Islam’s Social Vision: Braving the Steep Road
One of the prophetic statements which best encapsulates this outlook is found in the following hadith: ‘O people! Spread [the greetings of] peace, feed the poor, keep ties of relations and pray at night whilst others sleep, you shall enter Paradise in peace (ya ayyuha’l-nas afshu’l-salam wasillu’l-arham wa at‘imu’l-ta‘am wa sallu bi’l-layi wa’l-nasu niyam tadkhulu’l-jannata bi salam).’ [Al-Tirmidhi, no.2485]
While at first glance the hadith seems only to be depicting personal virtues, skimming beneath the surface reveals its social content too.
Afshu’l-salam – “spread peace”: No doubt, it applies first and foremost to spreading the greetings of peace: al-salamu ‘alaykum (peace be unto you). The Qur’an says: When you enter houses, greet one another with a greeting of peace from God, blessed and good. [24:61] In another verse, it instructs: When you are greeted with a greeting, return it with a better greeting or [at least] its equal. [4:86] One hadith offers these tidings: ‘You will not enter Paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another. Shall I not lead you to something that will cause you to love each other: spread the greetings of peace among yourselves.’ [Muslim, no.54]
At a deeper lever, “spreading peace” calls on each of us to be reconcilers, rectifiers; or simply peace-makers. God mentioned in the Qur’an: If two parties of believers fall into a dispute, make peace between them. [49:9] Extending beyond believers is the verse: There is no good in much of their secret conferences except in him who enjoins charity, or kindness, or peace-making among the people. [4:114] Then there is the verse that teaches believers how to respond to taunts or provocations: And the servants of the All-Merciful are those who walk upon the earth modestly and who, when the ignorant address them, say [words of] peace. [25:63]
Wasillu’l-arham – “keeping ties of relations”: And those who join together what God has commanded to be joined … Theirs shall be the final abode, says the Qur’an. [13:21-22] In a hadith that gives us further insight into good character, sense and sensibility, we find the following instruction: ‘Whoever believes in God and the Afterlife, let him honour his guest; whosoever believes in God and the Afterlife, let him keep ties of the womb; and whoever believes in God and the Afterlife, let him speak well or remain quiet.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6017; Muslim, no.47]
Again, at a more broader, social level, maintaining bonds between kith and kin helps define the pivotal role of the family as the bedrock of a healthy society; where children are lovingly raised and where social capital is invested in them as future social actors. Moreover, as the rights of family and relatives are honoured, it serves as an important impetus to honour the rights of others outside the family circle – particularly the poor and the vulnerable, and also the rights of the stranger. The Qur’an says: Worship God and ascribe nothing with Him. And show kindness to your parents, and to your relatives, and to orphans, the needy, close neighbours and distant neighbours, the fellow-traveller and the wayfarer. [4:36]
At‘imu’l-ta‘am – “feeding the poor”: Describing the righteous, the Qur’an declares: And they feed, for the love of God, the poor, the indigent and the captive. [76:8] Of course, when this verse was revealed in Mecca, there were no Muslim captives or prisoners of war; telling us that this, and other such verses, applies to helping to dignify vulnerable non-Muslims, as it does Muslims. In an unequivocal reminder of what opposes faith, God says: Have you observed him who denies the Religion? Such is he who repels the orphan, and who does not urge the feeding of the poor. [107:1-3] Thus Islam does not just require us to feed the poor, but requires of us to “urge others” to do so too.
The bigger picture in feeding the poor is for believers to develop a social conscience. For when true faith touches the heart to any degree, the individual’s view of man and society is transformed, motivating him to the benevolent service of his fellow human beings. But those whose focus is exclusively on theology (‘aqidah), tend to lose sight of Islam’s social vision. Instead, they become victims of a one-dimensional mindset that is virtually incapable of critical awareness and lacks meaningful social consciousness. Such people, therefore, have very little incentive to participate in society’s growth and well-being, or to look beyond their own little worlds. True faith, though, should make us selfless, not selfish; despite financial hardships or attendant economic hurdles: Yet he has not braved the steep road. And what will convey to you what the steep road is: [It is] the freeing of a slave; or the feeding, on a day of famine, of an orphaned relation; or a needy person in distress. Then shall one be of those who believe and enjoin one another to patience, and enjoin one another to mercy. [90:11-17]
Sallu bi’l-layl – “praying at night”: About it, God has urged: And some portion of the night, awake for prayer, as an extra merit for you. [17:79] And: Those who forsake their beds to call upon their Lord in fear and hope. [32:16] The Prophet, peace be upon him said: ‘The best prayer, after the obligatory ones, is the late-night prayer.’ [Muslim, no.1163] About this late-night (tahajjud) prayer, we also read: ‘Live as long as you wish, you shall soon die. Love whomever you wish, you shall soon taste separation. Do whatever you wish, you shall soon be recompensed. And know that the believer’s honour is in the night prayer and his glory is in being free of needing others.’ [Al-Quda‘i, Musnad, no.746] Hence to rise from sleep for the night-vigil, so as to express one’s love and gratitude to God, and to seek of His bounties – spiritual and temporal – is the believer’s crowning glory. For it entails defeat of the devil, subduing the nafs, and desire to seek divine intimacy. May God grant us all the enabling grace to seek such intimacy.
At the social level it reminds us of the need to cultivate a deeper connection with God, beyond the basic duties we owe to Him, and that ultimately it is God’s downpourings and blessings that are the true source of healing and well-being for society: And if only the people of the cities had believed and feared God, We would surely have opened for them blessings from the sky and from the earth. [7:96] For Muslims, matters of public morality and social justice are best given legitimacy by religion. But this is not an excuse to be armchair critics. Islam wants us to live the change we wish to see in society. Far too many of us Muslims are quick to criticise social ills or injustices, but are slow to brave the steep road that their healing requires. And that simply won’t do.