The word “a‘raf,” from which Surah al-A‘raf (Q 7) takes its name, has many layers of meaning. One layer of meaning are the signposts, the earmarks, or the signals that differentiate falsehood from truth. A‘raf could refer to the faculties of discernment and knowledge. It could also refer to people known, discerned, and distinguished. The thrust of Surah al-A‘raf itself focuses on those folks who can and do understand, who can discern falsehood from truth, but who, despite their abilities of discernment and understanding, end up being entirely ineffective. They end up contributing to what is wrong and false. Not because they do not understand, but largely because of their apathy and inaction.
If you really want to know the ins and outs of this surah, refer to the commentary I have given on Surah al-A‘raf in Project Illumine. In the midst of Surah al-A‘raf, we encounter a most fascinating verse that deserves pause and reflection, especially in our current age. God describes those who have ruined themselves because they have not taken their convictions seriously; they have enough faculty and discernment to know right from wrong, but because of their inaction, they have been swept away. Because of their inaction, they have made themselves suffer the sins of others. Because of their inaction, the actions of others that they failed to resist or put a stop to have led to destruction, and this destruction, in turn, has swept them away.
Tell them about the example of a person who has received God's guidance… (Q 7:175)
This individual was situated in a place where they received the truth, and the context of the Qur'anic discourse indicates that this person not only received the truth, but recognized the truth. But after having recognized the truth,
…and who then discards it… (Q 7:175)
Because of this person's lack of affirmative and vigilant upkeeping of and service to the truth, it is as if this person has allowed themselves to slip away from the truth. The Arabic in the verse is a most fascinating expression. It is as if the truth was a cloak that they once wore, but it shed away as if it disintegrated incrementally and in pieces. This person failed to take the actions that would prevent the truth from slipping away from their persona. What is the result of this person who once wore the garb of truth but who was incrementally disrobed of the truth?
…Satan catches up with him, and he strays, like so many others, into grievous error (SQ 7:175)
The result is that Satan, the demonic and all it represents, pursues and follows this person. In this example, Satan did not initiate the action of loss, but Satan is a reaction to loss. This person was not made to follow Satan. Rather, Satan followed this person. The context tells us that once having lost hold of what the truth connotes, this person has made themselves a very attractive and compelling target for Satan.
Having seen the apathetic, pathetic state of this person, and seeing this person as a valuable target, Satan diligently pursues this target. While this person once had discernment of the truth, they let the truth slip away and become a target for Satan because of their own initiative, not because of Satan's initiative. As a result, Satan now pursues this person, and they become a person who is no longer reachable or accessible to guidance or light.
There is no means to reach them, for they have convinced themselves that they are on the right path. They hardly notice that the truth has long slipped away, and that they no longer live in the light of God. In fact, they are now accompanied by the darkness of demons. The darkness of demons has become a characteristic earmark of this person, so much so that they become like a dog who keeps panting (Q 7:176). Whether you chase the dog or leave the dog alone, the dog pants, meaning that there is no way you will be able to affect the conduct and behavior of this person.
The worst type of moral and ethical loss is a loss in which the immoral or unethical person is completely oblivious to the fact that they are, indeed, immoral and unethical. They are oblivious because they have allowed themselves to live in the world of mere declarations. They say all the right things. They declare, announce, and proclaim the truth. But does the truth have any bearing upon their conduct? Does it, in fact, translate into ethical and moral conduct? No. "I live for justice. I love justice. I adore justice. My whole being is about justice." This type of talk could become a drug. The talk itself could become your sufficient reward. It tickles and deceives the inner senses by convincing you that because you have made the right declarations, you are indeed a moral person. But you live in a world of declarations, so much so that your senses have become stunted and apathetic to what actually happens in the material world around you. You are so convinced of your goodness because you declare, pronounce, and repeatedly affirm the right things. But because of your inaction, and because your declarations are not confirmed by your moral and ethical choices in life, your relationship to the morality and the ethics that you declare has become twisted in such a way that you are the master of the ethics that you declare belief in, instead of the ethics being your master. You live in a world in which you assume that whatever you do, whatever you decide, by the virtue of your declarations, is, indeed, the moral and ethical thing.
Ponder the fact that God says of such a person: "if thou approach him threateningly, he will pant with his tongue lolling; and if thou leave him alone, he will pant with his tongue lolling" (SQ 7:176). Whether or not you advise them, ask them, or pursue them, they do what they want because they believe that whatever they decide and whatever action they take defines morality, rather than the other way around. God describes this person not as a person who follows Satan, but as a person who is followed by Satan (Q 7:175).
