"Our Dialogue" 6th Edition Rev

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You may be aware that at the dawn of Islam, the Muslim armies were able to liberate vast areas of the world from tyrannical governments. Invariably, the Muslim armies were fighting against much superior forces. Yet neither greater numbers nor better armament could stem the Islamic tide. When we consider the reasons for such great victories, we find a revealing statement by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, the second caliph, when he was bidding farewell to one of his commanders who was at the head of an army dispatched to fight against the forces of the Persian Empire.

In his farewell advice, Umar stressed the importance that the commander and his army should always watch their actions and commit nothing that Islam does not approve. He told him: "Muslims are granted victory on account of their enemy's disobedience to God. Should we be at the same level of disobedience as they are, we would be no match to them."

I think you have your answer in this statement. If Muslims were to follow the same corrupt practices as others, what would distinguish them? How can they prove, even to themselves, that Islam is the religion of the truth which makes it imperative that every one should have their rights?

If Muslims were to take bribes and facilitate the business of only those who are ready to pay the larger bribe, how can they stand in prayer and address God by saying: "You alone do we worship and from You alone do we seek support." Would it not be true to say then that their actions belie their statements?

They would be worshipping money, putting it in the same position as God because they would be ready to abandon every principle in order to get money. They would also be seeking support from those who wield power in their society, not relying on God's support. For Muslims to do that is totally unacceptable.

Some people may try to justify resorting to such practices on account of its being the only way for Muslims to acquire wealth, influence and power. But this is a very short-sighted view. For one thing , they are talking about this life only when Islam always relates this present life to the life Hereafter and considers that only when we take the latter into account we have a proper perspective. This is certainly the right attitude to adopt. What use are power, influence and wealth if we are to lose our values and come on the day of judgment to stand in front of God carrying a long record of bribery and corruption?

Moreover, whatever we gain in this life will definitely be short-lived. Whatever comes through corrupt practices is bound to go in the same way as it came. A person may get money if he takes bribes, and he may be able to buy the silence or consent of his superiors by giving them a slice of what he gets. But there will always be someone who wishes him ill, and tries to take his position either by acquiring greater wealth and power through the same practices or by other means.

Many a corrupt official was made a scapegoat for the whole system which may be corrupt to the core. These systems must always portray an image of doing something against corruption. They normally get rid of the weaker in their midst, or those whose corruption has become public knowledge. What would the Muslim community be gaining if it joins the corrupt system for petty gains?

Besides, Islam never accepts the motto that the end justifies means. In this case, giving the Muslim community or individuals power and influence would be cited as the reason for doing away with important Islamic values and principles. Indeed Islam wants its followers to always show that their principles and values determine their behavior even when they may work to their apparent or immediate disadvantage. In the end things will be put to right and adherence to principles and values will prove to be very much in favor of the Muslims in the long-term.

What we must always remember is that Islam is a practical religion. It does not set ideals that relate to a superior type of life in an ideal world which has no real substance. Islam lays down principles that must be applied by human beings in human life. That is the only way to ensure happiness of human beings in this world and in the life to come.

Muslims who are able to do without power and influence because they would not sacrifice their values for a financial gain enjoy a kind of happiness here in this life which no corrupt official will ever experience. Do we want to deprive Muslims of that? If we do, we will only be doing Muslims a great disservice.

• Corrupt set-up: Observing Islamic practices in such a set-up

We come from a country which has been suffering from the ill-effects of un-Islamic, corrupt rule for quite a long time. Bribery, forgery, false records of account, levies imposed by tax men which go straight into their own pockets, high unemployment, poor wages in relation to living expenses are the order of the day. Middle-class businessmen find themselves facing a tough choice of either taking part in such practices or be condemned to failure of business. The majority of them have tried to carry out some sort of compromise. They offer their prayers, fast in Ramadhan, and pay zakah and attend regularly to their worship, while at the same time they cheat the government in taxes, pay bribes to government officers, try to sell their products by making false claims, take loans on interest, etc. They argue that they are sure of being forgiven by Allah who knows their intentions and their situation. If they were to present correct records, pay government taxes and follow the letter of the law, they will be left with very little of their profit and they cannot make ends meet. They would remain poor and the rich would soon crush them. They further claim that they only take loans on interest in the starting period of their business. When they have reached a reasonable measure of prosperity, they would stop that. I should be grateful for your comments.

