Louay Fatoohi

Louay Fatoohi

Sep 042011

In Islamic sciences, the term “fiqh” has developed the strictly legal meaning of “studying Shari’a or ‘Islamic law’,” which I briefly explained in my article “Shari’a,” “Fiqh,” and “Usul al-Fiqh” in Islamic Law. But the Arabic root of this term has a general meaning in the Qur’an. The limited legal meaning this term has developed reflects a narrow reading of one particular Qur’anic verse, which itself is the result of a narrow understanding of Islam.

The term “fiqh” means “understanding,” “comprehending”…etc. It occurs in six different variations twenty times in as many verses. I have listed these variations with any attached pronouns they may have, their meanings, how many times each occurs, and in what verses:

Variation Meaning Count Verses
Yafqahuna they understand 13 4.78, 6.65, 6.98, 7.179, 8.65, 9.81, 9.87, 9.127, 18.93, 48.15, 59.13, 63.3, 63.7
Yafqahuhu they understand it 3 6.25, 17.46, 18.57
Yafqahu they understand 1 20.28
Nafqahu we understand 1 11.91
Tafqahuna you understand 1 17.44
Liyatafaqqahu to study 1 9.122

 In eight (7.179, 5.65, 9.87, 9.127, 48.15, 59.13, 63.3, 63.7) of its thirteen appearances in the masculine plural present tense verb “yafqahuna,” the term occurs in the expression “la yafqahuna” or “they do not understand,” referring to the disbelievers’ failure to accept God’s revelation and appreciate His signs. These are three of these verses:

We have assigned to hell many jinn and humans: they have hearts but they do not understand (la yafqahuna) with them; they have eyes but they do not see with them; and they have ears but they do not hear with them. They are like cattle — rather, they are further astray. Those are the heedless. (7.179)

You (the believers) cause greater fear in their (the disbelievers) hearts than Allah. This is because they are a people who do not understand (la yafqahuna). (59.13)

That is because they (the hypocrites) believed then disbelieved; therefore a seal has been set on their hearts, so they do not understand (la yafqahuna). (63.3)

In addition to the eight instances of the expression “la yafqahuna,” the term “yafqahuna” appears in another five verses. In one verse, Allah censures the hypocrites for their reluctance to go out for jihad during the hot weather, reminding them the “the fire of hell is hotter,” and commenting that this argument would work with them “if they understand (law kanu yafqahuna)” (9.81).

This is a second verse criticizing the reasoning of the disbelievers for raising an illogical argument against the Prophet:

Wherever you [O people!] may be, death will reach you, even if you should be in lofty towers. If a good thing happens to them (the disbelievers) they say “this is from Allah”; but if a bad thing befalls them they say “this is from you (Muhammad).” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Everything is from Allah.” What is it with these people that they can hardly understand (yafqahuna) a saying? (4.78)

Then there are two verses (6.65, 6.98) stressing that Allah expounds His verses so that people may understand:

Say [O Muhammad!]: “It is He who is able to send on you chastisement from above you or from under your feet, or to confuse you in sects, and to make some of you taste the violence of others.” See how We handle the signs that they may understand (yafqahuna). (6.65)

The remaining verse (18.93) in which “yafqahuna” is used refers to the limited understanding of one the peoples visited by Du al-Qarnain.

Next, there are three verses in which the term “yafqahuhu (they understand it)” is used. The pronoun “it” refers to the Qur’an. All three verses talk about those who would not understand the Qur’an. This is one verse:

Who is more wrong than he who after being reminded of the signs of his Lord he turns away from them and forgets what his hands have committed? We have laid veils on their hearts lest they understand it (yafqahuhu), and in their ears heaviness; and though you [O Muhammad!] call them to the guidance they will never be guided. (18.57)

The term “yafqahu” occurs in a prophet Moses’ prayer to God to mend a speech impediment he had so that the people he was sent to would understand him: “So that they understand (yafqahu) my words” (20.28).

Nafqahu” is found in the false argument that the people of prophet Shu‘aib used against his preaching: “We do not understand (nafqahu) much of what you say” (11.91).

Then we have the variation “tafqahuna” in which God tells people that the heaven, the earth, and everything in them glorifies God: “but you do not understand (tafqahuna) their glorification” (17.44).

The last variation of “fiqh” is “liyatafaqqahu.” This variant differs from the other five in that the verb used is not “yafqah” but “yatafaqqah.” The difference between the two is that the former is passive while the later is active. So while the former means “understand” the latter means “study.” This is the verse in question:

The believers would not all march forth. A group of each section should march forth to study (liyatafaqqahu) religion so they may warn their people when they go back to them that they may beware. (9.122)

Exegetes have expressed different opinions about what sections of believers are referred to here and what marching forth means. But there is no disagreement on the clear reference to groups of believers dedicating time to the study of religion. As we saw earlier, the term fiqh means “understanding” or “studying” in general, so the verse is talking about studying all aspects of religion, i.e. Islam, which includes but is not restricted to Islamic law. Fiqh as used in verse 9.122 means studying the creed of the Qur’an, the historical accounts in it, its discussion of various natural phenomenon, the law, the biography of the Prophet, why the Prophet took a particular decision but not another, how God guided the development of the first generation of Muslims to establish the new religion and ensure its eternity, how Islamic teachings relate to time and place, how to present Islam to different people and cultures, and so on.

The late Shaikh Muhammad al-Ghazali (1917-1996) has complained that the term fiqh has been hijacked by the jurists who gave it a limited legal meaning. He has rightly criticized the overemphasis that Muslim scholars have put on the legalistic side of Islam at the expense of its other, broader aspects:

If we look at the fiqh of public relations and worshipping practices, I am not aware of any nation that spent more time on juristic branches than our nation. Take ablution for instance. It can be learned in two minutes, so what makes it the subject of hundreds of pages, books, and even tomes, and doctrinal differences? This is puzzling!1

He goes on to say:

Instead of studying ablution in three months, it would have been better to study: Why did [the people of] ‘Ad expire? Why did [the people of] Thamud perish? Does society today resemble that of ‘Ad or Thamud or not? What corruption took place among the Children of Israel?…. All this is possible to learn by studying the Qur’an’s narratives, but we ignored it completely and distanced ourselves from it as we distanced ourselves from studying the verses that command us to study the universe.2

Of course, the way religious scholars think shapes the average person’s perception of religion. So the Muslim scholars’ seeing of Islam mainly through its legal aspect has had the same impact on the average Muslim.

Here is an experience that every Muslim who takes part in the collective prayer in the mosque would have gone through. As the Muslims line up to start the prayer, it is not uncommon for the person to one’s left or right to advise him that he should widen or reduce the gap between his feet. It is quite amazing how this distance has become such a major issue that makes it the subject of repeated advise. Yet how many times have we been advised by the person standing next to us to make sure that we focus on the prayer and avoid absentmindedness? Almost certainly never. But then which one is more important: measuring the distance between one’s feet, to meet a requirement the origin of which is dubious, or trying to make good contact with God during the prayer by focusing one’s thoughts on the verses he reads, the words he utters, and the supplication he makes?

This common experience summarizes very well the predicament we Muslims have. We have lost touch with the essence of Islam and busied ourselves with superficial issues. We have abandoned the heart for the body, the brain for false teachers, and thinking for lifeless, ancient instructions. Getting one’s body in a particular posture is easy; getting the heart in the right state is extremely difficult. Yet it is having that proper state of mind that really matters. But because it is far more difficult than controlling the body, we have substituted it with that easy alternative.

As Shaikh al-Ghazali says, Muslim scholars have been guilty of overelaborating Islamic law, and this overelaboration reflects a misunderstanding of the purpose of Islamic law and its role in the religion. Islamic law is very important, but Islam is much bigger than its legal system. Similarly, the fiqh of Islam should be about studying all aspects of the religion not only its legal system.


1 Ghazali, M. (2005). Kayfa Nata‘amal ma‘a al-Qur’an (how we should deal with the Qur’an), Nahdat Misr, Cairo, p. 156.

2 Ibid, p. 157.

Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
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Aug 282011
I will briefly explain three fundamental concepts of Islamic law that are at times confused with each other. These are “Shari‘a,” “Fiqh,” and “Usul al-Fiqh.”

 1. Shari‘a

This term, which is usually translated as “Islamic law,” refers to the divine law that was revealed by God through Prophet Muhammad. Muslim scholars believe that there are two sources of Shari‘a. First, the Qur’an, which is the book that God revealed to Prophet Muhammad. The Qur’an has been preserved in the mushaf. I have discussed earlier The Difference Between “Qur’an” and “Mushaf.”

Second, the “Sunna” or “customary behaviour” of the Prophet. As explained in The Meaning of “Sunna” in the Qur’an, the Sunna denotes the “words and deeds of Prophet Muhammad, and what he approved and disapproved of, explicitly and implicitly.” Hadith, which I discussed in The Meaning of “Hadith,” is the main source of the Sunna.

