Reflections on Police Brutality and Racist Culture in America

Ferguson Fallout: Normality and Tamir Rice

By Imam Zaid Shakir

The recent killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, casts a more brilliant light on many of the issues relevant in the case of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. I mention this because those who argue that if African American males just act normal and mind our business these sort of killings would not happen. Along these lines, my post on Ferguson, a few days ago, generated an informative and balanced discussion, however, something was missed by all of the commentators at that time. Namely, virtually every victim of the police shootings I mentioned was acting normal at the time of his slaying.

Oscar Grant was lying face-down on the train platform when he was shot in the back. Like anyone in that position, he did not constitute a threat to the police officer who shot him, he was totally immobilized, which is normal for someone in his situation. Normal did not save his life. Amadou Diallo was reaching in his pocket to pull out his keys to unlock the door to enter his apartment building, with his back to the police. That sounds pretty normal to me, however, normal did not save his life. Kenneth Chamberlain, who had accidentally set off his life alert device, called the police dispatcher to say he did not need police assistance and when the police arrived he repeatedly told them he did not need their help. Seems like a normal scenario. Normal did not save his life. Papo Post was hanging out with a group of white friends on the outskirts of town. There is nothing abnormal in anything he was doing. Again, normal did not save his life. Miguel Arroyo was running from the policeman when he was shot in the back. Maybe he alone amongst those mentioned was up to no good, but his reaction to the police, knowing what every inner-city youth knows about what might happen when the police roll up on you, did what was normal, he ran. Did that justify him being fatally shot in the back? John Crawford’s reaction to Walmart’s advertising and display positioning was normal in every way. He pulled a non-lethal pellet gun from the shelf, a reaction Walmart encouraged, and was walking in the store with it. Is there anything abnormal about his response? Of course not. Normal, once again, did not save his life.

Tamir Rice, who I also mentioned in that post, was also doing something pretty normal for a twelve-year-old child. Playing with a toy gun in the park. Perhaps he was being irresponsible in pointing the toy at people, but how much responsibility should we expect from a normal twelve-year-old? Shouldn’t his killers, trained law enforcement officers, have been a little more responsible in seeking to preserve Tamir’s life, or do their actions illustrate what is all too normal in such encounters?

Tamir’s killing illustrates some things that are dangerously too normal when police kill African American youth. By way of example:

1) Apparent lies by the police. The officer who shot Tamir says he ordered him three times to drop the gun and put his hands up. However, the video of the shooting shows that Tamir was shot as soon as the police arrived at the scene. It would have been impossible to issue that order even one time in the time that elapsed between the police arriving on the scene and the shooting.

2) Media defamation of the deceased. The day after the release of the video showing the police shooting Tamir immediately upon their arrival at the scene, the newspaper headline did not highlight the inconsistencies between what actually happened and the initial police report. It did not highlight the tragedy of a boy losing his life under such tragic circumstances. It did not highlight the restraint of the community and the calls for a civil dialogue with the police. What did the headline read? “Tamir Rice’s Father Has a History of Domestic Abuse.” Since Tamir is too young to have a history of thuggish behavior, we are reminded that the boy is the son of a thug.

3) Media advocacy on behalf of the transgressing police. In this case, in the immediate aftermath of the slaying, the media attention focused on the claim that the information mentioned by the 9/11 caller, whose actions set in motion the series of events culminating in Tamir’s death, that he was a “juvenile” and the gun was probably “fake” was not communicated to the police. If these observations could be made by an apparently elderly citizen, why couldn’t they be made by police officers who have been trained to enforce the law and protect the citizenry? They could not see that Tamir was a child, nor consider that the gun might be fake?

Why is it so important that the public know about Tamir’s father in the first place? Could it be for the same reason that it was important for people to know that Michael Brown had robbed a convenience store and roughed up an employee? Could it be for the same reason that it was important for people to know that Trayvon Martin had smoked marijuana? Or that Papo Post had previous scrapes with the law? Or Miguel Arroyo “might” have been intent on breaking into a liquor store? Why is it not sufficient for these types of cases to be adjudicated in courts of law based on the facts involved and not in the court of public opinion before they every make it to trial?

