Lessons From My Recent Trip to the USA
This age has given us many freedoms. It has also given us immense opportunities. Wise planning means recognizing these many opportunities-opportunities in various fields, including in business, social work, education and dawah or inviting people to God.
By Maulana Wahiduddin Khan
Recently, members of the Centre for Peace and Spirituality, including myself, went on a two-week trip to the USA. We left New Delhi on 26th August 2015 and returned on 9thSeptember. The trip was at the invitation of one of the largest Islamic organizations in the USA, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA). They were holding their convention in Chicago, to which we were invited. Besides Chicago, we also visited Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and New York.
During this trip, with God’s grace, I got to speak at different venues and to meet many people from different walks of life and backgrounds. At the ISNA convention, there was one point in particular that I stressed: that today we are living in the ‘Age of Peace’. The Age of Peace is the title of my latest book, which was released during this trip at the ISNA convention as well as at the United States Institute of Peace, a centre set up by the US Congress in order to promote peaceful methods of conflict-resolution.
There is a hadith, full of wisdom, that I cited in relation to this Age of Peace that we are living in today. The Prophet is reported to have said: Ala al-aqil an yakunabasiram bi zamanihi. (Ibn Hibban). From this hadith, we learn that wise is he who understands the age in which he lives.
This hadith reflects the importance of something that is really crucial—the need for wise planning. Only if you properly understand and appreciate the conditions of your times, can you engage in wise planning. Planning is about availing the opportunities afforded by the age in which you live. If you have no idea about the conditions of your times, you cannot avail the opportunities that they make available.
In my address at the ISNA convention, I stressed that one special characteristic of our contemporary age is freedom—total freedom. Before this, the world never enjoyed total freedom. One major reason for this was because much of the world was then under monarchical rule, when only the monarch enjoyed total freedom while everyone else were his subjects. But today, we live in a very different age, an age of democracy, an age where it has been accepted that each individual has the undeniable right to be free. There was no such freedom in the past. When the Prophet was in Makkah, the early Muslims were prevented from praying at the Kaabah. Today, in contrast, there is no such restriction on people praying. Muslims and everyone else can pray anywhere in the world you like and no one is going to stop you. Isn’t that amazing! The Prophet and his companions had to face opposition when they wanted to worship at the Kaabah, and today Muslims are free to build mosques in every country and worship there, without any problem. This is freedom, the freedom that we now enjoy in this new age.
If, in line with the message of the hadith referred to above, you want to understand today’s age, you must keep in mind that one basic feature of this age is freedom.
And what is freedom?
Basically, it is the freedom to avail or make use of available opportunities. This age is an age of an explosion of opportunities. There is a great abundance of opportunities available all around us today.
On the one hand, this age has given us many freedoms. On the other hand, it has also given us immense opportunities. Wise planning means recognizing these many opportunities—opportunities in various fields, including in business, social work, education and dawah or inviting people to God—and then using the freedom we have been blessed with to, properly avail of these opportunities. There is no restriction on your doing any of this, except for one thing: you must not harm or trouble anyone else. As long as you refrain yourself from harming others, no one will stop you from using your freedom to avail of the many opportunities that abound today.
Let me cite a story to illustrate this point. When America won independence from Britain, an American man, overjoyed at the news, stepped out of his home and into the streets to celebrate. In his joy, he waved his hands about, and by mistake, struck a passerby on the nose. The angry passerby asked him why he had hit him. The man said to him, “We’ve won freedom, and I’m now free! I was exercising my freedom!” The second man replied, “Yes, you are free, but your freedom ends where my nose begins!”
In my address, I related this story and talked of 9/11, the destruction of the twin towers in New York. This crime was like hitting the ‘industrial nose’ of America, I said—and this is totally unacceptable. One cannot avail of existing opportunities if one misuses one’s freedom in order to hurt, damage and kill others. You will have to save yourself from hitting other people’s ‘noses’ if you are to be eligible to enjoy the freedoms and avail of the many opportunities that today’s age has opened up. You will have to refrain from violence, from suicide-bombing, from the gun-culture and the bomb-culture. Only by avoiding hurting and harming others can you progress. This is another point that I stressed in my address.
ISNA, I said, is working in a peaceful way. It is a huge organization. They are doing a lot of work, especially in the field of social service.
The audience really appreciated this point. There were some 10,000 people in the audience.
