Surah al-Baqarah, the longest surah in the Qur’an and the first revelation after the Hijra, contains the verse known as ayat al-kursi, which is the most profound and eloquent testament of monotheism.
God, there is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting. Neither slumber overtakes Him nor sleep. Unto Him belongs whatsoever is in the heavens and whatsoever is on the earth. Who is there who may intercede with Him save by His leave? He knows that which is before them and that which is behind them. And they encompass nothing of His Knowledge, save what He wills. His Pedestal embraces the heavens and the earth. Protecting them tires Him not, and He is the Exalted, the Magnificent (Q 2:255).
Ayat al-kursi is a profound statement of what it means to acknowledge, believe, and commit to the realization of the truth that this universe has a Lord and an Owner. It is not a coincidence or happenstance, nor is it some meaningless unfolding among the mysteries of the universe. Indeed, this entire universe, this entire existence, is driven by a purpose, and that purpose is defined by the Lord of the universe, the One who made it, the One who owns it, and the One who will ultimately retrieve it.
Immediately after ayat al-kursi is a profound articulation of a principle that, in every way, captures the whole point of Islam and the whole point of belief. The statement starts: "There can be no compulsion in religion…" (Q 2:256). What follows this is an affirmation that truth and falsehood, wrong and right, darkness and light are innately known (Q 2:256). The verse says “falsehood from truth is clear,” but the language itself indicates that “clarity” here means they can be understood by our innate natures.
First, we get a statement that there is no coercion in religion. We then read that truth and falsehood should be obvious. Truth and falsehood are there for you to recognize through your own free will. Truth and falsehood do not need coercion to be realized. The verse goes on to tell you that the solid covenant, the firmest path of righteousness, can only be held by those who seek the path of the truth, and that the path of truth empowers the self to realize innate goodness and to differentiate what is innately good from what ought to be known as wrong (Q 2:256). This is the heart and core of your belief in God, your recognition that you live in this universe as a guest, and that you live in a purposeful universe, a universe given its meaning not by your whim, your tribe, your nation, your clan, or your family. The purpose, objective, and meaning of this universe is indeed given by the Owner of the universe.
God then tells us something very significant. It is as if, once we say we freely believe, we take God's extended hand and God takes us “out of darkness into light” (Q 2:257). God continues that those who do not take God's hand, whether they know it or not, have their hands firmly gripped by a taghut. “Taghut” is a word that stands for everything unjust, whimsical, and oppressive. Taghut, in all its connotations and nuances, always has a core meaning of oppression and injustice. So while the path of God is the path of light, the path of taghut is the path of darkness.
But remember how this passage starts. It first enshrines the principle that there is “no compulsion in religion.” What this means is that coercion, compulsion, and duress are antithetical and at odds with the path of the Lord. Taghut, in essence, means “oppression,” and oppression is part of the path of deviance and darkness. God's path requires non-coercion, volition, and choice. The choice can be exercised to take God's extended hand. You can refuse to surrender your hand to taghut, and allow God to guide you “from darkness to light.” Although Muslims philologically unpack the meanings of these words, all too often, we do not pause to reflect upon the full connotations and implications of these words.
Here, I want to take you back to a critical moment that we must always go back to. It is the import of Islam upon those who first received it. There is no doubt that the first converts to Islam, whether in the Meccan period or the Medinan period, celebrated the fact that they freely chose to be Muslim. It was a point of great pride and privilege for them. They exercised this choice although their societies condemned them and persecuted them for that choice. So it was a particular point that they freely choose to be Muslim, although their society persecuted them for it. There is also no doubt that those who converted to Islam, as the Qur'an was being revealed, would clearly describe this experience as God opening their eyes, as God empowering them, and as God giving them a sense of meaning and purpose. In other words, as coming “out of darkness to light.” They migrated from lives without a purpose, a meaning, an anchor, or a moral path, to lives with meaning, purpose, an anchor, and a moral path. That experience would easily be described as migrating from “darkness to light.”
