The most basic statement that all Muslims know and are meant to internalize are the simple words, “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greatest). Muslims repeat this phrase in their azan (call to prayer), in their prayers, and often throughout daily life, perhaps even without much thought. But within this simple mantra is an entire philosophy. It goes beyond saying, ‘God is great,’ instead saying, “God is greatest,” which implies a relationship. Greatest in relation to what and to whom? Furthermore, it is elementary in Islamic theology that God is greater than everything. God is greater than any other possible commitment, emotion or philosophy that one may hold. When you say “God is Greatest,” you are saying God is greater than yourself. The implication is that you are not servile to yourself; your first commitment of loyalty and gratitude is simply to God.
That is why, when you look at what Islam is fundamentally about, what emerges from the Sirah of the Prophet and the Qur'an is that Islam came to educate people on a way of life in which servitude is not owed to the self or to other human beings, but to God and to God alone. That is why the earliest Muslims, when they described their faith to the Abyssinian king, they said, "Our religion came to liberate us from servitude to fellow human beings, our servitude being only to God." When servitude is only owed to your Maker - a Maker who benefits nothing from all your worship; a Maker who educates you for your own good - it has a remarkably liberating impact on the soul of a determined human being. If Islam does not liberate us from a servile, infantile relationship with our physical bodies, whims and attachments to material possessions, then we are not real Muslims.
If we say, "Allahu Akbar" repeatedly, but our own whims are truly the dominant factor in our life - if our own desires, fears and anxieties are truly the dominant factor for our life - then we have not begun to understand the sweetness of being liberated by faith and iman. To be liberated by iman is to understand quintessentially what the message of the Prophet was about. Inherent within the very basic idea that God is greatest is the rejection of all forms of oppression and servitude, whether it is to the self or to others.
That is precisely why it is a complete contradiction for a Muslim to accept despotism, autocracy or injustice. Doing so makes a mockery out of the entire message of the Prophet and the entire message of, “Allahu Akbar.” If it is a human being that you covet pleasing the most, what remains of Allahu Akbar? Islam is truly a radical message of liberation. One of the most dangerous things that happens with lofty systems of belief is that they can be co-opted by those who have no desire to live up to their ideals, who instead philosophize these ideals to bring them down to their level.
Allahu Akbar poses a challenge to every Muslim. You can either say, ‘I refuse to live subservient to my whims, desires and moods. I refuse to be subservient to blind loyalties and irrational convictions,’ and understand that this is a jihad (a struggle). So, you embark upon this jihad understanding fully well that you can never be satisfied in knowing if you have in fact succeeded, but you simply remain in a constant state of supplication to God to accept your effort for what it is. Or, you can do what a lot of people do and say, ‘I accept the principle of Allahu Akbar,’ but then philosophize it to empty it of all meaning and content.
Many Muslims will say, "Allahu Akbar" but find enough in the dense technicalities of text to distract themselves from the ethical, moral revolutionary meaning of the message of Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar then becomes no longer about liberation, but about performance. Allahu Akbar is no longer about self-liberation and the liberation of others, but about the pietistic affectations of culture: donning the right robe, the right hat or the right beard. Allahu Akbar is no longer about ethical aspirations, but about avoidance of fitna. Now, fitna is worse than murder and in order to avoid fitna, we have to accept despotism. In other words, you embrace the ideal, but you ultimately betray the ideal because of a weakness inside of yourself.
The first thing we learn about the Prophet and his companions is that once they believed in something, they struggled to mold their life according to their conviction. There are many stories of companions giving up all of their money to take care of the needy; companions giving everything they owned to help the Muslim army; or companions spending all night in prayer. Conviction changed the attitude of the Muslim character. Those who were known to easily lose their temper would rebel against their temper upon becoming Muslim. Those who were known to have a cowardly or mocking personality would wage war with their weaknesses upon becoming Muslim.
The very nature of Allahu Akbar is that you are committed to change and to principle. The idea of a Muslim that becomes Muslim but acts like a fallen leaf from a tree branch - being blown by the wind every other direction - is completely antithetical to everything that we learn from the Sirah. We must live by principle. For example, it is not consistent with being a Muslim to wake up in a bad mood, so they are in a bad mood; then, they are in a better mood by noon because maybe they had their coffee; then they are back in a bad mood by the end of the day because they finished work and are tired; then maybe they are in a better mood because they just finished a comedy show; then they are in a bad mood because they are thinking of tomorrow’s work. That's not a Muslim. That's a person that keeps blowing with the wind. That is a person who has not learned the message of Allahu Akbar. Allahu Akbar teaches dominance over the self, control over the self, and subjugation of the self.
