Sulaiman and The Esteemed Ant

The last 10 days of Ramadan are upon us. Another Ramadan has gone by very quickly, they seem to go by faster and faster. This Ramadan has been very different, but also not different. Palestine is not something new, but what is new are our reactions to it. The amount of people and the spotlight that it is occupying in public discourse, both Muslim and non-Muslim. It is different because the grief and the shame are much heavier, perhaps as heavy as they always should have been. Today I want to talk about Surah an-Naml, and the reason why will become clear by the end of this khutbah. 


Surah an-Naml begins as a lot of surahs do with the testament of faith, an affirmation of the final day, and a idea that shows up often in the Qur'an; that for those who commit bad deeds, who are unjust, God makes it for them so that they are unable to see the error of their ways. They become lost in delusion. It says this in different parts of the Qur'an, and I term this ‘the law of delusion with the unjust.’ As we see throughout the entirety of the surah, this is revisited over and over again. In verses 7 through 13, we go through the story of Moses. Moses is someone who is powerless at that point in life when he first communes with God and is given his mission to go to the Pharaoh and warn him.


He is someone who is just trying to take care of his family and is stranded in a desert. He is someone who does not have a lot of power to influence. Yet he is given the mission to go to the Pharaoh, who is among the most powerful people on the planet at that time, if not the most powerful, and to tell him something that he is really not going to like to hear. Tell him something that will probably get Moses killed. Tell him something that if it does not get him killed, will definitely lead to the loss of safety and the loss of food for his family. Remember, Moses is going through the desert with his family, and they are hungry and he is looking for something to sustain them. His mission is definitely going to lead to not being able to take care of them.


He carries out this mission, and this is not covered in this surah, but we know from elsewhere in the Qur'an other parts of his story, his mission, the Exodus, and what happens with him and his followers. The incident of the cow, then lapsing back into old customs. There are a lot of examples in Moses’ story that if it were to happen to us, and when things similar like that happen to us, we consider them signs of failure. We consider that he did not succeed. 


But then right after that, verses 15 through 44, we get to the story of Solomon, who in many ways, was the exact opposite of Moses. He has power, he has might, he has a kingdom. Not only does he have command over people, he has command over birds and over jinn, and the Qur'an highlights how Soloman, even with all of this power, is constantly affirming the domain and the power of God. He is humble, but he is powerful.


When I was reflecting on this surah, the reason why I wanted to discuss this in light of what I have witnessed since October 7th is because not many people want to be a Moses, but all of us want to be a Solomon. We all want to be the person who has the power, who has the influence, who has the ability to affect change, but we do not want to be the person who faces the possibility of sacrificing of life, property and safety. But Surah an-Naml clearly shows us that there is actually not that big of a difference between Moses and Soloman. 


Let us continue. The first story we encounter is Solomon with the ants. He is marching with his army of birds, jinn and humans in ranks. They are organized in every aspect, and they are completely impressive. He then comes across ants that see him coming and he is able to communicate with them. The ants are freaking out, "We need to get out of the way, we are going to be crushed." Solomon orders his army to stop for them.


At first glance, this sounds like, "Well, Solomon's a really amazing guy." He is all the way up here, and he is stopping for these lowly ants, what humility. There is some truth to that, but I think it misses the point. Solomon, in his complete and utter taqwa, has it ingrained in him that he is no more important than these ants. These two stories confront us with the truth that we as human beings who are very flawed, whose perception needs light and needs something to help it see clearly, looks at someone who is in Moses’ situation and looks at someone who is in Solomon's situation as dramatically different, and they favor one over the other. But they are both people who are acknowledging the domain and power of God, and they are both people that are delivering a message. 


