My Approach To Islam (Want some context?)

“But as for those who strive hard in Our cause -We shall most certainly guide them onto PATHS that lead unto Us: for, behold, God is indeed with the doers of good.” (Qur’an 29:69)1

I. Core

A. 1. Belief In One God. 2. Working For Good. 3. Certainty That We Will Be Judged.

God promises that whether one calls themselves a Jew, Christian, Muslim or Sabian (or anything really) there shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve (on the Day of Judgment) for those who do three things: 1. Believe in The One God, 2. Work righteous deeds, and 3. Are aware that they will be judged. This is specifically repeated twice in the Qur’an, and repeated in more general terms throughout.

“VERILY, those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], as well as those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Christians, and the Sabians -all who believe in God and the Last Day and do righteous deeds-shall have their reward with their Sustainer; and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.” (2:62, 5:69)

Besides that, God rejects notions of a certain ‘saved’ or ‘chosen’ people in a number of Qur’anic verses. They also apply to Muslims.

And They claim, “None shall ever enter paradise unless he be a Jew” – or, “a Christian”. Such are their wishful beliefs! Say: “Produce an evidence for what you are claiming, if what you say is true!” Nay! whoever submits himself entirely to God and he is the doer of good (to others) he has his reward from his Lord, and there is no fear for him nor shall he grieve. (2:111-112)

It is quite clear that when God, in the Qur’an, refers to the ignorant actions that some Christians and Jews take, God is warning Muslims not to fall into the same trap. Many of us have ignored the warnings and jumped right in. Furthermore, God is totally willing to replace a once-favored community with a better one:

Behold, [O believers,] it is you who are called upon to spend freely in God’s cause: but [even] among you are such as turn out to be niggardly! And yet, he who acts niggardly [in God’s cause] is but niggardly towards his own self: for God is indeed self-sufficient, whereas you stand in need [of Him]; and if you turn away [from Him], He will cause other people to take your place, and they will not be the likes of you! (47:38, See also: 70:40-412 and 76:27-293)

What I understand from these verses, and indeed the themes that the verses make reference to is this: if you are a good Jew, Muslim, Christian, or Freelance Monotheist, then congratulations. But if you are an individual who thinks you are ‘saved’ just because of the label you choose to identify yourself with, understand that the only promise we have been given is that we will be judged on whether or not we nourished our own souls by doing good for the earth. See also 6:158, where God confirms that belief isn’t worth much without the doing of good deeds.

“…[But] on the Day when thy Sustainer’s [final] portents do appear, believing will be of no avail to any human being who did not believe before, or who, while believing, did no good works.” (6:158)

B. Qur’an And Consciousness. Internal And External Compasses. “Will God be pleased with this?”

1. The first question people ask after reading the above is this: “Well, what is Good? Isn’t it only the Qur’an and traditions of the Prophet that define good?” Some are uncomfortable with how open an idea that is, and wonder about how a malicious person could delude themselves into thinking that something is good when it is not. The Qur’an itself does give us some examples of clearly good actions and clearly wrong, but leaves the rest up to us to figure out. I believe this is just one of the challenges God has given humans. Why else would God describe the path of Good as a steep path? I feel like I’m quoting the Qur’an with every other sentence here, but chapter al-Balad is screaming to be quoted.

“Have We not given him two eyes, and a tongue and a pair of lips, and shown him the two highways (of good and evil]? But he would not try to ascend the steep uphill road. And what could make you conceive what it is, that steep uphill road? [It is the freeing of a human being from bondage, or the feeding, upon a day of hunger of an orphan near of kin, or of a needy [stranger] lying in the dust, and being, withal, of those who have attained to faith, and who enjoin upon one another patience in adversity, and enjoin upon one another compassion. Such are they they have attained to righteousness.” (90:8-18)

It is like God is saying, “We’ve given you a brain and all of these faculties4. You can use those faculties to ask Us for help, and you can use those faculties to determine what to do. We’ve given you the choice to pick the right path. That path is pretty steep and here are some examples of what that steep path entails!” Sorry, God, for paraphrasing you. You obviously don’t need any paraphrasing!

