By Relwan Onikoyi
It is common knowledge that hardly a Muslim gets through the month of Ramadan without having to rely at least on a bit of patience, more so than one normally does outside of the month. Fulfilling the most minimal fast requires at the least refraining from nourishment and attending to sexual appetite for the duration of the day. Then of course, we are called to go beyond the bare minimum. One who takes to this higher call forgoes that which distracts from the Divine (to the extent commensurate with his own spiritual journey) and is patient in meeting with the Divine, taking more time to contemplate God. He is patient in contemplating his state of being, and where he is heading. Such a one is patient in restraining himself from causing any harm to others (of any sort — physical, emotional, spiritual), patient in striving against his very self and his desires, putting the needs of others before himself. It is with this central principle of patience in mind that I find verses 30-39 of Surah al-Fuṣṣilat particularly moving, as these verses center on the interconnected objectives of patience on the path toward God and patience with fellow human beings who stand in the way of the first objective.
In verse 30 of Fuṣṣilāt, we are told “…as for those who say, ‘Our Sustainer is God,’ and then steadfastly pursue the right way — upon them do angels often descend, [saying:] ‘Fear not and grieve not, but receive the glad tiding of that paradise which has been promised to you.” (41:38) Here, the believers are reminded that affirming belief is not sufficient for achieving spiritual success, but that successful self-surrender to God (Islam) will require concerted struggle against the self. Not only must the believer affirm God exclusively as Lord and Sustainer (thereby simultaneously denying that there is any other toward which the human may rightly orient himself), he must also follow this with commitment in the face of obstacles, internal and external, that seek to disrupt commitment to God and the good. Among the requirements of steadfast commitment is calling to God’s way, and all that this entails, including calling to an ethic that refuses oppression, and refuses to accord undue privilege to certain segments of society to the exclusion of others. This involves standing up for the weak worldwide when prevailing norms aggressively and subtly resist this call.
Sacred history informs us that to call to the good is usually to go against the grain, and so it is in our time. We have witnessed deceptive, seemingly dimwitted capitalists who have earned their wealth on the backs of others are raised as leaders. We have seen a toxic, exclusivist nationalism that has always flowed beneath the surface reemerge at the top. And we find that those who have reduced the human to a sexual object as a form of “art” have reached the highest echelons of society as a result of their flagrant vulgarity. With this state of affairs, to go beyond affirming truth to consistently defending truth against social decadence can be exhausting. Indeed, God consoles and praises such a person, stating, “And who could be better of speech than he who calls [his fellow-men] unto God, and does what is just and right, and says unwaveringly, ‘I am of those who have surrendered themselves to God’?” (41:33). In this verse, God once again places calling to justice and the good as a direct corollary to self-surrender to God (Islam), and moreover through the rhetorical question in the verse, states that few among His creation reach a station that rivals that of this special ilk.
I assume most readers have been in the awkward position of having to check someone who participates in the perpetuation of injustice or other forms of moral harm and so are well aware that doing so successively can require a great deal of tact. It is not easy when a neighbor, knowingly or unwittingly, espouses views that support the subjugation and dehumanization of fellow human beings, both at home and especially abroad. It cannot be easy navigating the workspace when a colleague shows support for some politician whose campaign slogan is code for, “Let’s go back to the good ol’ days of the Antebellum Period.” Combating such discourse is exasperating and, at times, the urge is to return harm with its like, to return insult with insult, to scoff and condescend. Yet in our passage, God reminds us that since “good and evil cannot be equal, repel evil with something that is better” (4:34). Hard as it might be to imagine, we are told that perhaps the one whom you once called an enemy might become “as though he had [always] been close [unto you], a true friend.” This development from enmity to friendship, we are told, can be enjoyed only by those who are “given to patience in adversity” (4:34), and it is suggested that through patience, we might be used as a means toward reorienting he who oppresses the souls of others toward the good. And so, in that very moment when one has done us (or another) harm, when we might be stirred to blind anger and urged to interrupt our efforts toward the good and satisfy our desire for vengeance with insult, we are commanded to remember God and seek refuge with Him (4:36). Moreover, given that such a change of heart on the part of the bigoted dogmatist is not promised to us, taking that higher road must have as its motivation the desire to respond to God’s call that we do so. Nevertheless, that hint of hope must remain, for God reminds us in this very passage that it is He who sends down water from the skies through which he brings the dead earth back to life. Indeed, “He who brings it to life can surely give life to the dead” (41:39) — He it is who can revive both those dead of body and those dead of heart.
The verses we have looked at call us to patience in our commitment to God’s path and to the interdependent task of calling others to that path. Within our context, applying these verses would, for example, involve drawing attention to systemic racism, calling for and working toward its end in our own personal interactions, and otherwise. At the same time, we are called to be cautious and to guard ourselves against evils that do damage to the cause. In the example of combating racism, employing or falling prey to race baiting, or any attempt to generalize the other (for example, seeing all whites/all cops/*insert privileged group* as evil) comes to mind, as these evils serve as roadblocks toward the goal, and so would be the very opposite of repelling the evil with good. We are called instead to a higher path, that of being patient toward the good, of placing the call to justice (and all that comes with God’s path) at the front and center, and to avoid overstepping our boundaries in this quest, lest we become the obstacle between the wrongdoer and his turning to the good.
Relwan Onikoyi was born in Greensboro, N.C., where he spent most of his childhood, save for a seven-year stretch in his parents’ hometown of Lagos, Nigeria. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2011 with a B.A. in Philosophy and minors in Arabic and Hispanic Studies. Afterward, he spent eight months in Jordan furthering his studies in Arabic and Islamic Studies in general, and was more specifically trained in the recitation of the Qur’an. Relwan is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in Religion at Temple University, with a concentration in Islam. His current research interests include Islamic intellectual history in general, and in particular, the social, cultural and historical aspects of Sufism in medieval Muslim societies.