IS THERE MORE TO FREEDOM THAN A DREAM?

IS THERE MORE TO FREEDOM THAN A DREAM?

Keynote Address by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
at the Interfaith Council of Suburban Maryland’s
Annual Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Memorial Service
at the Christian Community Memorial Church January 15, 2018

[This address draws on substantial material from Dr. Ahmad’s paper on “Alternatives to Violence in Muslim History: Parallels to American Cases and Prospects for the Future” published in Citizenship, Security and Democracy: Muslim Engagement with the West, included here without further attribution.]

Bism Allahir-rahmân ir-rahîm. In the name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Allow me to greet you with the traditional Muslim greeting, As-salaamu `alaikum!  Peace be upon you.

I thank the organizers of this annual memorial service for the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for the opportunity and the honor to pay tribute to that great figure in America’s movement along the long arc towards freedom by sharing a few thoughts on the important question I have been asked to address: “Is there more to freedom than a dream?” I have been charged with informing you about the history of Islam on this question, and I am glad to be able to do so in a context that allows me to mention the resonances in that history with Dr. King’s remarkable life work.

Those of you as old as I am will recall that during his lifetime Dr. King was not as widely beloved or respected as he is today. He was a polarizing figure seen by many as troublemaker rather than as a liberator. Even among admirers of the civil rights movement that dominated the era, there were those unable to appreciate the significance of religion to his work. I became aware of this at a colloquium for college students in the late 1960s. I had raised Dr. King as a counter-example to someone’s clam that religious people were obstacles to the advancement of freedom. A representative of the organizers objected that Dr. King was a secular figure. I marveled that an older, educated man, actively involved in organizing of a seminar on civil rights was unaware that the Reverend Dr. King was a Baptist minister, or of the deep spirituality that underlay his ideals, his tactics, and the very language he marshaled to his cause. Older now, and less naïve, I realize that many people, even in academia—and especially in the halls of power—see religion as merely an issue of group identity, or of rituals that are the conventions and dressing of religion. They have no conception of the powerful wellsprings of faith in great ethical ideals that dwell at the heart of religion.

To me, two pronouncements characterize the essence of Dr. King’s message. The first is that all men are created equal. The second is that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.  Neither of these concepts originated with Dr. King, but there was something seminal in the way he used them. He was quoting Thomas Jefferson when he said that “all men are created equal,” but King’s emphasis on the word all was a reminder that that freedom is for everyone. Jefferson knew this. Even though he was a slaveholder until the day he died, he declared, “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.” By emphasizing the adjective all, Dr. King, without altering a word highlighted the hypocrisy of the American narrative in Jefferson’s day, in his own day, and—alas, in this day as well.

The “arc of justice” phrase comes from the transcendentalist Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker who wrote, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.” In the next lines of this sermon Rev. Parker added, “Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.” And indeed they did. The earthquake that was the Civil War was a violent consequence of motion of the tectonic plates of human history on that long arc toward freedom for everyone.

Dr. King’s dream was one of liberty for all, and his faith in the moral arc of the universe was a conviction that this dream would one day be realized, although he knew, and stated, that he might not be there when it was. More than dream, it is an inevitability, albeit one that requires human struggle to be realized. Dr. King was more than a dreamer, he was a tactician. Although the tactics of mass peaceful civil disobedience were not original with him—Mahatma Gandhi had already developed them in the highly spiritualized society of India—Dr. King demonstrated that they could be implemented, and succeed, in the highly commercialized society of America.

The tactics of civil disobedience employ practices of religious devotion to mobilize mass resistance. The five pillars of Islam can be seen in critical tactics of peaceful resistance. The idea that the individual is directly responsible to the Almighty is inherent in the Shahâda, or declaration of the faith of Islam, that “there is no god but God.” To those dedicated to the service of God, the demands of human rulers to do evil have no authority. Americans know the concept of individual civil disobedience through the example and teachings of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau most clearly articulated the moral imperative for noncooperation with evil in his essay on civil disobedience. The New England transcendentalist’s arguments echo Islamic fundamentals. Thoreau wants right and wrong to be determined not by the majority, but by conscience. The Qur’an says, “By the Soul and the proportion and order Given to it; And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right; Truly he succeeds that purifies it And he fails that corrupts it!”

