TIME Religion

ISIS Is Ignoring Islam’s Teachings on Yazidis and Christians

Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province
Displaced families from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, west of Mosul, arrive at Dohuk province, Aug. 4, 2014 Ari Jalal—Reuters

Here's what the Prophet and the Quran really say about how to treat the two faith groups

The news coming out of Iraq is really devastating. The violent extremist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) continues to take over major parts of Iraq, brutally killing and oppressing any and all who come in their way. The worst of ISIS has been unleashed on Shi‘ite Muslims, Christians and the Yazidis with hundreds of thousands killed and forced to flee.

The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is as dangerous as he is delusional. In a sermon that he gave several weeks ago, the ISIS leader declared himself as the new “Caliph” of Muslims worldwide. In the sermon he attempted to reflect the personality of Islam’s first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Sadiq, in asking those gathered to help him when he is right and correct him when he is wrong and to only obey him so long as he obeys God and the Messenger. But, the Quran warns its readers to not be swayed by charismatic figures who, in reality, only spread evil in the world:

“Now, there is a kind of man whose views on the life of this world may please thee greatly, and [the more so as] he cites God as witness to what is in his heart and is, moreover, exceedingly skillful in argument. But whenever he prevails, he goes about the earth spreading corruption and destroying property and progeny [even though] God does not like corruption. And whenever he is told, ‘Be conscious of God,’ his false pride drives him into [even greater] sin …” (2:204–2:206).

So, I join the chorus of Muslims worldwide, Sunnis and Shi‘ites, who oppose al-Baghdadi and ISIS as a whole. The killing and oppression of innocent people and the destruction of land and property is completely antithetical to Islam’s normative teachings. It’s as pure and as simple as that.

Ironically, when the Quran allows (and, sometimes, even encourages) Muslims to engage in just fighting and resistance, it is in order to deter those who wage wars without just cause and those who engage in religious persecution — exact crimes that the ISIS is engaging in Iraq today:

“Permission [to fight] is given to those against whom war is being wrongfully waged … those who have been driven from their homelands against all right for no other reason than their saying, ‘Our Sustainer is God!’ For, if God had not enabled people to defend themselves against one another, monasteries and churches and synagogues and mosques — in which God’s name is abundantly extolled would surely have been destroyed …” (22:39–22:40)

The Yazidis are an ancient community that have been in Iraq for centuries. Historically the Yazidis follow Zoroastrianism and other ancient Mesopotamian religions. Throughout recent history the Yazidis have been oppressed and their religion largely misunderstood as Satan worship (which it is not). The violence and suffering that ISIS has inflicted upon the Yazidis is heart wrenching. There is, arguably, one reference to the ancient religion of the Yazidis (referred to as Magians) in the Quran in which it simply says, “Verily, as for those who have attained to faith [in this divine writ], and those who follow the Jewish faith, and the Sabians, and the Christians, and the Magians [on the one hand,] and those who are bent on ascribing divinity to aught but God, [on the other,] verily, God will decide between them on Resurrection Day: for, behold, God is witness unto everything” (22:17). ISIS would do well to, truly, let God decide rather than act as tyrannical judges and lords over the Yazidis and others.

ISIS is also reportedly seeking to expel Christians from their homeland of Iraq where Christians have lived since almost the beginning of their history. Christians in Iraq are considered to be one of the oldest continuous surviving Christian communities in the world. Christians in Iraq have survived, and at times even thrived, alongside Muslims over the past 1,400 years. ISIS insistence that Christians either “convert, leave or die” defies the Quranic command: “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:256).

ISIS has also given Christians another option if they want to remain in Iraq: to pay jizya. Jizya is a tax that Muslim empires imposed upon non-Muslim constituents in return for military exemption, protection against persecution and considerable religious freedoms. Most Muslim countries today no longer impose jizya on non-Muslims. The change in political order, rise of nation states and assumptions of citizenship today render certain medieval systems incongruent with modern realities and sensibilities. The Quran makes a reference to the jizya system (9:29), but its application is vague and it can very well be argued that such an imposition was only intended to manage troublesome and treacherous religious minorities. This is all to say that ISIS has no basis whatsoever to force Christians in Iraq to pay the jizya let alone the fact that they cannot even be considered a legitimate government by any stretch of the imagination and, therefore, cannot rightfully impose any taxes on anyone.

The strongest argument against ISIS persecution of Christians is the fact that such actions are in direct violation of the Prophet Muhammad’s own treaties with Christians in which he guarantees the protection of religious freedom and other rights:

“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.

No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries.

No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.

No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for them. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.

Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

(The original letter is now in the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul.)

This and many similar covenants between the Prophet Muhammad and Christian communities are well documented and translated by John Andrew Morrow in his book, The Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad With the Christians of the World. These covenants are a determining proof, among other proofs, that what ISIS is engaged in right now in Iraq is completely unlawful (haram) and violates Islamic teachings in every way.

To ISIS or anyone who sympathizes with them, know that Islam believes in a God of mercy, a scripture of mercy and a Prophet sent as a mercy to all the worlds. It is time to abandon persecution and violence, murder and mayhem. The enemy you seek to fight is within you. The pursuit of power is the problem. The pursuit of peace and social justice is what God really calls us to. Put down your arms. And raise your hands to the sky seeking God’s forgiveness for unconscionable sins.

