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).

Friday, December 5, 2014

On the End of the World As We Know It

Surah 29, Al-Ankabut:62-63:
Allahu yabsutur-rizqa limany-yashaa ‘u min ibadihi wa yaqdiru lah. 
God grants abundant sustenance, or gives it in scant measure, to whichever He wills of His creatures: 
Innal-laha bikulli shay’in Alim.
for behold, God has full knowledge of everything. (62)
Wa la in-sa ‘altahum-man-nazzala minas-samaa ‘i maa ‘an-fa ‘ahya bihil- arda mim-ba di mawtiha laya
And thus it is:  if thou ask them, ‘Who is it that sends down water from the skies, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless?’ 
-yaqulunn Allah.
- they will surely answer, ‘God.’
Qulil-hamdu lillah. 
Say thou: ‘All praise is due to God alone.’
Bal aktharuhum la ya qilun.
 But most of them will not use their reason. (63)

When I was doing my doctoral studies in international relations in the early 1990’s, I became intrigued by the developing field of international environmental policy.   Since there was no course offered at the University of Kansas on the topic, I designed a course myself and found a professor to supervise it.  My daughter was three years old at the time.  Her crayon scribbles are still on the notes I took for that class. 

I read everything I could about policies related to population trends, ozone depletion, pollution of all kinds, garbage disposal, water resources, resource depletion, extinction rates, etc.  I read about global treaties signed and abrogated.  I read about environmental movements, legislative initiatives that could not get passed, or only in inadequate forms.  I read about the history of the exploitation of carbon-based energy sources – basically coal and oil - and the development of the corporations that control their exploitation and distribution, megalithic entities built on our ever-escalating need for energy, ungovernable by any single nation-state.  But the most impactful of what I read was about the consequences of climate change.

One analogy made by one of the researchers really stuck in my mind - the story of the frog – maybe you’ve heard it.  If you put a live frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out and save itself.  But if you put a frog in cool water and heat the water very slowly, it will not recognize the critical point at which it needs to jump out, and it will cook to death.  The researcher was alluding to greenhouse gases, implying that we will pass the critical threshold before we can do anything to keep ourselves from getting “cooked.” 

My research scared and depressed me…. so much so that I put aside the idea of
focusing on environmental policy.  I became one of those people Naomi Klein refers
to in her recent book, This Changes Everything, those of us who are
“telling ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely suck the carbon out of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun.” 
Klein contends, “We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything.  And we are right.”[1] 

Twenty odd years ago I could not face the prospect of working with that knowledge day after day.  I would, I felt, be immobilized by despair.  I needed to focus on something that would allow me to nurture my marriage and raise my daughter.   And besides, I told myself, we will find technological solutions….

That was over 20 years ago.  Now researchers are trying to figure out if we have already passed the critical threshold.  Now my daughter is a Ph.D. student in Integrative Biology, studying the history of life on earth and the iterations it has undergone, and she sends me an article that begins with these words: 

Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state [of being] to another when they are forced across critical thresholds.  Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale transition as a result of human influence…. We summarize evidence that such planetary scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.”[2]

The article continues, “… shifts … can be difficult to anticipate, because the critical threshold is reached as incremental changes accumulate and the threshold value is generally not known in advance.”
There is a lot of information in this article about the interplay of all the ways in which humans have impacted the global environment, but a few conclusions stand out. 
“…if fertility rates remain at 2005-2010 levels, [by 2100 – in 85 years - the earth’s population will be 27,000,000,000]; this population size is not thought to be supportable)….
Climates found at present on 10-48% of the planet are projected to disappear within a century, and climates that contemporary organisms have never experienced are likely to cover 12-39% of Earth.  The mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.”

The article concludes, “… averting a planetary-scale critical transition demands global cooperation,” to  reduce world population growth and per-capita resource use, to replace fossil fuels,  increase the efficiency of food production and distribution, enhance efforts to manage reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services on land and in the oceans.   “These are admittedly huge tasks, but are vital if the goal of science and society is to steer the biosphere towards conditions we desire, rather than those that are thrust upon us unwittingly.”

There have been five mass extinction events in the history of the earth, where 75% or more of the existing species went extinct.  We are in the first throws of a 6th. Mass extinction.   This is pretty scary stuff.  This is cataclysmic.  But there is a difference in my response to this information now as opposed to 20 years ago.  #1, I no longer see the option of pretending it’s not happening.  #2, my understanding of my faith has grown and given me a new perspective on how to face the issue, a new drive, and a new strength of purpose.   


