However, what is strikingly evident, in spite of these diversities, is the thread of unity that binds together Muslim societies around the world. Ernest Gellner, a perceptive observer of Muslim societies, has remarked that “for all the indisputable diversity, the remarkable thing is the extent to which Muslim societies resemble each other.” This uniformity is all the more puzzling, Gellner adds, in the theoretical absence of a Church and hence of a central authority.
An overarching system of beliefs and doctrines, moral and normative principles, social institutions and cultural patterns knit together Muslim societies of the present and the past. This unity is embedded in the foundational sources of Islam – the Quran and Hadith. The fact that the foundational sources of Islam were written down and memorised and thereby preserved for posterity during the lifetime of the Prophet and his Companions and transmitted in a remarkably uninterrupted manner from generation to generation has a close bearing on the universality and vitality of the Islamic faith and on the unity of Muslim societies across the world. The common threads that are shared by Muslim societies around the world are universal and trans-ethnic in the sense that they transcend the distinctions of race, nationality, ethnicity and culture. The core Islamic beliefs and doctrines include the unity and oneness of God, belief in the Quran as the last divine revelation, the prophecy of Muhammad (SAAW) and the primacy of Shariah as a perennial source of guidance.
The “Five Pillars” (the confession of faith, the mandatory daily prayers, fasting in the month of Ramadan, charity (zakat) and pilgrimage to Makkah) reinforce the unity of Muslim societies. Another universal institution in Muslim societies is the madrasa or the Islamic school where basic Islamic instruction, particularly the reading and recitation of the Quran in Arabic, is imparted. The Hajj pilgrimage epitomizes the quintessential unity and brotherhood of the Muslim ummah. The Hajj has been a highly potent source of communitarian cohesion and dynamism in Islamic history. It has played a key role in deepening commitment to Islamic values and ideals, in fostering and reinforcing the doctrinal and institutional unity of the Muslim ummah and in the dissemination of Islamic learning. For centuries, the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah have been a cherished meeting place for scholars, sages and Sufis, teachers and students. Furthermore, Islamic movements of reform and rejuvenation have drawn inspiration from the holy cities.
The term “ummah” (worldwide Muslim community) is a universal, trans-ethnic concept and institution. It connotes the fundamental unity and brotherhood of Muslims regardless of the distinctions of race, class, ethnicity or culture. The unity of Muslim societies is reinforced by the cherished tradition of reading of the Quran in the original Arabic language and by the universal use of Arabic as the language of prayer and worship. Almost all Muslim societies have the institution of charitable endowments (awqaf), which support educational institutions, hospitals, inns and other institutions for the welfare of the disadvantaged and vulnerable sections of society.
The feasts of Eid al-fitr and Eid al-adha, are universally celebrated by Muslims all over the world. The practice of ritual circumcision of the male child is universally prevalent in Muslim societies around the world. Muslims around the world bury their dead. A set of taboos, such as the prohibition of alcohol, pork, gambling and illicit sex, are universally avoided by Muslims. Ernest Gellner has rightly observed that Islam is not just a set of beliefs and doctrines but a “blueprint of a social order.” He perceptively and rightly speaks about “Islam’s social pervasiveness.”
A key component of Islamic piety is the conviction that God Almighty is one, that He has no partners, that He is our creator and master, that we are 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. In Islamic view, God is not a distant being, high in the skies, who is unconcerned about the fate of humans. Rather, as the Quran says, He is nearer to man than the artery of his neck. This conviction engenders a sense of intimacy and closeness to God, fear, and personal responsibility and accountability for one’s actions in this world (Quran 13:21, 14:14, 16:50, 55:46, 79:40).
The consciousness of God’s majesty and of constantly being in the presence of the divine, and the fear of God and a sense of accountability to Him are constantly sustained and reinforced by prayers. This deeply ingrained consciousness is epitomised in the opening chapter of the Quran, al-Fatiha.
The verses of the Quran that are repeatedly recited and invoked in the daily prayers are imbued with a great deal of spiritual and moral meaning and significance. These verses express gratitude to God Almighty for his boundless bounties and inculcate an attitude of humility.
