Muhammad ibn Isma`il al-Bukhari (d. 256H / 870CE), most famous for his Sahih al-Bukhari (the actual title of the book was longer), also compiled a number of other hadith works. One of these is a compilation of 76 narrations (mostly hadiths, ostensibly) on filial piety (birr al-walidayn).
The compilation includes four types of hadiths:
(A) many hadiths that are obviously pertinent to the subject, (B) general hadiths about maintaining ties of kinship, (C) common deeds that take on an added dimension when they involve parents, and (D) some hadiths that at first glance appear to be out of place.
A) Hadiths directly relevant to filial piety include:
That filial piety is ranked as the most important deed after on-time prayer (salah).
Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas’ story of how his mother tried to get him to renounce Islam.
That your mother is the most deserving of your good companionship, followed by your mother, followed by your father.
Disobedience to parents (normally) being a major sin.
B) Some general hadiths on the importance of ties of kinship, e.g.
Maintaining ties of kinship leads to blessings in this life.
Severing ties of kinship prevents entry to Heaven.
Ties of kinship have been given a name derived from one of God’s names, indicating their importance.
C) Common deeds that are not specifically related to parents, but could involve them, e.g.
Don’t get angry, the implication being that one should be especially careful to avoid getting angry at a parent.
Telling someone that you love them.
Being merciful to an animal, i.e. so then what about being merciful to parents?
Sin is that which troubles you internally, and you would not like for people to see it.
D) Let us now look at some of the apparently irrelevant hadiths, and see why Bukhari might have included them.
Advice to pray 2 rak`as if one enters the mosque while the imam is delivering the Jumu`ah sermon (#41). The answer probably lies in a hadith not in this compilation (‘Filial Piety’) but which is included in the Sahih: the hadith of Jurayj not heeding his mother’s call to him while he was praying, and his mother subsequently supplicating (making du`a) against him. Ibn Battal (d. 449H, who wrote a commentary on Sahih al-Bukhari) was of the view that the reason that Jurayj suffered as a result of his mother’s supplication was that at that time it was permissible to talk during prayer (i.e. he could have responded to his mother without breaking his prayer). Perhaps Imam al-Bukhari shared the same view, in which case he would be intimating that if your parent calls you while you are praying, then you should finish the prayer quickly and then respond. Even though this hadith does not mention that the 2 rak`a during the sermon should be quick, this was mentioned by Imam al-Bukhari in the relevant chapter heading in the Sahih, and is explicitly mentioned in one of Imam Muslim’s version of the hadith.
Hadiths about fitnaFitna has a variety of meanings, but Bukhari probably intended the meaning of political strife, given that right after this he mentions a hadith that couples rebellion and severing ties of kinship. So, perhaps he is intimating that political differences with one’s parents should not lead one to be disrespectful to them.
A hadith about Lady Khadija’s response to the Prophet’s first revelation, and her subsequently taking him to her uncle Waraqa. In addition to the overt mention of ties of kinship in the hadith, we might additionally venture that Imam al-Bukhari might have been intimating the desirability of seeking advice from parents (or other elders, in the case of one whose parents have died).
Finally, a reminder again about the published version of the book (by Mufti Yusuf Shabbr et al): is it a valuable book, which not only includes the hadiths and useful commentary, but also the translations of the many hadiths on the topic which Imam al-Bukhari mentioned in two of his other books (the Sahih and al-Adab al-Mufrad).
Hamdun al-Qassar (d. 884 CE / 271 H) was asked, “Why are the words of the [pious] people of the past more effective than our words?”
He replied, “Because they spoke for the dignity of Islam, the salvation of souls, and the approval of the Merciful [God], whereas we speak for our own fame, acquiring worldly things, and the approval of people.”
قيل لحمدون القصار: ما بال كلام السَّلف أنفع مِن كلامنا؟ قال: لأنهم تكلموا لعِزّ الإسلام ونجاة النفوس ورِضا الرحمان، ونحن نتكلم لعِزّ النفس وطلب الدنيا وقبول الخَلْق
After the tragedy of Karbala (in the year 61H / 680 CE), in which the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Husayn was slaughtered along with many of his family members, the following lines of poetry were recited by Zaynab bint `Ali (Husayn’s sister) (according to another version it was Zaynab bint `Aqil, Husayn’s first cousin):
Tell me what you would say if the Prophet of God were to ask:
What, O what have you done, O ye readers of God's Final Book?
