Have We Traded Our Bedrock Convictions For The Shifting Sands Of Values?

“The social and cultural conditions that make character possible are no longer present and no amount of political rhetoric, legal maneuvering, educational policy making, or money can change that reality.” — James Davison Hunter from The Death of Character

While Hunter makes an interesting observation, I do believe the one thing that he left off his list which can restore character is religion, specifically Islam. I mean this in no cheap or reductionist way. I mean a religious and spiritual practice that returns us to silence. The silence we so desperately need as individuals but also the communal silence by which we, by standing together in ranks for prayer, tune out the world and tune in to the Oneness of The Creator. This, I still believe, can achieve that elusive goal of restoring character.

I do concur with Hunter’s conclusion that “character is formed in relation to conviction and is manifest in the capacity to abide by those convictions even in, especially in, the face of temptation.” This speaks to heart of many of the struggles I witness in Muslim youth. They have hearts but have not been spiritually trained to have conviction. And by barring them from sharing in the vision of our community they have been given little opportunity to develop religious and spiritual conviction. It’s as if they know what Islam is gesturing but they do not know what it’s saying. Out of a misplaced sense of love and lack of trust — that it is God who makes a believer — we have stifled this all important aspect of Muslim development. This is akin to my statement of sucking all of the oxygen out of a room:

Another way to think about the challenges we face is how we’ve supplanted creeds with values. This has been concurrent with the secularization of the Muslim mind. As Hunter puts it, “Values are truths that have been deprived of their commanding character. Many of us, not only youth, have been inculcated into internalizing Islam, not as a fundamental truth claim, one which places demands on us, but merely as a set of “values” which can be altered, rearranged, or even deleted, depending on what our social circumstances demand of us or what we desire (demand!) from society. Or as Bo Burlingham quoted in his book Small Giants, “mediocrity is our greatest competition”.

To better understand the dilemma of values, I quote Hunter again: “the very word ‘value’ signifies the reduction of truth to utility, taboo to fashion, conviction to mere preference; all provisional, all exchangeable”. And therefore we must also ask ourselves: “what is conviction”? It is, as Hunter explains: “the commitment to truths made sacred”. Likewise, what is its absence. Again, Hunter: “There is nothing there (values) that one need believe, commanding and demanding its due, for ‘truth’ is but a matter of taste and temperament”. This elegantly echoes the Qur’anic verse,

كُتِبَ عَلَيْكُمُ الْقِتَالُ وَهُوَ كُرْهٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

“Fighting (in the cause of God) is a duty laid down upon you, even though it might be unpleasant for you. However, you may hate something that’s good for you and love something that’s bad for you. God knows, and you don’t know.”Qur’an 2: 217

The Essence of Salah – A Khutbah

The following khutbah was delivered on August 21st, 2015, in Fullerton, California, at the Sayed Jamaluddin Al-Afghani Mosque.

[Direct download]

Imam al-Ghazzali, one of the great thinkers in Islam, said about salah (prayer), that it has four admiral qualities:

فإن الصلاة عماد الدين, وعصام اليقين, ورأس القربات, وغرة الطاعات.

  1. The support center of the Din;
  2. The means of holding tight to certainty;
  3. The foremost means of drawing close to God;
  4. The act amongst the acts of obedience to God;

An ‘imad is like a tent-pole. The pole which makes the rest of the tent a place of habitation. Without it, the tent collapses. Being that the word din is related to dayn, debt, the means of supporting your debt to God is through salah.

Isam, its literal meaning being “a strap”, is a means of tying something down. The way to achieving certainty (yaqin) is not achieved through intellectual endeavors alone. It is achieve through habitual action. The salah is a means of doing that habitual action which “ties us to God”.

Remember, that ra’s is not only the head of something, but also a beginning. The beginning of drawing close to God begins with salah. You will not achieve it through any singular intellectual endeavor, no matter how smart.

The word gurrah refers to a beauty mark that the Arabs would say a horse would have on its face. A white mark. Ghurrah, a mark of superiority, of quality, is what’s being emphasized here. In these two verses, we’re reminded the beautification that salah gives us on the Day of Judgment:

وُجوهٌ يَومَئِذٍ ناضِرَةٌ

إِلىٰ رَبِّها ناظِرَةٌ

“Faces that Day will be radiant, gazing at their Lord.” Qur’an, 75: 22-23

Certitude In Islam – A Khutbah

Certainty doesn’t relate to just an isolated, distant notion of asserting the existence of God. This would be akin to agnosticism. Rather, it means to have that realization impact your actions – to have a genuine purpose. Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the cousin of the Prophet [not nephew!], says:

قال علي, كرم الله وجهه: لو كشف الغطاء ما ازددت يقينا

“If the veil were to be lifted I would not increase in certitude.”

