A speech I gave at a conference in Houston on March 10, 2012 (my birthday):
A few years ago today—we wont talk about how many years—but a few years ago today, I was born. And while a lot of people get into the theological debate about celebrating or not celebrating birthdays, I want to step outside of that for a moment. And look at something else. Some time ago, I had a realization. As young people, and then not so young people, many spend their birthdays waiting for people to celebrate them. As children they can’t wait to receive gifts and get heartbroken if someone forgets to tell them happy birthday. But about 4 or 5 years ago, something dawned on me. I realized that if there was anyone I should be celebrating on the day I was born, it shouldn’t be me. What did I do, after all? If there was anyone I should be celebrating on that day, it should be the one who, all those years ago, sacrificed her body—and even her blood—for me. I really should be celebrating my mother. I didn’t work to be born. It was her blood, sweat and tears—not mine. So while, I don’t need it to be March 10th, to do this, I do want to take a moment to remember, acknowledge and thank my mother for the sacrifices she made on that day and every day since.
But then I didn’t come here to talk about birthdays. Did I? I didn’t come here to tell you they’re haram. Or argue that you’re mimicking the non-believers by celebrating them. I came here to discuss something greater.
In teaching Islam, I think there’s a point where we went wrong. I think, somewhere along the line we turned Islam into a list of do’s and don’ts. Into “harams and halals.” We teach our children about Hell fire, before they can even say “AlRahman-ur Raheem” (the most gracious the most merciful). Sunday school has become a place to teach you all the things that are ‘haram’ to do and all the punishments that you’ll be dealt if you do them. When someone converts, the first thing they’re told is that they need to change their name and stop celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Somewhere along the line I think we started going about Islam from the outside in. Instead of the inside, out. But, we need to ask ourselves: How did the Prophets do it?
One of the companions relates that Ayesha said: “If the first thing to be revealed was: ‘Do not drink alcoholic drinks.’ people would have said, ‘We will never leave alcoholic drinks,’ and if there had been revealed, ‘Do not commit illegal sexual intercourse, ‘they would have said, ‘We will never give up illegal sexual intercourse.” (sahih bukhari)
She goes on to explain that the first verses to be revealed were about the Day of Judgement and about Allah.
What is our mother Ayesha (RA) talking about here? She is diagnosing, in her wisdom, why we have so many Muslims today saying “We will never leave alcoholic drinks,” “We will never give up illegal sexual intercourse.” “We will never give up smoking hooka or pot, or pornography. We will never give up dating and all the so called pleasures associated with it.”
We refuse to give up these things because we have not yet understood the heart of Islam. For years we have been bombarded with the self-righteous ‘haram police’, but never have we been exposed to the ‘heart police’.
The Prophet pbuh has taught us why we end up falling into this type of corruption, why we fall into these types of sins which we insist upon.
On the authority of Abu ‘Abdullah al-Nu’man bin Bashir, radiyallahu ‘anhu, who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah, sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam, say:
“Truly, what is lawful is evident, and what is unlawful is evident, and in between the two are matters which are doubtful which many people do not know. He who guards against doubtful things keeps his religion and honour blameless, and he who indulges in doubtful things indulges in fact in unlawful things, just as a shepherd who pastures his flock around a preserve will soon pasture them in it. Beware, every king has a preserve, and the things Allah has declared unlawful are His preserve.”
But we stop there! But the hadith doesn’t stop there.
This hadith begins by talking about staying away from haram and sticking to the halal, and that’s usually where we stop. We are taught that certain things are forbidden and we are commanded by our teachers and parents to stay away from them. But the hadith didn’t end there. And yet *we* end there. We end it at: “Stay away from haram and doubtful matters.” Period. But the Prophet, pbuh, continues the hadith telling us HOW. How can we stay away from haram and doubtful matters? How can we protect ourselves from the preserve of Allah? Through islah ul qalb. Rectifying our hearts. The hadith continues: “Beware, in the body there is a flesh; if it is sound, the whole body is sound, and if it is corrupt, the whole body is corrupt, and behold, it is the heart.”
The heart is the master. You see, human beings are all about love. We obey what we love. Whatever fills this lump of flesh called our hearts dictates how we act. And when it comes to love, we make a lot of claims. We claim to love a lot of things. But like the great poet once said, “Love is like a law suit. It requires evidence.”
What is the evidence of love? What is the direct consequence of this powerful emotion? Think for a moment about human love. What happens when someone is in love with another person? That person will desire nothing more than to serve, please and be close to the one they love. And this service is not motivated by begrudging obligation, but rather a deep inner drive born directly out of that love.
Love speaks for itself. When you love someone, you do what pleases them. And your greatest joy is in pleasing and serving the one you love. It is an honor to serve the one you love. Imagine if you are in the presence of a famous person. I know I’m not in Southern California, but supposed you met Kobe, how would you act? “Can I get you something?!” “A glass of water?” “Can I tie your shoe?!” Imagine getting to tie Kobe’s shoe! And then you’d go back home and tell everyone: “I TIED KOBE’S SHOE!!”
