Friday, March 24, 2017

Choice and the Chessboard

The title of my khutbah today is, “Choice and the Chessboard”. It is part 11 of the Iblis series.

In the last khutbah, we discussed Iblis’ spiritual blindness. Rumi calls him the “one eyed” because Iblis was unable to see the connection between God and human beings. If this were a court case, the Sufi scholar Al-Muhasibi, sums up the prosecution’s argument:

“Do you not consider Iblis? When he had learned Almighty God’s command and had testified to His divinity, he then stubbornly resisted His command after knowledge, proof, and testimony. And so Almighty God cursed him until the Day of Reckoning. He became the evil one among created beings. All hope of repentance for him was cut, forever.” –Al Muhasibi, Kitab ar-ri’aya

But to be fair, we have to consider Iblis’ defense of himself. Iblis says in the Qur’an,
“Because You (God) have led me astray, I will definitely waylay them along Your Straight Path.” Quran 7:16

Iblis claims that he is simply an instrument of God, used by God to test humans. Iblis says he is a powerless tool, subservient to God, and God controls everything, God is the source of movement, change, permanence, and no creature can resist temptation or has the strength to obey without the help of God. God orders his creature to do whatever He wills, in the same way He created them when He willed. Al-Ghazali tells a story of God creating two servants, one handsome and highly favored named Jibril, and the other ugly and hated named Iblis. Jibril is assigned the transmission of revelation, while Iblis is responsible for the seduction of mankind into evil. It’s like the king having assigned one servant the job of pouring wine into the cup, while the other servant is responsible for shoveling out the stables. The king gives the one he likes the cushier, cup-bearing job. Al-Ghazali’s moral is we are mistaken if we attribute acts to ourselves. God attributes the acts to individuals, be the action good or evil. As humans are of limited understanding, we cannot comprehend the power of God as manifested in His will (irada) and his command (amr).

This debate, the tension between God’s omnipotence and man’s free will, was a hot topic throughout the Islamic world for many centuries. A human being’s ability to act freely seemed pretty negligible next to God’s omnipotent will as shown through destiny. God will “…lead astray whomever He wills and he guides whomever He wills.” Quran 16:93. In the course of this debate, I will delve into some Islamic philosophical history.

The Mu’tazilites (circa 8th century) believed in human responsibility as an important aspect of God’s justice- they reasoned that justice requires people to be punished or rewarded for deeds performed as a result of a free moral choice. The Mu’tazilites also insisted that God is not Himself involved in the evil which He punishes people for doing. Evil is the side effect of man’s ability to choose.

 A more extreme sect of the Mu’tazilites were called the Qadarites. They went even further and demanded man’s absolute moral responsibility for his actions. They had an idea of radical freedom of will, kind of like Muslim Libertarians.  However, the Qadarite ideology never really caught on, perhaps because this kind of absolute accountability has a few traps. For example, if man through his own power determines his salvation, then this, in effect, makes man an associate of God in determining events. The event of one’s destiny, in this particular example. Putting man on the shelf with God is and was too shirk-like for the average Muslim.

By the middle of the ninth century, the Muslim intelligentsia preferred emphasizing God’s omnipotence over man’s free will. It is important to remember that there were at least two degrees of the predestination doctrine
1.   God determines the circumstances which a human is subjected to but not a person’s reactions to the given set of circumstances.
2. God determines both circumstances and the person’s reaction to the circumstances.

Most Muslim thinkers had no problem with the first doctrine, but the second one, God determines everything, was up for a lot more debate. Religious thinkers wanted to give some freedom to humans.

Al-Ash’ari and his school, were defenders of God’s absolute power and limitless freedom. He rejected all the Qadarite arguments, and even went so far was to reject causality because Al-Ash’ari didn’t like the idea that creation possesses an on-going order of its own. It should be noted that, from the historical perspective, Al-Ash’ari and his school were the 'winners' and the Mu’tazilite doctrines became unfashionable.