What makes Solomon truly great is his correct belief that the ants are just as important as him, that he is exactly the same as the ants. His greatness is not determined by the power he has or by the influence he has, because all of those things were given by God. His job, his role and his worth are only in his affirmation of God's greatness. This same sentiment is in Surah ‘Abasa, that begins with telling the story that I am sure all of us are familiar with, of the Prophet wanting to speak with influential elites in Mecca and turning away with a frown at a blind man who was seeking to talk to him. The Prophet is told by God, you have turned away from the person who is sincere about seeking Me in favor of trying to pursue the ones who are completely oblivious to My existence.


Back to Surath an-Naml. In the next part of the surah, Solomon gets to Sheba. Even though we are not really given much to go on in terms of how powerful Sheba is, from the context, we can assume she is powerful. She is in the same league as Soloman.


There is really one difference between the two of them, or at least one difference that is highlighted in the Qur'an with the limited information that we are given. That is correct belief, that is affirmation of God, of the Final Day and a human's role as a vicegerent of God. When we are given these examples, he uses a lot of the same methods that God used with Moses. Dissuade him, show different examples of magic to say this is the correct path. The thing about magic is it would be a lot more impressive now. Not that it was not impressive then, but magic was a language of that time. I am not talking about the magic of today, I am talking about a very different type of magic. It was an epistemology of that time. It was a way of influencing people. Surah an-Naml is revealed around the same time as Surah ash-Shu'ara' that talks about that more fully.


The main point of this is we see two examples of powerful kingdoms. We see one example of a powerful kingdom that has correct belief, and we see one example of the powerful kingdom that has incorrect belief. Once Sheba sees these signs that Solomon gives her, she listens. But that is not the point, the point is power alone is not enough. You need power to impact change, but having power without correct belief, without a foundation on God could quite possibly lead you to a place worse then when you were powerless. When I say correct belief, I mean the entirety of the Qur'an. I mean the realization of the Final Day as if it is something that is right there in front of you. Not a theoretical construct that we have become habituated in talking about, but something that is impending as if we can see it. There was a khutbah a long time ago that said it is as if a gun is right there, that you feel the impending and inescapable nature of the final day as if someone is holding a gun to your head. 


Verse 59 through 60 of Surat An-Naml goes like this, and this is the Muhammad Asad translation of the surah, 


“SAY: "All praise is due to God, and peace be upon those servants of His whom He chose [to be His message-bearers]!" Is not God far better than anything to which men [falsely] ascribe a share in His divinity? Nay-who is it that has created the heavens and the earth, and sends down for you [life-giving] water from the skies? For it is by this means that We cause gardens of shining beauty to grow - [whereas] it is not in your power to cause [even one single of] its trees to grow! Could there be any divine power besides God? Nay, they [who think so] are people who swerve [from the path of reason]!”


It is amazing today that now you try to convince people that believing in God makes sense, at least in this country. It is so secularized. The truth is that it is insane, I think, to not believe in God. But these verses are interesting because why does God say “share in His divinity?” I mean we have Sheba who were sun worshipers, and associating the sun with God on the surface is true. Look deeper then that though. The things that both Pharaoh and Sheba rely on, are dependent on, or think they are getting power from are not God. Throughout the second half of the surah, we have this refrain, "Could there be any divine power besides God?" Because this is the full thrust of the surah. They had taken power as a partner with God. They had taken themselves as a partner with God. There are so many things you can associate with God. If Moses were to not take the mission out of fear, he would be associating a partner with God.


It made complete sense for Moses to do what he did because it was not Pharaoh that had power over his life, it was not whatever town he would get to that would keep his family secure, it was God. The same with Solomon. It was not his own ability or his own command over birds, jinn and humans that gave him power, it was God. 


Today, this is extremely relevant, because usually the things that we use to rationalize everything from not praying to not becoming involved with a certain cause, that is the thing we are sharing in Divinity with. That is the thing that I am taking as my god. That includes myself, because that is usually present in all situations if someone is taking themselves as their god, whether they realize it or not.


