The purpose of this article is to defend the Shariʿah from those who lack the credentials and competency to speak on its behalf. And although what follows may extenuate a group of accused Muslim American leaders, the purpose is to clarify the position of the Quran and hadith on the issue in accordance with scholarly interpretation. For the last several months, a group of critics have been in full motion sparing no effort to vilify a group of prominent Muslim American leaders and although much is being said to counter their vitriol, I have seen minimal critique of their positions using Quran and hadith. Their latest tirade is in response to the participation of a group of Muslim American leaders in controversial rituals. In the following paragraphs, I attempt to edify the reader of the groups’ deviations and misappropriations of the Shariʿah and encourage Muslims to realize how errant their positions are from Quran and Sunnah.

It goes without saying that Islam strictly prohibits participating in any non-Islamic religious rituals since it entails worshiping other than Allah ﷻ or worshiping Allah ﷻ in a manner He has not sanctioned. The question I would like to explore, however, is not the ruling on participating, but how Islamic scripture and scholars navigated the issue if a Muslim unintentionally, mistakenly, or regretfully participated in non-Islamic religious rituals.

First, both Quran and hadith exonerate or extenuate Muslims from sins acquired inadvertently or by mistake. Thus, Allah ﷻ pardons Muslims from unintentional actions, for actions with unintentional consequences and for sincere mistakes. The evidence for this includes “Our Lord, do not impose blame upon us if we have forgotten or erred” (Q 2:286), “And there is no blame upon you for that in which you have erred but [only for] what your hearts intended. And ever is Allah Forgiving and Merciful” (Q 33:5), and “Allah overlooks (for my ummah) their mistakes, what they forget, or are coerced into” (Ibn Majah and Bayhaqy). To corroborate the relevance of these texts with the context of this article, scholars have generously applied this concept to all aspects of Muslim life and practices including actions and statements of shirk. One example from the seerah includes Mu’adh prostrating to the Prophet ﷺ (Ibn Majah and Bayhaqy). Of course, his action was in reverence of the Prophet ﷺ and not in his worship, but nonetheless, prostrating to other than Allah ﷻ is strictly forbidden by the shariʿah because of its resemblance of shirk practices. Furthermore, Mu’adh’s behavior replicated a religious behavior of non-Muslims he coincidentally observed while in the Levant. Despite this, the Prophet’s ﷺ response to Mu’adh’s action was quite mild simply commanding him to “not do that.” Although Mu’adh’s external action is blasphemous, his intention was clearly not and thus the Prophet’s ﷺ response incorporated and gave precedence to Mu’adh’s intention over his external action. If, however, his action was shirk then why didn’t the Prophet ﷺ clarify or impute the action to kufr?

Another example from the companions is narrated by Zainab, the wife of Abdullah Ibn Masoud. She says “I heard the Prophet ﷺ say ‘spiritual healing (ruqya; using other than Quran and hadith) and wearing talismans (for supernatural benefits and protection) are forms of (greater) shirk.’ I inquired from him and said ‘my eyes irritated me so I frequented a Jew who provided me with ruqya because I noticed that his ruqya neutralized the irritation.’ Ibn Masoud responded to her stating that ‘it was the shaytan who was irritating your eyes and each time you visited the Jew he would stop irritating you’” (Abu Dawood and Ibn Majah). In another narration, Zainab says that she wore a string around her neck as part of the ruqya and upon recognizing it, Ibn Masoud said “oh family of Abdullah, we are not in need of shirk.” Notice, the narrations mention no accusations against Zainab despite Ibn Masoud being among the most knowledgeable of the companions. Why didn’t he condemn her for practicing shirk and hold her accountable?

