Monday, September 16, 2013

My next post: Sermon on the Moral Value of Doubt

My August 30 sermon (see previous post on this blog) apparently prompted discussion on facebook and then another sermon in Houston that attacked the idea of having any doubt.

The preacher there spent most of his sermon on the notion of `aqida (creed), about which he claimed that we should have full certainty, denouncing scholarly or even casual discussion of the differences of opinion among the various theological schools in Islamic history (the Mu`tazila, the Ash`ari, the Maturidi, etc.) as somewhat dangerous. Then, he clearly turned to my own sermon and the documented history therein about violent conflicts between Muslims in the early days of the Muslim state after the death of the Prophet (p). He imputed that I meant "they did this in the past so we can do it now," when I was merely pointing out that people of the same faith have often disagreed and fought over matters of state, and that statesmanship cannot be reduced to piety.

The preacher did not deny any of this historical evidence that I presented, but claimed - without any evidence - that there was a hidden agenda to undermine the faith: discredit the messenger and you discredit the message, he suggested, albeit using stronger and less accurate language. Without any evidence that I or anyone else had done this, he said that "they" will first discredit the sahaba (companions of the Prophet, p), then discredit the scripture, etc.

This is, of course, a classical example of the slippery slope fallacy. I shared the forwarded material with my British-Egyptian Economist friend mentioned in the previous post, and we commiserated on how predictable and yet how disappointing this response was. The Houstonian friend who forwarded the material had indicated that he wished Muslims would talk to each other, rather than at each other,. However, I think that the problem is not inherent in the mode of speech, but rather in the method of discourse: Do we use logic and scholarship or fallacy and insinuation?

My British-Egyptian Economist friend suggested that my next sermon should be on certainty: what we must and do accept as ideals, especially during these times of bloody trials, focusing on the verse

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ كُونُواْ قَوَّامِينَ لِلّهِ شُهَدَاء بِالْقِسْطِ وَلاَ يَجْرِمَنَّكُمْ شَنَآنُ قَوْمٍ عَلَى أَلاَّ تَعْدِلُواْ اعْدِلُواْ هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَى وَاتَّقُواْ اللّهَ إِنَّ اللّهَ خَبِيرٌ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ
(O, people of faith, be steadfast for Allah, witnesses for justice; and let not the hatred of others toward you make you unjust; be just for that is closer to God-consciousness; and be God-wary, for Allah knows deeply all that you do).

I agree that this would be a very good way to avoid getting into a virtual debate, and indeed this is a theme that I have used often to denounce illegal violence in all its forms: we have to live up to our own standards of justice, not down to the lowest standards of our potential competitors and interlocutors.

In the event, however, I feel that it is more important to use the opportunity to drive home a more important lesson on the value of doubt, not only for the acquisition of knowledge, but also for development of faith. After all, those who do injustice rarely recognize that they are: Their moral compasses are very poorly calibrated, so they do injustice in the name of justice and morality. 

Without "doubt," we cannot recognize our tendencies to rationalize vindictive and immoral acts, or learn how to counter these base tendencies in order to improve ourselves.

Let me here list two quotations that inspire my planned sermon for this Friday. The first is from Amartya Sen, and the second is from Ronald Dworkin:

"In a letter to Paul Engelmann, written in 1917, Wittgenstein made the wonderfully enigmatic remark: ‘I work quite diligently and wish that I were better and smarter. And these both are one and the same.’ Really? One and the same thing - being a smarter human being and a better person?"
Sen, Amartya (2009-09-30). The Idea of Justice (p. 31). Harvard University Press - A. Kindle Edition. 
"Whether people have lived well is not affected by what happens after they have ceased to live; nothing can affect that, any more than whether a painter has painted well depends on how his painting fares in the market. But whether someone has had a good life can be influenced after his death by anything that adds to or takes away from its achievements or hopes. How good a life you have had waxes and wanes after you are no more.
John Rawls made popular among philosophers ... that the value of living well is lexically prior to the value of a good life."
Dworkin, Ronald (2011-05-03). Justice for Hedgehogs (p. 201-2). Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.  

Thursday, September 05, 2013

"Please don't be so sure" (for all sides on most issues in Egypt and Syria)

This is a transcript of my khutba (sermon) last Friday (August 30) at the ISGH Main Center. It was precipitated by a long email exchange with a British-Egyptian Economist friend of mine, who ended our exchange by quoting Bertrand Russell: "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." 

