Amongst the Signs of the Last Day, the Prophet said, was that compassion and mercy would be removed from the hearts of people, especially the leaders. Compassion is one of the highest virtues in Islam. “And we have not sent you (Muhammad)” the Quran states “except as a mercy to the entire created order.” (21:107).
In his clemency towards those in his power, in his empathetic recognition of what is rightfully due to his fellow Muslims, and in his sympathy for the less fortunate, the Prophet (SAW) has left a legacy that needs – given the crisis and urgency of our times – to be re-excavated quite desperately. In reality we merely need to open our eyes, but we recognize, as Islam teaches us, that few things of worth will come our way without a bit of effort. Let us look at a few instances of the above-mentioned qualities.
Few examples in history can equal the compassion the Prophet showed towards his defeated enemies on the occasion of the “Opening of Makkah” to Muslims. Earlier we looked at the cause that led the Muslims to march to Makkah. Let us take a brief look at the manner in which that victory unfolded.
The people he faced in Makkah were the same people who went to war against him at Badr and Uhud, and who placed them under siege in the Battle of Khandaq. They were the same people who slaughtered the likes of Muslims such as Sumayya. They were the same who plundered and pillaged the homes of Muslims in Makkah and forced them to flee to Madinah. They were the same too, who caused them to flee to Ethiopia during the early stages of Islam in Makkah. Here they now stood defeated, and, literally, at the complete mercy of the Prophet. And what mercy was shown to them!
His first words to them were: “O honoured Quraish, what do you expect of me today?”
They replied: “Only the best! For you are a gracious brother, the son of a gracious brother.”
The Prophet responded: “Go, for today you are all free!”
Amidst the dignified ambience of this victory, a woman – one of the party of the victorious Muslims – was seen running in frantic search of a long separated son of hers. She found him and they cried in the embrace of each other’s arms. A group of companions in the company of the Prophet witnessed this moment. The Prophet, in classic reiteration of the spirit of the occasion, said to them: “Know that the mercy of Allahu Ta’aala towards His servants are greater than the mercy and compassion shown by this mother towards her child.” These mighty warriors of Islam, prepared and determined for the highest sacrifice at any time, were seen, at the words of the Prophet, with tears flowing down their faces.
As an example of his empathetic recognition of what is rightfully due to others we cite the incident of Sawaad ibn Ghuzaiyya. The prophet and his Companions were preparing for the Battle of Badr. The time for salaah (prayers) had approached and the Prophet straightened the rows of the Companions in preparation for the salaah. He used a spear to do so and inadvertently hurt a companion (Sawaad ibn Ghuzaiyya) by pressing him in the stomach with the tip of the spear.
“You have hurt me, O Prophet” retorted Sawaad. “So allow me, in the name of the One Who has sent you with the Truth and Justice, to requite myself.”
The Prophet removed his garment and ordered him to requite himself. Sawaad, instead, bent forward and kissed the stomach of the Prophet. The Prophet was astonished and asked him what caused him to do that. Sawaad replied: “There has come to pass what you now see (meaning that a battle is about to ensue and that he could possibly die in it), and it is my wish that my last act would be that my skin touched yours.” The Prophet then made a special prayer for him. (Ibn Hibban)
As an example of his sympathy for the poor we cite the case narrated by Ibn Majah and Tabrani. The hadith states that an angry Bedouin approached the Prophet and demanded that the Prophet settle a debt that the Prophet had incurred from him. Incensed at his rudeness a group of Companions reprimanded him and said: “Do you know to whom you are speaking?”
The Bedouin simply replied: “I am demanding what is my right!”
More astonishing for everyone though was the Prophet’s response. He said to his Companions: “Why are you not on the side of the aggrieved party?”
After having made the necessary arrangements to repay the Bedouin he once again turned to his Companions and said: “It is indeed a blessed community in which the weak and poor can claim their rights without fear of reprisals.”
