Tag Archives: Islam

A Sermon/Khutbah for our Trumpian World

I was asked to give a sermon (khutba in Arabic) at Columbia University this week as part of their ‘Charity Week’ and am in the process of writing it, but as I was looking through older sermons, I found one which I gave earlier this year that I am particularly proud of and wanted to share here.


The following is a transcript of a Friday sermon that I delivered at the Islamic Center of New York University on January 13, 2017, one week before Donald Trump’s inauguration. I also delivered a slightly edited version of the same sermon at Columbia University on February 3, 2017, where it was followed by a demonstration. Portions of this sermon appear on my personal blog page as well. With the exception of one quoted Qur’anic verse in the sermon, the traditional Arabic prayers in the beginning and end have been edited out. Photos of the prayer at Columbia are attached at the bottom this document.

The sermon begins below with a translation of the standard opening prayer of Islamic Friday sermons, followed by the actual sermon.


All thanks and praise are due to God, and we seek His help and forgiveness. We seek refuge in God from the evil within ourselves and from the consequences of our actions. Whomever God guides will never be led astray, and whomever God leads astray will never find guidance. I bear witness there is no God but God, alone without any partners, and I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and His Messenger.

—START—

Many people in the country and in the world right now are in deep pain and fear over what is to come to our nation. This pain and fear extends beyond ideology and party; it isn’t just about an election, but about the reality that every value we held close to us is under attack. The institutions that we trusted would protect us are faltering, and it feels as if our very system is collapsing. The evils of racism, misogyny, sexism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia have skyrocketed, and their purveyors have become more unapologetic.

Hate crimes have been spiking all over the country, and even if the outcome of an election were different, we all know we would have to live with the reality that the most malicious elements of society are now at the forefront of becoming mainstream.

And thus, against this backdrop is the subject matter of our sermon today. It is about how we are to resist what is to come, how we develop a renewed and sustained sense of urgency and resilience, and how we can maintain our hope in these troubling times.

This reality that we are facing is something that we’ve come to learn has already existed. It is bad, it is real, and the truth of the matter is that it has always been happening. The poor black woman has always been aware of it. The transgender woman has always been aware of it. The undocumented teenager has always been aware of it. It is simply now more visible to the rest of us.

Many of us have been protected from these realities by the color of our skin, or by our income, or our education, or our gender, or our sexual orientation. And the truth is, some of us will continue to be protected from it.

But given the sheer magnitude of what we are facing, we cannot afford to be anything but supportive of one another despite the very different identities and circumstances we have. It is the only way to overcome today’s climate.

We must ask ourselves now, will we meet today’s climate with fear? Because if we do, we will be beaten by it. But if we meet it with a certain type of strength and a set of values that allow us to reaffirm our relationship with our Lord and our purpose for being here, we will win. And to do that takes real love, real hope, real commitment to equity and justice.

Sometimes what it takes is a complete and absolute disaster of our lives in such an epic, unavoidable way that only afterwards can it suddenly become clear to us what we have been doing and where we have failed all along.

And our process of healing, growing, and coming together will require more than just words. It will require us our taking deliberate action to understand that what today is bringing us should not prevent us from building what it is we want for tomorrow.

And if there’s ever a moment where you are in despair or at less, remember that we have the example of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, to look to.

This was a man who was informed of the many trials and tribulations his community would face until the end of days; a man who told his companions that a day would come when holding on to the religion would be like holding on to burning hot coals; a man who narrated to us that a time would come when killing would increase to such an extent that the killer would not know why he was killing and the one being killed would not know why he was being killed; a man who told his companions that, “if you knew what I knew [about the world], you would weep much and laugh little.”

He witnessed his friends tortured to death for simply professing and espousing their faith. He was abused and attacked, humiliated by some of his own family members, persecuted to the point where he had to flee the city of his birth because the people would not accept him and his message.

