"Surah al Najm and the Idols Within"



In the Project Illumine tafasir halaqas, the last surah we dealt with was Surah al-Najm, a surah that is profoundly eloquent, profoundly beautiful in its meter, music and in its descriptive power. Furthermore, the meaning of the surah is remarkably earth-shattering. For so long, Surah al-Najm has been considered a surah that relates to the Isra wa al-Miraj and the ascension of the Prophet to the Heavens to be in proximity to the Divine. It has unfortunately become the center point in a rather silly and entirely useless debate about the Satanic verses. These are issues which I have discussed in the Surah al-Najm halaqa.


But I want to review the message of Surah al-Najm, because even those who will not spend the hours to go through the halaqa and learn about the powerful message of Surah al-Najm should know what the surah has to tell them from God. The surah begins with an oath that calls for reflection and invites you to deep thought, “By the star when it sets”, the star when it falls. The Arabic word used does not just mean “ascends,” but could also mean “falls”. God does not tell us much about this star, it is left up to us to imagine. Then, God takes us by our hand on a journey with the Prophet ascending to mystifying heights.


God's message is: “…You know the person that is the Prophet of God. You know your companion, your friend. You know him because if you are truthful with yourself, you know that this is a man that does not lie, and that this is a man who has not asked for anything for himself, and that this is a man that has always lived a committed and dedicated life; an honest, clean and pure life. If you are honest with yourself, you know that often in your life, you seem to be falling. You are like the stars that crash, while he knows that he is ascending. He knows because of the experiences that he is privy to, and that he can tell you about, and that he can invite you to follow suit with, are experiences that are truly luminous, pure and magnanimous…”


God tells you that what the Prophet saw and experienced was something beyond human experience, that the Prophet grew so near to the Divine - to God - to the dimension in which divinity exists. And as the Prophet himself said, “I saw my Lord with my heart but not my eyes." And as we discussed in the Illumine halaqas, God then reminds us of Al-Lat or Manat or Al-Uzza, the idols that were worshipped at the time of the Prophet.

But here is the remarkable thing about Surah al-Najm: Surah al-Najm is quintessentially about us. What Muslims must understand about Surah al-Najm is that God does not mention the idols because they were historical artifacts that have long since perished. God does not mention Al-Lat or Al-Uzza or Manat when God knows that, just a decade later, these idols are going to be destroyed and worshipped physically no more, God does not memorialize them to preserve their memory. When God knows that they could simply be entirely forgotten in history, God memorializes Al-Lat or Manat or Al-Uzza or Sha’ra, the fourth[1] , because these idols are symbols. They are symbols for human frailty and repeated human weakness.


Al-Lat is a symbol for our unique weakness before these desires: the desire for immediate satisfaction, for pleasures of the flesh, for immediate pleasures, for satisfying these points of utility within us. Al-Uzza, the symbol for the desire for glory, power and prestige. And Manat is a symbol for the desire to live and to forget death, to forget that life is truly passing and that death is but a step away. All the obliviousness towards death is embodied in the very concept of Manat.


Al-Lat embodied base desires, pleasures of the flesh. Al-Uzza embodied the intoxications of power, prestige and feeling or desiring to feel superior to people - this longing to be distinguished, noted and celebrated, as you look down upon fellow human beings. And Manat, the forgetfulness that human beings are often afflicted with towards death, and the fact that no matter how old they get, they often pretend as if they will live forever. It is not that they wait until their 40s, or their 50s, or their 60s, or even their 80s to finally say, "Oh, death is near. I better shape up." That is not the way the idol of Manat works. The idol of Manat makes death a foreign and alien topic, as if it is going to happen to everyone but you.


When God tells us in Surah Al Najm about Sha’ra, it is in reference to a star worshipped by some Arabs. It is the height of whimsicalness, because it was worshipped simply because it was brighter than other stars, and had a lot of mythology and allure surrounding it. Everything that reached us about those that looked toward the star of Sha’ra, which I believe is called Sirius in English, shows the absolute whimsicalness of privilege and power, because it was people of power that told their followers that this star specifically is a real god. And people, because they tend to follow those in power and blindly obey them without thought said, "Well, you know better. You are our kings and our queens and lords, and if you say that star is a god, then so be it." Utter whimsy.


Surah al-Najm reminds us that this is the god who created crying and laughter. They are, in themselves, a miracle of creation - to be able to reach a point where your intellect tells you something is so funny that you laugh. Laughter is remarkable. There is no evolutionary logic related to physiological functions or needs that laughter fulfills. It is truly a remarkable thing. Your mind thinks something is so funny, you produce a sound. Imagine if an alien is listening to us produce the sound. It truly sounds remarkable. But so is crying. What is the sound that we make when we cry? And what is the evolutionary logic for that sound? Two remarkably divine things: crying and laughter. And, they are unique to the human experience; only human beings cry and laugh. Especially when you want to laugh, so you cry, or you want to cry, so you laugh. That is truly when you see the singular fingerprints of the Divine.


