Sunday, April 30, 2006

Yaum al-Din...

Peace, one and all...
I was reading my Quran this evening and came across the following verse. As it highlights a very important Islamic concept, I thought I'd post it here...

'And fear a Day when no soul shall suffice for another soul at all, nor will intercession be accepted from it, nor will compensation be taken from it, nor will they be aided'
(Suarha al-Baqara 2:48)

This verse, as is clear, refers to Judgement Day. This event, of cosmic significance, is variously referred to in the Quran. The 'Opening of the Book' (Surah al-Fatihah) calls it Yaum al-Din ('The Day of Religion'), whilst other passages refer to it by a wider number of terms. Although these names add extra dimensions to our understanding, the central point is not so much intellectual as it is experiential (so to speak). That is, all of humanity must pass through God's awful judgement on that Day. Each deed (and misdeed) will be weighed in the balance and judged (O Allah, let me and mine not be found wanting)! Every individual soul will have to meet Allah in person and will have to explain the course of their life and their responses to it: the question will asked 'what did you do with the life and ability which I gave you?'

Belief in the existence of the Last Day is a fundamental part of Islamic Doctrine (`Aqida) and this is based on numerous Quranic passages and Prophetic Traditions (such as 2:177). As such, it forms part of the basic Islamic catechism and is known as such by every Muslim (from child to old man).

The idea of judgement is an important one and is meant to act in two main ways. That is, it is meant to inspire us to good works, in the hope of earning God's pleasure. It is also meant to keep us from sinning, through fear of God's wrath. Fear and hope, two quintessential features of Islam.

It's time for the maghrib prayer here in South Wales. So, I'll close here and God willing, I'll add a little more later. Insha Allah, I think I might add Ibn Kathir's tafsir (exegesis) to this verse.

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Awe and Naked Wonder...

Peace, one and all...
Here's another of Rumi's ruminations (I still can't get enough of that phrase). This time, as the title suggests, on the subject of awe.
'Go and contemplate God's wonders, become lost to yourselves from the majesty and awe of God. When one who beholds the wonders of God abandons pride and egoism from contemplating God's work, that one will know his proper station and be silent concerning the Maker. Such a person will only say from their soul, "I cannot praise You properly," because that declaration is beyond reckoning',
(Mathnawi IV, 3708-3710)
It has been said that philosophy (which literally means 'love of wisdom') starts from a sense of wonder. That is, I suppose, philosophy is a response provoked by the wonder of life. The 'wonders of God', as the Mevlana describes them, are indeed too many to contemplate. Everything around us is a gift. The fresh air on a summer's day, or even snow in the winter. All of these experiences have a meaning for us. However, God's gifts extend far beyond mere phenomena. As the Tanakh (the Old Testament of Christianity) says: 'The gift of God is life'. Life itself, as well as the ability to perceive and enjoy it, come ultimately from Allah.
I think I've run out of steam at the moment. I'll continue these ramblings later (possibly, insha Allah).
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Saturday Morning and Just Chillin'...

Peace, one and all...
Al hamdu lillah, it's the start of the May Day bank holiday. I'm currently enjoying a relaxed morning with my wife and children. The back door's open, the weather's warm and sunny and we'll be going into town later on, insha Allah. I suppose I'm just acknowledging my gratitude and appreciation for a lovely morning with the family.
Allah ka shukr hai, as they say in Urdu.
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Friday, April 28, 2006

Waiting for the Train

Salaams, one and all...
It's friday evening again (yipee)! Actually, it's almost 8pm and for some strange reason, I'm still in the office (I have no life)! Well, I got talking to a colleague and lost track of time. As I catch the train home, I have to wait a while for the next one. Thus, I'm stuck here for a bit. I don't mind too much though. It's the May Day bank holiday here in the UK and so I'm looking forward to a nice long weekend away from work.
Not that I've been working much in the last couple of hours. This week has been busy, having said that. I've still not quite finished some stuff for my last lecture on tuesday. Agghh!!! That reminds me. I need to get some material together so that I can prepare! Well, most of it's at home (phew). And, fortunately, I was reading one book on the train this morning: A. Saeed and H. Saeed's Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam. I have to say I've enjoyed the first couple of chapters, esepcially the overview of the theological and religious contexts of early Islamic history. The authors make their own positions clear: to boot, they're against the death penalty for apostasy and they intend to demonstrate that it goes against the Quran and Sunnah. They argue (not sure how successfully yet) that the death penalty was imposed during the classical period in response to certain political, social and religious contexts. Well, let's see what their argument is.
The time's getting on a bit and so I need to get to the station now. So, I'll say ma'as salama and make like a tree and leave!
Abdur Rahman

The Wonders of the Universe...

Peace, one and all...

In many places, the Quran instructs humankind to look to the heavens as a sign of God's existence, power and majesty, Surah al-Mulk for example. I've always loved looking at stars (and am a keen sci-fi fan) and love pictures of the night sky. I was looking through the GRIN website (
Great Images in Nasa) and found some pictures I'd like to post here.

Here's the first one... (more later)

This galaxy (Spiral Galaxy NGC 4603 Pulsar Cepheid Centaurus Milky Way) is some 108 million light years. In other words, the light from this galaxy left its home 108 million years ago! Subhan Allah. Again, this is a picture of the past, a snapshot of this galaxy as it was 108 million years ago. Assuming that there is life on other planets (which seems beyond reasonable doubt to me), I wonder how many civilisations have been born and have died since the light from this galaxy left its source? Ya Allah, how vast this universe is!

Well, that's all for now folks...

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Everybody loves the sunshine...

Salaam wa rahmatullahi, one and all...
(Peace and God's Mercy to one and all)

Al hamdu lillah, summer is definitely on the way. I journeyed in to work this morning in glorious warm sunshine. It's a beautiful day today; the kind of day that lifts the mood. The hills of the South Wales valleys (where I live) seemed to have been given their very own spring cleaning: the grass seems greener and the trees more verdant and lush. A day to enjoy and to thank God for indeed...

My mood was further relaxed through my choice of music this morning. One of my favourite sunshine tracks is Roy Ayers' Everybody Loves the Sunshine. Ahhh! It always makes me feel good. Although a song about sunshine doesn't sound very uplifting, if you think about it for a moment you'll see how deep it really is. Acknowledging the beauty of something God has given you is deeply spiritual.

I also managed to play with my children before I had to leave for work (and they had to get ready for school and creche). That always puts me in a good mood. I can't wait for the summer to arrive: the very thought of lazy days in the garden, with the barbecue on the go, and nothing urgent to do fills me with excitement!

Insha Allah, my parents will come to visit during the weekend (which is a bank holiday in the UK). Insha Allah, I'll be taking my mother to Hay on Wye on Saturday (or possibly Monday). For those outside of Britain, Hay on Wye (a small town on the Welsh border) is home to an unusually large concentration of second-hand bookshops. Every year they hold a world famous book festival. Considering what a book worm I am, the fact that I live 30 minutes drive from Hay is great. Insha Allah, therefore, I hope to spend Saturday hunting for bargains.

The last couple of days at work have been really busy. It's module selection time, which means first year students are busily deciding what they want to do next year. This brings a lot of work with it. Not that I mind being busy. If nothing else, it makes the day go more quickly. Moreover, helping people make choices is enjoyable. It's also enjoyable talking to someone who's really enthusiastic about studying their subject.

I'm also missing a couple of meetings today (no bad thing too). Work has just been so busy this year, that I hardly have time to think. Insha Allah, it'll calm down after the Exam Boards (late June). God willing, I'll also be away from the office for virtually the whole of July. I'll be finishing my early Islamic history course (with the time to actually prepare stuff in the daylight hours)! I also plan to do some serious chilling... You know, play with the kids, enjoy the garden, relax in my good wife's company...

I may also go to London for some extended library time (possibly). I may also even get to finally write my PhD proposal, insha Allah. Although I'm not planning to start just yet, I need to put a proposal together so that I can start some in-depth discussions with my potential supervisor.

My working title (can't remember off hand if I've posted it before) is Early Islamic Messianism: the life, thought and wider significance of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyya. Ibn al-Hanafiyya, for those unfamiliar with the subject, was the third son of Ali ibn Abi Talib, though not by Fatima (daughter of the Prophet). During the second civil war, Ibn al-Hanafiyyah was proclaimed Imam by al-Mukhtar, during a revolt in Iraq. Mukhtar did not, however, have the unequivocal support of Muhammad. From what I've discovered thus far, Ibn al-Hanafiyya was the first potential shia Imam for whom titles such as Mahdi were used. After his death, a small sectarian movement (the Kaysaniyya) believed that he was in a state of occultation and would return as the Mahdi. Fascinating stuff.

