The Nature of Prayer

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The Quran speaks of two great worlds: the unseen and the visible (Q, 59:22); the world of matter and the world of spirit. We often refer to them as things visible and invisible – putting are sight as the main criterion for differentiating between the two great worlds. Yet, this is far from the truth. Indeed, the world of matter is all things made known to us by all our senses – the air we breathe, the sounds we hear, the things we touch, the food we taste; by the world of spirit we mean all those things our bodily senses cannot sense, perceive, feel, or make known to us.

Just as senses put us into connection with the material world, so to does our Faith put us into connection with the spiritual world. Faith is to the spiritual world what sense perception is to the material. Thus, Faith is often called the eye of the soul. But this is only partially true: Faith is not only the eye by which the soul can see, it is also the ear by which it can hear, the hand by which it can touch, the nose by which it can smell and the tongue by which it can taste that which the body cannot. Our senses realise the world of matter by making it real, substantial and evident. The work of Faith is to realise the world of spirit; to make it real, substantial and evident. This work of Faith is plainly described in the words, “This is the Book, wherein is no doubt; a guide to the God-fearing, who have Faith in the Unseen” (Q, 2:2-3).  Its task is to draw us out of the physical and material and place us before the presence of the unseen, invisible and spiritual.

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The Birth & Origins of Islamic Sciences

The golden age of Islam, insofar as the intensity of the religious and spiritual life and the realization of its ideals are concerned, must be identified with the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad- Allah bless him and give him peace- and the first Muslim community at Medina. But just as the seed sown in the ground grows into a tree and finally bears fruit only after the passage of time and the gaining of nourishment from a suitable soil, so did the tree of Islamic civilization bear its intellectual and artistic fruits several centuries after its inception, during which it was nourished by the legacy of the previous civilizations to which Islam became the heir. The arts and sciences, as well as philosophy and metaphysics, reached their zenith of formal perfection and became fully articulated only after Muslim society had become completely consolidated, and only after the tenets of the Islamic revelation had been realized in concrete and tangible forms so as to make the new civilization distinctly Islamic, even when elements of non-Islamic origin had been incorporated into it.

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The Importance of Reading – Prince Ghazi b. Mohd.

Reading broadens one’s horizons and mind.

‘There will thus remain only one feasible option for broadening one’s horizons and mind, and becoming more objective and tolerant. It is this: that people should put down their mobile phones, and turn off the net and the TV, and spend at least an hour every day in silent, solitary, and systematic reading. Reading—that which is worth reading, of course—takes people out of the confines of their natural myopia and parochialism and enriches them immeasurably. It can transport people to past times, distant places, wondrous experiences and unexpected emotions. It can stimulate the imagination, sharpen the mind, strengthen the memory, induce contemplation and inculcate noble sympathies. It allows people to sit and listen to the most brilliant minds, teachers, ideas and speeches that have ever existed, no matter what languages they—or we—actually spoke or speak. It can take people to necessary escapes, relaxing fantasies, to imaginary worlds or, by contrast bring them face-to-face with bitter truth and make them mindful of the inexorable, eternal present moment. In short, it can teach people priceless knowledge about themselves, about the world and about reality itself.

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Why Shakespeare is Important

What is all the fuss about Shakespeare? Why do pupils have to endure the drudgery of toilsome lessons on the Bard? Surely more recent writers would perhaps have an endearing charm that resonates with students and teachers? These are questions that are often asked. My aim here is to offer some answers to these perennial questions to not only illustrate the importance of Shakespeare, but more importantly, why.

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Gone from my sight, that is all – Mufti Abu Zafar

‘The good die first, and they whose hearts are dry as summer dust, burn to the socket.’ (Wordsworth)

Dressed in a Saharanpuri kurta pajama, clad in an Aligarh style sherwani, topped by a five-pointed long hat of an earlier Thana Bawan style, a young man in his mid-thirties, with a scholarly face and spectacles on nose sat on the raised cushion. Two students were sitting on the floor facing him. It was 1994. The teacher was Mufti Abu Zafar, and I was one of the students.  Before him was Ibn Hājib’s al-Kāfiya fi al-Naḥw.

He began his explanation of the opening words:

الكلمة لفظ وضع لمعنى مفردًا…

He examined the words in the sentence sufficiently enough to break it down into its various clauses. Then, taking the clauses one at a time, he broke down each clause, and examined more closely the individual words in it and, in the case of nouns, pronouns, adjectives and verbs, their word forms. He explained alternate grammatical possibilities and the implication this had on the various purport of the meanings. All this was done faithfully, efficiently and speedily, coupled with a humorous interaction with the students. This was my first lesson.

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Be Like Nature –

Lush greenery and blooms of the brightest colour. One of the most poignant signs of the majesty of Allah is His creation. The intricacies with which He has created these self-subsisting systems cannot but leave one in awe of His perfect wisdom. In these isolating times of a global pandemic, one of the greatest reminders of His majesty for many has been the respite provided by nature. As we stroll amidst this greenery and examine it in further detail we come towards the realisation that we are not much different from this flora that surrounds us; just as they display a certain vulnerability, so too do we. Just as they require a specific environment to facilitate their growth, so too do we.  