And yet, at the same time, he was a man whom Anas bin Malik, a companion of his, described as someone who never once complained; someone who was present in the lives of each and every one of his companions so much to the degree that they each felt that they were his best friend; who was so beloved by God that the tree branches would sway in his direction and the clouds would shade him when he walked.

And even with all that he knew and all that he witnessed, he would bring glad tidings to his companions as to not terrify them, smiling so broadly that his molar teeth would show.

In our tradition we are taught that when he was asked to invoke God’s wrath on a people, he responded by saying that, “I was not sent as an invoker of curses, but as a mercy.”

So, we can allow our responses and our reaction to today’s sociopolitical climate make us reactionary, or we can take the example of the Prophet as a model for us to follow.

And yet at the same time, words cannot be minced. We must not be charitable with how we characterize the situation we find ourselves in today. What we have witnessed until now: the erosion of democratic norms and institutions, the denigration of women, the potential evisceration of healthcare, the dismantling of civil rights, the potential deportation of millions of undocumented Latino citizens, the indiscriminate profiling and the brazen demonization of Muslims, immigrants, and refugees; the atmosphere that has been created – or rather, revealed – as a consequence of all of this, may remain for decades to come, and we have to be brutally honest in accepting all the challenges that we must face.

But there is a thin line here; there is a thin line between accepting the reality and normalizing what we see today. Acceptance absolutely does not mean normalization. On the contrary, it means quite the opposite. Yes, we have witnessed an upsurge in abuse from the most dangerous, menacing, and fringe elements of our society, and it has been coupled with a tremendous display of hubris that has emboldened and empowered these elements to openly proclaim their virulently racist, supremacist ideologies. This cannot be overlooked and must be fought against, but anyone who tells us to accept the situation as it is today without also coupling it with the imperative call to action is undoubtedly committing an injustice.

A companion of the Prophet Muhammad named Abu Sa’id al Khudri said that, “I heard the Messenger of Allah say, “Whomsoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue, and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart, and that is the weakest level of faith.”

As one of my mentors, the Muslim Chaplain of NYU Imam Khalid Latif always says, we cannot allow any situation to put us in a place of passivity or complacency.

And thus, at every step will make it unequivocally clear that we will not allow bigotry to become normalized; make it clear that even when we are not surprised by what we see in the news, that we will remain outraged; make it clear that we will not flinch for a second when we are asked to stand up to the daunting forces of bigotry, hatred, racism, and oppression; make it clear that we will do what we must, using every mechanism and means at our disposal, to confront these various threats, and we will not be fooled by fleeting moments of a false normality, as if what we are witnessing today is at all normal.

We must now, at this critical moment in time, engage in a sobering reflection about where we are, and with a renewed impetus, recognize our responsibilities, not just as citizens, but as human beings, to push back against what is to come.

But this necessitates stepping out of our insulated friend circles and social media bubbles that only reinforce what we already believe and grant us the delusion of audience. President Obama said it very well earlier this week, “If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the internet, try to talk with one in real life.”

I have to recognize that the world is much bigger than my personal needs and desires, and that I can take my strengths, my credentials, my talents, and my resources for the sake of a community, a country, and a world that is in dire need of me thinking about others before I think about myself.

I have to be bold enough and audacious enough to ask of the Divine to make me the answer to people’s prayers.

If I am part of an older generation, I should get in touch with young students and ask them how I can invest my wealth and your resources toward their development; if I am young, I should spend time with the elderly and gain from their wisdom because they’ve been through what I have and worse.

I need to ask myself: When was the last time I went to a church or a synagogue to build relationships with different faith communities? When did I last visit a soup kitchen? A funeral? A town hall meeting?

Look at the allies standing around you. Do not leave this space until you’ve met at least one of them and gotten to know their name.

If you work on the board of a mosque, ask whether your mosque has any women representing on its board? Ask the women of your mosque about the status of their prayer spaces, if even there is space at all. If your mosque is racially diverse, ask whether the board is representative of that diversity.

