"Measuring One's Moral Illness: The Devil is in the Details"

In Surah Al-Hajj [verse 41], God tells us about the concept of tamkeen [empowerment]. Those, who when empowered, possess autonomy, self-determination, the ability to direct their own affairs. God does not tell us to what extent, but the context seems to be quite clear that if you are enabled with any amount of power, any degree of self-determination, any degree of autonomy, any extent to which you are able to decide upon your own affairs and determine your own direction in life, God lays it bare that the remembrance of God; salat (prayer) - being in a vigilant state of prayer and a vigilant state of remembrance - is critical.



Right after salat comes your willingness to sacrifice material things. Zakat is whatever you spend to purify yourself and purify your material possessions. The very concept of zakat is that which is given to purify. So there is prayer, remembrance, and giving. Then we come to the third: al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar. A continuous action, a vigilant stand in which one advocates, pursues systematically, and consistently is in a state of pursuit of what is good and a state of resistance of what is evil.


God did not say, "Those who, when empowered, established justice." Because people often claim to have achieved justice, but fail to do so. What is more critical as a social project, as a political engagement, as a philosophy of life is the vigilant pursuit of goodness, which encompasses the pursuit of what is just, because justice is good. But there is no point of perfect achievement. The pursuit of goodness and al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar, by the terms of the very expression, has no end point.


There is no point in which you could say, "We are done. We have enjoyed the good and resisted what is evil. We achieved it, and we are done." It is a state of vigilance. It is a dynamic. It is a process. But it is also a dynamic and a process that is impossible unless one is able to identify what is good and identify what is bad. It is premised on, first, the dynamic of recognition. You must first recognize what is good and recognize what is not good, and then be in a vigilant state of pursuit.


There are things that, by their inherent nature, are primordial, timeless, and good. Justice is always good. Compassion is always good. Truth is always good. Kindness is always good. But wherever these absolute primordial “goods” exist, the devil is always in the details. The devil is always in the details. The problem is not that human beings fail to understand that justice is good, that kindness is good, that truth is good, or that compassion is good. The problem is that when human beings are presented with the evolving context and contingencies of their life, or with a particular set of facts and realities, in context, they may fail to faithfully pursue what they know, in truth, is good. In other words, what the very concept of [Arabic 00:18:42] entails. Ma’ruf is what is recognized to be good; ma ‘urifa annahu hasan, what is known in context to be good.


In other words, the challenge is that we human beings, while capable of upholding abstractions as ideals, we often undermine these very abstractions and ideals in application because when presented with a specific reality, we fail to pursue the ideal. This is precisely why God tells you that what matters is that you organize yourself, you create systems in which you are invested in the pursuit of the truth - in the process itself - so that you never surrender to the fallacy, to the belief that you have achieved goodness and that you are done.


At the end of Surah Al-Hajj, God points our attention to the process of witnessing, as if to remind us that goodness, al ma’ruf, and munkar, the opposite of goodness, is always a matter of context. In other words, it evolves, mutates, and changes. When God tells us that the very purpose of tamkeen is for us to be shahadat al-nas, and the Prophet would be shahid alayna; that we bear witness for God vis-a-vis humanity, while the Prophet bears witness for God upon us as Muslims.


But how can you bear witness upon humanity unless you understand the details of the dynamic of human, social, and political evolution? It is not a matter of abstraction. It is a matter of vigilance in the pursuit of the thing. Systems are like cars, it is a structure that is enabled by the human being and driven to achieve certain results. But how can you create a system unless, first, those who create the system and those who participate in the system have achieved a certain cognitive realization and cognitive consciousness. Put simply, regardless of how good your system is, if the people that create, run the system and are involved in the system cognitively have no understanding of the particulars of justice, it is doomed to fail, regardless of how good the system's design is.


Regardless of how good your car is, if it is driven by a bad driver, the results are not good. Cognitively, in order to create an ummah that can bear witness, those who constitute the ummah and the systems of the ummah must themselves be of a certain degree of moral and ethical maturity, because cognition is everything. Take, for example, something that is in the heart of our lived reality. 


