The Qur’an, God's revealed book, has indeed set out for us a path, and an entire methodology for existence in life. The Qur’an is a book that is not there to affirm what we are, but to challenge what we are. The very nature of God's revelation is that, if one finds in it an affirmation of what they are, or an affirmation of what they want to be, or an affirmation of their feelings and ideas, without anything further, then they have not given this book its due. Then, they do not have a relationship with the Qur’an.
The very idea of a revelation from God is to challenge, and inherent to the very notion of a challenge is the demand for change. We read the Qur’an not as a feel-good exercise, not as a way of affirming all of our presuppositions and natural inclinations, but as a guidance. To guide is to teach, and to teach must necessarily mean to challenge. Inherent in the very notion of a revelation from the divine is the idea of a challenge. So when God tells us that we have been created so that we vow in good deeds, we compete in good deeds, and to see what we will do in that very discourse, embedded in that meaning is the meaning of a challenge.
The moral challenge for a human being is to go beyond what they know and what they are comfortable with. Otherwise, the very notion of a reward would make no sense. If the Qur’an was there to simply affirm our natural inclinations and our biases - to put a stamp of approval on our material, psychological and intellectual comforts - what is God rewarding us for? Is God simply rewarding us for being what we are?
Inherent in the very idea of a covenant that God offers human beings, inherent in the very idea of being God's agents on Earth, inherent in the very idea of commanding what is good and to resisting what is evil is a challenge; and a challenge necessarily connotes progressive movement. If you are static, you cannot say there is a challenge posed and a challenge met. If you remain static while the world moves ahead, then you are simply in a regressive state.
The very idea of istiklaf necessitates a dynamic of progression. If human beings were created like zombies, unchanging and unmoving; if time did not move forward; if you could wake up and find yourself one day living a year ago, and another day living 10 years ago, and a third day living 10 years forward, then we would not need to read the Qur’an as posing a challenge and demanding progress. But in fact, the way that God has created time on Earth is that time moves forward, creation itself is constantly changing, and human beings are constantly changing. While we maintain the same outward physical appearance, what is inside our heads drastically changes from one day to another, leave alone from one year to another.
The way we understand basic concepts, the way we understand truth in history, the way we understand intimacy, the way we understand brotherhood or sisterhood, the way we understand familial relations, the way we understand institutional realities, the way we understand units of loyalty and commitment, the way we understand love, the way we understand mercy, the way we understand compassion, the way we understand justice; all is constantly changing. Why? Because these systems of neurological synaptic devices that God placed in our brain are constantly rewiring themselves.
We have the same two eyes throughout our lives, but perception from one time to another greatly varies. Perception from one place to another greatly varies. If God would have willed, none of this would be the case. If God would have willed, consciousness and understanding would be uniform and redundant. But, that is not what God has willed. God created for us the logic of challenge and survival. What many call evolution, in reality, is that every created being on the face of this Earth confronts a challenge and adapts to the challenge and therefore, progresses. That progress scientists have overzealously called evolution. But fundamentally, what they are describing is God teaching us, through the created world that God presented with the purpose of educating and teaching us, that all living beings confront, deal and adapt to challenges; adapt to the challenges, and in doing so, they supplicate and worship the divine.
When human beings obstinately and stubbornly say, "Who do we reward in our jobs?" Think of any job in the world. Every job in a healthy institution is designed to reward workers who are disciplined, creative and innovative. We reward workers that confront problems and come up with solutions. We do not reward, nor are we supposed to reward, workers who do not see or ignore problems. But when it comes to our tradition, we forget that. When it comes to the sciences of Islam, we forget that. When it comes to Sharia, we forget that.
Instead, what we do is we celebrate those who fail to see problems, or fail to come up with innovative solutions to problems - or even better yet, who do not want to hear about problems. We just want people who can memorize Riyadh al Salahin, who can recite the 10 golden chains of narration of Bukhari, who can repeat the systems of hadith that were invented by Bukhari, or Nasa'i, or Muslims centuries ago. While we understand the logic of creativity and innovation in our work, we want none of that in our religion. As a result, we fall behind. As a result, this enormous, beautiful, remarkably rich tradition that spawned over centuries before colonialism, remains the playground of hobbyists, as well as the least creative, least intelligent people. It does not attract problem-solvers. It does not attract people who are restless and desire progress. Instead, it attracts those who are ethically and morally dull; those who are too lazy to even notice a moral challenge, leave alone rise to meet a moral challenge.
God demands that we follow the path of diligence and conscientiousness, but what is that diligence and conscientiousness about? “Do not surrender. Do not become subservient. Do not become submissive to those who are unjust.” God then goes on to tell us that many nations before us were destroyed, because the majority failed to stand up and resist fasad [corruption]. Although God saved the small group of people who believed, the majority failed to resist fasad, and so they were destroyed.
God then tells us the natural law of things. If you are unjust, you will be destroyed by your injustice. But if you are just, God will stand by you. In every nuance of this discourse is a challenge that demands that you rise up to the occasion. In order to refuse to submit, to be subservient and submissive before those who are unjust, first is the challenge of understanding justice. You cannot understand justice unless you understand that the balance of rights and wants changes from one age to another. To refuse to be subservient to those who are unjust requires that you meet the challenge of understanding justice. Once you understand it comes another challenge: To organize life in a way that does not give supremacy, hegemony, and dominance to those who are unjust, those who are corrupt and those who are tyrannical; those who are despotic; those who think of themselves as demigods. But then, we must organize life to resist corruption; and in order to understand corruption, we need to understand the epistemologies of our age.
