Salafi Muslims and American Thanksgiving

Salafi Thanksgiving

From Christianity Today, a very interesting article about an evangelical historian who challenges the received traditions of the Puritans:

In 1623, Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford proclaimed the first Thanksgiving. “The great Father,” he declared, “has given us this year an abundant harvest…and granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience.” He directed the Pilgrims to gather that November, “the third year since ye Pilgrims landed on ye Plymouth Rock, there to listen to ye Pastor and render Thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all his blessings.”

Except Bradford didn’t write that. Someone—we don’t know who—fabricated this “proclamation” in the late 20th century.

The author takes note of how American Christians are at a bit of a crisis point concerning their national history:

American evangelicals seem to have reached a crisis point over the study of history, especially the history of the American founding. For decades, many evangelicals have turned to popular history writers who have presented America, especially of the colonial and Revolutionary era, as a straightforwardly Christian nation.

But take the popular belief that the pilgrims came to America in search of religious freedom. It is not wrong, he argues, but subject to misinterpretation:

He demonstrates that the quest for “religious freedom,” in the modern sense, did not really animate the Pilgrims. Yes, they wanted to find a place where they could worship God according to Scripture and the dictates of conscience. But they had already discovered those conditions in Holland, where a number of English dissenters had gone in the early 1600s.

The most pressing concern that led the Plymouth Separatists to leave Holland was that they found the Netherlands “a hard place to maintain their English identity and an even harder place to make a living.” They did not worry so much about religious persecution (at least not since they left England), but about “spiritual danger and decline.” They worried about the cultural corruption they saw around them in foreign Dutch culture, and struggled to find profitable employment that could nourish their common identity. America seemed to offer both better opportunity and a place to preserve their sense of covenanted community.

And, just to throw in one ugly incident:

We should remember, McKenzie cautions, than not long after the first Thanksgiving—which was indeed a peaceful, if tense meal between the English and their Wampanoag neighbors—the Pilgrims launched a preemptive assault on local Massachusetts Indians that resulted in violence and bitter resentments. The English even placed the severed head of one Native American on a pike outside their fort. Recalling this is telling the truth, not revisionist history.

What does any of this have to do with Salafi Muslims? Nothing at all, except by way of similarity.

The word ‘Salaf’ in Arabic means ‘forefathers’, and Salafi Muslims honor in particular the first three generations of Muslims. This was the golden age of Islam, when the community lived the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. In all current religious interpretation – even in political and cultural matters – Salafis believe Muslims should study this period and apply its lessons accordingly to modern life.

Many Muslims honor this heritage without calling for the same level of imitation as Salafis. But most all of the faithful prefer not to open this history of these forefathers to questioning.

There are two issues at stake. The ancient challenge was given by Shia Muslims who said the community went wrong right after the death of Muhammad. Leadership, they say, should have been passed to Ali, within family lines. It was only the political scheming of these forefathers that prevented his immediate succession, and it was their further scheming that resulted in the loss of his role as caliph.

Sunni Muslims were the political and numerical victors of early Muslim in-fighting. But the Shia challenge contributed to the sanctification of these early generations who established the caliphate. They were also the assemblers of Muhammad’s sunna, his words and deeds not found in the Qur’an, so demonstrating their honesty was paramount. Just as Muslims find it terribly difficult to accept a word spoken against Muhammad, so do Salafi Muslims, and many beside, take offense if the Companions of Muhammad are questioned.

The modern challenge questions this sacred history as well. Using mostly Muslim sources, increasing numbers of historians are dissembling the received traditions about the development of the early Muslim communities. And similar to scholars who try to trace the human origins of the Bible, some also find other than divine influences in the Qur’an. The consequences can be dire for those engaged in revisionist history, or, let historians judge, telling the truth.

History, of course, is often deeply contested. Defining the past is a good way of determining the future.

For American Christians, revisiting the history of Thanksgiving is not nearly as threatening as the accusation that the Trinity was invented at the Council of Nicea, for example. But for a people confident in the idea that God has blessed America, there is often the implicit assumption that he has done so – from his sovereign purposes, of course – but also because of the Christian faithfulness of America’s founders. There is also often the modern application, with political overtones, that if America returns to her Christian heritage God’s blessing will come again.

It may well. ‘If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land,’ God said to Israel. Americans Christians consider themselves part of the family of God, his people. Should the land of America be considered a possible heir to this promise?

Either way, both American Christians and Salafis must face up to any possible ‘fabrications’ of their history. If this is a crisis point for evangelicals, it is hardly a blip on the radar for Salafis. But both groups have invested heavily in the sacred narrative of their secular traditions. As the author closes in his article:

The temptation toward idol-making seems much more pressing with the titans of America’s national history, those who line the mall in Washington, D.C. Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington: These are the ones that, despite limited evidence of orthodoxy, many of us want—or need—to be evangelical Christians, just like us. We desperately need help to know how to think about those Founders.

Similarly, what will Salafis do with the four ‘rightly guided caliphs’ – Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman, and Ali? There were fine Muslims, surely, but what does it say that three of them were killed? What of other leaders who opposed Muhammad until the near-end, and then switched sides? Muslims are not ignorant of these controversies; in fact, Salafis study them diligently. But no one should go beyond the limits of the historic evaluation given to the Companions of Muhammad; no one should tar their reputation.

I must stop short of proscription for either community. This post began as an attempt to draw parallels between two communities not often associated together. But I am a historian of neither narrative, so I dare not make pronouncements that can be easily countered by the studied. Neither am I a theologian, certainly not of Islam to make cavalier statements about how to interpret God in their history.

But I hold as a conviction that fidelity to God requires fidelity to truth, come what may. The shaping of pious myths may aid in the development of social and cultural faith, but they are acts, ultimately, of manipulators. ‘God will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart.’

He may take a long time in doing so, but this Thanksgiving, let us be thankful that God will guide us into all truth.

