Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq
Bismillah Alhamdulillah wa salatu wa sallam ‘ala Rasulillah
The exemplar is a person who is the embodiment of moral virtue. Many Muslims have fallen prey to an infiltration into Islamic culture of this idea of having heroes and idols, specifically non-Muslim heroes and idols. It should go without saying that Muslims should not be idolizing any human being. This is a clear violation of tawhid. The Prophet(as) chastised some of his Sahaba, by saying that they used to worship their priests and rabbis, which they denied.
They take their rabbis, priests and monks or ascetics to be their Lords* besides Allah. And they take as their Lord, the Messiah son of Mary. Yet they were commanded to worship but One God. There is no god but He. Praise and Glory to Him, He is far too Glorious for what they ascribe to Him. [Quran 9:31]
Say, “Shall I take for my master other than Allah Who is the Initiator of the heavens and the earth? And He provides all without return. Feeds but is not fed.” Say, “ I have been commanded to be the foremost among those who surrender to Him and ascribe not divinity besides Him.” [Quran 6:14]
Do they ascribe to Him as partners things that can create nothing, but are themselves created? [Quran 7:191]
(Allah ta’ala says) I am so self-sufficient that I am in no need of having an associate. Thus he who does an action for someone else’s sake as well as Mine will have that action renounced by Me to him whom he associated with Me.[Hadith – Qudsi 5]
Imam Ahmad, At-Tirmidhi and Ibn Jarir At-Tabari recorded a Hadith via several chains of narration, from `Adi bin Hatim r.a., who was a Christian during the time of Jahiliyya … The Messenger of Allah recited this Ayah;
اتَّخَذُواْ أَحْبَـرَهُمْ وَرُهْبَـنَهُمْ أَرْبَاباً مِّن دُونِ اللَّهِ
(They took their rabbis and their monks to be their lords besides Allah). `Adi commented, “I said, `They did not worship them.”’ The Prophet said,
«بَلَى إِنَّهُمْ حَرَّمُوا عَلَيْهِمُ الْحَلَالَ وَأَحَلُّوا لَهُمُ الْحَرَامَ فَاتَّبَعُوهُمْ فَذَلِكَ عِبَادَتُهُمْ إِيَّاهُم»
Yes they did. They (rabbis and monks) prohibited the allowed for them (Christians and Jews) and allowed the prohibited, and they obeyed them. This is how they worshipped them.
It is clear from the above hadith that people practically worshiped their religious leaders in a form of minor shirk. Yet today we see this occurring as well. But it has extended to Muslims idolizing non-Muslims. Does this mean that Muslims should not admire other human beings, especially if they are not Muslims? Certainly not, but this is quite different from the minor shirk that we are talking about. Only three types of persons are eligible for emulation: Prophets, Messengers, alayhi salam, and saints/virtuous Muslims. And even so, no human being is entitled to unlimited emulation and obedience(taqlid), absolutely no human is entitled to worship, even “hero-worship”, and idolatry is absolutely forbidden(haram), as we know. We will first discuss wilaya and then Prophets and Messengers.
Not many outside of Islam are aware of this idea of Muslim saints. And many Muslims are opposed to this idea; possibly out of ignorance, possibly because they understand by saint something akin to the idea of saintliness found in Hinduism and Catholicism, or quite possibly because of a dislike of Sufism. As Shaykh Dr. Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt states:
“At the moment some are denying the idea of Sufism, after witnessing some innovations by those who call themselves Sufis…..”
There is a key difference between the Muslim saint as exemplar and what a Westerner normally thinks of when thinking about just who is a saint and what constitutes sainthood. People seem to normally associate saints with “mysticism”, extreme ascetic practices such a s self-denial, self-abnegation, celibacy, “leaving” behind the world of the profane and mundane, among other practices. Others associate saints with councils voting on who has reached the level of sainthood. In other words someone other than Allah decides who is a saint, and a person becomes recognized as a saint after his/her death. All of this is in contravention to Islam. What gives humans who are not themselves saints the right to declare someone a saint. Ultimately it is only Allah who confers this status upon His servants, and saints are known in life. Perhaps the more appropriate words would be “friend of God”, a title we find conferred on Ibrahim(as) by Allah Himself.
‘Allah is the friend of those who believe: He brings them out of every kind of darkness into light. And those who disbelieve, their friends are the transgressors who bring them out of light into every kind of darkness. These are the inmates of the Fire; therein shall they abide’ [Qur’an 2 : 258]
‘Surely, the nearest of men to Abraham are those who followed him, and this Prophet and those who believe; and Allah is the friend of believers’ [ Qur’an 3:69]
“But God knows best who are your enemies: and none can befriend as God does, and none can give succour as God does”. [Qur’an 4:45]
“For Allah did take Ibrahim for (an intimate) friend “ [Qur’an 4:125]
In Islam these saints/ “friends of God” exemplify the ideal of simultaneously living in the world and being beyond this world, similar to the Christian idea “be in the world, but not of the world”. Celibacy, monasticism, and various other ascetic practices such as extreme fasting and self-flagellation are against Islam.
