My own recoloring of a picture of my friend Cirak.

Khutbah: Recognizing our Invisible Martyrs

By mekhiMKL | Liberating Islam | 10 Oct 2021


In memory of, and dedicated to

Cirak Mateos Tesfazgi

 إِنَّا لِلَّٰهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ‎

We belong to God and to Him we shall return

Rise in Power

 

Originally Published July 2020

Initially, I had planned to present a khutbah on another topic this week, yet Allah (SWT) is the best of planners (3:54). Nothing happens without Allah’s (SWT) permission (10:16). As such, I come to you this Jummah with a khutbah that I did not originally anticipate writing, but I felt compelled to share what is weighing on my heart. 

The murder of a young man, Elijah McClain, by police in Colorado a year ago has recently come to the attention of the public. Elijah was only 23 years old when he was killed. His last words, his love for Allah (SWT)’s creation, his gentle demeanor have been shared with people throughout the world. Alongside these sharings, a photograph or illustration of the young man is also often shown. 

A friend observed the other day that, even though she felt affected by all the deaths of those murdered by police, there was something unique about Elijah that touched her heart deeply, though she didn’t know why. I realized that she was putting words to a feeling that I had been struggling with, and trying to ignore, for several days since I had first seen his image and his words. Her statement made me confront what I had been feeling, and as I began to formulate a response, I realized all at once why Elijah’s murder was so profoundly impacting me. 

Four years ago, on the very date that I was contemplating Elijah’s murder, my friend Cirak was viciously killed. 

When I got word of his murder it had been almost a year since I had seen him last. We attended the same college for a few years, and I had moved out of the area to be closer to work. We shared a few overlapping classes and he was briefly involved with one of the school publications I managed. He graduated with his undergraduate degree in literature around the same time that I finished my masters, and we both moved on from the college we had attended together.   

The anger and anguish that had overpowered me upon hearing of his death rushed over me once more as I, almost a week ago now, sat contemplating the striking similarities between the lives, and the deaths of the two young men. Both Elijah and Cirak were compassionate, gentle, and intelligent individuals. They both had bright smiles and kind eyes. Both were of African descent. Both were unique in ways that the dominant culture often does not understand or accept. 

Cirak remains one of the friendliest people I have ever met. He would never pass up an opportunity to greet a friend if he happened to see them, and loved to talk at length with anyone about the wide breadth of topics to which his vast knowledge extended. He was one of the deepest thinkers, and most avid learners, I have ever met. He had a joyful enthusiasm for all that was good in the world, and a passion for justice, liberation, and the welfare of humanity.  

In a just society, he would have been universally beloved. Instead, because of the corruption and oppression that have overtaken much of our world, most people showed him nothing by cruelty. He was excluded socially, treated without the most basic respect, because of the racism, ableism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia of our peers. 

Though our college was notorious for these kinds of problems, the behavior I saw directed toward Cirak was even more terrible than I had grown to expect. Our white peers tried to get him removed from classes and extracurricular activities, and would make baseless accusations against him to authorities in the hope of having harm done to him. They were openly hostile to him on a constant basis. Yet, while there were times he seemed hurt by their actions, he continued to model patience and kindness toward them.

I had hoped that life after graduation would be kinder to him, to both of us. I too was struggling, to a lesser extent that he, but at the time my worries felt overwhelming. While people have told me that I defended Cirak and to some extent protected him from the evil our classmates plotted, I am left only with the impression of having not done enough, the knowledge that I should have done more for him. Inshallah he knows how much I care about and respect him. Inshallah I will be able to help other young people like him, who are often targeted across multiple identities, know how precious they are, and be celebrated instead of demonized.

The year after his graduation did not bring him the peace or happiness I had hoped. It seems like the depression that began (likely due to how he was treated) during our time at college worsened. He began to isolate from his loved ones. During the day he would struggle against his difficulties, writing and sharing his poetry with others. At night, it seemed difficult for him to find his way home, back to his family. Instead he began to sleep outside. Alone and unprotected, a man struggling with his own demons stumbled across Cirak late one night. I won’t describe the details of his murder, which the media luridly shared with the world. I will only share my hope that my friend was sound asleep and did not feel the injuries inflicted on his body before he returned to Allah (SWT), inshallah. 

I didn't know his murderer had been caught and convicted until just this week, but the details have brought me little comfort. The man who murdered Cirak was later arrested when he attacked another man in a nearby theater. Unlike the media’s painfully detailed description of Cirak’s death and his mother’s heartbreaking reaction, the man who was injured had his privacy largely respected.

 As is the case throughout the American system of injustice, the loss of Cirak’s life was not weighed as heavily as one would think fair. The attack on the man in the theater (who, Alhamdulillah, survived the encounter) resulted in a sentence of 12 years. Cirak’s vicious murder resulted in a senenced of fifteen years - just three years more. 

