the spiritual response to privilege

The following was written for a Friday sermon at Duke University a few weeks ago:

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In the name of God, the infinitely loving and compassionate. May the peace and blessings of God be upon His noble messenger, our beloved master Muhammad.
Indeed all praise is God’s alone, whom we praise and thank endlessly, in whom we put our reliance and trust, and whom we ask for forgiveness. And we seek refuge and protection in Allah from the evils within our souls, and the evils of our actions. Indeed whomsoever God guides, then they have true guidance, and whomsoever God leads astray, then they have nothing to turn to for guidance. And I bear witness and testify that there is nothing in existence worthy of devotion other than Allah alone, the Ultimate and Transcendent; and I bear witness and testify that Muhammad is the beloved servant and messenger of God.

In today’s khutbah, I will be sharing some reflections on a single verse in the Qur’an that has been a beautiful yet challenging companion of mine for many years. At the conclusion of Surat al-An`am, Chapter 6 of the Qur’an, after a series of verses discussing the believers’ pure devotion to God alone, the final verse of the Surah proclaims:

“It is He, God, who has made you inheritors of the earth, and has raised some of you above others in degree, to test you through what He gives you. Your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is indeed most forgiving and merciful.”

This verse, in conjunction with other passages of the Qur’an, provides us with a spiritual orientation towards the uneven distribution of blessings or privileges in the world that we see around us.

Let’s go bit by bit. The verse begins by recalling the concept of khilafah. The divine voice states that God has established human beings as “khalifah”s on earth. More literally, this term means to be a successor or inheritor. Thus for instance we know that the leader of the Muslims was called the khalifah of the Prophet, the Caliph, the successor to the Prophet’s leadership and authority. And of course, to have inherited this position entailed responsibility to manage and take care of the affairs of the ummah. Thus when the Qur’an refers to humanity as the “khalifah” of the earth, it is saying that we have inherited the earth, and the moral implication of this is that we are responsible for managing the affairs of the earth with justice and excellence, according to God’s will. We can translate “khalifah of the earth” then perhaps as caretaker or steward of the earth. God has made human beings caretakers or stewards of the world, we are responsible for its functioning, for the wellbeing of the creation. It is in this light that the prophet said “the creation is the family of God, and the most beloved to God are those that are most beneficial to God’s family”.

Thus the verse begins by reminding us of this responsibility, of our role as caretakers and stewards of the world. It is pointing our attention to this role, to keep it in mind as it moves on to the main message of the verse. The verse continues: “and has raised some of you above others in degree, to test you through what He gives you.” Before reflecting on this message, a brief note about translation. When we translate, we have to be aware to not just literally convey the words of the Qur’an as they appear in the original Arabic, but try to understand what is being conveyed in that language in that context, and how to express that in our own cultural linguistic habits, and not just try to be faithful to the literal meaning. So before, the best translation that I could think of for the word used here, “darajah”, was “degree” or “rank.” Literally darajah means a step, or a degree, and thus socially implies “rank”. But more recently, upon reflecting on the message here, and thinking about how we talk about this idea in our society today, I’ve realized that what is being referred to in this verse with the word darajah is what we today call “privilege”. And this is the central message of the verse, and thus the central message of my khutbah today will be thinking about privilege in light of this verse.

So what is privilege? It’s a commonly used word today but what is meant? The basic idea as we all know is a special advantage in life and in society that some people have and others do not.

What is important to note is that the wording is not specific, it just says “degree”, and this ambiguity allows the verse to be understood by each of us in a way that relates to us individually. Because Allah has given each of us privileges in very different things: in wealth, in intelligence, social status, some specific talent or skill, in emotional well being, in family background, even in things such as character, etc. These are not things that we have acquired by some merit of our own, something we deserve; rather our conditions in life, where we come from, almost completely determines who we are and what kind of person we are and what we have in life. Thus the verse says that God has “raised some of us above others in degree,” that some of has been given privileges that others have not — why? To try you, to test you through what He has given you. The unequal distribution of privileges in this world, of wealth, health, social status and respect, comfort, power, authority, enjoyments of life, etc, all of this is a trial. What we generally see as “blessings” and “privileges” in life, therefore, are not necessarily good or positive in an ultimate sense. The Qur’an says elsewhere, “We will test you with both evil and good fortunes, as a fitnah, as a temptation and trial.” Everything in life has the potential to be a fitnah, everything is both a trial and an opportunity, either to grow in God-consciousness, mindfulness of the Divine, to grow in Other-centeredness, or to become more absorbed in the nafs, in one’s own self and its egoistic desires and whims.

