Fixing the Internal Pharaoh and the External Pharaoh
Sunday, February 5, 2017
I hope your receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.
Our society’s political upheaval continues, though many bright spots — related to push back from within the masses, media, and judiciary — give us hope. I should also comment that I have received calls, emails and visits from members of nearly every division in the university, and nearly every department offering their support to all of you, asking me what else they can do to support us. And, for that, we should be grateful to them, and grateful to the Divine. Further, we must be ready to extend our support to the other minority and marginalized communities soon, uniting as one. I’m also eager to listen to any of your ideas on any of these matters.
In the last letter, I spoke about the behavior of the Pharaoh, ending it with a question about our own internal Pharaohs. Meaning, in the process of facing the public tyrant, we have to make sure to erase our internal tyrannies.
The Prophet, may peace be upon him, received instructions almost simultaneously, calling upon him to work to change society (via Surah al-Muddaththir) and to strengthen his already strong, pure soul (via Surah al-Muzzammil). In other words, if we choose the route of social change, then we must also place heavy focus on personal strength, for it is easy to lose ourselves in our work in unhealthy, if not destructive ways.
We find a parallel in our own physiology. You breathe in and out. The two aspects of breathing are inseparable, removing the carbon dioxide and replacing it with oxygen. Then, as the blood reaches the heart, the two-part lub dub constriction takes in the blood and fires it through the rest of the body to provide nourishment. The In order to remove the Pharaoh in society, you must work to remove the Pharaoh within, and vice versa.
We should read this teaching both in the context of social change as well as personal transformation; consider the two to be inseparable. You cannot work on social change without also working on your own personal transformation, and you cannot work on your own personal transformation without working on social change. If you are focusing on one without the other, you are abandoning half of your being. This separation of the two is part of the modern fragmentation of the self and society, where faith, practice, character, and service are disconnected from each other. We have students on campus who make their prayers, yet see no contradiction that they also cheat on class work, and/or involve themselves in un-Islamic behaviors. I should keep count over how many times people come to me asking about Islam, asking what they’d have to change if they were to embrace Islam, and when we talk about giving up drugs and alcohol, they tell me they get high and drunk...with other Muslims. !!
I comment frequently on those among my peers who have chosen half rather than both. The longtime activists, who started in high school and college full of ideals and grand visions: so many of them are now withered, unhappy people. Likewise, those who focused exclusively on self-transformation (i.e. in the development of their own personal faith), abandoned those around them, as though they walk past the needy -- despite so many calls in our belief system to care for the orphans and needy -- on their way to prayer, while society crumbles. It is not that either rejects the other half; rather, we tend to give far more effort to one and take the other for granted. It is not like the parent who works intensively and extensively in their profession, but ignores they child they claim to be working to provide for. Be whole.
We also see opposites happening: each are behaviors of crass selfishness.
Some delay both efforts--public and personal reform--with a fantasy intention of working on them later. So many of our students are pre-meds, who happen to have enough time to play and party, but have the intentions of working on personal development and social change at a later time. Usually that later time does not happen until someone’s back is against the wall, and usually that is decades later when they start facing their own mortality. While medicine is itself a career of service, for many it is a career of high income.
We see another opposite happening. At the collective level it is religious triumphalism. At the individual levels it is charlatanry.
At the collective level, these are people who believe that they are accomplishing both efforts, yet are doing neither. As we watch the rise of religious nationalism across the globe, across every major religion--Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism--we see people who convince themselves that they are serving their beliefs by forcibly imposing themselves in public and private space, often with bloodshed and theft as a necessity in the process. If a common thread in religion is the Golden Rule, these are people in contrast who do unto others to be able to do what they want to themselves, convinced that their brutality is piety.
At the individual level, these are charlatans of who perform with false humility, having convinced themselves that God is on their side, while they behave in childish or vile ways in their personal lives, abandoning personal responsibilities for the chance to jump in front of cameras and microphones. They may not commit murder, but they tell lies that sound like truths, because that is by definition performance.
All of these are people who serve neither society nor development as much as they are manifesting their own internal Pharaohs, taking the role of an ignorant, narcissistic god over the masses.
Thus, where do we begin? Come to my office, and let’s plan. You own this country as much as your classmate does. You own this country as much as someone on Pennsylvania Avenue does. You are not going to give it up to some people trying to sell us all out to complete their narcissist utopian visions. The mess they leave when they run away, will be a mess that you and I have to clean up, because Pharaohs do not give up anything without a fight. And, when they run, we have to make sure that we do not replace them as Pharaohs. Thus, it will take time and effort to be one. What else is there to live for?
And Allah knows best.