The Rise [and Fall] of Virtue

It is remarkable to think that God, through the Qur’an, told the Prophet a single word that proved to be transformative, a single word that changed the face of the earth. God told the Prophet to “Rise,” meaning to emerge and transform, with the allusion of a human being who is concealed by covers and veils (Q 74:2). God alludes to a person under covers in both Surah al-Muddaththir (Q 74) and in Surah al-Muzzammil (Q 73). In both surahs, there is an image of a human being covered by a self-imposed veil, a veil that hides and conceals. But the protection it provides is illusory. The veil does not protect you from anything. Whatever dangers exist are still there. They can inflict the same level of harm whether you confront these dangers with an open eye and an upright stance, or cower away from these dangers in some corner. They pose the same level of threat, whether you are covered or uncovered.


Speaking to the Prophet, whose Sunna is supposed to be our way of life, our methodology, our inspiration, and our guide, God says, "Throw away the covers. Rid yourself of the practice of hiding away, of self-imposed deceptions and veils." “Rise” and purify yourself. “Rise” and rid yourself of the falsehoods, impurities, and contaminations. “Rise” and embrace the name and the cause of your Lord (Q 74:3). Make that your compass and your goal. Make that your rallying cry. Make that your inspiration, the very thing you rise with and rise for.


“Rise” (Q 74:2). Muslims who understand the legacy of the Prophet Muhammad know how that one word, “rise,” that transformative, inspirational, and normative call, transformed the face of humanity. It awoke an entire people to a Divine destiny. It is but a call to acknowledge that you are a servant of God (al-’abd). Acknowledge that servanthood to God transforms a human being. It transforms their consciousness, their psychology, and their very understanding and perception. The fact you are a servant of God commits you to embracing the attributes of the Divine. It commits you to becoming transformed as a human being, away from a lowly creature without purpose, who exists like any animal on earth, driven by their impulses, driven always by a desire to maximize utility or avoid harm. When God says, “Rise” (Q 74:2), the command is to migrate from being driven by impulses to becoming a person anchored in principles, driven by principles, imbued by principles. 


This is why, when you study the life of the early Muslims, the ahl al-bayt and the Companions, it is striking what Islam encoded and wove into the psychology of these people. Two words in particular come to mind. The first word is nakhwa, and the second word is ’iba. There is no doubt that when the Muslim “rises,” as God instructed the Prophet to rise (Q 74:2), the first attribute we encounter is nakhwa. It is a most magnificent word. It connotes a sense of honor, but an honor that translates into a state of persistent service to what is just, what is true, what is noble, and what is honorable. Nakhwa is a kind of pride, but it is not a pride that is self-indulgent. It is not a sense of pride that seeks superiority over others. That is not what nakhwa is about. Nakhwa is a sense of pride about what is righteous, truthful, honorable, ethical, and virtuous. Nakhwa means you embrace virtue and have a sense of self-worth. For without virtue, there is no self-worth. Nakhwa means you are consistently willing to sacrifice yourself and your own self-interest for the sake of virtue, honor, goodness, and justice. Nakhwa means a persistent state in which you are morally committed to stand in support of the oppressed and disempowered. It is unthinkable for a person with nakhwa to witness injustice and remain silent. The “rise” that is so core to Islamic theology cannot be separated from this basic and fundamental concept of nakhwa. Study the Sunna and you find, time and again, that the Islam of the Prophet was the Islam of a people united in honor and virtue. To attack one of them was an attack against all. The idea of sacrificing yourself or sacrificing your self-interest to uphold a principle was taken for granted, day in and day out.


The Islam of the Prophet Muhammad meant that once you became a Muslim, you committed yourself to the cause of sacrifice. For at any moment, you and your fellow Muslims could be called upon to rise and embark on a mission of sacrifice. This mission could cost you your life or your bodily wellbeing. You could be injured, or you could be maimed. But the cause of the Islam was a cause of nakhwa. So long as the cause was virtuous, it went without saying that a true Muslim was committed to come to the aid of others, to aid justice, and to aid virtue.


The second word is ‘iba. ‘Iba is nakhwa’s close cousin, because ‘iba means you put principle and virtue ahead of yourself. It means you are but in virtue's service. You do not exist to promote yourself, but you exist to promote a cause. When you look at contemporary Muslims, you cannot avoid the bitter feeling that for all our talk about hadiths and the Sunna, our understanding of the legacy of ahl al-bayt and the Companions somehow skips over the ideas of nakhwa and ‘iba. When you deal with Muslims, you do not at all feel that they live for virtue, that they sacrifice self-interest for virtue, or that they have a keen sense of honor and righteousness. Somehow, technical expertise of the hadiths, Sunna, or Qur'an become a separate matter from such foundational principles as virtue, honor, and justice.