Centuries ago, we did not pollute the ocean and kill whales, but now, it is part of corrupting the Earth. If we want to talk about justice and injustice the way Ghazali spoke about it in the 12th century A.D., that is not going to work. Centuries ago, there was no pornography, and so sexual abuse behind closed doors was not a huge social problem. But in this day and age it is because, sadly, brothers, cousins, and even parents, watch pornography and the devil enters into their heart and they commit obscene things.
Centuries ago, there was no World Bank. Today, the World Bank is an inherent part of understanding justice at an international level - studying what the World Bank does and does not do. We cannot fight corruption if we fail to understand that God demands us to be fully aware of the moment in which we live, and that faith is about confronting a challenge. This is the nature of life on Earth. Maybe in the Hereafter, in Heaven, there will be no challenges, and one can live in comfort and happiness. But on this Earth, in this life, faith can never be a ticket to lethargy, indolence, laziness, ignorance, or stupidity. Faith can never be an excuse for the pretenses of piety without the substance of justice.
Yes, it is wonderful that there are people who want to study the isnads of Bukhari and Muslim. Yes, it is wonderful to be able to recite the difference between the authentication of Bukhari and the authentication of Muslim, and what Hadith Hassan Sahih means when used by Tirmidhi, and the differences between An-Nasa'i and Tirmidhi, and whether Abu Daud is reliable or not reliable. Yes, it is all very nice, but it is hardly enough. Living in the past is not meeting a challenge. Living in the past is escapism, indolence, and intellectual laziness. Islam can never be used as an excuse for this kind of immorality.
There is no question that among what we lost as Muslims, we lost our sense of the obvious. It is rather obvious that progress is the nature of human sociology; progress meaning moving forward, not necessarily for the better. And it is obvious that human life is constantly challenged, and that those who move ahead are those who meet the challenges of their time. And it is obvious that if you want success in a field, you want to attract the best minds to the field. All obvious, but again, part of what we lost as Muslims is the obvious.
Furthermore, our tradition has become plagued by affectations. Affectations are about optics, not meanings. Affectations are to sound like a Sunnah person, to sound or look like a Salafi person. But substantive things, like the nature of justice, or understanding corruption, or responding to corruption, cease to have meaning. As a result, we stopped making sense as Muslims. Consider just a few events that happened recently. After the war on Gaza, Jews all around the world mobilized to defend the criminality of Israel. Everyone knows that the West bank is occupied territory under international law; the West Bank was conquered in 1967, and so was the Gaza Strip and that both are occupied territory; and that under the Geneva Conventions, you cannot annex occupied territory. You cannot move people out of their homes. You cannot expel people from their homes. You cannot deny people living under occupation the right to defend themselves. Nevertheless, the United States moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is occupied territory - and the Biden administration has let the decision of the Trump administration stand.
Israelis often talk about Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza as if they have no special status under international law. After the recent war on Gaza, Israelis insisted on organizing something called the March of the Flags, where they raised Israeli flags and once again, violated the sanctity of Al-Haram Ash-Sharif and the Aqsa Mosque. During the course of this march, those who participated did what is very commonly done in many Israeli demonstrations. They chanted, "Death to Arabs," and they cussed the Prophet Muhammad. This is a regular practice among Israeli settlers, many of whom are Americans.
Imagine if this was a demonstration in which Arabs chanted, "Death to Jews," and cussed out Moses. The whole world resonates with condemnations of antisemitism, but yet again, when the very essence of obscenity is perpetuated against Muslims, the world is silent. No condemnations. No talk about Jewish fanaticism. No talk about extremism in Israel. No talk about political Judaism. No talk about the inherent problem of aggressive expansions Israel is perpetuating. None of that, because Israel is not cursed with rulers like Mohammed bin Salman or Sisi, who themselves are Islamophobes. Israel is not cursed with being ruled by self-hating Jews, like Muslim countries are cursed by self-hating Muslims.
Is this not an injustice? Is this not corruption on Earth? Our Prophet is cursed in the Aqsa Mosque, and the entire Muslim world, once again, is silent and oblivious. How many khutbahs have talked about this? How many Muslims did anything about this? We sit there and talk about Islamic issues, and the vast majority of what we talk about is unimportant and irrelevant; it makes no difference in the world. You can take 95% of Muslim conversations and throw them in the garbage can, and the world would not change one iota.
When a Muslim family in Ontario was run down by an Islamophobe - by someone who was weaned on the ideas of Robert Spencer, Daniel Pipes, and the like - a mother, father, daughter and grandmother were all killed by an Islamophobe. In 2017, another Islamophobe gunned down six people in a Quebec Mosque. If Muslims had their priorities straight, everyone would understand how Islamophobia is racism, and how the likes of Robert Spencer and Daniel Pipes solicit murder. Everyone would understand that when you support people like that by buying their books or listening to their lectures, you are participating in ugliness equal to being a Nazi or a fascist.
But that is not what Muslims have a clear sense of priority about. And because they see their religion not as demanding progress - and not as demanding that they recognize challenges and overcome them - they turn their religion into a drug, something like a tranquilizer or like morphine, that they inject themselves with to become dumb. That is the problem. Recognize that there is an enormous difference between them and those who see Islam as truly taking people out of darkness to light. To do that, you need intelligence. You need action. You need hard work. You need diligence. There is an immense difference between these people - those who do not even understand what darkness and light are, and instead are completely focused on stroking their own egos while using the Qur’an, God's revealed book, as an affirmation of all the weaknesses that they are - and those who instead, actively recognize, confront, and meet challenges.