The Historic Declaration of Man’s Brotherhood
The second great favour conferred by the Messenger of God on human beings was the concept of the equality and brotherhood of mankind. The world before him was divided into manifold castes and creeds, tribes and nations; some claiming the ranks of nobility for themselves and condemning others to the position of serfs and chattels.
These differences were by no means less sharp than those existing between the free-born and the slaves or between the worshipper and the worshipped. It was for the first time, amidst the gloom overshadowing the world for centuries, that the world heard the clarion call of human equality from the Prophet of Islam: (peace be upon him)
“O Mankind, Your God is One and you have but one father. You are all progeny of Adam, and Adam was made of clay. Lo! The noblest among you, in the sight of God, is one who is best in conduct. No Arab has any preference over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab over an Ahab save by his piety.
His announcement was in fact a twin declaration of the Unity of God and the Unity of mankind. These are the two natural foundations for raising the edifice of peace and progress, friendship and co-operation between different peoples and nations. It created a twin relationship between human beings— that of One Lord of all mankind and the other of one father of all of them. The Oneness of God was the spiritual principle of human equality just as a common lineage placed them on the same plane of humanity:
Mankind, fear your Lord, Who created you of a single soul, and from it created its mate, and from the pair of them scattered abroad many men and women; and fear God by Whom you demand one another, and the wombs, surely God ever watches over you. (Al-Nisa: 1).
O mankind, We have created you male and female, and made you races and tribes, that you may know one another. Surely the noblest among you in the sight of God is the most God-fearing of you. God is All knowing, All-aware. (Al-Hujurat: 13)
The Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) simultaneously announced:
God has put an end to the convention of the pagan past taking pride in your fathers; now there will be pious believers or unbelieving wrongdoers. All are sons of Adam and Adam was made of clay. No Arab excels a non-Arab but by his piety.
These were the teachings which made Islam, consisting of widely different tribes, races and nations, a commonwealth of Believers hailing from many countries and regions. It conferred no privileges at all: no Bani Lavis and Brahmins of Judaism and Hinduism. No tribe or race could claim any preference over another nor any blood or lineage could lay a claim to nobility for its own sake. The only criterion recognised for preference over others was an individual’s endeavour to improve his morality and character. The Musnad of Imam Ahmad reports the Prophet as saying: “Iranians would attain knowledge even if it were to be found in Venus.”
The Arabs have always shown the highest mark of respect to those non-Ahab scholars who have excelled them in religious disciplines and taken them as their teachers and guides. Strange though it may seem, they have not conferred such titles of honour on Arabs themselves as they have on certain non-Arabs. Imam Muhammad ibn Ismail-al-Bukhari (d. 256 A.H.) them as Amir-ul-Muminin fil Hadith (Commander of the faithful of Hadith) and his Al-Jami’-al-Salih was regarded as the most authentic book next only to the Holy Qur’an. Imam Abul Ma’ali ‘Abdul Malik al-Juwaini of Nishapur (d. 268 A.H.) was known as Imam-ul-Haramayn (Leader of the Two Sacred Cities) and Imam Abu Hamid Muhammad b. Muhammad al-Ghazzali (d. 505 A.H.) as Hujjat-ul-Islam( Proof of Islam).?
By the end of the first century of the Islamic era, non-Arabs had attained distinction in almost every branch of learning and attained prominence even in such sciences as fiqh (jurisprudence) and hadith (traditions). Any work on the literary history of the Arabs or biographies bear witness to this development. All this happened in the golden era of Islam when the Arabs held political power.
An eminent Arab scholar Abdul Rahman iba. Khaldun (d. 808 A.H.) expresses surprise at this, saying:
It is a strange historical fact that most of the scholars of religious and intellectual sciences were non-Arabs. The contribution of the Arabs was extremely meager although it was an Arab civilisation and its founder was also an Arab. Saibuyah held the most prominent position in Arabic Syntax, then it was Bu ‘Ali Farsi and then Az-Zajaj, and all these were non-Arabs. Same is the case with experts in the field of hadith (traditions) usul fiqh (principles of jurisprudence) and ilm kalam (theological dialectics).
The announcement made by the Prophet of Islam (peace be upon him) cited at the beginning, was pilgrimage made on the historic occasion of his last Hajj. When this was made, perhaps, it would have been difficult for the world to fully appreciate its significance. It was a revolutionary call signifying the release of man from the pressures of society, its values, standards, traditions and practices.
