Unless otherwise indicated, these papers were penned
by El-Hajj Hisham Mahmoud.
Dr. Cornel West begins his book, Black Prophetic Fire, by asking the question: “Have we forgotten how beautiful it is to be on fire for justice?” Inherent in this question is a nostalgia of sorts, a reminiscence of the remnants of a painful past that shook the nation and raised a generation of men and women who had two things in common: they were prophetic, and they were “on fire for justice.” To be prophetic is to be on fire for justice, though being on fire for justice does not necessarily make one prophetic. The prophet, therefore, is needed to exemplify what it means to be on fire for justice. Was there not an unrelenting fire in the heart of the prisoner who returned to Plato’s cave to save his fellow inmates from delusion! Socrates said that they would seek to kill such a person who would even dare to question their perception of reality, and so it was, one after the other: Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton, Harry Moore, Harriette Moore, Malcolm X, and the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among myriad other prophets who were on fire for justice.
Fire and justice, indeed, coalesce in this world and the next as intimately and with the same urgency as yin and yang. Fire fans the flames of justice in this life, and justice ushers to the Fire in the hereafter. When the waters of apathy extinguish the fervor of fire, justice laughs at the mockery of herself; justice weeps as the blind try to lawyer her into finally seeing through their eyes that it’s merely as simple as black or white. But when the fire breathes itself into a blaze, then justice burns in the fiery eyes of those who spend sleepless nights tending to the affairs of the restless; justice rides the bull toward the red flag. And nowhere does it rage with as much intensity than in the heart of a prophet! In the words of the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“In a sense, the calling of the prophet may be described as that of an advocate or champion, speaking for those who are too weak to plead their own cause. Indeed, the major activity of the prophets was interference, remonstrating about wrongs inflicted on other people, meddling in affairs which were seemingly neither their concern nor their responsibility.”
And so it was, a man walked across the desert with his family, after serving his father-in-law for ten years, unassuming and in transition, treading the path of an unknown future, heedless to the impossible burden he would shoulder. وَهَلْ أَتَاكَ حَدِيثُ مُوسَىٰ . إِذْ رَأَىٰ نَارًا فَقَالَ لِأَهْلِهِ امْكُثُوا إِنِّي آنَسْتُ نَارًا لَّعَلِّي آتِيكُم مِّنْهَا بِقَبَسٍ أَوْ أَجِدُ عَلَى النَّارِ هُدًى . “And has the account of Moses reached you? Lo, he saw a fire, and so he said to his family, ‘Wait here! I see a fire afar off. Perhaps I can bring you a brand therefrom, or find some guidance at the fire” (ṭā hā 20:9-10). Behold, God addresses the Seal of the Prophets and Messengers, Muhammad, about Moses. It should be noted that every verse of the Qur’an is called a sign, each sign is composed of symbols, and every symbol symbolizes symbols. Hence, the brand was the blazing fire of justice, and the guidance was what made it prophetic. How beautiful, indeed, to be on fire for justice!
Of all the prophets God mentions in the Qur’an, including the one to whom He revealed it, the legacy of Moses predominates its signs and, therefore, its symbols. His legacy is the context by which the Prophet Muhammad understands himself in the world. It is not for wonder, then, that when the Prophet reached Medina, when he found the Jews fasting and asked them why, when they told him that they were commemorating the day that Moses led them out of Egypt, that he said نحن أولى بموسى منكم “We are more entitled to Moses than you,” and so he fasted with them and encouraged us to do likewise, for they were commemorating the victory of justice throughout the land, and justice is the property of every man and woman inhabiting it. On another occasion, one of his companions accused him of being unjust when it came to the distribution of the spoils of war, to which he said, “Woe to you! Who will deal justly with you after me! God have mercy on my brother, Moses, for he was met with greater harm, and he remained steadfast and patient.” On a third occasion, a Muslim and a Jew fell into dispute in the marketplace, and the Muslim swore by Him Who sent Muhammad in truth, to which the Jew swore by Him Who sent Moses in truth, upon which the Muslim struck the Jew, who went to the Prophet seeking justice, and the Prophet proclaimed: “Do not surpass Moses in praising me, for I will be the first among the children of Adam to be resurrected, and Moses will already be there holding onto the Throne of God, and I will not know whether he was resurrected before me, or if he is already at that station in this very moment.” Yes, Moses was a Jewish prophet, sent to the Chosen People, but he belongs to the whole of mankind, and his was the legacy of justice, of the law, and of speaking truth to power!
The legacy of Moses is ours to inherit and contextualize. إِنَّ فِرْعَوْنَ عَلَا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَجَعَلَ أَهْلَهَا شِيَعًا يَسْتَضْعِفُ طَائِفَةً مِّنْهُمْ يُذَبِّحُ أَبْنَاءَهُمْ وَيَسْتَحْيِي نِسَاءَهُمْ ۚ إِنَّهُ كَانَ مِنَ الْمُفْسِدِينَ “Pharaoh has exalted himself in the land, and has divided its people into sects, slaughtering its sons, and leaving its womenfolk to endure. Indeed, he was among the iniquitous” (qaṣaṣ 28:4). Inwardly, we are all fighting an ego that is utterly out of control, an idol that seeks to be exalted أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَٰهَهُ هَوَاهُ (al-jāthiyah 45:23), who divides the intellect from the heart from the limbs, slaughters virtue and leaves vice to endure. Outwardly, we are at the cusp of a New World Order, led by the anti-Christ who seeks to be exalted, who divides society by race, ethnicity, and class, who slaughters the poor and leaves the rich to endure. It is that Mosaic consciousness that is on fire for justice that beckons us to vanquish the pharaohs within and without.
God continues فَلَمَّا أَتَاهَا نُودِيَ يَا مُوسَىٰ . إِنِّي أَنَا رَبُّكَ فَاخْلَعْ نَعْلَيْكَ ۖ إِنَّكَ بِالْوَادِ الْمُقَدَّسِ طُوًى “So when he arrived thereat, it was called out, ‘Moses. I am your Lord, so remove your sandals. You are in the sacred valley of ṭuwāʾ”(ṭā hā 20:11-12). Being on fire for justice entails jealousy over its sacred valleys! Is not the body a temple! Are not Ferguson, Baltimore, Staten Island, North Charleston, Cleveland, sanctified by the blood of fallen angels! How dare you trample sacred valleys with your declaration that “All Lives Matter.” Remove your grimy shoes, lest you soil the memories of these places, which shall bear testimony on the Day of Judgment before the Throne of God, the Throne to which Moses, himself, holds fast!
وَأَنَا اخْتَرْتُكَ فَاسْتَمِعْ لِمَا يُوحَىٰ . إِنَّنِي أَنَا اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا أَنَا فَاعْبُدْنِي وَأَقِمِ الصَّلَاةَ لِذِكْرِي “And I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed. I, I am God, there is no god but I, so worship Me, and establish prayer for My remembrance” (ṭā hā 20:13-14). Everyone here is chosen, or else you would not be here. Out of billions of tiny swimming droplets, all racing toward an egg in the womb, where you belonged to God before you belonged to your own parents, you are the miracle that made it through, and yours was the soul that the angels brought down from Heaven 120 days later. Out of the numberless souls that could have been, God breathed into yours the breath of life. You are the one; and only you can do what only you can do. And your coming when and where into the world was prophesied in the Tablet لَا يُغَادِرُ صَغِيرَةً وَلَا كَبِيرَةً إِلَّا أَحْصَاهَا “It leaves out nothing miniscule nor monumental, but encompasses everything” (al-kahf 18:49). You are that miracle, breathing, walking, occupying space and time in a continuum, living and dying with each passing moment, placed on this earth with ontological intention and magnificent purpose. But only after removing yourself from the filth underfoot, as Moses was ordered to put off his shoes, will you be able to hear the resounding voice of silence so eloquently within, and there you will receive what is inspired by God! Behold, your purpose, your life’s work, your cause, your assignment, your legacy.
إِنَّ السَّاعَةَ آتِيَةٌ أَكَادُ أُخْفِيهَا لِتُجْزَىٰ كُلُّ نَفْسٍ بِمَا تَسْعَىٰ . فَلَا يَصُدَّنَّكَ عَنْهَا مَن لَّا يُؤْمِنُ بِهَا وَاتَّبَعَ هَوَاهُ فَتَرْدَىٰ “The hour is nigh. I scarcely conceal it, that every soul be requited the consequences of its pursuits. So do not allow those who disbelieve in it, but follow their own desires, divert you therefrom, lest you perish” (ṭā hā 20:15-16). God tells Moses that judgment awaits and that Time is nearly out of time. Is not urgency the demand of fire, bidding us at every moment to procrastinate tomorrow. In the words of one profound, young lyricist, Saad Omar, the Dylan of his generation, and my closest friend after my wife, “I saw Moses in the mornin’, he said the mountain was ready to climb. Got to the station, the rain was pourin’; the trains were boardin’ on time.” So while you may think yourself sufficiently in control to waste time, know that time is quietly wasting you. Being on fire for justice allows procrastination but one day of our entire lives: tomorrow.
وَمَا تِلْكَ بِيَمِينِكَ يَا مُوسَىٰ . قَالَ هِيَ عَصَايَ أَتَوَكَّأُ عَلَيْهَا وَأَهُشُّ بِهَا عَلَىٰ غَنَمِي وَلِيَ فِيهَا مَآرِبُ أُخْرَىٰ “And what is that in your right hand, Moses?” He answered, “It is my staff. I lean on it, I steer my sheep with it, and I have other uses for it as well” (ṭā hā 20:17-18). Think back to a time where you actually connected to God, where you felt His presence, where you spoke to Him and made time stand still for but a few precious moments. Think back to a time where you are utterly overwhelmed in awe before Him, bewildered by Him, captivated, enraptured. In ecstasy, nothing you say makes much sense, but the lover is intoxicated by the words of the beloved, in the embrace of the beloved, and every word teases out more words with the longing of hope. Nor should it all have to make sense, no, it does not all have to mean anything at all. The hope of ecstatic speech is only to have more of it. And so we wonder, dearest Prophet, to whom God spoke from behind a veil, in this unprecedented moment where you are conversing with your Beloved, what other uses for your staff, pray tell, could you have possibly had!
قَالَ أَلْقِهَا يَا مُوسَىٰ . فَأَلْقَاهَا فَإِذَا هِيَ حَيَّةٌ تَسْعَىٰ . قَالَ خُذْهَا وَلَا تَخَفْ ۖ سَنُعِيدُهَا سِيرَتَهَا الْأُولَىٰ . وَاضْمُمْ يَدَكَ إِلَىٰ جَنَاحِكَ تَخْرُجْ بَيْضَاءَ مِنْ غَيْرِ سُوءٍ آيَةً أُخْرَىٰ . لِنُرِيَكَ مِنْ آيَاتِنَا الْكُبْرَى “He said, ‘Cast it, Moses.’ So he cast it and, lo, it was a serpent, gliding! He said, ‘Grasp it, and fear not. We shall return it to its former state. And thrust your hand into the hollow under your arm, it will come forth alit, without blemish, as another sign, that We may show you some of Our greatest signs” (ṭā hā 20:19-23). The humble staff that Moses used throughout the years to lean upon and to steer his sheep was, in essence, a dormant miracle just waiting to happen; it was actually a serpent all along. The staff of Moses is not in the Ark of the Covenant, but in your hand and mine, but the majority of us have been employing it in mundane pursuits like leaning on it like some kind of a plan b or steering ourselves like sheep to the slaughter. How many lawyers are so enamored by the law that they can truly say that have wed their profession to their passion. How many doctors are genuinely interested in healing people. The advocacy of Moses has been supplanted by pedantic lawyering, while the healing of Jesus comes with a premium deductible. Had it not been for the love of wealth, the best and brightest among us would never have considered working in a courtroom or clinic. Each one of us bears the staff of Moses, and once we to cast down the staff that is in your hand and submit it to the purposes of God, the miracle begins to take form, and the meaning of, “I have other uses for it, as well,” becomes all the more clear, all the more virtuous, all the more prophetic.
اذْهَبْ إِلَىٰ فِرْعَوْنَ إِنَّهُ طَغَىٰ . قَالَ رَبِّ اشْرَحْ لِي صَدْرِي . وَيَسِّرْ لِي أَمْرِي . وَاحْلُلْ عُقْدَةً مِّن لِّسَانِي . يَفْقَهُوا قَوْلِي . وَاجْعَل لِّي وَزِيرًا مِّنْ أَهْلِي . هَارُونَ أَخِي . اشْدُدْ بِهِ أَزْرِي . وَأَشْرِكْهُ فِي أَمْرِي . كَيْ نُسَبِّحَكَ كَثِيرًا . وَنَذْكُرَكَ كَثِيرًا . إِنَّكَ كُنتَ بِنَا بَصِيرًا . قَالَ قَدْ أُوتِيتَ سُؤْلَكَ يَا مُوسَىٰ “Go to Pharaoh, for he has transgressed.” He prayed, “My Lord, give me courage, facilitate my task, and remove the impediment from my tongue, that they may understand what I say; and appoint for me someone among my family to help, Aaron, my brother. Strengthen me through him, and let him share my task, that we may abundantly praise You, and remember You without cease, for You are He Who ever regards us.” He said, “You are granted your request, O Moses” (ṭā hā 20:24-36). The Prophet Muhammad said أفضل الجهاد كلمة عدل عند سلطان جائر “The greatest jihad is to address a despotic ruler with words of justice.” One beautiful aspect of this Prophetic teaching is that it was not entirely autobiographical, rather, it was thoroughly informed by his own experience of Moses, whom he regarded as his brother. The ability to demand, “Let my people go,” and dedicate your life to the task, is the greatest act of service to the servants of God. The Black Liberation movements leading up to and including the sixties broadcast to the world the power of this demand, and it was only after Malcolm X decided to bring the United States government before the United Nations to judge its human rights record vis-à-vis African Americans that the bullet forestalled their ballot. He spoke truth to power, and he traded his life for it!
One of the most interesting aspects of Moses’ prayer was that he asked God to give him courage, to facilitate his task, to inspire his tongue, to reinforce him with his brother كَيْ نُسَبِّحَكَ كَثِيرًا . وَنَذْكُرَكَ كَثِيرًا “…that we may abundantly praise You, and remember You without cease” (ṭā hā 20:33-34). Many among us would think that he put the cart before the horse, for it is spirituality that begets the deed. We stipulate that once we are able to praise God enough and to remember Him ceaselessly, only then we will be able to go out and do His work. The problem with this mindset is that one will never attain to the point where he has praised God sufficiently or remembered Him enough, and this is why his religious experience is usually confined to four walls. His work in the world is intangible and, if not, then negligible, because he will never feel sufficiently equipped to rise to the deed, as though the deed were somehow a distraction from spiritual aspiration. Yes, Moses is charged in this passage to remove his shoes and to establish prayer in his life in order to keep God in his remembrance, but this is the source of his spiritual resolve, which will fuel his fire for justice and enable him to face Pharaoh with the greatest act of courage one can ever muster. But it is in the very sweat and blood of “Let my people go” that his praise and remembrance of God is perfected. In other words, those of Rabbi Heschel, again: “God [enjoins] mercy, righteousness; His [command] cannot be satisfied in space, by sitting in pews, by visiting temples, but in history, in time. It is within the realm of history that man is charged with God’s mission.” For those among us who regard Malcolm X as a saint, it is only those who have dedicated themselves to finishing his work who can truly claim him as their own.
