“If you can be anonymous, do so readily. What is wrong with being unknown? What is wrong with being ignored by people if you are praised in the presence of Allah?” – al-Fuḍayl b. ʿIyāḍ
I grew up in an environment where the stories of heroes from our illustrious Islamic past were frequently mentioned to us. Because of my background, I feel well placed to comment on some of the tensions that exist around promoting famous historical figures.
I get it: we sometimes read about the life of a famous person, like Imam Shāmil. And after being inspired by their life’s work and miraculous achievements, the first question that pops into our heads is: “Why are we only finding out about this person now? We should have known about this person ages ago!” And so we proceed to let others know about them. Whether it is the next khuṭbah, Facebook post, or YouTube video, we are convinced that others should experience the same inspiration, love, and īmān boost that we felt when reading about a legend. And we are not wrong in doing such things. There is a big disconnect between our past and present. In fact, that disconnect is likely to be intentional. “You can’t hate the roots of the tree, without hating the tree”, as brother Malcolm X once said. Colonial powers made it their mission to disconnect our peoples from their roots. This is because if they do not know their origins, they will not know where to go. I am all for the promotion of our heroes and heroines from the past. Likewise, I am grateful for all of those working in this space, so that we may reorient ourselves (no pun intended).
I have one caveat though, and that relates to the matter of hero worship. Now, before someone rushes and cites al-ʿAqīdah al-Ṭaḥāwiyyah against me, no, I am not referring to the actual worship of heroes. We all know what I mean by hero worship: it is to idolise someone (but not that kind of idol!). In other words, you create an image that goes beyond who that person actually is and essentially render them to be perfect, sinless, and superhuman. As we all know, this is a dangerous approach because the moment Yahya or Fatimah becomes exposed to some shortcoming of their hero, they may end up throwing out the baby with the bath water. They could end up leaving Islam altogether, particularly if they are left traumatised. This has essentially been the prevailing experience of the Western world. In many cases, people literally worshipped their heroes by turning them into saints. Later on when they found out that some of their idols were not so heroic, they ultimately decided that no one was worthy of being a saint, and considered everyone to be a sinner. This mentality can be found in movies and even biographies of historical figures. The starting point is that the hero must have flaws, and not just any old flaws, but pretty devilish ones.
Now, I am not arguing that many historical figures did not have flaws. However, I argue that many of our historical figures were nowhere near as flawed as those found in the Western tradition. Just because others are on an anti-hero crusade, this does not mean that we have to join them as well. At the very least, we must not join their side for these deeply cynical reasons.
My argument is that hero worship – or at least the way we portray our historical figures – has been problematic. This is because if we depict them as being superhuman individuals who never struggled in their lives, many brothers and sisters will feel disconnected from the stories we present. Some may even become depressed, because they feel that they cannot be as great as their heroes are (this is often the motivation for having a villain in a cartoon movie!). Unfortunately, the reaction to this from our community has sometimes been to adopt the Western approach by saying, “Don’t worry, your hero has major flaws too!” But this approach is not needed, nor do I feel that it is particularly consistent with the dictates of good etiquette. I am not saying that flaws should purposely be kept hidden. Instead, what I am arguing is that flaws should only be highlighted within a certain context, namely when they provide a significant learning point for us. This is a sensitive area that brothers and sisters will have to carefully navigate, and wisely determine when such objectives are met. Without any doubt, mistakes will be made along the way. However, as long as we maintain this goal, we will eventually get there, inshā’ Allāh.
My simple solution would be to remind individuals that whenever discussing figures of the past, they should observe these key principles:
- If Allah made someone intensely successful in the past, that is His right and blessing upon them.
- The ultimate blessing is that of good news in the Hereafter, not in this world. This world is almost completely devoid of value. As the Messenger ﷺ said, “If the world was worth as much to Allah as the wing of a mosquito, those who do not believe would not have had their thirst quenched from it with even a drop of water”
- Just because Allah made someone successful in this world, that does not make us entitled to experience the same worldly success.
- People in the past did not normally become successful because they pursued worldly salvation. In fact, if we look at the Companions and figures held up as paragons of success in our history, we notice that many of them did not care at all for this world. They conferred it little value, even though they were surrounded by its riches. As Imam Ibn al-Qayyim said, “This world looks at you proportionately to how much value your heart attaches to it. If you are overwhelmed by love for it, it makes you one of its humiliated slaves. If it realises no value for itself in your heart, it deems you with awe and becomes your obedient slave!”
- Just because you are not well known in this world, that does not mean you are not well known with Allah, nor does it indicate failure in the Hereafter. Recall how Allah sent us 124,000 Prophets, and yet how many of their names are known to us? 25? Perhaps 50 at best, and that is only the case if we rely on the Old Testament as well.
- There are many ways to earn Allah’s pleasure. Just because someone in the past adopted one approach, that does not mean we are limited to that approach by any means.
- Success in this life does not automatically mean success in the Hereafter.
- The fate of the Ummah is in Allah’s Hands, not ours. That does not mean we do nothing. On the contrary, it means we must exert ourselves. But this action is only done because He commanded us to do so, not because we believe that if we do not act, all will be lost. This latter mentality is promoted by the Western tradition, which often leads to arrogance, despair, and a lack of trust in Allah.
