Modern Zahirists: Features and Methods (2/3)

Toward A Positive Muslim-Muslim Dialogue
By Dr. Wael Shihab
Writer and Muslim Researcher
Sky - Tree
Many of modern zahiri preachers incline to rigidity and excessiveness. They mistakenly think that the safest option is usually the most difficult

The modern zahiri (literalist) trend is more dangerous than the early zahiri school. They closely follow the spirit and methodological approach of the early literalists, though they do not have as much knowledge of the Qur’an and traditions like the early zahiri scholars. They exist both in the West and in the East; they are not confined to a country or a region. Their impact seriously affects people in Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Modern zahirists, or the neo-literalists, have features and methodological approaches that distinguish them from other Muslim trends and schools. Their literal interpretation of Islam affects their views, stances, and dealings with others. They stick very closely to literal meanings of texts, while ignoring other necessary factors of legal deduction such as the deeper meanings of the texts, the context, scholars’ various interpretations, etc.

In this section, I will objectively and critically figure out the features and methods of the new zahiri trend in an attempt to study this rising phenomenon in our modern world in a scholarly way for the sake of humanity and the wellbeing of all people. The study, therefore, aims at maintaining a positive Muslim-Muslim dialogue and offers a scholarly analysis of Muslims’ overwhelming problems. Individuals’ faith and intentions are out of the scope of the study; as this is left to Allah alone. The study, then, focuses on methods and features of the new zahiri trend that affect their understanding of Islam and its values.


Features and Methods of Modern Zahirists

A few years ago, a young man, after leading the worshippers at a dawn (fajr) Prayer in Chicago, told a latecomer to the first rak`ah (who had been finishing his Sunnah Prayer when the iqamah, call to commence the Prayer, was made): "If the prescribed Prayer begins, you don’t finish the Sunnah, quit it and join the group. Don’t listen to Abu Hanifah, or Malik, or Ash-Shafi`i; the hadith is clear: La salata ba‘da al-iqama illa al-maktuba ‘There is no prayer after the iqamah except the prescribed one.’" (1)

The above real short story represents the main features and methodological approaches of the new zahiri reformers, which may be summarized as follows:


1. Extreme Literal Interpretations of Texts

Like the early zahiri school, modern literalists sticks to literal meanings of texts, and therefore don't pay attention to general or deeper meanings of texts. They even may not pay attention to other general or particular texts of the Qur’an or the Sunnah that may help a scholar to correctly interpret a text. This leads them to commit grave errors when deducing Shari`ah rulings from particular texts of the Qur’an or the Sunnah.

The literal meaning of the above hadith (2) is what the young zahiri preacher said. However, the majority of Muslim scholars, who interpreted this hadith while considering other texts and objectives of the Qur’an and the Sunnah, say that the hadith means that one may not begin a Sunnah (or other supererogatory - nafilah) prayer after the call to commence the Prayer (iqamah) is given. The majority of scholars have understood it this way for the very good reason that Allah says in the Qur’an, "And do not nullify your works" (3), and to simply quit an act of worship—namely, the Sunnah rak`ahs before fajr—is precisely to nullify part of one’s works. Also, there is another hadith—as imam An-Nawawi observes—that proves that the meaning of the above hadith is that one may not initiate a Sunnah Prayer after the iqamah. The other hadith reads, “The subh (dawn) Prayer had commenced when the Messenger of Allah (peace be on him) saw a person observing Prayer, whereas the muezzin had pronounced the iqamah. Upon this he (the Prophet) remarked: Do you say four (rak`ahs) of fard in the dawn Prayer?” It is clear from this narration that the Prophet (peace be on him) disliked initiating a Sunnah Prayer after the iqamah for the obligatory Prayers and he regarded the man as praying four rak`ahs for the subh Prayer.

It is a big mistake, therefore, to literally interpret a text in exclusion of its deeper meaning

Scholars, moreover, say that the wisdom behind the prohibition of initiating a Sunnah Prayer after the iqamah is that one should be more concerned about perfecting the obligatory Prayer rather than performing a supererogatory one. There are other hadiths that support the interpretation of the majority of scholars in this regard. (4)

It is a big mistake, therefore, to literally interpret a text in exclusion of its deeper meaning, other general or particular texts, general objectives of Shari`ah, etc.


