Islam should be the most important thing in the life of a Muslim, the very framework through which a Muslim sees and understands the world. It is critical that Muslims have a clear vision of what Islam represents to them, and a clear understanding of the moral role of the Islamic faith in the context of human history.
Human history is marked with constant movements towards human dignity and self-determination, which are always met with resistance. This resistance takes the form of various dictatorial, authoritarian and totalitarian ways of thinking. Many of us witnessed this with the fall of communism and rise of democracy in countries throughout the world. Sometimes the battle is so unequal that the movement to self-determination and dignity becomes frustrated through sheer power and force, like in Russia, Palestine or China.
What is critical to understand is that this is the way history works; and it is critical that we understand the movement of history itself. We saw, for instance, the movement against slavery through universal international momentum. It sparked the American Civil War and numerous political struggles throughout Europe. There are numerous nuances and permutations, but the core idea is that slavery as an institution lost its legitimacy and credibility all over the world, and we ultimately ended up with at least an “official” abolition of slavery. But in the same way that there was a movement against slavery, there was also a reactionary resistance movement that attempted to preserve slavery in its various forms, whether through Jim Crow laws in the U.S. or various movements now forgotten in Europe, or conservative institutions around the world that opposed the epistemological, logical, moral and theological change that would end the legitimacy and authenticity of slavery as an institution.
Then there was also the human momentum towards fascism and communism with various movements of resistance against both, which ended up with at least the “official” defeat of fascism. That is the nature of human history. Ideas catch on like wildfire and human ideas become like a living organism. They are breathed by people and form a part of their consciousness and awareness. For every idea that catches on, there is a movement of resistance to it. But ultimately, it is very difficult to oppress the movement of history.
Our current problem with racism in the U.S. and around the world is intimately connected with the historical movement that once resisted slavery. Our current problems with police authority and brutality are closely connected to the revolutionary momentum that called for human dignity, autonomy and self-determination. Our current problems with slavery are but a continuation of the long human saga between despotism, control and liberation.
In Quranic terms, it is the constant saga between the oppressed and their natural inclination to resist their oppression, as well as the natural counter movement that every resistance to oppression faces. It is a problem that will never end; human beings will always oppress human beings. It is completely unrealistic to expect that human beings will ever simply concede and accept a fair and just distribution of resources or live in peace with the idea of individual rights, autonomy and dignity. It is the nature of history, the way that societies are, and the way that human psychology is made. There will always be resistance to oppression, as well as a counter-resistance to the resistance to oppression. In this dynamic, there are momentums that catch on and move humanity a step or two forward.
The recurring battle that we are now witnessing is racism. Here, it is essential to have a critical understanding and anchoring of what Islam is. When God tells us that God has sent a message to take us from darkness to light, what does this mean in terms of how human beings should live their life and what a Muslim’s attitude should be towards what unfolds throughout the movement of history?
Reflect upon a small but monumental micro-event in Muslim history that is most revealing. Dahiyya al-Kalbi, a companion of the Prophet, was sent with a message to the King of the Ghassassina - the Christian Arabs who were allied to the Byzantium Empire - inviting the King of the Ghassassina to Islam. When Dahiyya al-Kalbi arrives at the Ghassassina Court, he learns that there is a long list of protocols that he must follow to present his message to the King. One critical part of the protocol is that when first entering the King's presence, one was expected to prostrate. Dahiyya al-Kalbi’s immediate response was, "Prostrate before the King? I can't do that." He is told that if he does not prostrate, the King will not meet with him; or if he attempts to deliver the message without prostrating, the King may be so offended that al-Kalbi would be arrested and possibly killed. He simply responds, “So be it. If that happens, it happens. My reward is with God."
Dahiyya al-Kalbi refused for days to observe this courtly protocol. His reasoning was not, 'I will not prostrate because I am a man of honor or dignity.’ His response was very similar to the response of Muslims who had migrated to the Abyssinian court years earlier, who also refused similar courtly protocols saying, “In Islam we don't do that because Islam has liberated us from the need to worship other human beings. What I understand from my religion is that when I prostrate to God, I will prostrate to no other."
Dahiyya al-Kalbi was not a theologian, philosopher or jurist yet he had an innate understanding of what Islam is and the type of courage and rectitude to have a fundamental understanding of what it meant for people to emerge from darkness to light.
Another often repeated example comes from the Sirah of the Prophet. One of the constant phrases uttered by the Prophet’s companions was, “We Muslims cannot allow ourselves to be degraded or put in a humiliated position.” To them, there was an innate understanding that Islam was a message of dignity. In order to honor Islam and for Islam to honor them, they had to exist in a dignified existence, otherwise the Islam within them would be defeated.
