Greetings of Peace and happy December! My sincerest apologies for this late email! I struggled all day with this piece but I hope that it will be a little bit thought provoking. First, we do plan to have a halaqa tonight with a Q&A for Surah 9: Al Tawbah, so please email me your questions! And, we also may cover a short surah! Stay tuned and hope to see you online tonight!
This week, I had the blessing of meeting a wonderful young woman who came to visit from Saudi Arabia. Although we only met briefly, she shook my world. Yes, she was extremely bright, articulate - in English - and well-read. She was polite, confident, and from our conversation, very aware of the politics, difficulties, hypocrisies, evils, challenges, and potential threats for those who, like herself, were interested in education, research, writing and publishing on topics that could land herself in trouble with her government. She was traveling in search of “air to breathe,” and the freedom to explore, question, imagine, and think critically about the world in a way that she could not in her own country. She spoke of her parents, who clearly supported her intellectual interests and pursuits, and who encouraged her to travel and experience the world outside of her Arab roots. I connected with her at a very human level. She was someone who was energized by intellectual thought and curiosity, often had her head in a book during the visit, and clearly took knowledge very seriously. She was a “real” person - not a caricature or a theoretical construct from my imagination - that I could communicate with, respect, and admire; someone who grew up Muslim, not just in a Muslim country, but in the land of the Prophet (peace be upon him), the home to two of holiest sites in Islam outside of Jerusalem - Mecca and Medina.
She brought us dates from Medina, a prayer rug, prayer beads, a prayer outfit for me, and bakhour, a traditional incense that smells divine. The dates were like nothing I had tasted before. Her father said that a gift of dates that conveys proper respect must come from Medina. She was embarrassed that these gifts were just tokens of appreciation and continued to humbly apologize that we deserved so much more. Normally for an American convert, these types of encounters - interacting with “true Muslims” from “back home” can often inspire a form of “imposter” syndrome. Converts are often made to feel that because they are not from Arab lands or because they are not native Arabic speakers, or perhaps because they were not raised Muslim, that somehow, they are “lesser” as Muslims. Of course, this is simply NOT true, but it is true that converts can still get a complex. But it was not that I felt a case of imposter syndrome or that our visitor made me feel “lesser” in any way. Quite the contrary. She was lovely and exuded what I consider to be an elevated Islamic ethic - a beautiful, subtle humility, grounded in quiet confidence that can only be captured in one word: dignity. In America, people mistake volume, presence, and impact for dignity. In my mind, Islamic dignity manifests in humility, tranquility, and quiet strength; someone who is comfortable in their own skin because they understand they have a purpose before God. She was all that.
The reason why this meeting shook my world came as a complete surprise to me. Suddenly my heart ached with a barrage of feelings. I became emotional and teary eyed and it took me a while to figure out why. As a Muslim convert in America, there are certain experiences that by definition will always be closed to me, namely, growing up with the inherited culture of Islam. By that, I do not mean an ethnic culture, but rather an ethical culture, one that arises from the inherited ethics of the Prophet of Islam, as taught in the Qur’an. Like my own Chinese heritage, there is a cultural ethic that is baked into one’s upbringing, something that is as natural and familiar to you as your parents who infused that cultural ethic into how you were raised. Yet my Chinese ethic, while beautiful in its own respects, was not founded on the ethics of equality, justice, human rights, elevating the soul towards the divine, and all of the other universal and beautifully humanistic and monotheistic tenets of the Islamic ethic, which my intuitive soul recognized and understood to be correct when I encountered it. I was drawn to Islam because it came to elevate ALL of humanity, not just a subset of it, as defined by tribe, ethnicity, geography, gender, or some other human derived category. When I discovered the theology of Islam through books, it was the validation of everything I knew to be intuitively good, ethical and beautifully human. It felt divine, energizing, and right.
Yet as a convert, in contrast to the experiences of our lovely visitor, my engagement with the Islamic tradition had to be constructed. I did not have the benefit of organically developing as a Muslim, surrounded by other Muslims who grew up anchored in the Islamic ethical culture. Thus, as a convert, the experience of connecting to Islam, by definition, needs to have something more and different. It should have the experience of connecting with the Source at the source, which is why the experience of pilgrimage to Mecca becomes so essential, especially for converts, I believe.
One of the “five pillars” of our faith calls for a visit to the Prophet’s homeland where Islam was first revealed - Mecca, Saudi Arabia. In our Project Illumine halaqas on Surah Al Hajj, we learned the lessons of sacred space, and the singular status of Mecca as the sanctuary for Muslims. The lessons from Surah Al Hajj were profound and in so many cases, completely new and unfamiliar to me as a 28 year convert. The most shocking lessons came when I compared what was commonplace knowledge about how the holy spaces of Mecca should be respected and honored - and what has occurred in our recent history, most notably with the ascension of the Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman (MBS). Literally overnight, Mecca transformed from the blessed home of the Prophet Muhammad and Islam to something more akin to a center for Western capitalism. For example, it was once commonplace knowledge that there is not supposed to be anything built that would stand taller than the Kaaba. Today's Mecca seems to have thrown that part of our tradition out the window.