2. Not Understanding the Ethics of Disagreement

Many of the modern zahiri preachers do not understand the Islamic ethics for disagreement. In the above story, the young preacher said, “Don’t listen to Abu Hanifah, or Malik, or Ash-Shafi`i”. It was far better for him to say I believe what is correct is such-and-such while other respected scholars hold a different view, which may be also be correct.

Among the norms of juristic disagreement is that one should realize that ikhtilaf (disagreement) in secondary issues of Shari`ah is unavoidable and it is a mercy for the Muslim community. Allah Almighty has ordained differences between human beings in their mental capabilities, their languages, the color of their skins, and their perceptions and thoughts. All this naturally gives rise to multiplicity and variety of opinions and judgments. There are causes for unavoidable disagreement in juristic issues such as the nature of the Arabic language, scholars’ differences over the methodology and the principles of Usul al-Fiqh, etc.

By virtue of the aforementioned facts, it can be concluded that a consensus on the secondary (far`i) issues of Shari`ah is not only impossible but incompatible with the nature of our religion, Islam, because such a demand is bound to generate rigidity and excessiveness, which are contrary to the Islamic imperatives of flexibility, facilitation, and simplicity. Also, these virtues will enable Islam to meet the requirements of all times. (5)

It is also interesting to note that in the formative stages of Islamic jurisprudence–during the first three centuries–scholars tended to excel in the degree of latitude and acceptance of ijtihad-oriented disagreement. The Companions have disagreed about matters of interpretation and it is even said that they had reached an ijma` on this: the agreement is to disagree, and their example also finds support among the leading authorities and scholars of the era of ijtihad. (6)

Among the most important norms and ethics of valid disagreement in Islam is that one should respect and appreciate others’ ijtihad

In spite of their disagreement over many issues of the Shari`ah, the founders of the main four schools of fiqh praised and commended the efforts of one another. Ash-Shafi`i, for example, said about Malik ibn Anas: “Malik ibn Anas is my teacher. I drive knowledge from him. When people mention scholars, Malik stands out as a star. There is no one that I trust more wholeheartedly than Malik ibn Anas.” He also used to say: “If a hadith is reported by Malik, its reliability should be readily accepted because if he had any doubt about any hadith he would disregard it completely”. (7)

Among the most important norms and ethics of valid disagreement in Islam is that one should respect and appreciate others’ ijtihad, never underestimate their efforts, and should not look down at their views. (8)

Therefore, a Muslim scholar should get himself well-acquainted with and adhere to Islamic norms and values of juristic disagreement. This maintains a spirit of tolerance, respect, brotherhood, unity, and faithfulness.


3. Disregarding Reasoning

Literalists, past and present, do not accept reasoning (ra’y) in the deduction of legal rulings. Mainstream of prominent Muslim scholars agree that reasoning alone cannot be the basis in deducing Shari`ah rulings. In the area of `Ibadat (acts of worship), it may be generally acceptable to depend on texts. However, it is also necessary to apply reasoning in order to understand the texts, their meanings, and their contextual connotations, particularly in transactions and social matters. Reason is assigned to understand the revelation and correctly follow it, not to compete with it. (9)

Unfortunately, modern zahiri preachers totally disregard reasoning in interpreting Shari`ah and Islamic values, though they do not have vast knowledge of the Qur’an and traditions like Ibn Hazm and Abu Dawud Az-Zahiri. They denounce all those who resort to reasoning to understand the revelation, and describe them as mu`tazillah. (10)

Here, it is necessary to refer to the fact that Islam praises understanding and comprehension of religion. To correctly understand and comprehend Islam means to have a sound reason, accompanied with profound knowledge, that could grasp the true meanings of Shari`ah. Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) is reported to have prayed for Ibn `Abbas (d. 68 AH) saying, “O Allah, faqihu (give him understanding) in religion!” (11) It is quite obvious that the Prophet (peace be on him) could not have meant exclusively knowledge of fiqh in the narrow technical sense, but rather a deeper understanding of Islam in general. Fiqh lexically means to understand, to perceive deeply, and to manage understanding the meaning and core of something.(12) Imam Al-Ghazali (b. 445 AH – d. 505 AH) says in his well-reputed book, al-Mustasfa min `Im al-Usûl, “The original meaning of fiqh is the knowledge and understanding of something. People say so-and-so yafqahu the good and the evil, meaning he knows and understands them.” In this sense, fiqh and fahm are synonyms.(13)

