By Ismail Royer
“Say: My Lord has commanded justice; and set your faces upright (toward Him) at every place of worship and call upon Him, making religion pure for Him (only).”
I converted to Islam at a stage in my life in which I was obsessed with the struggle for social justice. This was the era of Iran-Contra, the first Gulf War, and the Rodney King riots. I’d taken my knowledge of history from Noam Chomsky and of current events from the Dead Kennedys and Public Enemy.
At that time I’d been having a lot of debates with a Muslim friend of mine over the existence of God and the value of religion. Through very subtle and beautiful arguments he awakened in my soul the awareness of God’s reality. And he advised me that I should become a Muslim, in part, because Islam was the best way to achieve justice in a society I felt was sorely missing it.
Now in a sense that was a very wise tack on his part because he knew that message would strike a chord in my heart. I was for social justice, and if Islam was the best “system” for achieving that, it was worthy of consideration. This approach also helped me get over a hang-up I had about religion at the time: that it was the “opiate of the masses,” an instrument of subjugation, oppression, and slavery. If Islam were not that—if it were, in fact, the opposite, a means of liberation—then it was something I could be a part of. The idea was so enchanting that even before I made the decision to convert, I got a tattoo of the Arabic word for “freedom” on my arm. (It’s still there.) So I became a Muslim and, like Don Quixote, went off to save the world.
It was not until I got to prison and had time to reflect on things that I realized there was a problem in the way I was approaching Islam. This religion first and foremost is not a “system” or an ideology. It is not an instrument to be used to achieve certain results in society. Rather, it is insight into man’s place in the cosmos and his relation to the One God. In light of this insight, man’s goal is to bring his heart into harmony with the intent of his Creator.
What I had neglected from the very beginning of my Islam was a focus on my heart. To be sure, I felt the presence of my Lord when I prayed. During the recitation of the Qur’an in the tarawih prayer of Ramadan I experienced, as the Book describes, my skin trembling and softening at his remembrance. I nearly collapsed on seeing the House of God on the Hajj pilgrimage. But these experiences were few, and mostly I neglected the inner, spiritual dimension of my faith.
Instead, I plunged myself into the project of fixing the world. I obsessively followed news of national and international developments. I felt acutely the suffering, humiliation, and injustices endured by the Muslims and the oppressed people around the world. I spent countless hours—indeed, years—doing something about it, or at least believing I was. And in retrospect, I think I did a lot of good, though just as often I probably missed the mark.
But in prison, I found myself tested. The breathless pace of activism had ground to a halt. The distractions of the world had become background noise, vague regrets, fading loves and friendships. In solitary confinement for months and years at a time, I was left alone with my thoughts, with the voice in my head.
It’s one thing to go through the motions: to say that one is a Muslim, to put on a kufi or hijab, to go to the mosque, to memorize the technical details of creed and law. It’s another thing to have your heart held up to your face, held up so you can’t look away, asking: What do I believe, and why? Is this reality for me? I wasn’t prepared for that question. I realized I didn’t know the answer, and I was afraid of the answer. I experienced this realization as a moment of horror, as the earth shaking beneath my feet and an abyss opening up in front of me.
I view that moment as the true beginning of my faith. That is the moment in which I had to confront the question of whether I truly believed, the question that was implied on the day I declared my faith over two decades ago, but that I’d kept nudging aside until I was numb to it. That is the question that from day one should have been the central question of my existence but had taken a back seat to the issue of Islam’s utility as an instrument of achieving justice in the world. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I’d accepted Islam, not solely because I believed it was true, but for some other reason. Now I had to look into my heart with brutal honesty to discover whether my faith had any foundation at all. Finding that it did, praise God, I had to begin building real faith upon that foundation. That day I finally began a journey that continues until today, and that, God willing, will continue until the day I die.
There is no question that God intends that his creation conduct itself with justice. But justice in the world begins with the rectification of the heart. His prophet said, “There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily this piece of flesh is the heart.” When an individual’s heart is sound, when it is in harmony with his Creator, his limbs will follow. A family, a neighborhood, a society of such men and women will likewise be in harmony, and between them will manifest the goodness God wants for them and that he calls them to. On the other hand, one who pursues the rectification of the world to the neglect of his heart may achieve good works, but he neglects the very purpose of his existence. He loses his bearing, his soul becomes disordered, and his heart dies for want of spiritual nourishment. And the most acute case is the one who does not even realize it.
Moreover, the pursuit of justice by men with dead hearts is one of the primary sources of suffering in the world. Indeed, during the Prophet’s lifetime, a man accused him of being unfair in distributing wealth, admonishing him: “Muhammad, do justice!” The Prophet told his companions not to harm the man for this outrage because he might be of those who pray. One his companions remarked: “How many observers of prayer are there who profess with their tongue what is not in their heart?”
This impudent man was an exemplar of a tendency in the nature of mankind that reaches its nadir in the willingness to slaughter half of humanity to create a utopia for the other half. This is the sort of man who could write, as a nineteenth-century anarchist did, “Despots are outlaws. We say murder the murderers. Save humanity through blood, poison, and iron! If you have to blow up half a continent and pour out a sea of blood in order to destroy the party of the barbarians, have no scruple of conscience.”
It is thus the case that no nation has a monopoly on justice, nor on corruption and chaos. As the great scholar Ibn Taymiyyah wrote, “God establishes the just state even if it is disbelieving, and does not establish the oppressing state, even if it is Muslim.” This, he explained, is because justice is the equilibrium of the world. “So, when the affairs of this world are established with justice, they last and are strong, even though its author may have no share in the rewards of the hereafter…” But anyone of any religion who seeks to establish justice untempered by the humility, love, and mercy fostered by true spiritual experience is at risk of falling into the trap of the communist, fascist, or religious sectarians who unleash on the world the fruit of their disordered souls.
So oh you who seek to put the world right! If you somehow find yourself abandoned and alone, in prison or perhaps in the grave, with no furious work to distract you from the voice in your head–what will your heart say to you?