In the Name of God, Merciful to All, Compassionate to Each
In today’s khutbah (sermon) I would like to reflect on the spiritual meaning and implications of last year’s student protests. I want to look at the deep connection between the spiritual and the political within Islam. My main thesis, or take home message, is that the political, social and spiritual are all inextricably linked within our worldview.
I would like to thank the Claremont Main Road Mosque (CMRM) Board and imamat for inviting me to deliver today’s khutbah. I must admit I accepted this challenge with great trepidation. However, in an attempt to mitigate against this, I think it is important that I state my positionality in order to help those present here today to situate my thoughts in a particular political moment and a larger socio-historical context. Firstly, I am a student at the University of Cape Town and can therefore only speak of my experiences student protests at UCT. Secondly, I am a middle class man and the fact that I can stand on this platform, in this space and during this time, is indicative of a particular conception and construction of what it means to be a khaṭīb. There are many sacred spaces in South Africa that are exclusive and only reserved for certain individuals. However, this masjid needs to be congratulated for being more inclusive but there is always room for improvement.
2015 became the year that the students of South Africa re-discovered their dynamism and social activism. Students across the country willingly challenged their elders, leaders and parents, and openly called them out for their failures and short-comings in delivering a new South Africa, which would be a safe and welcoming space for all that live in it, especially the marginalised.
Black students , who were disillusioned by the ‘Rainbow Nation’ discourse of post-apartheid South Africa, decided to create a progressive collective to challenge institutional injustices at university campuses (as a microcosm) and in South Africa (as a macrocosm). When I refer to Black I am using Steve Biko’s definition of Black, which includes all oppressed people of colour.
Starting in March 2015, at UCT, students, workers and staff called for the Cecil John Rhodes statue to be removed from campus. Students recognized the Rhodes statue as the archetypal
“embodiment of Black alienation and dispossession at the hands of white capitalist and patriarchal power” (Khan 2015). The #RhodesMustFall movement, included calls for the decolonisation of university spaces, the end to the exploitative labour practices of Out Sourcing and for free quality education in our lifetime. To articulate their struggles and to ground the praxis in theory, students adopted the discourse or ideology of Black Consciousness and intersectionality (Khan 2015). The student protests later in October 2015 mobilised around the catchy hash tag phrase known as #FeesMustFall and #EndOutsourcing.
Islamic Theory of Social Change: Primary Source
As a starting point to my reflections on the student protests, I will turn to the primary source of guidance in Islam, al-Qur’an, and consider the Divine words that pertain to social change.
The Islamic theory of social change involves a critical component of human agency, which buttresses all forms of dynamic movement. On the basis of the well-known verse (ayah) of the Qur’an, in Surah al-Ra’ad, Chapter 13, verse 11, the Qur’anic theory of change is not deterministic. In this ayah Allah, the Sublime declares
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّى يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنْفُسِهِمْ
Indeed, God will not change the condition of a people
as long as they do not change themselves [Q13:11]
According to Imam Rashied Omar’s commentary of the above verse social change according to the Islamic worldview is not merely a result of objective structural conditions. Rather it is informed by “moral choices and ethical responsibilities that human beings assume. In other words, social change requires a subjective factor, the critical agency and role of individuals who join together in collective action to seize the opportunities of the moment for [radical] social transformation” (Omar 2014).
Islamic Theory of Social Change: Lessons from the Sira
There are also lessons to be learnt about social change, from the secondary source of guidance in Islam, namely the life history or Sira of the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him).
In his excellent study of the biography of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Iranian-American scholar of Islam, Omid Safi, calls the Prophetic movement – its actions, virtues and objectives – as the Muhammadi Revolution (Safi 2009, 98). Safi’s main thesis is that for a true revolution, both the internal and external needs to be transformed. It is not only the structural conditions of injustice and oppression that need to be challenged and eventually changed, but we also need to embody the virtues for which we are fighting for. The Muhammadi ethic was a balance of the personal jihad with the external struggle against oppression in all of its forms.
The Muhammadi Revolution was deep and far-reaching: beginning with a transformation of the heart and ultimately spinning out into a social and political transformation of society. In his personal life the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) embodied the virtues in his political life and he did not see a distinction between the two. His interactions with the women in the City; the marginalised communities of Madina; the poor and the people of his own household are examples of him making the personal political but also transforming the heart (internal) before he engages on the jihad for social change (the external jihad).
