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Mar 4, 2020

Breaking the Cycle of Oppression

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Hamza Yusuf

Zaytuna College

Hamza Yusuf is a leading proponent of classical learning in Islam and president of Zaytuna College, a Muslim liberal arts college in Berkeley, California.

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Breaking the Cycle of Oppression

If a man is slain unjustly, his heir shall be entitled to satisfaction. But let him not carry his vengeance to excess, for his victim is sure to be assisted and avenged.
Qur’an 17:33
Limit your hostility toward your enemy, for one day he may become your beloved.
Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ
It is strange that we should not realize that no enemy could be more dangerous to us than the hatred with which we hate him, and that by our efforts against him we do less damage to our enemy than is wrought in our own heart.
St. Augustine
The last sphere to be conquered by the spirit of justice is the sphere of reactive feelings.
Friedrich Nietzsche
A Chechen man praying during the battle of Grozny in 1995, photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

A Chechen man praying during the battle of Grozny in 1995; photo: Mikhail Evstafiev

The world is filled with wonders, and nature exhibits order and perfection. Stars follow a calculable course, seasons come with the exactitude of clockwork, and all life on earth reveals undeniable design and divine generosity. Each creature knows its place in the natural order and follows similar patterns of embryonic development, birth, growth, decay, and finally death. Beasts of prey take only what they need to survive from weaker ones, none oppressing the other, never guilty of massacres or capricious killings, all living together, from our perspective, in a world of harmony and mutual understanding. The Qur’an says, “There is not an animal on the earth nor a bird that flies upon two wings except they form communities like you. We have omitted nothing from the Book, and then all shall be gathered to their Lord” (6:38).

Human beings, too, live largely in structured societies of immense complexity that fulfill the many needs and aspirations of men and women in their daily lives and provide avenues for both their individual and collective pursuits. Each person, in seeking a livelihood, helps others to fulfill their needs. Commenting on this veiled but vital aspect of humanity, the tenth-century Arab poet, al-Mutanabbī (d. 354/965), said:

Men, though separate, need one another
Without knowing, each serves the other.

While our collective social organization is premised on order, balance, and mutual respect, we are also imbued with the capacity to violate that very order and balance. Men, like animals, are part of the natural world, but, unlike animals, betray in their actions a nature wholly incongruous with Nature. We breach natural laws in our thoughts, emotions, desires, and diets. Instead of loving people and using objects, we love objects and use people. We strive for our own success through aggression, by enviously and consciously undermining success of others. We feel slighted easily and forgive with great difficulty; we desire far more than we use, eat much more than we need, lust too often, and love too seldom; we pursue luxury for ourselves and neglect those in need. Indeed, pride, envy, wrath, greed, sloth, gluttony, and lust sometimes seem to be the defining traits of our species. These “deadly sins” were once despised, denounced, and disciplined. Yet, unlike our ancestors, our advertisers pander with pride to these human weaknesses; they are now packaged for display to please our eyes, tease our tongues, and seduce our hearts and minds.

Men and women have always struggled with temptation. But what is different today is how acceptable it has become, in the name of commerce, to publicly prey on the human weaknesses of others and to entice them to indulge in their whims and cave in to their cravings. But where have all these efforts brought us? What exactly have wrought? Individually, our hunger increases as our happiness diminishes, and collectively, conflict and war plague our world, making the panacea of peace seem more distant than ever.

As human beings, it is only through others that we can truly see ourselves, hear ourselves, and speak to ourselves; but in his self-obsession, a tyrant is utterly incapable of such reflection.

This predicament is largely a result of our ignorance of the nature of good and evil—because we often cannot distinguish between two, we are unable to use our intellect to see clearly and make choices (intelligere literally means “to choose among”). Thus, we grope in dark in pursuit of false desires. And these insatiable appetites, crass cravings, and pitiful pursuits, in turn, often lead us to oppress others.