The other thing that is interesting about this verse are the gardens. Gardens take time to grow. All of this is from the Project Illumine halaqas, by the way, but I want to talk more about that at the end. Between Moses and Solomon are many dedicated and deliberate steps by people who are like ants. When I say like ants, I do not mean small and brittle, I mean they are loyal and dedicated. But most importantly, they are united in a single cause. They will sacrifice their life for that cause, but they are not running out of their way to sacrifice their life. They are working diligently towards it, slowly, in the same way that a garden grows through consistent rainfall.


It takes time. It took time between Moses and Solomon, though we do not know how long. But also sometimes, it does not take that long. It will take time, but I think we look at the situation that we are in and we think, "How is anything going to change?" But how long was it between the Prophet Muhammad getting the first revelation and fath Mecca (the conquest of Mecca)? It was not that long. An ant is not thinking about the time. Actually, and I can speak for myself, we all do this, when we are thinking about the time, it is because we have already decided we do not want to do this thing and we are looking for an excuse to not do it. Something that allows me to stop it and not feel guilty about it. 


In the second khutbah, I will continue this and talk a little bit about our movements and what I think we can do about this. Ask your Lord for forgiveness. 


I have seen many movements in my life for different reasons, and one of the greatest barriers to movements being successful is when the people involved with that movement are unable to get over themselves. Put differently, it is when people put personalities over principles rather than putting principles over personalities. People often contain a lot of different intentions within them. They sincerely want change and want what is good, but they also have built an addiction to themselves and are trapped with themselves. They do not know how to overcome themselves, do not know how to overcome their wants and their needs, what they think they need, what they have been told they should have, and what they have been taught that they cannot live without. Those are the things that lead them into misguidance, into becoming accomplices to evil. 


When people are duplicitous and are working within a movement for their own personal gain, it sabotages the movement. This is all of us, myself included. I say that every single khutbah, I qualify myself within all of us, because truthfully, I see all of these things in myself. I think that the main difference is there are people that are honest about the things going on in themselves, and there are people who are pretending like it is not that way. There are people who are pretending that they are Solomon, people that are pretending through a veneer of charisma and impressive speech, but we have all taken our desires as our god, or we would not be human. Are you ready to wage war against that part of yourself?


The reason why I am bringing this up and being very careful with my words is because there are also people who use the Qur'an and use Islam to say, "Well, what can we do about Palestine? It is all in God's hands," and to not do anything. They say, "Well, just focus on yourself." That is even more deplorable, and that is not what I am talking about. Last khutbah that I gave, I talked about both being the same thing, the inward and the outward. Because what I see with movements is that perhaps the justified anger and the rage is energy that carries you a certain way, but eventually it will run out and what you will be left with are your habits. What you will be left with is what is underneath that, because what is your main fuel that is carrying you through life?


If your main fuel that is carrying you through life is securing safety through a career, and your Islam is just going to the masjid for community events, but you really do not have that deep of a relationship with the Qur'an, and you are not dedicated to any cause. If that is your main fuel through life and on October 7th, you just started to become involved, it is not going to be enough. It is going to run out. I do not mean that in any criticism to you, because the generations before us did not prepare us for success. We have been robbed of our religion. We have been robbed of the parts of our religion that truly make a difference, that are truly miraculous, by being told to focus on the superficial ritualistic aspects of faith while not understanding what is actually in this book. 


It will not be enough, because eventually you yourself will sabotage it. You will sabotage it because you have not learned how to lead a principled life, and leading a principled life is in all aspects of your life. How you do anything is how you do everything. You cannot tell yourself, "Well, I am really truthful and self-sacrificing in this realm, but when it comes to this other realm, forget it." It does not work that way. 


Everyone wants to be a Solomon, because everyone wants to be the one to bring about change, to own change. Everyone wants to be at the front to have credit, but that is not who Solomon was. Solomon and Moses were the same people in their hearts, at different times with different roles. So what is our role? We do not have time anymore. Truthfully, we have not had time for a very long time. Two years ago, red cows were flown out to Israel in preparation for ritualistic sacrifice that are the prerequisites for consecrating land to build a temple on, the Third Temple. This has now started to come up again as there have been articles about it this last week.


