I propose to examine the Thomas theorem in a historical and comparative perspective by focussing on the bearing of Islamic tenets and moral principles, which are enshrined in the Quran and the Sunnah and are exemplified by the life of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW) and his Companions, on the behaviour and actions of Muslims. I wish to specifically focus on one of the cardinal principles of the Islamic faith, namely, the fear of God and a sense of accountability to Him.
In Islamic view, God is transcendent, but not an external despot or a remote figure, high in the skies, who is unconcerned about man’s fate. Rather, He is full of mercy and compassion for all His creatures, including humans. In Islamic view, God is not a racial or parochial deity who is only concerned about Muslims, but the Lord of all mankind, regardless of racial, social and cultural distinctions. He watches human beings with a benign, compassionate gaze. The Quran says that God is closer to man than the artery of his neck. Man is constantly in the presence of the divine (Quran: 17:30, 33:9, 35:31, 40:44, 48:24, 57:4, 84:15). The Quran says: “Now await in patience the command of thy Lord, for verily thou art in Our eyes” (52:48).
A key component of piety is the conviction that one is constantly in the presence of the divine, that God is watching us all the time and that we are accountable to Him for our actions. This conviction engenders a sense of personal closeness to God as well as fear (Quran 13:21, 14:14, 16:50, 55:46, 79:40).
The consciousness of constantly being in the presence of the divine, the fear of God and a sense of accountability to the Almighty have a significant bearing on the unfolding of man’s benign, noble potentialities and capabilities and on the control of base sentiments and qualities. In order to explicate this point further, it is worthwhile to dwell in some detail on the Islamic conception of human nature.
The Islamic perspective on human nature is marked by four distinct features. In the first place, Islam offers an ennobling view of human nature. Man, according to the Islamic view, has been created in the best of moulds, designated as God’s vicegerent on earth and given dominion over all that is in the universe (Quran 2: 30; 6: 165; 14: 32-33; 45:13). Man is not the product of a blind process of evolution, but a self-conscious being who has been created by God Almighty with a purpose. All humans are born innocent, untainted by original sin or guilt. All human beings have descended from Adam, the primordial man, and are therefore equal in God’s sight.
The equality and brotherhood of mankind, regardless of the distinctions of birth, class or caste, is one of the cardinal tenets of the Islamic faith. According to the Islamic view, all humans have been created from a single primordial pair and are therefore equal (49:13). The Prophet categorically declared in his Farewell Pilgrimage: “O people! Verily your Lord is One and your father is one. All of you have descended from Adam, and Adam was (created) from dust. The most honoured in the sight of God is the one who fears Him the most. An Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, except in respect of piety”.
Secondly, human nature is characterised by a certain duality. On the one hand, man has been created from clay, a lowly substance (Quran 23:12; 32:7). On the other hand, God has breathed His soul into him (Quran 15:29). Thus, man possesses two rather contradictory potentialities: sublime and divine-like, on the one hand, and base and demonic, on the other (Quran 14:34; 17: 100; 43:15; 70:19; 95:4-5; 100:6). The polarity of human nature is symbolized in the story of Abel and Cain (Quran 5: 27-31). Man tends to be impatient and greedy (Quran 70:19). Furthermore, he has a tendency to be ungrateful, niggardly and contentious. He is prone to acting in an unjust manner and often surrenders to his desires (Quran 45:23).
Interestingly, one can find an echo of duality of human nature, as reflected in the Islamic tradition, in the observation of an eminent French philosopher Blaise Pascal (d.1662): “It is dangerous to show man too clearly how much he resembles the beast without at the same time showing him his greatness. It is also dangerous to allow him too clear a vision of his greatness without his baseness. It is even more dangerous to leave him in ignorance of both. But it is very profitable to show him both.” Carl Jung (d. 1961) held that some of our unconscious motives are indeed dark and frightening, while others can serve as wellsprings of creativity. Gordon Allport (d. 1967) maintained that all humans possess deeply rooted selfish tendencies, together with the inherent potential to outgrow and overcome them.
Thirdly, Islam eschews a deterministic view of human nature. It takes due cognizance of human agency and emphasizes that man has been endowed with self-consciousness and the capacity for reasoning and moral choice (76: 3; 90: 8-10; 8:53; 15:29). The Quran says: “We did indeed offer the trust (amanah) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains but, being afraid, they refused to take it up; but man took it up…. ..” (Quran 33:72). The commentators of the Quran point out that the word trust (amanah) refers to the capacity for reasoning, self-reflection and moral choice. Islam strikes a balance between submission to God’s will and human agency.
Fourthly, Islam recognizes the role of the social environment and education in unfolding, as well as in stifling, human potentialities. The Prophet is reported to have said: “There is no infant who is not born in a state of nature, but his parents make him a Jew, a Christian or a Magian.” He is also reported to have said: “A man follows the ways of his friend. Therefore, you should be watchful about the person you befriend.” Islam also suggests an ethical code to facilitate the flowering of man’s benign potentialities and to check and control the destructive tendencies in his nature.
