The Prophet, in so many of the lessons that he imparted to his ummah, taught a path of personal integrity, self-respect, dignity and honor; a way of existing in society that is aspirational in nature. It set as a moral objective a certain type of character and a certain type of ethical order that the individual must, as a Muslim, be endowed with and seek to fulfill.
We witness one of these core lessons in the well-known hadith reported by Abu Sa'id al-Khudri. He heard the Prophet say, "Let no person, because of the fear of people, fail to speak the truth." The hadith clearly says that if you believe you know what the truth is, you have an obligation to speak it, elaborate upon it, expound it, and defend your perspective, whatever that perspective is.
There are two core prongs in this single moral lesson about integrity and dignity. First is the ability to search for, discover, and investigate the truth. This hadith would make absolutely no sense if a Muslim is denied, by themselves or by another, the ability to investigate and to search for the truth. But the second prong is that once you become convinced that something is the truth, as the Prophet says, "Do not let the fear of others render you silent." So, the first prong is an obligation to search and the second prong is an obligation to speak.
I keep going back to the concept of following the Sunnah of the Prophet because so many pontificators in our modern age pretend that they are the people of Sunnah. But when you scrutinize what they mean by Sunnah, it turns out that they mean nothing but the most superficial things. They leave out the heart and soul of what the true Sunnah of the Prophet was. In fact, they butcher it. What they adhere to are the most artificial things that might have to do with hygiene, appearance or affectations, while ignoring what truly matters. The true Sunnah of the Prophet is a human being that has the ability to search for the truth, and then the ability to speak for the truth. If you do that, you are following the Sunnah of the Prophet. If you do not do that, you are not following the Sunnah of the Prophet.
Think for a second. What is required - socially, culturally, politically - to create a social and communal order that enables people to search, scrutinize and study the truth? If you really want to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet, but searching for the truth is too expensive, then that is an impediment to what the Prophet taught. If searching for the truth will mean that your family will starve to death because you hardly make enough to do anything but earn money to feed your family, then that is a violation of the Sunnah of the Prophet. If searching for the truth is unavailable because you are illiterate, or because the means for education are unavailable, that is a violation of the Sunnah of the Prophet. If searching for the truth is unavailable because you live in a despotic system where you are told the truth is the province of those who rule and you should concern yourself with your own personal private affairs, that is a violation of the Sunnah of the Prophet.
When the Prophet says, "If you become convinced that something is the truth, you have an obligation to speak, and failure to do so is a major problem," we have to think in terms of what conditions are conducive to the fulfillment of that moral command. You cannot tell people, "Be interested in the truth," if they are too poor, too hungry, too sick, or if searching for the truth means that they could be arrested, imprisoned, tortured or killed. By definition, if you want to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet, you cannot have a tyrannical society. You cannot have a society where the elderly, or the aristocracy, or the rich, or the powerful tell you, "Obey and do not ask questions." By definition, that is a violation of the Sunnah of the Prophet, because that is not what he did with his people.
He is the prophet of God, and not once in the recorded Sunnah, did he ever tell his followers, "You have no right to question my political decisions." In fact, he did quite the opposite. Again and again, his economic policies were questioned, his fiscal policies were questioned, his military policies were questioned, his political policies were questioned, and he tolerated all of it. Not once do we have, in the huge corpus that is the Sunnah and the hadiths, an occurrence in which the Prophet became angry when people questioned him. When it comes to the Qur'an, he says, "If the Qur'an tells you something, do it. But if I tell you something about money, politics, commerce or social policies within, and you question me, I will not pull rank over you."
The Prophet was the exact antithesis of something that used to exist in the medieval world and still exists in the Muslim world: The mystification of power. It used to be that those who ruled would tell those that they ruled over, "You are too uneducated, simple-minded and uninspired to question our decisions in the seat of power. Power is a mysterious thing, and we as rulers have been invited to share in the mystery of power that you as the laity are not privy to, so you cannot interfere."
A highlight of the Islamic Revolution, long before the French and English Revolutions, was the demystification of power. When a woman challenged Umar ibn Al-Khattab in a mosque over his policies on the payment of dowries, or when rebels challenged Uthman ibn Affan, or when many challenged Al Khalifah Abu Bakr, not once did these caliphs respond by saying, "Do not interfere in matters of politics, because you are not equipped to do so." They refused to mystify power. Instead, they said, "We think we are right and we think you are wrong." But there is a world of difference between that and saying, "Power is a mysterious thing given to us by God, so you should not meddle."