Back to the idea of historical movements. The Islam of Prophet Muhammad struck humanity as a trajectory and a momentum towards liberation and self-determination, and as such, met considerable resistance. Much of this resistance was internal to Islam itself because many people who converted to Islam did not necessarily hold any of these pristine ideals. And contrary to popular belief, it is not true that the first decades of Islam were decades of liberation, followed by a long winter of authoritarianism, despotism and oppression. In truth, the dynamic between freedom and oppression within Islam ebbs and flows throughout Islamic history. Eventually, the idea of human liberation and self-determination is suffocated in the Muslim East, and the Christian West takes the idea and runs with it, ie. with the Reformation and the defeat of Catholicism and the Catholic Church, and the radically modified church theology of Christianity. The idea of freedom in the Christian West becomes contagious and propels the rise of the Western civilization. From that comes another historical moment with the anti-slavery movement, ironically championed by the same people who shacked the world to the institution of colonialism. By that time, Muslims had ceased to be a civilizational force and were simply on the receiving end rather than the making end of history.
Muslims ceased to be an effective force in the world because they had forgotten the simple, intuitive knowledge of Dahiyya al-Kalbi, of what it means to be a Muslim and the type of inherent dignity that Islam came to give human beings. We are now living through a similar historical moment with the long battle against racism, a very old illness that is as old as the illness of poverty itself.
Racism is intimately tied to the whole dynamic of oppression, dictatorship, unequal distribution of sources, classes, domination and hegemony. Racism is the close, demonic ally of both slavery and colonialism. Where one exists, the others are likely present. Racism was clearly recognized by early Islam as an illness, as something intolerable.
Muslims have long been in a state of slumber. We have failed to be at the forefront of the battles against slavery, despotism, communism and fascism in the modern age. When God said, “We have taken you from darkness to light,” God was giving us the right to feel proud and confident as we claim our right to human dignity, autonomy and self-determination. In the same vein, God gave us certitude in the rejection of all blind affiliations like the affiliation of racism. The Prophet taught his followers that people are as equal as the teeth of a comb. That pristine type of moral awareness has long been in a state of slumber in the Muslims civilization.
What makes God bless a nation? It is not the displays of wealth or power or the performances of religion. It is that as a people, you enjoin what is good and resist what is not good. That requires an awareness of what good and evil means.
The Prophet taught the companions that whoever stands in a state of brokenness in front of a rich or powerful person to gain benefit – financial or otherwise – then two thirds of their Islam is wiped away. The Prophet taught his companions dignity. Even if you are poor or disadvantaged, as a Muslim, you cannot be undignified in front of a powerful, rich person; dignity is core to the identity of a Muslim. This is the type of teaching that compels Muslims to spread an entire civilization around the world.
When human beings lose their sense of dignity or being and become broken, they become like terrified animals, unable to think, produce or be creative. Human beings die whenever you take their dignity away. That is precisely why God in the Quran rejects the idea of Muslims who become Muslims coercively. There can be no compulsion in religion.
Islam’s message, in its pristine form, is that dignity is core to the identity of a Muslim. The lack of dignity teaches the human heart and soul hypocrisy. A hypocrite is a liar and a liar can never be a good Muslim or a moral human being; even the aspiration of existing in light is gone. There can be no light with a dishonest existence.
We cannot be a moral people if we are a racist people. The darkness that descends upon a racist nation is total and complete. We cannot claim to be a nation of light, freedom, morality, justice and principles if we allow for racism to exist, especially in the egregious, unmitigated and vulgar forms like what is seen in the unjust murders of African Americans.
In the same way that there is a movement against racism, there is a movement that wants racism to survive. There is and will always be a movement that is reactionary, that will resist human progress.
What is concerning is the position of Muslims in this situation. There is always a movement towards the light, as well as a movement towards darkness. The question for us as Muslims and believers is, where do we stand? At the time of the Prophet, there was a movement against the privileges of nobility, as well as a counter movement that wanted to uphold the privileges of nobility. Where would you have stood?
As Muslims, we have been outside the cycle of history, our positions as Muslims have not mattered for far too long. Throughout Islam, there have been those who understood Islam as a message of liberation that demands Muslims be at the forefront of moral and ethical struggles. Then there are those who insist Islam is nothing more than rituals without revolution. The critical question is: Where do you stand? Are you with the reactionaries of Islam or the revolutionaries of Islam? You will be asked that question in the Hereafter.
Do you understand the nature of darkness and the nature of light? Do you believe that Islam is a vehicle for taking human beings from darkness to light? Do you know how? Those who are mentally lethargic and morally dead just want to pray, fast and otherwise be left alone. They will have to defend their inaction before God in the Hereafter.
These are the most critical issues that we as Muslims have confronted and will continue to confront in the progress of human history.
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