The Importance of No god But God (La Ilaha Ill’Allah)

The following khutbah was delivered at Middle Ground Muslim Center on December 11th, 2015.


[Direct download]

The importance of taking a stance, of taking a side, of making a declaration. La ilaha ill’Allah is a major declaration.

It is also prioritizing God’s opinion.

We cannot imagine the importance of what this phrase means to God.

أتيتُ النَّبيَّ صلَّى اللهُ عليهِ وسلَّمَ وهوَ نائمٌ . عليهِ ثوبٌ أبيضُ . ثمَّ أتيتُهُ فإذا هوَ نائمٌ . ثمَّ أتيتُهُ وقدِ استيقظَ . فجلستُ إليهِ . فقالَ : ما من عبدٍ قالَ : لا إلهَ إلَّا اللهُ ثمَّ ماتَ على ذلكَ إلَّا دخلَ الجنَّةَ قلتُ : وإن زنى وإن سرقَ ؟ قالَ : وإن زنى وإن سرق قلتُ : وإن زنى وإن سرقَ ؟ قالَ : وإن زنى وإن سرق ثلاثًا . ثمَّ قالَ في الرَّابعةِ على رغمِ أنفِ أبي ذرٍّ قالَ ، فخرجَ أبو ذرٍّ وهوَ يقولُ : وإن رغمَ أنفُ أبي ذرٍّ .
الراوي : أبو ذر الغفاري | المحدث : مسلم | المصدر : صحيح مسلم

So we often start to make our own stuff up (bid’ah). We will say so-and-so is going to Hell for x, y, and z.

So is it that simple? Just sin and then say la ilaha and do whatever you like? Sins can often lead to precarious situations:

بَادِرُوا بِالأَعْمَالِ فِتَنًا كَقِطَعِ اللَّيْلِ الْمُظْلِمِ يُصْبِحُ الرَّجُلُ مُؤْمِنًا وَيُمْسِي كَافِرًا أَوْ يُمْسِي مُؤْمِنًا وَيُصْبِحُ كَافِرًا يَبِيعُ دِينَهُ بِعَرَضٍ مِنَ الدُّنْيَا

“Be prompt in doing good deeds (before you are overtaken) by turbulence which would be like a part of the dark night. During (that stormy period) a man would be a Muslim in the morning and an unbeliever in the evening or he would be a believer in the evening and an unbeliever in the morning, and would sell his faith for worldly goods.” Sahih Muslim, #118

We saw an excellent example this week of people rushing to do good in raising money. Surah al-Hadid:

وَما لَكُم أَلّا تُنفِقوا في سَبيلِ اللَّهِ وَلِلَّهِ ميراثُ السَّماواتِ وَالأَرضِ ۚ لا يَستَوي مِنكُم مَن أَنفَقَ مِن قَبلِ الفَتحِ وَقاتَلَ ۚ أُولٰئِكَ أَعظَمُ دَرَجَةً مِنَ الَّذينَ أَنفَقوا مِن بَعدُ وَقاتَلوا ۚ وَكُلًّا وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الحُسنىٰ ۚ وَاللَّهُ بِما تَعمَلونَ خَبيرٌ

Between Hope and Hell: Ramadan Advice

My inbox has been peppered with a number of requests for advice for those seeking to turn a new corner this Ramadan. In some of those letters, folks spoke of frustration, even a hopelessness, in their ability to overcome their souls’ desires and return to a God-pleasing lifestyle.

The first step is to know, as I wrote on Twitter, is to think of it like this:

It is very difficult to treat malaria in a swamp. The sincerity of tawbah (repentance) is similar.

The success of one’s tawbah will be greatly affected by one’s environment, thus, one should take every possible step to remove oneself from environments that are not conducive to achieving this goal. But beyond the condemnation of impermissible acts lies an important theological point in our religious tradition that is not accentuated enough. Namely, that is God’s mercy. While I do not wish to impart false hope for those engaged in grievous actions, nor do I wish to perpetuate a psychology of defeat. So these words of advice are an attempt to fall between these two.

The main point is to know that God has no need of us to go to hell. To be explicit, this is not the same as God not putting one in the Fire if one has earned it. That being said, the Prophet Muhammad صلى الله عليه وسلم said eloquently:

كُلُّ بَنِي آدَمَ خَطَّاءٌ وَخَيْرُ الْخَطَّائِينَ التَّوَّابُونَ

“Every son of Adam sins and the best of those who commit sins are those who repent.” (Sunan Ibn Majah, hadith# 4251)

You (and Shaytan!) may say to yourself “why bother repenting?” You may feel that you are caught in a cycle: sin and repent. Over and over again. All the while, Shaytan will try and trick you into breaking this cycle. For it is better to be stuck in this cycle than to be mired in ceaseless disobedience. If you die while running from disobedience to repentance, then you have won. And if you die while running from repentance, do not lose hope: the emphasis should be placed on where you just came from, and not on what you’re running to. And your Lord is infinitely merciful.

