Friday, August 4, 2017


The title of my khutbah today is “Hierarchy”.

On our recent trip to Germany, the kids and I went on a bus trip to see two of the famous Ludwig II of Bavaria castles. As we entered the foyer of the Linderhof castle, the tour guide instructed us to look at the ceiling on which was inscribed “Nec Pluribus Impar”. I whispered to my son (who completed Latin 1), “What does that mean?” He didn’t know. All I could think of was “E pluribus unum”- from the many, one; the motto on American money, signifying the unification of many states into one country. Ludwig II’s message was much different. Nec pluribus impar translates to “Not equal to the masses.” Ludwig II’s message, and indeed his entire lifestyle, was built on the assumption of hierarchy, particularly of divine right (the belief that God appoints kings) and the absolute authority of monarchs. What makes Ludwig II’s belief system odd is that he lived in the mid 19th century when the many city-states of Germany were trying to form a democratic nation. Napoleon’s military strength across central Europe in the early part of the century had thrown many aristocratic regimes into disarray and the Corsican general’s military successes provided serious questions concerning  “divine right” of rule. During the mid-19th century, as central European states started to organize themselves post-Napoleon, the trend among many existing European monarchs was to negotiate with their democratically elected parliaments and legislatures. Ludwig II was not trending with his times. Indeed, he was eventually removed from his kingship by the Bavarian legislature.  They judged his excessive spending on luxury palaces proof of an unstable mental state. He was unfit for office. Nowadays, or at least on tours, they call him a “visionary” as he provided many tourist must-see sites in southern Germany.

I’ve known the Ludwig II story for many years, I’ve been to some of his palaces, but this year, I was struck by his unshakable belief in hierarchy. This vision of hierarchy was embedded in his Christian religious value system, and it made me think about the hierarchy that is embedded in the Muslim tradition. I’ve also been thinking a lot about hierarchy and equality in the United States because of the Trump election, the Black Lives Matter movement, gender wars and the debate over ‘fake news’. Americans love the myth of equality, but sometimes we are so in love with the myth that we refuse to examine how many of our institutions actually undermine equality and perpetuate privilege.

In the Islamic tradition, hierarchy is based on a person’s ability to recognize the Truth. There are plenty of examples in the Quran, but I’ll just start with the first, at Surah al-Baqarah:

“This divine writ without doubt- is a guidance for all the God-conscious who believe in that which is beyond the reach of human perception and are constant in prayer, and spend on out of what We provide for them as sustenance and who believe in that which has been bestowed from on high upon thee, as well as in that which was bestowed before thy time; for it is they who in their innermost are certain of life to come! It is they who follow the guidance from their Sustainer; and it is they, they who shall attain to a happy state.
      Behold, as for those who are bent on denying the Truth- it is all one to them whether thou warnest them or does not warn them; they will not believe. God has sealed their hearts and their hearing and over their eyes is a veil; and awesome suffering awaits them.” 2: 2-7

The surah goes on to describe hypocrites (also damned) , and then follows up with two parables about recognizing Truth- people around a fire and people during a thunderstorm. Here are a few more examples in the Quran:

“Say: There is no comparison between the bad things and the good things, even though very many of the bad things may please thee greatly. Be, then, conscious of God, O you who are endowed with insight so that you might attain to a happy state!” 5: 100

“God propounds the parable of (two men)- a man enslaved, unable to do anything of his own accord, and a (free) man upon whom We have bestowed goodly sustenance from Ourselves, so that he can spend thereof secretly and openly. Can these (two) be deemed equal? And God propounds the parable of two (other) men- one of them dumb, unable to do anything of his own accord and a sheer burden on his master; to whichever task the latter direct him, he accomplishes no good. Can such a one be considered the equal of (a wise man) who enjoins the doing of what is right and himself follows a straight way?” 16:75-76

“The blind man is not equal with the seer. Nor is darkness light, nor is the shadow equal with the sun’s full heat. Nor are the living equal with the dead. Lo! Allah maketh whom He will to hear. Thou canst not reach those who are in the graves.” 35: 19-23

In the Islamic tradition, the notion of different levels of truth-recognizing people resulted in a class hierarchy which was not necessarily characterized by wealth or political or tribal power, it was measured by the capacity to know Truth. What developed among the philosophers was the belief that most people, the masses, cannot understand higher truths.

