"Our Dialogue" 6th Edition Rev

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• Circumcision: Is it obligatory?

A Hindu friend of mine has embraced Islam. He is very happy with his new faith and everyone is encouraging him to learn more about Islam. Our sponsor wanted to take him to hospital for circumcision, but we were told by an Egyptian friend that there was no need. Please comment.

Your Egyptian friend is right. Circumcision, for new born boys, is recommended. It is not compulsory. Therefore, if a child born to a Muslim family is not circumcised and he remains so until his death, he does not commit a sin. It is true that it is unhygienic to remain un-circumcised, but when we speak of a certain situation from the Islamic point of view, we have to classify it according to the teachings of the Prophet.

Since this friend of yours is an adult, and he has only recently embraced Islam, to pressure him into going to hospital for circumcision is wrong. Let him choose for himself. There should be no great emphasis attached unduly to circumcision. If he is a good Muslim, whether he is circumcised or not, it does not affect his status in any way.

Some people may be scared lest this action in adult life should result in some complications. Others are too shy to go through it. Why should there be pressure when Islam has not required it?

• Classes within a Muslim community

In my country, people are classified as either sayyid or sheikh or pathan. There are restrictions on intermar­riages between these groups which would prevent, for example, the marriage of a sayyid girl to a pathan man. It is also said that sayyids are not allowed to receive zakah. Could you please comment on these classifica­tions.

In all societies, you find sections of people claiming privileges for themselves. They may base this on wealth, birth, race, etc. If the community is willing to concede such privileges to them, they will try to consolidate their position and claim more privileges. What happened in Europe before the French Revolution was the clearest example of what evils may spread in a society or class as a result. This, however, was not limited to Europe. We have only to remember the caste system in India which made the minority of the people subservient to the elite. The best society is that which refuses altogether the notion of classifying people into masters and slaves, aristocracy and masses, feudal lords and peas­ants, etc. It was not long ago that democratic societies tried to establish the principle of equality of all people in practice after it had been preached in theory for a long time. Nevertheless, the wealthy and the powerful continue to exercise influence which is disproportionate to their number. Under commu­nism on the other hand, the party members enjoyed great privileges and made themselves into a class of their own.

What does Islam say to all that? In the Qur'an we read: "Mankind, we have created you out of one male and one female and made you into peoples and tribes so that you may get to know each other. The most noble among you in Allah's view is the most God-fearing." (49;13) This verse establishes the basic Islamic principle that all human beings are equal, since they descend from the same man and woman. Over the centuries, they have formed different nations and numerous tribes. When they get to know each other, they stand to enrich human life. The only recognized field of excellence in which it is possible to distinguish any one person or group of them over the rest is fearing Allah, a quality which does not fail to bring out the best in every human being.

The division you have mentioned in your country is alien to the basic principles of Islam. You speak of an automatic blockage of the marriage of a man from one group with a woman from another. How could this be justified when Allah says in the Qur'an: "Believers are but brothers" (49;10) The possibility of objecting to a mar­riage is limited to such a situation as when a woman feels that mar­rying a particular person will not give her the sort of life to which she is used to. In other words, the marriage will mean a downgrading of her. Otherwise, the guiding principle in sanction­ing a marriage is the Hadith which tells all Muslim parents and guardians: "If a man whose strength of faith and honesty are of acceptable standard, comes to you with a proposal of marriage, then accept his proposal. If you do not, you will cause friction and a great deal of corruption in the land."

Let us look briefly at the class known as 'sayyid'. A 'sayyid' has come to refer in many parts of the Islamic world to a person who claims to be a descendant of the Prophet. I can tell you that many who claim to be 'sayyid' cannot substantiate their claims. However, even if the claim is correct, it does not confer any particular status to the person concerned. He is still required to do his Islamic duties as everyone else. He will be rewarded in the same manner and his sins will be taken against him in the same way. He will either be forgiven or punished by Allah as He, in his sole discretion, determines. His descent does not give him any immu­nity. Nor does it give him any special status in society. Let us remember what the Prophet said to his own daughter: "Fatimah, work for your future life because I shall avail you nothing (if Allah is not pleased with you)." This is a clear instruction by the Prophet to his own daughter that her own actions are the only fac­tor which determine her standing in the life to come. If this applies to Fatimah, who can say that his [being] descendent gives him any privileges whatsoever.

It is true that the Prophet has made it clear that zakah is not to be paid to him, his household and descendants. They have, however, different sources of income from the Islamic state, such as a share of what the Muslim state may gain in the fighting. However, many scholars are of the view that it is permissible to give zakah to descendants of the Prophet if they are poor, particularly because the other sources from which they would have benefited are largely unavailable.

