This sermon was delivered on October 27th, 2017 on the steps of Low Memorial Library at Columbia University. Note: The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity, and the Arabic opening and ending prayers have been cut out for the sake of simplicity. The sermon begins after an English translation of the opening prayers below.
All praise is for God, we seek His help and His forgiveness. We seek refuge with God from the evil of our own souls and from the evil of our actions. Whomsoever God guides will never be led astray, and whomsoever God leads astray, no one can guide. I bear witness that there is no God but God, alone without any partner, and I bear witness that Muhammad is his final servant and messenger.
— Start of Part I —
Our tradition tells us the story of a man who lived during the time of the Prophet and was known for being a heavy drinker. He would spend his days and nights drinking heavily, often disturbing the public order and causing trouble for those around him. He goes to the Prophet and confesses his addiction, and some of the Prophet’s companions speak ill of him. The Prophet looks toward his companions and says, “Do not speak ill of him in this way for I know he is a man who loves God and His Messenger.”
In another story we are told that a Bedouin walks into the Prophet’s mosque and begins to start urinating on one of its corners without any shame or consideration for the sacredness of the place. The companions see this and are enraged, wanting to pounce on the man. The Prophet calms them down and tells them to let the man finish. He orders a bucket of water to be used to wash off the urine, and then goes over to the man and advises him on the etiquette and stature of the place that he is in, letting him know that his action was not appropriate. Later in life this Bedouin recalls the story and says, “The Prophet stood before me and neither cursed nor scolded nor hit me (for what I did).”
In a third story, we are told that two men, Bilal ibn Rabah, a former African slave who converted to Islam and Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, a wealthy Arab leader, are quarreling, and in the midst of the quarrel Abu Dharr refers to Bilal as “ibn as-sawdah,” i.e., the “son of a black woman.” The Prophet upon hearing this frowns with disappointment, and reminds him that we are all sons of a black woman, Hajar, and that what Abu Dharr said to Bilal was a statement rooted in ignorance.
Abu Dharr begins to tear upon realizing what just happened, and he becomes so embarrassed by it that he puts his face on the floor and tells Bilal to step on it to do justice, saying that “this is what my face is worth for what my mouth has uttered.” Bilal lifts up Abu Dharr and kisses him on the forehead telling him that no, “this is what your face is worth, for being one that prostrates to God.”
When we read these particular stories of our tradition, we tend to read them heuristically, looking at them the way a lawyer would look at a legal compendium, divorced from its humanizing components. While these readings inform our ethics, an additional layer we often overlook when going through them is those very human components that they have to offer, which are the most important components of all. If we situate these stories in their time and place, we can truly appreciate how radically humanizing they are.
Let’s ask ourselves, what sort of impression do we have of the community of the Prophet? What do we think when we think about his community? That they were – by default – these celestial beings with few imperfections and human fallibilities. That they in no way slipped up or fell short, or committed outright wrongs in public.
Well when we read their everyday life stories in this manner, it often erases their lived realities and the contexts they were in. It leaves us disillusioned with our own lives because we feel as though we are unable to measure up to the imagined perfection we see them to have exhibited. It makes us wonder whether we are worth it at all.
Think about it, here was a man who drank excessively, who despite his committing a major sin, was someone about whom the Prophet said that, “he is someone who loves God and His Messenger.” Then there was a Bedouin urinating in the mosque’s prayer area, who even after committing such a sacrilegious act, came back the next day feeling welcomed by the Prophet. Then there was Abu Dharr, a successful companion known for his spiritual piety who made a terrible racist remark to another companion who was once a slave, and look at how that incident made them both better people, brothers. These people too were companions of the Prophet. They too were part of the community.
What do these stories tell us?
They tell us is that the community of the Prophet was comprised of imperfect people. And we see in the way the Prophet responded to each of them that he exerted the utmost wisdom and understanding in how to deal both with the individual actors who committed the wrongs along with the larger group of actors who wanted to reprimand them. At the end, he made both those who were reprimanded as well as those who were reprimanding feel like they were a part of something greater than themselves.
What’s even more important to understand is that as you build a community, think not about those whom you feel will embody the perfectionism you have in mind, but think about people like these. Remember that the companion who drank alcohol was a member of the Prophet’s community; the Bedouin who urinated in the Prophet’s mosque was also part of the community; the companion who was not Arab, who was Black, was also part of the Prophet’s community. All the companions who sought to incur harm on these people were just as much part of the community. The Prophet did not tell either one that they were no longer part of the community.
