At a critical point when Muslims were in a period of transition from a persecuted, subjugated, and dominated life in Mecca to the start of a new chapter in Medina, where Muslims would assert their dignity, demand their autonomy, and engage the world in order to craft into it spaces wherein the light of God can shine, God tells Muslims very clearly and unequivocally:
O YOU who have attained to faith! What is amiss with you that, when you are called upon, "Go forth to war in God's cause," you cling heavily to the earth? Would you content yourselves with [the comforts of] this worldly life in preference to [the good of] the life to come? But the enjoyment of life in this world is but a paltry thing when compared with the life to come! If you do not go forth to war [in God's cause] (la tanfiru), He will chastise you with grievous chastisement, and will place another people in your stead - whereas you shall in no wise harm Him: for, God has the power to will anything. (Q 9:38-39)
The word “tanfiru” (Q 9:39), from the root nafara, means to rise up and proceed with great energy and deliberation. Nufur does not necessarily define what a person is doing or accomplishing as they rise up with great energy and deliberation. At this point, God could have said, "O believers, if you do not fight in God's way, such and such will happen." But the choice of words is quite remarkable because it resonates through the ages. If we fail to be deliberate, energetic, and assertive; if we fail to exercise the requisite level of energy in serving God's cause; if we fail to serve the cause with all due diligence, deliberation, energy, and power; then God quite bluntly tells Muslims of the consequences. God will allow all types of torments to fall upon us. Not only that, but after we sustain calamity upon calamity, disaster upon disaster, God will ultimately replace us altogether. God will choose another group to serve God's purposes on earth. In having failed ourselves in serving God's cause, we are replaceable and entirely forgettable. We take away nothing from God. We add nothing to God.
Religion is often accused of being the “opiate of the masses.” It is quite true. Religion, in modernity, has often been used to subdue the masses, to get people to accept a fate they should not accept, a fate that is unbecoming, one in which they are subdued, dominated, and degraded. Religion easily falls into the trap of advocating to the disempowered and dispossessed, “This is your fate because your God willed it to be so, and you have no other choice.” But it is entirely incomprehensible when that phenomena takes place where Muslims are concerned because Muslims, in very unequivocal terms, were put on notice by God that it is upon us to rise up, to demand our rights, and to exert the investment, energy, willpower, and hard work in God's cause. God chose the word “infiru” (Q 9:38), which is far broader than “qatilu,” which means “to fight.” Infiru is to simply rise up energetically. It means the nufur, the energy applied, could be applied in a fighting or military sense. But it could equally be in the pursuit of knowledge. It could be in the pursuit of art. It could be in the pursuit of anything, so long as it is done with utmost deliberation, effort, and energy. So long as it is done with a clear purpose of serving “in God's cause” (Q 9:38). So long as the effort and energy is dedicated to God.
Revelation demands rising up, deliberation, energy, and effort to serve God's cause, so much so that we are told very clearly, “Either do this, or you are entirely replaceable.” Nothing, however, is as tragic as misdirected energy and power. So this begs the question: how do we ensure that if we rise up energetically and powerfully to serve God's cause, we are, in fact, doing the right type of action needed under the given circumstances that confront us? This is common sense.
In the last khutbah, I said that Muslims are like slaves in a slave ship sailing to a penal colony. On the slave ship, the slaves can rise up with all due deliberation and energy. Unless they have awareness or are anchored in proper consciousness, however, they could rise up to achieve utter futility. They could rise up, for instance, to demand that women and men be separated on the slave ship sailing to a penal colony. What is the value of that type of nufur? They could rise up to demand that they have sufficient water to perform wudu’. Considering the circumstances, this is utterly futile and pointless. They could rise up and even take command of the ship, but if they do not know the art of sailing or possess the requisite knowledge to turn the ship around so that it does not go to the penal colony, then they have, again, achieved futility.
The Qur'an talks to rational, presumptively intelligent people. When God says, “Rise in God’s cause” (Q 9:28), the onus is on us to understand our reality and have the requisite technical knowledge so that if we commit to a nufur, it is a nufur with purpose and a cause. It is, ultimately, a nufur that achieves God's purposes—instead of a theatrical mimicking of an attempt to achieve God's purposes.