You may not care about Kobe, but you understand the sentiment here. There is an honor in serving the one you love. There is tashreef. And it is only once that love is gone or weakened, that serving the person goes from being an honor to just being a burden. It goes from tashreef to only takleef. Sadly, our worship of God is like this:
Just a burden.
We don’t pray to seek refuge from the storm of our lives. If we pray at all, we do it to get it out of the way! Or because our parents will keep nagging us if we don’t. Somehow we’ve forgotten that if we don’t pray, we harm no one…not Allah….not our mothers….not our fathers. We harm only our own selves. You see on the Day of Judgment, every man and woman will stand alone in front of Allah. And there is nothing anyone can do for you—except by the permission of Allah. On that Day a mother will be willing to throw away her own child just to save herself! Please understand the Reality we have forsaken because we are so caught up with our phones, our apps, our friends, our parties, our highs. We’re so caught up with the cute guys and the pretty girls. Please understand, ignoring a Reality doesn’t make it less Real. It’s still going to happen. Being unprepared for something doesn’t stop it from happening. If you chose to stay up all night partying, instead of studying for your final, it doesn’t mean the final won’t happen. It still will. And you only end up failing. If we spend this life just partying, pretending that the final isn’t coming, it won’t stop it from happening. Nothing will stop death. Nothing. Nothing will delay the Day of Judgment. Like that final, the question is only: are…we…prepared?
Or are we too busy playing?
Imagine that the news reported that a huge storm was coming. Imagine that we were told that unless we seek shelter, we and our families would be destroyed. What would we do? If we really believed that a storm was coming, we would run to shelter, right? Only a person who didn’t believe the forecast, would continue playing and ignore the countless warnings. Only if you thought it was a lie. Only if you didn’t really believe. But how could someone KNOW–really know–that a storm was about to hit, and do absolutely nothing to protect themselves and those they loved? Would anyone say, “I’m too busy hanging out”, “I’m too busy on my phone or facebook to run to shelter”, “I’d rather check out this guys’s profile than protect myself from this storm”? No one would say that. And yet, every single time, we put off our prayers, put off wearing hijab, put off giving up dating, put off leaving our poisonous bad company, put off abandoning alcohol…that is exactly what we’re saying.
The fact that we cannot leave these haram things, the fact that we insist: “I will never leave alcoholic drinks,’ ‘I will never give up illegal sexual intercourse.’ ‘I will never give up smoking hooka or pot, or pornography. I will never give up dating and all the so called pleasures associated with it.” That fact that our worship has become only a burden, is a sign that there’s a problem internally. There a problem with our sight. We don’t really see the Storm coming. We don’t really see the Day of Judgment. We haven’t purified and rectified that lump of flesh the Prophet (pbuh) spoke about. And as a result, the rest of our bodies, the rest of our actions, the rest of our lives have become corrupted.
We don’t really see Allah with our hearts. And we haven’t built our love for Him. We haven’t really used our heart for the very purpose for which it was created: To know, to serve, and to love God.
Remember that the first verses revealed were not about haram and halal. They were not about dating or drinking or smoking or pot. They were about the fact that as a matter of certainty, just as certain as I am standing in front of you today, that you and I, will meet our Maker. You and I, will stand in front of Allah and we will be asked.
What did you love most in this world? What did you spend your life doing? What did you run after? Will it last? The things you chase….will…they…last? Will they help you….or will they hurt you….when the illusion of this life has passed?
We need to come back to Allah, before it’s too late. And Often what keeps people from turning back is that they believe their sins are too great for Allah to forgive. To this thought, Allah speaks:
“Say, ‘O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah . Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful.” (Quran 39:53)
“And return [in repentance] to your Lord and submit to Him before the punishment comes upon you; then you will not be helped.” (Quran 39:54)
Brothers and sisters, the storm is coming. Seek refuge in the only place refuge exists. Seek refuge in Allah. I know I was born on March 10th. You and I know what day we were born. But none of us know what day we will die. And many of us think we can live our lives however we want, and then at the time of death just say la illaha illah Allah.
But at the time of death, the tongue cannot speak—except what the heart commands. Whatever is in the heart will come out. If we don’t remember Allah during our life, how will we remember Him during our death? If our heart is full of love of this life, love of status, love of wealth, love of the creation over the Creator, it is that which will speak. If the heart was full of grudges, jealousy, hatred…that will speak. But if it was full of the love of Allah, that will speak. If in your life, your heart carried only ‘la illaha illa Allah’…that truly there is no refuge, no shelter, no deity worthy of worship but Him’—then, only then, will the tongue be given permission to say: “la illaha illah Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah. “
Allahuma ajalna minhum, wassalamu alaikum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatu.