Life on this earth makes sense if and only if it is a temporary abode with consequences and results, a state that has been ordained by someone bigger than this life, that understands its objects and its purpose, and that decreed it. In life, it is tempting to lose sight of the fact that this is a purposeful existence. Either we exist in a world measured by justice - and in order for justice to be the premise of our existence, there must be a Creator and Owner - or we exist in a whimsical, nonsensical, purposeless and pointless existence. For that, then all is fair game and no morals, no values or no virtues make sense.
We just passed the 25th anniversary of the Bosnian genocide, where 8,000 Muslims were killed. Sadly, the Bosnian massacre was a prelude to a number of massacres against Muslims, a harbinger for what we now know as Islamophobia. What produced the Bosnian massacre was a sustained racist discourse about Muslims as dangerous people who are alien to civilized existence. The thesis of Muslim exceptionalism gave rise to the birth of Islamophobia and a genre of racism directed at a racialized religious group; a group given racial attributes and characteristics, then demonized in a systematic way.
Instead of the Bosnian massacre becoming a turning point for the world to wake up to the dangers, ugliness and genocidal tendencies of Islamophobia, Islamophobia exploded upon the world. In addition to the Bosnian genocide, the Rohingyas, the Uyghur Muslims and the Kashmiri Muslims have since been massacred.
Islamophobia not only became more rooted around the world, it managed to weave itself into the mainstream of Western civilization. It presents itself as an intellectualized discourse, camouflaging its racism and fooling intellectuals and people who normally would be alert to the worst aspects of racism. Worse, many of the theses, premises and racism of Islamophobia have become internalized by Muslims themselves. Just because you belong to an oppressed minority doesn't mean that you cannot be a racist; you can even be racist against your own race. It is possible for a Muslim to racialize Islam and adopt bigoted, stereotypical, superficial attitudes towards Islam.
Sadly, many of these Islamophobic claims have been adopted and repeated by Muslims themselves, entirely oblivious to the racial, bigoted, ignorant overtones of what they are saying. When people who hardly know anything about Islamic history blindly repeat claims about despotism in Islam - saying things like Muslims can't understand what democracy is or that Islam cannot coexist with ideals of freedom and liberty - they paint the entire Muslim experience as a despotic experience.
Twenty-five years later, not only has so much more Muslim blood spilled, but the moral issue of Islamophobia and racism has become much worse. It is as if the blood spilled in massacres around the world has whetted the appetite of human beings to become more racist and bigoted. Because racism and Islamophobia have penetrated the heart of the Muslim world, much of what we hear coming out of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the Emirates is resoundingly Islamophobic, racist, stereotypical and ignorant.
One might be tempted in this situation to adopt a pessimistic, despairing attitude. This is precisely why, Dr. Abou El Fadl states, that he began the khutbah by reminding us all, himself included, that justice is the premise of this world, because God is the premise of this world and God is justice. For a Muslim, despair is not an option because despair is often an attitude of kufr; despair is premised on an attitude that things cannot be changed, although they ought to be changed. That leaves God - the Owner and Maker of all - out of the equation. If God willed, everything would change in an instant.
The Prophet was reminded by God throughout the Quran of the story, legacy and history of other prophets. Dr. Abou El Fadl explains that he has always been struck that the first prophet God ever mentioned to the Prophet Muhammad was the Prophet Yunus in Surah Al-Qalam, the third revelation in the Quran. God tells the Prophet Muhammad a story of the Prophet Yunus at the beginning of the Quranic revelation, when the Prophet Muhammad would still have decades of persecution and suffering ahead. In other words, God is preparing the Prophet Muhammad for the long road ahead with the legacy of the Prophet Yunus.
Yunus was an Israelite prophet, sent to an area that is now in Mosul, Iraq - then Ninawa in the Assyrian empire. He spent a long time in Ninawa, inviting the people to the path of truth, believing in one God, abandoning the worship of idols and refraining from the unjust, oppressive practices that were the earmark of Assyrian culture and laws. There are also reports, especially in the Torah, that Assyrians persecuted the Israelites; Prophet Yunus was trying to get the Assyrians to stop this oppression.
The Prophet Yunus found the people of Ninawa unreceptive. Very few people followed, instead responding to his call for justice, morality and truth with defiance. Like Islamophobes, they responded by worsening and augmenting their bad behavior in defiance.
Eventually, the Prophet Yunus gave up and, depending on the report you accept, either prayed to God to punish the people of Ninawa, or the decision to destroy Ninawa was not preceded by a prayer. Regardless, the Prophet Yunus received notice that the people of Ninawa were going to be destroyed in three days, to which the Prophet Yunus despaired and left the city of Ninawa. Fed up, he boarded a ship to get as far away from Ninawa as possible. The ship encountered a storm and the people onboard recognized the Prophet Yunus as a monotheist. At that time, when people would confront difficulty, the first thing they thought to do was to make a sacrifice to the gods so that they might be allowed to survive. They decide to throw the Prophet Yunus overboard.
When he is thrown overboard, the Prophet Yunus is swallowed by a whale, and he remains in the whale’s belly for a period of time. At that point, he recognizes that he did something wrong and that he is expatiating for his sin. He utters a famous du‘a’, “Allah, there is no God but you. Praised, be You. I have been among the unjust.” Through a miracle of God, Yunus survives the horrible suffering from the experience of being inside the whale (there are stories about the amount of illness and condition of his skin; he suffered intensely being subjected to the acids of the whale’s stomach), and is eventually expelled from the whale, landing on a seashore and under a fig tree where his life is saved.