There has been a lot of interest in Shia Islam, and its development, in recent years. Wadad al-Qadi published a book on the Kaysaniyya (in Arabic). At this stage, my Arabic isn't strong enough to read it, though I hope to obtain a copy, insha Allah. If it covers my intended area exactly, I may have to rethink my topic. Generally speaking, I'm interested claimants to prophecy/inspiration/religious charisma after Muhammad (saw), so there may be some mileage there insha Allah. Such movements often seem coupled with armed revolt, which may tie in more effectively with my potential supervisor's interests. We'll see, insha Allah.

Well, I'm off to do some work.

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Current Reading: expect some reviews soon...

Peace, one and all...

I just wanted to give fair warning that I'm about to start my next wave of reading, so there'll be some blogs coming soon. Those with nervous dispositions (or likely to be easily bored) should make for the exits now!

The books in question are as follows. As you will see, they focus on various aspects of Islamic Studies, with a marked emphasis on things historical. As regular visitors may be aware, I'm in the planning stages of a possible part-time PhD project in early Islamic history. Most of the books cited here thus either relate to early Islamic history directly or otherwise have some tangential relationship to the period. Anyway, here are the titles...

  • M. Zakeri (1995), Sasanid Soldiers in Early Muslim Society, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag
  • M. S. Gordon (2001), The Breaking of a Thousand Swords, New York: SUNY Press
  • Hisham al-Kalbi (1952 trans. N. A. Faris), The Book of Idols, Princeton: Princeton University Press
  • I. R. Netton (1982), Muslim Neoplationist: an Introduction to the Thought of the Brethren of Purity, London: George Allen & Unwin
  • M. M. Bar-Asher & A. Kofsky (2002) The Nusayri-`Alawi Religion: an Enquiry into its Theology and Liturgy, Leiden: EJ Brill
  • S. S. Agha (2003), The Revolution which Toppled the Umayyads: Neither Arab nor Abbasid, Leiden: EJ Brill
  • A. Saeed & H. Saeed (2004), Freedom of Religion, Apostasy and Islam, Aldershot: Ashgate
  • I. Yilmaz (2005), Muslim Laws, Politics and Society in Modern Nation States: Dynamic Legal Pluralisms in England, Turkey and Pakistan, Aldershot: Ashgate
  • P. Jackson (2005), The Mongols and the West, Harlow: Longman
  • S. Zubaida (2003), Law and Power in the Islamic World, London: IB Tauris

You can expect reviews of these works in the coming weeks... insha Allah, of course.

Ma'as salama

Abdur Rahman

Never feel bad about an act of charity

Peace, one and all...

A person I know recently asked me my opinion about an act of charity of theirs. They had given some food to a neighbour who they had little, so that they might feed their children. Ma sha Allah, a worthy act of charity, for which God will grant a goodly reward, insha Allah. Whilst this seems (and indeed is) unobjectionable, even praiseworthy, society at large often sees such acts as (at best) simpleminded foolishness. In this materialistic world, selfless giving is defintely not in fashion!

However, what's wrong with charity, if given in an understanding, emphathetic fashion? Why is wrong to help? As Bob Marley once sang, 'a hungry man is a hungry man'. Lightening someone's load, for the sake of God, is a worthy and noble deed. As such, we should never feel bad about an act of selfless charity. It is a mean-spirited person indeed who would refuse to feed a hungry woman and child. So, never feel bad about giving charity.

I'd like to close this brief post with a Tradition of our noble Prophet (), which is particularly appropriate in this regard:

'He is not a believer who goes to bed full whilst his neighbour is hungry'

Ma'as salama

Abdur Rahman

Wings of Desire...

Peace, one and all...

Welcome again to the Corner, Abdur Rahman's little piece of the (virtual) world. Those of you who've found your way here before will know of my recent penchant for posting selections of Rumi's poetry. In tonight's installment, Rumi offers us some of his reflections on desire...

People are distracted by objects of desire,
and afterward repent of the lust they've indulged,
because they have indulged with a phantom
and are left even farther from Reality than before.

Your desire for the illusory could be a wing,
by means of which a seeker might ascend to Reality.
When you have indulged in a lust, your wing drops off;
you become lame, abandoned by a fantasy.

Preserve the wing and don't indulge such lust,
so that the wing of desire may bear you to Paradise.

People fancy they are enjoying themselves,
but they are really tearing out their wings for the sake of an illusion'
(Mathanwi III, 2133-2138)

How true! Lust passes, like a storm, once spent, having destroyed everything in its path. The metaphor of flying is also apt. May Allah help our wings to grow back once again!

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Good Character...

Peace, one and all...

Imam al-Ghazali (rahmatullahi alaih) in his voluminous work Ihya Ulum al-Din ('Revivification of the Religious Sciences') quotes the following tradition of the Prophet ( ):

'A man said to the Emissary of God (may God bless him and grant him peace), 'Give me some advice'. 'Fear God', he replied, 'wherever you may be'. 'Give me more', he said. 'Follow a sin with a good deed,' he replied, 'and you will erase it'. 'Give me more', the man said, and he replied, 'When you deal with people, do so with good character' (Quoted in Imam al-Ghazali Ihya Ulum al-Din, Kitab al-Kasr al-Shahawatayn)

A beautiful and profound tradition.

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman


Peace, one and all...

Upon opening my Quran this morning, I saw the following verse:
'Whether you reveal anything or conceal it, indeed Allah has full knowledge of
all things'
(Surah al-Ahzab 33:54, A. Yusuf Ali trans.)

The idea behind this verse is an important part of Islamic doctrine. That is, the idea that God has complete knowledge of everything, both hidden and manifest, is an important one. God, within the Islamic Tradition, is omnisicent (all-knowing), as well as all-powerful (omnipotent).

Internally, as I read and reflect on this verse, it reminds me of several things. Firstly, Allah is aware of my faults, secret and open. Therefore, if He is aware of them, I should own up to them myself and ask for His forgiveness (and I do). Secondly, God is fully aware of the subtleties of human speech and action: there's no fooling Allah Ta'ala. Thirdly, God is aware of things within us, of which we are ourselves unaware. That is, our own knowledge is limited by ability and also intuition: we are not aware of all of the hidden motivations which drive us. God, by contrast, is - in a complete and perfect sense. He thus knows our secret motivations and intentions (which, I suppose, is why He alone can judge by them), better than we do ourselves.

The Prophet (saw) is reported to have asked God to 'show me things as they truly are', which casts an interesting light on this discussion. In other words, the Prophet seems here to be asking to have clarity with regards to his intentions and understandings. Subhan Allah, a penetrating and insightful comment to say the least.

Furthermore, in understanding the import of this particular ayah, we also need to consider its wider context. This part of the Surah is referring to conduct with regards to the Prophet and so its important to consider this aspect. However, I'm not qualified to undertake such work; so I'll leave it here.

May God show us the truth as it really is and help us to follow it and may He show us falsehood as it truly is and give us the grace to avoid it.

wa akhiru da'wana an il hamdu lillahi rabbi al-alameen

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Monday, April 24, 2006

Thinking about Children & God...

Peace, one and all...

It occurs to me that although I've mentioned that I have children, I've not really spoken about them. That's strange really, considering how important they are in my life. Well, let's correct that mistake now, insha Allah...

For those of you without children, it's really hard to describe watching your child as they fall asleep. A mixture of awe and wonder. After all, these are my flesh and my blood; they are my inheritance in the world. This reminds me of Kahlil Gibran's book The Prophet (a work I first read a long time ago). There's a short chapter in there about children. It's something like 'Your children are from you, but they are not of you...' I might be misquoting there. I think I'll dig the book out and see for myself. I might even include a few quotes from it.

In any case, having children is a profound experience. In a sense, it gives an insight into the way God works. I know just how far I would go for my children. If I, a faulty mortal man of limited insight and ability, can feel such love, then the Divine, who is eternally beyond all, must be able to love us. That is, if my children do something bad, they are still mine and I will not reject them. Whatever they do, they are still my beautiful children. How much more so for God!