So how did Al-Ash’ari deal with the question of God’s involvement in humans’ sinful action? His argument sounds nearly like something we would call relativistic “post-modernism” or a nightcast of Fox News. Al-Ash’ari asserts that there is no intrinsic good or evil to actions. Something is good because God commands it, it is evil because God forbids it. For example, lying is evil because God says it is. If God someday declared that lying was good and ordered believers to lie, then humans would be expected to follow the order. By this train of thought, believing men and women learn what is good and evil by paying attention to God’s command, not by using reason to evaluate the intrinsic moral worth of a given action. This line of reasoning really troubled the Sufis. They used the Iblis story as a way to examine the effect of God’s omnipotence on spiritual life and the conflict this could bring about.

If we accept that God has complete control over the actions of man, then we soon need to accept that God’s actions cannot be understood by human laws of logic, consistency, or clarity. God’s involvement in actions which are unexpected, illogical, or baffling are known in the Islamic tradition as God’s makr, His wiliness.

“When Iblis was overwhelmed by the way he was, Gabriel and Michael, may peace be upon them!- shed tears of grief for a long time. God Most High asked them, “What is wrong with you that you shed all these tears?” They cried out in unison, “’O Lord, we are not safe from Your wiliness!”- Al-Qushayri, Ar-Risalat al-qushayriya.

God alone decides whether an action will lead the way to Him, or whether the same action will be an obstacle that bars the way to Him. Al-Hujwiri cites the example of Jesus. For some, Jesus was a guide to ma’rifa (gnosis), for others, he was a veil (in Kashf al-mahjub). But following this train of thought, Abd Allah Ansari had some pretty pointed questions for God. It is God who chose Adam to be one of the elect, and transformed Iblis into the rebellious sinner. Out of respect, like Adam, we ascribe sinful faults to ourselves, “…but, in truth, You instigated the crime.”- (from Munajat). The logical end to this question is ....was Iblis set up? Can Iblis be exonerated? Should we stop considering Iblis as the sly deceiver and instead look at him as the tragic victim in a carefully crafted shell game? The broader question is perhaps even more troubling- there may be little to no free will involved in the actions of human beings. Perhaps people are no more than pieces moving around a chessboard where the game has already been determined.

Rumi is the most outspoken critic of this fatalistic view of human destiny. He uses the Iblis story to confront these philosophical arguments head on.  From the Mathnawi:

“Learn from father Adam, O clear-browed fellow;
     Aforetime ‘O Lord,’ he said, and ‘we have sinned!’
He neither made excuse nor did he paint any lie,
     The flag of neither trickery nor pretense did he raise.
Contrary to this, Iblis raised his voice in debate:
     'I used to be red-cheeked with honor;
You have made me jaundiced.
     The color is Yours, You are my dyer;
You are the source of my crime, my misery, my scar!’
     Take care! Recite the verse: ‘O Lord, because You have led me astray!’
So you do not become a necessitarian, and weave cheap lies.
     For how long will you leap into the tree of compulsion,
And lay aside your free will,
     Embroiled in battle and controversy with God
Like that Iblis and his offspring?”

Rumi points out that people feel quite free when it becomes a question of choosing to follow their passions, particularly passions which have benefits in the near term and not so much the future, particularly, the afterlife.  21st century economists call this “hyperbolic discounting”.  As a result, people take pleasure in potentially harmful things because they enhance their lives at the moment more than what they judge to be their eventual costs or risks.

Rumi shows us the observable reality of human’s vacillating between two options. The conflict between our impulses, pulling us one way then the other, is indicative of choice. Our choices may not be infinite, they may be constrained by factors of time, place, ability, and information, but more to the point, one can choose to do wrong or not. We cannot blame others, Destiny, the government, or our own past actions, but we must be accountable to ourselves and accept the outcome. To plead “I was just following orders” or “everyone else is doing it”- the hallmarks of the banality of evil, implies there is no responsibility. And if there is no responsibility, then religious and moral imperatives do not exist. 