As God’s vicegerent on earth, man is responsible to Him for all his actions and deeds. The Prophet is reported to have said: “All of you are (like) shepherds; and all of you are accountable for your sheep”. Man has a moral responsibility to safeguard God’s bounties, including the planet’s resources, its biodiversity, its climate and the animal kingdom. Seyyed Hossein Nasr has rightly pointed out that Islam never allowed the development of the idea of the Promethean man: man freed from any responsibility to a world beyond himself, to the sacred, to God, to humanity at large and to nature. For instance, Islam views the environment not as something out there, unconnected to human existence, but as a vestige or sign of God.
Islam strikes a balance between submission to God’s will and human agency, between determinism and free will and provides sufficient autonomous spaces for human intervention. The Quran says, “That man can have nothing but what he strives for” (53:39). Further: “Surely God will never change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (13:11). A man came riding his camel to the Prophet and asked him, “O Messenger of God, shall I leave my camel untied and trust in God?” The Prophet replied, “First tie your camel and then have trust in God”.
Hasan of Basrah (d. 728), a towering figure in the first century of the Islamic era, has graphically portrayed the character and personality of a true Muslim in the following words:
The true believer is steadfast in his faith and resolute in his conviction. His forbearance complements his learning. He is gracious and kind-hearted. His clean exterior and his composure conceal his indigence. He never loses his sense of balance in affluence. He spends (in the way of Allah) with affection and generosity. He is kind towards the destitute and generous in the discharge of his obligations. He is eager and persevering in the pursuit of justice. His hatred and love (for someone) does not lead him to commit excesses. He is not given to picking the faults of others, nor to sneer, sarcasm and malicious insinuation. He has no interest in matters that are of no concern to him nor does he indulge in self-glorification. He does not indulge in backbiting nor does he stake a claim to something that does not rightfully belong to him. He does not refuse what is obligatory on him and does not offer undue apology. He takes no pleasure in other’s distress nor does someone’s misdeed or sinful behaviour gladden his heart. His prayers are imbued with genuine devotion and piety. His speech has a soothing effect and his patience reflects his piety. His silence conveys his thoughtfulness. He observes in order to learn a lesson and keeps company with the learned so as to acquire knowledge (from them). He keeps quiet for fear of accountability and sinfulness. An act of virtue brings happiness to his heart and an error prompts him to repent. If someone treats him with inconsideration, he repays it with perseverance. He is patient in the face of oppression and he does not forsake justice even when he is a victim of injustice. He seeks protection of none other than God nor does he beseech succour save that of God. He is dignified in company, thankful in privacy and content with his livelihood. He is grateful (to God) in affluent circumstances and patient in situations of hardship and distress.
Karl Polanyi has convincingly argued that one major pitfall of classical and neo-classical economic theory is that they regard the economy as an autonomous, self-regulating domain. In actual practice, however, economic processes are always regulated by social relations and moral values. Islam takes due cognizance of this reality and accordingly subjects economic activities to moral regulations. In Islamic perspective, ethics and economics are indissociable. It is note-worthy that the bearing of ethical norms on economic activities and economic behaviour is now increasingly recognized by eminent economists like Amartya Sen.
Accountability for Economic Resources
According to the Islamic view, all resources have been created by God for the sake of humans (Quran 31:20; 57:7). These resources are for the benefit of all mankind and not for just a few individuals, families or groups (Quran 2:29). Man is therefore urged to partake of God-given resources (7:32; 28:77). Livelihood is described in the Quran as God’s bounty (Quran 2:198; 5:4; 17:66; 28:2; 62:10). The Prophet is reported to have said: “Seek for your family legitimate means of livelihood, for this is a jihad (holy war) in the cause of God.” The Prophet condemned indolence, dependency and beggary and emphasized that one should earn his livelihood through his own effort.
Islam is not against the ownership of private property or the accumulation of wealth. However, the whole range of economic activities from agriculture to trade and commerce is subjected to two basic conditions. First, one should employ legitimate means in earning one’s livelihood. Trade and other economic or commercial activities and transactions are subjected to a system of moral checks and balances. All unethical means of acquiring wealth, including unfair trading practices, bribery, hoarding, black marketing and usury, are strictly forbidden. Second, being the vicegerent of God, man is required to act as the trustee of economic resources. He should neither squander them in an unbridled manner nor use them as a means of exercising control and domination over others. The Islamic tradition is highly critical of ostentation and conspicuous or wasteful consumption (Quran 9:35; 17:26; 25:67). Imam Abu Hanifah, one of the greatest jurists of the first century of the Islamic era, is reported to have said that even if one were performing ablutions by the river Tigris he should be economical in the use of water.
