What is Salah?

Salah is the ultimate expression of subservience to the Most High, ordained by God from the earliest times of Sapiens' existence (Q 42:13), and both a physical and cognitive display of deep humility and reverential awe for the Lord of all that exists.

It requires the one who is subservient to express it by standing before his Lord, bowing to his King, and to bow down on the ground in total surrender with his face to the floor out of abject humility (Q 17:109). It incorporates praise, thanks, humility and purification for the Most High (Q 2:30). It demands engagement and contemplation of God's words (Q 73:20). It requires sincere self-effacement and a heart that palpitates at the idea of God's eternal and unfathomable supremacy as well as one's own shortcomings in fully recognising that supremacy.

It's often said "You need to just pray", or people are emotionally impelled to salah through warnings of eternal damnation. In contemporary times where identity politics becomes a key motivator, the doctrinal "If you don't pray you're not a Muslim" argument has become widespread. Whilst all of these have precedent in some way within the nusus or doctrinal tradition, they do not reflect the central way in which God spurs man to stand before Him at appointed times throughout the day.

There's a reason as to why God repeatedly tells us about His acts of creation, from the heavens and the earth, to living organisms within them, and sentient life forms beyond. God invites the human intellect to ponder over a cosmos teeming with life and order in order to discover His supreme greatness, and to recognise that the one who gives life is also alive, ever-present, ever-active in the affairs of all things.

We have life, we have love, and we have hardships. Throughout all of these there is one principle God says, and that is to remember God (Q 20:14) giving thanks (Q 4:147). To stand before God a few times, for a few moments in the waking day, is to express appreciation for what we have and to request more. It's to show God that we individually care, that we are compelled by His utmost majesty and spectacular power, His blinding glory and limitless grace, and that we desire the personal relationship He reserves with each and every sincere servant. Everything else is sophistry and tangential.

Of course, to understand salah like this necessitates knowing God. The condition and constitution of one's salah is reflected by one's understanding of the Most High, which in turn represents the nature of the relationship between the servant and her Master.

On another note, I wouldn't call salat 'prayer', not because it's wrong per se but because it fails to capture the entirety of what God wants. In modern times, prayer can simply refer to an invocation, and often evokes images of people doing ritualisms that they can't entirely explain or justify. In no way does the Salat represent this - it is the highest and most intimate expression of subservience for those on the creed of Abraham. This ought to resonate with anyone of any Abrahamic faith, the salah was ordained to every prophetic nation.

I acknowledge that there's a lot to unpack here (which I do in seminars, workshops and lectures), but what I hope to briefly touch upon is that profound subservience to God through salat is predicated on our knowledge of God and also what He ultimately wants, to serve God properly requires this knowledge (at least at a basic level) and contemplation.

Indeed, the creed of Abraham is a thinking one, fully appreciated by intelligent folk.

The Qur’an: Songs, Sounds, or Meanings?

The current status quo has meant that we marvel at those who memorise the Qur'an, and commend its articulation as phonemes. Is this the particular status-quo that God intended, and is it okay to say this is enough?

God said of the Qur’an and revelation:

  • ‘This is a blessed Scripture which We sent down to you, for people to think about its messages, and for those with understanding to take heed.’ (Q 38:29)
  • ‘This, too, is a blessed Scripture which We have sent down; follow it and be conscious of your Lord, so that you may receive mercy - lest you say, ‘Scriptures were only sent down to two communities before us: we were not aware of what they studied.’ (Q 6:155-156)
  • ‘Be devoted to God (rabbani) in that you teach the Scripture and in that you study it.’ (Q 3:79)

There is nothing in the Qur’an that tells us that God seeks the mere articulation of Arabic phonemes, and when we think about it, to treat a message like this in any other context would be quite strange. The assumption that mere recitation or memorisation, whether of ourselves or our children, is a saving grace, is deeply misplaced.

How so?