Sultan is the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University and directs the university’s Muslim Life Program in the Office of Religious Life. He is the author of The Koran for Dummies and The Qur’an and Sayings of the Prophet Muhammad: Selections Annotated and Explained.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 30: The Opening

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.

The most often-recited chapter of the Qur’an by the Muslim faithful is first chapter appropriately named “The Opening” (Al-Fatihah in Arabic). It is recited at least 17 times a day just through the five daily ritual prayers. And, The Opening is recited often at the beginning and end of religious gatherings, weddings, funerals, and other important life events. The chapter consists of 7 lines that offer the pre-text to the rest of the Qur’an. Commentators have pointed to The Opening as a summary of the entire Qur’an. In the Islamic tradition this chapter is known as “Mother of the Book” (Umm ul-Kitab) because of its stature in the Qur’an and in the life of devout Muslims.

Since this is my last post for the 30 days, 30 reflections of Ramadan series, I thought it appropriate to offer some insight into this commemorative chapter of the Qur’an — hoping that the end is just the beginning of many conversations and openings. These insights are just a glimpse into the extraordinary commentary that exists in the Islamic tradition on The Opening.

The Opening begins with what becomes the opening phrase of all of the 114 chapters of the Qur’an [except chapter 9 since it is a continuation of chapter 8]: “In the name of Allah, The most gracious, The dispenser of grace” (1:1). Alternatively, you will often find this phrase being translated simply as “…The most merciful, The most compassionate.”

The Opening begins by introducing the author. God is introduced as Allah, which is the Arabic word for God. Allah is a unique name that by its linguistic nature cannot be gendered (unlike goddess) and cannot be pluralized (unlike gods). Allah is the name for God that unites all divine names and attributes into One unlike other names and attributes that point to an aspect of God. To clarify, Allah is not “the Muslim God.” Allah is described in the Qur’an as the creator and sustainer of the heavens and the earth and everything that exists in between — the God of every living reality. As such, when the Torah or Gospel is translated into Arabic, God or its equivalent from another language is translated as “Allah.”

Then, God’s chief attributes are introduced — The most gracious, The dispenser of grace. Both attributes (Al-Rahman and Al-Raheem) share the same linguistic root — R-H-M. The root word in Arabic means “womb.” So, the attributes are really expressing the mother-like mercy and compassion that God has for the creation. Interestingly, the Prophet Muhammad would often teach people about God using mother-like metaphors. Once the Prophet saw a woman endearingly holding her child and told his companions that God is more merciful to the creation than this woman is toward her child. Mercy or Grace is really seen, in Islamic theology, as the basis for all of God’s work in the universe. And, the devotees of God are those who adorn themselves with this characteristic such that they should strive to become “Servants of The most merciful” (Qur’an 25:63 — 76).

The next line reads, “All praise is due to God alone, the Sustainer of all the worlds” (1:2). Here the creations relationship to God is introduced and another essential attribute of the divine is revealed. The Qur’anic logic is based on the premise that if God is One, The merciful, The compassionate — then all praise or thanks that comes from the creation should properly be directed toward God. The second part — “the Sustainer of the worlds” — reveals this understanding of God as being the originator and nurturer of everything living thing that exists, the One who takes every living being from its immature and weakest form to its mature and strongest form.

The chief attributes of The most gracious, The dispenser of grace are reaffirmed in the third line of The Opening (1:3).

Then, in the fourth line, another of God’s attributes is revealed and an important theme of the Qur’an is mentioned for the first time: “Master [or Owner] of the Day of Judgement” (1:4). The idea of human accountability of the beliefs held and of the lives lived by human beings is one of the most central teachings of the Qur’an. It assumes a life of the soul that continues well after death. Death is not the end of the soul’s journey; death is what marks the next phase of the soul’s journey — just as when the baby is expelled from his or her mother’s womb to come into the life of this world, death expels the soul from the womb of this world into the next. And, ultimately, every human soul will be asked about how they used the gift of free will in this world. And, God is the Master or Owner of that Day [which really means period of time] in which souls will either be forgiven or taken to task. Interestingly, the word for judgement is related to the word for debt in Arabic. As such, some of the commentators say that this is the “Day in which debts are due” — meaning the debt of life and its blessings. And, since God is the Master or Owner of these debts, God can just as easily and justifiably forgive as God can take to task.

The relationship between the human being and God is really crystallized in the next line: “You alone do we serve, and You alone do we turn to for help” (1:5). Having established our complete dependency, in reality, on God in the previous lines — the central Qur’anic theme of servanthood to and trust in God is introduced. Servanthood does not simply require the life of prayer and ritual devotion — though important. Rather, serving God is about living life in the most beautiful and ethical way in accordance with the teachings of God and in accordance with the divine attributes that the servant seeks to acquire as part of his or her own character. Relying on the help and assistance of God is a natural state of servanthood and it is a profound affirmation of God’s power and majesty.

In the next line, The Opening turns into a prayer and the recitation reaches its climax: “Guide us the straight path” (1:6). This asking of God to be guided is an acknowledgement that God plays an active role in the seeker and servant’s life. God is not aloof nor has God abandoned creation after creating it. Rather, God guides through scripture and prophets and sages. And, God guides every heart that is humble enough to ask for guidance. Interestingly, the next chapter of the Qur’an begins, “This is the Book wherein there is no doubt, a guide for those who are mindful of God” (2:2). In essence, indicating that the rest of the Qur’an is an answer to the devotee’s asking God for guidance.