It is very easy either to condemn this situation and the practices of businessmen in your country or try to find justification for it. But it is wrong to do either. The situation which you have described at length is not unique to your own country. It is applicable to many countries in the Third world, many of which are Muslim countries.

The state of affairs normally comes in the wake of a set-up where the government’s need to establish its authority leads it to commit certain excesses and replace government officials with their own men who are chosen on the basis of loyalty rather than competence. These also commit excesses of their own and that leads their subordinates to also commit further excesses. On the other hand, mismanagement of the economy leads to inflation and rising prices. Corrupt officials want to have more money and follow path of self-glorification. In order to win favor with these people, or at least to guard themselves against their unjust practices, people try to appease them with bribes. Further bribes are also paid to their superiors and evil spreads until it is so common in society that it is practiced openly.

In such a situation, there will always be much injustice as well as suffering by people who are not in a position to either receive or pay bribes. Unemployment will rise and so will the cost of living. A substantial section of society will not be able to make ends meet. Hence the question whether it is permissible for a person in a dire need to resort to such practices which will help him earn a living for himself and his family.

This is not an easy question at all. However, many scholars have pronounced judgment which tells everyone that a wrong situation like this does not permit people to indulge in sinful practices. The Prophet, peace be upon him, says that Allah curses both the one who accepts a bribe and the one who pays it. A scholar will always abide by this Hadith and give judgment on bribery in accordance with it. But then it is easy to say that all bribery is forbidden, while the situation itself is very difficult. Not all bribes given in a corrupt society are presented in order to win an undeserved favor. It is very often the case in many societies that people have to pay bribes in order to get what is rightfully and legally theirs. Sometimes, a totally innocuous case such as division of inheritance among the heirs of a deceased person will remain on the desk of a government official for many months because he refuses to deal with it unless he is paid something to give it the official seal, which he is in the first place employed to do. This is certainly a bribe but it is paid only to overcome an unfair attitude by a government official who is negligent of his duties. On the other hand, tax inspectors may go to a businessman, expecting that he will present them with false accounts and that he will be paying them something in order that they pass his accounts as correct. If the businessman is a good believer who fears Allah and presents correct accounts, he will be held in suspicion by the inspectors. When they realize that no bribe is offered to them, they try to create problems for him and accuse him of falsifying his records. They may be very nasty and they may try to land him into trouble. Should he or should he not pay them something to let them accept his correct accounts? The normal answer given by a scholar to this question is that one should try every possible means not to digress from Islamic teachings. Some people may retort that this is easier said than done. It may be so, but no scholar will tell you that indulging in any practice which is clearly forbidden in Islam can be condoned under any circumstances. This is due to the fact that the authority to forbid something belongs to Allah. No one will pronounce lawful something that Allah has judged to be unlawful.

Moreover, when we allow ourselves to indulge in forbidden practices, we get used to them. We, in fact, help establish their roots more firmly in society. It is certainly wrong to try to justify one's action by the argument that everybody does the same. In certain systems, embezzlement of funds or cutting a slice of the government income to oneself is practiced by the majority of officials in high positions. Employees in more junior positions may emulate their seniors and justify their own action by saying that the top employees are doing the same. That is no argument to justify any unlawful earnings. Two wrongs cannot make right. The crime of a superior employee does not justify that of a junior one. What is needed is a firm stand against all corruption. Only if we demonstrate our resolve to lead an honest, straightforward life will the corrupt have second thoughts about their corruption. Moreover, that firm stand must be motivated by a general resolve to go back to Islamic life. Only through such a return can the eradication of corruption be assured.

Scholars are simply maintaining a consistent stand when they give such answers. It is certainly true that corruption cannot be beaten by acquiescing in even a small part of it. Stamping out corruption needs a firm, unhesitating stand against it which combats all its aspects.

Having said that, I should perhaps add that Allah does not deal in the same way with someone who gives a bribe in order to gain something which is unlawful to him and another who pays a government official some money in order to ensure that he gets his right, especially when he is desperate for it. The two are not the same. In the first case, the aim is to get something to which one is not entitled, and for which one employs unlawful means. In the second case, one is paying in order to overcome injustice and to secure one's right.

Similarly, there is a world of difference between a businessman who presents false accounts and bribes government officials so that they sign them as correct and one who presents correct accounts and finds himself forced to pay the same government officials to accept them. The first one will gain something unlawful, while the other is fighting injustice. While this argument is logical it cannot be used in order to justify all practices you have mentioned.