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Interview with MB Guidance Bureau Member Abdel Rahman al-Barr

Abdel Rahman al-Barr

A few days ago I posted an article I wrote for Lapido Media exploring the religious motivation and justification for protesting an insult to Islam. Much of the perspective rested on the answers of Abdel Rahman al-Barr, a member of the Guidance Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood and a specialist in the Islamic sharia.

Due to the events al-Barr was unavailable for a face-to-face interview, but graciously provided his time in answering my written questions. For deeper understanding of the subject treated in the article, here is the transcript in full:

  • A popular chant during the protest was: ‘With our souls and our blood we will redeem you, oh Islam!’ What does ‘blood’ imply, and how will it ‘redeem’ Islam?

This phrase means the speaker is ready to give his life for the sake of his religion, willing that his blood may flow in its defense. If it becomes necessary he will enter a military confrontation to defend Islam even if he must face being killed or martyred in the path of God.

  • The film was clearly offensive to Islam. But what does Islam teach about defending the religion against insult? Even if peaceful, why are such demonstrations religiously necessary?

Religion is one of the sanctities that man will protect and defend with all he has, even if this leads to giving his life. In the case of this offensive film it is necessary to announce refusal, condemnation, and anger with the most powerful expressions. We request the government with allowed this film to appear – that is, the United States of America – to prevent [its showing] and to hold those who made it accountable, as they have instigated hatred and incited animosity between peoples. Expressing this refusal is a religious obligation, because Islam requires the Muslim to reject error and seek to change it with his hand, if he is able. If he cannot he must reject it with his tongue, and demonstrations are one of the ways to do so.

  • During the demonstrations, some called the Copts of the Diaspora, especially those involved in the film, ‘dogs’ and ‘pigs’. What does Islam teach about the use of insults against those who insult it?

Those who use such phrases are likely from the common people – not scholars – who were pushed by their anger from the enormity of the crime. But Islamic teachings call for the use of good phrases which do not insult. God the exalted said in the Qur’an: ‘Speak well to people’, ‘Say to those who worship me, “Speak what is good”’, ‘Return the evil with that which is good’, and ‘Return what is good if there is animosity between you’.

  • The Qur’an states in al-Nahl, 125: ‘Invite to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching and argue with them in the best manner.’ Even peaceful protests seem to diverge from this, and open the door for many to express anger poorly. How do demonstrations, though politically legal, help shape an Islamic morality? How should anger be expressed in Islam?

We must know that free demonstrations are a new experience for our people, as the repressive regimes dealt with them extremely harshly, to not allow them. Because of this, until now the culture of demonstration remains disfigured for many. Maybe this will improve in the future, but the careful observer will note that demonstrations organized by the Muslim Brotherhood are better disciplined even in the slogans and phrases used. This is because Islamic morality is moderate in both satisfaction and anger. Powerful expressions of anger must respect justice and avoid triviality. The Qur’an says: ‘God does not like the public mention of evil except by one who has been wronged’. So if a man is oppressed he may use forceful phrases to express this oppression, but without triviality or debasement.

  • Almost no Americans had ever heard of this film until Egypt began to demonstrate against it. To what degree to Muslim religious leaders bear fault for the excesses of these protests, as the Brotherhood called originally for escalation?

Religious scholars are not the ones who began the incitement, and they had no means to prevent it. Those who incited people were some activists who knew of it from the internet, and from here the common people began talking about it. It is natural the scholars could not stay silent in the face of this rejected crime. Personally, if it was in my power I would not have given this subject any importance because it is a vile work. Its producers do not posses human decency or creative value, and the film has no artistic merit. But the new media in its modern form diffuses the insignificant to work up the people – this is what happened with this vile film lacking creative value. Of course, the expansive publication via media had the largest influence on the common people, stirring them up and giving attention to this insulting film.

Thanks to Amr al-Masry for translating the questions into Arabic; any errors in translating the answers are my own, with graciousness asked specifically for the verses from the Qur’an.

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Current Events

Did the Muslim Brotherhood Crucify its Opponents?

Alleged Crucifixion Victim

In the past few weeks the story has circulated in conservative news circles that the Muslim Brotherhood has crucified its opponents outside the presidential palace. This story is almost certainly a hoax.

I have been able to draw from elements in the media on both sides of this issues, combining all evidence I could find in a report. For the full text of this report, please click here to access it on Arab West Report. Here, however, are some excerpts:

A primary circulator of the story in the English press is WorldNetDaily, which published an exclusive report on August 17. The article in entitled: ‘Arab Spring Runs Amok: ‘Brotherhood’ Starts Crucifixions. It states ‘Middle East media confirm…’ and then links to a website called The Algemeiner.

Published on August 16, the website published a story written by Raymond Ibrahim, a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. It is entitled: ‘Muslim Brotherhood Crucifies Opponents, Attacks Secular Media’.  It states, ‘Several Arabic websites … (listing four) … reported that people were being crucified.’

These websites are Arab News, Al Khabar News, Dostor Watany, and Egypt Now.

As I describe in the report, however, these sources do not ‘report’, but rather carry a single news outlet’s report, which it later retracted. Those holding to the truth of the story, however, are quick to point to evidence in the Quran and sharia law.

Websites supporting the accuracy of the story also give as corroborating evidence verse 5:33 of the Qur’an, which states:

Indeed, the penalty for those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and strive upon earth [to cause] corruption is none but that they be killed or crucified or that their hands and feet be cut off from opposite sides or that they be exiled from the land. That is for them a disgrace in this world; and for them in the Hereafter is a great punishment.

They also quote Egyptians, including a parliamentarian Adel Azzazy from the Salafi-oriented Nour Party and a Salafi sheikh , who called for the crucifixion penalty to be applied in Egyptian law.