This is truly mind-boggling. God is telling us that the person who makes a conscious decision to act immorally, who intentionally chooses evil, who chooses to follow Satan, yes, is of course a shaytani person, obviously so. But what is truly a dangerous paradigm is the person who does not follow Satan, but who is followed by Satan. Satan seeps in and becomes this person's companion, although this person has never really made a conscious decision to follow Satan. What is truly a worrisome situation is the type of person who makes all the right declarations, who talks the right talk, but whose relationship to morality has become so skewed that ethics and morality are no longer sovereign. Rather, this person declares themselves to be the sovereign, and morality and ethics are contingent and dependent on that sovereign person. So, whatever they choose is the moral and ethical thing. God tells us that the person who creates this deceptive, corrupt, and foul situation is so evil that, effectively, they have become worthy of Satan's companionship, although they never wake up to the fact.
In the same surah, we are told of the story of Moses after Moses returns from the Mount and finds that his people have gone astray. God mentions a “tremor” (Q 7:155). After Moses takes action to bring his people back to the worship of the one and only God, Moses and his people are beset by a “tremor,” a test. Some sources say it was a natural event like an earthquake or a plague that tested Moses and his people. In praying to God for relief, Moses says, "God, I know that it could be that we suffer the consequences of the error committed by the believers” (Q 7:155). In this context, Moses is referring to those who saw their fellow co-religionists go astray and worship the calf. When Moses went to the Mount, many of his followers went astray and reverted to worshiping a false god. The group that Moses is talking about are those who did not worship the false god, but who failed to take action to prevent their co-religionists from going astray. They saw their fellow men and women going down the wrong path, and they decided not to confront them, not to create problems for themselves. They apathetically sat on the side and let Satan have his way.
Moses recognizes that people could earn God's wrath because while they talk the talk, they fail in every other regard. Their sin is the sin of obfuscation and confusion. It is one thing when people are clearly making the choice to do what is wrong and are not apologetic about following the path of wrong. But it is even more sinister and evil when the path of darkness is promoted by the inaction of those who claim to be the defenders of truth, justice, and light.
Imagine being in this category of human beings whom God describes as worthy of being followed by Satan. To my senses, this is most astounding. God repeatedly talks in the Qur’an about evil people who make the choice to follow Satan, but God then alerts us to something even more troubling, more devious, and more problematic: those people whom Satan looks at and says, "Wow, I love you. I love your very existence. You are so twisted, foul, and wrong that you are worthy of being followed by me. You are worthy of me seeking your companionship, rather than the other way around."
We often find people who make declarations of piety, who display pietistic affectations, who are able to litter their speech with the symbolism of religious talk. If their pietistic talk does not translate into affirmative moral choices that impact the world around them, however, know that these folks are worthy enough for Satan to take them as an example in life, for Satan to celebrate their very existence. This is because they fulfill all aims and goals of evil far more effectively than those who make the public, affirmative choice of being evil.
I have followed the week's events and, as usual, my mind is boggled. If I were to speak about all the events that have transpired in just one week, I would need hours. And everything that I say about this week's events, I will have said before. This is the nature of the plight of Muslim speech in our day and age.
The same people who constantly talk about the Salman Rushdie affair and how Muslims do not understand freedom of speech regularly act to censor freedom of speech against themselves. When Muslims do it, it is a sign of how reactionary, barbaric, and hindered Muslims are. When they do it, however, they are upholding lofty principles of “anti-discrimination” and “anti-racism.” The Biden administration, for example, nominated a well-known and accomplished attorney, John Cavallaro, to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But it then withdrew the nomination, because Cavallaro has said something that many people in the human rights field already know: that Israel is an apartheid state. What happened to Cavallaro is not an isolated incident. This is a quite common incident. If you say anything close to the truth about Israel, you will be censored, silenced, and punished.
Do you choose to talk about the fact that there are Muslims that tell us, "Do not worry about the United States moving its embassy to Jerusalem," or, "Embrace the United Arab Emirates and its ministry of tolerance, its defenders, its ideologues, and its apologetic theologians"? Do you talk about countries like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt that are falling over themselves to please the Israelis? Do you talk about the fact that Israel has announced new settlements in the West Bank, further annexations of Palestinian lands, further colonization of Palestinian territory?
Do you talk about the United States’ hypocritical and meek response of saying it is “dismayed” that Israel plans to colonize more Palestinian territory? Do you talk about the fact that at the same time it expresses dismay and regret, the United States vetoes any resolution in the Security Council condemning Israel theft and annexation of Palestinian land? Do you talk about the fact that, like every week, we have become accustomed to and, in fact, largely immune to the news of more Palestinians shot dead? Mahmoud Al-Aydi, 17 years old, shot dead in a Palestinian raid. I have a whole list of names. Amir Bustami, 21, shot dead in a Palestinian raid. Do you talk about the fact that despite the long line of Palestinians killed every week, no one cares? There is never an investigation or a response. There is never even so much of a condemnation.
