I am always struck by the obligation that all of us, as Muslims, are keenly aware of. It is the duty to bear witness. At the same time, I am always struck by the testimony that comes from this podium, week after week. What is the role of witnessing? What is the function of witnessing amid counter movements that are so massive, so overwhelming that you fear that all lonely voices will be submerged and overcome? Yet, in the same way that God created human beings and coded in their physical makeup the inevitability of breathing; in the same way that God has commanded human beings not to prevent themselves from breathing—in other words, not to kill themselves; what we often overlook is that witnessing, which is a product of freedom and liberty, is as coded into our DNA as breathing.
Regardless of the consequences, regardless of the movement of history, regardless of how we assess the positives, the negatives, and the balance of practicalities, the reality is that the act of witnessing, in its essence, is to document what we perceive to be the truth. It is to articulate our perception of truth. And this is as natural and as physiologically necessary as the very act of breathing.
Watch the birds in the trees. They testify and witness throughout their existence. They witness through what is instinctively coded in them. Imagine if we could come to these birds and say, "I will prevent you from witnessing. I will prevent you from acting upon the instinct that God has coded within you." Imagine silencing the birds. Animals naturally witness and testify. How often I watch my dogs acting upon instinct. If a stranger comes close to the home, their act of witnessing is to bark and to make a ruckus. If they are anxious, they testify. If they are scared, they testify. If they are hungry, they testify. If they are happy, they testify. They are constantly testifying according to the instinct that God has coded within them.
I often imagine what it means if we were to come to these animals and attempt to mute them, to silence their testimony and act against their instinct. God repeatedly commands us, time and again, to look at creation and reflect. It is not so we can look and say, “Subhanallah” and move on. It is to learn some of the most basic lessons for what it means to be a created thing. For what it means to be a creature of God.
All creation teaches us that it testifies according to what God has instinctively placed within them. Jinn are a different matter. On the physical plane of things, only human beings were given the power to act against instinct and negate what God has coded in them. A newborn baby testifies from the minute they come into this earth. Their crying, their laughter, their baby sounds, all of that is testimony. All of that is witnessing. It is as natural and as necessary as the khutbah on this podium today. It is what God has coded in human instinct. If a baby is hungry and testifies by crying, and instead of feeding the baby, you attempt to silence the baby, then you have acted against that instinct.
It is remarkable how often human beings are driven by the impulse to regulate and control what they have no right to regulate and control. Yes, perhaps maybe we do not silence the birds, the dogs, or the lions.. Maybe we do not silence the babies. Perhaps we even recognize that to attempt to silence the babies is abuse. Most certainly, however, we learn to silence the full grown adult. We learn to tell people, “Do not testify. Do not witness. Do not support the truth in your words. Learn to censor yourself. Learn to silence yourself.” What is truly obscene is when we do that in the name of protecting God's religion and God's message. When we act against God's coded instinct in creation, in the name of defending God.
I often go back and reflect upon how idiosyncratic, how eccentric, and how much of an outlier the khutbahs that are articulated on this podium are, week after week. I think about so much of what goes on in our lives, so much of what plagues and affects Muslims, every single day of our lives.
Muslims once understood what it means to carry the covenant, which is the burden and obligation of bearing witness on behalf of God. Muslims once learned this from their faith. When Muslims entered Persia, they encountered libraries that preserved the wisdom of the ancients. They could have done what the Byzantines did in Egypt. The Byzantines, having occupied Egypt for a long time, encountered the knowledge of the ancients in the Library of Alexandria, and they burned that library to the ground because the church did not see the utility in this massive library, with its massive stocks. They did not see it as relevant to testifying for or on behalf of God. After all, what was preserved in this library was the knowledge of people who never knew Jesus Christ, who would never recognize Jesus Christ, and would never accept being saved by Jesus Christ. It was a straightforward matter. Western historians have gone to considerable lengths to obfuscate the issue of the responsibility as to who destroyed the Library of Alexandria, which was once the knowledge center of the world.
