Imam ‘Ali: When chivalry clashes with Shari’a

[Shihab al-Din Abu Hafs ‘Umar Suhrawardi (d. 1234) writes:]

Although many things are permissible according to the Shari’a, but forbidden according to manliness [muruwwa] and chivalry [futuwwa], this does not mean that chivalry and the Shari’a are opposed to each other. However, the character of the adherents of chivalry is that if someone does ill to them, they do something good to that person in response, while according to the Shari’a, one requites evil with evil.

It is true that there are several moral traits that the Law approves of and condones but chivalry forbids. Chivalry’s disapproval of these moral traits is positively good, for they all relate to sacrificing one’s own self-interest and personal share for the sake of another’s comfort and convenience… . Thus, adherents of chivalry believe that if someone [p. 238] insults you, you should pray for him; if someone deprives you of something, give him something when he is in need; if someone severs his ties with you, adhere to him faithfully and never desert him. If someone hits you, gouges out your eye, or breaks your tooth, forgive him. This is the [true] chivalry and manliness and the essence of God’s Word, the Qur’an, for forgiveness stems from divine Mercy while [the seeking to exact] justice belongs to the Law.


… The Word of God declares, “Retaliation is prescribed for you in the matter of the murdered: freeman for freeman, slave for slave, female for female” [2:178]. Thus, in the era of the Prince of the Believers, ‘Ali — may God be content with him — a man who had unjustly slain another man was brought by some people before ‘Ali. ‘Ali said, “You tell me that the punishment of ‘Retaliation … in the matter of the murdered’ is necessary to be meted out to him as commanded by the Word of God. But you could have interceded for him yourselves, saying, ‘Do not take him to task for this crime. This man’s destiny was so ordained: in Pre-eternity the Divine Pen had written down this deed; it was in the hand of Fate. The Angel of Death arrived, and mounted this person on the horse of ignorance [so that he performed this deed]. Forgive him and let me atone for the blood he has spilled.’” ‘Ali himself went to great lengths to intercede for the man, such that if the wounded party refused to accept his intercession, he would offer to pay his blood-money in order to satisfy them… . In the end, he made peace between all the opposing parties and resolved the problem.

… And if a person had committed theft and was brought before the Commander of the Faithful [‘Ali] with proof of his theft, he would first order that his hand be cut off according to the text of the Word of God: [p. 239] “As for the thief, both male and female, cut off the hands of both. It is the reward of their own deeds, an exemplary punishment from Allah” [5:38], saying, “it is correct that his hand be cut off, but [let us not do so and] forgive him for my sake anyway. Let me atone for his crime, for this thing that he stole was not your divinely allotted portion. This poor man has been afflicted by the tides of fate, and destiny did him a bad turn. Satan tempted him and drove him from the straight path of piety. I myself will pay you back for all the goods he has stolen.”

And if they brought a woman to him with the accusation of immoral behavior, ‘Ali would never accept anyone’s testimony until four just witnesses were produced. However much the witnesses testified against the woman, ‘Ali still rejected the testimony and would always demand greater analysis of the evidence. Of course, he would always strive to free the woman from accusation of sinful behavior, although he would go after her, admonish her, and make her afraid. And if, after all, it became necessary to administer the legal punishment required to a woman, he would always revile those who gave witness against her and refuse to ever accept their testimony again, saying, “You have previously given witness to adultery [and legally should not do so again].”

… One day, the Commander of the Faithful said to the Prophet: “O Prophet of God, certain people came to visit you today, bringing with them another Muslim. On encountering me, they offered their salutations and stopped. I asked after their business. They told me they were on their way to see you. Again I asked them their business.

“‘A man and a woman have committed adultery. We are going to testify against them to the Prophet of God, so that they can be stoned — so that the legal penalty may be properly administered,’ they declared.

“‘Begone,’ I said; forsake your testimony! Busy yourselves in some other occupation that gives you some merit in this world and some benefit in the hereafter. What sort of business is it anyway, that you intend?’

“‘But,’ they contested, ‘the command of God is that the adulterer should be scourged by the lash’ [cf. 24:2].

