The truth of the matter is that human ideas, concepts, understandings, and conceptualizations undergo the same phases and stages of progression as life itself. An original idea is born. Like any young life, it is full of potential and possibilities, and its impact reflects the fact that it triggers a set of unfulfilled potentialities. As ideas age, however, the potentialities are often exhausted and worn out. What sets in is habit and familiarity, and the same idea that what was once full of possibilities for energizing action atrophies. It is no longer capable of energizing action or activism. For all practical purposes, the idea, very much like life itself, atrophies. The idea dies. It never disappears, because it is not a physiological reality and ideas are rarely buried and done with forever. But there is no question that so many concepts, conceptualizations, and philosophies that may have once struck people as original, as full of potential, and as capable of energizing human creativity and imagination, no longer engage the same imagination or inspire the same creativity. And that is the death of an idea. Will these ideas atrophy because of age and familiarity?
The sad reality that we have to contend with is that this is precisely what has happened to so many of the ideas associated with Islam. This is the hardest thing. As much as we would like to pretend that we receive the concepts and the ideas of the Qur'an in the same way that the first generation received these concepts and ideas, the reality of the matter is that the ideas and the concepts of the Qur'an struck the first generation as concepts full of potentialities. They excited the imagination. They inspired creativity, action, and initiative. But what has set in is habit and familiarity, and with habit and familiarity comes the atrophy of ideas. We hear the idea, but does it inspire anything beyond the words that are communicated?
All ideas are hosted within a civilizational context. Ideas, like all sociological and cultural phenomena, exist within a context. If the context that embraces the idea is a traumatized sociological reality—in other words, if the people who embrace the idea have themselves become alienated from the most basic human function, that is, the function of imagination and creativity—then the idea itself loses all its potentialities within its traumatized context.
God has also set something in human nature, something that deserves pause and thought. If a human being lives in filth and, because of this filth, keeps getting sick, then our rational faculties would immediately tell this human being, ”Do not expect health unless you change your filthy context. The fact that you live in filth is the reason for your constant ailment and illness.” Now imagine that this human being fails to alter that context or the factors that constantly plague them with illness. It would be simply irrational, if not insane, for that human being to have the same input factors and expect a different result.
This is precisely the situation that Muslims find themselves in.For centuries, we have had the same input factors and the same filthy externalities. We keep trying the same things, each time expecting a different result. It is only when human beings understand the predicament of their situation and freely admit that the ideas that used to excite their ancestors no longer excite them, that the world of meaning that energized their predecessors no longer energizes them, do we have the possibility of change.
But I am not standing here to simply tell you this. I want to give you a demonstrative example of how the Qur'an can be approached to re-energize and re-excite, of how the Qur'an can be read as if it is an original revelation for the moment in which we Muslims exist.
In a previous khutbah, we discussed that God tells us in Surah al-A’raf:
Say: ‘My Sustainer has [but] enjoined the doing of what is right; and [He desires you to] put your whole being into every act of worship, and to call unto Him, sincere in your faith in Him alone. As it was He who brought you into being in the first instance, so also [unto Him] you will return:’" (Q 7:29).
In that khutbah, we said that it is profound, remarkable, exciting, and energizing that before telling us to turn our gaze, our direction, the center of our very existence toward the masjids—which, as we said, is a metaphor for all places in which God’s name is upheld, glorified, and remembered—God prefaces this with the basic concept of justice. But God does not stop there. God then tells us the most remarkable thing. “O Children of Adam…,” notice that God is referring to all human beings, not just Muslims, "...beautify yourselves for every act of worship" (Q 7:31). It is only familiarity with words that prevents us from truly reflecting upon this statement. It is only the atrophy that sets in with all communication that acts as an obstacle to reflection. Most interpreters, if not all, read this verse as a command to wear nice clothes, to keep up our appearance, and to clean ourselves up when we go to the mosque. But that is reading the verse out of context, because we ought to remember that what precedes this is the instruction to persevere in upholding justice and to turn the direction, the compass of our lives, toward Divinity: "and [He desires you to] put your whole being into every act of worship," (Q 7:29). Only after this does God tell us to focus on the basic idea of beautifying ourselves for every act of worship (Q 7:31).
The command is to embrace, adopt, implement, fulfill, and achieve the command to “Beautify yourselves for every act of worship" (Q 7:31). What follows this is a command to "eat and drink [freely], but do not waste: verily, He does not love the wasteful!" (Q 7:31). Eat and drink, then, but do not be wasteful. How does that relate to the concept of zeena (beauty/radiance)? Why would God say, "Achieve your zeena at every mosque, eat and drink, but do not be wasteful or excessive?" (Q 7:31). We often forget what immediately follows this verse. For the very next verse says:
Say: "Who is there to forbid the beauty (zeena) which God has brought forth for His creatures, and the good things from among the means of sustenance?" Say: ‘They are [lawful] in the life of this world unto all who have attained to faith - to be theirs alone on Resurrection Day.’ Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people of [innate] knowledge!" (Q 7:32)
God asks a rhetorical question. Who is it who claims the false power of forbidding God's zeena, and all the good that God has created for human beings?