I'm not saying that God is my father. Exalted is He above such things. But God, who is al-Wadud (the Loving), is my Creator; He created me from nothing, gave me soul, mind, spirit and body and a world in which to use them. He gave me life and ability; intellect and emotion; birth and death. Does He not love me then? How strange, given these insights, it is that I should sin; how strange that I should reject His love!

If I cannot think of paradise without my children (may Allah join us all together in paradise); If I need them and cannot be without them - how much more must Allah yearn for us?

More questions without answers...

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

'And God Carries the Water'...

Peace, one and all...

'Fiery lust is not diminshed by indulging it,
but inevitably by leaving it ungratified.
As long as you are laying logs on the fire, the fire will burn.
When you withhold the wood, the fire dies,
and God carries the water'.
Mathnawi I, 3703-3707

Ya Rabbi!

Ma'as salama

Abdur Rahman

Repentance and Hypocrisy...

Peace, one and all...

Sometimes, when we're absorbed with ourselves and our selfish desires, we forget God (and ourselves) and stray from the Path. Although Allah has written all that occurs, we are still given the right to choose to do (or, importantly, not to do) a thing. When, therefore, we choose a thing that is bad for us (and thus sin) a number of things happen.

Firstly, we violate the natural order of things. That is, sin is like inherent wrongness; its very nature radiates a kind of malice. Secondly, we earn God's displeasure. This leads us to the third effect: we veil ourselves from Allah's presence. I don't mean this in the Christian sense of God not being able to accept anything unholy (which would suggest God cannot do a certain thing) but rather that sin affects our own ability to sense the Truth clearly.

The Prophet (saw) compared sins to fire - which burns up good deeds as fire consumes dry wood. What an apt remark. Sin burns and it is an unhealthy fire.

Repentance then becomes necessary. Al hamdu lillah, God has woven repentance into the very fabric of Islam. Bad deeds can be wiped away with sincere contrition and good deeds. Repentance means leaving the deed, feeling remorse for it and striving to never committ it again. Moreover God, so the Quran informs us, accepts the sincere repentance of everyone, you just have to mean it. Unlike other statements regarding the future, which in Islam are hedged with the phrase 'insha Allah' (God willing), repentance is said to be assured. That is, if you're truly sorry God will accept it. Even if you fall into sin again and again and again (as I have done), repent truly and be re-born into God's all-encompassing mercy.

Think about that statement for a moment (as I am now). No complicated acts, no self-inflicted punishments, just a simple heartfelt plea of 'sorry'. However, the key word I suppose is 'heartfelt'. Repentance must be sincere to be accepted. Otherwise, it's mere hypocrisy. Writing this words reminds me just how much of a hypocrite I am: may God turn to me and help me change my ways! Again, where possible, hide the sins of others that God may hide your sins.

Before God, I freely confess my sins. I have no confessor except Allah, Glorified and Exalted, Lord of Majesty and Honour, '...Merciful and Compassionate, showing steadfast love to thousands...'. Again, before God, I ask for pardon and ask for guidance, so that I stray no more. Lord, Knower of the Unseen and the Visible, guide my steps and give me insight into the secrets of my heart, that I may see the way; help me to avoid sin, secret and open, and help me to walk aright!
Ya Allah astaghfiruka wa atubu ilaik! Ya Allah astaghfiruka wa atubu ilaik! Ya Allah astaghfiruka wa atubu ilaik! Ya Allah, astaghfiruka kulli dhunubi wa'al khataya wa atubu ilaik. Ya Arham Ar-Rahimeen!
I want to close with a Prophetic du'a (supplication) which is very appropriate in this regard:

Allahumma anta Rabbi (O Allah, You are my Lord), La ilaha illa Ant (There is none worthy of worship except You), Khalaqtani wa ana `abduk (You created me and I am Your Servant), Wa ana ala ahdika wa wa'dika mustata`t, (And I am following Your Covenant and Promise as much as I can), A`udhu bika min sharri ma sana`t, (I seek refuge with You from the evil of my actions), Aboo'o laka bi ni`amatika alaihi (And I acknowledge Your favours upon me), Wa aboo'o bi dhanbi (And I acknowledge my sin), Faghfirli, fa innahu le yaghfiru dhunuba illa ant (So, forgive me, and indeed none forgives sins except You).

And God carries the water

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Saturday, April 22, 2006


Salaams, one and all...

Yet more late night blogging! It's friday night. Once, long ago, friday nights would usually find me down the pub, drinking heavily...or else sprawled out somewhere...or otherwise doing things I shouldn't. These days, I like to spend my friday nights reading or occasionally, worshipping (though, I admit, I don't do enough of this). I remember when I first 'came out of the closet' as a Muslim - the highlight of the week was walking around the Co-op Supermarket in Lampeter!

Now, as anyone who's ever been to Lampeter will know, this is not exactly the most exciting of pastimes. However, looking back, the company was the real treat. Lampeter, as a small (and I mean tiny) village in rural Wales, has a very small Muslim community, some 50 or so individuals when I was there. As such, the immediate aftermath of my conversion was faced in the bosom of a warm, friendly community (who, though we've since gone our separate ways, are still in touch).

Al hamdu lillah, thinking about it now, I realise just how fortunate I was. And, just how unusual the Lampeter community was. Salafis rubbed shoulders with Sufis and even Shi'is and everyone seemed to get along! I can't imagine that happening anywhere else at present. There was only one occasion that I can recall explicit unpleasantness. One individual arrived and within 1 week had people arguing with each other (until the source of these whisperings became clear to all).

I suppose I could be romanticising (not unheard of). But, once I left Lampeter and was exposed to what passes for 'community' amongst many of our brethren, I began to understand just how special those days were. This became especially clear towards the end of my sojourn in West Wales (outside of the University, that is). A spiritual wasteland to say the least. Those who know me well, will know what I am referring to. For everyone else, why uncover what Allah has hidden?

Having made hijra to where I now reside (South East Wales - not much of a hijra, I know, but a hijra nonetheless), I feel that I'm once again coming back to (spiritual) life. It's affected me of course - both inwardly and outwardly. But, why complain? Others have it much worse. However, the one thing that I will say is this: how odd that I should have to leave an 'Islamic' environment in order to practice my Islam? And, how bizarre it is that working amongst people of many faiths (and none) has revivified my internal life? Truly, the hearts of Adam's children are hidden from all (except their Maker).

Also, of late, I've been making efforts to contact old friends, most of whom I've not seen in the flesh for many years (hello if you're passing this way). Ya Allah, life is a strange thing. Talking with old friends is an odd experience. For some of them, the distance between the present and my memories of them seems vast - intergalactic even! On the other hand, when recalled to life, these memories still seem instant and fresh. Subhan Allah, what an odd experience.

Anyway, I've got a question for my audience (or the Ether): how do you post links? Answers on a postcard please...

Well ... I'm going to 'do one', as a Scouse friend of mine puts it.

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Friday, April 21, 2006

A Madman? The Quran's Verdict...

Peace, one and all...

In last night's post I was reflecting on the stereotypical image of Islam - you know, violent, bloodthirsty lunatics, inspired by a vengeful madman!

I opened my Quran this evening and my eyes fell upon the following verses:

'And they say, 'O you upon whom the message has been sent down [Muhammad], indeed you are mad. Why do you not bring us the angels, if you should be among the truthful?' We [Allah] do not send down the angels except with the truth, and they would not then be reprieved. Indeed, it is We who sent down the message and indeed, it is We will be its Guardian. And We certainly sent [messengers] before you, [O Muhammad], among the sects of the former peoples. And no messenger would come except that they ridiculed him'
(al-Quran al-Karim, Surah al-Hijr, 15:6-11)
Reading these verses reminds me that such comments are not new. Indeed, every prophet faced similar accusations: Madman, soothsayer, magician, trickster, fraud! Transplant these sayings from times gone by to recent months and don't they seem familiar? Turn these descriptions into images and I'm sure they'd look like the now infamous Danish cartoons.

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Scribbling in the Corner...

Ma'as salama one and all...

I'm currently waiting for a few minutes before I leave work and catch the train home... I thought I'd spend a few minutes 'blogging'. 'Blogging' sounds like something dodgy - the kind of thing you do furtively, in secret corners; the kind of thing that sends you blind!

