Want the Path of the Divine? Don't Follow the Demonic

In Surah al-Nur (Q 24), God reminds us in the most powerful and direct way of what is core to our ethical being.


O YOU who have attained to faith! Follow not Satan's footsteps: for he who follows Satan's footsteps [will find that], behold, he enjoins but deeds of abomination and all that runs counter to reason (al-fahsha wa al-munkar). And were it not for God's favour upon you and His grace, not one of you would ever have remained pure. For [thus it is:] it is God who causes whomever He wills to grow in purity: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing. Hence, [even if they have been wronged by slander,] let not those of you who have been graced with [God's] favour and ease of life ever become remiss in helping [the erring ones among] their near of kin, and the needy, and those who have forsaken the domain of evil for the sake of God, but let them pardon and forbear. [For,] do you not desire that God should forgive you your sins, seeing that God is much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace?” (Q 24:21-22)


A more direct, more powerful message is not possible. It deserves pause. God reminds and exhorts believers not to follow the footsteps of Satan. In other words, not to take the path that God associates with the demonic. By definition, the demonic is the antithesis of the Divine. If the Divine is light, the demonic is darkness. If the Divine is mercy, the demonic is cruelty. If the Divine is rationality, the demonic is irrationality. If the Divine is justice, the demonic is injustice. Do not follow the path of the demonic.


“Follow not Satan’s footsteps” (Q 24:21). God summarizes the nature of the demonic in saying that the demonic exhorts, attracts, and draws people toward al-fahsha wa al-munkar (Q 24:21). Al-fahsha is the path of corruption and shame. Al-munkar is the path of what we innately and intuitively know is wrong, what the human being knows is not part of the light, but part of the darkness. God gives us a very powerful hint of this. God reminds us: “And were it not for God's favour upon you and His grace, not one of you would ever have remained pure. For [thus it is:] it is God who causes whomever He wills to grow in purity: for God is all-hearing, all-knowing” (Q 24:21). Remember that the most precarious moral path is one in which we assume that whatever we embrace is consistent with Divinity, one in which our ego becomes the guardian of the truth and the guardian of the path. 


It is as if God puts us on notice that in order to understand the difference between the demonic and the Divine, we must anchor our search in humility. We need to anchor our search in something beyond our ego. We need to anchor our search in modesty, circumspection, cautiousness, and thoughtfulness about our path, because guidance cannot be built upon presumptuousness and arrogance. God then quickly reminds us that the pursuit of goodness and Divinity, and the avoidance of the demonic, is anchored upon taking care of others. We need to go beyond ourselves and think of the wellbeing of others, especially our “near of kin,” “the needy,” and all those who are dispossessed and displaced (Q 24:22). “But let them pardon and forbear” (Q 24:22): egoism and arrogance doom you to an attitude of vindictiveness and a never ending pettiness and anger toward others. 


The path of Divinity, in short, is to get over yourself. The path of Divinity is to transcend the egoism of the self, and to associate, empathize, and internalize the needs of others, whether they are family, the disempowered, the dispossessed, or the impoverished. The path of Divinity is one in which our attitude toward life is centered on a dynamic of forgiveness, not vindictiveness. And forgiveness itself is not possible without an attitude of benevolence, empathy, and goodness. 


The most remarkable thing in this passage from Surah al-Nur is how innate and primordial the values of Divinity are to our very core. How sensible, intuitive, and natural is the understanding of the path of the demonic as the antithesis to the path of Divinity. The demonic is not forgiving, reasonable, rational, or benevolent. The demonic is not informed and knowledgeable. Indeed, the demonic is ignorant, quick to judgment, and all that represents darkness in human life.


Al-fahsha wa al-munkar (Q 24:21). Although the language of the Qur'an was natural to the Companions of the Prophet, and very close to their epistemological being, their awareness, and their consciousness, they still sought clarification from the Prophet. “How do we recognize the path of Divinity beyond caring for those who are needy, disempowered, displaced, and dispossessed? Even beyond forgiveness, is there a methodology that can help us to more concretely avoid ‘Satan’s footsteps,’ the path of the demonic?” The Prophet explained to his Companions that one is not truly a believer — meaning one has not truly submitted to the path of the Divine and avoided the path of the demonic — unless they treat people and interact with people in the way that they would want to be treated. If you were an orphan, the needy, a relative, the refugee, the displaced, dispossessed, or the indigent, what would you want? That is the path and the methodology for Divinity. 