Man always accepts any change gradually and indirectly. We can touch a covered electric wire but not a naked one since we would get a shock and possibly even die. This declaration, then was more appalling than an electric shock.
The long journey of knowledge, thought and culture has now made this revolutionary call so acceptable to us that today every political and social organisation swears by the Charter of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations. Now nobody is taken aback by it, but was it the same when the Prophet proclaimed it?
Humanity before Islam
There was a time when superiority of blood and clan was accepted as a matter of fact. The Holi Qur’an quotes the belief then held by the Jews and Christian in these words: The Jews and the Christians say: We are the children of God, His loved ones. (Al-Ma’ida: 18). The Pharaohs of Egypt claimed themselves to be the incarnation of Ra, the Sungod, while India had several ruling families who arrogated themselves as the progeny of the sun (suryavansi) or the moon (chandravansi). The Emperors of Iran called themselves Kesra or Chosroes meaning that Divine blood flowed in their veins. Chosroes II (Khosrau Parvez) even lavished himself with the grandiose title: “The Immortal soul among the gods and peerless God among human beings; glorious is whose name; dawning with the sun-rise and light of the dark-eyed night.”22
The Caesars of Rome were called ‘Augustus’ meaning majestic, venerable, since they were entitled to receive divine honours23. Chinese rulers deemed themselves to be the sons of Heavens. They believed that the Heaven was their God, who, with his spouse, the goddess earth, had given birth to human beings and Pau Ku, the Chinese Emperor, was the first born son of Heaven enjoying supernatural powers24. The Arabs were so proud of their language that every nation besides their own was an ‘ajami or dumb to them. Likewise, the Quran’sh of Makkah, conscious of maintaining their superiority, claimed a privileged position even during Hajj. They never went to the Plain of ‘Arafat with others. They stayed in the Mosque at Makkah or went to Muzdalifa claiming that privilege on the grounds that they belonged to the House of God. They also claimed themselves to be the elite of Arabia.
The most glaring peculiarity of the religion-social structure of India of the olden days was the all-powerful caste system. This rigid social order having the sanction of religion behind it allowed no inter-mixing of races for it was meant to protect the privileged position of Brahmins. It classified the population of India into four classes with reference to the vocation followed by a particular family in which an individual was born. The system which covered the whole gamut of social life in India divided people into four castes, namely, (i) the Brahmin or the learned and priestly class, (ii) the Kshattriyas or the fighting and ruling class, (iii) The Vaisyas or trading and agricultural people, and (iv) the Sudras or the lowest caste, created from the foot of God, in order to serve the other three classes.
This law of caste distinction gave to the Brahmin the distinction, superiority and sanctity not enjoyed by any other caste. He was both sinless and saved, even if he destroyed the three worlds; no impost could be levied on him; he could not be punished for any crime; while the Sudra could not accumulate wealth or touch a Brahmin or a sacred scripture.
The Vaisyas, or the working classes like weavers, boatmen, butchers etc. and Sudras like scavengers were not allowed to live in a city. They came into the town after day-break and left before sun-set. Not allowed to enjoy the amenities of urban life, they lived in rural slums.
The most precious gift that the Muslims brought to India was the concept of human equality which was completely unknown to India. Muslim society was not divided into castes and trade was not allocated to any particular class. The Muslims mixed freely, lived and dined together, all were free to read or write and carry on any occupation. The Muslim social order posed a challenge to that obtaining in India, but it was also proved a blessing for it. The rigours of caste distinction were weakened and social reform movements were able to concentrate on the shortcomings of Hindu society and, consequently, untouchability was to a large extent removed.
Jawahar Lal Nehru, the former Prime Minister of India, has acknowledged the debt India owes to Islam. He writes in the Discovery of India:
The impact of the invaders from the north-west and of Islam on India had been considerable. It had pointed out and shown up the abuses that had crept into Hindu society— the petrification of caste, untouchability, exclusiveness carried to fantastic lengths. The idea of the brotherhood of Islam and of the theoretical equality of its adherents made a powerful appeal, especially to those in the Hindu fold who were denied any semblance of equal treatment.
