I heard a Friday sermon (خطبة جمعة) about the importance of the ritual prayer (الصلاة). The preacher used the story of the assassination of Umar, the Second Caliph (رضي الله عنه), to demonstrate how the first generation of Muslims valued the ritual prayer. This rhetoric was an example of our contemporary religious discourse’s reliance on entertaining stories without considering their social or moral implications.
The preacher (الخطيب) reported that, after being stabbed, Umar’s primary concern was that the Muslims completed the ritual prayer and he made a great effort to complete the ritual prayer despite his mortal wounds. In the course of relating this story, the preacher mentioned that Umar’s assassin was a non-Muslim slave.
The reader may ask, “Why are you criticizing this preacher? Are you saying ritual prayer isn’t important?”
My assertion is that the preacher chose to use this story for this purpose because it is more entertaining and more demonstrative of his exposure to Muslim religious texts than the straightforward passages of the Quran which many more Muslims (I hope!) know:
فخلف من بعدهم خلف اضاعوا الصلاة واتبعوا الشهوات فسوف يلقون غيا 19:59
The preacher did discuss this passage of the Quran later in the sermon.
The preacher did read in the first rak`a this passage which emphasizes the importance of “presence – khusuu`” in ritual prayer:
23:1-2 قد أفلح المؤمنون الذين هم في صلاتهم خاشعون
Another passage which frightens me is:
ان المنافقين يخادعون الله وهو خادعهم واذا قاموا الى الصلاة قاموا كسالى يراءون الناس ولا يذكرون الله الا قليلا 41:42
There are of course many texts in the hadith books which emphasize the importance of prayer. The preacher discussed this one:
إِنَّ أَوَّلَ مَا يُحَاسَبُ بِهِ الْعَبْدُ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ مِنْ عَمَلِهِ صَلَاتُهُ فَإِنْ صَلُحَتْ فَقَدْ أَفْلَحَ وَأَنْجَحَ وَإِنْ فَسَدَتْ فَقَدْ خَابَ وَخَسِرَ ، فَإِنْ انْتَقَصَ مِنْ فَرِيضَتِهِ شَيْءٌ قَالَ الرَّبُّ عَزَّ وَجَلَّ : انْظُرُوا هَلْ لِعَبْدِي مِنْ تَطَوُّعٍ فَيُكَمَّلَ بِهَا مَا انْتَقَصَ مِنْ الْفَرِيضَةِ ؟ ثُمَّ يَكُونُ سَائِرُ عَمَلِهِ عَلَى ذَلِكَ
The reader may then ask, “What’s wrong with exposing the listeners to the sermon to texts with which they aren’t familiar and to which they may pay more attention?”
In the case of the story of Umar’s assassination, the casual listener, especially if he or she is a black American or grew up in the United States, might pay special attention to the mention that Umar’s assassin was a slave. In the contemporary United States, especially if one is a black American whose ancestors may been slaves in the Americas, a slave who murders his/her masters and captors is a hero, not a villain. Think Nat Turner. Think the Haitian Revolution. From the simplified, Muslim weekend school books of my youth, the only thing I remembered about Umar’s assassin was that he was a non-Muslim, and, in my naive way of thinking, this was enough of an explanation for the assassin’s motive. After listening to the sermon, I returned home and searched for the terms لؤلؤة (part of his nickname, Abu Lu’lu’a) and خنجر (dagger) in muhaddith.org, an online Muslim religious text database. The search returned three results. I also found another text in Sahih al-Bukhari. I’ve created a document with these texts for further review, but they all agree on these narrative points:
- The assassin Firoz Nahavandi (Abu Lu’lu’a al-Majusi) was a slave of al-Mughira bin Shu`ba, the governor of Kufa, and he earned money in al-Madina as a skilled craftsman.
- Al-Mughira compelled him to pay a certain periodic sum in exchange for the privilege of living on his own in al-Madina and earning money through his crafts.
- Firoz complained to Umar that the amount al-Mughira took from him was too high, and Firoz became angry at Umar because he did not respond to Firoz’s request in a manner which pleased Firoz.
The sources differ in Firoz’s origin, the amount he was required to pay al-Mughira and Umar’s response, but a fair reading (don’t even have to be a Marxist!) is that this was a labor dispute, not a religious dispute. Fast forward to 21st century United States, where 1/3 of all Muslims are African-Americans, and only a preacher who is heedless of his audience and social circumstances would use the story of Umar’s assassination to talk about the importance of ritual prayer.
In fact, a Muslim who cares about social justice or who believes in human rights may wonder why none of the ancient Muslims who relayed these incidents ever questioned the justice of al-Mughira’s control over Firoz’s labor, i.e. slavery. Why does Umar spend his last hours concerned with the ritual prayer and not issuing emancipation commands?
And, if Umar and the Companions saw nothing wrong with slavery because they saw it as a natural consequence of their conquests (al-Fatuhat الفتوحات), shouldn’t we contemporary Muslims begin to talk about these conquests in a non-sacred, non-normative manner? Much Muslim scholarly discourse related to political organization is based on those scholars’ assumptions about the Wars of Apostasy (حروب الردة) and al-Fatuhat. Don’t we today need to see these things as contingent and not prescriptive?
So my message to preachers: You may think you are impressing people when you dig deep into hadith books and derive your points from subtle interpretations of tangential texts, but what you are actually doing for the astute listener is exposing the ideological assumptions of the ancient authors of those texts. In doing so, and then failing to address those assumptions which are at odds with our contemporary values, you are turning people off. If you want to tell people to pray or pay zakat or avoid sins, why go beyond the clear, straightforward texts of the Quran and hadith? It really poses more questions than most of you are willing or trained to handle.