The fact that we need a separate normal if you are African American or Latino [1] in this country indicates a problem. Does that mean every police officer or department is corrupt. Certainly not, however, it does indicate that there is an entrenched double standard contributing to the death of an African American at the hands of law enforcement in this country (one every day and a half according the Malcolm X Grassroots Report), and that race is a significant factor informing that double standard. Not talking about it and the factors contributing to it is not going to make it go away. We need more dialogue and discussion around these issues, not less. Furthermore, talking about such issues is not racially divisive. Racial divides in this country already exist. Ignoring them is not going to make them disappear, it will only allow them to grow wider. It will also make them more difficult to detect, and that being the case, increasingly large numbers of folks will fall into them.

[1] Andy Lopez’s case, he was fatally shot in Santa Rosa, California while carrying a toy gun, is strikingly similar to that of Tamir Rice. Of course, The San Francisco Chronicle went out of its way to mention that the thirteen-year-old Lopez “appeared to be high on marijuana” at the time of his killing. What should the public take away from this? The Chronicle does not leave this to the reader’s imagination: “The marijuana, the report suggests, may have affected Andy’s judgment when he was approached from behind on the street by Gelhaus and a colleague.” In other words, it was Andy’s fault he was killed, not the actions of an apparently rogue policeman in a department with a documented history of abuse against Latino residents of the city.

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Questioning Visibility Curves for the Sighting of the Moon

UPDATE 7-16-14: An additional section has been added near the end covering the Islamic Crescents’ Observation Project visibility map.

As the reported sighting came in from Yemen on Friday June 27, 2014, one of my friends remarked, “that Yemeni must have been high.” I laughed, not only because Yemenis are known to chew a semi-intoxicating substance called ‘khat’, but because I had seen four different [amateur] astronomers produce visibility calculation maps, such as the two below, and all of them were clear that it was impossible to sight the moon in that part of the world.

moon2

moon1

Several hours later, I managed to tap in to a live-feed of a long and heated discussion taking place among the Assembly of Muslim Jurists of America [AMJA]. They were deciding whether or not to reject the Yemeni sightings based on astronomical visibility calculations claiming it impossible to sight the moon there. As the discussion drew to a close, news came in that the crescent was sighted in Houston by three people and another one in Alabama. Initially I wondered if they were chewing some of that Yemeni ‘khat’ as well. To my surprise, within a matter of minutes, AMJA made the call to confirm both the Yemeni and American sightings.

I immediately phoned Dr. Ahmad Salama, a consultant for NASA/JPL and professor of astronomy. I made him put his dinner on hold and we began to calculate. “How far is the red zone [where the moon could be sighted by optical aid only] from Houston? How many degrees away? When was sunset? When was moonset in Houston?” After a series of questions from him, I put my own question on the table, “What level of inaccuracy is there in these calculation maps? Give me a percentage Dr. Ahmad: 1%, 5%, 10%, 20%, or zero?” He responded, “Anywhere not too far from the red area on the map is a huge gray area, scientifically speaking. Under perfect conditions, it is unlikely, but not impossible, to see.”

Nonetheless, many prominent scholars rejected these reports outright based on the colorful visibility maps they had seen, even those living in the Houston area. I didn’t know what to think and chose to defer to the senior scholars. “Let them take the burden on themselves”, I said internally.

Later that night, two more reports came in, one from Tucson and another from San Diego. They were also rejected by the same scholars for the same reasons: those locations are not within the visibility zones on the maps. I know for a fact that people do make mistakes in seeing the crescent [even if they aren’t high], but what if one of these sightings happened to be in the gray area that Dr. Ahmad was alluding to and the calculations used to make these maps were off? I decided to investigate.

I phoned the brother who claimed to see the moon in San Diego. Abu Isa Mateen Khan, 39, is well known to the Muslim community in San Diego. He even happens to live next door to Shaykh AbdelJalil Mezgouri, the Imam of the Islamic Center of San Diego. Mateen was a very friendly brother and sounded very sincere and helpful. Here is his story:

“I went with my wife and kids to go sight the crescent, even though we doubted we would see it and didn’t even buy groceries for breakfast the next morning. We headed for the San Diego State University Observatory on Mount Laguna to see if we would be able to spot the moon there. We were two groups, but we both got lost on the way. Time was ticking, so about a few miles after we passed the 4000ft above sea level mark, we decided to pull over at a viewpoint at 8:02PM. My wife was taking notes. We knew which direction to look because we had been told by some people who know what to do. We glanced in the direction near where the sun was setting and saw something. We thought it might be a jet-stream so we initially ignored it, but it kept coming back in view. I used my son’s toy binoculars and we could clearly see that it looked like the crescent. I couldn’t see it that well without the binoculars but my wife and kids saw it clearly. We observed it from 8:03-8:11PM [with a one minute margin for error]. While observing it, it was very clear and kept moving down a few centimeters. It disappeared at about 8:11 or 8:12. I pulled out my phone and checked the GPS location which showed about 290 degrees northwest. If you were looking at a clock, the illuminated parts were from 4 o’clock to 5:30. I took a picture with my phone but it has a poor quality camera so the moon cannot be seen in the picture. As we were about to leave, we noticed a person not far from us with a telescope. He was not a Muslim but we decided to talk to him. We asked if he saw that thing in the sky and he responded, ‘You mean the moon?’ I responded, ‘Was that the moon?’ He answered in the affirmative and told us that he is an enthusiast who comes up the mountain every few days to stargaze and take pictures. According to him he was sure that was the moon and saw it clearly himself, although he noted that it is very rare to be able to see it on this day because the colors of the San Diego sunsets cause some parts of the moon to fade out. This motivated me to report my sighting to some of the scholars in the area.”

Despite Mateen’s detailed story, many still rejected his sighting because San Diego does not fall on the visibility maps that have been produced. I called Dr. Salama again, giving him all of the details of the sighting he asked for: degrees the moon was from the sun, the horizon to the crescent elevation, etc. After a few days he phoned me back telling me that in his expert opinion as an astronomer, this sighting cannot be rejected based on the elevation of the viewer, sunset and moonset timing, etc.

So I decided to put the question straight to him, “What’s the point of these maps if they are not accurate?!” His answer was very enlightening. I will paraphrase the main points here:

These maps are not deterministic in nature but should be used as a guide to know where the moon can ‘usually’ be sighted. The only thing that is deterministic is the position of the moon relative to the sun, the earth, etc. These maps are calculated based on sighting reports from amateur astronomers who reported whether or not they saw the moon on certain days. However, there are three issues. One, those sightings [or lack thereof] were viewed under certain physical conditions which will be different based on the condition of the sky and atmosphere on another future date. Two, the sightings are not taken from observatories or expert astronomers but rather amateur enthusiasts. Three, the number of observations is limited. If the data points were doubled or tripled, it is probable that the visibility curves would change drastically. In conclusion, the early visibility of the moon has always been a problem due to how the Earth’s atmosphere distorts light and due to other environmental factors. Even the U.S. Naval Observatory is on record to admit that there is a large ‘gray area’ when it comes to commenting on the visibility of the moon in any given place at any given time.[2]

Another interesting find was a new map which adds a zone of impossibility. Strangely, there are two wordings: ‘not possible’ and ‘impossible’. The red zone [i.e. ‘impossible’] is defined as being: “impossible to see the crescent from the areas located under the red color because either the moon on this day sets before sunset and/or the topocentric conjunction occurs after sunset”. A quick glance reveals that neither Yemen nor the USA were in the red zone. This type of red zone, I assume, would be labeled a ‘deterministic’ calculation and thus result in some level of actual certainty. However, anything within what may be termed the ‘gray area’ will remain exactly that: a gray area.

moon2

Will knowing this unify the Muslim community about the start and end of Ramadan? Absolutely not, because there are many more variables involved. Nonetheless, this is a call for people to stop making inaccurate comments alleging that visibility calculations concerning the moon are ‘certain’ and ‘100% accurate’, as is commonly done. Whether or not Brother Mateen, or anyone else, really saw the moon on June 27, 2014 cannot be confirmed with certainty, but it would be unjust of anyone to say he was deluded or high at the time.

 


[1] Notice the major differences between the two maps.

[2] See http://aa.usno.navy.mil/faq/docs/crescent.php, last accessed July 6, 2014.

