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"Our Character is Built On Our Stories"


 

 

It is not an exaggeration to say that we human beings – our intellects and our psyches – are a product of numerous cumulative narratives that we have received at different parts in our lives.

 

The fabric of human consciousness is formed by stories from the past and present. They form what we define as our reality: the way we understand things, the way we associate and relate to values, and the way that we feel entitled to feel or not to feel.

 

When we look at the present Muslim condition, we often wonder, what ails it? What has injured the present Muslim psyche and intellect so that in the heart of the soul of every Muslim is a sense of grievance and sadness about our world? What are the narratives that form our consciousness; that make us confident or insecure about our tradition and who we are? Or that makes us clear about our purpose in life and what we should be doing or not?

 

As Muslims, it is critical that we understand and actively construct our own narratives and study our history with a sense of urgency. We must understand that the way we comprehend and absorb our history defines our realities in the present and future. This is precisely why I have increasingly turned in my khutbahs to talking about examples from the past, because it dawns on you as an educator how ill-informed or even how uninformed Muslims are about their own narratives. We are byproducts of our history, not as it exists in some objective world, but as we comprehend it.

 

I want to discuss two minor events in Muslim history that ought to make us reflect upon what we know of our past, how we know it, why we know it and what would be needed for us to mend our relationship with our tradition. Likely, most Muslims have not heard these narratives. Yet, notice how significant these precedents are for what defines us as Muslims and defines our relationship to our tradition.

 

Thumama bin Athal al-Hanafi was the chief of an important Arab tribe of Yamama (today’s Yemen), a man of considerable wealth. His tribe was famous for farming and selling wheat to Mecca. Thumama had a close relationship with Mecca because of a long-existing business relationship with his tribe.

 

At this time, an increasing number of Arab tribes allied to Mecca were alarmed about the spread of the Islamic message, so they conspired to destroy the nascent Muslim community in Medina, the Prophet and his followers. They all started forming plans to launch a stealth attack against Muslims in Medina, hoping to finally finish off the Islamic message once and for all.

 

The Prophet did not simply rely on his iman (faith) but did his due diligence before he would ask God for help; he always did his part and exerted the effort that a Muslim must exert before they can dare ask God for assistance. Part of this due diligence was checking with the Prophet’s network of informants that would convey news to the Muslims in Medina.

 

The news that Thumama’s tribe was planning a military campaign against Muslims in Medina reached the Prophet, so he created a military force that would launch a preemptive strike to neutralize his enemies before they attacked Muslims. The military campaign was short-lived but so successful that the tribal chief himself, Thumama, was captured and brought to Medina.

 

In Medina, there was a group of people that played an important role in Islamic history that Muslims today rarely hear about, the al-Suffa. These were the poorest Muslim converts in Medina, people who were often former slaves who did not have property, trade or commerce, so they lived either in the mosque or in small, modest residences around the mosque. They turned their lack of wealth into a remarkable spiritual, moral and intellectual force by always meeting in Medina to pray, study the Quran and supplicate God.

 

Sufism traces its roots back to al-Suffa because of their studious dedication, the modesty of their means and the way that they led their lives in which they mainly worked, prayed and studied. The Prophet was known to spend much time with al-Suffa, sharing a bond of love with the group. He knew they were often hungry, so he would go out of his way to make sure they had enough food and would often dine with them.

 

Thumama was kept in the main mosque of Medina where al-Suffa spent most of their days. As a tribal chief, Thumama was particularly unhappy about the fact that those who fed him were the poor and he was not used to their modest food. But being tied in the mosque, he had an opportunity to observe how al-Suffa spent their day. He was struck by something that, as a tribal chief from Yamama, he didn't comprehend before. These people came from various tribes, ethnic backgrounds and races, yet they all sat, prayed, did dhikr and ate together, seemingly in a world of malakut. They possessed a type of happiness, tranquility and peace that Thumama had not seen before. He would see the Prophet, who, to Thumama, was the equivalent of a tribal chief, sit with al-Suffa; eating, joking, laughing, praying and studying with them in absolute humility; human beings in their simplest, purest form.

