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

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Consciousness and the Quran

Surat An Nur (24)
Ayah 39-40
Those who do not believe
Their deeds are like a mirage in a desert
The traveler in the desert who is thirsty will think it’s water
Until he comes to the mirage and realizes that it was nothing
And then he finds God
And sees his own destiny in the same instant.

Or, the person who denies the truth is as if in the darkness of a dark ocean,
Covered by high, dark waves,
Which are covered by clouds, depths of darkness, layer upon layer
and if he stretches his hand he can hardly see it.
And if he doesn’t find God’s light he will never have light.

When I was eleven years old, in the fifth grade, I had an experience that I remember as vividly today as when it happened.  I was standing in front of my class at school, reading a book out loud, and I fainted.  I left my body and hovered above my teacher and the other students as they scrambled to get water and revive me.  I had other out of body experiences as well.  I used to have flying dreams.  Except they didn’t feel like dreams, they felt real.  It was exhilarating.  I would fly out the window of my bedroom, sometimes over the Blue Ridge mountains toward my Grandma’s house, sometimes to places I didn’t know.  I could swoop and dive and change directions, but I could never get anywhere.  I never landed, I just flew.  I wanted to land, but I didn’t have that much control.  I stopped having those dreams many years ago, until I went to Medina.  I’ve shared this story with some of you before.  The day we arrived in Medina, at our hotel beside the prophet’s mosque, Osama went to pray and I lay down on the bed to rest.  The next thing I knew I was flying up a minaret, above the spiral staircase, and then out of the opening at the top, into a sky that sparkled with colors more beautiful than anything on earth, toward a brilliant light.  And there was child riding on my back, a boy child, laughing in sheer utter delight and joy in sharing the experience with me.  When I came out of it, I tried to place the child – he felt completely familiar, and yet he wasn’t anyone of my family or friends.  And then I thought of the Prophet, and it felt right.  Now, call this experience what you will – a dream, a hallucination, a vivid imagination.  All I can say is it felt real.  And it was, along with circling the Kaaba, the highlight of my Umrah.

I share these stories to let you know that these experiences, and others, are why I believe in what people write and say about Near-Death-Experiences – so-called NDEs.  These are experiences that people have had when their brain activity – that which is centered in the neo-cortex, the seat of our conscious awareness, has stopped for a period of time – they become brain dead - but they then come back to life.  Reports of these kinds of experiences have multiplied in recent years, possibly due to advancements in medical science that allow us to bring people back from cardiac arrest, drug overdose, severe bacterial infections, etc. 

Dr. Eben Alexander was a renowned academic neurosurgeon who had an NDE in 2008 when he contracted an extremely rare form of bacterial meningitis that shut down his neocortex and put him in a deep coma for a week.  His doctors had advised his family to remove life support – he should have died.  But he shocked them by coming back and regaining full mental capacity within a few weeks.  He came back, but was profoundly changed by his encounter with the hyper-reality of the spiritual realm.  He wrote a book about it, Proof of Heaven, published 2012.  A former atheist, Dr. Alexander has become an active advocate for a blending of science and spirituality.

In his writing, he now starts with this quote from Albert Einstein:
“Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.” 
– Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

Dr. Alexander writes, “Together, science and spirituality will thrive in a symbiosis offering the most profound insight into fundamental Truth, yielding unimaginable power. The keystone is in global progression of individual conscious awakening.  Many in both the scientific and religious (or spiritual) realms must denounce their addiction to prejudiced, divisive, dogmatic beliefs, in order to open our awareness to this synthesis of understanding Truth. By probing deeply into our own consciousness, we transcend the limitations of the human brain, and of the physical-material realm.  The spiritual realm is real. Seamless blending of science and spirituality will occur.”