I don’t think it’s any accident that media publications across the globe, who have reputations for racism and xenophobia, put the attacker’s mugshot side by side with the man he injured, yet treated Cirak as an afterthought. The attacker was also of African descent, the man he attacked in the theater was light skinned, likely white or Latino or both. Cirak’s murder, and picture, wouldn’t jive with the optics, and wouldn’t effectively fuel the racist hatred the publication was clearly trying to evoke. 

Years ago, when Cirak was killed, I felt pessimistic about the likelihood of any real justice being served. I still believe, from a lifetime of experience, that Cirak’s murder wouldn’t have been solved if the next man his murderer had attacked was also black. 

Yet regardless of the race of his attacker, I knew that his death - and the deaths of so many other young African-American and black men - is symptomatic of the apathy toward black lives that is foundational to dominant American and European culture. His death was preventable. If we didn’t live in societies that are built upon the oppression of black and African people, his life might have been very different. 

 As a Muslim, I realize now that the only true justice will be on the Final Day, and that Allah (SWT) is the most fair of all judges. I realize too that only that Day of Reckoning can fully address the many contributing factors that led to Cirak’s death. The man who now sits in prison is not the only one whose actions led to Cirak’s life being cut short at age 22. Our peers who tormented him, and the colonial imperialist society that created and promotes systemic oppression, also bear responsibility. 

My role is not as a judge, however. Allah (SWT) is the Just Decider, and all of us will have our deeds, good and bad, lain out before us on the Day of Judgement (34:25-26). Knowing that our creator has the fate of all firmly in hand, and will correct what wrongs remain unresolved in this life, brings me a peace that was unattainable for me four years ago when Cirak was murdered. At that time I had not yet surrendered to Allah (SWT). I was still resisting the pull toward Islam that I had felt for the better part of a decade before. 

Soon after his death, however, I finally relented. In the midst of a series of catastrophic events, I turned to the Qur’an for guidance in a last ditch effort to save my life. At the time I did not believe I could ever find peace, or ever know anything more than the misery and hardship I had known my whole life. Sometimes the words of Allah (SWT) were all that got me through the next hour. The promise of a justice that seemed utterly absent from the world around me gave me just enough hope to hold on, and when I finally relented and accepted Islam, my life began to transform in ways I never thought possible. 

The following ayat capture, with beautiful profundity, how such tests can often lead us to places of unexpected spiritual reward:

God sends down water from the sky and with it revives the earth when it is dead. There is truly a sign in this for people who listen. There is also a lesson for you in cattle. From the contents of their bellies, from between the dung and the blood, We give you pure milk to drink, pleasant for those who drink it. From the fruit of the date palm and the grapes you derive intoxicants as well as wholesome food. Surely in this there is a sign for men of understanding. (16:65-67)

Not only was the impact of Cirak’s death an integral step toward my acceptance of Islam, but so too was his life. I do not know the contents of his heart as regards his faith, but I do know, looking back now as a Muslim, that Cirak embodied and so often modeled the righteous behavior to which the Qur’an enjoins us. His character and friendship was more compelling dawah than any discussion of faith we might have had. His example was all the more effective as it provided me with the experience of what healthy, Islamic masculinity could look like. Cirak was truly a young man who embodied many of the qualities beloved by Allah (SWT). 

The need to share Cirak’s story in revolutionary Muslim spaces is born out of the awareness that we do not recognize as we should those comrades we have lost to the war against oppression. We often have a narrow idea of what constitutes battle, and thus too often we do not recognize our martyrs as we should. Ironically, salafist and wahabist innovators have transformed the most criminal of all actions into a satire of “martyrdom”, where any mass murderer can claim a status they have no hope of achieving. Yet even in revolutionary Muslim circles we often fail to recognize that our black and African siblings are dying in the cause of Allah (SWT) everyday. Everytime a person is murdered because of their race, or dies because of white supremacy, they are being killed in a struggle against injustice that all people of color have been forced to fight their entire lives. When you live in a world suffering under such corruption, and you are the target of such oppression, participation in the war is part and parcel of just trying to stay alive. 

The global ummah often fails to recognize the black martyrs who are dying in our streets, prisons, subway platforms, and hospitals everyday, even though the battlefield and its carnage are increasingly impossible to ignore. When recognition does come, it is too often superficial,  taking the form of empty ‘blackwashing’ and hollow virtue signalling. Too many in our community only support a cause when it is socially acceptable and popular to do so, when they fear reprisal for inaction, instead of acting with genuine intention for the sake of Allah (SWT) and “ward[ing] off evil with good“(13:22). Consider the two following verses, and the contrasting examples they present: 

Have you seen one who denies the Day of Judgement? Who turns away the orphan, and who does not urge the feeding of the poor? So woe to those who pray, but whose hearts are not in their prayer. Those who do things only to be seen by others. Who are uncharitable even over very small things. (107:1-7)

Those who spend their wealth night and day, both privately and publicly, will receive their reward from their Lord. They shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve. (2:274)

It is clear that we must act to combat evil, through acts of good, and not content ourselves with empty gestures. The martyrs in the struggle against corruption, whether they openly profess belief or not, and regardless of the ways that society seeks to demonize them, must be honored alongside, and equal to the other martyrs our ummah is more comfortable with. 

