إنا لله و إنا إليه راجعون
Abraham Lincoln speculated in his second inaugural address that the Civil War was expiation for the sin of slavery. He said, “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'” If he was correct in his political theology, then what does God have in store for everything that has happened since 1865? What is the expiation for Jim Crow, sharecropping, the prison-industrial complex, COINTELPRO directed at black communities, lynchings, police brutality, and so much more? What is the expiation for Eric Garner and the thousands upon thousands of others, both the names we know and the ones we do not? The calamity of the American Civil War befell all – hardly a household existed that did not taste grief and loss. In order to seek refuge in the Merciful from a similar calamity befalling our generation, or our children’s generation, we need to collectively turn toward our Creator and seek to redress the uncountable racial injustices of our society.
Khurram Murad wrote: “We should make our basic Islamic message relevant to the concerns and experiences of the average Westerner as well as of their societies…why should the Islamic message remain unconcerned with the questions of nuclear weapons, unemployment, old age…Prophet Noah’s message dealt with caste and class differences; that of Prophet Hud with imperialism, wastage of public resources and domination by tyrant rulers; that of Prophet Lot with permissiveness; that of Prophet Shu’ayb with injustice and economic maladies; that of Prophet Moses with the tyranny and oppression perpetrated by Pharaoh. In the same way our message must deal with the problems of our day.” May peace be upon all the noble Prophets of God, amen. The entirety of the 23-year mission of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace upon him and his family, involved a systematic confrontation with the various problems of his society. Zaid Shakir reminds us that, “In the Qur’an, darkness is always mentioned in its plural form—dhulumat. This emphasizes that the varieties of darkness are many. Among them we could mention, idolatry, disbelief, oppression, lying, cheating, fornication, stealing, doubt, pornography, gluttony, etc.” True spirituality that follows the prophetic model necessitates individual and collective action to push back against the forces of darkness as much as possible, relying on Allah for victory against the oppressors within the self and in the larger society.
When we look in the Islamic spiritual tradition, we find confirmation of this need to engage with what is happening around us. Abdullah al-Haddad writes, elucidating the relationship between this awareness and our spiritual growth, “if you find in yourself…no loathing for the people of evil because of their evil, then know that your faith is weak.” In a hadith of Ja’far al-Sadiq, commenting on the possibility of complicity in evil, he warns: “He who commits an act of injustice, as well as he who aids him and he who endorses it, they are all equally held accountable for it.” ‘Ali Zayn al-‘Abidin turned to Allah in his confrontation with injustice – for he was under government surveillance his whole life – when he prayed, “O God, bless Muhammad and his Household, let the wrongdoer not find it easy to wrong me, give me good help against him, preserve me from the like of his acts, and place me not in the like of his situation! O God, bless Muhammad and his Household, and assist me with an immediate assistance that will heal my rage toward him, and redeem my fury toward him!” Faiyaz Jaffer summed it when he said, “the greatest Yazid of our time is our own self. Once we have defeated that, then nothing will stop us from making changes in community, in society.” Put simply, spirituality and activism are two sides of the same coin.
In the American context, the individual who has arguably had the greatest spiritual influence on the Muslim community is Malcolm X. He has been calling Americans back to Allah for multiple generations now, myself included. What does it mean that so many from radically different backgrounds were moved by his message? He was an ex-con, radical Black nationalist, and post-colonial revolutionary. He saw in Islam a way out for America: “But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the walls and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth – the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to.” And some have heeded the call. But not enough. At least not yet.
