Speaking truth to power is not about results
By Fedwa Wazwaz, Engage Minnesota
While fighting abuse, it’s important not to embrace the spirit of that abuser.
In the Qur’an’s thirty-sixth sura, a man named Habib an-Najjar (Habib the Carpenter) appears. Habib an-Najjar was a very charitable man who was known to give half of his earnings to those in the community who needed help.
But Habib an-Najjar was not a wealthy man or one of the city’s notables. Instead, he was a very sick man who suffered from leprosy and lived at the outskirts of his city.
When we first hear about Habib an-Najjar, he arrives from the outskirts of town, running to come to the defense of the prophets. He does not arrive laureled as a hero. He’s neither powerful nor strong. And although he’s a kind man, he’s not acclaimed, talented, or famous.
Instead of being well-regarded for his charity, because of his altered appearance, people heaped mockery and ridicule on Habib an-Najjar, which was why he lived at the outskirts of town, which was where he was when two messengers arrived with word from the Divine. They were denied. A third messenger was sent to confirm that they were indeed sent to the town by God.
The people in power — the city’s notables — denied these prophets because they were not angels, and were instead fellow humans. They couldn’t believe these two could have something special to impart, as they didn’t come robed or jeweled.
They couldn’t have been angels, as angels can’t be seen by the human eye, as they are made of light. But even if they weren’t angels, these wouldn’t be the right messengers to humanity, as angels don’t experience the pain, suffering, and struggles that we do.
The notables of the city were rigid in not accepting the message. But when the prophets spoke, Habib an-Najjar came running. He heard the prophets, and he was deeply moved.
He wasn’t the only one to have heard the prophets’ message. The powerful of the city also heard, and they were clearly shaken by it. They called the prophets liars and ordered them to stop speaking. The prophets, for their part, said that they had only come to speak and give “clear notification.”
Yet the powerful of the city wanted the prophets to stop. “Indeed,” the powerful said, “we consider you a bad omen.” The city leaders ordered the prophets to desist, or else “we will surely stone you” — not just killing the prophets, but torturing them to death. The prophets, for their part, used only words, reminding the people of the truths they could feel buried in their souls.
We must ask ourselves: Why were the wealthy and powerful of the city so agitated? Why did they want to punish the messengers, threatening them with torture and violence, instead of responding with speech?
The prophets stood their ground. They told the men and women of the city that a message of justice seems like a bad omen only to those who know they are transgressing the boundaries of others. “Your omen is with yourselves.”
This is when Habib an-Najjar arrives. He arrives late perhaps, coming from the outskirts of the town, hurrying to speak to his fellow townsmen, who seem on the verge of stoning the prophets. He comes, the Qur’an tells us, “running.”
The man doesn’t run in because he is relying on the prophets as heroes or saviors. He doesn’t bow or grovel before them. Instead, he shows that he respects their message.
Habib an-Najjar speaks eloquently about the prophets’ message, calling them rightly guided and reminding his fellow townspeople that the messengers asked for no compensation, no payment. “And why should I not worship He who created me and to whom you will be returned?”
Since Habib an-Najjar shared most of his wealth, out of love for his people, he easily understood the heart of the prophets’ message. His heart was innocent, and thus could not only receive the message, but gave in the courage to share it, with genuine concern, and to benefit all humanity.
Yet after his eloquent appeal, the man is killed.
After bearing witness that there is none worthy of worship except God, Habib an-Najjar was mercilessly killed by the people of his town. One narration says the people began to stone him while he was saying, “O God, guide my people for they do not know,” and they continued to stone him until he died a violent death. Yet he was still praying for them. Another narration states that the people stamped on him until his intestines came out.
While being tortured, he said: “I believe in your Lord, so listen to me.”
Some say it was the angels who told Habib an-Najjar to “Enter Paradise,” in order to give him spiritual strength. Others say it was God, because the man was killed and was thereafter granted heaven and the honor of being a witness.
Yet even after he made it to heaven, his main concern remains his people! It’s thus we know he was speaking out of genuine love for his people. Instead of enjoying heaven, he continued to think about his people: not out of obligation, but out of love.
“Would that my people knew,” he said. “That my Lord (God) has forgiven me, and made me of the honored ones!”