The evidence again this actually taking place is in the report, but the mere mention of crucifixion suggests the most horrific of pictures. Yet this is not the reality at all and, though those who circulate the story admit this, they play readily on the popular imagery. From the conclusion:

It should be noted that ‘crucifixion’ conjures notions of Jesus upon the cross in standard presentation, nailed to two perpendicular pieces of wood. What is alleged is simply that people were strung up upon a tree. Could it be they may have been only minimally tied to the trunk?

If there was an altercation that evening in front of the presidential palace, however, there are no names of victims provided. Furthermore, all that would be known was that the alleged attack would have been the work of ‘thugs’, as has been common during Egypt’s traditional period. It would be impossible to tie these thugs to the Muslim Brotherhood, or establish they were doing its bidding, except through due process of law.

In light of the assembled evidence, however partial, the best conclusion is that the stories circulated by Algemeiner and WorldNetDaily, and popularized by the Shoebats and others, are meant as propaganda pieces against the Muslim Brotherhood.

There is insufficient evidence to establish that crucifixions took place at all. While it appears there may have been an altercation, even imagining a possible victim tied to a tree, it is a far, far jump to label this as Muslim Brotherhood crucifixions.

While the Qur’an does contain of verse about crucifying a brand of criminal, and marginal Egyptian forces have called for its implementation, the linking of this possible event with these sources is a clear effort to demonize the Muslim Brotherhood as a political force. Even if someone was strung upon a tree, these websites know full well the image of crucifixion in the Western mind is of Jesus and his horrific killing, along the lines of the film ‘The Passion of the Christ’.

This is irresponsible and dangerous journalism. Such verses of the Qur’an deserve rational questioning. The quotations of Salafi politicians and preachers are unnerving. The agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood is under suspicion. But the websites in question have not simply failed to properly investigate a likely hoax; they have aided and abetted it.

Please click here to read the whole article. And, if you have come across this story in the media or from otherwise well meaning friends, please share this to help suppress a campaign of misinformation. Thank you.

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Dar al-Ifta’: The House of Fatwa

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti

The fatwa is commonly known in the West as a death sentence. Among Muslims, the fatwa can be among the most powerful tools of Islamic populism. On a third front, the fatwa is simply a bureaucratic function. Which definition encompasses reality?

Since the dawn of Islam the scholar has had a place of prominence, celebrated for his command of the Quran, the traditions, and mastery of the sharia. For this reason, the state has always wanted to remain on good terms with the scholars, and if possible, to co-opt or institutionalize them.

What makes a scholar? There is a threshold of necessary knowledge, without which any claimant would be exposed as a fraud. But scholars must also be linked to networks, or else they would simply sit at home issuing fatwas to themselves. It is these networks which are under redefinition in Egypt and much of the Arab world today.

For example, the Muslim Brotherhood has a mufti – the Arabic term for one who gives a fatwa. Is he legitimate? What about each and every Salafi preacher around whom the people congregate? If someone appears on television, is he fit to issue a fatwa?

Conversely, though the state conveys legitimacy on many aspects of society, does it also pertain to religious life? Islamic societies have historically treaded carefully here, wary of the corrupting possibility of power but keen to preserve the stability of the nation.

For centuries, in Egypt especially but also throughout the Sunni Muslim world, the Azhar established itself as the pinnacle of Islamic scholarship. Its graduates secured both popular and institutional credibility. Yet in 1961 President Nasser brought the prestigious university under state control.

The process to diversify – and perhaps dilute – the influence of the scholars was already long underway, however. In the 19th Century under British occupation the Dar al-Ifta’ was created to issue official fatwas. The institution survived the 1952 revolution and was used at times thereafter to obtain favorable rulings for controversial state policies.

As both Sheikh al-Azhar and the Grand Mufti are positions appointed by the president, many have criticized the venerable bodies as being little more than mouthpieces for the ruling regime. It has not been uncommon, however, for many criticisms to issue from scholars of either dubious representation or extremist trends. Is not the state the societal organ best fit to establish proper regulations and qualifications?

Ibrahim Nagm

Though not a justification, Dr. Ibrahim Nagm explains the functions of Dar al-Ifta’. Serving as senior advisor to the Grand Mufti, he seeks to make understandable the concept of ‘fatwa’, which has been sensationalized due to what he would say is its frequent misuse.

Nagm defines a fatwa as ‘non-binding religious advice given by a qualified scholar in response to a question asked by a member of the public’. He then proceeds to unpack the meaning of each key phrase.

Non-binding: A fatwa carried no legal authority or compulsion of implementation. This invalidates the popular idea that a fatwa is a summons to kill a particular individual, for example.

Qualified: Though anyone can give their religious opinion, only a certified scholar is permitted to issue a fatwa. Dar al-Ifta’ insists upon deep Islamic scholarship from a respectable university (such as al-Azhar), and then provides three additional years of training before accrediting anyone.

Question: A fatwa must be spontaneous, issued in response to a real life issue submitted by the public. It cannot be internally generated according to policy. Every day the Dar al-Ifta’ receives +500 personal fatwa requests and +2000 by phone in up to nine languages from around the world.

To handle these requests, the Dar al-Ifta’ has about 50 accredited scholars working in its administration, with an additional 50 scattered throughout Egypt.

Each fatwa issued conforms to the basic methodology of Islamic scholarship, which Nagm outlined as the following:

1)      Consult the Islamic sources: These include the Quran, the sunna, and the legacy of Islamic scholarship. Look for precedents and consider their application.

2)      Understand the person and the issue: Fatwas are expected to apply differently according to circumstances. The legal texts are incomplete without full knowledge of the problem.

3)      Issue the fatwa: To be done in a manner bridging tradition and reality.

As an example, Nagm described a request for a fatwa to see if it was permitted for a particular man to take a second wife. After consulting the sources, the indications were yes – it is permitted for a Muslim to marry up to four wives.

Yet after consulting the situation, the person requesting the fatwa was discovered to be residing in a non-Muslim nation which forbids polygamy. Bridging between the tradition and the reality, Dar al-Ifta’ issued a fatwa instructing the requester to submit to the laws of the country he lived in, and not marry again.

