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.
Opportunities for interaction between diverse groups has today reached an unprecedented level due to innovations in communication, transportation, and virtual media. Nonetheless, people’s interactions are often superficial and limited, with the knowledge they gain of each other only surface-level. In fact, now more than ever individuals seem to be encapsulated within their immediate, narrow circles of like-minded folks, producing modern societies that are deeply divided over religious, ethnic, ideological, and even moral values.
There are two probable reasons for this constant conflict: first, the “inclusion” of diverse people in the workforce for economic growth has not been accompanied by a serious educational process that would allow individuals not only to learn about each other, but also to genuinely engage with one other. The concept of the “common good” in contemporary liberal politics is neglected and transformed into separate, alienated “individual good(s)” (construed primarily in material terms) in a competitive market where each individual vies with all the rest. People often avoid discussing difficult topics to preserve a peaceful façade that is dimly sustained by state law enforcement. When conflict does arise, it manifests in social media platforms where people speak past each other, rather than engaging seriously with one other. This brings us to our second reason: the fact that a major portion of people’s interpersonal interactions now take place virtually. The virtual world opened the possibility for near global interaction without setting limits or developing a corresponding culture that would allow these interactions to proceed in a well-mannered way. For instance, people may feel a false sense of security behind their screens, where they do not have to encounter their interlocutors face to face and can speak without any inhibitions. Manners and culture are learned by practicing them within a community whereby certain limitations are socially enforced to nurture heathy interaction. Without such limitations in place, and without incorporating the idea of a common good alongside that of individual goods, our ability as a society to handle interpersonal conflict will be deeply impaired.
Islamic ethics is filled with prophetic examples demonstrating different means to deal with conflict in various situations. Attaining peace within oneself (an-nafs al-muṭma’inna) or establishing it in society, which is a founding principle in Islamic moral thought, cannot be realized without mastering conflict resolution.”
Islamic ethics is filled with prophetic examples demonstrating different means to deal with conflict in various situations. Attaining peace within oneself (an-nafs al-muṭma’inna) or establishing it in society, which is a founding principle in Islamic moral thought, cannot be realized without mastering conflict resolution. In its narrative of sacred history, the Qur’an demonstrates how interpersonal conflict began with the very creation of Adam, which triggered jealousy and feelings of superiority among other creatures (particularly Iblis, a member of the jinn who had become close to God, according to the Islamic narrative). By showing how the story of creation unfolds, the Quran reveals how these diverse creatures, namely Adam (representing humanity) and Iblis (representing the jinn), dealt with conflict and the resulting consequences they faced. Adam resolved his conflict by assuming responsibility for his decisions and returning to God for forgiveness, whereas Iblis dwelled on his anger and jealousy, thereby perpetuating endless conflict within himself and with the human race and, hence ‘becoming’ the infamous Satan. With this story regarding the root causes for interpersonal conflict and the means to resolve it or adversely perpetuate it, the Qur’an is inviting human beings to learn from their predecessors and avoid their mistakes.
A building block for addressing conflict in Islamic ethics is reminding people of their shared origin and commonalities. It reminds them, first, of their common sustainer: “Verily this is your umma (community), a single umma (umma wāḥida) and I am your sustainer so worship me” (Qur’an 21:92), and second, that “difference” is an intrinsic part of creation that they all share: “And [know that] all humankind were once but one single umma (wāḥida), and only later did they begin to hold divergent views. And had it not been for a decree that had already gone forth from your Sustainer, all their differences would indeed have been settled [from the outset]” (Qurʼan 10:19). Another verse shows the wisdom of that diversity: “O humankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another. Indeed, the most noble among you in the sight of God is the best in conduct (most pious). Indeed, God is All-knowing and All-aware” (Qur’an 49:13). These verses account for diversity in human history, explain its origin, and elucidate a divine plan behind the phenomenon. They invoke a feeling of unity among different people by reminding them of their common humanity and common creator and portray diversity as something intended to enrich their knowledge and interaction, rather than divide them over contingent differences such as ethnicity or race. This evident idea is more profound than it seems. First, knowing the wisdom behind diversity internalizes the acceptance of differences rather than denial of the other. Second, getting to know the other’s perspective not only allows a person to gain knowledge about the other, but also allows the person to reflect on their own views. This dynamic interaction invites constructive progress; people may change their perspective, reform it, or hold on to it with more conviction when confronted with perspectives different from their own. Rather than seeing difference as an alien form of existence which endangers one’s own, it will be regarded as an extension or reflection of one’s self, which merits contemplation. This bond, which should be internalized through the establishment of tolerant social norms and education, not merely by laws and institutions, is what keeps discourse alive and confines conflict to healthy boundaries. The absence of a connecting bond between people, a feeling of mutual responsibility towards each other, which ultimately translates into a common good, is literally the absence of a heathy society.
