An old favourite from Sh Hamza Yusuf...its strange, I read this over ten years after he gave the speech, and its like, wow...nothing has changed?? sub7anAllah...
The Muslim Community: Where We Stand 1994 *
By Hamza Yusuf
As the days pass, not only does our state of affairs not change but it would appear to many of us that it actually gets worse. This is certainly in harmony with the prophetic teaching that no time will come except that the time that proceeded it is better than it. What then does one do? Give up and resign oneself to destiny? This is certainly an option but not one in the spirit of Islam or the Prophet of Allah **.
It would be wise to make an assessment of what it is that is lacking in the Muslim psyche that seems to prevent us from moving on. What is lacking is quite simply knowledge. We hear statements such as: “Brother, it is not knowledge of the din that is lacking but iman that is lacking.” Or: “Our whole problem is that we are backward; we allowed ourselves to solidify and we stopped growing. Because of this we saw the Europeans getting ahead of us; we left ijtihad, closed its door and now we need to take a fresh perspective, subvert the dominant Muslim paradigm by reassessing the situation ...” etc. ad nauseam.
The former is closer to the Qur’anic perspective but still not complete. These two views are the extremes of a continuum that reflects the Muslim dilemma today. The first argument, which is found amongst many of the more traditionally minded Muslims, falls short for a number of reasons. First, many Muslims have extraordinary iman: I, for one, have experienced first hand wonderful expressions of iman and have seen and known many excellent Muslims. Now, understandably, we don’t see the iman of the first communities of Muslims, but we shouldn’t expect to see it either for the very reason mentioned at the outset of this article. The second argument and admittedly it is losing supporters as time goes on, is not only pathetic but completely against the teaching of the Qur’an and Sunna.
Nowhere in the Qur’an does Allah ** tell people to become technically advanced, nor did the Prophet of Allah ** send his companions from the primitive (by even the then contemporary standards of the Persians and Romans) Arabian peninsula to Persia to learn astronomy or the more sophisticated martial arts of the Romans and Persians (the verse “Prepare for them what you are able to of strength, and stabled horses” as well as Salman’s suggestion to use a trench during the battle of Khandaq do not negate to above statement). This is not to say that Islam tells us not to do these things; they are in fact the natural outcome of healthy civilizations where all types of knowledge are honored. But even a superficial glance at the Qur’an will quickly reveal that the Book is not concerned with building civilization, but with rectifying the stuff of civilization, i.e. men and women,. With the Divine Awareness that should these two elements be well then the whole society will be well, just as the prophetic tradition, “In the breast of the children of Adam is a lump of flesh if it is sound, the whole body is sound and should it be foul, then the whole body is foul; is not that the heart?” So the prophetic tradition teaches us to look deeply at the core of the issue at hand, not the external symptoms that anyone can perceive.
In fact, read in a certain light, the Qur’an condemns civilization not once but several times. Surat Al-Fajr is an accessible starting point for many. The Prophet of Allah ** not only chose to lower his standard of living - remember he was given the choice to be a king/prophet or a slave/prophet - but he also set the example of his ummat and the best proof of that is the four Caliphs of Islam after him who all led lives of strict abstinence and other-worldliness despite both wealth and the worldly nature of their work. On many occasions the Prophet ** warned us of following the civilizations that went before us, the Romans and the Persians in some of the traditions and the Jews and the Christians in others. Please do not naively misunderstand what I am saying. I am not advocating that we all leave the world. This, according to Ibn Qayyim al-Jauzia, is considered a virtue (fadila). What Allah ** commands us to leave is wrong actions; this is an obligation (farD). Nor am I saying that outward knowledge is incompatible with Islam. What we need to recognize is that our emphasis must not be on buildings, on form without content, i.e. mosques, Islamic Schools, et cetera. But our emphasis must be on human evolution, on moving from “propped-up blocks of wood (Surat Al-Munafiqun) to truly human beings - the Pinnochio process. In other words, we remain made of wood, as the hypocrites do, unless we prove ourselves to be human, as believers do, by throwing ourselves into the ocean of service and selflessness for the sake of the One who made us, in Pinocchio’s case, Geppeto, in ours God.
If we can accept that our crisis is one of knowledge both in the Muslim world as well as here in America then, I believe, strategies can begin to be developed. If we would only look at the Qur’an itself. The first word revealed in the Qur’an is an imperative verb meaning “Read.” The first obligation in Islam by the consensus of the scholars of Islam is to know Allah **, i.e. tawheed. This knowledge of Allah ** can not be reduced to a simple intellectual exercise whereby one can recite the 99 names of Allah ** or the seven attributes. It is an existential knowledge that impinges on the spiritual, physical and social reality of the one who possesses that knowledge.
Every act in Islam not only requires knowledge but demands (through the principle of Ain and kifayya i.e. individual obligation or partial collective obligation), that there always be those who know in the community. Even in the command to jihad in the Quran, Allah ** stipulates that not everyone should go out, that in fact a group should stay at home to learn the din to exhort those who return! So the faqih must be there to greet the mujahid when he returns. In other words, there must be a knowledge-based hub around which the activities of the community - jihad, for instance -can revolve. Once the hub is lost the spokes no longer provide benefit and the wheel is useless. If we agree that knowledge is the hub and core of Islam then we can agree that since the wheel is no longer taking us anywhere it must be because the hub is not there. For in fact, even if the tire has no air (or other problems), as long as the hub is intact we can still move, albeit slower than desired; but, lest we forget, movement is movement.