The verses of the Quran that are regularly recited in the daily prayers emphasize such virtues as love and respect for parents, kindness, compassion and concern for others, particularly for the poor and the needy, sharing one’s joys and sorrows with others, patience and forbearance and humility. While reciting or listening to these verses, the worshippers internalise such moral virtues.
The Prophet urged his followers to treat the elderly with respect and honour. He is reported to have said, “One who does not have mercy on our young people and has no respect for our elders is not one of us.” This respect for the elderly is reflected in the congregational prayers as well. Thus, the younger people are expected to allow the elderly to stand in the first row in congregational prayers, closer to the Imam.
Nearly all human societies around the world are marked by the existence of differentiation and social divisions based on race, descent, age, gender, caste, class, ethnicity, education, power and privilege, competence and skills, religion and leadership qualities. In other words, inequality seems to be a conspicuous and widespread feature of human societies.
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. The Quran says that all humans have been created from a single primordial pair, Adam and Eve, and are therefore equal (49:13). Islam considers the distinctions of birth, lineage, class, wealth or caste inconsequential. The only worthwhile distinction or honour is piety and moral virtue. Thus, the Quran says: “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may know each other. Verily the most honoured amongst you in the sight of God is the one who is the most righteous of you” (Quran 49:13). In his sermon during the Last Pilgrimage, the Prophet declared: “O people! Verily, your Lord is One and your father (Adam) was one. Verily, an Arab is not superior to a non-Arab nor is a red-skinned person superior to a dark-skinned person, nor is a dark-skinned person superior to a red-skinned person, except in respect of piety and righteousness. All Muslims are brothers unto each other.” Though Islam takes cognizance of social differentiation and the existence of groups that are based on descent, kinship ties and tribal affiliations, it emphasizes that that such distinctions are meant to serve the purpose of social identification and that they must not be used as a criterion of ranking or hierarchy. Islam recognizes distinction and privilege only in respect of righteous deeds, piety and learning (Quran 49:13; 58:11).
This tenet of equality and brotherhood is reflected in the congregational prayers in the mosque, where all worshippers stand side by side, shoulder to shoulder, regardless of the distinctions of high and low, rich and poor, master and slave. During different postures and physical movements in prayers, one’s hands, shoulder and legs invariably touch those of the persons standing to one’s right and left. This physical touch reinforces the consciousness of equality and brotherhood. This is in sharp contrast with the notion of untouchability in Hinduism.
A significant feature of the caste system among Hindus is the idea of purity and pollution. The members of the higher castes are believed to be inherently pure and those of the lower castes inherently impure. Any contact between members of a high caste and those of a lower caste, including physical touch and eating is believed to render the former polluted. There are lower castes whose shadow or contact is believed to be polluting. If a high caste person has been rendered polluted by contact or interaction with a low caste person, he is required to undergo a cleansing or purificatory rite. Rules relating to purity and pollution are enforced in many ways. In earlier times, the village council would ensure that the members of the lower castes live in separate quarters and maintain a certain distance from the higher castes.
It is a truism to say that man is a social animal. Sociality and interaction with fellow human beings is embedded in human nature. The Islamic faith eschews asceticism and living in isolation from other human beings. It places an enormous amount of emphasis on social interaction, sharing, fellow-feeling, and affection and concern for others. The Prophet urged Muslims to offer the daily prayers in a congregation in the mosque, and not in the privacy of their homes. Participation in congregational prayers in the mosque strengthens social bonds and communitarian solidarity. The mosque represents not just a sacred space for daily prayers but also serves as an institution that fosters social interaction, fellow-feeling and brotherhood.
The mosque also facilitates informal interaction among worshippers. They come to know, for instance, whether one of the regular worshippers is not keeping well or is unable to attend the daily prayers due to illness or some other problem. The mosque thus strengthens empathy, fellow feeling and compassion.
