The Estranged Middle Way
The following excerpt is part of the introduction of a longer article that I am writing. I felt it merited being a separate article as well in the hopes that it benefits readers in points of collective reflection and elevating our discourse in matters of disagreement. The mark of civilization is not that they reach uniformity but how people deal with disagreement.
“Our entire system of life is truly as God Almighty defined, a middle among all people, never being confined to the different variations of thoughts of man, and encompassing and transcending all of them. God’s words cannot be limited by man.”
Islām is rooted as being a faith that has a holistic way of life because it is an all-encompassing framework of guidance. Its framework divides into three integral, interlinked, and inseparable components: actions, beliefs and spirituality.
Actions and practices encompass guidance of every facet of the private, public, and societal. Such a detailed framework in actions serves to ingrain the purpose and objectives of Islām through a practical faith that not only gives over-arching principles but carefully considers even the most minute of subtleties for individual context and scenario.
Beliefs discuss essential faith and foundational theology. Belief, or īmān, are not to be confused with theology, or ‘āqīdah. Often times they may be used interchangeably while there are key elements of differentiating between what īmān is and what ‘is aqīdah. Belief or īmān is referred to primarily in two different contexts.
The first is the breakdown of what comprises faith.
Belief (īmān) is comprised of actions (‘amal) and statements (qawl):
1. Actions of the Heart, which are the root and catalyst of actions of the limbs: like reliance on God, sincerity, hope, fear, awe, seeking the pleasure of God, etc.
2. Actions of the Limbs.
3. Statements of the Heart: is theology, the study of the nature of God and all religious belief. It encompasses the tenets of faith a person believes in and has certainty.
4. Statements of the Tongue.
The second context of īmān or belief refers to the state of spirituality which increases with righteousness and decreases with sin.
When we refer to beliefs, we are referring to both of these contexts, holistically. As you can see belief encompasses theology but does not solely define it. Among the functions of theology is building foundational understanding of the nature of God, the nature and function of man in light of the temporal world and the Hereafter, the reality of the Afterlife, the meaning of life, etc.
Theology, here, subsequently contemporizes and responds to any contentions from philosophies or ideologies opposing to the universal belief Allah sent to humanity. Beliefs also elucidate what is considered acceptable differences within orthodoxy and what is considered heterodoxy. The study of valid (saigh) and invalid (ghair saigh) interpretation in theology include tolerance of differences within orthodoxy (murā’at al khilāf), highlighting what types of theological deviance are forgivable and what kinds are grounds for falling outside of acceptable faith, and what are unequivocal (qat’i) and equivocal (dhannī) aspects of theological belief.
The last component of spirituality (tazkiyah/tasawwuf), is the ultimate guide in balancing mechanics and belief. But it also contains within it pitfalls for those that focus on it in absence of and balanced with practice and beliefs. Spirituality is at the heart of faith. It is led by actions, guided by the sea of belief to wonder in reflection and amazement at the grandeur of the Almighty in the macro and micro.
Many have been drowned in and lost the objectives (maqāsid) of the holistic framework of Islām with dogmatic overt-focus of one aspect over another. They neglect one of the other of these components, in spite of the inseparable connection of the three. We witness a faulty approach on the practice and mechanics without considering spirituality. We see in certain groups a lack of focus on ethics, character, and delivery being as vital, if not more so, as the emphasis on correct action.
The example of faulty approach to theology is also visible. Neglecting spirituality is as much of a problem as the other extreme of esoteric philosophies and mysticism which delved into symbolism to such an extent that it contradicted foundational principles in how the faith is interpreted and understood according to the practice of the Prophet , and his teachings relayed to his companions as well as heterodoxical beliefs or innovative practices all in the name of “the spirit of Islam.” In some of these groups, the sum of proving theology was more important than the tone of delivery and capturing hearts. After all, even the Prophet Muhammad was disciplined by the Lord with nothing more in the Quran than how he delivered the message. An empirical tasawwuf as well is central to the faith of Islām. A spirituality which ingrained in prophetic teachings, the best of worshipers of course knows the best path to connect the Creator. Esoteric tasawwuf was sought after in neglect of such empirical spirituality.
In other cases, the practice of Islām becomes not only secondary but deemed irrelevant while ‘the bigger and most important matter is the heart in faith.’ A slogan which is outwardly true but misguided in application. While seeking the spirit of Islām, the integral component of spirituality is rooted and inseparable with practice and beliefs. The protective cloak of Islam, the shariah, is stripped, its logical framework and shield, the beliefs, usurped.
In summary, two extremes mutate and fight at odds with each other while both exemplify inconsistency and a false practice of Islam: the claim to see the spirit of Islām was lost without practice, and the dogmatic indignation to correct beliefs lost audience with abhorrent manners and vile speech, while the claim to follow correct practice is deluded with no objectives.
Actions are studied in fiqh, beliefs, in specifically theology in the study of ‘aqīdah, but beliefs (īmān) are ingrained in the studies of all Islamic sciences such as hadith and knowing the meanings of the teachings of the Prophet, his life, manners, and etiquette in sīrah, the meanings of the words of Allah in tafsīr, in understanding the intricacies of the eloquence in the arabic language etc. as well as the direct discussion of spirituality in the study of tasawwuf or tazkīyah.
Having a teacher is vital as well to model all of this. And we have dedicated and entire article to the importance of such guidance in teachers and avoiding religious complexes in Muslim discourse.
