In the name of God, Giver of Unconditional Love, Closer to us than our closest relative
Feeling objection to oppression, indignation at injustice and repulsion for wrongdoing (feelings referred to as ‘ghadhab’ in the Prophetic Teachings and often wrongly translated as ‘anger’), is a power from God. It is a fire.
If this fire comes and you do not invest it properly, it will burn you. To invest it, you must control it and put it in its rightful place. You gather it, protecting its flame, and carefully set it in its niche. There it will become light, spreading its warm glow, dissipating the darkness. That flame of yours, that power given to you by God, will be the light inside a lantern: a source of energy and illumination for you and for others.
But if you do not control this power called ghadab, it will turn into anger. Its flame will leap out at you and at others, turning all it touches black and sooty. Outside of its proper place, this fire will damage the lantern, taking away the possibility of light and guidance. As it grows out of control, this fire will burn you and in the end it will turn you into cold, grey, and cheerless ashes. With the slightest breeze you will be scattered far and wide. You will lose your integrity (double meaning intended).
“The best of you are those who are slow to anger and swift to calm down…Beware of anger, for it is a live coal in the heart of the descendants of Adam” – Muhammad ﷺ, Apostle of God.
Muslims have sadly become a people who are focused on the idea of justice, and justice above all. Our actions and concerns are governed by the mentality: no justice, no peace. Thus, we have become known to the world as fighters for our rights, demanding justice from all those who would oppress us or challenge our way of life.
Is this how we should be known to this beleaguered and hurting world of ours? Is this the sum total of what Muslims have to offer humanity? And on top of that, not even justice for all, but only that which extends to our own kind?
We have reached this place of valuing justice above all else because we nurture this concern in ourselves and our children above the concern for moral integrity and spiritual refinement (ihsaan) and kindness, magnanimity, and empathy (rahma) in our personal behaviour and interactions with others. An international survey evaluating levels of empathy in children of various religions found Muslim children to have one of the lowest levels of empathy (which is another word for rahma) and the highest sense of justice, i.e. swiftness in declaring the actions of another as “unfair” and demanding punishment of the other for perceived wrongdoing.
I visited an Islamic elementary school a short while ago, and when I asked the children what they wanted to do with their lives, those who had some sense of mission were in the minority. Amongst them, those whose mission had something to do with Islam were an even smaller minority. And amongst the latter, their sense of mission revolved around the need to defend Islam and its image.
This is what we have bequeathed to our children – this sense of concern for their rights, and a sense that the rights of all Muslims are under attack. Thus those who feel some sense of awareness among them can think only of how Islam is under constant attack and needs to be defended.
From day one, we nurture in our children and youth a sense of the world as being unfair to Muslims. And this breeds in them an attitude of defensiveness. We have failed to tell them the truth: that Islam is not something that needs us to defend it, nor even something we need to convince everyone of. Rather, it is something we need, and need to live. We need to live it to bring forth its fruits in our behavior, so that others benefit from these fruits: truth, beauty, reliability, integrity, fairness, kindness, empathy, and justice.
The nature of our self-disempowerment
The truly oppressed is he who allows himself to believe that he is oppressed. He believes that other human beings have the ultimate control over his circumstances, have power over him and are able to give him the justice he seeks or withhold it. Such a person will be reacting to the action of injustice like a ping pong ball thrown at the wall, not having any other option but to rebound eternally, getting weaker and weaker each time until it gets crushed.
Re-action is simply the continuation of action. Thus he who reacts is never free because his actions are in reality but a perpetuation of the original action of his oppressor.
What made the Muslims of Makkah liberated, even when they were in the midst of severe oppression and persecution, was that they did not believe their human oppressors had any actual power. What made our Master Bilal a freeman even when he was a “slave” is that he only ever acknowledged the One (“Ahadun Ahad”) as having any power, control or role in his life.