Alexander is hardly the only one researching and publishing in the area of NDEs and paranormal phenomenon.  Bernardo Kastrup a computer engineer who specializes in artificial intelligence and reconfigurable computing, and has worked in some of the world's foremost research laboratories, including the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the Philips Research Laboratories, published an article this spring (Scientific American Blog, March 2017) on Transcending the Brain, in which he describes cases of damage to the brain that are associated with enriched consciousness or cognitive skill.  These include cases of choking, cardiac arrest, and physical damage to the brain.  “In a recent study, CT scans of more than one hundred Vietnam war veterans showed that damage to the frontal and parietal lobes increased the likelihood of “mystical experiences.”15 In an earlier study, patients were evaluated before and after brain surgery for the removal of tumors, which caused collateral damage to surrounding tissue. Statistically significant increases in “feelings of self-transcendence” were reported after the surgery.16”
New brain mapping technologies have shown that enriched consciousness and heightened cognition happen when measurable brain activity stops.  In other words, the experiences are happening beyond the realm of the physical brain.
15. Cristofori, I. et al. 2016. “Neural correlates of mystical experience.” Neuropsychologia 80: 212-220.
16. Urgesi, C. et al. 2010. “The Spiritual Brain: Selective Cortical Lesions Modulate Human Self Transcendence.” Neuron 65: 309-319.
van Lommel, P. et al. 2001. “Near-death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands.” The Lancet 358 (9298): 2039-2045.


In another new book, The Self Does Not Die, 2016, the authors, Titus Rivas, Anna Dirven and Rudolf H. Smit, analyze over 100 cases of NDEs.  These experiences included extrasensory perceptions beyond the patients’ immediate bodily environment, telepathy where either the NDEer had a telepathic experience in relation to someone else, or alternatively, where someone had a telepathic awareness of the NDEer, out-of-body experiences, healing in NDEers that is inexplicable by current medical science, paranormal psychic abilities, such as after-death communications (ADCs), extrasensory perception (ESP), psychokinesis (PK) and precognitive dreams after NDEs. They conclude by pointing out that materialist explanations for such phenomena are illogical and inadequate. The Self Does Not Die offers significant empirical support to the emerging scientific view that consciousness is fundamental in the universe, and that the soul exists and does not depend on the physical brain for its conscious expression.
These empirical data refute the production model, which states that the brain produces consciousness out of physical matter. Rather, the filter model (i.e., that the brain serves as a receiver of primordial consciousness) is far more reasonable in accounting for all the available evidence. Sooner or later, the sheer frustration with the ongoing inadequacies of materialist pseudo-explanations will nudge the prevailing western paradigm towards the deeper truth, as it is objectively represented in this remarkable book.

Spirituality and Science strengthen each other.  But, as Dr. Alexander points out, they cannot be conceived of as complementing each other as long as we cling to either purely materialist, empirical, fact-based explanations, or pure religious dogma.

The filter model of the human brain as a receiver of primordial consciousness complements the schema in Shahab Ahmed’s book, “What Is Islam?”  (Princeton University Press, 2016)  Ahmed defines Islam as:

Meaning-making for the self in terms of hermeneutical engagement with Revelation to Muhammed as Pre-Text, Text, and Con-Text – that is, with the entire phenomenon and matrix of Revelation, rather than just the Text of Revelation (p. 405).

In other words, for Ahmed, Islam is not just the Revelation of the Quran (Text), it is also the greater Reality from which the Quran was revealed (the Pre-Text), and the human understanding and culture that has developed from understanding both the Quran and that Greater Reality (Con-Text). 

Ahmed describes Pre-text of Revelation as follows:
The Text of the Revelation requires as its premise an Unseen Reality or Truth that lies beyond and behind the Text of the Revelation-in-the-Seen and upon which the act, the Text and the Truth of Revelation are contingent.  This is Unseen Reality is ontologically prior to and … larger than the textual product of the Revelation:  it is the source of Revelation.  The act and text of the Muhammadan Revelation together represent a single historical instance and enactment of this lager and prior dimension of the reality of Revelation – which I will here term the Pre-text of Revelation. (pp346-7)

Ahmed goes on to define Text as follows:
The Truth of the Text of Revelation is only the Revelatory Product:  as such, it is but an expression in the here-and-now of this world of the Truth of the Pre-Text of Revelation.  That the Quran/Text of the Revelation is true but does not encompass all the Truth of the Unseen Pre-Text of Revelation is accepted by all Muslims.  Indeed, the Quran does not even claim to possess all the Truth of the Unseen made available in the Seen, saying for example, ‘On Earth are signs for the sure; just as there are within your own selves:  do you not see?’”  p 347

Ahmed’s concept of Pre-Text is strikingly similar to Dr. Alexander’s description of “Primordial Consciousness.”  Ahmed proposed that it is possible to access the Pretext without reference to the Text of Revelation.  By this definition, one could argue that Dr. Alexander and other NDEers experienced the Pretext directly through their NDEs.

What I see, what I am proposing, is that Ahmed’s new and compelling understanding of the phenomenon of Revelation can be seen as being validated by research now being conducted on the phenomenon of NDEs.  Eben Alexander and the many other people who have had Near Death Experiences might be understood as having somehow directly experienced the Pre-Text, the Primordial Consciousness.  This is the Reality confirmed in Quran as being more Real than the life of this Earth.  Quran refers to our earthly existence as but a mere reflection of the Greater Truth of Allah.  Quran also tells us that when we die, this life will seem to have been but an instant. 

If we accept that NDEers are experiencing the Pre-Text, or Primordial Consciousness directly in our time, and that they are sharing with us hints about the nature of Reality beyond death that we do well to consider, we are forced to ask ourselves, does the Text of Muhammed’s Revelation – the Quran – still have relevance for us today?  Of course, for Muslims who believe that the Revelation of Prophet Muhammed, pbuh, was a miracle in itself, the answer must be yes.  But how?  The Revelation of Prophet Muhammed was a very different phenomenon than the NDEs of today.  First of all, it resulted in language – a text, the Quran – that was and still is the vehicle through which the Prophet and his followers could gain insight into the broader Truth that is Allah.  But second, Quranic Revelation is in large part very different in tone than the experiences reported by those who have had NDEs.  The later talk about love and beauty beyond imagination – almost exclusively.  The Quran is filled with language of justice and punishment for those who do not accept the Truth of Revelation and commit evil deeds without remorse.

From Quran:
Surat Al-An’am [6]
Ayah 60
And Allah causes you to be as dead at night, and knows what you do in daytime; and brings you back to life each day so that your term will be fulfilled.  In the end, you return to Allah, and you will understand all that you were doing in life.

Ayah 70
And leave to themselves those who have been beguiled by the life of this world, and made play and passing delights their religion, but remind them that every human being is held by whatever wrong they have done, and shall have no protection from Allah, none to intercede, none to accept any ransom offered.  These are those who will be held by the wrong they have done; for them there is to come a draught of burning despair, and grievous suffering awaits them be cause of their refusal to acknowledge the truth. 

How can we understand this difference in tone, if we accept the premise – which I do – that both phenomenon are real?  Maybe the dire warnings in Quran were needed for that time and those people, and our time engages a different experience of PreText – Consciousness – Allah/God.  Or maybe the people who have negative Near Death Experiences don’t share them because they don’t want to believe they were true.  Or maybe those who destroyed their connection to Allah as Creator never did come back – never became NDEers. 

I have to admit that I struggle mightily with the idea of judgment from an All Loving God.  I know I’m not alone in this.  However, I have to admit that it is comforting to be reassured by Divine Text that evil does not go unpunished.  I can understand that denying the Truth of Divine Light would preclude a soul from access to it, condemning that soul to immersion in the energy of destruction rather than creation.  And I can understand that being stuck in destructive energy would feel as the sometimes graphic language of Quran describes it.    

This is all food for thought.  I conclude by saying simply that reading about NDEs and thinking about them in terms of Ahmed’s proposed definition of Islam has given me new ways to engage with the Text of Quran – and much to think about.

Oh Allah, inspire us always to new levels of understanding your Reality, and protect us from misunderstandings.  We pray that you guide us rightly, enlighten us and forgive us when we go astray.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Mixed Signals

“And mention when We said to the angels:Prostrate to Adam! So they prostrated but Iblis. He had been among the jinn and he disobeyed the command of His Lord. Will you then take him to yourselves and his offspring to be protectors other than Me while they are an enemy to you? Miserable it is to give in place of Him ones who are unjust!” Quran18:50


“And certainly We have diversified in this, the Quran, every kind of example for humanity. And the human being has been more than anything argumentative. Nothing prevented humanity from believing when the guidance drew near to them or from asking forgiveness of their Lord but that approaches them customs of the ancient ones or approaches upon them the punishment face to face. We send not the ones who are sent bus as ones who give good tidings and as ones who warn. And those who are ungrateful dispute with falsehood in order to refute the Truth by it and they take My signs to themselves and what they were warned of – in mockery. And who does greater wrong than he who was reminded of the signs of his Lord, turns aside from them and forgets what his hands have put forward? Truly We have laid sheaths over their hearts so that they should not understand it and heaviness in their ears and if you call them to the guidance, yet they will not be truly guided ever.” Quran 18:54-57

Last month, my discussion of Iblis led us to the question of free will and destiny. Today, we will be undertaking a similarly thorny theological question, that of God’s command (amr) versus God’s will (irāda). The title of my khutbah is ‘Mixed Signals’.

In the ayahs I just read from the Quran, if you keep reading on, at ayat 18:60 , you come to the start of a journey. Prophet Musa, peace be upon him, is trying to find a spiritual teacher.  That’s right, this is the prophet known as the "Law-Giver" who is looking for someone to teach HIM something new. “Moses said to him; May I follow you so that you be teaching me something of what you have been taught of right judgment?” Quran 18:66. The person he finds embodies this paradox of God’s rule versus God’s will. To briefly recap, this teacher acts in ways that are against common law (destruction of property, murder) as well as common sense (going out of his way to be helpful to people who are jerks to him). Musa is not happy about any of this, and in the end he can no longer continue as a student because of, what he perceives to be, irrational behavior. Before the teacher dismisses him, he tells Musa that he was acting in accordance with God’s will, and the teacher’s actions do make sense in this context. Before we get into Iblis and God’s will, I want to point out that this topic is not a theoretical theological question. When the Taliban attempted to kill Malala Yusefzai (a girl who blogged about the importance of educating girls), their justification for this murderous act was to cite the murder of a youth who, “…should constrain them (his parents) with defiance and ingratitude so we wanted their Lord to cause for them in exchange one better than he in purity and nearer in sympathy.” 18:80-81

To backtrack with respect to Iblis: last time we examined Iblis’ excuse that he was “set up “ by God, that God knew Iblis wouldn’t bow to Adam and therefore Iblis is just a victim of destiny. God needed a fall guy. Rumi effectively quashes this by saying that humans do have free will, we do have a choice to be bad or good, we must take responsibility for our choices, and humbly ask for forgiveness when we make poor choices.

A different tactic Iblis uses to justify his behavior is that while God commanded the angels to bow (an example of amr), God’s will (irāda) is that only God Himself is worthy of prostration. Since God’s command was clearly in contradiction to His will, Iblis insists that God intended for the command to be ignored. The command to bow to Adam was a test for the angels and jinn, and Iblis was the only one who passed the test! Iblis’ reasoning  is similar to dealing with south Asian extended family. If these family members arrive at your doorstep and you offer to make them tea and they will most likely say, “No no, don’t bother. We’re not thirsty.” If you believe them and don’t make the tea, you fail the test.  They want that tea. They just don’t want to have to tell you to bring it to them. They want you to identify their deepest desire, their will, without being told. And believe me, if you don’t pass the tea test, you will be hearing it that for, what will seem like, an eternity. This kind of “following the irāda” rationale does not only play out at home, we see it as a national/political philosophy of a “pre-emptive strike”. Our politicians believe they know the deepest desire of our enemies, and so they act in a way that they feel is consistent with protecting national interests.