Don’t fight oppression with oppression
Habib an-Najjar clearly fights against the oppressive ways of his fellow townsmen. But he doesn’t fight abuse with abuse. Instead, he fights with faith, patience, and understanding. He doesn’t arrive at the center of town with weapons. Instead, he remains connected to the vulnerability he experienced all his life, and he speaks with both courage and faith.
One of the things we can find in this man’s story is that, when you’re fighting abusive power, it’s important to worry about your soul. One of the worst things to happen, while fighting abusive power, is to your soul. While fighting abuse, it’s important not to embrace the spirit of that abuser.
The first lesson in fighting abusive power is what not to do, and we should never assume we’re immune from becoming an abuser. We shouldn’t lock ourselves in a love-hate relationship with the oppressor. When fighting oppressive power, we should be wary of focusing on any particular abuser—any particular individual. Instead, we should fight what they do.
In this sura, there are no names. We don’t know the man’s name. Neither do we know who in the town has ordered the prophets to stop speaking, or who orders this innocent man’s death. These men are not held up as “bad guys” who need to be vanquished. What’s important isn’t targeting an enemy, but targeting the abusive behavior.
Nor did this man fight his neighbors in a spirit of enmity and defiance. After he arrives in paradise, the man says, “I wish my people could know.” He doesn’t say, “Aha! I won!” Instead, in his heart, he still wants them to see what is right and to act according to what they see—even though these people had ridiculed him and driven him to the edges of town.
Should we, as Habib an-Najjar did, tolerate rejection?
There’s no reason for us to desire rejection. We all want to belong and be accepted! Yet rejection still happens, particularly in unjust societies, just as this man was rejected in his unjust town.
The important thing is that we don’t destroy our souls just to gain acceptance from an abusive power. When Habib an-Najjar came running from the outskirts of town, he didn’t come to fight for the acceptance of his fellow townspeople. He wasn’t angling for them to declare him right or handsome, or to apologize for the damage they had done him. He came to speak his truth to power with courage, faith, and dignity.
Ultimately, his words shook the town, and for this the town leaders killed him. He didn’t speak to their egos, but directly to their souls. When you’re speaking truth to power, you’re speaking directly to people’s souls, reminding the soul of its truth and reality. His words, coming from a place of vulnerability, stirred the people, and for this reason they felt threatened.
Did he fail?
We notice this man didn’t lead a revolution in his town. If his eloquence convinced any of his fellow townspeople in his lifetime, we don’t hear of it. But speaking truth to power is not about results.
If we aim at results, then we’ll start to engage in backward reasoning. If we have a result in mind, then we’re opening the door to oppressive tendencies.
When we start with the result and work backwards, we may be so attached to a particular result that we start on the path to evil actions. This attachment drives many to dump their values and rationalize all sorts of torture and abuse, in the name of achieving their goal. Instead, we must remain open to possibility.
Faith is about handling uncertainty
Faith is never about controlling the wave of life or God as charlatans do. Instead, it’s about facing this wave and acting in accordance with our values. This doesn’t give us any guarantee, but rather leaves us open to uncertainty. Faith teaches us to always have hope and faith in God’s promise. But we don’t know when that promise will be realized. In the meantime, we have to speak truth to power, in a way that’s based on our values.
Thus, Habib an-Najjar — the man who came running — did not fail. He ran in to help, and he did exactly what his faith called him to do. He spoke according to his faith and values, and he appealed to his fellow townspeople’s consciences. The townspeople were so sure of themselves, in their power, that they couldn’t even allow him to speak his few words.
Habib an-Najjar here acts as a witness for God against oppression. He is a witness for the messengers, and a witness for God on the Day of Judgment.
We’re all going to exit this world—but Habib an-Najjar made a very honorable exit. From a faith perspective, he won. He was an innocent who wanted what was best for humanity, and he died with honor.
This is an excerpt from a forthcoming book, currently titled Reflections of Faith: Lessons from the Prophets.
Fedwa Wazwaz is a Palestinian-American born in Jerusalem, Palestine and raised in the US. She was the chair for the Interfaith Relations at Islamic Center of Minnesota. She has completed training in restorative justice at the University’s Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking. She was a 2008-2009 policy fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. She is a public speaker and writer and lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.
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