Islam is more than just Muslims

One of the most important things I learned throughout my studies is that religion as a concept and discipline is much greater and more expansive than what practitioners make it out to be. This is certainly true for Islam and Muslims. From the perspective of a believer, the origin of religion is the Absolute and the Limitless. What we come to call religion is nothing more than our own human (i.e. limited) interpretation of this Absolute and Divine phenomena. Our understanding will always be, therefore, partial and of the current moment.

As I reflect on this concept as it relates to Islam and Muslims specifically, a few things come to mind that I think help instill a little humility in all of us who claim to follow it:

  1. In the Islamic tradition, all acts of worship are concluded with some sort of prayer that asks for the act to be accepted. One would think that the mere act of worship itself is a good sign. You did it and therefore should be rewarded! However, if we focus on our own humanity for a moment, we see that our efforts are always fallible and therefore open to deficiency. As we engage in devotional acts, therefore, we conclude with a hope and prayer that they are pure and worthy of reward. This serves as a reminder that we should rely ultimately on the Almighty, not our human efforts.
  2. The entire edifice of Islamic law (Sharia) is essentially man-made. The Sharia is nothing more than the jurists’ best guess of what is being asked of us by God. This is why every legal opinion that is offered (typically referred to as a fatwa) ends with the statement, “and God knows best.” This is a very humbling notion. One can study their entire life, use all the intellectual and scholarly tools they can muster, and still there is the possibility that their deductions could be wrong. Humility aside, this is also an important reminder that our deductions are just that, ours, and in no way speak to the entire potentiality embedded in the Divine texts.
  3. Islam is a religion of initiation, not ordination. There is no ecclesiastic class that serves as the official interpreter of things religious. Rather, easy access to the club of Islam is offered by way of participation in the various chains of transmission (sanad/asānīd), which connect one to the past in an unbroken, direct chain. Everyone is invited to be initiated and everyone, therefore, has the same potential to gain from Islam as much as they want. Therefore, we cannot negate another person’s experience with their faith nor their personal relationship with God. This is ultimately the reason why coercion of faith is an anathema to Islam (eg. Quran 2:256 & 18:29). So while there is an established level of normative orthodoxy (which regulates outward action), the potential of internal experience and faith are limitless.

I find these three points humbling and liberating at the same time. While I take great joy in the scholarly and academic pursuit of the sciences of Islam (I have dedicated twenty years of my life so far to it!), I am humbled to know that this represents a minority of what Islam actually offers. While my launching point within Islam is normative Sunni orthodoxy, I am liberated by the notion that the experience of Islam can present itself in ways unknown to me and open to anyone and everyone.

The threat of extremism of any kind is that it mistakes human interpretation for absolute truth and by so doing pushes people away from religion and divides communities. In other words, it makes people arrogant and restricted, not humble and liberated. Which would you rather be?


Islam & Coexistence

Plurality is a fact of life. We are different in our makeup, different in our experiences. It is impossible to conceive of a world in which we are all alike. For a person of faith, this plurality is deliberate and not simply an accident. It is part of the Divine plan and its purpose is to get humanity together to collaborate and to live together; not to drive us apart and create divisions. It is an opportunity, not a threat; a  potential, not an impasse. The point is not, however, to force others to believe in what you believe for the very reason that this violates the essence of coexistence.

I believe wholeheartedly that this sentiment is self-evident from Islam’s primary sources (ex. Qur’an 18:29, 6:109, and 2:256), and one of the best summaries of this I found to be the statement of Imām ‘Alī (God give him peace) to his governor of Egypt Malik al-Ashtar, “People are two kinds: your coreligionists, or partners in humanity.” In other words, people are either like you (limited numbers), or partners to solve problems (the majority), not antagonists.

            For effective coexistence to take place along these lines, three components are needed:
    1. Knowledge. We must know a little bit more about one another. We need to know what binds us, but more importantly what separates us as well. An old Arab proverb says “when one is ignorant of something they fight it.” In a world that is ever more connected, it is not acceptable that we claim ignorance of those we live with. This may be easier for minority communities who constantly have to deal with people not like themselves, but it is equally necessary for majority groups as well that need to acknowledge that not everyone is like them.
    2. Relationship. There needs to be some bond between people. Neighbors, co-workers, classmates, teammates, etc. For coexistence to really work at a grassroots level knowledge of others needs to be practical, and not an exercise in reading National Geographic.
    3. Common Action. Both knowledge and relationship should culminate in some sort of action, a team approach that addresses a shared problem. It is not enough that we settle for an occasional meeting or photo-op. Both knowledge and relationship must lead to a common action that all sides take. Only then will real social cohesion take root.
Our existence is flawed and as a result, our world faces many challenges. But these challenges face us all together and, in many cases, equally. Coexistence as defined above is, I believe, the only overarching system that can bind us together as partners in humanity to tackle these issues. There will be detractors to this notion for sure. There are people who want to offer another reality, one filled with anxiety, threat, and conflict. Unfortunately, this is also true within the broader Muslim community. There are those who offer the same false reality and obfuscate the self-evident fact that Islam in its most basic principles advocates coexistence and tolerance. We should, therefore, begin here and address this problem by taking a brave step forward towards an acceptance of plurality.

Who Should I Listen To?


I get asked a lot of questions on a weekly basis mostly about Islam’s expression and practice in the modern world. I have often sought to catalog all the questions I have received (an overview of these questions can be found here), but perhaps the number one most frequently asked question is: “what Muslim personality should I listen to and follow?” This question speaks a lot to our condition and comes largely from the great deal of confusion and contradiction that exists in the space of religious discourse amongst Muslims. The fact that we have great tools to leverage different types of communications means that one of the by-products of this technology is that various sects/opinions of Islam have equal communicating powers, theoretically, that is. From an internal point of view, Islam sees that without some sort of criteria, anyone could/would say whatever they want and everyone who speaks like this will no doubt find at least one person to listen to them.

However, while I can go on and on about the source of the problem, I am much more interested in solutions to the problem. I answered a version of this question before (here), but I want to come at it from another perspective in this post. Through my various years of study, travel, conversations, meetings, projects, etc., I was able to develop a set of criteria to help me vet who I was getting information from. Rather than tell you who to listen to, let me provide you with some guidelines and rules to apply to those you listen to already or are considering, including me!

I call these The Three Rules of Three.


There is a difference between:
  1. The texts of Islam: Quranic verse, Hadith, or statements of a particular scholar.
  2. The understanding and meaning of this particular text in its linguistic, historical context, etc.
  3. Applying this text to the here and now.

When we receive a piece of information regarding Islam, it is helpful to ask ourselves where in the above three it falls. Am I hearing the restatement of a text, or is it the application of the text that is being offered? Or, is the text being explained? If you think about it, these are not the same and can produce very different outcomes.

This first rule helps you as the consumer of this piece of information understand what exactly you are consuming. As it relates to the manufacturer of this product, they too need to be clear what they are making and selling. Too often this distinction is not made and if you encounter such a situation you should stay away completely because the above distinction is literally the difference between life and death.


As it relates to texts, particularly the primary texts of the Quran and Sunna, there is a difference between:
  1. Understanding the text (in the way outlined above), which comes from the realm of the Divine and therefore the Absolute. I mean, it’s revelation after all.
  2. Understanding the current contemporary moment, which is the exact opposite; very temporal, partial, and fleeting.
  3. The actual application of 1 to 2, which means that the process of application will never be the same because the temporal moment is constantly changing and the way Divine texts are applied will change likewise.

The message of Islam’s primary texts is meant to be received by us and implemented, yet every act that is implemented has its own conditions and rules. To do this, we need to understand the link between the message and reality. However, and as stated above, the message and reality come from two very different places. This means that a great deal of care needs to take place to implement the message of Islam in the here and now.

Again, if you think about it, this means that much of what we know about Islam is actually dynamic, not static. This is not because Islam necessarily changes, but rather we change and so does our day-to-day condition and reality.


There is a difference between the following “Muslim” personalities:
  1. Scholar – spends most of their time in an area of specialty and expertise.
  2. Preacher – motivates you, like a coach, and does not have necessarily deep insight or knowledge of particulars.
  3. Worshiper – the pious amongst us whose dominant feature is worship and acts of devotion.

The above three are not the same or equal. If you want guidance and insight on a particular issue, you need a scholar. If you’re feeling down and need motivation, listen to the preacher. And if you want a model of piety and practice, look at the worshiper. Often times these personalities are assumed to be the same, and indeed these qualities might be within the same person, but typically one of these traits is more dominant than the others. However, all of them need to be circulating within the first two rules to demonstrate a broad and thorough understanding of Islam.

