March 06, 2008

The Axis of Good: Muslims Building Alliances with Other Communities of Faith

by Ingrid Mattson

Ingrid Mattson speaks at the annual conference of the Islamic Society of North America.

The St. Lawrence River is 1,900 miles long. Its wide mouth empties its flow into the Atlantic Ocean where buoyant whales and majestic icebergs drift throughout the summer months. The river begins more modestly where the northern and southern shores of Lake Ontario curve in towards each other, channeling the cold waters of the Great Lakes into the riverbed. We were born on the Canadian side of the river, but the island on which we lived was closer to New York State. This area is now called the "Thousand Islands," but before there was a Canada, and before there was an America, the indigenous people called it "The Garden of the Great Spirit." My brothers and sisters and I grew up in jannah. Well, it really was beautiful. But we were, after all, children of Adam. And as the angels feared, we would make a mess of many things. To begin with, there was the question of those indigenous people. As children, we spent long July afternoons on the edge of the forest digging for their arrowheads, flints and pottery shards. But where had the people gone? No one thought much to talk about our own Cain and Abel story. Then there was the question of what we did to the river itself. Flowing over deep layers of limestone, refreshed with generous rain and snow every year, the river seemed impervious to anything we might throw its way. And we did throw many things its way. In fact, lacking refuse collection services on the island, it seemed easiest to let the current "take it away." I don't know where all our tin cans and plastic wrappers ended up, but we deliberately sunk the old car nearby in the bay to create a good fishing hole. Little wonder that our children now catch only a few small perch and a rare undersized bass in a day. As hard as it is to believe, the truth is that we did not realize that we were damaging the river, killing plant and animal life, and poisoning others and ourselves. But as years passed, and our exposure to information about the environment increased, we became appalled at our previous behavior. We had, after all, been taught that it is wrong to damage property and harm others. We had internalized the principles, we simply were not aware of the negative consequences of our actions. And so, as opportunities arose, some of us planted trees, others cleaned up polluted sites, gave money to save the rain forest and took up organic gardening. By this time, we had scattered across the country, and even the world, and we took these actions in the midst of our new communities. But the river — our river — always called us back. We wanted to be there and make it better, but that would mean living and working together for at least part of the year. This would not be easy. After all, the years had witnessed other changes in us. By the time we had become aware of our need to relate to the river in a new way, we had taken different spiritual paths. Certainly the Muslim in the family found ample proof in Islam that she had an obligation to conserve and respect the environment. The Christians, Jews and secular humanists found their own proofs for similar, if not identical obligations. But there were many other things we did not agree about. In fact, at times there were some serious disagreements and tension. This is my story. It is also the human story. Muslims believe that the children of Adam do not inherit sin from their ancestors. But we do inherit the good that our ancestors have bequeathed to us, and we are burdened with repairing what they have damaged. In our time, in every place that Muslims live, whether the Muslims are the majority or the minority, there are serious societal problems that need to be addressed. The environment needs to be restored, indigenous and other minority groups need to be relieved of the burden of years of systematic injustice, children and the poor need daily support and meaningful opportunities for advancement. The Prophet Muhammad, may God's peace and blessings be upon him, told his Companions that "There will come a time when the best property of a Muslim will be the sheep he takes to the mountain peaks and watered lands, fleeing with his religion from tribulation." But such a flight is a last resort, to be taken only when it is impossible to hold onto one's faith while remaining in society. Over the centuries, Muslims have lived through times when this was the only option. But sooner or later, they came back down the mountains and started the hard work of living and rebuilding together. The question now for our community is, when are we obliged to worked with non-Muslims to build a better society, and when are we obliged to limit our work to whatever we can accomplish on our own? Clearly, there is no simple answer to these questions — despite the claims of those who confuse isolation with piety or those who confuse every ease with goodness. Not every alliance between Muslims and non-Muslims is bad, nor is every alliance good. In trying to distinguish the good from the bad, we need, as in all normative deliberations, both accurate facts and a sound methodology for applying the most appropriate rules to those facts. Let us