The Cycle of Oppression

Oppression is almost universally understood to be a crime that involves an “action on another’s person or property without authority or permission.” Some simply define it as “putting something where it does not belong,” whether it is one’s hands, genitals, army, wealth, or anything else. It arises when a moral agent violates either societal standards of justice as in customary law, secular standards as in positive law and natural law, or revealed standards as in religious law. Interestingly, all legal and ethical perspectives agree on this point much more than they disagree.

But where does the desire to oppress come from? What is its genesis? What feeds or incites oppressive acts? The Qur’an states the following: “If God expanded provisions for mortals, they would surely act unjustly on earth; but God sends down what God wills in a measured way. For God is aware, watchful of all humanity” (42:27). A profound truth about the psychological nature of those who oppress is discernable in this verse: oppression is largely driven by power and wealth. An Arab proverb states, “Those who possess, oppress.” In another verse, the Qur’an states, “Surely man transgresses when he deems himself independent” (96:6–7). The insightful dictum of the English historian Lord Acton (d. 1902) still rings true: “Power tends to corrupt, but absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Conversely, however, absolute powerlessness appears to have the same corrosive effect. Between these two extremes swirls a seemingly unbreakable cycle of oppression.

Far more potent than power and wealth in this vicious cycle are hate and resentment, which exacerbate the insidious effects of oppression on the souls of both the oppressor and the oppressed. The oppressor must hate his victims in order to rationalize his behavior, and so free himself from cognitive dissonance. In having the innate knowledge that what he is doing is wrong, he is confronted with two options: use the defense mechanism of denial, or stop doing what is wrong. A third option is rarely afforded the tyrant: that of another restraining him from his tyranny and liberating him with compassion. What occurs, more often than not, however, is that the oppressor degrades and vilifies his victims, thereby licensing his wrongful acts in his own mind.

Unfortunately, the oppressed also do their part in perpetuating the cycle of oppression. Often, due to the oppressed people’s helplessness and frustration in defending themselves against their aggressor, a deep resentment begins to take root in their hearts. This resentment either poisons them entirely or bursts forth in an aggressive attempt to purge the body politic through the redressing of wrongs. Too often, the purging spirals into a bloodletting, and the bitter cycle continues. Hate, aggression, and violence beget more of the same.

The Nature of the Tyrant

The Qur’an describes the oppressor or tyrant as one who is “deaf, dumb, and blind,” which is, in essence, the spiritual reality of tyrant. He cannot hear the cries of his victims; he cannot commune with those he is oppressing, for he views them imperiously as belonging to a lesser order of being than himself, and thus simply as exploitable commodities or, worse, a pestilence to be purged; and he cannot see the harm he inflicts. Aristotle (d. 322 BCE) reminds us that all tyrants invariably surround themselves with sycophants because they cannot bear to hear the truth. But the tyrant also needs these yes-men because he demands tacit approval of his beliefs and actions, and what he fears most is an honest and critical look at himself. The more a tyrant’s power increases, the less he tolerates dissent. And what is true for a tyrant is also true for a tyrannical nation.

He demands that all agree with him and confirm his position because he can see, hear, or speak to no other but himself. He believes that his sight is clear, his understanding is unsurpassed, and his words, and only his words, are worthy of utterance or consideration. As human beings, it is only through others that we can truly see ourselves, hear ourselves, and speak to ourselves; but in his self-obsession, a tyrant is utterly incapable of such reflection. The example of Pharaoh, the archetypal tyrant in both the Bible and the Qur’an, best illustrates this point, with the Qur’an’s reference to his statement, “I am your lord, most high” (79:24). This statement captures a certain truth about the nature of the oppressor: he is an idolater, one who has chosen to worship his self rather than his Creator. His actions evince this, should his tongue fail to express it; and because he sees himself as a god in place of God, he is not to be crossed or confronted without the exacting of a terrible price.