To the folk of my household, my dear kith and kin, after me?
See now half of them captives and half drenched in blood lying slain.
Is this what I deserve? Nay, aforetime I warned you, quite clear,
Lest you later betray me, mistreating my own flesh and blood.
ماذا تقولون إن قال النبي لكم * ماذا فعلتم وأنتم آخر الأمم
بعترتي وبأهلي بعد مفتقدي * منهم أسارى ومنهم ضرجوا بدم
ما كان هذا جزائي إذ نصحت لكم * أن تخلفوني بسوء في ذوي رحمي
Abul-Aswad al-Du'ali, a close companion of `Ali ibn Abi Talib,
responded upon hearing these words,
"We will say (to God): Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves,
and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us,
we will surely be among the losers. [Quran, 7:23]"
رَبَّنَا ظَلَمْنَآ أَنفُسَنَا وَإِن لَّمْ تَغْفِرْ لَنَا وَتَرْحَمْنَا لَنَكُونَنَّ مِنَ ٱلْخَـٰسِرِينَ
Sources: Tarikh Dimashq, Ansab al-Ashraf, Muruj al-Dhahab with slight variations in the wording of the lines of poetry
The Quran recounts to us the story of the pious woman who, while pregnant, vowed to dedicate the coming child to the service of God. She had been expecting a son (who could serve in the Temple at Jerusalem), but went on to deliver a daughter. It is at this time that she (or God, according to a different reading) remarks, “The male is not like the female.” The statement is not clear-cut in indicating overall preference for either one of the genders.
Language-wise, there are three possibilities, and each of these views is a position held among Muslim scholars:
to indicate preference for the male, i.e. the male is not like the female, he has the advantage of being able to serve in the temple (under Jewish ritual law) without the monthly menstrual interruption [Mawardi, and many other scholars of exegesis]
to indicate preference for the female, i.e. the male I wanted is not like the female God gave me; God’s choice is necessarily better [Zamakhshari, Abu Hayyan; two prominent exegetes, both of whom are heavyweights in the Arabic language]
to not imply any preference either way (simply that they are different), like red is not like green, nor is green like red. [Ibn Hazm]
Even if one takes the first or second interpretation, it is still contextual, and cannot be a proof-text for overall superiority of one gender, because:
According to (i) the male is better in the specific aspect of being able to serve in the temple, but this does not rule out that the female might intrinsically be better in other respects (see my earlier post that discusses Quran, 4:34)
According to (ii), the female in this specific case (the Virgin Mary) is better than the male that her mother had hoped for. It does not rule out that there might be other scenarios (involving other people) where a particular male is better than a particular female.
From this post, along with the preceding three (123), it is clear that the Quran does not teach intrinsic superiority of either of the two genders. Certainly, an ordinary believing man cannot claim superiority over the prophetesses and spiritual heavyweights like Mary and Fatimah. Rather, the criterion is piety: “Indeed, the most noble of you before God is the most pious.” And believing men and women are expected to support, protect and help one another – not to deride nor to oppress one another (despite what too often happens in some Muslim societies).
Umm Salamah asked the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), “Why is it that men are mentioned in the Qur’an, but we women are not mentioned?” In response, Allah sent down a verse1.
“Indeed, the Muslim men and Muslim women, the believing men and believing women, the obedient men and obedient women, the truthful men and truthful women, the patient men and patient women, the humble men and humble women, the charitable men and charitable women, the fasting men and fasting women, the men who guard their private parts and the women who do so, and the men who remember Allah often and the women who do so – for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.” (Qur’an, 33:35)
This is one of several Qur’anic verses that establishes the essential spiritual equality of men and women. Other verses tell us that believers – men and women – will receive light on the Day of Judgment, will enter Paradise, will not be wronged in the least, will be rewarded according to the best of their actions, and will be given provision without account. (See: Qur’an, 3:195, 4:124, 16:97. 40:40, 57:12).
Hence, Muslim scholars often mention a general principle:
This means that every right and obligation that applies to men applies equally to women, unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. Remember that, given the societal setup and norms of 7th-century Arabia, the Prophet (s) was, naturally, spending more time with men than with women, and so the wording of his statements would nomally be addressed in the male gender. Hence, when we find hadiths about marying for beauty, or desiring to have children, or remaining faithful to one’s spouse, even though many of these hadiths are addressed to men, we are entitled to deduce a similar, reciprocal ruling for women.