As we know from the stories of the prophets, cataclysm is no stranger to the Quran. The communities of the earliest prophets - Nuh (Noah) Hud, Saleh, Lut (Lot), and Shoaib (Jethro), who did not accept their prophets’ messages about the Oneness of God, were completely destroyed.  The Abrahamic prophets - Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses) and all the Jewish prophets - Isaac, Yacoub (Jacob), Yusuf (Joseph), Zakarriah, Yahya (John), and Esa (Jesus), ending with Prophet Muhammad, pbuh,  saw a different fate for their communities.

For the most part, the enemies of Abraham and the prophets who followed him were no longer completely destroyed.  Some of the greatest transgressors were destroyed, but the communities themselves survived.  Instead, Allah told Abraham to migrate from his native land – from Mesopotamia to Palestine.  The example of emigration would be followed by Prophet Moses.   In the case of the final Abrahamic prophet, Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, after emigrating he returned to his people, and they became his followers.  This began a new era. 

When Prophet Muhammad performed the rituals of Hajj at the end of his life, in every ritual he did, he said “I am here doing what my father Abraham did, and here I am fulfilling his prophecy.”  The final day of this Hajj he told his followers in his farewell speech, “Today I completed your faith, and I fulfilled my mission.  I want God to witness, and I want you to be my witness.”  He completed his message, and left this world.  14 centuries later, we Muslims are the progeny of his journey.  The human species has evolved through history to where we are now – a world where those who study “the signs” of the earth are telling us that if we continue on our present course, we will overwhelm the resource God gave us in trust, as His Vice-Gerents of this planet.   

And now I have to wonder if we have come full circle in the prophetic narrative.  I had always counted the stories of the ancient prophets – those whose communities were completely destroyed – as ancient history with no real relevance to our lives.  But this story – unless you are a believer in science fiction scenarios of journeys to other planets – cannot end in emigration.  Are we facing our complete and ultimate destruction, by our behaviors and the belief that God’s gift to us includes the right to unlimited consumption, with no regard to collective needs and consequences, or the sustainability of the planet God gave us in trust?  In other words, are we to be destroyed by our own pride and arrogance?  As I see it, all the signs – scientific and religious - point to one conclusion - this is a defining time for the human species.   

In Surah 22, Al-Hajj , Allah addressed the Prophet about those of his time who would not accept the Divine origin of his messages:
And if they [who are bent on denying the truth] give thee the lie, [O Muhammad, remember that long] before their time, the people of Noah and [the tribes of] Ad and Thamud gave the lie [to their prophets], (42) as did the people of Abraham, and the people of Lot, (43) and the dwellers of Madyan; and [so too] Moses was given the lie [by Pharoah].
And in every case I gave rein, for awhile, to the deniers of the truth:  but then I took them to task – and how awesome was My denial [of them]!  (44)
And how many a township have We destroyed because it had been immersed in evildoing – and now they [all] lie deserted, with their roofs caved in!  And how many a well lies abandoned, and how many a castle that [once] stood high! (45)

Will we human beings bring on such devastation that our whole planet sees this fate?  God only knows.  If it is our collective destiny is to destroy the life support system that sustains us, Allah reminds us – and science confirms - that we only destroy ourselves.  Quran tells us that God made worlds before us, and can make new worlds again.   Science tells us that the five previous mass extinctions were followed by the evolution of completely new species of life. 

Naomi Klein concludes, after her exhaustive analysis of the reasons why we have been unable to effectively address climate change:
“Fundamentally, the task is to articulate … an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – [a worldview that is] embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

Wasn’t this the very message that Allah delivered to us through our prophet?    Surah Al-Hajj continues:
Have they, then, never journeyed about the earth, letting their hearts gain wisdom, and causing their ears to hear?  Yet, verily, it is not their eyes that have become blind – but blind have become the hearts that are in their breasts!  (46)
And [so, O Muhammad,] they challenge thee to hasten the coming upon them of God’s chastisement:  but God never fails to fulfill His promise – and, behold, in thy Sustainer’s sight a day is like a thousand years of your reckoning. (47)
And to how many a community that was immersed in evildoing have I given rein for awhile!  But then I took it to task:  for with Me is all journey’s end!  (48)

Klein goes on
“… in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable … an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.”

