Saturday, December 19, 2015

Reflections on Prophecy

Ya banil Adama
Imma ya tiyannakum Rusulum-minkum yaqussuna alaykum
Ayati famanit-taqa wa aslaha fala khawfun
Alayhim wa la hum yahzanun.

O children of Adam!  If there come to you apostles of your own, relating My messages to you, then all who are conscious of Me and live righteously - no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve.

What is that phenomenon we call prophecy?  How can we explain the mechanism through which the prophets were inspired by our Creator?  Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, was the last of the Abrahamic prophets, but the message that he and his numerous predecessors, beginning with Prophet Abraham relayed was that God is with us always and ever was and ever shall be.  And even though the kind of prophecy described in their Books – the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Quran – ended with Prophet Muhammad, God’s presence is no less real and close for us today than it was for them.

Quran assures us that every people has had a prophet.

Innaa arsalnaka bil-haqqi Bashiranw-wa Nadhira.
Wa im-min ummatin illa khala fiha Nadhir.

Surely We have sent you with the truth as a bearer of good news and a warner; and there was never any community but a warner has lived and passed away in its midst.

The power of God’s presence is and has been throughout history, in every human community, real and tangible.  And throughout history, when people have tapped into that power, even though they be not prophets, they have found the strength to do remarkable things, and helped us all progress further along the path of God’s guidance.  I’d like to talk about a few of those people today.

When I was in Berkeley a couple of weeks ago, I gave some money to a homeless woman, one of the many who line Shaddock Avenue every day.  As I started to walk away, she said, “Don’t forget to take your paper!”  I don’t usually pay much attention to those papers, but this one turned out to be more than the usual account of the difficult lives of people who live on the streets.  It was published by the American Friends Service Committee, and contains a survey of many of the women who worked for the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage in the 19th and early twentieth centuries.   Their stories are a testament to what people can endure when they are inspired by a cause they know is right and true. 

Some of them, like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth, escaped the horror of slavery, only to turn around and continue to fight it, jeopardizing the very freedom they had won.   What made Harriet Tubman return to the South again and again, risking her freedom to liberate many others through the Underground Railroad, and by working as a scout and leading raids on plantations for the Union Army?  What gave Sojourner Truth, after escaping to freedom with her baby daughter. the strength to deliver a legendary speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in 1851?  What gave her the tenacity to try to end the segregation of street cars in Washington, D.C. by riding in cars set aside for white people, 90 years before Rosa Parks was arrested?

Other women gave up lives of privilege and security to fight against slavery and for voting rights for all.  Lucretia Mott, a Quaker minister, continued to fight slavery even after mobs destroyed the abolitionists’ Pennsylvania Hall meeting place.  What made her organize the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society in 1833, the first active political organization of women, and the launching pad for the women’s rights movement?  What made her and Elizabeth Cady Stanton think they could organize the first public women’s rights meeting in the U.S., the Seneca Falls Convention in July of 1848? 

When simple organizing failed to change the status quo, other women initiated bold new strategies, including militant acts of civil disobedience.  Alice Paul led a group of suffragists called “Silent Sentinels,” who were arrested for picketing the White House.  From 1910 to 1920, Paul was the main strategist of the women’s suffrage movement, and leader of the National Women’s Party.  She opposed the US entering WWI, “protesting a battle for democracy abroad when there was so little democracy at home.”   When jailed with other suffragists in the notoriously brutal and squalid Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia, she demanded that the women be treated as political prisoners and launched a prison hunger strike.  Jail authorities tried to break them with brutal force-feedings, beatings, and horrible jail conditions.  This led to media attention and public outrage and women flocked to Washington.  Her acts of civil disobedience were crucial in winning public support for the Nineteenth Amendment. 

Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony worked together for many decades, in the long struggle to end slavery, and for a federal amendment giving voting rights to women.  What made Anthony try to vote in the presidential election of 1872?  And after being arrested, tried and convicted for illegal voting, how did she have the strength to refuse to pay the fine, saying, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.”  It took another six years for Anthony and Stanton to get a bill giving women the right to vote introduced in Congress.  It took another 42 years for the Anthony Amendment to become the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, in 1920.  Many of these women and others went on to struggle for full equality for women and people of all races during the civil rights movement over the next many decades.  They wrote, marched, held sit-ins, protested, and were jailed, beaten, tortured, and sometimes killed. 

