Written by: Tariq Mehanna
On the day of the lunar calendar that Allah drowned Fir’aun and saved the Children of Israel
Thursday, the 10th of Muharram 1435 (14th of November 2013)
Terre Haute CMU
“So, whatever you have been given is only the enjoyment of this worldly life. And what is with Allah is better and more lasting for those who believed and place their trust in their Lord / And those who avoid major sins and indecency, and when they become angry, they forgive / And those who answered the call of their Lord and properly performed the prayers, and consult each other in their affairs, and donate from what We have provided them…
…And those who, when they suffer tyranny, they avenge themselves.” (Surah Ash-Shūra 36-39)
Commenting on this last verse, ash-Shawkani said: “Allah mentioned those people who avenge themselves in the context of praise just as He mentioned forgiveness when angry in the context of praise. This is because bowing down to a tyrant is not a trait of those to whom Allah has granted honor… So, striking back against tyranny is a virtue, just as forgiveness when angry is a virtue. an-Nakha’i said: “They (the early Muslims) used to hate degrading themselves in order to prevent the insolent from being bold against them.””
Naturally, the quality of defending oneself against a tyrant is a virtue in the eyes of all people – except the tyrant. The tyrant, of course, prefers a peaceful victim. When Mūsa (‘Alayhis-salām) returned to Egypt to emerge as a leader with a following, Fir’aun became horrified at the prospect of his subjects possessing actual strength, and thus revived his policy of killing each male newborn (40:25) in an attempt to deprive them of the manpower he assumed they needed to resist. Plantation owners in the South were able to keep black slaves under the whip for nearly three centuries due to their overall success in erasing from their minds the concept of resistance. When Western colonial powers exploited entire populations across Africa and Asia, they were able to pull it off for centuries primarily by erasing from their minds the concept of resistance. So, a tyrant’s attempt to vilify or otherwise do away with the spirit of resistance in the minds of those under the whip is a timeless strategy. Continuing in this tradition, a panel of American judges recently likened Jihād to “the modern-day equivalent of the bubonic plague.”
This analogy got me thinking.
Also known as the “Black Death”, the bubonic plague is the most common form of plague. It “typically starts with shivering, then vomiting, headache, giddiness, intolerance to light; pain in the back and limbs; and insomnia, apathy, or delirium. Body temperature rises rapidly to 104 degrees or higher, and frequently falls slightly in the second or third day, with marked prostration. Constipation is usual; diarrhea is a grave sign. Most characteristic is the early appearance of buboes (swelling of the lymph nodes), which are usually distributed in the groin and armpits.” The bubonic plague took the lives of entirely one quarter of the population of Europe during the great epidemic of the 14th century. The plague is, indeed, a terrible calamity.
Al-Bukhāri reported that ‘A’ishah (Radi Allahu ‘Anhā) asked the Prophet ﷺ regarding the plague. He informed her that it was a punishment that Allah would send upon whom He willed, and that He had made it a mercy for the believers. Ibn Hajar mentioned another version of the Hadith which states: “So, the plague is a form of martyrdom for the believers and a mercy for them, and a punishment for the kafir.” He then commented: “This is explicit in showing that the plague is a mercy solely for the believers, and if it befalls the kuffar, it is a punishment upon them expedited in this world before the next.” Interestingly, the description of Jihād in the Qur’an (9:14) is almost identical to this. From such a perspective, the analogy is correct. Perhaps this is what was intended by it.
Or it could be that one of the dictionary definitions of plague is “any widespread affliction, calamity, or evil, especially one regarded as a direct punishment from God.”
Or it could be that it was in Iraq, of all places, that Black Death originated in the 11th century before spreading to Europe.
More likely, though, the judge’s analogy is an example of what is known as psychological projection. Psychological projection is defined as “the tendency to ascribe to another person feelings, thoughts, or attitudes present in oneself, or to regard external reality as embodying such feelings, thoughts, etc. in some way,” especially with “such an ascription relieving the ego of a sense of guilt or other intolerable feeling.” Thus, for one to liken the means of repelling his government’s tyranny to an infectious disease is an attempt to deflect our attention from a more appropriate analogy: the AIDS virus is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases. But it doesn’t kill the body by hurting it directly. Instead, it wipes out its immune system to leave it defenseless against attack from all other infections. The Muslim Ummah is like the human body. Jihād is its immune system. The US government is like the AIDS virus, doing all that it can to wipe out that immune system and leave us defenseless against its attacks. Despite the invasions and drone attacks and arrests and lengthy prison sentences, however, black flags are popping up everywhere from the Western Sahara to the farthest reaches of Southeast Asia, and with increasing frequency.
In another dictionary definition, a plague is “any cause of trouble, annoyance, or vexation.”
When Fir’aun realized that his “fierce efforts” to subjugate Mūsa (‘Alayhis-salām) and his followers had failed, he made no secret of how this small gang of terrorists had enraged him (26:54-55). He was in a state of outward denial, while acknowledging inwardly (27:14) that those who just yesterday were living under his whip will tomorrow be the leaders who inherit his world (28:5).
But before orphans receive their inheritance, they must first be tested (4:6). Someone else sitting at this desk may not see the connection between this promised future and an apparently cheerless life in prison for myself and my brothers. But Fir’aun’s demise contains a valuable lesson for people like us inside prison and people like you outside of it. If you look at each individual piece of the story on its own, nothing seems to make sense. Whether you’re looking at the circumstances surrounding the childhood of Mūsa (a.s), his escape from Egypt, his return to Egypt, his choosing of the time to confront Fir’aun’s magicians, the various signs sent by Allah to Fir’aun, and so on – none of the details indicate exactly how the story would end. Only when Fir’aun and his army follow Mūsa (a.s) and the other Muslims, and are finally standing at the seacoast – only when the last piece of the puzzle has fallen into place – does it all make sense. The series of events leading up to that single moment, as they stood looking at two mountains of seawater which would become their grave, had been set in motion decades earlier without anyone except Allah knowing what it would all culminate in. All the talk of victory, establishment, and freedom might have seemed misplaced before that moment to the Israelites living for years in captivity as imprisoned slaves, with no end in sight. Some might say that such talk is similarly misplaced for someone sitting where I’m sitting.
But at that moment, Allah’s promise came to life, and the seemingly disconnected events of the previous years suddenly fused together: “So, We took retribution from them, and We drowned them in the sea because they denied Our signs and were heedless of them. And We allowed the people who had been oppressed to inherit the east and west of the land which We had blessed. And the promise of your Lord was fulfilled for the Children of Israel due to their patience, and We destroyed all that Pharaoh and his people had produced and built.” (7:136-137)
A skim of daily news headlines indicates that our moment is gradually approaching, and after careful consideration of the massive record, the Qur’an’s prolific arguments, and the controlling law, I affirm that history repeats itself (48:23).