A Soul Under Tyranny?

“If the people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.” Thomas Jefferson

Muslim Development Course – Round One: Class Notes

Course Objective: to encourage the development of Muslim thought, action, and behavior, both individual and social, in such a way that our practice of Islam reflects a deeper and more personal understanding, ownership, and embodiment of the divine principles on our part, found in the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings upon him.

Here’s a short list of the things we’ll look at in this course: Who are we? Before we can understand Islam we must know ourselves. Prologue – Life in the Hijaz: to what extent does jahili life play in our understanding of Islam? Revelation – big “R” versus little “r”: Allah as the God of nature and human history. Topography: Getting a lay of the land: the Prophet’s heritage and the build up to the Revelation. Introduction to Qur’anic Language: re-textualization: how did Allah make use of preexisting terms and ascribe new meanings to them? How is this important for us to understand? Introduction of Muslim Morals and Ethics: themes from the early Revelation.

  • Day One
  • Day Two & Three
  • Day Four

Day One

Here are some quick notes of the topics we talked about today

Taqwa: What’s In A Word?

We took a quick look at the word taqwa, from a few lines of Jāhiliyyah poetry, and examined what it meant. In the Mu’allaqah, Zuhayr said:

و قال سأقضي حاجتي ثم أتقي * عدوي بألف من روائى ملجم

“I will satisfy my vengeance [on my brother’s killer by taking his life!], then I will defend myself from their reprisal with a thousand horses, all bridled in support of my cause!”

Wa qāla sa-aqdī hājatī thumma a’ttaqī ‘aduwwī bi alfin min rawā’ī muljami.

The important thing to note here is the use of taqwa– it’s the word that Zuhayr uses to “defend himself”.  To help define this, let’s look at what al-Tabrizi says, concerning taqwa:

الإتقاء أن تجعل بينك و بين ما تخافه حاجزا يحفظك

“Taqwā is the idea that you [A] place something — a barrier — [C] between yourself and that which you fear could destroy you [B].”

What al-Tabrizi is us is that taqwa is a type of self-defense or self-preservation system or technique to ward off destruction by placing something between yourself and that impending doom. For the Muslim, this is nothing other than protecting oneself against the Punishment of Allah on the Day of Judgment through the practice and accumulation of good deeds. Our example of this from the Qur’an was from suwrah al-Baqarah:

و اتقوا يوما لا تجزي نفس عن نفس شيئا و لا يقبل منها شفاعة و لا يوخذ منها عدل و لا هم ينصرون

“Defend yourself against a day that will come where no soul shall be of assistance to another whatsoever – nor shall it put forth an intercessor in its place – no compensation will be taken from it – nor shall there be anyone to come to its aid.” [Q: 2:47]

Here, Allah is commanding man to defend himself against His punishment on a day in which there will be no help, intercession, or aid from another person. In other words, protect yourself before it’s too late. For other similar uses of taqwa, see these verses: 2: 24, 2: 103, 2: 189, 2: 281, and 3: 131 for further examples.

Day Two & Three

The History of Modern American Thought — Deism and the Legacy of Enlightenment Thought in Europe and America

The European Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that sought to put the faculty of human reason at the forefront of interpreting and understanding reality.  Through this process, reason and reliance on rationalism came to put Christianity and its religious thinking at something of a “disadvantage”.  The disadvantage stemmed from Christendom’s inability to respond to the claims of Enlightenment thinkers.

For our purposes, Deism, from the Latin “deus“, meaning “god”, can be thought of thus: a belief system in which one recognizes the existence of a supreme being or creator without the need for any formal or “organized” religion.  Deists [those who practice Deism] claim that belief in God can be achieve through the sensoria or the human senses [again, with an almost total reliance upon the faculty of observation] alone without out any external influence.  Deism also rejects the notion of the supernatural: Revelation, revealed books, prophets, miracles, and the like.  They draw no discerning line between the supernatural and the superstitious.  For the Deists, to believe the Qur’an is the word of God would be just as superstitious as believing in “lucky stars or numbers”.

