Anyone who has observed the general trajectory of the Western Muslim community over the last few years cannot deny a move towards rhetoric and practice that is more liberal, reformist, and progressive. These trends in our community borrow heavily, and are fueled in many ways, by the methodology and ideas of the wider progressive and feminist movements popular in society today. This movement towards a more reformist and less orthodox practice of Islam can be concerning for anyone who subscribes to traditional Islamic principles and teachings, especially as it holds increasing sway over an array of important religious issues — from gender roles and sexuality, to political participation and alliances, to ritual practice and theology. However, what I seek to address in this article is not the issues and questions that arise from this trajectory itself, but the extreme position some have taken in response to it.
As a cultural stream seems to push the general Muslim community on a course towards more openness and acceptance of a myriad of things under the umbrella of progress, some have positioned themselves as brave guardians of authentic Islam who go against the waves. Yet, these individuals’ methods and rhetoric leave much to be desired for those who claim to be defenders of the faith. Using social media, they call for a return to mainstream Islamic teachings and practice by harshly criticizing the popular feminist, modernist, and Muslim-feminist movements and those they deem proponents of them, through posts and videos that are intentionally inflammatory and language that is cutting and insulting. Such bloggers and social-media personalities often display a broad hostility towards women, use sweeping language and crude humor, cite scholarly views in a superficial (and in some cases, incorrect) fashion, and scorn those who do not speak in a similar manner— especially those of scholarship — as sell-outs, or lacking in knowledge, masculinity, or gheerah for Islam.
Such individuals have found a warm reception among some in the Muslim community, and their work is even shared and promoted by some in roles of scholarship and leadership as fearlessly authentic, and important ‘push back’ to these trends. In this article, I hope to discuss the extreme short-sightedness and clear harms of popularizing and supporting such an approach and the individuals who use them. As I see such personalities and rhetoric gain traction among some segments of our community, and alarmingly find support and praise even among du’aat, I hope to prove in these short pages that this type of response to such popular trends is not only harmful, ineffective, and unwise, but decidedly un-Islamic. In conclusion, I hope to share the necessary alternative methods to addressing these complex issues in a way that is intelligent, mature, strategic, impactful, and in line with the letter and spirit of our Islamic tradition and the beautiful example of our Prophet ﷺ.
Street Cred vs. Scholarship
Many of the individuals behind the rhetoric described in this article are largely unknown to the community beyond their public posts. This is an extremely dangerous trend in which people who are unknown — not only in their affiliations, but in their level of expertise in the Islamic Sciences or actual qualifications (if any) — are speaking authoritatively about some of the most sensitive and nuanced issues that touch on our community.
On any other platform, we would expect some means of establishing requisite knowledge for one speaking on behalf of Islamic scholarship. This can include a general license or approval from one’s teachers with whom one has extensively studied, years of experiential knowledge working in the community and addressing its needs while referencing Islamic resources, and/or the completion of a proper course of study in a formal institution of sacred learning. Along with this, perhaps most significantly, we would expect a general level of recognition and approval from one’s peers and colleagues who are specialized in the same field, and who can also correct someone and call them to account if they are in error. Instead, as one imam has put it in a general commentary on this trend,
“There has developed out of this vigilantism a new breed of so-called Muslim thought/religious leaders. Such leadership almost always bestows upon itself its authority instead of having earned it through normative channels. In fact, this ‘bucking of the system’ is partially what endows such personalities with a kind of ‘street cred’. My primary issue and concern with this is not the substance of what comes out of this form of vigilantism but rather its lack of accountability to any perceptible body or institution. [...]”1
The dangers of such individuals speaking authoritatively on important Islamic issues are obvious. Without deep grounding in knowledge, Islamic rulings and teachings are misused, misquoted and misapplied. Lack of experience with real community work leaves them without any touch-points on how to to actually correct the people they claim to be addressing and meaningfully inspire to change. And without any means of correction, they are left unchecked in the ideas they present and promote to the community at large.
