CALLING FOR A SPIRITUAL REVOLUTION WITHIN ISLAM
The Revolution We Need
By Timothy J. Gianotti, Ph.D.
Presented at the Noor Cultural Centre, Toronto
August 19, 2012 (1 Shawwal, 1433)
Today it is my privilege and honor and joy to recite and so follow the instructions left for us in the chapter of “the Livestock” / sūrat al-an‘ām (6:54), which tells us that
“When those who believe in Our signs come to you, say: ‘Peace be upon you! Your Lord has written mercy [as a rule] upon Himself. So, if anyone has ignorantly committed evil and then has repented and reformed, [he/she will find that] verily God is Forgiving, Merciful!’” (6:54) [See also sūrat az-zumar (39:53-55)]
We return to this place of praise and say fond farewell to Ramadan, the month of mercy. We give thanks to God for this month of spiritual intensity, this month of charity and prayer, this month of fasting on many levels and in many forms: fasting from food and drink, fasting from our destructive habits, unconscious consumption, and excessive lifestyles, fasting for real transformation and for the renewed desire to live a Godly, spiritually-infused life. Understanding that we do not celebrate our achievement this day but rather God’s mercy, we give thanks today for this returning, month-long opportunity to confront our own faults and failings and limitations, this chance to rediscover our inadequacy and spiritual poverty before God, this opportunity to seek forgiveness and to dispense forgiveness feely and generously to others.
As I say my fond farewell to the month of Ramadan, and yet before I get too settled back into the patterns of a “normal” life, I have to say that I am still hungry.
I look at myself, my community, my society, and my world, and I cannot declare that the fast is completely over. I am still starving and struggling for a right relationship with God, for a truly balanced relationship with the creation, for which I was created to be a steward, a care-taker, and not just a taker. I am still hungry and thirsty for a justice that is universal and so recognizes and protects the dignity of every life, no matter how different from my own. I still hunger for the transformation of my world, which is weeping and wailing in agony. I still thirst for the emancipation of all oppressed people, be they the victims of political and economic oppression or the victims of racism, sexism, religious prejudice, malicious misrepresentation and hateful demonization.
Just by way of illustration, I remind myself and you of a few examples that show us just how far we still have to go before we can rest: I recall the suffering and displaced and bereaved and brutally murdered souls of Syria; I remember the Tibetan people; I am just learning out about the Rohingya Muslims in Burma, who have suffered for decades and are currently the targets of brutal ethnic and governmental oppression; I think of the Shī‘ī majority in Bahrain, who live under a privileged, minority Sunni rule; I think of the insecure and sometimes terrorized Jewish and Christian minorities in many so-called Muslim countries, including Christians beaten and imprisoned and killed for blasphemy in Pakistan and the Christians whose churches have been bombed in Nigeria and Kenya; I do not forget the Palestinians who continue to suffer in Gaza, the West Bank, within Israel, and in the diaspora; closer to home, I have come to know a little about the experience of our sisters and brothers of African descent, who, long ago, knew all about the evils of discrimination and racial profiling here in North America; I have witnessed the experience of our sisters, young and old, who continue to be objectified, put down and treated as second class citizens in nearly every religious community, culture and society and who continue to be victimized by the private and soul-stealing horrors of domestic violence; I have listened deeply and prayerfully to the pain of our sisters and brothers, our sons and our daughters, who have painfully and courageously come to the discovery that God made them lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered, even though they knew that this realization would mean a life of suffering, discrimination, hatred, violence, judgment, and exclusion, especially in their faith communities. The list of the marginalized, the persecuted, the dehumanized, and the overlooked is almost endless.
Ramadan is over, but I am still starving to see the concept of family or tribal honour stripped away from murder and all forms of violence; I continue to thirst for an end to all forms of ethnic and religious supremacism — ethnic supremacism, religious supremacism, socio-economic supremacism — and the violence they all inherently promote (think of the Sikh blood recently spilled at the hands of a white supremacist in Wisconsin or the Shī‘ī blood that continues to be spilled by Sunni supremacists in Pakistan and other places); I am hungry to overcome the corporate and individual greed that forces so many millions to starve and completely disregards human, animal, and environmental costs; I starve to erase the term “collateral damage” from every language spoken on planet Earth.
