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September 8, 2004

The Power of Powerlessness


“Ultimately the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself.”

–Elie Wiesel


“The strong man is not the one who is strong in wrestling, but the one who controls himself in anger.”

–Hadith of the Prophet, from Bukhârî and Muslim


Perhaps the most telling sign of the current Muslim condition is a nearly universal longing and reminiscence of the past age of Islamic glory and mastery.  Aside from the academic and cultural flowering of this age that modern Muslims are proud of, the fact that their ancestors were masters of their domains (and the world, to an extent) is something that Muslims continue to take pride in as their greatest achievement. This is particularly interesting given that in the modern world, in a state of powerlessness, Muslims desperately long for the historical power they once wielded, believing—erroneously—that in this power lays the restoration of that great civilization that has been reduced to a slumbering giant.


However, I would argue that power can be had without necessarily being in a state of overwhelming power. Now, reading that last sentence probably makes you think I’m playing with semantics, but hear me out. Historically, Muslims exerted power in situations even when it seemed that they didn’t necessarily have outward power. In other words, when they were in a state of powerlessness, they still were able to carry themselves in a certain way when they dealt with those around them—particularly their aggressors—that this conduct became in and of itself a medium of empowerment. Unfortunately, this is something we forget; we’re so indignant and content to be griping about our lack of outward power that we forget the Prophetic power that he wielded while he was in a state of powerlessness. We tend to forget that the state of powerlessness precedes a state of power—and that the latter can only be accomplished when a people array themselves with dignity and nobility despite their powerlessness. We tend to forget that there would be no Madinah if there had been no Makkah. When one looks at the Makkan period of Prophethood and sees the torture, insults, and other actions carried out by the Quraysh—who were in a state of power—against the Muslims to humiliate them, it is quite easy to be infuriated at what the Muslims had to overcome.  However, what is even more telling of these thirteen years is that an indirect goal of the Qurayshi aggression towards the Muslims was to strip from them their power in their state of powerlessness; in other words, they wished to strip from the Muslims their dignity and nobility, i.e., the Muslims’ only remaining power, so as to reduce them to a state of complete powerlessness. Quite often, when we read the Sîrah, we forget that this possibility of losing the last remnants of power was the greatest danger facing the early Muslims. Events like the torture of Muslim slaves and the exile to the Valley of Abû Tâlib threatened more to remove from the Muslims their nobility more than harm them physically.  We seem to think that lashes from whips and branches from trees were the worst ordeals the Muslims had to stomach. Rather, they had to stomach their anger, more bitter to stomach than the leaves of the Valley. And therefore, it’s a testament to the beauty of their character that they didn’t surrender this last remaining power; rather, they chose to wield and exercise it in the face of their aggressors, so much that the outward power of the Quraysh was nothing compared to the power of powerlessness displayed by the Muslims. In essence, it was the Quraysh who were powerless.


What is even more amazing to me is that whenever the opportunity to display nobility even when possessing power, the Prophet always chose humility, dignity, and excellence of character over power. Perhaps the most telling example of this is Hudaybiyah, when the Prophet is clearly in a state of outward power. The once-mighty Quraysh had been humiliated in the Arabian theater of war, and the Muslims had established themselves as the lions of the desert. Therefore, when they went in the 6th year of Hijrah to make the Lesser Pilgrimage (`Umrah), they were to enter Makkah in a state of power whereas the Quraysh were now the powerless ones. Yet, the Prophet decided to stop at Hudaibiyah and agreed to even receive the Makkan delegation. The narration of Ibn Hishâm as to what occurred further tells us as to how the Prophet and the Muslims were treated: `Urwa b. Mas`ûd al-Thaqafî, one of the Makkan delegates, comes to the Prophet and holds his beard saying, “Have you collected a mixed and lowly people together and then brought them to your own people to destroy them?; how the Prophet agrees when Suhayl b. Amr, the Makkan negotiator, refuses to write the invocation of Bismillah and “Muhammad, the Messenger of God” on the treaty; how the Prophet agreed to every single term of the Quraysh, even though it outwardly seemed that they were all in favor of Quraysh and against the Muslims; how, when after the treaty had been verbally concluded, Abû Jandal b. Suhayl (Suhayl’s son), escapes from Makkah to the Muslims and Suhayl refuses to let him escape, saying the treaty had been agreed upon.


