🙂 The word “wassatiyyah” is an Arabic word and it is very popularly used to describe a concept and a quality Allah (swt) used to describe the community of believers in the very famous verse, “And thus we have made you a ‘wasat’ nation …” It is extremely important, and, interestingly, very uncommon, to quote the very verse before this one since this verse starts with the words “and thus.” The verse before says, “… Say the East and the West belong only to Allah; He guides whom he wills to a straight path.” This is the straight path of His guidance. The path of Islam. The path of being upright and straight. Those who follow this path will be from this community of believers described in the very next verse, “And thus we have made you a ‘wasat’ nation …”
So in this long post, I will shed some light on the word and the concept as I understand them and I think it should apply. I will aslo try to shed some light on some of the misunderstandings of the word and its wrong application. I structured the post to be in a Q and A format as I like to write in this format. It is a little long so read it in pieces. If you feel there is a question that needs to be answered or an answer that is not clear, please do not hesitate to comment. Ready, set, ask!
What is the right translation for this word?
Linguistically the word means several things. Going through the Arabic usage of the word, you can find it mean several meanings (that are very related). It contains the meaning of goodness, justice, honor, glorification, and high stature. It also contains the meaning of being in the middle and also the meaning of moderation. The usage of this word, and different versions of it, in the Qur’an and the words of the Prophet is always around these meanings.
So, what is the meaning of this concept that describes the community of believers?
Scholars have spoken a lot about this concept especially commenting on the verse mentioned above. They used the linguistic meaning of the word as well as what the prophet said about the word and about this very verse and arrived at the following. This community of believers is a community of 1) goodness, and 2) moderation. And with goodness and moderation comes a list of attributes (see below). If you look at the next few Q/A you will see how these two qualities interact.
Why don’t we just use moderation to describe wassatiyyah?
This single meaning of “wasat” which means something 1) in the middle or 2) something not excessive is very commonly used to describe many things none of which can apply when describing Islam or the community of believers that follows it. The word “wasat” DOES mean something in the middle, something between good and bad. It does also mean people in the middle who do not belong to a particular view or hold tight to a particular group. In that sense, it is very close to the English word “moderation.” Using moderation to describe wassatiyyah gives the impression of all sorts of wrong meanings. It can make people feel that it is a call for mediocrity. It can give the impression that one has to be close to everyone and agree with everyone and give in beliefs and conviction to be in this middle state. This is absolutely different than what the comprehensive meaning of the word “wasat” is and this sure creates some wrong application in life. If you add the the other major component of the word, that is to be good, excellent, of high quality, of high stature, or of high honor, you are basically clarifying what you mean by moderation. It makes clear that this middle point is a good point, a point that is better than other points. In other words, one should keep in mind that moderation is a good quality if and only if it protects you from being excessively bad and NOT from being good. It warns you that attaining excellence is completely different than being excessive. One can freely use the word moderation as long as it is clear that it is the opposite of excessiveness NOT excellence.
Why don’t we just use good or excellent to describe wassatiyyah?
This is a more interesting question than the one before. The previous question tried to help people, who are trapped in the wrong definition of moderation, to strive for excellence. On the other hand, this question aims at helping people, who are trapped in the wrong definition of “being good,” or “being excellent,” to the embrace the right definition. While striving for excellent, people tend to be excessive. Excessiveness is not good, and hence should not be a quality of the “wasat.” For example, in striving for excellence to devote oneself to Allah, some of the people of the book exceeded what Allah wanted them to do and did things that put difficulties on them and took them away from many other obligations Allah obligated them with. As another example, the extreme love for the messengers of Allah, may peace by upon them all, should not be excessive to the extent of thinking of them beyond their human nature and worship them as had happened to messengers in the past. The prophet (pbuh) was very careful about this excessiveness and he warned us not to be excessive in our beliefs, and in our actions.
Does Islam call for mediocrity then?