Ask what you and your mosque have done to reach out to our black brothers and sisters in solidarity? If you were born Muslim, ask whether you have reached out to the converts you know, who often have to endure isolation from their own family in addition to the trauma of Islamophobia.

If you are sitting here right now, recognize that you are sitting in one of the most diverse institutions on the planet.

You have the opportunity right here and right now, using all the resources at your disposal, to be the change you wish to see. Do not allow this moment to be one that gives you a quick sense of urgency during a Friday sermon and then wears off after you’ve left this space.

My last message in this sermon, and it is the most difficult one of all. I do not ask you to look back to an imaginary utopian past, or to a time when things may have seemed to have been better. No, I ask you to look forward and to have hope.

You must look forward to organizing locally, among your family, your friends, and your community, to build power that will defend the weak, the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the targeted.

You must look forward to using your positions of privilege to amplify the voices of those who may not have access to the same platform as you. Offer your platform to such individuals and stand as an ally to them without putting any conditions on your allyship or expecting anything in return.

You must look forward to fighting back against all harmful legislation that ill-minded lawmakers attempt to pass, whether it be unlawful profiling and surveillance, the deportation of thousands of undocumented immigrants, or the evisceration of health insurance for millions of people.

You must look forward to supporting organizations and institutions that are working to make the world a better place. You must look forward to reading, writing, educating, and sharing whatever knowledge you have that will contribute to making the world a better place.

You must look forward to punctuating your mark in history by fighting and resisting against all forms of oppression with every fiber of your being.

Today, at this very place, in this very moment, at this very juncture in time, look forward to counting yourself as part of The Resistance.

And as far as hope is concerned, there is the verse from the Qur’an where God says:

“Wa idh Qala Rabbuka lil Mala’ikati Innee Ja’ilun fi al-Ardhi Khalifah Qalu a-taj’alu fi ha man yufsidu fi ha wa yasfiku dimaa a wa nahnu nu-sabihu bi-hamdika wa nuqaddi sulak Qala innee a’lamu ma la ta’lamun” [Transliteration of the Qur’an 2:30]

When God was creating humankind, he said to the angels that “Indeed I will make upon the earth a “Khalifah,”” or a successor, an authority, an inheritor, a caretaker, and the angels responded, “will you place upon it those who cause discord and shed blood, while we praise you and sanctify you?”

Look at our God’s response to the angels when they asked him this.

“Qala innee a’lamu ma la ta’lamun”

“Indeed. I know that which you do not know.”

Our God had hope in us, so we must have hope in ourselves. Have hope in God but also have hope in yourself and in others, because more often than not your hope will be confirmed. Have hope, because hope makes a better world possible.

God rebuked the angels for us, so make the intention to be the manifestation of that rebuke. Be evidence of His mercy, love, compassion, and justice in this world. How do you embody that mercy? How do you embody that sense of justice?

And how will you resist what is to come?

—END—

Photo of CU Friday prayer

The Friday prayer commences on the steps of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library (February 3, 2017)

Photo 1 of CU Sermon

Muslims prostrating in their Friday prayers with non-Muslim allies standing by the side in solidarity (February 3, 2017)

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Moses Mendelssohn and a Question on Islamic Reform

Last week I attended a lecture at the Center for Jewish History in New York entitled, ‘Why Moses Mendelssohn Matters,’ and I’d like to briefly share some of the notes I took during the program as well as a follow-up question I had which I unfortunately wasn’t able to ask, because by the time I had finished constructing it, the Q&A panel had ended.

The event’s speakers presented Mendelssohn’s impressive accomplishments, contextualized the questions he grappled with in the epoch of his time, and explored how those questions can be applied to our current sociopolitical moment today. Below is a photo of the event flier itself:

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I walked in a few minutes late as Professor Michah Gottlieb was speaking. He was describing the ways in which Mendelssohn was both appreciated and criticized by Jews of all stripes both during his time and after. For the Orthodox, he wasn’t religious enough; for Zionists, not nationalist enough; for Marxists, too embracing of the free market; and so on.