In the traditional liturgical beginning of the sermon, I recited the verses:
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اتَّقُوا اللَّهَ حَقَّ تُقَاتِهِ وَلَا تَمُوتُنَّ إِلَّا وَأَنْتُمْ مُسْلِمُونَ وَاعْتَصِمُوا بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا وَاذْكُرُوا نِعْمَةَ اللَّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ إِذْ كُنْتُمْ أَعْدَاءً فَأَلَّفَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِكُمْ فَأَصْبحتم بِنِعْمَتِهِ إِخْوَانًا وَكُنْتُمْ عَلَى شَفَا حُفْرَةٍ مِنَ النَّارِ فَأَنْقَذَكُمْ مِنْهَا كَذَلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ اللَّهُ لَكُمْ آيَاتِهِ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهتدونَ 
(O, people of faith, have the proper measure of God-wariness, and do not die except in a state of submission to Allah (Islam); and hold fast collectively to the cord of Allah, and do not create divisions among yourselves; and recall the blessing of Allah on you when you were enemies and He reconciled your hearts so that you became - by his blessing - like brothers; and you were at the precipice of a pit of fire, then he saved you therefrom; this is how Allah shows you his signs so that you may be guided)

When the forbidden fissures in society, of which Allah speaks in these verses occur, that is one form of what the Qur'an calls  fitna (a trial or calamity). As the most comprehensive Arabic dictionary Lisan al-Arab (The Arab Tongue) defines the word fitna, its most general meaning is trial and tribulation. The root of the term, the past tense three-letter verb fatana originally referred to melting a metal (gold or other metals) in fire to reshape it. That is, fitna is a test that helps us to become better Muslims. The Qur'an uses the term both to refer to "positive" fitan, including wealth and children, as well as negative ones, the worst of which is punishment in the hell fire.

Allah also tells us in the Qur'an that there is no escaping some measure of fitna of one form or another:
(Alef, lam, meem; did people think that they will be left to claim that they have faith without being testes; verily we have tested those who came before them, and verily Allah will know the truthful and know the liars)

The meaning of fitna that concerns us today is the one that refers to fissures in society, divisions that can turn fatal, like the ones currently witnessed in Syria and to a lesser extent in my native Egypt. It was painful to witness in Egypt a few weeks ago how people on all sides of the issue were so polarized, seeking information only from the sources that tell them what they already believed to be the case, in perfect illustration of the confirmation bias well documented by psychologists.

When there is bloodshed, it is often very difficult to assign the full blame. In this regard, the Prophet (pbuh) said:
(If a man feels safe for his life from another, and the latter kills him, then the killer comes on the day of judgement carrying a banner of treason)
and he (pbuh) said:
(If a man trusts another to preserve his life, and the latter kills him, then I absolve myself from the killer, even if the one he killed was an infidel).
Thus, all life is sacred and all murder of noncombatants (Muslim or otherwise) is absolutely forbidden. The second quoted Hadith means that the killer in this case does not get the intercession of the Prophet (pbuh) on the day of judgement -- a terrible punishment.

In the meantime, we have the verses that state:
وَاقْتُلُوهُمْ حَيْثُ ثَقِفْتُمُوهُمْ وَأَخْرِجُوهُمْ مِنْ حَيْثُ أَخْرَجُوكُمْ وَالْفِتْنَةُ أَشَدُّ مِنَ الْقَتْلِ وَلَا تُقَاتِلُوهُمْ عِنْدَ الْمَسْجِدِ الْحَرَامِ حَتَّى يُقَاتِلُوكُمْ فِيهِ فَإِنْ قَاتَلُوكُمْ فَاقْتُلُوهُمْ كَذَلِكَ جَزَاءُ الْكَافِرِينَ ( 191 ) فَإِنِ انْتَهَوْا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ غَفُورٌ رَحِيمٌ ( 192 ) وَقَاتِلُوهُمْ حَتَّى لَا تَكُونَ فِتْنَةٌ وَيَكُونَ الدِّينُ لِلَّهِ فَإِنِ انْتَهَوْا فَلَا عُدْوَانَ إِلَّا عَلَى الظَّالِمِينَ ( 193 ) )
(And kill them wherever you find them, and expel them from the land from which they expelled you, and fitna is worse than murder, but do not fight them in the Holy Masjid if they fight you there, then if they fight you, kill them, for that is the punishment of the infidels, then if they desist, verily Allah is most forgiving and merciful; and fight them so that it would not be fitna and religion would be for Allah, then if they desist, then do not transgress except against the unjust)

So, we are ordered to fight those who are unjustly creating fitna, because it is worse than murder. But who started the fitna. There are often multiple views on this, and we are only allowed to declare war against the transgressors if we are sure.

My message to you today, whatever side you are on in the conflicts that I have mentioned, is: "Please do not be so sure."

