Rise Above

Transcript of Shaykh Hamdi’s Khuṭbah on ‘Ashura 2014

It is remarkable how our predecessors made sacrifices for our sake. They were not selfish. Every generation stands upon the shoulders of those generations that came before it, who made these sacrifices. We owe it to them to be grateful for what they did, to reflect upon it, and to thank God for them.

Our Master Husayn alayhi salam showed us what it means to gain victory when it looks to your enemy as if he has overcome you. To gain victory without the material appearance of victory. He alayhi salam allowed the Ummah, the world, to understand what it means to lead from behind, to lead without being the “official leader,” and to lead without holding worldly posts and positions that have titles.

He showed that victory is in having integrity with God, being true to one’s values and remaining the more honourable one, even when being wronged and oppressed. He showed us that one does not struggle for temporary achievement of rights or respect from one’s oppressor, but rather, one struggles in order that there be a model to all the world of what sincerity looks like.

If, those centuries ago, our Master Husayn alayhi salam had decided to stay in his home, saying to himself: “I have faith, I have love of God, I have a relationship of truth with my Lord, I have knowledge – and this is sufficient” – and not gone out with 72 members of his Family – the Family of the Messenger of God alayhi salam – history would have been different.

We would have been different. Perhaps Islam would have become just a game, and there would have been a sense of absurdity about it. Knowledge would have been buried, and truth would not have been made apparent. But Sayyidna Husayn alayhi salam did stand up, stand for the truth. He showed that generation and those to come that there is something called TRUTH and that religion is not a toy to be played with or a game.

Due to the blessing of that stance, there are still people serious about faith, seekers of truth.

If our Master Ibrahim alayhi salam had just stayed home and said: “I know Allah and worship Him” and stopped at that, there would not have been monotheists after him.

Likewise, if our Master Musa alayhi salam had stayed in Egypt and not stood in strength and perseverance in the face of Pharaoh, the miracle and truth of God would not have had the opportunity to be manifested in the parting of the Red Sea.

And had Prophet Muhammad ﷺ not made the migration (Hijra), to establish the glimmering jewel of the first community, we would not have had a model for all the world and a star that still shines and guides us long after its physical presence has passed.

At Badr, the Messenger of God ﷺ said of these blessed Companions who made up the first community: if this group is destroyed, then the deen will not carry on. So important, so vital was their living expression of faith, that we would not be Muslim today had those people not lived past Badr.

The common denominator in all these examples of Prophets and upright people standing for truth is that they transcended the circumstances which were brought about by those in power, and resisted the pressure put on them by those in power to become something other than their true selves.

They transcended not only the box that those in power were trying to put them in, but they transcended the very trap of trying to fight against that box.

They did this by becoming what GOD wanted them to be, at which point they possessed a deep consciousness of who they were, which has a greater effect than mere self-confidence.

Listen to the story of the Jews in Egypt, and see if you can recognize it. Before our Master Musa alayhi salam was sent to them, the Jewish people were treated as the lowest of the low in Egypt. They were the entertainers, their women were the playthings of the Pharaohs, and their youth were the delinquents who filled the prisons due to their often violent outbursts resulting from their frustration at their plight – and these actions included assassination attempts against the Pharaohs.

They were a very humiliated and downtrodden community and the people of Egypt got used to seeing them in this mould. The good people of Egypt, even those who were fair, could no longer see in this miserable Jewish community the beauty of its ancestor – Prophet Yusuf alayhi salam – a beloved figure to all Egyptians regardless of faith or race. The Jewish community had become so downtrodden and disconnected from their Source that no longer could anyone recognize them as being the grandchildren of this beautiful and noble Prophet . Because the Jewish People no longer carried their heritage of beauty, grace and nobility, they could no longer represent their ancestors nor offer anything to their fellow human beings.

When Prophet Musa alayhi salam came, he taught them how to transcend this state and return to their true selves: heirs of the Prophets alayhim salam. He brought an agenda to change their condition. He brought them out of the state of being objects, to being subjects: agents of positive change. He taught them to rise above their circumstances, and above their oppressors, and not merely lash out and react to them. Prophet Musa alayhi salam did not go create militias to resist the Pharaohs and harm their peace, nor sit about discussing all that was wrong with the Pharaohs, nor inspire his people to fight harder against their oppressors. Instead, he taught the Children of Israel  to BE Children of Israel alayhi salam.

