaching, particularly an Islamic teaching mostly devoid of a solid ‘irfani embrace.

Brother Tim: Does it not say in the Qur’an:

“… but My Mercy Extendeth to all things….” (Surah al-A’araf:156)


… “Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman...” (Surah al-Isra’:110)

And the hadits qudsi, “My Mercy Takes Precedence over My Wrath.”  So again, we are back to the question of the quality of imitation.  Imitating the opposite of mercy, though this too is contained in the One, leads to disdain, distortion and destruction.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: It also says something to the effect that His Punishment Destroyed all things.  Obviously that is semantics, not taken literally, but the Devil has cut himself from the Mercy of Allah (s.w.t.).  There are ‘ulama saying he will receive the Mercy of Allah (s.w.t.) again.  So there are limits.  To suggest the Devil will not be Punished is problematic; to suggest that Abu Jahl or Abu Labab will not be Punished is dangerous.  The point about the blade is that it is used to sharpen pens and to cut fabric.  It is used to shave or cut at least the hair after pilgrimage and to slaughter the sacrifice.  We cannot deny of the threat of punishment because some use it for their own ends just as we cannot prohibit blades because people use them to kill.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: That is one sided, Brother Tim.  We have to remain in the middle.  We are supposed to be ummatan wasathan, the middle nation.  For as many verses and ahadits that you can summon to prove Allah’s (s.w.t.) Mercy, there are certainly an equal number to prove that He is Shadid al-‘Iqab, Powerful in Fulfilling the Divine Reaction to oppression, injustice, disbelief and such.  The Sufi way is khawf wa raja’, fear and hope.  And the Sufi who wishes to reach his objective has an equal portion of both.  It is unwise for us to think that actions do not create equal and opposite reactions.  In fact, Allah’s (s.w.t.) Mercy is so great, that if we do a right action in His Way, the recompense is times ten and if we do wrong, the recompense its merely equal to the action.  Now that is certainly a surfeit of Mercy, but it does not deny His Attributes of Power and Destruction.

Brother Tim: I take my cue from Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi who persuasively argues for the priority and centrality of Compassion and Mercy. My Mercy Encompasses All.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: That is fine, Brother Tim.  If you noticed, I mentioned a times ten for right action and merely an opposite and equal reaction for wrong.  But to think one is out of the woods and can excuse oneself because Dr. Reza Shah-Kazemi has written a book which I have not read to be able to critique seems to imply that we do not have to really give a hoot, and we have a get out of jail free card, is a distinct lack of wisdom, furqan and mainly taqwa.

Brother Tim: I merely mentioned mercy to redress the balance of the earlier one-sided emphasis on punishment, justice and retribution.  I am not sure why you read more into my point than that.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: You rightly point out that some abuse their followers with threats of punishments in order to subdue them and make their followers subordinate but the other extreme is also the case in which gurus and pirs lavish their followers with praises and make them feel, despite all their sin, they are so close to God.  They find ways to alleviate the guilt of those who inside know they have committed great wrongs but gladly fall under the spell of the guru that they are exalted spiritual beings.  This is abuse and control just as much as those instill fear.  Fear of God and love of God are like two wings.  They have to be balanced.

Brother Hajj Ahmad: The reason why I read into it more than that, Brother Tim, is because I have, and I have seen others who have, used the get of jail free mercy card to excuse their own actions.  I did this for a good length of time, and have seen some very close friends destroy their lives in this world not to speak of the next world due to this imbalanced attribution of mercy.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: It would help us if we remember that there are Attributes of Jamal and Jalal and they balance each other.  We cannot turn to one and ignore the other when they are the same, but for perspective.

Sister Jennifer Herrick: Yes, I do not see where Jesus (a.s.) asked to be emulated but I do see where there is a call to emulate his values.  Is this not a good thing?

Brother Tim: True, Sister Jennifer, there is an at least implicit injunction in any Revelation that the rest of us must follow the ‘prophet,’ adopt their values and view of the world, ethics and cosmology, in relation to God, theology.  And that conforming to this is the key to our transformation and Salvation in this life.  But it seems to me that the literal and physical depiction of the Prophet (s.a.w.) which Muslim parents present to children is the prevailing model which the average Muslim does not grow out of.  I am suggesting that this is because of the doctrine of taqlid disconnected from tahqiq, imitation uncoupled from realisation.  The premium placed on peer pressure, obedience to authority and the fear of stepping out of line is far stronger than the need to follow and realise authentic values.

