When General Colin Powell, an African-American of rather humble origins, was appointed as the Joint Chief of Staff of U.S. military, the appointing president rejoiced by stating that such rise of a minority was possible “only in America.” Gen. Powell’s selection was no small feat by any standard. Also, despite the past history of slavery in America and suffering of so many people, it shows pluralistic strength and dynamism for the society to move ahead. However, “only in America”? Is the example of Gen. Powell unique?
Long before this American experiment and experience, leveling many an artificial bases for discriminating against people, came the final prophet and messenger of Islam – in succession, according to Islam, to Abraham, Moses, Jesus and so on – with a clarion call for the humanity to advance on the path of equality. Despite the subsequent historical experience, Islam has been categorical in its pristine principle of egalitarianism and set critical milestones in that direction.
During his Farewell pilgrimage, his address carried a decidedly universal tone–one final time. “O PEOPLE, your lives and your property shall be inviolate until you meet your Lord.” It is unfortunate that many Muslims have forgotten this important principle and guidance, even though they are not supposed to be self-centered (i.e., concerned about only the Muslim community); rather they are supposed to have been “created for mankind” [3/Ale Imran/110]
Even though he himself was from Arab background and the initial recipients of his message were the Arabs, once and for all, he demolished the artificial bases for any ethnic or racial pride by proclaiming that the Arabs had no superiority over the non-Arabs, or vice versa. The Qur’an is unequivocal in this regard as it addresses not the Arabs, the Muslims or the believers, but the mankind (an-nas) in the following verse: “O mankind! reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, his mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence God, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for God ever watches over you.” [4/ale Imran/1] Notably, as indicated in this verse, the Qur’an does not subscribe to or endorses such views that the fall of mankind from the heavenly favor was due to women’s evil transgression, as exemplified, according to some, in Hawa (Eve).
Islam also repudiates vulgar forms of nationalism that artificially aggrandize one’s own people over others on no moral basis. Various demarcations of people based on groups, tribes, ethnicities or nationalities are quite alright, as it is natural for the humanity as a social entity. However, that is primarily to know each other in terms of our lineage, not to aggrandize oneself. Islam further reinforces this universality on the basis of not a man (Adam), but a man and a woman (Adam and Eve) and educates us that there is no virtue based on race, color, language, geographical location, wealth, or gender. Islam offers only one criterion for assessing ourselves: Taqwa (God-consciousness that makes people humble, caring and morally upright). “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 (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of God is (he who is) the most righteous of you (atqakum). And God has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). [49/al-Hujurat/13]
After shattering the false and unjust foundation of the hierarchical society of the Arabs by embracing people together under one faith, irrespective of their color, race, gender, language, age, wealth, status, even at his death, the Prophet Muhammad left a remarkable and noble challenge and legacy for those that came after him.
The last military dispatch of the Prophet’s life involved a story relevant to the Colin Powell-type case. For that specific expedition, the Prophet ordered a mobilization of a large army and commanded it to march toward al-Sham (Syria). This mobilization included many elders of that period, the earliest among Muhajirun, such as Abu Bakr and Umar. But to the utter dismay and shock of many, he appointed Usamah ibn Zayd ibn Harithah as their commander. Usamah was a young person, hardly twenty years of age, and more notably, the son of a slave. The hierarchical Arab society that took a great deal of pride in its aristocratic demarcations between the Ashraf (the nobles) and the Atraf (the non-nobles) saw their social structure, culture and environment turned upside down right before their own eyes. Not due to the struggle of the slaves and their progenies and not over centuries, rather within a short span of 23 years of the Prophetic leadership, the principle of human equality took firm root, as exemplified by the case of Usamah. Therefore, in a direction similar to the achievement of Gen. Powell, Islam set important milestones and guidance for the humanity – almost fifteen centuries earlier.
It is a sad reality that the trajectory of egalitarianism to which Islam and the Prophet Mohammad projected the people was undone within a century after his death, as the constitutional, accountable and participatory system under the Khulafa-i-Rashidoon (the rightly guided Caliphs) was subverted by the counter-revolution leading to authoritarian, hereditary dynasties.
Today the contemporary Muslim world has hardly any resemblance with the vision, ideals and principles Islam represents. The prevailing factionalism, parochialism, obscurantism, or nationalism makes it difficult to understand and appreciate Islam, as most people see things from the prism of their own experience.