Now I should note that I’m going to be speaking about this from the perspective of a position of privilege, as someone who has experienced an immense amount of privilege in life. My position and experience in life leads me to reflect on this verse and think about what it means to respond to having privileges in a spiritually upright way. I believe this should inshallah be helpful and not just relevant to myself personally, since we are all a privileged bunch in some way or another. Definitely, in many ways many of us may do suffer from various struggles, pains, scars, in life, etc that are very serious. But the fact that we are here in this audience, means that the vast majority of us at least enjoy certain important privileges, of class and educational access and opportunities, as well as natural capacities and talents (book smarts, work ethic etc), able-bodiedness and general health, etc… Every blessing we enjoy that gives us an advantage in life are privileges that this verse is pointing to, so think to yourself, reflect on the various ways you are privileged…To be sure, this verse also can encourage us to think about what is expected of us with regards to our lack of privilege in various realms and dimensions of life, because that too is a trial. The Quran calls on us when we are underprivileged to still strive to live up to certain moral ideals and standards of decency and dignity, to grow spiritually through one’s struggles in life, to be God-conscious. But my focus in the rest of the khutbah will be on the other side of things, how to respond to the privileges we enjoy in life in a spiritually upright manner that brings us closer to God.

So? How do we respond to privilege? This verse is telling us that we have been given uneven privileges in life as a trial – well what is this trial, what is expected of me in this trial? In religious contexts, we usually talk about recognizing the blessings and privileges in your life, and being grateful to God for them. Be grateful that you have been given these things in life. That is a given right? But what is gratitude in the first place? We usually think about it as a feeling and thought, as an emotional or cognitive thing. I see the blessings in my life, and I think “thank you Allah,” alhamdulilah. And there. If I’m sincere in this expression, then I’ve done my gratitude. In my understanding of the Qur’an, however, this is not actually gratitude. That is more about feeling good. For instance, in describing the immense blessings and privileges and power granted to the Prophets David and Solomon, at the end of this long list of blessings they were given, the Qur’an says: “Oh family of David – enact gratitude! Work in thankfulness and gratitude! And indeed few of my servants are truly thankful.” It is making it clear to us that gratitude is not a state of mind or an emotion – it is a way of life, it is an embodied, active response, it is good work. Similarly, in describing the immense riches and privilege of Qarun, the companion of Musa, Qarun is told: “Do good to others just as God has been good to you.” Respond to privileges through righteous action in serving the creation. Similarly, and perhaps most powerfully, in surat al-Fajr, it is said: “And as for the human, whenever her Lord tests her by His generosity and by letting her enjoy a life of ease, she says, ‘My Lord has been generous towards me.’ Whereas, whenever He tries her by limiting her sustenance and livelihood, she says, ‘My Lord has disgraced me!’” Immediately following this description of the common human response to blessing and hardship in life, privilege and lack of privilege, the divine voice powerfully proclaims: “But nay, nay! You are not generous towards the orphan, and you do not urge one another to feed the needy, and you devour the inheritance with devouring greed, and you love wealth with boundless love!” This is one of those beautiful moments in the Qur’an that calls on us ever so powerfully to transcend ourselves and the traps of the ego. It jolts us out of our common human responses to the ups and downs of life – how has this affected me? ME ME ME!! – calling on us to move beyond our constant preoccupations with ourselves, our own pleasures and desires, and instead to concern ourself with the other. To move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness. Thus we see that gratitude is not to say “thank you Allah!” but it is to act, to respond to God with God-conscious action, in service of others, and in transcendence of one’s ego.

So the first lesson we’ve found in the Qur’an in responding to our various privileges in life is to recognize the moral imperative of action, of doing good. And we’ve begun to see in this last example that this is tied to serving the creation, moving beyond our preoccupation with our privileges and the desire to indulge them, and instead concerning ourselves with others. This is why the verse we are discussing today begins with a reminder that we are khalifahs on the earth, as I mentioned before, we are caretakers and stewards of the earth, we are responsible for the wellbeing of the world around us and its creatures. Thus the obligation in response to the trial of privilege is to seek out the disadvantaged, the underprivileged and to serve, to support, to empower. The Qur’an speaks endlessly of the yatim, the orphan, like the in the verses I just mentioned – you do not care for the yatim! The ultimate accusation. Why? What does the yatim represent? The yatim symbolizes the most vulnerable in society, the most disadvantaged, one who has the least options. The Quran exhorts us endlessly in this regard – to give to those who have less, to empower the weak. To give up the advantages we have been given in what capacity one can, in order to even the playing field, to mitigate the unfairness and suffering of inequality, to use one’s privilege to make things better for others, to empower others.

This of course brings with it a danger — When we use our privileged position to seemingly help others, we can easily re-create certain kinds of power dynamics and hierarchies that simply re-inscribe various privileges and bring hurt and humiliation to others. This is something to be deeply aware of. In surat Baqara, eg, we find a powerful set of verses that warn very strongly against giving sadaqah and helping others in a patronizing or condescending way, in a way that emphasizes your goodness or your “favor” to them – as the verse says, “following your generous giving with reminders of your benevolence or hurtful words”. These verses tell us that such charity is not charity at all, and is negated, empty, and fruitless, like rain falling on a barren rock, or like a garden burned down in a fire. It yields no fruit. Giving from a position of superiority and entitlement, making others feel indebted and inferior, all of this is the antithesis of the true spirit of giving. We have to be deeply aware of our privilege, and how it can seep into everything one does. Even when we think we are doing something good, it can often become a way of subconsciously asserting our superiority, our power, our privileges over others. It is in light of this that we have to be ever vigilant of our nafs, our ego and its sense of entitlement, and how it can take any opportunity at all times to assert itself, to try and be on top.