When you learn the ethical, moral, and philosophical principle of Allahu Akbar, you learn it cannot be segmented. You either understand it as a basic cornerstone of your existence, or the idea seeks to have coherence in your life. Many American Muslims approach the issue of Islam as if they can understand “God is the greatest” in relation to what happens to their local mosque, and they can otherwise live oblivious to what takes place in the rest of the world. Many Muslims think that what transpires regarding Islam in the heart of the holy cities, or indeed in the heart of other nations, somehow doesn't affect their commitment to Allahu Akbar. Morals cannot be segmented in that way. Similarly, you either believe that human beings have a right as human beings, or you don't. You cannot believe that some human beings have rights if they are in the right place and time, while others’ rights can be ignored. Our world and the world of morality are always interlinked.
As recently as last week, the Association of Muslim Scholars (AMS) issued a very alarming proclamation. This proclamation was repeated on all the podiums of Saudi Arabia, including in Mecca and Medina - on the podiums of the Prophet. In this proclamation, the AMS declared that the Muslim Brotherhood is a terrorist organization; that they are contrary to the true Islam; that they are a seditious political party against the principles of the pure Islam; that they are a terrorist group that causes fitna and violence.
In actuality, the Muslim Brotherhood is among the Islamic movements that rejected violence long ago. In fact, they are often accused of being too pacifist. Israel believes that Hamas is Muslim Brotherhood. That is a separate question; Hamas is confronting an unlawful occupation, which is very different than the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunis, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other nations.
Interestingly, after the Saudi-based AMS issued this proclamation - and after the Saudi sermons that preached that if you even sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood, you are a terrorist - Israeli media had endless praise for Saudi clerics and Saudi jurors. These are the same Saudi clerics who, just a few years ago, used to represent Wahhabi Islam, the embodiment of intolerance. Israeli media applauded these same scholars for condemning an “evil organization”.
The purpose of this entire performance, utilizing the pulpit of the Prophet, is not the Muslim Brotherhood because today, if you dissent against any autocratic government, the ready-made accusation against you is that you are Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood). Ironically, you could be non-Muslim and still be accused of being Ikhwan. You could be someone who does not follow Islam at all, but if you oppose autocratic governments, you are still considered Ikhwan.
What the Saudi jurists were condemning from the podium of the Prophet was not the Ikhwan as an organization, but actually a phenomenon, which they have now become accustomed to calling “Political Islam.” From multiple Arab countries, we were informed by our imams that “Political Islam” is evil. If you believe in “Political Islam”, you have no rights as a human being and will be treated as a terrorist.
One may think, ‘Well, this is happening in far-away lands. What does this have to do with us?’ Remember, ethics and principles are indivisible. Why is it that the autocratic oil kingdoms of the Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are so keen on a warm relationship with Israel? Is it to confront the Iranian danger, as they often claim?
In a fantastic article published by political scientist Nader Hashemi, The Chimera of Peace between Israel and the Arab Word: A Critique of the Abraham Accords, Hashemi demonstrates that this is not about confronting the Iranian threat, but that it is actually because these Arab oil kingdoms are convinced that a close relationship with Israel against “Political Islam” can help them fight off democratization movements in the Middle East. Israel has allowed itself now to play the role of the refuge of dictators. In fact, Netanyahu bragged that it was Israeli influence that protected Mohammed bin Salman from having to pay the consequences for assassinating the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Mohammed bin Salman and Mohammed bin Zayed became convinced that Israel can protect them from their own people. To them, Israel can help protect them from democracy and human rights. As long as they are aligned with Israel, they can jail, torture, maim and do every horrendous thing but never have to pay any cost.
But why the Ikhwan? Because, in their view, the Ikhwan is the only successful democratically oriented grassroots organization in the Middle East. So, if there is any hope for an Islamic democracy, the only open venue for it is through the Ikhwan; but, the real venue is not just the Ikhwan, it is “Political Islam.”