This lack of vision, however, afflicts not only the oppressor’s eye, but his heart as well, because at its core, it is an introspective myopia. In another verse, the Qur’an explains, “It is not the eyes that go blind, but the hearts within the breasts that go blind” (22:46). And this reveals another important facet of the nature of the oppressor: Deep down, he is an infantile self, a pathetic child trapped in an egocentric world. When he inflicts pain and suffering on others, he feels no remorse because he has no sense of the other. The entire world, from his mother’s breast to the far horizon, is but an extension of his self, an amplification of his own image. He is essentially undifferentiated and thus unable to see any suffering except his own. He has not entered into a spiritual version of what the twentieth-century French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (d. 1981) termed the “mirror stage,” during which an infant learns to differentiate itself from the world and begins to recognize there are discernable others who exist “out there.” Through the mirror of the other, we see our selves. In failing to do so, we fail to develop our individuality.

The Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ said, “The believer is a mirror for another believer.” In other words, the believer sees himself in others. The tyrant, however, is not individuated from others in the spiritual sense; he is unable to see all as himself, and thus to love all and wish good for all, as the Qur’anic verse explains: “Your creation and your resurrection are as one soul” (31:28). Rather, the tyrant exists as a sentient—and central—being; all others are merely a supporting cast, and everything exists simply to serve as a prop in the epic drama that is his life.

In modern parlance, the tyrant is a sociopath, an individual who functions in society with a surface rationality that masks an utter lack of social and personal responsibility. He is concerned only with his own gratification, even if it is gained through the pain of others. Indeed, he does not feel their pain, because, in his mind, they do not really exist as conscious creatures. Only by allowing meaning to penetrate our souls do we acquire the capacity for remorse. To understand is to realize our responsibility—literally, our “ability to respond.” This is what the “deaf, dumb, and blind” tyrant is incapable of doing, and why calamity is the greatest gift God can bestow upon him.

Calamity brings the tyrant to his knees, lays him low, and humbles him, causing him to engage in introspection and to see the reality of his inner self. In gaining self-knowledge, we are able to feel remorse, and through remorse, we are granted entry into the kingdom of heaven. Through the gift of discerning sight, we can see that God exists and realize that our existence is wholly dependent upon His will; the gift of attentive listening, we can hear God’s call, which can help us mute the cacophonic noise of our obsessions and preoccupations; and with the gift of mindful speech, we can respond to God’s call with contrition in our own voice, offering the Divine that which only we possess—our nothingness and our need.

The Tyrant Within Us

One aspect too often overlooked in attempts to understand oppressors is the common, everyday manifestation of the tyrant. We look at larger-than-life tyrants of history, the ancient despots, or the moderns like Hitler, Stalin, Tito, and Saddam, and in our preoccupation with them, we fail to acknowledge that a little bit of the tyrant exists in all of us, albeit a subtle one. Subtle tyrants often mask themselves under a veneer of decency. Thus, our tyrannical nature is generally hidden, but it reveals itself in small ways in our daily existence: our attitudes toward others; the way we treat our children or our spouse, dominating in quiet but cruel ways; the obsequiousness we display toward our superiors and the contempt in which we hold our subordinates. And it reigns, also, in our inner world of perceptions, opinions, ideas, and prejudices.

Human beings have been honored in being invited into a divine covenant to act as caretakers of God’s dominion, not rule as tyrants over it. Indeed, this responsibility of stewardship is so grave that the Qur’an states that the heavens, the earth, and the mountains all refused it, fearful of failing at the task: “We presented the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it out of grief for its consequences; but man took it upon himself, for he is unjust and ignorant” (33:72).

And when we betray this trust, we are indeed both unjust and ignorant. Earthly power is contingent, not absolute; it is a sacred trust from God for the purpose of serving humanity. The one entrusted with such power must fulfill that trust with equity and fairness, or else it leads to oppression.

An oppressor burdens others, smothering them under the weight of tyranny. The oppressed could be one’s children, spouse, employees, subjects, neighbors, or community. Oppression takes many forms. The thief oppresses by taking advantage of his victims’ inability to constantly police their property. The rapist oppresses by taking advantage of the physical weakness of his victim.

Oppression is a form of injustice, and injustice always occurs from an abuse of power, hidden or manifest. Power is God’s alone, and thus any power entrusted to us is only to be used with servitude. Yet the tyrant usurps this power, deeming it his own, and behaves arbitrarily and capriciously.