There are a lot of voices out there speaking to Muslims and offering them interpretations of Islam for their implementation. The above three rules are not only highly important to help protect us from falling prey to false experts, they also teach us how to approach our own journey and relationship with Islam. It is very common to come across stories, Hadith, verses that we simply don’t understand and cause us great confusion and maybe even doubt. When this happens, go back to the 3 rules above and follow the criteria to establish what exactly it is you are reading. This will help about 80% of the time. When it doesn’t, seek help and use the same criteria to help you find the true expert from the pretender. A hint, there are a lot of pretenders, but they can easily be sniffed out!

A Common Word: Catholic-Muslim Forum

I had the honor of attending the fourth Catholic-Muslim Forum in Berkley, CA hosted by Zaytuna College November 6-8, 2017. This forum is an outgrowth of the Common Word Initiative that launched in 2007. I had the privilege of helping to manage the international communications of the original initiative and watched it grow ever since into its own movement. A decade later and having completed both seminary and PhD studies, I was invited to give some comments on the Islamic perspective of integral human development at this most recent forum. My remarks at the forum can be found here. This was one of the most engaging and productive events I have attended in the space of interfaith and the final statement (found here) reflects the collaborative engagement of the exchange. Now it comes down to both sides to work tirelessly to use their networks and influence to translate these agreements into actual action and behavioral change.

Integral Human Development in Islam: Sufism and the Purification of the Self


Human development in the world of Islam is the development of what Islam defines as the human-self (nafs).[1] To understand this, however, it is necessary to know what exactly is the self (nafs) in relation to the body and the soul, the three main components to our existence according to Islamic teachings. While I don’t want to take away from the other papers that tackle the question of what it means to be human, it is important to highlight that Islam sees the human (both men and women) as being a combination of the physical body (jasad), soul (rūḥ), and self (nafs). The physical body is activated, or turned on as it were, by the insertion of the soul (an act that takes place in the womb).[2] This is a shared trait with animals and gives the physical body life. The self (nafs) is added to the mix of the body-soul, and this causes a higher level of rational consciousness and makes humans morally responsible for their actions, what Islam refers to as taklīf. If there were some sort of deficiency in the self (nafs) this would render moral reasonability void either permanently (in the case of a permanent mental illness, for example) or temporarily (in the case of an infant whose self/nafs is still growing). The creation of the self (nafs) is what separates the human being, as well as jinn, from other types of created beings and it is this self that receives the Divine revelation.

The Quran identifies different types of self, however, highlighting an important part of human creation; we are not all created to simply be the way we are, but rather are asked and tasked with becoming the best version of our selves. By identifying these various levels of the self, the Quran catalyzed the Muslim quest for how to tame the self, improve the self, and ultimately reach our highest spiritual potential.

This task to improve the self, what the Quran refers to as tazkiyyat al-nafs or purification of the self, is a universal injunction on every person. He is indeed successful who has caused it to grow and he is indeed a failure who stunts it (91:9-10).[3] There are only two other forms of universal injunctions in the Quranic message that help Muslims answer the big question of why were we created. The second universal injunction is to worship God (‘ibāda): I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me 51:56. As created beings of the Divine we are tasked with giving thanks to God for this life and for acknowledging that all that we have is from Him. The third universal injunction is development (‘imāra), He brought you forth from the earth and has asked of you that you develop it (11:61),[4] which means to build the world and society in a way that acknowledges the nature of the Divine. Without understanding these two other injunctions, self-purification can become a vacuum of self-abasement or self -aggrandizement and ultimately miss the point altogether.

The Role of the Self in Human Existence

As stated above, the self (nafs) is the object of the Divine message, what is referred to as maḥal al-taklīf. The reason behind this principle is that from a cosmological perspective all human selves that ever were and ever will be stood before the Almighty and testified to His Oneness in a time before time and a day before days, what Muslim sources refer to as yawm lā yawm (a day that wasn’t a day). This episode in our shared existence is enshrined in the following verse:

            And remember when your Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam from their reins their seed, and made them testify of the themselves, saying: Am I not  your Lord? They said: yes, verily we testify. (That was lest you should say at the Day of Resurrection of this we were unaware (7:172).

Therefore, since the self (nafs) has imprinted on it the knowledge of the Oneness of God, (the entity being addressed by the Divine through revelation), and morally responsible since it has the ability to understand right from wrong, it is extremely vital that its protection and improvement be optimized. Yet, the self (nafs) is not created independently and is in need of body and soul to exist. This co-dependency creates a degree of complexity in that the self (nafs) is held down and clouded from a direct link to the Divine. This phenomenon is often described by Islamic sources as veils (hijābs) between creation and God. One of the goals, therefore, of our existence is to find our way back to God, more on this below.

Levels of the Self

It should be clear from our discussion thus far that this is not necessarily an exact science as everyone’s level of self-complexity will be different given each person’s personal situation, environment, upbringing, social-economic background, etc. In addition, since there is such a great deal of veiling between creation and Creator, and since the self is perhaps the biggest veil of all (particularly if it is the lower level self), Islam’s program of human development is focused on mapping out the self in order that it be conquered, improved, and optimized. This mapping exercise provides a basic framework that Muslim scholars offer to help us gauge where we are and where we need to go. While much has been written in Islamic literature about this topic, in fact the entire discipline of Sufism is established to address this, I will discuss seven basic levels of the self that are: one, useful from a teaching perspective (it’s easier to teach about seven levels than 10,000!) and two, these levels are familiar to me as they are the ones I was taught at al-Azhar and through the Sufi Order I belong to. So my experience is both academic and personal. To facilitate further conversations and research, I will use Mostafa Badawi’s excellent translation of ‘Abd al-Khāliq al-Shabrāwī’s (d. 1947)[5] work on this subject.[6] These seven levels of the self (nafs) are:


The point of this paper is not to delve into the specifics of each level, al-Shabrāwī’s book is an excellent source in English that provides an outline of this, but rather the point is to give the reader a sense of how these levels are thought of in general and acted upon. The descriptions of these levels focus on the various characteristics that can be manifest in a specific level. Therefore, rather than focus on the definition of each level of self, Sufis focus on the characteristics and experience of each level. So it is common to describe feelings, emotions, colors, signs, qualities, etc., as expressed in each level. Furthermore, more focus is placed on remedies for each level to get to the next one, and so forth, rather than submit to a particular level. The key to unlocking each level of the self is to have a steady regiment of invocation (dhikr) of specific Divine Names that best match each level of self and allow the traveler to traverse one level of self to the next self. For example, one formula goes as follows:

A certain amount of invocation of the above names helps the person journey from one level of the self to the next. This journey takes place via five main internal, physical stations known as the “5 Subtle Ones” (al-laṭā’f al-khamsa): the heart (qalb), the soul (rūḥ), the secret (sirr), the hidden (al-khafiy), the more-hidden (al-akhfa). These serve as the physical stations through which one level of the self is passed to the next, and they are physically located around a person’s heart. So there is extensive literature about where in the body these subtle five can be felt, how they move from one level of the self to the next, etc. These five stations are also reflective of the same five stations that exist in the non-earthly realm known as the malakūt, and there are seven levels of heaven in Islamic cosmology, all linking the observable universe, what is referred to by the term mulk, to the Throne of God (‘arsh Allah), which resides above the seven levels of the heavens. The journey of self-purification, then, is both a journey within through these levels, but also a journey through the celestial realms to the Throne of God. At the completion of this journey, one’s heart becomes a manifestation of the Divine Throne upon which descends Divine Mercy and Love. And this is the meaning of the famous prayer on the Prophet ﷺ as a manifestation of Divine Mercy:


Again, it must be remembered that Islam sees the development of the self as a universal human obligation and climbing this inner ladder is a struggle that is called for constantly. It is this exact sentiment that the Prophet of Islam ﷺ referred to as the greater jihād.[7] Greater since one cannot seize being one’s self and the battle within will take place as long as there is body-soul-self. Furthermore, since the struggle is constant, the focus of Sufism and therefore Islam’s program of human development is on the process of moving from level to level, rather than a full explanation of these levels. In other words, the Sufi guide is much more interested in describing the program of development and self-improvement rather than focus on why and how a person has found themselves in a particular situation. This is not to say that such descriptions do not exist, they do and abundantly, but the discipline of Sufism is meant to be practical, not necessarily theoretical, even though the theoretical and philosophical side of Sufism is well-known and well-studied in Islamic circles around the world.[8]

The Path to Self-Purification

It is well known that all things “Islamic” are based on interpretations of the religion’s primary sources (the Quran and Sunna).[9] The discipline of Sufism is no different and is the spiritual-operating manifestation of the message of the Quran and teachings of Islam’s Prophet ﷺ. However, since disciplining and purifying the self relates to each person individually, one would be correct to assume that there are a lot of nuances and trial and error. Accordingly, in addition to being based on interpretations of the primary sources, Sufism is also based on human experiences of the generations before us who sought to take the universal injunction of self-purification and implement it in the most effective way possible. And since each person’s experience is different, it is no wonder that there have been many paths to the Divine throughout the history of Islam.

