Friday, July 24, 2015

Don't Be An Angel

“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a viceregent on earth”. They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- Whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy name?”
He said: “I know what ye know not.”
And He taught Adam the names of all things, then He placed them before the angels and said: “Tell Me the names of these if ye are right.”
They said: “Glory to Thee, of knowledge we have none, save what Thou hast taught us; in truth it is Thou who are perfect in knowledge and wisdom.”
He said: “O Adam! Tell them their names.” When he had told them, Allah said: “Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, and I know what ye reveal and what ye conceal?”
And behold, We said to the angels, "Bow down to Adam"; and they bowed down; Not so Iblis, he refused and was haughty. He was of those who reject faith."   Qur’an 2: 30-34

In today’s khutba, I hope to answer some important questions that we as Muslims sometimes ask ourselves, challenge common sense, and hope to share with you a different perspective. Today’s khutba is for the most part on free will. More specifically, the ability to act independently and think independently. The reason being is that our free will seems to grant us a very special status among the creations of Allah (swt). One example of how prevalent and important our free will can be found in an ayat concerning Angels. When I ask you to describe Angels, what comes to mind? Due to today’s culture, you probably imagine very pious beings. Beings that are of the utmost purity. Beings that have a strong connection to Allah (swt). Beings that can refuse Shaytan’s temptations. Beings that have the clearest sense of ethics. Yet in 2:34, Allah (swt) commands the Angels to bow before humans. What do we have that Angels and other creations do not? The answer is free will over our actions and free will over our thinking. With that in mind, let us discuss our ability to act independently.

The Qur’an and Hadith seem to suggest that the ability to act independently is actually very unique. Animals, for example, don’t entirely appear to have free will over their actions. This seems to be evident in the Qur’an because Allah’s will is typically enforced by animals, as with the cave spider and the Prophet Muhammed (pbu) or the Prophet Yunus (pbu) and the whale. However, our free will comes with responsibility. If we don’t fast, don’t pray, don’t even believe in the shahadah, our lives are not in imminent danger. Allah (swt) will not necessarily strike you down with a lightning bolt from the heavens. We have the option of committing crimes, or being law-abiding citizens. Some people would go so far as to say that some of the worst human atrocities in history have happened because of our free will. Now, this is not to say that there will not be consequences in the hereafter- there most certainly will be a weighing of your deeds at the Day of Judgement. However, in this life, our religious and moral actions are entirely our choice. In my opinion, this makes our prayers all the more sincere because we have the option of either praying or not praying. An Angel or animal would not have this freedom of choice. Now, you may be wondering why I am choosing to discuss free will over our actions. The reason why I choose to discuss this topic is that for many years, and even in today’s modern age, there seems to be this push to have Allah (swt) do our work. The Prohphet (pbu) actually addresses this movement in a rather interesting Hadith.
One day Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) noticed a Bedouin leaving his camel without tying it and he asked the Bedouin, "Why don't you tie down your camel?" 

The Bedouin answered:"I put my trust in Allah."

The Prophet then said: "Tie your camel first, then put your trust in Allah" (At-Tirmidhi,). The Prophet is essentially saying do it yourself. Allah (swt) may help you , but it is always imperative that you involve yourself as much as possible.

We are blessed with the ability to learn, think, interpret, and analyze whatever piece of information we deem to be important. Learning and getting an education was especially important to the Prophet (pbu) if we can all recall his memorable hadith “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr.” Furthermore, our ability to learn and think independently makes us very valuable among Allah’s (swt) creations.

Let’s return to Angels, or rather, education and thinking among angels with 2:32.  This ayat is essentially saying that Angels can’t think on their own, and can’t learn new information. We, on the other hand, can. Our knowledge is not limited to the Qur’an, it extends to science, mathematics, rhetoric, or music. All of this knowledge is outside of what is explicitly described in the Qur’an, and there is nothing wrong with pursuing it because if you can recall, Allah (swt) commanded the beings that could not learn or think on their own to bow before the beings that could. In other words, don’t be an Angel, learn and think on your own. The reason why this issue is important is that our freedom to learn and think, make us who we are and are well-established rights in the Qur’an. Yet, across the Muslim world, people are trying to deny these rights. In Nigeria, Boko Haram is attempting to ban all books that aren’t the Qur’an and shut down schools. In Afghanistan, the Taliban is replacing science classes with Qur’anic classes. There are many more examples across the world, and while it might occasionally seem slightly innocent, because Islamic studies are being taught, but know that these are violations of rights to learn, think, and act with free will- independently.  These are rights the Qur’an not only protects, but promotes.