The Qur’an mentions some legal rulings and principles but many more are found in the practices and sayings of the Prophet. But as what the Prophet said and did is considered to have been guided and inspired by God, taking the Sunna as a source of Shari‘a is consistent with seeing Shari‘a as divine revelation.

Given that Islamic law is considered to be of divine origin and that Islam is the last religion, Islamic law is “immutable,” i.e. it does not change with time. As it is not the work of man and is not subject to change, studying Shari‘a means to discover not make it. The human effort can only focus on understanding that revelation; it cannot change or replace it.

However, while some scholars consider all the specific rulings contained in the Qur’an and the Sunna as immutable, others think that some of those laws were introduced for specific cases and may therefore change with time, place, and circumstances.

2. Fiqh

The science of studying Shari‘a is known as “fiqh.” While this is the technical meaning of “fiqh,” the term itself is a general Arabic word that means “understanding.” Fiqh is usually translated as “Islamic jurisprudence.” The scholar of fiqh, i.e. the student of Islamic law, is known as “faqih” or “jurist.”

So the main difference between Shari‘a and fiqh is that the former refers to divine revelation whereas the latter denotes the human activity that is focused on studying and understanding that revelation.

3. Usul al-Fiqh

Scholars of fiqh have developed a number of principles that they use to study Shari‘a. These are known as “Usul al-fiqh” or the “principles in Islamic Jurisprudence.” One of these principles is “ijma” or “consensus,” which refers to the use of the consensus of scholars as the basis for ascertaining certain laws. Another principle is known as “qiyas” or “analogical reasoning,” which is the process of using the established ruling for a certain legal question to derive a ruling for a new legal issue.

Muhammad bin Idris al-Shafi’i (150-204 H) is usually credited with founding the principles of Islamic Jurisprudence. His renowned work al-Risala (The Treatise) is the first attempt ever by a Muslim jurist to write down his legal theory.

Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
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May 292011
The term “sunna” occurs fourteen times in nine Qur’anic verses. It is used in four verses in the expression “sunnat al-awwalin” or the “sunna of the ancients.” The term “sunna” is usually interpreted as meaning “example” or “fate,” but it is a more general concept that means “way,” “practice,” “course,” “tradition,” “habit,” “state,” or “situation.” So “sunnat al-awwalin” should mean “the way or practice of the ancients.” These are three of those four verses:

Say [O Muhammad!] to the disbelievers that if they desist then they will be forgiven what has past; but if they return, then the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (8.38)

They (the disbelievers) will not believe in it (the Qur’an), and the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) has passed away. (15.13)

Nothing prevented people from believing when the guidance came to them and from asking pardon of their Lord other than [arguing for] the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin) to come upon them or for the torment to come upon them before their eyes. (18.55)

The term “sunna” appears eight times in five verses in the expression “sunnat Allah” or the “way of Allah.” One of these verses has both expressions “sunnat al-awwalin” and “sunnat Allah”:

Do they (the disbelievers) wait for other than the way of the ancients (sunnat al-awwalin), but you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) and you will not find any change in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (from 35.43)

Some exegetes understand the reference to “sunnat al-awwalin” as referring to God’s punishment of those who rejected the messengers that He sent to them. In this case, this expression could be translated as the “fate of the ancients.”

These are the other four verses in which “sunnat Allah” appears:

There is no fault in the Prophet in seeking what Allah has ordained for him — the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before. The commandment of Allah is a determinate decree. (33.38)

This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) with those who passed away before, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (33.62)

Their faith did not help them when they faced our might; [this is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past to His servants, and there the disbelievers lost. (40.85)

[This is] the way of Allah (sunnat Allah) which applied in the past, and you will not find any alteration in the way of Allah (sunnat Allah). (48.23)

Finally, this verse uses the term “sunna” twice, first in reference to the way of the messengers that God sent before Muhammad and then in the expression “sunnatuna (Our way),” meaning God’s way:

[This is] the way (sunna) of those whom we sent [as messengers] before you, and you will not find any change in Our way (sunnatuna). (17.77)

To recap, in the nine verses in which the term “sunna” appears, it is used nine times to refer to the sunna of Allah, four times for the sunna of the people of old, and once for the sunna of the previous messengers of Allah.

So the Qur’an does not use the term “sunna” in the sense of the way/practice of Prophet Muhammad. The closest that the Qur’an comes to this use is in verse 17.73 which talks about the sunna of the messengers before Muhammad. Naturally, the reference here is to one sunna or way, as the essence of religion never changed, as so it must apply to Prophet Muhammad also. But this reference must refer to the one set of general practices and values that all Messengers followed, as commanded by God, rather than actions that are specific to any one of them. So the distinct meaning of the term “sunna” as the actions and deeds of Prophet Muhammad specifically is not found in the Qur’an. This observation, however, does not change the fact that the Qur’an commands the Muslim to follow and emulate the Prophet:

You have had a good example in the Messenger of Allah for the person who hopes for Allah and the Last Day and remembers Allah much. (33.21)

This command, of course, endorses the general behavior of the Prophet, both word and action, which is effectively what his Sunna means.

There are twelve verses that instruct the Muslims to “obey” the Prophet. To stress that obeying the Prophet is essential for obeying God, eleven of the twelve verses order the Muslims to “obey Allah and the Messenger” (3.32, 3.132), “obey Allah and obey the Messenger” (4.59, 4.92, 24.54, 47.33, 64.12), and “obey Allah and His Messenger” (8.1, 8.20, 8.46, 58.13). The twelfth verse tells the Muslim: “Obey the Messenger that you may be shown mercy” (24.56).

There are many more verses that command the Muslims to follow the Prophet. These verses confirm that the Prophet set by his words and deeds the best example for the Muslims, as God instructed him to do. This is why learning and understanding the behaviour of the Prophet is necessary for the Muslim. But we should always be aware of the fact the Sunna of the Prophet has never been as accessible after the Prophet as the Qur’an. Allah promised in the Qur’an that He will protect the Qur’an from being lost or changed, but He did not make such a promise about the Sunna of the Prophet. A number of factors affected what was written about and attributed to the Prophet over the decades and centuries after him. Indeed, various supposed details of the Sunna have been the subject of considerable disagreement among Muslims scholars from the early times after the Prophet. This fact should not stop us from being interested in learning the Sunna of the Prophet, but it should make us aware that this process is difficult and fraught with uncertainty. The suggestion that there is any source other than the Qur’an that we can fully trust about the history of the Prophet is in contradiction with history. To seriously study and examine the available sources of the Sunna of the Messenger of Allah is one way in which the Muslim discharges his/her duty to follow the Prophet.

The Qur’anic Verses that Contain the Term “Sunna”

قُل لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا إِن يَنتَهُوا يُغْفَرْ لَهُم مَّا قَدْ سَلَفَ وَإِن يَعُودُوا فَقَدْ مَضَتْ سُنَّتُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿8.38﴾

لَا يُؤْمِنُونَ بِهِ وَقَدْ خَلَتْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ. ﴿15.13﴾

وَمَا مَنَعَ النَّاسَ أَن يُؤْمِنُوا إِذْ جَاءَهُمُ الْهُدَىٰ وَيَسْتَغْفِرُوا رَبَّهُمْ إِلَّا أَن تَأْتِيَهُمْ سُنَّةُ الْأَوَّلِينَ أَوْ يَأْتِيَهُمُ الْعَذَابُ قُبُلًا. ﴿18.55﴾

فَهَلْ يَنظُرُونَ إِلَّا سُنَّتَ الْأَوَّلِينَ فَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّتِ اللَّـهِ تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿35.43﴾

مَّا كَانَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ مِنْ حَرَجٍ فِيمَا فَرَضَ اللَّـهُ لَهُ سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَكَانَ أَمْرُ اللَّـهِ قَدَرًا مَّقْدُورًا. ﴿33.38﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ فِي الَّذِينَ خَلَوْا مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿33.62﴾

فَلَمْ يَكُ يَنفَعُهُمْ إِيمَانُهُمْ لَمَّا رَأَوْا بَأْسَنَا سُنَّتَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ فِي عِبَادِهِ وَخَسِرَ هُنَالِكَ الْكَافِرُونَ. ﴿40.85﴾

سُنَّةَ اللَّـهِ الَّتِي قَدْ خَلَتْ مِن قَبْلُ وَلَن تَجِدَ لِسُنَّةِ اللَّـهِ تَبْدِيلًا. ﴿48.23﴾

سُنَّةَ مَن قَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا قَبْلَكَ مِن رُّسُلِنَا وَلَا تَجِدُ لِسُنَّتِنَا تَحْوِيلًا. ﴿17.77﴾


Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
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Mar 122011

The term “hadith” is one of the most used Islamic terms by both Muslims and non-Muslims. But despite its importance there is often a good deal of ambiguity about what it exactly means. It is often used inconsistently and inaccurately. This article aims at clarifying the exact meaning of this term.

