The Imperative of Intervention: Lessons from Surah Al-A'raf

If rain falls on fertile land, then gorgeous things will grow. If rain falls on putrid land, nothing will grow and you will be left with ugliness and swamps, or nothing at all. If you are like me, who washes their shoes and then leaves them out to dry but forgets them and rain falls, then you will wake up and find that they are very wet, which is what I woke up to today and what I am thinking about.


I laugh to myself because the parable of the rain is what I had been preparing yesterday. The parable was on my mind a lot, and then the next day I woke up to soaked shoes, and laughed to myself. The rain brings opportunity for both growth and disaster. 


The Qur'anic challenge is that it is a clear book, but it is not an easy book. It is not a simple book. It is not a book that you open and are given black and white answers, because humanity is not black and white and existence is not black and white. Morality and ethics are very layered by nature of existence, but human beings like to make things black and white.


Rain can fall on something beautiful and make something beyond your imagination, or rain can fall on something ugly and just multiply that ugliness. It is not just the Qur'an that it applies to. Truthfully to me, my interpretation of it is that it is not the Qur'an, it is not actually a commentary on the Qur'an. It is a commentary on the nature of human beings because whether it is in an interpersonal arena, the political arena or whatever else, human beings love to take things like systems of belief, evidence, texts, whatever it be, and twist it to fill their needs and to bolster what they want to see happen. Existence is complicated. 


Muslims do this with the Qur'an as well. This last month, I have thought a lot about, what do we need right now? What can I offer that will be of help? Because it seems to me that the issue is a lack of power and a lack of influence. Whether we are looking at Palestine, Sudan, white supremacy, Saudi Arabia or at any Muslim majority countries, even if we had the correct belief and the correct solution, our power to carry it out is very limited. It is my belief that power starts with accountability. Really, I think it begins and ends with accountability because you only have power to change what you can control. When I am inspired by the students who are doing what they are doing across the United States on college campuses, I feel like we failed them, my generation and the previous generation. If you did not listen to the last two khutbahs, a lot of my thoughts are influenced by them, and so they are definitely worth going back and listening to if you have not yet already. 


From a purely pragmatic standpoint, when I tried to sit in the position of the administration of universities who are not Muslim, I do not know what their beliefs are, but from my position as a Muslim who is looking at them and believes that they should do what is right for the sake of what is right, that is totally valid. However, I cannot ignore the extremely important relevance of the fact that, for decades, they have had Zionists and not just Zionists, other ethnic groups as well, pour money into their universities. Really, if I am being honest with myself, if I was in their position, whose interest would I represent and whose interests would I defend? So when I say it begins with accountability, I am continuing the long tradition of having the Usuli Institute be a voice that tells rich people to donate to universities and to create chairs. When I first thought about this, I had a voice in the back of my head saying, "Yeah, but we should not have to," because well, it is the right thing. Why should I have to pour money into a university to stop or prevent genocide? That is very true. That is correct, and I agree with that. However, when we have been so disconnected and un-invested can we expect what is moral to prevail?


So to take you through and illustrate what I am thinking, I want to take you through Surah Al-Araf. Surah Al-Araf is a very long surah that has a lot of different examples from different prophets’ stories, and I highly recommend going and listening to the Project Illumine tafsir. Surah Al-Araf is one surah that completely prevented any chance of doubt entering my mind that this book is a Divinely revealed book, because of the nuance that it deals with human beings and how human beings think and operate.


One of the main examples in this surah tells the story of Moses after the Exodus. Throughout the different chapters of the Qur'an, we go over this story of Moses many different times, and each time that you go through, it focuses on different things. Sometimes it focuses on different parts of the story before Exodus or after Exodus. Sometimes it focuses on the same part, but it highlights different things. As we learned in Project Illumine, it is of utmost importance that we pay attention to these differences because in that is the message of the surah, which is also why I believe that it is inaccurate or incomplete to cherry-pick from the Qur'an because it is a comprehensive text and you need to know what the rest of the text is saying to understand any one part of the text.


In this telling of Moses’s story, it is after Exodus and it is when he goes to commune with God. It also talks about how the people who are left over in another surah, later learning that this was a movement led by Samiri, that they returned to their old habits. They began worshiping the calf again and when Moses comes down, he is livid. He is livid at the people who did nothing and asks them, "We just escaped this, now I am coming down and there is all this ingratitude and idol worship."


This telling of Moses's story focuses on those people who did nothing to stop that group of people, and why did they do nothing? They said: Well, what can we do? The best that we could do was just not join them. As we go on through the surah, it is my understanding that what God is telling us is that is not enough. The Qur'an describes people, compares people like this who are not doing what is right but not doing what is wrong. They have correct belief and this surah is a message to the believers, not just a message to all people, but specifically to the believers and is talking to those who knew right from wrong and did nothing about it, who take a position of neutrality in action even though in their hearts they might not be neutral, that they actually recognize what is wrong and compares them to people on the final day who will be in between the fire and heaven, almost as if they are stuck in limbo.