While the Enlightenment’s heyday was during the 1700’s, some scholars put its time line as from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s.  It died out by the early 19th century but its descendants continued on to what came to be known as Deism.  In fact, Deism, with its similar reliance on rational thought, had a tremendous influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States.  Some, such as Benjamin Franklin, were essentially card carrying members, while others, such as Thomas Jefferson—more an admirer of Deism—actually belonged to one of its descendants: Unitarianism.  It is Jefferson’s and his compatriots’ adherence to Unitarian thought—whose values are rooted in Deism—that played a role in how they defined the separation of Church and State.  For in Unitarian/Deistic thinking, there is no revelation; no Divine Law.  Thus, there could be no good reason to include religion in the decision making process of government.  This, along with a desire for religious freedom [amongst other reasons], explains how they chose to exclude religion from government.


  • rejects revelation, miracles, prophets, etc.
  • puts complete reliance on human reason to be able to know the cosmos and God
  • the Enlightenment lasted from the middle 1600’s to the early 1800’s
  • while the Enlightenment declined in popularity, it was succeeded by Deism
  • Deism went on to have tremendous influence: the Founding Fathers; 19th-century-thinker Charles Darwin [1809—1882], who was an English Naturalist [another descendant of Enlightenment/Deistic thought] who is responsible for the theory of evolution, eventually became an atheist. Darwin’s theory on evolution removed any potentiality for God remaining active in the cosmos [a remote or absent god]
  • was a driving force behind the separation of Church and State

So why do we need to know all of this?  The answer is that if we are to both understand ourselves better—to know the history of our own thought processes—as well as to give more effective da’wah, then we must know the method and history of how people think. In this case, American people.

Along with this greater understanding of America’s intellectual history is a need for understanding Islam [the Qur’an and the life/Sunnah of the Prophet] that also encompasses its themes and history. In today’s class we looked at the two major themes of Qur’anic revelation: the Makkan period, and the Madīnan period.

Makkah: the Revelation begins in Makkah, a small city located in a forgotten part of the world. At this time [7th century c.e.], Arabia and the Arabs were of little to no importance outside of the Hijaz.  But as one of my teachers told me, there was a great wisdom in Allah choosing the Arabs as the people who would first receive His Message. It took a group of nobodies and made them somebodies.  The Arabs of this early period were instilled with a sense of dignity [different than pride!]—a dignity that comes from making God central to one’s life—which is what carried them out of the Arabian peninsula and out to the known world.  This God-centered dignity is quite different from nationalistic types of identity, where one’s sense of worth and pride are not necessarily rooted in a practice that seeks to please Allah.

The early Makkan suwrahs are mainly concerned with trying to awaken the human being to the Ultimate Reality—there is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger—and bring his or her understanding of reality into conformity with that reality.  The world has been created by a Creator, a God, and it was not done so without purpose:

والذين يذكرون الله قياما وقعودا وعلى جنوبهم ويتفكرون في خلق السماوات والأرض – ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا سبحانك فقنا عذاب النار

“And those who remember God, either standing, sitting, as well as sitting on their sides and is given to frequent contemplation about the creation of the heavens and the earth respond: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose. You are without peer or similitude so protect us from the punishment of the Fire.” [Q: 3: 191]

This process of “reorientation” by Allah seeks to take the mundane [normal] world of humans and transform it into one where everything is a sign that speaks to us of God’s existence:

تسبح له السماوات السبع والأرض ومن فيهن

“The seven heavens and the earth proclaim none other than lā ilāha illa Allah as well as whoever is in them.” [Q: 17: 44]

In fact, as we noted when looking at Muslim history, when Muslims veered too far off course and began to concentrate more on “conquering” than on empowering, things “fell apart”.  The great empires of al-Andalus [Muslim Spain] and the Ottomans dissolved over internal strife.