We have spoken at length about the sacredness of the space in Mecca. We have spoken at length about how God taught us that when it comes to Mecca, that space is bound by special rules that are supposed to demonstrate and uphold the divine ideal. So many lectures and books have been written and can be written about the reality that Mecca is in unclean hands. The hands that control Mecca are impure, filthy hands; hands that have been implicated in numerous injustices and numerous corruptions of the sacred space.


Yet so many Muslims, when you come to the cognition, regardless of how much they believe or they say they believe in [Arabic 00:28:24], will get worked up about whether a certain book of hadith is authentic or inauthentic far more than they will get worked up about anything that happens in Mecca. They will get worked up about whether a woman is wearing hijab or not far more than they will get worked up about anything that is happening in Mecca.


What is the worth of these absolute ideals to a psyche that is cognitively skewed, cognitively corrupted, unable to balance between priorities? The same hands that control Mecca are involved in what is now a well-known story about the Saudi student, Salma al-Shehab. Salma al-Shehab is doing a doctorate in medicine at the University of Leeds. She is in her final year, is married and has two children. She goes back to Saudi Arabia on her break, expecting to return to the University of Leeds to finish her studies.


But once in Saudi Arabia, she was arrested because she retweeted certain posts on Twitter about Saudi dissidents. These retweets were considered an act of terrorism and Salma al-Shehab was tried in Saudi Arabia as a terrorist. The charges included disrupting the public peace and spreading false information. As I am sure many of you know, she was sentenced to 34 years in prison and 34 years probation afterwards. So she cannot leave Saudi Arabia for another 34 years after serving her 34 years.


Essentially, Salma al-Shehab's life is over simply because she retweeted certain things. Salma al-Shehab is Shi'a. Did this play a role in the egregious sentence that Salma al-Shehab received? Anyone that knows anything about the human rights practices in Saudi Arabia would very strongly suspect that it did play a role because, for the Saudi government, Shi'ites are basically not even human beings. Another Muslim life, the life of a Muslim woman in this case, is destroyed.


You will find plenty of Muslims who will still defend the government of Saudi Arabia, who will say, "Well, why did she retweet messages about Saudi dissidents?” “If you clash with power, do not whine and complain about what happens to you.” “If she wanted to finish her education, she should have steered away from all political matters.” “Yes, it might be harsh, but look at all the great things that MBS is doing otherwise.” “Yes, the life of another female Shi'ite person has been destroyed among the thousands of Shi'a that have been persecuted, executed, thrown in prison or tortured; but look at all the other things MBS does. He allows women to drive cars!"


Do these people sincerely believe that they are witnessing a social and political order that does what God has commanded us to do, to bear witness for al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar? Sure, their belief could be sincere. Those individuals could sincerely believe that al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar does not preclude the Saudi government from doing what it did to this Shi'a woman. The problem is in the ethical, intuitive virtue; in the cognition of the individual. 


A moral person. The ability to be ethically within the context of our historical moment teaches us that people should not go to prison because they retweet messages, regardless of what these messages are. Our historical moment tells us that it is uncivilized and barbaric, leave alone demonic, to destroy the life of a mother because she cares about what is happening to other persecuted individuals in her country. That is why God says, "Bear witness," God embeds us in the context.


If in your historical moment, you witness this and you say, "I do not see a problem”; if in your historical moment you witness this and you say, "I do not see an inconsistency between Saudi Arabia being the custodian of the two holy sites and what Saudi Arabia does to the Shi'a minority,” then you are ill. You might not realize it, but you are actually morally sick. If you look at this situation and you say, "I do not see an inconsistency between the destruction of the life of this poor woman, Shi'a or not, and Saudi Arabia being the custodian of the two holy sites," again, you are morally sick.