Getting back to Iblis, there is a manifest conflict between God’s will (irāda) and His command (amr).  However, what is up for debate is what line of action should one take in the face of this kind of paradox.  How do you obey a command that contradicts the will of God? This was a big concern to Sufis very early on. Al-Makki, in Qut al-qulub, goes through a long series of arguments, and in the end asserted that God orders one thing and wills the coming into existence of its opposite. Hasan Al-Basri answers that God does not punish because of the unfolding of His will, but He punishes individuals for going against His commands.

The bottom line for these scholars is that no one, and no jinn such as Iblis, has the right to try and figure out the difference between His will and His command. The challenge in such a paradox is to accept both in humble submission, even when the circumstances seem completely beyond human reason. Believers are enjoined to conform to God’s command while, at the same time, recognizing the mysteriousness of His will. Furthermore, by accepting both, the believer must take on the responsibility for which these consequences entail. The best you can do in such potential lose-lose situations, is hope that God in His mercy will look upon you with compassion.

For some Sufis, the paradox between amr and irāda Iblis encounters when he is ordered to bow down before Adam is a major element in his tragedy.  They see Iblis’ inflexible monotheism as a sign of his strength of character, nobility, and victimhood.

In the 13th century, the spiritual writer Ibn Ghanim Al-Maqdisi explored further the irāda-amr conflict in Taflis Iblis (The Bankruptcy of Iblis). Al-Maqdisi tells the reader that human life is like a circle whose circumference is God’s command, amr, and at the center is God’s will, irāda. A crisis arises when you have a situation where amr says “Do!” and irāda says “Do not!”.  Choosing only one (irada at the expense of amr or vice versa), which is what most of us tend to do when confronted with this kind of paradox, leads to destruction. The very few in number right-guided people understand how to navigate both. How do you navigate both? Let’s look first at what happens when you choose one and ignore the other.

People who cling to amr (command) and ignore God’s irāda ascribe the creation of actions to their own selves. God created the individual self, but God has no part in its evil deeds. The self (nafs) alone are the source of evil actions. The theological problem with this argument is that it makes man the creator of evil actions. If you believe that God does not create, decree, or will sin and evil, and if you believe that you- all by yourself- will it, then it logically follows that you have brought something into existence apart from God’s will. In fact, your will is stronger than God’s will and judgment  (because look at how successfully sinful we are!) while God’s will is weak and easily overcome. This is a huge theological no-no! All that Omnipotent stuff whisked out the door with your sinful little will.

What about those who only focus on irāda and toss out God’s amr? In this case, all actions, even creaturely ones, are assigned to the creative will of God. They claim to be compelled to act, powerless in the wake of God’s will. External commands, prohibitions, Holy Books, prophets, law, common sense, and so on are all considered valueless because these force one to make a choice. People who focus on irāda are not fond of the ‘personal choice’ concept. They tend to quote Quran ayah that focus on God saves whomever He wills and condemns who He wills and if He wanted, He could have made all humans believers. The theological problem with this argument is that God does not condemn or save all men randomly. God has permitted people to participate in the journey of their own salvation or condemnation through His amr, His external command. God’s commands are made more explicit via revelations to the prophets, Quran, sunna, etc and through it all man has the power to accept or reject freely.

Al-Maqdisi uses a metaphor to describe the relationship between man’s freedom and God’s creative will. Two men are carrying a heavy load, one man is able to carry it alone while the other is too weak to manage it by himself. Both men pick up the burden and help each other carry it, although the first is the one who has the power and expertise. The weak individual participates as a kind of partner because he is transporting the load. In the same way, God is the ultimate source of power for anything to emerge, He uses His amr  as a way of presenting man with orders and prohibitions that he can accept or reject using the willpower God grants him. This is how Al-Maqdisi sees man participating in the process of his own salvation.


