FRIDAY SERMON: God Consciousness and Justice In Islam

Jul 08

Delivered on the occasion of the rare convergence of Ramadan, Friday and July 4th
by Parvez Ahmed

Venue: Islamic Center of Northeast Florida
Date: July 4, 2014
(Note – It is customary to recite verses from the Quran in Arabic. In the interest of space and formatting, this write up omits the Arabic verses and only provides their English translations)

Praise be to Allah (God)!  We praise Him and seek help from Him; we ask forgiveness from Him; we repent to Him ; and we seek refuge in Him from our own evil and from our own bad deeds. Anyone who has been guided by God, he is indeed guided; and anyone who has been misguided will never find a guardian(except God)to guide him. I bear witness that their is no deity except Allah, the Only One without partner.; and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Servant and Messenger. O Allah, let Your Prayers, Your Peace and Your Blessing be upon Your servant and Your messenger Muhammad and upon his family and all his companions.

Faithful believers! Revere Allah with due reverence, and do not die without conscious submission to God.”  (3:102)

O humanity! Be reverent toward your Lord, who created you from one soul and created its mate from it, and from these two disseminated many men and women.  Be reverent toward Allah by whom you ask (your rights) of each other and be reverent toward relationships; for Allah is watching over you.” (4:1)

Faithful believers! Revere Allah and (always) say a word directed to the Right: That He may make your conduct whole and sound and forgive you your sins: he that obeys Allah and His Apostle has already attained the highest Achievement. (33:70-71).

As to what follows – The best of speech is the Book of Allah, The best of guidance is the guidance of Muhammad (SA).

“O my Lord! expand me my breast.  Ease my task for me.And remove the impediment from my speech.  So they may understand what I say.” (20:25-28).

My dear brothers and sisters in Islam, The essence of fasting in Ramadan is to attain taqwa (God-consciousness). “O you who believe! Fasting is prescribed to you as it was prescribed to those before you, that you may attain taqwa.” (Qur’an 2:183)

Taqwa (God-consciousness) is a profound recurring value in the Quran. It is mentioned as a verb 166 times (e.g. tattaqu, ittaqu, etc.). Thus, taqwa is not merely an attitude, it is also a process. As an attitude, it helps us to orient our hearts and minds towards the Divine with love, devotion, and fear.

Our love is to Allah, which is the primary source of goodness and beauty. Our devotion is to Allah’s boundless wisdom and majesty. But even when in a loving and devoted relationship with Allah, we fear that we may fail to truly understand His divine intent and thus fail to have an appropriate relationship with Him.

Simply claiming love and devotion to Allah is not enough. We need to translate those feelings into action. Thus, to what extent we truly understand and internalize taqwa (God-consciousness) will be revealed in our character. Prophet Muhammad (SA) said, “God has sent me to perfect good manners and to do good deeds.”

If done right, taqwa ought to transform our character in a way that reflects the sublime values of the Quran – accountability, justice, kindness, mercy, love, equality, honesty, compassion, and fairness.

If done right, taqwa should prevent us from becoming reductionists i.e. reducing religious piety to a set of rituals or using arbitrary markers such as dress code as litmus tests of righteousness.

Rather we should be mindful that religious rituals, like praying and fasting, ultimately must bring about moral and spiritual upliftment. There are many aspects to moral uprightness. In the interest of time, I will touch upon only one aspect.

In 2009, our President, Barack Obama, delivered a historic speech in Cairo where he said, “America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles of justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Today being besides being Ramadan is also Independence Day, I will devote this khutbah (sermon) to the topic of “Justice in Islam,” because justice is not only a foundational value of Islam it is also the value on which our country was founded 238 years ago today.

In Ayat 135 of Suran Nisa, Allah (SWT) says, “O you who have believe, be persistent in standing firm for justice as witnesses for Allah, even if it be against yourselves or parents and relatives. Whether one is rich or poor, Allah is more worthy of both. So follow not [personal] inclination, lest you not be just. And if you distort [your testimony] or refuse [to give it], then indeed Allah is well, acquainted with whatever you do.

