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Prophets and Social Activism

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The undeniable primary role of prophets was to call society to Allah and establish a relationship with him. Along with their ideological engagement, the Quran references the social aspects prophets addressed. In long passages from chapters 7 and 11,[1] the Quran describes particular social problems that seemingly were widespread at the time. For example, the people of Noah suffered from a system of social hierarchy which stereotyped the commoner as being weak minded and invaluable “So the eminent among those who disbelieved from his people said, “We do not see you but as a man like ourselves, and we do not see you followed except by those who are the lowest of us [and] at first suggestion. And we do not see in you over us any merit; rather, we think you are liars.”[2] The people of Madyan suffered from widespread monetary conning and exploitation “And do not decrease from the measure and the scale.”[3] Prophet Lot called out his people’s practice of homosexuality as being something despised by God “Do you approach males among the worlds And leave what your Lord has created for you as mates? But you are a people transgressing.” They said, “If you do not desist, O Lot, you will surely be of those evicted.” He said, “Indeed, I am, toward your deed, of those who detest [it]. My Lord, save me and my family from [the consequence of] what they do.”[4]

What must be pointed out, however, is that the social change sought out by prophets was related to their theological duty. These social ails threatened, first and foremost, society’s relationship to Allah. Therefore, these verses constantly reference Allah and return the issue back to theology. After every attempted refutation of the prophet’s position, the prophet responds with theology as if to make it known that their duty as prophets is to call people to Allah and establish that relationship between the individual and their Creator. Thus, elements of social activism enacted by prophets were not to allow unrestricted lifestyles with the ability to choose what is right or wrong based solely on their customs or desires. Rather, their efforts aimed at redirecting society to Allah; to free them from the creation in order to become servants of the creator.

One may attempt to refute this analysis of these Quranic passages as being selective and not representative of the larger picture. Such a concern is invalid since these stories are presented in multiple chapters throughout the Quran consistently portraying the prophets as upholding the duty of changing theology and calling people to follow Allah’s commands.[5] It does not limit their social engagement to the political authority with the intention of freeing society from their shackles or to allow them the freedom to choose any lifestyle they please. Even the story of Moses, which involves a great tyrant, centralizes monotheism. Likewise, the final phase of his life dealt with rebuilding the children of Israel after enduring decades of oppression and injustices. Even then the central focus is their theological deviations while alluding to their social deviations as being rooted in weak theology.[6]

To put it concisely, prophets’ involvement in greater society revolved around preaching theology and expressed social criticism using theology. The primary goal of social engagement and criticisms of injustice and oppression was an effort to alleviate society from that which taints its theology or creates barriers between the individual and Allah. One example from the Quran is Surah Al-Ma’oun which reads “Have you seen the one who denies the Recompense [the Day of Judgement]? (1) For that is the one who drives away the orphan (2) And does not encourage the feeding of the poor. (3)” The verses ascribe abuse of orphans and the poor to disbelief in the day of judgement – a pillar of faith.

Labeling Prophets as Activists

Another recent phenomenon is the labeling of prophets as activists. Since prophets hold a high status in Islam and are considered a pillar of faith the topic of prophets and speaking on their behalf is sensitive. Furthermore, it indicates that improper belief in them threatens the person’s faith as a whole and for this reason the Quran forbids speaking ill of them or mocking them even lightheartedly “And if you ask them, they will surely say, “We were only conversing and playing.” Say, “Is it Allah and His verses and His Messenger that you were mocking? Make no excuse; you have disbelieved after your belief. If We pardon one faction of you – We will punish another faction because they were criminals.”[7] Following these verses is a description of hypocrites (those who outwardly accept Islam but their hearts reject it) eluding to the reader that disrespect of prophets is an attribute of hypocrites and a form of hypocrisy. Anything less than the utmost reverence and respect for prophets is unacceptable and therefore is best to refer to them in a manner that the Quran and hadith affirm.

Both the Quran and hadith tradition address the prophets with titles and attributes that highlight their piety and relationship with Allah. They are not labeled with secular titles void of religious connotation. Furthermore, these titles and attributes can only be understood in a positive manner. For example, al-ameen, which means the truthful and trustworthy, is consistently a praiseworthy attribute that is understood in a positive manner. Words that can be understood both positively and negatively, such as an activist, should not to be used as titles for prophets such as referring to them as activists. An activist can promote good and can promote evil depending on what they are actively promoting. And although prophets had elements of social activism, activism in contemporary times is packaged with politics and ideologies that are often inconsistent with Islamic principles and prophetic characteristics.

