Dr. King and Us
January 14, 2018
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, Iman, and integrity.
My original intention for this weekend was to post for you snippets of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech. It was called the, "I've been to the Mountaintop" speech and if we did not speak of content, its oratory alone -- especially in the last five minutes -- is among the best you will ever experience. Go read and listen to it.
In it, he spoke of traveling through history to witness the most hopeful points of human history, leading to that latter point of the twentieth century, when he had to lead nonviolent movements against violent movements, against poverty, against neglect. At its core, it is a demand to live as people with the full self-determination and dignity of humanity, being a dignity that can only be attained by force, that can only be attained by *nonviolent* force. The next day, he was assassinated.
Instead, I chose to reflect on something else: you and I are children of the dreams of MLK. In his final years, he was hated more than you are hated now. I often speak about Islamophobia, including attacks on Muslims, Sikhs, and Hindus or attacks on Islamic centers or anti-Sharia legislation across the nation or the Muslim Ban under the current White House. But, if your biggest struggle in life is in making your parents happy -- which is indeed impossible with many parents -- your struggles are not insignificant, but you do have to acknowledge all the different places in life where you are privileged.
I reflect on the condition of modern activism. There are those real, hardcore activists who have to serve; they cannot stop. Chances are that you do not know who they are. And, there are those people who have to find reasons to be angry; they cannot stop. Then, there are those who are on the covers of magazines and give speeches, and give you all of the credit; and, most of all, they provide no program for their activism. Stick with the first; stay away from the latter two.
We like to quote the statements and post the photos of our heroes, whether we speak of the Prophet himself, may peace be upon him, or other figures like Rumi, Omar Mukhtar, Malala Yousafzai, Muhammad Iqbal, Malcolm X.
You know that activism is much more. Just as much as I abhor our culture of celebrity-preachers, I dislike our culture of celebrity-activists. If you are praised on the cover of established mainstream magazines, then you are not an activist, but a model. Your activism may have been co-opted; it is the oldest technique for Power to give support to activists to buy them off, with the activists fooled into thinking that they are providing service. Dr. King, in contrast, had the ear of U.S. Presidents and used their attention to negotiate.
So, there are a few ways for you -- dear student -- to test yourself. First: think of your contemporary activist-heroes. Can you identify their program? Not their cause. Their program.
Or, something simpler. When Allah tells the Prophet Abraham/Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, that He is making him a leader for all people, he responds, "And, what of my descendants." The Divine responds, by saying that His promise does not apply to wrongdoers.
There are multiple meanings derived from this conversation, which we can speak about at other times. For our purposes, however, I want to you to ask yourself: how often do you pray for your descendants? If you are a parent, you might feel compelled to pray for your children. Here, I am speaking of *all* of your descendants. So, even if you have no children, do you pray for all of your descendants? Start now. If you do not pray for all of your descendants, then I suspect that your appreciation for the work of MLK might miss the mark: you were the beneficiary of his efforts.
Though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. struggled early on in school, he was a graduate of Morehouse College, perhaps the most prestigious HBC in the country. Further, he earned a Ph.D. from Boston University. He could have gone into any field: he could have become -- dare I say it -- a physician. Instead, he became a preacher and one of the most important activists of our nation. When an activist is serving, they do not know the people they are serving.
We are taught that if we are planting a tree and see the end of the world approach, that we should continue planting our tree. A tree is an investment in the future. You may not live to see the tree reach full height and full reach, but you hope that future generations will benefit from your tree. There are some of you who do have oppressive parents, and I tell you that if you can not do the beneficial project you hope to do, perhaps you can support your child in their path.
My question is that if you are not already concerned about your own descendants or your siblings' or cousins' descendants, then what will fuel your concerns about such matters as global warming, economic justice, etc.. Obviously, you can have a concern about all of these without ever having children. But, the concern is very different when you think of your own children.
We read in the Qur'anic commentaries on the meaning of Allah's attribute, "al-Raheem," (The Eternal Source of Mercy). When a mother is caring for five children, she will love all five thoroughly, but she will not love the four the way she loves her own child. A common understanding of the implications of Allah's attribute as "al-Raheem" is that while He gives mercy to all creation, for example through sunlight and rain, He has *unique* Mercy for His true believers.
This brings us back to the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It would be fair to say that his primary dedication was toward the rights of Black Americans. Many of you who are reading this are not Black American, and on a side note, many of you would be surprised to know how many of the Muslims on campus are Black American. There are many Black American elders in Chicago who can tell you of having to travel from hospital to hospital to get treated for a broken bone because the doctors and nurses would say, "We don't serve n____ here." In my experience, even though we are speaking of events from 50+ years ago, most people still do not want to talk about those dehumanizing traumas. That you can consider *becoming* a doctor shows that you are a beneficiary of his efforts. You are the children of his dreams. Own it.
Own it, by continuing the work. Own it by paying it back. You already have a sense of what it is like to be hated. Turn that hate into hope for the others. Someone whom you never met gave blood so that you could do something as simple as using a toilet, eat at a diner, vote, or take the MCAT.
And Allah knows best.