God instructs us, educates us, and attempts to guide us. God gives us in the Qur'an a very simple and straightforward—but also earth-shattering and overwhelming—instruction. God insists, time and again, that we cannot just self-identify as a Muslim. It is not sufficient to just say you are a believer. Taqwa (piety) itself needs to manifest in that very simple principle of ihsan, for God loves those who perform ihsan (Q 2:195) The best way to translate or even understand ihsan is to be beautifully good. It is to be beautiful in all you do and all you say. It is to excel in manifesting beauty and to embody what is beautiful.
Ihsan is not an abstract principle, and no amount of philosophizing can do it justice. It is an active principle. It is a principle of engagement in real life to always be good. But the very nature of goodness is situational. By definition, it is always contextual. If you live in a world in which you need a car for transport, and I only make a donkey available to you, that is not ihsan. Yes, I presented you with something good. In relation to context, however, presenting a donkey may have been an adequate fulfillment of an obligation to do good at some time, under some certain circumstances, but not under the circumstances that we confront. Or if people need literacy and an educational program that develops their intelligence, their ability to think, and their ability to analyze, and I present to them a means to attend parties, sing, and dance, am I among the muhsinin? Yes, I offered you something, but relationally, I offered you nothing. When God says that God loves those who do what is beautifully good, by definition, it is relational and contextual.
In a certain day and age, when there was no police force and no means of mass communication, when the risks to human safety often mandated highly patriarchal societies, because women outside the home were living at a time in which there were no means to call for help, no means of communication, no system of social safety or social security, quite often, in that day and age, the beautiful act was to guarantee women male protection. So to command men to dedicate themselves to the physical safety of women was considered an act of ihsan. In a different day and age, however, when the very nature of social life has changed, and women are not dependent on male physical protection, the same commands that once represented goodness now become oppressive and degrading to women. To tell a woman today that she must exist in the shadow of male protection is no longer ihsan. It is now oppressive, because the nature of life and human psychology has changed.
On the one hand, ihsan can be philosophically deep and complicated. On the other hand, when it is lived and practiced, even the most naive or the most uninitiated philosophically can quickly realize that ihsan is situational and relational.
You can read books of fiqh—books that were written for a very different age—and become like a meme. You can simply copy and paste what you find in these books to your own existence. You can uncritically assume that whatever you find in these books is an embodiment of being beautifully good. But you will soon discover that without major reconstruction, rethinking, and intervention, what you find in these medieval books, when presented to our contemporary society, no longer embodies or represents ihsan. Relationally, people need a car and you insist on offering them a camel. For those who are exotically minded or who exist in a self-imposed exoticism, they might find the gift of a camel very intriguing. They might even engage you about the gift of a camel, pretending that giving them a camel in today's day and age is beautifully good. But beyond the exoticism, in our lived experience, a camel in today’s day and age is woefully inadequate. It is thoroughly inapplicable and simply irrelevant.
The remarkable thing is that so many of those who are committed to being Muslim and who grow up with a clear sense of Islamic identity are taught and conditioned to set their analytical faculties aside as they engage the modern world in relation to Islam. Whatever their profession, it is second nature to them that whatever defines good must be situationally relevant. If they are a doctor, for example, they understand that prescribing a course of honey and olive oil to a patient would be irrelevant. They understand, in their profession, that in order to make a living and to engage society, they must engage the very principle of goodness in a way that is responsive to the principle of relevance. But when they engage the Islamic tradition, they are taught and conditioned to no longer see how society all around them is now dealing with cars and airplanes. Instead, they are taught to exoticize their thinking. The minute they step into the realm of Islam, they start thinking in terms of camels, horses, and donkeys.
What I am talking about is sweeping, and it is relevant to everything. It is relevant to how we think about criminal law and Islam. In our day and age, we know a great deal about human testimony and human witnesses. We know a great deal about due process. We know a great deal about the independence of the judiciary. We know a great deal about the right of representation. All of that embodies or represents the car that you need in the modern age. If you do not engage Islamic criminal law in terms of the epistemology of modern legality, then you are offering a camel to people who need a car.
