The Professor and Builder had come for a barbeque, held at the house of their mutual friend, the Geography student (or rather, Geography doctorate, as he had recently passed his PhD in that subject at the Professor’s college).
The Geographer possessed an multiplicitous network of muslims of all backgrounds — from those who identified with the religion culturally but were ostensibly secular in outlook, to progressives, revivalists, adherents of Sufi tariqas and, of course, a majority who simply maintained the five pillars of the religion and neither deserved nor would desire another label. And this afternoon, presumably with the touchingly idealistic spirit of Islamic revival and common brotherhood and sisterhood in mind, the Geographer had devised this gathering as a sort of modern day Islamic salon, with beards and hijabs instead of wigs and port.
The Professor and Builder had agreed to meet and use the event as an excuse to continue their discussion of the Symbolic might be reconstrued to offer insight into the nature of our journey’s relationship to God and Prophecy and to, perhaps, gauge the potential response of their peers to the trajectory of their ideas. (The Symbolic here taken in both the senses of the Lacanian Symbolic and the Jungian notion of archetypical Symbolism within the collective unconscious.) They also agreed that it would be nice for their families to meet (this had not happened before): a particularly pleasant notion as both men were each recently blessed with the arrival of new baby daughters.
That sunny summer morning the two families made their separate ways out to the Geographer’s house. The Professor driving north, from his house in south London, the Builder driving westwards from his house in the East End.
English gardens are a seasonal struggle sustained by seasoned skills, and it is in the early moments of summer that the efforts of grey and barren monthed conviction either fail or succeed to bloom. The Geographer’s family were clearly experts at this process: the barbeque was held in a lovely garden. Apples and oranges grew on either side of a verdant lawn, water flowed zenlike upon the granite of a little Japanese style fountain, a floral rainbow ratified the optimistic aspiration of the Geographer’s April bulbs, while pollen merged with citrus, lightly perfuming the gentle breeze. The Builder circled the yard with his baby in arms, her wide owl eyes absorbing shapes and colours with infant’s Wisdom, that mysterious pre-symbolic comprehension that forms the origin of our own journey, the reality of the neat lines black-red Spanish roses, duckling-yellow Turkish daffodils and Albion white kisses of climbing morning glories. She gurgled baby speech happily.
The Geographer began to sizzle the tandoori chicken as the muslims met and mingled and the children played.
After an hour or so of the usual pleasantries and small talk, the Professor and the Builder found themselves listening to a conversation on the status of Bukhari within the religion. One man was arguing hadiths of Bukhari, held in esteem by the Sunni majority as an authority second only to the Qur’an itself, were in fact the cause of confusion within the faith.
“These narrations are comparable to the Midrash of the Jewish people and have no place within Islam. Islam needs only one book: the Qur’an, a direct, final, untainted revelation from God to mankind. These other narrations are nothing more than historical curiosities that reveal, not Divine Wisdom, but an often depressing picture of the, frankly, primitive and superstitious society that would conscience their message: often the stories espouse a morality in direct contradiction to that of the Qur’an. For instance, I have read terrible hadith that seem to encourage slavery, misogyny and brutal forms of criminal retribution that are totally at odds with the nature of the merciful message of the Qur’an. But, perhaps more damningly, in many other cases, these stories are simply superstitious nonsense! Did you read the so called “medical” hadiths about the benefits of dipping a dead fly into milk to cure sicks? Or the stories about the nature of astronomy. The Qur’an talks about the fundamentals of our relationship with God, a universal message that is understood in all times and places and contexts. Unlike the hadiths, it says nothing about science because science is part of culture and open to change and progress. The Qur’an says little about how to run a society, because society changes and progresses. The Qur’an instead points us in the right direction and, by making us think about God and each other in relation to God, is a precondition for effective progress. God sent it down for us to move forward, away from slavery, violence and superstition — not to maintain these things, as the hadiths presuppose!
“And yet mainstream Sunni Islam has drawn on these narrations to develop an entire Shariah, while movements such as Salafism attempt to live literally by each and every narration as though they were written by God himself. How can there be progress with such books to guide us? I would go so far as to say that the body of Islam today is suffering precisely because its Shariah is defective, founded upon what is essentially an historical corruption of the Message, dictated not by a divine source but by men with an agenda, like this Bukhari.”
The builder replied: “Not a bit of it. Bukhari was a true mystic, a greater mystic than Mansur Hallaj, and his hadith are a gold of Wisdom, rarer and more refined than the writings of ibn Al Arabi. There is a reason why, as he travelled the middle east cataloguing the narrations, he was banished from towns on accusation of heresy from the religious establishment. The hadiths are narrations that, first and formost, provide an external view of Prophecy’s connection to the people — to us. This is their purpose and their relevance.”
