Bearing Witness: Muslim Understandings of Justice and Suffering

Probably one of our most successful halaqas to date, our group discussion on Muslim Understandings of Justice and Suffering was our last Inclusive Mosque event of the year and included fifty participants who joined us online and in-person. One of our trustees, Sarah Al Sarraj, came up with the idea of an event to bring Muslims together to process what it means to witness and consume constant images of violence from across the world in a political environment that puts us under increased surveillance from the state and local communities.

There were lots of things on our minds as we approached preparation for this event:

  • There are numerous Islamic concepts that are sermonised at times like this. Especially ones about sabr (patience) and hilm (forebearance) and the relationship between suffering, sin and redemption. Some of these can be helpful but sometimes sermons oversimplify these concepts and can encourage us towards passive endurance. How do we embrace the complexity of these concepts and apply them to ourselves us as Muslims in the UK?
  • Being complicit in violence is so normalised under individualistic capitalism e.g. we can’t use our smartphones without being part of the exploitation of children, we can’t buy new t-shirts without normalising the exploitation of workers in the global south.
  • We are living in an age where the images of death, destruction, violence and exploitation are casually available to use any time of day via social media. Death is used as a spectacle and we are all impacted by this in different ways. For some, it galvanises us towards action, for others, we retreat away choosing not to face such horrific realities. How do we bear witness in sustained ways to protracted crises?
  • Rhetoric around those who help and those who need help can embed ideas of saviourism. It’s easier for us in the UK to see ourselves as saviours of people suffering in the global south. Some of this is propped up by mainstream concepts of charity which requires us to think of ourselves as either those who need saving or those who save. We can simultaneously feel like our actions are insignificant and feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy run deep.

“We are not freeing Palestine, Palestine is freeing us”

We started the halaqa with short talk from myself and Sarah who brought the words of Egyptian activist Rand to the discussion: “We are not freeing Palestine, Palestine is freeing us.” This is a reminder that the Palestinian people are liberating themselves from their occupiers amid such violent injustice. As the Birzeit University Union of Professors and Employees stated in reference to the genocide of Palestinians: “Our history will tell the story of these acts not only as a record of colonial brutality but also as a record of our boldfaced determination to live and resist it.”

I mentioned two names of Allah at the halaqa: As Sabur (The Patient) and Al Haleem (The Forebearing). I had been taught, when I was younger, that these were about endurance. That patience requires self-restraint which I understood to mean do nothing but endure whatever challenging circumstances you’re experiencing. Forbearance, I thought, was about overlooking the faults of other to tolerate what upsets us. When I looked into these as an adult, I saw how much these theological concepts are about action. As Sabur for example, is rooted in the idea that action should be considered action, not rushed. It encourages us to assess the situation, assess our power within that situation and to act thoughtfully. This is an active form of self-restraint not a passive absence of action. Al Haleem speaks to similar themes. It is about cultivating deep sincerity so that we are calm and deliberate with the action we take even while we rage at the injustice we witness. Again, an active form of self-restraint.  

We opened the conversation up to the wider group online and in-person, who made so so many rich and deep comments about violence happening here in the UK and across the globe in Sudan, the Congo, Palestine, China, Myanmar and elsewhere. Here are just a few of the points they made:

  • Grief is something that has been part of Islam and Muslim practices from the beginning. Some people cited examples from Muslim history where people like Zainab bint Ali among others leaned into grief, ritualised it and made it a significant part of our faith rather than something to cope with, endure or turn away from. This is something that is often more explicit in Shia Islam than in Sunni Islam.
  • We can feel affirmed that boycott and such tactics have been part of Islamic practice since the time of prophet Muhammad.
  • The Islamic concept of ‘bearing witness’ is about facing reality and preserving testimony. It’s not about consuming images of violence or turning death into spectacle, but about using what we witness to learn about ourselves and our response to violence so that we can take action.
  • We are more visible in public places and at work and this has a physical, mental and emotional impact on Muslims.
  • We are reckoning with the impact of computer-led warfare, this requires prayers AND more immediate and visible action from protestors whose actions are being criminalised by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act.
  • It’s heartbreaking to see such little compassion from friends and family towards the victims of genocide. It’s having an immediate impact on our relationships, as it should.
  • We can be angry at God when we witness suffering. Our anger is evidence of belief that Allah is Al Qaadir, the most powerful, and it is evidence of an ongoing relationship with our creator.
  • More and more of us are facing the reality that humanity is one, our oppression is connected and our liberation will be too. This is what we must work towards.

I’ll be posting more about the discussion on Instagram if you’d like to follow us there. You can also sign up to our newsletter. If you value what Inclusive Mosque stands for and the events we create, please consider donating to help us sustain this work.

Further Reading:

Sudan’s Darfur Conflict : Two decades of suffering and the quest for accountability

“Break Their Lineage, Break Their Roots” – China’s Crimes against Humanity Targeting Uyghurs and Other Turkic Muslims

20 years since war began in Sudan’s Darfur, suffering continues

Birzeit University Union: ‘We are all Palestinians’ in the face of colonial fascism

Supporting a Free Palestine Will Free Us All