Fadhilah is a freelance writer and graphic designer. She has also published a book titled Light Upon Light. You can follow her on Instagram at @fadhilahwahid.
If there is one takeaway from the Future of Faith Conference organised by Muis, it is that it is imperative for faith communities to come together to face the ever-increasing shared challenges of modern society.
In an era marked by much uncertainty, as humankind continues to push the boundaries of not just science, technology, and economy, but also of religion and of the meaning of life itself, division and fractures between and within communities only serve to create unwarranted worries and bad faith.
The good news: it is very still much possible, at this juncture, to cooperate with one another on the basis of shared human values.
It is in this light that Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, Vice President of the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Society, shared how Islam’s Universal Values for Humanity are able to provide not just an ethical framework, but a practical model that has been proven in history to not only preserve, but also cultivate peaceful co-existence and harmony.
Seeing Oneness in Diversity
Shaykh Hamza’s first key message was how divisions caused by diversity contrast the Islamic understanding of creation and of God. In fact, diversity is to be celebrated as a sign of God.
“If you investigate the Quran, what you will find of its central teaching is what some scholars outside of Islam have called Radical Monotheism,” said the Shaykh.
“The idea that God is radically One.”
What this means is that our mind is designed, by the Creator Himself, to see unity in diversity. The Qur’an speaks of this oneness in several places, such as in Surah Al-Hujurat verse 13:
“O humankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another.”,
“And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge.”
Essentially, according to Shaykh Hamza, God is outwardly manifest in the diversity of the attributes that manifest in the world, but He is inwardly hidden in the essence of His Oneness.
Therefore, to see anything other than The One in many is as good as not truly seeing.
Cooperation in Co-existence
What might assist in shifting one’s lens to see unity in diversity is to look at instances in the scripture where God commands for cooperation and tolerance between communities of different faiths.
In Surah al-Maidah verse 2, where God commands Muslims to “cooperate in righteousness and piety”, it is important to note that that the command was revealed not in the context of Muslims having to cooperate between themselves, but to cooperate with those outside of their faith.
There is much work that needs to be done for the common good, and coming together for a commitment towards serving humanity can only benefit all of us.
Additionally, in today’s environment plagued with doubt and suspicion between communities, the Islamic value of having a good opinion of another is also crucial to this cooperation.
Recognition of Rights in Belief
An area in which cooperation between faiths is much needed is in mutual recognition and understanding of each others’ beliefs. Duncan MacDonald, a scholar well-versed in the Islamic faith, said that “the world will not be at peace until the three great proselytising religions - Buddhism, Christianity and Islam - come to some knowledge of one another.”
While calling others to the religion is an essential part of the Muslim faith, it cannot be ignored that a central rule of this calling is that “there is no coercion (or compulsion) in religion”, as stated in Surah al-Baqarah verse 256.
“The word in Arabic for telling people about your religion is called ‘da’wah’, which literally means ‘an invitation’. An invitation is only real if it is open to rejection,” explained Shaykh Hamza.
“And this is why the Quran clearly states (in Surah al-Kahf verse 29) “... so whoever decides, then let him believe in it, and whoever decides, then let him disbelieve.”
Another prohibition of the Quran is the mocking, attacking, cursing or denigrating of the beliefs of others, even those who worship idols. This is reflected clearly in Surah al-An’am verse 108, where God says, “Do not curse the idols that they are calling on beside God…”
Today, we see in many parts of the world how detrimental it has been for Islam to be constantly portrayed as an evil religion that is incompatible with society. How many useless wars have been fought and precious lives have been lost over careless words tossed from unthinking minds?
While this narrative has been unfairly slapped onto us, Muslims should remember that the Prophet s.a.w. did not attack the faiths of other people. Retaliation in kind, in this case, is not the answer.
Cooperation with the State
Another important area of cooperation that Muslims can work on is that with the state. In Surah an-Nisa verse 59, the Qur’an says: “O you who have believed! Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those put in authority among you”.
