So much of our tradition is full of trajectories, propensities and potentialities. Our tradition - especially the tradition of the Prophet - like all history, is complex. It is never standardized, one-dimensional or flat. Often, human beings cannot agree about what transpires in our present moment due to competing narratives, interests or different points of view. If this is the situation with the present, imagine the situation with the past. History is always multidimensional. This puts a great deal of responsibility upon us who live in the present to approach history with the right interpretive tools and methodology to properly understand what took place in the past. It is nothing short of a moral responsibility.
Often the most important thing when we approach history, as it is when we approach the present, is the question that you formulate and apply; it is often far more important than the answer. Dr. Abou El Fadl receives many questions by email every week. Just by reading the question, he can immediately tell what are the influences and biases that plague the person asking the question; whether they are influenced by Islamophobes, apologetics, Salafi or Wahhabi Islam, Sufi Islam or modern political issues. Posing the right question is a reflection of the extent of your knowledge, ethical being, moral standing, and ignorance. If the type of questions that we ask in our present moment are this important, imagine the importance of the questions that we pose to the past.
Questions can destroy, rehabilitate or protect a life. Questions are instrumentalities and a reflection of power, but they are also instrumentalities and reflections of human weakness, distrust, anxiety, and ignorance. Often, the people who write to Dr. Abou El Fadl are not actually searching for an objective, scholarly, nuanced response. They suffer from an ailment inside their heart and intellect that no answer would satisfy or placate. This is critically important because it is the questions that we directed at our tradition that gave us the Islam that we practice today.
It is reported that Ali ibn Abi Talib, a companion and cousin of the Prophet, once asked the Prophet, "How would you describe yourself?" The Prophet’s response was profound, saying, "The anchor of my life is knowledge. Reason is the foundation of my religion. What are the premises of what I am? My foundation of being is based on love. What moves me is passion, and dhikr is my companion. My weapon in life is knowledge. My armor in existence is patience. Abstention and rejecting worldly goods are my path; the way that I navigate life on earth. Belief and certitude in Allah are my strength, and truthfulness is the agent that makes me in good standing with the Lord. Jihad - to struggle in the way of Allah – that is the foundation of my character. The kernel of my life and my real pleasure in existence is in prayer.” Notice all the elements that have been brought together.
The vast majority of Muslims have never heard this hadith. There are many ignorant Muslims who argue, "There is no place for reason or love in Islam,” and cannot even come close to the type of ethical vision presented by the Prophet. In one response, in one paragraph, an entire philosophy of existence is explained. Muslims have largely ignored this response. This is rarely, if ever, studied by Muslims today. If this statement was expressed in Judaism or Christianity, today you would find volumes of academic writing about its moral vision.
It is what type of question that we pose to the tradition that predetermines our answer. If you approach the tradition assuming that love and reason only hold marginal places in Islam and that Islam is really about obedience, that will predetermine your response. Learning to pose the right question is always as critical as the type of answer you might get. Our tradition is a treasure trove of knowledge and wisdom, but it takes a great deal of education and moral fortitude to pose the right type of questions in order to receive the right type of answers.
Towards the last couple of years of the Prophet's life, one of the tribes in Arabia started a campaign to invade Medina. As usual, the Prophet dealt with this hostile overture by trying to preempt the attack, because the Prophet knew from previous experience that if Muslims were forced to fight defensively in Medina, it would have a destructive influence on Medina’s inhabitants. So, this Arabian tribe was routed and defeated. As was the practice at the time, as it was for a very long time in human history, if the enemy brought women and children with them to battle and the enemy was defeated, the women or children would be captured, not killed. They would be held for a grace period of time to give an opportunity to their people to pay a ransom for their freedom. If their people did not do that, they would become slaves.
Among the women who fell captive was Sufana Bint Hatim al-Ta‘i. The grace period passed and she was not ransomed, so Sufana requested to meet the Prophet. Think about a prisoner of war asking to meet the commander in charge when being held by Ancient Romans or the Taliban, how unlikely that request would be granted. But the Prophet was known never to turn away anyone that wanted to meet with him, so he met with Sufana.
Sufana knew she had not been ransomed, but asked, "Let me go and don't embarrass me among the Arabs. My father was a very generous man and helped people in need. He fed the hungry. He helped people who needed clothes. My father was a man who greeted all. My father was a man of dignity and honor and I am his daughter." Although her father died a non-Muslim, the Prophet replied, "The ethics of your father are the ethics of true Muslims, true believers." The Prophet tells his people, "Let her go because she is the daughter of a man of high character. Allah loves virtuous ethics and high moral character."
This narrative deserves enormous pause because Muslims not only followed the laws of war of the time but also exceeded these laws by offering moral and ethical contributions that were ahead of their time. Virtuous ethics could bond a Muslim and non-Muslim; virtuous ethics could be enough to earn one’s release without a ransom. If prisoners of war taught Muslims technology or to read and write, they could also be released without ransom.
