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The boy who interdicted Imam Malik

Moon Crescent

The day the Almighty informed the angels that He was going to create vicegerents on the earth, the angels were completely surprised. How could you create subjects who would spill blood and perpetrate corruption therein (Quran2: 30), they chorused. But the Almighty responded saying- I know that which you know not. In addition to the fact that human beings have the tendency to perpetrate humongous corruption which is subject of controversies in this country today, we are equally unique in creation for the ease with which we engage in conflict and display differences of opinion. For example, while Nigerians appear to be in agreement that corruption is bad for the health and the future of our nation, there is probably no agreement among us with reference to notions of corruption, the identity of the corrupt and how to fight the scourge.

I have referenced all of the above as premise the subject of interest to me today in this forum which is that of providing insights into our heritage in order for us to appreciate the dynamics and extremely refreshing patterns of differences of opinion in regard to Islamic law, jurisprudence and practices and how early Muslims handled same. Consider, in the first instance, this story about Imam Malik, the renowned Muslim Jurist.

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Imam Malik once entered the mosque after ‘Asr prayers and silently sat down in a corner without observing two rakaat prayers as a salutation of the Masjid. The Imam was of the opinion that the Prophet’s other prohibition of prayers after Asr took precedence. He had always taught his students to not observe ‘Tahiyyatul-Masjid whenever they entered the mosque between the ‘Asr and Maghrib prayers. But the Imam was taking his seat, a young boy had noticed that he had not observed the two raka’s of Tahiyyatul Masjid. The young boy, who apparently did not know the Imam rebuked him saying: “Get up and pray two rakaat!” Imam Malik dutifully stood up once again and observed the two rakaats. Students of the Imam who had all along observed what was happening were stunned. They wondered why the Imam Malik had changed his opinion. As soon as he completed the salah, they swarmed around him and questioned him on his action. Imam Malik then said:  “My opinion has not changed, nor have I gone back on what I taught you earlier. I merely feared that had I not observed the two rakaats as the young boy commanded, the Almighty may include me among those He referenced in the Ayah that reads- “And when it is said to them, ‘Bow (in prayer)’, they do not bow.” Quran 77:48.

Lessons in the above incident are self-evident – the lesson of humility: that no matter your status or circumstance in life, be prepared to be confronted, challenged or interdicted by those who know more than you do and those who do not know as much as you do. The way you relate to them even in their status of inferiority in comparison to yours would always determine how easy your ascent to greater platforms in life would be.  In other words, your deep knowledge of Islam or your high status in this religion bears no value if you fail in the simple test of dealing with the lowly and inferior with dignity. When the knowledgeable shows off his knowledge and is quick to display his erudition, without wisdom, his knowledge loses its tenor and relevance. He becomes unable to illuminate the dark recesses of life which is the essence of knowledge acquisition ab initio. Thus as Muslims, it must be borne in mind at all times that as humans we shall always differ on matters of life and living, on the sacred and the profane. But difference is not the problem but how “Muslimic” we posture to be whenever we are confronted with same. Remember the instruction-”Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom and good instruction and argue with them in a way with that that is best!” (Quran 16:125).

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Three qualities are mentioned in this verse- wisdom (hikmah), good admonition (al-Maw’idhat al-hasanat) and arguments of the best stuff (Jadil-um bilati Hiya Ahsan). Perhaps one way to illustrate all of the above is to recall the encounter of the grandsons of the Prophet Hasan and Husayn with a very elderly Muslim. The two young boys saw the old man performing ablution incorrectly. Together they arranged a plan to teach the man without insulting him, advising him in a manner befitting of his age. Together they went to the old man and said to him: “My brother and I have differed over who between us performs Wudu the best. Would you mind being the judge to determine which one of us indeed performs Wudu more correctly?” The man then watched intently as the two grandsons of the Prophet performed ablution in an explicit manner. After they had completed, he thanked them and said, “By Allah, I did not know how to perform Wudu before this. You have both taught me how to do it correctly.”

Thus reference to wisdom in our daily living and in our daily interactions with others can be framed along two locales.  These are the wisdom of knowledge (al-Hikmah Ilmiyyah) and the wisdom of action (al-Hikmah al-‘Amaliyyah). To have one without the other is to have a knife without the hand with which to cut.

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