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Devotion, Dialogue, and Development PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Louay Safi   
Jul 11, 2005 at 02:00 PM

Human life evolved as a manifestation of, and in response to, the divine purpose. This purpose was first revealed, the Qur’an tells us, in the presence of representatives of two other intelligent species: angels and jinns. “I will create a vicegerent on earth,” Allah declared to the angels and to Iblis, the father of the jinns, at the eve of the creation of the first human being. The angels responded with amusement and reservation to the creation of human beings with the power and capacity to reign over God’s creation.

The angels didn’t hide their misgivings about the creation of the human species: “will you place therein those who will make mischief and shed blood, while we do celebrate your praises and glory.” Iblis’s reaction was far more negative, as he fiercely rejected the priority of the human mission, and openly rebelled against the divine command to bow down to Adam in recognition of his noble mission. In justifying his rebellious act, Iblis advanced the first racist argument, as he appealed to his racial purity: “I am better the he; you created me from fire and created him from clay!”

The ego-centric tendency, exhibited earlier by Iblis, turned out to be a human quality as well, and remains today at the root of all acts of mischief and violence. As advancing individual interests require cooperation and solidarity, the ego-centrism often takes the form of ethnic and religious centrism.  “I am better than he” is often expressed in the form of “we are better than them,” giving rise to racism, bigotry, and chauvinism. All forms of exploitation and abuse are rooted in the devilish motto “I am better than he.”

It does not take much effort to see that cases of aggression, abuse, and exploitation often emanate from a single pattern: Dividing people into categories, and using the notion of “we are better than them” to justify aggression, exploitation, and violation of human dignity. Tyrants, racists, and bigots always make sure before they embarked on a campaign of exploitation and abuse that the victims of their aggression are degraded and demonized. The ways of the Pharaohs of divide, degrade, and rule are the ways of all those who exploit differences and use ideology—both religious and secular—to justify claims of superiority. The Qur’an succinctly summaries the Pharaonic ways: “Truly Pharaoh elated himself in the land and broke up its people into sections, overpowering one group of them: their sons he slew, but kept alive their females; for he was indeed a maker of mischief.”(28:4)

Devotion

Overcoming ego-centrism and advancing justice and compassion in society stems from acts of devotion: devotion to Allah and the values and principles associated with Him. It was the devotion of Moses to Allah and His revelation that led to the liberation of the Children of Israel from Pharaoh’s bondage. Moses reluctantly accepted the mission assigned to him to proclaim the equal dignity of all human beings and to free his people. He obviously feared for his life if he would return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh, but his devotion to Allah and his sense of duty ultimately overcome his fears, as he spoke truth to power. When Pharaoh reminded him of his favors when he brought him up as a free man in his household, Moses’s response was swift and ground shaking: “and this is the favor with which you reproach me, that you has enslaved the Children of Israel.” (26:22)

Devotion to Allah and the principles He revealed to guide human action have always been at the heart of all prophetic missions, as well as the work of reformers inspired by the reformist missions of the prophets. Prophet Noah spent close to a millennium calling his people to a life of goodness and justice, and he worked relentlessly to confront corruption and uplift the human spirit. Confronting corruption and injustice and uplifting the human spirit and improving the human condition continued to be the concerns of all prophets who came after Noah, including Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. They were all devoted to Allah and his revelation, and their devotion to the divine led them to be devoted to improving the conditions of humans. Through devotion to Allah they learned humility, acted with determination and courage, were concerned about human dignity, and were steadfast in the face of adversities and hardship.

The interconnectedness between serving God and serving humanity, and promoting divine purpose and advancing social life is unmistakable to anyone who is familiar with the Qur’anic message. The Qur’an declares that promoting equity and justice in human society is the reason for sending messengers and revealing books: “We sent our messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (or right and wrong) that men may stand forth in justice.”(57:25). It also stresses that the enduring legacy people can leave behind are related to actions that were intended for the benefit of humanity. All else is bound to dissipate and disappear: “For the scum disappears like forth case out; while that which is for the good of humankind remains on the earth.”(13:17).

Serving humanity as the way to serving God is particularly clear in the Islamic revelation that was meant to be the last divine revelation. The mission of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah’s blessing and mercy may surround him, is described as that of “mercy to humanity.” Muslims who carry the legacy of the last prophet are duty bound to maintain it through their actions and interactions. The challenge facing today’s Muslims is to carry out the prophetic legacy and to show compassion beyond their own families and communities. Unless and until the Muslim communities exemplify the principle of “mercy to humanity,” they need to reevaluate the extent to which they are devoted to Allah.

Dialogue

For human beings to realize the purpose of their creation, and develop their knowledge and social life, they need to establish a just peace. This requires working with others to set a social condition whereby common social life evolves as a result of communication, persuasion, and dialogue. Peace evolves under conditions of reciprocity and mutuality, whereby different ideas and values can be exchanged, and society may freely embrace different worldviews and ways of life. For that to happen, dialogue is essential.

Dialogue goes beyond exchange of views, as it requires the recognition of the right of human beings to formulate their views and their understanding away from pressure and intimidation. Islam predated other monotheistic religious traditions in recognizing the intrinsic right of people to follow their personal conviction, and stressed a principle that lies today at the core of all democratic pluralism: “Let there be no compulsion in religion, truth stand out clear from falsehood.” (2:256)

A pluralist and multi-religious society is only possible when people search for mutuality and common ground, and Islam from day one emphasized openness, dialogue, and searching form common ground. “Invite to the way of your lord with wisdom and good advice, and depute with them in the best manner,” the Qur’an stresses, as it stresses the founding of free society where Muslim are actively dialogue and common grounds: “Say O people of the book, come to a common word between us, that we worship none but God, and that we assign no partners to him, and that we take no lord and masters among ourselves; but if they turn away, say we submit our will to God.”

As the Qur’an establish the sanctity of human life, it called upon Muslims to seek peace. Peace building is essential for the growth of humanity, and the fulfillment of the divine purpose of creation, and Muslims must engage in and support all efforts aimed at peace building. We need to distinguish, though, between two notions of peace building. On the one hand we have the conception of peace building as imposition and domination. It is the peace in which the powerful demand the submission of the weak, and where the interests of those who have superior means prevail. Virgil, a well known Roman historian once described this kind of peace when he described the peace Roma sought and demanded. It is a peace in which strong nations “spare the vanquished and crush the proud.” Muslims should reject this shameful peace, and seek a different kind of peace, a peace based not on domination, but on recognition. Recognizing the intrinsic dignity of all human being, and their right to live a free and meaningful life, and that is possible only through real dialogue and mutual respect and recognition of people of different faiths.

… and Development

With a true devotion and dialogue development is a natural outcome. Development is the essence of the human vice-regency that permits people to bring their intelligence and cooperation to bear on developing life and advancing the human condition. Accumulation of knowledge through research and discovery, and the application of the evolving sciences to practical situations have led to the evolution of human capabilities and technologies. Islam, which directed people to observe the wonders of creation and the regularity of natural phenomena, place a crucial role in guiding human knowledge to induction and empirical research and away from the Greek logic of pure deduction and abstract logic.

Yet developing natural science and technology is only possible under conditions of cooperation and fair competition among diverse people. Islam call on Muslims and on peoples of different faiths to cooperate in matters of fairness and justice, and to compete for promoting common good: “Help one another in matters of goodness and righteousness, and do not help one another in matters of corruption and aggression.” And again: “If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a competition in all virtues. The goal of you all is Allah; it is He that will show you the truth of the matters in which you dispute.” (5:48)


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