The human being is created in a state of need. From the moment a human is in its mother's womb, it does not experience any separation from its mother. It cannot perceive any separation. It is one with its mother. It is one with its environment. And when the human being exits the womb, it still views itself as one with its environment. Pain then sets in, the realization of separation sets in, and the environment begins to form the consciousness of the human being and direct the human being. This creates influence. It creates a delusion of separateness, reinforced by culture, that we are a separate entity from the things that surround us, the people that surround us, and the culture that surrounds us.
We forget on a daily basis how we are formed by our friends, by the movies we watch, by a thousand different forces that we remain unaware of, unless we make a decision to become aware of them. God talks about this in the Qur'an. God tells us that we are born in a state of need and that we are in need of a criterion, a furqan, of a delineation between right and wrong. But so often in our society we are fed the delusion of independence. We are fed this delusion that we are a non-contingent being, and we think that we have rational faculties. We think that we are going along in life and making decisions based on our own brain, rather than the influences that surround us.
What I want to talk about today is this state of need and the state of what forms us so that we can begin to make more conscious decisions around what we are and who we become. Independence and the lone self is a myth wearing the false garb of reason and rationality. You do not think for yourself except by effort. You do not change yourself except by action. Your best thinking will get you the same results because of habit and fear. And fear, at least in my life, has proven to be the corrosive thread that shapes all elements of what I do, because I am a human being who is created in a state of need. The other side of need, whether needing my mother's love, sustenance, or anything else, is the fear of losing it. It is inescapable that fear is going to run my life. What this looked like for people 1,400 years ago is very different from what it looks like today. The human being changes and is shaped by what they fear. But we were given the Qur'an, in my opinion, as ultimately an intervention to inform us of this reality that unless we truly take this fear and place it with God, we will be lost. We will be like cattle. Not by our own thinking. Not by our jobs. Not by our friends. We will be like a leaf blowing in the wind unless we truly and continuously strive to fear God.
But what does fearing God mean? Because I can have an idea of what fearing God means in a very performative, superficial way. I can say it. I can pray five times a day. I can perform the rituals, but if the other 98% of my day is governed by the fear of losing a job, of not making enough money, of losing friendships, of being alone, of death, then that becomes my idol. That becomes the center around which I revolve.
In reality, I do not think we are that different from that child who, upon entering the world, begins to experience pain and separation, and begins to fear the loss of that sustenance, the loss of the comfort of their mother. Human beings are creatures of association, so we begin to associate the loss of a mother's warmth with other things in the world. First, its friends, its toys, and its different forms of comfort, until this child grows into an adult who then fears not making a certain amount of money or not having job security. They fear the opinions of others. They fear a certain way another person might say something that just reminds them of a feeling from a time they do not remember.
Today, we are all familiar with terms like “triggers” and “trauma,” and we are painfully unaware of how these things run our lives and how they steer us. It is intervention of the Qur'an and the intervention from God that reminds us that it is not just happenstance or fear that is guiding us, but there is something intelligent, conscious, and intentional that is trying to manipulate the nature of a human being to steer us, to control us, and to usurp our powers of decision-making, of freedom of thinking, and of freedom of will to make us forget God, to steer us and guarantee that we fall into loss: Shaytan. Both the shaytan within and without, if there is even a real difference.
What, then, are we to do about this? What are we to do about the nature of being human, the nature of living in fear, and of being governed by fear? Well, there are multiple approaches. The most common one, which I do not think is unique to the contemporary era, is to pretend that we do not have fear. The most common one is to organize life and to organize the people around us in such a way to make us forget that we are fearful. We bring people close who make us feel good. We pick up habits that make us feel good. The Qur'an talks about, “We covered ourselves” or “We adorn ourselves,” but this is a metaphor for adorning and covering yourself with things that make you forget the state you are in, which is fearful, in need.
The delusion is that this brings me power, that this will somehow allow me to wrest satisfaction and wrest outcomes from life. The delusion is that, by my own will, I can somehow organize life in such a way as to forget this need and get more outcomes that allow me to forget that I am a human being, that I am a contingent and beautiful creation. But I am not infinite. I am affected and influenced by the people and the environment around me. God repeatedly tells us in the Qur'an that your power does not lie in that delusion. God tells you that your society, the people around you, and those who attribute the lie to the message will try to convince you that your power is in forgetting your state, and forgetting it by prestige, by money, by lust, by tribal affiliations, and by belonging to the people who seem most powerful, who seem to have life figured out, constructing institutions of delusion that allow you to gain a sense of security.
We are given examples in the Qur’an of past people who took confidence in this delusion until something came and easily wiped them out. Not just something coincidental, but something they created through their pursuit of delusion, through the shaky grounds on which they decided to build their abode that keeps them safe. Although the advanced network makes you think that this is what is making you safe, and convinces you that you are safe, you are, in fact, building your own destruction. This is something unique to human beings. Other animals do not do this.