Warm human relationships, social networks, feelings of sharing and social support have a positive bearing on physical and psychological health and wellbeing. Robert Putnam, in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community (2000) has spoken of “social capital” to describe the sense of connectedness and the formation of social networks. In his book Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality (1996), Richard Wilkinson argues that the healthiest societies in the world are not the richest countries but those in which income is distributed most evenly and levels of social integration are highest. He argues that social factors -- the strength of social contacts, ties within communities, availability of social support, a sense of security -- are the main determinants of the health of a society.
One of the worrying problems faced by modern societies is loneliness. Former US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has observed that the most common pathology he saw during his years of service was not heart disease or diabetes; it was loneliness. Large-scale migrations and accelerated geographical mobility, globalisation and the rapid pace of technological and social changes in recent decades have led to the disintegration of family, neighbourhood, religion and community. These changes have caused an evident deficit in social contacts, inter-personal relationships and emotional bonds. Consequently, a growing number of people around the world are feeling lonely. According to a recent survey, approximately 9 million people in the UK say they often feel lonely, with many of them struggling to make meaningful, enduring connections with others. More than half of people over 75 years of age in the country live alone. An estimated 200,000 older people in the country have not had a conversation with a friend or a relative in more than a month. In most cases, television is their only companion. Alarmed by the gravity of the situation, British Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a minister of loneliness to explore ways and means to combat this problem.
Several studies in recent years have suggested that social isolation and loneliness are often linked to high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, strokes, depression and dementia. A recent study of more than 800 elderly patients in the US, who were followed over a four-year period, has suggested that people who lead lonely lives are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. The leader of the study, Professor Robert Wilson, Professor of Neuropsychology at Rush University Medical Centre in the US, points out that loneliness may affect systems in the brain dealing with cognition and memory, making lonely people more vulnerable to the effects of age-related decline in neural pathways. Wilson adds that we need to be aware that loneliness has not only an emotional impact on old people but also a physical impact.
The National Institute on Aging at the University of Chicago sponsored a study in 2006, which found that men and women between 50 and 68 years of age who scored the highest on measures of loneliness also had high blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, the number one killer in the US. Lonely people, according to the study, are also susceptible to depression, alcoholism, weak immune system, impaired sleep and suicidal tendencies. In China, six million people suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, a third of all Alzheimer’s patients in the world, and the number of diagnosed cases is rising. The increase in the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease in China is linked to the erosion of the country’s traditional support networks. Residential patterns in large cities in China, as in other cities around the world, are undergoing a radical transformation. Living in high-rise buildings and apartment houses breeds individualism and social isolation. This new urban ecology affects old people the most, and results in loneliness and depression. And depression is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.
Psychological and Behavioural Dimensions
In Islamic view, there is an inseparable linkage between the human body, mind and emotions. The daily prayers involve a perfect coordination and harmonization of the body, mind and emotions. The verses of the Quran that are repeatedly recited in prayers urge the worshippers to ponder over the signs of God’s omnipotence and His majesty in the universe and in the human psyche. Some of the verses stir emotions and move worshippers to tears. Prayers engender in the worshippers a sense of contentment, calm and tranquillity. The Quran says, “…. Verily, in the remembrance of Allah, hearts find contentment” (13:28).
The emergence in recent years of certain health-related disciplines such as neuroendocrinology, psychoneuroimmunology, behavioural neurology, cognitive-behavioural therapy and biofeedback has transformed our understanding of the linkage between the body, rational processes and emotions. These disciplines have brought into sharp relief the fact that the mind and body are not separate, independent and autonomous substances. Rather, they are inextricably intertwined in complex ways. The human brain, for example, modulates the functioning of the immune system. Cognitive-behavioural therapy emphasizes that cognitive processes, including perception, beliefs, thoughts, ideas, values, attitudes and emotions as well as behavioural and lifestyle factors have a significant influence on personality, well-being, physical and mental health and illness. Dr Herbert Benson, a well-known cardiovascular physician at the Harvard Medical School, emphasizes the health benefits of what he calls “the relaxation response.” The relaxation response, according to him, is evoked, among other things, by prayers and meditation. He says that the relaxation response is accompanied or followed by positive symptoms, including a significant increase in the body’s metabolism, the slowing of heart rate, lowering of blood pressure and a calmer, more regular breathing. People who regularly pray cope better with life’s crises, including illness. Prayers affirm a sense of meaning and purpose in life and act as an effective antidote to despair, anxiety and depression.