It is very clear from the questions above that Islam does not call for mediocrity. On the contrary, it calls for excellence in all aspect as the messenger (pbuh) mentioned: “Allah has prescribed Ihsan (excellence) upon everything …” Describing the same community of believers in the Qur’an to be “the best community that has been sent for mankind” and a community guided to the straight path is definitely a clear evidence against this view of being mediocre or at a place between good and bad.
Why being excessive in good things is something bad?
This is also a very interesting question. A Muslim defines good things from the teachings and the guidance of the Qur’an and the teachings of the Messenger (pbuh). However, Allah did prescribe limits to what he asks us to do and violating those limits, by either being deficient or excessive, has bad consequences that Allah does not want us to fall in. Here are a few of these bad consequences of being excessive:
- Obligating ourselves of something we can’t bear or maintain will result in boredom, tiredness, and burn out. This means we can’t be consistent and constant in what we do, something definitely will take us away from fulfilling even the very same thing we were excessive in.
- Being excessive in one obligation (doing more than the limits set for this obligation) would make us miss up with other obligations. Allah obligated us with many things and set limits for all of them. One needs to maintain balance between those obligations within the limits in order for us to accomplish all of them. Excessiveness in any of these would take away from others
- One can arrive at a wrong belief or a bad conviction when exceeding the limits. For example, the love to the prophet (pbuh) should be within the limit set by Allah (swt). Otherwise, this would lead to what happened to the nations before us when they exceeded the limit and place a devine nature on their prophets and messengers and finally worshipped them in place of Allah.
Can you give us examples or categories of excessiveness that are bad?
Here are a few examples
- Obligating yourself with something Allah did not make obligatory on you such as the few people who wanted to obligate themselves with contant, whole-night prayer or fasting for their whole life at the time of the prophet (pbuh)
- Abandoning some obligations while striving to excel in another such as the great companion Abu Addarda’ when he devoted his time to worship and was deficient in taking care of his health, family, and guests.
- Depriving yourself from permissible food, drink, or act. Allah created those permissible things and made them permissible for a purpose.
- Being excessive in judging people by admiring, praising, and loving people so much so you are obstructed from evaluating their word and actions and turn into a blind follower
- Being excessive in judging people by dispraising them so much so you are obstructed from seeing the good in them and learn from them
Let people be excessive. They have good intention and Allah will guide them
That is the main hope that Allah guides us all. That is what we are asking him all the time: to guide us to the straight path. However, we should not let ourselves be excessive. As you can see from the few consequences above, it is really dangerous. The prophet (pbuh) intervened right away to stop any excessiveness he saw or even anticipated. Here are a few examples:
- When he anticipated some excessiveness due to the strong devotion Islam creates in the hearts of people, he mad the clear warning, “beware of excessiveness in the deen, ...” and “The excessive people have perished“
- When he anticipated some excessiveness in loving him and glorifying him he warned, “Do not be excessive in glorifying me as the Christian did to Jesus“
- When he found excessiveness in obligating oneself in the case of the three people who wanted to obligate themselves with excessive praying and fasting and deprive themselves from marrying women, he assertively called them and told them that this is not his tradition and whoever leaves his tradition (by this excessiveness) does not belong to him
- When he saw a misbalance in the life of Abu Ayyoub, focusing on one aspect and leaving other duties, he called him and brought him back to moderation
- When he saw excessiveness from Abdul Allah ibn Amr in reading the Qur’an and being excessive in it, he brought him back to moderation.
This is non sense, are you telling us we should not strive for the best or put effort and sweat?
Of course not! 🙂 Remember, the wassatiyyah means excellence as well. Striving for excellence is not excessiveness. Seeking perfection and doing our best is not excessiveness. Being experts in what we do is not excessiveness. Excessiveness is when we exceed the boundaries set by Allah so that we can’t maintain a reasonable life, or be deficient in fulling all our obligations. Wassatiyyah is the quality of finding the righ belief and then believe in it so much, finding the right action and doing our best to do it, and determining the right limits and staying within them. It is the quality that guarantees excellence.
How do you define excessiveness then?