The noun “hadith” occurs in the Qur’an twenty three times (4.42, 4.78, 4.87, 4.140, 6.68, 7.185, 12.111, 18.6, 20.9, 31.6, 33.53, 39.23, 45.6, 51.24, 52.34, 53.59, 56.81, 66.3, 68.44, 77.50, 79.15, 85.17, 88.1). Its plural form “ahadith” is found five times (12.6, 12.21, 12.101, 23.44, 34.19). In these twenty eight verses, the term broadly means “narrative,” “story,” “speech,” or “news,” which may or may not be religious. For instance, God describes the Qur’an as “the best of hadith” (39.23), refers to the story of Moses as the “hadith of Moses” (20.9), and says about nations that He destroyed for rejecting the messengers He sent to them “We have made them ahadith” (23.44). Other variations of this term occur in another eight Qur’anic verses (2.76, 18.70, 20.113, 21.2, 26.5, 65.1, 93.11, 99.4).

Of the thirty six occurrences of the term “hadith” only one is linked to something specific to Prophet Muhammad. This is verse 93.11 where the Prophet is commanded by God to speak about His favor to him, i.e. making him a Prophet: “As for the favor of your Lord, haddith (speak about).” But even in this solitary instance, the verb “haddith” is used in its generic meaning. Indeed, the verb is used in another verse to refer to the speech of disbelievers (2.76).

But the term “hadith” has acquired in Islamic literature the very specific meaning of reports about what the Prophet said, did, approved, and disapproved of, explicitly or implicitly. Indeed, hadith is considered as the main source of the “Sunna” or “customary behavior” of the Prophet. The other source is the “sira” or “biography” of the Prophet. It is this technical meaning of the term “hadith” that the rest of this article focuses on.

Any hadith consists of two parts, the first is known as “isnad” or “sanad,” and the second is known as “matn.” The generic meaning of “isnad,” whose plural is “asanid,” is “support” or “foundation.” But in the terminology of hadith it refers to the chain of transmitters of the hadith. These narrators are called “isnad” because they provide the “support” for the historicity of the hadith.

Lexically, “matn” denotes the visible part of something. In the technical language of Islamic literature, “matn” denotes the saying, behavior, or incident that is being reported by the chain of transmitters. To illustrate these concepts, this is a hadith about using the visibility of the new moon to determine the beginning and the end of the fasting month of Ramadan:

Yahya bin Bukair told us on that al-Laith said, that ‘Uqail said, that ibn Shihab said, that Salim said, that ibn ‘Umar said that he heard the Messenger of Allah say: “When you see it start your fast and when you see it break your fast. If it was cloudy, make an estimate [for the start of end of the fasting month].” (Bukhari, 1900)

The chain of transmission, or isnad, is marked in red whereas what is being reported, or matn, is in green.

Hadith narratives at times quote the Prophet directly:

Sa‘id bin Yahya bin Sa‘id al-Qurashi told us that his father said, that Abu Burda bin Abdullah bin Abi Burda said, that Abi Burda said, that Abi Musa said that people asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Whose practice of Islam is the best?” He said: “The one who does not cause harm to Muslims by his tongue or hand.” (Bukhari, 11)

A hadith may not quote the Prophet directly but report what he was heard saying or seen doing:

‘Abda bin ‘Abdullah told us that ‘Abdul Samad said, that ‘Abdullah bin al-Muthanna said, that Thumama bin ‘Abdullah said, that Anas said about the Prophet that when he said something he repeated it three times until it was fully understood and that when he encountered people he greeted them three times. (Bukhari, 95)

A hadith may show the Prophet’s tacit approval of something, as in this example in which the Messenger does not stop Muslims from keeping his cut hair:

Muhammad bin Abdul Rahim told us that Sa‘id bin Sulaiman said, that ‘Abbad said, that ibn ‘Awn said, that ibn Sirin said, that Anas said that when the Messenger of Allah had his hair cut Abu Talha was the first to take his hair. (Bukhari, 171)

But even in Islamic literature the term “hadith” has been used in a broader sense. Some of the reports found in the collections of hadith detail things that “Sahaba (Companions)” of the Prophet said or did, rather than the Messenger himself. At times, this may be a statement reflecting the view of a Companion:

‘Ali said: “Speak to people about what they know. Do you want them to accuse Allah and His Messenger of lying?” It was ‘Ubaidullah bin Musa on the authority of Ma‘ruf bin Kharrabudh, on the authority of Abil Tufail, on the authority of ‘Ali [who reported this] (Bukhari, 127)

The implication of such hadiths is that the teaching conveyed by the Companion reflects what he learned from the Prophet.

It should be noted, however, that the term “Companion” is used rather loosely by scholars. While some individuals, such as ‘Ali bin Abi Talib who transmitted the hadith above, spent many years in the company of the Prophet, others are called Companions for only seeing the Prophet! For instance, in his book al-Isaba fi Ma‘rifat al-Sahaba (Identifying the Companions Correctly), ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani (d. 852/1448) calls “Companion” any “Muslim who met the Prophet, believed in him, and died while still a believer.”

Another interesting feature of hadith 127 is that its isnad follows the matn, which is the opposite of the normal situation.

The following hadith reports a statement by a Companion rather than something the Prophet said, but because it is about a pledge given by that Companion to the Prophet, the implication is that the Companion’s words and actions were approved by the Prophet:

Musaddad told us that Yahya said, that Ismail said, that Qais bin Abi Hazim said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Messenger of Allah that I will perform the prayer, pay the obligatory alms, and give good advice to every Muslim.” (Bukhari, 57)

In the text of hadiths, variations of “hadith” are also used in the generic sense of this term, i.e. not referring specifically to sayings of the Prophet. For instance, the term “haddathana (told us)” is frequently used with individuals who are quoted as the source of hadith. In fact, all of the hadiths quoted above use the term “haddathana (told us)” in reference to at least one of the narrators.

Another feature of the hadith literature worth noting is that a hadith may exist in a number of different wordings and different chains of transmission. For example, this hadith is clearly a different version of the hadith above:

Ya‘qub bin Ibrahim told us that Hushaim said, that Sayyar said, that al-Sha‘bi said, that Jarir bin ‘Abdullah said: “I pledged to the Prophet listening and obeying, so he taught me to add ‘as much as I can, and to give good advice to every Muslim’” (Bukhari, 7402)

Significatly, the last part of the statement that hadith 57 attributes to Jarir appears in hadith 7402 as something the Prophet said.

Unlike the Qur’an whose authenticity is accepted by all Muslims, a hadith may or may not be authentic. Muslim denominations differ on which hadiths are authentic and which are not. Sunni Muslims have particularly high regard for the two hadith collections of Bukhari (194-256/810-870) and his student Muslim (206-261/821-875). They call them “sahih (correct)” to reflect their almost complete confidence that they contain authentic hadiths only. Other highly regarded hadith collections are those of Abu Dawud (202-275/817-888), ibn Maja (209-273/824-887), al-Tirmidhi (209-279/824-892), and al-Nasai (215-303 / 830-915). All six were compiled as late as about two and a half centuries after the Prophet, although they relied on earlier sources.

Shia scholars do not have as much confidence in those sources, in particular as they contain many narratives attributed to Companions of the Prophet that the Shais do not trust because they think they showed animosity toward ‘Ali bin Abi Talib — the Prophet’s close Companion and cousin, fourth caliph, and the first Shia imam. The Shias rely on other compilations of hadith and the accounts related through their imams. One of the most respected hadith books by the Shias is al-Kafi by Muhammad al-Kulaini (250-329/864-940).

While there are clear differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims in their assessment of the authenticity of hadith collections, differences about hadith are not confined to the Sunni/Shia divide. Scholars within any denomination have also differed on whether certain hadiths are genuine or not. Yet because of the importance of hadith as the main source of the Sunna, which is considered the second source of legislation in Islam, Muslim scholars have developed a complex system for critiquing hadiths. This system classifies hadiths into a number of different categories of historical reliability. The classification system aims to describe the likelihood of each hadith being authentic, i.e. how likely that the hadith accurately describes a historical event. There are many categories that range from the “sahih (correct/authentic)” and “hasan (agreeable)” to the “dha‘if (weak)” and “maudu‘ (forged).”

The hadith classification system focuses almost exclusively on the reliability of the chain of transmission. For instance, if one of the narrators in the isnad lacked credibility or is known to have lied then that would discredit the hadith. Similarly, if the hadith was originally reported on the authority of someone who did not meet the Prophet then that would put the hadith in a lower category, and so on.

This near complete concentration of hadith criticism on the chain of transmission reflects the scholars’ view that they could not tell whether a reported event or saying by the Prophet is likely to have happened on the basis of its details, i.e. matn. They could not claim to have the ability to judge, for instance, whether the Prophet could have given a particular instruction or not, because that might implicitly be the equivalent of claiming a level of knowledge that is comparable to that of the Prophet. There are some hadiths that were challenged on the basis of their matns despite the reliability of their chains of transmission — for instance, if they were found to be in conflict with other accepted hadiths — but these are relatively small in number. Significantly, in these cases, scholars are being “forced” to consider the matn, which is a completely different approach from giving matn at least as important a position as isnad in hadith criticism.