If we seek an energized text, a text full of meanings and possibilities, then we must ponder how this word, zeena, is used in the Qur'an more generally. Remember that God describes in the Qur'an various sociological and cosmological facts utilizing that same word, zeena. For instance, God describes the planets that surround the earth as zeena (Q 37:6). God also says that God created the animals that assist us in our labor as zeena. Or, when Moses returns from the Mount and finds that his people have gone astray, they tell Moses, "We went astray because we adopted some of the zeena of those who used to oppress us" (Q 20:87). Or when God describes money and children as the zeena of life on earth (Q 18:46). But perhaps it is most familiar to Muslims when this expression is used in the context of talking about women and modesty: "Tell the believing women not to show their zeena except what naturally appears" (Q 24:31). In my view, what “naturally appears” means what appears according to customary social standards. The same chapter, Surah al-Nur, goes on to say: “And let them not display [more of] their charms (zeena) to any but their husbands” (Q 24:31). The verse then continues: “And let them not swing their legs [in walking] so as to draw attention to their hidden charms (zeena)" (Q 24:31).
Despite the way that the word zeena is used in different contexts in the Qur'an, it is always centered around the idea of beautification, and that beautification could be good or bad. It is beautification and completion. It is what goes beyond the norm in an added effort to achieve an ideal of beauty, and one could make the extra effort to beautify for good or bad reasons. Qarun is described in the Qur'an as coming out in his zeena to talk to the people (Q 28:76-83). We understand from the context of the Qur'an that Qarun displayed his wealth, beautifying himself to carry himself in an arrogant fashion vis-à-vis other people. That does not sound good. It is like when the people of Moses told him, “We took the zeena of the Egyptians and used it to worship something other than God” (Q 20:87). But zeena can also be good, as when God tells us to fulfill and achieve zeena in every mosque (Q 7:31).
Let us pause for a moment to take the entire context. First, God tells us, "Say: "My Sustainer has [but] enjoined the doing of what is right…” (Q 7:29). God demands justice. That is a precondition to turning our face toward mosques. God then says that God has created gradations of beauty. These could be pursued for good ends or for ends that are not good. But God wants from human beings that any association they have with sacred space and Divinity must be accompanied with decent, well-intentioned, well-purposed, well-thought-out, and well-planned beauty. In Surah Al-A’raf, God obligates us to reflect upon all the beauty that manifests through creation and to understand the way that beauty, as a virtue and aesthetic value, can be employed for the beautiful and also for the opposite of beauty. But God then tells us that whatever association we create with sacred space must be premised on the achievement of what is beautiful, and what is virtuous in human life.
Consider when God tells us in Surah al-Baqara:
True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west - but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance - however much he himself may cherish it - upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God” (Q 2:177).
God is saying that if we want to understand our relationship to sacred space, then true piety is not about the technicalities of where we face when we pray. Rather, the meaning of true piety—of course, God mentions prayers and fasting, but look at the critical point—is to part with wealth to support relatives, orphans, the needy, refugees, the displaced, the homeless, and to free people from slavery. It is as if God knows that in order for slavery and indentured servitude to end, there must be those who demand that it ends, and we, in turn, must support those people.
Put the picture together: justice, zeena, and the true nature of piety is to liberate, free, and support others. It is impossible, in the Qur'anic understanding, for the mosque to become a place where the primary issue is how to separate genders or where to place a curtain, or where we receive khutbahs about the nature of wudhu, ghusl or tasbih, or what the Prophet used to say before he went to sleep or what he would say when he woke up. Sacred space, in the Qur'anic discourse, is umbilically connected with causes, causes of beauty, causes of liberation, causes of freedom, and causes of dignity. Why should you support relatives, the needy, orphans, the displaced, and refugees? Why should you support those who work to free people from slavery? In essence, it is because dignity itself is a zeena. Dignity is a value.
When we work to make the text of the Qur'an an original text for every day and age; when we delve into the mechanics of the Qur'an to ask, "What is God telling us about the moment that we are living in?"; when we make the Qur'an a text that opens up possibilities for moral progress and virtuous growth; when we make the Qur'an a source for energized activity to liberate human beings and protect human dignity; when we do this, I believe that we might, for the first time since the dawn of modernity, no longer live in the filthy space that we, as Muslims, live in, a space that keeps infecting us with ailment after ailment, with social diseases that never seem to end. We cannot keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results. That is the heart of insanity itself.
The Qur'an is a book of moral virtue that can be endlessly mined to inspire human action, human imagination, and human creativity. But it has to be taken seriously. The Qur'an is not the end result. It is the seed for the beginning of growth. If you read the Qur'an and expect it to deliver the completed and fulfilled moral cause, then you have betrayed the Qur'an. For you have rendered the Qur'an a closed text. You have, in fact, rendered the Qur'an like a tomb in which meaning becomes buried and eventually withers away, rotting and dying a slow, painful death. The Qur'an is like a garden of seeds of morality that are planted to grow, but they only grow with human intentionality and human imagination. They do not grow by God sending angels that will fulfill the potential of the Qur'an. If there is no engaged and serious reader, if there is no moral agent who wants to grow the Qur'an into a garden of meaning—into a zeena, that magnanimous and amazing concept—that flowers to testify for the Divine, then do not expect the Qur'an to yield anything. In that case, it simply becomes a historical curiosity, for people who have themselves become a historical curiosity.
Sadly, we Muslims are a historical curiosity for the rest of humanity. We are the consumers, not the producers. We are the receivers, not the originators. We follow the zeena created by others, and sometimes embrace it and don it upon ourselves. But we ourselves are not the source of zeena, leave alone zeena at every masjid.