Notwithstanding the essential spiritual equality of men and women, there are areas in which they are not identical, and some of these (like childbearing) are physiological and (in a sense) inevitable.
“And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing.” (Qur’an, 4:32)
These differences do not mean men are superior, nor that women are superior. According to a report from Qatadah and al-Suddi (tafsir scholars of the Tabi`in, the above verse was revealed in response to some men who thought that they were entitled to double reward due to their gender, and some women who thought the punishment for their sins would be half that of men’s.
Allah has made each gender unique and special in its own way, and we are expected to realize and accept this.
To be continued — Part 2 examines three Quranic verses that are sometimes cited in support of an inherent male superiority, and shows how the verses do not support that conclusion.
— Suheil Laher
1Ibn Kathir judged its chain of transmission as good (hasan) in Tuhfat al-Talib, as did Ibn Hajar in Muwafaqat al-Khabar. Tabari mentions several similar narrations in his exegesis (tafsir).
2 These words are also contained in a hadith, narrated by Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi and others, but there is disagreement over one of the narrators, `Abd-Allah ibn `Umar al-`Umari, who was an upright man, but whom some critics judged to have poor memory. Nevertheless, Ibn al-Qattan apparently judged it as a sound hadith. And Allah knows best.
(a summary-text of Hanafi law), with some re-arrangement and editing.
Rulings presented are as inferred from Qur’an and Sunnah by scholars of the Hanafi school.
DISCLAIMER: Information presented here is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as a call to perform or abstain from any specific action mentioned in the text. Religious decisions should be taken with due care and thought, after reading and investigating, but also after consulting with reliable people of knowledge – who are aware of one’s particular circumstances – and then pondering and exercising one’s conscience.
1. It is not permissible for men to wear silk, but it is permissible for women.
There is no harm in reclining on it according to Abu Hanifah. Abu Yusuf and Muhammad said : It is
repugnant to recline on it.
2. There is no objection to wearing pure silk in war according to the two of them, but it is repugnant according to Abu Hanifah.
3. There is objection to wearing [clothing made of] a blended fabric if its warp is silk and its weft is cotton.
‘Blended fabric’ here refers to an interlaced or interwoven fabric, with warp and weft not of the same material.
“Warp” is the set of threads held in tension on a loom.
“Weft” is the set of threads interlaced with the warp.
2.0 GOLD AND SILVER
2.1 Jewelry and Decorations
1. It is not permissible for men to use jewelry of gold,
2. Nor [may they wear jewelry of] silver excepting:
[decorations of] a belt
the decoration of a sword from silver.
3. It is permissible for women to use jewelry of gold and silver.
4. It is repugnant to make a [minor] boy wear gold and silk.
5. It is disliked to mark verses in tens in the mushaf, and [also] to add diacritical dots [when
not needed for correct reading].
6. There is no objection to decorating the mushaf, [nor to] engraving mosques and decorating them [on
the outside] with gold-water.
1. It is not permissible to eat, drink, use oil or perfume from vessels of gold or silver, neither for men nor for women.
It is permissible to drink from a silver-decorated vessel according to Abu Hanifah, and [similarly] to
ride on a silver-decorated saddle and to sit on a silver-decorated bed [provided one avoids contact with the areas of silver]
2. There is no objection to using vessels of glass, crystal or cornelian.
[“Cornelian” is a reddish-white variety of quartz.]
3.0 LOOKING AND TOUCHING
3.1 Looking at Women
1. It is not permissible for a man to look at a stranger-woman, except at her face and hands. But, if he
did not consider himself safe from lust, he may not look at her face except out of need.
[But] it is permissible for
the judge, when he wishes to pass judgement over her
the witness, when he wishes to testify concerning her
[the suitor, when he is considering proposing marriage to her]
to look at her face, even if he fears he may experience lust.
It is permissible for the doctor to look at the afflicted spot on her.
The [regulation] of a eunuch regarding looking at a stranger-woman is like [the regulation for] a
2. A man may look at his mahram’s (i.e. permanently umarriageable female relatives’) face, head, chest,
shins and arms, but he may not look at their back or belly. There is objection to touching what it is permissible to look at [of the mahrams] [for a legitimate reason, i.e. provided there is no fear of lust or other inappropriate consequences].
