The Lifeline of "Current Events" and the Myth of Ijtihad

Every jumu‘a, within the span of a single week, so many issues unfold that should be of critical importance to the Muslim Ummah and to the very idea of Islam as a faith and a set of normative values that shape and anchor our identity. The challenge for the intelligent, reflecting, and thinking Muslim is what to take away from these issues. What do the affairs of the world, as they directly pertain to Muslims and Islam, teach the reflective Muslim about God's purpose? What is God saying to humanity through the events that God has permitted to unfold in the world? What set of priorities does the reading of these events set for the thinking Muslim? 


At a foundational level, in reading the events of the world, one of the topics that has emerged in many schools and educational institutions is called “current events.” This is not simply journalism. It is not simply informing people about what is going on in the world. What is generally meant by the categorization “current events” are the priorities of the present moment. What are the most pressing issues, and what are the issues that call upon us to take action and to respond in some way, shape, or form? When we look at the current events of the Muslim world specifically, this is where the role of the intelligent, reflecting reader is so important. A discipline that emerged in Islamic civilization is the field of al-ta’rikh (history). The Muslim civilization chronicled the current events of its day, but the purpose of these chronicles was to understand how current events are directly relevant to the discipline of setting priorities, of what Islam normatively demands and expects from a Muslim, and of what God wants Muslims to react to and impact. 


Colonialism came in and convinced Muslims that their system of law, their Shari'a, had fossilized and stopped being relevant. Colonialism told Muslims, "Your law is no good because it no longer responds to current events, and it has not responded to current events for centuries." That was the colonial myth to Muslims, but this colonial myth did contain a grain of truth. The grain of truth is that those who represented the institutions of Islam were actively blocked, under the repressive powers of colonialism, from being heard on current events. And this created the very powerful association or image that Islamic cultural institutions, laws, normative values, and theology were not fit for the day and age in which Muslims lived. Because if you are not being heard on current events, you are irrelevant. 


The response of Muslims en masse, all over the Muslim world, was to tell colonialism and to tell their brainwashed, influenced, compromised, and equivocated selves, "We have the concept of ijtihad.” That is why there are so many books on ijtihad in Islam. But there was a problem. Muslims can speak until they are blue in the face about ijtihad, but if this ijtihad is institutionally blocked from responding to current events through authoritarianism, secular dictatorship, or even religious dictatorship; if the path between the act of ijtihad and being heard and influencing current events is impeded; if, even more dangerously and importantly, Muslims are being brainwashed; if their consciousness is being altered to be persuaded that they should not exercise ijtihad in response to current events, but that their ijtihad should respond to a make believe world of make believe issues that are marginal to the current events; then Muslims can speak about ijtihad all they want, but that ijtihad is entirely irrelevant and ineffective. It has no bearing upon the world in which we live in. 


Indeed, the institutions of leadership that colonialism left in the Muslim world, for a variety of reasons, have a relationship with current events that is so skewed, so deformed, and so twisted that its impact upon the entire Muslim Ummah has been devastating. The question that immediately comes to mind, of course, is: “How skewed? How twisted? What do you mean?" The institutions that colonialism left throughout the Muslim world were institutions that did not respond to current events as read, understood, and interpreted by their own native populations. Rather, they responded to the “current events” that they treated as a secret agenda between them and their former colonizers, not fit for public consumption. In other words, colonialism left a ruling elite that does not respond to the current events that impact the formation, the constitution, and the negotiation of values in society as experienced by the masses. This ruling elite understands “current events” in terms of what matters as a secret agenda between them and their colonizers. The masses are seen to be unfit to be aware of or have an input in these “current events,” let alone decide their own fate in relation to the current events that impact and concern them. 


Colonialism and this ruling elite convinced Muslims of the greatest trick the world has known. They made Islam something exotic. What was of Islamic interest became something to be experienced in a ghettoized reality, while society at large was secularized and de-Islamized. Meanwhile, the ruling elite responds to the current events of the secret agenda, not the current events that you and I engage with across the span of a single week. 


