We live in interesting times, in some ways bearing similarities to past generations, but in many ways entirely different. I think many would probably agree that people are becoming increasingly polarised in their views. It seems nowadays that most fields of study that are shaped by human thought or intervention are being realised or at least opined in their extremes, whether we are looking at social, political, economic or religious domains or otherwise. Just a few examples of ideas that have to lead to great conflict include a divergence between the political left and right, contentions on ethics and morality, freedom of movement, freedom of speech, liberalism and conservatism, capitalism and socialism, trickle-down vs. trickle-up economics, and conflicts between religious and secular values. Much of the recent debates and policy decisions around these ideas appear to have a negative effect on social cohesion and often times can even result in violence and disorder.
Contrary to the common mantra of “Islam has the answer to all of society’s problems” that many Muslims often promote, Islamic thought is not immune to this polarisation and is very much influenced by contrasting ideas both within its own tradition and without. As a result, we have a variety of understandings of how to apply our religion in today’s world, with conflicts between textual absolutism and reason, literal and figurative interpretations, traditionalism vs. progressivism, and conservatism vs. liberalism to name a few. The average Muslim would understandably find it hard not to be swept up by the storm of ideas out there, so how can we even begin to navigate this vast ocean of opinions in light of our religion?
Diversity of thought and expression are important components of a healthy society, the lack of which would result in a halt of progression and intellectual stagnation. Islam itself has a rich tradition of differences of opinion. However, pathology begins when differences give rise to conflict and division (though it could be argued that in certain circumstances this may be necessary to preserve important principles). Nonetheless, a good start would be to take a look at some of the mechanisms involved in exacerbating divisions. Many of these are beyond our reach, such as relative oppression and injustice, the influence of the media, variations in access to popular information, and suppression of ideas, which can all facilitate different narratives. However, those factors that the average person can actually change include the human propensity towards tribalism on a social level, and certain negative character traits exhibited on a personal level.
Social influence can only work if a critical mass of individuals first embodies those values it wishes to imbue. Thus, it is evidently important that we improve our own selves first and foremost. This is where the dīn of Islam arguably has much to contribute, due in no small part to the perfection of the best of creation, the Messenger of God, peace and blessings be upon him. It is through emulating him and his moral compass that we can first orientate ourselves and then go on to exert a greater positive influence on others and society as a whole. For it is precisely due to our Prophet’s great character that we believe in him, and because we believe in him that we believe in the truth that he came with.
The Qur’ān confirms his exalted nature in the fourth verse of Sūra al-Qalam:
﴿وَإِنَّكَ لَعَلَىٰ خُلُقٍ عَظِيمٍۢ﴾
“And indeed, you certainly are upon a great character” [Surah al-Qalam 68:4]
There is an emphasis on this fact with the inclusion of both the particle “in–na” (“indeed”) and the additional emphatic prefix of the letter “lām”. This verse reflects the importance of his character for the success of his blessed mission in the context of the sūra.
So, what is the noble character of our Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him? al-Ṭabarī brings evidence for this in Jāmi‘ul Bayān demonstrating this to be the embodiment of the Qur’ān itself. Ibn ‘Āshūr in his tafsīr of the verse in al–Taḥrīr wa’l-Tanwīr mentions some of the specific character traits he possessed which were by no means exhaustive. He includes the Prophet’s adherence to the dīn he propagated, true knowledge, forbearance/gentleness, justice, patience at times of difficulty, acknowledgement of goodness in others, humility, asceticism, abstinence/integrity, pardon, steadfastness, modesty, courage, restraint, love, dignity, compassion, righteous deeds and keeping good relations with others.
Simply glancing at the above list of traits shows how today as Muslims we find ourselves frankly lacking. He came to rid us of the shackles of cultism and encouraged us to seek and impart knowledge with humility and respect for others. It seems that as Muslims, far from being tolerant and accessible we are often the most intolerant and closed-minded. We should rather try to understand those we disagree with and demonstrate empathy towards others if we are to flourish. If we lack knowledge in a certain field, we should have the humility to admit this whilst striving to take our time to educate ourselves so we are not left behind. We should not only be at the forefront of the Islamic disciplines and the natural sciences but contribute to other disciplines such as Philosophy, the Arts and the Social Sciences.
As long as humanity continues, ideas will always be in a state of flux, whether related to Islam or not.
Perhaps the ethical framework that our Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) came with, combined with our education around these topics, may provide us with the wisdom to make the best and most balanced decisions, be they Islamic or otherwise. Or perhaps we may not have answers to all of these differences of ideas, nor may we be necessarily supposed to. However, as Muslims, it would place us in good stead if we can one day participate as leaders in these various areas of discourse and demonstrate to the world how differences can be had in the best of ways by following the best of examples.