Sister Jennifer Herrick: Excellent summation, Brother Tim, of authentic following.  Big tick.

Brother Tim: True love and faith cannot be transmitted by imitation.  The reality of islam, iman and ihsan are matters of hahqiq and, contrary to the belief held by several in this thread, imitation does not lead to realisation automatically.  Children do not become adults by merely copying them, even if it's believed that infantile conformity to convention will get them into heaven or avoid hellfire as a minimum criterion.  Indoctrination is designed to bypass experience, imagination and critical thinking.  Which is why there are so many unreflective inauthentic Muslims around.  And why so many Muslims who should know better defend this level of ignorance.  The problem with much of Sufi hagiography is that it assumes the shaykh will do the realisation for you and you just have to imitate the shaykh, the same problem of infantilisation.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Are you really claiming that only Muslims are the ones indoctrinated?  Or is it Christians as well?  Who are these ones who bring their children up without any type of indoctrination?

Brother Tim: I am speaking about Islamic indoctrination, Brother Abdulkareem, because this group is about Islam.  I am not naive enough to exempt any other religion or ideology of course.  But while we are on the subject, I have met many more reflective Christians than Muslims on my admittedly limited travels.  Why should I?  My job as a teacher is to take people beyond mere imitation.  If Muslims want to keep them there then they are being anti-educational in terms of spiritual, moral and mental development.  There is a very thin line between ideological Islamism and what is sold as orthodox Islam in this respect.  For the record I am not judging ‘imitators’ but I am challenging the politics of learning that seems to be embedded in Muslim culture.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: We suffer in the West from the delusion that we are largely determined by doctrine.  Most of our actions are entrained.  Reasoning and doctrine contribute but just as most of our communication, approximately 90% is non-verbal.  So much of what we do is irrational.  Imitation is hardwired into us.  There are so many psychological studies confirming this.

Brother Tim: Then the question is what awakes us from such a trance?  Not just to accept collective delusion as a given.  More imitation is not the answer as I keep on saying.  Did you see my reference in the philosophy thread to Parmenides and the mystical calling of the western philosophical tradition: Parmenides and Empedocles by Peter Kingsley?

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Perhaps before we went into following the Prophet (s.a.w.), we should have addressed the status of the Prophet (s.a.w.).

Sister Mrs-Munjlee Cawley: My admittedly limited understanding is that we learn by example and through imitation.  My one-year-old is amazing me with how quickly and how accurately she is picking up the words and habits of those around her.  As has been said, with imitation comes the danger of infantalisation.  However, if we look at infants and children to see how they use their imitation as a springboard of learning, developing the tools to transform into unique individuals, then we can see that, we too, are in a position to learn, first through imitation, then through personalisation of what that imitation teaches us.  Therefore, the purpose of emulating one’s guides, be they our revered prophets, our teachers, our elders, our peers or even our children, is to pick up the tools through which to develop understanding and thereby be in a position to implement such conduct in a personally individual way.  You absorb the good from whoever you encounter, right?

I realise I am not explaining very well, so sorry!  For example, we learn through emulating the Prophet (s.a.w.) to be kind to others, smile give charity, speak gently and so forth.  However, those actions by themselves, just in emulating another, allow for only half the potential benefits we can gain from them.  There is merit and reward for such action and there is merit and reward from the intention to emulate these good qualities from our Beloved Prophet (s.a.w.).  However the full amount of merit and reward comes from the realisation that these are good and noble elements to make part of one’s own character and that they are amongst the tools we have access to in order to do good with ourselves and our time on earth and thereby to please God.  To learn through emulation is not to become infantalised; rather, it is to grow and develop as infant grows into adult.  Meanwhile, to limit ourselves to imitation alone serves only half its purpose, offering some benefits, but not all.

Brother Tim: I would largely agree, Sister Mrs-Munjlee Cawley, and this was implicitly accepted in the original post.  But where and when do Muslim nurturers and educators teach critical and creative thinking which is essential to moving beyond imitation?

Brother Joel Troxell: Brother Tim, I think Ustadz Mahmoud Muhammad Taha talks about it in “The Second Message of Islam”, but he did not end up so well when put in the hands of the Sudanese ‘ulama.  So there is that.

Brother Tim: I have no wish to come to a sticky end like Taha but will not stop advocating critical and creative thinking in the UK as part of common education inclusive of Muslims.