While a scholar would know that it is from the sunnah to speak in general terms about a wrong-doing without humiliating an individual by name (“What do you think about a person who does such and such?”2) or to advise them personally, such online personalities deliberately denigrate individuals by name and further question their loyalty to the faith. While someone with deep roots in community work would acknowledge that some disillusionment with orthodoxy stems — not from intellectual questions — but from actually traumatic experiences with people or religious institutions, and are better handled with compassion, such online bloggers are quick to wholesale condemn these individuals as devilish pawns of feminist conspiracy. Where a person of experience in teaching ‘ilm would understand the need for measure and composure in whatever wrong they are seeking to address, such bloggers speak in near hysterical tones about the erosion of Islamic teachings and the need for extreme actions to counter it. Whereas one deeply trained in tarbiyya would acknowledge the importance of mutual consultation in one’s efforts, and recognize that they are not the first or only individual to be concerned about these matters that so deeply impact the community on so many levels, the social media guru instead champions themself as the sole defender of the faith in a sea of sell-outs, and the only one courageous enough to speak the truth without subterfuge or delay. They are also perceptive enough to learn that, like other celebrities, they are quick to be forgotten unless they become more extreme or shocking in their rhetoric and so center themselves again and again in controversy.
What is alarming is not really the existence of such individuals, but the increasing popularity and platform they are given, particularly from those of actual knowledge and leadership. Instead of taking on these important contentious issues from the lens of their knowledge and experience, some imams simply ‘outsource’ them to such online personalities and promote their writings and videos. This is a disservice to our community and in leaning on them one establishes a vicious cycle in which such people, who are unqualified and should largely be ignored, are instead given center stage. By doing so one is teaching the community that anyone can speak thoughtlessly on Islamic issues, without any measure of authoritativeness, training, formal learning or expertise. Further and more damaging, in remaining silent on these topics and deferring to them instead, one is only reinforcing the rhetoric these individuals are seeking to promote: that they are the only ones brave or sincere enough to take on these important issues, and speak clearly on them from an Islamic perspective. The irony of imams promoting the very individuals who undermine their own role in the community is lost on many.
The Dumbing Down of Scholarly Discourse
Three important qualities of intelligent scholarly discourse, that are part and parcel of our scholarly tradition, are patently missing from the content such social media personalities produce. The first is accuracy and precision in addressing various issues. One finds in even the sternest rebuttals of various intellectual or political movements throughout our scholarly history an academic rigor and exactness that leaves no room for sweeping statements or oversimplification. Contrast this with the broad, angry statements so often made by online bloggers, who not only do not define what exactly they are arguing against (other than a monolithic progressive boogeyman) but know little to nothing about its history, development, branches, nuances, and more significantly, its relationship and exact interplay with the community, and where the language of such a movement is used to couch the symptoms of other deep seated issues within the community that need to be remedied. A basic quality of one who opines on Islamic issues is not only that they have a proper understanding of the Islamic Sciences, but a full and sound comprehension of the issue they are addressing, including its historical, political, and social context and its meanings to the people they are addressing (ahwaal an-nas)3. Instead, like a doctor without proper or sufficient training, the social media personality misdiagnoses the patient, and misapplies the treatment, leaving them in many cases sicker than they were before.
The second missing component is due deference to a wider body of scholarship over one’s own do-it-yourself, simplistic understanding of Islamic teachings and rulings. Instead of deferring to a broad and healthy body of scholarship who are well informed about the nature of the society in which they live, and also have a robust and deep well-spring of Islamic sources from which they can derive rulings and teachings, such a personality speaks in extreme terms and at times in direct contradiction to what is obvious to those of more knowledge and training.