“…By the Soul, and the proportion and order given to it; And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right;- Truly he succeeds that purifies it, And he fails that corrupts it!” (91:7-10)

Besides, our own soul knows the difference between wrong and right! And we should nourish our soul by doing the good, the right. Developing that innate gift5, so it is easier for us to distinguish is also important! Not only that, but if you stay conscious of God through all of these challenges, you’ll get a little help. Read for yourself:

“O you who have attained to faith! If you remain conscious of God. He will endow you with a standard by which to discern the true from the false, and will efface your bad deeds, and will forgive you your sins: for God is limitless in His great bounty.” (8:29)

The point is to seek to do things that please God (and therefore keep God in mind). Before making a huge decision, or a decision which falls into a murky gray area, it would behoove us to ask ourselves whether or not our action will please God. One way to do that is to listen to our moral compass.

An important part of this discussion, touched on in the last section, is the continual reminder in the Qur’an that God is not in need of our good deeds and is not harmed by our bad deeds. By doing good, we only benefit our own souls. By doing wrong, we harm only ourselves. This may seem redundant, but think about how beautiful a system that is. And to make it just a bit more easy to imagine, lets draw some parallels. We have a physical part of our body that we need to maintain by eating well and having an active lifestyle. If we decide to eat cookies and sit on our behinds all day, we harm our own bodies. The spiritual part works the same way. We need to maintain and nourish our souls with good things too. The words and imagery in which God describes this is also fascinating. For example,

And be constant in prayer, and render the purifying dues6; for, whatever good deed you send ahead for your own selves, you shall find it with God: behold, God sees all that you do.” (2:110)

This notion of sending your deeds ahead of yourself is often repeated.  Our self will then testify about our past life on the day we are judged.

“And every human being’s destiny have We tied to his neck; and on the Day of Resurrection We shall bring forth for him a record which he will find wide open; “Read this thy record! Sufficient is your own self today to make out your account!” (17:13-14)

For those of you interested in the first part of this verse, and the free will vs. destiny conversation, see Muhammad Asad’s note:

“It should, however, be borne in mind that the Qur’anic concept of “destiny” relates not so much to the external circumstances of and events in man’s life as, rather, to the direction which this life takes in result of one’s moral choices: in other words, it relates to man’s spiritual fate-and this, in its turn, depends-as the Qur’an so often points out-on a person’s inclinations, attitudes and conscious actions (including self-restraint from morally bad actions or, alternatively, a deliberate omission of good actions). Hence, man’s spiritual fate depends on him-self and is inseparably linked with the whole tenor of his personality; and since it is God who has made man responsible for his behavior on earth, He speaks of Himself as having “tied every human being’s destiny to his neck”

II. The Qur’an & Other Revelations

A. Purpose Of The Qur’an/Purpose of Messengers Like Muhammad (May Peace & Blessings Be Upon Them All).

1. I view the Qur’an (and other revelations) as simply a reminder and guidance for humankind, especially those who already believe [in One God]. It is a reminder of the revelations that came before it (e.g. Torah, Bible, Bhagavad Gita. etc). In its own words,

“A Divine Writ has been bestowed from on high upon thee -and let there be no doubt about this in thy heart-in order that thou mayest warn thereby, and warn the believers: “Follow what has been sent down unto you by your Sustainer, and follow no masters other than Him. How seldom do you keep this in mind!” (7:2-3)

“And be constant in praying at the beginning and the end of the day, as well as during the early watches of the night: for, verily, good deeds drive away evil deeds: this is a reminder to all who bear [God] in mind.” (11:114)

“And [remember:] out of all the accounts relating to the [earlier] apostles We convey unto thee [only] that wherewith We [aim to] make firm thy heart: for through these [accounts] comes the truth unto thee, as well as an admonition and a reminder unto all believers.” (11:120)

Also see: 15:9, 21:7, 21:10, 21:24, 29:51, 32:22, 36:69-70, 38:49, 38:87, 43:44, 50:37, 68:52, 81:27, 73:19, 74:31, and the list goes on.