The same applies to everything that relates to marriage and divorce. In this day and age, you still find those who think it is within the rights of a husband to force his wife to have sex. Centuries ago, the way people understood sexual relations, understood the principle of bodily integrity, and understood the rights of the physical body was very different than our sense of right and wrong today. Yet there are still people who think in terms of a wife’s duty to obey her husband, even if the husband's demands are unreasonable. The very language of obedience between husband and wife, in fact, in the vast majority of situations and relations today, is no longer relevant and cannot possibly be ihsan. It is, again, like a camel in an age of motor vehicles.
The very principle of ihsan demands that we de-exoticize Islam. It is not impressive to open a medieval book of law, read it, and regurgitate what you find. Not only is it not impressive, in fact, but it is fundamentally counter to the obligation that God places on you to do what is beautifully good. You owe God an obligation. You owe yourself an obligation. You owe your people an obligation to understand the objectives of the law, to understand the reality of our modern age, and then to present the law in the garb of what is beautifully good in the context of the historical moment in which we live.
Yet I want to make an even more subtle point. When God told you to believe and be beautifully good, God was speaking to you as an individual. To engage God's law, to think through God's law, and to offer God's law in the most beautifully relevant way takes years of study and training, because the charge of speaking for God is weighty indeed. To be able to dedicate and commit yourself to the rigorous demands of becoming a specialist in God's law—not just a specialist who reads and regurgitates like a meme, but a specialist who is capable of understanding what God is instructing human beings to do, engaging these instructions, and representing these instructions in the most beautiful way—takes years of training, dedication, and commitment. It takes years of silence, first and foremost, before you are qualified to speak. If you have not been silently training for 15 to 20 years and you start speaking about God's law, then you are in the wrong, for you are not qualified. But the vast majority of people are not expected to be experts in Islamic law, nor are they expected to somehow be representatives of God's law. The command to be beautifully good, then, is to you as an individual, as a simple, innate, intuitive human being. Every now and then, you may run into a situation where you need to know God's law. When that happens, you must find a truly qualified expert and consult with them about what God's law is. But you must always ask yourself, “Is this an expert who offers people camels or who offers people what is relevant to their day and age?”
I cannot tell you the number of times I receive messages from Muslim youth who are presenting me with a list of legal issues that I know bother them. "How about this in Islamic law, and how about that?” It is one of the things that deeply troubles me about Muslim youth.
My response to questions raised about law is this: are they relevant to actual problems you encounter in life? For instance, if someone who is not married presents me with a list of questions about alimony for divorced women, my response to them is, “Are you planning to get married and are you planning to get divorced after getting married?” “If you are thinking about alimony for divorced women, and this is not an issue that is confronting you in life, are you studying to be a specialist in Islamic law?” Almost every time, the answer is a clear no on both counts. They are not raising questions about problems that they actually encounter in life, and they are not students of Islamic law. Yet they grow up thinking that their relation to Islam is to think of Islam's problems and to somehow resolve Islam's problems.
I am here to tell you Islam does not have problems. Instead, Islam has problem people. Islam has interpreters who are problematic, and engaging these problematic interpreters of Islam requires years of study and dedication. In other words, what are you doing? You are taking on intellectual issues that are far greater than you and are far beyond the historical moment that you confront. None of it is either here or there.
If your iman (belief) is contingent on understanding the laws of divorce and marriage in Shari'a, rethink your faith. If your iman is based on impressions of legalities and legalese, then you do not have any iman. Iman is a relationship with God. It is a relationship with your Maker. Your obligation is not to answer these questions. Regarding the ideological challenges that you think face Islam, your obligation, as an individual, is to truly be a muhsin in how you carry yourself and in how you engage your world.
Not long ago, I was asked to speak to an association of Muslim lawyers. In my speech to these young law graduates, I underscored the obligation that each individual carries to serve the Muslim Ummah by individual acts of beauty. I underscored how each of these lawyers represents the Muslim Ummah in their very existence. During this talk, I was struck by the extent to which these young Muslim graduates are ideologically defeated. It is as if each one of them is either the greatest imam of the age, or they are nothing at all.