The impact of Islam on Hinduism can be seen in the Bhakti (love and devotion) movement which began in South India during Muslim rule and spread to the whole country. Describing this phenomenon Dr Tara Chand writes:
………along with them marched a goodly company of saintly men who addressed themselves to the common people. The spoke the common people’s dialects and in the main imparted their messege through word of mouth. Many of them were endowed with the gift of peetry and their homely memorable verse went direct into the heart of their listeners. Their avoidance of learned jargon, their simple teachings stressing the love of God and of man, their denunciation of idolatry and caste, of hypocrisy, inequality and the externalia of religion, their sincerity, purity and dedicated life appealed to wide circles among the masses.
Their utterances gave shape to modern Indian languages. Their enthusiasm stirred the springs of life and moved men to high endeavour and unselfish behaviour. Their is a strange exaltation in society in every region during the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which cannot be accounted for without taking into consideration this sudden outburst of spiritual energy. These centuries are filled with voices— at once warning and encouraging— of truly noble and large-hearted men in surprisingly large numbers. Yet most of them were of humble origin and they destroyed the myth of aristocracy based on birth.
The spirit of human brotherhood built up by Islam is not hampered by concept of racialism or sectarianism, be it linguistic, historic, tradionalistic or even of a dogmatic nature. Its power to unite different races and nations in one brotherhood has always been recognised. A noted orientalism, H.A.R. Gibb, says:
But Islam has yet a further service to render to the cause of humanity… No other society has such a record of success in uniting in an equality of status, of opportunity and of endeavour so many and so various races of mankind. The great Muslim communities of Africa, India and Indonesia, perhaps also the small Muslim community of Japan, show that Islam has still the power to reconcile apparently irreconcilable elements of race and tradition. If ever the opposition of the great societies of the East and West is to be replaced by co-operation, the mediation of Islam is an indispensable condition.
The British historian, A.J. Toyabee, agrees with Gibb that Islam alone can efface race consciousness:
The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue…
Though in certain other respects the triumph of the English-speaking people may be judged, in retrospect, to have been a blessing to mankind, in this perilous matter of race feeling it can hardly be denied that it has been a misfortune.31
Islam was the first religion which preached and practiced democracy. The well-known Indian freedom fighter and poetess Sarojini Naidu witnessed and affirmed this quality of Islam. She writes:
It was the first religion that preached and practised democracy; for in the mosque when the call from the Miniaret is sounded and the worshippers are gathered together, the democracy of Islam is embodied five times a day when the peasant and the king kneel side by side and proclaim, “God alone is great.” I have been struck over and over again by this indivisible unity of Islam that makes a man distinctly a brother. When you meet an Egyptian, an Algerian, an Indian and a Turk in London, what matters that Egypt was the motherland of one and India the motherland of another.
Malcolm X was a racist for whom the ‘devil white man’ was a Satan. However, he shed all his prejudices on coming into contact with Muslims. He recounts his own experience:
During the past eleven days here in the Muslim World, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug)— While praying to the same God— with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were bluest of the blue, whose hair was blondest of the blond, and whose skin was the whiest of the white. And in the words and in the actions and in the deeds of the ‘white’ Muslims, I felt the same sincerity that I felt among the black African Muslims of Nigeria, Sudan, and Ghana.
We were truly all the same (brothers)— because their belief in one God had removed the ‘white’ from their minds, the ‘white’ from their behaviour, and the ‘white’ from their attitude.
I could see from this, that perhaps if white Americans could accept the Oneness of God, then perhaps, too, they could accept in reality the Oneness of Man—and cease to measure, and hinder, and harm others in terms of their ‘differences’ in colour.
The Proclamation of Human Dignity
The third universal gift of Islam is its declaration that man has been endowed with the highest rank and dignity in the entire scheme of God’s creation. Before the prophethood of Muhammad, on whom be the peace and blessings of God, man had degraded himself to the position of the most inconsequential being on earth. Numerous beasts and trees connected with mythological traditions and pagan beliefs were held as holy and cared for more than man himself. They had to be protected even at the cost of innocent lives; sometimes human beings were sacrificed at the altars of these holy objects. We still come across such gory incidents even in such civilised countries as India.
The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) restored the dignity of man by declaring that man is the most respectable and prized being in the whole Universe and nothing has a greater claim to honour and love and protection than he. The Holy Prophet raised man to the highest conceivable level, that is, the position of the vicegerent of God on earth. It was for man that the world was created. Says the Qur’an:
It is He who created for you all that is (Al-Baqarah: 29).
The Qur’an described man as the paramount and best of creations in the whole Universe.
