The First Identity of Muslims
The roles and responsibilities of Muslims who live in the west have can only be understood on the basis of the mutual relationship between human beings. Our religion teaches us that human beings have not evolved separately to belong either to the east or the west. They are all descendants of a single couple, Adam and Eve. All races: Arabs, non-Arabs, blacks, whites, westerners and easterners are connected to each other in a relationship of brotherhood, a relationship that is based on humanity. When we live in our own country, we build relationships with the people around us. When we leave our native place to live elsewhere, we develop new connections in the new place as well.
Our identity as Muslims is important, but our first identity is that of human beings. Due to this human bond that we share with all other people in this world, the rights that accrue to us and obligations and responsibilities that are imposed on us are the same for both the people of the east and the west. We must never ignore the fundamental principle that the life, property and self-respect of every individual are as sacred to us as our own.
The Prophet (sws) put much emphasis on this single point in his last sermon, making it the central idea of his immortal address. Standing in front of thousands of believers, close to the House of God in Makkah in the month of Dhū al-H~ijjah, as he reiterated the sanctity of the Holy city, where even plucking of a leaf had been prohibited, he called upon Muslims to remember that the life, wealth and honour of all mankind should be as sacred to them as this city, as sacred as this house and as sacred as this month.
The Prophet (sws) had thus summarized the teachings of the Qur’ān in a few words, asking Muslims to demonstrate exemplary character and be a source of lesson and advice for others. His teachings were that there should be no hatred within Muslims for anyone. Regardless of what religion others follow or what points of view they have, they must not receive any harm from our hands and tongues. We should not deprive them of their rights. We must not oppress them. We must not cheat or trick them. We should honour and respect them because our Lord has bestowed honour to the children of Adam (sws) in general. This honour and respect fully expresses itself from His side and therefore, as the followers of His religion, it must find an expression from our side as well.
The first thing that Muslims must be careful of when they go to other countries is never to lose consciousness of the human bond with others. The Prophet (sws) has explained who a Muslim is. He said: A Muslim is the one from whose tongue and hands other Muslims are safe. It is our misfortune that we have forgotten this message. We no longer realize that as the progeny of Adam (sws), the life and honour of the entire humanity is our responsibility.
Differences between Human Beings and Within Muslims
The next important fact is that, in spite of honour and respect for others, there are bound to be many differences between others and ourselves. We find that the people of Pakistan in particular have had very little experience in handling differences. Does Allah require that there must not be any differences among human beings? Can differences be entirely wiped out of the world? Is there a way to do this? The Qur’ān addresses this at several places. It says that if God had desired all people to come to the same religion and the same path, it was easy enough for Him to do so. But this is not what He wanted. He wanted human beings to have freedom of choice. He gave people the right to choose between good and bad, right and wrong. When He has given them this right, differences must necessarily arise. In Sūrah Baqarah, it has been stated in clear words that there is no compulsion in the religion.
God gave guidance to people and enabled them to differentiate between right and wrong so that they could choose what they wished for themselves. Allah gave us this teaching so that we learn that when we deal with others, there will always be differences whether they are our brothers, have the same religion or belong to the same nation. As long the world of God lasts, there will be differences between human beings in every aspect of life, and especially in religion, in our concept of God, in our understanding of God’s laws, and in our knowledge and understanding of the issues of this world.
It is important, therefore, that each one of us realize that we have been sent to this world with the freedom of will and choice. It is in God’s scheme that the freedom He gave us never ends. Therefore there will always be differences, and we must welcome them. We should also discuss our differences politely and respectfully, present our view point and say what we want to, but in a cultured manner. We must also never doubt the intentions of others nor should we decide Heaven or Hell for anyone. Allah has not given any one of us the authority to do so.
Allah has conferred a high status of His Prophet (sws), and at the same time, limited his responsibility to be that of an adviser and a preacher. The Prophet (sws) has been told several times in the Qur’ān not to be an enforcer. He was not sent by God to manage the affairs of men. How can then ordinary human beings such as us take on the terrible responsibility of declaring anyone else a kāfir, or banishing them to Hell?
This teaching of Islam calls upon Muslims to live with mutual differences and observe our manners. Attempts at removing differences by force amount to waging war against Allah because this is against His scheme of life. We have been advised to listen to different views with an open mind, understand them, present our view to others, remain polite and close the discussion without any ill feelings. There is nothing wrong even if our differences are not removed. If differences were to vanish merely after clarification of something, then after the call of the Prophet Muhammad (sws) everyone should have accepted Islam. Yet, more than 14 centuries later, there are over a billion Muslims, but over two billions Christians. This is despite the fact that no one can ever be more right than the Prophet Muhammad (sws) and there has been no Book more clearly inviting to the call of God other than the Qur’ān. Yet the differences are there and they shall not vanish until the Day of Judgment as the Qur’ān tells us. When this is the case, we should surely tolerate difference among ourselves, and with the outer world.
Within Muslims too there are several different viewpoints. We should learn to tolerate and respect them, confine ourselves to discussions, accept the right of others to hold different views from us and listen to their opinions. Otherwise we shall bring dishonour to our religion and our entire ummah through our intolerant behaviour towards Muslims of other sects. By killing a few of those who belong to the other sect, they will not disappear. Their numbers are likely to increase because that is God’s scheme. If we do not understand this fact fully, innocent lives will continue to be lost and we will continue to heap dishonour on our religion. Instead of being preachers of peace and safety, we will become the messengers of violence.
