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Two Different Types Of Obedience

May 27, 2020

. 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:

‘Combined obedience’ (al-ta’a al-muttasila): obedience to Allah and His Messenger: And obey God and the Apostle; that you may obtain mercy. (al ‘Imran 3:132) All who obey God and the Apostle are in the company of those on whom is the grace of God of the prophets (who teach), the sincere (lovers of truth), the witnesses (who testify), and the righteous (who do good): Ah! What a beautiful fellowship! (Al-Nisa” 4:69)

In those two verses, Allah, the Living and Everlasting, connects obedience to God to obedience to His Messenger. If obedience is demanded in this manner, it becomes obligatory for everyone who lived at the time of Muhammad or after his death. Ritual and moral obedience is expressed by performing the rituals that Muhammad practiced. ‘Through these rituals we are connected to an uninterrupted transmission of knowledge from the time of Muhammad until today, a history of interconnection in which hadith scholars and the fuqaha” have played a very minor role. Indeed, their contributions to this are almost zero. With their excessive casuistry concerning the insignificant technical details of these rituals they have made it even harder for people to practice them and participate in this tradition of transmitting knowledge from Muhammad. and by respecting the absolute taboos that Allah has set. The taboos are clearly laid out in the Book and are, as explained previously, of the innate disposition of human beings and an essential element within our consciousness.

No shackles or bonds are necessary in order to accept them. Muhammad’s infallibility consisted in his perfection of never having violated any of these taboos, and our obligation is to at least try to imitate him in that. Our obedience to Muhammad’s legal injunctions is expressed in practicing ijtihad within the limits set by Allah, which allows us to ‘turn and bend sideways’, that is, to follow the principle of hanifiyya. It is not expressed in following his ijtihads to the letter because the legal limits (al-hudud ) are Allah’s limits, not Muhammad’s limits. When verse 14 of Surat al-Nisa” says, ‘But those who disobey God and His apostle and transgress His limits…’ (Al-Nisa” 4:14), the possessive pronoun ‘His’ refers to Allah, not to Muhammad.

If the Book had wanted to refer to both Allah’s and Muhammad’s limits it would have used the Arabic dual-ending huma, ‘transgress their (both) limits’. Muhammad himself practiced ijtihad within Allah’s limits and it is our obligation to follow him in this. Several times he cautioned his companions not to apply the highest possible legitimate penalty (the upper limit), the death penalty, in cases where there was doubt and uncertainty about the guilt of the accused. He said: ‘Repeal the hudud due to uncertainty, and overlook the offence of the righteous person unless it occurs in one of Allah’s hudud.’ He also said: ‘Repeal the hudud from Muslims as much as you can. If you can find a way out for a Muslim then apply it.

For it is better for a ruler to make a mistake in forgiving someone than to make a mistake in punishing someone.” He did not urge his companions to implement the hudud penalties if doubts persisted. He urges us to describe and define the crime before exacting penalties, and he calls upon us to be particularly vigilant the nearer we approach the upper limit of Allah’s punishments, allowing us to move away from it due to the circumstances of a specific case and the contingencies of objective reality. As for the obedience concerning ritual practices, we distinguish between two types:

  1. Absolute obedience: believers follow the instructions as given in the Book, for example, ‘So establish regular prayer and give regular charity; and obey the apostle; that you may receive mercy…’ (Al-Nur 24:56), or as a hadith puts it: ‘Pray as you saw me praying.” Obedience here is absolute so, for example, a prayer will be rejected if it is done in a way that differs from Muhammad’s behavior. It will also be rejected if it is outwardly performed according to this model while it is not directed to Allah. The same applies to the pilgrimage—a hadith requests: ‘From me take your rituals’. It also applies to the fast. However, even if one has to fast as Muhammad did, there is no injunction that demands also to break the fast as he did.
  1. Relative obedience: this requires ijtihad within the limits set by Allah with regards to these rituals. For example, the lower limit of alms tax is 2.5 percent of our income but it might not always stay as low as this. If economic and financial circumstances dictate, one may raise the alms tax and increase the financial burden for the benefit of those who receive our charity. This increase can be decided by a proper ijtihad.

But note that one must never go below the lower limit of 2.5 percent obedience to Muhammad in this is also obedience to God.

  1. ‘Separate Obedience’ ( al-ta”a al-munfasila): eternal obedience to Allah and time-restricted obedience to Muhammad: O you who believe! Obey God, and obey the apostle, and those charged with authority among you. If you differ in anything among yourselves, refer it to God and His apostle, if you do believe in God and the Last Day: That is best, and most suitable for final determination. (Al-Nisa” 4:59) Obey God, and obey the apostle, and beware (of evil): if you do turn back, know you that it is our apostle’s duty to proclaim (the message) in the clearest manner. (Al-Ma’ida 5:92)

These verses refer to a second type of obedience to Muhammad which, to us today, is separate from obedience to God. It was a combined form of obedience only during Muhammad’s lifetime. It designates the obedience of his followers to what he had decided, based on the principle of ‘tying and loosening’. While creating the foundations of a new state amidst the political and cultural turmoil of his time, Muhammad continuously exercised ijtihad, sometimes loosening up to a maximum of permissibility, sometimes tying it up to an absolute minimum. He was by no means infallible in his ijtihads, while his decisions reflected the conditions of his time. His ijtihads were historical, relative, and contingent.

The decisions he took fell into the categories of situational permissions and prohibitions and had, since they were not explicit rules (ahkam) of the Book, only regional and temporary significance. As historically contingent rules which reflected the breadth and width of the limits that Muhammad himself had set; they do not fall within the sphere of Allah’s limits. Unlike the limits of Allah, Muhammad’s limits and the rules he ‘placed in between’, for example, the prohibition of music, dance, singing, the visual arts, and such, enjoy neither absolute validity nor eternal authority. If Muhammad’s decisions were necessary at the time he took them, they had all the flavor of the ancient society in which he lived.

His prohibitions of music, dancing, singing, painting, sculpturing, for example, can be explained—only, of course, if one wants to explain and justify them—by the prevailing idolatry of Arabian society. They were however never inserted into the text of the Book and hence cannot be regarded as permanent injunctions. The concrete measures that Muhammad took against the idolatry of his time, originating in human legislation (not divine), cannot be equated with the universal and eternal limits that Allah has set and which are binding for us today. What we hear, instead, is the admonition to keep away from the ‘filth of the idols’ (al-rajas min al-authan), not from the idols as such.

‘That is, when Muhammad forbade the worship of tombs he legislated against the worship, not the tombs as such. The same applies to the worship of stars, trees, rocks, and statues! It is not the dancing, singing, and sculpturing that people should not do—rather, what instigated Muhammad’s legislation was the un-Islamic intention behind these things. It would imply mindless iconoclasm if the legislation was meant to rule out these things as such.’ The hadiths, reflecting the cultural milieu of ancient societies, certainly will not help to identify measures and rules that are appropriate for our contemporary period. We will have to do without them.