The Ummah’s Double-Edged Sword


In the Name of God, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful

Once again, a disastrous earthquake has struck Indonesia, killing thousands of people. There was widespread fear of another devastating tsunami, and panic spread quickly among the people there who were awakened by the rumbling earth and warnings of local officials. Thank God Almighty, no tsunami came. Nevertheless, it is truly heartbreaking to see the same communities, still reeling from the December, 26 2004 Tsunami, go through the same tragedy all over again.

Once again, it has not been lost on my mind’s eye that many of the victims are Muslim. I can’t help but feel for them, because they are my brothers and sisters, as the Qur’an told me: “The Believers are but a single brotherhood…” (Quran 49:10). Some believe this feeling of empathy and compassion for my fellow Muslims is a disease. I take strong issue with that. The notion of the ummah, or nation of believers, was a truly radical one when it was first introduced by Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).

In the Constitution of Medina, the Prophet (pbuh) declared:

This is a document from Muhammad the prophet (governing the relations) between the believers and Muslims of Quraysh and Yathrib, and those who followed them and joined them and labored with them. They are one community (umma) to the exclusion of all men.

This has never been heard of in Arabia before the Prophet (pbuh). The Arabs were fiercely sectarian and tribal. They were prepared to defend anyone of their own – even if he be a vicious criminal – to the very last man. In fact, the Arabs had a saying, “Support your brother, whether he be the oppressor or the one oppressed.” (Psst…the Prophet took this idea and radically transformed it. But that is for a future post.) For the Prophet (pbuh) to declare that the bonds of faith trump that of tribe and family was nothing short of revolutionary.

And it is a wonderful feeling. When I went on my Hajj in 2003, I felt part of one huge human family. Every single pilgrim was my brother and sister, and there were pilgrims from all across the world. Coming from a society from which I frequently felt estranged (until recently), it was a very comforting and refreshing experience. Yet, the ummah is a double-edged sword. It has a “dark side,” if you will.

Many Muslims, unfortunately, tend to conclude – succumbing to the weakness characteristic of the human condition – that the suffering of non-Muslims is immaterial. Who cares, they say, about what happens to non-Muslims…there are too many Muslims – who are our brothers and sisters, remember – that are suffering throughout the world.

Yes, there are many, many, many Muslims who suffer across the world. Yes, the majority of the world’s refugees are Muslim. Yes, Muslims live under military occupation in Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. Nevertheless, that does not mean that the deaths of innocent Americans on September 11 are immaterial. Just because 250,000 people – most of them Muslim – were killed by the December 2004 Tsunami, that does not mean that the deaths of Americans in Florida from hurricanes are any less tragic.

Yes, Muslims are being raped, pillaged, robbed, and killed every single day (Psst…sometimes at the hands of other Muslims). Nevertheless, that does not mean it is ok to strap a bomb on your chest and kill yourself and innocent non-Muslims on a passenger plane, or in a pizza parlor, or at an embassy. “Never let the hatred of a people toward you,” the Qur’an proclaims, “move you to commit injustice…” (5:8). The death of any human being – black, white, yellow, red, or brown; Muslim or otherwise – is and always will be a terrible tragedy.

We Americans need to understand this better. We Americans form an “ummah” of sorts, and sadly, I feel many – if not most – Americans are either oblivious to the suffering of other people around the world, or do not care about the suffering of other people around the world. That is the “dark side” of the American “ummah.” Yes, we lost 3,000 innocent Americans at the hands of Muslim monsters on September 11, 2001 – a fact many American soldiers are quick to cite as their reason for why they serve in the Armed Forces. Still, that does not mean that the death of thousands of innocent Afghans and Iraqis as a result of our military action means absolutely nothing. That does not mean it is ever alright to torture detainees in American custody, wherever they may be around the world. We Americans must also heed the Qur’anic rule: “Never let the hatred of a people toward you move you to commit injustice…”

Now, to be completely fair, Americans proved me wrong on this point many times. Earlier this year, thousands of ordinary American citizens pledged millions of dollars of their own money to help the victims of the December 2004 Tsunami. Scores of Americans have protested the torture of detainees at the hands of American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The soldiers who abused Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib have been punished. The Supreme Court has ruled against the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens as “enemy combatants.”

The bottom line is this: just because a person does not belong to our own group – whether cultural, ethnic, racial, religious, or national – it does not mean that he or she is no longer a human being; it does not mean he or she does not have worth and dignity. As the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) said, “All of you are from Adam, and Adam was from dust.” Let us all remember that. Let us all remember that.

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