As it was revealed over 23 years, I believe it to be a precedent for progress, a document that pushes us towards realizing universal principles of justice and equality. No text is an island unto itself, and the Qur’an is no exception. The starting point is 600 AD tribal Arabia, an unjust society in need of The Message.

2. Muhammad/Other Messengers

The Prophet Muhammad like all other Prophets of God (peace be upon them all) was “only a reminder.”

And so, remind them; you are only a reminder. (88:21)

And he was a “plain warner.”

Say: “I am not the first of [God’s] apostles; and I do not know what will be done with me or with you: for I am nothing but a plain warner.” (46:9)

We are also told in the Qur’an that believers should not make any distinction between the Prophets of God.

Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants, and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.” (2:136)

“But as for those who believe in God and His apostles and make no distinction between any of them – unto them, in time, will He grant their re wards [in full]. And God is indeed much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace. (4:152) (See also 2:285 and 3:84)

That is, no one Prophet is better than the other Prophets. They all called people to believe in God and do good. See Muhammad Asad’s note on verse 46:9:

“…I am not preaching anything that was not already preached by all of God’s apostles before me” (Razi and Baydawi): which coincides with the Quranic doctrine of the identity of the ethical teachings propounded by all of God’s prophets.”

B. Approach To The Qur’an

The Qur’an speaks of two kinds of verses in it. Some are basic principles, the core of it. Others are symbolic, or allegorical and only God knows their meaning. I choose to focus on what we view as the principles in the Qur’an. With verses that I do not understand either because they contain symbolism, or because I was not present during the revelation, I try to reflect on the basic principle regarding the subject matter of the verse along with all of the other verses that contribute to that theme.

To put it simply, I am more interested in exploring the themes that rise off the page of the Qur’an, and the spirit of the injunctions rather than a literal reading.

III. The Hadith Traditions

I apologize in advance for the heavy quoting of Khaled Abou El Fadl in this section. I have not come across many people who have articulated thoughts on these issues as well as he has.

They are collections of sayings/actions of Muhammad transmitted through generations of people. While they are a considered a source of Islamic law, many Muslims misuse them by what Khaled Abou El Fadl terms “hadith hurling.” While he specifically speaks of Wahhabis, I believe it applies to many modern day Muslims & Muslim Leaders who think they are jurists.

“Hurlers of Prophetic traditions, because of their ignorance of jurisprudential theory and methodology, treat law in a whimsical and opportunistic fashion. They search through the thousands of statements and sayings attributed to the Prophet in order to find anything that they could use to support their already preconceived and predtermined positions. In effect, they utilize the inherited traditions about the Prophet in an arbitrary and whimsical personalized fashion in order to affirm whatever positions they feel like supporting. As a result, traditionists (or hadith hurlers) often end up confusing their cultural habits and preferences and Islamic law. They selectively pick evidence that supports their cultural biases and claim that these cultural practices are the Islamic mandated law. Al-Ghazali asserted that because such people do not abide by any disciplined methodology or principled way in thinking about the Divine Will, they end up corrupting Islamic law.”