Again, if we rise up but do not have the technical knowledge to navigate the ship after we take it over, then we will be lost at sea, and nothing will be achieved. What if we become so accustomed to subjugation that we do not even notice the shackles on our ankles, and think that the most important thing, under the circumstances, is to separate men from women on the slave ship or ensure that women are properly covered in hijabs? Imagine God gazing upon the slave ship carrying Muslims to a penal colony. Imagine if God listens in on what these enslaved Muslims say to one another. Can you imagine if the slaves on the slave ship heading to a penal colony believe that their plight will magically end if all the women on the ship become properly attired? Can you imagine if the slaves on the slave ship believe that their plight will magically come to an end if they straighten their lines in prayer, or if they pray enough Sunna prayers? Can you imagine if the slaves on the slave ship, instead of noticing their subjugation and the true nature of their plight, are instead saying, "Well, it would be a good thing if the ship sinks so that we can all go to Heaven,” instead of rising to change their circumstance?
This is so much like the affairs of Muslims in the world today. Ariel Sharon was directly involved in the massacre of Sabra and Shatila. Because he is Israeli, however, instead of being tried as a war criminal, he was celebrated in his country and repeatedly elected to office. Twenty years ago, when Sharon violated the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque, the Muslim world exploded. His visit to the al-Aqsa Mosque sparked an entire intifada. Twenty years later, in the past few days, Ben-Gvir, the man who is part of Netanyahu's government, just did what Sharon did 20 years ago. He again violated the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque. This time, Russia, China, and even the United States are raising the matter in the U.N. Security Council. But there is no Palestinian intifada. There is no uproar from the Muslim world. The matter is being raised in the Security Council.
By now, we all know the drill. If the Security Council drafts a resolution to condemn Israel, it will be vetoed by the United States. Even if it is not vetoed and the Security Council condemns the government of Israel, so what? Israel knows the game extremely well. “So what? Go ahead, raise it in the Security Council. Go ahead, have your little deliberations. Go ahead, talk about how Jerusalem is occupied. Talk about the ’67 borders, the West Bank, and Gaza, and so on and so forth. Go ahead, have your little games. If that is your nufur, good for you.”
Twenty years ago, there was an entire intifada. Today, nothing happens. Why? It is because over those twenty years, Israel has gained complete control of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Over those twenty years, Israel, not the Islamic waqf that is responsible for the al-Aqsa Mosque, decides who comes in and who does not come in, who has access and who does not have access to the Islamic holy site. Palestinians no longer have easy access to the al-Aqsa Mosque. Israelis do, and Israel regularly allows Jewish extremists to violate the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque. But it does not stop there.
2022 was the bloodiest year for Palestinians. In 2022, 167 Palestinians were killed. 31 of them were children. This is the bloodiest year since the second intifada, but it is also the year of the Abraham Accords. It is also the year in which Israel achieved unprecedented acceptance in the Arab world. Only yesterday, another Palestinian was killed by Israeli forces. They are the fourth Palestinian killed since the beginning of 2023. We are less than one week into 2023, yet this is already the fourth Palestinian to have been slaughtered by Israeli forces in Israel or Palestine.
Meanwhile, regarding the new extremist government of Netanyahu, a parliamentary member who is also a member of Ben-Gvir's party, Zvika Fogel, explained recently that, "It is time to achieve the total subjugation of Palestinians. It is not sufficient that we wage war against Gaza every two or three years. We have been too merciful and too kind. We need a total war to totally subjugate Palestinians." He then comments, "It would be worth it, because this will be the final war. After that, we can sit and raise doves and all the other beautiful birds that exist." An Israeli soldier who fatally shot an autistic Palestinian child was just promoted instead of being court-martialed. There is another article about this.
Israel has been digging under the al-Aqsa Mosque for fifty years, trying to find any archeological evidence for its claim that the al-Aqsa Mosque was built over the site of the Jewish temples that were destroyed by the Romans. In fifty years of digging, they have not found a shred of evidence. But it does not matter because they can talk about a total war against Palestinians and they will not be branded as Jewish extremists. They will not be put on any terrorist list. They will not be blacklisted anywhere. They will not even be banned from entering the United Arab Emirates or, in due time, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. They are now entering Sudan, Bahrain, or Morocco. They will not be put on no fly lists. They will not be demonized by the media. You can talk about a genocide and an apartheid against Palestinians, and there will be no consequences. After all, Ben-Gvir himself is on record calling Muslims nothing but animals, referring to them as hardly human. Yet Ben-Gvir is welcome in the US, Britain, France, the United Arab Emirates, and, in due time, will be welcome in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are no consequences.