In another example a farmer requested a fatwa to permit or forbid the use of certain chemicals in the fertilization process. Nagm indicated clearly this was a matter beyond the competence of the institution. They referred the question to scientific specialists, who indicated the mentioned chemicals were harmful. Armed with this knowledge, it was a simple matter to issue the fatwa forbidding their use.

Returning to the question of Islamic legitimacy, Nagm does not answer the question, but does paint Dar al-Ifta’ as a thoroughly bureaucratic institution. Its methods are sound, but reflect the dry, thorough work of professionalism.

Professionalism is good, of course, but Nagm frequently contrasted it to academia, which is not enough. It is not scholarship that makes a mufti, but training.

Of course, training is also good. Nagm commented that Osama bin Laden was an engineer, and Ayman al-Zawahiri was a doctor. No matter how substantial their personal study of Islamic jurisprudence, they are not part of a credible, established network.

In terms of establishment, this is certain. But credibility is in the eye of the beholder. Dar al-Ifta’ walks the fine line between professional accountability and state submission. Yet this is no different from the family of Islamic scholars throughout history who have navigated the same challenge.

After all, though scholarship is immensely valuable, it puts no food on the table. It must market its knowledge somewhere. The public trusts the scholar, while marketing, to remain faithful ultimately to God.

That trust is his only credibility.

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Osama al-Qusi: On the Science of Islamic Traditions

Collections of Islamic Traditions

This third and final article on Sheikh Osama al-Qusi focuses on a matter closest to his heart and specialization of study: The sunna of Muhammad, that is, what he said and did outside the recorded testimony of the Qur’an. Whereas article one provided his life history in pursuit of this knowledge, and article two pertained to its implications for Egypt and its governance following the Arab Spring, this article is an introduction to the study itself – ilm al-hadith (the study of tradition) – especially in their proper determination. In technical parlance this is called ilm al-jarh wa al-ta’deel, roughly translated as the science of criticizing and praising.

There are thousands upon thousands of historical records which state Muhammad said or did this or that. How is anyone to know if these collections are accurate or invented? Muslims themselves admit great swaths of these testimonies are not trustworthy, or are at least subject to significant doubt. Long before modern academic criticism informed Biblical study, Muslims developed means to judge their religious sources.

Though the Qur’an was sacrosanct – and remains so – scholars insisted the sunna of the prophet be examined closely. Many recognize, as al-Qusi stated, that the Qur’an is dependent upon the sunna for the elucidation of its meanings. Yet while the Qur’an was a collected and established document early in Islamic history, the sunna were simply scattered recollections from Muhammad’s companions. Their accuracy was of paramount importance in determining Islamic morality and jurisprudence.

As one tradition records, Muhammad said his community would divide into seventy-three groups; the only one to avoiding hellfire is the one that takes up what he and his companions did. These are those who follow the sunna – that is, Sunnis – and perhaps more specifically, Salafis, those who follow the ‘pious ancestors’.

This text will present the views of Sheikh Osama al-Qusi, first providing the history of sunna collection, then some of its technical aspects. It will also describe some of those who fault this technique, ending with why Sunnis represent a middle way among all those who criticize it from various directions.


Sheikh al-Qusi compared the beginnings of sunna collection to the process of assembling the Qur’an. Following the wars of apostasy which cemented his political authority, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, recognized many of those who had memorized the Qur’an were now dead. He ordered Zayd ibn Thabit to consult all authorities and collect all fragments, from which the Qur’an should become a recognized written text. The third caliph Uthman ibn Uffan then standardized this work further, creating six copies to be mailed to each corner of the empire, and then burned all others.

Somewhat in contrast, as opposed to the centralization of the Qur’an the sunna proliferated in fragments and collections. The second caliph Oman ibn al-Khattab began the process of gathering these testimonies and written fragments about Muhammad, but the effort began in earnest with a caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Omar ibn Abdel Aziz, in 99 AH. Now considered by some Muslims as a ‘rightly guided’ caliph alongside the first four, Omar used his short two and a half year reign to collect all extant sources.

Omar authorized Ali Mayni to supervise this work, and he relied principally upon two other scholars, al-Zuhri and Abu Bakr ibn Hazm. The work was difficult as by this time the empire had grown significantly, with a corresponding scattering of scholars. Nevertheless, after Omar’s death in 101 AH Imam Malik ibn Anas produced the first collection of traditions, entitled al-Muwatta (The Approved).

Building on this work, the widely respected al-Muslim (d. 875 AD) and al-Bukhari (d. 870 AD) produced their collections of traditions, and were followed by al-Tirmidhi (d. 892 AD), ibn Maja (d. 887 AD), al-Nisa’i (d. 915 AD), and abu Dawud (d. 889 AD), all in the 3rd Century of Islam. These six collections are still considered ‘canonical’ by Sunni Muslims to this day.

Yet these collections also establish the necessity of tradition evaluation. al-Muslim’s and al-Bukhari’s works are distinguished over their contemporaries as they only record those traditions deemed reliable. Others simply recorded all the traditions they found, and in other works, al-Bukhari did the same. His three part work, al-Tarikh al-Kabir, al-Saghir, and al-Wasat (The Large, Small, and Medium History) includes traditions considered less than reliably demonstrated. Further influential collections were assembled by ibn Hiban (d. 965 AD) and ibn Khuzayma (d. 923 AD).

Technical Aspects

Each of these scholars engaged the evaluation of traditions at various levels, yet the process of jarh wa ta’deel was not fully standardized until the 5th Century AH, when it assumed the form which continues today. Every tradition is evaluated on its two parts, the matn (body or content) and the isnad (ascription or chain of authorities). The matn is the meat of the tradition, describing what Muhammad and his companions said or did in a certain circumstance. The isnad is its guarantee, describing how the recorder of the tradition heard it from so-and-so, who heard it from…, and so on, until the chain reaches back to the one who witnessed it directly.

