Six Major Errors (5-6)

May 27, 2020

We continue with the six major errors which all occurred because of a wrong interpretation of a verse in the Book.

5- The fifth problem occurred because of a wrong understanding of Surat Al-hashr: Whatever the Messenger gives you [ma atakum], take; but whatever he forbids [ma nahakum], refrain from. Fear Allah, for Allah is terrible in retribution. ( Al-hashr 59:7) In verse 59:7 we notice the usage of the verb a-t-a, ‘to come’ or ‘to arrive’, which implies that the Book deliberately avoids the verb j-a-“, which also means ‘to come’ or ‘to arrive’. The reason for this is that the two verbs connote two different origins for what ‘comes’ or ‘arrives’. Whereas a-t-a is (semantically) reflexive and connotes an origin that lies in the source (item or person) itself, the verb j-a-” is transitive as it connotes an origin that lies outside a source (item or person). This difference is best illustrated by verse 43 of Surat Maryam: “O my father! To me has come [ ja”ani] knowledge which has not reached you [ya”atik]; so follow me: I will guide you to a way that is even and straight.” (Maryam 19:43)

We notice here that the text uses first ja”ani in order to indicate that Abraham, the speaker in this verse, has received divine knowledge from Allah, that is, from somewhere outside himself, whereas in the case of his father, who has not received such knowledge, the verb ya’atik is used, hence Abraham’s command to his father to follow him. As for the verb ata in general, the Book employs it only if it refers to actions, never to speech acts or communication by words. If we apply these insights to 59:7, we can now explain why the verb ata (ma atakum), is used and not j-a-“, or ja’akum. Ma atakum refers to knowledge that Muhammad gained from human experiences, that is, from human origins, sources that lie within himself. The Book deliberately avoids the term ja”akum in the phrase ‘so take what the apostle assigns to you (ma atakum)’ because if it had used ja”akum, it would mean that Muhammad’s (human) knowledge is derived from an (outside) divine source—surely Allah, the Highly exalted, is above what they ascribe to Him—or, at least, it would give the impression that Muhammad might even be the author of the Book.

In sum, ‘what the Apostle assigns to you’ is taken from within Muhammad as a human being, while the Book came down ( ja”a) from outside Muhammad, both in shape and content. If we apply this more specifically to the phrase ‘so take what the apostle assigns to you’ and link it to the question of human legislation in the form of the Sunna of the Prophet, we must then regard Muhammad’s efforts to govern seventh-century Arabia society and to establish a new centralized state on the Arabian Peninsula as his efforts and as contingent to his historical context. Every human society is asked to do exactly that (‘take what the apostle assigns to you’), to govern society and build a state according to the conditions of the present time.

On a different note, we see how verse 59:7 employs the term nhy in the phrase ‘refrain from what he forbids you (nahakum)’. This usage is deliberate because it avoids the term hrm. Muhammad was only required to permit or prohibit ( ya”amur wa-yanha) but never to absolutely allow or forbid (yuhallil wa-yahram) since the latter is the prerogative of Allah alone. The difference is far-reaching: whereas the area of permission/prohibition is part of human legislation and is contingent, relative, flexible, and changing, the area of absolute permission and taboo (halal and haram) is divine, fixed, absolute, and everlasting. Whereas Allah allows or forbids and permits or prohibits, human beings can only permit or prohibit but not absolutely allow or forbid.

The divine absolute taboos ( al-muharramat) are sufficient for creating and sustaining the inner core and consciousness of human beings, but alone they would not be enough to run a state and govern society with all its political, economic, and social complexities. But this is exactly what Muhammad did when he created a state under the conditions of life in seventh-century Arabia. In doing so he applied what we may call the principle of ‘tying and loosening’ (taqyid wa-itlaq), which means that he introduced legislations and legislative bodies on the Arabian Peninsula that aimed at either ‘loosening’ the areas of divine permissions (to give them general applicability) or ‘tying’ them due to specific circumstances (to make them only particularly applicable). His applications reflect the dialectical relationship between the limits that Allah has set and human legislation that maneuvers between God’s boundaries. Such maneuvers, we must stress, are subject to human error.

6- The sixth and final error was to equate obedience to Allah with obedience to Allah’s Apostle: First, it needs to be pointed out that the Book demands obedience to Muhammad only as a messenger (rasul ) but never as a prophet (naby): And obey God and the Apostle [al-rasul]; that you may obtain mercy. (al ‘Imran 3:132) This fiqh principle is based on the general linguistic distinction between the use of a word in its absolute, unqualified (mutlaq) meaning in contrast to its specific, qualified (muqayyad ) meaning. The process of qualifying the general meaning of a word is called al-taqyid, while the reverse process is called al-itlaq. In usul al-fiqh and usul al-qur’an, al-taqyid refers to the effort of scholars to qualify an absolute, general rule and apply it to specific, particular legal cases, while al-itlaq refers to the effort to generalize a rule that has been stated only for a very specific, particular situation.

Further distinctions are made between al-taqyid, al-takhsis, al-naskh, al-ta’liq and al-istithna”, This verse stands for many others of similar wording. The Book never uses the phrase ‘And obey God and the prophet’. Second, prophethood is faced with either acceptance or disapproval, and a typical response would be ‘Yes, it could be’ or ‘No, it can’t be’, whereas messengerhood is faced with either obedience or disobedience, typically expressed in ‘Yes, I assent’ or ‘No, I dissent’. When, for example, Muhammad announced, as Prophet, the verse: ‘for the convulsion of the Hour (of Judgement) will be a thing terrible!’ (Al-hajj 22:1), the reaction of his listeners was either: ‘Yes, I think this is true’, or ‘No, this is a lie’, whereas when he, as Messenger, said: ‘anyone who is ill or on a journey should make up for the lost days by fasting on other days later.’ (Al-Baqara 2:185), the likely response was surely not ‘Yes, I think this is true’ but either ‘Yes, I will follow that instruction’ or ‘No, I reject it’.

Third, when Allah addresses Muhammad in the Book as prophet, in the manner of ‘O you prophet’, the instructions that follow are of general guidance, advice, or admonition issued because of very concrete instances in the life of Muhammad. They are not meant to fall into the category of legal permissions or prohibitions. In sum, the call for obedience to Muhammad is restricted to his role as Messenger, not as a prophet. And his messengerhood, as we have explained earlier, consists of legal injunctions, moral rules, and ritual obligations. In order to avoid the confusion that is so common in dealing with Muhammad’s Sunna we need to introduce two different types of obedience: