Interview with HE Sheikh Ahmad Zaki Yamani

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In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.

1st February 2013.

Today many criticise Islam as being a religion which repels people. What is Islam’s stance on religious fanaticism?

Islam’s stance, in all certainty, is that it is categorically opposed to religious fanaticism. One of the greatest concerns of the Prophet was that of extremism in religion. He has said: “Keep away from excesses in religion, for those who have come before you found their demise in their excesses of religion (Ahmed 1781, Nasa’i and Ibn Majah).

In several instances the Prophet is recorded to have criticised extremists, praying: “Perished are the extremists, perished are the extremists, perished are the extremists” (Muslim, 2670). “No one has attempted to overburden themselves with this religion, except that they have been overcome by it”. Meaning that one should avoid excesses in religious practice whereby they leave any semblance of lenience, as the religion will overcome them, meaning, it will make their affairs and lives heavy and burdensome.

This demonstrates that excessive and overly strict approaches were indeed what the Prophet had feared and actively warned against. Lady Aisha has said: “The Prophet was not offered a choice between two affairs except that he would choose the easier of the two” (Bukhari, 3296), meaning the lighter of the two, which is in reality what the religion is about. There are in fact a great many narrations to this effect.
Once, one of the Prophet's companions, Moadh, led the people in prayer but made the prayer lengthy. The Prophet heard this and called: “Moađh do you wish to be a test for the people [in their religion] Moađh?” The indication was one should not lengthen the prayer time if there are amongst the congregation the elderly or ill. As such one should be weary as not to burden others with more than they can bear. Otherwise it will be a cause of annoyance and it will tire them. Nor should one overly practice falling into neither excesses, nor do more than what is required. Such practise is not, in any way, part of the religion.

How did the Prophet deal with fanatical Muslims?

Of course he said a prayer against them, as mentioned, and he also said: “Keep away from excesses in religion, for those who have come before you have found their demise in their excesses of religion” (Ahmed, Nasa’i and Ibn Majah).

There is a story in the Prophet’s life that a gift arrived for him from Persia, a portion of cheese. The Prophet was known to accept what was presented to him and invite the Muslims present to join him. They all sat and began to eat together. One of the extremists amongst them called out that the cheese was prohibited to consume. The Prophet asked why. He replied that cheese must be made from rennet, and that rennet comes from the inside of an animal. He went on, saying, since the Persians had slaughtered the animal and because Muslims were not permitted to eat except their own meat or livestock slaughtered by Christians and Jews, that is, the people of the Book, the cheese was therefore impermissible for consumption. The Prophet was annoyed by this – seeing it as a form of excessiveness, and said: “Perished are the extremists, perished are the extremists, perished are the extremists”. Such was one of the methods used by the Prophet to teach his companions.

It is unfortunate that such coarseness in religion has come to the fore today and has become the distinguishing sign of Islam today.

The best of affairs is the middle way, so what is in your view ‘balanced Islam’?

Yes, for certain, the best of affairs is the middle way, and the best Islam is a balanced Islam, as this is the true form of Islam. The Prophet has said:

“Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings, the nights” (Bukhari, 38).

How do you see balanced Islam being different from that Islam being practiced today in many places?

Aisha (radiyallahu anha) was once asked how the character of the Prophet was. She replied that his character was that of the Qur’an.

Allah in the Qur’an describes the Prophet as: “And thou (standest) on an exalted standard of character” (Al-Qalam: 4). If we read the Qur’an we find many verses which encourage good manners and how one should be with others and how one should be towards their family and children. It guides a reader away from being a person who is “…severe or harsh- hearted…” (Al Imran: 159). It also guides one to emulate the Prophet ”Ye have indeed in the Messenger of Allah a beautiful pattern (of conduct)…” (Al-Ahzab: 21). The Qur’an is replete with passages encouraging good conduct and manners which the Prophet exhibited and distinguished his character. This is Islam

‘Jihad’. Many have used this term to describe Islam as espoused by political movements, how do you see the true understanding of Jihad in Islam?

The concept of Jihad has a wide breadth. The closest meaning is that of resistance as it does not only signify war. If an enemy attacks, announcing war, it is ones duty to resist them. This is one meaning of Jihad.

The Prophet and some of his companions were returning from a campaign and he is reported to have said “We have returned from the lesser Jihad (that is the war) to the greater Jihad (that is the struggle against ones ego)”. This can take the form of resistance to ones impulses, carnal desires and whims. So Jihad is of different types and levels. It is absolutely not the actions of a few individuals taken today, who have wrongly attributed their acts to the pure religion of God.

What is your opinion of suicide operations carried out by some in the name of Jihad.

We are not in a state of war that requires one to engage in Jihad and die in such a cause.