مَنْ عَمِلَ صَالِحًا فَلِنَفْسِهِ ۖ وَمَنْ أَسَاءَ فَعَلَيْهَا ۖ ثُمَّ إِلَىٰ رَبِّكُمْ تُرْجَعُونَ

“Whoever acts rightly, it is to their own good and whoever does evil, it is to their own detriment. Either way, you will be returned to your Lord.” (Qur’an, 45: 15)

And with God is all success. Ramadan mubarak.

The Role of Rationalism in Immorality and Sin

Proponents of rational thought often look down their noses at religious thinkers because of the latter’s reliance on tradition and revelation in the realm of moral thought. What they may find interesting is reason’s role in immorality and sin.

“Immorality and sin for Niebuhr are not, of course, the same thing. Sin is the more inclusive concept and immorality is only one aspect of sin. But Niebuhr’s major statements concerning sin apply equally well to his view of immorality. Thus, immorality, like sin, is for Niebuhr fully a spiritual phenomenon. This means that immorality is not necessarily irrational. Reason can be intimately involved in the immoral act. In the last analysis, according to Niebuhr, immorality involves an act of the will that is neither rational nor irrational. This is not to suggest that immorality cannot be explained and does not have certain preconditions. Among these preconditions is the fact of man’s finitude, especially as this takes form in his capacity to die. Man’s mortal nature furnishes the occasion for immorality, as Niebuhr says. But neither mortality nor finitude necessitate immorality. Both sin and immorality are the result of free choice for Niebuhr. In this sense, they are not ‘necessary.’ “

Indeed, many arguments are entertained in the Qur’an regarding idol worship, associating partners, rejecting revelation, and all forms of immoral and indecent behavior.

يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا

“They will ask you about alcoholic drinks and gambling. Say, ‘There is great wrong in both of them and also certain benefits for mankind. But the wrong in them is greater than the benefit.’ ” Qur’an, 2: 219.

For those who claim the Qur’an does not use or address reason, they simply have decided not to look for it. However, their main objection is that Revelation ultimately trumps reason (this can be found in the writings of al-Ghazzali and others). And while Revelation supersedes reason, it does not disallow it from the human decision making experience, moral, religious or otherwise. It simply seeks to put it in its place.

From Ronald M. Green’s Niebuhr’s Critique of Rationalism: A Limited Validation. Read the full article here.

Respecting the Station of One’s Lord – Between Proclivity and Acts – Engaging the Gay Community as Believing Muslims

There are few topics in the American context that are as controversial in modern times as homosexuality.  This is certain just as true for Muslims today as it is for Christians, though sadly to date, Muslims in America have not taken the time to develop their own arguments and positions on homosexuality settling instead for being subsumed under the vocal, if not dominant, discourse of the Christian Right.  It is my recommendation that Muslims make their positions understood, not in an attempt to thwart Divine Law concerning this subject as we shall see, but to promote a dialog that allows for political and social discourse without abandoning moral principles and obligations to Islam.

My reason for writing this is two fold. One, I was asked by a Muslim student to articulate Islam’s stance on homosexuality such that she could readily present it to her audience in clear yet unflinching terms. The second was a meeting I recently attended in Philadelphia in which a group of Imams sat to discuss issues facing the community. Sadly, nearly the whole discussion was wasted on a diatribe about homosexuals. When I asked the group of men if they had any doubts concerning the illegitimacy of homosexual acts they replied they had none. I pressed them, asking if there was a major issue with homosexuals coming to their mosques and demanding acceptance on the grounds of unrepentant homosexuals, again they replied in the negative. Instead, in my opinion, it amounted to nothing other than a chest thumping session where they could feel good about themselves, reveling in anti-homosexual stances, instead of actually engaging in useful discourse about trying to solve critical issues facing the Philadelphia Muslim community (issues such as AIDS, domestic abuse, criminal activity, lack of support for new Muslims, etc.).

Let me begin by dispensing with intellectual formalities and niceties such that my position on what is commonly referred to as homosexuality is clearly understood: Those who commit homosexual acts are committing heinous and abominable crimes before God.  This is the mashûr (standard) opinion in Islam regarding sexual acts between those of the same sex.  For brevity sake I will not delve into the hierarchy some scholars have placed on man-to-man sexual relations versus woman-to-woman. I am speaking on the entirety of that which is referred to as homosexuality.  One such example of this is clearly and explicitly outlined in the Qur’an in chapter 7, verses 80-84:

Wa Lûtan idh qâla liqawmihi a ta’tûna’l fâhishta mâ sabaqakum bihâ min ahadin min’l ‘âlamîn. – And Lot, when he said to his people, ‘Do you commit an obscenity not perpetrated before you by anyone in all the worlds?’ … Innakum lata’tûna’l rijâla shahwatan min dûni’l nisâ’, bal antum qawmun musrifûn. – ‘You come with lust to men instead of women. You are indeed a depraved people.’ … Wa amtarnâ ‘alayhim matra(n) – fa’ndhur kayfa kâna ‘âqibatu’l mujrimîn. – And so We rained down a mighty rain upon them. See the final fate of the evildoers!’”

