Chapter Six from the African Caliphate – Reviving the Sunnah

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Chapter Six of  the African Caliphate – Reviving the Sunnah 

By Ibraheem Sulaiman

The goal of tajdiid, as we have stressed, is to effect an all-embracing transformation of society. The means includes calling people to religion, commanding the good and prohibiting evil, and working relentlessly to demolish the edifice of innovation. It also includes establishing, once again, the supremacy of the Sunnah. The mujaddid’s ultimate ambition is to establish a society that approximates as closely as possible to the prophetic society.

That precisely was Shehu’s ambition and his declared goal. His purpose, he reiterated continually, was to revive the Sunnah and annihilate satanic innovations that had either crept into the social fabric of society or had been an exotic imposition on its culture and traditions. We have so far examined his concept of amr wa nahy, and we have had a taste of the content of some of his public lectures and realized the great efforts he expended in educating society in the principles of Islam. What remains for us is to see how he set about reviving the Sunnah, demolishing innovations, thereby reshaping the beliefs, thinking, practices and the very character of society.

In doing that, we have to take a very close look at Shehu’s monumental work – indeed his magnum opus if we agree with Ismail Balogun – which we may consider not only as the basic reference on this matter, but also as the summary of what Shehu taught and preached. This is the Iḥyaa’ as-Sunnah wa Ikhmaad al-Bidʿah. The book is unique in two respects. It is a book of practical, social and moral education which focuses its attention entirely on Hausa society with the sole object of rectifying its wrong deeds and guiding it aright. There is no theory in it. Everything it deals with was practiced by society. Secondly, it is a book of protest, albeit of a legal nature, albeit restrained. In a way, it takes the line of al-Barnawi’s Shurb az-Zulaal, except that the Ihyaa’ was written by a mujaddid and is a textbook of tajdiid.

Its thirty-three chapters deal with the three fundamental issues of Shehu’s message: Imaan, Islam and Iḥsaan, with Islam – the regulation of life in general – taking twenty-seven chapters. Both Imaan and Iḥsaan have one chapter each, and one chapter is devoted to the Sunnah in its broader sense and one to innovations. It is our intention to consider ten of the chapters with a view to understanding the state of Islam in Shehu’s society and the methodology of tackling its problems through a peaceful, though vigorously educational mobilization.

Principles of Social Mobilization

The principles he laid down in the introduction to the Ihyaa’ are so important that we prefer to call them principles of social mobilization, for if we want to know why the Shehu succeeded where others had failed in their efforts to bring about an abiding social transformation, it is because the Shehu throughout his active struggle adhered to certain tenets which facilitated his work and encouraged people to flock to him.

The first of these principles is that the revival of the Sunnah and removal of innovations, that is the reorientation of society on Islamic lines rests, fundamentally, on counseling and sincere advice (naṣiiḥah) to Muslims. It precludes, as a matter of necessity, bringing shame upon them or finding fault with them.

“Whoever has as his intention the unveiling of the secrets of the people and preoccupation with their faults, Allah, certainly, will bring him to account and take him to task, because whoever pursues the weakness of his brother, Allah will pursue his weakness until He exposes him, even if he is in the recess of his house.”

Faultfinding and putting people to shame, even under the pretext of seeking a social transformation, constitutes ‘a grave risk and a tremendous sin’ and it is hypocritical. And he referred to the hadiith of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم): “Do not look at the wrong actions of people as if you were lords. Look at your wrong actions as if you were slaves.”

Secondly, the purpose of striving for the establishment of the Sunnah is, by implication, to attract people to the fold of Islam, to reassure them in their faith and actions, and not to reject them. Rejection of the people is as great a risk and sin as searching for their weaknesses. In any case, the Shehu stated, to find a valid legal justification to repudiate a person for his action is not only difficult, but almost impossible, since one must have a unanimous opinion of the great jurists that such an act is absolutely illegal. People should not be reproached except for a violation of the most fundamental principles of religion concerning which the ummah is unanimous as to their binding nature or their being prohibited, but this, of course, would not prevent the caller from guiding people by advice (naṣiiḥah) and excellent exhortation.

The Shehu’s third principle is that healthy intellectual growth, even though tension-ridden, is essential for an all-round transformation. Therefore, the view of other scholars on derivative aspects of the law (furuuʿ) must not only be accommodated, but encouraged, even if they conflict with the opinions of the established scholars, as long as they do not conflict with the Qur’an and Sunnah. Although consensus is to be preferred, a person is perfectly within his rights to choose an opinion he likes in the school of his choice. The reason for accommodating and encouraging divergent views and opinions is to make religion easy and within the reach of every person. Common people, however should not be subjected to unnecessary burdens in practicing religion. Though they must be educated as far as possible in their faith, worship and social life, they should essentially be left with their basic religious duties and occupations, and no more.

The opinions of the jurists, he maintained, are all paths leading to paradise and roads leading to felicity, therefore, ‘whoever follows any of the roads, it will certainly lead him to where the jurists have reached, and whoever deviates from the path, it is said to him, Away with you!’

The fourth principle is that it is not permitted for a person calling to the way of Allah – or for anybody for that matter – to hate the sinners among the people of Laa ilaaha illa-l-laah any more than he should hate the righteous among them. This principle is of extreme importance for us, because it strikes at the very root of the philosophy of tajdiid. If a movement that is intent on improving the intellectual perception and moral quality of people, insists on having only those whom it considers good and upright while rejecting those it considers immoral, does it not render its work fruitless, for the very meaning of tajdiid is the raising of people from the abyss of moral decadence, and this meaning is lost as soon as they are rejected as sinners. Indeed, if everybody were righteous and excellent, there would be no need at all for such movements. A social movement is judged not by the number of good people it is able to attract to itself, but by the extent to which it is able to lift sinners from the abyss of darkness to light, and the extent to which it is able to transform society from moral decadence to honor and justice.

The sinner, the Shehu explained, may be ‘hated’ for his sins, but he must at the same time be loved for being a Muslim. In addition, a Muslim is under an obligation to give due respect to a fellow Muslim, though he be a sinner. By his faith, a believer manifests his relationship with Allah, be he pious or not, be he truthful or not. This expression of relationship has the effect of conferring dignity and sanctity on him, and makes it obligatory on other Muslims to honor him and respect his person as much as possible, and to refrain from either looking down upon him or disgracing him.

The last principle is that the caller must strive for the unity of all Muslims. The people of Laa ilaaha illa-l-laah, the Shehu explained, have a common bond with Allah, and they are, as such, all close to Him and are members of His family. So close, indeed, that if they were to fall into error and commit as much sins as would almost fill the whole earth, Allah would meet them with similar amount of forgiveness, so long as they do not ‘worship gods other than Him’. It is a grave error, therefore, to nurse only hatred towards such people, for that is prohibited, and Allah has made known the punishment of such warring against His awliyaa in this world and in the next. Hostility is allowed only against an enemy of Allah – who is anyone who worships a god instead of Allah.

These principles were clearly enunciated in response to a situation which the Shehu considered as unhelpful to the cause of Islam. It was a situation in which preaching was merely a barrage of insults and denunciation, which proved to be valueless and counterproductive to the extent that it alienated the scholars from the whole body of Muslims whose attention was ostensibly being sought. The approach to the issues of faith and law was narrow and rigid which stultified thought and reduced the practice of the law to the letter, losing the spirit. It was a situation in which the mass of the people were regarded with contempt as being sinful and ignorant by those who claimed to be guiding them. Consequently, they were not educated, their lot was not improved, they were not raised morally and they were divided on frivolous, sectarian lines.