Both laughter and crying are from God, so when you laugh, remember that this is God's will. And when you cry, remember that this is God's will. When you laugh, do not forget that if God would have willed, you would have cried. And when you cry, do not forget that when God wills, you will laugh. Laughter should not bring in hubris, and crying should not bring in despair.


Surah al-Najm tells you, if you want to defeat the idols, if you want to cleanse the idols within, then remember that this is the god who created life and death. Remember this is the god who created partners, a source of great blessing. Do not take partnership or companionship for granted because if God willed, you would have no partners, and you would have no companions. When God wills, love is a blessing. And when God wills, the absence of love is a test, and upon some, a real curse.


But if you want to defeat these idols, also remember when you laugh, remember the times that you cried - and how close crying can be, but for the grace and the blessings of God. And when you cry, remember that this universe has an owner and that you should not despair because God is all merciful, and God can, in an instant, change things so that the cause for crying becomes reasons for laughter.


What happens if you defeat these idols? And this is the real point of Surah al-Najm. What happens if you defeat Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, Al-Manat and Al-Sha’ra inside of you? You can ascend. And if you do not defeat the idols within, you will be the falling star. But if you can commit to defeating these idols, to chasing these idols out of yourself, to cleansing them in the same way that once upon a time, the Prophet cleansed the idols out of Arabia, then God - who is already closer to you than your jugular vein - can be as close to you as mere feet away whenever you call upon God. But even more than that, as so many in this universe will attest, when God wills, you ascend. And when you ascend, you see the light that the Prophet saw.


The Prophet said, "I saw God not with my eyes, but with my heart." And when you see this light, the entire world is forever different. It is not just a light. It is a light like which you have not seen before. You had no idea that light could be so beautiful until you gaze upon this light. Everything in your life until the moment that you see this light was false and mere illusions, as if tricks of the light played on you, shadows reflecting off walls. And the only thing you desire after you see this light is to see it again. Nothing has meaning anymore. Nothing is satisfying anymore. Nothing is fulfilling anymore but the light of your Lord. You are so grateful for seeing it. And the longing to see it again is a passion that you cannot negotiate with, that you cannot quench, that you cannot limit or even control.


Do you want to ascend, or do you want to fall? God promises you to let you decide, and even more than that, God promises to help you in whatever your decision is. If you decide you do not have the energy, time or the inclination to fight Al-Lat, or Al-Uzza, or Al-Manat, or Al-Sha’ra inside of you, then God says, "Okay, I respect you, and I respect your decision." Or, if you commit to fighting these idols, and you tell God from your heart, "God, the job does not matter. The money does not matter. The prestige does not matter. Even my loved ones do not matter. The only thing that truly matters to me is to be mere feet away from your magnanimous presence and light," then God helps you and says, "Welcome.” Do not be the fallen star, be the ascending star.


So many academics think, “How uncool. After all these years of degrees, accomplishments, sophistication, publications, symposia, conferences, named lectures, named chairs, and committee service; after all of this, you settle down to comment on the Qur’an. Is that not what mullahs do? How uncool. Why not just leave this to a mullah, while you do what academics do, talk about theories, the latest publications, the latest lectures here and there, the rising names in the field?” Surah al-Najm even answers that, and tells you, ‘Turn away from the ignorant. This is all they know. They do not know any better. So do not bother explaining to them what they are incapable of understanding because their star has fallen a long time ago, and it never had the chance of ascending at any level.’


Accomplishments merely on this earth, on this temporal plane, are not any form of ascendance, although they delude us into thinking they are. The Qur’an should be the light of our life, the anchor and compass of our intellect, the very breath that feeds our soul. The Qur’an is God's continuing revelation to us, the prophet that never dies. When will Muslims wake up and see what happened to them when they drifted away from the book that made them respectable human beings in the first place, because it made them into civilization builders?



I read an article written by an American academic, Audrey Truschke, who is a scholar of pre-modern India. Recently, Truschke has been getting an amazing amount of hate mail from Indian nationalists. Why? Because, as a scholar of pre-modern India, Audrey Truschke studies the period where Muslims were in power in India, and among the works of Audrey Truschke is a book on the emperor Aurangzeb. All the Muslim emperors are vilified and demonized by Hindu nationalists. And according to Hindu nationalists and Islamophobes alike, Aurangzeb destroyed 60,000 Hindu temples, slaughtered Hindus, and forced Hindus to convert to Islam. And Audrey Truschke, as a good academic, has delved into the actual official records and actual historical narratives, and rationally analyzes the historical record. And she finds, unsurprisingly, that nationalism does not make good history.


Whether the ideologues are Muslim or non-Muslim, when ideologues talk about history, they corrupt history. And Audrey Truschke quite reasonably points out that it is an oversimplification to pretend that Islam was just an alien culture invading India, and that it never took root in Indian society. And yes, while Aurangzeb did kill Hindus, he also killed Muslims. There were not even 60,000 temples in all of India to be destroyed. Aurangzeb was motivated by politics, power and material interests, but he was also an emperor and a civilization builder. It is not all black and white.


