God! There is no deity but He! To Him belong the most Beautiful Names. Has the story of Moses reached thee? (Qur’an 20:8-9)
Fellow Muslims ask me why I focus on other Prophets more than Prophet Muhammad, upon them peace and blessings. The reason is that I teach the way I learn. My learning and teaching style is what I call a “Listening In” conversation. Most conversations tend to be framed in the “elephant in the room” format. The elephant is understood as the obvious truth which no one is allowed to talk about. Often times, the obvious truths are based on many layers of self-deception that hinder our understanding of ourselves, thus others. In the eyes of anti-Muslims, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, or the recent Charlie Hebdo affair – the obvious truth is Islam promotes terrorism and hatred.
“In the hours following a shooting that left a Canadian soldier dead, Maher had this to say: ‘Turns out the attacker was Islamic—what are the odds, huh? It’s almost like there’s an elephant in the room.’”
The problem with this format is no one asks: who created the room? And how and why is there an elephant in the room? The room is usually the psychological and social construction of those with power and voice, while the elephant in the room is always the little people, or people who are unprotected and voiceless. It is somewhat dishonest to argue – “It’s almost like there’s an elephant in the room.”
Truth is not as obvious as societal ills and psychological constructions bury the reality of things and people. In addition, as Novelist Chimamanda Adichie argues in a TED talk, that our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories, and if we hear only a single story about another person or country, and make it the definitive story, we risk a critical misunderstanding.
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.
For this reason, I learned not to attach to the crowd, but to pray for guidance, search, investigate and verify what I hear, as people when they love or hate, project their own issues onto others, and even God – and attack people for issues they hate within themselves. Or they try to define that person or group with a single definitive story, leading and enabling racism or xenophobia.
I learned about the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, only after sifting through and trying to separate fact from fiction surrounding his personality. Some Muslims and non-Muslims have used and misused his name in projecting his image that stood in sharp contrast to the normative and authentic details of his life. There was so much ridiculous or distorted information surrounding him, that one felt uncomfortable and disturbed connecting to him.
In a “Listening In” conversation, the room is opened slightly either via a window or a crack to allow a light, an invitation to a conversation outside the room that calls us to reflect and better understand a higher level conversation that is taking place, a conversation where God is very much listening to our conversations and engaged and inviting us to guidance.
This conversation does not seek out the crowd, as the crowd usually follows authority, voices of influence and power. Rather, it seeks out a small group of people who within their circle of influence and power can take the conversation forward, creating a ripple to other circles of influence.
Through this learning style, I learned that Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings did not promote nepotism, tribalism or a crowd mentality that shouts down the voice of consciousness. He tore down psychological and social constructs that prevented the light from entering in the room. He taught his followers Jihad an-nafs, or the inner struggle of the soul. It is not self-hatred or blame. When you hate yourself - you engage in communication of projection and fear what is different. God told Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings; it is not you they are against, but the truth. The elevation of truth can destroy the psychological and social constructs or the room which enable racism and xenophobia and other forms of oppression.
At times to engage in the “elephant in the room,” conversations, there is an invisible social agreement that is not accepting of everyone. As we saw in the Charlie Hebdo affair, there were double standards regarding free speech that mocks people with power and those without influence and power. Today, at 4pm there is an event at the University of Minnesota that is discussing the Charlie Hebdo tragedy that took place in Paris, France. Check out the “elephant in the room” format where speakers will discuss Free Speech without any Muslim speaker. What value is in a speech or discussion where others are treated as objects and interrogated, psychoanalyzed and judged – but not engaged as human beings?
However, in “Listening In” conversations – is all about empathy and guidance, seeking the betterment of oneself and others.
For example, Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings did not violate the boundaries of another human being be it mentally, socially, or even spiritually. Once he tried to counsel a woman who was weeping at her brother's death - the woman did not know who he was, and told him - you do not know my pain. He stopped. He did not speak to her from behind a wall, but connected directly to her as a human being, yet still he stopped and left when she was not able to receive it. She later realized who he was and went to find him and accepted his advice of being patient.
