This is a special jumu’a, as it is the first jumu’a for the Usuli Institute in its new home. The library, which is the heart and soul of the Usuli Institute, the heart and soul of my own entire personal legacy, and the heart and soul of this intellectual and moral project, has been moved from Los Angeles to Dublin, Ohio.
This development provides much to reflect on. The ‘why’ is clear enough. In Los Angeles, although the library had a full house dedicated to it, the way that the library lived prevented it from breathing. We had run out of space, so books were stored in boxes upon boxes. Many books were in piles on the floor, which resulted in a lack of accessibility to sources. Also, when books are piled upon one another, collecting dust, books deteriorate. You could not control the damage that would affect any particular book, because you often could not see the damage until it was too late. It was critical that the library be preserved in a place that could give it its due honor and dignity, with all that represents.
For weeks, students packed the library, consisting of over 100,000 books, in boxes. Hour after hour, boxes were filled to be shipped to Ohio. And now in Ohio comes the monumental task of unpacking these boxes and reorganizing the library. Watching this enormous process of packing, moving, and unpacking sources, and observing the commitments of time, energy and finance that it requires, is an invitation to reflect. If you just reflect upon how many sources were written throughout Islamic civilization, on everything from sharia, astronomy and theology to medical manuals, engineering and military sciences, it is clear that Islamic civilization is one of the most literary civilizations that humanity has known.
One distinctive thing about the Islamic civilization is that in its centuries of existence, it has produced more texts than the Jewish existence has in over 6,000 years, and more texts than the Christian civilization has since Rome decided that Christianity is the religion of its empire. Our Muslim predecessors felt the need to worship God not just in mosques or just in prayer, but also in the actual preservation and transmission of knowledge, which was considered a core act of ibadah (worship) in itself. Most Muslims grow up fully aware of the various narrations that tell us that scholars are the inheritors of prophets and that an hour of study is worth more than X amount of hours of prayer. We all, at one time or another, learn that the very act of studying God's creation and learning from the experiences of past nations is an act of ibadah.
If we have produced millions of texts throughout the Islamic civilization, think of the army of unknown heroes that were required through the Islamic ages not just to write these texts, but to transport and document the existence of these texts. Throughout every foreign invasion, there would be a massive effort to load and transport these texts to save them. Imagine the number of texts that had to be taken care of in order for the heart and soul of the Islamic civilization to be preserved in some form to this day.
What happens when Muslims fail to take responsibility for the intellectual product of the Islamic civilization? What happens when you cannot find enough students to document, load, transport, unpack and preserve these texts? Consider the number of texts that the Mongols burned or threw in the river. Consider the number of texts that the Crusades burned. Consider the number of texts that the French, Dutch and British destroyed or carried off when they colonized Muslim countries. Consider the number of texts destroyed throughout history. I am sure that there were scholars who spent the night sleepless and full of anxiety about the fate of their library, unable to find enough people to carry texts to safety at a critical moment.
Have you ever stopped to think about the places from which these texts came that were ultimately destroyed? All of these texts had owners. All of these texts had a Khaled Abou El Fadl. I am sure that, at the critical hour, this Khaled Abou El Fadl, sitting in Baghdad centuries ago, kept praying to God, "Please help me find people to transport these texts to safety." I am sure that the very last minute before they saw their texts being carried away to be destroyed, they kept praying for the emergence of Muslims who would save these sources in history.
The role of the common Muslim mujtahid is critical, but often under-appreciated. All great intellectual efforts are worthless unless, at the critical moment, an average Muslim rises up to the duty that has fallen upon them by the natural movement of history and by God's decisions. I am sure that in every library that has fallen to decay, God tested numerous Muslims to change the library’s fate. I am sure that there were numerous Muslims at certain historical junctions that were able to save a library, but they thought of themselves as too busy or too important to do so, or they simply did not understand the value of a library. Therein is God's test to an ummah.
