This essay is part of the Islamic Moral Theology and the Future (IMTF) Project, generously supported by the John Templeton Foundation, and co-led by Maria Dakake and Martin Nguyen. It is specifically part of the roundtable discussion that is responding to Dakake’s second lead essay for the project. See Nguyen’s second lead essay for a parallel line of inquiry. Click here to read all past contributions to Dakake and Nguyen's respective lines of inquiry.
My neighbor passed away and I did not hear about it until sometime later. We had not really known each other but had been on greeting terms. The deceased was elderly and ill, and had been in the care of close family until their final hours. I felt guilty for not knowing, caring, or offering to help, and I was left wondering what would’ve happened if this person had not had any friends or family at all? According to police reports, every year around thirty individuals die in their homes in my hometown Oslo, Norway, without anyone discovering them during the first seven days. In some cases, the deceased is not discovered for months. How is this possible? Norway is a small country, and the capital Oslo has around 650,000 inhabitants. Some parts of the city are densely populated, while in other parts villas and detached houses dominate. Every fourth household is a single-person household. The person may be without family or friends and may not have work or other obligations, which would have been neglected. It is also possible that social services are not involved, the bills are paid through automatic payment arrangements , and the mailbox is never filled up — all very real possibilities in the digital world in which we increasingly live. Nevertheless, it is not only tragic that a person may die without anyone noticing, but it is also an ethical problem, and it defies the Qur’anic idea and ideal of the neighborhood.
…it is not only tragic that a person may die without anyone noticing, but it is also an ethical problem, and it defies the Qur’anic idea and ideal of the neighborhood.
In a previous essay for this roundtable blog, I discussed the Qur’anic ideal of neighborliness as manifested through our support for those who live in proximity to us. This obligation toward the neighbor, or in Arabic the jār, as described in Qur’an 4:36, is embedded in the semantic content of the term itself, which relates to closeness and mutual protection. By extension, a similar semantic content is present in the related verbs of “seeking protection” (istajāra) and “providing protection” (ajāra) in Qur’an 9:6, as well as the verb “remaining close to” (jāwara) in Qur’an 33:60.
Despite this ideal, however, the value of proper neighborliness needs constant nourishing. Neglect, as described in the above example, is one threat to upholding the ideal of a caring, helping and protective neighborhood community. Another threat is the possibility of distrust created by destructive behavior between neighbors, such as deception and deceit, complicating the claim of neighborly closeness and protection. This possibility is also recognized in the Qur’an. Even in light of the insistent command to treat one’s neighbors well (that is, with iḥsān, in 4:36), other Qur’anic passages speak to the contingency of jārness, and to possible limits to neighborly obligation and trust. In this essay, we will look at two such passages in the Qur’an, one involving a claim of “neighborly support” from Satan, and the other concerning hypocrites and rumormongers, both with possible historical references to the early Medinan society. Both of these passages are cast in narrative rather than prescriptive language and retell particular incidents rather than claiming universal norms. The narrative language allows for situations contravening the ideal, as well as moral dilemmas and, in our case, the possibility of neighborliness also being associated with treacherous behavior. The question is whether this kind of neighborliness qualifies as neighborliness at all, in the Qur’anic sense. The wider implications of this discussion ties into the issue of social trust, which needs to be incorporated as a core component of communal ethics.
Even in light of the insistent command to treat one’s neighbors well (that is, with ihsan, in 4:36), other Qur’anic passages speak to the contingency of jarness, and to possible limits to neighborly obligation and trust. In this essay, we will look at two such passages in the Qur’an, one involving a claim of “neighborly support” from Satan, and the other concerning hypocrites and rumormongers, both with possible historical references to the early Medinan society.
In Qur’an 8:48, Satan introduces himself as a jār, a helper and protector in times of need:
وَإِذْ زَيَّنَ لَهُمُ الشَّيْطَانُ أَعْمَالَهُمْ وَقَالَ لَا غَالِبَ لَكُمُ الْيَوْمَ مِنَ النَّاسِ وَإِنِّي جَارٌ لَكُمْ ۖ فَلَمَّا تَرَاءَتِ الْفِئَتَانِ نَكَصَ عَلَىٰ عَقِبَيْهِ وَقَالَ إِنِّي بَرِيءٌ مِنْكُمْ إِنِّي أَرَىٰ مَا لَا تَرَوْنَ إِنِّي أَخَافُ اللَّهَ ۚ وَاللَّهُ شَدِيدُ الْعِقَابِ
And [remember] when Satan made their deeds fair unto them, and said, “None among mankind shall overcome you today, and I am indeed your jār.” But when the two hosts saw each other, he turned on his heels and said, “I am quit of you! Truly I see what you see not. Truly I fear God, and God is severe in retribution. (Q. 8:48, transl. The Study Qurʾān 2015).