Suicide is a forbidden act in Islam. The Qur’an in the Surah An-Nisa says “… nor kill (or destroy) yourselves, for verily Allah hath been to you Most Merciful” (An-Nisa: 29). As such suicide is prohibited in Islam.

In that case, how do Muslims defend themselves against injustices perpetuated towards them in political and other matters?

In reality, the injustice that has come, has come as a result of a reaction on the part of those people and as such has led them to become rigid in their stance. Rather one should learn, guide and correct the self. This is the starting point. A Muslim should start by firstly correcting themselves and seek knowledge and learning. God guides us to prepare well “Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power…” (Al-Anfal: 60) and not, as claimed by those who have tarnished the image of Islam, through killing and waging war. In fact, it is as a result of such misunderstandings and practices that we have given those who attempt to sully Islam a reason to decry it leading to the portrayal of an image of Islam as being one of rigidity and fanaticism. It is for such reasons we find there is a repulsion of some away from Islam.

One of the topics that is raised today is the position of Islam towards women. Has Islam been just to women?

I believe Islam has been just to women. Islam came at a time in which women were severely oppressed. In the tribe of Quraish for example, they would not see women as free or independent. They would view women as bad omens. If a man was informed that his newly born baby was a girl, he would become frustrated and expect misfortune. He would even consider burying her alive: “When news is brought to one of them, of (the birth of) a female (child), his face darkens, and he is filled with inward grief. With shame does he hide himself from his people, because of the bad news he has had. Shall he retain it on (sufferance and) contempt, or bury it in the dust? Ah, what an evil (choice) they decide on!” (An-Nahl: 59).

So in the midst of this society, the Prophet came to elevate the status of women. He said: “Treat women kindly, treat women kindly” (Tirmidhi, 1080).

A woman was not permitted to inherit. The men would reason that this was because women would not take part in wars between the Bedouin tribes. Islam then came and gave her inheritance rights.

Some think that women are given only half of that of the male in matters of inheritance. In reality, this is incorrect. Those who know the Islamic monetary order and study inheritance according to the Sharia’h, through a specialist subject known as Faraiđ, they find that in many instances, women receive more than that of a man and only in certain circumstances receive half.

A male, after receiving his share of the inheritance has a greater burden of responsibility on him than a female. If he wishes to marry for example, he must pay the dowry to the lady he wishes to marry. He too must cover all his wife’s expenses and that of his children, even if she is wealthy. He must also continue to provide for her over her lifetime, and so on.

In contrast, a female has neither obligation to pay a dowry, nor has she any financial responsibility towards her husband, nor her home and children. She is not required to provide for extended family members if they are in need. This is the direct opposite to the responsibility placed on a male member who by law is required to provide for both his paternal and maternal uncles if the situation so required.

What of polygamy?

In the Jahiliyah times prior to Islam, polygamy was unlimited in respect to the number of wives a man could have. A man, could marry whenever he wished, however he wished, to any number he wished. Islam came and restricted this practice and put legislation in place towards it. Muslims at the time of the Prophet were anxious about inadvertently consuming wealth which solely belonged to orphans. They told the Prophet that they feared accidently treading on the financial rights of orphans and worried of the injunction of God in this regard: “Those who unjustly eat up the property of orphans, eat up a fire into their own bodies: They will soon be enduring a blazing fire” (An-Nisa: 10). They asked the Prophet to take away from them the wealth that they had been entrusted to keep for the orphans, to invest it and then return it when due to the orphans for fear of it becoming lost within their own wealth. So the verse was revealed: “If ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans (that is, as you are fearful of being unfair in the rights of orphans, then there is something else you must be weary and cautions of) then marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if ye fear that ye shall not be able to deal justly with them (as you do with respect to orphans) then only one” (An-Nisa: 3).

This is in respect to marriage to more than one. It is not a tradition that must be followed, rather it is the opposite. It is a dispensation that a Muslim must be cautious if taking it.

What is the origin of the word Islam?

Salam: Is the relationship of a human with others: peace.

Taslim: The relationship of a human with their lord, obedience to the commands of God and submission to his decree.

As such it is ‘Islam’ in respect to the relation between a person and others, and taslim in the relationship of a person towards their lord and in obedience to His command.

What is the message you would like to leave your grandchildren

Firstly: To be in good relations with each other, and to have good Islamic character towards others. Good manners and pleasant relations with people is what I would like my grandchildren to have.

Islam encourages good relations and kindness to the extent if anyone is unkind toward you, then you should be kind to them. The Qur’an says: “Repel evil with that which is best …” (Al-Mu’minun: 96).

If someone is unkind towards me, I respond with the best gesture I can, “Nor can goodness and evil be equal. Repel evil with what is better: Then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate” (Fussilet: 34), and so on. So my enemy becomes as if they were my friend. This is the understanding of Islam.

We thank you for this interview, may God protect you and peace be upon you.