Who are the Alavis?

Who are the Alavis?

Submitted by Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Those who seek to understand the recent upheavals in Syria often ask us: “Who are the Alavis?” We have explained this matter in detail in our essays on Islamic History. Here we summarize our observations in capsule format:

The Sunnis believe in the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and accept the ijma of the Companions. This means acceptance of the first four Caliphs, namely, Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r), Uthman (r) and Ali (r) as the rightly guided Caliphs (Khulfa-e-Rashidoon).

There are four schools of Sunnah fiqh (jurisprudence): Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’ and Hanbali. These four schools recognize their mutual validity. About 80 to 85% of the world’s 1.7 billion Muslims (estimated figures as of 2011 CE) are Sunni.

The Ithna-Asharis believe in the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and accept the Imamate of the twelve Imams, namely, Ali (r), Imam Hassan, Imam Hussain, Imam Zainul Abedin, Imam Muhammed Baqir, Imam Ja’afar Saadiq, Imam Musa Kadim, Imam Ali Rada, Imam Jawwad Razi, Imam Ali Naqi Hadi, Imam Hasan Askari, and Imam Muhammed Mahdi. They are also called the twelvers. The Ithna Asharis are spread out over the world with concentrations in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan and India.

The Sabayees believe in the first seven Imams. They are sometimes referred to as the seveners.

The Fatimids believe in the Imamate of the first six Imams and of Imam Ismail. The term ‘Ismailis’ is sometimes used to refer to them. They are also called the Agha Khanis because many of them follow the spiritual guidance of the Agha Khan. They are a prosperous community with concentrations in Mumbai, India, the East African coast and upper Egypt.

The Ithna-Asharis, the Fatimids (the Ismailis) and the Sabayees (the Seveners) are collectively referred to as Shi’a or Shi’ or Shi’ an e Ali.  About 15 to 20% of the Muslims of the world are Shia.

The Zaidis are intermediate in their beliefs between the Sunnis and the Shi’as. They believe in Caliphate of Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r) and Ali (r) but not of Uthman (r). They also believe in the imamate of the first four Imams and of Imam Zaid bin Ali. The Zaidis are to be found mostly in Oman along the Persian Gulf, Yemen and the East African coast (the Swahel).

During the time of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq (the sixth Imam), yet another schism took place, which had a profound and lasting impact on Islamic history. Not satisfied with the political quietude of Imam Ja’afar, some supporters of Bani Hashim looked elsewhere for leadership. They found a leader in Muhammed bin Hanafiya, a son of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r)  from one of his marriages after the death of Fatimat uz Zahra (r). The mother of Muhammad bin Hanafiya, son of Ali (r), belonged to a tribe named Banu Hanafiya. This is the beginning of the Alavis.

So, the Fatimids and the Alavis are both descendants of Hazrat Ali (r). While the Fatimids are descended through Fatima (r), beloved daughter of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), the Alavis are descended through Hanafiya, a noble lady of Banu Hanafiya. They are both descended from Ahl e Bait, as the term is used by most scholars to refer to Ali (r), Fatima (r), Hassan (r) and Hussain (r).  But while the Fatimids are Seyyeds (those who are descended from the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)), the Alavis are not. They are like half-brothers.

Faced with persecution over the centuries, the Alavis (like the Druze in later centuries) retreated to the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. That is where a majority of them live, in the coastal strips between the mountains of Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea. In recent years, both the Sunnis and the Ithna Ashari Shias have made a concerted effort to bring the Alavis back into their folds.

We emphasize here that all Muslims believe in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The differences between Shias and Sunnis and between the various sects among them are historical. They are not doctrinal. They are all like different historical streams that trace their origin to a single source. They are all Muslim.

We hope this clarification helps.

Ramadan: Finding the Light in One’s Heart

Ramadan: Finding the Light in One’s Heart


Ramadan: Finding the Light in One’s Heart

Professor Nazeer Ahmed


There is in every heart a divine light. Every human being is born with it. It comes to him with the spirit that Allah breathes into him.  And yet, humankind is lost, occupied with the trivial and the useless. It has forgotten that Light that is bestowed upon him by Divine command. Ramadan is the month to rediscover that Light.


In America, we are gratified that people of other faiths join us in celebrating Ramadan. That is beautiful. It must be encouraged. And we must reciprocate. We, as human beings are interconnected in a web of relationships. We have many identities but the basic identity that we share is one of our common humanity. It is tragic that humankind has forsaken that identify and defines itself in compartments that limit its humanity, in terms of race, religion, culture, origin, color, language and sect.  It has forgotten the focus of the interconnecting web, namely, the common origin of all men and women.


Ramadan can be looked at from many different perspectives. Scholars with many different schools of thought have illuminated us as to what the meaning of Ramadan is. I will venture to offer here some other perspectives. As a space scientist, we use a term called the Signal to Noise Ratio. You design a satellite or some space sensor that acquires a target, we talk about Signal to Noise Ratio. For instance, you design a telescope that looks at a distant star. Not all the input that comes to you is a signal. There is noise that comes to you from multiple sources. Similarly, human beings have a Signal to Noise Ratio. The Signal is the input that comes to you from the light in your heart. Unfortunately, that signal is lost, overwhelmed by noises. We will talk about how in the month of Ramadan we strive to contain and overcome those noises.


Another perspective is to look at it from the point of view of optics. Optics is about mirrors. The more perfect a mirror, the greater the signal, the lesser the noise and the farther you can see. For instance, the mirrors in the Hubble Space Telescope can acquire a star of magnitude 8, almost at the edge of the galaxy.


It is similar with the heart. The more perfect the heart, the greater the signal that comes to you from the light that Allah has bestowed upon you. That is the meaning of “qalb e saleem”, a sound or perfect heart. The heart of a prophet is without blemish. It is perfect and is capable of receiving the light, the revelation that comes to it as Divine Guidance. It also explains the  hidden meaning of the parable about the angel Gabriel (Jibreel) opening up the bosom of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), removing a dot from his heart and washing it in heavenly waters prior to the revelation of the Qur’an.


Every human being, be he a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Zoroastrian, a believer or a disbeliever has that light except that we as human beings lose sight of that light as it is overwhelmed by extraneous noise.


A third way to look at Ramadan is that it is a month of reminder. It is a characteristic of us human beings that we forget and have to be reminded again and again. There was an occasion when all of us, from Adam to the last human who will walk on earth, stood in Divine presence, and He asked, “Al Astu Bi Rabbikum” (Am I not your Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher?). “Qaloo. Bala’” (They said, yes indeed!). Bala’ has two meanings. It means, yes, indeed. But it also means a challenge, an affliction. Therein was a compact between man and God and with it mankind took on a Trust. The Qur’an expounds on the Trust: “We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens, the Mountains and the Earth. But they declined, being afraid thereof. Mankind accepted it. Indeed, he exceeded the bounds and was foolish”. What is that Trust? People say, “We are trustees of the earth. We are trustees of the environment. We are trustees of the plants and the animals. We are trustees of wealth, and so on”. These are all approximations. Trust refers to that one thing that only human beings possess, which is the Spirit (the Ruh) that is given to us at birth. That is the real Trust. It is through that Trust that we receive life, knowledge and power. And from this Trust emerge all the other trusts. Yes, indeed, we are trustees of the earth but we carry that trust only because we are given that Spirit. If we did not have that Spirit, we would not be human beings. The gift of the Spirit bestows upon humankind power over the heavens and the earth.


Allah offered that Trust to the heavens and the mountains and the earth, but they declined, because they did not have the capability to carry it. But, to quote Mevlana Rumi, drunk as humankind was with the love of God, it accepted that Trust. Love had overcome fear and it had made humankind audacious and jahil.  The word jahil does not just mean foolish. A buffalo does foolish things but we do not say that the buffalo is jahil. The word jahil has a deeper meaning. It means one who has the capacity to know and yet does something foolish. Only humankind can be jahil. The term is reserved exclusively for men and women.


Thus did humankind embark on its journey through history as the Trustee, therein to toil and struggle to fulfill its destiny and keep its covenant with God.


Ramadan is a month when we are reminded of who we are, namely, Trustees of the Spirit. Humankind is forgetful of the Spirit because of the “noises” that it surrounds himself with. What are these noise sources?


In the Islamic parlance, we use the word Kashaf. It means a veil, a curtain. In certain contexts it could also mean unveiling. A curtain is a static term. I prefer the term “noise” because it is dynamic and connotes movement and action. Through the ages, our ulema have discussed the Kashaf of the body, of the mind, and of the Nafs (the soul). There is no Kashaf or curtain on the Spirit because it comes from Allah. It shines of its own with its eternal ebullience. It comes from Him and returns to Him. Inna lillahi wa inna illahi rajewoon (Indeed from Him do we come and indeed to Him do we return). The Light that comes to us from Him returns to Him. He is the Light of the heavens and the earth.


So, what is the Kashaf, the curtain, of the body? What are the noise sources that come to us from our senses?


Everyone thinks that Ramadan is about food and water. It is not about food and water. It is not about hunger and thirst. Food is only a source. In a deeper sense, it is a symbol. Allah has bestowed untold blessings upon the United States of America. His Grace descends with particular intensity on this state of California. Go back home today and examine the food on your counter top. This morning I was looking at my own countertop. Within a space of three feet, I counted seven different kinds of fruit: peaches, plums, nectarines, grapes, bananas, strawberries and melons. Ask yourself, how it is possible for a little patch of land to give us seven different kinds of fruit? When you partake of the food, think of the processing as that food goes through the body so that it can sustain you and nourish you.


And contemplate the sense of taste. Why is there a sense of taste? There is no convincing answer to that question except that it reminds of you of the taste of heaven. Food is not just for sustaining life. It is rizq. It is a gift from the heavens. It is a sign. It sustains life so that through that sustenance humankind may discharge its responsibility to carry that Divine Trust.


Have you ever wondered why you are here? Have you asked: “What is the purpose of my creation?”  Everyone of us is unique. Never in human history will there be another individual like you. There was never a human being like you since the creation of Adam, and there will never be one like you until the Day of Judgment. If someone brought you a diamond and said, “This diamond is unique. There is nothing like it in the whole world”, how much would you pay for it? Everyone of us is unique. And we do not value ourselves.


Allah says in the Qur’an, “I created not the jinns and the humans except to serve (worship) Me.” And a Hadith e Qudsi teaches us, “I was an unknown treasure. I willed that I be known. Therefore, I created (a being who would know Me)”. So, human beings were created to know, serve and worship Him. There is no other purpose for the creation of man.


It is to fulfill that divine purpose that Allah has given us food. It is to sustain the body so that we can discharge that obligation to carry the Trust, to know, serve and worship Him.


And how do we know Him? Think about your eyes. It is very difficult in a metropolitan area like San Francisco or Los Angeles to look at the heavens. There is too much stray light here, too much noise. Look at the sky from a mountain top. Have you ever wondered how expansive the universe is? And how beautiful it is? Have you ever wondered how we live in a small niche in a corner of the universe so that life can be sustained? There are two billion galaxies known to us. Each galaxy has 2 billion stars. Each star has its own planets. And somewhere in a middle sized galaxy called the Milky Way there is a middle sized star called the Sun. Around it is the earth, a speck of dust floating in the eons of this creation. And on this earth there are seven billion of us, each with an ego larger than the distance between San Francisco and New York City. That is how egotistical we are.


Allah says to us: Look at my creation. How beautiful it is! And how perfect! The Qur’an challenges humankind in Surah al Mulk: Look at the heavens! Do you see any defect in it?


Or, at the other end of the spectrum, if you want to look at the smallest of the small, look at the atoms and the strings. The other day I was thinking about quantum theory and the theory of relativity and  how scientists are striving to combine the two to understand gravity, electromagnetic waves, big and small forces holding atoms, electrons and protons together. They offer different perspectives. Have you ever wondered about an atom? No two atoms are the same. They may be similar but not identical because they are separated by time and space.


Have we really looked at each other? How beautiful is each face! How perfect! How unique! How is it possible? Never has there been a time in history when someone identical to any of us walked on earth, similar perhaps, but not identical. Every leaf is different. Every flower is different. Every date palm is different. Every orange is different. Every peach is different. Every grain of rice is different. Every molecule of air is different. Every drop of water in the oceans is different. That is how beautiful Allah’s creation is. And yet, do we look at it? We take it for granted. “Oh, it is food. It is iftar time. Let us eat. Let us gorge ourselves and compensate for what we missed out or during the day.”


And the sense of hearing?  Have you seen a person who has no sense of hearing? How difficult it is for that person to talk and connect his tongue with his ears?  Have you ever wondered how we hear? And how it is that sound travels through the air as p-waves, hits the cochlea, then the vibrations are picked up by the nerves and then are translated into something that is meaningful! How wonderful it is! How exhilarating is the cry of a newborn! How refreshing is the chirping of a bird, the rustle of a tree, yes, even the movement of wind past your face!  How beautiful is the voice of a parent! Or of a friend! Have we ever pondered what would happen if all these voices disappeared? That is the meaning of solitary confinement. Why do people go crazy in solitary confinement? It is because they are denied sensory inputs. They cannot hear anything, see anything. They go crazy.


We as human beings, we need each other. I remember, in 2009, there was an interfaith conference in Amritsar, India. And I talked about this need that we have for each other. In the interfaith context, it means that a Muslim needs a Christian, a Christian needs a Jew, a Jew needs a Buddhist, a Buddhist needs a Hindu, a Hindu needs a Zoroastrian, a Zoroastrian needs a Muslim and so on. The title of my talk was, “I Need You!”. Why? As the Qur’an teaches us, “Le Yuzrahu ‘alad din e kulli…” (so that I can show it (this deen) in the context of all other deens…” The Dalai Lama liked the presentation so much he invited me to his chambers and spoke to me for a whole hour about the subject. We need that difference to know each other. Without differentiation, we would not know anything. Think of an enclosed cubicle. If all the walls of such a cubicle and the ceiling are painted white, could you tell one wall from the other? No. If you had an army of robots, can you tell one robot from the other?  If we all looked alike, how would we recognize each other? We are different, Alhamdulillah. That is beautiful. Look at each other. Enjoy each other’s company. No, we don’t look at each another. It is because of the noise from our senses.


Our senses are corrupt; they do not give us correct and consistent information. Look at the full moon. As it rises over the hills after sunset, it appears very large. As we watch it traverse the sky it appears to get smaller. Yet, we know that the moon change its size from early evening to midnight. Our sight is deceptive. And it is limited. A bat sees much better in the darkness of the night. It senses at wavelengths that we cannot hear.  A dolphin hears better under water. It has more developed sonar.  So we invent instrumentation to catch up with them. A cheetah is three times faster than the fastest man on earth. So we are limited, and yet we think we are superior.


Ramadan reminds us about our senses. For a brief while, from dawn till dusk, we forsake food and water. The abstention brings forth the reality that was hidden by the noise of our senses. Human beings are prone to forgetfulness. A degree of forgetfulness is required for sheer survival. If we do not forget we may have an overload of data that is unbearable. For instance, if you drive to work, taking the same route every day, the consciousness of which street you took sinks into your subconscious. You drive to work without thinking about the route, taking the turns that you do as a routine. Meanwhile, your mind is free to wander off and think about other matters. Then, if there is some construction going on, all of a sudden the consciousness of the road pops up like a light that is turned on. In the month of Ramadan, Allah sends us reminders. He says: “Think about the rizq that I send you so that you think about why you are here. Think about the water I send down from the heavens so that you contemplate your existence on this earth.” Have you ever contemplated how important water is? The last Ayah in Surah al Mulk says: “Will you not reflect? If the water table sinks deep underground (dries up), then who will bring you clean running water?” This powerful Ayah was quoted at one time by Prince Charles of England who was giving a talk on sustainable technologies to protect the environment. So it is that during the month of Ramadan Allah reminds us about our rizq, food and water, so that the consciousness of His presence pops up before us.


Then there is the Kashaf (curtain) of the mind. These are the noises that clog up and constrain the mind. The first source of noises is rational thought itself. Talk to someone who is a disbeliever about God and he will say, “Prove to me the existence of God”. It is as if you take a wooden ruler and with it you want to measure the temperature in the core of the sun. You want to use a tool, your rational thought, which does not even know its own limits, to prove the existence of the One who is beyond limits?