Speaking of secret corners - I wonder how many people actually read this stuff! Well, not that I really care, to be honest. Dialogue would be nice, but ultimately, the purpose of this blog is personal: it gives me a space to write and thereby order my thoughts. I find writing very therapeutic. It's a good way to de-stress. Not that I feel I'm any good. Just that the process of ordering and writing down (or in this case, typing) my thoughts helps provide me with a direction. My blog is primarily a form of personal catharsis, or purification via text, you might say. Ya Allah, that sounds a bit pretentious! It's just that writing helps me think and feel; thinking and feeling help me to find direction - which helps me to make sense of this crazy world and thus to find the direction to Allah.

Well... it's 4:15 on Friday afternoon. My office window is open and I can feel a slight breeze (coupled with the noise of passing trains). There are two pine trees outside my office window, with branches moving gently in the breeze. In other words, an average friday. Having said that, though, it's nice to pause for a little while. It's worth realising that each moment is truly unique, never to be repeated. So, what appears to be mundane - is actually really unusual!

So, not just another day after all then!

Ma'as salama and toodle pip!

Abdur Rahman

Links, as soon as I figure out the HTML stuff...

Ma'as salama...

I'm trying to put some links into my blog, but can't seem to work it all out at the moment! Once I've got the hang of it, I'll put some of my personal links on for you all. However, for now, some of my favourite sites include:

There are others. I'd also like to link to some other like-minded blogs.

Anyway, it's time for Friday Prayers ... so let's leave business and turn to Allah!

Ma'as salama once again,

Abdur Rahman

Corner Culture...

Peace to you, whoever you may be...

Here's today's excerpt from the poetry of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi:

'The world's flattery and hypocrisy is a sweet morsel,
eat less of it, for it is full of fire,
Its fire is hidden while its taste is manifest,
but its smoke becomes visible in the end'!
Mathnawi I, 1855- 1856

Ma'as salama

Abdur Rahman

Sciences: the Priorities

Peace, one and all...

I thought I'd post a chapter from Imam al-Haddad's Knowledge and Wisdom. In Arabic, the title is: al-Fusul al-`Ilmiyya wa al-Usul al-Hikamiyya. As you may have noticed, assuming of course you've swung by the Corner before, I've often quoted from this book. So, rather than give you reams of my own inane drivel, I thought I'd just post a short chapter from the Shaykh himself. This chapter is entitled 'Sciences: the Priorities' and relates, it seems to intention and priority...

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim wa al-salatu wa al-salaamu `ala al-nabi...
(In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful and prayers and peace be upon the Prophet)

'If you wish to know which sciences and acts are the most important and beneficial for you, imagine that you are to die the next day and return to God to stand before Him and be asked to account for your knowledge, behaviour, and all your affairs and states, subsequently to be taken either to the Garden or the Fire. What you see there as most important and useful to you is precisely what you must now give priority and attachment to; whereas what you find useless, unimportant, frivolous, or simply of no great necessity is what you must neither pursue nor occupy yourself with in this life. Meditate on this matter and reflect well; it is of tremendous benefit to those who have discernment and are concerned about their appointed time, their return to God, their salvation, and their success in the Hereafter, which is better and more enduring (Quran 87:17). Success is in the Hand of God, to whom belong all graces, for He bestows them on whomever He wills; and God's graces are immense!'
(Translated by Mostafa Badawi, published by the Starlatch Press, 2001).

Wisdom Indeed!

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Confusion of Terms...

Peace one and all,
Another late night posting! Nothing more, really, than a collection of my usual ramblings. So Yalla!
Looking briefly for blogs containing the word 'Islam' this evening brought up a vast range of responses. My brief scan through them has left me feeling rather disappointed. As a seasoned internet user, strongly anti-Islamic views are not new to me. Just google 'Allah', or 'Islam' and you'll see what I mean. However, looking through these posts tonight it seems that so many people still insist on regurgitating the same tired old view of Islam as inherently violent and that this apparent violence is based on Muhammad's own teaching (alayhis salatu wa al-salaam).
Man, it gets tiring hearing the same old chestnut again and again and again - like some old cracked record. The people of Islam have been putting with this sort of nonsense for the best part of a thousand years and it's really old hat now.
It's as if some people just can't seem to separate Islam as a religion and the actions of Muslims as people. The two things are not the same at all. Islam as a faith should be judged on its teachings and not on the people who 'claim' to follow it. Individual Muslims, as faulty human beings, may or may not be good examples of their faith - but, logically, it doesn't detract from Islam as a religion. It's like comparing drawing pins and smoked mackerel; that is, the two things do not belong in the same class of objects.
Of course, it's easy to prove that some (indeed many) Muslims fall short of the mark that Islam sets. But, pointing to the faults of some Muslims says more about their defects than it does about Islam as a religion. I was looking at one posting showing some Egyptian policemen beating up an Egyptian Christian - horrible for sure, wrong - of course, but what does it show about Islam itself? Very little, I would contend (other than the fact that Islam does not exist in all Muslims).
As for claims that Islam is inherently violent, I would argue that such ideas spring from either a misunderstanding or from a deliberate distortion. Misunderstandings are easy to clear up through calm, polite and friendly discussion. Distortions can also be set aright in a similar manner. Furthermore, it's time we all realised that there are crackpots on both sides. Should we therefore let those at the margins decide how the rest of us interact?
More on this topic later insha Allah...
I wanted to close with a verse from the Quran. It's from Surah al-Anfal and was the first one my eyes fell upon when I opened my Quran this evening:
'The believers are only those who, when Allah is mentioned, their hearts become
fearful, and when His verses are recited to them, it increases them in faith; and upon their Lord they rely'
(Quran 8:2)
Wisdom and Truth from the Lord of all Wisdom(al-Hakim) and the Master of all Truth (al-Haqq).
Ma'as salama
Abdur Rahman

Ruminating on Rumi...

Peace, one and all...
May God's Mercy enfold us all...
Those of you who are regulare visitors to the Corner (assuming of course that there are any) will be aware of my recent promise (or threat) to ruminate on Rumi (I still can't get enough of that phrase). I was recently bought a copy of some of Mavlana Rumi's poetry and have started reading it. Subhan Allah, Rumi's deep and even in translation, his poems are striking.
Insha Allah Ta'ala (God, the Most High, Willing), I'll post a favourite ghazal every couple of days. However, to start with I thought I'd start with 3...
'O tongue, you are an endless treasure,
O tongue, you are also an endless disease'
Mathnawi I, 702
How true! How many times have I felt uplifted by a kind word and how many times have I brought my deeds to nothing through words. 'Loose lips, sink ships' as the WWII saying goes.
'Fiery lust is not diminshed by indulging it,
but inevitably by leaving it ungratified.
As long as you are laying logs on the fire, the fire will burn.
When you withhold the wood, the fire dies,
and God carries the water'.
Mathnawi I, 3703-3707
I particularly like the last line of this couplet: 'And God carries the water'. What a beautiful way of expressing it. The Shaykh is right: lust is fiery and it does burn.
'Refresh you faith, but not with talking.
You have secretly refreshed your desires.
As long as desires are fresh, faith is not.
for it is these desires that lock the gate'.
Mathnawi I, 1078-1079
This couplet relates to the last post; talking about strengthening your faith and certitude keep from actually strengthening them! Again, why talk if you're busy at work? And, if you are talking (or writing in this case), then what does that say about your work?
Wa akhiru da'wana an il hamdu lillah rabbil alameen.
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Knowledge & Wisdom: Insights from a Spiritual Master

As salaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh...
(May the peace, mercy and blessings of God be upon you)

Some time back, I posted a quotation from Imam Abdallah al-Haddad's Knowledge & Wisdom and offered some reflections on it. As I mentioned at the time, although I've read through the book a number of times, I'm still on the first lesson. So, back to the lesson...

'Gnostics and scholars focus mainly on making their faith and certitude sound
and strong and in purifying their belief in God's oneness [tawhid] from the
blemishes of hidden idolatry... So learn and understand!...'

I'm still pondering this point. What exactly does 'making their faith and certitude sound' mean? Does it mean that faith and certitude need to come before deeds? Well, Surah al-Asr (amongst many others) refers to inna alladhina amanu wa `amil as-salihat ('those who believe and do good deeds'). Do such ayat imply that belief needs to come before action. On one level, I suppose this makes sense. But, practically, aren't we all under the obligation to act as soon as we believe? In other words, is it right to see belief and action as separate?
Imam Tahawi, in his famous al-`Aqidah al-Tahawiah, states that:

'Belief consists of affirmation by the tongue and acceptance by the heart'
(Point 62).