This is a critical lesson, because if the first prong requires a social and political order that allows for the investigation of truth and for individual persuasion, the second prong requires those conditions even more so. I cannot tell people, "You have an obligation to speak the truth, do not let the fear of others silence you," if the cost of speaking is possible imprisonment, persecution, torture or death. I cannot urge people to follow that lesson from the Sunnah if I do not create the conditions that allow for its fulfillment.
So many who are still under the influence of colonialism love to speak about Oriental despotism and Islamic tyranny. They have the brains of their colonizers. Although they may carry the skin color of the colonized, their intellects, souls and conscience are one and the same with their colonizers. If you reflect even slightly, you would recognize that the Sunnah of the Prophet is not wearing a beard, wearing a jalabiyya, drinking water in three gulps, cleaning your teeth with miswak, or separating men and women in public gatherings. The Sunnah of the Prophet is an investment in the individual. An investment in the individual means dignity, which comes with the freedom to investigate the truth and the freedom to speak the truth. But it is entirely meaningless to say, "Follow the Sunnah of the Prophet," if one does not have conditions that are conducive to the fulfillment of that truth. If ignorance rules, if poverty rules, if political oppression rules, there is no way to fulfill the teachings of the Prophet.
Taking our tradition seriously means that from the very beginning, you realize it is a tradition that invests in the ethics of the individual and elevates them to heights of dignity. It means that there is a realization that there are certain things like the mystification of power that are fundamentally inconsistent with the ethical legacy of the Prophet.
The tyrants of the modern Muslim world tell us, "Politics and policies are the business of the rulers so you must leave it to them. They know what you do not. They understand what you do not. Just busy yourself with making money and feeding your family." If the Emirate builds Al Bayt Ibrahimi, which threatens to change the very nature of Islam, and which will create a single mesh of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam - and call that tolerance – at the same time, they will tell you that you cannot have an opinion about it because it is up to the rulers; they know best. If the Saudi king buys a yacht, a painting or a chateau in France, they will tell you, "Do not worry about it. That is the rulers’ business." If the traitorous ruler of Egypt wastes billions of dollars building a fancy new city for the elite of Egypt, they will tell you, "That is the business of rulers. Do not talk about it." But even in the United States, the entire attitude of the students of Bin Bayyah, Hamza Yusuf and Zaytuna is to not question policies like the Muslim ban. “It is God's will. You do not understand power, so do not talk about it and just take care of your family." The medieval paradigm that Islam emerged as a revolution against has returned. The aristocracy of Mecca are back in power, but this time, they are in charge of our very religion. It is as if we have not progressed one iota.
There is a new trend in Saudi Arabia, the land of the holy sites. Aisha Al-Muhajiri, an older woman in Mecca, who does nothing but teach and preach the Qur'an from her home, was arrested and made to disappear. Not only that, but the organization, Prisoners of Conscience, reports that Saudi intelligence will arrest anyone that inquires about the whereabouts of Al-Muhajiri or the reason for her arrest, including her own children. Al-Muhajiri is far from the only Qur'an teacher to be arrested in Saudi Arabia. This is the new trend in the land of the holy sites - people who do nothing but teach the Qur'an at home are picked up and arrested. Consider this alongside the case of Ahmed Sabee’ in Egypt, who I have talked about several times, and who is still disappeared within Egypt's political prisons simply for daring to say anything about the Bible. Add to this that all the moderate, reform-minded Muslim scholars in countries like Saudi Arabia, the Emirate and Egypt are all rotting in prison, like Salman Al-Ouda.
Where does the mystification of power lie? It is present when you try to talk about people like Al-Muhajiri, or Safar Hawali, or Salman Al-Ouda, or Ahmed Sabee’ and you are told, "These are political matters. The rulers have their reasons. You cannot ask." You are not allowed to seek the truth because you are not even allowed to know what the charges are or what the evidence for any of it is. “Just go raise your children.” But even if you are made aware of what the truth is, you are told, "Keep it to yourself. Stay quiet."
