The holy month of Ramadan is a time of deep reflection for Muslims worldwide. Over the 30 days of Ramadan, Imam Sohaib Sultan of Princeton University will offer contemplative pieces on contemporary issues drawing from the wisdoms of the Qur’an – the sacred scripture that Muslims revere as the words of God and God’s final revelation to humanity. The Qur’an is at the heart of Muslim faith, ethics, and civilization. These short pieces are meant to inspire thought and conversation.
One day, while sitting with his companions, the Prophet Muhammad surprised his community by preaching, “Help your brother, whether he is oppressed or the oppressor.” A silent confusion overtook the community as people pondered the Prophet’s words. Then, a man asked what was on everyone’s mind: “O Prophet, we know how to help the oppressed, but how should we help the oppressor?” The Prophet smiled, anticipating the question, and replied, “By stopping the oppressor from oppressing.”
The Qur’an often describes sins and wrongdoings as “oppressing one’s own soul” (7:23). It begs the question, therefore, what the difference is between the oppressor who commits wrongdoing and the oppressed that is wronged if both are, ultimately, being oppressed. I think, the answer may lie in that oppression attempts to strip the oppressed of their rights and dignity; whereas oppressing strips the oppressor of their very own humanity.
Perhaps, if this is true, then the secret to stopping the oppressor from oppressing is to remind them of their true humanity – a humanity that is often veiled through the thick veils of anger, fear, hatred and jealousy. The Qur’an speaks of the natural disposition God instilled in humanity (fitrah) as being good and upright (30:30). But this natural disposition can become easily clouded when it is willfully ignored. Someone needs to tell the oppressor the truth so that it may return an oppressor to his or her natural disposition.
The Prophet Muhammad said, “the greatest sacred struggle (jihad) is to speak the truth in front of a tyrannical ruler.” And when Moses and Aaron are instructed to go challenge Pharaoh’s oppression, God says to them, “Speak to him gently so that he may take heed, or show respect” (Qur’an 20:44).
Oppression comes in many forms. There is obviously the oppression of the tyrant over a people. But, tyrants also exist in homes, school grounds, workplaces and so on. The oppressor, feeling a loss of his or her humanity, is never happy and is, to the contrary, quite miserable despite outward displays. The oppressor is also always living in fear – fear of losing a grip on his or her real and imagined power or a fear that the oppression will come back to bite them. The state of the oppressor is truly worth pitying.
It is worth noting that the Prophet referred even to the oppressor as “your brother.” When we encounter the tyrant, our first instinct is to wash our hands of him or her and to deny that we have anything to do with them. While this instinct is understandable, the reality is that even the worst of human beings are related to us in humanity, if not faith. And, therefore, opposing the tyrant is an act of sincere love, the same sincerity that one would naturally show to their brother. Opposing oppression must never be rooted in hatred, for that would, inevitably, cause the cycles of oppression to continue.
With all the oppression in the world today, it can be hard to figure out where to begin. Perhaps, the answer is to begin with that which we have the most influence over and which ignites a particular spark within us. The Prophet said that when we see wrong happening, we should oppose it with our hands; and, if we are unable, then with our tongues; and, if we are unable, then at least with our hearts.
My heart bleeds right now for what is happening in Palestine, Syria, Burma, Central Africa and so many other places in the world – just as it bleeds for those who are unjustly stuck in the prison industrial complex and gang violence everyday here in America. So I pray, “O, God, give relief to those who are burdened, and grant us the courage to oppose the oppressors and their oppression with love.” Amen.