Friday arrives, and I begin thinking of the khutbah, standing in this mantle where one follows in the footsteps of a man who was sent as a gift to humanity, the Prophet Muhammad. As you wrestle with the enormity of the idea that you are following in the footsteps of this great man, standing in the mantle of the Prophet to deliver a message that, at the very least, honors the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad, there is a flood of thoughts, ideas, concerns, and worries. There is a virtual deluge of ideas and emotions that overcome you as you think of what should take priority in terms of what you speak about.
At the same time, with the most basic elements of humility, realism, and morality, you must be overcome by a sense of inadequacy, a sense of, “How can I dare even attempt to follow in the footsteps of such a great man, a man who has changed history?” You are torn between rising to the challenge and the natural emotion of running away from the challenge. Of course, there is the role played by your own demons, your own shayatin, that are quick to remind you of your own ineptness and powerlessness. That basically tell you that no one is listening, or even if some are listening, no one really cares, “So what is the point of even speaking out or saying anything?”
But as you march in life, you will eventually reach the age in which year after year, the number of acquaintances, friends, or relatives who are dead equal the number of those who are living. With each year that passes, the balance tips more in favor of the dead. Year after year, you begin to realize that you know more of those who are deceased than those who are living. And the thought of your own mortality comes to press on you. "How many years are left on this earth for me?" Will you be one of those people who live so long that they literally retreat back to childhood, practically knowing nothing after once knowing so much? Or are you going to be like so many acquaintances, friends, and relatives who suddenly depart from this world? What message must you leave before your time is up?
Amid this turmoil of thoughts and emotions, you always think of the symphonic voice in our lives as Muslims, the true voice of the Qur'an, the voice that leads us and anchors us in a path of goodness and light. But at the same time, the Prophet complains to God in Surah al-Furqan that Muslims have abandoned this revealed Book (Q 25:30). What message, whether you are heard or ignored, must you focus on to rise to the legacy of inheriting the pulpit of the Prophet?
I invite you to reflect with me on one intervention made by the Qur'an in our lives. These interventions anchor us in a turbulent world that defies anchoring and stability. In Surah al-Furqan, God says:
For, [true] servants of the Most Gracious are [only] they who walk gently on earth, and who, whenever the foolish address them, reply with [words of] peace; and who remember their Sustainer far into the night, prostrating themselves and standing; and who pray: ‘O our Sustainer, avert from us the suffering of hell - for, verily, the suffering caused by it is bound to be a torment dire: verily, how evil an abode and a station!’” (Q 25:63-66)
“Servants” means all human beings. But when the Qur'an uses the expression, “servants of the Most Gracious,” it means those human beings who fully acknowledge their Maker, the source of their being. These people are fully aware that their relationship with their Maker is a relationship with al-Rahman (“the Most Gracious”), which means not only a God who cares, not only a God who is involved, not only a God who is vested, but the very nature of this God is merciful, caring, loving, and understanding. So much so, in fact, that all of us take this caring, loving, merciful, compassionate, and understanding God for granted.
How often do we bank on Divine understanding? How often do we bank on the compassionate God? How often, as we enjoy God's blessings and enjoy everything that God has given us, when it is time to express gratitude and pay the bill, are we too tired, distracted, worried, and busy, and think nothing of it? We might pray faster. We might not pray at all. We might pray without focusing or concentrating. We might not even feel a sense of gratitude or indebtedness. All the while, we rely on the understanding, forgiveness, and compassion of God.
All of us engage in this behavior, but it is always a matter of degree. The Qur’an says of those people who are committed, who are true followers in the sense of defining themselves in terms of their relationship to the compassionate, understanding, and loving God, al-Rahman, that “They tread upon this earth lightly” (Q 25:63). What an expression! As a believer, the way you engage your presence on this earth is marked by an undeniable sense of humility, a humility that is often self-effacing, because this humility is so much of your core. You tread upon this earth “lightly.” Pause and think about that. You are not bombastic. You are not loud. You are not dominant. You are not demanding. You are not authoritarian. You are not despotic. You are not a supremacist. You are treading upon the earth “lightly.”
It does not mean that you tiptoe. It means that you are as gentle as a breath of air, as the scent of a flower, by the very nature of your being. Because of your relationship to this compassionate and loving God, you do not dominate other human beings. Dominating other human beings is not treading upon the earth lightly. You do not destroy earth, for that is not treading upon earth lightly. You are not loud and bombastic, because that is not treading upon earth lightly. You are not conceited and arrogant, because that is not treading upon earth lightly. You do not demand everyone’s attention and that the world centers around you because, again, that is not treading upon earth lightly. You are not egocentric, insensitive, or uncaring. All of that is not treading upon earth lightly.
