by Dr. Jabal Buaben
Muslim Lecture Part II 2015
‘Arguably, the most dangerous disease which now afflicts the Muslim Ummah is the disease of disagreement and discord. This disease has become all-pervasive and affects every area, town and society. Its appalling influence has penetrated into ideas and beliefs, morality and behavior, and ways of speaking and interacting. It has affected both short and long-term goals and objectives. Like a specter, it finally envelops people´s souls. It poisons the atmosphere and leaves hearts sterile and desolate. Multitudes of people are left contending with one another, and the impression is given that all the Islamic teachings , commands and prohibitions at the disposal of the Ummah are there only to spur people on to discord and make them revel in internecine strife.’
In this statement, al-Alwani is looking at what he terms: ‘The Malaise of Discord’ and he seems to reflect the situation of the contemporary Muslim Society (Ummah) where the question of Solidarity and Dissent have become increasingly challenged! There are so many ‘freelance Islamic Scholars’ to the extent that there is always some form of dissent going on and social cohesion is constantly being called into question! There is this impression created that Muslims are constantly at each other’s throat and that issues of ‘freedom and responsibility’ are foreign to them! There is perception amongst some people that in Islam everyone must conform to a particular ‘set of ways of doing things’ and people have to be brought to order if they decide otherwise, that is if they dissent.
However, as Hassan Al-Anani has argued:
‘…both the Qur’an and the Sunnah agree that Allah has granted man the full ability to choose and follow the path of virtue as well as that of evil, depending solely on how he is inclined or what he is after. Therefore to deny this ability to man is diametrically opposite to what the Qur’an and Hadith-the two prime sources of Islam-prescribe.’
(Freedom and Responsibility in Qur’anic Perspective. Translated by M.S. Kayani. Indianapolis, IN, USA; American Trust Publications, 1990. P 89)
Al-Anani hits the ‘nail on the head’ that the Creator Himself has given the human being room to either believe or reject and hence it is against the core teachings of Islam that people are more or less ‘made to conform’! This is primarily the reason why the Qur’an itself makes it absolutely clear that there is no compulsion in matters of faith! (Qur’an 2:256). This is essentially because, as the verse points out, things have been made clear and also that at the end of the day, one is responsible for the choices one makes. The ultimate decision on the Day of Judgment belongs to The Creator Allah alone! (Qur’an 88:21-26).After all, even though the rationale for the creation of humankind was to worship The Creator alone (Qur’an 51:56), we were not created as ‘robots’ but with the freedom to make choices That is why, in Da‘wah (‘Mission’),the core understanding is ‘an invitation’ As soon as an element of force enters the system, it is no more Da‘wah but entirely something else!
The Concept of Unity in Islam:
Having said all that, the concept of unity is fundamental in Islamic Life and Thought. The Qur’an emphatically describes the Creator God, Allah, as ONE and this ONENESS permeates all spheres of life. The technical Arabic word Tawhid is therefore always used to explain the main paradigm on which Muslim ideals are founded. The basic argument is often that: if God is one, then the community (Ummah) has to be one! It follows also that the whole of the human community should be one!
That Muslim Ummah (Community) is described in the Qur’an as a ‘just one’ and meant to be witnesses against humankind (2:143). Again, the Qur’an calls on members if this Ummah (Community) to stand together and hold onto the ‘Rope of Allah’ firmly together and never be divided. (3:103)
From this, solidarity is the key to the survival of the whole of the Community (Ummah) and Dissent is seen as being ‘destructive’ and hence should not be tolerated. When the Prophet Muhammad and the early Muslims moved from Makkah to Madinah at the height of the persecutions, solidarity was crucial and historians often point out that the Prophet was more concerned with the hypocrites (the Munafiqun) than those who were openly hostile to Islam and the Muslims. The analogy of the ‘ant in one’s clothing’ is very relevant here. We could ask a rhetorical question here: Does that situation still apply? And if so, does it mean that dissent should be classified in the same way as it was in early Madinah? These are questions that could be debated at length.