It is not simply the issue of the al-Aqsa Mosque. What does God do about a people who fail to protect the sanctity of what God has told them is sanctified? Collectively, as Muslims, the world continues to communicate to us that we have no rights, that we have no dignity worthy of observing.
Recently, Sweden closed down close to 20 Islamic schools. One of the schools was closed because a board member, who is Syrian, visited Syria to see his family. When he returned from Syria, the Swedish government said, "We do not know if this board member harbors extremist views," and so they closed down the Islamic school. This, of course, is after France closed down countless mosques and Islamic schools, after Switzerland did the same, after Denmark did the same, and after the Netherlands did the same. Now Sweden is on the same track. Time and again, the world communicates to us Muslims, “You are indeed on a slave ship heading to a penal colony. Collectively, as Muslims, you do not have the right to have your beliefs, your sanctities, your narratives, and your identity honored or respected. You are presumptively suspect, and you will remain presumptively suspect because you are racialized, dominated, and erased.”
So when God tells us “infiru” (Q 9:38), under these circumstances, what does God want? Does God want us to pick up a gun that we do not even manufacture, to shoot bullets that we do not even manufacture? Does God want us to use a technology that we have imported and do not pioneer? Does God want us to explode the bomb? Far from it. Neither bullets nor bombs. But this is a world of intelligent power and the intelligent flow of information. It is the world that can construct a Muslim as a scary terrorist while portraying a Ben-Gvir as simply a Jewish Israeli with some excesses, that is all. It is the world of information and narrative. That is the true power. The true nufur is the construction of intellectual knowledge. The true person of nufur is able to dominate and prevail in this game.
Time and again, we come to the same problem. Wealthy Muslims do not spend for their cause. When they do spend, they often exhibit a most fascinating phenomena. If they spend money in God's way, they spend it to perform a nufur in which they, themselves, using their money, are center stage of the nufur. If they are a medical doctor and they finally do spend in God's way, for example, they expect that because of this money, they will have a seat on the Board of Directors, or they will be the center of the think tank or Islamic center. Why should a dentist or doctor give khutbahs? Why is this a phenomenon? Quite simply, it is because the doctor, the dentist, or the owner of a store in this day and age, instead of spending money to enable those with the proper abilities, spend the money to center themselves in the heart of the nufur.
They do not understand that in this day and age, a dentist, a medical doctor, or an owner of a store simply do not have the epistemological sophistication, the layering of knowledge, to be effective in today's world. The nufur of this age is that you spend money to empower those who are otherwise qualified—not to empower yourself or create a theater in which you play the leading role. So long as we do that, we will remain on the slave ship sailing to a penal colony. We will remain distracted, indulging the performances of rich people in an otherwise comical theater that simply distracts us from the horrible fate to which we are heading.
For many years, I worked with a very good man at Human Rights Watch named Kenneth Roth. After having run Human Rights Watch for 30 years, and as a staunch advocate of human rights, Kenneth Roth has earned the enmity and hostility of dictators all around the world. After announcing his retirement, he was approached by the Carr Center at the Kennedy School at Harvard. The Kennedy School is an extremely influential school. It is a very influential think tank because it has great influence on foreign policy and foreign policy makers. Sadly, the Kennedy School has recently become tangled up with the intelligence community in the United States, the CIA, and also with Israeli intelligence, the Mossad. But within the Kennedy School, there are centers like that which offered Kenneth Roth a position that focuses on human rights issues, rather than on issues that empower the United States to continue to be a hegemony and colonial power in the world.
Unfortunately, as I expected, the appointment of Kenneth Roth at Harvard was not approved. It was not approved because during his tenure as the Director of Human Rights Watch, Roth, though himself a Jew and the son of Holocaust survivors, and though vigilant in condemning all types of human rights violators during his long tenure at Human Rights Watch, committed the unforgivable sin: he criticized Israel as a human rights violator. In fact, on the human rights scale where different countries are scored, Israel achieves a score of three or four every year, putting it in a class with Angola, Colombia, Turkey, and Zimbabwe. Although Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the U.N. itself has noted that Israel is, indeed, an apartheid state that treats Palestinians as a subjugated second class, none of that mattered. The Dean of Harvard denied Kenneth Roth a position because of his criticisms of Israel.