قَالَ قَدْ أُوتِيتَ سُؤْلَكَ يَا مُوسَىٰ . وَلَقَدْ مَنَنَّا عَلَيْكَ مَرَّةً أُخْرَىٰ إِذْ أَوْحَيْنَا إِلَىٰ أُمِّكَ مَا يُوحَىٰ . أَنِ اقْذِفِيهِ فِي التَّابُوتِ فَاقْذِفِيهِ فِي الْيَمِّ فَلْيُلْقِهِ الْيَمُّ بِالسَّاحِلِ يَأْخُذْهُ عَدُوٌّ لِّي وَعَدُوٌّ لَّهُ ۚ وَأَلْقَيْتُ عَلَيْكَ مَحَبَّةً مِّنِّي وَلِتُصْنَعَ عَلَىٰ عَيْنِي As I conclude, God then said, “You are granted your request, O Moses. And indeed, We have conferred upon you Our favor aforetime—when We inspired your mother this inspiration: Place him in a chest and cast him into the river, and thereupon the river will cast him ashore, and he will be taken up by one who is an enemy to Me and an enemy to him. And I cast My own love upon you, that you be reared under My eye” (ṭā hā 20:36-39). It is only fitting that the Prophet of justice and the law be showered with divine love and lavished with sublime affection. The passage continues, and God calls Moses by name six times. Any sailor within earshot of the Sirens washed ashore as a corpse, having died at the beauty of their voices. How utterly beautiful it must have resonated in the heart of Moses, to hear his name mentioned six times from the direction of that sacred bush! Imām al-Ghazālī said: ولولا استتار كنه جلالة كلامه بكسوة الحروف لما ثبت لسماع الكلام عرش ولا ثرى ولتلاشى ما بينهما من عظمة سلطانه وسبحات نوره ولو لا تثبيت الله لموسى لما أطاق لسماع كلامه كما لم يطق الجبل مبادي تجليه حيث صار دكا “And had it not been for the veil of the essence of the majesty of His speech with the attire of letters, no throne or earth would have remained to bear hearing it, and everything between them would have been annihilated by the grandeur of its power and the radiance of its illumination. And had God not firmly established Moses, he would not have been able to endure hearing His speech, just as the mountain could not bear the traces of His majesty and, so, was pulverized to powder.” Moses was the Prophet of Justice, and no other prophet is addressed with as much affection as كليم الله, the one to whom God spoke with words, the one upon whom God cast His love, throughout the 6236 verses that comprise the Qur’anic scriptures. What stirs in the heart of a Prophet is love, and they are zealously jealous in their love of justice, for God is Just. In the words of Dr. Cornel West, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
CALL OF THE CHRIST
In his book rawḍat al-muḥibbīn wa nuzhat al-mushtāqīn (The Meadow of Lovers and the Outing of Yearners), Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah interprets sixty terms in the Arabic language connoting “love.” Among the closest of God’s ninety names to “love” is al-wadūd (affectionate toward the faithful), and the one condition of wudd (affection), according to one of many definitions, is that it be without condition. Rumi once said, “What a love the sun gives the earth! It never says, ‘Look at all I have done for you! That is a love that can brighten the world!’” Perhaps this is the kind of love that Randy Travis was feeling in his song, “Forever and Ever, Amen,” when he wrote:
They say that time takes its toll on a body,
makes a young girl’s brown hair turn grey.
But honey, I don’t care.
I ain’t in love with your hair,
and if it all fell out, well I’d love you anyway.
Love ever surpasses the poet’s every attempt. To speak of it is a betrayal, for the sweetness of honey is nowhere in a dictionary to be found. But it is known by its traces, some of which are discussed in ṭawq al-ḥamāmah (The Necklace of the Dove) by Ibn Ḥazm, e.g., insomnia, sickness, even death. In Arabic, the word for “platonic love” is al-ḥubb al-ʿudhrī, which is the love of the tribe of Banū ʿUdhrah in Yemen, which was so intense that many of their men would fall dead from prolonged estrangement from their beloved, or from the plight of unconsummated love. All Majnūn’s poems about Laylā trace back to a single, fleeting moment wherein he beheld her, never to hold her.
Love has its proofs as well, as detailed by Ibn Ḥazm, one of which is submission to the will of the beloved. God says with reference to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, “Say, ‘If you love God, then follow me, and God will love you” (āl ʿimrān 3:31). This was the behest of every Prophet of God, but it had a particular and tenacious urgency in the voice of our Messiah, the Word of God, Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Spirit of God, who once said to a hopeful disciple, “Follow me.” He answered, “Master, allow me first to bury my father,” to which Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59–60). And another said, “I will follow you, master, but first let me bid my family farewell.” Jesus said, “No one who sets a hand to the plow then looks to what was left behind is fit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:61–62). Ultimately, the imperative of Messianic love is the urgent renunciation of the world and everything and everyone therein. “And behold, one came and said unto him, ‘Good master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?’ Jesus answered, ‘Why do you call me good? There is none good but one, that is God! But if you will enter into life, then keep the commandments . . . and if you will be perfect, go and sell all that you possess, and give their value to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; then come and follow me.’ But when the young man heard that, he went away crestfallen, for he had amassed great wealth. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, ‘Verily I say unto you: a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.’ And again I say unto you, ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.’ When his disciples heard that, they were exceedingly amazed, saying, ‘Who then shall be saved?’ But Jesus beheld them, and said unto them, ‘With men this is impossible; but with God, all things are possible’” (Matthew 19:16–26).
For Jesus, especially, the Creator has no place in a heart even slightly given to the creation. This is evident in hundreds of his teachings archived in the Muslim tradition,I such as:
“Make hungry your livers and make bare your limbs; perhaps then your hearts might perceive God.”
“Blessed is he who abandons a present pleasure for the sake of a promise in what is absent and unseen.”
“The heart, so long as it is not torn by passion, nor befouled by desire, nor hardened by comfort, shall become a vessel for wisdom.”
Jesus possessed only a comb and a cup, until on one occasion, he saw someone grooming his beard with his fingers and another drinking from a stream with his hands, so he gave both to them in charity.
We must consider here that the Messiah was raised by a single mother, and that he learned the important lessons of life under the tutelage of poverty. This circumstance undoubtedly left its mark on him, for Jesus was a constant traveler in the land, never abiding in one house or village. His clothing consisted of a cloak made of coarse hair or camel stub. In his hand he carried a staff. Whenever night fell, his lamp was the moonlight, his shade the blackness of night, his bed the earth, his pillow a stone, his food the plants of the fields. At times, he spent whole days and nights without food. In times of distress, he was happy, and in times of ease, he was sad. He was called rūḥ Allāh (the spirit of God) because he had completely renounced the world. His presence was that of a pure spirit whose flesh was accidental. In his own words, the Messiah said, “I toppled the world on its face and sat upon its back. I have no child who might die, no house that might fall into ruin.” The disciples once asked him, “Will you not build a house for yourself?” He replied, “Build me a house in the path of a flood.” Jesus used to eat the leaves of the trees, dress in wool shirts, and sleep wherever night fell upon him. He saved not his lunch for dinner, nor his dinner for lunch, but would say, “Each day brings its sustenance.” The Spirit of God once said, “The world is a bridge: cross it, and build nothing upon it.” He once lay his head down on a stone. Satan, passing by, said, “How fond you are of this world!” So he hurled the stone at him and cried, “Take that, and the world with it!” The Messiah used to say, “Let whoever deems God slow with His bounty beware, for out of His wrath, God may just grant him his every desire!” The Word of God once said, “Hunger is my seasoning, fear of God is my garment, wool is my raiment, the light of the dawn is my heat in winter, the moon is my lantern, my legs are my beast of burden, and the produce of the earth is my food and fruit. I retire for the night with nothing to my name, I awake in the morning with nothing to my name; yet there is no one on earth richer than I!” His disciples once asked him, “How is it that you can walk on water while we cannot?” He answered, “Through certainty of faith.” They said, “We also have certainty of faith.” He asked them, “How do you deem gold, stones, and mud?” They said, “Gold is superior to stones while stones are superior to mud.” He said, “Nay, they are all equal.”
“The worth of this world and everything in it,” in the words of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, “is less than the wing of a mosquito.” So let us understand together: imagine yourself uninsured and suffering from a bout of urinary retention that was so excruciatingly painful that it would not allow you to walk, stand, or sit still without squirming in agony, and the only way to restore your health was through a medical procedure in the urinary tract. But the cost of the procedure amounts to one-third of your wealth. Would you get the procedure done? Suppose the cost amounted to one half of everything you possess. Would you get the procedure done at that point? Suppose it cost all your life’s savings. Who would pass on the procedure? Then know that the true value of all your possessions is just as the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ described; rather, it is not even worth a cup of urine. So let us now imagine ourselves as that young man who sought to follow Jesus, yearning so fervently to take him as our teacher, to dedicate ourselves to him, that he would raise us to be worthy of the highest degree of God’s love.
Jesus would have us all live as wandering ascetics to be perfect in the eyes of God, but this proposition may strike us as an outright forgery given how he has been branded to us. There are socio-historical reasons for this, and perhaps the most devastating blow to the urgent and unwavering demand of Jesus to denounce and renounce the world was the “Protestant work ethic,” a phrase coined in 1904 by Max Weber in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This phrase traces back to the Reformation of the late Middle Ages, when it was taken as doctrine that no one could be entirely certain he was saved and that all people were either destined for salvation or damnation, formalized as “double predestination.” One’s fate was contingent upon God’s good pleasure, which was indicated by signs, the first of which was worldly success. So while Jesus insisted that all of our wealth go to the poor and that we ourselves live impoverished, the Calvinists discouraged charity to the poor lest it beget beggary. The Protestant work ethic evolved over time and the simple deeds of righteousness became activity; activity became industry; industry became industrialized; industrialization became manufactured; manufacturing became technologized; technology became militarized; militarization became nuclearized.
The Protestant work ethic mutated into raw capitalism over time, and the Calvinists essentially christened Christianity with the caste system of Hinduism, rendering the wealthy whom Jesus forsook as the Brahmins and the lepers whom Jesus healed with his own two hands as the untouchables. Jesus turned into a white man, and the “Santa-Clausification,” as Rev. Cornel West put it, of Jesus in our age is a blatant disregard for what Jesus demanded of his disciples and followers. In December 2013, Megan Kelly (a Fox News anchor) asserted that it was a historical fact that both Santa Claus and Jesus were white men. This assertion went unchallenged by the all-white panel of three she was addressing mainly because they had all internalized the Brahmin presumption of the Protestant work ethic. Of course Santa Claus is white—is he not the CEO of the largest toy distribution multinational the world over? And Jesus was necessarily white—are not the saved made in the image of God? The depiction of God the Father in the Sistine Chapel alone instils the cognitive frame for the Protestant work ethic to thrive uncontested as a theory of white economy vested for the inheritance of heaven and for its stockholders to become its socio-economic gatekeepers.
Yet any honest study of the teachings of the Messiah reveals the hypocrisy of such a doctrine, and the nailing of his timeless legacy to a cross is a convenient façade to sufficiently blur the focus of his indictment against the world in the three years leading to his trial. Jesus was a firebrand, an agitator, a bona fide menace to society, and Judea was essentially a Roman temple-state. “And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, along with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables” (John 2:13). Another biographer writes: “And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves, and said unto them, ‘It is written, “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves” ’ ” (Matthew 21:12–13). But since Jesus has been so thoroughly “theologized” in our minds, we have brushed aside the parting wish of a man so weary of our love of the world that he sought to whip it out of us! Paul wrote that Mosaic law was nailed to the cross (Collosians 2:14), but along with it was what Jesus himself taught to fulfill that law, for his own law found men in contempt who could not reclaim their hearts from the world.
Jesus once declared: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth. I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household” (Matthew 10:34–36). And just as he waged war against the temple-state in Judea, he shall wage war in his Second Coming against the anti-Christ, who teaches salvation through the Prosperity Gospel, not through the poverty that Jesus demanded, who teaches worship of himself, not of God as Jesus commanded. He stands in opposition to Christ, and the reality of a thing is known through its opposite.
After the crucifixion, it is the miracles of Jesus that tend to crowd the thoughts of many. Even here the point is sadly missed, however, for we have limited his miracles to questions concerning his alleged divinity, and hardly ever consider the implications of his miracles beyond this allegation. We tend to reduce his life’s work to a list of miraculous feats and are oblivious to our own agency in the miracle. We fail to see his turning water into wine as our purification of polluted water; his healing the sick as our reform of a broken health care system; his calling the deaf to hear, the dumb to speak, and the blind to see as our struggle to reform education; his empowering the paralyzed to walk as our enriching the indigent to stand up on their feet; his feeding the multitudes as our reallocation of resources; or his resurrecting the dead as our granting the hopeless a new lease on life. The essence of his miracles was that they abide and can be witnessed when we take up his mantle, and this was the imperative of his call to “follow me.”
What separates us from our Messiah is his willingness to actually do the work. In the Old Testament, the laws concerning leprosy and lepers are prescribed thus: “As for the leper who has the infection, his clothes shall be torn, and the hair of his head shall be uncovered, and he shall cover his mustache and cry, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall remain unclean all the days during which he has the infection; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp” (Leviticus 13:45–46). Thus were lepers quarantined even until the days that Jesus inhabited Judea. And anyone who touches a man who is unclean becomes himself unclean (Leviticus 5:3). However, “When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Master, if you are willing, you can make me clean.’ Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ and immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy” (Matthew 8:1–3).
The question for us is, are we willing to perform the miraculous feats required of us by faith? If so, then purifying the unclean means that we must first be willing to become unclean and take up that Prophetic mantle and work, and only after becoming unclean will we ourselves be purified. In this light let us understand his words, “I came not to destroy the law or the Prophets, but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
To conclude, Jesus once said, “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled” (Luke 12:49). Yes, God brought him into the world out of love, but it was an imposing, zealous love, enforced with a whip in his right hand, and the earth glows not only because of the light he brought to it, but because he lit it up with fire! May our hearts be lit with the passionate heat of his fire, to burn every attachment we have to a world worth less than the wing of a mosquito, that we may tread the earth as true disciples of the Christ. And may Allah bless and sanctify our Prophet and Messenger Muhammad ﷺ, who once declared, as related by Muslim from Abū Hurayrah, “I am the most entitled of all people to Jesus, the Son of Mary. The Prophets are all brothers, with different mothers, and their religion is one.”
12 YEARS A SLAVE
I just reached page one hundred of 12 Years a Slave, which is tearing deeper into my heart with the turning of every page. His was one of myriad such gruesome accounts—and he narrates a few of them, several just as tragic and even more so. Anyone who surrenders himself to the facts of history with the slightest semblance of empathy in his conscience or sincerity in his spirit will find it most difficult to lay eyes upon the next African American he beholds and not see him as a prince worthy of the deepest gestures of respect, indebtedness, love, and desire for genuine brotherhood—these noble sons and daughters of the men and women who bore this nation on their lacerated backs, many of whom after having been seized from beloved lands, toiled plantations for generations until Lincoln’s Proclamation fated them to hang from trees lit on fire as photographers would instruct the Klan’s children to “Say cheese”; these noble sons and daughters, far too many among whom Uncle Sam has quarantined to cages to waste away their lives for possession of the drugs that he all but prescribed for them; these noble sons and daughters, many of whom are still today slaving to make ends meet only to come home to eviction notices nailed to the front doors of their foreclosed homes in neighborhoods that are unendurable and hardly livable in the first place; these noble sons and daughters, many of whom are still ordered to sing and dance for the amusement and entertainment of onlookers who marvel at the form and rhythm of their bodies on display for a paltry price; these noble sons and daughters who were infiltrated, sabotaged, imprisoned, tapped, or forced at gunpoint to surrender the likes of Prosser, Vesey, Turner, Douglas, Tubman, Du Bois, Garvey, Elijah, Malcolm, Parks, King, Wallace, Mandela, and anyone else whose tongue dared or dares to echo the dormant call for justice reverberating deep within the conscience of every aggressor.