The Quran is emphatic in stating that as believers we have to stand for justice and do so regardless of circumstance. In other words, we cannot cry injustice when we feel offended but stay silent when the rights of others are being violated.

For example, if you knew that the government is preventing Muslim women from wearing the hijab while getting a driver’s license, you will be outraged and perhaps voice your protest. But will you do the same if you learnt that Sikh men were being denied their religious right to wearing the turban? If you feel the same moral outrage for the Muslim sister as you feel for the Sikh man, then you have justice in your heart.

Verse 4:135 also states that we have to testify to the truth even if it is against ourselves or our loved ones. How many amongst us can honestly claim that we are courageous enough to hold our friends and family to the same standards that we use to pass judgment on others?

There are two main words that convey the idea of justice in the Quran – qist and adl.
Qist which is derived from the triliteral root qāf sīn ā occurs 25 times in the Quran. People who practice qist are described in the Quran as beloved of Allah (49:9). So, one of the ways to earn the love of Allah is to be just and fair in all aspects of our lives, whether dealing with friends, family, employees, employers, community members or even our enemies.

The other word for justice – Adl is derived from the triliteral root ʿayn dāl lām and it occurs 28 times in the Quran.

Every Jumuah (Friday), most khateebs will end their khutba by reciting, Ayat 90 from Surah an-Nahl (16), “Allah commands justice and the doing of good.” Thus there is no goodness without justice.

And in Ayat 8 of Surah al-Maidaha, Allah (SWT) says, “O you who have believed, be persistent in standing firm for Allah as witnesses to justice.” Later in the same verse Allah (SWT) commands us, “Be just, it is nearer to be being pious or conscientious of Allah.” Thus there is no taqwa (God-consciousness) without qist (justice).

Why are qist (justice) and taqwa (God-Consciousness) related? Because one of the central purposes of God’s revelation is to establish justice among people.

In Surah 57, Ayat 25 Allah says, “We sent Our Messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book (kitab) and the balance (mizan) in order to establish justice among the people (li-yaquman-nasu bil-qist).” The phrase ‘Our Messengers’ (rusulana) shows that justice is not only the goal of Islam but it is also the central purpose of all revelations and scriptures sent to humanity.

In hadith al-qudsi, the Prophet (SA) said that Allah said, “O My servants, I have forbidden injustice for Myself and forbade it also for you.  So avoid being unjust to one another.” (Saheeh Muslim).

Injustice not only takes us away from taqwa (God-consciousness) , but there is also a worldly price to pay. And the price is not only what our injustices may do to others. Perhaps the greater price for being unjust is that it is the primary cause of our own failures. In Surah Al-Anam Ayat 21 Allah (SWT) says, “Indeed the people who commit injustice are not successful.”

Now let us look at the state of justice across the Muslim world. Endless sectarian conflicts continue to cause the death of hundreds and thousands of innocent people, millions of people have been displaced, women face barriers to empowerment, minority groups are routinely traumatized, corruption is rampant and life in general is difficult. Which among the Quranic values of freedom, accountability, justice, mercy, equality, honesty, fairness etc. do you think is properly reflected in Muslim societies?

Two economists, Mahbub Ul Haq from Pakistan and Amartya Sen from India created a measurement called the Human Development Index, which measures education, health, life expectancy, wealth etc. for countries. The latest results show that not a single Muslim majority nation is in the top 25 in terms of their human development. In contrast, among the bottom 25, the vast majority of the countries are Muslim majority. And yet a state of besiegement in Muslim societies discourages public criticism and as a result we never seem to have constructive conversations about our own internal failures. In fact, those who attempt a critical study often get scorned.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, there is a gulf of separation between what our Holy Scriptures say and what we do. From the injustice of corruption to the injustice of racism and gender discrimination, these challenges are not unique to Muslims. However, the failures of Muslim societies seem particularly glaring for two reasons – First, the numbers are staggeringly bad, no major Muslim country has reached top rankings in any criteria related to human development, not in education, not in science and technology, and not even on public morality, as violence against women seem endemic across many parts of the Muslim world. Second, and more importantly such failures are happening despite the Quran and Sunnah providing us with clear guidelines on how to uphold the enduring and universal moral value of justice.