"I said, ‘Yes, I believe in the Word of God and I verify the word of the Prophet, but if you shut your eyes and turn a blind eye to this, and [p. 240] withdraw your testimony, the spiritual reward will be much greater.’" In this manner I discouraged them, and would not allow them access to the Prophet.

When I had related all of this to the Prophet, he commented: “Your behavior in this matter was delightful to God and myself who am his Prophet. You will receive your just reward for this deed both in this world and in the hereafter on the Plain of the Day of Resurrection when all humankind is denuded [before God]. Because you covered over the sins of those two Muslims, and refused to rend their veil, you will be garbed in the robes of paradise.”

[from Shihab al-Din Umar Suhrawardi’s Treatises on Chivalry, quoted by Leonard Lewisohn in Windows on the House of Islam (ed. John Renard), pp. 237-241]

Al-Ghazali: The role of reason in understanding scripture

In his Qanun at-ta’wil, al-Ghazali writes:

At first glance one’s superficial impression is that there is a conflict between reason [ma’qul] and scripture [manqul]. Those who deal with this issue have split up into (1) those who, at one extreme, have confined their studies to scripture, (2) those who, at the other extreme, have confined their studies to reason, and (3) those moderates in between who seek to unite and reconcile [reason and scripture].

The moderates, in turn, have split into (1) those who made reason fundamental and scripture secondary, and who consequently were not very concerned with the study of scripture, and (2) those who made scripture fundamental and reason secondary, and who were therefore not greatly concerned with the study of reason, and (3) those who made both reason and scripture equally fundamental and strove to bring together and reconcile the two.

There are thus five groups. The first group consists of those who confined their studies to scripture. They stand at the first stage of the way, being content with what they already understand of the apparent meaning of scripture. They have accepted as true what scripture contains both in its details and in its fundamentals. If they are asked to explain a contradiction [p. 49] in the apparent meaning of scripture and to give an interpretation [ta’wil] [of it], they decline, saying that everything is within the power of God. If one asks them, for example, how the person of Satan can be seen at the same time in two places and in two different forms, they reply that nothing is amazing in view of the power of God, for God has power over all things. And perhaps they would not even shrink from saying that a person’s being in two places at once is within the power of God.

The second group distanced themselves from the first [taking a position] at the opposite extreme from them. They confined their studies to reason and did not concern themselves with scripture. If they hear something in scripture [ash-shar’] that is agreeable to them, they accept it. On the other hand, if they hear something that is in conflict with their reason, they claim that it is something that has been imagined by the prophets, for the prophets were required to descend to the level of ordinary people, and sometimes it was necessary for them to describe things in a way that did not conform with reality. Thus anything that did not agree with their reason they interpreted in this way. They exaggerated rationality to the extent of becoming unbelievers inasmuch as they ascribed lying to the prophets, may God’s blessing and peace be upon them, for the sake of the general welfare. There is no disagreement within the [Islamic] community that whoever sanctions such a thing with respect to the prophets should have his head cut off.*

As for the first group, their shortcoming was in seeking safety from the danger of interpretation and investigation. They ended up in the domain of ignorance but felt secure there. Nevertheless, the position of this first group is closer [to safety] than that of the second group. The first group sought refuge from difficulties by saying that everything is within the power of God and that we cannot fathom the wonders of God’s command. The second group sought refuge by saying that the Prophet, for the sake of the general welfare, described things as other than the way he knew them to be. It is evident how much difference there is between these two kinds of refuge with respect to danger and safety! [p. 50]

The third group made reason fundamental and investigated it at length. However, they paid little attention to scripture, and did not encounter those passages that at first glance and initial impression seem to be contradictory and in conflict with each other or contrary to reason. They did not plunge into the heart of the problem, but when they did hear passages that conflicted with reason they rejected and ignored them or accused their transmitters of lying, except when the transmission was by tawatur,** like the Qur’an, or when the words of the hadith were easy to interpret. They rejected what they found difficult to interpret in order to avoid making far-fetched interpretations. It is clear how dangerous this position is in its rejection of sound traditions that have been transmitted by those trustworthy persons through whom scripture has reached us.

