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 “Bling”.
I’m going to talk today about Surah 43, revealed in Mecca, which is known as Az-Zukhruf, which is translated as “Gold”, “Ornaments of Gold”, “Ornaments” or even “Decoration”. I think my kids would probably call it “Bling”. It is the fourth in the series of seven surahs that start with Ha Mim. Ha Mim surahs, for me at least, are challenging us to look at things from a different perspective. In the case of Surah 43, I think it is asking us to look at wealth, especially wealth as ornamentation or ‘bling’. I really like how the theme of decoration or ornamentation is woven throughout this surah.
The surah starts by asking people to believe in revelation and Prophets and reminds the audience that it is the Almighty who has made all of creation- the earth, rain, animals, ships to ride. All that God asks in return is that people have an attitude of gratitude and be responsible for their actions
43: 13-14 “Glory to the One who subordinated these to us whereas we ourselves could not. And we will surely be removed back to our Lord.”
However, people don’t do that. People are forgetful, and in their forgetfulness, they are ungrateful.
At the time this verse was first revealed, the audience who listened to it had partners to God, goddesses and angels that they worshipped. They considered goddesses and angels to be female. And this belief, in the divine feminine, is very ancient. One only need look at the many Venus figurines from 30,000 years ago scattered across Europe to see this. A woman’s ability to bear and create life as well as to nurture the very young and very old of her community have a long history of embodying divine traits. The Arabic word nafs, which means soul, self or person, is a feminine noun.
From 12:53 “Yes I do not exonerate myself; for the self is certainly compulsive with evil unless my Lord has mercy; for my Lord is most forgiving, most merciful.”
From 89:27-28 “O tranquil soul, return to your Lord, pleased and accepted.”
The word Arabic word rahma, translated as compassion, grace, and mercy, stems from the same Arabic root as rahim, “womb”. The idea of the power inherent in the feminine continues into the 20th century with Carl Jung’s theory of the “anima” the unconscious, feminine, creative potential locked in the subconscious of men. I would argue that the ability to create and nurture does have divine elements, however these qualities, creativity and nurturing, are not gender specific. Any man or woman has the ability to create a tool, or a device, a work of art or music, and any man or woman has the ability to nurture the old, the young, animals, the environment, or their community.
But the Meccan audience which first heard these verses was a deeply patriarchal society, favoring men and the power that men wield, far and above women. And this is where we get the first look at bling. In ayat 17-18:
“When one of you is told the good news of the birth of one of those you liken to the Benevolent One, his face darkens and he’s filled with anger; would it be, furthermore, one raised in finery, who clarifies nothing in question?”
The men of Mecca are putting women down by considering them as nothing but ornaments to men’s power. Creatures who are “raised in finery”. There is no mention of woman’s creative and nurturing capacity, instead women are considered ornaments who look good on the elbow of a powerful man, but not capable of rational thought or discussion. The underlying implication is that only men are capable of rational thought.
The surah goes on to demonstrate that the audience that holds these believes are themselves not using rational thought. When confronted with their idiosyncratic worship practices they make excuses of three varieties.
First, if God had wanted them to do differently, they would have done so (43:20 “We would not have worshipped them had that been the will of the Benevolent One”). The Qur’an condemns this excuse because people have been endowed with Free Will, they have a choice as to whether obey God or not. We can all exercise our rational thought in compliance with our conscience and God-consciousness.
The second excuse is they are simply following in the footsteps of their ancestors (43:22 “No but they will say, “We found our fathers following a certain way of life, and we find guidance in following their traditions.”) The Qur’an condemns this excuse also, saying that whenever in the past a prophet was sent to a community it was the wealthy and powerful who have used this excuse not to change and not to give up their power.
“When the warner says, “Even if I bring you better guidance than what you found your fathers following?” They said “We repudiate what you have been sent with”. (43:24)
God has way of dealing with this stubbornness, He destroys these communities. Look at these ghettoized communities and what is happening to them- destroyed with their own intolerance by violence and oppression.
The third excuse is they only want to hear the message from men who own a lot of ornaments. 43:31 “And they said, “Why wasn’t this Recital revealed to a man of importance from the two cities?” Or Pharaoh says of Musa, 43:52-53 “Am I not better than this contemptible fellow, who is nearly inarticulate? And why is he not decked out in gold bangles or accompanied by a procession of angels?”
The Qur’an states that (43:32 “…It is We who distribute their livelihood among them in the life of this world, and have elevated some of them to ranks over others, that some may employ others as workers. But the mercy of your Lord is better than what they amass.”
The Qur’an’s now reiterates the audience’s initial condemnation: spiritual elevation, compassion, the Lord’s grace (rahmat Rabbika) is important, but ornaments are useless.
“And were it not that humankind would become a single community, We would have provided those who disbelieve in the Benevolent One with roofs of silver for their houses and stairs for them to climb and doors for their houses and couches for them to recline, and decoration. “ 43:33-35
What is important? The silver roofs? The decoration? The bling? “Yet all of that is but the stuff of the life of the world; while the hereafter, with your Lord, is for the conscientious.” 43:35
Sorry to tell you this, but the bling- meh. What is important it is the ability of a person to question with reason and to be blessed with rahma- compassion and grace: rahma to facilitate nurturing, creativity, and gratitude and for the blessings that have been gifted to this blue planet.
