Monthly Archives: January 2010

Making Sense of the World Before the Eschaton

15 Jan ’10

No surprises. “This is not your grandfather’s world,” the advertisement might read. Contrary to popular notions of progress, the world is winding down. Human nature is not “virtually the same” and the future is not – in every way – superior to yesterday.

Although we have definitely increased in the quantity of our things, and the human services on tap for the fortunate have been amplified, the world has become a less human place. For example, we are now able to kill more people with the push of a single, unfeeling, unbothered button than ever before. Progress!

“Man is born free, yet everywhere in chains,” Rousseau bemoaned. Perhaps his enlightenment project broke material chains for many, but today, still more people than ever continue on in the chains of diversion. And in this state of diversion, by 24-hour cable, tabloid culture, 401Ks, positive psychology and all the news that’s fit to “digitise”, he is commodified. He becomes a tool, an object, a “resource”, a cog in someone else’s industry.

The signs mentioned by the Prophet Mohammed, that we have reached the end of history have begun. Fukuyama got that much right. The part about the last man being an executive at Lehman Brothers didn’t work out so well, though.

We continue to experience a state of loss in the environment, both human and natural. This, along with the turning on its head of once familiar virtue and principle, combines to give the feeling of a silent barren vacuum. It is enough, in the words of Mohammed, the son of Abdullah, “to leave a gentle man confused”. Ethics become a “talking point”.

We are witnessing a time of hyper-individualism that promotes a self-first ideology with disregard to the public good. The Prophet said: “When you see greed obeyed, every passion pursued, the material world prioritised, and every opinionated person self-impressed with his own opinion, you are advised to keep to yourself and avoid public affairs; because before you are days that will require great patience.”

We live at a time in which truth and falsehood are deceptively blurred and public discourse is characterised by flagrant immaturity. To this the Prophet intimated, “a deceptive time will overtake the people, when a liar will be considered truthful; and an honest person will be branded a liar. The treacherous person will be trusted, the trustworthy branded deceitful; and the ‘ruwaybidah’ will speak.” Who are the ruwaybidah they asked? “A superficial man who pontificates on public affairs,” he answered.

In another statement, he foreshadowed, “woe to the Arabs for a troubling discord that draws near like a portion of dark night. A man will awake a believer and go to bed a disbeliever. He sells his religion for some cheap trinket of the world.”

He spoke glowingly to his companions, of those with courage enough to stick to what is wholesome and maintain right action in times to come. “For those among them who would make an effort to do good will be the reward of 50 of you.” To which they questioned: “Do you mean of us or of them?”

“Of you,” he replied, “because you find help to do what is good and they will find no help to do what is good.”

I don’t mean to paint a grey portrait of our times, but only to say that happiness is not found in things. The quality of life is not in mechanics, technology, stock options or by-laws; instead it is in meaning and being grounded in your centre. The adulation of celebrity cannot replace the warmth of family. These are meanings that are timeless.


Should Muslims be concerned about Haiti?

Sheikh Jihad Hashim Brown | 23 Jan’ 2010

Eleven-year-old Anna St Louis was going to be a lawyer. For three days she lay trapped beneath the rubble of a building in Haiti, her right leg crushed by a steel beam. “Lord God save me. I don’t want to die,” she cried out. Far from the capital Port-au-Prince, far from assistance, neighbours tried desperately to cut the beam with a hacksaw, while others gave her water. Her final rescue was covered by international news agencies, the town celebrated, Anna was grateful. With nothing more than painkillers to give her, the Cuban doctor volunteering in that area advised that she must be taken three hours away where more sufficient medical care could be given. Anna was brave enough to suggest her readiness to have her leg amputated. “I may lose my feet, but I will always have my life,” she has seen saying. But within 24 hours of being rescued, Anna had expired due to severe internal bleeding.

The first statement of the Prophet Mohammed to be taught to every student of Sacred Knowledge is: “Those who show compassion to others, compassion will be shown to them by the All Compassionate; show compassion to those in the Earth and those in the heavens will show compassion to you.”

Some will inevitably say that this does not apply to the non-Muslim. “We should only give our assistance to Muslims,” they will say. But an analysis of the above mentioned narration does not bear this out.

