Q: You seem to indicate that Islam is not as stringent as many people believe it to be. To what extent is your view based on personal understanding as opposed to clear text? I do not mean to disparage you, but certainly you must agree that there are others as equally, if not more learned than yourself, who take a much stricter view of do's and don'ts. For example, at his web site, Shaykh Bilal Philips states that photography is haraam. He is no mere unqualified Imam, but a scholar of the highest stature, and maintains a connection with the most respected jurists of Islam. What say you?

A: Everyone's interpretation of Islam must necessarily be based on personal analysis; the Qur'an asks us to think, and then act. If I were to blindly accept the Qur'an, as paradoxical as it may sound, I would be a bad Muslim. To put the matter in its most precise terms, I have also quoted often and elsewhere the part of the verse: "Huwa alladhi khalaqa lakum maa fi'l ard jamee'an: He it is who has created for you all that is on earth (Q2:29)." Then in another verse, which must be read to complete the equation and afford a holistic approach to Allah's document: "wa fassala lakum maa harama alaykum: and has clearly defined for you that which he has forbidden unto you (Q6:119)." This basically tells us that our religion is one of permissibility, and as the fiqh maxim goes: "The basic rule in things is permissibility." It is with this in mind that the early jurists formulated the concept of makruh.

Unlike the later view of the term, makruh did not originally seem to imply a legal thing that is disliked by Allah. To many early jurists who viewed certain things as haraam, they were faced with a quandary: How dare they declare something as haraam when Allah did not absolutely, indubitably rule on it? What if they were wrong? They therefore used the term "makruh" -- to indicate the strongest prohibition, but yet to "hedge" against error, and to avoid use of a definite and distinct "haraam." It shows their approach of permissibility. As to those who are as learned and even more so than I am, I would be a fool to argue with this. Without arrogance, I must, in defense of my own capabilities, tell you that in Islamic Law and tradition, there are certainly many who excel me. But I cannot think of any Muslim scholar that has delved into Halakha (Jewish Law) and Christian tradition as much as I have. This I think gives me an edge, for the process of legal reasoning is well-developed not by taking from a single matrix, but several, and the early Muslim lawyers knew and recognized "shari'a man qablanaa" -- the shari'ah of those before us.

It is patently clear except to those who wish to blind themselves that the Rabbinic and Judaic matrices were the models for Islamic Law -- to the point that Muslims departed from the Qur'anic permissibility and espoused the strict legal viewpoints of Judaism, taking Islam as a religion of law rather than one of ethics and moral exhortation. Bilal Philips is truly a good Muslim brother and scholar. I know him personally, and it was he, in fact, who arranged for me to study in Saudi Arabia, and who gave me the first good lesson in tajwid. I hold him in the highest regard, but even so, I do not feel that this means I must agree with him on everything. His views on photography -- and any other issues for that matter -- are his, and if he is influenced into taking his position which, he admits clearly, is that of the majority of the salafis, then it is his right to do so. However, I do not base my opinions simply on the basis of majority. Bilal was trained in the College of Dawa, I was trained in Islamic Law. I choose to follow the fiqh maxim I mentioned earlier, and I cannot deem something as haraam until there is clear, indubitable proof of its prohibition. In examining legal argumentation, I will not only look at the views of Muslim scholars, who often wish for us to see Islam as they see it.

If your remark about Bilal maintaining a connection with the most respected jurists of Islam is an indication of my isolation, please understand certain things. First of all, the people to whom Bilal refers, such as Shaykh al-Albani, etc., are not jurists, but hadith scholars. Secondly, I am not disconnected from the top jurists in Islam. I just elect not to work in certain areas. In my visits to the Arab world, I continue to sit with the top shaykhs of the various madhahib, and in North America, to consult with those whom I deem to be peerless in their field, an example being Dr. Taha al-Alwani. If your remark is meant to refer to my association with non-Muslim scholars, then I point out that I sit with these scholars not to learn my Islam from them, but to make use of their keen faculty in Islamic Law. Often they contribute in a manner that makes for better understanding, for they are not restricted by credal yokes.

An example is Wael Hallaq, Professor of Islamic Law at McGill University. In my opinion, no non-Muslim I have met is as authoritative as Hallaq on Islamic Law, and indeed very few Muslims match his acumen. In terms of his knowledge of the history and evolution of Islamic Law, I consider him to be without equal. Is there something wrong with me using his expertise? I suggest that every aspiring Muslim intellectual read his works. After all the foregoing, I tell you this: My opinions are based on what I think is my unbiased approach to the sources. Like al-Shafi, I tell you that I think I am right, with the possibility that I may be wrong, and that those who say different to me, are wrong with the possibility that they may be right. However, having said all that, you will answer to our Creator for yourself, and I for myself. My answers are to be contemplated and studied for their strength and convincing arguments. In fact, all scholarly answers must be analyzed based on these criteria, not through blind allegiance to any Shaykh because of his perceived knowledge or reputation in any circles. When answers or scholarly material do not meet these criteria of acceptability, then leave them aside. May Allah make us better Muslims.

Posted May 12, 2002