It must be clear at this point, what exactly we mean, as an ummat, when we say knowledge”. Oddly enough, this is an area of great confusion for many Muslims. For a working definition let us go to that great Muslim Imam Shafi’i **. He said: al-ilm ma qala Allahu wa ma qala rasuluhu wa amma siwahumma fa wasawisu Ashaytan. “Knowledge is what Allah said then what Allah’s messenger said and as for all else simply the whisperings of Shaytan.” Admittedly this statement is strong and doesn’t allow for electives, but another statement by the same Imam sheds some light on the first: al-Ilmu Ilman, Ilmulabdan wa lmuladyan.”
Beneficial knowledge is of two types: medicine and sacred law.” In other words, kiffaya and ain. So Islam divides knowledge beautifully into two categories, kiffaya, which is what is needed for some members of the society to know but not all the members. Examples would be Arabic, memorization of the whole Qur’an, sacred law in areas that don’t go under ain classification i.e. knowledge of contracts, international law; medicine, mathematics, architecture, agriculture etc. An “ain” knowledge is something each individual needs to know and is not excused for being ignorant of it and in fact is considered a wrong doer. A kiffaya can become and ain if no one has learned it until enough people have learned it. Clearly, all knowledge from this perspective is considered religious because all knowledge that is useful and obligatory whether ain or kiffaya is a source of reward for the one who learns it for the sake of Allah **. One important point must be made here; kiffaya can only be learned once ain has been acquired. In other words, if one desires to learn medicine or engineering but has no base in sacred law, not only is it haraam for him or her to be learning the kiffaya until the ain is learned but he or she is actually in a very serious state for not having learned the ain. A state which necessitates tauba (repentance) and the tauba is not complete until one actually begins the acquisition of that ain-knowledge which is incumbent upon him or her. ain-knowledge is not terribly extensive. If a person is of average intelligence it could be acquired in one year’s time, if all of that time was devoted solely to that purpose. It should be obvious - but is not - that very few Muslims to this date actually know the ain-knowledge. In fact, if we took a poll of people coming out of the masjid from Friday prayer and simply asked what were the obligations of wudu, and to make it easy they could answer from any of the existing schools i.e. Maliki, Hanafi, etc., it is my firm belief that less that five percent could answer correctly with certainty. I believe most would confuse sunna and fard. I also believe this would be true of the prayer, Ramadan, Hajj, and Zakat. Now if this is the state of affairs with the five pillars what about the house itself!
What is the result of this deplorable ignorance? Well, I would like to use a little example of what goes wrong when we either have not enough knowledge or none at all. Recently in my area, San Jose, a little booklet was distributed. It identified itself as a fatwa (legal ruling) requiring the khutba to be in Arabic only, and claiming that any other language was haraam. It was put out by a group calling themselves the Ulama Council of some area or another. Now for me, just the title itself put me off because the scholars I studied with taught me from day one that anyone that claims to have knowledge doesn’t have it. That is not false humility; it is reality. So when I saw the title I was already worried. I then actually read it because it was a gift from a very nice Imam at a nearby masjid. What I found was a pathetic tract bereft of real knowledge, filled with mistakes, the most blatant of which was mistaking one school of thought’s position to be universally applicable to all Muslims. Perhaps stranger than that was the fact that they even were mistaken about which school actually does consider an Arabic khutba to be a condition of the prayer. To make matters worse, someone read the tract and began putting up fliers with ominous red-letter exclamated statements saying “DO NOT REMOVE!” in the mosque where I both attend and give khutba in Arabic and English. The trouble with all this is that people that have no right declaring themselves ulama do so and then go on to issue fatwas that they have no right doing either. The subsequent trouble is that other ignorant Muslims read these things or hear the arguments - if you can call them that - and proceed to take it upon themselves to rectify the whole ummat from some terrible innovation that has crept in. The end result is division, confusion and bad blood amongst Muslims. Well at least our enemies are happy.
As for the khutba, according to the Hanafi school it is not a condition or an obligation of the Friday prayer that the khutba be in Arabic. In the seminal Hanafi work Maraqi al-Falah Sharh Nuralidah on page 330 of the marginal commentary of Shaikh Ahmad Tahtawi on the section dealing with the conditions (shuru7) of the jumah prayer, the Shaikh says: (commenting on the original text’s statement) “and the fourth condition is the khutba” (wa lau bilfarisiyya) “even if it was in Persian.” In the Shafi’i school according to the most reliable Shafi’i sources, such as the Reliance of the Wayfarer, translated by Shaykh Nuh Keller, there are five conditions of the khutba if they are met then the khutba is valid. They are: I) saying Alhamdulillah; 2) blessing the Prophet, ** in Arabic; 3) enjoining taqwa (conscious awareness of Allah); 4) reciting one verse of Qur’an in Arabic; and, 5) supplicating Allah for the believers. If these five are fulfilled in Arabic then the rest of the khutba can be in any language. The Maliki and Hanbali schools respectively consider it a condition that the khutba be in Arabic even if the people praying can not understand Arabic. Imam Malik ** says that if no one knows Arabic enough to give a khutba then they should pray dhuhr (see Aqrab al-Masalik, Abul Barakat Ad-Dardir, Bab As-Salat). On the one hand, being an adherent of the Maliki school myself, I would certainly rather see khutba given in Arabic. It is the language of the Qur’an - and the first community’s khutbas were all in Arabic. Furthermore, it is a sad commentary on the Muslims when English has become the language of all our intellectual pursuits. On the other hand, I believe in the universality of Islam. We can not reduce Islam down to a nice set of rigid rules that have no room for difference of opinion (the Salifi Syndrome). Islam has no church, no papacy to dictate what is right and what is wrong for all people at all times. There is a fluidity of the sacred law that allows multiple perceptions in many instances; the wonderful tolerance and mutual respect the Imams of the several different schools held for each other bears witness to this fact. The strength of Islam is in its diversity and mosaic legacy and our weakness lies in our own ignorance of it.
Originally published in the print edition of The American Muslim Summer/Fall 1994