Finally, the very last line offers a peek into what this guidance is: “The path of those upon whom You have bestowed Your blessings, not of those who have been condemned nor of those who go astray” (7:7). Much of the Qur’an is recounting of stories of people and communities from the past who received God’s good graces. The Qur’an also offers prescriptions and proscriptions to achieve spiritual and ethical success. And, much of the Qur’an is also a relaying of past peoples who transgressed the boundaries set by God and who worshipped other than God — all as a way of warning and redirecting readers and believers to a life of devotion to what is good and right and to an absolute and pure monotheism in which nothing and no one is taken as a god besides God.

This is a brief insight into The Opening and into the major themes of the Qur’an. Ramadan, which will end on Sunday at Sunset, comes every year to remind Muslims of the gift and responsibility of the Qur’an. It is my deepest prayer that more contemplation of the Qur’an will lead to greater openings in the mind and heart that manifest in the world as new rays of light in the midst of darkness.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 29: Death and Dying

Muslims offer Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad
Muslims offer Friday prayers during the holy fasting month of Ramadan at a mosque in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on July 25, 2014. Amit Dave—Reuters

Many precious souls are leaving the world through violence and war. We feel the skies crying and the earth shaking at their loss.

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 of the most difficult experiences that we as human beings experience in our lives is the pain of losing someone near and dear to us. This separation, either through our own departing or the departing of our loved ones, is as inevitable as it is saddening. The Qur’an states in no unclear terms, “Every soul tastes death” and “We shall try you with something of…loss” (3:185 and 2:155).

The separation that death causes, no matter how we look at it, brings great grief to the heart. The Prophet Muhammad would often console people when they experienced loss and would encourage them to bear patiently and would give them glad tidings of the hereafter. The Prophet himself experienced a lot of loss of loved ones in his own lifetime. He was orphaned at a young age. His greatest supporters in his uncle and his first wife passed away in the same year. He lost many companions in battles and war. And, the Prophet buried five of his six children with his own hands — only one of his daughters, Lady Fatima, living longer than he by six months. When one of the Prophet’s two sons passed away in his own arms as a child, the Prophet was inconsolable as tears rolled down from his eyes. Some of the companions with him were taken aback, thinking that crying was not consistent with bearing loss patiently. But, the Prophet reminded them that these were “tears of compassion” and that God has compassion for those who have compassion.

To have patience in times of loss does not mean that we do not grieve; it means, that we do not lose faith in God and in our own capacity to endure. Patience means that we understand all blessings are a gift from God and must, eventually, return to God — just as we too, one day, must return to the Source of Life. The Qur’an says that those who are patient say upon experiencing loss, “Truly, from God we come and, truly, to God is our return” (2:156).

From the perspective of a believer, the painful separation from our loved ones, is ultimately a temporary separation. The Prophet would visit the graveyard often and would say aloud, “Peace be upon you, O inhabitants of the graves, believers and Muslims. Verily we will, God-willing, join you [in the near future]. I ask God for well-being for us and for you.” The Prophet assured his companions about the hereafter saying, “You will be with those whom you love.”

No matter how long we live or experience life with our loved ones, it can feel so short. The memories of a lifetime can feel like just a few fleeting moments. The Islamic tradition says that when the Angel of Death comes to take the human soul and asks, “How long were you on earth,” the soul replies, “A day or two.” In the Islamic ritual tradition, when a child is born the Call to Prayer (known as the adhan in Arabic) is gently chanted in his or her right ear, but this adhan is not followed by prayer. When a person dies, there is a funeral prayer but no adhan. Muslim sages point out that, in reality, the adhan at birth suffices for the funeral prayer at death — for that is how short life truly is.

In the Islamic spiritual and ethical tradition, there is great virtue attached to visiting those who are dying. It is said that the Angels of Mercy surround a person from the time that they set foot on their journey to visit the dying till the time they leave after visiting. To be there as a source of comfort and compassion to the dying and their family is in and of itself a blessed deed. As a chaplain, I have been called at times to be with the dying. It is one of the deepest, most profound human experiences to see the breath of life slowly journeying out of the human body into another realm.

These moments cause deep reflection on the life that is lived and how to make it all meaningful. The Prophet Muhammad taught that when we go into the grave, everything we worked so hard for — wealth, children, and so on — leave us behind. But, there are three things that accompany us into the grave and continue to bless the soul: beneficial knowledge that we leave behind for others to benefit from after we leave this world; sustainable charity that continues to help people well after our lifetime; and, children — whether our own or others — who pray for us after death. These are some valuable prescriptions for living a meaningful life.

In an often-cited line of poetry, Mawlana Rumi — the 13th century poet and philosopher — says that the lives of the righteous can be summarized as such: When they are born, they come out of their mother’s wombs crying while everyone around them is happy. When they die, they go into their graves happy while everyone around them is crying. When the Prophet’s great companion and scholar, Salman al-Farsi, passed away people said they felt the heavens and earth weep for his loss.

Today, many precious souls are leaving the world through violence and war. We feel the skies crying and the earth shaking at their loss.