 

After a short period, the Prophet asks Thumama, "What do you think should be done with you?" Thumama replies, "If you kill me, then you've killed an honorable human being. If you release me, I will be grateful." But being a typical tribal chief, he added, "If you want money to release me, name your price. My tribe will pay whatever price to obtain my release." The Prophet said, "We don't want to kill you and we don't want your money. We're releasing you."

 

This was the tipping point to Thumama's re-observation of reality. He was in disbelief that Muslims, after having captured a tribal chief, released him for nothing. His whole value system was in shock. Shortly after, he told the Prophet, "I want to become a Muslim and live with you in Medina." The Prophet was happy to hear this, but told him, "You're welcome to Islam, but if you really want to serve Islam, don't live with us in Medina. Go back to your tribe and teach them about Islam." Thumama reluctantly agreed, knowing he would meet resistance with his tribe. But he also understood that it was now not about just his own life. Now that he had seen a moral example, he knew it was incumbent upon him to share the moral vision of what the Quran consistently described as moving people from darkness to light.

 

Before leaving Medina, a fancy meal was prepared for Thumama. He ate nothing, explaining, "When I was not a Muslim, all I cared about was food, I wanted to fill my stomach. But that's the attitude of a kafir. The attitude of a Muslim is to look at food as a necessity, not an object. I've lost my zeal for food once I've come to the light of this religion."

 

Before heading home, Thumama wanted to visit the Kaaba as a Muslim. So, he traveled to Mecca, visited the Kaaba and supplicated. When Meccans overheard his supplications, they suspected that he had converted to Islam. The Meccan chiefs confronted Thumama and when he confirmed he was now a Muslim, they became so outraged that they physically assaulted him. Thumama arrived back to his tribe, upset and hostile with his former allies, announcing to his tribe that they would no longer sell wheat to Mecca.

 

This caused a serious economic crisis in Mecca, so Mecca’s leaders attempted to appeal to Thumama, but he refused. They sent a message to the Prophet, asking him to tell Thumama to end the economic boycott. At this time, not only were Meccans and the Muslims of Medina at war, but Mecca had inflicted an economic boycott against Muslims in Medina that led to their starvation. Mecca itself imposed an economic boycott against Muslims so severe that it caused Muslims to leave their lives in Mecca and migrate to Medina. The message from the Meccans to the Prophet was remarkably haughty and arrogant, yet as a mercy to those who were suffering, the Prophet responded by asking Thumama to end his economic boycott of Mecca. Once Thumama received the letter from the Prophet, he could not refuse and ended the boycott.

 

We must pause and reflect upon the morality of a community that was able to impress an enemy stranger through modesty, love, solidarity, humility and poverty, so much so that the man became Muslim.

 

Another story. Many Muslims have heard of the Prophet’s companion, Abu Hurairah. After converting to Islam, he was among the al-Suffa, very poor and often hungry. Abu Hurairah was very close to and loved his mother dearly, but she was a kafir who adamantly disliked the Prophet.

 

One day, someone delivered dates to the Prophet, so he divided up the dates, giving each member of al-Suffa two dates. He told them to boil the dates and eat them to fill their stomachs but noticed that Abu Hurairah had put one date in his pocket. Note the Prophet’s level of sensitivity that he noticed who saved one date. He asked Abu Hurairah why he saved one date. Abu Hurairah responded, “For my mother.” The Prophet didn’t say, "Your mother is a kafir, she doesn't count,” but told Abu Hurairah, "Eat your two dates. We'll give your mother two."

 

We are either bonded in servitude to God or bonded in servitude to material wealth. Either your god is Allah - and when your god is Allah, your god is moral values - or your god is materiality. Either you exist in a state of Tawhid, where your life centers around God and the moral values that embody the divine attributes; or you exist in a state of shirk, where you worship material wealth and your relationship to moral values are tenuous.

