As we sat together in the back of Al-Azhar, the heat of the sun was apparent more than its light. The air was thick; a fusion of Cairo’s pollution, dust and its famous humidity. Like birds on a scarecrow, we sat motionless under the shadow of an ancient Ottoman pillar as the Sheikh’s face and words proved more than sufficient to illuminate our dark circle: “Sheikh Ahmed Derder was the Sheikh of the Malikis (a school of legal thought in Islam) in his day. He used to teach in the back of the mosque.
One day the Sheikh was taking his lunch and he noticed a cat sliding through the wall of students. Suddenly one of the students hit the cat and pushed it aside. The Sheikh stood and scolded the student reminding him that this poor creature should be treated with dignity. At that moment the Sheikh began to crumble his food and serve the cat. From that day onward the cat would come to the Sheikh at lunchtime and purr his way into the Sheikh’s heart. And every time the Sheikh would serve the cat as a servant serves his master. A short time later another cat came, until, after a few weeks, whenever the sheikh would enter the masjid, there were no less than a hundred cats following him, and he would do his best to serve them whatever he had.” As we listened to this story our hearts flew as birds over high mountains. Then, suddenly, the Sheikh paused, looked at us and said, “Here is one of our greatest legal scholars, a saint and teacher. Look at how he treated a cat! And today, people are killing innocent human beings in the name of Islam!” Sadness overcame the Sheikh and he paused and suddenly, although in front of us, it was though he had traveled a 1000 miles away from our small circle.
“Did you hear what happened in London today?” At that moment I began to recognize an evil voice. It was the echo of a voice that visits me on certain occasions. It is dark and haunting, but it comes and overpowers me until I’m forced to bow before its reality. “No,” I responded. I’d just returned from the Sheikh and my heart was still flying and had not heard any news on the streets. “There were five explosions! Many people are dead and they’re saying it was us!” Yes … it was that voice. I ran home and quickly checked the BBC. As I read the reports of carnage and bloodshed, I began to reflect on the words of the Sheikh and found my heart jumping and legs shaking.
I felt compelled to help explain the relationship and rights that our fellow non-Muslim brothers and sisters share with us. It is my hope that the Muslim communities in the West will mature and move towards a more inclusive role with their fellow countrymen. And that our non-Muslim brothers and sisters will learn to distinguish between orthodoxy, which possesses a great history of compassion and mercy, and the actions of those, who out of religious zeal, have rocketed past the tradition, values and moral teachings of Islam.
Prior to, but particularly after, 9/11 a large number of Muslims repeated, “The West needs to learn about Islam.” Indeed, as a citizen of the West, I couldn’t agree more! However, the Qur’anic model for building relationships does not encourage one to sit and listen while others sermonize. The basis for this understanding is found in the following verse: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other” (Sura Al-Hujurat, verse 13). The word “to know each other” in Arabic represents an action that involves two parties. Thus, the “knowing” here is not merely a one-way street, but involves active participation by both parties. Instead of saying that the West needs to know about Islam, we should say, “We need to learn about each other.” Based on this principle Western Muslims should take the time to learn and benefit from their fellow brothers and sisters. It is sad to see a large number of our community completely out of touch with the trends, history and situations that exist within their countries of origin.
Building relationships with one’s fellow countrymen is an excellent way to start. The Prophet (may the Peace and Mercy of God be upon him) was given the ability to speak multiple dialects of Arabic by God. In fact, the Prophet said, “I’m the most eloquent of those who speak Arabic.” In addition, the Prophet (may God’s blessings and mercy be upon him) was aware of the events and happenings that surrounded him. Once K’ab bin Malik came to the Prophet. This was prior to K’ab’s acceptance of Islam. K’ab was known as a great poet. When he met the Prophet (May God’s blessings and Mercy be Upon him), the Prophet asked him his name. He responded, “K’ab bin Malik.” The Prophet (may God’s blessings and mercy be upon him) looked at him with a warm smile and said, “The poet!” K’ab stated later after his conversion to Islam, “That was the most beloved day of my life.” Thus, it is crucial that we take the time to learn and understand our environments so we can play an active role in benefiting it.
It is common to see the word “infidel” used by many non- Muslims when quoting Muslims. Although a misunderstanding of the actual word, there are still a group of Muslims who insist on using the word for non-Muslims and, in some extreme cases, Muslims themselves. Our discussion here is not based on a mistranslation of the word, but its usage.
If we look towards the Qur’anic model we find that non- Muslims are usually addressed with words which are more polite and respectable. For this reason Dr. Yusuf Qaradawi states:
The Qur’an teaches us not to address others with the term, “Rejecter of faith” even if it is true. Instead it teaches us to used terms such as, “Oh Mankind” (Sura Al-Baqara verse 21), “Oh Son’s of Adam’ (Sura Al-Araf, verse 31), “Oh People of the Book” (Sura Ali Imran Verse 71), and “Oh My (God’s) servants” (Sura Al-Zumar, verse 53). In fact, you will not find the term ‘Rejecter of faith’ used as a direct address to anyone except twice in the Qur’an. One used for those who rejected faith in the Hereafter. The second was addressed to those people who tried to kill the Prophet (may God bless him and give him peace) and his companions and expel them from their homes. (Sh. Qaradawi, “Our Address during the Age of Globalization”, p.44)
Thus, the norm for the Muslim is to address his fellows with terms that are honorable and respectable. The Qur’an states, “Say to My servants to speak speech which is excellent” (Sura Israh, verse 53). By replacing the word “Rejecter of faith,” with “non-Muslim”, we can look at our fellow friends and countrymen with a merciful eye. Such a feeling is extremely important if we want to better understand and grow together.
Another important and often neglected Qur’anic teaching is that of brotherhood between men. A common misunderstanding amongst Muslims is that they share a brotherhood which prohibits fraternal relations with others outside of their faith. This is based upon the following verse, “Indeed, the believers are only brothers.” (Sura Al-Hujurat, verse 10) However, is that truly the case? It is well-known that Muslims believe in most of the Prophets mentioned in the Bible. If we take a close look at the Prophetic models found in the Qur’an, we’ll find a clearer understanding of this concept of brotherhood. God, Most High, says, “The people of Noah rejected the Messengers. When their brother Noah said to them, ‘Won’t you be dutiful to your Lord?’” (Sura Shura, verses 105-106) In the story of Lot we find, “The people of Lot rejected the Messengers. When their brother Lot said to them, ‘Won’t you be dutiful to your Lord?’” (Sura Shura, verses 131-132) Notice how in both verses the people of Noah and Lot are described as “rejecters of faith”. However, the Qur’anic address emphasizes, even under such conditions, the brotherhood and fraternal bond that exists between them. Thus, the Qur’anic picture of brotherhood is quite vast and encompasses different types. From the brotherhood of faith shared as a special relation with one’s fellow Muslim, to a more global inclusive brotherhood which is shared amongst one’s fellows. If Western Muslims adopt such an outlook they will find it easier to work with others, build solid relationship and make important positive contributions to their societies.
The Prophetic model of relations is a blessing we can ill afford to dismiss. At a time when the voice of Islam is drowned out by flaring unorthodoxy, it is my hope that Western Muslim communities and their fellow non-Muslim counterparts will take the time to get to know each other, build long-lasting relationships and synthesize the positive aspects of each other’s religious and cultural heritage.
If my essence is from dust, then dust (wherever it is)
is my homeland
And every creature upon the heavens and the earth
represents a close relative.
— AN ARAB POEM