An example of this can be found in the recent military coup in Niger. Niger had a democratically elected government, and their president was Mohamed Bazoum. Regardless of whether Bazoum was a good or bad administrator, he was democratically elected. Because he was democratically elected, he had every incentive to respond to the current events engaged by regular media outlets and known to the public in Niger. If he did not respond to these current events, he may lose the elections. What happened in Niger was a military coup. Yet again, army officers overthrew the democratically elected ruler of a country with a Muslim majority and a Muslim president. What many do not know is that one of the principal army officers who overthrew the democratically elected president, Moussa Barmou, was trained in the United States. Like Sisi of Egypt, his ideology and worldview are not just influenced by the United States, but these army officers cannot imagine the world outside the direct auspices, direction, and beneficence of the U.S. Their world is shaped by two main considerations.


One is that they are Muslim Islamophobes. They understand their own Muslim society in terms of Islam as a danger that must be contained and repressed, otherwise there will be Islamicity, Islamisms, Muslim activists, and Muslim terrorists. In other words, their worldview is a world of securitization. Their priority in the world is to repress Islamic agents and to maintain order. The other basic element in their thinking is that you cannot deviate from the auspices and beneficence of the U.S. Indeed, the first thing Moussa Barmou did was contact the United States—and like the coup in Egypt with Sisi, God only knows what secret contacts went on before the coup—to assure the world that although the democratically elected government has been overthrown, none of this will compromise the close relationship between Niger and the U.S. 


Since 2008, there have been 11 coups in West Africa. In all 11 coups, the officers that carried out the coups were trained by the U.S. and have close ties to the U.S. military. U.S.-trained officers have conducted at least six coups since 2012 in the neighboring countries of Niger. Burkina Faso, Mali, and Gambia in 2014, Guinea in 2021, Mauritania in 2008, and now Niger in 2023. One may wonder, "How does this happen?" First, these officers are alienated from their Islamic roots. They see Islamicity solely in terms of danger. Second, they do not trust their own people. They look at civil society as unfit to be “in the know” about what is relevant for current events, unfit to manage itself, and unfit to choose its own responses to current events. Third, they understand that what matters are not the current events of civil society, but rather the current events as defined in a secret agenda between them and their benefactors. In the case of these countries, the benefactors are always the U.S. or France.


There is a practical reason for this. The U.S. has been engaged militarily in Niger, carrying out military operations against Islamic militants. When justifying why he carried out this coup, the first thing the army officer complained about was how the civil, democratically elected government was not responding to security threats in Niger. In reality, what they mean is that the government is not thoroughly repressing, killing, and torturing Islamists. But there is another practical reality. Like Mali, Burkina Faso, and Guinea, Niger is rich in natural resources. Niger has one of the largest deposits of uranium in the world, and we need uranium to run our nuclear plants and create nuclear weapons. France, which relies nearly entirely on nuclear energy, needs cheap uranium, and France needs quick and easy access to army officers without serious civilian oversight, democratic limitations, restrictions, accountability, or even taxation. They need to be able to harvest gold, uranium, and other natural resources from Africa while lining the pockets of corrupt army officers. 


According to the U.S. military, we cannot afford a democracy in Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, or Mauritania, in the same way that we cannot afford a democracy in Egypt. Corruption works well for us. We pay the army officers, they become filthy rich, and they give us the natural resources for next to no cost. We build our countries in the West, and who cares what happens to Muslims? Muslims continue to be backward, ignorant, poor, oppressive, despotic, and unjust, and who cares? As long as our economies and our gross national products meet their goals, that is what matters. 


If you do not believe me, consider another current event. If it was not so tragic, it would be laughable. At this point, we are accustomed to this. Israeli forces killed a 23-year-old in Nablus. There is no oversight, and no one knows anything. They killed another 14-year-old in the West Bank, Faris Sharhabeel Abu Samra. They shot him in the head. There is no response. Another Palestinian child killed, and who cares? But it does not stop there. Last Thursday, the Israeli Minister Ben-Gvir carried out yet another incursion against the al-Aqsa Mosque. Did it affect Israel’s peace with Morocco? No. Did it affect relations with the UAE or Egypt? No. Did it have any practical impact anywhere? No. Why? Because those rulers respond to secret agendas, not to what concerns the Muslim public at large. Ben-Gvir can kill Palestinians and carry out another excursion against the al-Aqsa Mosque, violating its sanctity, and violating all international laws, but the rulers who respond to secret agendas instead of current affairs do not care, and they do not have to worry about whether the masses are affected or not, because if the masses do anything, they will simply repress them. But it goes even beyond this. 