In short, my brothers and sisters, in a world crying for transformation and raging with revolution, I am hungry for a revolution, but not the kind that trades one form of tyranny for another, nor the kind where all sides are guilty of war crimes, even with one side committing fewer than the other. Rather the revolution for which I hunger and thirst is spiritual, where knowledge and understanding triumph over ignorance and prejudice, where faith in God’s sovereignty and mercy triumphs over all forms of fear, intimidation, and coercion, including the fear and intimidation and coercive speech that is sometimes hurled from the minbar [pulpit]. I hunger for a revolution that awakens us all to the fact that religious diversity is a gift from God and the religious law each of us has been given was created and given to serve humankind and to facilitate the restoration of each and every human being to the “best of all possible forms” rather than humankind being created to serve the law and nothing higher.
I hunger for a revolution of consciousness, but I recognize that this revolution will not come quickly or easily and certainly not as the result of physical force or high-tech weaponry; rather, it will come from the ground up, from a radical rediscovery of our faith and the essence of all Divinely-revealed religion. We need to rediscover and so reconceptualise who we are, what we are, and what we are about, what the ultimate purpose or goal of our existence really is. In more sophisticated terms, we need to rediscover the teleological consciousness that is at the heart of all prophetic teaching: namely, that we all – each one of us – came into existence by an act of God, that God breathed God’s own spirit into us and appointed us to be the caretakers of the creation, and, ultimately, that we are all passing through this world on our way back to God, who is both the origin and the ultimate goal of our existence. As the Qur’an says, “Seek God’s help with patience and prayer; verily it is a momentous thing except for those who are lowly in spirit, those who reckon they will meet their Lord and who know they are to God returning” (2: 45-46).
AL-GHAZALI AND THE SCIENCE OF THE WAY OF THE AFTERLIFE
Nine hundred years ago, when many say Islam enjoyed a “golden age,” when the ‘Abbasid empire still stood (at least in name) and Muslims enjoyed a power, wealth, and global prominence that is difficult for us to imagine today, a great scholar named Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī emerged with the shocking diagnosis that Islam was dead. Even as the Seljuk Viziers were building great universities to rival the political and intellectual threat of the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, he said that real religious knowledge had become lost, forgotten, folded up, completely absent in all the opulent academies with all their great and famous scholars. This tragic, almost apocalyptic condition, he charged, was the result of scholars seeking self-aggrandizement, politicians seeking to co-opt the religion for their own purposes, and an essential confusion among the masses that the religious life was entirely about ritualistic observance and possessing the right creed. In his own words, the people had forgotten that
” …the afterlife is before [us] and this life is behind, and [that] the moment of death is nigh and the journey is long, and [that] the provisions are slight and the danger immense, and [that] the road is blocked. [They cannot see the fact that] only that which is purified for the face of God by way of knowledge and deeds will [suffice] as a reply before the Examiner of keen vision. Wayfaring along the path of the afterlife is wearisome and toilsome, [for it] involves a great many dangers, [calamities] for which there are no instructions and no companion.
The guides for [this] road are the learned, who are [said to be] the heirs of the prophets. However, the age has become empty of them and all that remains are those who follow in their footsteps. Satan has overcome most of them; tyranny has seduced them; and each one, being enamoured [with himself], has started to rush after his own plan. And so that which is good has begun to be regarded as abominable, and that which is morally repugnant has begun to be regarded as good, so much so that the shelter of religious knowledge is now wiped away, and the light of guidance is now incomprehensible in the quarters of the earth.” *
Al-Ghazālī ardently believed that the systematic cultivation of a teleological consciousness and its accompanying moral transformation were the most urgent and important religious preoccupations, the disciplines by which Islam, as a salvific system, would succeed or fail. This is why it drove him crazy to see everyone — including and especially his fellow scholars — reducing Islam to a political position, or to ritual observance, or to fancy theological speeches that condemned different ways of understanding the core doctrines of faith. In short, he had to con front the ugly fact that that AL-IḤSĀN, the consciously cultivated and transformative awareness of God’s ever presence, which is the very heart of the faith, and the moral beautification that results from this awareness, had been ripped out of the religious system. As a result, he dared to suggest that Islam itself was dying or worse. Some would say that his diagnosis is as pointed and relevant today as it was in his own day.
My beloved sisters and brothers, like the time of al-Ghazālī, ours is not a time to defend and preserve the status quo. The Qur’ān calls itself a “shifā’” – a “healing” – and a “raḥmah” (17:82) – a “mercy” – and it affirms that God sent it to guide the believers along the paths of peace and to take them out the darknesses and bring them into the light. We read, for example, in sūrat al-mā’ida (5),
By means of it God guides those who seek His good pleasure [to] the paths of peace and God brings them out of the darknesses and into the light and guides them to a path of uprightness. [See also 14:1-5]
Indeed, throughout the Qur’ān, all revelation is celebrated as a means by which God brings humanity out of the various darknesses of this world and into the one light, which of course we understand to be Truth, God, [See 5: 44-48] who is “The Light of the heavens and the earth” (nūr as-samāwāt wa’l-arḍ). But where is the peace? Where is the justice? In Iran or Pakistan or Egypt or the Sudan or Indonesia? Where is the light? I recently saw a BBC documentary that estimated there are a million Muslims living in the darkness of Heroin addiction in the city of Karachi alone… Pointing the finger overseas is too easy, what about right here in the Greater Toronto Area? Is our understanding of Islam and our manifestation of its beautiful and life-giving teachings illuminating this land and its original inhabitants with the lights of mercy and healing? Is our embodiment of Islam and our reflection of its lofty standards raising the consciousness of the wider society?
