Saturday, January 29, 2011

Understanding Moderation


In order to discuss the topic of moderation effectively, it must be conceptualized in two ways: first as a principle that was brought by all the Messengers of Allah, and then as the optimal way of achieving a balance between the dictates of the mind and the needs of the soul.

Almost no one would dispute the idea that moderation should govern our thinking and our actions. The problem arises in how the principle of moderation can be put into practice. This is where we find many Muslims today disagreeing with each other.

When we look at Muslim history, especially Muslim intellectual history, we find that the problem of giving a practical expression to moderation was one of the greatest difficulties that Muslim intellectuals had to wrestle with. Their arguments were never about whether moderation should be accepted in principle. Instead, they argued about the proper conceptualization and practical application of this principle and how to define it both intellectually and within the framework of Islamic Law. Though everyone accepted it in principle, they argued ceaselessly about how moderation should be envisioned within an Islamic legal context.

It is quite easy to see how this disagreement affects the field of Islamic work today, because, in spite of a widespread theoretical acceptance of moderation, attempts at giving it a practical expression sometimes lead to conflicting goals and actions. This is not to say that all such conflicts are the result of preconceived conceptual differences in understanding moderation. Quite often, there are also social, personal, political, and economic factors at play.

In any case, it is possible for us to get an appropriate definition as well a good practical understanding of this universal principle of Islamic Law when we consider the following hadîth:

Abû Hurayrah relates that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said "This religion is easy. No one becomes harsh and strict in the religion without it overwhelming him. So fulfill your duties as best you can and rejoice. Rely upon the efforts of the morning and the evening and a little at night and you will reach your goal."

[In Sahîh al-Bukharî, The Book of Faith, under the heading "Religion is Easy..."]

These words of the Prophet (peace be upon him) put moderation into its proper Islamic context. It may be appropriate to note that many of the conceptual frameworks upon which we build our understandings are affected by our existing circumstances and our personal vision, and these can often run contrary to or undermine the proper understanding provided by Islamic Law.

This problem can crop up with any generally accepted concept or principle. The difficulty always arises in how people understand it and contextualize it. The supporters of every point of view have their own definition of the principle in question and their own ideas of how it should be put into practice.

When it comes to understanding the accepted principles of Islamic Law, however, definitions must be drawn from established sources and not purely from the discretion of the individual. Otherwise, the definition might yield a practical model that justifies nothing but itself. This is how many of the people engaging in Islamic work end up not recognizing any way of doing things other than their own. Many of our accepted and established principles have begun to take forms that represent only one narrow vision and that are unable to cope with the many demands of Islamic work and propagation.

It is not necessary - nor for that matter possible - for us to develop a comprehensive vision that can cover every aspect of Islamic knowledge and Islamic work that our people need. What is necessary, however, and quite possible, is for us to present a general framework to the people, especially the people who are involved in Islamic work, one which comprises the correct, Islamic understanding of moderation.

No general understanding of moderation will ever enjoy the unanimous acceptance that the principle of moderation does in the abstract. This is because any understanding of moderation is going to be based upon human discretion, and nowhere does the soundness of a principle guarantee the soundness of human judgment in applying it.

Therefore, we should be able to differentiate between three levels of understanding:

1. Acceptance of a principle and recognition that it is an intrinsic part of the faith.
2. Understanding the precepts of Islamic Law that are based upon that principle.
3. Understanding based on juristic discretion of how to apply the principle in a given circumstance.

This last level does not bring to the one who reaches it the same absolute conviction that the first two bring. The juristic opinions held by a group of people do not enjoy the sanctity and absolute certainty of principles of faith. The best that can ever be said about such opinions is that they are probably true with the possibility of their being wrong.

This is the distinction that must be made between the specific means used to address one of the many problems facing us today and the general, indisputable principles from which those specific means are drawn. It is a big mistake when we fail to distinguish between the meanings conveyed by our general principles and those conveyed by people's specific, juristic decisions. Sometimes, these juristic stances are nothing more than contemporary applications of old, blindly-accepted notions to which many Muslims dogmatically adhere. However, these notions are often depicted as supreme Islamic values or at least in a way that makes them seem original.

We need to have a good grasp of the problem we are trying to solve and get to its root, because we will never learn how to solve a problem unless we first understand it.

Therefore, we must look closely at the hadîth we mentioned earlier, wherein the Prophet (peace be upon him) says: "This religion is easy." Ease is moderation. So our religion is moderate and we as a nation of people are moderate. Allah says: "Thus We have made you a moderate nation". [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 143]

In this hadîth, the Prophet (peace be upon him) outlines the defining qualities of moderation:

1. He says: "So fulfill your duties…" The Arabic word used is "saddadû" which literally means to aim to hit something on target, like how an arrow hits its mark. This tells us that moderation never entails going outside of Islamic Law. The rulings of Islamic Law must be derived from the Qur'ân and Sunnah. The idea of ease and moderation in no way implies a relaxation of Islamic Law, nor does it imply that a person can follow his own inclinations in either his religion or his general dealings. Therefore, if we lose sight of Islamic Law and its rulings, an important quality of moderation will invariably be lost.