The verse above is just one such example in which Islamic sources not only explicitly label homosexual acts forbidden (this worthy of Divine Punishment) but they are elevated above other crimes or sins “not perpetrated before … by anyone in all the worlds”.  Clearly, such acts are not only harâm (impermissible and punishable in the Here-After) but are of a degree above other sins such as consuming alcohol or gambling.

My point here is again not to waste time reasserting a standardly-held opinion in all orthodox schools but rather to find ways for the Muslim community to one, establish its stance on homosexual acts (and not on homosexu-ality as I will explain here) as Muslims and not simply letting the Christian (or any other group for that matter) Right speak for us and two, find a way, despite the grave nature of the sin, to at least establish a dialog with the gay community in a way in which traditional and conservative (of which I consider myself to be among) religious groups, in America or elsewhere, have been unable to do.

As it relates to the general body of sins, regardless of hierarchy, Islam maintains a division between what one inclines to do and what one actually acts on.  In other words the sin is not the inclining towards committing the sin but in the act of committing it.  In fact, Islam places a great deal of devotional importance on resisting one’s desires (at least those that contradict Divine Law), promising a great reward for doing so:

Wa ‘ammâ man khâfa maqâma rabbihi wa nahâ’n nafsa ‘ani’l hawâ fa ‘inna’l jannata hiya’l ma’wâ. – But as for him who fears the Station of his Lord and forbade the lower self its appetites, the Garden will be his refuge.” Qur’an, 79: 40-41.

Additionally, God urges those of conscious in the Qur’an to turn to their Lord after committing heinous or devious acts:

Wa’lladhîna idhâ fa’alû fâhishatan aw dhalamû anfusahum dhakarû’Allaha fa’staghfirû lidhunûbihim wa man yaghfiru’l dhunûba illa’Allah wa lam yusirru ‘alâ mâ fa’alû wa hum ya’lamûn. – Those who, when they act indecently or wrong themselves, remember God and ask forgiveness for their sins—and who can forgive sins except God? And they do not knowingly persist in what they were doing.” Qur’an, 3: 135.

An important distinction needs to be made here in order to fully understand the arguments presented.  Islam does not condone identity by proxy of proclivity.  In other words, Islam does not recognize one’s lifestyle simply because of one’s likes or dislikes, regardless of whether those proclivities are by nature or nurture.  One of the arguments the gay community often uses to substantiate their right to commit homosexual acts is that they were “born that way.”  Islam does not single out homosexuals in this case: I would have no more right to have a beer, gamble or fornicate with any number of women, simply because I like beer, am an alcoholic, like to gamble or having a gambling addiction, like women or because I was born a so-called heterosexual.  What takes primacy in these scenarios is not individual proclivity but respecting the station of one’s Lord (maqâm).  And while this would appear to many go against popularly held conceptions of freedom and individualism, this in fact is the dominant opinion Islam takes on human (read individual) rights.

Beyond all this lays an opportunity for (American) Muslims to engage a community that might otherwise be branded as off limits and irredeemable.  The question for me now is not if but how and to what extent the Muslim community is willing to engage and make space for, as Dr. Sherman Jackson has said, gays and lesbians.  True, this endeavor will require a tremendous amount of courage and intellectual capital on the part of Muslims.  Some have argued against any such engagement whatsoever on the basis of Sadd al-Dharâ’i’ or Limiting Harm.  Certainly this is a valid point, as Islam sees homosexual acts committed with impunity an individual and social harm.  However, others have argued that given the political and social climate in America, the one group that might be inclined to uphold the rights of Muslims to practice their religion would be none other than the gay and lesbian community.  The decision will no doubt be long and hard.

In the end, I find the choice to engage the gay community on those grounds which Islam permits (i.e., committing homosexual acts is a major sin) while still offering the possibility of salvation by encouraging the rejection of such heinous inclinations, is one in which preserves the dignity of all parties involved: it seeks to not reduce gays to people who only commit homosexual acts (and do not have other aspects to their humanity) and it allows Muslims a productive avenue of “Enjoining the Good and Forbidding the Evil” (al-Amru bi’l Ma’rufi wa’n Nihayatu ‘ani’l Munkar), an obligation all Muslims are called upon to do.