The Lord reminds us in Surah al-Nahl that God commands us to persevere and anchor ourselves in justice. But beyond justice, God also commands al-ihsan, which is everything that is virtuous, moral, and beautiful, and that we are a constant source of comfort and succour to those who are related to us (Q 16:90). God reminds us in the same verse that God forbids and has commanded us to resist and oppose everything that is ugly, grotesque, and immoral (Q 16:90). God commands us to stand against everything that is unjust, tyrannical, and ugly. That is the heart and core of God's command to us.
Those who have been following Project Illumine and the tafsir of the Qur'an know that after a journey of some 20 years of research, reflection, prayer, and worship, it took some two years to relate that journey with the Qur'an. After these two years, we have completed the entire Qur'an in a commentary that follows the arc of the Qur'an, from the very first revelation to the very last revelation. The arc of the Qur'an tells those who are a product of their Maker—a product of the Master of the universe, the source of all life, the source of all goodness, the source of all light—that we have not been created in vain, and that we have been created by a merciful, vested God that wants the best for us. This is part of the moral process that binds us to God. Having created us, having given us consciousness, and having placed us on this earth, it is the nature of our moral relationship with God that we do not deny our Maker and Creator. That we fully acknowledge that our existence, the existence of others, and, indeed, the existence of the universe has an Owner and a purpose. That nothing is happenstance, nothing is pointless, and nothing is simply without meaning.
The arc of the Qur'an is to fully understand that every leaf, every bee, every ant, every created thing, from the smallest to the biggest, has a purpose and a source. The arc of the Qur'an is to teach us to look at an ant and say, "You have as much a right to be here as I do.” To look at a bee and to say, "I acknowledge that you are the by-product of a purposeful creation and a purposeful God. Your very existence is a moral act, a moral testament, in the same way that my very existence is a moral act and a moral testament." Indeed, everything in creation turns to the Lord in supplication and prayer. Everything that is created testifies to the glory of the Maker of this universe.
If you acknowledge your Creator, you learn to supplicate the name of your Lord. You learn to attest to the glory of your Lord. You are at harmony with your creation. You fully understand your place and the place of everything else as rightfully, purposefully, and meaningfully there. Everything has a meaning, a purpose, and a right. Everything and everyone has a dignity that is sourced from our very Maker. The arc of the Qur'an is to remind us that in the same way that God owes us a duty of justice, goodness, and beautification, in the same way God owes us the duty of the possibility of guidance, we owe God full acknowledgement and full gratitude for all that God owes us and all that God promises us.
If the relationship that ties us to our Lord is a moral one, then, a priori, every relationship that anyone has with anyone else must also be guided by morality. Again, our relationship to our Maker is, at its core, a moral relationship. It is about a God who benefits nothing from giving us what we have, who gifts to us with no return. And the gifts that God bestows upon us are gifts of ihsan, gifts that are truly virtuous beyond the obligation of justice which God promises us. To complete the moral circle, then, it is only ethical and moral that in response to all that God extends, we are grateful. Part of this gratitude is to be anchored in the moral virtue of humility and modesty. But if what defines our relationship to our Maker is a moral dynamic, then, a priori, every other relationship in existence must be guided by a moral dynamic as well.
Our relationship to our blood relatives must be fundamentally a moral relationship. Our relationship to our co-religionists must fundamentally be a mortal relationship. Our relationship to those who are not Muslim and to those who do not believe in God, and even to our enemies, even to those who hate us, hate our god, and hate our teachings, cannot escape the imperative of morality. Indeed, our relationship to every inanimate as well as animate object in existence, from the pebble in the backyard, to the trees, to the flowers, to every living thing, is fundamentally a moral relationship. The arc of the Qur'an is to first establish the moral precepts that guide our relationship to every animate and inanimate thing in existence. In fact, it includes even a moral relationship to our very selves. We are not free to abandon the dictates of morality even when we relate to ourselves. The moral arc of the Qur'an then teaches us that real virtue and a true fulfillment of our moral purpose is not possible without migrating to the sovereignty of the Lord, and without migrating to the realization that our dignity and the dignity of everything else is contingent on fully embracing the covenant.
The Qur'an gives a moral example after moral example of how past nations have gone wrong, and what we need to do to not repeat the errors of the past. This journey of the Qur’an ends with a fundamental moral question: what is the repast that you have inherited from your Lord? What is the legacy represented in the image of al-ma'idah, that final meal, the final inheritance (Q 5:112)? Do you really conceive yourself as no better than apes and swine (Q 5:60)? Are you irrational, covetous, and greedy beings who just want the Lord to send food and drink? Who want their relationship to the Lord to be one of, "I eat, so I thank”? Or is your repast, your ma'idah, something beyond that? Is what you truly covet the fulfillment of your intellect? Is it for your intellect to be fed, full, satiated, satisfied, and fully stimulated, and for your heart to be full, content, tranquil, and serene? Put differently, is your heart and mind in your stomach? Is your heart and mind in your loins? Or, is your heart and mind beyond your physical manifestation as a created being? Is the repast that you inherit a true fulfillment of elevation to the Divinity of the source, or are you stuck in your materialism, unable to transcend or comprehend anything beyond it?