I talked about this in a recent halaqa, and I gave the example that when I was growing up, there still remained a residual sense of nakhwa and ‘iba. There were leftover effects of these virtues that still existed in society. If someone saw a woman being harassed on the streets, for example, they would intervene to come to the woman's aid, even if it meant sacrificing their lives. This was not something that had to be argued or debated. It was taken for granted that if you die, you die a martyr, and you are at peace with it. You are proud of it, and your family is proud of it. Fast forward 30 years, however, and all the vestiges of nakhwa and ‘iba have evaporated. Here, in the United States, a Muslim woman, Maryam Khan, the first Muslim woman to be elected to the Connecticut House of Representatives, was assaulted by an Islamophobe after ‘Eid prayer. She was with her daughters. Someone who looks truly scary, who looks like a Satanist, sexually attacked this woman. Not in her home or in a hidden place, but in plain sight, in front of her Muslim brothers. To my great chagrin and sadness, I read in the article how Maryam Khan complained that it was not her Muslim brethren who intervened to stop the attack. In fact, her Muslim brothers stood by and watched as non-Muslims intervened to stop the attack and contain the man until the police arrived. The man demanded a kiss, grabbed and kissed her, and it was non-Muslim men who intervened as Muslims stood by. 


Yesterday, I read an article in which Maryam Khan complained that, as is usually the case in situations like this, the authorities in Connecticut did not charge the man for a hate crime, but instead dealt with it as a common crime. She was attacked in front of everyone, including her own children, but when the state charged the man, it skipped over charging him with the most important charge of all: a hate crime. The state ruled it as a regular assault and, according to the article, the woman received very little support.


It makes me wonder, where is the nakhwa? Where is the ‘iba? But this is not an isolated incident. We need a bigger pause and a deeper reflection. Almost every week, the trauma inflicted upon Muslims around the world, or crimes against Muslim symbols and honor, have become so regular that it starts to sound repetitive and redundant. This is especially true regarding the plight of Palestinians.


A painful and shocking report was prepared under the auspices of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, (UNCRC). There is a committee that prepares reports about compliance with this UN convention, and one recent report addresses Palestinian children in the occupied territories. The report notes that four out of every five Palestinian children in the Israeli military detention system face physical and emotional abuse. 86% of these children are beaten and physically assaulted. 69% are strip-searched. 42% are injured at the point of arrest. These injuries include gunshot wounds and broken bones. There are ample reports of sexual violence in Israeli custody. 70% are threatened with harm. 60% are hit with sticks or guns. 60% experience solitary confinement. 70% say they have suffered from hunger. 68% did not receive any healthcare. 58% were denied visits or communications with family. The report goes on and on. It just so happens that this report came at the same time that the UN Special Rapporteur on War Crimes wrote a report on Israel's recent military assault on Jenin, noting that much of what Israel did in Jenin amounts to war crimes. 


It does not stop there. In the same week, the UN Special Rapporteur on Unlawful Detentions, Francesca Albanese, issued a report about how Israel has turned the Palestinian Territories into an open-air prison. The new report documents, in painful detail, how Palestinians live as if livestock in territories that have become a virtual open-air prison, with an array of physical, bureaucratic, and digital mechanisms. "The Israeli regime has turned occupied territory into a panopticon where Palestinians are constantly surveilled and disciplined," the Rapporteur says in her report.


So Palestinian children are abused, there are war crimes in Jenin, and Palestinians live in an open-air prison, but it does not stop there. The Israeli Supreme Court has this week issued another egregiously shameful decision, clearing the way for Israeli authorities to expel 1,000 Palestinians from their homes in their village of Masafer Yatta. A Palestinian news reporter who filmed attacks by Israeli settlers on dispossessed Palestinians in the village of Masafer Yatta was arrested and physically abused by Israeli authorities. His films were confiscated. To add to this, there have been record-high heat waves across the Middle East, thanks, of course, to what we are doing to the environment. Amid this heat wave, electricity was cut off from Gaza, and Palestinians in Gaza are now forced to suffer in the sweltering heat. 


At the same time, the Israeli President, Isaac Herzog, visited the U.S. and was treated as an honored guest. He was given the honor of speaking to both houses. As Noura Erakat, the Palestinian attorney, noted in an interview with Democracy Now!, the welcoming of Herzog amounts to the normalization of apartheid by the U.S. The U.S. is sending a clear message that it does not matter how fanatic or racist the Israeli government is, or what violations are committed against international law. When it comes to Palestinians, it does not matter.


I then caught myself. "Even when it comes to Muslims, when did it ever matter?" Recently, there was a powerful documentary by the journalist, Nicky Bolster, titled “Memories of a Massacre.” The documentary is about the massacre at Rabaa in which over a thousand Egyptians were massacred by the Egyptian military. The response of the West was, once again, "It does not matter." This has been ongoing for centuries, so I can at least understand the racist logic of the West. It is a logic that says you can colonize the lands of Muslims, you can butcher Muslims, you can massacre Muslims, and you can abuse Muslims. So long as the West’s interests are not implicated, they do not care. If I can understand this racist logic, how can I understand the lack of nakhwa and ‘iba on the part of Muslims? 


