Friday, September 12, 2014

Abraham Beyond the Stars and Sun

A’uzu Billahi Min ash-Shaitain ir-Rajeem.
Bismillah ir-rahman ir-raheem.
Al Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen.
Wasa’atu Wassalamu ‘Ala Muhammad wa ‘Ala Alihi was Sabhihi was Sallim
Ahmaduhu Subbhanahu wa Ta’ala wa Ashkuru, wa Huwa Ahlul-Hamdi wath-thana. I praise Him, the Exalted One and the High, and I thank him. It is He Who deserves the praise and gratitude.
Man Yahdillahu Fa Huwal Muhtad, wa man yudlill falan tajida lahu waliyan murshida. Anyone who has been guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided, you will never find a guardian to guide him.

The title of my khutbah today is: Abraham, beyond stars, moon, and sun.

There is a story in the Quran about Prophet Abraham that we tend to tell the kids at Sunday school and then we dismiss it as “a cute little story” and we don’t think beyond that, which is a kind of injustice because it has a lot of deep meaning. There is a similar depth of meaning to found in hearing kids play “Ring Around the Rosie”. You might think “What a cute game, what a catchy tune” and dismiss it. If you examine the history of Ring Around the Rosie, you would find it was written around the time of the Bubonic plague. There was a raging epidemic that claimed 2/3 of the European population.  Entire villages could be wiped out. You didn’t know who this disease was going to take next, your parents, your children, your self, and this game, this song, was a one way to deal with that painful uncertainty.

In a similar way, this particular story about Abraham has a lot to tell us about the character qualities we should try to cultivate within ourselves so that we, too, have the potential to be one of those who are rightly guided, as Abraham was.

This is the story found in Surah 6 “Cattle”, verses 75-84, Pickthall translation:

(Remember) when Abraham said unto his father Azar: takest thou idols for gods? Lo! I see thee and thy folk in error manifest. Thus did We show Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth that he might be of those possessing certainty. When the night grew dark upon him he beheld a star. He said: This is my Lord. But when it set, he said: I love not things that set.
And when he saw the moon uprising, he exclaimed: This is my Lord! But when it set, he said: Unless my Lord guide me, I surely shall become one of the folk who are astray. And when he saw the sun uprising, he cried: This is my Lord!This is greater! And when it set he exclaimed: O my people! Lo! I am free from all that ye associate (with Him). Lo! I have turned my face toward Him Who created the heavens and the earth, as one by nature upright, and I am not of the idolators.
  His people argued with him. He said: Dispute ye with me concerning Allah when He hath guided me? I fear not at all that which ye set beside Him unless my Lord willeth. My Lord includeth all things in His knowledge. Will ye not then remember? How should I fear that which ye set up beside Him, when ye fear not to set up beside Allah that for which He hath revealed unto you no warrant? Which of the two factions hath more right to safety, if ye have knowledge.
  Those who believe and obscure not their belief by wrongdoing, theirs is safety: and they are rightly guided.
  That is Our argument. We gave it unto Abraham against his folk. We raise unto degrees of wisdom whom We will. Lo! thy Lord is Wise, Aware”.

When this story is told to children, adults typically have this attitude of “Weren’t people of the past stupid, they worshiped stars, planets, and the sun. Abraham was smarter than those uncivilized people.” But Abraham is not just smarter, he has a lot of other qualities that mediate his ability to be rightly guided.

The first thing to notice about Abraham is that he has a good internal truth meter, both in terms of the cultural norms of his society as well as his own biases. He says to his own father, “You and your folk are in manifest error!” He also says, after he sees the star disappear from the horizon, “I love not things that set”. He acknowledges his needs, he needs a god who will always be near, always be facing him. Abraham is also not afraid to admit that he makes mistakes, and after the moon sighting he says “Unless my Lord guide me, I shall become one of the folk who are astray.” He is humble about his own limitations and he is honest about his own needs.

The second quality of Abraham is that he is persistent and repeated failure does not make him give up. God is not the stars, God is not the moon, God is not the sun. Abraham does not give up in the face of his persistent failures, he simply keeps demanding more knowledge.

