Saturday, February 15, 2020

Black History Month Sermon: Al-Jāḥiẓ and Luqman


This is a script of my sermon given yesterday at Brand Lane mosque. Most people seemed to like the sermon, but I was told afterward that one person walked out and told one of the mosque officials that "this is not Sunnah (Prophet's tradition)." I don't know what he disliked. Another young man spoke to me later and said that he enjoyed the sermon but was surprised that I portrayed the Muʿtazila in a positive light, because everything he had heard about them before was very negative. We had a nice conversation, and I hope that it encourages him to read more. He said that they "took an extreme position on God's transcendence," so he had read some, and I asked him if it wasn't correct for them to take that extreme position when it came, for example, to anthropomorphism. Would he really in this day and age object to the view that references to "God's hand," "God's face," and so on must be understood metaphorically -- which was the Muʿtazila position? He conceded the point but then said that he "had heard" (!) that Ibn Sīna used to hold drinking parties and that he preferred "the intermediate position taken by Al-Ghazāli." This suggested that he was unaware of the difference between the proto-phiosophical rationalism of the Muʿtazila and later development of Greco-Arabic Philosophy by Al-Kindi, Al-Fārābi and Ibn Sīna... We didn't have much time to chat, but I simply said that Al-Ghazāli was definitely much more enlightened than many who came later, especially after the intelligentsia of the Muslim world was decimated by the Mongol invasion and Black Death.

Nonetheless, I thought that it is probably better to write down the script of my sermon.

Sermon script:

After the liturgical opening, I mentioned that ICNA and ISGH hosted a series of lectures last year by local and national Black Muslim leaders, and that I had attended three out of the four weekend events. Because it was now February, I felt compelled to speak about Black History Month, but, unlike those Black Muslim leaders, I cannot speak with any authority or connection to the Black experience in America. After all, I have led a privileged life, going to private schools in my native country and coming to the U.S. for graduate school at prestigious schools. Moreover, while the speakers last year tried to emphasize the number of Muslim victims of the Atlantic slave trade, which we know was in the tens of thousands, and highlighted some like ʿUmar ibn Saʿīd and Ibrahima ibn ʿAbdulraḥmān, the history was much darker: Many victims of the Atlantic slave trade were sold into slavery by Muslims, and some of the Muslims who were themselves enslaved in the process had themselves owned slaves in West Africa. Moreover, the Muslim slaves who showcased their ability to write Arabic and knowledge of the Qur'an, etc., oftentimes did that to distance themselves from other Black slaves, and in some cases were successful in gaining their freedoms through interventions of the U.S. and/or Moroccan governments (see, for example, this book and the references therein).

Therefore, this history was very depressing in many ways, and, given that I had no direct experience that allows me to speak to the immense pain that is still carried by those whose ancestors came to this country against their will, I chose to speak about two black characters from my own tradition. The first is perhaps the greatest literary figure in all of Arabic literature, Abu ʿUthmān ʿAmr ibn Maḥbub Al-Kinānī, better known by his nickname Al-Jāḥiẓ, meaning the one with bulgy eyes, due to his appearance (d. 255 AH/868 CE). He and the rationalist school that he represented, known as Al-Muʿtazila, were a product of the massive translation project in the late second century and early third century after Hijra, under the reigns of the Abbasid Caliphs Al-Mansur and Al-Ma'moun. Their maxim was that "Reason/Mind is the primary arbiter of truth."

Most importantly for our context, Al-Muʿtazila, who were known as "The People of Justice and Monotheism" concluded from God's justice that man must have free will, otherwise fair accountability would be impossible if sinners had no choice in their actions. They cited the verse
مَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَنْ أَسَاءَ فَعَلَيْهَا ۗ وَمَا رَبُّكَ بِظَلَّامٍ لِلْعَبِيدِ ﴿فصلت ٤٦﴾
[Whoever does good does it for himself, and whoever sins does it against himself, and your Lord does not treat his servants unjustly.]
They affirmed that "God, transcendent is He, does not do injustice; all his acts are good, he does not act badly, and He never fails to fulfill His duties." The inevitable conclusion, which is relevant to our context, is a strong focus on social justice and equality. Thus, the Muʿtazili jurist Abu Bakr Al-Asamm (d. 279 AH/892 CE, whose exegesis of the Qur'an was so highly valued that the later Muʿtazili Qadi Abdul-Jabbar almost cited it exclusively) concluded, against traditionalist jurists who reasoned by irrational analogy, that blood money for wrongful killing of a woman should be the same as that for a man. He also forbade marrying girls before they reach the appropriate age of marriage, reasoning logically that while the girl's father can be her guardian/agent in marriage, the guardianship/agency when it comes to marriage does not exist before the girl is of the appropriate age (unlike, say, his guardianship/agency over her property). The Muʿtazili jurist Thumama ibn Al-Ashras  (d. 225 AH/840 CE) also went against traditionalist jurists and their political masters when he opined against enslavement of prisoners of war. No wonder, then, that later secular/military leaders colluded with traditionalist fuqaha against the rationalist scholarship of their time.

Also relevant for our context is a treatise that Al-Jāḥiẓ wrote, which is the fourth in this volume. As I have already mentioned, Al-Jāḥiẓ himself was black, and it is clear that he wrote this essay, entitled "Advantages of Blacks over Whites," to counter the racism of his time. One example he gave was the fact that the Prophet (p) prayed over people only during their procession janaza or at their graves, except one case in which he prayed on an absent person, and that was the Ethiopian King Al-Najashi (who was obviously black, and had protected the first Muslim migrants before the migration to Madina). He also cited, in his typical witty style, that the best of many species are the blackest: camels, horses, sheep, stones, mountains, dates, musk, amber, and so on. He even cited the verse from the Qur'anic chapter Al-Rahman, which praises two gardens as very black, pointing out that the blackest soil is the most fertile. Finally, he cited the Hadith narrated in Musnad Ahmad on the authority of Abu Dharr, which said بعثت إلى الأحمر و الأسود (I was sent to the Red and the Black), and then he reasoned that because Arabs, Egyptians, Indians, etc. were not Red, they were clearly Black, even though their shades varied.

Al-Jāḥiẓ also pointed out the Qur'anic literary character Luqman, who was black, and described as blessed with wisdom, which generated a voluminous literature that rivaled that about Aesop (who was also black). In Al-Muwatta', Malik narrated that when Luqman was asked how he came to possess such great wisdom, he said: "being truthful in speech, safeguarding and fulfilling my trusts, and avoiding that which does not concern me." There is very little in the authentic Hadith literature (the Sihah, the Sunan, and the Masanid) about Luqman, but there is a very interesting Hadith narrated in exegeses of Al-Tabari, Al-Qurtubi, etc., so I will close with the version in Al-Qurtubi, who narrated on the authority of Abdullah ibn Umar (r) that the Prophet (p) said: "Luqman was not a prophet, but he was a thoughtful person with certitude in faith. He loved God, and God loved him, and thus gave him the gift of wisdom, and gave him the option to be a just ruler. He said: 'Lord, if you are giving me the option, then I prefer safety and avoidance of this severe test, but if you force me then I obey and trust that you will protect me from error.' The angels asked him why he chose not to be a ruler, and he said: 'Because a ruler is in the most difficult and worst of positions, because he is responsible for victims of injustice in every direction; he has a very slim chance to succeed, and error can lead him away from paradise. It is better to be oppressed on earth than to be honored. Indeed, one who chooses this world over the next will be rejected by this world and will never succeed in the next.'"


Post a Comment

<< Home