August 2023

YouTube thumbnail of Imam Marc Manley with his right hand raised
للمفاهيم دورٌ مهمّ في تقدُّم الأمم وانحطاطها باعتبارها الوعاء الذي يحوي ثقافتها وفكرها، مما يؤكّد ضرورة العناية بالمصطلحات والمفاهيم القرآنية ودراستها باعتبار مركزية القرآن في بناء الفكر الإسلامي وصناعته
"Concepts play an important role in the progress and decline of nations, as they are the vessels that contain their culture and thought. This emphasizes the necessity of caring for Qur’anic terms and concepts, studying them due to the centrality of the Qur’an in building and shaping Islamic thought" — Samir Faridi

To say that the Qur’ān is the central document presiding over the life of a Muslim would be an understatement. From the very first word revealed, “Recite!”, the text of the Qur’ān has not only come to occupy a special place in the life of a Muslim when compared to other religions, but that such an honored and revered place is due to the truth that the Qur’ān is the unadulterated word of God Almighty. Along with this preservation of the pristine speech of the Omnipotent Creator has come an assurance that no man, no matter how wise or genius, has produced this work. Of course, there have been those who’ve tried to do so and their disobedience has been immortalized in the pages of the Qur’ān, a warning for all eternity: This is My Book; it is Clear. And there will be no alterations.

The Children of Isrā’īl, who received the Torah, a Book by Allāh’s own words which is filled with light an guidance, attempted to alter the Speech and Commandment of God by concocting a new punishment for adultery. This is important for us for Allāh clearly admonishes Banī Isrā’īl in the Fifth chapter of the Qur’ān,

يُحَرِّفُونَ ٱلْكَلِمَ مِنۢ بَعْدِ مَوَاضِعِهِۦ ۖ
“They distort the words of Scripture from their proper meanings” — Surah al-Ma’idah v. 41

But The Children of Israel are not the only ones guilty of this temptation. Muslims, throughout our history, have also attempted to change the words of Scripture, what we can refer to as the Muṣṭalaḥ Qur’āniyī (Qur’ānic terminology), though generally not for the same reasons as Banī Isrā’īl (flagrant disobedience!). In their attempts to explain the meanings of certain words in the Qur’ān, some movements amongst the Muslims, even those that have acquired ascendency and legitimacy, have not been entirely free of blame in this department.

In one of the most famous and agreed upon statements of the Prophet ‎ﷺ is what is known as the “ḥadīth Jibrīl ‎ﷺ” in which the noble Angel of Revelation came, by Allāh’s will, to teach the Muslims the core of the religion by asking the Prophet ‎ﷺ to describe three essential aspects of the creed: Islām, Īmān, and Iḥsān, and for now I will leave these three “terms” (muṣṭalaḥat) un-translated to draw attention to my point.

When Jibrīl ‎ﷺ said,

فأخبرني عن الإحسان قال أن تعبد الله كأنك تراه فإن لم تكن تراه فإنه يراك
"Inform me about Ihsan,” to which the Messenger of Allah ‎ﷺ answered, "It is that you should worship Allah as though you could see Him for though you cannot see Him, undoubtedly He sees you."

So how does this ḥadīth related to the topic at hand: meaning and terminology in the Qur’ān?

There are many today who believe that spiritual practice known as taṣawwuf is merely the same as iḥsān. What is missing from this statement, one proclaimed by many practitioners of Ṣūfīsm, is that these are men and women who have attempted to fulfill the requirements of iḥsān, and that no matter how earnest and sincere their attempts were, they cannot be constituted to be one and the same as iḥsān for such a word was defined by Allāh Almighty and cannot be redefined by anyone else. And though undoubtedly this is indeed a criticism of this habit to associate something defined in the religion to one’s particular group, this should not be misunderstood on my part as being anti-taṣawwuf. I am merely critical of consigning a term, one which is central to Islām, as part and parcel of some of human endeavor, not matter how sincere it may be.

One short example of how this can be problematic is the association of taṣawwuf with iḥsān while taṣawwuf itself is associated with a great many practices that have not only nothing to do with the religion of Islām, but can even be considered blameworthy. One such example is the spinning of Ṣūfī dancers who practice something known as “fanā’ fillāh” or “annihilating oneself in God”. For brevity sake, several concepts of “fanā’” which are unacceptable Islāmically is the notion of “joining with Allāh” as well as the emphasis on love versus worship and fear (the primary ways Allāh refers to His relationship with His creation in the Qur’ān!) to say the least of which the legitimacy of spinning around in a circle as an act of devotion. And while many will try and deflect such a criticism by stating only a few Ṣūfīs practice “fanā’” the truth is such dancers are inseparable from Ṣūfīsm and therefore taṣawwuf. In the end, a person may be confused or misguided to think that such practices are either (a) legitimate, (b) bring one closer to God (replacing the Prophetic and Qur’ānic practices which guarantee this!), and (c) might either be obligatory or at the very least, desirable. In this one single example we can see the need to stick to the meaning and practices of the “terms” Allāh, Exalted is He, has Himself chosen to describe and complete His Dīn.

It is my sincere hope that those who read this will not mistake my words for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I have studied with and benefited vastly for the People of Taṣawwuf. Many of the books in my library, indeed many of my most prized volumes, were penned by the People of Taṣawwuf. I am, however, attempting to draw our attention to the need to not tamper with the Book of Allāh beyond the need to explain ideas, practices, or concepts, such that they may be implemented: such that we may come to worship Him, though we are incapable of seeing Him, we know that He undoubtedly sees us.

Below is a short video, an outtake from my weekly tafsīr class recorded on July 29th, 2023, at Middle Ground when I was asked about this very same subject.