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Church of Christ the Cornerstone, 300 Saxon Gate West, Milton Keynes
The Prophet Muhammad said, "The community is like one body - if one member hurts, the whole body suffers from sleeplessness and fever." This hadith is well-known. It is often quoted in order to summon our solidarity with Muslims even in distant countries, invoking the ideal of the worldwide Ummah. It is true that there are brothers and sisters and especially children in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Kashmir etc. who need our help, solidarity and prayers, especially in critical times of war and conflict. Protest in solidarity with suffering Muslims elsewhere may even give a feeling of belonging together, if only temporarily. Nevertheless, today I would like to concentrate on our immediate community close by: Muslims in Britain But that doesn't seem to be as easy as it sounds. A casual Muslim visitor who looks at the Muslim Directory is impressed by the number of Muslim organizations including schools, mosques, businesses, charities, helplines. At the same time, she is confused. There is the "Bangladeshi Islamic Centre" and the "Pakistani Muslim Association" and an "Asian Muslim Elders Association" and a mosque that offers prayer space for men only. Where am I supposed to go? But then, Muslims in Britain are not an organically grown community like the community in a village or town neighbourhood in the Muslim world. They are rather a conglomeration of very diverse groups from basically all over the Muslim world. This is both a challenge and a chance. The challenges make themselves felt in our everyday life. Again, it is true that there are many challenges from outside like discrimination, prejudices and misunderstandings that need to be dealt with. After all, there is a likelihood that my next door neighbours and my colleagues are not Muslims, perhaps not even religious. But today I would like to concentrate on the challenges from inside. The widespread fact in our Muslim community is that my next Muslim neighbours may speak a completely different language at home even if they do speak English very well. They may have different habits when it comes to food, clothes, codes of behaviour, role expectations for men and women, and ideas of education. They may have been in the country for several generation ever since the first Muslims came in the 19th century, or they may have recently arrived from one of the war zones in the world, or they may have become Muslims after a long time of religious and spiritual search. They may belong to a school of thought different to the one that I am familiar with, and I might not immediately feel at home with some of their beliefs and practice. A very unsettling experience: am I wrong or are they wrong? In addition to all that, there are so many different individual hopes, disappointments and dreams. At the same time, my relatives, like parents, in-laws, siblings, cousins etc., live in a different country or are even spread out over several continents. Keeping in touch with the people with whom I grew up and sharing family occasions like weddings and funerals means long distance travel and long phone bills. Some of my family members may belong to a different religious tradition altogether. What is community, then? What do we, as Muslims, have in common - for that's where the word community comes from. So - community building apparently starts with a conscious effort to find out what we actually share. The most obvious common grounds would be the five pillars of Islam that provide a feeling of Muslim identity, as well as our key ethical concepts (that we, by the way, also share with the People of the Scripture and some others). But this sounds rather theoretical. And besides - we also have to think about how we then handle our obvious differences and diversity. Perhaps it is exactly the challenges that present us with the chance to see sources not only through our familiar
glasses but with new eyes, and to find inspiration in the sources and experiences in our religion, mainly the Qur'an and Sunnah but also from other experiences in our past. But what can we actually learn from texts and experiences from 1400 years ago that we could benefit from in a completely different social situation that makes it impossible just to imitate our models or to impose a readymade pattern? Let us try to look at familiar history and texts from the perspective of our situation and see what we can learn from it. As we know, Islam started in Makkah. Among the first Muslims were the Prophet's wife Khadijah, his young cousin Ali, his friend Abu Bakr, and his freedman Zayd. They were joined by a number of men and women, many of the young, many of them poor, some of them slaves. But they had one thing in common: they were individuals who had seen the point with the Prophet's message of ethical monotheism. They came to the Prophet out of their personal conviction as witnesses for what they had understood. Most of them had to struggle with the reactions "back home" from elders, spouses or slave masters. At that point, there was no tradition to share - it was their faith that united them. By learning together and supporting each other, they grew into a group. I think we all