I will conclude today’s khutba by urging a new kind of piety. The reason why I believe this change must take place is because when we think of a pious, religious, or holy person, we do not always think of a philosopher, artist, or musician. We tend to have this idea that in order to be pious, we must blindly memorize Qur’anic surahs in old Arabic, obey every word of our imam, or attempt to recreate the lives of the Prophet and other divine Muslim figures. However, this is what I consider “Angel piety,” because this is how Angels live their lives: revolving around Allah’s every word and not wanting to learn new words. We should begin a piety that reflects our human qualities such as thinking, learning, and acting freely. The human qualities that make us different, but superior to Angels and other creations of Allah (swt). Instead of just memorizing surahs, think about what they mean and what they urge you to do. Write about the surah and its meaning to you. You don’t have to be a khateeb to have an opinion. If you wish to be even more pious in your actions, use your creativity and think of other ways to serve Allah (swt) in ways in addition to Prayer. Community service and volunteer work are just some examples. But regardless of what you may do, think or learn, know that you are a free individual that can make choices about their Faith. Religious scholars may be wise, but they are not the all-knowing, and should be giving advice, not orders. You can ignore, follow, or even expand upon traditions, but in the end it’s all up to you.

-by Guest Khatib AR

Friday, July 3, 2015

Day 16

The title of my khutbah is "Day 16"

We are at Ramadan Day 16, a little past the half way mark, full moon in the sky. We are well past Mercy (the first ten days) and not yet near Salvation From Hellfire (last ten days), instead we are smack dab in the middle of Forgiveness. Now all three aspects of Ramadan, mercy, forgiveness, salvation, all three represent domains where God expresses preferences, and we, as humans, have no way of knowing whether we have obtained God’s mercy or forgiveness or salvation from hell until it is pretty much too late to do anything about it. Humans have no control over God’s blessings.

Humans do have control over their own decisions. So we can decide how much mercy we want to give other people, or how much forgiveness or how we might try and make someone’s life easier or more miserable- particularly if we work at the BMV.

Forgiveness is a very tricky area for me, a vast array of gray zones.  We are told that we ought to be forgiving. Some religions- such as Christianity- define themselves by the unobstructed ability to forgive. Health professionals tell us forgiveness is good for our bodies. But in our culture, forgiveness is often underrated. I myself do not trust people who are too quick to forgive or too quick to apologize. I feel that they have not had time to process the complex feelings that go along with betrayal, abuse, and exploitation. I know a women 70 years old who will tell me, as though it happened yesterday, the sexual abuse she suffered as a teenager. For some people, it may take a lifetime to forgive. We need to be respectful for that time. The Dixie Chicks sing,

Forgive, sounds good
Forget, I'm not sure I could
They say time heals everything
But I'm still waiting
I'm through with doubt
There's nothing left for me to figure out
I've paid a price, and I'll keep paying
I'm not ready to make nice
I'm not ready to back down
I'm still mad as hell, and I don't have time
To go 'round and 'round and 'round
It's too late to make it right
I probably wouldn't if I could
'Cause I'm mad as hell
Can't bring myself to do what it is
You think I should”

-Dixie Chicks from their song “Not Ready to Make Nice”

It is also easier to forgive when you know the person that hurt you is not in a position to hurt you again. Just because you are ready to forgive does not mean your abuser will stop hurting you.

Another problem with forgiveness is that sometimes I am not sure what I did wrong, what in my behavior has made the other person so angry or hostile towards me.  I am not the only one with this problem. In Surah 80, ‘Abasa,  “He Frowned”, God upbraids Prophet Muhammad for bad behavior. 