It is clear, for those who followed the tafsir, that the moral arc of the Qur’an has the sound and the feeling of truth. There is something deeply innate and primordial that we all recognize in this tafsir. In the tafsir, we understand why every surah was given the title it was given. We understand the historical circumstances that God used as opportunities for education. Those who have traveled with this tafsir, if they truly paid attention, listened carefully, and absorbed the message of their Lord, are elevated. They are elevated in their relationship with their Lord. They feel and know God differently. They now experience God differently, something like what the early Muslims felt and experienced with God.
However, when you cover an entire journey and reach the near end of this journey, you must pause to testify. First, I testify to my deep shortcomings and inadequacies. No matter what, you carry the foreboding sense that you have not done your subject justice. For whatever you have accomplished, whatever you have studied, whatever you have offered, you know there is so much more. There is so much that is beyond you, so much that simply transcends you. You also testify to your own shortcomings, contradictions, and inadequacies as a human being. The message of God shames you, puts you in your place, and reminds you of how inadequate you are in relation to the grandeur and majesty of this message. This message is pure beauty, and you, who has borne this message to fruition, are a mixed product. You are far from pure beauty. You are a normal human mixture of weaknesses and strengths, of inadequacies and adequacy, of insights and a failure to live up to these insights. But what is also daunting is that any student of knowledge and history knows that no person wakes up and suddenly finds themselves backward, immoral, and highly inadequate on the moral plane.
They know that ugliness, injustice, and tyranny (Q 16:90) do not simply occur overnight. They know that it is God’s Sunna in creation to distribute talent and knowledge among the nations of the world in equal measure. Those who live in darkness, who live dejected and backward, who have lost sight of the light, who can no longer see the shining sun of morality emerging in their midst, who become the “swine and apes” of humanity (Q 5:60)—it does not occur overnight. It does not occur even over many nights. It takes centuries to become so morally dejected.
There is a dynamic that God reminds us of throughout the Qur'an. The final reminder is in Surah al-Ma’idah (Q 5). This is when people, time after time, waste the opportunities of beauty manifesting in their midst. Recently, I watched an eight-year-old performing in a European country. This eight-year-old is talented well beyond her years. She is singing soprano from a Pacini opera, an aria or a song that has been inadequately performed by many gifted sopranos through the ages. But this eight-year-old performed the aria like a master, with no formal musical training. The only training she had was in watching YouTube and imitating singers of this aria. Yet her performance was beyond majestic. People in the audience wept. I felt shivers up and down my body. After I watched this video, I researched what happened to this eight-year-old, and I saw the sheer amount of celebration and opportunities that she enjoyed after dazzling her audience with that performance. I saw the amount of fellowships, the amount of endowments, the amount of invitations, the amount of praise. And that is precisely why that manifestation of beauty will be sustained and protected. It is because of the existence of opportunities that encourage growth.
The Qur'an is our repast. The Qur'an reminds us to reflect upon justice, beauty, ugliness, and injustice. But we are a people that destroys talent. If there is a gifted person among us, we rush to send the message, "Gifted are not welcome." This is particularly so when it comes to our Holy Book. Those who know anything about the history of Qur'anic commentaries will know that the last major scholar to really say something original and new about the Qur'an was al-Razi. They will also know how much al-Razi was vilified, attacked, and demonized, although we pretend, centuries later, that al-Razi was always al-Razi in our midst. Imam al-Shawkani, who did not present anything as original as al-Razi, also lived a difficult life. He was vilified, attacked, and marginalized. Sayyid Qutb was executed. Shaykh al-Sharawi presented original thoughts and observations. Nothing systematic or consistent, but original ideas about portions and sections of the Qur'an. Today, in his home country, when someone wanted to offer a theatrical play based on the life of al-Sharawi, the Egyptian government banned it. Shaykh al-Sharawi today is vilified in his home country. Hassan Farhan al-Maliki, who has original and interesting insights about the Qur'an, is sitting in a Saudi prison. Muhammad Asad, who produced an original translation and commentary on the Qur'an, was unrelentingly attacked, marginalized, ignored, and demonized. I remember when Muhammad Asad was still alive. I remember the backbiting and the chatter that would tell you, "Do not read Muhammad Asad. He is a mubtada‘ (innovator). There is bid‘a (innovation) in his Qur'an.”
No people find themselves ugly overnight. What happens is that God distributes talent and knowledge in equal measure in their midst, and they then send a message to God, "Talent, not welcome. Originality, not welcome. True knowledge, not welcome. Insight, not welcome." How do they send this message? By not supporting what deserves to be supported. The issue is not to support anything Islamic. It is to have the intellectual probity to know the difference between someone who sings a very complicated and difficult aria and does it exceptionally well, and another novice who does a hack job. It is easy to say, "He sings and she sings, and it does not matter which of them I support," but it is the plight of ignorance and backwardness to not be able to distinguish what is truly good from what is mediocre.
We are a people plagued by ugliness. There is ugliness wherever you turn, wherever you look, and I put the fault squarely in the lap of Muslim capital. Why do I blame Muslim capital? Because Muslim capital is miserly. Muslim capital is cowardly. Muslim capital is ignorant, egotistical, and arrogant. Muslim capital allows someone like Sayyid Qutb to be executed, and someone like al-Sharawi to be vilified. When God gifts Muslims with a tafsir that mines the heart of the Qur'an, that mines the true spirit and meaning of God's word, Muslim capital says, "Oh, that is nice. Let me go support a conference for the youth. Let me go support Claremont Bayan." What is ironic is that the money behind Claremont Bayan was initially going to support a systematic and serious intellectual endeavor. Who undermined the project? Muslims, with their petty jealousies and petty envy. Time and again, I see Muslim capital fail that challenge of civilization, fail the challenge of the message of the Qur'an. Muslim capital is cowardly, arrogant, and egotistical, and that is precisely why we are an ugly people. We do not provide opportunities, and we do not nurture genius in our midst. Genius threatens and scares us. Like Cain and Abel in Surah al-Ma’idah, we are exactly like the brother who sees God bless the other brother and says, "Why not me? Why should he get God's inspiration? What about him is better than me?” (Q 5:27-31). It is that he has insight.
We of course ignore, just like Cain, the investment that went into having true insight. We ignore the dedication that goes into having originality. We ignore the long hours. We ignore that as you were spending your time making money, someone else was skipping hours and hours of sleep, hours and hours of fun, hours and hours with the family, hours and hours of pursuing their career, researching, studying, pondering, reflecting, and worshiping. It is very telling, and it is personally very sad to me, that what supported this new tafsir—a tafsir that I sincerely believe is Divinely inspired—is not Muslim capital. It truly pains me that all those who supported this tafsir is not Muslim capital, but the average struggling, modest, moderate Muslim. The Muslim who pays $20 here or $100 there. The Muslim for whom writing a check for $100 is a very big deal.
These are the people who supported this tafsir. Not a single Muslim with real capital stood behind this tafsir, just as not a single Muslim with real capital stood behind the Conference of the Books when it was being born. But this has been our state for centuries. We are the civilization of awqaf, the civilization that was defined by its charitable trusts. Yet we have become a people who are grossly uncharitable. We have become a civilization in which those with capital have no insight, very little vision, and very little understanding.
As usual, the news continues to be a source in which the signs of God are constantly displayed and reaffirmed, if only we were a people who listened. Sweden recently supported a racist burning a copy of the Qur'an, describing it as an act that affirms the principle of freedom of speech. How telling it is that we who love to pretend that the world follows the philosophy of realpolitik and pragmatism. Just look at the position of the Swedish government. They are fully aware that supporting the right of a bigot to defame and insult the Qur'an is not politically smart. They know that they picked a fight with Turkey for no reason, and that doing so will earn them the ire of Turkey. They know that Turkey will oppose their joining NATO.
The logic of realpolitik. If the Swedes were Muslim, they would have said, "Let us do what is politically pragmatic. Let us not allow the burning of the Qur'an because, with pragmatic politics, we win more if we do not allow the burning of the Qur'an." But the sad reality is that the opponents of Islam are ideologues. Regardless of the political cost, Sweden was committed to seeing the Qur'an burn because it is consistent with its own ideology and theology. Only weeks after Sweden allowed the burning of the Qur'an, saying that it showed its "commitment to free speech," the Swedish government went to court to deny the right of an applicant who wanted to burn the Torah in front of the Israeli embassy. Sweden said, "We cannot allow the burning of the Torah because that is an anti-Semitic act." When the person argued, "But you allowed the burning of the Qur'an,” the Swedish government replied, "Well, that is not anti-Semitic. That is just freedom of speech.” The Swedish government is today in court because it does not want to allow the burning of the Torah.
I grew up being told by Westerners, "It is a sign that you are uncivilized. It is an indication of your backwardness that you want to support Palestinian rights by boycotting Israeli products.” Lo and behold, today, it is accepted all over the Western world that we ought to boycott Russian products because of Ukraine. Classical musicians refuse to play music with Russian musicians. Famous athletes, violinists, and pianists have canceled their engagements in Russia saying, "So long as the Russians are doing what they are doing in Ukraine, as a matter of principle, we will not play sports with Russians. We will not buy Russian. We will not play music with Russians."