As essential facet of this understanding is that we must all acknowledge everyone’s right to differ. Regardless of the sect anyone belongs to, every Muslim belongs to the ummah of the Prophet (sws). It is in the sense of the wider community of Muslims that we claim the number of Muslims to be more than one billion in the world. But when we entertain a negative view of other groups and believe them to be lesser Muslims, no one is left but ourselves. Scholars carry special responsibility to understand this, consider all Muslims as brothers, and teach their followers that no Muslim today is or can be a messenger. Prophethood has ended with the Prophet Muhammad (sws). We now understand our religion through knowledge and reason. Because knowledge and reasoning is different for different people, it makes some of us Hanafites, some Shafites, some Hambalites and some Malikites. We should all accept the possibility of error in our views. People should be able and willing to listen to other scholars and accept other reasoning if it appeals to them. If our scholars are ready to accept this and communicate the same to others, there is hope that we may live the life that God has devised for us.
Relationship of Muslims to Followers of Other Religions
The third point relates to how Muslims are connected to the followers of other religions. Briefly it is the relationship of a caller with a message to an addressee. Muslims have the message of Islam for others, who they must love, respect and sincerely wish them well.
The relationship Islam has established between us and the other followers of other religions is that of a preacher and an addressee. Let us take the example of how the Prophet (sws) himself invited others. He started with common beliefs. Then He explained that he was merely taking the word of God to others. It was not his own. There was no need to show haughtiness. He told his followers to thank God that they had been given this guidance. They had a light and would be sharing it with others.
Similarly we should also call others to the path of Allah, wisely and intelligently. And argue with them in the best manner possible with wisdom and prudence, and present evidence to them. We have not been sent to enforce it. It is necessary that people differ and a debate follow. This should be done politely and convincingly without any derogatory or abusive language.
Just as God has explained the etiquette to be used between parents and children, and between siblings, so has He told us how to maintain certain principles of communication when calling others to the message of Islam. It is to establish mutual respect for the truth and advise each other to be steadfast. Through such a process, we can bring our addressees to the point that that they are able to appreciate that we are in possession of the truth to which we are calling them. We are well wishers who are concerned about their well being and have something that can benefit them.
Many Muslims have settled in western countries. They went there, established their businesses or took employment. As soon as they were settled, they decided to have a mosque in their area. They desired to have an imām. Ideally these mosques should have become the source and the centre of this call or message (da‘wah). They should have given the message of peace to human beings. Contrarily the mosques have become the centre of infighting. How many mosques were closed down? Engaged in infighting some believers have been jailed while others have locked their mosques.
This is the situation which we need to reform. We should rise above it and think as believers should. We may retain our secondary identities of being Hanafites, Shafites and Malikites and the like. But it should never be allowed to overcome the primary identity of our relationship to Muhammad (sws), the Messenger of God. We may be whatever we wish to be, but our mosques should still remain the mosques of God, and their doors should be open for all Muslims. The visitors to a mosque should be considered the guests of God. It should not be a mosque of a certain group or a certain sect.
When we go to western countries, we build our worship places according to our needs. This is our right. Many places in the world recognize this right. We must use this right as messengers of the mission of the Prophet Muhammad (sws), not as soldiers of our sects and parties. We should give the people that which has been given to us by the last Messenger of God. If we do this, it will lend us eminence, and will give humanity the message to rise. But if we distribute wars, fights, sectarian identities then they will ask, when confronted with the message of Islam, if they need to give themselves up to this division of seventy plus sects and then find their way.
The mosque is not merely a place of worship. It is the centre of Islamic da‘wah. The two mosques, the Ka‘bah and Bayt al-Maqdas that Allah Himself had built under His supervision, for which He cleared certain territories so that they could become the centre of da‘wah, were built as centres of monotheism and its propagation. The entire world was called upon to come and listen to the message. Just as we look for shared points of interests in worldly interactions, so should we when calling other people to the message of Islam. We will find many common points and beliefs: God, the Prophet Abraham (sws) and other prophets. These can be used to strengthen and build up the relationship. The Qur’ān teaches us the same principle that we should first strengthen the relationship that joins us together. Since the Prophet Abraham (sws) has the primary status in the Abrahamic religions, the followers of these religions are our brethren. And we can use this point when talking to Christians and Jews.
Becoming Flag-Bearers of Islam
Lastly, while all of us have various things to attend to: business, jobs, families, relatives, other issues, we should also find time to communicate the message of Islam. We deal with many people at our work place. Politely and with respect, we should tell them that we have a message with us and that we request them to think about it when they have time. To do this, we should all cultivate wisdom and patience.
A renowned lawyer, once an ardent communist, relates his story of his conversion to Islam. After his day’s work was over, he would come to a quiet corner of a street, and spend every evening there, chatting with friends. A man would come each week and place a few pamphlets beside him, saying: “when you have time, please read these.” The lawyer would take them and keep them somewhere, without bothering to read them. This continued for three years. One day, the lawyer fell ill and, having nothing else to do picked up the pamphlet lying on the top. From that day, he became a Muslim.
The story says much for the patience and wisdom of the man who distributed the papers for three whole years, without saying anything at all, without insisting that the pamphlets be read. Contrary to this, we expect our children to submit within hours and men expect their wives to become pious all of a sudden just because they say so.
Although the message of God is the greatest message there could be in this world, we have set it aside because we have never tried to understand it. We must spend some time trying to understand our religion, rather than pay the mere lip service that we do when we say that we would give our lives for it.
(Translated from the Urdu transcript by Tariq Mahmood Hashmi; Adapted and modified by Nikhat Sattar)