We should look for inspiration in our daily lives. One easy example to look at are pigeons. Many of us have stood at the corners of 15th and Broad and have seek flocks of pigeons – how many times have we really examined them in detail. I say this as it is similar to Allah’s question in the Qur’ān:

أفلا ينظرون إلى الإبل كيف خلقت

“Do they not look at the camel and how it was created?” [Q: 88:17]

The camel was something so common to the Arabs of the Prophet’s time – they were almost what cars are for us today. They also took sustenance from them. So they were at once familiar with them but somewhat mundane as well. Just like pigeons for us, or anything else in our environments, we should examine them with thought and attention. Through this, we can come to the extraordinary in the ordinary and mundane.

Additionally, some of the greatest signs are within ourselves. The human being is an amazing creation. Let us look to the Heavens and the earth for inspiration and what Allah has to say about them:

سنريهم ءايتِنا في الأفاق و في أنفسهم حتى يتبين لهم أنه الحق
أوَ لم يكفِ بربك أنه على كل شيء شهيد

“And We will show them our signs on the horizon and in themselves until it is clear to them that it is the truth. Is it not sufficient that your Lord is a Witness to everything?” [Q: 41:53]

Certitude helps us to be more connected with the nature of Reality. We all must return to Allah, where we will have a full account of our deeds [the hisāb].

إنهم في مرية من لقاء ربهم – ألا إنه بكل شيء محيط

“Eh? Are they in doubt as to the meeting with their Lord? Does He not encompass all things?” [Q: 41:54]

Certitude is developed not by talk but by action, reflection and experience/tasting [ذوق]. We have to move away from conceiving of an Islam which neither needs maintenance or Allah!

Certitude requires constant upkeep. Many modern Muslims seem to think that in order for Islam to be legitimate, it must be expressed in or through the apparatus of an Islamic state. This could not be more secular! Secular ideologies, at their heart, always seek [implicitly or explicitly] to achieve perfection in this life because there is no chance in the next. For the mu’min, who is secure in his belief [meaning of a/m/n], s/he will have complete certitude w/w/o the state apparatus [going back to Ali’s statement]:

لو كشف الغطاء ما ازددت يقينا

Certitude can never be reached by relying upon one’s deeds however, and in fact can lead to doubt. Ibn ‘Ata Allah, may Allah have mercy on him, counsels us on the detriment of relying solely upon deeds and the pitfalls associated with such a psychology:

من علامة الإعتماد على العمل نقصان الرجاء عند وجود الزلل

“A sign of relying upon one’s handiwork is the absence of hope in the presence of a misstep/mistake.”

This is very common in the modern world where people lose hope because they rely upon their abilities, which are always flawed, and then coupled with a sense of entitlement, abandon hope all together because they did not get what they wanted.

One of the real dangers of not having certitude is the distancing ourselves from the very Real Truth of Lā ilāha illa Allah. If we continue to make God so distant, our character, our behavior will reflect this. Like a child whose parents are never present, they will never fear any chastisment nor have any reservation when commiting harmful actions. Instead, they become bold as brass and arrogant – malicious. Similarly, in the absence of parenting, they will never grow up to become loving people, capable of showing the very same mercy they receive from Allah. Stunted, their development is stunted – emotionally they are either incompetent or dysfunctional.

So we as that Allah make us the people of Certitude.

Certitude is developed in stages and steps. One step is to leave that which does not encourage you to be certain! The Prophet [s] advices us:

من حسن إسلام المرء تركه ما لا يعنيه

“Part of bettering one’s Islam is leaving that which does not concern you.”

By leaving that which is none of our concern, we can avoid things that may lead us into disarray. And with so many things the Prophet [s] left us, the meanings have many subtle layers to reflect upon. I would like to accentuate three aspects of this hadith for our reflection:

  1. The basic idea is as was mentioned: Leave that which does not concern you. But there is also a deeper meaning:
  2. “Leave that which is disquieting to you/making you anxious”. The verb ‘a/n/y [عنى] means to be anxious or unsettled.
  3. “Leave that which does not make you humble”. Ibn Mandhur in his opus, Lisān al-Arab, says: العاني الخاضع. Ibn Mundhir states that ‘ani is akin to humility. He further points to the Qur’ān to bolster his claim:

وعنت الوجوه للحي القيوم – فقد خاب من حمل ظلما

“Faces will be made humble to the Ever-Living, the Ever-Sustaining. Surely the looser is he who is weighed down with wrongdoing.” [Q: 20:111]

Allah continues with:

و من يعمل من الصاحت و هو مؤمن فلا يخاف ظلماً و لا هضما

“And as for the one that works righteous deeds, he is secure [a mu’min], therefore no fear shall he have of being wronged or belittled.” [Q: 20:112]

Ibn Mundhir points to the use of the of the very same word, ‘ana [عنى], where Allah is saying that the faces of those people will be made humble, reenforcing the idea that the word implies multiple meanings: to avoid that which does not concern, does not make anxious, and does not make humble. This is further supported by the Prophet’s statement:

دع ما يريبك إلى ما لا يريتك

“Leave that which leaves you in doubt for that which does not leave you in doubt.”