In my view, relying almost completely on the credibility of the chain or transmitters and not examining the substance of the hadith to take a view on its credibility is an extreme position that is highly insufficient and likely to mislead:

  • First, examining the chain of transmission can at times allow the scholar to form a firm view on its reliability, but this is not always the case. It is often an extremely difficult task that is fraught with difficulties some of which are insurmountable. Let’s take a hadith whose narrators are considered to be reliable and who are known to have met each other, so they could have heard the matn of the hadith from each other. It is still perfectly possible that the matn of this hadith might be unhistorical. This could be the result of an innocent mistake by one of the narrators or outright forgery. The older any such mistake or forgery the more difficult it is to spot it by later scholars.
  • Second, the Qur’an has a wealth of information and principles that can be used to assess the credibility of the matn of any hadith, so one is not relying completely on their own judgment. The Qur’an, after all, is the word of God which can be used to examine the reliability and accuracy of any other statement, including what people have attributed to the Prophet.
  • Third, one can reject the historicity of any hadith whose matn looks illogical, unreasonable or absurd. The status of Muhammad as the Messenger of God would rule out the possibility of him behaving in the way some hadiths claim or making the kind of statements that are found in some hadith reports.

The science of hadith criticism that Muslim scholars have meticulously developed over the centuries has provided scrutiny of the numerous hadiths. But inevitable limitations in this human system mean complete submission to it was always going to be the wrong approach. The Qur’an is indispensable when assessing the reliability of the matn of the hadith. Similarly, any hadith that attributes an unreasonable or absurd statement or behavior to the Prophet should be rejected regardless of the chain of transmission attached to it. Hadith criticism over-relies on the chain of transmission to the point of making the matn almost irrelevant. This, in my view, has been a serious flaw in hadith criticism which has resulted in the acceptance of a large number of inauthentic hadiths.

Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
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Jan 292011
The American administration has been struggling to come to terms with the unfolding events in Egypt and take a stand that has credibility and reflects any defendable principle. This was on glorious display in the 28th/January press briefing by Obama’s Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. You could only feel sorry for the poor man as he tried to use as many words as he could to say as little as possible and stay noncommittal. Again, the old friend in Egypt is watching everything, and the US cannot afford taking the risk of angering him. After all, he may manage to overcome the protests, which is what the US hopes.

US administrations have always known what a brutal dictator President Hosni Mubarak is, but they have also made him a good friend and ally. He is the individual that they use to get what they want even if against the will of his people. That is the benefit of befriending a dictator; one can bypass people. On the 28th/January, Clinton said that “Egypt has long been an important partner of the United States on a range of regional issues.” This is a false and misleading statement. It is the dictator of Egypt not Egypt that the US has partnered. In effect, the US has been Mubarak’s partner in dictatorship in Egypt. This is the most accurate way to describe the US-Mubarak relationship. We should avoid using the American preferred term of “US-Egypt” relationship, as there has never been one.

If the USA wanted, it could have taken a tough and uncompromising stand against Mubarak’s dictatorship, but the US administration could have taken the opportunity of the current popular uprising to come out publicly against Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship and agree with the frustrated people of Egypt that he must step down. The problem, however, is that this is not what the US administration wants. Mubarak has been a good subservient partner, in particular when it comes to Israel. The vote of the 80 millions of Egypt for whatever policy the US would like to have in the Middle East can be easily, albeit fraudulently, secured by having one man on board. Too tempting even for the leader of the free world.

There is no question that Obama deserves much more respect than any other American President in recent times, but the Middle East remains the US’s Achilles’ heel even for this President. Presidents come and go, but the influence of Israel, the Israeli lobby, and powerful Zionists on the US remains. Israel wants Mubarak, so the US has to want him too. Israel knows that getting away with its illegal occupation and savage massacres, which have been ongoing for decades, requires having its neighbouring countries run by the likes of Mubarak — dictators who would do anything in return for being helped to stay in power.

On the 28th/January, the Middle East envoy Tony Blair claimed that he was “absolutely in favor of change” in Egypt. But he also stressed the importance planning “very, very carefully how it is done and how it is staged.” Even more interesting is this bit: “the danger is that if you open up a vacuum anything can happen.” Then shamelessly he went on to justify supporting Mubarak as the partner who moved the peace process forward. Blair was so frank that he implied that Mubarak is among the open-minded elite whereas his people are closed-minded. What he was arguing for is what the USA has also been advocating: having a dictator that is easy to have on board is better than having to negotiate with a legitimate leadership of a people who happen to have different views about what is going in their part of the world. The USA and its allies have been very much working with Mubarak in his capacity as dictator, so any suggestion that they were trying to have him to abandon his dictatorship is absurd. They are partners in his dictatorship.

When Hamas won the Palestinian election in 2006, the voters, who have already been suffering brutal living conditions because of the Israeli occupation, were severely punished by Western powers that cut aids to the Palestinian authority. They sent a clear message: democracy is good but only if we approve of its outcome. This is exactly why Mubarak is what the USA, the UK, and other Western allies want. An agreeable dictator is better than a difficult legitimate leader.

The US is now realizing that the Middle Eastern dictatorships it always supported and relied on can disappear overnight, as happened in Tunisia recently. But events are developing so fast that the US administration has not had the time to decide whether it has to change its policies and the terms of its relationships with the dictators it has partnered. The American President and the Secretary of State have been slow to comment on the situation in Egypt and to take a credible view because the US administration has never prepared for such a change. They did not believe it could happen. But they also never wanted it to happen. Their preferred action has always been to come out each now and then with the weakest possible statement in support of democracy in the Middle East, including Egypt, while maintaining the strongest possible relationships with its dictatorial partners. The former is for the peoples of those countries that the US administration arrogantly underestimates their intelligence, whereas the latter is for US interests, at the top of which are the interests of Israel.

Whether the US is willing to abandon its partnerships with Middle East dictators might become irrelevant soon. If those partners are toppled by their respective peoples the US would be deprived of those friends anyway. Playing the friend of those dictators would not be in the best interest of the US. It is in the best interest of the USA and the world that all those dictators disappear. If the US’s claimed support for democracy is to start gaining any credibility it has to come out now and strongly in favour of democracy and against dictatorship. The USA has the right to have its own interests which may or may not agree with the interests of another nation. However, any differences should be dealt with by engaging with the people through their legitimate leaders. Through negotiation and compromises common ground can be found. But bypassing a whole nation to get what the USA wants from its dictator is never a wise choice and does nothing to help advance USA interests in the longer term.

The slow and hesitant response of the US administration to the popular protests in Egypt represents everything repugnant about the US foreign policy in the Middle East. Both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have been very careful not to say something that might alienate Hosni Mubarak, should he survive the most serious crisis of his 30-year role, as they try to manage the strategic relationship that the US has with the ailing Egyptian President. On the 26th/January Clinton first volunteered advising “all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence.” She gives the same advice to a nation that has been oppressed for three decades and to their oppressor! But to its credit, the US administration has called on the Egyptian authorities to restore access to “social networking and the internet.” This is as much as Egyptians should hope to get from the friends of their dictator — at least as long as those friends cannot be sure that the friend of old is on his way out.


Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
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Jan 092011

This article is adapted from The Mystery of the Crucifixion: The Attempt to Kill Jesus in the Qur’an, the New Testament, and Historical Sources

All four Gospels agree that after his trial or interrogation by the Sanhedrin and high priest, Jesus was brought before Pilate to be punished. According to Mark and Matthew, Pilate asked Jesus whether he was the king of Jews, to which Jesus answered vaguely “you say so” (Mark 15:2; Matt. 27:11). Pilate’s question implies that the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of claiming to be the king of the Jews, which is how they perceived their awaited Messiah. This highly charged political accusation was bound to raise the interest of the Roman governor. The chief priests and the elders then brought many unspecified charges against Jesus, but he did not respond to any of them.

Luke elaborates more on the accusation:

“We found this man subverting our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2).

He then reports the same question and answer between Pilate and Jesus about the kingship of the Jews that Mark and Matthew have. Later passages assert that Jesus was accused of “inciting” and “misleading” people:

They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man subverting our nation, forbidding us to pay the tribute tax to Caesar and claiming that he himself is Christ, a king.” (Luke 23:5)

[Pilate said to them:] “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. When I examined him before you, I did not find this man guilty of anything you accused him of doing.” (Luke 23:14)

John’s account differs yet further. When Pilate asks the people about Jesus’ charge, their reply was simply to stress his guilt:

If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you. (John 18:30)

Upon the Jews’ insistence that Jesus must be killed, Pilate asked him whether he was the king of the Jews. Unlike in the Synoptics, Jesus replies by explaining that his kingdom is heavenly and not from this world:

My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish authorities. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. (John 18:36)

This should have allied Pilate’s concerns. John also states that the Jews told Pilate that Jesus had to die because of his claim to the sonship of God:

The Jewish leaders replied, “We have a law, and according to our law he ought to die, because he claimed to be the Son of God!” (John 19:7)

However, I have explained in my article The Unhistorical Meaning of “Son of God” in the Gospels, claiming to be a the son of God was not a religious crime in Judaism.

