On my recent visit to Russia

On my recent visit to Russia

Recently I had been invited as part of a UK delegation to visit Russia with Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad from the Cambridge Muslim College. Here is what Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad wrote about the experience:

On 23 September 2016 a delegation of CMC scholars attended Juma Prayers at the newly-rebuilt Moscow Cathedral Mosque. The experience was a fascinating one. Muslims in the UK all too often forget these brethren who inhabit the opposite end of Europe. We live on a small island, and our numbers are small. Russian Muslims, by contrast, live in the world’s largest country, and they number at least twenty-five million. So to visit the Moscow Islamic University and to meet their wonderful trainee imams, and then to pray in the vast new Cathedral Mosque, was to embark on a real voyage of discovery.

The Russian capital is home to an estimated two million Muslims, and this is their largest mosque. For this reason the old and inadequate nineteenth-century building which stood on the site has been rebuilt and enlarged, a project which was completed two years ago. The capacity of the new building is officially five thousand, but it was clear that many more were going to attend Juma today.

The new structure, located near Moscow’s Olympic stadium, is cleverly designed to reflect the historic Islamic influence on Russian architecture. Russian church domes and campaniles copied Tatar mosque design for centuries, since Islam was the major civilisational influence here in medieval times. The mosque therefore finds it easy to be Islamic and European at the same time, pleasingly abolishing a familiar tension. Here, as one walks through the rain towards the vast structure, one reflects on a European national culture which has always internalised Muslimness, albeit with many difficult episodes. Most Muslims here are not immigrants, and are not considered foreign: Islam came to Russia long before Christianity arrived. Countless millions of Russians today claim mixed Muslim and Christian ancestry. Everyone seems to have a Muslim neighbour. Old and young alike speak the national language. Here, Islam announces that it is entirely at home, and has always been so. Most of these worshippers claim no roots abroad.

Near the mosque the crowd becomes busier. Pedlars sell flat loaves of bread, horsemeat sausages, and juice from Siberian aronia berries. Next to the Islamic University there is a gift shop and a Tatar restaurant with eminently charming staff. But we are undistracted, and enter the courtyard, and then the excellently planned and spotless taharet area. Outside is the wet and cold of Russia, and so there is ample space for overcoats and heavy shoes. Ready to pray, we file up the magnificent central stairway, and enter the main worship space.

The walls around us are decorated with thuluth calligraphy by the Turkish master Hüseyin Kutlu. These take the form of great roundels, displaying texts carefully chosen by Kutlu himself for their appropriateness to each part of the sacred space. The mihrab, also Turkish in inspiration, is built in a light grey marble. It is truly enormous. And high above our heads, at the centre of the dome, we see a remarkable Russian-style joggled pattern, picked out in dark blue, turquoise and gold; another reminder of the Islamic influence on Russian architecture.

This ‘cathedral mosque’, as the local Muslims call it, is the official mosque of the Grand Mufti of the Russian Federation, Shaykh Ravil Gainutdinov, and hence is essentially Hanafi in its practices. Still, when the imam appears, taking step after step up a gigantic marble minbar, pausing on each step in the traditional way, the bulk of the khutba is in Tatar and Russian.

The mosque has nine imams, but today’s preacher is Shaykh Damir Dzhan. He wears the large white turban of ulema from the Volga region: traditionally the imams here are from the city of Nizhny Novgorod, a centre of Muslim scholarship some three hundred miles east of here. His subject is the tawaf, and for almost an hour he holds the congregation’s attention. These are educated people, and the khutba must be deep and reflective. He compares the tawaf to the natural geometries of the world, the anticlockwise motions of the solar system, the patterns of the cosmos. A complex and interesting argument unfolds.

The congregation is young: I see hardly anyone over the age of forty. Most have arrived early: the mosque was full even before the adhan. They are respectful and pay close attention to the sermon. A few are taking photographs, and in front of me a teenager in a high felt hat is on his feet, taking a video with his phone. There are policemen here and there. But the atmosphere overall is holy and restrained.