Where do I fit in?:
As a Black African Muslim born in Ghana, now British and living and working in Brunei Darussalam, how do I see myself in this ‘debate’?
As an African described by Parrinder and Mbiti as ‘Notoriously and Incurably Religious’, religious consciousness is part and parcel of my DNA so to speak! Religion is like a ‘chip’ in my make-up. To Mbiti and Parrinder, once you take religion out of the African, he/she becomes dehumanized! Allow me to point out here that this is not unique to the African race. The Qur’an itself suggests that humankind was created with that ‘God-Consciousness’ (See Qur’an 7:172).That is why the Arabic concept for the ‘Unbeliever’ is Kafir - literally one who ‘attempts to cover-up’ or deny this ‘obvious fact’.
As a Muslim growing up in an overwhelmingly Christian context, my personal choices were very essential for the very survival of the minority Muslim Community. Fortunately, in the African Traditional context, there were always people of other persuasions around to literally keep one going. One could be in a family where one might have Christians, Muslims and worshippers of Traditional African Religion as well sometimes under the same roof! One is therefore taught how to make choices that would not necessarily infringe on others’ rights and much so bring society into disrepute. This is because the Traditional African understanding of spirituality is such that religion is meant to help the whole of society grow positively! Yes, there are differences in beliefs and even, sometimes, practices but at the end of the day, the fate of the whole of society is more important than that of the individual. Hence, standing in solidarity with ‘the rest’ is considered a ‘religious duty’! Personal convictions are therefore alright to a point in so far as they do not threaten the ‘survival’ of the community. It is this kind of ‘culture’ that has informed my own upbringing. That does not mean that I have not made choices that might be seen by some as ‘unsavoury’ or ‘not in the interest of the larger community’.
My Schooling was in a multi-religious setting and that also made a lot of impact on the way I see things even when I am making choices. My perception of ‘the other’ is perhaps different from one who has not been in that context and gone through that same situation. At the moment in Ghana, there is a fierce debate on what some people (mainly Muslim) describe as ‘discrimination against Muslims’ in Schools. This concerns School Assembly and Worship which are almost always Christian. The Government has come in to state that any School found discriminating against Muslim students by ‘forcing’ them to attend Christian Worship would be sanctioned. This has more or less infuriated the Christian Council of Ghana, the Bishops Conference, and many other stake holders. The office of the National Chief Imam has issued statements and the waters keep being muddied daily. The whole issue has now become heavily politicized. In my days a student in the Primary and Middle Schools, this was not a problem. In the Secondary School, I had the opportunity to attend a Muslim Secondary School but in the Teacher Training Colleges, I had to be a ‘Methodist’ in the first one and a ‘Presbyterian’ in the other. In the second Training College which was a Specialist College for Science Teachers, I had the experience of asking for permission to be allowed to stay away from Sunday Service even though I had to attend the morning assembly which also involved some form of Christian Worship. After staying away for two weeks, I made a conscious choice to attend the services anyway. First, because I was feeling lonely in the dormitory, and second, it dawned on me that in our context, it was a terrible mistake for not making the effort to understand my Christian friends more. It was an existential question!. It was this that eventually made me become interested in Religious Studies as an academic subject even though I was meant to be a Science Teacher! This sent me to study Comparative Religion specializing in Islamic Studies. It is this that took me to the Selly Oak Colleges, the University of Birmingham, where I then developed deeper interest in Interfaith Relations. To many of my friends, the choices I made were ‘wrong’ but these days, I thank God that I did make those choices after all.
My African background needed that kind of choices to be made and as if it was a ‘prophetic Choice’, what the whole world has been going through surely need people of my Career to try and make a difference especially through education. My hope and Prayer is that I could help in nurturing a few people from around the world to study and research in Interfaith and Inter-civilizational Dialogue which could help turn the tide round to save humanity, so to speak.
