"Our Dialogue" 6th Edition Rev

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Highness and Greatness belong to Allah in their totality. None of His servants aspire to achieve such a position but will be humiliated by Allah, and made to suffer grave punishment and endless humiliation in the Hereafter. Furthermore, Allah says: As for that happy life in the Hereafter, we grant it only to those who do not seek to exalt themselves on earth, nor yearn to spread corruption (28:23). He also describes Pharaoh in connection with his destruction that he used to think of himself as “uniquely high”.

No matter how great, or high man becomes, he remains a servant of Allah the Most High, the Most Great. When this fact is firmly established in man's heart, it ensures that he remains a servant of Allah and protects himself against pride, conceit and transgression. He will continue to fear Allah and be in awe of His power and His majesty. He will know his place in relation to Allah and will think twice before he shows any arrogance in his dealings with fellow creatures. The matter is then not merely one of belief, but also one of action and behavior.

Ba'it or pledge of loyalty to spiritual leaders

In a book entitled "Saviors of Islamic spirit" by Abul-Hassan Ali Nadwi, the practice of taking a pledge of loyalty, or ba'it is mentioned in the chapter on Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani as something that follows "the procedure and technique" of the Prophet. In one of your answers you said that it was not the practice of the Prophet to take such a pledge. Could you please explain the contradiction? My brother argues that to achieve spiritual success one must take ba'it and follow a spiritual guide. May I ask whether the Prophet did take an oath of allegiance from his followers to practice the tenets of Islam? If so, can this oath be compared to the ba'it one takes to follow the teachings of Islam under a spiritual guide? May I also ask what is the difference between mysticism and asceticism.

It is often mentioned in books on the life of the Prophet and books of Hadith that a person might have come to the Prophet and spoken to him. The Prophet would explain to him the principles and basic facts of Islam. The man would then declare his acceptance of Islam and pledge to the Prophet that he is a Muslim. The phrase used here means that the newcomer to Islam would give a pledge or a word of honor or an affirmation that he would follow Islam. The phrase normally used in this connection practically means a pledge to be a Muslim.

The Prophet also took a special pledge from the Ansar, or the Muslims of Madinah, on two separate occasions. The first was similar to the pledge given by women when they became Muslims. The second known as "ba'it al-Aqabah" actually assured the Prophet that the Ansar were ready to defend Islam with their lives, and fight any enemies that might raise an army to attack the Prophet or his followers.

It was confirmed that the Ansar would always be ready to come to the defense of the Prophet, willing to sacrifice their lives in order to protect Islam. At that particular moment, one of their members tried to make the import of that pledge clear in their minds.

He stopped and asked: "Do you know what you are pledging? You are actually affirming that you would support the Prophet through thick and thin, even if that would mean that your leaders would be killed and your property looted". They confirmed their readiness to make such a pledge with all that it entailed.

The Prophet also took a pledge, or ba'it, from his companions just before he signed the peace agreement at Al-Hudaibiyah. The Prophet had marched from Madinah with fourteen hundred of his companions, lightly armed, aiming to go to Makkah to perform the Umrah. Just before arriving there, Quraish, the major Arab tribe residing in Makkah, made it clear that they would prevent them from entering the city with all their might.

There were negotiations and emissaries to discuss the situation. Then the Prophet sent his companions Uthman ibn Affan to the chiefs of Makkah to make it clear to them that all that the Muslims wanted was to worship at the Ka'aba. Soon a rumor circulated that Uthman was killed by the peoples of Quraish. At that moment, the Prophet took a pledge from his companions to fight to the end. They all gave their pledges, knowing that it would mean fighting to the last breath. Their action is commended in Surah 48 of the Qur'an.

These were the pledges that the Prophet took from people on different occasions. We thus have the normal pledge which signifies little more than a solemn affirmation that a person has become a Muslim. There is also the pledge of the Ansar which assured the Prophet that he had a solid base to move to. Lastly, the pledge at Al-Hudaibiyah was a pledge to fight to the end when Muslims were very heavily outnumbered.

None of these is similar to the ba'it or pledges given to mystics or spiritual guides by their followers.

At no time was it reported that the Prophet took a pledge of loyalty or complete obedience from someone who had already been a Muslim for some time. The fact that a person accepted Islam as a faith meant that he would obey God and the Prophet in all matters. That is the import of the second part of the declaration that any person makes when he becomes a Muslim. The declaration is known as the "shahadah", and it states, "I bear witness that there is no deity save God and that Muhammad is God's messenger." Obedience to God cannot be put into practice without following the Prophet's guidance.

