Killing Flies, Chapter 23, The Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books

This is the time of the month in which the vibrancy of the Conference must surrender itself to the stagnant paper. This interminable timeless Conference must yield to the confines of time and space and become defined within the corners of a piece of paper. Yet, this is all a delusion for at this time of every month, I neither define nor limit the Conference. I only take a snapshot; it rumbles on and on with or without me. There are those who wish to deny its existence and there are those who imagine themselves a conference all on their own. But they expire without a memory or trace and the Conference lives on.


October 10, 680 (10th of Muharram the 61st year of Hijra) was a turning point in Islamic history. Al-Husayn (d. 61/680), son of ‘Ali and Fatima and the grandson of the Prophet, was surrounded and slaughtered in Karbala by the governor of Iraq, ‘Ubayd Allah Ibn Ziyad (d. 67/686).‘Abdullah Ibn ‘Umar (d. 73/692) advised al-Husayn not to go to Iraq and to stay in the relative safety of Mecca, but al-Husayn insisted. Al-Husayn’s death was nothing short of a moral disaster and the magnitude of grief was enormous.


Shortly after this event, a man went to ask Ibn ‘Umar a question. The man wanted to know if killing flies during ihram at hajj is allowed. Upon hearing the question, Ibn ‘Umar became upset and he said: “Have you no shame? The Prophet’s grandson was killed in our midst, and you ask me about killing flies?”


The sad reality is that among contemporary Muslims in the United States, many would not understand why Ibn ‘Umar became upset. In fact, if this man existed today, he would have become a sterling candidate to head an Islamic center or to direct one of the proliferating Islamic organizations in the United States. The issue is not whether the man had the right to ask about killing flies. Rather, the issue is this man’s psychology and his sense of priorities. In light of the problems plaguing the nation, killing flies does not seem to be a particularly pressing issue.


Today, there is news of fresh massacres by Serbian troops in Kosovo. This comes in the wake of threats of new massacres in Iraq. What are the pressing issues in our community? The pressing issues are whether one can marry a Jinn or not and whether witnesses are required for the ceremony. Students at a Christian seminary are visiting the local mosque for the first time, and they are offered hijabs as parting gifts. The only serious issue discussed is whether they should be Arab or Indo-Pakistani style hijabs.


In every age there are those who are unable to differentiate the fundamentals of Islam from its particulars. In every age there are those who, empowered by a bizarre sense of priorities, confuse their own pedantic and petty selves with the heart of the religion. Shaykh Muhammad al-Ghazali (d. 1998) used to describe them as people who approach Islam from its tail.


But the problem today goes even further. Here and now, the fly-killing man would immediately be recognized as an expert on Islamic law, and praised for his attention to detail. Here, the ignorant guide the ignorant, and the foolish lead the foolish. As God says: “And thus We cause the unjust to lead the unjust because of what they have done” (6:129). Sadly this verse describes the state of affairs in most of the Muslim world, and is particularly relevant to Muslims in the United States.


In the United States, the field of Shari‘a is flooded with self-declared experts who inundate our discourses with self-indulgent babble and gibberish. These are the self-declared experts on the Will of God who, because they are unwilling or unable to exert themselves in the search, superimpose their ignorance upon the Divine Will. There is no longer a distinction between the demands of their ego and the Will of God. Islam is there to service their national identity or cultural identity or gender identity or, at times, even their need to feel distinguished in a career or to feel popular in a social setting. Their sense of what Shari‘a is, or what is significant to Shari‘a, is defined largely by their fragile egos and individual insecurities. The market of Islam is saturated with self-declared experts whose egos are bigger than their knowledge, and whose delusions are far more potent than their realities.