Another tradition of the Prophet Mohammed says: “God does not cease to assist his slave, so long as His slave does not cease to assist his brother.”

The premiere jurist of the 1950s Al Azhar, Muhammad Abu Zahra, says this is not limited to one’s brother in Islam alone, but in humanity in general. The Prophet Mohammed warned that whoever stands by and watches while the safety and dignity of another is being violated – while he has the wherewithal to help – God will leave him at the moment when his dignity and safety is threatened and he most wishes for rescue. Man is famously the caliph of God on Earth, and the believer is the caliph of the Prophet. But the “stewardship” through which we understand this caliphate is a concept of wide and expansive meaning. When we think – through history books – of Medieval international relations, we think of black and white stand-offs, of well-defined boundaries of “us-against-thems”.

We forget about how Islam was lived in actual communities – beyond the pages of cut-and-dry jurisprudential theory – where neighbours shared and cared across faith boundaries, and where they still do today, contrary to the pictures painted through grainy web videos, or their counterparts on 24-hour cable news channels. The world is no longer a place of regionally isolated towns and provinces; it is an expansive and vast community where the concept of stewardship and leadership needs to be bigger.

“Fear the prayer of those wrongly treated,” the Prophet said, “because there is no veil between them and Allah.” More often than not we think of this in terms of those who victimise us. Muslims should not forget to fear the prayer of those who suffer while they can alleviate it.

Much praise for the North American Muslim leaders who rallied and joined Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, the crew at Seekers’ Guidance, and Islamic Relief to alleviate the suffering of their beleaguered neighbours in Haiti this week; even more appreciation for all those who gave the US$105,000 (Dh386,000) in the first two hours online. Here is what it means to drink from the teachings of Mohammed.

Is Muslim Fraternity Even Possible?

Sheikh Jihad Hashim Brown | 09 Jan ’10

Cesare Borgia, ruthless, cunning, treacherous, sometime muse of Niccolo Machiavelli. He knew exactly what he was after and the most direct path to get it. But while the realist scores quick wins in the moment, fate has seldom been kind to his style of operation. Borgia’s political career was ultimately considered to be a failure, slain unexpectedly in ignominy and exile; the opportunist has never been remembered fondly by history.

Skip forward 493 years to the set of the CBS reality show, Survivor, where 16 contestants are divided into two competing tribes and stranded on a Pacific island. To win the ultimate prize as “sole survivor” they will outwit, undermine, cheat, lie and trick their tribemates. Using the most deceitful ruse to create ostensible friendships, they will deceive and subvert when the best opportunity presents itself. It’s the name of the game and viewers are titillated by the intrigue.

Does the show mirror our daily life, or does it inform it? I recently saw a title in a bookstore, Everything I Know I Learned from TV: Philosophy Explained Through Our Favorite TV Shows. Here we are, ladies and gentlemen, the future, that promised utopia of the 1950s; ahhh, the smell of progress.

Skip backwards one year to the release of Koushun Takami’s novel, Battle Royale. Fifty junior high school students are placed on an isolated island with the requirement – under threat of immediate extermination by means of collars fixed around their necks – to fight one another to the death. The psychological torment, as each student struggles to come terms with reality, trusting and mistrusting their friends and classmates, hurtles them into a kill or be killed existence. Only the shrewdest and coldest will survive; could we call it synthetic Darwinism? It’s the corporate “bottom-line” reified in social engineering.

We sleep in the bed that we collectively make for ourselves. In other words, we are given the social reality we deserve. But fraternity, a sense of affinity and bond of filial affiliation is grounded in eternal truth, prescribed by Divine writ. “Verily the believers are brothers, so make amends between your brothers,” the Quran pronounces. The first half of the verse is a statement of ontological fact, the second half is an assignment of responsibility.

But in the tradition of Islamic legal hermeneutics it is a double “contrary” understanding, a “two-way street” if you will. The first, if there is discord between two people meant to be bound in fraternity, you are responsible to mend the rift. Second, in your organisation of society, you are responsible to prevent any factors that may induce schism between people. Willingly (or enthusiastically) creating scenarios that pit people at one another’s throats – for fun and profit – is anathema to organic humanity.