Yaqin, if it is to be developed, must be carefully germinated, like a seed, so that it may flourish and grow, bear fruit and provide shade. But one does not plant a seed without examining where one is placing it, if its location is conducive to supporting health and growth – it is done with careful planning and avoiding that which will damage or destroy the plant. Similarly, we should follow the advice of the Prophet [s] where he says:

من اتقى الشبهات فقد استبرأ لدينه و عرضه

“The one who protects himself against doubtful matters has ensured his religion and his honor.”

How perfect a system! And again, we see the use of the word taqwa again – where it’s used as that very same self-defense system against Allah punishment.

And the Prophet gives us the other side of not obeying his advice:

و من وقع في الشبهات وقع في الحرام

“And for the one who falls into dubious actions then he falls into the Harām.”

I leave myself and all of us with some final words of advice: As Muslims we must assert the closeness of Allah, reestablish the Sacredness of Allah in our daily lives. Constant and frequent reflection on the Truth of Allah, and ask to have that reflected in our character. The consequence of not doing so is evident: like a child whose parents are never present, they never chastisement – their character becomes arrogant and bold and has no humility. Another aspect is thus: they will never fully develop and grow and live as loving people, capable of showing the very same mercy they are constantly receiving. They are emotionally stunted and spiritually malnourished. They Islam becomes dysfunctional.

We close now with a du’ah from the Prophet Muhammad [s] regarding the condition of the world we live in, asking Allah to protect us from its fitnah, so our souls may have salvation on the Day of Judgment:

اللهم إني أعوذ بك من قلب لا يخشع
و دعاء لا يسمع
و من نفس لا يشبع
و من علم لا ينفع
اللهم إني أعوذ بك من هؤلاء الأربع

“O’ Allah! I seek protection in you from a heart that has no humility,
And from a supplication that is not heard,
And from a soul that cannot be satiated,
And from knowledge that has no benefit.
O’ Allah!, I seek refuge in you from all four of these!


Disciplining the Soul to "Return Pleased and Well Pleasing"

First Khutbah – Main Points

كل نفس ذائقة الموت ونبلوكم بالشر والخير فتنة

“Every soul shall taste death. And We shall test you by evil and good means as a trial.” [al-Anbiya’ 21: 35]

On the grand scale of things, Islam is about the worship of God. But when we look at Allah’s Book, the Holy Qur’an, Allah presents an over-awing framework by which through our brains and our hearts, we might come to know Him and submit willingly [أسلم]. We only need listen to His Call:

والله يدعوا إلى دار السلام ويهدى من يشاء إلى صراط مستقيم

“And it is God that calls to the Abode of Peace, guiding as God wills, to a straight path.” [Yunis 10: 25]

Whether we attempt to thwart God’s proclivity [الشريعة] in This Life, we shall be held accountable for what we have said and done and ultimately, even if only by our very createdness, we shall submit.

يسبح لله ما في السموت وما في الأرض له الملك وله الحمد وهو على كل شيء قدير

“Everything in the heavens and the earth negates the possibility of any god other than Allah. The dominion belongs to Him as well as all praise. And He has power over all things.” [al-Tagabun 64: 1]

Submission is an ongoing process. In order to facilitate this, God has provided for us His Signs, which unfurl like a ship’s sail before a steady wind:

خلق الإنسان من عجل سأوريكم ءايتي فلا تستعجلون

“Mankind was created hasty. I shall show you My Signs so do hasten.” [al-Anbiya’ 21: 37]

So when Bani adam steps back to look at the Big Picture, ease [سعادة] and certainty [يقين] can enter into the heart and life’s apparent randomness takes on a shape and form of meaning and purpose:

ونبلوكم بالشر والخير فتنة

“And We shall test you by evil and good means as a trial.” [al-Anbiya’ 21: 35]

Second Khutbah – Main Points

So how do we attain this happiness, this certainty, this insight?