Further down that passage,

“In al-Ghazali’s view, this arrogant and intolerant attitude deprecated and impoverished Islamic thinking, and denied Islam its universalism and humanism. Rather tellingly, al-Ghazali claimed that the modern Ahl al-Hadith, or Wahhabis, trapped Islam in an arid and harsh environment in which the earmarks of a humanist civilization were clearly absent.” (The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From The Extremists, 90-91)

I do not deny there are good pieces of wisdom in the traditions, but I cannot discount the fact that the people listening to Muhammad were living their own lives with their own sets of prejudices/biases/strengths/weaknesses, who chose to remember this or the other of what Muhammad said and did. Even if the chain of transmission is sound, I cannot discount the context of transmission and collection. Again, Abou El Fadl, in Speaking in God’s Name, after a lengthy discussion around the various interpretive communities surrounding the Qur’an, turns his focus to the Prophetic tradition.

“For a Muslim who accepts the authoritativeness of the Prophet’s commands, the issue becomes distilling the authorial core that, in fact, can relate back to the Prophet. Assuming that one can do so — assuming that the Prophetic core is recognizable and reachable — then the same analysis that applies to the qur’an will be pertinent for the Sunnah. If I sincerely believe that the interpretive community was in error in understanding the Prophet’s injunctions, as a matter of conscience, I am obliged to dissent. Nevertheless, I believe that in the vast majority of traditions, this Prophetic core is unreachable. In the vast majority of traditions, the different forms of authorship are thoroughly intermingled with the Prophetic authorship, and it is practically impossible to differentiate between the various authorial voices. It must be emphasized that I am not talking about the authenticity of the traditions — I am not claiming that the vast majority of Prophetic traditions are apocryphal. I am arguing that since the Prophet was a human being who, unlike God, is subject to mundane historical processes, his legacy cannot exist outside the context of human mediation and the human authorial process” (109).

All of this begs the question: What do we do as people who are not jurists? You know, like the vast majority of human beings on earth? If we are commanded to obey the Prophet, and it is unlikely that we are able to reach the Prophetic core of traditions, what are we to do? I feel it is wise to stick to the principles found in the Qur’an and other revelation, because that is what all of the prophets followed. As for the Prophetic tradition? I view them just as they are, historical reports of the past that may give us insight into what society was like back then.

Besides, the Qur’an was revealed over 23 years.  It’ll take a lifetime to discover and master the maxims found in the Qur’an, let alone applying those maxims to hadith collections– we were not all meant to be experts in Islamic Law.

IV. The Schools Of Islamic Law

There used to be over a hundred schools of Islamic Law. They used to vibrantly debate any and all things under the sun. Competing thoughts and outlooks were able to flourish. Now, there are only a handful of schools. Simply put, when it comes to the four current Sunni Schools Of Thought, they use four sources to determine legal rulings: 1. Qur’an. 2. Hadith 3. Consensus. 4. Analogy. In the Ja’fari Shi’a school, it seems they do away with the Analogy bit and use their Intellect (‘aql).

While I respect those jurists who decide to delve into all sorts of analogies and try to come up with a consensus, I think that they may go a little too far sometimes. Just take a look at the Purification section in “Reliance Of The Traveler: A Classical Manual On Islamic Sacred Law,” where the author tells us how to [legally] wipe our behinds:

“But it is obligatory to wash oneself with water if: …feces spread beyond the inner buttochs (N: meaning that which is enfolded when standing, or urine moved beyond the head of the penis, though if they do not pass beyond them, stones suffice.
“It is obligatory (N: when cleaning oneself with a dry substance alone) to both remove the filth and to wipe three times, even when once is enough to clean it, doing this either with three pieces (lit. “stones”) or three sides of one piece. If three times does not remove it, it is obligatory to (N: repeat it enough) to clean it away (O: as that is the point of cleaning oneself. skips down a bit An odd number of strokes is recommended. One should wipe from front to back on the right side with the first piece, similarly wipe the left with the second, and wipe both sides and the anus with the third. Each stroke must behind at the point on the skin that is free of impurity.” (pg. 78)

Frankly, and I mean no disrespect, I do not believe I need a jurist to tell me how to wipe my behind.