The khutba is over, and Imam Damir makes his long journey down the steps. He leads us in Surat al-A’la and Surat al-Ghashiya. After the prayer there is tasbih and dhikr, and then a visiting imam recites from the Qur’an, his glorious voice soaring up into the heights of the dome. He begins and ends with maqam Saba: his treatment purely classical in style, with nothing of the local about it; but thanks to the universality of beauty the cantillation fits in a dignified way into this space and into our hearts.

Afterwards there are hugs, tea, and conversations with this little-known European people. Everyone seems to be a keen Putin supporter, and I learn that the Russian president is more popular among Muslims here than among any other group of the Russian population. There is certainly much to think about.

Truly, a different age has dawned in the formerly grey and misanthropic Soviet metropolis, which saw so many ulema tortured and deported in the aftermath of Lenin’s brutal revolution. And there is so much love for God here! After communism spread its cold fog over these people for seventy years, hope and faith and optimism are back in amazing strength. Although the legacy of forced secularity has left many people with little religious knowledge, only six percent of Russians today call themselves atheists. This mosque, the soaring words of the Qur’an within it, and these rivers of young people who now flow out into the streets, recharged and reassured, show the truth of God’s word: ‘And God refuses anything other than the completion of His light, though the unbelievers disdain it.’

Initiative to Stop the Violence: Sadat’s Assassins and the Renunciation of Political Violence

Initiative to Stop the Violence: Sadat’s Assassins and the Renunciation of Political Violence

Mubādarat Waqf al-‘Unf al-Gamā’ah al-Islāmīyah

In The Name of God, The Most Merciful, The Especially Merciful

This book is an important read as it emerges from within one of the largest and most militant Islamic organisations in the Middle East, Egypt’s al-Gamā’ah al-Islāmīyah. The movement is believed to have played a role in a number of acts of terrorism, including the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Yet, it has received very little attention. Besides being a reflexive manifesto, it challenges and enriches prevailing notions about the role of Islamists in fighting the scourge of extremist politics, blind anti-Westernism, and, alas, wayward jihad.

The movement went on to renounce violence, along with its former ideology in 1997 and opted to look deep into the rich intellectual Islamic tradition; to emerge with a more deeper understanding of what the aim and application of jihad actually is.  As Dr Jackson states, ‘the Gamā’ah drew on a conspicuously traditional set of arguments – indeed, to a large extent, an emphatically traditional universe of meanings, tropes, and articulations…’ clearly showing that the sharī’ah, when viewed through the prism of tradition, is the ‘most effective means of promoting peaceful conflict resolution with or among Muslims.’ This essential manifesto is available in English thanks to Dr Sherman A. Jackson.  Lucidly written and presented in a manner that can be read by wider audiences. A must read for anyone interested in debates surrounding contemporary Islam.

Islamic Education as ‘Drawing-Out’

Islamic Education as ‘Drawing-Out’

Islamic Education as ‘Drawing-Out’ – Summary of a talk delivered by Sheikh Abdal Hakim Murad

I have just finished watching a video by Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad (AHM) titled ‘Rethinking Islamic Education.’ (youtube link below). In line with his characteristic  erudition, breath and depth of knowledge, he discusses the question of whether Islam ought to be seen by educational theorists as a religion of reason or of inspiration. This is an important question, since it has significant implications for pedagogy and curriculum design in the modern context. Recent Muslim discourse as seeing Islam as a religion based on reason can be seen as a reaction to the European belief in the ‘Oriental unreason.’ Of course, this view has not gone unchallenged. The fundamentalists who trace their ancestry back to Ibn Taymiyyah rejected systematic dialectics and were particularly skeptical about the formal claims of reason in religion. Both camps nevertheless root themselves in scripture. So who is normative? A way to answering this question is to look back at history. In the madrassa curricula, before modern apologetics, we do find a favouring of reason; based on the sciences of nazr, formal theology and legal theory with all of them being sustained by a logical armature. Kalam, in later expressions, was inductive and rationalistic. However, this is not the entire story; one needs to scrutinise the Qur’an itself. AHM goes on to argue that for Muslims, the Qur’an is experienced not as a set of integrated cumulative arguments, but as a ‘dithyramb’ that transforms the soul. The power of scripture lies in its aurality. Its language and imagery are anagogic; ‘it educates through the divine presence actualised in God’s uncreated speech.’ Therefore, Qur’anic cantillation comes across as a purely non-rational mode of education, of ‘drawing-out.’ This passage is striking:

“The ascent to the One, therefore, is not through logic-chopping powers of our ‘dingy clay’ but through acquiring a true and loving ear that can properly hear this music. True learning is, as Suhrawardi put it, an escape from the city of reason to the wilderness where God can be found. This is education not by the accumulation of premises and proofs, but through the deepening of our ontological consciousness.”

Having said so much, though the madrassa curriculum appears dialectical rather than inspirational, AHM states that the Qur’an finds its root in two mutual yet controversial disciplines: kalam and Sufism. Hence, we find that there existed a symbiosis and synthesis between the two; a dual epistemology which was eroded in the modern period and eventually, shattered. Herein lies the consequence:

“Deprived of access to a serious theological education, but having no access to the Sufi illuminations, which was its traditional counterpoint, Muslims pupils and students increasingly incline either to secular lifestyles, or to non mystical readings of Ibn Taymiyyah.”

In order to revive the collapse of this binary arrangement, AHM argues (as does Fazlur Rehman in his book ‘Islam’) one needs to recall that in early Islam such a dichotomy did not exist. For them at least, all knowledge was one. AHM provides the essence of Islamic education:

“…We are required to exist in a harmonious balance that incorporates body, intellect, and soul into a single human subject, an omnium, al-insan al kamil. Only such a being, dialectically regulated by kalam, and emotionally disciplined by Sufism, is capable of true reason, of aql, and thus of being ‘drawn-out.’”

And only God knows best.


Link for the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bI8y3Q_FpD4


Review: Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800

Review: Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800

In religion, the issue of sexuality becomes very sensitive when we focus on sexual relationships between people from the same sex. Europeans scholars and travellers were shocked at what they perceived to be the tolerant attitudes in Muslim societies towards homosexuality, which they interpreted to be the norm of such societies. This book addresses the prejudices and paucity of research in this area by focusing on how homosexual behaviour was perceived and presented in the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire between 1500 and 1800 – just before modernisation took hold in the nineteenth century.

Modern historians glossing over the distinction between committing sodomy and expressing love for youth to describe them as “homosexuality” is unhelpful. Using an interdisciplinary approach, the author shows how Islamic scholars condemned “liwat” (anal intercourse between men) but not “homosexuality” (e.g. writing a love poem of a male youth would simply not fall under liwat). Three rich chapters provide cultural strands that highlight perceptions of same sex love among the urban elite of the time. Chapter one provides that the “active” or “insertive” role in sexual intercourse was appropriated to a man and a “passive” or “receptive” role was appropriated to women. A man who took on the latter role was stereotyped into being an effeminate and having some sort of abnormal or pathological condition. However, a man who sought to have intercourse with a beardless male youth was not violating the ideal of masculinity as long as he stuck to the “active” or “insertive” role.

Chapter 2 explores the general aesthetic sensibility towards human beauty, be it in the form of women or beardless youths. The chapter contains an illuminating discussion on whether Arabic love poetry dedicated to boys was just fiction and asks “to what extent is it legitimate to regard love poetry and belletristic disputations as historical sources that reveal certain values and tastes within the real-life milieu of belletrists and their audience?” (p. 75). The author argues that the frequency of expressions of pederastic love in that genre certainly must have corresponded to a prevalent cultural notion among the poets and their audience, who considered the refined and chaste love for boys with sympathy and in an idealistic manner. In the world of Islamic mysticism, an aesthetic view of handsome youths or beautiful women was imbued with a metaphysical sense where it was understood to be a means of experiencing the beauty of God.