Another theme to the early Revelation is to set free and empower the human being from slavehood to this life.  One of Islam’s primary objectives is to open up and set free human beings:

إذا جاء نصر الله والفتح

“When comes the help of God and the Opening.” [Q: 110: 1]

In this verse, many English translators have translated the word “fat’h” as “conquering” or “victory”.  But in fact, its root of f-t-h is more akin to “opening”.  And in particular, the opening here is referring to the Opening of Makkah, upon the Prophet’s [s] final return to Makkah.  This retaking of Makkah was a bloodless transference of power.  The result was literally, the opening of the minds and hearts of the Makkan people to the message of Islam.  When they saw that the Prophet [s] was not interested in subjugating them but rather delivering them into Islam, the numbers of Muslims grew tremendously.

This theme of opening has been repeated before.  In fact, one of the early scholars of Islam, a companion of the Prophet [s], said that the “manifest victory [opening] was not the retaking of Makkah, but was in fact, the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah:

إن فتحنا لك فتحا مبينا

لّيغفرَ لك الله ما تقدم من ذنبك و ما تأخر و يتمَ نعمته عليك و يهديَك صراطا مستقيما

و ينصُرَك الله نصرا عزيزا

“Without a doubt, we have granted you [Muhammad] the clear, manifest victory. In order that Allah might forgive you for what you have done regarding your sin, as well as pardoning any later ones, and complete His favor upon you and guide you to a straight path. And so that Allah may help you with a great assistance.” [Q: 48: 1‐3]

The man who initially arbitrated for the Quraysh [against the Muslims] was Suhail Bin ‘Amr. In his initial meeting with the Prophet [s], he refused to acknowledge him as the Messenger of Allah, instead the Prophet had to settle for putting “in the name of your Lord” and “Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah” on the contract.  While this enraged some of his companions, he saw it as achieving a “manifest victory”: giving the Muslim a legitimate seat at the Ka’abah.  For without it, the Muslims would have always been seen as an “other” in Arabia. Now there were no psychological or cultural barriers between being an Arab, a Makkan, and being a Muslim.

In the years that followed the Prophet’s death [s], the Arabian peninsula threatened to revert back to its pre-Islamic ways.  It was through the courageous efforts of some of the companions that kept Islam alive.  One such companion was the aforementioned Suhail Bin ‘Amr.  After seeing how the Prophet dealt with the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and finally, with the Opening of Makkah and its people, Suhail became Muslim [his son, Abu Jandal, had converted some years before].  So when Suhail fought to keep Islam alive after the Prophet’s demise [s], he was struggling for his own deen, his own religion.  If we want our youth and new shahadahs to strive for Islam, we must impart to them a sense of ownership of Islam.

ربنا زدنا في علمنا وانفعنا به

“O’ Our Lord!, increase us in knowledge and make us benefit from it!

Day Four

In our last class, we discussed the importance of making room for our brothers and sisters, even though they may not appear to be people of significance. We discussed the story of al-Arqam Ibn al-Arqam, the cousin of the Prophet’s [s] cousin, who, out of generosity, donated his house in Makkah, at the foot of Mount Safa, to the service of Islam. This house, named Dar al-Arqam, of “The House of Arqam”, was the first safe heaven for the Muslims to gather, pray, and spread their da’wah.

We also discussed the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah. This was a pact what was signed by the Muslims and by the Quraysh to allow the Muslims access to the Ka’abah. Quraysh had elected Suhail Ibn ‘Amr as their representative to barter and negotiate with the Muslims. Famously, this is where the Prophet [s] agreed to sign his name as Muhammad Ibn ‘Abdullah [s] instead of Muhammad, the Messenger of God. There was a number of concessions that the Prophet made that day but in the end, it achieved his goal of successfully delivering the message of Islam to the people of Makkah. In the end, Suhail himself became Muslim after he saw how the Prophet negotiated and how he dealt with the people of Makkah at the Fatḥ al-Makkah.