Humankind is lost because it distanced itself from the presence of Allah. It made that assumption in science and sociology. Hence it doesn’t know where it belongs; it dangles between the heavens and the earth. For instance, a great many western scholars have asked themselves the question: what makes us human? These are scholars who have dissociated philosophy and science from the presence of God. “I think, therefore I am”, is one answer. Some others said, “I will, therefore I am”. Who is this I? Whether you a sufi or a scientist, if you follow the arguments for the “I” you must conclude that the “I” is a myth; it does not exist. So, what is this “I”?  Where did this will come from?  It came from the Spirit that Allah bestowed upon you. Where did your thinking come from if not from the Light that Allah gave you, and when that Light departs, it will disappear. So, who are you?


The correct way to express will and power is through “Huwa”, meaning, “He” not “Ana”, meaning “I”. The I does not exist. Only He does. That is why in a dhikr we say, Huwa Allah (He is).


Over the centuries, even people of great faith have fallen into this trap of “Anayah”. “the I”.  Here is an illustration. Circa the year 1475 CE, in the post-Timurid era, there lived a well known sheikh, Wahiduddin, in the city of Gulbarga, near Hyderabad, India. This sheikh went into retreat for forty days. When he emerged, he said, “Ana al Haq” (I am the truth). People thought he had lost his mind and sent him back into his hut for more contemplation. The following night, the sheikh made a hole at the back of the hut and ran away into the forest. Five hundred years earlier, in Iraq, Shaikah Mansur al Hallaj was not so fortunate. He too said, “Ana al Haq” (I am the truth). People misunderstood him and he was tortured to death. The error that the shaikhs made was this: When you rise up the ladder of consciousness, and get closer to Divine presence, you do not become the Truth, you only become a witness to the Truth. The content must fit the container. The content is to witness the Unity of God. The container is the language. You do not contain water on a flat plate; it needs a pitcher. The correct expression is: “Huwa al Haq”, not “Ana al Haq”.  You do not exist. I do not exist. Only He exists.


In the month of Ramadan, when we break our fast, when we think of thatrizq that Allah has sent our way, when we drink that fresh water that Allah has given us, let us think about that Light that Allah has blessed us with. That Light came with the Spirit that animates every soul so that we remember our mandate to know Him, serve Him, worship Him.


In Islam, God does not come down to us from up above. He is always with us, closer to us than our jugular vein. He is there with every atom, every string, every breath, every moment. He surrounds all existence inside and out. It is humankind that erects the Kashaf, the curtains, the noise that separates man from God. So the struggle (jihad) that man engages in from the cradle to the grave is the unceasing struggle to lift the veils, to contain the noise so that the signal comes through loud and clear. It is all about Signal to Noise ratio. Yes, all signal, no noise. Yes, all comprehension, no obfuscation. Yes, remembrance, no forgetfulness. Yes, consciousness, no heedlessness. Yes, giving to other, not hoarding. Yes, rising above oneself, not becoming selfish. That is Ramadan. It is not about food and water. It is about finding the Light in one’s heart.

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad

Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) – The Man and his Pen.

By Professor Nazeer Ahmed


He was a giant in the shadows of other giants. Living as he did in an age dominated by Gandhi, Jinnah and Nehru, Maulana Azad nonetheless left his own imprint on the history of South Asia. The twentieth century would not be the same without him. Paying tribute to his versatile genius, Nayaz Fatehpuri wrote:


“If he had focused on Arabic poetry, he would be a Mutanabbi and Badi uz Zaman. If he had taken on the reformation of law and religion, he would be the Ibn Taimiya of his age. If he had dedicated himself to philosophy, he would be no less of a peripatetic philosopher than Ibn Rushd and Ibn Tufail. If he had turned his attention to Farsi poetry and literature, he would find a place along with Urfi and Nazeeri. If we was inclined towards Tasawwuf and renovation, he would be no less than al Gazzali and Rumi. And if he had taken on applied Shariah, he would be a Wasi Bin Atta…..”


Born in 1888 in Mecca in a family of scholars, he was given the name Abul Kalam Ghulam Mohiyuddin Ahmed. In 1890 the family returned to Kolkata where his father, Maulana Khairuddin, had established a reputation as a scholar and a teacher. The young Abul Kalam received his education at home, first from his father, then from private scholar tutors. By the time he was thirteen he had mastered Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu and had a commanding knowledge of Shariah, fiqh, philosophy, history, mathematics and tasawwuf.  Even as a young lad of 12, he showed his aptitude for writing, starting a newsletter “Nairang-e-Alam” in 1899 and a weekly collection of poems “Al Misbah” in 1900.


At the turn of the twentieth century, European colonialism held Asia and Africa firmly in its juggernaut.   Kolkata was the capital of British India. As a counterpoint to colonial rule, there were nationalist stirrings in the subcontinent and Kolkata was the hotbed of nationalist fervor. The young Abul Kalam, after a brief experimentation with a youthful frolic in Bombay, returned to Kolkata and came under the influence of Bengali nationalists Arabindo Ghosh and Shyam Sunder Chakravarty.  Induction into politics brought him face to face with one of the principal drivers in South Asian politics, namely, the Hindu-Muslim dialectic. The British policy of divide and rule had fostered a feeling of distrust of the Muslims among the Bengali nationalists. Abul Kalam soon came to the realization that any hope of deliverance from the British juggernaut required as its pre-requisite Hindu-Muslim cooperation. He found the traditional imitative thinking (taqleed) to be inadequate to tackle the new problems. Therefore, he discarded it and took on the taqqallus, or title of Azad or free thinker. Writing many years later about this transformation, Maulana Azad wrote:


“I have never tried to find the footpath of another but have sought out a path for myself and left my footprint for those who come”


These three elements, namely, his early religious training, his revolutionary fervor and a deep conviction in communal harmony run as a consistent thread in the writings and speeches of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.  The three fused together in his eclectic personality and produced a unique brand of activist, championing universal human rights of justice, freedom and fairness, transcending the narrow allegiance to creed, caste, color and origin.


Maulana Azad undertook a tour of Middle Eastern countries in 1910 and met with reformists like Mohammed Abduh in Egypt and nationalist young Turks in Iraq. The pan-Islamic ideas of Jamaluddin al Afghani (1838-97) and the reformist ideas of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898) made a lasting impact on the impressionist mind of the young Azad.  Returning to India, he started the journal “Al Hilal” which had the broad objective of awakening the Muslims of India to their political, social and educational potential. He sought to fulfill this objective with a fusion of nationalism, pan-Islamism, social revolution and Hindu-Muslim unity. In the first issue of Al-Hilal published on 13th July 1912, he wrote:


“What was the goal that was proclaimed with prominence in the very first issue of Al Hilal? I say with pride that it was the amity between Hindus and Muslims. I had invited the Muslims that in accordance with the injunctions of the Shariah, if there was an adversary that was challenging the truth not just in Asia or the East but all over the globe, and eradicating it, from which there is a threat to the universal truth of God, it is none other than the British Government. Therefore, it is obligatory on the part of the Indian Muslims, that keeping in mind the injunctions of the Shariah, keeping before them the beautiful conduct of the Prophet ……..it is the obligation of Muslims of India that they tie the knot of truth and love with the Hindus of India and become one nation….”


And in the December1912 issue of Al Hilal, the Maulana wrote:


“For the Hindus, struggle for the independence of the country is a sign of love for the land. But for the Musalmans it is a religious obligation and equivalent to jihad in the way of God. And the meaning of jihad includes every effort made to establish justice and truth and human rights and the removal of servitude”.


The Maulana was convinced, and remained convinced until partition that the way to throw off the British yoke was through the cooperation of these two principal communities in the subcontinent.  This was anathema to the ruling British who saw in such revolutionary talk the genesis of a nationalist struggle. Within a year, the doors were shut on Al Hilal. Not to be silenced by the British, the Maulana started another journal, Al Balag in 1915 and within four months it too was shut down. The Maulana was arrested and spent much of the next four years in jail.


World War 1 intervened. The Ottoman Empire entered the War ill prepared, goaded into it by a billion gold kroner from Germany’s Kaiser and by the desire of the Young Turks to recover the European territories lost in the Balkan wars of 1911-12. The Great War was a disaster for the Ottomans; the empire was occupied and the last vestiges of independent Muslim power anywhere on earth disappeared. There followed intrigue and scheming, with Britain and France as the principal players, to carve up the Ottoman empire. The large Muslim population of India could only watch helplessly as this unfolded. But what rallied Muslim opinion was the move to abolish the Khilafat, an institution that had endured 1300 years of Islamic history.


Maulana Azad threw the full weight of his oratory and his journalistic skills into the battle to save the Khilafat, sometimes using language that was uncharacteristically strident. He presented  the Movement as one related to Islam:


“O my dear believers! The issue is not one of the lives of nations and countries; it is an issue of the very survival of Islam”.  Addressing a convention in support of the Khilafat Movement in 1920, he said:


“Gentlemen: The hand that holds the white flag of peace is a noble hand. But only he can survive who holds a sharp sword: it alone is the arbitrator of the lives of nations, the means for establishing justice and upholding balance…….and the shield in the hands of the oppressed….”Behold! We sent Messengers with clear Signs and sent down with them the Books and the balance to establish justice among humankind, and We sent down iron in which there is great power and benefit for humankind” (The Quran: 57:25). The Muslims should remember that there is only one sword that can now be raised in defense of the Law of God and that is the sanctified sword of the Usmania Khilafat. It is the last footstep of historical Islam and the last ray of hope for our glorious destiny…”


The Khilafat Movement attracted scholars, politicians, mullahs and the common folk. Maulana Azad worked with Maulana Muhammed Ali, Hakim Ajmal Khan and others to rally the Muslim community and exert pressure on the British government to back off from its attempts to eliminate the Khilafat. It was during this period that the Maulana met Gandhi and was attracted by his non-cooperation methods. Gandhi saw in the Khilafat movement a golden opportunity to weld Hindus and Muslims into a grand coalition for the independence of India and was accordingly chosen by the Khilafat committee as its leader. Maulana Azad wrote:


“As far as its relationship (the relationship of the Khilafat movement) with a national issue is concerned, it can be said that its movers were certain well wishers. I take the name of Mahatma Gandhi who was the first and most honorable well wisher who supported this movement.”


The Maulana remained loyal to Gandhi throughout his life, even when he disagreed with him. The Khilafat movement fizzled out when Gandhi pulled the plug on it after the violence at Chauri Chaura. It died when the Turkish parliament abandoned the Khilafat in 1924.  Azad defended Gandhi’s decision to call off the Khilafat Movement:


“Gentlemen! In every national struggle, where there are many memorable moments, there is also a mention of some error. These errors are as if they are a natural part of the process. I am convinced that the decision about Barawali was one such error in our struggle….”


It must be stated in passing that Jinnah opposed the Khilafat movement on the grounds that the injection of religion into politics would open a Pandora’s box of religious sentiments that would be hard to control and would allow the regressive, conservative elements to hijack the independence struggle. History proved Jinnah was right. The Khilafat movement provided the genesis of partition. It is a paradox of history that Jinnah, a secular nationalist and a champion of communal harmony, finally ended up as the architect of a separate state of Pakistan while those who championed Muslim rights during the Khilafat movement eventually ended up opposing it.


Maulana Azad dedicated his journalistic skills to the welfare of his country and his community; never did he attempt to profit from it. In the first edition of Al Hilal he wrote:


We have entered this arena not to gain profit but to look for hardship and loss. We do not ask for praise and tribute; we are seekers of dislike and criticism. We do not seek flowers of comfort and opulence but the thorns of pangs and disequilibrium…”

His was a clarion call to his countrymen and his community to wake up, throw off the foreign yoke and work together for the common good. He wrote in Al Hilal:


“I wish I could get the breath of the Judgment Day, which I would take to the mountain tops, and with one single clarion call wake up those who are caught up in the shadows of stupor and asleep in ignominy, and would have shouted out aloud: Wake up! You have slept too long! Wake up because your Creator wants to wake you up and bestow upon you life in place of death, progress in place of decay, honor in place of dishonor.”


The Maulana was a man of vision. When disputes about Hindi-Urdu arose in the pre-partition era, he recommended with the sagacity of a wise sage that Hindustani be written in the Roman script, as is modern Turkish, so that a contentious issue would become a source of cohesion, not discord. No one listened. Today, when you see Hindi and Urdu billboards in Lahore, Mumbai and Bangalore written in the Roman script, you appreciate how far sighted the Maulana was.  It was the same far sightedness that shows up when he started the IITs as education minister in the Nehru cabinet, a decision that paved the way for the transformation of India into a technological powerhouse in the 21st century.


The Maulana’s vision was not limited to the borders of his own country or the confines of his own community. It embraced all of humanity. Mohammed Hamid Ali Khan quotes Asif Ali: “Tolerance to him did not mean religious tolerance. He believed in the absolute right of individual to differ and hold whatever opinion he believed to be correct”.


He believed not just in the unity of Hindus and Muslims but in the brotherhood of man. In this he had his firm anchor in his religious beliefs::


“The greatest tragedy for humankind and a confirmation of its rejection of its divine nature is that it forgot the universal relationship of its creation but instead established its relationships on the basis of plots of land and divisions of lineage. The earth that was made for love and mutual support was made a stage for mutual differences and quarrels. But Islam is the first voice in the world which sent an invitation for universal brotherhood and unity not on the basis of divisions erected by humankind but on the basis of the Unity of God who is to be worshiped and served.”


The eloquence of this testimony and the conviction of the soul behind it are unmatched in Urdu literature, or for that matter, in any literature. The greatest tribute to this towering personality is the consistency of his character and his unswerving loyalty to the cause of communal harmony and to Gandhi. He was a giant in the shadows of other giants but whereas others winced at times of trial, the Maulana was unswerving in his vision. History is witness that Gandhi blinked when making his fateful decision about partition and even campaigned for it during the final vote of the Congress Working Committee on the issue in 1946; Nehru flipped under the persuasion of lady Mountbatten; Jinnah changed from a secular nationalist to an ardent champion of Pakistan.


Not Maulana Azad! His unshakeable belief in the brotherhood of man, his conviction in the unity of all of his countrymen-Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis- his loyalty to Gandhi and Nehru even when they made an about-face about partition, his generosity to his erstwhile detractors, his selfless service to his nation –stand out in stark contrast to the opportunism that so often characterized men of his turbulent times. It is this steadfastness borne out of conviction and faith that endows his writings and his person with a universal, timeless character.


References: Khutububat e Azad, Malik Ram, Sahitya Academy, Delhi, 1967.

India Wins Freedom, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Longmans, Green and Company, London, New York, Toronto, 1960

The Arabic Language

The Arabic Language

The Arabic Language

By Professor Samir Abu-Absi



Arabic is one of the world’s major languages with over 300 million people in various Arab countries who use it as a mother tongue.1 It is also used extensively as the major language in a non-Arab country, the Central African Republic of Chad, and as a minority language in several other countries, including Afghanistan, Israel (where both Arabic and Hebrew are official languages), Iran, and Nigeria. In 1974, Arabic was adopted as one of the six United Nations official languages, joining Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish. Over one billion Muslims in places like India, Indonesia, Pakistan and Tanzania study Arabic as a foreign or second language for liturgical and scholarly use. In the United States, several Muslim and Arab communities employ Arabic in their daily interactions and for religious purposes.


History and Development of Arabic

Arabic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic (or Hamito-Semitic) family of languages that consists of over three hundred languages, some of which are extinct and some used marginally as liturgical languages. Arabic and Hebrew are the two prime examples of living Semitic languages while Hausa and various dialects of Berber are examples of surviving Hamitic languages.

The earliest known example of Arabic is an inscription found in the Syrian desert dating back to the fourth century A.D. The pre-Islamic Arab tribes who lived in the Arabian peninsula and neighboring regions had a thriving oral poetic tradition. But it was not systematically collected and recorded in written form until the eighth century A.D. This poetic language, probably the result of the fusion of various dialects, came to be regarded as a literary or elevated style which represented a cultural bond among different tribes.

Prophet Muhammad received his messages from God in Arabic through the Angel Gabriel over a period of twenty-three years, 610-632 A.D. The Holy Quran, containing these messages, was originally committed to memory by professional reciters (hufaz and qura’).  With the spread of Islam, different accents for the pronunciation of the Quran came into use until a standardized version (with notations for different accents) was completed under the third Caliph, Uthman Ibn ‘Affan, in the mid-seventh century A.D.  As more and more non-Arabic speakers were drawn to Islam, the Quran became the most important bond among Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs alike, revered for its content and admired for the beauty of its language. Arabs, regardless of their religion, and Muslims, regardless of their ethnic origin, hold the Arabic language in the highest esteem and value it as the medium of a rich cultural heritage. It is this intimate connection between the Quran and Arabic which gave the language its special status and contributed to the Arabization of diverse populations.