As for obtaining loans on interest, that is something that no scholar will condone. Islam cannot be applied piecemeal. It must be taken in its totality. No businessman can argue that he will accept or pay interest only in the first few years of his business, until he has established himself. The fact is that when he resorts to such loans and pays such interest, and he finds that it enables him to achieve profits more easily, he will try to find fresh justification for every loan he obtains. The proper Islamic method is to refrain from this practice right from the beginning. When one refrains from an unlawful practice only because it is forbidden, Allah will bless his work and give him prosperity.

• Cosmetic surgery: Is it permissible?

I would like to know your comments on cosmetic surgery?

We cannot issue a rigid ruling that all cosmetic surgery is forbidden. When cosmetic surgery has a beneficial and legitimate purpose, then it may be considered permissible, encouraged, or even obligatory. Like many other things, all five verdicts may apply to plastic surgery. I have mentioned three, and the other two may apply to it to make in certain cases discouraged and in others forbidden.

Take, for example, the case of a person who has suffered extensive burns. Doctors may recommend plastic surgery. Now if the doctors say that it will have a mild beneficial effect on him, but without it he will be also comfortable and will suffer no repercussions, then such surgery may be described as permissible. If the doctors say that the benefits expected to result from such surgery in such a case are substantial, then it is to be considered highly recommended. Now if we can imagine a situation where plastic surgery is necessary for such a person, either to save his life, or to get some part of his body to function properly, or to overcome some physical or mental agony, then undertaking it could be obligatory. On the other extreme, if plastic surgery is undertaken by a woman in order to be more attractive, so that she can use her attraction for purposes that are contrary to Islamic moral values, then it is certainly forbidden.

Circumcision is recommended, because the piece of skin that is cut off during circumcision is no longer of use to the person concerned. Before the child is born, it serves as a protection to the male organ. After birth, it could attract some dirt which could be harmful. Therefore, we are recommended to circumcise our children at an early age.

• Counting glorification

A friend of mine told me that we should not use our fingers to count the number of phrases of glorification of God we do, because the Jews do that. He claims that it is not permitted in our religion. Please comment.

There is no such truth in what your friend has told you. Using your fingers to keep count of the number of glorification of God or His praises is neither prohibited nor discouraged. Indeed it is quite the reverse, since it was the method used by the Prophet and his companions. In a report by one of the Prophet's companions, the reporter mentions clearly that he saw God's messenger keep count of such glorification with his hand. This is indeed the most practical way of keeping count, since we are recommended to glorify God and praise him repeating each phrase 33 times.

It is very easy to use one's fingers to keep such count, considering that we can use each finger for repeating the praise or the glorification 3 times. If we use the right hand only, as preferable, then going twice over the five fingers makes 30 times and adding one more finger completes the count.

There is no need to use a bead or stones or any other article whatsoever [such as a mechanical counter]. Your hand is with you all the time. This means that you do not miss your glorification by omitting to carry your counting article or device. That is more practical.

Moreover, saying that something is forbidden because the Jews or any other group of people use it is not the sort of attitude Islam encourages. Islam certainly gives the Muslims their distinctive character, but that does not come from rejecting some practices that all human beings may find useful. It is achieved through understanding and implementing the set of principles and values the Islamic way of life is based upon. Muslims are distinguished by their standards, lively conscience, their sense of fairness to all people, and, above all, their submission to God with all the practical implications such submission involves.

• Creation — the six days of creation

When God wills to create something, He only has to say, “Be” and it comes into existence. However, the Qur’an mentions that God created the heavens and the earth in six days. May I ask why it took six days to create them, and what happened over those six days of creation?

There is no doubt that God does not need time in order to accomplish His will. Whenever God wants to create something, He only has to give the command that it should exist and there it is in full existence. This is clearly stated in the Qur’an more than once. It is true in every sense. Yet the Qur’an states that God has created the heavens and the earth in six days. This is also true. Moreover, there is no contradiction between the two statements. A builder who is able to build a house in three months does not detract from his ability if he builds one in four or six month, or even longer than that.

There is a difference between ability and actual happenings. God is certainly able to create the whole universe in a single moment. There is no limit to His ability. But He chose to create it in six days. The choice is an aspect of His wisdom. We cannot fathom God’s wisdom, but we must believe that He has a reason for every thing, and that reason is, by necessity, wise.