It is my belief that we lost Mecca a long time ago and we are about to lose Al-Aqsa. We do not have time anymore. We do not have time for personalities. We do not have time for you or me to not get it together and become the example of what a Muslim is supposed to be. We do not have time for me to not learn how to take the esteemed position of an ant. And if you do not understand why I am saying the esteemed position, then we have a problem. There is nothing more lowly to me than a person who only acts in their own self-interest, who acts as an island. That is not the greatness of what the human race does. That is self-infatuation and fantasy. 


That is the fantasies of the child who wants to be a superhero, who wants to be a Malcolm X, who wants to have people's adoration. The true miracle of a human being is our ability to organize, to work together and to bring a just stewardship on this earth that leaves it more beautiful than before they arrived; but with that comes the possibility to leave it more ugly than before they arrived. Unfortunately, that is what we see happening. We do not have time. 


The last 10 days of Ramadan are upon us. In these last 10 days, what I ask of you is to recommit yourselves, not to community events in the masjid, not to iftars, not to socializing, but to recommit yourself to God. To finding what the Qur'an is, to realizing that you do have enough energy to do the self-work and the outer work.


I love this group at the Usuli Institute because everyone is very unique. Everyone has their own cause. Everyone has their own approach, and I respect and love all of them. Most of us went through a very intense study of the Qur'an led by Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, Project Illumine. What that left me with on the other side was a sense of self and a sense of certainty about what I am doing here, a sense of certainty about the importance of the Qur'an that I did not expect. When I look at the people that went through that program with me, I see the same thing in their eyes and in their actions.


It does not mean that we are perfect. A lot of people want to dive into Project Illumine, but often we see the complaint that it is a lot. It is over 500 hours in total, it is very long. How do we finish it? If you do a YouTube search on Qur'an programs, you will probably find most organizations will give you 10 hours of content, a 15-minute video on Surah al-Baqarah. I think it is crazy to complain about there being so much for free, but you have the time. If you are saying you do not have the time, it is because it is not a priority. That is the truth. 


These are free because what you do with them is up to you. They were given freely because we do not expect anything in return for them. My sincere hope is that Project Illumine and what we do here illuminates your life, even if we never hear from you, and that perhaps you will go illuminate someone else's life. I pray every day that you will recognize the importance of the Qur'an in bringing about change in this world. That without God, it is pointless. Without God, it will fail. Either it will fail to come to be or it will fail after it comes to be. 


People say that power corrupts, and I challenge that. I think godless power corrupts. I do not think Solomon was corrupt. This is too important, and that is all that I can say. I cannot convince you, I cannot give you the words that adequately express why it is so important, because it is something that you have to experience. It is as simple as that. If you do, if you are someone who feels that inner thirst for change, the inner thirst to do something, as I said, what we do is transparent, is online and is there for everyone to use in the way that they see fit. Guidance is not my job. That is God’s domain, and there is no one better to dispense of that duty. 


But if you do need help, we are here. I will end with this in Surah an-Naml, I found verses 10 and 11 very comforting. God is telling Moses in the beginning when first speaking to him, after seeing the staff come alive, he gets very scared, and God says, "Fear not, for no fear need the message bearers have in My presence, and neither need anyone who has done wrong and then replaced the wrong with good. For surely, I am much forgiving, a dispenser of grace."


You do not need to fear God if you are a messenger of God, or if you are someone who has done wrong and replaced the wrong with good. Obviously, these two are mentioned together because of Moses’ past, but this is the firmest handhold that you can have. This is the nature of your Lord. God is not someone who is watching and nitpicking what you wear and what you say, and whether you say enough Arabic phrases. It is not that if you do not do it, then He is upset with you. That sounds very human. That sounds like a very controlling human being to me. God is merciful. God is beautiful. God wants the best for you and of you. God does not want you to be perfect. God wants you to be humble and to grow, because that is the miracle of the human being.

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