The Persian philosopher Jalal-un Din Davvani (1422-1506 CE) wrote in Akhlaq-I Jalali a vivid description of this knowledge-based social hierarchy:

"The souls of men differ in degree according to their capacity for reason and discernment. The highest degree- which we call the celestial soul- is connected to the World of Rationals, while the lowest-which is extreme stupidity- is tied to the beast-pen. It, thus, follows that the perception of these groups in matters of ‘whence our origin and whereto our return”- which are the most subtle secrets of philosophy and shari’a- are not at one and the same level.
….The highest class…know the Real-Source with all its glorious qualities and beautiful features, and are aware of the issuing forth of the chain of existences from the Source in the actual order… This party comprises the great “Friends of God” and the great pillars of philosophy (hikma).
     Next this rank is the class of those who are incapable of understanding for themselves by pure reason. Their journey ends at conjectured meanings. But they know that the Real-Truths, as they actually are, are free of such restrictions. They acknowledge their own incapacity, and defer to the knowledge of the first class of people. This group is the people of faith (ahl-I iman).
     Following this rank is a group who are incapable even of conjectural reasoning. Their journey in “whence our origin and whereto our return” does not extend beyond imagined forms. But they defer to the first group and acknowledge their incapacity. This group is the people of acceptance (ahl-I taslim).
     And next to this group are the short-sighted ones who cannot even begin to imagine any other level beyond that which can be sensed, and who stop short at representations and images that are far (from the Real-Truth). These we call the ‘weak-minded’ (mutaza’ ‘afan).
     But so long as each of these exerts himself to the full extent of his ability, and reaches the full limit of his capacity, he will not be stigmatized with falling short, but rather will be regarded as having turned his face towards the qiblah of Real Truth.”

The knowledge order of society was a given for Muslim philosophers. The Sufis similarly divided people by their capacity to perceive Truth hidden in the realms of the Unseen:
Commoners = ‘awamm, can’t govern themselves, need prescription and supervision otherwise chaos
Elect = khawass, more capable of governing themselves, administrators of law
Elect of the Elect= khass al-khawass.

The Sufi Abu Talib al-Makki (d 996 CE) stated that every Quranic verse has seven meanings ranging from the external/exoteric (zahir) for the common people (‘awamm) up to the intricacies (daqa’iq) for the lovers of Truth (muhibbun) and the complete spirituarealities (haqa’iq) for the prophets (nabiyyun).

Not only philosophers and Sufis, but also kalam-theologians, such as al-Ghazzali, argued that common people should not be exposed to speculative questions that the elite debated. Commoners should only have unambiguous prescriptions. The basis of a society composed of people with different capacities to know was a general given in pre-modern Muslim societies. This concept is embodied in the principle “Speak to people according to the capacity of their intelligences” (kallimu al-nasa ‘ala qadr uquli-him).

Just as the higher truths of Revelation are sent down to a lower world, pre-modern era Muslims envisioned a society differentiated by the human capacity to acquire knowledge. The structure of society followed the structure of Revelation. Only a few select people, prophets, receive Revelation- most of us just listen.  Some people may pose questions and ask for further clarification, particularly those in leadership positions, but the masses are expected to accept the ethics and laws of revealed Truth. This does not mean that hierarchy is the only way to authentically express Islam, but rather this hierarchy in our Islamic tradition was derived from how our Muslim ancestors understood Revelation.


The second part of my khutbah is about our current, modern trends and how this affects our practice of Islam.

 Starting in the late 18th century and fueled by the technology of the industrial revolution, the modern appetite for human equality, abolition of slavery, universal enfranchisement  and the ability of reason to convince the general public of truth gained momentum and these values continue into the present. The global communication technologies of the world wide web, social media, and smart phones have further contributed to the grassroots and very public discourse in which we find ourselves. This egalitarianism has spread to our understanding of Islam. “Speak to the people according to the capacity of their intelligences (kallimu al-nasa ‘ala qadr ‘uquli him)” has been replaced with “The din is simple” al-din basit.