• Classification of mankind

In the Qur'an, human beings are divided into three groups: believers, hypocrites and non-believers. However, we find in writings about Islam further groupings under such headings as: good Muslims, true believers, Sunnis, Shiites, etc. Please comment on this method of classification.

What you have said about the classification of mankind in the Qur'an is certainly true. The second and longest surah in the Qur'an, entitled "The Cow", or "Al-Baqarah", opens with a description of three groups of people which include all mankind. Anyone who reads this account cannot fail to note that Allah describes the main features of the believers in a few short verses. Similarly, two verses outline the main features of non-believers. A much longer account is needed to describe the characteristics of hypocrites. This is due to the fact that a hypocrite puts on a false appearance. The hidden reality needs to be discovered in order to recognize what sort of person he is. Indeed, a hypocrite is a non-believer who tries to appear as a believer. He alleges that he belongs to the first group while he lacks its most essential quality: Faith. He belongs to the second group, i.e. the non-believers, but he tries hard to hide this fact. How is his reality to be discovered?

To help believers recognize those who falsely claim to belong to their community, Allah outlines certain features which all hypocrites share in common. There are certain subtleties which must be recognized if hypocrites are to be known. It is useful to mention here that Muslims are not required to determine whether any particular person is a hypocrite or not. Their keen insight should help them determine who is making a false claim. When they doubt the sincerity of a particular person, they must not pronounce a final judgment on him. They should beware of any danger which may be caused by him. But that is as far as they should go. They accept his claim and leave it to Allah to judge him as He knows his true status.

Writers on Islam often use such descriptions as good Muslims and true believers. This is however, not a sub-classification of the people whom Allah has included in the group of believers. It is simply a matter of style. It is just as a writer who says that if a Muslim wants to give credence to his claim to belong to the group of believers, then he should behave in a certain fashion. To a writer in Islam, the phrase, "a good Muslim", refers to a person who translates his belief in Islam into practical deeds. We must not read these descriptions as adding another quality which distinguishes groups of Muslims as such. Otherwise, we would have to recognize another group which we may describe as "false Muslims". This is obviously a contradiction in terms. If a person is false, he cannot be a Muslim. If he is a Muslim, then he belongs to the group of believers which Allah has described at the outset of the second surah of the Qur'an. If we want to use the phrase "false Muslim" we can only use it as synonymous with a "hypocrite". This is not what is intended by writers in Islam when they add descriptions of good and true to the class of believers. These qualifying adjectives are simply meant for emphasis.

The division of Muslims into Sunnis and Shiites is a different matter altogether. The origin of this division dates back to the early days of Islam, when a split took place between Ali, the fourth ruler of the Muslim state of the Prophet, and Mu'aweya, the governor of Syria. Subsequent events meant that this division continued into the following generations and later acquired an intellectual basis and led to the formulation of the Imamiah concept among the Shiites. It is possible to describe the Shiites as a sect of Islam, while the Sunnis represent its mainstream. As you realize the division between Sunnis and Shiites is totally different from the classification of mankind into believers, non-believers and hypocrites. In the Qur'anic classification, the operative criterion is that of attitude to the very basic concept of the Oneness of Allah and the message of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. In the second grouping, we are saying that Muslims can either belong to the mainstream of Islam whose adherents are known as Sunnis, or they belong to the Shi'a sect.

• Clothing for men

What is the right Sunnah regarding men's clothing. Is it like what some sheikhs wear, or like what people in Afghanistan wear.

I am not aware that there is any Sunnah describing a particular fashion of what men should wear. There are certain requirements of covering those parts of one's body which must be covered. Men are not permitted to wear silk and they may not wear clothes which suggest arrogance.

Apart from these and similar well-known requirements, Muslims may wear any comfortable and practical type of clothes. What the Prophet, peace be upon him, used to wear was the sort of robes Arabs normally wore. He had not mentioned that all Muslims should wear the same sort of fashion. A minority of people sometimes suggest a particular fashion as Sunnah, but they have no strong basis for their argument.

• Coeducation: Islamic view on

What is the Islamic view on coeducation?

There is a well-known principle in Islamic law, which may be rendered in translation as "prevention of means." This applies to any situation or condition which may be permissible in the first instance, but is calculated to lead to something forbidden. If it is generally deemed that there is a direct relationship between the original, permissible situation and the resulting forbidden one, then the original situation is pronounced as forbidden.

That is prohibition of something which is acknowledged to be permissible in the first instance, because of the results it produces. In other words, should the circumstances change and the situation in question is deemed not to lead to the forbidden act, then it can no longer be pronounced as forbidden.