Despite their differences about what charges were brought against Jesus before Pilate, all four Gospels agree that at the crucified Jesus was mocked by having a titulus with the inscription “the king of the Jews” put on his cross. This agreement highlights the charge that was of significance for the Roman governor, which is the claim to kingship. Since the Jews believed that the Christ would become their king, this mocking of Jesus ridiculed his claim to messiahship.

The titulus is one example that shows that even when the Gospels are consistent, they do not completely agree with each other. This is the inscription according to the four Evangelists:

  • Mark (15:26): “The king of the Jews.”
  • Matthew (27:37): “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”
  • Luke (23:38): “This is the king of the Jews.”
  • John (19:19): “Jesus the Nazarene, the king of the Jews.”

Bible translations are from the New English Translation (NET) Bible.


Copyright © 2011 Louay Fatoohi
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Oct 312010

In a recent poll on this website, visitors were asked what they thought “Religious belief is based on,” and they were given five options to choose the answer from where only one answer can be chosen by the visitor:

1) Faith

2) Reason

3) Evidence

4) Reason and evidence

5) Faith, reason, and evidence

 The results of the 541 visitors that took part in the poll are shown in the following graph:


Before analyzing the question and its results, I would like first to comment on the terminology used. The term “faith,” in this context, signifies “assumptions” we make. We label these views as faith or assumptions because we cannot prove whether they are right or wrong.

“Reason” denotes the mental faculty to think logically. This capability is manifested in our ability to consider information and assumptions and reach relevant conclusions. Reason produces rational thinking. Like any other intellectual and physical capability, different people have it in different measures. On one end of this spectrum, there is the genius who can process a lot of information and weave together long chains of thought to produce the most complex arguments. On the other, there is the person who has some physical malfunctioning or damage in their brain that deprives them of even the most basic level of reasoning. Most people fall somewhere between those extremes.

“Evidence” is a proof on something. But the strength of any piece as evidence might be assessed differently by two different individuals. Indeed, what is considered as evidence by one person might not be seen so at all by another. Assessing the strength of something as evidence depends on the person’s reasoning capabilities, relevant information or knowledge, and related assumptions they make. As I have already explained, reason as a capability differs from one person to another. Similarly, certain information can affect the individual’s assessment of the strength of a piece of evidence, so having or not having such information can be vital. Finally, we make various assumptions all the time about various things, and our assessment of the strength of evidence can be influenced by relevant assumptions. I include under the term “assumptions” any biases and prejudices the person has.

Understanding the point of view of the other means taking into account any relevant information they have, assumptions they make, and how they are process these rationally. This is critical in reaching a consensus on whether something amounts to evidence and, if so, how strong that evidence is. But sharp differences in the information available and assumptions made and how they used can make such an agreement not possible. But even in the absence of agreement, such understanding often leads to more tolerance and acceptance of the difference. While people may not reach a total agreement on the issue in hand, they can at least learn how to work around their differences.

We should not be surprised, then, that the answer to the question of the survey is that “religious belief is based on” all of “reason, evidence, and faith.” This is what the Qur’an also says, as I will show here.

In a previous article on The Concept of “Ghayb” (Unseen) in the Qur’an, I made the following conclusion:

These verses remind us that belief in Allah is partly based on having faith in things we cannot see or verify. So “ghayb” stands for things that the person cannot know or, even when they are brought to their knowledge, they cannot be totally certain of, because they cannot check and verify them directly. So accepting such non-provable things as facts becomes a matter of faith.

Any belief system that requires accepting metaphysical statements or things one can never verify, which all religious beliefs do, has to be partly based on faith.

The Qur’an also states in many verses that belief should be based on reason. This is one example in which the Prophet is commanded to make a rational argument in his debate with those who rejected his message:

Say: “Had Allah wished, I would not have recited it [the Qur’an] to you and you would not have known about it. I have lived many years with your before it. Can you not comprehend?” (10.16)

The clause “Can you not comprehend” translates the Arabic “afala ta‘qilun.” The root of the verse “ta‘qilun” is “’aql” or “reason.”

This is another verse commanding the Prophet to argue the case for his message with the disbelievers, i.e. to make rational arguments that the disbelievers can understand:

Call to the way of your Lord with wisdom and goodly exhortation and argue with them in the best manner. Your Lord best knows those who go astray from His path, and He best knows those who follow the right way. (16.125)

Many verses berate the flawed logic of worshiping powerless idols:

They worship beside Allah those can provide nothing for them from the earth or the heavens and are powerless. (16.73)

Those whom you call, beside Him, cannot help nor can they help themselves. (7.197)

The Qur’an criticizes those who abandon their reason to follow blindly what others, even if they were their fathers:

When it is said to them: “Follow what Allah has sent down,” they say: “No, we rather follow what we have found our fathers doing.” Even though their fathers had no understanding of anything and they were not guided? (2.170)

This is an instance of an assumption being made to override what reason would otherwise naturally conclude, which is the fact that idols that one can build and destroy cannot be powerful gods.

The Qur’an also states that belief should be based on evidence. Many aspects of the creation are considered as signs pointing to the Creator:

He subjected to you [O people!] the night and day, and the sun and moon; and the stars are subjected by His command. In that are signs for people who reason. (16.12)

In the creation of the heavens and earth and in the alternation of night and day there are signs for those who have minds. (3.190)

But as what amounts to evidence depends on reason, these and many other verses link the individual’s ability to see natural phenomena and other things as evidence pointing to Allah to their ability to reason.

God has even challenged people to subject the Qur’an, the book of the faith, to study by reason and search for evidence:

Can they not consider the Qur’an? If it was from someone other than Allah they would have found so much discrepancy in it (4.82).

So the Qur’an makes it clear that belief is based on a combination of faith, reason, and evidence.

While I was expecting a majority of those taking part in the poll to agree that religious belief is based on all of faith, reason, and evidence, I was surprised that they formed a majority of only 57%. But the biggest surprise is that over a third thought that religious belief is based on faith only. The simple question to this group is this: How can one justify embracing one particular belief if it is all a matter of faith? The fundamental mistake in basing one’s belief on faith only is that while faith is necessary for any belief system, as I have already explained, it can never serve as the only starting for choosing that belief. When the Prophet was commanded to spread his message, he had to “convince” people to follow him not “charm” them. This process involved using rational arguments to convince them that he was a genuine messenger from God and that his teachings came from God, and that would have involved, among other things, exposing falsehoods in the beliefs that people held at the time and showing the truthfulness of his religion.

Also, the view that religious belief is based on faith only is dangerous, because it completely disables the person’s intellectual abilities to critically examine claims. Employing blind faith to develop uncritical following is how cults are built and people are taken full advantage of.

Similar flaws exist in the other three answers: reason, evidence, and reason and evidence. Each of these answers leaves out one or two of the three requirements of religious belief. These totaled less than 8% of the votes.

I would like to conclude this article by giving an example of how faith, reason, and evidence cannot be separated as the foundation for religious belief. I have written extensively about history in the Qur’an. I focus on showing how history according to the Qur’an is in line with established facts. In one book, The Mystery of Israel in Ancient Egypt; we studied the exodus of the Israelites from pharaonic Egypt with prophet Moses, showing that the Qur’anic account, unlike its Biblical counterpart, is not in conflict with what we know from history and archaeology about that period and place. Historical facts and archaeological finds represent evidence. We used the various pieces of evidence to argue the accuracy of the Qur’an. These arguments, obviously, employ reason. We concluded that this mix of evidence and rational arguments justify believing that the Qur’an provides an accurate account of the history of the Israelites in ancient Egypt. But because there are very limited historical and archaeological records from that period and place, there are aspects of the Qur’anic history of this story that have no evidence available to support or reject them. Furthermore, some of these details involve miracles that Moses performed. In addition to the lack of independent records to support the occurrence of these miracles, they are, by definition, against natural laws. So all we are left with here is to accept, as a matter of faith, the occurrence of Moses’ miracles. But the critical point here is that this faith was justified only because other parts of the story are supported by evidence and rational arguments.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
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Aug 312010
Many Qur’anic verses make it absolutely clear that faith is one of the foundations of the belief system of the Muslim. One Qur’anic term that particularly captures this fact is “ghayb.” This term, which occurs 49 times in 48 verses, shares the same root with “ghaba,” which means “disappeared” or “was absent,” and gha’ib, which means “absent.” However, it is used in the Qur’an in this specific sense only twice. The first time is when the repentant wife of al-‘Aziz denied that she would tell lies about Prophet Joseph in his absence:

That [I said] so that he (Joseph) knows that I have not betrayed him in his absence, and because Allah does not guide the scheming of the betrayers. (12.52)

The second instance is when God says that the good wives “hafidhatin lil-ghayb,” which means “they honor their husbands during their absence.”

