The Garb of Truth and the Courthouse of the Self

In so many passages, the Qur’an addresses itself to the People of the Book generally and, quite often, to the Israelites specifically. A well-known principle of Qur'anic hermeneutics is that whatever is addressed to the Israelites or the People of the Book is a priori addressed to Muslims themselves. As we know, God often speaks to the Israelites or the People of the Book to warn Muslims about a precedent. In Surah al-Baqara, for instance, when speaking to the Israelites, God says: 


And do not overlay the truth with falsehood (la talbisul haqqa bilbaatil), and do not knowingly suppress the truth; (Q 2:42)


Do not confuse what is right. Have a clear awareness of what is haqq, meaning what is right and what is truth. Do not obscure issues. Do not confuse issues. The very expression “do not overlay the truth with falsehood” conjures up the image of dressing falsehood in the garb of truth, and obscuring truth by offering falsehood as if it is the truth. This is underscored by emphasizing the instruction not to conceal the truth.


The greatest danger when reading moral exhortations like this is to construct them within paradigms of meaning that render them alien and remote. But this exhortation, like so many Qur'anic exhortations, is far from alien and remote. We do not need to devise a conspiracy in the darkness of the night to obscure, falsify, or conceal the truth. Most of the time, people do not actively or intentionally conspire to conceal the truth. All that needs to happen for falsehood to be dressed up as truth, for truth to be obscured and treated as falsehood, and for truth to be silenced, is for there to be an unwillingness to speak out and a lack of clarity in our understanding. In a word, a lack of moral consciousness. It is as simple as that. 


Morality and correct ethical thinking is like a muscle. If you exercise your muscles, your muscles become robust, strong, and healthy. If you do not exercise your muscles, your muscles wither away to become unhealthy and weak. The remarkable thing about moral thinking is that it needs practice. Those raised to think about what is right and wrong, those accustomed to think about distinguishing truth from falsehood, have sharpened and honed their moral sensitivities. That is why those raised in a moral paradigm are more easily offended by what is immoral and wrong, while those taught to be apathetic eventually lose the ability to respond to immorality. In fact, they are often no longer able to differentiate between right and wrong.


God underscores throughout the Qur'an how past nations who received God's covenant and trust faltered. We are accustomed to thinking of them as actively and maliciously corrupting the text. But this is only one aspect, and the errors of those who previously received the covenant are often exaggerated. What is far more prevalent and pervasive is for those who receive the covenant to simply tire of moral judgment. They find it easier to surrender to the apathy of disinterest, isolation, and exceptionalism. God tells us in Surah al-Shura (Q 42): 


blame attaches but to those who oppress [other] people and behave outrageously on earth, offending against all right (bi-ghayr al-haqq) (Q 42:42)


God points the finger and says that those who deserve true moral condemnation are those who oppress and commit injustice against others.  How straightforward and simple. The best translation of this verse is that they conduct themselves regardless of what the truth calls for. In other words, it is as if they ignore al-haqq. It is not that they are sworn enemies of al-haqq. They just ignore it. They are oblivious to it. But that state of disinterest as to right and wrong will invariably result in something very concrete: injustice. 


Notice how God assumes or relies on a people who can recognize injustice. The words of the Qur'an mean nothing if God speaks about those who “commit injustice” against people, but the recipients of the Qur'an, the Israelites of today, Muslims, do not recognize “injustice” when it exists. And even if they recognize it, it is not a priority for them. It is not at the forefront of what they deem necessary to expend their energy addressing. What then becomes of the Qur'anic discourse? 


God tells us that they “behave outrageously” in how they traverse themselves upon this earth without the truth. They are active on this earth, but they have no use for the truth. They are not engaged with the truth. It is irrelevant for them. It is something that does not engage them. It is something they do not expend energy upon. Take, for instance, the current folks in Afghanistan, the Taliban. Do they recognize the way they treat women? Do they recognize their obsession with oppressing women, secluding women, shutting up women, silencing women, and keeping women ignorant, ill-educated, marginal, and irrelevant? Do they recognize that as an injustice? What does the Qur'an mean to a people who cannot comprehend? What does the Qur'an mean to a people whose conscience has died? 


