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Friday Thoughts 77

Mutual Consultation

 

The things that you have been given are to be utilized for the life in this world, and what is with God is better and more lasting for those who have faith and trust in their Creator and Sustainer, and who avoid the greater sins and shameful actions, and who 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 of what We have provided them with ...

(Surah 42:36-38)

 

When we read the Qur'an, we frequently come across pairs of terms that summarize religious essentials. A well-known example is faith and good actions, as for example in Surah 2:25, "And give good news to those who have faith and do good actions." This phrase and similar ones are repeated again and again, indicating a certain balance and connection between these two principles. This applies even beyond the boundaries of a particular formal religious affiliation: "Those who have faith, and those who are Jewish, and the Christians, and the Sabians: whoever has faith in God and the Last day and does good actions - for them there is a reward from their Creator and Sustainer, and they will neither fear nor grieve." (2:62)

 

A similar well-know example of a pair of concepts is prayer and charity, as for example in Surah 9:71, "The faithful men and the faithful women are each others' protecting friends. They promote what is good and prevent what is evil, and extablish prayer and give charity (wa yuqîmûnas-salâta wa âtûz-zakât)." Giving charity is also sometimes phrased as a reminder of what charity actually means: they "spend what God has provided them with", that is, they pass on what was given to them in the first place in order to enable them to live and work in this world. This is how it is expressed in our introductory verses.

 

Traditionally, the pair of "prayer and charity" has often been associated with what the Qur'an calls hablun min Allâh wa hablun min an-nâs, the connection with God and the connection with people. That is salâh, prayer in the wider sense of the link with the Divine, as representing the spiritual dimension, and zakâh, charity in the wider sense of the link with fellow human beings, as representing the social dimension of human life. In modern life, we got pretty much used to considering spirituality and social commitment as separate, even conflicting spheres, while the Qur'an keeps emphasizing a connection and a balance between the two.

 

Surprisingly, in our introductory verses another principle has been inserted between the two: the principle of shura, mutual consultation. To many careless readers, it comes across almost like a side remark. In fact, even some scholars got used to understanding salâh in a narrow sense of formal prayer and zakâh as the formalized tax-like donation to the poor while speculating if mutual consultation is rather a side issue - after all, most Muslim empires in the past were not exactly examples for democracy, and many Muslim states today are rather totalitarian. Faith, trust in God, avoiding sins, patience with what makes us angry, obedience to God, prayer, consultation, charity and so on are then read as a simple enumeration without giving too much thought for each - and on with the agenda. Others argue that already the name of the Surah, Surat ash-Shura, indicates how important shura is as a basic principle in society; besides, it has been emphasized in the "Constitution of Madinah", the founding document of the city state of Madinah that came about through the Prophet's efforts to make peace between the warring local tribes and to enable their constructive coexistence. At this, the question is often asked why the principle of mutual consultation has then not been explained in all detail. But in fact it was already well-known as part of the experience in a tribal society where matters were discussed in the clan and then in the council of elders until a decision was reached. Some modern scholars point out the shura principle as the key principle of democracy.

 

Still we could ask why it is then inserted between prayer and charity, things that are usually considered as belonging together, almost like a thought that occurred in between.

 

I think this has to do

 

a) With its importance. Both prayer and charity are key Islamic principles, even components of the "Five Pillars of Islam" that are essential for Muslim identity.

 

b) Especially when the two principles, "prayer" in the sense of cultivating the spiritual link with God, and "charity" in the sense of social commitment, are seen as separate as it is very much the case in modern thought but also already in the classical division of Islamic law in 'ibâdât, "acts of worship", and mu'âmalât, "inter-personal relations", this may be seen as a reminder that in reality they are interconnected.

 

Thus, we can see from the example of ritual prayer that helps us to re-experience and reconstruct our connection with the Divine, that it is not just about the individual's link with the Transcendent but also has an aspect of human consideration and care. For a prayer congregation, we have to agree about quite a number of things: prayer time, prayer space, who is going to lead this particular prayer in order to coordinate its elements, arranging the lines of women and men participants, and the like. This is so self-evident that we are often not even aware of it, especially if we live in a Muslim country where we hear the call to prayer nearly everywhere, or if we pray in a mosque where the space is already there and the tasks have already been assigned to particular individuals. It might be so self-evident in our accustomed community that we perceive it as something solid and are greatly unsettled when we end up in a random group of Muslims, perhaps at an international conference or a diaspora students' community, where all these points have to be renegotiated. On the other hand, I frequently come across Muslims who don't feel the spiritual connection when praying in a mosque because these social aspects have not been taken care of in a satisfactory way.

 

In the case of charity it may be exactly the opposite. The social objective seems perfectly clear: helping the poor. But we are not always conscious of the spiritual aspects: our responsibility before God for social justice and humane behaviour, and our self-education with regard to property. The meaning of the word zakât includes an element of purification. This does not mean that property as such is "impure", but it rather indicates that, besides the element of social justice, one purpose is to purify ourselves from disproportional attachment to our property like greed and avarice. Again, in an established Muslim community there is usually a working system of distributing donations and promoting social justice that we take for granted. We are therefore not always aware of the considerations that it takes to get the system to work, starting from questions like who is to give zakât and for what valuables, to thinking about ways to collect and distribute it. When I come across Muslims who are in need, this is often because social activities have not been sufficiently coordinated, be it because a community in the diaspora is too young to have developed an appropriate infrastucture, or because the socio-economic environment in a Muslim country has changed in a way that creates new problems that have not been adequately dealt with. I am sorry to say so, but I often wish there was more sense of responsibility for fellow human beings who were left out by the existing institutions!

 

We see then, from these examples, how spiritual activities have a social dimension, and social commitment has a spiritual dimension, and both necessitate consultation and coordination between people in order to work. They may be seemingly insignificant matters for a little group of people, like Muslims who happen to spend a day in the same place and want to talk and pray together. They could be more complex matters of organizing religious life in a diaspora community, like building a mosque; arranging study facilities for children and for adults, or halal food, or a burial place for the dead; cultivating a constructive relationship with mainstream society; organizing care for the poor and elderly and the like. They could be matters of meaningful political decisions in a sovereign Muslim state.

 

We must not forget that, on the whole, our responsibility as human beings reaches beyond these matters that immediately concerns our community. It includes a mutual consultation with others in order to care for the human family worldwide.

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(c) Halima Krausen, 2009