In these final nights of Ramadan it is especially appropriate to pray for those who have passed away — those we know and those whom we do not know. And, it is a blessed time to honor their memory by committing to an act of charity in their names. May all who have passed away in the years past find rejoice in their returning to God, and may all who are experiencing the painful loss of a loved one find strength and patience through prayer, Amen.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 28: A Spiritual Retreat

Turkish faithful pray in Ottoman-era Sultanahmet mosque, known as Blue mosque, on "Laylat Al Qadr" during the holy month of Ramadan, in Istanbul late July 23, 2014.
Turkish faithful pray in Ottoman-era Sultanahmet mosque, known as Blue mosque, on "Laylat Al Qadr" during the holy month of Ramadan, in Istanbul late July 23, 2014. Yagiz Karahan—Reuters

Without silence, we cannot hear the voice of our deepest inner soul or of our well reasoned minds.

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.

I’m writing this piece at 5am after spending the whole night in what can be called a spiritual retreat (itikaf in Arabic). Thousands of millions of Muslims worldwide spend a day or a few days in the last ten nights of Ramadan secluded away from worldliness to focus solely on their relationship with God.

Every year, I look forward to this spiritual retreat, no matter how short, because it offers an opportunity to just hit the pause button on the hectic life that I, like so many others, live. The retreat is made up of long and thoughtful prayer, chanting of God’s names and praises, recitation of the Qur’an, contemplation of prophetic sayings and biographies, and so on. It is an experience in spiritual immersion where the minutes and hours seem to matter very little other than to organize one’s devotions.

The benefit to this retreat is that it truly brings comfort to the soul. As the Qur’an says, “Surely, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility” (13:28). The Qur’an recited is so soothing for the soul. God’s names chanted in rhythmic tone with people you come to love is an awesome feeling. But, it’s also something more than that — it’s a supernatural presence that you begin to warm up to over the course of the retreat. It’s a presence that seems to be there all along, but really comes alive, or we become alive to it, when there is complete focus and attention on the spiritual. “God is with you wheresoever you may be” and “We [meaning the majestic ‘We’] are closer to you than your jugular vein,” says God in the Qur’an (57:4 and 50:16).

In this way, the mind and soul receive new openings whereby realities begin to become clearer. It is no coincidence that the Prophet Muhammad first received revelation when he was in deep, deep contemplation and after many years of regularly engaging in a spiritual retreat off in the mountains.

Beyond, the experience, engaging in a spiritual retreat also forces one to live an examined life — to truly reflect on the life lived and the life that is yet to be lived. Being away from the world and focused on matters of the soul makes you take a long hard look in the spiritual mirror. The character and habits you have acquired, the addictions and preoccupations you have developed, and so on come into full focus. The early Muslim sage and second caliph of Islam, Umar ibn al-Khattab (d.644), used to say: “Take yourself to account before you are taken to account.” Meaning, from a believer’s perspective, before that inevitable day of standing before God arrives after death, the believer should examine the state of their faith and the book of their deeds. Where goodness is found, steadfastness is prescribed; where shortcomings are found, reform is needed before it’s too late.

In these times that we live in, there seems to be a social need if not obligation to spend sometime in retreat as individuals and as communities. The world in an age of technology can be so overwhelmingly consuming that sometimes it’s hard to find even a minute to think and reflect. We’re used to so much stimulation that quietude almost feels unnerving. But, without silence we cannot hear the voice of our deepest inner soul or of our well reasoned minds. We simply need to disconnect in order to reconnect.

And, as a community, retreats might help us elevate ourselves to a collectively higher spiritual and ethical plane. Too often we get stuck accepting the norm or simply defending ourselves from the “outside” world. Sometimes, and increasingly so, we need to be honest and self-critical of where we are and where we should be as a religious community.

If the 1.6 billion Muslims went on a spiritual retreat together, I think we’d discover that there are many reforms we need to undertake and that our problems are not just some Western conspiracy theory. There is too much bloodshed, too much unhealthy patriarchy, and too little prioritizing of social justice in our community today. Small and silly issues are debated many times over while big and much more serious issues — by any measure including what the Qur’an prioritizes as issues of concern for believers — are woefully neglected.

I pray and hope, against all hope, that the collective experience of a spiritual retreat this Ramadan will move us toward greater introspection and better days ahead. But, for any sort of social reform to happen, it will require a few good women and men to take the serious issues more seriously and to leave off childish games of deflection and blame.

“Let there arise out of you a group of people who invite to all that is good, enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong,” commands the Qur’an (3:104). It is high time we, as Muslims, heed this command by supporting good wherever it is happening and by initiating the good wherever we find it to be lacking. It takes courage, wisdom, and much more. But, it all begins with introspection that comes out of a much needed spiritual retreat.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 27: Gratitude

Egyptian children have fun inside a mosque during their fasting hours in a Ramadan afternoon in Cairo June 23, 2014.
Egyptian children have fun inside a mosque during their fasting hours in a Ramadan afternoon in Cairo June 23, 2014. Cui Xinyu—Xinhua Press/Corbis

With even the smallest blessings there come moral responsibilities to use the blessing as it was intended to be used by the Giver.