Coeducation is one such matter. In the first instance, there is no harm in a group of people, men and women, or boys and girls, to be present in a classroom where a teacher is giving a lesson, provided that everyone behaves properly, abiding by Islamic standards of propriety. But when we put together a group of young boys and girls, close to the period of adolescence, and during adolescence, in the relaxed environment of a school where they meet and play, then it is asking too much of such young people to observe Islamic standards of morality. The results may be very serious indeed. Therefore, we say that coeducation is unacceptable to Islam, because of what it leads to, not because of the process of teaching or of the meeting of the two sexes in a classroom.

• Coeducation: Seminars on reproduction & mixed participation

My wife, a Muslim woman, is doing a university degree that includes conducting seminars on topics such as reproduction and the function of the different parts of the body involved in reproduction, etc. There are men students and lecturers taking part in such seminars. Normally, she skips such topics, but that involves losing marks. Please advise.

The degree that your wife is doing is certainly needed in the community and when she is qualified she should be able to help many women in your community. Most of these women will be more at ease discussing their cases and situations with a woman like your wife than if they had to discuss these with a man who has the same qualifications. This means that there is social need for ladies to have that degree. It is not only a social need, but a religious one as well.

When the Muslim community needs personnel who are qualified in certain areas, then meeting that need is a collective duty of the community. If there is only one person who can acquire the necessary education to meet that need, then doing it becomes obligatory to that person.

There is certainly no harm in discussing the process of reproduction and the functions of each part of the reproductive system in a university classroom, even though there is a mixed company in that classroom. If the university finds it feasible to make such classes separate for men and women, then it should do so. If Muslim women students are in a minority and the only way to acquire that qualification is by attending such mixed classes, then they should do so.

It is wrong of a Muslim woman student to deliberately miss certain classes, not only because she loses certain marks, but also because her education will not be as good as of her male or non-Muslim colleagues. She should try to acquire the best standard possible, in line with other students.

• Commemorating the great in the Islamic manner

Is it not an expression of a people's loyalty to the memory of its heroes, whose great deeds are recorded in the annals of history, to erect statues in their honor as a reminder to future generations of their achieve­ments and greatness? People's memories are short, and the passage of time will make them forget the past.

Islam abhors excessive glorification of people, no matter how "great" they may be, whether they are living or dead. The Prophet, peace be upon him, said: "Do not glorify me in the same manner as the Christians glorify Jesus, son of Mary, but say, He is a slave of Allah and His Messenger." When his companions wanted to stand up to greet him out of respect, he forbade them, saying: "Do not stand up as the Persians do, some people honoring the others." (Reported by Abu Dawood and Ibn Majah). The Prophet warned his followers against praising him excessively after his death, say­ing: "Do not make of my grave a site for festivals," (Related by Abu Dawood) and he prayed to his Lord "O my Lord, do not let my grave be made into an idol to be worshipped."

The believers aspire only to that true immortality which can be bestowed by Allah alone, Who knows the secret and the hidden, Who neither misleads nor forgets. In His register of immortality, there is the name of many a person whose greatness has remained unrecog­nized by the people. Indeed, the Most High loves those God-fearing and religious souls who remember Him in the secrecy of their hearts and minds by speaking about their good deeds, ideas and achievements. The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, the caliphs, the leaders, and imams of Islam were never immortalized in figure or statues.

I quote here part of a lecture entitled "Toward a New Understanding of Islam," by Professor Muhammad al-Mubarak, Dean of the College of Sharee’ah, University of Damascus, delivered at al-Azhar University. The section quoted here contains an incisive analysis of the whole question of how to perpetuate the memory of the great. Quote :

"We are faced with the situation that many new modes, systems and habits which are inconsistent with our correct beliefs and established moral principles have found their way into our social life. Among these is the manner in which Europeans and Americans commemorate their heroes by erecting statues for them. If we examine this matter with an open mind, free of sub­servience to whatever comes from the West, and reflect our ways of commemorating the lofty achievements of the great, we find the Arabs, in particular, memorialized nothing of their great personages except their noble deeds and good qualities such as fidelity, generosity, and courage. Their manner of perpetuating their memories was to recount tales of their heroes, passing them down from one generation to another, and to compose and recite eulogies in the form of poetry. In this manner, the gen­erosity of Hatim and the bravery of Antarah became proverbial in the days before Islam.

When Islam came, it emphasized the meaning underlying this method. It declared that the best of Allah's creation and the last of His Messengers, peace be upon him, was but a mortal man: "Say: Indeed, I am a mortal like you; my Lord inspires me." (18:111) it emphasized that the worth of human beings lies in their deeds and not in their physical forms; it made the Messenger, peace be upon him, an example for all mankind to fol­low; and it forbade such sanctions and exaggerated respect for men which resembles adoration and which, by implication, signifies the denigration of the rest of mankind.

