The Fundamentals of Understanding Islam

By Dr. Waseem Aslam

“Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and sincere exhortations and debate with them in manners that are most appropriate.” (Quran 16:125)

Introduction

The Quran

The Quran is the basis of all Islamic understanding

The correct approach of understanding Islam entails an understanding of beliefs and practices of Islam, based fundamentally on the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

It encompasses an understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an, primarily from within the Qur’an, emanating from its theme, context, sequence and language. It involves an understanding of the Qur’an which also acknowledges interpretation of the verses in the light of the time of revelation and the phase of the Prophetic mission of religious propagation, both of which are determined from within the Qur’an. Sources that are external to the Qur’an are secondary to its interpretation.

This approach began as a movement for the renaissance of original thinking about the concepts and interpretations of religion and the study of its basic sources. Imam Hameed ud din Farahi (1862- 1930) was the founder of this thinking and he initiated the study of the Qur’an on these lines. He pioneered the discovery of coherence in the Qur’an and demonstrated that by taking coherence into consideration a single interpretation of the Qur’an was possible.

Amin Ahsan Islahi (1904-1997), his most distinguished pupil wrote a commentary of the Qur’an along the thinking of Imam Farahi called Tadabur-i-Qur’an. This commentary fully reflects the principles of his illustrious guide. It has ushered in a new era in the field of scriptural interpretation.

One of Amin Ahsan Islahi’s students, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has now established a research institute in Lahore, Pakistan called Al-Mawrid Institute of Islamic Sciences; (founded 1983) dedicated to the continuity of this tradition of original research and thinking. The objectives of the institute are to conduct and facilitate academic work on Islamic sciences and to educate people on its basis.

This booklet aims to introduce an approach to understanding Islam that is revived and promoted by the scholars of the above institute. The main content of the booklet consists of the following:

  • Religion
  • The Qur’an
  • The Sunnah
  • Hadith
  • Some of the important outcomes

Religion

The essence of religion is to worship God (Allah); it entails humility and obedience. The rites, rituals, norms and confines of this worship constitute religion. The righteous religion Islam is God’s guidance in this world. This guidance has been bestowed upon mankind by way of His messengers and prophets. Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) is the final prophet of this sequence.

Purpose of Religion

According to the Islamic religion, the purpose of our lives is to please God; which leads us to Paradise. To attain this we need to develop purification. This encompasses positive enhancement and moulding of the good in our soul, and purification and purging of the bad. The purpose of religion is to help us attain purification; both in our individual and collective lives. In the Qur’an, God states, “Successful is he who has cleansed himself.” (87:14).

The Concept of Guidance

The Qur’an maintains that human beings have not been created blind and ignorant: “Have we not shown him the two ways [that he could understand the good and the evil]? (90:10). Religion does not provide guidance on all aspects of life but it maintains that human beings have generally been endowed with sufficient ability to solve their everyday problems (inborn guidance). Religion acts as a reminder (Revealed guidance) for men. A reminder about things and concepts which deep inside, he is already aware of, yet, due to the influence of the external world, his society and surroundings, he tends to forget. In light of the above it is incorrect to suggest that Islam provides complete guidance in all aspects of life. Islam is a direction finder and influences our way of thinking and steers us to the right Path.

Source of Religion

The Prophet or messenger of God is the solitary source of the religion; hence for Muslims Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) is the only source for their religion. From the Holy Prophet (pbuh) the entire religion was disseminated to the Muslims by way of the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

Islam, like other religions, consists of two components; beliefs and practices. The beliefs have been stated in the Qur’an while the practices are embodied in both the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

The Qur’an

Muslims believe the Qur’an is that Book of God that was sent to mankind through Prophet Mohammad (pbuh); providing guidance about religious beliefs and practices. The Prophet (Pbuh) taught the Qur’an to his Companions. This Book has been transferred from the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh), uninterrupted, through successive generations of Muslims with consensus (Ijma) and verbal perpetuation (tawaatur) to date.

Authority of the Qur’an

The Qur’an is the fountainhead of religious authority. It is the balance (mizan) in whose scales everything must be weighed in order to ascertain the extent of truth found within that entity, and it is the criterion (Furqan) which like a sieve sifts out good from evil.