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Strange Fatwās: Literalism and a Correct Understanding of the Sharīʿah

I was recently informed that a group of scholars claiming to follow the Ḥanafi school of jurisprudence in Islamic law were issuing a strange fatwā [legal verdict]: Muslims should have their teeth extracted rather than having them drilled and fit with dental fillings. Why? They argued that according to the Ḥanafī school the mouth must be rinsed entirely when taking a bath [ghusl]. Since this bath is required after intercourse [and other things] a person must bathe before becoming pure and being able to pray.

The reasoning seems fine so far. Imām Abū Ḥanīfah and his students argued that the verse in the Qur’an which obligates taking a bath includes washing the mouth and nose.[1] This is a legitimate line of reasoning which has been followed by many scholars. Furthermore, all scholars are agreed that anything which prevents water from reaching the body [such as glue, paint, etc.] renders this purifying bath incomplete. Still, so far so good.

Here is where things go wrong. These ‘scholars’ reasoned that since a tooth filling would prevent water from reaching the parts inside the mouth [i.e. the teeth] it is not allowed to have these fillings and Muslims should either leave the cavity or have the tooth extracted completely. To some people this may sound totally ridiculous. Other people, out of their sincerity and dedication to Islam might answer: if this is what Islam orders us to do then I am willing to do it and I know there must be some wisdom in what Allah has prescribed. Both of these reactions are common and understandable.

But the question is: is this what Allah has really prescribed? A more precise question is: does this view really represent the Ḥanafī school? If it does then many people might think something is wrong with the school itself. But there is another option: there might be something wrong with the one claiming to represent the school. I will argue for the latter in this case.

The view that fillings prevent a purification bath is based on faulty and overly-literal reasoning. Yes, it is true that the filling prevents water from reaching the tooth. However, are there any exceptions to the rule that all parts of the body must be washed? Of course there are, even within the Ḥanafī way of reasoning. For example, if a person has an injury with a bandage over it, that part does not need to be washed.[2] An analogy could have been made that a cavity is a type of injury that is being covered with a filling and thus qualifies to be an exception to the rule.

Furthermore, people generally have cavities nowadays [due to their, usually poor, dietary habits] and using fillings is extremely common throughout the world. Imām Abū Ḥanīfah and his students made several exceptions to rulings because they were based on general necessity in the society. Anyone who peruses the works by Ḥanafī scholars would know that this is a fact. Here are some examples:

  • Imām Muḥammad [one of Abū Ḥanīfa’s most famous students] held that dung is not impure because the streets [during his time] were filled with it.[3]
  • Al-Karkhī preferred the opinion of Abū Ḥanīfa’s students over the Imām himself in that dry semen may be scratched off of a garment without having to wash it. He took this opinion due to the principle of general necessity.[4]
  • Imām Abū Ḥanīfah and many of his followers allowed pig hair to be used in the manufacture of certain products because other hair did not have the same quality.[5] This was an exception to the rule because he considered the parts of a pig to be impure, in essence.
  • Most of the rulings considering an impurity falling into a well are built on exceptions to the general rule.

Most of the more recognized scholars in the world who represent the Ḥanafī school believe that cavities are exceptions to the rule. This is more representative of a respectable legal school than the ruling of extracting teeth.

There are several lessons to be learnt from looking into this issue. First, if something sounds really strange and contrary to common sense, there might be an error in the explanation [or it could be your incorrect understanding of the explanation]. Second, not everyone who claims to represent Islam, let alone represent a legal school of jurisprudence, actually does so in reality. A shallow, literalist reading of some texts might appear to be in line with what some scholars have written, but a deeper analysis reveals that it might not be the case. Furthermore, we also learn that the vast heritage of Islamic literature must be properly understood in depth and in context if we want to be able to actually benefit from it. This means that we must invest more time and resources into arriving at a proper understanding of Islam and produce more students and scholars who are at a sufficient caliber to give proper and well-reasoned answers to the contemporary issues Muslims face today. Lastly, we must understand and admire the complexity of reasoning involved in formulating Islamic law and must promote depth of reasoning and shun shallow literalism which is plaguing the Muslim community in many parts of the world. May Allah guide us to His true teachings.



[1] His argument is very sophisticated and beyond the scope of this article.

[2] There are other details I am omitting for the sake of brevity.

[3] Al-Lubāb fī Sharḥ al-Kitāb, 1:52.

[4] Al-Ikhtiyār li Taʿlīl al-Mukhtār, 1:32.

