It is becoming increasingly clear that the path the American Muslim community is headed down is not conducive to long-term health, spiritual or otherwise. Confusion abounds and all the while much of Muslim leadership in America remains mired in dissension and derision or woefully out of touch with the realities Muslims are facing. As one brother recently told me, he felt that there was a proverbial “civil war” brewing between, what I will term, the “Next Generation” (converts as well as second- and third-generation Muslims, immigrant or otherwise), and the Old Guard. It is indeed eerily similar to the divisions that beset that First Great Community of Believers, some 1,400 years ago. Is history, in fact, doomed to repeat itself?
Recently, while doing my weekly ritual of reading surah al-Kahf (“The Cave”, the eighteenth chapter) I had some thoughts come to mind that I will try and put down here. My purpose in sharing these reflections is not to fan the flames of factionalism but instead provide food for thought. First, to lend emotional support to my fellow Muslims who are going through trying times. We live in an age of confusion. My hat goes off to anyone simply trying to believe in la ilaha illa’Allah, Muhammadan rasul’Allah in this challenging time. Secondly, it is to provide a window of insight for the Old Guard to perhaps better understand where they are, what is happening around them, and to try and explain in some minor detail the underpinnings of the psychology that drives the Next Generation to do what they do. And lastly, to provide hope and a suggestion of how a way forward might go and what it might look like.
To begin, the section of surah al-Kahf that I am dealing with is the story of Musa (Moses) and al-Khidr, the enigmatic figure who is as baffling as he is witty. What drew my attention is how much this story relates to our present scenario. I will explain as follows. God says,
وَإِذْ قَالَ مُوسَىٰ لِفَتَاهُ لَا أَبْرَحُ حَتَّىٰ أَبْلُغَ مَجْمَعَ الْبَحْرَيْنِ أَوْ أَمْضِيَ حُقُبًا
“Remember when Moses said to his servant, ‘I will not give up until I reach the meeting-place of the two seas, even if I must press on for many years’.” (Qur’an, 18: 60)
Reading this verse imparted to me a new-found sense of respect and understanding of what my fellow immigrant brothers and sisters must have gone through in order to migrate to America. I say this because, in the context of this observation, I see immigrant Muslims as Moses here: having left their land, their comfort zone, with their children, only to head off into the unknown. However, also like Moses, I feel immigrant Muslims have perceived themselves as ultimate authority figures, having lost the distinction between what is common cultural practice for them and what is religious law. Like Moses, who represents authority and tradition, who could be more knowledgeable than them? That in fact is the impetus which sets off Moses’ adventure:
سَمِعْتُ أُبَىَّ بْنَ كَعْبٍ يَقُولُ سَمِعْتُ رَسُولَ اللَّهِ صلى الله عليه وسلم يَقُولُ ” قَامَ مُوسَى خَطِيبًا فِي بَنِي إِسْرَائِيلَ فَسُئِلَ أَىُّ النَّاسِ أَعْلَمُ فَقَالَ أَنَا أَعْلَمُ . فَعَتَبَ اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ إِذْ لَمْ يَرُدَّ الْعِلْمَ إِلَيْهِ فَأَوْحَى اللَّهُ إِلَيْهِ أَنَّ عَبْدًا مِنْ عِبَادِي بِمَجْمَعِ الْبَحْرَيْنِ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ مِنْكَ
“I (Ibn ‘Abbas) heard Ubayy bin Ka’b saying: “I heard the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) say ‘Musa stood to deliver a khutbah (sermon) to the Children of Israel. He was asked: ‘Who is the most knowledgeable among the people?’ He said, ‘I am the most knowledgeable.’ So God admonished him as he did not refer the knowledge back to God. God then revealed to Moses: ‘A slave among My slaves, at the junction of the two seas, is more knowledgeable than you’.” (Jami’ al-Tirmidhi, hadith 3149)
The next section in this story is when Moses meets al-Khidr and God gives him an apt description:
فَوَجَدَا عَبْدًا مِنْ عِبَادِنَا آتَيْنَاهُ رَحْمَةً مِنْ عِنْدِنَا وَعَلَّمْنَاهُ مِنْ لَدُنَّا عِلْمًا
“They found a slave of Ours whom We had granted mercy from Us and whom We had also given knowledge direct from Us.” (Qur’an, 18: 65)
There has often been the tendency to describe the conversion process to Islam in America as someone giving someone else shahadah. While this may hold true on a descriptive level I have often felt this denies the greater reality that Islam, that is to say, Divine guidance, is from none other than God Almight. That as “converts”, we are from amongst the ‘ibad, or slaves, that God granted mercy and knowledge to. This is of course in the proverbial sense and in no way do I intend to infer that we have been grant infallible knowledge from God, as is the case of al-Khidr. Nonetheless, I feel the distinction is an important one as we talk about competing psychologies, between the Next Generation and the Old Guard. Again, my purpose here is not to undermine the contributions that immigrant Muslims have made to the lives of the Next Generation, but to emphasize an inarticulated point that ultimately, according to orthodox Muslim theology, knowledge and guidance are only imparted to those whom God wills:
اللَّهُ لَا إِلَٰهَ إِلَّا هُوَ الْحَيُّ الْقَيُّومُ ۚ لَا تَأْخُذُهُ سِنَةٌ وَلَا نَوْمٌ ۚ لَهُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ ۗ مَنْ ذَا الَّذِي يَشْفَعُ عِنْدَهُ إِلَّا بِإِذْنِهِ ۚ يَعْلَمُ مَا بَيْنَ أَيْدِيهِمْ وَمَا خَلْفَهُمْ ۖ وَلَا يُحِيطُونَ بِشَيْءٍ مِنْ عِلْمِهِ إِلَّا بِمَا شَاءَ ۚ وَسِعَ كُرْسِيُّهُ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضَ ۖ وَلَا يَئُودُهُ حِفْظُهُمَا ۚ وَهُوَ الْعَلِيُّ الْعَظِيمُ
“Allah!, there is no god but Him, the Living, the Self-Sustaining. He is not subject to drowsiness or sleep. Everything in the heavens and the earth belongs to Him. Who can intercede with Him except by His permission? He knows what is before them and what is behind them but they cannot grasp any of His knowledge save what He wills. His Footstool encompasses the heavens and the earth and their preservation does not tire Him. He is the Most High, the Magnificent.” (Qur’an, 2: 255)
To be straight forward, I see the burgeoning Muslim community in America as al-Khidr: special, not because of any doing of our own, but because God, in His Wisdom, chose to grant us mercy and knowledge. What proceeds from here is not only an amusing tale of frustration for Moses but an engaging insight into why the Old Guard is so frustrated at the Next Generation and why they continue to have an inability to “let go” of the communal power they wield.
al-Khidr bluntly rebuffs Moses, stating:
قَالَ إِنَّكَ لَنْ تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِيَ صَبْرًا
“(al-Khidr) said, ‘You will not be able to bear with me (*sabr).” (Qur’an, 18: 67)
He continues with,
وَكَيْفَ تَصْبِرُ عَلَىٰ مَا لَمْ تُحِطْ بِهِ خُبْرًا
“And how could you bear with something you have no experience with?” (Qur’an, 18: 68)
In the three scenarios that Moses encounters with al-Khidr: scuttling a boat; killing an “innocent”; reparations for work performed, all of them frustrate Moses’ sense of normalcy. This is no different than the sense of normalcy the Old Guard wants to maintain. Simply put, it is not in the Old Guard’s cannon of knowledge or experience: a cannon that has thus far been unwilling or unable to concede that neither converts nor even their own progeny posses the capacity to steer the community’s course in the right direction. This has led to the infantilization of the Old Guard’s children, the disclusion of African-Americans from positions of authority in the Muslim community as well as the “tokenizing” of white converts, by which whiteness is celebrated only so far as it aggrandizes their own (battered!) self-esteem, reducing them to little more than mascots at best.