It is God who has sent down the Book in truth that is the Mizan…….. (42:17)

Blessed is He Who sent down the Furqan to His servant that it may be an admonition to the people of the world. (25:1)

The Qur’an is the Final Testament of the Almighty revealed to mankind. It is the Only Divine Book which is today found in its original language and form, preserved word for word. As such it has been invested with the status of the guardian over all previous Divine Books.

And to you (O Prophet pbuh), we have revealed a Book with the truth confirming what the previous scriptures (say about it) and it stands as Guardian over them……… (5:48)

Interpreting the Qur’an

Every Muslim and every reader of classical Arabic and all those who have access to an authentic translation of the Qur’an, can easily decipher from the Qur’an the articles of belief in Islam and the basic religious obligations bestowed upon a Muslim so that one can please one’s Creator and attain salvation in the hereafter. As such, the Qur’an is a very straightforward book of guidance for all people.

However, to have a more scholarly understanding of the Qur’an and its message and to comprehend the accurate and in-depth meaning of its verses and their links together, in particular to be able to verify the authenticity of different understandings from the verses of the Qur’an, it is essential to have an in depth insight and means to appreciate and understand the Qur’an.

In this booklet, the essential means to appreciate and understand the Qur’an are called primary sources of interpretation of the Qur’an. These means and insights elucidate the Qur’an; others that are not essential but are helpful in the understanding and interpretation of the Qur’an are called secondary sources. The Primary and the secondary sources for interpreting the Qur’an are briefly introduced below.

Primary Sources for interpreting the Qur’an:

  1. Language of the Qur’an: The language in which the Qur’an was revealed was the Arabic of the highest quality spoken by the Quraysh of Makkah. As such, it is impetrative that due consideration is given to an in-depth understanding of this particular language.
  2. Context of the Qur’an: The Qur’an is a coherent Book in which its verses and Surahs are arranged in a specific order. While interpreting the Qur’an it is important to keep in view the context of its verses. No verse should be interpreted without regard to its context.
  3. Parallels of the Qur’an: One of the main sources for understanding the Qur’an is the Qur’an itself. Many verses or words in the Qur’an are explained or further clarified in other verses of the Qur’an.
  4. Theme of the Qur’an: The theme of the Qur’an is the “Indhar” of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) 1. Indhar is a term of the Qur’an and means admonition or warning. It is important to interpret verses of the Qur’an in the light of this theme (Indhar) and its different phases. In doing so, attention to the time of revelation and the addressees of verses (whether directives are general or are specific to certain group of people in the era of the Prophet (pbuh) are essential.

Secondary sources for interpreting the Qur’an:

Ahadith: Ahadith are potential sources to access the Prophet’s (pbuh) and his companions’ understanding, explanation and application of the verses of the Qur’an. A hadith that provides explanation for a verse or verses of the Qur’an helps in interpreting the Qur’an, provided that the chain of narrators of the hadith is not weak and that the context of Hadith itself is in line with the text of the Qur’an and its overall message. Hadith however cannot abrogate or add to a Qur’anic directive.

The previous scriptures: Previous divine scriptures are helpful in understanding the Qur’an. Though they are not present in their original form, however they are still an invaluable source of wisdom and divine directives. They also contain historical record about the previous prophets of Bani Israel (Children of Israel).

The major commentaries: Numerous translations and Tafasir (commentaries) have been written about the Qur’an by various Muslim scholars, these also provide a valuable source of scholarly insight and information about its interpretation.

History of Arabia: History of Arabia highlights the social, moral, intellectual and economic mood of the people at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The likes and dislikes of the people, rites, rituals and social norms of that time.

The Sunnah

Sunnah literally means well trodden path in Arabic. Sunnah are those Abrahamic practices and rituals that were adopted and revived by the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), in some cases after modifications and additions, and instituted among his followers as integral part of God’s religion.

Sunnan (plural of Sunnah) are practical activities and these have been transferred and established by the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), as part of the practices of God’s religion, through practical demonstration to his Companions. From the companions, these practices have been transmitted uninterrupted through successive generations of Muslims with consensus (Ijma) and practical perpetuation (tawaatur) to date. The Sunnah and the Qur’an are equally authentic. They are both delivered to us through the same source i.e. Prophet Mohammad (pbuh). They have reached us through the same mechanism of history (i.e. verbal and practical perpetuation and consensus of the Muslim Ummah). The Qur’an has reached us by verbal (documentary) transmission whilst the Sunnah by practical transmission. It is within these two that the entire basic corpus of Islam is preserved.