To make things very simple in an already complicated subject matter, I will consider the path to self-purification in Islam to have two main tracks that are not necessarily exclusive: one is the slower, but safer path of systematic self-improvement, which entails three steps: removing bad traits (takhliyya), substituting these for good traits (taḥliyya), in order to facilitate illumination (tajallī). More will be said about these steps below. The second path, while quicker, requires a guide, as the risk is higher as is the reward. This is the path of love: to take the plunge in the sea of Divine Love, while maintaining one’s outward sobriety and Sharī‘a obligations. Now, to repeat, these are not mutually exclusive, nor is this simple outline meant to make one think that a particular spiritual path is devoid of both techniques. However, it is typical that one technique is emphasized over others, and the substance of both ways must exist for one’s development program to be complete and successful.

To make this last point clear, the tools used for both tracks are the same: remembrance (dhikr) and contemplation and reflection (fikr). As for remembrance (dhikr), it stems from the fact that our selves were with God originally and have been veiled subsequently by the body and soul. Invocation helps us “remember” this truth and this is why invocation in Arabic is from the same root as the word for remembering. The Quran speaks to this and says

Those who remember Allah, standing, sitting, and reclining, and contemplate the creation of the heavens and the earth, (and say): Our Lord! You did not create this in vain. Glory be to You! Preserve us from the doom of Fire. 3:191

Invocation/remembrance is so powerful that there is no act of worship that Islam puts no limits on except remembrance (dhikr), O you who believe! Remember Allah with much remembrance 33:41. As for contemplation, the Quran says, Will they then not ponder the Qur’an, or are there locks on the hearts? 47:24. And as referenced in the aforementioned verse (3:191), it is in regards to everything, not just the Divine text, meaning that everything has a sign leading back to the Divine. As the Arab poet wrote:

In everything there is a sign                Indicating that He is One

Therefore, one is meant to contemplate upon the observable universe as a way back to the Divine and is termed the “observable book of God” (kitāb Allah al-manẓūr). This contemplation could be simply thinking about it, exploring it, testing it, learning more about it, etc. This is equally important to the actual Divine revelation (kitāb Allah al-masṭūr) as well as the book within each of us (kitāb Allah al-maqdūr).[10] The Quran speaks to this by saying:

We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest to them that it is the Truth (41:53).

Principles of the Path

From what has been written one could conclude that while there is a framework of self-development, the speed and style of progress for everyone will be varied. People will experience things differently and take different amounts of time to advance. Therefore, the path to the Divine wouldn’t be complete without principles that help those on the path find guidance amidst the turbulence of life and self. The following are some of the more popular, high-level principles that Sufism offers the novice and experienced alike on their path of self-purification.

(1) God is the goal.

The goal of the self-purification is to reach a complete awareness of God as manifested in the famous hadith, “Spiritual excellence (iḥsān) is that you worship God as if you see Him, and if you can’t, know that He sees you.”[11] The goal is not to attain some sort of worldly station, or spiritual-high, but rather utter and pure awareness of God despite all other benefits that may or may not come along the path. It is helpful to remember that the inner journey is referred to as the “Path to God” reminding one always of this goal.

One manifestation of this awareness is to embody the Prophetic statement, there is no power or ability except by God (lā ḥawla wala quwwata illa bi’l Allah). The path helps one not only know this rationally, but to embody its meaning and to live it practically.

(2) The one who gazes will not arrive.

The path is full of wonders: shiny things that easily distract. If you spent half an hour reading some of the books of the Sufis, particularly the ones that tell stories, you will find yourself saying, “cool, I want that!” This principle serves as a reminder to essentially “refer to rule number one.” Shiny things are not the goal, and in the case of Sufism the goal is not to achieve some sort of worldly station or spiritual benefit, but to bear complete witness to God. If you don’t heed this advice, as the principle states, you will not arrive at your destination.

Imam al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 204/820) said that he learned from the Sufis that time is “like a sword, and if you don’t cut it, it will cut you.”[12] Time is all we have to achieve all the things we want to achieve in this world. If we waste time gazing at everything around us and touching every shiny thing we see, chances are we will not advance much. This is exactly what this principle seeks to embody. To excel on the path is to be in the moment, every moment. Not to be concerned with past or future, but simply the now.

(3) Things become easy, but moral obligation always remains.

If one were to delve into the descriptions and nuances of the levels of the self, one thing that becomes clear over time is that inwardly one becomes calmer, more settled, and able to deal with things better. As matters become easier from one perspective, this principle reminds the traveler that moral obligation (taklīf) is always present and that the Sharī‘a, the manifestation of moral obligation in Islam, always remains intact. Things becoming easier does not merit an excuse to stop practicing outward obligations under the assumption that a higher spiritual level has obviated legal obligations.

(4) It is about who his sincere, not who has arrived first.

Even though the references to “journey” and “path” and “levels” are plentiful, this principle cautions against thinking this is a race or competition. As demonstrated in the first two principles, one’s inner disposition is what matters in this journey, not the timetable. Another way of stating this is that perhaps one’s delay in advancement is due to the Almighty seeking to increase your struggle and therefore level in the long run. To this sentiment, Muslims are reminded that Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was the final Prophet sent by God to humanity, even though his rank is first in the prophetic hierarchy of Islam.

This principle also reminds the traveler that wanting to arrive is itself a hidden desire and one is reminded by the first principle that wanting should only be directed to one thing.

(5) Removing bad traits (takhliyya) and adopting good traits (taḥliyya) leading to illumination (tajjalī).

While this has been mentioned above as one of the two main techniques of self-purification in Islam, it is worth digging a little deeper. Much of the Sufi path is about rectifying and improving human character. Indeed the Prophet ﷺ stated that his entire prophetic mission was just that, I was sent only to rectify human character.[13] In order to do this, one not only needs to tame the self, but also to know what are bad traits and good ones. It is common to find in the books of Sufism, particularly introductory level books, a list of good and bad traits with evidence for each in Islam’s primary sources. Here one commonly finds discussions of hatred, lust, arrogance, anger, envy, stinginess, showing off in good works, leaning towards worldly things, love of money and station, wasting time, relying on God, love, devotion, filial piety, purity of intention, etc. These and so many others have been thoroughly examined such that one can focus on one trait at a time in order to remove them, adopt good ones, and slowly achieve spiritual illumination. Two famous books of this kind are Imam Ghazālī’s (d. 505/1111) Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn and Imam Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī’s (d. 996/386) Qūt al-Qulūb.

Another related and similar approach to this is to outline a step-by-step program for starting at the beginning of the path. This is best summarized in Imām al-Harawī’s (d. 481/1089) Manāzil al-Sā’irīn, which has received no shortage of commentaries throughout Islamic history. Beginning with the necessity of awakening (yaqaẓa) and repentance (tawba), and culminating with the inability to see a distinction between one’s own action and the actions of God (jam‘) and a witnessing of the complete Oneness of God (tawḥīd), al-Harawī takes the aspirant through a step-by-step approach on how to remove bad traits, adopt good ones, and most importantly how to facilitate spiritual illumination.

(6) Dealing with the physical world (mulk), spiritual realms (malkūt), Divine lights (anwār), and spiritual secrets (asrār).

While the goal of the spiritual path is otherworldly in a sense, one’s journey is completely within this world. Therefore, this principle is a reminder that one has to manage dealing with both sides at the same time. From one sense, a person has a door open to the Divine, and hence exposure to spiritual realms (malakūt), Divine lights (anwār), and spiritual secrets (asrār). On the other hand, one has a door open to this world (mulk) and the experience of day-to-day life. Again, one is typically referred to principle one to keep this experience in balance. If one’s overall decorum with God (what Muslims refer to as adab) and hence any of His creations is not appropriate, then one has veered off the path. If however, one keeps the balance of these things and acknowledges that exposure to both vertical and horizontal realms is a natural byproduct of self-purification then one will be able to appreciate the experience, but not be deterred from the goal.

I provided six of the most common and most easily digested principles the Sufis use to help guide the person on the path of self-purification. This in itself is a sub-field within Sufism and there are hundreds of such principles that translate real-life experiences in the science of Islamic self-purification.

Finding a Path

The last thing that is left to discuss is how one actually takes the path of self-purification. The components of any path are the guide (usually referred to as the shaykh), the aspirant (the murīd), and the specific path itself (al-ṭarīq). Like everything discussed above, a lot has been written about all of this and enough is translated into English that one can easily pick up this topic from those sources. Suffice it to say here that the concern of Sufism has been the etiquette and conditions necessary for all three to be optimized and therefore highly effective. What follows is a high-level summary of what one is to look for in their quest of self-purification within the Islamic framework:

(1) Closest to the Sunna.

One needs to find a Path that is closest to the Prophetic model laid out in the Sunna, and therefore orthodoxy. Some Sufi practices, while valid from a Sharī’a perspective, have developed non-Sunna practices. However, the optimal form of practice is to be as closely aligned with Prophetic norms. There is no Sufism without orthodoxy and no orthodoxy without Sufism. The following image is typically used to express this point:

(2) An unbroken chain.

The shaykh must have an unbroken chain (sanad) back to the Prophet of Islam ﷺ. There is no Sufism without an unbroken chain and there can be no spiritual advancement without it.  In fact, direct, unbroken chains of transmission are one of the hallmarks of all Islamic disciplines. While the early generations of Muslims used these chains of transmission largely to verify hadith, they became norms in every science and discipline to establish veracity and human-human interaction. Imam Muslim (d. 261/875) records in the introduction of his Ṣaḥīḥ collection of ḥadīth that ‘Abdullah Ibn Mubārak (d. 181/797) said, “chains of transmission are part of this religion (dīn), and were it not for the chains of transmission, anyone could say anything they wanted.”[14] Whether in hadith sciences, Quranic recitation, Islamic law, or the spiritual science, chains of transmission demonstrate the inherited nature of Islam’s tradition as well as the importance of taking knowledge from living, qualified scholars.

(3) A path that’s easy.

One should look for a path that is easy to follow and implement. Some paths are difficult, requiring copious amounts of devotional works, and in the cacophony of today’s dominant culture, one needs to find a way of ease in order to advance. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ always chose the easiest option when presented with a choice, given that there was no sin involved.[15] It should be noted that this is in regards to ease of extra devotional works required of the aspirant. When it comes to obligatory acts and cessation of impermissible acts (as outlined above), this is a universal obligation for all Muslims despite their affiliation to a particular Sufi order.

(4) A path that’s accessible.

One needs to find an order that has accessible publications, writings, and teachings. Emersion is the best way to learn and the spiritual path is no different. This also means that a particular path’s methodology should be accessible to anyone so if there are any issues, problems, or questions they can be discussed publically in appropriate venues.

(5) The aspirant and the shaykh.

One needs to have a certain amount of compatibility with their shaykh. When there is no compatibility, one should not assume that a particular shaykh is deficient, but rather spiritual sustenance is not meant to be from that shaykh. In this instant, one should remain respectful and keep searching.

One can often times find sentiments in the Muslim world that it is impossible to find the above and no such systems exist, etc. These are similar to the statements that the role of independent legal reasoning ijtihād is no longer possible, the doors have been closed, Muslims are antiquated in their thinking, etc. Now, I don’t subscribe to any of these sentiments and find them to be extremely dangerous and counterproductive. I also admit that here is not the place to address them. However, if one finds that they are in a situation where they cannot find a path or a guide, this does present a real, practical problem. What should one do? If indeed one or more of the above five conditions cannot be found, and a living teacher cannot be accessed, the general advice given throughout the literature of the Sufis is to go back to the basics and focus one’s devotional acts on the Prophet ﷺ. The devotional focus on the Prophet ﷺ takes the place of a living teacher until one can be found. If this is the case, one is typically advised to take a daily regimen of 300-500 prayers on the Prophet ﷺ.



Tarek Elgawhary, PhD

Potomac, MD

Safar 13, 1439 AH

November 02, 2017 CE

[1] In the interest of consistency, Arabic words and Muslim names follow the convention used for Arabic consonants by the International Journal of Middle East Studies. The plural forms of Arabic words are usually indicated by adding an “s” to the word in the singular, as in fatwas, not fatāwa, rather than transliterating their Arabic plural. Also, Arabic words are italicized at their first occurrence. I have mostly retained the definite article al- for names, but have dispensed with it in certain circumstances for the ease of reading.

[2] The majority of jurists (meaning there is a minority differing opinion) agree that the soul is placed in body after 4 months (120 days), basing their opinion on the hadith of Ibn Mas‘ūd narrated by both Bukhārī and Muslim. Other than the significance of this issue in our current discussion, this hadith is important to understand contemporary Sharia perspectives towards abortion. See Bukhārī: the Book of the Beginning of Creation for the full hadith text.

[3] While I have provided my own translation of the verses, I based my translation on Marmaduke Pickthall as found on

[4] In preparing this paper I discovered that not one English translation of the Quran I consulted rendered the Arabic, wast‘amarakum fīha correctly. The form of the verb used, ‘istaf‘ala, means that the action has been asked of the object of the verb. In this case God is asking us to develop. It would be interesting to see the impact this mistranslation has had on English language commentaries on the Quran.

[5] A dual system of dating is used throughout this paper (e.g., 911/1505). When both dates appear together, the first is the Hijrī date and the second is the Gregorian date. When a single date appears, unless otherwise specified, it will be the Gregorian date.

[6] There is an apparent inconsistency amongst Muslim writers in describing body-soul-self. This has its origins not on translated works, but original Arabic writings in which the soul and the self are often spoke of as one and the same thing. Technically speaking they are separate, as I have attempted to demonstrate in the introduction, yet Sufi writers typically inter-change the words. Therefore, I do not fault Mostafa Badawi in his translating the nafs as soul, but am attempting to develop a tripartite distinction in this paper for ease of understanding and to facilitate further research.

[7] The full hadith is, “We returned from the smaller jihād to the greater jihād…the jihād of the person against his own self” (Bayḥaqī).

[8] One can think of Sufism in Islam having three main expressions: Salafi Sufism – practiced by the likes of Imam Malik (d.179/795) and Imam al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 204/820). The period of the Salaf is thought to end at the close of the 5th Islamic century ending with the likes of Imam al-Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066). The second expression of Sufism is that of Imam al-Ghazali (d. 111/505) and from whence comes the hundreds of Sufi Orders still around today. The third expression is that by the likes of Muḥyi al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī (d.638/1240) and is more philosophical in nature, although also expressed in Sufi Orders.

[9] For Sunni Muslims, the Quran is the eternal, uncreated word of God. (kalām Allah al-qadīm). The Sunna encompasses all the recorded actions and speech of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ.

[10] The point being that each of this three, if examined, will draw one back to the Divine for the many signs they contain of His existence.

[11] Known as the “hadith of Gabriel”, this text is narrated in the collection of Muslim. An excellent English language reflection on its vast meanings is: William Chittick & Sachiko Murata The Vision of Islam (New York: Paragon House, 1994).

[12] ‘Abd al-Fattāḥ Abu al-Ghudda, Qīmat al-Zaman ‘Ind al-‘Ulamā’ (al-Maktaba al-Maṭbū‘āt al-Islāmiyya, n.d.), 25.

[13] This is a sound hadith (ṣaḥīḥ) narrate by al-Bayhaqī.

[14] Muḥyi al-Dīn al-Nawwawī, Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 18 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-M‘arifa, 2006), 1:47.

[15] Narrated by Abu Dawūd.

Egypt’s International Fatwa Conference October 2017

I was honored to attend Dar al-Ifta’s International Conference this past week in Cairo, Egypt. Established three years ago, this annual conference has been a powerful force to mobilize leading Muslim thinkers, scholars, and Muftis from around the world to discuss pressing legal issues facing various Muslim communities. This year’s focus was on the role normative fatwas can have in addressing the problems of extremism, confusion, and the rapid proliferation of these two through traditional media, online media, and social media. I was fortunate to share some of my own personal thoughts based on my experience dealing with similar issues over the past five years. While I will wait to link the final conference statement that summarizes the main findings and recommendations, I wanted to highlight two points that were very timely:


There has been a lot of talk over the past several years to criminalize the issuing of fatwas by non-licensed Muftis. This, of course, is specific to Muslim majority countries, and large Muslim minority communities that have a working relationship with their government, like the Muslim population in India, etc. While this proposed law has largely remained a discussion point, there is a clear message from the conference and therefore a top priority recommendation to policymakers that this law needs to be enacted as soon as possible to give legitimate, normative institutions a fighting chance in leading Islam and Muslims away from the threat of extremism.