That the Shehu departed from a method such as daʿwah (calling to the way of Allah) was indeed one of his major achievements. To him what the Muslims needed and what they would always need was naṣiiḥah, a sincere and sympathetic guidance to right conduct, and education in the principles of worship and transactions. Indeed, the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) himself said that religion is naṣiiḥah. Muslims, to the Shehu, had no need for uncouth or depraved language from the ʿulamaa’ nor does Islam allow that as a means of educating and guiding people. Similarly, as far as the Shehu was concerned, the generality of Muslims, though ignorant of religion and slack in its observance did not need to be repudiated or condemned and alienated as sinners. They needed reassurance, understanding and patience from those who sought to guide them, more so when their ignorance and laxity could be traced to the excesses of the leaders whom the majority of the ʿulamaa’ supported.

The correct way to approach the people, as the Shehu quoting Imam Al-Yusi in al-Amr noted, is alaa sabiil al-luṭf, through kindness and friendliness, as one would naturally expect from members of the family of Allah. In the same vein, Muslims do not need to be divided and subdivided into countless fragments in the name of daʿwah. Such a method is counter productive and malicious. The factors which instigate one scholar to plunge Muslims prematurely into a war of self-annihilation are the same as those which cause another to create discord and tension among Muslims, keeping them perpetually at war with each other, so that the enemy gains the upper hand. Differences in opinion are vital, according to the Shehu, for the health of society since ‘difference of opinion is mercy’. To quarrel over what is essentially a source of mercy for Muslims is to insist on inflicting a wound on the family of Allah.

Errors in Hausa Society

Islamic society is that which is governed by the Qur’an, Sunnah and ijmaaʿ, and which safeguards itself continuously against the inroads of bidʿah or innovations. What the Ihyaa’ sought to do was to re-establish the supremacy of the Qur’an, Sunnah and ijmaaʿ in those areas where bidʿah had infiltrated. In Professor Balogun’s rendering:

“If you have become certain of the obligation to adhere to the Book, the Sunnah and ijmaaʿ from what we have said, then let the weight of your deeds conform with them. For every religious duty you intend to perform, ask those who know whether it is Sunnah, so that you may carry it out, or bidʿah so that you may shun it.”

But what is bidʿah? bidʿah the Shehu said, is what is extraneous to the Qur’an, Sunnah and ijmaaʿ – a new aspect introduced into religion, but which is not part of it, though it has a semblance of being part of it either in essence or similitude. For a thing to be regarded as bidʿah, however, it is not enough that it is new, but it must also constitute a negation of the essence of the three sources, but if novelty is consistent with the spirit of the law and advances the cause of Islam it is not considered extraneous. Thus, the ḥadiith of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم), “Whoever introduces in this affair of ours (i.e. Islam) something that does not belong to it shall be rejected,” should be applied to that which vitiates or nullifies religion.

On the strength of this postulate, the Shehu gave us three broad categories of bidʿah. The first – the good bidʿah – consists of those matters which the Shariiʿah considers as either obligatory or recommended, though they have not been practiced by the prophetic generation. To this category belong the compilation of the Qur’an, the taraawiih prayer, the establishment of schools and defense systems. The second category – the repugnant bidʿah – is that which the Shariiʿah considers either to be prohibited or to be disapproved of, in addition to the fact that it was unknown in earlier generations. To this group belong such state policies as illegal and unjust taxation, giving preference to ignorant men over learned men in appointments to public offices or appointing leaders on the basis of lineage and going beyond what is expressly stipulated in worship. The third category – the permissible bidʿah – is that which the Shariiʿah permits, though it was not practiced by earlier generations. Technical innovations which ease life, taking delicious food and drink and living in beautiful houses are part of this category. This distinction between the various categories of bidʿah is essential, the Shehu maintained, so that one knows that not every bidʿah is reprehensible or extraneous to the law, and that a deed is judged according to the category of the bidʿah to which it belongs.

Innovation in Faith

We are now in a position to look into some of the specific aspects with which the Ihyaa’ dealt in the area of Imaan, Islam and iḥsaan, to see not only the Shehu’s notion of society, but also his method of protest and of re-shaping it. We start with faith. What it took to belong to the ummah, the Shehu said, was a person’s affirmation of the faith, and whoever did that was considered a Muslim and was governed and protected by Islamic law. He could marry from the Muslim community; he could lead the prayer; his food was lawful; he could inherit and bequeath and be buried in a Muslim graveyard. People are judged in this world according to what is apparent, and therefore, no one’s heart should be pierced to uncover its secrets. ‘It is not for us to suspect the faith of any Muslim, be he an ordinary person or otherwise, since the heart is not the place for probing into someone else’s faith’. And the heart is beyond reach of any other than Allah.

