18 October, 2019
Response Paper 02
The Islamic classical era featured some of the greatest development and growth for Islamic culture and society. Shaped by their religion and drawing from the Qur’an, the hadith, and the life of the prophet Muhammad, the Muslim moral worldview began to develop and from those ideas came the establishment of institutions that supported them. This period birthed concepts and customs that continue to influence the Islamic world to this day.
If one was looking for a brief summary of the Islamic worldview, the best place to begin would be the three basic principles of Islamic faith. These three beliefs are essential to being a Muslim and core to the religion. The first principle is tawhid, the belief expressed in the first Shahadah: “There is no god but God.” Tawhid is the belief in the unity and oneness of God. As Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick describe it in The Vision of Islam, “it expresses islam in the widest sense — it explains why everything in the heavens and the earth is submitted to God.”1 Another way of understanding tawhid is as pure monotheism.2
The second principle of Islam is nubuwwa, or the belief that the prophet Muhammad is the messanger of God, thus believing in the words of the Qur’an. Unlike tawhid, which is understood as universal, nubuwwa is specifically affirming Islam as a religion. 3 This belief also extends to an understanding of the seal of prophets and that Muhammad is the last prophet. 4 Rather than this idea being seen as worrying, it is rather seen as a compliment, saying in a way that humanity no longer needs prophets.5
The third principle of Islam is muaad, belief in the Day of Judgement. The Qur’an warns of the coming Last Day, which is both the end of this world and the day of resurrection in the next. 6 On the final day, every aspect of every person will be revealed and judged. This is known as the weighing in the scales. 7 Every action, good and bad, of a person will be weighed and judged and their existence in the afterlife will be determined.
By believing in these three principles, Muslims are further called to behave in certain ways according to God’s will. Over the centuries, significant thought has been given to which behaviors are moral and ethical. As a result, morality in Islamic life has “the culture of right conduct (adab), intentionality (niyya), and the ambivalence of the ethical.” 8 Of key importance is the intention behind each action (niyya). When judging the morality of each action, the intention behind the behavior is weighed heavier than whatever the consequences may be.9
When determining the morality of each action, five categories have been developed into which every behavior can be placed, ranging from the very good to the very bad. These categories were originally determined by the mufti, or judges, and mufti continue to determine in which category any new behavior belongs. The first category is wajib. Wajib consists of everything that is obligatory for a Muslim to do. For example, prayer, fasting during Ramadan, and the pilgrimage to Mecca are all obligatory behaviors. From an earthly legal standpoint, there is nothing forcing a person to complete such rituals. However, it is believed that failure to do so will be a black mark between the individual and God. The second is mandub, that which is recommended. This includes actions such as charity. These behaviors are not obligatory, but they are encouraged and considered good behavior. The third rank is mubah. These are actions that are neutral in the eyes of God. Another way to understand mubah is as the actions about which God has been silent. The fourth category is munkar, those behaviors that are despised. Munkar includes things like paying for blood (particularly before the invention of blood transfusions). Though these things are not unforgivable, they are severely frowned upon. The final and worst rank is that of haram, behaviors that are forbidden. These actions are all sins and include murder or theft.10
Finally, Islamic ethics has a culture of adab or “right conduct.” 11 Adab has been said to be the “highest attainment of Sufism.” 12 In short, adab is “the ability to sense what is appropriate to each moment and to give to each its due . . . To have adab is to be cultured.” 13 Muslims with adab have a sense of community and respect for the world around them. From a drinking glass to another person, each creature and object is treated courteously and with awareness. In some places, adab is viewed as a step beyond shari’a, the laws described above. While laws of morality inform one what to do and what to avoid, abab is seen as an attempt to truly “embody” the qualities that the laws encourage.14
Two important institutions were also established during the Islamic classical era. The first is the institution of madrasa. Madaris are university-like institutions run by ulama. 15 Madaris were developed during the Saljūq period as “means for the preservation and transmission of knowledge”. 16 Students at a madrasa would learn theology, history, as well as the hard sciences. 17 Each madrasa would be run by a Grand Ayatollah. To become an ayatollah, one not only had to be an accomplished scholar, but also a pious person and well-respected and involved in society. In more modern times, with the various upheavals that have occurred in the Islamic world, many madaris have lost much of their curriculum, and instead focus on learning and memorization of the Qur’an. However, several madaris still reflect their classical ancestry. In fact, some madaris are still establishments of the classical period, such as Al-Qarawiyyin University in Fez, Morocco. It remains the oldest, degree granting university in the world, having continuously run since its founding in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri.18
The second important institution from the Islamic classical period is that of waqf. Literally translated as “confinement,” “prohibition,” or “detention, waqfs are endowments or foundations. 19 The idea of a waqf is similar to the Western idea of a trust, but differs in a few key ways. Most importantly, waqfs are inherently religious institutions. There are three kinds of waqfs one can establish. The first is a religious endowment. This would be used for the building and maintenance of a mosque, for example. The second is for charity purposes. These waqfs would be used for schools, libraries, or other organizations that would benefit the poor. The third kind of waqf is a family trust that will remain within the family as long as the line continues to exist. 20 Though every waqf has a trustee, the property is given to God upon the waqf’s creation. 21 As such, waqfs exist in perpetuity. 22 In addition, once a waqf’s purpose has been established, it cannot be changed or revoked. In certain circumstances, the use of a waqf can be redirected to the nearest logical goal, but the words of the original founder must be followed if at all possible. 23 In some Islamic countries, as much as one-third of the real estate is waqf property. 24 Many of these waqfs were founded to establish madaris.
The institutions and ideas of the Islamic classical period built off and supported each other. The Islamic worldview lead to the creation of madaris and waqfs and in turn those institutions spread and developed those ideas. Islam feels no separation between religion and community. Religion created schools and charities, established laws and codes of conduct. The world that developed in the Middle East and Northern Africa cannot be separated from the religion that created it and neither can Islam be seen separate from the people that strove to understand it.