Within jarh wa ta’deel, jarh concerns itself with the matn, to evaluate if the content of the tradition is consistent with greater Islamic history and teaching. Yet more important is ta’deel, to determine the trustworthiness of each person mentioned in the isnad. ‘Adalah (justice) relates to whether or not he was a moral person in his conduct, while dabt (certification) relates to his power of memory. That is, does each mentioned authority possess both the faculty to record accurately what he heard, and the character to pass it on unadulterated? If so, the text of the matn is generally accepted, which can create interesting dilemmas, as will be presented below.

The result of this process divides traditions into categories. Sahih (sound), hasn (good), da’eef (weak), munkar (denounced), and mawdu’ (fabricated) are the standard listings. The collections of al-Muslim and al-Bukhari are named sahih, reflecting their diligent work to include only those traditions which passed the test. Generally speaking, there is no need to review all the historic material again, since this was accomplished thoroughly by the early scholars and finalized by the 5th Century AH. Nevertheless, the refinement process continues, and Sheikh ibn al-Albani of Saudi Arabia was one of the most preeminent modern specialists in ilm al-hadith, the science of traditions.

Contrary Views

As has been done with academic criticism in Christianity, modern scholars, especially but not exclusively Western, have begun to examine Islamic sources to probe their reliability. While some take aim at the Qur’an itself, the traditions are an especially fertile field, with many scholars convinced most emerged not from the time of Muhammad, but from within the dynastic theological and political struggles of the growing empire.

Among non-Western scholars, the Egyptian Mahmoud Abu Raya takes on the reputation of one of the companions of Muhammad, Abu Hurayra, calling him the ‘sheikh of porridge’ for selling invented traditions to the Umayyad dynasty. Sheikh al-Qusi is untroubled by these allegations, finding them simply to be recycled charges from earlier Islamic eras. He then proceeded to describe them.

One of the chief dangers is assaulting the reputation of Muhammad’s companions – who represent the sources of most traditions – is that this threatens to rebound upon the Qur’an itself. It is the companions who memorized the Qur’an and were the source of authority when the authoritative copies were issued. If their character is in question, if they freely invented tales of traditions, may they have done the same with the Qur’an? Moreover, the Qur’an states that God specifically chose the companions of Muhammad; to cast doubt upon them, therefore, is to cast doubt upon God.

This is the chief danger of the Shia sect of Islam, which rejects the first three caliphs in favor of the fourth, Ali, who they believe to have been Muhammad’s choice for succession. They find many of the companions to have been complicit in the scheming which kept Ali from power, and instead favor only the relatives of Muhammad, believing them to be the heirs and rightful leaders of Islam.

Another early critic of the sunna were a philosophical group called the Mu’tazila. They represented the school of reason in Islam, and rejected all traditions in which reason contradicted with the matn. But in matters of faith, reason only goes so far, al-Qusi asserted. Reason is important, but where a contradiction appears, it is usually our own faculties which are deficient.

A modern example concerns a tradition in which Muhammad asserts that only God knows what is in the womb of a pregnant woman. With the advent of ultrasound technology, however, some Muslims rejected the advancement as a charade since it contradicted this saying. This is not right, believes al-Qusi, since only minor reflection is needed to allow science and tradition to find common ground.

A modern equivalent of the Mu’tazila is known as the Qur’aniyuun (Qur’anists), who dismiss the traditions entirely and rely upon the Qur’an alone. Yet they fail to realize Islam is far more than the Qur’an; by excluding the sunna much is lost. Some members of this school pray only three times a day, for example, as the familiar five is related in the traditions, not the Qur’an. In essence, they are substituting modern wisdom for the toils of centuries of scholars, creating for themselves a new ilm al-hadith, where the work has already been done. Every tradition has its isnad, and every character therein has been tested.

The Middle Way

Sunnism, therefore, stands in the center of divergent extreme positions. To make his point, however, Sheikh al-Qusi introduced an Islamic sect which was powerful in history but today is nearly non-existent. The Khawarij (Outsiders) were Muslims completely dedicated to the new religion, fanatical in their interpretation, and partisan to the companions of Muhammad.

Their loyalty to the early caliphs led to a corresponding rejection of the relatives of Muhammad, whom they viewed as seeking to make Islam a family heritage. The Shia, as mentioned before, supported the family and disparaged many companions. Eventually, Sunnism developed a middle position, honoring all early Muslim pioneers, from among the companions and the family, and forbid the practice of speaking against them. After all, as the Qur’an stated, these were chosen by God.

Similarly, Sunnism developed a middle position between the strict literalism of the Khawarij, present among some Salafis today, and the strict elevation of reason by the Mu’tazila, adopted by many critics of Islamic traditions. For Sunnis, reason is an important part of faith, but it should not triumph over revelation, which comes from a reason far greater than that of man.


As insightful as this conversation was, it did not treat the most important issue – reliability of the traditions. Perhaps this was inevitable, as it requires scholarship yet beyond the interviewer. Familiarity is demanded not only of ilm al-hadith, but also its modern academic critique. Sheikh al-Qusi provided another building block from which to attain to such knowledge, but though he asserted the historical soundness of jarh wa ta’deel concerning the traditions, he did not demonstrate it.

Should these lessons be learned in the future, they will be provided for the benefit of readership. For now, however, the value lies in comprehending not only the nature and disputes surrounding Islamic traditions, but also the presence of established guidelines in navigating them. This is the domain of Sheikh Osama al-Qusi and many others, receiving a lifetime of study. Such pursuit and dedication is worthy of respect. Whether or not it deserves credence is a matter of evidence and perspective, requiring more than this simple text.