Do you talk about the fact that Israel has just approved a law that strips Palestinians of citizenship in Israel if they are accused of activity considered “disloyal to the state of Israel,” however defined? Do you talk about the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court in the supposed democratic country has upheld the constitutionality of this law, a law that clearly discriminates between Jewish and non-Jewish, a law that clearly says if you are Jewish, there is no way the state can strip you of your citizenship? If you are not Jewish and suspected of “disloyalty” to the Israeli state, however, then the state can strip you of your citizenship and make you a stateless person. It is a violation of international law, without even a shadow of doubt. It is a violation of every human rights convention and treaty. Not only does the state strip them of citizenship, but it deports them to Gaza, and no one cares. No one cares, definitely not the U.S. government.
Do you talk about the fact that a Palestinian activist, Issa Amro, was being interviewed by an American journalist when he was assaulted, humiliated, degraded, and beaten by an Israeli soldier on camera? The American journalist tweets in response to the atrocity that was captured on film: "I never had a source assaulted in front of me until today when an Israeli soldier who stopped my interview did this." The tweet continues, "...I cannot stop thinking how dehumanizing the occupation is on the young soldiers charged with enforcing it." Notice that the American journalist does not say, "I cannot stop thinking about how dehumanizing the occupation is on Palestinians." No. His response to the beating is, "I cannot stop thinking about how dehumanizing it is to the Israeli soldiers." Could you invent a more eloquent and profound statement of racism than this?
What happened to the Israeli soldier that assaulted the Palestinian on camera and beat him? He was sentenced to 10 days in detention, but only God knows if he actually served them. Ben Gvir responded to this punishment not by unconditionally condemning the Israeli soldier, but by condemning the Israeli court that sentenced the soldier. In fact, Ben Gvir celebrated the Israeli soldier as heroic. He stated on Twitter: "I fully support the soldier who did not remain silent. Soldiers deserve to be backed up, not jailed." This is Ben Gvir, the person who was received, celebrated, and treated with high honors in the Emirates. This is the same government that so-called scholars today, all over the United States and elsewhere, tell us, "Why can we not just get along? What is wrong with the Israeli government? Why can we not just make peace?"
What do you talk about? Do you talk about the fact that the BBC showed a documentary that memorializes what everyone in the human rights community already knows: that Modi's government in India was directly responsible for the murder of thousands of Muslims? Not just the murder of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat, in fact, but the raping of thousands more Muslim women. Thousands of Muslim women were sexually assaulted. To all those people who think that the world of Islam centers around the hijab, what about the fact that thousands of your sisters were sexually assaulted and hundreds more continue to be sexually assaulted? When the BBC showed a documentary that simply memorializes facts that have been documented by human rights organizations everywhere, including the fact that Modi's government was directly responsible for the murders and rapes, Hindu lobbying forced the BBC to backtrack and forced Elon Musk to take down all references to the documentary on Twitter.
No one talks about how Hindus do not understand freedom of speech. No one talks about how the Hindu religion needs to be reformed so that it is less fanatic and abusive.
What do you talk about? Do you talk about the Prevent program in the UK, and the long-awaited release of the William Shawcross review of the Prevent program? The highly influential Shawcross report into the Prevent program was issued, and its recommendations were accepted without reservation by the British prime minister. The problem is that Shawcross's report is highly Islamophobic. Shawcross tells the British government that right wing ideology, Nazism, and fascism are not the real danger. Instead, it is “Islamic extremism” that poses the real threat to the UK and to the rest of Western civilization. It is a 200-page report about the evils of Islam and Muslim immigrants, about how the British government must be vigilant in surveilling, monitoring, and prosecuting Muslims for all types of things. And the British prime minister accepted the conclusions of the report and its recommendations without reservation.
Do you talk about the fact that former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, was appointed by Trump to head a commission that is supposed to write a report on the state of human rights, and that Hamza Yusuf was appointed, through this commission, to work under the leadership of Pompeo? Pompeo, in a highly publicized event, has just affirmed Israel's biblical right to Palestine. He did not even stop there. Pompeo described President Abbas, who has been a loyal servant of the Israeli occupation for years, as a “terrorist.” “You do not make peace with terrorists, you destroy terrorists.” So if Abbas is a terrorist, what about the rest of Palestinians? Pompeo said, in effect, "Why is Israel apologetic about settlements and occupied territory? Israel should not be apologetic. All of Palestine was given by God to the Israelis. The Israelis have an unreserved biblical right to the entirety of Palestine and the Palestinian people do not exist." Does this affect a single Muslim? Does a single Muslim put things together and think, "Wait, the Emirates, Saudi, Israel, Pompeo, Hamza Yusuf, and Bin Bayyah…?" No.