3. A man may look at his wife [entirely] including [even] her genitals.
One may not practise coitus interruptus with his wife except with her permission.
4. A woman may look at that [much] of another woman that a man may look at of another man.
3.2 Looking at Men
1. A man may look at all of the body of another man except for what is between his navel to his knee.
2. It is permissible for a woman to look at that [part] of a man which another man may look at.
3. It is repugnant to employ the service of eunuchs [if that involves perpetuation of the
practice of castration, which is a prohibited act of mutilation]
There is no harm in castrating cattle, nor in mating a donkey with a horse.
2. It is permissible to accept, in [the matter of] a gift or permission, the word of a child or servant.
3. The word of a transgressor is acceptable in transactions [and other mundane matters]
4. Only the word of a morally upright (`adl) person is acceptable in religious matters.
1. Hoarding of staple-foods of humans and cattle is repugnant, if that is in a land in which hoarding harms
2. One who hoards the produce of his [own] estate, or what he has imported from another land, is not [termed] a hoarder.
3. It is not appropriate for the ruler to regulate prices for people [as long as they do not reach the level
of exploitation, which is harmful to the public interest]
4. It is repugnant to sell weapons in times of fitna [i.e. turmoil (in which the side of truth is unclear) or sedition (in which there is unjustified rebellion against a legitimate ruler and one is selling weapons to the rebels)]
5. There is no [judicial] objection to selling juice to someone whom it is known will produce wine from it [but notwithstanding the absence of worldly prosecution, the seller might still be sinful in the spiritual domain].
Chivalry and bravery have long been valued as noble human qualities. I remember a picture book in the library of my Kindergarten 2 class (at St Margaret’s Kindergarten School) about King Arthur’s knights, who are often regarded as emblematic of such ideals in the West. Jihad in Islam includes not only an inner dimension of spiritual struggle, but also an external dimension of helping the weak and striving against injustice. Extremist jihadi groups like ISIS appeal to Muslim youth (and others) on the basis of the latter, but by selective, decontextualized citations from an amalgam of history, medieval law and Islamic sacred texts, they bypass the honorable chivalrous teachings, higher objectives and profound vision of sacred law that are held to by mainstream Muslim scholars.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 drew widespread international condemnation, including a resolution by the UN General Assembly. In accordance with both the UN Charter and the Islamic understanding of self-defence against aggression, Afghans as well as many non-Afghan Muslims rallied against the Soviet intervention. The liberation effort was widely recognized in the Muslim world as a glorious jihad, and the United States government (among other Western and Eastern non-Muslim nations) was openly and actively providing financial, material, and moral support to the mujahideen. Naturally, many American Muslims also either supported the Afghan jihad or looked upon it favorably.
It was a euphoric time, but it was not to last. After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989, and the toppling of the Soviet-backed president in 1992, things took a darker turn. Civil war broke out among the mujahideen in Afghanistan, and some of the foreign mujahideen were left grappling with post-war trauma, along with the difficulty of reintegration into civilian life, compounded by their being unwelcome in some of their home countries due to fears that they would harness popular grievances to foment revolution against those Middle Eastern governments.
It was in such circumstances that some of the former mujahideen began to move in a new direction: away from the honorable chivalry of true jihad towards an ignominous extremist ideology. Al-Qaeda, and eventually ISIS were born. Extremists might capitalize on the acclaimedly glorious status of the Afghan jihad, to present themselves as its heirs and perpetuators. But in Islam, actions are validated by sacred texts, not by appeals to charismatic lineage. A religious rhetoric, similar to that which was once used to enthuse Muslims with the noble spirit of just resistance against Soviets, has now been subverted and perverted to call towards extremism and terrorism. The rhetoric is similar, and might appeal to some of the same principles (such as resisting oppression) and sacred texts, but the big difference is that it is now out of touch with the noble chivalry of true jihad that we find in the Qur’an and Sunna.
