How to Build an Islamic Life as a Minority
Dr. Nazeer Ahmed
Note: This article can also be viewed as a talk on YouTube
The summary of this article is this: The essentials of a peace loving, dynamic, contributing and thriving Islamic life as a Muslim minority are Iman, Adl and Ehsan….faith, justice and good deeds….which are three of the essential pillars of the Shariah.
The tenth century scholar, Imam Termidhi wrote: “Allah has indeed favored us with the Qur’an which is His boundless ocean. He has filled it with the gems of subtleties and made it a treasure of His Grace. Blessed is the man or woman to whom Allah grants, openly and in secret, some of the wisdoms which are in it.”
The Qur’an has an inner dimension and an outer dimension. The inner dimension reveals the majesty and bounty of Allah. The outer dimension provides guidance so that humankind may attain its noble destiny and return to the Divine fold.
The Qur’an touches the heart at multiple levels. It is an inexhaustible ocean. As the Qur’an declares: “For every knower there is one who knows more”. The Light of Islam, the Light of Iman, the Light of Irfan, the Light of Tawhid, and the Light of Shahada are some of the Lights that define the stations of the heart. Each one of these has its own inner dimension and its outer dimension.
The inner dimension of Islam is transformation of the self so that the veils that separate the heart from Divine presence are lifted and man realizes Divine presence in his own life. Islam also has an outer dimension that finds its fulfillment in space and time and that is the Shariah.
Shariah is a term that is much misunderstood and maligned in the world today. These are times of trial. Every trial is a Sign from the almighty so that we learn something from it and grow with it. Every challenge is an opportunity. These challenges provide Muslims an opportunity to learn the Quran, understand the Shariah, comprehend its inner and outer dimensions, and apply it with wisdom to their own surroundings.
The root word for Shariah is Shara’ which means a commandment, a prescription, a regulation, a covenant. It can also mean a path, an avenue. Shariah is the evidence of Allah to His creation so that through it mankind may reinforce its faith in the Almighty. Shariah is also the compassion and love of Allah through which God reveals His works to His creation. As such its embrace is all inclusive; it includes in its fold all of creation. Allah declares in the Quran:
“I will show you My Signs on the horizon and within yourselves until you have certainty of faith.”
On the horizon means nature and history. There are Signs in nature. Those with insight and intellect read these Signs and benefit from them. All of God’s creation follows the laws of the Shariah. The sun rises from the East. That is Shariah. The moon revolves around the earth. That is Shariah. The stars in the heavens and the far off galaxies swim in their own orbits. That is Shariah. Even as I write there is a star somewhere in the universe that is being gobbled up by a black hole. That is Shariah also. The Qur’an teaches us:
“And the sun and the moon move in mathematically predictable orbits. And the heavens has He raised high and established a dynamic balance therein so that you do not violate that balance in your own lives. “
Thus science is a servant of faith. The laws of nature are subject to man’s understanding. Man is enjoined to interact with and reflect upon nature, understand it and use the lessons learned so to discharge his responsibility as the khalifa of God on earth.
On the horizon also means history and sociology. History is a Sign from Allah and it should be taught as such. It teaches us something of the past so that we may use it as a guide to chart a course with wisdom for the future. Those who heed the lessons of history, prosper. Those who do not, perish. The Quran admonishes us
“Travel through the earth and witness what was the end of those who had no faith.”
Shariah enunciates the laws of history, of the rise and fall of civilizations. The Quran teaches us:
Humankind is at loss,
Except such as those who have certainty of faith,
And engage in righteous action,
And reinforce each other for justice,
And work with one another with perseverance.”
And there are Signs within ourselves, in the beauty and perfection of the human body, the sight that enables us to see, the hearing which enables us to hear, the feet that help us walk, the arms that enable us to work, the skin that protects us, the physical heart that beats from cradle to the grave suffusing the body with life, the spiritual heart that opens up to the Light from the heavens and takes man to the very throne of Allah, in the mind that reasons, in the intellect that basks in the Light from the majesty of God’s presence. Every eye that sees, every limb that walks, every mind that thinks, every heart that beats reveals the mercy and grace of Allah and follows His laws. It follows the Shariah.
It is unfortunate that Muslims themselves are oblivious to the universal, all embracing dimensions of the Shariah and have reduced it a set of do’s and don’ts, to the length of moustaches and beards, which important as they are, in no way reflect the omnipresence and omnipotence of the Divine Hand that guides the movement of every string in an atom, of every galaxy in a universe. Failure to comprehend the universal dimension of Shariah has caused the Muslims to get away from the study of science and history, of sociology and mathematics, corrupted as they are by the secularization that has overwhelmed the world of man. Science, properly framed, is a Sign from Allah. It reinforces faith. History, properly studied, is a Sign from Allah. It reinforces faith. Sociology, properly framed is a Sign from Allah. It reinforces faith.