Even under a totalitarian regime, we can choose to do wrong or right. I’d like to illustrate this with two examples. During WW2, many governments that were invaded by the Nazis willingly cooperated with the invaders. They thought that by cooperating with the Third Reich they would be treated better. In Denmark, the people refused to go along with the Final Solution for their Jewish citizens. Of the 7800 Jews in Denmark, 7220 of them we able to escape to Sweden with the help of their non-Jewish friends. 99% were saved. In Albania even when the Nazis invaded, the Muslim Albanians protected Jews with their Besa, ancient hospitality rules which translate as "keeping a promise". Although there were only 200 Jews in Albania, by the end of the war there were over 2000 as news of Muslim protection spread.

Rumi wrote, “If in God’s opinion, both good and evil were of equal value in the test, then Iblis would possess the same countenance as the moon-faced Gabriel” (Kulliyat-i-Shams-I Tabrizi).

To conclude, if we fail to accept responsibility, if we fail to choose to do good, then we become robots following orders and seeking only our own comfort.  In this robot world, good and evil have no significance, we will no longer be human, and we will have no place of significance in the afterlife.

“O those who have believed! Be the ones who are staunch as witnesses in equity for God and let not that you detest a folk move you that you deal not justly. Be just. That is nearer to God consciousness. And be Godfearing of God. Truly God is Aware of what you do. And God has promised those who have believed and the ones who have acted in accord with morality that for them is forgiveness and a sublime compensation. And those who were ungrateful and denied Our signs, those will be the companions of Hellfire!” 5:8-10 


Friday, March 3, 2017

BE HERE NOW: The Case for a Gender Equal Mosque

Surah Al Fatihah

At Tahiyyaatu lilaahi was Salawaatu wat tayibaatu
As Salaamu ‘alaika ayyuhan nabiyyu wa rahmatul laahi wa barakaatuh
As Salaamu ‘alainaa wa ‘alaa ‘ebaadillaahis saaliheen

Let me say this up front.  I have been planning for weeks to use the opportunity of giving this khutbah to present a case for building a gender equal mosque.  I started reading about the reform movement in Judaism, to use the Jews experience as an example of where I see the Muslim community moving in America.  In fact, there are many parallels between the Jewish reform movement and reformists’ vision of Islam.  This is from the website “”

Reform Judaism has asserted that a Judaism frozen in time cannot coexist effectively with those who live in modern times. The great contribution of Reform Judaism is that it has enabled the Jewish people to introduce innovation while preserving tradition, to embrace diversity while asserting commonality, to affirm beliefs without rejecting those who doubt, and to bring faith to sacred texts without sacrificing critical scholarship.”

“We believe that all human beings are created in the image of God, and that we are God’s partners in improving the world. Tikkun olam — repairing the world — is a hallmark of Reform Judaism as we strive to bring peace, freedom, and justice to all people.”

“Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion.  Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. We were the first movement to ordain women rabbis, invest women cantors, and elect women presidents of our synagogues.  Reform Jews are also committed to the full participation of gays and lesbians in synagogue life as well as society at large.”

The story of how Reform Judaism evolved from its 19th century origins in Europe is worth our attention, but I decided not to focus on that today, because several things happened while I was in Maryland last week that seemed more relevant to this theme, and more important to share. 

Surah 2:  Al-Baqarah
Wa qala-ladhina la ya ‘lamuna
And those who are devoid of knowledge say:
lawla yukallimunal-lahu ‘aw ta ‘tinaa Ayah. 
‘Why does God not speak to us, or show us a miraculous sign?’ 
Kadhalika qalal-ladhina min-qablihim-mithla qawlihim. 
Even thus, like unto what they say, spoke those who lived before their time: 
Tashabahat qulubuhum. 
Their hearts were all alike.
Qad bayyannal-‘Ayati liqawminy-yuqinun.  [118]
Indeed, We have made all the signs manifest unto people who recognize an inner truth.  [118]

God is omnipresent – with us, around us, sustaining us all the time.  And when we are open to listening, we can see and hear God’s signs.  Last week in Maryland, there were several times when I felt there were lessons I was meant to learn.

