Friday, June 1, 2018

Three Character Traits and the Test of Ramadan

A few weeks ago I was reading a book called “The Collapse of Parenting” by Leonard Sax. The book was rather alarming because it pointed to some disturbing parenting trends coupled with a lack of discipline with respect to our newer technology- screens and the internet. Leonard Sax is a pediatrician and he bases his observations on thirty years of clinical practice as well as citing studies in the medical literature. Some people say Sax approach to parenting is rather traditional, but I like it. Many of the qualities Sax urges parents to instill in their children are qualities which Islam and the Quran also value. SO my khutbah today will be an exploration of three character traits which Leonard Sax says are crucial to the development of healthy young adults and how these traits are manifested during Ramadan.

The first trait is perseverance. Sax believes if children are not taught perseverance they become fragile children who turn into fragile adults. Children need to learn that they may not succeed the first time they try something, they may need to be patient and work harder to achieve goals, and that their self worth is not built around easy success. He gives two examples, one is a boy who plays video games all day and has a certain measure of accomplishment doing this. His father suggests that he try out for the football team. The boy does, but is told by the coach that he will have to lose 15 pounds, do a rigorous work out schedule and may not be on the starting team. The boy decides not to try out and returns to his video games because that is easier for him. The father lets the boy do so with the refrain, “He should do what makes him happy.” This attitude is, Sax feels, bad parenting because the boy is not learning perseverance. Another example is a girl who takes a challenging AP Physics class. The girl had always gotten straight As and saw herself as a stellar scholar. She started the AP Physics class and it was not easy for her. She really had to struggle even to get a B. This experience plunged her into a near catatonic state of depression because her whole self-worth and identity had been built around this image of herself as the super brainy student. This extreme reaction to a bit of challenge is what Sax calls “fragility”.

Does the Quran value perseverance? Yes it does, and I will give some examples. Sometimes, the word used is “steadfast”.

"Seek Allah's help with patient perseverance and prayer. It is indeed hard except for those who are humble." (2:45)

"Oh you who believe! Seek help with patient perseverance and prayer, for God is with those who patiently persevere." (2:153)

“Be sure We shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods, lives, and the fruits of your toil. But give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere. Those who say, when afflicted with calamity, 'To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return.' They are those on whom descend blessings from their Lord, and mercy. They are the ones who receive guidance." (2:155-157)

“Or assumed you that you would enter the Garden while God has not yet know those who struggled among you and known the ones who remained steadfast?” (3:142)

“Oh you who believe! Persevere in patience and constancy. Vie in such perseverance, strengthen each other, and be pious, that you may prosper." (3:200)

"Patiently, then, persevere - for the Promise of Allah is true, and ask forgiveness for your faults, and celebrate the praises of your Lord in the evening and in the morning." (40:55)

How does perseverance manifest itself during Ramadan? Well, it seems self-evident, we have 30 days to fast. And at this time of year, the days get slightly longer and it can be really hot outside. You have to be careful and pace yourself because dehydration can be a real problem. Fasting is about endurance, which isn’t terribly glamorous. It’s about hanging on with sheer willpower, and that is tough. Ramadan is not just about fasting, it is also supposed to be fasting while maintaining patience with others and having good behavior. This is not easy when you are hungry and thirsty. It is really easy to get angry and snap at people, much harder to maintain calm and have patience. Also, with our schedules in the West, we often don’t get enough sleep during the week and have to struggle doing our jobs while sleep deprived in addition to being hungry and thirsty. Sometimes people can’t fast because of medical or other health considerations. Sometimes people have to break a fast for these reasons. Just because you can’t fast does not mean you are a bad Muslim. Many people feel very guilty if they can’t fast, and they shouldn’t. Your identity as a Muslim is not solely based on whether you can fast or not. Don’t  be a fragile Muslim.

The second quality good parents should teach their children is self control. This character quality is reinforced by psychological research which has shown that children who have the most self control, this is tested by how long they can delay getting a reward (delayed gratification), these children have the highest success in life as measured by education and income levels.

A big problem with our Western technological society today is that the internet and social media do not encourage self control. These technologies encourage excess and binge-watching and instant gratification in the form of “likes” and numbers of followers. Most of use grew up in environments where television was only on for certain times of the day, and certainly, when children’s programming was only a small portion of that time. Today, children have access 24/7 to any show that appeals to their tastes and the only thing that restricts them is parental authority. If parents do not implement rules and restraint with regards to screen time, children will not learn self control. Social media does not teach self restraint.

Does the Quran value self control or self restraint? Yes does it, and I will give some examples but first some language and translation caveats. Sometimes the language that is used is for self control is translated as “purify” or “purification”. The other word that is used in Quran is “sabr” which is translated in a variety of ways but typically as “God consciousness” or “God fearing” but which I think you could interchange with self control or self restraint. 

"No one will be granted such goodness except those who exercise patience and self-restraint, none but persons of the greatest good fortune." (41:35)

“And as for him who fears to stand in the presence of his Lord and forbids his own soul from its whims and caprices then surely Paradise is the abode. (79:40-41)

“…and by the soul and what shaped it and then inspired it to its acting immorally and God-consciousness. He who makes it (the soul) pure prospers. Surely is frustrated whoever seduced it.” (91:7-10)

How does self control manifest itself during Ramadan. Well, the Quran spells that out pretty clearly:

“O those who have believed! Formal fasting was prescribed for you as it was presecribed for those before you so that perhaps you would be Godfearing.” (2:183)

The final quality which Leonard Sax says parents need to inculcate into their children is humility. Children need to know that they are not necessarily the best at something, that the world does not revolve around them or cater to their tastes. Humility is the building block to maturity and acknowledging the needs of others as well as the community as a whole.

Again to bash our preoccupation with social media (creator of  the "selfie": social media encourages self promotion and self aggrandizement and pairs this activity with a vision of self identity based on how many “friends” you have (quantity over quality) or “likes” you get on your Facebook page.

Does the Quran value humility? Please judge for yourself from this small selection of verses:

“The servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk upon the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say words of peace.” (25:63)

“Call to your Lord humbly and inwardly. Truly He loves not the ones who are aggressors.” (7:55)

“Before thee We sent (apostles) to many nations, and We afflicted the nations with suffering and adversity, that they might learn humility. When the suffering reached them from us, why then did they not learn humility? On the contrary their hearts became hardened, and Satan made their (sinful) acts seem alluring to them.” (6:42-43)

I would also like to add a nice hadith I came across:
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said: “No one who has the weight of a seed of arrogance in his heart will enter Paradise.”  Someone said, “Indeed, a man loves to have beautiful clothes and shoes.” So the Prophet said,”Verily, Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty. Arrogance means rejecting the truth and looking down on people.” Sahih Muslim 91

Does humility play a role in Ramadan? This is not as obvious as the previous traits, but I think it does. I find it humbling that at the end of the day, when we break our fast, we have pure clean water to drink and good food to eat. Sadly, this is not the case in so many parts of this world. We have been blessed by Allah in this regard. While fasting, it is humbling to know how dependent my body is on food and water. I realize, pretty quickly, that I have limits. I cannot”do it all”, and I must slow down. Some things in Ramadan just don’t get done, and that is ok. I find it very humbling when non-Muslims make a solidarity fast with me. They don’t have to fast, but they see the value in fasting and they want to show they respect me and my religion. I find it humbling when I drive by a sign in someone’s yard that says, “To our Muslim neighbors, Blessed Ramadan”. For many people, who we are and how we behave, our personal interaction with non-Muslims—that is their introduction to Islam. It is a very humbling feeling to know that your behavior represents Islam for those outside the religion.

In conclusion, Ramadan can be a great teacher. Ramadan can instill in us the character qualities of perseverance, self control and humility. These are not easy lessons by any means, but as Muslims who believe in delayed gratification, we think these qualities will help us in this life and in the next.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Frivolous Portraits

Today I am going to be giving a khutbah on something I never thought I would give a khutbah on, and I can only attribute this to the Power of Art. My khutbah is called, “Frivolous Portraits”.  These are some reflections on the Syrian refugee crisis which were inspired by Mounira Al Solh’s exhibit ‘I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous’ currently showing in the Contemporary Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago. This past Sunday, Abid had to do some volunteer hours in the city and while he was helping the homeless, I went to the Art Institute. 

In the modern wing, they were having a show by the Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh. Mounira Al Solh works in Beirut and Zutphen (Netherlands). Her father is Lebanese and her mother is Syrian. Beirut is about two hour car drive from Damascus. She lived in Beirut through the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, but she could not speak out about the war through her artwork at that time. In an interview with Henrik Folkerts, Al Solh said, “Growing up in the war is not about analyzing; it’s more about surviving. It’s beyond words. Even when you get older, there are traces that you will never be able to analyze or speak about.” However, this changed for her when the Syrian civil war broke out.  Al Sohl said, “I was living in Beirut at the time, and it was like being in the direct image of the war- not the actual war, but its mirror. A direct reflection of its impact, an immediate witness to how people flee and are focused on survival.” This ‘mirror effect’ gave her enough distance to be able to express the experiences of Syrian refugees through art.

