Celebrating in the Shadows of World Politics
The Vatican said the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, a man who sowed division and hatred and who caused “innumerable” deaths, should prompt serious reflection about one’s responsibility before God, not rejoicing.
‘Osama bin Laden, as we all know, bore the most serious responsibility for spreading divisions and hatred among populations, causing the deaths of innumerable people, and manipulating religions to this end” Father Lombardi said. “In the face of a man’s death, a Christian never rejoices, but reflects on the serious responsibilities of each person before God and before men, and hopes and works so that every event may be the occasion for the further growth of peace and not of hatred.’ (Catholic News Service)
The Vatican is holding firmly on to its commitment to realizing the ideals of common respect and tolerance between Islam and the Church as articulated in the historic document “A Common Word Between You and Us.”
From our side, let us remind ourselves as Muslims that our celebrations, festivities and commemorations need to be configured within the orbit of Islamic Spirituality. This was the want of some of our greatest leaders in the past such as Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (Saladin d. 1193), Omar Mukhtar of Libya (d. 1931) and al-Amir al-Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (d. 1883). The latter is known to have freed his French prisoners purely on the grounds that he did not have enough food for them to eat! In July of 1860 – whilst in exile in Syria – he saved thousands of Christians from slaughter by the Druze. For this the French honoured him with special favours. Moreover, acts of humanitarianism during times of war by the former two are far too many to be mentioned in a short piece of this nature. Suffice it to say that they all gained the greatest respect both within the Muslim World and beyond. While some of them lost the battle and others won gloriously, the modus vivendi of all these great saints and warriors stand us both proud and as vitalizing nodes of inspiration for whoever wishes to fight and struggle in the name of Islam.
There is a well-known saying amongst Muslims that declares: ’ala al–mar’i an yasa’ wa laysa ‘alayhi idrak al-najah (It is compulsory for one to try one’s best; but it is not compulsory to succeed).
In their efforts to defend Islam against the most belligerent invaders, they stood us proud in their defense of the cause. They tried their best according to the Divine Pattern of things. While some of them lost the battle they remain as monuments of light and left behind an immortal legacy as beacons of the Way of the Prophet (the sunnah) in conducting and setting the standards for a just war. A deep sense of the ethical, of morality and spirituality, were constitutive values in their engagement of the enemy, and they were all of a Sufi disposition.
Today we witness jubilant scenes celebrating death and destruction on both sides of the divide – both in the Muslim world and just recently in the USA. Indeed Hollywood has already produced its Oscar award winning sensationalist version of the Bin Laden event, “Zero Dark Thirty, capitalizing on the death of the many innocent people who died in the search for the USA’s most wanted man.
Meanwhile the over-politicization of the world and humanity at both the civilizational and cultural levels will invariably lead to increased tensions and animosity. Add to that a consumerist culture of rampant economic greed – bereft of any sense of the sacred – then we have a cauldron of boiling poison that threatens to destroy the very ground upon which it stands.
The lessons to be learnt are that when we do rejoice – such as during the two ‘Ids and the Mawlud al-Nabi (the Birth of the Prophet) celebrations, for example – our rejoicing need not be read as a moment of insensitivity towards the suffering of others. On the contrary, our rejoicing is an expression of the Qur’anic verse:
“Do not despair of the Mercy of Allah, for Allah forgives all sins.”(39: 53)
We have to rejoice at the fact that even if we have nothing other than Islam and Iman (secure faith) that this is enough cause for celebration.
“Indeed, the true religion with Allah is Islam.” (Qur’an, 3: 19).
Here Islam is not presented as a falsification of other prophets and religions, but as a crystalline distillation of those beliefs, rites and practices that found both their manifestation and actualization – in all their multifarious forms – throughout our sacred history from the time of the Prophet Adam (as) and Hawa (as) to the Prophet Muhammad (saw). With the advent of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) the sacred chain of prophets and religions had come full circle and found its perfection in him.