The industry that thrives on Islamophobia has taken advantage of the ignorance of Muslims. Focusing on the criminal laws that are practiced without mercy in some Muslim countries, it seeks to paint the Shariah as a set of draconian laws that will destroy civilization. Do they not know the difference between Shariah and fiqh? Do they know that while Shariah is the all embracing Law of the heavens, fiqh is the interpretation of the law in space and time? Are they not aware that there are different schools of fiqh, which disagree among themselves not just in their application but in the principles that govern them and the sources they draw upon?
These are testing times. These are times when Muslim must make friends with the Qur’an. These are times when they must learn what Shariah is and what it is not. Shariah is the eternal, unchanging Law of Allah, captured in its essence in the shahada, La ilaha il Allah, Muhammed rasool Allah. It applies to nature and history, to the heart, the mind, the soul and the intellect. Yes, it applies to the angels and the jinns, the heavens and the earth, to the very Throne and the Pen. Nothing, but nothing is beyond the command of our Rabb, the glorified, the majestic, the sublime, the source of beauty, authority and power, Who exercises that power with Grace, Compassion, Mercy and Love.
Fiqh is the application of the Shariah to the world of man. As such it is subject to the dynamism of space and time. Ijtihad is the rigorous, intellectual process of deriving a legal ruling from the principles of the Shariah. A mujtahid is one who is qualified both in the inner and outer aspects of faith, and is engaged in that vigorous, intellectual exercise. Thus our great mujtahideen, Imam Abu Haneefa, Imam Malik, Imam Shafii, Imam Hanbali, Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq expounded on the principles of fiqh which in time became codified in the schools of jurisprudence named after them. Ijtihad can also be exercised by a collective body as by an elected parliament.
Ijtihad, is a dynamic process which is influenced by time and space. Muslims in America, and in countries where they are a small minority, must engage in this dynamic process.
That said, what is the guidance of the Shariah about Islamic life in America? Indeed, in a global sense, what is the guidance of the Shariah for an Islamic life wherever Muslims live as a small minority? Fully a third of the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today live as minorities in China, Russia, India, the Philippines, Europe, parts of Afria and the Americas. The alternatives we offer must be general but flexible, adaptable to specific societies. The Qur’an offers us the guidance in this matter.
The central message of the Qur’an is Tawhid. It is the axis, the central pole, the compelling gravity of its message, supported by divine Signs and evidence from nature, history and the soul of man. Tawhid is not just the Unity of God. It pervades every single aspect of creation and affirms its interconnectivity through Divine Grace. It is the basis of worship and service, of science and history, of art and architecture. It lays the foundation of a personal and interpersonal moral code. Certainty of faith in Tawhid is the core of Islam.
Faith is the moving principle of a civilization. Where there is no faith, a civilization must perish. That is the Law of the heavens. That is the first principle of the Shariah. Faith is the ocean from which a civilization draws upon to renew itself.
We recite the Shahada to renew our faith. We pray to renew our faith. We fast to renew our faith. We give charity to renew our faith. We perform the hajj to renew your faith.
So many of our scholars in the past have made the error of projecting ijtihad as the moving principle of civilization. Ijtihad is only a process. It is faith that is the moving principle of civilization. It is faith that provides the boundless energy from which a people can draw upon and renew themselves in the face of perpetual challenge and chisel out their tryst with destiny.
The Quran affirms: “Verily, Allah commands Adl and Ehsan.” Another way of stating this is to say that Shariah commands justice and good deeds.
Justice is the mutual support that sustains the universe. It is the dynamic balance that holds aloft stars, planets and galaxies, atoms, electrons, protons and strings. Man is a part of this cosmos, a fact that he so often forgets, arrogating to himself the posture of subject, separate from an objective world.
Justice is also the force that holds a civilization together. When a civilization violates justice, it destroys itself. This is as true of individuals, communities and nations as it is of civilizations. Justice is Truth, al Haqq. It is a name of Allah. It is the second principle of the Shariah.
Muslims must join hands with other people in the land to establish a just society, a just social order, and a just world.
The third principle of Shariah is Ehsan. It is a comprehensive Quranic term that is impossible to translate. It connotes mutuality and good deeds. When asked to explain the meaning of Ehsan, the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) said: “It is to worship Allah as if you see Him (with your heart), and if you cannot see Him, know that He sees you”. The word for worship is the same the word for service. Thus, Ehsan means purity of heart, service to God’s creation and devout worship.
The Qur’an asserts the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, time and again. It enjoins upon the believers to engage in good deeds, beautiful deeds, noble deeds, righteous action. Muslims must do good with their families, their friends, their parents, their children, their relatives, their neighbors, their communities, their countries and the world at large.
Allah commands adl and Ehsan, justice and good deeds. So, do not be drawn into facile arguments about the Shariah. When confronted with Islamophobic arguments that Muslims seek to import the Shariah law, affirm that we follow the law of the land, the laws of the United States of America, and that we contribute to life in America on the basis of faith, justice and good deeds, iman, adl and ehsan, These are the pillars of an Islamic life, iman, adl, ehsan, faith, justice, righteous action, applicable in America as they are in Europe, the Philippines, India, China, Russia, South Africa, indeed wherever Muslims live as a peaceful , peace loving, dynamic and contributing community.