Time and again, I return to the Qur’an, the most marvelous book, both in concept and practicality. God is in everything, in all creation, and we seek God in all creation through our imperfect senses. But the living word of God - the will and testament from the divine to human beings - is contained in the single book that, because it was the last message to humanity, remained uncorrupted and incorruptible. Earlier revelations contain the kernel of truth from divinity, but as I have alluded to many times in the past, human awareness regarding the role of texts and the role of history, as well as the human ability to preserve communication and speech, such as preserving text, took a long time to develop.
Humans did not go from cavemen to city dwellers overnight. It took them a long process of transformed consciousness. As their nervous system developed from one epoch to another, human beings eventually learned the importance of text and preserving text, as well as the processes by which to preserve text. This is precisely why earlier revelations were not preserved. So much corruption crept in because human consciousness was not yet at the stage in which human beings would be capable of maintaining an uncorrupted text. Not so with the Qur’an. By the time the Qur’an was revealed, humans at large, but particularly Muslims, understood what history meant, in part because the Qur’an taught them the importance of history. They understood what it meant to preserve a text, regardless of whether that text appeared to support their interests or to go against your interest at a particular time, in a particular moment in history.
Before the Qur’an, it was an unmistakable historical sociological tendency: whatever backed up your political and social interests you preserved, and whatever contravened these interests you simply changed and subverted. Human beings did not have the type of epistemological awareness that told them that doing this was wrong. Instead, they saw this as natural because they saw the sovereign, those who ruled over them, to be semi-divine. So, if the sovereign tells them, "This part of the text I do not like," they felt utterly justified in changing the text. By the time humans evolved and the Qur’an was revealed, the first notions of epistemological objectivity came to exist in human civilizations. For the first time, human beings were beginning to doubt the idea that rulers could be semi-divine.
It took several more centuries to get to the point of completely challenging the idea. But especially for Muslims and those that the Qur’an was revealed to, they had no divine chiefs of tribes. None of the people who led Mecca claimed to be divine or semi-divine. This is part of why God chose Arab culture at the time; unlike Byzantine culture, unlike Christian culture, and unlike Jewish culture at the time, rulers were not considered to be divine or semi-divine. And because that belief did not exist among Arabs, they played a critical role in preserving the Qur’an as an authentic text. Imagine that we live with God's speech - God’s actual words - in our midst. We do not always rise to the occasion of understanding what God is telling us, but nevertheless, it is there.
In my khutbahs, I often pick parts of God's speech to invite us all to reflect upon because when we listen carefully, we find truly startling revelations. In Surah Al-An'am, we learn that Islam, and your relationship with God, is meant to be nothing short of a transformation from death to life. But not just any kind of life; a luminous life, and luminosity is something that we intuitively relate to. We intuitively know that ignorance is not light. We intuitively know that knowledge is light. We intuitively know that cruelty and barbarity are not light, as we intuitively know that kindness and mercy are light. We intuitively know that injustice, inequity and exploitation are not light, as we intuitively know that justice, fairness and due process are light. In the same way that when we see a child crying from pain, we do not say we see light; we say we see the possibility of darkness, especially if this child is crying as a result of neglect or cruelty. But if we see a child laughing, happy or content, we say we see light.
God has encoded this intuitive, conscientious awareness into us. When God says that Islam brings people from death to life so that they can walk as if light is between their hands, God is not telling us something that is incomprehensible or something that needs an imam from Azhar or a shaykh from Dar al Fatwa or someone who works for some government. We do not need someone on the payroll of the Saudi, Emirati or Egyptian government to tell us what that means.
We need to only remember what we innately know, and then the next question becomes, do we reflect that kind of light? When we see a Muslim that claims to be pious and religious, that claims to have a relationship with the Qur’an, do we see this intuitive luminosity, mercy, justice and kindness? Do we see what brings people to God, and not what repels people away from God? This is precisely why God told us that when corruption happens, when the psyche of people is deformed to the point that they think that the scholars who study God's book need to be on the payroll of a despotic government; that we need to wait for them to tell us what the light of Islam is.
This is precisely why God warns us that corruption begins at the top. God is warning us about the type of rulers that put the scholars on their payroll; that tell the scholars who can appear on TV and who cannot, who can write and who cannot; that speak about the imperative of reforming Islam when everything about them is tyrannical, despotic, unjust, and ugly. Yes, sadly, the truth that we live in is that the shaykhs of Saudi Arabia, of the Emirates, of Egypt, of Syria, of any authoritarian, despotic governments are covered by the Quranic expression describing high criminals. Imagine, those who graduate from the seminaries in Syria and get their salaries from the governments of darkness in Syria, in Egypt, in Saudi Arabia, or in Yemen. They are not qualified to tell us anything about emerging from darkness to light.
Then God challenges us to something remarkable, intuitively beautiful, highly accessible: What impact does Islam have on me? When you think of being Muslim, do you feel peace and tranquility in your heart, or do you feel uptight, irritated, annoyed and anxious? Does Islam feel like it liberates your soul, comforts your mind, and gives you a sense of dignity and stability - a sense that your feet are planted on firm grounds? A sense of breathing deeply and saying, "I am free?" Or does Islam makes you feel like you are suffocating, like you cannot breathe, like it is a struggle to make all of this make sense? If it is the second, then it is not Islam and something is really wrong. If it is the first, then you have precisely realized what a relationship with God means.
The Qur’an challenges us to reflect. If only we would take God's word seriously and liberate it from the hegemony of the servants of tyranny and despotism. A scholar that works for a tyrant or a despot is an agent of the devil, they are no longer a scholar. The very prerequisite of scholarship is that independence of the intellect and the conscience. if you cannot find that type of independence in those that you call scholars, then they are not scholars. It is as simple as that. It does not take a great philosopher to bring awareness, it simply takes someone who points out the obvious.
Look again in Surah Al-An'am, when God gives us that parable of Abraham as he debates his people about their lifestyle, as opposed to what Abraham believes in. Then he asks his people the question that echoes into the centuries, challenging everyone who believes in God forever: Which of us is more entitled to amn (safety and security)? Elsewhere, when God reminds the Quraysh in Mecca that God has given them a great blessing, God reminds them of two main blessings: that God has prevented them from being poor and hungry, and that God has given them amn - safety and security.
When Abraham asked this question, it brought pause. So many talented, accomplished people leave their Muslim homelands, not unlike me or you, to live and work in the United States, in Europe, or in whatever country will accommodate them. Is it money? In part. But more than money, it is precisely this amn - that there are rules, there is a system, there is something that creates predictability and fairness, something that will give them a fair opportunity. Something that says: if you work hard, you will get the results that you deserve; that says: If you live in these adopted countries, your dignity will be honored, you will not be humiliated, you will not be degraded, you do not have to be terrified anytime you see a cop or the police. You have fair assurances that no one is going to come banging at your door at night to make you disappear. You do not have to worry if your children spend too much time in the mosque, that they will be suspected of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood or some other organization. You are basically going to live in amn.
Why did I leave Egypt and decide to pursue a career in the United States? One word: amn. Egypt scared me because if I was to speak my mind and write my mind and be who I am, I am scared of the consequences. Comparatively, I know that in the United States, I have a far greater degree of liberty and I can count on procedures and processes of fairness and justice. So what is the response to Abraham as modern Muslims?
Abraham is asking his people, "Which of us is more entitled to amn (safety and security)?" And what is our response to Abraham in our modern day? Amn belongs in the lands of non-Muslims. Amn does not exist in the land of Muslims. What does that say? What do you tell God? If we give an honest response to the question that Abraham asked his people centuries ago, and the response is, "Sorry, Abraham. It is non-Muslims who excelled in achieving amn - but Muslims did excel in tyranny, despotism and injustice." There are theological talking heads, including in the United States, that philosophize and justify injustice, tyranny and despotism. If this continues, then Islam is dead and God's book is dead, and we are effectively dead. The sooner we wake up to this, perhaps the sooner we can change all of this.