By Lukman Harees –
As another birth anniversary of the Holy Prophet of Islam (OWBP) dawns, there are no signs of the well-orchestrated Islamophobic campaign launched on a global plane abating, with many far right groups taking the lead in many countries exploiting this trend to make political gains. In these challenging times, what are the lessons the world can draw from his great exemplary to effectively fight and defeat the scourge and wounds of racism and xenophobia afflicting our world and promoting diversity?
We have probably heard every kind of naive and uninformed comment that can possibly be made about Islam and Muslims, not just in the West but beyond as well, either through ill-will or ignorance. Islam is being painted in the grimmest colours with nothing more than a spent force, incapable of regenerating itself. This unfortunately is a narrative with considerable staying power, drawing its strength from a pervasive Western media that frequently reinforces such perceptions. With sensationalism becoming an essential criterion in journalism, analysts note that the diversity of voices and opinions that prevail in the Muslim world , as well as the rich spiritual and intellectual resources available within the Islamic tradition (both as a religion and civilization), are wilfully ignored.
However, contrary to popular belief, Muslims are also grappling with the challenges of modernity in myriad ways, re-engaging with their tradition and revisiting their history, as others do. Many of them are rereading their religious texts for guidance in this process of negotiation; for religion, in their experience, is an ally, not an enemy of the modern world. It is a matter of shame that the unwary world do not seem to understand that right-wing Western Islamophobes and militant western-phobic Islamist groups are a mirror image of each other, and their hate-mongering has resulted in incalculable harm, which is evident in the terror-stricken world we inhabit today. The world is therefore crying out for an order endowed with an unshakeable faith in the ultimate goodness of humanity, to rise above the narrow confines of racism and create channels of communication that help establish common ground and inter-religious solidarity.
Indeed this is the need of the Hour and the example of one of the greatest social reformers the world has ever seen, Prophet of Islam (OWBP) who initiated the transformation of the pre-Islamic Arabs, from Ignorance (Jahilliya) towards the pinnacle of civilization in this regard will be both inspiring and illuminating to the modern day activists who are fighting this cancer of racism.
There were many instances from history too, of Muslim egalitarianism which were inspired by the example of the Prophet of Islam (OWBP). He upheld justice in his time and rejected the ignorant belief which considered some people superior to others because of their language, race, social status or ethnicity. As mentioned in the Qur’an, one of the divine purposes in the creation of the different races is “that they should come to know each other”. (Al-Hujurat 49:13). He stated that : “O people! All of you are the children of Adam. You are like equal wheat grains in a bowl … No one has any superiority over anyone else, except in religion and heedfulness.” (Ahmad)
If we perceive racism, as indicated by things like the 1994 O. J. Simpson trial, the 1992 race riots in Los Angeles, or the existence of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan or Trump’s win in America as something new, it is time to think again. Racism existed before and during the lifetime of the Prophet (OWBP), during the time of the Companions, and they devised strategies to combat it.
Madinah, the first capital of Islam, had this diversity within it. After the migration of the Prophet from Makkah to Medina, he encountered many different communities. At that period, Jews, Christians and pagans who held power were all living together. Under such circumstances, he united the cosmopolitan structure to secure social unity and peace by making social agreements- either by sending letters or holding face-to-face meetings- with more than a hundred communities, and thus achieved social compromise. In this way, the people could learn how to develop a better perception of Islam and how to conduct themselves in a society where they live with people of other faiths as fellow citizens. Covenant of Medina was a case in point.
Prof. Thomas Arnold stresses the importance of the social unity established by the Prophet thus: Arabia that had never before obeyed one prince, suddenly exhibits a political unity and swears allegiance to the will of an absolute ruler. Out of the numerous tribes, big and small, of a hundred different kinds that were incessantly at feud with one another, Muhammad’s word created a nation. (Thomas Arnold, The Spread of Islam in the World, Goodword Books)
As is related in many verses in the Qur’an and contrary to today’s misconceptions , living in peace with people of other religions is perceived as good by Islam. In one verse, Allah commands Muslims to believe in all the holy books revealed by Him and respect their beliefs: “So call and go straight as you have been ordered to. Do not follow their whims and desires but say, “I believe in whatever Allah has sent down (in the form) of a Book and I am ordered to be just between you. Allah is our Lord and your Lord. We have our actions and you have your actions.There is no debate between us and you. Allah will gather us all together. He is our final destination. (Ash-Shura 42:15).
Scholars say that the above verse describes the relations a Muslim should establish with people of other religions. Muslims are also held responsible for adopting the morality of the Prophet and being compassionate and just towards other people. This person can be anyone, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Christian or even an atheist. Such honest and just attitudes will make a very positive impact on their hearts, no matter what or who they believe in- or even if they have no beliefs at all- and they will become a means to make them understand Islam better. In this way, the Holy Prophet gave a practical lesson for future generations.
During the many eras of Islamic rule throughout history too, the rights of the various religious communities and denominations were upheld and protected within the context of a strong social fabric. They were not forced to change their religion or their denominational affiliation. The Muslims continued to engage them in polite debate and discussion. This social fabric can be torn apart by conflicts spurred on by political interests who instigate the ignorant people and play on their prejudices. When this happens, when neighbor turns against neighbor, people abandon the Prophet’s teachings which stress neighborly rights even with those you disagree with.
Later in history for example, when Salah-ud-Deen Ayyubi liberated Jerusalem from them in 1187, not only did he treat the Crusaders with kindness, he also ensured that Muslim and non-Muslims live in peace and harmony with each other. After Spain came under Muslim rule, Muslims and Christians of Spain did not live in their ghettos, isolated and not cooperating in various aspects of daily life together. They were rather living safely and peacefully alongside with the Jews.Bosnia is another recent bright example of Islamic, non-racial egalitarianism and tolerance in Europe. Bosnia today stands as an example of the principle of a multi ethnic society which refused to submit to the racial ideals and attacks of Serb nationalism.
These are just a few examples from Muslim history, which are closer to the Islamic ideals of all humanity being one. This is by no means a claim that all Muslims have always behaved in the most ideal way. Muslims like other human beings are fully capable of falling short in their practice of these ideals. One can come up with a whole set of examples in which tribalism and nationalism have resulted in an un-Islamic behavior among Muslims. Muslims as a whole have never condoned or embraced the personal behavior or ideologies which are based on color or race. Islamic ideals continue to challenge racial and national ideologies by inspiring Muslims to emulate the model of the Holy Prophet (OWBP).
Evidently, it turns out that religion, which happens to be an integral human need, is neither evil by nature nor a steady source of ills. We alone are responsible for making our experience, our interpretation, our understanding of religion hell on earth. James H. Leuba perceptively wrote:“With chemicals one may cure, or kill; with high-power propaganda one may enlighten and thus promote brotherhood, or deceive and thus arouse angry passions. Failure to employ the means at our disposal for the general good is the root cause of the present distressing situation”.
Thus, Muslims as the carriers of the great message of the Holy Prophet of Islam (OWBP) has a big responsibility to shoulder to take the lead in healing the wounds of racism which has begun to fester not just in the Western world, but also in the part of the world we live in, including Sri Lanka, and promote unity in diversity.