Thoreau echoes this sentiment in his observation that an inordinate respect for the laws of man leads to warfare and slavery: “I do not hesitate to say, that

those who call themselves Abolitionists should at once effectually withdraw their support, both in person and property, from the government of Massachusetts, and not wait till they constitute a majority of one, before they suffer the right to prevail through them. I think that it is enough if they have God on their side, without waiting for that other one. Moreover, any man more right than his neighbors constitutes a majority of one already.”

Individual disobedience to commands to do evil is a natural consequence of a belief in a direct responsibility to God. Abu Bakr, the first Caliph, in his inaugural address, told the assembled people that they had no duty to obey him if he gave a wrongful order, but rather had a duty to correct him. Throughout the history of Islam there have been many examples of individual civil disobedience. The founders of the four Sunni schools of Islam were imprisoned and/or tortured for their refusal to cooperate with the authorities, and the Shi`a scholars historically denied the legitimacy of wrongful rule.

Organized mass civil disobedience is a tactic normally associated with the modern era, and Gandhi’s influence on Dr. King is well known. Yet the first act of organized mass civil disobedience in history of which I am aware was conceived and directed by the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). He had a vision in which he led the people on the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca at a time when the city was still in the hands of his enemies, the polytheistic tribe of Quraish. He told the people to put on the pilgrim garb and to come with him unarmed into the holy precincts in violation of the expressed will and intention of the authorities in power. The Muslims did not allow their disciplined nonviolence to be broken by the provocations of the Quraish. This demonstration of the power of active nonviolent resistance resulted in a peace treaty referred to in the Qur’an as a “Manifest Victory,”: “It is He who sent down Tranquility into the hearts of the Believers that they may add Faith to their Faith; for to God belong the forces of the heavens and the earth; and God is full of Knowledge and Wisdom.”

The other four pillars of Islam are prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage. Prayer and fasting are such familiar tools of mass resistance as to require no elaboration here. Charity too can be seen as an element of mass mobilization. Charitable work by social reformers unites different segments of society. (In any case charitable donations are needed to fund the cause.) Think of the Quakers and the Sojourners. The Muslim activist Abdul Ghaffar Khan, founded the Khudai Khidmatgar (Servants of God) whose members “pledged to refrain from violence and [to] devote two hours a day to social work” and played a pivotal role in ending the British occupation of India when newsreels of his followers shot down in cold blood shocked the British public.

As for pilgrimage, rallies, marches, and chants are integral elements of resistance, and the Muslim pilgrimage is a great rally for brotherhood. Indeed, the pilgrimage to Mecca played an important role in reconciling Malcolm X to racial integration, the principle issue on which he previously had differed from Dr. King. As Dr. King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was the opportunity to share his dream of a nation in which children would be “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” so the final farewell pilgrimage of Prophet Muhammad was opportunity to instruct his followers to create such a society. He sermonized,

“O people! Indeed, your Lord is one and your father is one. All people are the same as the teeth of a comb; they came from Adam, and Adam is created from dust. Indeed, there is no superiority of an Arab over a non-Arab, nor of a non-Arab over an Arab, nor of a white over a black, nor a black over a white, except by God-consciousness. God has made your blood and your property (and your honor) as holy as this day is holy.” He then asked, “Have I conveyed the message?” The crowd, estimated at 144,000 persons, roared back in the affirmative. He said, “Let those who are here tell those who are not here. Perhaps those who hear the message last will understand it better than those who heard it first.”

More than a dream, freedom for all men and women is the end point of that arc of history towards justice. Achieving it requires both struggle and faith, which brings me back to the starting point of my address: the importance of religious faith to Dr. King’s work. The faith that sustained him in the Birmingham jail and in confrontations with ill-wishers and brutish police is of a kind with the faith which the Qur’an said puts “Tranquility into the hearts of the Believers that they may add Faith to their Faith.” Dr. King himself put it well in the sermons collected in his book Strength To Love:

“The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God.  He is able to beat back the gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil.”

“When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and he is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.”

“A positive religious faith … instills in us with the inner equilibrium needed to face strains, burdens, and fears that inevitably come, and assures us that the universe is trustworthy and that God is concerned.”

To that, I say “Amen.” Thank you for your kind attention.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute
www.minaret.org

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