Let me share a story of how individual excellence can be manifest. God presents us with lessons and messages every day of our lives. American, Australian, and British forces committed war crimes and atrocities in Iraq and Afghanistan. As I mentioned before, it has proven impossible to get the United Nations to investigate any war crime committed by the U.S, Britain, Australia, France, or any other Western nation. That is because Western powers have consistently blocked any U.N. investigation or inquiry into these matters. Recently, there has been a great deal of attention about an Australian soldier named Ben Roberts-Smith. This Australian soldier is highly decorated. He was given the Victoria Cross, and he was honored by the Australian leadership. He also met the Queen and was honored by British royalty. He has been heralded as an Australian war hero for acts of bravery during the Afghan war.
Recently, however, it has come out that Ben Roberts-Smith, Australia's war hero, is in fact a war criminal. In Afghanistan, around 2012 and 2013, this same war hero committed atrocious war crimes in Afghanistan. In one such incident, during a raid, he found an Afghan farmer who annoyed him and threw that poor Afghan farmer off a cliff. He then went to the man's broken body, while he was still alive, and executed him. He also executed another unarmed Afghan farmer and the unit used his prosthetic leg as a wine cup of sorts. Some young Australians joined the special forces unit under his command, and they had not yet killed anyone. In order to do a blood initiation, he brought unarmed Afghan civilians and had the new soldiers execute these civilians just so that they could experience the thrill of killing. There are many other reports that Ben Roberts-Smith has executed and murdered unarmed civilians and villagers.
Again, this is a famed war hero, a darling of the media. How did the stories of the war crimes come out? It was the work of three amazingly beautiful journalists: Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters, and David Rowe. These three journalists started hearing rumors regarding Smith, including from locals in Afghanistan. The story of their heroism in investigating the war crimes committed by Ben Roberts-Smith is astounding.
Nick McKenzie, for instance, flew to Afghanistan at a time when there was a very high risk that he would be caught and executed by the Taliban. This was just as Kabul was about to fall into the hands of the Taliban. Regardless, he flew to Afghanistan to meet Afghan witnesses and talk to them firsthand about the war crimes committed by Ben Roberts-Smith. When Nick McKenzie, Chris Masters, and David Rowe started publishing their articles about the SAS unit under Ben Roberts-Smith, including the war crimes, the torture, and the murder they committed, all the Islamophobic Australian nationalists attacked these journalists, left and right. They called these journalists traitors. They threw terrible accusations. The three journalists said they had no great philosophical cause. The only thing that they were committed to was uncovering the truth. Yet the nationalists asked, “Why are you Muslim lovers? Are you apologists for Islamists? Are you Taliban sympathizers?” The journalists replied, “None of the above. We are simply committed to the truth.”
Ben Roberts-Smith sued these journalists. Contemplate this moment. When Ben Roberts-Smith sued the journalists, his legal fees were covered. The Australian media mogul, Kerry Strokes, donated $16 million to defend a war criminal accused of murdering Muslims. This past week, a judge in Australia ruled against Ben Roberts-Smiths. Why? Because the three journalists went as far as flying in witnesses from Afghanistan to Australia to render testimony. These three journalists went through unbelievable abuse as they tried to get Ben Roberts-Smith's comrades in his own SAS unit to become whistleblowers, to testify as to the massacres and murders they saw their commander commit. They dedicated years of their life and went through unbelievable abuse. When you read the details, it is mind-boggling.
But there is another hero in the story. It is the lawyer who represented the three journalists. This lawyer stood up against the type of legal team that $16 million can buy. This lawyer, in his defamation lawsuit, committed himself to proving the truth. He presented to the court evidence after evidence that, in fact, Ben Roberts-Smith was and is a war criminal, not a national hero.
I sit there contemplating the situation. Three non-Muslim journalists. Not great talking heads, just people who are simply committed to the beautiful truth. Even if it meant losing jobs. Even if it meant being persecuted. Even if it meant their children being threatened at school. I contemplated this lawyer who stood against overwhelming political forces in Australia and said, "I do not care what it takes, I believe in the truth and I will defend the three journalists because I am committed to what is beautifully true." But I then contemplated someone like Kerry Stokes, who donated $16 million to serve an unjust cause, and I then thought of Muslims. Can I imagine a situation in which rich American Muslims would donate $1 million to defend anything they believe in?