Ziyad b. Labid said: The Prophet mentioned something and then said, “…that shall be in times when knowledge (in the form of guidance) is gone.” I said: "Messenger of God, how shall (such) knowledge disappear when we recite the Qur'an, and have our children recite, and our children shall have their children recite it until the Day of Judgment?" He said, “Woe to you Ziyad, I considered you the most intelligent man of Madinah! Do not these Jews and Christians recite the Torah and Bible, but know little of what is in it?"
Ibn Majah

So is this not the case with western Muslims? Do we not rejoice at the thought of beautifully sung exotic sounds - believing that being moved by melody is a ‘spiritual’ effect (which in fact can equally go for various genres of music)? The Qur'an points to understanding rather than sounds: ‘Will they not contemplate the Qur'an? Do they have locks on their hearts?’ (Q 47:24)

Due to this misfocus the purpose of revelation is being lost. As the hadith of Ziyad intimates, knowledge (in the form of guidance) remains in the Quran. What type of knowledge? It is popularly assumed it is ‘religious’ knowledge, reserved for the Maulana/Alim types, but this deeply incorrect. God guided the ‘normal’ man through the Quran, in his daily political, social, and economic life, imbuing every step with an ethical and productive trajectory.

There is no ‘Muslim leadership’ without knowledge of what’s in the Qur'an. Leadership isn’t merely to make PR statements or to assume some secular pursuits but to know what God wants and to help guide people to it, to champion it, and to seek to preserve it. We are at liberty to ask: do Muslim leaders represent an ethnic group called ‘Muslims’, or do they represent believers? If it is the latter, then surely they should be those who are most informed in the Qur'an, and on social and political matters. Equally, there is no ‘da'wah’ without knowledge of what’s in the Qur'an, both in method and in objective, otherwise what exactly are we calling to? There is no discussion on social inclusion, integration, or the ‘common good’ without knowledge of what God has said in terms of fundamental objectives. The Qur'an is the basis of everything ‘Islamic’ and without intimate enquiry any ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ related claim is rendered redundant.

Whilst there exists a culture to have our children memorise the book of God, often to accrue some form of social capital amongst other Muslims, consider this: Imam Malik was asked about seven year old child made to memorise the Qur'an. He said "I don't think that is appropriate." al-Abhari said in explanation: 'Malik disliked it, because if a person memorises it this quickly he cannot properly retain it, knowing the parameters it sets. The path of he who learns the Qur'an is that he studies it, unearthing it's laws and knowing the parameters it sets, according to his ability, and a child in most cases is unable to do this. The Companions would remain with one long surah studying it, uncovering all the ahkam within it.' (Sharh al-Jami', Ibn Abd al-Hakam)

Many overlook the notion of specific Qur'anic guidance on contemporary issues, but only because they do not know how to benefit from the revealed word or extract that guidance, and having been witness to many a charlatan stating generalities or far-fetched interpretations that rail against common-sense, they understandably conclude, often subconsciously, that the guidance of the Qur'an is abstract or non-existent. However, the Qur'an is explicitly relevant to 21st century western issues, in fact, most of it is in plain sight. What we clearly have to do is commit some time to giving this knowledge its due, otherwise we proceed merely with Improvised Religion. The Prophet explicitly warned of the state of Christianity or Judaism - despite ‘reciting’ revelation, they had little guidance because of ignorance concerning what revelation contains, and neglecting to learn how to be informed in their personal, social and political affairs by it, or how to operationalise it. Essentially, it led to great deviations from what God wants.

This is something we all ought to reflect upon, and seek to address, preferably together!

Meaning IS the reason for reading the Qur’an

For quite a while, many scholars and preachers have called for believers to understand the scriptures revealed by God and to engage the divine message, yet the majority of British Muslims do not, opting instead to hastily get through the Qur’an as Arabic phonemes (units of sound), and as many times as possible. It’s absurd, and only the devil could make us believe the situation is both logical and/or acceptable.

To believe pronouncing phonemes suffices is to undermine the entire reason why messengers were sent to mankind, “They were messengers bearing good news and warning so mankind have no excuse before God…” (Q 4:165) We’re told that it’ll be said to the disbelievers at the gates, “Were you not sent your own messengers to recite the revelations of your Lord to you and warn you that you’d meet this day?!” (Q 39:71) Of course, by “recite revelation” the gatekeepers will not mean pronouncing Arabic phonemes, but reading and understanding what God said. Understanding is inherent in all of these verses (and many more) since they wouldn't be valid points otherwise, yet the bizarre status-quo has most of us doing something else and then presenting poor arguments to justify it.