In Mendelssohn’s age, the Jewish commitment to Liberal Enlightenment was interpreted by Protestants as a deceptive ploy. Jews were criticized for not being sufficiently committed to the societies in which they lived, of seeking to defraud Protestants, and of being too engulfed in their own religious dogmatism. Gottlieb described a three-pronged approach to how Mendelssohn dealt with these and other issues of his time:

  1. He recognized that non-Jewish criticism of Jews was not always entirely wrong. A minority of Jews were in fact involved in crime and saw it as legitimate to defraud Christians. Some were in fact driven by dogma. Mendelssohn saw this as doing Judaism wrong, and believed that Judaism at its core was in fact even more liberal and tolerant than Protestantism because it did not demand a commitment to irrational dogma and did not necessitate being Jewish as a prerequisite to enter heaven. Mendelssohn thus saw it as vital to reform Jewish education, but for him, the process of reform was rooted in Judaism itself.
  2. Mendelssohn also sought to define what it meant to be “German.” In the 18th century, there did not exist an accepted definition of what it meant to be “German.” Professor Gottlieb argued that for Mendelssohn, being German was not a question of blood or religion, as there were Catholic and Prussian Germans, but that being German was then something to be defined by the “grand matter of philosophizing.” To be German was to be cosmopolitan and to ascertain truth from multiple perspectives. To contribute to German philosophical discourse, Mendelssohn contributed to translation projects of literature that were both religious and secular in nature, be it the Hebrew Bible or the works of Plato and Rousseau.
  3. Mendelssohn argued that Judaism was of value not just for Jews but for Germans as a whole, because Judaism married rational Enlightenment philosophy with faith, provided the formulate for social cohesion, and tempered religious division.

Professor Gottlieb then went on to describe how the anxieties that Germans in the 18th century felt were very much like those that White Americans feel today: “There is a temptation to long for an idyllic and imagined past when society was supposedly more homogeneous, peaceful, and prosperous.” How did Mendelssohn advocate moving forward then? Through an enlightened cosmopolitanism, and through recognizing that hatred was not a sign of courage and strength, but of fear and weakness.

Gottlieb ended his portion of the talk by arguing that for Mendelssohn as a Jew and a German, the path to reconciliation was to, in Gottlieb’s words, “bear both burdens,” by adopting the mores of your land but also holding on to the tradition of your fathers.

After Professor Gottlieb was Professor David Sorkin, who began his talk by mentioning that the very characteristics that made Mendelssohn a formative figure for Judaism in the 18th century are what make him a formative figure today. He quoted the Mendelssohnian scholar Alexander Altmann, who described Mendelssohn as the archetypal German Jew because of four specific characteristics:

  1. He had acculturated, by mastering the German language and culture.
  2. He was a Jew by conviction, not just by birth.
  3. He was a philosopher of Judaism in modern times, and aimed to fulfill the commandments (mitzvot).
  4. He was an advocate for the rights and emancipation of Jews.

Because of these four characteristics, Mendelssohn was the “patron-saint” of German Judaism in the 19th century. For Reform Jews, his emphasis on morality and reason were essential; for Conservative Jews, i.e., ‘positive-historical’ Jews, he deftly balanced reason with the commandments; for Orthodox Jews, he represented an observant Jew who identified the commandments with morality; thus, every major stream of Judaism could lay claim to Mendelssohn.

Professor Sorkin also noted that Mendelssohn wrote one of the best-selling Hebrew books of the 19th century and that his translations of the Bible and commentary went through at least two dozen editions.

He mentioned that Mendelssohn “was an advocate of a form of radical individualism and a rejection of religious authority. He saw religion as being a necessarily voluntary society in which any member who wants to participate or belong should be allowed to do.”