People who have this blessing of rahma and share it with their community are assured of blessings in this life and in the next life. Surah 43 does conclude with gold. If the disbelievers are given silver in this world, in the afterlife the persevering believers receive gold. There is all kinds of bling for them in the afterlife 43: 70-73
“Enter the garden, you and your spouses, delighted: dishes and goblets of gold will be passed around to them, containing whatever souls desire and eyes find pleasing. And you shall abide there forever, for this is the garden of which you will be made the heirs because of what you used to do. There is much fruit therein for you to eat of it.”
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.
I would like to believe that the Prophet was trying to establish an open society. I’m not really sure if he was, but I think it is something that I need to believe because I believe that an open society is the best place for creativity and nurturing to truly flourish. A tribal society is a society in which traditions are not challenged because they are believed to be sacred or magical. A closed society is one in which the government is repressive, inflexible and lacks transparency. I define an open society as a community where basic needs are met, ex. food, shelter, clothing, health, and education, the political process is flexible and transparent, and where people have the opportunity to exercise a measure of self responsibility. I don’t think society is responsible for making people happy, happiness and how to achieve it are personal decisions, but I do feel we have an obligation to help those who need help. I also think an open society is characterized by an attitude of give and take, a readiness to learn from others, and the ability to be critical and self-critical in order to correct mistakes. Humor and satire are important tools in the criticism toolbox.
Did the first Muslims create an open society? The hijra, the act of migrating away from Mecca to Medina, marked the early Islamic community as something that was no longer a tribal society. In the Medina community, among the ansar and the mohajir, a community that was bound by an ethical belief system would override tribal considerations and superstition. Traditions that had once seemed inviolable were called into question by the followers of Muhammad.
When we examine the standard of helping those who need help, Islam stresses charity. There are many ayat in Qur’an which encourage charitable giving, and there are many examples in hadith and sirah literature of the Prophet and his Companions trying to out-do each other in helping the poor. The establishment of the institution of zakat was intended to help those in need.
But when I look at the standard of flexibility, learning from others, transparency, rational discussion, and criticism, the Islamic tradition is a mixed bag. Yes, there are sayings and ahadith of the Prophet which encourage learning and demonstrate flexibility, and much of the Qur’anic arguments surrounding belief are not necessarily convincing, but they are challenging. The Qur’an seems, to me at times, to want provoke discussion and thought. However, there are also plenty of verses in the Qur’an that do not encourage criticism or discussion, “Obey God and the Prophet!” end of story. The traditional Islamic jurisprudence system, while perhaps a model of rationality in earlier times, can seem today to be outdated, misogynistic, and even barbaric.
Every society has boundaries on how ‘open’ it can be. Sometimes, there are things you can’t talk about because it will prove to be too divisive to the community. In an open society, to paraphrase Karl Popper, Intolerant philosophies are not tolerated. For instance, in the USA, if you accuse someone of being racist or sexist, or even at certain times ‘not patriotic enough’, it can cost that person their reputation or even their job.
In American society, race is one boundary line. Race is a very touchy subject in this country, and we self-edit when it comes to talking about this topic. For instance, white people will not use the “n” word, nor will white people feel comfortable criticizing minorities for their own intolerance (ex. the black community’s homophobia, South Asian community’s preference for fair skin- particularly for women). In this country, discussions about race can very quickly slip from the realm of calm rationality into defensive emotional combat zones.
I would like to think that in the early years of Islam, calling someone a disbeliever was the equivalent of calling someone out for being intolerant, like nowadays in our society calling someone a racist or fascist or a Male Chauvinist Pig. I would like to think that “disbeliever” in the context of early Islam meant someone who denounced all argument, someone who forbade their followers to even listen to rational argument because it would ‘deceive them’. I would like to think that a ‘disbeliever’ in that time was someone who could only answer arguments with their fists or a sword. A disbeliever was someone who would rather cut off your head than be convinced by your persuasive argument. A disbeliever would be someone whose, as Socrates said, “… mistrust or hatred of argument is related to mistrust or hatred of man.”
That is what I would like to believe, the tale that I tell myself, but I realize that this could be a myth of my own construction. I want to believe that the Prophet wanted to establish a society which would evoke the divine qualities of creativity and nurturing, learning and rational discourse, where compassion and grace, rahma could flourish. But when I look at Muslim majority societies today, I have strong doubts. Far too many Muslims seem to be floundering in societies which are tribal or closed or a combination of both. Could the ummah have come so far astray from the original message, or perhaps was I the one who was wrong about this ‘original message’ in the first place? I don’t know the answer to this question, it is something that I need to explore.
One thing I do know is that in the meantime, I will continue to plant the seeds of rahma in this life, because it is these seeds which I believe, will bear fruit in the next life.
“And you shall abide there forever, for this is the garden of which you will be made the heirs because of what you used to do. There is much fruit therein for you to eat of it.”
My closing du’a is from 60:4-5
“Our Lord, on You we have placed our trust, and to You we are penitent, and to You is the eventual returning. Our Lord! Do not make us a cause for their pleasure for those who are ungrateful and forgive us. Our Lord! Truly You are the Mighty, the Wise.”
Rabbana ‘alaika tawakkalna wa ilaika anabna wa ilaikal-masir. Rabbana la taj’alna fitnatan li-lladhina kafaru waghfir lana Rabbana innaka Antal ‘Azizu-l-Hakim. Ameen.
“Vocabulary of the Holy Qu’ran” by Dr. Abdullah Abbas Nadwi (IQRA:Skokie) 1996
“The Qur’an: A New Translation” by Thomas Cleary (Starlatch) 2004
“The Open Society and its Enemies” by Karl R. Popper (Princeton University Press: Princeton) 1971