New to Islam?
By M H Faruqi
Islam's message is plain and profound. It starts as a seed and blossoms into a garden. Seven years after Muhammad had been charged with the duty to convey the message, the Makkans banished and confined him and and his kith and kin of the Banu Hashim clan to the Valley of Abi Talib. The message had been spreading, despite all opposition and oppression, and, therefore, the oligarchs of Makkah had decided on a policy of boycott and isolation. It was assumed that while the people outside would hear no more of Islam, those under siege would recant. In any case, they hoped, the message would die a natural death.
There cannot be a Kind and Just God Who creates a whole humanity and a complex environment around it, but does not provide it with rules and guidance and leaves it in a state of total anarchy.
The besieged had to subsist by eating leaves and roots of desert plants or boiled or roasted hide. The wail of hungry infants could be heard outside the Valley, but the sanction-keepers were unmoved. The blockade lasted around three years. However, if anyone happened to stray by, Muhammad would say to him, 'Qul La Ilaha, tuflahu!' - Say there is no deity (but Allah, and) prosper! These were four few words, but their meaning was clear and complete.
The success and prosperity, Muhammad was inviting them to were not so visible but seemed implicit and inevitable. The Arabs were by now so well familiar with the Kalima, the basic statement of Islam, that the listener had no difficulty in relating the two words La Ilaha to its complete form - There is no deity but Allah, Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah!
There cannot be a Kind and Just God Who creates a whole humanity and a complex environment around it, but does not provide it with rules and guidance and leaves it in a state of total anarchy. The belief about God and messengership has, therefore, always gone together. The first man on this planet, Adam, was a vicegerent and messenger of God. So were Noah, Abraham, David, Solomon, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and thousands of others whom we do not know of today, alayhimu salam. They all spoke of One God.
How Do we Know God?
First there is subjective evidence within ourselves. Since we all come from God, there is within all of us a fine sense of awareness that there is God. There is more evidence outside. You try a 'null hypothesis', that there is no God, and you can't think of a perfectly designed and perfectly ordered Universe and everything contained therein without everything made according to a plan, behaving according to an integrated system of rules and laws, all without a Master and Creator. It would be absurd to conceptualise anything otherwise.
But if there is God, and there surely is God, then what does He mean to us? Just Someone merely out there somewhere without any continuing relationship between Creator and the created? It is easy to be aware of God, but you cannot determine simply on the basis of your subjective cognition of what that relationship requires of you. Hence all that long line of messengers from God, from the first one, Adam, to the last one, Muhammad . Otherwise we would have no certain means of knowing God and knowing what He wants of us.
The Qur'an tells us that God is Kind and Beneficent, Just and Merciful, Lord and Provider, Sovereign and Law-Giver, Wise and True. He is Original. He is Eternal. He does not retire or sleep. He has no partners or kin. He is All-Knowing and All-Seeing. No one can escape His reckoning and He will punish or reward each one according to his deeds. His justice is blended with mercy. His mercy is blended with justice.
Every child that is born, is born a Muslim, with a clean slate. It is not condemned at birth. Muslim means one who submits, submits to God, of his own volition. The test, therefore, lies in the future, when the child has grown up and has the ability to act any way he or she likes, to obey or not to obey. God does not impose Himself. People are free to believe or not to believe. And many do not. They invent their own deities and worship their own desires. Naturally there are consequences to both belief and unbelief. No system of law or discipline treats those who abide by the law and those who do not in the same manner. It cannot be otherwise.
There is, therefore, the Akhirah, the Hereafter. Nothing is as sure as death, and it is only logical that people are judged at the end of the Day and rewarded or punished accordingly. The best reward is the Pleasure of Allah and the worst punishment is His Displeasure. But Humans are also very much bone and flesh. The rewards and punishment are, therefore, tangible too: Heaven and Hell.
It is a long journey from Here to the Hereafter. You have to have your bearings right, the right sense of destination, the right navigational equipment, and an inbuilt system of correcting the course and raising an alarm, in case one begins to go dangerously astray. You need to have your limits (Hudood) defined which you may transgress only at your peril, because otherwise you may be endangering the whole society. You need a very powerful social vehicle to carry you through a long, arduous and not unoften hazardous journey.
A powerful vehicle needs a very powerful brake too.
Islam offers the ability to relate directly, without any intermediary, to God ...
Islam is, therefore, not just maxims and precepts, about being nice and good; it is also about social and personal discipline, a system of law and punishment without which maxims and precepts could become meaningless outside a small and limited area of individual morality.