When Sufana was released, she requested to go back to her family. The Prophet told her, "You're free to do so, but please do not travel alone. Wait until someone can travel with you for your own safety." She agrees and ends up waiting in Medina, which proves to be instrumental in her eventual conversion to Islam. When a caravan comes around, Sufana decides to travel to her brother in Sham (Syria). At some point, either before or during her journey to Sham, Sofana converts to Islam, influenced by the moral example she witnessed in Medina; she recognized that they lived by a moral virtue and that the moral characteristics her father taught her were lived and practiced in Medina.
Sufana eventually arrives in Sham to meet her brother, Hadi, and hides that she is a Muslim because of his hatred for Muslims. She tells him of the Prophet and Muslim army’s moral virtue; that they were people of truth, dignity, honor and generosity. Her brother doesn’t like what he hears. His hatred is so intense, he has written poetry attacking Muslims and the Prophet. Sufana tells him, “A great poet like yourself would not speak about a people unless he has given himself a chance to learn the truth about them. Why don't you meet their prophet? Then make your decision, but at least then your poetry will be truthful because it is based on real knowledge, not gossip." Hadi believes this is reasonable and is very confident of himself, so he sets out to meet the Prophet. These were the virtues and characteristics of Arabs. They had certain basic ethics of character that made them ideal fertile soil for Islam.
Hadi was amazed by how easily he was able to talk with the Prophet. He was accustomed to fanfare surrounding Sham’s royalty and that, in Sham, it was impossible to get a meeting with royalty if you were not a nobleman or very rich. When he requested to talk with the Prophet, he was told, "He's over there. Go talk to him." No guards, no fanfare. They began to talk while walking back to the Prophet’s home. On the way, a woman approached the Prophet and asked to speak with him about a personal problem. The Prophet talked to this woman, who didn't have an appointment, on the side of the road for about half an hour. Hadi was surprised, as this was not how other leaders acted. Hadi also noticed that no one seemed surprised that the Prophet stopped to talk to this woman.
Once they reached the Prophet's home, Hadi noticed that there was only one, straw-stuffed cushion; straw being the cheaper alternative to cotton-stuffed cushions. The Prophet offered this cushion to Hadi, his guest. Hadi refused, citing that the Prophet was like a chief, so he deserved the cushion. The Prophet refused, giving his only cushion to his guest, so Hadi sat on the cushion while the Prophet sat on the floor. Hadi is then offered a date drink, made from the only date the Prophet could afford. They have a long discussion that left Hadi so thoroughly impacted, that he couldn't help but cry.
The Prophet was a man of exceeding modesty, who existed on this earth, but his heart and mind belonged to someone else. A man who was generous and compassionate even to the stranger who didn't share his religion. In short, a man of beauty. Eventually, Hadi also converts.
The vast majority of Muslims have never heard these stories because the wrong questions were posed of our tradition. It takes a qualified teacher to ask the right questions in the first place for us to learn the beauty of our tradition.
The United States reported 70,000 new cases of coronavirus and more than 140,000 American deaths to the disease. When up to 4,000 Americans were killed in 9/11, we spent billions of dollars invading two Muslim countries, killing thousands upon thousands. When we started the war on terror, our government told us any American life is sacrosanct. If Muslims murder a single American, we have the right to wage war to protect ourselves against terrorists, spending billions of dollars.
Yet, in this pandemic, we don't see anything close to what we spend on war being spent to defend Americans from an eminent present enemy - or is it that the Coronavirus must be Muslim before we react? It doesn't seem to matter that thousands of Americans are dying. When compared to nearly any other nation, the measures America took to combat this pandemic fails miserably. How are Muslims supposed to feel about this when, since 2001, we have watched thousands of Muslims being slaughtered while we are told that what justifies killing all these Muslims is the enormity of loss in 9/11. But then, over 140,000 Americans are killed because the proper resources were not utilized?
If we spent the resources that other nations have spent fighting this pandemic, 140,000 Americans would not have died. In the country of human rights, we have 70,000 infections a day and people are casually talking about sending children back to school. Do we value human life so little that we are willing to risk the lives of our children just so the economy can make the rich richer? It is hypocrisy to send thousands of young kids to be killed, wounded, and scarred for life to murder our Muslim compatriots around the world under the guise of fighting terrorism. How about fighting the terrorism of a virus; a virus that is causing terror. To insist on the market standards and the values of the liberal free market in the age of pandemic is thoroughly classist and racist.
Most importantly, Muslims must understand that from an Islamic perspective, to treat a pandemic as if everyone is on their own is thoroughly un-Islamic. As a Muslim, if you knowingly or negligently cause the infection of others, in Sharia, that is an assault. Can you imagine the obligations upon us as Muslims in a pandemic? We don’t have the right with over half a million dead worldwide to say, “Let Allah worry about it." It is our responsibility to worry. In the Hereafter, God will ask if you discharged your obligations.
If we are posing the right type of questions, the answers that come back are terrifying about the ailments of our American society. What ails our American society? When human beings are devalued to the extent that so many people can be infected and killed every day and life just goes on, it devalues all of us as citizens of this country.