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 of the descriptions of the Prophet Muhammad that appears often in lines of praise poetry is that “he prayed while others slept.” Indeed, it was a regular practice of the Prophet to pray well into the night during its quietest hours. Upon one such occasion, the Prophet’s beloved wife, Lady Ayesha, awoke to find that the Prophet was praying with such intensity that his feet had become swollen from standing long hours and his beard was wet with tears. Lady Ayesha turned to the Prophet and asked why he prayed with such devotion when he was already so beloved to God. The Prophet paused and then replied, “Shall I not, then, be a grateful servant?”

Gratitude appears often as a theme in the Qur’an and as a description of those who truly believe in God. “Remember Me and I shall remember you; be grateful to Me and never ungrateful,” says God in the Qur’an (2:152). Interestingly, the word for ingratitude in this passage and other similar ones is takfarun — which literally means rejection or hiding or covering. Ingratitude, then, is to reject or hide or cover the blessings of God from one’s own soul and consciousness. It is the same word that is used for rejecting or disbelieving in faith altogether — the understanding being that a denial of God is a denial of the source of all blessings. Gratitude is, therefore, seen as an essential quality in the heart and consciousness of a believer.

The Qur’an says, “If you were to attempt to enumerate the blessings of God, you would never be able to do so” (16:18). Blessings that should garner the most gratitude are often the ones most taken for granted. For example, on average we breathe 12 breaths per minute that amounts to 17,280 breaths a day. If we are prevented from breathing for even a short while the results can be catastrophic — from permanent brain injury to even death. Yet, when was the last time we thanked God or expressed gratitude for the great gift of breathing? The scholar and sage, Imam al-Ghazali (d.1111), put it beautifully when he said, “Every breath is like a priceless jewel, once gone can never be retrieved.”

During this month of Ramadan, blessings are experienced through deprivation for there is nothing that reminds us of how blessed we are until we experience loss. There is nothing that tastes sweeter and more satisfying than a glass of cold water after fasting for 16 hours during these hot summer days. But, it must also be a reminder that this blessing cannot be taken for granted outside of fasting hours for there are too many people in the world who do not have access to clean running water that is safe and refreshing to drink. According to the non-profit organization, Water.org, 780 million people lack access to clean water worldwide and 3.4 million people die each year from water related diseases.

With even the smallest blessings there come moral responsibilities to use the blessing as it was intended to be used by the Giver. In the Islamic spiritual and ethical tradition, there are two aspects of taking account of blessings: The first is to recognize blessings in one’s heart and on one’s tongue and to offer thanks to God for it; the second is to ask ourselves whether or not we are using the blessings of God in the best and most beautiful way possible, as God would want us to. This introspection begins with considering how we use our eyes, ears, tongue, hands, and feet. And, then how we use our time, wealth, and energy. And, so on. In the chapter of the Qur’an named “The Merciful,” the reader is asked over and over again, “Then which of your Lord’s blessings will you deny?” (Chapter 55).

The Prophet Muhammad advised, “Take advantage of five before five: Your youth before old age; your health before sickness; your wealth before poverty; your free time before preoccupation; and your life before death.” The key motivating factor that allow us to take advantage of these blessings is gratitude.

It is, indeed, easy to fall prey to ingratitude. Sometimes life just sucks. But, when you experience difficulties and hardships, don’t forget that there are still blessings to be grateful for. Focus on those blessings. And, remember that no matter your situation, things could always be worse, so have a positive attitude and let that carry you through life’s peaks and valleys. As God says in the Qur’an, “If you are grateful, surely I will give you increase” (14:7). This increase is not always through an increase in the blessing itself, but rather an increase in the contentment that God puts in the hearts of men and women.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 26: The Simple Lifestyle

Internal happiness cannot be bought--it must be sought.

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 of the spiritual and ethical challenges of living in the age of capitalism is avoiding a lifestyle of complete consumerism and materialism. We’re constantly stimulated and tempted with advertising that tells us we have to buy the next big thing if we want to be cool and relevant. Every new product is made to seem like it will change our lives forever and that we’ll simply be better off if we buy it.

If everyone were able to afford the latest and biggest product on the market that would be one thing, but on average U.S. households go into major credit card debt trying to keep up with the whole consumerist culture. The American economy is largely driven by our willingness to buy what we cannot afford by accruing loans.

Interestingly, some of America’s founding fathers and the Prophet Muhammad seemed to be on the same page in their strong warnings against taking on unnecessary debt. For example, Benjamin Franklin famously said, “The second vice is lying, the first is running in debt.” Similarly, the Prophet warned, “When a man gets into debt, he speaks and tells lies, and he makes a promise and breaks it.” In one of the famous prayers of the Prophet he would ask God for protection against debt and against facing the tyranny of other men in the same breath. Along the same concern, Andrew Jackson warned, “When you get in debt you become a slave.” The Qur’an too cautions against taking on usurious loans, in particular, with the longest passage in the scripture dedicated to its prohibition (2:282).

Making decisions on what to buy and how much to buy is not an easy. The key, as with many things, is moderation. The Qur’an describes the righteous servants of God as “those who are neither wasteful nor miserly when they spend, but keep to a just balance” (25:67). The Qur’an condemns those who over indulge in worldliness and, yet, says that monasticism is not something God prescribes (57:27). The problem, though, is that too often the “balance” tilts more toward materialism than simplicity. And, therefore, one of the spiritual and ethical responsibilities of our time is to rediscover an appreciation for living the simple life.

