Around one year ago, I started Project Illumine in which I offer a commentary of the Qur’an, focusing on the role and core message of each Qur’anic chapter, particularly the ways in which each chapter was understood by the original recipients of the Qur’an. The last chapter we dealt with was Surah Al-A’raf (Q7), which is Meccan and one of the longest chapters of the Qur’an. I typically spend five to six hours on each chapter, sometimes more. What always strikes me is how much more could be said and how much must be left unsaid due to the constraints of time and the necessity of moving forward. We talked about A’raf for six hours. As with every chapter of the Quran, however, what you touch upon is just the surface. Within the Qur’an are folds of meaning all tucked within one another. You peel away one to deal with a deeper level. You peel the deeper level to deal with yet another deeper level in an endless array of meanings and enlightenment.
Like all books, however, the Qur’an interacts with its audience. The message of the Qur’an depends upon the ability of the reader to receive the message. For all books, regardless of how brilliant the message or how eloquent the language, the quality of the audience is an essential component in the chemical reaction that takes place to produce meaning. If the reader is seriously flawed, inattentive, or negligent, for example, the equation to produce meaning is deeply affected and becomes reactive to the vulnerabilities and shortcomings of the reader. The same applies if the reader imposes their own epistemological framework upon the text.
The Qur’an is a book of virtual limitless meaning. It can lend the most enlightening insights into the human condition, origin, and fate. It can illuminate the past, present and future. But it needs readers of high intellectual caliber and of pure heart and intention. Like everything else that is worthwhile, the Qur’an needs deliberation, insistence, and persistence. The Quran is a text that, by its nature, does not function like fast food. By its nature, it is rich meal that can only be truly appreciated and valued by those who have done the work of developing their sense of taste and comprehension. While we have devoted several hours to A’raf, I will return in this khutbah to certain verses in the chapter to elaborate certain points and to illustrate the issue of the reader; the role of the person who engages the Qur’an, and what he or she brings to the dynamics of the text itself.
In A’raf, God addresses all human beings with a message that requires pause and reflection:
O Children of Adam! We have indeed sent down upon you raiment to cover your nakedness, and rich adornment. But the raiment of taqwa, that is better. This is among the signs of God, that haply they may remember. [Q7:26]
One of the blessings and gifts of God is not only the raw material but also the ‘know-how’ that enables us to do something that we do all the time without much thought, that is, cover our bodies. God gifted us material that can be processed and manufactured. God gifted us the ability to process this material to wear clothes. As soon as God says this, however, God notes, “But the raiment of taqwa, that is better” (Q7:26). As you think of the material covering your body, always remember that the taqwa you wear is far more important. Taqwa is not simply ‘fear of God’ or ‘reverence’. In this context, it means moral probity. It means to be keenly aware of the difference between optics and reality. It is to know there is an external shell and an inner reality. God addresses us while fully away of our tendency as human beings to think that if something is covered up, the problem is solved. God knows our tendency to deal with reality as if what cannot be seen or heard does not exist.
It is a remarkable way of alerting our attention to something of a paradox. Yes, the material that we cleverly process and use to cover our body is a gift. But we must pay careful attention to the dynamic that physical appearance can often obscure reality. We must be painfully conscious of the fact that regardless of what we wear externally, what is inside is far more important. In one simple verse, God alerts us to a point of order and to the principle that we should reflect upon our lives. If the optics of a thing matter far more than the substance, there is a problem. If we tend to define moral worth according to external appearances, there is a problem. If, as individuals, we are obsessed with how we present ourselves to the world - in other words, obsessed with what people think of us rather than the true core of our spirit – there is a problem. God could not have put it clearer in just one simple sentence: Don't ever forget that even something as simple as the raw material that you manufacture to cover your body would not have been possible but for God.
God then takes us to another point. God tells us to reflect upon how we arrived at the dichotomy between optics and reality in the first place.
O Children of Adam! Let not Satan tempt you, as he caused your parents to go forth from the Garden, stripping them of their raiment to show them their nakedness. Surely he sees you—he and his tribe—whence you see them not. We have indeed made the satans the friends of those who do not believe. [Q7:27]
In the allegory of creation, Satan got Adam and Eve to exercise a choice. God created Adam and Eve with the ability to make moral choices. After creation, however, there was no occasion to exercise this ability. Adam and Eve only knew that in which every baby finds itself; namely, an innate pretemporal intuitive sense of wellbeing and goodness. As pure as the smile of a baby. No choices had been exercised. Human beings had been created in light and remained in light. Then came the point in which Adam and Eve, for the first time, exercised a moral choice. Satan got them to reflect upon eating from a tree. This is like the first time a baby, at some point in their development, makes a choice for itself. For the very first time, that choice may take the baby away from God or closer to God.