To better understand this, Ibn Taymiyyah states that “ex-communicating a Muslim due to external acts of blasphemy, such as prostrating to a statue, or cursing the Prophet ﷺ, etc., is adjudicated under the assumption that it reflects an internal rejection/disbelief. If, however, a person were to prostrate in front of a statue without their intention being for the sake of prostrating to the statue, rather, the intention in their heart is to prostrate to Allah ﷻ, the action is not considered blasphemous. In fact, it can be deemed permissible in particular scenarios, such as fear of being aggressed against by polytheists and therefore the Muslim externally participates in their rituals while his/her heart intends their prostration for Allah ﷻ. It has been narrated that scholars from Islam and the People of the Book (pre-Islam) did this with their polytheist native communities until they found an opportunity to call them to Islam, rather than immediately challenge their theological convictions, which their people eventually accepted.”[1] Ibn Taymiyya’s statement is in context of patent acts of shirk and if the shariʿah is pardoning towards unintentional acts of patent shirk then it must be even more pardoning towards unintentional acts of inconspicuous shirk. To better understand the difference one needs only to ask whether an action clearly portrays a type of worship of a deity or not. For example, if one were to walk by a group of people pouring water on themselves, on another person or on the floor, could one assume that the group is participating in an act of worship or would it need to be inquired upon? Clearly, one cannot make confirmation without inquiry. This is how the previous hadith of Zainab is to be understood; both are subtle[2] forms of shirk not commonly known or easily recognizable. Patent shirk on the other hand, such as prostrating to a statue or slaughtering an animal on or next to a religious symbol or statue, needs no inquiry[3] due to its conspicuousness.

Ibn Taymiyya’s nuanced explanation can be corroborated with the following verse “Whoever disbelieves in Allah after his belief… except for one who is forced [to renounce his religion] while his heart is secure in faith. But those who [willingly] open their hearts to disbelief, upon them is wrath from Allah, and for them is a great punishment” (Q 16:106). The verse indicates that disbelief is not merely the result of an action irrespective of their internal state. Rather, it is when either the heart accepts disbelief (even without any external manifestation of that disbelief) or when both the heart and body express it. This meaning is inferred from the verb sharaha which the verse uses and means “to be accepting of and comfortable with” disbelief. This meaning is consistently adopted in exegeses such as Ibn Kathir, Razi, Sa’di, and Qurtubi. Yes, some external actions are clear indications of internal disbelief, such as cursing Allah ﷻ or the messenger or disrespecting the Quran, however, the context of this article is clearly not of this caliber.

Another example of the nuanced approach adopted by scholars on this issue is seen in the late Hanbali scholar, Ibn Uthaymeen. He states that if a community were to commit shirk with the conviction that such a practice is obligated or encouraged in Islam, their actions are pardoned due to their assumption that the action is pleasing to Allah ﷻ according to Islam and thus remain Muslims until knowledge reaches them. For example, Muslims in the Empire of Mali initially adopted a part-Islam part-African paganist religion, yet, as far as I am aware, scholars have accepted them as Muslims despite clear participation in religious rituals antithetical to Islamic beliefs. The argument on their behalf is that they lacked knowledge of Islamic credence and therefore assumed that coalescing non-Islamic rituals with Islam is something Islam does not prohibit.

In his seminal work “The Levels of Seekers,” Ibn Qayyim expounds upon the renowned work of Abu Isma’el al Harawi. In some passages, al Harawi endorses notions fundamentally antithetical to Islam including pantheism. Yet, despite the blasphemous nature of this doctrine and its multiple occurrences in the book, Ibn Qayyim consistently pardons al Harawi, attempts to excuse his statements or gives him benefit of the doubt by interpreting his statement in a manner consistent with Islam. Furthermore, Ibn Qayyim remains reverent of al Harawi throughout the book referring to him as “Sheikh al Islam.” Ibn Qayyim’s magnanimous approach is not ingenuous kindness, rather, scholars such as the Hanafi scholar Al-Isqaati, consider it obligatory to interpret the words of Muslims in a manner that offers them the most benefit of the doubt.

