December 31, 2021

All About Questions

When it comes to asking questions in matters of religion, much confusion exists in the minds of people about what to ask and what not to ask and when to question and when not to question. A significant generational gap also exists about the desirability or undesirability of questioning. This article will explain what questions must be asked and which ones must be avoided, as well as the balanced and healthy position regarding raising questions.

Faith must not be blind

A majority of people have the misguided notion that faith must be blind, must be accepted without questioning and that faith does not have to be logical, rational or sensible. That is not the Islamic attitude. Islamic view is that we must not believe blindly. Our belief must be rational, it must make sense and it must be accepted after due questioning. Accepting faith blindly is what Shaytaan thrives on. The main reason non-Islamic beliefs survive is because of this blind faith concept. If people adopt faith only if it makes sense, they will be able to break away from the illogical beliefs of their forefathers and their societies and come to Islam – the only rational faith.

However, the rational faith does not mean positively proven faith, but the most reasonable and the most sensible faith in the unseen realities that cannot be physically proven or unproven. 

Is blind faith and faith in unseen the same thing?

Blind faith and Faith in the unseen are absolutely two different concepts. Blind faith is believing in something that does not necessarily make sense. An example is faith in the concept of “the trinity”. Although it does not make sense at all, and the believers do acknowledge that it does not make sense, they still believe in it. Faith in the unseen is believing on the basis of intellectual and rational evidence, instead of relying on physical evidence. It is like believing in the existence of viruses and germs or neutrons and protons without personally and physically seeing them.

Commands must not be questioned!

Nowadays, the trend is that although people believe blindly, when it comes to following the religious edicts, they question the commands and follow only what makes “sense” to them. Once again this is a trap of Shaytaan, not an Islamic approach. Islamic view is that once you have accepted Allaah (subhaanahu wa ta`aalaa) as your Lord, you must submit to Him unconditionally and without questioning any commands He gives you. When we believe that Allaah (subhaanahu wa ta`aalaa)is our Lord, Master and Owner, we do not have any right except to submit to Him and His commands as slaves without asking why or what for. When we believe that He has the ultimate knowledge and wisdom, it does not behove us to question the wisdom of His commands for us. Whether the wisdom of the command is understood or not, and whether the rationale of commands is given or not, the command must be obeyed happily, willingly and wholeheartedly. If it is established clearly that the command came from Allaah and His Messenger, the obedience must be instantaneous and unquestioned.

The questions that can be asked about commands

Of course, questioning to establish if the command is from Allaah (subhaanahu wa ta`aalaa)and His Messenger (sal-Allaahu alayhi wa sallam), is essential, but once the origin of the command is established to be from Allaah or His Messenger, a believer is expected to say “I listen and I obey”.

In addition to questioning to establish the source of command, the only question allowed is whether Allaah or His Messenger indicated a purpose for the command. If purpose of the command has been mentioned we should understand that purpose so that in obeying the command we do fulfil the purpose. However, if Allaah and His Messenger did not mention the purpose or wisdom of the command themselves, we should not speculate or try to determine it on our own.

Naturally, if someone does not know Islamic teachings about certain practical situations in life, he or she should ask the knowledgeable people about it. Asking these questions is part of seeking knowledge, which is an obligation. 

The questions that are abhorred in Islam

There are two types of questions that are extremely disliked in Islam:

  1. Questions about the matter of unseen
  2. Questions that have no practical benefit

1. Questions about the matter of unseen

Raising questions that seek to determine the exact nature of the matter of unseen, which in the language of the Qur-aan are called Mutashaabihaat. Following is the explanation of the related verses from my Tafseer.

"7 It is He who has sent down to you (O Muhammad) the Book wherein there are verses that convey precise, definite teachings. (Aali ‘Imran 3:7)" (1).
Such verses are the substance of the Book. There are other verses that convey approximate description of transcendent (2) realities. The people with warped mentality pursue the transcendent issues seeking to cause mischief and seeking to determine their exact nature -- while only Allaah knows their exact nature.
On the other hand, those who are well versed in knowledge say (3), “We believe in them. They are all from our Lord.” The fact is that only insightful people really heed.
"8 They pray, 'Our Lord! Do not let our thinking be warped after you have guided us aright, and grant us Mercy from Yourself. Indeed you are the Oft-Bestower. 9 Our Lord! You are surely going to gather people on the Day about which there is no doubt. Verily, Allaah does not back out of assignation' (Aali ‘Imran 3:8-9)"

