Friday, December 19, 2014

Out of Darkness

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 subhanahu wa Ta’ala wa ashkurhu wa Huwa Ahlul-Hamdi wath-thana.
I praise Him (Allah) the Exalted One and the High and I thank Him. It is He who deserves the praise and gratitude.

Al-Hamdu lillahil-Lathi Anzala ala ‘abdihil-Kitaba wa lam yaj’al lahu ‘Iwaja.
 Praise be to the One (Allah) Who revealed the Book to His Servant (Muhammad), and did not make any distortion to it.

The title of my khutbah today is “Out of Darkness”

It was not easy to write a khutbah this week. There have been a lot of bad things happening with Muslims around the world. It started with a hostage taking crisis in Australia. The man, a Muslim, wanted to have his opinions broadcast all over social media, so he thought taking hostages and putting himself and them at risk for death was an appropriate way to get his message across. It was not. Three people died. Then the next day, there was a horrible school shooting- 141 students and some of their teachers were killed in Peshawar. The Pakistani Taliban took credit for the massacre. Now back in the day before mass communication, we wouldn’t have known about these events. But one thing modern sociology has taught us is human beings are all connected- less than six degrees of separation between us. Just to illustrate this point, I was talking to my mother-in-law who lives in Pakistan about the school shooting and although she didn’t have any family members affected, she said that her yoga teacher was related to one of the teachers. That teacher and her three sons were all killed in the massacre.

Our Prophet was no stranger to loss and tragedy. Many of his dearest friends and relations were killed in battles, and as Kecia Ali notes in her forward to The Lives of Muhammad,

“The standard biographies of Muhammad recount that seven of his eight children died during his lifetime. None of the miracles traditional sources ascribe to him impresses me more than his having survived such loss.”

One of the effects of violent acts is to make us afraid, to make us fear for our lives and the lives of our loved ones. But there is another effect which people often don’t talk about, and that is the feeling of hopelessness. When I look at these horrible acts committed by other humans on their fellow beings, I think to myself, “We don’t need God to create a hell for us in the afterlife, we can do quite a good job creating one for ourselves, right here right now.” When I see the depths of human cruelty and depravity, it makes me lose hope for humanity. This is not a good trap to fall into, and so I have to spend a lot of time trying to pull myself out of this trap. Yes, humans are capable of doing awful things. But, human beings are also capable of change, and they are capable of doing beautiful, kind, and generous deeds also. Pretty early in the Qur’an, Surah 2 ayah 25, it says: “And give good tidings unto those who believe and do good works; that theirs are Gardens underneath which rivers flow.”

While there are some people whose hearts and ears are closed to God’s signs and who are able to do horrible acts without the slightest moral qualms, there are more people, many more people, who do their best to save the wounded, patch the bodies, and mend the souls and spirits of the downtrodden. And the beautiful thing is that these people, these healers, find all kinds of ways of helping people. Some are doctors and nurses that repair the body, others are counselors and psychiatrists who talk to people, and others may be artists and musicians who through their arts, help people renew and regenerate their spirit. A well cooked casserole, a lighted candle at a vigil, a thoughtful tweet or Facebook posting, a hug, a smile, these are all different things people do to help one another after tragedy strikes. Please do not ever forget that there are many good, kind people in this world.


Al-hamdu lillahi rabbil ‘alameen was-salutu was-salamu ‘ala khairil mursaleen. Muhammadin al-nabiyil ummiyee, wa  ‘ala alihi wa sahbihi ajma’een.
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of the universe. May the greeting and the peace be upon the best messenger, Muhammad, the unlettered prophet, and upon his family and upon all of his companions.

Innal-la ha was malaaikatahu yussalloona Alan-nabiy.  Yaa aiyuhal latheena aamanoo, salloo alaihi, wa sallimoo tassleema.
Lo! Allah and His angels shower blessings on the prophet. O you who believe! Ask blessing on him and salute him with a worthy greeting.

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we are just a few days away from the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. Some of us may be leaving for work in the dark and coming home in the dark. Perhaps it is not so surprising, at this time of increasing darkness, that so many religious traditions involve the lighting of candles. The darkness is all around us, but there is light within our homes, within us.

It says in the Quran in Surah 57 Al-Hadid/Iron ayat 12-13
"On the day when thou (Muhammad) will see the believers, men and women, their light shining forth before them and on their right hands (it will be said to them): Glad news for you this day: Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein ye are immortal. That is the supreme triumph. On the day when the hypocritical men and the hypocritical women will say unto those who believe: Look on us that we may borrow from your light! It will be said: Go back and seek for light! Then there will separate them a wall wherein is a gate, the inner side whereof containeth mercy, while the outer side thereof is toward doom.”

And again later in this same surah, at ayah 28:
"O ye who believe! Be mindful of your duty to Allah and put faith in His messenger. He will give you twofold of His mercy and will appoint for you a light wherein ye shall walk, and will forgive you. Allah is Forgiving, Merciful."

Sometimes when it feels like there is darkness all around, we can find the light of inspiration from men and women who lived long ago. I would like to talk today about Rabi’a of Basra, a Sufi who lived in what is now Iraq between 715-801 CE. All of her poetry has been lost to us, we know of her through Farid ud-din Attar (1145-1220)’s book Muslim Saints and Mystics. Attar lived 150 years after Rabi’a. Rabi’a’s origins are shrouded in darkness, but when she was young she was a slave. It is said that one night her master spied on her while she was praying, and he beheld a light suspended over her head without any visible means of support. The slave owner decided that perhaps it would not be a good thing to own a saint, so he promptly freed her the next morning. What did she do after she was free? This too is shrouded in darkness. Some would have us believe she became an ascetic and lived in the wild, while others say she took something of a spiritual detour and became a singer and tavern storyteller for a time before returning to the desert. Whatever she did, it is fair to say that she developed a very good understanding of human nature and the corrupting influences of power and materialism on the human soul. She never married, despite a few proposals, and towards the end of her life, she lived as an ascetic and mystic, many people sojourning out to her simple abode to learn from her.

  One of my favorite stories of Rabi’a is the time she walked down the streets of Basra with a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When people asked her what she was doing she explained, I want to put out the fires of Hell, and burn down the rewards of Paradise. They block the way to Allah. I do not want to worship from fear of punishment or for the promise of reward, but simply for the love of Allah.”

Once a group of men came to her hut to test her. They said, “Virtues and spiritual gifts have been bestowed on men, not women. The crown of nobility has been placed on the heads of men, and the belt of generosity has been tied around their waists. The gift of prophesy has never descended on any woman. What can you boast of?”

Rabi’a replied, “I shall not dispute what you say. Yet women are less prone to pride, egotism and self-worship; they are less liable to think highly of themselves. And they do not so readily exploit others for their own pleasure.”

Another time, some people were so impressed by her wisdom that they told her she should be in charge of a religious community. She said: I am in charge of myself. Whatever is within me, I do not let out. Whatever is outside me, I do not let in. I do not allow anything to enter me from this world; and I do not allow anything from the next world to leave me. I watch over my heart; I do not wish to watch over buildings made of mud and clay.”

My last Rabi’a story is one of the most poetic, when people asked her about love. She said “Love came down as a liquid from eternity, and returned to eternity. It visited eighteen thousand worlds, and found no one to drink it. Then it met the truth. As a consequence of that meeting, love loves the truth and the truth is true to love.”

My closing Du’a is from 59: 10. 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.

Rabbanaghfir lana wa li-ikhwaninal ladthina sabaquna bil-Imami wa la taj’al fi qulubina ghillan lil ladhina amanu. Rabbana innaka Ra’ufun Rahim. Ameen


Kecia Ali, The Lives of Muhammad (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2014)

Rabi’a anecdotes: Farid al-Din Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics, translated by A.J. Arberry (London, Viking Penguin, 1990).

Qur’an translation: Mohammad Marmaduke Pickthall The Meaning of the Holy Qur’an (New Dehli: UBS Publishers Distributors Ltd, 1996).

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