In order to understand the complexities of fissures in society and when they occur, we refer to the following Hadith. Its context is that the Prophet (pbuh) had sent Abu `Ubaydah ibn Al-Jarrah to collect the jizya from Bahrain (as you may know, jizya was the tax paid by non-Muslims under Muslim protection, who did not need to serve in the army; whereas Muslims had to serve in the army and also paid zakah, a wealth tax). After the Prophet (p) had finished fajr prayer, he was about to walk back to his home, adjacent to the masjid, in order to rest for a bit as was his custom. But then, a group of men blocked his access to his home. The Prophet (pbuh) smiled and said knowingly:
(I guess you have heard that Abu `Ubaydah has returned with some money)
They said yes, and he (pbuh) said:
(Then have glad tidings and expect what you were hoping for; verily, by Allah, I do not fear poverty for you, but I fear that the world will be open for you as it was open for those before you, and you will compete for it as they competed, and thus it will ruin you as it ruined them.)

Thus, the Prophet (p) warned us that competition for resources is the most dangerous source of fissures in society that can turn ruinous.

In this regard, it is often difficult to determine what is truly religious and what is political when considering fissures in society that turn bloody. For that reason, I will give you a few examples of these difficulties even during the time of the four rightly guided Caliphs:

The first is the well-known disagreement between Abu Bakr (r) and Umar (r) over one category of the people that were fought by Muslim armies right after the death of the Prophet (pbuh). Some like to whitewash history and try to make it clear that all the tribes that Abu Bakr fought were apostate (murtaddeen), but that was not correct. Some of the tribes were categorized as "those who refused to send zakah" (مانعي الزكاة). These tribes made the shahada profession and performed all the rituals of Islam, including paying zakah, but they only decided to spend it locally instead of sending it to the central treasury in Madinah (for those who know some fiqh, you know that it was later determined that it is better to spend your zakah locally, to remove the poverty of the people with whom you deal on a daily basis). So, Umar (r) determined initially that these people should not be fought, while Abu Bakr (r) swore that he would fight anyone who did not give him even a single rein that they used to send to the Prophet (p). After a long debate,  which involved different understandings of the relevant Hadith, Abu Bakr (r) convinced Umar (r) that the right decision was to fight them.  This shows how difficult the issue can be: `Umar was rarely wrong on most issues, his opinions were at times supported by later revelation, and was dubbed by the Prophet (p) as Al-Farouq (the one who separates right from wrong).

In the event, it is impossible to know what would have happened had Abu Bakr (r) not done that. Perhaps the state of Islam at the time required sending as much of the resources as possible to the central treasury, otherwise, Islam may have disintegrated and become a footnote in history. The important point here is to recognize that this was a decision of statesmanship, not religion, although Abu Bakr (r) had to convince Umar (r) by convincing him that his understanding of the relevant Hadith was incorrect. In the end, Muslims killed Muslims explicitly over zakah money that was not sent to the central treasury during the life of Abu Bakr, as Abu Bakr (r) himself said as per the report of Imam Malik:
(Later, Umar sent back some of the seized properties of the women and children of the tribes whom Abu Bakr had fought).

And as we go forward, we see that during the time of Umar (r), the Arabs of invading armies were allowed to create a class system, wherein the tribe of Quraysh was at the top, followed by other Arab Muslims, followed by the non-Arab Muslims (called mawali), and finally the non-Muslims (called dhimmi). He was assassinated by Abu Lu'lu'a, a Persian who was dismayed by the perceived subjugation of his people and their centuries-long culture.

Then came `Uthman (r), who was a rich Muslim but gave up most of his wealth and lived on a small stipend from the Muslim treasury. However, he was accused in his old age of nepotism for appointing people from his clan (who were successful businessmen and therefore good at administration) in important positions. When the rebels came to kill him, `Ali (r) donned the helmet of the Prophet (p) and wore his sword and went to fight the rebels to protect `Uthman (r), but the latter refused to have a single drop of Muslim blood spilled on his behalf. In the event, his own blood (r) was spilled, because some rebels felt that he was not distributing resources equitably because of these appointments that he made.

Then came the grand fitna. `Ali (r) wanted to fight before `Uthman (r) was killed, but it was very difficult to fight after he became Caliph, especially since many constituents -- most notably Mu`awiya (r) in the Levant -- refused to accept his leadership of the community. Instead of helping to find an agreement, some of `Ali's advisors were concerned that Mu`awiya was only interested in the wealth of the Levant, and some of Mu`awiya's advisors felt the opposite way. The result was no reconciliation and rivers of blood that have not dried to this day.

Fast forwarding to today, before we support the spilling of blood of this group or that, we should first wonder if there are financial dimensions to these groups wanting to claim the right to rule. In most instances, we will find that -- as the Prophet (p) warned us -- the source of our ruinous divisions is nothing more than competition over worldly resources. Even when dressed up in religious or nationalistic rhetoric, we should look for the ulterior motives underneath. Only then can we have some doubt about our view of who is 100% right and who is 100% wrong, and this measure of doubt, however small, can bring the parties to the negotiating table to seek a peaceful solution. Only then can we rediscover the unity, by blessing of Allah, to be saved from the current situation of standing, once again, at the precipice of the pit of fire.