The following is an anecdote I wish to share particularly with my Muslim readers, as it pertains to the etiquettes of disagreement in matters of understanding the religion.Other readers may benefit more from the early part as well as the general principles in the conclusion.
A common theme expressed by Muslim speakers when addressing audiences with varied backgrounds is the common origin of all humanity from a single mother and father. As the Qur’an says:
[O mankind, indeed We created you from a (single) male and female, and made you into nations and tribes so you may know one another. Truly, the noblest of you in the sight of God is the most righteous of you. Indeed, God is Knowing and Acquainted.] (Al-Hujurat 49:13)
In other words, people all over the world form a single human family comprised of different languages and colours, and also different creeds.
This point is so obvious as not to require further evidence from scripture, but indeed there are other verses of relevance. In particular, various prophets are described as the “brother” of their people, including Prophet Lut (Lot, peace be upon him) who was not even a blood relation (in the immediate sense) of the people of Sodom to whom he was sent:
[The people of Lut denied the messengers, when their brother Lut said to them: “Will you not fear (God)? Indeed, I am to you a trustworthy messenger.”] (Ash-Shu`araa’ 26:160-162)
Admittedly, there is a verse that seems to contradict the notion of a universal human brotherhood, and it appears in the same chapter as the first verse quoted above:
[The believers are but brothers...] (Al-Hujurat 49:10)
However, we should note that technically, what the verse denies is that the believers are anything to one another except a brotherhood. It does not preclude describing the broader human race as a brotherhood. It should also be noted that the Arabic term “ukhuwwah” is not as male-specific as the English translation implies.
In short, there is a brotherhood – and sisterhood – based on faith, and that is what the Muslims share with one another and nobody else. It is the concept of “Ummah”, or a single diverse nation. At the same time, Muslims share with all other children of Adam and Eve a family bond: brotherhood in humanity.
If somebody happens to dislike using this expression for whatever reason, then there is no obligation on him to do so. However, I witnessed a very strange state of affairs a few years ago while I was a volunteer at a British mosque.
An imam was appointed for a period of time, during which he became – it seems – obsessed with the question of “brotherhood in humanity” to the extent of portraying those who spoke of such a concept as having flaws in their faith.
The same applied to the term “Abrahamic faiths”, which he condemned a prominent scholar for using. After all, the Prophet Ibrahim only had one faith! When I tried to explain the nuances in this term – which, I agree, can be misunderstood – saying that the scholar obviously meant that Jews, Christians and Muslims all trace their spiritual heritage back to Abraham, he insisted that there could only be one meaning: and an unacceptable one at that!
This imam was considered as a learned man by the community, and no doubt he had qualifications in religious sciences. However, his ability to grasp other points of view was sorely lacking, and that is a very dangerous problem in a person who is expected to explain the religion with clarity.
I recall, in particular, one sermon he delivered, in which he claimed that “differing” is an evil per se, which would include holding different views on secondary issues, even if a spirit of respect is maintained. To support his view, he quoted some verses out of context, implying that the “disputation” (tanazu`) and “splitting” (tafarruq) dispraised in the Qur’an are equivalent to any “differing” (ikhtilaf).
The confusing thing at the time was the way he blew the “brotherhood in humanity” issue out of all proportion, implying that it was a key slogan of these supposed corrupters of Islam: myself included. Meanwhile, the reality was that it is a simple matter and no other significant claims depend upon it.
I would have loved to discuss the dispute with him in person, until one of us – I hope – would be convinced of the logic of the other perspective. Unfortunately, however, conditions at the time were not conducive to constructive dialogue.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was a lecture by a visiting Muslim scholar, who happened to say to the audience – largely not Muslims – that all people are brothers.
This made the imam very angry, and he turned to a friend of mine and said, among other things: “Do these people want to say that the Prophet (peace be upon him) is the brother of some whore?!” I apologise for using such language even in a quotation; in fact, he used an even worse word from his colloquial Arabic.
I wish he had said it to me, as I would have responded as follows.
First of all, the lack of manners is not being shown by those who would implicitly suggest that the Blessed Messenger is related – through Prophet Adam – to this “whore”, but the disrespect is being shown by the one who came up with this outrageous example.
It is disrespectful to this hypothetical woman, and also to the Prophet (peace be upon him), whose name is worthy of being kept far away from bad language. Moreover, it is disrespectful to the people this imam disagreed with, such as myself, because we would never have deemed it acceptable to utter such crude words.