The Spread of Arabic

By the beginning of the eighth century, the Islamic Arab Empire had spread from Persia to Spain, resulting in the interaction between Arabs and local populations who spoke different languages. In Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine, where the majority of the population spoke some dialect of Aramaic and where Arab tribes had been present in the vicinity, the local languages were for the most part replaced by Arabic. In Iraq, Arabic became the dominant language among a population who spoke Aramaic and Persian. A more gradual process of Arabization occurred in Egypt where Coptic and Greek were the two dominant languages. In North Africa, where Berber dialects were spoken and still are used in some parts, the process of Arabization was less complete. Persia and Spain, however, retained their respective languages.

In the early days of the Empire, the majority of the population would not have been Arabic monolinguals. The interaction of Arabic with other languages led to the borrowing of new vocabulary which enriched the language in areas such as government, administration, and science. This, in addition to the rich internal resources of Arabic, enabled the language to become a suitable medium for governing a vast empire.

Under the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 A.D.), with Damascus as the center of power, Arabic continued its tradition of excellence as the language of poetry, enriched its literature with translations from Persian and other languages, and acquired new terminology in various fields of study which included linguistics, philosophy, and theology. Under the Abbasid rule from Baghdad (750-1258 A.D.), Arabic literature reached its golden age as linguistic studies reached a new level of sophistication. Many scholars, Arabs and non-Arabs, Muslims, Christians and Jews, participated in the development of intellectual life using Arabic as their preferred language. A systematic effort at translation from various sources had made Arabic the most suitable scholarly medium of the day in disciplines such as philosophy, mathematics, medicine, geography and various branches of science. Many of the words readily borrowed during this period were easily assimilated into Arabic and later transmitted to other languages.

A period of decline began in the eleventh century as the result of several factors including the start of the Crusades, the political unrest in Spain, Mongol and Turkish invasions from the East, and internal divisions within the Empire. This marked a period of relative stagnation for Arabic although its status as the language of Islam was never threatened.

The nineteenth century saw a period of intellectual revival which began in Egypt and Syria and spread to the rest of the Arab world, beginning with the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt in 1798. The expedition provided for the introduction of the first Arabic printing press to Egypt and the translation of numerous Western literary works into Arabic. This initial contact was continued by Muhammad Ali, an enlightened Egyptian ruler, who sent students to France and other countries to study various disciplines; they returned to Egypt as teachers and writers. Lebanon had been in contact with the West as early as the seventeenth century, maintaining a strong religious connection with some European groups. Other Western influences came from Arab immigrants to the Americas and from missionaries who contributed to the establishment of foreign languages, mainly English and French, as important components of the educational system in parts of the Arab world.

The initial enthusiastic thrust towards westernization clashed with nationalistic independence movements that were a natural response to European colonialism in the region. These movements were usually linked to the two major pillars of Arab nationalism: the Muslim religion and the Arabic language. Thus, Arab intellectuals found themselves torn between the rich and glorious heritage of the past and a future which became increasingly associated with Western technology and modernity. The nineteenth century saw the beginning of the development of Arabic as a viable modern language.


Elements of Arabic Structure

Arabic, like all Semitic languages, is characterized by the use of certain morphological patterns (patterns of word formation) to derive words from abstract roots that represent general semantic notions or meanings. These roots usually consist of three consonants which form the basis for the formation of numerous words from any given root. For instance, the rootKTB, which is associated with the notion of ‘writing,’ is found in the verb stems KaTaB ‘wrote’ and KTuB ‘write’ which can be conjugated by the addition of appropriate prefixes and suffixes. To illustrate further how word stems can be derived from various roots, it is helpful to look at the makeup of a root in terms of the position that each consonant (C) occupies relative to the two other consonants. Thus the stem KaTaB can be represented by the pattern C1aC2aC3 where C1=K, C2=T, and C3=B. A modification of the stem to C1aC2C2aC3 (doubling the medial consonant of the root) results in the derivation of the stem KaTTaB which has the causative meaning ‘made (someone) write.’ On the other hand, lengthening the first vowel of the stem (C1aaC2aC3) derives KaaTaB, meaning ‘corresponded.’ The addition of the prefix ta- results in taKaaTaB, with the reciprocal meaning ‘exchanged letters (with someone).’ There are fifteen possible patterns that a verb root can theoretically have, although five of these are extremely rare. Each of these patterns can be modified to indicate a passive voice and an imperfect present) tense: e.g. KuTiB ‘was written,’ yaKTuB ‘writes,’ yuKTaB ‘is written.’

By modifying the root consonants, using various vowel combinations, and utilizing different prefixes and suffixes, several possibilities exist for deriving nouns, adjectives and adverbs from any given root. The following words, for example, all of which are derived from KTB, can be found in a typical dictionary: KiTaaB ‘book,’ KuTuBii ‘bookseller,’ KuTTaaB ‘elementary or Quranic school,’ KuTayyiB ‘booklet,’ KiTaaBa ‘writing, script,’ KiTaaBaat‘writings, essays,’ KiTaaBii ‘written, literary,’ maKTaB ‘office, bureau,’maKTaBii ‘of an office,’ maKTaBa ‘library,’ miKTaaB ‘typewriter,’muKaaTaBa ‘correspondence,’ iKtiTaaB ‘enrollment, registration,’ istiKTaaB‘dictation,’ KaaTiB ‘writer,’ maKTuuB ‘letter,’ muKaaTiB ‘correspondent,’ and muKtaTiB ‘subscriber’ (Cowan). Many of these words can be pluralized, e.g. KuTuB ‘books,’ KuTTaB ‘writers,’ maKTaBaat ‘libraries,’ and some can occur with a feminine ending, e.g. KaaTiBa ‘female writer,’ muKaaTiBa‘female correspondent,’ and KaaTiBaat ‘female writers.’ The preceding examples illustrate a rich and versatile morphological pattern of word derivation that can theoretically allow for hundreds of Arabic words to be derived from a single root.



The Arabic writing system is an adaptation of the Nabatean script which evolved from Aramaic writing system. It consists of twenty-eight letters representing consonant sounds and is written from right to left. Three of these letters representing the consonants /’, w, y/ are also used for representing the long vowel sounds /aa, uu, ii/, respectively.2 The short vowel sounds /a, u, i/, which may be represented with diacritic marks above or below a letter, are normally omitted except in situations where semantic ambiguity or serious errors in pronunciation cannot be tolerated. The Quran and the Arabic Bible are always printed with a full representation of short vowel sounds and also with other diacritics which signify the doubling of consonants or the absence of any vowel sounds following a particular consonant.

Arabic script is cursive, meaning that certain letters must be connected to others whether in writing or printing. While no distinction exists between capital and lower case letters, a letter may occur in more than one form (as illustrated in the Arabic Alphabet table) depending on its position in the word and what other letters surround it.

To illustrate the system, it may be helpful to use some examples of words  derived from the root KTB ‘writing,’ which is represented in Arabic by the letters   ,ب,ت,ك respectively. When these letters are connected to each other from right to left, they result in a word which is spelled كتب. The absence of any long vowels in this word means that all the possible vowels which can occur in this word are short. Hence the word can be ambiguously read as KaTaBa ‘(he) wrote,’ KuTiBa ‘was written,’ KaTTaBa‘made (someone) write,’ or KuTuB ‘books.’ Which of the above readings is the appropriate one is determined by the context. The word KaaTiB ‘writer’ and KiTaaB ‘book,’ both with long vowel sounds are written as  كاتبandكتاب , respectively.

In pre-Islamic times, Arabic script suffered from a number of deficiencies including the lack of letters for certain consonant sounds and the absence of any system for indicating vowel sounds. The present system is the result of some major reforms which were introduced when the script was found inadequate as a tool for recording and preserving the Holy Quran. This close association with the Quran bestowed a sanctified status on a script that arose from a humble beginning. This enabled it to develop into a unique art form not equaled by any other calligraphic tradition.

With the spread of Islam, many non-Arabs found themselves learning Arabic in order to be able to read the Quran. Thus many languages which came under the influence of Arabic through Islam adopted the use of the Arabic script. These languages, most of which were non-Semitic in origin, included Farsi (Persian), Pashto, Kashmiri, Urdu, Sindhi, Malay, and others (Kaye).


Dialectal Varieties

Several regional dialects of Arabic exist, some of which may not be readily intelligible to speakers from other regions. To varying extents, these language varieties show differences in grammar, pronunciation, and vocabulary. Arabic speakers refer to these spoken varieties as ‘aammiyya, or colloquial, as opposed to the literary or classical fusha language which is acquired through formal instruction. This linguistic duality, commonly referred to as diglossia in the linguistic literature, involves the complementary use of two varieties (high and low) in specific contexts.

The high variety is Classical Arabic; the ultimate example of which is the language of the Quran, is used in formal situations. The low variety refers to various regional vernaculars or colloquial varieties used for everyday interactions. While this often-cited distinction between Classical and Colloquial Arabic may be useful, it merely represents two poles of a continuum which more accurately characterizes a complex linguistic situation. Two other varieties are Modern Standard Arabic and Educated Spoken Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic, a continuation of Classical Arabic with some modifications in grammar and an extensive addition of modern vocabulary, is the language of written communication throughout the Arabic-speaking world. When educated speakers from different dialectal backgrounds communicate orally, they tend to use what is sometimes known as Educated Spoken Arabic — a mixture of colloquial speech and Modern Standard Arabic.


Modernization and Reform

The Arab intellectual awakening of the nineteenth century led to a call for arabization which, in one of its meanings, referred to the policy of adopting Arabic as the national official language of newly independent states. A second sense, used by some writers, concerned the assimilation of foreign vocabulary into Arabic in a way that would make the language suitable for modern life, while at the same time preserving its essential character. The new demands placed on the language came to symbolize the conflict between adherence to tradition and the desire for modernity. The modernization of Arabic, an effort in which language academies as well as individuals participated, generally focused on three areas of concern: orthographical reform, grammar simplification, and vocabulary development (Abu-Absi).

Orthographical Reform:  Between 1938 and 1968, the Egyptian academy received over 300 reform proposals, demonstrating the degree to which attention was focused on this area. These proposals ranged from simple modifications in spelling to a complete replacement of the existing system with a Latin-type alphabet. They generally addressed two problems: the high cost of printing due to contextual variations in letter forms and the relative difficulty of learning the Arabic writing system compared with Western alphabets. The orthographical reform proposals failed because they either represented a break with a very important tradition, introduced new complexities, or fell short of the esthetic standards that Arabs have traditionally placed on the system. Advances in printing technology and the increased use of computers have resolved most of the issues that concerned earlier reformers.

Grammar Simplification: The drive for arabization brought to the fore the Arabic diglossic situation — a wide gap between the Classical and the Colloquial varieties. In searching for a suitable literary and educational standard, some argued for the use of the Classical language with its rich history while others argued for the use of the Colloquial varieties that were more natural and less cumbersome to learn. Some Colloquial proponents argued that Classical Arabic was a dead language that belonged to a by-gone age, had a complex grammar, and lacked a modern scientific vocabulary. Classical proponents countered by pointing out that Arabic had proven itself in the past through its flexibility and ability to adapt to new situations. Additionally, it was the most important bond among Arabs and of utmost importance to all Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs alike.

Having accepted a modernized version of Classical Arabic (Modern Standard Arabic) as a common standard among Arabs, the majority of intellectuals agreed on the need for grammar reform and simplification, although they disagreed on the nature and extent of the reform. Some proposed the elimination of certain grammatical contrasts not present in the dialects. For instance, the literary language distinguishes between two cases for the word meaning ‘two books,’ KiTaaBaan (when used as subject) andKiTaaBayn (when used as object). Eliminating the subjective form would simplify the grammar and make it closer to familiar spoken dialects. This type of simplification, as might be expected, encountered strong resistance as it threatened to effect a radical structural change in the language. When the subject of grammar simplification is now discussed, it usually refers to teaching methods aimed at helping learners cope with acquiring the literary language.

Vocabulary Development: The development of scientific and technical vocabulary is an ongoing process which has received its fair share of attention. The Syrian academy is credited with leading the way since the early twentieth century and the Syrian University pioneered the use of Arabic as the language of instruction in fields such as law, science, and medicine. The lack of coordination among the academies, however, and the proliferation of new terminology led to the establishment of the Bureau of Arabization in Rabat in 1961 which has published a number of technical dictionaries dealing with various disciplines.

The procedure for introducing new vocabulary ideally followed certain steps. The first step involved searching old dictionaries and texts for an obsolete word which might fit the desired meaning. If no appropriate word was found, then a literal translation of the term was given: for example, ‘ilm alhayaat ‘life science’ for biology. When a literal translation was not possible, then coining a new word from an existing Arabic root was recommended:sayyaara ‘car’ derived from the root SYR whose meaning is associated with ‘movement.’ As a last resort, it was acceptable to borrow a foreign word and modify it to fit the Arabic phonological system: siinama ‘cinema’ andfiilm ‘film.’

In real practice, however, scientists, teachers, and journalists have been more pragmatic and more liberal in their use of foreign borrowings. This has resulted in multiple words for the same concept and the acceptance in common usage of words which may not have been officially endorsed by the academies. In addition to thousands of arabized foreign words now part of Modern Standard Arabic, the language has acquired numerous foreign phrases and expressions more or less literally translated from languages like French and English.

The addition of a large number of new words has made it necessary to channel considerable efforts into lexicography, or the compilation of dictionaries. Traditional Arabic dictionaries listed words alphabetically according to their root consonants. Thus words like KiTaaB ‘book,’maKTuuB ‘letter,’ and taKTuBu ‘she writes’ would all be listed under K, the first letter of the root they all share. The value of this arrangement lies in revealing the etymological relations among various words. While using a dictionary of this type is not difficult for those familiar with Arabic’s morphological structure, the task becomes cumbersome and confusing for beginners who may not be able to readily identify the root. Some recent dictionaries list words alphabetically and some attempt to combine the traditional root system and the alphabetical system.


The Influence of Arabic on Other Languages

As both the language of Islam and a medium of culture and learning for five centuries, Arabic came into close contact with several other languages. Asian and African languages such as Urdu, Turkish, Farsi, and Hausa borrowed a large number of Arabic words dealing with various aspects of culture, particularly those related to Islam. Spanish and Portuguese came into direct contact with Arabic as a result of the Arab conquest. European Crusaders from various linguistic backgrounds interacted with Arabs and acquired words relating to food, clothing, and other aspects of ordinary living. As Europe emerged from its dark ages, it turned to Arabic writings for enlightenment and rediscovered classical Greek and Latin texts preserved in Arabic translations. Even languages like English, which had relatively little direct contact with Arabic, borrowed many Arabic words, often indirectly through Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish. A linguistic study of the contributions of Arabic to English cites over 2,000 English words either of Arabic origin or borrowed and assimilated into Arabic before being transmitted to other languages (Cannon).

A cursory glance at Arabic loan words in English reveals a linguistic and cultural influence on English that extended to art, music, astronomy, architecture, biology, chemistry, geography, mathematics, law, literature, the military, finance, and numerous other fields. The following words illustrate the range of cultural impact and the extent of linguistic influence that Arabic has had on English: admiral, alcohol, alcove, algebra, algorithm, almanac, amber, arabesque, arsenal, artichoke, balsam, caliber, carat, checkmate, chiffon, coffee, coral, cork, cotton, damask, dinar, elixir, endive, fanfare, gazelle, genie, giraffe, guitar, halvah, imam, Islam, jar, jasmine, kabob, lemon, lilac, lute, magazine, massage, mattress, monsoon, natron, orange, organza, poof, Quran, racket, ream, rice, satin, soda, sofa, sultan, sugar, sherif, sherbet, talc, tambourine, ud (or oud), vizier, wadi, zenith,and zero.



With the beginning of the twenty-first century, a revitalized Arabic language has emerged following a century of struggle and growth that introduced a number of changes and reforms. The debate concerning the viability of literary Arabic as the medium for education, technology, and mass communication has virtually come to a halt. Modern Standard Arabic has been accepted as a common and unifying bond among the Arabs, transcending their diversity in economic status, political realities, religious beliefs, and national aspirations.



1. The League of Arab States consists of twenty-two members: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In some of these countries Arabic may share its official status with some other language (French in Djibouti and Somali in Somalia) or it may not be the first language of a large segment of the population (the Kurdish community in Iraq, the Berbers in North Africa, and various ethnic groups in Southern Sudan).


2. The symbol /’/ represents a consonant sound which is known as hamzain Arabic and as a “glottal stop” in phonetics. The closest English equivalent for this sound is the pronunciation of tt in the words ‘bottle’ and “button” in some dialects of American English.