Given the above, it becomes evident that Islam commends sound reasoning that enables people to correctly understand texts and their meanings. What is needed, then, is to make use of sound reasoning to correctly apply the texts of Shari`ah. Total disregard of reasoning will result in grave errors and mistakes that negatively affect Islam and Muslim communities.


4. Inclining to Rigidity and Excessiveness

Many of modern zahiri preachers incline to rigidity and excessiveness. They mistakenly think that the safest option is usually the most difficult. They may ignore the fact that Shari`ah aims at making things simple and easy. Allah Almighty says, “He (Almighty) did not place any constraint on you in the din (religion)." (14) When Prophet Muhammad was given the option to choose between two things, he always chose the easiest one as long as it was not sinful. (15) Istiqra’ (thematic inference or induction) of Shari`ah rulings prove the fact that the main objective of Shari`ah is to secure people's interests and remove hardship and haraj (constriction) from them.

Rigidity and excessiveness are alien to the Islamic Shari`ah

The above principle is strongly supported by many great scholars in the past and present. For instance, Al-`Izz ibn `Abd as-Salam (d. 660 AH / 1263 AC), the shafi`i jurist, says: “The entire Shari`ah aims at the welfare of the public, either in securing benefit or avoiding harm.” (16)

Therefore, rigidity and excessiveness are alien to the Islamic Shari`ah. It is the role of the scholar to get himself well-acquainted with the Shari`ah and its main and general objectives when issuing fatwas or giving counseling. Fatwas may change due to people’s changing circumstances and conditions. Sufyan ath-Thawri says, “It is only trustworthy and reliable scholars who could deduce Shari`ah concessions, while rigidity [in religion] may be introduced by any one.” (17)

Rigidity in fatwas results in serious consequences that negatively affect individuals and communities. Moderation—on the basis of correct understanding of Islam and its values—is the right approach to introduce Islam to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.


An Example of Modern Zahirir’s Fatwas

It would be sufficient to refer to one of the literalists’ fatwas—in addition to the afore-mentioned story on praying Sunnah after the iqamah—in order to explore the approach of the modern zahiri trend. Many of the zahiri preachers still prohibit photography. (18)

Those literalists rigidly stick to the literal meaning of the hadiths that prohibit taswir. For example, the Prophet (peace be on him) said, “Those who will suffer the most severe punishment on the Day of Judgment are al-musawirun.” (19)

However, scholars who have studied the above narration and other traditions—such as the hadith that reads, “Those who will suffer the most severe punishment on the Day of Judgment are those who make what resembles Allah’s creation” (20)—opine that the prohibition of taswir applies to people who make statues to be worshipped and revered by people. In this context, Ahmad Kutty, a contemporary Muslim jurist, says,

Photography as a medium of communication or for the simple, innocent retention of memories without the taint of reverence/shirk does not fall under the category of forbidden taswir.

One finds a number of traditions from the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, condemning people who make taswir, which denotes painting or carving images or statues. It was closely associated with paganism or shirk. People were in the habit of carving images and statues for the sake of worship. Islam, therefore, declared taswir forbidden because of its close association with shirk (association of partners with Allah). One of the stated principles of Usul-ul-Fiqh (Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence) is that if anything that directly leads to haram, it is likewise haram. In other words, taswir was forbidden precisely for the reason that it was a means leading to shirk.

The function of photography today does not fall under the above category. Even some of the scholars who had been once vehemently opposed to photography under the pretext that it was a form of forbidden taswir have later changed their position on it - as they allow even for their own pictures to be taken and published in newspapers, for videotaping lectures and for presentations; whereas in the past, they would only allow it in exceptional cases such as passports, drivers’ licenses, etc. The change in their view on photography is based on their assessment of the role of photography. (21)

Extreme literal interpretation of the hadiths on taswir has led many modern literalists to declare photography in general as forbidden, which is not correct. Though photos that promote vice and immorality are Islamically forbidden, decent photos cannot fall under such a prohibition. Promoting vice is what is prohibited, not photos or pictures in themselves.