Similar to Qur’an 9:6 discussed in the previous post, the context of Qur’an 8:48 is one of conflict and battle. The reference for the pronoun “their” in “their deeds” (aʿmālahum) is rather elusive, but commentators hold that the verse’s historical reference is to the early stages of the Battle at Badr (year 624) and a concrete incident involving Surāqa b. Mālik al-Kinānī (d. 646) who belonged to one of the tribes allied to the Muslims’ enemies among the Quraysh. Surāqa rode in with the standard held high, but then turned and broke his promise of jārhood, that is, of help and protection, when he saw “Jibrīl and the thousand angels accompanying the Muslims” (Ibn Isḥāq 2004, 225–6). Notwithstanding this possible historical reference, the wording also allows for a general interpretation based on the literary content.
The word jār in this context is translated in The Study Qurʾān as “defender,” while Abdel Haleem (2004) translated it with the verbal expression “I will be right beside you” and Arberry (1955) translates it as “neighbour.” These choices demonstrate different translation strategies, and they demonstrate the elasticity inherent in the notion of jār. Highlighting the nominal aspect (“neighbor”) suggests belonging to a category, while highlighting the verbal aspect suggests an ongoing activity (“defend”, “be beside”). However, in this passage the sense of protecting and helping remains, and this sense does not hinge upon who claims to undertake the obligations of being a jār. It may be that it is exactly the semantic content of the term which lends a reassuring quality to Satan’s (otherwise treacherous) appeal. Despite the ambiguity of the notion jār as seen above, it may still be perceived as inherently positive, instilling not only a normative claim on one party to behave well, but also an expectation on the other party for good behavior from the first. The normative claim pertains to doing good, extending help, and being trustworthy, not to expecting good, receiving help, and trusting. Nevertheless, there is a positive expectation built into the notion jār, given its reciprocity. This positive expectation is a crucial component in any relationship based on trust. Accordingly, Satan’s reneging on his promised and proclaimed jārness becomes a breach of trust, and the very next verse (Q. 8:49) urges the reader to shun hypocrisy and trust God above all.
…there is a positive expectation built into the notion jar, given its reciprocity. This positive expectation is a crucial component in any relationship based on trust.
The second verse that nuances our understanding of the jār as an ideal, and which may also be an intra-Qur’anic reference for Qur’an 8:48-49, discussed above, is Qur’an 33:60, where hypocrites and rumormongers are condemned:
لَئِنْ لَمْ يَنْتَهِ الْمُنَافِقُونَ وَالَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ مَرَضٌ وَالْمُرْجِفُونَ فِي الْمَدِينَةِ لَنُغْرِيَنَّكَ بِهِمْ ثُمَّ لَا يُجَاوِرُونَكَ فِيهَا إِلَّا قَلِيلًا
If the hypocrites do not desist, and likewise those in whose hearts is a disease, as well as those who spread false rumors in the city, We shall surely spur thee against them; then they will not be your neighbors (lā yujāwirūnaka) therein, save for a short while.
(Q. 33:60, transl. The Study Qurʾān 2015).
Here most, if not all translators, render lā yujāwirūnaka as “they will not be your neighbors.” Commentators have suggested a Medinan historical reference for this verse as well, but the wording again suggests an equally possible, general interpretation based on the literary context. The verse is preceded by verses warning against insulting God, his Prophet, the believers, and in particular believing women, and it is followed by a warning: if they do not refrain from spreading lies, their jārness, with the status and rights it entails, will be dissolved (Q. 33:57–67).
The state of jārness, or neighborliness, is neither a given nor a constant in the narrative contexts of Q. 8:48 and 33:60, but rather a task or a relational and situational social position conditioned by a certain behavior. Devilish betrayal or hypocritical rumor spreading effectively abolishes the obligations of jārness. The notion of the jār retains in this way its primarily positive and anticipating aspects, and the “jārhood”, or neighborhood, is retained as an ideal conception of shared common spaces and mutual respect. Consequently, the ambiguity resides rather in an acknowledgment of the fragility of this ideal and how susceptible it is to disappointment. The Qur’anic neighborhood entails certain obligations (Q. 4:36), and regardless of actual need, the jār is entitled to good treatment. The command in Q. 4:36 is grounded in one party bearing the ethical agency and responsibility, although in accordance with the inherently reciprocal aspect of the concept of the jār, the role of benefactor may alternate between one jār and the other. Thus, the aspirational call for iḥsān in Q. 4:36 may serve as a one of the backbones of a communal ethics. On the other hand, the jārness may play out in hierarchical, potentially temporary, structures (Q. 9:6).