Works Cited:

Abu-Absi, Samir. “The Modernization of Arabic: Problems and Prospects,”Anthropological Linguistics, Fall 1986, 337-348.


Cannon, Garland. The Arabic Contributions to the English Language: An Historical Dictionary. Alan S. Kaye, Collaborator.  Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 1994.


Cowan, J. Milton, ed. Arabic-English Dictionary: The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 4th ed. Ithaca, New York:  Spoken Language Services, Inc., 1994, 951-52.


Alan S. Kaye, “Adaptations of Arabic Script,” in Peter T. Daniels and William Bright, eds. The World’s Writing Systems. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996 743-62.


Dr. Samir Abu-Absi, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Toledo, received his B.A. degree in English from the American University of Beirut and his M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics from Indiana University. His teaching and scholarly interests have focused on the study of language structure — particularly English and Arabic, the application of linguistic principles to language instruction, and the relationship between language and culture.

Unveiling the Secrets of Allama Iqbal’s Khudi

Unveiling the Secrets of Allama Iqbal’s Khudi

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

Khudi ka sirr e nihaN la ilaha il Allah (The hidden secret of Khudi is la ilaha il Allah)


So wrote Allama Iqbal, the poet, philosopher, thinker, mujaddid, mujtahid and one of the most influential personages of Asia in the twentieth century.  In spite of the volumes written about him, the Allama remains a mystery within an enigma within a riddle. He is quoted and misquoted, understood and misunderstood. Like Shakespeare in an earlier era, his very greatness has stood in the way of how he is understood. Let me offer some instances from my own experience.

Some thirty years ago, a certain shaikh asked me to give the juma’ khutba at a Masjid in New Jersey. In my youthful enthusiasm I chose the subject of khudi. The khutba was well attended and the audience listened in silence. After the prayers, the shaikh called me aside. “What you said in the khutba is not correct. There is no such thing as khudi in Islam.”

Two years ago I had lunch with a well known Professor in Berkeley. The conversation was free-wheeling and it turned to Iqbal’s poetry. “Iqbal was confused about khudi”, said the professor, “I realize that is a dangerous thing to say to someone from the subcontinent”.

Muslim saints and Muslim scholars have been roasted for their views which were at variance with the common understanding of those around them. Mansur al-Hallaj was tortured and killed (922 CE) for saying, “Ana al Haq” (I am the Truth).  Five hundred years later, in post-Timurid India circa 1450 CE, there was a certain Wali near Gulbarga in the Deccan who went into retreat in a hut. When he emerged from the hut after 40 days, he cried out, “Ana al Haq”. People thought the wali had gone crazy. They caught him and put him back in the hut and told him to remain in seclusion for 40 more days. By nightfall, the wali made a hole in the back of the hut and ran away into the forest.  Iqbal was more fortunate when he pierced the glass ceiling of orthodoxy. When he wrote Shikwa, some mullas called him a kafir, only to turn around and call him a mujtahidwhen he published Jawab e Shikwa.

Hazrath Ali said: Speak to people at their level of understanding, or else they could lose their faith. The concept of khudi requires a deep understanding of the Self. The Prophet said: One who knows his Self knows his Rabb (Man ‘Arafa nafsahu faqad ‘arafa Rabbahu). This is not a quest for the faint hearted or the uninitiated. It requires a deep knowledge of science, history, philosophy and tasawwuf and the assumptions underlying each.  Most important of all, it requires a deep understanding of the Qur’an because while Iqbal often speaks the language of the philosophers of the West, his ideas are firmly rooted in his own spiritual inheritance from the Qur’an and the tasawwuf of the Awliyah.

Iqbal lived in an age when his homeland was under the heel of foreigners. Pax Brittania held the vast subcontinent of Hindustan in its juggernaut. As such Iqbal had to come to terms with the ideas of the imperial West. He received his early training in Sialkot and Lahore and went on to study philosophy, first in England and then in Germany. Western thought was always a distraction for Iqbal; he had to constantly look over his shoulder to unhinge his ideas from those of the west. The ghosts of Nietzsche and Schopenhauer haunted his legacy so much so that many writers not just in the West but also in the Urdu speaking East consider his idea of khudi to be an echo of the Ego advanced by Nietzsche. Iqbal himself did not help his case when he devoted a major part of his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam to examining and repudiating the philosophers of the West. The effort was perhaps unnecessary except for didactic purposes. Iqbal comes through in the fullness of his thinking when he expresses himself in his own languages, Urdu and Farsi.

This essay was written at the request of my good friend Dr. Agha Saeed, who has done so much to establish and keep alive the tradition of Urdu literature in North America. When I sat down to write a brief note after delivering a talk on Iqbal, the pen took over. The result has been a deep study not only of Iqbal and of the secrets of khudi as articulated by him, but a study of the interdependence of science, history, philosophy and faith from the Qur’anic perspective. It evolved into a study of the Unity of Knowledge. One must necessarily sift though these disciplines and their processes to fathom the mysteries of khudi which I have translated in the past not as Ego but as Essence. It manifests itself through its attributes. Its secret, paradoxically, lies in its self-effacement.  When it is effaced, it becomes the mirror into which is reflected its magnificent sirr (secret) from the Spirit. The Ego is a ghost from the west and it must be sent packing to where it came from. Essence is a child of the East and it needs to be nourished and cultivated.

Secular man abandoned the soul and went off looking for Truth in atoms, protons and chemical reactions. How does one discuss the idea of khudiwith one whose world is bereft of the Grace of the spirit or the joy and vibrancy of the soul? This was the dilemma faced by Iqbal too. He waged a valiant battle, borrowing the terminology of philosophy, engaging in a dialectic with secular man, incurring in the process the risk of being misunderstood. The attempt was consistent with Iqbal’s character. He was not only a great poet but a risk taker, injecting himself into the process of history, in politics, sociology, science and philosophy.

Iqbal enriched us with his thoughts and his actions. His vision was our horizon, his failures our teacher. He embellished the Urdu language with a new dimension of social and political activism, taking it to heights never seen before. Generations who come after him would be the poorer were it not for this great mujtahid.


The Renewal of Civilizations

A great civilization renews itself from within.  The vicissitudes of time test the mettle of a civilization with new ideas, alien challenges, internal dissension, invasion, conquest, subjugation, triumphs and tragedies. A great civilization reaches into the oceans of its spirituality and rises to the occasion, renewing itself after every test. This process is continuous, unceasing. This was the gist of a Theory of Renewal that I advanced in my book Islam in Global History. It stands in contrast with the Theory ofAsabiya advanced by Ibn Khaldun, the father of history, or the plethora of theories advanced by Western historians.

If you scan the history of Islam on the global stage you discern at least seven major turns when Islamic civilization demonstrated its resilience and renewed itself, each time diving into its spiritual reservoir and showing the world a new dimension of its timeless endurance and its universal appeal: The Hijra of the Prophet (622 CE); the triumph of the principle of Shura at the death of the Prophet (632 CE); the Mutazalite Revolution (765-746 CE); the triumph of the Awliyah following the Mongol Devastations (1219-1301 CE); the consolidation of Ottoman, Safavid and Mogul empires (1453-1600 CE); the appearance of great mujtahids with the onset of the colonial age (1750-1850 CE); and the reformers of the twentieth century. Iqbal belonged to this last category of thinkers and doers. The effort is still ongoing and the last page of this chapter is yet to be written. Islam has yet to throw off its intellectual complex vis a vis the West, overcome its inertia, amalgamate new ideas that have emerged with the technological age, absorb the blows that hammer at it from the east and the west, and renew itself to find its rightful place in the comity of civilizations.

This paper integrates faith, science and history. It presents a unified vision of knowledge. While explaining the idea of Iqbal’s khudi, it integrates the physical and the spiritual and renews the foundation of Islamic knowledge. Such an integrated view helps humankind understand its place and its purpose in the cosmos; gives a spiritual character to science and history; fosters their study in a spiritual paradigm; removes the tensions between religious and secular education; and, shows the historical errors that philosophers, scientists and men of religion alike have fallen into. It unveils the lofty vistas that are the destiny of humankind and removes the layers of ignorance, heedlessness, skepticism and apathy that have overtaken the civilization of man. It is a comprehensive attempt in which the body, mind the soul are complementary and each play their essential part.

There is a Light in every heart. It is bestowed upon every man and woman at birth. It shines by the Grace of God and comprehends the physical and spiritual. It is the seat of all knowledge and through it the physical and the spiritual are united. The goal of every soul is to find that Light. That is the quintessential struggle of man, from the cradle to the grave.

Several questions are addressed in this paper: Is science compatible with religion? How is history related to faith? Is there a common thread that binds science, history and faith? In a broad sense, is there a classification of knowledge that integrates science, history and faith? If there is, then what is the basis for such classification?  Does it offer a consistent, coherent and comprehensive vision of the cosmos that we are a part of?

These questions are important.  Modern man has gone off on a tangent, separating faith from science and history. In this fragmented worldview, faith is confined to the walls of “the church”, while the world outside is abandoned to secular scrutiny. Modern science and history are thus bereft of the Grace of God. In this soulless world, humankind finds itself isolated and alone, dangling between the heavens and the earth, existing in the cosmos without purpose, without joy, without love, without anchor and without roots.

Truth is one and indivisible.  It is a search for the truth that unites all human endeavor. The truth that faith discovers cannot be different from the truth discovered by science or by history. Man is a part of nature, not separate from it. The laws of history may be qualitative and descriptive as compared to the laws of nature which are more quantitative but they are not contradictory. For instance, a dynamic balance governs nature. Man is subject to a dynamic balance in his personal and communal life; if you violate balance (justice), you ultimately destroy yourself. But alas! The secular worldview separates man from nature. It divides up the truth into fragments and as a consequence makes it impossible to discover it. It is like the proverbial elephant: the legs and the trunk and the tail do not make an elephant whole. Only an integrated perspective shows the entire elephant.

Our Approach

The approach taken in this paper is distinguished in that: (1) It bases all knowledge on experience (2) It includes all sources of experience, the body, mind, heart and the soul (3) It relates experience to the spirit, which is the life source for all existence (4) it shows the interconnectivity of different disciplines (5) it presents a knowledge-based vision for the renewal of Islamic civilization.

The basis for this work is the Qur’an. The inexhaustible wisdom of its verses is used to offer insights into the questions raised and make things clear.

A comprehensive attempt to integrate faith, science and history has not been made in the Islamic world in modern times.  It was a recurrent effort in the classical age (765-1219 CE).  Islamic scholars in the classical age produced the al Hakims, the integrators, who combined in themselves knowledge of the religious sciences as well as the empirical and mathematical sciences. This integrated worldview shriveled with time under the successive impact of the Crusades, the Mongol devastations, foreign invasions, occupation and colonialism. Internal schisms as well as extremism took their toll so that Islamic sciences which at one time served as a beacon of light for the world became a caricature of what they once were.

In the last two hundred years, as Europe gained its ascendancy, Muslims absorbed many of the assumptions made by the secular west and accepted the separation of the sacred from the secular. Today, the mullahs who are trained in religious schools are ignorant about science, philosophy and history. They suspect what they do not comprehend and trap themselves more and more into an isolationist corner in a world of pre-scientific reductionism. What they do not understand, they denounce. In turn, the world of science abandons them and history walks away from them. Those educated in secular schools fare no better. They have no knowledge of the religious sciences and become alienated from their ethical roots and their faith. The tensions between the sacred and the secular tear Muslim societies apart and are a major source of instability in Muslim lands.

The Terminology

The basis of knowledge is experience. There are four sources of human experience: the body, the mind, the heart and the Nafs. The terms body, mind and heart must not be confused with the physical body, mind and heart. Each of these is a composite of attributes. The body is a composite of the attributes of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. We will show that these are not in fact attributes of the physical body but are attributes of the Nafs (the Self). The mind includes the attributes of reasoning, reflection, logic, extension and deduction. It is the repository of Aql andFikr. The body and mind cannot be separated; they act as an integral whole, supporting and complementing each other. The heart has multiple stations: an outer station called the Sadr; a second, higher station called the Qalb; a third, higher yet station called the Fu’ad; and a fourth station, the highest one, called Birr. Each station has its own attributes and its capabilities. The Nafs is a composite term which includes the body, mind and the heart. Sometimes, it is translated, simply, as the Self.

A great deal of confusion in understanding Qur’anic ideas occurs because of the lack of correspondence between Arabic and English terms.  Translation is a process of Dynamic Perception Mapping. It is dynamic because it is time bound; what a person understands from a term today may not be the same as what he understands from the same term twenty years from now as he gains in knowledge and experience. It is perceptual because it is constrained by the capability of the person. It is especially so when it comes to the Qur’an. Its self-sustained eloquence, subtle nuances and the grandeur of its locution challenge and defy translation. Mapping refers to the act of translation from one language to another. As each language is culture bound, oftentimes there are no equivalent words to convey an idea. So, the term Nafs which is a compendium of the body, mind and heart cannot be appropriately translated as soul. The word soul in English is separate and distinct from the body whereas the term Nafs includes the body. Certainly, its rendering as Ego is incorrect except to explain certain of the attributes or the Nafs. The Ego is the “I” in the English language. The Ego can be conquered, suppressed and even annihilated. By contrast, as the Ego is conquered, the Nafs merely undergoes a series of transformations, and in stages evolves from Nafs e Ammara to Nafs e Mutma-inna.

The Origin, Nature, Methods and Limits of Knowledge (The Epistemology of Knowledge)

The Origin of Knowledge


Read! In the Name of you Rabb, Who created,

Created the human from that which clings.

Read! By your Rabb, the most bountiful,    

Who taught by the Pen,

Taught humankind what it knew not.

No! The human does indeed transgress,

When he looks upon himself as autonomous.  (The Qur’an 96:1-5)


Knowledge is a treasure. It has its origin in the Spirit which is the source of life. This basic truth, obvious as it is, is overlooked by modern man.  Whether one is a saint or a scientist one must concede that with birth come life, knowledge and power. A dead man has no life, no power and no knowledge.  It stands to reason that knowledge is a Divine gift that accompanies the Spirit which is infused into a person between conception and birth. It is the Spirit that is the life source. Without the Spirit, there is no life and no knowledge.

Ilm ul Ibara and Ilm ul Ishara

The Qur’an uses parables and similes to convey transcendent ideas that are difficult or impossible to communicate through discursive language. Transcendental ideas such as love, grace, beauty, wisdom and peace are best felt, not expressed.  Accordingly, knowledge can be divided into two categories: ilm ul ishara (knowledge that is allusory and cannot be expressed through language), and ilm ul ibara (knowledge that is descriptive and can be expressed through language). Ilm ul Ibara can be measured and taught in a school. Ilm ul Ishara cannot; it is a Divine gift, a moment of Grace.

Consider, for instance, love which animates creation. Love is the cement that binds the world of man. Human love is but a simile to Divine Love that sustains all creation, like the light of an oil lamp is a simile to the light of the sun. The difference is that while the sun and its light are finite, Divine Love is infinite, boundless, beyond description.  Such is the language of love, the language of the heart, the language of allusion.

The word Ibara has its roots in the trilateral Arabic word A-B-R (a-ba-ra) which means to wade, as wading a river from one shore to the other. In prose, it means a line or a description. Accordingly, any thought or idea that can be described through prose, poetry or mathematical symbols can be classified as ilm-ul-ibara.  Such is the language of the body and the mind.

The Nafs or the Self straddles ilm ul ibara and ilm ul ishara. It receives its inputs from the senses, mind and heart. It is molded and transformed by these inputs. Like the senses, the Nafs measures in time-space. Like the mind it extrapolates. Like the heart it perceives. But it has its own unique characteristic which is not shared with other parts, and that is its free will.

We illustrate in the diagram below our classification of knowledge.


“Soon shall We show them Our Signs on the horizon and within themselves until it is clear to them that it is the Truth)”- (The Qur’an 41:53)



        • PHILOSOPHY
        • NUMBERS
        • GEOMETRY


Empirical Knowledge as a Sign

The created world becomes but a simile before the grandeur and majesty of God. This simple truth provides a basis for the integration of the physical and the spiritual. The physical becomes “a Sign” and points the way to Divine presence. So does history. So do the Signs in the heart.

The approach of the Qur’an is inductive.  It builds the awareness of Divine omnipresence through Signs in nature and in history. The quest for the Divine is through the struggle of man on earth; the path lies through science and history. It is a limitless, unceasing effort until man meets God. By contrast, the philosophical approach is deductive. It starts with axioms and theses and deduces inferences from it. If the axiom is flawed, so is the deduction.  In addition, reasoning and the process of deduction itself have inherent limits.