When we speak from a position of self-entitlement, anchored in privilege and unable to think of what we would have demanded, expected, and wanted if we were like those who are suffering, this is exactly the warning about remaining “pure” (Q 24:21). If you can no longer empathize and internalize the suffering and need of others, then you are far closer to “Satan’s footsteps,” to the path of the demonic, than the path of Divinity. 


God does not follow the discourse on following the path of the demonic by saying, "Well, so long as you accept God and the Prophet as your savior, then you do not have to worry about the demonic." There is nothing in the Qur'an of that nature. In fact, we find in the Qur'an a direct challenge to the idea that if you accept anything as your savior, then you have attained salvation. Nothing in the Qur'an tells you that if you follow the sha’ir (Q 22:32; 5:2), you have attained salvation. The sha’ir are the basic rituals of Islam, and what God says about the sha’ir is that they are an exercise in piety (Q 22:32). Even if you practice the rituals of the sha’ir but are unable to avoid al-fahsha wa al-munkar and are oblivious to the needs of relatives, the needy, the dispossessed, the displaced, and you neither think about them nor ponder what they need or are going through; if you are a vindictive human being who contributes to corruption on earth rather than benevolence, forgiveness, kindness, and mercy, then the rituals will avail you nothing. You will be among those who uphold the rituals but still follow in the path of Satan.


God and his Prophet have emphasized so much that our relationship to Divinity and the quality of our relationship with God is fully contingent on how we care for and assist others. Not by superficial displays of symbolism or formalistic, outward acts, but by a genuine, pure ethic of care and kindness. When this is so clear in our Divine book, how is it that we Muslims find ourselves, day after day, in situations that are completely remote from this ethic of care that defines the path of Divinity?


Recently, I read about a boat filled with 160 Rohingya refugees, who, after having escaped Myanmar, were going to Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a poor country, and the conditions of the refugee camps for the Rohingya in Bangladesh are horrible. In these camps, not only do refugees suffer extremely high rates of disease, infection, need, and starvation, but there is the constant threat of sexual assault and being trafficked by modern slavery rings. Many women and children end up being trafficked because of the extremely overcrowded and poor conditions of the refugee camps in Bangladesh. Many Rohingya try to escape these refugee camps in Bangladesh and ride the sea to try to reach Indonesia, Malaysia, or Singapore. These boats are not seaworthy. People often end up stuck on these boats for months at a time as the various countries refuse to take them in. As a result, many perish, dying on these boats from disease and starvation, because no country will allow these boats to come to port.

In this particular incident, 160 people are on board a boat that has been stuck at sea for three weeks. Human rights agencies are warning that people are dying. Women and children are dying in this overcrowded boat, without food or water, from starvation or disease. 20 people are suspected to have already died on this boat. I wish this was an exception. With a little bit of research, however, it turns out that this is a fairly common occurrence. In a previous incident, 300 Rohingya on a boat that escaped from Bangladesh trying to reach Indonesia ended up stranded at sea for six months. Eventually, Sri Lanka took that boat in. But by the time Sri Lanka did so, around 30 women and children had already perished during this six month period. The true number is suspected to be much higher.


Pause and think. These are Muslims. I have already talked about this numerous times. Islamophobia has exploded on the scene. We have so many extremely wealthy, politically motivated Jews, Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists pouring money into creating this industry that demonizes Islam and Muslims. As a result, there is not only Islamophobia in Europe and the United States. It is not only Donald Trump who rides on an anti-Islamic, Islamophobic propaganda campaign, but we have genocides in China and Kashmir, pre-genocidal conditions in India, a genocide against the Rohingya, and steady waves of anti-Islamic bigotry and anti-Muslim racism, so much so that it even reaches into the realm of absurdity.

