Bearing Witness with Integrity
16 Rabi` al-Awwal 1438
The Glorious Qur’an describes the raison d’etre of the Prophet Muhammad’s (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) mission as rahmatan lil ‘alamin, a source of compassion, tenderness and mercy to the world (Q21:107). In bearing witness to this message our beloved leader and guide, Sayyidina Muhammad (pbuh), spoke so much about compassion and love that his companions felt compelled to respond by saying: “but we are compassionate and loving to our spouses and children.’’ The Prophet (pbuh) clarified what he meant by saying: “What I mean is rahma (compassion, mercy and tenderness) in an absolute sense, towards each and everything – including the entire universe (animals, plants and the environment).”
We have reached the middle of this blessed month of Rabi` al-Awwal, the month in which we celebrate the birth of our leader and guide Sayyidina Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him). The chief purpose of our Milad al-Nabi celebrations is to re-commit ourselves to emulating the mission and exemplary conduct of our beloved leader and guide. In this regard, Allah, the Lord of Guidance, proclaims in the Glorious Qur’an in Surah al-Ahzab, chapter 33 verse 21:
لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُمْ فِي رَسُولِ اللَّهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ
لِمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُو اللَّهَ وَالْيَوْمَ الْآَخِرَ وَذَكَرَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا
You have indeed in the Messenger of God (Muhammad)
a beautiful pattern (of conduct) to emulate,
for anyone whose hope is in God and the Life Hereafter,
and who engages much in the Praise of God (Q33: 21).
At this time when we are celebrating the life, mission and message of our beloved leader and guide Sayyidina Muhammad (pbuh), I would like to reflect on how are we faring in embracing and championing his legacy of bearing witness to the sublime teachings and ethico-moral values of compassion, love and justice unto all of humankind. In response to the above question let me be very frank in declaring that given the ferocious and high level of deadly conflict, sectarian strife and violence that Muslims all over the world are currently engulfed in, it is palpable that we are not faring well at all. Where is the love, where is the compassion and where is the justice for the people of Aleppo, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Somalia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan?
On Sunday, 11 December 2016, as we as Muslims across the world were preparing for the Milad al-Nabi celebrations, Boko Haram in Nigeria sent two girls, one seven-years-old the other eight, to blow themselves up. That horrific decision killed both children, three adults and injured seventeen others. Also on Sunday, on the other side of Africa in Somalia, Al-Shabab killed 16 people in a suicide truck bombing outside the busy seaport of Mogadishu. On the same day in Egypt a Christian Coptic cathedral was bombed. Twenty-five worshippers who were observing Sunday mass were killed and scores more, including women and children, were wounded. But the tally of death that day did not end in Egypt, Nigeria or Somalia. The Muslim bloodlust continued on the eastern edge of the Arab world in the Yemeni port of Aden, where the so-called Islamic State (aka Dai`sh) bombed a military school killing at least 48 soldiers. Finally, to bring the message of death to Europe’s borders, bomb blasts in the Turkish city of Istanbul killed 38 people, mostly policemen.
How do we make sense of this mercilessness and what are its causes?
It is my considered view that our failure to bear witness to the sublime teachings of compassion and love is the reason that most human beings who do not share our faith commitment are left wondering whether the religion of Islam and its adherents, Muslims, are one of the major sources of hatred, bigotry and violence that afflicts our world today. It seems that some contemporary Muslims have lost their moral compass and are consequently bearing witness to the exact opposite of what they profess to be their Divine calling and devotion.
Furthermore, I contend that one of the major causes of the abysmal plight of contemporary Muslims is that they have abandoned the noble legacy of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) – the legacy of bearing witness to the sublime ethico-moral values of compassion, love and justice unto all of humankind. Instead many, if not most contemporary Muslims, are inward looking and self-absorbed and have forgotten their mission of being witnesses to compassion, love and justice. We have become so narcissistic that some of us are obsessed with only scrutinizing the beliefs and dogma of our fellow Muslims, and if they don’t correspond to exactly what we believe, we cheerfully excommunicate them from the fold of Islam, by calling them kafirs (infidels).
My call at this special time when we are celebrating the birth of our beloved leader and guide Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), is for us to recommit ourselves to the core message of the Prophet’s mission and most of all his exemplary conduct (uswah hasana). Let us commit to being shining exemplars of compassion, love and justice, in the same manner that our Prophet (pbuh) was a witness and exemplar to us.
Let me be clear that when I call on us to bear witness, I am not calling for us to imitate the proselytizing mission of Christian evangelicals or those Muslims who are mimicking them and have become polemicists or patronizing in their attempts to convert others to Islam. What I am calling for is a gentle witness to the highest and most sublime teachings, of compassion, love and justice. We do this through the manner in which we live our daily lives and interact with our families, our colleagues, our neighbours, our environment, our friends, and even those we consider our enemies.
This indeed was the noble calling of all of God’s prophets, including Abraham, Mary, Jesus, Moses and Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon all of them), as Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, so eloquently reminds us in the Glorious Qur’an in Surah al-Hadid, chapter 57 verse 25:
لَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا رُسُلَنَا بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ وَأَنْزَلْنَا مَعَهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْمِيزَانَ لِيَقُومَ النَّاسُ بِالْقِسْطِ
We have sent all of Our Messengers with clear evidences
and sent down with them the Scripture and the Balance
so that they may establish Justice among the people.
The challenge that confronts us at this time when we are celebrating the life, mission and message of our beloved leader and guide, Sayyidina Muhammad (pbuh), is how we can bear witness to these noble ethico-morals with integrity and wisdom. In this regard Allah, the Lord of Wisdom, advises us in the Glorious Quran in Surah al-Nahl, chapter 16 verse 125 as follows:
ادْعُ إِلَى سَبِيلِ رَبِّكَ بِالْحِكْمَةِ وَالْمَوْعِظَةِ الْحَسَنَةِ وَجَادِلْهُمْ بِالَّتِي هِيَ أَحْسَنُ
إِنَّ رَبَّكَ هُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِمَنْ ضَلَّ عَنْ سَبِيلِهِ وَهُوَ أَعْلَمُ بِالْمُهْتَدِينَ
Invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom, and beautiful
speech and if you have to debate and argue do so in the best
and most gentle manner possible. God best knows who is
astray and who is rightly guided (Q16:125)
Our response to the above Qur’anic exhortation and the Prophetic model should be to become more creative about the ways in which we bear witness to the message of compassionate justice and love of our beloved Messenger (pbuh). We should not be apologetic about this mission – for even secularists, atheists and communists bear witness to what they believe to be the most excellent ethico-moral values and wholesome way of living according to their respective worldviews. However, what we do need to be careful and vigilant about is to make sure that we bear witness to our diverse worldviews and ethico-moral values within an ethos of respectful dialogue and integrity, and most of all without impugning and assailing the dignity of others.
In the last section of my khutbah I would like to expound on the meaning of verse 125 of Surah al-Nahl and provide a few examples of bearing witness with integrity from the life of our Prophet (pbuh). A key question that is raised in verse 125 of Surah al-Nahl, chapter 16, is whether verbal preaching should supersede actions in bearing witness to Islam. Some scholars have understood the verse to be making a bigger call for actions than preaching. The verse, identifies three methods of bearing witness with integrity, namely, da`wah bil hikmah (bearing witness with wisdom), da`wah bil maw`iza hasana (bearing witness with good speech), and da`wah bil jidal (bearing witness through debating and argumentation in the best manner possible).
The first method which Qur’an 16:125 describes as hikma, literally wisdom is bearing witness to the teachings prudently and take into account the specific context. For our purposes it is noteworthy that da`wah bil hikmah does not necessarily mean oral public preaching. In fact, in many cases, this may not be the most prudent or judicious method of bearing witness as is usefully illustrated in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), when early on in his mission he used to convey the teachings of Islam privately in the house of a companion by the name of al-Arqam.
The second and third methods of bearing witness mentioned in Qur’an 16:125, can be interpreted to mean oral preaching. Interestingly, however, it does not sanction all or any type of oral discourse. Instead the verse limits oral preaching (maw`iza hasana) to that which softens the heart of the receiver and makes a deep impression on him or her.
Some scholars place even harsher restrictions on the use of the third method of bearing witness namely that of jidal or argumentation and polemics and advise that this method be avoided. If, however, it is required, the witness bearer is advised to respond in the best and most gentle manner possible.
My own view is that while all of these three methods may be required to witness to the ethic-moral teachings of Islam, either may be preferred given the specific context. However, if one interprets Qur’an 16:125 in the light of the sirah (life history of the Prophet Muhammad), we may conclude that his character and actions, spoke louder than his words. Two striking examples will suffice to support my contention.
When the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) related his first revelatory experience in the cave of Hira to his beloved wife, Khadija, she immediately confirmed it on the strength of his noble character. Prophetic traditions (ahadith) and historical (sirah) accounts inform us that when the Prophet (pbuh) returned home to Khadija after his first encounter with the angel Jibril, he trembled and sat in the corner of his room he said:
Cover Me!!! Cover Me!!!!
She wrapped him in a blanket and when his fear subsided he turned for solace to Khadijah and asked:
Ya Khadija: Mali? Qad khashitu `ala nafsi
What has happened to me, I fear for myself?
