Friday, February 19, 2016

Unity in Diversity

Surah Jonah  10:19
Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim
Wa ma kanan-nasu
illaa ummataw-wahidatan-fakhtalafu.
Wa lawla kalimatun-sabaqat
mir-Rabbika laqudiya baynahum fima fihi yakhtalifun.

Mankind was but one community, then they differed.  And if not for a Word that had preceded from thy Lord, judgment would have been made between them concerning that wherein they differed.

Surah al-Ma’idah 5:48
And We have sent down unto thee the Book in truth, confirming the Book that came before it, and as a protector over it.  So judge between them in accordance with what God has sent down, and follow not their caprices away from the truth that has come to thee.  For each among you We have appointed a law and a way.  And had God willed, He would have made you one community, but [He willed otherwise], that He might try you in that which He has given you.  So vie with one another in good deeds.  Unto God shall be your return all together, and He will inform you of that wherein you differ.

The ayat before and after ayah 48 in Surah al-Maa’idah show that it is referring specifically to the People of the Book and some differences between, Jews, Christians and the new revelations of Prophet Mohammed, pbuh.  The Muslims are instructed not to follow those of the teachings of earlier religions that contradict what is being revealed to the Prophet.  Ayat 49-53 specifically target hypocrites as the worst transgressors – those who claim to follow the new faith but then turn away from God’s commandments.  A careful reading shows that the Muslims have not been advised in these passages to reject those who follow other faiths.  They have been advised not to follow them, especially  in those ways in which they have deviated from God’s will, and not to be hypocritical – claiming allegiance to one faith and then supporting the other.  In other words, follow your faith in One God, honestly and sincerely. 

The admonition to follow the straight path and not deviate from belief in Allah  is probably the most repeated concept in the Quran.  We read it over and over, in almost every surah.  This is understood by most Muslims to mean that Islam is the only true faith.  I want to explore that idea today, especially in light of what that understanding means for us as Muslims in a multi-religious, multi-cultural society.  Quran acknowledges in Ayah 5:48 and Ayah 10:19 that diversity is a human trait, and that diverse communities can learn from each other when competing to create a greater good.  These days, I believe we need to apply that same approach to dealing with differences between Muslims themselves, and between Muslims and the broader society. 

I recently heard about a film that was made several years ago called The Mosque in Morgantown.   It’s about the fight between the journalist and activist Asra Nomani and the mosque community in her hometown in West Virginia.   In the trailer for the film, Nomani talks about going back to Morgantown when she left Pakistan after the execution of her friend and fellow journalist, Daniel Pearl.  “When I heard the sermons of hate and intolerance in my hometown mosque,” she said, “I knew that I couldn’t just watch silently.  I was gonna stand up and fight.”  So she wrote articles and tried to pray in the men’s prayer space.

Those in the mosque community did not see her activism as a noble cause.  Mosque leaders said “Asra’s articles didn’t give an accurate depiction of what’s going on in Morgantown.  It made everyone look bad.”  They accused her of comparing them to the people who killed Daniel Pearl, which they categorically rejected.  One hijabi woman said “She wants to bend the rules of Islam her way.  You can’t do that – these are not human rules.”

If God says in Quran that if He had so willed, He would have made us one community, but He willed otherwise, and we should compete in doing good deeds –why are Muslims so adverse to difference?

There are a couple of Hadith that are well known to most Muslims:

First, all of the principal Hadith scholars narrated the report that the Prophet told his followers, at the end of his life, that if they follow Quran and Sunnah, they will never go astray.

Second, a hadith from Al-Tirmidhi:
Allah's Messenger (peace be upon him) said: There will befall my Ummah exactly (all those) evils which befell the people of Isra'il… and if the people of Isra'il were fragmented into seventy-two sects my Ummah will be fragmented into seventy-three sects. All of them will be in Hell Fire except one sect. They (the Companions) said: Allah's Messenger, which is that? Whereupon he said: It is one to which I and my companions belong.

These transmissions have left a legacy of rejection of diversity of opinion in Islam.  Muslims believe that if they just follow Quran and Sunnah, they will not go wrong. 

But the fact is, as soon as the Prophet left this life, his followers, those who had lived with him and been the direct recipients of his message for 23 years, immediately disagreed with each other about the meanings of Quran and Sunnah.  And the disagreements have not stopped since.  Orthodox interpretations have been imposed, sometimes to the death of those who differed.  But there have always been disagreements over what is meant by the words of Quran and the legacy of the Prophet. 