But for me, the real lesson that struck me here was thus: imagine if al-Khidr, despite having the correct knowledge and perspective on what needs to be done in each situation, relented and allowed Moses to stop him? Take the first scenario, in which God says:
فَانْطَلَقَا حَتَّىٰ إِذَا رَكِبَا فِي السَّفِينَةِ خَرَقَهَا ۖ قَالَ أَخَرَقْتَهَا لِتُغْرِقَ أَهْلَهَا لَقَدْ جِئْتَ شَيْئًا إِمْرًا
قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُلْ إِنَّكَ لَنْ تَسْتَطِيعَ مَعِيَ صَبْرًا
“They continued until they boarded a boat by which (al-Khidr) scuttled it. Moses retorted, ‘Did you scuttle it so that its owners would be drowned? This is truly a dreadful thing that you have done!’ He (al-Khidr) said, ‘Did I not say that you could never bear with me?’ ” (Qur’an: 71-72)
By Moses applying these three tools (religious knowledge as he understood it to be; common sense; personal experience) to the scenario above, he could not grasp the meanings or intentions of al-Khidr’s actions. They appeared for all intensive purposes, insane and misguided. However, if al-Khidr had not carried through with which he knew to be the right thing to do, all of them (Moses, al-Khidr and Joshua as well as the passengers on the ship) would have come to a horrible end:
أَمَّا السَّفِينَةُ فَكَانَتْ لِمَسَاكِينَ يَعْمَلُونَ فِي الْبَحْرِ فَأَرَدْتُ أَنْ أَعِيبَهَا وَكَانَ وَرَاءَهُمْ مَلِكٌ يَأْخُذُ كُلَّ سَفِينَةٍ غَصْبًا
“As for the ship, it belonged to some poor people who worked on the sea. I wanted to knock it out of commission because a king was coming behind them who commandeered every boat by force.” (Qur’an, 18: 79)
For me, this parable is clear. If we, the Next Generation of Muslims in America, continues to allow ourselves to be persuaded from pursuing a course we know to be right, then we will have no one to blame but ourselves when we’re faced with harsh consequences. We cannot allow ourselves to be turned aside — no matter how well intended the Old Guard is; no matter how intimidating their arguments are; no matter how much they lay claim to authority. History is a powerful force: it molds and shapes our sensibilities. History can also render itself nearly invisible by which our prerogatives and proclivities can come to seem so second nature that change can be hard to come by particularly when we cannot envision a reality without them. Certainly the case we see before us is none other than this very same conundrum. And we should take comfort in the knowledge that God is the Shaper of human history. The very same history that has disarmed our uncles, and aunties, our mothers and our fathers, has bestowed upon us a set of experiences and knowledge that will allow us to do what will be pleasing to God, even if it appears to be just the opposite to our onlookers.
A note on “sabr”:
Sabr is commonly translated as “patience.” And while it certainly includes that component, the verb sa-ba-ra encompasses much more than that. Like many verbs, its meaning is reflective of its circumstance: To tie, to fetter, to shackle; to put up with. It also conveys the meaning to withstand something which you have no power to remove. In the Muslim context, it also means to show and express praise (hamd) and gratitude (shukr) in trials and adversity.
وَإِذْ قُلْتُمْ يَا مُوسَىٰ لَنْ نَصْبِرَ عَلَىٰ طَعَامٍ وَاحِدٍ فَادْعُ لَنَا رَبَّكَ يُخْرِجْ لَنَا مِمَّا تُنْبِتُ الْأَرْضُ مِنْ بَقْلِهَا
“And when you said, ‘Moses, we will not be tied down to just one kind of food so ask your Lord to supply to us some of what the earth produces – its green vegetables’…” (Qur’an, 2: 61)
أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ اشْتَرَوُا الضَّلَالَةَ بِالْهُدَىٰ وَالْعَذَابَ بِالْمَغْفِرَةِ ۚ فَمَا أَصْبَرَهُمْ عَلَى النَّارِ
“Those are the ones who have sold guidance for misguidance and forgiveness for punishment. How steadfastly they will endure (or shackled to) the Fire!” (Qur’an, 2: 175)