All of these events—and others not listed here—were enough for anyone to erroneously believe that it was the Quraysh who were the powerful ones on that day, and the Prophet was powerless.  Rather, the Prophet, despite being in a state of outward power, realized—with Divine Providence—that there is an incomparable power in being powerless, particularly when one is in a state to execute that power.  In other words, the Prophet could easily have refused the Quraysh’s terms and exercised his military power, conquering Makkah and making the Pilgrimage right then and there—but instead, his true character (the Quranic khuluq `azîm) is manifest here, with God reaffirming this in: “When those who disbelieve had set up in their hearts zealotry, the zealotry of the Age of Ignorance, then Allah sent down His peace of reassurance upon His messenger and upon the believers and imposed on them the word of self-restraint, for they were worthy of it and meet for it. And Allah is Aware of all things (48:26).” In a time when any other man could have—and rightfully so—exercised his power to prevent being put into a state of powerlessness, the Prophet willingly chose the latter state, knowing full well the true power that lay in this state. The nobility and generosity that he displayed on that day shattered the hearts of his enemies that saw him and marveled at how a man could display such characteristics while being in such a humbled state. People like Khâlid b. Walîd and Amr b. al-`As were internally humbled at how he conducted himself that day, and finally realized who he really was. The Moroccans are fond of saying, “Muhammad is like a man / Just as an emerald is like a stone.” The way this man carried himself on that day destroyed even the hearts of stone around him as they were unable to face the power of his emerald-like character and nobility.


As we look at the Muslim condition today, I would therefore argue that despite the loss of outward power that we lament about, the only true power that we have remaining is the power of powerlessness.  This is the power to conduct our affairs with overwhelming dignity and nobility—particularly in the face of our oppressors—such that their hearts will be shattered and be forced to recognize the truth and beauty of this religion.  We must first recognize that this is the only true power we have left; more importantly, we must understand that this power can never be taken from us, unless we willingly choose to give it away by not using it.


Secondly, we must admit that any great power is difficult to wield; displaying nobility in the face of oppression is not an easy task, and requires a Prophetic disposition to bear the weight of such power. Perhaps this is why, historically, Prophets of God are the ones who have borne this power, and have used it to spiritually destroy their enemies’ rejection of Truth. Though we do not accept that it was Jesus who was suffering the crucifixion, Muslims must realize that the power of the Passion of the Christ is to see a man who has been completely reduced to a state of outward powerlessness, yet displays such internal power that any sensible onlooker cannot help but be melted inside. All the Prophets of God and the righteous men of God went through a similar path: “And this is Tradition of God, and you will find no change in the Tradition of God (33:62).” This is the path that we have been given to tread—the path of Prophets—provided we are willing to walk that path and bear its initial difficulties to truly be in a state of power.


Finally, we must recognize that this power to control our anger and display Prophetic characteristics when ordinary humans would display the opposite is one of the highest forms of worship we can undertake.  More importantly, depending on whether or not we choose to wield this power that is historically and rightfully ours, we shall have to face the consequences of not using this power or enjoy the fruits of using it. The Qur’an reminds us that, “Ye shall certainly be tried and tested in your possessions and in your personal selves; and ye shall certainly Hear much that will grieve you, from those who received the Book before you and from those who worship many gods. But if ye persevere patiently, and guard against evil,-then that will be a determining factor in all affairs(3:186).” If we’re serious about rebuilding this Nation, then herein lies the most quintessential factor that will determine the final product: whether or not we can adorn ourselves with nobility, dignity, humility, and other such Prophetic characteristics that mark the way of those who truly follow the Messenger of God. This is the power of powerlessness—let us take embrace it before it is lost from us and our state of powerlessness remains.