Near the Chicago airport, a group of Muslims of Turkish background have established a very large institution—the Turkish-American Society (TAS). This centre is associated with the movement led by the well-known Turkish Muslim scholar, Ustad Fethullah Gulen. We visited the centre—and this was, again, a great experience. In my interaction with the people associated with the centre, I said it was so remarkable how the movement led by Ustad Gulen had spawned an ‘educational empire’—in the form of hundreds of high-standard schools across the world, in more than a hundred countries! I also remarked that the Turks had established the Ottoman Caliphate, that lasted for a long time, but then conditions in the wake of the First World War led to its collapse.
In accordance with the changing conditions and demands of the times, Ustad Gulen had very rightly focused his attention on non-political work—on promoting education. He caught hold of the root, as it were, education being an issue of the utmost importance. He helped set up a big number of good schools in many countries. Interestingly, he did not talk about establishing universities. Nothing happens through universities unless the schools that feed the universities are good. You need proper schools, schools that provide proper education and moral training. And that’s what Ustad Gulen put so much stress on.
How truly amazing it is that the Turks had established a vast political empire which came to an end in the early 20th century and then how a group of Turks set about establishing a non-political educational ‘empire’! God selected them to tell the world not to lament the passing of an age, but, instead, to recognize the new opportunities afforded by the new age and to work accordingly.
So, in America today, the ISNA has established a ‘social service empire’ and the movement led by Ustad Gulen an ‘educational empire’—all using peaceful means.
Muslims must reflect deeply on the hadith referred to above. They must seek to understand its contemporary relevance and its deep wisdom. From this hadith I understand that although the times or the age may change, opportunities never cease. If one age passes away, you must not think that all is lost. Instead, you must seek to understand the conditions and demands of the new age, discover the opportunities that it affords and, accordingly, work in a new way.
I thought to myself, “On our trip to America, my friends and I travelled more than 30,000 kms in just 15 days, doing dawah work!” This is such a great blessing, isn’t it? Earlier, this was simply unthinkable—going to so many places, so far away, and in such a short time! It is this that is what I call a ‘dawah empire’. A ‘dawah empire’ is not based in some fort or castle. There’s no role at all for a fort, for a gun, for war, in a dawah empire. The role is that of peaceful effort. On our trip, we met with many people—Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others—and we talked about dawah with them. We engaged in dawah with them. And in this we faced absolutely no obstructions at all. I was so touched! Here I was, an Indian, coming to America all the way from India and engaging in dawah there, inviting people to God, and not a single person stopped me! How amazing, isn’t it? Compare this with the times of the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets. The prophets had to face stiff opposition to their dawah work. But now, in our age, one can engage in dawah without any obstruction whatsoever—the only condition being that you should have no hate, no complaint, in your heart against anyone. The origin of every evil is complaint. Complaint leads to hate; hate leads to enmity; and enmity leads to violence, to war, to suicide-bombing, to the gun-culture and the bomb-culture. And the result of all of this is nothing but destruction—nothing positive at all.
The Quran is the basis of our mission.
In the Quran, God says: ‘Read! Your Lord is the Most Bountiful One who taught by the pen’ (96:3-4). In earlier times, this was possible only in a limited way. People used to write out texts by hand, and that took much time and effort. When I was studying in the madrasa, I once copied out an Arabic course book by hand! But today, in our age of the printing press and the Internet, you can produce and disseminate books at the touch of a button, and on a massive scale. This is one of the many blessings of God that have appeared in this age. Another such blessing is that no matter what your background or educational qualifications, you can devote yourself fully to dawah work. This is such a mobile age! People are constantly moving about today. You interact with many people every day. You can keep dawah-related literature with you and distribute it to people you meet. That’s an easy way to do dawah work. We should be grateful that God has blessed us with so many opportunities to do this work in this age.
Wherever I travel—and this happened in America on our recent trip as well—I meet people who are searching for a message that addresses their minds. A message that addresses their innate nature. A message of spirituality. A message that has nothing to do with political wrangling and conflict. A message free of hate. Everyone seems to be searching for this. But only God can satisfy this inner thirst. And that indicates the importance of dawah, of inviting people to God.
The 20th century was an age of ‘social movements’, among Muslims and others too. There was an explosion of such movements all across the world. But all of them somewhere got stuck in politics. And where politics appears, protest, complaint and hate inevitably raise their ugly heads. These things are not innate in human beings as created by God. Rather, they are fomented by ambitious, power-hungry leaders.
Today, people are thirsty for peace, for spirituality, for positivity. An entire century went off, full of political talk, of hate talk. But today, in the 21st century, people want all this to be dumped—all talk of politics, of hate, of violence. They are looking for what their innate nature wants. I see this wherever I go. If the 20th century was an age of hate, of politics and of confrontation, our age is—or can be—truly ‘The Age of Peace’.