Iblis could not navigate the paradox of God’s will versus his command. In fact, when the whole thing blew up in his face, Iblis subsequently flip-flopped between the two extremes. First, he claimed irada with the “You have led me astray. I was just doing Your will.” excuse, thereby excluding choice and personal freedom. Then, when he got punished he pushed the amr label with “I will lead them astray.”, an example of radical freedom because he ascribes his acts to himself alone. Iblis didn’t pay attention to the angels who were trying to navigate the straight path of irada and amr, he was the first to despair at the mercy of God, the first to deceive others, and the first to sin. Al-Maqdisi believes that if Iblis had been able to discern the true nature of Adam, he would not have rejected the amr of God. However, Al-Maqdisi does not equate Iblis’ behavior with Adam’s- when Adam saw he had done wrong, he ascribed guilt to himself and asked for forgiveness. This is the correct action for a servant in the presence of a divinity. Iblis never asked for forgiveness, he blamed God for being the cause of his sin, and he never accepts the blame himself.

Finally, Al-Maqdisi asserts that Iblis’ failure to obey God’s command is worse that his pride because it implies that Iblis understands perfectly God’s will. In fact, he doesn’t. God’s will goes beyond the understanding of mere creatures. When God wants to reveal His will, He does it, no more. Iblis’ refusal to bow springs from his aberrant faith in his own foreknowledge, and jealousy sparked by pride.

While the power of Iblis may be localized in man’s bloodstream, God’s power cannot be encompassed by the heavens or the earth- yet the paradox of God is that He can be right there with a human’s soul. If a person thinks on God for a moment, God will shower her with blessings, if she moves toward God the distance of a cubit, God will move a fathom; and if she comes to God walking, God will come to her running. 

“Because He is the absolute being in His sovereignty, neither is His doctrine changed in His presence, nor is His judgment contested against Him. His speech is truth; His promise, sincerity, whether He has promised redemption or threatened obliteration. To Him belongs the volition to menace, and to Him belongs the will to promise and to threaten. To Him belongs the power to punish without reason, and to be angry at the best of achievements. He, in everything, is just. To Him belong created beings and the command; in His hand is advantage and harm. He is not questioned about what He does, but they (the creatures) are questioned.”                   -‘Izz Ad-Din ‘Abd As-Salam Ibn Ahmad Ibn Ghanim Al-Maqdisi, Taflis Iblis (Cairo, 1860)

I’d like to end with a du’a from Quran 28:88, “There is no god but He! Everything is passing to destruction but His face. To Him is the judgment and to Him is your return.” Amen

Friday, March 24, 2017

Choice and the Chessboard

The title of my khutbah today is, “Choice and the Chessboard”. It is part 11 of the Iblis series.

In the last khutbah, we discussed Iblis’ spiritual blindness. Rumi calls him the “one eyed” because Iblis was unable to see the connection between God and human beings. If this were a court case, the Sufi scholar Al-Muhasibi, sums up the prosecution’s argument:

“Do you not consider Iblis? When he had learned Almighty God’s command and had testified to His divinity, he then stubbornly resisted His command after knowledge, proof, and testimony. And so Almighty God cursed him until the Day of Reckoning. He became the evil one among created beings. All hope of repentance for him was cut, forever.” –Al Muhasibi, Kitab ar-ri’aya

But to be fair, we have to consider Iblis’ defense of himself. Iblis says in the Qur’an,
“Because You (God) have led me astray, I will definitely waylay them along Your Straight Path.” Quran 7:16

Iblis claims that he is simply an instrument of God, used by God to test humans. Iblis says he is a powerless tool, subservient to God, and God controls everything, God is the source of movement, change, permanence, and no creature can resist temptation or has the strength to obey without the help of God. God orders his creature to do whatever He wills, in the same way He created them when He willed. Al-Ghazali tells a story of God creating two servants, one handsome and highly favored named Jibril, and the other ugly and hated named Iblis. Jibril is assigned the transmission of revelation, while Iblis is responsible for the seduction of mankind into evil. It’s like the king having assigned one servant the job of pouring wine into the cup, while the other servant is responsible for shoveling out the stables. The king gives the one he likes the cushier, cup-bearing job. Al-Ghazali’s moral is we are mistaken if we attribute acts to ourselves. God attributes the acts to individuals, be the action good or evil. As humans are of limited understanding, we cannot comprehend the power of God as manifested in His will (irada) and his command (amr).