Essential features of the Sunnah include:

  • Consists of practices initiated by the Prophet (pbuh) and not by the Qur’an.
  • Initiated by the Prophet (pbuh) as integral part of religion.
  • Does not include religious beliefs and concepts.
  • Does not include Prophetic teachings, intended at interpreting and explaining human nature.
  • Cannot be established merely through individual reports, inclusion of an act as the Sunnah requires consensus of the Muslim Ummah.
  • Does not include supererogatory acts.
  • Does not include detailed religious practices that have not been established as Sunnah by the Prophet Mohammad (pbuh).

Significance of the Sunnah

The Sunnah provides concrete shape to Muslim faith and a practical semblance to very important tenets of Islam. It plays a crucial role towards the formation of Muslim Ummah and imparts a distinguished and unique character to all Muslims.

The Sunnan instituted by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh)

The Sunnah consists of three main categories of Mandatory rituals, Etiquettes pertaining to personal hygiene and Symbolic customs.

These are listed as follows:

  • To eat and drink by the name of God and with the right hand
  • Saying Al hamdu lillah (All praise be for God) when one sneezes and Replying to it by saying YarhamuKa Allah (May God bless you)
  • Calling Adhan in the right ear of a newborn baby and Iqamah in his left ear
  • Bathing the dead before burial
  • Shrouding the dead body in cloth (takfin) to bury it
  • Offering funeral prayer
  • Burial (tadfin) of the dead body
  • Celebrating Eid al Fitr, on the first day of the tenth month of the lunar calendar
  • Paying alms on Eid ul Fitr
  • Celebrating Eid al Adha on the tenth day of the twelfth month of lunar calendar
  • Takbirs (saying Allah u Akbar which means God is the greatest) after prayers during the days of Tashriq (Eid days And the three days after)
  • Offering the Eid Prayers
  • Trimming the moustache (for men)
  • Greeting each other with Assalam u Alaykum (Peace be with you) and replying to it by Wa’alaykum Assalam (and Peace be with you)
  • Trimming the hair around the genitals
  • Trimming hair from the armpits
  • Circumcision of all male children
  • Keeping fingernails and toe nails trimmed
  • Keeping the teeth, nose and mouth clean
  • Washing after defecation, and urination
  • Bathing after having sexual intimacy or orgasm
  • Avoiding sexual intimacy during menses and after birth
  • Bathing (of women) after menses and childbirth marking the end of the period
  • Organisation of five daily obligatory prayers
  • Friday congregation
  • Ablution for prayers
  • “Tayammum” (Using mud/dust to make ablution in the absence of water or when use of water can be detrimental to health)
  • Saying Adhan (call for prayers)
  • Saying Iqamah before the prayers
  • Constructing, establishing and maintaining a system for the management of mosques
  • Observing the sanctity of the Ka’bah
  • Fasting during the month of Ramadan
  • Ai’tikaf (seclusion and isolating oneself for a specific amount of time for worshiping God, in particular in the last Ten days of Ramadhan)
  • Paying Zakah (Islamic tax for the poor)
  • Performing Hajj and Umrah (pilgrimage to Ka’abah)
  • Sacrificing animals on Eid ul Adha, eating some of the meat and distributing the rest to the poor
  • Observing the sanctity of four months; the seventh lunar month of Rajab for Umrah and the eleventh, twelfth and The first lunar month for performance of Hajj. During these months all forms of armed conflicts and any attempt To obstruct the routes of pilgrims are strictly prohibited.
  • Tadhkiyah that is slaughtering animals with pronouncing the name of God, in the prescribed manner that is by cutting the main blood vessels to let all the blood flow out.
  • Tawaf (Circumambulation of the Ka’bah) as part of Hajj or Umrah
  • Offering Hadi (Sacrificial animals brought to the Ka’bah)
  • The procedure of Nikah (solemnisation of Marriage) and Talaaq (divorce)

Hadith

Hadith literally means a saying or something new. In Islamic terminology, it is defined as the individual-to-individual narratives ascribed to the Prophet (pbuh) regarding his sayings, actions, expressed or tacit approvals, his life history and personal description.

