Lessons from the streets: Injustices made visible
(Sermon delivered by Muneeb Nasir at Hart House Debates Room, University of Toronto, November 18 2011).
Preamble: Praises and Advice
I begin by expressing praise and gratitude to Allah for all that we have been blessed with in our lives. We thank Him for all blessings He has given and continues to give us.
We thank Him for guiding us to His way. We thank Him for the blessings of health and well-being.
Secondly, I begin by reminding you that Islam and all divine revelations throughout human history seek to nurture an enduring relationship with Allah.
As such, I remind you to heal any brokenness in your relationship with God: “So keep your duty to Allah as best you can” (Qur’an, Surah 64:16).
My counsel to you in these precious moments on this day of Salat-ul Jum’uah is:
– To be conscious of Allah and conscientious in fulfilling His commands.
– To observe your duties to Allah and observant of His limits.
– To mind your deeds and be mindful of the enduring and eternal value of your actions.
– And do not forget Allah, but be among those who remember Him much.
Lessons from the streets
According to the Qur’an, human beings are created with a natural and innate disposition (fitra) that leads us to recognize the Divine: “[Adhere to] the nature (fitra) of Allah upon which He has created [all] people.” (Qur’an, Surah 30:30); “He (God) has inspired in [human beings] the good or evil [nature] of an act, whosoever has purified it (soul) has succeeded, one who corrupts it has surely failed.” (Qur’an, Surah, 91:8-10).
This innate disposition is engraved in the human conscience and leads humans to question their actions and the imbalances in society.
Today, we reflect on these verses of the Qur’an as we try to understand and draw lessons from the growing discontent being expressed through mass street protests and the occupy movements in cities around the world.
People in many countries are expressing their frustrations with the system they live under by going out onto the streets and into the public squares.
They are fed up and won’t take it any more – they are fed up with being suppressed; they are fed up with being oppressed; and they are fed up with being treated unjustly.
In the second decade of the 21st century, and in this year of 2011, we are observing a shift around the world.
These street protests are leading to unprecedented and rapid changes in many countries.
In the past year, governments have fallen in North Africa and the Middle East as a result of the Arab Spring demonstrations.
In the last few months, protests have sprung up in Europe and North America to push back against austerity measures being imposed by international financial bodies.
Greater equity is being demanded. But we also sense a search for meaning.
The Arab Spring uprisings were sparked by a young 26-year-old fruit vendor in Tunisia who took desperate action by pouring gasoline on himself, then lit himself thereby consuming his body.
The desperate action of this young man, Mohammad Bouazizi, ignited a revolution in Tunisia.
Less than a month later, the dictatorship which ruled Tunisia came to an end.
This led to Tahrir Square in Egypt and fall of another dictator; to the Libyan uprising and the fall of the government; to continuing struggles in Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, and around the region.
Many analysts and commentators have said that these uprisings are about people seeking democracy and aspiring for freedom.
But the word that is frequently mentioned is “dignity”
This wave sweeping across the region, which is indeed a historical turning point, is essentially about restoring dignity to people – a dignity that Allah has conferred on each human being: “Indeed, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam” (Qur’an, Surah 17:70).
For decades, the dignity of people in these lands have been trampled and suppressed by tyrants. What the people in the region are asking for is a restoration of their human dignity.
These uprisings reminded us that when people stand together for common universal values – change happens.
Beyond commenting and analyzing the events that have captivated the world, we must look for lessons we can derive from these historic moments.
We have learnt that courage and non-violent resistance trumps tyranny. Once fear of the tyrant is removed from the hearts of the people, the game is up.
We have learnt that when people mobilize for something noble; to speak truth to power; to fight to restore their human dignity, exceptional things can happen.
Now we are witnessing mass street movements around the world.
Protestors are expressing frustration with, what they say, is an unjust system, one in which 1% take the greatest share of the pie and 99% pick up the crumbs.
Governments are baffled as to what exactly the protestors want: what are their demands? what are the list of things they want?; what do they stand for?. The protestors are described as “fuzzy and unfocused” and “their antics are infuriating people.”
However, the Occupy movement counter that they are anything but fuzzy.
Susan Ursel, the lawyer representing the Occupy Toronto, said that the protestors are “hope made visible” and are engaged in an “exercise of conscience.”
Occupy Wall Street issued a statement this week after being evicted from the New York park stating their movement is a struggle for justice and equity: “We are engaged in a battle over ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people — all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power.”
What the protestors are questioning is the system that has reached its limits.
Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist, calls what we are witnessing the Great Disruption and he is the author of a book by the same name.
He argues that these demonstrations are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits: “I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don’t see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation — I see our system in the painful process of breaking down.”