The exhibit at the Art Institute is called “I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous” and this title is taken from an interview with the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.  When Darwish was asked how he felt about being identified as a poet of the “Palestinian cause”, the poet responded that he would prefer to speak about love, life, and great literature. Rather than reducing people to victims or advocates of a political cause, he insisted on their humanity. He strongly believed in the right to be frivolous.

So while this exhibit is about refugees and the political crisis in Syria, it is a lot more than that. For me, this exhibit demonstrated the humanity of the refugees, and the humanity does sometimes get lost when people are reduced to the one dimension of victimhood. Yes, there were stories about trauma, but there was a lot of every day life, hopes, dreams, and humor. The exhibit consists of over two hundred drawings; portraits of refugees the artist drew as she interviewed them. Some people she interviewed more than once, and about their experiences at different points in time. At the beginning of the popular uprising, people were optimistic about the opportunity to live in a freer and more open society. As the civil war progressed, people became more pessimistic, and when people escaped, in addition to trying to adapt to a refugee camp or settling into a new country with a different culture, nearly all of the refugees were grappling with the guilt of leaving friends and family behind.

Another part of the exhibit is embroideries. Some are portraits on, what looked like to me, ready to be assembled throw pillows. There is also an embroidered sperveri, a Greek tradition of decorating canopied bridal beds. This sperveri is decorated on the outside with Ottoman and Greek motifs and when you look at the bed portion there are ten or so stories in Arabic and English which memorialize those lost and deceased. The embroideries were collaborative efforts with women in refugee camps and minority communities.

Al Solh has interviewed refugees in Lebanon, the Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Greece, and even Chicago.  She has collected so many different stories and different perspectives. Young Syrian refugees in Lebanon are unaware that Syrian soldiers fought in these Beirut neighborhoods in the Lebanese civil war, and many of the Christian residents still remember the trauma. Refugees coming into Chicago are heavily vetted and come to this county via airplane, a very different experience for refugees coming to Greece via boat or those who have to cross a land border to Turkey or Jordan.

Why I bring up the refugees during a khutbah is not just the fact that they are Arab Muslims, which is one good reason, but I am also reminded that the religion of Islam is full of refugees and immigrants. Our Muslim calendar is dated from the hijrah, the migration of Our Prophet from Mecca to Medina. Even earlier than, a group of Muslims had immigrated to the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia – this group included Uthman ibn Affan and Ruqayyah, the daughter of the prophet who was Uthman’s wife at the time. Our Qur’an has many examples of the migration of the Bani Israel from Egypt to Palestine, and there are a number of ayat concerning migration. Some examples are

2:218 “Lo! those who believe, and those who emigrate (to escape the persecution) and strive in the way of Allah, these have hope of Allah's mercy. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful.”

3:195 “And their Lord hath heard them (and He saith): Lo! I suffer not the work of any worker, male or female, to be lost. Ye proceed one from another. So those who fled and were driven forth from their homes and suffered damage for My cause, and fought and were slain, verily I shall remit their evil deeds from them and verily I shall bring them into Gardens underneath which rivers flow - A reward from Allah. And with Allah is the fairest of rewards.”

16:110 “Then lo! thy Lord - for those who became fugitives after they had been persecuted, and then fought and were steadfast - lo! thy Lord afterward is (for them) indeed Forgiving, Merciful.”

59:8-9 “And (it is) for the poor fugitives who have been driven out from their homes and their belongings, who seek bounty from Allah and help Allah and His messenger. They are the loyal. Those who entered the city and the faith before them love those who flee unto them for refuge, and find in their breasts no need for that which hath been given them, but prefer (the fugitives) above themselves though poverty become their lot. And whoso is saved from his own avarice - such are they who are successful.”

 One aspect of human nature that does not seemed to have changed very much for the last two thousand years is the pattern of immigration and displaced persons- whether people leave their homes to escape persecution or find new opportunities, the refugee phenomenon has continued for centuries, and does not show any signs of letting up. Whenever the refugee finds themselves in a new environment, inevitably, there is a response to that person from the native population; acceptance and help, or suspicion and hostility.  Religion urges people to be generous to those in need, while the base human survival instinct has a far less open-handed agenda.


Whenever I come across a Muslim artist, I am interested in how they come to terms with the hadith prohibitions on figurative art. These are in Al-Bukhari and Muslim collections and state

1) The most greviously tormented people amongst the denizens of Hell on the Day of Resurrections will be the makers of images (al-musawwirun)
 2) He who makes an image (sawwara suratan) will be punished by God on the Day of Resurrection until he breathes life into it- which he will not be able to do.

The second warning is most likely a reference to Quran 5:110

When Allah saith: O Jesus, son of Mary! Remember My favour unto thee and unto thy mother; how I strengthened thee with the holy Spirit, so that thou spakest unto mankind in the cradle as in maturity; and how I taught thee the Scripture and Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel; and how thou didst shape of clay as it were the likeness of a bird by My permission, and didst blow upon it and it was a bird by My permission, and thou didst heal him who was born blind and the leper by My permission; and how thou didst raise the dead by My permission; and how I restrained the Children of Israel from (harming) thee when thou camest unto them with clear proofs, and those of them who disbelieved exclaimed: This is naught else than mere magic.” –Marmaduke Pickthall translation

For the legal jurists, Jesus is the only artist who is allowed to create. The Hadith scholar and Shafi’I jurist, Sharaf al-Din al-Nawawi (1234-1278) wrote in his collection of Hadith,

“The authorities of our school and others hold that the making of a picture of any living thing is strictly forbidden and that is one of the great sins because it is specifically threatened with the grievous punishment mentioned in the Hadith….the crafting of it is forbidden under every circumstance, because it imitates the creative activity of God…This is the summary position of our school on the question, and the absolute majority of the Companions of the Prophet and their immediate followers and the succeeding generations of scholars accepted it; it is the view of al-Thawri, Malik, Abu Hanifah, and others besides them.”

By invoking the names of these other scholars, al-Nawawi is implying that ALL the legal schools have the same opinion about figurative art. However, I would argue that with this reasoning, that art “imitates the creative activity of God”, one could also put forward the same argument in discouraging modern medicine, forensic science, anthropology, robotics, and computer sciences. In the Qur’anic reference, the art of bringing birds to life as well as the curing of lepers and the blind and the bringing forth of the dead is all possible only with God’s permission. Do our artists, physicians, scientists, and programmers have God’s permission in practicing their craft? We can talk about this after the khutbah.

While it is true that in many Muslim societies there has been a general discomfort or even outright destruction of figurative art (think of the Bamiyan Buddha statues and the Afghan Taliban), it is also true that there has been a lot of figurative art which was supported by Muslim rulers and other court elites and these artists were regarded with high esteem and status in their societies. Clearly, these patrons of the arts found value and meaning in figurative art which did not constitute worship (idolization) but rather the image led them to discover higher truths.

What are the higher truths that Mounira Al Sohl’s images of refugees tells us? For me, despite a language and cultural barrier, I felt a connection to the humanity the portrait was trying to convey. (Show example here). The portraits, for the most part, were done on yellow legal paper, and what they said during the interview is written as marginalia around the face/faces. I couldn’t read or understand the Arabic, but I could read the expression on the faces: hope, despair, kindness, perseverance, grief, dignity, contentment, trauma, guilt. The legal paper is also a reminder of the status of refugee (stuck in a bureaucracy) and as well as the fragility in the face of change and time. The portrait is a snapshot of a particular person at a particular time in their life. One day you have a normal life, and then a month later, a week, even a day and your life can be thrown into total chaos.
(Recite Surah Al-Asr).

The portrait is a snapshot of a particular person at a particular time in their life. The portrait is not the complete person, it can never be. We are far too complicated beings to be crammed into and summed up in a single snapshot. Even a thousand portraits could not capture the complete person, and all artists and photographers realize this. But an image can help the viewer find their way to a higher truth about the conditions of human existence.

At the end of her interview, Al Sohl said,

“It is a great joy to see those who really fight to make their way into this new life. They have to climb up again with everything they have: their feet, their teeth, their toes, their mouths, to reach a certain level, a bit closer to how they used to live back at home. Many others are slow and won’t be able to go that far. And some are just happy that their children at least will have a life and they forget about themselves…Guilt is a common emotion among the many people I have met. Although their reasons for feeling guilty varied, one should not forget that living in a safe place doesn’t mean that a person’s mind is fully shielded from trauma and violence. As I experienced myself when I came to the Netherlands…once you are in a safe place, emotions rooted in your past come out stronger than ever before.”