A pledge might have been given individually by one of the Prophet's companions after a serious slip. But that was always part of a declaration of repentance. It was simply a renewal of the first pledge and an affirmation that the repentant companion would resolve never to go back to his act of disobedience. No special formula was required by the Prophet at any time. He always advised his companions, who might have slipped, to repent and mend their ways. If any of them told that his offense was very serious, he renewed his pledge of obedience to emphasize that he has come back to the fold.

What mystics or Sufis require from their disciples is something totally different from what actually took place in the times of the Prophet. They give themselves a position of a spiritual guide. The ba'it or the pledge given to them is one of total obedience in all situations.

We have seen many of these disciples unable or unwilling to question any piece of instruction given to them by their guide or mentor. They blindly trust that what they are told is correct. Their obedience is felt by them to be all that is required of them to ensure admittance to heaven in the hereafter.

They believe that the short way to heaven is to follow their sheikh, or pir or mystic or whatever they call their spiritual guide. They do not even question the ability or the knowledge or the honesty or the behavior of their mentors. They simply accept the position of blind followers feeling that it is all that is required of them.

In this way, the disciples are practically abdicating their responsibility. God has made everyone of us responsible for his actions, making him the one who strives to gain admittance to heaven by following the Qur'anic teachings and the guidance provided by the Prophet; or the one who earns for himself the punishment of hell through hardened disobedience to God and His messenger. This is a position of honor God has given to every man and woman. By assigning that responsibility to a mentor or a spiritual guide, a person rejects the position of honor God has given him and adopts instead a position of blind following that is totally unbecoming of a thinking human being.

The Prophet did not recommend or suggest that such an action of following a spiritual guide is required, desirable or even acceptable. On the day of judgment, God asks us about following the Prophet, not about following a spiritual guide. Many of those who appoint themselves to such a position are probably unable to ensure their own salvation, let alone the salvation of others.

Many yield to the temptation of wealth or authority. How can they provide others with something they themselves lack? The only way to win God's pleasure and His acceptance of our work is by following the guidance provided by the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, not by following anyone else.

You also ask about the difference between mysticism and asceticism. In the context we have been talking about, a person is a mystic if he seeks by contemplation or self-surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the deity, or if he believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding. This description applies to most sufis. It is easy to understand why going deep into mysticism or sufism can lead a person astray. If he begins to think of a union with the deity, then he certainly goes beyond Islamic concepts.

The Qur'an is always described by God Himself as plain and manifest. Why do we need to seek a hidden meaning for its words claiming that it requires a great deal of effort to uncover? Let me remind you that a Bedouin Arab might come to the Prophet and sit with him for an hour or so, when the Prophet would have explained to him the basics of Islam.

The Bedouin would then declare that he is a Muslim and might go to his people and explain to them his new faith. Many of them would respond to his call and adopt Islam. That might have represented all their Islamic education, and they would nevertheless be good Muslims and through conscientious following of the principles of Islam secure for themselves admittance into heaven.

Asceticism calls for severe abstinence and austerity. An ascetic person is one who practices severe self-discipline, and may retire into solitude for this purpose. This is also against Islam, because Islam wants its advocates to mix with people and call on them to correct their behavior and adopt what is certain to earn God's pleasure.

• Babri Mosque and killing by Muslims

At the time when the Babri Mosque was destroyed by Hindus and there were many casualties in communal conflict, certain questions were in my mind. A Muslim should be ready to protect anything which relates to his faith. However, should he kill anyone in order to prevent the destruction of a mosque or to avenge it? I am referring to the killings that occurred in places far afield. I feel that a Muslim should not kill even the person who is engaged in destroying the mosque. I would be grateful for your comment which may explain when killing is permissible.

What we have here are two separate points. The easier one to sort out is the one which concerns the events that took place in the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Mosque, in places very far apart but where Muslims and Hindus live side by side. It was tragic that people who were hundreds of miles away from the scene of the Babri Mosque should lose their lives as a result. But blind fury can easily cause that. Yet it is not right that Muslims should allow themselves to be driven by blind fury into killing other people.

The destruction of the Babri Mosque was a crime which cannot be easily forgotten or forgiven. A mosque is a place of worship, and worship is addressed to God, the Creator of the universe. As such, a mosque has its sanctity which should be respected by all people. That Hindus have their own view about what sort of temples should be erected in that spot is of little concern. They should have realized that no religion worth the name should motivate people to destroy mosques or kill other human beings. That Muslims throughout the word should express anger at what had happened at Babri is understandable, but for Muslims to attack Hindus simply because they belong to the same faith as those who destroyed the mosque, is from the Islamic point of view, unacceptable.