This is a bottom line question. The short answer is to stay within the limits of what Allah and His Messenger prescribed for us and to always ask Allah to keep you on the straight path. The little longer answer is to keep this concept always in mind and try to develop the knowledge and the skills of being able to live by it. In the Qur’an and in the words and the life of the messenger is a great wealth to develop this quality. Scholars have a much bigger role in making it easy for us to understand those limits and to stay within them.
Isn’t it dangerous to judge things to be excessive or judge people to be excessive?
Judging people is dangerous all the time. Judging actions, especially without being informed of the circumstances is dangerous too. However, it is very important that we learn the attributes of wassatiyyah, live by it, and teach it to people around us. Our scholars can play a big role in promoting this understanding and so can all of us. We should not be in the business of judging. Rather, we should be in the business of guidance, advice, help, and support. For example, we may judge people who focus on their career to be extreme while this may be the ultimate wassatiyah given their very status.
It looks like being loose is safer?
Of course not! Limits may not be exceeded in both direction: no excess and no inadequacy. Having loose beliefs, inadequate commitment, deficient effort of carrying out obligations, being excessive in eating, drinking, and enjoying is just as bad and can lead to similar consequences like the other side of excessiveness. The quality of wassatiyyah is to be protected from any excessiveness both above the limits or below the limits.
Don’t you think choices of wassatiyyah depend on many factors?
Of course. First of all, there is always room within the limits that people differ. I can pray two short extra rak’at at night every day and I am within the limit. Another person can pray 8 or 20 long ones and still be within the limit. I can decide to make wudu for every prayer and I am still within the limit and another can just pray with one wudu as long as he has not broken his wudu. The straight path, the path of moderation is not a thin line. Rather it is a path that allow many to walk in and they can all be viewed as on the straight path.
In addition to that and as described in some of the previous questions, arriving at the choices of wassatiyyah really depends on circumstances. A simple (and illustrative) example would be charity. Is giving half of my money to a poor person an act of wassatiyyah? Definitely giving in charity is an act of good. And giving more is definitely better. However, many factors come in. What other obligations do I have besides helping this poor person? Can I still maintain those obligations after giving half of my money? Also, how much need is this person in? What is he going to do with half of my money? Would it help him if he gets this much money? The answer is definitely depends on the situation.
If I dedicate my life to studying Islamic knowledge, would I be excessive? The answer is, it depends, on many factors. For example, what other obligation do I have in life that will be affected by this move? Do my community need such a move? Am I the best one to do it? Is there anything else I can excel at and no one can do except me and a few like me?
The answer to these questions and other questions are going to be different from one person to another and from one situation to another and hence the choice of wassatiyyah. The excellent moderate point for the mom whose child is handicapped is probably to put all her time in taking care of him.
How is it related to extremism?
Again extremism is also one of the concepts that creates some confusion similar to its opposite, moderation. If extremism describes being excessive and exceeding the limit as described above, then wassatiyyah is the opposite of extremism. If extremism is, as viewed by many, is to be so committed to your belief and or so devoted to what you do, then extremism is not bad. In general people use extremism and they mean bad extremes but often times they use it the wrong way, and hence this warning.
What are the attributes of Wassatiyyah?
Several scholars studied this concept and arrived at a few attributes that describes the community of believers labeled with this label of wassatiyyah. Those attributes are:
- Goodness, being our best, being beneficial to others, being guiding to others. They learned that from the linguistic meaning of the word and from the verse “we have always been the best community that was sent to mankind ...”
- Justice. They learned that from a description by the prophet in which he said, “wasat is to be just.” It is obvious that one needs to be just in the duties and the obligation with oneself, within the family, and within the society we live in in order to maintain goodness.
- Easiness and removing burdens. It is obvious that the component of moderation in wassatiyyah would remove all the burdens: the burdens of excessiveness which will lead to a lot of difficulties as stated above and the burdens that would come about from the inadequacy of fulfilling our obligation. There are, the burdens of not being moderate!
- Wisdom. It is obvious that arriving at those excellent choices, staying away from excessiveness, and balance obligations require a lot of wisdom.
