How often does the Qur'an alert us to the fact that it is intended to be a paradigm shift? The very opening of Surah Al-Baqarah directs our attention to the momentous reality of the revelation. This book, which prevails over doubt, serves as a guide to those who want to embrace and follow the path of guidance.
To follow this path, you have to believe in ghaib (the world of the unseen). You must be one who internalizes in their heart the world of the unseen, the non-material world. You must possess the modesty and humility to admit that there are things beyond what your own senses tell you. You must be one who is willing to see and hear with your heart, not just with your eyes and ears. You must be willing to recognize that God is ever-present, although God's presence does not translate within the realm of atoms and molecules. You must believe in God's will in the universe, although you only see the will of powerful human beings, on a daily basis.
If you observe the material world, it appears that only powerful human beings and forces of nature act in this world. The rich and powerful decide whether you get a paycheck, they decide what the temporal laws of the land are. The rich and powerful decide when you can leave your home, or perhaps even decide whether you have a home. They decide whether you can travel or not. They decide so much in the material world.
But the paradigm shift is to say that over that reality is the reality of the Divine and the power of the Divine. It is not the case that everything begins and ends with the will of the rich and powerful, but there is the prevailing, supreme will of God. You must believe that the world of the seen and experienced, which makes up merely 5% of all existence, is not the end-all be-all. There is so much in the universe that is unseen and not experienced, and that forces a humility in existence upon us. You must be willing to believe that this life is temporary and is not the ultimate reality, because real life begins with the resurrection. You must fundamentally be anchored in the realization that death marks the beginning and not the end, and that, with death, there is not just a void of eternal silence.
The Qur'an is a paradigm shift. It tells us explicitly on so many occasions, but there is a reason why it is particularly shown in the beginning of Surah Al-Baqarah. That is because of the nature of Surah Al-Baqarah itself and what it tells us about society, history, nations, and the very nature of life on this earth. But it goes on, in fascinating Qur'anic style, to define two quintessential relationships, one with the nature of time, and the other with material possessions.
Regardless of how often you say, "I believe," what truly matters is that this belief translates in the way that you spend your time on this earth, and at the most basic level, that a good portion of this time is not spent on getting ahead in life in the material world but is instead reserved for God. Salat, the five prayers, is the minimum required divinely reserved time in your life. You wake up and you do not feel the time in that day belongs to you, your career, your whims and your desires, but you immediately know that a portion of your day- and depending on the level of your piety, how much of that day- must be reserved to invest in your relationship with the divine. We invest so much time in our careers, in our enjoyment, in whatever makes us happy. But it is a constant for those who truly mean it when they say, "We believe in the unseen world," that they invest in the relationship they have with God.
When it comes to material possessions, make sure to consistently spend in the way of God. This Qur'an can change your life. This Qur'an is a paradigm shift in existence, but only if you are willing to take seriously your belief system in the way that you apportion time - which is the other very valuable source that human beings covet and are often miserly with - and in the way that you handle material possessions.
The Prophet would often warn his ummah that what gave him great pause and concern is summed up in the word, “taraf.” That you will come to enjoy God's material blessings and that you will reach a point of “taraf”. The word, “taraf” does not translate simply to “luxury”, “immodesty” or “being spoiled.” ”Taraf“ expresses a dynamic in which you deal with life on earth with the expectation of fulfillment, when in reality, you ultimately become inflicted with the disease of hypocrisy.
“Taraf” occurs when one says, "I believe," they read the Qur'an and they pray, but no time is truly invested in the divine. There is a difference between praying and truly investing time in the divine. One could pray, but their mind is completely on this earth, constantly thinking of temporal things. That's not Iqamat salat, that is simply salat. Iqamat salat is when prayer becomes an investment of time in the divine.
The Prophet described a state in which Muslims, because of the temptations of the material world, engage in a process of intellectual lethargy and laziness, and more importantly, moral lethargy. Because of their relationship with the temporal world, they interpret the Qur'an, iman (faith) and even Islam itself in a way that ultimately does not disturb their established comforts. All of us become so comfortable with certain things in life that they become as if emotional support, whether these things are jobs, material possessions or relationships with other human beings. They become habitual comforts. If they exist, we are comfortable. If they do not exist, then we are obsessed with making them exist, and our relationship to God is entirely contingent on their existence or lack thereof.
