A New Paradigm For Religious Persuasion

I have given a look of thought on the subject of “da’wah”, or what I prefer to colloquially term, “religious persuasion”, especially after taking the position as Religious Director at the Islamic Center of Inland Empire. Many of my appointments are for concerned parents whose children have wondered off the beaten path, as it were. And after a recent talk I delivered at ICIE, as well as a discussion with Dr. Sherman Jackson, as to the state of affairs with Muslims in America, I jotted down a few thoughts regarding this topic:

Our attempts at (religious) persuasion tend to be rooted in the presumption of an inherent quality that is possessed by the very thing in which we are calling for: religiosity; ideology, etc. However, such attempts are often fallacious, as they are often carefully disguised circular arguments; the choir preaching to the choir. Rather, a new approach, one in which the concepts themselves are promoted by habituation, such that the concept is delivered to the subject in its “simplest version”, to quote Inception,

“in order for it to grow naturally in the subject’s mind.”

Once having taken root, such methods would, God willing, have a much greater efficacy of achieving the end result (religiosity, morality, a life pleasing to God, etc.).

This may sound easier said than done: I am sure it is. However, my intuition tells me that we cannot continue to proceed with the same old rhetoric.

And to God belongs all success.

Inception and Ibn ‘Arabi

Inception was one of my favorite films of 2010. Like most viewers I enjoyed the film’s play on our senses: what constitutes fantasy and reality? Where does one begin and the other end, if there is indeed evening a beginning. So for this reason I was really happy to see the following essay, by Oludamini Ogunnaike, on the similarities between Christopher Nolan’s film and the writings of Ibn ‘Arabi. I hope to see more of this creative and critical engagement of western cinema and classical Islamic studies. Hat tip to Sami for the article.

A small clip from Inception where Dom Cobb explains the concept of the dream world.

The article from Ogunnaike.

Da’wah & Fraternity in Islam

Among some of the most daunting challenges facing Muslims today is the challenge of religious literacy. While Muslims in America by and large excel at secular literacy, as a community, we are still laboring under the weight of a holistic understanding of Islam. Some of these malfeasance can be seen in the protest spirit Muslims exhibit [in America and globally]. The first half of the Shahadah [Testimony of Faith] has been truncated from “there is no god but God”/لا إله إلا الله to something dangerously close to “there is no god”/لا إله. What I mean here is not to suggest that Muslims are practicing atheism, but rather that we have let our protest spirit runway wild on us. For the most part, our protest [from American culture to foreign policy, etc.] is seldom passed on principal, but instead, based on something more mundane, such as politics, ideology, and aesthetics. So the topic at hand is da’wah, or the calling to God. The question at hand here is how can Muslims be successful at calling to God if there is no love, no fraternity between Muslims and their non-Muslim neighbors? This is further complicated by the fact that many indigenous American Muslims are either encouraged to feel a cultural disconnect in the guise of religiosity. Not only is this not in Muslim’s [nor Islam’s] best interest in America, it in fact contradicts the very nuanced  argument that God puts forth in the Qur’ān regarding this very same dilemma. Let us examine a few Qur’ānic verses that speak to brotherhood in the context of believers and non-believers:

وَاعْتَصِمُوا۟ بِحَبْلِ اللَّهِ جَمِيعًۭا وَلَا تَفَرَّقُوا۟ ۚ وَاذْكُرُوا۟ نِعْمَتَ ٱللَّهِ عَلَيْكُمْ إِذْ كُنتُمْ أَعْدَآءًۭ فَأَلَّفَ بَيْنَ قُلُوبِكُمْ فَأَصْبَحْتُم بِنِعْمَتِهِۦٓ إِخْوَٰنًۭا وَكُنتُمْ عَلَىٰ شَفَا حُفْرَةٍۢ مِّنَ ٱلنَّارِ فَأَنقَذَكُم مِّنْهَا ۗ كَذَٰلِكَ يُبَيِّنُ ٱللَّهُ لَكُمْ ءَايَٰتِهِۦ لَعَلَّكُمْ تَهْتَدُونَ

“Hold fast to the rope of God all together, and do not separate. Remember God’s blessing to you when you were enemies and God joined your hearts together so that you became brothers by God’s blessing. You were on the very brink of a pit of the Fire and God rescued you from it. In this way God makes God’s Signs clear to you, so that hopefully you will be guided.” [Qur’ān Āl-‘Imrān (3):103]

لَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا نُوحًا إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِۦ فَقَالَ يَٰقَوْمِ ٱعْبُدُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ مَا لَكُم مِّنْ إِلَٰهٍ غَيْرُهُۥٓ إِنِّىٓ أَخَافُ عَلَيْكُمْ عَذَابَ يَوْمٍ عَظِيمٍۢ

“We sent Noah to his people and he said, ‘My people, worship God! You have no other deity than Him. I fear for you the punishment of a dreadful Day’.” [Qur’ān al-A’rāf (7):59]

أَوَعَجِبْتُمْ أَن جَآءَكُمْ ذِكْرٌۭ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ عَلَىٰ رَجُلٍۢ مِّنكُمْ لِيُنذِرَكُمْ وَلِتَتَّقُوا۟ وَلَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ

“Or are you astonished that a reminder should come to you from your Lord by way of a man among you, to warn you and make you have taqwā so that hopefully you will gain mercy?’” [Qur’ān al-A’rāf (7):63]

وَإِلَىٰ عَادٍ أَخَاهُمْ هُودًۭا ۗ قَالَ يَٰقَوْمِ ٱعْبُدُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ مَا لَكُم مِّنْ إِلَٰهٍ غَيْرُهُۥٓ ۚ أَفَلَا تَتَّقُونَ