Then he slowly proceeded to inform her of what happened to him. Khadija consoled him in her bosom and said these instructive words that confirmed the authenticity of his revelatory experience when he himself was in doubt:
Kalla – abshir fa wallahi la yukhzika Allahu abadan
Fear not, be calm and relax.
Allah will never let you suffer any humiliation,
because (she proceeds to mention five of his noblest characteristics):
1) innaka latisilur rahim – you establish bonds of relationships with your family;
2) wa tasdiqul hadith – you always speak the truth;
3) wa tahmilul kull – you assist anyone in need;
4) wa taqrid dayf – you are hospitable to your guests;
5) wa tu`inu `ala nawa ibul haqq – and you assist in every just cause.
The second example occurred three years after the Prophet (pbuh) received the first revelation, i.e. when he first publically witnessed the ethico-moral teachings of Islam. He ascended the hill of al-Safa, near the Ka`ba, and asked the people who were gathered there: “Tell me, if I were to inform you that an army is behind this valley and is about to attack you, would you believe me? They replied: “Yes, we have not experienced anything except truthfulness from you.”
Both of the above examples from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) make it crystal clear that oral preaching can only have efficacy if it is backed up by corresponding actions.
Some Muslim scholars, such as Syed Zainul `Abidin, founder of the Institute and Journal for Muslim Minority Affairs, have proposed that da`wah is witnessing the truth solely by means of the exemplary lives of individuals and communities. `Abidin, furthermore, contends that by making religious conversion the explicit and measurable objective of bearing witness violates both the prerogative of God, who alone can change the hearts of human beings, as well as the God-given freedom of choice, without which the call to Islam to faithful submission would be meaningless.
The concluding part of Qur’an 16:125 seems to support such a view. The verse makes it clear that it is not the responsibility of Muslims to convert others to Islam for this is the realm of Allah. The duty of Muslims is only to witness to the ethico-moral teachings of Islam through their conduct and speech in the best manner possible. In other words, the character and conduct of the bearer must attest to the message. Violence and intimidation can never succeed in making people listen to your message or attract people to your cause. And nowhere in the sirah do we have examples of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) intimidating or forcing people to become Muslim.
In conclusion, it is my considered view that in bearing witness to Islam it is important for us in our local context to move beyond seeing poor people, particularly poor black people, as merely recipients of need or only contexts for d`awah and conversion. In this regard al-Shahid Imam Abdullah Haron, who was tortured to death by the Apartheid security forces while in prison in 1969, serves as an exemplary model. He was one of the first Muslim leaders to regularly frequent Black townships such as Langa, Nyanga and Gugulethu. For Imam Haron the primary motivation of his interactions with township communities was to show solidarity with fellow oppressed compatriots. In doing so, he sought to break down racial and cultural barriers that kept communities apart during the Apartheid era, and stubbornly persists today. Imam Haron truly witnessed to the highest ideals of Islam, by eschewing racism and apartheid, standing up for justice, and most of all sharing the compassion of Islam to all non-Muslims he came into contact with. It is the compassionate manner in which he responded to people and his commitment to their plight that attracted people to him and made them curious about the faith and the way of life that inspired him to do what he did. The legacy and heritage that Imam Haron has bequeathed us is rich, socially relevant and a beacon of how to bear witness to the ethico-moral teachings of Islam with integrity.
It is this legacy of Imam Haron that we at CMRM strive to emulate in our solidarity visits to the farming community of Leeuwenkuil. While we may provide some relief for their hardships with food parcels and hygiene care packs, it is really the time we spend with the community that has the potential for the greatest impact. We go to the farm, not to convert them to Islam, but to display genuine solidarity with their ongoing struggles for dignity and justice. Giving of our time to interact and engage in joint activities with this impoverished community, humanizes us and gives them hope of a world beyond their dire conditions. They feel seen and heard. If we proselytize anything, it is to encourage them to join and support the workers union CSAAWU. Our support to the Leeuwenkuil farming community is our modest attempt at bearing witness to compassionate justice with integrity.
May Allah bless our efforts and enable us to witness to the noble values and teachings of Islam in the best manner possible. I pray that Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, strengthens all of us to live up to His noble Guidance as embodied in the sirah – life of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Let us pray for world peace at this joyous time of celebration and bestow salutations of peace and blessings upon our beloved leader and exemplar Prophet Muhammad:
إِنَّ اللَّهَ وَمَلَائِكَتَهُ يُصَلُّونَ عَلَى النَّبِيِّ
يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا صَلُّوا عَلَيْهِ وَسَلِّمُوا تَسْلِيمًا
Allah and His Angels send blessings and salutations of peace on the Prophet: O Believers: Send blessings and salutations on him, and salute him with all respect.
(Qur’an: surah al-Ahzab, chapter 33, verse 56)