Unfortunately, the gap between media, both traditional and online, and Islam’s religious establishments has only grown over the past 5-10 years. The unbelievable use of media by organizations like ISIS (see a new study with shocking new stats) has presented a moral burden on the press’s obligation to report or not report on certain aspects of extremism, which terrorist organizations use to their advantage. In any case, the near lack of cooperation between Muslim institutions and the press is not helping either. While many leading media personalities were present at the conference, there is still a long way to go in helping both the press and traditional Muslim scholars understand one another.


The challenges are great, but the conference was encouraging and hopeful. Most of all, I know for a fact that these institutions are completely underfunded and yet they manage to find nuanced ways to work through the challenges. These Muftis and scholars are committed for the long-haul and that is where I’m placing my bet!



Islam, Muslims, & Fatwas in the West

I have been very blessed by the Almighty. I had a very fulfilling education in the United States that focused on the liberal arts and humanities from high school all the way through my doctorate work at Princeton University. For twenty years I was able to study all the major world religions focusing on Judaism (in my undergraduate years), Hinduism-Buddhism (in my Masters program), and ultimately Islam (in my doctorate years). I was also honored by the Almighty to spend five years in the Azhar seminary and working inside and behalf of Dar al-Ifta. Under the tutelage of the greatest ulamā of our age and under the guidance of Shaykh Ali Gomaa I was given a firm foundation in the Sharia sciences and from my work at Dar al-Ifta I saw first hand the issuance of thousands of fatwas every week and the dealings of Islam and the State at the highest levels. It is due to these many blessings and this broad academic background that I find the topic of this year’s Dar al-Ifta conference to be of the utmost importance.

One of the major challenges all religion struggle within the modern age is the issue of authority. What is religious authority, who speaks for a particular religion, how is authority established, and most importantly, how can authority be advanced with the unbelievable advance of technology? These questions and more are universal, they no specific religion, nor have complete and sufficient answers been found to them. As a result, most of the highly populated religions have numerous splintering groups and sects within their ranks, mostly along the lines of articulating a certain theological stance, religions position, or doctrine. I understand the topic of this year’s conference to be an extension of this universal struggle to find religious authority in the modern condition.

In light of this, I would like to take this opportunity to offer some reflections based on my own experience over the past 5 years during which I have counseled hundreds of individuals, families, think tanks, governments, and heads of state on issues relating to Islam and its expression in the modern period. To give this a little more flavor, here is a list of the top 10 issues I constantly deal with; constantly is here defined as 3 or more of these issues coming up every week consistently for the past 5 years:

  1. Interfaith marriages for Muslim women men wanting to marry outside the faith
  2. Homosexuality
  3. Evolution
  4. Confusion on who to follow and who to listen to
  5. Atheism
  6. Sunni-Shia tensions
  7. Understanding the rise of extremism in the name of Islam
  8. Islamophobia
  9. Issues related to finance, banking, and debt
  10. Relationships between the ulamā and the state in Muslim majority countries

Observations of Muslims in the West

The words of ‘Abdullah Ibn Mubarak al-isnād min al-dīn wa lawla’l isnād la qāl man shā’ ma shā’ have never been truer then they are today. The most pressing issue, in my opinion, is that there is dire need to establish a fatwa authority (marja‘iyya) that is aligned with the methodology of al-Azhar that can speak in native Western languages. This is the only methodology that has proven resilient enough, deep enough, and broad enough to tackle the various issues that Muslims in the West face. Due to the fractured state of Muslims in the West there is no doubt that such an authority will be welcomed by some, and attacked by some, particularly those aligned with Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. However, the vacuum that has existed in Western Islam is so great and so dangerous, that I see this is a moral responsibility for those who are able. Of course, there are certain steps that can be taken to mitigate negative sentiment, and perhaps this can be addressed in a future publication.

There is almost no understanding whatsoever of the concept of al-siyāsa al-shar‘iyya amongst Muslims in the West. This has caused great confusion on two large fronts. One, it has been extremely difficult for Muslims in the West to understand and interpret events in the Arab world, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. The open support that many senior ulamā supporting existing regimes against public uprising is almost unfathomable to the Western mind (more on this below). In addition, positive sentiment towards Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood continues to grow. Two, this lack of knowledge has also made it difficult for Muslims in the West to find balanced ways of engagement with local governments. This is not to ignore the many Muslim individuals and organizations that have indeed engaged and the many that serve in government. However, these are a minority. The issue remains conceptual and rather than allow Muslims in the West to grope for the answers, the rich literature of siyāsa can be a tremendous boon to these communities. Yet, this genre of literature needs to be brought to light against the modern political condition and modern political theory so that its basic tenants can properly be understood.

The increasing power of communication and connectedness due to various platforms of social media has been a vehicle to catalyze the speed of confusion amongst Muslims worldwide. Non-orthodox Muslim academics and extremists cheerleaders have found extremely effective ways to engage these platforms much more effectively than normative Sunni Muslims. As a result, it is often times difficult for an impressionable person, particularly younger people, to understand the differences between who is who on these various platforms. One of the conclusions of this phenomenon is that one cannot ignore these platforms and communicating in the styles and modes that have been statistically proven to be effective. Social media memes have been studied and dissected, and enough public information and free training exist that these tools can easily be implemented.

As we have come to learn, the process of issuing a fatwa requires three general steps: Understanding the text, understanding the contemporary condition, and bringing the text into the contemporary condition. While this is the job of the Mufti, it is still important for Muslims to understand that there is a huge difference between the text and how the text is understood. And yet a completely different way the text is applied. Based on many of the issues I have encountered, I would say that understanding these distinctions alone could alleviate 70-80% of the confusion. Therefore, I think rather than simply focus on answers to common problems, it is important to spend more time articulating the “paradigm of Islam” by explaining the basic aforementioned distinctions, and other related foundational concepts.

Lastly, from my experience I have discovered that there is a massive gap in understanding of hadith amongst Muslims in the West. Since Salafis, largely fueled by the dubious Hadith project of Nasir al-Din al-Albani (d. 1999), have constantly used false hadith classifications to force Muslims into their way of thinking, the reaction has largely been a retreat from the concept of hadith altogether. I remember in one particular instance I taught the 40 Hadith collection of Imam al-Nawwawi (d. 676/1277) and upon the conclusion of the class, community members told me that this was not only the first time they heard of this book, but the first time they ever knew hadith could be so wonderful! This last word is key. They began to experience how wonderful the hadith were, rather than be frightened by them as they had come to be accustomed.

Suggestions for Muftis in the Muslim World

Since I have been blessed to straddle these two worlds, I think it is appropriate to also offer some thoughts on Muftis and Fatwa offices in the Muslim world and how they can help mitigate these problems.

Most people who come from the West, and here I define the West as being North America and Europe (the basis of my experience), operate within the paradigm of liberalism. Like any other ideology, liberalism has its own genealogy, experts, and perspectives, and these all form a certain paradigm of thinking, a certain uṣūl to use a terminology familiar to us, by which and through which they use to interpret certain political, social, and moral phenomenon. As a Muslim who has lived in the West the majority of my life, this paradigm is not necessarily at odds with Islam. Therefore, my point here is not that it is a “problem”, but rather without understanding it thoroughly it will be very difficult to understand Western Muslims concerns and, more importantly, how to communicate to them a normative Islam that is not based on this particular paradigm, but a different one. Without this capability, it will be nearly impossible to guide them.

There is an issue with liberalism, however, and this concerns the growing trend of Western Muslim academics who, either knowingly or unknowingly, use aspects of the paradigm of liberalism to interpret the primary sources of Islam. While there are many aspects of liberalism that are completely compatible with Islam, and much has been written about this, it was never meant to be a tool or methodology of interpretation of the Quran and Sunna. The significance of this occurrence is that it has produced heretical positions and interpretations that have unfortunately instigated mass confusion and ongoing conversations amongst Western Muslims. With the passing of time, these issues will slowly become automatically accepted and agreed upon unless they are challenged and discussed effectively.