The Professor said to the group: “Yes, the Builder and I have been conducting an interesting study of a particular hadith — one that illustrates this point beautifully.”
The people were interested and so the Builder began to describe the hadith.
1. The Builder’s description of the hadith of the Rabbi and the Prophet
Prior to giving the hadith, I note that, as this hadith concerns the conversion of a Jew to Islam, I prefix any analysis I might give with a statement of my own open, ecumenical spirit. I respect each others’ paths and believe in their mutual legitimacy as lines of flight toward the Truth.
Nevertheless, we are muslims here, and every muslim makes a conscious decision to be a muslim. There is no compulsion in our faith and so, in a sense, we are all converts and thus any hadith that concerns conversion should concern us directly.
The following hadith concerns the conversion of (by all accounts) a very important Rabbi of Medina called Abdullah ibn Salaam. The accounts I have read was that he was very learned and an leading religious authority in that region. Within Islam’s narrations, Abdullah ibn Salaam was clearly not an ordinary person — in another narration, out of the friends of Muhammed, the Prophet said that Abdullah ibn Salaam was “already walking in paradise” within this world.
The hadith is as follows:
When the news of the arrival of the Prophet at Medina reached ‘Abdullah ibn Salam, he went to him to ask him about certain things.
He said, “I am going to ask you about three things which only a Prophet can answer:
What is the first sign of The Hour?
What is the first food which the people of Paradise will eat?
Why does a child attract the similarity to his father or to his mother?”
The Prophet replied, “Jibreel has just now informed me of that.”
Ibn Salam said, “He (i.e. Jibreel) is the enemy of the Jews amongst the angels.”
The Prophet said, “As for the first sign of the Hour, it will be a fire that will collect the people from the East to the West. As for the first meal which the people of Paradise will eat, it will be the caudate (extra) lobe of the fish-liver. As for the child, if the man’s discharge precedes the woman’s discharge, the child attracts the similarity to the man, and if the woman’s discharge precedes the man’s, then the child attracts the similarity to the woman.”
On this, ‘Abdullah ibn Salam said, “I testify that none has the right to be worshipped except Allah, and that you are the Messenger of Allah.” He added, “O Allah’s Messenger! The Jews invent such lies as make one astonished, so please ask them about me before they know about my conversion to Islam.”
(Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 55, Number 546)
Now, I ask you all: what do you think the meaning of this hadith could be? I want to emphasize that I am not interested in any discussion about the superiority of spiritual paths, etc. Certainly nothing about Judaism versus Islam! Besides being distasteful, it is also a very boring discussion. I also believe, by the very nature of the hadith itself, the hadith writer also avoid any such discussion (but I will give my full opinion after I have heard yours).
What I am interested in is for any opinions about the — on the surface, really quite ridiculous — questions the Rabbi asked Muhammed — and why Muhammed’s answers — again, on the surface, even more preposterous — would be enough to make the Rabbi proclaim him a prophet of God!
2. The Muslims’ understanding
The brother who spoke out earlier against the use of hadith said: “This ridiculous hadith is proof enough that the books of Bukhari are of no value to us. This hadith is a mixture of some kind of ridiculous code — possibly drawn from a Jewish mysticism that has no place in Islam — together with some folk superstition regarding procreation! Maybe it made sense for desert Bedouin or Jewish tribesmen of 7th century Arabia, but it has no relevance today. It is precisely the bondage of this ignorance that our beloved Prophet to release us from! The Qur’an, in contrast, is eternally true. It contains no superstitions because it came to us to inspire us to progress beyond this.
The miracle of its revelation is that a disparate group of tribesmen could, after the space of less than 300 years, be inspired to a civilization to rival any other, including the one we inhabit today. We should turn away from these corrupt books and look only to the true Holy Book.
And as Muslims, we should look to be inspired to strive toward the truth again, to science and art, emancipation from our cultural customs and superstitions.”
One Sufi sister spoke: “Well, I would not be so quick to dismiss this hadith, although I grant that some narrations are not as valuable. The convert is a Rabbi. And so clearly the Prophet has said something to him to make him convert. It is cryptic for us because their conversation is closed to us: the answers the Prophet has given are completely personal for the Rabbi who has converted. The Light of Islam pierces each soul from a different angle because each soul is unique. The point of the hadith is to illustrate this process: that the Prophet, as the Light of Islam, possessed with Divine inspiration, could speak — and speaks to each of us today through the Qur’an — personally, directly, individually, secretly.
