The Middle Nation
وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَاكُمْ أُمَّةً وَسَطًا لِّتَكُونُوا شُهَدَاءَ عَلَى النَّاسِ وَيَكُونَ الرَّسُولُ عَلَيْكُمْ شَهِيدًا
And thus have We willed you to be a community of the middle way, so that (with your lives) you might bear witness to the truth before all mankind, and that the Apostle might bear witness to it before you. (Al-Baqarah 2:143)
Ummatan Waṣaṭan can be translated as the middle nation, the best nation, and an Ummah justly balanced. The phrase captures the essence of Islam, which is to shun all excesses. At other places (e.g. Al-Mā’idah 5:12) the Qur’ān refers to the path it shows as sawā as-sabīl. Abdullah Yūsuf Ali explains: “The Arabic word sawā signifies smoothness as opposed to roughness; symmetry as opposed to want of plan; equality or proportion as opposed to want of design; rectitude as opposed to crookedness; a mean as opposed to extremes; and fitness for the object held in view as opposed to faultiness.”
This āyah charters the Ummah to be a force against extremism. Extremism is a product of ignorance. Given two extreme points on a straight line, anyone can point out where the middle point lies. But a person who cannot see the entire line will also miss the middle point. He may be sitting on an extreme edge, yet congratulate himself for being in the middle.
Our own instruments of observation and intellect, wonderful as they are, are simply not up to the task of finding the perfectly balanced course in the complex, ever-changing, multidimensional maze, which is the real life. Yet we know that we do need to find it. Our physical well-being requires that we eat a well balanced diet and follow the course of moderation. Our economic, social, and spiritual well-being similarly demands finding the balanced approach and the moderate course in all these spheres. Our total well-being requires finding the path of moderation for our entire life.
Hence this charter. It says that the middle path is the one shown by the Messenger ﷺ to us so we can show it to the rest of humanity. Paths that deviate from it deviate toward extremism of one form or another—even though they may be slickly packaged as being paths of moderation.
The Prophet’s Role, Our Responsibilities
كَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِيكُمْ رَسُولًا مِّنكُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْكُمْ آيَاتِنَا وَيُزَكِّيكُمْ وَيُعَلِّمُكُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُعَلِّمُكُم مَّا لَمْ تَكُونُوا تَعْلَمُونَ
As also We have sent in your midst a messenger from among you, who recites to you Our revelations, and purifies you, and teaches you the Book and the wisdom, and teaches you what you did not know. (Al-Baqarah, 2:151)
See the repeated reference to “you.” This āyah describes the assignments of the Prophet ﷺ regarding us. That automatically fixes our responsibilities regarding each one of these tasks. It was his job to teach; it remains our job to learn. It is our job to learn the recitation of the Qur’ān as he taught, to get purified, to learn the Book and wisdom, and learn whatever he came to teach us. For each discipline, there are unbroken chains of teachers going back to the Prophet ﷺ from whom we can learn. The Qur’ān teachers, sufi masters, scholars, Hadith experts, and jurists are all there as are the books they have produced for our education.
This message is repeated in An-Nisā’ 3:164 where it begins by saying that “Allāh has surely conferred favor on the believers” by sending the Messenger ﷺ with these tasks. We need to ask ourselves whether we are showing gratefulness for this favor.
When Calamity Strikes
الَّذِينَ إِذَا أَصَابَتْهُم مُّصِيبَةٌ قَالُوا إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ
Who, when a suffering visits them, say, “ Verily, unto Allāh do we belong and, verily, unto Him we shall return.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:156)
While most of us may know these words and use them at the death of someone, their true significance escapes many. The preceding and subsequent āyahs give glad tidings to those who say these words at the time of any calamity declaring, “Those are the ones upon whom there are blessings from their Lord, and mercy as well; and those are the ones who are on the right path.” According to a hadith these blessed words are a special gift of Allāh for this Ummah. That is why we do not find even previous prophets using them.
Their use should not be limited to the occasion of death. According to a hadith, everything that hurts a believer is the suffering mentioned here. Every instance of discomfort is an occasion for saying these words and getting the reward for being patient. The Prophet ﷺ showed by example that the scope of usage of these words extends to small things as well: a thorn prick, an insect bite, a lamp running out of oil, a shoe lace breaking.
Finally we must say these words with full consciousness that everything indeed belongs to Allāh and must return to Him. When we lose a person or a thing, they have simply gone back to the One to whom they belonged. This consciousness will help us face any loss with dignity.