If you delve into the Sira of the Prophet, the Companions, and the ahl al-bayt, what strikes you from the interactions of Muslims with their oppressors in Mecca, as well as the interaction of Muslims after the first migration to Abyssinia, when they refused to prostrate before the Abyssinian monarch, the interaction of Muslims with Arab tribes surrounding Medina after the Hijra, the interaction of Muslims with the powerful Sassanid and Byzantine empires that had been dominant for centuries, what strikes you about these interactions, time and again, is that these Muslims felt confident, resolute, and dignified. Time and again, you are struck by the empowered sense of dignity these Muslims obtained in their relationship to Islam and their relationship with God. These Muslims felt enlightened and spoke to people of old power and old knowledge with a clear sense of an enlightened people. In a word, what strikes you about these early Muslim generations, time and again, is that they felt liberated by Islam. Whether one was poor or rich, Arab or non-Arab, Quraysh or non-Quraysh, or even slave or free, they spoke and acted with a distinct sense of dignity and a triumphant sense of liberation. In fact, what is striking is that the early Muslim generations saw themselves as liberators as they fought wars against the Sassanid and Byzantine empires. The way they consistently spoke to people ruled by these empires was always in the language of liberators.
The idea that Islam is liberation was identical to the notion that Islam is from darkness to light. This is why although Christianity and Judaism had been in Palestine, Syria, and Egypt for centuries, and Zoroastrianism had been in Persia for centuries, anyone who claims these territories became Muslim through financial incentives is defrauding history. For the historical record does not support any claims that conversions to Islam were driven by fiscal policies or coercive military policies. The common perception was that the old religions were oppressors. Judaism became an exclusive club for a tribal race, the Israelites. Christianity was seen as old and corrupt, as was Zoroastrianism. The way people related to the very image of “from darkness to light” was equal to, and the same as, from oppression to liberty.
When you realize this, you go back and re-read the beginning of the passage: “There is no coercion in religion…” (Q 2:256). You see this as the most powerful, unconditional, and vehement condemnation of the ideas of oppression, coercion, and duress. You see this in so many narratives throughout the Sira. The followers of the Prophet did not feel like they were surrendering their individuality. They felt so empowered as individuals that they even dared to commit acts of treason and did not fear the coercive arms or the armies of the Prophet. Think of the Battle of Uhud, for example, when one-third of the army withdrew. It was a clear act of treason. Or the Battle of the Trench, when so many did not abide by the Prophet’s commands. Despite this, the Qur'an is resolute in instructing the Prophet to always affirm the self-worth of his followers, telling him, “Consult with them. You must always solicit their opinion” (Q 3:159). The same verse tells the Prophet that he cannot be a dictator, an authoritarian, hard-hearted, rude, or dismissive (Q 3:159). The sense that Islam is liberation is what empowered slaves to disobey their masters, children to disobey their parents, members of age-old tribes to disobey their chieftains, all to say, "I choose liberation in Islam."
This idea of liberation was that Islam takes us from being slaves to everything in life to accepting slavery only to God. “In relation to everything but God, we, Muslims, maintain our dignity, our honor, and our autonomy.” It is that sense of dignity and liberation that empowered those people to defy the age-old Sassanid and Byzantine empires and to enter into Egypt, Syria, and Palestine as liberators. To announce themselves to people as, "We have come here to protect you and to end the oppression that you have suffered for centuries."
To even bring this idea closer to home, time and again, we read a certain phrase throughout the Sira: “God has dignified us through Islam.” Every time Muslims would confront a situation they perceived as undignified, humiliating, or degrading, they juxtaposed it to the concept expressed in that phrase. “God has dignified us through Islam.” What does that mean? It means, “My dignity and self-respect as an individual is honored and protected by Islam. Without Islam, I am a prey to social morals and cultural values that do not necessarily respect me and honor me as an individual.” When you read about the triumphant history of the West, one of the concepts that is often talked about in sociology is referred to as the “Protestant ethic.” In short, the idea of the Protestant ethic was that Protestantism defied the old Catholic Church and imbued its followers with a sense of innovation, self-motivation, autonomy, hard work, individualism, and irreverence toward authority, leading them to defy the Church and the old systems of power in Europe. We are often told that this Protestant ethic was the ethic that drove the values of innovation in the West and ultimately led to the industrial revolution, the expansion of capitalism, and the Western civilization itself. But, in reality, if Muslim history was decolonized, what is described as the “Protestant ethic” would be seen, in truth, as nothing more than the Islamic ethic that gave birth to the Islamic civilization. Individual self-initiative, a distinct sense of autonomy and independence, a refusal to rely on the authority of the state to get things done, and a creative sense of self-initiative, innovation, and creativity—this is the elixir that led to the birth and the spread of the Islamic civilization. The individual human being was honored, respected, and dignified.