The fourth group made scripture fundamental and dealt with it at length. They were familiar with a large number of scriptural passages [zawahir], but they avoided reason and did not plunge into it. The conflict between reason and scriptural passages was apparent to them only in some fringe areas of the rational sciences. However, since their involvement with reason was not extensive nor did they plunge into it, rational impossibilities were not obvious to them, for some impossibilities are perceived only after careful and extended investigation built on many successive premises.

One must add here another point, and that is that they believed that they could consider anything to be possible as long as it was not known to be impossible. They did not realize that there were three categories [to be taken into account]: (1) a category whose impossibility is known by a proof, (2) a category whose possibility is known by a proof, and (3) a category neither the possibility or impossibility of which is known. It was their custom to judge this third category to be possible, since its impossibility was not apparent to them. This is a mistake, just as it is a mistake to conclude that something is impossible because its possibility is not apparent. Indeed, there is a third category, namely, the category [p. 51] that is neither known to be possible nor known to be impossible, either because it is beyond reason and cannot be comprehended by human ability, or because of the shortcoming of an individual investigator due to his inability to discover the proof himself or his not having someone to point the proof out to him.

An example of the first, from the sense of sight, is the inability of the visual sense to determine whether the number of stars is even or odd or, because of their distance, to apprehend their real sizes. An example of the second, which is the shortcoming of the individual [investigator], is the inability of some people to perceive the stations of the Moon and the visibility of fourteen of them at any given time [of the night] and the concealment of fourteen of them opposite the course of the [visible] stations as they rise and set, as well as other things that some people grasp with the sense of sight and other cannot. Such differences [in ability] also extend to the intellect’s faculty of apprehension.

Since these (that is, the fourth group), did not plunge deeply into the rational sciences, they did not encounter many of these impossibilities. They were therefore spared the great effort of making most interpretations, for they were not aware of any need for interpretation. They resemble someone who does not know that God’s being in a location is impossible and who can therefore dispense with interpretation of “above” and “mounting” and all such words that indicate location.***

The fifth group is the intermediate group who combined the study of reason and scripture. They made each of them an important fundamental and denied that there was a real conflict between reason and scripture. One who denies reason denies scripture as well, since it is only through reason that the truth of scripture is known. Were it not for the truthfulness of the evidence of reason, we should not know the difference between the true prophet [nabi] and the false [mutanabbi], nor between the truthful person and the liar. How can reason be denied by scripture, when scripture can only be proven true by reason? [p. 52]

These constitute the group who are in the right. They have followed a proper procedure. Nevertheless, they have climbed to a difficult level, have sought an exalted goal, and have traveled an arduous road. How difficult is the goal they have sought, how rugged is the road they have traveled! It may be level and easy in some places, but it is arduous and difficult in most.

Indeed, one who has dealt with the sciences at length and who has been involved in them extensively will be able to reconcile reason and scripture in most cases with simple interpretations. Nevertheless, there inevitably remain two situations [in which interpretation is difficult]: the first is the situation in which one is forced to employ far-fetched interpretations from which [rational] minds shrink, and the other is the situation in which one cannot determine how to make any interpretation at all. The latter situation is a problem similar to that of the letters mentioned at the beginning of some of the suras [of the Qur’an], since no correct explanation of them has been transmitted [to us]. Anyone who thinks that he has escaped from these two situations does so either because of his deficiency in the rational sciences and his ignorance of rational impossibilities, so that he considers possible what he does not know to be impossible, or because of his deficiency in reading traditions, so that he has not encountered many individual traditions which contradict reason. I should therefore like to make three recommendations:

The first recommendation is that one not aspire to know all of that,**** and this was purpose to which I was directing my discourse. Such knowledge is not something to be aspired to, and one should recite [the verse from the Qur’an in which] God says, “And of knowledge you have been vouchsafed but little” [17:85].

The second recommendation is that one should never deny the testimony of reason, for reason does not lie. Were reason to lie, it might lie in establishing scripture, for it is by reason that we know scripture to be true. How can the truthfulness of a witness be known through the testimony of a lying character witness? Scripture is a witness for the details, and reason is the character witness for scripture. If, then, [p. 53] it is necessary to believe reason, one cannot dispute [the fact that] location and form must be denied to God. If you are told that works are weighed,***** you will recognize that works are an accident that cannot be weighed, and that interpretation is therefore necessary.