Secondly, in answer to the question as put: yes, of course the Prophet Muhammad – like all of us – is related to that woman just as he is to all of us, Muslim or not, through the ties of humanity. Indeed, it is the greatest of God’s blessings that He sent us messengers from among our own kind, living and breathing like us, striving and bleeding like us, so we may take them as models of behaviour as well as following the guidance revealed to them.
Strangely, this man in his crude question did not specify the faith of the “whore”. Could she be a believer, a Muslimah? Of course she can, as a person can commit the most egregious sins and yet remain within the fold of Islam, a sinner from whom repentance is awaited.
Therefore, by his own standards, this imam should have realised that there is nothing to contradict her being related to the Prophet by the same relationship as between the rest of the human race, and even through the bonds of faith. If he has a problem conceiving this fact, then the problem is his alone.
One of the main things I learned from this otherwise unfortunate experience is the importance of keeping a sense of proportion in disagreements, which can be healthy if truth is sought thereby.
Rather than rushing to judge a person for a statement which seems mistaken or problematic, we should seek in the first place to understand what the speaker meant, and whether it is our own understanding that needs improvement. Judging people’s intentions is a very grave matter.
If we feel sure that the mistake is with the other party, then it is our duty to offer them whatever knowledge we have, using the most convincing evidence and reasoning.
This is assuming that the other party is interested in rational dialogue, which should indeed be our default assumption. If we find otherwise, then the Qur’an teaches us another standard:
[The servants of the Most Gracious are those who walk upon the earth gently, and if the ignorant address them, they say: “Peace!”] (Al-Furqan 25:63)
One of the followers of our imam friend above has written a two-part “refutation” on my points above regarding “brotherhood in humanity”, and at the same time has reinforced my observations about fanaticism and lack of concern for etiquettes of dialogue. I do not hesitate in characterising it as an extremist website, and I am not inclined to be drawn into futile debates. Nevertheless, as a seeker of truth I have taken the opportunity to look deeper into the relevant texts of Qur’an and Sunnah.
Unfortunately the writer has grasped at a few verses, not performing a comprehensive study comparable to mine (based on all relevant Quranic references), which is found here: Brotherhood in Faith and Humanity (A Quranic Study). I can summarise my evidences as follows:
- People who share parentage are called “brothers”, and all humans come from Adam and Hawwa.
- Metaphorically, a “brother” is someone who shares in certain attributes, and we all share the attribute of humanity.
- The Quranic reference to various Prophets (Hud, Salih, Shu’ayb and Nuh) as the “brother” of the communities they were sent to (also: “the brothers of Lut”).
- The statements of some Muslim scholars such as Imam al-Nawawi.
In his first part, the brother has called for study of tafsir (Quranic commentary) but has neglected to look at any tafsir of the verse which says “The believers are only brothers”. His grasp of Arabic is such that he cannot distinguish this meaning from “Only the believers are brothers”. The word innama is followed by a subject and predicate, limiting the former to the latter. But anyone ignorant of Arabic grammar and rhetoric could easily fall into this error.
Then he tries to dismiss the description of various Prophets as their people’s “brother” by referring to the tafsir of Ibn ‘Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him). Even if those narrations are authentic, they do not in fact disprove our contention. Even if “their brother” here is used to mean “their prophet”, that only indicates: (1) That there are metaphorical usages in the Qur’an; (2) that we are entitled to follow the Qur’an’s forms of expression and say “brother” in such instances. I am amazed at someone who insists on the literal meaning of the Qur’an when it suits him, and runs away from its explicit words when they refute his desperate case!
In his second part, he has gone further than necessary by trying to prove that difference in faith cancels even the literal bonds of family. I had already provided a counter to this notion with reference to Q 3:167-8, which “still ascribes brotherhood, in a more literal sense, between the martyrs of the Battle of Uhud and the hypocrites from among their tribesmen who stayed behind.”
We may add to this: the “believer from the family of Pharaoh” (40:28), and the “wife of Nuh” and “wife of Lut” (both disbelievers) and the “wife of Pharaoh” (a believer) – see Q 66:10,11 – as the difference in religion did not cancel the description of family relation in any of these cases.
The only shred of support for his argument is the apparent meaning of Q 11:46, namely that Noah’s son – who dies as a disbeliever – was “not of his family”. Now, where is our brother’s previous insistence on submitting to tafsir?!