- Our goal in life is not to be successful in this world, rather it is to please Him.
In my opinion, stories of the past have clear purposes:
- They can teach us how to practically overcome situations that our predecessors found themselves similarly in.
- They can teach us how to avoid some of the tactical mistakes our forefathers made.
- They should inspire love for Allah within us whenever we are connected with those who love Allah.
- They are a means by which we can further strengthen the ties of brotherhood and sisterhood that Allah has obligated us with. Who said that giving the benefit of the doubt only applies to those who are alive? Who said that we cannot earn Allah’s pleasure by making duʿā’ for our deceased brothers and sisters, and asking Allah to elevate their status in the Hereafter? The Prophet ﷺ once went to the graveyard and said, “I wish I could meet my brothers.” The Prophet’s Companions said, “Are we not your brothers?” The Prophet ﷺ said, “You are my Companions, but my brothers are those who have faith in me, although they never saw me.” If the Prophet ﷺ missed his future Companions, can we not miss those in the past too, even if we never met them?
Problems start to occur when stories transition from the above purposes to simply making statements like, “Look at how amazing Mawlānā X was.” This brings me back to the initial quotation mentioned in the beginning. Those in the past stressed the need for being discrete and exerting one’s attempts at pleasing Allah without too much fanfare. Yet look at what Allah did: He made those individuals famous! If we use history in the right way, Allah may make us historical figures that inspire others in the future. And even if He does not, this world is temporary and His Reward in the Hereafter is never ending.
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One of the reasons that we may feel disconnected from the stories that are presented in our khutbahs and lectures is because, typically, they are relatively short and therefore the imams and ustadhs focus on the truly heroic and inspirational parts. However, if we invest our time in listening to or reading lengthy seerah series or lengthy biographies then we will come across all the different aspects of their lives: the heroic elements as well as the dire mistakes. There is no need to worry about the idea of exposing the mistakes as Muslims with knowledge are well aware of the mistakes that should be highlighted for the purpose of learning from them. In the lengthy seerah series and biographies, these are mentioned in context among all the different aspects of their lives.
It’s a shame that many Muslims are willing to put in hours to watch a drama series that is 40 episodes long but can’t work their way through a seerah series of similar length.
What I find even more worrying, and I’ve mentioned this before, is not the idea of being disconnected by these heroic stories but by the fact that many Muslims today then have an unrealistic picture of how political events should unfold. They hold Muslims in war torn countries to a standard that has never existed.
I’ve mentioned before the mistakes of Khalid Ibn Waleed (ra) that resulted in a tremendous amount of suffering. During the incident of Bani Judhaimah there is even a very little told story of the man who was not part of this tribe (many of who Khalid (ra) had executed as he misunderstood that they did in fact want to accept Islam). This man was only there because of a woman he loved who was from that tribe. He asked to speak to her and then told her to become a Muslim before he was executed. She witnessed this, came over to his body, sighed once or twice and then fell dead next to him. It seems like she died from a broken heart! Our beloved prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) was extremely upset about the whole incident: the killing of many of this Muslim tribe as well as the story about the man and the woman. Regarding the two of them he exclaimed, “Was there not a merciful man among you?” However, did Allah’s messenger remove Khalid (ra) from his position, shun him or punish him? No, he didn’t. His response was to order that blood money be paid to the families and to raise his hands and say,
“O Allah, I declare that I am innocent of what Khalid has done.”
During the time of Abu Bakr’s (ra) Khilafah, when Khalid (ra) possibly made a mistake by ordering the execution of Malik Ibn Nuwairah, even Umar Ibn al-Khattab (ra) angrily advised Abu Bakr (ra) to “Change him! Because his sword is severe.” Many Muslims accept Abu Bakr (ra) as being extremely wise and the best companion from all of the companions but do we have the wisdom and foresight to say what he said when similar mistakes happen in the heat of battle today? Abu Bakr’s (ra) response was,
“I am not going to sheath a sword that was unsheathed by Allah ‘Azzawajal on the mushrikeen (polytheists).”
Instead, we would rather accuse those in chaotic, war-torn countries of being Khwaarij as, apparently, they kill even more Muslims than the disbelievers do. I recently came across the first incident that caused Ali (ra) to fight the Khwaarij in his time. Until then, Ali’s response was to leave them alone unless they killed and robbed. During Ali’s rule, some Khwaarij came across Abdullah Ibn Khabbab (ra) (the son of the great companion Khabbab Ibn al-Aratt (ra) who Umar (ra) overheard reciting Surah Ta-ha at his sister’s house during the Makkah stage). They killed Abdullah and his pregnant wife and then proceeded to open her stomach and take out the fetus. They then came across some belongings of a Jew or Christian. Do you know what one of them said? He said, “No, you have to return it because these are Ahl-Dhimmah.”
These people had just killed the Muslim son of a great sahaabi as well as his wife and unborn child but what PAINED them more was the idea of going against covenants, agreements or trusts that the Muslims had with the disbelievers, by taking their belongings. This is the first case that lead to Ali (ra) fighting these people and it explains really well their description ‘they kill the Muslims and they leave the disbelievers’. Does this mentality sound familiar to anyone? It should sound familiar to those of you who rejoice when you hear that certain Muslims have been killed but God forbid that we should go against a covenant that we have with the disbelievers.
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