He quoted a few prominent articles where Mendelssohn was cited as an inspiration, but the one that stuck out to me was one written by Muslim liberal thinker Mustafa Akyol, published in the New York Times, which can (and should be) read here. Akyol, a “Twitter friend” of mine, appears to cite Mendelssohn as a workable and exemplary model to emulate for Muslims seeking to reform their faith. This moment was what I was waiting for, and it is what triggered a series of jumbled thoughts in my mind about Islam and reform. After discussing Mendelssohn’s influence on a diverse array of classic and contemporary writers and thinkers, Sorkin ended his presentation.

image1

This was the crux of the presentations, after which followed a panel discussion and Q&A sessions. I did not take notes for these but paid close attention to what was being discussed. I then mustered the courage to ask a question but wanted it to be precise and impactful, so I started typing it out quickly on my iPhone to do exactly that. This is what I wrote (slightly edited):

“Coming from the Islamic tradition and being Muslim myself, I find this panel to be very enlightening, especially as an outsider. The question I have to ask then, pertains to the applicability of the Mendelssohnian approach to the Islamic tradition. It was mentioned that Mendelssohn could serve as a model for Islamic reform, and Professor Sorkin, you quoted an interesting article written by Mustafa Akyol.

One of the critiques of Akyol’s argument is that it uncritically adopts modernization theory, i.e., the idea that all societies must and will progress in a linear path following that of industrialized and post-Enlightenment Europe. Well, people argue that one of the reasons Muslims societies didn’t ‘reform’ was because Islam didn’t encounter the same tensions between “church” and “state” in the same manner that the other Abrahamic traditions may have.

For example, pre-modern shari’a, like halacha, consisted of a malleable and flexible corpus of general principles from which law and ethics were derived, and it was only after the introduction of modern notions of statehood, which demanded conformity to a uniform, bureaucratized, top-down structure of governance, that shari’a became stagnant and frozen in time. In Islam’s encounter with modernity, this system of dynamic principles was reduced to immutable positive law for the sake of modern efficiency.

My question then is, would Mendelssohn’s philosophical and legal approach be truly universally applicable or would it apply solely for a Western/European context?”

Now while I certainly do not have the answer to this loaded question, what I do know is that I need to work harder on mastering the skill of writing and articulating the deeper questions in a deft manner. Now there’s a lesson I definitely have to learn from Mendelssohn.

-Asad

A Sunni Response to the Baghdad Bombing

In the third night of Ramadan 2017, men and women, both young and old, gathered at a bustling ice cream shop in the Karradah neighborhood of southern Baghdad during what should have been an ideal night out with the family to cool off from the long, hot day of fasting.

But the joyful night abruptly turned into a scene of death and destruction, as has too often painfully been the case in Baghdad, when the families were met with a car bomb, detonated by an ISIS fighter, killing 13 people and injuring dozens more.

It sent a tremor to a neighborhood that was known as one of the more secure areas in the city, yet one that was still healing from deep wounds, and the attack resurfaced a kind of trauma that Baghdad has endured one too many times. Muslims, in their most spiritually significant month, were again targeted by an extremist group , nay, a nihilistic death cult, claiming to operate in their name.

But one important detail has been overlooked in this story.

And it is that while Muslims are certainly both the primary fighting forces against ISIS, as well as its primary victims, the attack in Karradah was a deliberate attack on a predominantly Shi’ah Muslim community, calculated for a time when the attacker believed he could reach maximum casualties. This cannot and should not be omitted from the narrative.

This was an attack on a minority denomination that ISIS views as non-Muslim, subhuman, and thus worthy of death. While ISIS is the enemy of all Muslims, it is hard to ignore the fact that it engages in the disproportionate demonization and subsequent targeting of some groups before it does others. To defeat ISIS means to be honest about this, and to overcome its effects in the long-term means to confront this reality.