Canadian icon, David Suzuki, bluntly describes how the world is in the state it finds itself in today: “My generation and the boomers who followed have lived like reckless royalty and thoughtlessly partied like there’s no tomorrow. We forgot the lessons taught to us by our parents and grandparents who came through the Great Depression: live within your means and save some for tomorrow; satisfy your needs and not your wants; help your neighbors; share and don’t be greedy; money doesn’t make you a better or more important person. Well, the party’s over. It’s time to clean up our mess and think about our children and grandchildren.”
These mass street demonstrations and occupy movements have exposed, not just the corrupt dictators in the Middle East and the obscenely rich on Wall street, but almost every other player who are stuck in the past. It has also exposed the lack of moral leadership of the religious establishments whether they are the churches, temples or mosques.
These mass movements are asking tough moral questions.
While the Arab spring is a reminder about the importance of dignity and the aspiration for freedom by human beings, the Occupy movements are a wakeup call about the important moral virtues of justice and equity.
When justice is on the table we must take heed because justice is one of the edifices of this religion: “God commands justice and fair dealing…” (Quran, Surah 6:90); “…Be just, for it is closest to God-consciousness…” (Quran, Surah 5:8); “Believers! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to Allah, even if it be against yourselves, your parents, and your relatives, or whether it is against the rich or the poor…” (Quran, Surah 4:135).
Muslims cannot ignore the voices of people who are calling for a new social contract that is more just.
This is made clear by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) who once said to his companion, Mu’adh Ibn Jabal: ‘Beware of the supplication of the unjustly treated, because there is no shelter or veil between it (the supplication of the one who is suffering injustice) and Allah’ [Hadith, Sahih Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
When imbalance in society takes hold, the conscience of people causes them to rebel, to say ‘enough is enough.’
The street protests and Occupy movements are asking us to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.
Equality and justice must be pursued in a totally new way — this obsession that we have today with endless wealth creation must be stopped.
The justice that we should be talking about is not a competition to redistribute wealth between the 1% and the 99%, to see who gets more stuff.; This type competition is detrimental to our humanity: “The mutual rivalry for piling up (the good things of this world) diverts you (from the more serious things), Until you visit the graves.” (Qur’an, Surah 102:1-2).
As people of Faith, we must bring to the table a discussion of justice that seeks to restore balance by offering insights into the effects of an unbridled obsession to get more material possessions.
We must promote a return to the simple lifestyle that the Prophets of God were sent to teach us – one that teaches us that having more does not make us happier and that dignity is not to be found in rampant consumerism.
We are required, as believers in Allah, to reject lifestyles that destroy ourselves and the planet.
We must ask ourselves, and these events around the world, should be asking us to interrogate ourselves. Are our current ways of living distracting us, destroying us and the planet?: “Believers! Do not let your wealth and children distract you from the remembrance of Allah. Those who do so are losers.” (Qur’an, Surah 63:9).
We have reached the breaking point.
The masses have had enough.
The environment has had enough.
The future of our societies is now being played out on the streets.
People are asking for a better world, for a cleaner world – a world that is just and equitable and one that honors the dignity of people.
We ask forgiveness of Allah for every stumbling on our part, and for every slip and error.
We ask His forgiveness for those of our words which have not been matched by our deeds.
We ask His forgiveness for every covenant we made within ourselves but which we then fell short of fulfilling.
We ask His forgiveness for every blessing which He bestowed upon us but which we employed in disobedience to Him.
And after having asked for His pardon for all these things, we ask that He should honour us with His forgiveness and mercy, and overlook the entirety of our sins, both evident and concealed.
O Allah Forgive us, have Mercy on us, guide us, support us, protect us, provide for us and elevate us
O Allah remove from those who are sick their difficulty and cure them, You are the only One who cures.
O Allah, forgive and have mercy of those who have passed away and elevate their status in the Hereafter.
Our Lord, accept our repentance, cleanse us of our misdeeds, answer our prayers, substantiate our pleas, guide our hearts, straighten our tongues and banish all ill-will from our breasts.
SUZUKI, David (2011). Occupy Movement Demands Fresh Thinking — For Our Grandchildren. Retrieved November 12, 2011 from http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/david-suzuki/occupy-movement_b_1082730.html
GILDING, Paul. The Great Disruption. Bloomsbury US, 2011.
DOBBIN, Murray (2011). A progressive dialogue: Occupy — What can it teach the left? Retrieved November 12, 2011 from http://rabble.ca/news/2011/10/progressive-dialogue-occupy-what-can-it-teach-left
Supplications adapted from a dua that Imam Al Ghazali wrote at the end of one of his volumes of Ihya Ulum Ad Din.