This is a very early Meccan surah. The tradition behind it was Prophet Muhammad was having an important conversation with some extremely influential chiefs of the Meccan tribes. He was hoping that by convincing the chieftans, the rest of the Mecca population would convert to monotheism. During this conversation, Prophet Muhammad was approached by one of his followers, a blind man named Ibn Umm Maktum who had some questions about the Quranic revelations. Instead of answering this handicapped, likely unimportant, member of the community, Muhammad frowned and turned away from him, resuming his conversation with the big-wigs.  He was soon given this revelation.

“He frowned and turned away because the blind man approached him! Yet for all thou didst know, he might perhaps have grown in purity or have been reminded and helped by this reminder. Now as for him who believes himself to be self-sufficient- to him didst thou give thy whole attention, although thou art not accountable for his failure to attain purity, but as for him who came unto thee full of eagerness and in awe (of God)- him didst though disregard!
       Nay, verily, these (messages) are but a reminder, and so, whoever is willing may remember Him, in revelations blessed with dignity, lofty and pure, by the hands of messengers noble and virtuous.” (80:1-16)

In later years, Prophet Muhammad often greeted Ibn Umm Maktum with these humble words, “Welcome unto him on whose account my Sustainer has rebuked me.”

Now unlike me, when Prophet Muhammad made a mistake, God let him know through a revelation. This was not the only time Prophet Muhammad made a mistake while trying to persuade the powerful, intractable people of his truth. In Surah 53, An-Najm, the Star, also revealed in Mecca, the original ayah was rather conciliatory and is recorded in the tafsir of Ibn Ishaq, Ibn Hisham, and al-Tabari:

“Have ye considered Al-Lat and Al-‘Uzzá and Manāt, the third, the other? These are the exalted gharāniq, whose intercession is hoped for.”

 (the meaning of gharaniq is a bit unclear and is used only once in Quran. May refer to high flying birds, such as cranes, eagles, or hawks).

The Meccan pagans were very relieved to hear this- it meant their goddesses could intervene with Allah. This was just the kind of compromise they were looking for, and some pagans even joined in a sujud at the end of the surah. The pagans stopped persecuting the Muslims, and those who had fled to Abyssinia began making plans to come home.  However, this ayat was later changed to something far less diplomatic.

“Have you , then, ever considered Al-Lat, and Al-Uzza and Manat, the third and last? Why for yourselves male offspring, whereas to Him female, that, lo and behold, is an unfair division! These (goddesses) are nothing but empty names which you have invented- you and your forefathers- for which God has bestowed no warrant from on high. They (who worship them) follow nothing but surmise and their own wishful thinking, although right guidance has now indeed come unto them from their Sustainer. (53:20-23).

The persecution of Muslims started back up and Muhammad had to find a different option: rather than compromise his revelation, he migrated to Medina. 

In the early Meccan years, whenever Prophet Muhammad tried to placate the powerful pagan elite, God would send him a revelation that would demand the Prophet not compromise His truth.  Did God forgive Prophet Muhammad for his mistakes? I’m sure God did because, after these inserted verses, the same tradition states that God sent Muhammad this revelation:  'We never sent any apostle or prophet before you but that, when he longed, Satan cast into his longing. But God abrogates what Satan casts in, and then God puts His verses in proper order, for God is all-knowing and wise.' [Q.22:52]  

Prophet Muhammad had taqwa, God consciousness. He could hear the voice that made no sound, in the revelations, in the commandments, and in forgiveness.

Can we listen to a voice that has no sound? I think we can, not to the extent that the Prophet could, but I think all humans have the ability to have God consciousness within themselves and during the month of Ramadan we have particular opportunities to develop our taqwa further.  I would like to talk about that in the second part.  


Allahumma salli wa sallim wa barik ‘ala ‘abdika wa rasoolika Muhammadin sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, wa ‘ala alihi wa sabhibi ajma’een. O Allah! Let Your prayer, Your peace, and Your blessings be upon Your servant and Your messenger Muhammad, and upon his family and all his companions.