A second suggestion concerns the use of social media. As discussed above, the power of social media and its penetration means that it is a force that must be reckoned with. The usage of social media by the religious establishment throughout the Muslim world is way below standard. Many of our most important websites are not search option optimized and transliterations are often awkward and rarely consistent. When it comes to videos, they are not edited and tagged properly. On dozens of occasions, I have been unable to search and find certain material I know exists on various platforms of Dar al-Ifta and al-Azhar. If someone close to these establishments cannot find these materials, there is little hope someone unfamiliar with them can. These simple examples mean that these digital platforms must be improved with haste using best practices that have now become international standards. The first step towards this improvement is to acknowledge that best practices on social media and web design are universal, known, and easily accessible. The second step is to understand that while not entirely free, these steps are extremely easy to implement and can be done so at minimal cost. The effects will almost be immediate.

Lastly, I want to address the importance of Western languages, particularly English. All these platforms, and indeed any international communication, must have robust and content-rich English companion sites. This is not just important to reach Muslims in the West, but also to help influence world opinion. Muslims in the West are not the only target group searching for answers and positions by the global Muslim leaders. It is very frequent that reporters, think tanks, universities, politicians, researchers, contractors, etc. turn to the web to find information on Islam and Muslims. If we are not there to meet their needs, they will look elsewhere for information.

It is my hopes that this brief sketch will be a catalyst not just for more discussion, but real, measurable action. As always, I stand ready to help Egypt’s religious establishment and look forward to doing so in the coming years with my colleagues and teachers.


Tarek Elgawhary, PhD


Cairo, Egypt

27 Muharram 1439

18 October 2017



Thoughts on Egypt IV: Normative Sunni Islam


Direct, unbroken chains of transmissions are the hallmarks of the Islamic sciences. While the early generations of Muslims used these chains of transmissions largely to verify hadith, they became norms in every science and discipline to establish veracity and human-human interaction. Imam Muslim (d. 261/875) records in the introduction of his Ṣaḥīḥ that ‘Abdullah Ibn Mubārak (d. 181/797) said, “chains of transmissions are part of this religion (dīn), and where it not for the chains of transmission, anyone could say anything they wanted.”1Muḥyi al-Dīn al-Nawwawī,Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 18 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-M‘arifa, 2006), 1:47. Whether in hadith sciences, Quranic recitation, Islamic law, or the spiritual science, chains of transmissions demonstrate the inherited nature of our faith tradition as well as the importance of taking knowledge from living, qualified scholars. The sanad is therefore first and foremost a tool of verification, not a tool of ceremony. The fact that the ulamā catalogued not only sound transmissions, but also weak and even forged ones, is a proof that the entire institution of isnād is to verify sound evidence from that which is dubious. Even though Ibn Ṣalāḥ argues that the use of the sanad as a verification tool seized and became ceremonial in relations to hadith, 2Ibn Salāḥ says that the use of the chain of transmission of ḥadīth texts to determine a text’s strength is reserved for the early generations of Muslim scholars (until about the 6thIslamic century), an opinion he held in contrast to al-Nawawī and others. See: Nūr al-Dīn ‘Itr ed,‘Ulūm al-Ḥadīth li Ibn Ṣalāḥ(Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1998), 17. it continued its original use as a way to pass authority in law, theology, and Sufism.
            One thinker/jurist from the 20th century whose time was no less chaotic and controversial than ours, was Egypt’s Grand Mufti Bakhīt al-Muṭī-‘ī (d. 1936). Overseeing the creation of Egypt’s first constitution and needing to reconcile many political realities to normative Islam, Muṭī‘ī was in need of defining legal authority. Muṭī‘ī believed that classical, normative sunnī Islam was, for the most part, summarized within the confines of the four sunnī schools of law. 3Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭī‘ī,Raf‘ al-‘Aghlāq ‘an Mashrū‘ al-Zawāj wa’l Ṭalāq(Cairo: n.p. 1927), 7-9. These four schools represented not necessarily the best legal opinions or jurisprudence, but rather schools of legal thought that have been “effectively preserved” throughout history. 4Ibid. Effective preservation for al-Muṭī‘ī was a specific historic and scholastic occurrence. It meant that a particular mujtahid imām’s legal opinions were copied by his students, catalogued in books that survived the ages, and that these books have been transmitted from one generation of jurists to the next generation in an unbroken chain adding legal discussion and ratio legis (‘illa) at each step. The act of transmission is also itself a specific act, likened to the transmission of ḥadīth texts in the early generations of Islam. 5Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭī‘ī,al-Qawl al-Jāmi‘ fī’l Ṭalāq al-bid‘ī wa’l Mutatābi‘(Cairo: n.p., 1320 AH), 16. For al-Muṭī‘ī, this reflected an important point in his legal thinking. Namely that law, as a body of knowledge and way of life, must be learnt from a living teacher and cannot be learnt from books alone. Without a chain of transmission, implying that one has not learned law from a living teacher who himself is part of this chain of transmission, legal opinions could be invalid and heretical. 6Ibid., 17.
           Therefore, chains of transmission and permissions to teach, what we refer to asijāza fi’l dirāyaorijāza fi’l tadrīs, are the basis upon which legal, theological, and spiritual authority are expressed, maintained, and continued. They are not, however, special powers that prevent one from doing this or that, or automatically make one holy. The ijāza, to be exact, is a license, and like any license, it can be revoked. For those who violate the ethics of the trade, or overstep their authority, their license is not only revoked, but they are memorialized as liars, hypocrites, and charlatans in much the same way as the forgers of hadith are remembered.

           Within the sanad/ijāza system, one is accepted as part of the ongoing intellectual/juristic conversation. One’s scholarly output in this regard adds layers to the body of knowledge, helps redact schools of thought, and answers pressing questions facing each generation of Muslims. It is this precise function of juristic discussion, or, as I like to call it, intellectual footprint, that creates authority in matters of religion.

Types of Muslim Learned People (Muslim Personalities)

Although this is the overall approach to knowledge in normative Sunni Islam, it is also a fact that not everyone who studies and is properly trained ends up equal in their abilities, skills, and qualifications. One can think of the resultant “Muslim personalities” of this type of study approach to be:‘ālim – ‘ābid – da‘ī. While these are generally defined terms, they are also porous and one person is most likely a combination of all three.
     ‘Alim – someone who spends the majority of their time (70% or more) in one or more fields of study and therefore considered an expert in this field. This  person is not necessarily well versed in other fields, nor particularly astute with the details of current events. One often turns to such a person for detailed answers to complex questions in various fields of Islamic studies. This is not to be confused with the role of a Mufti whose job it is to link specific legal knowledge to current events and therefore is in need of knowing about current events equal to his/her knowledge of Islamic law and legal methodology for the issue that is the subject of theirfatwa.
     ‘Dā ‘ī – Someone who spends the majority of their time (70% or more) calling people to Islam and is highly skilled in understanding the current condition of people and current events. They usually have a good understanding of the broad strokes of the Sharī‘a sciences, but are not considered experts in one particularly field. One learns general Islamic knowledge from them, and in some cases detailed knowledge in particular areas. Their main goal is help people be morally upright, understand the meta-principles of the religion, and dispel any false understanding they may have.
     ‘Ābid – Someone who has been gifted with great spiritual insight, adept at acts of worship, and has vast amounts of outward and inward piety. One usually benefits from such people spiritual guidance, and if such a person is to be qualified as a spiritual guide (murshid), they must have a cursory knowledge of necessarily known obligations of religion (al-m‘alūm min al-dīn bi’l ḍarūra).
One of the main problems I have observed with people trying to decipher the perspectives of Muslim scholars towards the events of the Arab Spring, and particularly the case of Egypt, is that they equate the above three as being equal. The fact of the matter is that while there is a general approach to knowledge in Sunni Islam that unties those who have studied, Muslim personalities are not equal in their knowledge or their understanding of current events and can not and should not be called on to define the “Islamic” answer to this event or that. For example, one cannot expect a dā‘ī or an ‘ābid to provide a fatwa on revolution and arresting a political ruler who has been deemed to go astray. They can, however, call for calm, peaceful demonstration, protection of the disenfranchised, etc. In searching for what Muslim scholars have said regarding the events of the Arab Spring, and the events of Egypt specifically, there are indeed differences, but these differences are between the ‘ulamā’ one to another, and not necessarily the differences aired by any and every Muslim personality.