Our two fountains of grace – the Quran and the Sunnah – are replete with examples of remarkable instances of compassion. In fact the Quran, while indicating to us that it is permissible to requite an injustice, nevertheless reminds us that to forgive is better. We need to bathe ourselves in the waters of mercy and compassion.
Challenges to Islam
The modern world presents Muslims with a panoply of challenges; not least of all being the fact that it is generally hostile towards the sacred. I think it a mistaken notion to believe that the dominant contest today is between Islam on the one hand, and other religions such as Christianity and Judaism on the other – except, of course where fundamentalism and fanaticism are equally present in them. This position may be vindicated by the fact that during the Crusader years the struggle was not exclusively between Christians on the one side and Muslims on the other. Thousands of Eastern Orthodox Christians fought on the side of Muslims. Even between the opposing parties there were relaxed interchanges of cultural and leisurely pastimes. The Christians, for example, took their knowledge of the game of chess they learnt from the Muslims back to Europe. Nevertheless, certain scars were unfortunately left that dramatically altered the relationships between these two great religions. In Spain, on the Western side of the Muslim world, both Muslims and Jews suffered severely under the Catholic conquest and the subsequent Inquisition. Jews were granted asylum in Muslim homelands – particularly by the Ottomans. Up till today there are Jewish enclaves in Turkey that have preserved the original Spanish language as spoken in Spain during the 800 years of Muslim rule in that country.
In the domain of the relative – marked by our earthly existence in the form of the dunya – Muslims have always accepted the reality of contest and challenge. But by far the most serious challenges to the integrity of Islam have been those of a belligerent secularism – which marks an “external” one; and that of Kharijism (or its neo-kharajite variant in the form of Wahhabism) and the ghulat (extremists) of the Shiahs, both of which emanate from within the ranks of Islam.
On the side of belligerent secularism – and there can be little doubt that there are benign forms that espouse a healthy mix of tolerance and fair-mindedness – the advocates of this line, particularly in its forms and expressions of popular culture, have a massive problem with the morality of Islam. This explains, in part at least, the animosity expressed by huge segments of the popular media against Islam. On the ideological side – and not least of all in its Marxist versions – Islam has suffered quite ruthlessly. The suppression of Islam under the erstwhile communist Soviet Union and China is sufficient evidence of this. Nevertheless, there are far broader issues linked to secularism in general that concern us here.
During the 20th century secularism managed to fashion itself into an “orthodoxy” accompanied by all the so-called fervour of the more standard religions. Its chief article of faith being Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution” cultivated close to the end of the 19th century. While the origins of a codified secularism might be sought for in ancient Greek philosophy (which Muslims ironically handed over to the West), its real presence can be located in 17th century Europe from the time of Descatres (1596-1650). Descates’ philosophical myth “I think, therefore I am” had an enormous impact on the new humanism and scientific spirit of the time. The spirit of the Renaissance and Reformation that mushroomed in its wake was severely opposed by the Christian Church in Europe. They lost the battle and reinvented themselves as a modern Christian West in the 20th century. It was an emasculated Christianity, however, that emerged from the debris of this battle.
On the other hand, compared to that of Christianity in Europe, the trajectory of the Muslim struggle took a completely different route. For approximately 800 years Muslims were the leaders of the world in virtually every domain. The Dark Ages of Europe in fact coincided with what is called the Golden Age of Islam. History, particularly the type which most of us learnt, has its “blind spots”. So perverse has the infection of these blind spots become that one often hears one Muslim accusing a fellow Muslim of belonging to the Dark or Medieval Age. One wonders to which “age” they refer? It seems that we are no longer content to consider the purveyor of one view simply “wrong” or “right”. Least of all are we prepared to allow for a margin of legitimate differences of opinion. In fact to consider another Muslim a fanatic in his/her views has a strangely more authentic ring about it. Fanaticism is not always the product of a particular age, or even exclusive to a particular profession. It’s a mindset.