The Prophet Mohammed famously said: “The Muslim is the brother to the Muslim; he does not oppress him, he does not forsake him, and he does not lie to him.” These items are the cracks in the substructure of solidarity.

He is further quoted as saying: “Whosoever forsakes a Muslim in a moment that his honour and dignity are violated, Allah will forsake him in a moment when he most wishes rescue. Whosoever comes to the aid of a Muslim in such a moment, Allah will come to his aid when he most needs it.”

The bottom line has no use for “meaning” and no space for the sacrosanct. Streamlined of all unquantifiable dead weight, life becomes a survival of the shrewdest; winner loses all.

Sermon: Patience is Beauty

Friday Sermon | Sheikh Jihad Hashim Brown | Delivered in NYU’s New York Campus

From October 2008

To Listen:

To Download: Patience is Beauty (mp3 | approx running time: 22 mins)

It is Really Starting to Get Tiresome

Sheikh Jihad Hashim Brown | Jan 02 2010

(This post was originally published with a piece missing at the end. It has now been added)

A healthy dose of self-criticism is a good thing. God knows I’ve engaged in my fair share on these very pages. But scholars writing in Arabic have differentiated between self-criticism (naqd al-dhat) and self-flagellation (jald al-dhat).

A number of emboldened irreverent voices, frequently of second generation Arab and Asian émigrés to Western countries continue to vie for a hearing in Western periodicals and news media. Boldly telling fellow Muslims just “what they really had better start understanding,” and dispensing marching orders. Irreverently pronouncing on what Islam ought to be; usually some pale mimesis of Western liberal sensitivities.

It’s really beginning to get tiresome. Who are they talking to anyway? The Muslim public doesn’t read the periodicals they write in. Are they trying to save the integrity of a beloved heritage or merely carve out a place of inclusion for themselves at the head table?

For a group that never had time for more than a thin relationship with Islam before September Eleventh, they sure do have a lot to say now. As a Western convert to Islam this type of “self-loathing” really mystifies me. What is the motivation then to become the self-styled hero of offended Western sensibilities?

Is it an attempt to reconcile a passion for all things Western with an inescapable link – in name or ethnicity – to things “foreign”? Or does cashing in on this very affiliation promise a shot at relevancy as an “area expert” in the valley of the uninformed? Otherwise, were it not for the accident of ethnic circumstance, the Muslim social scientist would be relegating to competing with a vast and level playing field of his or her peers; a potential recipe for obscurity.

Or is it just that the incessant accusations of right-wing fear mongers has at long last begun to penetrate the insecure psyche of shallow self-awareness? Whatever it is, it’s weak, uninteresting, and borderline embarrassing. Well, maybe beyond borderline.

However, once these darlings of the cable media circuit or liberal information outlets have fulfilled their mission, establishing the utter banality of Islam and it’s being perfectly unexceptional, they too will be marginalized and forgotten.

But my challenge to these self-appointed spokespeople for Islam is as follows: You’ve told us everything that is wrong with Islam and Muslims, can you tell us now what is right and good about Islam? No, they cannot; because they themselves really know nothing of any depth about their own tradition.

But just you all wait and see. The end will be for those with confidence, hope, patience, and fortitude. For those who envision a reading and living of the ‘Way of Islam’ that adds value to the global conversation and contributes authentically and significantly to solving the dilemmas that challenge the human community as a whole.

Perhaps when Islam is understood and acknowledged as an indispensible member and necessary contributor to the wellness of our shared global mosaic, we will hear the echo of the poet Ibn al-Rayahi’s verse: “I am the son of renown, the scaler of mountains; when the day comes that I place my turban you will recognize me.”

Until then, perhaps our “less sure” colleagues should take a page from those who have traversed and successfully navigated the trials of suspicion, xenophobia, and racism. Those whose confidence and vision were captured in the verses of Langston Hughes when he said:

“I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen when company comes, but I laugh and eat well, and grow strong. Tomorrow, I’ll be at the table when company comes. Nobody’ll dare say to me, ‘Eat in the kitchen,’ then. Besides, they’ll see how beautiful I am; and be ashamed.”