Today we stand in a moment, or many moments, where people talk about the world being broken. For many of us, globally and historically it has been broken and breaking and completely destroyed already many times and again and again. How do we move forward then? How do we reconceptualise societies that are healing rather than negligent, celebratory rather than unjust and fundamentally committed to equity, balance and more than just a status quo of something vague like “peace”, but something more radically joyful and just and inclusive? For me, Islam provides an answer in what it asks of us as humans, as creatures living on this earth, and as souls.
This Ramadan, as with every Ramadan, I find myself re-connecting with Allah. That is the purpose of Ramadan after all – for those who are able to do so we deprive our bodies of food and water between sunrise and sunset for a month in order to attain taqwa (God-consciousness). I find for me that this consciousness of Allah comes about first through the consciousness of myself – the fact that Ramadan asks you quite literally to starve your body and feed your soul means that you become aware of a deeper you inside yourself. A you beyond the flesh and bone cage of you, a you that has other needs, a you that exists in a realm that is simultaneously more fundamental and more intricate than this superficial you. Many people try to use Ramadan as a time to also reconnect with the Quran – the word of God – and to supplicate more, pray more and think more about God. These combined experiences truly awaken something, as fundamental or cliché as it may sound I feel a throbbing in my chest in this month, I feel a softness and a different state of mind.
This experience of Ramadan is one which I believe paves a way for us to think about humanity and existence beyond many of the frameworks we currently do. For me, the crux of most of the issues we face in the world today come down to the concept of dehumanisation. Dehumanisation is the fact that we are able – and have been able, and have historic narratives and reference points which enable us to – to consider other humans as less human than us. Dehumanisation means that we live in societies which can accept unacceptable things. We accept blocks of flats burning down because the people who lived in them were too poor to be truly humanised. We accept walking past homeless people in our own neighbourhoods because the people who are made homeless are also made sub-human to us. We accept the murder of certain bodies because they look, dress, love, touch or act in ways we decide make them less human than us. We accept the deportation of people out of our countries because such people are not quite as valuable as us. We accept war, sexual violence, incarceration, racist institutions, unjust “justice systems”, drought, famine, censorship, poverty, exploitation, abuse, borders and all their interconnectedness because we are fundamentally able to think of some people as less human than others.
For me taqwa, and connecting to my soul provide me with a different stance and way out of this matrix of violence. For me, the value of a human being is not conditional on anything at all, it is innate. To become aware of my own soul is to become aware of others, then. To become aware of my own self is to become aware of my duty to others. What do I mean? Well, when food and water and the body are stripped away and I am able to reconnect to the part of me that exists and will continue to exist beyond all of this – I find it possible to want to think beyond our bodies. If, at a fundamental level we are all souls, then rather than this making me “colour-blind” or lending itself to a nice wishy-washy interpretation of humanity outside of history as “all the same and therefore equal”, it leads me to a more devastating notion which is that the humanity of every one of us is bound up with the humanity of the others.
I believe this is a central principle of Islam. The concept of unity and connectedness are in Islam in many ways – primarily, of course, the Oneness of Allah (tawheed), but also the oneness of humanity – that we all stem from the same start-point, the oneness and unity of the systems in the world around us – the water cycle, the circulatory system in the body, photosynthesis, the seasons, reproduction, the synchronised movement of worshiping in congregation. There is an emphasis on the interrelatedness of everything which is on a level that you begin to consider that if one part of a larger system is harmed, is mal-treated, or is out of joint – then the entire system is damaged. On a human level then when I say that Islam helps me to consider that my own humanity is bound up with everybody else’s I mean that the dehumanisation of anybody else is the dehumanisation of myself – not just any other Muslim, or any other believer, but anybody else.
On a practical level, the dehumanisation of any individual or group does erode our own humanity in very tangible ways. For example, the dehumanisation of Muslims in Britain which has enabled the state to bring in censorship, surveillance measures, the ability to stop-and-search without suspicion, detain without charge, and deport without conviction is a dehumanisation which is ultimately eroding human rights more broadly. It is not just the “democratic freedoms” of Muslims which are attacked but democracy more broadly. The dehumanisation of some has always opened the potential for any of us to be dehumanised. It was the dehumanisation of colonial subjects and the ability of European powers to murder, maim and abuse humans in other parts of the world that created the potential for them to do the same thing at home.