There is no way for God to reach you through al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar because the very machinery of your cognitive ability has been infected by the demonic and you are no longer capable of just judgment. For cognition to be steeped in virtue, virtue is not about absolutes that do not translate on the ground. Virtue is about achieving just results within context. When you look around the world and you see anyone that understands anything about human rights, point to a situation like the one we observe with Salma al-Shehab and say, "This is repulsive. This is disgusting. This is morally unacceptable."


If you are an honest witness, you will check your cognitive processes and carefully consider the fact that so many reasonable people in your universe are offended by what is offensive. If you ignore all of that and go on your merry way, then you have failed to understand God's command and God's teachings about al tamkin fi al-ard, al-amr bi'l ma'ruf, and bearing witness.




Moral cognition and moral perceptions, unfortunately, can be so easily manipulated, skewed and deformed. Conscientious moral judgment is truly as God describes it in Surah Al-Hajj - a true state of jihad; a true state of perseverance; insight, hard work and learning. Let me give you a very different example.


Recently, a man—whether he is demented, disturbed, crazy, fanatic, I do not know—stabbed author Salman Rushdie. Of course, because Salman Rushdie was stabbed by this man, immediately the issue of the fatwa that was issued against Salman Rushdie decades ago, calling for his death because of his novel, “The Satanic Verses,” came back to life. Again, I do not know anything about the attacker. I do not know if he was influenced at all by the book, if he had a personal vendetta or he might have been just a demented human being. But what caught my attention is some Muslims’ reactions, especially a comment by one Muslim who said, "With all the stuff that Muslims talk about, about al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar, there is then the hypocrisy of us stabbing this man."


What caught my attention was the amount of young Muslims, most of them perceiving themselves as intellectuals of some sort; graduate students who are working on their doctorates in sociology, history, anthropology, Islamic studies or Near Eastern studies, who perceive themselves as the intelligentsia. What they were engaging in was self-flagellating narratives about how this stabbing proves that Muslims—the ummah, their own people—are incapable of understanding basic decency and basic concepts about freedom of speech, and that this proves why democracy, rights, and liberty would never work in the Muslim world.


It just so happened that minutes before reading this miserable commentary by these miserable pseudo-intellectual Muslim professors of tomorrow, I had just read a news item about Israeli forces shooting yet another Palestinian in East Jerusalem, a 21-year-old who was shot point blank in the head and killed with no explanation. The family says he was a student not involved with anything and, as usual, no one cares. No one stops. No one pauses.


Just before fatally shooting that Palestinian point blank, Israel had stormed, searched, and closed down six human rights Palestinian organizations, like the organization known as Al-Haq, for instance. All these are respectable human rights organizations that trace and document human rights abuses committed by Israeli authorities and by the Palestinian authority in the West Bank. Israel, as part of a long ongoing legal battle, has used its exceptional military order laws to shut down all six organizations, claiming that they are terrorist organizations despite the fact that all they do is witness and testify. I scoured Israeli media afterwards and only found one article in Haaretz that was mildly critical of what Israel has done.


The article basically said, "These organizations have a long record of human rights work. We should be more careful before we just call everyone a terrorist and close them down." Otherwise, Israeli society saw no endemic ailments in the consciousness of the collective Israelites or in Jewish culture and tradition, even when it is institutions that commit the murder and close down these human rights organizations.


Put differently, if that society had the same type of disease that the Muslim intelligentsia has, they would have looked at the fact that Israel closed down six human rights organizations as evidence that the Jewish tradition is fundamentally flawed, despotic and authoritarian, and that the Jewish tradition does not have the ability to understand human rights work. It is not about the Jewish tradition, as it is not about the Islamic tradition. It is about justice in context, justice in the historical moment as you live it. It is about your ability to bear witness in fairness and in balance. It is about your ability to condemn the stabbing of Salman Rushdie as a criminal, disgusting act without slandering the entire Muslim tradition or Muslims in general.


It is about your ability to condemn Israeli authoritarianism, Israeli despotism, and Israeli racism without slandering the entire Jewish tradition. It is not about those who think that bearing witness is ultimately rendering testimony that further empowers the already powerful, but it is about bearing witness in support of the truth even when the cost of that testimony is to threaten the powerful. That is the hardest thing.