One of the uniting characteristics of spiritual teachers across faith traditions has been their adherence to and preaching of the simple lifestyle. It is no coincidence. To live a simple life is to live a free life. And, to live a free life is to live a life that is more concerned about the spiritual than the material. As the Qur’an puts it, “Wealth and children are the attractions of this worldly life, but lasting good works have a better reward with your Lord and give better grounds for hope” (18:46).

In the Islamic spiritual tradition, the sages teach that what breaks our addiction to materialism is a healthy dose of remembering death. This is not meant to be a morbid contemplation, but more so a reality check on how short the life of this world is and how it pales in comparison to the everlasting life that the soul journeys on after death. Therefore, working day and night to accumulate all these goods only to enjoy just for a little while if at all makes little sense. Joy and satisfaction, instead, come from an internal happiness that no amount of materialism can satisfy. And, this internal happiness cannot be bought, it must be sought.

All of Islam’s five pillars of practice direct believers toward considering a simple life. The testimony of faith that there is no god but God is a denial of the world as a god. The five daily prayers are meant to take a time out from worldliness. Almsgiving is a practice in freely giving from your possessions and in learning the art of non-attachment. Fasting is all about self-discipline and freedom from the material. And, pilgrimage is an act of, literally, stripping oneself of worldliness and embracing the life of simplicity.

In these last remaining days of Ramadan, let us reconsider how we earn and spend our wealth and how much we invest in the material as opposed to the spiritual. The key is, indeed and truly, finding the right balance.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 25: Restraining the Tongue

Speech is powerful--here are five ways to be disciplined about what you say.

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.

A wise Arab proverb says, “Every war begins with words.”

This proverb holds true not just between nations, but even between family members and friends. How many a war have we engaged in which the tongue was our sharpest and most brutal weapon?

In the teachings of Islamic spirituality there is much that is written about the importance of restraining the tongue. The tongue is called “the mirror of the heart.” In other words, what appears on our tongue is a chief indicator of what is in our hearts. And, this becomes even truer in those unguarded moments when anger, frustration, or stress gets the best of us and our tongues lose any sense of discipline.

This is, perhaps, why the Prophet Muhammad said that one of the ways of knowing if there is hypocrisy in our hearts is to examine what we say with our tongues when we become angry. If it is foul and vile words, then that is a measure of how much purification of the heart remains.

The masters of Islamic spirituality teach that the heart and the tongue have a two-way relationship. Even though the tongue is the mirror whereas the heart is the reality, if we work on polishing the mirror the reality also becomes polished with time and effort.

So, what does it mean to work on the tongue? It means struggling within ourselves to restrain the tongue from all that is corrupt and ugly, like one would pull back a wild horse, and to train the tongue in the speech of goodness and beauty.

The sages and scholars of Islamic spirituality warn that the tongue should be guarded from the following 8 types of speech: lying; breaking promises or oaths; speaking ill of others or slandering; wrangling, arguing and disputing with others without any clear benefit or when you fear it will get out of hand; self-justification or self-praise in a way that leads to arrogance; cursing or using foul language; invoking evil on creatures even if they are your worst enemies; jesting, ridiculing, and scoffing at people in a way that hurts people’s feelings or gives them a bad reputation – this is even worse when this type of speech is directed toward an entire community of people.

Each one of these has their specific descriptions and treatments, but in summary there are five steps that we can take to become more aware of our speech and to polish our tongues, according to the spiritual teachers:

1) Knowledge: Just be aware of the 8 types of speech that you should avoid. Knowledge leads to introspection and introspection leads to reform. When you notice any of these ailments on your tongue, take yourself to task and work to change you condition.

2) Silence: The Prophet Muhammad said that “anyone who believes in God and the Last Day should either speak well or remain silent.” Silence is golden, so goes the saying. Thinking before you speak is the key. One of the great sages of Islam and Caliph after the Prophet Muhammad would place a small stone underneath his tongue and move it to speak only after considering whether what he had to say was truly beneficial. This might be too difficult of a practice for many of us, but it goes to show how seriously silence was taken among the spiritual elite.

3) Fasting: Increase your days of fasting, for fasting by its nature teaches restraint.

4) Change your surrounding: Keeping good company and keeping yourself busy with good things so that your tongue finds very little opportunity to engage in baseless conversations.

5) Remembering the Divine: Cloaking your tongue with the beautiful names of God and the praise of those names will make your tongue to incline toward that which is beautiful and wholesome. Eventually, ugly speech will be completely antithetical and unnatural to a tongue that is used to beauty.

The remaining days of Ramadan are perfect days to intensify our practice of cultivating a disciplined tongue. These are not only the days of peak restraint but also of increasingly remembering God, seeking forgiveness and longing for salvation.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 24: The Social Qur’an

Faith is incomplete without a radical commitment to social justice.

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.

In the late 19th to early 20th century there emerged an influential intellectual Christian movement that preached, what became known as, the “Social Gospel.” In summary, the movement sought to apply Christian ethics, taken from the Gospel, to social problems such as poverty and war. It was and remains a progressive movement essentially rooted in the Gospel’s radical social justice message.

