Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Good fences, Good Neighbours and the Culture of Islam


Maryam Sakeenah

Globalization has hardly made us one global village. Concepts of racial and national distinctions, rivalries, hatred of ‘the other’ and fanatical loyalty to your own narrow creed has only built up consistently. Tolerance, co-existence, respect for humankind are still things to be dreamt of merely. The media’s ‘global village’ is a dangerous place. It has barbed wire, minefields and war zones spread throughout its length and breadth. It is far from being a warm little community. Something has gone wrong somewhere.

All the gusto for breaking barriers has made stronger, uglier, impenetrable ones only. Internationalizing a commercial culture has ended up breaking those natural barriers that make the world beautifully diverse, and erecting those that divide into superior and inferior, great and small, black and white, civilized and uncivilized.

It is an unequal struggle, where the powerful commercial culture is bound to eliminate the weaker, not respecting the guarding barriers of identity and individuality, distorting indigenous purity and simplicity, defacing identities. McDonalds eliminates roadside local eateries, foreign brands root out local enterprise. The media fuels up the invasion, till the whole society is divided up into cola and ‘lassi’ drinkers. Thick walls cut between the English-speakers and Urdu-speakers, U.S nationality holders and mere ‘locals.’ The concept of a ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ culture, a ‘developed’ and an ‘underdeveloped’ way of living has made inter-cultural communication utterly impossible.

One wonders if an equitable co-existence of cultures is even possible; if men can ever think in human terms, beyond cultural symbols and the ideas of ‘developed’ and ‘underdeveloped’; if ever we can respect variety and look for the singular human essence within.

And yet looking back at our origins, we are reassured, for it has been done before… 1,400 years ago, a society deeply entrenched in tribalism was unified, making it a whole, single ‘Ummah’.

Arabia, 6th century A.D, where tribalism was the way of life. Rising out of such a tribalized, fragmented social set-up, Islam achieved the Herculean task of erasing these tribal divisions forever, and making emerge out of this tribalist morass, a unified brotherhood, a fraternity, an ‘ummah’ that subverted tribal kinship to the human singularity, the ideological vision that fellow-Muslims share. It was certainly a miracle of Islam that tribalist foes were knit together as a single community. This miraculous social epoch, this revolutionary creation of a unifying culture was wholly to the credit of the Islamic belief of pure Tauhid that elevates man to absolute equity, all humble slaves of the One True God in the Presence of Whom all stand equal; Who has the creation for His ‘family’.

Islam used no imposition, no homogenization, no imperialist cultural threat; it did not rely on power to root out an arbitrarily defined ‘inferior’; The Islamic Revolution involved no such tactics. Islam simply presented itself in its pristine glory and completely overturned Jahiliyyah from its very foothold. In the radicalism of its revolution, there was no imperious imposition, no ‘colonial’ haughtiness. Islam respected ‘otherness’, valued variety and diversity, the colours Allah has spread on earth to make it warm and sunny, thriving and exuberant, in line with the Quranic verse: ‘We made you into nations and tribes so that you could identify one another.’

Bilal (R.A), being a negro slave, had no human rights in that society. After being set free, he was made the muezzin of Islam, with his characteristic Abyssinian ‘lisp’ so dear to the Prophet (SAWW). Umar (R.A) used to refer to Abu Bakr (R.A) as ‘Our master and the emancipator of our master (i.e, Bilal).’ This was something unthinkable to the Jahiliyyah mindset. After the Conquest of Makkah, it was Bilal (R.A), the negro slave of yore, who ascended the roof of the Kaabah and made the first Azan there. The tribal chiefs of Makkah were appalled at this ‘desecration’ of the Holy Place. This was the radicalism of the equality Islam brought about; the elevation it conferred upon man.

Salman the Persian (R.A) was welcomed to the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood with open arms. He was never ‘Arabised’, and never dispossessed as ‘the other.’ His distinctiveness was not only respected, but made the best of, when the Prophet (SAWW), taking his advice, ordered the digging of the trench (a Persian war strategy) to defend the city. The Islamic revolution never sought to unnaturally and forcibly harmonize, turning men into clones. It was this earliest Muslim community that had risen out of primitive tribalism that taught lessons in co-existence, in living with differences, in letting the other be, and seeking beauty in that otherness, as all come from Allah.

