God reminds us in in Surah Al ‘Imran:
[MANY] WAYS of life have passed away before your time. Go, then, about the earth and behold what happened in the end to those who gave the lie to the truth: this [should be] a clear lesson unto all men, and a guidance and an admonition unto the God-conscious. Be not, then, faint of heart, and grieve not: for you are bound to rise high if you are [truly] believers. If misfortune touches you, [know that] similar misfortune has touched [other] people as well; for it is by turns that We apportion unto men such days [of fortune and misfortune]: and [this] to the end that God might mark out those who have attained to faith, and choose from among you such as [with their lives] bear witness to the truth - since God does not love evildoers (Q3:137-140).
One of the greatest dangers for texts is familiarity. Although you know the words, your intellect starts to relate to the words more out of habit than out of real awareness and real engagement. In Surah Al ‘Imran, God gives us a timeless message, telling us to be mindful of the rather obvious point that we are not an exceptional generation (Q 3:137). We are not an exceptional presence on this earth. Our story, our narrative, our dynamics, our challenges, our issues, and our problems are not exceptional. The earth has seen it all before. So much of what you confront and deal with has precedent upon precedent. In other words, modesty, the type of modesty that makes you aware that you are but a part of God's cycle, would do you a lot of good.
Recall that many nations, tribes, communities, families, and individuals came before you, and all these people, in their particular historical moment, had issues that, to them, seemed novel. And the responses to these issues also seemed, to them, to be original. But human beings confront the same moral challenges, time and again. The very nature of creation, the very law that God wove into creation, the very stages of life that you go through from birth to maturity, to aging, to death, attests to a very redundant and repetitive story. So God tells us, in Surah Al ‘Imran, to not be conceited in thinking that our challenges are somehow unique or unprecedented.
God tells us that God wants us to “Go, then, about the earth” (Q 3:137), which literally means to travel upon the face of the earth. But this is, of course, a figurative expression. Traveling on the earth can be achieved physically and intellectually, and in the intellectual sense, this is a call to study. This is a call to study the societies and the patterns of human behavior that existed before you. Study the story of good and evil. Study the primordial, endless struggle between the Divine and the demonic. “Go, then, about the earth” is a call to pursue knowledge, to reflect, and to understand so that you can remind yourself of an unwavering Sunna, an unwavering law of creation that God has encoded into our very existence.
The passage tells us to consider the fate of “those who gave the lie to the truth” (Q 3:137). Whether you claim to believe or not is not the issue. The issue is that there are people who, even if they acknowledge God, deny the moral laws of God. There are people who think the moral challenges of their day and age are so unprecedented that they learn nothing from the example of the prophets. They learn nothing from the example of the struggle between good and evil. They learn nothing from the example of the story of ethics among human beings. They learn nothing other than the sound of their ego in response to the challenges of the moment. They live in a state of moral falsehood, a state in which all that matters is the egocentric self, what the ego proclaims to be the beginning and end of things.
The proof of this is what God says in the text that follows: “Be not, then, faint of heart, and grieve not: for you are bound to rise high if you are [truly] believers” (Q 3:139). God tells believers not to weaken and allow despair and dismay to overcome them. God tells believers, “You are studying history to learn from history, and you learn because you believe in what learning can deliver.” In other words, knowledge is not an indulgence of the ego. It is but a commitment for a purpose, and that purpose is to bear witness to the falsehood of all that is false, the falsehood of the demonic, the unethical, and the immoral. So, do not weaken. Do not give up and despair. Continue believing in the promise of your Lord. Continue believing that your Lord stands for the exact antithesis of the demonic. If falsehood is demonic, your Lord is exactly the opposite. If selfishness and egocentrism are the demonic, your Lord is the opposite. If ugliness is the embodiment of the demonic, your Lord is exactly the opposite of that.
But God knows the price that must be paid for falsehood to have a chance of being vanquished and for what is good and moral to have a chance of prevailing. What is needed is that you do not weaken nor despair because, for the believer, victory is not an empirical issue. Victory is not about how many people you can dominate or control. Victory has nothing to do with power. Victory has nothing to do with authority over other human beings. Victory has nothing to do with monopolizing money and leveraging capital. Rather, the true “victory” is for God to pin an esteemed status on you. But this is a status that no one on earth will reward you for. In fact, earning this status is likely to earn you the ire and animosity of many. In the material world, it is often a thankless status. In this world, it is often a status without prestige.