These include:

  • Life history of Prophet Mohammad (pbuh), including his meetings with people, important events in his time e.g. Holy wars as narrated by his followers.
  • Record of the Prophet Mohammad’s (pbuh) everyday life, rituals and routines, these are those things that he liked but did not authorise their initiation as essential part of religion. These records reveal the Prophet’s (pbuh) excellent example (Uswa Al Hasana) in carrying out the directives of Islam.
  • Record of answers to questions and explanations given by the Prophet (pbuh) to his followers.
  • Record of any explanations about commandments in the Qur’an and the Sunnah by the Prophet (pbuh) to his followers.

Principles of Acceptance of Hadith

The scholars of the science of ahadith have devised the following criteria which need to be met for a hadith to be considered authentic.

  • Continuity in the chain of narrators.
  • Narrators must be practicing Muslims and must not have engaged in activities that are forbidden.
  • Narrators should have sound understanding, memory and expression.
  • Reports should not contradict similar substantiated Ahadith regarding the same topic.
  • Reports should be free of any hidden defects (which are called Illah in this science).
  • What can be understood and derived from a Hadith should not contradict The Qur’an, The Sunnah and Established facts.

Some important requisites for the understanding of Ahadith

  • Need to understand and interpret Ahadith in light of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, which are the ultimate and absolute sources of religious information.
  • Need to interpret ahadith in their proper and relevant context.
  • To understand Ahadith adequately, we need to study all the related Ahadith on the particular subject.

The Qur’an, the Sunnah and the Hadith

The Qur’an and the Sunnah hold a pivotal place as the source of understanding of religion. The Sunnah and the Qur’an do not abrogate each other. They cannot be overruled by Hadith. Both these sources contain the entire religion. Hadith can thus explain these sources or provide the best example set by the Holy Prophet (pbuh); it cannot abrogate or contradict the basic corpus of religion residing in the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Hadith literature does not add to the content of religion; it offers an explanation of the Holy Qur’an and the Sunnah, and dictates sense and reason.

Some of the main outcomes of adopting the correct approach to understanding Islam

Some of the outcomes of Understanding Islam approach are listed in two categories namely; ideological and behavioural outcomes.

A few of the ideological outcomes:

The following ideological outcomes are presented briefly. The objective is not to convince the reader about these outcomes or to fully explain them. More elaboration on these outcomes and the way they have been derived can be found in the sources that are listed in the bibliography at the end of this booklet.

  • Understanding the Qur’an as a robust, structured system
  • Identifying those directives of the Qur’an that were exclusively for the people or groups of people at the time of revelation.
  • Recognising that God does not punish any one unless one rejects the truth, after the truth is clearly shown to one and one is clearly and fully warned about it (Itmam Al-Hujjah). This means it is not correct to assume that any non-Muslim (of our time) will go to hell.
  • Learning that those who were among the direct addressees of the Messengers and rejected them will be punished in this world either directly by God or by the Messengers and/or his immediate followers.
  • Appreciating the role of both the Children of Israel (descendents of Prophet Isaac son of Prophet Abraham peace be upon them) and the Children of Ishmael (descendents of Prophet Ishmael son of Prophet Abraham pbut) as a collective group of people who were given the same position and authority as their respective messengers, in bringing the complete truth before people. (Itmam Al -Hujjah)
  • Understanding that Muslims, who live in this era, do not have the same authority that the Prophet (pbuh) and the collectivity of Bani Ishmael had in dealing with deniers of truth. Meaning that many of the directives of the Qur’an about Jihad and killing of rejecters do not apply today.
  • Appreciating that the primary cause of the downfall of Muslims at present is not due to any external influence or circumstances but has endogenous basis. Therefore, the only way Muslims can restore prosperity for themselves in this world is to collectively become loyal to their religion. This does not mean that clear oppressions by some external forces are denied or ignored.
  • Identifying and distinguishing between the definitions of non Muslims, People of the Book, hypocrites, disbelievers, idolaters or polytheists.
  • Recognising the difference between Messenger (Rasool) and Prophet (Nabi) in terms of their role among their addressees.
  • Appreciating the underlined “concept” of the religious practices while identifying and protecting their obligatory “form”.
  • Recognising that all practicing Islamic sects are agreed on the Sunnah.