Do I talk about the fact that Israel has a military unit? Israel does not jail its religious extremists. Nor does Israel torture or electrocute them. Israel does not go around talking about “political Judaism” and its dangers to the world. Israel does not go around saying, "Jewish fundamentalism is a threat to world civilization." Instead, Israel accommodates its religious extremists. In fact, it created a military unit in which the ultra-orthodox can serve. The problem with this extremist military unit is that it is responsible for a long list of atrocities against Palestinians, the last of which is the murder of a 78-year-old American citizen, Omar Asad, who lived in Milwaukee for 20 years.
After raising his children in the United States, Asad decided to retire to his homeland, Palestine, only to one day be stopped by this ultra-orthodox unit, and killed. A 78-year-old man. His family—who are also U.S. citizens—have been trying, begging, and pleading for the State Department to start an investigation into the murder of this 78-year-old American citizen, to absolutely no avail. They hired a prominent human rights lawyer who has been unable to get justice. There is an article that focuses on the fact that, according to American law statutes, the United States is forbidden from funding abusive military units. So, the United States is meant to tell Israel, "You cannot use our money to fund the military unit responsible for a long list of atrocities against Palestinians." But is this American law being enforced? Absolutely not. And does anyone care? Absolutely not.
All of this reminded me of Surah al-A‘raf, because God put us in a rational world with rational laws in which actions have consequences. Moral decisions have consequences, just as the lack of moral decisions has consequences. God tells us in Surah al-Baqara:
And spend [freely] in God's cause, and let not your own hands throw you into destruction; and persevere in doing good: behold, God loves the doers of good. (SQ 2:195)
God tells us to not cast ourselves into ruin, to not cause our own destruction. But how do we cause our own destruction? The answer is by failing to spend in God's way (Q 2: 195). If you do not translate your moral talk into moral action, then, like the Israelites with Moses, you will suffer the moral failures that come as a result of your own apathy and hypocrisy. Do not think your apathy and hypocrisy make you less evil. In fact, you are so evil that you become worthy of being an example to Satan. Satan is not your example, you are Satan's example.
Think of the millionaire, Jeffrey Yass. Instead of using his millions to organize meaningless conferences wherein Christians get together and engage in meaningless acts of symbolism; instead of giving long speeches about, “You are my brother, you are my sister”; instead of talking rhetoric and nonsense; Yass has bankrolled a think tank. This think tank is not housed by affectatious, self-declared mullahs and imams who graduated from the Bayan Institute or some other idiotic, low class, low intellectual product-type institution. Rather, it is housed by top-notch lawyers and political strategists. This think tank is responsible for all the recent Netanyahu laws that would rob Palestinians of citizenship and make them stateless if they engage in conduct “disloyal” to the Israeli state. It is also responsible for defending the law before the Israeli Supreme Court and getting the Court to uphold the law.
Jeffrey Yass's think tank is also extremely active in affecting all levels of government with a simple, straightforward, and compact message: if you describe Israel as being an apartheid state, you are an antisemite. This think tank is manned by people with the highest degrees in law, political science, and economics, who are paid top-notch dollars to go around with a simple, immoral, but effective message: if you criticize the Israeli occupation, you are an antisemite. If you say anything critical of Israel, you are an antisemite.
I sit and ponder. Jeffrey Yass has made millions. Jeffrey Yass could have decided to give these millions to his children and grandchildren. He could have decided that he needed an extra mansion in France or Aspen. He could have decided to buy a second or third airplane. But no, he decided to give millions of dollars to highly accomplished professionals to create and run a think tank that is highly effective at putting political pressure and, when leading at the intellectual level, working out the false intellectual claim that any criticism of Israel is equal to antisemitism. It is an erroneous message, but is done very effectively.
I think back to Surah al-A‘raf. I think back to our rich Muslims who have millions in wealth. I think back to what they spend their millions on. I think back to how ineffective our organizations and institutions are. Recently, I saw a famous Muslim figure in the United States in a video that had 80,000 views. The title of the video was, “Why Allah Allows an Earthquake like the Earthquake in Turkey and Syria.” I swear by God, who is my witness, that I could not understand what the man was saying. His speech was full of inconsistencies and contradictions. It was replete with “Subhanallahs” and “Alhamdulillahs” and all the religious fizzle. But it was absolutely lacking in any intellectual content. Yet, it received 80,000 views.
Help me figure this out. What is wrong with us as Muslims? How have we reached this state? Why is it that it is easy to find wealthy Muslims who give all the pietistic talk, but when it comes to action, their actions invite Satan to follow them? They are so immoral, in fact, that they are masters for Satan, not the other way around.