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One Comment
  1. mashallah…very thought provoking and well-thought out post; something alot of people need to reflect upon and act upon; inshallah your post will get people to think about the way in which they conduct themselves whenever they are confronted with situations of power – powerlessness; also, let us always remember that both of these states are in the hands of Allah;
    Imam Ibn ul Qayyim al Jawziyyah writies straightforwardly yet magnificently about patience in distress in his Mukhtasar Zaad al-Ma`aad:
    Ibn Abbas reported that Allah’s Apostle used to supplicate in times of trouble saying: “There is no god but Allah, the Great, the Tolerant, there is no god but Allah, the Lord of the Magnificent Throne; there is no god but Allah, the Lord of the heaven and the earth, the Lord of Edifying Throne.’
    On the authority of at-Tirmidhi, who reported that Allah’s Apostle used to supplicate saying: “Allah, the Living, the Self-Subsisting and All-Sustaining, I implore Thy mercy.” Whenever afflicted with a grief, the Holy Prophet raised his hands in supplication and said: “Holy is Allah, the Great,” then he would go on saying ‘Allah, the Living, the Self-Subsisting and All-Sustaining.”
    Abu Dawud reported on the authority of Abu Bakr “The distressed could supplicate saying: Allah, I implore Thee to have mercy on me, do not leave me on my own even for just a blink of an eye; I implore Thee to improve my condition; there is no god but Allah.” In her turn Asmaa Bint Omais narrated that the Messenger of Allah addressed her saying: “Shall I teach you some words you would say at the time of distress? Alright, say, ‘There is no god but my Lord, I associate none with Him.’ Another narrator called Ahmed said: ‘Should a creature be afflicted with a grief, he must supplicate in the following manner: O Allah, I am your servant and the son of your servant and she-servant; my forelock is in Thy hand. Thou art decisive in Thy judgement, just in Thy trial, I ask Thee by every Name Thou have attached to Thyself, revealed in Thy Book, confided to any of Thy creatures or kept secret in the World of the Unseen, I beseech Thee earnestly to render the Holy Koran the Bloom of my heart, the light of my sight, the obliterator of my grief and remover of my distress.”
    Abu Dawud reported that the Messenger of Allah said to Abi Umamah: “Shall I teach you words which if you recite, Allah will blot out your grief and relieve you of your debts?” Abi Umamah said, “Oh, Yes!” The Holy Prophet then went on saying ‘Alright, always remember to supplicate in the morning and evening with the following words: “O Allah! I seek refuge with you from (worries) care and grief, from incapacity and laziness, from miserliness and cowardice, from being heavily in debt and from being overpowered by other men.” Abi Umamah said that he did os and Allah helped him overcome his grief and relieve him of his debt.
    Ibn Abbas reported that the Holy Prophet said: “Whosoever begs for Allah’s forgiveness, Allah will relieve him of his grief, give him a way out of his distress and provide for him from whence he expects not.” Another Prophetic saying that goes to the same purport, goes as follows: “Seek strife in the cause of Allah, it is a gate conducive to the Garden and will verily ward off your cares and grief.” The Prophet also said: “When cares and grief hunt you, always recite, “there is no might and power but that of Allah.”
    Fifteen sort of remedies could be listed to resort to when afflictions of grief, cares and worries start playing within one’s heart:

    <LI>Belief in One Lord
    <LI>Belief that there is no god but Allah
    <LI>Belief that Allah is Omniscient
    <LI>Deanthropomorphism in understanding that Allah is not liable to wrong His servant, nor does He hold any responsible for anything he has no knowledge of
    <LI>The servant’s confession that he is the wrongdoer
    <LI>Supplication, using the most sacred thing in the Divine perspective, namely His Names and Attributes and the most inclusive ones, in particular: He is the Living (al-Hayy), the Self-Subsisting and All-Sustaining (al-Qayyoom).
    <LI>Seeking refuge with Allah, only
    <LI>The servant’s recognition that only Allah is worth yof making supplication to
    <LI>Effecting complete dependence on Allah, resignation to Him and acknowledgement of the fact that one’s forelock is in Allah’s hand; He is decisive in His judgement and just in His decision
    <LI>Complete absorption of the luminous words of the Holy Quran that can illuminate the dark areas of obscurities and lust
    <LI>Seeking Allah’s forgiveness
    <LI>Fight in the way of Allah
    <LI>Observance of prayer
    <LI>Admitting incapacity, and conviction that there is no might and no power but that of Allah.
    After reading this I thought….though Ibn Qayyim narrated this for the individual…would it not be amazing if we were to apply all of it together as an Ummah? may Allah give us the taufeeq to reach that day soon,
    wa salaam, -Believer2

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