Does the 'affirmation by the tongue' refer to action?
Ya Rabbi 'the blemishes of hidden idolatry'! Sometimes it seems as the blemishes are the norm and the clean spots unusual! There is hidden idolatry in everything I do: whenever I do something I shouldn't, or utter a harsh word, or undertake a good deed in the wrong manner. I can do nothing right!
Ya Allah. Intention, intention, intention. Innama al-`Amalu bi al-niyyat. Oh Lord, grant me purity of intention!
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Corner Culture...

Peace, one and all...
I watched M. Night Shyamalan's The Village again last night. Although I first saw it in the cinema when it came out, it's still a good film. Like most of Shyamalan's films, The Village was not what it first seemed. On the face of it, The Village seemed to be a standard horror film, set apparently in the 19th century American West (when are they ever set outside America?). Halfway through, though, it shifted gear and became a much more interesting tale of escape from the modern world and its materialistic violence. It was also about facing and overcoming fear. It was interesting that, although the village community appeared to be a religious one, there was no overt mention of God. I have to say that I've enjoyed all of Shyamalan's films and particularly, the hidden quality they all seem to share. Sixth Sense came across as a ghost film, but was really a story about Bruce Willis' character realising his own death. Unbreakable (which is a special fave of mine) was a superhero film, which focused more on the heroism of the ordinary - as well as on the relationship between Jackson and Willis. Signs was about the restoration of hope and faith, despite its outward packaging as an alien invasion film.
More please...!
Abdur Rahman

Islam Should Speak for Itself...

Peace, one and all...
I'm currently still ruminating on Rumi (I do love that phrase), so I don't yet have anything to offer on that score. I do feel something coming though (insha Allah); so, get ready!
Now, with the imminent end of the Easter holidays (which means I've started getting the train again), I've been reading quite a bit lately. I've just finished an interesting book and so want to offer a few thoughts on it here.
The work in question is M. Smith's Rabi`a: the Life and Work of Rabi`a and Other Women Mystics in Islam (published by Oneworld, 1994). As the title suggests, the book focuses mainly on the early woman mystic, Rabi`a al-`Adawiyya.
The work is split into three sections: section 1 focuses on her life; section 2 looks at the Sufi path (as exemplified by Rabi'a); section 3 looks more broadly at Women mystics in Islam. On the whole, I enjoyed the book. That is, it offered a useful introduction to Rabi'a's life and thought. I must confess it's not a subject I know a great deal about. I have heard of Rabi'a (May God grant her mercy) and know that she was one of the most eminent mystics of the entire Islamic tradition; indeed, her teachings (based upon self-effacing experience) have been deeply influential. In that sense, the book is a welcome addition to the study of Islamic mysticism.
Smith's exploration of Sufi thought (which, so the cover proclaims, was based on her PhD) is interesting. However, given that this was, apparently, her PhD, it does seem a little uncritical. That is, it offers a description of the Sufi path and its principal stages, but does not seem to offer much of an analysis. Her discussions of the stages of Repentance (tawba), Patience (sabr), Gratitude (shukr), etc are all welcome - but, after reading them, they seem more like a pastiche of quotes than a reasoned argument. Or, rather, she seems to accept all these different statements (from mystics such as al-Hujwiri, al-Ghazzali and so on) as unquestionably part of the same process. She doesn't seem to explore the links and connections critically enough for my taste. Now, it has to be admitted immediately, that I am not a Sufi; I thus make no claims to experiential understanding of these 'states' (May Allah grant me the tawfiq to pursue such a path). But, it seems to me, that although there is a path trodden by Muslim sages (in all its manifold diversity), a work such as this needs to explore the issues more critically.
I was also struck by Smith's use of comparative material from other religious (mostly Christian) traditions. Again, this works on two levels, exoteric (zahir) and esoteric (batin). Esoterically speaking, as God is but One, so is the Ultimate Reality. Thus, at a certain level, differences disappear. On this level, such marterial works very well. On a personal note, the idea that Truth is ultimately One is what lead me to Islam. On my office wall (which I'm looking at now), I've got a Biblical and Quranic passage side by side (Proverbs 1:7 - 'The Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge...' and 'Fear God and God shall teach you...' from the Quran). Again, it's in (or perhaps by) this light that I read the Old Testament (as Christians refer to it).
Exoterically speaking, however, I have reservations about the seemingly uncritical reservations about the use of such comparative material. Smith offers no disclaimers about this material and the fact that it is potentially dangerous to use material in this way. Indeed, reflecting on the book as a whole, it seems clear to me that this perception lies behind the entire work: it leaves me wondering about her own allegiances (which are left unclear).
These thoughts are further strengthened in the first chapter on section 3 ('The Position of Woman in Muslim Lands'). I have major problems with this chapter. Firstly, although its title seems to reflect a broadly sociological approach, what we really have here is an unworthy pastiche of fairly standard anti-Islamic material. It's difficult to emphasise properly how strange this chapter appears after the largely positive account in sections 1 and 2.
Basically, Smith argues that Islam, as a religious system, is inherently anti-woman. That is, Islam is theologically anti-woman, and, this theology is based on Muhammad's ( ) own sexism (as apparently evidenced by his marriage to Khadijah). As a believing Muslim (and a student of history), I find this picture hard to swallow. Firstly, although Rabi'a (and other mystics) sought God for His own sake (rather than through fear of punishment or hope of reward), they were led to these spiritual heights through following Muhammad's example. In other words, the purity of the internal states Smith describes in section 2 could not have been achieved by an impure, sexist heart.
Smith's evidence for Islam's misogyny is largely drawn from a comparison with examples from pre-Islamic poetry. Here, though, a number of points are worth noting. Firstly, is it fair to compare an idealised (indeed, romanticised) picture of an imagined past with a pciture of (perceived) 'reality'? Pre-Islamic poetry is, of course, almost the only source for pre-Islamic Arabian society - but, it is certainly not without bias.
First of all, it should be remembered, that this poetry only survives in the writings of Muslims themselves. It seems to have been largely a product of the growth of adab literature in the second and third centuries after the hijra. And, as made brilliantly clear by Tarif Khalidi in his Arabic Historical Thought in the Classical Period (CUP, 1994), such poetry often portrays the pre-Islamic bedouin as an archetype of the 'noble savage'. In other words, such poetry often says much more about its transmitters' times than about pre-Islamic Arabia. An example from Roman history may help here: looking at Tacitus' Germania demonstrates that his 'noble savages' are, in many ways, counterpoints to his 'degenerate' Roman elite.
Indeed, the very fact that the 'freedom' of the women cited is so emphasied suggests that common practice was very different. One need only read some of the early Makkan chapters of the Quran to see that women were considered little better than property (in terms of marital rights, divorce rights and rights of inheritance).
Now, many contemporary Muslim writers lay much emphasis on the rights that Islam grants to women (true, undoubtedly) whilst at the same time ignoring the suffering that has (and continues to be) perpertrated in the name of Islam. However, as Fatima Mernissi (in her seminal work, The Veil and the Male Elite) emphasises, Muhammad himself was radically different. Moreover, Muslim women are actively, indeed noisily, present in early Muslim history (as the sources Smith herself cites show). Her presentation of Muslim women appears, to me at any right, as skewed. Upon reflection, it might even be said that her work (especially in its use of comparative material) is a somewhat polemical Christian understanding of Islamic mysticism.
This leads me on to another point; namely, the importance of letting Islam (or any religious tradition) speak for itself on its own terms. Viewing Islam as, at best, a faulty interpretation of Christianity is flawed both methodologically and ideologically. In order to understand Islam properly, you have to accept that it is a major world religion in its own right and as such, exists above, beyond and outside other interpretations.
Undoubtedly, Judaism and Christianity have influenced Muslims and their religious thought. Moreover, there are many ideological and spiritual similarities. Should these be viewed as 'borrowings'? Or, do they really represent similar explorations of similar issues; after all, aren't Jews and Christians 'Peoples of the Book'?
Wa Allahu `Alim (And God knows best).
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Current Reading: Shi`i Exegesis and Mahdism