We have honoured the children of Adam and guided them by land and sea.And provided them with good things and exalted them above many of Our creations. (Al-Isra’: 70) What can affirm human eminence and honour better than the following observation by the Prophet of Islam: The entire creation constitutes the family of God and he is dearest of Him who is the best in his dealings with God’s family.
Can there be a better concept of human dignity and nobility? Has man ever been granted this honour under any religion or social philosophy? The Prophet of Islam made Divine mercy contingent on man being kind to man:
The Most Merciful is compassionate to the softhearted. Show mercy to those on the earth and the Owner of Heavens will be merciful to you.
All those who know about the social and political condition of the world prior to the advent of Islam can appreciate the determined efforts the Prophet made in order to drive home the concept of the worth and dignity of man. The lives of innumerable human beings depended on the whims of a single individual before the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). Any tyrant could made in Blood across countries and continents to gain political ascendancy or just satisfy his whims.
Alexander the Great (356-324 B.C.) rose like a tempest, subdued Syria and Egypt, and crossing Babylonia and Turkistan reached India. He swept the older civilizations before him. Julius Caesar (102-44 B.C.) and several other conquerors like Hannibal (247-182 B.C) exterminated large populations remorselessly as if those were not human beings but beasts of prey.
These pitiless massacres continued all over the world even after the advent of Jesus Christ. The Roman Emperor Nero (A.D. 54-68) murdered his own wife and mother, persecuted his own countrymen and played the fiddle while Rome burnt, for which he was himself probably responsible. Barbarians like the Goths and Vandals were busy destroying civilisations in Europe and Africa only a hundred years before the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Little regard for human life among the Arabs had made fights and forays a pastime for them and even the most trivial matter could lead them to the battle-field. Bakr and Taghlab, the two tribes of Bani Wa’il, continued to fight for 40 years during which time they fought many a sanguinary battle although it all started by the shooting of an arrow at the udder of a camel which mixed milk with blood. Jassas ibn Marrah killed Kalayb and then Bakr and Taghlab started fighting and about which Kalayb’s brother, Al-Muhalhil, remarked: “Men have died, mothers have become childless, children have become orphans; tears stream from the eyes and the dead are lying shroudles.’
Similarly the Battle of Dahis-o-Ghabra was sparked off simply because Dahis, the horse of Qays ibn Zuhair, had overtaken that of Hudaiqa ibn Badr. A man of Asad slapped Qays at the instance of Hudaiqa which made his horse lose the race. Thereafter, the war of attrition started in which a large number of people lost their lives and many had to leave their hearths and homes.
The number of battles fought by the Prophet was 27 or 28 while he is reported to have sent out 60 forays and expeditions. In all these battles and expeditions only 1018 peoples, Muslim as well as non-Muslim, lost their lives.
The purpose of these fighting was to restore law and order and to protect human life and property from senseless destruction. A civilised code of conduct was prescribed for warfare and this changed the character of war from prosecution to disciplinary action.
The moral teachings of Islam create such a strong sense of human dignity that one never treats another person as a sub-human being. A Muslim never treats another man as a chattel or slave nor discriminates between himself and others. An incident preserved by history amply illustrates the sense of human dignity embedded in Islam. Anas relates that he was with ‘Umar, the second Caliph, when an Egyptian Copt complained to the Caliph that his horse had beaten that of Muhammad, son of ‘Amr ibn al-As, the Governor of Egypt, and was witnessed by a number of people. When he claimed that he had won the race, Muhammad became enraged and lashed him with a whip. Caliph ‘Umar asked him to wait and wrote to ‘Amr ibn al-‘As asking him and his son to present themselves before him. ‘Amr ibn al-‘As sent for his son and enquired about the matter, who then denied having committed any crime. Then both ‘Amr ibn al-‘As and his son repaired to Madina. Caliph ‘Umar sent for the Copt and giving him a whip asked him to beat ‘Amr ibn al-‘As’s son. After the Copt had exacted retribution, Caliph ‘Umar ordered the Copt to move the whip over ‘Amr ibn al-‘As’s head for it was because of him that he had been flogged. The Copt refused saying that he had already had his revenge. Thereupon ‘Umar remarked: “Had you beaten him I would not have intervened.” Then, turning to ‘Amr ibn al-‘As he said, “Whence did you make them slaves who had been born free?” Thereafter, turning to the Copt, ‘Umar said, “Go back and have no fear. If anything happens, inform me.”