What is this status? God tells us, in the same surah, that the nature of victory is to earn the status of a witness, or shahid, for God (Q 3:140). We have flattened and impoverished the idea of shahid as martyrdom. Yes, in cases of war, a shahid is a person who witnesses by giving up their life. But what is much harder than bearing witness by sacrificing your life is to bear witness while living. What is much harder is to be knocked down, time and again, to be underappreciated, to be mistreated, to be marginalized and ignored, and through it all, every time you are knocked down, to rise because God tells you to not weaken, to not despair, for “You are indeed the winners” (Q 3:139). Not “winners” in a superficial or material way. I underscore for the millionth time: winning is not about power. Winning is not about wealth. Winning is not about the armies you control. Winning is not about your bank account. Winning is but a status. It is not a status that you hold vis-a-vis other human beings. It is, in fact, a status in which God deputizes you. God announces you, declares you, and chooses you as a witness for God. In the Hereafter, you will come as someone who was knocked down repeatedly, who confronted one battle after another, and you will declare to your Lord, "Here I am. I did not weaken, I did not give up, I did not despair, and I continued to bear witness." It is, short of prophethood, the closest status that you can have to God.
In Islamic theology, if a scholar does not bear witness for God, then all their scholarship is worthless. Again, the very reason for scholarship is to use that knowledge to “traverse upon the earth” (Q 3:137). Learn from the anthropology of societies. Learn from the sociology and history of societies. Learn from the philosophy of morality and the legal systems constructed throughout human history. Learn, but do not learn to promote yourself. Learn so that you can bear witness for God. Learn so that you can stand against the bearers of falsehood. God wraps up this amazing passage in Surah Al ‘Imran by reminding us that God does not love the unjust (Q 3:140). God reminds us that our core mission is to bear witness for justice and against injustice.
An entire philosophy of life, right at our fingertips. We read it, and we ignore it all the time. Most of the time, we are oblivious to its message. We have an affirmative, Divinely mandated obligation to learn. Not to deploy this knowledge in the promotion of the self, but in the service of righteousness and against falsehood. Ultimately, our guiding moral principle is the love of justice and the hatred of injustice, for God tells us that God does not love the unjust. But we live in a world that hardly ceases throwing all types of curveballs at us, because so many of those who appoint themselves as scholars act and speak as if bearing witness for God is not worth talking about. So many so-called ‘ulama act as if justice and injustice are not part of their charge. Even more than that, in fact, they act as if falsehood versus truth is not a paradigm that engages them or gives them any pause. Who knows what they are ‘ulama for? A presumed competence over some medieval texts, but for what purpose?
I do not just stick to abstractions, although abstractions are critical, so consider the following. Recently, on September 20th, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) announced that it was awarding the “Human Dignity Award” to Shaykh Abdallah Bin Bayyah, whom it described as one of the Islamic world's most respected scholars. The AJC lauded Bin Bayyah as serving the cause of “peace” and “tolerance.” The irony, of course, is that Bin Bayyah is being given the Human Dignity Award by an organization that routinely defends the regime of human indignity and human oppression, that is, the Israeli apartheid government. But there is even a further paradox. While Bin Bayyah was being given the Human Dignity Award by the AJC, his student, Hamza Yusuf, wrote a deeply racist essay in which he regurgitates an old colonial and racist worldview. His point is that there are “communities of honor” and “communities of dignity,” and that communities of dignity are, in the phase of evolution, one step higher from communities of honor, for communities of dignity understand the value of the rule of law. It is a thoroughly colonial and racist paradigm. In this viewpoint, Muslims are still at a barbaric stage as communities of honor, and it was the Catholic Church that taught the world how to be communities of dignity who respect the rule of law. This racist, ideological outlook regurgitated itself in many different forms throughout the colonial era.