1  Muĥkamaat: Precise, vivid, specific injunctions and teachings that people have capacity to fully comprehend, understand and put into action.
2  Mutashaabihaat: approximate descriptions of the transcendent realities that are beyond human comprehension, imagination, or perception; describing supernatural, abstruse and recondite facts in human language.
3  This translation follows the punctuation of the Mus-haf (Qur-aanic Scripture). A great majority of the scholars and commentators of the Qur-aan agree that only Allaah knows the exact specifications of Mutashaabihaat. No human being can. A few scholars have a differing view of the punctuation. They punctuate it to render that only Allaah and the people of sound knowledge know the meaning of Mutashaabihaat. This rendition is totally inappropriate and does not fit the context. Just the phrase preceding it said that those whose hearts are perverse or have crooked mentality pursue Mutashaabihaat. People with sound knowledge will have to find the exact nature of Mutashaabihaat either through revelation or through their personal pursuit. Revelation only came to the prophets and ended with Prophet Muhammad. Hence, any other person will have to pursue them personally to determine their exact nature, which, according to this Aayah itself, means they have crooked mentality. How can they be sound in knowledge and have a crooked mentality at the same time? Similarly, this rendition does not fit with phrases afterwards where the people with sound knowledge have been reported to believe in Mutashaabihaat without pursuing them, saying, “We believe in them. They are all from our Lord.” That is why the great majority of scholars reject this variant opinion in punctuation. The minority that holds this opinion consists either of Shia’s who believe that their Imaams receive special knowledge from Allaah or the Sufis who also believe that they can receive such special knowledge. Both of these claims have no basis in Islam.

The guidance provided to people by the Holy Qur-aan can be divided into two major categories:

  • Reminding people that they are a creation of Allaah put temporarily on the earth as a test and that they will be held accountable on the Day of Judgement and will live thereafter in comfort or pain forever; and explaining to them the manner in which they should live in this temporary world so that they can have a beautiful human society to live in and can succeed in the eternal life Hereafter. Such knowledge is the essence and substance of the Qur-aan and the main purpose and reason for its revelation. The Holy Qur-aan imparts this knowledge succinctly, precisely and categorically. For that reason, the verses that convey this knowledge are called Muĥkamaat.
    The right-minded people spend their time and energies learning this knowledge, reflecting upon it and fulfilling its obligations in their private lives and implementing it collectively in their society.
  • Informing people about the things they have no way of finding out except through revelation. These are things such as the infinite attributes of Allaah, Allaah’s infinite ways to make things happen by commanding ‘Be’; the existence and nature of angels; the fire and punishment of Hell; the comforts and bounties of Paradise; the existence and animosity of Shaytaan and his efforts to mislead people; etc. Because they are described in a human language that does not have precise words and concepts to describe these realities, their description approximates the reality as much as possible given the limits of human language and understanding. Hence, they are called Mutashaabihaat.
    Except to believe in the way these things are described in the Qur-aan, no human being has either the capacity or the need to know the exact nature of these unseen realities. They must be believed on the basis of rational reasoning, without trying to determine their nature precisely.
    No human being has capacity to understand these things because we can understand, conceive and visualize only what we have experienced. Anything that we have never experienced in our life is beyond our capacity of understanding. As an example, try to explain to a person who was born blind the concept of colour or the difference between red and green. Or, try to explain the taste of an exotic fruit, let us say Chonsa mango, to a friend who has never seen, smelled or tasted it. The best one can do is to describe the variations or closeness of the taste and texture of that fruit as compared to the tastes and textures of other fruits they have experienced in the past.
    The vocabulary of human languages is beset with the same limitation and for the same reason. We only have words to describe the concepts we understand. A word without an understood concept or definition is a meaningless word. Similarly, our languages do not have words to describe the realities we have not seen.

The Holy Qur-aan needs to describe those unseen realities through human language that has no words to describe them precisely. Hence, it uses words and phrases that are as close to the reality as possible. The intent is to inform people about them, not to define them exactly. The exact definition will neither be feasible through human language nor understandable due to lack of human capability. Hence, wise people accept those concepts as described without trying to visualize them or to specify their exact nature. They value their time and avoid indulging in futile exercises.

