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For those who want to understand, Islam came as a line of demarcation – the Furqan – a clear separation between what Islam described as the ethics, practices, rituals, lineages, affiliations, biases, and prejudices of jahiliyya (from the root jahl, which means ignorance) – and that which is NOT.
The Quran itself refers to the ethics and morality that belong to the realm of jahiliyya – the realm of ignorance. Jahiliyya is wedded to the idea of darkness and loss; a state in which Shaytan dwells, an ungodly state where you cannot claim to be close to the realm of the divine.
Islam takes people from darkness to light; if you are Muslim and you understand what it means to walk in the company of the Divine, then you have committed yourself to emerging from a state of darkness to light. But if you are not committed, then you are always at risk of drowning in taghut – in the oppressiveness of bigotry, prejudice and ignorance. Simply put, if you claim to be with the Divine, your heart itself must be in the right place. Your heart must reject taghut and jahiliyya in all its forms: blind affiliations, speaking out of ignorance; and slandering human beings. It must reject foul obscenities, treason, cheating, dishonesty, cowardliness, miserliness, materiality and lack of empathy.
Islam came as a clear demarcation. What comes after the enlightenment of Islam is founded on two principles: iman (faith, fidelity, certitude) and gratitude to God. We often forget that Islam came to emphasize the critical engagement with the Divine through iman – by believing and having the certitude that in the same way you are alive now, you will come back after death to be held accountable for everything that you have done in this life. That prong of iman cannot be completed without fully rejecting – and in fact being thoroughly offended by – the ethics of jahiliyya. Every time you cheat, lie, are unfair to another human being, hurt someone, or act on bigotry and prejudice, that is jahiliyya.
In Surah ‘Abasa, perhaps one of the most famous chapters in the Quran, there is an often-repeated story the Muslims know, but they forget the extent to which it truly conveys a morally transformative lesson. It is the story of a poor, blind man in Mecca, Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum, who was also the cousin of the Prophet’s wife, Khadijah. He was also a convert to Islam. The Prophet was going through a period of increased persecution. He had gone public with the Islamic message, struggling to get powerful Meccans and tribe leaders to accept Islam. His companions who prayed in public or spoke about Islam were severely assaulted, beaten and tortured. The Prophet is witnessing many of his companions suffering egregious persecution but is unable to do anything to help them. The Prophet eagerly wanted the elders of Mecca to become Muslim or at least sympathize enough with Islam so the persecution of Muslims could be lessened. Under these circumstances, as the Prophet was speaking with the Meccan elders, Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum approached the Prophet and asked to speak with him. The Prophet asked the poor, blind man to wait, but Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum was insistent, so much so that the Prophet became irritated. Some reports say that the Prophet was irritated to the point that he frowned.
As a result, God reveals an entire surah chiding the Prophet for that behavior. The surah is harsh in its criticism, although many of us would have done exactly what the Prophet did – give priority to meeting important people. But there was a principle that the Quran had to anchor: with Islam we don't play politics, with Islam we do ethics. The entire surah comes to say: in the eyes of God, the fact that these are powerful and wealthy people in Mecca means nothing. In the eyes of God, that poor, blind man is more important, and Prophet of God, Muhammad, what you should concern yourself with are the ethics of the process, but not the results. You do not know whether the yield is better with talking to high-powered people; or talking to the blind, poor man. To think of the results is not your business; your business is the ethical process itself. Morally, the rich are not entitled to anything more than the poor; the powerful should not get priority over the disempowered.
After the revelation of Surah ‘Abasa, the Prophet would always greet Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum as the man whom God reprimanded him over; the man who became a vehicle for teaching the Prophet more humility and more principles; and who became the vehicle for underscoring the difference between Islam and jahiliyya. Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum went on to become a very important figure in Islamic history. When the Prophet would leave Medina, he would often appoint Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum as his deputy. Many of us would become resentful of a man who caused a public embarrassment at a time when Muslims were already being persecuted, but the Prophet celebrated him. Eventually Abdullah Ibn Umm Maktum is martyred in battle. Although blind, he insisted on participating in the Battle of al-Qadisiyyah, being the bearer of the banner of the army.
