Islamic perspective

Declaration toward a global ethic: An Islamic response


Every religion preaches global ethic in one form or the other. Certain religious pronouncements do shock some with modern consciousness and they tend to decry religion.

They feel religion and religious practices are antiquated and need to be abandoned. Certainly some pronouncements may shock modern consciousness but these pronouncements need to be seen in the context in which they were made. Slavery will certainly shock modern conscience but it was permitted in the then given condition. It need not be taken as an abiding injunction. Thus one has to separate what is contextual from what is normative in scriptural injunctions. If such distinction is accepted then it will not be difficult to identify elements of global ethic in various scriptures and faith traditions.

It is needless to say that there never was a need for a global ethic as today. In bygone ages societies were more secluded from each other. The scope for interaction between different peoples was quite limited. It was, therefore, possible, to preserve ones own cultural practices in purer form. Isolation bred tendencies to preserve ones own cultural traditions and ethical norms. However, all this is changing fast with much greater interaction due to much faster means of communication. The world today is being described as a ‘global village '. Thus there is a felt need for the global ethic to enable peoples of different faith and cultural traditions to co-exist harmoniously as good neighbours. It is important to note that even in the past sufi and other saints made attempts to identify such universal elements in various religious traditions of the world. Kabir, Nanak, Baba Farid, Nizamuddin Awliya and several others from India made such efforts during the medieval ages. In India people of different religious and cultural traditions have existed together for centuries and hence they needed such universal statement of ethical norms.

It is perfectly true that ‘no new global order ' is possible without ‘a new global ethic '. Thus some friends from different religious traditions met in Chicago in 1993 and drafted a declaration toward a global ethic. It would be worthwhile to examine this declaration from the Islamic perspective. Does this declaration conform to or contradicts the ethical norms laid down by the holy Qur'an.

Islam has a claim to universality and eternity. Its ethical norms has to have global perspective. However, as pointed out before, no religion can ignore the immediate context in which it appears on the scene. One need not be constrained by these contextual elements while discussing global aspects of ethical norms. The Qur'anic pronouncements include many Arab customs and practices in one form or the other. They were part and parcel of the Arab social and cultural scene. Nothing would have made sense to the Arabs in immediate sense if these traditions and practices had not been included in preaching of Islam. However, other verses of universal character laid down global and eternal ethical standards.

The declaration under review makes, to begin with the following points: responsibility for a better global order; involvement for the sake of human rights, freedom, justice, peace, and preservation of Earth is absolutely necessary; different religious and cultural traditions must not prevent our common involvement in opposing all forms of inhumanity and working for greater humaneness; the principles expressed in Global Ethic can be affirmed by all persons with ethical convictions, whether religiously grounded or not and as religious and spiritual persons we base our lives on an Ultimate Reality, and draw spiritual power and hope therefrom, in trust, in prayer, in meditation, in word or silence. We have a special responsibility for the welfare of all humanity and care for the planet Earth. We do not consider ourselves better than other women and men, but we trust that the ancient wisdom of our religions can point the way for the future.

These are some of the important points of the Chicago Declaration on a Global Ethic drafted by the parliament of religions in September, 1993. Are they in conformity with the Islamic tradition? My categorical reply is yes. It is the Qur'anic requirement that there is no place for fitna(mischief, persecution, killing, violence) in this world. One should struggle until there is no more fitnah on this earth (2:193). Thus the whole emphasis of Qur'anic ethic is to evolve a better world to live in, a better global order.

The Declaration rightly points out that religion by itself cannot solve the environmental, economic, political, and social problems but they can provide what obviously cannot be attained by economic plans, political programmes, or legal regulations alone: a change in the inner orientation , the whole mentality, the hearts of people, and a conversion from a false path to a new orientation for life. Though the success rate of religions in this respect is not very high but religion, as it tends to create inner conviction, is far more suited than political programmes or legislation, to achieve this end.

The Arabs were very proud of their superiority and looked down upon on the people of non-Arab descent. The holy Prophet always stressed that Arabs have no superiority over Ajam e.e. non-Arabs. He gave highest position to a liberated black slave Bilal Habshi - to call the faithfuls to prayers. Many highly placed companions of the Prophet were aspiring to this position but the Prophet gave it to a slave of humble origin to prove that all humans are equal and should be treated with full dignity. It was largely the result of this that the Muslim society generally did not have prejudice against blacks and Muslims of different races mix together freely. Also the Prophet set a great example by adopting Zaid, his own liberated slave as his son. He treated Zaid with such affection that after his liberation he refused to go with his parents who came to take him. He later played important role in the Muslim society of Madina.

The Qur'an set about, through its pronouncements, to dismantle all kinds of prejudices, including religious prejudices. Islam was nothing, if not a project for spiritual renewal. The Qur'an clearly says that there are different ways and directions of worship. Do not fight about the way one should pray. Instead one should Excel each other in good deeds - istibaq bi'l khayrat (2:148). This is very important doctrine enunciated by the Qur'an and repeated several times. This is, in fact, most modern attitude towards religion and freedom of worship. This is enunciated in different ways in different places in the Qur'an: 1) do not abuse others' gods, they can abuse Allah (6:109); 2) There is no compulsion in religion (2:256); that righteousness does not lie in turning ones face towards the East or West but believing in Allah, in his apostles, in the day of judgement and taking care of weaker sections of society; that if Allah desired He could have created all as one community but His intention was to test the believers whether they can live in peace and harmony with diverse people and excel others in good deeds (5:48). Thus it will be seen that diversity and plurality is encouraged and the believers are repeatedly exhorted to shed all prejudices and live in peace and harmony with others. Thus the Qur'an tries to bring about an inner transformation and a spiritual renewal.