In the remaining 47 occurrences, “ghayb” means “the unseen,” “the invisible,” or “the unknown.” In ten of these, the term “ghayb” is contrasted with “shahada,” which is derived from the verb “shahad” and refers to things that can be “witnessed” or “seen.” In these verses God describes Himself as “alim al-ghayb wa al-shahada” or “the One who knows the unseen/unknown and the visible/knowable.” This is one of those verses (also 6.73, 9.94, 9.105, 13.9, 23.92, 32.6, 59.22, 62.8, 64.18):

Say: “O Allah, the One who knows the unseen and the visible (’alim al-ghayb wa al-shahada)! You will judge between Your servants about what they dispute about.” (39.46)

The Qur’an describes “ghayb” as something that is known to God only:

With Him are the keys of the unseen (ghayb). No one knows them other than Him. He knows what is in land and sea. No leaf falls but He knows it; nor there is a grain in the darkness of the earth or a green or dry thing but in a manifest Book. (6.59)

In one verse, God derides the disbelievers for behaving as if they know the future in their denial of the verity of the message of the Prophet:

Has he knowledge of the unseen (ghayb) so he can see [the future]? (53.35)

Even Prophet Muhammad is instructed to tell people that he has no knowledge of the unseen:

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I do not say to you that I have the treasures of Allah nor that I know the unseen (ghayb). And I do not say to you that I am an angel. I only follow what is revealed to me.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Are the blind and the seeing equal? Do you not think?” (6.50)

Say [O Muhammad!]: “I cannot control any benefit or harm for myself save what Allah wills. Had I known the unseen (ghayb), I would have revelled in good and no harm would have touched me. I am only a warner and announcer of good news for people who believe.” (7.188)

Even though the Prophet was confident of God’s forthcoming support when challenged by the disbelievers, he could not tell when it would arrive:

They (the disbelievers) say: “Why would a sign not be sent down to him from his Lord?” Say [O Muhammad!]: “The unseen (ghayb) is only Allah’s. So wait and I will be waiting with you.” (10.20)

But God reveals certain things from the unseen to His messengers:

He is the One who knows the unseen (ghayb), and He reveals His unseen (ghayb) to no one (72.26), except to the messenger He is pleased with, so He sends guards before of him and behind him (72.27) so that He knows that they (the messengers) have delivered the messages of their Lord. He encompasses what they have and He has reckoned everything in number. (72.28)

Allah was not going to leave the believers in the state you are in until He distinguishes the vile from the good. Allah would not let you know the unseen (ghayb), but He chooses whom He wills of His messengers. So believe in Allah and His messengers. If you believe and be pious then you will have a great reward. (3.179)

For instance, God revealed to Prophet Muhammad knowledge of past events which he could not have known about, so it is “ghayb.” After recounting in the Qur’an that He gave Prophet Zechariah custody of the little Mary and other events, God goes on to tell Prophet Muhammad:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You were not present with them when they cast lots with their sticks [to decide] who of them should become the guardian of Mary, nor were you present with them when they quarrelled [thereupon]. (3.44)

Having revealed to the Prophet the story of Prophet Noah, God reminds Muhammad that this is knowledge that neither he nor his people knew:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You did not know them nor did your people before this [the Qur’an]. So be patient; the [prosperous] end is for the pious. (11.49)

This is how God addresses the Prophet after revealing to him the story of Prophet Joseph and his brothers:

These are tidings of the unknown (ghayb) which We reveal to you. You were not with them [Joseph’s brother] when they agreed on their course of action, when they were scheming. (12.102)

Similarly, all future events belong to the unseen and unknown. No one could have known about the Day of Judgment because it is an unpredictable future event, but God revealed this knowledge to His messengers to warn people and get them to be prepared for it:

Those who disbelieve say: “The Hour will not come to us.” Say [O Muhammad!]: “Yes, by my Lord, it shall come to you. He is the One who knows the unseen (ghayb). Not the weight of an atom in the heavens or in the earth shall escape from him, nor smaller or bigger than that but is in a manifest book.” (34.3)

In the following verse, God’s promise to the believers that they will enter paradise on the Day of Judgment is described as a promise about the unseen, because it is about knowledge of the future. Here “ghayb” appears in the form of “bil-ghayb.” The latter translates literally but incorrectly as “by the unseen,” but its accurate translation is “as a matter of faith”:

The gardens of Eden which ar-Rahman (Allah) promised His servants as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb). His promise shall surely come to pass. (19.61)

So the belief in God includes having faith in things that the person cannot know or verify. This is further seen in eight verses in which the term “bil-ghayb” is used to describe how the believers fear God (3.94, 21.49, 35.18, 36.11, 50.33, 67.12), believe in Him (2.3), or support Him and His messenger (57.25):

[The pious] are those who believe as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb), perform prayer, and spend of what We have provided them. (2.3) And who believe in what is revealed to you and what was revealed before you, and who are certain about the hereafter. (2.4)

Those who fear their Lord as a matter of faith (bil-ghayb) shall have forgiveness and a great reward. (67.12)

These verses remind us that belief in Allah is partly based on having faith in things we cannot see or verify. So “ghayb” stands for things that the person cannot know or, even when they are brought to their knowledge, they cannot be totally certain of, because they cannot check and verify them directly. So accepting such non-provable things as facts becomes a matter of faith.

Finally, I should note that while the term “ghayb” is usually translated correctly as “unseen,” “invisible,” “secrets,” or “hidden things,” the slightly different term “bil-ghayb” is mostly translated incorrectly. The latter is often wrongly translated as “in secret,” which has a completely different meaning from the intended meaning of “as a matter of faith.” This wrong translation is used by many including Shakir, Pickthall, Sher Ali, Palmer, Rodwell, and Sale. Arberry uses “in the unseen,” which is also incorrect. Yusuf Ali and Hilali-Khan, however, use translations such as “fear Him unseen,” which convey the meaning accurately.

Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
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Jun 212010

In my previous article The First Verse of the Qur’anI discussed the opinions of scholars about which verse of the Qur’an was revealed first. I identified four different views and concluded that 96.1 is likely to be the verse with which the revelation of the Qur’an started.

When it comes to identifying the last verse of the Qur’an, scholars have shown even more disagreement and uncertainty. There are several different views, which I will review in this article.

1) Verse 2.281: After quoting verses 278-281, al-Bukhari (d. 256 H / 870 CE) goes on to say that “ibn Abbas has said that this is the last verse that was revealed to the Prophet”:

Fear the day when you shall be returned to Allah, then each soul shall be paid what it has earned, and they shall not be wronged. (2.281)

An-Nasai (d. 303 H / 915 CE) also said that ibn Abbas has described this verse as the last verse of the Qur’an. He also reports a similar hadith in which ibn Abbas says: “The last thing of the Qur’an to be revealed was ‘fear the day when you shall be returned to Allah.’” This view is also found in atTabari’s (d. 310 H / 922 CE) commentary. Some reports have claimed that this verse was revealed nine or eighty one days before the Prophet’s death.

2) Verse 2.282: It has been reported by ibn Jarir on the authority of Sa‘id bin al-Musayyab that the last verse of the Qur’an is the “verse of loaning,” which is the longest verse in the Qur’an:

O you who believe! If you contract a loan for a stated term then write it down, and let a scribe faithfully write it down between you. A scribe should not refuse to write as Allah taught him, but let him write, and let he who owes the debt dictate; but let him fear Allah his Lord and not diminish anything of it. But if the debtor was a fool, weak, or cannot dictate himself, then let his agent faithfully dictate. And call to witness two witnesses from amongst your men, but if they were not two men then a man and two women, from those whom you deem fit as witnesses, so that if one of the two [women] should err, the second may remind the other. Let not the witnesses refuse when they are summoned. Do not tire of writing it, be it small or great, with its term. That is more just in the sight of God, more upright for testimony, and best for avoiding doubt, unless it is a ready-money transaction between you, which you arrange between yourselves, then it is no offence by you that you do not write it down. Have witnesses when you sell one to another, and let not either scribe or witness come to harm, for if you do it will be an abomination in you. Fear Allah, for Allah teaches you, and Allah knows all things. (2.282)

3) Verse 2.278: al-Bukhari reports a hadith that he traces back to ibn Abbas in which the latter says that “the last verse that was revealed to the Prophet is the ‘verse of usury’”:

O you who believe! Fear Allah and abandon your remaining usury, if you are indeed believers. (2.278)

It has been reported that this verse was revealed nine days, seven days, three days, or three hours before the death of the Prophet.

As-Suyuti (d. 911 H / 1505 CE) has tried to reconcile the three opinions above by suggesting that all these verses were revealed at the same time in their order in the mushaf and were the last to be revealed. Verses 2.279-2.280 both continue the discussion of usury, so 2.278-2.280 are likely to have been revealed at the same time. Being about loans, verse 2.282 may be linked to the earlier three verses on usury, but there is no reason to presume that this verse was revealed at the same time as the three on usury. Furthermore, verse 2.281, which separates the usury verses and the one on loans, is a general verse that need not be specifically linked to the subjects of usury and loans and their verses.