This week, a news outlet reported that the academic, Awad al-Qarni, has been sentenced to death. Other news sources say he has not yet been sentenced to death, but the prosecutor is demanding the death sentence. The truly shameful thing is that I could not ascertain the truth. I could not even find out if someone of the caliber of the Saudi intellectual Awad al-Qarni has, in fact, been sentenced to death. Why? Partly, it is because the “Guardian of the Two Holy Sites” is a government without transparency. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, it is because of the overall disinterest of Muslims. Awad al-Qarni is not a minor Muslim intellectual. He is a Muslim intellectual who has distinguished himself by thinking outside the box. He is a man who has steadily and repeatedly defended the basic notion that human beings have rights and that despotism is the antithesis of Islam, that the Prophet was not a despot, that the average Muslim would be offended if one was to describe the Prophet as a despot, and that that very fact tells us a great deal about what we Muslims know intuitively—that despotism is a bad thing, that the antithesis of despotism is a good thing, and that is why we always try to portray our Prophet as a man of freedom and a man who respected people's rights.


Think of the irony. We innately and intuitively know the Prophet was not a despot, and we are offended by the idea. Yet Muslims in Muslim majority countries have long ceased to be offended by despotism. Despotism, in fact, has seeped into our families and our cultural institutions. For being a serious thinking intellectual, this man, Awad al-Qarni, since 2017, has languished in prison, and Saudi Arabia has long demanded the death sentence for him. His son is reported to have said that he has been sentenced to death, but short of calling his son to ask him directly, which I did not do, the disinterest and simple lack of care from Muslims—the silence—is deafening.


I am nearly certain that this will be the only khutbah in the United States and Canada that raises the simple yet enormous issue of the blood of a scholar. The blood of a scholar may be spilled by the so-called “Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines,” we could wake up one day to find that Awad al-Qarni has been executed, and yet we are a people who meet such travesties with absolute silence. Can you give me a better image of people who obfuscate the truth? Who dress falsehood in the garb of truth, and truth in the garb of falsehood, simply by doing nothing? As always, the only people talking about the news of his possible death are human rights organizations. The State Department, like Muslims, is more than happy to look the other way. How do we describe a people who not only refuse to talk about something like this, but who consider it a far greater priority to talk about how dogs are unclean or how music is haram, all the while the blood of a scholar is at risk? God warns us about those who treat people unjustly (Q 42:42). But what does it mean when the Qur'an says this to Muslims and Muslims, even when the life of a scholar is at risk, are silent? The silence of graves.


What about another rumor? This is a rumor that Saudi Arabia plans to destroy part of the mountain of Uḥud to build a hospital. The area is huge, and I assure you that Saudi Arabia does not need to destroy the historical site of the mountain of Uḥud to build a hospital. Since coming to power, the Saudi government has systematically destroyed Islamic historical sites while protecting, preserving, and registering under the UNESCO pre-Islamic historical sites. I am not kidding. The Saudi government has refused to allow any Islamic historical sites to be under the auspices and guardianship of UNESCO. It has only registered pre-Islamic historical sites. It has done so because it has systematically destroyed 99% of the historical sites inherited from the Ottomans. A rumor now comes that they are planning to destroy the mountain of Uḥud. Why? Ever since coming to power, the Saudi government has intentionally sent a message to the entire Muslim world, the same Muslim world that may still remember the days when Mecca and Medina were the collective responsibility of the entire Muslim Ummah: “This is Saudi Arabia. It is not just Najd, but also the Hijaz. Forget centuries of the past. Forget the fact that Muslims, for centuries, considered the Hijaz as having a special status. In the same way you have forgotten Jerusalem, forget Hijaz. Hijaz is Saudi, in the same way that Arabia has become Saudi, i.e. belonging to the family of Al Saud. This is no longer Arabia. This is no longer the land of the Prophet. This is no longer the land of God. This is the land of Al Saud. Get it into your heads. It is not Ottoman, Egyptian, Indian, or Yemeni. It belongs to the family of Saud.” The point of this message is to disenfranchise Muslims enough to quit their claim of any ownership in the Hijaz.


