"RETURNING THE GAZE: A WALK THROUGH THE BIBLE"
6 December 2019
Dr. Abou El Fadl begins with the caveat that he will deliver a different kind of khutbah. The modern age of information comes at a time in history when Muslims are at one of their weakest points.
Information is power, and power negotiates information. Information is not simply an objective reality that is presented, or data that you either take or leave. Information is intimately connected with power. The flow of information disempowers the disempowered and augments the power of the already powerful. An example is the way the Islamophobia industry uses the information age to its advantage. The realm of social media is a marketplace that has many dangers. It is best that people do not engage Islamophobic sites and steer away from them.
Islamophobia is rooted in a racist colonial enterprise that has been developing and adapting itself for centuries. Islamophobic sites today present information that the average Muslim is not equipped to respond to or deal with. Unless they are well educated or well anchored in their tradition, Muslims in the West can easily fall prey. This situation is compounded by the fact that Muslims in the West do not have the institutional infrastructure that allows for a solid education for the average Muslim.
For example, in one such website, an evangelical Islamophobe says that the Prophet Muhammad told Muslims in a hadith that in collecting the entirety of the Quran, they should only accept as authentic the Quran from four individuals. However, the Islamophobe points out that all four individuals died before the Quran was actually collected. He taunts, “Isn’t this a problem with your Islam?” This might be a problem if it were actually true. In fact, two of these individuals were quite alive and both were part of the committee that collected the Quran after the death of the Prophet. It would take an average Muslim a considerable amount of research to know that this evangelical Islamophobe was lying, not just about who lived and died, but also about the hadith itself. The hadith did not say to “Take the Quran from these four individuals,” but in fact said, “Take your Islam…” meaning that those individuals are very good people and an ethical example of your faith. These types of YouTube videos cause crises of faith in young Muslims. Islamophobes – whether of the evangelical breed or the Israeli right-wing breed – will lie quite strategically, relying on Muslims’ ignorance of the Islamic tradition to cast doubt. If a Muslim is not morally, ethically and spiritually firm from within, it is much safer to not engage with Islamophobic material.
Institutions of Muslim learning in our day and age are so weak that they are unable to respond to even the most simple arguments. For instance, Islamophobes will raise the issue of the marriages of the Prophet Muhammad, but they will not talk about the marriages of the Prophets of the Bible. According to the Bible, the Prophet Solomon married 1,000 wives and concubines. Prophet David had 100. The evangelical Islamophobes never mention this, but rather focus on the areas of Muslim vulnerability.
In their literature, evangelical Islamophobes instruct to not start by preaching to Muslims about the Christian faith, but rather to start by casting doubt in their hearts about their own religion. Then they provide sample questions to pose to Muslims under the guise of seeking the Truth. Once doubt sets in and it appears the Muslim is thoroughly confused and lost, then they will introduce them to the “good news” of the love of Jesus Christ. This methodology is as old as colonialism in Islamic world.
In this khutbah, Dr. Abou El Fadl demonstrates what the powerless must do with the powerful. The powerless remain powerless unless they learn to return the gaze, a lesson Muslims have not yet learned. He engages in some Bible study, using the New Oxford Bible, and gives an illustration of what an educated Muslim can do if they are proud of who they are, confident, and able to return the gaze. Often the best defense is a good offense.
For this khutbah, it would take too long to get into how the Bible was written, constructed and all the related historical issues, but to begin with language, Jesus spoke a northern, old Galilean dialect of Aramaic. Language is epistemology. In English, the word love has many different meanings – brotherly, spousal, sexual, neighborly, merciful or compassionate love. Same for Arabic, Hebrew, Greek and Latin, languages into which the Bible was translated. Translation makes a huge difference, for example, Shakespeare translated into Arabic would not offer the precise original meaning.
Language aside, the Bible is a very complex text. It is an accumulation of historical texts, and every single gospel, whether in the Old or New Testament, brings scholarly debates about its real author. Because of this historicity, one can easily project onto it what is within them.
We limit our discussion to the issue of the divinity of Jesus. Nowhere in the Bible does it explicitly say that Jesus was divine. On the contrary, there are many parts of the Bible that say the exact opposite. For example, in Luke 3:21, the story of Jesus being in the wilderness for 40 days is told. The devil tried to get Jesus to worship him by offering him the heavens and the world. Jesus's response is to “Worship the only God”. If Jesus is God, the devil could not have the power to offer him the world. If Jesus is Divine, Jesus would not say, "As it is said, worship only God".
In another part of the Bible, Jesus talks about being not equal to God, not a partner of God, but being instructed by God. Jesus, according to Corinthians, in the Hereafter will be subjected to God. In Hebrews 1:8, it is said that Jesus at one point was lower than angels. In Mark, Jesus tells us that he as a messenger does not know when the Final Day is. In the Bible, there are stories, such as in Luke 6:12, where Jesus prays. If Jesus is Divine, that would mean God is praying to God. (This is just a small sampling of the Bible verses that Dr. Abou El Fadl covers in the khutbah. He also touches upon John 8:26+ and John: Chapters 13, 17, 20; the first Corinthians: Letter from Paul to James and Chapters 10 and 15; Timothy: Chapter 2; Matthew: Chapter 13; Luke: 14:26; Acts: Chapter 3; and Mark 14:32. From these passages, Jesus is a prophet; Jesus has been sent; Jesus prays to God; Jesus executes the will of God, the One and Only, but at the same time, Christian theologians from the council of Nicaea until today have insisted that Jesus is Divine.)
It is important to respect and honor Christians, but Muslims must return the gaze. To do so takes years of study, which is exactly why Muslims should support our educated, so that they can return the gaze.
A common tactic of Islamophobes is to go to a layperson, not a scholar, and to try to take the entire Islamic tradition only by reference to historically embedded texts. However, this could also be done with the Bible. Verses taken out of context from Luke 14:26 could make Christianity look as if it promotes hating one’s father, mother, wife, children, brother and sister.
Muslims should either not engage this material or educate themselves before ignorance destroys their Hereafter. The Bible confirms the One and Only God, who has sent the son of man, as Jesus called himself. We are all sons and daughters of God, as we are all bonded to God with love and passion. The difference is that in Islam, we don't need someone to die for our sins, or need to see someone suffer for us to feel God's love. We feel God’s love without God suffering. The age of social media has turned the world into a place of noise. We must learn to purify our ears, so we can listen only to what is worth listening to.