Islam as a mercy to all humankind: Mercy manifested through social justice endeavors
Today we will spend some time discussing important issues plaguing our community: stagnation and apathy. The two ayahs explicitly tackle these two points. I would first like to address the first ayah that states, “And when it is said to them, “Follow what Allah has revealed,” they say, “Rather, we will follow that which we found our fathers doing.” (27:10) Brothers and sisters, growing up, we have heard about this excuse in countless stories of the prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Muhammad. When these individuals tried to preach their messages, they were faced with the utmost of ignorance. This ignorance was manifested in the idea that one cannot accept something if it goes against tradition. Even outside of religion, this mentality holds true. When scientists claimed the earth was round, or the earth orbited the sun, they, too, faced much backlash and imprisonment. Retrospectively, it is easy to poke fun at these individuals, however, in our current situation, we, unfortunately, see the same rhetoric used in our own Muslim communities. Imagine if those resistant to change had ended up victorious and ideas of scientific advancement were thus ridiculed, what type of state would our world be in? If movements for change were always silenced, we would be in a state of perpetual stagnation; seeing no growth or progress. Therefore, why is it that we, as a Muslim ummah, when faced with changing times, locations, and socio-political landscapes, often settle for the convenience of continuing practices solely due to the following reason: “this is what we saw those before us doing.” This is the same phrase that the Quran ridicules those in a state of ignorance for using. What if the ideas of slavery and eugenics were never challenged because they were already institutionalized for hundreds of years? What if the Prophet (pbuh), through divine intervention, never came to challenge the idolatrous customs of the pagan Arabs? With this last statement, it can be seen that the Prophet (saws) was sent to induce change during a time of ignorance. Given this, we must realize that the Islamic message was sent as a revolutionary one, and is therefore, inherently dynamic. It was sent to directly challenge and subsequently change the status quo. Inherent to these efforts is a commitment to social justice. Islam came to rid the world of oppression. Therefore, inherent in our religious message is the idea of recognizing systems of oppression and eliminating them, even if they are present in and carried out by our own communities. This brings me to the next ayah, ayah 13:11 which states “Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” I would like to further elaborate on this ayah before I continue, as it is often used out of context. This ayah is directly referring to one’s own, internal relationship with God. However, our Muslim tradition is one that emphasizes the impact of external surrounding on the internal state, as can be seen by the famous hadith regarding the perfume seller and the blacksmith narrated in both Bukhari and Muslim. Therefore, we cannot expect our own spiritual relationship with God to progress if we find ourselves in communities (Muslim or not) that do not oppose injustices. So, my brothers and sisters, in order for things to get better, and for us to become closer to God, we must change ourselves and our environments. The problem is, however, we are not aware of how bad our situation is. We are corrupted and blinded by apathy. We, as Muslims, are entrusted with commanding good and forbidding evil, but our egos have left us merely ordering others to do good without first examining ourselves and the world we live in, and thus we have failed miserably at even recognizing evil, let alone stopping it.
To understand what I mean by this, we must look at our example, the greatest of creation, the Prophet Muhammad (saws). As we know, the Prophet was sent as a mercy to all humankind. This mercy was manifested in acts of social change. God’s message, spread by the Prophet, was one that directly tackled contemporary social issues. For example, the ban on burying daughters, the challenging of the ways slavery was practiced, the restrictions on polygamy, and the prohibition of wine were restrictions that aimed to specifically combat toxic cultural practices of the time. Looking at the first three examples mentioned, it can be seen that there was an emphasis on human rights and human dignity in all these actions. Islam began as a means for social change, but this seems to be an important aspect of our religion that we have, unfortunately, forgotten. Our comfort from the belief that we are carriers of truth has led to complacency in the realm of social action and this complacency has led to stagnation. This stagnation has led to the longing for an Islamic Golden Age that has already come and gone, and due to this, we are now stuck in this mentality of a perceived Islamic decline. When we talk about Islamic contributions to science and society, we discuss a glorified past that places little emphasis on any contributions after the seventeenth century. Instead of being outraged by this, we are comfortable with this because we believe that Islam has already offered all it can to society. We believe that our golden age has come and gone. Now, instead of calling for Muslims to once again be leaders for social change, instead of calling for progress, we have forgotten the inherent dynamism of Islam and therefore only dream of belonging to an Islamic Golden Age. We are in a state of perpetual Islamic nostalgia.