For example, such individuals incessantly insist that only the most rigid of views are acceptable, even when those of more expertise understand that there is benefit in taking from the breadth of legitimate scholarly differences when appropriate. In a remarkably insightful post, one scholar commented on this short-sighted, unnecessarily constricting (and essentially unscholarly) methodology by observing,
“Nothing has harmed faith more than the increasingly loud voice of rigid harshness especially in a time when principled ease is the suitable path of salvation. All the careful strategy that is founded in principled ease is destroyed by the mutashadidin — the rigid harsh hearted. The only viable option then left to the people is (the opposite extreme): a justification of complete permissibility, watering down [rulings] and loss of one’s religious identity.”4
A simple example can be given in the widespread effort to make masjids and Islamic centers in the West more accommodating for women. The importance of doing so in the context of the West today, in which the masjid is really a lifeline to community support as well as authentic Islamic knowledge, has been widely established by a huge body of scholars from all ends of the spectrum.5 The widespread and long-term harm that comes from barring women from the masjid is considered, from a scholarly perspective, as much weightier and more significant than some of the potential and speculative harms that may come from having women in regular attendance, as has been clearly explained in many of the scholarly writings and rulings that are readily available on the topic. Yet, one can find those on social media who continue to harp on the permissibility of barring women from the masjid and justify reasons for doing so. In so doing they turn a completely blind eye to what this broad body of scholars has expressed, not only in terms of the practicality of giving women a physical space for their obligatory acts worship when they are outside of the home, but the great maslaha they are seeking to achieve in preserving Islam in future generations. A narrow view of Islam in which one cherry picks rulings that promote one’s own already pre-formed perspective, while turning a blind eye to what the mainstream body of relevant scholarship actually teaches, is ironically what such individuals claim to condemn yet is a hallmark of their own practice and preaching.
Thirdly, the language and rhetoric used by this type of social media personality is often deliberately crude, sweeping, demeaning and harsh, whereas that of actual Islamic scholarship should be dignified, careful, and composed, and with thought and consideration to the long term effect it will have on individuals and the community at large. This is not only an ideal but a Quranic principle of dawah.
In the Quran, Allah says,
وَلَا تَسُبُّوا الَّذِينَ يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِ اللَّهِ فَيَسُبُّوا اللَّهَ عَدْوًا بِغَيْرِ عِلْمٍ ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ زَيَّنَّا لِكُلِّ أُمَّةٍ عَمَلَهُمْ ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّهِم مَّرْجِعُهُمْ فَيُنَبِّئُهُم بِمَا كَانُوا يَعْمَلُونَ
And do not insult those they invoke other than Allah, lest they insult Allah in enmity without knowledge. Thus We have made pleasing to every community their deeds. Then to their Lord is their return, and He will inform them about what they used to do. (Al-Anam, 108)
This verse specifically prohibits the believers from addressing the Mushrikeen in a manner that includes insulting what they worship. Even when clearly and explicitly subscribing to incorrect beliefs, the believers are told not to address them in a provocative manner, insulting what they hold dear, because of the probable consequences of doing so: that such people would, in return, insult Allah and His religion. If this is the case with explicit shirk engaged in by openly polytheistic people, what then of views and beliefs held by Muslims that may be incorrect, skewed, or improper? To justify insulting language, in a way that causes people to actually turn further away from and insult Islam, is not only foolish and counterproductive but contravenes this teaching of the Quran, which calls to strategy and wisdom in how we perform dawah.
By promoting individuals who speak in this way, we break the bonds of trust many of the community have with us as representatives of this tradition and its scholarship. If in place of offering scholarly, compassionate, nuanced and calm responses to the concerns and questions of various segments of the community, we instead blindly defend those who insult and belittle, in a manner that is so contrary to the refined and dignified conduct of he whom we claim is our teacher ﷺ, we should not be surprised when people become disillusioned and no longer turn to us for guidance. To do so in this age of mistrust and skepticism for the ‘ulema and sacred knowledge is not only a means of damaging hearts, but burning bridges.
If one’s intention is to truly bring people's hearts closer to Islam utilizing the methods we are taught by the Prophet ﷺ then such language should be rejected. As one of my teachers has said, much of what we claim is anger or emotion "for the sake of Allah" is nothing but self-serving food for the ego, the harms of which we are only beginning to see now, and will see the full consequences of in the coming years.
The Case for Adab
Often the criticism of the use of intentionally demeaning and inflammatory language by such individuals has been dismissed and scoffed at as an obsession with adab — proper or becoming etiquette and manners — over substance. Putting aside the many objections to the actual substance of such rhetoric (as outlined above), a rejection of adab is plainly unIslamic. Note that adab does not mean being meek and compromising when one should be strong, but it means tempering emotion and impetuousness with self-control, care, comportment, intelligence, and far-thinking of the probable consequences of what we say and how we say it.