To stand by Salma al-Shehab, even when you know that doing so will anger Saudi authorities; to bear witness as to what the sacred space in Mecca deserves, even when you know the cost that puts you in direct confrontation with those who are powerful; to bear witness about Israeli colonialism, racism and injustice, even when it pits you against the powerful organizations that support Israel, right or wrong, that is what al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar is all about.


It is not about petty things. It is not about things that cost nothing. Testimony that does not cost the witness is hardly worth testifying to. Testimony really matters when it really costs to witness truthfully and honestly. I will give one final example, an example of how skewed cognition and moral insight can become. We recently passed the ninth anniversary of the massacre committed by the military in Egypt, in which in the course of a couple of days, 3,200 unarmed civilians were massacred in Rabaa by the Egyptian military, and that is a low estimate.


Despite the fact that the massacre was well-documented by numerous cameras, that 3,200 people were slaughtered and many of the bodies burned or thrown in the Nile, the people responsible for this massacre, including the president of Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, live with complete impunity. They visit the West. Treated as a great leader. Trump even praised Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, calling him a killer and his favorite dictator.


Biden did not impose any type of accountability upon el-Sisi and his government. El-Sisi and his people, although having massacred over 3,000 people, can continue to travel around the world and be treated as VIPs.  This, at the same time that these same governments, who give the red carpet treatment to el-Sisi, continue to spew rhetoric about how they believe in human rights and how Muslims have a democracy deficiency.


But what is especially troubling is that we find tons of Egyptians who say they believe in God, who pray, who fast Ramadan, who go to Hajj, who will do all of these things, but are amazingly, blissfully, not bothered by the massacre of over 3,000 Egyptians documented by numerous cameras. You could go on YouTube and watch the massacre, yet we find tons of Egyptians who are regular mosque goers and are blissfully not troubled by it at all.


When you say anything to them, they have one response: "Well, they were Muslim Brotherhood," as if God has said, "Honor life, unless it is the life of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood." I am sure, as most of you know, this is the reason I was banned from the Islamic Center of Southern California. You have an entire Islamic center with tons of people who claim that all they do is work for Islam in America, but who do not believe that part of their al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar - part of their obligation to bear witness or shahadah is to condemn in any way the massacre of over 3,000 people - many of them were children and women, and the near 100,000 political prisoners in Egyptian prisons being tortured.


Many of these people I know personally. They truly believe they are pious. They do their prayers. They fast. They even do adhkar (sing. dhikr). They even pray extra prayers, sunna, but they see nothing morally wrong in the Egyptian government massacring over 3,000 unarmed people. Though even if they were unarmed, a lot of times, they will tell you, "Oh, the Muslim Brotherhood, there was one or two guns discovered in the massacre." Those who have a moral illness that makes them impenetrable to the message of the Qur'an, when you tell them that, "Your prayer is not accepted, your fasting is invalid because you are an unjust human being who has failed in the main charge and task of al-amr bi'l ma'ruf wa al-nahy 'ann al-munkar, you bear witness for the devil, not for God." When you tell them that, they have no means of comprehending what you are talking about.


Just like the Israelis who can continue murdering Palestinians and think they are hardly murdering human beings, or can shut down human rights organizations and still say, "We have the only democracy in the Middle East." Just like the Saudis, who can see a student jailed for 34 years for retweeting messages and see no inconsistency between this and being a custodian of the sacred space of Mecca. Moral illness is moral illness. It is like a satanic virus.


It blinds people to justice in context, justice in application. While these people can understand justice in the absolute and even praise it in the absolute, they are too blinded by power, by privilege, by advantage. They are, in fact, the party of Satan, not the party of God. God, forgive our sins. Guide us to the straight path. Guide us so that we can be honest and truthful Muslims bearing witness on your behalf for justice, for ma’ruf against munkar.

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