The Book of Suspended Judgment, Chapter 49, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

Tonight, as I concluded my teaching and prepared to surrender to the investigations of the Conference, I was reminded of my long-forgotten notebook. At times, teaching the Sira of the Prophet and reaching the intended goal of the lecture is like walking a minefield. My sparkling students interject with investigations and queries and I am humbled before their zeal for learning. The Sira of the Prophet is like the garden of a lover—you can pick its flowers and inhale the magnanimous fragrance, but you must be willing to suffer the thorns prickling your intellect. God has decreed a law that pervades throughout this universe: you can uncover the secrets of beauty, love, and knowledge, but the cost is fortitude, suffering, and patience. “[God] will cause you to suffer so that God will know those who [are willing] to struggle and know the patient” (47:31). But ultimately, the promise of God is, “and bring good tidings to the patient” (2:155). Patience is the demonstrative and definitive proof of non-entitlement and the lack of arrogance, and so, in every time and age, those who are blessed are those who persevere for the sake of the truth, and remind themselves, and others, of the virtue of patience and constancy (103:3).


My students flood me with queries and questions and I am reminded of the bygone days of my Shaykhs. I witness their impatience for conclusions and I recall my suffering green notebook. In those blessed days, I used to keep a notebook with a white tag, and on the tag was scribbled, “The Book of Suspended Judgment (Kitab al-Irja’).” At one time, it used to be called “The Book of Ignorance (Kitab al-Jahl),” but I soon changed the title after pondering the impossibility of documenting the vastness of my oblivion. Once upon a time, this notebook was my inseparable and trusted companion, for it guarded all the secrets of my heart and listened to all the puzzlements of my mind.


The “Book of Suspended Judgment” was the repository of my doubts and the anesthetic applied to my adolescent impatience. In those days, the pursuit of knowledge was like a racecourse, but I could not run without stumbling over its obstacles. If I thought I had mastered an item of knowledge, I would hold it tightly within the embrace of my mind. I would revisit all the details time and again to make sure that all the pieces were in place and intact. But before too long, a teacher, a book, or even a single overlooked thought would reveal the insignificance of what I believed I knew, and the whole edifice of security would come apart.


In those blessed days, among other subjects, I was studying the Sira of the Prophet and the complexity of the data was perplexing. How do you construct the life of such a grand and beautiful person when the reports are often conflicting? How do you recall all the variant reports concerning the same incident? How do you learn who transmitted what from whom, and what were the characteristics of each transmitter? What were the merits and faults of each single source who documented the life of the Prophet and the life of his Companions? How do you differentiate and distinguish what was real from the fanciful projections? In the midst of the imperative need for diligence and authentication, how do you keep the essence of the Prophet’s beauty in balanced perspective?


I traversed the roads of knowledge and settled myself in the mosque, and settled myself with the books and Shaykhs. We prayed Zuhr in the mosque, and then I approached Shaykh ‘Id. I told him I would be grateful if we could speak, and my heart danced when he invited me to his home. With a smile, he said, “You have not been to my home yet, and I believe this is contrary to all the sunan and laws.” I had constructed the home of this blessed man in my mind many times, and wondered what books adorned his shelves, but I never dreamt I would be granted the honor of a visit. As we walked to his home, I asked about his health and heart condition, and he turned the topic around to inquire about my annoying allergies. His home was a garden of books—the garden sprawled upon the floors and the furniture, and I chuckled when I saw that the books had ejected his robes from the closet to the kitchen. I offered to organize the books for him in the summer, but he smiled and said, “Why? Has God given you the power to perform miracles?”


The Shaykh insisted that we speak over a meal saying, “My ful is world famous, but I am a talent waiting to be discovered.” The Shaykh’s wife said, “Yes, he does a wonderful job opening the can and pouring the contents onto a plate. I tell him ‘ya Shaykh add tomatoes and cheese,’ and he says, ‘Why compromise the ful’s integrity?’”


The Shaykh’s wife asked about my mother and father and sister and brother, and entrusted me to give them her salams. Seeing her concern, I wondered if she had ever met them, but she only said, “inta ibn nas tayyibin (you are the son of kind people). I am ashamed to admit that I do not remember the Shaykh’s wife’s name.


When the food was served, Shaykh ‘Id did not ask what was preoccupying me. As we ate, he only spoke of what was of interest to his wife, and I did not fail to notice this beautiful gesture of Islamic beauty. When she brought out the tea, Shaykh ‘Id said, “Khaled wants to discuss his studies,” and I hastened to add, “I am just confused about issues related to methodology.” She smiled as she poured the tea, and surprised me with a statement that has plagued my heart ever since, “minkum nastafid ya shuyukh (perhaps, we can learn from you O’ Shaykhs).” This was the first time anyone had called me a Shaykh, and I hardly qualified as a religious scholar.