Our obsession with the wrongs others are committing against us as a community gets us nowhere. And takes all our energy. Just today a sister wrote to me to say that seeing all the horrible things happening in the world is disabling. This is exactly right. We allow ourselves to be disabled when we fixate on these things – they get the better of us. And then, we have no time or attention left to seek God and to make an honest evaluation of our own ihsaan (where are we in terms of moral integrity? are we more refined spiritually today than we were yesterday, or less so?). When we become fixated on what is happening in the world, we are no longer able to take on the most important battle that stands before us: that of begging our Lord to guide us toward moral integrity and spiritual refinement, living everyday in search of the opportunities He sends us for this. This is the true and inevitable battlefield – even for those who are out on a physical battlefield!
Getting the priorities right
One who turns to face the battle for the heart, before attending to the battle for justice, will hold himself to four principles, which will produce in him four qualities.
The four principles are:
- cultivation of compassion and empathy (raḥma) before cultivation of anger (ghaḍab), such that the former controls the latter, establishing correct limits for it
- cultivation of love for God’s sake (al-ḥubb fi Allah) before cultivation of aversion for God’s sake (al-bughḍ fi Allah), such that the former controls the latter, establishing correct limits for it
- cultivation of permeability to beauty and goodness and those who uphold the like (athillatan ‘alal mu’mineen), before cultivation of impermeability towards wrongdoing and injustice (a’izzatan ‘alal kaafireen), such that the former controls the latter, establishing correct limits for it
- cultivation of loyalty to what is pleasing to the Lord (al-walāʿ) before cultivation of the disavowal of what is displeasing to Him (al-barāʿ), such that the former controls the latter, establishing correct limits for it.
As a result of the believer holding himself to the above four principles, four qualities will arise within him, and these are the missiles of the heart, the fuel of a true Islamic Revival:
- forgiveness for the one who wrongs him
- generosity and a giving attitude to the one who denies him
- a continuous reaching out and connecting to the one who disconnects from him
- moral integrity and magnanimity towards the one who mistreats him.
With these qualities, a person treads the Earth as a shining guide (dāʿī) and not as an arrogant judge (qāḍī).
He puts aside his own expectations for people’s spiritual improvement according to what he would like for them, in order to submit to God’s Wisdom and Will with respect to the guidance of His Creation. As a result of this surrender to God’s Will, God uses this person as an instrument by which He guides whomsoever He Alone has chosen to receive His Guidance. (Thus this person is truly living and acting for God and by God.)
What happens if we get it wrong?
In contrast, one who chooses to face the battle for justice before the battle for the heart, operates by four principles that are the exact opposite of those mentioned above.
These four principles are:
- cultivation of anger (ghaḍab) before cultivation of compassion (raḥma), such that the former blocks and shuts out the latter
- Cultivation of aversion for God’s sake (al-bughḍ fi Allah) before cultivation of love for God’s sake (al-ḥubb fi Allah), such that the former blocks and shuts out the latter
- Cultivation of impermeability towards wrongdoing and injustice (a’izzatan ‘alal kaafireen) before cultivation of permeability to beauty and goodness and those who uphold the like (athillatan ‘alal mu’mineen), such that the former blocks and shuts out the latter
- Cultivation of the disavowal of what is displeasing to the Lord (al-barāʿ) before cultivation of loyalty to what is pleasing to Him (al-walāʿ), such that the former blocks and shuts out the latter.
As a result of a person structuring his inner being according to the above four principles, four qualities arise within him, which are the destroyers of the Islamic revival:
- judgement of others’ faults (tafsīq)
- pointing out of innovations in the religion (tabdīʿ)
- excommunication of fellow Muslims (takfīr)
- exploding with violence and destruction (tafjīr)
Thus, he walks amongst people as an arrogant judge (qādī) and not as a shining guide (dāʿī). Satan misguides through him more people than he himself – out of his apparent concern for the Ummah’s wellbeing – sets out to guide, correct, and reform. He holds fast to his own vision of how people should improve religiously, and seeks to impose this vision on them even if it destroys them.
Because he does not submit to the Will of God, he is not used by God as an instrument of good.
“But, we must feel for others!”