It is vital to enumerate the aforementioned issues in this introduction because often times the holistic approach of understanding faith is neglected in discussions regarding the sub components of Islām . There is an absence of awareness of such framework. The more compartmentalized discussions of theology, fiqh, or spirituality become the more distant they are from the essential interconnected relationship that our Islāmic paradigm functions in, the constructs in which we see the world through, and the principles on which we derive all matters from.
With this in mind, I also have a disclaimer that I will share in the form of a story. While shopping in a bookstore in Madinah, I ran into a good friend who works there and we caught up. We studied together very closely under a teacher; even though we have differences in the madhab we study, as well as the Sunnī theological school we ascribe to. But our hearts are one in faith, and love is uniform in its essence. We studied spirituality with a teacher who imparted this and it was visibly applied in everything that he taught. He had students not only from all four madhabs of fiqh but also theological sunnī schools (Ash’arī, Māturīdī, and Atharī), alongside the different nationalities that we all came from (in hindsight, this is what Madinah has always represented: known as Ma’riz Al Īmān — the refuge of faith, where all come together and unified in their bond of Islam).
After exchanging pleasantries, catching up as we were happy to see one another, my friend and I discussed a problem. We were both seeing those who ascribe themselves as scholars and students of Islam in their dogmatic discussions across theology, fiqh, and spirituality lack not only basic ethics, manners, genuineness, and sincerity but also lack a sense of just and amicable difference (insāf). He said something profound in our discussion:
“You know, those in the middle will always be attacked the most. Look at what’s happening now, an Ash’arī attacks an Atharī, an Atharī attacks an Ash’arī … and the people in the middle are attacked by both! The people in the middle work twice as hard!”
I chuckled in agreement and said,
“Yes twice as hard to relay to both sides how much they agree on and regarding the minority of views they contend, how to disagree amicably with love and care for what bonds them while maintaining balance in approach!”
He throws his arms in the air and says,
“This is why it would be great if people stuck to ‘aqīdat al ‘ajaiz!”
This phrase, “the belief of old women,” is a term used to refer to the essential and foundational faith of very devout, loving, and practicing older women who engaged in the dhikr (remembrance) of Allah, recitation of the Quran, du’ā (prayer) for all Muslims, and had no rancor or hatred in their heart for anyone because they were more engrossed in the love of God and His Prophet in yearning to be in companionship in the Everlasting Garden from engaging in highly-charged polemical theology. They were content with imān (faith) that’s the ultra-unifying variable for any dissent in Islām, and not in divisive kalām (theological discourse) which often times proved so theoretical that it lost tenability. Old ladies are blissfully ignorant of that kind of theology.
The disclaimer is: the middle group will always be attacked more. I recognize that.
I ask the reader not to employ their rational abilities to find holes to criticize but to reflect on the message in light of this holistic aspect. If you have valid criticism and disagreement weigh it in light of the following: is your view valid? Is my view valid (saigh)? Are you criticizing my views in regard to invalidity or are you criticizing it based on what’s ideal? If you view what I’m saying as invalid provide evidence. If you feel what I’m saying isn’t ideal then don’t lose sight of the bond of fellowship our faith teaches us in kindness and disagreeing amicably. Reflect over the unifying unequivocal principles of our faith (muḥkamāt). You may disagree with an aspect, but do you disagree with the objective? If you disagree with the objective and approach, why? What are some critical reasons for why you differ? Do you perceive some harm, is it truly harmful, and to what level is this harm? Do you feel an aspect that you agree with generally but disagree on its application? State it. Do you believe it needs more specific elucidation? Can you clearly and succinctly state what you agree with prior to your disagreement by highlighting points of agreement before departures? Does this disagreement occur in something that is unequivocal (qat’ī) or equivocal (dhannī) and open to interpretation?
If we only exercised noble disagreement in points of contention, we would realize what kind of disagreements are fundamental and which ones superficial and unnecessary.
As a beloved teacher once said, when we look at who implements what we’ve mentioned above one will notice that everyone will claim that they follow the middle path. Everyone will agree with all that’s been mentioned in regard to temperament, amicable disagreement, and moderation, yet when it comes to the application, we all falter.
How do we recognize this middle and moderate way?
Shaykh Hatim Al-‘Awni says, “the middle and moderate path is the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم that Allah described as a marker of this faith,
“And so We have made you ˹believers˺ a wasat) middle, upright, just) community so that you may be witnesses over humanity and that the Messenger may be a witness over you…” Quran 2:143.”
Wasat — middle is the marker of this nation. It’s a mark of its divinity. A revealed divine system of life from the Almighty can never be encompassed by human mechanism, understanding, thought, or ideology. Our beliefs in morality are neither completely moral universalism nor relativism. Our economics is neither capitalism nor socialism. Our politics isn’t based on absolute majority-rule neither is it autocracy with repression of voices, rights, and stifling opinion, criticism, and freedoms. Our entire system of life is truly as God Almighty defined, a middle among all people, never being confined to the different variations of thoughts of man, and encompassing and transcending all of them. God’s words cannot be limited by man.
A Muslim should always seek such middle path of understanding in the exemplar of it and whose life is the application of it, the Beloved Prophet Muhammad . His life is the rubric of what is middle and what is right and wrong. Following that exemplar in the principles he set out is our objective while aiming to never estrange the middle path.