Mufti Muhammad Shafi’ Usmani
Excess in Faith
O people of the Book, be not excessive in your Faith and do not say about Allah anything but the truth… [Qur’an 4: 171]
In this verse, the People of the Book have been asked not to indulge in excess in matters relating to their Faith. Lexically, the Qur’anic word: al-Ghuluww means to cross the limits or transgress. In Ahkam al-Qur’an, Imam al-Jassas says:
Excess in Faith is crossing the limit set therein.
The People of the Book, that is, the Jews and the Christians were both made addressees of this injunction because excess in Faith is the common factor between them. Both groups have fallen victims to nothing but excess in matters of Faith. The Christians committed excess in believing and honouring Sayyidna ‘Isa (alayhissalaam) when they went on to the extreme of taking him to be God or son of God or the third God. As for Jews, they committed excess in disbelieving and rejecting him – not simply that they did not accept him even as a prophet, they were audacious enough to, God forbid, impute a false accusation to his revered mother, Sayyidah Maryam and to cast a slur against her parentage.
Since the disastrous deviation of Jews and Christians in matters of Faith was a common scene of the time, the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) specially instructed his community to be very careful about it. According to a report from Sayyidina ‘Umar (radhiyallahu anhu) appearing in the Musnad of Ahmad, the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) said:
Do not exaggerate in my praise as was done by Christians in the case of ‘lsa son of Maryam (alayhissalaam). Beware, I am only a servant. So, call me a servant of Allah and His messenger. [This narration has also been reported by al-Bukhari and Ibn al-Madini rating it as sound and authentically reported]
In brief, the sense of what he said is: I am one with everyone in being a servant of Allah and a human being. The highest rank I have is that I am a Messenger of Allah. Raising it higher to the limit that you go about taking me as partner in the attributes of Almighty Allah is excess and I do not want you to fall into this excess like the Christians. This excess in Faith practiced by the Jews and Christians did not remain limited to prophets only. Once used to it, they extended this attitude of theirs to the apostles, followers and deputies of the prophets. They had already assigned Godhood to their prophet, now they invested the followers of the prophet with immunity from sin. While doing so, they did not even take the trouble of investigating and making sure if such followers were genuine followers of the prophet and who correctly and firmly adhered to his teachings, or they were no more than hereditary religious scholars and guides. This resulted in the emergence of a leadership which was astray in itself and could do nothing but keep adding to the strayings of others. So, they ruined their Faith by practicing it erroneously from within. The Holy Qur’an has described this very condition of these people in the verse (that is, these people took their religious leaders as objects of worship, other than Allah). It means that they had already been excessive in making their prophet a God, then, they started worshipping later-day religious leaders in the name of following the prophet!
The lesson to be learnt is that excess in Faith is a dangerous attitude which has destroyed the Faiths of earlier religious communities all in the fair name of Faith. So serious were the implications that our noble master devised perfect defences to keep his community safe against this terrible epidemic.
It appears in Hadith that the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) asked Sayyidina ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas (radhiyallahu anhu) on the occasion of Hajj that he should go and collect pebbles which he could use to throw at the Jamarat. He returned with average-sized pebbles and presented them to the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) who liked them very much and said twice: (a like these, like these) which means that one should do his or her ramy at Jamarat using average-sized pebbles like these. Then, he said:
It is your duty to avoid excess in Faith for communities before you were destroyed because of being excessive in their Faith.
Important Rules of Guidance
Some important rules come out from this hadith:
1. The masnoon limit placed on pebbles thrown at the Jamaraat during the Hajj is that they should be average in size, neither too small nor too big. Throwing big rocks is included under excess in Faith.
2. The legal limit of everything is what the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) has left determined by his word and deed. Going beyond this limit is ghuluww, excess in Faith.
3. Precisely defined, excess in Faith is the crossing of the masnoon limit set for doing something.
The Limits of Materialism
The greed for worldly wealth and luxury beyond the level of need is considered blameworthy in Islam. Instructions to observe restraint against such urges are profusely spread out in the Qur’an. But, the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) while prohibiting attachment to wordly life greedily, has set its proper limits by his word and deed. He declared marriage to be his way and pursuaded others to follow his example. He explained the many-faceted blessings of having children. To live nicely and wisely with the family and to fulfill the rights of everyone properly were things he prescribed as obligatory. To work for one’s family and earn a good living was what he called an obligation after the obligation (Fareedhah ba’d al-Fareedhah). He laid stress on people to engage in business, agriculture, industry and labour. The establishment of an Islamic Nation and government and the promotion of a system governed by Islam was something he declared to be part of the mandate of prophethood. Thus, by acting in accordance with it, he went on to establish a state system throughout the Arabian peninsula which was later extended to other parts of the world in the East and the West. All this shows that being engaged in these pursuits within the limits of need is not counted as gross love of the material nor as greed and avarice.