Having discussed this with many people, I've come to see a general pattern of conversation and debate. So to summarise, here is a brief presentation that attempts to provide a holistic understanding towards Qur’an recitation in Q&A form. Please bear in mind that I do not utilise every argument nor every response to possible retorts, it merely concerns itself with the oft-invoked sources and arguments used to justify the ill-informed status quo.

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The social practice of Qur'an khatms

Some people have asked about the social practice of ‘Qur'an khatms’, where people gather to finish the Qur'an (usually in an hour or so) and follow it up with a delicious feast.

This practice is more evident in some cultures than others, and much has been said against it and in defence of it, from it being encouraged to being considered a blameworthy innovation (bid’ah). I have no intention to get into the wrangling, and I feel that if we consider it with some common-sense reasoning (as God encourages us to do), we’d come to a reasonable conclusion.

Firstly, let's determine what exactly takes place:

1. Groups of people get together to hum Arabic for ambiguously defined ‘barakah’ (blessings).
2. It is claimed that the entire Qur'an will be read, yet each person simply hums their allotted small portion independently, so nobody actually reads the entire thing.
3. No guidance is taken from the book of guidance, nor is the Qur'an even understood - neither the allotted portion, nor in any holistic sense.

Personally, I find it deeply offensive to treat guidance and a message from God in this way. In any other context, would we take an informative and direction-giving letter sent to us, break it up into arbitrary parts, get a bunch of people to hum those parts to themselves in a language they little understand, and then bizarrely claim: 1. that we’ve read the entire letter, and 2. that the author of the letter not only wanted this but would be ecstatic about the strange thing we’ve just done? I think most of us would say no, and in any setting it would be deemed mockery.

Some will now more generally point to hadiths that discuss blessings of Qur'anic recitation. I hope it's becoming increasingly clearer that all of these narrations are in the context of the Qur'an being understood and such blessings (i.e. benefits) being the result of understanding, contemplation and practical application.

To be clear, I'm not negating reading the Qur'an individually or in a group, and those who sit with me witness the Qur'an's primacy in all things. I want us to do Qur'an more, not less, but certainly not as phonemes. Our homes and religious institutions should be alive with the sound of God’s guidance and deep explorations/contemplations on the divine word.

This is a message to all people, so that they may be warned by it, and know that He is the only God, and so that those who have minds may take heed.
Qur'an 14:52

The rise of delinquency

I once wrote on Twitter that extremists tend to present as complete dimwits, and although a couple of people mistakenly assumed I meant to lessen the danger they pose to all of us, I meant that they come across like baddies in a pantomime almost as if you can’t take them seriously. Whilst callous and dangerous, they almost have you believing that they’d trip over trying to tie their shoelaces. Tommy Robinson is convicted of, out of all things, mortgage fraud, whilst exposes have him discussing drugs and racial violence; interviews with EDL protestors are absolute car crashes; Anjem Choudhary performed like a parody of an imam, and the ISIS supporter Abu Haleema literally wore a tea towel on his head (with the M&S tag clearly visible) ranting incomprehensibly. The examples (across all types of extremists) are endless. But that’s only the small fish. Any video with Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage is like a skit from a comedy show, not only the way they speak or what they speak about, but even how they behave. Today what we observe can only be described as absolutely surreal.

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Articulating beliefs in the modern context

When discussing entities of a metaphysical nature our presentations tend to be abstract, binary and devoid of real-world meaning. Often it is absurdly supposed that simply saying something stands as evidence for its existence. With the current political backdrop that frames Muslims with the lens of securitisation, many believers have come to take what they view as a muscular approach to belief – that we believe in metaphysical entities because we must, and no one shall tell us otherwise; like those who insist that we accept militant secularism, both are allergic to debate and discussion. Whilst we might comprehend the reasons behind why some Muslims take this approach, it does not mean that it is correct.

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Thoughts on Ramadan: Food, Tarawih, and Qur'an


An impromptu lecture delivered at Kingston Mosque last year on some key issues around Ramadan.

There was no black ‘contribution’ to Islam

It’s bold to claim there is no such thing as a black ‘contribution’ to Islam, and perhaps intentionally provocative, but for good reasons that I’ll point out later. Rest assured, this article certainly doesn’t mean to negate a shared Muslim story, but actually to confront the implicit way black Muslims are often regarded as fringe associates rather than inherent fellows.

