A frequently cited prophetic tradition has it that the best generation of Muslims were those living during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), and that the next best was the generation immediately following, and the best after that was the generation following the second. And so on down the line.
On first reading, at least superficially, this seems to doom the ummah (community) to perpetual declining mediocrity. But that is not the purpose or meaning of that hadith.
Ibn Masood’s Statement
Imam Malik collected a beautiful statement made by Ibn Masood (RA) in his book Muwatta and in it he mentioned that Ibn Masood was talking to one of his friends and he said:
Innaka fi zamanin qalililin qurraa’uhu katheerin fuqaha’uhu Qalilin maneey yas’al katheerin maneey yu’tee Tuhfazu fihi hudoodul quran wa tubaeeyu fihi huroofahu. Fihi inaasun yubdoona a’maalahum wa yukhfoona ahwa’ahum. Iza sallu ataalus salah wa iza takallamu qasrul khutbah.
We live in a time where the recitors of the Quran are few in numbers but the people who have an understanding of the message and meaning of the Quran, they are in huge numbers. He said questions are rarely asked even though if they are asked there are many to answer them. People care more to observe the commands of the Quran, not to preserve the letters of the Quran. He said in this time people pay more attention to their deeds and they put aside their ego and desires. Whenever they pray their prayers are long and whenever they talk their speeches are short
Wa saya’tee alan nasi zamanun katheerin qurra’uhu qalilin fuqaha’uhu
And there will come a time where the number of people who know how to recite Quran beautifully are going to be in abundance but people who have the understanding of its meaning are going to be very few in numbers.
Tuhfazu fihi hurooful quran wa tudaeey’u fihi hudooduhu
People are going to pay a lot more attention to preserving the letters of Quran but they are going to be heedless about the commands of the Quran. So these are people who pay more attention to the ego and they put aside their deeds or their work. Whenever they speak their speeches are very long, whenever they lead the prayers their prayers are very short.
So what Ibn Masood (RA) is telling us is that there is going to be a disease that is going to creep into the Ummah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) where will transform us in a manner that for us style would become more important than substance, appearance would become more important than the essence and we become so trivial that the whole concept of priorities is lost.
Analogy – Car Accident
Imagine a catastrophic traffic accident. Of the injured people, people notice one who was bleeding badly. Once brought into the hospital, the emergency doctor notes that this patient also has many broken bones and they decide to work on attending to his broken bones before trying to stop the bleeding; taking x-rays, plastering and casting the patient and while they are doing so the patient dies. How would you feel about such a doctor treating you? We know for a fact it is more important to take care of the bleeding of a person in such a case and this is not to say that the broken bones are not to be taken care of. But it comes down to the priority of the things. And this is something my dear brothers and sisters we all tend to do in our lives by setting incorrect priorities.
Reconstruction of Ka’ba
An example related to this can be found in the hadith of the prophet in which he expressed his desire to rebuild the ka’ba after the fatah of Makkah. What had happened was that several hundred years after Ibrahim (AS) had built the ka’ba, a flood occurred in Makkah which badly damaged the walls of the Ka’ba. So the people of Quraysh decided to rebuild it. In the process of rebuilding Ka’ba they fell short of funds so they made the Ka’ba a square instead of a rectangle as it was originally built by Ibrahim (AS). The area that they left out was called Al-Hijr which is the enclosed area in the semi circle. So when Rasulullah said to Aisha:
“If it were not for the fact that your people were only recently unbelievers, I would have torn down the Ka’ba and made for it one door on the East and another on the West and I would have included the Hijr area within it.”
So Rasulullah had wanted to build the ka’ba on the same foundation as Ibrahim (AS) had built it thousands of years earlier but he didn’t do that because he realized that it could cause a fitnah for those who had recently accepted Islam.
Qasrus Salah Wajtima’ul Muslimeen
One time during the time of Hajj, Uthman ibn Affan and Ibn Masood went to perform Hajj. When they got to Mina, in Mina you are supposed to shorten your prayers. So Uthman decided that he was going to pray either Zuhr or Asr four rak’as. So Ibn Masood came to him and he said “I performed Hajj with the prophet (SAW) and when he got to this place, he prayed two ruk’as only. So do as the prophet (SAW) did. Uthman ibn Affan was of a different opinion and he decided that he would lead the believers to pray four rak’as instead of two. So Uthman leads the prayers and Ibn Masood prayed behind him. When the prayers were over, a group of people came to Ibn Masood and said to him, “we thought that you said that you prayed behind the prophet (SAW) two rak’as and not four rak’as. Maybe you should have waited for the prayer to be over and then you should have prayed your prayers two rak’as only. Then Ibn Masood said:
Ya ayuhannas isma’u. Qasrus salati Sunnah wajtima’ul muslimeena fareeda fala tutrakus Sunnah min ajlil ithyanil bil fareeda.
He said, “O people listen. Shortening your prayers is a Sunnah; the unity of the muslims is an obligation. You do not perform the Sunnah at the expense of an obligation.”
Imagine this yourself. You have seen the prophet (SAW). You prayed behind him and you for sure know that this is what he did. This is the beautiful understanding of those who graduated from the teachings and the majalis of the prophet (SAW) that they gave the right due to the things that were important.