God reveals His majesty and His bounty every moment through nature and through history. Nature is a great teacher. It offers an infinite variety of vistas. Humans try to understand nature and use it for their benefit. The question is: how can the physical and the natural be integrated into a holistic picture which includes not just the inputs from the body and the mind but also the perceptions of the heart?

The Qur’anic perspective integrates the physical, rational and emotional by asserting their common origin and their common functionality. Each of these modes of knowing springs from the spiritual and is a Divine gift. Each of these assists humankind in discharging its responsibility to know, serve and worship Him. We will briefly outline here how the senses, the mind and the heart facilitate the perception of Signs for Divine presence and serve to augment faith.

In the secular view there is no interconnectivity between the worldviews of body, mind and heart. The interconnectivity is established when these worldviews are taken as Signs from a Single Source so that man may perceive the presence of the Divine and attain certainty of faith.

Consider the physical. The senses act as windows to the physical in time-space and facilitate the construction of an empirical worldview which forms the basis of science.  This worldview, based on the assumptions of before and after, subject and object, is flawed, deceptive and imperfect. Consider a rainbow. A physical description of the rainbow would take us in the direction of wavelengths, dispersion, wave propagation, optic nerves, and neurons in the brain. Consider this worldview of wavelengths, dispersion and neurons. Where is the enchanting beauty of the rainbow as it vaults the sky from horizon to horizon? It is not there. Yet, even the most unlettered human can relate to the beauty of the rainbow and be awed by it. The beauty of the rainbow is not in the physical description because beauty is not in wavelengths, cells and atoms. It is in the Self, the Nafs which is hidden from the physical, but makes its presence felt through interaction with it.

The secular man is constantly at war with himself. He cannot circumscribe the heart with his logic. Secular thought would have us believe that there is nothing more to the cosmos than the physical. The materialists go even one step further; they reduce all experience to the physical. In the process they negate the essence of being human which lies in the perceptions of the heart and the Self.

This dichotomy between the physical and the Self is removed when the physical is presented as a Divine Sign. Such a perspective does not negate the scientific approach which demands its validation in observation and measurement. It merely imparts a transcendent vision to the physical so that the scientist can use the experience of the senses, not as an end itself but as an occasion for Divine intervention so that humankind may perceive the presence of the Divine and witness the grand panorama of creation from a platform of faith.  Such a view does not negate the processes of science. But it changes the perspective in a profound way.

Every moment Divine grace displays itself in nature, and it does so with majesty. In it there are Signs for the perceptive minds. The study of nature thus becomes mandatory on humans to witness these Signs, use them as an occasion to celebrate Divine grace and create Divine patterns in the world.

Whatever is in the heavens and the earth ask of Him,

Every moment He (reveals His Signs) with grandeur. (The Qur’an 55:23 )


The physical sciences are a part of ilm ul ibara. They can be described and taught.

History as a Sign and a Teacher

History offers a fascinating panorama of human struggle on earth. The rise and fall of civilizations, the making and unmaking of dynasties, the formation and breakup of societies offer endless lessons for the discerning mind. The question is: Is history a part of a grand Divine scheme or is it merely a collection of dates, events, conflicts, triumphs and tragedies?

In the secular paradigm, history has no Grand Purpose. It is like a meandering stream, without a known origin and without a known destiny. It may reveal its secrets to philosophical scrutiny but such scrutiny yields answers that are partial, incomplete and change with the vagaries of time-space.

In the Qur’anic paradigm, history has a beginning and an end. It has a meaning and a purpose. It begins with creation and ends with judgment. Its meaning is to be sought in the perpetual struggle of man to find God:

Verily! You are toiling on toward your Lord! Painfully toiling! And you shall meet Him! (84:6)

The purpose of creation is to know God:

I was a Treasure unknown. I willed that I be known. So I created a creation (that would know Me) (Hadith e Qudsi)

Man is not separate from nature, or antagonistic to it, as he is in the secular perspective.  The Divine laws that govern the universe govern humankind also:


The Most Compassionate,

Taught the Qur’an,

Created Humankind,

Taught him speech,

The sun and the moon, (rotate in accordance) with mathematics,

And the stars and the trees submit (to his heavenly Laws),

The heavens has He raised high and established dynamic equilibrium therein,

So that you do not violate that equilibrium in your own lives (The Qur’an 55: 1-7)


In the Qur’anic view, history is another Sign, like nature. It is like a mirror that teaches humankind something about itself so that humankind may learn and work towards its ethical journey to find God.

The Noble Station (Maqam) of the Mind

In all of God’s creation, there is nothing as noble as the Mind, except the heart. The Mind is that collection of attributes that sifts through, analyzes, integrates and creates that enormous ocean of knowledge that distinguishes man from the beast. The distinguishing characteristic of the Mind is that it conceives of the possibility of things. It even admits of the possibility of heaven, of the Tablet and the Pen. Logic is its companion, reason its queen. Questioning is its lance. It plays with the concrete and processes what is abstract. When it is set free, it seeks to conquer the heavens and the earth.

Mathematics and Symbols

The Mind is the master of the abstract. Symbols and concepts are its vocabulary. This ability to grasp symbols and concepts, work with them, transform them, integrate them and bring forth new symbols and concepts is a divine gift. It is one of the distinguishing capabilities of the human genre that sets it apart from the beast.  This ability is what has enabled humankind to build the edifice of knowledge. It is a natural ability, inherited at birth by every human.

Mathematics and symbols can be taught just as language, history, sociology, civics, politics and governance can be taught. Hence the study of symbols also falls under ilm ul ibara.

The Mutuality of the Body and Mind

Sublime as it is, the Mind is helpless without the body. It draws upon the inputs from the senses to validate its perceptions. It is for this reason that sometimes one says that the Body and the Mind are one: the Body is an extension of the Mind while the Mind is an extension of the Body. Let us elaborate this subtle idea by an example.

Our knowledge of the cosmos is space-time bound. The senses, i.e., the eyes, the ears, touch, taste and smell, take inputs from this space-time bound world which are then processed by the mind so that we “know” what it is that we have seen, heard, tasted or touched. The mind is like the processor of a computer into which inputs are provided by the senses. For example, a child touches a hot stove. The input from his touch is processed by the mind which tells him that it is hot. Even if we devise a sensor to measure the temperature, the sensor must be read before we know that the stove is hot. Neither the body nor the mind would know anything of the condition of the stove without the help each of the other.

The sublime character of the mind is that it is space-time bound but it can conceive of the possibility of a world that is not bound by space-time and has many more dimensions than space-time. Indeed, it can conceive of the possibility of heaven.

The Position of Philosophy

Philosophy supported by empirical evidence becomes science. Philosophy unsupported by empirical evidence becomes speculation.  Logic and rational thought are its tools. Reason is its companion. Philosophy is deductive science. It starts with a premise and draws conclusions from it.  The limitations of philosophy are in the very assumptions that form its foundation. The errors of the philosophers arise when they forget the assumptions on which their philosophy is based and proceed to apply their methods to issues and concepts that are beyond the domain of philosophy. Let us offer an example.

In the eighth century CE, the Mu’tazalites (Muslim philosophers) adopted Greek philosophy as their own and rose to a position of political dominance. They were enamored of the precision, the logic and apparent cohesiveness of rational thought. In their enthusiasm they proceeded to apply their rational scrutiny to matters of faith forgetting that faith has a transcendental dimension beyond time-space whereas logic and philosophy are space-time bound.  In the process, they fell flat on their faces. Their positions were rejected following an intellectual revolution led by Imam Hanbali and the Usuli ulema (846 CE) and they were expelled from their position of power and influence.

In summary, ilm ul ibara is knowledge that can be expressed and taught. It includes the knowledge that is acquired through the body and the mind. The disciplines that are a domain of the body include science, history, sociology, economics, politics and governance. Knowledge acquired through the body (the senses) depends on observation and measurement and is called inductive knowledge.

The body and the mind work together to form a worldview. They are intertwined with each other to such an extent that oftentimes it is said that the Body and the Mind are one. The mind is a noble faculty. It is the master of logic and reason. It is distinguished by its ability to read symbols and conceive of the possibility of things. Knowledge acquired by the mind can also be taught and hence it is also a part of ilm ul ibara. It includes mathematics, geometry, logic and philosophy.

What is Ilm ul Ishara

Ilm ul Ishara is knowledge that can be alluded to but not expressed through language. It includes the language of the heart and the language of the hidden Self (the soul).  Examples are: love, hate, compassion, mercy, generosity.

The secular worldview recognizes only the empirical and the rational (the Body and the Mind) as sources of knowledge. The secular world is cold, rational, devoid of feelings and emotions. Secular man finds himself alone in this cold world. He does not speak to this world; the world does not speak to him.

What makes us human is not just our Body and our Mind. It is also our heart and our soul.  Feelings and emotions are valid sources of experience. And experience is the basis of knowledge.

How can we deny that we love? Or that we have compassion and mercy? Why does a man want to climb a mountain? Why does a woman sing or write poetry? Joy and sorrow cannot be measured by instruments nor comprehended by the mind. They are attributes of the heart and of the soul.

The Flawed Worldview of the Body and the Mind

Secular man who believes only in the material and the rational overlooks the flaws in his worldview. As an illustration, consider the red color of a beautiful rose. Ask a materialists to tell you where the redness in the rose comes from. His description will be something along the following lines: Electromagnetic waves from the sun hit the rose. All waves except those around .63 micrometers are absorbed by the rose. When reflected, they travel through the air and are received by the eye. They hit the retina, travel along the optic nerve and are recorded in brain cells. Ask yourself: where in this picture is the red color of the rose? It is not there. The red color is neither in the rose nor in the eye. It is somewhere else.  It is in the Self (soul).

The attributes of color, beauty, joy and sorrow that make our world rich and meaningful are absent from a materialist worldview drawn purely on the basis of the empirical and the rational. Such a worldview is flawed and incomplete. It is also deceptive, erroneous and misleading.

The Exalted Station (Maqam) of the Heart

Iqbal wrote:

Mahroom e tamasha ko woh deedaye beena de

Dekha hai jo kuch maiN ne, awroN ko bhi dikhla de

(Grant the vision (O Lord!) to one who has not witnessed the show,

What I have witnessed (with the eye of my heart), show it to others too.)


In all of God’s creation, there is nothing as noble, as sublime as the human heart, for it alone is capable of knowing the Name of God. Nothing, not the body, not the mind, measures up to heart in its nobility, its expanse and its heavenly character. Mohammed ibn Ali al Hakim al Tirmidhi, that great Sufi shaikh of the tenth century, in his treatise Bayan al Sadr wa al Qalb wa al Fuad wa al Lubb, compared the heart to the throne of God.  He wrote: “The heart has a nobler position even with respect to the Throne (arsh), for the Throne receives the Grace of God and merely reflects it, whereas the heart receives the Grace of God, reflects it and is aware of it.”  The sublime attribute of the heart is that it is aware of the Name of God; it knows what the angels do not know.

A Hadith e Qudsi (divinely inspired saying of Prophet Muhammed (pbuh)) says: The heavens and the mountains and the earth were not large enough to contain Me. But the heart of the believer was large enough to contain Me.”

The heart as it is used here should not be confused with the physical heart. It should be understood as a collection of attributes. Based upon the terminology of the Qur’an, Imam Tarmidhi, ascribes four ascending stations to the heart, each with its own distinct characteristics.

The Sadr. This is the outmost station of the heart.  It is open to the goodness that comes from the spirit as well as the distractions of the world. It expands with the light of the spirit and contracts with the darkness of evil whisperings. In this sense it is like the aperture of a camera. The more it opens, the more it admits of light.

The Qalb. This is the heart proper. The word Qalb in Arabic means that which turns. It is like a gimbal in a spacecraft. One face of the heart turns towards the Light of the spirit. The other face turns towards the distractions of the world. The heart that turns towards the spirit receives the light that comes from Divine presence. A heart that turns towards the deceptive appearance of the material world is sealed off from that light.

The Fu’ad. The word Fu’ad comes from the word Fayida which in Arabic means that which is of benefit. It is the kernel of the heart. It is that attribute which enables the heart not only to be aware of the Divine Name but to see the presence of God around it. Hence it is the eye of the heart.

The Birr. This is the essence of the heart. It is like the oil in the lamp, that which gives off light. It is the station wherein are manifest the beauty and majesty of Divine presence. It is the inner sanctum of the heart that gazes in its rapture at the ruh or the spirit and receives the infinite Grace that comes from God’s presence. The word Birr has two letters, b and r. The “b” stands for Baraka. The “r” stands for ra’a, that is to see. The Birr is a perpetual witness to the blessings that accrue from the presence of the Divine. This is the highest station of the heart, the one that is attained by the sages, the awliya.

The Kashaf (curtain) of the Body and the Mind

There is a divine light in every man, woman and child. It is bestowed upon a human at birth. However, it remains hidden by the curtains that man himself erects. Some sages say there are seven layers of curtains between the spirit and the Self, some say there are seventy thousand layers of curtains. The struggle of man is to remove these curtains so that the pristine essence of man gazes in its fullness at the spirit and partakes of the beauty and the majesty of Divine presence. That is the essence of knowledge.

The curtains that man erects between himself and the Divine light are called kashaf. The body, mind and the outer heart each erect curtains or veils between the light that comes from the ruh and its perception by the Self.

The Kashaf (Curtain/Veil) of the Body:

The kashaf of the body is its deception. The materialist worldview confuses reality with the images gathered by the senses. It is like confusing the image in a mirror with the object. We will offer examples to illustrate this observation. Consider the song of a bird. A physical description of a bird singing at dawn on a beautiful morning would go something like this: P-waves generated by the bird travel through the air. They are picked up by the ear drum which generates impulses for the audio nerves and is then heard. Where in this description of P-waves, transmission through the air, eardrums and audio nerves is the sound? Nowhere. The act of hearing is neither in the P-waves nor in the ear drum. It is somewhere else. It is in the Self (the soul), which remains hidden but acts as the seat of cognition and knowledge.

The Kashaf (Curtain/Veil) of the Mind

The kashaf of the mind lies in its limitations. Noble as it is, the mind is dependent on logic, structure and reason. It is the king of ilm ul hujjah(the science of argumentation and disputation). But it cannot explain that  which is beyond reason. What is the reason to love? Or, for that matter, what is the reason to hate? What is the reason to climb a mountain or to conquer space? Why does a man sacrifice himself for a cause like a moth striking a lamp and burning itself up in the process. Love, honor and sacrifice are attributes of the heart. They are not accessible to the mind. The rationalist who assumes that reason is the limit of man’s knowledge erects a curtain between himself and reality and cannot comprehend the mysteries that transcend rational thought.

What is the Nafs

The Nafs is a composite term which includes the body, the mind and the heart. Like the heart, it is a collection of attributes and is not to be confused with a specific part of the body. Depending on the context it is translated as “person”, “soul”, or the Self. It is the “I” that remains hidden and yet makes itself felt through the body, the mind and the heart. In the English language it is sometimes incorrectly translated as “the Ego”. The Ego is only one aspect of the Nafs; it does not capture the full, comprehensive meaning of the Nafs.

The secular perspective denies the existence of the Nafs. In its materialist outlook, it confines itself to the concrete and the rational. “What is material is real and what is real is material” is its perspective. Consequently, secular man cannot come to terms with the emotions and the passions that govern the world of man.  In the secular perspective there is no color, only wavelengths. There is no joy and no sorrow only chemical changes in the body. The secular world is cold, rational, devoid of the higher impulses that make us human.

Attributes of the Nafs

The Nafs is distinguished by its attributes, just as are its individual elements, the heart, the mind and the body. Some of the most important attributes of the Nafs are:

  1. The Nafs is the seat of cognition and knowledge. The sounds that we hear are “heard” not by the ear but by the Nafs. The sights that we see are “seen” not by the eye but by the Nafs. The “heat” and “cold” that we experience are not experienced by the skin but by the Nafs. The Nafs (soul or the Self) is the cognitive element in a human being.
  2. The Nafs is the fountain of speech. The faculty of “bayan” as it is called in Arabic, is not merely the ability to speak a particular language such as English, Urdu or Zulu, but it is that human ability to transform sounds and signs into ideas, to dissect, combine and integrate them and build the tree of knowledge that distinguishes the world of man from the world of the beast. Speech is not in the tongue; it is in the Nafs or the soul.


God, Most Gracious,

Taught the Qur’an,

Created the human,

Taught him speech.” (The Qur’an 55:1-4)


  1. The Nafs is the owner of free will.

Humankind is distinguished by its free will. “I will, therefore I am”, is the succinct way to state this. Man has the free will to choose and realize his existential potential.  It is this same free will that makes a man climb a mountain, conquer the oceans, ride the waves, and send a rocket to the moon.