Let us thank God for our ability to have empathy for our fellow human beings, thank God for the gift of art which can often facilitate this process. Let us make du’a for the refugees and immigrants, to make their way easier as they make a new life for themselves in a different country, to help them heal and give hope.  Let us ask God to help us make refugees and immigrants welcome and help them to the best of our abilities in a way that is pleasing to God. Amen

Mounira Al Sohl interview based on a conversation on June 1, 2017 in Kassel, Germany conducted by Hendrik Folkerts, Dittmer Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, printed in her artist statement pamphlet for the February 8-April 29 2018  I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago
Interview with Mahmoud Darwish in BOMB Magazine No. 81, Fall 2002
Quran translation by Marmaduke Pickthall
Sharif al-Din al-Nawawi Riyad al-salihin (Garden of the Righteous)

Friday, March 9, 2018

A Worthy Adversary Part 14: The Perplexity of Single-Mindedness

I was reading and I came across this passage:

“But why, Ramsay would ask, do we confine our study to great political and military figures to whom the generality of mankind has attributed extraordinary, almost superhuman qualities, and leave out the whole world of saints, to whom mankind has attributed phenomenal virtue? It is trivial to say that power, or even vice, are more interesting than virtue, and people say so only when they have not troubled to take a look at virtue and see how amazing, and sometimes inhuman and unlikeable, it really is. The saints also belong among the heroes, and the spirit of Ignatius Loyola is not so far from the spirit of Napoleon as uniformed people suppose.” P  358 The Manticore by Roberston Davies.

What struck me about it was characterizing virtue, which we always think of as a good thing, as “inhuman and unlikeable”. If we look carefully at the lives of saints, or political leaders, or political leaders who are considered saints, we often find less than savory sacrifices which are made in the name of the Cause. It isn’t the sacrifices which necessarily bother me, but what I find more unsettling is the single-mindedness of purpose, the unshakable conviction that what they are doing is absolutely right. While I admire focus and concentration and deplore multi-tasking, and I understand that attention to detail and strength of purpose can produce amazing results, I also find the lack of doubt to be very alien to me. I am confused by people who don’t question their own motivations and beliefs. This confusion on my part has led me to today’s khutbah which is called ‘Perplexity of Single-Mindedness”.

My model for single-mindedness of purpose is Iblis. Iblis’ declared purpose is to drive humans off the path to God, to test them and only the ones who are not tempted by Iblis have the possibility of closeness to God. In my previous khutbahs, we have discussed Iblis, his mythic biography as documented in Qur’an, tafsir, hadith, qisas and historical texts in the Islamic tradition as well as the use of the Iblis motif in the Sufi tradition. All Sufis agree that Iblis is a negative force within the spiritual life. However, this didn’t stop Sufis from using the stories of Iblis to engage in discussions of difficult theological topics, such as how one deals with God’s will (irada) and God’s command (amr), particularly when the irada seems at odds with amr; Iblis’ failure to bow before Adam is the classic example of this conundrum. Sufis, such as Rumi, Ibn Ghanim and al-Junayd, who saw Iblis’ primary motivation as unabashed evil (arrogance, power, ignorance, etc) did not see any rehabilitation possibilities and considered Iblis condemned to Hell forever. Iblis as evil and condemned is a primary track of Sufi thought. However, there is a parallel track of thought which sees Iblis in a very different light. This line of reasoning goes back very far, to Husayn ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj (850-922 CE).

Al-Hallaj explored the Iblis motif in his book Kitab al-Tawasin.  This book has been preserved in its entirety in the original Arabic and there is also a Persian translation with extensive commentary by the famous Sufi Ruzbihan Al-Baqli (1123-1230 CE). The Arabic is difficult and often obscure, so the Persian translation is helpful that way, but it is also interesting because al-Baqli has a more traditional Sufi outlook and he really struggles with some of al-Hallaj’s paradoxical and unorthodox views of Iblis.

Al-Hallaj teachings use opposites to pull the reader to considering new possibilities. He uses the Zen “shock and awe” method. The 20th century Sufi Idris Shah explained it this way,

“If you clap your hands and observe only the movement of the hands, they appear to oppose one another. You have not seen what is happening. The purpose of the ‘opposition’ of the palms was…to produce the handclap.” P 100 The Magic Monastery

Al-Hallaj’s first ‘shocker’ is to mention Iblis and Prophet Muhammad together when he writes, “The only ones whose preaching was sound are Iblis and Ahmad- may God bless him and grant him peace!” In the heavens Iblis preached to the angels about obedience and the Path to God, while on earth he taught mankind the ways of Evil. However, the opposite poles are complementary if you look at their ultimate purpose:

“Because things are known through their opposites, fine white silk is woven with a backing of coarse black wool. The angel can point out good deeds to someone and say to him as an abstract statement, ‘if you perform these deeds you will be rewarded’. But he who does not know evil in the concrete, cannot know good.” Al-Hallaj, Tawasin #19

Al-Hallaj sees both Iblis and Muhammad as essential characters in the unfolding of God’s divine plan. They carry out God’s will unswervingly, despite the pain each much suffer.

“Iblis was told, “Bow!” and Ahmad was told, “Look!”. But this fellow did not bow and Ahmad did not look. He turned his face neither right nor left.’ Tawasin #2

Al-Hallaj backs up this assertion from a verse from Quran “His Eye turned not aside nor did it wander from its orbit.” (Quran 53:17)

In dealing with God’s amr, Iblis relied on his majestic power and spiritual perfection of centuries of obedient worship, while Muhammad was overcome by his own frail humanity and God’s overwhelming power. Al-Hallaj does not ascribe moral significance to this difference, but his translator Al-Baqli repeats the traditional condemnation of Iblis’ preoccupation with power and his underestimation of Adam’s true nature (since Iblis misjudged Adam’s worth, all that prior obedience and preaching is nullified). But Al-Hallaj is going to create even more problems for his translator.

Al-Hallaj singles out Iblis for two estimable qualities: preaching and single-minded obedience. Al-Hallaj even goes on to say that Iblis is a spiritual model for all Muslims because he, more perfectly than any other created being, witnessed the Unity and Oneness of God even at the expense of self destruction.

“There was no monotheist like Iblis among the inhabitants of the heavens. When the essence revealed itself to him in stunning glory, he renounced even a glance at it and worshipped God in ascetic isolation…God said to him “Bow!” He replied, “To no other!” He said to him “Even if My curse be upon you?” He cried out “To no other!” My refusal is the cry, “Holy are you!” my reason is madness, madness for You. What is Adam, other than You? And who is Iblis to set apart one from the other?” Tawasin #6-7

Iblis as the perfect monotheist? Al-Hallaj takes it even further, he uses Iblis and Pharaoh for models of spiritual life because they share the virtue of futuwa, noble and chivalrous qualities of a Muslim knight since both Iblis and Pharaoh demonstrate fidelity and dedication to duty. In the words of Richard Roeper in the TV series “The Night Manager”, “You make a decision. And then you commit.”  Iblis and Pharaoh are fully committed to the decisions they make.

Most people, then and now, are not willing to accept these two anti-heroes as spiritual guides. Al-Baqli took Al-Hallaj’s futuwa designation and reduced by acknowledging their extraordinary but misguided courage. Al-Baqli says any act of bravery is a laudable deed but the morality of the deeds must also be taken into account. He blames Iblis and Pharaoh’s perverted futuwa on going overboard in the ecstatic religious experience, the sin of “I”.  This was Al-Hallaj’s problem when he said “I am the Divine Truth’ “Ana al-Haqq”- he failed to differentiate between himself and God. He saw only the “I” when he should have seen that he only reflects traces of the divine, creative spirit. God’s breathing into Adam did not make Adam divine but allows him to shine forth the spirit of God.

Muslims who idolize reason have a hard time dealing with the paradoxical teaching of Al-Hallaj because instead of ascribing moral blame to Iblis (his pride, arrogance, love of power), Al-Hallaj portrays Iblis as a tragic, martyr figure who, despite his dedicated preaching, perfect monotheism, and eternal loyalty, suffers destruction by the God he lovingly worships. In Al-Hallaj’s Tawasin, Iblis is an example of the power of the mystic contemplation to carry the soul beyond the paradoxes and logical contradictions that permeate everyday experience of materiality and individuality. Perfection of this single-minded mystic contemplation leads to an experience of annihilation in the Beloved.