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All That is on Earth will Perish

“All that is on earth will perish; But will abide (forever) the Face of thy Lord full of Majesty Bounty and Honor.” (Quran, 55:26-27)

In the hour of death, after this life’s whim

When the heart beats low, and the eyes grow dim,

And pain has exhausted every limb-

The lover of the Lord shall trust in Him.

When the will has forgotten the lifelong aim,

When the mind can only disgrace its fame,

And a man is uncertain of his own name-

The Power of the Lord shall fill this frame.

When the last sigh is heaved, and the last tear shed,

And the coffin is lying beside the bed,

And the widow and child forsake the dead-

The angel of the Lord shall lift this head.

For even the purest delight may pall,

And power must fail, and the pride must fall,

And the love of dearest friends grow small-

But the Glory of the Lord is all in all.

Remembering Barbara Smethurst – My English Teacher

Barbara Smethurst

There are people we meet in life by whom we are uplifted, others by whom we get motivated, but few are those that leave an imprint on our souls. Barbara Smethurst, or as I called her, Mrs Smethurst, was of that rare pedigree that left a deep imprint on my soul.

She was a beautiful elderly woman: fair skinned with silver white hair, of medium height, impeccably dressed in a knee length skirt and a long-sleeve blouse of an earlier time in England; courteous and well-mannered with a strength of character that marked all women of her age. This, coupled with her radiant smile, always left all who came in her presence to throw off all pretence. Or this is how it was for me. And I’m sure it was for many others too.

She instilled within me a love of the English language: its prose, its poetry, its literature, its style, its lyric and its ambience. We read together in the 1990’s, in our small class of GCSE English: Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Russell’s Educating Rita, Orwell’s Animal Farm, Burke’s Almswomen and much more which I can’t remember.

That first immersion into the rich literary history of English was love at first sight. I love reading, I love writing, but most of all, I love reading style manuals. Ever since reading Strunk and White’s, The Elements of Style, writing guides have been among my favourite literary genres. It’s not just that I welcome advice on the lifelong challenge of perfecting the art of writing. It’s also because style guides are perfect exemplars of their own advice; towering paragons for all to look up to and despair. Strunk’s gem of a book is rich with brief commandments: ‘Write with verbs and nouns’; ‘Put the emphatic words of a sentence at the end’; and my personal favourite: ‘omit needless words’. Although written for an American audience, the difference for a British audience is negligible, given its usefulness.

Mrs Smethurst embodied this classic style of writing that is taut, clear and concise. In the days when I was in her class, she omitted many needless words, and omitted them forcibly. She marked and corrected our work with the eagerness of a general commanding his forces on the battlefield. She would stoop over our A4 sized papers with her glasses half-way over her aquiline nose, and with great rigour and precision, the battle began. Superfluous verbs, extraneous phrases and run-on sentences were all crossed off with scarlet ink; some survived with mere battle wounds which only needed rephrasing; but others were not dealt with so lightly, they were completely decapitated. Thus, cutting off the cackle, and bringing the cart to the horses.

I like to read style guides for another reason. I am by profession an English teacher, or more correctly an English for Academic Purposes lecturer/teacher. It’s the same reason that sends botanists to the garden and scientists to the laboratory. It’s a practical application of my science. This professional acquaintance with language is all thanks to Mrs Smethurst.

I used to write to her every so often and the last letter she wrote to me was dated 5th February 2021. She relayed her illness to me and how she was limited to what she could do, but she was ever eager to know about how my family and I were getting on with life. She signed off the letter with her distinct cursive handwriting:

‘Once again, thank you and God bless you and your family,

yours sincerely,

Barbara Smethurst.’

She was a remarkable woman and now that she is no longer with us, its only her memories that we have.

              ‘Oh Memory! Save me from the world’s poor strife,

              And grant these memories thine Everlasting Life.’

Form & Matter

أفاد حجة العصر مولانا الشيخ محمد قاسم النانوتوی رحمه الله: «الفرض کالمادة والواجب كالصورة»، يريد أن الفرائض في وجودها المعتبر شرعا يحتاج إلى الواجبات كما أن المادة تحتاج إلى الصورة .

( معارف السنن ١:٧٣)

A fundamental doctrine of Aristotelian metaphysics is that ordinary objects of our experience are composites of form (صورة ) and matter (مادة ) – a doctrine known as hylemorphism (sometimes spelt hylomorphism) – after the Greek words ‘hyle‘ (matter), and ‘morph‘ (form).