It is sufficient for the common man to believe in the essentials of the faith. He is not expected to strain his mind in deducing reasons for them. His faith is in no way impaired simply because he cannot prove it intellectually, but for people of intellect, ahlu-l-baṣiir, it is essential that they reflect on the essence of religion, since ‘religion is built on clear insight’ more so when they engage in  daʿwah. The various forms of bidʿah introduced in faith included: going to extremes in matters of religion, involving the common people in fruitless arguments on religion, invalidating their faith, or plunging into intricate, and often irrelevant philosophical speculations. Philosophical thoughts on faith, ʿilm al-kalaam, might be justified as a means of protecting the faith from the unbelieving or heretical philosophers, and might be useful for the thoughtful, but they are of no use to the faith of the majority of Muslims.

Innovations in the Practice of the Law

The Shehu thought it necessary to stress certain aspects of marriage. A person should marry with the sole purpose of ‘establishing the Sunnah’, in other words, for purely Islamic purposes. One should marry as soon as one can afford it, because the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) said, “Oh young men! Those of you who can support a wife should marry, for it restrains the eyes and preserves morality.” A person should look for a spouse with a religious disposition. No one should seek in marriage a woman whom a fellow Muslim is already intending to marry. The guardians of a woman should not prevent her from marrying a person of her choice who fulfills the Islamic requirements of marriage. And finally, waliimah – the marriage feast – should be celebrated.

The Shehu was particularly bitter about the custom in which the guardians of a woman took the dowry instead of giving it to her; and the custom in which men and women gathered indiscriminately for the waliimah and behaved in an unbecoming manner. He also descried the practice of beds due’ – the pervasive custom in Hausaland which stipulated that a husband pay money to the woman for his first conjugal association with her. To the Shehu, this had a semblance of adultery. Why should people not do what the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) asked: perform ṣalaat and pray for Allah’s blessing in the marriage?

On trade, the Shehu stressed that according to the Sunnah, buying, selling and giving credit should all be conducted with gentleness and kindness, and he quoted the ḥadiith of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم), “May Allah show mercy to a man who is kindly when he sells, when he buys and when he makes a claim!” The debtor should be allowed more time to repay if he is in difficult circumstances. If possible, his debt should be remitted altogether. There should never be deceit or fraud in business transactions.

There were different forms of bidʿah introduced in trade in Hausaland. One was allowing ignorant men to engage in business for themselves in markets or serve as agents for others. This was wrong, because such a person would not know the laws governing business transactions. To let him do business was gross negligence not allowed in matters of religion. The next bidʿah was the custom of sending women to trade while the men stayed at home, which he likened to habits of Europeans. Women are not expected, by law, to mix unnecessarily with men, and the market place in particular is not a healthy forum for the meeting of men and women. A further bidʿah was that the woman, who by necessity transacted business herself, did not acquire the knowledge of the law. A woman has to be taught the rules of trade and business, because this knowledge is as obligatory as the knowledge of prayer and fasting. Once she has learned the law, she can carry on business if she has no one to undertake it on her behalf.

In the administration of law, the Shehu first stressed that the Shariiʿah should be implemented as an act of respect and veneration for Allah. He also emphasized that in the dispensation of justice, high and low should be treated equally. He made reference to the ḥadiith of the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) who said when some people wanted to intercede on behalf of a highly-placed woman who had committed theft:

“What destroyed your predecessors was just that when a person of rank among them committed a theft they let him alone, but when a weak one of their number committed a theft they inflicted the prescribed punishment on them. I swear by Allah that if Fatimah, daughter of Muhammad were to steal I would have her hand cut off.”