I make these connections and references to show that when I say that taqwa, being God-conscious, makes me more aware of myself, and therefore more aware of the way my humanity is bound up with other people’s – this doesn’t mean that I ignore power dynamics, structures of oppression and the different histories we are positioned in to say we are all the same – it means I try to recognise how disturbing, distorting and disfiguring it is to my own humanity that others are dehumanised – and that they are dehumanised in different ways. I should be devastated, at a complete loss, burning on the inside and in tumult every second of every day if I were to truly feel what this consciousness gives me the potential to feel – that my own humanity is bound up with everybody else’s.
How do I believe this provides an answer to the problems of the world we live in today then? Well, for me, the experiences and awareness I have just explained pave the way for me to begin to understand three things in one: that I have a duty to others, which is a duty to myself, which is a duty to Allah. I have already somewhat explained the duty to others. How is this a duty to myself? Well, in the Quran there is the idea that souls “oppress themselves”/“wrong themselves”. I find this useful. It makes sense to me that we have no impact on God when we do anything that we do, instead, we have an impact on ourselves. To me, fulfilling obligations like praying or fasting are not done for God but for myself. This whole idea – this whole notion that we have the capacity, the will and the potential to “oppress ourselves” – says to me that there is, within all of us, some innate knowledge of something deeper which we can ignore, or we can follow. Perhaps the sort of innate knowledge that we refer to as gut-feeling. The sort of innate knowledge that means that when you sit on a bus and watch someone harass someone else, you want to speak out, even if you don’t.
As human beings I do believe there is an instinct in us towards truth which manifests in different ways. In the context I am talking about it is an instinct to feel pain for others, an instinct to care deeply for others, an instinct to be angry about injustice that harms others. To me then, when we ignore this instinct, when we shroud our empathy in dehumanisation, when we decide to remain apathetic – we oppress ourselves. When we go against or try to pretend our humanity is not bound up with one another, I believe we actually harm ourselves. We distort our humanity and disfigure our own selves not only when we are active oppressors then, but when we are inactive and complicit, too.
And how is this connected to God? Well, the duty to each other, which is a duty to ourselves, is also, for me, a duty to God. You will notice in the Quran that wherever “the believers” are mentioned, it is those “who establish regular prayer” and something. There is almost always an and; and that and is almost always something like “help the poor”, “give to charity”, “provide for those in need”, etc etc. This duality which comprises “the believers” says to me that worship and faith cannot be embodied solely in a personal pious relationship with God. In fact, the Quran locates Islam as a socially-situated religion. You would find it hard to be a Muslim if you lived alone on a desert island because so much of what Islam requires is service to others. And this service to others – whether redistribution of material goods, wealth, power, or knowledge with the aim of equity; deconstructing oppressive situations, dynamics and relationships with the aim of liberation; or standing up for, speaking out against, exposing and mobilising against injustices – is part of worshipping Allah. To me, committing crimes against humans is committing a crime against ourselves – distorting our own souls – and a crime against Allah. These three things are really one thing.
Therefore, to be Muslim – literally, “one who submits [to God]” – is to enter a state of surrender. For me this submission which is a submission to Allah, is a surrendering of ourselves to our more fundamental selves, giving us the possibility to be as close to our humanity as possible; which is also to commit ourselves to other human beings. For me Ramadan is a month we get to embody this at its highest level because we leave the worldly things around us as far as possible which means we get a greater sense of surrendering ourselves. In those moments when I most feel it I feel tearful and I am sure that those tears are something to do with me finding the humanity within myself that has been distorted by this world. A humanity which if I pay enough attention to would commit me to the others I share this world with.
And so, when I say that for me Islam provides an answer to the broken world we live in today I mean that it provides the potential for me to do everything in my power to fight for a better future because doing so is essential to the very core of who I am, what my purpose is, and where I am headed. I mean that it asks me to fulfil an obligation to Allah, myself and others – which is really the same obligation: to care deeply, painfully, harrowingly about the world I am in and about making it more equitable and less oppressive because I see that our things are not ours, our humanity is eachothers’ and our purpose is to serve Allah.
Whilst the state of the world today sometimes makes us feel helpless I find in Islam (in submission) another useful tenet: sabr. Sabr is a virtue God says is valued in us. It is often translated as patience, but it is more than a standing-in-a-queue sort of patience, it is an active patience – a “steadfastness” and a perseverance. To me, sabr is actually doing your human utmost and then putting your trust in Allah to do the rest, that even if you’re not sure that an equitable, liberatory world which has an abundance of justice and love for all of us, that can deconstruct the violent legacies of oppressive histories and social structures on a global scale is possible, you still believe it is worth fighting for. Indeed, you believe it is worth fighting for even if you will never see it come about.