But in voicing that call, not one of these warriors assumed the posture of victims or spoke their discourse, rather, they were moral agents for change and champions for civil and human rights, equity and equality, and social and economic justice. Their courage, honor, and hope thwarted a vicious and demonic institution from perpetuating one of the most egregious crimes ever perpetrated against humanity, as the honorable Nelson Mandela substantiated in his convocation address to the graduating class at Howard University in 1994—my alma mater to which I owe every accomplishment after graduation and to whose chaplain my father once declared, “I brought him into this world, but you raised him for me”—in which he characterized their successes as marked by “sacrifice, passionate self denial, and persistent effort.” And the challenges that face the inheritors of their legacy are just as formidable, just as daunting in a post-Obama era.
Behold, the descendants of Bilal, and we are here in their midst, and every citizen of this country who came here by choice only reaps the fruits of the seeds that their blessed hands first planted here in 1619. And at the risk that some may read these words as sentimentalizing Black pain or as privileged guilt or conclude that they reflect a mind that is simply out of touch, I confess that I have not walked a mile in anyone’s shoes but my own; and though I have not experienced so much as a glance of contempt in the Land of the Free, my conscience enjoins me to disclose these thoughts as I hold back tears reading just this account among 12,521,336, whereas my heart’s secret is divulged to God, alone. Nonetheless, we need to have a genuine conversation in this country, since all those who claim Bilal as their master—as heirs in faith or blood—still find themselves today in segregated mosques, maintaining separate annual national conventions in the same cities on the same weekend, perishing any prospect of intermarriage, and turning a blind eye to the mapping of America’s ghettos with liquor stores owned and run by other Muslims who till this very day refer to their patrons as “slaves,” to say nothing of a host of other repugnant and contemptible practices.
All told, I look upon the countenances of these fine and noble sons and daughters in utter awe and disbelief, and I read in their eyes the narratives of a thousand Solomon Northups, seized by their own countrymen and sold to devilish slavers in a treacherous enterprise of black on black crime; boarded onto ships in fetters with no means for escape except into the fatal embrace of small pox or the lurking seas below; auctioned off as horses and sold to the highest bidders as they weep their screaming farewells to blood and friend; stripped of their languages, religions, tribal affiliations, names, and very souls—having the manhood whipped out of them with their womenfolk beaten into rape over and again; appraised in the newly ratified Constitution at three-fifths of their own constitution; compelled to serve in squadrons to perpetuate that hellish institution drawing the life out of them day after night and night after day; emancipated but to hang from trees at the hands of disgruntled ex-Confederates, their former comrades on the battlefield; Jim Crowed from the plantation to segregation with the legalization and implementation of discrimination; and they stood tall through it all. Yes, I look into these eyes that have withstood the ravages of time, and I revere each of you, the scholar and the student, the entrepreneur and the janitor, the doctor and the cashier, the white and blue collar worker, the lawyer and the inmate, the drug dealer and the addict, the President and the beggar, and I declare unto you that you are nothing short of saints in my eyes, shining black saints—and when you are in the presence of saints, you sit at their feet and subsume yourself in their knowledge and spiritual states! And perhaps by listening to the stories of these noble sons and daughters, you might thereby restore part of your own humanity.
PUBLIC PERCEPTION IN MUSLIM AND RABBINIC LAW
The concept מַרְאִית עַיִן (marit ayin) in Rabbinic law is closely rendered مرأى عين (marʾā ʿayn) in Arabic, and although this nomenclature does not exist in Muslim law (sharīʿah), the concern is not altogether foreign, with some important points of difference. The notion that a permissible act may be rendered impermissible because it may appear to onlookers as such is not without precedent in Muslim discourse but with significant points of difference, and the notion is treated more broadly than in Muslim legal theory.
The consideration finds voice in the words of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, himself, who was once walking with his Jewish wife, Ṣafiyyah—who used to declare with pride, “Moses is my father and Aaron is my uncle”—who went unrecognized one night because it was so dark and she was veiled. As they passed by two men, the Prophet ﷺ announced that this was, in fact, his wife, and not another woman. Upon expressing their astonishment that he would address what they thought was an unfounded suspicion, the Prophet ﷺ declared that the whisper of Satan runs through the minds of men like the blood that runs through their veins, and so he wished to silence that whisper by his clarification.
One of the reasons that this precedent, however, did not culminate into a legal tool at the disposal of jurists later is that with the rise of schools of legal thought, jurists differed so vastly in their rulings such that what was permissible with one jurist was impermissible with another, owing to their respective juristic methodologies. This is no different in Rabbinic law, as in the case at hand, Beit Shamai held that מַרְאִית עַיִן applies even in private, whereas Beit Hillel held that it does not. Because of such latitude in the rulings of Muslim jurists, another principle emerged, i.e., it is impermissible to render the act of another as impermissible if he is following the valid position of a jurist.
It should be noted that in sharīʿah, permissible acts comprise four categories: obligatory واجب (wājib), commendable مندوب (mandūb), permissible مباح (mubāḥ), and reprehensible مكروه (makrūh), while prohibited حرام (ḥarām) is its own category.
The obstruction of pretexts or means سد الذرائع (sadd al-dharāʾiʿ) is a legal tool at the disposal of the jurist to prevent one from engaging a permissible act for fear that it could lead him to what is impermissible. Whatever the devotee engages in the categories of permissible acts, if it could potentially lead him to what is prohibited, is no longer permissible when considering the obstruction of pretexts. Examples of this are staring at women or secluding oneself with a woman lest temptation lead him to fornication, or walking into a casino lest it lead him to gambling, or cursing the symbols or idols of a people lest it lead them to ridicule G-d and His Messenger ﷺ. This, however, is more focused on the actor irrespective of the onlooker. The opposite is also true, here, wherein the prohibition is rendered permissible if it will prevent one from a greater prohibition. For example, smoking may be rendered permissible where he would otherwise consume hard drugs.
מַרְאִית עַיִן is also checked in Muslim ethical and spiritual discourse by putting the onus on the onlooker to assume the best and to give the benefit of his doubt. This is akin to the principle of דן לכף זכות judging another favorably or giving him the benefit of the doubt. The great sages of Islam taught that المؤمن يلتمس لأخيه سبعين عذرا “The faithful makes seventy excuses for his brother.” The great Imam al-Ghazzali adds that if after seventy excuses, you cannot excuse your brother, then you must address your own heart thus: “Woe unto you! Your brother pleads with you seventy excuses, and you still can’t find it in yourself to excuse him! You are the one at fault, then, and not he!” The most emphatic understanding of this is a tradition ascribed to Jesus, the Son of Mary—may G-d bless and sanctify them—in which he said, “If I were to witness my brother sinning, and were he to deny it, I would accuse my own eye and exonerate my brother!” Thus, the onus is on the onlooker to focus on his own shortcomings and abandon the faults of others. There is a balance, however, to be struck between الأمر بالمعروف والنهي عن المنكر commanding virtue and forbidding vice and ترك ما لا يعني forsaking what does not concern oneself, as the Prophet ﷺ once said من حسن إسلام المرء تركه ما لا يعنيه “From the beauty of one’s submission is that he forsake that which concerns him not.”
Lastly, the Malāmatiyyah (the blameworthy brotherhood) emerged in the late ninth century as a Sufi collective that sought to firmly root sincerity and root out eyeservice, even to a fault (pun intended). Some of them would regularly miss prayers in congregation, that they may be looked upon as hypocrites. They understood that this would be a way to eradicate any ulterior motives in their intentions and that the secret of their sincerity with G-d would be preserved. This understanding was refuted by the likes of al-Fuḍayl b. ʿIyāḍ, another great Sufi saint, who declared that ترك العمل من أجل الناس رياء والعمل من أجل الناس شرك والإخلاص أن يعافيك الله منهما “Omitting an act for fear of how people would behold it is eyeservice, and committing an act for people to behold it is paganism, while sincerity is that G-d free you of both.”
LOST IN LOVE
In The Meadow of Lovers and the Outing of Yearners, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyyah analyses the etymologies of fifty terms connoting “love” in Arabic, among them w-l-h, which connotes bewilderment and loss of one’s rational faculties out of love. A she-camel is called waliha when her longing intensifies for her calf at separation. This is, in fact, the triliteral root that shares the hallowed name of our Lord, the Exalted and Sublime: Allah, the Beloved Who bewilders every lover and confounds every mind that ponders Him. Also, l-w-h, which is related to w-l-h through metathesis (qalb al-makān) signifies effulgent light and, according to Sībawayh, is the root that shares the name of Allah. The word lāhūt, meaning deity or divinity, derives from this root. Another term Ibn al-Qayyim discusses derives from the triliteral w-h-l, which is also related through metathesis, connoting fear and fright, for when the lover first approaches the beloved, he turns pale and trembles with fear. This fear, when intensified, moves through metathesis again to the triliteral h-w-l, which means dread, while l-h-w signifies infatuation. This is an essay on love.
The Beloved sent the beloved out of love to teach love for the sake of love. He taught the Book and wisdom and he purified yearning hearts. He taught that the verse, “I have not created jinn or men except to worship Me” (al-Dhāriyāt 51:56), established worship not as the purpose for our existence, but as a means to a higher purpose. For, when this worship increases, according to the Prophetic teaching, Allah loves the worshipper. Hence, Allah created mankind to be the object of His love; and when He loves the worshipper, the teaching continues, Allah becomes the eye with which he sees, the ear with which he hears, the hand with which he strikes, and the leg with which He walks. In al-Ḥikam, Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh aphorized: “If you were to be united with Him only after the extinction of your vices and the effacement of your pretensions, you would never be united with Him. Instead, when He wants to unite you unto Himself, He covers your attributes with His attributes and hides your qualities with His qualities. Thus, He unites you unto Himself by virtue of what comes from Him to you, not by virtue of what goes from you to Him.”
Sincerity in worship, therefore, lies in realizing that Allah has inspired one to worship, has enabled him, then rewarded him as though it had come from him, although it came from Him. Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh aphorized: “When He wants to show you His grace, He creates states in you, then attributes them to you.” The love of Allah, essentially, dons the worshipper with the traces of His attributes. Such is the nature of pure and selfless love, i.e., it is that nexus that draws the lover unto his beloved. In the versified words of Ibn ʿArabī, “She is the ease of whoever burns for her, transferring him from the levels of mortal man, out of jealousy, lest her sparkle be stained by the turbidity in the pools.” He clarified that when the lover falls in love, the beloved draws him unto herself and delivers him from obfuscations—such is when one loves knowledge. Likewise, one is delivered from sloth when he loves service. Ultimately, one is delivered from everything else, including his own self, when he loves Allah. In the words of al-Qushayrī: “Love is the sacrifice of the lover’s attributes at the altar of the beloved’s essence.”
A close reading of the Qur’an reveals that Allah loves the pious, conscientious, patient, trusting, just, pure, and those who fight in His path, and that He does not love the unjust, transgressors, ingrates, boasters, treacherous, corrupters, and squanderers. But does God “love” and in what sense? When Allah says that He loves or does not love, what does this love signify or entail? Does divine love intersect with human love or is it categorically different? Love connotes the inclination of the self, according to al-Ghazālī, to that which delights or fulfills it. But since language captures immediate meaning in the mind as it relates primarily to that which is direct, immediate, experienced, temporal, emotional, stative, finite, and bound to the creation, words when describing the attributes or qualities of Allah cannot but be meant in a qualified sense, since “…there is nothing like unto Him” (al-Shūrā 42:11). When we say, “Allah exists” and “We exist,” for example, the verb will necessarily denote two essentially different meanings, each of which must be substantially qualified, for the existence of Allah is necessary and self-subsisting, with no beginning and with no end, while that of the human being is contingent and is indicated by an occupation of space within time. Such is the case, al-Ghazzali elucidates, with all such language as it pertains to Allah and His attributes. Love, wrath, generosity, abasement, power, clemency, knowledge, et cetera, are terms which connote very different meanings depending on whether the context is mundane or divine. Remarking on the lessons which Moses, the prophet of justice and the law, was taught by that servant of Allah on divine justice (al-Kahf 18:60-82), our Prophet ﷺ once remarked: “May Allah have mercy on my brother, Musa: had he been patient, Allah would have revealed to us so much more about their encounter.”
Al-Bistāmī teaches that love consists in regarding your much as little and the little of your beloved as much. This insight finds voice in the Qur’an, wherein Allah says: “And were you to enumerate the blessing of Allah, you would not encompass it—verily, Allah is forgiving, compassionate” (al-Naḥl 16:18). This verse refers to the innumerable blessings of Allah as though they all amount to a single blessing. Contrarily, Allah describes His male and female devotees as remembering Allah much (al-Aḥzāb 33:35), though no matter how much we remember Allah, our remembrance is lacking, infrequent, and distracted. The Prophet ﷺ taught that there is not a hand span in the seven heavens except that it is occupied by an angel either standing, bowing, or prostrate, and that when the Day of Judgment falls, these angels will confess in unison: “Glory be to You, we have not worshipped You as You deserve….” How, then, can mortal remembrance of the Creator be considered “much” if not for love! This is true love, and Allah is the One Who truly loves. In the words of Ibn `Ata’ Allah: “The one who loves is not the one who hopes for recompense from his beloved nor seeks some benefit. The one who loves is but the one who spends generously on you, not the one on whom you spend generously.” Allah is al-Wadud, which connotes both the active and passive participle of love, i.e., He is the One Who loves and He is the One beloved. This beautiful name shares the meaning of hope, wish, and desire from the root w-d-d, and it is from this name that Allah places affection between spouses (30:21), and it is from this name that the Prophet—may Allah bless and sanctify him and his family—pleads his only request of the ummah to treat his family and descendents with utmost adoration (al-Shūrā 42:23).
Ibn ʿAṭāʾ Allāh once aphorized: “Only by witnessing His attributes can you be dislodged from your attributes.” I pray, dear reader, that we be subsumed by the traces of the divine attributes of Allah; I pray for bewilderment in His presence; I pray we lose our minds in His love. “Say ‘Allah,’ then leave them to prattle about in their frivolities” (al-Anʿām 6:91).
THE MALE AND FEMALE PRINCIPLES
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ اتَّقُوا رَبَّكُمُ الَّذِي خَلَقَكُم مِّن نَّفْسٍ وَاحِدَةٍ وَخَلَقَ مِنْهَا زَوْجَهَا وَبَثَّ مِنْهُمَا رِجَالًا كَثِيرًا وَنِسَاءً وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ الَّذِي تَسَاءَلُونَ بِهِ وَالْأَرْحَامَ إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلَيْكُمْ رَقِيبًا
“O man! reverence your Lord, Who created you from a single soul, and created its mate, and from them twain scattered countless men and women; reverence Allah, through whom ye demand your mutual rights, and reverence the wombs (that bore you), for Allah ever watches over you” (al-Nisāʾ 4:1).
