30 January 2015
Khutba Delivered at Claremont Main Rd Mosque
Cape Town, South Africa
It was in the 9th year of the Islamic calendar, 9 years after the Hijra, 9 years after the strategic retreat from Mecca to Medina, that God revealed the chapter of the Quran, Surah Hujurat or the inner apartments. It was called the inner apartments, literally because it referred to the privacy and the sanctuary of the Prophet Muhammad’s abode and cautioned those who sought his attention by shouting from outside. But it was also called the inner apartments since it sought to fortify the inner Muslim character that would establish the inner template of manners, behaviour and disposition in order to establish the outer protocols and attitudes towards the rest of humanity and creation.
It is important to note the time of its revelation because this year was also called the Year of Deputations — the year in which the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims were receiving delegations from all over the known world, from every nation, tribe, culture and faith, who began to look at the emergent community of Medina, not as a passing phenomenon, but as a community growing in influence and power. This was also a time when the Muslim community could refocus its attention from the tasks of internal consolidation of the community and withstanding the external threat of war.
It was, therefore, a time in which a community, till now largely under siege, was being prepared to countenance those who are different and was being prepared to coexist in the
world of different faiths, cultures and political persuasions. So the Quran, therefore, addresses the nascent Muslim community on issues ranging from managing suspicion to facilitating reconciliation, from avoiding defamation to eschewing rumour-mongering, and from discerning superficial faith and the general judgement of external appearance.
Central to the thesis of this chapter is verse 13 in which the essential unity of humankind is established, the purpose of human diversity is outlined, and righteous conduct is affirmed as the only marker of distinction between people. The verse reads:
“Oh people! We have created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another and not that you may despise each other. Truly, the most honoured of you in the sight of God is the one who is most righteous. And God has full knowledge and is acquainted with all that you do.”
I call to mind this chapter on the eve of World Interfaith Harmony Week, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly for the 1st week of February since 2010. It is a week dedicated to mutual understanding and dialogue among different faith and religious communities to enhance cooperation, peace and harmony among the peoples of the world. However, as we proceed next week to observe world interfaith harmony week, we do so in the deathly shadow of events in the preceding month of January 2015 around the calculated assassinations at Charlie Hebdo and the disrespectful, if not defamatory, cartoons which occasioned the carnage. Extremists, both those who pulled the triggers and those who drew the cartoons, have shown that they have infinitely greater capacities to shape the relationships among different and diverse groups of people, than the millions who, every day in their ordinary lives, go about living out the normative values of their faiths.
World Interfaith Harmony Week 2015 may well prove the point made by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon in support of this initiative when he said that the week should enable the moderate majority to be empowered to stand up against the forces of extremism. The Secretary-General, however, amplifies through his invocation of “moderates”, the core weakness of the middle ground: their lack of credibility to defend what they stand for — in this case their reverence for the Prophet Muhammad — because they are perceived to be
moderate to the point of being toothless poodles of the West. The Secretary-General also, seems limited in his definition of extremism. For him extremists are religious but are not necessarily the secularists who set out to transgress religious sensitivities; extremists are the informal warriors but are not necessarily the militarists who shape or execute the foreign policy of the superpowers.
Both of these misperceptions would need to be corrected if we are indeed to achieve the objectives of co-operation, peace and harmony among the diverse peoples of the world. The normative values of Surah Hujurat may have to be asserted, not moderately, but militantly. This surah (chapter) is an advance even on Surah Mumtahana (the woman to be examined) revealed in the 8th year after hijra. That chapter conditionally sets out the basis for coexistence of Muslims within a multi-faith and multicultural society. The conditions are simple: do not fight us for faith and do not drive us from our homes, and in return we will owe you the obligation of kindness and justice. The Quran says:
“God forbids you not with regard to those who do not fight you for your faith nor drive you from your homes, from dealing kindly and justly with them. God loves those who are just.”
Intellectually and theologically the middle ground must assert that this chapter (Mumtahana) is even an advance on the Meccan chapter called Kafirun, or those would reject faith, which ends with the exhortation to tolerance, by saying:
“To you your religion, and to me mine.”
These normative values of faith must be vigorously defended and asserted in the face of both strains within orthodoxy and the general thrust of fundamentalism which elevate injunctions in a context of war, and against political treason, like the one not to take the Jews and the Christians as your friends and allies, to the eternal and universal normative value of perpetual enmity. Today, even on mainstream South African radio stations, some forbid Muslims from attending the funerals of their Christian parents, family, friends and
colleagues, and forbid even the saying of a prayer for their forgiveness. These soulless, and seemingly small, misrepresentations of our normative values are the stepping-stones for our silence and impotence in the face of the bigger atrocities done in our name.
In explaining the reasoning behind the victory of David over Goliath, the Quran says:
“And had not God checked one set of people by means of another, the Earth would indeed be full of mischief.”
God’s methodology to defeat mischief is to inspire good people to make common cause and to be courageous. This is our purpose next week when good people must come together to defend faith itself by defending the normative values of their faiths. If we do not do so, God provides us with a chilling warning in the Quran:
“Had not God checked one set of people by means of another, there would surely have been the destruction of monasteries, churches, synagogues and mosques, places in which the name of God is remembered profusely. God will certainly aid those who aid the cause of God.”
Very clearly, we do not simply defend what is ours, what is Islamic, but we defend all that resonates the presence of God. The world has never been more in need of a militant middle ground. It is a middle ground that needs to stand up and check the forces of cynicism that disparage faith, erode cultures and traditions and mock those who are different and seemingly backward. We must not aid cynicism by defending superstition, believing without reason, and confirming our penchant for violence by being hostile and violent in our methodology. But we must engage them intellectually, by postulating the danger of a world without anchors in values and without accountability to a transcendent being. As Vaclav Havel once said: if we live in a world without a meta-narrative we may be in danger of committing mega-suicide.
But we must also have the courage to re-appropriate and reclaim our faith and theology from our own extremists who do what they do in our name and take our silence as their mandate. We must deny them this mandate. We must assert the fundamental normative values of faith. It is not enough to go about our ordinary lives doing the ordinary things that live out our faith. It is important that we continue our simple acts of co-existence, our embrace of difference, and our beautiful addition to the mosaic of our nations and the world. Ultimately, this will defeat the forces of extremism.
But in the short term we must confront the seemingly innocent misunderstanding and misrepresentation of our faith and theology espoused in the growing dial a fatwa programs on radio and TV, just as we must confront the global outrages that define us when hostages are taken in a coffee shop in Australia, when the Canadian Parliament becomes a battlefield, when 200 girls disappear in Nigeria, when Pakistani schoolgirls are massacred, when journalists are beheaded and when Jews are killed in the market, and defending the honour of the Prophet constitutes the greatest transgression and violation of his sunnah. There is no cause that justifies such outrages, because, even as Allah exhorts us to justice, Allah places the limitations on our methodologies: “…and let not the hatred of a people to you cause you to depart from justice. Be just always!”
We must make common cause as a middle ground across many differences. We may not pray like they pray, eat what they eat, dress like they dress or look like the look, but in defense of decency and human values we must move from competitive faith to co-operative faith, and comparative faith to collaborative faith. We must do this in defense of our own normative values, but also in defense of faith itself.