Our Shared Values – Islam and the Olympics
In Islam, calling others to truth takes an invitational form, not a confrontational one. God says, “Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and reason with them in the best possible way” (Qur’an 16:125). And God says, “There is no compulsion in religion” (Qur’an 2:256). The Qur’anic strategy is thus “to come to a common word” (Qur’an 13:64) in the first instance by uniting on what is agreed between people. This is how the Prophet (pbuh) extended warmth to Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian rulers and people of his time. The Prophet (SAW) is famous for speaking in a tone that is inviting and warm, one that immediately put the listener to ease, and helped build trust and security.
So if this is our noble tradition, then what better way is there than to come together with our neighbours, colleagues at work, in schools and universities, and within our communities to talk about the shared values of the Olympics? Generally people in modern societies tend not to talk about values, or have any deeper understanding of values in general. This makes it even more important to illuminate the human conscience with what God has to say and the beautiful practical examples of the Prophet (SAW). I have written this article to elaborate on the idea of coming together on what we agree upon, as a starting point in bringing out the warmth that our tradition teaches. You can read more about this topic, and others, in more detail in my forthcoming book called Muslims in the Age of Modernity – Dislocation and Renaissance, which will be published in the summer, God willing.
Opportunity to “know one another” (Qur’an 49:13) then, as the Qur’an states, comes about only when truth seekers from diverse nations, perspectives, secular or otherwise, differ with each other. It is only when we encounter different beliefs, that Muslims have the opportunity to extend security to non-believers and their identities. Dictating to people was something the Prophet (SAW) rejected on the basis that the only way truth can manifest is by convincing people through good character, example, reasoned argument and dialectic. It could hardly be otherwise, as God explains, “Had your Lord so willed, all the people on earth would have believed. Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?” (Qur’an 10:99).
The Qur’an mentions: “We created you from a single soul, male and female, and made you into nations and tribes, so that you may come to know one another” (Qur’an 49:13). That is, as the scholar Muhammad Shafi (1896-1976) comments, “division into nations, tribes and sub-tribes of all sizes and races is meant only to give a better identification of one another.”[i] There is no distinction of people on the basis of colour, nationality, gender, and so on, except the “most honoured of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous of you” (Qur’an 43:15). Thus, in spite of our insistence in belonging to all manner of identities, groups, clubs, associations and such like, according to Islam, the value we confer to identities that reassure ourselves of our own material “worth,” ultimately has no meaning outside of the axis of righteous action.
God goes on to challenge humanity with a test: “To each among you We have prescribed a Way and a Teaching. Had God so willed He would have made you a single community, but to test you by what He gave you. So vie with one another in good works” (Qur’an 5:48). We know straightaway from this that “test” is implicit in “knowing” the “Other.” There is an inherent weakness, which is, in its self, a sign of “test,” from innate selfishness to look after our own interests at the expense of others’ wellbeing or trampling on the respect, dignity and rights we owe others.
Does committing to God’s instructions with such seemingly possessive determination imply a Divine permission to forcefully exert others to Islamic belief? God clearly rebukes this when He says: “Had your Lord so willed, all the people on earth would have believed. Will you then compel mankind, against their will, to believe?” (Qur’an 10:99). For Muslims this establishes the weighty Divine ordinance to extend hospitality and security even to secular and atheist people and their cultures. Even variation in languages is actually a God-given right, which He speaks of in pluralistic terms: “And among His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the variation in your languages and your colours: in that indeed there are signs for those who deeply know” (Qur’an 30:22).
The stories of Prophets teach Muslims that virtue will always struggle against falsehood, and the best way to engage falsehood is to start by giving good counsel, on common grounds. People with common views and experiences work together assisting and sharing the same goals and aspirations. We have to focus on what we share, recognising that clustering by commonality, is a natural state of affairs. Social Identity Theory indeed articulates that different social contexts trigger people to think, feel and act on the basis of their personal, family or national identities corresponding to a widening circle of group membership.[ii] Even individuals, who view the world through a selfish stance, and even those who oppose external interference in their choices, voluntarily, from time to time, will dip in and out of some kind of wider grouping based on common grounds.
Exclusivity that arises when people are shunned because of “natural distinctions” violates the warmth and inclusiveness taught by Islam. “Natural distinctions” are inconsistent with the notion of humanistic grouping implied in the Qur’anic label “the children of Adam” (Banu Adam). According to the Qur’an, there is no account of natural distinctions among individuals. How can there be when His Mercy is, infinite and open to people who turn to Him, regardless of their circumstances and past misdemeanours.
Many famous twentieth century scholars and thinkers such as Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) and Husain Ahmad Madani (1879-1958) promoted a kind of solidarity that rested in binding covenants, commonality, lineage, culture, shared history and language. Solidarity also requires sharing in the natural wonders encapsulating the territories people lived in. Disdain comes from ideological nationalism and allegiances bound by the simple measure of discrete territories and the idea of “sole identity” implicit in nationalism.
Why is social solidarity important? The answer is simply that it is the primary means of establishing security in a world we all share and which is organised in ways that, as individuals, we do not have control over. We often show no hesitancy in committing to organising within networks, organisations, and trading partners and so on to leverage greater control over broader horizons. Yet, when it comes to declaring our shared values with other people, many Muslims frequently cringe thinking that, by doing so, somehow, it will dilute the distinctiveness of our religion.
We have to replace such fearful thoughts, particularly when they appear to overly confine us to a narrowed tradition, with what God says, “Invite all to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching, and reason with them in the best possible way” (Qur’an 16:125). “The Sunnah,” as the scholar Yahya Rhodus recently said, “is a vast Sunnah.” So let us use it intelligently in the best possible way, with wisdom and with beautiful execution. Let us start by talking about our shared values with the Olympics, whenever we get the chance to.
Below are the three values of the Olympics. I have mentioned some brief points that hopefully, God willing, show how we can come to know another using our shared values with the Olympics. I am sure you can elaborate on these things in much greater detail.
Respect – Fair play, knowing one’s own limits, and taking care of one’s health and the environment only comes about when human beings are sincere. In Islam this is Naseehah which is, as the Prophet said, “to Allah and His Book, and His messenger, and to the leaders of the Muslims and their common folk” (reported by Muslim).
Excellence – Like giving ones best on the playing field, Islam teaches people to give their best in life. In Islam this is called Ihsan, which can be summarised as the performance of any good action with the most excellent of effort and discretion, and driven by ones love for God and sincerity to all of creation. Islam teaches Muslims to strive for excellence, beautify their actions and to make them profound.
Friendship – Like through sport we can “come to know” one another, Islam teaches that there are no “natural distinctions” between people based on colour, gender or nationality. Islam places great importance on improving our character, maintaining the rights of others, being sincere and showing compassion to people regardless of who they are or where they come from, and this is for Muslims the basis of true friendship between people.
By Mamnun Khan
[i] Muhammad Shafi, Ma’ariful Qur’an, 1996, Vol. 8, p143.
[ii] Michael Hogg and Graham Vaughan, Social Psychology (5th edition), Prentice Hall, 2008.