Dialogue with Honor
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
(Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is the Director of the American Institute of Islamic History and Culture, located at 1160 Ridgemont Place, Concord, CA 94521. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed is a thinker, author, writer, legislator and an academician. Professionally he is an Engineer and holds several Patents in Engineering. He is the author of several books; prominent among them is "Islam in Global History." He can be reached by E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org )
This article is on dialogue between civilizations. And the summary of the article is that Islam is a religion of dialogue and the basis of such a dialogue is the sublime idea of Ehsan.
A great religion offers solutions to the issues confronting humankind in all places and at all times. Today, the talk of a clash of civilizations is in the air. Not a day goes by when someone in the media portrays Islam as an extremist religion or worse. Publishers spin out books claiming to show that Western civilization is under attack by radical Islam. Whether you are in Cairo or Chicago, if your name is Ahmed or Muhammed, you may face additional scrutiny. Not even the name of Allah and the person of the Prophet are spared. Prayer, that most sacrosanct of the bonds between man and God, is shown juxtaposed with acts of violence. It is not enough to dismiss all this as propaganda, or self-serving rhetoric that caters to special interests. The times demand answers.
One may ask: what insights do the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the prophet offer on this issue?
Are there lessons from Islamic history that we can benefit from?
The Qur’an teaches us: Indeed, Allah commands you Adl and Ehsan. This Ayat lays the basis of dialogue across civilizations as justice and Ehsan.
Islam is a religion of dialogue, of negotiation and mutual cooperation, so that humankind may attain its divinely ordained potential for ethical, spiritual and material well-being. It is not a religion of confrontation and conflict.
The Sunnah of the Prophet supports this view of deen ul Islam. When a delegation of Christians from Najran visited the Prophet in Madina, he invited them to stay in Masjid un Nabawi, served them with his own hands and invited them to pray with him. The Qur’an invites all Ahl al Kitab, people of the Book, Christians, Jews and the Sabians to pull together in divine service.
The question is: What is the basis of this dialogue across civilizations? Lacking clear direction, some Muslims form coalitions of convenience based on political, social, ethnic, national, racial and regional affinities. Such coalitions endure only as long as the convenience lasts and they quickly dissipate.
Muslims faced these same issues early in the first century after Hijra. Based on the context of the times, the jurists of the day divided the world into Darul Islam and Darul Harab. Such a compartmentalized vision of the globe, even though it emphasized the otherness of the Islamic community at the expense of togetherness, served the Muslims well for five hundred years, that is, until the advent of Chengiz Khan and the Mongols. Communications in the medieval world were poor. Civilizations were isolated in well-defined geographical boundaries and the prides and prejudices of people in one civilization had at worst a marginal impact on their daily lives.
In the thirteenth century, the devastations of the Mongols shattered this worldview. Vast areas of the Islamic world came under the sway of an alien civilization. Unable to stop the Mongols by force of arms, the Muslims fell back on their spiritual roots.
Civilizations are tested by fire just as individuals are. Civilizations that endure are the ones that grow with every test, drawing strength from adversity, reinventing themselves even as old paradigms are shattered and new ones are created.
The Mongol period was also one of the most creative in spirituality. Even amidst the devastations of the age, it produced spiritual and intellectual giants who articulated new modes for civilizational dialogue. It was at the height of Mongol onslaught, in the year 1273, twenty-one years after the fall of Baghdad to Hulagu Khan, that the great scholar Nasiruddin al Tusi of Persia wrote his treatise Akhlaq e Nasiri. This book, so little known today, laid the basis for dialogue with honor between Muslims and non-Muslims. Centuries later, it provided the basis for the magnificent Mogul Empire in India and Pakistan. It was this civilization that produced the great Jami Masjid of Delhi, the Badshahi mosque of Lahore and the Taj Mahal of Agra. Was it extremism that produced these magnificent monuments? No, it was love that gave birth to them. They were products of age of tasawwuf, which was dominated by the likes of Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi and Shaikh Salim Chishti. Great architecture does not spring from the mind; it is a reflection of the heart of a civilization
In the latter part of the seventeenth century, because of internal political developments, the world of Islam moved back from taqwa to fatwa, from a dialogue across civilizations based on Akhlaq, Adl and Ehsan to a dialogue based on rules and regulations. Conflicts ensued between Muslim and Christian, and Muslim and Hindu that continue to this day.