There is a very important article that I hope people will read called “Why the Godfather of Human Rights Is Not Welcome at Harvard.” But what caught my attention in this article is how it describes how various parties have influence at the Kennedy School at Harvard, and how they gained that influence. The article describes in some detail how various wealthy Jewish investors donated millions of dollars to the Kennedy School to care for the causes that they care about, i.e. Israel. Millions of dollars were given by wealthy individuals who otherwise are not center stage — unlike Muslims, they do not give money and then demand to be the center of everything; rather, they give money to empower those who are qualified to play a role in politics. As a result, they can sit back and watch how their cause is served.
As always, I wonder, “What is it? Why are we so full of ourselves?” Others give handsomely to their causes. Hindus, Buddhist, Bahais spend handsomely to empower their causes. Islamophobia has exploded on the scene. We see the effects of Islamophobia from China to India, from Myanmar to Sweden, from France to everywhere. Yet wealthy Muslims will spend money on the condition that they get to give the khutbah on Friday. So long as they get recognized as a grand imam of sorts. Imagine if they were to spend money to support talents. Think of the benefactors who supported Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, or even the benefactors today who buy Stradivarius’ violin for millions of dollars. What do they do with the violin they bought for millions of dollars? They loan it to qualified virtuosos to play the violin. Imagine if these rich people, instead of loaning the violin to qualified violinists, insisted that they themselves are going to play it. This is exactly what Muslims do. Instead of spending the money to support a Bach, imagine if that wealthy person said, "I will support the arts, but I have to be recognized as the central composer”—all the while they have no talent. They are not a Bach, a Mozart, or a Beethoven. Just imagine.
This is precisely what Muslims do. Muslims do not support students studying at Princeton, Harvard, Yale, or my school, UCLA. They do not support academics at any prestigious institution. They want to spend the money so that they can become center stage of the Islamic theater, of the Islamic nonsense. So we end up producing tragicomedies, because we perform theater on a slave ship heading to a penal colony.
What is it that makes a committed Jewish person give Harvard $30 to $40 million? What are Muslim spending money on? Cristiano Ronaldo got a contract for 170 British pounds from Saudi Arabia. Messi got a contract for $122 million from Saudi Arabia. Another recent story tells how Saudi Arabia spent millions of dollars to influence how Wikipedia portrays the Saudi regime. God said “infiru” (Q 9:38), but the Qur'an addresses reasonable, rational people.
What can the Qur'an do? What can God do if you tell people to “Rise in God’s cause” (Q 9:38), but the person receiving the message is neither rational nor reasonable? They say, "Yes, I am a dentist. Yes, I own a sports shop. Yes, I know nothing, and yes, I read nothing. Yes, I am ignorant, but I am going to pretend that I am God's gift to the world. I am going to spend money so I can play center stage. Yes, I would not even understand what people are talking about in places like Harvard, Yale, or Princeton. Yes, I cannot even follow what is being said in a proper intellectual lecture. But it does not matter. My understanding of nufur is all about me. I must be God's gift to the world. I must be the liberator of Jerusalem, so I am going to pretend that I play that role and my fellow Muslims will clap and do takbirs."
Meanwhile, the slave ship keeps sailing to the penal colony. A voice comes out of the darkness, saying, "People! My brother and sisters! It is not about hijab. It is not about separating men and women. It is not even about whether we have straight lines when we are praying. It is not whether we are given water to do our wudu’. We are on a slave ship heading to a penal colony!" But Muslims look at this person and say, "Why are you bothering us? We were indulging in our crazy fantasies of make-believe. Let the Palestinians be murdered. Let the al-Aqsa mosque be violated. Let the Muslims perish in the concentration camps in China. Let Muslims perish as refugees from Myanmar. Let Islamophobia close centers and mosques all over Europe. Let Islamophobia carry someone like Trump to power. Let all of that happen. Just do not disturb our fantasies on that slave ship sailing to a penal colony."