From Surah 35:  Fatir (The Originator):
Verily, God knows the hidden reality of the heavens and earth: [and] behold, He has full knowledge of what is in the hearts [of people]. (38)
He it is who has made you inherit the earth.  Hence, he who is bent on denying the truth - this denial of his will fall back upon him:  for their denial of this truth does but add to the deniers’ loathsomeness in their Sustainer’s sight and, thus, their denial of this truth does but add to the deniers’ loss. (39)…
Verily, it is God [alone] who upholds the celestial bodies and the earth, lest they deviate [from their orbits] – for if they should ever deviate, there is none that could uphold them after He will have ceased to do so. 
            [But] verily, He is ever-forbearing, much-forgiving. (41)
As it is, they [who are averse to the truth] swear by God with their most solemn oaths that if a warner should ever come to them, they would follow his guidance better than any of the communities [of old had followed the warner sent to them]:  but now that a warner has come unto them, [his call] but increases their aversion, (42) their arrogant behavior on earth, and their devising of evil [arguments against God’s messages].
Yet [in the end,] such evil scheming will engulf none but its authors; and can they expect anything but [to be made to go] the way of those [sinners] of olden times?...
Now if God were to take men to task for whatever they commit [on earth], He would not leave a single living creature upon its surface.  However, He grants them respite for a term set:  but when their term comes to an end – then, verily, [they come to know that] God sees all that is in [the hearts of] His servants. (45)

Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, was the last of the Prophets who came to share the message of God’s Oneness and transcendant power.  But he was not the last of the warners.  God gave Adam – all of us – the ability to name things – consciousness.  We have used that ability to develop a system of understanding God’s creation – science.  That understanding is now showing us the enormity of God’s gift of freedom of choice.  We are on track to collectively destroy our life support system, maybe not in our lifetimes, but within those of our grandchildren.  We can only pray that we have the will and the ability to save it. 

I am not pretending that I have any answers to climate change.   I am among those who live in a developed country, a lifestyle based on the use of fossil fuels and consumption way beyond my basic needs.  According to the calculations of The Nature Conservancy, I, as an individual, contribute approximately 35 tons of co2 to the atmosphere every year.  And I am not going to give up my house or my car or my flights or my lights or my water, or much of anything, really.  And it may well be that Allah knows we will self-destruct, and that is our fate.  But my heart tells me that even if that is the case, I do not want to be counted among those who give in to denial or despair.  I have had the advantage of an education and I am aware that I need to educate myself more and figure out what changes I can realistically make moving forward… changes that reflect my love and gratitude for this planet, for the gift of my life on it, and my own responsibility before our Creator.  Sharing this is part of my prayer that I will keep that commitment.

2:286  The last ayah of Surah 2, The Cow
Rabbana la tu’akhizna in-nasina aw akh-ta’na.
Our Lord! Do not punish us if we forget or make a mistake.
Rabbana wa la tahmil ‘alayna isran kama hamaltahu ‘ala-llatheena min qablina.
Our Lord! Do not load on us a severe test as You did burden on those before us.
Rabbana wa la tuhammilna ma la taqata lana bih, wa- ‘fu ‘anna wa ‘ghfirlana warhamna
Our Lord! Do not impose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear; and pardon us and forgive us and have mercy on us.
Anta Maulana fansurna ‘alal-ghawmil kafirin.
You are our Defender, so help us against the ungrateful people.

[1] Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate.  Simon & Schuster:  2014.

[2] Barnosky, Anthony D., “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” Nature:  7 June 2012, pp. 52-58.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks.

This week I was invited to a multi faith thanksgiving celebration at our local church. The pastor there began by singing what I would call a highly devotional piece known as “It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood, please won't you be neighbor etc” reminiscent of our our dear Brother Imam Mr Rogers. I say this because our tradition tells us to value our families. If we do not value blood, how will we ever value othes? In Surah Baqara Ayah it says in ayah 27 not to sever the bonds that Allah has commanded to be tied? There is a hadeeth that says do not go three days without speaking to a relative and if you go one year, it is like taking a life. So how far out does that extend? To our immediate family, extended? To the family of humanity?

This is Thanksgiving week, a time when we traditionally gather with family, sometimes in a room with people we have not seen or wanted to see for a while. Perhaps we are part of blended families, divorced families and so on. There are jokes about how we have to brace ourselves for this type of events etc.

