Redirecting the Islamic Gaze, Usuli Khutbah by Cherif Abou El Fadl

One of the primary goals of the khutbah is to witness, to stand for and to demonstrate an understanding of the truth of what is reality, and also to reorient and correct the gaze of its congregants, of Muslims, for the week to come. Another year has gone by and Ramadan is very, very close. Time seems to go by very quickly. It has been a while since I have given a khutbah. Truthfully, since October 7th, I have wondered to myself, “What do I have to offer? What is it that I can say that will be of benefit to Muslims?” Those of you who know me know that I am enamored by psychology. I am enamored by what a human being is, by behavior, by the mind. And I found myself facing a very real internal conflict: What does this all matter? What does any of those things that I am enamored by matter when men, women, and children are being annihilated? When my brothers and my sisters are being annihilated day in and day out in Palestine, Sudan, and China, just to name a few.


I am sure that I am not alone in sharing the experience that it is paralyzing. When one reflects on how it is paralyzing, if they are of any moral standing, they feel enraged with themselves for thinking about themselves. What right do I have to feel paralyzed? What do my emotions matter when people are being annihilated? This was something that I prayed on a lot and turned to God on. Not just in terms of what am I going to say in the khutbah, but what am I going to do with my life? What is it that I can offer to the stream of life that will be beneficial to Muslims? Because it seems that right now, what we need is to hear from voices other than me, who can speak on, educate and organize on this matter to bring about some real change. But I also realized that the fact that I was measuring this by October 7th was indicative of my privilege because this is not a new issue, and I do not even like to call it an issue. This genocide began long before October 7th.


Genocides began long before October 7th. I grew up hearing about genocides. I was a child when the Bosnian genocide took place. Recently, I turned to Surah al-Muddaththir, one of the first revelations revealed to us, and I will read the beginning of it: "Oh, thou and thy solitude enfolded, arise and warn, and thy sustainer greatness glorify, and thine inner self purify" (Q 74:1-4). When reading the surah, something very interesting caught my attention, something that appears elsewhere in the Qur'an. In fact, it appears over and over again, “arise and warn,”  and “thine inner self purify.” 


The Qur'an, the Islamic message, the Islamic gaze is interested in both the external and the internal. It is simultaneously looking outward and looking inward. It is not telling us to first take care of ourselves and then deal with the outside world. It is not telling us to deal with the external until we reach a point where we can deal with the internal. It is telling us that our external world and our internal world are one. In fact, I will go further than that. I do not think that there is a separation between the two. I think that the internal reflects the external and the external influences the internal. 


In fact, this is one of the ways that we can understand the nature of God better, because God is al-Samad. God is the only thing that is unchanging, eternal and free of influence. So I reflected on what I should do, what I can do about this, and most importantly, what does Islam have to offer? Because some of the most moral voices that we have seen, especially when it comes to Palestine, are not religious voices. So what is the point of Islam? I felt that the question itself betrayed my own shortcomings of faith, because I realized I am not Muslim because it offers me something.


I am Muslim because I believe it is the truth. I believe in a merciful Creator, an ever present, all hearing, loving Creator, beyond my comprehension. Who, as a mercy, sent prophets and sent messages to bring me to Him, to bring us to Him. A Creator that created this blessing of a life filled with magic and miracles, and has made human beings vicegerent despite their nagging bad habit of becoming accustomed and habituated to the magic and the miracles, and forgetting; ever in a state of forgetfulness. Most importantly, there is a life after this one, and that life is much more real and much more everlasting. That life is directly connected to this life, and so what I do, what I say, what I see, what I hear and what I speak in this life influences my stature in the next life. This life, while it is a miracle, is also a struggle because of my nature.


I realized that the question of what Islam could offer me is irrelevant. It is the truth and it is a liberating truth, because this life is not all there is. There is so much more, and it liberates me to do the right thing, to speak and to act. Surah al-Muddaththir goes on to say, "And all defilement shun and do not through giving seek thyself to gain, but unto thy sustainer turn in patience. And when the trumpet-call is sounded that very day will be a day of anguish not of ease for all who deny the truth. Leave me alone to deal with whom I have created alone and to whom I have granted resources vast and children as witnesses. And to whose life I gave so wide a scope and yet he greedily desires that I give yet more" (Q 74:5-15).


To me, the problem is that we human beings compartmentalize life. I do not think it is just the modern era, but that it is human nature. What I have seen a lot is when it comes to religion, there seems to be really two camps. One says, “Forget the outside world, it is out of your control. Focus on finding God, being with God and preparing for the next world.” The problem with this camp is that basically by that logic, this world is meaningless. It is treated as just a waiting room, but in reality it is not, it is so much more. 


The Islamic gaze requires that we be ruthlessly honest with ourselves, that we investigate ourselves in the same way that we prepare for our career. If someone only looks inward and ignores the outside world, that pursuit reinforces their selfishness. They fall deeper into selfishness because their spirituality becomes just about them, how they feel and their experience. It is divorced from what is outside of the reality of what human beings are going through, especially if you are someone like me, born in an immense amount of privilege. 


