Paradigmatic Philanthropy: Optimism is Mandatory

By Dr. Imam Achmat Salie, UDMercy Islamic Studies director

ImamSalieThe Quran expresses the idea that pessimists, who have despaired in the Loving-Mercy of Allah, are infidels/atheists (kafirun). Innahoo laa yay’asu min rauhillaahi illal qaumil kaafirin. Hope, optimism, positivity, and confidence should always trump fear, pessimism, negativity, essentialism, slippery slope thinking, and a sense of insecurity and paranoia. Pessimism and nihilism could be paralyzing or lead to inaction and suicidal tendencies.

Essentially people are to be trusted, they are good, and capable of greatness-people are sovereigns (khalifatullaahi fi lard). The cosmic argument the angels had with Allah is instructive. The angels worried that Allah would create a being that would be prone to brutal violence, perpetual bloodshed, and mindless conflict. Allah simply says, I know what you do not know-innee a’lamu maalaa ta’lamoon. We root for Allah when we embrace a theology of love with humility, when we restrain our anger and refuse to be divided, when we refuse to be paranoid, insecure, rush to judgment, or become ping pong balls or chess pawns of powerful greedy nations. Guilt by association, collective punishments, preemptive strikes, preemptive prosecution, ethnic cleansing, and annihilation are not part of the strategies of the faithful. We prove the angels wrong when we refuse to give up on peace and conciliation, when we engage each other in meaningful dialogue, and when we get to the root of problems. We are ulul albaab after all-people of the essence or core. Allah knew better than the angels that great men and super women with eagle visions would see the 50,000 feet picture-they’ll see the puppeteer behind the puppets. Numerical strength is inconsequential: a small party could vanquish a mighty army with the permission of Allah-kam min fi’atin…. We have witnessed this recurrently throughout past and recent history. No sleep nor slumber overtakes Allah.

Time and again, the Quran asks us to see the white hair on a black cow: “Perchance you dislike something while Allah has placed in it an abundance of khair (goodness)”. We are often as puzzled about this statement as the angels were perplexed when Allah assured them that the human project is an extraordinary project. The Divine direction is clear: Expect to be sorely tested. Find triumph in tragedy, fusion amid confusion, and when faced with triumph, be humble because the tables might turn.  The mighty of yesterday became the lowly of today.

In his doctoral thesis at Cambridge, Prince Ghazi simply titled it “Love”. He connected 1200 aayaat of the Quran to his topic. One fifth of the Quran on the topic of love is substantial. Prince Ghazi initiated the Commonword movement reaching out to People of the Book (visit the site.

The great monotheistic faiths were born in persecution; every tragedy has equivalent tragedies in the Sacred Text or the life Al-Mustafa-the Chosen One. When his Companions (ashab) were persecuted in Mecca, some of them complained. The Noble Prophet reminded them of ashaab al ukhdood or the companions of Musa who were sawed in two. At times, the Blessed Prophet (s) himself a victim of persecution reminded himself that Musa suffered greatly as leader of his people. Knowledge about the history of Islam’s early development energizes and consoles faithful Muslims. No one was tested as much as the Noble Messenger, his family, and companions-al anbiyaa ashaddu balaa’an…. The Divine Physician often uses suffering as a bitter medicine. The Divine Goldsmith uses the fire of pain and misery to remove dross and mint us into pure gold. The first Muslims faced torture, murder, mutilation, expulsion, persecution, siege, the mass killing of their spiritual elite at Bir Ma’oona, breaking of treaties, distortions of their words and deeds, defamation of character, and whole scale hypocrisy. The good news: It will work out in the end and if it does not work out it is not yet the end. Islam was ejected from Andalusia only to reemerge in Indonesia (Andanusia?)- almost like the Newtonian law of energy: when it is destroyed in one form it reappears in another. Umar the assassin of the Prophet became his champion; the Mongols who piled up pyramids of Muslim skulls, established three of the finest empires (Ottoman, Seljuk, and Mughul). The Ottomans created one of the finest empires with eight autonomous religious legal systems. The Khawarij that killed our Liegelord, Ali (karramallaahu wajhah) became the most pacifist people in Oman and Tunisia. Those who persecute the truth are often persecuted by the truth.