Peace, one and all...
I'm back again today, with more posts than you can shake a stick at! This one (as the title may suggest) is a book review of sorts, or perhaps a book overview would be more appropriate. I've not finished it yet, but a few stray thoughts are in order...
The text in question is Meir M. Bar-Asher's Scripture and Exegesis in Early Imami Shiism (1999, published by EJ Brill). The book deals with early Shii exegesis (mostly pre-Buwayhid) and explores this fascinating topic from a number of angles. Firstly, Bar-Asher discusses the texts he's using: the Tafsir works of Furat ibn Furat ibn Ibrahim al-Kufi, Ali ibn Ibrahim al-Qummi, Abu-'l Nadr Muhammad ibn Mas'ud al`Ayyashi & Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ja`far al-Nu`mani. All of these texts were written during the immediately prior to the Buyid takeover, in and around the time of the Greater Occultation and thus, according to Bar-Asher, represent the views of early Shii mufassirin (exegetes).
The second section looks at features common to all of these works (which Bar-Asher sees as a 'school'). He then moves to looking at specific issues - particularly the doctrine of Imama. I must say I've enjoyed reading the book immensely. The subject is fascinating - especially the ways in which these mufassirin attempt to read Shia doctrines into the text. As an initial thought, it seems clear that the later Ismaili batini ('esoteric') exegesis has its roots in the general imami school. That is, the interpretation of particular verses is seen to operate on 2 distinct levels - with the interior meaning of a given passage not (necessarily) having to relate to the wider surface grammar and meaning.
All in all, a fascinating read and one which fits in nicely with other such works on the development of Shiism: such as A. A. Sachedina's Islamic Messianism and S. A. Arjomand's The Shadow of God and the Hidden Imam. Al hamdu lillah, I feel as though I'm starting to make progress in my attempt to understand Shii history and thought. I'd certainly recommend this book, though I'm not sure of all of the points in it (though that's almost always the case I suppose).
I've also been reading Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewel: the Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844 - 1852. So, from one end of Shia history to the other! Again, an interesting book - well written and with plausible arguments. Although, in days gone by, I used to read a fair bit of Baha'i stuff, I've not had the opportunity (until quite recently) to explore the Babi prolegomena (well, it would be to a Baha'i). I read Peter Smith's The Babi and Baha'i religions : from Messianic Shiism to a world religion last year and thought it was an excellent introduction. Amanat's larger, and more detailed work, is thus my first serious exploration of the Bab and his teachings. Amanat really does emphasise the Shaykhi background of the Bab and his followers, which helps situate the movement in its proper context. He also attempts to explain it in its own terms. The only criticism I had of Smith's work was that its very set up leads one to see Baha'i teaching as the natural culmination of Babism, as opposed to a faith in its own right. Smith acknowledges this as I recall, still it's hard to escape I supose.
Although my understanding of Babism is improving, it still seems unfamiliar. The emphasis on talismans seems odd (especially given the salafi dominated discourse in British new Muslim circles). Still, deeply fascinating.
On a somewhat related topic, I sent a proposal to the Head of School today for a new Level 2 undergraduate module. It's called Shia Islam: History and Theology and it will attempt to do exactly what it says on the tin (the Ronseal Approach to Higher Education)! It's an adaptation (and a conscious one at that) of my proposed LEARN module - Early Shia Islam (due to run in Sept. 2006, God willing). I've deliberately pitched it at level 2 for 2 reasons: we have a gap in level 2 modules in the School and I want to move up from the first year stuff I've been doing. I hope it comes off, insha Allah.
Anyway, that's all folks (for now at any rate).
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Corner Culture...

Peace, one and all...

I attended the 'Evening of Inspiration' Concert at the Royal Albert Hall on Sunday (16th April). Sami Yusuf, Zain Bhika, Native Deen and others were playing. I just wanted to say what a great time I had, al hamdu lillah. It was really nice to see 3,500 Muslims together, all enjoying excellent music with a good message: it's okay to be a British Muslim and it's okay to be proud of being a Muslim. An evening of inspiration indeed. I hope there will be other such concerts, insha Allah. Indeed, there have been several in the last couple of years and I think they're a healthy sign. After some trying times (especially after 7/7), the British Muslim community is starting to find its voice again, al hamdu lillah. The music was excellent - hard to single out a favourite, though Sami Yusuf blew the roof off and Native Deen were cool (al hamdu lillah).

We were also treated to the T'noura Experience from Egypt, who seemed to be a dance group of sorts. There were two men dressed in heavy, colourful robes. They twirled round and round for about 20 minutes or so, whilst spinning bright robes in various ways. The music (traditional Egyptian drums) was great, though I must confess that the dancing was a little bizarre. Watching them, it was easy to see how the Whirling Dirvishes of Turkey could induce altered states of consciousness though such dancing. Indeed, they only seemed to return to the stage at the very end (perhaps they'd only just stopped spinning)!

All in all, a great evening. More please!

Ma'as salama,

Abdur Rahman


Peace, one and all...
This is a quick note to say mabruk (congratulations) to my wife, who's due to start her new job as a Health Care Assistant today, insha Allah. May God make it a source of blessing for her and may He help her to find the path she wants to tread in it. Ya Allah!
I'm personally really happy for her. As I've found myself, there's nothing like a career to motivate and inspire you. And, as far as she is concerned, I know she's got a lot to give. She could do a lot of good, by the grace of God.
In any case, good luck Romesa, insha Allah.
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Corner Culture...Dude!

Peace be with you, one and all...
As part of my ongoing explorations of Muslim cultures, I've recently come across some really stirring Iranian sufi-style music. I say sufi-style because I don't speak Farsi. The music is very haunting and has a rare beauty. The particular track I'm listening to at present (right now in fact), is by an artist called Shahram Nazeri. It has lots of strings and drums and reminds me (for some reason) of some of the Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon music. Al hamdu lillah, the more I explore Muslim cultures, the more I find.
Let me know what you think about music and Islam and related topics... (But, please, no comments designed to provoke arguments).
Ma'as salama,
Abdur Rahman

When a Prophet Dies...

Welcome, peace be upon you...

Here's the next lecture, on the origins of the Sunni and Shia divide in Islam (which is, given the unfortunate situation in Iraq, very topical). In many ways, this divide gives further emphasis to the place of the Prophet (

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim...

In yesterday’s lecture we looked closely at the Prophet Muhammad and the significance he holds within the Islamic tradition. In today’s session, we will look at closely at the origins, development and meaning of the Sunni-Shia divide, which is in many ways a further amplification of Muhammad’s authority and importance.

The Sunni-Shia schism is the most important division within the entire Islamic tradition. Understanding something of the origins and nature of this divide is thus important in understanding Islam more generally.

As you can see from the map, the Sunni community is the largest in terms of geographic distribution. This is also the case in terms of population; Sunni Muslims account for some 85% of the world Muslim population. The Shia (which in full is Shiat Ali or the ‘Party of Ali’), by contrast, make up the remaining 15% and are concentrated in certain areas. The spread of Shia communities in today’s world is largely a result of a number of historical factors. A brief glance at the map reveals particular concentrations of Shii Muslims in Iran and Iraq, with significant communities in Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Yemen. There are also substantial Shii minorities in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain; the Shii community of India, though small, has also been important historically.

In the contemporary Muslim world, the largest and most influential Shii country is Iran. The revolution of 1979 brought a Shii theocracy to power. The Islamic Republic of Iran is currently the world’s only Shia majority state; Iraq, though it has a Shii majority, also has a large and important Sunni community.

It is in Iraq that the Sunni-Shia split is mostly obviously, and painfully, making itself felt in today’s world. The recent bombing of the important shrine in Samarra has provoked outrage amongst the worldwide Shia community and seems deliberately calculated to inflame sectarian tensions in the region.

Lecture Plan
By any measure, therefore, understanding the Sunni-Shia divide, and the issues it centres around, is not only central to any study of Islam as a religious tradition, it is only important in terms of current affairs. The purpose of this lecture is thus to explore this dispute. To do this properly, we need to consider a number of different areas. In this lecture, therefore, we will explore the following issues:

The Nature of the Sources
The Succession to Muhammad
The First Fitna (or ‘Civil War’) & the Martyrdom of Husain
The Question of Authority in Early Islam: Caliph or Imam
The Companions of Muhammad and the Concept of `Adala: Sunni & Shii Perspectives
Different Schools of Thought

Should it not prove possible to cover all of these topics completely, I will post the remaining lecture text on Blackboard.

This lecture will again refer to the major themes of the course. That is, we will explore identity, authority and law within the context of early Islamic history. Thus, as we proceed through the lecture, try and relate your notes to these themes.