Another concept which falls under the mistake precept which scholars incorporated in adjudication is that of ta’weel (re- and misinterpretation). Ibn Qudamah states that “it is well-known that the khawarij ex-communicated groups of companions as well as Muslims from the proceeding generation (tabi’in), deemed the spilling of their blood and the appropriation of their wealth as Islamically acceptable while simultaneously considering them virtuous actions which bring them closer to their Lord. Despite this, the jurists refrained from ex-communicating the khawarij because of their ta’weel. The same is applied for every impermissible act which someone practices under the ta’weel of its permissibility.”[4]

A few narrations from the companions that further clarify the shari’a’s approach are observed in their discussions on “an egregious mistake of a scholar” (zallatu ‘aalim). Statements attributed to Salman al Farisi, Abu ad Dardaa’ and other companions offer two pieces of advice. First, Muslims are not to imitate the mistakes of scholars under the presumption that their actions are authoritative. Second, Muslims should not oppose them because “they will quickly search for the truth” and opposing them will result in “assisting the shaytan against them.”[5]

The previous paragraphs delineate a variety of scenarios where a Muslim participates in egregious behaviors or practices. They simultaneously delineate a sophisticated and nuanced approach adopted by the shariʿah which the companions and scholars employed when navigating particular cases. What is consistent in each example is the consideration of a person’s intention and the extenuating effect of sincere mistakes as well as the leniency employed towards those who mistakenly, ignorantly, or even regretfully participated in unacceptable acts. I should be clear that the leniency of the shariʿah is not meant to erode the boundaries of the shariʿah or inspire a liberal or insouciant application of it. Rather, the shariʿah demarcated issues of halal and haram and ruled the participation in impermissible behaviors as unacceptable. If and when, however, a person is guilty, the shariʿah employs its nuanced approach which seeks to exonerate or extenuate the Muslim rather than damn him/her to destruction.

The neo-critic movement in the Muslim American community, in their facile and puerile understanding of Islam, simply lack the training and experience to ask the necessary questions and thus cannot provide answers consistent with Islamic erudition. In fact, no Islamic scripture is used in their criticism against the group of Muslim American leaders yet they press them for knowledge and consistency with the shariʿah.

As Muslim’s we are commanded to return our affairs to the Quran and hadith and inquire from scholars if we lack the knowledge. Yet, the critiques we see offer no effort to source their positions in Quran, hadith, the model of the companions, or scholarly interpretations which begs the question: on what are the critics basing their positions and information? Their behavior, language, and tone does not slightly resemble or attempt to emulate the approach of Quran, hadith, the companions or scholars which begs the question: who is their authority? Compare the new group of carping critics’ behaviors with that of the first khawaraj (I am not accusing them of being khawarij) who vilified the companions for “deviating” from the Quran and sunnah, accused the leaders of Muslims with religious corruption, ex-communicated plenty of them, viciously combated them, and all the while had severely limited, if any, training in Islamic jurisprudence yet considered themselves defenders of Islam.

To conclude I’d like to encourage the followers and supporters of the new group of carping critics to reflect on the following from Ibn Qayyim: “If ignorance (of Islam) is mixed with worship, then the one worshiping will misuse and misappropriate their worship, place it where it was not meant to be placed, and practice it in manners it was not meant to be practiced… every spiritual state not founded on knowledge is feared to be an artifice of the shaytan.”[6] He later quotes Al-Junaid saying “whoever does not memorize the Quran and does not write hadith (in other words, whoever is not knowledgeable in Quran and hadith) then they are not to be emulated in our path (Islam) because our path and our knowledge is regulated by the Quran and hadith.”[7] The credentials and writings of the carping critics offer them little to no indication of Islamic knowledge and therefore one should not entrust them with their piety nor listen to their opinions on Islamic issues. Sincerity alone is insufficient; rather, both Quran and hadith assert that actions are accepted only when the person is sincere and the action is in accordance to the shariʿah – without one, the other is not accepted.

