It just couldn’t be.
Rage, disbelief and anguish flooded through his veins.
‘He’s dead!’ he heard someone say.
No. That was impossible.
“DON’T YOU DARE SAY IT,” he raged, “IT’S A LIE! IF ANYONE DARES TO SAY HE DIED, I WILL CUT OFF HIS HEAD”
He was serious. Breathing heavily, he took his sword out of its sheath. He didn’t want to believe it. He refused to. He numbed whatever pain he felt in his throbbing chest.
“Umar!” He heard the stern yet gentle voice of his dear friend, Abu Bakr radi Allahu `anhu (may God be pleased with him) with the soft heart. Then he heard the recitation of the words that he himself had read numerous times, but it felt like he was hearing them for the first time.
“Muhammad is not but a messenger. [Other] messengers have passed on before him. So if he was to die or be killed, would you turn back on your heels [to unbelief]? And he who turns back on his heels will never harm Allah at all; but Allah will reward the grateful.” [Qur'an, 3:144]
In that moment, ‘Umar bin Al-Khattab – known for his strength and conviction – who only a moment ago was threatening to kill whoever dared to confirm that their beloved Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) had died, fell to his knees and wept like a child.
Umar was reminded – the Prophet ﷺ was sent as a mercy and a guide, but he was human. The Qur’an asks a remarkable question, will you turn away? Meaning, is your faith dependent on the Messenger, or on the One who sent the Messenger?
There are many manifestations of this. We rely on the gift instead of the Gift-Giver. Our faith is weakened when we lose our wealth or someone close. But this incident with ‘Umar (ra), and the question asked in the Qur’an, speaks to many conditions when our faith becomes reliant not on God, but on His creation.1
We all have people we look up to. These people confirm and sometimes validate our faith. But what happens when the halaqa leader is leading a double life? Or even worse, when the Qur’an instructor molests a child? When the Imam is physically abusing his wife at home? When the pious community activist is caught soliciting a prostitute?
These things might anger us. They should. It should cause us to spring to action to protect those who are abused, to offer counseling, and to work on strategies so these things never happen again.
But do these things make us lose faith?
If they do, we need to change that. As Muslims, our primary relationship is with Allah.
People are not the Divine. Allah gifted us with free will. Some people make mistakes. Others are battling their own demons and still others are human demons. The Qur’an warns us of those people, so it should not come as a surprise. Remember Qarun who was of the people of Musa `alayhi salatu wa salaam (peace and blessings be upon him), yet he betrayed his own people for wealth and power. Bani Israel were mesmerized by what he was given. But because he transgressed, sold out, and abused his own people, he was destroyed. But he made the choice himself.
Some people are weak, some are sick. So many amazing people in history had their own transgressions because no human is perfect. Moreover, we know that many people who abuse were abused themselves. It doesn’t excuse it, but it also means that we as a community should deal with these things so that they do not happen again. The Prophet ﷺ taught us to search for cures for our illnesses, “because every disease has a cure” [Abu Dawud].
But our relationship with Allah should not be contingent on what people do or do not do. If the whole world were to betray their trust, that is their choice. That is what free will is for. Allah tells us, “so whoever wills – let him believe; and whoever wills – let him disbelieve.” It should not shake us permanently, because those people are not God.
So pray to Allah and pray for Him. Make yourself a better person by Him. Read about the seerah of the Prophet ﷺ. Love people, look up to them, be inspired by them – but depend only on Allah. Know that humans have flaws, so be forgiving. Make excuses for them. And some are criminals. Deal with them. Don’t be the masjid that harbors the unjust board member, or worse.
Remember, Allah does not change a people unless we change ourselves.
This isn’t to say that there won’t be tests. The Prophet ﷺ was pelted with stones at Taif. The Prophet’s ﷺ uncle passed away without accepting Islam. These things hurt. And we think to ourselves “but I did everything“. But that’s why this life isn’t simply about life. And even though it isn’t, Allah makes with every hardship at least two eases. So the Prophet ﷺ was attacked at Taif—but he got Madina. His uncle Abu Talib never accepted Islam, but his other uncles (Al-Abbas, Hamza) and cousins (Ali bin abi Talib, Jafar bin abi Talib) did.
Once, a cab driver in London asked me: “Where is God?” when a little girl is attacked and all sorts of horrible things are done to her by some sick man. “Where is God?” in that situation. And my answer was, “Where were you?” The bad in the world doesn’t make me lose faith in God because Allah tells us that the bad is because of what our own hands have wrought. And it’s true—why do some masajid protect pedophiles and perverts? How can someone with religious authority be so abusive to other people? Why do people rape and pillage? We are the ones that are not living according to the rules God set. Allah says in the Qur’an to protect ourselves from the fitna (trials and tribulations) that will not befall only the oppressive2 —the fitna will get us all because we allow it to continue. May Allah protect us!
Surat al-Kahf tells us about Musa’s (as) encounter with al-Khidr. Al-Khidr does things that baffle Musa (as). He damages the boat of people who were poor (who helped them no less!), he kills a child and then he restores a wall in a village where the people would not help them. From the outside, none of it makes sense. Musa (as) himself kept questioning and protesting the actions of al-Khidr. This is only natural on the part of Musa (as)—we must detest the evil around us. But al-Khidr shows Musa (as) that sometimes something seems bad but it actually averts a greater evil. Damaging the poor people’s boat for example, resulted in the oppressive king not seizing it since he would only confiscate boats that were in good condition.
So strive for justice. Strive for good. Be a source of light for people because God is Light and He gives His Light to whomever He wishes. The solution is to rely wholeheartedly on Allah. Learn about Allah. Beseech Him by His Names. We are human, and we have issues sometimes. But remember that there is so much beauty. Let that beauty remind you of God and the good He gives. There is some ugliness too. Let that move you to seek justice. At the very least detest the evil around you so that you do not become numb, but remember that it is higher to speak up about it and even higher to do something about it within the boundaries that are set.
Ask yourself what your faith is dependent upon. Then ask yourself, if there was a possibility that that were to be taken away, will you turn away?
May Allah make us firm.
- Of course, with ‘Umar (ra) it was momentary, and out of his love for the Prophet ﷺ. ‘Umar went on to be the second of the rightly guided caliphs. He spread justice as ruler and spread Islam. The important thing is the question that the ayah (verse) asks. [↩]
- “And fear a trial [fitna] which will not strike those who have wronged among you exclusively, and know that Allah is severe in penalty.” [Qur’an, 8:25] [↩]