The Jews and Christians did not realize the truth of the matter and got themselves involved in monasticism. The Holy Qur’an has refuted this uncalled for involvement of theirs by saying:
It means that they took to ways of monasticism which were not prescribed for them by Allah except that they were to seek the pleasure of Allah Then, they failed to fulfill the conditions of what they had themselves imposed. [see Qur’an 57:27]
The Limits of Sunnah and Bid’ah
By his word and deed, the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) has, in everything such as religious acts of worship and social transactions and dealings, demarcated the limits of moderation. Any deviation from these limits, whether it be in falling behind or in pushing ahead of them, is forbidden for it leads a believer astray from the right path. It was for this reason that he has very emphatically blocked the incursion of bid’at (self-promoted innovations in established religion) and muhdathat: (the embracing of everything appearing recent and novel in a given time as if a part of established religion which, in our time, are introduced under the fancy garbs of recension and modernity). Let us, therefore, remember what he said:
“Every Bid’ah is straying and every straying ends in Jahannam.”
The word Bid’ah used In the hadith refers to everything (assumed to be a part of religion) which is not there in the word and deed of the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) clearly or through hint. Hadrat Shah Waliyyullah has said that Islam condemns Bid’ah as a serious offence because it opens the doors to alteration in religion. This is what happened with earlier religious communities. They added up things on their own to what their Book said and their prophet taught. Then came another generation, and the generations that followed, each adding its share to the original. Finally, everything got so mixed up that it became impossible to identify the true religion as distinct from the additions introduced by its adherents.
In his famous book, Hujjatullah al-Balighah, he has also given details of circumstances under which efforts have been made all over the world to inject alterations in the religion of Islam. He has also pointed out to the concern shown by the Shari’ah of Islam which has installed defensive mechanisms on all such doors of incursion so that there remains no single outlet through which this disease could hit the Muslim community in epidemic proportions.
The Moderate Course in honouring and following religious leaders
One such cause referred to above is the practice of excess in Faith (Ghuluww fid Deen). Two factors distinctly contribute to the emergence of this attitude: Firstly, the desire to undertake deep investigations unnecessarily or to be involved in far-fetched interpretations; and secondly, the choice of a hardened stance. It is a matter of great regret that, despite so much elaborations made by the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) and active restrictions placed by the Shari’ah of Islam, the Muslim community is suffering fatally from this very disease of excess. Its fallout can be distinctly noticed in all departments of our Faith. Out of these, the field most affected is that of religious leaders where the question is: Whom to follow?
Stretching between two extremes, a group of Muslims has gone far out by holding that there is no such thing as a religious leader or teacher or ‘alim or Shaykh. They would say: ‘The Book of Allah is suffi- cient for us If they understand the Book of Allah so do we – – ‘They are men, so are we.’ The result was that every ambitious pseudo-intellectual – unlettered in Arabic and uninitiated into the facts of and insights into the Qur’an and unfamiliar with the exegetical clarifications given by the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) – considered it sufficient to look at translations of the Qur’an and be hoisted as a scholar of the Qur’an! How can a tafsir or explanation of the Qur’an which has been authentically reported from the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) or from his direct disciples, the noble Companions, be ever ignored or bypassed? But, such is the breed of these dabblers in the discipline that they would dismiss anything in favour of their brain wave and still have the temerity to tie it with the Qur’an? Although, had a book without a teacher been enough, Almighty Allah had the power to make written copies of the book become available for people at their homes – there was, then, no need to send a prophet to teach. A little reflection would reveal that this is not something peculiar to the Book of Allah. No one can, by simply looking at the translation of any book in the arts and sciences, become an expert in those fields. We have yet to find a physician who became a physician through a familiarity with translations of medical books. No engineer became an engineer by browsing through engineering texts. Even the study of common books on sewing and cooking has not made anyone succeed as a master tailor or chef. So, the truth lies elsewhere – the system needs the elements of teaching and learning under a teacher. This is all too established for everyone. But, it is indeed sad to see that the Qur’an and Sunnah alone, of all things around us, have been taken so casually as not to need any teacher. Thus, a fairly large group of educated people drifted down in the direction of serious deficiency when they took the lone study of the Qur’an as all sufficient and totally dispensed of with the need to consult the exegesis and interpretation of early scholars, and to be guided by them.
On the other side of the extreme, a large group of Muslims got involved in a kind of excess which goaded them to take just about anyone as their religious guide almost blindly, and blindly it was that they started following them. They never took the trouble of finding out whether or not the person they were taking as guide came up to the standard of high intellectual achievement, corresponding personal behaviour, concern for the good of people and the genuine sense of responsibility before Allah. They did not even care to apply a much simpler test by looking at the kind of teaching such a person was imparting and making sure that it was not against the Qur’an and Sunnah.
The Ideal Solution
The Shari’ah of Islam has wisely shielded Muslims from falling into the trap of excess. The middle course In between the two extremes it has suggested is: Learn the Book of Allah (Kitabullah) from the Men of Allah (Rijalullah) and recognize the Men of Allah from the Book of Allah. In other words, one should first recognize those who are engaged in learning and communicating the true knowledge of the Qur’an and Sunnah through the all too well-known teachings of these twin sources of Islamic Faith. Once this is settled, no intricate problem relating to Qur’an and Sunnah will ever bother you – if you give precedence to their explanation above your own opinion, and follow them.