Islam is very clear about the importance of establishing an Islamic community, but history shows that despite the success of the Holy Prophet in creating one, his progeny were not given the chance to do the same; sadly, future Muslims neglected their responsibility in this regard.
While Muslims were blessed with a handful of dedicated individuals throughout history, during the greater part of our history we have had leaders in power who were not truly interested in maintaining a comprehensive Islamic system nor were they able to establish a genuine Islamic community, hence Muslims were not able to institute Islamic communities based on the teachings of the Prophet. In light of the many problems facing the Muslim communities around the world today, one may ask, would non-Muslim communities be interested in Islam and its message, if in addition to producing good individuals, Muslims were able to show the world that there are at least couple of genuine Muslim communities that truly meet Islamic requirements.
Although we should not be too pessimistic, the fact is that at present we have been unable to establish proper examples in our communities, or even to set high standards for them, in order to claim that God and His Messenger would be pleased with us. Merely having millions of Muslims in a community does not automatically make the community an Islamic one.
Individuals that fully embrace and implement Islam at the personal level have the responsibility to extend this to the community level. A faithful believer does not automatically translate into a good practising Muslim community unless these believers uphold Islamic social values. This is a great challenge, and that is why it is essential at first to identify the signs of a vibrant and healthy Islamic community.
Various qualities of a healthy Islamic community, Truthfulness and trustworthiness are two important signs of a believer. Regrettably, there are occasions when people judge a book by its cover and only focus on the outward appearance. What we should really consider is the honesty, truthfulness, reliability and trustworthiness of a person.
Persistence is also another virtue of a healthy community. In the Qur’an (11:112), God tells the Holy Prophet to remain steadfast and to be persistent.
God also commands the same thing to whoever has returned to God with the Prophet. This means that it is the responsibility of the Holy Prophet and the responsibility of his followers to remain persistent. In another verse, the Qur’an summons only the Prophet: ‘So summon to this (unity of religion) and be steadfast, just as you have been commanded and do not follow their desires…..’ (42:15).
The late Ayatollah Khomeini beautifully remarked that it would have not been difficult for the Prophet to fulfil the requirements of remaining steadfast and persistent, but ensuring that the whole community remained loyal was a different matter.
The responsibility of keeping the members of the community committed and steadfast on the cause is a heavy task and a true challenge for community leaders because they must make sure that no one, including them, gives up or goes astray. There would be little or no benefit in our way of life if one’s soul was deviating from the way of God.
To be on the ‘Right Path’ is a spiritual concept and is another sign to measure the relative health of a community. This is probably why God has chosen many metaphors to explain it to us. A good example of this is when God revealed to the Prophet that he must change the direction of prayers to face Makkah rather than Jerusalem. Some Muslims did not understand the reason for such a directive, so God in His ultimate Wisdom guided people through Prophet Muhammad(s). In case they demanded a reason to explain this change, the Prophet could clarify that it did not matter which way they faced, as the East and the West and indeed everything else belong to God, and that it is He who guides those with whom He is pleased towards the ‘Right Path’.
…during the greater part of our history we have had leaders in power who were not truly interested in maintaining a comprehensive Islamic system nor were they able to establish a genuine Islamic community, hence Muslims were not able to institute Islamic communities based on the teachings of the Prophet.
The Right Path (Siratul Mustaqeem) in Quranic terminology does not refer to a physical direction but is a metaphor for the direction that we take in our lives.
In the following verses of the Qur’an we find a similar example: ‘God is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light is a niche wherein is a lamp – the lamp is in a glass – the glass as it were a glittering star – lit from a blessed olive tree, neither Eastern nor Western, whose oil almost lights up, though fire should not touch it. Light upon Light…’ (24:35)
The oil of this lamp is from the olive tree. Light is emitted from this oil because it is so transparent and glistening that even without lighting it, it shines. And one of the qualities of the olive tree is that it leans neither towards the East nor towards the West. Here again we are told that the East and the West are both under His command and what is of importance is the Right Path.
Another verse of the Qur’an says: ‘Thus We have made you a ‘middle’ nation that you may be witnesses to the people and that the Apostle may be a witness to you’ (2:143).
In this verse the word ‘wasaat’ is used to mean balanced or middle way. It also means beautiful, but beauty also needs to be balanced, because if there is no balance then beauty becomes exaggerated and unrealistic like a caricature or a cartoon drawing. The Islamic nation is the one which is made balanced by the decree of God. Therefore, it is moderate and does not go to extremes. This is the ‘Right Path’. When turning to other directions, we lose our moderation and distance ourselves from Islam.
The Islamic community must endeavour to become an example and set the standards for others. Indeed we should become the best example in all aspects. We should set examples for how to bring up children, look after the elderly, or how to help the poor, create jobs and introduce social welfare. Muslims should follow the example of the Prophet and then become examples for other people, so the Prophet is their witness and he is the standard bearer. Islam teaches us that being better mean that one is given the responsibility to be of benefit to others. So if we want to be considered an exemplary community, then we should be better in serving others. Being better certainly does not mean that one’s life is more important than the life of others. God has made Islam a balanced religion and its followers a nation of balanced and moderate people.
What should be clear here is that it is no longer effective if we keep telling ourselves that such and such are the teachings of our Prophet. We should show others how we implement the teachings of our Prophet in our lives and communities instead. We should show that we do so because our Prophet has told us, and we should show that we encourage and nurture closeness amongst ourselves because this is what our Prophet has taught us to do. Surely our actions will prove effective and this is the way we need to establish our communities.
To be on the ‘Right Path’ and lead a balanced life has various dimensions. We have to strike a balance between working for worldly affairs and working for the Hereafter. We must not sacrifice one for the sake of the other. We must not pursue
If we thought that we were going to remain in this world forever, then we would do our utmost to achieve the very best in life. For example, in respect to the environment, we would not pollute damage or destroy it; indeed, we would surely try to implement a sustainable development.
The narration continues: ‘And with respect to your eternal life, you must imagine as if you are going to die tomorrow’. If we come to the realisation that we may die any moment, then we would not postpone repentance to God, nor would we postpone trying to become good individuals; we would not postpone doing anything which would help us in the Hereafter.
Individuals, that fully embrace and implement Islam at the personal level have the responsibility to extend this to the community level … This is a great challenge, and that is why it is essential at first to identify the signs of a vibrant and healthy Islamic community.
By referring to the Quranic verses, we can conclude that in the sight of God, each individual is an important and unique part of the creation to such an extent that God says: ‘If We give life to one person it is as if We have given life to the whole of mankind and if We kill one person it is as if We have killed all people’.
In the Islamic perspective, whilst each and every person is important, the community and larger society has a more important stand and that is why every Prophet was given the task of purifying, educating and training individuals, while at the same time they had the responsibility to work towards either the establishment of a community of faithful or to lead and progress an existing one.
Faithful individuals can make up faithful communities. Their moderate balanced Islamic behaviour could be of example to other communities. Muslims can become witnesses for mankind in the same way that the Prophet Muhammad(s) was a witness for us. Therefore, the implementation of Islamic teachings and the Prophetic traditions both in our personal lives and collectively at a community level is the key to a successful and productive community.
Originally published on Issue 24, Nov/Dec 2014
Islam Today issue 65 (Special Issue) is dedicated to the interfaith work undertaken by the Islamic Centre of England over the past few years.