In the latter sense Islam is the ultimate ni’mah (Divine Grace). Within the starkness of this condition we have to remember that in Islam the emphasis is on optimism, not pessimism. This will remain so despite the fact that it appears as if we are going through one of our most trying moments in history. The Bin Ladens, the Bushes and the Donald Trumps have become the supreme symbols of a sensationalist and vitriolic worldliness – much as they might speak in the name of religion and material progress. Donald Trump in an interview on Fox TV went as far as making the startling claim that the Arabs “would not even exist” without the USA; and further laments the fact that after the liberation of Kuwait from Iraq, the USA foolishly returned Kuwait to the indigenous people. “That is our oil!” he wailed. Here the God-given dignity of all people is assaulted by qualities such as malicious envy, rancor, belligerence, and bigotry. This circumstance, unfortunately, is exacerbated by both internecine hatred and hatred of the “other” – on the one hand, by the counter-Traditional Evangelists and on the other, by the corrosive rigidity of the so-called Islamic “fundamentalists”. A common Muslim saying has it that the “devil continually seeks to ape God.”
There are media and cultural biases against Muslims, religiously bigoted views about Islam and active distortion about the political and social conditions in some parts of the Muslim world. But when we venture below the surface we encounter another story – that Islam is in fact the fastest growing religion on the planet despite the best efforts by propagandists to smear and demonize Islam and Muslims. In addition, the world birth rate is 2.4 while the Muslim growth rate is 2.9. For those in the know in the non-Muslim world, it is not bombs, bullets and the behavior of emotionally disturbed individuals speaking in the name of the ummah that will get Islam and Muslims anywhere, but potentially this demographic fact of the massive conversion rate in the world today – particularly in the Western world, and even more particularly amongst women. This latter is a topic religiously avoided by the media. Yet care should be exercised in this regard. Demographics alone is not good enough.
So what is the position of Muslims vis-à-vis all of this. The Qur’an tells us,
“When the help of Allah comes and victory; and you see people entering the religion in droves, then hymn the praises of Allah; be then grateful and seek forgiveness.” (110: 1-3).
The message is clear: Islam is not the property or possession of any particular person. It does not belong to “me” to boast about when there is an increase in fortune and capital. It is not a self-aggrandizing condition that entitles cradle Muslims to sport and parade their newly acquired wares. What indeed are required are gestures of humility and thanksgiving that speak of hearts that are fully aware of the fact that Islam requires change founded in a sacred and transcendent order that seek to spiritually liberate the human condition from the most blameworthy qualities that blight that condition.
Nonetheless, celebrating the entrance of droves of humanity into Islam – as mentioned in the verse above – is meant and designed to celebrate the great qualitative changes that may precipitate from those who adopted Islam as their new faith on the basis of choice and free will. Choices that may well contribute to elevating those cradle Muslims fossilized in an arrogance and self-righteousness that serve to destroy rather than proclaim the universal message of Islam. The rigidity and hostility of the neo-wahhabis such as Bin Laden inc. have done much to marginalize that inherently universal vision.
To more fully understand the Traditional Islamic idea of praise and celebration we need to join hands with those who are both firmly rooted in and creatively linked to our classical legacy and, more specifically, to that great Tradition of Islam that finds its expression in the voices of the likes of Hujjat al-Islam Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, al-Shaykh al-Akbar Muhyi l-Din ibn al-‘Arabi, Shaykh Junayd al-Baghdadi, Mawlana Jalal al-Din Rumi and others far too numerous to mention. It is a Tradition, too, that has never failed to recognize and acknowledge that the Qur’an and the Sunnah form the twin sources of spirituality and Divine Grace (barakah) – spirituality and a grace that have found their infinite space and flow upon the shores of those hearts receptive to the perennial rhythms of Divine Providence. Upon these shores, and across the ages, stand these gladiators of Islamic Spirituality who wield those radiant staves – enlightened and enlightening – of Sufism.
In these representatives we find an Islam that combines fearlessness with wisdom, methodology with sanity and a state of being imbued with confidence and dignity. It is an Islam that tells us when we invite to the Way of Allah that we do so with hikmah (wisdom) and maw’idhat al-hasanah (beautiful exhortations) – and not through the burning of effigies and flags. It is an Islam that tells us that representative Muslims are those who
“are guided unto good speech and are guided unto the path of the Praiseworthy.” (Qur’an, 22:24)
It is an Islam that teaches us that while it is permissible to requit a wrong, it is yet better to forgive. It is an Islam that teaches us that if we are oppressed and removed from our homes that we are entitled to fight for the restoration of our natural rights. It is an Islam, moreover, that teaches that if our enemies stop their hostilities with offerings of peace that we, in turn, reciprocate with peace and get on with our lives.
In short, it is an Islam the essence of which is taught in our sacred institutions such as the “madrasah” (school) of Ramadan and that of the Hajj. Here we are taught the virtues of taqwa (God-consciousness), the virtues of disciplining the will and aligning it with the Will of Allah, the virtues of purifying the heart and the soul, and the virtues of sabr (patience and endurance), namely, that extraordinary and richly rewarding capacity to live with fortitude in the long term.
