Every spoken word has context. Nothing said endures in isolation. You can speak the truth, but still have an ulterior motive. You can be both good and bad, both sincere and insincere, depending on the urge of the moment. You can be both a voice in the wilderness and the wilderness. You can be both a hero and a demon. As the poet says: To good and evil equal bent, and both a sinner and a saint!
I watched your hastened ascent five years ago, as you spoke the truth to power. Who dares doubt that what you said was true, as you rounded on supposedly apolitical sufis purportedly giving succour to despots? Hearing your words, the masses roared with approval. Each time you reiterated these sentiments, your social media posts would be liked and shared thousands of times, and even today, with each new news cycle throwing up more controversy in the Middle East, screenshots of your posts are once again shared all over. Those were the days when your thousands of followers multiplied into hundreds of thousands, and then millions, as ordinary, politically engaged Muslims everywhere celebrated your principled stance on the issues of the day, speaking a word of truth in the face of tyranny, when so many others chose silence.
None of us can look into the heart of others. Were your words true? Almost certainly. Were they sincere? Only God knows, but who would doubt it? We had just completed a month of fasting, during which one of the most powerful military forces on earth had rained down destruction on a slither of land 25 miles long from start to finish. Twenty thousand homes had been destroyed, five hundred thousand people had been displaced, fourteen thousand people had been injured and almost five hundred children had been killed. Against that backdrop, rage was the least we could expect.
Who could forget that summer of despair? Passions were running high, as activists everywhere rallied against the great injustices they had witnessed through a month of fasting and beyond. The outrage was palpable, as social media opened up as a new battlefront of relentless conflict. The masses were crying out for leaders to put voice to their concerns; for men who would tap into the groundswell of resentment online and be moved to express to their millions of followers their own indignation at the terrible crimes perpetuated in our midst. Perhaps you were such a leader, articulate to boot.
None of us can look into the hearts of others. To judge the intentions of others is not the prerogative of us mere morals; God alone bears witness to what we hide inside. To the rest of us, guessing intentions is like searching for black ants on a black rock in the middle of the night. But certainly, we have no reason to doubt your bitter anger, expressed so coherently in numerous posts and articles over the years that followed. Was it Israel’s assault on Gaza and the 2,000-person death toll that sparked your rage? Was it US airstrikes on a group of militants who had taken control of Iraq’s largest dam that triggered your sudden fury? Was it the election of former defence minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as Egypt’s new president, or the violent suppression of protests? These were the events of the moment, that compelled many to speak out, alarmed. Surely you were no different in this.
It is no wonder that you came to be lauded worldwide for standing up and saying what needed to be said at that moment. It is no wonder that you stirred up a storm when you shared your essays on Facebook condemning sell-out scholars, compromised by their dealings with political power, your own dealings excepted. Certainly, you touched a nerve and captured the pulse of the masses. Everyone who was anyone was talking about it for weeks on end, congratulating you for your principled stance on the important issues of the day. Having put voice to the concerns of activists everywhere, you were understandably anointed their saviour.
But, perhaps wrongly, I was taken aback. My dealings with you were in the decade before that, when you yourself were written off as a sell-out scholar by the very same activists who now celebrated your words everywhere. I was present when you were first introduced to the leader of the most prominent moderate salafi organisation in Britain; in years to come, you would address their annual summer conference, splitting the organisation in two, as hardliners decried your heresies and moderates embraced your common sense. I was taken aback, I suppose, by the sudden switching of allegiances; by the way people who had once castigated you as a sell-out pandering to the west, now embraced you as their redeemer. But times change, don’t they, and a lot has transpired since the early years of the last decade? I am not the same person I was then; there’s no reason you should be either.
Still, I find it hard to join the fray, to congratulate you without hesitation for taking such an honourable position, lauding you as a man of the people. Alas, I am forever wary of grandiose gestures, the timing of which appears suspect. Beware of suspicion, says the Qur’an, for some suspicion is sin. It is true. I am supposed to give others the benefit of the doubt, give them their seventy excuses and think the best of them. But instead I am one of those irritating souls who must perpetually ask myself questions; I am one of those souls who must ask, “What is the purpose of these interventions?” I ask myself what calculations have been made: are principles at stake or is this really about something else? Is it really about truth and justice, or about mobilising populist sentiments as cover?
Why do I recall all this? Because your articles from that summer of controversy are still shared to this day. I reread one this evening, shared again by a prominent activist on social media, who insisted on praising you yet again for being a thorn in the side of the powerful. And perhaps all that is true. Perhaps you deserve your vast followings for daring to speak out against what is wrong in the Muslim world, articulating the sentiments of the masses, whatever the personal cost to you. Perhaps the masses are right to praise you and defend you without capitulation. Yes, undoubtedly, they are the better believers.
I can only witness to what my heart contains, recognising both the good and bad within. Every word I speak has context. Nothing I say lives on in isolation. We can speak the truth and still have other motives. We can speak the truth, but have nothing in mind but the ego. We can speak the truth, but as cover for lies. We can speak the truth because it is convenient. And yes, we can speak the truth because at that very moment it had to be said, despite ourselves. We can speak the truth because momentarily we are sincere, or because we want to be good, or want to be better, or want to reform our souls. You can be both a voice in the wilderness and have a wild soul, that ravages others without relent.
God alone will judge our intentions. Even we ourselves at times don’t truly know our own, so far be it from us mere mortal to judge the intentions of others. That would be like trying to count black ants on a black rock in the middle of the darkest night. So you are right: it is not for us to judge. But, likewise, it is not for us to write a blank cheque for the insurance policies of others. I will not write such a cheque for you or anybody else, and nor should you for me. We stand alone to be judged by God.