Our series has proposed the following principles for maximising our time in sermons:
First, our intention is purely for learning. Second, we must use active forms of learning. Third, we must be ready to ask worthwhile questions. Fourth, we must be willing to accept constructive criticism. Fifth, that we are willing to correct our opinions if proved wrong.
The conclusion to our series focuses on moving from being passive to active; to acting on what we have learnt. But how and what should our action look like?
There is a difference between knowledge, telling others what we know, and acting upon that knowledge. Our lives are spent in consuming information, be it useful or otherwise. In regard to Islamic and moral knowledge, we probably know a plethora and can speak well on Islamic history, our beliefs and practises; we can even tell others how to act and improve. All of these have their importance, however if we do not use our own knowledge or act on what we tell others, then indeed it we who are at a loss.
Therefore there is a clear gap between knowledge, telling others something that you know, and actually acting on that which you say. The Holy Qur’an establishes this principle asking: “يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لِمَ تَقُولُونَ مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ كَبُرَ مَقْتًا عِندَ اللَّهِ أَن تَقُولُوا مَا لَا تَفْعَلُونَ / O you who believe, why do you say that which you do not do? Indeed hated it is to God that you say that which you do not actually do” (61:2-3).
Acting on knowledge and activism are also two different things. Acting on knowledge may be a private act, whilst activism is the sacred act of attempting to change the social order for the better or bringing others to change their acts, whether they are private, public or institutional. The narrations speak about this with the highest of value. For example, Imam Ali (a) said: “خيرُ إخْوانِكَ مَن سارَعَ إلى الخيرِ وجَذَبَكَ إلَيهِ ، وأمَرَكَ بالبِرِّ وأعانَكَ علَيهِ / The best of your brothers is the one who rushes to do good and draws you alongside him, and orders you to do good and helps you with it”.
Note the subtleties about action in the narration. “Rushes to do good” is active; “Draws you alongside” is not just the individual doing good but bringing others to do good as well. “Orders” means showing you where the good can be applied and “Helps you with it” means that even then, if there is any weakness or shortcoming, He assists you in fulfilling it. All of this is action upon action.
One of the leading thinkers of our era is the Slovenian Slavoj Žižek. Commenting about ‘Green Capitalism’, he makes an important point in actions and their consequences or whether they really lead to good or not. He states that we often say, ‘We want to do our bit’. We will recycle or buy organic fruits in the hope that if ‘We all do our little bit, we will make the difference.’ He critiques this attitude saying this had lead to corporations taking advantage of this attitude.
He gives the example of Starbucks. They will say ‘If you buy the $2.95 coffee we will give 5 cents to’ xyz charitable cause. And so we choose to go to Starbucks over, for example, Costa on this basis. And so we buy the $2.95 coffee and the $2.50 donut and so on thinking ‘We have done our bit’. Žižek rightly argues that we think our ‘activism’ is good when in fact we are doing more harm than good. This is because there is the neo-Liberal order and capitalist corporate greed that has caused that injustice in the first place. To then spend money on them only reinforces the system of oppression in the first place. Moreover, this system then gets further power through your spending with them and their ability to choose what the ‘charitable needs’ are.
Islam and Islamic activism was always there to break the back of oppression, to rattle the social order, and to upset the applecart. When we listen to the sermons and the examples of the great early companions, we never imagine they were shy of upsetting people in order to establish justice and nor did they feed into the system that was curating the injustice. As the Qur’an says: “And fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression” (8:39).
The Prophet Muhammad (s) was unrelenting and never inclined one iota to injustice to the extent that when the defeated pagan Quraysh were on the verge of yielding, they offered a compromise: For 364 days of the year we will follow Islam but for one day of the year allow us to keep our idols in the Ka’ba! What type of system would this be?
When the Prophet (s) wanted to bring change his action needed two things: 1) To be the opposite of the unjust system and 2) To lead by example.
The Qur’an states: “وَإِن جَنَحُوا لِلسَّلْمِ فَاجْنَحْ لَهَا وَتَوَكَّلْ عَلَى اللَّهِ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ / And if they incline to peace, then incline to it and trust in Allah; surely He is the Hearing, the Knowing” (8:61).
Allah (swt) commanded to incline toward peace. This is in light of a pagan Arab society that celebrated war. But why did Allah (swt) state, “And trust in Allah”? This is because He knew their intentions did not match their words. But peace building was so important that even then, the Muslims should lead on it and put their trust in Allah (swt).
Acting on our knowledge and knowing how to act are the two greatest goals of listening to sermons, and are the ultimate measurements of what we have taken away from our time in these lectures.