The True Nature of Sound Understanding

 By: Jumah `Abd Al-Aziz

In “Violence: Analysis & Cure,” published by Al-Falah Foundation, Cairo, 1999.

Sound understanding is of crucial importance, as actions, perceptions and policies are based on it. Understanding also means knowledge, and precedes faith and action. Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “So know (O Muhammad) that there is no god save Allah.” (Surah Muhammad, 47:19) And the Prophet (s) said: “When Allah wishes good for anyone, He provides him with the understanding (fiqh) of religion.”


A big part of the crises of the present generation is not really due to sincerity or enthusiasm to do good deeds rather it lies in several confusions that prevent them from having a sound understanding of religion. We should remember that we are a nation in which each generation takes its examples from the previous ones. Imam Abu Hanifa (r) said: “News of the glorious deeds of preceding scholars is dearer to me than a lot of Fiqh“.

Sound understanding requires a Balance between Following and Creativity

By following, we mean observing the footsteps of the pious ancestors who received the Divine Revelation, perfectly understood its teachings, and applied them in the best possible way. Therefore, they represent for us a good example to follow, as the Prophet (s) said: “Follow my sunnah and the practices of my rightly guided successors (Caliphs) and hold fast with them.”

They witnessed the living experience of the Prophet (s), and therefore constituted the prominent generation throughout history. Creativity and continuous work should go side by side with following the steps of the righteous ancestors. What we should always remember is that knowledge is a gift from Allah (swt), so each generation could realize what the previous ones could not. But we should always dignify our ancestors, because it was only with their great efforts, sincerity before Allah (swt), jihad, understanding and purity of intention that the message has come to us.

Avoid Exaggeration

What we should avoid is exaggeration, as we should always remember that the first ones to exaggerate in their understanding of Islam and caused lots of crises in the ummah, were the “Khawarij” (The Revolters). The reason was not lack of sincerity or humility, or even insufficient ibada (worship), rather it was a deviation in their understanding, so they passed out of religion as the arrow passes through the hunted animal. On the contrary, their foreheads became sore due to frequent prostration (sujud), but it was of no use to them because they misunderstood Islam, and imposed their authority on other Muslims. The Prophet (s) said: “Avoid exaggeration in religion, as it has destroyed those who were before you.” And, “The one who exhausts his horse (in travelling) would neither reach his destiny nor keep his horse.” And, “Perished are the dogmatists (zealots),” i.e. those who are fanatics, exceeding the limits in what they say or do, and tend to overdo everything. Allah (swt) says in the Quran: “Say (O Muhammad) ‘O People of the Scripture! Exceed not the limits in your religion other than the truth.‘” (Al Ma idah, 5:77)

Misunderstanding and exceeding the limits in religion is manifested in situations like: accusing Muslims of being disbelievers (Kafir), an accusation which is simply based on the slightest doubts they have against them. Some of them would set themselves as judges, declaring this one as Kafir (disbeliever), the other one as disobedient (Fasiq), that one is a tyrant and so on. Unfortunately, they have forgotten the serious consequences that would result from these unfair convictions. If they just stop for a minute to think about it, they would realise how dangerous is the crime they committed (against those people!).

Other Features of Deviation in Understanding

Exaggeration in love or hate is also a form of deviation in understanding. If you belong to a certain group, it does not mean that anyone who differs with you in opinion, is necessarily wrong, while you and your group are definitely right and possessing all the truth! Then you will be following the saying: “This one who is with me is a saint, and who is not a devil!” and “If you do not join me, then you are my enemy!”

This narrow-minded outlook would never result in a straight way of thinking. It would only kill and restrict the person who is embracing it, in his thinking and movement, and also in his dealings with the others.

Another kind of mentality which we need to avoid, is that of a Muslim who divides the text (verses of the Quran) into sections, dealing with it as entities independent of one another, i.e. he interprets verses out of their context instead of trying to take them as a whole and find the relation between the verses of the surah.

“Lowering the Garment”

Another case of misunderstanding is that concerned with forbidding “lowering the garment” (Isbal). Here we have two hadith, one is Mutlaq (free from being associated with any conditions or circumstances) and the other is Muqaiyad (bound by or associated with special conditions or circumstances). The first one states: “That (part of the garment) which is trailing below the ankles is in the fire.” Anyone can follow the instructions in this hadith, but he should not dispute with those who chose not to do so. The reason is that there is another hadith (Muqaiyad) which explains that what is really forbidden for someone is to trail his lower garment out of pride or vanity, as the Prophet (s) said: “Whoever trails his garment out of pride.” This explains that what is meant in the first hadith (Mutlaq) is doing this out of pride, as this is considered one of the diseases of the heart, and it is one of the major sins (kaba’ir). That is why Imam Nawawi in his interpretation of this hadith said: “The hadith which is Mutlaq should be correlated with the ones that are Muqaiyad in this particular case.”

We should also understand that the issue of clothing is considered one of the customs or traditions, that is why the Prophet (s) explained that this prohibition is in the case of “arrogance” and “pride” which is one of the dangerous diseases of the heart. Allah (swt) says in a Hadith Qudsi: “Honor is my garment and pride is my cloak. Whoever vies with one of them I shall utterly destroy him.”

The Prophet (s) also said in a relevant hadith: “He in whose heart there is, even as much as an atom of arrogance will not enter Paradise.”

Imam Ibn Taymiyah (may Allah bestow mercy on him) passed with some of his friends, by a group of people from the Tatars – who were drinking alcohol, and it is a sin to leave people drinking alcohol! But, the Imam linked this legal partial judgement of the Shariah (for the punishment of drinking alcohol) with one of the objectives of the Shariah (Maqasid of the Shariah), which he considered more important. When his companions said to him: “Shouldn’t we stop them” He said: “Leave them, because drinking alcohol stops them from fighting Muslims which is a more dangerous act.”

Therefore, it is important to look at the texts (whether Quran or hadith) as a whole and not to take them out of context as if they were separate entities. Also objectives of the Shariah should be taken into consideration, as well as having a good knowledge of the Fiqh of Muwazanah (to draw a parallel between cases and choose which has the priority of being considered). It should be well understood that the Fatwa often changes according to the circumstances and situations.

Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim (r) said: “There are four stages to forbidding the wrong (Munkar):

1. That the munkar is totally abolished, and followed by performing what is right, and this is obligatory (fard).

2. That the munkar is not eliminated but is reduced, and this is also an obligation.

3. That both conditions (removing or leaving the munkar) are equivalent, and this is left to ijtihad (whether to remove or leave it).

4. That the munkar is removed, but a situation which is worse than the first would result, and in this case forbidding the wrong should be abandoned.

Therefore, we are in desperate need of realising how to relate the verses of the Quran and Sunnah to the social and political objectives of the Shariah. We should also differentiate between the principles and the temporary situations. The principles are fixed, and should never be changed or fall under compromise. As for the stages, these change with time, they are weighted according to the principles of Shariah, and the fiqh of making a balance (Muwazanah) between situations. These change according to circumstances and time, and we should know that many of the issues that concern the Islamic Movement are considered to be changeable stages. One of these situations, for instance, is sharing in elections and going into the Parliament, making alliances with different parties concerning certain policies or political stances and inclinations. These are not considered to be fixed principles, rather they are variable situations that are weighted against legal interests and objectives which do not contradict legal principles (of Shariah). This is considered to be part of the sound understanding of Islam.


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