The third quality is Abraham is not afraid. He is not afraid of what people think of him, he argues with them, he speaks out against what he feels is wrong, and this will later get him into trouble. But his comment on safety reveals his complete trust in God, “Those who believe and obscure not their belief by wrongdoing, theirs is safety and they are rightly guided.” This passage could be interpreted as a sign to use your gut instincts, if it feels wrong to you then it is wrong for you, don’t give up in your mission to find the right answer, and don’t be afraid to ask questions, to take that journey towards truth, to let God guide you to an answer that works for you.

To expand this a bit more, these stars, moon, and sun can also be looked at as metaphors. Maybe we don’t worship stars, but aren’t there famous people whose opinion we might perhaps take a bit too seriously? In some mystical traditions “star” is a metaphor for intuitive intelligence, “the moon” is a metaphor for rational intelligence, and “the sun” is the combination of both. But in this mystical metaphor, Abraham might be telling us yes, you’re intuition is good, but that’s not all there is, and yes rationality is powerful but not the whole picture, and yes, even if you can combine your intuitive and rational intellects into one powerhouse of sun consciousness, there is still more – you need God’s help. Intuition and reason can often be obscured by overpowering emotion (anger, fear, grief, joy) or over rationalization or even the simple ravages of age and decay. Your human self will set. We all need God’s help to change our selves, to change our situation, and we need to ask for help. Daily. Our capacities are limited, only God can raise our wisdom.

(Khutbah Part 2)

Wa barrik ‘Ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala ‘alee Muhammad, kama baarakta ‘ala Ibrahim, wa ‘ala alee Ibrahim, fil ‘alameen innaka hameedun majeed. Oh Allah, send your blessing upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad, in as much as you blessed Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim. You are the Majestic in the whole universe.

One of the stories in Surah 18 Al-Kahf, the Cave, is about two farmers who had land adjacent to each other and the one farmer, who by all measures seems to be doing better materially, is punished for his disbelief. What was this guy doing? Worshipping some idol? Baal? Manat? No. The man says he believes in Allah, but this is what he said which led to his ruin:

I think not that the Hour will ever come, and if indeed I am brought back unto my Lord, I surely shall find better than this as a resort.” (18:37)

This statement seems to drip with arrogance. The prosperous farmer is confident that he knows what kind of reward he deserves and he’s going to second-guess God. There is even an undertone of ungratefulness, “yeah this stuff on earth that I have now is ok, but I’m going to get better goodies in the next life.”

His friend, the poorer farmer, says among other things, “If only, when thou enterest thy garden, thou hadst said: That which Allah willeth (will come to pass)! There is no strength save in Allah!” 18:40

It seems that the man is encouraging the rich farmer to be more humble. He wants him to be more thankful for what he does have, to not be petty, and to remind him that all these material things can be taken away in a moment. In this case, the arrogant farmer does get wiped out, his farm gets destroyed, and although this is a major set-back, it is at the same time God giving this person another chance. As humiliating as set-backs may be, falsely worshiping stars or moons or suns or your own prosperity, remember that these defeats are also a time to reflect on your relationship with God. God will not abandon you, as long as your heart and mind are open to Him.

When the people of hell claim they were not guided rightly, there is a reply to them in surah 40 ayah 75: “This is because ye exulted in the earth without right, and because ye were petulant!

If you fill up your heart with arrogance and petty grievances, there will be no space to hear God’s guidance. Remember the example of Abraham to receive guidance: 1) keep your truth meter on- and this requires humbleness and being aware of your own limitations. I make mistakes all on my own, it’s not just those other people. It also requires you be honest about what you need. 2) Be persistent, do not let failure get you down. Failure is humbling, a glaring reminder that you are not all-powerful. And if you get a second chance, that is an ayah of God’s generosity towards you, and a certain kind of trust that He thinks you can get it right a second time around. 3) Don’t be fearful of things you put beside God. God is the one to fear, but this other stuff, no.

You have to make choices in this life, and you have to live with the consequences on this world and the next. So try your best to listen to God, ask Him to help you make the choice that pleases Him.
In surah 40 ayah 60 “And your Lord hath said: Pray unto me and I will hear your prayer. Lo! those who scorn My service, they will enter hell, disgraced.”

If you ask, you will get the help you need. That is the advantage of praying to God, His face is always towards you, He does not set.

Our Lord! do not make our hearts deviate after Thou hast guided us aright and grant us from Thy mercy; surely Thou art the most liberal Giver.” (3:7) Ameen.

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