By privilege, I mean being able to have a home and being able to eat every day. Being able to control the temperature in my room so that I feel comfortable, that is a privilege. Not to mention the opportunities of what I can do with my life, just the fact that I can sit and have an internal crisis about what to do. If someone looks outward without looking inward, they will inevitably project what is inside of them onto their environment, onto people, and most importantly, onto their understanding of God. It is not just to project themselves, but to project what they do not realize in themselves, what they are unconscious of. They will do it without realizing it because they have no sense of who they are and of their prejudices.


They take for granted that their perspective is their perspective. The outward, the realizing that there is a humanity and that there are other people, the realizing and not turning away from the suffering of other people will teach you how to defeat your selfishness. It will teach you how to no longer just be an “I,” but be one of many. The inward shows you what to create, because elsewhere in the Qur'an it also talks about how if you were in Pharaoh's place, you would be just like him. It seems to be the pattern across ages that there is always an oppressor and there is always an oppressed. You might think that you will never be an oppressor, but I think history speaks differently. When you look inside, you realize the parts of yourself that are oppressive and tyrannical. With no power, these things can go unnoticed.


There is the very famous phrase that power is all corrupting. I think that is part of it, yes. It does not have to be, but human beings are in constant flight from themselves. Later on in Surah al-Muddaththir, it says, "What then is amiss with them that they turn away from all admonition as though they were terrified donkeys fleeing from a lion" (Q 74:49-51). These verses have been something that have always fascinated me. Human beings will endure an immense amount of discomfort, even becoming protective and defensive over a way that they are living, even when it makes them uncomfortable. But the admonition, the word that sets the gaze back upon us, that says, “maybe you could be doing something a little bit differently, maybe you should look at this,” is very threatening and we run from it. 


If you are someone who has listened through the Project Illumine tafsir, you will remember that one of the key points that shows up through so many surahs is that usually the barrier to true belief is not rationality, nor is it reason. It is not that someone listens to an argument and says, "Ah, that is not convincing to me," but it is something emotional, what is gathered and labeled as diseases of the heart. There is a whole ocean of what those things might be, of what diseases of the heart actually are, all the different kinds. I highly recommend going to those halaqas and watching them, they are all on YouTube, because me paraphrasing them would do them injustice. Then sincerely ask yourself, which one of these apply to me? I will be honest with you, all of them apply to me in one way or another at different points in time. So to think of these two directions as separate, inward and outward, I believe is a delusion. It is the most common delusion, and it is one that affects all of us. We compartmentalize, that is what human beings do. We like to organize things into little boxes so we can deal with them better, and that is a good thing. It is a tool.


It serves us in science and in everything, because that is how we learn. That is part of obtaining knowledge. But like any tool, it is to be used in specific scenarios, and wisdom is knowing when to use it and when not to use it. All religions except Islam are founded on and promulgate this separateness. Most religions will just tell you, “Ignore the outside world. Come here, remove yourself from temptation. Remove yourself from all of the noise, isolate and find the inner heaven within you.” There is truth to that, there is a place for that, but Islam tells us, what is going on inside of you is very relevant to what is going on outside of you. That you have a responsibility to go to Pharaoh to alleviate the oppression of the oppressed, to help the orphan, to help the refugee, to free people from bondage, and what is necessary for you to achieve that is to purify the inner self. 


The problem is that when you only look at the inward, when you treat your inward reality as separate, it cements you in misguidance. It cements you in selfishness, because the two influence each other. In the next khutbah, I will talk a little bit more about this, and you will understand why I think we need to discuss and rethink what we classify as a religion. Ask God for forgiveness. 


At the end of the last khutbah, my father spoke about a hadith, and the way that he paraphrased the hadith was, "You will be ruled by those who fit your sense of morality. As you are, you will be ruled." I think, and I can only speak for myself, but I think there is a very big disconnect between what I see in the outside world and how I view myself.


The ways in which I contribute to the injustice of this country are numerous, and only if I can become honest about something, can I do something about it. My definition of religion is different from most people. I think that it is a system of belief, which is something I think everyone probably agrees with, but in servitude. It is what you serve. In verse 56 of Surah adh-Dhariyat, it says the human being was made for service. Usually,” li-y’abudun” is translated as “worship,” but it does not say “li-salat”, it does not say “for prayer.” A lot of translations will say, "Worship me, God," but the “me”, it is not actually in the Arabic. The way that I interpret this verse is it is a statement on the nature of what a human being is and what jinn are. You cannot escape the reality that you will serve something by your very nature because you are full of fear. By being full of fear, what I mean is you are full of need, you are always in need of something. There is always something that you are striving to get.


We discussed this a lot in the Project Illumine tafsir halaqas, that this takes on many different manifestations, but what is repeated throughout the Qur'an is that you always are seeking to get something. With every human being who claims to not have a religion or to not be very religious, I actually look at them very similarly as to when people say, "I do not want to be political." I am sorry, but politics are inescapable. Your existence is political whether you like it or not. All that claim does is betray that you are extremely privileged, that you are above the decisions being made by nations and that you are not being affected. All it does is betray your selfishness. It is okay, because we are all selfish. It is fine, the point is not to shame anybody. The point is, what I am interested in, is finding a way out.