One may say that they referring to prophets as activists does not indicate any disrespect so what is the problem? Allah says in the Quran “Do not make [your] calling of the Messenger among yourselves as the call of one of you to another.”[8] Bedouins during the time of the Prophet would call upon him with loud voices using his name or kunya Abu Al-Qasim. Such was the nature of Bedouins who had rough personalities and this verse prohibited them from this characteristic. Calling prophets does not carry positive religious value nor does it offer an aspect of uniqueness. Anyone can be an activist, a Muslim and non-Muslim, a good person and a bad person, a pious person and an un-pious person, but only people chosen by Allah can be prophets and messengers. Therefore the most appropriate manner to address them is with the title “messenger” or “prophet.”

I encourage Muslims to reflect upon the following verse “O you who have believed, do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet or be loud to him in speech like the loudness of some of you to others, lest your deeds become worthless while you perceive not.” Disrespect of the Prophet can occur without one being aware and could have dire consequences such as the nullifying of the person’s deeds.

Allah knows best.

[1] Quran 7:59-93, 11:25-95

[2] Quran 11:27

[3] Quran 11:84

[4] Quran 26:169

[5] See Quran 6:74-82, 7:59-94, 11:25-95, 26:1-191

[6] Quran 2:40-105, 7:138-163

[7] Quran 9:65-66

[8] Quran 24:63

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Shaykh Tarik Ata was born and raised in the Southwest Suburbs of Chicago. Shaykh Tarik pursued his higher education at Northern Illinois University where he attained a BA in psychology. After graduating from NIU, Shaykh Tarik studied at the World Islamic and Science Education University (also called the Islamic University) in Jordan. He received a BA in Islamic Jurisprudence and its foundations, as well as an MA in Islamic Jurisprudence with a specialty in Islamic commerce and finance. While working on his degrees, Sheikh Tarik also studied with scholars and achieved various certifications (ijazat) in Islamic Jurisprudence, the foundations of Jurisprudence, the science of Hadith, the Arabic language, Quranic recitation, and Islamic creed/theology. He is currently the imam at the Orange County Islamic Foundation.

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#Culture

Messiah, A Fitnaflix Production

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Netflix released Season 1 of a new thriller series called “Messiah”. The series imagines the emergence of a character claiming to be sent by God, the Messiah, or Al-masih (messiah in Arabic) as he is referred to in the television series. 

This so-called Al-masih first emerges in Damascus at a time when ISIS is about to storm the city. He then appears in Palestine, Jordan and ultimately America. Along the way, he performs miracles and dumbfounds the Israeli and American intelligence officers charged with tracking him and figuring out who is enabling him. The season ends with a suggestion that he is truly a divine man, with the ultimate miracle of reviving the dead.

The entertainment value here is quite limited. Some stretches of the series are just flat or straight out boring, and the acting is not all that great. However, the series does create an opportunity for discussion about Muslim eschatology (the knowledge of the end of times), response to fitnah (faith testing tribulations) and Muslims portrayal in and consumption of entertainment media. 

The series shows some sophistication in the portrayal of Muslim characters relative to what people have been accustomed to with Hollywood. Characters that are situated in the Middle East are performed by actors from that region who speak authentic regional Arabic (including Levantine and North African dialects). The scenes appear authentic. While this is progress, it is limited, and the series falls into oversimplification and caters to typical stereotypes. While several Muslim characters draw the viewers’ empathy, they are not used to provide context or nuance for issues that the series touches on: ISIS, refugees, the Israeli occupation and suicide bombings. The two American Muslim characters are never really developed. In fact, all Muslim characters tend to be “flat” and one dimensional. This is in contrast, for example, to American and Israeli characters which appear multi-dimensional and complex, often dealing with personal challenges that a Western audience is likely to identify with (caring for an aging parent, mourning the loss of a spouse, balancing career and life, dealing with family separation, abortion, etc.). While Muslim characters are shown as hapless refugees, terrorists, religious followers, political activists, a university professor and student, their stories are never developed.

The show repeatedly refers to Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. There is also consistent normalization of Israeli occupation and glorification of the occupying forces.  

Islamic eschatology 

Orthodox Muslims affirm a belief in “the signs of the End of Times, including the appearance of the Antichrist, and the Descent of Jesus 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) the son of Mary 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him), from the celestial realm. We also believe in the sun’s rising from the west and the appearance of the “Beast of the Earth from its appointed place” [1]. Dr. Omar Al-Ashqar gives a detailed review of the authentic narrations regarding the signs of the end of times in his book Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra [2]. When it comes to actual figures who will emerge in the end of times, Sunni scholars generally affirm the following:

  • Imam Mahdi, who is a just ruler who will share the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) name. 
  • The False Messiah (Antichrist), or Al-Masjih Al-Dajjal, who will be the greatest fitna to ever to afflict this Ummah. 
  • The True Messiah, Isa ibn Maryam, who returns in the end of days, kills the Antichrist and rules for 40 years and establishes justice and prosperity – close to the time of the day of judgement. 