Prophet Musa alayhi salam taught the Children of Israel to stop harming, stop reacting, stop lashing out. Transcendence of one’s reality does not come about through resistance to it, but through connection to something outside of it completely, a rope to pull oneself up by, out of the morass one is in….so that no longer is one being tossed about by the storms that surround one…this transcendence occurs only through connection to the Revelation – which is the Rope of God offered to us by Him.

Instead of dealing with the situation of the Jews on a horizontal plane, Prophet Musa alayhi salam re-established a vertical axis, a completely different pathway upon which to operate, a link that enabled his People to transcend and win the only victory that matters – the eternal victory.

This was while others in the same community, due to functioning solely on the horizontal axis, were in one of two situations: either fighting the situation in a confrontational manner that involved clashes, or assimilating into it and going along with it.

Don't let your struggle become your identity

When Prophet Musa alayhi salam connected along the vertical axis, it gave his people access to higher virtues, higher standards of operating, an entirely new set of means to deal with the circumstances. A view from on high that allowed them so much more vision and perspective. Now they could look upon their oppressors with mercy and even feel sorry for them.

Granted fresh vision and a wider sense of peace, they started to think of how they could help the society, improve it, rather than just take revenge. Prophet Musa alayhi salam modelled this for them, in how he spoke to Pharaoh – with mercy and great politeness, as God commanded him to do.

And so, these Jews went from being seen as part of the problem in Egyptian society, to being part of the solution.

This all came about as a result of transcending and rising ABOVE. God said to Prophet Musa alayhi salam: “fear not, for you are above!”

When you react to oppression, you perpetuate the very game you are critical of, because you accept to play along in a sequence of moves – action and reaction – initiated by those who set up the game in the first place. What is needed is to stop the game. To get up and see that true reality is much larger than this game-board. That the actual “rules” by which we should operate are not those within this game that is not even of our own making. When you do this, when you rise above, you help the others in the game – you help the one who is
oppressing you as well, because you show him there is more to this existence than this zero-sum game. You show him that winning can be for all. And you do this once you know, as you must know, that God is telling you: “fear not, for you are above!”

In the worldly realm, you may be broken and traumatized by the pain of oppression and the very real harm it causes. But the only way to break this situation and defeat it truly is through spiritual liberation, knowing that God is on your side and you are something with Him, and you are seeking Him, not anything else.

The way Quraysh were behaving with Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was their way of limiting him to two options: either he ﷺ should forget about the spreading the Message and accept comfort and wealth, or he ﷺ would have to become a rebel and renegade. This was the limited view of the world they were attempting to impose on him.

What did he ﷺ do? Had his purpose merely revolved around the Quraysh and resisting their evil, he and the 70 strong men with him could have simply cut off the trade routes, thereby destroying the livelihood of the Quraysh and bringing them to their knees. At least one Companion actually suggested doing this. In the political, social and geographical context of that time, this was the most obvious and easy way to bring a halt to the aggression of the Quraysh, had this been the goal of the Messenger ﷺ.

But this was not his ﷺ goal. He did not react to their aggression. He ﷺ transcended that reality completely!

The Prophet ﷺ kept working on the Quraysh and on the Muslims…hoping that the Quraysh would see the fruits of faith and God-consciousness in his followers, and want to be like them…and in the end, they did. The Messenger of God ﷺ insisted at the time of migration (Hijra) that the Muslims return to the Quraysh every single of the items the latter had put in their keeping, including money belonging to Abu Jahl. The Prophet ﷺ could have just kept that money to use for as long as he ﷺ had need of it. But no.

That is just one of the examples of the concern with doing things right, doing things with integrity, even towards those who show us extreme and severe enmity, who persecute us, who murder our kith and kin. This all happened to the early Muslims, at the hands of the Quraysh, but it never stopped the Prophet ﷺ from keeping his eyes on his mission: to bring faith to each and every heart.

