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I thought I had it all figured out. I know that sounds cliché, naïve even, but it’s true. I wasn’t going to compromise my soul. I wasn’t going to open myself up to sin. I wasn’t going to Hell with my eyes open. Yes, I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew I’d have to sacrifice and struggle. And I knew there would always be that internal battle for sincerity that nobody could conquer perfectly in this life.
But I could at least protect my actions in some way.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “The halaal (permissible) is clear and the haraam (forbidden) is clear, and between them are matters that are mushtabihaat [unclear or doubtful]. Whoever is wary of these doubtful matters has absolved his religion and honor. And whoever indulges in them has indulged in the haraam. It is like a shepherd who herds his sheep too close to preserved sanctuary, and they will eventually graze in it. Every king has a sanctuary, and the sanctuary of Allah is what He has made haraam. There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily, it is the heart” (Bukhari and Muslim).
In my youthful zeal, I thought that staying away from doubtful and forbidden matters was as simple as doing what was “safest”: following the strictest opinion so as to remove any possibility of falling into error or sin.
So that’s what I did.
Islam at its “Safest”
In my commitment to religious “safety,” I broke all my music CDs and stopped listening to music, thinking, “It might be a sin.” I questioned singing and dancing [even in my own home] because that too had been labeled as haraam by some scholars. I even tried to stop listening to nasheeds (songs without musical instruments) because “that was safest.”
I donned the niqaab (the face veil), thinking, “It’s certainly not wrong to wear it.” I wore an over-the-head abaya and gloves, and even experimented with covering my eyes. And I even left America to “make hijrah”, thinking, “I fear for my soul in a non-Muslim society.”
And though I loved to read, I even stopped reading novels for fear of “wasting time.” I stopped giving speeches in front of men because, allegedly, that was a fitnah (severe temptation) for men. I stayed away from co-ed gatherings because I didn’t want to “intermingle.” I stopped taking and keeping pictures, and contemplated throwing away my family photos because “pictures are haraam.” I questioned my calligraphy wall art because it “might be disrespecting the Qur’an.” I stopped reading the Qur’an during my menses because menstruating women were “unclean.”
And, believe it or not, the list goes on…
Spiritual Safety or Personal Extremism?
For me, spiritual safety was an objective matter. It was something arrived at by looking at scholarly evidences derived from the Qur’an and Sunnah, and simply doing what could not possibly be wrong. And it worked. I felt completely “safe” in nearly everything I did.
But there was only one problem (well, two actually): I was overwhelmed. And, truth be told, my emaan—the very faith I was trying to preserve through my “safety”—began to suffer.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said, “The Religion is easy. So whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not go to extremes, rather strive to be near perfection. Receive good tidings that you will be rewarded, and gain strength by offering the prayers in the mornings, afternoons, and during the last hours of the nights” (Bukhari).
As I reflected on the burdens I’d put on myself and the personal extremes to which I’d gone to “be safe,” I had an epiphany: Religious safety isn’t an objective matter; it’s a personal matter. Safety isn’t something you arrive at based on a theoretical reality “out there”… on the pages of Islamic books or in scholarly lectures. It’s something you arrive at based on your spiritual reality “in here”… in the heart and soul—and rooted in what you truly understand and believe about your faith.
No, you certainly can’t throw out objectivity altogether and ignore scholarly evidences, but after steering clear of what is undeniably wrong and doing what is undeniably obligatory, religious safety is first and foremost what preserves your soul.
But Weren’t You Preserving Your Soul Already?
Some might say that what I considered “personal extremism” in staying away from what could even possibly be wrong was in fact what would preserve my soul. And that’s possible. After all, the soul is essentially a matter of the Unseen, and we have no way of knowing if our soul has been preserved spiritually until we meet Allah. However, Allah does not leave us without signs, and I had at least two signs that my approach to “religious safety” was not healthy for my soul (though some of the choices I made remain “safe” and healthy for me even today):
The first sign that I got that something was wrong was this: The more I sought to be “safe” (by overburdening myself), the more distant I felt from Allah and the more overwhelming and frustrating “practicing Islam” became to me. And the second sign I got proved the most significant, and it was this: The only way for me to avoid the personal extremism I was falling into was to make a conscious effort to remain ignorant of my religion. Why? Because I was only learning about these “doubtful” matters by voluntarily seeking knowledge through reading Islamic books, listening to Islamic lectures, and going to Islamic classes. Otherwise, I’d have no idea there existed a genuine difference of opinion on any of these issues.