As soon as the believer feels pessimistic about the state of the ummah or his community, several aayaat/verses discourage this pessimism: “As soon as they ignite the fires of war, Allah extinguishes them”, “They desire to extinguish the light of Allah verbally, but Allah will complete His light even though the disbelievers resent that”, and “Surely, difficulty coexists with comfort; certainly hardship coexists with ease”

These and many other verses are eternal reminders that Allah plays an active role in the affairs of His servants (‘ibadur Rahman). Another ayah that underscores Allah’s love for the Truth is: “We will throw the Truth against falsehood and knock out the brains of falsehood until it vanishes” The Arabic verb yadmagh and the noun dimaagh (brains) share the same root radicals. There is no greater solace than knowing that the light of truth will ultimately shine through. The mission of the Prophet (s) was, first and foremost, to be a giver of good news not only a warner.

The Blessed Master counseled us to err on the side of optimism, convenience, and moderation: “Give good tidings, do not scare people away; opt for convenience, not for hardships”, Allah says, “My loving mercy supersedes My anger, My clemency supersedes my punishment” (Hadith qudsi), “Moderation, moderation, you’ll attain your goals”, “This faith is easy, no sooner do we introduce harshness, it will overwhelm us”, and “Idra’ool hudooda bil shubuhaat-waive any penal laws with the slightest doubt”, there is no mention here of a reasonable doubt or a preponderance of doubt.; any doubt will do.

Some English translations of the Quran translate the verse inna ma’al ‘usri yusraa claiming that it is the equivalent of the English proverbs, “For every cloud there is a silver lining” or “there is light at the end of the tunnel”. This is not what the verse says. The verse uses ma’a (with) and not ba’da (after). Ease coexists with hardships, failure with success, nightmares with sweet dreams, and weaknesses with strengths. The Chinese polysemous word crisis comes closer. Crisis in Chinese is both an opportunity and a challenge.

We have some of the finest examples of non-violence among Muslims. Badshah Khan and his non-violent soldiers of Islam, made many of Gandhi’s efforts possible. The Albanian BESA tradition, the Free Men movement at the grand mosque in Paris, Kinyarwanda chronicling the efforts of imams in Ruwanda to save hundreds of lives and display religious tolerance, Sarajevo, Lebanon, India, South Africa… the list is unending-extraordinary stories of Muslims transcending race, religion, and ethnicity to help those in crisis and danger. Muslims are resilient, resourceful, and revolutionary, radical optimists, and radical forgivers.

Conflict, failure, crackpots, weakness, and pain

Conflict, failure, injury, and being crackpots often generate pessimism, whereas they should do just the opposite. It should fire us up. It is a treat to hear people openly discuss their many failures that led to some success.

Roland Schoeman, 10-times Olympic winner in swimming who refuses to retire at age 34 and would be the first South African to compete in 5 Olympics writes in Jul-Aug 2014 Experience Life magazine, “Failure isn’t something to be feared; it’s something to rejoice in. Failure gives us the opportunity to learn and improve. As soon as there’s failure, there’s a reevaluation. What are we doing wrong? What can we be doing better? Too many people see failure as fatal. It isn’t. It’s a prerequisite for success. My goal is to fail as many times as possible so I can figure things out for the 2016 Olympics” (p. 19). Islam has a doctrine of weakness and helplessness-laa haula wa laa quwwata illaa billaa- All the strengths and power belongs to Allah. At Taif, the Prophet opens his heart wrenching prayer with Ilayka ashkoo dha’fata quwwatee… humbly confessing his weakness. Humility is born in weakness and a profound sense of helplessness. Mataa nasrullaah? Lord when is your help coming? Could also translate as Lord, I have exhausted my human strengths, efforts, and creativity; the rest of the project requires Heavenly help. Alaa inna nasrallaahi qareeb; it is then when Allah steps in.

Then we have the epistemology of discomfort and disagreement; we rise and fall by how we treat those who differ, are different, or want to make a difference. When we embrace constructive conflict as ways to grow, we will factor in that conflict. There will always be fools (sufaha), but they do not define us as Muslims.  Optimism could preserve our samity.

“…Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Attributed to Nelson Madela-written by Marianne Williamson


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