Different people react to change and the unfamiliar in various ways. The odd lot enjoy the challenge and bizarrely relish the idea of having the rug moved from under their feet. Others hold on for dear life. Some subconsciously commit to their ways but only out of comfortability. By studying the lives of prophets who called those claiming faith back to the Lord of Abraham, we see that change has always involved strife and division, and such a consequence has been accepted for the sake of the greater good that lies beyond it.
Unfortunately we don’t live in a neutral space. It would be wonderful to deliver God’s guidance without simultaneously having to contend with misinformation and inanity that has led believers to spiral into unproductive places, or commit to ideas or ways that impede their progress. Often people don’t even know they’re in such places and so change seems unnecessary. Occasionally I highlight the situation (but without getting personal) only to dispel the idea things are anywhere near great. Others, due to age and maturity, recognise after years how they’ve been impeded wanting to make sense of how it happened and now what to do. Those with an ‘outsider’s perspective’ assume this is what I greatly focus on but I really don’t. Those with an ‘insider’s perspective’ around me and on our courses witness how we build things from first-principles, learn what God has said and are inspired by it, and study the logic of God’s directives. Our environment is one aspiring to positivity, godliness, civility, being accurately informed, and personal improvement (and understandably some simultaneously want to make sense of where it went awry for them over the years, some already know, and some started without baggage).
As an erudite student characterised it, “You show a mirror which no one likes and go a step further showing people that they are responsible for the disheveled reflection that they see. It’s not just about not talking of all the stuff that makes people feel fuzzy and euphoric, it’s the accountability and rectification that must proceed from facing the music, which is an excruciatingly painful process. You pull out the no excuses card, nothing to hide behind, no victimisation, no blame games. The mirror shows a reflection that people don’t like, not because God chose to withhold beauty from us, but our own lifestyle and choices have led to this shabby state. Who likes hearing that? Which in a weird way is actually a positive message. You’re not calling people ugly. You’re telling them there is so much beauty and potential for goodness to be extracted from them that its criminal to be content with the current state of affairs. Initially there is a blow to the self esteem, but eventually we should see that accountability will do us good. Much good.”
Some things are so ridiculous that simply pointing them out makes it seem like you’re ridiculing them. It’s not you but the nature of what you’re observing. The Prophet was adamant in bringing people together telling the early believers to spend on unbelieving families and to keep ties, but pointing out the Qurashi ways was enough for the notables of Makkah to tell his uncle, Abu Talib, “You give us your nephew who has rebelled against the religion you and your forefathers have followed, and has sown the seeds of discord among your people and ridiculed their practices.” (Ibn Hisham) This outrage is driven by the feeling of being impugned, irrespective of right and wrong. During the first emigration to Abyssinia Ja’far b. Abi Talib touchingly told the Negus of the decency the Prophet called for and how his people irrationally reacted.
Now some people assert that we mustn’t look to the Hebrew Prophets as case studies because 1) only Muhammad is an example, and 2) Muhammad was soft/lenient with his followers/co-religionists. Both notions are misplaced.
Firstly, God explicitly tells us that Abraham and others are an example to follow (see: Quran 60:4) and the entire point of telling us the stories of past prophets is to take them as examples (it’s not exactly meant to be entertainment). Additionally, such an assertion is only made by laymen – no theologian would ever state this.
Secondly, as a Prophet, Muhammad was not sent to his own believers but to pagans, but the Hebrew prophets were sent to those claiming to be Abrahamic believers. So in the context of this discussion, the Hebrew situation is far more analogous. But let’s not forget that Muhammad was just as decisive with his people (Quraish) as the Hebrew prophets were with theirs, and his own companions were deferential so he had little reason to be stern or provocative with them, but when the occasion called for such an approach with the newly converted he was particularly forthcoming.
Now when it comes to addressing the current situation and studying reactions the following prophetic examples are quite insightful. For example, Moses recognised priorities and that unity for the sake of it wasn’t God’s will, but Aaron misprioritised: “Moses said, ‘When you realized they had gone astray, what prevented you, Aaron, from coming after me? How could you disobey my orders?’ He said, ‘Son of my mother– let go of my beard and my hair!– I was afraid you would say, “You have caused division among the children of Israel and have not heeded what I said.” (Quran 20:92-24) Aaron did not deal with the problem out of concern of being blamed for ‘division’, but clearly that was a secondary issue for Moses.