This manifests itself in innumerable ways that we must be constantly vigilant about. We must learn to read the movements of our heart and soul, to be aware and question what is motivating particular behaviors, why am I feeling a particular way in this or that situation, what is bothering me? Is it some principled issue that I am concerned with, or is my ego feeling threatened that some of its privileges are being challenged or taken away? This manifests itself very often in issues of gender eg, where all sorts of arguments are constantly being thrown around in support of some inequality or another between men and women. My point here is not about any particular issue itself, but the ability to ask oneself what is motivating my concern, am I seeking the pleasure of God, or is it entitlement and privilege? This is particularly of concern in religious contexts. Eg why do we as an American Muslim community at large feel religiously outraged when changes and adaptations to certain rules in the religion are proposed that would be inclusive of women, but we don’t have the same reaction to changing other things. For instance, there has been consensus for many centuries that the khutbah is part of the act of ritual worship, and thus must be delivered according to the Sunnah of the Prophet, in the Arabic language. Thus a khutbah in English as I’m doing now would not be valid. Yet as American Muslims, you’d be hard-pressed to find masajid that insist on the khutbah being in Arabic. That is considered an acceptable and reasonable change to religious rulings. Women giving a khutbah on the other hand, that is an outrage and an affront to our religion and an imposition of the West. Why the inconsistency? What is motivating this reaction? My point here is not actually about the validity or invalidity of this issue, what the right position is on such issues. Rather I am concerned now with the movements and stirrings of our hearts, for each of us (particularly the men) to ask inside ourselves: is it truly religious devotion to the sunnah that is motivating this or that position I have on an issue, or is it perhaps a sense of collective privilege and specialness that we feel entitled to

Or for instance, we often hear a slew of critiques of giving charity to the homeless and the poor – “these handouts just make them lazy, make them depend on our charity! They are abusing the system, taking advantage of our generosity! They are going to use the money we give them for drugs!” yada yada. These may well be valid concerns sometimes, the point here again is not to make policy arguments about best-practices. The point is that the Qur’an frequently calls us out on this tendency to make various intellectual objections to things, but in fact what is motivating us in our hearts is the ego. Is our sense of entitlement to our privilege. I should ask myself: Why does it matter to me if the homeless man is deceiving me? What exactly is bothering me? That this exchange is not entirely on my terms? That I’m not one to be fooled by that kind of person? These are questions we must become comfortable asking ourselves, interrogating ourselves; as Umar (r) said, we must hold ourselves accountable, before God holds us accountable. Let us ask God for forgiveness for our actions and our shortcomings. Aqul qawli…

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To recap, I have been reflecting in this khutbah on a single verse, at the end of surat an`am, that reads: “It is He, God, who has made you inheritors of the earth, and has given some of you privileges over others, to test you through what He gives you. Indeed your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” This verse then is just one manifestation and reminder of the ultimate spiritual and moral message of the Qur’an and the Sunnah: to push us to move from ego-centeredness to Other-centeredness. Because, to indulge in one’s privileges, to uncritically and heedlessly enjoy what one has been given without mindfulness of God and God’s family, is to be caught in self-centeredness, the prison of the nafs, the ego and its desire for gratification. The message of our spiritual tradition, our calling in this worldly life, is to transcend that ego-centeredness, to struggle day in and day out to overcome that attachment to the privileges we enjoy, to give them up when possible, to use them for the benefit of others and serve the creation, rather than indulging in them to satisfy one’s own desire. That is to become Other-centered, to transcend one’s own self to become centered on God and the family of God. This is the journey that all of of us are on each and every day, a struggle, an upward climb as the Qur’an describes it, that is a heavy moral burden indeed. The verse ends sharply, in a way that both makes us feel the immense heaviness of this moral burden while also giving us deep hope in the grace, mercy, and love of God. The verse concludes: “Indeed your Lord is swift in punishment, yet He is most forgiving and merciful.” The verse employs a very common technique in the Qur’an, to evoke both fear and trembling in front of God, as well as love and hope. The divine voice warns us severely in the first part of the sentence, reminding us that the fate of those who take the pleasures and privileges of this world as the only reality and are heedless and careless of their moral responsibility to give back, and are lost in the pleasures and desires of the ego, their fate is a frightening one. And yet, the divine voice also recognizes our inherent weakness and imperfection and shortcomings as humans, and that we cannot entirely live up to this ideal of perfection, all we can do is strive and struggle, and we are comforted by the fact that God is forgiving, God is loving, God is merciful, and with God’s grace we can be embraced in love by Allah swt.

Ya Allah, guide us to that which you love, guide us to moral excellence, and purify our hearts. Grant us your love and proximity and closeness to you, and make your love the most beloved of things to our hearts.
Ya Allah, give us the excellence of this life and the next and save us from the torment of the fire.