The first thing that happened was that I was invited to give a presentation on Islam to a group of congregants at my niece Jenny’s church - Mt. Carmel United Methodist Church in Frederick Maryland.  It was a Monday night, and she did not advertise the event until less than a week before.  She expected that about eight people would show up – members of a loyal bible study group.  In fact, there were more than 40 people in the room.  The first thing I did was pass around my grandmother’s wedding photo.  She was born, lived her entire life, and died in Frederick, which is where I was also born.  Then I told them about my journey to Islam, and opened the floor for questions.  This was the first time I have ever talked about being a Muslim to non-Muslims outside of the family in my native community.  It was a defining experience for me – confronting the ambiguities I have always felt about the way the course of my life has taken me away from my roots.  It went very well, Alhamdulillah.  I left feeling more balanced, and I believe they all left feeling affirmed in their hope that Islam is not the threat it is portrayed to be.  There is tremendous empowerment in sharing a true story – for both the teller and the audience. 

After that experience, and based on my mother’s story of attending a very cathartic interfaith meeting at the Western Maryland Islamic Center in Hagerstown, I decided that I would like to go to their Friday prayer service.  Their website said that Jumaa was at 12:15, so I went.  There were only a few cars and no one in sight at the entrance.  But I decided that since I was there anyway, I might as well pray Friday prayer and leave.  I put my boots on the rack at the entrance and went into the prayer hall.  There were a few men in the front of the large prayer space.  There was a space at the back of the hall separated by moveable screens.  But there was a substantial space in the middle of the screens that was open to the mihrab.  I decided I would not be compromising my integrity, and also not making anyone uncomfortable if I sat and prayed at the opening.  I did my prayer, and then sat meditating.  A few more men came in, and a few more, and then a woman came directly into the women’s space from a separate door on the opposite side of the mosque.  Whoops.  I realized I had come in the “wrong” door.  I asked the woman if there would be a Jumaa prayer and she said it was at 1:30.  I decided to stay.  By the time of Jumaa, both the men’s and the women’s prayer spaces were full.  The khutbah was given by a guest Imam who spoke about the need to reach out to the broader community, and the need for Muslims to be more tolerant and open to difference.  Well this is ironic, I thought – because unless I stay here until everyone else leaves - I am going to have to test their ability to be tolerant because I now have to leave through the men’s side and retrieve my boots from the men’s shoe rack.  What to do?  After the prayer, men immediately began to leave and congregate, filling the entry hall where my boots were waiting for me.  And the women filed out through the side entrance.  I finally summoned up my courage, apologies ready, walked out through the men’s entrance and went to get my boots.  No one said anything.  In fact, they were all so wrapped up in their conversations, they did not seem to even notice me.  Alhamdulillah.  What I was reminded of is that truly, the only thing we have to fear is distancing ourselves from God. 

Surah 24:  The Light
            Wa ‘adal-lahul-ladhina ‘amanu minkum wa amilus-salihati…
God has promised those of you who have attained to faith and do righteous deeds…
Layubaddilannahum-mim-ba’di khawfihim ‘amna.
God will cause their erstwhile state of fear to be replaced by a sense of security
Ya budunani la yushrikuna bi shay’a. 
Seeing that they worship me alone, not ascribing powers to aught beside Me.  [55 excerpts]