This nostalgia reminds of a theme in the film Midnight in Paris. In this movie, the main character, who is a contemporary author, longs to live amongst his favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. He believes that their era marked the golden age of literature and is therefore depressed living in his current life. He is later able to time travel and upon meeting Hemingway and Fitzgerald he comes to realize that they too are depressed and miserable and long to be amongst the company of a great literary past. Hemingway and Fitzgerald also are given a chance to travel in time and upon meeting their heroes, they realize that they, too, wish to be part of a greater past. This happens over and over again in the film. The ultimate message of the film is one that warns us of romanticizing the past to the point to where we neglect the present. When we speak of the past in way that makes it sound golden, we lose sight of the future. We lose sight of progress and we become stagnant. Again, since dynamism is an integral part of Islam, stagnation must be avoided.
Throughout our Islamic history we see examples of dynamism within the religion. We see differences in family life and religious rulings between the Meccan and Medinan times and we also see differences in fiqhi rulings over time and with differing geographic locations. For example, Imam Shafi’I changed much of his fiqhi approaches and standpoints in his work, al-Risala, when he moved from Baghdad to Cairo. This is an example of how Islam responded to changing geographic and cultural climates. ‘Urf, or cultural practice, has always affected the practice of Islam. This leads us to an interesting issue that our community faces: One that involves posing religion and culture as binaries. We often aim to make a distinction between the two and thus create a false dichotomy. Of course Islam has influenced the cultures it has come into contact with, and of course, cultural practices have influenced Islam. If that were not the case, then Islam in sub-saharan Africa would be practiced the same way that it is practiced in Iraq, Indonesia, France, and America. As we know, this is definitely not the case. But instead of embracing and admiring this plurality within our religion, there are those who are spearheading efforts to attempt to return to a “pure” Islam free of cultural influence. This idea seems to make little sense because the cultural practices of 7th century Arabia greatly influenced the way Islam was propagated and practiced. Yet, many still choose to romanticize the past in order to justify an obsession to “cleanse” the religion.
If we look at the our prophetic tradition, we can see that our beloved Prophet (saw) respected cultural practices as long as they did not explicitly defy Islamic teachings. For example, after the Hijra, Umar Bin Khattab (ra) complained to the Prophet that the Ansari women were setting bad examples for Quraishi women who had made the hijra. In Medina, women had a more active role in city affairs and were seen as more assertive than Meccan women. Umar Bin Khattab went to complain to the Prophet because he saw many Ansari wives constantly challenge men (including their husbands) and did not act in a way that Meccan women often acted. The Prophet (saw) responded by simply smiling. When Umar bin Khattab (ra) repeated his complaints, the Prophet smiled again, alluding to the fact that he saw that Umar’s complaints were unfounded. Commentary on this hadith is one that states that the Prophet realized that Meccans were now residents of Medina and that this was accepted social behavior in Medina that was in not in conflict with the teachings of Allah (swt). Look at the divine wisdom that we find in the Prophet’s actions here. We can see from this that Islam’s goal is not to enter an area and immediately erase all of its cultural practices. In fact, cultural influences, like the one seen in the previous story, can have positive outcomes on the practice of religion. With this idea, we can see that Islam has room for cultural influence and this influence does not make one version of Islam impure or more syncretic than other forms.
This brings us to a very important point. We have allowed many to tell us that Islam is 1) backwards, 2) has little room for progress, 3) that it is at odds with modernity, and instead of challenging these claims, we have internalized them and even embraced them. Many of us are starting to accept this clash of civilizations rhetoric that pins Islam against the West and due to this; we are not comfortable with accepting the idea of a Western or American Islam. We are, however, comfortable with accepting a Nigerian Islam, an Iranian Islam, and an Indonesian Islam. This has stemmed from many forces, both internal and external, pinning Islam against the West, and even against ideas of modernity. Given our situation as American Muslims, we cannot allow these ideas to be used to demonize us and further marginalize us. We must understand our religion and never internalize ideas that our religion is backwards, or ideas that we should sacrifice some civil liberties because people practicing our faith are more likely to be radicalized or violent. This can only come from seeking knowledge about our faith.