I then direct the question: what is wrong with us? We did not boycott French products when we should have. We did not boycott Danish products when we should have. Now, we are not boycotting Swedish products. Yet we will still find plenty of Muslims who think that they are so smart when they say “Politics is one thing, business and commerce is another.” God presents us with living examples. Those we follow lead us down a path of hypocrisy, but we never wake up.
We still hear Anthony Blinken talking about how Israel is going to make “peace” with the Muslim world. Sudan has now moved to normalize relations with Israel with the blessing of the U.S. government and with the blessing of the supporters of the so-called “Abraham Accords.” Meanwhile, Israeli apartheid has become the worst it has ever been. A recent report discusses how Palestinian women are systematically and consistently assaulted by Israeli jail authorities, including sexual exploitation and sexual abuse. It is the worst it has ever been. Another recent article talks about how Ben-Gvir, the Israeli fanatic who is so warmly welcomed by the clergy in the Emirates, is ordering a shutdown of Palestinian bakeries all over the occupied territories in order to further isolate and destroy the economic autonomy of Palestinians. This, again, is under the Netanyahu government, the government of the Abraham Accords, the government of the “peace” of the Trump and Biden administrations.
It is well-known that Israel for years has allowed the Palestinian authorities to collect taxes from Palestinians but then confiscates, steals, and usurps a certain percentage of these taxes. The government of the Abraham Accords has just made the decision to double the amount that it confiscates from the Palestinian authorities. An important interview that I hope everyone will read is on Democracy Now! with Rashid Khalidi and Orly Noy. It discusses the escalation of Israeli colonialism, especially after the announcement of the Abraham Accords.
Meanwhile, as Palestinians continue enduring their suffering and misery, India has torn down a 500-year-old mosque. More Islamic history is destroyed, willy-nilly, around the world, and no one cares. There are no protests, no objections, nothing from UNESCO, nothing from the U.N., nothing from Muslim countries as the Hindu genocide against Muslims continues to escalate in India. The Egyptian government has even launched a new strategic partnership with India. They oppress us, and we reward them.
Finally, I must share a heart-wrenchingly painful report that, if Muslims had any ounce of commitment to justice and ihsan, as God teaches, they would pause, read, and reflect. It would change the very philosophies of their lives. It is a report about executions in Saudi Arabia. It reveals the extent to which Muslim governments give no weight whatsoever to the people they rule over. Saudi Arabia has announced that this Ramadan it will be funding a new drama series about Mu’awiya. The ostensible purpose is to bring Shi'a and Sunni closer together. MBS says, "Because I am the king. I rule over Shi'a and Sunni, and I want a united nation." He wants to bring the Shi'a and Sunni together in Saudi Arabia, then, but he does not tone down the diatribes about how the Shi'a are worse than Zionists and how the Shi'a are the true enemies of Islam? Saudi Arabia makes a drama series, but it continues executing Shi'a Muslims in Saudi prisons at an unprecedented rate. If you want to earn favor from your Shi'a subjects, how about not executing their leaders? How about not sentencing minors to death?
I go back and ponder. I have not heard too many Muslim voices talk about or confront the ugliness that keeps eating away at the Muslim body in the way that this podium has for years done so. I ask God, "God, who do my people support?" People testify with their money. The proof of people's piety is what they spend their money on. That is what sends the message, “We want to hear more from you” or “We want to hear less from you.”
God has chosen to place me in this period of Islamic history. If my experience is worth anything at all, if it attests anything at all, it is that Muslim capital does not celebrate the voice of honesty, the voice of frankness, or the moral voice of truth. Muslim capital does not celebrate or support the voice of ethics. Look at the Muslims chosen to be among the “Most Influential 500 Muslims” in the world today. In example after example, these are voices of silence, voices that tolerate atrocities and tyranny, voices that do not do their part in opposing tyranny. They are voices that render Islam immoral, without virtue or ethics, and make it so that there is nothing really beautiful about this faith. That make this religion a religion of dogma and empty slogans.
We have reached the end of our journey with the tafsir, but the scary thing is that the end of my journey with this tafsir is the beginning of the test to the Muslim Ummah with this tafsir. That is why for years I resisted sharing it. I knew the moral responsibility that follows from sharing this tafsir. Sometimes, when Satan comes and whispers to me before I go to sleep, I regret sharing it. I say to myself, "What is wrong with you? Why did you add to the sins of your Ummah? Why did you add to the sins of all the rich Muslim capital in this Ummah? Did this Ummah not have enough sins already? If God blessed you with knowledge, could you not just have kept it to yourself so you do not contribute to the sins of all those around you?"
May God forgive us all.