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Who are We, and What do We Want? – The Muslim Brotherhood

This is the very question many people are asking about the Muslim Brotherhood following the Egyptian Revolution of January 25, 2011. While the world was enthralled by a peaceful youth movement to overthrow a corrupt regime, many feared then, and more fear now, that the aftermath will result in national leadership in the hands of Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Some believe the Brotherhood will transform Egypt into a theocratic state as in Iran. Others believe the movement is largely moderate, compatible with a modern democratic state. Some Muslim Brothers speak of a return to a caliphate; others speak of human rights and religious freedom. Are some stuck in the past? Do others obscure their ultimate goals? Who are they, and what do they want?

Fortunately, the Muslim Brotherhood issued a booklet answering this very question. It is subtitled: Readings from the Letters of Imam Hasan al-Banna. Hasan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, and lived from 1906 until his assassination in 1949. Al-Banna was eager to put forth clearly his aims and understanding of Islam. He wrote:

For this reason I have wished to speak to you about the definition of Islam and its ideal picture in the souls of the Muslim Brothers, so that the foundations of which we call for, take pride in, and seek the expansion of, may be completely clear.

The booklet newly gathering his thoughts was published in April 2011, thus reflecting an effort, at least on the part of some Muslim Brothers, to make clear once again the principles of the group following the revolution. It was presented to the author of this text while attending ‘Tuesday Conversations’ at the Omar ibn al-‘As Mosque in Old Cairo. A helpful young member of the organization selected it from a wide variety of books made available at the entrance to the mosque. ‘Tuesday Conversations’ was a weekly public lecture conducted by al-Banna until it was forbidden by the government in 1948. General Guide Mohamed Badie re-launched the session under the slogan, “Listen to Us, not about Us.” This is fitting with al-Banna’s original desire to present a clear image of the Brotherhood.

The booklet is divided into two sections. The first is a general introduction to understanding the call of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the second is a more specific treatment of its definition, end, goals, means, etc. This text will provide summaries of each section which represent loose translations of the content. It will also provide direct quotes in italics, especially in areas that appear more provocative and need further explanation. The text will follow the outline provided by the booklet.

One caveat to present the reader before beginning: The Muslim Brotherhood is a flexible and evolutionary organization which has consistently changed with the times. That the information which follows is drawn from its founder and re-presented is a fair indication this vision still drives the organization. Yet it must be emphasized the current leadership may have moved on from certain statements or understandings its founder possessed, which were forged in the period of European colonialism. This can only be assessed through monitoring their statements and direct questioning in interviews, which will hopefully be possible in the days to come.

The Muslim Brotherhood is more than a political organization, though it includes this function as witnessed in the creation of its Freedom and Justice Party. Politicians of all stripes are accused of changing their statements to suit their audience, and Brotherhood politicians should not be excused from this suspicion. Yet as Mina Magdy, political affairs coordinator for the Maspero Youth Union, a largely Coptic Christian human rights organization which rejects cooperation with the Brotherhood, says,

They interact according to what people want to hear, and maybe some of them are sincere in their kind words. But we judge them according to their books, by what is written.

This text is an effort to present one example of what is written and distributed by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Who are We, and What do We Want?

Part One – A General Introduction to Understanding the Call of the Muslim Brotherhood

   1.    Islam … As the Brothers Understand it

Many people misunderstand both Islam and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some think of Islam as rules for worship and the provision of serenity in life. Others view it as a system of virtue and avoiding vice, while others think it is an inherited, backward tradition. As for the Brotherhood, some see it as a preaching organization for prosperity in this life and reminders of the next. Others view it as a Sufi organization promoting self-denial.

a)      We believe Islam incorporates all things to organize life in this world and the next: Doctrine and worship, nation and nationality, religion and state, spirituality and work, and Quran and the sword.

b)      We follow the Quran and the Sunna as practiced by the followers of Muhammad and those who followed them.[1]

c)       Islam organizes all of life for all peoples at all times.

In times past Islam came under the powers of the infidel world, so that it and its empire grew weaker and lost its meaning.

The theoretical part of our call is to show people clearly the pure Islam; the practical part is to ask them to carry it out. To this we will strive, calling people to the task, expending everything for its sake, so that we live nobly either in life or in death.

Our slogan: God is our end, the Apostle[2] is our leader, the Quran is our constitution, jihad[3] is our way, and death is the path of God is our highest hope.

2.       The Muslim’s Duty in Life, as the Muslim Brotherhood Understands it

The Quran is the measure by which we judge our call and our goals in life. It teaches that some people seek food or riches, or even to spread trouble and evil. But the Muslim’s goal is higher: It is to guide people to the good, giving them the light of Islam.

Therefore, the Quran has made Muslims to be the guardians for an incapable humanity, giving them the right of superintendence and sovereignty over the world. This is in service to our noble teachings and is our business, not that of the West; for the civilization of Islam, and not the civilization of materialism.

Muslims should expend themselves in sacrifice for this call, and not profit from it. As they do they create civilization, unlike Western imperialism, which promotes desires and cravings.

It is necessary we make this clear and specify it, and I think we have arrived to a place of clarity and agreed: Our duty is to have sovereignty over the world and to guide humanity to the good ways of Islam and its teachings, which alone can make a man happy.

3.       The Muslim Brotherhood on the Path of its First Call

We call people along the same path Mohamed did, so that they maintain these three strong feelings:

a)      Faith in the greatness of the message

b)      Pride in belonging to it

c)       Hope in the support of God in achieving it

Part Two – Getting to Know the Call of the Muslim Brotherhood

1.       Essence of the Muslim Brotherhood

The essence of the Muslim Brotherhood is to explain carefully the call of the Quran in its entirety, in accordance with the modern age.[4] We seek to win hearts and souls to the principles of the Quran, so that we may renew our heritage and bring all Islamic viewpoints closer together.

We seek to develop and liberate the national wealth, raising standards of living, achieving social justice and security for all citizens, combating ignorance, sickness, poverty, and vice.

We wish to liberate Egypt and all Arab and Islamic lands from foreign control. We will support Arab unity and the Islamic league.