The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) warned that the fitna of Al-Dajjal will be the most severe ever. In a hadith narrated by Ibn Majah and others, the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) is reported to have said, “Oh people, there has not been a fitna on the face of the earth, since God dispersed the progeny of Adam, greater than the fitna of Al-Dajjal. Every prophet of God warned his people from Al-Dajjal. I am the last prophet. You are the last Ummah. He will appear amongst you no doubt!”

Al-Dajjal comes after a period of famine and drought. He will be one-eyed and will claim to be God. Believers will recognized a mark or word of disbelief on his forehead. He will perform many miracles. He will endow those who follow him with material prosperity and luxury, and those who deny him will be inflicted with deprivation and suffering. He will travel at high speeds, and  roam the whole world, except Makkah and Madinah, which he will not be able to enter. He will create a heaven and hell, command rain, the earth, animals, and resurrect the dead – all supernatural occurrences that he has been afforded as a trial and test for others. The Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) went as far as encouraging us to flee from confronting him, because it will be a test of faith like no other.

Reflections on the series and lessons to be learned

The Prophets and the righteous are not tricksters and riddlers.

The Netflix series portrays the character ‘al-masih’ as someone who speaks cryptically; it is never clear what he is teaching and why. He leads his followers on long physical journeys without telling them where they are going or why. He speaks in riddles and tortures his followers with mental gymnastics and rhetorical questions.

On the other hand, a true prophet of God offers real guidance and brings clear teachings and instructions – the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) spoke clearly to his followers, he taught them how to worship Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) alone, to be just, to uphold the ties of kinship, to look after one’s neighbour, and so on. He did not abandon them in a state of confusion to fend for themselves. Moreover, “al-masih” deceives his followers by concealing his true name (“Payam Golshiri”) and background – something a righteous person would never do, let alone a prophet.

What Netflix got right and what it got wrong

The Al-masih character initially emerges in Damascus (and the Islamic tradition mentions Isa ibn Mariam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend in Damascus). However, the character is eventually revealed to hail from Iran. A number of ahadith refer to Al-Dajjal first appearing in Khurasan, which is part of modern-day Iran. He poses as a righteous person, but it is revealed that he doesn’t pray at all. He quotes religious scripture, but only to service his cryptic speeches. That Al-Dajjal would pose as a religious person would not surprise Muslims, since some hadith mention he will emerge from the remnants of the Khawarij, a heterodox group known for overzealousness and fanaticism [3]. Al-Dajjal travels the world at fast speeds, disappearing from one land and appearing in another, just as the character in the series does. 

messiah

photo credit: IMDb

However, numerous features of Dajjal would make his identity obvious to believers, not the least of which is that the word ‘disbeliever’ will be written – whether literally or metaphorically (scholars differ) – on his forehead in such a manner which even those unlettered would be able to read. Physically, Dajjal is a short man, with a deformity of his legs, and one of his eyes is likened to a “floating grape”, sightless, and “green like glass”. The Prophet is said to have focused on these physical features because they are so manifest and eliminate any confusion.

Al-Dajjal’s time overlaps with that of two other eschatological figures – Imam Mahdi and Esa ibn Maryam 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him). Imam Mahdi is prophesized to fill the world with justice and rule for seven years, after which Dajjal will emerge. While the Muslims following al-Mahdi are taking shelter in Damascus, Prophet Esa 'alayhi'l-salām (peace be upon him) will descend and eventually slay the Dajjal. Therefore, according to the Islamic eschatological tradition, things will get better before they get worse before they get better again – Imam Mahdi precedes Dajjal and Dajjal precedes Prophet Esa [2].

Safeguarding against tribulations

The best safeguard is to have sound knowledge of theology and law, and to have our iman rooted in revelation and reason. For example, the most basic understanding of Islamic theology would lead us to reject any man who claims to be God, as Al-Dajjal will claim. With basic Islamic knowledge and reasoning, we would know that Allah does not manifest in human-like form, much less one that is deformed, as Allah is the all Powerful and Perfect. Could it be that at the end of times even such essential Islamic knowledge is lacking? 

walking on water

Al-Dajjal deceives people by his miracles and supernatural abilities. Our iman should not be swayed by supernatural events and miracles. We should measure people and ideas according to their standing with the Shari’ah. We must keep our heads level and not be manipulated because we cannot explain an occurrence. 