Brother James Harris: There is a long way to go before critical thinking is introduced into the Islamic studies curricula of many Islamic schools, as far as I am aware.  Although many are aware of the problem and that something needs to be done, particularly in western countries, the culture of ‘creativity is haram’ stifles most efforts to move forward.

Brother Joel Troxell: Brother James, I agree.  I wrote a letter to a person of knowledge about these kinds of issues, and his response was basically, “Yes, scholars know these are major issues that are going to have to be tackled at some point, but no one has the time and energy to take them on right now.”

Brother Tim: This is the nub of what I am getting at, Brother James.  Do you have any scope in your new school?

Brother Joel Troxell: Brother James, I honestly think most Muslims are so fiqh oriented, that they deal mostly with rulings about trivial matters and acting like cheerleaders at speaking events.  There is that section of verses in Surah al-Baqarah about Bani Isra’il asking trivial detailed questions about the kind of cow to sacrifice as evidence of their lack of belief.  Shaykh Muhammad Asad (r.a.), in his commentary said that this trait was becoming true among Muslims who ask for rulings over trivial and ridiculous matters.

Brother James Harris: As I said, Brother Tim, ‘many’ schools.  However, there are efforts being made to change this in some institutions fortunately.  As far as I am concerned, it is sink or swim.  If Islam and related subjects are taught badly to children in the West, you are essentially chasing them away from the community and culture.

Brother James Harris: I agree, Brother Joel.  However, I believe that if fiqh were to be taught properly rather than by rote, it could create a dynamic that is useful to individuals and the community.  This would require a holistic approach that incorporates it into the study of other disciplines too.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Are not these subjects in their own rights?  I mean, we could start a course “Islamic algebra” or “Islamic geometry” but that would be ridiculous, would it not?  This thread seems to be more about good teaching and poor teaching.

Brother James Harris: It is not just about teaching methods, but the deeper philosophical issue of what constitutes knowledge.

Brother Joel Troxell: Brother James, I agree about fiqh.  It needs to be a community venture, not just the work of those in an ivory tower.  In Judaism, you cannot even publicly study Torah and Midrash without ten men present, called a ‘minyan’.  Presumably, each of them would have a particular skill or area of knowledge to contribute.

Brother Abdulkareem, I think in Islam, the line between Islamic knowledge and non-religious knowledge has been a bit blurry.  From the vantage point of Islamic studies, there is this sense of what constitutes knowledge and how we know it.  I think it would be hard for anyone to engage in religious studies under one epistemological paradigm, and then switch gears into another one for something like organisational philosophy and hierarchy.  One is almost certainly going to bleed into the other.  That is why the question of epistemology in Islam is so crucial.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: I have to agree with Brother Joel Troxell on this one.  But as Brother James Harris said, there is a lot of work to be done before critical thinking is introduced into a syllabi.  The focus, even in the madaris of Singapore, is rote learning.  We do not have enough teachers who can address issues outside the box.  They themselves have never thought anything thoroughly.  Essentially, we are propagating educated fools.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: Common sense, self-esteem, confidence the ability to lead, to inspire do not necessitate Islamic versions.  We do not need to reinvent the wheel.

Brother Tim: I agree we do not need to re-invent the wheel.  But then, why are we not using the wheels at hand?  Critical and creative thinking can be learnt by anyone but those controlling authoritarian religions that depend on indoctrination do not like it.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: The purpose of fiqh taught in institution is to raise a qadhi, judge, a judge who has binding decisions.  As Islamic rule is essentially castrated, institutions are preserved to justify the status quo whilst passing seemingly banal injunctions upon disenfranchised individuals.  It is not an epistemological problem but a political one.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: We should be honest with ourselves here. The reason we see so much indoctrination as Brother Tim puts it pertains to the current inadequacy of the system and the lesser quality of the teachers.  Consider what we have to deal with in the general Muslim community?  We deal with Muslims who are taught not to think. Muslims institutions have become corrupt and politicised.  The last thing a dictator needs is a thinking populace.  If more Muslims actually thought, would we have so many Wahhabis?  Where would groups like ISIS recruit from, if not the fools?  But to reintroduce muhasabah, consideration, into our education system, we wither need new institutions, untainted from political actors with inclement agendas, or we need small circles of thinkers to gradually re-introduce these concepts.  I prefer the former to the latter.