If you hear that death is brought in the form of a fat ram which is then slaughtered, you will know that [such a statement] requires interpretation. The reason for this is that death is an accident, and as such it cannot be brought, for bringing constitutes movement, which is impossible for an accident. Moreover, death does not have the form of a fat ram, since accidents cannot be transformed into bodies. Nor is death slaughtered, for slaughtering involves separating the neck from the body, and death has neither a neck nor a body. Death is an accident, or the absence of an accident in the opinion of those who believe that it is the absence of life. Therefore, interpretation [of this statement] is inescapable.

The third recommendation is that one refrain from specifying an interpretation when the [various] possibilities [of interpretation] are incompatible. Judgment concerning the intention of God or of His Prophet by means of supposition and guessing is dangerous. One knows the intention of a speaker only when he reveals his intention. If he does no reveal his intention, how can one know it, unless the various possibilities are limited and all but one of them is eliminated. This one [intention] is then demonstrably specified. Nevertheless, the various possibilities in the speech of the Arabs and the ways of expanding upon them are many, so how can they limited? Refraining from interpretation is therefore safer.

For example, if it is clear to you that works cannot be weighed, and the tradition concerning the weighing of works comes up, you must interpret either the word “weighing” or the word “works.” It is possible that the word used metaphorically is “works,” and that it was used in lieu of the register of works, in which they are recorded, and it is these registers of works which are weighed. On the other hand, it is also possible that the [p. 54] word used metaphorically is “weighing,” and that is was used in lieu of its effect, that is, the determination of the amount of work, since that is the utility of weighing, and weighing and measuring are ways of determining [amounts]. If you conclude at this time that what is to be interpreted is the word “works” rather than the word “weighing,” or “weighing” rather than “works,” without relying on either reason or scripture, you are making a judgment about God and His intention by guessing, and guessing and supposition are tantamount to ignorance.

Guessing and supposition are permitted as necessary for the performance of acts of worship, piety, and other works that are ascertained by ijtihad.****** Nevertheless, matters unrelated to any action belong in the same category as abstract sciences and beliefs, so on what basis does one dare to make judgments in these matters by supposition alone? Most of what has been said in the way of interpretation consists of suppositions and guesses. The rational person has the choice of either judging by supposition or of saying: “I know that its literal meaning is not what is intended, because it contains what is contrary to reason. What exactly is intended, however, I do not know, nor do I have a need to know, since it is not related to any action, and there is no way truly to uncover [its meaning with] certainty. Moreover, I do not believe in making judgments by guessing.” This is a safer and more proper choice for any rational person. It also provides more security for the day of resurrection, since it is not improbable that on the day of resurrection he will be questioned [about his judgments] and held accountable for them and be told, “You made a judgment about Us by supposition.” He will not, however, be asked, “Why did you fail to discover Our obscure and hidden meaning [in a passage] in which there was no command for action? You have no obligation with respect to belief in it except absolute faith and general acceptance of its truth.” This means that one should say, “We believe therein; the whole is from our Lord” [3:7].

~ Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111)


* That is, ascribing lying to the prophets amounts to apostasy, and the punishment for that is death.

** Transmission by tawatur (repetition, frequency) is transmission that involves so many transmitters at each stage of transmission that it is inconceivable that the transmitters could have conspired together on a falsehood.

*** This is a reference to such verses in the Qur’an as “The Hand of God is above their hands” (48:10) and “God it is who raised up the heavens without visible supports, then mounted the Throne” (13:2).

**** That is, that one not aspire to a complete understanding of scripture.

***** A reference to weighing human works in the Balance as an indication of who will be the inhabitants of the Garden and who the inhabitants of the Fire. See 7:8-9, 23:101-104, 101:6-11.

****** Ijtihad: independent investigation as conducted by a religious scholar with requisite training, called a mujtahid.


Translated by Nicholas Heer, found in Windows on the House of Islam (ed. John Renard), pp. 48-54.

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A poem praising the Prophet Muhammad, penned by a Hindu politician in India

This na’t was composed by Shad (the pen-name of Kishan Prasad (d. 1943), former prime minister of the Indian state of Hyderabad).