 

Many of us were never taught the simple narratives that could construct our moral being, consciousness and relationship to faith. If you feel disappointed by the Islamic tradition, you don't truly know it. If you don’t know it, you must commit your existence to finding the cause of this ignorance and find solutions.

 

Imagine if Muslims committed their wealth to funding educational institutions that would teach our youth about Islam, what the Islamic tradition really is, using qualified, competent teachers. Imagine if, when we said, "Things need to be fixed," we had the dedication we observe in the narratives about early Muslims - the people who made Islam a moral force.

 

Morality is indivisible. Every time there is an evil on this earth, it leaves a demonic imprint. Demonic imprints are like infections, contaminating the atmosphere, poisoning the earth and turning the environment toxic. That is the nature of evil. Unless there are those who are willing to confront it, to clean after it, it will leave an imprint and poison, inflicting further injury and claiming more victims. That is why in Islam, the duty of moral uprightness, ethical vigilance, obligation to advocate, teach and act against moral failures is heavily emphasized.

 

Israel wants to confiscate more territory in the West Bank, as if Palestinians haven't suffered enough. America’s State Department argued, “Muslims didn't do anything when we moved the embassy to Jerusalem. All the claims about how this would outrage the Muslim world turned out to be exaggerated, so Israel will just claim more land, disinherit more Palestinians and Muslims will not do anything.” Unfortunately, they are right. Muslims have become accustomed to meeting evil with complete apathy.

 

There are Muslims asking, "Why should we care about Palestine?" Even if Palestinians were not Muslim, it's the moral principle. These are people who have their land taken away and have been rendered homeless, not to mention the critical space that Jerusalem occupies in the Muslim psyche.

 

There is a holocaust that is being committed by the Chinese government against Chinese Muslims. John Bolton revealed recently that Trump encouraged the Chinese president to put Muslims in concentration camps. Trump has made his absolute hatred for Muslims clear from the beginning, yet he has found Muslims around the world that celebrate and welcome him. Trump is someone who disrespects our Prophet, God and faith; who hates who we are and what we stand for. Yet, as Muslims we give up and accept him as God’s will.

 

Compare these Muslims to the Muslims of the past, who had moral complexity. They waged war against and captured the chief of a tribe who threatened them, but still observed moral limits in the way they navigated conflict. The enemy saw such morally beautiful human beings once he was captured that he converted to Islam.

 

China would not have built these concentration camps, full of human trafficking and forced labor, if the United States and Muslim countries were resolute that they could not do that, threatening severe consequences.

 

Does our apathy come from a place of racism? Is it because these Muslims are Chinese, so we don't think of them as real Muslims? It’s tempting to say yes, if not for the fact that we've done the same with Palestinians, who are Arab. There are millions of people in concentration camps being tortured, executed and enslaved. Yet, Muslims have not been successful in instituting even an economic boycott of products that come from where these labor camps are.

 

The American Jewish Committee recently held a major conference where the head of the Muslim World League, Mohammad Al-Issa, gave an address. In it, he said in Islam, we have no problems with Jews. He mentioned the atrociousness of the Holocaust. He also said that Israel has a right to exist and be safe. The problem, however, is that Al-Issa did not mention Palestinians at all in his address, as if they are a non-entity. He said, "The holocaust must never be permitted to reoccur anywhere in the world," but did not mention the Chinese Muslims suffering in concentration camps.

 

Reorient yourself towards Islam, take it seriously because it is a treasure trove of values, morality and ideas. Commit yourself to Islamic education and become a moral voice that speaks against injustice and demonic toxicity that occurs in our modern world, especially when that immorality comes from fellow Muslims. Do that and you will no longer wonder why you were put on this earth. You will be too busy to wonder about the purpose of your life or the meaning of your existence. You may live a difficult, challenging life, but it will be a meaningful, moral one that God rewards you for; that you can honorably defend when you meet God.


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