Encountering the ‘other’


Tommy-Robinson-1911821One of the themes that is reoccurring in the Quran is the theme of encountering the ‘other’ meeting the ‘other’, someone who is different from you. I do not know how many times we’ve read it in the Quran and how many times we’ve reflected on it. Here is a meeting of two strangers and this encounter with the stranger really determines how we live with the other. This might not be very important for a person living in the remote villages, say of Azad Kashmir. You know, where you’ll rarely come across anyone other than from your own family or from your community. But the situation is very different for us living here in the United Kingdom, where day in and day out, as soon as we walk out of our homes we encounter the ‘other’.

The others are people who are from different places, speak different languages, have different religions, different persuasions, all sorts of different orientations from us. They are different. How do we deal with such people? And of course, this also will be the mark of our maturity and our civilization. It really is a mark of civilization and how good we are. It is a measure of how really good we are as people, the way we interact with the other.

When I studied the Quran, I Looked at this and there are four very clear principles, which the Quran teaches us which apply and underpin our interaction with the other or which will really determine how we interact with the other. What are those four principles? Those four teachings of the Quran, which really teach us how we interact with the other? Well, the first one is where the Quran says: “O Mankind! We have made you into different nations and into different tribes so that you may recognise one another and the most noble amongst you in the sight of God is the one who has piety” (Al Hujarat: 13).  This is the one who has taqwaa, who is God conscious, who is aware of his duties to his lord, that is the standard, that is the criterion of nobility and of goodness. Otherwise you all are equal. This is a very important you know …what is the opposite of equality? Discrimination, prejudice, unfair treatment, and this is really the very basis of sane and a civilized society and so this is the very first principle that we have to understand.

The commentators say here, when Allah says we made you from one man and one woman, from Adam and Eve, what it’s saying is that you share your father, you share your mother, biologically you come from the same origin. So why do you in your social life, in your economic life, in your political life, in the rest of your lives, why do you discriminate in this way? You are all equal, you are same in that sense and that is a very important principle. Wherever, you find an opportunity to do goodness, cooperate with others.

Then the Quran goes on to teach us another very fundamental principle and this principle is about cooperation and not conflict. It says: “And cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression and fear Allah” (Al Ma’idah: 2).  The word here for righteousness is “Birr”, this is what we would now call the common good, goodness which benefits all of us. So we are told cooperate for the “birr”. Wherever, you find an opportunity to do goodness, cooperate with others. Now this cooperation as we said is mutual. So with who, who do you want to cooperate with? It is not just you. There must be another party. Cooperation cannot happen without the other party. So it is implied that this is the basis of how you work with others.

What is the opposite of cooperation? Competition, and sadly that seems to be the ruling force in our society. That is in fact what underpins and what drives a capitalist society and that is what is abhorrent about the capitalist society. It places too much emphasis on competition, competition in everything. You know there is a competition what we call gentle rivalry, what the Quran calls: hurrying and being hasty in doing good things. There is a certain degree that is allowed and permissible and in fact healthy but when it goes to the extremes as we see sadly, competition in economy, any of you who’s done business studies or commerce will see that sadly the modern economic system ticks and is driven by these almost, one can say passionately mad mavericks. Young people, particularly in ‘The City’ for instance, and all of these mergers we’ve seen and all these big collapses we’ve seen are the result of this overdrive for competition and of course this the result of another vice known as greed.

The Quran is teaching us a very important principle and that is of cooperation, we need to cooperate and this is very important in social life. If in social life we start doing this competition then no house, no home will remain a family. It will be spilt us under. It will not remain. So that is the second very important principle that will determine how we deal with the other.

