On Heroism


September 12, 2011 at 8:41 pm

The following is a slightly modified version of a speech delivered by Imam Zaid Shakir at the United for Change conference in Washington DC, September 10, 2011.

Character is refined and shaped by the challenges we have to contend with. As we overcome challenges our character is enriched. This lesson was articulately emphasized in a letter written by Abigail Adams to her then twelve-year-old son and future president, John Quincy Adams. The younger Adams was accompanying his father, John Adams, who had been sent to Paris to serve as the first American ambassador to France. John Adams, himself, would later be elected to be the second president of the United States. She wrote:

These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station that great character is formed. Would Cicero had shone so distinguished an orator had he not been roused, kindled and inflamed by the tyranny of Catiline, Verres and Mark Anthony? The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. All history will convince you of this, and wisdom and penetration are the fruits of experience, not the lessons of retirement and leisure. Great necessities call out great virtues. When a mind is raised and animated by scenes that engage the heart, then those qualities, which would otherwise lie dormant, wake into life and form the character of the hero and the statesman.

I begin in this vein to say to you my brothers and sisters;both in faith, and in humanity; now is not the time to flee in the face the seemingly overwhelming challenges facing our Muslim community and our nation. Now is the time for us to be roused, kindled and inflamed into action. Now is the time for the emergence of the hero and the statesman, for we have seen how dangerous the scourges of war, tyranny and desolation can become when they are not restrained by wisdom or mitigated by deep introspection as to the potentially uncontrollable nature of their consequences.

Let us ask, Just what is a hero? There are many answers to this question. No matter how we answer, we will find that heroism is inseparable from mercy. In the Muslim tradition mercy is defined as the intent to bring good to others and to cause them benefit. Mercy itself rests on two foundations: Tadhiyya, or sacrifice, the willingness to expose oneself to deprivation or harm in order to secure benefits for others; and Ithar, giving preference to the needs and interests of others. Both are beautifully illustrated in the actions of the Ansar, the early Muslims Helpers, those residents of Madina who so willingly opened their homes and their city to the Prophet Muhammad, peace upon him, and his fellow Meccans when they were forced to flee to Madina. Their spirit is captured in the Quran. Almighty God mentions: “and they gave preference [to them] over themselves even though they themselves had dire needs. Whosoever avoids the stinginess of his soul, they will be successful.” (59:9)

This verse not only illustrates the selfless generosity of the Ansar, it shows us the foundation of a particular type of politics, economics and social relations. Specifically, it calls to the politics of sharing, mercy and compassion. This was the ethical foundation of the Prophet’s polity, blessings and peace of God upon him.

This verse also alerts us to another set of principles, the principles of selfishness, avarice and greed, alluded to in the phrase, “…the stinginess of the soul.” Those principles also birth a particular type of politics, economics and social relations. Namely, they breed the politics of selfishness, self interest, fear and greed. Today, we find that these two sets of principles are vying for the control of the politics, economics and social relations that will steer this country for at least the coming half century. Muslims must join the struggle to help insure that the former set of principles prevail, –as they reflect our values and religious teachings.

To return to our question, “What is a hero?” The dictionary defines a hero thus: “It is a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life.” In this sense, all of the firefighters, policemen, paramedics, first responders and the ordinary men and women who perished desperately trying to save their fellow citizens in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001 are heroes. This is a fact beyond dispute.

Moving away from this “textbook” definition of heroism we can find many others. Napoleon Bonaparte, the famous or infamous French general, defined the hero as “being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat.” This is a definition that allows all of us space to become heroes, for if we look deep down inside of our souls, dig deep down inside of ourselves, we can all transcend the ills of life.

As we survey our society today we can find many ills vying with each other to pull us down. However, truth, love, dedication, compassion and mercy are calling us to rise above those ills. When we respond to their call, we are heroes. Karen Armstrong and John Esposito, who will address you later today, though they would deny it, are heroes. For when some of the ills existing in our society are seducing many scholars and writers to distort, twist and caricature the reality of Islam and Muslims, they have consistently written and spoken with truth and integrity.

Simon Kennedy, a standup comedian and noted voice-over artist based in Sydney, Australia, is a hero. I had the opportunity to spend time with Simon yesterday and I know that he would not wish for me to call him a hero. His mother spent 25 years working for the Australian Red Cross. She always dreamed of touring the Canada and the United States. However, her dedication to work and family prevented her from taking that trip. Upon retirement, her dream finally came true. She was able to undertake and complete her long awaited vacation. On the morning of September 11, 2001 she boarded United Flight 77 from Dulles Airport in metropolitan Washington DC to begin her journey home. We know that Flight 77 would not make it to Los Angeles, the first leg of the long journey back to Australia.

When some of the ills of our world called Simon Kennedy to jump on the Muslim-bashing bandwagon of hatred, he heroically rose above those ills and chose another path. He chose to work for peace, understanding and reconciliation. He was able to successfully combat the ills of the world.

Likewise, Rais Bhuiyan is a hero. When the ills of life sent a hate-filled, vengeful racist, Mark Stroman, across his path Rais Bhuiyan rose above the circumstances created by those ills. Shortly after the carnage of 9/11, Stroman, who had lost a relative in one of the collapsing towers in New York, went on a murderous shooting spree. Having killed two men he thought were Muslims, one proved to be a Hindu, he shot Bhuiyan in the face at point-blank range with a saw-off shot gun. Miraculously, Bhuiyan survived.

Bhuiyan could have easily succumbed to the calls of hatred, vengeance and retribution. However, he chose to forgive and to wage a valiant effort to save Stroman from execution in the Texas death chamber. His effort proved unsuccessful, but it changed the doomed Stroman.

Stroman himself, in his own way, is a hero. Poverty, a difficult childhood, bad influences and evil ideas made Stroman into a hateful racist. However, Bhuiyan’s act of forgiveness, compassion and grace helped to transform Stroman, and before he was executed he renounced his hate. At the time of his trial he described himself as “The Arab Slayer.” However, just before his death he would announce, “Hate is going on in this world and it has to stop. Hate causes a lifetime of pain.” Stroman proved that he was superior to the ills of the world.

Brothers and sisters, we can complain, petition, become obsessed by a quest for justice and spend our lives in that path. No one could justifiably fault us for that. However, these very acts can sometimes render us vulnerable to the seductive attraction of the world’s ills. On the other hand, we can believe with all of our heart and with all of our soul that love is mightier than hate; that mercy is stronger than vengeance; and that peace is more powerful than war. We can believe the proven truth embodied in the noble words of the Qur’an: “Good and evil are not equal. Repulse evil with good. Unexpectedly, you will find one between whom you and he there was great enmity become as it were, an intimate friend.” (41:34)

Allow me to mention a final definition of heroism. Felix Adler (1851-1933), the great American ethicist, mentions: “The hero is one who kindles a great light in the world, who sets up blazing torches in the dark streets of life for men to see by.” If you leave this hall today with nothing more than a conviction that with your love, with your charity, with your mercy, with your courage, with your nobility and with your dignity you will be a light in the world; you will be a hero.

Let us pray a prayer taught us by the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessing of Almighty God be upon him:

O God! Make light in my heart. Make light in my vision. Make light in my hearing. Make light to my right. Make light to my left. Make light before me. Make light behind me. Make light above me. Make light beneath me. Make light in my nerves. Make light in my flesh. Make light in my blood. Make light in my hair. Make light in my skin. Make light on my tongue. O God! Bless me with a light.

May we all be blessed to be a light in these increasingly dark times.