Some interesting facts about the Treaty of Ḥudaybiyyah:

  • There was to be a truce of 10 years between the Muslims and Quraysh.
  • Those who wished to leave Makkah and go to the Prophet [s] in Madinah but did not obtain permission from someone of authority in Makkah, the Muslims must send them back. If, however, someone from Madinah wishes to leave Muhammad [s] and the Muslims and return to Makkah, s/he may do so freely.
  • Suhail Ibn ‘Amr, while making this treaty, held some animosity towards the Muslims because his own son, Abū Jandal, had become Muslim.

Moving on from above, we next discussed the more subtle nature of tawhid. Most of us are familiar with the notion that tawhid means “oneness”, or as it relates to Islam, the “Oneness of God”. Tawhīd, however, means more than simply stating one recognizes that God is one, but that one’s actions, one’s internal thoughts reflect this truth. For Muslims, tawhid points to Allah, the One God, and therefore, for Muslims, life takes on a special type of focus, where one is always aware of his or her Return to God.

ثم إلينا مرجعك فننبئكم بما كانوا تعملون

“Then you will be returned to Us and We shall inform you all of what you used to do.” [Q 10: 23]

On the other hand, we talked about the term, takthir [تكثير]. While shirk may be the theological opposite of tawhid, takthir is its linguistic opposite and can allow us to think a bit more clearly on the subtle dangers of shirk by talking about it through the lens of takthir.

In many ways, takthir denies any purpose to life by refusing to point back, from the many, to the One.  Instead, it sees that there are many “gods” and from them, many more things abound.  The Qur’an refutes this, by stating life most certainly does have a purpose as well as a Creator:

و يتفكرون في خلق السموت والأرض ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا

“And they reflect upon the creation of the heavens and the earth, saying: ‘O our Lord! You have not created this without purpose!'” [Q3: 191]

Islam should bring the many into focus, into a view that points to The One versus, as Muhammad Iqbal said:

“The various natural sciences are like so many vultures falling on the body of Nature, and each running away with a piece of its flesh.”

Finally, some words from our esteemed imam, Imam al-Ghazzali wrote, concerning this life:

“The should take care of the body, just as the pilgrim on his way to Makkah takes care of his camel; but if the pilgrim spends his whole time in feeding and adorning his camel, the caravan wil leave him behind, and he will perish in the desert.”

In a collected hadith, the Prophet [s] relates to us:

أثقل ما يوضع في الميزان يوم القيامة تقوى الله و حسن الخلق

“The heaviest thing to be weighed on the Scale on the Day of Judgment will be taqwā of God and goodness of character.”

من ظن أنه بدون الجهد يصل فهو متمن – و من ظن أنه ببذل الجهد يصل فهو مستغن

“For the one that thinks that he will achieve his goal without effort is a wishful thinker – and for the one that thinks that he shall, by the expending of effort, be successful, is presumptuous.”

Reading List

Finally, let me say it was my pleasure to teach this course on behalf of the Quba Institute. It was the first time I taught this course, and thus it was something of an “experiment”. Please feel free to leave me your feedback and comments and of course, if you have any questions about what was covered, please contact me.

John Locke and the Root of the American Experience

No culture or civilization in the history of mankind has ever arisen from a vacuum. All histories are informed by that which came before them.  Even if that history (and perhaps even especially) happens to be the ascending culture in its time and space.  This cannot be said to more true than in the case of the United States of America, a country which prides itself on its freedoms and the right of one to dispose of one’s affairs as one sees fit.  The cultural philosophies  we hold today as normal were first sketched out and further laid in stone by the likes of great thinkers such as John Locke.  His influence over our cultural philosophies in regards to the right to life, property ownership, and even penal codes is greatly underappreciated. America owes a debt of gratitude towards Locke. Without Locke, many of the cultural norms we assume to be our birthright might have been lost in the mists of history.