The final chapter evaluates forms of sexual relations between men in Islamic legal literature, and the related discipline of commentaries in the Qur’an and traditions (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad. This includes detailed discussions of the various legal opinions regarding issues such as gazing at beardless boys, sexual intercourse between men, the question of whether liwat could exist in paradise, and of what falls within the boundaries of liwat and what does not. This final strand views sexual relations between men as a transgression against the sacred law, though most schools of law only viewed anal intercourse as a cardinal sin. Generally, the jurists who were committed to the principle of not prohibiting what God made licit, or to think well of fellow Muslims, did not deem anything that might lead to such transgression as a sin itself, though they found it be problematic and allowed the composition of pederastic poetry.

The author concludes by charting the cultural change that has taken place where European Victorian attitudes intervened, and the various strands of same-sex love came under a new term shudhudh jinsi, corresponding to the European pathological understanding of homosexuality as ‘sexual perversion’, and its far-reaching consequences

Haroon Sidat

El-Rouayheb, K. (2009). Before homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic world, 1500-1800: University of Chicago Press.


‘Tariqat, Shariat aur Siyasat’ -Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Khandhlawi and Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyib Qasimi

‘Tariqat, Shariat aur Siyasat’ -Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Khandhlawi and Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyib Qasimi

In The Name of Allah, The Most Merciful, The Especially Merciful

 Given much confusion and compartmentalisation when it comes to the religious outlook and engagement of Muslims today, this text is essential reading from an influential, highly regarded and deeply learned scholar of South Indian Islam. The text provides a detailed yet concise explanation as to why the three strands of Islam: the spiritual way, the religious code and politics (tariqat, shariat and siyasat) must be interwoven to create a balanced, holistic, yet deeply reflective community — one that genuinely treads the path of the Prophet (peace be upon him). It is precisely the absence of all three in concert that the Muslim Ummah finds itself in the situation it is in today.

Following the tradition of seeking consultation (mashwera) from religious leaders, we find the founder of the Tablighi Jama’at movement, Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Khandhlawi seeking guidance from Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyib Qasim (Principal of Darul uloom Deoband for over fifty years and the grandson of the founder of the Darul uloom, Maulana Muhammad Qasim Nanotwi) as to how the movement should continue with its success whilst ensuring that it does not lose sight of what religious calling (dawat) should entail.

The original document, which is well worth reading, is attached. A summary of some of the key points are below. [1]

The Qur’an presents the following verse:

 “He it is Who hath sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of their own, to recite unto them His revelations and to make them grow, and to teach them the Scripture and wisdom, though heretofore they were indeed in error manifest” (Surah Jumuah, verse two).

The verse presents three ‘programs’ that ought to be combined in order for the Muslim Ummah to set itself on the course to reformation and revival:

  1. Ta’lim – Teaching of the religion
  2. Tazkiyah/Tahzeeb i Akhlaq – Purification of the heart or self rectification
  3. Hikmah – imparting of wisdom, which according to one exegetical understanding is to follow the Prophetic path i.e. the practical application of the Sunnah both individually and at a collective level (broadly considered here to mean politics).

In customary language the three programs are termed shariat, tariqah and siyasat respectively. They can be analogous to setting out on a journey. The shariat being its path, the tariqah being the provision, and siyasat being that which removes any dangers or obstruction. What is clear is that all three are required if one is to reach their destination safely.

Furthermore, the tariqah on its owns leads to a contemplative outlook and preference for seclusion. Siyasat however, is outward facing: one of engagement with wider society and being this-wordly. The juxtaposition of these apparently contradictory outlooks are reconciled by the shariat, which acts as a bridge. Again, the point is that all three are required. Following only the tariqah leads to weakness and cowardice. Being purely shariah oriented leads to constriction and a lack of pragmatism in religion. Finally, being solely immersed in siyasat leads to deception and pride. From this, one can diagnose a number of problems in our Ummah.