The acceptable ascetic practices are seen to be instrumental to enlightenment, not an end in and of themselves, and an unnecessary continuance of them is seen as an aberration resulting in and from misunderstanding. Sufis therefore reject extremism and maintain that the path to sainthood is achieved through the initial desire to pray as if one perceives that Allah is in front of them.
One day while the Prophet was sitting in the company of some people, (The angel) Gabriel came and asked, “What is faith?” Allah’s Apostle replied, ‘Faith is to believe in Allah, His angels, (the) meeting with Him, His Apostles, and to believe in Resurrection.” Then he further asked, “What is Islam?” Allah’s Apostle replied, “To worship Allah Alone and none else, to offer prayers perfectly to pay the compulsory charity (Zakat) and to observe fasts during the month of Ramadan.” Then he further asked, “What is Ihsan (perfection)?” Allah’s Apostle replied, “To worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot achieve this state of devotion then you must consider that He is looking at you.” Then he further asked, “When will the Hour be established?” Allah’s Apostle replied, “The answerer has no better knowledge than the questioner. But I will inform you about its portents.
1. When a slave (lady) gives birth to her master.
2. When the shepherds of black camels start boasting and competing with others in the construction of higher buildings. And the Hour is one of five things which nobody knows except Allah.
The Prophet then recited: “Verily, with Allah (Alone) is the knowledge of the Hour–.” (31. 34) Then that man (Gabriel) left and the Prophet asked his companions to call him back, but they could not see him. Then the Prophet said, “That was Gabriel who came to teach the people their religion.” Abu ‘Abdullah said: He (the Prophet) considered all that as a part of faith .[Bukhari 1:42 Narrated By Abu Huraira]
Two key ideas about “sainthood” or wilaya should be noted here:
1. In conjunction with the idea of only Allah conferring upon His servants the status of sainthood is the idea that only saints recognize other saints. This seems to be a preventative measure against worship in the form of minor shirk and taqlid. Yet one can ask if no one besides other saints can recognize another saint, how do we recognize one as such, and by extension identify this person as an exemplar? Surely Muslims can recognize a virtuous person, despite the caution in Islam of declaring to know what is in another person’s heart? This key concept is very important and we will return to it later.
2. Of great significance to the idea of “sainthood” is the idea of miracles. Whether we believe that Allah confers on individuals besides His Prophets and Messengers the ability to perform miracles, the Sufis have a belief that kiramat(miracles) are not to be publicly advertised, but concealed. Yet this is precisely what we see among non-Muslim “holy men”, people flocking to these “saints” in order to receive blessings from them on account of their widely publicized miracles.
Along with the rejection of continued, ritualized asceticism, we find constant mention of the virtue of moderation in Islam. And we now return to the original idea of this article, that exemplars are the embodiment of moral virtue, to discuss Prophets and Messengers, alayhi salam, as exemplars. The contemplative life( fikr) and constant remembrance of Allah(dhikr) will lead to a type of moral character that engenders moral virtue. We are told that in the Prophets, alayhi salam, are the best examples of moral behavior for mankind, and that Prophet Muhammad(saws) is the pinnacle of this moral virtue which is to to be emulated. From this we can understand that although saints are exemplars, our focus should be on emulating the moral character of the Prophet(as) and embodying his moral virtues in our lives. Indeed in Islam we know to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet(as). Following his Sunnah is considered a virtuous act. So, because it is only saints who recognize other saints, since Sufis have a saying that the person who calls himself a Sufi is not a real Sufi, and since even though Muslims can recognize a virtuous person, despite the caution in Islam of declaring to know what is in another person’s heart, our role model, as Muslims, is the Prophet Muhammad, sal Allahu alayhi wa sabihi wa sallam.
We will define virtuous character as that character that is exemplified by the disposition to act in moderation and to exhibit excellence. Excellence is defined as putting the moral principles of the Qur’an to practice and taking the Sunnah of the Prophet as a model worthy of emulation. Moral virtue is the result of habit, and the Shari’ah has mandated certain actions that if done habitually will bring the worshiper closer to Allah, such as salat and dhikr, and will culminate in the realization of a morally virtuous character. Coupled with this is the idea of sincerity and intention, for no one who does these acts without sincerity and the intention of seeking the pleasure of Allah will accomplish any kind of moral virtue in themselves. Charity for the poor, being slow to anger, treating others kindly, and indeed all acts of worship from the Shari’ah, are acts that fall into the dual category of deeds that create moral virtue when done with the right intention and with sincerity, and deeds that reflect moral virtue, when done voluntarily with the right intention. Allahu A’lam