1 Muḥyi al-Dīn al-Nawwawī,Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 18 vols. (Beirut: Dār al-M‘arifa, 2006), 1:47.
2 Ibn Salāḥ says that the use of the chain of transmission of ḥadīth texts to determine a text’s strength is reserved for the early generations of Muslim scholars (until about the 6thIslamic century), an opinion he held in contrast to al-Nawawī and others. See: Nūr al-Dīn ‘Itr ed,‘Ulūm al-Ḥadīth li Ibn Ṣalāḥ(Damascus: Dār al-Fikr, 1998), 17.
3 Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭī‘ī,Raf‘ al-‘Aghlāq ‘an Mashrū‘ al-Zawāj wa’l Ṭalāq(Cairo: n.p. 1927), 7-9.
4 Ibid.
5 Muḥammad Bakhīt al-Muṭī‘ī,al-Qawl al-Jāmi‘ fī’l Ṭalāq al-bid‘ī wa’l Mutatābi‘(Cairo: n.p., 1320 AH), 16.
6 Ibid., 17.

Thoughts on Egypt III: Democracy and Human Rights

Al-Siyāsa al-Shar‘iyya

Since every Muslim body politic had to grapple with the rule of law and establishing their own legitimacy, the subject of al-siyāsa al-shar‘iyya evolved over time to emerge as the body of writing and theory that governed the crossroads of politics and Islamic law. As Frank Vogel says, siyāsa can be thought of as legal conceptions and institutions viewed from the perspective of the ruler.1Frank E.Vogel,Islamic Law and Legal System(Brill: Leiden, 2000), 171. It generally included rules governing the discretionary right of the ruler to enact laws when there was no clear text in the primary sources and no precedent in Islamic law. In exchange for this type of power, the ‘ulamā’ were the providers of legitimacy to rulers, ensuring that they were essential and thus allowing them to be the sole “protectors of the Islamic constitution.”2Ibid., 195. This “circle of justice” as Wael Hallaq calls it, is its own topic with its own vast literature and genealogy.3“The Circle of Justice”, as translated by Wael Hallaq, refers to the religious sanctioning of a ruler over his subjects. As Hallaq himself notes, “The sovereign himself was expected to observe not only his own code but, more importantly, the law of the Sharī‘a….siyāsa, therefore, was in no way the unfettered power of political governance but in a fundamental way the exercise of wisdom, forbearance and prudence by a prince in rulings his subjects”. See: Hallaq,Sharī‘a, 208-216. What are the conditions for a legitimate ruler, who is allowed to pick the ruler (i.e. theahlal-ḥall wa’l ‘aqd), what are the boundaries of what he can or can not do, how can one remove a ruler if needed, etc., all are questions that form the backbone of this genre of writing.

            The role that the ‘ulamā’ played in keeping the political and social structure of Muslim societies led to a consolidation of the political structure and a strong integration of siyāsa by time of the Ottomans.4Ibid., 205.The Ottomans provided a vast government bureaucracy where the ‘ulamā’ played a vital role allowing siyāsa to take on a more formal role in Muslim politics. There were official state ‘ulamā’ (muftis, qāḍīs, and the position of Shaykh al-Islām) which provided a more structured role for the ‘ulamā’ in matters of state. Over time, the imperial laws and decrees that were issued were, in a sense, written and codified. They became known asqānūns and provided a vast new body of legal literature that would impact the desire to codify Islamic law in the 19thcentury.

Removal of Morsi

Unlike modern democracies where people elect officials to represent them, either directly or through proxies such as electoral colleges, the head of an Islamic State5By Islamic State I mean a legally constituted state according to international laws and compatible with siyāsa literature. I mean in no way whatsoever the heresy known as ISIS, etc. (siyāsa works call this position imām or khalīfa) is selected by a group of people known as ahl al-ḥall wa’l ‘aqd, literally the people who loosen and bind. While Islamic jurists and political theorists have discussed the important role that this group plays in statecraft, there has never been a consensus on exactly who is a member.6Muhammad Qasim Zaman has an excellent treatment of this debate outlining the three possible interpretations of this group. See: Muhammad Qasim Zaman,Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 47-55. What is clear in discussions of this group, however, is that themujtahidsamongst the ‘ulamā’ were a part of it: either entirely or partially.
            In June of 2012, by a narrow margin of 800,000 votes, the Egyptian people elected Mohamed Morsi.[7]  While there is no direct language regarding voting and elections in siyāsa writing, there is discussion of the nature of the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. The relationship is seen as a trust (amāna), which can be likened to a social contract of sorts between the ruler and the ruled. Al-Māwardī (d. 450/1058) writes about this saying “the contract of the imāma does not involve forcefulness or coercion.”7Imām al-Māwardī,al-Aḥkaam al-Ṣulṭāniyya(Caorp: Maṭba‘a al-Ḥalabī, 1973), 7. In fact, as some of the salaf argued, the entire axis of siyāsa writing is based on the verse in 4:58 in which God states, “Lo! God commands you to restore deposits to their owners, and, if you judge between mankind, that you judge justly. Lo! comely is this which God admonishes you. Lo! God is ever Hearer, Seer.” To assume the position of the chief executive of a nation and commander of the armed forces, the modern position that fulfills the Sharī‘a concept of the imām, is to take on the ultimate social trust. If this trust is violated, then the imām has opened the possibility of their removal/deposition. The election of Morsi, even if narrow, was an acknowledgement of the willingness of the people (the direct electors in this case) as well as the approval of those who loosen and bind (the leaders of Egypt’s religious and military institutions) of his presidency.
            Unlike the democratic electoral process, the masses do not have the right to depose a ruler and this right falls with those who loosen and bind precisely because the people who loosen and bind have the physical strength (Ar. shawka) to depose the ruler if the contract between the ruler and the ruled is breached in a way that can not be repaired. Al-Taftazānī (d.792/1390) says, quoting Imām al-Juwaynī (d. 478/1085), that this removal can even be by force if needs be for the betterment of the nation.8S‘ad al-Dīn al-Taftazānī,Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid, 5 vols., (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Azhariyya lil Turāth, 2013), 5:233-234.
           In the case of Morsi and Egypt, the readings of the events prior to arrest of Morsi are as follows: there was a series of power grabs by Morsi and constitutional decrees giving the office of the presidency unparalleled power and obfuscating the barriers between the legislative and executive branches of government, there was a complete breakdown of Egyptian civil society, historic mass protests-to the point were the entire country was at a standstill, and a unanimous agreement amongst Egypt’s major institutions: Muslim, Christian, military, police, and the Republican Guard that the president had to step down and new elections had to be called. Some argue that since Morsi was democratically elected this is somehow superior to any other consideration that would lead him to be removed. In fact Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt still refer to Morsi as the legitimate president of Egypt. The fact of the matter is that, according to siyāsa literature briefly discussed above and the Sharī‘a at large, the position of imām is predicated on the trust between them and the people they rule/govern. If this is violated, it is then up to those who loosen and bind to decide next steps, including, if needed, forced removal from power. Their rule, then, is not absolute.
            In the case of Morsi and Egypt, therefore, the understanding of the likes of Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti Shawqī ‘Allām, Shaykh al-Azhar Aḥmad al-Ṭayyib, and even Pope Tawadros II etc., is that Morsi was legitimately removed from office: both for reneging on his duties as sovereign which lead to a national quagmire and because those who have the authority (i.e. the physical ability) to make such a decision unanimously acted accordingly.[10]
           One can certainly disagree with this, which I assume many will, but the siyāsa literature is quite clear on this topic as well as precedent of this being acted out throughout Islamic history. The ‘ulamā’ who supported Morsi’s removal have been extremely honest and transparent in their adherence of the Sharī‘a in this regard. Often times, and especially in the case of Ramadan al-Buti, they have taken these positions at great personal risk and sacrifice. The notion that these ‘ulamā’ are “sell-outs”, “puppets”, “crazy”, because of their positions is a fundamental gross-misunderstanding of the perspective of the Sharī‘a towards statecraft and the role of the ‘ulamā’ towards the people and the government

           There is one final point on this topic I would like to add. Somehave commented that there is a contradiction specifically with Ali Gomaa’s position towards the original January 2011 uprising and that of June 30ththat removed Morsi from power. Some argue that in 2011 he took a stance against the uprising and then was in support of June 30th. The common thread between these two positions is the concept of where sharī‘a legitimacy lies, or what is termedshar‘iyya. The government of Hosni Mubarak had shar‘iyya that was not breached, even if people took the streets. He may have been a bad person, a bad Muslim (God knows best), but his duties as a sovereign at the highest levels were carried out and intact, and, until the moment of his resignation, those with the ability to depose him chose not to remove him. After he stepped down and after the new elections, all members of the people who loosen and bind accepted Morsi as Egypt’s new president. However, and as mentioned above, Morsi failed in his responsibilities to the point that those who had the ability to remove him did. Again, I am sure many will find disagreement with this, however from the perspective outlined here, there is no contradiction.


