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The ethical ideal

Published Jan 25, 2013 12:00am

IT can be argued that the biggest dilemma confronting the Muslim world currently is a moral and ethical one. The root cause of all the major ills that plague Muslims — ignorance, poverty, intolerance, etc — is the fact that many of us have failed to apply the practical ethics taught by Islam in our everyday lives.

The Quran and Sunnah contain very clear guidelines regarding the construction of an ethical personality. The Almighty desires that each individual reach the exalted station of ashraf al-makhluqat, the pinnacle of creation. Yet most Muslims are content — out of either lack of direction or lack of effort — to be counted amongst the asfala safileen, or the lowest of the low. The disastrous results of such a course of action are clear for all to see.

But what is strange is that in a country like Pakistan, which is so full of religiosity and claims to be an ‘Islamic’ society, there is a huge moral and ethical vacuum. This either means that the majority of us are hypocrites, or we have not endeavoured far enough into the bottomless oceans of knowledge to seek out the pearls of truth — and act upon it. One would like to believe the latter is the case.

Considering that Rabiul Awwal, and particularly this day, is linked to the blessed birth of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) — that greatest of teachers and possessor of the most sublime morals — it would be in order to reacquaint ourselves with the examples of moral excellence found in the life of the Messenger. This is important for two reasons.

Firstly, in order to improve our own ethical situation we need to go beyond just professing love for the Prophet and try to apply his example to our own lives. Secondly, in the wake of crude attempts by some to malign his impeccable character, Muslims need to practically demonstrate to other communities what it means to be a follower of the Messenger. In other words, burning down our own cities to ‘protect’ his honour is light years away from the example he has set; building a compassionate, knowledgeable, egalitarian and indeed ethical society is in line with what the Prophet taught.

To get a proper idea about the personality of the Prophet, we must consult the traditional primary sources of Islam: the Quran and the authentic hadith. This is important for as Iranian scholar Prof Syed Hossein Nasr argues in his book Ideals and Realities of Islam, “In order to understand the significance of the Prophet it is not sufficient to study from the outside historical texts pertaining to his life. One must view him also from within the Islamic point of view. …”

However, it is also important to consider what those outside of Islam say about the Prophet, especially regarding his moral excellence. While there is much spurious material available in historical texts meant to malign the Prophet’s character — due partly to Orientalist biases against Islam and partly due to the early controversies regarding the recording of hadith within the Islamic realm — there are some truly remarkable and frank admissions from non-Muslim thinkers regarding the Messenger’s ethical excellence.

For example English historian Edward Gibbon says in History of the Saracen Empire, which he co-authored: “The greatest success of Muhammad’s (PBUH) life was effected by sheer moral force without the stroke of a sword.” On the other hand Mahatma Gandhi is quoted to have said: “I became more … convinced that it was not the sword that won a place for Islam. … It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for his pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission.”

Aside from the words of such luminaries of history, most Muslims have — from childhood — heard traditions in which the moral excellence and outstanding character of the Prophet have been highlighted. Traditions which speak of his magnanimity towards adversaries, his tenderness towards the weak, the poor and the downtrodden of society, his love of knowledge, his dislike of arrogance and ostentation, his simplicity etc. Yet if we study our own society most of these values are completely absent, despite our claims of love for the Prophet.

Instead, what we find here and in most Muslim states is a vicious society steeped in ignorance, malice and exploitation. Justice — the foundation upon which an Islamic society is built — is completely absent. And those who talk of imposing Sharia present a frightening, mutilated version of Islam, one which is at complete odds with the Prophet’s Islam.

This disconnect between what we preach and what we practise must be urgently addressed in order to reform society. The pulpit must be at the forefront of this struggle: instead of focusing on relatively minor issues and fanning differences, society’s shortcomings (and their solutions) must be highlighted in mosques. This is admittedly a tall order, but until the pulpit — perhaps the most powerful of religious platforms — is used to construct a better society, change will not be forthcoming.

Going back to what Prof Nasr has written, in the Holy Quran the Almighty announces that He and the angels confer blessings upon the Prophet, going on to order those who believe to do the same (‘Surah Ahzab’). Such is the stature of the Noble Messenger that without conferring blessings upon him and his progeny the daily prayers are incomplete. These are clear signs for those who believe that there is no better an example to emulate in order to achieve excellence in this world and the next.

The writer is a member of staff.