But an Islamic society is not governed by laws alone. Just as the lock on the door is fixed only for the thief or someone who may otherwise feel encouraged to steal, laws in Islam are directed at the wicked fringe, or the weaker ones who may feel tempted to break the law and once having done so with impunity, may find it difficult to get out of the vicious circle. The aim is to keep the wicked fringe as much narrowed down as possible, to punish the actual guilty, deter the potential breakers of law, and protect society and its economic, social and moral fibre.
One knows what happens otherwise: a geometric progression of crime, which neither the courts and nor the prisons are able to cope with. We also need to reckon the sheer economic cost of laissez faire morality!
The contemporary focus on the Islamic state, by Muslims who want to regain their lost freedom and by those who are somehow afraid of Islamic state and Islamic Shari'ah, tends to convey a fallacious impression of a polity that is saddled with a plethora of laws. It is not true. The number of laws that would govern an Islamic state are very very few as compared to those hundreds and thousands we find otherwise. It would be an instructive exercise if someone was to count the number of Islamic laws that used to govern the former Ottoman caliphate and compare them, for example, with the number of laws on the statute book of the then British Empire.
Islamic laws are based on conscience and conviction and not on legislation and imposition and there is little scope for conflict between the interest of the individual and the state. No one is above the law and everyone is governed by the same law.
The Islamic society is a self-regulating society. You don't have to abide by a law because someone is watching and you don't mind breaking it if you feel you can do so with impunity. An individual is answerable in his own cognition. Whether under watch or not, the person knows for sure that he or she is answerable before God. There is no way one can escape His notice, His Pleasure or Displeasure.
Yet one is human. A person may forget or relax. A Muslim, therefore, takes time off from the necessary routines of life to bow his or her head in prayer before God, five times in a day. These prayers are as much a continuous reminder of one's close relationship with God, with His Grace and His Mercies as with the sense of inescapable accountability before Him. It is also an act of thankfulness.
Worship in Islam - praying five times a day, fasting in the month of Ramadan, giving one-fortieth of your wealth every year in Zakah, Hajj once in a lifetime, if you can afford it - are all meant to keep fresh and active one's consciousness of God. The implications of this consciousness are as much personal as social.
The ability to relate directly, without any intermediary, to God while in prayer, the joys of month-long hunger, the life-long sacrifice of a part of one's wealth every year, and the physical hardships, monetary costs and emotional discipline involved in Hajj, bring both personal fulfilment and social enrichment. You come to know the taste of hunger. You find you become richer by giving. And how pleasant it is to discover that no matter the color of your skin, the land of your birth, rich or poor, you are an equal member of the human fraternity. This equality does not diminish, it elevates you.
Islam also has its own economic "equation." Giving Zakah adds to prosperity, taking interest makes everyone poor. By banning interest absolutely, Islam denies money any right to grow by itself and puts a true premium on labour and production. It is intriguing that during all this past century or so characterised by talks of socialism, whether democratic, Marxist or Christian, of all the rhetoric against capitalism and monopoly, no one has cared to bother about the worst of all monopolies: the wealth of the nations entrusted to banks for growth and safe-keeping.
How can a piece of metal or paper grow by itself except by taking someone else's money, by siphoning into the wealth produced by others, by manipulating the market, by offering - other people's capital - to borrowers of their choice irrespective of its wider social implications, by imposing its control of money over the needs of others, and by creating false money simply by giving borrowers the right to draw money which in most cases meant no more than a paper transaction between the various branches of the lending bank or banks? The monetary system allows a few dozen money holders to do all this and leaves us to complain about an uncontrollable spiral of inflation. Governments may come and go, inflation goes on.
The Qur'an calls taking or giving interest as tantamount to war against God and His Messenger . However, it is doubtful if such an economic law would appeal to anyone who thinks of God as Someone of even less authority and interest in the affairs of His subjects than a constitutional monarch, and who does not think that God is All-Knowing and All-Wise, Just and Merciful, Sovereign and Law-Giver.
Islam also sets a real challenge by providing us with an enemy, a real one, so that one doesn't have to create or invent one. The enemy is Satan! It has no powers over humans, but it has been given the ability and freedom to confuse and to seduce. The humans too have their freedom to succumb or to spurn. A real drama requires a real villain, and you cannot prove your love without being able to reject the seductions of the villain.
Islam invites us all to face our common and real foe, the foe that cannot be wished away. All our future depends on how we deal with the real enemy.
M H Faruqi is editor of the Muslim newsmagazine, Impact Internation, London. This article appears in the November 2001 issue of Impact International, London.