ٱدْعُ إِلَىٰ سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِٱلْحِكْمَةِ وَٱلْمَوْعِظَةِ ٱلْحَسَنَةِ ۖ وَجَٰدِلْهُم بِٱلَّتِى هِىَ أَحْسَنُ ۚ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ
أَعْلَمُ بِمَن ضَلَّ عَن سَبِيلِهِۦ ۖ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِٱلْمُهْتَدِينَ
Invite (all) to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious. For your Lord knows best who have strayed from His Path and who receive guidance. (An-Nahl, 125)
From a broader perspective, if knowledge could stand alone without any care to presentation, why then were we sent a Prophet ﷺ to manifest Divine teachings in beautiful human form, and as an example from whom to learn? The ‘substance’ of the Quran could have been sent from the Divine without a means or vessel. Instead, there is a sunnah we must follow, a manner and a path. He ﷺ is praised by Allah as "'ala khuluqin 'adheem"6 (‘on an exalted standard of khuluq - character and manners’) He ﷺ said he was sent "but to perfect good manners and character [li utamima makarimal akhlaq]7." The prophetic traditions on adab, particularly in speech, are abundant. For those who audaciously say adab is meaningless, I ask, whose religion then are you following, and whose sunnah are you rejecting?
A Better Way
Instead of promoting online personalities who champion the type of short-sighted rhetoric described above, we must consciously choose a better way: a way that is knowledge-centered, sensitive, and reflective of the depth and spiritual beauty of our scholarly tradition. We must recognize the humanity of people and the struggles and negative experiences they may have encountered that have colored their view of faith. We must have an understanding that opinions are not shaped in a void, but by a worldview and cognitive frames by which people see and assess the realities around them, that must be corrected and illuminated by guidance. We must possess a maturity that extends beyond a petty ‘clap back’ culture, to a broad, visionary way of teaching that includes strategy, composure and calm, and that is deeply sourced in knowledge. This is the true work of du'aat. It is not giving a platform to emotional and juvenile ranting, that gives a momentary sense of valor for the deen but brings about no actual benefit, and actually does the opposite of what is intended.
We need intelligent, compelling, clear and strong responses to pressing intellectual issues, and they need to be presented to the community with beauty and wisdom. As people who are respected for their religious views and given a position of public responsibility and authority (confirmed by our place at the mic, and having a platform that is followed) we must not outsource these vitally important topics to those who do not take this amana seriously, and who mix Islamic teachings with personal grievances, immaturity, and deafness to counsel. We must honor the knowledge we have attained by taking this matter very seriously, and commit to an ethos of Islamic work characterized by a lofty, prophetic adab.
Below, I have shared a number of teachers and resources that may be of interest and benefit. While one may not agree with everything each individual presents, these resources show a healthy, scholarly-based engagement with these topics that we must continue to develop.
Our beloved and esteemed messenger Muhammad ﷺ foretold of a time when people will be enamored and impressed with their own opinions, and intellectual whims and desires will be obeyed instead of truth.8 A text in at-Tabarani states that he ﷺ said: “You are living in a time that has many fuqaha (jurists-people who understand religion) and your lecturers and preachers are few… but there is coming a time upon this community in which the preachers will be many, but those who (truly) understand the religion will be few.”
May Allah the Most High protect us, individually and collectively, from extremes in all forms and all those who call to them, and may He reconnect our hearts with sound knowledge and sound practice. May He make us people of deep understanding of His religion and who speak from knowledge and truth, and not personal desires and whims. May He help us to overcome our own spiritual ailments, ills of the tongue and heart, from personal grievances and issues, and shield others from their harm, and may He make us receptive to sincere advice. May He clear the lenses of our hearts and guide our steps, helping us to emulate he whom Allah graced with the best of conduct and adab, the guide and teacher for us all ﷺ. May He endow us with balance, wisdom, calm deliberation, and intelligence over impetuousness and emotion in our Islamic work. May He protect us from ever being an obstacle that blocks people from reaching Him and from finding beauty in His deen. May He make us a means of relieving doubts, allaying troubled feelings, and attaining clarity and insight to the truth, drawing people towards loving submission to His guidance, and not the opposite.