The Qur’an tells a great (and relevant story) of how Moses related to his people that God wanted them to sacrifice a cow. Instead of sacrificing the cow, they made it harder for themselves by mocking Moses, and asking questions like “Hey Moses, why don’t you, ummm, go ask your God what color the cow should be?” I believe it provides a clear example of how present-day, mainstream discussions about Islamic Law completely miss the point of God’s Reminder. We are to discover and follow the universal principles that will lead us to living a life of worship of the One God. Worship, not only within the individual rituals, but also by serving everything on our world– from humanity to the environment. Muhammad Asad’s note regarding the verses is particularly apt, but first, the story as told by God:

“And Lo! Moses said unto his people: “Behold, God bids you to sacrifice a cow.”
They said: “Dost thou mock at us?” He answered: “I seek refuge with God against being so ignorant!”
Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that He make clear to us what she is to be like.”
[Moses] replied: “Behold, He says it is to be a cow neither old nor immature, but of art age in-between. Do, then, what you have been bidden!”
Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that He make clear to us what her colour should be.”
[Moses] answered: “Behold; He says it is to be a yellow cow, bright of hue, pleasing to the beholder.”
Said they: “Pray on our behalf unto thy Sustainer that He make clear to us what she is to be like, for to us all cows resemble one another; and then, if God so wills, we shall truly be guided aright!”
[Moses] answered: “Behold, He says it is to be a cow not broken-in to plough the earth or to water the crops, free of fault, without
markings of any other colour.”
Said they: “At last thou hast brought out the truth!”-and thereupon they sacrificed her, although they had almost left it undone.” (2:67-71)

Muhammad Asad’s note:

“*I.e., their obstinate desire to obtain closer and closer definitions of the simple commandment revealed to them through Moses had made it almost impossible for them to fulfill it. In his commentary on this passage; Tabari quotes the following remark of Ibn ‘Abbas: “If [in the first instance] they had sacrificed any cow chosen by themselves, they would have fulfilled their duty; but they made it complicated for themselves, and so God made it complicated for them.” A similar view has been expressed, in the same context, by Zamakhshari. It would appear that the moral of this story points to an important-problem of all (and, therefore, also of Islamic) religious jurisprudence: namely, the inadvisability of trying to elicit additional details in respect of any religious law that had originally been given in general terms-for, the more numerous and multiform such details become, the more complicated and rigid becomes the law. This point has been acutely grasped by Rashid Rida’, who says in his commentary on the above Qur’anic passage (see Mandr I, 345 f.): “Its lesson is that one should not pursue one’s [legal] inquiries in such a way as to make laws more complicated …. This was how the early generations [of Muslims] visualized the problem. They did not make things complicated for themselves-and so, for them, the religious law (drn) was natural, simple and liberal in its straight forwardness. But those who came later added to it [certain other] injunctions which they had deduced by means of their own reasoning (iftihdd); and they multiplied those [additional] injunctions to such an extent that the religious law became a heavy burden on the community.”

I get a similar feeling when I read the story of the “Seven Sleepers,” a story found in many faith & historical traditions including the Qur’an. After confirming as well as correcting other versions of the legend, God, in the Qur’an, reiterates the importance of the parable by admonishing those who conjecture on the details. When they should be contemplating over the ethical lesson, they waste time wondering how many ‘sleepers’ there were!

“[And in times to come] some will say, “[They were] three, the fourth of them being their dog,” while others will say, “Five, with their dog as the sixth of them” -idly guessing at something of which they can have no knowledge -and [so on, until] some will say, “[They were] seven, the eighth of them being their dog.” Say: “My Sustainer knows best how many they were. None but a few have any [real] knowledge of them. Hence, do not argue about them otherwise than by way of an obvious argument, and do not ask any of those [story-tellers] to enlighten thee about them.” (18:22)

IV. On “Islam Is A Way Of Life.”

If you walk into your average mosque, you’ll hear, “Islam is a way of life!” Then they’ll go on to tell you how to snort water all the way up your nose to make ablutions properly. They see Islam as a way of life in the “It-Tells-You-How-To-Do-Everything!” kind-of way. Muhammad Abduh, who was appointed the Mufti of Egypt back in 1899, may have had something to say about that.

