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‘What Is Right’ ( al-ma’ruf )

July 8, 2021

‘What Is Right’ ( al-ma’ruf )

The Arabic term for the phrase ‘what is right’, al-ma’ruf, is derived from the verb ‘a-r-f, whose diverse forms are used seventy-two times in the Book. The most important cognates are ma’ruf, ‘urf, ta’aruf, ma’rifa, and ‘irafa, each of which will be briefly defined:

– ma’ruf has two meanings:

  1. a) known, widely accepted, recognised,
  2. b) to do kindness, to render others a service

– ‘urf has several meanings:

  1. a) the opposite of nukr (denial, disavowal), that is, beneficence, kindness;
  1. b) the highest part, top of something, for example, the comb of a rooster;
  2. c) conventional practice, customs, traditions, that is, what has come to be ‘widely accepted’ (ma’ruf ); al-arf means fragrance, perfume.

– ta’aruf means mutual understanding, acquaintance, and peaceful co-existence, both between individuals and between groups, states, and nations. It constitutes the purpose of Allah’s creation, as we are told in (hujurat:13)

– ma’rifa refers to the relationship that is perceived in the human intellect between the different manifestations and properties of this existence, or—in a more philosophical sense—to the relationship between objective reality and human consciousness.

Knowledge (‘ilm) is what feeds this relationship with data from the external social and objective reality. The Book never uses the phrase ma’rifat Allah, only ‘ilm Allah, because God’s knowledge does not need to be fed with data since He already knows everything. He does not need, as human do, a theory of knowledge (i.e., a methodology of how to acquire data and to perceive knowledge).

Knowledge itself can be either known (dhahir) or hidden (makhfiyy),

– ‘irafa means false knowledge such as that of fortune-tellers and divinatory fraudsters, as among sufi groups; some pretend to perform miracles while others claim to receive supernatural knowledge by meditation, contemplation and other ascetic practices. Only very few can be considered true ‘knowers’ (‘arifun); most of them are just fortune tellers. True knowledge, on the one hand, is a deep longing whose subject matter exerts total control over the seeker who is never distracted by anything and who has no desire for wealth, rank, and power. On the other hand, producing false knowledge is perhaps the oldest trade in human It is a mistake to believe that ‘irafa knowledge died out it still exists and trades its old (false) knowledge under new names, wrapped up in a different cloak.

‘What Is Wrong’ ( al-munkar)

The Arabic term for the phrase ‘what is wrong’, al-munkar, is derived from the verb n-k-r, whose diverse forms are used thirty-seven times in the Book. The most important cognates are munkar, nakir, nukr, nukra, and inkar, each of which will be briefly defined:

– munkar refers to the opposite of ma’ruf, that is, to everything that rational beings regard as shameful or repulsive, and everything that a society agrees to eradicate from its traditions or customs.

According to the Book, absolute taboos are exactly those shameful, repulsive acts of munkarat.

– nakir has several interconnected meanings:

  1. a) difficulty, restrain,restriction, siege;
  2. b) a well-fortified stronghold
  3. c) deterrent punishment or rebuke

– nukr refers to an extremely ‘foul thing’ that every soul despises and tries to prevent.

– nakira is a grammatical term used for an indefinite noun, an unknown person, or a nameless human being; people say about such a person without any individuality that he is ‘neither this nor that’.

– inkar means negation, rejection, and denial. The rejection of grace is a kind of denial, but the negation of one’s own ego is a form of altruism and as such is a laudable act.

How ‘to Prescribe What Is Right and to Proscribe What Is Wrong’ Today

 Before we are able to define the proper meaning of ‘to prescribe what is right and to proscribe what is wrong’ for today, we need to explain two other related aspects:

  1. Harshness ( fadhadha):

the Book warns that ‘were you severe (fadhan) or harsh-hearted (ghalidh al-qalb), they would have broken away from about you…’ (al Imran 3:159), implying that if someone prescribes what is right and proscribes what is wrong in a harsh-hearted manner, that is, if he talks to people in a rude and patronizing way, then people will not listen but rather run away from him. In this context, ‘harsh-hearted’ means dull-witted stupidity; it refers more to the brain than to the heart (the organ that pumps blood through the body). Even though the heart is indeed in people’s breasts, its functioning is controlled by the front part of the cranium that works from behind our foreheads: ‘Truly it is not their eyes that are blind, but their hearts which are in their breasts’ (hajj:46).