The Quran teaches about friendship, not hatred. Sadly some people misconstrue some of the verses of the Quran, when the Quran talks of how not to befriend particular groups of people, they don’t understand the context of those verses, they forget there was a historical reason for those revelations and they forget totally this verse: “Perhaps Allah will put between you and those to whom you have been enemies among them, affection. And Allah is competent, and Allah is Forgiving and Merciful” (Al Mumtahana: 7).  In fact the Quran predicted they would be your friends and in another place, Allah says: “You will certainly find that those people who are nearest to you, those who like you the most are those people who are Christians. Because amongst them there are the monks, amongst them are people of knowledge and people of God” (Al Ma’idah: 82). So the Quran is already telling us to befriend the other, rather than to hate them, rather than to break up that friendship. So we have equality, we have cooperation, and we have friendship and there is another one, which is mutual understanding. As the Quran says “O people of the book! Let us come to those that are common amongst us, let us build on our commonalities and our similarities rather than on the differences” (Ale Imran: 64).

Well, these are the four sorts of principles that I found, which really underpin our relationship with the other. Let me give you some examples where our great Prophets and our great leaders in the past actually practiced this. One of the beautiful examples is that of Khalil-ul-Allah, Prophet Ibrahim (peace and blessings be upon him). It’s well known in the books that Ibrahim would never have a meal until he found a stranger to eat with him. Another very interesting one is, this a story in the Quran, where Ibrahim is eagerly waiting for his guest, somebody to come to join him in his meal and these two strangers arrive and he’s over the moon, he’s so happy, he rushes and he brings his roasted lamb chops. This story is mentioned in the Quran, quite a few times. So here are strangers, they are not people who he knows and yet he is so happy to receive them. He embraces them, opens up to them and then he roasts the lamb for them, the Quran says that is how you deal, this is how you love, this is how you interact with the other.

Then, of course, we have the story of Prophet Musa (peace and blessings be upon him). I find this really fascinating. When Musa escapes Egypt and goes to Madian and there at the well he finds these two young women waiting to give water to their animals. When he sees them standing there with their animals not finding the opportunity to get water, what does he do? He goes and asks them: how can I help you? Can I help you to get water for your animals? They tell him well our father is an old man, he can’t do it himself and so he goes and gives water to their animals. It’s very interesting, as soon as he’s done that and the girls are gone with their animals, he retreats under a tree and he prays to Allah saying O Allah! You have never let me down. But this again is very interesting that here he comes across two strangers, total strangers, but what does he do? He shows his generosity, his kindness, his willingness to help them.

Then there is a very moving story of the companion, you know when … The prophet (peace be upon him) in his mosque used to welcome strangers: Muslims and non-Muslims, Jews and Christians. … So there is this stranger who comes and it’s Isha time. He says to the prophet (peace be upon him) I am a stranger here, I have no-one here, and what he meant is: I want somebody to feed me, and somebody to look after me, that is what he was asking for. Rasul Allah (peace be upon him), as was the custom, himself had nothing in his own home. Normally, he would take people and feed them but today he had nothing so he asks, after the people had finished their prayer, he asks: I’ve got a guest here, would anybody like to take him and show their hospitality to him? This young man stands up and says: O Rasul Allah! I’ll take your guest. So he goes home, he goes home with this guest and says to his wife, this is the guest of Rasul Allah (peace be upon him). He does not mention whether he’s a Muslim or non-Muslim. That is irrelevant here. This is a stranger. This is a guest of Rasul Allah (peace be upon him). She says to him we haven’t got anything, we’ve only got enough for ourselves, and for our children. It’s only a little bit that we have. And the man says well we will do without it. Give some to the children, and when the time comes for us to eat and I will seat with him, you blow out the light so that he does not see that I am not eating. Let him eat, let him have his full meal. He is the guest of Rasul Allah (peace be upon him). In the morning he goes to the prophet (peace be upon him). The prophet (peace be upon him) looks at him in a very wonderful way and recites this verse: “they prefer others above themselves, despite being in need themselves“. This was a great commendation and tribute to this man’s preference for the stranger, how he loved, and how he cared for the stranger. There are many more stories which are both in the Quran as well and the more you reflect on them.

I invite you to reflect on these stories, how to deal with the other, and you can imagine if that is the standard. This is the Muhammadin standard for dealing with the stranger. What more would it be for our own family, for own children and for own community.