But is our din truly basit? What about those seven layers of meaning on every Quranic ayah? We don’t pretend that science and technology are simple. Simple to use, perhaps, but how many of us could re-build our cell phone or hard drive if called upon to do so? How many of us actually understand how the internet- or neurons actually work? So it seems that even though science and technology provide us with egalitarian access, we accept that deeper understanding of science and technology consist of a hierarchy of knowledge. Very few individuals are brilliant enough to create the reality of science and technology, some of us can ask good questions but most of us are consumers. But when it comes to modern public discourse about religion, most Muslims will stick to the ‘basit’ model or risk becoming engaged in a never-ending flame war consisting of internet trolling, stalking, accusations of blasphemy and death threats. In destroying the institutions of our private sphere- which yes were often elitist,-in making the public sphere the only “place” that counts, we have lost our ability to question and contradict prescriptive norms. We think of community Islam, as the only ‘authentic’ Islam, mistrusting our own individual capacity for reasoning, downplaying our own private Islam-even dismissing our individualized, private Islam as “un-Islamic”. We don’t question, we don’t explore, we accept and we hibernate.

How do we wake up? This is where we come to the question phase of my khutbah.

In the pre-modern era, knowledge was accessible via information, and this information was tightly regulated. In the modern era, with hacking, leaking and rapid, global distribution of information, it is difficult to imagine restricting information. Our Muslim ancestors restricted information because they thought the wrong information to wrong people- people who did not have the capacity to recognize truth- would create social chaos. Well, maybe that is what we are living in now, which would explain a lot. We accept that not all of us have the genetic capacity to become Olympic athletes or astronauts no matter how hard we train, or that some of us should not smoke because of a family history of lung cancer,  but we have a difficult time accepting that some people are just not capable of recognizing truth, no matter how many factoids we dump in their lap. It is that myth of equality which makes us wring our hands as we run around in circles mumbling, “If they could only listen to reason…”.

How can we, as Muslims, approach the knowledge gap?

I know there is a rich Muslim heritage of questioning and exploration. My questions have probably been addressed by numerous scholars through the centuries but it is worthwhile to again address this fundamental question of hierarchy in understanding and reasoning since each era and each questioner contributes a new perspective.

I like to interact with other people who can recognize the truth, even if they aren’t Muslims. We live in a multicultural city in a globalized world. There are many people who seek truth, but they are often disheartened by the institutions of religion. Can we communicate with them in mutually respectful way? Will this require a new definition of Revelation?

When I do take time to build institutions, am I creating spaces for questioning, exploring, and civilized debate? If not- then should I really be spending my time and energy in these projects?

Are we using our gifts and talents when we try to understand the Quran? To quote Davvani, to the “full extent of his ability, and reaches the full limit of his capacity, he will not be stigmatized with falling short, but rather will be regarded as having turned his face towards the qiblah of Real Truth.”  Most of us are not a khass al-khawass, but where do we belong? My job in this world is to figure this out with God’s help, to turn my face to the qiblah of Real Truth, to follow the Quranic injunction: 

“...We shall show them Our portents on the horizon and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that it is the Truth.” 41:53.

Accepting that there is a hierarchy of knowledge, intuition and reasoning have been instrumental in helping me understand the deeper meanings of science and art and teaching me humility. I hope that accepting this hierarchy in spirituality will also help me achieve my spiritual potential with the necessary humility.

 “Is not He Who created the heavens and the earth able to create the like of them? Aye, that He is! For He is the All Wise Creator, but His Command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that He saith unto it: Be! And it is. Therefore glory be to Him in Whose hand is the dominion over all things! Unto Him you will be brought back.” 36:81-83 Amen

Quran translations from "The Message of the Qur'an" by Muhammad Asad

Jalal ud-Din Davvani quote excerpted from "What is Islam" by Shahab Ahmed (Princeton University Press:2016) pp 370-371

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