It is worthy to highlight that this command is - as agreed by traditional scholars - irrespective of whether the state one lives in is Muslim, secular, or of other traditions in nature. The preservation of security, and of human life, is paramount.
The issue of cooperation between communities or groups cannot be discussed without involving the individual human factor. After all, each of us makes up part of a community, and it is the collective sum of our individual actions that gives voice to how our community is as a whole.
One of the important beliefs of our religion is that God is All-Seeing. And the fact that He sees everything should mean that each believing individual should have a heightened sense of self-awareness. This, in turn, should propel him or her to engage in righteous acts, and to distance himself from evil ones.
“An interesting thing about our society is that now we have this notion of a surveillance state. It is very interesting because if human beings were to actually surveil themselves, we would have no need for states to be watching what we are doing,” pointed out the Shaykh.
In other words, in Islām, God is the ultimate surveillance state, and this should suffice for anyone to strive to lead virtuous lives.
The World is a Tribulation
Another universal truth Islām teaches that is invaluable for humanity, according to Shaykh Hamza, is the understanding that the world is a tribulation, that it is meant to be a difficult place.
The Quran says, in Surah Hud verse 11, that God created the heavens and the earth to try humankind, in order to see who amongst them is best in deeds. Therefore, the suffering that many of us face is not without meaning; it is, in fact, an essential part of the human condition.
According to our tradition, trials and tribulation are the food for the spiritual and emotional development of a person. Just as the muscle of the physical body atrophies when there is no resistance, so too does the muscle of the soul. How many great men have emerged from devastating situations?
Shaykh Hamza continued by sharing that the word ‘tribulation’ has been mentioned over 80 times in the Quran, and that tribulation comes in many ways, some more obvious than others.
In Surah al-Fajr verses 15 and 16, God debunks the superiority of one person over another on the basis of what he is blessed with. God said, “And as for man, when his Lord tries him and is generous to him and favours him, he says, “My Lord has honoured me.” But when He tries him and restricts his provision, he says, “My Lord has humiliated me.””
“This is a false understanding,” clarified the Shaykh, “Poverty is a tribulation, but wealth is also a tribulation.”
Knowing that everyone is going through some form of struggle just by virtue of being here, added the Shaykh, is a very important thing to remember because it helps to create mercy, empathy and compassion among humankind.
Mercy, Empathy and Compassion
One of the core values of Islām is that of mercy. In fact, the motivation of mercy is the essence of all other values in the Islamic Tradition. In traditional learning, as was the case with Shaykh Hamza’s own education, the very first Hadith that every teacher would relay to his student - with the chain of narration returning back to the Prophet s.a.w. - is the Hadith of Mercy.
“Those who are merciful will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Be merciful to those on the earth and the One in the heavens will have mercy upon you.”
Ibn Jawziyyah said that the entire sacred law is merciful. Therefore, if a proclamation is made on something that deviates from mercy and toward cruelty, it is, without doubt, not from sacred law.
The Prophet s.a.w. is described as qudwatul hashanah, the best exemplar, and he was sent - as God says in Surah al-Anbiya verse 107 - only as a mercy to the worlds.
Therefore, it is fundamental that each Muslim - or perhaps each human being - is only to act on the motivation of mercy, of compassion and empathy towards one another.
One of the great scholars of Islam, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, said that all Islam can be reduced to two things: devotion to the Creator and service to His creation.
Without upholding Islam’s universal values such as unity, cooperation, mercy and compassion, it would be impossible for a person of faith to claim devotion to His Creator (as he would be ignoring His commands), and to be of service to humanity.
Shaykh Hamza concluded that these are virtues that truly reflect our faith. In their restoration, we restore the three fundamental components of the Deen: Iman (faith), which is rooted in Truth, Islam (the service of God and others), which is essentially Goodness, and the culmination of the two, which is Ihsan, that is, realizing the beauty that God has intended for His creation.
The article is based on the “MUIS50 Lecture: Islam’s Universal Values for Humanity” held at the “International Conference Singapore: The Future of Faith” on 7 – 8 Nov 2018 in Singapore.