This debate, the tension between God’s omnipotence and man’s free will, was a hot topic throughout the Islamic world for many centuries. A human being’s ability to act freely seemed pretty negligible next to God’s omnipotent will as shown through destiny. God will “…lead astray whomever He wills and he guides whomever He wills.” Quran 16:93. In the course of this debate, I will delve into some Islamic philosophical history.

The Mu’tazilites (circa 8th century) believed in human responsibility as an important aspect of God’s justice- they reasoned that justice requires people to be punished or rewarded for deeds performed as a result of a free moral choice. The Mu’tazilites also insisted that God is not Himself involved in the evil which He punishes people for doing. Evil is the side effect of man’s ability to choose.

 A more extreme sect of the Mu’tazilites were called the Qadarites. They went even further and demanded man’s absolute moral responsibility for his actions. They had an idea of radical freedom of will, kind of like Muslim Libertarians.  However, the Qadarite ideology never really caught on, perhaps because this kind of absolute accountability has a few traps. For example, if man through his own power determines his salvation, then this, in effect, makes man an associate of God in determining events. The event of one’s destiny, in this particular example. Putting man on the shelf with God is and was too shirk-like for the average Muslim.

By the middle of the ninth century, the Muslim intelligentsia preferred emphasizing God’s omnipotence over man’s free will. It is important to remember that there were at least two degrees of the predestination doctrine
1.   God determines the circumstances which a human is subjected to but not a person’s reactions to the given set of circumstances.
2. God determines both circumstances and the person’s reaction to the circumstances.

Most Muslim thinkers had no problem with the first doctrine, but the second one, God determines everything, was up for a lot more debate. Religious thinkers wanted to give some freedom to humans.

Al-Ash’ari and his school, were defenders of God’s absolute power and limitless freedom. He rejected all the Qadarite arguments, and even went so far was to reject causality because Al-Ash’ari didn’t like the idea that creation possesses an on-going order of its own. It should be noted that, from the historical perspective, Al-Ash’ari and his school were the 'winners' and the Mu’tazilite doctrines became unfashionable.

So how did Al-Ash’ari deal with the question of God’s involvement in humans’ sinful action? His argument sounds nearly like something we would call relativistic “post-modernism” or a nightcast of Fox News. Al-Ash’ari asserts that there is no intrinsic good or evil to actions. Something is good because God commands it, it is evil because God forbids it. For example, lying is evil because God says it is. If God someday declared that lying was good and ordered believers to lie, then humans would be expected to follow the order. By this train of thought, believing men and women learn what is good and evil by paying attention to God’s command, not by using reason to evaluate the intrinsic moral worth of a given action. This line of reasoning really troubled the Sufis. They used the Iblis story as a way to examine the effect of God’s omnipotence on spiritual life and the conflict this could bring about.

If we accept that God has complete control over the actions of man, then we soon need to accept that God’s actions cannot be understood by human laws of logic, consistency, or clarity. God’s involvement in actions which are unexpected, illogical, or baffling are known in the Islamic tradition as God’s makr, His wiliness.

“When Iblis was overwhelmed by the way he was, Gabriel and Michael, may peace be upon them!- shed tears of grief for a long time. God Most High asked them, “What is wrong with you that you shed all these tears?” They cried out in unison, “’O Lord, we are not safe from Your wiliness!”- Al-Qushayri, Ar-Risalat al-qushayriya.