You are right, Professor. Each of us here has converted or reverted to Islam. And each for a unique, personal reason. So in a sense, this hadith’s deeper meaning is sealed from us — it is a record of a uniquely personal communication between a Prophet and a seeker. But, in exactly this sense, precisely by virtue of its closed nature, it illustrates the nature of God’s Light, and the blessing of our beloved Prophet, that the inspiration of his revelation can indeed touch and make us return, again and again, back to Submission.”
The people drew a collective breath at this. Several faint murmurs of “Alhumdulilah” were heard in accord.
After a pause, a more progressive brother argued: “No, I’m sorry, you are both just wrong. Of course the Qur’an is the source we must defer to in all religious matters. But unlike other religions, Islam quickly developed a science of understanding and interpreting hadiths based
on chains of authenticity. This is why each hadith is prefaced by a chain of narrators: it is not for unqualified believers such as you and I to determine what is a reliable hadith and what is unreliable. But the scholars, who should know, have verified the Bukhari sources as authentic and reliable — to different degrees of importance, depending on the chain of narration.”
He continued: “As for this hadith, its meaning is clear. It has nothing to do with Jewish mysticism nor superstition. And its meaning is not closed from us: people don’t convert or revert because of a unique personal experience. I have assisted in several such reversions and, in each case, it is a gradual process, not an instantaneous one. First, it involves an intuition that there is a God and a consequent desire to be closer to that God through some form of religion. Second, it involves studying the practice, the spiritual and physical discipline and rules of the religion of Islam. Third, the revert understands that this practice is exactly perfect — that the laws of conduct and prayer are perfectly consistent — that if we abide by the Shariah that God has given us in our daily lives, we will be completely content and happy, within ourselves, to our families and loved ones and to the rest of society — that through abiding by this Shariah, we express our submission to God, and that through submission to God, we will be happy in our Shariah. So, I question your understanding of the hadith: have you ever helped someone revert to Islam?” he asked the Sufi sister.
“Yes,” she replied, “on several occasions. And in each case, it never took the form of a gradual acceptance of the religion through an appreciation of the internal consistency of its Shariah. It was always a completely ecstatic, personal, road-to-Damascus/Umar listening to the recitation moment. I grant that your type of conversion is also a valid and common form. But in the case of this hadith, the other, personal, click-of-the-light-switch conversion is what is being described. You cannot deny that such a conversion also exists.”
“It has never been my experience,” he retorted. “And to be honest, I wonder if such a form of conversion — one in which the Shariah has not been considered, in which the details of the practice have not been studied — I wonder if that really is a total conversion. Perhaps it is an instance of the first step to conversion of which I spoke — the understanding that there is a God. But that is not yet conversion to Islam.”
She shrugged her shoulders and smiled, sage like. There was a slightly uncomfortable pause.
When it was clear she had nothing reply, he continued: “Let that point rest for the moment. As for the meaning of this hadith, we must understand what the true miracle of Islam was at that moment — and what its potential miracle continues to be for us today. Its miracle is a totally consistent, perfectly logical system of governance: governance of the self, of the family, of society, of our relationship to God. Through perfect obedience to the perfect laws of Islam, we achieve a perfect world for ourselves on this earth — and salviation for ourselves in the hereafter. Islam is in disarray today precisely because we have forgotten the importance of total understanding of these laws, and the consequent obedience to them that must follow if one truly understands.”
“Prior to the arrival of Islam, the Arab peninsula consisted of disparate groups of tribes, often at war with each other, certainly lacking any unity or cohesion. Rather like the ummah of Islam today! Look at the situation in Sudan or the war 30 years ago between Pakistan and Bagladesh. Or in London, with Muslim sons disobeying their fathers, or muslims stealing from each other. Again, at all levels from the personal and familial to the state and country, we are tribes, fighting amongst each other. But Islam brought those Arabian tribes together, just as it can bring us all together once again. That is the miracle of God’s gift to us: through the Prophet Muhammed, we have both the greatest spiritual and political leader man has ever and will ever know. He brought the east and west together. And that is the meaning of the first answer in the hadith. When the people of the east and west are brought together, when tribalism is abandoned and unity is achieved, then that is a sign of the Hour. It is a sign of the Hour because it means that, on the one hand, in the past, under the Prophet’s rule, the perfect caliphate, perfectly ruled by the perfect law of God, by creating a mirror of jannah in society, humanity got one step closer to jannah, to paradise, which follows the Hour. And it is also a prophecy of times to come: when we have again established this perfect society, and reintegrated and unified our tribes from east to west, when Shariah is reestablished — for each believer, within each believer’s house, within the entire ummah itself — when this occurs, then we will know the Hour is not far away and the resurrection will arrive.”
“Now the other two answers become clear in this context.”