The Prophet was warning his ummah against a situation in which those who read this book - which is, without doubt, a guidance - say, "Yes, but my comforts must be met first. Yes, but first, all the things that make me feel balanced, stable and anchored in this material world must exist before I take seriously that this book is a guidance." By the time you fulfill your zones of comfort, the place of this book is lost and is no longer an anchor or a guide. The book itself becomes an apologist paradigm, affirming and legitimating your comforts in existence. It does not challenge you, it does not drive you, but is instead driven by you.
We are a day from starting the Project Illumine, a journey with the Qur'an. I must confess to you that there are so many moments where I think, "What is the point? How can I teach people when God already told them that this book is no doubt a guidance for you?" These thoughts are from the devil. This book clearly told them about the paradigm shift, about challenging themselves and not surrendering to your zones of comfort or the path of least resistance. This book explicitly tells Muslims not to think ill of each other, but we do. This book clearly says, "Give your brother and your sisters the benefit of the doubt a million times," but we do not. This book clearly says, "You are brothers and sisters, do not treat each other with cruelty or harshness," but we do. This book says, "Do not talk about each other behind one another's back," but we do.
This book says so much about your relationship with time and your relationship with material possessions, it is a total paradigm shift. But we know what the book says, and choose to ignore its message all the time. I ask myself, "If, God, you have already explicitly said this, what is the point?" But this is most certainly the voice of the devil. This is where your iman and ghaib must come in. Because, if you do believe in Allah as ever-present, you must also believe that the devil is also present. You must believe that the devil has access to you, that he whispers to you, among other things, despair and the lack of hope. "Give up," the devil tells us every day, every hour, every minute. "Give up. There's no point. It's all lost." But if you believe in God, you must believe that this God is capable of achieving the good that you desire; but on God's own time, not yours. God is capable of achieving that good, but God wants to see what you will contribute to that good. God does not have to wait for you to make goodness unfold upon the universe, but God is only waiting to see what you would contribute.
A journey with the Qur'an cannot be an intellectual journey. If your relationship with the Qur'an fails to challenge, change and improve you every day, something is wrong. Go back to the basics. We have already done eight surahs. The tafsir of those eight surahs alone are sufficient to transform your existence on this earth. If they have not done that for you, go back and reexamine your relationship to God and your relationship to your ego. Who do you worship more, your ego or God? It is as simple as that. Whatever you do not use to worship God goes to worshipping your ego.
There are many who reacted, when they were not brought to join in this Qur'anic journey in person, with an unmistakable sense of resentment and anger. And to those people I say, my intention is not to deny you knowledge, because whatever knowledge is produced in this project is going to be accessible to all. But a relationship with a teacher is sacrosanct. The teacher must believe in you and you must believe in your teacher. If you do not believe in your teacher or if your teacher does not believe in you, intellectually and more importantly, spiritually, the one-on-one dynamic cannot work.
Someone wrote to me, "You should know that you are not the only one who studied with Shaykh al-Ghazali." I know, I really am not even one of the most prominent ones. In that regard, it was absolutely right. So many people have studied with Shaykh al-Ghazali in a far more involved way than I did. "And you're not the only one who has a relationship with the Qur'an." Again, that is true. But it is entirely beside the point. The journey between a student and a teacher is highly personal, and it is separate from the knowledge that is made available from that dynamic.
This is what I worry about the most. You teach the Qur'an, people listen to the Qur'an, they may even be touched by what you teach at the moment that they are taught it, but when a new sun comes up the next day, and the day after that and the day after that, nothing has changed. The Qur'an has not, in any lasting way, changed the way that you deal with time or with material things, or how you deal with the world of the unseen. If that is the case, pause and say, "What is wrong? Why am I not truly listening to the Qur'an?" If my thought processes, if the way I make judgments, if the way that I judge people, if the way that I relate to my family and friends has not changed, despite learning the Qur'an, pause and think, "What am I missing? Where have I gone wrong?" Take God very seriously when he tells us, "This is a transformative book." This is the book that challenges your ego and tells you what is needed to domesticate that ego, shrink its space and replace that space with God.