In these sacred institutions we are taught to be truly human. And we can only be truly human, in Islamic terms, if we live up to the highest standards demanded by Islamic Spirituality. It is in the context of realizing the greatness of spirit within each and every human being that we come to recognize the greatness of Allah. Moreover, we need to live up to the greatness of that spirit within each and every one of us in order to realize and to rediscover that spiritual umbilical cord that connects us to Allah – and that cord is a consentient one animated by the remembrance (dhikr) of Allah.
The Boston Blasts
Unfortunately there are also those who fail – in a cosmologically epic way – to fully comprehend the common origins of all humanity. Allah states in the Quran :
O people reverence your Lord Who created you from a single essence and created of like nature the mate; and from them two scattered forth countless men and women. Reverence Allah about whom you ask and demand so much; and reverence the wombs that bore you; for Allah ever watches over you. (an-Nisa – The Women, 4:1).
Yet severe dichotomies abound. There are those who are alienated, discriminated against and marginalized because of their religious persuasions. These occur in public spaces, in schools and at work. People grow more resentful of one another by the day. Majorities are held hostage to the behavior of minorities and minorities continue to be persecuted by majorities throughout the world.
Our hopes are yet again severely tested by the Boston Bombings. To murder people in this way invokes the highest forms of prohibition and legal punishment in Islamic Law. We cannot bomb people to death – especially 8-year olds – nor may we burn people to death, regardless of the nature of their crimes. But despite the horror of this and other events, political leaders of the world need to reconcile themselves to a number of matters. Will they resolve to stand on the side of wisdom and compassion, or on the side of hatred and hostility? Will they choose to walk the difficult road of true enlightenment, dignity and liberation; or to contrive in the shadow world of bigotry and prejudice? Will they choose to condemn violence and bloodshed, from both people who claim to represent Islam and those who are retaliating in the name of a ‘war on terror’? Or is there an element of the “witches” in Macbeth here? In the midst of the drama on the international stage of politics we have the disturbing sight of “witches” screaming even more disturbing vitriol on the world and its major actors: “Fair is foul and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.” The question is: for how long will ordinary people, and those with a heightened sense of the moral life, care to hover in that foul and filthy air? That air stretches across continents and was in much better shape during the 1970’s and 1980’s. That air – foul and filthy as it might be – was certainly not fanned exclusively from the Middle East.
For my part, and in the spirit of that refreshing stream of Traditional Islam and Sufism, ultimate Praise is for Allah alone. And that is nothing other than an echo that found its first articulation when the children of Adam and Hawa were asked to bear witness to their Lord in their original state of primordial nativity:
“Am I not your Lord? Yes” they proclaimed “Indeed You are our Lord!” (Qur’an, 7: 172).
But we should not forget our praise and thanks for those upon whom and within whom the imprints of that Lordship have found their resonance and expression. They are those prophets, saints and savants who have been touched – in varying degrees – with the radiance of Divine Grace. As living symbols of all that constitute the sacred, these are the people too, whom we should never forget in our commemorations and celebrations. They form as much a part of sacred history and memory; as sacred – if not more on occasion – as those divinely selected and sanctified moments of space and time, such as that of the Haram (the sanctified precincts around the Ka’ba) or the hallowed month of Ramadan.
While the death of those such as Bin Laden and others of their kind – who have done more to pervert the message of Islam than most before them – would be welcomed by many in the world, and while their deaths may act as a catharsis for the psyches of the likes of Bush and others, we should always be vigilant about not following their “sunnah”. When a number of Omar Mukhtar’s troops captured a number of Italian soldiers they wanted to torture them on the pretext that they had killed, maimed and raped many of their family members. Mukhtar’s response was typical: “Do you wish” he asked, “to follow the ‘sunnah’ of the Italians or the Sunnah of the Prophet (saw). Feed them, clothe them and treat them with respect.”
With the likes of Umar Mukhtar in more recent times, and those of Salahuddin al-Ayyubi in earlier times as models par excellence of the great human and universal heights Muslim may aspire to and achieve, there is every hope that our Muslim brothers and sisters will have the moral and spiritual courage to stand as monuments of the highest levels of grace, mercy, compassion and authentic, sensitive leadership that humanity can produce.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
24 April, 2013.