Leaving Saudi Arabia and shifting to France. France has proposed a bunch of new laws that feature “Political Islam”. According to these new laws, there is a charter that has been given to the Association of Muslim Imams in France. They can either agree to this charter, or they will have their Islamic center closed down. Any imam who doesn't comply with the charter will be fired, if not worse. They may be imprisoned and if they're not a French citizen, they could be deported. According to these new laws, there is no more homeschooling for Muslims. If you are a Muslim parent who fails to send your child to a public school, you could go to prison for at least six months. If you are a Muslim parent and object to the way a school is teaching something about Islam that you find offensive, whether it be offensive cartoons or a misrepresentation of Islam, you may risk deportation if you are not a French citizen. If you are a French citizen, you may be charged for intimidating public officials on religious grounds.
All Muslim children will be given identification numbers that will be used to ensure that they are attending school. Parents who break the law face up to six months in prison and fines. If you are a Muslim and you share any information about a school official, even if it is to coordinate with fellow Muslim parents because you don't like the way Islam is being taught in your school, you could be prosecuted under terrorism laws and face prison. Imams may only be appointed with permission of the French government, and only after being certified as having ‘correct Islamic belief.’ They can also be fired from their position by the French government at any time. France says, ‘None of this is against Islam. This is all directed only against “Political Islam.” Because in France, we respect free speech. But these Islamists, they hate free speech.’
At the same time that this law that is supposed to protect the French value of free speech - by making sure ‘bad’ Muslims do not get to censor what is being taught about their religion - France is proposing one of the strangest laws to be proposed in a democracy. A law which, if it goes into effect, makes it a crime to film or photograph a French cop beating a civilian. Let's say there is a demonstration by Muslims or the French police storm a mosque and start beating Muslims. If you record this beating in any way and you post it, you have committed a crime and go to prison. So, disseminating information on police brutality is a crime; it is not against free speech.
But asking France not to publish pornographic images of the Prophet is against free speech. Ignorance is what allows so many people to be moronic. Those that argue, ‘You've got to understand, France has a different way of understanding religion and its principles of free speech,’ just don't know enough and never bother to learn more. The ban on recording police brutality comes at the same time that Muslims are lectured about how they don't understand French values. And because they don't understand French values, the government feels it necessary to make sure that either imams give the sermons that reflect French values, or they shut these imams up because Islam as a religion is suspect. This type of hegemonic supervision is not exercised over Judaism. Churches aren’t monitored. Hindu temples aren’t monitored. It is only Muslims.
Let's come to this point about Political Islam because, according to these new French laws, if you are an imam who does not condemn political Islam, you lose your job. It is illegal now in France to believe in Political Islam. This is exactly what the imams of Saudi Arabia were praised by Israel for. But, if an imam in Saudi Arabia or France stands on the podium of the Prophet and praises peace with Israel, is that Political Islam? According to the French and the Saudis, it is not. What if an imam stands in Paris or in Mecca and praises the king of Saudi Arabia, is that political Islam? According to both places, it is not. What if you stand in Paris or Mecca and say, “It is haram to boycott French products.” Is that political Islam? According to both places, it is not. In fact, an imam in Mecca stood at the podium of the Prophet and said, "You cannot boycott French products."
But what if you do the opposite? What if you stand in these cities and say, “Boycott French products”? Now it is Political Islam. What if you stand in both places and criticize the king of Saudi Arabia? Now it is Political Islam. What if you stand in both places and criticize a close relationship with Israel? Now it is Political Islam.
What if you stand in both places and say, "We have to always be mindful of the painful memory of the holocaust"? Is that Political Islam? Both places will say, "No, it's good Islam." But, if you say, "We have to be mindful of the Nakba, when Palestine was destroyed, and the genocide committed against Palestinians"? Now it is political Islam and it is bad. What if, as an imam in Paris, you want to give a khutbah about the history of colonial France and the way France killed millions of Algerians, Chadians, Malians and Senegalese? No, that is political Islam and you will lose your job. But, if you want to give a khutbah minimizing France’s colonial history, that is not political islam. That would be good Islam. To complain in a khutbah about the lack of equal rights for Muslims in France would be political Islam and would promptly cost you your job as an imam. To complain about the history of racism in France against Jews would be Political Islam.
For all these great French theorists and French legal minds, go back to “Allahu Akbar.” Think of Allahu Akbar. Think of all the mess just outlined above, that crosses the borders and the seas from Mecca to Medina to Paris. Compare that mess to “Allahu Akbar.” The word of the truth, the pristineness of the truth, the purity of the truth. This is the way you can tell the difference between darkness and light, between beauty and ugliness.