As we know, the struggle for equality is not over.  I found a very interesting quote in a book published in 1881, “History of Woman Suffrage,” edited by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Matilda Joslyn Gage.  It was in my Great Aunt Bess’s library, and is inscribed by Susan B. Anthony herself.  Anthony was a Christian woman fighting for equal rights in the United States over a hundred years ago.  She says, in the introduction:

“With fierce warnings and denunciations from the pulpit, and false interpretations of Scripture, women have been intimidated and misled, and their religious feelings have been played upon for their more complete subjugation.  While the general principles of the Bible are in favor of the most enlarged freedom and equality of the race, isolated texts have been used to block the wheels of progress in all periods; thus bigots have defended capital punishment, intemperance, slavery, polygamy, and the subjugation of woman.  The creeds of all nations make obedience to man the corner-stone of her religious character.  Fortunately, however, more liberal minds are now giving us higher and purer expositions of the Scriptures.”

I found it supremely ironic that I should find this quote in a distant relative’s 100 plus year old book of history, and that it should remind me so much of what I find myself in the middle of today.  I would add another woman to the list of feminist legends and icons of resistance -  Dr. Amina Wadud, for delivering her Friday khutbah and leading men and women in prayer in a mosque in New York City.  She said it was “the continuation of her own spiritual struggle to realize Islam’s liberation of all people, an outgrowth of the African-American struggle for equality.” 

Quran says, in Surah 14:11
Qalat lahum Rusuluhum innahu illa basharum-mithlukum
Wa lakinnal-laha yamunnu ala many-yashaa u min ibadih.
Wa ma kana lanaa an-na tiyakum-bisultanin illa bi idhnil-lah.
Wa alal-lahi falyatawakkal il-mu minun.

Their apostles said to them:  We are nothing but mortals like yourselves, but Allah bestows favors on who He pleases of His servants, and it is not for us that we should bring you an authority except by Allah’s permission; and on Allah should the believers rely.

And in Surah 16:41
Wal-ladhina hajaru fil-lahi mim-ba’ di ma zulimu lanubawwi
‘annahum fid-dunya hasanatanw-wa la ajrul-Akhirati akbaru
law kanu ya ‘lamun.
And those who leave a place of evil for Allah’s sake after they are oppressed, We will most certainly give them a good abode in the world, and the reward of the hereafter is certainly much greater, did they but know.

I have focused here on those who fought in the struggle for full freedom and equality for African Americans and women in the United States.  But my larger question, the one I started with, is what makes people sacrifice their safety and their welfare, their freedom, even their bodies for a greater cause?  This question is much broader than the abolition and suffragist movements, broader even than equal rights for all human beings.  The question applies to anyone who has given up their own self-interest to a greater cause.  I have referred back to the Quran for teachings on the phenomenon of prophecy, the supreme example of people who turned themselves completely over to God’s will.  God promised them “a good abode in the world, and the reward of the hereafter,” but what does that mean?  We can easily believe that the prophets enjoy the fruits of Paradise when they die, but many of them suffered horribly for delivering their message in this world.  I think it must mean that they were granted peace and serenity in the knowledge that they were following God’s will. 

I am not claiming that anyone since Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, is like a prophet in the Quranic sense.  But it does seem to me that when we human beings are inspired by a sense of connection with God’s Truth, we get a new perspective on our lives, and the strength to do things that we would never do if we only focused on our individual comfort and security.  The prophets are the highest examples of that phenomenon.  But we all have the potential to tap into that power, and we can all recognize those exceptional people who have been able to use that power to help change their worlds for the better. 

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and not just in the context of women’s equality.  I have been thinking that in these trying times we are living through as Muslims, we are all challenged to tap in to God’s power, in one way or another.  So what does Quran tell us about prophecy and prophets, our forefathers in the struggle to follow God’s Truth?  Quran tells us that they were tested, that people did not believe them, and thought they were crazy, and tried to kill them.  But Quran assures us that God was always and would always be with them, as long as they followed their calling.  Whether we feel called to travel to Jordan to help Syrian refugees, or try to write inspiring khutbahs, or write poetry and stories, or donate our time to serve on Boards, or help the homeless, or our own aging parents, or just help our children negotiate their way between secularism, extremism, and Islamophobia – in our own small humble ways, we all need God’s guidance, and we might be surprised by where our openness to that guidance might lead us.  

Ya Allah, help us to be open to your guidance as much as we need it, and grant us the ability to tap into your power, that is everywhere and always around us when we need it, and give us the strength to follow your path for us, wherever it may lead.

Surah 22:78
And strive hard in the way of Allah, such a striving as is due to Allah, who has chosen you and has not laid on you a hardship in religion; the faith of your forefather Ibrahim;  He named you before and in this, those who have surrendered themselves to God, that the Apostle might bear witness to the truth before you, and you might bear witness to it before all humankind;  therefore keep up prayer and pay the poor rate and hold fast by Allah;  your Guardian; how excellent the Guardian and how excellent the Helper!

Fa ‘aqimus-Salata wa atuz-Zakata wa-tasimu billahi

Huwa Mawlakum fani mal-Mawla wa ni’man-Nasir.

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