Thus reaffirming and creating this very beautiful and intricate image that appears throughout the Qur'an, that you are in complete control of what happens on the final day. What you create here in this life is what you are going to find there. It is what your hands put forth. Moses was confronting a very challenging obstacle that I believe is the same obstacle that we are facing right now and have been facing for several generations, which is that we are a people whose parents have come from oppression and grew up in authoritarianism, just like Moses's followers.


You then find that there are two types. There are those who immediately resort back to the old ways and it is very easy for them to find fervor in that. Samiri had no problem finding a lot of energy to do that. The other type, when it comes to doing something different, they have a very difficult time getting themselves to stand up for what is right. They have become used to being pacifists. They have become used to keeping their head down to not thinking creatively. It becomes very difficult for them to assert themselves and assert their power. That is the same thing that I think the same situation that we are in today. We raise children with the very small and limited goal of “just go to school, just get an education, just get married and be happy, pray and read Qur'an, and try not to upset anybody.” It is the same situation. 


As much empathy as I have for this because authoritarianism is an ugly, ugly thing and I am blessed with a life where I do not have to worry if I open my mouth and say what I am saying right now that I am going to be arrested tomorrow and disappear, and worse. It takes generations to heal that, but we cannot be pacifists anymore. It is not enough to just recognize it because the message of Surah Al-Araf to me is the necessity of intervention. It is not enough to just have the correct belief. It is not enough to just hate something in my heart. That is the weakest form of faith.


I can hear that and think to myself, "Well, it is a form of faith," or I can hear that and focus on the word “weakest.” Just like I said in the beginning, human beings like to twist things to their own ends. So am I twisting this to better myself or am I twisting this to make myself feel better? So I encourage everyone to intervene. I encourage everyone first and foremost to take accountability and to understand their book because it was told 1,400 years ago, and it boggles my mind that 1,400 years ago, a discourse like this was happening.


Those who know me know that my field is psychology, because that understanding of human beings did not show up until recently. That understanding of human beings making excuses for themselves and not intervening is something that in the early 1900s and before then, between the 1600s and 1900s, western psychologists and what would eventually be called social psychologists were still arguing about the nature of a child and the nature of a human being, which is something that I am going to get into in the second khutbah.


So alhamdulillah, because we have this book that if someone truly strives to understand it, it will better their life personally and it can become the best friend, the greatest aid to bringing justice and establishing it on this earth. Ask your Lord for forgiveness.


Intervention. When early European settlers came to the West Coast, came to California and what we now call Yosemite, they saw tribes setting fire to the forest and they of course thought these people were savages. They thought they were backwards, they were harming their environment and harming themselves. So in 1850, they established the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. I smile because at the “protection of Indians” part, because that is usually how these things go when the government is controlling an indigenous tribe, they create an act that is labeled as if they are protecting them. This act outlawed the controlled burns, which now I think we all know that the West Coast is infamous for their fires and their wildfires which are direct byproduct of taking stewardship from the indigenous caretakers.


What took 100 years for United States ecologists to realize was that actually there might have been a reason for these controlled burns, because what happened is the forest became so dense and grew out of control it suffocated smaller plant life, which then upset the ecological balance of the area and made all plants more susceptible to parasites, which created more dead trees that were easy to catch fire. All of this grew and actually if you look at some of the earliest pictures of Yosemite, you will notice how sparse it is.


If you look at a picture of Yosemite now, it is dense. Before you could see the bottom of the floor, and now you cannot. Of course when trees are all packed together very tightly, wildfires spread. It is easy for other trees to catch fire. The indigenous population was without science and universities, but because they lived off the land, they knew how to take care of the land. Now the people who come from the systems that we all have grown up with, looking up to their universities and their fancy disciplines of knowledge, have begun establishing controlled burns to try and rectify the situation. What those tribes understood well, that the United States did not, was the necessity of intervention. The necessity of stewardship.


Another example. The leading thought on childhood morality for some time was from Thomas Hobbes, a name that I am sure a lot of us have heard before. His ideology is that children, like nature, are born vicious and born selfish, and that if it is not for the intervention of culture and societal restraints, they remain vicious and selfish. Then the pendulum swung to the other side with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who said the exact opposite essentially, which is that compassion rules. Children are born compassionate and loving and it is only once they are tempted that they change. In other words, it is society that makes them not compassionate, because their needs are not met or whatever it is, but it is the opposite of Hobbes. 


What now, and this is very recent by social psychologists in a meta-analysis by Karen Nguyen, found that actually the truth is somewhere in the middle. The reason why they say the truth is somewhere in the middle is because they are looking at one of the very famous studies that was done in social psychology that tested different ages, that tested infants, tested babies at one year old, tested toddlers to measure their level of altruism, and what they found is that children are amazingly altruistic. They have an inherent natural drive that if they see someone who is suffering, they will try to soothe them. If they see someone struggling and it has been modeled for them, they will try to help them in the way that they saw without having to be taught, even at astonishingly young ages, even infants.