Everything we do in life is based on an accumulation of knowledge. The reason that you can drive a car is because of an accumulation of knowledge. The reason that you can turn on a coffee maker is because of an accumulation of knowledge. The reason that you can use a cellphone is because of an accumulation of knowledge. When you reference things like, “My job” and "My money," these are based on an accumulation of philosophical outlooks that gained dominance in society. When you say things like, "Why are you bothering me?" or, "I need space," it reflects philosophical attitudes that are not intuitively natural. All of it is the product of socialization, which is a product of an accumulation of knowledge.
Simply put, whether we recognize it or not, we live and practice philosophy every minute of every day, in everything we say and everything we do. When you think as to when your parents are transgressing upon your boundaries, or when you think about what your boundaries are, or when parents think that they are entitled to direct and guide their children, all of that is the byproduct of cumulative philosophical outlooks that were preserved in texts and taught from texts; and from which a collective socialization, a byproduct of education, took place.
You cannot claim to have an original thought unless you vet if that thought is, in fact, original. You cannot claim to be a creative, innovative or original thinker unless you know what was thought and said before. It is the natural tendency of those who are intellectually lazy to engage in the disingenuous process of pretending that they are not the byproduct of cumulative socialization and acculturation. The marker of an intellectually lazy person is that they claim to have original thoughts, but do not want to be bothered with the possibility that a hundred, a thousand, or even a million people might have said, thought, or tried the same thing before them.
Instead, they should be asking, ‘Before I describe these thoughts as original, did others try these ideas out? What were the results of these attempts? What can I learn from them? How can I contribute if I am not referring to the byproduct of those that came before me?’ This is why, as a matter of principle, the banked data of the Muslim civilization represented in every substantial library must survive, whether that library is owned by a state, individual or family. As long as these ideas of past generations continue to exist in some form of preservation, then the aspiration of a better tomorrow continues to live on.
Some may question, "In the age of electronics, do we really need to preserve these huge libraries?” As a teacher, I hate when students cite electronic sites. Why? Because often, when I return to these electronic sites just a few years later, the link no longer works. Whatever you are reading on the net is only as real as airwaves. It exists at the discretion of powers that you and I do not control. With a simple decision to crash a site, everything done in an electronic universe falls apart. There is no replacement to the integrity of the physical body because virtuality is a very risky temptation; whether that virtuality is in conversations between human beings when they converse through texts rather than face to face, or whether that virtuality is in a relationship between human beings, or whether that virtuality is in the preservation of knowledge and the preservation of the legacy of a civilization.
The library’s safety had to take precedence over factors such as cost, convenience and habit. The library had to be honored and dignified. The texts had to be given the space to breathe so that they can live on at least offering the possibility of intellectual breakthroughs for future generations. May God bless the students who packed, labored, transported, suffered and engaged in the jihad that so many thousands before, throughout the Islamic civilization, also engaged in. May God bless them and reward them.
Knowledge is inevitable, none of us exist without data in our brains. The only question is whether it is good data or bad data. You have knowledge. But is your knowledge of the moral, purposeful kind, or is it an accumulation of contradictions and confusions? It is the nature of human beings to exist upon the accumulations of memory. Imagine what would happen if you tried to live without data. You would be as useless as a computer without a data bank. You would not know anything.
God has coded us on the premise of knowledge. But do you honor that knowledge? Do you realize that your status as a human being is thoroughly contingent on the quality of knowledge that enters that motor up in your head? If you put the best in that motor, it will return the best. If you put the worst, it will return the worst. It is the quality of what you input in that motor that God gave you which decides your fate, the fate of your family, the fate of your ummah, and the fate of your nation.
There is a hadith often repeated these days in which the Prophet is reported to have said, "There will come false, deceptive, tricky years. In these years, liars are going to be believed, truthful people will not be believed, faithful people will be called traitors, and traitors will be trusted.”