May we be guided and guide others; may we be enlightened and be a light for others; may we be illuminated spiritually and draw people towards His illumination. May He continue to teach us and not leave us to our own lower selves, that deceives and betrays, even for the blinking of an eye. May He help us serve His deen, courageous and brave, thoughtful and diligent, wise and connected with a tradition of sacred knowledge, in a way that makes us worthy of the title of Islamic ‘teacher’ or ‘caller.’ Allahumma Ameen.
For Further Reading / Study:
Sh. Dawud Walid / Towards Sacred Activism (Book); dawudwalid.com (Personal website)
Sh. Abdallah Adhami / Sakeenah.org
Sh. Abdal Hakim Murad / various articles and lectures. Two examples: Boys will be Boys: Gender Identity Issues, Islam, Irigaray and the Retrieval of Gender
Dr. Karim Lahham / Tabah Foundation
Sh. Akram Nadwi / Al-Salam Institute
Yaqeen Institute / various lectures and resources. Examples: Islam and the Secular Age: Between Certainty and Uncertainty (Sh. Khalil Abdurrashid), LGBTQ and Islam Revisited: The Days of the Donald (Dr. Jonathan Brown et al.)
Dr. Sherman Jackson / various article and lectures. Examples: The Alchemy of Domination, 2.0? (Academic Paper), The Impact of Liberalism, Secularism & Atheism on the American Mosque (Academic Paper) , Liberalism and the American Muslim Predicament (Islamic Monthly Article)
Sachiko Murata / The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought (Book)
Ustadha Zara Faris / zarafaris.com (Personal website)
Ust. Mobeen Vaid / Boston Islamic Seminary; Occasional Reflections (Personal website)
1. See: https://www.facebook.com/imammarcmanley/posts/2073097069388637
2. See, for example Sahih Muslim, Number 1041. A nice short article on the topic can be found here: https://blog.islamiconlineuniversity.com/the-prophets-way-of-correcting-peoples-mistakes/#fn-8185-4
3. See any of many classical books on the topic.
4. See: https://twitter.com/Al3uny/status/1102426480494010369
5. See for example, the related fatawa written by al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah of Saudi Arabia, and the fatwas of Mufti Tariq Masood, Mufti Saeed Ahmed Palanpuri, and even that of Mufti Taqi Usmani- who while generally discouraging women to be ‘out’, specified that women should be encouraged to study Islam properly even if it entails leaving the home, and they should also have a proper place to worship if/when they are outside of the home. Interestingly in part of a longer answer, Shaykh Maulana Marghoob Ahmed Lajpuri said, [edited for clarity] "One of our elder muftis, Mufti Abdur-Rahman Aazmi (HA) came to Bradford so I went to see him. He told me the following story: 'I wrote a [detailed fatwa in which I said that in general, women should not be encouraged to come regularly to the mosque for the prayers.] I then went to Muradabad with my wife and went to the mosque after Fajr time when the congregational prayer had already finished. The muaddhin was standing there and he prevented my wife from entering the mosque. We explained that we were travelling, but he refused and said, 'I have the fatwa of Mufti Abdur-Rahman Aazmi, and he has said that women cannot enter the Mosque!' I told him, 'I am Mufti Abdur-Rahman Aazmi!' So he took us in a room to pray. After this incident, it occurred to me that when I write fatwas in the future I should make it clear that there should be designated spaces for women to pray. A sister from Dewsbury told me that she went in full niqab to another city with her father and she was refused entry in three mosques. She then saw a house with an Islamic sticker on it, and assumed them to be Muslims, so she knocked and they welcomed her to pray in their house. This is exaggeration and extremism and there should be designated spaces for women to pray. [...]"
6. Surah al-Qalam, ayah 4
7. 1614 موطأ مالك كتاب الجامع باب حسن الخلق ما جاء في حسن الخلق
24/333 المحدث ابن عبدالبر خلاصة حكم المحدث يتصل من طرق صحاح في التمهيد
8. Sunan at-Tirmidhi