When the Prophet taught that human beings are equal like the teeth of a comb, it was meant theoretically and practically. To discriminate between people on the basis of nationality, race, gender, wealth, tribal affiliation, ethnicity or class is all part of jahiliyya. If you are a racist, a classist, a bigot, a cheater or a liar, you might be Muslim by name, but by heart and mind, you are part of jahiliyya.
Islam came as a moral and ethical revolution. It rebelled against the status of the elite clergy – the priests and priestesses – and against the status of the rich in society with their privileges and immunities. It rejected the ignorance of tribalism and lineage; racism between Persian, Arab and African; and even the statism of free versus slave, which is why the Prophet forbade us from referring to someone as “abd” or “abda” – as “slave”. Many Arabs use the word “abd” in direct contradiction to the commands of the Prophet; that is the ethical revolution and the rejection of jahiliyya in all its forms.
George Floyd, an African American man was killed by the police in Minneapolis. The story of this killing has many typical elements – a black man goes to a store, is suspected of criminal activity, the store calls the police. In what has become a common racist paradigm, the police arrive and see a big man. So often, racists are threatened by big African American men. As you see in the video, they handcuff him and one of the cops puts his knee on George Floyd’s neck until he dies. This is the embodiment, the very essence of police brutality, and nothing happens – the police get off with a slap on the hand, which ignited demonstrations in Minneapolis and elsewhere.
This is a repeated pattern against minority groups, especially blacks. If there were no demonstrations or protests, or if someone didn’t film this incident, rest assured, nothing would have happened to these cops. The problem is the jahiliyya of racism endemic in our society, and endemic in so many of us Muslims.
We cannot ignore that the wonderful experiment in democracy and civil rights that emerged in the U.S. and Europe is under serious threat because of bigotry, prejudice, and racism including Islamophobia. There was a recent study published that showed an alarming rise in white nativist movements who preferred dictatorial solutions and who are not offended by Trump’s erosion of democracy as long as it keeps minorities at bay.
Incredibly, all over the Muslim world, the police torture and kill people every day. Any journalist who dares say anything about it is promptly arrested and imprisoned. Anyone who dares demonstrate is promptly arrested and imprisoned. It is very rare in the Muslim world for a police officer to be held accountable in any way. The jahiliyya of Muslims is far more offensive because Muslims should know better. They have no excuse.
The Prophet said, “Let none of you stand by when a man or woman, a human being is flogged unfairly. Let not one of you stand by as a man or a woman is killed unjustly or unfairly, because if you stand by and you do nothing, God’s curse will fall on those who tortured or killed and those who watched and did nothing.” Who in our day and age watched and did nothing? Everyone on social media. If you watched the video, read the news, saw the racism and failed to act, don’t complain when God removes the blessings from your life.
Tragically, there are Muslims in the U.S. who are very influential among the youth who de-emphasize the racial problem in the U.S. They want to convince young Muslims that the Prophet would want them to focus on the rituals – learn prayer and fasting correctly – and then get married, have children and not worry about the injustices in the world. These are the jahili Muslims spreading Islamized jahiliyyah – a thinly disguised jahiliyya with an Islamic veneer. These are the Emirati-like Muslims that hold the institutions of power in the U.S.; not places like CAIR, but all those who receive money from the Emirati, Saudi or Egyptian governments – those who killed the soul of Islam with the soul of jahiliyyah.
There is a second type of Islam that tells you the Prophet is offended to the core by injustice and wants you to protest and say No to jahili behavior: No to bigotry, No to racism. You pick which type of Islam.
Finally, the “good news” that Las Vegas is going to open sooner rather than later, now that Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi has donated $20 million in emergency coronavirus test kits to help restart its economy.