In verse 43 of Surah al-Furqan (Q 25), it says, "Have you considered the human who makes their own desires their deity?" Then later, the chapter says, "Do you think most of them listen to the message and use their reason? No, they are but like cattle. No, they are even less conscious of the right way." When I read this, there are two parts of me. There is one, which I think all of us are familiar with, that thinks of all the other people who are like that, who fit that description. But the second part, the honest part, is the part that tells me that this is me. That this is all of us, in fact, because that is the nature of being human unless we continuously strive and struggle to interrupt that through prayer and fasting, and also through understanding that if we are cattle, surrounded by other cattle, then we are going to be cattle, in a state of need.
Surah al-Furqan also describes two sources of water, a sweet water that can hydrate you and a salty water, which does the opposite. I do not think this is any coincidence. When we take the chapter as a whole, it is communicating to us that there is something that is right and there is something that is wrong, and the challenge is that unless we intervene and begin the journey of trying to not be cattle, the something that is wrong will start to seem like the something that is right. Unless we have a clear criterion that necessitates the Revelation and necessitates God's intervention to guide the human being, you will be lost, because you will not be able to tell the difference between the two waters. In the second khutbah, I will talk more about what I believe is a solution to this: asking God for forgiveness.
I do not think we are just animals in need. I think the special and beautiful thing about being human is that we are given a choice. But it is not the kind of choice in which I am sitting down, a family member asks me what I want for dinner, and I can pick one or the other, and then that is it. Rather, it is a choice I make every minute of every day through my actions, my decisions, and my words.
The other side of this coin is that I can choose to not be a creature only influenced by my surroundings. For I am also a creature that has been given the breath of the Divine, a creature with a fraction of the Infinite within it. And that means I am extremely powerful. My ability to influence the environment around me is equal, if not more, to my ability to be influenced. This is the other part of the delusion. The delusion that I am kept safe also comes with the delusion that I do not have any power, that I am but a leaf blowing in the wind, and there is nothing I can do. In the stories of the Pharoah in the Qur’an, the people who follow the Pharoah are criticized for contributing to their own oppression. The first time that I read that, I thought, "That does not make any sense. Why would anyone want to be oppressed?"
I still cannot answer that, but when I actually look at myself, take an inventory of my fears, and make an attempt to understand, “What is Cherif?”, I, in all honesty, see that there are many places where I am convinced that life is just the way it is and that there is nothing I can do. I convince myself into inaction. I convince myself that, “This thing is just too big,” whatever that thing is. If I am being honest, this is what keeps me in wrongdoing, every single time. I do not make an affirmative decision to do wrong. I just convince myself that doing right is pointless and futile.
But the truth is, I have a lot of power. The truth is that when I am kind to people who love me and to people who look up to me, the impact that I have on their life is gigantic. So much so, in fact, that it is as if the entire human project relies on me. If I approach this from my quantitative brain, I cannot grasp it. But there are moments in life when you feel it. There are moments in prayer when, and I know everyone has felt this, you have this honest, piercing truth that, “What I do matters.” That it matters that I love my family. It matters that I love the person who is struggling. It matters that I forget why I am angry, why I was wronged, and I turn the wing of mercy to the person whom I have convinced myself does not deserve it.
We live in an era in which Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem are not only no longer under our control, but they are under the control of kufr. I am not talking about labels of Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. I am talking about the nature of what is ignorance, and of what is governing and making decisions for these places. And these are not just places. As I talked about, human beings are created in a state of need, and they need to be influenced by the sweet, hydrating water. God is truly the greatest parent, because we were given the Revelation and sacred spaces as sustenance. So when I see a sense of apathy and defeat when it comes to these sacred spaces, what I really see is a human being who is completely disconnected from its truth, completely disconnected from the truth that they are a contingent body that needs sustenance, like a person forgetting to eat or forgetting to take care of themself. This happens quite often, and it is usually as a byproduct of disease. We are in need of these sacred spaces, and we are in need of good companionship.
I believe the beginning of a solution to this is to realize that this need is fulfilled by providing that need for someone else. And this is not just from my own mind. I think there is a reason why the Qur'an always says, "Accept those who feed the orphan, accept those who take care of the traveler, accept those who do this for the other person." That sentiment, that spirit should exist through everything. Because I am sure today you will encounter someone who is lonely. I am sure today that you will encounter someone who needs companionship. I am sure that today you will encounter someone who is making the right decision, who is doing the brave thing, and because they are doing the brave thing, they are feeling more alone. Not only do they need you, but you need them, because by providing for them, you become closer to God.
That is the power of being human. It is that I can truly change another human being's life just with my words, just with my presence. And when you have an Ummah, when you have a body that, day by day, is introducing more health to other parts of the body, it will change. I have faith that it will change. I do not think we are in need of any more self-righteousness. When we are facing the problems that we are facing, as an Ummah, as a family, what we need is more compassion. What we need is more consideration of, “What I can do for you?” rather than, “How are you falling short in what you are doing for me.” Maybe, Insha’Allah, that will let in more light.