We all know this historical reality of how the Prophet ﷺ acted, but we don’t really think about what it means. In our own lives, if someone shows us the slightest disrespect, we forget about any thought of that person’s well-being and any concern about how to behave with them on the highest level of good manners. We don’t care at all about guidance for them. We allow ourselves to sink to the lowest possible levels and we feel this is our right – our right to be outraged, indignant, and angry. So imagine what this meant then – to carefully and honourably return the items belonging to those who were trying to destroy Islam, and who personally tortured, insulted and even tried to murder you and succeeded in murdering your family and companions. The key – the secret of such honourable action – is the orientation: knowing without any doubt that the reality is not out in confrontation with one’s human opponents, but inside: and the best victory is to live up to what God has called us to: the highest level of integrity and magnanimity in all moments, never forgetting that He – The Most High – is watching.

We have to see the migration itself in this light – it was not to get away from the Quraysh and their aggression, but rather to continue working on them – this time through establishing a community that would be a shining expression of what it means to be Muslim. A community whose every action would be an iteration of the Message and an invitation to it. This was the city that would manifest the light of la ilaha il Allah Muhammad Rasul Allah ﷺ, that would pulsate and breathe the Truth in all aspects of its daily existence. Thus the migration was not just a horizontal move, it was a transcendence.

And it succeeded.

The Quraysh continued to come to Madinah and become Muslim because they saw in the example of Madinah everything that was nobler than their own way of life, than their own society, than their own values and beliefs. They saw a hope. They saw salvation from the game of opposites they had been trapped in. They saw the alternative and the way out of the oppression they were locked into by their culture and their society. The oppressor, too, needs this liberation.

We, the Muslims of this age, living here, we look very similar to the Children of Israel in Egypt before the coming of our Master Musa alayhi salam. We have the same choice. Either we play the game and run after a comfortable material life, assimilation, acceptance, big cars and houses, mortgages and bills that take us beyond our means and always beyond our needs; that is, we seek the material good of this world in selfish pursuit of short-lived gratification and never-ending consumerism

OR

We enter into another kind of trap: which is to be in continuous conflict with the circumstances we are in, fighting over scraps of short-lived material victory. Feeling refused and rejected, constantly threatened by our surroundings, perceiving ourselves as under attack, reacting to the slightest matter as a victim, becoming defensive and playing the blame game. Always aware and on the lookout for that which we feel constitutes an insult that we never have time to orient ourselves heavenward.

Especially following recent events, it is easy and maybe legitimate to observe that our faith is being depicted unfairly, that the media is picking on us, conspiring to create a consensus in the minds of our fellow citizens against us, insisting on ignoring our own voices about what our faith is in favour of painting a picture of us that is not us – and using this to pass laws that burden the rest of the population with costs of more security, less privacy, and so on. Is there a concerted effort to malign Muslims and Islam? Is there a deliberate disregard for the correct information? Are there double standards at play? Yes.

But it is our choice to either engage with this situation on the same playing field, or rise above. Malcolm X, when he was with the Nation of Islam, was reacting to the reality of his society. When he became Muslim, he transcended this reality and invited his fellow men to build a true alternative. We’ve got to transcend our situation.

And be true Muslims – by which I mean: connected to the last Revelation.

Be a source of barakah (blessing) in this country –“mubarakaan ayna ma kuntu” (blessed wherever I am!) – be part of the solution.

Who better than us to bring remedies to a society that has reached a point at which cynicism about any possibility of an ideal society has crowded out all hope. A society in which it is so hard to be altruistic, to aspire to values, to carve out a space where it’s admirable to be moral. Who better than a person of God to bring the messages of morality, chastity, the importance of family – not as dogma, not as our culture that we want accommodated, but as meaningful solutions to the ills we are all suffering in this society.

Who better than Muslims to be the champions of the sanctity of human life, of ethics in all domains (science, business, politics, education, and even war). For example, we could have shared with the world our belief that it is not ethical to bomb people under any circumstances (for to do so is to burn people). Instead of being people who brag about the nuclear weapons we have and who has more, we could have been the people who stood up against nuclear armament as a matter of religious ethics!