So what are we, as Muslims, and specifically as Sunnis, to do besides give our “thoughts and prayers?”

Act locally.

I do not believe all Sunnis should be held accountable for the actions of a few, for the same reasons I do not believe that all Muslims should be held accountable for the actions of a few. That we denounce such heinous, callous, reprehensible, and inhumane actions should be a given, and by principle, I do not buy into the notion of collective guilt — for anyone.

However, I do believe that while few are guilty, all are responsible. We each have an individual responsibility to make the world a better place and to work toward healing the wounds that our fellow brothers and sisters in humanity have endured, and our Shi’ah brethren deserve to know that we stand with them at a time like this one.

I speak as a Sunni, and to Sunnis, because it is the manhaj [methodology and denomination] with which I identify.  I know it’s not easy, and I fall short on this quite often, but at the very least, I think we need to take a moment to put aside the Middle East politics, the theological polemics, the whataboutism, and just submit ourselves to the humanity of the other.

To mourn with a community that has mourned alone for far too long.

I am not asking you to agree with any school of Shi’ah theology, to adopt Ja’fari or Zaydi jurisprudence, or to accept that Iran, or that any other entity that lays claim to an entire denomination, is a harbinger of good. I’m asking you to listen, to learn, and to embody the empathy that our Prophet (s) would want from us.

So how do we translate this into tangible action?

Well, on a local level, break bread at a Shi’ah mosque at least once this Ramadan, and use it as an opportunity to build meaningful relationships with the community that transcend superficial or forced bonds. Don’t make your relationship with the people you meet a transactional one that says we can only be friends so long as we work to fulfill our mutual interests; don’t make it a conditional one that says that until they condemn such-and-such that we will not talk to them; and don’t start with politics or theology. That’s not what this is about. This is about human empathy, brotherhood, and communion, which requires transcending transactions, conditions, and limitations.

Yes, you may notice they break fast at a different time, and that they pray slightly differently. You may speak to people who come from vastly different worldviews from yours, and you will not agree with all of it. They may have different experiences than ones that you are familiar with, despite coming from the same broad Muslim community.

These moments will both make you uncomfortable and liberated all at once. It’s up to you however, what you make of it, and which path you choose to take. Remember that unity is not uniformity, and agreeing or disagreeing isn’t the point: Learning and embracing are. And this process will discomfort you.

Remember that it isn’t always about you.

You are not going to untie the knots of the exceedingly complicated politics of the Middle East and the broader Muslim world, and you won’t arbitrate or solve centuries of theological disputation (for the record, I do not believe that the former is a result of the latter. I believe that contemporary Sunni-Shi’ah conflicts are political in nature and are driven along the fault-lines of sect and tribe, not theology, though that’s a different conversation), but you will emerge from the gathering a more wholesome human being, capable of shifting the discourse in your locality, even if it be one person.

Allow the experience to be something that deepens your humility and broadens your horizon. Take that first step, break that barrier, even if you’re alone in doing so.

ISIS targeted the same area last year, also during Ramadan, killing over 300 people in a shopping center. It was one of the deadliest attacks in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown in 2003. It tore apart whatever little semblance of security so many Iraqis thought they had. People are hurting.

The attack tragically showed us the depths of depravity that humanity is capable of. But what happened next showed us the heights of love that humanity is just as much capable of.

Iraqis of all stripes — Sunnah & Shi’ah — came together for a joint Eid prayer in response, partaking in an extraordinary display of unity and solidarity in the face of incomprehensible tragedy. There was profound meaning in that action. It showed us all that this doesn’t have to be the way, and that another way is possible.

That love can win.

Let us work toward building a world where something like that no longer has to be seen as an extraordinary feat.

Sunni-Shia Prayer

Sunni and Shia Muslims offering Eid prayers side-by-side in Karradah, Baghdad, at the site of the car bombing attack in July 2016. [Khalid Al-Mousily/Reuters]

– Asad