  1. The Nafs is the knower of beauty, of order and proportion.


And the Nafs

And the sense of order and proportion bestowed upon it. (The Quran 91:7)


The Nafs has a sense of order, proportion and beauty. Every human, man, woman and child is endowed with these attributes. That is how even the most unlettered person can relate to the enchanting beauty of the rainbow or the serene majesty of a mountain.  The Nafs recognizes beauty, order and proportion in the external world and relates to it because the external is a reflection of what is already in the Nafs.   It is like looking in the mirror; the beauty of the image is a reflection of the beauty of that which causes the image.

  1. The Nafs is the seat of the Ego.

The Nafs is sometimes mistranslated into English as the Ego. In Arabic, the corresponding term for the Ego would be “Anaya”.  The term “Ego” is a Freudian term used in Western psychology and has its own specific connotations. The Nafs is a broader term than the Ego inasmuch as it includes the hidden attributes of the body, the mind and the heart, and hence connotes the total human being, or simply, the Person.

It is the Ego that incites the human to self-aggrandizement, rebel against the commandments of God and set himself up as an open adversary to Divine Will and in the process lays the groundwork for his self-destruction:

Nay! But humankind does rebel

In that it considers itself autonomous (self-sufficient);

We will drag him by his forelock,

A lying, sinful forelock! (96: 6-7)


  1. The Nafs has a conscience and is the differentiator of good and evil.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of the Nafs is its ability to know right from wrong, good from evil (…And its guidance as to what is wrong and what is right… Qur’an 91:8). The propensity towards evil and its ability to say “no” to that tendency is a uniquely human ability. Humankind is born with “deen ul fitra”, in the natural state with closeness to Divine presence, but through its own actions gets away from the Divine presence and has to be reminded again and again to return to the Divine fold.

The Kashaf of the Nafs

The susceptibility of the Nafs to evil makes the Nafs the biggest barrier between the Light that comes with the Ruh and its perception. Properly trained, this barrier can be removed and the Nafs can become the carrier of that Light. The progression of the Nafs from an obstructer of Light to a carrier of Light is a continuous process. Four stations of the Nafs are identified in the Qur’an:

Nafs e Ammara: This is the dark side of man, prone to whisperings from the evil one. Nafs e Ammara stands steeped in darkness, cut off from the light emanating from the Spirit.

Nafs e Mulhama: This is the aspiring Nafs, the state when a person starts questioning the evil tendencies of his own Self and tries to rectify them.

Nafs e Lawwama: This is the blaming Nafs, the station from where the Self, having overcome the evil inclinations of the Self, reaches out to a higher station, to find the Light that comes from Divine presence.

Nafs e Mutmainna: This is the highest station of the Nafs and the closest to Divine presence. At this station, the Nafs has overcome its Ego and has shunned whisperings of the evil one and has turned with complete surrender to Divine presence. It is the station of satisfaction, tranquility and peace.

Tarmidhi tabulates the stations of the Nafs with respect to the stations of the heart: Nafs e Ammara corresponds to Sadr; Nafs e Mulhamacorresponds to the Qalb; Nafs e Lawwamma corresponds to the Fu’ad, andNafs e Mutmainna corresponds to Birr.

Translation, Conceptual Mapping and Cultural Constraints

Translation from one language to another often introduces inaccuracies and misconceptions. Language is culture bound. What is expressed in one language cannot exactly be mapped onto another language because words are colored by the historical and cultural experience of a people and they have a semantic connotation. It is important to keep in mind the differences in terminology and their semantic nuances when we approach the nature of knowledge and its classification in the Qur’anic paradigm.

The Interconnectivity of Knowledge

Truth is one. Its origin is the Light from the ruh (the Spirit). It is the spirit that suffuses the heart, the mind and the body to acquire knowledge. It follows that the various categories of knowledge are interconnected.  

The primal origin of knowledge from a divine source establishes the interconnectivity between different forms of knowledge. Ilm ul ibara and ilm ul ishara both have Divine origin. What is learned through the senses springs from the same Source as what is learned through the mind and what is perceived by the heart.  And all of them point like arrows (symbols) towards that divine purpose in creation, namely, to serve and worship Him. Unlike the secular framework where the body and mind stand as antagonists to the heart and to each other, in the Qur’anic paradigm, the body, mind and the heart are partners, each contributing its share to the acquisition of knowledge that enables humankind to discharge its divinely established responsibility to serve and worship.

There is interconnectivity in nature. There is interconnectivity between the perceived world that the world beyond perception. This interconnectivity is through the Creator, who creates everything, every moment, with sublime beauty, complete perfection and supreme majesty.

The Purpose of Creation

The various categories of knowledge are also interconnected through their shared functionality.

Does the universe have a purpose? As opposed to the secular view of a purposeless world, the Qur’anic view holds that there is a moral purpose to creation, that is, to serve and worship God:

I created not the Jinns and Humankind except to serve (worship). The Qur’an (51:56)

The word that is used in the Qur’an to describe this purpose is “’abd” which may mean worship or unqualified servitude.  Thus humankind and jinns (another forms of intelligent creation made of formless energy) are enjoined to acquire knowledge so that they may know God and serve and worship Him.

The fossilization of knowledge

Knowledge is fossilized because of the assumptions made by man about the secular nation of the cosmos. By dissociating the material and the rational from the heart and the soul, secular man ends up in a blind alley where the heart and the Nafs (soul) are absent from his worldview. History, science, philosophy, mathematics, good and evil, passion and emotion each are pigeon holed into separate compartments with no interconnectivity. Secular man sees no grand purpose in creation and hence he sees no purpose in his own creation.

What is Iqbal’s Khudi?

We are now in a position to understand Allama Iqbal’s Khudi. It is the essence of the Self. It is not seen but it makes itself felt through the body, the mind and the heart. It increases in its brightness the more the Self is effaced, until when the Self is completely effaced, Khudi becomes a mirror that reflects, like a brilliant star, the Light of its essence from its Life Source, the Spirit. Khudi is not the Ego of the psychologists. It is more than the Self of the philosophers. Indeed, Khudi becomes stronger as the Self becomes weaker. It is the Se Murgh of Fareeduddin Attar. It is the rapture of Rumi when he writes: “Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not of any religion or culture, I am not from the East or the West, not out of the ocean or brought forth from the ground. Not natural or ethereal; not of elements. I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or in the next, did not descend from Adam and Eve or any story of origin. My place is placeless; I am a trace of the traceless. Neither body or soul, I belong to the Beloved, have seen the two worlds as one, and the One who calls you to, the first, last, outer, inner. (I am) only that breath-breathing human.”

Allama Iqbal captures this sublime thought with the simile (ilm ul ishara) of the mirror (a’eena):

Tu bacha bacha ke na rakh ise

Tera a’eena hai woh a’eena

Ke shikasta ho to ‘azeez tar

Hai nigahe a’eena saz meiN.


Conserve it not and keep (Your Nafs, O seeker!),

Your mirror is that mirror,

The more it is disabled (and disarmed),

The more it is loved

By He who made the mirror.


Iqbal rode on the wings of angels and dared to wish to speak to God. Paying tribute to this audacity, Shakeel Badaiwani pays homage to Iqbal:


Allah to sab ki sunta hai, jur’at hai Shakeel apni apni,

Hali ne zubaN se “uf” na kaha, Iqbal shikayat kar baithe.


(God listens to every voice,

It is up to one’s courage, O Shakeel!

Hali uttered not ugh! with his tongue,

Iqbal went ahead and submitted a complaint.)


This audacity was uncommon in Urdu literature and indeed in Islamic literature. Those who pierced the walls of orthodoxy paid a heavy price. It was the genius of Iqbal that he pushed the envelope and negotiated his terms with the orthodoxy of his times. Indeed, he won acclaim for what he achieved.


Iqbal could do this because he speaks to us not as Iqbal the poet, but from his Essence, his Khudi, much as Rumi speaks to us from the spaceless, timeless station of his rapture. In this, Iqbal shares the station of a wali, except that whereas a wali may be satisfied with his station of rapture, Iqbal looks further beyond to the example of the Prophets and returns to inspire and guide his people. Examine this verse:


Wahi lan tarani suna chahta hooN,

Meri saadgi dekh meiN kya chayta hooN.


(I long to hear that lan taranee – thou canst ever see Me!

See! How simple is my longing!).


This is a deep ocean. I will share with our readers a drop or two of this boundless ocean. In the Qur’an, Surah An Naml, Ayah 7 (27:7), there is a sublime description of the encounter of Moses with Divine energy on the mountain: “When Moses said to his family: Verily! I perceive a Fire! Soon shall I bring for you some information from it, or bring for you (a Fire) from the burning shoals (shoals that are inclined to part of their energy) so that you may warm yourselves”.  The wisdom in this Ayah defies translation. In 2009, when I was in Jerusalem for an interfaith meeting, I related this Ayah to a rabbi and there were tears in his eyes. Following the example of Moses the great Prophet, Iqbal goes “up on the mountain” and like Moses he wants to bring back “some information” for his people. He is not a waliwho may be satisfied with a heady drink from Wahdat al Wajud. He has gone further to stations of higher ecstasy and has become a Shaheed (a witness) as in Wahdat ash Shahada of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi (d 1624 CE) of his native Punjab. This aspect of Iqbal needs further elaboration.


Iqbal does not spare the self-content Wali from his pen. He takes him to task for abandoning the struggle which is the distinguishing attribute of humankind and accepting instead a contemplative relationship with God and satiation with the ecstasy of Divine presence. The static accretions that held down the forward march of Islamic civilization were his target. Iqbal, himself a product of tasawwuf, wants to remove the static weights that held down tasawwuf and impart to it the dynamism that is inherent in it.


The objective of tasawwuf is to find Divine presence. Tasawwuf has been in existence since the time of the Prophet and derives its inspiration from the life of the Prophet. There are many tareeqas or methodologies for removing the veils of the Nafs and taking the Self from distractions (kashaf) ofduniya (the created world) to the presence of God. All of them trace their knowledge to the inner knowledge imparted by the Prophet himself to the Sahaba. All of them start with an emphasis on strict observance of the Shariah and then move in graduated discipline to a reinforcement of faith through dhikr(remembrance of God), Ehsan (beautiful deeds), Irfan (recognition and insights), Muhibbah (love), taqwa (awe and fear of God),faqr (poverty) and finally fana (annihilation). The Sufis derive the basis of each of these stations from the Qur’an. The process is continuous, endless, each station leading to another and to a higher state of ecstasy.


The question is: What happens after fana? The Qur’an provides the guidance: Upon everything there is annihilation save the existence of your Rabb, the owner of majesty and bounty (55: 26-27). Historical tasawwuf got away from the profound implication of fana, namely, it is only the beginning of a renewed struggle to find God. Some walis assumed that once they attained fana they were subsumed in Divine existence. This was the station of Wahdat al Wajud (the unity of existence). It is a deeply spiritual concept and only the initiated discuss it with deep reverence in select circles.


The idea of Wahdat al Wajud, accepted by some sufis, was always suspect in orthodox circles. The premise of Wahdat al Wajud, namely, that all existence exists only in God and nothing exists outside of Him, was sacrilegious in the eyes of many ulema.  Those mystics who spoke of it openly paid the price. Thus it was that when Mansur al-Hallaj cried out:Ana al Haq (I am the Truth), he was summarily executed.


It was not until the advent of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi (d 1624) that the idea of Wahdat al Wajud went through a major reformation. Sirhindi is considered one of the most influential thinkers of Islamic history. Indeed, some historians take the position that it was the force of his pen that changed the course of Islamic history in the seventeenth century from one that was based on traditional tasawwuf to one based on a more rigorous adherence to the Shariah.


Sirhindi reasserted the proper relationship between man and God, between the created and the Creator. Tawhid (the Unity and Uniqueness of God) dictates that the Creator and the created are not the same. The unity that is apparent at the moment of fana (annihilation), argued Sirhindi, is not the Unity of Existence but the Unity of Witness. After the station of fana(annihilation) comes the station of shaheed (witness). When a man advances to the lofty station of Wahdat us Shahada he becomes a shaheed(a witness) and beholds with his Essence the sublime majesty and bounty of the Creator. This is the inner meaning of Hadith e Qudsi: I was an unknown Treasure; I willed that I be known; so I created (a creation that would know Me).”


Iqbal stood on the shoulders of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi and took the idea ofWahdat us Shahada one step further. He applied it not just to the station of a witness but to the continuous and unceasing struggle of man to create Divine patterns on earth. In this grand endeavor, he followed not just the example of the Awliya, but also the lessons from the Prophets. Moses (peace be upon him) went up on the mountain and came back with the Ten Commandments. Iqbal the supplicant, a follower of Muhammed (pbuh), humbly presents himself with his Khudi (his Essence) at the feet of the Arsh (throne) and comes back with the dynamism that he wants to impart to his people. It is that dynamism that is the core of tasawwuf. It is that dynamism that is the crux of Islam whose raison d’ etre’ is to guide humankind towards the honor of servanthood as stated in the Qur’an: “I created not the jinns and the humans except to serve (worship) Me”. It is that dynamism of servanthood that animates Iqbal.


That is Iqbal’s “Khudi”, his timeless, spaceless Essence, the lamp in the mirror of his Spirit, the Light which he wants to share with his people. It is this khudi that animates his poetry, his life, his thoughts, his actions. He imparts a new, transcendent dimension to Urdu literature. He dares to push the envelope but always remains within it, a man of deep faith and vision, a mujtahid but always a humble follower of al deen-e-Muhammadi. Wa Allahu A’lam.

Pakistan in the Bull’s Eye

Pakistan in the Bull’s Eye

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

It was the year 1812. The grand army of Napoleon, over 400,000 strong, invaded Russia. The reasons for the invasion were primarily economic. After his unsuccessful invasion of Egypt (1799) and his defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805), Napoleon had lost his naval initiative to the British. Britain emerged as the strongest naval power while France, under Napoleon was the dominate land power in Continental Europe.  Wars need money. England borrowed heavily from the bankers in London and used its naval power to blockade France and apply economic pressure on Napoleon. In response, Napoleon introduced the Continental System of finance that would make Europe economically independent of the bankers in London, and imposed a counter-blockade of Britain. The Czar of Russia, Alexander 1st, signed on to the Continental System at the Treaty of Tilsit (1807), but reneged on the Treaty in 1810. This was a triumph for British diplomacy and the Bank of England.

Czar Alexander 1st of Russia, who had been beaten by Napoleon in the war of 1806, was no better prepared for war in 1812 than he was in 1806, especially against a powerful continental army that included not just the French but the Germans and soldiers from other vassal states.  The Russians chose a defensive strategy, using a scorched earth policy to deny the invading armies their supplies and harassing their lines of communication.  Napoleon’s armies moved rapidly through Poland and, by September 1812, were at the gates of Moscow. The Russian commander Kutuzov was faced with an existential dilemma: to engage Napoleon and try to save Moscow, or abandon Moscow, keep the Russian army intact and save Russia. As long as there was a Russian army, there was hope that Russia could be defended. Once the Russian army was destroyed, there was little hope for Russia.

Kutuzov chose to abandon Moscow and retreat. The city was vacated and burned down.  Napoleon entered the burning Russian capital that was desolate, devoid of supplies. The Czar did not surrender. Faced with an early onset of winter, Napoleon retreated. His armies were mauled on their way back and devastated by cold and disease.  Only 40,000 of the initial army of 400,000 returned home. Russia survived.

Now roll the clock forward by two hundred years and focus on Pakistan. History does not repeat itself. But in the words of Ibn Khaldun, “The science of history is a noble, useful and honorable discipline because it shows us the character and events of previous generations. It throws light on the paths of the Prophets and informs us of the condition of rulers in the context of politics and governance so that if one wants to follow them, one may use history as a guideline.”

Pakistan today is in the bull’s eye of global politics. The sole global superpower, albeit in the declining years of its economic dominance, is breathing down its neck from a neighboring country. The Americans and its NATO allies are engaged in a hot war in Afghanistan. The regional powers, Iran and India have their hands in the pot. A rising China and an assertive Russia look askance at the American presence in Central Asia. Drone attacks take a toll in Waziristan and the stresses of the war tear at Pakistan’s fragile social fabric, already weakened by a pervasive feudal structure and endless confrontations with India.

As it was with the Napoleonic wars, today’s wars are about economics.  Just as the politics at the turn of the nineteenth century was about the control of maritime lanes to Asia and a monopoly of continental trade and finance, the politics of the first part of the twenty first century is dictated by the control of oil, its production, flow and distribution. What we are witnessing today are the preliminary rounds in the geopolitical chess game that will determine the next superpower of the world: China or the United States.  The outcome is largely a function of who controls the energy resources of the world.