know the stories of how Abu Bakr rescued Bilal from the cruelty of his master and bought his freedom, of the emigration of a group of Muslims Abyssinia in order to find the protection of the Christian emperor there against the growing hostility, and how they survived the boycott by the leading clans of the Quraish until they were able to migrate to Madinah. Out of love for the Prophet, most stories focus on his activities. But it is worthwhile to have a look at how the companions brought in their individual qualities in order to make it work. When we consider the many Muslim individuals and small families who are around today, we might almost feel reminded of the situation in Makkah - although we may be grateful that we do not have to struggle with a similar persecution. The migration to Madinah is the point from which the Muslim calender starts. It is considered the birth of the independent Muslim community. Again, this experience cannot be directly compared, neither with our situation as a minority in Europe nor with later Muslim states. But still there are relevant lessons to learn from it. Let us briefly brush up our memory: In Yathrib (pre-Islamic Madinah) there was a variety of tribes. I must admit that there were not really different languages but different dialects. There were certainly different social systems, depending on the economic activities: farmers who grew dates or wheat as far as they had access to water; herdsmen with goats and sheep, camels, or horses; craftsmen, especially smiths. There were also various religious beliefs: tribal religious traditions mainly based on polytheism, Judaism, as well as individual Christians and Zoroastrians. In pre-Islamic time there was a war between the tribes - not about anything special, and certainly not with a religious background, but just a feud with reaction and counter-reaction; the reason was even forgotten but considering honour and fame nobody was really able to do the first step to stop it. That is why the people invited the Prophet and the Muslims to find a solution. The muhajirun, Muslim migrants from Makkah, added an additional element to economy because they were tradesmen. The framework that was then created to overcome the the state of conflict is often called Constitution of Madinah. It is nothing miraculous but outlines a safe space in which to build a community. Let us have a closer look at how the key principles were phrased: 1. This is a written (treaty) of the Prophet Muhammad [God's Messenger] between the faithful and Muslims of the Quraish and [the people of Yathrib] and those who follow them and who join them and labour with them. 2. They are one community (ummah) distinct from other people. 3. The emigrants of the Quraysh shall be responsible for their domain and pay their compensations in mutual cooperation and redeem their prisoners with kindness and justice (as common) among the faithful. 4. And the Banu 'Awf shall be responsible for their domain and pay their compensations in mutual cooperation as before and each group shall redeem their prisoners with kindness and justice (as common) among the faithful. 5. And the Banul-Hârith [b.al-Khazraj] .... 6. And the Banu Sâ'idah ...
7. And the Banu Jusham ... 8. And the Banun-Najjâr ... 9. And the Banu 'Amr b. Awf .... 10. And the Banun-Nabît ... 11. And the Banu Aws ... That is, basically the tribes agreed on taking responsibility for each their own internal affairs, to make joint decisions in the council of representatives of which the Prophet was an honoured member, to cooperate in "foreign policy" and defense, and to refer inter-tribal disputes to the Prophet who, at the same time, continued to be the spiritual teacher and guide of the Muslims. Also, we must keep in mind that the partners in this contract were not only Muslims but also people from other religions, especially the Jewish tribes of Madinah. The background principles are further clarified by verses of the Qur'an taught beforehand both to companions from Makkah and to visitors from Yathrib like the following passage: The things that are given to you are to be used for the life in this world, and that which is with God is better and more lasting for those who have faith and trust in their Creator and Sustainer, and who avoid the great sins and shameful actions and forgive, when they are angry, and who respond to their Creator and Sustainer and establish prayer and conduct their affairs in mutual consultation and spend out of what We have provided them with ... (Surah 42:36-38, ash-Shura) Prof. Muhammad Hamidullah proudly describes the Constitution of Madinah as the first written democratic constitution in the world (well - a modern constitution would necessarily have to be much more complex; besides, we are no longer a tribal society. Nevertheless, the principle of individual responsibility and responsibility born by the groups who are partners in a contract continues to be essential; it would be useless to rely on a central government or "the state" or and idealized leader to solve all problems. There are three things that the Prophet initiated in order to create not only a functioning city state but also a cohesive community and that we can take inspiration from for our own time and age: * Personal relationships The Prophet