The same even on the idea of huquq (rights). Rights never accrued to the collectivity in Islamic thought. Rights were either to individuals or to God. And the rights of God, contrary to the colonized Muslim intellects of today, were never equated with the rights of the public. It was always the rights of the individual, and the rights of the individual trumped the rights of God when it came to legal enforcement. The word for dignity was ‘izza. Muslims, when they heard the Qur'an say that dignity and true pride belongs to God (Q 35:10), understood that dignity comes from God and that they, as individuals, are entitled to the dignity that comes from God by being believers in God and by taking God’s hand. They understood that their salvation belongs to no church, no central authority, and no government, and that the fate of Islam depends on them as individuals.
It took centuries for that individualized sense of dignity, autonomy, and initiative to be destroyed by successive oppressive governments. Ultimately, colonialism came to thoroughly finish it off. But something remains in the vestiges, in the back alleys of the Muslim memory. We, Muslims, innately know the idea of a humiliated and undignified Muslim is an oxymoron. We innately know this. It is embedded deep in our conscience. We innately know that what the Companions and the ahl al-bayt had, which we do not, was a sense of pride and distinct self-respect. They felt, as individuals, that they could change the world. They felt empowered to stand against authoritarianism and despotism.
That sense of empowerment has been robbed from us. What remains in us are only the remnants of memories of ‘izza. So while we intuitively know that a Muslim should be respected and honored, and that Islam itself cannot be in a humiliated, disempowered, degraded status, the reality that surrounds us is overwhelming. We wake up and see someone in Sweden humiliating and burning the Qur'an. Notice how this does not happen with Hindu religious texts. It does not happen with Christian or Jewish religious texts. In fact, the likelihood is that if one was to do something like this to Jewish religious texts, they would be punished as an anti-Semite. But we, Muslims, watch someone insulting and burning the Qur'an in Sweden, and when all is said and done, we feel powerless to stop it. Another guy in Russia poured alcohol on the Qur'an, burned it, stepped on it, insulted it, and called the Prophet names, and we are powerless to stop it.
We know what is happening in Kashmir, and we are powerless to stop it. We know what happened to the Rohingya, and we are powerless to stop it. We know what is happening to the Uyghurs, and we are powerless to stop it. Our parents remember—or, if you are my generation, you remember yourself—the rape camps of Bosnia, and we know we could not do a thing when thousands of Muslim women were raped and impregnated. Ultimately, all Muslim countries did was protest and object in the U.N., but nothing else happened.
At least some of us remember what Israel did in Jenin in 2002, again in 2005, and again in 2008. In the most recent invasion of Jenin, thousands of civilian Palestinians were displaced. 800 homes were damaged or destroyed, leave alone 12 killed, some of them children. Over 100 were wounded, 20 of them in critical condition. This 4th of July, there were fireworks, and one of my dogs was so terrified that he hid under my desk. The other dog kept looking at me nervously every time to get a sense of what was going on, almost as if to ask, "Should I be scared?" At that moment, I thought of Jenin, where 20,000 people are crammed into one kilometer in a refugee camp. Can you imagine the children in that compact area when Israeli soldiers marched in, ordered them to stay in the basement of their buildings, and then went ahead and fired missiles at the building that they were ordered to stay in, as they heard the upper floors crumble? Can you imagine the terror of these children as they had to withstand yet another Israeli onslaught? And what is the response from the entire Muslim world? The same powerlessness. The entire Muslim world is incapable of doing anything.
This is the tension. This is the reality. Islamic history tells us, “You should have dignity. You should have a sense of self-autonomy. You should have a sense of self initiative. You should have a sense of innovation, of someone who is a mover and a shaker. You are empowered by God as an individual. You carry the difference in your hands between darkness and light. Go out and change the world.” We get this from the text of the Qur'an, the Sunna of the Prophet, the Sira, and the history of early Muslims. But that quickly clashes with reality. We are not only the most powerless people, but this powerlessness has created deformities in Muslim thought that cannot be reconciled with ‘izza, enlightenment, and with being a gift to humanity.
I have read a number of studies and articles about how the same apartheid system that Israel has created for Palestinians in Gaza is now being entrenched against Palestinians in the West Bank. At the same time, consider this. Algeria suggested to the Egyptian government that it is ready to give Gaza all the gas and oil it needs for free. All it needs is for Egypt to allow the Algerian shipments to reach Gaza. But the Egyptian government did not dare. In fact, the Egyptian president reportedly lost his temper with the Algerian president, telling him, "Do you want to ruin me? Are you serious?” What is he going to tell his Israeli and American bosses?