Nothing in the writings of siyāsa, or writings of enjoining right and forbidding evil, speak against standing up to State injustice. This is a supported right, and has its own conditions.9For example see: Ibn Naḥass,Tanbih al-Ghāfilīn ‘an A‘amāl al-Jāhilīn(Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al’Ilmiyya, 2001), 59-77.  Dr. Gomaa argued, as quoted in the first post on the timeline, that protests are legitimate up to the point that they do not cause disturbance, destruction, and harm. Disagreeing with the government, in itself, is not a sin. In fact, one can argue, it could be considered a great moral act.10The Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said, “the best form of jihhād is a truthful statement in front of a corrupt ruler.” Musnad Aḥmad hadith 19130. Dār al-Minhāj publication. The issue with the Rab‘a protests is that they lasted a long time (two months) and caused much disruption, and therefore the Sharī‘a perspective of them changed with these changing conditions. Even the non-protesting residents of Rab‘a petitioned the courts to breakup the protest.[13] 11All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt (United States of America: Human Rights Watch, 2014), 99-102 These court injunctions meant that the protest moved from the legal to the illegal, i.e. they lost their shar‘iyya. This means, from a siysāsa perspective, the Rab‘a sit-in became an illegal gathering that caused destruction of property (this has been documented and I witnessed this myself as I live in Nasr City and was there at the time) and public disturbance and therefore had to be dispersed. “Going against the ruler” (­al-khurūj ‘an al-ḥākim) in a way that causes harm to others (whether in their person or their property or their security) is considered a major sin and a violation of the trust that is owed from the governed to the one governing. This is why, for example, Ibn Nḥhās (d. 814/1411) argues that if “harm” is found against society and especially the ruler, this can be removed by force.12Ibn Naḥhās,Tanbīh al-Ghāfilīn, 59-60.
            When security forces came to disperse the protests, the critical part of the narrative is who fired first. The Human Rights Watch report itself, a document quoted by many on this topic and used as evidence against State violence, was not able to determine what happened first. Yet, this remains one of the most important aspects of the entire Rab‘a narrative and upon which is based much of the legal thinking of what transpired subsequently!13All According to Plan, 77. The narrative that people like Gomaa hold to and defend is that the police came with the intention of dispersing the protests without the use of legal force, and the protestors were given forewarning of their eminent dispersal, particularly because several court injunctions for the breakup of the protests were issued in the weeks prior to the actual dispersal. When the police came to actually begin the process, they warned over loudspeakers the dispersal, but instead of compliance, they were fired upon first and there was instant loss of life from the police. It was at this time that lethal force was used against the protestors. There is no debate as to the presence of weapons amongst the protestors, illegal seizure by the protestors, and even torture of innocents by some of the protestors.14bid., 95. The Muslim Brotherhood even clothed young children in shrouds written upon them “for sacrifice.” The debate is whether these facts and numbers justify the use of force or not. The HRW report argues that it does not, but without even acknowledging the aforementioned or providing a narrative of who fired first.15For example see: Ibid., 97, 104. Gomaa and others argue that it does, again a consistency with siyāsa literature.
            The problem with this position for most people is that many, many innocent people lost their lives in Rab‘a. There is no denying this. The sad fact, however, is that these innocent people, whether knowingly or unknowingly, joined the ranks of a highly problematic, illegal, and dangerous gathering. This type of situation is addressed in the intellectual history of Muslims and particularly in siyāsa writings as “those who swell the ranks of others” (takthīr al-sawād). In regards to verse 4:97, for example, the Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said that the reason it was revealed is that some of the Muslims swelled the ranks of the disbelievers against the Muslims and in the ensuing armed conflict they were killed. To this event Ibn ‘Abbās (Allah be pleased with him) said, “people from the community (i.e. Muslims) were with the disbelievers and swelled their ranks (emphasis mine) against the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace). An arrow was fired and perhaps hit one of them (i.e. by mistake) and they perished. It was to this that God revealed 4:97.”16Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, Kitāb al-Fitan, ḥadīth 7174, Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation. On this same topic, al-Nawwawī (d.676/1277) comments by saying, “whoever swells the rank of a people take the ruling of that people in the dispensation of worldly punishments towards them.”17Sharf al-Dīn al-Nawwawī,al-Minhāj Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim Ibn al-Ḥajjāj, 18 vols., (Beirut: Dār al-M‘arifa, 2006), 18:216. In this case, unfortunately, these protestors, even if innocent, could place themselves in mortal danger. As difficult as this position is to accept, particularly by those with a western-liberal sensibility, siyāsa writings and the overall Sunni political framework is highly sensitive to going against the State in a violent fashion.
     Another important point is the use of excessive lethal force against unarmed protestors. While this is a separate issue from the legitimacy/illegitimacy of breaking up the protest, it nonetheless is very important. Just because the state had a right to disperse, and subsequently had a right to use forceequal to the force against them, there is no doubt that there was an excessive use of force, much of which has been documented in reports and video clips. In this case, it is incumbent upon the state to prosecute those individuals who are proven to have used such force against unarmed civilians. The state, I believe, has a fundamental responsibility not to use force against its own citizens when it can be avoided.
           In the end, there is no doubt that the break up of Rab‘a was a catastrophic event and that hundreds of innocent people lost their lives. Even the ‘ulamā’ who uphold its legitimacy agree to this notion. The use of force was excessive and sloppy, and the State could have done a lot better. In fact one could argue that the State had a fundamental role to avoid a violent outcome in the first place. However, as tragic it was, the real issue at hand is whether or not there was arightof the State, based on the facts admitted, to use lethal force. While people like Gomaa have been consistent in their own arguments, and consistent in their adhering to the body of literature they hold as authoritative, the argument that the Raba‘a breakup was bad and sad are simply not cogent and have no relevance to the legal discussion of Sharī‘a permissibility or not.



1 Frank E.Vogel,Islamic Law and Legal System(Brill: Leiden, 2000), 171.
2 Ibid., 195.
3 “The Circle of Justice”, as translated by Wael Hallaq, refers to the religious sanctioning of a ruler over his subjects. As Hallaq himself notes, “The sovereign himself was expected to observe not only his own code but, more importantly, the law of the Sharī‘a….siyāsa, therefore, was in no way the unfettered power of political governance but in a fundamental way the exercise of wisdom, forbearance and prudence by a prince in rulings his subjects”. See: Hallaq,Sharī‘a, 208-216.
4 Ibid., 205.
5 By Islamic State I mean a legally constituted state according to international laws and compatible with siyāsa literature. I mean in no way whatsoever the heresy known as ISIS, etc.
6 Muhammad Qasim Zaman has an excellent treatment of this debate outlining the three possible interpretations of this group. See: Muhammad Qasim Zaman,Modern Islamic Thought in a Radical Age(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 47-55.
7 Imām al-Māwardī,al-Aḥkaam al-Ṣulṭāniyya(Caorp: Maṭba‘a al-Ḥalabī, 1973), 7.
8 S‘ad al-Dīn al-Taftazānī,Sharḥ al-Maqāṣid, 5 vols., (Cairo: al-Maktaba al-Azhariyya lil Turāth, 2013), 5:233-234.
9 For example see: Ibn Naḥass,Tanbih al-Ghāfilīn ‘an A‘amāl al-Jāhilīn(Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al’Ilmiyya, 2001), 59-77.
10 The Prophet (God bless him and give him peace) said, “the best form of jihhād is a truthful statement in front of a corrupt ruler.” Musnad Aḥmad hadith 19130. Dār al-Minhāj publication.
11 All According to Plan: The Rab’a Massacre and Mass Killings of Protesters in Egypt (United States of America: Human Rights Watch, 2014), 99-102
12 Ibn Naḥhās,Tanbīh al-Ghāfilīn, 59-60.
13 All According to Plan, 77.
14 bid., 95.
15 For example see: Ibid., 97, 104.
16 Ṣaḥīḥ Bukhārī, Kitāb al-Fitan, ḥadīth 7174, Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation.
17 Sharf al-Dīn al-Nawwawī,al-Minhāj Sharḥ Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim Ibn al-Ḥajjāj, 18 vols., (Beirut: Dār al-M‘arifa, 2006), 18:216.