You’re going to always have people who do things the wrong way; there will always be those whose values aren’t situated in line with your own; you will always see those who treat others poorly and those who treat people excellently. You will see people who come from different walks of life, be it varying levels of religiosity and spirituality, different social standing, divergent political views, and a wide range of racial and economic backgrounds; the idea here when thinking about community is how to build something that transcends these differences without diluting them.
How do we begin to see ourselves as a collective without compromising who we are as individuals? How do we tie together our struggles, our celebrations, and our failures?
And this is what I’d like to speak about in today’s sermon. The way we should see ourselves and those around us and how we work together toward constructing a shared sense of belonging, a shared sense of community.
Part of building a community must also involve having a positive vision of what community means. We’re not going to be able to do it if we exclusively define ourselves in reaction to something or someone else. And we will most definitely fall short if we attempt to build a community with an understanding that this is how we must define ourselves.
“We’re not terrorists. We do not want to impose anything on this country. We’re not this or that.” How much longer are we going to continue defining ourselves by what we are not? We must start defining ourselves by what we are.
The man with the alcohol addiction disturbed public order; the Bedouin was ignorant of how and where he was supposed to perform a basic bodily function; and Abu Dharr had transgressed his boundaries by making a statement of arrogance and racism. But the manner in which the Prophet handled each one of these situations reflects the way in which he imagined community as well.
Even when there were those who spoke and did acts in such a way that were contradictory to the way things were supposed to function, the Prophet did not define community as something that forms only in reaction to them. He instead reaffirmed what community is. And in each instance, all of the individuals comprising it came out to be better people through it.
We’re sitting here in Columbia University, one of the most decorated academic institutions on earth. Think for a second about how this institution works. Who is allowed to enter these spaces? Who is seen as an outcast? When you as a student go to a networking event, what sort of people and personalities do you find? What makes Columbia what it is? The fact of the matter is that an institution like this one, and many others, is that they define themselves in exclusion to those who don’t fit the mold. The students who attend schools like this one go on to become major public figures, writers, politicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, and more, each field with its own community and language.
But what makes a spiritually-grounded community like ours stand out is that even in an exclusive and insulated institution like this one, we don’t have to define ourselves in the same way. We can have the potential to shape the consciousness of those around us and to speak their language, be they Muslim or not.
The Prophet of God began his community with three people: his wife Khadija, an elderly man by the name of Abu Bakr, and his young cousin Ali. In the beginning, his message attracted mostly those from the lowest rung of society, but he gave his final sermon to a community of 124,000 people. Today we stand at 1.6 billion.
This was because he had a vision that accounted for all the unique qualities of those around him. He exercised empathy, even to those whom he disagreed with, and he allowed his community to exercise empathy amongst each other. He sought unity, but he didn’t demand uniformity, he didn’t want Islam to become a cult. Empathy was the key here.
What does it mean to empathetic toward those who are different from you? How do we contextualize it in our day?
It means that if your understanding of religion is more of a liberal persuasion, to recognize that those conservatives whom we often dismiss as reactionary are in fact coming from a place where they’ve tasted the fruits of the work done by our ancestors and want us to inherit the joy of continuing that work by sharing it with the rest of us; recognize that they want us to be grounded in a tradition that has a substantive meaning, a tradition that transcends time and place, a tradition that requires anchoring ourselves in broader ideals.
And you know what? While we mock them for being “too traditional,” they will still wake up every night at 3 o’clock in the morning to pray and cry to God for our collective well-being, because deep down inside, they love and care our community.
And if your understanding of religion is of a more conservative persuasion, recognize that many of those liberals whom we exclude from our sacred spaces for not looking like us, fasting like us, or praying like us are going through their own tribulations; that they have their own complicated stories and circumstances; and that they really just want an opportunity to be heard. They too want us to be grounded in tradition in a way that speaks to them.
And you know what? When our rights are trampled upon or threatened, they are always the first ones to put their bodies on the line for the very people that excluded them. They too cry for us, because deep down inside, they love and care for our community too.
These may indeed be two broad categories, and a good number of people – in fact most people – do not fit neatly into either box, but I use these caricatures to illustrate the simple point of what it means to be a community: that the real test of our commitment to God is measured not by how loving and welcoming we are to those who already look, talk, act, and think like us but how loving and welcoming we are to those who do not.
Listen to them. Listen to everyone. I promise you that when you engage in the process of listening and having multiple entry points to cater to the plethora of voices you will be hearing, you will have people come to you crying, breaking down in amazement that for once, someone is listening to them. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve met folks who’ve come to me saying exactly that. It doesn’t cost you any money, only time.
Create gatherings where people can come and feel as if they’re being listened to, and regardless of whether or not it goes in the specific direction that they want they can feel as if they have a place where they can participate. Think about how you are responsible. When you empower a community and you let every single person believe that they have something to offer, they will offer it.