The pathetic way the poor workers from South Asia are treated in oil rich sheikhdoms vis-à-vis the red carpet worshipping of the westerners exposes this harsh and sad reality. The widespread poverty and deprivation in the Muslim world vis-à-vis concentration of wealth in a few powerful oil-rich hands of the Middle East or privileged wealthy few in other Muslim countries also illustrates the grave deviation from the ideals and principles of Islam. The attitude and treatment African-American Muslims in North America often encounter from the immigrant Muslims are also very disheartening and betray the egalitarian values of Islam. The way women are confined and marginalized in the Muslim world is another sad reality in this context. Treatment of religious minorities remains another major challenge. I should note that this self-critical approach from an Islamic perspective should not be misunderstood as a general or blanket endorsement of the western examples.
With all these contemporary limitations, how in the world is Islam the fastest growing faith, not just anywhere else, but in the very West itself? What attracts people like Malcolm X (an African-American radical), Cat Stevens (a former rock superstar), Wilfried Murad Hoffman (a German social scientist and diplomat), or Yvonne Ridley (a female British journalist with Sunday Express) to Islam? To understand and appreciate this reality one needs to objectively recognize the principle of equality Islam stands for, even though the societies that claim to be its adherents are doing worse than just giving lip service to those ideals and principles. If there are people who in this modern world still turn toward Islam, it is possibly because they can cut through the maze surrounding the decadent Muslim societies and cultures and identify with the ideals, visions and principles of Islam.
When, based on competence, the Prophet Muhammad appoints a twenty year old son of a former slave as the military commander over others, including the elders, such as Abu Bakr and Umar, the discerning people do see the principle of Islam at work. When the Prophet proclaims that everyone is equal before the law by making it categorical that even if his own daughter committed theft (or a crime), she would be meted out the penalty in a non-partisan manner, it set a new milestone for the rule of law.
Once Umar, the second of the rightly guided caliphs, was giving the Jumuah (Friday) sermon, an ordinary person rose and interrupted by saying, O the leader of the believers, I won’t listen to your sermon until you explain how did you come up with your long dress (Arabian robe). Apparently, there was some distribution of fabric to the people and given the measure of distribution and the height of Umar, he could not have made a dress out of his share. So, a vigilant voice of egalitarianism unhesitatingly challenged Umar, the leader of a vast caliphate. Umar’s son stood up, explaining that he gave his share to his father, so that a Umar-size dress could be made. The vigilant voice then expressed his appreciation and sat down, and Umar resumed his sermon.
It is this same Umar whose austere egalitarianism confounded the gatekeeping elders of Jerusalem. When Jerusalem fell to Muslim hands, the elders said that they would come out of the besiegement and would offer the city to the Muslims without further delay or resistance, if Umar himself would come and take charge of this holy city. Umar set out for this long journey with just one attendant and one horse. As unbelievable as it may sound in our over-indulgent and spoiled generations, yet as Taqwa or God-consciousness would dictate, Umar shared the mount with his attendant taking turns all the way to Jerusalem. It just happened that just before reaching Jerusalem, it was the attendant’s turn to ride on the horse, while Umar was pulling the horse. As they reached the gate of the city, the elders came forward to greet Umar, whose greatness they have heard so much. But they all approached the rider on the horse. It was only when the rider apologetically explained that he was not the caliph, but the one pulling the horse, an unparalleled standard of egalitarianism was experienced in human history.
While the decadent Muslim society has shut out the voices of women and marginalized them in the society, Umar as a Caliph was confronted by a woman right inside the mosque about one of the proposals of Umar about limiting Mahr (dowry – from men to women, not the other way around). When the woman charged Umar that he had no right to fix or limit something regarding women’s rights that the Qur’an has not limited, Umar publicly admitted that he was wrong and that the woman was right.
Ali, the fourth of the rightly guided caliphs, once had his armor stolen and he found it with a member of one of the Jewish tribes. Ali confronted him about the armor. However, from the earliest days of Caliphate, Islam separated judiciary from the executive and therefore, even though he was the caliph, his only recourse was to take the accused to the Qadi (judge). In the hearing, it was the words of Ali and his servant, a witness, against the accused. Having no independent witness, the Qadi dismissed the case and Ali was denied the opportunity to get his favorite armor back. There was a serendipitous outcome, however. Seeing the Islamic example, the thief not just returned the armor to the caliph, but also embraced Islam.