A distinction should be made between the things we do not understand because of a lack of knowledge and the things that are absolutely beyond human capabilities. There may be some concepts that may be beyond the understanding of an ordinary person but fully understood by a specialist of a particular branch of knowledge. For example, a research scientist specializing in particle physics may exactly describe a physical phenomenon in mathematical terms but a person who has only a rudimentary knowledge of mathematics will not be able to make sense out of it. Similarly, a Qur-aanic concept or phenomenon may be very clear and specific for a very learned man but a not-so-precise matter of faith for a less knowledgeable person. We are not talking about those things here. The issue here concerns those matters that are beyond human experience.

Distinction should also be made between the messengers of Allaah and other human beings. The messengers of Allaah are taken by Allaah through some special experiences (4) that are beyond the capabilities of other human beings. The Prophet’s personal experiences with Jibreel are one simple example.

4  Examples of such experiences were given in Soorah Al-Baqarah, verses 259-260.

The exact determination of the nature of Mutashaabihaat (unseen, transcendent realities) is unnecessary for two reasons: Firstly, exact determination does not add any value to our understanding. Regardless of the preciseness of description, the concept will always remain obscure without the benefit of personal experience. Even if the description of their exact nature was possible in human language and was completely provided in the Qur-aan, people would not be able to understand them because of their lack of background or experience. For example, even the most eloquent description of the taste of Chonsa mango will not give a clear, precise concept of its taste to a person unless he himself tastes one. It may create a strong desire in a person’s mind, but it will not give him the precise taste.

Secondly, exact understanding is not needed for believing in these realities. We believe in Mutashaabihaat: because they are logically sensible; because the prophets have given witness on their existence; and, because our faith has already been firmly grounded on the basis of the truth we witness in Muĥkamaat. Again, even for the purposes of belief, their exact description does not add any value because, as explained earlier, regardless of the exactness of description, we will not be able to understand them. Hence, our belief will still have to be based on logic, Muĥkamaat, and witness of the prophets.

On these matters, the Qur-aan provides as much information as is possible for us to understand and as is necessary to form an accurate and useful belief in them. The information provided fulfils the objective of guidance. The wise people who are well grounded in the sound knowledge of Muĥkamaat, in the logical foundations of Islam and in the wonderful witness provided by the prophets, accept them as they are presented without defining their nature precisely, generalizing any specifics or making any general things specific. They avoid describing these realities except in the words of the Qur-aan.

On the other hand, some people who do not understand their own limitations or the reality of the matter indulge in efforts to pin down their exact nature. The examples are: trying to define how Shaytaan looks like, whether he is male or female, and how he incites us or whispers thoughts to misguide us; how the angels or their wings look like, how they travel, take human shape or perform their duties; how Allaah blew spirit in Adam or in Maryam’s womb for Jesus; or what are Allaah’s physical attributes, how does Allaah manage to be everywhere at the same time or how does He use His Throne?

Only people with a crooked mentality delve into these kinds of questions. They do so with one or both of the following motives:

  • Some people raise such questions just to create arguments, conflicts and mischief; to start meaningless discussions to sow doubts in people’s minds or create confusion; and to divert the attention of believers from real Islamic objectives to these useless pursuits. The prime example of these people before us was that of Jews. Instead of performing their duties assigned to them by Allaah, they spent their energies playing games with the words used for Mutashaabihaat.
  • Others pursue Mutashaabihaat because they want to specify, determine and describe them exactly or they insist on taking the words that describe the phenomena of unseen quite literally in human terms. They usually end up becoming a victim of Shaytaan and destroying their own faith either by getting absolutely confused or by deriving wrong conclusions. The prime example of people who were in that category before us are Christians. They took Prophet ‘Eesa’s being “kalimah (5) of Allaah” literally and tried to determine the exact nature of “Allaah’s word” and how it transformed to become Jesus instead of understanding it to be the command of Allaah to create Jesus. They took this approach to most of the Mutashaabihaat matters. With that attitude, they ended up creating a religion about Jesus where he has been deified in diametric opposition to what Jesus actually stood for. Their beliefs have become totally un-Islamic and none of their religious dogmas makes any sense anymore. Christianity requires blind faith because its dogmas are absolutely illogical.
5  Literally, kalimah means a word or phrase, whether it is a statement or a command.