The practical lesson for us is that if we do not uphold justice, then we too as a community are likely to experience failures. Perhaps no other weakness of the Muslim ummah (community) hurts us as much as our inability to practice justice - qist and adl.

If you travel to the Muslim world, you will generally find masjids full and people fasting during Ramadan. People appear to be following religious rituals, then how is it that those same societies are also among the most corrupt? What good does the Quran do for us if we cannot use its teachings to create a society of orderliness where laws are willingly (not grudgingly) obeyed and if certain laws happen to be unjust then people strive peacefully and with wisdom to change them?

Practicing justice means giving each individual what he or she deserves regardless of whether you agree with them or not, whether they practice your religion or not, whether they speak your language or not, whether they have the same color of the skin with you or not. It is easier to be fair towards your loved ones. Doing so is not justice. It may be love. But justice requires fairness towards all, including those we do not like.

Even when living as a religious minority, it does not absolve us of our most sacred of duties to practice qist and adl. In fact the responsibility to uphold justice is even more important when we are a religious minority because only the example we set by our actions can bear witness to the goodness of Islam. Leading by example should be a constant endeavor, whether we are doing so among ourselves as Muslims or we are doing so when in the company of people of other faiths.

But how do we as small religious minority make a difference? Firstly, by practicing justice in our own internal affairs. We cannot preach that which we do not practice. Secondly, working with others on issues of common concern. In Surah Al-Imran Ayat 64 Allah (SWT) gives us an action plan. 3:64 Say: “O People of the Book! Come to common terms as between us and you.”

In our ritual worship we may not necessarily perceive a lot of common ground. For example, on the outside it appears that people of the Book do not pray, like we pray. Our theologies may also appear to be in conflict. Although People of the Book are monotheists like us, our conception of God is apparently unique. But these differences existed even during the time of the Prophet (SA) and yet Allah commanded us to seek common ground with people of other faiths. So where can we find that common ground? One place is around the idea of justice, qist and adl.

Every religion has the golden rule – do unto others as you would them to do unto you. Thus, we can come to common terms with people of other faiths on the idea of mutuality and justice.

Since 9/11 the American Muslim community has been subject to many challenges. Many of these challenges result from the unjust application of laws or the injustice in some of the laws themselves. American Muslims have spoken out against these practices with varying degrees of success. Sometimes our complaints yielded results and sometimes they did not. Sometimes we were the only ones complaining and sometimes we had others who joined us in our efforts.
The experiences of the past dozen years have been varied for us. Some of us were the direct victims of injustices while others knew friends and families that were the victims of injustices. Some of us sought relief through legal mechanisms while others sought relief using the power of persuasion.

This is the challenge of our time. On one hand we are the victims of many injustices but we are also the recipients of not only many random acts of kindness from our neighbors and co-workers but more importantly as Muslims we claim to be the recipients of God’s final message, which unequivocally calls on believers to advocate not only for their own rights but also those of others. And so my first question of the day for you today is this – How much time and effort have you expended to stand up for justice when the rights of others  are being violated?

Just 2 days ago, we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which is viewed as one of the most impactful laws in the past century. It is safe to say that without that law being passed 50 years ago, you and I would not be sitting here today. Today we are celebrating 4th of July, commonly viewed to be the date when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, 238 years today.

Both the documents, the Civil Rights Act and the Declaration of Independence reflect the values of Shariah insofar that they aspire for adl and qist. The aspirations of these documents are indeed lofty and just. But in practice it took people of conscience and courage to translate those ideals into action. Hundreds and thousands of people, blacks and whites; Muslims and Jews; Protestants and Catholics; atheists and agnostics; all made sacrifices so that today we live in a country that is closer than ever before to its ideals of liberty and justice.

America’s imperfect present is a long way from its shameful past when slavery was legal and segregation was normal. But this did not happen without great struggle. From the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, so many sacrificed so much so that we can live with dignity. How can we express our gratitude to them? After all gratitude is also an important Islamic value. In my view, by forging a fellowship of humanity centered on the universal principles of justice - adl and qist. 

There is nothing in Islam that says one cannot be a good Muslim, if he or she is also a good American. And nothing about American values says that one cannot be a good American by being a good Muslim.