2. Then he says: "…as best you can…" After providing the first quality of moderation, he complements it with this so that those who are ill acquainted with the wisdom and purposes behind Islamic Law do not become insistent upon following a limited, personal vision in applying its rulings to themselves and others.

A person will not be able to fulfill his duties properly unless he realizes that he has limitations of mind and character that keep him from measuring up to those duties, no matter how clear and simple they may seem. Allah created Adam a creature with little self control. The human being cannot do anything perfectly without divine intervention, so this is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) says: "…as best you can", to indicate that perfection is not what is expected.

We can go as far as to say that demanding perfection from people runs contrary to the principle of moderation that we are discussing. When we consider that this refers to the established principles and rulings of Islamic Law, then how much less should we expect perfection when it comes to the juristic decisions made by human beings?

A poet writes:

When perfection is reached, it has to diminish,
So once something's called perfect, know it will perish.

The principle of moderation requires us to recognize that perfection cannot be maintained or even achieved.

3. Then he says: "…and rejoice." He does this after defining moderation with the idea of fulfilling one's duties to the best of one's ability, which defines moderation in an abstract, academic sense. Then we are told to rejoice. Here he is giving us glad tidings from Allah for our efforts. This helps us to move beyond the predicament of personal loyalties that can affect our works. Our religion and our deeds should never be turned into an expression of partisanship for this group or that.

The more the work that we and our brothers do in our various organizations and groups conforms to the Qur'ân and Sunnah and the more it is focused on calling to the faith, the more assured we can be that the true concerns of our religion will triumph over partisanship. Since working for the religion is a way of fulfilling our duty to Allah and of obeying His Messenger, we can see the importance of the glad tidings being referred to in the hadîth. Most of the problems and difficulties that exist between people are the result of partisanship and biases rather than on matters that are necessitated by Islamic Law. This is why sincerity to Allah in our actions has to be one of the principles of moderation.

This does not imply that all interpersonal loyalties should be abolished. That would be senseless. What it does mean is that our Islamic organizations and groups should not be turned into ideological rallying points to which we return for answers when we are faced with any issue of concern. Islamic Law must transcend our personal or partisan agendas when it comes to understanding and approaching the issues and problems that we face.

4. Finally, he says: "Rely upon the efforts of the morning and the evening and a little at night and you will reach your goal." This shows us that one of the principles of moderation is to consider what is possible and to stay within those limits. This goes for an individual as well as for the environment in which he works. It also means that everyone should work within his own capacity and avoid being obstinate when dealing with others.

The principle of doing what is within one's capabilities has both conceptual and practical dimensions. It means that we keep up our Islamic work while recognizing both the need for what we are doing and the limitations of our abilities. This gives us a good opportunity to embrace a large number of Islamic efforts of various types. We must never distance ourselves from others and their efforts unless they truly go against the established and indisputable principles and teachings of Islam. We should never do so on the basis of mere opinions and assumptions.

One of our problems is that the understanding of moderation that many people have does not comprise all four of these defining qualities. Some people overlook the need to adhere to Islamic Law in formulating their concept of moderation and come up with ideas that are ambiguous and ill-defined.

Others do just the opposite and go overboard in demanding perfection, though Allah demands from us only what is within our abilities, and that is with respect to the Law. Even less is expected of us in matters of juristic discretion. Today, however, many Muslims shun those who do not measure up to their opinions and views, and they are even more abhorrent to those who actually disagree with them. It is regretful that they shun each other on the pretense of defending established Islamic principles, like moderation, or following the Qur'ân and Sunnah, or adhering to the ways of the pious predecessors. When they do this, they fail to make a distinction between the principles themselves and their own understanding of them. Therefore, they accuse each other of violating the principles of Islam without realizing that their disagreement has little to do with these principles, but more to do with their own interpretations.

The fact that many Islamic workers fail to understand the concept of moderation correctly is the reason why there is an inexcusable amount of confusion and contradictions to be found within the field of Islamic work today. We must praise Allah that, in spite of this problem, there is still a lot of good being effected by our Islamic workers and there is still a lot of moderation and a lot that is praiseworthy.

We should not get the notion into our heads that we can solve the problem of immoderation by doing away with all the different groups engaged in Islamic work today. Not only is this impossible, I see it as quite unnecessary. What we should do is make this large number of groups work to our advantage. These groups can bring about more complete results by compensating for each other's weaknesses. Moderation does not mean that we must discard plurality. What it does mean is to accept these groups and guide them. This may be a difficult concept for many people to understand, but if you look carefully enough into the principles and general precepts of Islamic Law, you would find that it is in conformity with the guidance of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and the ways of the Rightly Guided Caliphs. This is an understanding that has the unique ability to include within it the entire Muslim nation.

Allah has praised those who upon hearing someone's words, take what is best from them. In some matters, what is best can depend on time, place, or circumstances. It can even vary from person to person. Allah has given humanity the free will to make choices. Though we accept that there is only one truth in any dispute - which is the opinion of the majority of the scholars of jurisprudence - determining who is on the truth is often a matter of personal judgment. What counts are the principles and evidence of Islam, not how much we are partial to a given side or how comfortable a certain view makes us feel.

We ask Allah to guide us to His straight way. Praise be to Allah, the Lord of All the Worlds.

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