Recently, a student asked me, "How can we tell what comes from God and what comes from the devil?" If something is dishonest, it comes from the devil. If something leaves you with a sense of shame and anxiety, so you want to hide it, it is from the devil. If something leaves you with a sense of guilt because you know you have done wrong, it is from the devil. If something makes you act cruelly and insensitively, without compassion or mercy, it is from the devil. If you hurt others and do not care, it is from the devil. If you transgress upon the rights of others, even if they do not realize it, even if you hide your transgressions and think, "It is no big deal, they do not know," or, "It is okay, I am justified," it is from the devil.
People, think before it is too late. The path of God is clear. The path of God is honest, courageous, brave, kind, merciful, loving and compassionate. Think about the people that you know in your life. If any of them are carrying a grievance against you, go back and think about what you have done. Mend the fences. Extend the face of the divine on this earth before it is too late. Be the path to compassion and mercy, so that people can see the effects of the divine upon the faithful and say, "I have seen a beautiful thing."
I did have the opportunity to ask Shaykh Al-Ghazali early on, "What of your 58 books should I start with?" It surprised me that, instead of his book on seerah or on the Qur’an, he said to start with his book on Islam and colonialism. I read and reread that book several times in my life. There was a portion of this book, which spoke about how one of the most nefarious effects of colonialism is that it convinced us that the Qur'an calls for an ideal situation that is impractical, unrealistic, and unachievable, so we are better served by paying attention to the “real,” empirical sciences, and to become things like medical doctors or engineers. This means to deal with the Qur'an in an extracurricular time, as the Qur'an is no longer a constitution for our life.
Remember that it was not long ago that the way that you became a literate human being and started your life in the Muslim world was by studying the Qur'an. You studied literacy, commingled with an education in the Qur'an. Before you learned any sciences or any mathematics, you learned the Qur'an. Your value system was shaped around the Qur'an, before you were molded into a doctor or an engineer. As Shaykh al-Ghazali says, "Colonialism targeted this aspect of our life and made the Qur'an something played on radio stations for those who need Qur'an when there is a death in the family, or when they are feeling down, or when they want some barakah, or when they worry about envy. It compartmentalized Qur'an in our lives.
As I attended Shaykh al-Ghazali's lectures, especially his lectures in which he would talk about his books, I understood the extent to which this man's heart broke. There were several times when he would be giving classes or lectures, and he would choke up and appear like he was going to break down crying. Of course, back then I was a young, cocky man, proud of my intelligence. I would wonder, "Why is he choking up?" Now I understand. He was choking up because the Qur'an has become a stranger in the land of Muslims. Because our relationship to the Qur'an has become marginal. We read “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem,” “The most merciful and most compassionate,” but yet we can finish our prayer and not ask ourselves in what way we are not being merciful or compassionate when we deal with other human beings, especially fellow Muslims.
This is not something that goes to the intellect. This is something you see and feel with your heart. If you have caused another person to suffer, it is not your intellect that is going to tell you that you have done that, it is your heart. It is the heart that is going to feel the suffering of others and make you extend a hand to alleviate the suffering that you might have contributed to. But what do you do when that heart is cold and unresponsive? What do you do when the heart fails to feel anything? What do you do when you have compartmentalized your existence so that there is salat time, there is work time and there is relaxation time, but you do not feel the consequences of your actions, and you do not feel the accountability before the day of accountability?
As a Qur'an teacher, how do you teach the heart of people to pulsate with the Qur'an? How do the words and letters of the Qur'an become the blood that flows within your body? How does it become the spirit that animates your soul, your intellect and every fiber in your being?
You stand before God every night and say, "God, help me." Truly, as Moses supplicated to God and said, "I am truly poor, in need of your help and your aid," may God aid us as we begin the journey with the Qur'an, as the Prophet said, so that it can become the light of our being, the light of our minds, the light of our heart, the light of our eyes; the very way that we hear, see and feel.
You do not need to be here to accompany me in that journey, because hearts transcend distance. If your heart is in the right place, you could be in the most obscure place and be present with us every minute of every day. You could be physically present here, but if your heart is cold and unresponsive, you might as well be in the most obscure place imaginable. I invite all Muslims who truly have a passion for the Qur'an, who want to love the Qur'an, who want the Qur'an to be the light of their soul and intellect, to join us in the journey that we will embark upon in our reflections and discussions on the revealed word of God.