Best of Deeds
Tabarakkal lazi biyadihil mulku wahowa a’la kulli shay in Qadeer. Allazee khalaqal mawta wal hayata liyablu’akum ayyukum ahsanu ’amala
Blessed is the one who has in his hands the dominion and He possesses power over all things. The One Who has created death and life to test you and try you to see which of you is best in deed.
Now Allah did not say aktharu a’mala which would have meant the most of deeds, instead he said the best of deeds. And we see this in the Sunnah of the prophet (SAW), that different people would come to him and ask him, ya Rasulullah, maa ahabbul a’mali ilallah. O prophet of Allah, what are the deeds that are most loved by Allah. To a young man, the prophet would say Al-imanu billahi wal jihadu fi sabillilah. To believe in Allah and to strive in the path of Allah. Someone else comes and he asks the same question and the prophet would say Al-imanu billahi wa birrul walidaeyn. He said to believe in Allah and to be good to your parents. To someone else, the prophet would say it is to believe in Allah wassalatu fi waqtiha to pray on time. Here the prophet (SAW) is not contradicting himself. He is telling us that the best of deeds depends on who is asking them. You may be doing something that is good but is this the best that you can do? These are questions that we are to ask ourselves.
Dr. Sulayman Nyang, who is one of the finest Islamic historians of our times, once told this story of a Lebanese Muslim, who went to the Beirut harbor in the early 1900s. There was an American vessel on the harbor. And he asked the captain, “Captain, do you have mosques in America?” The captain said No, so this Lebanese jumped off the boat. Now as Muslims living in a predominantly non-Muslim land, I’m sure most of us if not all of us would be able to relate to the concerns of this Lebanese Muslim at some level, though we may or may not approve of it ourselves. But he was afraid of coming to America because he felt concerned over the prospect of losing his religion in this society.
Now from the perspective of a Muslim, if we compare the America of that time with that of today, we see a lot of development that runs in parallel to the ongoing social and cultural development in various aspects of the society. We see that over this period of a hundred or so years, Islam became the fastest growing religion in North America, we find Muslims becoming a major player through their active participation and involvement in the political process. And this didn’t happen overnight, it took the effort of many Muslims to bring about this change. So you had Alexander Russell Webb, you had Shaykh Daud Faysal from the State Street Mosque in Brooklyn, you had Malcolm X from Harlem. So it was the effort of all these people and that many others who were supportive of them that Islam is much better positioned today as it was at that time.
And while there are many lessons that we could infer from the history of the Muslim presence in the United States, I would only touch upon one of them and that’s the significance of building Islamic institutions. Very often it happens that despite realizing the significance of establishing strong Islamic institutions, we do not participate to the extent that is needed for our institutions to make a meaningful contribution in the society. If we look into the history of African Americans in this country or more specifically the history of African Muslims here in the United States, they have come a long way in the last few decades. These people were suffering from severe forms of oppression, including enforced racial segregation and second class citizenship. If we look into the factors that contributed to the change that was brought about in the society by the likes of Malcolm X and Dr. King, one of the greatest contributing factors was their emphasis on institutionalization. Its one thing to advance ideas, it’s another thing to build institutions that reflect those ideas and allow for the articulation of power and influence in the society.
We should not forget that our Muslim community is a community with a mission. And this is why we should be very cognizant of what sort of image we project as a community. Because when we read in the Quran about people accepting Islam in large numbers
Wa ra aytan naasa Yadkhuloona fi Deenillahi Afwaaja
And you see the people entering the religion in Droves
This will happen when our Da’wah is not being made primarily as individuals because individuals call individuals to Islam; communities call communities to Islam. So our communal characteristics should be so positive that they are undeniable and people are forced to accept that ‘Yes, Muslims are the most honest, respectful, compassionate, industrious people I ever met’ as opposed to ‘Muhammad or Fatima is the most industrious person I ever met’. And in order to do that, we all have a part to play and when each one of us chips in and contributes, the strength of our Islamic centers will attract other communities to Islam. So we are distinct in that regard that we are a community that we have been commissioned by God to serve people. And we should therefore be preparing ourselves to do so.
Yaa ayuhallazeena aamanu maeeny yartadda minkum ‘an deenihi fasawfa ya’tillahu biqawminy yuhiboonahu wa yuhiboonah
O you who believe, if any from amongst you turns back from his faith then Allah will bring another people whom He will love and they will love Him
The explanation for this verse as is given by Ibn Kathir is that whosoever turns back from assisting His religion and establishing the divine law then Allah will bring another people who will be more suited for the job. So what does this tell us? It tells us that if we don’t undertake this mission, Allah will replace us with people who would. And if He willed and desired to do away with us and bring another people, that’s easy for Him.
Lauw Anna Awwalakum wa Aakhirakum wa Insakum wa Jinnakum kaanu ‘Ala Athqa Qalbi Rajulinw Wahidinm Minkum maa Zaada zaalika fi Mulki Shaeeyan
If the first of you the last of you the men of you the jinn of you were as righteous as the most righteous heart amongst you that would not add to Allah’s dominion in anyway
So it is we who need Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala and not otherwise. So if we don’t do what He has commissioned us to do. He’ll bring another people.
In conclusion, we pray to Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala that He develops within us this aspiration and desire to effectively utilize our Islamic institutions for reaching out to people of other faith with the true message of Islam, and that He blesses the efforts of our brothers and sisters who actively participate and contribute in this communal effort to whatever extent possible, Aameen.