Welcome to the family of seekers, welcome to the family of yearners, welcome to the family of listeners. Many among us, including myself, brought to this retreat certain expectations, and to varying degrees have those expectations been fulfilled; many among us brought a long list of questions, and to varying degrees have those questions been answered. Perhaps there are those among us who brought to this retreat a dysfunctional marriage, and the case may be that we will return home to the same dysfunctionality that brought us here.
For most of us, this was the first time we had ever heard about the “Male and Female Principles,” and for many of us, our understanding of their reality in the unseen world, and of their manifestations in the seen world and in our selves, amounts overall to a general “misunderstanding.” Many of us have sat through some of the lectures utterly spellbound and confounded, and much like many of you, I am still trying to anchor my mind on any tiny island in this whirlwind of meaning that has left me shipwrecked.
So let us, in this blessed space, implore Time to permit us a moment of truth. I should like to ask the questions in my mind a few important questions. Perhaps by doing so, I may discover a truth about myself that I have been masking for some reason and for some time. What is the genealogy of my questions? When I trace them back to their origin, in what crevice of my curiosity will I find my questions incubating? Will I find that my questions are rooted in some subliminal philosophical paradigm, or mapped out in some cognitive frame alien to the chastity of my mind? Or will I find the memories of my questions recalling some bitter experience I had with the world? Or will I find the allegiance of my questions campaigning for some preconceived notion or foregone conclusion? Or will I find the appetite of my questions craving to fulfill certain desires or wishes? Or will I find the fealty of my questions faithful to the dogmas of one or another “-ism” that interprets my world and identifies me in it? Or will I find sincerity? Will I find a gesture toward surrender? Will I find submission to the Will of God?
I swear to you that before Allah سبحانه وتعالى, every “-ism” is a prism of a mind in prison, and it is only those questions borne of submission that transform the heart and orient the spiritual compass of the wayfarer. So the man asked, “When is the Hour?” and the Prophet ﷺ challenged the man to question the origin of his question, and so he asked, in turn: “And what have you prepared for it?”
As for expectations, we have all experienced coming to a situation expecting one thing, only to have Fate exchange it for another. For many among us, that may have been the case here, as well. But what were those disappointments that informed our expectations in the first place, and will we allow their unfulfillment to fester and return us to more disappointment? On the other hand, how many times have we grown spiritually from unfulfilled expectations! How many times have we felt the Hand of God upon us and the Eyes of God over us when our expectations went unfulfilled by some unexpected twist of fate, and then dropped to our knees thereat in utter gratitude! How many times did we render to the future what belongs there, and trust in God that the wisdom or meaning may come to us when we are more prepared to fully appreciate it!
And so intention insists upon itself in this hour of introspection, and I can only speak for myself, here. I came to Rosales this year with certain questions and expectations, and I am sure to leave this retreat with more questions than brought me here, and with words that are so cut off from one another that they can scarcely form a single coherent question. I don’t even know what to ask or where to begin to be honest with you! I bask with sheer awe in the brilliant radiance of knowledge of the great masters before us, knowing that what took them years to absorb and perceive simply cannot be conveyed to us in a matter of days. And with that, permit me to share with you some of the gifts of my generous Lord, which He vouchsafed me amidst the turmoil of my own unanswered questions and unfulfilled expectations, in the spirit of His command وَأَمَّا بِنِعْمَةِ رَبِّكَ فَحَدِّثْ “And as for the blessing of your Lord, convey that” (al-Ḍuḥā 93:11).
I am sure there were times during this retreat when you realized that this religion is nothing like anything you thought it to be, and that is a gift that Allah سبحانه وتعالى has bestowed upon every intent listener in this family of listeners. As for me, I remember how in a moment of unmitigated bliss while listening to Dr. ʿUmar, I felt a wave of stillness crash over me, and as tears blinded my eyes from his slides, I stopped writing, folded my notepad, and surrendered to the weight of his words. I felt as though a veil was being lifted off my heart, and it was as though I could behold the glory of God before me for the first time. I was for that moment able to glimpse through an aperture of meaning the reason behind my creation. In retrospect, I believe I tasted a little of what it must feel like to actually convert to Islam. And no, I did not come here with the expectation to receive such an arresting answer to a question I never even thought to ask.
Another gift we take home with us, o family of listeners, is our inability to read the signs in the cosmos or the verses of the Book with the same pair of eyes we brought to this retreat. And no, I was not expecting that either. So to that point, I hope you will indulge me in what remains of this khutbah to explore with a fresh pair of eyes a verse or two from the Qur’an, in light of the theme of this year’s retreat. Allah سبحانه وتعالى says in His majestic Book:
سَنُرِيهِمْ آيَاتِنَا فِي الْآفَاقِ وَفِي أَنفُسِهِمْ حَتَّىٰ يَتَبَيَّنَ لَهُمْ أَنَّهُ الْحَقُّ أَوَلَمْ يَكْفِ بِرَبِّكَ أَنَّهُ عَلَىٰ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ شَهِيدٌ
“We shall show them Our signs on the horizons and within their souls until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth. Is it not sufficient that your Lord doth witness all things?” (Fuṣṣilat 41:53).
Allah سبحانه وتعالى establishes in this verse a correspondence between the cosmos and the human being, whose words are spelled out in the language of signs and symbols. The male and female principles are reflected along the horizons and in the souls, and furthermore in masculinity and femininity, then furthermost in manhood and womanhood, all as receptacles of both principles, but none of which represent them absolutely. Behold in the man and woman, the microcosm as the receptacle of the macrocosm, all indicating الحق, the Truth, glorified in His transcendence.
This verse manifests its light elsewhere, in Sūrat al-Shams, which describes some of the great signs beyond the horizons and deep in our souls with these words: وَالشَّمْسِ وَضُحَاهَا “By the sun and his glorious splendour”—male principle (al-Shams 91:1), وَالْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَاهَا “By the moon, as she follows him”—female principle (al-Shams 91:2). I should like to pause here to mention that شمس “sun” is linguistically feminine, while قمر “moon” is masculine. However, both Yusuf Ali and Marmaduke Pickthall rendered the sun as masculine and the moon as feminine to reflect the cosmological reality of the male and female principles inherent in each. The verses continue: وَالنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّاهَا “By the day, as it reveals him”—male principle (al-Shams 91:3), وَاللَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَاهَا “By the night, as it conceals him”—female principle (al-Shams 91:4); وَالسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَاهَا by the firmament, and that which erected it (male principle); وَالْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَاهَا by the earth, and that which expanded it (female principle). وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّاهَا By the soul, and that which brings it to equilibrium (the synergy of both principles in perfect harmony), فَأَلْهَمَهَا فُجُورَهَا وَتَقْوَاهَا then inspires it as to its iniquities and its defenses. قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ زَكَّاهَا Whoever purifies it succeeds, وَقَدْ خَابَ مَنْ دَسَّاهَا and whoever defiles it fails.”
The first two signs mentioned in this surah are the sun and the moon, the former being a manifestation of the male principle, and the latter the female principle. The male principle is activity, affect, and influence, the female principle is receptivity, passivity, and submission. The sun is warm light, the moon is cool light. The sun generates light, the moon reflects light. Apart, they are wanting; together, they are in perfect harmony and equilibrium, courting one another as platonic partners until permission is granted for them to consummate their love. One of the signs before the end of time is that the sun and moon will coalesce as one وَجُمِعَ الشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ “When the sun and moon converge.”
Now, brace yourselves. Our beloved Prophet صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم once proclaimed أنا والساعة كهاتين “I and the Hour are like these two.” Allah سبحانه وتعالى described the Prophet, himself صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم as “light” in the verse قَدْ جَاءكُم مِّنَ اللّهِ نُورٌ وَكِتَابٌ مُّبِينٌ “There has come to you, from Allah, a light, and a clear scripture,” and that light was perfect because the sun and the moon conjoined in him, yes, the sun and the moon conjoined in him! Abu Hurayrah رضي الله عنه said about his blessed countenance كأن الشمس تجري في وجهه “It was as though the sun flowed through his face!” And Hind Abu Halah رضي الله عنه said كان فخمًا مفخمًا يتلألأ وجهه تلألؤَ القمر ليلة البدر, “He was majestic and magnificent! His face shone with the radiance of the moon on the night of its fullness.” Allah سبحانه وتعالى described the sun as a blazing “beacon” سِرَاجاً وَهَّاجاً and the moon as a “glowing” satellite قَمَراً مُنِيراً but both descriptions had to be juxtaposed in order to capture in words the essence of his majestic light وَدَاعِياً إِلَى اللَّهِ بِإِذْنِهِ وَسِرَاجاً مُّنِيراً “…a caller to Allah by His permission and a glowing beacon.” Here, the male and female principles inherent in the sun and the moon culminate in الإنسان الكامل the perfect human, the exemplar for equilibrium in all of his stately states and statements, the perfect communion between the male and female principles in human form.
Naturally, this brings us to the marriage of the male and female principles in ourselves, again, neither of which is absolute in us, for these principles are relational and manifest differently as necessary in the arenas of circumstance. To wit, the Throne is male principle, the Pedestal is female principle, but the Pedestal is male principle with respect to man, and man is female principle, for he is under its command. Similarly, the sun is male principle, the moon is female principle, but the moon is male principle with respect to water, which is female principle, for the moon pulls water unto himself in the high and low tides, and water yields. And it is this female principle that is dominant in water that enables us to wash before prayers, while the male principle, when it dominates therein, forms hurricanes, floods, tidal waves, glaciers, and icebergs.
Likewise, the male principle is dominant in the sound man, without being absolute, while the female principle is dominant in the sound woman. I want to consider just one example in this regard, one among a plethora in the Book of Allah سبحانه وتعالى and in the Sunnah of His Messenger صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم. Allah سبحانه وتعالى says الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ “Men are the caretakers of women.” In this verse, the dynamic between the male and female principles is proclaimed, and it reflects in our sacred law inasmuch as the activity of sound men and the receptivity of sound women are legislated.
Furthermore, it is noteworthy to mention that the word رَجُل “man” is related etymologically to رِجْل “leg”; the word قَوَّام “caretaker” derives from قام “it stood”; and the word نِساء “women” is related etymologically to نِسا “the great saphenous vein,” which runs throughout the entire leg, from the hip to the heel, and is the largest blood vessel in the body—the same vein that is extracted from the leg for use in bypass heart surgery. In light of this, one can glean from the verse that man is the caretaker of woman, but he cannot succeed in his responsibility toward her without her full participation in the process, for what leg can stand or walk or run or race without the great saphenous vein that pumps the blood in the leg back to the heart (of the matter)! In a sense, the male principle could be said to stir the leg to action while the rest of the body borrows from the female principle its posture of passive acceptance.
This reflection is further enhanced in the sacred law, which is there to establish “equilibrium” as the emblem of justice betwixt the twain, obligating men to toil in this world to take care of their women, and obligating women to accept said toiling on their behalf, while accommodating for exceptions. This standard transcends our ideals of equality and our values of egalitarianism; rather, it sanctifies the principle of equilibrium as perfectly patterned in the cosmos. Rumi once asked, “How do you have any room for pettiness, while you are the universe in ecstatic motion!”
The sun and moon are not equal, but they do quite a miraculous job at complementing one another, do they not? Herein lies a metaphor of perfect balance and harmony between the sexes; a yin-yang of mutual obligations and rights, while retaining gendered roles as essential, not accidental; a union of the right and left hands together; a harmony that, once established, manifests in the greatest expression of love in the wondrous mystery of marriage, as a reflection of oneness, such that the pain in the blessed head of the Messenger of Allah صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم throbbed simultaneously with the same intensity in the head of his beloved wife, Lady `A’ishah رضي الله عنها on the grievous day he passed from this world, for their union was perfect, and they embraced in their perfection, and, thus, stood on their last day together, as one before the One.
Admittedly, many of my questions go still unanswered, many of my expectations still unfulfilled, but this retreat has taught me something far greater, as a man in whom the male principle precedes the female, and that is to heed the song of the female principle, and then receive, listen, and submit, as one among this beautiful family of listeners, perhaps I may come to perceive the world with a different understanding, contemplate the Book of God in a different light, enter upon my Prophet صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم through a different door of intimacy, face the world with a different purpose, ask my questions with a different curiosity, or discover something different about myself as a bearer of Allah’s most beautiful names manifested in me, in every moment and with every breath. Perchance then my heart might taste the delight of faith, as I raise my hands in prayer and bring the inward workings of His competing names within me into a stupor of stillness, as I declare الله أكبر Allah is greatest.
Las dos primeras señales mencionadas en esta surah son el sol y la luna, siendo el primero una manifestación del principio masculino, y la ultima el principio femenino. El principio masculino es actividad, afectividad, e influencia, el principio femenino es receptividad, pasividad, y sumision. El sol es luz cálida, y la luna es luz fresca. El sol genera luz, y la luna refleja luz. Una de las señales antes del fin de los tiempos es que el sol y la luna se juntarán como si fueran uno وَجُمِعَ الشَّمْسُ وَالْقَمَرُ “Cuando el sol y la luna se junten.” Nuestro querido Profeta (que las bendiciones y la paz de Dios sean con el) una vez proclamó أنا والساعة كهاتين “Yo y la Hora final somos como estos dos.” Dios describió al Profeta (que las bendiciones y la paz de Dios sean con el) como luz en el verso قَدْ جَاءكُم مِّنَ اللّهِ نُورٌ وَكِتَابٌ مُّبِينٌ, “Os ha venido de Dios una luz y una escritura clara,” y esa luz fue perfeccionada porque el sól y la luna fueron incorporadas en el. Abu Hurayrah dijo sobre su rostro, “Era como si el sol fluyera por toda su cara.” Y Hind Abu Halah dijo, “El era majestuoso y magnifico! Su cara brillaba con el resplandor de la luna en la noche de la luna llena.” Dios describió al sol como un ardiente faro سِرَاجاً وَهَّاجاً y a la luna como un satélite luminoso وقمرا منيرا y las dos descripciones fueron juntadas en el verso en donde Dios describe a su amado Profeta (que las bendiciones y la paz de Dios sean con el) وَدَاعِيًا إِلَى اللَّهِ بِإِذْنِهِ وَسِرَاجاً مُّنِيراً como “El que llama a Dios y un faro luminoso.” Aqui los principios masculinos y femeninos culminan en الإنسان الكامل el humano perfecto, el ejemplo unico del equilibrio en todos sus estados señoriales y declaraciones, la comunión perfecta entre los principios masculinos y femeninos en forma humana.
The pulpit of the Prophet صلى الله عليه وآله وسلم is the most jealous place on earth, and especially so in the presence of his inheritors, our esteemed scholars and teachers, for he said العلماء ورثة الأنبياء “Scholars are the heirs of the Prophets.” And had it not been for the fact that I was commanded to stand before you today, I would have been sitting among you. Anything accurately stated was from Allah سبحانه وتعالى ultimately, and all errors were borne of my own misunderstanding, and I seek refuge in Allah سبحانه وتعالى from misrepresenting His religion via my ignorance, and the forgiveness of my teachers if I have misrepresented their teachings.
