Today, we are going to urge all our readers to ask themselves a simple question. So ask yourself this:
What are my sources of Islamic knowledge? Where and how did I learn about my Deen?
The question is simple but the answer is complex. If you put all biases, affiliations and emotions to one side and try to answer this question with painful honesty, you may get the first objective insight into how your knowledge of Islam developed over your lifetime.
I asked myself this question 8 years ago and found that my sources of knowledge were my parents, the textbooks on Islamic Studies that I read in school, the views of my teachers, the media (TV and newspapers) and the literature I read (books on Sufism, books by modern writers who were of the mystical culture, like Khalil Gibran and Paulo Coelho or whatever fad gripped the young adults interested in reading). I realised that the Qur’an and Sahih Hadith did not appear in my sources of knowledge and that I had not engaged with these key texts for the majority of my years. Islam was merely a cultural identity: it gave me a sense of belonging but I didn’t know much about the religion itself. My definition of a Muslim was a person with a Muslim name, born in a Muslim household, who had the azaan called in his or her ear, who was then taught the Shahadah and, later, the Arabic Qur’an. But what was written in the Qur’an? I had no idea.
My neighbour believes in esaal-e-sawaab. She cooks food for her dead parents, she does the khatam on the food, she celebrates Shab-e-Baraat. I left some literature with her the other day and some members of my family talked to her about these bid’ah. She listened to everything and then said, “I am not very good at concentrating on written text so I don’t read much. As for esaal-e-sawaab, are you trying to tell me that my parents were wrong in practicing it?” I asked her if she had read the Qur’an with translation. She said it was not necessary, she had read the Arabic. She found reading very difficult, and in any case, she ensured that the Arabic recitation played on the stereo all day and ‘blessed her home.’
Where are these practices and beliefs coming from? I now know that her sources of knowledge of the Deen are her parents and what she sees on TV. For her, Islam is what her mother taught her and she will not question it or verify it. You may ask why. Perhaps because emotional bonds with parents are strong and some of us never want to even consider the question that our parents, our teachers, the local imam or mufti that we respect so much may be wrong about some matters.
The Qur’an refers to this psychological barrier, of refusing to accept that our ancestors could be wrong, in very many verses. I copy a few below:
They said: “(Nay) but we found our fathers doing so.” (As-Shura 26:74)
And when it is said to them: “Follow that which Allah has sent down”, they say: “Nay, we shall follow that which we found our fathers (following).” (Would they do so) even if Shaitan (Satan) invites them to the torment of the Fire? (Luqman 31:21)
They said: “You have come to us that we should worship Allah Alone and forsake that which our fathers used to worship. So bring us that wherewith you have threatened us if you are of the truthful.” (Al-Araf, Chapter #7, Verse #70)
Nay! They say: “We found our fathers following a certain way and religion, and we guide ourselves by their footsteps.” (Az-Zukhruf 43:22)
It is also common amongst Muslims to see their local community with which they have a cultural affiliation to be a source of knowledge. For instance, a lot of Muslims think that it is only a woman’s responsibility to do household chores. A lot of Muslims in Pakistan and India consider it a ‘religious duty’ to give a dowry to their daughters. A lot of Muslims do esaal-e-sawaab because their neighbours or family members do it. The Qur’an, brilliant in its understanding of human behaviour, condemns the blind following of the community:
When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah has sent down.” They say: “Nay! We shall follow what we found our fathers following.” (Would they do that!) even though their fathers did not understand anything nor were they guided? (Al-Baqara, Chapter #2, Verse #170)
And when it is said to them: “Come to what Allah has revealed and unto the Messenger (Muhammad for the verdict of that which you have made unlawful).” They say: “Enough for us is that which we found our fathers following,” even though their fathers had no knowledge whatsoever nor guidance. (Al-Maeda, Chapter #5, Verse #104)
And when they commit a Fahishah (evil deed, going round the Ka’bah in naked state, and every kind of unlawful sexual intercourse), they say: “We found our fathers doing it, and Allah has commanded it on us.” Say: “Nay, Allah never commands Fahishah. Do you say of Allah what you know not?” (Al-Araf, Chapter #7, Verse #28)
The point of this article is simple. The Islam you follow, the Islam you live and breathe, the understanding of Islam entrenched deep in your mind depends on the sources of your knowledge. If these sources are other than the Qur’an and Sahih Hadith, then you need to admit this, no matter how painful that admission may be. An honest confrontation with yourself will enable you to start a journey of discovery which will come about by actually tapping into the established and authentic sources of Islamic knowledge. Once this is done, you will find that the myths fed to you – of saints finding raw sugar under their prayer mats, of souls whispering from beyond the grave, of transference of sawaab to the dead – are just that: myths. You may also have been told that sects are genuinely a part of Islam, that it is perfectly normal to be divided and that it has always been the case in the ummah: that too is a myth.
Identify your sources of knowledge. Question them. Verify them. Remember that the community, the imam, mum and dad can be wrong. Then have the courage to build your own understanding. You may be surprised with what you discover when you actually engage with authentic texts. You will find a Deen that makes sense, that is intellectually satisfying, that is modern and relevant.
Please, ask yourself this question today.