November 22, 2008

On Pant Legs and Right Guidance

This seemingly innocuous issue keeps popping up in conversation. A while back at Masjid Muhammed in DC the sheikh gave a khutba about this very issue, which answered for me 1) Why some Muslim men roll up their pant legs during prayer, and 2) The root of the hadith regarding the Prophet Muhammed's(SAW) opinion of this practice.

Now the other day I found myself in conversation with a brother about this on the way to Arabic class. We had a debate about this, where he was citing hadith to raise the point that one ought to keep one's pants above one's ankle at all times.

Funnily enough, this style (pants above the ankle) at one time became so popular in Philly that I think it crossed over to non-Muslims; During my freshman year in college, I used to see guys from Philly at Lincoln rocking 'jeans' which stopped at the ankle and high socks to match. They also would rock the beard with the low mustache (another 'sunna' practice).

Anyway, I digress. Even though this brother and I disagreed--I felt that the literal meaning of the hadith no longer applied because no one nowadays wears their pants past the ankles out of pride, while he felt that a hadith is a hadith and we have to follow it.--it was still productive in forcing me to think about some difficult theological issues. It made me search out the sources. So I went online and found this discussion about pant legs, and tried to muddle my way through it.

Ironically, the most sensible response in the discussion was not from any of those quoting the commentaries and hadith collections. It came from another cat on the board, who related the sunna to contemporary practice in a way that was actually relevant:

"If I recall correctly, it is reported that the Holy Messenger (SAW) made a remark to Umar ibn Al Khaatab about his clothes that reached to below his ankle, saying that that was a sign of arrogance. We only have to remember the types of clothing that kings and queens used to wear to be able to understand this.

However, today we do not wear trousers below the ankle as a sign of arrogance.

Trousers that reach below the ankle may collect dirt and other filthy things as we walk. Such clothes would not be OK for Salaah. That's clear enough.

So, if we take the precaution of wearing trousers down to a length that ensures that the trousers do not get soiled, there should be no problem.

Folding the trousers above the ankles for salaah is necessary, because the ankles have to be visible so that all in the same row may align their ankles. It is by aligning ankles that shoulders come in a straight row.

Hope, Inshallah that above throws some light on the issue.

I love this response. Its simple, its logical, it makes sense from a practical point of view, and best of all it doesn't presume that those who have read every single commentary know best. I feel stifled and angry when I read some of these commentaries (especially dealing with issues like pant legs). I often feel as if the scholars are using knowledge to put a straightjacket on ordinary common sense and mislabeling their opinions as being "rightly guided".

If you are reduced to following a practice devoid of its context, and actually having arguments about whether it is a major or a minor sin, then you have missed the point of submitting to Allah, and in fact are close to falling into the trap the hadith warns against: pride! For those with the wherewithall and determination to engage with the difficult work of tracing the correct transmission and interpretation of hadith, I say "more power to you." But please keep in mind that submission to Allah should never be confused with following a law. This is not shirk, but in fact a point made by the Prophet Jesus (SAW).

The Prophet Muhammed (SAW) came to fulfill the earlier scriptures, such as The Bible and The Torah, and to reveal how they confirm the truth of the Quran, yet most Christians as well as Muslims (and no doubt colonialism played a role in this) have made finding the rapproachment between the two religions impossible because each view the other as a 'competitor' for souls. This is not the particular space to comment on this capitalistic model of religion, which views the success of religion by an index of ever-increasing growth, but I will say that a more fruitful path would be for Christians and Muslims to read each others' books and try to come to an understanding of the interrelationship between the Quran and The Bible.

For instance, the Bible is flawed and innacurate at some points, and it most certainly was the work of a committee, but many, if not most Muslims have never READ the Bible, so they have no idea about how to discern the truth from the falsehood. This despite the following verses in the Quran:

Say ye: "We believe in Allah, and the revelation given to us, and to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and that given to Moses and Jesus, and that given to (all) the prophets from their Lord; We make no difference between one and another of them: and we submit to Allah.
Surat-ul Baqara (2):136

O ye who believe! Believe in God, and His apostle, and the scripture which He sent to His apostle, and the scripture which He sent to those before (him). Any who denieth God, His angels, His Books, His apostles, and the Day of Judgment hath gone far, far astray.
Surat-un Nisaa (4):136

In fact, I remember being in one class on Islam where a teacher discouraged us from reading The Bible on the grounds that its 'falsehoods' would confuse us, despite the fact that the Prophet Muhammed(SAW) himself invited the believer to seek knowledge wherever he can find it.

Similarly, Christians have only rarely taken the time to understand the Quran outside of those partisans who are reading it to try to demonstrate Christian superiority over Islam. I remember one ignorant Christian I met on a train who told me that God and Allah were two different deities! No doubt she was reciting what she heard at her church, and had never read the Quran. Even those Christians who have read the Quran often lack any contextual appreciation of the Islamic message, have no understanding of the various interpretations of difficult verses, or are reading the Quran in an English translation of often dubious accuracy.

A little while back I was discussing this with a friend of mine, and I had the idea of founding an organization called "Christians For Muhammed" (the title coming from the evangelical organization "Jews for Jesus") which would seek to underline the common basis of thought between Christianity and Islam, as well as engage in a dialogue about how Judaic thought has influenced both traditions. As the venerable Ali A. Mazrui has written, "Precisely because Islam conceived of itself as a restoration of the message of Jesus after it had been distorted, Muhammed's revolution was the first Protestant assertion in history like Luther and Calvin nine hundred years later, Muhammed felt that the message of Jesus had been perverted by his successors in the leadership of the flock." Like Mazrui, I see the message of Islam as being an attempt to restore 'balance' to Christianity by removing the deification of Christ while retaining reverence for his teachings.

From my reading, I believe that, much like early Christians deified Jesus and subsequently distorted his message, the true (often esoteric) meaning of the Quran and Sunna has been missed by those zealous to imitate the life of the Prophet(SAW) in every detail without contextual appreciation of aspects of the Prophet's message, and subsequently denounce all those who differ with them. They refuse to even consider the important question: "Which of the Prophet Muhammed's insights were specific to a particular situation or to that culture?"

But the 'text' is in some ways a false refuge; people turn to its authority without bothering to think about the multiple ways in which they conceive of that text's truth may be formed. The Quran, even as an authoritative text, has to be interpreted, has to be given a context. There is no such thing as a non-contextual reading. Unfortunately, this insight is anathema to many Muslims as well as Christians. This can lead to Pharasaical in such behavior and the detriment of a true spiritual understanding. (see Umar Lee's multi-part series on the "rise and fall of the Salafi Dawa in the US"

Let me stress that there is much to be said for the practice of studying and imitating the Prophet's life, as the Prophet(SAW) was a model for human conduct on this earth. Yet from a "longee duree" perspective of true righteousness and model behavior: if Abraham and Musa and Jesus were all Muslims and they didn't (for example) roll their pant legs off the ground (and may have even listened to music), then doesn't this show that the true essence of Islam is in the heart? In short, the practices, pillars, hadith, and shari'a of Islam are meant as rudders for the steering the heart towards Allah, not some straightjacket for us humans as if we were too ignorant to do anything but obey.

Please forgive me for any theological errors. Allahu alim.


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