YIN AND YANG
Behold, Yin and Yang, at the foot of the Pedestal, in the courtyard of Divine Love, in relentless rotation along the axis of infinity, while revolving around the Lotus Tree, beyond the utmost periphery. Behold, Yin and Yang, arrested in eternal embrace, dancing before the Lord of Song, to the hymns of this angelic ensemble. Listen, the psalters of David, whose flute reverberates with the breath of ecstasy, into a supernal symphony of prayer. Behold, the ring ofYin set in Yang, and the ring of Yang set in Yin—rings cut from the recesses of their own hearts. Heaven’s denizens assemble, to witness the ceremony of a cosmic covenant. Yin vows: “I am the receptacle of your act, the reflection of your resolve, the surrender to your sway, the yielding under your sovereignty, the shadow surrounding your gait, the imagination before your manifestation, the canvas for your art.” Yang vows, “I am the light in your darkness, the expansion of your constriction, the orientation of your direction, the strength of your softness, the glistening of your silhouette, the breeze of your stillness, the eloquence in your silence.” With the exchange of these seven vows, the marriage of Yin and Yang is consecrated, in the hearts of every pair of lovers. And as Yin took the ring of Yang, she advanced زوجتك نفسي “I wed myself to you,” and as Yang took the ring of Yin, he surrendered قبلت “I accept.” Then the Perfect Human anointed the nexus, saying بارك الله لكما وبارك عليكما وجمع بينكما في خير “May the Lord of the Throne bless you both.” And with their rings now set in the cavities of their hearts, the bosom of Sempiternity throbbed. Behold, Yin and Yang, as they form their primordial ring, and enter the Circle of Oneness to dance, for it is written: “We created you all from the soul of unity, and, therefrom, its mate, lavishing you with passionate compassion: a sign among marvels, a mystery among miracles, into an abode of utter serenity, as garments one to the other, hereby infused with the breath of life, and ruled by the Names of God! So prostrate before them. Welcome to this place! Here, in this sphere, Ego trespasses the sanctified jurisdiction of witnessing, for the cosmos of boundless potentiality hovers above, transcending the consuming abyss of the ego.” Behold, Yin and Yang, and the genesis of their perpetual pursuit in sublime synergy, chasing one another relentlessly, like Forever’s children, in the meadows of Paradise, chasing after their immortal childhood.
THE SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE OF WUDŪ’
Excerpted from iḥyā ʿulūm al-dīn by Imām al-Ghazzālī
Translated by El-Hajj Hisham Mahmoud
How to perform ablution: One should brush his teeth with twigs from the Arāk tree or other coarse twigs that remove yellowness, brushing side-to-side, up and down, but if he chooses just one, then let it be side-to-side. And brushing his teeth is recommended before every prayer and before every ablution, even if not followed by prayer. Likewise, whenever first waking up from sleep or after prolonged stretches of time, and whenever the odor of his mouth needs to be refreshed. After brushing his teeth, he should sit for ablution facing the direction of prayer and say بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم ‘In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful.’ God’s Messenger ﷺ said, ‘Whosoever does not mention God has not performed ablution,’ i.e., his ablution is not complete. He should then say أعوذ بك من همزات الشياطين وأعوذ بك من الشؤم والهلكة ‘I seek refuge in You from the prodding of evil spirits and I seek refuge in You from calamities and perdition.’ Then let him intend either the removal of a ritual impurity or to render permissible the performance of prayer and he should maintain this intention until he washes his face, for were he not to remain mindful of it upon washing his face, then he is not sufficed. Then he should raise a handful of water to his mouth with his right hand and rinse thrice gargling such that the water reaches his epiglottis, unless he were fasting, in which case he should lightly rinse and say اللهم أعِنِّي على تلاوة كتابك وكثرة الذكر لك ‘O God, help me recite your Book and remember you abundantly.’ Then he should raise a handful to his nose and sniff thrice, inhale the water into his nostrils and blow it out, saying after inhaling اللهم أوجد لي رائحة الجنة وأنت عني راضٍ ‘O God, let me find the fragrance of Paradise while you are pleased with me’; and after blowing his nose اللهم إني أعوذ بك من روائح النار ومن سوء الدار ‘O God, I seek refuge in You from the stench of the fire and the evil of that abode.’ This is because inhalation is attainment while blowing out is removal. Then he should raise a handful to his face and wash it beginning from the top of his forehead to the end of the chin (which constitutes the length of his face), and from ear to ear (which constitutes the width of the face). However, the face does not include the forelocks, which belong to the head. And he should make certain that the water reaches
…hoping for the removal of sins from his eyes and likewise for each limb he washes, saying thereat: ‘O God, illuminate my face with Your light on the day the faces of your saints will be illumined, and gloom not my face with Your darknesses on the day the faces of Your enemies will be gloomy.’ Then it is encouraged that he interlace his thick beard with his fingers when washing his face, then he should wash his arms up to and including the elbows thrice, having removed his ring. He should elongate the traces of light and raise the water to the highest part of the limb, for those who so do will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment radiant, gleaming from the traces of ablution according to the hadith. God’s Messenger- may God’s peace and blessings shower him- said, ‘Whoever is able to elongate the traces of his light, let him do so.’ It was also narrated that his adornment reaches the traces of ablution. He should begin with the right saying, ‘O God, present my book in my right hand and facilitate my accounting,’ and when washing the left, he should say, ‘O God, I seek refuge in You from receiving my book with my left hand or behind my back.’ Then he should wipe his entire head by wetting his hands and connecting the tips of his right fingers to his left fingers, and wipe from the top of his forehead to his nape, then return wiping back to his forehead. This is considered one wipe, and he should do so thrice, saying: ‘O God, cover me with your mercy and bestow upon me your blessings, and shelter me with shade under the shade of Your Throne, on the day in which there will be no shade save Your shade.’ Then let him wipe the outer and inner parts of his ears with renewed water by inserting the tips of his index fingers following the auditory meatus of his ears and wipe behind his ears with his thumbs, then place his palms on his ears, beseeching and repeating thrice: ‘O God, make me among those who listen and follow the best of what is said. O God, allow me to hear the caller to enter Paradise along with the righteous.’ Then he should wipe his neck with renewed water in consideration of the words of the Prophet- may God shower him with peace and blessings: ‘Wiping the neck is a means of security from yokes on the Day of Judgment.’ Then he should say, ‘O God, free my neck from the fire and I seek refuge with You from chains and yokes.’ Then let him wash his right foot thrice and wipe with his left fingers his right foot beginning with the smallest toe and end with the smallest toe on his left foot, saying when washing his right foot, ‘O God, strengthen my footing on the straight Bridge the day that feet will slip into the fire.’ And when washing the left foot, he should say: ‘I seek refuge with You from my foot slipping on the Bridge on the day when the feet of the hypocrites will slip.’ He should wash up to the middle of his shins. When he is finished, let him raise his head to the sky and say: ‘I bear witness that there is no deity worthy of worship except God, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his servant and messenger. You are exalted, o God, and with Your praise, there is no deity worthy of worship except You. I have done wrong and wronged myself. I beseech your pardon, O God, and repent to You. So pardon me and turn to me, for You are the oft-Returning, the Merciful. O God, make me among those who repent and make me among those You have purified. And make me among Your righteous servants, and make me a servant, patient and grateful. Cause me to remember You abundantly and extol You with the rise of morn and late at night.’ It is said that whoever says this after performing ablution, his ablution will be sealed with a seal and will be raised for him and placed beneath the Throne and continue to glorify God, the Exalted, and sanctify Him, and the reward for that will be written continuously until the Day of Judgment… And whenever he has completed his ablution and approached prayer, he must be mindful that he has just purified his outward, which is what the creation perceives, so he should have a sense of shame should he engage in intimate conversation with God, the Exalted, without purifying his heart, which is what the Lord perceives—transcendent is He beyond description. So let him achieve the purity of the heart through repentance, and by forsaking blameworthy traits, and let him adopt meritorious comportment. Whoever suffices with the purity of his outward is like one who invites a king to his home and leaves it full of filth, but preoccupies himself with the surface of the front door of the house. How worthy is such a man of exposure to aversion and perdition! And God—transcendent is He beyond description, Exalted—knows best.
MUSLIM CONTRIBUTIONS TO EUROPE
الحكمة ضالة المؤمن أينما وجدها فهو أحق بها “Wisdom is the stray possession of the faithful; wheresoever he finds it, he is most entitled thereunto.” With these words, the man who once declared, “I cannot read,” would introduce into the world an unprecedented ethos of assimilating knowledge for the advancement of civilization through a cultural exchange that would forever alter the course of the future. Allah says, يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُم مِّن ذَكَرٍ وَأُنثَىٰ وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا · إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِندَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ · إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ “O men! verily, we have created you of a male and a female; and we have divided you into peoples and tribes that ye might have knowledge one of another. Truly, the most worthy of honour in the sight of God is he who feareth Him most. Verily, God is Knowing, Aware.” لتعارفوا is often understood to mean “in order to know one another.” Another meaning of the word تعارف is to exchange عرف and معرفة culture and knowledge. Thus, from singularity comes duality, from duality multiplicity, and the wisdom in our multiplicity is realized in the exchange of culture and knowledge.
The impact of Islam on Medieval Europe, in particular, is inarguably the most important episode of cultural transmission in the intellectual history of the world. Dr. Abd al-Hakim Murad posits that the most effective vehicle of this osmosis was trade. Muslims not only represented a great religious force in the world, but they became the center of a great trading bloc as well, and had their roots in a trading community. While Mecca had been the center of trade for centuries between north and south, the Muslim caliphate would also become the center for east and west, sending its caravans across the deserts much like Venice 1000 years later would send its merchants across the seas. The Prophet ﷺ himself, was a trader and his precedent lent a certain prestige to the honest merchant as an archetype. The mercantile profession, in turn, was afforded a nobility among Muslims whereas elsewhere it was thereunto perceived as a base vocation. To wit, all of Indonesia will come to embrace Islam not through conquest, but through traders from the Yemen. The second factor that facilitated this was the conquests that brought lands as far west as France and as far east as China to fall within the dominion of Muslims. Thus, the legitimacy of mercantile piety and the geographical fact of Islam’s centrality in the world was the historical setting that allowed for the exchange of knowledge and culture that would be first institutionalized in bayt al-ḥikmah and culminate in the Golden Age of Andalucía, but dominate well into the 17th century.
Europe at this point was in the Dark Ages, and yet one may ask what prevented the Byzantines or Sassanians from ascending to such intellectual dominance in the world after having ruled vast lands on whose fringes lied the prized knowledge of Muslims centuries later. One salient and unmistakable characteristic of Muslim thought is its intellectual curiosity and the grounding of its faith in knowledge. Allah says هل يستوي الذين يعلمون والذين لا يعلمون “Are those who know equal to those who know not?” The trajectory was set in the Qur’an. Allah said يَرْفَعِ ٱللَّهُ ٱلَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ مِنكُمْ وَٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُواْ ٱلْعِلْمَ دَرَجَاتٍ وَٱللَّهُ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرٌ “God will raise all you who believe, as well as those who are given knowledge, in ranks; for God of what you do is well aware.” The Messenger of Allah ﷺ once said حدثوا عن بني إسرائيل ولا حرج “Narrate the stories of the Tribe of Israel without hesitation,” and commissioned one of his companions to learn Hebrew. He said من تعلم لغة قوم أمن شرهم “Whoever learns the language of a people is safe from their harm,” and he, himself, addressed people in their own dialects. Knowledge was spirited in his teaching, then universalized. Indeed, one of the earliest martial acts of the Prophet ﷺ in the Battle of Badr was the stipulation that every prisoner of war could be released upon teaching ten men how to read. The proliferation of Muslim writing has a similar story in that in the 8th century, the ʿAbbasids captured Chinese soldiers and sages and granted them release on condition that they showed them how to make paper. The first paper mill outside China appears in Baghdad and by the beginning of the 8th century, there were fifty paper mills in Baghdad. In Europe, the first paper mill appears in the 14th century. The ʿAbbasid caliph, Hārūn al-Rashīd (r. 786-809), established Baghdad as a center for learning, and appointed to high government positions the most qualified masters of their fields, giving no preference to Muslims over Jews or Christians. Historical accounts show how he and Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor, would exchange gifts, and on one occasion, al-Rashīd sent him a water clock, and he was so enthralled by it that it could only be explained through magic because it defied everything they knew about time keeping. His son, al-Maʾmūn, established bayt al-ḥikmah (the House of Wisdom) from his own personal library of more than 100,000 titles, at a time where the largest library in all of Europe was in Paris and held merely 400 volumes. This library had books in several languages on mathematics, astronomy, physics, medicine, cartography, poetry, and philosophy, and over the next few centuries, Bayt al-ḥikmah was fully endowed to attract the most erudite scholars and translators to translate all the greatest works of their civilizations from Sanskrit, Chinese, Farsi, Greek, Syriac, and other languages into Arabic, which was the lingua franca of that period. The most prominent of these translators was Ḥunayn b. Isḥāq, a Syriac Christian, who translated into Arabic three times as many books of Galen as had existed in Latin. He also translated the books of Plato and Aristotle. Astronomy and medicine quickly became two fields of great interest to the Muslims, perhaps because they were the most necessary to connect the vertical of ʿibādāt to the horizontal of muʿāmālāt. Astronomy was meant to help determine the prayer calculations and the direction of Mecca to get it right with God, while medicine was meant to heal His servants. The great pioneer in Muslim mathematics was الخوارزمي (d. 850) from خوارزم in Uzbekistan. He was also employed by بيت الحكمة and is asked to devise more accurate astronomical tables than what was inherited from the Greeks. He writes a book called الجبر and introduces algorithms, which is the very basis of computer programming. Al-Battani’s (d. 929) astronomical tables dominate endure 800 years as the standard. Jeber b. Aflah (Geber d. 1160) is the great pioneer of spherical geometry. Al-Marwāzī and al-Buzjānī gave us the six trigonometric functions (sin/cosin, tangent/cotangent, secant/cosecant).
In medicine, Muslims establish the first hospitals. Al-Manṣūrī in Cairo was the biggest hospital at the time in the world and housed 8000 patients. Treatment was free and provided through endowments. Patients would stay until they recovered fully of their maladies. Music therapy was practiced, and hospitals were partitioned into wards. Hospital management became a niche genre in Muslim literature. Al-Rāzī (Rhazes d. 925) wrote a book called Doubting Galen in which he demonstrated through clinical research the flaws of some of Galen’s theories. He was the first to do so. He wrote two other books entitled, “Why Frightened Patients Forsake even Skilled Physicians,” and “Why People Prefer Quacks and Charlatans to Skilled Physicians.” He is most famously known for his الحاوي which is known in Europe as Continens, and serves as a medical encyclopedia that gathers all the medical knowledge of the Indians, Persians, Syrians, Greeks, and Arabs and was divided according to diseases, conditions, and ailments. Then he concludes each section with what he observed clinically. It was multi-voluminous and then abridged into what was called Liber Rigius and remained the standard until well into the 17th century. He is followed by Ibn Sina (Avicenna d. 1037), who wrote al-qānūn (the Canon), which was translated into Latin in the 12th century and dominated until the 16th century. There are cases of it still being in use in some hospitals in France until the 18th century. In the 16th century alone, 20 different editions are printed, all in Latin. This is notwithstanding numerous commentaries on the book. Al-Zahrāwī’s (d. 1013 from Madīnat al-Zahrah) principal work is the kitāb al-taṣrīf, a thirty-volume encyclopedia of medical practices. The surgery chapter of this work was later translated into Latin, attaining popularity and becoming the standard textbook in Europe for the next five hundred years. Al-Zahrāwī’s pioneering contributions to the field of surgical procedures and instruments had an enormous impact in the East and West well into the modern period, where some of his discoveries are still applied in medicine to this day. Also influential is Ibn al-Haytham (Alhacen, d. 1040). More than 50 of his books survive and كتاب المناظر the Book of Optics is a masterpiece. He has tremendous regard for Galen and praises him lavishly, but differs from him in the book, where he introduces the idea that light rays do not move from the eye to the object, but quite the opposite, and he proves this for the first time in his book. He writes, “The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads and attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.” Ibn al-Baytar (d. 1248 from Malaga) from whose name we get veterinary because he writes about the treatment of animals. He is also a Botanist. Ibn al-Bayṭār’s largest and most widely read book is his Compendium on Simple Medicaments and Foods (Arabic: كتاب الجامع لمفردات الأدوية والأغذية). It is a pharmacopoeia listing 1400 plants, foods, and drugs, and their uses. His father was known as al-Baytar, which is where we get the word veterinarian, because of his work with animals.
