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.