The Nature of the Sources
As we are studying early Islam from a broadly historical perspective, it is important that we consider our sources before we embark on our exploration. Although I do not intend to spend much time on this subject, I would like to make one or two essential points.

When discussing this topic it is crucial to bear in mind the range of perspectives offered by our sources. That is, in order to understand the nature of a particular source, it is first necessary to understand who wrote it, when and why. Within the context before us today, such questions are doubly important. As I pointed out previously, the Sunni-Shia schism is the most important division within the Islamic tradition. Moreover, such debates within the early Muslim community provoked strong feelings on both sides. In other words, we need to consider and account for the bias of our sources. That is, as the question of the succession to Muhammad was arguably the central question asked during the entire early Islamic period, virtually every author has a point to make. It is thus necessary to understand this diversity of opinion; some authors are strongly ‘Shii’ in their outlooks, whilst others are just as equally ‘Sunni’; the range of other voices fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

For those interested in exploring these questions more fully, Wilferd Madelung’s book The Succession to Muhammad: a Study of the Early Caliphate is an invaluable starting point.

The Succession to Muhammad: Conceptual Frameworks & Key Events
Having considered the issue of sectarian bias in our source material, we can now turn to exploring the beginnings of the Sunni-Shia schism. In looking at this period, it is important to understand that we will not attempt an exhaustive study; rather, as was the case in yesterday’s lecture, we will examine some of the key events.

Muhammad died in 632CE (11AH), a mere eleven years after his emigration to Medina. By the time of his death, the nascent Islamic state he had created controlled most of the Arabian Peninsula. The tribes of Arabia had either converted to Islam, or otherwise entered into a treaty relationship with him. However, his death brought a serious challenge to this newly emerged order. The great majority of the tribes, viewing Muhammad’s authority in strictly personal terms, believed that with his death their ties to Medina had been severed. They thus refused to acknowledge the authority of Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr, who was thus faced with a large and threatening coalition of tribes. The two years of his caliphate were almost entirely taken up with these wars (known as the Apostasy, or Ridda, Wars).

Bu we are getting a little ahead of ourselves. The key point to note is that the Muslim community was in a state of agitated turmoil in the aftermath of Muhammad’s death. Indeed, the newly established community had not faced such a situation before and seems to have reacted with uncertainty. Some refused to even acknowledge Muhammad’s death. Upon hearing the news, Umar (later the 2nd Caliph) is reported to have gone to the Mosque and threatened those who said Muhammad had died with his sword. Abu Bakr responded with what was to become a very famous remark:

‘Whoever worships Muhammad, let him know that Muhammad is dead. Whoever worships God, let him know that God lives and can never die’

In other words, even in his death Muhammad was of fundamental importance to the Muslim community.

Muhammad’s death also caused a political crisis in Medina itself. The Medinan tribe of Khazraj, understanding Muhammad’s death in traditional Arab terms, attempted to elect Sa’d ibn Ubadah, one of their chiefs, to lead it independently. Realising the danger of fragmentation in such a move, Abu Bakr, Umar and other senior Companions visited the home of Sa’d. After some dispute, Abu Bakr was ultimately elected the leader of the community (or, to give him his full title, Khalifat Rasul Allah, ‘the Successor of the Messenger of God’).

However, it is worth noting that Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law and cousin, was not present at this meeting. He is said to have reacted to this fait accompli with reluctant acceptance, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr some 6 months later.

The First Fitna (‘Civil War’)
As we saw in Lecture Two, things reached a head during the caliphate of Uthman. Uthman, who placed members of his clan (the Banu Umayya) in positions of authority, was eventually faced with a widespread revolt, which ultimately led to his murder. This unprecedented event sent a shockwave through the entire community and amidst the ensuing uncertainty, Ali was elected Caliph. However, Ali’s caliphate saw the rebellion of Muawiya, Uthman’s relative and the powerful governor of Syria. After protracted attempts at negotiation, the two sides met in battle at Siffin. The tradition holds that Muawiya was on the verge of defeat when he ordered his men to hoist copies of the Quran on their lances, which was interpreted as an attempt at arbitration. In the subsequent negotiations, Ali was outmanoeuvred. Ali’s negotiations created discontent within his own followers and a major group of them withdrew and one of their number later assassinated Ali.

After Ali’s death, his son Hasan was elected Imam by his supporters, only to be outmanoeuvred by Muawiya. In an increasingly hostile environment, Hasan abdicated his position. Thereafter Muawiya ruled the burgeoning Muslim empire for some 20 years. During this time, he attempted to secure his family’s position and eventually his son Yazid succeeded him.

Karbala & the Martyrdom of Hussein
Yazid’s succession to the Caliphate is seen by the Muslim tradition generally as the birth of hereditary monarchy and as such, is viewed negatively. Moreover, Yazid is said to have been a dissolute character, given to wine and other such pleasures. From the outset, his rule was challenged by Ali’s second son Hussein (Hasan having died a few years previously). After receiving messages of support from his supporters in Iraq, Hussein raised the standard of revolt and left Medina. However, Yazid’s governor blocked the routes into Iraq and Hussein’s small force was halted at Karbala. Hussein and most of his family were subsequently butchered at Karbala and commemorating this event quickly became an important Shii ritual. The murder of the Prophet’s lst surviving grandson sent shockwaves throughout the Muslim world and led to a number of revolts.

This brief overview has attempted to set our discussion in its proper context. However, it is important to note that this picture is necessarily simplified. Those interested in exploring the topic further should consult the bibliography given in the Module Handbook.

Succession to Muhammad: the Sunni View
As we have seen, the succession to Muhammad was (and still is) the subject of debate. The Sunni view is based largely on the belief that Muhammad did not leave a clear testimony of his intentions regarding the succession. In a sense, this is generally believed to have been intentional; that is, by this view, Muhammad intended that questions of political leadership and authority should be determined by the fledgling community itself. Sunni historians and theologians thus understand the pattern of historical development of the Caliphate to have been divinely instituted. That is, the first four Caliphs (and we encountered them in last Tuesday’s lecture), who are known as the ‘Rightly Guided Caliphs’, were appointed following God’s plan. Moreover, the historical order of these ‘Successors’ reflects their order of rank. Thus, for Sunni Muslims, Abu Bakr is ranked first after Muhammad, followed by Umar, Uthman and Ali. The most important Hadith collections all contain traditions which, in some form or other, all attempt to validate this order.

However, the Sunni position is not a monolithic one. There is a wide diversity of opinion on the matter. Moreover, it is important to understand that in the 1,400 years since these events took place, there has been considerable development in the meaning of terms such as ‘Sunni’ and ‘Shia’. Indeed, in their developed, sectarian forms, these terms do not clearly emerge until the early Abbasid period, some 150 years later.

The Succession to Muhammad: the Shia Viewpoint
If the emerging Sunni ‘orthodoxy’ (to borrow a term from the Christian milieu) understood the historical development of these key events as marks of Divine approval, the Shia by contrast saw them in very different terms. That is, the Shia believe that Muhammad did clearly nominate a successor. Moreover, the Shia conceive the authority of this apparent successor in terms fundamentally different to that of the Sunnis. Accordingly, the Shia believe that Muhammad clearly intended his son-in-law and cousin, Ali b. Abi Talib, to be his successor.

To understand these ideas more clearly, it is important to understand something of the early Muslim worldview. This worldview was directly informed by the attitudes and outlooks of the Quran and hence an attempt to explore early Muslim political thought should be based on what the Quran reveals of their likely attitudes.

Amidst its wider narratives of earlier prophets and their respective nations, the Quran makes explicit reference to a number of prophetic families. That is, the families of former prophets are portrayed as being integral to the success of earlier missionary activity. In verse 33 of the third Surah we thus find the following remark:

‘Indeed, Allah chose Adam and Noah and the family of Abraham and the family of Imran over all of the worlds

In other words, the families of Abraham (the Israelites) and the family of Imran (the family of Mary, mother of Jesus) were of vital importance in sacred history. Of particular importance, however, were narratives regarding Abraham. Abraham as well as being the ancestor of Israel, was also held to be the ancestor of the Arabs via his son Ishmael. In one passage, the Quran records God giving Abraham the following promise: ‘Indeed, I will make you a leader [Imam] for the people’
[2]. Abraham’s apparent response is illustrative: ‘”And what of my descendents?: [Allah] said, ‘My covenant does not include the wrongdoers’[3].