But there is still a further irony. As the AJC was giving Bin Bayyah his award, it was also acting in an extremely undignified fashion at an event held at the University of Pennsylvania. The purpose of the event was to commemorate Palestinian culture and to remind the world of Palestinian suffering, to present testimonials of Palestinian subjugation, and to allow the Palestinian voice to be heard about Israel's racist system, a system in which even Palestinian citizens of Israel do not enjoy anything remotely approaching equal rights. And the very same AJC that awarded Bin Bayyah protested this Palestinian event, calling the event “antisemitic” and accusing the Palestinian voices that testified as to their own suffering of “antisemitism.” The AJC advocated for the silencing of Palestinian voices, going so far as to attack and malign university officials for not censoring Palestinian voices. Did Bin Bayyah say a peep about that? Did his students? Absolutely note.
The AJC has a cause. They have a mission. Look at who the immoral admires to know what is truly moral and what is truly immoral. Look at who the immoral admires to know the difference between darkness and light. Study. Reflect. Look at the history of the AJC. Those present for Bin Bayyah's award were members from the U.S. government, representatives of the Secretary General of the United Nations, and people of great prestige and authority from all walks of life. Muslims who care about Jerusalem, of course, were not present. Nor were Palestinians. Nor was anyone who can provide volumes of testimonials about Israeli injustice, including figures from the human rights community, the same injustice the AJC defends while extending an award to Bin Bayyah, whom it describes as “one of the most respected Islamic scholars.” But in what world is Bin Bayyah “respected”? In the world of Muslims who have contravened God's command not to weaken and despair. The world of Muslims who have long forgotten the obligation to testify for truth, to stand by the downtrodden, the weak, the subjugated, and the oppressed. The world of Muslims who have dedicated themselves to testify and defend the realm of the demonic, not the realm of God.
Consider another story that caught my attention. If we were an educated people who heeded the call of our Lord and who traversed upon the earth, studying, reflecting, and learning, then every Muslim podium would be speaking about this. But I assure you that this will be the only podium talking about it. For we are an uneducated people. We are a people unworthy of the status of bearing witness for God.
Saudi Arabia held a conference dedicated to communications, the postal service, and other such topics. Lo and behold, Saudi Arabia extended an invitation to the Communications Minister of Israel, Shlomo Karhi, to attend the conference. Did this Israeli minister come to talk about how to better organize the mail system? Did the Israeli minister come to give a learned lecture about how they respect Palestinian privacy and do not spy on Palestinian correspondence? No. Shlomo Karhi came to Riyadh to participate in the morning prayer service, complete with a Torah scroll dedicated to the ruler of the kingdom.
This is a big deal. To be given a Torah scroll is no small matter. The service included a quorum of at least 10 men and took place in Karhi's hotel. It included Jews who lived in Riyadh, in other words, natives of Riyadh who were not a part of the Karhi delegation. Wearing traditional prayer shawls, they read from the small Torah scroll and presented the Torah scroll to Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), the Crown Prince. The scroll was wrapped in a felt cover with stitching in English, Hebrew, and Arabic that read: "The Jewish congregation Kingdom of Saudi Arabia." It included a dedication in Hebrew to King Salman Bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince MBS, and their ministers and advisors. Karhi did not speak at the conference about stamps or the postal service. He spoke about the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia. He spoke about how the two countries are etching ever closer to a historic agreement, and how MBS has truly earned the honor of being gifted a scroll of the Torah with a dedication written in Hebrew.
If I were Jewish, I would say, "How dare you dishonor the Torah this way? You are honoring a murderer, a tyrant, a despot, a man who murders his own people. You sully and contaminate the honor of the Torah and, indeed, the honor of the God that you and we, Muslims, worship by honoring a tyrant, someone who, if they were Jewish, you would be out in the streets rebelling, saying, ‘No way will we allow someone as immoral and inhumane as this to rule over us." But we know that the reason they honor him is because they are racist, and they think he is good enough to rule over Muslims. This is exactly like the AJC award to Bin Bayyah. I do not for a second believe that these people respect either MBS or Bin Bayyah, but they have become accustomed, through decades of colonization, to patronizing us, patting us on the head, and saying that the despots, the tyrants, and the murderers are good enough for us.