For the Prophet (pbuh), the political was not some taboo or radical state of being that was only discussed at dinner table. It was part of his lived experience. Contrary to the perceptions of the mainstream media (CNN and Fox), the politics of the Prophet (pbuh) was spiritual. It was sacred. It was the core of his being. An instructive example during the lifetime of the Prophet (pbuh) was when he returned twice to his community after firstly receiving revelation for the first time in the Cave of Hira and secondly after his encounter with God during the Mi’raj. The Prophet returned to make “radical social claims that demanded a completely new axis for organizing human society; claims that took very seriously the needs of the most marginalized sectors of that community” (Shaikh 2009, 43).
Student Activism: New Type of Political Engagement
One of the main lessons I have learnt from the 2015 student protests at UCT is the notion and feminist trope known as the Personal is Political. Complementary to the Islamic idea of social change, this feminist mantra epitomises this Islamic conception of radical social transformation by articulating an embodiment of the virtues for which one is struggling but also, on a much deeper level, it speaks to this idea of our lives being sites of struggle. Moreover, this idea is also fundamental to a form of robust solidarity based on an experience of common oppression. Essentially, this line of thinking suggests that your position in society is reflected by certain social markers like race or gender and that there are direct social consequences for your socio-economic placement in the system.
If you fight injustice but are unaware of the power you hold in this dynamic I feel it makes your actions (and words) empty and hollow. To remedy this dynamic students have developed a radical reflexivity where they are trying to acknowledge where they fit into the structures they are fighting against. This makes their actions and words much more meaningful and potentially the protest action more effective. For most people in South Africa they do not have an option to be apolitical – that is a privilege of the minority. Being political is an act of resistance to a system that is constantly dehumanising – if not dehumanising ourselves, then dehumanising others. We need to be political beings in an attempt to feel fully human in a system that says that we or others are not worthy. Saying that “I am apolitical” is a privilege we cannot afford in a country where the majority of our citizens live disempowered lives in poverty, subjected to conditions that rob them of their dignity.
This now famous phrase, the Personal is Political, has its roots in the 1960s when women called our their comrades for not acknowledging that many of the personal problems experienced by women had social and political causes and could only be resolved by social and political change. Extending this idea to other marginalised groups, the oppression and exclusion, on a personal level, faced by People of Colour (PoC); working class communities; disabled peoples and the queer and trans communities were all traced back to inequalities in the socio-political and economic landscape.
Like the personal is political, so too, we need to guard against making a separation between the spiritual being and the political being. For me, there is no separation between the two. Our fitra (primordial human disposition) is inclined to replicate both the beauty and love (jamali) and majesty and power (jalali) qualities of the Transcendent in our lived realties. Inherently our lives are meant to incorporate both the spiritual and political as the Qur’an (Q5:8) very neatly creates a direct and clear link between the attainment of God-consciousness (taqwa) and the pursuit of radical intersectional justice (`adl). In Surah al-Ma’idah, Chapter 5, verse 8, Allah, the Sublime, declares:
اعْدِلُوا هُوَ أَقْرَبُ لِلتَّقْوَى
Be Just and Equitable: it is the closest manifestation of God-consciousness (Q5:8)
Therefore, from the view of the Qur’an, the spiritual is political. This being the reality, we now have a spiritual mandate to engage in the jihad for social justice for all and there is no option to be silent in the face of injustice and oppression.
It is my experience however, that even in activist-type spaces, the full extent of our political objectives are not always realised on a personal level. We often operate with the view that private relationships (especially intimate moments) are separate from our place in the community and our work in the trenches of the struggle. However, in reality, and especially in small communities, the two are inextricably linked.
In the second part of this Jumu’ah khutbah I would like to very briefly suggest three ways in which we can try and make the spiritual political and the personal political. Insha-Allah, hopefully this will mitigate against what seems to be a gap between our ideas and theory and our personal and social praxis.
1. Checking your Privilege (Jihad al Nafs)
Certain social markers such as race, language, disability, class, gender and sexuality provide blind spots to certain lived realities of the ‘other’. Our markers on the social hierarchy could act as barriers to our embracing of the ‘other’, as the Qur’an demands of us in Sura al-Hujurat, Chapter 49, Verse 13:
يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ إِنَّا خَلَقْنَاكُمْ مِنْ ذَكَرٍ وَأُنْثَى
وَجَعَلْنَاكُمْ شُعُوبًا وَقَبَائِلَ لِتَعَارَفُوا
إِنَّ أَكْرَمَكُمْ عِنْدَ اللَّهِ أَتْقَاكُمْ
إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ خَبِيرٌ
O Humankind! We have created you of a male and a female, and fashioned you into different communities and different tribes, so that you may get to know each [as an extension pf the self and not despise each other]. Surely, the most noble and honourable of you in the sight God is the best in conduct. God is All- Knower, All- Aware. (Q49:13)
The tricky thing about our privilege is that we often don’t even know we have it. And once we do know, it can be hard to understand how it manifests in our lives. It is something many people will not dare challenge or question. Many of us occupy both social spaces of liberation and oppression and therefore “[o]ppressive socialization impacts us all” (Jones, 2014)
We therefore need to be committed to understanding the privilege we hold. “Power and privilege exist in many capacities, and the more we recognize it (or it is brought to our attention), the better equipped we are to be more aware in the future” (Jones, 2014). It is not easy or straightforward, but owning all of who we are in our complexities can lead to deepened empathy and capacity to build authentic relationships across difference.