Judgment, the Shehu continued, should be based on the evidence before the judge, and a judge should maintain perfect neutrality towards both sides in a dispute and should not give judgment when in the heat of anger.

The innovations which had been introduced included the substitution of fines, ‘out of greed for money’, instead of prescribed punishments. Ignorant people were appointed judges in preference to learned people or incompetent people were given the office, because their parents had been judges. Further innovations included giving judgment on tribal lines to promote selfish interests.

On clothing the Shehu stressed, among other things, the need for a person to wear what was within his means, to have a preference for white clothes, to avoid clothes made of silk, and not to be arrogant in matters of dress. On the question of bidʿah, the Shehu disapproved of clothes with long and wide sleeves, the kind worn in almost every part of West Africa, since it is not permitted for a man to add to his clothes what is not needed or necessary’, though this was permitted to a woman. Significantly, he noted that despite this disapproval, the wearing of flowing robes did have a purpose. It enhanced the prestige of judges and men in authority, thus indirectly advancing the prestige of Islam.

The wearing of dignified robes therefore, is allowed when circumstance make it necessary, because ‘the conditions of Imams and men in authority change in line with the changes in cities, times, generations and situations, so they need to adopt new forms of adornment and new policies which were not needed in the past, and these might even be obligatory in certain circumstances’. Thus, what is by law disapproved of becomes imperative politically, diplomatically and socially. This principle became a serious matter of contention in the later period of the movement. A good number of bidʿah which were disapproved of or even prohibited should be raised to the status of the permissible, recommended, or even obligatory bidʿah when circumstances change. It is for this reason that scholars have been told often that they should not be dogmatic or extremist.

A bidʿah on which, according to the Shehu, there was a consensus of opinion was that it was forbidden for a woman to show a dirty and unkempt appearance at home, but to appear clean and smart when going out.

On the subject of food, the Shehu stressed that meals should be taken with humility that the servant who prepared the meal should be made to share in it and that proper hygiene should be observed. The Shehu was concerned about two kinds of bidʿah. One was earmarking specific dishes for certain individuals, usually the heads of family, which was prohibited if arrogance or pride was intended, otherwise it was merely disapproved of. It was essential that people eat in groups, the Shehu emphasized, so that they could mutually benefit from each other’s blessings and take care of the poor amongst them.

The Shehu was also concerned about the practice – most common among the wealthy – of giving women ‘the causes to grow fat’. This is prohibited if it interferes in the practice of religion, or causes injury to her health, if not, it is merely disapproved of, but he noted that obesity, which is generally the result of excessive eating, is a violation of the sacred law. It is a waste of money and it could lead to a woman having to uncover part of her body, or worse, it could result in her inability to perform her obligatory duties, such as standing for prayer.

There is disapproval the Shehu said, of a person eating without placing water at his side, because by so doing he could ‘cause his own destruction’. Similarly, he should not drink water in large draughts, nor rush to his meal while it is too hot. A person should not engage in excessive joking while eating for fear that he might choke or cause another person to choke, nor should he be too talkative or totally silent.

On the matter of entering another person’s house, the Shehu maintained that permission should be sought three times. If none was given, one should leave. One should also seek permission before disturbing another person’s privacy and announce his name if required. On greeting, one is required to greet whomever one meets, whether or not one knows that person. The young should first greet the old, the one riding should salute the one walking, the one walking should salute the one sitting and the small company should greet the larger one. Shaking hands is recommended.

The bidʿah of bending to greet another person – the practice of the poor in the community – is prohibited by consensus if one has to bend very low, and disapproved if it is not as low as the rukuuʿ. Of course, bowing the head very low to the ground is much more serious, since it has the semblance of prostration, and even the ordinary bowing of the head is prohibited. One should not remove one’s hat or cap as a sign of respect during greetings, for it amounts to imitating non-Muslims. In this category, also falls the waving of the fingers or hands in greeting. The former is the custom of Jews, the latter of Christians.