How else do we understand that while the AJC gave Bin Bayyah his award and MBS received his Torah scroll, Israel has revised its already extremely belligerent rules of engagement to grant Israeli officers further powers to shoot Palestinians to kill, even when Palestinians are unarmed, and even when Palestinians are doing nothing but protesting without weapons? The revisions in the law further empower Israeli soldiers to shoot to kill with no accountability, no investigation, no inquiry. The entire Israeli government, the same Israeli government from which the minister of communications comes, supports the new law.
Could you imagine a more discriminatory system? While Bin Bayyah received his award and MBS got his Torah scroll, human rights organizations and medics in occupied Palestine are noting with great concern a sharp rise in Israeli forces shooting Palestinians to maim them, targeting legs with the type of bullets that often cause amputations and paralysis. It reminds me of the book, The Right to Maim, that was assigned in a course in Princeton University and accused of being antisemitic. The professor who assigned the book was also accused of antisemitism. I beg of you, who is testifying for the truth here? Who are the soldiers of falsehood, and who are the witnesses of God?
Observe, reflect, learn, and study. In the same week, a story came out about a 16-year-old Hindu student in Illinois who made it a point to burn the Qur'an to insult the Islamic faith. We all know that the advocates of Hindutva are spending millions of dollars to spread Islamophobia in Europe and the United States, and this brainwashed 16-year-old was fed so much hate as to make a special video burning and insulting the Qur'an. At the same time, an Islamic institute in England, Al-Falah Institute, was attacked, defaced, had money stolen, and Qur'ans burned. The institute needs $60,000 to repair the damage. This comes as part of a sharp rise in anti-Muslim attacks in Britain. Last year alone, there was a staggering rise in attacks against Islamic centers and buildings. 35% of the mosques in England were attacked in the last year alone. At the same time, France sends another act of hate and Islamophobia to Muslims. France is supposed to host the Olympic Games in 2024, and France has announced a ban on athletes wearing the hijab.
Islamophobia is alive and well. Like a toxic poison, it is everywhere, so much so that one tires of keeping track of all the incidents. One tires of the same old story and the lack of any Muslim response. Islamophobia has been alive for well over two decades now, and as I have said a million times, the amount of spending by Muslims to respond to Islamophobia is minimal. Islamophobia is ever present, but our Muslim scholars are busy discussing “cultures of dignity” and “cultures of honor” and receiving awards from those who are part and parcel of the Islamophobic industry.
Keep in mind the following fact. When MBS gave his infamous interview to Fox News, he spoke of his optimism about normalizing relations with Israel. He dismissed the issue of human rights violations, and he was very dismissive of Palestinian rights. He simply said, "We care." MBS has been in intense negotiations with the Biden administration about what he wants in return for forgetting about Jerusalem and the Palestinian people, and what MBS wants is what tyrants always want: weapons and security guarantees. And the weapons the Saudis purchase have one sole purpose: to kill fellow Muslims. There is no other goal. Pause and think about that. MBS goes so far as to say that he cares about nuclear weapons only in response to another Muslim country, Iran, acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Saudis want weapons so that they can direct their firepower to Ethiopian refugees, to Yemenis, to supporting their dictators in Libya and Sudan, and to killing Iranians.
This is precisely why the Torah scroll was given to MBS and an award was given to Bin Bayyah. If you really hate a people, if you truly are a racist, then what more would you want than people who look down on their own people? The irony was really brought home to me when, as I read about the shameful award given to Bin Bayyah and the Torah scroll given to MBS, the Archbishop of the Anglican Church of South Africa once again reminded the world that Israel is an apartheid state. The archbishop has proven himself a man of God, a witness for God in a way that puts so many Muslims to shame. In his statement, he said, "South Africans of faith must acknowledge that Israeli policies toward Palestinians are a carbon copy of the apartheid era policies in South Africa, or risk becoming complicit in the subjugation of Palestinians."
Take what the leader of the Anglican Church of South Africa said to Bin Bayyah. Take what he said to Hamza Yusuf. Take this to every Muslim who has tired, given up, and despaired. Take this to every Muslim who does not have enough shame and morality and tell them that the Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa is closer to God than they will ever be. This is someone who bears witness for truth. This is a man of principles and morality.
Maybe, finally, we will walk around the earth, listen to this Christian man, and learn some of our morality from him. Maybe.