Jumuah lecture on Friday 12 November 2021 (6 Rabiul Thani 1443)
Maulana Syed Aftab Haider
Ahlul Bait (a.s) Masjid
Ottery, Cape Town
This issue is very topical and relevant in the current context, but pops in our minds quite regularly on social media as well from different angles. The question is whether we can speak quite frankly about the lives of the deceased and scrutinize them when they are no longer around to defend themselves?
In this regard, we find many religious scholars narrate a Hadith from our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), where he is reported to have said “remember your deceased with good qualities and refrain from speaking bad about them.”
This Hadith is mainly present in Sunni resources, although it has been reported in Shia Hadith resources as well. Sunni scholars and experts of Hadith have regarded this as a weak Hadith.
There are multiple variations of this Hadith, conveying basically the same message, that we should refrain from speaking ill about the deceased or highlight their defects. So, this is the principle message derived from these Hadith, from the Prophetic Sunnah.
In principle, this issue has also been addressed in verses 148 and 149 of Surah Nisaa’ (chapter 4 of the Holy Quran):
لَا يُحِبُّ اللَّهُ الْجَهْرَ بِالسُّوءِ مِنَ الْقَوْلِ إِلَّا مَنْ ظُلِمَ ۚ وَكَانَ اللَّهُ سَمِيعًا عَلِيمًا
Allah does not love the public utterance of hurtful speech unless (it be) by one to whom injustice has been done; and Allah is Hearing, Knowing.
إِنْ تُبْدُوا خَيْرًا أَوْ تُخْفُوهُ أَوْ تَعْفُوا عَنْ سُوءٍ فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَفُوًّا قَدِيرًا
If you do good openly or do it in secret or pardon an evil then surely Allah is Pardoning, Powerful.
In light of these verses of the Holy Quran and the Hadith from beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) noted earlier, this opinion has been developed, that we are not supposed to speak ill of those who have passed away. This is especially because they are not around to defend themselves.
MORAL AND ETHICAL POSITION OF ISLAM TOWARDS BEING CRITICAL OF THE DECEASED
The subject of discussion today has some key aspects to unpack, the first being the Akhlaqi aspect (moral and ethical). Indeed, not speaking bad of those who have deceased is the moral and ethical position of Islam.
In principle, Islam does not publicly promote speaking ill about other people, regardless of whether they are alive or deceased. And as noted a moment ago, it becomes even further discouraged for the deceased, as they are not around to defend themselves.
As we all know, backbiting is a grave sin, which applies on people who are alive and deceased. One of the qualities of Almighty Allah (SWT) is that he is “Sattarul Uyub”, the One who conceals all our defects and shortcomings. We ought to also be following this attribute of Almighty Allah (SWT).
Another headline which is very much emphasized in the Holy Quran, Prophetic Sunnah and the teachings of the Ahlul Bait (a.s) is that when we speak about bad qualities of other people, we indirectly promote them as well. This results in the bad qualities being normalized, thereby diluting its grave concern. Therefore, publicizing the corruption is also forbidden (Haraam).
THE RIGHT TO SPEAK OUT IF THE DECEASED OPPRESSED AN INDIVIDUAL OR NATION
What we can see from the various points of discussion up to now, is that the common theme amongst them all is that we should speak good about those who have passed on, and we should refrain from speaking ill about them. This is the overall moral and ethical (Akhlaqi) position of Islam.
That being said, there is another important aspect to the discussion, mentioned in the above verses of the Holy Quran, that if someone has been oppressed by the deceased person, then he/she has the right to speak about the injustice committed by the deceased person. This means that the principled position discussed earlier, of not speaking ill of the deceased, does not apply.
Here we can once again truly appreciate the beautiful position of Islam, where we are ordered not to speak bad about the deceased, but this order falls away if the deceased has oppressed you. Indeed, this is where you have a right to speak out against the injustice of the deceased.
Now, one can argue that verse 149 of Surah Nisaa’ referenced above says that it is better to forgive the oppressive person, rather than to speak bad. The applicable context for this is on an individual level, meaning where injustice and oppression has been committed towards an individual. In other words, out of courtesy, generosity and seeking the mercy of Almighty Allah (SWT), I forgive the person who was unfair to me as an individual. I therefore ignore the wrongdoing.