Two of the largest sources of energy in Asia are in the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. The primary demand for this oil is from the expanding economies of China, India and ASEAN countries. Afghanistan lies along one of those transit routes. Pakistan lies at the intersection of the two. In other words, it is in the cross hairs. It is in the bull’s eye.

If anything, the choices facing Pakistan are even more difficult than those facing Russia in 1812. Russia had a Czar. Pakistan, by contrast, is ruled by an elite that is out of touch with the masses. At the height of the devastating floods in 2009, the President of Pakistan was in France, more concerned about his chateau than about the poor millions under flood waters. The Russians faced a military threat. The Pakistanis face a political threat.  The Russia of 1812, although no match for the continental armies, was a vast and powerful country.  Pakistan is economically weak, at the mercy of external aid. The United States demands that Pakistan take action against its own people in Waziristan and NWFP, an impossible task considering the porous Durand line that cuts across homogenous tribal homelands on the Pak-Afghan border. This course of action, if pursued on a sustained basis would destroy the legitimacy of the Pakistan army in the eyes of its own people.  It would be a recipe for the ultimate destruction of Pakistan, because the army, despite its flaws, short comings and its political history, is the only institution that has the capability to hold this disparate nation together. As long as there is a viable army, there is a viable Pakistan. If this institution is destroyed by a confrontation with the United States, there will be no Pakistan.

Looked at from a different perspective the choices are easier. The United States does not seek to invade Pakistan. It only seeks political influence so that it can further its strategic interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia. It is not after Pakistan; it is after oil. Indeed, it invests in Pakistan to further its strategic interests.

Some Pakistanis suspect that the United States is after Pakistan’s strategic assets. I disagree. If that were so, the United States would have moved in that direction a long time ago. It is a scenario that may come to pass if and only if the Pakistan army fizzles out and the government is taken over by an extremist faction.

Despite its multiple social fissures and the rampant corruption that gnaws at the countries of South Asia, Pakistan has retained substantial intrinsic strengths. Its village economy is self sufficient and resilient. The biradarisystem in the Punjab and the tribal structures in Baluchistan and NWFP are sources of social stability and familial support. The intrinsic goodness of common people shows itself in times of stress as was evident during the great floods two years ago. The educational system, tattered as it is, nonetheless produces a good number of world class graduates.  And despite a five-fold increase in population since independence, Pakistan is self sufficient in wheat and food grains, at least for now.

The wisdom of history suggests that Pakistan avoid a frontal clash with the United States, much as Kutuzov avoided Napoleon in 1812. Even as the drones pummel the frontier areas with missiles, prudence dictates that Pakistan turn the other cheek, absorb the punishment and not expose its army to the overwhelming power of NATO.  There will be many more casualties in the drone attacks, more so-called collateral damage, but survival demands patience, perseverance and endurance. It is the classical paradox of peace: maintain a credible army but stand down and avoid wars.

The long term solution is for Pakistan to define itself and its destiny, to have faith in that vision, and to pursue it with a single minded national focus. It is a task that Pakistan has never successfully accomplished. Is it a secular, modern nation as envisioned by Mohammed Ali Jinnah? Or, is it an Islamic theocracy as championed by Maududi?  Or, is it something else, as demanded by scores of opportunistic political parties that seem to crop up and disappear like mushrooms in the monsoon season? The answer lies hidden in the womb of the future. Expatriate Pakistanis have a role to play in this existential debate. And in the answer lies the ultimate destiny of Pakistan and where it will stand in the comity of nations.

The Libyan Revolution, Tailor Made in Paris

The Libyan Revolution, Tailor Made in Paris

Professor Nazeer Ahmed

History is a Sign from the heavens. Those with insight learn from it and use it as a guide to find the Light of God. Those without insight let it pass by, blind, heedless, without perception.  This is as true of events from the lives of the Prophets as it is of contemporary events.

The Libyan war, phase 1 is over, courtesy 26,000 sorties by NATO air forces. As with every war, there are winners, losers and bystanders, and there are lessons to be learned.

The principal lesson of this war is that the conflicts of the future will be fought for earth’s resources. The world has entered a phase where the sheer pressure of survival dictates a mad scramble for living space and security. This means energy, water and air will be the primary sources of conflict and war in the future.  The old divisions based on ideology, religion, nationality, color and creed will fade into the background, only to be used as slogans in marshalling resources for conflicts whose strategic goal is the capture of energy, water, air and living space.

I remember the speech that Anwar Sadat, the former President of Egypt made before the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem in September 1977. I was in Muzdalifa that day, returning from the Plain of Arafat, having just completed my first Hajj. In the speech Sadat said that Egypt would renounce war unless it was forced to do so for the waters of the Nile. I have no use for his politics. At that time I paid no attention to  the import of what he said. But how true does it sound in retrospect!

A second lesson from the Libyan conflict that the Arab Revolution is squeezed from within and from without.  The Arab Spring was one of those rare moments in the history of the Middle East where a whiff of fresh air entered the body politic.  We were one of the first in Pakistan Link to point out that the Arab spring was as much a revolt against corruption and a call for economic justice as it was for democratic reforms( Reference: One River, Two Egypts, Pakistan Link, Professor Nazeer Ahmed, April-May 2011). The movement has since spread to the East and the West. But in the core Islamic lands, it is being throttled internally by the entrenched forces of despotism and hammered by forces of external intervention. Thousands die in Syria and Yemen and the dictators contemplate neither stepping down nor implementing reform. The voice of the masses goes unheard. Whether you look at it from an Islamic perspective or from the perspective of secular humanism, it is a travesty of justice.

From all published accounts, the Libyan war appears to have been the brain child of France. England was soon co-opted into the scheme and America joined in. The French, of late, have shown a particular assertiveness, indeed aggressiveness, in their foreign policy. Following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, there arose a genuine call for democratic reforms in Libya. Qaddafi did not budge and paid the price. Enter the French, the British and NATO. A war was unleashed under cover of a UN sanctioned slogan of “protecting the civilians”. Heaven knows how many civilians have died in the conflict even while they were “protected”. I have read reports of as many as 30,000. And Libya lies in ruins, its infrastructure destroyed, its economy in shambles, its people, once considered comfortable if not rich, in poverty, at the mercy of international aid agencies.

Libya , which sits astride the North African coastline, is a grand prize for any foreign power. It controls the land routes from the fertile Nile valley to the Atlantic. The Romans knew this and waged incessant wars to capture the area. So did the Arabs and the Ottomans. Today, its oil wells produce some of the lightest crude in the world, so light that it hardly needs any processing before use.

So, Libya is worth about 100 billion dollars a year in today’s markets, not a bad prize for the battered economies of Europe, which are struggling to hold the tide of retrenchment. In the last century, they would squeeze their colonies to get well. But Britain no longer has India and the French do not control Algeria. Other venues are needed to sustain struggling economies.

So, the tactical winners are the French and British oil companies. The Italians, the former colonial power in Libya and poorer cousins in the NATO hierarchy, were reluctant to join the fray initially, but ultimately caved in. They will get a portion of the riches but will perhaps lose their dominant pre-war position. American foreign policy, in response to the anti-war domestic sentiments, has deftly managed to keep the US in the background but has been very effective in its moves to influence post-war Libya. An American trained engineer with no experience in politics or administration has been made the Prime Minister.

And the losers? Well, for one, the pan-African movement will lose one of its ardent champions. Qaddafi’s Libya, along with emerging South Africa, was a prime mover to integrate the African continent together. There were grand schemes to create a common market extending from the Cape of Good Hope to the Mediterranean Sea. Libya generously contributed to such grand schemes. Such schemes will now lie dormant, perhaps abandoned.

And the people of Libya? Well, it depends on what they do next. Libya is a tribal society where societal bonds are determined as much by tribal loyalties as a feeling of a transcendent nationalism or even religion. The looting and mayhem that we have seen in the aftermath of the war are not good omens. Will they rise to the challenge and create a national destiny worthy of their historical heritage? Only the future can tell.  If they are successful, they will escape the clutches of neo-colonialism. If they flounder, it is a tragedy for them, for Africa and for the Arab Spring movement.

The Libyan war has enormous implications for the emerging global world order which will be dominated by China and the United States. It is fascinating that these two powers are using different strategies to win the competition. China is focused on industry and commerce. It has clearly emerged as the dominant industrial power of the world. Its steel mills smelt more than 500 million tons of steel each year, more than the combined steel production of the rest of the world. It has aggressively moved to capture the markets as far away as Latin America. By contrast, the American strategy appears to be military. Its industrial base is in shambles. The steel production in the US is a meager hundred million tons and is dwarfed by that of China. Even as China has made inroads into the African markets and has gained access to African resources, the United States has moved to establish its military presence in Libya, the Sudan and now in Central Africa giving it a commanding physical presence in the continent. And the war for control of the Horn of Africa rages on.

From a perspective of the Islamic Middle East, the lessons are obvious. The west looks upon the Middle East and Africa as its turf and its backyard whose resources must be reserved for Europe and the United States. China, the emerging colossus on the horizon, attempts to woo the region with money, trade and development.

However, important the Middle East and North Africa may seem to be at the present, the world order for the second half of the twenty first century will be determined by events farther East, in Central Asia, in the region extending from Pakistan through Kazakhstan.  It is here that the interests of the emerging giants of the future, China, India, Russia meet and collide with those of the giants of the past in Europe and America.  It is at this roof of the world where rests the destiny of the world. I hope that the Islamic nations take heed and tailor their course accordingly, remaining strong but avoiding conflict and war, focusing on education and enduring institutions of public participation and public good, building strong links of trade and commerce with the emerging giants of China, India, Russia as well as those in Europe and America.

Spiritual Impressions of the Hajj

Spiritual Impressions of the Hajj

Professor Nazeer Ahmed


To live as a “Muslim” is to live in a state of surrender to Divine presence. That Allah is greater than anything else is asserted by a Muslim five times a day when he faces the Qibla (the direction of prayer), lifts his hands, and says with conviction: “Allahu Akbar” (Allah is Greater). Like the rhythm of the heart beat that sustains life this invocation is recited by a Muslim with a daily rhythm until that heart ceases to beat and life returns to its Creator.

Total Surrender to Allah

That a Muslim lives in submission to Allah does not make him oblivious to the life of this world.   Indeed, he is commanded by the Almighty Creator and Sustainer to seek the bounty of this world, to enjoy all that is good and to live in a state of equity, justice and balance. Thus all relationships that make life meaningful, those within the family, the community and with fellow men area not only permitted but are encouraged. A Muslim therefore spends some of his resources, his time and his energy in sustaining himself and some in the remembrance of Allah.

But there is time when a Muslim rises above all mundane relationships,  dons the robes of a mendicant and goes forth in the presence of the Almighty, reciting:

Here I am O Lord; here I am!

Here I am, You Who has no partners, here I am!

Verily, to You (alone) belongs all prayer,

And Yours is the Bounty, Yours the Sovereignty;

You who has no partners!


The soul reaches out to its Creator at His Command, asking for His forgiveness and His bounty. The veils are lifted, the pristine proximity between man and Allah is approached and the Self is showered with bounties which may not be accessible to it in its mundane earthly existence.  It is the occasion when man and Allah reach out for each other, the one in supplication, humility and prayer, the other in Benevolence, Compassion and Mercy. It is the occasion when man is closest to Allah. This occasion is the Hajj.


To undertake the Hajj is to rise above this world and to aspire to heaven. A pilgrim begins his journey by offering sincere repentance of his misdeeds and by resolving not to commit an excess again, by under taking to live his remaining days on earth as a Muslim in justice, charity and balance. He pays off his creditors and puts his assets in trust. He leaves provisions for his loved ones and provides for his own journey through lawful means. He prays to the Almighty for the safety of his dear ones and for his own safety and sets out to answer to the call of his Creator. All earthly preoccupations are left behind, all relationships forgotten save the one between him and his Creator.


Demonstration of Takbir

The Hajj is concrete demonstration of Allahu Akbar (Allah is greater).  Allah is infinitely and immeasurably greater than every relationship. He is greater than one’s children and wife and brothers and sisters and parents and friends and community and wealth and prosperity. By leaving behind all of these for the sake of Allah, a Muslim gives a positive, concrete demonstration of Takbir.


To undertake the Hajj is to reassert the Divine Unity as has been done from that pristine moment when the consciousness of that Unity was bestowed upon man. To undertake the Hajj is to transcend one’s time and reach out for that time when the Supreme Law, “There is no Allah but He” was revealed to man.

To undertake the Hajj is to renew the surrender (of his Self) to the Creator as was done by the First Man, Adam.

The ceremonies of the Hajj did not start with Muhammed (pbuh) although they were perfected by him. The ceremonies of Hajj go back to that moment when the First Man declared: “You are my Lord and I will worship none but You.” And for this worship Allah favored him with the knowledge to build a house of worship.


“The First House of worship constructed for mankind was that at Becca (Mecca), full of blessings (for men) and as a guidance to all the worlds.” (3:96)


To visit the First House built for worship of Allah is to recall that moment when the consciousness of the Supreme Being first dawned upon man.  It is to celebrate that moment when the highest Moral Law “La Ilaha Il Allah”(there is none worthy of worship but Allah) was infused into man, like a flash of lightning, in a moment of sublime transcendence. To visit the First House of worship is to thank the Almighty for the guidance He provided man, for without this guidance man would forever be at loss.




The construction of the Ka’aba predates history. It is shrouded in the same layers of prehistoric times as is the origin of man It is at this confluence of time and man that the erection of the structure of the Ka’aba takes place. It is asserted that the First Man, Adam, built the House of Allah, and worshipped and glorified His Name in it. As is the case with all knowledge, the knowledge for the construction of the House of Worship was given to the First Man by Allah. Ages went by and the Ka’aba was destroyed by the Great Flood and all that remained of it was a heap of rubble. Then came a time when the consciousness of the Supreme Law was re-infused into man, this time in the person of Ibrahim (pbuh). The sensitive soul of Ibrahim searched the skies, the stars, the moon and the sun for its Creator. This search was rewarded with the illumination: “There is no god but God.” Thereafter, his long and eventful life was governed by a single credo that of total submission to the Will of Allah. He was a Muslim par excellence, an Ummah of one. His extensive travels took him to the land of Egypt where he took his second wife, Hajira (May Allah be pleased with her). In time, a son, Ismail (pbuh) was born to Hajira. By an act of faith, Ibrahim (pbuh) proceeded to the valley of Mecca to leave Hajira and Ismail there. And as he departed from Mecca, he prayed:


“O my Lord, I have made some of my offspring to dwell in a valley without cultivation, by Your Sanctified House, in order O our Lord, that they may establish regular prayer. So fill the heart of some among men with love towards them and feed them with fruits so they may give thanks.” (14:37)


After Ibrahim (pbuh) left, Hajira was left to fend for herself and her infant son. Driven by thirst, she left the infant next to the Sanctified House and climbed up a hill to look for water. There was no water. She ran to an adjacent hill hoping to find water there. And as she ran she prayed to the Almighty for His compassion. When she had thus struggled a long time, running from one hill to the other, beseeching Allah for sustenance, she saw water spring forth from under a rock near where the infant was left. In her elation she cried out: “Zumi ya mubaraka!”  (Stop! O blessed gift of Providence!). She thanked the Provider that He had rewarded her struggle and the mother and child drank to their heart’s content


Sanctified House

As Ismail grew to manhood, the patriarch Ibrahim returned to pay him a visit, and at the command of Allah, to build a house where only He would be worship-ed. Father and son worked together to raise the foundation of the House on the site where the Ancient House stood:


“Behold! We gave the site to Ibrahim, of the (Sanctified) House, (saying): ‘Associate not anything (in worship) with Me. And sanctify My House for those who compass it round, or stand up, or bow, or prostrate themselves (therein in prayer).


“And proclaim the pilgrimage among men. They will come to you on foot and (mounted) on every kind of camel, lean on account of journeys through deep and distant highways that they may witness the benefits (provided) for them, and celebrate the name of Allah through the days appointed… (22:26-28). “


In this Sanctified House only the name of Allah was to be invoked. All associations with His name were to be discarded. Man was to rule the created word as the khalifa (vice regent) of Allah, answerable to and worshipping his Creator alone.