The Muslims didn’t just translate the works of the Greeks and hand them over to the Europeans, but they revolutionized every field and added much to them and continued to do so after the Europeans began to run with it. It was Muslim thought that brought Europe out of the Dark Ages (700-1000) and ultimately led to the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In this very simplistic exhibit of a few centerpieces, I have not spoken about Muslim influence over architecture, music, poetry, philosophy, and a myriad of other fields, and have only named a few pioneers who preserved and challenged the knowledge of the past. I can only hope that we can appreciate a little more such a rumination as Mark Twain’s, who in his dismay, remarked: “The Ancients have stolen all of our secrets.”
Muslims were not just great in the past. We are the spiritual heirs of this great intellectual history. Our own Prophet took great pride in his spiritual lineage, declaring at the Battle of Hunayn أنا النبي لا كذب أنا ابن عبد المطلب “I am the Prophet, that is no lie or fib, I am the son of ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib!” But while we take great pride in our spiritual heritage and intellectual tradition, we must never romanticize the past such that it leaves us lethargic in the present. I cannot tell you how many times the phrase مصر أم الدنيا “Egypt is the mother of civilization” left me despondent would respond therewith after knowing of my Egyptian descent. This is because there is a marked difference between the Egypt of my grandparents and the Egypt of my parents, to say nothing of Egypt today. Allah reminds us تِلْكَ أُمَّةٌ قَدْ خَلَتْ لَهَا مَا كَسَبَتْ وَلَكُمْ مَّا كَسَبْتُمْ “That people have now passed away: they have the reward of their deeds, and for you is the meed of yours; but of their doings ye shall not be questioned.”
So we are talking about Gravitas in Education. In Arabic, علم means knowledge, and is connected etymologically to عمل action, which then reflects as لمع glowing light. Indeed, the effect of knowledge in the world is that it dispels the darkness of ignorance with its light. Even in English, the intelligent are called “bright,” and intellectuals are called “luminaries.” But that light only comes when knowledge leads one to acts of nobility. A contemporary example is in the visionary Imam Warith Deen Muhammad. Perhaps he was granted such success in bringing thousands of people to Islam was that his neighbors would normally walk right into his house and find grocery bags waiting for them on his kitchen table. That is knowledge in action that reflects in light. This anecdote from his blessed life was shared by one Rami Nashashibi, a young Palestinian who, in the South Side of Chicago, decided to continue the work of Malcolm X, and so instituted IMAN (Inner City Muslim Action Network). Suffice it to say that there are a number of African American children in the South Side of Chicago who answer to the name, Rami. Dr. Husain Sattar, a physician in the same city of Chicago, was told by his spiritual teacher that he should write a book on pathology, and two years later he published “Fundamentals of Pathology,” which is considered the standard handbook for all medical students in the United States! Examples abound. These are just concrete and contemporary references among untold stories of how Muslims have been able to attain to greatness by taking their studies seriously, and in the words of Dr. Umar, by Living Islam with Purpose. He wrote a seminal article by that name, in addition to “Islam and the Cultural Imperative,” which both give us a historical and intellectual framework, I would argue, as an overarching vision to what we mean when we say, “Gravitas in Education.”
I would like to leave you with another thought of Mark Twain’s that I believe is pertinent to tonight’s theme, Gravitas in Education. He once said, in the mouth of Huck Finn, “I never let my schooling interfere my education.” Our public schools today are set up in a way to distract children from 6 to 16 and keep them off the streets. Standardized testing has a way of matriculating students among levels until completion. Teach for the test was a mantra even as I attended public school. However, just walking through the hallway here, I was overwhelmed at how acute the focus of education here at PTA was on actually learning, and not just matriculation. Behold, Catherine the Great, in conversation with Mansa Musa and Imam Malik. And when the students take their studies here seriously, they become the rightful heirs of the Muslim legacy to which the world is indebted. One of the stark realities of the age in which we live is the abundance of information at our fingertips. I once studied with scholars in Mauritania who believe the earth is flat, but no amount of wisdom was lost on them. The difference between them and many of us who have amassed much more information about the world is that they know what to do with the knowledge they possess. Knowledge that is misplaced is injustice, it is chaos, it is harmful, and the antithesis of wisdom. It is quite obvious from the efforts here that the education being imparted is holistic and meaningful, and will yield profound results, if the students take this opportunity seriously. The Arabs say العلم في الصغر كالنقش على الحجر والعلم في الكبر كالرسم على البحر.
If you look at the general American landscape, for all of its diversity, pretty much everyone within a given enclave will fit right in with everyone else. Obviously, there is nothing remarkable about that. We are known for our jeans, our burgers, our suvs, and now our tattoos. But a person can “fit in” without necessarily “belonging,” and one can “belong” without necessarily “fitting in.”
How many among us have ever felt the pangs of isolation, even among friends? At one or another point of our lives, we may have even allowed our depression to lead our thoughts toward suicide. There are those who fit right in with all of their social networks, yet they do not have a sense of belongingness or acceptance. Contrarily, a person can “belong” without really “fitting in.” The eccentric, the artist, the misfit, the quirky guy, the nerd, the fob: most eventually manage to find their way to acceptance, somehow. The beholder will find a way to accommodate the most unusual part of a mural if he stares at it long enough.
And now more than ever, scores of people who are effectively addicted to social media are finding that we neither fit in, nor do we belong. This is leading many among us, especially our youth, down the paths of depression, alienation, and ultimately, spiritual suicide. Atheism is now a viable antidote to the maladies of religionism. And instead of embracing what is truly “other” about ourselves, scores of us are faring the seas of consumerism on the yachts we acquired by investing our hereafter in the Protestant Ethic Mutual Fund, while others among us are running for the hills fleeing a cultural Inquisition that is fueled by a media campaign whose belligerence and bigotry are, arguably, without precedent the world over.
That leaves us at a critical crossroads. And it is up to those among us who “get it” to forge a culturally authentic alternative that articulates that which is irresistibly beautiful about our “otherness.” Toward that endeavor, the Prophet ﷺ called you and me “strangers,” recognizing on one hand how we were never meant to entirely fit in or belong. He saw us as wayfarers on a path who stopped to draw the coolness of the shade of a tree before resuming our journey toward God. On the other hand, he took wayfarers into his accepting embrace, wayfarers who did not entirely belong, wayfarers who did not entirely fit in.
Abū Hurayrah was one such wayfarer: he did not fit in, though he belonged.
Zāhir was another such wayfarer: he did not belong, though he fit in.
Anas spoke about a woman who was not entirely balanced: she neither belonged, nor did she fit in.
Belonging is at the heart of all human needs between what is essential for survival and what is supernal in self-actualization. What we have now is neighborhoods, not communities. And a hood is what you use to veil yourself from your neighbors. But a community is where everybody knows your name, and there always glad you came! To borrow the words of Imam Faheem Shuaibe, community is the context for common unity.
"PEACE IN ISLAM"
“I want you to knock that smile right off her face! You make sure she spends all of next week in a hospital bed.” Imagine this phrase coming in as marital advice from a confidant. That person would be a scoundrel worthy, himself, of punishment. Now, imagine the same phrase coming from the late Muhammad Ali to his daughter right before the next round of a boxing match. He would be lauded for good parenting.
“Peace in Islam.” We have grown largely desensitized to the absurdity of this phrase and the problems it poses through its widespread use and receptivity on the tongues. Peace is the absence of disturbance or war, it is quietness and tranquility, it is a state of equilibrium. Whenever and wherever this is achieved, we have peace. Neither religion nor secularism can qualify it. No one would dare say that we have a Jewish peace or an atheist peace. Equally unthinkable is the phrase Peace in Christianity or Peace in Hinduism. Perhaps the reason we don’t think twice about the phrase when qualified by Islam is our subconscious acceptance of the contrary, which is that Islam is a religion of violence that produces violent men, then glorifies them for their violence. So we come to a subject like this either wishing to vindicate such a bias or seeking enlightenment on the question: Does Islam breed violence and raise violent men? Is Islam, itself, the very corruption of corrupted souls? Is Islam to blame for the atrocities carried out in its name? Yet these questions are just as wayward as the notions of “Islamic peace” or “Islamic violence.”
That said, human beings are, by nature, judgmental beings. We do so in our relationships, and within ten seconds of any conversation, we judge the other person in terms of intelligence or personality or disposition. We judge the character of nations, cultures, political systems and the parties that operate therein, and we judge the merit and character of the world’s religious traditions. The question is when it comes to religion, on what basis should we determine our judgments? In judging any given religion, one may admit as evidence its source texts or the actions of its adherents, or consider how one might affect the other and in what contexts and how.
For example, one may deem Christianity a religion of violence based on the declaration of Jesus in Matthew 10:34-36: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword!” or as a religion of peace based on his declaration in Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.” Likewise, one may judge Christianity by all the lynching carried out by that cross-bearing, Christian brotherhood known as the Ku Klux Klan, or the safe havens provided to many of our youth, including me, by YMCAs and YWCAs all across the country. Both were informed by some understanding of Christianity.
In 1529, Pope Clement VI gave these instructions to Charles V in his papal bull intra arcana: “We trust that, as long as you are on earth, you will compel and with all zeal cause the barbarian nations (of the New World) to come to the knowledge of God, the maker and founder of all things, not only by edicts and admonitions, but also by force and arms, if needful, in order that their souls may partake of the heavenly kingdom.” By such a pronouncement, one could argue that Catholicism is a religion of violence and coercion, and that Pope Clement wasn’t so clement after all! Eight years later, however, Pope Paul III forbade in his sublimus dei the enslavement of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. Catholicism at that time could have been characterized as egalitarian. But what about the Church’s prior endorsement? Can we rightly say that Catholicism was a racist religion until 1537. This, to say nothing of the unspeakable atrocities of the Catholic Church—all done in the name of Christ—against Jews, Muslims, and even Protestant Christians during the Inquisition or, more recently, with pedophilia based on the actions of less than 4% of Catholic priests (according to a study conducted by bishopaccountability.org). Or, alternatively, is Catholicism a religion of philanthropy in light of the works of Mother Theresa, or of love as manifested in Pope Francis’ “…embrace felt ‘round the world” of a man severely afflicted with neurofibromatosis. All of the aforementioned were actions of Catholics who took their faith very seriously.
One may deem Judaism a religion of violence based on the declaration, “Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered, and their wives ravished,” or “So that you may bathe your feet in blood, so that the tongues of your dogs may have their share of the enemy”; or as a religion of supernal peace and sublime spiritual ecstasy based on a superficial study of any of the works of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, my favorite author in the English language who enjoys a shelf all to himself in my library. Likewise, one may equate Judaism with violence based on the brutal murder of Rachel Corrie, an American who gave her life trying to prevent the bulldozing of a Palestinian home only to fall prey to the bulldozer, herself, or the countless acts of violence meted out to the Palestinians in Hebron at the hands of Jewish “settlers” and the racist treatment of Sudanese migrants in the streets of Tel Aviv, for example, or as a religion of peace and social justice based on the marching of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All of these examples were informed by some understanding of Judaism.
There are those who would argue that Islam, likewise, is a religion of violence based on certain verses in the Qur’an or the acts of violence perpetrated in its name all over the world, while Muslims, by and large, know their tradition to value peace and justice and to abhor and condemn indiscriminate killing, as do all religious traditions.
The obvious mistake here lies in the attempt to define religion by the ever changing and diverse character of its adherents as opposed to judging those adherents by the defining precepts of their religion. The former, notwithstanding its convenience and lucrativeness in the modern age, does a gross injustice to the scriptures, doctrines, and scholarly consensus or orthodoxy of the faith tradition, while the latter either honors or shames those adherents who conform to or defy the faith they proclaim.
So when endeavoring to interpret the world and world events, we must first create those frameworks which we could consistently refer back to when we are confronted with those things that do not immediately make sense to us, that may immediately give us pause or confuse us. These frameworks that we form as we go through life become valuable tools for us to remain grounded and centered in our own selves regardless of what the world throws our way. These frameworks are not static or fixed, they grow with me as I grow. Part of this lifelong project of being a human being is to continuously revisit those frameworks through which I see the world and interpret events. And ask myself is this working? What do I need to add or change to my way of seeing things in order to better make sense of these new incidents? And so the way that I see the world yesterday does not have to be the same way I see things today, and the way I see things today does not necessitate that I must always see them the same way in the future. But this is a fluid process that goes hand in hand with the development of my own self and my own sense of who I am.
So instead of trying to make meaning of these events for you, which, let alone being impossible, I don’t think is really that valuable to you because what value to you is my making meaning for you? The value lies in our own efforts to make sense of these events that defy our senses. So what I’d rather do is speak a little about my own personal process of meaning making. This process is influenced by a number of different factors. I live in America. That has a powerful impact on how I interpret events. I am Muslim. That also has a powerful impact on my interpretation. Whatever experiences I may have in my life of violence or of trauma or the absence thereof also influence the way that I process or come to understand these events. So this journey is also a journey of self-discovery as I ask myself what meaning do I make of this, I also observe how I am making that meaning, I learn about how I function as this unique and individual human being named Hisham.
Though it may be necessary or expedient to say, “We have nothing to do with this!” it’s also sad that we have to condemn it or decry it. So then the question comes up for me, with all this discourse about radical Islam, is that really where the problem lies? And I think one of the issues that comes up, and of course, this has to do with how things are framed, and this is a way of making meaning: a terrible thing happens, how do I understand it, what is the cause of it? Oh, well it’s radical Islam, of course. There goes radical Islam, again! Well thanks, now I can put my mind at rest about it, and we can just focus on that, and all of our problems will vanish. This is a simplistic answer but I can see why it’s convenient, because if I adopt it, I absolve myself of the task of asking challenging questions and making meaning out of their answers.
The problem with the “Radical Islam” framework is that it gives too much credit to ideology. It says that people do horrible things because they hold certain ideologies. And the reality is that there are people who hold these ideologies who do harm in the world and there are those who hold those ideologies and do no harm in the world. Contrarily, there are people who don’t hold these ideologies and do harm in the world as well. So for me, the answer must lie somewhere other than just the realm of ideology. And that’s in no way to say that ideology does not play a part in these harms. Muslims who commit acts of violence knowingly and willingly seem to find their justification through religious scripture. And it is valuable and important to us to pay attention to the ways they do this. But at the same time, combatting violence cannot just be an intellectual conversation about ideology. It cannot just be a debate about interpretations of traditions and of religious texts. I think it has to go far deeper at the human level.
