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Islam: Between the Macro & Micro

All praise is due to Allāh and may the blessings and peace of Allāh be upon the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam).

Islām is the final divine message to humanity possessing a number of characteristics that none of the previous messages had. This, in itself, qualifies Islām as being the only universal and eternal way of life providing every living being, including the animals, with justice and inner peace.

And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.[1]

Indeed, this Qur’an guides to that which is most suitable and gives good tidings to the believers who do righteous deeds that they will have a great reward.[2]

Islām is unique, magnificent in its essence and application, such that it can be viewed, assessed and implemented from multiple angles and scales. It is at once a sophisticated system and an incredibly simple one. Its details are multifarious and multifaceted requiring time and dedication without limits to learn in their entirety. And yet, it can also be explained in a single minute. It is this nature that allows Islām to be viewed on a macro level, whereby the main principles, features, aims and qualities of Islām can be learned and understood first. Conversely, the focus of the micro approach to Islām is in the detailed rulings of the various Islamic practices including prayer, zakāt, fasting and the rulings on everyday human practices such as food consumption and what is ḥalāl and harām of it, clothing and the different types of it, social relationships and their different details, and so on.

A fundamental question that should be asked here is: which approach is more suitable in a particular context? A quick survey of the Qur’anic—and prophetic—methodology, confirms that the macro approach is the dominant of the two. In fact, the micro approach to Islām is only taken after establishing the main features of the subject at hand. In other words, the micro approach is built on the macro approach; just as the branches of the tree are dependent upon the boughs which, in turn, are dependent on the trunk.

In Sūrah al-Fātiha, which is the opening chapter of the Qur’ān and serves as the summary of the entire Qur’ān, we find a macro-level description of what Islām is.

In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful.
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning.
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Guide us on the straight path,
the path of those who have received your grace;
not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.”

The largest chapter of the Qur’ān, Sūrah al-Baqarah, confirms this same approach, as well.  This chapter includes the largest volume of Islāmic information covering: creed; Islāmic history and the story of creation; stories of the Prophet Mūsā (ʿalayhi al-Salām) and Banī Isrāīl; stories of Ibrāhīm (ʿalayhi al-Salām); the direction of prayer; punishments; fasting; Ḥajj; the rulings on divorce; jihād, politics and finance. It is true that we find some details of these main aspects of faith within the Sūrah, however the predominant style of the chapter is in establishing the outline and framework of these areas. The same can be said of the overwhelming majority of the Qur’ān.

If we reflect upon the ḥadīths and traditions of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) we see a similar approach. Most of the statements of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) which have been agreed upon by scholars as authentic pertain to the main features of Islām as a whole or its main pillars, mannerisms, obligations and prohibitions. The best evidence of this that can be presented here is the methodology of daʿwah the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) taught his great companion Muʿāth b. Jabal (raḍiy Allāhu ʿanhu) when he sent him to Yemen to call its people to Islām. He said to him,

“You will go to people of the Scripture (i.e. the Jews and the Christians). First of all invite them to testify that lā ilāha illa Allāh (there is no true god except Allāh) and that Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is His slave and Messenger. If they accept this, then tell them that Allāh has enjoined upon them five Salawāt (prayers) during the day and night. And if they accept it, then tell them that Allāh has made the payment of Zakāt obligatory upon them. It should be collected from their rich and distributed among their poor. And if they agree to it, do not take (as a share of Zakāt) the best of their properties. Beware of the supplications of the oppressed, for there is no barrier between it and Allāh.”[4]

This is further elucidated in the main books of prophetic literature in which we find the same approach being followed.

Take as an example Riyādh al-Sāliīn by Imām al-Nawawi (raḥimahu Allāhu) which includes the main authentic statements of the Prophet (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) regarding almost every activity human beings engage in. The majority of its 1,896 aḥādīth establish macro level principals such as: actions are judged by their intention; each action that is not in accordance to our Dīn is rejected; Islām is built upon five pillars; Īmān is to believe in the six articles of faith; Iḥsān is to worship Allāh as you see him; every intoxicant is Khamr, and every intoxicant is prohibited; and every act of goodness is (considered as) Sadaqah.

The early scholars of Islām would likewise write short books, known as mutūn, for students to start with in their journey to studying Islām. Imām Abū Ja’far al-Taḥāwī (raḥimahu Allāhu) wrote one of the early discourses concerning the Islamic ʿAqīdah. We again find similar to the following statements in that short book:

“We say about Allāh’s unity, believing by Allāh’s help, that:

1. Allāh is One, without any partners. 2. There is nothing like Him. 3. There is nothing that can overwhelm Him. […] 18. He created creation with His knowledge. 19. He appointed destinies for those He created. […] 29. And we are certain that Muḥammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is His chosen Servant and elect Prophet and His Messenger with whom He is well pleased. 30. And that he is the Seal of the Prophets and the Imām of the God-fearing and the most honoured of all the messengers and the Beloved of the Lord of all the worlds. 31. Every claim to Prophet-hood after Him is falsehood and deceit…”

The same can be said about Islamic jurisprudence and other sciences of Islām. Later scholars began to explain these short books and thus explored and illustrated different levels of detail. Some scholars even went so far as to measure the distance determining a person as a “musāfir” (traveller) by the number of grains of sand placed side by side! Others specified the number of strands of hair that need be removed to violate the state of Iḥrām, for example. More examples can be given of such details some scholars focused their energies on. There was a need for some to engage in this kind of approach, without doubt. However it is sad that the books focusing on details became the first books students would reach for in their study of Islām. This has resulted in some students of knowledge becoming so obsessed with these details that they have forgotten the fundamental, macro-level principles upon which these details sit.