— End of Part I —
The last time I stood here to speak to you , on this place, at this very spot, was back in February, a few short weeks after the Presidential Inauguration. I had mentioned that we must all engage in some sobering reflections about where we are at this critical juncture in time, and that these reflections should serve the purpose of preparing us to resist what is to come. I now stand before you now one week before the anniversary of the Presidential Election.
Whether you were in attendance at the time I last spoke or not, ask yourself now, how have you held up a commitment to build community that works together?
Where do we stand as a community today? Are we still defining ourselves exclusively in reaction, in response, and in a defensive way to the powers that be? Or have we developed the internal cohesion, the spiritual audacity, the institutional potential to define ourselves with a positive vision, one that does not require a defense of what it is?
In our prayers when we recite our opening prayer , the fatiha, we say “Iyyaka na’budu wa iyyaka nasta’in ihdina as-sirat al-mustaqim” (“Only You do we worship and only You we beseech for help; guide us to the straight path”)
In our world today, which is often refracted through the prism of individualism and capitalism, even our understanding of daily liturgical prayers can become individualistic and all about the self. When we recite the fatiha, are we not affirming that we collectively worship God and that we are collectively asking for guidance? This is proof enough that we were meant to be a community.
If we are asking for collective guidance, then it means we must work together collectively to pursue that guidance, to pursue the betterment of our souls, and to ensure that each and every single one of us is part of that struggle.
You know, a lot of times we ask the question of where God is in our life. That’s because our understanding of God is once again rooted in an individualistic notion of what it means to be God-conscious; we go about seeking God on our own, and when things go wrong, we tend to blame the results on God being absent in our lives. But what if God’s presence demands that we be present for each other?
What if my works, my guidance, and even my repentance affect not just me, but those around me? What if we are all obligated to do what it takes in our own individual capacity to influence the broader collective?
I’d like to quote a Rabbi  whose writings I read often, her name is Danya Ruttenberg. She recently wrote a piece directed to her Jewish community in the context of Yom Kippur, the most sacred day in the Jewish tradition, and she asked them to reimagine the concept of “repentance” and “responsibility” by looking at it in a collective way. As I read this excerpt, I want you to think of it in context to Muslims:
“Each of our culpability, each of our roles, each of our actions for good or for bad is tied inextricably with the actions of our community … with all people. It’s upon each of us, individually, to take responsibility for our role in everyone’s political, economic, environmental and social well-being — and to not pass the theological buck to a deity who has done nothing if not give us the power of free will, the power to heal or to hurt, to push for climate accords or to push for corporate interests, to enter a war or to refrain from entering war, to build gas chambers, to dismantle them — or to stand idly by and do nothing.
What if the reason that a person develops cancer is not because he or she personally did something wrong, but because we as a nation and a globe have poisoned our air, our water and our food with toxic chemicals and negligence? What if the reason a person was hit harder by the hurricane is because that person’s city invested more infrastructure in neighborhoods wealthier than their own? What if the reason that they don’t survive their illness is because senators took away their health care — because we, in a fit of resistance fatigue, stopped calling? Didn’t make it out to yet another town hall?
The deeper we get into prayer, returning and righteousness, the more we begin to understand that our every action is — rather than being isolated and individual — intertwined with the well-being of our culture as a whole. The more we try to bring our actions in alignment with our greatest ideals, the more we find that every aspect of our lives is inextricably impacted.
Some of us have monetary resources, some have resources of talent, or time, or connections. And when we invest in ways that fuel us personally, we find ways to make our work sustainable. There are a lot of ways to invest in the well-being of our community, country and world. You can help inscribe us all into The Book of Life.”
This was the way of your Prophet.
I end with the story of when he was attacked [by the polytheist tribes of Arabia] to the point where blood was gashing from his mouth as he was calling them to be better people. When the blood flew out of his mouth, he caught it with his hand out of fear for the people who attacked him. He was afraid of what God would incur upon those people if his blood were to touch the floor. In another instance, when he was attacked, he proclaimed “O God, forgive my people for they do not know!”
Think about that for a second. Who is he referring to as “his people?” Those same people who were attacking him, harming him, causing him to cry. He called them his people. He saw them as community just as much as everyone else. He cared for them. Ask yourself, have you developed a connection with the people around you to the point where you can call them “your people”? If not, ask yourself why not, and begin to see them as part of your community.
I pray that Allah bless and guide us all, forgive every one of us of our shortcomings and our sins, and allow us all to become the answers to our own prayers so that we may truly embody what it means to be a community.
— End —