Of September 11, 2001

20. The Role of Religion in building  a Civil Society

        “And let there arise from you a nation which invites others to goodness and enjoin right conduct and forbid indecency.  Such are those who are successful”.     (Quran 3:104) 

        “Righteousness is not that you turn your face to the East or to the West but the righteous is he who believes in God and the last day and angels and the scriptures and the Prophet and he spends his wealth for love of Him on his relatives, the orphans, the needy on those who ask.  He sets slaves free and observes proper worship and pays poor dues.  And those who keep their treaty when they make one and are patient in tribulation and adversity and at the time of stress, such are those who are sincere, such are those who are God fearing.      (Quran 2:177) 

         Just as a house is built of bricks, a community is built of individual humans.  If bricks are strong and of good quality the house will be strong as well.  Such is also the development of a community and a society.  How do we define a civil society?  This is a society in which civility prevails.  The individual member is enlightened and is at peace with himself, his surroundings, including his family, his co-workers, his neighbors and fellow citizens.  There is caring and compassion for each of them and this is related to the harmony between belief and action as Confusions the Chinese philosopher put it who said “If there is a harmony between belief and action there will be love in our homes and if there is love in our homes, there will be order in the nation and if there is order in the nation there will be peace on earth”.

         However, the key ingredient for a civil society is justice.  In Islam the concept is of “Al-Adl wal ihsan” i.e. to be good is to be just.  Dr. Martin Luther King has said “peace is not absence of tension but presence of justice”.  Thalmud, Jewish writing says “more justice - more peace”.  To this I say “no justice - no peace”.

The society that we live in is a civilized society but by no means is a civil society.  We have achieved material and technological break throughs with fast communication and mass transportation.  We have miniaturized a library into a compact disc, reached the moon and the planet Mars but the man on Earth is still looking trying to find himself.  We are plagued by racism, stereotyping, violence in the streets, schools and homes, homicide, infanticide, discrimination, inequality in gender and terrorism from within and without.  In the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness man now depends on alcohol, drugs and blood shed.  How can we wake up in peace when we sleep with fear? 

         Islam offers to build a civil society by building the character of the individual.  An individual who submits his will to the will of God, who is conscious of the fact that he is being watched and will be held accountable in the life hereafter for what he has done in this life.  He cares for all and is “merciful to mankind”.  Islam and Muslims have done this in the past and can do it again.  Islam came at the time when there was chaos in Arabia and people had forgotten the message of Abraham.  Crime was rampant and young girls were buried alive for the shame of having a daughter.  Europe was in the Dark Ages and in India widows were burned to death after the death of their husband.  So for several centuries Islam and Muslims carried the torch of enlightment in Science, Medicine, Education and Philosophy and helped Europe come out of the Dark Ages.  This continued until Muslim countries were colonized, for centuries.  Even after gaining independence they have not recovered from the moral and economic enslavement to full extent.  However, the tide is turning.

         Islam has found a new home in the West.  Nineteen million Muslims in Europe and 8 million in the USA constitute a significant minority.  There is a new ray of hope that can be seen at the end of the tunnel.  Out of 8 million Muslims in America, 42% are indigenous, that is those who are born and raised here.  They can not be interned nor are they going back anywhere.  They are going to be here to stay, vote and change the landscape of the USA.  The USA has gained new citizens now who do not drink or take drugs but rather fight drugs and crime in their neighborhood.  They have changed the environment in the prison system.  Out of 1.5 million prisoners, close to 100,000 are Muslims.  They were not Muslims when they entered the prison but as a result of inhibition they have embraced Islam and according to one of the prison officials, Muslim inmates are the model prisoners.  An American Muslim should also be a model citizen if he is not already one.  American Muslims must play their destined role in creating a civil society in their new homeland.  They should vote and elect officials who are God fearing and pious in their own character.  They should strengthen and support the family, the foundation of society, keeps the environment clean and be law abiding citizens.  They must value the life of all fellow humans irrespective of their beliefs.  They must come out of their Mosques and go on the street to help the needy, the homeless and the poor.  Twenty thousand Muslim Physicians in the USA are already contributing their share to the health care of Americans.  Muslim Professors and Scientists are imparting education and science to all Americans.  Muslim businesses, especially in information technology, are advancing the cause of science and technology in this country. 

However, Islam is not just a mere slogan.  If the beautiful teachings of Quran and of Mohammad, of mercy and tolerance is not put to action or is misrepresented, it may dissuade rather than persuade the individual to become a peace loving and compassionate citizen.  It has been said that Islam is spread by the sword and Islam is now the fastest growing religion in the USA but without the sword.  The sword of Islam is not the weapon but the character of a Muslim as defined in the Quran.

We must be conscious of dangers of religion when misused.  It has been said, “Religion can make a good person a better one but when misused, make a bad person a worse one”.  Religion cannot be used to divide people, to oppress or to discriminate them.  It should be used like any other vaccine in appropriate doses to inoculate people against disbelief and its resultant effects which shreds the moral fabric of our society.

         “By the token of time mankind is in a state of loss except for those who have true belief and pure action and join together in the mutual teaching of truth and patience”.     (Quran103:1-3)

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Shahid Athar, MD
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Indianapolis, IN 46260