So yes, there are many Muslims who could live the rest of their lives “being safe” by staying away from what could even possibly be wrong while never falling into personal extremism. But their success in this depends almost entirely on voluntary ignorance—whether through choosing to “blindly follow” a favored scholar or madhhab (school of thought), or through never discovering the zillions of “possibly wrong” things they are doing every day, things that noteworthy scholars label as doubtful or haraam based on evidences from the Qur’an and Sunnah.
And while I believe this voluntary ignorance is not necessarily a sin (though it can be at times), it is certainly not required or praiseworthy in Islam—and it is certainly not from the teachings of the Qur’an or the Prophet. Thus, it can never represent true “religious safety” as far as Islam is concerned, as the true religion is based on sound knowledge…and continually seeking it until one’s death.
“Say, ‘My Lord, increase me in knowledge!’”
—Qur’an (Ta-ha, 20:114)
What “Being Safe” Means To Me
It is well known that religion is defined by core beliefs and specific acts of worship. Islam is no different. Thus, the rules of what we believe and how we worship are very specific. In fact, they form the very definition of faith. The slightest deviation from what Allah and His Messenger taught regarding belief and worship is at the very least bid’ah (blameful religious innovation) and at the worst kufr (disbelief in Islam itself). Hence, our greatest concern for religious safety must be in protecting our beliefs and worship.
It is well known that worldly affairs, as a general rule, are not religious matters. Thus, humans are free to enjoy and benefit from anything of this world that they wish—unless Allah has expressly forbidden it (i.e. eating pork, drinking alcohol, or engaging in any sexual intimacy outside the marriage between a man and a woman).
In other words, all matters of belief and worship have the general principle of prohibition unless there is clear proof for them in the Qur’an and Sunnah; and all matters related to our worldly life have the general principle of permissibility unless there is clear proof against them in the Qur’an and Sunnah.
Thus, for me, true safety is this: If I hear of a religious belief or mode of worship that I cannot be absolutely sure (based on evidences) is sanctioned in the Qur’an or the Sunnah, I stay away from it “to be safe.” But if I hear of a worldly matter that I am not convinced (based on evidences) is prohibited in the Qur’an and Sunnah, I consider it permissible “to be safe.”
Are You “Walking Guilty”?
I think we all know the feeling. You go to an Islamic lecture inspired to be a better Muslim and then the speaker starts talking about things you never even considered to be wrong, let alone haraam or forbidden in Islam. And your heart drops and you think, “I’m a horrible Muslim.” Because you’re guilty of what they’re talking about.
And after weeks of stressing and agonizing over your soul, you say to yourself, “Well, it’s a doubtful matter, so it’s best to stay away from it.”
But it doesn’t stop there. You give up one thing after the other, after the other, and after the other…
Until you feel like just giving up…
In this way, you’ve joined thousands of other Muslims who chose “being safe” over “walking guilty.”
No, I’m not talking about religious safety that preserves your soul because you gave up something for the sake of Allah. I’m talking about “religious safety” that exhausts your soul because you were never convinced you had to give it up in the first place.
And chances are, though you’re “safe” regarding this scholarly disagreement, your prayers are not consistent or performed with concentration; you don’t spend much time in du’aa; you don’t read the Qur’an every day; you don’t fast much (if at all) outside of Ramadan; and you don’t even give much charity.
But “walking guilty,” you somehow managed to make your biggest concern something else.
And if we do this, we are walking guilty. We are carrying the weight of doubt and sin.
…By shifting the very definition of “religious safety” to the teachings of humans and away from the teachings of Allah and His Messenger.
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