Earlier, we discussed the need to remember the inherent dynamism of Islam in order to enact social change and to positively critique stagnation and antiquity within our own American Muslim communities. To do so, we must further our understanding of Islam. We have talked about pursuing Islamic knowledge in the past, but this has often been used as a purposely ambiguous umbrella term. What does Islamic knowledge entail? Does understanding simply come from memorizing the Quran, some hadith, and learning Arabic? No. The fact of the matter is that one can memorize the Quran and be a native Arabic speaker, and not be able to gain much understanding from the Quran. This is because true understanding comes from historically contextualizing the verses and ahadith. We will never truly understand the commandments of Islam without also asking why? How? And when? Providing context will not only strengthen our own understanding, but will also allow us to refute the attacks on Islam that others try to propagate. The best way to begin historically contextualizing aspects of our faith is to read a seerah, or biography of the Prophet, and also read a tafsir. A tafsir should not be confused with a translation. Tafsirs will often provide information regarding when certain ayahs were revealed and what situations prompted their revelation. This will inshAllah greatly expand our knowledge of our own religion and allow us to refute claims made by those who try to vilify it.
Before tackling a tafsir, I personally think, everyone should read a seerah (I personally, recommend Tariq Ramadan’s: In the Footsteps of the Prophet as a starting point). The Prophet (saw) is our ultimate source of emulation and is the individual we should love more than anyone, but how can we love someone we do not know? In order to truly understand our faith, we must understand the life of our beloved Prophet Muhammad (saw). Unfortunately, many of us are taught details about the life Prophet only until he received revelation and focus less and the events that took place after his prophethood. It is important to understand the chronology of Muhammad’s (saw) life to further allow us to contextualize and understand Allah’s religion. This will allow us to understand our history, be proud of it, and not romanticize it. This will also allow us to answer questions that we might have like why the Prophet married Aisha at young age, why he (saw) oversaw the execution of the men belonging to the tribe of Banu Qurayza, and other questions that we are often uncomfortable addressing through our tempocentric lens. With this, we will find a new-found love and respect for our religion and our prophet inshAlllah.
Muslim readers, our disregard for our own rich history has led to stagnation and a subsequent lack of enthusiasm for our religion, which has led us to turn to claims that a tree was performing sujood, or a certain word is mentioned in the Quran a certain number of times, or the same number of times as another word, or what have you, in order to affirm our faith. We are turning to seemingly superstitious and made-up means to validate our faith. These means are being adopted because we no longer care to explore the beauty and complexity of our religion that can only come from knowing its history. Our abandonment of understanding our dynamic history has trivialized our religion into a series of fiqhi debates where everything falls within a halal/haram binary. So, instead of discussing what it means to be an American Muslim, instead of bringing forth any nuanced understandings of the deen, we are arguing whether it is halal or haram to kill spiders or do yoga.
Brothers and sisters, we live in an ever-changing world; a world that aims to label Islam as a cancer and a problem. What are we going to do to combat this? In our own country, we are being alienated and marginalized and many in our own communities have simply accepted that. In our own country, non-Muslims are telling us how to practice our own religion. Instead of defining it for ourselves, forces like the government and the media have told us that we have to strive to be moderate Muslims. What is a moderate Muslim? Who came up with this term? Are the moderate Muslims the Muslims who organized rallies to support the NYPD surveillance efforts that unjustly and illegally targeted Muslims? If you are unfamiliar with this, it is true. An organization by the name of the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, headed by Dr. Zuhdi Jasser actually organized a rally praising police for illegally spying on Muslims. The AIFD is essentially a conservative group that makes ridiculous claims that Islam endorses all things associated with free-market capitalism, and falls just short of stating that the Quran endorses baseball and apple pie as Muslim past-times. Is this who we are really striving to be?
For fellow college students, after we graduate and it comes to be our time to run our respective Muslim communities, are we going to stand and say this is how I saw my parents practicing, so I am going to the same thing? Are we going to say this is how Fox News (and Dr. Jasser) told me I should practice Islam, so it must be right? OR are we going to finally define what it means to be an American Muslim ourselves and stop letting others speak for us? It is time that we assess our situation and the needs of our ummah and constructively critique any inequalities and injustices we see in our own communities. Islam emphasizes the idea of community, and therefore we must strive to be as inclusive as can be, but we still find certain demographics in our communities marginalized and silenced. At times, it’s as if we pretend they do not exist. When are we going to recognize that African Americans make up the largest American Muslim dempgraphic? What are we doing to ensure their inclusion in our communities? Are we propagating various attitudes of racism within our own mosques? These are questions we must ask ourselves. When are we going to be willing to listen to the voices of women within our own communities? When are we going to be comfortable admitting that there are LGBTQ individuals in our community who love Allah and His messenger? How are we creating an inclusive community if these voices continue to be silenced? We must open our minds, remember the dynamism of Islam and its commitment to social justice, and Inshallah we can build strong, inclusive Muslim communities that are united and not factionalized. Only through this inclusivity and unity will we find ourselves no longer in the peripheries in our own country.