Why do I bring this up? The amount of hate mail directed at this academic sadly is representative. The same Islamophobes that do not tire of talking about how Muslims are incapable of respecting freedom of speech are the same Islamophobes who every single day terrorize, threaten and intimidate any voice that they cannot engage rationally into silence, including this professor speaking right now. The same Islamophobes who have become so proficient in making Muslims ashamed of themselves are the same ones who are now lobbying Facebook and YouTube so that any criticism of Zionism is equated to antisemitism, and any criticism of Israel is equated to antisemitism. In other words, censorship.

Censorship, terrorism, intimidation and silence; the very same things that they are so fond of accusing Muslims of. It is like when the State of Israel speaks about human rights, when they themselves are a systematic human rights violator who has never respected the Geneva Convention and never respected the human rights of Palestinians, all while loving to preach to Muslims about human rights.


There is a long history of that throughout colonialism. Colonialism loved to preach to Muslims about democracy, while simultaneously snuffing out any budding potential for democracy throughout the Muslim world. But even more critically, as Audrey Truschke points out, a lot of the attacks directed against her assume she is Jewish, and so many of the attacks are outright antisemitic. Many go as far as to tell Audrey things like, "Hitler should have wiped all of you out. We are waiting for the next holocaust, when the next Hitler can erase Jews off the face of the earth."

Of course, the racists and bigots that direct such vile words at Audrey do not realize she is not Jewish, but that is, of course, beside the point. Something that the Islamophobes again overlook is that while racism and bigotry are directed at Muslims today, it will not stop at Muslims. Racism (and bigotry) eats itself from the inside like a viral infection that kills its host. If they had even an iota of conscience, they would realize that there is no way that you can feed racism against Muslims while avoiding racism against Jews, Blacks or Asians.


But there is another point. All indicators are that there is a terrifying rise in Hindu nationalism and that, as Audrey Truschke points out, Hitler’s book “Mein Kampf” is a best seller in India among Hindu nationalists. In fact, Hindu nationalists openly embrace fascist ideas and fantasies of ridding India of its Muslim population.


So after witnessing what Burma did with its Muslims, after witnessing what China did with its Muslims, and after witnessing that China can build concentration camps in the 21st century and get away with it, all indicators are is that India is gearing up towards the next major genocide against Muslims.


Are we Muslims just going to wait around until it happens? At the same time that Modi's government in India is doing everything to preach insane hatred towards Muslims, the relationship between India and Israel has never been better, and the relationship between India and the Emirates and Saudi Arabia has never been better. And we all know that the Emirati government even honored Modi and gave him a major award. The Emirati and Saudi investments in India are in the billions.


But the part that bothers me the most, we all know of American Muslim leaders who are very close to the Emirates, who love to use the excuse of silence to avoid moral responsibility and accountability. If they do not have a conscience, how about you as a Muslim? Why do you continue supporting people who supported the genocide against Muslims in China, who supported the genocide against Muslims in Burma, who supported the most fascist and authoritarian regimes around the Muslim world? Why do you continue supporting American Muslims who are unable to condemn the immorality of so many so-called Muslim leaders? Not only do they not condemn it, but they actually help it by legitimating those rulers as pioneers of tolerance, as the Emirates often loves to position itself. And in order for this tolerance narrative to work, they need Bin Bayyah, Hamza Yusuf and other American Muslim academics to play nice as they then put their hand in the hand of a fascist like Modi, and ignore all the warning signs of the coming genocide against Muslims - like how they ignored the evidence of the ongoing genocide against Muslims in China.


Remarkably, I still find American Muslims who defend these so-called leaders. Audrey Truschke is not a Muslim, but I have tremendous respect for her. But what do I say about my fellow Muslims who, just for the privilege of flying to the Emirates first class and being treated as VIPs, are willing to put a complete hold on their conscience? What do I say?


Recently, 36 countries signed onto a letter to the UN Human Rights Council expressing grave concern about the unprecedented levels of human rights abuses committed by the Sisi regime in Egypt. Do I need to tell you that most of the 36 countries are not Muslim countries? Do I need to tell you that, of course, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Israel came to the defense of the Sisi regime, trying to force the UN not to investigate or condemn, and trying to force the International Criminal Court not to look at crimes against humanity, including war crimes, committed by the Egyptian army in Sinai against the Bedouin civilians, the native inhabitants of Sinai?


But there is one part of this legacy that I will never forget till the day that I die. While 36 countries noted that the regime in a country like Egypt is an unprecedented fascist regime, a systematic violator of human rights, whose violations rises to the level of crimes against humanity; it was the Islamic Center of Southern California, the so-called enlightened group of Islam, the so-called advocates of ethics and morality, who banned me from speaking there because they did not want criticism of Sisi's regime.


Do you see why it matters whether you want to ascend to the throne or be like the fallen star? Do you see the ugliness of life without ethics and morality? Do you see how it is when you accept the principle that, as Muslims, we are justified in playing politics instead of adhering to ethics? Do you see how ugly it gets? How demonic it gets? And do you see why Surah al-Najm warns us about the falling star and the fate of those who fall with the fallen star?



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