For instance, a rubber ball is composed of a certain matter, namely rubber and a certain kind of form, namely the form of a red round bouncy object. The matter by itself isn’t the ball for the rubber could take on the form of a door stop, an eraser, or any number of other things. The form by itself isn’t the ball either for you can’t bounce redness, roundness or even bounciness down the hallway, these being mere abstractions. It is only the form and matter together that constitute the ball. What Shaykh Qasim Nanotwi alludes to in the above statement is that Fardh acts are matter and Wajib acts are forms is essentially that for an act to exist, it requires that both matter and form exist together. Taking ritual prayer as an example, according to the Hanafi school, the matter is: takbir, qiyam and qira’ah etc; and reciting surah fatiha, and the final tashahhud etc is the form.

Taking this analogy further, we can understand the sophisticated and well-nuanced understanding of the Hanafi jurists when they state that certain acts require sajdat sahw (prostration of forgetfulness) and certain acts require the ritual prayer to be repeated. To use the above example of the rubber ball: sometimes a change in the rubber ball constitutes some non-essential feature, as when a red ball is painted blue but remains a ball nonetheless. Sometimes it involves something essential, as when the ball is melted into a puddle of goo and thus no longer counts as a ball at all. The former sort of change is a change in ‘accidents’, and the latter change is a change in ‘substance’, and corresponding to each is a distinct kind of form: what makes something exist substantially is called substantial form and what makes something exist accidentally is called accidental form. For a ball merely to change its colour is for its matter to lose one accidental form and take on another, while retaining the substantial form of a ball and thus remaining the same substance, namely a ball. For a ball to be melted into goo is for its matter to lose one substantial form and take on another, thus becoming a different kind of substance altogether, namely a puddle of goo. Along a similar line of thought, substantial change in the wajib actions necessitate the prayer to be repeated, whilst accidental change necessitate that sajdat sahw be made.

A Forthcoming Book on Philosophical Ethics in Islam…

‘Are there moral road maps?’ A question that has baffled humankind since time immemorial. What is the right, proper and ethical way of doing something? Philosophers, both religious and secular, have toiled and vexed over these fundamental questions. Yet, there are some things that we all unanimously agree, are good, and others, we unanimously agree, are bad; it is the blurry grey areas that make us lose sleep at night – and there is no easy answer.

Historically, it was via the institution of religion that humans first heard the call to ethics and moral responsibility. The Abrahamic scriptures – Genesis and the Quran – tell us that it was Noah who first held humans accountable for their wrong doings.

Then came the Greeks, who, through their ingenuity, converted ethics into a science and philosophy. The forerunners here were the Sophists. Frequenting Athens and other Greek cities they would teach virtue and social morality in the second half of the fifth century B.C. Socrates came thereafter, who through his dialogues, greatly expanded upon the themes of the Sophists until finally Aristotle entered the scene and left his indelible mark on the pages of history with his Nicomachean Ethics.

The story does not end there. Religion makes a second appearance in the forms of Christianity and Islam. This time, Christianity and Islam adorn the philosophical musings of Aristotle and his ilk in religious garb and lay the bedrock of trying to harmonise reason and revelation – their entire focus here being the salvation and felicity of humankind in this world and the next.

During medieval times in the Islamic world, from Baghdad to Cordoba, where there was a constant struggle to try and harmonise reason with revelation, ethical philosophy was also argued, rebutted and debated along similar veins. One group, known as the philosophers, held that reason was the foundation upon which religious dictates needed to be built, and more importantly, conform to.  They thus attempted a Hellenistic commentary of religion. To this group belong: Farabi, Ibn Miskawayh, Avicenna and to some extent, Averroes.

On the other side were the Sufis, who argued that religious rulings are fundamental, and that reason is to be only regarded as a tool to understanding the complexities of the Divine. Prominent amongst this party were: Suharwardi, Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Rumi, Ibn Qayyim, Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah.

Differences aside, what is apparent is that ethics as a science benefitted tremendously from these scholarly debates.

Why then a need for another book on virtue and ethics? Why am I resurrecting out-of-date and antiquated morals in a postmodern era? My answer is simple: a civilization without a moral compass will find itself very soon out-of-date and antiquated.

While life is confusing and challenging, it is these underlying moral foundations that provide guidance without which there is only confusion. My attempt in this book is to primarily lay bare that guide for myself in this ever-confusing world. I have delved into many books of eastern and western origin in English, Urdu, Arabic and Persian. Whilst my search lasted over a decade, it resulted in vain. What I mean by this is that books on this subject have either dealt with the subject from a rational perspective, or from a religious one – none from both. My attempt here is to provide a comparison from both rational and religious aspects to draw a line of comparison and to enable and articulate a clear path of demarcation. How successful I have been in this attempt I shall let the readers decide. Whilst not making any boastful claim on my behalf, if I have helped the reader even the least bit further to understand ethics, or appreciate the scholarly discourse on ethics or catch something of value for their own practical lives, I would claim that my humble attempt is justified.

I have divided this book into four chapters: the first three chapters deal with traditional and contemporary aspects from both religious and rational corners; the fourth and final chapter deals solely with the Islamic ethical framework.