This hadith is part of our inherited psychological and intellectual outlook as Muslims. But what is the point of this hadith? Notice, among others, two possible outlooks. You could be reading this hadith to lament, as so many Muslims have done over the centuries, "The Prophet told us that there will be an age where good people will have no place, liars get ahead, cheats get ahead, ignorant people get ahead." You could read this hadith as a prelude, to say, "That is why the world is messed up. So the best thing I can do is take care of my family and ignore the rest." Or, you could read this hadith as the Prophet warning you to not allow such an age to come to be, and if it does, resist it with all your might, because this state of being is cursed and abandoned by God. The data is there. But it is your own outlook and moral anchoring that is going to direct that data in a defeated way or in an aspirational way.
That is the case with all intellectual legacies. They offer you a weapon to meet the challenges of the day and age in which you live, but they do not tell you how to use that weapon. They do not tell you whether you use it to sabotage the self or use it to defend yourself and flourish. That depends on your moral outlook and your relationship with God. May God make us among those who understand the value of accumulated knowledge, standing silent on the shelves until one comes to tap into that treasure and realize the value that it offers, so that Muslims do not remain the laughing stock of humanity. Because we, as followers of Islam, deserve much more than that.
I am going to end the khutbah with this. As we are in the process of setting up the library in its new home, I had the opportunity to explore Dublin, Ohio, with its beautiful homes, quiet atmosphere and serene environment. I got to watch people at stores go in with their masks, finish their purchases, and drive away in their cars. I kept thinking to myself, "I know what I am thinking about tonight, but I wonder what goes on in the minds of these people as they're doing their purchases and driving their cars back home."
I wish my thoughts were something so pleasant as making a purchase, going home, having dinner, settling with the family, and going to bed. I was comparing my state in the United States and the state of a young Muslim scholar who I've talked about before, Ahmed Sabee’. This man continues to languish in Egyptian prison. All this man did was read Aramaic texts and Hebrew texts, study the history of the formation of the biblical text and talk about it. All this man did was engage in the type of activity that we engage constantly, yet he has to pay with his entire life. His family is destitute, as his childrens’ father languishes in prison.
Because this man said that the Trinity doesn't make sense, something that a lot of committed Christians say all the time. Because this man said that the Trinity cannot be found in the text of the Bible, something that a lot of devout Christians say all the time. Because this man said that there are many versions of the Old Testament and the New Testament, and that a lot of these versions contradict one another, something that in the field of biblical studies is said all the time. What is his reward? To be arrested in Egypt and charged criminally. It looks like he is going to get at least 15 to 20 years in prison for daring to speak about the Trinity and the Bible.
As I go home, I think of God's tests for me, costs, problems, and medical issues. I could have seen myself as this human being because I did my best to learn Aramaic and Hebrew. Sabee’ is much better in Hebrew than I ever was. I am actually quite amazed at how good his Hebrew is. Sabee’s fate for daring to look at scholarship, something we engage in so easily, is to be arrested and thrown in prison.
Why do I talk about him? Because here is where the truth of human rights reveals itself. How many human rights activists spoke on his behalf? How many human rights organizations demanded his release? How many civic organizations cared about a Muslim who is languishing in prison because his only crime is free speech? Zero. We all remember the Egyptian professor who was divorced from his wife under accusations of apostasy and how he was given asylum by the Netherlands, turned into an honored professor and given a professorship and a job for his entire life. No one cares about Ahmed Sabee’. No one cares about a Muslim scholarly voice.
For my son, I am sure his biggest problem is school and what game he is going to play tonight. Your children, their issues are their careers and perhaps romantic relationships, things of that sort. But if you wonder why the Muslim ummah is where it is, simply look at the story of someone like Ahmed Sabee’. It seems as if this entire Muslim ummah cannot do a single thing to help Sabee’ gain his freedom, despite the fact that President Biden or even the papacy in Rome could change Sabee’s entire fate with a single phone call.
If that does not tell you what God expects from us, what type of life God wants us to spend, I do not know what will. May God be with him and his family, and may God help him and secure his release. May God hold to account all those Muslims who refuse to condemn the criminal government in Egypt that persecutes someone like Ahmed Sabee’. All those Egyptians that are apologists for a regime that imprisons scholars like Sabee’, simply because they have a summer home in Egypt that they want to make sure is always safe and secure, and that the government never takes away from them. What do you say about this ummah? What do you say about these people.