Calamities and the Virtues of Patience

The Qur’an demands that we see calamities as the fruit of our own tyranny, and recognize that our suffering is rooted in our attachment to all that is other than God. For calamities compel us to acknowledge our dependence upon our Creator; they force us to see that we need to offer our servitude to none other than God alone. When we recognize this, we are liberated from the oppression of both the self and others, and whatever befalls us reveals itself as a tribulation from the sole source of all that was, is, and ever will be. The Qur’an states: “Those who when calamities befall them say, ‘We belong to God alone, and to God we return’—these are the ones who have grace from their Lord and mercy” (2:156–157).

“We belong to God,” indeed, and anything God wants to do with us should be acceptable to us as servants in a state of submission. In Arabic, the first part of the phrase "innā li Allāh wa innā ilayh rāji¢ūn” uses lām (li), the particle of possession, thus indicating that we are possessions of God, and one does not question the actions of any owner regarding his possessions. It is for us to simply accept what God does with His property. This is not to imply that there is no room for questioning or reflection—rather, the distinction is that, if we question, as the angels did concerning the placing of Adam e as vicegerent in the earth, it must only be to understand, not to object, for we have no standing to do so. While this is difficult for the modern mind to fathom, it is the essence of Abrahamic submission, profoundly illustrated in the Akedah of his firstborn, which the Qur’an describes as a great tribulation for Abraham e.

God promises a reward without measure in the next world to those who are patient with tribulations in this one. This does not mean that we should adhere to a passive quietism, refraining from attempts to redress wrongs or oppose injustice; rather, it means we must strive for an inner world of submission and resignation even as we struggle to restore balance and restitution to the outer world. In this lies a subtle distinction lost on too many.

Another subtle distinction, also ignored or forgotten, is the intended goal: While the Qur’an commands us to work toward social justice, we are not responsible for the outcome of our efforts; in opposing injustice, we are accountable only for the struggle itself. For it is this struggle, and the knowledge that it is a trial from God, that allows our soul to be protected from dissolution, and from the spiritual entropy that reduces men to cynics who resent the world, surrender to its wrongs, or, worse, become participants in them. This knowledge also prevents those engaged in a genuine struggle from using means betray the ends, however tempting or efficacious those means may be. Too many activists or victims of oppression succumb to bitter resentment when this truth is not rooted in their hearts.

Resentment ultimately stems from a complete dissatisfaction with the world or aspects of it, and is, therefore, dissatisfaction with God. This diabolic blame game can only result in one’s blaspheming, like the devil himself, against God. In the Qur’anic narrative, Satan says to God, “For leading me astray, I will misguide all of Your servants, save the sincere among them [over whom I have no control]” (15:39–40). He then tempts both Adam and Eve d into partaking of the forbidden fruit, resulting in what is commonly referred to as their “Fall.” However, according to the Qur’an, God’s vicegerents, Adam and Eve d, unlike Satan, take full responsibility for their actions and blame neither each other nor the devil for their wrongdoing, even though it was the devil who beguiled them into eating of the tree. According to the Islamic tradition, in resisting the temptation to place blame elsewhere, they restored their state of sanctity with their Lord (7:20–23). In order for an individual to hold the lofty position of God’s vicegerent, he or she must learn to take responsibility. This is a leader’s fate. If, as human beings, we are to rule the earth in the shadow of divine authority, then we must be willing to accept full responsibility, even for that for which we are not wholly liable. Both Adam and Eve d were worthy of being God’s representatives on earth because they accepted culpability and contritely asked God’s forgiveness. And in God’s unhesitating response, and, thus, in their “Fall,” lay elevation of humanity.

The Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ said, “Whoever finds good, let him praise God, and whoever finds other than that, let him only blame himself.” The essence of this statement is not a negation of oppression or a declaration that there is no absolute and objective right and wrong in the world. On the contrary, Islam affirms justice and establishes lucid criteria for right and wrong. In his statement, what Prophet ﷺ is sharing with us is the profound secret that the world and our experience of it are, in reality, contained in our own perception. That is, if we are connected with God, then even in calamities, we find good. In other words, if we find “other than” good in the world, we are missing something fundamental to our faith. Those who are consciously aware, at all times, of God’s sovereignty in all matters cannot be manipulated, for they know, in truth, that all is from God—not just the sweetness of blessings, but also the bitter cup of tribulation. Ultimately, it is our response to the world that determines our state with our Creator. As John Milton (d. 1674) put it:

The mind is its own place, and in itself,
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.

