Jumuah lecture on Friday 27 November 2020 (10 Rabial-Thaani 1442)

Mowlana Syed Aftab Haider

Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid, Ottery, Cape Town

Almighty Allah (SWT) has commanded us towards certain issues repeatedly in the Holy Quran. This repetition of certain concepts in the Holy Quran is an indicator of its significance. One of those terms which we are repeatedly reminded of in the Holy Quran is “Ma’ruf” or “urf”. In fact, this term is repeated 40 times in the Holy Quran, used in a variety of meanings for different scenarios.

What is really interesting is that circa 50% (around 20 verses) where this term “Ma’ruf” is used, relates to the relationship between male and female. More particularly, this term is directed more towards men in their relation, association and overall behaviour with women – and not the other way around!

I can reference different verses from the Holy Quran where Almighty Allah (SWT) has commanded men to treat women (in different situations) with Ma’ruf. The following excerpt from verse 19 of Surah Nisaa’ (chapter 4 of the Holy Quran) summarises this succinctly:

وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ

and treat them kindly…


According to the Holy Quran, the foundation of the relationship between man and woman, from the man’s side, is Ma’ruf. Therefore, it is really crucial to understand the meaning of this term Ma’ruf. When we unpack the meaning of this term, we will be able to understand what the Holy Quran expects from us men, when it comes to our relationship with women.

It is equally amazing when the Holy Quran speaks about the responsibility of women, in that it establishes a balanced approach between their responsibility and their rights. Their duties and their rights are equal on the scale, but the Quran also adds the condition of Ma’ruf.

So, we need to really unpack this term “Ma’ruf” to get a proper understanding with the help of the Holy Quran itself.

In Arabic, Ma’ruf literally means knowing/known. More specifically in the Arabic language, Ma’ruf means “recognised as good”.


We have a formula in semantics, that things are defined by their opposites! So, if we want to understand what Ma’ruf is in the Holy Quran, we need to understand what terms it uses as an antonym. As we just mentioned, generally speaking, Ma’ruf means something which is recognised as good.

When we reflect on this in the Holy Quran, we identify that Ma’ruf is used in contrast to three terms: Munkar (denied/declassified), Nukr (evil) and Jahl (ignorance).

I want to draw your attention to verses 61 and 62 of Surah Hijr (chapter 15 in the Holy Quran), where the term Ma’ruf is used in reference to Jahl (ignorance):

فَلَمَّا جَاءَ آلَ لُوطٍ الْمُرْسَلُونَ

“And when the messengers came unto the family of Lot,

قَالَ إِنَّكُمْ قَوْمٌ مُنْكَرُونَ

He said: Surely you are an unknown people.”

There are also times when the Holy Quran uses Ma’ruf in contrast to Nukr (evil). We can see this in the communication between Nabi Musa (a.s) and Khidr, as referenced in Surah Kahf (chapter 18 of the Holy Quran), specifically the last word of verse 74:

فَانْطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا لَقِيَا غُلَامًا فَقَتَلَهُ قَالَ أَقَتَلْتَ نَفْسًا زَكِيَّةً بِغَيْرِ نَفْسٍ لَقَدْ جِئْتَ شَيْئًا نُكْرًا

 “So they went on until, when they met a boy, he slew him. (Musa) said: Have you slain an innocent person otherwise than for manslaughter? Certainly you have done an evil thing.”

From these verses we understand that Ma’ruf is used as the opposite of ignorance (Jahl) or evil (Nukr). Then, Ma’ruf is also used very interestingly in the following context referred to in verse 199 of Surah A’araaf (chapter 7 of the Holy Quran):

خُذِ الْعَفْوَ وَأْمُرْ بِالْعُرْفِ وَأَعْرِضْ عَنِ الْجَاهِلِينَ

“Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.”

Here we understand that Almighty Allah (SWT) commands Rasulullah (SAWA) to adopt the policy of forgiving and excusing the faults of the people, enjoin kindness (urf) and stay away from the ignorant (jahileen).

I would like to point out that from the Quranic perspective, knowledge and ignorance are not necessarily antonyms. Jahl, in Quranic terminology, is not confined to ignorance per se. Rather, jahl refers to ignorant people who are resisting on their ignorance ie. prejudiced. They have no interest in logic.