The last thing that happened in Maryland was at a family dinner the night before I left.  My nephew, the farmer, brought his wife, nine-year-old twin boys, and pizza to my Mom’s house, and we were joined by my brother (his father) and my sister-in-law.  While talking after dinner, with the kids in the next room, we found ourselves on the slippery slope of talking about the Trump administration.  Two things are important to know – first, that I love this nephew very much.  He is passionate about farming.  He has been successfully navigating the very difficult and complicated business of running a growing farming enterprise since graduating from agricultural college.  He married his high school sweetheart, and is raising two wonderful, challenging twin boys.  He has inherited the family gene for determination, which can also manifest as  stubbornness – which we were both displaying that night.  I suspected he may have voted for Trump, but when he started defending him using all the rhetoric of the Alt-Right media, I lost control of my normal “Aunt Judy” persona, and ended up sounding angry and aggressive before I could stop myself from going there.  My sister-in-law, much to my chagrin, went into the other room to distract the kids in case they might get scared by my tone.  The next morning Jeremiah sent me a looong text message about how he had felt defensive, and he was tired of having to defend himself as a white man against perceived accusations of racism while his white sons “will not have any chance of getting scholarships as white men.”  That was, above all else, why he supported Trump.  I have work to do to re-establish the closeness I have always felt with Jeremiah. 

I need to constantly remind myself that the most important thing in any journey is not the road I am taking, but how I conduct myself along the way, and that I cannot let my deeply felt convictions and loyalty to my own integrity blind me to the needs and sensitivities of others.  Everything will happen in its time for those who love God.

There is a lesson in that for me, as I stand for equal access for everyone to expression and leadership in our mosques.  Empowered women must not lead to the impression of disempowering men.  In fact, I think the fear of disempowering men is one of the major hurdles we face in our effort to get to a place of balance.  It is not in the interest of men or women for men to feel disempowered.  (And this isn’t only true in the Muslim community of course – look at all the women who voted for Donald Trump.)  The fact is, we need to respect and value our differences to be balanced within ourselves and with each other.  The powerful feminine and the powerful masculine are both essential for balance to be achieved – for healthy individual personalities and for healthy relationships. 

The ultimate punishment that we can experience is the feeling of separation from God – the sense of loneliness and despair that come from a life without any kind of faith.  We separate ourselves from God when we separate ourselves from each other.

Surah 3:  The House of Imran
Fastajaba lahum Rabbuhum
And thus does their Sustainer answer their prayer:
‘anni laa udi’u amalu ‘amilim-minkum min-dhakarin aw untha b dukum mim-ba’d….
‘I shall not lose sight of the labour of any of you who labours [in My way], be it man or woman:  each of you is an issue of the other….’ [195]

Finally, I want to share another realization I came to – this time as I was compiling an annotated bibliography on Islam and Muslims.  Several of Jenny’s congregants had asked for sources after my presentation last Monday.  I spent a lot of time on it, because I wanted to give them a variety, and also give them a sense of the diversity and struggles of the Muslim community in America today.  As I went through my sources – many of them read by many of you – Mohammed Asad, Jonathan Brown, Khalid Abou El Fadl, Reza Aslan, Fazlur Rehman, Laila Ahmed, Aminah Wadud, Ingrid Mattson, Ziauddin Sardar, Meraj Mohiuddin, etc., I realized something.  We are already in the middle of Islamic Reform.  It is being articulated all around us.  We may not have an iconic leader yet as Reform Muslims – someone like Charles Darwin was for evolutionary theory, or Adam Smith was for capitalist theory, or Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise for Reform Judaism in America.  But the raw material is all there for us.  We’ve read it.  We feel it.  We know it.  All we need to do is dispel our fears, follow our hearts, and never forget our sense of compassion.

Surah 13:  Thunder
            Qul innal-laha yudillu many-yashaa’u wa yahdil ilayhi man anab.
Say: ‘Behold, God lets go astray whoever wills to go astray, just as God guides all who turn to God [27]
            Alladhina amanu wa tatma’innu qulubuhum-bidhikril-lah.
            Ala bidhikril-lahi tatma innul-qulub.
Those who believe, and whose hearts find their rest in the remembrance of God – for truly, in the remembrance of God do hearts find their rest: [28]

Alladhina amanu wa amilus-salihati tuba lahum wa husna ma’ab. They who attain to faith and do righteous deeds are destined for happiness in this world, and the most beauteous of all goals in the life to come!’ [29]