There is no doubt that there is oppression against Muslims in the world today, just as there is oppression against third world peoples, indigenous peoples, black people, and free men and women in each and every society the world over: free Americans, free Canadians, free Frenchmen and women. Muslims face attacks and injustice, marginalization and provocation. It’s true. But if we don’t learn moral integrity & spiritual refinement (ihsaan) before learning how to work for justice, we will fail to work for justice with the moral integrity & spiritual refinement (ihsaan) that absolutely must accompany it for it to be acceptable to God Most High.
Truly it is through meditation of God that hearts will find serenity and peace. (Quran)
When you meditate upon the fact that God is the Greatest – greater than any injustice or problem we have – the heart immediately finds serenity and peace. With a single command, He can completely stop the oppressors. Yet, the way we behave shows that we have forgotten God’s Role.
Let me be clear: feeling empathy for people who are suffering is absolutely necessary, but it’s what we do next that constitutes our reaction or response. How many of us, seeing a bad news story, turn to Him? What does it say about our faith, if our response is not to go to the Almighty and ask His Assistance? How sincere is our concern if it doesn’t prompt us to give up 10 minutes of sleep to petition our Lord, at the hour when He has promised to answer any request?
Instead, we spend hours poring over more news stories about the same event (one article is never enough), sharing links on Facebook, arguing with people on Facebook, feeling angry towards the oppressors as well as anyone who doesn’t agree with us, and then feeling too drained to spare a single supplication for the actual people we are concerned about.
Only God can give Victory from
oppression; it’s not of our making or
according to our timeline.
Five years after the first Revelation, Amr bin Hisham (known as Abu Jahl) tortured to death our Lady Sumayya and her husband our Master Yasir: two shining examples of people who had found peace with God and had turned from this material existence to the spiritual realities of life. Believing he could extinguish the faith they carried, Abu Jahl used the full force of the ugliness of his frustrated ego and the inner torture of his own spirit rejecting salvation and peace. He tortured and sexually violated Lady Sumayya in front of her own husband and son.
It was Abu Jahl who led and mobilized the average people of Quraysh to torment and murder the believers. According to ibn Ishaq, Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was not persecuted in the beginning, but his followers were. The strategy was to turn the followers against their Guide ﷺ or provoke the Guide into open conflict. But the Guide ﷺ was a mature human being, a wise Spiritual Master, and had an order from God.
Those oppressors, who wanted to extinguish the light of new revelation and the fresh opportunity for guidance and salvation God was offering to humanity, believed they could accomplish this by torturing the bodies of those who carried that light in their hearts – because the oppressors didn’t believe in the existence of the spiritual heart to begin with. They had oppressed their own souls and convinced themselves that only the material exists, and thus they dealt with the believers on this level. Yet the believers were on a whole other level, the level of the spirit.
Umar ibn al Khattab – who had not yet become Muslim – was also involved in harming the believers. He did so out of his belief in justice, in fact. He felt that the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ were unhealthy, dividing society, taking children from their parents and husbands from their wives…His sense of justice had not yet been enlightened by spiritual refinement and wider understanding, that only comes from connection to God. His sense of justice was an anger, a reaction, a frustration and a prejudice. He didn’t even know what he was dealing with. He completely misread the reality.
We can say that the noble flame of concern for justice within him was being usurped and used by the dark forces of his ego in order to burn him and burn others. May we be able to recognize ourselves in this description, so that we ask salvation from ego’s colonization, oppression and manipulation of the good (fitra) God has given each one of us.
The story of Sayyidna Khabbab
During this time of persecution, Khabbab ibn al Aratt was going through extreme torture at the hands of his own Mother, of all people. She was actually acting out of a sense of loyalty to her people, a noble feeling in its origin, but in this case, hijacked by the ego in order to wreak evil. She was zealous in demonstrating her willingness to sacrifice even her own son for the sake of that loyalty, having Khabbab’s flesh seared with burning hot stones such that he would smell the flesh and fat burning off his body. Khabbab’s Mother would take a break from this oppression only to give her son time to feel the pain and fear its continuation, so that he would go back on his decision to follow the Apostle of God ﷺ. During one such break, Khabbab went to the Apostle of God ﷺ while he was at the Kaaba, and said: “Would you not pray for us, would you not ask God to give us victory? Would you not pray against these oppressors?”
