People have long traveled for diverse reasons, and there were various types of voyagers in the medieval Muslim world, including ardent pilgrims, wandering dervishes, and enterprising merchants. But, starting in the 8th century CE (2nd century Hijri), another large contingent joined the ranks of the itinerants: many Muslims began traveling extensively in pursuit of sacred knowledge, especially (but not limited to) to hear and write down ḥadīths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) from those who were transmitting them. This spontaneously gave rise to a remarkable, informal, decentralized,
unregulated, diverse global information network. We get some idea of the extent to which this voyaging reached by observing that ˁAlī ibn al-Ḥasan ibn ˁAsākir (d. 571/1176, a major hadith-voyager and chronicler) compiled a book called “The Forty City [Narrations]” (Arbaˁūn Buldāniyyah), which contained forty ḥadīths heard from forty different teachers in forty different cities, tracing back to forty different Companions of the Prophet Muhammad, and dealing with forty different topics. In his prelude to the book, he describes the hadith-voyagers:
“So, [the ḥadīth-folk] intently pursued gathering [ḥadīths] in all moments and circumstances, flying to [different] lands like eagles and falcons, consequently living lives of poverty and destitution in [willing] exile from home, and tolerating – on this quest – coarse food and clothing.”
It became unusual for someone laying claim to knowledge to not have traveled to seek knowledge from distant teachers. A couple of prominent exceptions are Imām Mālik ibn Anas (d. 179/796, the eponym of the Mālikschool of law) and Abū Bakr ibn Mujāhid (d. 324/936, the famous canonizer of the Seven Quranic Readings, whose scholarly travel was restricted to his hajj travel to Makka).
Imam al-Shafi`i (d. 204H) wrote some lines of poetry encouraging people to travel. Three centuries later, Qadi Tartushi (d. 520H, a Maliki jurist and judge) wrote a rejoinder, discouraging people from travel, on the basis that times had changed. You can read both pieces of poetry, with their translations, here.
So, what about today? Two quick points:
1. Start Local
Scholars of the past would not travel for knowledge until they had exhausted the knowledge available to them locally. Most large metropolitan areas in the US (and probably many other countries) have individuals within them who are qualified to teach you the basics of one or more Islamic disciplines, and perhaps even things beyond that. It is rather a waste of money to travel overseas simply to learn the ABCs of a discipline that you could learn at minimal cost and without travel. If you delay your educational voyage until after you have mastered the basics, your overseas studies can also be more productive (such as by studying advanced texts that you couldn’t study locally). Of course, if you have additional legitimate motives for travelling overseas at an early stage, such as to spend some time living in a city where you hear the call to prayer (adhan) fives times a day, or to sightsee, or visit relatives, then that is a separate matter, and you are free to make your decision after due thought and diligence.
2. What about technology? Can’t I be a virtual globetrotter, attending online classes in multiple countries, and save the costs of traveling? Yes, you can do that, and might get the same information content, but you won’t get the intangibles and other elements that constitute the full experience: The tiring exertions and other difficulties of travel that will make you truly value what you got out of the trip…. The invaluable face-to-face dimension of student-teacher interactions through you which you can experientially learn things about behavior, manners and ethos in a way that you won’t find in a book…. and if you are traveling to a different country, the broadening of horizons that comes from living in a different culture and seeing the challenges and joys of its people. For an advanced seeker of sacred knowledge, travel is almost essential.
And of course, if you want to be a knowledge-voyager, then as with any deed by which you intend devotion, check your intentions.
“And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable, and men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)
The “degree” that men have over women, unspecified in the Qur’anic text, has given rise to a range of different suggested interpretations, some of which clearly hold little weight (such as the view that it refers to the beard!). The eminent traditionist-exegete Tabari (d. 310 H), after quoting all the transmitted opinions, concluded that the strongest view is that men are being instructed to unconditionally fulfill their duties and responsibilities in full, while being forgiving of women if they fall short in their duties; i.e. it is a degree of responsibility, rather than privilege. Tabari and others have narrated this view, with isnad, from Ibn `Abbas, an eminent exegete from among the companions of the Prophet.