Yes, sometimes, our individual cultures might stand in our way but at the end of the day, it is the fate of the whole of humanity that is at stake and that should be our priority. People often make their own choices according to their context: Cultural, Religious or Personal. None of these is wrong per se, once the ultimate goal is to make society as a whole a bit better.
We need to remember always that, we are free to choose either to be in solidarity or dissent but there is accountability at the end of time before whoever brought us here in the first place, and that should be at the back of our mind.
Sometimes, we might need Dissent to make the Right Choices. Solidarity for Solidarity sake might not necessarily always be a good idea.
May the Good Creator Lord, before Whom we will be accountable for our choices, enable us make the Right choices and May He have Mercy on us. Amen.
Peace Be Onto You All.
This is not exactly a subject that I find easy, but I was "volunteered" to give an input today. Just as well - perhaps it is time to take account after some recent changes in my life: for a number of reasons I gave up my work in the Muslim community that I had done for the past twenty years and I am now more involved in interfaith work and teaching.
I did not grow up in a grown Muslim community. For the first 18 years of my life, most of my knowledge about my faith came from second-hand sources like books and articles about Islam. It was only then that I could join the Muslim students' community, a diverse crowd with different nationalities, languages, and cultures and from nearly all Muslim traditions. We did not have access to scholars who were familiar with life in Germany; each practised what they had grown up with. Whenever questions arose - and that was ever so often - there were endless debates, sometimes very controversial due to the different views in the Muslim world about the subject, accompanied by attempts to look up sources in the library that proved equally ambivalent, and well aware that our conclusions might be preliminary and that, in many cases, we just had to agree to disagree, either temporarily for practical reasons, or permanently when it came to different beliefs that were beyond philosophical reasoning. Our points of connection were, of course, the regular prayers in the students' mosque, especially on Fridays and other special occasions, and fasting and breaking the fast together in Ramadan, as well as the fact that all of us were more or less students in the widest sense whose everyday life was determined by worrying about exams and trying to survive on some meagre support from parents and various jobs. In retrospect, I think that our debates, at least as much as the shared situation, were at the bottom of a feeling of mutual trust and connectedness while they enabled us to learn and develop. We were like a group of siblings when the parents are not at home. In those days, I sometimes wondered what would happen when this generation of ours, after graduating, would leave to find jobs in various countries of origin, or the Gulf States, or elsewhere in the world. Well - eventually I left myself for years of studying and travelling, and I discovered that there were many connections that overcame time and space and continued to provide both moral support and constructive criticism. And this is how I came to understand the Arabic word ummah for community that is actually derived from the idea of a group of siblings from the same mother. Siblings wrestle with each other, and siblings celebrate together.
I travelled in Europe and various Asian and African countries in order to learn from scholars, explore books, and sample everyday and spiritual life both in diaspora communities and in countries with a Muslim majority. I have no problem adapting to new routines, kinds of food and clothes, or social conventions as long as there is some kind of "just balance" with regard to the division of obligations and responsibilities and enough space to move. It is quite easy for me to feel comfortable, even "at home", in diverse Muslim groups and even to make a constructive contribution and to keep in touch later, whether people are Sunnis or Shi'ahs from different schools of thought or local traditions or belong to various Sufi orders (the disadvantage is perhaps that, when I move on, I sometimes feel "homesick" for what I left behind). I came to perceive and appreciate those differences like different languages that challenge my creativity and open new insights - and this applies even beyond the boundaries of formal religions.
I do have difficulties with groups that are too monolithic - and with that I mean groups with a "fixed ideology" that immediately condemn unusual questions and ideas, isolate themselves against "Others", or even try to impose their views on the rest of the world. This may have biographical reasons: shocked by the experience of the generation of my parents and grandparents, I developed a kind of allergy against anything that smells like "Gleichschaltung", mental uniform that leaves no space for communication and development, splitting up the world into oversimplified categories of "Us equals good" and "Them equals bad" and creating an illusion of absolutely fixed commands and prohibitions as well as simple goals to be committed to that may make some people feel "secure" but leaves no space for conscience.