4) Verse 4.93: Both al-Bukhari and Muslim (d. 261 H / 875 CE) report that ibn Abbas has said that this verse is “the last that was revealed and it was not abrogated (annulled) by anything”:

He who intentionally kills a believer his recompense will be hell in which he shall dwell forever, Allah shall have wrath on him, will curse him, and will have for him a grave torment. (4.93)

5) Verse 4.176: Al-Bukhari, Muslim, an-Nasai, and others report on the authority of the companion al-Bira’ bin ‘Azib that this was the last verse of the Qur’an:

They will ask you [O Muhammad!] for a ruling. Say: “Allah rules for you concerning the remote kinship. If a man dies having no children, but he has a sister, she shall have half of what he leaves, and he is her heir if she has no children. If there are two sisters, they shall receive two-thirds of what he leaves. If there are men and women siblings, the male shall get the share of two females. Allah explains to you lest you go astray; Allah knows all things. (4.176)

6) Verse 9.128-129: Ahmad bin Hanbal (d. 241 H / 855 CE) reported on the authority of the companion Ubay bin Ka’b that verse 9.128 was the last verse that was revealed to the Prophet:

There has come to you a Messenger from among yourselves, grievous to him is your suffering, careful over you, compassionate and merciful for the believers. (9.128)

7) Verse 18.110: AtTabarani (d. 360 H / 970 CE) has reported on the authority of Mu’awiya bin abi Sufyan that 18.110 was the last verse to be revealed:

Say O Muhammad!: “I am only a human like you. It is being revealed to me that your Lord is only one. Let him who hopes to meet his Lord do good works and refrain from associating anyone in worshiping his Lord.” (18.110)

8) Verse 3.195: A report attributes to Um Salama, the wife of the Prophet, saying that 3.195 was the last verse:

So their Lord answered them: “I do not waste the works of a worker among you, be it male or female — one of you is from the other. Those who migrated, were expelled from their houses, were harmed in my way, fought, and were killed I shall pardon their evil deeds, and I shall enter them into gardens beneath which rivers flow. This is a reward from Allah, and Allah has the best of rewards.” (3.195)

I have not considered reports about the last chapter to be revealed, which may imply that the last verse of that chapter was the last verse of the Qur’an also. For instance, Muslim reports on the authority of ibn Abbas that chapter 110 was the last chapter revealed. Other reports name other chapters, including 5 and 48.

Let’s discuss the plausibility of the eight reports. Verse 9.128 is followed in the mushaf by a verse that clearly continues it: “But if they turn away, then say ‘Allah is sufficient for me; there is not god but Him. In Him I put my trust; He is the Lord of the mighty throne.” If either of these two verses were the last revelation, then it would have to be 9.129 not 9.128.

Verse 18.110 reminds people that while a human being, Muhammad was a prophet who receives revelation from God. It also enjoins the main message of the Qur’an, which is to combine good works with belief. So this verse is similar to other verses in the Qur’an and there is nothing in it suggesting that it is the last to be revealed. But crucially, the wording “it is being revealed to me” suggests the continuation rather than the cessation of the revelation.

Verse 3.195 is similar in subject to other verses that were revealed during the ongoing struggle of Muslims with their enemies, so I would rule it out from being the last verse of the Qur’an.

It is highly unlikely that a verse that addresses a specific legal issue was the last verse of the Qur’an. This would exclude verses 2.282, 2.278, 4.93, and 4.167.

This would leave us with verses 2.281: “Fear the day when you shall be returned to Allah, then each soul shall be paid what it has earned, and they shall not be wronged.” This verse has a reference to death and it has nothing that would rule it out from being the last verse the way we ruled out the other seven. Nevertheless, while we can confidently exclude the other seven verses, it would be unjustified to suggest that we can say with certainty that 2.281 was the last verse to be revealed. It is only a possibility.

I think it is reasonable to assume that the last verse of the Qur’an would have something linking it to the completion of the Qur’anic revelation, the imminent departure of the Prophet, or both. But this assumption is still not enough to try and identify the last verse. This view, however, might have been behind the popular belief among Muslims that this part of verse 5.3 is the last revelation: “Today I have perfected for you your religion, fulfilled on you My favor, and approved Islam as your religion.” Actually, there is no source to confirm this view. There are reports that this verse was revealed on the Day of ‘Arafa which happened to be a Friday. This is understood to be during the last pilgrimage of the Prophet, which was a few months before his death. But there are reports that explicitly state that the revelation of this verse was followed by the revelation of others, including some we discussed above, so it cannot be the last verse according to these sources. The point is that this verse could be the last one but there is no report in the old sources confirming this, although there are reports suggesting that it was one of the latest verses.

Significantly, no report that identifies the last verse of the Qur’an attributes this identification to the Prophet! Those reports trace their statements to companions of the Prophet or their successors. So the existing reports imply that either the Prophet did not recognize the last verse to be so or that he did not inform the Muslims that the Qur’anic revelation was completed. I do not find either of these implications credible. Rather, I am of the view that this information has been lost and did not survive in the available sources.

For a more detailed and most comprehensive study of this subject, see this book:


Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
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May 092010

In a previous article on The Difference Between “Qur’an” and “Mushaf” I explained that the Qur’an’s chapters (singular: sura; plural: suwar) and verses (singular: aya; plural: ayat) are not compiled in the mushaf in the chronological order of their revelation. There is consensus that it was Prophet Muhammad who identified the place of each verse within its chapter. There are a number of hadiths (narratives about the Prophet) in the Musnad of Ahmad bin Hanbal (164-241 H / 780-855 CE), Sunnan of at-Tarmithi (209-279 H / 824-892 CE), and other hadith sources that state that the Messenger used to tell the recorders of the revelation in which chapters to place newly revealed verses. As for the order of the chapters in the mushaf, some scholars think it was determined by the Prophet, others suggest it was the companions, and a third group reckons it was a combination of both.

The fact that the chapters and verses are not chronologically listed in the mushaf means, among other things, that the earliest verse that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad is not the first verse of the first chapter in the mushaf. Similarly, the last verse to be revealed is not the last verse of the mushaf. Put differently, the first and last verses of the mushaf do not represent the first and last verses of the Qur’an. Like all aspects of the Qur’an, identifying its first verse and last one has continued to attract the attention of Muslims scholars down the centuries. In this article, we will focus on the question of the first verse of the Qur’an.

Sources have discussed five different views and possibilities about which verse was revealed first:

1) The first verse of chapter 96. In the oldest surviving biography of Prophet Muhammad, Ibn Hisham (d. 218 H / 833 CE) states that Gabriel appeared to Muhammad one night when he was sleeping in a cave on a mountain called Hira’ in Mecca, where he used to go for a spiritual retreat for a month every year (see my article One Night in a Cave that Changed History Forever). Carrying a book, Gabriel commanded him to “read.” Muhammad refused the order twice before finally asking about what he was supposed to read. Gabriel replied with following verses of the Qur’an:

Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created. (96.1) He created man from a clot. (96.2) Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3) who taught with the pen. (96.4)

Muhammad then recited the verses in his sleep. When he woke up, he felt as if the words had been engraved on his heart. On his way down from the mountain, the Prophet heard a voice from heaven saying: “O Muhammad! You are the messenger of Allah, and I am Gabriel.”

In his renowned collection of hadith, al-Bukhari (194-256 H / 810-870 CE) gives a slightly different version of this story in which he adds verse 93.5 to the first revealed verses. The hadith is attributed to ‘A’isha, the wife of the Prophet:

The commencement of the divine inspiration to the Messenger of Allah was in the form of good dreams which came true like bright daylight, and then the love of seclusion was bestowed on him. He used to go into seclusion in the Cave of Hira’ where he used to worship [Allah alone] continuously for many days before he would desire to see his family. He used to take with him the journey food for the stay and would then come back to [his wife] Khadija to take food for another stay, until suddenly the Truth descended upon him while he was in the Cave of Hira’. The angel came to him and asked him to read. The Prophet replied, “I do not know how to read.”

The Prophet added, “The angel caught me [forcefully] and pressed me so hard that I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read and I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me again and pressed me a second time till I could not bear it any more. He then released me and again asked me to read but again I replied, ‘I do not know how to read.’ So he caught me for the third time and pressed me, and then released me and said:

Read [O Muhammad!] in the name of your Lord who created. (96.1) He created man from a clot. (96.2) Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable (96.3) who taught with the pen, (96.4) taught man what he did not know. (96.5)

The Messenger of Allah returned with the inspiration and with his heart beating fast. Then he went to [his wife] Khadija bint Khuwailid and said: “Cover me! Cover me!” They covered him until his fear was over, and after that he told her everything that had happened. He said: “I fear that something bad may happen to me.” Khadija replied: “Never! By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you. You keep good relations with your kin, assist the weak, help the poor, serve your guests generously, and assist the calamity-afflicted ones.”

Khadija then took Muhammad to her cousin, Waraqa bin Nawfal. This blind old man had converted to Christianity and had knowledge of the Injil that was revealed to Jesus. after listening to Muhammad’s story, Waraqa told him that he has received the same divine revelation that was given to Moses and prophesied that Muhammad’s people would expel him at some point as all those who received such revelation where mistreated by their peoples.

