Dr. Hisham Hellyer speaks about how Muslims should respond to the New Zealand massacre and other tragedies.
Islam in the West
As believers, we are well aware that there is nothing that happens beyond the gaze of the Divine. That Providence arranges things in ways that may not seem quite apparent to all of us in the moment, but that it is a staple in the ‘life-diet’ of the believer that the arrangement exists and is wise. In other words, ‘coincidence’ is, objectively speaking, something of an elaborate myth, meant only to explain to the modern secular mind that which we do not have the ability to necessarily comprehend. But the believer well knows that there is an adab (etiquette) to the workings of the world, and that the nizam (order) of time and space has umpteen lessons – if we would only pause to observe them. The racing speedster cannot be surprised when the natural beauties of the world pass them by. In truth, it’s only they who are passing.
In the hours following the New Zealand attack, following that awful and dreadful massacre, the very first congregational prayer (jumma’) was held at the almost completed new mosque in Cambridge, England. As one passes around the elaborate and beautiful building, one is struck by the symbolism of the tree-like structure within. The beams feel and look bright, and light – but they are made of timber, drawn from trees that that have roots deep in the ground, while gazing towards the heavens. That project has taken more than a decade to come to fruition – but just like the most beautiful of trees, which can take far more longer than that to emerge into their fullness, the mosque will, insha’Allah, materialise into a grand testament to the tenacity of the visionaries that sunk their efforts into it.
That, too, is the story of Western Islam. It’s a story that bears repeating, as we all collectively process the awful tragedy and calamity that befell our brethren in that part of the Western umma in New Zealand. A catastrophe that we must note, and take stock of, as we all continue to build and maintain the existence and presence of our communities of the West. The question remains – as, indeed, it always has – how we do so.
A few hours after the jumma’, I had the pleasure of addressing a group of young Cambridge students who were completing a reading of “Adab al-Murid” by Imam Abdullah b. Alawi al-Haddad, one of the most noted scholars of the umma. His closing advice and counsel (nasiha) to the reader is one that reminds us all that the path to spiritual excellence is indelibly connected to two things. The first is sincerity with God. The second is good conduct with people. Much of the closing part of this universal text is precisely that – reminding people that if they would follow God, then they must follow, in a practical sense, the best model of good conduct, which is His Beloved, the Prophet, ‘alayhi salat wa salam.
The Embodiment of Mercy
It is not always easy. It is a tall order. The Holy Prophet was a man who was not merely merciful; rather, he was a man who was mercy embodied. It is for no ‘coincidence’ that he is described in the very word of God as a ‘mercy to all the worlds’. Great sages have, for centuries, discussed at length how that mercy is then exemplified in his practice, his approach, even his basic mannerisms. And he was, it must be said, a man whose time was challenging, hard, and difficult. His enemies sought to obliterate his message, destroy his community, and negate the possibility of the survival of this religion.
Through his courage, wisdom and perseverance, we are who we are today – the inheritors of a noble tradition that has seen great adversity in the past, and yet has thrived. It will never be the sunna of this religion that we are despondent or in despair – rather, it is the practice and mark of this religion that we lift each other up out of worldly bondage, which includes the slavery of evil emotions and urges over ourselves.
But it is difficult. Because when the reading of the text – whether it be that one by Imam al-Haddad, or this one by this author – we all walk out that door into the world. A world where we know we will be faced by trials and tribulations. The answer to that remains – as it always has.
Sincerity with God & Conduct with His creation.
We know that God will never give us something we cannot handle – even if we might not like it. We know that we have been given all the tools we require – even if the medicine we might take is bitter. But as we note that world, we remember – it may appear, as one of our teachers reminded us recently, that the mountain is too big, and cannot be surmounted. But this is a travesty created of our own small minds – because every mountain can indeed be turned into a molehill, by the grace of God. Particularly if we seek to overcome through a heavenly breeze.