Once we know this, like all of the prophets before us, we can take on the sins of the world and forgive others, and thus guide others. Their sins are a tribulation for us, just as ours are a tribulation for them. In this, we are all responsible for our collective sins. We will be asked how we “responded” to them: with patience, resignation, repentance, and restitution? Or with disquietude, anger, resentment, and further injustice?

The cycles of violence that now hold much of humanity in a death grip can only be abated if each of us is willing to acknowledge that oppressor and the oppressed are both dimensions of our own selves. We are actually reflections of each other.

The Qur’an reminds us: “We have made each of you a trial for other; will you show patience?” (25:20). In today’s vernacular, the first part translates to “hell is other people.” Ironically, the one who deems other people his hell is very often theirs. Only the saint is freed from this, and is content, for the sake of God, to bear the hell presented by people in this world, in order to free himself from Hell in the next one. In fact, he ascends to higher ground and provides others, through the vehicle of his own sanctified character, a glimpse of Heaven on earth. God’s simple question—“Will you show patience?”—is not rhetorical. It speaks to this truth, underscoring the fact that showing patience in the face of other people’s hell, and not only bearing it, but also recompensing its evil with our own good character, is our challenge and what we are called upon to do.

Patience is neither resignation nor fatalism. It is the quality that prevents outer circumstances from dictating our inner states. It is freeing ourselves of the reactionary mind and the Pavlovian response so we can maintain an inner equilibrium, something so palpably present in sanctified people. When we realize that the aggression of others against us is a reflection of the very same impulse in us—that it is a sign that we have been protected from our own precarious humanity only as a result of God’s grace—only then are we provided a rung on the spiritual ladder; only then do we begin to show patience and, ultimately, become grateful for the fact that we are free of those faults. The eleventh-century Persian theologian al-Rāghib al-Iśfahānī (d. ca. 443/1060), wrote:

Keep in mind constantly that any fault you see in another is either manifest in you explicitly or concealed like fire hidden in flint.

This is a disquieting thought but a welcome spiritual insight that, once realized, enables us to see the faults of the oppressor as qualities we ourselves share with him but from which we have been protected. With this insight, we are capable of compassion even for our enemies, because we can see them as permutations of human possibilities inherent in all of us. Then others are seen not just as trials to be endured but also as lessons to be learned, and life becomes a sanctifying path purposefully marked with both malevolent and benevolent milestones that keep us vigilant and spur us on. The Qur’an states, “We have created death and life-after-death to try you and manifest among you those best in deeds” (67:2). Once we gain this insight, we recognize our situation for what it actually is: no more, and no less, than a trial that only seems Kafkaesque to those who have not penetrated its truth yet. And in that recognition resides our liberation. ...

Breaking the Cycle

Oppression occurs when we desire that which is not ours. As such, we must first break the cycle within our own hearts: “Surely, God does not change a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11). The tyrant who lives in the palace is easy to see, the bully on the street corner is in plain sight, but spotting the tyrant within our own souls—the fire concealed in the flint—is far more challenging. It is easy to see ourselves in the shoes of the oppressed and, thus, as the object of empathy. But seeing the tyrant in the mirror, and recognizing in him a reflection of our own state, is an arduous undertaking. The oppressed must first acknowledge that rulers oftentimes reflect the people rule. The Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ is reported to have said, “As you are, so are the people put over you.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” wrote:

In any non-violent campaign there are four basic steps: Collection of the facts to determine whether injustice exists; negotiations; self-purification; and direct action.