Alongside the arrests of Qur'an teachers, Saudi Arabia announced that it will build the first church in Arabia. The Emirate built the Abrahamic Home, which completely dilutes the Islamic faith. Egypt announced recently, under the direction of the great Egyptian president, that all Qur'anic references and all hadith references will be removed from all educational curriculum in Egypt starting next year, except in religion class. When you ask, "Why are you imprisoning Muslim scholars but building a church in Arabia?" they tell you, "None of your business." When you ask, “Why are you removing all Qur'anic references from the educational curriculum?” you are told, "None of your business." When you ask, “Why have you torn down hundreds of mosques in Egypt?” you are told, "None of your business." What is happening to the Islamic ummah? "Do not ask. It is none of your business." The mystifications of power are nothing more than the legitimation of tyranny and despotism, a degradation and humiliation, and a complete eradication of the Prophet's Sunnah.
It is very simple. Regimes like the ones in the Emirate, Saudi Arabia and Egypt know that they have no legitimacy. So why did Saudi Arabia decide to build the first church in Arabia at the same time that they arrest elderly women teaching Qur’an from home? Because Mohammed Bin Salman wants to convince the new administration that, "Yes, I am a human rights violator. Yes, I am a despot. Yes, I am a tyrant. But look, I am willing to build churches for you. I know that you fear Islam, and I am willing to fight Muslims for you." It is the same for instance with the Emirate and Mohammed bin Zayed. "I am willing to be friends with Israel. I am willing to build a big building and call it the Abrahamic Home. I am willing to say Islam, Christianity and Judaism are one. So please, overlook the fact that I am murdering people in Yemen and imprisoning my own people left and right. Please overlook the fact that I am a tyrant. Do you not love my policies regarding Israel? Do you not love the fact that I fight Islam for you?" It is exactly the same with Sisi and Egypt. "Yes, I know that you know that I am a tyrant, that I maim, torture and kill all the time. But look, I am willing to take Islam out of the heart of people."
In this regard, our own politics remains profoundly hypocritical. We have announced to the world decades ago that we are a secular society. We built the Western civilization on the profound assumptions that we are not doing the will of God but the will of the people, by the people, for the people. One of the first principles of the French Revolution was the strict separation of church and state, which carried over to the American Revolution. But there is one area which remained severely hypocritical. Throughout colonialism, we have tolerated the most tyrannical governors as long as they were willing to allow evangelism, missionary work and the building of churches. While our domestic politics are the byproduct of the French Revolution and the English Reformation, our foreign politics remain thoroughly archaic. So, are we willing to tolerate a tyrant like Mohammed Bin Salman because he built a church in Arabia? Of course. Even people in the State Department, who have never entered a church in their life, have this innate sense of victory when they see this type of missionary work take place.
We have done the same with Israel. We are willing to tolerate the worst of tyrants, the most disgusting human rights abusers on the face of the earth, as long as they make friends with Israel. Sisi’s regime carried out the worst civil massacre in the modern age against the local population in Rabaa. Yet, we are willing to tolerate and forgive anything he does to his own people, as long as he allows Christians to build as many churches as they want, as long as he allows Christian missionaries to come to the country as much as they want, as long as he loves and supports Israel in every way. Thoroughly hypocritical, a page out of the Crusades.
It is as if, domestically, our intellects have joined the 21st century, but externally, vis-a-vis the Muslim world especially, our intellects remain locked in the medieval age, in the age of the Crusades. The arrests of Qur'an teachers from their homes in Mecca and the building of the first church in Arabia are simply plays to please the West. But Muslims gain nothing but the mystifications of power. They have no right to either seek the truth or speak the truth.
Why should we care? I will say it again and again, as long as those who rule over Mecca and Medina are the likes of MBS, God will never bless us as a people. As long as Azhar is in a country ruled by the likes of Sisi, God will never bless us as a people. As long as Muslim institutions in the West continue to live oblivious to the dignity of their fellow Muslims around the world, God will never bless us as a people. As long as we Muslims in the West continue to care more about whether the hair of a woman under her scarf is showing than whether Salman Al-Ouda is perishing in prison, God will never bless us as a people. As long as we Muslims in the West continue to care more about whether women and men are properly separated in prayer than about the dignity of Muslims around the world, including the genocides in China and Burma, God will never bless us as a people.
The Sunnah of the Prophet is there for all who want to follow it. But it is not about clothes, it is not about hygiene, it is not about looks, it is not about smell, it is not about taste. It is about ethics, dignity and virtue. That is the Sunnah of the Prophet. To live in a society where you can investigate the truth, and once you become convinced it is the truth, to be able to speak it without fear of punishment, that is the Sunnah of the Prophet. That is the Sunnah of the Prophet. Until we realize this, God will never bless us.