It involves struggling against one’s own soul. Ibn ‘Abbas [rah] reports, that the Prophet [s] said:

أعدى عدوك نفسك التي جنبينك

“The most ardent enemy is your own soul [nafs], which is between your two sides.” [al-Bayhaqi]

This is similar to what Allah tells us in the chapter Yusuf, when Prophet Yusuf/Joseph [عليه السلام] said concerning the governor’s wife when she tried to seduce him:

وما أبرئ نفسى إن النفس لأمارة بالسوء إلا ما رحم ربي إن ربي غفور رحيم

“I do not say my soul [nafs] was free from blame. The self indeed commands to evil acts – except for those my Lord has mercy on. My Lord, He is Forgiving, Merciful.” [Yusuf 12: 53]

To be sure, it is exceedingly difficult to achieve this state of tranquility, happiness, and certainty. The modern cultures are hostile to the development of these qualities, as This Life constantly seeks to distract us. For this reason, we must strive to devote ourselves to God, remembering Him always:

يأيها الذين ءامنوا ادخلوا في السلم كافة ولا تتبعوا في خطوت الشيطان إنه لكم عدو مبين

“O’ you of faith!, enter into Islam completely and do not follow in the footsteps of Shaytan. He is an open enemy to you.” [al-Baqarah 2: 208]

In this way, Allah further reveals our own devious nature in that we often attempt to evade our responsibilities towards Allah, such as showing gratitude, etc.

Islam reconciles the seemingly opposed aspects of the wayward self:

ألنفس الأمارة بالسوء

And the soul at rest:

يأيتها النفس المطمئنة ارجعى إلى ربك راضية مرضية

By coming to see this aspect of our relationship with Allah—The Big Picture—we foster a greater sense of realization [يقين-معرفة] of our purpose in life:

ما خلقت الجن والإنس إلا ليعبدون

“I did not create the Jinn or mankind except that they are to worship Me.” [al-Baqarah 2: 208]

and …

الذين يذكرون الله قياما وقعودا وعلى جنوبهم ويتفكرون في خلق السموت والأرض ربنا ما خلقت هذا باطلا سبحانك فقنا عذاب النار

“Those who remember God standing, sitting and laying on their sides, and reflect on the creation of the heavens and the earth [utter], ‘O our Lord, You have not created all this in jest, how perfect You are, so protect us from the torment of the Fire.” [al-‘Imran 3: 191]

Endeavor to restrain your souls, and the Ultimate reward will be yours:

وأما من خاف مقام ربه ونهى النفس عن الهوى فإن الجنة هى المأوى

“For the one who fears the Station of his Lord and denies the appetites of the lower self, the Garden will be his refuge.” [al-Nazi’at 79: 40-1]

Finally, in the advice of our Beloved Prophet [s]:

حاسبوا أنفسكم قبل أن تحاسبوا ووزنوا أعمالكم قبل أن توزن عليكم

“Take account of yourselves before you are held to account and weigh your deeds before they are weighed for you.” [al-Tirmidhi’s al-Qiyamah]

Download the khutbah, Discipline the Soul to “Return Pleased and Well Pleasing” here.

Listen online now

[audio:http://www.marcmanley.com/media/mp3s/khutbah_upenn-7-16-2010.mp3|titles=Disciplining the Soul to “Return Pleased and Well Pleasing” by Marc Manley]

Getting What God Wants Us To Get From Islam: Creating Safe Spaces

First Khutbah – Main Points

What do we want from Islam? We seldom ask this question. What does Allah want us to get from Islam? And in the negotiation of these two questions, how do we go about making this a reality?

Piety, to a large extent, has been replaced by such plastic words as “tradition”. This word has garnered so much attention in recent years that Muslims are beginning to identify themselves as “traditional Muslims”. But my question is: what is “traditional Islam”? Often what is deemed to be traditional is expressed in modes of dress, pious affectation, perhaps even cuisine. Allah has a different definition of piety:

ليس البر أن تولوا وجوهكم قبل المشرق والمغرب

ولكن البر من ءامن بالله واليوم الآخر والملائكة والكتاب والنبئين…

“Piety is not the turning of your face to the East or the West. No, piety is the one who is secure in his belief of God and the Last Day, the Angles, the Book and the Prophets…”

[Q: 2:177]

الذين ءامنوا ولم يلبسوا إيمانهم بظلم اولئك لهم الأمن وهم مهتدون

“Those who profess faith and do not wear their faith on their sleeve, security is their reward. They are the rightly guided.”

[Q: 6:82]

The downside to all of this is that we often create psychological spaces were people do not feel safe to grow as Muslims. This plays on people’s religious sensibilities and in fact, when they do not stand up to this comparison, they may be afflicted with doubt and uncertainty. Continue reading “Getting What God Wants Us To Get From Islam: Creating Safe Spaces”