(1) Nuh Ha Mim Keller, “Literalism and the Attributes of Allah”, 1995, http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/littlk.htm, November 7, 2010.

(2) Reported by Muslim in his Sahih, hadith no. 710.

(3) Qur’an, Surat Muhammad, verse no. 33.

(4) An-Nawawi, Al-Minhaj, 18 vols., 2nd edit. (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ at-Turath al-`Arabi, 1392 AH), 5: pp. 221-229.

(5) See Wa’il `Abdul-Mut`al Shihab, The Philosophy of Differences in Islam: An Analytical Study, unpublished MA thesis, Faculty of Languages and Translations, Al-Azhar University (Cairo: 2004 AC), pp. 61.

(6) Mohammad Hashim Kamali, The Scope of Diversity and Disagreement in the Shari`ah (Islamic Studies, vol. 37: 3, 1998), p. 332.

(7) See Taha Jabir Al-`Alwani, The Ethics of Disagreement in Islam, 1st ed. (Herndon: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1414 AH – 1993 AC), p. 101.

(8) See Wa’il Shihab, The Philosophy of Differences in Islam, pp. 21.

(9) Wa’il Shihab, Al-Masalih al-Mursalah and Their Contemporary Applications: An Analytical Study, unpublished PhD thesis, Faculty of Languages and Translations, Al-Azhar University (Cairo: 2010 AC), pp. 190-201.

(10) See Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Dirasah fi fiqh Maqasid ash-Shari`ah, 3rd ed. (Cairo: Dar ash-Shuruq, 208 AC), pp. 39 & 62.

(11) Al-Bukhari, al-Jami` as-Sahih, hadith no. 143.

(12) See Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-`Arab, 5: p. 3450; Majma` al-Lughah al-`Arabiyyah, al-Mu`jam al-Wasit, p. 698; Abu Ya`la Muhammad ibn al-Husayn al-Farra’, al-`Uddah fi `Ilm Usul al-Fiqh, 3 vols., ed. Ahmad ibn `Ali Sayr al-Mubaraki (Beirut: Mu’assasat ar-Risalah, 1499 AH - 1980 AC), 1: pp. 67-68.

(13) Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, al-Mustasfa min `Im al-Usul, 2 vols. (n.p., Dar al-Fikr li at-Tiba`ah wa an-Nashr wa at-Tawzi`, n.d.), 1: p. 4; Ahmad Hasan, The Early Development of Islamic Jurisprudence (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 1970 AC), p. 1

(14) Qur’an, Surat Al-Hajj, verse no. 78.

(15) Al-Bukhari, al-Jami` as-Sahih, hadith no. 6786; Muslim, as-Sahih, hadith no. 2327.

(16) Abu Muhammad `Izz ad-Din `abd al-`Aziz ibn `abd as-Salam, Qawa`id al-Ahkam fi Masalih al-Anam, 2 vols., ed. Mahmoud ibn at-Talamiz ash-Shinqiti (Beirut: Dar al-Ma`arif, nd), 1: p. 12

(17) An-Nawawi, Al-Majmu`, 22 vols., (Jeddah: Maktabat al-Irshad, nd), 1: p. 80.

(18) See Al-Qaradawi, Maqasid ash-Shari`ah, pp. 76 & 77.

(19) Al-Bukhari, al-Jami` as-Sahih, hadith no. 5950; Muslim, as-Sahih, hadith no. 2109.

(20) Al-Bukhari, al-Jami` as-Sahih, hadith no. 5954; Muslim, as-Sahih, hadith no. 2107.

(21) Ahmad Kutty, “Fatwa on Photography”, http://www.islamonline.net/servlet/Satellite?pagename=Islamonline-English-Ask_Scholar/FatwaE/FatwaE&cid=1119503545144, November 12, 2010.

Related Links:
Literalists Approach and Complications (Part1)

Dr. Wael Shihab holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Al-Azhar University and is the Head of the Shari`ah and Fatwa sections at the English website of Onislam.net.

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