Our route, however, was – as mentioned earlier – a different one. For hundreds of years, under the inspiration of the Quran and Sunnah, they set about cultivating different forms of knowledge – whether in the sciences or the arts. Not a single scientist, despite their controversial views at times, was burnt at the stake. Nevertheless, through all the resplendence of their development they were destined to collapse. Their attitudes towards others underwent a change. Muslim attitudes towards Christians, mentioned earlier, unfortunately took an increasingly contemptuous turn after the abortive crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. Muslim attitudes gradually hardened towards a people whose rights they religiously observed before. At the same time, from Bukhara to Baghdad, the Mongols were raining terror and destruction on the Eastern flank of the Islamic world. The ravages wrought by them on those Muslims, including their material and intellectual culture, were far more savage and destructive than people often care to admit. While a separate case could be made for the internal decadence of the Muslim Empires, it remains nevertheless an oversimplification that they merely decayed at the hands of rigid Ulama and corrupt politicians. Another case could be made, too, for their sense of general complacency vis-à-vis a “backward” world that surrounded them. It behoves us though, as Muslims, to give as much attention to the Mongolian invasion as we do to the Crusades in our historical analysis of issues.
By the 18th century Muslims started to feel the brunt of their internal weaknesses as they experienced one defeat after another at the hands of the colonizing powers. By the start of the 20th century nearly the entire Muslim world was under the domination of these powers. Muslims had finally lost their footing as world leaders. The Muslim experience of being reduced in this way after 800 years of world domination – a privilege few other civilizations enjoyed at that scale – was a profoundly bitter one.
The reactions that this experience spawned in the Muslim communities across the world, while commendable in a limited way, have proven for a large part to be quite as painful. Numerous groupings and movements emerged, each with a strident claim to possessing the truth of Islam. The unfortunate consequence of these narrow and truncated brands of Islam was that it ignited a level of internecine hatred and violence on the one hand, and aggression towards everything non-Muslim on the other, that was hardly witnessed in its history before. On the edge of a simple difference of opinion, one is declared a “kafir” (unbeliever) at the hands of this bigotry. The non-Muslim world on the other hand is one big monolithic demon.
There can be little doubt that this neo-Kharajite takfir industry – and quite explosive when in competition with the ghulat of the Shiah – emerged as a consequence of the teachings of Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab, and taken to even further extremes by those who claimed to be his followers. This industry – supported by massive financial reserves – proclaimed itself as the new “Islamic Renaissance”. Hardly an “Islamic Movement” that asserted itself during the 20th century was unaffected by this tendency. With the recent emergence of a dynamic new scholarship amongst “mainstream” Muslims that has at once been able to articulate the authentic spirit of Islam and take cognisance of contemporary realities, this is hopefully set to change. Nonetheless, we cannot fool ourselves into believing that we have not known any conflict during the long course of our history, but we can quite confidently say that we have known better days. The question we as Muslims have to ask ourselves is this: “Do we need to reinvent our Islam in this aggressive way?” Are the pangs of dislocation so blighting that it is necessary to become the agents of self-destruction – where the more punishment we mete out the more damage we are doing to ourselves? In the process, unfortunately, we are carving ourselves out as meat for a rabid, but influential segment of the international media.
“Perhaps” as Akbar Ahmad says in his book Postmodernism and Islam, “in the atmosphere of violence and blind hatred, of injustice, and inequality, they have a certain logic in their position. At least they will be heard.”