Innovations in Ihsaan 

We now come to the important question of Iḥsaan, which the Shehu stated is to adhere to the way the Prophet (صلى الله عليه وسلم) lived. And this consists of several things. One of them is that one should endeavor to conquer distraction and absent mindedness in worship, and seek to perfect worship by keeping in mind always that one is, in reality, in the presence of Allah.

Ihsaan demands that a person should seek nearness to Allah by diligently performing the obligatory duties as well as the nawaafil. The Shehu here quoted the ḥadiith in which Allah said, “No one draws near to Me with anything dearer to Me than what I have made obligatory for him.” A person should seek nearness to Allah by abandoning what Allah has prohibited and what is disapproved of. Efforts to avoid what is prohibited should be as great, if not greater, than efforts to perform one’s obligations, for the prevention of corruption takes precedence over the pursuit of good.

Iḥsaan demands that one should never regard oneself as superior to any other person in the eyes of Allah, for no one is sure of what his ultimate end will be. In addition, one should endeavor to develop the qualities of faith within oneself, for there are as many as sixty.

Punishing oneself, by beating one’s body with sticks, iron bars or branding it with hot substances is a forbidden bidʿah by consensus. Similarly, it is forbidden to seek spiritual perfection by having recourse to ways and methods that are prohibited by law. In any case, good can never be reached through evil. Amusements such as beating drums to heighten spiritual ecstasy are forbidden innovations. It is also forbidden to perform a deed on the basis of what one has seen in a dream, since that would conflict with the Shariiʿah. It is, finally, a prohibited bidʿah that one should regard oneself as having reached a station with Allah in which one is absolved of the responsibilities and duties that are enjoined on every other Muslim.

Advice for the ʿUlamaa’ 

We conclude with an examination of further principles of social movement outlined in the Ihyaa’. We considered five of them at the beginning of the discussion. The rest come now at the end as they do in the Ihyaa’.

Preaching, or more appropriately the effort to transform society, is essentially a peaceful process which should not be discordant or create deliberate tension or disorder, for there is no way in which people can ever be changed by force. If there is to be any use of force at all, it should not be initiated, encouraged, or invited by a person whose work requires peace and reasoning.

The scholar has two responsibilities in his search for knowledge and its dispensation. He should seek those aspects of knowledge which are relevant to the needs of his society, for the possessor of such knowledge is ‘a precious gem’. He should disseminate his knowledge with absolute humility, bearing in mind that, like any other human being, he is subject to ‘error, misinterpretation and digression’ and that he alone cannot comprehend everything.

The duty to educate the people, wherever they are, is absolutely binding on scholars. The responsibility for change and transformation is theirs. If the scholars fails to perform this duty, they will incur the wrath of Allah.

Know that it is obligatory on every learned person not to keep quiet because innovations have appeared and spread in these times. The ḥadiith says: “When tribulations appear and the learned one keeps quiet on him then is the curse of Allah.” Most of the people are ignorant of the Shariiʿah, and it is obligatory that there should be in every mosque and quarter in the town, a faqiih teaching the people their religion.

The man who intends to strive against corruption and for a better society must start with himself. This is a principle which one comes across at all stages in the thought of the movement.

“It is incumbent on every scholar to begin with himself and to get used to practicing the obligatory duties and avoiding forbidden practices, he should then teach that to his family and relations. He should then proceed to his neighbors, then to the people of his quarter, the inhabitants of his town, the surrounding suburbs of his city and so on to the farthest part of the world… This is the foremost concern of anyone to whom the matter of his religion is important.”

Finally, there must be a belief in the mind of the scholar who undertakes the task of social change that the salvation of the ummah lies solely in the revival of the Sunnah. In the past, it was the Sunnah that saved this ummah from disintegration, and nothing would save it from the same fate except the Sunnah.

The Shehu ended his book with the following quotation from Abu al-Abbas al-Abyani, one of the Andalusians: “There are three things which would find enough space were they to be written on a fingernail, and in them is contained the good of the world and the hereafter”:

Adhere, do not innovate;

Be humble, do not be arrogant;

Be cautious, do not be too accommodating.

Published in: Uncategorized on April 7, 2018 at 15:40  Leave a Comment  

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