What was the response of the Apostle of God ﷺ? With great concern for his follower, the Guide ﷺ sat up to his full stature. His Blessed Face turned red – which would happen when he would be gravely concerned. He said, “Believers among those who came before us (referring to the followers of Jesus who were persecuted for over four hundred years) would be combed with iron combs that would separate the flesh and nerves from their bones, yet they would not desert the guidance that God had given them. The oppressors would bring one of them in front of the others, and place a saw on top of his or her head and cut his or her body into two halves, and yet not one of them would give up on the guidance coming from their Lord.”
He ﷺ then looked in the eyes of Khabbab and, holding his hand, said: “It is not your hastiness and frustration that will expedite God’s granting victory, rather, it is your patience. Be patient. Be patient.”
Then he ﷺ recited:
By Time as it passes
The human is always in loss
Except for those who trust in God,
support each other in the Truth,
and support each other to be patient.
The Apostle of God ﷺ then said with profound certitude, “In the Name of God, God will give victory to this Guidance until there is such peace, liberty and good established on earth that a woman can travel alone from Sanaa all the way to Hadramout (normally a very dangerous route), with no one to fear but God Himself.”
What a beautiful way to reassure Khabbab and bring him to a new level of faith. The Apostle of God ﷺ was teaching us all a profound lesson. Victory – it is not something he ﷺ was even intending to ask for or even worry about – he ﷺ knew it was coming, without doubt. God had promised this. What was of concern to the Apostle of God ﷺ was his mission: instilling total faith in his followers. Faith is not just abstract belief, but total trust in God: trust in His timing; trust that He is seeing everything that is going on and not overlooking the slightest pain experienced by a person; full reliance on Him that He will grant relief when the appointed time comes; and finally, the patience to uphold these convictions. The Prophet ﷺ was concerned with making sure that his followers got the full benefit of being in the crucible of that persecution: a more profound relationship with the Divine.
This was the process of purification and preparation Allah chose for the very first Muslims. The oppression and persecution that took place against the very first believers, the most honoured of all humanity, is not some historical tragedy or happenstance. It is a key piece, as important a player in the making of that generation as the Revelation itself.
The Prophet ﷺ prayed for oppressors
Just a year after the brutal murder of Sumayya and our Master Yasir, the Apostle of God ﷺ made this prayer: “O God, strengthen the call to Islam through the one You choose of the two men, ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab and Amr ibn Hisham [Abu Jahl].”
Let us be brave enough to ask: If we were transported with our current mentalities to that situation, would we accept that the Prophet ﷺ was praying for these two oppressors, rather than condemning them? Could we accept that there could even be a possibility of God choosing good for either of those notorious perpetrators of mass injustice? Yet we know the result of this prayer.
One of our intentions in speaking of the Prophet’s way of responding to the oppression in Makkah should be to make room in our minds for the possibility that not all is as we perceive it to be. In order to really understand the Sunnah, we need to take time to reflect on its wide range of guidance that spans many situations, including ways of responding that we are no longer familiar with – but must learn about. We must let these Prophetic responses guide our responses to the events around us. If we can just start to accept that there are options for response beyond our typical reactions to injustice (anger, indignation, retaliation), this will be one of the greatest victories for this Ummah.
Shaykh Hamdi Ben Aissa’s mission is a noble one: to help others discover and realize their full potential, which is knowing their Lord and developing a strong and healthy connection with Him, thus finding true and lasting happiness. This can only happen if the Prophetic heritage is preserved and successfully transmitted. Through his organization, Sanad Collective, and his continuous collaboration with many scholars who have received and correctly understood this heritage, Shaykh Hamdi is helping to nurture a generation of balanced, enlightened and compassionate Muslims who are freed from the misconceptions that have slipped into our religion and into our minds and that are, in fact, dangerous obstacles on the path to God the Most High. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org To learn more about Sanad Collective’s projects please visit their website.