Valuable Lessons (`Ibar) of 2016
30 Rabi` al-Awwal 1438
We have reached the final jumu`ah service of the Gregorian Year 2016 and as we ready ourselves for the coming year, we typically reflect on the events of the past year. In reviewing the year in this khutbah, I seek to follow the model (manhaj) of the most sacred source of Islamic guidance, the Glorious Qur’an.
The Qur’an is exhaustive in recounting and reviewing the history of previous and earlier generations. But the Glorious Quran is not a book of history for the sake of history. It is essentially a book of guidance, as Allah, the Lord of Guidance, proclaims in surah al-Baqarah, chapter 2 verse 2:
ذَلِكَ الْكِتَابُ لَا رَيْبَ فِيهِ هُدًى لِلْمُتَّقِينَ
This is the book, concerning which there is no doubt,
a Guidance for the God conscious (Q2:2).
The Qur’an’s guidance is elucidated in concrete historical narratives. From the Qur’anic paradigm we need to learn and study history, we need to review our past, to be guided by it. But how can we be guided by a review of the past?
According to the Qur’anic worldview, we can be guided by our past if we are able to learn, internalise and actualise its lessons. This process of learning from our past is succinctly encapsulated in the Qura’nic concept of ‘ibrah.
The Qur’anic Concept of ‘Ibrah
It is instructive to note that the Arabic word ‘ibrah (plural `ibar) stems from the root verb `abara and has many shades of meaning. It could mean – a lesson from which one can learn. In fact most translators of the Qur’an prefer the English equivalent, a lesson. However, the Qur’anic term `ibrah could also mean: example, advice or admonition, warning or deterrent, rule, or precept to be followed. Last but not least, it could take on the meaning of the phrase: “that which is of consequence or importance”. That is why the Arabic phrase: la ‘ibrah bihi means: “it deserves no attention” alternatively “it is of no consequence”.
The Arabic word `ibrah is used six times in the Glorious Qur’an. On three of these occasions it is used in the historical context. Firstly, in surah Ali ‘Imran, chapter 3, verse 13, Allah the Sublime, after alluding to the history of the battle of Badr, proclaims:
إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَعِبْرَةً لِأُولِي الْأَبْصَارِ
In this! (historical event) Behold! There is indeed a lesson (‘ibrah) For all who have eyes to see (Q3:13).
Secondly, in surah Yusuf, chapter 12, after narrating the history of the trials and tribulations of Prophet Yusuf (pbuh), Allah the Sublime ends the surah with the very same admonition:
لَقَدْ كَانَ فِي قَصَصِهِمْ عِبْرَةٌ لِأُولِي الْأَلْبَابِ
Indeed! In the histories (stories) of the (earlier Prophets) there is a lesson (‘ibrah) for those endowed with insight (Q12:111).
Finally, in surah An-Nazi’at, chapter 79, verse 26, after Allah the Sublime asks the rhetorical question: “Have you heard the story of Musa?” Allah, the Lord of Guidance, responds to it by reiterating why it is necessary to remember and review the history of Prophet Musa (pbuh):
إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَعِبْرَةً لِمَنْ يَخْشَى
For Indeed! In this (story) behold! There is a lesson (‘ibrah) indeed! For all who stand in awe of God (79:26).
Using this Qur’anic model we may ask: What are the ‘ibar (lessons) we need to learn, internalise and actualise from our lived experiences of the past Gregorian year 2016? There are many personal lessons (`ibar) that each of us need to learn from the way we lived and experienced our lives during the past year.
There could be lessons we need to learn from our interpersonal relationships and interactions with our parents, spouses, children, siblings and extended family members. There may also be lessons we could learn from our dealings with our neighbours, friends, colleagues and employees. We should engage in this exercise of personal introspection (muhasaba) in order to help improve our lives and refine our dispositions and characters. I advise that we all ponder and reflect on these personal lessons in the forthcoming days. In my khutbah today, however, I would like reflect on the lessons we, as conscientious Muslims and social justice activists, need to learn from what has transpired in our local community, our country and the world.
The ‘Ibar (Lessons) of 2016 at the Global Level
At the international level during 2016 we witnessed a resurgent right populism across the globe. Emblematic of this trend was Brexit; the unexpected outcome of a referendum in support of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union in June. This was followed by the surprise election of Donald Trump as president elect of the United States of America in November. This global shift to rightwing chauvinism and particularly the election of millionaire businessman, Mr. Trump, has shocked and defied almost all of the pollsters, political analysts and political scientists. I concur with Irish Peace Studies scholar, Roger MacGinty who argued that the reasons why most journalists, expert pollsters and mainstream academics were unable to correctly read public opinion was because they were “trapped in a conventional wisdom paradigm”, by “employing top-down methodologies”, and most of all because “they live lives far removed from general society.”[i]
The lesson from this is clear. It is palpable that one of the major reasons for the inability of these experts to read the signs of our times is that most academics, journalists and policy-makers live lives that are far removed from grassroots communities. They then make the mistake of presuming that they can predict the behaviour of these same communities when it comes to voting trends. The challenge that this lesson holds for conscientious Muslims and social justice activists is to try not to sequester themselves by living in ivory towers and bubbles disconnected from local communities, but to live in close proximity with the masses. A wonderful institution that enables Muslims to do so, is salah al-jama`ah i.e. performing our five daily prayers in congregation. It is no small wonder that the Prophet Muhammad (may Allah’s everlasting peace and blessings be upon him) strongly advised that praying in congregation procures greater rewards than praying alone. In a prophetic tradition (hadith) recorded in the collections of Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim and narrated by the companion Abdullah ibn `Umar, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is reported to have proclaimed:
عن ابن عمر -رَضيَ اللَّهُ عَنهُ- أن رَسُول اللَّهِ – صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيهِ وَسَلَّمَ – قال : ((صلاة الجماعة أفضل من صلاة الفذ بسبع وعشرين درجة )) مُتَّفَقٌ عَلَيهِ.