[5] Al-Muḥīṭ al-Burhānī fī al-Fiqh al-Nuʿmānī, 1:476; Al-Lubāb fī Sharḥ al-Kitāb, 1:24.

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Why Does Allah Allow Bad Things to Happen?

Importance of the Question

Since you live in the 21st century, it is very probable that you have at least come across, if not been influenced by, what is known as “the problem of evil”. You might have heard it at school or work after someone was murdered: “How could God allow this to happen?!” You see it in articles and blog posts after the bombardment of an entire village: “What kind of God would allow these things to happen?!” You will even find it in intellectual circles and philosophy books: “If there really were a perfectly good, all-knowing, all-powerful God, then there would be no evil and suffering in the world.”

This so-called problem is one of the most common arguments that skeptics use to deny the existence of God. They assume that they have found an Achilles heel in the religions that believe in God. The common picture we have in our minds is of the skeptic atheist calmly presenting a logical, intellectual, and scientific argument while the religiously-inclined defendant becomes emotionally charged and tries to beat around the bush. However, the strength of this argument does not, in any way, have to do with logic or rationale but rather is emotionally charged to the core and attempts to hijack any sensitive event it can find.

Nor is it a new question. In fact, we find the angels asking something similar even before man was created:

“When your Lord told the angels, ‘I am putting a deputy on earth,’ they said, ‘How can you put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’ but he said, ‘I know what you know not.’” Qur’ān 2:30

In other words, God was asked, “Why would you allow this human, who will do bad things, to exist? Why not create someone who won’t do anything bad, like us?” The answer was, “I understand the wisdom in what I am doing, and you don’t.”

Exploding the Myth

That, in a nutshell, is the answer to the so-called problem. There is no logical contradiction between God being Infinitely Good, Infinitely Powerful, and allowing bad things to happen. The idea that the evil and suffering in the world present an unanswerable challenge to believers is finally being admitted by more open-minded researchers. Stump and Murray make the following confession in their book, Philosophy of Religion: The Big Questions:

“The logical problem of evil has been severely criticized in recent years and is regarded in the contemporary literature on the subject as largely discredited. In brief, the problem with this argument is that it assumes something false. Specifically, it assumes that a good being would prevent every evil it can under any circumstances…Thus, at best, the logical problem of evil shows us that if God exists, the only evil that exists is evil for which there is some good reason.”

The rhetorical questions now change to inquisitive questions. Rather than blurting out, “How could God do that?! What kind of God does these things?!” the question now is “Why is the world this way and what wisdom lies in that?”

Life is a Test

The secret to understanding the issue is so simple that it often eludes us. Life is a test. Man has been given a limited free will to do good or bad. Look at the following statement of the Prophet:

“The life of a believer is truly amazing. Everything that happens to him is good. This is only true for a believer and none else. If something pleasant happens to him, he is thankful and that is good for him. If something bad afflicts him, he is patient and that is also good for him.” (Muslim)

Affliction is part of the test of life. If God were to interfere and prevent every bad thing from happening to each individual, it would be like taking the test away from a student.

Saying that the bad that exists in the world is necessary does not mean that it is justified or praiseworthy. Believers are always commanded to enjoin the good and forbid the evil, which is another test in itself.

Wisdom is Behind the Scenes

Skeptics tend to focus on the negative aspects of things and claim that evil and suffering are ugly facts of life while believers try to see the bigger picture and find an explanation for the existence of such things. It is like someone who observes two people fighting and judges that both of them are in the wrong without thinking that one of them may be defending himself or standing up for justice. Evil is, to an extent, relative. A juicy hamburger may be a good thing for someone who’s hungry, but it’s definitely a bad thing for the cow that was slaughtered.

God said: “Fighting is ordained for you, though you dislike it. You may dislike something although it is good for you, or like something although it is bad for you: God knows and you do not.” Qur’ān 2:216

Being able to see the big picture often affects how we perceive what is good and bad. Someone with little foresight may claim that the injection of a vaccine into a patient, which contains traces of disease, is a bad thing while the injection of heroin, which leads to euphoria, is a good thing. Not being able to understand that the vaccine will help develop immunity to that disease or that taking heroin will develop into a drug addiction is due to a lack of medical knowledge and experience.

