Answered by Sidi Moustafa Elqabbany
Book Review: The Reliance of the Traveller, translated by Sheikh Nuh Keller
It is really hard to praise this book enough. It stands, without equal or competitor, as the primary Sunni manual of Islam in English. There is simply no other book that comes close, bar none. This is true not only because of the relevance of its content, but also because of its rigour and style. It is also fairly useful to readers of Arabic, as most of its content appears in both languages, separated by a vertical margin.
The Reliance of the Traveller touches almost every aspect of classical Islamic identity. (By ‘classical Islamic identity’, I mean those things that haven’t changed for the past several hundred years. Modern issues are an important part of contemporary Islamic identity, but addressing them without a firm footing in classical scholarship is like building a space shuttle without studying Newtonian mechanics.) At its core is a fiqh manual: Ahmad Ibn Naqib Al-Misri’s Umdah As-Salik, which accounts for books E through O. Books A through D touch on Islamic epistemology, the virtue and importance of acquiring sacred knowledge, the categorization of knowledge, Islamic legal theory, and the validity of following qualified scholarship. This last topic is enormously relevant in a world where everyone with Saheeh Al-Bukhaaree is a Muftee (sic). Books P through T will crush the idol within you. Read them if you try to cry out of fear of Allah and can’t, or if you think you might not be so great, but you’re better than most people and should end up fairing well in the hereafter. Book U presents a scholarly exegesis of the Gabriel hadith, which outlines the fundamental bases of our religion: faith, practice, and spiritual clarity. Book V is the chapter of belief in Allah and His messenger from Imam Ghazali’s Ihya Uloom Ad-Deen. While it is intended for laymen, it subtly clarifies the orthodox belief regarding Allah’s Transcendence above space and time, an issue that distinguishes orthodox Sunni Islam from some fringe movements. Much of book W would do well as a separate publication titled, “The Sunni Position on Controversial Topics of Our Time”. The range of topics covered is too long to list here, but some of them include Sufism, innovation (Ar. bid’ah), Shi’ism, celebrating the Prophet’s birthday (Allah bless him and grant him peace), the Ash’ari school, supplicating Allah through an intermediary (Ar. tawassul) , contraception, masturbation, insurance, and dealing with interest in non-Muslim lands. Book X lists biographies for most of the major figures mentioned in other parts of the text. Book Y is the bibliography; reading through it gives the advanced student of knowledge an idea of what books to buy and study. Book Z is a thorough index.
The Reliance of the Traveller is an authoritative book. My rough guess would be that, apart from the biographical notes and index, less than three percent of the text is Sheikh Nuh Keller’s own opinion. As regards the core fiqh manual, he outlines his convention clearly on page xxii: statements delimited by ‘n:’ are his own comments, while those delimited by ‘A:’, ‘O:’, and other characters belong to the corresponding scholar. By default, it is Ahmad Ibn Naqib himself who speaks in the fiqh manual. Everyone else is clearly identified. In other sections of the text, the quoted scholar is named at the beginning of the passage and a reference to the appropriate entry in book Y (the bibliography) is found at the end of the passage. Those who argue against the content of this book are not arguing against Sheikh Nuh Keller. Rather, they are arguing against the quoted author, who is often an undeniable authority, like Imam Nawawi or Ghazali. And when the translator feels that certain passages are better left untranslated, he includes them (in Arabic), but puts them within square brackets. The omitted passages are usually concerning highly unusual legal questions that might alienate a western reader. However, the translator, in his zeal for intellectual rigour and honesty, includes them nonetheless. Such intellectual honesty is unfortunately uncommon. (How many times have I read articles on innovation (Ar. bid’ah) where an authoritative imam is quoted out of context so the writer can make his point?) The Reliance of the Traveller also saves the researcher and student a lot of time. If one wants to read further on a topic, one should check The Reliance of the Traveller first. It will most likely point one to authoritative texts on the issue. This is important when establishing the authoritative Sunni position for many controversial topics. People might say, “Nuh Keller – who’s he?”, but they’re unlikely to say that about Imam Suyuti or Mulla Ali Al-Qari.
The Reliance of the Traveller is a readable book. Sorry, but Troo Sunnee Islaam from Qur’aan and Sunnah, by Dar Al-Harb Publications just doesn’t cut it. Western readers want something that looks, feels, and reads like a real book. What’s missing from The Reliance of the Traveller is the fifth grade vocabulary, sweeping statements, and ideologically blackmailing diatribes (“believe this little book or you’ll burn in Hell”) found in many modern Islamic publications. The Reliance of the Traveller is the stick with which modernists, who cry that traditional Islam is uneducated an inflexible, can be beaten. Youth don’t want to be caught in the backwaters with hicks. During Imam Ghazali’s day, Arab Neoplatonism was all the rage, and risked winning the hearts of the youth. While there was no shortage of traditional Islam, it took Imam Ghazali’s surgical intellect and persuasive style to finally kill Arab Neoplatinism and renew interest in classical Islam. Perhaps The Reliance of the Traveller will play a similar role in our times.
Allah has not permitted perfection for any book other than His own. Traditionally, Muslims learned by carefully reading texts over with scholars. In this way, any inaccuracies, omissions, and ambiguities would be clarified. Since these blemishes must necessarily exist in any human composition, one cannot depend entirely on this (or any human) book to be the final word on all matters. Furthermore, The Reliance of the Traveller is an intermediate-level book. Readers who haven’t studied basic texts might be confused by all the details, and will likely miss some assumptions that more advanced readers are aware of. People who are absolutely new to Islam will probably not benefit from the text until they become familiar with its basic faith and practices. Finally, Islam is a religion for everyone, not just intellectuals. Some people have complained that The Reliance of the Traveller is a difficult and confusing book, so it’s not for everyone.
— Moustafa Mounir Elqabbany مصطفى منير القباني