From the Qur’an, we know that Prophet Moses had an encounter with God on Mount Sinai. The exchange is recorded as;

“And when Moses came to Our appointed tryst and his Lord had spoken unto him, he said: My Lord! Show me (Thy Self), that I may gaze upon Thee. He said: Thou wilt not see Me, but gaze upon the mountain! If it stand still in its place, then thou wilt see Me. And when his Lord revealed (His) glory to the mountain He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless. And when he woke he said: Glory unto Thee! I turn unto Thee repentant, and I am the first of (true) believers.” Qur’an 7:143

A common Sufi teaching story is Moses encountering Iblis on his way down from Mount Sinai after the crumbling mountain incident. We find this story in Ibn Ghanim, in Ahmad Al-Ghazali (brother of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali), Farid ud-Din Attar (contemporary of Al-Baqli), and in al-Hallaj’s Tawasin

In al-Hallaj’s version, Iblis scolds Moses for gazing on the mountain instead of focusing on God alone. Then Moses asks Iblis if he remembers God. Iblis answers,

“O Moses! His remembrance is my remembrance, and my remembrance is His remembrance: can it be that those who are remembering be anything but united together? My service is now purer, my moments freer, and my dhikr clearer. For I used to serve Him for the sake of my own prosperity; now I serve Him for His. …. He refused me access to others because of my jealous ardor. He deformed me because of my bewilderment; He bewildered me because of my exile. He exiled me because of my service; He made me a pariah because of my companionship; He reviled me because of my praise…He separated me because of my unveiling of Him; He unveiled me because of my attainment of union. He brought me to union because of my being cut off. …If He should torment me with His fire for eternities on end, I would not bow to anyone. Nor would I grovel before any person or physical body, for I know of no adversary to Him, nor any child begotten of Him. My preaching is the preaching of truthful men, and I am a sincere lover.”- Al-Hallaj Tawasin #14-17

We have two distinct, parallel tracks of the Iblis narrative in the Muslim tradition
1) All visions of Iblis are the products of his power of evil deception, despite the emotional quality of his words and the tragedy of his separation
2)  Iblis is a complex and tragic personality who serves as an exemplar of loving self-sacrifice and unquestioning faith to the point where he defies God to serve God.

But both narratives of Iblis have one notion in common: Iblis’ downfall was due to his single-mindedness and blind conviction. In the narrative of Iblis as purely “evil”, he is convinced that he knows man’s fate and man’s flaws and that this gives him the right to not bow down to Adam. In the Sufi narrative of Iblis as a complex and tragic personality, he again is convinced that defying God is the best way to worship and serve God.

What can we learn from this? We are often told by scripture and tradition that we should not follow in the footsteps of Iblis. The PG interpretation of this commandment which our Sunday Schools provide to our children is that Muslims should always obey God. Here is a different – TV-MA rated -interpretation: Avoid the trap of blind zeal. We may think we have it all figured out and we may want to pursue our goals unquestioningly because we are convinced we are righteous. But this was Iblis’ downfall. He forgot to doubt himself. Let us pray that we never forget to doubt ourselves.

The Manticore from The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (Penguin Books) 1983 p 358
The Magic Monastery by Idries Shah (Octagon Press: London) 1981 p 100
The Night Manager  by John Le Carre and David Farr (BBC miniseries) 2016
Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an translation by Marmaduke Pickthall 1930
Kitab at-tawasin by Husayn ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj, edited by Louis Massignon (Paris: Paul Geuthner) 1913

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Reward of Testing

Last week, I attended Jummah prayer at a different masjid. The khatib’s sermon was based on the premise “When God tests you, it doesn’t mean that He is punishing you.”  A ‘test’ is not equivalent to ‘punishment’. The iman then followed this up with examples from the lives of the Prophets, beloved by God, who were tested. I think this concept  (test does not equal punishment) is fairly self-evident to the audience here, but the khatib felt it needed to be said. Today, I would like to expand on some of the examples the khatib used last week to explore the value of testing. These examples are complicated, and I can understand why he chose not to ‘get into it’ last week. However, I think that all of you can handle it and we can certainly open this up for discussion afterwards.  The title of my khutbah today is “The Reward of Testing“.

In the sermon last weeks, the khatib talked about how testing is an opportunity to reveal someone’s “true character.” By this definition, when times are good, people attribute all kinds of virtues to themselves; kindness, generosity, telling the truth. But, when times are rough, people slip into their “true character” because only in bad times can these virtues truly be measured. If you say you are generous, How generous are you, really? Do you only give when you have a surplus? Do you give even when it means having to sacrifice for yourself? Do you give to everyone or only to family members or people you like? A test can provide the context and boundaries for your self-described virtue. While I agree that humans have a tendency to oversubscribe virtues in good times, I think a test can provide more than just character assessment.

Testing provides the possibility of hope for change. Perhaps we do fail a test the first time around. But sometimes, failing a test can teach us a lot more than passing it. If we are disappointed that our virtue live up to our expectations, then maybe the next time we are tested, we can resolve to do better, or resolve to do something different. We can strive to pass the test.  To illustrate the resolve to do better, I’m going to use and example within  story that the khatib chose, which was  the story of Joseph/Yusef, may God be pleased with him.

The khatib used a number of examples in Joseph’s life to show how Joseph was tested (abandoned by his brothers, sold into slavery, falsely accused of sexual harassment, time in prison), and in the end, he passed the tests because of the quality of his character and was successful.  Joseph even forgave his brothers who betrayed him.  But that was all the khatib said about Joseph’s brothers, “Joseph forgave them” and in the audience I said to myself “Wait a second! There’s a whole lot more to that story!!”-maybe because I can identify more easily with the jealous brothers and not so much with the saintly Joseph.  Josephy didn’t automatically forgive his brothers, he tested them first.  I know this because when my son attended his friend Reuben’s Bar Mitzvah, Reuben had to read the part of the Torah about Joseph. The rabbi gave him this passage because Reuben, in the Torah, was the oldest son of Jacob. According to the Torah, the other brothers wanted to outright kill Joseph, but Reuben convinced them to put Joseph in the well as a delay tactic. After the brothers put Joseph into the well, Reuben came back that night to rescue him. Only by that time, Joseph was gone, he’d been picked up by the slavers, and Reuben was distraught, he “rent his garments” (Genesis 37:29).

How did Joseph test his brothers? What did testing his brothers reveal ? What insights does testing give us about our character, the values of our culture, and our community? For the first part of my khutbah, I’ll use the example of Joseph and his brothers and the silver cup. In the second part, I’ll return briefly to the example of Prophet Muhammad and his appeal to the people of Ta’if.

In the Quran, the story of Joseph starts with his dream.

“Mention when Joseph said to his father: O my father! Truly I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon. I saw them as ones prostrating themselves to me. He said: O my son! Relate not your dream to your brothers so that they contrive cunning against you. Truly Satan is a clear enemy to the human being.”  Quran 12:4-5

This dream is a prophesy of the future and despite being betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, raised in Egypt, spending time in jail, Joseph eventually rises to a high position the court of the Pharaoh. Many years later when a famine comes to the region, Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to buy grain for their survival.  In Quran it states, “And Joseph’s brothers drew near and they entered before him. He recognized them but they were ones who did not know him.” Quran 12:58

In the Old Testament (story of Joseph is in Genesis 37-50), Joseph accuses his brother of being spies. They deny this and explain “We thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land in Canaan; and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.” (Genesis 42:13) In this statement, the “one is not” is Joseph. The brothers still count Joseph as being part of their family, they have not forgotten him.

Joseph agrees to give them grain but tells them that if they come again they will only get grain on the condition 
“Bring me a brother of yours from your father. Do you not see that I give full measure, and that I am the best of hosts? But if you bring him not unto me, you shall nave no measure from me, nor shall you come nigh unto me.” They said, “We shall seek to lure him from his father; that we shall surely do.” (Quran 12:59-61).

Joseph is testing his brothers. He’s given them grain, and he actually unknown to the brothers, puts their money back into the saddle bags, such that when the brothers open up the grain, they see their money. The grain is free.  The brothers are astounded by this, and don’t quite know how to interpret it. The famine continues, and they have to go back to Egypt again for food. They know they must bring their youngest brother, Benjamin- Joseph’s full brother, with them. And Jacob is very torn up about this, but their situation is dire.

“He said, ‘I will not send him forth with you till you give me a solemn pledge before God that you will surely bring him back to me unless you are surrounded.’ So when they gave their solemn pledge, he said, ‘God is Guardian over what we say.’” Quran 12:66

The brothers return to Joseph with Benjamin. Joseph draws Benjamin aside and tells him his identity, but continues to keep it secret from the other brothers. The saddlebags are filled with grain, again the money, and in the youngest brother’s pouch the silver drinking cup from Joseph’s table. The brothers are stopped by the chief steward who accuses them of being thieves. They deny it.  The steward asks them what will be the punishment if one of them is a thief?

They said: Its recompense will be that he in whose saddlebag it is found-he himself shall be its recompense.” Quran 12:75

The cup is found in Benjamin’s bag. The brothers are astonished and dismayed. They plead with Joseph to have mercy, “They said: O viceroy! He has a venerable, aged father; so take one of us in his place. Truly we see you as being among the virtuous.” But Joseph would not be swayed. The brothers talk amongst themselves, in their own language which they assume Joseph (they still haven’t recognized him) cannot understand.

“The eldest of them said ‘Do you not know that your father has taken a solemn pledge from you before God, and earlier you neglected Joseph? Thus I shall not depart from this land till my father grants me leave, or God renders judgment on me. And He is the best of judges!” Quran 12:

The brothers return to Jacob, minus Reuben and Benjamin, and Jacob is, according to the Quran, “choked with anguish.” (12:83). Jacob tells them they must return to Egypt and get the brothers back and also inquire about Joseph.