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Why scholars are withdrawing from the community

The first rule for those in Islamic scholastic training, especially that of a philosophical nature has always been to cultivate the ability to leave emotionally charged rhetoric at the door. Whilst this remains incredibly challenging for most self-styled clerics, genuine thinkers demonstrate such aptitude – to maintain disapproval of certain ideas whilst dealing with them in a systematic and impartial fashion. Such is the mode of philosophical enquiry that has been held high, both in eastern and western forms of thought. David Hume, perhaps the greatest philosopher to write in the English language lamented of hollow rhetoric, ‘Disputes are multiplied, as if every thing was uncertain; and these disputes are managed with the greatest warmth, as if every thing was certain. Amidst all this bustle it is not reason, which carries the prize, but eloquence…’

However, this aptitude is greatly unappreciated. There is a pettiness about expertise and scholarship that exists amongst western Muslims that has gotten foolish and immature. Many amongst the laity disregard the station of actual learning, demoting the educated whilst propping up everyone else. There was once a time amongst believers, when public engagement required a level of technical knowledge, scholastic ability, and a decent command of language. Ideas would be articulated intelligently, contentions to those ideas would warrant a decisive but affable response; scholars would be expected to defend their views and accept being called out for inaccuracies. But now we seem to live in a time when anyone can crowd the field of slogans with inanity. Rather than being instructed, laymen are pandered to, producing a delusion of intellectual adequacy in the form of compounded ignorance (jahl murakkab), which says that you are ignorant but you stoutly believe otherwise. This misplaced confidence merely empowers people who refuse to believe there are specialists who might contradict them, nonchalantly dismissive in order to maintain an immoderately high regard for their own intellects and partisan viewpoint. For them, no one is considered an actual scholar, and so, everyone despite their varying degrees of learning is very much equal. This is not only a rejection of knowledge but also the sophisticated system of gaining knowledge, the effort put in, the notion of exploring and weighing knowledge, and developing ideas for practicable ends.

A superficial approach to determining authority

We are caught in a warped paradigm, where on one hand we continue as if there aren’t any seriously qualified personnel but then on the other accede to the reality where YouTube validates everyone’s credentials; a Qur’an reciter with a nice voice is somehow a theologian, an impassioned evangelist suddenly becomes a legal specialist. It is this superficial approach to determining our authorities that brings about the demise of proper expertise where glorified laymen, Google, and random web articles substitute insightful teachers and scholars of the faith. Even an acknowledgement of expertise has become heretical; apparently every layman holds the keys to scholastic enlightenment yet those who manage to put in determined effort are still apprentices. And if those insightful teachers and scholars offer some context when approaching theological or legal issues in a way that should alter our baseless thoughts or change the way we (worryingly) live it’s bound to be heresy. It’s as if we have come to reject the notion that a trained jurist or theologian is more likely to be right about something due to education, research and understanding than a mere adherent to the faith or someone with a little reading under the belt. In fact, one person knowing far more than others and reserving the moral and intellectual authority to issue a verdict in the realm of his or her expertise is an appalling thought; even to offer expert help is now considered by many to be the height of arrogance.

We have clearly misunderstood the notion of democratising authority, and rather than apply it to governance it has somehow strayed into realms that should normally be based on aptitude and qualification. This has led to the implication that everyone has a right to air religious opinion. Indeed God allows the agency of free will (to do as you want) but to argue that anyone may pontificate on religious matters isn’t quite the same. So don’t people have a right to do so? Well it depends what the opinion is based on. Some laymen are well versed in revelation or have a nominal understanding of sound religious reasoning; others are completely oblivious to what even makes them a Muslim. As long as there is some underlying intelligence to the undertaking then most scholars welcome discussion, but only if it is with a particular sense of decorum, in good faith, and those wanting to participate meet a certain level of competency. Such engagements are endeavours to inform the masses, to explore ideas in innovative ways, to inspire, and to provide points of reference for further thought. But that, however, is not an offer to antagonistically contest every minute point or premise that is offered. There is marked difference between challenging an idea and simply arguing, between seeking profundity on a matter and telling someone who has spent years researching and thinking deeply about an issue that they simply don’t know much.

