The Lebanon Fitnah

Sheharyar Shaikh

Posted Jul 26, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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The Lebanon Fitnah

The crimes against humanity in Lebanon today are a fitna.  How can one possibly consider that this or any other fitna is a blessing?

Linguistically, the term fitnah refers to the process of removing impurities from a gold nugget by exposing it to a steady fire. The impurities gradually drip away leaving bright pure gold in your hand. Hence, the more intense and enduring the fitnah process, the more pure the gold attained.

In Islamic parlance, a fitnah is a (suddenly appearing) element in our circumstances that causes one to lay bare our inner reality in terms of faith. In the absence of an alternative means or measure to judge faith (Iman), the social significance of fitan (pl.) in the Ummah can never be ignored. A fitnah provides us clues that reflect the other’s spiritual status (along with our own) and thus enables us to part and classify ‘real gold’ from the ‘impurities’ around us.

Three Categories of Muslims

Whenever Muslims or Islam take a hit, the Muslim community anywhere divides in terms of Iman into three major categories, as it did in the Prophet’s time.

The first are those who are genuinely troubled and hurt by the situation, and as a result, seek ways with their wealth, lives and prayers to engage the fitnah at its root. They devote themselves entirely for Islamic causes. Islam to them is a divinely ordained ethical and legal source of human guidance for all waking hours. One feels their heart-felt acceptance of Muhammed as the imitable spirit of truth – a veritable giant among the pygmies of history; of the Quran as the sole manual for global salvation. If there is one word that characterizes this lot, it is sincerity (ikhlaas). They are the cream of this Ummah and consequently, of the entire humanity. The socially permeating blessing of the existence of this tiny group insures us all against imminent Divine wrath and retribution. 

The second category (largest in numbers) is of those who couldn’t care less for a crisis and are rightly called ‘cattle’ in the Qur’an. To them, their jobs, livelihood, families, vacations, promotions, popular TV shows, trendy consumer items etc. matter most in life. Nothing should spoil their base gratifications or cause them undue effort or disturbance on account of Deen. At most, a passing remark on the carnage of Muslims at a casual discussion among friends over tea or at lunch breaks is as far as their participation will go. They hardly fulfill the obligations of Deen and don’t much care to either. Their Islam is a collection of fragmented teachings awkwardly fused with cultural notions (of their country of origin) and contemporary secular ethos.

One finds them at Friday prayers (if they ever go), drop a twonie in the donation box, and chat with friends outside under a tree shade. These include a large mass of everyday Muslims who in general have made an economic hijrah to the West and now pursue their lives and lead their progeny along the same spirit. If there is one word that characterizes this group, it is heedlessness (ghaflah).

The third and the last category comprises of those who prance around at times of crisis as eminent community and religious spokespeople delivering emotional speeches and tall media statements. They deliver far less. In fact most are crafty opportunists who see any Muslim crisis under spotlight as a God-sent opportunity to further a personal agenda i.e. to project themselves upon the community as being in the middle of the action. One may be taken in by their appearance (meticulously geared to make impressions of sanctity and/or authority on a naive crowd) but investigate their record for serious community-work and you will find token services. Their deep-rooted obsession for recognition often comes with higher-than-thou status consciousness which they keenly maintain; in public however they constantly harp the strings of unity, equality and brotherhood. Because of the need of some sort of a social platform for their work, one often finds them in mosques, in the political arena and community-based organizations and comprise of university academics, community activists and representatives, Imams and Sufi sages of our community.  It is this ‘leadership’ that is hurting us locally and globally more than any external element. The word that best describes this group is hypocrisy (nifaaq).

The Global Malaise

The global situation of Muslims is sadly not much different. Let us look at the refuse that poured out of some mouths at high places in the wake of this crisis.  At the start of the Israeli aggression, the Arab leaders clicked their heels and jointly rushed for ‘an emergency meeting’ only to come out with a senseless, ridiculous announcement of “There is no peace process”. One wonders whether the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, would have still called Hizbollah’s actions “unexpected, inappropriate and irresponsible” had his own sisters been in Israeli jails for over 20 years instead of the Lebanese women-prisoners or, might I guess, there is a bit of confessional competition at work?  Perhaps Mr. al-Faisal can show us in the coming days what an appropriate and a responsible action should be in view of the loss of one pleasure resort off the list this summer. 

Also deplorable is our Prime Minister Mr. Harper’s shameless description of Israeli terrorism as “measured”. One wonders what “measured” action causes the displacement of 1,000,000 people, cold-blooded murder of hundreds (one-third of the killed are kids), massive destruction to airports, bridges, homes, hospitals, roads – even targeting fleeing civilians, all in an attempt to free two soldiers?  If it is indeed “measured” then why send 6 chartered ships, along the efforts of a dozen other countries, to ‘rescue’ fleeing Canadians?

The truth of the matter is Israel does not want to kill Arabs; it wants to humiliate them and it succeeds every time. It wants to break their will and debase them in acquiescing submission under the garb of self-defence. So the world witnesses a relatively small, ill-equipped Islamic group refusing to fit that role and challenging a mighty nuclear power in battle. As far as recognition is concerned, all Muslims recognize Israel fully - as a bloody symbol of tyranny, misappropriation and injustice spanning three generations. They feel its dagger-shaped existence on the map plunged deep into the heart of the Arab world as a painful symbol of oppression as well as of their own inability, ineffectuality and humiliation.

