Dec 4, 2017, Chicago
The recent allegations pertaining to the sexual abuses of Tariq Ramadan, a revered and beloved Islamic scholar and leader in the Muslim community, has created shockwaves among his staunch admirers and ardent followers who live worldwide. He has denied the allegations of course and at some point a court of law will decide on who is telling the truth. Conspiracy theories are already circulating, blaming various hostile groups in France and Israel, who did not particularly like his growing influence, both within and outside the Muslim community, in France and perhaps the rest of the world.
Born in a family with ties to the charismatic and popular Egyptian Muslim leader Hasan Al Banna, one might say he was no stranger to fame. However it was his bold and open exhortation for social and political engagement of the Muslims living in the west, that were the hallmarks of his presentations, which coupled with his Islamic scholarship, that provided not only legitimacy to his arguments and approval among the Muslim masses but also concerns among some non Muslim circles.
Closer to home here in America, another Islamic scholar, whose reputation has been similarly tarnished from allegations of sexual abuse, recently made public, is Nouman Ali Khan, another very popular and respected Islamic scholar in the country, attracting huge crowds, wherever and whenever he speaks.
So here are some questions to ponder. In a world beholden to celebrities in all walks of life, are we making our charismatic Islamic scholars into rock stars too? The kind of rock stars that live in an alternate reality of their own. Are they therefore to be held to the same or a higher standard, where their private lives unlike ours, are public property? And if they do not measure up, who really needs to be blamed? Them or us? We give them the power and the permission, don’t we?
The high profile cases of sexual abuse here in America, we have been hearing about from the daily disclosures in our national news these days, point to a growing trend in bringing to light the abuses of the distant past, by a growing class of courageous women, unwilling to stay in the shadows of silence anymore. Is this a harbinger of greater disappointments for us to be prepared for as well, in our own community’s future history? Time will tell.
This much we know and must acknowledge. The abuses of power are many within our community and no need to cling to the current day fashionable logic of ‘fake news’, when we hear of them. Just as in present day America, our community is not free from the presence of ‘fake leaders’ either. We have witnessed with great pain and sadness, the fall from awe and respect, of some of our most revered scholars and leaders.
Power we have seen so often, is never too difficult to corrupt. Of course it does not have to manifest only through sexual abuse. Power and pride are corrupting companions indeed, that can lead us to unhappy ends, both here and perhaps in the hereafter as well. That is why the emphasis on humility is so strong in the guidance of Quran. That is why the story of Iblis has such profound meaning and wisdom against the embrace of pride and arrogance.
Leadership in any field demands character to be authentic. Without character individuals within a community cannot be significant or relevant. We cannot build community without building character.
We don’t need to buy this nonsense that our future success lies in the building of awesome structures. Go take a look at the Taj in Agra and see what it did for the Muslims in India. Remember the example of our Prophet (pbuh). After the conquest of Mecca, in spite of his love for the Kaaba, he returns to Medina, to his community, the community whose character he shaped and built.
Our future success as a community of faith, notwithstanding the rise and fall of our leaders, is who we choose to be ourselves, through the exercise of practices that build character. Sadly our practices within our mosques upon which we place so much emphasis, are but a small piece in the puzzle for building character.
We cannot build character through education either. The list of ivy league graduates who fall short of our expectations when they reach the exclusive circles of Washington or the powerful board rooms on Wall Street, remind us of this disconnect, unfailingly every day.
No, character is built through a life of service and sacrifice away from the glare and glitz of the public eye. Service that serves the other and goes beyond our self-interest. Sacrifice that pushes us to feel the pain of giving, till it begins to really hurt. Too many of us are used to the ‘good life’ we have been blessed with, to venture out of our comfort zones to feel any discomfort.
Too many of us in America are intoxicated with the elixir of liberty and have become unfamiliar with the taste of justice and what it means to drink of it. All we have come to care for are our individual rights, our personal happiness, and our self-interest. What happens to the other is of little concern to us. Be it with immigration or healthcare, or education or Black Lives. The young among us are happily making more progress and moving in the right direction. Yet much more is needed for us as a community, to become relevant and effective in the life of our new homeland. If we are serious about building community, we cannot do it without engagement.
One more concern. We are seeing the slow and steady disregard for the values that build community, through our increasing push for ‘identity’. We see that in our absorption with our cultural and ethnic particularities, which often make us loose sight of the concerns of our neighbors. We see that in our continued insistence for establishing our own schools in the name of providing better environment for our kids and promoting better values, isolating them from the experiences of neighborhood schools, arguably the crucibles for building enduring relationships with their peers, across racial, religious and ethnic divides. We are even separating ourselves internally within the community, through linguistic, geographic and religiously inspired preferences, mocking the demands of tauhid we all claim to believe in.
Our work of building community in America is just beginning now. The past fifty years or more were spent in overcoming our individual insecurities, both financial and religious. Given our successes of the past and our struggles in the present, this work might prove to be much more daunting than the one before.
For one thing we are learning, character cannot be faked. There is no recourse for authenticity. Living lives of double standards is living lives with deceit. What patterns of behavior we adopt for ourselves in public cannot be any different from those we pursue in private. Neither what we practice within the privacy of our sacred spaces be any different from what we do in the marketplace of our public lives. Hypocrisy cannot sustain us. There can be no compartments in life as the Quran teaches us. The problem has never been our faith. It has always been our practice of it.
Our journey from hypocrisy to authenticity is without doubt a difficult one. Whether we are known in public, or unknown in private, the challenges are never less. There are those tempting side roads all along this journey, which make us lose our way quite easily. The side roads of pride, power, greed, lust and self-interest. Sometimes a lifetime may not be enough to reach our desired destination. Yet some do make it, armed with the right beliefs and the will to act upon them. They are the ones who earn our abiding love, respect and admiration both when the light is shining upon them and when it is not. To be wanting to be like them, to reach that state of unity of being, of undeniable authenticity, we have to be willing to pay the price.
In the words of Allama Iqbal:
Mera Tareeq Ameeri Nahin, Faqeeri Hai
Khudi Na Baich, Ghareebi Mein Naam Paida Kar!
My way is not of the rich and arrogant but of the beggar;
Sell not your character and soul for fame! Earn it while living in poverty.
So first we build character. Then we build community. Then we reach out to build great networks with groups that share our views, but come from different traditions. Then if we are so fortunate and blessed some day, to achieve power and authority, we exercise it with humility and reverence to the Guidance we possess, which we had left in velvet covers for the past so many centuries.
May Allah inspire us to travel on His less travelled path.
Dec 4, 2017, Chicago