The following principle is demonstrated in the Qur’ān with the meeting between Moses and a man who was given direct knowledge from God about the unseen. Moses wanted to follow him and learn from him, but the man warned him, “You will not be able to bear with me patiently. How could you be patient in matters beyond your knowledge?” But Moses convinced him to let him tag along. Here is the rest of the story:

“They travelled on. Later, when they got into a boat, and the man made a hole in it, Moses said, ‘How could you make a hole in it? Do you want to drown its passengers? What a strange thing to do!’…Then, when they met a young boy and the man killed him, Moses said, ‘How could you kill an innocent person? He has not killed anyone! What a terrible thing to do!’…Then, when they came to a town and asked the inhabitants for food but were refused hospitality, they saw a wall there that was on the point of falling down and the man repaired it. Moses said, ‘But if you wished you could have taken payment for doing that.’ He said, ‘This is where you and I part company. I will tell you the meaning of the things you could not bear with patiently: the boat belonged to some needy people who made their living from the sea and I damaged it because I knew that coming after them was a king who was seizing every [serviceable] boat by force. The young boy had parents who were people of faith, and so, fearing he would trouble them through wickedness and disbelief, we wished that their Lord should give them another child-purer and more compassionate-in his place. The wall belonged to two young orphans in the town and there was buried treasure beneath it belonging to them. Their father had been a righteous man, so your Lord intended them to reach maturity and then dig up their treasure as a mercy from your Lord. I did not do [these things] of my own accord: these are the explanations for those things you could not bear with patience.’”  Qur’ān 18:71-82

It was the lack of knowledge and foresight that led Moses to object to what the man did. Likewise, we find ourselves, as limited humans, in similar situations. However, we do have enough insight to see some of the wisdoms behind the general occurrences of bad things.

Some Good Reasons Why Evil Exists

1. Suffering and affliction often help return us to the obedience of God.

God said:

“We sent messengers before you [Prophet] to many communities and afflicted their people with suffering and hardships, so that they might learn humility. If only they had learned humility when suffering came from Us! But no, their hearts became hard…” Qur’ān 6:42-43

There is a lesson in the conversion of the famous rock star, Cat Stevens, now known as Yusuf Islam. He related the story himself:

“After a year of financial success and high living, I became very ill. I contracted T.B. (tuberculosis) and had to be hospitalized. It was then that I started to think; what is going to happen to me? Am I just a body? Is my goal in life merely to satisfy this body? I realized this calamity was a blessing given to me by God and a chance to open my eyes, to learn ‘Why I am here, why I am in bed.’ I started looking for some of the answers.”

2. It differentiates between the good and bad people.

God said:

“Do people think they will be left alone after saying, ‘We believe’ without being put to the test? We tested those who went before them: God will certainly mark out which ones are truthful and which are lying.” Qur’ān 29:2-3

Upon analysis, we realize that the Prophets, who are the highest in rank in the sight of God, faced the most difficult tests of all people. Clearly, merit must be earned.

3 Affliction is necessary to experience its opposite feelings of joy and achievement.

God said:

“With hardship comes ease. Indeed, with hardship comes ease.” Qur’an 94:5-6

The appreciation of ease and comfort could only exist and be appreciated if the feelings of hardship also existed and were known or experienced. In Chinese Philosophy, the concept of yin and yang is employed to explain this phenomenon. Each part is necessary to understand the unity of the whole. They are in equilibrium: if one disappears, the other must disappear as well, leaving emptiness.

Conclusion

It should be patently clear that the inability to see the wisdom behind something should not be a cause of criticizing that thing. Of course, the final analysis concerning all of this is: God knows best.

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Guide of the Believer – NEW BOOK

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Purification and Prayer in Islam

Authored by Mustafa Umar

This work presents the essential details of purification and prayer which should be known by every serious Muslim. Avoiding hypothetical and unlikely cases, it deals with issues that are likely to arise in the life of the average urban Muslim. Among the main features of this book is that it balances legal issues with healthy doses of spirituality and addresses contemporary issues such as wearing nail polish, holding a digital Qur’an without purifying, using hormones to delay menstruation, praying on an airplane, etc. Guide of the Believer is like a modern instruction manual which can be read independently or studied in detail with an expert in the field.

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