He has failed even to see the implications of his own statement: “Ibn Kathir said also in his tafseer that Allah The Most High promessed [sic] to save those who believe among the family of Noah”. This (from Q 11:40) implies that there were disbelievers among his family!
As for Imam Ibn Kathir’s actual commentary on the verse (which the brother must have neglected in order to build his flimsy case), it is as follows:
By saying “He is not of your family”, He means: those among your family whom I promised to save, as I only promised to save those among your family who believed.
You will find the same statement as you consult the many books of exegesis, and thus it was stated by the imams of the Salaf. In other words, there is no denial in the verse that his son is part of his family, but rather the Quranic expression contains ellipsis (hadhf).
Even where there is a more literal understanding of the statement “not of your family”, it is as Ibn ‘Ashur states in his tafsir:
It is a denial of (the son) being part of his religion, yet it does not falsify Noah’s saying (peace be upon him): ‘My son is from my family’. Rather, it is an announcement that, for people of faith, the relation of religion is the relation.
In other words, the ties of faith take precedence over ties of kinship (and humanity); yet that was never in dispute, was it?
So… should we not be warned about ignorant literalists who insist upon their first impression of a verse, refusing to ponder more deeply, let alone referring back to the people of knowledge and expertise??
As for the other arguments presented, either I have discussed them already or you can see easily how they do not prove the intended point. And God Almighty knows best.
UPDATE 2 (27/10/2012):
Remember that this is a thread about fanaticism vs. reasoned dialogue, and not primarily about human brotherhood. My detailed Quranic argument for that concept is elsewhere.
There is nothing much new in this update, but a brother sent me two videos supposedly refuting my position, both from prominent Saudi scholars. Now, as people of learning, they are respected for their deductions (unlike our passionate brother above), but we are under no obligation to accept their arguments, particularly when the reasoning is as weak as I have shown and shall reiterate.
Here is the first clip:
Now, I am sure you can see the parallel between this argument and the earlier one about the “whore” (sorry again). But the “Pharaoh card” seems to be the favourite of those who dispute this terminology. Let me be clear once again: if the evidence were against saying “brotherhood in humanity”, I would desist right away. I would say something else, like “shared humanity”. No bother at all. But it is a usage indicated by the Qur’an, so why should I succumb to bullying?
You see an assumption in this clip that the purpose of this term is to “please the disbelievers”. The imam in my original posting had actually claimed, on an internet forum, that we do this “so that the disbelievers accept them into their parliaments”(!!) Let’s not get carried away in judging intentions, even if using good speech to invite people into fruitful dialogue is indeed a virtuous thing, as long as it is in agreement with our legal principles.
The shaykh would rather say: “They are our enemies”, as though anyone not a Muslim is at war against Islam! Where is the compassion for humanity as exemplified by the Prophets?? He says of humanity in brotherhood: “What does it benefit?” I say: even if you or I see no benefit, does that make it false?
As for the argument itself: “Pharaoh was also a human, was he not? Was he also our brother? We do not say that.”
This is an attempt at what the logicians call reductio ad absurdium, i.e. to suggest that something implied by our statement is impossible, hence the original statement is false. But what exactly is absurd about the Pharaoh being a brother in humanity to other human beings, including the believers?
True, we do not say that. But there are many things that we choose not to say, yet are undeniable nonetheless. If God is not the creator of evil, then there must be more than one creator (impossible). But the Qur’an teaches us in several places not to ascribe evil to Him, e.g.: “And we do not know whether evil is intended for those on earth or whether their Lord intends for them a right course.” (Q 72:10)
Moreover, as I pointed out previously, our Lord was willing to describe the believer as being “from the family of Pharaoh” (or his people), and that virtuous believing woman as being “the wife of Pharaoh”. So, if you insist on asking about Pharaoh’s brotherhood in humanity, you will find your answer from the Qur’an.
As for the second clip, it seems to have been removed from Youtube. The shaykh (I can’t remember which one) responded to a question about scholars who say that disbelievers are their brothers in humanity, saying: “They are their brothers.” Now, in the context of his refusal to accept brotherhood except between believers – and for disbelievers among themselves – is this not a declaration that those scholars (and people like myself) have left Islam because of this simple statement? If so, then it is the very essence of extremism and fanaticism. But if you are willing to interpret the shaykh’s statement more favourably, I would humbly request that you extend the same courtesy to us.