What a world. Reflect upon this one example. This is what individual excellence means. Individual excellence is to be committed to doing what is beautifully good in the context that God presents you with. If you are a journalist, speak the truth regardless of the cost. If you are a lawyer, defend the truth regardless of the cost. I pray that God blesses these people, because for all the poor Afghan victims of this war criminal, no Muslim helped them. One of the victims of Ben Roberts-Smith was the father of seven children. Roberts-Smith killed women, children, and men for sport. He orphaned children in Afghanistan. No Muslims helped, but the three beautifully good journalists and this beautifully good lawyer did.
That is what ihsan is.
Do not pontificate. Do not go on social media and theorize about things you are not qualified to theorize about. It does not matter what these legal issues or those legal issues are. Pay attention to your situation, excel in your situation, and be a representative of the beauty of Islam through your individual path. In a famous hadith, the Prophet condemns talking heads, those who pretend to be legal experts out of pure egoism. They are not qualified. They have not studied law or legal thinking. They are not trained, and even if they are trained, they are not adequately educated to be spokespeople for God. Put your energy into excelling as a human being. Be like these journalists, this lawyer, or all the heroes that testified against Ben Roberts-Smith regardless of the consequences and the blowback. Do not be a Muslim who spends their life pontificating about issues that they know nothing about.
In my last khutbah, I mentioned that human rights is the secular religion of our age, and it is true that the world today speaks about what is beautifully good through the linguistic and the institutional medium of human rights. We talk about what is appropriate and what is inappropriate through the language of human rights. So much so, in fact, that any specialist who wants to think about ihsan in the modern age must master the history, the philosophy, the jurisprudence, the sources, and the practices of human rights. Otherwise, you will be the bearer of the camel. Otherwise, you will be exotic and irrelevant. You cannot afford not to say anything about human rights. For if you do not engage the language of human rights, you are thoroughly irrelevant in our day and age.
There is, however, something else to say about human rights. The theory and the philosophy of human rights is truly universal and all-inclusive, but the reality of human rights is something else. It is like religion in the age of imperialism; colonial and imperial powers talked about the Christian faith as all-inclusive. Today, we do not talk about being bearers of the Christian faith. We talk instead about being bearers of human rights. And human rights, sadly, was and continues to be deeply racist. From its inception to our very day, the institutions of human rights respond very differently when the victim is White as opposed when the victim is dark skinned.
Some of the worst conflicts and the worst abuses of human rights that are happening today are in the Central African Republic and in the Republic of the Congo, in the heart of Africa. But because those who are tormented, brutalized, sexually assaulted, and killed are dark skinned, we hardly hear about it. You do not hear about these atrocities in the media. It does not enter public discourse. Human rights, from its inception, showed a great degree of sensitivity to what concerns the White man, and showed a remarkable obliviousness to those who are dark-skinned.
But human rights is racist in a different way. From the beginning, human rights has looked at Muslims and treated Muslims as an inferior category. The victors of World War II and the inventors of human rights discourses thought of the world of Islam as the world of an old enemy. It was a world they feared and considered inherently dangerous. At the same time, Muslims were seen as a thoroughly colonized, dominated, and subordinated entity. That is why if you look at the pattern of human rights abuses and the responsiveness of human rights institutions since 1948, you will discover that the more “Muslim” a Muslim entity is seen to be, the more it is outside of the consciousness of the world of human rights. This is not just the case for dark-skinned individuals, then, but for Muslims as well. Millions were killed in Iraq, and hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan, but the world consciousness approaches the atrocities as an offense against the self-identity of a White man. What I mean is that we condemn Ben Roberts-Smith because he betrayed Australian and Western civilizational values. But it is rare indeed to find that any of the institutions of human rights, including courts, look at Muslims as inherently valuable or worthy.