Establishing tolerant social norms occurs within a society established on common principles (referred to as umma in the Qur’an). Umma is a group of purposeful individuals covenanted to establish a particular way of life and maintain their unity and sovereignty based on their agreed upon book and covenant. The Qur’an describes the characteristics of different umam (pl. of umma) by virtue of their actions and not their denominational affiliation. The Qur’an adds that the ideal or best umma (the Muslim umma following Quranic ethics) is the one which enjoins righteousness and deters wrong while believing in God. It is an open dynamic umma, rather than a closed ritualistic community, whose members constantly interact to maintain a thriving society with a shared commitment to the common good of all. Hence the Qur’an alludes to the idea that society should be able to reap the benefits of belief (ethical values and morals) through a continuous process of active reform invigorated by members of the umma. Confining religion to rituals practiced in private and alienating its ethical values from public life (i.e. secularizing societies) is the main reason for the alienation of individuals and the absence of a healthy community in the modern world.
“Modern political theory holds that having shared values will threaten diversity or force diverse people to homogenize around those shared values. On the other hand, the Qur’an demonstrates that having shared values provides the space and medium for diverse, and sometimes conflicting people, to interact in a healthy constructive way that works for the benefit of all.“
Modern political theory holds that having shared values will threaten diversity or force diverse people to homogenize around those shared values. On the other hand, the Qur’an demonstrates that having shared values provides the space and medium for diverse, and sometimes conflicting people, to interact in a healthy constructive way that works for the benefit of all. In Islam, belief in the existence of a common creator and shared humanity serves as an important unifying bond which creates in the human self an accountability towards others that is sustained by being accountable before God. The Qur’an and prophetic practice are replete with numerous examples that affirm the latter idea. For example, “And when an umma from them said: ‘Why do you give advice to a people whom Allah is about to destroy or punish with a severe torment?’ They replied: ‘To be free from blame before your sustainer, and perhaps they will become God conscious (yattaqūn)’” (Qur’an 7: 164). This verse shows how different people address conflict over irreconcilable differences; some see no hope in advising someone whose condition is “apparently” doomed, and others insist on giving advice no matter the apparent condition of their interlocuters. The Qur’an seems to encourage the latter attitude by showing the rationale behind it; the feeling of accountability before a common sustainer translates into feeling accountable towards his creation. The verse highlights the importance of discussion, interaction, and giving advice among people, even those with whom one has profound differences. It shows that the human being has an ethical responsibility towards his/her neighbor that transcends these substantial or irreconcilable differences. Keeping moral discussion alive, not only between people of conflicting values but also among people with different approaches to addressing conflict in society evokes the feeling of a “shared destiny.” The latter is an important means by which different members feel connected and carry a shared responsibility, but without imposing a specific belief or expecting a personal gain/return. Furthermore, the Qur’an clarifies that the result of giving advice is open-ended. It is not a competition based on winning advocates to a specific opinion or moral position. In other words, there is no guarantee that the opposing fellow human will change their position. Essentially, the Qur’an’s position is very clear that it is not the responsibility of the human being to change their fellow’s position or moral value as confirmed in several verses. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of the human being to exchange advice peacefully and non-coercively, out of care and compassion for others.
Furthermore, the Qur’an clarifies that the result of giving advice is open-ended. It is not a competition based on winning advocates to a specific opinion or moral position. In other words, there is no guarantee that the opposing fellow human will change their position.