It is clear that Muslims encountered libraries of a massive scale in Persia. The Persians watched the Byzantines pursue ancient knowledge and destroy it. To the credit of the Persian Empire, the Persians collected, protected, and saved the texts of the ancients. If the Muslims who came in contact with these libraries were like the Muslims of today, who are not clear about what it means to testify for God or on behalf of God, then, even if they did not destroy these libraries, they would have done what Muslims of today are so adept at doing. They would have simply ignored the libraries, allowing them to collect dust and wither away without funds, care, preservation, or translation. Many of the texts preserved in Persia were written in Greek. “We do not read Greek. We have no idea what these books are saying, so who cares? We have the Qur'an. We have the Sunna.” But, again, because Muslims do not write their history, because Muslims are a colonized people, and because Muslims live under the hegemony of the other, that remarkable chapter in Islamic history has been thoroughly ignored. Muslims were keen on preserving these ancient texts. What they did do, then, was work with the Persian staff of translators and experts in Greek so that they could learn the necessary languages to read these texts. They worked with the staff to further organize, systematize, embrace, and develop the processes of translation from Greek to Arabic.
It is these libraries in Persia that were at the heart of the birth of Muslim scholars like al-Kindi and Hasan ibn al-Haytham. It is not a coincidence that many of these scholars were ethnically Persian. Although they mastered the Persian language, they also mastered the Arabic language. Back then, it was understood that the more languages one learns, the more they are sincere, honest, and effective in witnessing on behalf of God. It was not unusual for a Muslim scholar to master four, five, or even six languages. It was part of being a true servant of God.
Imagine if the Muslims of today were like the Muslims of the past.
People willfully ignore that without the ethnicities of the Caucasus, there would be no Bukhari, Muslim, or al-Tirmidhi. People willfully ignore that without the ethnicities of the Caucasus, the Turks and the Persians, there would be no Kasani or Sarakhsi. In fact, 90% of those who are responsible for fiqh and Shari'a, leave alone the sciences like medicine, optics, chemistry, and algebra, would not have been, but for the ethnicities of the Caucasus, the Turks, and the Persians.
Muslims of today have accepted the biggest colonial trick in the book. Colonialism was intent on making Islam a desert religion, the religion of nothing but Arabia. All other articulations of Islam were seen as inauthentic and unreal. The colonial trick was to shrink back Islam to the deserts of Arabia. Even worse is that this time Islam was shrunk back not to the Hijaz, but to the deserts of Najd. Why is it worse? Because Hijaz, historically, was a cosmopolitan cultural center. Najd was empty quarters, arid, and culturally impoverished. And Najd succeeded. Muslims of today do not have the wherewithal, the simple intellectual consciousness and presence, to say that Islam without the Turks and the Persians never amounted to anything. Islam without Samarkand or Africa never amounted to anything. Islam needs all its ethnicities, all its richness, all its diversity. That is our priority.
Even those who convert to Islam take the easy way out. They take the easy money. They take the money that comes from the Islam of Arabia. Whether it is the money of the Saudis or the Emiratis, that type of Islam always wants Islam to be exotic and foreign. Not instinctive. Not natural. Not like the singing of birds on trees. Not like the barking of dogs at strangers. Instead, they want it to be fictitious, fabricated, and constructed so that you are not testifying to what is a natural truth or the reality that surrounds you. Instead, you are testifying to a reality that is constructed by the power elites that control petrol dollars and that carefully engineer what they want Muslims to perceive as reality.
Let us turn to the Islam of Saudi Arabia since 1985. In my lifetime, the Saudi government has destroyed 98% of the Islamic historical sites in Arabia. Paris Hilton opened a store in Mecca. So, if the Prophet were to come back, he could stroll in the malls of Mecca and see the latest fashion that Paris Hilton is peddling in his city. The Islam of Arabia has turned our Mecca into a commercial center for the rich and wealthy. Muslims once encountered massive libraries in Gundeshapur in Persia. What the Arab Muslims at the time did, jointly with the Persians, regarding the libraries of Gundeshapur was to build a lighthouse for the world. Look at the difference between them and the Muslims of our postcolonial world, with the ruling family that the British placed in power. In the same way that the British made sure that Palestine was given to the Zionists, they also made sure that Hijaz was given to Al Saud.
I watched a video by Awad al-Qarni's son, who escaped Saudi Arabia. He was pleading with the world to save his father's life, as his father was just sentenced to death. The fact that Awad al-Qarni was sentenced to death is terrifying. Does this mean that Salman Aloda is next? Does this mean that Hassan Farhan al-Maliki is next? Perhaps it is Saleh al-Talib, the Imam of Mecca, who was promptly arrested because he dared criticize the promiscuities that are taking place in Mecca? Or Abdullah Basfar, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison because he accepted an invitation to lead prayer at the mosque of Hagia Sophia.