We find the Qur’an many inclusive examples and definitions of martyrdom, such as in Surah Al Hajj:

As for those who left their homes in the cause of God, and were slain or died, God will give them a generous provision. He will admit them to a place with which they will be well pleased. For God is the knowing and most forbearing (22:58-59)    

In the ahadith we see a similarly broad definition of martyrs as including those who die of plague (Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 4, Book 52, Number 83) and those who die while protecting their property (Sahih al-Bukhari Volume 3, Book 43, Number 660). If the prospect of acknowledging those murdered by militarized police, militias, health, economic, and environmental inequality does not sit well with us, then the discomfort likely stems from our own collective and individual anti-blackness.  

The movement of Black Lives Matter, through a Muslim viewpoint, starts with developing our communal awareness of those lives that are too frequently lost, and whose loss is too often ignored. My own personal journey, as a Muslim who was in no small part brought to the path of Islam by one of those many lives and deaths which has been ignored, is to realize the mercy and grace of Allah (SWT) in his care for Cirak, and our other martyrs. 

These two paths converge into one. The struggle against white supremacy is born of corruption, yet nothing can occur without the permission of Allah (SWT) (10:16). Allah (SWT) allows us all the will to fight or spread corruption (90:10, 18:29), through both our actions and (our typically harmful) inactions. We are tested, and are further refined or further degraded by our choices. And Allah (SWT), in justice and mercy and grace, saves the best rewards for those who have been the most ill-treated. 

“Do not say that those who die in the cause of God are dead; they are alive, but you are not aware of it. We shall certainly test you with loss of property, lives, and crops. Give good news to those who endure with fortitude. 2:154-5

The hidden nature of our martyrs is thus two-fold: they have passed through a barrier, beyond which we cannot see. And too often they remain invisible in the eyes of many of the ummah, who cannot see the injustice of their murders, cannot reconcile the daily fight against racism as part of the divinely mandated fight against oppression and evil, and thus cannot recognize our martyrs. 

Allah (SWT) knows best: 

He holds the keys to the unseen; none know them but He. He has knowledge of all the land and sea contain. No leaf falls without His knowledge, nor is there a single grain in the darkness of the earth, or anything, wet or dry, but is recorded in a clear record.It is he who gathers you in by night and knows all that you do by day; then He raises you up during the day so that an appointed term may be completed. Then to Him you shall return and He will declare to you all that you used to do. He is Absolute Master over his servants. He sends forth guardians [angels] who watch over you until, when death approaches one of you, Our angels take his soul, and they never fail in their duty. Then they will be returned to God, their true Lord. The Judgment is His alone. He is the swiftest reckoner. 6:59-6:62

I will end with one final memory, this time from my spouse, who Cirak was also friends with, and who I feel was a better friend to him than I was. This quote captures at once Cirak’s joy and passion for justice: 

“I can give a memory. You were in a class, I think it was zaum [one of the publications I helped manage along with Cirak and others], I think you were talking about something on social justice and black lives and pride. I looked over, saw Cirak raise his fist high in the air with a huge smile and say “yes!” to what you were telling the white people.” 

Finally, I will end with a quote from the Quran that has helped my heart begin to heal from this and so many other unjust, preventable losses. I hope that those in our community - particularly our black and African siblings who have lost family and friends to the insidious corruption of anti-blackness and oppression - are able to find some solace in these words:

Do not think of those who have been killed in God’s cause as dead. They are alive, and well provided for by their lord; they are joyful because of what God has bestowed on them of His grace and they rejoice that those they left behind, who have not yet joined them, that they shall have no fear, nor shall they grieve; rejoicing in God’s grace and bounty.  [They know that] God will not fail to requite the believers.Those who responded to the call of God and the Messenger, despite their having received an injury, and of such of them who did good deeds and feared God, shall have a great reward. Those who, on being told that, ‘the enemy has gathered against you a great force, so fear them,’ only grew stronger in their faith and replied ‘God is sufficient for us, he is the best guardian’ They returned home with God’s favour and blessings, without having been touched by evil; for they pursued God’s pleasure. And God’s bounty is infinite.It is Satan who instills fear [into you] of his followers; do not fear them. But fear Me, if you are true believers. 3:169-175

 

All passages are from Mawlana Wahiduddin Khan’s English translation of the Quran, provided by Goodword Books, copyright free first in 2009, and reprinted in 2013. 

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Liberating Islam
Liberating Islam

Liberating Islam is a Muslim blog focused on the need and obligation for Muslims to throw off quietist, bigoted innovation, to reconnect with the message of liberation, justice, equality and freedom found in the Qur'an and to fight against all forms of oppression, bigotry, injustice, and corruption throughout the world. Inshallah may we elevate humankind and our world to better reflect the mercy and grace of our creator. Image source information - bit.ly/liberatingislamheaderandthumbnailsource

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