How We can Cope

How will Muslims at home react to the Lebanon crisis (or to many like-crises to come)? There will be lots of public rallies, honking cars, fiery statements, media relays, protest marches etc – all to melt to nothing at the end of the day. In a month it will all be forgotten. The real problem is that we Muslims have not built a proper community in the West to be of any consequence. We are a people in disarray represented mostly by opportunistic hypocrites who speak of community interests yet work silently towards personal ones.  (Muslim figures in the Parliament mean nothing to us unless we as a community are able to exercise leverage on them to dutifully work for our interests)

The change must start with our mosques and existing Islamic centers. These are the places we regularly visit, wherein we mutually interact and develop a sense of community. Unfortunately the leadership of these institutions is far from satisfactory.  I have discovered with time that the principle of ‘putting the right person for the job’ is one principle that has granted the United States world hegemony and respect, yet sadly this principle is most blatently ignored during internal elections or Imam appointments in most Islamic institutions. The present considerations for mosque leadership lies in one’s ability to recite the Quran melodiously and by observing the ‘proper’ look; for community based organizations it is emotional rhetoric delivered at various Islamic events. How can we expect vibrant representation and community guidance when it is we who place unfit characters on the community platform? Do you think for a moment that if we had had strong visionary representation - well coordinated and rooted – the world would have taken us as frivilously as it does now? I don’t think so.

We must take command of our mosques and Islamic organizations. We must become active in the institutions we have built and now run with our resources – and it must start by taking a surgical account of the present leadership with the aim to replace it if required. For example, measure your curent Islamic leadership against the following criteria.

1.    Communication. We need a person on the podium who can communicate effectively and fluently to his own congregation, a group of supporters and the larger society. He must not only have command over the verbal language of the land, but more importantly, the cultural language as well. (Describing good wives as ‘obedient’ or ‘cooperative’in public forum can provoke starkly different reactions). Many Imams address the crowd in their native tongues with an utter disregard towards the anglophones; many a community leaders are so heavy-accented that it is a near-impossible to understand them. This has got to stop.

2.    Organization. How are the organizational skills of your community leader? Can he motivate and organize his congregation or supporters coherently towards a project or cause? More importantly, the need of the hour is the ability to form liason between different organizations and mosques towards mutually held objectives. At the present time, we have ‘ghetto-ization’ of Islamic institutions whose ‘rulers’ view each other as rival competitors. I remember that during the Tsunami disaster, the relief work initiative jointly undertaken by several mosques and Islamic institutions at the behest of the Islamic Foundation was so ill-coordinated (as were the meetings) that some relief supplies ended up piled in excess of others in sheer neglect of what was needed on the ground. Much wasn’t even received from the donors.

3.    Management Skills. The world is changing by the minute. We need leadership that has solid management training. How to conduct meetings, discussions, chart agendas, organize follow-up meetings, resolve conflicts are matters which require learning and update. We must ask why our community meetings usually go haywire. Professorship in engineering or salesmanship at a car dealership does not grant by default sound management skills.

4.    Media Projection. This can be a sub-category under Communication, however in our context, it deserves singular attention. The larger society will receive us in accordance with our image they see on the screen. Right now too many leaders propelled by their visible hunger for media exposure jump to find a spot under camera. The impact of the overall message is skewed, mushy and confusing. Here’s a hint: Several organizations can pool their resources to hire a properly trained journalist paid to serve community interests under a clearly defined agenda. Most ‘leaders’ should simply refrain from taking the mic. They look pathetic.

5.    Approachability and Accountability.  How approachable are your local mosque Imams and community representatives?  Generally our ‘leaders’ are impossible to get hold of in person, by phone or email. Most inhabit a world of their own. They need to be replaced with those that merge in the crowd yet at the same time hold an ‘aerial’ view of the community. Similarly, there is no accountability process at our centres and mosques. Where do the funds come from and where do they go? I suspect most are mismanaged or subtly misappropriated. Your dollar is a vote that keeps an institution alive and functioning, so vote for transparent organizations by funding them instead. Leadership that shys from giving account of the funds it receives from public is like wolf in sheeps clothing.

6.    Knowledge of Deen and Society. Both are equally important. Sole knowledge of Deen serves nothing more than a historical curiosity; sole knowledge of the society sweeps one away by the waves of trendy notions and popular ideas of the day. Many ‘leaders’ have said some outragoeus things in public simply due to a faulty understanding of Islam (the fashionable call of the day is putting women up on the minbar and scoffing at the Sunnah). On the other hand, let us stop importing Imams from God-knows-where-istans and nurture home-grown religious leadership that knows us and the issues facing us locally, regionally and globally.

7.    Devotion towards Islam. Alas, without this all social activism is mere deceit and loss. Because our leadership exhibits weak devotion for Islamic causes, this attitude trickles right down to the common man. The Islamic spirit exists in all of us, even non-Muslims, but it must be nurtured like a sapling until it assumes the shape of a towering oak tree through constant reflection upon the Quranic message. The Quran is shifaa’ (medecine) for corrupted souls, a stable anchor in confusing times and a Mercy from our Creator. Let us visit it daily with sincere intentions in our mosques and centers. We urgently need figures that make Quran relevant to our world.

You may wonder as to how you can remember all of this? The first letter taken from each of the above terms forms


Management skills
Media image
Approachability and Accountability
(k)Nowledge of Deen and Society
Devotion towards Islam

Taking command; this is the central theme of this article. No one will come and revamp our leadership save us. Unless we rise to the occasion and take matters into our own hands and choose ‘the right person for the role’ in our community affairs, circulating petitions, erecting lavish Islamic centers and more mosques, holding one-day rallies etc. are worthless endeavors.

More importantly, who is to say that the crises we see on the media befalling other Muslims would not visit us in turn if we choose to stay wrapped up in bed with our eyes closed.

Author Sheharyar Shaikh is the President of North American Muslim Foundation. He is specializing in contemporary Islamic thought and modernity