The layman's fallacy

It is absolutely draining to have to start from the very beginning of every discussion and determine the simplest baseline of knowledge, and subsequently engage in farcical debates that tend to end with continuous demands for inconsequential references.

The problem with many laymen is that not only do they falsely believe that they have a valid argument but they also assume that they are adept at providing cogent systems of reasoning. Frequently, their initial premises are inaccurate depictions of reality and often, due to the layman’s incompetence in acquiring the most basic level of knowledge, scholars are left having to spell out the obvious which for the best part, they simply can’t be bothered doing. For this reason many scholars tend to avoid engaging altogether – it is absolutely draining to have to start from the very beginning of every discussion and determine the simplest baseline of knowledge, and subsequently engage in farcical debates that tend to end with continuous demands for inconsequential references. It is particularly frustrating where people reject sound scholastic deductions merely because it conflicts with previously held beliefs (no matter how baseless or asinine) or because a foreign scholar hasn’t said it elsewhere (either via a translation or articulated with a foreign accent and bad English). In fact it’s interesting that Muslims in other countries tend to proudly publicise their people of religious learning yet we hold our own in contempt. The inferiority complex is astounding; we happily ascribe ‘shaikh-ness’ to someone with a foreign accent who does little more than rant and offer nothing constructive by way of revelation, law and faith, yet demote those who display a substantial level of sagacity and religious insight.

The rise of the sloganeers and 'speakers'

Nevertheless, the problem doesn’t only lie with laymen; we find that most sloganeers have abandoned all moral and intellectual integrity. They abuse the scholastic method almost as a matter of routine and where they cannot overcome a well-structured idea with equal sagacity they smear or exaggerate. Scholars do not debate sloganeers who substitute a simple cherry-picked verse or hadith framed as a some profound scholastic reference for ‘the haq’ (truth). It should be worrying that one case be rooted in practicality, wide reading, observed phenomenon, and reasoned scriptural evidence – and the other a reversal of the truth. Often speakers attempt to make engagements personal, offering examples from a bunch of moral stories in a bid to make their narrative likeable and seem reasonable. With the audience enamoured they invoke the dalil. The reason this works is because such people are either YouTube personalities or ‘speakers’ at events organised by known organisations who use this prestige to give the impression of authority. Even when the illiteracy of these speakers is exposed they still emerge with their reputations intact because most people would rather trust arbitrary credentials than go to the trouble of investigating the veracity of statements and opinions.

Most things in our lives come down to testimony. People take our word on things based on trust, experience, study, and a demonstration of scholarship. Where these things themselves are misunderstood the laity are left with little to judge by. There was a time when the laity were simply an audience, and whilst it can be argued that wider participation somewhat prevents knowledge remaining abstract in ivory towers, greater participation seems to have led to the absurd conclusion that learning is meaningless and access to suspect translations of unrelated material composed by parochial clerics (read: glorified translators) dictates that every opinion has equal weight. Ultimately, this will continue to have a disastrous impact on the relationship between astute scholars, the Muslim community, and the rest of society. As is often the case, scholars tend to avoid people and simply turn to engaging with one another. Not only is it bad for the religious, social and intellectual development of the Muslim community, but also the preservation and progression of sensible faith.

Claiming ‘Orthodoxy’

A few colleagues who have graduated from British religious seminaries (Dar-ul-ulum), and Madinah, Umm Al Qura and Al Azhar universities recently intimated their deep unease with the existing scattered approach to claiming Islamic ‘orthodoxy’. A vague term used to establish legitimacy and usually built on very shaky grounds, the term has replaced what used to be the notion of a good and solid argument, and much of this is down to the parochial mind set and sectarianism ‘leaders’ implicitly or explicitly endorse. One Dar-ul-ulum graduate mentioned that he is derogatorily called open-minded by his colleagues, as if there is any universe in which such a thing might be bad. Unfortunately, the inability to systematically reason and behave appropriately in particular situations is neither new to current times nor will it suddenly disappear, the Hanbali jurist and hadith master Ibn al-Jawzi lamented in his own time saying, ‘I saw a group of those who ascribe themselves to knowledge acting like the laity.’

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