God describes those who have a true relationship with the true God as treading upon this earth lightly. They are gentle, caring, loving human beings. And when the ignorant try to engage them, they say “peace” (Q 25:63). Again, pause and reflect upon that. One obvious point is that if they are approached by those who say, “There is no God,” that would clearly be a part of what God means by the word jahil, the ignorant. When they are approached by those who say, "What is the point of being a Muslim?" or “Your Prophet is evil,” that would fit within the definition of jahil. Or those who say that you should just worry about yourself and not care about others. That would also fit within the definition of ignorant. Or those who say, "Why do you think you owe God anything?” or “What is the point of being grateful to God?” in an attempt to distract themselves from settling this bill with God? That would also be included in the definition of the ignorant.
In all cases, when the ignorant speak to them, they say, “Salam.” Salam is a wishing of peace. They tread upon the earth so lightly that when the ignorant speak to them, it does not enrage them, nor does it make them vindictive or destructive. They have the strength of character and humility to basically say, “Peace.”
Reflect upon this, because this Qur'anic revelation also entails a challenge. The challenge is that if the person who speaks to you is actually knowledgeable and you are the ignorant one, but you are too ignorant to realize that you are ignorant, then saying “Peace” when spoken to becomes arrogant, and you are no longer treading upon this earth lightly. The challenge that God presents you with is that when you say “Peace,” it is, in fact, an expression of humility, empathy, and care. If it is an artificial expression, then you are not among those who tread upon the earth lightly. If you do not feel peace, but you see it as a way of being condescending, then you are not among those who tread upon the earth lightly. If you see it as a way of being dismissive and protective of your own ignorance, then you are not among those who tread upon the earth lightly. The challenge for a believer, for a true follower of al-Rahman, is that when you say “Peace,” it is substantive and real, and it truly reflects the dynamic that you are knowledgeable and the other is ignorant.
But herein lies the problem. So many believers, in their pietistic affectations, say “Peace,” as a way of guarding and protecting their own ignorance, as a way of being defensive because they are threatened by those who know more and are more capable than them. The challenge is that Muslims, if they want to be true servants and truly knowledgeable, must say that word, “Peace,” with authentic humility and empathy to those who approach them ignorantly. We live in a world, for instance, that has progressed leaps and bounds in terms of understanding what the dignity of a human being entails, and what the rights of a human being ought to be. Imagine if someone who is a defender of these rights comes to talk to me as a Muslim, and I do not have the intellectual wherewithal to understand what they are talking about, or I am too ill-read to truly appreciate what they are talking about, but I use this verse to avoid a confrontation with my own ignorance and to say to this person approaching me, “Salam,” doing so as a way of evading responsibility. I am then no longer a servant of al-Rahman treading lightly upon the earth. The whole dynamic fails. The challenge in this one verse is a challenge of a true relationship with God, of true humility and awareness of what differentiates knowledge from ignorance in every historical time and place.
All of this is from just one verse. Now, Surah al-Furqan goes on to tell us that those people spend their nights worshiping the Almighty; they know how to strike the balance in terms of financial responsibility; they do not kill human beings; nor do they fornicate or commit adultery (Q 24:64-68). Surah al-Furqan goes on to layer this description, but I am focusing only on the description of “‘ibad al-Rahman” (servants of the Most Gracious).
It is moments like this with our Divine book that keep me coming back to the pulpit of the Prophet. It is the excitement about sharing with my fellow Muslims the power of God's book. It is the humility of knowing the lessons are endless and boundless that keep me coming back, again and again, to stand at this podium, regardless of what my demons whisper and regardless of my full awareness that I am not worthy of following in the footsteps of this truly great man, the Prophet Muhammad.
As the ignorant speak, you say, “Peace.” I often imagine a people who are living in squalor and sewage, dirt surrounding their lives, everywhere. But instead of meeting the challenge of cleaning their space, these people love to engage in a pretense. They love to pretend that despite the squalor in which they live, the most important thing is whether women’s hair is properly covered or not. They can ignore the sewage around them, but if they find that their hair is inappropriate or not quite right, they will throw a fit. Or I often imagine a people who are imprisoned in a slave ship, sailing to a penal colony. Everyone on this ship is a lost soul heading toward a lost destiny, but the captives on the ship ignore the fact they are imprisoned and heading to a penal colony. All they focus on is who has the biggest and smallest bunk on this slave ship. What if, in the midst of this, someone comes up and says, "You know what? We are not on a slave ship. This ship is actually a cruise. We are not heading to a penal colony. This is actually how the rich people of the world live. This is a cruise ship. True, we are heading to an island where we are going to be deposited to die in absolute banishment, but just think of it as a cruise ship.” Or someone who says, "Do not worry about the squalor, this is how the world is. Focus on the hairdo, for that is what intelligent people really worry about."