I was recently in Saudi Arabia for Hajj or pilgrimage. With a group of people, we climbed the mountain of Hira and saw the cave where Prophet Muhammad used to spend time in to reflect. When he received revelation, he started out alone with a few supporters and slowly, he invited others - by promoting the truth. He was offered power, money and many material gifts to give up his mission but he continued to build a community of people who enjoin the good and forbid the wrong. Those closer to him, including his immediate family members were held to a much higher standard than those further away. He corrected his closest friends as well as family members.
This community was nurtured to accept diversity, human differences, and was open to growth and the gifts of each other. He did not just create a community for the strong, but also for the weak and oppressed. He gave people the courage to grow instead of to hide or pretend. They came to him with all sorts of problems, and he was known and mocked as “all ears” for being a compassionate listener.
He listened to the young and old, the weak and strong, and the poor and rich. He spoke on behalf of the weak and the strong, as the boundaries he set were boundaries to enable the community to grow and enable the growth of each other. It is not our differences or fear of our differences that nurture hatred amongst us, but rather it is acts of injustice that breeds hatred. And when these acts of oppression are not repaired and we have the power and voice to do so, then the hatred brews and festers. The obvious truths we want to discuss or elephant in the room may really be our attempt to erase in our psyche the injustices we committed against others.
Gary Younge raises an interesting point in this article here:
"The west does not see itself the way others see it; indeed it often does not see others at all. Solipsistic in its suffering and narcissistic in its impulses, it promotes itself as the upholder of principles it does not keep, and a morality it does not practice. Therein lays the dysfunction whereby it keeps doing hateful things while simultaneously expressing bewilderment at why some people hate it. It’s as though we are continually caught by surprise that others have not chosen to ignore their humiliation, pain, anger and sorrow just because we have."
Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings, taught his followers to seek acceptance of God first and foremost, and in doing so, freed humanity from the illness of perfectionism. When we seek acceptance from God instead of people - we nurture a community to work hard and acknowledge that imperfections are part of being human.
Across the globe, amongst Muslim communities and others - what we see are communities built that protect the rights and needs of the strong and demand higher standards for the vulnerable and unprotected. Whether we use the language of promoting faith or freedom - the problems that our communities face are the same.
The word for oppression in the Arabic language is dhulm, which means darkness. One of God’s names is An Nur or The Light. Hence, one understanding of dhulm or oppression is a disconnection from God, the Light.
In this blog and the continuing blogs, I will discuss power and oppression by looking at the story of Prophet Moses, upon him peace. He is one of the five resolute Prophets, mentioned more times in the Qur'an than any Prophet. As Muslims, we learn of his story through Prophet Muhammad, upon them peace and blessings. As the Prophetic voice is a voice that connects people to each other.
In the series on Faith and Guidance, I discussed two important stories of Islamic teachings – the story of Salman al Farisi traveling the journey of faith from a position of weakness and the Queen of Sheba, Bilqis, traveling the journey from a position of power facing another force of power, Prophet Solomon, upon him peace. In both stories, the journeys were about people true to their faith and/or values.
The story of Moses, upon him peace is a story about people in power clashing with people who are weak where both sides are not true to their faith and/or values. However, things are not so simple. Amongst those in power are many shades, most notably are people who resist and support the call to truth, and amongst those who are weak, are people who support the oppression of their own people or rebel for tyrannical motives. Yet, deeper still are a few righteous believers, and within them the noble family of Moses, upon him peace. Truth is not an “Us vs Them” story or a single definitive story about “Them.”
Under the watchful gaze of God, Moses, upon him peace, was raised in the home of Pharaoh. The beauty of this part of the story is that God tells us that He cast His love unto Moses in the home of Pharaoh. Pharaoh’s wife, Asiya, developed a fond love of Moses, upon him peace and wanted to keep him as a son, hence protecting him in a climate of deep seated oppression:
"'Throw (the child) into the chest, and throw (the chest) into the river: the river will cast him up on the bank, and he will be taken up by one who is an enemy to Me and an enemy to him': But I cast (the garment of) love over thee from Me: and (this) in order that thou mayest be reared under Mine eye." (Quran 20:39)
Moses was reared, like all Prophets, by God Himself. From their birth, they are connected to The Light of God, as they are to be the light and the way to God.
The story of Moses is a beautiful story of power and oppression.
Has the story of Moses reached you?
Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources by Martin Lings
A History of the Prophets of Islam Vol. 1 and 2 by Suzanne Haneef