During his visit to the tomb of the great Prophet Ibrahim (AS) in Palestine, 11 centuries ago, Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali Al-Tusi, made a spiritual vow to avoid some things. The first of them was to never again visit the palace of any earthly ruler and the second was to avoid joining any theological debates as long as he lived. Religious argumentation was very common among the various Islamic sects existing in his day. Imam Ghazali had made extensive references to them in his book 'Deliverance from error' which was about his famed intellectual crisis and eventual spiritual salvation.
But theological debates in particular and verbal arguments in general are really frowned upon in Islam. An authentic hadith of Prophet Muhammad SAW says that Allah promises a garden in the highest grade of paradise for anyone who avoids argument while he is in the right, that is even though he knew that his position was the right one. This is how much Islam discourages unnecessary argumentation, unless it is in a matter of life and death.
However we are all living witnesses to how religious scholars in particular love to stoke the embers of theological debates. Though this sometimes leads to disastrous consequences on the part of their followers, few exercise discretion when it comes to raising controversies that lead to conflict. This unfortunate situation was narrowly averted last week at the wedding Fatiha of Vice-President Namadi Sambo's daughters at Sultan Bello Mosque in Kaduna. According to the Leadership newspaper of Sunday 9th December 2012, it all started when Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, one of the renowned sheikhs of the Tijjaniya order, recited the Salatil Fatih, one of the different types of salutations on the holy Prophet but which is the most important pillar of the Tijjaniya Sufi order.
When it was his turn to pray, Sheikh (Dr) Ahmad Gumi, who is associated with the Izala order of the Ahlus sunnah, responded that Sheikh Dahiru should have known better than to recite Salatil Fatih at that venue. The Leadership quoted him as saying "Malam Dahiru ought not to have recited Salatil Fatih in this Sultan Bello mosque since we have different views and understanding on the supplication." This comment, according to the newspaper, soon caused a row between the scholars' followers, a development which led to the VP's abrupt departure from the venue. This was really an unfortunate event which could have been prevented if the two scholars had exercised due restraint on both their parts.
Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, for instance, could have avoided the squabble by reciting any other neutral Salatin-nabiy, which would suffice anyway because the whole idea is to send due salutations to the Holy Prophet SAW. But he couldn't resist the urge to recite the one dearest to him, though controversial. Dr. Gumi, on his part, could have resisted the temptation to chide the older scholar because the deed had been done and no harm was recorded to anyone because of it. But he couldn't check himself too. And giving voice to his criticism of his father's contemporary made some at the venue angry and highly critical of him also.
The first time I heard that there was something 'wrong' with the Salatil Fatih was as an undergraduate at the Bayero University in the late 1980s. We were returning from a friend's wedding when the two friends of the groom who had given us a lift back to the campus began a discussion on it. My friend Hadiza and I who were sitting in the back couldn't help overhearing the driver saying "Until they can convince us of its origin, they can't get everyone to accept Salatil Fatih again." I was shocked to hear that because to us in Kano this salutation was necessary reading at any wedding and naming ceremony in town. The cry of 'Fatiha da salatil Fatihi' was a common one at almost every Islamic occasion one attends when we were young. It was curious to hear that there was something wrong with that now.
I could not help asking the driver what the problem was. And he explained that the Salat was of doubtful origin because it was narrated by someone who claimed that it was 'revealed to him.' According to him, since divine revelation ended with the death of Prophet Muhammad SAW, any divine revelation will have to be considered as heresy. Almost two decades later, I tried to find out the truth about this claim when I went to cover an international Tijjaniya conference at Fez city in Morocco in June 2007. When I interviewed some of the scholars of the order who were in attendance there, I had asked about this 'revealed' nature of their favourite salat. Their common response was that Sheikh Ahmad Tijjani did not claim that it was revealed to him the same way divine revelation was received by Prophet Muhammad, rather it was inspired into his heart to choose the best of other existing salats and come up with what is today known as the Salatil Fatih. Another version on its origin says, it was not Sheikh Ahmad Tijjani who received the salat through inspiration, rather it was one Sayyidi Bakri who prayed to Almighty Allah to guide him to the best salutation for His Prophet during a 40-day seclusion session (khalwa) in a hospice. Then he saw this particular salat written on the wall of the mosque with light as ink. He was instructed not to give it to any other person till the real owner of it came. Subsequently Sheikh Ahmad Tijjani came to study under him during which time he taught him the words.
Though extraordinary blessings and abundant spiritual weight are ascribed to this salutation by followers of the Tijjaniya order, the actual text of the salat runs like this. 'O Allah bless our Master Muhammad SAW, who opened what had been closed, and who is the seal of what had gone before. He who makes the Truth victorious by the Truth, the guide to Thy straight path; and bless his household as is the due of his immense position and grandeur.' In Arabic it runs thus: 'Allahumma salli ala sayyidina Muhammadil Fatihi lima uglika, wal khatimi lima sabaqa, nasril haqqi bil haqqi, wal hadi ila siratikal mustaqim, wa ala alihi haqqa qadrihi, wa miqdarihil aziim.'
On the surface of it another harmless praise of the holy Prophet SAW, but between what its subscribers claim as its power and holiness and what its opponents claim as its controversial origins, it has become a source of great debate and unease. The best way out for all concerned is for both groups of scholars to seek to emphasise what unites rather than what divides them. The potential for great conflict arising out of religious divisions is truly great. Hatred and rancour are always the result when arguments are engaged in, especially those that concern beliefs and values of individuals. Since as Muslims we all believe in the principal five pillars as the real bedrock of the religion, why should the issue of how we should salute the Prophet be the cause of much concern?
I sincerely hope that the Sultan Bello mosque incident will be the last of its kind we Muslims will witness in this country. A wedding Fatiha is certainly not the setting for any religious debate, but since theological debating itself is not encouraged in Islam, let there be no reason for our respected scholars to collide on any issue in future.