So if radical Islam is not the most meaningful frame, then how else can we frame it? One way is to ascribe it to “radical Muslims,” so that it’s not about this ideology but it’s about the people who espouse that ideology. And I think that’s valuable but then how does one define “radical,” which is one of these words that takes on the meaning intended by its respective speaker. Lupe Fiasco is speaking out against predatory lending, against state-sponsored terrorism, against all political parties and the very political system that creates contexts in which larger wars and violence can occur and he’s saying something has to radically change for us to live in harmony. So that’s an example of a radical Muslim. He’s not violent, he’s not blowing anyone up, and in many respects, the things he’s calling to are quite laudable and praiseworthy. A radical Muslim might also be a woman who gets behind the driver seat of a car in Saudi Arabia. That would be a radical Muslim. So this term radical Muslim for me doesn’t really get at what we’re really talking about.
So maybe more appropriately, it’s about violent Muslims. I think that’s what we’re talking about. We’re talking about Muslims who choose to commit acts of violence, for a variety of reasons. And in this sense, while Muslims justify their acts of violence possibly through Islam—there are of course many violent Muslims who are just violent Muslims. And I wonder, therefore, how different violent Muslims are from just violent human beings, because we live in a world where we are constantly struck by the violence that surrounds us. And many of us may be lucky enough to not be personally touched by this violence, but it is something that pervades our society. It is noteworthy that those who are the victims of violent Muslims are other Muslims, and on the day of the Boston marathon bombing, over fifty Muslims were killed by car bombings in Iraq. And I think it’s also important to note that violence occurs in our society every day and we often don’t hear about it, because it doesn’t always happen in Georgetown or Lexington, it happens in Covington. And all of those deaths, there is silence about. And so paying attention when these things happen, not to radical Islam or radical Muslims, but to violence as a human phenomenon and reality, to me, that becomes a far more meaningful framework and allows me to understand so much more about my world. For then we begin to ask, what leads to violence? If it’s not just about ideology, what are the stories of human pain and suffering and neglect and injustice that lead people to commit these acts of violence, sometimes in the name of Islam and sometimes not. And we can also see that violence comes in various forms, it comes in those outward actions of violence of gunfire and explosions but it also comes in the far more subtle and quiet and insidious form of neglect. If we look at the garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed and killed over 800 people because there are no standards for the buildings, because we want to buy cheap clothes. So when we look at violence in this broader sense, we all can see that we are complicit in acts of violence in our world, regardless of even if we are not outwardly committing acts of violence with our own hands. And this is important because when this gets framed as radical Islam or being about radical Muslims, it’s much easier for me to distance myself from it. It’s easy for me to say that, well, that’s not about Islam, and whatever those people are calling Islam, well that’s not my Islam. And whatever kind of Muslim that guy thinks he is, he’s not the kind of Muslim I am, that’s got nothing to do with me. But if I framed it as being about violence and about how pervasive violence is in my society, I can start to see that there are ways, even through my neglect, even through my turning away, I participate in that violence. And by making that realization, I am able to make choices about how I show up in my communities to help bring an end to that violence and create a world that is more in accordance with the kind of society that I want to live in and that I want to share with all of you.
When judging a religious tradition by its source texts, Any text devoid of a context is susceptible to the reader’s pretext. “Tell me how you’ve understood a text, and I’ll tell you something about your personality, not necessarily what’s in the text” (Tariq Ramadan). Islam is not a religion of peace, because the human being is not a being of peace.
But to address the ideology piece, what ends up happening is that it is very easy to take scripture out of its context and then justify any act of violence against non-Muslims. What’s much more difficult and challenging is to place those pieces of scripture in their historical context (giving the Prophet permission to fight his aggressors), but also the context of everything else we know about the Prophet. One finds that the overarching ethical value is mercy, such that all the verses that speak about warfare must be interpreted in light of that greater context. So it’s crucial for us to look at Islam as this comprehensive tradition, which includes revelation, law, ethics, literature, theology; we must look at Islam as a whole that comprises all of these parts, and if we take a look at just this one small piece of one of those parts, we will surely be led astray about what the reality of Islam is and what it asks us to do in the world.
Those who live and breathe the Qur’an and its ancillary sciences are scholars and their judgment will necessarily differ from those who have studied Islam from the purview of political science, i.e., experts, which will feed right into the perspective propagated by those whose study of Islam surpasses not the sound bytes of pundits.
Arabia before its Prophet did not regard mercy meritoriously; rather, much like Palestine before Jesus, mercy and forgiveness were marks of weakness. Both were honor/shame cultures that ranked dominance and exploitation above service and selflessness. In an honor/shame matrix, one gains honor for himself and his family or tribe by taking it from another. Both Jesus and the Prophet redefined this rubric, teaching that honor lies in pardoning others for their infractions. The Prophet’s statement, “The strong among you are not those who fight well, rather, strength lies in controlling oneself when angry,” subtly echoes Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples, for example, inasmuch as both were seeking to redefine honor principles that had suffocated their respective societies for centuries before their advents. In just 23 years, the Prophet united tens of thousands whose former lifestyles glorified warfare, slavery, drunkenness, and licentiousness. His merciful demeanor drew unto himself the most belligerent of his enemies, who quickly became his staunchest supporters. Mercy, then, is the hallmark of his call, and one consistently observes the thread of mercy weaving through his actions. The Qur’an declares, “It was only by God’s mercy that you were lenient with them, and had you been quick tempered and harsh hearted, they would have dispersed from around you.”
Perhaps the following anecdotes, if you will, from his life can afford us a salient glimpse into his character and personality.
The Prophet said to one of his companions, “Shall I inform you of the loftiest achievements of the denizens of this world and the next? Maintain relations with those who cut you off; give freely to those who deny you; and pardon those who oppress you.” A similar narration from another companion differs only in the third exhort: “…and pardon those who offend you out of ignorance.”
The Prophet also said, “The Beneficent is merciful to those who are merciful. Show mercy to those on earth, and the One who transcends the heavens will be merciful to you.”
The Prophet was in the frequent habit of going into personal debt in order to spend on the poor. One of his lenders, in this case, a Jewish neighbor with scriptural knowledge, approached him from behind and yanked his cloak such that it tore from the front, leaving marks on his neck and fitting limply on his shoulders. At this, his companion `Umar chastised and threatened the lender, while the Prophet turned to face him, smiling. The lender continued to insult the Prophet, stating that his family was not known for delinquency. The Prophet then ordered `Umar to accompany the lender, pay him what he owed from the community storehouse, and increase his payment by twenty containers of dates. At this, the lender confessed that he only wanted to test the Prophet’s claim to prophecy, being that prophets were known not to be provoked by ignorance, and that any increase in foul treatment increases the Prophet’s forbearance. Then the lender donated all that was owed to him and declared Muhammad God’s messenger.
One of the companions described him thus, “None of us knew which of us were more dearly beloved to him.” Another companion related that the Prophet jestingly nicknamed him, “The guy with two ears.”
During the Battle of Uhud- the second of many battles in which the Muslims fought for self-determination against invading Meccan armies- the Prophet’s front teeth were knocked out, his cheeks pierced with shards of metal, and he had a bleeding gash on his forehead. He was hastily trying to contain the blood and prevent it from falling to the ground, professing, “I fear that should a drop of a prophet’s blood fall to the ground, his people may be condemned for it.” The situation weighed on the Muslims, who implored, “Why do you not just curse them?” He replied, “I have not been sent to damn people. I have only been sent as a mercy. O God! Forgive my people, for they know no better.”
The Prophet once kissed his grandson, prompting another to inquire: “You kiss your children? I swear by God, I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them!” The Prophet answered, “He who does not show mercy will not be shown mercy.”
The Prophet had a neighbor who despised him without ever having engaged him. Every night, the man would place his household trash in front of the Prophet’s door out of spite. Each morning, the Prophet would open his door to leave his home, only to be greeted with the man’s garbage. In time, however, this neighbor fell ill, and the Prophet knocked at his door and went in to visit him. When the Prophet sat at his bedside, the man asked in surprise, “What would bring you here to see me? Do you not know how I loathe you?” The Prophet answered, “Yes I know, but my faith directs me to care after my neighbors and to visit the sick. You are my neighbor and you are sick.”
Such texts abound and adorn libraries of every language, whether academic or personal. Such was the Prophet as his family, friends, and enemies knew him. Because the outsider, whether cartoonist, politician, elected official, or anchorman, has not taken the time to study any aspect of the person of Muhammad, his perception is circumscribed by ignorance, hate, mockery, and all the dynamics of the playground. Likewise, because the insider, whether uninformed preacher, disenfranchised flag-burner, or angry kidnapper with a video camera, has yet to realize that he is the messenger of the Messenger; his actions are polluted by rage, lawlessness, brutality, and murder.
"OUR AMERICAN MUSLIM IDENTITY"
Before the modern nation state, identity had more to do with the language one spoke in a given region than with anything else, which gave rise to tribes, than to peoples. The word in Arabic for region منطقة has at its root نطق “pronunciation.” And Allah said وَمِنْ آَيَاتِهِ خَلْقُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَاخْتِلَافُ أَلْسِنَتِكُمْ وَأَلْوَانِكُمْ إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَآَيَاتٍ لِلْعَالِمِينَ . Tribalism was the forerunner of racism, and it is interesting to note that our Prophet appealed to language one spoke to eradicate the ignorance of tribalism when he said من تكلم بالعربية فهو عربي, “Whoever speaks Arabic is an Arab,” and his abiding reminder shall forever resonate that no one has superiority over anyone else except through a spiritual rank that is known only to God, i.e., taqwa. This teaching in the Prophet’s “Sermon on the Mount” ﷺ echoes the verse يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنْثَى وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ. America is a socio-political experiment in taking all these different tongues, colors, nations, and tribes, and unifying them all as one, E pluribus unum (out of many, one); “And to the Republic, for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”: well, at least on paper. And the quintessential question at the heart of this experiment is whether America is a melting pot or a salad bowl. How one conceives of identity will, obviously, differ, depending on the answer to that question. Whether native or naturalized, religious or irreligious, young or old, our notion of “identity” in America depends on whether we perceive this country as a homogeneous monoculture or a heterogeneous multicultural exchange. This rings loudest among our youth, who by this time next year will be entering college as the first generation to do so born after 9/11. Never before has the question of identity been as poignant as with the Muslim screenagers of today. How does one reconcile between a religion that submits the self to the Divine and a culture that deifies self-expression without splitting one’s personality. The failure to do so is what has led our young people to exit stage left. What is more troubling than a woman who opts to remove her veil to better express herself is all the praise she receives from fellow, practicing Muslims for her courage. #youdoyougirl. A more egregious example is that of a Muslim who publicized his conversion to Christianity a couple of years ago, who thereupon received heartfelt congratulations from two practicing Muslims on a graduate student forum. I personally know of a young Muslim who surprised his parents at the age of 15 one night after dinner with an ijazah in the memorization of the Qur’an. Two years later, at the age of 17, as a high schooler, I had to spend three hours convincing him why the Book he memorized was the truth. Each of these examples demonstrate what happens when you begin to melt in a pot. But consider people like Ubaydullah Evans (teacher), Rami Nashashibi (community leader), Dr. Jackson (public intellectual), Brother Ali (artist), Dalia Mogahed (activist), Mahmoud Abdul Ra’uf (athlete), Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (scholar), et cetera, and you can taste the vinegar of Islam poured out on lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, olives, turnips, and broccoli. In the eulogy of Dr. Sherman Jackson, as he bid farewell to Muhammad Ali Haj, he proclaimed: “As a cultural icon, Ali made…being Muslim cool. Ali made being a Muslim dignified. Ali made being a Muslim relevant. And all of this he did in a way that no one could challenge his belongingness to or in this country. Ali put the question of whether a person can be a Muslim and American to rest. Indeed, he KO’d that question. With his passing, let us hope that that question will now be interred with his precious remains.” But that question still looms; it brought us here tonight; it was printed on the flier: “Our American Muslim Identity.”
These four words tell the whole story. They bespeak a psychology of a minority seeking to assimilate itself into a dominant culture. As I sat this morning at IHOP writing this all out, a Latino man excused himself got up and left his Asian girlfriend to shake the hands of two white soldiers seated across from him. I found myself questioning my own Americanness because that’s not something I can perceive myself ever doing. But I was reminded that George Wallace once called Malcolm X a great American, and it got me thinking, is Kapernick any less American than Hannity? And why is Hannity’s patriotism unquestioned, unchallenged, while Kapernick’s patriotism is debatable. And it brought me back to the problem of these four words: Our American Muslim Identity. Allow me, then, to get behind the psychology of such a phrase as I attempt to answer the question that Muhammad Ali’s legacy should have silenced.
First, “Our”: I remember growing up hearing things like, “This American guy said to me at work,” which almost exclusively meant, “This white guy,” otherwise, he would have been described as “This black guy,” or “This Chinese man,” or “This Mexican.” This reveals a real dissonance in the collective consciousness of a community that is seeking acceptance, a sense of belonging, the desire to “fit in.” But acceptance from whom, belonging to whom, fitting in with whom? Think about it, are you as comfortable in your Muslim skin shopping at a suburban mall as you are walking a few street blocks in the inner city? Where do you feel “otherized”? Where do you feel you don’t belong? Where do you feel unwelcomed? It is arguable that the safest and most welcoming place for Muslims of all backgrounds is in the inner cities, yet “we” do not usually identify with the Muslims of the inner city when we use phrases like “Our” American Muslim Identity. Meanwhile, our presence here in this country is the direct result of the struggles of Black Americans in the 60s who opened the floodgates of brown immigration to this country. And if anyone has anything to teach “us” about identity, it is those who have to face the severe realities of racial identity in this country on a daily basis. The first jamarat of our disunity that must be stoned is the racial segregation of our mosques, the refusal to intermarry, the racial slurs that go unchallenged in “polite” conversation, the two national conventions that happen on the same date in the same city year after year just miles apart. In the African American experience of the American experiment lies all the resolutions to “our” need for acceptance, belonging, and fitting in, and they have a thing or two to say about resistance and struggle; moreover, they are unparalleled as the authors of global culture. The Muhajirun and the Ansar have never been in more need of one another as we are today.
What is an American? It is very difficult to agree on one definition for what an American is, and lack of definition, in some sense, is the definition. The grand narrative begins where “The Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. Malcolm X once said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us!” First Nations had a different name altogether for Plymouth Rock, and Thanksgiving is one of their many days of mourning. But each community unabashedly proclaims itself as American with no afterthought. In point of fact, it is so inherent to their identities that they do not feel the burden to assert it. The very phrase “American Muslim” otherizes Muslims. You’ve never met an American Christian, an American Catholic, an American Jew, an American Buddhist, an American Hindu, but you’ve met thousands of proud and unapologetic “American Muslims.” The very phrase is a apologetic. It is an apology that admits of itself that Muslims don’t really belong here, while insisting somehow that we do, notwithstanding the presence of Islam in this country that reaches back to the first days of Christianity, when Muslims were hoarded onto ships from West Africa to build this dirt from scratch into a nation. Their graves are marked by one hand on headstones with the index finger raised, testifying to the oneness of Allah. They died for you and I to belong, and are turning in their graves that we have to convince the dominant culture through some hyphenated label that we actually belong here. This is where we live, this is where we die, this is where we are to be buried and await resurrection. The Prophet ﷺ said البلاد بلاد الله. All of the land belongs to Allah! This land is your land, this land is my land, from the California to the New York island, from the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me. And Allah made it so! And he ﷺ added, والعباد عباد الله “…and all of the slaves belong to Allah!” So it is time that some of Allah’s slaves stop trying to seek the acceptance of other slaves, and turn to Allah alone to seek our acceptance.
