Thursday, December 22, 2011

Character Development by Collective/Public Organizational Activities

STANWOOD COBB was a Harvard educated historian who lived and taught in Istanbul, Turkey nearly a century ago. In 1914 he published a book, based on his experiences in the Orient. In his book “Islamic Contribution to Civilization”, he writes:
“As I moved among the common people I was particularly struck with their serenity and calm at all times. Along the quai of the Bosphorus, for example, one had an opportunity to see the difference in temperament which set the Muslim trader apart from his competitors. While others were always on the watch for customers, shouting loudly and waving as they saw potential patronage, and often jumping out of their boats in order to induce trade, the Muslim sat in lordly calm, waiting in peace for whatever customer Allah willed to send him. Actually, this attitude was more persuasive to us than the hurry-scurry of the Greek and Armenian boatmen, whom we brushed aside in order to reach the boat of a Turk.

This Muslim attitude of immense calm in the midst of the life of commerce was even more noticeable in the Istanbul bazaars. There many of the rug merchants sat in front of their bazaars in order to entice passers-by. But the Turkish rug dealers sat calmly on a platform in the rear of their bazaars, not deigning to move until you had found a rug you were interested in and asked them its price. It was the custom of the Turk to name a price about twenty-five per cent more than normal, and come down to normal in the course of that bargaining which then was an indispensable element of commercial life in the East. On the other hand, it was the custom of many other rug merchants to name to greenhorns a price three or four times greater than normal. American tourists, having been told that one should always bargain, would take delight in bringing the price down to half the original amount demanded and go away proud of their bargaining skill -- not knowing that they had paid in the end twice the normal value.

The Turks were not only honest as merchants, but they were also honest as servants. It was a common saying among the American missionaries that if one by accident lost an article in a Turkish village, nine times out of ten it would be returned. This was hardly true in other Eastern villages. Common pilfering seems to have been stamped out early in the history of Islam by the very stringent rules enforced against it. I was amazed in a Turkish town, to see a haberdashery stall open to the sidewalk left entirely unguarded on a Friday while the proprietor was attending mosque service.”

My speech is about Building Islamic Attitude, Knowledge and Skills, with emphasis on Character Development by Collective/Public Organizational Activities. How to do this?
There is an African idiom: ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ It is absolutely true. You cannot expect to raise a good child without contribution from every major element within a society. It all starts with the family, the parents. It is no wonder that our Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “A father cannot give his son anything better than refined manners and fine education.” [al-Hakem]

In the classical work “Bahr al-Fava'id” it is written, “Know that the well-being of children is due to their parents, and their perdition is also due to their parents... The Prophet (S) said, "God curse the father whose child is disobedient," that is, may God's curse be upon that father whose sons are disrespectful.” Also:

“It is related in the [Prophetic] Traditions that on the Morrow of Judgment sons will grasp their father's skirts, and wives the skirts of their husbands, saying, "Lord God, they did not teach us the rules of the Law; therefore we are bound for Hell-fire out of ignorance." For people are destined for Paradise through knowledge and for Hell-fire through ignorance.” - [Bahr al-Fava'id]

As we consider educating our Muslims, we must make sure that they understand why they were created by Allah (SWT). The Qur’an says: “Had it not been for My worship, I would not have created Jinn and man.” As we can see, Ibadah or worship in Islam is not limited to prayer alone, but is a 24/7/365 affair. It is meant to raise God-consciousness, so that a person is aware that even if he or she does not see Allah, He sees him/her.

Let me relate a story from Tadhkirat al-Auliya of Farid al-Din Attar (R):
A certain shaykh [Junayd al-Baghdadi (R)] favored one of his disciples over others because of the latter’s God-consciousness. Other disciples obviously were jealous about the Shaykh’s favoritism.

One day to prove the point, the Shaykh gave each disciple a fowl to kill it in a place where no one could see him. All the disciples returned after killing their fowls, except the favored disciple. The shaykh inquired why he had returned with the live fowl.