Guidance and its Prerequisites
لَّيْسَ الْبِرَّ أَن تُوَلُّوا وُجُوهَكُمْ قِبَلَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْمَغْرِبِ وَلَٰكِنَّ الْبِرَّ مَنْ آمَنَ بِاللَّهِ وَالْيَوْمِ الْآخِرِ وَالْمَلَائِكَةِ وَالْكِتَابِ وَالنَّبِيِّينَ وَآتَى الْمَالَ عَلَىٰ حُبِّهِ ذَوِي الْقُرْبَىٰ وَالْيَتَامَىٰ وَالْمَسَاكِينَ وَابْنَ السَّبِيلِ وَالسَّائِلِينَ وَفِي الرِّقَابِ وَأَقَامَ الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَى الزَّكَاةَ وَالْمُوفُونَ بِعَهْدِهِمْ إِذَا عَاهَدُوا ۖ وَالصَّابِرِينَ فِي الْبَأْسَاءِ وَالضَّرَّاءِ وَحِينَ الْبَأْسِ ۗ أُولَٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ صَدَقُوا ۖ وَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْمُتَّقُونَ
True piety does not consist merely in turning your faces towards the east or the west—but truly pious is he who believes in Allāh and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the Prophets, and gives wealth, despite (his) love for it, to relatives, orphans, the helpless, the wayfarer, and to those who ask, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage and observes the Ṣalāh (prayers) and pays Zakāh; and (truly pious are) they who keep their promises whenever they make a promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril. Such are the people of truth, the Allāh-fearing.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:177)
Turning our face toward the Kaʿbah is a requirement in offering ṣalāh. Earlier āyahs in this sūrah detailed the commandments regarding this requirement. Here the issue is being put in proper perspective. The external forms of the prescribed acts of worship are important, but they should not distract us from focusing on the essence of piety which is described here. While paying attention to the external forms of worship, we should never lose sight of the attributes in this āyah. Other people have gone to two extremes in this matter. Some discarded the forms altogether. Others gave them so much weight, they lost the essence. The middle path of Islam requires that we avoid both extremes.
Spouses: The Metaphor of Garments
هُنَّ لِبَاسٌ لَّكُمْ وَأَنتُمْ لِبَاسٌ لَّهُن
They are (like) a garment for you and you are (like) a garment for them. (Al-Baqarah 2:187)
The first thing this āyah tells us is that both husbands and wives equally need each other. Each one needs the other just as they need their garments. Realizing this mutual dependency will mold attitudes which are exactly opposite of the attitudes generated by a notion of independence, which is so prevalent today and has been so disastrous.
Further, the metaphor of garment defines the nature of relationship between spouses. It implies intimacy, comfort, covering, and protection. Our garments provide physical protection from the elements; the protection spouses provide is also spiritual and moral. The ideal husband and wife will help protect each other from sins.
Wine and Gambling
يَسْأَلُونَكَ عَنِ الْخَمْرِ وَالْمَيْسِرِ ۖ قُلْ فِيهِمَا إِثْمٌ كَبِيرٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَإِثْمُهُمَا أَكْبَرُ مِن نَّفْعِهِمَا
They ask you about intoxicants and gambling. Say, “In both there is great sin, and some benefit for people. But the evil which they cause is greater than the benefit which they bring.” (Al-Baqarah, 2:219)
It is one of the Prophet’s ﷺ great miracles that he made an entire people kick their deeply rooted drinking habit in a short period of time. He turned the Arabian Peninsula and subsequently every Muslim land into a dry land.
This is one of the earlier āyahs that started this unprecedented revolution. It just declared that the harms of wine far outweighed its benefits, without any discussion of its legal ruling. Then, the āyah that prohibited drinking around the time of the five daily ṣalāhs was revealed. Finally, a total prohibition of wine was declared.
The Qur’ānic messages were amplified by the Prophetic statements and actions. He said: “Allāh has cursed wine, its drinker, its server, its seller, its buyer, its presser, the one for whom it is pressed, the one who carries it, and the one to whom it is carried.”
When a total prohibition was proclaimed the Prophet ﷺ said: “Verily Allāh, the Exalted, has forbidden wine. So who hears this verse and he has anything of it with him, he should neither drink it nor sell it.” And this hadith goes on to report that after this, “The people then brought whatever they had of it with them and spilled it on the streets of Madinah.”
The miraculous eradication of drinking with all its evils demands reflection. How was it done? This is how: Minds were prepared, commands were issued for restricting and then totally prohibiting all use of and trade in alcohol, and punishments were declared and strictly enforced for violators. It was all based on īmān, firm faith in Allāh and His promise of rewards and punishments, and sincere submission to His commands. The overwhelming majority stopped drinking upon hearing the command. A few people failed to do so and were brought into line through strict enforcement of Sharīʿah punishments. Education and enforcement is the winning mix of strategies for the eradication of all social evils. Today social evils proliferate because both are absent.
