Our world is plagued with problems: poverty, crime, war, famine, corruption. The list goes on. But one of the primary problems in the world today is the existence of ideologies of intolerance, division, and hate: racism, xenophobia, and religious exclusivism and extremism, to name a few.
Why do so many ideologies of hate exist? Why are so many people today comfortable with hating those who don't look like them, speak like them, dress like them, worship like them, or live like them? While a completely satisfying answer to these questions may not be possible, I have one answer that I think strikes at the heart of the problem: We as humans have spent so much effort focusing on what makes us different and have largely forgotten what makes us the same. And we have used our differences as an excuse to assume superiority over others.
Yes, we have decided that, instead of turning to our shared roots and reminding ourselves that we are all share a common state of humanity, before everything and anything else–before looking at the color of our skins, our places of birth or residence, our socio-economic statuses, our religious traditions or schools of thought–we have decided to focus instead on what makes us different in our appearances, beliefs, tongues, dress, and affiliations.
But if we desire to live peacefully on this earth, this must stop. We must stop focusing on our differences and using them as a means of exclusion and intolerance and start celebrating our commonalities and using them as a means of cooperation, respect, and peace. This does not mean that we should not affirm that there exist differences between us. No one can deny this. But we cannot allow these differences to be a basis for hatred for and intolerance of one another.
As a Shiʿi Muslim, I draw much of my inspiration from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and his family, the Ahl al-Bayt. The 21st of the month of Ramadan (which this year falls on Friday, June 16, 2017) marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of the first Imam Ali b. Abi Talib, who was assassinated while observing his morning prayer in the mosque of Kufa in Iraq in the year 40 AH/661 CE (Sunni Muslims consider him to be the fourth Caliph after the Prophet). So as I ponder about the legacy of this great leader, I am reminded of one of his most powerful teachings: his vision for humanity. I'd like to share this vision with you, as I believe it carries a fundamental lesson for all of us today in this environment of hate and division.
After receiving the pledge of allegiance from the Muslim masses to be their new Caliph in 35/656 in the city of Medina, Imam Ali appointed one of his close companions and followers, Malik b. al-Harith al-Nakhaʿi, popularly known as Malik al-Ashtar, as the new governor of Egypt in 38/658. With Malik, Imam Ali sent a letter of instruction to guide him in his new position and to suggest to him the proper way to govern his subjects. The letter (#53) is recorded in its entirety in the book Nahj al-Balaghah (The Peak of Eloquence), compiled by the great scholar al-Sharif al-Radi (d. 406/1015). This letter was also mentioned in the former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's address on the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1997. I'd like to bring attention to one section of this long letter, where Imam Ali states: "[O Malik]: Habituate your heart to mercy for [your] subjects and to affection and kindness for them...they are of two kinds: either your brethren in religion or your likes in creation."
Yes, people are of two types: they either share your religious tradition and belief system, and as such are your brothers and sisters in faith, or if they don't, they are your counterparts in humanity and share a common origin with you–they are your brothers and sisters in humanity. I find this statement to be remarkable because, while the Islamic tradition holds shared belief in high regard, Imam Ali here presents a major lesson about an aspect of our lives that we far too often seem to neglect or forget about: our shared humanity. While we may have differences with others in our religious beliefs, this should not impede on our ability to recognize those who may not share our beliefs as our counterparts in humanity and to treat them with care, kindness, and compassion.
Interestingly, Egypt at the time was inhabited mostly by non-Muslims. In his seminal work Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period, Dr. Richard Bulliet shows how in the earlier part of the first/seventh century (the same time in which Imam Ali appointed Malik al-Ashtar as governor of Egypt), the Muslim population of the area was extremely small, perhaps no more than 2-3% of the population, and that it was approximately 250 years later than the Muslim population reached 50% of the entire population.¹ This not only suggests that the idea that "Islam was spread by the sword" is false (Dr. Bulliet presents similar trends in the various regions surrounding the Arabian Peninsula as well), but that, in this case, Imam Ali explicitly recognized and promoted the importance of living and interacting with people who did not share the Islamic faith in peace and with care and mercy: "Habituate your heart to mercy for the subjects and to affection and kindness for them...they are of two kinds: either your brethren in religion or your likes in creation."
The idea of a shared humanity is one that finds lots of evidence in the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Imams of Ahlulbayt. The Qur'an begins with a declaration in the first verse of chapter 1 (Al-Fatiha, The Opening): "Praise is due to God, Lord of the [entire] universe" and ends in the 114th and last chapter of the Qur'an (Al-Nas, The People): "Say: I seek refuge in the Lord of [all] the people, the Master of [all] the people, the God of [all] people." The Prophet Muhammad has been quoted to state: "All of the creation are the children of God, and the most beloved of the creation to God is the one most beneficial to [the rest of] the children of God."² Of course, in the Islamic tradition, "the children of God" is interpreted metaphorically, since God has no physical "children": "[God] begets none and is begotten by no one."³
Thus, we are reminded of our shared humanity. This common bond must be put at the forefront of our interactions with others. We must be able to look past–not deny, but look past–our differences and focus on our commonalities. We cannot allow our apparent differences to generate a sense of superiority, supremacy, and intolerance of one another. Let us take inspiration from Imam Ali and remember that people are of two types: either your brethren in religion or your likes in creation.
1. Richard Bulliet, Conversion to Islam in the Medieval Period: An Essay in Quantitative History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), 97.
2. Muhammad b. Ya'qub al-Kulayni, Kitab al-Kafi, (Tehran: Dar al-Kutub al-Islamiyyah, 1388/1968-9), 2:164, 199.
3. Qur'an (112:3). See also Qur'an (2:116, 10:68, 17:111, 18:4, 19:92, 25:2) and others.