More importantly, anyone who is paying attention understands the sheer injustice that has taken hold in the lands of our collective Islamic origins. God knows how far the “Guardians of the Two Holy Sites” have strayed from and perverted God’s directives about Mecca in the Qur’an, not to speak of the perversion of the Islamic message itself. It is heart-breaking and sickening.
Week after week in our khutbahs and halaqas, Dr. Abou El Fadl has been enumerating the ways we have strayed and how sharply our lived reality has veered from the truth of our Qur’anic charge.
Through Shaykh’s scholarship over the decades, I have followed the Saudi evolution from Wahhabism to Westernism. The hypocrisy is stunning and the evils committed in the name of Islam are
shocking. The fact that Muslims today can still blissfully go to Hajj and Umrah, knowing that their money is funding so much evil, quite frankly, blows my mind. If Muslims need the fatwa of
scholars to release them from the obligation of spending money to go to Hajj while it is in the control of evil hands, they can find it here: https://youtu.be/CL0MxXkI2kQ and here: https://www.jstor.org/stable/
Meeting this lovely woman from the home of the Prophet triggered in me the pain of confronting what I always intellectually knew was true - that I will never have the experience of visiting the home of the Prophet and the origins of my beloved faith - not as long as it is in evil hands. When a Saudi citizen is sentenced to 34 years in prison and then barred from leaving the country for another 34 years - all for a tweet - why would anyone travel to Saudi, especially Muslims? And, I will never want to explain to God that while I understood that justice is indivisible, nevertheless, I knowingly turned a blind eye to all of the injustices being committed by those whom my funds support, just so that I could enjoy the experience of Hajj for myself. What evil would I be financing? How could I be blessed by God if I were complicit in the blood-letting of fellow Muslims? How could I put myself before all those who are suffering?
All of this makes me so very sad at so many levels. Why have Muslims lost the sanctity of the space that God set out just for them? Why do Muslims today seem so unaffected and unaware? Every time I see my Muslim brothers and sisters gleefully advertising trips to Hajj and Umrah on social media - some even offering rooms in the Hilton that towers over the entire area surrounding the holy sites - I feel a stab through my heart. They have turned a blind eye. How do you justify the injustice? Aren’t we supposed to stand against injustice? Money talks. How about boycotting Hajj and Umrah? Shouldn’t we at least have a conversation about this? But no one is talking about this.
Have we as a people just accepted the intolerable and evil as normal and justifiable? Why have we forgotten that God warned us about ourselves? God told us how to sanctify ourselves, dignify ourselves, and elevate ourselves in the Qur’an. We didn’t heed God’s advice and now Muslims around the world are suffering in concentration camps, serving in undignified wars, displaced, unhoused, discriminated against, disrespected, hated, oppressed, and disappeared. I am sure that all the wealth that God gave to Muslim lands was not intended to enable one man to buy the world’s most expensive house, a $500M yacht, and luxuries galore. Global Muslim wealth could spark a new enlightenment and literally save the world from extinction. But what have we done with God’s gifts?
How did we end up where we are and where are we going? We in the West have the freedom to breathe, to think, to act. We can analyze, write, and organize without the fear of being disappeared by morning. We can donate, influence policy, and mobilize to fight for the change we need. We can pray and live outwardly as Muslims without fear of being sent to a concentration camp. We can teach, question, think out of the box, and model the most beautifully ethical behavior in our world as a matter of faith. We can resist the efforts to convince us that being a good Muslim is just about private ritual instead of standing boldly for justice on behalf of God. We could take a stand for justice, or we could simply not participate in injustice. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that there are nearly enough people fighting the good fight.
Coming back to my encounter with our visitor. It triggered in me a sadness and an anger. Unless something drastically changes in my lifetime, I will never experience the divinity and sanctity of the space that God created for us Muslims in Mecca. I will never make it to Hajj. I once experienced the visceral power of divine purity when I visited the mosque of a female saint in Egypt - the energy was so pure and so potent it made me immediately break down in tears. I can only imagine the energy of the Kaaba.
As a convert, my experience with the Islamic tradition has been manually constructed, bit by bit, by the totality of my lived experiences, for which I am extremely grateful. But I will never have the opportunity to connect with the Source at the source. I will not experience what it feels like to come together with fellow Muslims from around this world, equal before the eyes of God, physically and spiritually communing with my Creator, circumambulating the house built by the Prophet Abraham for God, in what I can only imagine is a life-transforming total engagement with the Divine. Unless God wills it, the denial of my meeting with God in Mecca will always constitute a hole in my heart, and my engagement with Islam will remain incomplete - all because of the standing injustice of those in power that I refuse to ignore. I feel cheated, but so be it.
I imagine the pain of our dignified Saudi visitor. The lands of the Prophet are her home. She can see with her own eyes the transformation of her society. She knows from her own education that what is taking place is not Qur’anic Islam. Her freedoms are not the same as mine. I can only pray for her safety and ask God to protect her, strengthen her resolve, and pave the way for her purpose and service. She has a bravery that I cannot fathom.
God sees and knows everything. May God aid and direct us in our purpose and service. There is no power or victory except with God. Thank God for everything. I would not trade what I have for
anything, alhamdulillah (all praise be to God).
The khutbah today was amazing! Looking forward to our halaqa tonight at 6 PM ET! Hope to connect with you online soon insha'Allah (God willing)!
In Peace and Hope,