Prayer in congregation is preferred to praying individually by twenty-seven degrees (agreed upon).
By striving to perform our five daily prayers (salawat) in congregation we are constantly in touch with our neighbours and communities. This provides the opportunity for us to always have a finger on the pulse of our community since we are regularly made aware of their concerns and issues.
For the past three centuries the Cape Muslim community has developed a rich social calendar that includes Milad al-Nabi celebrations, weddings, dhikr’s, greeting of hujjaj (pilgrims) and attending funerals. While attendance at these events can be exhausting and time-consuming, they provide useful opportunities for staying closely in touch with our local community. Another fun way of staying in touch with our local community is by belonging to local sports clubs and by participating in sports. I call upon conscientious Muslims and social justice activists to consciously align their daily lives with those of their neighbours and local communities. I have provided some suggestions for doing so, but I am sure there are many more creative ways of living in such way that we connect meaningfully with our neighbours and local communities.
The ‘Ibar (Lessons) of 2016 at the National Level
At the national level during 2016 the magnitude of the “capture” of the South African State by powerful private interest groups via the corruption of the Zuma presidency was fully exposed. In April South Africa’s Constitutional Court ruled that President Zuma should abide by the recommendations of the Public Protector’s report. In terms of the court verdict he was compelled to pay back a portion of the gratuitous amount spent on the upgrades of his private home in Nkandla. In September President Zuma paid back R7.8 million to the state for non-security upgrades to his private homestead. This was made up of a R2.3 million for a swimming pool, a R1 million amphitheater, and a R1.2 million chicken-run. President Zuma was also forced to issue a public apology for misleading the nation.
In response to this and much more malfeasance, there has been a growing call from a broad range of civil society actors, including more than 100 African National Congress (ANC) stalwarts, and even from within the South African cabinet, for President Zuma to resign. Despite this, President Zuma and his beneficiaries have remained obstinate and unrepentant. How do we respond to the dismal state of our nation and what is the lesson we can take from this reality?
Here I would like to refer to a seminal article written by an ANC member, Dr. Phillip Dexter, published in April 2016.[ii] Dexter correctly argues that it is not only President Zuma that should issue an apology and resign from office, but that the entire national executive of the ANC who enabled the corruption of the state should also step down. I concur with Dexter and a growing number of social justice activists that the ANC needs to convene an urgent national consultative conference and elect undefiled and credible leaders.
However, I would like to take Dexter’s proposed remedy further and argue that it is not only ANC politicians and members who bear responsibility for the current state of affairs in our country. Big business and captains of industry are also culpable of perpetuating a capitalist economic system that thrives on and maintains economic inequalities, and spawns a culture of greed and covetousness. Ordinary South Africans and civil society also need to take some responsibility for the dismal state of our country. Our lethargy, cynicism and lack of action render us complicit in enabling the “state capture” and corruption that is rampant in our beloved country.
The critical lesson we need to learn from this is that if we want a strong and robust democracy then each of us needs to become active citizens who hold government and those in leadership positions accountable for their moral and political mandates. Such active citizenship was clearly on display during the student protests that continued for a second year in 2016, albeit in a less coherent manner. As veteran trade union activist, Lennie Gentle, so eloquently described it in the latest edition of our masjid newsletter Al-Mizan:
“Something deep is stirring amongst our young people, which is not easily, or magically, going to go away…something than can either frighten us or inspire us to believe that it is possible to make things better for everybody.”[iii]
Social justice activists should anticipate greater maturity and strategic sophistication for the Fallist movement in 2017.
The ‘Ibar (Lessons) of 2016 at the Local Level
Last but not least, at the local level the destructive sectarian Sunni-Shi`a conflict which has caused countless deaths and unimaginable destruction in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the Muslim world has now finally been exported into the South African context. It was locally inaugurated in the form of a press conference that the MJC convened in October to support an unverified Saudi Arabian allegation that the Yemeni Shi`a Houthis had launched a ballistic missile aimed at destroying the holy ka`bah in Makkah. This was followed by an MJC fatwa or policy in November that declared marriages between Sunni’s and Shi`as as prohibited (haram). It is palpable that the current anti-shi`a hysteria is a response to the Iranian and Lebanese Hizbullah’s support for the brutal crushing of the legitimate uprising of the Syrian people against the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Asad.