Allama Tabataba’i (r.a), the great philosopher and commentator of the Holy Quran, very beautifully summarizes the definition of Ma’ruf from this verse. He says Ma’ruf is something which is commanded by Almighty Allah (SWT) to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) and to everyone. Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) explains that Ma’ruf is recognised as good by:

–          Nature

–          Legislation (Sharia)

–          Customs and cultural norms of the society

So, when we speak about Ma’ruf, we are referring to something which is classified as good by nature. Even if you are not a believer, you recognize something as good by its very nature, because your intellect and faculties of reason and rationality conclude that this is the right thing to do.

An example is justice. We do not need verses of the Holy Quran or Hadith narrations to explain to us that justice is good. Similarly, helping the poor and needy is a natural inclination, rather than relying on divine text to prove that it is a good thing. Even someone from a jungle will know that helping the poor and needy is a good action!

Indeed, it is the nature of human beings which recognizes what is good and bad. Yes, there may be certain things which the intellect or nature does not recognise, but it is recognised by legislation (Sharia). An example is Salaah and other ibaadah (acts of worship). Hence, they are also part of Ma’ruf.

However, Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) says that when the Holy Quran uses the term “Ma’ruf” or “urf”, it is more than nature or law, in that it is part of custom and cultural norms of that society which recognizes it as something good.

Now, with this understanding of Ma’ruf, let us understand the different levels to which this meaning is applied in the Holy Quran, in the context of the verses cited at the beginning of this discussion.


Ma’ruf in the context of these verses means that we, men, should act with women in a manner which is naturally correct, rationally correct, legally correct, and in accordance with the cultural norms of the society which recognizes it as good!

Therefore, one can categorically conclude that the support for women as established in the Holy Quran is unparalleled, as it repeatedly uses this term Ma’ruf with a wide spectrum of understanding. Hence, some commentators of the Holy Quran have translated the below excerpt from verse 19 of Surah Nisaa’ (chapter 4 of the Holy Quran) as meaning “live with them kindly”.

وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ

“and treat them kindly…”

That being said, Ma’ruf does not mean kindness, based on the definition from Allama Tabataba’i (r.a) described earlier, as Ma’ruf means “known”. Similarly, some commentators translate Ma’ruf to mean good manners, which again is not synonymous with the definition from Allama Tabataba’i (r.a). Then there are other commentators who translate Ma’ruf in the context of this verse to mean honour, which is again very different to “known”, which Ma’ruf is defined as in the literal sense.

Moral of the story is that different commentators of the Holy Quran have translated Ma’ruf differently. However, none of them have a comprehensive definition of Ma’ruf.

Ma’ruf includes kindness, because that is what nature says. Similarly, Ma’ruf includes honour, because that is what the intellect and Sharia (legislation) says. Ma’ruf also includes good manners (akhlaq) because that is what Sharia, our intellect and the Quran says, but even more than that, treating women with Ma’ruf is an expectation based on the cultural norms of society!


Now let me say something provocative that men will not like to hear!

If treating women with Ma’ruf includes consideration for the cultural norms of society, then what about a society where polygamy is not culturally accepted, and based on the prevalent cultural norms, it is regarded as mistreatment to women and disrespect to your first wife?!

Indeed, I can very confidently say that in a society where getting another wife without any legitimate reason is a disrespect to the cultural norms of the society, then it is indeed problematic and against the command of the Holy Quran which says:

وَعَاشِرُوهُنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ

“and treat them kindly…”

There is a foundation for this position of Ma’ruf. We read in the Holy Quran about the position of parents, where it says that if the parents are non-Muslim, we should still treat them and accompany them with Ma’ruf. We may naturally wonder why to treat non-Muslim parents with Ma’ruf? It refers here to the respect we should afford them the way that they are respected in society.

Another example is towards those ignorant people who are resisting on their ignorance. The Holy Quran says we should treat them with the customary respect afforded to them.

Now let me come to the conclusion. The Holy Quran defines our interaction and treatment of women with this most comprehensive term – MA’RUF. We are commanded to treat our women with kindness, good manners, respect and honour, and over and above that, careful consideration for the cultural norms and values of the society. This is the broad spectrum of Ma’ruf established as the cornerstone of the relationship between men and women in the Holy Quran.


In these 16 days of activism for no violence against women and children, I would like to remind us men about Taqwa (God-consciousness) of Almighty Allah (SWT). Our Lord (SWT) has commanded us to treat women with Ma’ruf, which includes all forms of good.

This is good recognized by nature, good recognized by intellect (akl), good recognized by law (Sharia), and even good recognized through cultural norms in society.

Taqwa is about being mindful of our behaviour towards our women. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) reminded us about our responsibility towards women and children, being the most vulnerable in society, amongst all the reminders in his final sermon.

However, we have very conveniently forgotten and ignored, undermined and side-lined all the verses of the Holy Quran commanding us about this, and have instead latched all our attention onto the below excerpt from verse 228 of Surah Baqarah (chapter 2 of the Holy Quran):

وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ

“and men are a degree above them.”

We conveniently ignore that in the same verse, before the above excerpt, we read that women have similar rights to men, with an added condition of Ma’ruf towards them:

وَلَهُنَّ مِثْلُ الَّذِي عَلَيْهِنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ

“And they (women) have rights similar to those (of men) over them in kindness”

Similarly, we hold tight onto verse 34 of Surah Nisaa’ (chapter 4 of the Holy Quran) which says men are allowed to hit women if she disobeys, without having any understanding of what this really means!

We hold onto this, while we totally ignore the fact that the Quran commands us to treat them with Ma’ruf even when we decide to part ways with them. Again, we are also commanded to treat them with Ma’ruf even after we have left them, while they are in their waiting period.

Also, for those women who have become widowed, we are commanded in the Holy Quran to remember the grief they have endured, because it is not easy for them to start a new life. We are therefore commanded to approach them on the foundation of Ma’ruf!

Therefore, in our society, the crimes committed against women and children are so heinous, that we feel ashamed. How on earth do we reconcile the fact that an 80-year-old woman gets raped? How is it that we hear of supposedly Muslim grandfathers being alleged of misconduct against their granddaughters?

Why is this so? The simple answer is because we do not speak about this noble message of the Holy Quran! We trivialise these matters of conduct towards women, instead of being serious about them.

As President Ramaphosa has announced, we observe these 5 days of mourning and showing our respect to the victims of femicide and Covid-19. This is once again a reminder that the new wave of coronavirus which is surging in our province highlights our responsibility towards ourselves and others.


In these days where we are highlighting the respect of women and how we should treat them, we remember the demise of a great lady of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), Sayyida Fatima Ma’suma (s.a). She was the sister of the 8th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), Imam Ali ibn Musa al-Ridha (a.s).

We learn about her amazing devotion and commitment to her brother, having come all the way from Madina and eventually passed away in the city of Qom, Iran. Her status is so great, that Imam Jawad (a.s), the 9th Imam of Ahlul Bait (a.s), says that whoever visits his aunt in Qom shall be granted Paradise!


In these days, we remember another visionary personality who passed away in Lucknow, India. Mowlana Dr Syed Kalbe Sadiq comes from a great lineage of ijtihad and scholarly excellence. You may be wondering why I am mentioning this, as he may not be relevant to us in South Africa.

I would like to share inspiration from this great visionary scholar. What made him so significant and outstanding was that he was not a traditional aalim. He acted like a doctor for his nation. He had the foresight by declaring that it is only through education that Muslims in India will emerge from their terrible conditions. 

He devoted his life in educating Muslim youth. He established colleges and a medical university, together with hospitals and orphanages. He even organized scholarships for Muslim students to study overseas. This is truly unique for a religious scholar.

Another very outstanding quality of this man was his strong belief in unity of the Muslim Ummah and unity amongst humanity at large. His janaza salaah was performed according to Shia methodology at the medical university he established in Lucknow. Thereafter, during his funeral procession towards his burial place, they passed by a Sunni mosque en-route. At this point they were stopped, and the leadership of this mosque requested for janaza salaah to be performed by them too, since Dr Kalbe Sadiq (r.a) was dear to Sunni and Shia!

Accordingly, their request was honoured and janaza salaah was performed by them according to Sunni tradition. These are the real lovers and followers of the Ahlul Bait (a.s), who promote love, unity and the spirit of humanity, instead of hate, animosity and division.

We have certainly lost many great scholars during this period. The list is long, but I want to quickly highlight the passing away in Iran of another unique personality by the name of Hujjatul Islam Rastgou. What was special about this very big scholar was that he dedicated himself to bring religion to children! He therefore presented himself as a jolly character in public programs, to present Islam in the simplest, loving way, to reach out to children.

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