There is, however, no shortage of ‘so called’ Muslims who bear Muslim names but play games with the words used for Mutashaabihaat. They raise questions about them to create Fitnah. You can see many of such elements busy spreading their Fitnah on different Internet forums. Then there are others who, like Christians, tend to be very religious but their interest in religion centres around Mutashaabihaat. For example, Muslims who indulge in Sufism also tend to get into this dangerous territory and many Sufi sects have come up with illogical and un-Islamic dogmas like Christians. On the other extreme are Salafis who take literal meaning of Mutashaabihaat instead of just believing in the message being given through those approximate descriptions. Not only do they take the words literally according to human understanding of those words, but they also make it a matter of ‘Aqeedah. They are behaving like people in the past who created an issue that Qur-aan being word of Allaah is a creation and insisted in making it a matter of ‘Aqeedah.

To understand the futility of this exercise and the dangers it is fraught with, imagine a person born blind trying to precisely define a colour and to explain it in his words to another blind man. Also, imagine my colleague going home and describing mango to his wife. He will be safe as long as he sticks to the description I gave him. If he started describing the taste of the mango in his own words from the mental picture he made in his mind when it was being described to him, can you imagine how different that description will get from the taste of a real Chonsa mango? Hence, when describing Mutashaabihaat, we must stick with the words of the Qur-aan without trying to explain them according to our own perceptions.

Allaah wants us to avoid both of these approaches. Instead, He wants us to be wise like those who accept as much as they are told and do not add or reduce anything to that. They pray, 

“Our Lord! Do not let our thinking be warped after you have guided us aright, and grant us Mercy from Yourself. Indeed you are the Oft-Bestower. Our Lord! You are surely going to gather people on the Day about which there is no doubt. Verily, Allaah does not back out of assignation”.

The day of Judgement is when the exact nature of these realities will be right in front of us. We will experience them first hand. That day is going to come on its own time. It cannot come early nor can it be delayed. Until that happens we have to wait patiently and accept our limitations as they are.

In addition to Muĥkamaat and Mutashaabihaat, The Qur-aan also has regulations about Ĥalaal and Ĥaraam and historical anecdotes. A Hadeeth concisely describes how a Muslim should relate with all these types of verses of the Qur-aan. The Prophet said,

“The Qur-aan has been revealed featuring five types of information: Ĥalaal, Ĥaraam, specific teachings (Muĥkamaat), transcendent concepts (Mutashaabihaat), and anecdotes. So enjoy Ĥalaal, avoid Ĥaraam, act upon clear teachings, believe in transcendent concepts, and learn from the anecdotes.” (Reported from Aboo Hurayrah in Mishkaah)

Thus, a Muslim should believe in the Mutashaabihaat as they are described in the Qur-aan without pursing to determine their meaning any more than the words of the Qur-aan. While believing in the Mutashaabihaat, they must focus all their attentions and energies on Muhkamaat that are the substance of the Qur-aan (ummul kitaab).

2. Questions that have no practical benefit

Raising questions that do not have immediate practical benefit to the questioner or not relevant to their current situation. These are the speculative questions people ask: what if such and such happens, without encountering that situation or expecting to encounter it in near future.

The questions that emanate from reluctance to obey or that seek to make a general command into a more specific one. The example of this type of questioning is illustrated by the story of slaughtering the cow mentioned in Soorah Al-Baqarah. The questioners asked about the kind of cow to be slaughtered because of their reluctance to slaughter it. In an effort to sidetrack the command they kept asking for more specifics. Originally, they could have slaughtered any cow and the command would have been fulfilled. But in response to their questions, it became a very specific cow of certain age, colour and other attributes. Often we commit the same mistake when we are not satisfied with a general command and keep asking questions to pinpoint specifics.

This type of questions and attitude was extremely disliked by Allaah and His Messenger. Muslims were told (the translation of the meaning of the Qur-aan) :

101 O believers! Do not ask questions about things which if declared to you may trouble you, and if you question about them when the Qur’aan is being revealed, they shall be declared to you; Allaah has pardoned this, and Allah is Forgiving, Forbearing. 102 A people before you did ask such questions, and then became disbelievers on account of them. (Al-Maaidah 5:101-102)

Often, Allaah SWT, being kind and merciful to people, leaves some commands in general terms to allow people flexibility to act upon them as their circumstances allow, but some people ask questions that end up making a command very specific and therefore a burden for many others. That kind of attitude had made Sharee’ah burdensome and difficult to follow for Banee Israaeel. Hence, Muslims were told to avoid that tendency.