begin with the rules. Over the centuries, Muslim scholars developed a number of useful models for organizing and prioritizing needs and responsibilities. One of these models designates the five interests that Islamic law aims to protect: religion, life, property, intellect and family. Within each category, interests are prioritized according to degree of necessity (i.e., essential, important, desirable, etc). So, for example, it is desirable to sit quietly and read some Qur'an every day, but it is essential to pray the five ritual prayers at the designated times. In the interest of protecting religion, we cannot neglect something that is essential for something that is merely desirable. Similarly, it is desirable to regularly engage in intelligent conversation, but it is essential to preserve reverence for God. Thus, it is not permitted for a Muslim to maintain a close friendship with a highly intelligent person who engages him or her in stimulating conversation, if that person continuously derides the sacred (Qur'an 5:57-58). Indeed, since preserving faith is the highest priority, it is important that Muslims avoid demoralizing dependence on other faith communities for their protection and material needs. Getting the facts straight, as I have mentioned, is also essential for deciding if a particular action is praiseworthy or to be avoided. Consider, for example, participation in rallies or demonstrations. In some cases, the organizers of such rallies have a very different message than the participants. The organizers may be promoting a completely anti-state (or anarchist) message, while some participants intend to protest only a particular unjust policy of the state. Muslims need to ensure that they are not simply swelling the ranks of groups whose message they essentially do not support. But if it is injustice that is truly being protested, or justice that is being promoted, how do Muslims weigh the merit of their participation in alliances and coalitions with others? Here, the Islamic legal distinction between a personal obligation (fard 'ayn) and a collective obligation (fard kifayah) is useful. In the classical tradition, this distinction was applied to obligations within the Muslim community. Each Muslim, for example, is personally obliged to feed, shelter and protect his or her own offspring and needy adult relatives. It is the responsibility of the whole community, however, to ensure that foundlings, orphans and poor children are also cherished and nourished. Normally the state bears ultimate responsibility for this obligation, but in the absence of a well-functioning state, the Muslim community is not relieved of its obligation. If the Muslim community does not work to develop social structures and institutions to care for needy children within its midst, all members of the community will bear the burden of sinful neglect. Many Muslim communities in America have recognized this responsibility, and have established soup kitchens and community welfare programs. But even if every mosque in America operated a full range of social service programs, the effect on society at large would be minimal. Similarly, even if every mosque in America were a model of energy conservation, American cities would still be filled with thousands of children suffering from debilitating asthma because of air pollution. Unless Muslims bring their beliefs about distributive justice, environmental stewardship and other good causes to the public sphere, our activities will remain marginal. In the age of globalization and transnationalism, we need to recognize the imperative of extending the notion of communal obligation beyond the Muslim community. Our most natural allies in shaping public policy are those who share many of our core beliefs and values, as long as they are respectful of our faith and practices. Clearly there are groups among American Christians and Jews who are so hostile to Muslims that we should not join with them even in shared concerns, lest we lend any credibility to their organizations. There are many other groups within those communities, however, who are eager to work respectfully with Muslims to further just causes. Only an ignorant person would believe that Muslims have a monopoly on caring for justice. The Prophet Muhammad even praised the pre-Islamic Arab polytheists for having furthered the cause of justice in the "Pact of Fudul." Justice has been the cause of all God's prophets and God has placed love of justice in the hearts of His servants. Those who are "upright," those who "stand up for justice" (Qur'an 57:25), form an axis of goodness about which communities of faith can and must come together. There is no road back to paradise, except the one we build with God's grace and then our good deeds in this life. In His infinite Wisdom and Mercy, God has placed us in a time and a place in which Muslims, Christians, Jews and others find that our essential interests are inevitably intertwined. We can choose to ignore each other, and so limit our ability to lay a path of good deeds, or we can unite when needed around an axis of goodness and justice.

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is professor of Islamic Studies and the president of the Islamic Society of North America.

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