A community may be abstract, as in the transhistorical idea of the Muslim umma or the transspatial idea of the world as a global village. A local community, however, is grounded in a particular time and space, with particular people sharing a historical moment, some sense of belonging, or similar concerns and interests.A community may be abstract, as in the transhistorical idea of the Muslim umma or the transspatial idea of the world as a global village. A local community, however, is grounded in a particular time and space, with particular people sharing a historical moment, some sense of belonging, or similar concerns and interests. On such a basis, some neighborhoods succeed in creating a collective neighborhood identity which may even be passed on from one generation to the next. As discussed in the previous blog post, although the concept of the jār/neighbor is ambiguous and much discussed in the interpretive literature, there are strong indicators that the spatial and temporal neighborhood community supersede other potential demarcating boundaries. However, as shown in a recent anthology, The Ambiguous Figure of the Neighbor in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Texts and Receptions (ed. Marianne Bjelland Kartzow, Routledge 2022), historical evidence demonstrates that a neighborhood based identity may either work alongside or in competition with other group-based identities. In times of crises, these competitions may turn into conflicts, threatened by individual agendas and purposes, or competing group-based identities with compelling claims on an individual’s loyalty and solidarity. Thus, the neighborhood community is vulnerable.
Having recently worked closely on the Qur’anic notion of the jār, the death of my neighbor prompted a series of questions in my mind: had I, not only by living in the vicinity to, but by even calling myself a neighbor to the person, implicitly taken upon myself the promise inherent in the concept of the jār, a promise to protect and help? And had I failed that promise? Can the Qur’anic account of the devilish false claims to jārhood be understood as a subtle warning about those who may claim, but not always live up to, the jārhood ideal? Or was my failure one of neglect, of indifference, or even of shyness? When someone is not easily approachable, overcoming timidness can be a major challenge. I have on more than one occasion admired friends who without hesitation help out where help is needed, while I have committed a “sin of omission” because I have not been able to overcome my own inhibitions. Moreover, in my native Norway, I was brought up in a cultural climate where independence and individuality were highly valued and where the socio-economical living conditions allowed these values to feed into a social ideal of both self-containment and privacy. Thus, the vulnerability of the neighborhood community rests not only on the willingness to extend help, but also on the willingness to balance certain cultural constraints and social norms against the obligation to offer uninvited aid, as well as the willingness to risk rejection.
“In the case of my deceased neighbor, one could argue, with reference to the concept of farḍ al-kifaya, or “communal obligation,” that if nobody had taken up the responsibility to care for the person, the moral blame would have fallen on all of us, on the neighborhood as a constituted community built on trust.”
Yet, the inherent risk in the neighbor relation is circumvented in Q. 4:36 by the general command to worship God, and to pursue an ethics of communal neighborliness that requires both social responsibility and divine accountability. In the case of my deceased neighbor, one could argue, with reference to the concept of farḍ al-kifāya, or “communal obligation,” that if nobody had taken up the responsibility to care for the person, the moral blame would have fallen on all of us, on the neighborhood as a constituted community built on trust. The individual responsibility, however, is to overcome one’s self-consciousness in order to partake on whatever level one is able in that community. The believer is not asked to be naïve, nor to unconditionally trust others, but the believer is asked to be someone others can trust (ada l-amāna) and to think well of others (ḥusn al-ẓann). The relational and dynamic Qur’anic neighborhood ideal is a communal space in need of constant moral maintenance, on a communal and on an individual level.
This blog post builds on a recently published article:
Nora S. Eggen. “The Ambiguous jār: Towards a Qurʾanic Neighborhood Ethics.” In The Ambiguous Figure of the Neighbor in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Texts and Receptions, ed. Marianne Bjelland Kartzow, 126–150. London: Routledge, 2022.
Nora S. Eggen holds a PhD in Arabic and Islamic Studies and is currently affiliated with the University of Oslo, Norway. Her research interests include premodern intellectual history, Qurʾanic studies, translation studies, ethics, and the history of Islamic Studies in the Scandinavian countries. Among her recent publications are: “The Ambiguous jār: Towards a Qurʾanic Neighborhood Ethics.” In The Ambiguous Figure of the Neighbor in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Texts and Receptions (Routledge, 2021); “Trust, trusting and trustworthiness in ethical discourse,“ Journal of Islamic Ethics (2021); “al-Qadi ʿIyad’s Defence of the Prophet and of scholarly tradition: al-Shifāʾ,” in Freedom of Expression in Islam: Challenging Apostasy and Blasphemy Laws (Tauris, 2021); “On the Periphery: Translations of the Qurʾān in Sweden, Denmark and Norway.” In Routledge Handbook of Arabic Translation (Routledge, 2019).