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Friday Thoughts 51

Loyalty and Religious Affiliation


The faithful are brothers and sisters. Therefore make peace between your brothers and sisters and be mindful before God, that you may
receive mercy. (Surah 49:10)

 

Brotherhood and sisterhood and making peace sounds like a wonderful 
idea. And one of the memories that are very dear to me is the Muslim 
students' community back in the late 1960s when we felt very much like a group of siblings who shared the experience of exploring and 
excitedly discussing religion, spirituality and controversial issues. 
Including the one whether the word ikhwah is to be translated 
as "brothers" or, since masculine forms in Arabic tend to be 
inclusive, as "brothers and sisters".

 

In fact, the idea of people being "ikhwah" is taken from ancient tribal language when people close to each other were physically related, as brothers and sisters, or as cousins. In patriarchal
tribes it would be the men in the first place, brothers, uncles, 
nephews, while the wives came from "outside" as sisters-in-law and the women married "out". In a matriarchal system it would be the other way round. In any case, the term ummah for community goes back 
to this idea: it is basically a generation of siblings from the same 
umm, mother, connected with a strong bond of shared origin and experience.

 

One of the most important principles in the ancient world was family loyalty. An individual would hardly be able to survive on his or her 
own; it needed cooperation and mutual assistance in the family, the clan, and the tribe in order to deal with the challenges of acquiring 
food and shelter and of defending the group against wild animals and 
human rivals. Frequently this was a question of "me and my brother 
against my cousin; me and my brother and my cousin against the rest of the world." Roles of men and women, of children, adults and 
elderly were determined by the practical demands of being 
interdependent. So was loyalty and solidarity, and an individual who
tried to break out of this framework was either highly regarded, for
example as a shaman, if he or she was perceived as beneficial for the 
group, or was considered weird, or was treated as a traitor if he or 
she seemed to open opportunities to enemies. A strong feeling of "we" 
and the "other" is expressed in the pre-Islamic Arabic proverb: "Help 
your brother whether he is right or wrong."

 

We do not live in a tribal society any longer. Human society has 
become much more complex. Most tribes have dissolved in larger units 
like nations and empires. This open-end new possibilities and choices for individuals but is also a great challenge to their sense of 
belonging. Much of those ancient instincts were transferred either to 
the "state", at least theoretically, or, more emotionally, to other 
social units or interest groups, like the guilds for people with the 
same profession, or, in modern days, associations with various aims 
and objectives, or sports teams, or political parties, or business 
corporations. And yes, religious communities.

 

Well, if religious communities are considered on the same level as 
any other social group, this might not even attract attention. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, there were rivalling groups among Jews, Christians and others, involved in, as the Qur'an describes it, "envy 
and mutual jealousy" (42:14), "each party rejoicing in that which is 
with itself" (23:53), competing for political influence, each with
their own claims of exclusivity. For many people, the religious community is an emotional home that like a family, provides human
warmth, and that offers orientation against a confusing variety of 
values and options presented by the rest of the world. In order to 
preserve this warmth and protection, they would expect every other 
member to be loyal and would consider people who change their 
religious affiliation traitors - unless it is in order to join their own group, of course.

 

Talking about loyalty: religious communities, especially minorities, 
within a complex society are often viewed with suspicion: will "they" be loyal to "us", the state, associated with a particular ideological 
or religious orientation or even state religion, or to their own 
communities that often transcend the state boundaries? This suspicion 
was the rationale behind the persecution of Jews and Christians in 
the Roman Empire who, although they were permitted to continue their 
own rituals and nobody interfered with their beliefs on 
the "religious" level, were expected to worship the emperor - an idea 
that could be integrated into polytheist views but was incompatible 
with their monotheism. But it also had its role in the discrimination 
and demonization of religious and cultural minorities in history all 
the way into the present-day world and was and is often used as a 
pretext for persecution. In the name of the "dominant" religion or 
ideology. In ways that an observer could get the impression that 
religion is essentially nothing but a genial invention to support 
one's own policies with a divine backup.

 

Is this what religion is about? One could argue that the ethical 
teachings contained in the holy scriptures of the religions in the
Abrahamic tradition and beyond could be read as valid as long as they 
benefit one's own group: as a Muslim, you do not harm a fellow 
Muslim; you wish for him or her, what you wish for yourself. Under normal circumstances, the "others" are tolerated, or not not much 
thought is given to to them, unless there is a crisis and reasons are 
sought to treat "them" as unequals or potential enemies.

 

If this is our understanding, then I am afraid that we do not read
our scruptures carefully enough. Already in the Torah, in a situation 
that is marked by the necessity of standing one's ground both against 
the influence and rivalry of neigbouring peoples and against the 
threat of the superpowers of Egypt and Mesopotamia, readers are 
taught to look beyond their garden fence and not to oppress the 
stranger, "for I am the Lord". Eastern religions people instructed to 
pray, "May all beings be well and happy." The Biblical prophets 
repeatedly pointed out the importance of ethical behaviour and care 
for the weak, for the "widows, orphans and strangers", severely 
criticizing their contemporaries and especially the ruling class for 
not doing so. Of course we may defend ourselves against attacks and 
oppression, but ultimately security lies in ethical behaviour rather 
than in military strength. The horizon of humane behaviour seems to 
expand, to become increasingly universal. The Qur'an enjoins "justice ... even if it is against yourselves and parents and 
relatives" (4:135), and the vow or loyalty given to the Prophet 
included following him "in everything that is good". At some point, 
he changed the pre-Islamic proverb into, "Help your brother when he 
is right." Does that mean that loyalty to people was abolished?

 

In fact, our first loyalty is to God and the ethical principles that 
were given to us. In terms of the Abrahamic religions, this would 
mean to love God and to love our fellow beings that He created and that reflect their Creator's beauty, wisdom and majesty, not as a 
sentimental mood but as an attitude of responsibility. In more detail, this includes being trustworthy; keeping agreements and promises; being constant in our commitment to our family, to our friends, to our colleagues, to the increasingly global society that 
we are part of; controlling our selfishness in order to prevent it 
from exploiting others; being consistent in our refusal to fall into 
the trap of demonization and incitement against people who did not do any harm to us - because "we all belong to God, and to God is our 
return."

 

The consequences of this attitude is manifested in the hijra. The migration from Makkah to Madinah implied more than mere safety from 
persecution for the Muslims. The Prophet was invited in order to make
peace between the local tribes that had been involved in feuds that nobody remembered the origins of, to build up cooperation and 
coexistence of tribes, clans and individuals from different religious backgrounds without denying their variety.

 

Still later, the Prophet mentioned the "old" version of that proverb again, "Help your brother whether he is right or wrong." His companions expressed their extreme surprise, for hadn't the Prophet 
just taught them to see things in a context greater than that of 
tribal instincts? But he explained, "This means to support your brother and sister, when they are right, and to keep them from wrong," from behaviour that harms themselves and others, that is, with constructive criticism.

 

In our loyalty to God and our responsibility for each other, conscientious people are not rivals. Rather, they are called to 
constructively discuss the problems that human society is facing, and 
cooperate for peace in society and in the world, no matter what their formal religious affiliation may be.


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(c) Halima Krausen, 2008