Thus the Qur'an, as pointed out by the Declaration too, that every human being without distinction of age, sex, race, skin colour, physical or mental ability, language, religion, political view, or national or social origin possesses an inalienable and untouchable dignity, and everyone, the individual as well as the state, is therefore obliged to honour this dignity and protect it. The Prophet also has said that al-khalqu 'ayal Allah i.e. that entire creation is Allah's family and one who loves his family most loves Allah most. Thus true love for Allah is love for His creation.

The Declaration rightly maintains that dictatorship, terror, torture and violence should have no place in a human society. No one should have right to take human life. Respect for human life, in fact for all life, is highly ingrained in Islamic ethic. The Qur'an says that to kill one person is to kill entire humanity (5:32). Thus the Qur'an tries to inculcate highest respect for human life. The Prophet was so kind and compassionate that when it was reported to him that a lady of ill repute saved the life of a thirsty cat by fetching water for it from a pit by using her sock, he said that she will enter paradise and all her sins will be pardoned by Allah. The Prophet was shocked when he saw a donkey branded on face thus disfiguring him. He reprimanded its owner and asked him never to do again. The Prophet also instructed his followers never to cut trees and destroy harvests in the field even in the enemy territory. Also, Allah is repeatedly described as Compassionate and Merciful and thus His servants too, have to be merciful and compassionate towards life if they truly love Allah. Thus the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic that “a human person is infinitely precious and must be unconditionally protected and likewise the lives of animals and plants which inhabit this planet with us deserve protection, preservation and care ”, is quite in conformity with the teachings of Islam.

The Qur'an lays great stress on the just economic order. In fact it emphasises the need for a just social order. Justice, as pointed out before, is very central to the Islamic social order. It is central both in personal as well as collective sense. An unjust order cannot be an Islamic order. The Prophet is reported to have said that a society can survive with kufr i.e. unbelief but not with zulm i.e. oppression. Islam also emphasises the need for distributive justice. Qur 'an requires that the surplus wealth - over and above the genuine needs - should be distributed among the needy and the poor (2:219), it also rejects a social order in which wealth circulates among the rich only (59:7) and (9:34). Thus Islam cannot envisage a socio-economic order where “millions of people are without work; millions are exploited by poor wages, forced to edges of society, with their possibilities for the future destroyed. ” It is true that in many lands the gap between the poor and the rich, between the powerful and the powerless is immense. We live in a world in which totalitarian state socialism as well as unbridled capitalism have hollowed out and destroyed many ethical and spiritual values. A materialistic mentality breeds greed for unlimited profit and a grasping for endless plunder.”

Islam strongly disapproved of such a state of social affairs. It strikes a middle path between extreme materialistic tendencies of capitalism and extreme spiritualism manifesting in the form of renunciation of the world. While it acknowledges the needs of the body and encourages its followers to earn their living in an honourable way it does not approve of renunciation of the world. “There is no renunciation of the world in Islam ”, the Prophet is reported to have said. Thus it prefers a middle path between materialism and spiritualism. It requires the believers to take out an obligatory tax - called zakat for distribution among the needy, the poor, the widows, the orphans and liquidation of indebtedness. It also instituted the institution of bait al-mal i.e. state treasury with a view to support and protect the weaker sections of society. Creation of a just society is the main project of Islam. It has never approved of unbridled accumulation of property and never lost sight of social responsibility. To liquidate indebtedness of the second as well as the third world is also highly necessary and should be accorded top priority. The concept of zakat in Islam is very central to liquidation of indebtedness is quite central to the concept of zakat.

Thus the declaration of a global ethic that “if the plight of the poorest billions of humans on this planet, particularly women and children is to be improved, the world economy must be structured more justly ” is quite Islamic in spirit. This must be done with a great sense of urgency for real ethical and spiritual renewal.

The Qur'anic ethics is mainly based on truthfulness. The Qur'anic term for it is haq. One cannot create a just social order without truth as a fundamental postulate of Islamic ethics. Allah Himself is described as Haq (truth). Thus truth is as central a value in Islam as justice. In fact both are two sides of the same coin. Thus truth should be the central value for every organ of a just society including the mass media. Nothing can be above the strict standard of truthfulness in a just society. Thus mass media has also to be judged by this standard of truthfulness. In fact human dignity, freedom and human rights cannot be ensured without transparency and truthfulness. Thus it would be against ethical standards if the media becomes manipulative and intrudes into the private space of an individual.

Also, as the declaration points out the relationship between women and men should not be characterised by patronising behaviour or exploitative behaviour. Their relationship should be based on equity. In fact the Qur'an has accorded equal status to both women and men. The Qur'an says that “women have rights similar to those against them in a just manner ” (2:228). And in the verse 33:35 perfect equality between women and men is sought to be established. And in 9:71 men and women are described each others friends. Needless to say friendship is always based on just and fair relationship which reflects dignity and humanity of both and does not have element of exploitativeness.

Similarly relationship between children and parent also should be such as to promote and enrich family life. It is obligatory in the Islamic shari'ah for parents to look after their children and give them education until they achieve the age of puberty and can support themselves. And it is obligatory for children to look after their parents in the old age and support them financially so that they can lead dignified life.

Thus it will be seen that the Declaration Toward a Global Ethic is quite in conformity with the spirit of Islam. In fact in today's world a just society can be established only in partnership with the people of different faith. Thus spiritual togetherness and partnership of faiths for reconstructing spiritually and ethically rich life is the only meaningful way out of present morass and corruption.

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