Interestingly, around the same period, there also emerged movements within Islam that sought to do something very similar – apply Islamic ethics, taken from the Qur’an, to the myriad of social problems Muslim societies were facing. This movement attempted to advocate and argue for human freedom from tyrannical governments, economic fairness, and so on. Unfortunately, when some of these movements went from standing up against unjust political authority to wanting to become the political authority itself, the movements were quickly and brutally suppressed and fractured – sometimes leading to the formation of radical political organizations that responded to the suppression with calls to militancy.

Today, this much maligned and far too easily discredited movement is known in the West as “Islamism” and their followers are called “Islamists.” It has become a bad word from the halls of government to the world of academia. If you want to malign or discredit a Muslim public intellectual or activist, all you have to do is call them an Islamist. Sadly, many radical proponents of the Christian Social Gospel message have met a similar end.

In the Muslim World the movement is received with much more nuance. There are, of course, the violent extremists who have the loudest bullhorn on the block because of their tactics – “what bleeds leads” as they say in journalism. Every major study has shown that these violent groups are largely rejected by the vast majority of Muslims. But, some of the most effective grassroots movements in the Muslim World today are informed and inspired, at least to some degree, by the social justice message of the Qur’an as articulated by the likes of Hassan al-Banna (d.1949) in Egypt and Abul Ala Mawdudi (d.1979) in Pakistan. The attraction is not so much in the wholesale revolutionary message, necessarily, but simply in the positive concern for addressing social injustices with something that sounds and feels authentic to the Muslim imagination – as opposed to something that sounds and feels like a Western colonialist import or plot.

While there was something certainly brewing in the waters in the late 19th – early 20th century in terms of socio-political movements rooted in the Qur’anic social justice message, these movements were largely revivalist movements that were inspired by much earlier periods in Muslim history including many Sufi Orders that were committed to serving the most marginalized in society and affecting grassroots change. Indeed, it would be hard not to read the Prophet Muhammad’s biography and the story of his mission as a radical movement for social justice. The intellectuals behind the Social Gospel would see the life and mission of Jesus in a similar way.

So, in brief, what is the Social Qur’an – if we can borrow terminology from the Social Gospel movement? It is a message that calls on believers to stand up for justice and bear witness to the truth “even if it is against yourselves, your parents, or your close relatives” (4:135) and warns believers to never allow “hatred of others to lead you away from justice” (5:8). It is a teaching that commands believers throughout the Qur’an to “be a community that calls for what is good, urges what is right, and forbids what is wrong” (3:104). It is an urging to follow a higher ethical plane that “Is to free the slave, to feed at a time of hunger an orphaned relative or a poor person in distress, and to be one of those believe and urge one another to steadfastness [in doing good] and compassion” (90:13—17). It is prescribing as a pillar of Islam the institutionalization of almsgiving for the poor and needy (9:60) and an ethic of charity that affirms and restores the dignity of socially neglected people (2:261—274). It is encouraging the “fair and kind” treatment of women (4:19—21). And, it is pushing people to defend the oppressed even if it means putting their own lives at risk (4:74—76). This is just a brief glimpse into the social justice message of the Qur’an.

The Social Qur’an is also a message that prohibits usurious loans that enslave people and entire communities to a lifetime of debt (2:275—281). It strongly condemns people “who give short measure” in their business dealings (83:1—6); exploit the orphans (4:10); “act like tyrants” (26:130); set out to “spread corruption” in the world (2:203), to give just a few examples. Social crimes such as sex slavery (24:33), female infanticide (81:8—9), and so on are spoken against in the strongest language.

So, this is a brief summary of what the Social Qur’an looks like. It is a message and teaching for the socially conscientious people to root their social justice work in a God-centric and spiritually focused way. And, it is a lesson to those who strive to be mindful of God that faith is incomplete without a radical commitment to social justice.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 23: Togetherness

Boarding House Cares For The Elderly During Ramadam Period
Elderly men talk to each other as they take a break at a boarding school that cares for the elderly during Ramadan in Central Java, Indonesia on July 15, 2014. Ulet Ifansasti—Getty Images

Unity does not mean uniformity

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.

In Muslim societies just about everywhere there is a lot of call and cry for unity these days in every sector of society – from the street vendors in the marketplace to the religious preachers on the pulpit. This phenomenon is quite understandable as many Muslims are experiencing crises after crises of political instability, wars, and other forms of strife. Even Muslims who are living in relatively stable and safe contexts experience these crises second hand through news outlets, social media, and reports from family and friends. The proposed solution out of this messy cycle always seems to be unity – only if Muslims would work together and not against each other we would solve all our problems, so goes the argument.

But, too often the problem with these calls for unity is that they – consciously or subconsciously – come with the expectation of uniformity. When religious folks are asked how unity can be gained in their estimation, the most likely answer will be, “by following the Qur’an and Sunnah [prophetic traditions].” Well, that sounds great until you address the million-dollar question – whose understanding and interpretation of Qur’an and Sunnah?

You see, from the very early period of Islamic history, Muslims figured out the hard way that people by their nature tend to disagree and these disagreements can even lead to violence between the most well-intentioned people. So, as Islamic thought and civilization matured there was a calming embrace of pluralism among Muslims so that just in Sunni Islam, for example, there came to be the formation of and tolerance for at least four schools of practice and at least two schools of theology and several schools of spiritual attainment. These schools learned to live side-by-side with tension, yes, but also mutual respect. An entire scholarly discourse was created on the ethics of disagreement to help keep the peace. The more successful Muslim empires figured out institutionalized systems to allow different schools to coexist in society.