Modern day America sees itself caught in between upholding the principles  John Locke laid down for us and the need to protect and maintain the national security.  This compromise is not a bit different from the concessions the Colonists had to make when faced with British domination. Therefore in today’s  reality, whether it be an attack from outside forces such as al-Qaedah or the influx of immigrants across the Rio Grande, Americans are still having to address the balance between “freedoms” and “security”.

One does not have to look too deeply at the American democratic process to see and feel the influence of Locke. Many of the democratic concepts we believe constitute a free society, the very need to form a civil society, itself can be traced back to Locke.  His clout can be also be perceived in the immediacy of his own time, counseling the pens of Jefferson, Madison and many others who came shortly after him.

Locke’s viewpoint from his time is one that straddles both modem and pre-modem sensibilities.  By this I mean that Locke perceives his world as one that is in constant turmoil; a chaos that constantly threatens the natural Free State in which man is born into.  Locke’s world demanded a philosophical outlook that would guarantee safety as a primary objective.  The Colonists shared no love for one another but the looming threat of the Royal Crown forced them to rally around a common cause: security and self-determination.

Like all of Locke’s points in Second Treatise, they are interwoven and complement one another, from self-determination to property ownership.  These two points in fact have had long lasting effects on how Americans look at the environment and the manner and extent to which they extract resources from it.  From legislation to the drafting of penal codes, Locke’s arguments accompany each other.  It is precisely this formation of government (or legislative commonwealth as Locke terms it) that seeks to preserve the right to property.  For Locke dictates that property extends beyond mere land ownership.  It encompasses one’s personal self, one’s liberties and the self-entitlement to dispose of them as one sees fit.

One of the most important liberties or freedoms that Locke informs us on is the right for men to own and appropriate property. Through one’s property one is able to extract sustenance from nature.  This process of extraction through one’s property is what Locke says entitles man to what product he extracts from it.  It is also here that Locke illustrates for us the role of the legislature in preserving individual rights to property ownership and the results of labors produced by them or on them.

Locke did not delegate the role of the legislature for simply scripting laws that govern the appropriation of land. They also functioned as the guardians against tyranny and transgression.  In Locke’s argument, man has the right to dispose of his property unmolested by extraneous powers.  This opinion is informed by both Locke’s past and present.  For centuries, Europe lay in the grip of powers that used religion as a tool to not just sway the masses but as a writing instrument to dictate the laws of the land.  And a powerful tool it proved to be.  After all, who could counter the authority of God, even if He chooses to remain “absent”?   Instead, Locke transformed this absentee lordship into a theological interpretation, giving leave to Locke and those who followed his line of thinking to authoring themselves a genuine philosophy for autonomy.

The environment that Locke was to live in would bear a great number of resemblances to that in which the Enlightenment philosophers were living in, namely the dominance of religiously mandated monarchies.  In Locke’s quest to give decree for the Colonists to lead a separate, dignified existence, he borrowed heavily in the form of Enlightenment language (which trumpeted the use of reason for determining destiny), subverting the Crown’s authority over their right to manage their own destinies.  Instead of a theocratic tyranny, Locke delivered a solution for man to simultaneously choose his own destiny and yet still recognize his Creator and God.  Locke himself relates to us that all mankind is the handiwork of one omnipotent Maker.

Any student of American democratic or governmental processes can inform one that the separation of Church and State are two essential components of democracy (as for democracy being essential to “good ruling,” that is up for debate).  Locke as well as many of the Colonists sought to escape religious tyranny in England and other parts of Europe.  Locke’s ideas on the role of religion in society would ultimately come to greatly influence how America legislature would remove the ability or authority of any one religious body from imposing its rule in American society.  Ironically, the fight for separation of Church and State, which Locke so adamantly stood for, is seen to be in jeopardy by many today.

Locke framed his argument against religiously mandated governments in language that was very similar to that of his antagonists.  By reinterpreting Christian theology, Locke presents the Christian god as a passive god; a god who established the Laws of Nature and set them upon a course, wherein man can forge his own destinies.  In modem day America, many feel this separation has been eroded and that despite calls for America to return to its “Christian heritage”, America should remain an inactive part of Revelation.