But Allah does not let the belief of his worshippers go untested. Ibrahim (pbuh) and Ismail (pbuh) received a Divine Command in a vision to offer his only son as sacrifice:


“Then, when (the son) reached (the age of serious) work with him, he said: “O my son! I see in vision that I offer you in sacrifice. Now see what is my view.” (Ismail) said: “O my father! Do as you are commanded. You will find me, if Allah so wills, one practicing patience and constancy. (37:102)”

When father and son had submitted themselves to the Creator, they proceeded towards a hill where the sacrifice was to be carried out. On his way, Ibrahim (pbuh) was tempted by Iblis (Satan) to desist from his undertaking whispering to him that the vision was not a divine vision. Ibrahim (pbuh) was steadfast in his faith and paid no heed to the satanic mechanizations. And when father and son were ready for sacrifice Ibrahim (pbuh) heard the Divine Revelation:


“You have already fulfilled the vision. (37:102”


Ages passed and the House of Allah again became a house for Allah. It remained so until the Almighty in His Compassion and Mercy for man, sent down the Qur’an and showed the way again to a lost humanity. The Messenger this time was Muhammed (pbuh). In his last pilgrimage the Prophet Muhammed laid out the rites that men were to perform in commemoration of the Blessings of the Almighty on Adam, on Ibrahim and Ismail, and on Muhammed (peace be upon them) and through them on all those who submit unreservedly to Him. They were to come, men and women, from all nations, from lands far and near, on foot , by sea and by air, to reassert the Unity of Allah, to ask for His forgiveness and His Bounty just as Adam and Ibrahim and Hajira and Muhammed (peace be upon them) had done before them.


Here I am O Lord!


When the pilgrim sets out on his journey he remembers the favors of Allah on His Messengers and eagerly awaits that time where he may walk the same hallowed earth that the Messengers did. Neither the difficulties of the journey nor the absence of dear ones, neither hunger nor thirst dilutes this craving. His anticipation increases as he approaches Meeqat, dons the Ihram and recites the Talbiya: Here I am O lord! Here I am …..”” Like the soul returning to its Creator the pilgrim hearkens to the call of the Lord for asking all that is dear to him and undertaking to celebrate only His praise.


The first sight of the hills around Mecca fills his heart with awe and humility. Upon the sight of Mecca the pilgrim offers a humble prayer beseeching the Almighty to accept His presence in the sanctuary as a token of his submission to His Will, to forgive him and to admit him to the company of those who earned His pleasure. When he is in this city his heart beat quickens with anticipation. He cannot bear to wait for that moment when he enters the Haram (the Sanctified House) and presents himself. He literally runs in thrilled enthusiasm. The first sight of the Haram makes him recite Talbiya that much more. It makes him say Darudand Istaghfar humbly, quietly. He is now within sight of the Sanctified House. His movements quicken and with tears swelling his eyes he enters the First House of Allah.


Here at last he is, on the same ground trodden by Adam and Ibrahim and Hajira and Ismail and Muhammed (peace be upon them) and his Companions. Here at last he is on the blessed ground that witnessed the first prayer of man to His Creator. Here at last he is on the ground where Ibrahim prayed, where Hajira beseeched Allah for His bounty, where Ismail submitted and where Muhammed (peace be upon them) preached.  He wonders if this is all real, if he is truly where he had so much longed to be. He declares: Labbaik, Allahumma Labbaik, and with sure quick steps merges himself into the multitudes circumambulating the Ancient House. Whatever goodness Allah has given him pours forth. Whatever evil lurked within him evaporates. He walks like a pure spirit, almost imperceptibly, in utter awe of the place and of his proximity to it, submitting himself in his totality to the Almighty, the Compassionate, Merciful. Without the slightest conscious effort he lifts his hands as he approaches Rukn-Yamani and recites: Bismillahi, Allahu Akbar, Wa Lillahil-Hamd (In the Name of Allah, Allah is the Greatest; all praise is to Him) and moves along with the flow of the worshippers. Almost imperceptibly he finds himself moving ever closer to the Blessed House. He is here in the audience of Allah and all else is wiped away from his consciousness. He feels the radiations in the space, from those around him, yes even the hot sun feels soothing and comforting. He keeps his shoulders high, chest heaved forward as the Prophet taught him to do and walks with firm steps in due humility.


Gradually and slowly he becomes conscious of the thousand faces around him imploring Allah in a thousand languages for His forgiveness and asking for His bounty. There is no king here and no servant, no nobleman and no lowly beggar. Each one is here in the same garb wrapped in two unsewn sheets, just as he would be if he were to meet his Lord in death, equal in the eyes of Allah, and equal in the eyes of man. Differences of tongues and manner, of origin and color all disappear. All that remains is that pristine humanity facing Allah in a one to one relationship.



The pilgrim pauses at Hijr-e-Aswad hoping he might get near enough to kiss it. But the dynamics of the throng prevents him. He moves on. He sees Bab-e-Multazim. He tries to pauses and offer a silent prayer for himself, for his dear ones and for those who believe. He moves on. He sees young strong men walking slowly, humbly, with bowed heads; he sees old men, their faces shimmering with tears of repentance; he sees ladies their faces radiant with Noor-e-Ilahi, praying for their sons. He keeps moving almost riveted to the rhythm of the throngs. He makes his way towards the place of Ibrahim where that Messenger and his son stood when they laid the foundation of the Ka’aba. When he completes circumambulating the Ka’aba seven times he stops here again, offers two Rakats of Nafl prayers and offers his thanks to the Almighty for his benevolence in that He brought him to this Blessed House.


The pilgrim now moves to the well of Zamzam to drink of its water and to recall the Mercy of Allah on a desperate mother and a helpless child. From there to Safa and Marwa for Sa’i which means struggle The pilgrim walks the distance between the hillocks of Safa and Marwa several times much as Hajira did in search of water. He runs part of that distance simulating the struggle of a mother in search of Allah’s bounty. As he does so, the pilgrim recalls with gratitude that all the struggles of man can be answered by the Mercy of Allah alone and none else.  In answer to the struggle of a desperate mother Divine compassion brought forth water from under a rock. In much the same way, in answer to sincere struggle, Divine Light shines on hearts hard as rock, mellowing and turning them into founts of abundance. Struggle precedes compassion. That is the message of Sa’i.  Therein lies the dynamism of Islam. The pilgrim resolves to struggle for the rest of his life seeking the bounty of Allah both in this world and in the Hereafter. He resolves to dedicate himself to the service of justice, balance and truth,  as a Muslim, so that truth prevails in the land.


After the first Tawwaf till the time he proceeds to Mina for the rites of Hajj, the pilgrim visits Baitullah, time and again for prayer and meditation. The great mosque that surrounds the Ka’aba is a magnificent monument to the aspiration of man towards Allah. It is an imposing structure which, like the Ka’aba itself, overwhelms you, yet which liberates you from all worries and bestows upon you inner peace and beauty. During the cool nights of the winter months when the midnight moon shines on the great mosque, the Harem takes on a transcendental character. It is as if the balmy rays of the moon bear witness to the million voices that rise up from this House declaring His Oneness, bowing to His Will and worshipping Him and Him alone. In those moments, in the hours of the late night, the world fades from your consciousness and the realty that pervades all creation stands forth as clearly as your consciousness can bear.


Stay at Mina


The rites of the Hajj start with donning the ehram, pronouncing theTalbiya and doing the Tawwaf. But the greatest event of this undertaking, namely, the gathering in Arafat, begins with a stay in Mina. The pilgrim fortifies himself with prayer for the great experience that awaits him. In Mina lies the mosque of Khaif. The Prophet stayed in this mosque during this last pilgrimage. On the morning of the 9th of Dhul Hajj the pilgrim gets up early and offers his Fajr prayers in this mosque. When the prayers are over the entire mosque resonates to the sounds of Labbaik, Allahumma Labbaik and the resonance of the million voices echoes from the hills of Mina.


From here the pilgrim proceeds to Arafat. This journey provides one of the most moving spectacles that the eye can behold. Here one sees a mass of humanity, on the move from the hills of Mina to the Plain of Arafat. They move, on foot, on the backs of animals, by car and by bus. By the tens of thousands one sees them, moving swiftly like a mighty river speeding towards its destination. It is an endless flow of humanity all headed towards an audience with the Lord of the worlds. Witnessing this tide of mankind one cannot but feel in one’s bones the truth of the Prophet’s saying: On the Day of Arafat Allah comes down to the lowest heaven so that He may shower His worshippers  with His Bounty.


After the eye witnesses this great march for mile upon mile, it catches the first glimpse of the Plain of Arafat. Here spreads out a tent city the likes of which are unknown anywhere on this globe. It is a vast carpet of tents woven together and laid out from horizon to horizon. The Plain of Arafat stretches out holding forth countless souls in supplication before Allah. Beyond the plain lie the mountain chains, layer upon layer of them, inviting the eye to behold ever wider horizons.


Arafat literally means knowledge and recognition. It symbolizes the knowledge and recognition that Allah gave to Adam and Eve. Hence it is a reminder of the common origin of all mankind. When Adam and Eve prayed to Allah Almighty to forgive their lapse, Allah forgave them and gave them knowledge and recognition of each other. Adam and Eve stood in prayer and thanked the Almighty for His Compassion and Mercy. Here on the plain of Arafat gather the sons and daughters of Adam, from all corners of this earth, to reassert their common humanity and to thank Allah for His Munificence.




The pilgrim recalls that exalted moment when Allah created man “in the best of molds” and the moment when He made earth the habitat for this genre. This great gathering is a celebration of the presence of man on earth and of Allah’s gifts to him. On this day of knowledge and recognition the pi8lgrims re-assert the commonality and brotherhood of man and recall the declaration of the Qur’an:

“O mankind! Be aware of your Creator and Sustainer Who created you from a single Soul, created, of like nature his mate, and from them scattered countless men and women. Be aware of Allah from Whom you demand your mutual (rights), and (be aware of) the wombs (that bore you) for Allah ever watches over you. (4:1)”


The Hajj is thus a moving declaration of the brotherhood of man. On top ofJablur Rahman (the Mount of Mercy), which is located to one side of the plain of Arafat, stands a single pillar as a monument to the knowledge and recognition bestowed upon man and woman.


Camping at Arafat is essential for Hajj. Indeed, Arafat is the Hajj. The other important requirements, namely the donning of Ehram, Talbiya, Tawwafare included in the Umrah but Arafat is what makes the difference between Hajj and Umrah. Looked at another way, this great gathering of men and women, dedicated to the recognition and knowledge that they are all human beings with a common origin, an Ummah united in obedience to and worship of the Creator, the Sovereign, the Lord of the worlds, constitutes the core of the Hajj.


Last Sermon

It was in the Plain of Arafat that the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) prayed like a mendicant asking for Allah’s mercy on his Ummah. It was at the foot of Jablur Rahma that the Prophet delivered his last sermon:

….”O Men, listen well to my words, for I do not know whether I shall meet you again on such an occasion in the future. O men, your lives and your property shall be inviolate until you meet your Lord. The safety of your lives and of your property shall be as inviolate as this holy day and holy month. Remember that you will indeed meet your Lord and that He will indeed reckon your deeds. Thus do I warn you. Whoever of you is keeping a trust of someone else shall return that trust to that rightful owner. All interest obligations shall henceforth be waivered…you will neither inflict nor suffer inequity.

…..”O men, to you a right belongs with respect to your women and to your women a right with respect to you…Do treat your women well and be kind to them, for they are your partners and committed helpers. Remember that you have taken them as your wives and enjoyed their company. …..I am leaving you with the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Messenger. If you follow them you will never go astray…”

It was here in the plain of Arafat that the last Ayah of the Qur’an was revealed:


“This day have I perfected your Deen, completed my favor upon you and have chosen for you Islam as your Deen. (5:53).”


The pilgrim recalls the association of God’s favors with this hallowed ground.  He stands in his tent invoking the compassion of God. He proceeds towards the Mount of Mercy, and lifting his hands towards the heavens asks for the forgiveness of his sins and of his loved ones and for the bounty of God in this life and in the Hereafter. Emotions swell in him as he realizes how the Almighty has befriended Him and has conferred His favors upon him by giving him this opportunity to bear witness to this great gathering dedicated to the worship of God and the brotherhood of man.

Jumraat and Tawwaf e wida


The pilgrim proceeds to Muzdalifa and participates in the symbolic stoning of three pillars to commemorate the encounter and triumph of prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) over Satan. Then he offers the sacrifice to remember the trials and the sacrifice offered by Ibrahim and Ismail (peace be upon them).  He returns to Mecca with a heart suffuse with the Light that comes from the presence of Allah, performs the last Tawwaf and bids farewell to the Sanctified House.


Visit to Madina, the City of Light


Madina is the city of the Prophet. It is also called the city of Light. A visit to Madina is not a requirement of the Hajj. But how can you come so close and stay so far from the blessed earth where the Messenger of God lies entombed? A visit to this city is full of the choicest blessings. It is here that the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) gave concrete form to the ideal life which until then was only a concept. It was in Madina that the first mosque was built and it was this city that witnessed the struggle to establish justice on earth.


To travel from Mecca to Madina is to retrace in part the footsteps of the Prophet. Although the route is serviced by a first class road, the sensitive Hajji can still catch a vibration or two of the epic journey  of the Messenger of God. The road may be paved but the hills are still the same. The pilgrim may travel by car but the stars and the moon are the same. On a cool winter night, he can look up the clear Arabian sky and see that panorama of brilliant stars that must have borne witness to the safety of the Prophet. It was this same gathering of heavenly lights that heard the Revelation “By the Star as it sets.”  The moon follows the pilgrim along the entire route, as a companion, as if it too is on its way to Madina.


If he is fortunate, you will arrive in Madina in the early hours of morning. The city of Light shimmers in the light of the rising sun giving it an enticing, enigmatic appearance. As the eyes witness this enchanting sight, Darud springs up from the depths of your heart.


The Hajji may decide to visit the Mosque of Quba first, before he visits the mosque of the Prophet. Quba is located about three miles from Masjid-un-Nabawi. It was here that the Prophet camped before he entered Madina. The pilgrim recalls that Abu Bakr (r) accompanied the Prophet on his journey. Ali (r) had stayed behind in Mecca to confound the would-be assassins of the Prophet and to return all the trusts that the Prophet held. After he had successfully accomplished both, Ali (r) walked on foot in the mid-summer heat the entire 430 kilometers from Mecca to Madina and joined the Prophet at Quba.

What fortitude did those Companions possess!


The mosque of Quba is the first mosque of Islam. The Prophet helped build it with his own hands. The Prophet said: “If a man performs ablution and prays two rakats here, then his prayer is equal (in beneficence) to an Umrah.” This saying of the Prophet is inserted on the mehrab (niche) of the mosque.


From here the pilgrim heads to Haram-e-Nabawi. On the road he observes that here, in the city of the Prophet, the pace is slower as compared to Mecca, the sun more temperate, the surroundings greener. The Prophet’s mosque, looked at from a distance, reflects this soothing, inviting character. It invites you, entices you, beckons you to its hallowed precincts.


The mosque of the Prophet is the most revered one after Masjid al Haram in Mecca.  It was from here that the Prophet inspired, guided, molded and established an Ummah “enjoining what is good, forbidding what is evil and believing in Allah.”  The hills of Mecca heard the beginnings of the Divine Message. The valley of Madina saw its fulfillment and its fruition. God spoke to man in Mecca infusing into his consciousness the Eternal Message. God spoke to man in Madina guiding him to establish the kingdom of God on earth.


The pilgrim walks to the mosque, his mind filled with these thoughts, his heart brimming with happiness. As he enters the mosque he offers his salaam to the Prophet. A visit to the enclosed area where stood his house follows. As he approaches the Prophet’s tomb the following Ayah flashes through his mind:


Wa ma arsal naka illa rahmatal lil Alameen – And We sent thee not except as a mercy to all the universes”.


Recollections of the Prophet’s life flash through the pilgrim’s mind. The Prophet’s early life, the first Revelation at Jabl-e-Noor, his call to Tawheed, the ridicule, abuse and persecutions in Mecca, attempted assassination, the Hijra, the welcome of the Ansar, the establishment of this mosque, the building of an Ummah, the attacks of the Mushrikeen and the Munifiqeen, the sacrifices of the Companions, his rectitude through years of trial, his triumphant return to Mecca, his generosity and forgiveness of his former foes, the last Pilgrimage and the sermon at Jablur Rahman in the plain of Arafat. With humility and reverence, the pilgrim offers his salaam to the Prophet and recites the Darud.


Now that he has completed the rites of the Hajj and has partaken of the blessings of a visit to Prophet’s mosque, the pilgrim returns to his land, his family, his village and his town, wherever it may be in the far corners of the earth, to spread that light of brotherhood, peace and love that he acquired as a Hajji.