Many families have the tradition of going around the dinner table and asking what we are thankful for. Even though my children cringe audibly, I continue this ritual to this day. Sometimes it is hard to find things to be thankful for. Sometimes we have had very difficult years. We are reminded to look at those worse off than us and so we listen out for the voices of Gaza, Pakistan,Syria, Ferguson and so on. How do we make sense of any of this. How can we thankful when there is so much suffering and tragedy in the world? One of my children responded that they were thankful they did not have to live the life of an African American teen in the Southern states. I had no response to this.

There will always be unanswered questions. The Quran begins with أ ل م
letters whose significance we don't know. So that means that we must immediately and consistently submit to the fact that there are things we will never understand. However, I think more is required of us. We ARE the priveleged ones. We are thankfully not being tortured. We are in a land where we ARE being accepted despite everything. We are fortunate. We have access to the media, to being civically engaged, to being vocal. We can alert people to causes and so on.

(There is a Turkish vase on the table)

Islamic art is known for its patterns and symmetry. I believe this is mirrored in the teachings of Islam too. For instance, here are two hadeeth:

Whoever suffers an injury done to him and forgives (the person responsible), Allah will raise his status to a higher degree and remove one of his sins.' (Sunan At-Tirmidhî)

The Prophet said: 'Whoever does not thank people (for their favors) has not thanked Allah (properly), Mighty and Glorious is He!' (Musnad Ahmad, Sunan At-Tirmidhî)

What happens to you on Earth will be mirrored in the hereafter. How you treat people is how Allah will treat you.Now this gratitude thing. We are taught that the word shukr in Arabic highly important. It is considered a highly spiritual state in Sufi traditions. What does gratitude involve ? Well it includes recognizing our blessings, naturally. What about when we have been wronged, what then? We are taught to forgive, that it will set us free, that it is better for our souls and so on. I believe this. But if it were only all that simple.

We know the stories of the Prophet where he was able to forgive people who wished him harm, the woman who threw garbage in front of him. The woman he helped carry her belongings and who criticized him all the way and never told her who he was and so on. Ultimately, the very person who killed his beloved Uncle Hamza.

I think the Seerah stories we hear often portray our Prophet as somoene who just went around forgiving people because he had some super human forgiveness powers. Well maybe he did. But we are taught that he was human too. Which one was it? We have to remember the Prophet was also the strongest, savviest military leader anyone had known. Think more powerful than Kevin Costner in Braveheart, or Gengis Khan huffing and puffing around with Mongols. How does a person who can be such an aggressive warrior find it in himself to forgive such offences?

I think there are a few things that go on in the pardoning process. Recently I read an article about somoene who was being put in a position where they had to constantly interact with a verbal abuser. They asked the Rabbi what they should do about this. I wondered what advice I would give such a person.

First of all, yes we have the right to protect ourselves if required. But if we avoid the person who has harmed us, we have given our power to them. Therefore it takes that warrior's soul to actually forgive someone. To be be able to be soft and tender, we need to make our insides strong. That symmetry again. Also in war, you look at the big picture. If you look at how war works, it is 90% strategy. At the Battle of Uhud, the Muslims were told to be on high ground to be able to have a more effective vantage point. It is all about wider outcome and long term vision.

Therefore, I am sure that the Prophet was not unaffected by things that happened to him, I think it was that he had that sense of strong self worth of course, was far above pettiness etc, knew that nothing that others said defined him, knew that Allah was with him that was all that mattered.

Keep to forgiveness (O Muhammad), and enjoin kindness, and turn away from the ignorant.” (Quran 7:199)

But he also knew that he had to look at a broader spectrum. By not being able to overlook others' faults, he would not have been able to achieve a fraction of what he did. The killing of his uncle did affect him and he was unable to speak to Hind who carried this out. As an aside,  that inner struggle of his makes me feel even closer to him and makes me understand what is really humanly possible. We always have to be looking at a wider perspective. This vase contains symmetry and intricacy within its designs but the artist's overarching goal was probably to create a stunning piece of art.

Rabbi ‘j’alni muqima’s-salati wa min thurriyati. Rabbana wa taqabbal du’a.Rabbana ‘ghfirli wa li walidayya walil-Mu’minina yawma yaqumul-Hisab.
My Lord! Make me keep up prayer, and my off-spring too. Our Lord! Accept the prayer.  Our Lord!Forgive me and my parents and the ones who believe on the day that the reckoning will be taken.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Tracing the Paths

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.
Man yahdillahu fa huwal muhtad, wa man yudlill falan tajida lahu waliyan murshida.
Anyone who has been guided by Allah, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided, you will never find a guardian to guide him.

The title of my khutbah today is “Tracing the Paths”.

The subject of my khutbah is my struggle with shari’ah because when I hear the word shari’ah I have this instantaneous gag reflex. So, I am struggling to find a better definition for myself, and this khutbah is a reflection of my personal struggle.

My struggle started with a definition of shari’ah that really made me think and ponder.  Shireen Hunter defined shari’ah as “the path of life that it has traced.” (p 291 Reformist Voices of Islam). Her definition is in contrast to fiqh, “Islamic law as produced by Islamic scholars”. Part of my problem is that I have always conflated the two, but they are actually distinct.

What is a path of life that has been traced? Many people use the analogy of a river. If your life is the water and the path your life takes is the river, then eventually all rivers lead to the ocean, or all lives/souls lead to God.  Which river you choose to go down has certain consequences.  When you have well defined river banks, it is obvious which way you will flow.  But if the banks are too constrictive, the water may become stagnant or flow underground, or if the water exceeds the bodrders of the riverbanks, floods over the land, then chaos and destruction can result. This is why some Islamic scholars, such as Muhammad Khatami, have said that “Islam totally rejects fascism while it offers a critique of liberalism.”

I think the argument against fascism example is pretty self-evident, but I would like to expand on this notion of a ‘critique of liberalism.’, well, I would actually call it libertarianism, but whatever you want to call it, the idea is of having complete freedom to do whatever you want. I would argue, that this kind of freedom is not always a true freedom. Let me give a personal example to illustrate this point.

Right now I have a cousin who is dying of liver failure caused by decades of alcohol abuse. He lives in a society where he has the freedom to drink alcohol, he had a choice whether or not to drink, and he drank. He had a choice whether or not to get help, and he chose not to fight his addiction. Yes, he had the freedom to make his choices, to make bad choices, but in the end, did these choices give him freedom? He hasn’t had a driver’s liscence for thirty years, his daughter won’t see him, he hasn’t held a job and the only cure for his liver disease is a liver transplant, which he absolutely cannot get because he shows no sign of sincere rehabilitation, so he won’t get on the transplant list.  He has been free to choose addiction, but has addiction given him freedom? To me, no it hasn’t.

It sounds paradoxical, but sometimes following rules which appear restrictive can actually help you achieve true freedom.  I’m not saying this very eloquently, so I will quote from Wendell Barry who wrote a beautiful essay on marriage and poetry.

Barry argues that marriage and poetry are both bound by particular ‘forms’,  poetry by the restriction of meter and rhyme, marriage by the vows you take. He says:

“In marriage as in poetry, the given word implies the acceptance of a form that is never entirely of one’s own making. When understood seriously enough, a form is a way of accepting and of living within the limits of creaturely life. We live only one life, and die only one death. A marriage cannot include everybody, because the reach of responsibility is short. A poem cannot be about everything, for the reach of attention and insight is short.” (from Poetry and Marriage: the use of old forms)
Just to get back to the topic of shari’ah, I’m trying to make the argument that these ‘forms’ are like paths, the same paths or rule sets as ‘shari’ah’.  The first surah that starts the Qur’an is called, “Al-Fatiha” – the Opening. The Qur’an is giving us the invitation to open our hearts to its poetry and to experience it. But what will we be opening ourselves up to?

Barry writes:
“The second aspect of these forms is an opening, a generosity, toward possibility. The forms acknowledge that good is possible; they hope for it, await it, and prepare its welcome — though they dare not require it. These two aspects are inseparable. To forsake the way is to forsake the possibility. To give up the form is to abandon the hope.”

In Al-Fatihah, the Muslim is asking for God’s guidance, not demanding guidance, but hoping for it. Once you accept the path, then there will be some restrictions placed on you. However,  when you follow those rules some pretty interesting things can happen.

Barry says: “It may be, then, that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work and that when we no longer know which way to go we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.    
     In this way the keeping of the form instructs us… The world, the truth, is more abounding, more delightful, more demanding than we thought. What appeared for a time perhaps to be mere dutifulness, that dried skull, suddenly breaks open in sweetness — and we are not where we thought we were, nowhere that we could have expected to be. It was expectation that would have kept us where we were.”