The ex-chief of the Mossad has described the current Israeli government as a government of “extreme lunatics and horrible racists who are a lot worse than the U.S. White supremacist hate group, the KKK.” This is a former head of the Mossad, and the Mossad is no friend of Muslims or Arabs. Yet even he has admitted that the current Israeli government is a government of supremacists and racists, and this same government has passed a law that prohibits the Israeli Supreme Court from overruling legislation that it deems unreasonable. One may be tempted to ask, "So what?" This law is notable because Israel does not have a written constitution. When the Israeli Supreme Court reviews legislation, then, it relies on the standard of reasonability very heavily. While it is uncommon, the Israeli Supreme Court has, on occasion, overruled truly racist legislation, deeming it “unreasonable.” But this recent legislation marginalizes and neutralizes the Israeli Supreme Court in Israeli life. We all know that there have been numerous protests in Israel against this legislation, but as the Israeli journalists Haggai Matar and Gideon Levy point out, while these protesters are worried about Israeli democracy, they ignore the fact that this government is turning Israel into more of an apartheid state. It is not just that this legislation is a danger to a democracy for Jewish people, but this legislation enables these extremists to further enforce and anchor a racist, apartheid reality in Israel. 


We have an extremist, racist Israeli government that has now passed a law the like of which does not exist elsewhere in the world, except in an apartheid state. It is a mind-boggling law that the Israeli Supreme Court cannot overrule. What does the Israeli law say? It is truly something to pause and marvel at. Keep in mind that Israel has around two million non-Jewish, Palestinian citizens. First, the law says that no residential village or town in Israel can discriminate on the basis of race, religion, gender, nationality, disability, class, age, parentage, sexual orientation, country of origin, views, party affiliation, or political view. So discrimination is forbidden in Israel. Villages and towns cannot bar anyone from living there on the basis of race, religion, gender, and so on. Wonderful. However, the law goes on to say that these villages and towns can create oversight committees, and these committees can ban someone from living in the village or town if they are deemed inappropriate for the social and cultural fabric of the community, and that this shall not be considered discrimination.


Who do you think are the people deemed inappropriate for the social and cultural fabric of the community? Palestinians. This new law effectively gives Jewish Israelis a right to ban non-Jewish Israeli citizens from living in around 80% of the country, and it shall not be deemed as any sort of discrimination. And the Israeli Supreme Court cannot overrule this law.


Officially, there is a law that bans Israeli citizens who are not Jewish from living in the Najaf desert in the south of Israel. This ban has existed for a long time, and Israel gets away with it. We never hear about it. It is not part of our current events. But this ban has now been expanded to ban non-Jews from living in 80% of the country. It is an official apartheid system. Does this affect Israel's peace with the UAE? No. Has it affected the United States’ talk of normalizing relationships between Saudi Arabia and Israel? No. Has it affected Israel's peace with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, or Egypt? No, no, no. 


Has it affected our relationship with Israel? “Israel says US vows continue military aid to Israel despite judicial overhaul.” We do not care how fanatic they are. We do not care if they violate the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque, nor do we care if they kill Palestinians. Even the director of the Mossad said that they are worse than the KKK, but we do not care. Whatever they do, we continue to vow that Israel has a special status, so special that they receive exceptional, favored treatment under the U.S. visa waiver law. The U.S. has an agreement with a number of countries that allows their citizens to come to America without a visa, and for Americans to visit that country without a visa. In order to be included on this list of visa waivers, however, countries have to meet stringent conditions and requirements, and they have to meet all these requirements before they can be considered for the waiver program. The only country that was given an exception and allowed to apply, and will be accepted, into the waiver program in September without meeting the stringent requirements is Israel. Mark my words, Israel is the only exception, even when compared to NATO countries, Western countries, and White countries.