The exalted status of Muhammad’s own family are also alluded to in the following Quranic statement:

‘Allah intends only to remove from you the impurities [of sin], O people of the [Prophet’s] household and to purify you with [extensive] purification’

And again:

‘And say [O Muhammad] I do not ask for it [i.e. this message] any payment [but] only love of kin’

Shia theologians understood this last passage to refer to Muhammad’s kin themselves. Two statements of Muhammad himself are also seen as direct references to Ali’s eventual succession by the Shia. During Muhammad’s first public proclamation of his message, he asked for supporters. Ali is said to have been the only one to offer unequivocal support, despite his tender age (he was a young boy of about 13 at the time). More important, however, is the episode known as Ghadir Khumm (which refers to a well near the outskirts of Medina). Muhammad is said to have stopped his fellow travellers and, in front of the assembled Muslim community, have made the following statement, with his hand Ali’s shoulder: ‘He whose mawla [leader and guardian] I am, Ali is also his mawla’
[6]. Interestingly, this event is also related in Sunni traditions, although mawla is understood to mean religious guide, rather than strictly political leadership.

For the Shia, such Quranic passages and Prophetic traditions underline the exalted status of Ali. Accordingly, therefore, the fact that Ali was not given leadership of the Muslim community after immediately Muhammad’s death is significant. According to this view, the Muslim ummah has committed an act of disobedience, as Brown makes abundantly clear:

‘The failure of the early leaders of the community to recognize the claims of `Ali or to accord special status to the family of the Prophet after Muhammad’s death was at best a grievous error, at worst apostasy’

The Question of Authority in early Islam: Caliph or Imam
As we can see from this summary, the views of Sunnis and Shiis regarding early Islamic history are radically different. We will explore some of the implications of this divergence of opinion shortly, but at this point in the lecture I would like to look more closely at how these views generated different conceptions of leadership. Although these differences are complex, they are illustrated by two key terms: Khalifa (or Caliph) and Imam.

We have already encountered the term Khalifa. The root of this word means literally ‘behind’ and has several possible meanings, such as ‘deputy’ and ‘successor’, and is used in these senses in various passages of the Quran. In one such example, Adam (the first man and first prophet) is specifically referred to by this term:

‘And mention [O Muhammad] when your Lord said to the angels, “Indeed, I will place upon the earth a vice-regent’

The term thus has a sound Quranic pedigree and was used by Abu Bakr as his official title. He referred to himself as ‘Khalifat Rasul Allah’, or ‘Successor of the Messenger of God’ (that is, Muhammad). Although his use of this term combined religious and political functions, as time passed the term Khalifa (or Caliph) was increasingly associated with the rule of the oppressive Umayyad dynasty and thus the Shia, had somewhat negative connotations. However, this is the term most commonly used within the Sunni tradition to refer to the titular head of Islam (along with Amir al-Mumineen, or ‘Commander of the Faithful’).

The term Imam, by contrast, derives from a word meaning ‘in front’ and means literally, ‘leader’. The term is used in the Sunni tradition in a variety of ways; prayer leaders at local mosques are thus ‘Imams’ as are the main religious scholars of Islam. For the Shia, the Imam is more than a prayer leader or a mere legal authority. The Imam is believed to be a divinely inspired guide, who alone possesses knowledge of the inner mysteries of religion. Within this context, the Imams are elevated almost to the status of Prophets, in that they are divinely protected from sin (ma’sum). Later Shii theology develops the idea that the Imams are God’s ‘Proof’ on earth; they are even called the ‘Shadow of God on Earth’.

The Companions of Muhammad: Sunni & Shii Perspectives

· An area of crucial importance
· Related not only to authority but also to religious teaching more generally
· That is, the trustworthiness of the Companions directly affects possibility of relating Prophetic Traditions from them
· Sunni: Companions, as a body, are all ‘Trustworthy’ and thus are a source of Hadith; the more Companions, the more Traditions can be related; the Companions are highly regarded within the Sunni tradition
· Because they opposed Ali, the Shia view the Companions very differently
· As a group not ‘Trustworthy’ and thus not a source of religious teaching or traditions
· Variety of views: some Shia see Companions as major sinners, others as apostates
· Such attitudes are deeply antagonistic to the Sunni tradition
· We will look more closely at these questions in this week’s seminars

Schools of Thought
There are a number of important schools of thought within both the Sunni and Shia traditions. Within Sunni Islam there are four schools of classical Islamic law: Maliki, Hanafi, Shafi’i and Hanbali, all of which are named after an important early legal scholar. Although these schools have had a long history, their actual differences are relatively minor and relate more to methodological issues than to doctrinal disagreements. The classical understanding within Sunni Islam is that each of these Schools is equally correct and hence equally ‘orthodox’.

Shii Schools of Thought
Although, as we have seen, the acceptance of Ali as the first Imam after Muhammad is the key feature of Shiism in general, there are a number of Shia groups in existence. Indeed, there has probably been a wider divergence of opinions within Shia Islam. This is most plausibly due to their emphasis on knowing and acknowledging the Imam. Arguments have thus tended to focus on the actual identities of particular Imams. In the final part of the lecture we will look briefly at two of the main groups, with particular emphasis on comparing their respective doctrines of Imamate.

The Twelver Shia Community (Ithna `Ashari Shia)
The Ithna `Ashari Shia are by far the largest group within Shia Islam. As we saw at the beginning of the lecture, Iran is a Shiite state and it belongs to the Twelver School. As you might expect, given the name, the Twelvers hold to their belief in a series of 12 Imams, all direct descendents of Ali (through Husayn after the death of Hasan). The names of their Imams are as follows:

Ali ibn Abi Talib
Hasan ibn Ali
Husayn ibn Ali (and brother of Hasan)
Ali ibn Husayn (known as Zayn al-Abideen, or ‘Ornament of the Worshippers’)
Muhammad ibn Ali (known as al-Baqir, or ‘He who splits open [religious] knowledge’)
Ja’far ibn Muhammad (known as al-Sadiq, ‘the Truthful’)
Musa ibn Ja’far (al-Kazim)
Ali ibn Musa (al-Rida, or the ‘Chosen’)
Muhammad ibn Ali (al-Taqi, ‘the Godfearing’)
Ali ibn Muhammad (al-Naqi)
Hasan ibn Ali (al-`Askari)
Muhammad ibn Ali (al-Mahdi, the ‘Rightly Guided One’ or the Messiah)

Although it is not essential to remember the names of the 12 Ithna Ashari Imams, the key point to observe is that they are all direct descendents of Ali ibn Abi Talib (the first Shiite Imam). That is, blood relationship to the Prophet is an essential pre-requisite for holding this office. For the Twelvers the other necessary condition is an explicit appointment by the current Imam (or Nass). In other words, the current Imam must clearly designate his successor. The Twelver theory of Imamate does not depend on the Imam holding actual temporal power; theologically speaking, at least, there is thus no incentive towards rebellion in the name of the Imam.

The Zaydi Community
The Zaydi School’s understanding of the concept of Imama differs from the Twelvers in a number of important respects. The School is named after Zayd ibn Ali (a brother of the fifth Twelver Imam) who rose in unsuccessful revolt during the second century hijri. For the Zaydis, the Imam can be any descendent of Ali and Fatimah, through Hasan or Husayn. Any Alid can thus be a potential Imam, providing the following two conditions are met:

· The candidate for the Imamate must have a high level of religious knowledge
· A candidate for the Imamate (with such requisite knowledge) must also make a public claim; in the classical understanding, he must be ready to fight for the Imamate, ‘sword in hand’

Interestingly, nass (explicit designation) is not a pre-requisite. These beliefs have tended to make Zaydis a politically activist branch of Shiism. In this week’s seminars we will look more closely at this school of thought as it manifested itself in 19th Yemen.

Concluding Remarks
In today’s lecture we have looked closely at the nature, origins and significance of the Sunni-Shia schism within Islam. We have seen that, in many respects, this divide centres around questions of legitimate political leadership and authority. Furthermore, we have seen that these issues also have a fundamental impact on Muhammad’s Companions and their role in the transmission of religious knowledge. In next week’s lectures we will explore the sacred texts of Islam – namely, the Quran and the Prophetic Traditions.

[1] 3:33
[2] 2:124
[3] 2:124
[4] 33:33
[5] 42:23
[6] Quoted in Jafri, 1979, 19
[7] Brown, 2004, 101
[8] 2:30