Sometimes, we do not always choose what is best for us. We have expectations that may not be realistic or healthy. We work towards goals or ideals, that often when realized, leave us feeling hollow. How many times have you found it was the unexpected surprise or circumstance that gave you the most joy? As it says in the Qur’an, “God is the best of schemers.”

Given human nature, we don’t always follow rules or good advice. We make mistakes, sometimes very bad mistakes. Wendell Barry writes:
Marriage too is an attempt to rhyme, to bring two different lives-within the one life of their troth and household — periodically into agreement or consent. The two lives stray apart necessarily, and by consent come together again: to “feel together,” to “be of the same mind.” Difficult virtues are again necessary. And failure, permanent failure, is possible. But it is this possibility of failure, together with the formal bounds, that turns us back from fantasy, wishful thinking, and self-pity into the real terms and occasions of our lives."  
Failure happens, rules get broken. Sometimes there is forgiveness, sometimes not. But I believe, as Louise Erdrich says in her book “The Round House”, "The only thing that God can do, and does all the time, is to draw good from every evil situation."


Wa barik ‘ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala ‘alee Muhammad kama barakta ‘ala Ibrahim wa ‘ala alee Ibrahim. Fil ‘alameena innaka Hameedun Majid.

Send Your blessing upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad in as much as you blessed Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim. You are the Majestic in the whole universe.

I look at the Qur’an as a source of guidance. There are rules, but some of these rules are eternal and some of them are bound to a particular society at a particular time and place. Just as in a marriage, you might have certain expectations for who is going to be the breadwinner, and that might be true for a while, but things can change and roles can change in a marriage. What is important to look at is what are some of the consequences that these different paths will take.

So for instance, what are we to make of the Qur’anic injunction that  “a woman’s testimony is only worth half of a man’s.” What happens in a society, or a marriage for that matter, when women have no say in the justice system? What happens in a society when certain people are privileged over others because of their class rank, race, or gender? What happens to a society where class, race, and gender are irrelevant to the justice system, where all are treated equally under the law?

This Quran’ic surah has problems for Muslim societies. What are we to make of hadith that are narrated by women, particularly hadith that then go on to form components of Muslim law, fiqh? Are we only to accept hadith if they are narrated by two women? Furthermore, what are we to do with female judges? Must their opinions be signed off by a male judge? There have been well respected and eminent female judges during the early years of Islam and their opinions stood firm and were not disputed. I will only mention two today Amrah bint Abdur Rahman and Umm al-Darda. Both of these women are Tabi’een, or Successors, the name for the generation that came after the Companions of the Prophet.

Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was a student of Ayesha bint Abu Bakr, and a specialist in hadith as well as giving respected opinions in law. The Umayyad Caliph, Umar bin Abdul Aziz said, “No one remains alive who is more learned in the Hadith of Aisha than Amrah.”  Another example of the respect accorded to Amrah bint Abdur Rahman was once a judge in Medina ruled in a case involving a Christian thief who had stolen something. The judge had ordered that his hand to be severed. When Amrah bint Abdur Rahman heard of this decision, she immediately told one of her students to tell the judge that he cannot severe the man’s hand because he had stolen something whose value was less than a single gold coin (dinar). As soon as the judge heard what Amrah had said, he ordered that the man be released, unharmed. He did not question her authority, nor did he seek a second opinion from other scholars, who were quite numerous . This incident is recorded in the Muwatta’ of Imam Malik, and this ruling is also his opinion in such cases.

The second female jurist I want to mention is Umm al-Darda, also of the Successors generation who lived in Damascus and Jerusalem in the seventh century. Her husband, Abu Darda, was a companion to the Prophet. Umm al Darda lectured in the male section of the mosque, and was a teacher to many students, including the caliph of Damascus. One story I like about her is narrated by Ibrahim ibn Abalah. He said that a man came to Umm Al Darda and reported to her that someone had criticized her in front of the caliph. Her reply was, “If we are rebuked for something that is not found in us, then very often we are also praised for something that in not in us.”

Both Amrah bint Abdur Rahman and Umm Al Darda were well respected scholars of hadith and law, whose opinions set legal precedents. Their authority was not questioned because of their gender, their intelligence and wisdom was recognized and valued by their communities.

Shari’ah is the path our lives trace in accordance with our religion’s injunctions and guidance. Our choices and their consequences create a record which we will be judged upon by God on the Day of Judgment. But we must keep in mind that these rules and guidance must be tempered to the context of the times in which we are living and must never violate the eternal message of Islam: the respect for justice, mercy and human dignity.

Our Lord! Pour down patience on us, and make our steps firm and assist us against the folk, the ones who are ungrateful (2:250)

Rabbana afrigh ‘alayna sabran wa thabbit aqdamana wansurna ‘alal-ghawmil kafirin.


Friday, November 7, 2014

You're Invited

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

Wa ash-hadu an la ilaha Illal lahu, wahdahu la sharika lahu, wa ash-hadu anna Muhammadin ‘abduhu was rasooluhu al-Mustafa.

I bear witness that there is no deity except Allah; the One who has no partner. And I bear witness that Muhammad is the servant of Allah and His messenger who was chosen by Allah.

Al-Hamdu Lillahli-lathi Anzala Ala ‘abdihil kitaba wa lam yaj’al lahu ‘iwaja.

Praise be to the One (Allah) Who revealed the book to His servant and did not make any distortion to it.

The title of my khutbah is “You’re invited.”

A few weeks ago, I was on the internet reading some of my favorite blogs and one person had suggested that everyone try to write one ‘devotional’ poem every day for a week. So after writing for six days about autumn leaves and pumpkins and the coming of winter, I decided I hadn’t really written a proper ‘devotional’ poem. What in my religious tradition was I ‘devoted’ to?  It only took me a few seconds before I had the answer, and then a few more minutes before I got the poem. See if you can guess what it is from my poem:

The best magic is mind-reading
For this amazing feat, I require two things:
One- a pen with which I will write
Two- my reader who will decipher my words.
There you have it ladies and gentlemen!
The ability to read minds of all persons
Living or dead
As long as they
The pen.

This poem is really a homage to the first words that were ever revealed to our Prophet, as recorded in 96: 1-5:
Iqra bismi Rabbikal-lathi khalaq. Khalaqal ‘insana min ‘alaq. Iqra’ wa Rbbukal- ‘Akram. ‘Allathi ‘allama bilqalam. ‘Allaml-‘insana ma lam ya’lam.

“Read in the name of thy Sustainer,  who has created man out of  a germ cell. Read for thy Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One who has taught (man) the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know.”

Now, given that the Prophet was illiterate, was the first word “read”? Some people translate the word as “Recite”, but the problem with ‘recite’ is that you can recite something without understanding what it is you are saying. A parrot can recite. The reason people use the word ‘read’ is because reading has the intentionality of trying to understand that which you have been given to read. The reader is trying to make a mental connection to the author.

God has given human beings the remarkable capacity to understand the minds of other human beings through reading .We can read books (if we can translate their languages into our own), of people who lived thousands of years ago, like Sappho or Plato or Buddha or Lao-Tze. Humans can construct vast networks of knowledge and information and pass these on to future generations. If I want to know whether Rumi missed his friend, or what Charles Dickens was concerned about, or what Sigmund Freud dreamed about or how Emily Dickenson felt about that spider on her wall, all I have to do is pick up one of their books and start reading. This is an amazing gift. The ability to produce and transmit our ideas to other humans has led to amazing advances in technology and science.

Now in the case of the Qur’an, we have a very special author. Although the Qur’an is just one of His books, His creation is not limited to books, His creation of all elements of the natural world surround and sustain us. The Qur’an says of God’s authorship:

18:109 "Say: if all the sea were ink for my Sustainer’s words, the sea would indeed be exhausted ere my Sustainer’s words are exhausted! And (thus it would be) if We were to add to it sea upon sea."

As well as
31:27 "And if all the trees on earth were pens, and the sea (were ink) with seven (more) seas yet added to it, the words of God would not be exhausted: for verily God is almighty, wise."

When I think about the symbols of different religions, I look at them as invitations to contemplation as well as types of action. In Hinduism there is the symbol of the dancing Shiva-it is hard to be complacent and self-satisfied when someone asks you to dance. In Christianity, there is the symbol of the Cross- self sacrifice and redemption in service to others. In Islam, I think that our symbol is the invitation, “Read!”

When I look around this room and I see you, I know that all of you read, some of you are even in book clubs, some of you are book sellers and writers. I know that you have helped your children learn how to read, and you have modeled reading behavior to your children by reading to them. You have all been faithfully practicing your Islam, so praise God for that blessing, for these opportunities that you have been given.