In recent years a great deal of discussion has focused on human rights. The contemporary discourse on human rights is embedded in the Western doctrine of liberalism, which holds that the individual is the basic source and locus of identity. Consequently, the focus is on the rights of the individual. This discourse glosses over the fact that the individual cannot be disembedded from his social milieu and that not only individuals but groups and communities are also bearers of rights. A second problem with the dominant discourse on human rights is that it focuses exclusively on human relationships and has little or nothing to say about animals or about the environment. Another major problem with the contemporary human rights paradigm is that it relegates the issue of human responsibilities to the background.
While Islam shares the basic tenets and concerns of the contemporary discourse on human rights, its view of human rights is much broader and deeper in scope. For one thing, the Islamic discourse on human rights encompasses not only issues relating to human relationships but also to animals and the environment. Second, Islam views human rights as inseparable from human responsibilities. The Islamic term haqq (plural: huquq) connotes a fundamental linkage and reciprocity between rights and responsibilities. Third, the Islamic discourse on human rights is embedded in an overarching moral framework. This moral framework is defined by a consciousness of the ontological unity of reality, including cosmic, ecological and human, and a deeply-ingrained sense of responsibility and accountability to God. This sense of responsibility and accountability to God is exemplified in a Tradition of the Prophet: “All of you are (like) shepherds, and all of you are accountable for (the wellbeing of) your flock”.
Islamic law recognises two sets of human rights: civil and political rights, and social, economic and cultural rights. The latter category of human rights was not recognised in the Western legal tradition until the adoption of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1966. Similarly, the right of privacy, which was not recognised in Western legal traditions until quite recently, was recognised in Islamic law since the early centuries of the Islamic era.
An important issue in the discourse on human rights relates to the means or mechanisms or motivational strategies whereby the ideals of human rights could be translated into reality. The process of socialization, education, legal provisions and social sanctions undoubtedly play a significant role in internalising the values associated with human rights. Islam emphasises the cultivation of a sense of moral responsibility and accountability as viable means whereby human rights—and responsibilities—could be ingrained in human consciousness. It is easy to pontificate about human rights but extremely difficult if not impossible to put oneself in the shoes of another person, as it were, and to be as sensitive about his likes and dislikes and preferences as one is about oneself. This feat requires a good measure of selflessness, sincerity and compassion. The Prophet is reported to have said, “A Muslim cannot be a (true) Muslim unless he likes for his brother what he likes for himself”.
The Prophet emphasised that worship and prayer cannot absolve a man from his guilt of violation of human rights. He once asked his Companions: “Do you know who is a destitute?” They said, “A destitute among us is one who has neither money nor resources”. The Prophet said: “A destitute among my followers is one who would present himself on the Day of Judgement with prayers, fasting and zakat-tax (to his credit). At the same time, he had abused someone, had made a false accusation against someone, had usurped someone’s money, had spilled someone’s blood and had thrashed someone. All such people (who were victims of his harshness) would then be called; the virtues and good deeds of this man would be offered to them; their sins would be loaded onto him, and he would be thrown into hell”.
Salman the Persian, one of the prominent Companions of the Prophet, once came to his close friend Abu al-Darda’s house to meet him. The latter was not at home, but Salman found his wife looking perturbed and unhappy. “What is the matter,” he asked her. She replied, “Well, your friend is in no need of worldly things”. After a while Abu al-Darda returned and since it was time for lunch he placed some food before Salman. When Salman asked Abu al-Darda to join, he declined, saying that he was fasting. Salman said that if did not join him he would not eat either. Abu al-Darda then ate with Salman. When night fell the two friends retired to bed. After a couple of hours Abu al-Darda woke up to offer the supererogatory prayers, Salman, who also woke up, told Abu al-Darda a longer part of the night was yet to be over and asked him to go off to sleep. Abu al-Darda slept for some time. After a couple of hours Abu al-Darda woke up again, and Salman also woke up. The two of them then offered the supererogatory prayers. After the prayers Salman told his friend, “You have an obligation towards your body, your Lord, your guest and your family. Therefore, you must fulfil all these obligations”. In the morning Salman and Abu al-Darda went to visit the Prophet and narrated to him what had transpired in the night. The Prophet said, “Salman spoke the truth”.
Moral Integrity and Courage of Conviction
Caliph Umar used to walk around the city of Madinah and its surrounding areas to check if and to what extent Islamic beliefs and teachings had been imbibed by Muslims from different walks of life, to find out about the difficulties and problems faced by ordinary Muslims and to ensure that Islamic rules and regulations were complied with. One day, when he was on his rounds around the city, he saw a young boy who was tending his sheep. Caliph Umar approached him and asked him if he could sell one of his sheep. The boy replied that the sheep belonged to his master and that he had no authority to sell his sheep without his permission. Wishing to test the strength of his faith, Umar told him, “Your master is not around. I will give you the money for the sheep, which you can keep. If your master enquires about the missing sheep, you can tell him that it got lost or that it was taken away be a wolf.” The boy, unaware that he was talking to the head of the Islamic state, looked in disbelief and said, “I can deceive my master who is not around, but how can I deceive Allah who is watching me all the time?” Umar was deeply moved by the boy’s reply and thanked God that the teachings of Islam had become so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of a poor, illiterate boy.
