Do we have the right narrative?

INsights 030, Friday 16th December 2022


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Assalamu-alaikum. Peace be upon you.

A few days ago, I delivered a session for Club Revelation members on the twin themes of reform (islah) and corruption (fasad). We explored a number of verses from the Qur’an on the importance of believers being proactive in rectifying problems in their societies, on the nature of corruption and those bent on spreading corruption, and a whole lot more. 

An important part of the discussion was about the narrative that we adopt when engaging with wider society, and the extent to which our current approaches are reflective of Qur’anic guidance. 

A passage that really stands out to me on this topic is the one in Chapter 11 about the prophet Shu’ayb, understood by many to be the same person as the biblical Jethro, father-in-law of Moses.

Below is the translation of verses 84-95 that capture the conversation between Shu’ayb and his people, along with some observations of my own about the lessons we might draw in relation to our own context:

84. And to Midian, We sent their brother Shu‘ayb. He said, ‘My people, worship God. You have no god other than Him. Do not give short measure nor short weight. I see you are prospering, but I fear you will have torment on an overwhelming Day.

85. My people, in fairness, give full measure and weight. Do not withhold from people things that are rightly theirs, and do not spread corruption in the land.

86. What lasts with God is best for you if you are believers: I am not your keeper.’

As is mentioned elsewhere in the Qur’an, prophets were typically appointed from amongst the people to whom the message was to be delivered. Here, Shu’ayb is referred to as “their brother” and they were very much his people.

Even though most believers in English-speaking societies around the world today have different ethnic origins to the majority of people around them, and may even be regarded with hostility, an important condition of our ability to get the message of God to our people is for us to consider those around us as exactly that… our people.

Even if we are otherised, we must not do the same in response. Rather we must embody prophetic forbearance, empathy and concern as the default basis of our engagement.  

Notice also Shu’ayb’s simultaneous messages of worshipping God and economic justice. He wanted his people to understand that the two come hand in hand.

My observation of much of our own contemporary narrative is that we tend to do one or the other but rarely both together. We often promote monotheism in a rather theoretical or philosophical manner, but without sufficient reference to its tangible implications and real value to people today. Or we get involved in trying to address social problems around us, but without any reference to God.

It is only when we integrate both that our messaging will be much more authentic and powerful.

87. They said, ‘Shu’ayb, does your prayer tell you that we should abandon what our forefathers worshipped and refrain from doing whatever we please with our own property? Indeed you are a tolerant and sensible man.’

Bewildered by the boldness of Shu’ayb in trying to change their habits and customs, his people responded with a combination of disbelief and mockery.

Even though they may have only been sarcastically referring to his prayer (salat) as the possible source of his newfound narrative, it was precisely his prayer that reminded Shu’ayb of his duty to confront his people’s excesses and gave him the confidence to do so.

What about our prayer today? Does it remind us of our own ambassadorial role as believers? Does it reenergise us to further God’s cause?

Well, it certainly should, as it’s not just supposed to be ritual worship for the sake of it. It’s supposed to be the foundation of our connection with God that then drives us to achieve positive, godly outcomes on earth in His name.

Activism without prayer is certainly problematic but, in a different way, so is prayer without activism. 

88. He answered, ‘My people, can you not see? What if I am acting on clear evidence from my Lord? He Himself has given me good provision: I do not want to do what I am forbidding you to do, I only want to put things right as far as I can. I cannot succeed without God’s help: I trust in Him, and always turn to Him.

Those who are corrupt and powerful often tend to be paranoid about being outdone by others if they try to mend their own ways.

Shu’ayb is reassuring his people that he isn’t just trying to fool them so he himself can gain the upper hand. His only interest is “to put things right (islah) as far as I can.” Again, he openly confesses the limits of his capability, reminding both himself and his people that real power lies in God’s hands.

The basic message here of us only wanting to put things right as far as we can is one that I feel is very much missing from our own narrative.

In addition to having clear recommendations to help bring about godliness and justice in our societies, perhaps we too need to reassure those who are afraid and paranoid around us that we only mean well for them and for our society. This might seem overly apologetic but in fact is a sign of both strength and sincerity.

We shouldn’t respond to negativity by becoming more inward-looking, nor should we mimic many other minority groups in simply demanding rights for ourselves. Rather we should be renowned for our positive, universal message, one which is underpinned by our concern for all. 

Our task as believers is not just to further the interests of the existing believing community. It is to say and do what is in the interests of all people. In this way, everyone wins. Even if our words aren’t heeded, at least we will have done justice to our mission of conveying the truth as widely as possible. 

89. My people, do not let your opposition to me bring upon you a similar fate to the peoples of Noah or Hud or Salih; the people of Lot are not far away from you.

90. Ask forgiveness from your Lord, and turn to Him in repentance: my Lord is merciful and most loving.’ 

Here again, Shu’ayb conveys his deep concern that his people’s ways will end in self-destruction. Even after their repeated rejection, he offers a message of forgiveness, repentance, mercy and love.

God revealed this story as a reminder to his final messenger, peace and blessings be upon him, as well as to all of us:

Our job is to make sure that our people realise the negative consequences of disobedience but also to keep reminding them that the door to God’s mercy is always open. 

91. They said, ‘Shu’ayb, we do not understand much of what you say, and we find you very weak in our midst. But for your tribe, we would have stoned you, for you have no great status among us.’

92. He said, ‘My people, does my tribe have more power over you than God? How can you ignore Him? My Lord is fully aware of everything you do.

93. My people, do whatever is within your power, and I will do likewise. Soon you will know who will receive a disgraceful punishment and who is a liar. Watch out, and so will I.’

94. When what We had ordained came about, in Our mercy We saved Shu’ayb and his fellow believers, but a mighty blast struck the wrongdoers. By morning they lay dead in their homes.

95. It was as if they had never lived and flourished there. Yes, away with the people of Midian, just like the Thamud!

In the end, like many that came before and after him, Shu’ayb was confronted with a level of stubbornness that could only be broken by severe divine intervention. 

However, it’s important we don’t confuse this eventual outcome with the open, concerned approach that Shu’ayb took and that we too should adopt. We shouldn’t wish destruction on those around us, even if they seem hell-bent on their own demise. 

Overall, when considering how we might improve our own mindset and narrative today, I think there is a lot for us to learn from Shu’ayb’s example:

  • He was deeply prayerful and trusted God fully.
  • He called his people to God while also pursuing social and economic justice.
  • He maintained a high level of empathy, selflessness and steadfastness.
  • He was both confident and humble, continuing to offer hope in the face of rejection.

May God help us rise to the challenges that we face with conviction, clarity and courage, just as true believers should.

Now over to you...

  • Do you think we as believers have a consistent, universal message? Is the way we engage with unbelievers today reflective of Shu’ayb’s approach?
  • On a personal level, practically speaking, what opportunities do you have to develop and share the message of faith with those around you? What are your next steps in this regard?

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