The Social System and Morality of Islam
An important Hadith (saying) of the Prophet is that religion is not what one formally or ritualistically practices but how one deals with others. It is therefore not sufficient to be pious without performing deeds which demonstrate one’s beliefs. It is reported that the Prophet once entered a mosque and saw at prayer a venerable old man with a long white beard. He was told that the man was in the mosque all day long, worshipping and dispensing the words of Allah to others. The Prophet then asked how he earned his living and was told that a merchant, not known for his piety, supported him. The Prophet remarked that of the two, the merchant was indeed the more worthy.
Every Muslim is the recipient, guardian, and executor of God’s will on earth; his responsibilities are all encompassing. A Muslim’s duty to act in defense of what is right is as much part of his faith as is his duty to oppose wrong. The Prophet once said, “If someone among you sees wrong he must right it by his hand if he can (deed, conduct, action). If he cannot, then by his tongue (speak up, verbally oppose); if he cannot, then by his gaze (silent expression of disapproval); and if he cannot, then in his heart. The last is the minimum expression of his conviction (faith, courage).”
Living the faith is ibada, service to God through service to humankind.
A view inside the ninth-century Karaouine Mosque, Fez, Morocco. (Aramco World Magazine, May-June 1993; photo Nik Wheeler).
By no means shall ye attain righteousness unless ye give (freely) of that which ye love; and whatever ye give, of a truth God knoweth it well.
The preservation of a social order depends on each and every member of that society freely adhering to the same moral principles and practices. Islam, founded on individual and collective morality and responsibility, introduced a social revolution in the context in which it was first revealed. Collective morality is expressed in the Qur’an in such terms as equality, justice, fairness, brotherhood, mercy, compassion, solidarity, and freedom of choice. Leaders are responsible for the application of these principles and are accountable to God and man for their administration. It is reported that a man went to Umar, the second khalifa, to talk to him. It was nighttime, and a candle burned on Umar’s desk. Umar asked the man if what he wanted to discuss was personal. The man said that it was, and Umar extinguished the candle so as not burn public funds for a private purpose. Leaders in Islam, whether heads of state or heads of family or private enterprise, have a higher burden or responsibility than others.
There is a relation in Islam between individual responsibility and the rights and privileges derived from membership in the community. Individual obligations must be met before one can claim a portion from the community of which he is part. Each member of a society must fulfill his own obligations and rely on others to fulfill theirs before that society can acquire the necessary reservoir of social rights and privileges which can then be shared by all. The notions of brotherhood and solidarity not only impose upon the community the duty to care for’ its members, but also require each person to use his initiative to carry out individual and social responsibilities according to his ability.
And to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, And throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing.
“Whosoever of you sees an evil action, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart—and that is the weakest of faith.”
The Prophet’s Hadith
The equality of all Muslims is emphasized repeatedly throughout the Qur’an. It is because of that concept that Islam under the Sunni tradition does not have an ordained clergy. There is a direct relationship between every man and his Creator, and there can be no intermediary. This particular closeness between the individual and God is paramount in belief as well as in practice.
It is frequently argued that Islam is not a religion that provides for full equity among Muslims. Indeed, because Islam makes distinctions between men and women; not all rights and privileges available to men are available to women. For example, a male Muslim inherits twice the share of the female, but then a male relative has the financial responsibility to care for a needy female relative. Also, a male Muslim has the right to unilaterally divorce his wife, while she can only divorce her husband through a judge’s determination. Custody of children from a divorce is given the mother, boys till age 9 and girls till age 12. Thereafter custody reverts to the father, provided that he is fit. However, the fact that there is not absolute parity in all rights and privileges does not mean that women do not share an overall equality with men. It must also be noted that certain social practices in some Muslim countries are not required by Islam, but have simply evolved in the course of time as a result of indigenous cultural factors.
Islam differentiates between Muslims and non-Muslims and between the “People of the Book” (dhimmi) and others. Only Muslims have the right to elect the khalifa. In judicial matters the oath of the Muslim prevails over that of the non-Muslim. There are therefore some differences between males and females in Islam, between Muslims and Dhimmis, and Muslims and non-Dhimmis.
One of almost 300 mosques on the Tunisian island of Jerba. These glimmering, whitewashed structures dominate the landscape, their colors shift with the changing light, and their flights of architectural fantasy seem to come in an infinite variety. (Aramco World Magazine, July-August 1994; photo Nik Wheeler).
The search for justice is one of the continuing quests of humankind. It is the quest that is prescribed by the Qur’an for every Muslim. Social and individual justice are evolving concepts which depend largely upon a variety of external considerations. Above all, Islam seeks to inculcate within every Muslim the need to seek justice and to apply it to himself as well as to others. Because Muslims believe that God is the beginning and the end of everything, all is preordained by Qadar (divine will). Qadar does not imply inaction, but, rather, acceptance. It requires the strength to change what can be changed and the fortitude to accept what cannot.
Individual responsibility is a cornerstone of Islam. Every Muslim is accountable to his Creator for what he himself does or fails to do—as well as for others for whom he may be accountable—and for things that he has control over. As in Western legal codes, individual responsibility is predicated on the intent and motive of the actor in light of his ability to do good and to avoid evil or harm to others. Thus Islam believes in free will, and to the extent that this exists a person is responsible for its exercise in the framework of Islamic morality. But the relativity of human justice is not to be confused with the absoluteness of divine justice whose application every Muslim expects without fail on judgment day. Because of the Muslim’s belief in accountability in the hereafter, his oath is valid evidence in any judicial or extra-judicial process.
Serve God, and join not any partners with Him; and do good—To parents, orphans, those in need, neighbours who are near, neighbours who are strangers; the companion by your side, the way-farer (ye meet), and what your right hands possess: For God loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious;—
“Actions are but by intention and every man shall have but that which he intended.”
The Prophet’s Hadith
“None of you (truly) believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”
The Prophet’s Hadith
Forbearance and Forgiveness
A Muslim is accountable for what he does and what he fails to do in accordance with not only the letter but also the spirit of the law. However, even though Islam imposes a number of very rigid requirements and appears formalistic and inflexible, one of the basic premises of the relationship among Muslims, and between Muslims and others, is derived from one of the basic premises of the relationship between a Muslim and his Creator, namely, forbearance and forgiveness.
In one of the Prophet’s Hadiths it is stated that a person could do such evil during his lifetime that there might be between him and the doors to hell only one step and then he could repent and ask for God’s forgiveness and do one good deed and enter heaven. By the same token, a person may during his life do so much good as to be one step removed from heaven and then do one evil deed that would be sufficient to earn him hell. The meaning of the Hadith is to emphasize that, even though a person may do good throughout his life, he should never be absolutely certain that the good he has done all along is sufficient to carry him through; he should not forget that one bad deed could overcome all the good ones. Conversely, a person who has done evil all his life may repent even at the last moment and with one good deed earn paradise.
The element of forbearance and forgiveness has to be predicated on knowledge, awareness, and truth. Forbearance and forgiveness depend on the believer’s recognition and acceptance of what he has done and his genuine repentance with an intent not to repeat the misdeed. That is why Muslims are encouraged to forgive the bad deeds of others committed against them.
Allah is described in the Qur’an as the Forgiving and the Merciful. Everything is forgivable by Allah except Shirk (the negation of the existence of the Singularity, Uniqueness and Oneness of the Creator.) Even so the mercy of God is infinite. A man was once brought to the Prophet for trial because he denied the existence of God. Upon review of the facts, it appeared that the man was in despair over a personal tragedy. He had been found in the desert throwing his spear to the sky and screaming that he wanted to kill God for the injustice that he had suffered. The Prophet replied, “Is it not enough that he acknowledged the existence of God to want to kill him?.” The man was set free.
Women in Islam
As in most of the nomadic tribes of the ancient world, women were deemed unimportant in pre-Islamic Arabia. Indeed, in a society shaped by the rigors of desert life, women were relegated to the margins of community life.
The advent of Islam fundamentally altered the status of women in several ways. First, and most importantly, it overturned tradition by according women equal status before Allah. No longer were women denied a human face. Their souls like the souls of men were precious to Allah. They, like men, were worthy of dignity and respect. As a result of this new status and the revolution it worked on Arab society—women became pillars of early Muslim society and were counted among its strongest supporters. Several women—notably Fatimah, daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of Ali, the fourth caliph—even played important roles in the propagation of the faith. To the Shia, for example; Fatimah is an authoritative source of the Prophet’s sayings and deeds.
Tibetan Muslim sisters in the doorway of their home in Lhasa. (Aramco World Magazine, January-February 1998; photo Kevin Bubriski).
The status of women under Islam also altered as a consequence of the spread of the religion itself. As Islam became a world religion and its influence spread the character of Arab society changed, requiring that women take a larger role in society. As men hurriedly left their flocks and businesses to fight for Islam, women readily assumed the burdens and responsibilities of the home.
The Prophet set an example for the treatment of women in marriage through his relationship with his first wife Khadijah. Although fifteen years his elder, Muhammad remained a faithful and devoted husband for twenty-six years, contrary to the tradition of polygamy which prevailed at the time in Arabia. After her death Muhammad remarried, but he always remembered Khadijah with love and spoke of her with reverence. Khadijah was, in fact, Muhammad’s first convert to Islam and his strongest supporter in the struggle to establish the new faith.
Aishah bint abu Bakr (613-678) was Muhammad’s favorite wife of later years. Noted for her education and intelligence, in particular her ability to read and write, she was often consulted about the teachings of the Prophet after his death. She played an important role in the life of the early community, most famously by opposing the succession of Ali after the death of Uthman, the third khalifa.
Behold! the angels said: “O Mary! God giveth thee glad tidings of a word from Him: his name will be Christ Jesus, the son of Mary, held in honour in this world and the hereafter and of (the company of) those nearest to God;…
The new, elevated status of women is apparent in numerous Qur’anic proscriptions which set out women’s rights and obligations. On protecting the dignity and self-respect of women, for example, the Qur’an is emphatic and unequivocal: One of the seven hudud crimes is maligning a woman’s reputation.
O Mankind: Be careful of your duty to your Lord who created its mate and from them twain hath spread abroad a multitude of men and women. Be careful of your duty toward Allah in who ye claim (your rights) of one another.
O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another. Lo! The noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the best in conduct.
“Jahimah came to the Prophet, said ‘O Messenger of Allah! I intended that I should enlist in the fighting force and I have come to consult thee.’ He said: ‘Then stick to her, for paradise is beneath her two feet.'”
The Prophet’s Hadith
“The most perfect of the believers in faith is the best of them in moral excellence, and the best of you are the kindest of you to their wives.”
The Prophet’s Hadith
The Qur’an, of course, acknowledges and makes provision for differences between men and women. Indeed, on these differences is erected an elaborate structure of individual and social rights and obligations. Some appear inequitable on the surface but on examination reveal a deeper logic and reasonableness. A man, for example, stands to inherit twice as much as a woman, but then he must provide for his own wife and family and relatives should the need arise.
The same holds true of traditional rules of dress and behavior. Women are enjoined to cover their bodies (except for the face and hands) and lower their gaze in the presence of men not related to them. Moreover, although women and men are subject to the same religious obligations—such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage to Mecca—women pray separately from men. Nonetheless, these rules of dress and behavior—however restrictive they may appear to Western eyes—serve a social function. In societies which by tradition provide few protections outside the family, they insure a woman’s integrity and dignity. For that reason, too, men are enjoined to lower their eyes before women and to be appropriately covered from above the chest to the knees.
In other areas, women enjoy a strict parity with men. A woman’s right to own property is just as absolute as a man’s. Male kin cannot handle a woman 5 financial interests without her permission. A woman must specifically consent to marriage and cannot be forced to accept a husband she does not approve of. In cases of divorce—in a prominent departure from traditional practice—women have exclusive guardianship rights over children up to early puberty. Although a husband has the right to divorce his wife unilaterally—a right not shared by women—a wife can divorce her husband on specific legal grounds by court order.
In education, too, women have the same rights as men. In contemporary Muslim society, in fact, women have attained the same levels of education as men and in many countries occupy positions of power and influence.
Nothing in Islam prevents a woman from accomplishing herself or attaining her goals. Societies may erect barriers, but nothing in the spirit of the Qur’an subjugates women to men. In time, of course, social barriers will disappear—as they are disappearing now—because Muslim women will expect and demand it. As a result, it can only be expected that women will play an increasingly larger role in Islamic society and surpass the contributions of early Muslim women.
The parties should either hold Together on equitable terms, Or separate with kindness.
Lo! Allah enjoineth (orders) justice (or injustice) and kindness (or unkindness) and to give to (one’s) kinsfolk…
“What did the Prophet do when in his house? She said, ‘He served his wife.”
The Prophet’s Hadith
The Islamic Calendar
The Islamic calendar is unique among the major calendars of the world. Unlike the Gregorian calendar and others based on the astronomical solar year—the length of time it takes for the earth to revolve around the sun—the Islamic calendar is based on the lunar year.
The lunar calendar is comprised of 12 lunar months like the calendar based on the solar year. However, since each month begins and ends with the new moon—a period lasting 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds—each lunar year contains only 354 days (or 355 on leap years) as opposed to 365 and 1/4 days for the astronomical year. There are 11 leap years in every cycle of 30 years, the intercalated day always being added to the last day of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last month of the year.
As a consequence of the fewer number of days in the lunar year, the lunar calendar is unrelated to the progression of the seasons. The month of Rajab, for example, could occur in summer in one year and the middle of winter 15 years later. Relative to the solar year, the lunar calendar progresses by 10 or 11 days each year so that 33 Muslim years are approximately equal to 32 Gregorian years.
The difference in the length of the lunar year accounts for some of the difficulty in converting dates from the Islamic (Hijri or “Hijrah”) system to the Gregorian and vice versa. The following equation can be used to calculate the Hijrah year in which the corresponding Gregorian year began:
A.D. = 622 + (32/33 x A.H.)
The Islamic calendar was devised in the seventh century in response to the exigencies of governing the far-flung Abbasid empire. It also was created, not incidentally, to glorify the triumph of the new religion. Other calendars in use at the time were tied to other states and religions, and so, the historian al-Biruni tells us, the caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab decided to develop a new calendar based on the advent of Islam, taking July 16, 622 A.D., the date of the Hijrah or the Prophet’s sojourn from Mecca to Madina, as the starting point of the calendar of the Muslim era.
The Muslim months are:
The following holidays are observed among Muslim communities throughout the world:
‘Id al-Fitr, also known as the Little Feast, marks the end of the great fast of Ramadan. It occurs on the first day of the month of Shawwal.
‘Id al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, also known as the Great Feast, falls seventy days after ‘Id al-Fitr, on the 10th of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah.
Ra’s al-Sannah, New Year’s Festival, falls on the first day of the month of Muharram.
Mawlid an-Nabi, the Prophet’s Birthday, is celebrated on the 12th day of the month of Rabi’ al-Awwal.
Lailat al Isra’ wa al-Mi’raj, this festival commemorates the Prophet’s miraculous journey, from Mecca to Jerusalem to heaven and then back to Mecca in the same night, is celebrated on the 27th day of the month of Rajab.