The Arab Psyche
As we approach the 21st century, the Arab nation is experiencing a crisis that it must overcome to move successfully into the new millennium. In the third of our series of articles, Al Shindagah looks at the Arab personality in Islam
The Holy Book was the culmination of the all the messages brought to mankind by a long lineage of prophets. The Quran conveyed to the early listeners clear signs and unquestionable evidence of its origin, as its eloquence was unattainable to any human authorship. The miracle of the Book unified the Arabs. The structure of the laws that it established for them bestowed power on them and would henceforth govern the lives of true believers everywhere. It developed the Arab personality according to new principles and nurtured a civilisation and an empire.
Characteristics of Islam
God commanded His prophet to explain his mission thus:
Say: "I am but a man like yourselves. The inspiration has come to me that your God is the One God. (Chapter of the Cave, verse 110)
A second essential characteristic of Islam is that the creed is not strictly a religious belief, nor it is simply a moral dogma. Rather, it is both belief and legislation, both faith and practice. Islam integrates acts of worship and morals into a practical everyday system of action. It is a source of unity for a complete life in all aspects. God╣s message offers a path to achieve the good in this earthly life and to earn eternal life. Because Islam regulates the political, social, economic and intellectual life of the believers, Islam defines both religious practice and the state. Witness the saying of the Prophet, peace be upon him:
Work for your earthly world as if you live forever, and work for your afterlife as if you are dying tomorrow.
A third important trait of Islamic civilisation is its humanistic orientation. It is universal in its scope and content. The demand in the Holy Book for liberty, justice and equality preceded by a millennium the call of the French Revolution for the same. The Islamic declaration of human rights irrespective of ethnic group or economic class laid the divine precedent of the declaration in this century of the universality of human rights, as evidenced by the following verse:
O mankind! We created you from a single pairing of a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know each other. Truly the most honoured of you in the sight of God is he who is the most righteous.
(Chapter of Al Hujurat, verse 13)
The humanistic orientation of the Islamic faith stems from the fact that it seeks to elevate the human being to perfection. Islam stipulates that man grows more perfect as he grows more obedient and submissive to God. Worship uplifts the individual to new heights of humanity.
Islam regards the contemplation of God's wonders as a beneficial activity. The believers are urged to meditate about the miracle of the universal creation. Contemplation is a mental process which leads the individual to move from the tangible to the intangible, from the natural to the supernatural. In this manner, the Muslim grows in his consciousness of the Creator and more deeply believes, as evidenced in many Quranic verses:
Men who remember God when standing, sitting or lying down and who contemplate the wonders of the creation of the heavens and the earth, say 'Our Lord, it was not for nothing that You created all of this. Glory to You! Grant us salvation from the chastisement of the Fire. (Chapter of Imran, verse 91)
Another distinctive characteristic of Islam is its absolute respect for science. The Prophet declared that the status of scientists is next to that of the prophets. He also considered them as the heirs of the prophets. Muslims were exhorted to open their minds: Seeking knowledge is the duty of every male and female Muslim.
Though the scientist was exalted in this manner, still Islam brought him to his knees in worship: Amongst the worshippers of God, it is the scholars who truly fear Him. The scholars among the believers appreciate more clearly the fearsome wonder of His creation. The humility of true knowledge is emphasised by this Hadith: A scholar will continue to be a scholar so long as he seeks knowledge, but once he thinks that he knows, then he in fact lacks knowledge.
Keen interest in knowledge motivated the early Muslims to translate the classics of other nations to broaden their understanding. On that basis were the early caliphates able to make their own contribution to civilisation. For example, the scholars of the early Muslim era translated and studied the classic tomes of the Greek sciences, particularly philosophy and medicine. The great works of the ancient Persian civilisation were translated and made available. The great store of knowledge which was accumulated was in turn accessed by Europeans during their Dark Ages, and in that manner stimulated the explosion of learning which was the Renaissance.
When the Arabs better expressed God's law, Muslim civilisation was the guiding light of mankind. How the believers suffer that their current divisions and arguments have denied them their former leadership in scholarship!
Another support of the edifice of Islam is its interest in the affairs of both the individual and the group. A fault of capitalism lies in its single-minded emphasis on the individual, while a sin of socialism has been to overly emphasise the priority of the group. Islam in contrast stresses the prerogatives of both polarities. The individual is respected as the ultimate expression of God's creation and as the building block of society. The community is given the role of governing the individual, to nurture him in belief and action. The interface between the two must represent an equilibrium of human rights and the primary role of the community of believers.
The Quran and the Hadith and more than a millennium of Muslim scholarship all expound at length on this subject. A famous quote from the Prophet has him saying, Keep together as a group, for the wolf eats the sheep that goes astray.
The Impact of Islam on the Arabs
Political and Social Impact
Islam united these bickering brothers into one family under God. The divine plan provided the Arabs with the framework to establish a strong Islamic state to promote their collective interests. This new structure adopted the Quran as its only constitution and was headed by a series of caliphs. These leaders directed the Arabs towards one goal, which was the mission to spread the Word of God throughout the world. Within a few decades this fledgling state was able to vanquish the two great powers of the time, the Roman and Persian Empires. Within a period of but sixty years, the boundaries of the Muslim state stretched to China in the east, Byzantium and Russia in the north, and the Atlantic Ocean in the west.
Islam transformed the Arabs from a society whose ties were based on blind tribal prejudice to a community of brothers of one common faith. The religion preached not vengeance but compassion and solidarity among its members regardless of ethnic or economic group. The Word of God revealed that a true believer is the person who wishes for his brother in faith what he wishes for himself.
