By Tariq Ramadan
As human being, there are two fundamental teachings that clearly have consequences for the lives of Muslims wherever they are, for they are the basic factors that constitute how to be in the world, which is what Muslims have to manage, whether in the West or in the East.
Quest for Meaning
The first teaching tells us that humans are not made up of morally antithetical elements: the spirit, the breath (ar-ruh) breathed into the body, which becomes nafs, the heart, the reason, the body where the emotions live, are, so to speak, “neutral elements” that invite individuals to the awareness of their responsibilities.
One enters into this intimate awareness only by turning back to oneself, looking for the original spark, which is the most immediate expression of the search for meaning. The universe, like the revealed books, calls on reason to find a way to meaning and to try to bring about, through awareness of responsibility and the exercise of control, ethical concords and moral harmonies of being.
When all is said and done, it is wending one’s way toward one’s self, a “going” to make a better returning, as all the mystical traditions teach us simply: we are on our way to the beginning.
(The Islamic tradition has strongly emphasized this dynamic, this movement toward the beginning. The very word Sharia means “the way to the spring.” However, it is in the experience of looking inward and of the “mystical way” that one naturally finds the strongest expression of this journey, which is a return.)
We come upon the knowledge of God close to our heart “and know that (the knowledge (of) God dwells between the human being and his heart.”
O you who believe! Obey Allah, and the messenger when He calls you to that which quickens you, and know that Allah comes in between the man and his own heart, and that He it is unto Whom you will be gathered. (Al-Anfal 8:24)
The second teaching concerns the different states of human life. In the beginning, one’s innocence is absolute: one is, indwelt by the breath, and is soon inevitably searching. Becoming aware of this state immediately makes one a responsible and in fact free being.
Before God, and before their own consciousness, all people must take charge of themselves, knowing that the Only One is expecting them to know Him, to liberate themselves from all objects of adoration and idols (tawheed al-uluhiyya) that would not be He, and to recognize Him, intimately.
To accomplish this, He has implanted, with the first spark, “the need of Him” and for “signs” of His presence. It is for humankind to learn to read these signs and to try to satisfy this need: such is the first dimension of human responsibility.
In this perspective, the most serious deficiency in a free and responsible being is not moral error as such, but pride—to suffocate the “need of Him” and to think that one’s intellect alone can know and read the universe.
By marrying the two states of innocence and responsibility, humility is the state that allows the human being to enter into its humanity. Humility is the source of ethics.
These two teachings are fundamental and have extraordinarily important consequences for the daily life of Muslims. With the awareness of the divine, facing the universe, individuals think of themselves above all as beings with responsibility.
Our Responsibilities as Humans
The faith and humility that surround this last idea carry persons to an understanding of the meaning of their obligations before any affirmation of their rights. This is the first meaning of the vicegerency in Islam.
It is He who has made you His vicegerents (khalifah) on earth. (Al-An`am 6:165)
It is the role of humankind to manage the world on the basis of an ethic of respect for creation not only because people do not own it but, more deeply and spiritually, because it is in itself an eternal and continual praise addressed to the Most High.
We are speaking here of a true spiritual ecology- an ecology that existed before ecology that is born of the awareness of possible disasters caused by our insane consumption of the universe, which imposes on persons the awareness of limitations so that they may have dignified access to the meaning of their freedom and their rights.
We could pursue reflection on the conception of human rights. Although a statement of the universality of human rights may pose no basic problem, it is rather the way they are formulated and the structure of the statement that is open to discussion.
The Muslim consciousness would, of course, add, before the proclamation of universal rights, a series of relevant and constraining articles on the responsibilities and obligations of human beings.
The article is an excerpt from the author’s book Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, Oxford University Press (2004).