A simple yet very effective example would be acknowledging that many of us can hear and see me. While this space is friendly towards people with disabilities, it does not accommodate for members of the deaf community. Simple privileges, makes us unaware of the lived reality of the ‘other’.
This is why the Prophet (pbuh) called this the greater jihad. This is the jihad al nafs. We all have frailties and prejudices that often come from our privilege, and we all need to engage in jihad al nafs to cleanse our souls from the social malice of this world.
2. Challenge your Inherited Power: Change your language
Following from this first point, once we have identified what our privileges are, we can challenge our inherited social capital and give up some of our privileges and this would be something profound. However, a more simple and long-lasting example would be to work on the self and the discourse we live out. Simple things like watching our language or the way we engage with people could go a long way in fighting some of the social ills that have manifested in our societal systems and more importantly our hearts.
An instructive example would be the pain and hurt caused by Penny Sparrow when she described Black beach goers as ‘monkeys’. Changing our language challenges the violent ‘othering’ that takes place in our community and critiques the exclusive hegemony of the normative.
3. Conscientisation: Making people ‘woke’
People only know about the troubles of this world through a process of reflection and deep introspection both at a communal level and an individual level. Having critical reading and discussion groups are simple yet very effective ways of self and communal conscientisation. I would therefore like to invite everyone here to join the Claremont Main Road Masjid (CMRM) Youth Group and the Muslim Youth Movement (MYM) in a monthly halaqah series where we can unpack some of these issues and critically and honestly reflect on our positions as the Khalifa al Allah fil ‘ard – the moral agent of God on the earth. Our first halaqah will take place at the masjid at 8:15pm (directly after the Magrib prayers) on Thursday, 28 January 2016, Insha-Allah.
In Conclusion the spiritual resources of Islam have great socio-political implications and need to be nurtured. There is a deep connection between the personal, the political, the spiritual and the social in our worldview (Shaikh 2009, 43).
If we truly believe in the idea of the Spiritual is Political, and the Personal is Political then our personal practises cannot be in conflict with our political spheres and we need to adopt this politico-spiritual identity of being. We need to embody the virtues for which we are fighting and remember that striving for justice in this world is running towards the original source of justice.
Muslims need to be woke and realise that we have a spiritual mandate to engage in the jihad for radical intersectional justice and also to stand in robust solidarity with all oppressed people, not just those that are convenient or suit our agenda.
At this sacred hour of Jumu’ah, please join me in making the following prayer and du’a: O Allah, guide us, help us and assist us to embody your noble virtues and let us truly be followers of the Muhammadi Revolution. We ask this in all of your beautiful names. Amin.
Khan, L. 2015. Rhodes Must Fall and Student Activism. Post-Tarawih Talk. Claremont Main Road Mosque. 5 July 2015. Text available at: https://www.facebook.com/ClaremontMainRoadMosque/posts/694223597373268 [Accessed: 2015, December]
Jones, M., ‘MJ’. 2015. 3 Common Ways Our Personal Actions Don’t Match Our Political Values — And How It Hurts Our Movements. Available at: http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/07/personal-vs-political/ [Accessed: 2015, December]
Jones, M., ‘MJ’. 2014. 5 Ways Marginalized People Can Recognize Their Privileges In Other Areas. Available at: http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/the-privileged-oppressed/ [Accessed: 2015, December]
Omar, A.R., Progressive Social Transformation [‘Id al-Fitr sermon]. Claremont Main Road Mosque. July 29, 2014.
Safi, O. Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters (New York: Harper One, 2009)
Shaikh, S. “Centring the Transcendent in the Search for Muslim Political Responses.” In After the Honeymoon: Religious Leadership and Political Engagement in Post-Apartheid South Africa, edited by F. Esack and A. Fataar, 41-44. Cape Town: Centre for the Study of Progressive Islam, 2009.