The Qur’an also warns against provoking conflict based on opposing religious beliefs: “But do not revile those [beings] whom they invoke instead of Allah, for fear that they revile Allah out of spite, and in ignorance. Thus unto every umma have We made their deed seem goodly. Then unto their Lord is their return, and He will inform them of all that they used to do” (Qur’an 6:108). The Qur’an provides divergent believers with a basis for interacting with each other. It highlights the critical importance of using respectful communication when interacting with others, no matter how contradictory each other’s ideas or beliefs. The verse also warns people against initiating a vicious cycle of hatred and conflict. Furthermore, the Qur’an provides a rationale for different communities’ coexistence; it is part of the divine plan that each umma will see its ideas or beliefs as good and right. Thus, insulting the other will not cause them to change their opinion. The only means by which a person can change another’s perspective is through genuine personal interest. This cannot happen in a tense atmosphere charged with insults and hurt feelings. It can only be realized in a peaceful environment conducive to mutual respect and calm objective discussion. Again, the Qur’anic message rejects any form of coercion with respect to belief. Some may think that insulting the others’ beliefs or humiliating them will force them to abandon their beliefs, but the verse clearly warns against such behavior.
Not only does the Quran provide moral guidelines for social coexistence, but it also deals with the legal and political spheres, as summarized in this verse:
And to you (Muhammad), We revealed the Book (Ar. al-kitāb) in truth, confirming the book (Ar. al-kitāb) that came before it and a guardian (Ar. muhaymin) over it (i.e., over previous Scriptures). So judge between them by what Allah has revealed, and follow not their vain desires, diverging away from the truth that has come to you. To each among you, We have prescribed a law and a clear way (Ar. shirʿatan wa minhājan). If Allah willed, He would have made you one umma, but that (He) may test you in what He has given you; so strive as in a race in all virtues. The return of you (all) is to Allah; then He will inform you about that in which you used to differ. (Qur’an, 5:48)
While the verse addresses the Prophet Muhammad’s leadership in the pluralistic umma of Medina, it simultaneously speaks of legal pluralism (“To each among you, We have prescribed a law and a clear way”). Thus, the Muslim umma should not enforce its sharīʿa on other umam, i.e. it is not a theocracy. Rather, the Muslim umma, as a leading umma, should allow each umma to follow its own sharīʿa (law). The verse clarifies that if God had willed, he would have made humanity one umma following one sharīʿa, but he did not do so in order to give human beings freedom of choice. The Qur’an reveals the wisdom behind the presence of different divine laws, namely testing people in their faith. The verse reminds all believers of the essence of divine messages, which is the betterment of their communities, urging them to “strive as in a race in all virtues.” The successful, who will receive the bounties and pleasure of God and reach the highest level of human development, are those who focus on applying the essence of their prescribed sharīʿa, and who thereby implement God’s law to good action in society rather than exploiting differences for division and conflict. The verse concludes that all will return to God, who will settle their differences. Therefore, we find a consistent theme of encouraging recognition of our commonalities and seeking unity, while simultaneously seeing differences as prompting fruitful competition in a healthy society rather than exploiting them to trigger fear and animosity.
Dr. Katrin Jomaa’s interdisciplinary research interests encompass classical and modern political philosophy, as well as Islamic thought and Qur’anic exegesis, specially focusing on the relationship between religion and politics in the Middle East. Her research method employs analysis of Islamic primary sources to explore key concepts which could be utilized in constructing modern Islamic political theory. In 2013, Dr. Jomaa joined the University of Rhode Island as an Assistant Professor with a joint appointment in the Departments of Political Science and Philosophy. Besides her interest in the field of humanities, Dr. Jomaa has a dual passion for science and technology. She has a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering at the American University in Cairo and a Masters degree in Applied Materials Science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Her scientific background has informed her study of religion and politics as she employs structural analysis to the understanding of religious texts and political events.
 “Let there be no compulsion in religion, the right path stands out clear from the deviant one, and whoever rejects falsehood (false deities) and believe in Allah (the one God) has indeed firmly grasped the most trustworthy (firmest) handhold/tie, that never breaks, for Allah is all hearing, all knowing” (Quran 2:256). “So remind them (O Muhammad “peace be upon him”, indeed you are only a reminder. You have no control over them/ you are not responsible to oversee them” (Quran 88: 21-22).