It is an affliction of our times that all of these three efforts have become compartmentalised and isolated from one another. In fact, the effect of this separation is that each group(s) actively seeks to compete and outwit one another. As a consequence, Islam is ultimately at loss.

For Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyib Qasmi, this is precisely the cause of the decline of the Muslims. For him, the current predicament of Muslims is very much their own doing.

And only Allah knows best.

Haroon Ebrahim Sidat


[1] Maulana Qari Muhammad Tayyib Qasim is not responding directly here but the response he has provided seems to fit in with the question posed by Maulana Muhammed Ilyas Khandlawi. See page 6 of the document.

I also want to thank Sheikh Saleem Seedat and Sheikh Uwais Namazi for bringing this enlightening document to my attention.

The original urdu document can be found here: Tariqat, shariat aur siyasat

Four Point Post Ramadhān Plan

Four Point Post Ramadhān Plan

In The Name of Allāh, The Most Merciful, The Especially Merciful

  1. Start small 

Before you try to sprint, learn to crawl first. So for example, if you can just about perform the five daily obligatory prayers, work on that aspect of your worship. Once you feel that it’s ‘part of your system’ then move on to making sure you perform all the sunnah prayers. Next, the optional prayers, and so on. The key is consistency. Don’t build until you are consistent. Praying the night prayer (tahajjud) is wonderful but if you miss fajr, then you’ve got your priorities wrong. In Islām, there is a hierarchy when it comes to worship.

سَدِّدُوا وَقَارِبُوا، وَاعْلَمُوا أَنْ لَنْ يُدْخِلَ أَحَدَكُمْ عَمَلُهُ الْجَنَّةَ، وَأَنَّ أَحَبَّ الأَعْمَالِ أَدْوَمُهَا إِلَى اللَّهِ، وَإِنْ قَلَّ

“Do good deeds properly, sincerely and moderately and know that your deeds will not make you enter Paradise, and that the most beloved deed to God is the most regular and constant even if it were little (Bukhāri).

2. If you make a mistake, move on

Muslims don’t dwell on the past. We repent and we move on. In fact, Allāh loves it when we turn to Him when we err. We have been ordered to never lose hope in the mercy of Allāh:


“O my Servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the Mercy of Allāh: for Allāh forgives all sins: for He is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Qur’ān 39:53)

3. Support one another

As humans we are prone to making mistakes. But that’s not the point. It’s our reaction to the action that matters. Inspire, support and motivate one another.

عَنِ ابْنِ مَسْعُودٍ، أَنَّ رَجُلاً، أَصَابَ مِنَ امْرَأَةٍ قُبْلَةَ حَرَامٍ فَأَتَى النَّبِيَّ صلى الله عليه وسلم فَسَأَلَهُ عَنْ كَفَّارَتِهَا فَنَزَلَتْ : ( أَقِمِ الصَّلاَةَ طَرَفَيِ النَّهَارِ وَزُلَفًا مِنَ اللَّيْلِ إِنَّ الْحَسَنَاتِ يُذْهِبْنَ السَّيِّئَاتِ ) فَقَالَ الرَّجُلُ

أَلِيَ هَذِهِ يَا رَسُولَ اللَّهِ فَقَالَ ” لَكَ وَلِمَنْ عَمِلَ بِهَا مِنْ أُمَّتِي

Ibn Masūd narrates that a man unlawfully kissed a woman. So he came to the Messenger (ﷺ) to ask him about its atonement. So (the following) verse was revealed: “And perform the prayer, at the two ends of the day and in some hours of the night’”(Qur’an, 11:114). The man said: “Is this for me O Messenger of God?” He said: “For you and for whoever does that among my Ummah.” (Tirmidhi)

This man made a mistake and was regretful (and what a mistake it was!). When he came to the Messenger (ﷺ) to report his crime, the Messenger (ﷺ) didn’t dwell on the crime (something we all too often do!) but told him, in effect, to move on and improve his game. In fact, a verse was revealed which gave hope to all of us – good deeds do away with misdeeds. As Muslims, we support and reinforce one another. If someone stumbles, we pick them up and move on. Of course, for major sins we need to seek forgiveness first.