- Istiqamah, being upright, straight and focused. Since moderation can leave an impression of being loose, holding the stick from the middle, or pleasing to people, this attribute makes sure that wassatiyyah means being on the straight path focused and moving in the right direction with no drifting, left or right, with no excessiveness or inadequacy.
- moderation. The choice of wassatiyya is always between extremes that pulls in many directions. All these extremes, if we give in to any of them, will take us away from the best choice. That is why the prophet, drawing a straight line representing “the straight path,” drew two lines to its left and another two to its right showing that maintaining ourselves on the straight path will be in between paths of temptations on the left and the right.
If Islam is the religion of Wassatiyyah, isn’t it guaranteed to have this quality by just being a Muslim?
The sort answer is yes! The little longer answer is yes if we follow Islam while keeping this quality in mind. Islam has attributes and those attributes have to show themselves in our embracing of Islam for us to see the benefits of Islam on ourselves and our society. Also, those attributes, wassatiyyah included, have to be promoted and developed in the society. Some people, good Muslims, drifted a bit from this quality and they created problems for themselves, for people around them, and for the greater society.
Can you give us examples of how this concept can apply to our life?
In almost all our lives. Here is a few examples:
- To adopt the correct beliefs as they are in the Qur’an and the tradition of the prophet. For example, we believe in the unseen as portrayed in the Qur’an and by the authentic tradition of the prophet and reject any myths and fiction that has no evidence.
- To rectify our love to the prophets of Allah. We know that they are human beings yet the best creation of Allah and our role models
- To control our judgement on people so we can learn from them without glorifying their opinions
- To live a life of devotion to Allah and commitment to Islam without burdening ourselves or people around us with unnecessary and excessive actions
- To balance between all the duties Allah put on us and excel in all of them
- To balance between being gradual and incremental and not being slow and lazy
- To have the right tawakul, reliance on Allah, without dropping the means and hard work
- To maintain a balance between disliking wrong actions and beliefs while having respect for people and love for them and their guidance
- And the list can go for ever …
What is this image on the right?
With all due apology to mathematicians, I will be a little sloppy. This image is a graph of a function. The function is a function of 2 parameters x and y. x and y represent the coordinates on the horizontal surface. At every x and y, the function has a value. The purpose of this mathematical problem is to find the position x and y where the function has a high value. As you can see, the function has hills and vallies. There are mathematical algorithms of solving getting the best x and y that gets the maximum value of the function. Those mathematical algorithm can get trapped in a local maximum thinking that they arrived at the maximum point (local maximum are those little hills in the graph). In some real life problems, the problem is constrained; that is you cannot just move freely at any x or any y to get the maximum. You can change x and y to get the maximum subject to some constraints. This makes the problem more difficult and make the solution more complicated. What is interesting is that the real like mathematical problems are in many many parameters, many more than just two, x and y. This makes the problem even harder and the algorithm much slower.
After boring you with this mathematical sloppiness, I want to draw the analogy. Our life is an endeavor of searching for excellence, the global excellence. There are many parameters (choices) we can make and those choices are constrained by our ability and our circumstances. Our algorithm is based on the Qur’an and the tradition of the prophet and our computer (intellect) is way more powerful that the digital one. Many of us are trapped in local maxima (similar to some of the algorithms) and many of us are even still searching in vallies. The smart person is not the person who knows what the maximum value is or where the maximum value is. Rather, it is smart to know how to arrive at this value of excellence when the parameters change and when the constraints change; that is to have the quality of wassatiyyah, “always seeking a point of excellence keeping in mind all the polling forces”
The only difference in the analogy is that we, in this endeavor, are equipped with guidance from Allah, and a guarantee that those who strive (to find this excellence) will be guided by Allah; “And those who strive in our cause, we will guide them to our ways, and verily Allah is with those who are muhsineen [seekers of excellence.]”
Is there any more questions that you have not discussed?
Probably yes, please share them.
Is there a chance your answers and explanation can be wrong?
Of course. We will only know if you bring them up.