According to the Quran, members of the Muslim community should be like one body, so that if any of its parts suffers, the rest of the system struggles as a unit to correct the damage. Instead of tribal bias, the believers are ranked according to the sincerity of their belief. For example, a Hadith has it that a Muslim will not be a true believer if he goes to bed with a full stomach and his neighbour is hungry.
This social solidarity and compassion is the ideal offered by God's Word. It is sad but true, however, that man's imperfections have restrained him through the ages from ever perfectly achieving this ideal. During some epochs of Islamic history, the collective achievement has been closer to the divine mark, at other times lower. The performance is affected by numerous factors, some of which pertain to different rulers or to local and external influences. A crucial symptom of whether each generation is deviating from the revealed principles of Islam is the solidarity and unity of the believers.
Intellectual and Ideological Impact
These new beliefs broadened the horizon of the Arab. The believers were able to think on a higher plane and to manage their individual and group affairs more productively. The tribal ambitions expanded to encompass global dimensions as the Arabs were commissioned to spread the divine message throughout the world. Because of this formidable task, the believer has a great responsibility not just to himself but also for the world around him.
Islam granted the Arabs a new spirit motivating them to widen the borders of the believers, using the power of the Word and not the might of the sword. This was the secret of the great victories that the Muslims achieved in their rapid conquest of much of the world. And it was divine inspiration that was the secret of the great achievements of civilisation in the early caliphates.
Linguistic and Cultural Impact
Islam spread the reach of the Arabic language as it became the medium of commerce and political power over a broad empire. In addition, the principles revealed by the Word held sway over an even greater empire of the spirit and thus contributed to the depth of the language. In addition the exposure to new peoples and experiences enriched the Arabic language immeasurably. This process refined the language with new meanings and styles and lofty ideas, developing Arabic into the medium of communication of a bright new civilisation instead of being the simple expression of desert nomads.
As for the culture of the Arab, Islam caused a transformation of wide dimensions. The literary arts became more diverse and served better purpose. The meanings of the poet and the singer became more profound and refined, and their messages more forceful. If it were not for the Quran, the Arabs would not have had the linguistic sciences of grammar, morphology and rhetoric. Nor would the profound theological and jurisprudence sciences based on the Holy Book have developed.
The cultural impact that Islam had on the Arabs is evidenced by the fact that they came to be known as the nation of 'Read', as they were primarily illiterate prior to the revelation of the Word. It is also a reference to the fact that the first verse of the Quran begins with the emphatic command to Read. The early Muslims did not hesitate to learn from the sciences developed by other nations, and the circle of Islamic civilisation was widened immeasurably by those scholars who themselves joined the Muslim community as it expanded.
Traits of the Arabic Muslim Personality
There is a conspicuous pride and gratification among Muslim Arabs that God blessed them with the Divine Message and the commission to carry it to other nations. This responsibility adds a sense of honour and purpose to the Muslim personality, as evidenced by the Quranic verse:
But honour belongs to God and His Messenger and to the believers. (Chapter of the Al Munafiqun, verse 8)
The orientation of the Muslim personality is neither strictly secular nor is it absolutely divine. The admirable course for a true believer is a balanced search for both happiness on earth and the paradise of the hereafter, as per the following verse:
Seek with the wealth which God has bestowed on you (to enter) the home of the hereafter, but do not forget your portion of this world. Do good, as God has been good to you. (Chapter of the Al Qasas, verse 77)
Diligence and perseverance are among the personality traits which Muslims admire. The believer has to persevere in his obligation to spread the Word of God. It is to be expected that they will be diligent in striving for success, but each also has an obligation according to his or her capability to protect one's rights, family and homeland. The 'jihad' or struggle to protect the Muslim domain, is a sacred matter for all Muslims. According to the Hadith, the Prophet Mohammed was quoted to have said, A person who does not engage in Jihad or does not think of doing so, dies like a pagan of pre-Islamic times.
The Muslim is expected to lead a moderate lifestyle. The system of life dictated by the revelation encourages a balanced approach to life as it rejects both extravagance and stinginess. In this context, the Quran states:
Those are blessed who, when they spend, are not extravagant and not niggardly, but hold a just balance between those extremes. (Chapter of Al Furqan, verse 67)
The believer should be modest and well-tempered. Islam preaches against arrogance, insolence and foolishness. The Quran prohibits Muslims to imitate foolish behaviour as evidenced by the following verse:
The servants of God the Most Gracious are those who walk on the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, they say 'Peace'. (Chapter of the Furqan, verse 63)
Cleanliness and purity are admirable traits for the Muslim. Islam preaches that the believers must have a clean appearance in both heart and mind.
Finally, Islam made it imperative that its doctrines are translated into the actual behaviour of the believers. Whenever the phrase "those who believed▓ occurs in the Quran, it is always followed by "and carried out good deeds▓. This confirms that sound belief is always grounded on good deeds and that the two are absolutely inseparable.
O you who believe! Why do you say that which you do not believe? It is grievously hateful in the sight of God that you say that which you do not do. (Chapter of Al Saff, verses 1-2)
We have introduced to our dear readers the traits of personality which the Holy Quran and the Hadith of the Prophet encourage in the believers. These elements of character win the respect and admiration of the non-believers when they are properly and humbly exhibited in the actions of the believers. These are the traits which enabled the Word of God to spread so rapidly after its revelation to the Arabs.
These traits were the pillar of strength of the Arabs until a lack of vigilance allowed the Muslim nation to be weakened by a variety of internal and external influences. In the next article of this series, we will focus on the Arab Muslim of the modern era and the factors which have afflicted him.