But, with the collapse of Islam’s last empire after World War I much of the Muslim World descended into a state of chaos and internal tensions began exploding out of control. The longing since then of many Muslims has been a return to a romanticized past when Muslims were largely united under one or more empires. The popular memory of this period was that Muslims were the leaders of the world when they were united in this way, and now they are a humiliated and easily trampled upon people. This sentiment for reunification and bringing back the glory days is what has, partly, given rise to rather silly but dangerous groups that insist on a single understanding of Islam.

Muslims need to seriously reevaluate and reconsider the whole notion of what unity means and entails for our age. If it means uniformity then we will continue down a long and difficult road. But, if we can re-envision a unity for our times that does not insist on absolute uniformity and conformity then there may be reason for hope.

Ramadan is a marvelous season for us to imagine what this different type of unity might look like. In this month Muslims of different persuasions find a way, more often than in any other month, to break bread together, pray together, laugh and cry together. The act of sitting together over a meal or praying shoulder-to-shoulder or exchanging stories in an intimate setting is what breaks the cycle of mistrust and misunderstandings.

As the Muslim chaplain at Princeton University, I have witnessed this firsthand. Our breaking of the fast table every evening looks like a gathering of the United Nations. South and Central Asians, Africans, Europeans, and Americans enjoy each other’s company with some meeting each other for the very first time. Sunnis and Shias and Sufis pray together before sharing a meal. The insistence is not on uniformity, it is on friendship.

As such, I would like to suggest that we as a community move from a desire for unity to a desire for togetherness – a state of being close to one another as opposed to a state of being necessarily joined together as a whole under a single school of thought or organization. The togetherness model requires a strong civil society that is bottom up rather than an enforced uniformity that is top down.

As the Qur’an beautifully says, “O humankind, We created you from a male and a female, and We made you races and tribes for you to get to know each other…” (49:13). Getting to “know each other” is what is at the heart of the togetherness ethos. Muslim commentators and sages have explained that this means, at its deepest and most desired level, an intimate friendship and love between people who are different. When our sense of relationship is based on friendship and closeness in the togetherness paradigm, then fear mongering and hatred and discord – all of which we have come to hate – can and will be overcome.

So, here’s hoping and praying that just as this month of Ramadan has brought so many together, that we can find a way to embrace togetherness as our ethos for moving forward.

TIME 30 Days of Ramadan

Ramadan, Day 22: A Prayer for Palestine

Israel launches ground operation in Gaza
Palestinians inspect damage of an apartment building after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Friday, July 18, 2014. Momen Faiz—NurPhoto/Corbis

May God forgive us for our evils here on earth

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.

Throughout the last several days, my heart and mind have been overwhelmed thinking about the innocent lives lost and in harms way as Israel intensifies its military campaign in the Gaza Strip. I’m not a politician or a historian – I am just a simple human being who is aching, like millions of others, from all of the reports of death and mayhem that are emerging out of Palestine.

The tragic stories really hit home when journalists broke the story of four first-cousin children who were playing soccer near the beach when an Israeli missile dropped, killing the four children instantaneously. The photographs of the dead children and their frantic parents just broke my heart. I thought of all the children in my own life beginning with my nephew, and how terrible it must feel to lose them, especially in such a way. As of Friday, July 18, forty-five children have lost their lives in just this latest military campaign. I say not “Palestinian children” for children do not belong to anyone people; they are our collective hope for the future and God-given responsibility to protect. Forty-five precious and beautiful souls gone forever – may they rest in peace.

Israel will point the finger at Hamas arguing that they hide out in civilian areas and that the Israeli army has no other option but to accept mass casualties as part of “collateral damage.” Anyone who has seen a map of Gaza will wonder how innocent civilians and militants would live in clearly demarcated spaces in such a tiny land. Palestinians will argue that the Israeli army is targeting innocents and their operation amounts to nothing other than collective punishment.

What’s lost in the crossfire of words is the reality of suffering on the ground – the sheer pain of lives lost, limbs cut, hope fading, and anger building. It is a suffering that goes beyond the most recent military campaign, and is the day-to-day life under occupation.

In praying for Palestine and reflecting on their plight, I do not wish to undermine the suffering of Israelis who have also lost and also suffered and also experienced much pain over the last 64 years including the abduction and murder of three Israeli youth a few weeks ago.

My intention is just to consider and internalize for a moment – beginning with myself – the tragedy taking place before us. I would like to think that we can take a step back, take a deep breath, rediscover the well of tears that have run dry out of apathy, and lift our hands in prayer for those whose lives were cut too short by war.

“May innocent children, women, and men who are victims of our collective evil rest in peace as they return to the One who is all-loving, most kind. May they experience an eternal life of bliss where they will never again have to hear another explosion or experience another painful wound. May their loved ones who are left behind find the inner peace and fortitude to live on. May God forgive us for our evils here on earth and for our lack of compassion, courage, and wisdom in these times. May God grant us strength and patience and show us the enlightened way of forgiveness, reconciliation, and peaceful coexistence. Amen.”

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