I’d first like to talk about the definition of taqwa. For me, taqwa is the little voice inside us that tells us when we have done something wrong. If we are sensitive to it we may feel guilt, or shame, or the overwhelming need to apologize. It is the inner sense we have of something being right or wrong. Some people call it a “moral compass”.  My favorite definition of taqwa is from Fazlur Rahman, who wrote,

“This unique balance of integrative moral action is what the Qur’an terms taqwa, perhaps the most important single term in the Qur’an. At its highest, it denotes the fully integrated and whole personality of man, the kind of ‘stability’ which is formed after all the positive elements are drawn in. The term is usually translated by the words ‘fear of God’ and ‘piety’. Though these terms are not wrong, Muslims are increasingly discarding the term ‘fear of God’ because they think the phrase misleading in view of the false picture, widely prevalent in the West until recently- and present even today- in the light of which ‘fear of God’ might be indistinguishable from, say, fear of a wolf. The root of the term, w-q-y-, really means ‘to guard or protect against something’ and it has also been used in this literal sense in the Qur’an.
   Hence taqwa means to protect oneself against the harmful or evil consequences of one’s conduct. If, then, by “fear of God’, one means fear of the consequences of one’s actions- whether in this world or in the next (fear of punishment of the Last Day)- one is absolutely right. In other words, it is the fear that comes from an acute sense of responsibility, here and in the hereafter, and not the fear of a wolf or an uncanny tyrant, for the God of the Qur’an has unbounded mercy- although He also wields dire punishment, both in this world and in the hereafter.” – pp 28-29, Major Themes of the Qur’an

One of the things the Quran tells us to do is to let that taqwa light shine, to not suppress it. If you are a person of taqwa, you will have plenty of rewards, in this life and the next.

I would like to suggest three Ramadan lessons that can help us strengthen our taqwa, each emphasizes the process of  forgiveness.

One thing you learn very quickly in Ramadan is that anger requires a lot of energy to maintain. In our well-fed North American society, we often don’t pay attention to that. We look at anger as invigorating, something that gives us energy, a fuel that will help us as we protest injustice or a creativity flame allowing us to make a new song about how our last boyfriend just dumped us (Taylor Swift). However, during Ramadan, you know you will not be able to make it through the day if you let anger burn through all your calories. You need to make a priority list of what is important to be angry about, and what, in the end, are just small things that you need to just let go. The world will not collapse if the line in the post office is moving slowly. To borrow from the health care profession terminology, Ramadan forces us to triage our anger.

The second lesson I have learned from Ramadan is that my decision making abilities, and my cognitive abilities in general, do suffer from food and sleep deprivation. Knowing that in particular contexts I am very liable to make mistakes means that I need to forgive myself when my judgment is impaired. And from forgiving myself, I can move on to forgiving others. I am impatient and snap at my children because I am fasting and ketonic. What about others who are in chronic pain? What about people who are suffering from some post-traumatic syndrome from something they have witnessed or experienced? We all make the best choices we can, given our level of information, cultural and historical circumstances, nutrition levels, sleep, etc. Sometimes these are not good choices, but if we attempt to understand where the other person is coming from and what that person might be experiencing- what led them to this decision, then perhaps we can be more forgiving of their poor choices.

The third lesson, although you might not have guessed it from the length of this khutbah, is that talking takes a lot of energy. It is much easier to remain silent, even in the face of being insulted, ridiculed, or put-upon. In the end, this silence will likely to translate into everyone getting along much better since the snarky remarks have been nutritionally sapped. And in this newly found calm, there are some good questions to ask oneself, “What are the words I truly need to say?” and  “How might my words impact others?”

I’d like to close with a du’a from 2:201
Rabbana atina fid-dunya hasanatan wa fil’ akhirati hasanatan waqina ‘azaban-nar.
Our Lord! Grant us benevolence in this world and benevolence  in the hereafter, and protect us from the punishment of the fire. Amen

Quran translation: "The Message of the Qur'an" translated and explained by Muhammad Asad

Major Themes of the Qur’an by  Fazlur Rahman, 2nd Edition,(Kuala Lampur: 1989) Islamic Book Trust