We have all heard that the singer, Sinéad O'Connor, who converted to Islam in 2018, recently passed away. I will comment on this shortly, but did you know that Itamar Ben-Gvir, who can enter the U.S. on a diplomatic visa, who repeatedly violates the sanctity of the al-Aqsa Mosque, once threatened to assassinate Sinéad O'Connor? Sinéad O'Connor was set to take part in a music concert in Jerusalem. The purpose of this musical concert was to celebrate Jerusalem as the capital of two countries, East Jerusalem and West Jerusalem, and to celebrate one as the capital for Israel and another as the capital for Palestinians. Back then, Itamar Ben-Gvir was not a governmental official. He was not a person in power. At the time, he led a racist and supremacist Israeli terrorist organization, and he sent a letter to Sinéad O'Connor telling her, "If you come to perform in this concert, we will assassinate you."


Sinéad O'Connor, fearing for the safety of herself and her band, decided not to go. She did write a letter to Ben-Gvir, saying, "Shame on you. I know the Bible and the Torah very well," quoting passages from the Torah to essentially call Ben-Gvir a bad Jew. This same person who has murdered Palestinians, who led a terrorist organization targeting Palestinians, who made terroristic threats against Irish citizens, was never included on any terrorist watchlist. He could threaten to murder Sinéad O'Connor, and he was still not included on any terrorist list. He can travel anywhere in the West. Meanwhile, Muslims who are merely suspected of terrorism, never proven or convicted, continue to languish in Guantanamo for 20 years, and no one cares. They are Muslim. The United Nations special rapporteur has issued a report on American abuses against Guantanamo detainees, and the report says that the conditions of their release under Biden violate every human right known to man. The United States turns them over to countries that continue to abuse them, and when the U.S. releases them to countries like Algeria, such as in a recent case, the U.S. lies to these countries. 


They said that the person in question swore allegiance to Bin Laden, which was a lie. The man in this specific case was Said Bakush. Algeria decided to accept Said Bakush, but Algeria then threw him in prison. So he went from an American prison to an Algerian prison, and no one cares. Why? Because Muslims all over the Muslim world do not respond to agendas of current affairs. Ever since colonialism, we have all become accustomed to the idea that current affairs are irrelevant. Instead, we leave our responses to despots, tyrants, and military agents like Sisi in Egypt or like the officer who overthrew the government in Niger. These people do not respond to current affairs either. They respond to secret, private agendas. 


In these secret agendas, Jerusalem is not an item. Apartheid Israel is not an item. Ben-Gvir is not an item. Palestinians being killed is not an item. Yemen is not an item. The Rohingya are not an item. The Uyghurs are not an item. Guantanamo is not an item. Muslims languishing in Guantanamo is not an item. In these secret agendas, what is an item? “Protect us from terrorism. Protect us from the migration of dark-skinned people to our countries. Make sure to keep your poor, dispossessed, needy, and oppressed away from us. Give us your natural resources for dirt cheap. In turn, we will make you, the military elite and the elites of the Muslim world, filthy rich. You can buy homes in the most expensive parts of Beverly Hills, Paris, and Switzerland. You can own property while your people languish.” 


We hear Muslims talk about ijtihad, but Muslims lost the art of ijtihad in response to current events long ago. Muslims simply daydream about ijtihad. They talk about ijtihad, but they cannot even read current events. They do not know how. They lost the art of reading and responding to current events. They lost the art of caring about current events. The Muslim mind has been twisted, corrupted, and deformed so that it responds to a Muslim woman not covering her hair. It responds to the laws of female purity and her period. It responds to a woman in the men's section in prayer. That is the extent of their ijtihad. 


Do you see the predicament we are in? Do you see how important jumu‘a is for Muslim life? Do you see why God decreed that we have jumu‘a and a khutbah? Do you see the extent to which we have wasted the pulpit of the Prophet and the very function of jumu‘a in our lives, simply because we lost our connection to current events?


Before I get to the last issue this week, I have to mention that Saudi Arabia has, yet again, arrested a very prominent Muslim Shaykh, Badr al-Meshari. Badr al-Meshari never criticized the Saudi government, and he went out of his way to be exactly the type of person who did not read or respond to current events. He knows next to nothing about current events, but Badr al-Meshari has a very large following because of his talent in lecturing (khitabah). Badr al-Meshari's offense was simply to say to Saudi Arabia’s ruling elite, in one of his khutbahs, “Fear God.” Apparently, that was enough to get him arrested. That is enough to make a religious scholar disappear in Saudi Arabia. God speaks precisely about this in Surah al-Baqarah (Q 2). God says there are people who, if you tell them to fear God, respond with outrage. God says their fate will be Hellfire. God anticipated this very situation in Surah al-Baqarah, and yet this is where we are. This is the extent to which we are telling our scholars, “Be irrelevant. Do not dare to have any type of relevance to current affairs in the world, not even just to say, ‘Fear God.’ If you do, you will disappear.” This is why we take it out on women. This is why we are small-minded. This is why we are ignorant and petty. 