At the same time, consider this. An imam giving a khutbah in Saudi Arabia asked the government to “fear God” in regard to its policies of entertainment, including all the dancing and alcohol now present in the holy land. As a result, he was pulled off the minaret, beaten, and made to disappear. All this can be seen on video. To this day, it is not known what has happened to this man.
Consider this. A report came out that Saudi Arabia is murdering hundreds of Ethiopians at the Saudi-Yemeni border. Ethiopians are escaping Ethiopia, crossing the Red Sea, going into Yemen, and trying to cross from Yemen to the Saudi border. And what does Saudi Arabia do? It mows them down with machine guns and artillery. The U.N. has investigated this and protested numerous times. Can you imagine the immorality of a state that murders people in the desert, buries them, and does not give it a second thought?
I will give you one final example. So many of us look to the Muslim world when we want the dignity and wellbeing of Islam and Muslims to be protected. But the amount of injustice and gross ugliness that pervades that world should tell you to give up all hope in this thoroughly colonized world. Just recently, an Egyptian doctor who works in Kuwait and his Egyptian wife decided to go on vacation back to their homeland of Egypt for ‘Eid. They bought an apartment in an area of Egypt called Madinaty. They have three children, two boys and one girl. One of the boys was playing with his bicycle and, by accident, hit a parked car and scratched it. He told his parents, and they responded, "Let us find out who this car belongs to, because we must tell them that we are responsible and we will fix the scratch." So they did the moral thing and took responsibility.
To make a long story short, it turns out the car belonged to an army officer. The army officer's response was to drive his car and mow down the family, killing the mother, and wounding the three children and the father. But this is not an exception in Egypt. This is exactly how the police and army deal with their people. Numerous crimes, including an army officer who killed 37 people packed in a car, and who was acquitted by court, are committed by the authorities in Egypt. An army officer who was filmed flogging and torturing the staff of an entire hospital was acquitted by court. Even in this incident, the army initially did not arrest this man. Then, when they arrested him, they said the deaths were the result of speeding, in other words, they tried to cover it up. Everyone knows that although the army has announced the arrest of this officer, the officer will not be convicted. This is even though an entire family was mowed down.
We look at religious institutions, and there is complete silence by al-Azar. Dar al-Fatwa? Complete silence. Has any Shaykh in Egypt dared to say a single word? No. The attitude of most Egyptians is to say "Things happen." We have become so accustomed to injustice and authoritarianism. What is taghut, if not this? What is darkness, if not this? If you want a sense of ‘izza, a sense of dignity, you will not find it with the Saudi government. You will not find it with the Emirati government. You will not find it with the Egyptian government. You will not find it with the Pakistani government. You will not find it with the Palestinian authorities. You will not find it with any of the current governments, because they are all thoroughly colonized.
So what to do? Our innate sense tells us that our relationship to God must be a source of liberation; liberating the human being from the oppression of despots; liberating human beings from the oppression of myth and fiction; liberating human beings from fears, irrational and rational; liberating human beings from the oppression of materialism and capital; liberating human beings from the oppressions of demons and the demonic; liberating the human being in general. That is Islam. It is in our heart and soul, but we cannot practice it, and that is what results in all the pathologies, all the craziness, all the insanities we witness in the Muslim community. It is at the heart of all the pathologies that we see in Islamic centers. There is no solution other than to go back and be as God describes in the Qur'an: “the first of Muslims” (Q 6:163). Do not expect anything from any government. Your relationship to Islam must be free from any government or foreign society. You must approach Islam as an innovator, an inventor. You must approach Islam with the famous Protestant ethic, which, in truth, is the Islamic ethic. You must build institutions independent of any government or any relation to any foreign society or culture.
You must realize that the Islam of colonized countries has been, for the foreseeable future, thoroughly corrupted. You must make Palestine, Kashmir, the Uyghurs, and the Rohingya your own personal issue. You must understand that in the absence of the Khilafa (Caliphate) and the Khalifa (Caliph), you are the only Khalifa there is. Each one of you is so valuable, if you are liberated. If you are empowered. If you are inspired by the light of Islam. Each one of you must become God’s Khalifa on earth. You must build institutions. You must think of yourselves as the original fathers and the original mothers, as the founders of this new phase in Islamic history, because all the old institutions are claimed by ghosts, phantoms, and evil spirits. Build yourself for a future Ummah that can regain its ‘izza and make a difference once again.