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.

Allahumma salli ‘ala Muhammadin wa ‘ala alee Muhammad kama sallaita ‘ala Ibrahim wa ‘ala alee Ibrahim.

O Allah! Send Your greeting upon Muhammad and the family of Muhammad in as much as You sent your greeting upon Ibrahim and the family of Ibrahim.

Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah, may God be pleased with her, was one of the Companions of the Prophet and a frequent guest in his home. Her real name was Layla, she converted in Mecca, and later migrated to Medina. Ash-Shifa refers to her ability to heal others. Umar ibn Al-Khattab appointed her administrative officer of the marketplace. She was also his advisor before she died.

Perhaps the most important contribution Ash-Shifa bint Abdullah made to Islam is she taught the Prophet’s wife, Hafsa, how to read and write. Ash-Shifa was well versed in traditional healing, ‘rquyal al-namlah’. She asked the Prophet whether it would be permissible to use this method of healing, and he responded by telling her :“Teach Hafsa the ruqyal al-namlah like you taught her how to write.” (Dawud, Book 28, 3878)

Why is this important? Because Hafsah collected all the ayat of Quran, written down on scraps of paper or animal skins. Ruqayya Khan has called Hafsa the first editor of the Quran.

 There is a hadith that Umar ibn al-Khattab consulted Hafsa when there were disputes about the Quran:

Abu l-Aad related [that] ‘Urwa b. al-Zūbayr said, “People differed over the recitation of ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of Book . . . ’[Q 98: 1], so ‘Umar b. al-Khaṭṭāb came to Hafṣa, [bringing] with [him a scrap of] leather (adīm). He said: When the Messenger of God comes to you, ask him to teach you ‘Those who disbelieve from among the People of the Book’ . . . and tell him to write it for you on this [scrap of] leather. She did [this], and he [i.e., Muḥammad] wrote it for her. This reading became public and widespread [’āmma].sw

In one Islamic tradition, when Caliph Uthman wanted to compile all the surahs of the Quran into one book, or mushaf, he asked Hafsa for her collection of Quranic ‘sheets’. She only agreed to hand  over her documents to him if he promised to give them back. He agreed to her conditions. After her death, Hafsa’s Quranic sheets were destroyed by the governor of Medina, Marwan ibn Hakam.

I would like to conclude with the words of Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founding father and first president of Pakistan, who said, “No struggle can ever succeed without women participating side by side with men. There are two powers in the world: one is the sword and the other is the pen.  There is a great competition and rivalry between the two. There is a third power stronger than both, that of women.”  (speech given 25 March 1940, Islamia College for Women).

I would like to add that if you are a woman in command of a pen, then you are one of the most powerful forces in the world. Use your power wisely!

My concluding du’a is from 3:191-194:

"O our Sustainer! Thou hast not created (aught of) this without meaning and purpose. Limitless art Thou in Thy glory! Keep us safe then, from suffering through fire. O our Sustainer! Whomsoever Thou shalt commit to the fire, him, verily wilt Thou have bought to disgrace, and such evildoers will have none to succor them. O our Sustainer! Behold, we heard a voice inviting us unto faith ‘Believe in your Sustainer’- and so we came to believe. O our Sustainer! Forgive us, then, our sins, and efface our bad deeds, and let us die the death of the truly virtuous. And O our Sustainer, grant us that which Thou has promised us through Thy apostles, and disgrace us not of the Resurrection Day. Thou never failest to fulfill Thy promise."

Rabbana ma khalaqta hadha batilan, subhanaka faqina ‘adhaban-nar. Rabbana innaka man tudkhilin-nara faqad ‘akhqaytahah. Wa ma liz-zalimina min ‘ansar.
Rabbana innana sami’na munadiyany- yunadi lil imani ‘an ‘aminu bi-Rabbikum fa’amanna. Rabbana faghfir lanan dhunubana wa kaffir ‘annna sayyi’atina wa tawaffana ma’al-abrar. Rabbana wa atina ma wa’attana ‘ala Russulika wa la tukhzina yaum-al-qiyamah. Innaka la tukhlifu-l-mi’ad.

Quran translation = Muhammad Asad “The Message of the Qur’an”.

“Did a Woman Edit the Qur’an: Hafsa’s famed Codex” by Ruqayyah Khan, Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Feb 2014