We could have been a group who advocates against genetic modification, because it is corrupting the creation of God. We could have similarly been the champions of organic food. Of ethically-raised meat.

Islam is the rahmah that can save humans from themselves and transform and heal both oppressor and oppressed – if we can become the Madinah, people will see in us the fruits of this faith and the beauty and light they are missing.

We have the answers to the exact problems that plague humanity today, and yet we are silent and still, wrestling demons without taking sustenance from spiritual teachings. We are not standing up to fight the good fight. We lack any actual moral engagement that needs to be undertaken. We have become a people of words, and no deep soul action.

We could have been telling the oppressors: don’t oppress the weak; and showing the weak the way to liberation and freedom, through transcendence.

Where are we in the call to principles of justice, honour, altruism, which are at the heart of this faith? We only speak up when it is Muslims who we see being harmed. We are limiting ourselves severely in this way. We are showing ourselves to be tribal and selfish – to have the very same double standard we critique in others…if we show that we don’t care what happens to First Nations Peoples in this country, and around the world, or Rwandans recovering from a horrific genocide, or Ebola victims if they are not Muslim, or whoever is suffering in this world, then we have lost our moral leadership in this world.

This religion was meant to be a rahmah for ALL humanity. If humanity just sees us at the mercy of the game, reacting and playing along in one way or another, not offering mercy in the form of a new mode of existence, they cannot respect us. Thus, we are the roots of all these problems. Instead of going to the symptoms and making a fuss, we need to go to the roots. I know that you all know that Islam was meant as a rahmah for all humanity, but does it show in our daily actions? Do we pray daily for humans around the world who are suffering? Do we in any way demonstrate that we are the carriers of blessings to all of humanity, that we feel responsible for the well-being of all – does anyone in our society feel, when they see a Muslim, “oh, thank God, here is a Muslim. I feel safe now” or “you know, I just feel this inner peace when I’m around them” or “they really offer a wonderful alternative to the stressful life I have”?

People are not stupid. They pick up on the slightest deviation from your stated goals. They can tell when you talk a lot about humbleness and spiritual orientation, but you are the community who is known for the high consumption rates of food in Ramadan. When Muslims are the ones with massive homes, while claiming to be a community of moderation. They know of our extravagant weddings. When we claim that our religion is characterized by modesty, but we look like we are just following the rules but not the spirit of modesty. Or when we talk about love and care and we only love and care for ourselves. When we talk about religion but do not really have any joy in what we do for God.

They can detect that there is a disconnect between what we say we are, and how we really live. Anyone knows what a person who is truly detached from worldly concerns looks like, how that person speaks, what matters to that person. We claim to walk a spiritual path, but we are less spiritual than a Buddhist or anyone who practices meditation – because we don’t really practice the spiritual routines of our Prophet ﷺ. People can see through the claims we make: all they have to do is consider how they feel when they are in our presence.

It is time to start to embody Islam in the way that the Companions did in Madinah. This is our migration – from a life that has a label of “Muslim” stuck on it, without any embroidery of dhikr and mindfulness of God running through it, without the necessary integrity to hold it up, to becoming creatures who drink daily of the unconditional love and mercy of God, and pass it out to others who are thirsty for it. Make this your new year’s resolution and ask God to help you.

Shaykh Hamdi Ben Aissa

Shaykh Hamdi Ben Aissa is a full-time teacher and mentor of traditional Islamic spirituality in the Ottawa-Montreal region. He received his training in the sacred Islamic sciences from scholars from Tunisia, Syria, and Dar al-Mustafa University of Tarim, Yemen. He is the founder and director of the Sanad Collective, a charitable and educational initiative with branches in Ottawa and Montreal (www.facebook.com/sanadcollective). Shaykh Hamdi offers community classes at McGill and UQAM in Montreal; in Ottawa, Sanad Collective is honored to have opened an Institute and Masjid (https://www.facebook.com/rhodainstitute/) in December 2015. Shaykh Hamdi currently serves as Imam of the Rhoda Institute and Masjid in Ottawa. He and his wife live in Ottawa.

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