What was the sin of Prophet Yunus? The lesson comes full circle when we realize what happened to the people of Ninawa after the Prophet Yunus left them. The Prophet Yunus thought the people of Ninawa were destroyed, but that did not happen. After he left, the people of Ninawa noticed the skies darkening and became terrified. One of the followers of the Prophet Yunus convinced them to go to the seashore, beg God for forgiveness and plead with God not to curse them. God forgave them. Once Prophet Yunus recuperated and went back to Ninawa, he discovered that not only were the people of Ninawa saved, but most of them now followed his message.
The sin of Prophet Yunus was despair. After being told by God that they had three days before being destroyed, it was not Yunus’ right to give up on his people. At the last second, one of his followers that remained behind made all the difference. Yunus’ sin was so grave, he had to go through an excruciatingly painful experience.
If you believe in God, you must believe in justice, and if you believe in God and justice, then the results and the consequences are God's alone. Your job is to speak to the truth and persist until the last second possible, even if all indicates that you have failed and that your prayers have not been answered.
That is why the Prophet Yunus was the first prophet to be mentioned by God to the Prophet Muhammad. It is not a coincidence that among the worst persecution that the Prophet Muhammad endured was in Ta'if. After suffering enormously in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad travels to Ta'if in an attempt to get amnesty. Instead, they threw rocks at him to the extent that he bleeds from his feet. Insulted, humiliated and assaulted, he escapes from Ta’if and collapses in absolute exhaustion, bleeding and injured.
At that point, a slave boy sees the Prophet, sympathizes with him and brings him grapes. The Prophet finds out this boy is from Ninawa; the same city of the Prophet Yunus, but hundreds of years later. The Prophet is reminded at that moment of the revelation in Surah Al-Qalam, which warned him to learn from the mistake of the Prophet Yunus: Despair is not an option.
It is as if this boy was a little mercy from God. If you are not alert to the mercies and communications of God, you could easily miss them. How often in life does something appear completely coincidental that could actually be the way God is talking to you?
There is a strong connection between despair, immorality and sin. Most people do not choose to become immoral; they slip into sinful situations simply because they give up. Most people have a sense of idealism about them at one point in life: they want to do what is right, but Satan tells them, ‘You have been doing what is right all your life. Has it really made any difference? God really doesn't care about you, so if you do this or believe in this, would it really make a difference?’ Most people, because they allow Satan to convince them, start gradually slipping in baby steps until they don’t like themselves anymore, feel like hypocrites and then give up.
The biggest ally to Islamophobia is Muslim despair. When Muslims themselves feel helpless in a situation like the Bosnian genocide and stop caring – as if nothing they do will make a difference – things get increasingly worse. The biggest victory that Islamophobes achieved is convincing Muslims countries that values and ethics don't make a difference, so they might as well give them up.
When the Bosnian genocide happened, there was total outrage. Today, Jerusalem gets taken and we don't care anymore. We gave up. We despaired. The Rohingyas and Uyghurs are slaughtered, and we don't care anymore. We gave up and despaired – that is the biggest gift given to Islamophobes. When the racialized and oppressed accept their oppression, that is when the racist truly wins. The racist wins when you philosophize the racism that you are suffering as something other than unjust, immoral and disgusting.
If you believe in God, there is no room for despair. You have to do your part. The stories of the prophets in the Quran are not stories there to entertain us or for us to dismiss as just stories. They're here to teach us moral lessons about our lives. If God chose to tell us about them, there is a lesson.
The khutbah closes with a story of one of the Prophet’s companions called Tufayl bin Amr al-Dawsi. He was a well-known poet of pre-Islamic Arabia from the tribe of Daws; a pompous, proud man.
Tufayl visited Mecca and locals warned him not to listen to the Prophet Muhammad or listen to any Quran, because it is like witchcraft that might capture his heart and lead him astray. Tufayl responded with arrogance, saying that the Quran could not possibly affect him. He sees the Prophet praying and walks closely so that he overhears the Quran. Upon hearing the Quran, Tufayl famously says, "I have never heard anything in the language of Arabs more eloquent, sweet and powerful."
He eventually converts to Islam.
Once he has converted, he asks the Prophet, "Let me stay with you. But the Prophet instead tells Tufayl to go back to his tribe and preach Islam to them. Tufayl reluctantly returns and remains there during the Muslims’ migration to Medina and over the course of several Islamic battles. Every time he attempts to join the Prophet, the Prophet tells him, "Stay where you are." Eventually, Muslims conquer Mecca itself, and Tufayl becomes fed up and leaves to join the Prophet. He arrives and confesses to the Prophet, "I have lived all these years preaching Islam to them, but the vast majority of them will not listen or believe." Tufayl says, "The reason they will not follow me is they like zina (sex) too much," and he asked the Prophet to do du‘a’ against Daws. The Prophet refused, instead praying that God guides and blesses Daws. Then he tells Tufayl, "Go back to your people. Continue preaching, but be kind to them." The Prophet's response is to be gentle. After the Prophet's prayer, many families from Daws do in fact convert and eventually, Tufayl is allowed to leave Daws with its converts to join the Prophet.
The Prophet could have prayed to Allah to guide Daws from the beginning and saved Tufayl the trouble, but Tufayl had to pay his dues and had to have the laws of God and nature work their course. The Prophet could have let Tufayl become a soldier or become angry upon hearing that Daws liked sex and promiscuity and cursed them, but his response was to be kind.
It is the principle that matters. Tufayl, a man who lived a primarily non-military life, died in battle, as if to underscore a point. Your fate is in the hands of God. You might live thinking you will die in bed; but Khalid ibn al-Walid died in his bed, although he led a million battles in his life, and Tufayl, who didn't lead any battles, dies in battle. Life with the truth of God is a life of purpose and meaning that doesn't know despair.
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