However, what if an injustice has been committed against a community or a nation? Can we really forgive or remain silent? NOT AT ALL, because this would mean that the Holy Quran is then contradicting its position, where it regularly speaks about the oppressors of history in the harshest tone of condemnation. An example is the start of Surah Masad (chapter 111 of the Holy Quran). Another example is the curse on the oppressors noted in the Holy Quran repeatedly.
THE RIGHT TO SPEAK OUT IF THE DECEASED DAMAGED THE IMAGE OF ISLAM
If someone has committed injustice and oppression upon a nation, then it indeed requires us to be vocal about this. We are hiding a crime if we do not speak out, as addressing injustice and oppression is a very important aspect from our sociology.
Another very important point I wish to highlight is that if the evil character of the deceased is damaging the religion of Islam, then indeed we ought to speak out about this. There is no difference between Sunni and Shia in this regard. This point goes beyond the injustice or oppression on an individual or societal, as its effect is damaging Islam.
There is a chapter in the books of Fiqh of all the schools of Islamic jurisprudence, referring to those who introduce innovation into Islam (mubtadi’a), thereby distorting the pure message of Islam. Indeed, we are required to speak out against such people. It is not only allowed, but rather, it is compulsory to speak out!
ANALYZING THE CREDIBILITY OF THOSE WHO NARRATED HADITH
In Sunni and Shia academia, there is an area of Islamic sciences referred to as “Ilmul Rijaal”. This refers to the science within Islamic religious studies in which the narrators of Hadith are investigated to establish their credibility. This discipline was established in the very early history of Islam, in fact in the first century already.
Multiple volumes of books have been written on this subject, by Sunni and Shia scholars. Very well-known amongst these is our contemporary grand scholar, Ayatollah Khui, who wrote the encyclopedia of the people of Hadith, across circa 20 volumes!
In essence, this is largely about investigating the weaknesses of all those in history who are part of the chain of narrators of Hadith, in the time of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA) and subsequently during the time of the Ahlul Bait (a.s).
Their ideology, moral character, involvements and inclinations, etc. were all under scrutiny. So then, can we say that this science of Ilmul Rijaal is wrong, as we are not supposed to investigate the narrators of Hadith? Clearly not!
OUR CRITICAL APPROACH TO HISTORY AND THE SAHABA
The next angle to assess, very importantly, is that of history, which is one of the branches of Quranic knowledge and science. The approach of the Holy Quran is to draw examples from history in establishing key principles and lessons for our lives. Now, how can we speak about history without being open about the people who passed away? We have to be frank, in order to have an honest understanding of history.
Some people become legends, to the point of being beyond criticism. This is of course very problematic, and we do not defend this. There is no exception here.
Now, on this subject of history, there is another interesting angle which our Sunni brethren strongly uphold. What I am referring to here is that they strongly reject any critique of the Sahaba – companions of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA).
They oppose any analysis of the differences and disputes between the Sahaba, which at times had dire consequences. The approach our Sunni brethren adopt is that the Sahaba were all good, and whatever happened between them is confined to history.
I am sorry to say that neither the Quranic principles, nor rationality, accepts this broad-based blanket amnesty adopted by our Sunni brethren, whereby they make it Haraam to be critical of the character of the Sahaba or certain decisions they have taken which have consequences up to today.
People who live their lives as public figures have decided to compromise on their privacy. As a result, people will talk about any weaknesses or shortcomings they display. This is common when we speak about the political or social leaders.
We have to be very frank because they have decided to be PUBLIC figures, who ought to be exemplary as people are following them. Hence, people have every right to speak about any horrendous mistakes they make which has damaging consequences on society. This is not backbiting!
Similarly, as Shia, we believe we have full right to speak about the Sahaba, because we will not be able to learn and understand history if we close this area of analyzing Sahaba, creating this sacredness by closing our logic and rational intellect.
CRITIQUE OF SAHABA BY SHIA MUSLIMS IS BASED ON SUNNI RESOURCES
Another very important point in this regard is that it is not only we, 1400 years later, opening a critique of the dominant Sunni view on Sahaba. Sunni and Shia historians have analyzed this reality from very early on. Books of analysis of history and Hadith have been written by the same foremost Sunni scholars, whereby they highlight these incidents in extensive detail, of Sahaba have squabbles amongst them.
Today, when we Shia Muslims have an argument against a particular Sahabi, or are critical of senior personalities of the early history of Islam, we base our criticism on the facts recorded in Sunni records.
So then, if one wants to really be fair, and do justice to history, and learn how the dynamics of the Islamic civilization developed, then it is only possible when we understand and address these challenges of history, which includes an analysis of the Sahaba of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA).