In relation to this, I would like to visit a very popular hadith present in Sahih Muslim:
The Prophet (May the peace and blessings of Allah be on him) along with some of his companions migrated from Mecca to Medina. The Meccans were merchants and traders while the Medinians were people of agriculture. One day, in Medina, the Prophet was passing by a few Medinan farmers who were climbing high up on date palms to enhance pollination of seeds. They would manually put male with the female instead of leaving it to the wind to do it. The Prophet, who was not a farmer without realizing the importance of this manual process said to them, “Perhaps it may be better for you not to do this.” The Medinians, hearing this from the Messenger of God left what they were doing. The produce came out scarcely as it was merely by the wind. The Prophet clarified his role and nature as a Messenger of God to the people in very clear terms, “If I order you to do something that is to do with your religion then take it (and do it) but if I order you to do something from my own opinion then verily I am merely a human being;” and he added, “You are more knowledgeable of the matters of your world.” This is an authentic hadith, collected in Sahih Muslim.
My brothers and sisters, we are aware of our world. We know the problems within our own communities and we must address them. From this hadith, we can see some important points made by our beloved Prophet in regards to calling for reform. In matters of established religious doctrine, one cannot deny or reform aspects of the faith that our central to it such as the oneness of God or the importance of prayer. We can, however, challenge inequities in our communities that are often sanctioned by tradition or via religious rhetoric. We should recognize the male privilege exercised in our religious spaces. We should talk about gender inequities in our own communities, especially when it comes to access to education. We should challenge the notion that some topics such as sex and drug use are taboo, even though they are occurring daily in our own communities. We need to voice our opinions about these issues, and these are the aspects of our community that we need to challenge.
We control the future of Islam and it is not too late for us to revive it. Our glory days are not a thing of the past, and when I look at the bright faces in this room, I know that I can comfortably say that. It is healthy to internally critique any perceived oppressive or invasive forces we see in our own communities, but it is important to do so with an open and understanding mind. We are all inheritors of the Prophetic tradition, and since he (saw) was a mercy to all humankind, we must also strive to be so. We live in a world where oppression of all sorts has been institutionalized and normalized and it is up to us to challenge it. After all, aren’t tyranny and oppression the polar opposites of mercy? Fellow brothers and sisters, in order to follow the Prophetic tradition and remain the mediums for mercy in this world, we must adapt to a changing world. We must recall the revolutionary nature of Islam that aimed to restore justice and challenge systems of oppression. Sadly this part of our Muslim identity seems to be declining and I only pray that we can revive it. It pains me to see that Muslims are not at the forefront of social justice efforts in America. We are seen as a demographic that is obsessed with living a professional lifestyle and measuring our own successes by the cars we drive. We say that we care about others, which seems to only mean that we are making dua for those in Palestine and Syria. What about the individuals in Kashmir? What about drone attacks in Pakistan? What about Trayvon Martin? What about the 15% of Americans living below the poverty line? What about the 1 in 7 children in America who don’t have dinner to eat every day? Do we not care about them? Do you think that simply making dua for them is enough? How are we going to sleep at night in our big, comfortable homes, when people in our own cities are living in the streets? Speaking of which, when are we going to recognize and challenge the institutions that aid in making the inequalities a reality? When are we going to recognize that institutionalized racism and sexism have hindered the social mobility of certain minorities and women in this nation? Won’t these recognitions allow us to better our own communities, and our own ummah? During these times where antagonizing Islam legitimizes the political candidacy of many individuals, what are we doing to combat this? It is time we make use of our resources: our money, our voting power, and our time, to challenge oppression and seek to bring unity and understanding in our world. I ask Allah (swt) to give us the courage and tawfiq to assess the needs of our ummah and its apathy towards its own marginalization. I pray that future generations will benefit from our efforts and our refusal to be silent and that they have the opportunity to live in an America where they no longer face discrimination and bigotry for being Muslim.