We will establish a state which implements practically the regulations and teachings of Islam, protecting them domestically and publishing them abroad.

We will support global cooperation in protection of rights and freedoms, to promote peace in the balance between faith and the material world.

Muslim Brothers are:

  • Strangers who seek reform among the corrupt
  • A new mind to judge between right and wrong
  • Callers for Islam and the Quran, connecting the earth with heaven
  • Possessors of the noblest call, the greatest aim, the strongest foundation, the securest band, who have light for the way

The Muslim Brotherhood is:

  • A Salafi call to return to the Islam of Quran and Sunna
  • A Sunni way in worship and doctrine
  • A Sufi truth to promote purity of self and love for God
  • A political organization to reform governance both home and abroad
  • A sporting group to build strong bodies in performance of the pillars of Islam
  • A scientific and cultural club to promote learning
  • An economic company to make clean profits
  • A social idea to treat social ills


2.       The Goal of the Muslim Brotherhood

The goal of the Brotherhood is to create a new generation of believers from the teachings of Islam, in order to give the nations a complete Islamic imprint in all aspects of life.

3.       The Message of the Muslim Brotherhood

Ruling the world, guiding all of humanity to the ways and teachings of Islam, which alone can make people happy.

For too long the civilization of materialism has divided the Muslim peoples and retarded their progress. It stands against them and the leadership of the Prophet, denying the light of Islam to the world.

We do not stand for this, but will pursue them and raid in their own lands, until the entire world celebrates the name of the Prophet and the teachings of the Quran. The shade of Islam will cover the earth, and then what the Muslim desires will be achieved: No sedition and all religion will be for God.

4.       Goals of the Muslim Brotherhood

Our program has clear and specific stages and steps, since we know exactly what we want and the means by which to achieve it.

  • First, a Muslim man, clear in his thought, doctrine, morals, sympathies, work, and behavior.
  • Second, a Muslim house, in the areas above but we care also for the women as we do for the men, and for children as we do for youth. This is how we shape the family.
  • Third, a Muslim people, so that our message is heard in every village, district, and city.
  • Fourth, a Muslim government, which will lead the people to prayer and the guidance of Islam, as did the Companions of the Prophet and the caliphs Abu Bakr and Omar. We recognize no system of government that does not emerge from the foundation of Islam. We recognize no political parties or traditional forms which the infidels and enemies of Islam have forced upon us. We will work to revive the Islamic system of rule in all its forms, and we will shape an Islamic government from this system.
  • Fifth, an Islamic nation, desiring every part of the Islamic world to join with us, which was previously divided by Western politics and whose unity was weakened by European colonialism. We do not recognize these political divisions and will not submit to these international agreements which turned the Islamic nation into weak, torn apart, tiny states, easily swallowed by usurpers. We will not be silent as these peoples’ freedom is digested by autocrats. Egypt, Syria, Iraq, the Hijaz,[5] Yemen, Tripoli, Tunisia, Algeria, Marrakesh,[6] and all lands where Muslims say ‘There is no god but God’ – these are one large nation which we aim to liberate, rescue, and save, incorporating its parts one with the other. If the German Reich forced itself as a protector of all who had German blood, then Islamic doctrine obliges every strong Muslim to consider himself a protector of all who imbibe the teachings of the Quran. It is not possible in Islam for the racial factor to be more powerful than the factor of faith. Doctrine is everything in Islam, for what is faith except love and hatred?
  • Sixth, we desire the flag of God to fly high over the lands which once enjoyed Islam and the call of prayer declaring ‘God is great’, but then returned to unbelief. Andalusia,[7] Sicily, the Balkans, southern Italy, and the islands of the Mediterranean were all Islamic colonies and must return to the bosom of Islam. If Mussolini saw as his right to recreate the Roman Empire, whose so-called ancient empire was built on nothing but avarice and pleasure, then it is within our right to restore the glory of the Islamic Empire which was founded on justice, fairness, and spreading light and guidance to the people.
  •  Seventh, we desire to announce our call to the whole world, and to cause every tyrant to submit to it, so that there is no sedition and all of religion is for God.

Those incapable cowards who suppose this is all fantasy or dreams are simply suffering from weakness of faith that God has cast into the hearts of Islam’s enemies. We announce clearly that every Muslim who does not believe in this program and work for its realization will have no fortune in Islam.

5.       The Preparedness of the Muslim Brotherhood

Those who follow this path possess a faith that cannot be shaken, confidence in God that cannot grow weak, and souls which rejoice most in their martyrdom. Furthermore, they possess great psychological power, having a strong will, firm loyalty, great sacrifice, and knowledge of faith. They implement the Quranic verse which states: God will not change a people until they change themselves.

6.       The Means of the Muslim Brotherhood

As stated in the Muslim Brotherhood foundational system law, we pursue our goal through the following means:

  • Preaching – through letters, publications, newspapers, magazines, books, and delegations both here and abroad
  • Nurturing – inclusive of spiritual, intellectual, and physical
  • Directing – so that all issues of life might be guided practically to their Islamic solution
  • Work – creating economic, social, religious, and scientific establishments, in addition to mosques, schools, and clinics, to get rid of all which is harmful, such as drugs, drinking, gambling, and prostitution

It is true that speeches, lectures, money and other means may help identify an illness and proscribe a cure, but the only means to solve it are through deep faith, precise strengthening, and continuing work.

The general means we pursue our goals are:

  • First, spreading our call and convincing people of it until it becomes the general opinion.
  • Second, using all proper elements necessary to strengthen the firm support for reform.
  • Third, engaging in a constitutional struggle until our call is supported by official professional clubs and the executive powers. Then, when the time is right, we will nominate ourselves for parliamentary bodies.
  • We will not deviate from these means unless we are forced to, but we will not refrain from declaring our position openly without ambiguity, ready to bear the results of our work.