Without delay, I confessed, “It is just that I am studying the life of the Prophet and the Companions, and I often struggle with what I learn. I read reports that are contradicted by other reports; I read reports of incidents that seem implausible, or I read that the Prophet proclaimed a sweeping general law about something but only one or two people seem to have heard it. I read sources that say such and such transmitters of hadith were reliable and others that contradict this assessment. I guess the issue I am struggling with is one of credibility—how do I know when I am dealing with something that truly describes the Prophet, and when am I dealing with a reporter or transmitter who is projecting his or her weaknesses upon the Prophet? I guess all of this has created suspicions (wiswas) in my heart.”

The Shaykh’s wife surprised me when she proclaimed, “Tilka mahd al-iman (this is the true nature of faith, or such is the real faith).”


I looked confused, but Shaykh ‘Id smiled and explained, “Umm… is referring to the hadith reported in Muslim from ‘Abdullah Ibn Mas‘ud (d. 32/652) that the Prophet was asked about waswasa (doubt and suspicion), and the Prophet said, Tilka mahd al-iman (this is the true nature of faith). It was also reported by Abu Hurayra (d. 58/678) that some people came to the Prophet and explained that sometimes they are gripped by doubts—the kinds of doubts that they are ashamed to confess in public. The Prophet is reported to have said, ‘Dhaka sarih al-iman (this is the nature of sound faith).’ There is disagreement among the scholars about what this really means.”


The Shaykh paused, and perhaps I cut in too soon, “But Shaykh, you see? This is exactly what I mean. The first report may indicate that doubt is healthy and good. The second report may indicate that not confessing the doubt in public is what is healthy and good. Or, perhaps, it is good to have doubts, but not good to confess them in public? Does it make a difference that Ibn Mas‘ud was an early convert to Islam and a very close Companion, while Abu Hurayra was a very late convert to Islam and was in the company of the Prophet only for four years? How do I evaluate all of this? This is the nature of my confusion.”


The Shaykh smiled again and said, “May Allah bless you, Khaled; this is exactly why I have high hopes for you. You found the question, and that is what is important. You will have a lifetime to seek the answer. Whether the second report means that it is good not to confess your doubts in public, or whether it means that it is healthy to have doubts, turns on a point of grammar. Of course, the identity of the transmitters and their closeness to the Prophet is relevant. But, resolve these problems at your own pace—why grow before your time?”


“But Shaykh,” I protested, “When I read about the Satanic Verses, for instance…”


The Shaykh’s wife cut in, “The Satanic Verses? This whole event is utter nonsense. It never happened!”


Shaykh ‘Id laughed, “You see? My wife resolved this matter for herself. Ibn Taymiyya, on the other hand, believed in the authenticity of the event, and even believed it proved the divinity of the Prophet’s message.”


Shaykh ‘Id laughed again when his wife curled her lips in disapproval and proclaimed, “Nonsense, Ibn Taymiyya was wrong!”


“Yes,” Shaykh ‘Id exclaimed, “my wife never forgave Ibn Taymiyya for this!”


“But Shaykh,” I continued, “I read the conflicting reports about the Prophet’s relationship with his wife Mariyah the Copt (d. 16/637), or the conflicting reports about the circumstances of his marriage to Zaynab Bint Jahsh (d. 20/641) after Zayd Ibn Haritha (d. 8/629), his adopted son, divorced her. I also read the offensive reports about the incident of ‘Urayna, and I study the conflicting reports about the Prophet’s relationship with Sawdah, his first wife after Khadijah (d. 619). I read reports that the Prophet never struck, cursed, or insulted anyone, and then I find these reports that claim he permitted men to beat their wives, or something equally immoral.”


The Shaykh’s wife did not share my confusion about these incidents because she quickly interjected, “There are a million reports that the Prophet never struck or insulted anyone, and any self-respecting Muslim woman would not stay a single day with her husband if he dared strike her! So what is the confusion! Do we go fishing in a swamp and then complain about the mud?”


I worried that I was offending her. Embarrassed, I smiled, but the Shaykh came to my aid, “Umm…, Khaled is just talking about the conflicting evidence. He is not fishing in the swamp, he is worrying about how to avoid the swamp in the first place.”


My heart alighted when she smiled and agreed, “Yes, to avoid the swamp, you must first come to know it.”