Rights of Women
وَلَهُنَّ مِثْلُ الَّذِي عَلَيْهِنَّ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ ۚ وَلِلرِّجَالِ عَلَيْهِنَّ دَرَجَةٌ ۗ وَاللَّهُ عَزِيزٌ حَكِيمٌ
And women shall have rights, similar to the rights against them, according to what is equitable. But men have a degree (of advantage) over them. And Allāh is Exalted in Power, Wise. (Al-Baqarah, 2:228)
This is the foundation over which the entire structure of spousal relations is built by Islam. In one word that basis is equity, not equality. There are societies today that for centuries refused to consider women as human beings or to give them any rights. Now they have gone to one extreme from the other. Islam has nothing to do with such extremism. When women had no rights in the world, it made the above declaration. That remains its Command today and forever. Similar rights, not same rights. Equity, not a blind equality. Both men and women are equal in their humanity, in their accountability before Allāh, in their responsibility to perform their assigned tasks and be judged based on their performance. But their assigned tasks are not the same. They have been given different capabilities by their Creator and their tasks are based on those capabilities. This differentiation is not an error that needs to be corrected. It is the only basis for building a healthy and prosperous society. Islam liberates a woman from the modern tyranny of having to become a man in order to have a sense of self worth and achievement.
If Muslims had done their job, they would be asking for universal rights for women as given by Islam and generally ignored in the world today. Based on our dismal performance, and the current discourse on the subject, that would be quite a revolutionary—and liberating—act. Islam’s universal declaration of women’s rights would include the following:
- Men and women have been given dignity by their Creator, but forces of immorality and darkness attack it in many ways. A prevalent form of this attack on women is pornography. Pornography is an affront to the respect and honor of women and produces an atmosphere where other crimes against them become possible. In many countries it has become an “industry” and they are exporting this filth to all parts of the world. Newer technologies, especially the Internet have become mediums of choice for the purveyors of filth, posing a serious threat to morality everywhere. Pornography must be condemned and all trade in porn banned universally in the same way that dangerous drugs are banned.
- Prostitution must be recognized as a despicable act of exploitation of women. No one who condones it can be taken seriously in their claims to respect women’s rights.
- It is the responsibility of the husband to provide for the family. Islam has freed the woman from this responsibility so she can take care of the home. All efforts to snatch this freedom and economic security from the women and forcing them out of the home into the labor force must be resisted.
- Homemaking is a very honorable job and a serious responsibility; it is the foundation on which healthy societies can be built. The societies that disrespect homemaking lose the homemakers and end up with broken homes as can easily be witnessed in many parts of the world. It should be recognized that the trend to belittle the task of homemaking is anti-family and anti-society and must be curbed.
- It is a Muslim woman’s right to dress modestly, wear hijab, and refuse to be put on display. This right must be accepted universally and any effort to restrict this right must be recognized for what it is: religious discrimination and/or persecution.
- There is only one legitimate form of the family, that created by the union between a man and woman as provided in all revealed religions. Any other form is not only immoral; it poses a serious threat to humanity.
- Families should be protected from outside intrusion, especially intrusion by governments as much as possible. This also includes intrusion in the name of help. For resolution of family disputes, Islam suggests a three phase procedure.
A) Resolve the conflict within the home.
B) Resolve it within the family by involving elders from the families of husband and wife.
C) As a last resort resolve it through courts of law.
Generosity in Dealings
ۚ وَلَا تَنسَوُا الْفَضْلَ بَيْنَكُمْ
And do not forget magnanimity towards one another. (Al-Baqarah 2:237)
If we listened to this teaching, it would bring out a revolutionary change in our family and social relations. Healthy relationships require a healthy dose of generosity. When giving to others, we should be willing to give more than their due. When receiving, we should be willing to take less.
It is also significant that this has been mentioned during a discussion of divorce when anger and resentment would be at a high level. If a person can be generous even at that time, they can certainly be expected to be generous at other occasions. In that environment difficulties would be resolved amicably. If a people have that attitude, divorce would be uncommon among them, and a bitter divorce would be unheard of.
Today divorce attorneys work on an exactly opposite platform. They say, forget generosity. Get as much as you can from the other person. The more money you get the happier you would be. This false promise has filled the most affluent societies with walking wounded, people who appear to be doing fine, but are living with deep wounds in their souls. Unfortunately Muslims are also following in their footsteps, and are reaping the bitter harvest of broken homes and ruined lives.