When Muslims hear this title, they’ll most probably think we’ll discuss the deep faith of Bilal. Bilal, a slave then, was tortured by his master to renounce Islam; Bilal simply uttered Ahad! Ahad! Allah is One! Allah is Indivisible!
Racism is a cancer. In 1865 Du Bois’ abolitionist friends thought they had lain race to rest. In 1965, the Civil Rights movement leaders thought they had made a breakthrough and that discrimination based on race would be a matter of the past. In 2015, we still witnessed Ferguson, Baltimore, and now Charlotte, N.C. Bilal’s race or courage is not the story I’m addressing here. The topic here is single-handed determination-no matter the odds- stacked against our hero’s faith and how determination pays off.
The Quran refers to Ibrahim as an ummah (Q 16: 120)/ a nation and then instructs us to follow his millah/ methodology. Ibrahim AS challenged the status quo as a teen and was called to build a house for worship of Allah in a barren desert; no one in Ibrahim’s time could have predicted a place of worship that operates 24/7/365. A place with rocks blackened by the scorching sun became a sprawling metropolis to which millions flock to for Hajj and Umrah. When Yusuf AS as a prisoner asked to be made treasurer of the cabinet of one of the rulers of Egypt, he was asking for a high-level political post. Nabi Yusuf , a former slave and now a prisoner, aimed for one of the highest political offices in the land when he solicited the king. The king first recognized his talent (Q 12: 44) asserting that he is most capable and trustworthy. Yusuf in turn promised to be scrupulous, guardian of the treasures and provide insightful economic and predictive financial analyses (Q 12: 45). Yusuf had his own talents of dream interpretation. As a monotheist, he cooperated with a non-believing system in which kings, called Pharaohs, claimed to be gods. Yusuf saved his family from sure death during a time of famine or the Great Depression of his era.
Heroes in the past included soldiers, imams, thinkers, visionaries, brave globetrotters such as Ibn Batuta, but modern day heroes come in different forms-doctors without borders, pro bono lawyers risking their lives, and others. FIMA (Federation for Islamic Medical Associations) report that they have performed 100,000 free corneal surgeries and set up many mobile hospitals in deprived areas across the world, IMANA has done more than 700 free cleft lip surgeries, etc. Those who establish mosques, schools, universities, organizations, and movements in distant places are also heroes.
Eboo Patel reminds us that many 20th century heroes, notably Gandhi and MLK were in their late teens and 20s when they were inspired to make a difference. A billboard with a picture of the late Nelson Mandela and a simple caption; “This one person made a difference”. Rafik Hariri used his billions to make a difference and transcend sectarian and divisive thinking. Anusha Ansari, an American Iranian billionaires, made a difference with the Ansari prize worth 10 million per project that challenges men and women to do what no one thought possible. Mo Ibrahim in Africa has a most generous standing challenge to African rulers to be truly democratic-serve only one term, earn two million and $200,000 annually till the end of their lives. The Turkish owner of Chobani spent two of his four billion dollars on Syrian refugees. The motivation of these men and women world icons and treasures of humanity was never to become famous; their pure transcendent altruism earned them fame.
Not every community or nation has a crisis of leadership. Pope Francis is making a difference doing what was thought unheard of for a man in his office; he washed the feet of two Muslim prisoners-one was a woman. His latest 184-page encyclical released this June 16, 2015 condemns wars by ruthless exploiters with noble disguise, economic greed, and a blind belief in rapid progress (rapidification) that disadvantages the poor. Dignity to this Catholic leader is inalienable, unique, infinite, and immense. To care for the vulnerable we must give and not give up (infaq/ spend and not be hypocritical/nifaq) and give priority to being over being useful; the mere breath of the Merciful/ Nafas-al-Rahman in the elderly give them the same inalienable dignity and our inalienable responsibility even though society would not see them as being useful. Allah assists us because of the weak among us.
We have unsung Muslim heroes but we need each Muslim to join the rank of heroes-that is democratize greatness and the political will to make a difference. Prophet of Islam was certainly the ultimate exemplar. He praised the faith in the unseen of his ikhwan (brethren) who will be on pulpits of light (noor); preferring their absolute faith to that of his companions (sahabah). Now if the ashabur rasool were like stars the ikhwanur rasool be even brighter. Each one of us needs to identify a cause and a calling. For instance, the movement to channel food to the poor is note worthy; one-third of the world’s food is being dumped every year. Forgotten Harvest retrieves only a fraction of that for the poor and starving millions of throw away people in the USA. Also turning waste into energy is rewarding in both worlds.
At times, it takes ONE good person to restore hope, ONE good leader to restore balance, and ONE good captain to successfully navigate a ship through a storm. Islam gives us agency and autonomy (Q 53: 39) ”Humans get nothing but what they strive for” and (Q 13: 11) “Allah does not change people that resist change”. So if Ibrahim was an ummah/nation and Yusuf-a former slave and prisoners became head of the Public Treasury then the standing challenge of the Quran is that we live our purpose of becoming the best stewards, vicegerent/khalifa’s -leaders towards goodness and greatness, racing to the top and not to the bottom.
Allow me to end with an anecdote. On a very rainy night on a slippery road, a newly licensed teen sped and landed in a ditch. After a long while a local farmer with a half blind horse and his cart came to the rescue. During the efforts to pull the car out of the ditch, the farmer called the horse many names. When the teen was set to drive away, he wanted to know why the farmer called the horse by so many names. “You see,” the farmer explained. “My horse is half blind and if I call him by these many names he does the work of 10 horses.” To pioneers we’ll say, “Let’s do as much as we can pretending we have an army of helpers”. We are not alone. (Q 3: 126) Help is certainly from Allah Omnipotent and Most Wise. A dynamic team with each one selflessly doing the work of 10 is a force to be reckoned with. Acting silo when help is available is not intended here, but becoming indispensable and passionate about the causes we appropriate.
Editor’s note: Dr. Imam Achmat Salie is an Instructor of Religious Studies and Director of Islamic Studies at the University of Detroit Mercy. To support the endowment for the Islamic studies program please visit http://liberalarts.udmercy.edu/programs/depts/religiousstudies/islam/program/giving.htm. The views of the author are solely his own.