When a soccer player like Lionel Messi wears a robe that they call a bisht in the Gulf countries, we witness that the amount of hate directed at an article of clothing associated with Arab and Muslim culture, whether authentically or not, is astounding. It reveals that Islamophobia has truly fed a racism industry. Imagine if Messi would have worn a yarmulke, a sombrero, or any article of clothing associated with any other culture in the world that is not Arab or Islamic. No one would have dared to say a single word of criticism. Everyone would have intuitively known that to do so would be pure racism and bigotry.


Time and again, you have heard me talk about how the enemies of Islam have sunk billions of dollars into maligning this religion and planting, cultivating, and feeding hate against Muslims. You have heard me talk about how wealthy Muslims at every level are absent from the game. Wealthy Muslims spend money buying technology firms, sports groups, luxury items, and fancy mosques. But they are absent. The Qur'an and the entire Islamic tradition teach us that Muslims should take care and help those who are disempowered and in need, Muslim and non-Muslim. At a very basic level, we must feel and care for our fellow Muslims. What do you do, then, when you find that that is absent? What do you do with the truth that there is a considerable amount of racism in why we tolerate the abuse against the Rohingya? They are not White people. They are not like the masters or the colonizers. They look dark-skinned, poor, and undesirable. So the entire Muslim world sits and watches the genocide against the Rohingya, against the Kashmiris, against the Uyghurs.


What do you think will be the dynamic in the Hereafter when God tells us, "Your fellow Muslim brothers and sisters were stranded on a boat for six months, children and women dying, and at the end, Sri Lanka, a non-Muslim country, took them in. All the while, you Muslims were for the most part oblivious and absent"? Are we really going to tell God, "God, we followed in the footsteps of Divinity. God, we avoided the footsteps of Satan,” when God has made it very clear what is needed for us to have the plausible claim that we avoided the footsteps of the demonic?

What can look more demonic than being stranded on a boat? As they starved to death, as children perished, can you imagine the amount of du‘a’s that were uttered by these men, women, and children? Can you imagine the amount of pleading and begging with God to save them? Can you imagine what they thought about their fellow Muslims as the suffering continued, day after day? Have we avoided the footsteps of Satan? Have we avoided the demonic path? Have we clearly delineated, marked, and set out the path of Divinity? Have we clearly helped create an association in people's minds between the path of Divinity, beauty, and goodness? Or do we contribute to a largely confusing picture about the difference between the Divine and the demonic in the world in which we live?


What do we do with the Qur'anic message? What more can God do with us other than deny us free will and act for us? But if God denied us free will and then either rewarded or punished us, that would be the definition of injustice. With free will comes responsibility and accountability, and the only way that free will can maintain its moral status is to perform what is moral and ethical. God has made it clear that what is moral and ethical is to get beyond ourselves, to transcend our own pettiness, and to care where we should care.


Yet again, in the world in which we live, beginning December 18th at the start of Hanukkah, Jewish extremists converged on and violated the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Marking their eight days of Hanukkah, starting from December 18th, Jewish extremists made it a point to underscore that they neither recognize nor honor Muslim claims over the al-Aqsa Mosque and so they violated the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque to send a clear message to Muslims that our claims and our sanctities mean nothing to them.


Meanwhile, in what has now become a routine event, two Palestinian brothers were killed by another Israeli extremist. They were run down and killed by a car whose driver intentionally targeted them in the Qalandia refugee camp in Jerusalem. What of Israeli justice? A recent report says, "In the past five years, in the numerous incidents where Israeli soldiers or Israeli settlers have been accused of abusing or murdering Palestinians, indictments have followed in less than 1% of the hundreds of complaints received." In fact, the story goes on to say that from 2017 to 2021, the Israeli military received 1,260 cases of alleged offenses committed by Israeli soldiers against Palestinians. 409 of these cases involved the killing of Palestinians. But, according to Israel's own data, criminal investigations were opened in just 248 cases and, ultimately, only 11 yielded indictments. Even among the indictments, only a small percentage got convicted. And in the overwhelming majority of cases, those convicted received a suspended sentence.


The report goes on to note that indictments and convictions overwhelmingly occur only in cases in which the abuse was caught on camera and there was no way around dismissing the allegations. Even then, however, it is extremely rare for an Israeli who has committed abuse or murder against a Palestinian to receive an actual prison sentence. In fact, the report notes that at least 150 Palestinians have been killed, making 2022 the deadliest year for Palestinians in 16 years. In one particular incident, Israeli soldiers were caught on camera zip-tying a 78-year-old Palestinian American, a U.S. citizen who happens to be Palestinian, and who was later found dead. No medical care was provided to the 78-year-old, and the soldiers who had custody of the man claimed they had no knowledge of how he died. Ultimately, nothing happened.

At the same time, despite these grim facts on the ground, Netanyahu has announced that he has high hopes that during his tenure he will conclude a peace deal with Saudi Arabia and that relations between Israel and the Gulf states will be the best they have ever been. This reeks of the demonic. Yet, we still have Muslims who are so oblivious, so unthinking, so uncaring, that they cannot have an analytical bone in their body to evaluate what the UAE and Saudi Arabia are doing with Israel, and what the effect of this will be upon their fellow Muslims and their occupied lands.


Remember that God tells us not to follow in the footsteps of Satan (Q 24:21). You have to have moral vigilance. You have to have a moral consciousness. You have to be able to tell the difference between making peace and betraying your holy sites and your Muslim brothers and sisters. You have to be able to ask yourself why is it that when Israel had the greatest success in signing the so-called “peace agreements” with Muslim countries, the same year was the deadliest year on record? Why is it that that same year, Israel annexed more lands than ever before? Why is it that that same year, Israel elected the most fanatic and extremist government in its history? Without some analytical core, without some moral discernment, we cannot claim to avoid the path of the demonic.


We invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. The Taliban have since returned to power, and Iraq is corrupt and not a democracy. We may pause and think, of course, "What was the American adventure in Iraq and Afghanistan for?" We have killed thousands. We also destroyed the lives of thousands of young Americans who were taught to butcher and then brought back to civilian life. We killed an unknown number of Afghans and Iraqis. Many perished in bombings, and many were killed and buried in the desert or in mountains. Only God knows the true numbers. Thousands upon thousands of Muslim lives were lost, and for what? We have created a divided Iraqi society between Sunni, Shi'a and Kurd which is the worst it has ever been. Part of dominating Iraq was to play one against the other — what colonizers have long been doing. And after murdering thousands upon thousands in Afghanistan, the Taliban are radicalized more than ever before.


Think of the long struggle of murder, counter murder, deaths, pillaging, and raping. What do you think is the result of all the sexual assaults committed in Afghanistan? It teaches Afghans to be more radical and militant. So, now the Taliban has banned Afghan women from attending universities. I am sure that in their mind they are still fighting imperialism and colonialism. In their mind, keeping Muslim women ignorant and illiterate is a blow against imperialism and colonialism. But what is truly sad is that the invasion was in the path of the demonic. What we did in Afghanistan was part of the demonic. The inability of Muslim countries to do anything about our imperialist policy in Afghanistan and Iraq was part of the demonic. What we have accomplished is part of the demonic, and what the Taliban has done in banning Muslim women from attending university is also in the path of the demonic. 


Do I need to say that the Prophet said that education is the right of every Muslim man and woman? Do I need to say that there is no basis in Islamic law for banning women from obtaining an education, and that the only reason that people like the Taliban think they are scoring points for Islam is because of the way they were unnaturally and artificially radicalized and drawn to fanaticism as a result of the amount of violence and aggression they have grown up with? All of this is in the path of the demonic. We can only fight the demonic with moral consciousness and ethical anchoring. The only way is to listen carefully when God tells us that we must have an ethic of care, of speaking the truth, of caring for what is right, and of upholding what is good. Only that can help maintain us on the Straight Path (Q 1:6) 01:06:04], not the path of Satan (Q 24:21), as God has repeatedly warned us.


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