It is indeed a curiosity that many of the modem day politicians who seek to reintroduce religion back into the public space use many of the founding forefathers as evidence for the original Christian roots of America.  While there is no doubt that Locke is a man who’s  conscious does not stray far from thoughts on God, he clearly in no way sought to implement a theocracy nor lay the foundation for one to be built.  Indeed, it is hard to extract such ideologies from Locke’s Treatise as his disdain for European religious domination took on an almost preventative rhetoric.

The legacy of Locke’s philosophies can be clearly seen in the value that property ownership had maintains in American society. Locke himself was a landowner who made a great deal of wealth of his land ownership.   Even in today’s modem society, property ownership is something that is striven for in American society. It is one of the primary vehicles through which we express our freedom.  In contrast to European society at the time of Locke, where it was exceedingly difficult for one to own land, the Colonies were touted as a place where one could come and own land easily. For many Europeans, land or property ownership was the exclusive domain of the aristocracy or the very wealthy of society.  But Locke saw land should not just be owned but used and used to its full potential.  It is this concept, the idea of land cultivation, which Locke held as a necessary component that went hand in hand with one’s right to own property.

History has acted as a pasteurizing force; internalizing our cultural norms to such an extent that we could never image that there was never a time when they didn ‘t exist. We talk about the Laws of Nature today, as if they are policed by an unseen force.  But it was precisely this concept of Nature and man’s natural state that Locke used to lay the foundation for autonomy from Britain.  And while in the modern context no one thinks of his self as free from British dominance in America, we do believe that we are all born free, in a natural state to dispose as we see fit.  A classic American quote is, “it’s a free country.  You can do what you want.”

While Locke spends a great deal of time expounding on the virtues of absolute freedom, it is not possible to have these absolute freedoms in the context of a greater society.  According to Locke, man’s state of absolute freedom also runs side by side with vulnerability.  In exchange for some of man’s freedoms, he gains increased security in his surroundings.  The Colonists lived in tumultuous times.  Under constant threat of attack from the indigenous Native American tribes, naval threats from the British and even slave rebellions in their own midst, gave plenty of reason for Locke to give pause and provide compromise.   In contrast, our own era, dominated by a post 9/11 milieu, it is not hard to see the traces of what Locke spoke of between absolute freedom and the need for security.  Locke’s definition of government dictates that one of the primary goals of such a government is the safety and protection of the public.

John Locke introduced more than just concepts of property ownership.   Many of America’s modem sensibilities regarding its penal system can trace its genealogy back to Locke.  For Locke, freedom is the right and duty of all those who partake in civil society and uphold and the enforcement of the law.  This is one of the primary functions of Locke’s civil society: To protect the health, property and possessions of others from being accosted by another.  The American democratic system itself grew into an order where losing was an integral part of how the system functioned.  Representatives would be elected by the people and the public would need submit to the authority of the majority.  While minority opinions could still exist they could not oust the duly appointed government unless it took on unjust qualities (and even then it would have to prove those injustices over an extended period).

In all, John Locke gave America a tremendous endowment; a tradition of legislative philosophies and social moralities, thought not without its consequences. Despite being a man of deep thoughts, much of the havoc that has been wrecked upon the environment can be traced back to Locke as well. His attitudes towards nature had a tremendous impact on corporations and their philosophies regarding production, efficiency and progress.  Indeed, many point the finger now at Locke, his contemporaries as well as to Enlightenment philosophy as the smoking gun on why the planet seems to being killed off at an alarming rate. In addition, Locke has been criticized by some as a hypocrite, in terms of human rights, for his own ownership of slaves. He was, nonetheless, a man who gave inspiration to countless Americans to seek their own free destinies.  If not a debt of gratitude, America certainly owes him the responsibility of never forgetting his contribution to the formation of its society.