“Do you hold these historical sites dear? Well, we will destroy them. They are no longer there. What are you going to do? We have been running Saudi Arabia since the '60s. From the '30s to the '60s, we flirted with the Muslim Ummah and continuously repeated the jargon of, “Hijaz belongs to all of us” and all of that good stuff, but since the '60s, we have been sending a very clear message to the Muslim Ummah: ‘Forget your collective claim to the Hijaz. The Hijaz is no more. It is all the land of Al Saud.’ To disabuse you of any notions otherwise, we will simply destroy the historical sites that would constitute the source of a headache for us.”


Again, I tried to verify the rumor and get information about something that belongs to all Muslims; the Mountain of Uhud, the mountain where the footsteps of the Prophet were tread, where the blood of the Prophet flowed, where the blood of Companions and the martyrs of Islam flowed. Again, I could not verify it because the Al Saud monopolized the flow of information. But more importantly, I could not verify it because Muslims have grown accustomed to confronting events in life, including events that constitute great travesties against Islam, with utter silence. The silence of grave sites. Again, I am nearly 100% sure that this will be the only khutbah in the U.S. and in Canada, maybe even in the entire Western world, that raises the issue of possible Saudi plans to destroy the mountain of Uhud. 


I go back to the image of the people who dress up falsehood to appear as the truth, and obfuscate the truth to appear as falsehood. People, do not silence the truth (Q 2:42). This is what God tells us. There are people who do not speak the truth, do not address the truth, do not seem to care about what the truth is. There are people who perhaps do not even recognize the difference between truth and falsehood anymore. There are Muslims, for instance, who may be confused, “What is the big deal about destroying Uhud? Did the Saudis really destroy 99% of Islamic historical sites? Does the Hijaz not really belong to the Saudis? Was it not always like this? ” Do you see how easy it is for falsehood to become confused with truth and for truth to be obscured into falsehood, just because people are silent? Just because Muslim parents did not raise their children to think critically and analytically? To search for the truth and attest to the truth? To confess the truth not just in their families, not just in their schools, not just in their institutions, not just in their Islamic centers, but even between themselves?


The first place where the truth is lost is when you stop confessing to yourself what the truth is, what you should care about, and what you need to care about. When you grow tired, when you are burnt out, when you say, "Can I not just enjoy life?"—as if God put you on this earth to enjoy life. God put you on this earth to testify to the truth, and the first courthouse where your testimony is relevant, pressing, and important is the courthouse of the self. The first space where you must testify to the truth is the space within the self. If the truth is not heard by the self, if the self is not reminded of the truth, if the self grows weary, tired, exhausted, and apathetic, then the truth becomes lost. The first place where the truth is lost is within the self. If the truth is lost within the self, there is no truth to be shared with others. We then end up with the silence of grave sites.


Yes, the truth. How else do you explain? Look at the regular news that keeps hammering down on our heads. 15 Palestinian-owned shops located at the entrance of the town of Hizma, near occupied Jerusalem, have been destroyed. A 14-year-old boy was shot in the head and killed by Israeli forces. This brings the number of Palestinians killed just last week to nine. So far, 14 Palestinians have been killed since the start of this year alone. Alongside that, over 200 Palestinians are at risk of forced eviction in Khan al-Ahmar as more Palestinian territory is grabbed by extremist Israeli settlers. More Palestinians are being evicted and forcefully removed from their homes and land to become displaced human beings, to become a people without a home.