King’s third step—“self-purification”—is rarely discussed, let alone implemented. But it is introspection that enables us to peer within and identify in ourselves the qualities we abhor in others, thereby putting us on the path to purification. If we have unjust rulers, we must ask ourselves whether we are getting the rulers that we deserve: Are we behaving unjustly with our families, our spouses, and our children? Are we displaying the same arbitrary rules in our offices, workplaces, and homes that we find so abhorrent in our streets and institutions and government? If so, then before we can expect a change in the world, we must first expect one in ourselves. The Qur’an states, “God does not remove a blessing that has been bestowed upon a people until they themselves are ungrateful for it” (8:53). This verse indicates that change occurs in both directions: toward good and toward evil, toward a restorative state and a destructive one. When we become a people of introspection and judge ourselves before we quickly judge those over us, only then will we be able to transform our condition.

While the Qur’an commands us to work toward social justice, we are not responsible for the outcome of our efforts; in opposing injustice, we are accountable only for the struggle itself.

Oppression too often engenders in the oppressed overwhelming emotions of sadness, anger, bitterness, and rancor, and leads them to pursue what they perceive as a righteous fight for restitution, which in reality is little more than an expression of vengeful retribution. The Prophet Muĥammad ﷺ, when asked to curse some oppressors, replied, “I was not sent to curse but rather to mercifully guide.” statement reveals precisely the point of this essay: If we are to help others, we cannot wish them ill. In recognizing that the oppressor also needs help, we can see him as a trial from God, and not as an independent agent acting independently of God’s providential will. Cursing or hating or wishing ill upon the oppressor is the antithesis of the prophetic guidance, which calls for mercy.

Capture of the King of Delhi, Robert Montgomery Martin, 1860

Capture of the King of Delhi, Robert Montgomery Martin, 1860

But here, one must keep in mind the distinction mentioned previously: Mercy toward the oppressor does not preclude resistance to his wrongs, nor does it imply that one should suffer in silence. Rather, it is an inward disposition that allows one to break the very cycles brought about the wrongs one is attempting to redress. Many of prophets were warriors in the tradition of spiritual chivalry, who, like David e, fought the Goliaths of the world. But they engaged in struggle knowing that their tribulation was sent by God, and thus acted accordingly; they were open to the possibility that the enemy could turn into a friend, and they never killed out of revenge or hatred. And while prophets and those who truly follow them—as opposed to those who merely claim to do so—are not immune from feeling anger and desiring retribution, their God-consciousness protects them both from acting upon those impulses and from letting them take root in their hearts.

Whether one is successful in redressing wrongs or meting out justice is less important than whether one strives to do so, acting from compassion. Ultimately, those wrongs not redressed in this world will be righted in the next. Desire for God’s forgiveness should be our impetus for forgiving others their wrongs against us. This is eloquently enunciated in the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We cannot expect God to forgive us when we are unwilling to forgive others. Jesus Christ e purportedly said:

Pass no judgment, and you will not be judged. For as you judge, so shall you be judged, and whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt back to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye with never a thought of the great plank in your own?1

This is the true essence of forgiveness: in forgiving others, we are implicitly recognizing that they are reflections of ourselves. Forgiveness does not imply that we forgo restitution and justice; rather, by looking at our own wrongs, we begin to be less judgmental of others and more able to see ourselves in them. Our desire for collective justice diminishes as our yearning for personal grace increases. Forgiveness and justice are both essential to balance and conviviality in human relations. Paradoxical as it may seem on the surface, both justice and mercy are intrinsic qualities of God. In our own selves two qualities coexist, and in tempering one with the other, we are taking upon ourselves an attribute of God. In pursuing either forgiveness or justice, we invite God to reveal Himself to us.

Forgiveness is difficult because it collides with our desire for revenge. When the Bible says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord,”2 it is reminding us of a higher truth, for only with God lies absolute justice, absolute knowledge. To judge a matter without doubt is to claim omniscience. God alone can judge a matter without possibility of error. Our willingness to forgo our own judgment for a higher judgment allows the space for grace to enter the world. In allowing grace, we are inviting God back into our world, and it is no coincidence that the word in Arabic for “prayer” and the word for “invitation” are one and the same.

This essay was excerpted from the Introduction to The Prayer of The Oppressed (Sandala, 2010). The complete Introduction can be read at


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