This hadith is reported by Muslim (206-261 H / 821-875 CE) also. It is the source of the consensus of scholars that 96.1-5 where the first Qur’anic verses to be revealed.

2) Verse 74.1. One such claim is reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim on the authority of Yahya bin Abi Kathir:

I asked Abu Salama bin Abd Ar-Rahman about the first revelation of the Qur’an. He said: “O you who are clothed.” I said: “They say [it is rather]: ‘Read in the name of your Lord who created.’” Abu Salama replied: “I asked Jabir bin Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with them, about that, and told him as you said, but Jabir replied: ‘I would not tell you other than what the Messenger of Allah, Allah’s prayer and peace be upon him, told us: “I went to stay in Hira’. After finishing my stay, and while I was coming down, I was called upon. I looked right, left, front, and behind, but could not see anyone. But when I raised my head I saw something. I then came to Khadija and said: ‘Cover me, and pour cold water on me!’” He said: “They covered me and poured cold water on me.” He said: “Then the following verses were revealed: ‘O you who are clothed (74.1)! Arise and warn (74.2)! And your Lord do magnify (74.3).’”’”

Scholars have tried to reconcile this hadith with the one attributed to ‘A’isha. It has been suggested that Jabir’s hadith does not talk about the very first revelation of the Qur’an, but rather about the verses that were first revealed after the well-known period of cessation of revelation (fatrat al-wahyi) to the Prophet. This view is based on a second hadith attributed to Jabir and is reported by az-Zuhri:

Abu Salama told me on the authority of Jabir bin Abdullah, may Allah be pleased with both of them: “I heard the Prophet, Allah’s prayer and peace be on him, talk about the period of cessation of revelation. He said: ‘While I was walking, I heard a voice from heaven. I raised my head and saw the angel who visited me in Hira’ sitting on a chair between the heaven and earth. I was terrified, so I returned [home] and said: “cover me, cover me.” They covered me, so Allah, high is He, revealed: “O you who are clothed (74.1)! Arise and warn (74.2)! And your Lord do magnify. (74.3) And purify your clothes. (74.4) And abomination shun. (74.5)” This was before prayer was made obligatory. The “abomination” refers to the idols [the Arabs used to worship].

True, this hadith states that the reported event took place after the cessation of revelation that followed the Prophet’s first meeting with Gabriel during which, presumably, the first verses of chapter 96 were revealed. But this observation does not deal with the problem in Jabir’s first hadith: its unambiguous rejection that the verses of chapter 96 were the first to be revealed. One attempt to explain away the contradiction has been to suggest that Jabir was reporting what he had heard from the Prophet about the cessation of revelation and that he, mistakenly, interpreted the Prophet’s words to be about the first verses ever to be revealed. This explanation has been adopted by classical scholars as well as modern ones, such as Muhammad az-Zarqani in his well-known book Manahil Al-‘irfan fi ‘ulum al-Qur’an (The Springs of Knowledge of the Sciences of the Qur’an) . The fact scholars can take this highly speculative view about how Jabir could have completely misunderstood something so obvious shows the extent of the reluctance of scholars to take the much more likely view that the hadiths reported by al-Bukhari and Muslim, who wrote their hadith compilations over two centuries after the Prophet, might have some inaccuracies. If the first part of the hadith which clearly rejects the case for 96.1 in preference for 74.1 is deemed unhistorical, then the remaining of Jabir’s first hadith would be reconcilable with ‘Ai’sha’s and Jabir’s second.

Another attempt to avoid attributing inaccuracy to hadiths reported by the “two Shaikhs,” as al-Bukhari and his student Muslim are known, is to suggest that Jabir’s first hadith was about which “whole chapter,” not “single verse,” was revealed first. One reference to this view is found in As-Suyuti’s renowned book al-Itqan fi ‘Ulum al-Qur’an (Perfection in the Sciences of the Qur’an) . The problem, however, is that there is nothing in Jabir’s first hadith to suggest that it was about the first chapter rather than the first verse. Again, scholars have been more prepared to interpolate and extrapolate the text with pure speculation, which does not dispel the contradiction anyway.

A third attempt, also reported by as-Suyuti, is to suggest that Jabir did not mean the first verses ever but only the first verses that include warnings to people, or what some described as the first verses that moved Muhammad’s Prophethood into the phase of the delivery of the message!

As I said, it is perfectly possible to reconcile all these hadiths by simply ignoring the first part in Jabir’s first hadith. But this is more of a problem than a solution for those who believe that everything in the books of al-Bukhari and Muslim is sahih or “correct,” i.e. every hadith is a totally accurate narrative about what the Prophet said and did.

3) The first verse in the mushaf, i.e. verse 1 of chapter 1 which is known as al-Fatiha (the Opening). The view that this was the first verse to be revealed is a hadith reported by, among others, Abu Bakr al-Bayhaqi (d. 384 H / 994 CE):

[Muhammad said to Khadija]: “When I am alone I hear a call, and I become scared about myself that this may be something bad.” She said: “May Allah forbid! He would not do that to you. You deliver what you are trusted with, look after your relatives, and do not say but the truth.” When Abu Bakr came in Khadija mentioned his (Muhammad’s) words to him and said to him: “Go with Muhammad to Waraqa.” They went to see Waraqa and Muhammad told him: “When I am alone I hear a call coming from behind me, so I run forward to escape.” Waraqa said: “Do not do that. If he (the caller) comes to you then stay put until you hear what he has got to say then come and let me know.” When later Muhammad was alone, he was called: “O Muhammad! Say: ‘In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate. (1.1) Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the worlds, (1.2) the Merciful, the Compassionate, (1.3) the ruler of the Day of Judgment. (1.4) You we worship and You we ask for help from. (1.5) Guide us to the right path, (1.6) the path of those whom You have shown favour to, not of those whom You have been angry with nor of those who go astray. (1.7)’”

Two arguments were made against this view. First, this hadith is mursal, i.e. it is not traced to a companion of the prophet but to one of their successors. Second, this hadith does not mean that the revelation of al-Fatiha was the first revelation, which took place in the Hira’ cave, but it shows that the chapter of al-Fatiha was revealed after that. This objection, which aZ-Zarqani raises, is too weak. The narrative clearly shows that Muhammad had not been familiar with Gabriel before he followed Waraqa’s advice and responded to the caller. It clearly contradicts the hadith that states that the first verses are those of chapter 96.

4) The basmala, i.e. “In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” which starts all chapters of the Qur’an except chapter 9. This view is based on a hadith that al-Wahidi (d. 468 H / 1076 CE) — in his famous book on the causes of the revelation of various verses, Asbab an-Nuzul — attributes to ‘Ukruma and al-Hasan al-Basri. They state that “in the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate” was the first verse to be revealed, so this is the first revealed verse and 96 is the first whole chapter to be revealed. One objection to this view is that this hadith is mursal rather than linked to a companion of the Prophet. A different attempt to reconcile this hadith with those that present 96.1-5 as the first verses is the suggestion that the basmala is in the beginning of all but one Qur’anic chapter anyway, so it must have been revealed with and before 96.1-5. The contradiction in this suggestion, however, is that it treats both 96.1 and the basmala as the first revealed verse! This attempt is focused on reconciling the contradictory hadiths, so it yields a contradiction of its own.

5) Unidentified verse from a chapter that speaks about paradise and hell. This view is derived from a hadith in al-Bukhari and Muslim in which ‘A’isha is reported to have said: “The first to have been revealed of it (the Qur’an) is one of the detailed chapters in which paradise and hell are mentioned.” As-Suyuti, who is the minority of scholars who mention the fifth view, suggests a rather convoluted reconciliation in which this hadith, those of about chapter 96, and the ones about chapter 74 are all reconciled.

The overwhelming majority of scholars accept that 96.1 was the first revealed verse, although they differ at times in their treatment of the other reports. I am inclined to agree that 96-1.5 were the first verses of the Qur’an to be revealed. It is possible that the basmala preceded 96.1 and was thus revealed first, but this not mentioned in the reported hadiths about 96.1-5. I am minded to think that this suggestion is likely to be a later conclusion by scholars who, noting that this verse precedes every chapter in the mushaf but one, concluded that it must have been the first verse of the Qur’an too.

I also disagree with the attempts to reconcile all reported hadiths — including those about chapter 74, which are found in both al-Bukhari and Muslim — simply because the hadiths are clearly contradictory and irreconcilable. It is not an act that contravenes Islam, the Qur’an, or Prophetic teachings to think a hadith reported some two centuries after the Prophet might have inaccuracy. Not that the hadiths we discussed in this article are the only, let alone the best, example on inconsistencies and contradictions within the same book of hadith or between different hadith books. It is also important to note that suggesting that scholars of hadith have made mistakes is reflective of the limitations that every human being has and is in no way implying that they did not work as hard as they could or that they were not sincere enough in their efforts.

For a more detailed and most comprehensive study of this subject, see this book:


Copyright © 2010 Louay Fatoohi
Blog: http://www.louayfatoohi.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/louay.fatoohi
Twitter: http://twitter.com/louayfatoohi
All Rights Reserved