Yet, despite having embraced diversity with open arms as a sign of Allah, Islam never unnaturally ‘softened borders’, diluted and muddled identity, erased necessary distinctions. Even while respecting other cultures, it never got awed by them. Poised in the strength of its own, it never lost its self-pride, never lost sight of its own distinction.

This outlook is worth emulating. For we need to resist the blows of cultural colonization so that we can stand our ground firmly. Even while respecting other cultures and giving them the right to exist, we need to be able to draw the line wherever the self-proclaimed ‘superior’ culture attempts to encroach. The strength for self-preservation comes when you are convinced about what is valuable about you, so that you are prepared to defend its right to exist. Strength comes with this rare pride, this sense of belonging, of owning. Seeing a Persian-styled bow and arrow, the Prophet (SAWW) disapproved of its use by Arab-Muslim soldiers, preferring the Arabian weapon instead. The lesson here is that pride in what is one’s own and fidelity to it gives a nation the strength that makes it indomitable. Whenever a powerful culture seeks to imperialize, it capitalizes on the lack of fidelity for the indigenous among the colonized population, and replaces this with the mimetic adoption of the alien imperialist creed.

However, despite the loyalty to yourself Islam demands, it keeps a perfect balance of fidelity to one’s own and tolerance / respect for another. Therefore, nowhere does Islamic culture reek of fanatical patriotism and narrow nationalism. Most major confrontations in history have been fired by nationalism. Fanatical nationalism is a restrictive, confining, intolerant and dangerous sentiment. Islam rules it out with a bold stroke. The fact that Islam flourished and won a state for itself only after the Muslims had left their native city, renounced all tribal / filial links, creating a community knit together so wholly through the Belief they shared, is significant in this regard. The idea of Hijrah was new to the Arabs. It was inconceivable to be leaving home, family, tribe and kin for an Ideal. But that is just Islam: living and dying for an Ideal that cannot be confined within delineations.

This means that your loyalty is not to race or territory, but to a Code of Life that respects humanity in all its shades and colours, that upholds Justice and human values. When you live by this Code of Life, its balance of ‘Adl’ and ‘Ihsan’ defines your culture. Culture becomes oppressive and imbalanced when power-dynamics enter the scene and begin to dictate the norms. Islam replaces the oppressive and discriminative power-dynamic with its powerful moral imperative of Justice, giving culture a whole new orientation. The emphasis on Justice, (adl and tawazun) is immense in the Quran. The solution today lies in rediscovering that historic epoch that turned desert Bedouins world leaders, and modelling our own culture on that veritable ideal of the ‘ummatun wusata’ firmly poised in its cultural values of ‘adl’ and ‘ihsan.’

It is religion alone that sanctifies these human values and makes them inviolable. And it is Islam alone that elevates them to a veritable Code of Life so that it can direct the creation of the Ideal Culture. And it is Islam alone that gives us a practical model of an ideal community, culture and civilization created through belief and fidelity to that Code of Life. An Islamic society holds high its moral code which teaches us to distinguish not on the basis of any worldly standard. Under this code of life, the only thing that makes one different is the faith within, which none but Allah can gauge. When morality becomes a nation-building force, distinctions are dimmed away, because it is God alone who is authorised to judge on the basis of morality, not man. Morality is an equalizing force, and Islam makes the best of its potential to harmonize and make equal. Islam creates fidelity not to tribe or kin, race or nation, but to the moral code that ennobles and respects your humanity. These are the roots of a humane culture.

It is only so that inequalities of inferiority and superiority, powerful and powerless, developed and underdeveloped, strong and weak, man and woman, rich and poor will become extraneous to social life. It is then that the legendary ‘Mahmud’ and ‘Ayaz’ can become the sharers in a common culture, standing shoulder to shoulder, each a valuable link making the society whole.

“But Man has not attempted the Ascent; Ah, what will convey unto thee what the Ascent is? (It is ) to free a slave, and to feed in the day of hunger an orphan near of kin, or some poor wretch in misery; And to be of those who believe and exhort one another to perseverance, and exhort one another to piety.” (Surah Al Balad)