By Imam Zaid Shakir
Some time back, the theme of Reviving the Islamic Spirit Conference in Toronto, Canada, was Saving the Ship of Humanity. In the words of the program’s brochure:
When a ship is lost at sea, is in imminent danger of sinking, or if it has been hijacked, the captain sends out an SOS. This acronym is Morse code for, “Save Our Ship.” When an SOS is received by any agency, all available resources are mobilized to save the threatened ship –the Coast Guard, Navy, Air Force, and any civilian vessels in the vicinity. Our planet is currently sending out an SOS. The waves of pollution and environmental degradation are washing over its bow. The gathering storms of warfare and strife are threatening its course. It has been hijacked by the pirates of racism and xenophobia. Massive icebergs of disease, hunger, and economic marginalization litter the sea all around it. As an Ummah, it is time for us to mobilize all of our resources to help the save the ship of humanity, before it sinks, or is forever lost at sea.
It does not take an exaggerated degree of intellectual acumen or keen insight into international affairs to realize the truthfulness of the above quote. The issue for us Muslims is determining how we respond to the waves of crises currently befalling humanity. A wise and effective response requires that we look beyond the surface of the events that dominate the headlines and garner a disproportionate share of news coverage. Responding at that level will see our community scrambling in haphazard fashion from one set of ad hoc responses to a particular crisis to an equally ad hoc and ill-conceived response to another. A more effective response will require that we look beyond the surface of current events to identify some of the deeper issues that give rise to various events and crises.
In one form or another, all of these issues are manifestations of an un-godly philosophy of human relations. Our relations, both international, and inter-personal, generally speaking, are based on competition. That competition leads to placing an exaggerated emphasis on the acquisition of power; as it is power that gives us advantages and affords us privileges in our relationships with others. At the international level, this idea –the primacy of power in relations between states– has been steadily refined from Machiavelli to Hans Morgenthau, and it has culminated in a situation that has rendered attempts at meaningful international cooperation inconsequential. This was witnessed in the collapse of the talks in Copenhagen to address the issue of global warming.
At issue is not a lack of lofty principles or ideals. What we see is the subordination of ideals to the imperatives of power. Ideals are fine and operable until they conflict with the dictates of power. Spreading self-determination to long oppressed peoples is a lofty ideal advocated by powerful western democracies, but when a dictatorship, or a ruthless oligarchy better serves the interests of those nations that ideal is scrapped. Addressing the current and future ravages of climate change is a lofty ideal endorsed by all highly industrial nations, but when proposed policies will affect their potential power, either in strategic or economic terms, that ideal is abandoned, at least by most of them.
This critique is also applicable to many Muslims. There are those of us who quote verses in the Qur’an declaring the inviolable sanctity of civilian life. Yet, for some of us, when we see the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians enhancing our power, those verses and related prophetic prohibitions become void. This is a sad consequence of the ethos of power.
We can no longer bear this situation, especially in a world that has been shrunken by increasingly efficient means of transportation and communications. What happens in one part of the world increasingly affects people living elsewhere, and in many instances the immediate or future implications of those effects are communicated almost instantaneously. As Muslims, we have been blessed with another ethos, one we have largely neglected. That is the ethos of cooperation. God mentions in the Qur’an, Cooperate in good and piety, and do not cooperate in sin and enmity. (5:2)
He also reminds us that power is an ends to a means and not an end, in and of itself. For example, God mentions in the Qur’an, Those who if We give them power in the earth they establish regular prayer, pay the poor due, command good, forbid wrong, and unto God is the end of all affairs. (22:41) This verse states that power is a means for the establishment of God’s worship and reverence, serving the poor, spreading good, and limiting evil. When it is divorced from these or other enlightened goals, it is no longer desirable, for at that point it is either an end itself, or it is a mean to nefarious ends.
This verse also reminds us that power comes from God, Those who if We give them power in the earth…, it does not accrue merely as the result of human effort. Therefore, it is worthless for Muslims to abandon our principles in the pursuit of power, even when that power may be ostensibly sought for lofty ends, thinking that abandoning principles will lead to an enhancement of power. God gives power to whomsoever He chooses based on His wisdom; we do not take it based on our tactics. He tests nations with strength and weakness. The important thing for us to remember is that whether we are weak or powerful, we are not to transgress the limits set by God, for transgression involves oppression, and God warns us that He does not love oppressors. This understanding is critical if we are to begin moving away from the ethos of power.
Now is the time for us to emphasize the need for normalizing the ethos of cooperation as the most effective basis for both international and interpersonal relations. In a world where our ability to destroy not only each other but all life on this planet is a reality; by nuclear, biological, chemical, and now electro-magnetic weaponry, the idea of conflicting nations must be replaced with the idea of cooperating humanity. In a world where ever scarcer resources threaten to lead to ever more intense conflicts to control them, the idea of an exclusive national interest must be replaced by the idea of shared human interests. In a world where nations, non-state actors, and even individuals can possess the means to undermine each others security, the idea of national security must be replaced by the idea of collective security.
Effecting such changes will involve an immense struggle. That struggle cannot be undertaken by isolated individuals. It will require the full force of an enlightened and committed community. We are challenged as “the best community brought forward for the benefit of humanity” to be that community. However, leadership in this regard requires the strength of character and spirit that can only be brought forth by a firm commitment to the highest ideals of Islam, and the internalizing of their fruits through a steady, ongoing process of worship, reflection, study and spiritual refinement. May God bless us to be an enlightened, committed community working with others to move from the pursuit of power to the power of cooperation.
(This article was first published in EMEL magazine. Reprinted with permission from Imam Zaid Shakir.)