We then read news like the following: a 72 year old U.S. citizen who visited Saudi Arabia on business, Saad Ibrahim al-Madi, was arrested and sentenced to 16 years in prison because he retweeted some tweets about Khashoggi and sent some tweets about human abuses in Saudi Arabia. He was arrested, and our government has done nothing to secure his release. The man is 72 years old. He has to serve 16 years and then has a ban against flying out of Saudi Arabia for 16 years after his release from prison. It is clear he is going to die in prison.
We live in a world in which we must see this amount of ugliness associated with our most holy of holy. This is the space that all of us gravitate and look toward as Muslims. It is a space that does not leverage justice or beauty. It leverages commercialism and vulgar, ugly, stark, and dark injustices. Then, we look at Muslims. Are they like the dogs that bark instinctively? Are they like the birds that chirp instinctively? No. The Muslims of today are like Maulana Muhammad Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi of Pakistan, who, along with the Pakistan Ulema Council and Tazim Haramim Shariffian Council, has announced that it is “un-Islamic” to criticize Saudi Arabia or the Saudi leadership and that is the duty and obligation of every Muslim to express solidarity with the Saudi government because they are the “Guardians of the Two Holy Sites.”
No. It does not work that way.
This is why Islamophobia exists. It is because of what the non-Muslim sees when they look at Muslim quarters to see what Muslims are conversing about, to see the impact of Islam upon Muslims, to see what this religion has done for its followers. Maybe they are racist and bigoted. Or, maybe, if they see a positive impact of this religion upon its followers, it would challenge their racism. But when they take a peak at Muslims, they find that Muslims would kill a woman because she is not wearing her chador. They find that Muslims are obsessing about whether women should cover their hair or not, and fighting battles over the bodies of women. They find that the “Guardians of the Two Holy Sites” are throwing people in prison left and right, executing and brutalizing people, and Muslims do not even care. They find that if Muslims are Arab, they are far more interested in demonizing Persians, and if they are Persians, they are far more interested in demonizing Arabs than they are in anything else. They do not find beauty, light, or a breath of fresh air. So they think, “It must indeed be that this is a scary religion that does scary things to its followers.”
That is the truth of the Prophet's pulpit. That is the truth that I will keep repeating until God takes my soul from this earth, whether anyone chooses to hear it or not.
If you lose conviction in the existence of truth, then I assure you that there is no way that you can disbelieve in the possibility of truth and still believe in your objective self. The more our relationship to the truth is troubled and unstable, the more our relationship to our very self is troubled and unstable. The first thing that faith does in bringing light to the psychology of human beings is tell them that there is truth in justice, compassion, mercy, and beauty, and that while truth might elude you at times, while you may not be able to pinpoint it or anchor yourself upon it at times, but, rest assured, it is there, and it has the power to stabilize you, anchor you, and ultimately free you. Like everything that is worthwhile in existence, however, all values demand to have their protectors, those who stand up for the principle itself and are prepared to sacrifice to uphold it.
Nothing is more dangerous for the philosophy of religion than a theology or a system of belief that tells us not to worry about defending the truth, as it is not worth defending; instead, just take care of your subjective self that is ultimately not anchored in any objective truthful values. Nothing is more dangerous for a theology than a system of belief that tells us, “Believe in God, but, ultimately, God, when it comes to values, is meaningless.” How can God be meaningless? If we do not understand the ways by which God is an embodiment of the values of justice, mercy, compassion, beauty, and honesty, then what do you think our relationship to this god is going to look like? This god is about pedantic technical points of law. This god can watch a person go to prison for 16 years for a few tweets, for chirping like birds on a branch, and has nothing to say about it. This god can watch a scholar like Awad al-Qarni be sentenced to death for saying that Islam is justice and tyranny is bad, and has nothing to say about it. What kind of relationship can be constructed between a human being and this kind of god?
I will switch gears and focus on an example from a different perspective. Another field where what truth you defend matters a great deal is the field of international human rights. I can tell you that in legal, diplomatic, and law school circles, it is prestigious and celebrated. If, as a faculty member, you are chosen to work with the Human Rights Council of the United Nations, or asked to be a reporter for the Human Rights Council, or for the UN, then you are celebrated. It is considered a prestigious point of distinction. This holds true, except for one truth. That is when it comes to holding Israel accountable for its abuses. The UN Commission of Inquiry, created by the Human Rights Council, consists of distinguished law professors from different parts of the world. They investigated human rights abuses in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. They recently released their second report, calling on the Security Council to end Israel's permanent occupation, and calling on individual UN member states to prosecute Israeli officials for their human rights violations.