Role of an Islamic state and duties of citizens

  • Restoring and clarifying the rules of punishment in Shariah.
  • Separating the Islam-based knowledge from other types of knowledge (philosophy, mysticism, etc.)
  • Making understanding of Islam easier and more straight forward (but not simplistic)
  • Concept of Itmam Al-Hujjah (as described above) and its implications for the present day.
  • For explanation and elaboration on any of the above points, please refer to www.understanding-Islam.org or other items in the bibliography.

Some of the behavioural outcomes of the Understanding Islam approach

  • The approach is a research based approach, no views are blindly followed
  • The approach is a Non-Sectarian one, and rejects to assume any sectarian title other than Muslim
  • Scholars who are studying and adopting this approach are continuously revising their understanding of Islam.
  • Being a research based approach to understanding Islam, we are not hesitant to use the phrase “we don’t know” where applicable.
  • Utmost respect and learning attitude is held towards other approaches to understanding Islam and scholars who adopt these approaches

Why do we need this approach?

Every Muslim is aware that the Qur’an has a pivotal role in our religion.

And hold fast to the rope of God together and do not become disunited.… (3:103)

The Holy Prophet (pbuh) has explained that the Book of God is the rope of God that stretches from Heavens to Earth.

The natural outcome of this directive is that whenever Muslims encounter a difference of opinion, we resort to the Qur’an to find its solution. Unfortunately the irony is that we have gross difference of opinions concerning the interpretations of the Qur’an itself, in many instances providing contrasting explanations about its directives. This also occurred because Muslims based their Qur’anic interpretations on unsubstantiated Ahadith, different philosophies and mysticism. They also resorted to blind following of individual interpretations by religious scholars and were reluctant to question their understandings and interpretations.

Furthermore the society did not encourage Intellectual inquisition towards the then accepted interpretations and beliefs about religion, to question them was looked upon as being un-Islamic. In addition to intellectual differences, the more serious issue raised by this multiplicity of interpretations of the Qur’an is that this forms the basis of the vast majority of sectarianism in Islam. Different religious groups have interpreted Qur’anic verses in different chosen ways to justify their beliefs and approaches. Each sect has adopted its own interpretation because isolating a verse from its context can associate multiple meanings to it.

The Understanding Islam approach is based on the thinking pioneered by Imam Farahi, and aspires that when the Qur’an is interpreted in light of its theme, context and sequence, with a firm grasp of its language and taking into account the time of revelation and the phase of the prophetic mission; it reduces possibilities of different understandings from the Qur’an because it uses the Qur’an itself as the first scale for understanding the Qur’an.

According to Imam Farahi:

“There is no justification or place for more than one interpretation in the Qur’an”.

Amin Ahsan Islahi in his Qur’anic commentary, Tadabur-i-Qur’an, writes:

“I have given the complete and required importance to the coherence of it’s (i.e. The Qur’an’s) text. Hence I have utilised the same diction and assertions in its entirety. In fact, I was forced to use the same diction and assertions, because after applying coherence, (The Qur’an) does not allow you to wonder in various valleys (i.e. different conclusions). The true fact becomes explicit right in front (of one’s eyes in such a manner) that unless you are ignorant or blind you would not be able to deny it.”

The text of the Qur’an will not accept multiplicity of explanations. This fulfils the obligatory and essential basis for the claim of the Qur’an that it is a balance in whose scales; everything must be weighed in order to ascertain the extent of truth; and criterion or distinguisher of good and evil which like a sieve sifts out good from evil.

Prepared by the team of Understanding-Islam in the UK (UIUK)

Bibliography

www.Understanding-Islam.org

www.studying-islam.org (One line course for studying Islam covering all the major aspects of religion)

www.aminahsanislahi.org (Web site detailing life history and achievements of both Amin Ahsan Islahi and Imam Farahi)

Mizan by Javed Ahmad Ghamidi (2002)

www.al-mawrid.org (official web site of Al-Mawrid institute of Islamic sciences)

www.monthly-Renaissance.com (journal about Islamic teachings and highlights current problems and issues facing the Muslims and suggests possible solutions)

www.Ghamidi.org (tells about the life, personality, achievements and religious works of Javed Ahmad Ghamidi)

Comments are closed.