One could of course say, “The baby is not accountable," but that is not the point. The point is the nature of the choice made. The point, to put it simply, is that we were created with the ability to choose good and bad. We were created in a state of goodness, and we remain in a state of goodness and purity until we first exercise a choice that pleases demons. Imagine that your choices as a human being please either God or demons. If it pleases God, it is a choice towards God. If it pleases demons, it is a choice towards the demonic. Very few things in existence are neutral. All choices function like a butterfly effect; they either resonate towards the godly or the demonic. If you had absolute impeccable and infallible wisdom, you would be able to see each choice for what it is. As human beings and our abilities are limited, however, we see only a small part of our choices. Once Adam and Eve made the choice, they engaged the dynamics of evil and good, darkness and light.
Notice that God says:
Let not Satan tempt you, as he caused your parents to go forth from the Garden, stripping them of their raiment to show them their nakedness. Surely he sees you—he and his tribe—whence you see them not… [Q7:27]
Satan caused Adam and Eve to exercise a choice that took them out of heaven and stripped them of their cover, exposing their “nakedness”. This refers to private parts or anything that causes embarrassment. But at this point one must pause and think: Adam and Eve were created naked. They were naked in heaven. In fact, the Qur’an itself tells us that only after exercising the wrong choice did they become aware of their nakedness. At that point, they covered their bodies. How, then, could God say that He stripped them of their clothes, and that when they exercised the choice, they started to cover? For they were already naked.
Read the Qur’an too fast and you fail to notice things like this. But when God speaks, He speaks specifically, intentionally, and purposefully. God is not simply talking about clothing. If you think He is, you will not understand. You will think the verses do not make sense. But at this point we start to realize that the true cover for a believer is taqwa, and taqwa is far more important than optics. What Satan did, then, when he invited Adam and Eve to remove their covers, is get them to engage the possibility of the obscene through relinquishing the choice of goodness. We now see clearly how the Qur’an cares far more about how the state of the soul, how it is internally constructed, than physical appearance. We now understand that while God created Adam and Eve in purity, their exercising of choice engaged the possibility of the impure and corrupt.
In the same verse, God goes so far as to warn us that Satan and the demonic see us from where we do not see them. This could mean that demons observe us. Yet we should reflect on it further. Like the entire unseen realm of jinn and angels, Satan and the demonic see the truth of who we are. They are not fooled by optics. The fact that you can wear a dress like a Shaykh does not convince Satan that you are a Shaykh. The fact you can dress like a king does not mean Satan respects you. Learn to see the truth of things. For even Satan – not just God - can see the truth of things. And if you are inside of yourself, you are a Satan, regardless of what you wear and your external appearance.
What does God say next? “We have indeed made the satans the friends of those who do not believe.” [Q7:27] If, inside of yourself, you are a Satan, you should know that God has created law in this universe: light attracts. Your Satanic energy will attract “satans” or demons that will become your “friends” and allies. Any Muslim who understands this and reflects upon it will never care to spend more than a few seconds worrying about their external appearance. They will become fully engaged with the imperative of the internal reality. Note too that nothing attracts the demonic like hypocrisy. If you wear the best garments to communicate status, belief or nature, whether explicitly or subtly, you should be on high alert. For if the external expression is inconsistent with the internal truth, you have created a state of hypocrisy. And hypocrisy is a natural playing field for the demonic.
There is a further point. God immediately warns us of those who commit obscenities. We see this in the next verse:
When they commit an obscenity, they say, “We found our fathers practicing it, and God has commanded us thus.” Say, “Truly God commands not indecency. Do you say of God that which you know not?” [Q7:28]
“We found our fathers practicing it” means, in practical terms, “Well, everyone does it.” This verse requires that Muslims first understand that “obscenities” (fahisha, pl. fawahish) are known by nature. This means there is in natural law and that obscenities are encoded in natural law itself. It means that from an Islamic perspective, what are considered ‘obscenities’ on earth ought to be discoverable by intuition and reason. It means that Muslims should be at the forefront of articulating what they are. But the verse also shows that we often lose sight of our innate knowledge of obscenities through social pressure and flawed cultural constructions. Culture makes human beings ignore and normalize all types of wrongs, all types of acts that take them to the demonic rather than the Divine. For we tell ourselves, “These acts are habitual”. Bu habitual is not moral. Simply because something is habitual, it does not mean it is moral.
God forces us to reflect upon the difference between the superficial and external, on the one hand, and true reality, on the other. God tells us that reflecting upon this difference between external and internal determines nothing less than whether we are on the side of the Divine or the demonic. God then says that social pressure, habit, and custom do not excuse immorality. God puts the onus upon us to understand what is moral and to reflect upon, articulate, and teach morality. Isn’t this the Straight Path (Q1:6)? Isn't this a way of life? A way of life does not comprise laws that were written in medieval handbooks one thousand years ago. Such handbooks can be consulted and used to study history, human interpretation, and examples of human effort. But we are never off the hook; We must strive to understand in every moment in which we exist the difference between the superficial and the real, morality and immorality, the ethical and the unethical, what brings us closer to God and what brings us closer to the demonic.
I know what I say is unpopular. Believe me, however, that there are no quick fixes. No beard, hijab, dress, prayer bead or prayer rug - in short, nothing that is optical - will lead you to comprehend the difference between the obscene and the virtuous. You cannot understand the difference between obscenity and virtue without moral probity and ethical consciousness. And moral probity and ethical consciousness come from education, cleansing, discipline, hard work, perseverance, and intelligence. There are no shortcuts.