According to traditional Muslim understandings of gender roles (I will not address Muslim feminist interpretations), men also are expected to lead the family unit (every social unit needs one person in charge, in order to function efficiently), but this leadership neither implies a superiority (remember when Abu Bakr was appointed Caliph, he said, “I have been appointed to lead you, but I am not the best among you”), nor is it supposed to be a means for overbearingness or tyranny. Rather, the relationship between husband and wife is to be based on love, compassion and cooperation, and includes consultation.
“And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquillity in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy.” (Qur’an, 30:21)
“And the believers, men and women, are protecting friends one of another” (Qur’an, 9:71)
“….and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves” (Qur’an, 42:38)
The alleged hadith, “Consult with [women] and then do the opposite of what they advise,” has no authentic chain of narration back to the Prophet (as pointed out, for example, by Sakhawi in al-Maqasid al-Hasana), and is likely a sheer fabrication. Among the more striking narrations showing that the Prophet (s) valued the opinions of women is the famous incident at Hudaybiyah, in which he acted on advice from his wife Umm Salamah on a matter of great religious and public significance.
A previous post showed the basic spiritual equality of men and women, as derived from the Quran. We now need to look more closely at three verses that are sometimes misunderstood to conclude an automatic superiority for men:
(i) “Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)
(ii) “And due to the wives is similar to what is expected of them, according to what is reasonable. But the men have a degree over them.” (Qur’an, 2:228)
(iii) “And the male is not like the female.” (Qur’an, 3:36)
(i) Men are qawwamun over women”
“Men are in charge of [taking care of] women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. ” (Qur’an, 4:34)
Firstly, the Qur’an has told us clearly that the criterion for superiority before Allah is taqwa, not gender:
“Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you.” (Qur’an, 49:13)
Indeed, no Muslim man would dare claim that, merely by being male, he is better than Lady Khadijah, Lady Fatimah, or the Virgin Mary!
Remember also that two verses before this (4:32), we were reminded that men and women have each been blessed in different ways by Allah. What the verse 4:34 is telling us, therefore, is that men have the responsibility of taking care of women, because (generally) their constitution and nature are such that they are more capable or working and providing physical protection and defense.
Secondly, note that the wording is not فضلهم عليهن (which would clearly mean: graced/blessed men over women) but rather: بِمَا فَضَّلَ ٱللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَىٰ بَعْضٍ literally: “has graced some of them over others.” Shaykh al-Sha`rawi, the famous 20th-century Egyptian (male) scholar of tafsir, pointed out that although men may be graced/blessed in one aspect, they are less endowed in other respects, and that the two genders have complementary roles in which each utilizes their respective strengths to support the other. The 3rd-century theologian and polymath `Uthman al-Jahiz has pointed out several aspects in which women can be considered superior to men, including various positive traits of character (remember the Prophet (s) was described as more modest than a virgin in her chamber), and the fact that there has been a woman (the Virgin Mary) for whom Allah created a child without male involvement, but there has never ben a man for whom Allah made a child without female involvement. Contemporary female Syrian scholar Hanan Lahham expressed succinctly the logical conclusion to make from 4:34, tying together the concepts that were already known to earlier exegetes (mufassireen), even if they didn’t express it so explicitly. She writes that, “Allah granted to each gender characteristics that help them to perform their roles; the intended meaning is not a superiority of one gender over the other.”
The verse (4:34) also intimates that some women have certain superiorities over some men, and vice-versa. Thus, some women might be physically stronger, or more capable breadwinners, than some men. None of this is ruled out by the verse, nor by the labelling of men as maintainers, because as `Allamah Ibn `Ashur (a high-ranking 20th century Tunisian scholar) has commented in his tafsir, what the verse is describing is not a universal but a customary norm. (We may note, in passing that patriarchically organized societies have dominated human history for several millenia.) Even among pre-modern mufassirin, the possibility had been raised that this verse conveys that there are some women who are better than many men. In fact, the famous medieval linguist and mufassir, Abu Hayyan al-Andalusi, mentioned the possibility (suggested by the verse) that the term “men” (الرجال) in the verse (4:34) refers not to gender (for otherwise the term “males” (الذكور) could have been used) but only to those males who are deserving of being called “men” by virtue of their strength, wisdom and resoluteness. A lot of women would not be able to fully respect a man who does not live up to his expected role. Thus, many of the fuqaha allow a wife to annul the marriage if the husband is not able to provide financial support to his wife. (Of course, she has the option of remaining with him and being patient, and also the option of spending her own money on the household, and can expect reward from Allah for doing so, but she is not obliged to do either of these).