All this transpired in the span of one week, and I spent hours trying to trace the Muslim reaction, even in Muslim news outlets. When Herzog came, were there droves of Muslims protesting his visit? Was every Muslim aware of his visit and the meaning of his visit? Was every Muslim even bothered? As Muslims sit in their air conditioned homes, in the U.S. and elsewhere, did they think of the children of Gaza and the West Bank, and the amount of suffering and agony they are forced to endure? As I sit and ponder the lack of nakhwa, I remember how the Prophet taught us that a Muslim is the brother of a Muslim. A Muslim does not surrender a Muslim, neglect a Muslim, or betray a Muslim. In other words, they are one single body. Yet we ignore that Sunna of the Prophet, and we choose instead to have epileptic fits as to whether, according to the Sunna, a woman has to cover her hair. It is the height of hypocrisy. 


I read an article about how the morality police are back in Iran, and how some are anxious about what will happen when the morality police enforce hair covers. Is this our sense of ‘iba? Is it about fixating over the bodies of women, while we sacrifice virtue and principle on so many fronts? It is an embarrassment. It is shameful.


The sad reality is that in the so-called “post-colonial” age, all colonized people replaced their traditions and cultures of normative commitments to the amoral and hedonistic logic of pragmatism and self-interest. It is not only Muslims. It is as if colonialism imbued into the colonized that you must not trust principles, ethics, or aspirations. You must not trust intellect, thought, or ideas. 


I recently saw a video of an White convert to Islam talking about a reality that, again, is shocking and painful. The Ethiopian government has built a dam on the Nile River. This same government is ruled by a Christian, Abiy Ahmed, whose government has embarked on a systematic program of seeking to eradicate Islam in Ethiopia. Islam in Ethiopia is 1,400 years old. Some of the mosques in Ethiopia are centuries old, yet these mosques are being destroyed by the Ethiopian government. This White convert was talking about this problem, but what was his solution? He was appealing to the King of Saudi Arabia to intervene. 


I agree with this man that Muslims should have a Caliph who cares about and serves Muslim causes, whatever and wherever they are. But the King of Saudi Arabia? His entire video was pleading with the King of Saudi Arabia to save the Muslims of Ethiopia. This man does not realize that the King of Saudi Arabia could not possibly care less. For this is the same king who massacred thousands upon thousands of Muslims in Yemen. This is the same king who turned over Muslims to the Chinese government to disappear forever. This is the same king who imprisoned, tortured, and murdered refugees from Myanmar, the Rohingya. This is the same king that sponsored a coup in Egypt that slaughtered over a thousand civilians before the cameras of the world. It shows you that even among converts, there is a fundamental lack of understanding of the post-colonial world order. The fact is that the King of Saudi Arabia, the ruler of the UAE, or the ruler of Egypt is more racist against their own people than President Biden or even President Trump. That is the truth. They look down upon their own people even more than Trump looks down upon Muslims.


The second example is a painful illustration of lack of principle in Muslim countries. It is well-known that after the coup in Egypt and the massacre in Rabaa, many Egyptians, like many Syrians, sought refuge in Turkey. Turkey provided refuge for many Egyptian and Syrian dissenters for some years. Similarly, when Qatar was fighting with the UAE and Saudi Arabia, several voices critical of Saudi Arabia and the UAE resided in Qatar, enjoying Qatari protection, and speaking freely from Qatar. But, at a moment's notice, Qatar fixed whatever the problem was with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and Turkey sought to make up with the Saudi, Emirati, and Egyptian governments. So, in an instant, those living in Turkey, enjoying their freedoms and the right to criticize Sisi's government, became persona non grata and were told to leave. In Qatar, someone like Abdulaziz Al-Khazraj, who was one of the most outspoken, honest, and critical voices about the betrayals of the Saudi and UAE governments on many things, including Palestine, was arrested overnight. This is despite Qatar being the so-called “Mecca of dissenters.” Abdulaziz Al-Khazraj was arrested months ago and has since disappeared, and no one knows what has happened to him.


But here is what truly caught my attention. Where did those who left Qatar and Turkey go? The same countries pursuing them in Qatar and Turkey would not dare pursue them as they went to England and the United States, because no one would dare tell England, "Shut this person up, or you will suffer consequences." Everyone knows that a country like Britain or the United States, when it comes to what they consider to be their moral causes, will actually stand by principle. But everyone knows that Muslim countries have no principles.


Ask yourself, don’t you intuitively know that if you attack the United States, you have attacked the entire Western hemisphere? Now name one scenario in which an attack on a Muslim country means an attack against all. That is the difference between people who “rise,” and people who do not. That is the qiyama the Qur'an is talking about. It is the difference between people who rise and stand for something, and people who are muddathir or muzzammil, cowering in a corner, covered up. They are wishy-washy. They serve whatever principle is convenient and pragmatic at a moment's notice. It is a moral displacement. You want to feel like you have principles and morals, so you make your cause women's bodies. But you have no nakhwa or ‘iba. 




For links to articles related to this and previous khutbahs, visit: https://www.usulinews.org/ (Special thanks to Ross, who maintains this website!)

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