“Nevertheless” he continues, “violence and cruelty are not in the spirit of the Quran, nor are they found in the life of the Prophet, nor in the lives of saintly men.” Akbar is in my view quite correct. We do not need to reinvent Islam in the spirit of belligerence and mindless violence. The ethical and spiritual values of Islam have a timeless efficacy. In the same way that they determine how we interact with our fellow human beings and the natural environment around us, they also determine how and to what use we should put the instruments of human invention and ingenuity. It is precisely at this level that the neologisms of the new “Islamic Renaissance” failed completely. Overwhelmed by the military and technological superiority of the conquering powers they rapidly concluded that it was the Ulema, Sufism, and a host of other apparently decadent Muslim practices that acted as the causes of our decline. In their “renaissance” the Ghazalis, Rumis, Umar al-Farids etc constituted the greatest aberration in Islam. The four legal schools of thought – hopelessly misunderstood by them – epitomised the most acute disease within the world Muslim community, namely, taqlid (imitation). This position of theirs created the space for them to punt their own mujtahids (independent legal scholars). Claims that the doors of ijtihad (independent and learned interpretation of the law) had been closed by backward and reactionary Muslim scholars resonated as an article of faith in their circles.
The premises upon which this “renaissance” constructed itself were two:
1) The Muslim world had lost out on technology and therefore had to modernise itself.
2) The Muslim world was plagued with kufr (unbelief), shirk (polytheism), and bid’ah (innovation). These had to be removed with immediate effect and through violent means if necessary.
In the first case we did not need mujtahids – not of their kind anyway – to tell us this. Moreover, their understanding of “modernity” has proved to be sadly wanting in many respects. Maryam Jameelah’s disillusionment with Mawlana Mawdudi, for example, was rooted in what she considered to be a naïve understanding on his part of certain aspects of modernity. Previously, Jameelah herself was a firm proponent of “movement” Islam.
In the second case, the majority of Muslims rejected their charges of kufr etc. but remained silent through fear of their lives or injury. Even today in their meetings and “mass” gatherings many a dissenting Muslim will resort to self-censorship through similar fears.
The above may be considered the chief premises upon which “renaissance” Islam built itself. As for the consequences, they were no less deplorable. In place of the Ghazalis we have the Abu Sayyafs and Bin Ladens. In place of the madhhabs (schools of thought) we have organisations such as the al-Hijrah wa l-Tafir, the Gama’at al –Islamiyyah etc. All of these being little more than armed clones – in Islamic attire – of French Revolutionary and Marxist varieties.
If our concern is the continued existence of Islam, our love for Islam, or justice for all in the event of Islam regaining its proper position in world affairs, then we need to temper our conduct with wisdom and compassion, not hatred and aggression. Our legacy, and particularly that up to the Crusades and the Mongolian invasion, is one we can learn from immensely. Needless to say there are outstanding examples of Muslim conduct at every level even after that period. There is also the wisdom of our “saintly men” throughout these trying times.
The Present Hour – A Plea for Humility
Images of Islam that are beamed across the globe today stand in stark contrast to the code of conduct enunciated by the Prophet (saw) – the supreme symbol of selflessness and mercy. Admittedly many of these images distort the message of Islam. Some of them are designed to do so. But we have to admit too, that there is sufficient lunacy within our own ranks to keep the bigots who detest Islam the most in business for a very long time. My concern, however, is not so much with the bigots outside of Islam as it is with those within Islam.
As an observation on this condition of Muslims in the “present hour” I would like to quote from a paper by Gai Eaton (Hassan Abdul Hakeem) entitled “Islam Today”. It concerns the intellectual rigidity within the Muslim ummah. To understand this rigidity, or fanaticism, he proposes what he calls a “Theory of Leakage”. After speaking about the essentials of Islam that constitute matters of certainty in our perspective – such as acknowledging that Allah is One without partner, that Muhammad (SAW) is the final and conclusive messenger, and the Quran is His (Allah’s) word, eternal and unalterable – he ventures to advance the view that a peculiar confusion of categories has invaded our understanding of things. To explain this confusion he says: “Since we are accustomed to being certain about the essentials, we tend very easily to lend this same quality of certainty to convictions, beliefs, and opinions which carry upon them the mark of human fallibility. In other words, the sense of certainty leaks out from its proper domain into the realm of relativity, which is, almost by definition, the realm of uncertainty. We are not content to believe that our personal opinions are correct. We make them articles of Faith, claim that they are infallibly based upon the Quran and Sunnah, and condemn as kafirs all who do not share these opinions. That is what I would define as fanaticism, and it is a source of weakness in the Ummah. What we most need, if we are to cooperate together for the general good is a touch of humility concerning our opinions. If we cannot achieve this then we are likely to face a bleak future.”