During the caliphate of Umar, an order prohibiting the dilution of milk with water was promulgated. As was his wont, he took a round of the streets of Madinah at midnight to check if the order was being followed. While passing by a house, he heard an old woman telling her daughter, “Hurry up and mix water in the milk, otherwise government officials would see us doing this and will punish us.” The girl said to her mother, “Did you not hear the announcement that mixing water in milk is deception and that it has been prohibited?” The old woman said to her daughter, “The Caliph (Amir al-Mumineen) is not around to see us doing this.” The girl replied, “Even though Amir al-Mumineen is not around to see us but Allah does see us.”
When Caliph Umar heard this, he was overcome with joy. After a few days he sent a messenger to the old woman’s house, asking for her daughter’s hand for his son A’sim. She agreed to the proposal and the marriage took place. In the course of time, the bride gave birth to a baby girl, who was named Umm Asim. Umm Asim, after marriage, became the mother of Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, whose short rule was reminiscent of the caliphate of the Four Righteously Guided Caliphs.
The fear of God and a sense of accountability to Him have a significant bearing on moral integrity and courage of conviction. The Prophet (SAAW) is reported to have said, “The most superior form of Jihad is to speak the truth in the presence of a despotic ruler.” Islamic history provides innumerable instances of the ways in which men of learning and piety publicly rebuked kings and rulers for their indulgent lifestyle, moral waywardness and tyranny. Once the Umayyad tyrant Hajjaj ibn Yusuf was delivering the Friday sermon in a mosque. When Abdullah ibn Umar, a distinguished Companion of the Prophet and the son of the Caliph Umar, heard him, he rebuked him, saying that he was guilty of legitimising what was forbidden by God and of killing innocent people. When Hajj Abdullah’s scathing criticism he became furious and made a sign to one of his armed soldiers in the audience, who took out a poisoned arrow and threw it at Abdullah. He was grievously injured and died a few days later. Hasan of Basrah, an eminent Tabi’i scholar and sage, launched a scathing attack on corrupt rulers and self-seeking scholars. He publicly rebuked the Umayyad king Yazid ibn Abd al-Malik and the Umayyad governors Hajjaj and Ibn Hubayrah. Abdullah ibn al-Mubarak, an eminent scholar of Hadith, publicly condemned the ruling class as well as some Muslim scholars, jurists and judges and held them responsible for the moral decline and degeneration of the Muslim ummah.
Mausoleum of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal in Baghdad
An eminent Tabi’i scholar Sai’d ibn Jubayr was a fearless critic of Umayyad rulers, for which he earned their wrath. The ruling class tried to silence him by offering him a bribe of 30,000 dirhams, which he refused with contempt. The Umayyad ruler Abd al-Malik ordered his soldiers to flog him in the public square. He was ultimately executed on the orders of Hajjaj. In the second century of the Islamic era, a number of distinguished Muslim scholars and sages, including Sufyan al-Thawri, al-Awzai’, Mis’ar ibn Kidam and Sulayman ibn Mu’tar, among many others, were fiercely critical of the ruling class.
During the reign of the Abbasid caliph Al-Mamun (ruled 813-833), the tenets of the heterodox Mu’tazilate sect, propounded by Bishr al-Marisi, were officially adopted and promoted. The Mutazilite sect was further strengthened with the appointment of Qadi Abu Duad as the chief justice of the Abbasid empire during the reign of Al-Mu’tasim (218-222 AH). The Mutazilite held, contrary to the view of Muslim scholars, that the Quran was created. This view was sought to be officially enforced. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (164-241 AH), who was an outstanding scholar of Hadith and Islamic law, repudiated this view and reiterated the orthodox Islamic belief that the Quran was the word of God and therefore uncreated. Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal was imprisoned, tortured and publicly flogged on the orders of Al-Mu’tasim, but the Imam bore with this tribulation with patience and fortitude and remained steadfast in his conviction.
The celebrated Islamic scholar and Sufi saint, Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, was a bitter critic of the ruling elite of his time.
These scholars and sages, who fearlessly spoke the truth, often at great personal risks, were motivated by a deep sense of moral responsibility. They believed that they were entrusted with the responsibility of “enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong” (Quran 3:110) and that they were accountable to the Almighty for the fulfilment of this mission. They acted as the conscience-keepers of the Muslim ummah.