Friday, September 12, 2014

Flexible Instruction Manuals

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
Al-hamdu lillah, Ahmaduhu Wa Assta’eenuh, Wa Asstahdeenhi, Wa Asstaghfiruh, Wa oominu Bihi Jalla wa ‘Ala wa Laa Akfuruh.  Praise be to Allah; I praise Him and I seek His assistance. I believe in Him, the Exhalted, and I will not disbelieve Him.

The Title of my Khutbah today is: Flexible Instruction Manuals
There are many times in the Quran when one runs across an ayah which condemns blind imitation. This particular one comes in at 7:28-29

“And when they do some lewdness they say: We found our fathers doing it and Allah hath enjoined it on us. Say: Allah, verily, enjoineth not lewdness. Tell ye concerning Allah that which ye know not? Say: My Lord enjoineth justice. And set your faces upright at every place of worship and call upon Him, making religion pure for Him (only) As He brought you into being, so return ye (unto Him).”

The way this is usually read is people of Prophet’s time were doing something bad. The ‘lewdness’ here is not defined, and people always excuse their bad behavior with “we saw our fathers doing it, therefore God wants us to do this.” The answer back is “Allah enjoineth justice”.  Regardless of the type of lewdness, the point is that if someone is getting hurt or exploited, that is not what God wants. God wants justice.

And in thinking about the clash between traditional custom and justice, I was struck by the last line of this ayah, “He brought you into being, so return ye unto Him”. This whole spiritual ‘circle of life’ reminded me of another ayah in surah 50: 9-11

“And We send down from the sky blessed water whereby We give growth unto gardens and the grain of crops, and lofty date palms with ranged clusters, provision for men; and therewith We quicken a dead land. Even so will be the resurrection of the dead.”

Picture this absolutely dead looking piece of land, and the rain comes and gives rise to all these amazing forms of different vegetation, and then you layer on top of that all the insects, birds, reptiles, mammals that live off that land. Just looking at the dry land it would be difficult to imagine this wonderful diversity of life. The same is true with human beings ourselves, looking at a small helpless baby, it is hard to imagine that this little thing is going to one day be taller than you and lugging YOUR suitcases around the airport.

Well, getting back to the water that God sends down from the sky, in thinking about water, water does all kinds of things in living plants and animals. And we know that all water not incorporated into living things, runs to the ocean. Once in the ocean, some of the water is converted into water vapor and forms clouds. Then the water vapor in these clouds can come down as rain, or hail or snow, and the cycle repeats itself.

Think about those water molecules. Does the rainwater that flows into a river behave the same way as the water molecules bobbing up and down on the ocean? What about those water molecules that evaporate up into the air as water vapor, and compare that to water molecules in the clouds, or water molecules that come down as rain or snow or hail.  Then think about all the different ways water is used in living organisms. Do all those water molecules behave “the same as their fathers” did? Of course not. They behaved appropriately to the conditions at hand. As the conditions changed, they had to change, too.

This idea of change, of contextual behavior, is, what I think, is what is meant by God enjoins justice. God doesn’t want you blindly imitating anyone, whether it is your pagan grandpa or the imam at the masjid. God wants you to behave appropriately to your situation, to act with justice and mercy.


(Khutbah Part II)
Al-Hamdu Lillahi Rabbil ‘Alameen Wassalutu Wassalmu ‘Alakhairil Mursaleen; Muhammadin Al-Nabiyil  Ummiyee, wa ‘Ala alihi wa mahbihi Ajma’een.
Praise be to Allah, the lord of the universe; May the greeting and peace of Allah be upon the best Messenger, Muhammad, the unlettered Prophet; and upon His family and upon all of His companions.

Some people look at the Qur’an as series of commands from God, a kind of instruction manual for how to live your life. That is one way to look at it, but there is something that you need to remember about instruction manuals- the instruction manual just lists one way of doing something, like assembling the barbecue, but there are actually many ways to assemble the barbeque. The instruction manual is written so the maximal amount of people can maximally understand the procedure. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t take a completely different method of constructing the barbecue and still end up with a working barbecue. 

My approach to the Quran is that I have always considered it as guidance and a mercy, a kind of guidebook to me up that spiritual mountaintop. Now there are lots of ways to get to the top, some trails are easier than others, there are many options. This is what the Quran does for me, shows me different options. I am the one who has to decide whether they apply or not.