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.
Are Muslims allowed have non-Muslim friends? If not, then what should be our stance towards others?! Anyone who thinks that Muslims must take all non-Muslims as enemies is ignorant of the Qur’an and the life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad, and ignorant of the centuries of friendly co-existence between Muslims and others across history, not mention that such a person is blind to the decency and goodness to be found and appreciated in many other human beings. The Prophet’s own example clearly illustrates that the attitude of the Muslim toward the non-Muslim is not one of bigotry or unconditional animosity. For example, “when Makkah was in the grip of famine, [the Prophet Muhammad] personally went out to help his enemies. When non-Muslim prisoners of war were presented before him, he treated them with such tenderness [as] many cannot even claim to have done in respect to their children. A delegation from Banu Thaqif who had not yet embraced Islam upto that time came to visit him. They were given the honor of staying in the Mosque of the Prophet. Umar [the second Caliph] gave allowances to needy dhimmis (non-Muslim subjects) [rather than obliging them to pay the jizyah tax.” [see: Muhammad Shafi`’s (erstwhile Grand-Mufti of Pakistan) Ma`ariful-Qur’an, 2/57-58.]
Nor can it be that Muslims are supposed to just pretend to be nice to others while hating and cursing them among themselves in private, for the Prophet has denounced duplicity:
“You will find the worst person to be the two-faced one, who comes to [one people] with one face, and to [another people] with another face.” [Bukhari]
In the Qur’an, the common origin (and hence essential oneness) of the human race is stressed:
“O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble of you in the sight of Allah is the most righteous of you. Indeed, Allah is Knowing and Acquainted.” [Qur’an, 49:13]
And basic values and decency are not to be reserved only for fellow Muslims:
“God does not prohibit you from being kind and just to those who have not fought you on account of religion, nor expelled you from your homes. Allah loves those who are just.” Q[60:8]
We may note that the word used in the verse for ‘kindness’ (al-birr) is the same word used in some hadiths for loving, kind treatment of one’s parents.
The Qur’an has always been central to Islam and to the religious lives of Muslims, and this has provided the impetus, generation after generation, for them to devote care and attention to memorizing, reciting, preserving and transmitting the Qur’an. Wherever you go in the Muslim world, whether among Sunnis, Twelver Shi`ah, Zaydi Shi`ah or any other sect or school, you find the verses in the same order within the surahs. There is no disagreement on the sequence of verses within the surahs.
There are also numerous hadiths indicating that the order of verses within the surahs was fixed by the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) himself:
Zayd said, “We used be in the presence of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), gathering the Qur’an from pieces of parchment.” [Narrated by al-Hakim with an isnad on the criteria of Bukhari and Musch surlim]
As part of a longer hadith, narrated by `Uthman (may Allah be well-pleased with him), in response to a question from Ibn `Abbas, “…when something [of the Qur’an] came down upon [the Prophet], he summoned some of those who would write, and tell them, ‘Put these verses in the surah that mentions such-and-such.'” [Ahmad, Abu Dawud, Tirmidhi, Nasai, Ibn Hibban, al-Hakim] Continue reading “Order of Verses in Surahs”→
The names of the surahs are not part of the actual text of the Qur’an, nor were they written in the early mushafs. For some (but not all) surahs there are explicit narrations telling us that the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) himself used a particular name. And the narrations suggest that all the names were well-known and widely used among the Sahabah. `Allamah al-Suyuti has stated that the names of all the surahs can be found in either hadiths or aathaar (sayings of the Companions). Among these is the narration that the polytheists used to make fun of the fact that there are surahs named after the cow, the spider, etc, whereupon Allah sent down the verse meaning, “We are sufficed for you against the mockers.” [Qur’an, 15:95]
However, the scholars disagreed as to whether the name of every surah was given by the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) himself. It is quite possible that some of the names were assigned by the Sahabah. Al-Suyuti also mentions that some surahs are known by more than one name, and similarly sometimes the same name may be used to refer to more than one surah.
And Allah knows best.
[The above information is drawn mainly from Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti’s Al-Itqan fi `Ulum al-Qur’an]