Of course, since the counter-revolution under Mu’awiya, the original egalitarian spirit and vision were fundamentally undermined and the slippery slope has brought about conditions where the Muslims are disoriented from within and without. Even in Hajj (pilgrimage) that brings people of various backgrounds from all corners of the world, now there are royal or elitist treatments and privileges for some, while the ordinary people are neglected, exploited or even abused. Professor Louis Marlow argues that while Islam’s initial orientation was markedly egalitarian, the social aspect of this egalitarianism was soon undermined in the aftermath of shifting of political powers in the hands of those who did not take such egalitarianism seriously, and as hierarchical social ideas from older cultures in the Middle East were incorporated into the new polity. [Hierarchy and Egalitarianism in Islamic Thought, Cambridge University Press, 1997]
Despite the deviations, the principle of egalitarianism remains an inalienable part of the vision of Muslims who cherish Islam as a source of guidance for the society. This is not nostalgia for dates, camels, turbans or robes of the seventh century. Rather it is a desire for that pristine principle of egalitarianism to be articulated and integrated in the context of freedom and human dignity in our modern and contemporary time.
Remember the rebel poet, Kazi Nazrul Islam, who proclaimed:
Say: High is my head! …
I the Great Rebel, shall be quiet on that day
When the oppressed people’s wail on the sky and air will not resound
The tyrant’s dreadful sword will not flash on the battle ground
I, the Rebel, tired of battle, shall be quiet on that day.”
Where did he derive his rebellious inspiration from? In the following excerpt, Nazrul addresses the youth of Bengal in the context of the colonial period in British India, but the message, in the universal perspective of Islam, is applicable to all Muslims. In his words: “We have to shed all fear, weakness and cowardice. We have to live demanding the right of justice, not begging for it. We won’t bow our head before anyone – we will mend shoes at street sides, we will live modest life based on our own earnings, but we won’t turn to others for pity or charity. This awakening spirit of freedom and dignity is what I want to see in the Muslim youth …. This is the essence of Islam’s teachings. I invite all to embrace this teaching. In my life I have embraced this very teaching. I have suffered pain, I have embraced all the hurt with smile, but I have never bowed before humiliation of my spirit. I have never surrendered my freedom. “Say O Valiant! Ever high and upright is my head” – I found this song from the realization of that very same message. I want to see the rebirth of that free-spirit. This is the supreme message of Islam – the essence of Islam.” [“Shwadhin-chittotar Jagoron” (The Awakening of the Spirit of Freedom). Nazrul Rochonaboli, 1996 ed., Bangla Academy, Vol. 4, pp. 114-116]
In his poem, Shammyobadi (Egalitarian), in referring to all religions and philosophies, Nazrul made many types of connections. However, when it came to the Prophet Muhammad and the Qur’an, it is noticeable that he uniquely linked the theme of equality to the Qur’an.
“At this altar the desert’s prince
Used to hear the divine call,
From this throne, he also sang
Quran’s message of equality of all.”
Today’s human civilization is inflicted with various forms of racism and prejudice that stand as a fundamental threat to human equality. The resulting hatred and animosity have engulfed so many people, pitting one against the other in the most inhuman manner. Islam is very relevant in this context, as it took a very divisive, violent and hierarchical society of Arabia and set an important example by reforming that society and guiding it to a new height of human civilization. As one of the foremost historians observes: “The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue…” [Arnold J. Toynbee, Civilization on Trial, New York, p. 205]
Egalitarianism and racial equality relate to an area where even the West may need to take inspiration from Islam, according to Sir H.A.R. Gibb, twentieth century’s one of the most eminent western, non-Muslim scholars. “But Islam has a still further service to render to the cause of humanity. It stands after all nearer to the real East than Europe does, and it possesses a magnificent tradition of inter-racial understanding and cooperation. No other society has such a record of success uniting in an equality of status, of opportunity, and of endeavors so many and so various races of mankind. The great Muslim communities of Africa, India and Indonesia, perhaps also the small community in Japan, show that Islam has still the power to reconcile apparently irreconcilable elements of race and tradition. If ever the opposition of the great societies of East and West is to be replaced by cooperation, the mediation of Islam is an indispensable condition. In its hands lies very largely the solution of the problem with which Europe is faced in its relation with East. If they unite, the hope of a peaceful issue is immeasurably enhanced. But if Europe, by rejecting the cooperation of Islam, throws it into the arms of its rivals, the issue can only be disastrous for both.” [H.A.R. Gibb, WHITHER ISLAM, London, 1932, p. 379.]
However, just as Gibb posed the question “Whither Islam?”, Muslims need to ask themselves where are they going? Do they really understand and care about upholding this pristine and universal principle of equality – for and among themselves, and also for the rest of the humanity? If they take up the challenge and join their hands with the rest of humanity, then the collective pursuit of humanity in the path of equality can be further and critically enhanced.