The brothers return, desperate, begging. The eleven stars, the sun and the moon are prostrate before Joseph- prophesy fulfilled. Joseph says to his family,

Do you know what you have done with Joseph and his brother, when you were ignorant?” 12:89

This is the summation of the test. Can the brothers see the effect that their jealousy and envy have had on the family, on their own integrity, on the pledges they have made to their father and to God? Has time and pain given them the gift of introspection?

At this moment, the brothers recognize Joseph. Some commentators say it is because he smiled at them, other s say because he removed his crown.  Joseph verifies that he is Joseph.

“By God!” they said, “God has preferred thee over us, and we were at fault.” (Quran 12:91) The brothers recognize Joseph’s character, and they take full responsibility for their actions.

Joseph’s reply is recorded in the Quran as “There is no reproach against you this day. God will forgive you. And He is the most Merciful of the merciful.”  (Quran 12:92).

The surah of Joseph was revealed in mid-Mecca period. But many years later, when the man they had scorned has conquered them, the Prophet addressed the Quraysh, “Verily I say to you as Joseph said to his brothers; there is no reproach against you. Go, for you are free.” (notes to 12:91-91 in The Study Quran edited by Seyyed Hossain Nasr)


In the khutbah last week, the khatib gave the example of the Prophet being tested when he went to the city of Ta’if and appealed to them for sanctuary for him and his followers. Prophet Muhammad was in desperate straits, and the people of Ta’if not only refused to give sanctuary, but humiliated him verbally and physically. The children were told to throw stones at him.

In the hadith tradition, Aisha asked the Prophet, “Have you encountered a day harder than the battle of Uhud?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Your tribes have given me a lot of trouble, and the worst was the day of Aqaba when I presented myself to Ibn Abd Yalail ibn Abd Kulal (chiefs of Taif) and he did not respond to what I intended. I departed, overwhelmed with excessive sorrow, and I could not relax until I found myself at a tree where I lifted my head towards the sky to see a cloud shading me. I looked up and saw Gabriel in it. He called me saying: Allah has heard your people’s saying to you and how they have replied, and Allah has sent the Angel of the Mountains to you that you may order him to do whatever you wish to these people. The Angel of the Mountains greeted me and he said: O Muhammad, order what you wish, and if you like, I will let the mountains fall on them.” The Prophet said, “No, rather I hope that Allah will bring from their descendants people who will worship Allah alone without associating partners with him.” (Bukhari vol 4 book 54 #454)

The prophet is telling us, worse than the battle wounds and friends he lost at Uhud, was the humiliation he suffered at Ta’if. And when given the opportunity for revenge, total destruction of the city, the Prophet does not answer their brutality with brutality. Why not?

I found one possible answer (there could be many more) in a mystery novel I am reading. Inspector Gamache says,

“Corruption and brutality are modeled and expected and rewarded. It becomes normal. And anyone who stands up to it, who tells them it’s wrong, is beaten down. Or worse.” (How the Light Gets In by Louise Penny, p 19)

Instead of modeling corruption and brutality, the Prophet chose to model mercy and forgiveness for the people of Ta’if.

God gives all of us many tests in life, and I would argue that tests are interwoven into the fabric that is the tapestry of life in this world. We may not pass every test, and that is ok, chances are we will probably face the same challenge again and maybe we will learn to do better. Whether we pass or fail the test, how we choose to cope with these tests has far reaching effects on our own souls, as well as on those around us; our family, our community, our nation. What kind of behavior are we modeling to others as we take these tests?  Do we model corruption and brutality? Or is it something else?

 It is very easy, when given a particularly difficult test, to become angry and sink into bitterness. All too often in our society you hear the refrain,  “I’m the victim here” and then the mantle of ‘victimhood’ is used to justify all kinds of corruption and brutality. There are times when we will find ourselves in extremely negative circumstances facing difficult challenges and the only way to navigate through these times is to be clear headed and ask God for help.  Ask Allah for guidance- He’s the one who brought you this test, and He is the one who can help you through it in a manner that is pleasing to Him. And what is pleasing to Allah is good for all of us.

In closing, I would like to say a dua from  18:59: Our Lord! Forgive us and our brothers who have preceded us in belief, and do not allow any grudges to remain in our hearts towards those who have believed. Our Lord! Truly You are Kind, Compassionate.

Quran translations into English are from Layleh Bakhtiar "The Sublime Quran" 2009 ( or  "The Study Quran" edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr 2015 (HarperOne, NY)

"Holy Bible, Standard American Version" 1929, (Thomas Nelson and Sons, NY).

"How the Light Gets In" by Louise Penny, 2013 (Minotaur Press, NY).

Friday, November 10, 2017

Spiritual Practice and Climate Justice

Last month I attended an environmental justice retreat led by a Chicago-area interfaith group. I expected the retreat would be depressing. I thought that because of the Trump administration decisions involving the environment- pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, removing all references to global warming from government websites, appointing a coal lobbyist to be head of the EPA, defunding the EPA- would have all the attendees in a rather glum mood. I was happily surprised. Everyone was actually quite upbeat and had a can-do attitude. This was largely because Illinois had passed a multi-million dollar clean energy/clean jobs bill and this group had a lot to do with its passage. More about that governmental bill later. 

At the end of the day, I was at a reception and talking to one of the pastors. I said something like, “Well, with all these big hurricanes and the warming climate, should anyone be that surprised?”  The minister said to me, “You know, we don’t feel comfortable any more preaching about how natural disasters are the result of bad behavior. For example, this earthquake is a result of gay marriage or legalized abortion. But with climate change and the amount of carbon we are contributing to the greenhouse effect, well, it is hard NOT  to preach that message!” And I admit, I feel like all these destructive hurricanes are just the chickens coming home to roost. As the surface water of the ocean heats up, storms get more intense and destructive. This hypothesis is not a liberal conspiracy: it is supported by empirical facts. We can measure the water temperature, we can measure the storm intensity. In the 21st  century, the activities we do as human beings, particularly in developed countries like the USA, produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide which affect our global climate. With more CO2 in the atmosphere, our climate has greater chance of producing droughts, intense storms, cooler summers, warmer winters, melting polar caps and rising ocean levels. The more energy we require from fossil fuels, the more we grow our economy with these fuels, the more we change our climate with often unpredictable and unwanted effects.

In the Quran there are many examples of communities whose behavior and spiritual practice led to unwanted effects, typically resulting in their own destruction. Noah told his people:

“O people, if you find my staying with you and warning through God’s signs unbearable to you, know that I have reposed my trust in God. So plan your move, and call your associates, and make certain of your plan: then do whatever you intend against me, allowing me no respite. If you turn away from me I do not ask any recompense from you. My reward is with God. I have been commanded to be one of those who submit to Him.' Even then they denied him: so We saved him and those with him, in the ark, and established them in the land, and drowned those who denied Our signs. So think of the fate of those who were warned.” 10: 71-73

Lot warned his community, 
“Would you commit this abomination with your eye open?Must you really approach men with lust instead of women? Nay, but you are people without any awareness!” But his people’s only answer was this: “Expel Lot’s followers from your township! Verily, they are a folk who make themselves out to be pure!” Thereupon We saved him and his housefolk- all but his wife, whom We willed to be among those that stayed behind- the while We rained a rain upon the others; and dire is such rain upon all who let themselves be warned.” 27:54-58

Salih preached to the people of the Thamud tribe unsuccessfully. The Thamud people said,
 “Are we to follow one single mortal, one from among ourselves? In that case, behold, we would certainly sink into error and folly! Why- on him alone from among all of us should a reminder have been bestowed? Nay but he is a boastful liar!”54:24-25. They asked Salih for proof of his divine warning, and God said, 

“On the morrow they will come to know who the boastful liar is! Behold, We are letting loose this she-camel as a test for them; and thou but watch them, and contain thyself in patience. And let them know that the water is to be divided between them, with each share of water equitably apportioned.” But they summoned their companion and he ventured and cruelly slaughtered (the camel) and how severe was the suffering which I inflicted when My warnings were disregarded! Behold, We let loose upon them one single blast and they became like the dried-up, crumbling twigs of a sheepfold.” 54:26-31

The prophet Hud was sent to warn the people of ‘Ad: “Will you not be conscious of God? Behold, I am an apostle to you, worthy of your trust: be then conscious of God and pay heed unto me! And no reward whatever do I ask of you for it: my reward rests with none but the Sustainer of all the worlds. Will you, in your wanton folly, build altars on every height, and make for yourselves mighty castles, that you might become immortal? And will you whenever you lay hand (on others), lay hand (on them) cruelly, without any restraint? Be then conscious of God and pay heed unto me and be conscious of Him who has amply provided you with all that you might think of- amply provided you with flocks, and children, and gardens, and springs. For verily, I fear lest suffering befall you on an awesome day!” They answered, “It is all one to us whether thou preaches or are not of those who preach. This is none other than that to which our forebears clung, and we are not going to be chastised. And so they gave him the lie; the thereupon We destroyed them. In this, behold, there is a message , even though most of them will not believe.” 26: 124-139