In Malcolm’s last speech, given at Barnard College in Manhattan, he spoke of “living in an era of revolution” wherein the Blackamerican “must take any means necessary to secure his full rights as an individual human being.” This era is still ongoing. When you have seen the streets of Manhattan filled with protestors, and the traffic stopped in all direction, you know that what Malcolm warned us about is still ongoing. From 1965 until 2016 and beyond, the struggle continues. Prophetically warning us against a facile rhetoric of reconciliation, he also said in that speech, “the white man has long preached an empty doctrine of brotherhood which means little more than a passive acceptance of his fate by the Negro.” It is not the oppressor who gets to dictate the terms of when society has changed enough. As MLK said in his famous letter: “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”
Millions March NYC, December 13th, 2014
Talking about the God of Mercy has become the default for many young Muslims in America, and rightly so. None of us are without desperate need for Divine Mercy, and we ask al-Rahman al-Raheem to be merciful to us, our families, our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, and many more that we do not know. However, there is also the God of Justice, for there can be no mercy without justice. Part of the mercy of the Prophet Muhammad, blessings and peace be upon him and his family, came through his role as a warner. He warned of the eternal Fire so that human beings could avoid it. He warned of punishment in this world so that people could make choices that led away from it. This is a large part of the Qur’anic message. When the people of Hell say, “If only we had been listening or reasoning, we would not be among the companions of the Blaze,” (67.10) they are affirming the fact that they had a choice to listen and reflect, or to ignore and go on with business as usual. So we need to listen to what God is telling us – through the words of sacred texts, the outcries in society, and the conscience within – and encourage others to listen as well.
On the Last Day, God will give human beings the opportunity to seek retribution from those who did them wrong and usurped their rights. Muhammad Emir Er writes, “Part of judgement on the Day of Arising is concerned with harms done against others in this life, for which those harmed have the right to expect retribution.” [The Soul of Islam, p. 111] One wonders what Eric Garner might do to Daniel Pantaleo on that day, or what any of those innocent souls who were killed without right might do to those who took their life. But it is not just the killer who is on the hook. What role did we play in this state of affairs? Have we already forgotten about Eric Garner? In another hadith of Ja’far al-Sadiq he states, “Whoever aids the oppressor rather than the oppressed will continue to incur God’s wrath until he stops assisting the oppressor.”
The conversation centered on #BlackLivesMatter is not going away. We can’t pretend like none of this happened. That we didn’t see video after video of unarmed black men and women shot and beaten up by police. That the streets of Manhattan and many other cities in America have not been filled with protests.
Americans in general are wary of “repent for the end is nigh!” talk, but just because something is a trope doesn’t mean it is not true. When and how God chooses to punish, we cannot say with certainty, but it is certain that God punishes. If we take Lincoln’s theological analysis seriously, we can say that perhaps if more people had fought harder against slavery, the devastation of war could have been averted.
Noam Chomsky has written: “As long as the general population is passive, apathetic, diverted to consumerism or hatred of the vulnerable, then the powerful can do as they please…” So let us each stand up and speak truth to the unjust tyrant in our own selves – the voice within that is trying to get us to do nothing. Oppose the unjustifiable thought that we are better than Eric Garner, and that if Eric Garner had been more like us, he would still be alive and with his family right now.
No. No human soul deserves to die like that. Eric Garner did not deserve what happened to him, neither in the balance of the shari’a, nor in the balance of the subtleties of mystical insight, nor in the balance of American law. It was a clear injustice, an injustice that repeats itself over and over. God is al-Mumit (The Causer of Death), but never wills injustice to His servants: “Never will I be unjust to the servants.” (50.29) And so when injustice occurs, and keeps occurring, the onus is on us.
We ask God to make us people who embody justice, heeding the advice of ‘Ali b. Abi Talib when he wrote to his governor Malik al-Ashtar:
“Do justice for Allah and do justice towards the people, as against yourself, your near ones and those of your subjects for whom you have a liking, because if you do not do so you will be oppressive, and when a person oppresses the creatures of Allah then, instead of His creatures, Allah becomes his opponent, and when Allah is the opponent of a person He tramples his plea; and he will remain in the position of being at war with Allah until he gives it up and repents. Nothing is more inducive of the reversal of Allah’s bounty or for the hastening of His retribution than continuance in oppression, because Allah hears the prayer of the oppressed and is on the look out for the oppressors.”
And God knows best.