We Muslims went astray when we stopped understanding the Qur’an. We read the Quran, but it is as if we no longer have ears with which to hear, eyes with which to see, or hearts with which to feel. We read the Qur’an, but it does not penetrate. We Muslims lost our way when we started thinking there are shortcuts to realizing the godly and avoiding the demonic. Every single choice we make on every issue in life, big or small, such as who to speak to, what to eat, what to drink, what to wear, where to walk, where to sit, by its nature, either implicates the godly or engages the demonic. A wise person would understand that we need to understand the Qur’an. But we also need to read history with moral probity, moral consciousness, and an exacting and demanding ethical awareness.
I want to mention a small snippet from the life of the Prophet that would allow us to be in harmony with the Qur’an, if only we could understand. We all know of the companion of the Prophet, Salman al-Farsi. Salman came from a noble family in Persia. But Salman was troubled since his childhood. He saw the privileges his family enjoyed. He saw the fancy clothes, the comfortable furniture, and the luxuries. But he also noticed, once he stepped outside his home, the misery and injustice that existed on the streets. When he started to question and discuss this with his family, they referred him to the clergy of the temple. He went to the clergy and found that they defended these injustices and inequities as natural, telling him that he is from a superior class that is, by the nature of things, entitled to superior things. Salman lost his faith in the religion of his family and embarked on a plan to travel in search of the Truth. Salman first studied and then briefly embraced Christianity. Yet he soon noticed that the priestly class were corrupt, collecting charity from the poor only to enjoy the pleasures of life at their expense. He left Christianity and continued to travel, only to eventually be captured by highway robbers who sold Salman into slavery. Salman became a slave. He could, at this point, have become clinically depressed. He could have said, "Look at how I ended up. I used to be a noble man from Persia. God, I searched for you, and this is what You do to me? You turned me into a lonely slave working in the fields?" Salman could have looked for a psychiatrist to prescribe Prozac or give him tranquilizers. He could have taken drugs to relieve the stresses and pressures of life. But he did not. Salman continued, even as a slave, to search for the Truth. He went on to study Judaism because his owner was a Jew.
Ultimately, Salman did not approve of the idea of Jews as the ‘chosen people’. He saw in this an unwarranted and immoral ethnic bias and privilege. This continued until God brought the Prophet to Salman. Salman said that when he met the prophet, he realized that he had met the ethical paradigm and example for which he had been looking all his life. He fell in love with the Prophet and the message of Islam, which, unlike so many modern Muslims, Salman knew to be exactly the opposite of the message of the priestly classes in Persia and Christianity and the privileged rabbinic class in Judaism. When the Prophet migrated to Medina, Salman converted to Islam as a slave. He knew this would make his Jewish owner unhappy. He knew his Jewish owner would make his life miserable. But this was the nature of the man; Salman announced that he is now a Muslim, whatever the consequences.
When the Prophet arrived in Medina, he told Salman to talk to his owner about purchasing his freedom. Salman’s owner promised to grant him freedom if Salman planted three hundred palm trees, stipulating that they must be healthy, productive palm trees. The owner added that Salman must also pay him a large sum. The Prophet learned of the demands of the owner. Did the Prophet say, "It is a shame, but we have bigger problems; we have just migrated to Medina and lost all our money and possessions”? Did the Prophet say, "I have relatives who far more important”? Did the Prophet say, "He is a Persian and we do not know about these people"? No. What were the ethics of these Muslims? The Prophet drew on the community to pay Salman's ransom. Muslims donated whatever palm trees they could. One would donate one palm tree, another person would donate two, another person would donate three, and yet another would donate ten. They would donate baby palm trees in sacks. But they did not stop there. Muslims would donate the palm tree and plant it in the land of the Jewish owner, ensuring that it was healthy and productive. The Muslim community as a whole paid Salman's ransom of three hundred healthy palm trees. The Prophet then gave Salman the money to give to the Jewish owner. This is how Salman became a free man.
From the moment that Salman was freed to the time of his death, he says, he never heard a single Muslim say, “We paid for your freedom.” The Prophet never made him feel as if Salman owed him a dime. Not only this, but when the Prophet heard that an Arab had an argument with Salman and chided or shamed him for being a Persian, the Prophet became upset, his face became red, and he said, "O People, your God is one and your father is one. Arabic is not your mother or father. Whoever speaks Arabic is an Arab. Indeed, Salman is to be considered from among us, the family of the Prophet.” A greater vindication of ethnic equality is not possible. I submit to you that the Prophet and his students knew this not because of any law book, but because of an innate understanding of the nature of an ‘obscenity’. Racism is an obscenity. Ethnocentrism is an obscenity. Injustice is an obscenity. Slavery is an obscenity. Leaving a Muslim brother in a condition of slavery is an obscenity. It was this innate understanding of morality, ethics, goodness, purity and white. It was an innate understanding of what takes you towards God and what throws you towards the demonic. It was, in short, an innate understanding of the Qur’an.
May we someday attain this level of innate, ethical understanding.