Before they were destroyed by an earthquake the people of Midian were warned by prophet Shu’ayb,
"O my people! Worship God alone: you have no deity other than Him. Clear evidence of the truth has now come unto you from your Sustainer. Give, therefore, full measure and weight (in all your dealings) and do not deprive people of what is rightfully theirs, and do not spread corruption on the earth after it has been so well ordered: this is for your own good. If you would but believe. And do not lie in ambush by every road, threatening and trying to turn away from God’s path all who believe in Him, and trying to make it appear crooked. And remember when you were few and He made you  many: and behold what happened in the end to the spreaders of corruption. And if there be some among you who have come to believe in the message which I bear, the while the others do not believe, then have patience in adversity till God shall judge between us for He is the best of all judges.” 7:85-87

Now out of these many tales of destruction, there is one prophet whose community did listen to him and they averted disaster. This prophet was Yunus, Jonah. Intially, Jonah balked at warning his community, seeking to escape his responsibility by taking a sea voyage. This didn’t work out, he was swallowed by the whale.  Quran tells us: 

“And him of the great fish? When he went off in wrath thinking that We had no power over him! But then he cried out in the deep darkness, “There is no deity save Thee! Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Verily, I have done wrong!” And so We responded unto him and delivered him from distress; for thus do We deliver all who have faith.” 21:87-88

After that initial set back, Yunus resolved to warn his community, and they actually listened to him, changed their ways, and successfully avoided disaster.

“Why has there been no habitation that believed and profited by their faith, except the people of Jonah? When they came to believe, We removed from them the affliction of shame in the world, and made them prosperous for a time. “ 10:98

As Muslims we believe that Muhammad was the Seal of the Prophets, that prophesy ended with him. While we don’t have prophets and miracles, we do have scientists and empirical evidence which can warn us of imminent destruction and guide us to better behavior. The second half of my khutbah will be about what we can do, as khalifas of this world, to promote climate justice.


I spoke in the first part of my talk about climate change which can be defined by four parameters 1) changes in temperature ( extreme hot, extreme cold, seasonal) 2) changes in precipitation (floods, drought), 3) changes in sea level (rising levels, storm surges,  salt water intrusion) and 4) extreme weather ( storms, hurricanes, tornados). These changes can effect our health in many ways: asthma, dehydration, famine, water borne diseases, vector borne diseases. The problem we face is that negative impacts of climate change (heat waves, droughts, floods) are disproportionately felt by people and countries that did the least to cause the problem, and can least afford to respond.

Therefore, we define climate justice as a local, national, and global movement to protect at-risk populations who are disproportionately affected by climate change.

For instance, in Illinois, we lead the country in the number of fossil fuel burning plants located in communities of color. This is a big problem because in addition to producing greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change, fossil-fuel burning power plants emit pollutants that exacerbate asthma. Children of color are four times as likely to be admitted to the hospital for an asthma attack and ten times as likely to die from one as white children.

In 1987 the United Church of Christ's Commission of Racial Justice issued a "Report on Race and Toxic Wastes in the United States” which stated."... race was the best predictor of the location of hazardous waste facilities in the U.S."

We clearly have a lot of work to do in this country when it comes to establishing climate justice and
I would urge you to consider making climate justice part of your spiritual practice. Justice is a common theme in Islam, and our stewardship of the earth is explained to us in Quran 2:30 where God tells the angels “Behold, I am about to establish upon earth a khalifah.” Well, how would God judge our term as khalifahs if we did not strive to achieve justice? Fortunately, this concept of stewardship and justice is shared by many billions of people in world, Muslims as well as people of different religions, people who can be our interfaith partners.

I’d like to share with you some words from Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical Letter:

“Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods.”
“Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming, and their means of subsistence are largely dependent on natural reserves and ecosystemic services such as agriculture, fishing and forestry. They have no other financial activities or resources which can enable them to adapt to climate change or to face natural disasters, and their access to social services and protection is very limited. “
“Our lack of response to these tragedies involving our brothers and sisters points to the loss of that sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded.”

I said earlier we don’t have prophets anymore, and I don’t believe we need strong political leaders to tell us what to do. We need a grassroots movement of like minded people telling the leaders what to do. While revolutions have a lot of drama and energy, they can also sputter out or turn in on themselves. Grassroots movements, while slower growing and a little more boring, allow for deep roots and committed change. Although a lot of khatibs like to go over the battles and victories of the early Muslim community, Prophet Muhammad himself saw the treaties and cease-fires as real victories. Because it was during peacetime where people had time to discuss and reflect, where hearts and minds could be transformed.

To end I would like to explain to you why the people at the event I attended last month were not depressed. Last year, the Illinois legislature passed a law which would ensure clean, renewable energy for Illinois as well as clean jobs (solar panel installers, wind turbine engineers, etc). Furthermore, this group made sure that introduced into the legislation was the creation of 2000 jobs for graduates of the foster care system and returning citizens (ex-convicts). They are planting seeds of opportunity for people who our society often forgets.

What can you do? Look for opportunities to reduce, recycle and reuse. Ask your electricity provider to only use renewable energy sources. Make climate justice your spiritual practice and work together with partners of similar mind set.

There is a famous hadith of the prophet narrated by Anas ibn Malik which says:

 “If the Hour (of Judgment) starts to happen and in the hand of one of you is a palm shoot or seedling; then if he’s able to plant it before the Hour happens, then let him plant it”.

What is interesting about this hadith is not only the sense of impending doom and response to doom- plant a tree- but also the fact that a date palm takes at least ten years before it bears fruit. The people of the prophet’s time were keenly aware of the actions of their ancestors, they only had to walk past a ruined city or a palm grove or an olive orchard to the see the effect of past generations on their current prosperity. In keeping with the spirit of our role as khalifas of this planet, Let us work together to buck the trend of short-sighted decision making and aim for choices which will benefit our children and our grandchildren and the world in which they live.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Power of Divine Gifts

 The title of my khutbah today is “The Power of Divine Gifts“, this is a continuation of the exploration of the problem of evil and role of sin, suing the Iblis story in the Quran, hadith and Sufi literature i.e. Part 13 of The Worthy Adversary series.

In Quran, there are numerous passages which tell us that a true believer is protected from doing evil acts which might be commissioned by Satan.

“Truly as for My servants, you (Iblis) will have no authority over them, but ones who are in error followed you.” 15:42

“Truly My servants, over them there is no authority for you (Iblis). You your Lord has sufficed as a Trustee.” 17:65

“And certainly established as true about them was the opion of Iblis and they followed him, but a group of people of the ones you believe. There had not been for him any authority over them but that We might know these who believe in the world to come from theose who are in certainty of it.” 34: 20-21

“And remember Our servant Job when he cried out to his Lord: Truly Saatan has afflicted me with fatigue and punishment! (It was said) Stomp your foot. This is a place of washing that is cool and from which to drink. And We bestowed on him his people and the like of them along with them as a mercy from us, a reminder for those imbued with intuition.” 38:41-43

From hadith, we know that consistent spiritual practice, such as saying Allah’s name before eating, invoking du’a before important acts, and even the act of ablution and prayer- particularly prostration- banish Iblis and his satanic minions- at least for a bit.

From these primary sources, theological interpretations arouse about the “impeccability” or freedom from sin “mahsum” that all prophets were endowed with by the nature of their prophethood. Sufis extended this argument to say that any spiritually perfected person, particularly their shaykhs, had a partial impeccability or protection, called mahfuz. This doctrine of partial perfection or near perfection was also appropriated by political leaders, first the calipha rashideen and then later governments, which resulted in a culture of low tolerance for political criticism. I remember hearing a khutbah that civil disobedience, even peaceful protest, was considered ‘haram’ by some Muslims because they had been taught that their leaders were ‘impeccable’ and beyond criticism and judgment.

To our modern, Western sensibilities, this idea of ‘impeccability” clashes with our cultural understanding of political accountability, transparency, and what it means to be human. Everyone makes mistakes. Furthermore, given the tremendous social and technological changes we have seen in the modern era, we tend to look back at the actions of our ancestors and judge them negatively.  However, I would argue that our ancestors could do the same with us. For example, nowadays in our society, slavery is considered evil- particularly in the United States where Americans still wrestle with the repercussions of slavery and concubinage in the form of racism and misogyny. Slaveholders of the past are often considered of having questionable moral judgment or being hypocrites. When we hear of ISIS fighters making Christian women concubines, Muslims all over the world are horrified. Sexual trafficking, by world and Muslim majority consensus, is a crime. So when we look at the sirah of the Prophet and see that he owned at least two concubines- gifts from Egypt- what does this say about the impeccability doctrine? Just to be fair, what would our Muslim ancestors think of our modern attitude toward ‘collateral damage’- the killing of non-combatants during warfare? In pre-modern times, it was pretty clear who was a combatant when you were fighting one-on-one. But our arsenal of modern weapons does not discriminate between soldiers and civilians. Perhaps to make ourselves feel better we expand our definition of combatant to include villagers who “aid and abet” or citizens who “pay taxes”- but how many of these people have a real choice in this matter? In our time, armies and governments refuse to count the number of dead human beings that are considered “collateral damage”.