At the very same time, we find this news: “Israel wants to bring Saudis into ‘circle of peace’, says Netanyahu.” Peace. Do you see how wonderful the Israeli “peace” is? How did we get to the point that someone like Netanyahu can kill Palestinian children, evict Palestinians from their homes, and still have strong relations with multiple Muslim governments? There is, in fact, another report, this time from the U.N., about the Secretary General of the United Nations strongly condemning extremist settlers who tore up and burned copies of the Qur'an near the Ibrahimi Mosque in the city of al-Khalil, Hebron. How did we get to the point that someone as conniving and sly as Netanyahu can talk about “peace” with the Emiratis, Bahrainis, Moroccans, and Sudanese? He can talk with Americans about peace while systematically murdering Palestinian children, destroying their homes, and evicting them from their lands. 


It is because he knows that Muslims will not notice the contradiction. Even if they notice, they will not care. And even if they cared, they would not speak up. He relies on the silence of Muslims for the contradictions and falsehood to be passed as truth. Look at how apt the image of the Qur'an is. This is a perfect situation in which talk of peace is, quite literally, falsehood dressed up as haqq. You know it. I know it. Netanyahu knows it. Everyone knows it, Netanyahu, like Jared Kushner and so many who deal with Muslims in foreign affairs, know that they can count on the fact that even if Muslims recognize the truth, and even if they have relative freedom and safety in their institutions in the West, the relationship between Muslims and truth has become so distorted and so deformed that they will not speak up. They know that around the world there will only be a handful of khutbahs that will talk about Omar Mutfi Khmour, the 14-year-old boy shot in the head. They know very well that the relationship between Muslims and haqq has become broken, and that is precisely why haqq, truth, has such a precarious and elusive stance among Muslims.


I was reading an article about Saleh al-Talib, a former imam of Mecca’s Masjid al-Haram. This imam dared to render advice to the government of Saudi Arabia in one of his khutbahs, so he was sentenced to 10 years. He was first tried and acquitted, but Saudi Arabia has a truly remarkable institution. If someone is tried and acquitted and the government does not like that they were acquitted, the government can refile charges and retry them. So, this imam had charges refiled, was retried, and was then sentenced to 10 years in prison. Upon hearing the sentence, he protested that the judge did not give him an opportunity to be heard. The judge told him, "I am going to add another 15 years for protesting." So now, he was sentenced to 30 years in prison. Upon hearing this, he told the judge, "Fear God." For that, he was sentenced to another 15 years in prison. So a khutbah in which he rendered modest advice to the Saudi government has led to a sentence of 45 years in prison, which he is now serving. This imam used to lead prayer in the Haram in Mecca. He used to be a well-known imam in Saudi Arabia. I searched to see how many Muslims are speaking out with the sensitivity and awareness that this is a special space, that the Hijaz has a special status? Whether injustice reigns supreme in the Hijaz or not is of concern to us all. It cannot be that we sold out Jerusalem and now we are also selling out Mecca and Medina as well.


I do not need to tell you that while human rights organizations protested the unjust way this imam was treated, hundreds of Muslims keep talking about the usual nonsense; whether Jordan Peterson is a good ally; whether Jordan Pierce, who converted to Islam, is a true brother; whether music, dogs, women, lipstick, and nail polish are allowed. 


Go back to a people who are supposed to be the recipients of the final message, the bearers of the final covenant. Those who are supposed to bear witness for God in justice and to bear witness for justice in God (Q 5:8). What does the word haqq mean to them? Do they even recognize haqq between them and themselves? Are they offended by injustice between them and themselves in that private space that is only penetrated by God, the space of the conscience? What is there? What is in that space?


How do we think about core sanctities like the Hijaz, Jerusalem, the value of Muslim life, and the value of Muslim scholars? What does all of that mean? Have we all become Bin Bayyah? Have we all become Hamza Yusuf? Have we all drunk the Kool-Aid of the Emirates? Have we all become the servants of tyrants and despots? Have we all embraced the hypocrisy of not wanting to label our Prophet a despot but, at the same time, coexisting with and embracing despotism? How can it be?

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