The Shaykh turned to me and continued, “Khaled, the Prophet is reported to have said that after his death, there will be many reports about him, and many of these reports will be pure inventions. The Prophet instructed that we must examine these reports in light of the Qur’an. In the Qur’an, God describes the Prophet as a man of great character (68:4). God also says that the Prophet was sent as an agent of mercy and compassion to humanity (21:107), and teaches us that the Prophet was not a man of harsh or gruff character (3:159). Furthermore, God tells us that the Prophet was a caring, compassionate, and merciful person (9:128). A Muslim would know these descriptions to be truthful, and our knowledge as to their veracity reaches the point of certainty (bi’l qat‘). A Muslim would know these descriptions to be truthful because they are directly from God. We also look in the traditions of the Sunna and we find cumulative reports that confirm the Qur’an’s assessment of the Prophet’s character. Anas Ibn Malik (d. 93/711), his close Companion, tells us that he never insulted or hurt anyone. ‘Aisha (d. 58/678), his wife, tells us that he was constantly in his family’s service. ‘Ali and Ibn al-‘Abbas, the close Companions, tell us that he was a gentle soul—loving with children, compassionate, generous, and sensitive with adults. He did not like to criticize or embarrass people. He was the most forgiving and patient person, with a smile adorning his face. Now, in the midst of these numerous and cumulative reports that describe a beautiful human being, we suddenly find an odd report. This odd report says something about him that is inconsistent with our understanding of his general demeanor, so what do we do?”


I did not notice that I threw the question back at him when I asked, “Shaykh, what do we do?”


He paused, examining my face, and then inquired, “Khaled, are these problematic reports sufficient to trouble your heart? You love someone because you hear from the most reliable authorities that this person is a wonderful human being, but then you encounter someone of lesser reliability who tells you a troubling story. What do you do?”


“I dismiss it,” I exclaimed with a certain degree of immaturity.


“No,” Shaykh ‘Id said, “We do not dismiss it. A problematic report should not be sufficient to trouble us, but it should give us a serious pause. We might not have the proper perspective on it. What we do instead is that we suspend judgment.”


“Suspend judgment?” I muttered, as if to myself.


“Yes, the report might be unreliable, it might be an outright lie, or it might be a fabrication by a misguided friend or vengeful enemy. Different people reported different things from or about the Prophet. Some people reported what they heard or saw, some people reported what they thought they heard and saw, and some people projected their own identities and morality upon what they heard or saw. Other people simply invented and fabricated stories, and some people did not fabricate, but their reports were corrupted and exaggerated by later generations of transmitters. At this point in your life, you do not know—you do not know because you are not equipped to make that judgment. So what do you do? You stay with what you do know. As a Muslim, you know that he was a beautiful man, and you know that because God told you so and you also know because everyone who was close to the Prophet concurred. As to variations and disputations and other types of problems, you remember them, but suspend your judgment. As your knowledge increases, you revisit them, and scrutinize them with your intellect.”


“But Shaykh,” I interrupted, “when will I know? When will I be able to know?”


“Son,” he said, “with diligence and knowledge, you will have the tools. If you persevere and study, you will reach the point in time when you can give knowledge its due. Some reports you will discard as unreliable, with other reports, you will discover their peculiar circumstance, and with yet other reports, you will die before being able to reach a judgment, and you will leave the matter to your students to continue the journey.”


Shaykh,” I said in a solemn voice, “you know I do not agree with that sect in Islam known as the Murji’a.”


“Khaled, this is an entirely different matter. The Murji’a is a sect that believed that, on some matters, you adopt a neutral position and leave it up to God to solve the problem on the Final Day. The Murji’a did not aspire or attempt to resolve the troubling issues—they simply ignored them. I am not telling you to ignore anything. What I am saying is that you suspend judgment about what you do not know, but you work hard to equip yourself with the tools that would enable you to know.”


The Shaykh’s wife had remained silent for a while, but she was listening attentively. She stood up and picked up the empty glasses of tea as she said, “You men do what you want. My tool is my heart—I feel the Prophet in my bones. When I read something, I know if I am in the company of the Prophet or some devil.”


The Shaykh smiled and touched her hand while proclaiming, “May Allah bless you Umm… If all of us had a heart like yours, we would not have a problem. But when the heart wanes, the intellect must come to its aid.”


She smiled as she prepared to leave the room and said, “Ya Shaykh ‘Id, when the intellect wanes, the heart must come to its aid.”


I knew that both of them were right. Both the heart and the intellect needed to be developed and strengthened, and both the heart and intellect needed to become allies. I also knew that both my heart and intellect were not sufficiently developed or strong. So I went home and picked up a green notebook, and called it the “Book of Ignorance.” I would diligently write in it all the things I wanted to know but could not know. In two days, I was writing too frequently and so I changed the title to “The Book of Suspended Judgment.” I recorded every report or thought or piece of information I puzzled over but did not feel equipped to properly evaluate. I resolved in my mind and heart to return to all the listed issues and scrutinize them as the Shaykh had said. Over the years, I found that I would go to the notebook and scratch off an item as resolved, only to come back to rewrite it in again in the following week. That poor notebook had become plagued by pencil and ink marks on nearly every page. Eventually, I learned that to suspend judgment about what you do not know is the earmark of patience, and that patience is the earmark of piety and humility. Now, I write my judgments in my mind, and suspend judgment in my heart, or perhaps I write my judgments in my heart and suspend them in my mind. It did not matter, and does not matter, as long as my heart and intellect are balanced and allied, I aid one with the other, and I live in a state of equanimity. I patiently endure the thorns, but I invariably enjoy the flowers.