Responding to Pharaohs
March 1, 2017
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman
We have been speaking about pharaohs. Sometimes I get pulled into divorce cases, where one spouse seeks to get out of the marriage as quickly as possible. The spouse may present three hundred sixty reasons for the divorce. The goal is to convince you a divorce is not only the best solution, but urgent. When putting all of the reasons together, they present their case like lawyers. But, when looking at the reasons, you see that they are not just lies, but are nonsense. It is nothing but performance.
Further, to push their case through with full force, they resort to feeding partial information or misinformation to their peers and lapdogs, presenting themselves as innocent victims of the savagery of the other side. And the lapdogs bark on cue as ambassadors. And, there are others who rally with them, pretending to be peacemakers, only to reveal that they have neither impartiality nor spine.
And that is what we should expect when a pharaoh speaks. And that is what we should expect from his religious and political supporters who stand up applaud every paragraph in a speech, because they have their own self-serving agenda to support, and it lines up with the pharaoh. When the narcissisms of disparate people confederate, it is tribalist triumphalism masked as service, and it makes for a bizarre world built on the exploitation of real victims.
There is a need to fact check the lies, to have gone through the process of holding to truth, but beyond that there is no point. When someone resorts to lies and preposterous claims, their goal is neither truth nor justice, but to fulfill their agenda. Rather, by spreading misinformation, they seek to consume and divert our attention. You are busy investigating the deceit, wondering how someone can be so comfortably fraudulent, while they are already busy working on their next steps.
Our proclivity in such environment might be to speak truth to power. On a side note, the history of the phrase, “speaking truth to power” is interesting because we seem not to know its origins. Some attribute it to Quakers, some to the Civil Rights movement (Bayard Rustin), and some to the ACLU. In our tradition, the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, tells us that the best jihad is to speak a truthful word to an unjust ruler. In the Qur’an, we find different conversations with or about those in power.
The most remembered is the conversation with Abu Lahab, which most reflects what we think of when we think of speaking truth to power. The Prophet, may peace be upon him, began preaching publicly, reminding people of the coming Day of Judgment, when we will each be held to account for our choices. Abu Lahab, himself one of the leaders of Makkah (Mecca) as well as the caretaker of the idols stored in the Ka’ba, lashed back at him, exclaiming, “May your hands perish!” In our language it is a curse that would be akin to, “Go to hell.”
Surprising the crowd, the Prophet, may peace be upon him, responded likewise, “May the hands of Abu Lahab perish” and, as we know, took it much further, stating that Abu Lahab will roast in hell. This surprises the crowd because the Prophet, may peace be upon him, was always a man of such truth, fairness and gentleness, and was speaking to one of their leaders (also his uncle) with such blunt force.
In another case, the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), may peace be upon him, speaks to a king who believes himself to be the most worthy of obedience. The Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, uses logic against him, with the inferred point being that the only Power to Whom obedience is due, to be concerned about, or to even consider is God.
The Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, argues that God gives life and death. The king calls in two prisoners, and orders one to be executed. “See? I give life and death.” The Prophet Ibrahim, may peace be upon him, argues that God makes the Sun rise from the East, and invites the king to make the Sun rise from the West.
According to commentaries, that king was named Namrud (Nimrod). It is interesting that the legends about Nimrod state he had kingship over the entire world, though in our language, a nimrod today is a fool.
In another case, the Prophet Musa (Moses), may peace be upon him, faces Pharaoh, who considered himself to be god. God’s initial instructions to Musa, may peace be upon him, are to speak to Pharaoh gently. Remember that gentleness is a matter of tone, neither a matter of weakness nor of abandoning truth.
In another case, God tells us in the Qur’an about the type of leader who eloquently claims to speak from his heart, yet is the most vile of opponents. When away, he sows corruption and destroys. When called to turn to God, his pride leads him to sin, like an allergic reaction to piety. That is the nature of performance. When someone consumed with an appetite for the world stands in the presence of the pious, performance is their costume. Performance is deflection.
In commentary, this leader was Akhnas b. Shariq, one of the rich men of Makkah. He claimed piety to the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, but his agenda was exploitation of the wealth of the Muslims. The Qur’an does not state directly what the response is to such a person. We may deduce a few things, looking at context: we should speak to or about the leader by way of inference, and/or when we see such a person obsessed with the world, we immerse ourselves with the best of the world *and* the best of the hereafter, intensively seeking the pleasure of God. Further, the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, tells us to beware of the prayers of the oppressed (even if the oppressed have rejected God), for there is no separation between them and God.
In the above, we have four scenarios in dealing with Power. The latter three seem to be mild, while the first seems aggressive. There is a fundamental difference: the latter three are examples of people who hold (in our language) secular power, while the first held religious power. In the pre-modern era, the line between the secular and religious was often non-existent, but here we are contrasting those whose tools were physical might and wealth with the man whose influence was in protecting the other-worldly traditions. In other words, when confronting a corrupt religious leader, the approach might be blunt, for the religious narcissist offers a unique danger, trying to lock the voice of the Divine (or divines) in a box. That danger is all the more worse when the religious leader supports pharaoh.
In those divorces mentioned above, by the way, the spouse has in every case abandoned their love for their spouse, giving it to another lover, and it is almost always themselves.
And Allah knows best.