I would like to add here, that when we are speaking about being critical, we cannot forget the first principle we established earlier in this discussion, namely the moral and ethical aspect (Akhlaq). For example, if the purpose of speaking about the Sahaba or the wives of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (SAWA), is to insult, abuse and provoke fitna, to create divisions, disunity and to stir the emotions of the people, then that moral and ethical position should indeed be upheld.
Our grand spiritual authorities (Maraji’), including Ayatollah Sistani and Ayatollah Khamenei, have issued a fatwa (religious decree) declaring it Haraam to speak about those sacred personalities of our Sunni brethren in a manner which hurts their feelings.
This is the dominant position amongst Shia, and we stand for it, despite the presence of extremists on both sides. This principle is indeed there, but to now say that we cannot adopt a critical approach to history means we are contradicting the principles of the Holy Quran, rationality and being fair and just towards history, not to mention the principles of learning lessons and understanding the development of Islamic civilization.
Hence, a balanced approach is required in respect of those who have passed away and how we engage with their history and legacy.
DID FW DE KLERK REALLY SHOW REMORSE FOR APARTHEID?
I once again remind about observing Taqwa of Almighty Allah (SWT), which is the key when speaking about those before us, who have passed away. This Taqwa does not allow us to be abusive, insulting or provoking disunity. At the same time, Taqwa commands us to be fair and just, open and honest with our interpretation of history.
The last Apartheid president of South Africa, FW de Klerk, has passed away. The intent of the first khutbah was to present a framework for evaluating our position in light of his passing, since his chequered legacy has naturally attracted widespread debate.
It seems like this tendency of letting bygones be bygones, and wanting to cast a blind eye because he has passed away, is a way of thinking adopted wider than just in the Muslim community, such that we only want to talk good about the person when he/she passes away.
Indeed, as noted early in the first khutbah, the moral and ethical position of Islam urges us to try to speak good about those who have deceased. However, if someone who was the symbol of injustice, oppression and racial discrimination in the form of Apartheid passes away, then I have no hesitation to say that his death does not create any feeling of sympathy for him.
As we discussed in the first khutbah, if it is a communal injustice rather than an individual injustice, then how can we remain silent? The other points noted in the first khutbah are also very much relevant in evaluating FW de Klerk, namely history and being a public figure.
We even see him being regarded as a legend in certain circles, thereby normalizing the dirty history he is a symbol of. This is of course, total reprehensible!
FW DE KLERK’S REPENTANCE CAME WHEN APARTHEID WAS ON ITS DEATHBED
There may be a possibility of understanding if someone repents in its real sense. However, in the case of this last Apartheid president, FW de Klerk, there is no serious repentance.
He lived, supported and maintained the Apartheid system for decades. Yes, he did take a different path during his presidency, but the big question is why did he do it? This is really important to understand properly, and that is why I am saying that one needs to be historically correct.
Also, how true was FW de Klerk to this path of reconciliation, democracy and a united South Africa? Was it actually a sincere change or was it out of no option?
There is an interesting principle established in the Holy Quran on this subject of repentance (Tauba) in Islam. If someone makes Tauba when their death is sure, then that person’s Tauba is not accepted.
One of the conditions of Tauba is that it should be done long before we die! If you only repent when you are practically on your deathbed, then this is not an accepted Tauba! Now, when FW de Klerk changed his path, it was at the point where he saw the death of his ideology of Apartheid! It was when he realized that there was no option for them to continue the institutionalized racism for which we continue to suffer its effects for generations!
He realized Apartheid was simply not possible any longer. Even if we analyze the video of his final message, he uses the term “separate development”. This shows his mindset, where he is trying to project that Apartheid was not against a particular nation, but instead, its intent was to develop the nations separately from each other!
Aside from this, his earlier statements are on record, trying to defend Apartheid, this heinous crime against humanity!
Therefore, it will be absolutely wrong for us to now shower our flowers of praise on him. He did not change, and if he apparently changed, it was purely out of no option! They had no way out, as they could no longer continue their domination and control of the country and their exploitation of the majority of the people of this country.
Hence, these apologies do not do any favours, and our ideological position on this subject is clear. Again, I wish to emphasize regarding Taqwa (God consciousness) being paramount in voicing our disapproval of FW de Klerk. That moral and ethical compass should always be at the forefront. That being said, it is not possible Islamically for us to simply accept FW de Klerk’s position, based on the principles established in this sermon.