The disciple replied, “I could not find a place where Allah would not see me.”
His God-consciousness did not allow him to be heedless of Allah’s presence.
The shaykh then told his other disciples: “Now you know this youth’s real rank; he has attained to the constant remembrance of Allah.” [Devotional Stories: H. Siddiqui]
Our Prophet Muhammad (S) said, “Avoiding sinful acts is the mother of worship (Ummul ibadat).” [Al-Munabbihat]

Knowledge is essential for character building. A Tradition says: it is only the erudite ones who can truly worship Allah in the right way. Imam Abu Hanifa (R) said, “Worshipping without knowledge is like building on dung.” [Islamic Wisdom: Habib Siddiqui]

Muhammad said, “An 'Aalim (learned person) is superior to a worshipper as the full moon is superior to all the stars. The ulama (scholars) are heirs of the prophets and the prophets do not leave any inheritance in the shape of dirhams and dinars (wealth), but they do leave knowledge as their legacy. As such a person who acquires knowledge acquires his full share.” [Abu Dawud and Tirmizi: Abu Darda (RA)]

Hassan al-Basri (R) said, “The ink of a scholar is holier than the blood of a martyr.” [Kashf al-Khafa’: Al-Khatib al-Baghdadi (R)]

It is this importance of knowledge which made the Muslim Arabs, the followers of Muhammad (S), to become the torchbearers or vanguards of knowledge in an age of darkness radiating light in all directions. They created an Islamic civilization, driven by inquiry and invention, which was to become the envy of the rest of the world for nearly a millennium.

It is this spirit, the unquenched thirst for knowledge, which made Abu Rayhan al-Biruni to ask a question on inheritance law or some other related issue while he was lying on his deathbed. (Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was a great scientist, physicist, astronomer, sociologist, linguist, historian and mathematician whose true worth may never be known. He is considered the father of unified field theory by Nobel Laureate - late Professor Abdus Salam. He lived nearly a thousand years ago and was a contemporary of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Sultan Mahmoud of Ghazni.)

The jurisprudent was quite amazed that a dying man should show interest in such matters.

Abu Rayhan said, “I should like to ask you: which is better, to die with knowledge or to die without it?”

The man said, “Of course, it is better to know and then die.”

Abu Rayhan said, “That is why I asked my first question.”

Shortly after the jurisprudent had reached his home, the cries of lamentation told him that Abu Rayhan had died. (Murtaza Motahari: Spiritual Discourses)

Unfortunately, the same Islam that was responsible for founding the groundwork for Islamic Civilization, which was to initiate the European Renaissance, is now looked upon as a regressive force in today’s world. By many of our own so-called Muslims, Islam is not looked upon as a comprehensive way of life. By vast majority of our people, Islam, like Christianity, is viewed as a casual thing – a Friday affair that is limited to prayer (salat), fasting (saum), zakat and performing hajj (but the spirit is missing). Islam is often mixed with local non-Islamic culture (identity crisis).

The Muslim world is now a backward nation that is behind every other nation in every human index. It has, sadly, become a society that is at ease with crimes and corruption. Most of its governments are corrupt. Worse yet, they are often repressive governments, which are at war with their own people. They have created a society of sycophants or clients, and not of meritocracy where competency rules. The end result is a Muslim world of zeros!

As to how to build Islamic attitude, knowledge and skills, with emphasis on character development by collective/public organizational activities, let me share something that may help. Here in the USA and Canada, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) has been --
- organizing Jum’aa prayer in US and Canada University campuses
- organizing daily prayers in musallas near the campus
- organizing weekly halaqa
- discussing Qur’an and Sunnah
- discussing issues of relevance
- promoting a Muslim identity in a non-Muslim country
- teaching etiquette and manners
- listening to stories from those who converted to Islam
- encouraging group activities that foster brotherhood
- going together and performing community service
- show that Muslims are people who care about others

This type of activities has allowed many Muslims – indigenous and immigrants alike -- to become role models for the society at large. No wonder, their interaction with the local community has helped to curb negative stereotypes against Islam and Muslims.
I believe that our young students here in IIUC can draw some inspirations from these foreign Muslims who are living outside Dar-as-Islam.

Our Prophet (S) said, “As you are, so will you have your leaders.”

My hope is that one day each one of our Muslim nation states will have representative leadership that is honest, just and mindful of their obligations, i.e., enlightened and benevolent leadership that promote meritocracy and competence. And that in not too distant a future, we shall be able to reclaim our lost heritage and become once again the torchbearers of progress and enlightenment in our world that still needs a life-saving deen. And Islam is that deen!

[Speech given at IICU, December 22, 2011]

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