As the noble sage, Ibn Ata’illa al-Sakandari said: “Nothing is difficult, if you seek it through your Lord; nothing is easy, if you seek it through yourself.”
As we thus consider the path forward, we are reminded, therefore, of that primordial lesson – to be sincere with the Creator, and to engage in good conduct with His creation. We are reminded to be valiant to the oppressed. We are reminded to be chivalrous to the vulnerable. We are reminded to speak truth to the repressor. We are reminded to oppose the one who would victimise the weak. We are reminded to stand firm in the face of injustice – and we are reminded to do all of this with the intention of seeking the face of God.
Be forewarned – a reminder to myself as well to all of you – that there are no short-cuts in this regard. There are far too many among us who would seek to deal with the difficult situation that Muslims find themselves within by then engaging with the rhetoric and discourse emanating from the conservative right of western politics. In some peculiar way, they might be fooled into thinking that such ideologues, who share a nexus with the populist nationalism and white supremacism that led to the New Zealand attack, could somehow be turned into our allies.
What they fail to recognise, however, is that such ideologues are who they are precisely, and impossibly otherwise, because of how they view Muslims and the modern world more generally. It is not impossible that they might be shorn away from such frames – and, indeed, the world has seen this happen many a time. Muslims believe in the transformation of the basest, most rusty of hearts into the most illuminated of lights. But transformation means transformation. Do not fall into the trap of thinking such ideologues are somehow to be allies against a secular modernity animated by leftism, feminism, cultural Marxism, and all other ‘isms’. Rather, their aim is to play you in this game – and they know this game far better than you. Reject it, and ithbat makanak – hold your position, stand your ground, and be uncompromising against the compromising of principle.
Do not fall to despair, nor to despondency – because the truth is, history remains, as our sages often remind, in good hands. It is our task to be as we were and as we are – souls that remember that primordial covenant, where the lordship of the Divine is recognised – and which presupposes thus duties upon us. To be, as was stated, sincere with God, and to behave well with people.
We ask God to shower His mercy upon the beautiful souls that were taken from this world, and to grant them the highest stations of paradise; to admit them into the ranks of the martyrs; to strengthen their families, as they come to terms with their loss. To give us all the spirit of courage and bravery that the chivalrous embody; the power of heart that would hold forth against all odds; the fortitude of faith that would be as a light in our hearts, a fortitude that cannot be trembled.
Ustādh Dr Hisham A. Hellyer (Biography from ‘A Sublime Way: the Sufi Path of the Makkan Sages’)
A noted scholar and author focusing on politics and religion, Dr Hisham A. Hellyer was born to an English father and to an Egyptian mother of Sudanese & Moroccan heritage and Ḥasanī & ʿAbbāsī lineage. He was raised between London, Cairo and Abu Dhabi, before receiving degrees in law and international political economy from the University of Sheffield, and a doctorate from the University of Warwick. He began researching Islamic law, theology and spirituality in his teens, keeping the company of and studying under a number of classically trained-scholars in the UK, Egypt, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa and elsewhere. They include the likes of Shaykh Seraj Hendricks, the former head of the fatwa department of South Africa’s Muslim Judicial Council, and the khalifa of the Makkan polymath and sage, Sayyid Muhammad b. Alawi al-Maliki.
Dr. Hellyer’s career has included positions at and affiliations with the Brookings Institution, Harvard University, the American University in Cairo, Cambridge Muslim College, and the Centre for Advanced Studies on Islam, Science and Civilisation (CASIS).
He is a frequent commentator and columnist in various media in the United States, Europe and the Arab world, and is included in the annual global list of ‘The 500 Most Influential Muslims’ in the world (‘The Muslim 500’). Among his written works are ‘Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans’ (Edinburgh University Press), ‘A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt’ (Oxford University Press) and “The Islamic Tradition, Muslim Communities and the Human Rights Discourse” (editor)(Atlantic Council). Dr Hellyer works between London, Washington DC, and Cairo, where he continues to research, teach, and study. @hahellyer