Now this doesn’t mean that everything is a free-for-all.  Even an instruction manual has important boundary lines such as “do not plug into electrical socket while building” or “use a well-ventilated space”.  A guidebook will have basic survival suggestions, too, like “keep your matches dry” or “don’t fall asleep in the snow”. The Quran also has some basic commands, and most of these are repeated multiple times throughout the Quran.  For instance, “cut off the hand of the thief” is only mentioned once, and it is hard to understand the historical context of this punishment, whether it is meant to be literal or metaphorical, is there a dollar amount associated with the theft, etc. That is a contentious command.  However, the commands I am going to list are mentioned numerous times throughout many surahs of the Quran. There is a fairly comprehensive list in Surah 17, ayats 23-37. I’m going to read them in English, and keep in mind, while some of these may appear simple on the surface, when you are actually in that situation it can be much tougher. It is easy to keep your matches dry in a desert, not so easy in the Amazon rain forest. This reading is from the Ahmed Ali translation:

So your Lord has decreed: Do not worship anyone but Him and be good to your parents. If one or both of them grow old in your presences, do not say fie to them, nor reprove them, but say gentle words to them and look after them in kindness and love and say; ‘O Lord, have mercy on them as they nourished me when I was small.’.
Your Lord knows what is in your heart, If you are righteous, then He is indeed forgiving to those who turn (to Him) in repentance.
  So give to your relatives what is their due, and to those who are needy, and the travelers, and do not dissipate your wealth extravagantly. Those who dissipate their wealth are the brethren of the devils, and the Devil was ungrateful to his Lord. If you neglect your parents while seeking the bounty of your Lord, of which you are hopeful, speak to them softly. Do not be miserly nor so extravagant that you may later feel reprehensive and constrained. Certainly your Lord provides with open hands whosoever he will, but according to capacity, for He knows and watches His creatures .
Do not abandon your children out of fear of poverty. We will provide for them and for you. Killing them is certainly a great wrong. And do not go near adultery, as it is immoral and an evil way, and do not take a life, which God has forbidden, except in a just cause. We have given the right of redress to the heir of the person who is killed, but he should not exceed the limits of justice by slaying the killer, for he will be judged by the same law.
And do not touch the property of the orphan except for bettering it, until they come of age, and fulfill the promise made: You will surely be questioned about the promise.
Give full measure when you are measuring, and weigh on a balanced scale. This is better and excellent its consequence.
Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge. Verily the ear, the eye, the heart, each will be questioned.
And do not strut about the land with insolence; Surely you cannot cleave the earth nor attain the height of mountains in stature.

You can go back and consolidate the language, put numbers on the commands, ex. 1 Worship God alone, 2 Honor thy father and mother, etc.  It is a very interesting exercise to compare these Quranic commandments to the Old Testament Commandments.

I would just like to close with considering ayah 36 of this selection: “Do not follow that of which you have no knowledge. Verily the ear, the eye, the heart, each will be questioned.”

Wa lā taqfu mā laysa bihi ‘ilm. ‘Innas-sam’a wal-baṣara wal-fu’āda kullu ‘ulāa ‘ika kāna ‘anhu mas’ulā.”

  In practical terms, that ayah is telling me “Ask questions, seek knowledge.” Don’t be content with the “we’ve always done it that way” answer, because, as is mentioned numerous times in the Quran, people say, “We found our fathers doing it. Allah hath enjoined it on us.”. No. Not necessarily and furthermore, what applied to your fathers may no longer be applicable to you. Think back to those water molecules, how they behave depends on the context of which they find themselves. How do you perceive your lived reality? What do your eyes see right now, what do your ears hear now, what does your heart feel now? Is your lived experience, and the lived experience of those around you, correspond to this particular custom, or does the traditional ideal somehow not fit with the actual lived reality? If there seems to be an inherent mismatch, then ask more questions until you get answers that make sense. The reason you must ask questions now is because a) you’re going to get questioned about this in the afterlife and b) it is much easier to change behavior here on earth rather than deal with the consequences of bad behavior in the afterlife.

This is the closing du’a from Surah 18, al-Kahf, ayah 10:

Our Lord! Give us mercy from Thy presence, and shape for us right conduct in our plight.

Rabbana atina min ladunka rahmatan wa hayyi’ lana min amirna rashada. Ameen.

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