Perhaps the most contentious word in this phrase “Our American Muslim Identity” is the word Muslim. As a community, we have departed from the Prophetic definition of this term. We have turned it into an identity, and as such, have ascribed ourselves to an entity, what Shaykh Hamza coined “Bani Islam.” We have taken a word whose first connotation described a relationship between Creator and creature and turned it into an id card. The shahadah, which is a spiritual perceptiveness and witnessing, is plastered onto the flags of political nation states and picket signs. It is appropriated as a symbol of national identity and thereby politicized into the consciousness of the citizens of the state. From time to time, it assumes political sovereignty and unleashes untold havoc. In the words of Shaykh Abdul Hakim Winter, “There is no Islam but Islam, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Islam.”
So when Islam is a noun, it’s a person, place, or thing; it’s an organization, it’s a convention, it’s a book, it’s a body of scholars, it’s a mosque, it’s a movement, it’s a university degree, it’s a legal code, it’s a box you check, it’s a “way of life.”
When Islam is an adjective, it describes a noun; it’s “Islamic,” it’s cultural, it’s an affiliation, it’s the desire to “islamicize,” it’s sectarian, it’s an accessory, it’s posturing, it’s an ideal, it’s an ideology, it’s an identity.
Islam, however, being a verbal noun, is a gerund or infinitive; it’s “submitting” or “to submit,” it’s an intention, it’s a process, it’s practice, it’s tribulation, it’s success and failure, it’s discovery, it’s endeavoring, it’s serving, it’s living. هو الذي سماكم مسلمين He is the one who named you Muslims.
قل إن صلاتي ونسكي ومحياي ومماتي لله رب العالمين لا شريك له وبذلك أمرت وأنا أول المسلمين
“Say, ‘My prayer, my rites, my entire life and my death, are for God, the Lord of creation- He is without partner. And by this have I been commanded, yes I am the first person to submit.’”
In the words of Rami Nashashibi, “Islam is not who you are, it’s what you do!” He was with Imam Warith al-Din Muhammad three days before his passing in a humble home scarcely big enough for a third person to have been among them. Throughout his visit, the Imam had to get up time and again to open the front door to children who came seeking sweets and desserts and this was not Halloween. The imam kept apologizing profusely for the interruptions and his last visitor was a woman with whom he would normally converse, but instead he sought her permission to entertain his guest while motioning to her to grab a bag of groceries he had packed for her on the kitchen table. Muslim is an “active” participle, it’s what you do, it’s how you live, it’s how you die. ادخلوا في السلم كافة Enter into submission entirely! ولا تموتن إلا وأنتم مسلمون and do not die except entirely submitted!
We do not play the game of identity politics. وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِنْ بَنِي آدَمَ مِنْ ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَى أَنْفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُوا بَلَى شَهِدْنَا أَنْ تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَذَا غَافِلِينَ When your Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam – from their loins – their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves. “Am I not your Lord?” They said: “Indeed! We do testify!” This, lest you should say on the Day of Judgment: “Of this we were unaware.” We lay claim to our identity, ultimately, in that primordial moment wherein God assembled our souls and asked who He was and who we were. Behold, the Prophet ﷺ rises to honor the funeral procession and is questioned about the Jewish identity of that soul,” to which he responds أو ليست نفسا “Is it not a soul!” We are not human beings on spiritual journey through life, rather, we are spiritual beings on the human leg of the journey.” قال الشاعر أبو الفتح البستي: يا خادم الجسم كم تشقى بخدمته أتطلب الربح فيما فيه خسران؟ أقبل على النفس واستكمل فضائلها فأنت بالنفس لا بالجسم إنسان Abu al-Fath al-Busti said in a couplet, “O servant of the body, how weary you are in its service! Do you seek benefit in that which defaults to loss? Turn all your attention to the soul and perfect her virtues, for by virtue of the soul, not the body, is your humanity!”
In essence, you are not even the same person you were yesterday. That person and his identity are gone, for with the recreation of every moment comes the death of its past. So that sinner of the past is no more, you can’t even get mad at that guy, so just seek forgiveness for him. What’s left is the grace of today and the lesson learned, and you are a new person renewed in every breath of life that is extended to you.
As with Islam, when one settles his identity in a noun, he becomes stagnant and rigid; when one settles his identity as an adjective, one is subservient to circumstance and acculturation; but when one settles his identity in a verb, there is only God and one’s own growth and progression and depth over time. Descartes, when endeavoring to know himself, concluded: I think, therefore, I am. Behold, the ego in all his glory! But had he truly silenced his thoughts, and allowed himself to think, he would have only concluded, “I think, therefore, He is!”
In philosophy, the essence is distinguished from the accident. What is the essence of a human being, and should we not identify with that essence as opposed to the accident. Nowadays, identity, itself, is in crisis. It is one of those “plastic words” to quote Dr. Umar, that has meaning and means nothing at the same time. One man remarked that if David Duke and Shaykh Hamza are both racists (God protect us), then rejoice, because we’ve finally rid ourselves of the disease of racism, since the word doesn’t hold meaning anymore. Identity is becoming one such plastic word. As I boarded the plane last night, the passenger behind me asked a flight attendant, “How are you?” and he responded, “Another day of being me, couldn’t be much better!” And I thought to myself, now here is a man who identifies as, well, “himself.” The autonomy of the self to the extent that it only self-identifies. Then I thought to myself, this man simply “Kant” think straight. Yes, “identity” implies sameness or that which is “identical.” But when grappling with these terms in English, I oftentimes look for their equivalent in Arabic for clues as to how to frame my thinking, how to interpret the world and myself in it, how to perceive reality as it is, not as how they think it ought to be. The word for identity in Arabic is هوية the “he-ness” of a thing, or its Essence, but what is fascinating is that it is also the He-ness of a thing, or God in it. Imām ʿAlī عليه السلام once said من عرف نفسه عرف ربه Whoever knows himself knows his Lord, and he also said that nothing befalls me except that I see Allah before it, after it, and in it.
One of the major problems today with the one-sided discourse on identity is that it is premised on feelings and desires unmitigated by revelation. Sexual preference is an identity, I dare say an ethnicity, now backed by law. Unaware to most of us, many Muslims who are attracted to the same sex find it offensive to be labeled LGBT, for that is accidental to their being in the world, not a matter of essence. Polyandry is now an identity. In Delaware, children are now being encouraged to choose their own racial identities. Human beings are not only behaving like animals, but identifying as animals. “Catwoman” is not just a superhero, but she’s a cat trapped inside the body of a woman. And any critique is a remnant of a systemic institutionalization of religion and patriarchy spanning centuries. Mental constructs constitute “identities,” and sometimes manifest in the most heinous acts of violence. Iblis was the first person to wrongfully identify himself on an accident rather than on Essence. He mistook the accident for the Essence and said أنا خير منه خلقته من تراب وخلقته من طين I am superior to him: You created him from dust and created me from fire. The essence is that he was created by God, the accident is that God used fire. Behold, the first racist! The first of God’s creatures to put forth a philosophical proposition and argue on the basis of a conjured up mental construct. Ultimately, every –ism is a prism of a mind in prison. And every identity based on an –ism is temporal and will avail nothing when the angels ask, “Who is your Lord, what is your religion, and who is your Prophet?” All of the accidents inherent of Adam were of no value until Allah animated them with the Essence, and only at that point did He command the angels فإذا سويته ونفخت فيه من روحي فقعوا له ساجدين “And after I fashion him, and then breathe into him from My روح, fall before him prostrated.”
O family of listeners! What we do with our Islam defines who we truly are. When we occupy ourselves with the work of God in the world, out of love for Him and for what and whom He loves, and take up the burden of the Prophets as our own, we will find sweet love in the hearts of those for whose sake we toil and struggle. At that point, we will not be the slightest bit concerned about seeking acceptance, a sense of belonging, or the desire to “fit in.” We will have found a home in the hearts of those we serve, a solace in their smile, a proof with God in their prayers. In the South Side of Chicago, there are African Americans who are not Muslim who bear the name, “Rami.” And in that is a sign for those who reflect.
وإذ قال ربك للملائكة إني جاعل في الأرض خليفة قالوا أتجعل فيها من يفسد فيها ويسفك الدماء
ونحن نسبح بحمدك ونقدس لك قال إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون
He said, “I know what you know not.” The angels were asking about al-Qa`idah, about ISIS, about Boco Haram, and about the Taliban, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about the state-sponsored killing machines of Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and of the United States and Israel, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about the 60,000 people butchered by Mexican drug cartels, whose blood pumps life into the $49 billion industry in the United States on illegal narcotics alone, not to mention the tens of billions of dollars streaming into PIC, incorporated, i.e., the Prison Industrial Complex, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about the 26,171 bombs dropped from American drones and fighter jets in 2016 alone under our charming former President, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about scores of unindicted police officers who roam about making our streets unsafe, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about justice for Eric Garner and Michael Brown and every unarmed black man gunned down in streets you and I use to drive back and forth to work, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about the rape of Iraqi boys in front of their mothers at Abu Ghurayb, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about all the children sprayed with bullets in American schools over the past ten years, and they were asking about the 132 children and the nine teachers massacred in a single school in Peshawar, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. It was a good question, for Allah Himself asked the very same question that His angels asked Him: وإذا الموءودة سئلت بأي ذنب قتلت. And the answer to their question: قال إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about Mustafa Mattan in Ottawa, who just as he grabbed for the doorknob to answer a knock was killed by the bullet of the knocker, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about Diya’ Barakat, his wife of two months Yusor Abu-Salha, and her sister, Razan, who were each executed by their next door neighbor, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. They were asking about the 500,000 Syrians who are being slaughtered in the streets and in their homes by their own President, and they were told إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. And shortly thereafter, the very first crime committed against mankind was borne of envy and domination— lo, the whisper of Iblis; and the very first crime that man committed against man was borne of envy and domination—behold, Cain raises his hand to kill Abel.
Believers, I cannot say that I am entirely prepared to address you, today. The pulpit of the Prophet is a jealous place, and worthy of the most sublime discourse. How then, does one find words to give voice to a speechless sentiment! How can I speak about unspeakable horrors that were before our generation yet unthinkable! The very thought of a Muslim killing an animal makes the faithful disgusted, let alone an actual person with dreams and a family, let alone another Muslim! I could stand before you today to add one more statement of condemnation of crimes perpetrated in the name of our religion to the flurry of statements made in the recent past by scholars, imams, community activists, and so on, despite the fact that no condemnation is strong enough to conclusively avail Islam or Muslims of anything in the minds of those who bid it of us. I could stand before you today and explain how none of the crimes Muslims commit in the name of Islam has anything to do with Islam or the teachings of the Prophet, but you already know that whoever kills an innocent person has killed all of mankind. I could stand before you today and quote hadith after hadith about how the cults of death shall be the denizens of hell, but you already know that any two Muslims who wield their weapons to kill each other are both in the fire according to our Prophet. I could stand before you today and talk about killing others out of vengeance, but you already know that an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
All that aside, many among us on an individual basis, when we hear of such events as persistently occupy the world’s attention concerning us Muslims, question the wisdom in Allah’s answer to the angels. A growing number among us, like one very vocal former Muslim, blame God Himself, for as a medical student in 1979, she witnessed the machine-gun assassination of her professor, an ophthalmologist, with the chanting of الله أكبر. Reflecting, she said: “At that point, I lost my trust in their god and began to question all our teachings. It was the turning point of my life, and it has led me to this present point. I had to leave. I had to look for another god!” And there are many more like her among our ranks here in the United States and abroad who are leaving this religion for another or turning to atheism because they simply cannot make sense of any of it. Atheism is now on the rise in Saudi Arabia of all places, in Iran, in Syria, and here among Muslims in the United States! There are people in Egypt who, though they memorized the entire Qur’an in their childhood, they are now heading support groups for other atheists. So in part, this khutbah seeks to address every mother who has lost her child in the senseless wars of men and whose first reaction to the brutal murder of her baby is, “O God, why did You take him away from me!” and to tell her, “You have your son, and you will bask in the glory of the Countenance of Allah in eternal bliss; just keep the faith and bear with patience.”
The Messenger of Allah ﷺ oft-repeated the prayer اللهم أرني الأشياء كما هي “Allah, show me things as they truly are.” How does a prophet make sense of evil in the world? What does evil do to the faith of a prophet? How is a prophet tested in his faith? When circumstances were at their most perilous, the Prophet called out to his assailant, Suraqah b. Malik, and gave him the glad tidings that he would soon wear the bracelets of Khosrau, the Emperor of Persia. When circumstances were at their most perilous, the Prophet saw the fall of Byzantium and the Sassanian Empire in the mere sparks of stones being excavated to dig a trench to protect themselves against the Meccans who seemed at that point all too daunting an enemy to reckon with. When circumstances were at their most perilous, he forgave his enemies at Ta’if and later in Mecca, and refused to avenge the persecution waged against him and his companions for twenty three years with the certain hope that their progeny would worship Allah and embrace His Messenger. This was a man who saw reality for what it truly was. This is true perception and these are the blessed eyes of a Prophet of Allah.
So to make sense of what befalls the Muslims in all corners of the world, we need context, and the context for everything we witness in this world is everything we cannot witness in the unseen realm. Allah differentiates between عالم الغيب والشهادة, and everything we witness in عالم الشهادة has both its cause and its effect in عالم الغيب. Its cause is in Allah’s sustaining the creation such that events could unfold in it according to His knowledge and decree. Its effect is in the ultimate interpretation of those events and the ultimate accountability and recompense for them. In the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Every instant of time is a pinprick in eternity.”
The very first crime the angels witnessed in the children of Adam was Cain’s raising his hand to kill Abel, and they immediately found solace in the words of our Lord إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون. There is a grand purpose to every event that unfolds in this world, the knowledge of which is Allah’s alone. And though Allah withheld that knowledge from the angels, He embedded its implications in the hearts of those who turn with their love toward Him in humble servanthood. But what this requires is a sincere yearning to perceive things in this world as they truly are founded in the unseen. It means that the next time you and I gaze into the sky, we see the Angel Gabriel covering the horizons east to west. For once you see that, you cannot interpret the world through the same pair of eyes. قل هل يستوي الذين يعلمون والذين لا يعلمون. After seeing Jibril fill up the entire firmament, do you think the Prophet ever saw the sky the same way again? After returning to this earth from heaven, where he saw the greatest signs of his Lord, do you think the Prophet ever saw this world the same way again? Good and evil fold into each other at that point, and there is only Allah. كان الله ولا شيء معه وهو الآن على ما عليه كان. Allah says قل الله ثم ذرهم في خوضهم يلعبون. A Prophet comes to fully trust in Allah’s wisdom and finds the solace and comfort that the angels found when Allah answered them, قال إني أعلم ما لا تعلمون.