He writes:

The splendor present in the two worlds is on account of the king of nations;

Everything is manifest through his existence.*

We are supplicants at your door, indeed, we are your slaves;

Our desire is neither paradise nor its gardens.

If granted your grace, this unhappy one would rejoice;

My aggrieved heart of sorrow is prostrate with pain.

"Do not despair" provides comfort for me; **

I hope only for your grace and bounty.

He will not know the secret of annihilation and eternity

Who thinks the purpose of humankind is existence and nonexistence.

My desire is to remain constantly at your door;

I have no desire for wealth, worldly rank, or pomp.


* A reference to a sacred hadith in which God says to the Prophet: Lawlaka ma khalaqtu ‘l-aflaka, “But for your sake I would not have created the spheres.”

** A reference to Q 39:53: “Do not despair of God’s mercy. Surely God forgives sins altogether. He is indeed the Forgiving, the Merciful.”

(This poem is translated from Urdu by Ali Asani, in Windows on the House of Islam (ed. John Renard, p. 213). Asani explains: “In [Urdu] poems in praise of the Prophet Muhammad are called na’ts. Na’ts constitute such a significant literary genre that every Urdu poet, no matter how minor he or she may be, has composed at least one. […] Over the course of time, the composition of poetry in praise of the Prophet Muhammad has become such a significant literary activity that even Hindu poets writing in Urdu, influenced by the Islamic environment in which they live, have been inspired to write na’ts. Some of these na’ts are indeed so fervent in their expression of devotion that one cannot tell that they were written by non-Muslims.”)

[Photo source]

Itimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb is a Mughal mausoleum in the city of Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Often described as ‘jewel box’, sometimes called the ‘Baby Taj’, the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah is often regarded as a draft of the Taj Mahal. The tomb, built between 1622 and 1628 represents a transition between the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture - primarily built from red sandstone with marble decorations, as in Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra - to its second phase, based on white marble and pietra dura inlay, most elegantly realized in the Taj Mahal.
The mausoleum was commissioned by Nūr Jahān, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirzā Ghiyās Beg, who had been given the title of I’timād-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state). Mirzā Ghiyās Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtāz Mahāl (originally named Arjūmand Bāno, daughter of Asaf Khān), the wife of the emperor Shāh Jahān, responsible for the building of the Tāj Mahal.

Itimad-ud-Daula’s Tomb is a Mughal mausoleum in the city of Agra in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Often described as ‘jewel box’, sometimes called the ‘Baby Taj’, the tomb of Itimad-ud-Daulah is often regarded as a draft of the Taj Mahal. The tomb, built between 1622 and 1628 represents a transition between the first phase of monumental Mughal architecture - primarily built from red sandstone with marble decorations, as in Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and Akbar’s tomb in Sikandra - to its second phase, based on white marble and pietra dura inlay, most elegantly realized in the Taj Mahal.

The mausoleum was commissioned by Nūr Jahān, the wife of Jahangir, for her father Mirzā Ghiyās Beg, who had been given the title of I’timād-ud-Daulah (pillar of the state). Mirzā Ghiyās Beg was also the grandfather of Mumtāz Mahāl (originally named Arjūmand Bāno, daughter of Asaf Khān), the wife of the emperor Shāh Jahān, responsible for the building of the Tāj Mahal.


Muslim girls smile as they work in a rice field in the troubled Yala province in southern Thailand.
[photo source]

Muslim girls smile as they work in a rice field in the troubled Yala province in southern Thailand.

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Indonesia: Mannequins model clothing at Jakarta’s oldest marketplace.
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Indonesia: Mannequins model clothing at Jakarta’s oldest marketplace.

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Detail of Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman.
[image source]

Detail of Grand Mosque in Muscat, Oman.

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Those who use ‘jihad’ interchangeably with ‘holy war’ usually do not know the meaning of one, or perhaps both, of these terms.

—Waleed Aly

The “religion” that atheists most often parody, quite successfully, is like an imaginary enemy from childhood, an object frozen in the mind of a twelve year old and never seriously examined since.

—John Dickson