And now we Muslims who are living as minorities in democratic countries find ourselves surrounded by diversity on every front, in societies where the idea of imposing any kind of orthodoxy is anathema to the very fabric of the social order.  And the freedom guaranteed by that social order is the same freedom that protects our right to be here practicing our faith.  We must make our peace with diversity.

If we look to God’s natural world for instruction, evolution shows us that species diversification is essential for survival, and species that do not adapt to changes in their environment eventually die out.  If we look to human history, we see that autocratic regimes eventually fall.  Intransigent ideas do not survive.

So I gave myself the task of looking for illumination from Quran.  Are there any messages to guide us in a sea of diversity?   

And so I research.  And it is not easy, God knows.  In fact, when I hear atheists critiquing religion – which is common on our radio and TV these days, I have to admit, I sometimes wish I could join them.  Life would be seemingly so much simpler if I didn’t have to keep searching for meaning in inadequate translations of a text written for people in a 7th century tribal culture – just let it go.  How tempting!  But for better or for worse – and of course I believe it’s for better – I can’t let go of my belief in God.  I can’t imagine life without it.  I believed in God before I came to Islam.  In fact, my belief in God brought me to Islam, and that belief is what keeps me devoted to the project of finding meaning for myself in this faith.  I will make mistakes, and God forgive my many shortcomings, but not giving up on that up on that project is my way of submitting to God’s will for my life. 

And so I continue to read, and as always, I find meaning that resonates.

The first concept that I find most applicable to the notion of diversity in interpretation and practice of faith is the idea of the nature of what God is in the first place.  Who or What is Allah, that we all worship and follow?  As we all know, when one of the companions asked this question of the Prophet, Surah Ikhlas was revealed:

Surah 112:  Al-Ikhlas 
Qul Huwal-lahu Ahad
Say:  He is the One God:
God the Eternal – the Uncaused Cause of All that Exists.
Lam yalid wa lam yulad.
He begets not, and neither is He begotten;
Wa lam yakul-lahu kufuwan Ahad.
And there is nothing that could be compared with Him.

This concept of God was so foreign to the Arabs – used to worshipping idols created in the image of human beings - that it had to be repeated to them over and over and over in revelation.  God is beyond all human understanding – you must accept that, and trust that notion to the point of never worshipping anything other than that which can never be fully understood.  So no human being – no group – no community – no religion – can claim to have a complete understanding of God.  Those that do are the ones who are truly lost, and the ones we should truly fear.  We can learn and grow from each other’s ideas, and we should, knowing that we are all inadequate before God.  Search for understanding from every source – even the atheist might have something I can learn from - but trust completely ONLY in the Creator Who cannot be known.


Surah Maryam  19:69-70:
Thumma lananzi anna min-kulli shi’atin
ayyuhum ashaddu alar-Rahmani itiyya. 69
Thumma laNahu a’lamu bil-ladhina hum awla biha silliyya. 70

Then indeed We shall pluck out from every group whosoever among them was most insolent toward the Compassionate.
Then We shall surely know those who most deserve to burn therein.

We should we open to finding understanding from any source, but don’t we need guideposts to help us discriminate among them?  Well, Quran gives us a big one. Here is another reference:

Surah al-Ra’d  The Thunder 13:30
Thus have We sent thee [Prophet Mohammed] unto a community before whom other communities have passed away, that thou mayest recite unto them that which We have revealed unto thee; yet they disbelieve in the Compassionate.  Say, “He is my Lord, there is no god but He.  In Him do I trust and unto Him do I turn.”

God is Rahman - the Compassionate, and those who reject Compassion are truly lost. 

Think about it – we begin every recitation of the Quran, every invocation to God with those words – Bismillahi Rahmani Rahim – in the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful.  Is it possible that compassion is the key to dealing with diversity?  Where is the compassion in the story of the Morgantown mosque?  Neither Asra nor the hijabi woman seemed to have much compassion for the other.  Of course, in that story I identify more with Asra Nomani than with the woman in hijab.  I assume that the hijabi woman would have no compassion for me.  But when I read those ayat from Surah Maryam and Surah Ar-Rad, I had to ask myself, how compassionate am I towards her?  I am so used to feeling marginalized because of my commitment to equal treatment for women and men, I immediately assume that those who disagree with me would have no compassion toward me.  How presumptuous is that.  By making that assumption, I approach the other defensively, which naturally elicits a defensive response, regardless of how the person might have responded to me had I felt less threatened.  I should have confidence in the value of my own position, while trying to understand the other.

And as it happened, I was given the chance to do that last weekend.  We were at the Turkish American Center, praying Isha prayer in the mosque.  I had seen that prayer space before, open and beautiful.  But this time there was a screen up, separating men from women, with women, of course, in the rear.  At first I felt my usual resentment.  But as I prayed, I allowed myself to appreciate the separation, the seclusion from the men, the feeling of being special and protected.  I understood the other point of view, even while appreciating the value of my own preference of having men and women at the same level, worshipping God together.  I don’t have to devalue my own perspective to see the value in the other.  That, I hope, is a start in the direction of compassion – for myself and those who are different from me.

Surah Al Hujurat  49:10-13
The believers are but brothers; so make peace between your brethren, and reverence God, that haply you may receive mercy.
O you who believe!  Let not one people deride another; it may be that they are better than them.  Nor let women deride other women; it may be that they are better than them.  And do not defame yourselves or insult one another with nicknames; how evil is the iniquitous name after having believed!  And whosoever does not repent, they are the wrongdoers.
O you who believe!  Shun much conjecture.  Indeed, some conjecture is a sin.  And do not spy upon one another, nor backbite one another.  Would any of you desire to eat the dead flesh of his brother?  You would abhor it.  And reverence God.  Truly God is Relenting, Merciful.
O mankind!  Truly We created you from a male and a female, and We made you peoples and tribes that you may come to know one another.  Surely the most noble of you before God are the most reverent of you.  Truly God is Knowing, Aware.

As we try to understand what is happening to and through Islam in our world today, we must encourage creativity – new ideas – never losing sight of our heritage, but allowing all ideas to flourish in the search for answers moving forward.  This is unity in diversity – to be strong enough to embrace difference, indeed to celebrate difference and - this is the hardest part – to do so with compassion. 

Surah al-Hajj  22:77-78

O you who believe!  Bow, prostrate, and worship your Lord!  And do good, that haply you may prosper.
And strive for God as He should be striven for.  He has chosen for you – and has placed no hardship for you in the religion – the creed of your father Abraham.  He named you muslims aforetime, and herein, that the Messenger may be a witness for you, and that you may be witnesses for mankind.  So perform the prayer and give the alms, and hold fast to God.  He is your Master.  How excellent a Master, and how excellent a Helper!

Fa ‘aqimus-Salata wa atus-Zakata wa tasimu billihi
Huwa Mawlakum fani mal-Mawla wa ni’man Nasir. 78

Sadaq Allahu Al-Azeem.

Friday, February 5, 2016

A Worthy Adversary Part 5, Sin-prone Hallows

The title of my khutbah today is Sin-prone Hallows. This is Part 5 of A Worthy Adversary series.

The hadith body of literature is extremely vast, so I will only be exploring some of the hadith about Iblis and Satan which are in three of the most commonly accepted hadith compilations (Al-Bukari, Muslim, and Ibn Maja).

The first ahadith mentions Iblis by name, and is found in the Muslim collection Al-Jami’ as-sahih, 8:31:
“Abu Bakr Ibn Abi Shayba related that Yunus Ibn Muhammad related from Hammad Ibn Salama, from Thabit, from Anas who said that the messenger of God, may God bless him and grant him peace!- said, “When God formed Adam in Paradise, God bequethed him what He wished to bequeath him. Then Iblis began to walk around him to see what he was. And when Iblis perceived that Adam was hollow, he knew that he (Adam) was created as a creature who could not restrain himself.”

Iblis alone, among all the angels, is curious and intelligent enough to perceive man’s inherent weakness. Iblis uses this knowledge to his advantage, exploiting men and women and making them his slaves. From the time of birth, he initiates their entrapment by pricking them. This is why all babies cry out at birth, only two exceptions were ever made to this rule- Isa and Maryam.

From Muslim as well as Al-Bukhari:

“Abu Bakr ibn Abi Shayla related that from ‘Abd Al’A’la related from Ma’mar from Az-Zuhri, from Sa’id, from Abu Hurayra who said that the messenger of God- may God bless him and grant him peace!- said, ‘No child is born without Satan (Ash-Shaytan) pricking him. Then the child begins to cry out from the goad of Satan- except the son of Maryam and his mother.”

All three hadith collections use the same Arabic idiom to relate intimate nature of the relationship between Shaytan and human beings: “Inna ‘sh-Shaytan yajri min al-insan (or Ibn Adam) majra ‘d-dam” It is difficult to translate this into English, but the idea is that Satan is part of man’s very lifeblood (dam) . It is impossible to purge him because Satan moves along the same hollow path of arteries and veins (majra d-dam) through which human blood flows. To be alive means to know Satan in one’s very core, to kill him would entail self-destruction. Although the Quran tells us that God is closer to us than our jugular vein (50:16), hadith tell us that Ash-Shaytan moves through our veins.

When I thought about this, that humans are vulnerable because we are hollow, it reminded me of T.S. Eliot's poem, "The Hollow Men":

"We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar.

                    Shape without form, shade without colour,
               Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

   Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other kingdom
Remember us-- if at all-- not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men"

Man is hollow and craves to be filled. Shaytan is more than happy to provide cheap promises which fill the gaps.

If all humans are hollow creatures which provide niches for Satan to dwell, then how much control did Satan have over the inner drives and psychic processes of Prophet Muhammad? Muhammad must also have been pricked by Satan at birth, so how did he rid himself of Satan’s taint? The hadith provide answers:

“Shayban Ibn Farrukh related that Hammad Ibn Salama related that Thabit Al-Bunani related from Anas Ibn Malik who said that the messenger of God- may God bless him and grant him peace!- was visited by Gabriel- may God bless him and grant him peace!- while he (Muhammad) was playing with some young boys. Gabriel seized him, threw him down on the ground and split open his chest. He removed his heart and removed from his heart a clot. And he said, “This is the satanic part of you.’ Then he washed it (the heart) in a gold basin with water from Zamzam. He mended it and put it back in its place…And Anas said, ‘I used to see the trace of this scar on his chest.’

In addition to the satanic taint, each and every man and woman have their own particular shaytan or jinn. Even Muhammad, whose interior was cleansed by Gabriel, had his own personal shaytan. However, with God’s help, Muhammad’s personal shaytan converted to Islam and thenceforth was a force only for good.

“Uthman Abu Shayba and Ishaq Ibn Ibrahim related that Ishaq told us that Uthman said that Jarir related from Mansur, from Salim Ibn Abi’l-ja’d, from his father, from ‘Abd Allah Ibn Mas’ud who said that the messenger of God- may God bless him and grant him peace!- said, ‘There is no one among you who does not have a jinn as his companion placed in charge of him.’ They said, ‘And you, too, O messenger of God?’ He said, ‘Even me, except that God came to my assistance and against him and he (the jinn) has become Muslim. Now he only urges me to do good.”

In traditional Muslim life, the spirit world constantly interferes in human life. Spiritual interference becomes a rational explanation for occasional irrational behavior. For example, uncontrolled rage is a direct result of satanic influences, and alleviation of this conduct is achieved by seeking refuge in God from “Ash-Shaytan ar-rajeem”, “Satan the Stoned”.

Satan also has the power to materialize in human form. By assuming this disguise, he can approach unsuspecting men and women in a non-threatening manner in order to seduce them. One of Satan’s favorite disguises is to approach a believer as a man seeking spiritual religious truth. He first asks about the origin of the heavens, the world, the creatures that live in the world, and about God’s prophets and messengers. The giveaway question is “And who created your Lord?” At this point, the good believer should recognize this as blasphemy and seek refuge in God.

Man’s confrontation with Satan in disguise occurs most often in the semi-conscious state, in the realm of dreams and sleep. In the dream world, Satan takes on much more frightening shapes. The hadith distinguish between dreams, al-hulm, and vision, ar-ru’ya. Dreams can be affected by satan, vision is only sent by God. The cure for al-hulm is straight forward; spit three times to the left, some add that one should change sleeping position. In contrast to al-hulm, a vision, ar-ru’ya, is to be cherished since it is linked with the revelation of God’s will. An ar-ru’ya often unveils things of consequence for one’s waking state.

Although Satan can take on nightmarish forms, Satan can also assume the dream form of a friend, lover, or family member- an effective method of leading a trusting believer astray. The hadith assure the community, however, that God will protect Muslims from ever seeing Satan disguised as Prophet Muhammad.

“Abu Marwan al-‘Uthmani told us and said that ‘Abd Al-‘Aziz Ibn Abi Hazim related from Al-‘Ala Ibn ‘Abd Ar-Rahman, from his father, from Abu Hurayra who said that the messenger of God-may God bless him and grant him peace!- said ‘He who sees me in sleep has truly seen me, for Satan does not take on my form.”

The hadith are very perceptive about shutting down the hysteria which may follow from spreading satanic dreams. The hadith tradition prohibits communicating frightening dreams of encounters with Satan to others. An oft-recurring hadith is about a man who dreamt that his head had been cut off and that his body was rushing after his rolling head. Muhammad calms the man by telling him that this is Satan’s way of messing with him. Additionally, the Prophet warns him that he should not advertise his dream to the community. “If Satan toys with someone of you in his dream state, do not under any circumstances tell people about it.” (Ibn Maja, Sunan, 2:1287 #3912). As refuge against continual bad dreams, believers are counseled to take refuge in God and recite the verse of the Throne (Quran 2:255).

Ash-Shaytan pervades the whole sleep process from onset of drowsiness to waking. Hadith warn people to cover their mouth when they yawn, lest Satan enter. The noise one makes as yawning is the sound of Satan’s laugh. Hadith counsel that upon waking, believers must purify their noses with water since Satan makes his home there during the night. During the night Satan ties a cord around the believer’s neck and knots it three times. If on waking, God’s name is invoked, one knot is loosed. The second knot is removed by making wudu, and the last knot is eliminated by making fajr prayers.

One last satanic influence during the night has to do with sexual intercourse.  Hadith tell believers to seek refuge in God when having intercourse, and God’s help and protection should be invoked to prevent Satan from harming the child that God may produce in the union.


Before I delve any further into the hadith literature, I feel I need to tell you that the first time I read through this section, I got very upset. Although many of these hadith were familiar to me, I had heard them from family, friends, acquaintances, and at the masjid, I didn’t like them. It was this kind of tradition that I have the most difficulty with and I reject or suspend much of it. I do not give it the kind of authority over my decision making that many within the Muslim community do.

In reviewing the hadith tradition, it is important to keep in mind what kind of things influence our decision making capacity. Are we guided by authority figures, ethical principles, lived experience, cultural values, orthodoxy, tradition, time of day, what we just ate, advertising or some combination of these factors? While I might deride a believer for being superstitious, might not that same believer deride me for being overly trusting in scientific studies? We all tend to put our faith in institutions and explanations that reinforce our ideas of authentic existence. When I take an ibuprofen for a headache, I am reinforcing my belief in the efficacy of modern medicine-  reliably reproducible studies which have been conducted on large patient populations to measure efficacy of a medication. When a Muslim says “Al-hamdu lilallah” after sneezing, he is reinforcing his belief in the efficacy of hadith- practices of the Prophet that have been handed down in a reliable transmission through generations of believing Muslims. Each of us believes in something, we choose to put our trust in different knowledge streams.

Debating who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a belief system is an exercise in futility because these belief systems are not necessarily derived from logic, they are primarily derived from sources that are believed to be authoritative and authentic. That is not to say these sources aren't important, but they cannot be evaluated using the tools of logic. As per Wittgenstein, "Whereof one cannot speak, one must be silent.” Instead of sinking time into debates of who holds the most authority or authenticity, let us instead examine how particular theories which explain phenomenon (hypotheses) can direct future actions. I think you can see some of this at work from the examples in the first part of this khutbah (i.e. irrational behavior as explained by spiritual interference), and I will continue to give more examples in my subsequent khutbah which will analyze the role of Ash-Shaytan in daily life through the lens of hadith literature.

As Muslims, we feel it is important to have spirituality in our daily lives. The challenge comes as how to have a healthy form of spirituality manifest itself in daily practice. We are made hollow, so what will we choose to fill these hollow spaces? The Quran reminds us of the importance of this task in 6:124;

And whomsoever God wills to guide, his bosom He opens wide with willingness towards self-surrender (unto Him) and whomsoever He wills to let go astray, his bosom He causes to be tight and constricted, as if he were climbing unto the skies; it is thus that God inflicts horror upon those who will not believe.”

In this ayah, the word for ‘tight and constricted’ is arajan, which in Arabic has the connotation of thick vegetative growth, the kind that you find in a dense forest that chokes out the light. If we fill our hollow spaces with things and practices that take us away from God (excessive drugs, alcohol, sex, pursuit of material gain), these practices in the long run have an end point- complete despair, “as if he were climbing unto the skies”. This is a terrible emotional horror, one that can be fully experienced on this earth. While the pleasures of this world may seem like short-cuts to spirituality, they are not. They do not lead to healthy growth, they do not bring one closer to God, they are dead ends. Only faith and self-surrender to God can bring us light, hope, and peace of mind.

My closing du’a is from Quran 60:4-5.  “Our Lord, on You we have placed our trust, and to You we are penitent, and to You is the eventual returning. Our Lord! Do not make us a cause for their pleasure for those who are ungrateful and forgive us. Our Lord! Truly You are the Mighty, the Wise.” 



Peter Awn “Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology” in Studies in the History of Religions (supplement to NUMEN) Vol XLIV, edited by M. Heerma van Voss, EJ Sharpe and RJZ Weblowsky, (Leiden: EJ Brill Publishers) 1983

 T.S. Eliot The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: New York) 1971, p 56

The Message of the Qur'an translated by Muhammad Asad (The Book Foundation: Bristol) 2003