Of course, we have heard that the gifted Irish singer, Sinéad O'Connor, has passed away at the young age of 56. When one reads about Sinéad O'Connor, one cannot help but have massive respect for her. She rebelled against the values of materialism. She rebelled against the objectification and sexualization of women. In fact, she embodied so many Muslim values before she even became Muslim. She spoke about Palestinian rights. She supported just causes well before she reverted to Islam in 2018. I was struck, however, that in the same week that Sinéad O'Connor passed away, there was another public figure of note who passed away, the Muslim scholar Shabbir Akhtar. Shabbir Akhtar also died suddenly at the age of 63. For those who do not know, Shabbir Akhtar wrote a very important book early in his career called A Faith for All Seasons, which is a serious theological engagement with Islam. It is a book that should be read by every Muslim. He also wrote extremely powerful and poignant Islamic responses to Christianity. He was a scholar of the Bible as well as a scholar of Islamic theology and the Qur'an. He engaged Christian theologians in ways that were rigorous, disciplined, and compelling. He wrote a very important book on the philosophy of the Qur'an, a book that shows how and why the Qur'an is so critical for this age.


I could not help but compare, with a certain level of melancholy, the response to Sinéad O'Connor’s passing with the response to Shabbir Akhtar’s death. I then compare these to the response to the passing away of Ahmad Jamal, the Black Muslim jazz musician. Did Sinéad O'Connor’s death receive more attention from Muslims because she is White? Of course, I could say it is because she was in pop music as opposed to jazz music, but it is my moral duty to engage in self-reflection and self-analysis, so I must critically reflect upon the racial issue before chalking it up to styles of music. For there is no cop out before God. The comfortable road often leads to Satan, not God. The comfortable road is to find excuses for why we responded to Sister Sinéad O'Connor far more profoundly than we did to a Black Muslim jazz musician. I am duty bound to engage in the moral path, in the path of critical self-reflection. I must therefore ask myself the hard question: does race play a role in my consciousness? Does race play a role in my being?


Even beyond that, notice the disparity between our response to a gifted sister in music as opposed to a scholar. My problem is not just that most mosques and most imams have probably never heard of Shabbir Akhtar, never thought of Shabbir Akhtar, leave alone thought of ever inviting Shabbir Akhtar to lecture, so, when he died, the vast majority of Muslims were silent. But what is more tragic, for me, is that I am sure the percentage of Muslims who have actually read Shabbir Akhtar is minuscule. I am sure that all the pontificating, pompous, arrogant Muslim kids who blabber on social media, who complain about crises of faith, who think they are posing complex questions, have never bothered to read someone as analytically rigorous as Shabbir Akhtar. No one bothered to read his early work on Muslim theology, A Faith for All Seasons. No one bothered to read his work responding to Christianity. No one bothered to read his philosophical Islamic response to secularism. No one bothered to read his work on the philosophy of the Qur'an. No one bothered.


We Muslims love to pretend that we are in a moral, intellectual crisis. "I have questions that cannot be answered. I am having a crisis of faith, help me.” God forbid they pick up a book, read a text, and know a scholar. This is also part of our current affairs. We read in a famous hadith that the ‘ulama are the inheritors of the prophets, but we have turned the ‘ulama into people who are, effectively, repositories of hadiths, people who just regurgitate hadiths back at us. These are our ‘ulama, and so we have no particular use for people who think, who analyze, who study and are steeped in current affairs, who say important things about current affairs, who actually exercise ijtihad. People like Shabbir Akhtar. 


This is the plight of the Muslim Ummah. This is why it would simply be unjust for God to help us, because we are an unjust people. We are an ignorant people. We are not the thinking, reflecting Muslims that I referred to at the beginning of the khutbah, the Muslims who read current affairs with a mind toward true ijtihad, who respond to the realities of our age in a meaningful, and most importantly of all, moral and virtuous way. 

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