Al-Dajjal also lures people by his miracles and by his ability to give them material prosperity, comfort and luxury. We must tie our happiness and sense of satisfaction to eternal spiritual truths, not to the comforts of this life, and be willing to give up what we have for what we believe. We should live simply and not follow into the path of excessive consumerism and materialism.  

Another important consideration is not to base our connection to Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) on another human being (except the Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). Scholars, celebrity preachers, imams and teachers are all prone to error and sin. We must use the Shariah and the Prophet Muhamamd’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) character and teaching as the filter by which we evaluate them, not the other way around. Despite his obvious deformities, the Antichrist will be a mesmerizing blinding celebrity, but whose falsehood will be uncovered by believers who make judgements based on loyalty to principle, not personality. 

Is it time to live on a remote mountain?

The clearest indication of the nearness of the Day of Judgement is the prophethood of Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). The Prophet likened the difference between his time and the Day of Judgement as the difference in length between the index and middle fingers. However, before we sell everything and move to a remote mountain, let’s exercise care in projecting Islamic eschatology on the political events of our times. The reality is that no one knows when these things will happen. Explaining the current phase in our history away by end of times theories or conspiracy theories, are simpleton intellectual copouts that lead our Ummah away from actively working towards its destiny. Anyone who has claimed that this event (remember Y2K) or that event is a major sign of the Day of Judgement has been wrong, so far. There were scholarly guesses in the early centuries of Muslims that expected the Hour 500 years after the Prophet’s ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) death. Yet, here we are. No one knows.

The best you can do is stay calm and make salat!

Muslims and the entertainment media

This increased sophistication and the apparent familiarity with Islamic sources exhibited by Messiah producers should lead us to value the importance of producing accurate, authentic and polished material and content about Islam and Muslims and our community’s role as a source of information. 

It is also important for Muslims to produce works for the mass media and entertainment industries. This is no longer the era of the sole MSA Da’wah table. Sophisticated, entertaining and authentic media production is an imperative for modern Muslims.  When we don’t tell the story, someone else will. 

Make it a Netflix Night?

We may refer to it as Fitnaflix, but let’s all admit that we cannot avoid television and the entertainment industry, for better or for worse. We can however moderate, guide and channel its use. Start breaking the isolation in which many of our children and young adults consume media. Families should watch TV together and use it as an opportunity to model how we select appropriate material and to create teaching and discussion moments. Parents should know what is influencing their kids even if they don’t like it. 

Some parts of the series Messiah, despite its flaws (and an explicit sexual scene in episode 9, not to mention profanity), could be used as a teaching moment about trials and tribulations, the end of times and the importance of Muslims engaging in the entertainment industry in a principled and professional manner. 

Ed’s note: Much of the series’ content is R-rated. Besides depictions of terrorism and other mayhem, sexual activity and brief rear nudity are shown. Mature themes include abortion, adultery, infertility and alcoholism.

Works Cited

[1] T. C. o. I. Al-Tahawi, Hamza Yusuf (trans), Zaytuna Institute, 2007. 
[2] O. Al-Ashqar, Al-Qiyamah Al-Sughra, Dar Al-Nafa’is, 1991. 
[3] [Online]. Available: https://abuaminaelias.com/dailyhadithonline/2014/06/23/dajjal-emerges-khawarij/.

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Civil Rights

Podcast: Lessons from the Life of Malcolm X | Abdul-Malik Ryan

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One of the things that happens with historical figures who continue to remain well-known and influential years after they can continue to speak for themselves is that others seek to speak for them.  Attempts are made to co-opt their legacy, either in sincere efforts for good or in selfish efforts for ideological or even commercial gain.  This is especially true of Malcolm X, who is not only a historical and political icon but in many ways a “celebrity” remembered by many primarily for his style and attitude.

The only real and meaningful tribute we can pay to Malcolm X is to follow his example. Click To Tweet

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Podcast: We Are All Slaves of Allah | Hakeemah Cummings

Guests
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Once, while in class at college, an Arab girl I was sitting next to said quite loudly to another, “Hey, give this paper to the ‘abdah” referring to a black girl in the class. I wondered if she was even aware of what she was saying in English. Did she think that ‘abdah translates to “black girl” and never thought of its true meaning? Did she think that I didn’t understand?

 

Read by Zeba Khan, originally posted here on Muslimmatters.org.

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