In other words, Muslims have consistently been seen since World War II as dispensable. If you are a Muslim who does not identify as a Muslim, then you are a human being. You are then engaged as a real reality. But if you are a Muslim who identifies as a Muslim, like, for instance, the poor Afghan farmers for whom every other word that comes out of their mouths is “Allah”, or the poor Iraqi workers who just pray and fast, then you are seen as hardly human. They are killed, and no one even bothers counting how many are killed.
Look at how the world has dealt with Israeli exceptionalism since the establishment of the state of Israel. Recently, we read that the Netanyahu government is changing the administration of the West Bank, putting a civilian ministry in charge of the West Bank in clear violation of international law. When Israel does that, it means Israel no longer considers the West Bank as occupied territory. They are effectively annexing the West Bank, in clear violation of the Geneva Conventions and international law. A law is being passed in Israel that would restrict Palestinians from living in Jewish areas. It would evict Palestinians and prevent them from buying land or renting apartments in areas where Jewish people live. Israel revived the E1 Settlement Project, a project that was initially proposed years ago by the Netanyahu government to effectively evict Palestinians from major areas in the West Bank and resettle them in ghetto areas where they could easily be controlled.
Just look at the headlines from this last week, Israeli army seriously wounds a journalist in Ramallah raid. Israeli army attacks Aqbat Jabr Camp in latest Israeli deadly attack. The Palestinian toddler, Muhammad Tamimi, shot by Israeli soliders, dies.
Israel has proposed a plan, again in violation of international law, dividing the Al-Aqsa Mosque between Muslims and Jews. Israel has sent arms to Myanmar, again in violation of international law, Myanmar is responsible for the Rohingya genocide, so the United Nations passed a resolution saying that no one should sell or give arms to Myanmar. Yet it turns out that Israel continued to provide arms to Myanmar even after this resolution so that the government could continue to slaughter Rohingya Muslims. This is the story of Israeli exceptionalism. Despite the fact that Israel is a persistent violator of international law and human rights, the world hardly cares.
What I submit to you is that the world hardly cares because the victims are Muslims. When the victims are Muslims, you will find that the world hardly cares. But what is even worse is that we have reached the stage where Muslim governments themselves no longer expect the world to honor the life of Muslims. So Israel can do all that it does. It can murder Palestinians, annex the Al-Aqsa Mosque, annex the West Bank, and kill toddlers, and the Biden administration continues to talk about all the possible cooperation and peace between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The whole world understands that Muslims hardly care if you murder fellow Muslims.
Human rights has always been blind to the struggle of dark skinned groups, and it has always been responsive to the interests of the White race. But we must also recognize that human rights has also been blind when the victims are Muslims, and that human rights is the secular religion of our age.
What, then, do we do? There is no possible way to fulfill the meaning of ihsan in our day and age without first mastering the language of human rights and then returning the gaze on human rights. This is not going to happen through the Saudi government. If you are waiting for the Saudi government to do this for you, it will never happen. If you are waiting for the Saudi government to make you human in the eyes of human rights, it will not happen. If you are waiting for the Emirati government, it will not happen. If you are waiting for the Egyptian government, it will not happen. If you are waiting for the U.S., British, Australian, Chinese, or Russian governments, it will not happen. None of these groups are going to humanize you in the eyes of human rights. Whether you like it or not, you are in the same category as those who are dark skinned in the eyes of human rights, even if critical race theorists tend to ignore the reality that Muslims are in the same level of obliviousness and necropolitics.
If no government is going to humanize us in the eyes of human rights, then there is only one option left, and that is us. You can humanize yourself in the eyes of human rights. You can be a Nick McKenzie. You can be the brave journalist who takes on the world, who fights the honorable fight, and wins. You can be the lawyer who represented these journalists, took on the world, and is now, whether this lawyer realizes or not, in the annals of human rights. You can be an individual who excels, who does what is beautifully good, and who forces the world to take account of them as a Muslim. We can force the world to acknowledge our humanity, but we will not do so by signing idiotic statements that make idiotic points. We will not do so by pontificating about the awra of women, the hijab, or all the nonsensical things that Muslims go on about instead of excelling as beautiful human beings.
May God help you to be beautifully good, to be true to yourself, true to your God, and true to your religion.