In all honesty and in humility, I think we have to face the fact that we are not living up to the qur’ānic call to be the protectors and caretakers of the environment; we are not living up to the qur’ānic call to create conditions of healthy coexistence with other faiths so that we might race with their communities to perform good deeds; we are too busy condemning others and their ways of life to fulfil the qur’ānic command to come to know them; even though everyone broadcasts that Islam treats women with dignity and respect, what about the Muslims? Are we doing enough – or anything – to combat domestic violence in our own communities? Does our insistence that women and men are spiritually equal inspire us to undo the centuries-long legacy of excluding women from roles of religious leadership? Of course, exceptions can be cited, but let us not be deceived about the fact that such exceptions imply a more general rule, whereby men have dominated all forms of religious discourse and legal interpretation.
My beloved sisters and brothers, this is not the time to preserve and defend the status quo; we must commit ourselves to rediscovering Islam and, in so doing, to reviving the religion of mercy, the religion of unity, the religion of justice — including distributive justice — the religion of liberating enslaved and persecuted people, rather than judging them, and bringing them into the light where healing and mercy can be experienced. And so we come back to the foundations: what does it mean – in the light of revelation – to be a human being? Who are we? What is the purpose of our life? Where are we ultimately headed and what are our obligations to one another and to the creation as we journey together toward the horizon of God’s promise?
We are told in the sūrah of the spider / al-‘ankabūt (29) that the journey will not be easy, and that we will be sorely tested as we strive for that horizon. But the Qur’ān presents struggling as a promise that contains a promise: more precisely, difficulty and struggle will definitely come to us as we seek God, and Divine help will come if and when we embrace the test, the difficulty, the struggle.
[As for] those who strive for Us, We shall surely guide them [along] Our paths. God is indeed with the doers of beautiful deeds. (29:69)
My beloved sisters and brothers, let us go forth and be the doers of beautiful deeds. Let us not declare the fast totally over and so sink back into patterns of complacency with the status quo, patterns of comfort and mindless consumption. Rather, let us keep our hunger alive and let us be guided by that hunger to transform ourselves, our families, our communities, our society, and our world. Let us embrace the trials and the tests with faith and forbearance and the confidence that God will guide us because we are striving for God.
As a token of my esteem for all that is good and true in our sister faith traditions, I close today with a quotation from the Upanishads:
You are whatever your deep, driving desire is.
As your desire is, so is your will.
As your will is, so is your deed.
As your deed is, so is your destiny.
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, IV.4.5
Let us wake up now and become agents of a prophetic consciousness, in which our desire is for God, our will is to unite with God’s will, our deeds are for God, and our conscious sense of destiny is God; As we awaken in the light of that prophetic consciousness, let us witness the transformation of the world around us.
Before we enter into our supplications, I would like to thank you all and this beloved Centre. For five years now, you have challenged me to grow in every way – personally, professionally, theologically, and spiritually – and so I ask God to reward your friendship by befriending you and to reward your generosity by opening the gates of Divine generosity to you.
The time has come for me to step down as I seek the next steps in my own journey through this world, and so this will be the last ‘īd khuṭbah I expect to offer from this minbar, at least for some time. As I make way for others to come to the fore, know that Noor and I remain connected by bonds of love and friendship. We also remain allies as we stand together for the sacredness of the creation, as we stand together for the advancement of women within the religious life of the community, as we celebrate the Divine gift of diversity, as we faithfully seek to liberate the prophetic legacy of Islam from the confines of specific cultures and man-made conventions, and as we humbly seek to grow in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. May God bless each of you, and may God bless and guide the Noor Cultural Centre as it continues its vital work.
* My translation of al-Ghazālī’s original introduction to Resurrecting Religious Knowledge (Iḥyā’ ‘ulūm al-dīn) is based on the Arabic text annotated by al-Imām al-Hāfiz al-‘Irāqī (Beirut: Dār al-khayr, 1993), vol. 1.