We will not burden anyone but ourselves, or court favor except among our own. We know that which is God’s is best and will remain. We know expending yourself for truth is the key to immortality. There is no call except that which comes from striving for God, and there is no striving for God which is not met with persecution. But then comes the hour of victory when the Quranic verse is achieved:

When the apostles give up hope and think that they were treated as liars, there reaches them Our help, and those whom We will are delivered into safety. But never will be warded off our punishment from those who are in sin.

7.       Peculiarities of the Muslim Brotherhood Call

It is a call to God, resisting the materialism of the world. It is a universal call, rejecting racism or distinction between persons. Unlike other contemporary calls, it is composed of:

  • Distance from points of contention
  • Distance from the cult of personality and pride
  • Distance from political parties and associations
  • Care for growing stronger in gradual steps
  • Securing work and production through promotion and advertisement
  • Great acceptance among the youth
  • Rapid spread through villages and cities


8.       Foundations of Understanding Islam in the Muslim Brotherhood

So that all understand Islam in the manner we do, we present these twenty foundational statements:

1)      Islam is a complete order of life, inclusive of state and nation, government and people, creation and power, mercy and justice, culture and law, science and jurisdiction, material and resources, earning and wealth, jihad and preaching, army and idea, trustworthy doctrine and true worship.

2)      The Quran and Hadith are the reference for every Muslim.

3)      Faith and worship give light and sweetness, but illumination, impressed ideas, and visions are not part of Islamic principles.

4)      Amulets and sorcery must be fought against.

5)      The teaching about the imam and the one who stands for him[8] is not based on Islamic texts, and opinions about this always change.

6)      We accept all that the earliest Muslims did which fits with the Quran and Hadith, but we do not oppose those who view things differently.

7)      Everyone who does not possess sufficient standing in religion should follow an imam until he does.

8)      Differences in subordinate matters should not divide Muslims.

9)      Be careful about discussion of matters which often descend into minutia.

10)   The most sublime Islamic doctrines are the knowledge of God, his unity, and his transparency.

11)   We must rid our faith of heresies, but in a proper way which does not lead to evil.

12)   Certain matters between Muslims are for jurisprudence, examining them with proofs and evidence.

13)   The early companions of Mohamed should not be criticized.

14)   Do not adorn tombs of the deceased or call upon the help of departed saints.[9]

15)   It is wrong to call upon God’s help through the intercession of his creation.

16)   Customs of a people should not change religious norms.

17)   The basis of all work is our doctrine, which should push us toward perfection.

18)   Islam frees the mind and enables modern science.

19)   The opinion of sharia and the opinion of reason should not conflict with each other, though true science always submits to true doctrine.

20)   We declare no Muslim to be an infidel, unless he speaks of his unbelief, or denies a fact of religion, or impugns the purity of the Quran, or explains it outside of what the tools of the Arabic language can accommodate, or behaves in a way unexplainable except by unbelief.


9.       Working for Islam according to the Muslim Brotherhood

The Muslim should continually work to reform himself, set straight his Muslim home, guide his society, and liberate his country from any foreign, non-Muslim political, economic, or spiritual power.

He should work to reform his government until it becomes truly Islamic. Its members should be Muslims who perform the pillars of Islam and not those who willfully neglect them, to implement the regulations and teachings of Islam.

It is permissible to seek the help of non-Muslims should this be necessary, but not in the positions of general authority, as long as he agrees on the general basis of the Islamic system of governance.

The characteristics of this government are a feeling of subjection, kindness towards its subjects, just dealings with the people, keeping itself from the general wealth, and economy in working with it.

The obligations of this government are the provision of security, making laws, promoting education, keeping itself strong, preserving general health, watching over the general interest, developing wealth, protecting capital, strengthening morals, and issuing the call to Islam.

The rights of this government, when it performs its duties, include loyalty, obedience, and assistance through its people and their money.

The Muslim should then work to restore the international position of the Islamic nation, so that its lands are liberated and its glory revived in the return of the lost caliphate and all desired unity.

Then, finally, the Muslim should work for professorship of the world by spreading the call to Islam in all corners… (quoting the Quranic verse):

Fight them until there is no sedition, and all of religion is for God.

10.   The Process of Formation is among the Firm Principles of the Muslim Brotherhood

Moving gradually in steps: All aspects of our call move in three steps:

  1. Propagation, definition, and preaching the idea so it is received by the masses in all classes of people.
  2. Empowerment, selecting helpers, preparing soldiers, and outfitting the troops[10] among those who are called.
  3. Implementation, work, and production.

Many times these three stages can work simultaneously. The preacher calls to Islam, while he also chooses people and educates them, while he also works to implement the goals.

11.   Describing the Muslim in the Call of the Muslim Brotherhood

He is characterized by:

  • Believing in the idea with faith, sincerity, zeal, and work
  • Sincerity in dispossessing himself for the cause
  • Striving in the path of its realization
  • Influencing both work and production
  • Incorporating time for preaching
  • Keeping from being miserly in his belief
  • Aware of all his duties
  • Brings love to all people
Related Texts:

[1] Following the practice of these three groups is also a key distinction of the Muslim party called Salafi, though it is not restricted to them alone.

[2] That is, Mohamed.

[3] The term jihad incorporates an idea of ‘striving’, of which violence and warfare are possible but not necessarily implied.

[4] The designation of ‘modern age’ moves the Brotherhood beyond the aforementioned Salafis, who generally speaking reject philosophical world advancements in favor of the original vision of Mohamed and his companions.

[5] The Red Sea coastal region of present day Saudi Arabia, within which are the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

[6] A designation for Morocco.

[7] Designating the lands of Spain and Portugal, where Islam ruled for 800 years.

[8] Representing a prominent teaching of Shi’ism.

[9] Representing a practice among some Sufis and traditional Muslims.

[10] It appears these military allusions are symbolic rather than a call for militias, but further clarification is necessary.