I advise Muslims (including, but not limited to, Muslim youth) not to be duped by half-baked religious rhetoric. To realize that while injustices exist in the world, and jihad continues until the day of Judgment, nevertheless true jihad must be carried out through legitimate and honorable means. Radical ISIS-style extremism is a crude and dangerous caricature of jihad. Exercise caution in your charitable giving, and don’t be deceived into thinking that you are helping Islam by supporting groups that are actually hurting the cause of Islam and Muslims. Do not capitulate to a cult mentality, where you take religious teaching from a limited set of scholars, who use emotions to make you feel that you would be betraying faith and justice if you listen to those who condemn terrorist acts. If you are not willing to listen to the other side, how can you be so sure you are correct? Did not the Prophet (peace be upon him) warn of people who would recite the Qur’an, and zealously worship and strive, and yet be a liability to Islam because of their lack of deeper understanding? Truth prevails, and Allah has given you a conscience and a mind that allow you to think for yourself. Islam is a profound religion that seeks to actualize lofty and noble objectives in both individual and society. If you refuse to think about and to see the bigger picture, and content yourself with a narrow tunnel-vision of Islam, I think you are short-changing yourself.
أما الخيام فإنها كخيامهم ** وأرى نساء الحي غير نساءها
(A poet describing with anguish how, in desparate search of the nomadic tribe of his fiancee, he discovers tents that look like their tents, only to discover that the people inhabiting them are different people.)
 “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” Chapter VII, Article 51.
Do you love the life of this world? Is a Muslim allowed to love it? The answer is YES. It is well-known that Muslims are not supposed to renounce the world; monasticism is not an ideal (as a hadith explicitly mentions), and in the Qur’an we are taught to pray for “good in the world and good in the Hereafter” [Qur’an, 2:201]. Yet, we find some passages of the Qur’an, and some hadiths, that are very critical of al-hayat al-dunya (often translated as “the life of this world”; I return below to a more expressive translation). Nevertheless, there is no contradiction or paradox here. In reality, the life of this world is not what is evil; the confusion comes from not taking account of lexicological and theological context . A complete condemnation of and renouncement of this world is not the correct Muslim attitude, and is dangerous and harmful to human existence.
Let’s look at one of the verses that paints al-hayat al-dunya negatively:
“Know that the ‘life of this world’ is but amusement and diversion and adornment and boasting to one another and competition in increase of wealth and children – like the example of a rain whose [resulting] plant growth pleases the tillers; then it dries and you see it turned yellow; then it becomes [scattered] debris. And in the Hereafter is severe punishment and forgiveness from Allah and approval. And what is the worldly life except the enjoyment of delusion.” [Qur’an, 57:20]
Fakhruddin al-Razi (d. 606/1209) began his exegesis of this verse with a comment that might seem audacious, for he seems to be claiming the opposite of what the verse tells us:
“Know that the life of this world is wisdom and rectitude, and a blessing; in fact, the root of all blessings.” [Razi, Al-Tafsir al-Kabir]
Razi was not a closet heretic; rather, he is reminding readers that the life of this world has different dimensions, and that the verse is discussing only one of these aspects. So it is true, as he goes on to discuss, that this life can be:
– la`ib: play, like children engage in, tiring themselves without any benefit (i.e. without any goal or achievement),
– lahw: a diversion, such as adults may engage in but which results in regret,
– zinah: an adornment, which can only be necessary to beautify ugliness
At the same time, God has created this world for us [Qur’an, 2:29], not without purpose [Qur’an, 23:115], and so it is not meaningless or in vain. Razi then contextualizes the verse’s dispraise by quoting Ibn `Abbas (d. 68/687), the famous exegete from the Prophet’s companions:
“The meaning [of the verse] is that the disbeliever is busy all his life seeking the adornment of this world without working for the Hereafter.”
Hanbali theologian Hafiz Ibn Rajab (d. 795/1392) further clarifies the scope of the condemnation conveyed by this verse and similar texts. He observes that the condemnation:
– is not of the place of this world, for God has made it an abode and a cradle for human civilization [Qur’an, 20:53, etc.]
– nor of the natural phenomena in this world (such as mountains, seas, rivers, vegetation and animal life), for God has created them as blessings, and as great signs, which through reasoning and reflection yield profound insights regarding the Oneness of God
– nor of the time of this world, for God has made the alternation of night and day a reminder for those who ponder and are grateful. [Qur’an, 25:62]
Hence, he concludes that the condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (“the life of this world”) is a condemnation of the evil deeds committed therein by human beings; deeds which lack benefit and/or cause harm. [Ibn Rajab, Jami` al-`Ulum wal-Hikam]
This world is deceptive (e.g. Qur’an, 35:5), Ibn Rajab continues, in the sense that its pleasures do not endure; youth yields to old age, the healthy become sick, the wealthy may be reduced to poverty, the mighty might be abased. A person may spend the greater part of his life saving money and making plans for the future, only to die leaving it all behind. Similarly Ibn al-Qayyim (d. 751/1350) mentions how “this world” is like an elusive shadow, a mirage or a dream. In a (much earlier) saying from Ibn `Abbas, the pursuit of the superficial things of this world is likened to the pursuit of an ugly hag who has adorned herself in pretty clothes.