When the Prophet (sal-Allaahu alayhi wa sallam) presented the general Qur’aanic command that Hajj has been made obligatory for Muslims, a person asked, “Is it an annual obligation?” The Prophet (sal-Allaahu alayhi wa sallam) did not respond. When he kept repeating the question, the prophet responded, “Pity on you. If I say yes, it will become a yearly obligation, then you will not be able to follow the command and will disobey.”

He (sal-Allaahu alayhi wa sallam), also was reported to have said, “The biggest culprit among Muslims is he who raised questions about something that was not prohibited for people, but answers to his questions ended up making it prohibited.”

He also told, “Indeed Allaah SWT has obligated obligations, so do not disregard them; He has prohibited some things, do not approach them; He has set some limits, do not transgress them; He has not talked about some things without forgetting them, so do not enquire about them.”

In the light of the above, Muslims should curb the tendency of making generalities, more specific; concise points into detailed statements; vague concepts into categorical pronouncements or, loosely defined rules into precisely defined regulations. Most of the discord in the Ummah has in fact resulted from people violating these teaching of Allaah and His Messenger.

A perfect example of what to question and what not to question

The Holy Qur-aan presents, the attitude of Ibraaheem ‘Alayhissalaam as a perfect and the most beautiful example of a Muslim’s attitude in terms of where to raise questions and where to submit instantly and willingly.

When he grew up, he took a rational approach to his parents and his society’s beliefs. Through his logical and rational approach, he concluded that it does not make sense to worship the idols that people make with their own hands. He reflected on the universal realities around him:

And thus did We show Ibraaheem the matters of kingdom of the heavens and the earth in order that he would be of those who are sure. (Al-An’aam 6:75)

He concluded that any finite entities such as stars, moon or sun are not worthy of worship. One must submit only to One and Only Infinite Creator of this finite universe, thus he announced:

Surely I have turned myself truly, wholly and solely to Him Who originated the heavens and the earth, and I am not of the polytheists. (Al-An’aam 6:79)

But once he accepted Allaah as his Lord, He submitted to him most willingly, without any hesitation or reservations, and without even asking why any certain actions should be carried out. He listened and immediately obeyed. Whether it was leaving his family in an uninhabited, inhospitable desert, or sacrificing his one and only son or anything else, he jumped to obedience willingly and wholeheartedly, no questions asked.

He presented the perfect example of questioning the faith so that one adopts only the correct faith, but obeying unconditionally like an obedient slave, without asking questions, and having full faith in the wisdom and knowledge of Allaah SWT.

Every now and then people ask some inappropriate question in matters of religion. To support their questions they throw in the example of Ibraaheem’s asking Allaah Ta'aalaa to show how He raises the dead. This example is commonly misunderstood and hence quoted inappropriately.

First of all, neither did Ibraaheem ‘Alayhissalaam question Allaah’s capability of raising the dead nor did he ask for a proof of that capability. He already had full faith in it. In fact he did not even ask a question, rather, he just requested a demonstration to gain personal knowledge of ‘How’ it happens. As a prophet he was being shown the behind the scene workings of Allaah’s kingdom, as every prophet is given that knowledge to enable him to become witness to mankind of the realities of faith on the basis of their personal observation, instead of just being told about these facts. From that perspective, he asked for this demonstration:

And when Ibraaheem said: My Lord! Show me how do you give life to the dead, He said: Do you not believe? He said: Yes I do, but that my heart may be satisfied. (Al-Baqarah 2:260)

Secondly, this request for demonstration was about a matter of faith (raising the dead) put forth to help him do his prophetic job on the basis of personal knowledge. It was not about any commands of Allaah, for which he always surrendered without ever asking a question – not asking even the purpose of the command or its rationale.

We can quote this example to indicate natural human curiosity, but we cannot quote it to support our questions for two reasons: A non-prophet does not have the prophetic privilege to ask for demonstration of the realities of faith. Thus, using this example in justifying any questions people generally raise is inappropriate and irrelevant. If we are questioning Allaah’s commands, then it is inappropriate irrelevant because Ibraaheem ‘Alayhissalaam never ever questioned Allaah’s command.

The valid example to follow in this regard is his questioning of the faith of the elders and his no-questions-asked obedience to Allaah SWT.

Posted in Q & A on December 31, 2021 by Ayub Hamid

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