Understanding the distinction between the shari’ concepts of “Ma huwa m’alum min ad-Din biddarura” (or self-evident certainties) and that which is “Mujtahad fihi” (the product of human intellectual effort), and, above all, the simple truth that “what we need most…is a touch of humility” are what generally distinguished the earlier generations of Muslims from later generations.
A cursory glance at the conduct of any of the first four Khalifs will easily imprint upon our understanding the prominence of this virtue in their lives.
Sayyidna Abi Bakr’s (RA) first words during his inaugural khutba (sermon) as khalifa were: “I have been appointed by you as leader, but I am not the best of you…”
Sayydna Umar’s (RA) inaugural speech in acknowledging and asking Allah to rid him of his human shortcomings must remain as one of the greatest expressions of humility.
We need hardly mention the examples of Sayyidna Uthman (RA) and Sayyidna Ali (RA).
But I leave it to one more distant in time from the Prophet to reinforce the point. That is the Umayyad Khalifa, the only one worthy of note in this dynasty, Umar ibn Abdul Aziz.
It came to his attention that a son of his had bought a ring to the value of one thousand dirhams.
Umar wrote to him saying: “I have been informed that you a bought a ring to the value of one thousand dirhams. I now order you to sell it and to feed a thousand hungry people from the proceeds. Then acquire for yourself a metal ring and write upon it the following statement: ‘May Allah have mercy upon a person who knows his true worth.’”
In arrogance, self-righteousness, a passional hatred of the other, in the glaring weaknesses of aggression and violence, the future indeed seems “bleak”. But, with a touch of humility and in a climate of wisdom and compassion, it need not be so. It is in this spirit too, that I understand the words of Allah:
“Do not let others’ hatred of you cause you not to be just, be just for that is nearer to Taqwa (righteousness).” (5:8)
Indeed we still have – intact – the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW). Today, despite our apparent weaknesses, we can still speak with pride about this revelation. On the positive side, it is no wonder, with this unaltered compendium of grace (baraka) still between our hands, that Islam still remains the most practiced religion on earth. Even more so, it is no wonder that Islam remains the fastest growing religion in the world with thousands of people entering into the fold on a daily basis. This applies particularly to women who, despite the fact that they are regularly singled out for belittlement in the media and who are still gravely and very un-Islamically disadvantaged in many a Muslim country today, are ahead of men on a 5:1 ratio in their embracement of Islam. I am personally convinced though that Muslim women hold one of the keys to the future of Islam. But in the latter facts there lies another lesson. And that is that Islam (or more precisely, its continued existence) is neither entirely dependent on our deeds or misdeeds, nor on the frailties or vicissitudes of our egos. On the contrary, it is subject to a Will far greater than our own, and that is the Will of Allah.
But as responsible (mukallaf) human beings – and as Muslims in particular – there can be no excuse for bad behaviour. Each one of us is charged with the duty of upholding the highest virtues espoused by the Quran. The one virtue that almost singularly encapsulates the character of being Muslim is humility. This is expressed by the following verse:
“And the servants of (Allah) the Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility…” (25:63).
Humility, as Eaton recounts above, creates the space for a productive exchange of views and opinions. It is a virtue, as he has correctly located, that enables us to recognise that things of an absolute nature ultimately belong to Allah alone. But it is also that virtue that provides the key to wisdom and compassion – the two necessary correlatives of justice. Without wisdom and compassion justice can easily take the form of tyranny and retribution. It would do us well to remember that it is often the way of Satan – the supreme symbol of egotism – to masquerade in the garb of virtue and piety.
Shaykh Seraj Hendricks
Azawia, Cape Town.