  1. Compulsion/duress (ikrah):

the Book makes it clear that under duress neither belief nor unbelief can be accepted as authentic or valid: ‘Any one who, after accepting faith in God, utters unbelief, except under compulsion, his heart remaining firm in faith… ’(Nahl:106). The Book mentions variations of the term ikrah over forty times, expressing the notion of dislike and detestation, and also of pain and hardship. The notion of dislike is mentioned first in baqara:216, a verse that will be further discussed on qital, and mentioned last in the context of the pagans’ detestation of the true religion The sense of aversion to accept anything under pressure is expressed in Hud’s speech to his people: ‘He said: “My people, think: if I did have a clear sign from my Lord, and He had given me grace of His own, though it was hidden from you, could we force you to accept it against your will (laha karihun)?” (Hud:28).

The meaning of pain is stated in: ‘We have enjoined on man kindness to his parents: in pain did his mother bear him, and in pain (kurhan) did she give him birth…’ (Ahqaf:15). The term ikrah means compulsion, duress, and also, as we saw in 11:28, a force against a person’s will. The prohibition of ikrah is not only mandatory within the realm of prophethood (and hence the realm of personal responsibility on the Day of Judgement), but also within the realm of messengerhood, as is expressed in many verses of the Book57 and in numerous hadiths If it is true that a contract of sale or any other business contract is invalid if it is signed under duress, that an oath of allegiance to the ruler is worthless if it is given under compulsion, that a marriage contract is null and void if it is done by force, and if it is true that a statement of belief in God, His angels, His books, and His messengers is false if it is not given wholeheartedly and voluntarily, how can it then be right that people use force and swing a whip when they prescribe what is right and proscribe what is wrong?

Let us now return to the question of how to define ‘to prescribe what is right and to proscribe what is wrong’. The following three verses will help in this:

1- Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good, [prescribing] what is right, and [proscribing] what is wrong: they are the ones to attain felicity. (al Imran:104)

2-You are the best of peoples, evolved for mankind, [prescribing] what is right, [proscribing] what is wrong, and believing in God… (al Imran:110)

3-They believe in God and the Last Day; they [prescribe] what is right, and [proscribe] what is wrong; and they hasten (in emulation) in (all) good works: they are in the ranks of the righteous. (al Imran:114)

We notice that the task of ‘prescribing what is right and of proscribing what is wrong’ is coupled with the invitation to all that is good and with the condition to believe in God  also the three verses mention four interconnected things: a) to call to do good works; b) to prescribe what is right; c) to proscribe what is wrong, and d) to call to believe in God; and finally, these elements are connected by the conjunction wa- (and), implying that it is a connection between four inseparable items that cannot be considered in isolation to one another.

What connects the four elements is the notion that none of them must be forced upon people; their common denominator is the absence of compulsion. We should also not forget that this is a description of ‘a band of people’ who are praised as ‘the best of people’ enjoying ‘the ranks of the righteous’, the counterimage of those who are idolaters, pagans, and heathens.

We now include three more verses:

1-The believers, men and women, are protectors one of another: they [prescribe] what is just, and [proscribe] what is evil; they observe regular prayers, practice regular charity, and obey God and His Apostle. (Tawba:71)

2-Those that turn (to God) in repentance; that serve Him, and praise Him; that wander in devotion to the cause of God; that bow down and prostrate themselves in prayer; that [prescribe] good and [proscribe] evil; and observe the limit set by God (Tawba:112)

3-(They are) those who, if We establish them in the land, establish regular prayer and give regular charity, [prescribe] the right and [proscribe] wrong—with God rests the end (and decision) of (all) affairs. (hajj:41)

These verses attach even more things to the task ‘to prescribe what is right and to proscribe what is wrong’:

  1. a) to believe in God (as above);
  2. b) to observe prayers;
  3. c) to practice charity;
  4. d) to obey God and His Messenger in what they have ordered and prohibited;
  5. e) to observe the limits set by God.

We notice that the tasks to observe prayers and to practice charity either precede the task ‘to prescribe what is right and to proscribe what is wrong’. Again, we understand  that the conjunction wa- (and) is meant to connect different things and that it does not imply a hierarchy (of importance). And yet, some of the tasks mentioned are practiced purely on a personal level (belief in God, prayer, obedience to God and His Messenger), while others are practiced both on a personal and a collective level (to prescribe what is right, to proscribe what is wrong, to practice charity, to observe the limits of God). If they are practiced on a collective level, they need to be organized, properly administered, and controlled.

But neither on a personal nor on a collective level is it allowed to apply pressure, force, or compulsion.