initiated brotherhood between the muhajirun, the immigrants, and the ansar, the "Helpers" in Madinah. There is no cohesion without love, and there is no community without people knowing each other. Now knowing each other is not about drinking tea together and remembering the other's name and address although these may be good first steps. But, as the proverb says: you know someone only "when you have lived with him or done business with him or travelled with him". Brotherhood in Madinah meant that people shared their resources with each other, cooperated in their everyday lives, and learned from each other. Utilizing the dynamics of diversity In Madinah, the different sectors of the economy were then integrated. People learned useful practical knowledge and different practical skills from each other. This certainly did not mean that the muhajirun became farmers - there not have been enough land for that - but they certainly learned some gardening to support themselves. On the other hand, the local farmers and craftsmen learned some marketing techniques. Reading and writing was systematically promoted, and the Prophet declared that "acquiring knowledge is a religious obligation for every Muslim, man or woman." Instead of wasting time by living on the helpfulness of others, men and women cooperated in gradually building up a viable economy. Space for joint activities The first community centre that the Prophet initiated was the mosque. Now, a mosque is masjid (that's where the English word mosque comes from), literally, a "place of prostration" - an in this context, the Prophet said, "The whole earth is a mosque." A mosque is also jami', a "place of assembly" - for prayer and various kinds of community activities. Thus, the Prophet's mosque in Madinah was a place of prayer, study and discussion of community matters, but also a temporary home for men and women who had no other place to stay, a hospital
for people wounded in the war, a place where men and women could find help and advice or, in today's language, start self-help groups, and a court house. I sometimes hear that "if there were another prophetic leader, our situation today would improve." Well, Muhammad was the final messenger, and in the timeless values and principles that we have learned from earlier revelations (that we share with the Jews and Christian, the "People of the Scripture") as well as from the Qur'an and the Prophet's example, we have reliable guidelines. Later scholars have written large volumes, systematically presenting the rights of others: family members, friends, neighbours, colleagues, even enemies fulfilling them "for God's sake" is meant to bring about community cohesion. Today, we learn many rules and regulations that have been formulated for different social situations in history. According to the Prophet, the main point is to "treat others the way you want them to treat you", and he pointed out that "no one is faithful until he wishes for others what he wishes for himself." He especially emphasized the relationship with one's neigbours - neighbours understood as the people next door all the way to the fortieth house. That's where we can start: coming to know them and building up a relationship with them - no matter if they are Muslims or people of other faiths. The Prophet Muhammad left us a rich heritage to utilize in order to build up a healthy Muslim community that can make a valuable contribution to the life in this country and in the world. **************************************************** Qur'anic values that matter for the community: The faithful are brothers and sisters. Therefore make peace between your brothers and sisters and be conscious of God that you may receive mercy. You who have faith, a group of people should not mock another group of people - perhaps those are better than they. Nor should women mock other women - perhaps those are better than they. And do not slander each other and do not call each other by contemptuous nicknames. Evil is a name denoting disobedience when someone has faith. Those who do not give up (such practice) are the unjust. You who have faith, avoid too much suspicion for some suspicion is transgression. And do not spy on each other and do not backbite each other. Would anyone of you like to eat his dead brother's flesh? You would certainly find that disgusting. And be conscious of God. God is Turning (to those who turn to Him), Merciful. Humankind, We have created you from male and female and made you into peoples and tribes that you may recognize (and learn from) each other. The most honourable of you before God is the most conscientious one of you. God is knowing, aware. (Surah 49:10-13 al-Hujurat) Goodness does not consist of turning your faces to the east or to the west, but good is who has faith in God and in the Last Day and His angles and His scripture and His prophets and, for the love of Him, spends of his property for the relatives and the orphans and the poor and the stranger and those who ask (for assistance) and for (freeing) slaves, and who establish prayer and give charity, and those who keep their agreement when they have made one, and those who are patient in poverty and illness and fear. They are the sincere ones, and they are conscious of God. (Surah 2:177 al-Baqarah).