The other point you have made is that a Muslim should be ready to sacrifice his life in defense of the mosque, but should not kill anyone else. The life of a Muslim is something very precious. Indeed, the Prophet tells us that the sanctity of a believer is, in God' sight, greater than the sanctity of the Ka'aba itself. Therefore, a Muslim's life is too precious to be allowed to go undefended. Suppose that a few hundred or thousand Muslims were alerted to the designs of the Hindus just before they attacked the mosque. Those Muslims would rush to the mosque in order to defend it. What you are saying is that those Muslims defending the mosque should be ready to die in order to protect it, but they should not kill those who are trying to kill them in order to reach the mosque and destroy it. This is a sign of weakness which would tempt the attackers. They will not only destroy the mosque but will also kill as many of its defenders as possible. Islam does not believe in such a lopsided philosophy. If enemies of Islam are prepared to kill human beings and destroy their mosques, then such people should be confronted with equal means, and should be made to taste their own medicine.

Let me remind you that the concept of jihad is essential to Islamic philosophy. That concept is based on confronting the enemies of Islam who try to suppress the call of faith and subjugate Muslims with adequate means to ensure that their purpose is defeated and their schemes came to nothing.

If those enemies of Islam use force, then Muslims must use force. At the time of the Prophet, the enemies of Islam launched several attacks on Muslims trying to eliminate them altogether. The Prophet confronted them with smaller armies, but these were the only forces available to him. He engaged in battles that invariably ended in great triumphs for the advocates of divine faith. The same was true of subsequent generations, and Muslims were always defending their faith, their land and their lives with adequate means. If that means going to war, with the inevitable killing of soldiers, then they did that.

Today we see of the starkest examples of what may happen to a people who are deprived of the means to defend themselves. The Muslims in Bosnia have suffered aggression by the Serbs who killed and raped and were able to boast about their crimes. Had the Muslims been better equipped, they would have repelled that aggression. What happened in Palestine is a tragedy of similar proportion. If Muslims were to refrain from repelling aggression, then all their land would be overrun and they would be killed in large numbers. Islam does not accept such an attitude. Indeed, Islam grants the status of a martyr to a person who dies defending his life, the women in his family, his land and property. Similarly, the Muslim community should be quick to defend its existence and its land.

A Muslim may be killed [after pursuing the due process of law] in punishment for murder or adultery.

• Backbiting or honest testimony

It is well known that Islam forbids backbiting. What if a person happens to be dishonest or a petty thief? Should not people be warned of the fact, so that they be on their guard when they deal with him? Similarly, should not people in the neighborhood be warned that certain individuals of the wrong types of character have moved into their area?

Backbiting is certainly one of the actions Islam forbids. Its effect on individuals and communities is all there to see. It creates ill feelings and mistrust. Moreover, it betrays a cowardly attitude, as the backbiter takes the opportunity of the absence of another person in order to speak ill of him, giving other people a bad picture of him. Had he been speaking the truth, he would not have chosen to speak of him in such terms when he is away. He actually acknowledges that he does not have the courage to face him with similar statements. Indeed, I do not have to dwell on the evils of backbiting and how they affects society. Those are well-known to everyone. I only wish to add that backbiting also gives a bad image of the backbiter himself.

However, there are cases when pointing out the faults of another person is permissible. Suppose that people come to you to ask for information about a man you know intimately. They tell you that he has proposed to marry their daughter, or to go into business partnership with them. In such a case, you have to give them all the information which is likely to influence their decision one way or the other. You must point out the faults you know of that person in order to make an honest testimony. For example, if you know him to be stingy or hot tempered or negligent of his family duties, you must tell them of all that because these are qualities which influence a decision on accepting a proposal of marriage. If you know from your long association with that person, that, for example, he had entered into a business partnership with others and the business collapsed and there was some suspicion about his honesty, or his handling of the affairs of the business, or that he did not have a sound business sense, you must tell that to the inquirers. In such cases, you are not indulging in backbiting; you are simply acting as a witness who must give an honest testimony.

There are, however, certain things to take into account when you are called upon to give such information. The first thing is that you give it only to the people who need it. You must not publicize it. The second is that you give only the information which is necessary. Thirdly, you must be very objective. You must not allow your own prejudice to either exaggerate or make little of what you know. Fourthly, you should give the information in the least offensive way. You should use the words that give a clear idea of the man and his standing and that are not too personal. That is not backbiting by any measure.

• Bank employees: Misgivings about working in a bank

1. Is it permissible for me to work as an accountant in a bank or an insurance company, or to work as an underwriter in the latter, or in any other capacity?

