Individual Excellence as Resistance

Greetings of Peace dear Friends,

I pray you are well! Unfortunately, Dr. Abou El Fadl was not feeling well enough to start our new halaqa series on "The Book of Illuminations" this weekend, but insha'Allah (God willing), we will begin next Saturday, 27 May at 6 pm ET. Once again, this halaqa will consist of Dr. Abou El Fadl's commentaries on the book, "Kitab Al Hikam (The Book of Wisdoms)" by Shaykh Ibn Ata'illah al-Iskandari. We often get questions from people who want to build a relationship with and draw closer to God, but don't know how to do it. Dr. Abou El Fadl's commentary on this text will address these types of questions - what we as individuals can do to take steps toward elevating to God. This text consists of aphorisms, or short statements of wisdom, that will serve as starting points for what I am sure will be fascinating and deep reflections, experiences, and wisdoms from Shaykh on his own journey of discovery and elevation. Last week, I mentioned that I ordered two other English translations to check out. They arrived this week: 



I noticed Shaykh looking at these and other texts in preparation, although he plans to teach from the original Arabic text. These English translations are simply for reference only for us non-Arabic speakers. :) I am excited to see how Shaykh will present this material, which I am certain will be enlightening and empowering.

On a related note, I wanted to call attention to the critical message that Shaykh imparted in the khutbah from 12 May entitled, "Muslim Exceptionalism and the Individual as Ummah" (see the edited transcript below). Week in and week out, Shaykh delivers the khutbah and spends a good portion of it recounting the bleak news and horrific state of Muslims around the world. A couple of weeks ago, we learned that the greatest population of refugees in the world are Muslims. The greatest percentage of orphans around the world are Muslims. Muslims as a people are arguably at their lowest point in history. We regularly grapple with the question, "What can we do?"

I was surprised to hear a different answer to this question from Shaykh than I have heard before. Let me excerpt from the khutbah transcript below:

"...None of us can change the reality of Muslims in one fell swoop. This age for Muslims is not the age of great leaders and great commanders like Khalid ibn al-Walid, Salah al-Din, or the like. This age is an age in which the balance of power is so stacked against Muslims that any grand thinking will very quickly be challenged by micro-complexities that are truly overwhelming and that will always lead to a sense of frustration, futility, and, ultimately, apathy. Why apathy? Because time and again, you may look around and find that things are so wrong but that you are incapable of changing anything. Collectively, Muslims are truly vulnerable. Time and time again, challenges confront Muslims, including challenges by rulers like those in the Emirates or Saudi Arabia who do everything in their power to manufacture Muslim futility and Muslim vulnerability throughout the world. When you know that acting collectively is a failed project, what is the most logical thing? You do not want to surrender to failure, so what do you do? You cannot change things at a macro level. You cannot change things through major strategic moves that alter the reality in big steps. 

This only puts a greater emphasis and importance on the role of the individual. This is not the age where sloganisms about 'Allahu Akbar' and 'Victory to Muslims' are going to lead us anywhere. What will change our reality is an ethic of individual excellence. What will change our reality is that we raise our children with an ethic of individual excellence, but that we also teach our children that, as individuals, they embody the entire Ummah. Their success is the success of the Ummah. Their excellence is the excellence of the Ummah. Their prosperity is the prosperity of the Ummah. Let me put it even more directly. In an age in which we see a corrupt autocrat throw away $300 million to indulge in an orgy while we struggle to find a few thousand dollars to support a Muslim cause, you are not going to be able to change the geopolitical reality that maintains this autocrat. But your victory is to excel as an individual Muslim, to become wealthy as an individual Muslim, and to spend the money you make as an individual Muslim in moral causes as opposed to immoral causes.

From the 1800s until this very day, a large percentage of the greatest artists that Europe has seen—the greatest musicians, pianists, violinists, cellists—were Jewish. Jews prevailed over their persecution. They prevailed over the stark reality of antisemitism and persecution through an individual ethic of success and excellence. Every Jewish mother would look at her child, if that child was gifted in music, and say, 'You owe it to the Jewish people to be the best you can be. Go be an Itzhak Perlman. Go be any of the great Jewish musicians of the past or present century. But remember, wherever you go, that you are an ambassador of the Jewish people.'

People have no clue the extent to which this process of ambassadorship can make waves. Today, you cannot be a part of the artistic world of classical music, for instance, without having to deal with and enjoy good relationships with the musicians of Israel, the Israeli symphony, and all the art that goes through the richness of Jewish identity. We must raise our children to say, 'You see, we are a broken people. We are a subjugated people. We are a disempowered people. Please understand that Mohammed bin Salman does not represent Islam. Mohamed bin Zayed does not represent Islam. They are not even Muslim. The ugliness that you see is not Islam.'

Islam is you. It is your excellence and your success. Do the best you can and be the best you can be, but do it for the sake of Islam and the Muslim people. This does not mean that you have to join any larger cause, but you do have to retain and remember within yourself that you are the embodiment of the living Islam. If the day comes in which there are millions of successful Muslims wherever you turn, in every field, then our reality as Muslims will change. If the human rights field today was populated by pioneering Muslims in human rights thought, then the travesty we witness in Gaza and all over the Muslim world would not exist..."

I was surprised, inspired, and empowered to hear this critical message, which in my understanding was a message of individual empowerment and individual excellence as a means of resistance and path to change. In essence, here is how I would paraphrase my own understanding of what Shaykh imparted: right now with the world as it is, we Muslims - as an Ummah or a collective - have the deck stacked against us, so to speak. Our path forward is as individuals who are thoroughly committed to excellence in every field (and according to the gifts God has given us). We should excel for the sake of God and Islam, and represent Islam as individuals who have achieved excellence for the sake of God in the service of God. Once we reach a critical mass, as committed Muslims representing Islam at the top of every field, then we will effect a change. We have been unleashed as individuals and unshackled from the collective for the sake of the collective. It is a powerful message that deserves reflection, consideration, and action.

And what better way to prepare oneself for the pursuit of excellence for the sake of God than a deeper understanding of the Qur'an (Project Illumine Tafsir), its applied ethics (ie. weekly khutbahs), and then on top of that, an engagement with the wisdoms for elevation? I am so proud that the work we do at Usuli directly contributes to the knowledge necessary for individual empowerment in this context. 

Thank you so much for being with us on this journey and supporting our work. The learning continues. Wishing you a blessed summer of enlightenment, empowerment, and an invigorating commitment to excellence for the sake of Islam! May God guide, uplift, and inspire you always! 

In Peace and Hope,

The Movement to Reinvigorate Beautiful and Ethical Islam has begun.  Join us.

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