“The first is that the Shariah, God’s laws dictated to the Prophet, concern every aspect of our lives, regulating our duties to society, to each other and to ourselves. One of these duties is to live cleanly and to think about our health. Spiritual care and physical care are one and the same: God is merciful and wants us to be healthy. So the answer about fish liver is simply there to make us reflect about our diet and nutrition, something the Arabs of old — and muslims today in London — have little sense of!”
“Finally the third question again deals with the perfection of God’s law. While man made governance, given by say Western democracy or Marxist communism, merely concern regulation of social interactions in the public space, God’s Shariah is perfect because it concerns regulation of every aspect of existence, from the public space down to the politics of, to put it delicately, the bedroom. Hence this third question is not a statement about biological superstition, but encourages men to ensure the martial happiness of their spouses. Something that is absolutely vital to a successful marriage: we can look at the prevalence of divorce in the West and the worrying trend for this in muslim households to see that the divinely decreed institution of marriage is in such a state! What happens when there is divorce? First, the husband and wife will be unhappy and maybe be lead into further sin. Secondly, the children suffer. Statistics have shown repeatedly that children from divorced families suffer academically and have a higher tendency to commit crime. I’m sorry, but it’s true! And God cares about us all, even down to this level. This is why the mutual pleasure of spouses within marriage is prescribed within the Shariah, and this is suggested again here in this hadith.”
The progressive concluded his speech.
“So you think the Rabbi converted basically because he understood that the Prophet’s Shariah was perfect at all levels?” the Sufi sister asked dubiously.
“That’s not what I am saying,” he replied curtly. “But that hadith clearly serves to reinforce the perfection of our faith. It contains no mysticism because Islam has no need of such a thing. Islam is simple: it is about trying to obey God through living the perfect life, and the message of the Prophet is a Shariah that instructs us — very easily, step-by-step if you like — on how to do this.”
The professor sighed and said: “While your reading is commonplace within the ummah, it is essentially an atheism within the guise of religion. That is fine, I respect those who profess such a view, just as I might respect humanist atheists, such as Betrand Russell or Richard Dawkins. But do not assume that only your sociologist’s reading of Islam is the only politics that extends from state down to individual. For this is the exact nature of a number of politics that have preceeded yours: from the Augustus Caesar’s revival of a moral code of the Roman Empire to the aspects of personal sexuality dictated by Russian Communism.
Many effective political systems function on the basis of a morality that regulates all aspects of life, from the individual, to the familial to the state and country. But if there is a God within such a perfect system, then he acts purely as a regulatory agent, a cog in the machine of a well-oiled, perfect society. Even though he might regulate all aspects of life, from the bedroom to the dissolution of tribalism, such a God is not one who, for instance, offers an emotional connection to the Divine. Such a God is essentially superfluous as he is mearly the anthropomorphisation of a benevolent all-encompassing Shariah. Such a God is not a personal God, one that can touch us through our veil of flesh and perception. Such a God is not one that is signed by the creation around us. Such a God cannot speak to us. Such a God is simply a merciful Caesar, a Pharoah-Demiurge, a good but Imaginary Father.”
The progressive was justifiably offended. “I have no idea what you mean by that.
This is not atheism, it’s simplicity. God created the universe. He is all merciful. He cares about humanity, so he brought us revelations that tell us how to live a perfect life that, if followed, will lead to happiness and jannah. What part of that
The Professor replied: “Let me put it this way. You have made things too simple. The problem with your God is one of language. You have spoken of him and framed him as the prime organizer, the business manager of the systems of commerce, politics, science and society. However, I am sure that you are a believer at heart, and so you will agree with the intimation of the Qur’an that God is, ultimately, unknowable, unseen and beyond any manmade ascription. No doubt you would disapprove of a painting of God. And yet you immediately speak about your relationship with God as if it were a relationship with a manager, a father, a policeman. You might not like to admit to it, but in speaking of God and your duties to God, and God’s expectations of you, you have created an image of God. Because speech is imagination. You have created a Demiurge.”
”Now, I am going to speak of the Beloved Creator too now. I too will create a Demiurge. It is unavoidable if we speak in a religious tone. But, through speaking in the right way, through reading in the right way, through communication in the right way, through judging in a righteous, illuminated way, we can gain access to that unknowable Beloved, and, if not escape the nature of our linguistic condition, we can develop a personal relationship with the Creator, one that is not a simple, unknowing relationship with our own imagined Demiurge. And we can do this all while still sitting in our armchair, so to speak — we can do this all while still employing language.”
The professor began his commentary on the hadith.
TO BE CONTINUED … SAME TAILOR-TIME, SAME TAILOR CHANNEL!