There is a large and growing Muslim minority in America. Asked to define an interface between Islam and other civilizations, our thinkers bypass the issue. They reply that obeying the laws of the country is sufficient for an Islamic life. Such an answer lacks depth. The issue of dialogue between civilizations is not even considered.
Even a cursory survey of Islamic history shows that the only successful basis for dialogue among civilizations that also maintains the dignity and honor of all sides is Adl and Ehsan. Adl, meaning justice is the external aspect of interaction. The inner aspect is Ehsan. And what is Ehsan? It is a station of the heart. Asked to define Ehsan, the Prophet said: “Ehsan is to worship (and serve) Allah as if you see Him, and if you do not see Him, know that He sees you”. The mystic terminology of “seeing” God, has been developed and polished by the great Sufi Shaykhs and occupies a very high station on the road to Shahada, la ilaha il Allah. It follows taqwa (Allah-consciousness), Muhibba (love of humankind) and wadda (love of God). Thus Ehsan is to show compassion, to honor and love humankind irrespective of color, creed or station in life. This is the basis of Akhlaq, which means good, wholesome and noble character.
Ehsan is derived from the Names of Allah, “Asma ul Husna”. It begins with the consciousness of the presence of Allah, who is rabbul Alameen, the Creator and Sustainer of all the worlds. One can then witness that Allah created all humankind from a single soul, a recognition that is celebrated on the plains of Arafat on Youmul Hajj where gather all the children of Adam, from nations far and wide, in supplication before the Almighty, one nation under God. It is cemented by love towards fellow man as when the Prophet extolled the believers to wish for his neighbor that which one wished, for himself. It means beauty as the beauty of Prophet Yusuf as effulges from the self. It is compassion towards fellow man and nobility of action. It means charity and good neighborliness. It means forgiveness and broadmindedness. In economics it means just trade not involving riba. It is a kind word, a helping hand, and a gift of love. It means excellence of character. It is a station of the heart, a beautiful dhikr, a reflection of the aswa e husna of the Prophet Muhammed (SAS), which was the basis of his interaction with other civilizations.
In America today, there are between three and six million Muslims. But this is still a miniscule minority in a land of 250 million. Globally, there are 1.3 billion Muslims. But they constitute only one sixth of humankind. There are other major religious groups in the world: Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Parsi, Jain, Sikh, Confucian, Shinto and others. And the largest group of them all, embracing almost half of humanity, is secular for whom religion is at best of marginal interest. But there are among the secularists men and women of goodwill, sometimes perhaps more so than among the self-professed religious groups. The great challenge of the twenty-first century is to define the interfaces between the civilizations of man.
There are those who initiate dialogue on the basis of political convenience. Bridges built on the basis of convenience do not endure. Only the bonds that are built on the divine idea of Ehsan do. The guidance from the Qur’an is to build bridges between civilizations based on Adl and Ehsan, applying justice tempered with compassion, reinforced with broad mindedness, selfless service and good neighborliness.
So, in these trying times it behooves the Muslims to practice sabr, to remember Allah, to persevere for justice within a framework of Ehsan.
In the all too jagged world of today there are legitimate political, social, and economic issues. There are issues of poverty, education, environment, trade and globalization. But these issues transcend civilizations. They are not specific to the Islamic world. They need to be tackled in the spirit of Adl and Ehsan between civilizations, not on the basis of confrontation and chaos.
Those who claim that there is a clash between Islam and the West have their own agenda. And on this side of the fence, Muslims must avoid covering up and masquerading political, social, economic and personal issues in the guise of religion. Or else, Islam will end up as a religion hijacked, as has happened to so many religions in the past, which made them veer from the path of Allah and Allah made those religions irrelevant.
The twenty-first century is a century of opportunity for people of faith. For the world of Islam, it is an opportunity to evolve enduring bonds of mutual trust across civilizations based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet. InshAllah, it is not going to be a century of clash between civilizations. It is going to be a century of dialogue and cooperation. To young Muslim men and women we say: There are those who wish to put you and your religion in the dock. Do not make yourself a target. Demonstrate to the world that we are a people of the heart. We are a people of Akhlaq. We are a people of honor. We are a people of love. We are people of Adl and Ehsan.
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