Having said that, I would like to add that scholars have spoken at length about the six days of creation mentioned in the Qur’an. They agree that this period of time is not to be taken according to what we understand by the word, ‘day’, in our world. We must not take it as six 24-hour days or a week less one-day. For one thing, an Earth day results from the position of the Earth in relation to the sun and how long it takes the Earth to revolve. So it does not apply to God in this sense. For another, He is not restricted by time or place. We cannot say that God exists in this place or in such period of time. He is not limited by either.

This is one aspect of His attribute, of His name, The Infinite.

As scholars discuss the six days of creation, they advance a variety of views. Several of these are very interesting and have clear validity. However, I am more inclined to the view, which describes the six days as six stages of creation. Each was accomplished the moment God gave His command to it to exist.

The point that remains to be said in this connection is perhaps the most valid and important. Whatever we say on this matter is our view, which may be right or wrong. It is God who knows best why He chose to create the universe in six days. We do not question His wisdom, but we believe that had He chosen to do so, He would have created them in no time whatsoever.

• Crescent — Significance of the crescent

What significance, if any, does the crescent moon have in Islam?

There is a verse in the Qur'an which answers your question. It is Verse 189 in Surah 2, which may be rendered in translation as follows: "They ask you about the new moon. Say: They indicate the periods for (various activities of) mankind, and for the pilgrimage." In his commentary on this verse, the late scholar Sayyid Qutb mentions that some reports suggest that the Prophet was asked about the new moon, its appearance as a thin crescent and its growth and shrinkage until it can be seen no more. A report suggests that the companions of the Prophet asked him: "Why has Allah created new moons?" Allah instructed the Prophet to tell his questioners that "the new moons serve as time markers indicating for mankind when to wear the ihraam garments in pilgrimage and when to put on ordinary clothes, when to start fasting and when to finish, how to calculate certain periods of time, such as a woman's waiting period if she is divorced or if her husband dies.

"They may also be used to calculate different periods of time relating to people's business transactions and loan settlements. Any period of time which relates to matter of religion or human transactions may be calculated by the usage of the new moons."

Apart from this, there is no religious significance to a new moon. We still make it a point of sighting the new moon in order to maintain properly the dates of different occasions, such as pilgrimage and Ramadhan.

• Curse of precious stones

Is it true that diamonds and other precious stones should be bought only for personal use and this be determined on the basis of knowing one's exact date of birth. Some people suggest that if this is not taken into consideration, these precious stones may have a curse and bring bad luck to the wearer.

May I ask: What happens to a person who does not know her exact birth date, or indeed the year in which she was born? You may recall that until recently, the majority of people in large areas of the world did not have any official records of births and deaths. Before the turn of this century, such registration was not legally required in many Muslim countries. Tribal areas in Africa and Asia may have kept certain records, but these were hardly on the basis of days, dates, months and years. Women have always worn ornaments and have used precious stones for this purpose. If what you say is true, bad luck would have hit so many millions of people and that was sure to disrupt human life, as a whole. The fact is that there is no truth whatsoever in this superstition.

However, your question gives me the opportunity to state clearly that the time of birth has no significance whatsoever. I realize that people attach some importance to the time of birth, which act can at times be very much exaggerated. Astrologers tell us that if they know the exact time of someone's birth, they can set up his or her horoscope and they can tell that person a great deal about his or her personality and future. They claim that by knowing the exact time of birth, they can calculate which star was rising and which was descending, and these movements indicate certain things for human beings. Besides, newspapers and magazines in most countries have a horoscope column which tell people, who are born between certain dates, what to expect in the period immediately after the publication of that issue of the paper or magazine. Although most people read these for fun, some of them take them seriously.

From the Islamic point of view, we accept nothing of these claims. Indeed, the Prophet warns us against consulting any fortune teller, regardless of the method he or she uses to tell us our fortunes. Moreover, the Prophet describes fortune tellers as liars, even when they happen to say the truth [i.e. fore-tell correctly.] That means that if a fortune teller tells us something and it turns out to be as he had said, he still is a liar because when he told it to us, he did not know it for certain. He was simply guessing. When a person tells us something which is only guess work, he must be a liar. Indeed the prohibition to fortune tellers including astrologers is very strict. To believe that someone may know the future is tantamount to disbelief in Allah, because it suggests that these people know something which in fact is known only to Allah Himself.

May I also say that the idea of something having a curse is totally alien to Islamic thinking. Islam accepts nothing of the sort. Diamonds and precious stones do not have a will of their own. Nor indeed have they any power to cause any good or harm. They are lifeless objects. Therefore, they cannot bring us any good or bad luck. Anyone who suggests something of the sort, needs to have his mind examined.

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