So in my conclusion, I will lay out 5-core principles of Islam, which will illustrate the common ground between the values of Islam and the best aspirations of America. Such an understanding is important so that we are to be inspired by our faith to pursue justice for all in America.

  1. Faith in the One Universal God: Islam is founded on the belief that there is only one God. The Declaration of Independence, not only acknowledges the existence of our Creator but goes on to state that our fundamental rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are unalienable (meaning cannot be dismissed by any human authority) because they come to us from our Creator.
  2. Universality of all Faiths: Addressing the entire human race, the Qur’an states: “O humankind! We [God] have created you from a single [pair] of a male and a female and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another (not despise each other).” 49:13. Our first President, George Washington in a famous letter written in 1790 said, “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Religious pluralism and universality of all faiths has been part of the fabric of America. Occasionally the politics of the moment may make it difficult to see this value reflected in society. Our job is to practice this value of pluralism because our faith demands so and our country expects so.
  3. Universal Human dignity: In today’s geo-political context of seemingly endless conflicts it may be hard to believe that Muslims are commanded to respect the sanctity of life and uphold due process.  “…if anyone slays a human being, unless it be [punishment] for murder, or for spreading mischief on earth, it shall be as though he had slain all humankind; whereas, if anyone saves a life, it shall be as though he had saved the lives of all humankind” 5:32.  The Quranic aspiration of due process finds home in the U.S. Constitution, for example, through the 5th and 14th Amendments. Due process is justice because due process safeguards all from arbitrary denial of life, liberty, or property.
  4. Universal justice: Islam’s goal is voluntary submission to the will of God and the path to this submission is rooted in the pursuit of social, economic and political justice. “O you who believe! Stand out for justice, as witnesses to God,.. ”  4:134. The American ideals of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness did not prevent slavery or segregation or gender discrimination. It took a Civil War and cascades of social movements to set America free from its unjust practices. Martin Luther King, Jr. aptly noted, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” My second question of the day to you is – Are we going to be players or spectators in the continued evolution of America towards a more perfect union?
  5. Acceptance of plurality in human societies: The Qur’an is quite explicit in reminding that if God willed, He would have made all mankind into one nation [11:118]. Likewise, the Qur’an states that had it been God’s will, He would have made all people believers, [10:99]. Forcing people to believe runs against God’s decree of free will. America too is founded on the principle of religious liberty. Not only religious liberty is guaranteed in U.S. Constitution, it is part of the founding history of America. Ben Franklin, one of the founding fathers of America wrote, “so that even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” Religious consciousness is not possible without a commitment to be involved in the upliftment of the society where we live.

The Prophet’s mission was not to just teach us religious rituals but also to strive for the freedom and dignity of all people, not just Muslims, not just people of his own tribe, not just for rich and powerful but for all people. The Prophet (SA) beautifully and succinctly surmised, “The best among you is the best toward people, all people.”

The Prophet (SA) did not just preach, he led by example. He asked a black freed slave to call the believers to prayer and a slave’s son to command an army. He (SA) gave voice to the rights of underprivileged in society such as orphans and women so that they can gain public space in social, political, economic and even military affairs.

In this Ramadan, as we rightfully focus on our fasting and prayer, let us also reflect on how to use these rituals as springboards to enhance our commitment to justice. Doing so will help us attain taqwa (God-consciousness), which is the central purpose of Ramadan, and this will in turn help us ultimately gain the love Allah (SWT).

Our Lord, let not our hearts deviate after You have guided us and grant us from Yourself mercy. Indeed, You are the Bestower. (3:8)

Our Lord, indeed we have believed, so forgive us our sins and protect us from the punishment of the Fire (3:16)

Our Lord, grant us from Yourself mercy and prepare for us from our affair right guidance (18:10)

Exalted is your Lord, the Lord of might, above what they describe. And peace upon the messengers. And praise to Allah , Lord of the worlds. (37:180-182)

Indeed, Allah orders justice and good conduct and giving to relatives and forbids immorality and bad conduct and oppression. He admonishes you that perhaps you will be reminded. (16:90)