Finally, the critics seek to hold others accountable yet Islamic jurisprudence would prosecute them for their numerous inaccurate statements on Islamic issues as the Hanafi jurist, Al-Isqaati states “an ignorant mufti is to be punished with interdiction (hajar)”.[8] Islam has witnessed, and continues to witness, several blinkered religious zealots who employ hypercriticism and carping against scholars and leaders and none elevate above a nuisance for Muslims. Perhaps if the critics dedicate their time humbling themselves to reputable scholars and the classical books of Islam they would be able to provide Muslims with more than factious and invidious posts that do nothing to bring people closer to Allah ﷻ.

  1. Arabic:  وَكَذَلِكَ تَكْذِيبُ الرَّسُولِ بِالْقَلْبِ وَبُغْضُهُ وَحَسَدُهُ وَالِاسْتِكْبَارُ عَنْ مُتَابَعَتِهِ أَعْظَمُ إثْمًا مِنْ أَعْمَالٍ ظَاهِرَةٍ خَالِيَةٍ عَنْ هَذَا كَالْقَتْلِ وَالزِّنَا وَالشُّرْبِ وَالسَّرِقَةِ وَمَا كَانَ كُفْرًا مِنْ الْأَعْمَالِ الظَّاهِرَةِ : كَالسُّجُودِ لِلْأَوْثَانِ وَسَبِّ الرَّسُولِ وَنَحْوِ ذَلِكَ فَإِنَّمَا ذَلِكَ لِكَوْنِهِ مُسْتَلْزِمًا لِكُفْرِ الْبَاطِنِ وَإِلَّا فَلَوْ قُدِّرَ أَنَّهُ سَجَدَ قُدَّامَ وَثَنٍ وَلَمْ يَقْصِدْ بِقَلْبِهِ السُّجُودَ لَهُ بَلْ قَصَدَ السُّجُودَ لِلَّهِ بِقَلْبِهِ لَمْ يَكُنْ ذَلِكَ كُفْرًا وَقَدْ يُبَاحُ ذَلِكَ إذَا كَانَ بَيْنَ مُشْرِكِينَ يَخَافُهُمْ عَلَى نَفْسِهِ فَيُوَافِقُهُمْ فِي الْفِعْلِ الظَّاهِرِ وَيَقْصِدُ بِقَلْبِهِ السُّجُودَ لِلَّهِ كَمَا ذُكِرَ أَنَّ بَعْضَ عُلَمَاءِ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَعُلَمَاءِ أَهْلِ الْكِتَابِ فَعَلَ نَحْوَ ذَلِكَ مَعَ قَوْمٍ مِنْ الْمُشْرِكِينَ حَتَّى دَعَاهُمْ إلَى الْإِسْلَامِ فَأَسْلَمُوا عَلَى يَدَيْهِ وَلَمْ يُظْهِرْ مُنَافِرَتَهُمْ فِي أَوَّلِ الْأَمْرِ
  2. By subtle I do not mean lesser forms or of lesser sin. I simply mean they are not as easily detected as other forms of shirk.
  3. By inquiry, I do not mean that Islam may not deem it shirk and therefore needs proof that it is shirk. I simply mean that one most likely will not recognize that the action intends to worship other than Allah unless they have prior information or research that it is.
  4. Ibn Qudamah, Al-Mughni, vol 8 p 117. Due to space, part of this quote was omitted. However, I feel it necessary to mention that Ibn Qudamah does mention that punishment and accountability may be administered to those who transgress Islamic law. What is relevant to this article is that the mistake factor extenuated the indicted.
  5. As-Shaatibi, Al-Muwafaqaat, vol 5 p 134
  6. Ibn Qayyim, Madarij as Salikeen, Vol 2 pp 82-83
  7. Ibn Qayyim, Madarij as Salikeen, Vol 2 p 84
  8. Al-Isqaati, Sharh Kifayat al Mubtadi wa Tadhkirat al Muntahi, p 321