  What I’m trying to convey is that our modern notion of impeccability is at odds with the entrenched Muslim Tradition concept of “impeccability”. However, when I bring this up, that “impeccability” has a historical and cultural context, I am inevitably ‘mansplained’ by a traditional Muslim that I am a ‘post-modern relativist” and values in the Quran are Good For All Time. These arguments propel the Muslim Mansplainer into a corner, because he will soon find himself forced to defend the keeping of concubines, ethnic cleansing and the assassination of cartoonists. I do not know how to reconcile the traditional doctrine of impeccability with modern ethics, maybe you can solve that in the discussion afterwards.

Getting back to the main topic, let’s assume for the sake of argument that there are people who are highly resistant to the temptations of Satan. They have this resistance because of their disciplined spiritual practice, gifted it by God, or a mutation in their DNA. Whatever it is, they are immune to Iblis. What is interesting in the Muslim tradition is that even though these individuals have power over Iblis, making him tell how he leads people astray for example, there are a number of Sufi stories which relate that spiritual superiority is a gift and feelings of smugness or superiority are not tolerated. Iblis has been sunk to a very low station, but remember his former stature and, more importantly, but for the grace of God, there got I.  Rumi warns of this in his poetry:

“One day Adam looked on the wretched Iblis with contempt and disdain.
He mainftested arrogance and conceit; he laughed at the predicament of the accursed Iblis.
The jealousy of God thundered aloud, ‘O upright fellow,
Are you not aware  of the hidden secret?
Were He to turn the fur inside out,
He would rip the mountain from its root and base.
At that moment He would tear the veil off a hundred Adams
And bring forth a hundred Iblises newly converted to Islam.’
Adam cried, ‘I beg forgiveness for this look!
I will never again think such presumptuous thoughts.’ “ –Mathnawi Book1 3893-3898

Making fun of Iblis or showing contempt must be tempered with the knowledge that this is the kind of arrogance that led to Iblis’ downfall! Attar wrote, “Iblis is the sacrificed one of God. It is not manliness to hurl a stone at God’s sacrifice.”

The sirah of Ibn Khafif tells the story of the Sufi mystic Abu’d-Dahhak who had a discussion with Iblis during which Iblis recited an ayah. Abu’d-Dahhak was so angry at Iblis’ impudence that he beat him up. Some time later, Abu’d-Dahhak was returning from Mecca when he came to a fast flowing river. He stood on the bank, unsure of whether it was safe to cross. An old man came by and walked into the river and crossed it easily. Abu’d-Dahhak thought he could manage it if the old guy could, so he started across the river and when he got to the middle the water overcame him. God intervened and Abu’d-Dahhak was able to struggle safely to the other side. There he saw the old man waiting for him. “Have you repented” he asked the shaykh, “so that hereafter you never pass judgment against me?”

What is the final verdict on Iblis? Is his sentence irrevocable? There are different opinions in the Sufi tradition.

Most of the authors I have discussed thus far, Al-Makki, Rumi, Junayd and others, all agree that while Iblis had a novle character and place of stature before his fall, he has become so corrupted by his power on earth that he only plots to destroy man by any means possible (including good!). Iblis should be avoided at all cost. He must be constantly and unrelentingly repelled.

Rumi wrote Iblis’ sin is an innate part of his being, so there is no hope of forgiveness for him. Sari As-Sagari reaffirms this opinion and posits that ordinary sins of passion are readily forgiven but perhaps the sin of pride is different and not forgivable.

Not even the intervention of a perfected Sufi mystic can help Iblis. Al-Bistami asked God to show mercy to Iblis and was told,

“You have spoken arrogantly; be silent! For he is of fire and a fiery being deserves something fiery hot. Take care that you do not bring yourself to this end. For you become deserving of fire when you are disobedient!” – from Attar’s Tadhkirat al-awliya” p 187

Al-Junayd asserts that Iblis never attained true contemplation when he was at the peak of his obedience and guardian of the heavens. Adam did have this contemplation, and retained it even when he sinned. Therefore, Iblis’ worship was never the real thing- dross instead of gold. Al-Junayd then goes on to list all of Iblis’ victims, where no one is excluded, and from the fact that Iblis hated Adam just on the basis of his existence. Adam did nothing to antagonize Iblis. Al Junayd does not think Iblis has acquired the necessary traits in his life as minister of the Divine Throne that would allow for his rehabilitation.

There are clearly Sufi writers who do not think Iblis will ever be forgiven via his personal repentance or by his getting ‘divine credit’ for his former position. However, in my subsequent khutbahs we will discover other Sufis who had a different theological perspective.

It is important to remember that in the “no forgiveness” camp, there is usually an emphasis on the randomness of God’s benevolence: He bestows His love on whomever He pleases, be he good or evil, saint or devil. Rumi asserts that there is tremendous power in the divine gifts of faith, mercy, and love. Their power is so strong that they have the power to transform even an Iblis. The emphasis here is on the power of the gift, not on Iblis’ transformation.

Rumi wrote, “Iblis does not despair of Your benevolence/ every moment another ray of hope shines on him from You” (from Kulliyat i-Shamis-I Tabrizi #1028)

Rumi compares God’s mercy to a cypress tree: “When the cypress of mercy waves proudly in the garden, yes, Iblis the accursed one, discovers faith” (from Kulliyat i-Shamis-I Tabrizi #2896).

Let us thank Allah for the divine gifts He has chosen to grace us with in our lives. Let us thank Him for His mercy to us and to the power of hope.

Friday, August 4, 2017


The title of my khutbah today is “Hierarchy”.

On our recent trip to Germany, the kids and I went on a bus trip to see two of the famous Ludwig II of Bavaria castles. As we entered the foyer of the Linderhof castle, the tour guide instructed us to look at the ceiling on which was inscribed “Nec Pluribus Impar”. I whispered to my son (who completed Latin 1), “What does that mean?” He didn’t know. All I could think of was “E pluribus unum”- from the many, one; the motto on American money, signifying the unification of many states into one country. Ludwig II’s message was much different. Nec pluribus impar translates to “Not equal to the masses.” Ludwig II’s message, and indeed his entire lifestyle, was built on the assumption of hierarchy, particularly of divine right (the belief that God appoints kings) and the absolute authority of monarchs. What makes Ludwig II’s belief system odd is that he lived in the mid 19th century when the many city-states of Germany were trying to form a democratic nation. Napoleon’s military strength across central Europe in the early part of the century had thrown many aristocratic regimes into disarray and the Corsican general’s military successes provided serious questions concerning  “divine right” of rule. During the mid-19th century, as central European states started to organize themselves post-Napoleon, the trend among many existing European monarchs was to negotiate with their democratically elected parliaments and legislatures. Ludwig II was not trending with his times. Indeed, he was eventually removed from his kingship by the Bavarian legislature.  They judged his excessive spending on luxury palaces proof of an unstable mental state. He was unfit for office. Nowadays, or at least on tours, they call him a “visionary” as he provided many tourist must-see sites in southern Germany.

I’ve known the Ludwig II story for many years, I’ve been to some of his palaces, but this year, I was struck by his unshakable belief in hierarchy. This vision of hierarchy was embedded in his Christian religious value system, and it made me think about the hierarchy that is embedded in the Muslim tradition. I’ve also been thinking a lot about hierarchy and equality in the United States because of the Trump election, the Black Lives Matter movement, gender wars and the debate over ‘fake news’. Americans love the myth of equality, but sometimes we are so in love with the myth that we refuse to examine how many of our institutions actually undermine equality and perpetuate privilege.