Since we are on to critical thinking in this thread, I found an interesting article about the situation faced in the US.  It is not a Muslim phenomenon, but a human phenomenon: Why Americans Are So Ignorant: It's Not Just Fox News.

Brother Tim: No it just proves Americans and Muslims are as stupid as each other.  But there is one American with an antidote to dumbing kids down: what do you think of John Taylor Gatto’s 14 Themes of the Elite Private School Curriculum?

1. A theory of human nature as embodied in history, philosophy, theology, literature and law.

2. Skill in the active literacies: writing, public speaking.

3. Insight into the major institutional forms; courts, corporations, military, education.

4. Repeated exercises in the forms of good manners and politeness; based on the truth that politeness and civility are the foundation of all future relationships, all future alliances, and access to places that you might want to go.

5. Independent work.

6. Energetic physical sports are not a luxury, or a way to “blow off steam,” but they are absolutely the only way to confer grace on the human presence, and that that grace translates into power and money later on.  Also, sports teach you practice in handling pain, and in dealing with emergencies.

7. A complete theory of access to any place and any person.

8. Responsibility as an utterly essential part of the curriculum; always to grab responsibility when it is offered and always to deliver more than is asked for.

9. Arrival at a personal code of standards in production, behaviour and morality.

10. To have a familiarity with, and to be at ease with, the fine arts.

11. The power of accurate observation and recording. For example, sharpen the perception by being able to draw accurately.

12. The ability to deal with challenges of all sorts.

13. A habit of caution in reasoning to conclusions.

14. The constant development and testing of prior judgements: you make judgements, you discriminate value, and then you follow up and “keep an eye” on your predictions to see how far skewed, or how consistent, your predictions were.

Brother James Harris: Excellent.  Please send a reference for this, Brother Tim.  This will come in handy I think.

Brother Tim: They are taken from this video: John Taylor Gatto’s 14 Principles of an Elite Boarding School.  But he has written a number of important books too.  This approach by Guy Claxton in the UK is one I am currently working on expanding.  You can see that imitation is but one of several ‘habits of mind’ hence the reason for this post

Brother James Harris: I see.  So the purpose of your post is not just to take pot shots?

Brother Tim: Not at all.  I just do not like docile complacent people who use religion as an excuse not to think and learn.  Please forgive the relentless ‘teacher’ in me.  It is in my blood 

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: I really do not think the problem lies much with traditions of religion but rather with blind imitation and acceptance of the myths of humanism.  The myth that using humans are distinct from animals, that they are reasonable and they want freedom and equality.  The myth that the more we acquire knowledge the more we move towards our intended salvationary goal.  In short the myth of progress, of evolution.

We must live by myths but science dissolves all of them.  Modernists are okay with the ‘old tales’ being dissolved but lack the critical thought to realise that humans cannot exist without over-arching myths and fail to apply true scientific thinking to the myths of scientism.  Muslims, Americans and whoever are stupid because of not being critical of modern day myths far more than uncritical of those of the past.

Brother Tim: The problem lies with any ideology or religion seeking to replicate itself through imitation, indoctrination and propaganda without critical and creative thinking.  I am still not sure why you think religion should be exempt from this as a mythic grand-narrative?

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: The dominant narrative calls upon certain features of religion such as redemption yet situate them within the temporal materialist world view.  Critical thinking has to begin with the dominant myths that hold sway over us.  The myth that evolution for instance defies entropy and move inextricably towards perfection.  The myth that we are on the verge of discovering the solutions that previously plagued us.  When these myths become entwined in Muslims, the past becomes a place of darkness and despair.  Suffering then was through an ignorance we are on the verge of dispelling.  In an Islamic context, Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) was a future visionary whose significance was lost on those around him but we today are on the verge of finally understanding his message after all these years as we have had all this time to spiritually and mentally evolve.  This overly optimistic salvationary spirit is a myth of the moderns.

Brother Tim: Absolutely right but conventional majoritarian Islam had not reached that point of enlightenment last time I looked; because of its crude imitation of the things that do not need imitating and its neglect of those which do.

Brother Abdulkareem C Stone: What makes you think any majority will reach a point of enlightenment?  The enlightenment that we are inherently predisposed to stupidity and bloodshed is never going to be a popular idea.  Let us stop trying to escape our human condition through acquisition of some great new idea or discovery and just try to clean up the mess we make.  Feed people who are hungry, defend the oppressed these common themes that have existed for millennia.

Brother Tim: Now you are talking like a prophet.


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