I don't think, though, that this makes me a relativist individualist. My philosophy is rather that of "diversity in balance". This is also how I read the corresponding Qur'anic passages: they point out the diversity of interacting species, the differences of human "languages and colours", and even contrasts like day and night or life and death as "signs" of the One Creator. In today's world we become increasingly aware how easily the balance of nature can be upset by interfering with the fabric of interaction, f. ex. by releasing too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere or destroying the world's rain forests; the results may become apparent in natural disasters or the effects on human health. Here, I think of something like an intellectual and spiritual ecology. Totalitarian and extreme attitudes (and there I not only mean fascism or racism or the like but also egotism and consumerism and even intransigent individualism) would constitute an imbalance that may not only bring about stagnation in human thought but also upset social balance and cause or aggravate conflicts.
While I am advocating "balanced diversity", I am reminded of the tradition that is often used in the context of giving weight to community: "The community is like a body. When one member is ill, the whole body suffers." This may be applied to the particular group that I belong to right now, or to the worldwide Muslim ummah, or to humankind in general - and I am well aware that this understanding of mine is connected with my experience of migration and fluctuation and probably looks completely different in a stable local community where any changes may have gone unnoticed for several generation. Anyway, when the body is suffering, the normal reaction is to look for healing or at least to avoid more pain even if it implies limping or using crutches.
As for pain in a currently relevant context, Muslims in Europe increasingly find themselves between a rock and a hard place. On one hand there are the shameful atrocities committed by certain extremist groups in the name of Islam both in Europe and in Iraq and Syria and the demand to condemn them and to distance oneself from them. How can this be done without exposing oneself to accusations by some other Muslims for "lack of solidarity" and "splitting up the community"? It would be much easier if, on the other hand, there was not the feeling of being the target of a general suspicion against Muslims that recently erupted in PEGIDA rallies, certain discussions on "increased security".
If no speedy relief is in sight, pain may cause anger - at the apparent cause of the pain, at the missing relief, at the lack of sympathy. A frequent reaction, blaming someone for the pain, may give some temporary satisfaction, but it works like a placebo rather than being a meaningful step towards healing. Thus, I find it understandable when Muslims blame colonialism, "the West", or even the devil for the current suffering in the Muslim world, but besides not doing justice to the complexity of world history it does not provide a remedy. Another frequent reaction is the desire to cut off the affected member by "excommunicating" individuals or groups. Thus, I find it understandable when mainstream Muslims passionately state that "militant extremists are not Muslims". But apart from the facts that there is no mechanism for excommunication in Islam, and that militant extremists dissociate themselves from other Muslims in exactly the same way, surgery may get rid of a disease and even save a patient's life but cannot not recreate a healthy body. Ideally, health would be restored by restoring the balance within. This seems already to be indicated in the Arabic word salam for peace that is derived from a root that implies being whole, being complete.
With regard to restoring and preserving balance in the future community and beyond, I would therefore say that it needs a concept of critical solidarity that can help to preserve a healthy dynamics of many perspectives from which something new can grow. Dissent may very well be an expression of solidarity there. There is the story of the Prophet who first modified the pre-Islamic proverb, "Support your brother, right or wrong," by saying, "when he is right". Later on, he quoted the original proverb again and said, when he was asked about it, "Support your brother when he is wrong means to advise him how to do better." We need an ethics of disagreement that enables people to express and accept constructive criticism in an atmosphere of mutual trust and self-confidence. It needs readiness for dialogue especially with those whose ideas are different and difficult. On the whole, whether it is within a relatively small local community or within the worldwide Muslim community or within humankind, we therefore need to educate ourselves for handling our globally diverse reality in a mindful and constructive way.