4. Find the right companion

Its not about how many friends you have on Facebook, or followers on twitter. It’s all about finding the right friends. Find friends who will help you improve day by day, motivate and inspire you, and ultimately, help make you a perfect role model. Islam is all about continuous improvement. Sit with Scholars and people of learning. You will learn so much just by observing them. Much more than you can ever learn from just reading books (though reading is very important too!)

مَثَلُ الْجَلِيسِ الصَّالِحِ وَالْجَلِيسِ السَّوْءِ كَمَثَلِ صَاحِبِ الْمِسْكِ، وَكِيرِ الْحَدَّادِ، لاَ يَعْدَمُكَ مِنْ صَاحِبِ الْمِسْكِ

إِمَّا تَشْتَرِيهِ، أَوْ تَجِدُ رِيحَهُ، وَكِيرُ الْحَدَّادِ يُحْرِقُ بَدَنَكَ أَوْ ثَوْبَكَ أَوْ تَجِدُ مِنْهُ رِيحًا خَبِيثَةً.

“”The example of a good companion (who sits with you) in comparison with a bad one, is like that of the musk seller and the blacksmith’s bellows (or furnace); from the first you would either buy musk or enjoy its good smell while the bellows would either burn your clothes or your house, or you get a bad nasty smell thereof.” (Bukhāri)

So make friends from the pious servants of Allāh, The Scholars, and those who care not for the pleasures of this world, but seek the pleasure of Allāh.

And only Allāh knows best.

Hāroon Ibn Ebrāhīm Sīdāt





Four Virtues Leading to Success from God by al-Ghazālī

Four Virtues Leading to Success from God by al-Ghazālī

In the tradition of Muslim philosophical ethics, one discerns a focus on the attainment of happiness through cultivating virtue and maintaining moderation and balance. Like Aristotle, the great Muslim theologian al-Ghazālī identifies happiness with the attainment of the chief felicity or good for humans. Both worldly and otherworldly happiness are taken into consideration in his discussion, although it is the latter which is ultimate and real. According to al-Ghazālī, in order to achieve otherworldly happiness, various levels of virtue must be cultivated – including the external virtues of wealth, kin and social position. There are four further “virtues leading to success from God”: [1] guidance (hidāya), good counsel (rushd), direction (tasdīd), and support (ta’yīd). [2]

He further declares, “Divine guidance is the foundation of all good. Qur’ān 20:50 states that God gave to everything it’s created nature and then guided it.” By good counsel, says al-Ghazālī, we mean “that Divine providence which assists man in turning toward his chosen goals, by strengthening his resolve to do what conduces to his righteousness and deters him from what conduces to his destruction.” This counsel is inward, as the Qur’ān asserts in 21:51: “We have indeed imparted to Ibrāhīm his good counsel (rushd) previously and were fully conversant therewith.”

Right direction (tasdīd), by contrast, consists in man’s directing his will and movements toward the desired goal, so as to attain it in the shortest time possible. It differs from good counsel in that the latter is limited to exhortation and advice, whereas right direction involves active assistance and reinforcement.

As for divine support (ta’yīd), described in the Qur’ān as the “assistance of the Holy Spirit,” it is an act of empowering man through granting him insight and the physical capacity to carry out the designs of God’s will” (Mizān al-amal).

Each of these ideas – guidance, good counsel, and spiritual aid or support – has a Qur’ānic basis and informs Muslim understandings of discerning and living one’s life. We ask God to bless us with happiness by endowing us with noble virtues.

And only God knows best.

[1] (Fadāil tawqifiyyā):

[2] See Mizān al-amal by al-Ghazāli (Majid, 1991)