However, the problem with the MJC position is that that they are viewing the conflict in the Middle East through a sectarian Sunni versus Shi`a lens. This means that on the one hand they are easily recognizing the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, but on the other hand they are legitimizing the brutal Saudi regimes bombardment and massacre of innocents in Yemen, Bahrain and in their own country. Thankfully, it appears that the majority of local Muslims are not buying into the current leadership of the MJC’s sectarianism. This was clearly evidenced by the low turnout at their protest march in support of the suffering masses of Aleppo in Cape Town on Thursday 8 December 2016. The low turnout can surely not be attributed to the fact the Cape Town masses do not agree with the call to show solidarity with the suffering masses of Aleppo and to denounce the Asad regime and its duplicitous support from Russia and Iran. It is my considered view that one of the reasons for the lack of support for the Aleppo protest march is that the masses can see through the MJC’s sectarianism.
The lesson is clear: If we are true in our commitment to the compassionate and intersectional justice advocated by Islam, then we must recognize that the Syrian, Russian and Iranian regimes are just as guilty as the Saudi, Bahraini and other Arab regimes in perpetrating human rights violations and massacres against their people. In this regard, they are also no different to non-state extremist groups like ISIS, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab. They differ only in the extent of their extremism and brutality. Allah, the Lord of Compassionate Justice, exhorts us with regard to non-sectarian and intersectional justice when He proclaims in the Glorious Qur’an in surah al-Nisa’, chapter 4 verse 135:
ا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آَمَنُوا كُونُوا قَوَّامِينَ بِالْقِسْطِ شُهَدَاءَ لِلَّهِ
وَلَوْ عَلَى أَنْفُسِكُمْ أَوِ الْوَالِدَيْنِ وَالْأَقْرَبِينَ
إِنْ يَكُنْ غَنِيًّا أَوْ فَقِيرًا فَاللَّهُ أَوْلَى بِهِمَا
فَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا الْهَوَى أَنْ تَعْدِلُوا
وَإِنْ تَلْوُوا أَوْ تُعْرِضُوا فَإِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ بِمَا تَعْمَلُونَ خَبِيرًا
Believers! Be upholders of justice, bearing witness for Allah alone, even if it means testifying against your own selves, or your parents and relatives. Whether it is against the rich or the poor, Allah is nearer to all of them in compassion. Do not follow your own desires lest you distort or decline to do justice. If you twist or turn away, Allah is all-aware of what you do (Q4:135)
Following these events, South African Muslims now nervously anticipate the outbreak of direct physical violence, God forbid, aimed at Shi’as and those who refuse to declare them as heretics and submit to sectarian agendas.
These then are the critical ‘ibar (lessons) derived from our experiences of the year 2016.
All of these lessons (‘ibar) cannot be internalised and actualised by merely speaking about it in a khutbah. We need to create more public discussion forums where we can grapple with these lessons and many others more intensely so that we can take them along with us as part of our competencies to meet the challenges of 2017. It is my earnest prayer that our discussion forums will be much better patronized in 2017. We pray that we will use the lessons of 2016 to take forward the cause of social justice with greater vigour in the coming Gregorian year 2017.
Please join me in a special supplication for the New Gregorian Year 2017:
Ya Rahman Ya Rahim,
O Allah, The One who wills Compassion and Mercy to all,
As we reflect on this past year 2016, we thank You for Your help through our many challenges and we express our sincere gratitude for our many accomplishments.
Ya Aziz Ya Jabbar,
O Allah, The Mighty and Omnipotent,
We stand at the dawning of the New Year 2017, we ask for Your guidance as we face the months ahead. We have hopes and expectations for our local community, country and the world – and we ask You to give us the strength, perseverance and the wisdom we need to meet any difficulties and challenges we may face.
Ya Sami’ Ya Basir,
O Allah the All-Hearing and All-Seeing,
Open our eyes to the pain, suffering and injustices of our world, and help us to respond with hope, compassion and thoughtful action.
O Allah, The Bountiful and Generous,
We pray for our nation and leaders during these difficult times, and we pray for all those who are seeking to bring peace and justice to our troubled world.
May 2017 be a year in which we unite and work together for peace with justice.
[i] MacGinty Roger, “Trump and the academic policy bubble”, blog post 10 November 2016. See https//:rogermacginty.com (accessed 28 December 2016).
[ii] Dexter Phillip, “The ANC, the Inkandlas, and #Zuma Must Fall: A Watershed or a Drowning?” in Daily Maverick, 10 April 2016. See: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2016-04-10-the-anc-nkandla-and-zumamustfall-a-watershed-or-a-drowning/#.WGNtJtJ967Q (accessed 28 December 2016).
[iii] Gentle, Leonard. “The Student Protests and the Battle for Public Opinion”, in al-mizan. Newsletter of the Claremont Main Road Masjid, No. 19, Mawlud 1438, December 2016.