“And to ‘Ād We sent their brother Hūd, who said, ‘My people, worship God! You have no other deity than Him. So will you not have taqwā?’” [Qur’ān al-A’rāf (7):65]

وَإِلَىٰ ثَمُودَ أَخَاهُمْ صَٰلِحًۭا

“And to Thamūd We sent their brother Sāliḥ” [Qur’ān al-A’rāf (7):73]

وَلُوطًا إِذْ قَالَ لِقَوْمِهِۦٓ أَتَأْتُونَ ٱلْفَٰحِشَةَ مَا سَبَقَكُم بِهَا مِنْ أَحَدٍۢ مِّنَ ٱلْعَٰلَمِينَ

“And Lot, when he said to his people, ‘Do you commit an obscenity not perpetrated before you by anyone in all the worlds?.” [Qur’ān al-A’rāf (7):80]

وَإِلَىٰ مَدْيَنَ أَخَاهُمْ شُعَيْبًۭا ۗ قَالَ يَٰقَوْمِ ٱعْبُدُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ مَا لَكُم مِّنْ إِلَٰهٍ غَيْرُهُۥ ۖ قَدْ جَآءَتْكُم بَيِّنَةٌۭ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ ۖ فَأَوْفُوا۟ ٱلْكَيْلَ وَٱلْمِيزَانَ وَلَا تَبْخَسُوا۟ ٱلنَّاسَ أَشْيَآءَهُمْ وَلَا تُفْسِدُوا۟ فِى ٱلْأَرْضِ بَعْدَ إِصْلَٰحِهَا ۚ ذَٰلِكُمْ خَيْرٌۭ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُم مُّؤْمِنِينَ

“And to Madyān We sent their brother Shu‘ayb who said, ‘My people, worship God! You have no other deity than Him. A Clear Sign has come to you from your Lord. Give full measure and full weight. Do not diminish people’s goods. Do not cause corruption in the land after it has been put right. That is better for you if you are Mu’minūn.” [Qur’ān al-A’rāf (7):85]

وَءَاتِ ذَا ٱلْقُرْبَىٰ حَقَّهُۥ وَٱلْمِسْكِينَ وَٱبْنَ ٱلسَّبِيلِ وَلَا تُبَذِّرْ تَبْذِيرًا ﴿٦٢﴾ إِنَّ ٱلْمُبَذِّرِينَ كَانُوٓا۟ إِخْوَٰنَ ٱلشَّيَٰطِينِ ۖ وَكَانَ ٱلشَّيْطَٰنُ لِرَبِّهِۦ كَفُورًۭا

Clearly, there is a theme running between these verses that God is calling our attention to. One, is the method and function of Prophecy itself: All of the above Prophets are referred to as “brother”/أخ. Either God refers to them as their brother, in the case in Sūrah al-A’rāf (7):85:“And to Madyān We sent their brother Shu‘ayb…”, or God refers to them as one of their people: “We sent Noah to his people…”, in Sūrah al-A’rāf (7):59. The point here is that Prophecy/Prophethood, and by extension, Islam!, always operated in a context where it was familiar and known. Noah, Lot, Shu’ayb and all of the other Prophets [peace and blessings on all of them] were known and knew their peoples. This means that believer/مؤمن and non-believer/كافر operated in a mutual context where the Prophets had an emotional [and likely, cultural] attachment to their people. Without this connection, the message of Islam, the Oneness of God, would have been alienated and marginalized. What is worth mentioning here is that despite the apparent familiarity that these Prophet’s had with their respective peoples, the message was still rejected by some. Believe, faith, and non-belief is far more complicated than we often wish to admit and recognize. But if we are to make ourselves understood and deliver the message of Islam clearly and effectively, then we must address the rift many of us feel [and feel we have to feel] towards our current cultural context. To be sure, this is not some new-fangled ideology, but in fact, keeping with God’s sunnan, God’s intended way, for religion to be preached and carried out.

So why is it, if the message of Islam that was preached by the Prophets and Messengers of God to various peoples was always done through the medium of the familiar, that we as Muslism today, act in contradiction to this? In my nearly twenty years of observation, I feel it has something to do with ideas. A small quote here from Chris Nolan’s Inception, points to the power of persuasion that ideas have:

“What is the most resistant parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient; highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold in the brain, it is almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood, that sticks.” [Dom Cobb – Inception]

Moreover, we can see that brotherhood is a God-given cure to the stinginess and miserliness we see prevalent in our culture today:

“Give your relatives their due, and the very poor and travellers but do not squander what you have. Squanderers are brothers to the shaytans, and Shaytan was ungrateful to his Lord.” [Qur’ān al-Isrā (17):27]

Brotherhood is not some secular means of feeling good, it is also an extension of worship/عبادة and is a  means of showing gratitude to God.

So let us remember God, remember God’s beloved Prophet صلى الله عليه و سلمand all of God’s Prophets and Messengers, peace be upon all of them, and have it serve as a reminder of how we treat each other, how we treat our neighbors, and how we treat our Islam, that we approach it with humility, dignity, and a sense of awe regarding the mantle we have had bestowed on us from God’s mercy. Amin.

ربنا اغفر لنا ولإخوننا الذين سبقونا بالإيمان و لا تجعل في قلوبنا غلا للذين ءامنوا ربنا إنك رؤوف رحيم

“‘Our Lord, forgive us and our brothers who preceded us in imān and do not put any rancor in our hearts towards those who have imān. Our Lord, You are All-Gentle, Most Merciful’.” [Qur’ān al-Ḥashr (59):10]

Additional Sources