2. For a long while I have been troubled with the fact that I am deeply involved in interest due to the fact that I work in the investment department of a commercial bank. I have thought frequently about leaving my work, but with my qualifications and experience, it is not easy to get away from interest, particularly since most companies deal with banks and borrow or invest money in interest-based transactions. Even if I go into teaching, I can only teach mathematics or accountancy, and both have much to do with interest. I will be grateful for your advice.

The attitude expressed by my two readers is the one Islam aims to cultivate in its followers. When a person is involved in some sort of action, whether on a regular basis, as it is the case with these readers, or occasionally, as happens with all of us, that person must first find out whether that action is acceptable or not from the Islamic point of view. It is an attitude we must all cultivate that whatever we do must always aim at earning God’s pleasure. We benefit both in this life and in the life to come when we make that aim our guiding principle because God is always pleased with what is useful to His creatures. He has only commanded us to do what serves our own best interests and those of our fellow human beings. The Prophet says: “The dearest of all people to God are those who bring most benefit to His servants.” When we try to conduct our lives in accordance with the laws He has enacted, we benefit both by being obedient and by the fact that what He has commanded us is meant to serve our best interests.

Another point which I would like to make clear at the outset is that we read in the Qur’an very strong condemnation of usury. This is further emphasized in many pronouncements by the Prophet. Some people who tend to be strict often equate interest as it is practiced in the modern banking system with usury to the extent that they tend to see the one as synonymous with the other. When translating Islamic statements dealing with usury, they invariably use the word ‘interest’ for ‘usury.’ I feel that this view is rather too narrow.

There are undoubtedly similarities and differences between the two which make it necessary that we deal with each of them separately. Before anybody jumps to any conclusion, I would like to make it clear that I think we are justified in saying that the similarities are sufficient to make us consider most interest-based transactions usurious in nature. Hence, they are forbidden. However, we still need to look at every type of banking transactions separately, in order to know whether we can say it is acceptable or not.

Both readers are worried about getting involved with interest when they do their jobs. They realize that interest is not lawful and they want to steer away from it. I may remind my readers here of the Hadith in which the Prophet emphasizes that God curses “the person who devours usury, the one who pays it, the writer of the contract between the two parties and those who act as witnesses to the contract.” So the prohibition is very strict indeed. Moreover, it applies to the peripheries of the transaction as well as to its substance.

However, when we consider whether working in a bank is legitimate or not, we cannot slam a blanket ruling and say that all jobs a bank offers are forbidden, because some of them may not be. It really depends on the type of job one does, rather than the institution he works for. There are bank jobs, some of which are senior ones, which have little to do with earning or paying interest. We cannot pronounce these as forbidden. There is nothing in Islam to prevent a Muslim from working for a Christian, although the latter may firmly believe Jesus Christ to be the son of God. Which is a great offense against God: to devour usury or to falsely allege that He has a son? What we say is that if a person works in a bank and his job does not involve conducting or facilitating interest transactions then it is permissible for him to hold such a job and his salary is perfectly legitimate to earn.

In modern banking, there is a variety of services that are permissible, while others are not within what is acceptable from the Islamic point of view. For example, depositing money to earn interest is not acceptable, because there is much akin to usury in such deposit accounts. On the other hand, deposits that are invested in commercial projects and earn a percentage of the profits made by such projects or incur a portion of the loss are lawful.

Moreover, if he is doing some job that involves interest merely to gain banking experience and his aim is to be able to develop an alternative system which is more in line with Islamic values and principles, then he is to be encouraged. He should leave his job when he has gained all the experience he needs.

On the other hand, if a person works in a bank only because this is the only job he could get, and he is certain that quitting means that he would be unemployed for a while, then we tell him that he should stay in his job and keep on the look-out for an alternative. Once he has secured another job which is more satisfactory from the Islamic point of view, he should leave immediately. There is no virtue in being unemployed or leaving one’s family in need of what charity others may give.

The writer of the second letter is not particularly worried about having another job. He is highly educated, and knows that he can work as a teacher or an accountant. He is worried that such jobs also involve working with interest. He has a very valid point. The Qur’anic threat to believers to quit all dealings with usury wants that unless the system is abandoned, God and His messenger will declare war against them. This threat is not meant for individuals only, but also for communities and societies. The community which operates a system of usury will be at war with God and His messenger. That is a very serious threat indeed. Yet he is carrying things too far. A teacher of mathematics who teaches percentage and gives examples of how interest is calculated is not the same as one who works in a bank and is heavily involved in carrying through transactions that are interest-based. Nor is an accountant in a private company so much involved either, even when the company does not have any scruples about earning or paying interest. That part of his work which deals with interest will always represent a small part of his duties, unless he happens to work in a finance company, which is probably worse than working for a bank.

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