In a 28-page report, which was presented on October 20th to the General Assembly, the commission documented Israeli human rights violations of international law in the West Bank, and the annexing of land in Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights. The report noted actions by Israel that constituted de-facto annexation, including ex-appropriating land and natural resources, establishing settlements and outposts, maintaining a restrictive and discriminatory planning and building regime for Palestinians, and extending Israeli law extra-territorially to Israeli settlers in the West Bank. The report then accuses Israel of discriminatory policies against Arab citizens, stealing natural resources, and gender-based violence against Palestinian women. Not only that, but the report asks the International Court of Justice to issue an advisory opinion on the legal consequences of the continued refusal on part of Israel to end its occupation. It also calls for an investigation from the International criminal court prosecutor.
It is a damning document. 28 pages, page after page, documenting a slew of human rights abuses. Furthermore, the commission called upon the International Court of Justice to get involved. It also called upon the International Criminal Court to prosecute Israeli officials. Such a report on any other situation would be covered by international human rights centers in law schools. Many law schools have centers that focus on human rights, and these centers simply gobble up everything that comes out of the Human Rights Council of the UN. These centers sponsor talks, lectures, and publications. But, as expected, in response to the report, Zionist organizations called the drafters of the report “antisemitic.” American law schools largely ignored the second report as they ignored the first, because human rights matter, except when it comes to Israel. Racism is a problem, except when it comes to racism against Muslims.
It is easy to say, "This is unfair, it should not be like this." But pause for a second. The truth of the matter is that it is the systematic, persistent, and clear-visioned activism of Zionist organizations that constantly obfuscates the truth about Israeli human rights abuses and Israeli racism. It is the commitment of young, college-age students, law school students, and Jewish businesses. It is the funding of activism that constantly says, "The Human Rights Council can talk about anything and what it says can be considered a matter of prestige and a matter of great interest, except when it comes to Israel." As this report comes out, we see the news that the United Arab Emirates has concluded a military defense deal with Israel. Google has concluded a major project with Israel. Saudi Arabia is progressing with the NEOM project. And no Muslim country and very few Muslim groups—perhaps CAIR is the only exception in the United States—have bothered to read the 28-page report.
Suffice to say that Muslims will get more worked up about hijab than they will about the racist apartheid system against Palestinians in Israel. That message was heard loud and clear by the Chinese against the Uyghurs, by the Indians against the Kashmiris and other Muslim Indians, leave alone by the Burmese against the Rohingya. Even recently, who knows about the new Danish laws that further discriminate against Muslims? Who knows about the new Swiss laws that further discriminate and, in fact, fine Muslims for wearing the burqa?
Truth needs its heroes. It is as simple as that. Are you personally willing to be a hero for truths, or are you just an observer? If the latter, then do not complain when you see truth brutalized, violated, stomped on, and degraded because you failed to be a hero in upholding truth and defending truth.
Arkansas is one in a number of states that passed laws requiring anyone that does business with the state to sign an affirmation that they will not boycott Israel. Why should that matter for a state? That is the way it is. If you want to do business with the state of Arkansas, including being employed as a school teacher or a university professor, then you have to sign a document that you will not support a boycott of Israel and that you will not support any business that boycotts Israel. That law has been challenged repeatedly in different states and different courts have struck down the law as unconstitutional. In Arkansas, however, a Trump-appointed judge upheld the law. It is being challenged by the ACLU. The law is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is a court that, unfortunately, has a sizable number of Trump appointees.
I am not optimistic about what the Supreme Court is going to do with this law. But for all those who say, "Professor, why do you pick on Zaytuna? Why do you pick on Hamza Yusuf? So what if the faculty at Zaytuna supported Trump? So what if Hamza Yusuf is wishy-washy about this or that? It is not that bad. After all, they love Islam and they are Muslim brothers.”
Do you see why? Do you see the price of apathy? The Supreme Court upheld the Muslim ban and many Muslims were not outraged. It was not a turning point in their lives. When this law is upheld—and I do think it will be upheld by the Supreme Court—do you know what that will mean in terms of setting a legal precedent? If, as a Muslim, you want to get a state job, a state contract, then you have to affirm things that may be against your liberty.
If Muslims themselves do not value their liberty, then they do not value being like the birds that chirp on the branches of a tree or like the dogs that bark at a stranger. They do not understand what it means to defend the right to do that. Why, then, should anyone value it for you?