It is in this context of ephemerality (especially in comparison with the unending state of existence after death, the world Hereafter), and as a reminder not to neglect the deeper realities and more meaningful dimensions of existence, that we must understand the Qur’anic condemnation of al-hayat al-dunya (I return below to a more accurate translation than ‘the life of this world’.) It is not a renouncement, a trivialization, or a blanket condemnation of everything of this life.
This has always been the understanding of leading scholars. Thus, while it is true that Caliph Ali would say, “O world! Go and deceive someone else!” nevertheless it is also reported that he scolded a man for cursing the world: Don’t curse this world, for the world contains the mosques devoted to God’s worship; the world is the place God honored by sending down revealed guidance, and it contains angels who are engaged in God’s obedience; the world is a marketplace for the believer (wherein he achieves good and thereby earns the life of eternal happiness). In this light, the ascetic of Rayy, Yahya ibn Mu`adh (d. 258/871) said, “How can I not love a world in which there is apportioned to me sustenance by which I can earn a life in which I obey God and thereby attain the Hereafter.” In fact, in a hadith we are told that even the most pious believers, the persons loved by God, love this life (“He hates death, and [God] hates to displease him.”).
How to translate al-hayat al-dunya?
As I mentioned earlier, a part of the confusion about the role of and attitude to this world comes from translating al-hayat al-dunya simply as “the life of this world”. Let’s look closer at the two Arabic words involved. Al-hayat does mean life, but al-dunya is not, strictly speaking “the world” (which would normally be al-`alam). Dunya is a superlative from the Arabic root d-n-(w/y), which has two meanings: one of nearness and the other of lowness and contemptibility. [See: Ibn al-Manzur’s classical lexicon Lisan al-`Arab] Soal-hayat al-dunya is literally “the Nearest Life,” (by comparison with the Hereafter, which is temporally further away), but also potentially “the Lowest Life.” The latter translation is powerful in that it captures the underlying concepts discussed earlier in this article. So, let’s plug this back into our previous translation of [Quran, 57:20]:
“Know that the Lowest Life is play, and diversion, and….”
Thus, there are parts of this world — the more profoundly meaningful ideas, as well as beneficial acts and good deeds done with the correct motivation — that are not part of al-hayat al-dunya. We have already seen this implicitly contained in the statements of scholars quoted above, and to this we can add that the classical exegesis Tafsir al-Jalalayn states that “[good] deeds of obedience to God, and everything that assists in that,” are not part of the dunya but rather of the Hereafter. In English, we have the (similar, although perhaps narrower) term “low life” that carries similar connotations to dunya. A view from mystical Judaism considers this world – with its pain, suffering and death – as the “lowest” possible world that still reflects the attributes of divine goodness and mercy.
Rise Above the Lower Life
The correct attitude to this life is to keep striving to ascend to higher things, spiritually and morally.
“To [God] ascend the good words, and the righteous deeds lift them up.” [Qur’an, 35:10]
The five daily prayers – which according to the hadiths were prescribed upon Muslims on the Night of the Heavenly Ascent (Mi`raj) – are your personal opportunity for a private ascent to communicate with your Creator. In a hadith, we are told that the the Highest Assembly of Angels was arguing about the three expiators of sins (kaffarat) and the three deeds of rank (darajat). In order to ascend upwards, you need to first break free of the shackles of “the lowest life,” and your past sins are those shackles. This lift-off is achieved through the three expiators: performing ablution properly under difficulty, walking by foot to congregational prayer, and waiting for one prayer after the next. But in between we need to strive in the “worldly” domain too, and to continue the ascent there, as two of the three deeds of rank show: spreading peace and feeding others. Spreading peace is not limited to using the Islamic greeting of salam; rather it is merely a start of striving for global peace, and likewise we desire the eradication of poverty and hunger. The third deed of rank, “praying by night while people are asleep,” (a non-obligatory, but praiseworthy deed), is a reminder that the ascent cannot be achieved only by deeds that benefit others, unless the individual develops his/her own spirituality and relationship with the Creator.