God alone decides whether an action will lead the way to Him, or whether the same action will be an obstacle that bars the way to Him. Al-Hujwiri cites the example of Jesus. For some, Jesus was a guide to ma’rifa (gnosis), for others, he was a veil (in Kashf al-mahjub). But following this train of thought, Abd Allah Ansari had some pretty pointed questions for God. It is God who chose Adam to be one of the elect, and transformed Iblis into the rebellious sinner. Out of respect, like Adam, we ascribe sinful faults to ourselves, “…but, in truth, You instigated the crime.”- (from Munajat). The logical end to this question is ....was Iblis set up? Can Iblis be exonerated? Should we stop considering Iblis as the sly deceiver and instead look at him as the tragic victim in a carefully crafted shell game? The broader question is perhaps even more troubling- there may be little to no free will involved in the actions of human beings. Perhaps people are no more than pieces moving around a chessboard where the game has already been determined.

Rumi is the most outspoken critic of this fatalistic view of human destiny. He uses the Iblis story to confront these philosophical arguments head on.  From the Mathnawi:

“Learn from father Adam, O clear-browed fellow;
     Aforetime ‘O Lord,’ he said, and ‘we have sinned!’
He neither made excuse nor did he paint any lie,
     The flag of neither trickery nor pretense did he raise.
Contrary to this, Iblis raised his voice in debate:
     'I used to be red-cheeked with honor;
You have made me jaundiced.
     The color is Yours, You are my dyer;
You are the source of my crime, my misery, my scar!’
     Take care! Recite the verse: ‘O Lord, because You have led me astray!’
So you do not become a necessitarian, and weave cheap lies.
     For how long will you leap into the tree of compulsion,
And lay aside your free will,
     Embroiled in battle and controversy with God
Like that Iblis and his offspring?”

Rumi points out that people feel quite free when it becomes a question of choosing to follow their passions, particularly passions which have benefits in the near term and not so much the future, particularly, the afterlife.  21st century economists call this “hyperbolic discounting”.  As a result, people take pleasure in potentially harmful things because they enhance their lives at the moment more than what they judge to be their eventual costs or risks.

Rumi shows us the observable reality of human’s vacillating between two options. The conflict between our impulses, pulling us one way then the other, is indicative of choice. Our choices may not be infinite, they may be constrained by factors of time, place, ability, and information, but more to the point, one can choose to do wrong or not. We cannot blame others, Destiny, the government, or our own past actions, but we must be accountable to ourselves and accept the outcome. To plead “I was just following orders” or “everyone else is doing it”- the hallmarks of the banality of evil, implies there is no responsibility. And if there is no responsibility, then religious and moral imperatives do not exist. 

Even under a totalitarian regime, we can choose to do wrong or right. I’d like to illustrate this with two examples. During WW2, many governments that were invaded by the Nazis willingly cooperated with the invaders. They thought that by cooperating with the Third Reich they would be treated better. In Denmark, the people refused to go along with the Final Solution for their Jewish citizens. Of the 7800 Jews in Denmark, 7220 of them we able to escape to Sweden with the help of their non-Jewish friends. 99% were saved. In Albania even when the Nazis invaded, the Muslim Albanians protected Jews with their Besa, ancient hospitality rules which translate as "keeping a promise". Although there were only 200 Jews in Albania, by the end of the war there were over 2000 as news of Muslim protection spread.

Rumi wrote, “If in God’s opinion, both good and evil were of equal value in the test, then Iblis would possess the same countenance as the moon-faced Gabriel” (Kulliyat-i-Shams-I Tabrizi).

To conclude, if we fail to accept responsibility, if we fail to choose to do good, then we become robots following orders and seeking only our own comfort.  In this robot world, good and evil have no significance, we will no longer be human, and we will have no place of significance in the afterlife.

“O those who have believed! Be the ones who are staunch as witnesses in equity for God and let not that you detest a folk move you that you deal not justly. Be just. That is nearer to God consciousness. And be Godfearing of God. Truly God is Aware of what you do. And God has promised those who have believed and the ones who have acted in accord with morality that for them is forgiveness and a sublime compensation. And those who were ungrateful and denied Our signs, those will be the companions of Hellfire!” 5:8-10