When the Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, passed away to meet his Lord, the first caliph drew people's attention to this fact, saying, "If anyone worshipped Muhammad, then (know that) Muhammad is dead, but if anyone worshipped Allah, then Allah is living and does not die." He then recited the words of Allah Ta'ala: "Muhammad is but a messenger; messengers (the like of whom) have passed away before him. If, then, he dies or is killed, will you turn back on your heel?" (3:144)

Islam immortalizes the memories of people because of their good and beneficent deeds; the remembrance of them remains in the hearts of Muslims. Thus, the literate and the illiterate, the young and the old, know about the justice of Umar, the firmness and wisdom of Abu Bakr, and the piety and courage of Ali. No statue made of stone was needed to commemorate any of them because their deeds and qualities are inscribed in peoples' hearts.

Commemoration by means of erecting statues is in reality a regression to the remote past, a descent from a higher plane; it was the method of the Greeks and Romans which was adopted by Europeans...

With respect to their concept of the nature of man and his true worth, they are far inferior to the Muslims, even to the pre-Islamic Arabs, since because of their inability to grasp the true stature of man and his potentialities, they are able only to conceive of great men as gods, and their gods as men incar­nate. What we are pointing out is that it does not befit us to imitate this alien practice which is inferior to our own, and we must not deviate from the ruling from the Sharee’ah that making statues is haram and is harmful to human psychology and morals."

In Islam, when the greatness of some noble soul is recognized by people, its perpetuation for coming generations is not achieved by erecting statues for them. The correct Islamic method of commemoration is to keep their memory alive in the hearts and minds by speaking about their good deeds, ideas and achievements.

• Compulsion in religion and the standard alternatives

The Qur'an states very clearly that there is no compulsion with regard to faith. On the other hand, the Prophet, peace be upon him, offered the people of Najran that they should either accept Islam, or pay the jizyah, or else they should be ready to fight the Muslims. How is this to be reconciled with the Qur'anic statement?

The three alternatives offered by the Prophet, peace be upon him, to the people of Najran are the standard ones which Muslim states and rulers have always offered when they fought against any people who stood on a war footing with them. Whenever the Muslim armies were facing an enemy who had prepared to fight them, they offered that army, or the authority that were in control, those three alternatives: 1) To accept Islam and they would be part of the Muslim state, having all the rights and obligations of all Muslims without any discrimination; 2) To pay the jizyah; which is a tax that guaranteed them protection by Muslim state against any enemy in return for their being law-abiding citizens. They would also enjoy their religious freedom. If neither of these two options was accepted, then they would have to face the might of the Muslim army in battle.

This situation cannot be understood without looking at the events that brought those people face to face with the Muslim state. As you are aware, Islam is a message from God to all mankind. The Prophet, peace be upon him, was a messenger sent to all mankind. He is described in the Qur'an as having been sent as a "mercy to all worlds." Hence, it is his duty, and the duty of the advocates of Islam in all generations, and in all communities, to make Islam, God's message, known to all people, and to invite them to accept it as a faith. No pressure is to be brought on anyone to accept Islam. It is a matter for the individual to choose. However, Islam does not accept that any pressure be brought to bear on anyone to reject Islam, be that by a political or religious authority, or by social tradition. People must be free to choose. The advocates of Islam must have the freedom to address the people and to explain God's message to them.

The people of Najran were a Christian community, and authority among them belonged to their priest, who was helped by two influential people, known as As-Sayyid and Al-Aaqib. The Prophet, peace be upon him, addressed the three and advised them to accept God's message. He wanted them to give their people the freedom of choice and wanted to have access to the ordinary people in order to explain the message of Islam to them. They sent a delegation to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and there was a great deal of discussion between them. They did not wish to accept Islam. At one stage, after the delegation went back carrying a message from the Prophet to the priest, who wielded real power among them, the priest admitted that Muhammad, peace be upon him, was a messenger of God. His brother was furious with him for concealing the fact, and he immediately left for Madinah to meet the Prophet. Nevertheless, he did not accept Islam. The Prophet, peace be upon him, did not put any pressure on him to do so.

This is only one example showing us how authority, whether religious or secular, stood as a barrier preventing people from learning about Islam and believing in it, if they chose to do so. It is not acceptable to Islam that such a barrier should prevent people from following God's guidance. Hence, it makes its standard warning. If those in power would accept Islam and let their people accept it if they choose to do so, they would continue to be in power, under the overall authority of the Muslim state. This would ensure religious freedom for all, and make the new Muslims equal citizens. If not, then as a token of submission to the authority of the Muslim state, they would pay the jizyah, or the protection tax, and they would enjoy peace and safety, and their people would be free to join the Muslim ranks without any pressure.

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