In my view, “Islam is a way of life” relates to being a champion of all good, just causes on Earth. There is no separation between islam and fighting for gender justice, protecting the environment, working to close the gap between rich and poor, or taking care of our bodies. To steal a quote from another approach to islam, I “…believe in “an expression of islam that places socio-economic, gender and environmental justice at its core. The concerns of the privileged or the dominant classes are not the primary subject of islam; its focus is on those who have become “objects of exploitation by governments, socio-economic institutions and unequal relationships”, in the words of the Qur’an; those who had been marginalized (aradhil, Q. 11:27; 26:70; 22:5) or downtrodden in the earth (mustad`afun fi’l-ard, Q. 4:97; 8:26). The declaration describes the mustad`afun fi’l-ard as “those individuals and groups who, for no wilful reason of their own, find themselves pushed to the edges of society to live in conditions of social, political and economic oppression.”

This is the kind of islam I hope to practice here. I want to teach my kids a representative-of-God-on-Earth islam (See 2:30). There is no distinction between eating healthy, exercising, and our duties as a muslim. Why? Because it is God who gave us this

“body on loan, from the time between [our] mom and some maggots.” – Ani Difranco, MY IQ

To drive the point home, I’ll make things crystal clear. Eating healthy and buying local, ethically-sourced products is part of my faith. Working against large corporations who treat animals horribly or use factory farms is part of my faith. Education? Part of my faith. Fighting stereotypes and discrimination? Yup. We are supposed to be God’s vicegerents, we have a duty to take care of ourselves, the people on earth, the earth itself, and everything on it. By doing these things, I believe we are worshipping God, and nourishing our own souls in the process. This is the way to success,

V. Consistency.

Your average-Moh (get it?) slipped up a bit during his [life-long] duty as vicegerent of God. He saw a mangled up ladder in the street of his neighborhood and drove right past it. He probably should have stopped and moved it out of the way.

The point is that we are all in various stages of being consistent with our approach. We may be at peace with our approach, but we are not at peace with our lack of consistency in living that approach fully. We have a limited time to work towards that consistency. So let’s get to it.

“CONSIDER the flight of time! Humankind is indeed [in a state of] loss except for those who attain to faith, and do good works, and enjoin upon one another the keeping to truth, and enjoin upon one another patience in adversity.” – Qur’an, Surah Al-Asr.


[1] Generally speaking, we use Muhammad Asad’s translation of the Qur’an.
[2] “But nay! I call to witness [Our being] the Sustainer of all the points of sunrise and sunset: verily, well able are We to replace them with [people] better than they are; for there is nothing to prevent Us.” – 70:40-41
[4] “Behold, they [who are unmindful of God] love this fleeting life, and leave behind them [all thought of] a grief-laden Day. [They will not admit to themselves that] it We who have created them and strengthened their make – and [that] if it be Our will We can replace them entirely with others of their kind. VERILY, all this is an admonition: whoever, then, so wills, may unto his Sustainer find a way.- 76:27-29
[5] Speaking of faculties. God, in the Qur’an, often asks the reader to contemplate over various creations and systems on earth, so that the reader can see all the Signs pointing to God. There are so many examples of this it would take a year to write them all up. (E.g. “All the points of sunrise & sunset” in footnote #3, or “Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed messages for all who are endowed with insight.” -3:190)
[6] Developing that innate gift, the Soul, by doing good works (i.e. charity), and performing rituals (e.g. prayer, fasting, etc) that are designed to aid in the development of the Soul so it reaches a peaceful state.
[7] ‘Purifying dues’ refers to zakat, the alms that muslims give to the poor. zakat literally means “purification.” So by giving charity to the poor you purify yourself.