In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus informs his disciples (in Arabic hawariyun – see Quran 61:14 for reference) to spread the word warning his Jewish disciples about their own co-religionists, that “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves; therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves. But beware of men; for they will hand you over to their councils and flog you in their synagogues.” (Matthew 10:16-17) The notion that change involves strife and division can be an unfortunate but foreseen consequence of change in the social world. Waraqah b. Naufal told Muhammad: “I hope to live to see your people drive you out.” The noble Prophet asked, “Never did a man come with something similar to what you have brought but was treated with hostility. If I should remain alive till the day when you will be turned out then I would support you strongly.” (al-Bukhari) Similarly, the consequence of change was anticipated by Christ: “Do not assume that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.” (Matthew 10:16-17) Christ’s point wasn’t that he intended to cause this, but that it would be an unfortunate consequence given the nature of the Children of Israel and their antipathy to change.
But these consequences have little to do with the person pointing things out.
They are reactions and thus in the hands of those called to change – it’s up to them how they react and what they make of the situation. If things are negative or divisive then that’s because onlookers have chosen to make it so. It’s about their perception. In part, the tales of the Children of Israel in the Quran is an intended lesson to believers: one can either transcend his/her sensitivities for the greater good and for the sake of God, or otherwise react like the Children of Israel, “Whenever a messenger brought them anything they did not like, they accused some of lying and put others to death.” Note that it was what “they did not like” – it was a matter of their perception. God shows us that one can choose to focus on the actual message like the sincere to God who were called to truth over millennia (like the sahabah or the hawariyun), or intentionally avoid the change by making it about the caller like the people of Noah: “But the leading disbelievers among his people said, ‘He is merely a mortal like you, trying to gain some superiority over you.’” (Quran 23:24) Rudeness is culturally defined, what some find offensive others do not. But the Prophets were certainly provocative as every narrative relates, and in this era of public noise and confusion drowning out what is sensible, people need provocation to steer another direction. A person chooses to put their sensitivities first viewing a well-intentioned nudge as negative, or they’re happy for something that will help them grow putting their heightened sensitivities away.
Different people have different goals. Ours is change and holistic realignment, with deep educational and critical engagement. We want believers to be the best they can and I personally don’t believe that can happen without being good with God, God being good with them, and then understanding what it is that God actually wants. Some are so unthinkingly committed to the familiar because they’re afraid of what they don’t know or initially recognise that they resort to spreading mistruths about others out of desperation. We shouldn’t be led by their insecurities but by our own confidence. Putting aside technical shar’i discussions on ‘accuracy’ and ‘authenticity’ which most are not equipped to ascertain, merely glancing at the Muslim condition tells you that things aren’t working. Simplistic explanations such as we’re not ‘blessed’ are wrong, the shari’ah has a material/worldly function which isn’t being realised. Generally, I don’t believe that the ‘outside’ world is to blame (the Prophet taught that it will always be the way it is), and in all the analysis of how things are, seldom do people or analysts critically and strategically address the condition of believers from first-principles.
Change is the hardest social objective there is and its leaders seldom escape demonisation – it’s par for the course. Popularity is easy and many know full well how to get millions of followers on social media and how to be loved by everybody – it’s easy to see what appeals to the popular Muslim psyche. But then it makes everything about quantity rather than quality turning our endeavours into superficial popularity contests. Of course, being popular is nice and intuitively what we all like, but there are necessary tasks with which popularity will always remain in tension.
If we seek positive realignment (islah) and improvement then we cannot afford to react like peoples of the past:
“Their messengers came to them with clear proof, but they tried to silence them saying, ‘We do not believe the message with which you were sent. We have disturbing doubts about what you are asking us to do.’ Their messengers answered, ‘Can there be any doubt about God, the Creator of the heavens and earth? He calls you to Him in order to forgive you your sins and let you enjoy your life until the appointed hour.’ But they said, ‘You are only men like us. You want to turn us away from what our forefathers used to worship. Bring us clear proof then.’ Their messengers answered, ‘True, we are only men like you, but God favours whichever of His servants He chooses. We cannot bring you any proof unless God permits it, so let the believers put all their trust in Him. Why should we not put our trust in God when it is He who has guided us to this way we follow. We shall certainly bear steadfastly whatever harm you do to us. Let anyone who trusts, trust in God.’” (Quran 14:9)