Finding a way beyond, learning and improving, because the other side of the inward reality and the outward reality being one, of you not being separate from your environment and the people around you is that when they succeed, you will succeed. When they feel better, you will feel better. They are not mutually exclusive because they are the same thing, and that truly, one of the veils that is placed in this life is that I am separate from you. There is a lot of new age spirituality regarding the oneness of everything, and it is true, but the way that it is used really shows the necessity for revelation. It shows the necessity for Islam because the Qur'an is miraculous, it tells you exactly how to do this.


Everything that you could think of is in that book. Religion is a philosophy of action; some choose them consciously, others choose unconsciously. It can be a political party, a culture, race, president, nationality, all contribute to the construction of what your religion is and what defines you.

You can follow the religion of the dollar, you can follow the religion of being a victim, you can follow the religion of comfort, of vacations, of capitalism. Simultaneously, you could hate capitalism. Simply put, a religion is what you define yourself against, and what defines you is your god. Islam is an invitation, with instructions on how to define yourself with God. Religion is the ground that you stand on and you can recognize it because when it is shook, you become shook. It requires work to figure out what this is, and by work, I mean pen to paper, taking inventory, investigating, looking at your behaviors like a scientist to figure out what this is.


I do not mean sitting and ruminating about what you are, because that is often just mental gymnastics to convince yourself that you are correct. If my religion is what I define myself against, it is my foundation, it is what I get my sense of self from, am I not defining myself by something external to me? If I am defining myself by something external to me, how come I believe that these two things are separate? They are one and the same. This is why God and the Qur'an tells us to be careful of what we eat, what we look at, what we say, who we hear, who we are around and of the jobs that we take, because it all makes up who we are. That is the true choice. I choose what I ingest. I choose who I am around. I choose what I do. I do not get to do whatever I want and then say, "Well, I still have freedom of choice." Yes, you do and you are choosing through your behavior. These things make you. 


Surah al-Takathur, a surah that I am not sure why, has been on my mind a lot the last few months, seems so relevant. Essentially, it tells us that you are always wanting for more. You are striving for more and more until you reach the grave. I understand that. There is always something in my life that I have convinced myself that once I get it, everything will be okay. This is normal, this is human. I actually do not know if I can defeat that feeling, but guess what? I do not think it matters because my emotions and my feelings are just one part of existence.


They do not have to change, but the key is that I can recognize and intervene with that in myself, that I will always keep striving for more and I will always be thirsting for another thing. That even if I get it, it will not be enough and I will get bored of it. I will get used to it and I will no longer feel the sense of fulfillment. I think that it is so interesting that my society has raised me to believe, “You need to eat, you need a job, you need to take care of yourself.” Maybe all of these things are true, but in my religion, it has Ramadan, it has fasting, it has giving, it has instructions for doing the exact opposite. I believe all of you would agree that it is in those moments where I am giving, it is in those moments where I am more concerned for the needs of others, that I feel most alive. I think to feel most alive is to actually feel most connected to God. 


There are two things that I will finish on. One, in the halaqa on Surah al-Muddathir and in other halaqas as well, outside sources are brought in. A lot of times, what is the Sufi, not hipster Sufism, but classical Sufism perspective is brought in and discussed. The study of the self, because it was a science. Classical sufis classified these things. It was not just hawa and how things feel. Three humors are offered, attitudinal matrices in a self that exist, and I would like to share those. There are actually nine but three are discussed in this halaqa. 


One is the covetous self, takathur, the one that is always looking for more. Is this imbalanced? Am I aware of this? The next one is the rageful and angry self. Am I able to accept? Am I trying to impart my own idea of how life should go? This is arrogance. Then there is the dishonest and hiding self, the duplicitous self. Am I a different person to different people? Do I mold according to what I think other people want or will accept? It is so interesting that our political system is basically based on that, on someone's ability to appear perfect. 


The other thing is as Ramadan comes, I think, “What is it that I want to refocus myself on? Who am I going to give to? How am I going to make this Ramadan not about me, but about other people?” That is a question that I think all of us should start asking ourselves now because time goes by very quickly, and every Ramadan goes by extremely quickly. How am I going to go into this new year? How am I going to contribute to the lifting of the veil in myself that prevents me from seeing the magic and the blessing of life? To recognize that the trees are a miracle, that I am a miracle, the fact that I have a body that is constantly striving and constantly working in a perfect harmony to keep myself going, to deliver enjoyment to myself?


How am I going to realize that miracles are all around me and that blessings are all around me? I would argue that the path to that is in realizing and doing the opposite of takathur, of giving, of  stopping the incessant need for more money, more food, more entertainment, more comfort, more admiration, more validation, more prestige and more security that everything will work out the way that I want it to work out. Instead, focus on giving those things to other people, especially the refugee and the orphan. There is an unfortunately heartbreaking amount of people that need our help right now.

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