Dr. Abou El Fadl reminds that the very idea of a responsibility is a very serious matter. None of us exist simply within the boundaries of the time and space that we occupy. Rather, all of us come to this world and immediately impact everything around us in perceptible and predictable ways, but also in imperceptible and unpredictable ways, although we don't reflect upon all the ways that the reality of responsibility is created.
If one is a reflective and moral human being, one will consider the ways that one’s existence impacts upon others and upon oneself, and the associated responsibilities that come. When the responsibility one incurs comes from the Maker of the universe and existence, it is all the more weighty. Discharging the responsibility or covenant before God is serious. One either honors this covenant or degrades this covenant.
All contracts are built on good faith. What is good faith here? It is ethics. If you don't approach Islam from the foundations, as a morally and ethically vigilant religion, no amount of text or writing will create your good faith. So, those people who say, "I approach Islam with a blank page, and I will read the text and the text will tell me what to do," this is like saying, "I don't know what my contractual relationship is about, but I'm going to read the contract and just implement the cold letter of the contract." You fail.
Islam is a consistent, ethically-vigilant message of the liberation of the human being. It has always been a revolutionary message that transformed societies. Dr. Abou El Fadl underscores and emphasizes the ethical approach. One must raise one’s ethical sense and awareness before even dealing with the text, because if the text tells you, "Work together for better and for justice and for goodness," that's all the texts can do. But if in your heart you have no notion about what justice is, that contractual relationship with the divine has already failed.
He presents the historic example of the Murji’ah. In early Islam, upon the death of the Prophet (pbuh) there was a huge political controversy when Abu Bakr insisted that the zakat be collected and dispersed by the state. There was a rebellion against him. Within that political turmoil emerged of a group of Muslims known as the Murji’ah, who basically believed that with so much civil discord and controversy, the best solution was simply to take care of oneself, and NOT to judge, nor search for what is just or unjust, nor what is beautiful or ugly, nor right or wrong. All one should do is pray at home or in the mosque and not get involved in anything political. They believed the search for justice was too difficult and that one should just pray and leave it to God to judge in the Hereafter.
Dr. Abou El Fadl recounts that in the Islamic tradition, there are few things where one can truly say there is near absolute consensus, and the Murji’ah is one of them. Everyone understood the danger of the Murji'ah because they emptied the Islamic faith of any moral content. Under the guise of avoiding politics, they turned religion into a completely personal affair -- very much like in our modern age -- where it did not matter if society was extremely unjust, poor or corrupt; they believed that individuals should not judge nor get involved.
He reminds that God demands that individuals at a minimum in their hearts must recognize injustice, wrongfulness and righteousness for what they are, even if one cannot do anything about it politically. Islam must stand for more than just personal salvation. When God calls for us to “work together to establish justice,” God does not mean to do it alone and inside ourselves only as individuals, which would be meaningless because no human being exists in isolation. The minute one comes into existence, one is a part of the larger equation of creation and has a role to play in the mizan (balance).
Muslim scholars over the centuries deconstructed the Murji’ah, so much so that it seemed the ideas of the Murji’ah were dead and gone, deposited in the trash bin of history. Yet their ideas have now been revived again in the modern age, as seen in the actions of Dar al-Ifta and Al-Azhar in Egypt, Dar al-Ifta in the United Arab Emirates and many other places. These leaders tell people not to judge because it is not people’s place to judge.
This is how we lose our youth. Our youth will demand to know what answers their religion have in the face of injustice, despotism, oppression, racism, classism, persecution and the like. If our answer is that we should simply pray and forget all else, we will lose them, as our faith will have nothing to offer. This is why the new-age Murji’ah is so dangerous, more dangerous than the Islamophobes because it comes from Muslims themselves. It is lethal because it eats away at the very moral integrity of our tradition. Unfortunately, the Murji’ah of today are very handsomely funded and supported.
In his last khutbah, Dr. Abou El Fadl discussed the notion of how to deal with the ideas of the trash bin of history. Returning to this theme, Dr. Abou El Fadl notes that many hadith promoted by the old Murji’ah were pro-despotism, pro-apathy and pro-disempowerment. However, there were also moral and ethical movements that resisted the immoral tradition. He shares several important and timely hadith, for example, that whoever accepts upon themselves an unjust Sultan, it is as if this person has accepted and liked the fact that God is dishonored and disrespected on this earth. He cites the example of Hamza Yusuf stating that Trump is God’s servant or doing God’s work. If one prays for or accepts the actions of an unjust ruler like Trump, it is as if one accepts Trump’s actions as God’s purposes. But this is an impossibility because God’s purposes can never be consistent with injustice and ugliness or that of an unjust ruler.
He makes reference to a well-known Hanbali scholar, Ibn Rajab, quoting Ibn Mubarak on the topic of scholars and their relationship with power; and Ibn Mubarak’s admonition to scholars to stay away from power. Scholars may think in the beginning that they can work with unjust rulers by offering advice or counseling them to change their ways. But in the end, as scholars come closer to power, as they become invested and more likely to justify unethical behavior, it is common to become inevitably part of the edifice and system of injustice. This is where ethical judgment and moral vision comes in, as well as good faith in the contractual and covenantal relationship with Allah.
Finally, Dr. Abou El Fadl returns to the notion of rummaging in the darkness of the trash bin of history and addresses converts, counseling them to leave the trash in the bin; instead, bringing forth the light, equity, and beauty from their diverse and rich backgrounds to enrich the tradition, and to affirm the principle that Islam stands for a foundational, constitutional norm that is justice. Delivered 20 September 2019.