What this new meta-analysis points out is that all of these measures were done between an infant and someone who is either in their family or the same race as them, and that actually what we find from newer studies is that children do have an inherent nature to be altruistic, but they prefer people who are kind to them and they prefer people of their in-group. It goes on to state that what will actually alter someone's morality, by our standards, that will improve someone's morality, is the intervention of culture and intervention of what habits you model and create for these children.


Lawrence Kohlberg, with his theory, created different levels of morality and even with what I think is his flawed understanding of this, he created three different levels of morality in a human being: Pre-conceptual morality, conventional morality, and post-conceptual morality. So pre-conceptual morality is right and wrong, it is determined by prohibition and punishment, and you have an orientation towards self-interest, pain, and pleasure. Conventional morality is following social norms, interpersonal agreement and conformity, law and order. Authority and social order, maintaining orientation. So you begin to understand, it starts to zoom out. You start to see law and you start to see how people are acting and usually, they will just do what the group is doing. Then post conceptual morality, social contract orientation and consciousness building, and universal ethical principles for mutual respect. I do not know why he wrote mutual respect, I think universal principles is enough. Mutual respect still remains at a transactional level. 


This is Lawrence Kohlberg. 1,400 years ago, this was all said in the Qur'an. Not just said, but discoursed at such a level that I believe no human being could have written it. Kohlberg believed that most people get to the second level, the conventional morality, but do not progress past that point. In other words, your natural development as a human being will get you up to a certain point, but whether you develop morally beyond that depends on your culture, your decisions, and your agency as a human being.


The Qur'an, including Surah Al-Araf, is written from a deep perspective of an author that understands this about human beings and is trying to pull people to a larger ethical purpose. These two examples, the example of the national parks and controlled burdens and childhood morality are two examples that I believe illustrate why intervention is necessary in life. Why we cannot just sit by and let things progress, why we have a responsibility to not just sit and be okay with our own prayer, our own adhkar, our own zakat.


This life requires that you understand the Qur'an and that you implement it. Surah Al-Araf starts pretty early on with these examples of pacifism and surrendering in terms of not doing anything, but what it illustrates is not that these people were really taking the path of least resistance, but actually the truth underneath their actions or their inaction is materialism. It is self-interest that keeps them from acting. Because when it comes to their own furthering, they are like dogs panting. It gives that very profound and powerful image of dogs panting, running from here, running to there, and they spend their whole life doing this. I constantly have to check myself because there are a million different fears within me that are driving what I am focusing on to have a house, to be able to provide for my family. Fame, recognition, respect. From the moment I wake up to the moment I go to sleep, those are the thoughts that are threatening to preoccupy my mind, unless I intervene.


It is not enough to just pray five times a day. It is not enough to just give zakat. It is not enough to just engage in the rituals and once in my life, go on Hajj. If that is all I do in my life, I believe that God will hold me accountable because I do not know about you, but I want to be with God after the final day. I want to get to heaven. There are many other examples, but another example that is given in Surah Al-Araf is on the Sabbath. I will leave you with this to reflect on.


One of the criticisms of what the Jews did, and it is not about the Jews, those examples are given as a lesson of, "Do not do this, learn from this mistake," they were not supposed to fish on the Sabbath but they eventually did change that religious law. Why did they change the religious law? Because of financial gain. I can imagine that what was going through their head was, "What is the big deal? God is very merciful. God is very kind. God will forgive. Besides, I am providing for my family." But the principle that is offered in this example is that they put financial gain ahead of religious law.


So going back to what I said at the beginning of the khutbah about us failing these students who are standing for the right thing, risking suspension and risking their futures for the right thing because they refuse to allow the authorities to hold that over their head and to silence them. When we say to put our head down and to just focus on ourselves, all of that money that could have been going towards building power and influence in these institutions and controlling our narrative. Where did it go instead? 


We might present this as doing the right thing, but it is not about doing the right thing. We might present it as that we keep our head down, we go to school and we go to work because we just want a peaceful life, but it is not about that. It is about financial security, which is a bottomless pit of needs because the more money that you get, and the more that you should feel secure, the less secure that you actually become, and the more that you will fear losing it. God is telling you to spend in God's way and allow God to protect you. Put your trust in God, not in a bank account, nor in a career.


The narrative of Surah Al-Araf is one that starts at the surface level of human psychology, which is that they believed right and did nothing, and takes you to the reality of the reason why you believe correctly but did nothing is because there is a deep part of you that longs for material, that longs to cover yourselves in the adornments of security, that longs for the delusion of this life and pants for it like a dog. That is the reality of what is underneath you, because God sees all and has the ability, if you are lucky enough to expose yourself to yourself. God willing that that happens in this life, because it will happen in the Hereafter. I do not know about you, but I much rather have that happen now than later.

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