So, to recap, this world is not evil, and not to be renounced. The Qur’an portrays the world as a blessing from God, full of tremendously profound and beautiful signs of God’s existence and oneness, and a place with potential for great good. The Prophet has said, “God is beautiful and loves beauty.” [Narrated by Muslim] The condemnation is of the lowest life, a pursuit of the fleeting without concern for deeper values, and without acknowledging God and the eternity that is far greater (indeed, infinitely so, in mathematical terms) than this finite world. This world should be appreciated appropriately, which includes striving upward to make it a better place. An insular lack of concern for this, even in the guise of religiosity, is contradictory to the mission of humankind on this earth; the task of furthering good, and fostering and handing on a constructive, beneficial civilization (see: Qur’an, 67:2, 2:30, 11:61, 7:129).
A key to escaping the lowest life is: not to allow the mundane to become profane.
The arrival of Islamic rule marked an end to the persecution to which non-Zoroastrian minorities had been subjected in pre-Islamic Persia. It is sadly strange then, that fourteen centuries later, Islam is now being invoked and interpreted in an attempt to exterminate such populations, and moreover to do so in grisly and inhumane ways that are themselves incongruous with Islam’s central values of kindness and compassion.
I was incredulous when I first read recent reports of members of the non-Muslim Yazidi minority in Iraq being killed and enslaved in the name of Islam. The reported actions troubled my conscience, and furthermore, for historical and theological reasons, did not sit right with my understanding of Islam. Yet, I was aware of statements in medieval books of Islamic law that might be produced as partial justification of the actions, and so I felt the need to articulate a coherent response to questions such as the following: As a Muslim, am I required to agree with such killing and enslavement? If they are correct, then how can it be that these religious minorities have survived fourteen centuries in the heart of the Islamic lands without yet having been exterminated?
The majority opinion among Muslim jurists, and the dominant operative view across Muslim history has been that of tolerance to all non-Muslim religious communities. After explaining this to be the case, I will show how this view is also in line with a general Qur’anic principle backed by common sense.
Muslim scholars, across sects and the various legal schools, are in agreement that Jews and Christians, being People of Scripture, can live as subjects of the Islamic state, and are not forced to convert to Islam (although they are welcome and encouraged to do so). They are subject to a tax called the jizyah, which was paid, as British Orientalist Thomas Arnold Walker explains, “by those whose religion precluded them from serving in the army, in return for the protection secured for them by the armies of the Musulmans.” Muslim scholars are further agreed that Zoroastrians can similarly live as subjects of the Islamic state, even though they are not decisively People of Scripture, because the Prophet Muhammad himself afforded them such treatment. Jurists of the Maliki school (which dominates North and West Africa), and the Zaydi Shi`ite school, along with Imam al-Awza`i (whose school was widely followed in the Levant and across North Africa before being displaced by the Malikis and Shafi`is), generalized from this to conclude that the same courtesy is extended to people of all religions. The Hanafi school (geographically and historically the school with the widest following among the public and the most implemented by rulers) concluded similarly, making an exception only for idolators of Arabia which is actually a moot point given that idolatry did not survive there following the large-scale conversions to Islam during the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime. When the Muslims ruled Mogul India, the (idolatrous) Hindus remained tolerated under Hanafi legal doctrine.
Reframing the preceding breakdown of views, we realize that the earliest schools of Islamic law and the most widely followed (Hanafi, Maliki and Awza`i), allow and tolerate non-Muslim minorities of any religion within the Islamic lands (i.e. the “Islamic state”). Given the status of these schools and their adoption by Muslim governments across the centuries (until the Muslim world was largely secularized in early modernity), this view has also been the operative view across the overwhelming bulk of Muslim history. The dissenting view (of the (later) Shafi`is and Hanbalis, along with the Imamis), for practical purposes, persisted as little more than hypothetical juristic cogitations, and perhaps as reminders of the more stark era of war in the Hebrew Bible, where for example we read that the city of Jericho (including even the women, children and beasts) was put to the sword apparently for idolatry. That tolerance of all religious groups was the norm in Muslim history is reflected in the fact that the Mandaeans, Yazidis and others have survived and maintained a presence in Islamic lands to this day.