Would I recognize these people as ignorant? Would I recognize these people as jahil? When they speak to me, do I actually buy into their delusions? Or do I have the self-awareness to know that these people are fraudulent, misrepresenting the reality that so many of my fellow human beings exist in?
Just this week, there was a news item. At the same time that the American administration continues to work to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia; at the same time that the State Department, the White House, the new Netanyahu government, and the Emirati, Saudi, and Egyptian governments continue talking about the Abraham Accords, Israeli settlers steal another plot of land. This time, it is a plot of land owned by the Greek Orthodox Church, a Palestinian Christian Church. This new land seizure is not the exception. It is the rule. In fact, it is exactly as expected. We have spoken about the Zionist extremist Ben-Gvir whose group infamously and regularly yell “Death to Arabs” in Israeli politics and demonstrations. The Netanyahu government is putting Ben-Gvir in charge of the West Bank and Gaza. Ben-Gvir, as we said, is a member of an extremist Zionist group that is committed to stealing Palestinian lands. He is committed to turning Israel into a greater apartheid state than it already is.
But a news item grabbed my attention when it talked about how Ben-Gvir asked Yehuda Etzion what he ought to do with the West Bank when he comes to power. This is striking because Yehuda Etzion was a member of a Zionist underground group who once participated in a plot to try to blow up the Dome of the Rock. In other words, he is a terrorist, as well as the co-founder of a Jewish group dedicated to having Jews pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque, reversing the Israeli policy that Jews are only allowed to visit the external area of the mosque in groups. Etzion wants Israeli Jews to be able to pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque at will, in preparation for the complete destruction of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the complete annexation of the West Bank. So, Etzion gave Ben-Gvir a wishlist. Along with violating the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque, the wishlist includes the desire to accelerate the process of annexing the West Bank, or, as Etzion put it, “annexing the West Bank in the same way we annexed the Golan Heights.”
As the land-grabbings continue, Israelis have made it clear that they have very little regard for the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque or even for the sanctity of Palestinian rights or life. This, of course, did not put a dent in the enthusiasm of either of the Americans or the Israelis for the so-called “Abraham Accords,” and for normalizing relations between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. It is very clear that the governments of the Emirates, the Saudis, and the Egyptians only care about their seats of power, and the seats to power in these countries pass through Israeli influence. They know they do not represent their people. But they also know that in order to stay in power, they do not need to answer to their people. They need to answer to the United States, and the way to the United States' heart passes through Israel.
To make the Americans happy by making the Israelis happy, the small price these governments have to pay is to sell out the Palestinians, Jerusalem, and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The remarkable thing is that whether we have Bush, Trump, or Biden in power, every successive American administration understands this fully well about the Muslim world. Every successive American administration is anchored in a racist paradigm. In this entire Muslim universe, they only care about the one country that is not predominantly Muslim, and that is Israel. As long as Israel is happy, it does not matter if the rest of the Muslim world has dictatorship, totalitarianism, misery, or famine. It does not matter.
Since MBS came to power in Saudi Arabia, 350,000 Yemenis have been killed by U.S.-made weapons. 500 people have been executed, and another round of executions is likely to take place any minute in Saudi Arabia. Yet, we can summarize the policies of successive American administrations in that they do not care what type of misery their weapons inflict upon Muslim lives. They do not care what type of fascist governments are in power controlling Muslim lives. They do not care if the entire Palestinian population is treated as if they live in a concentration camp or are exterminated. They do not care about a million and a half Muslims perishing in China. They simply do not care, so long as their interests with Israel are protected, preserved, and safe.
So, when someone tells you, “We do not live in an ideological world, we live in a world of realpolitik. We live in a world of political realism,” is this person not among the ignorant? When someone says, "We do not live in squalor, we do not live on a slave ship heading to a penal colony”; when someone misrepresents the sense of urgency and the true challenge that confronts Muslims, is this not among the ignorant? When you say “Salam” to this person, do you say it because you realize the ignorance of that person? Do you think this person truly represents the reality that Muslims exist in? What a disaster if you do not even realize that this is among the ignorant.
Let me close with this. This one verse in the Qur'an represents a challenge. It is a challenge to internalize knowledge, to become knowledgeable enough to recognize ignorance and to realize humility. But it can also become a form of escapism, because cowardliness often camouflages as wisdom. So the same verse can also become an excuse for false pretenses in which the cowardly pretend to be pious, the apathetic and uncaring pretend to be modest, and the ignorant protect their ignorance through the pretense of humility. See how the person who engages this verse can either turn it into a doctrine of liberation and true majesty, or can turn it into a vehicle for absolute darkness and moral degradation.