As a result, some Muslims are more worried about the presence of E-numbers in their food than whether their earnings are ḥalāl or ḥarām. Others are more worried about the details of the outward actions during prayer such as how to move the hands and where to place them, than about the inner khushūʿ (humility, concentration) in their prayers. Many young Muslims are more worried about bidʿah than the unity of the Ummah. Some who wish to study ʿAqīdah likewise sadly spend disproportionate energy on technical details of how to treat the names and attributes of Allāh, rather than understanding their meanings and the impact of these meanings on the person’s life.

Prioritising the micro approach leads to many other disadvantages. It presents the Sharīʿā and Islām as a collection of rituals that do not constitute a system capable of running large societies or building great civilisations. Judaism is often presented as an example of such a religion—many orthodox Jews are known to be preoccupied with detailed rituals in their faith. In fact, the story mentioned in the Qur’ān of Allāh’s command to Banī Isrā’īl to slaughter a cow is testimony to that.

Some people may fail to distinguish between the macro and micro in ʿAqīdah, for example. This can cause them to see the relatively minor differences amongst Muslims in ʿAqīdah—such as how to understand the details of some divine names and attributes whilst confirming that to Allāh belong the beautiful names and perfect attributes—as grounds for takfīr or at least hatred amongst fellow Muslims. We need to remember that the main concepts of ʿAqīdah include the likes of what Imām al-Taḥāwī mentioned earlier; believing in the oneness of Allāh, submission to Him, that the Prophet Muhammad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam) is His final messenger, believing in the Day of Resurrection, and other core articles of faith.

Prioritising the macro approach in any given circumstance is a trait of leaders and, as such, the main sources of Islām used this approach as previously explained. Allāh commanded this Ummah to be the leading nation for the entire humankind.

You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allāh.[5]

Taking the macro approach also creates the correct and necessary mindset for the scholars of the Ummah today. These scholars are able to identify the key problems of the Ummah and provide suitable solutions accordingly. They are able to prioritise daʿwah and Islamic activism correctly.  Their ability to distinguish between what is major and what is relatively minor empowers them and they possess the appropriate and adequate tools to manoeuvre within the boundaries of Islām. This is key to finding the best answers for critical contemporary questions related to the social and political life of Muslims in the 21st century.

Applying the macro approach illustrates the beauty of the Sharīʿāh while rejecting it as a model presents a negative and unattractive image of Islām to both Muslims and non-Muslims. It also, unfortunately, results in our failing to identify our brothers and sisters within the wider circle of Islām, instead focusing on relatively minor details that differentiate us. After all, if you place your focus solely on the micro details of Islām you will see those who differ with you on minor issues as being completely alien to you. This approach will lead to the disunity of the Ummah while utilising the macro approach helps in unifying the Ummah. And there is no better time to readdress this imbalance than the tumultuous yet dynamic present that the Ummah is going through.

And Allāh knows best.

May the peace and blessings of Allāh be upon His Noble Prophet Muhamad (sall Allāhu ʿalayhi wa sallam)



[1] Al-Qur’ān 21:107

[2] Al-Qur’ān 17:9

[3] Al-Qur’ān, 1

[4] Al-Bukhārī and Muslim

[5] Al-Qur’ān, 3:110

About Shaikh (Dr) Haitham Al-Haddad

Dr. Haitham al-Haddad is a jurist and serves as a judge for the Islamic Council of Europe. He has studied the Islamic sciences for over 20 years under the tutelage of renowned scholars such as the late Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia as well as the retired Head of the Kingdom's Higher Judiciary Council. He specialises in many of the Islamic sciences and submitted his doctoral thesis on Islamic jurisprudence concerning Muslim minorities. Shaikh Haitham is highly respected having specialised knowledge in the field of fiqh, usul al-fiqh, maqasid al-shari'ah, ulum al-Qur’an, tafsir, aqidah, and fiqh al-hadith. He provides complex theories which address the role of Islamic jurisprudence within a western environment whilst also critically re-analysing the approach of Islamic jurists in forming legal rulings (ifta’) within a western socio-political context. He has many well known students most of whom are active in dawah and teaching in the West. The shaikh is an Islamic jurist (faqih) and as such is qualified to deliver verdicts as a judge under Islamic law, a role he undertakes at the Islamic Council of Europe as Islamic judge and treasurer. Dr Haitham al-Haddad also sits on various the boards of advisors for Islamic organisations, mainly in the United Kingdom but also around the world.


  1. Some very beneficial points made in this article. However, let’s lead by what we preach, and not bring disunity amongst the Muslims this year during Ramadaan with the whole “18 degrees Fajr” issue again – let’s leave that back in 2012, and move on!

  2. With the greatest respect and affection for Shaykh Haytham. There is always wisdom which comes from the respected Shaykh. What he has written is the real cause of the lost tribe of young muslims today, who are so deeply indulged in ‘micro’ Islam that they have little time for the far more important ‘macro’ Islam. Jazakallah khayr Shaikh, and may Allah subhana wa taala bless you, grant you good health and long life, and may you guide us all for a long long time

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