In the Islamic tradition, hierarchy is based on a person’s ability to recognize the Truth. There are plenty of examples in the Quran, but I’ll just start with the first, at Surah al-Baqarah:

“This divine writ without doubt- is a guidance for all the God-conscious who believe in that which is beyond the reach of human perception and are constant in prayer, and spend on out of what We provide for them as sustenance and who believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon thee, as well as in that which was bestowed before thy time; for it is they who in their innermost are certain of life to come! It is they who follow the guidance from their Sustainer; and it is they, they who shall attain to a happy state.
      Behold, as for those who are bent on denying the Truth- it is all one to them whether thou warnest them or does not warn them; they will not believe. God has sealed their hearts and their hearing and over their eyes is a veil; and awesome suffering awaits them.” 2: 2-7

The surah goes on to describe hypocrites (also damned) , and then follows up with two parables about recognizing Truth- people around a fire and people during a thunderstorm. Here are a few more examples in the Quran:

“Say: There is no comparison between the bad things and the good things, even though very many of the bad things may please thee greatly. Be, then, conscious of God, O you who are endowed with insight so that you might attain to a happy state!” 5: 100

“God propounds the parable of (two men)- a man enslaved, unable to do anything of his own accord, and a (free) man upon whom We have bestowed goodly sustenance from Ourselves, so that he can spend thereof secretly and openly. Can these (two) be deemed equal? And God propounds the parable of two (other) men- one of them dumb, unable to do anything of his own accord and a sheer burden on his master; to whichever task the latter direct him, he accomplishes no good. Can such a one be considered the equal of (a wise man) who enjoins the doing of what is right and himself follows a straight way?” 16:75-76

“The blind man is not equal with the seer. Nor is darkness light, nor is the shadow equal with the sun’s full heat. Nor are the living equal with the dead. Lo! Allah maketh whom He will to hear. Thou canst not reach those who are in the graves.” 35: 19-23

In the Islamic tradition, the notion of different levels of truth-recognizing people resulted in a class hierarchy which was not necessarily characterized by wealth or political or tribal power, it was measured by the capacity to know Truth. What developed among the philosophers was the belief that most people, the masses, cannot understand higher truths.

The Persian philosopher Jalal-un Din Davvani (1422-1506 CE) wrote in Akhlaq-I Jalali a vivid description of this knowledge-based social hierarchy:

"The souls of men differ in degree according to their capacity for reason and discernment. The highest degree- which we call the celestial soul- is connected to the World of Rationals, while the lowest-which is extreme stupidity- is tied to the beast-pen. It, thus, follows that the perception of these groups in matters of ‘whence our origin and whereto our return”- which are the most subtle secrets of philosophy and shari’a- are not at one and the same level.
….The highest class…know the Real-Source with all its glorious qualities and beautiful features, and are aware of the issuing forth of the chain of existences from the Source in the actual order… This party comprises the great “Friends of God” and the great pillars of philosophy (hikma).
     Next this rank is the class of those who are incapable of understanding for themselves by pure reason. Their journey ends at conjectured meanings. But they know that the Real-Truths, as they actually are, are free of such restrictions. They acknowledge their own incapacity, and defer to the knowledge of the first class of people. This group is the people of faith (ahl-I iman).
     Following this rank is a group who are incapable even of conjectural reasoning. Their journey in “whence our origin and whereto our return” does not extend beyond imagined forms. But they defer to the first group and acknowledge their incapacity. This group is the people of acceptance (ahl-I taslim).
     And next to this group are the short-sighted ones who cannot even begin to imagine any other level beyond that which can be sensed, and who stop short at representations and images that are far (from the Real-Truth). These we call the ‘weak-minded’ (mutaza’ ‘afan).
     But so long as each of these exerts himself to the full extent of his ability, and reaches the full limit of his capacity, he will not be stigmatized with falling short, but rather will be regarded as having turned his face towards the qiblah of Real Truth.”

The knowledge order of society was a given for Muslim philosophers. The Sufis similarly divided people by their capacity to perceive Truth hidden in the realms of the Unseen:
Commoners = ‘awamm, can’t govern themselves, need prescription and supervision otherwise chaos
Elect = khawass, more capable of governing themselves, administrators of law
Elect of the Elect= khass al-khawass.

The Sufi Abu Talib al-Makki (d 996 CE) stated that every Quranic verse has seven meanings ranging from the external/exoteric (zahir) for the common people (‘awamm) up to the intricacies (daqa’iq) for the lovers of Truth (muhibbun) and the complete spirituarealities (haqa’iq) for the prophets (nabiyyun).

Not only philosophers and Sufis, but also kalam-theologians, such as al-Ghazzali, argued that common people should not be exposed to speculative questions that the elite debated. Commoners should only have unambiguous prescriptions. The basis of a society composed of people with different capacities to know was a general given in pre-modern Muslim societies. This concept is embodied in the principle “Speak to people according to the capacity of their intelligences” (kallimu al-nasa ‘ala qadr uquli-him).

Just as the higher truths of Revelation are sent down to a lower world, pre-modern era Muslims envisioned a society differentiated by the human capacity to acquire knowledge. The structure of society followed the structure of Revelation. Only a few select people, prophets, receive Revelation- most of us just listen.  Some people may pose questions and ask for further clarification, particularly those in leadership positions, but the masses are expected to accept the ethics and laws of revealed Truth. This does not mean that hierarchy is the only way to authentically express Islam, but rather this hierarchy in our Islamic tradition was derived from how our Muslim ancestors understood Revelation.


The second part of my khutbah is about our current, modern trends and how this affects our practice of Islam.

 Starting in the late 18th century and fueled by the technology of the industrial revolution, the modern appetite for human equality, abolition of slavery, universal enfranchisement  and the ability of reason to convince the general public of truth gained momentum and these values continue into the present. The global communication technologies of the world wide web, social media, and smart phones have further contributed to the grassroots and very public discourse in which we find ourselves. This egalitarianism has spread to our understanding of Islam. “Speak to the people according to the capacity of their intelligences (kallimu al-nasa ‘ala qadr ‘uquli him)” has been replaced with “The din is simple” al-din basit.

But is our din truly basit? What about those seven layers of meaning on every Quranic ayah? We don’t pretend that science and technology are simple. Simple to use, perhaps, but how many of us could re-build our cell phone or hard drive if called upon to do so? How many of us actually understand how the internet- or neurons actually work? So it seems that even though science and technology provide us with egalitarian access, we accept that deeper understanding of science and technology consist of a hierarchy of knowledge. Very few individuals are brilliant enough to create the reality of science and technology, some of us can ask good questions but most of us are consumers. But when it comes to modern public discourse about religion, most Muslims will stick to the ‘basit’ model or risk becoming engaged in a never-ending flame war consisting of internet trolling, stalking, accusations of blasphemy and death threats. In destroying the institutions of our private sphere- which yes were often elitist,-in making the public sphere the only “place” that counts, we have lost our ability to question and contradict prescriptive norms. We think of community Islam, as the only ‘authentic’ Islam, mistrusting our own individual capacity for reasoning, downplaying our own private Islam-even dismissing our individualized, private Islam as “un-Islamic”. We don’t question, we don’t explore, we accept and we hibernate.

How do we wake up? This is where we come to the question phase of my khutbah.

In the pre-modern era, knowledge was accessible via information, and this information was tightly regulated. In the modern era, with hacking, leaking and rapid, global distribution of information, it is difficult to imagine restricting information. Our Muslim ancestors restricted information because they thought the wrong information to wrong people- people who did not have the capacity to recognize truth- would create social chaos. Well, maybe that is what we are living in now, which would explain a lot. We accept that not all of us have the genetic capacity to become Olympic athletes or astronauts no matter how hard we train, or that some of us should not smoke because of a family history of lung cancer,  but we have a difficult time accepting that some people are just not capable of recognizing truth, no matter how many factoids we dump in their lap. It is that myth of equality which makes us wring our hands as we run around in circles mumbling, “If they could only listen to reason…”.

How can we, as Muslims, approach the knowledge gap?

I know there is a rich Muslim heritage of questioning and exploration. My questions have probably been addressed by numerous scholars through the centuries but it is worthwhile to again address this fundamental question of hierarchy in understanding and reasoning since each era and each questioner contributes a new perspective.

I like to interact with other people who can recognize the truth, even if they aren’t Muslims. We live in a multicultural city in a globalized world. There are many people who seek truth, but they are often disheartened by the institutions of religion. Can we communicate with them in mutually respectful way? Will this require a new definition of Revelation?

When I do take time to build institutions, am I creating spaces for questioning, exploring, and civilized debate? If not- then should I really be spending my time and energy in these projects?

Are we using our gifts and talents when we try to understand the Quran? To quote Davvani, to the “full extent of his ability, and reaches the full limit of his capacity, he will not be stigmatized with falling short, but rather will be regarded as having turned his face towards the qiblah of Real Truth.”  Most of us are not a khass al-khawass, but where do we belong? My job in this world is to figure this out with God’s help, to turn my face to the qiblah of Real Truth, to follow the Quranic injunction: 

“...We shall show them Our portents on the horizon and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth.” 41:53.

Accepting that there is a hierarchy of knowledge, intuition and reasoning have been instrumental in helping me understand the deeper meanings of science and art and teaching me humility. I hope that accepting this hierarchy in spirituality will also help me achieve my spiritual potential with the necessary humility.

 “Is not He Who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like of them? Aye, that He is! For He is the All Wise Creator, but His Command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that He saith unto it: Be! And it is. Therefore glory be to Him in Whose hand is the dominion over all things! Unto Him you will be brought back.” 36:81-83 Amen

Quran translations from "The Message of the Qur'an" by Muhammad Asad

Jalal ud-Din Davvani quote excerpted from "What is Islam" by Shahab Ahmed (Princeton University Press:2016) pp 370-371