One of the distinctive features of the Islamic faith is its espousal of moderation and a balanced approach to life. This pervasive sense of balance and moderation is reflected in the Islamic conception of human nature, in worship and prayers, in legal provisions, in the institutional structure and in matters relating to day-to-day living. The Prophet is reported to have said, “The best of all things lies in their moderation”.
Many societies around the world encourage excessive self-gratification and over-indulgence. Some individuals and communities, on the other hand, are drawn to world-renunciation and self-mortification. The Islamic faith strikes a balance between excessive self-gratification and self-abnegation and emphasises moderation. “There is no asceticism in Islam,” the Prophet said. The Quran says, “Do not forget (to partake of) your share of the world” (28:77). “Say: Who has forbidden the beautiful (gifts) of God, which He has produced for His servants, and the things, clean and pure, (which He has provided) for sustenance” (Quran 7:32). At the same time, Muslims are urged not to waste and squander food, money and resources (7:31, 17:26, 26:27, 25:67). Islam’s espousal of a balanced approach to life is reflected in the following verses of the Quran: “There are some who say: O Lord! Give us wellbeing in this world; but these people have no share in the next world. And then there are others who say: O Lord! Give us wellbeing in this world and in the next world, and deliver us from the torment of hellfire. They shall have a portion of that which they have gained; God is swift in taking an account” (2:200-202).
The Islamic emphasis on balance and moderation is also reflected in matters of worship and prayer. The Quran says that God does not like imposing any hardships on people in religious matters beyond their capacity (2:286, 5:6, 6:152, 22:78, 23:62). The Prophet is reported to have said, “Religion is very easy and whoever overburdens himself in his religion will not be able to continue in that way. So you should not be extremists, but try to be near to perfection and receive the good tidings that you will be rewarded; and gain strength by worshipping in the mornings and in the nights”.
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 a meal, 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”.
Praying five times a day and walking to the mosque and back home involve a considerable amount of physical activity. The various physical postures and physical movements in the daily prayers involve the exercise of almost all parts of the body, including hands, arms, shoulders, joints, feet, back, hips, head and neck. Regular physical activity, particularly one that involves many parts of the body, has enormous benefits for health. It reduces the chances of diabetes mellitus, colon and breast cancer and brain strokes. Musculoskeletal problems, including osteoarthritis and hip fractures, are much less common among those who engage in regular physical activity. Regular physical activity reduces adiposity (accumulation of fat), keeps a check on lipid levels and improves cardiorespiratory fitness. Regular physical activity results in a healthy maintenance of muscle mass. It leads to the release of an enzyme called cathepsin B, which improves memory and functions of brain cells. Physical activity reduces the risk of depression and dementia. As a preventive measure, the World Health Organisation recommends moderate physical activity up to 30 minutes every day.
Chronic physical inactivity, which characterises a sedentary lifestyle, is positively correlated with obesity. According to the World Health Organisation, 60 to 85% of people in both developing and developed countries lead sedentary lifestyles. Obesity has major adverse effects on health. Chronic physical inactivity is a leading cause of disease and disability and among the ten main causes of disability and death worldwide. Morbidly obese individuals have as much as a twelve-fold increase in mortality. Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes, and nearly 80 percent of patients with Type-2 diabetes are obese. In the U.S., an estimated 65 million adults are overweight or obese, leading to 300,000 deaths annually and more than $ 100 million in annual health costs. Obesity has a positive bearing on reproductive disorders, pulmonary disease, joint and connectivity tissue disorders and menstrual abnormalities. It is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease (including coronary heart disease, stroke and congestive heart failure) and cancer in men and women.