It is worthwhile to note that the dominant Islamic view, of tolerance towards other religious communities, is also backed by general Qur’anic principle, and by common sense. The Qur’anic principle is that, “There shall be no compulsion in [acceptance of the] religion” (Qur’an, 2:256), and common sense confirms that a forced conversion is unlikely to be genuine. How can it be reasonable to suddenly expect Yazidis, who have been raised in their own religion all their lives, to suddenly give it up at the point of a sword or rifle? Thomas Jefferson wrote, “that if there be but one right [religion], and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged.” The Qur’an foreshadows these wise words of Jefferson’s:
“Then, [O Muhammad], would you compel the people in order that they become believers? And it is not for a soul to believe except by permission of Allah , and He will place defilement upon those who will not use reason.” (Qur’an, 10:99-100)
“[U]pon you is only the [duty of] notification, and upon Us is the account.” (Qur’an, 13:40)
“Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction, and argue with them in a way that is best. Indeed, your Lord is most knowing of who has strayed from His way, and He is most knowing of who is [rightly] guided.” [Qur’an, 16:125]
So far, we have established that the majority and operative position across history has been tolerance of all non-Muslim religious communities. This is sufficient to refute the notion that the killing and enslavement of non-Muslims represents the majority of Muslims, and to dispel the idea that those actions are a clear and immutable Islamic teaching. But what if a Muslim claims that he wants to follow a minority position on religious tolerance, and to revive the practices of enslavement and concubinage? In what follows, I explain how such actions are actually inconsistent with several broader Islamic principles:
(i) The Qur’anic principle (backed by common-sense) of non-coercion in faith, already mentioned earlier (above).
(ii) The importance of priorities. Even if someone truly believes it justified to target the non-Muslim minorities, they should ask themselves: If these minorities were not exterminated by the Prophet, nor by the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, then how can a Muslim group today consider it their prerogative and priority to undertake such a genocide?
(iii) Categorical imperative: If we as Muslims are to exterminate or expel indigenous non-Muslims who have been living in a country for centuries, how are we better than the Zionists who attempt to do the same to indigenous Palestinians?
(iv) The use of inhumane techniques (such as attempting to inflict forced starvation on people because of their religion) contradict the Prophet Muhammad’s code of ethics in war and peace. When Thumama ibn Athal, a South Arabian chief, imposed a wheat embargo on the idolatrous Makkans to punish them for their mistreatment of the Muslims, Prophet Muhammad asked him to lift the embargo to prevent the starvation of the Makkan idolators and especially of their women and children.
(v) The Prophetic paradigm calls for wisdom, which includes recognition of people’s sensibilities and thinking. The Prophet Muhammad once remarked to his wife that he would have liked to demolish the Ka`bah, and then to rebuild it according to the original pattern on which Prophet Abraham had built it. However, he refrained from this, citing as a reason the fact that people had only recently come out the state of idolatrous ignorance (and would therefore misconstrue his action as sacrilegous). The fourth Caliph, the Prophet’s son-in-law `Ali, drawing attention to the importance of sensitivity in engaging people, said, “Speak to people with what they can relate to. Would you like for God and His Messenger to be considered liars?” The renowned 19th century Hanafi Muslim jurist Ibn `Abidin wrote, in his didactic poem Rasm al-Mufti, “Customary norms are to be given consideration in the Sacred Law, and hence the legal determination may hinge upon it.” Actions such as forced conversions and enslavement surely have a bigger impact on the public than mere words, and taking a human life is clearly more drastic than demolishing a brick-structure. Even if (hypothetically) someone’s conscience is genuinely not troubled in the least by such actions as enslavement, they should ponder deeply the consequences of their actions on the image and perception of Islam among non-Muslims, and remind themselves that Islam’s mission is to be a source of blessing to all.
“We have not sent you [Muhammad], except as a blessing to all creatures.” [Qur’an, 21:107]
 “The followers of all those varied forms of faith could breathe again under a rule that granted them religious freedom and exemption from military service, on payment of a light tribute.” Thomas Arnold Walker, The Preaching of Islam: a history of the Propagation of the Muslim Faith, (Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1896), 177.
 See, for example, the following medieval references of Islamic law: Ibn `Abidin, Radd al-Muhtar; al-Qurtubi, Al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’an; Ahmad ibn Yahya al-Murtada, al-Azhar fi FIqh al-A’immahal-Athar.